I hear the water lapping against the shore edge as I run. I look out upon the clear, blue water, speckled with diamond lights as the sun reflects off the liquid surface. A flock of sheep going somewhere by themselves, no humans telling them what to do. They bleat, they communicate with each other. I notice a mother sheep sitting by the water’s edge looking out onto the horizon, her baby lamb sitting next to her. They are enjoying the wonderful scenery just as I am ! I enter a space dominated by swallows. They dart from left to right, right to left, up and down, down and up. They eat the midges that fly through the air every so often en masse. I find that if I see the cloud of midges early enough I can avoid them bumping into my face simply by stepping to one side.
I feel disappointment. Today there are no waders in the spot where I saw them only last week. A pair wiggling around in the marshy land. Then I am in awe because I notice a pair of birds that I have not seen before at Rutland Water, with a couple of chicks. It touches my heart that they have chosen this place to start their family. A special place. I realise that no one day is ever the same, that each time I run I witness different things and experience different surprises.
I run past apple trees heavy with white blossoms. I breathe in the aroma and for a time the smell helps me forget about how tired my legs are, having run over 12 miles by this stage. In the same way that I have become absorbed by the landscape, the landscape has absorbed me. I feel part of a rich biodiversity, and experience the generosity of nature. Somehow the landscape and its creatures have transformed me. In the same way that my steps have left an impact upon the ground, the environment has impacted upon me. I have entered Rutland slow time – no worries, no beginning, no ending, just being. This experience of time is truly a gift, in today’s society of fast cars and fast living. Where I am there is only an expanse of contentment, a hidden message of peace and joy.
Anxiety can make us restless and exhausted at the same time. We can feel our heart palpitate, our palms sweat, tingling in our fingers. We can feel a massive urge to do something, anything, and so we engage in quite manic behaviour, cleaning the house or tidying the garden or a high intensity workout. When we try to calm our bodies and minds we can find that our mind races away with us, thoughts constantly bombarding us, really preventing us from trying to meditate. Meditation itself becomes a battle as anxiety can prevent us from being able to sit and calm ourselves. We are constantly saying to ourselves that we have to or that we should be a particular way, or that we should or be doing something else.
When experiencing high anxiety it is important to try to just accept our heightened state of alertness. Trying to quash anxiety can actually make this worse. Equally, trying to force ourselves to undertake long periods of meditation can become yet another thing to beat ourselves up about, increasing rather than reducing our anxiety. I try to hold my anxiety with compassion rather than trying to fight it. I say to my anxiety, ‘I give you loving kindness’ as I imagine holding and supporting my palpitating heart. This acceptance and kindness somehow reduces the intensity of the anxiety that I feel.
It is also important to focus on breathing when we feel anxious. I sit down in a safe place, even for just five minutes, and I allow myself to just breathe. If any thoughts come up I accept them, and imagine them rising up into the air like a balloon. In this way unhelpful, self-critical, even angry thoughts are accepted and then let go to float gently away. It is important to try and breathe from the diaphragm rather than the chest in order to create deep breathing. Do not place any pressure on the breathing, simply breathe in and out. Sometimes as I breathe I say to myself, ‘Calming my body, I breathe in; Caring for my body, I breathe out. Smiling to my body, I breathe in. Easing my body, I breathe out’. In this way the body becomes calmed and anxiety can be reduced. Engaging in this practice on a daily basis can really help with anxiety.
April is a truly beautiful time of the year to go walking or running. When I go out walking or running I enjoy connecting with the sound of birdsong. There are some sounds that are very special, like a woodpecker hammering a tree or the exciting sound of swans as they take flight. Trying to stay in tune with the songs that birds create helps me to develop a softer, more kindly, approach to my walking and running, because if I make too much noise then the bird that I am hearing or watching may depart. I become more mindful of taking a slow and steady step, not placing too much strain on my legs or too much vibration on the ground beneath me. I thank the birds for their beauty and I am in awe of the birds that I see diving and then floating upon invisible aerial waves, wishing that I had that ability.
Another dimension to my walking and running that I have discovered in April is the power of landscapes. The terrain where I walk and run is quite hilly and I enjoy reaching the top of a hill and then just cruising along its summit, as I survey the land around me. I notice the many different fields with their different colours – green, brown, yellow, grey. I see the hedgerows between the fields, creating a patchwork of boundaried sections. I notice how some fields are bathed in sunlight whilst others are dark and shadowed.
I have noticed that by looking at the landscape around me, and gaining a sense of perspective and distance regarding what I see, helps me in terms of gaining a perspective over my own life. Some parts of my life contain shadows, difficult periods when I have felt alone and in despair. Some parts of my life contain beautiful birdsong and colourful flowers, also joyful and sensitive creatures like hares or horses. By taking the time to walk or run and reflect upon the landscape I am better able to put the difficult and the joyful times to my life in perspective. My life is a patchwork of different terrain and different colour but the important thing is that I continue to walk or run, I continue to feel the sunshine on my face or the raindrops on my back. I am grounded, in the moment, not overwhelmed by any particular experience or life history. I can observe my life without getting stuck within any particular field; I can place a boundary over a challenging experience as a way of containing this.
In counselling we too can gain perspective over our lives, the challenges, the devastating experiences, alongside any joy. In this way we do not forget about times when we felt positive emotions, when we felt connected. We can draw boundaries over experiences we would rather forget, so that we can appreciate the here and now rather than getting bogged down. We can learn to draw attention to beauty, to be kind to ourselves and to let go of any anxiety, fear, shame, guilt or anger. Wisdom is there for us to behold.
Compassion focussed therapy is becoming more and more popular, amongst therapists and clients. Compassion focussed therapy can help to deal with many issues affecting our lives: our relationships, any emotional distress we may be experiencing, anxiety, depression, self-harm and so on.
Compassion is considered to help free the mind from negative emotions such as jealousy and fear. In Buddhism, for example, compassion is viewed as loving-kindness, to relieve the suffering of the self and of others. Compassion acknowledges the suffering that we experience, alongside the suffering of others, and it is through this acknowledgement that perhaps we learn to tolerate distress and to better accept ourselves.
Compassion focussed therapy involves understanding how the brain works and developing a compassion focussed approach to the challenges of being human. Evolutionary science suggests that the human brain has evolved in such a way as to sometimes produce difficult emotions in humans, like anger or jealousy. Basically, there are three types of emotional regulatory systems in our bodies: a drive/excite/vitality system which involves wanting, pursuing and achieving; a content/safe/connected system that is experienced as soothing, and a threat focussed system that is about protection and safety seeking. Compassion focussed therapy raises awareness within individuals about the nature of their brains and bodies and how individuals’ threat systems can be over-stimulated. Techniques to encourage social safeness are promoted in order to encourage our soothing systems.
Breathing and mindfulness techniques comprise a significant aspect of compassion focussed therapy. Individuals are encouraged to learn and practise how to breath and then to practice mindful breathing, which is finding a pattern that feels natural and soothing. Compassion focussed therapy also encourages people to imagine images or events that help elciit compassionate feelings, for example, imagining an experience of kindness from another person. Safe space imagery is common, encouraging people to imagine a place that gives a feeling of safeness, calm and contentment. Compassion focussed therapy encourages compassion towards the self as much as towards others, and so through this people can start to view themselves from a position of understanding rather than self-criticism. Self-criticism is likely to be a major issue for clients. Stress, trauma, depression, these can all impact upon the body and the mind, influencing how individuals view themselves, with these conditions often involving people viewing themselves negatively. A core aspect to compassion focussed therapy is working with the ‘inner critical voice’, to become more compassionate and kind towards this as a way of self-acceptance.
Stress at work can sometimes be overwhelming. The body may go into overdrive and you may experience high levels of adrenalin-induced restlessness; you may have panic attacks and/or you may also feel completely exhausted. This is often when people take time out of work to try to calm down shattered minds and bodies.
Job loss can be devastating. A deep sense of anger at the lack of control over your own destiny, sometimes there can be a sense of shame where you blame yourself about becoming unemployed, and there can be a feeling of no longer being useful to anything or anybody. This is often when people can become depressed and anxious.
Mindfulness can help to calm distressing emotions, sensations and thoughts. I find that mindfully noticing birds can have a soothing and inspiring impact on me. I watch the large birds of prey cruising above my head, so gracefully and so calmly. They are in their own time, not in modern day human time. They have their own sense of purpose and they decide when they will accelerate towards planet Earth to catch their prey. I also watch the flocks of seagulls flying through ever-changing skies. They can be noisy in just being, for this is their nature – squawking, numerous and free. Birds can hop over manmade walls and barbed wire, something I ponder as I walk through some institutional settings where some people have been locked inside. Birds can teach us a lot.
Running during the cold, dark and sometimes wet Winter months can seem bleak and uninspiring. I like to be grateful as I run through these wintry months, and nature has its own ways of delivering beautiful gifts as I take one footstep at a time. When I step out into the chill it is like I immerse myself slowly into a wonderful and deep lake, so I take my time and do not place any pressure on my body, I simply sink into the here and now and I mindfully experience.
I like the whooping sound of Canadian geese as they fly towards me. As I run I feel connected to their flight, my own movements become synchronised with theirs. They fly over and above my head and I am part of that energy, its strength, vigour, its togetherness. I say thank you to the geese for choosing to take flight during my run and I feel excited because I can see the next grouping of geese getting ready to take flight from the water’s edge. Maybe they also will whoop over my head.
I then find myself entering the world of boats. I am now running past a boatyard and the wind is shaking the masts of the many different boats that are there. Every boat has a different and human name – Cecelia, Prospero, Natasha – and the clanging of the masts is like a group of bell ringers celebrating my run, enjoying this beautiful moment. I say thank you to the world of boats. My attention then becomes immediately focussed upon a robin red breast, who is standing on the edge of the path that I am jogging on. I think about how hard birds and animals have to work during Winter in order to be able to get the food that they need and this makes me grateful for the muesli I ate this morning. I am also compassionate to my own physical and psychological struggles during these short dark and cold days.
I say thank you to the snow under my feet. I like the crunching feel of the snow. I like that my joints are experiencing less of an impact because of the white carpet that nature has rolled out this morning. As I run under a tree a smattering of white tissue paper drops gently all around me, the melting snow crumbling from the branches and disappearing into the environment. I look up at the sky above me and I notice that I am on top of the World – I am running along the highest point of a steep hill, looking down on the valley below me. I breathe in the fresh unpolluted air and I am grateful for this pure form of molecular experience. I then smile as I run into a village because now something is thanking me. I see before me a speeding sign that registers that I am running at seven miles per hour. In capital green letters the sign reads Thank You. Now I am being thanked, simply for taking one footstep at a time. I ignore the inner critical voice that says to me ‘You should be running at eight miles per hour’. I ignore the inner critic that says ‘You are running too slow’. Instead I say thank you to my self for going out this morning and just experiencing, just simply being. This sense of acceptance is a perfect winter’s gift.