Hope and inspiration

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Today I saw something truly inspirational. Today I watched a young woman achieve something really big that she set out to do. Despite challenges. Despite doubts. Despite the things not in her control. Despite the things in her control. She conquered. Today I watched a young woman show herself and the rest of the world what she is made of. I watched her lift everyone around her as she ran the 10km run as part of the Melbourne Marathon. Today we were all awe struck, proud and inspired.

Tes is 24 years of age. She is a runner. She is training to do a triathlon. Even though she isn’t overly keen on the swimming. But Tes is used to dealing with things she does not like. She knows the commitment and persistence you need to give something in order to get through the tough stuff. Her training for dealing with hard situations started at the young age of 16, when life threw her some pretty big challenges.

But I am not going to talk about those challenges. I thought about sharing them, only to give context to the enormity of the achievement she has made today. So you know where she has come from. So you know what she has had to overcome. But you are going to have to come to terms with how big this achievement is without the context. You see, Tes has chosen to write her own story in life. And in doing so, I feel it is really important to honour her story, rather than give time to the challenges and their story. Because Tes has made a decision not to be a victim of the things life hands you, but to be the author of her own journey. To decide what her hero’s story is. And it is a damn good one. She is quite the hero. She is exactly as the word is defined: someone to be noted for courageous action.

Tes is all about hope and inspiration. They are the two best words to sum up this amazing young woman. She is a beautiful musician, who lost her music and reclaimed it. Who plays guitar and the ukulele with a gentleness of someone who knows the fragility of a gift handed down from another lifetime. She has a soulful voice and is a wonderful tender storyteller through song and poetry.

Tes is a teacher for students in the school of life. She is what determination is all about. She is a true example of what self belief looks like. She is persistence personified. And she is human. She has frailties. She has walked the long road of self doubt. She knows what it feels like to give in to fear. And it is her life experience which gives her a unique understanding and empathy. Something she taps into and draws on when working through her degree to become a youth worker.

It was only very recently, my recollection is about 2 or 3 months at most, when Tes decided to join a triathlon training group. To train most weeknights, three times with the group and three times on her own. To set herself the challenge of a triathlon. She cycles. She runs. She swims. She trains. She hasn’t been able to train for the last couple of weeks, or perhaps longer. Regardless, today she ran at her first running event. Ran 10km for the first time in her life. And beat her expected time by over 10 minutes. Setting herself a personal best to work against and towards, for her next one. And we will all be there to cheer her on. Like we were today. With our hearts full of joy and pride, our eyes welling up with tears as she ran by. Looking strong. Looking relaxed. Looking so comfortable as the pavement passed beneath her feet as she made her way towards the finish line. Towards her goal. She was exactly where she needed to be today.

She is pretty awesome. But of course I would say that. I am bias. You see, she is one of my best friends. I love her to bits and am so very grateful to have her in my life. Tes has reminded me many times what hope looks like in life. What it looks like to never give up. She is an inspiration. An inspiration to embrace the reality of life and make something of yourself. She is a musician. She is an athlete. She is going to be a youth worker. She is a girl with a mission. She has purpose. She is a great storyteller. And the best story she has written, is her own.

Walking beside you

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Who we are is determined by who walked before us, and who walks beside us and within us. The generations past are here in the present. Through what we have inherited from them in looks, personality and spirit. We carry inside us the thousands who have walked before us, we carry them in our hearts and souls.

My relationship with history is complex and somewhat strained. I was born to Lithuanian parents in the early 1970s. My paternal grandparents had already died. My maternal grandparents lived far away. The generations before my parents and grandparents no longer alive, and evidence of their existence, birth certificates and such, lost in the war. The thread of knowledge connecting the generations to me was very thin.

Our Lithuanian heritage was robbed by Russian occupation. There was no Lithuania on any map when I was at school. It wasn’t until after Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union on 11 March 1990, that day forever known as the Restoration of Independence Day, that Lithuania was a place I could point to on a world map to show people where my ancestors were from.

I felt somewhat displaced growing up. My parents spoke a language no one else did. There was no Lithuanian community in the country town I grew up. We had to travel some distance to visit my godparents and my mother’s parents to get a sense of who we were. To get a sense of our heritage. And it was on these trips I got a little glimpse and a little taste. The beautiful musical language, which was foreign to me, was a joy to listen to. My parents had decided it was best for us children not to learn Lithuanian, so we didn’t have an accent, so we didn’t get teased at school.

On these trips there were songs. Laughter. Card games. Beautiful food, dish after dish after dish of meats, fish, potatoes and sour cream. Cold and bright purple soup called Borsht (which I never liked). Pickled herrings (which I loved). Cepelinais - potato dumplings filled with meat. Kugelis - the biggest potato bake ever, served with caramelised fried bacon in cream. Cabbage Rolls. Dark rye bread, even darker pumpernickel bread. Poppy seed cake. I soaked up what I could of our Lithuanian culture and heritage on those trips, the rest slumbered deep inside me, knowledge passed down through birth and time.

I heard the most beautiful thing today about ancestors and their role in our lives. The poet, Joy Harjo expressed it so beautifully. I was listening to her on a podcast, being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, as the first Native American to be named the United States Poet Laureate. Joy Harjo was talking about our deep connection to our ancestors and the knowledge they bring through the generations.

‘Babies know. I have been at the birth of many of my grandchildren and someone always comes in with them. Usually an ancestor comes along to help them and I watch how they remember everything. They will look at me, like “OK, I remember you”, and they will even smile when they are not supposed to be smiling. And babies sleep so much because they have to adjust and they start forgetting. And every once in a while they remember. I think as you get older you start that remembering again. It becomes more present.’

She is so right. I have come across children who feel like they have been here before. And I am not alone in feeling it. People call these children ‘old souls’ and they are. They are like old men or women, in a 3 year old’s body. Before today I had never thought about it in the way Joy Harjo expressed it. It is a beautiful way of looking at it. To think that someone has come into the world with these children, with all children. Perhaps those that are old souls as toddlers are the babies who did not forget too much. Who did not sleep the knowledge away.

It was this beautiful idea, which inspired me to think about my own ancestors and my connection to them. Which in turn inspired me to write this post, with my beautiful amber ring (Lithuanian gold), a gift from my godmother, smiling back at me as I typed the words. I did not know my grandmother’s mother and the mothers who came before her. Yet, I see them in the eyes, which look back at me from the mirror. And I know, they walk with me.

Hello Mellow

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It feels like, as we age, wisdom permeates through our body, along the superhighway of our veins or hitch-hiking on the electrical currents surging through us, changing us at a cellular level. Transforming us, not just physically but in our very essence. Altering our outlook on life, our actions and our very sense of being. There is a shift in energy. We become less impulsive, more tolerant. Less reactive, more amicable. The rough edges of our youth soften. Smoothed by life experience, knowledge gathered, love and loss.

Some time ago, I was going through some stuff. There was a lot of things going on in a number of areas of my life, which felt hard. Clearly, the universe had some lessons for me, which I wasn’t paying attention to, so things ramped up. It got a little tough. During this time, a friend at work told me that someone had said they were worried about me, that I had ‘lost my sparkle.’ The comment stuck with me. Worried me. Where had my sparkle gone? Had I really lost it? The person who said this sparkle comment, was part of one of the issues that was happening at the time. But I agreed. I certainly felt duller. I shared my concerns with another friend who laughed and said, ‘Man, that is like someone pissing on a fire and then wondering why the flames are going out.’ I was so grateful for her response. Because it made me laugh a lot, at a time I really needed it. And it put things into perspective. And as far as my sparkle goes, it is still there, but something new is there too, something more solid, something a little deeper.

Sometimes we have to go through difficult times to grow. Sometimes, these difficult times also give us knowledge, understanding and empathy we need for later in life, when we are called upon to help others. I have never felt more at peace with my self and my life, than I do now. I am sure I can feel more at peace, as time goes on, but compared to where I have been, I am at my most grounded. I feel exactly as that word describes, like I have solid footing. I know exactly who I am. What I stand for. I also feel more open. More accepting. More trusting to share my heart. To be me.

The saying that we ‘age like a fine bottle of wine’ is a great metaphor. When a bottle of wine ages well, its texture changes. A young wine is full of charged compounds (tannin) repelling each other. Much like a young person with lots of strong ideas, emotions and opinions all full of charge, bouncing off each other. As the wine ages, these compounds lose their charge. They start to combine. They become heavier and larger. This reduces the surface area of the tannin and the wine becomes smoother, rounder and gentler. And jokes aside about me becoming physically rounder, this is what I feel has happened to me as I have gotten older. I have become smoother in that I am more consistent with my thoughts, ideas, opinions and emotions. I have become rounder in my view of the world, I have a much broader perspective. I am not so tunnel visioned, I have more of a panoramic view of things. And my approach to situations is definitely gentler. That does not mean I am a push over. In fact the opposite. I now have a deep resolve. A quiet confidence. A surety about myself I did not have before. The texture of my soul has changed. I have found my voice. I have mellowed.

With this, life seems to have become easier. I worry less about all sorts of things. I still have energy. I am still thirsty for knowledge. My eyes still sparkle with life. But I am more decisive. I am not so hungry to do everything at once. I have less of a fear of missing out. I am more at peace. I am less in a rush to get somewhere. I am not holding on so tightly. My ego has quietened and softened. I choose much more carefully where to place my emotions, my energy and my time. It is nice to be here.

Reclaim the leftovers

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A shout out to all the mothers out there. The mums doing their thing. Day in. Day out. Nurturing their family with love, food, encouragement and care. Mums sacrificing a little or a lot of themselves in more ways than one, unapologetically selfless. You know who you are. I’ve got a message for you.

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the sunshine having lunch with a friend, catching up and talking about life - our work, study, kids, husbands, projects and stuff. She mentioned at one point in the conversation that there are days when there is so much to do, she doesn’t get to eat lunch, doesn’t have time to make herself anything. I paused, and looked at her a little perplexed. You see, I work with her husband, and I have seen his lunches. They are made from some damn good left overs. I often have lunch envy. I just assumed he took some to work, and she had the same at home. This discovery that she has nothing, required pulsing ‘stop hands’ in the air, as I told her, in no uncertain terms, ‘Girlfriend! It is time you reclaimed those leftovers.’

It is not uncommon for women to place the needs of their loved ones above theirs, or to go to ridiculous lengths to provide what they think their family needs. I have been there. I will go there again. I have been known to rise hours before anyone to make cooked lunches for us all. I did this, almost every day, for a couple of years. I am sure if analysed it could be suggested that as a full-time working mum, I was absolving my guilt for not being around to nurture my family as much as I would like. I was making up for it through food. We all had some pretty good lunches for that period of time.

There have been times, particularly when my children were much younger, when I felt my entire purpose in life was to be a mum. Nothing else. And I loved it. Even while working, I loved being a mum and felt it was all I needed to do in life. Be there for them. Be there for them first. But there comes a time, when you need to not only reclaim the leftovers, you need to reclaim yourself. Rediscover who you are. Find yourself again. And it is so important to do so. For you and for them. For they will take your lead on this. They will watch you and learn from you. And if all you do is sacrifice. Then all they will know is sacrifice.

And chronic sacrifice can all of the sudden become resentment. A resentment which can catch everyone by surprise. As you do the things you have always done, over and over, without complaint, without asking for help until suddenly you just lose it. Like some crazed woman. Yelling about all sorts of things, as they all stand there with blank faces, wondering why you didn’t just ask for help. Or say no. Or suggest they do it themselves. There have been times when in these moments as I am carrying on, a part of me steps away from myself, away from the one consumed with rage, to stand alongside the others, my face also blank as I watch myself over there and wonder how it got to this.

It is important for our children to know we can be vulnerable. It is important for our children to see us recover. It is important for our children to watch us take risks. It is important for them to know we can fail. And it is equally important for ourselves to be vulnerable, recover, take risks and fail.

So catch yourself before the sacrifice becomes a habit, have a word to yourself and start nourishing yourself. It is time to reclaim the leftovers, just make sure it isn’t the burnt chop!

I lost my wife to blahtober

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If I could make myself tiny. Like Alice in Wonderland. And I was small enough to crawl into my loving husband’s ear. Into his head. To make myself comfortable sitting on his brain. Like sitting on a bean bag. I imagine it would be like a bean bag. And I would use my hands to manipulate it, to make a comfy chair and then fall into it. Sinking in as it surrounded me. I would sit there, silently, just hanging out and listening to his thoughts. I imagine I would hear him think, ‘I have lost my wife to blahtober!’ And I would laugh.

Yes he would have a nickname for my latest project. And then I imagine I would hear, echoing inside his mind, his thoughts about Blogtober, a daily blog post challenge for every day of October, a challenge I have chosen to take on board to stretch my writing self. And man, am I loving it. But, I imagine he would be thinking something like...

‘Where the hell has she gone? She was here last week. And now. We have lost her. I have lost her. To her writing. To her thing. Yeah, I have my thing. I make bikes, recycled bikes. Alongside my photography. But today, I came in, my hands all greasy and it was clear I couldn’t make myself lunch. I worked my eyes, made them big puppy dog eyes, they were good ones, but she didn’t even look up from her computer. Didn’t even notice them. It was like I wasn’t even there. I know! What the hell is going on?

And the other night. I got into bed, on my own. Yep, that’s right, she wasn’t there. I fell asleep before she came to bed. I missed my hug. It felt really lonely. Although, the dog did give me some company. But the dog is way grumpier, and if I moved in bed, she growled and let me know she wasn’t happy. I fell asleep, my arm outstretched onto the other side of the bed, the vacant side. Waiting for her, my wife, to return. I think I was snoring by the time she stumbled into bed, after posting on her blog, just in time to make the deadline.

If that night wasn’t bad enough, this morning the alarm went off at some crazy time. I think it was 4am. She had it set to radio, and some head banging thing woke us both up with a start. She jumped out, turned it off, and was gone. The corner of her dressing gown waving to me, as I lay in bed, dazed, and watched as she disappeared out the bedroom door on a mission to write.

There is definitely less food in the house, and I have definitely had to do more than my share of dishes. She gets lost in her writing, and has ruined more than one dinner. She does seem happy though. Satisfied. And I am supporting her. I am liking her posts on social media. Making sure she knows I have noticed them. That I appreciate her art. Although, I don’t click on the link and read them. She caught me the other day. She wrote something about me, apparently, and I failed her test questions to work out if I had read it. Damn it. Might have to find some time to read that one. But I did use all my social media accounts to like her next post and was the first to do so, I am hoping that made up for it.

There is only 22 days to go. I have put it in my calendar. Alongside her period. You can never be too careful. Pretty sure I can make it. Pretty sure I can survive this “latest thing”. Just gotta be patient with her. Not long now and I will have her in my arms, all mine to enjoy. Blogtober a distant memory. The burnt tacos never mentioned.’

The sweet smell of oranges

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Ever since I was a young teenager I have been fascinated by Aromatherapy. I love the potion-like characteristics of the essential oils: the tiny dark-glassed bottles they come in, their potency and their delicate nature.

I am always amazed that three little drops of an essential oil can hold their own in a bath filled with steaming water. How those tiny drops dance defiantly on the surface of the water, change the aroma of the steam and transform the entire experience. As a curious, young person I was fascinated by the special qualities of the oils, and as a gentle rebellion, I appreciated aromatherapy as a natural practice and an alternative to modern medicine to enhance my wellbeing.

Aromatherapy is the therapy of smell, using aromatic plant extracts, such as essential oils, as the main therapeutic agent. The essential oils are extracted from plant resins, flowers, bark, leaves, peel, stalks, fruit and/or roots. The word Aromatherapy is self explanatory “aroma” “therapy” but I was always confused as to why the oils were called “essential” oils. The answer made my heart swell. According to a number of sources, it stems back to alchemists in medieval times bouncing off the concept introduced by Plato and Aristotle. The fifth element: the element of spirit, soul or life force, which sits alongside the other four being fire, air, water and earth. The element of “quintessence” - the purest essence of life. Magically, those little dark-glassed bottles hold the spirit of the plant.

The spirit of plants have been used for thousands of years by humans through both Ayurvedic practices in India and by the Ancient Egyptians to enhance our mind, body and spirit; treat certain conditions; alleviate certain ailments; and create an overall state of harmony and wellbeing.

The forgotten fifth sense

In a world that is so visual, oral and tactile, it is easy to forget about the importance of your sense of smell. And, yet our sense of smell is, at times, the most dominant sense, it just does it in a humble way. A recent study published by Nature, the international journal of science, found evidence that what we see is influenced by what we smell. You don’t need a research study to convince you of the connection between taste and smell. Anyone who has lost their sense of smell, say through a bad cold, knows it has an impact on how food taste. Although separate senses, the neural messages of taste and smell converge for us to detect food flavours. Without a sense of smell, our sense of taste is diminished. Hearing and smell are an unlikely pairing but do collaborate together according to a recent study, where music was shown to influence what we smell. An aromatherapy massage is the perfect example of smell and touch working together, where the benefits of the massage are enhanced by the smell of the oils as you breathe them in and they affect your limbic system, the part of your brain which is responsible for motivation, fear, pleasure and processing your emotions.

The power of smell

It seems you cannot underestimate the power of smell. Smell can influence how well we sleep and what we dream. It’s been proven, through a study which has shown the scent of rose will result in more pleasant dreams, compared to rotten eggs. I am not surprised!! We also use our sense of smell to identify fear and find true love. Pretty powerful stuff. Smell can also help you relax, reduce your anxiety (even during childbirth) energise you and help your concentration.

Want to reduce your coffee intake at work? Put a few drops of lemon or sweet orange oil in a bowl of hot water, or diffuser. Or eat an orange and leave the peel on your desk. Your workmates might think you are a bit of a slob, but the smell of oranges can help boost energy and alertness. Sweet orange oil also settles a stomach or two, can tone skin to reduce breakouts, is a fantastic oven cleaning agent to remove grease and is said to lift your mood. A pretty good all round kind of oil if you ask me!

I’m doing a one-day aromatherapy course in a couple of days time. I’m really excited to learn a few more things, and hope to get to make my own potions, oops, I mean oil blends! No doubt I will come home with a few more bottles of oils, and a few more ideas for using essential oils, and aromatherapy, the ancient and magical craft of scent for well being and life. Hey, who knows, maybe I’ll deliver on Christian Dior’s request to ‘make me a fragrance that smells like love.’

The lost hour

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I slept in today. Not a huge sleep in for a Sunday, but a sleep in nonetheless. And I was OK with this sleep in, and the time I got out of bed, until I realised an hour had been stolen from me. And then suddenly and ridiculously, I had a psychological shift in my perception of time and the anxiety started and the panic set in. How was I going to get everything done today? I couldn’t possibly, now I had lost an entire hour of my life!

My phone said it was 9.20am when I sat down to do my morning meditation. As part of my meditation teaching course I have shifted my practice away from guided meditations and I am meditating on my own for as long as I need, for as long as it goes for. Whatever that may be. Today I surprised myself by doing an hour meditation. Although for a second, when I looked at the clock on the oven, it appeared I hadn’t meditated for any time at all. You see the oven clock showed 9.20am, the exact time my phone showed when I checked it as I got out of bed to go do my meditation. I was confused. How could that be? I know I started at 9.20am. Did I read the time wrong on my phone? And then I realised. Daylight savings had hit. Daylight savings was here. Even though my friend last night on the phone reminded me it was coming, I had clean forgotten. It was now 10.20am, as my phone confirmed. I went around the house and changed the other clocks, feeling the tightness beginning to build in my chest as my mind started going through the list of all the things I need to do today.

I have a lot to do today. I need to write two blog posts for Blogtober, or close to two. One for today and one ready for tomorrow as there is little time tomorrow to write given a full day of work, pilates for an hour in the evening followed by my meditation teaching course for a couple of hours. I also need to go and pick up some groceries from the Source Bulk Food Store, where we are buying non packaged food, and I have to go as I have run out of flour, and I need to make home made pasta today, as we aren’t buying prepackaged pasta either. At some point I also need to pick up my daughter from her post party sleep over, and I was planning to take the dog for a walk, as I really need to walk today. I really need to get outside. Being Sunday, it is my day to make Kombucha and do the second bottling of last week’s batch. And I have homework to do for tomorrow night’s meditation class. I can’t possibly get all this done now!

Reality check. I know all of these things will take more than an hour. And so, it really makes very little difference if the time is 9.20am or 10.20am. And, I looked at my phone when I got up, not any other clock. The change of time was already taken into account. I was OK about getting up at 9.20am when I first got up. Nothing had changed. I didn’t see 8.20am. I hadn’t really lost and hour. My panic was illogical. But acknowledging this did not help dispel it. No matter the reality, my day suddenly felt completely out of control and I felt I was facing an insurmountable problem. The irony, of feeling this way not long after writing a post about our perception of time, was not lost on me.

There was nothing else to do but give in to it. So, I sat down and ate breakfast. With food in my belly, my brain was much more logical and despite having three or four ideas for today’s post, I decided to write about my ridiculousness, to share my illogical reaction and anxiety about daylight savings because I know I am not alone. Somehow the ‘fading of the curtains’ during daylight savings gets to us, the feeling of an hour being stolen from us offends us. Until about day three, and then we are good with it, particularly given it signifies the start of summer coming and more daylight after work, more time in the sunshine, more playtime. And hey, it will be lighter longer today, and I can walk the dog during the extra daylight time in the late afternoon.

It is so much nicer to walk home from work with the sun a little higher, and it being daylight when you get home. And if there are no evening commitments, you get to sit in the sun for a bit on the deck enjoying a nice beverage or two. And yes, to begin with the mornings are hard, particularly the first Monday (grateful the first day of daylight savings is always a Sunday). It is a little darker when we rise to go to work to begin with, but eventually, it gets lighter and lighter.

I welcome with open arms the season changing to summer, the days becoming longer, the evenings a little shorter. I thrive on sunshine, I always have. Like a flower needing the sun to grow, to blossom and to open. In second year university, I was hit with an extreme fatigue for most of the year, the doctors suspected Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and possibly Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly named SADs. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was a relatively unknown condition by the general public in the late 1980s, and at that time it was one of those conditions where people raised an eyebrow when you told them about it. With that look on their face like what you were describing was all in your head. SADs was even lesser known. The year I was told I might have either of these conditions, or a combination of the two, was the year after the first definition of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome had been published. So it was something very new to most people, although looking up the history of it for this post today, I had no idea it had been around since the mid 1930s, just under another name ‘myalgic encephalomyelitis’.

Whether I had it or not, I will never know. Regardless, after the suggested diagnosis I considered some of my lifestyle choices and slowly made changes to recovery. At the time there was no clinics, no specialists in the area, so I just went back to the basics. I drank less alcohol. I changed my diet. I had previously decided to cut out all meat, but my vegetarian diet was insufficient as I was not eating enough of the right foods to provide me with my protein and energy needs. A bowl of rice and corn, doesn’t really cut it as a nutritious dinner. I removed wheat and then gluten from my diet. Something confirmed, much later in life, as necessary, not long after the release of the Coeliac gene test. As well as changing my diet to overcome the extreme exhaustion and malaise, I started, very slowly, a regular exercise routine and when strong enough I joined the gym and began going to aerobic classes (it was the late 1980s), eventually becoming a bit of a gym junkie, doing three classes in one night. But the most significant change was making sure I got enough sunshine. I opted not to take up the artificial light therapy offered, but made the effort to be outside as much as possible, particularly in the colder months, and took Vitamin D supplements regularly.

I don’t hate winter like I used to. But even so, when the warmer weather starts, when the sunshine and bright blue skies welcome me in the morning as I wake up, I instantly smile. It does lift my spirit and change my mood for the better. And I see it have this influence on other people too. Over the recent couple of days of great weather, I have noticed people look happier, smile more, have a spring in their step. So, despite the initial (and unreasonable) panic about everything I need to do today, I am grateful daylight savings is here again. And I feel OK now about losing an hour today. I hope you do too.

The art of forgiveness

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We all have something to forgive, or someone. And often the person to forgive is ourselves. It is not unusual for forgiveness to be a journey, and sometimes, it can be a long one with winding roads and obstacles born from an unwillingness to release the person (or yourself) from the offending act. It doesn’t always take a brave soul with an open heart to forgive, sometimes it just takes a little practice. And when you reach forgiveness, it is not just rewarding, it is liberating. A freedom worth the work. Worth learning the art, to shorten the journey.

I used to think that to forgive was to excuse someone’s behaviour to the point you were saying what they did was OK. Acceptable. Right. To say it didn’t matter. To exonerate. To condone. To absolve. A while ago, in order to try and come to terms with my own need to forgive, I wrote a journal piece about a particular incident from my past, the hurt, which I had carried for many years. It had become a heavy back pack full of pain I had been dragging around. Weighing me down. I wrote about it, to see if I could write my way to forgiveness and healing. I decided the logical staring point of my writing was the definition of forgiveness. I felt I needed a solid foundation. A concrete base to build my house of forgiveness. I was shocked to discover the definition of forgiveness by psychologists was not what I assumed it to be. It was not in line with my understanding of the word. Not at all.

According to the Greater Good Magazine forgiveness is defined by psychologists as:

'“…a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.”

They go on to explain that forgiveness is not condoning, you can still consider the action as wrong. It also does not excuse the person from what they have done. They are still responsible for their actions. Nor does it involve forgetting what has happened. To forgive is not to give your pardon, or wish the person an official pardon. Nor does it require any form of reconciliation or restoration of a relationship. It simply means, you do not hold any ill-will towards this person. You do not wish them harm and you have decided to release yourself from any bitterness or negative feelings. You may still not like what they have done, but you don’t wish vengeance on them. You may still feel what they did is wrong, but you do not wish harm to come their way. You may not forget what they have done, but you will not let it define you. Also, you do not have to have them back in your life, after you forgive them. These last two were big for me. I realised as I read the definition of what forgiveness was and wasn’t, that these last two parts of the definition were the two things standing in my way of forgiveness. Blockers which lifted the moment I read those very words. But let’s come back to that in a little while.

Firstly, let’s apply this definition of forgiveness to ourselves. When you do something wrong, something you are deeply ashamed of, you may not like what you have done but there is no need to wish vengeance on yourself. You may still acknowledge what you did was wrong, but wishing harm to come your way is not helpful and will not change what you have done. You won’t forget what you did, but it does not have to define you. If you do not like what you have done, or who you are, you do not have to keep being that person, or acting that way after you forgive yourself.

I have said to my children, since they were very young, ‘It is not the mistake you make that counts, but what you do afterwards that matters.’ Humans make mistakes, it is how we learn. How we find out what we need to change in our lives or to change in ourselves. How we need to adjust our behaviour to live in harmony with others. After making a mistake, apologising or making it right in some way is much more important than the mistake itself. This is where the energy needs to be. This is what matters. This has seen me, and my family, through difficult and sticky situations. It has also helped each of us, when feeling helpless by the fact we cannot take away our words, or change something we have done, which has hurt someone. It has helped us all to move beyond what we cannot change, and focus on what we can. To make the difference. I should point out that making it right is sometimes to commit to not repeating the mistake, to simply learn not to do it again.

I am not sure how, but somehow along the road of life, I locked into my sphere of understanding the idea that how someone treats you, defines who you are. That someone else’s action, someone else’s choices, make you act in particular ways. And it made me change who I was. Be who I was. For a long time. I blamed my failings on how someone else had treated me in the past. Rather than taking responsibility for my actions, I let someone else’s actions define and drive my own. It took a long time for me to realise how ridiculous this was. And, thankfully, I no longer do this. I have forgiven, separated my responsibility for my actions from their responsibility and moved on. Let go. Forgiven. I also thought if you did not let the person, you needed to forgive, back into your life, you weren’t truly forgiving them. I was stuck on this one for a long time. And frustrated it was blocking my path to forgiveness. Discovering you can forgive people, while you walk away from them, was equally as liberating as discovering that my actions are totally my own. With this combined knowledge, I have a found forgiveness and the associated freedom, to live a happy and fulfilled life full of love and joy.

This realisation of not letting how someone else treats you define you, was reinforced when I stumbled on Elizabeth Smart’s Ted Talk. Well worth the 11.36 minutes she takes to shake your perception. To make you rethink things. If you haven’t watched her Ted Talk, do so, those 11.36 minutes are some of the most valuable minutes you could choose. Her story is nothing like mine. I have not been physically or sexually abused. I have not been abducted. I have not been held captive. Yet her story, and what she has chosen to do with it, has helped me come to terms with my own journey and cleared the path to forgiveness like no other. That is the power of stories.

At 14 years of age Elizabeth was abducted and this resulted in a horrific nine months, before she was rescued. One minute she was in bed asleep, just an average school girl, the next minute she was held captive in a tent, at the mercy of others - a newly claimed ‘wife’. She was physically restrained like an animal, so she could not run away. Her story is beyond heart wrenching. Today she is a child safety activist and missing persons advocate. The day after her rescue, and reunited with her family, her mother gave her advice which Elizabeth has chosen to follow in life. With great wisdom, love and tenderness, her mother, Lois, said to her:

‘Elizabeth, what this man has done to you is terrible and there are not words strong enough to describe how wicked and evil he is. He has stolen nine months of your life that you will never get back. The best punishment that you could ever give him, is to be happy. To move forward with your life, because by feeling sorry for yourself, by holding onto the past and dwelling on what has happened to you, that is only allowing them more control, more power and stealing more of your life away from you. Don’t let that happen. Justice may or may not be served. Restitution may or may not be made. But don’t you dare give them another second of your life.’

Elizabeth uses her story and her mother’s advice to help people realise they have a choice in what their lives look like, despite the past, despite circumstances. To encourage others to live their lives as they want to, without it being defined by the actions of others. And she is awe inspiring as she talks about how, despite her horrific experience, despite the fact she would not wish what happened on herself or anyone else, it is to her something she has, astonishingly, chosen to be grateful for. Because she has chosen perspective and empathy, over pain and anger. Because she has chosen to speak out and encourage others to have the courage to speak out. To share their story. She believes we all have things to overcome. She does not hold her story above anyone else’s, but chooses to use it, make it her own for preventing this happening to others, and for healing. She has chosen not to be consumed by what was done to her, but to take her circumstances and do what she wants with it. For her to define who she is, not others. There is no doubt that Elizabeth has a brave soul and an open heart. That it has taken great courage for her to be who she is today. To forgive the world for what happened to her. There is also no doubt that she continually practises forgiveness. Find out more about her work at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation.

Elizabeth’s story is a reminder that to heal, we must first forgive. And that the art of forgiveness starts with a choice. And that choice is ours to make. No one else’s.

The wonder of joy

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I have often wondered how we have found ourselves, as a society and as a species, in the situation we are in. A situation where one of the most primal emotions, something we are born with, which comes so naturally in our youth, is hard to locate in our daily lives as we become older. Joy.

What happens to us in life as we grow? Why does joy diminish, dilute, become elusive or unnoticeable? Joy is there when we first start out. In abundance. It is there in us instinctively, pulsing through our veins, our bodies, our hearts, without any limitations. Think about a recently born baby and the joy on their little face, in their entire body. The joy they express, and spread, time and time again as they see things for the first time. The joy in their innocence, the joy in their wonder.

The joy in their wonder.

There is a symbiotic relationship between joy and wonder. Joy feeds wonder and wonder feeds joy. And there is the answer. What happens to us in life as we grow? We lose our sense of wonder. What happens when we lose our sense of wonder? Joy diminishes, dilutes, becomes elusive. We don’t notice it anymore.

So, to rediscover the joy in your life you need to rediscover the wonder in life. Rediscover the mystery, dial up your curiosity. It is not just our brains which thrive on novelty and on new discoveries, our souls thrive on it too.

Rediscovering the wonder in life can be found in learning to play an instrument, learning a language, embarking on a creative adventure, meeting new people, travelling to new places, starting a new career or helping people. But it doesn’t have to be so big or so formal. There is great joy in rediscovering the wonder in the moment, whatever the moment holds.

Look at the world through the eyes of a child in everything you do. When you brush your teeth, do the dishes, walk the dog, or sit on your back deck. Pause in the moment, open your heart in such a way you are entwined with your inner child, allow the inner child to lead what you perceive. See the toothbrush for the very first time. Really see it. Like a child would, with wonder and curiosity. See the details, think about why and how it came to be, how the bristles work, how many there are, why they are the colour they are, the shape, the texture.

Next time, you are walking to work, to a friend’s place or simply taking the dog out for some exercise, take time to notice the things around you. The light of the day. The shape of the clouds. The leaves on the tree. The petals in the wind. The colour of the houses. The flowers in the gardens. The texture of the path. The sound your feet make as you walk. The messages carved into the pavement. The smell of the jasmine. The smell of rain coming, of freshly cut grass or perhaps someone baking bread or cooking in a house somewhere nearby.

You can also appreciate and notice things when you are gardening. Pay attention to the texture, the smell and the weight of the earth, as you dig or weed or plant your garden. Notice the finer details of your garden, the intricacy of the plants, where the ants are coming from and where they are going, even what they are carrying. The birds around you. The trail of the snails. The scents, textures, colours and movement in your garden.

Take time to notice. Pay close attention to what is around you, in the moment. And choose to dwell on the things which make you feel good inside. Watch the joy return to your life, through your day to day activities, through every step of your being. Focus on being in life rather than the doing of life. And when you start noticing and you allow yourself to be curious about the smallest things in life, it becomes a habit you transfer to every other layer of your life. And joy will be with you, throughout everything you do.

At the heart of the matter

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I have been thinking a lot about the heart lately - what it does, what it symbolises and what moves mine. With an unusual flutter now and then, mine tends to draw attention when I get too wrapped up in the world.

Over 10 years ago I found myself at the doorstep of a an electro-cardiologist. After I underwent a number of tests and hung out with halter monitor for a while, my cardiologists explained I had a couple of rogue cells in my heart. I was told these mischievous cells were causing around 22,000 ectopic heartbeats a day. To give me a sense of this number, it was explained to me that the average person has only a handful a day, like maybe 5.

Ectopic heartbeats are when the heart skips a beat or the heart has extra beats. In my case I had cells in my heart that wanted to be the ‘big beater’ and so they would jump in with a beat, putting the big beater out of sync, creating lots of additional heart beats - tens of thousands of them a day. Seems these rogue cells were working hard to win the fight to be the boss. When my cardiologist told me what was happening, I couldn’t stop laughing, of course I would have a heart that would go rogue! But not for long, I had a procedure called an ablation, where they burnt those naughty little rogue cells away, and other than the occasional ectopic beat or flutter, my heart now beats to a more acceptable rhythm.

Recently, I had to have an echo-cardiogram, an ultrasound of my heart. Lying there chatting with the specialist sonographer, while the inside of my heart was being examined, I glanced up at the screen briefly and was astonished to see what looked like two little hands inside my heart clapping. The sonographer explained to me it was a valve opening and closing, and he did agree it looked a lot like hands clapping.

I haven’t been able to get this beautiful image out of my head. How delightful to discover that inside our beating hearts are hands applauding us through life. Clapping a rhythm for us to dance. Clapping a rhythm for us to live by.

Pondering this image, got me thinking about the significance of the heart, above and beyond its physical role to pump blood around our bodies to keep us alive (as if that wasn’t enough). I got thinking about what moves my heart. What makes it swell inside with emotion, so much so that it brings tears to my eyes. And I realised when I went through the list of things, they tend to correspond to some of the virtues Aristotle put forward, for people to ‘live well’. Courage. Temperance. Kindness. Joy. Pride. Honour. Equanimity. Friendliness. Honesty. Wit. Friendship. Not necessarily the words he originally used. But you get the idea. I have taken the time to elaborate on a few which stand out for me at this moment in time.

Kindness
An act of kindness will always bring a gentle smile to my face and a long sigh of appreciation. This may sound a little odd, but next next time you notice someone being kind, pay some attention to your reaction, the gentle smile and the long sigh. A particular act of kindness in my memory banks, which sprung up as soon as I typed the word ‘kindness’, was one from about three years ago when my then 11 year-old daughter was running a cross country race. It was a hard slog of a race. Cold, wet and muddy. As she cross the finish line exhausted from the gruelling race, a girl running not far behind her slipped on a muddy patch of grass just before the finish and fell. She was done. She lay there unable to get up, only a few steps from the finish line. It was heartbreaking to watch. She lay there, defeated, with no more in her. She couldn’t move. She was emotionally spent. Beaten. My daughter saw her fall, so she walked away from the finish line, walked away from her own exhaustion. From the promise of water and rest. She walked to this girl on the ground. My daughter bent down and spoke to her and encouraged her to get up. And when she did, my daughter helped her cross the finish line. Walking with her. Guiding her. Holding her arm. Supporting her across the finish line, together. Helping her drag her muddy limbs and face across the line. My heart swelled at my daughter’s act of kindness. At her care. Her generosity of spirit. And as I share this story right now my heart swells, alongside the tears in the very corners of my eyes.

Courage
I am always moved when people are vulnerable enough to be brave. The most recent example of courage that I have come across is the story of Tara Westover. I could not put down her memoir, Educated. I read it with such desperation to turn each page, to find out what was going to happen. So incredibly thirsty for her story. As I collected it from my library just now, and took it to my computer so I could find a quote to share, I notice I was holding it close to my heart, such was the impact of this beautifully written story of a young woman finding her true self at the expense of the love of her family. The book should always be carried beside your heart. When you buy it from the bookstore, walk out with it, cradled to your chest.

Spoiler alert!! Please go to the subhead ‘tenderness’ in order not to ruin your upcoming reading of this fabulous book, as I am about to share something of it from close to the end. A poignant memory Tara shares at perhaps her lowest point.

The moment in the book that broke my heart (which can happen when it swells way too much) where I ended up with my tears falling from my eyes, down my temples and along the edge of my cheek bones into my ears (I was reading in bed, my head in my pillow, and could not get out until I finished her book, and gravity has a way with tears) was the moment she reads the letter from one of her brothers, Tyler, expecting it to be a rejection, but instead it is a moment of acceptance and support, and love.

‘I clicked on the mouse, the attachment opened. I was so far removed from myself that I read the entire letter without understanding it: Our parents are held down by chains of abuse, manipulation and control…They see change as dangerous and will exile anyone who asks for it. This is a perverted idea of family loyalty…They claim faith, but this is not what the gospel teaches. Keep safe. We love you.’ Educated, p363, Tara Westover.

Keep safe. We love you. After I read these words. I sobbed and sobbed for Tara. I know no courage like hers. I was so relieved she was rewarded with love, and not rejection. So relieved that staying true to herself was met with love.

Tenderness
Before my husband became my husband. He was a friend. A photographer, my then boyfriend, who was a graphic designer, hired now and then. I remember the moment I fell in love with him, my future soul mate, although I did not realise that was what he was at the time. We were in Fitzroy, at a rooftop cafe for an opening for something, I can’t remember what. All I remember was it was night time. There were young children there. There was light. A wall. And my then friend, who would one day became my husband, was giving the children attention when no one else was. Entertaining them, with what seemed like a magical trick, but was actually simple hand shadow puppetry. A rabbit. Brought to life on a graffitied brick wall, on a Melbourne evening, on the rooftop of a radio station. The light, behind his hands, bringing to life a rabbit. A rabbit met with wide eyes, gasps, awe, the biggest smiles. The delight of young children. To me, this was an act of tenderness. My heart swelled. Almost to bursting. And I knew in that moment that I was destined to love that man. That man with his shadow puppetry. And I did. And I do.

Creativity and Beauty
Music and art will move my heart. Every time. The beauty of nature, will always expand my heart. The way the sun hits the deck. The way the water glistens from the sunshine. I have spent the day at the beach today. The sunshine, the different hues of blue in the water, the light greeny-blue from the shoreline, the deeper hues of green and blue in the breaking waves, the almost purple blue of the sea where it meets the horizon. The sky blue of the sky from the horizon to above our heads and beyond. It was glorious.

But when I think of creativity and beauty which makes my heart swell, I think of my son playing his guitar. Something he started when he was just 7 years old. Something over a decade later he still loves to do. Sitting in his room or on the couch in our dining room. Playing with such feeling. The guitar almost an anatomical part of him. Not a separate instrument at all. The beautiful blues he plays. The beautiful Spanish guitar songs. The jazz pieces. His favourites. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. And Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heavens’, with it’s lyrics inspired by the death of Clapton's four-year-old son. When talking matters of the heart, of what makes a heart swell with emotion, with tears to match. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish, than with these lyrics. Thank you, Eric Clapton.

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?
I must be strong and carry on
'Cause I know I don't belong here in heaven

Would you hold my hand
If I saw you in heaven?
Would you help me stand
If I saw you in heaven?
I'll find my way through night and day
'Cause I know I just can't stay here in heaven

Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees
Time can break your heart, have you begging please, begging please

Beyond the door there's peace I'm sure
And I know there'll be no more tears in heaven

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?
I must be strong and carry on
'Cause I know I don't belong here in heaven

Sitting with uncertainty

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We live well planned lives. It is pretty much mapped out way in advance. Start preschool or kindergarten at 3 or 4 years of age. Start school after turning 5 or 6 years old. Stay at school until between the ages of 15 and 18. Expectations follow. Graduate. Defer. University. Job. Fall in love. Buy a house. Have children. Know where you are heading. Plan your life. Save for the future. There isn’t room for uncertainty. There isn’t tolerance for uncertainty. Certainty is king.

It certainly is. Shops will be open every day at their set times. The supermarket will have in stock their regular items. Your clothes will gradually wear out. A sock will always go missing in the laundry. Summer will follow Spring. The birds will sing. The dogs will bark. Lunch is around midday. Dinner around six. You will get tired. You will sleep. You will get hungry. You will eat. People will die. Babies will be born. The world continues to turn. And we feel comfortable and safe.

When uncertainty peeks around the corner, there is often no patience for it. We have no relationship with uncertainty other than to scorn it, or try to ignore it. We are shocked when the unexpected happens. When someone treats us in a surprising way. When a friend dies before her time. When illness befalls us. When the weather changes suddenly, or does not match the forecast. When our words fail us. When the TV show is not the one listed in the TV program. When we are confused by the way we are feeling. When we don’t understand why something happened. When there is no logic. When we lose, at a time we thought we would win. When people walk away. When people turn up.

We rely on people to stay with the herd. Follow the herd. Stay within the boundaries of the paddock. Do what others do. Do what we do. Do the accepted. Do the expected. Don’t stray. Don’t be too individual. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t push it. Get a good job and pay your bills. Be at the train on time. Be home on time. Don’t drink too much. Don’t laugh too loud. Act like the herd, or you will be an outcast. Know what your purpose is in life. Run after it.

But a hell of a lot of people seem to be running away from life, rather than after it. Maybe it is time to make some room for uncertainty. To be, as Eckhart Tolle puts it, ‘at ease with not knowing’. Perhaps all this planning, this rigidness, the map of life, the order of things has created an imbalance. Perhaps it is time to let a little chaos in. A little unknowingness. A bit of throwing ‘caution to the wind’. A ‘maybe’ or two. Are we caught up with feeling like we always have to have the answer? When did the words ‘I don’t know’ lose their value?

As young children we run around and play like free spirits, ‘without a care in the world’. Our lives are not dictated by knowing. By expecting. By the plan. The map. We play. Eat when we are hungry. Cry when we are sad. There is chaos. There is unknowingness. There are lots of ‘why’ because we are comfortable in not knowing. Because we are curious, and we like finding out stuff about the world around us. We are pretty fearless. We are open to possibilities. Yet as we grow older, this fearlessness and openness is diluted as certainty cements itself around our hearts.

The relationship between possibilities, fear and uncertainty is beautifully articulated by Eckhart Tolle in his book ‘A New Earth’.

‘When you become comfortable with uncertainty then infinite possibilities open up in your life. When you become comfortable with uncertainty it means fear is no longer a dominant factor in what you do, and no longer prevents you from taking action to initiate change.’ Eckhart Tolle

So much of our lives is driven by fear. The fear of loss. The fear of rejection. The fear of failure. The fear of not quite cutting it, not being good enough. The fear of not doing it right, not knowing the answer. The fear of not knowing. We think of certainty as the hero, saving us from our fears. Certainty fights with the mighty sword the fear of loss, rejection and failure. But with all its action and heroism it leaves no room for possibilities. Too much certainty is more the villain, locking us up in a high tower, to protect us from our fears, but leaving us a prisoner of our own circumstances, where the possibilities of our life are out of reach.

Perhaps it is time to free our hearts from certainty. Maybe the forgotten hero is uncertainty. Perhaps it is time to take a seat on the bench next to our old friend and sit for a while. Sit with uncertainty. You never know what might turn up. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Perception of time

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Humans are permanently linked to the concept of time. Our lives, driven by the ticking of a clock. Our actions determined by the movement of the second hand. Our patterns and habits guided by the rising and setting of the sun. Our biorhythms influenced by the waxing and waning of the moon.

Our son yesterday had his wisdom teeth taken out. All five of them. Yes, he got an extra dose of wisdom, and we got an extra bill from the surgeon. Taking him to the hospital and caring for him afterwards made me realise how inextricably linked we are to time; and how the passing of time is dependant on your perception of time and your relationship with it.

The countdown began from the moment we booked him in for the operation. The days passed with new meaning, each day closer to the day he was having his procedure. On the actual day, we were completely at the mercy of time. He had to fast, no food or even a sip of water, from midnight. We had to arrive at the hospital at 10.30am for his admission. We complied with the fasting and turned up on time. And then the wait began. A patient before him became a complicated case and the surgery took extra time, a lot of extra time, which for us meant a three hour wait in the hospital’s waiting room, no food or drink allowed.

The time passed, but not without some level of discomfort. And the more we watched the time, the slower it passed. Luckily for me, I had a book with me to read, one I have been reading over the last couple of days and really enjoying. Therefore, the time passed quite smoothly and often I was shocked when I lifted my eyes from the pages to check the clock, shocked to see how much time had passed, how long we had been sitting and waiting. My son didn’t have a book, there were no magazines, he didn’t have his headphones with him, and he was anxious. So began his wrestle with time, as he wished it to pass and for it to be his turn. For his operation to be over and done with.

Eventually his turn arrived, and they took him, looking very special in his gown, booties and hat, off to surgery. And then for me, the waiting ramped up. Waiting for their call. To say it was over. That he was OK. Which he was.

Coming home our routine was dictated again by time. Four hourly medication. Applying ice to his cheeks in twenty minute intervals for twenty minutes. Our lives for the past 24 hours have been in blocks of twenty minutes. Dictated by the beeping of the timer. Ice on. Beep. Beep. Ice off. Beep. Beep. Time to ice. Beep. Beep. Ice on. Beep. Beep. Ice off.

Measuring time

The timer got me thinking of the instruments designed to measure time. I began thinking about clocks and what came before them. Before the invention of any mechanism to count time, our ancestors would have seen the passing of time and the day through the lengthening of shadows and the movement of the sun. It makes sense then, that one of the first time-tracking devices we know of, is the sundial. An ancient Egyptian sundial, dated from what is thought to be as early as 1500 BC shows that they divided the space between sunrise and sunset into 12 parts. A numerical division which stayed and is the basis of the analog clock. The Greeks improved on the sundial and the Romans adapted it to incorporate the water clock, in order to be able to record time passing even when the sun was not shining. The water clock measured the passing of time through the flow of water. Similar to a sand filled hour glass, which followed. Time recording devices became more sophisticated after Galileo, in the 17th Century, noticed the regular motion of a swinging lamp in a cathedral, where he was studying. From there, John Harrison developed the marine chronometer because a swinging pendulum is no good on a vessel floating on a body of water for obvious reasons. From there the atomic clock of the 1950s and the invention of lasers in the 1960s, changed our ability to measure time to the degree of accuracy we know today.

The definition of time is based on the physical concept of time. The bit we can measure. That which has been tracked by sundials, water clocks and the swinging of pendulums. The time Plato measured as he watched the stars move. The time Issac Newton defines as mathematically true. The concept of subjective time, the psychological concept of time, the philosophy of time, however, is not defined in the dictionary. Yet it is equally as important. 

Philosophy of time

In Buddhist philosophy, time exists only if we are conscious of it. The three hours in the waiting room affirmed this for me. I lost time, when I was consumed in my book, unaware of time, it disappeared. My son, on the other hand, was very conscious of time, watching the clock, feeling the time drag. For him, time existed almost to the degree of torment.

The philosophical notion of time has been a human obsession before we started measuring it, or perhaps because we started measuring it. Measuring time is our attempt to put a frame of reference and a linear sequence around the physical movement of time. But we have failed to be able to measure the psychological concept of time. This is something which cannot be boxed neatly into a nice neat ordering of numbers.

Redefining our relationship with time

Writer and thought leader, Deepak Chopra believes everyone has a gift, and when ‘you are expressing yourself in that unique way and giving out your gifts, you lose track of time’. This is reflective of the idiom ‘time flies when you are having fun’. And although it is blissful not to notice the passing of time, time passing is somewhat anxiety-inducing for people in a society obsessed with youth, a society that has turned its back on elders and no longer respects them as the wise teachers of life (something I feel strongly we should reclaim).

Deepak Chopra speaks about our need to redefine our perception of time and ageing. He believes you can, through a variety of ways, alter your biological age. One way, being to change your relationship with time.

‘If you are always in a hurry, your biological clock speeds up. People who are always saying “I am running out of time”, their blood pressure goes up, their heart rate speeds up, their platelets get jittery, and then they suddenly drop dead of a heart attack. They have literally run out of time. So change your perception of time and your perception of ageing. Say to yourself every day, “in every way I am increasing my mental and physical capacity,” because you can. You can increase your mental capacity by being aware, and learning and being curious. There is a saying “people don’t grow old, when they stop growing they become old.” Keep growing all the time.’ Deepak Chopra

So stay curious people, and keep growing. Respect and learn from your elders. Age is a wonderful thing. Not something to run from. Enjoy what your doing and let time pass without consideration, without trying to hold onto it. Without worrying about it slipping through your fingers. But don’t waste your time. Remember we all have a gift, each and every one of us, a purpose for being here. As Shakespeare eloquently put it:

“I wasted time, and now doth time has wasted me.” Shakespeare

Lost in my writing, time has passed without me noticing. But I gotta go, because I can hear the beeping of the timer. Beep. Beep. Twenty minutes has passed. Beep Beep. Its time to take the ice pack off. 

Permission to feel

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How have we found ourselves in the ironic position, where we feel bad about feeling? Why do we feel shame or discomfort for having emotions? Somehow, our feelings have become the bad guy. The villain. And rational thought the hero. Our emotions have become undervalued. The head has become the victor of the heart.

Friends of mine are making a really big life-changing decision. One involving lots of money. One involving lots of change. Talking with them about it, as they shared their plans, I shared my joy for where they were at, ‘How super exciting!’ I said. Which was met with, ‘Yep, but we are trying to keep the emotion out of this decision, and go through the steps logically.’ What the hell? Why? For any decision to be made, emotion and thought have to be in tandem. You can’t actually make a decision on intellect and logic alone. It isn’t possible!

Phineas Gage taught us that. If you haven’t heard of him, look him up. He lived in the 1800s. Was a railway worker foreman. Just an ordinary bloke until one day he had a significant accident and miraculously survived. And in doing so, changed the course of history and how we view the workings of our brains today. On the afternoon of 13 September 1948, Gage was overseeing the blasting of rock and the preparation of the road bed for a railway line in Vermont. Distracted by his men behind him, he turned to look at them, opened his mouth to speak and in a freak incident the powder in the hole he had been packing down with his tampering iron, exploded. The tampering iron shot out of the hole and through Gage’s jaw, past his eye and out of the top of his skull, to land bloodied some 25 metres away. Gage survived but his frontal lobe was seriously damaged. He lost his ability to feel emotions and this not only impacted his personality and behaviour, it also stopped him from being able to make decisions. He no longer had a preference, only apathy.

Turning emotions off to make a decision is a bad idea. Particularly if you are making a big decision. Imagine trying to use logic alone to decide if to marry, to have children, buy a house, move house, quit your job, take another job, relocate your life or any of the myriad of big decisions that make through the course of our lives. You need your emotions to help you make those decisions - you need to feel love, fear, excitement and trepidation.

Our issue with emotions is not isolated to decision making. It goes much deeper and much further. Our emotions are important. They guide us, keep us safe and motivate us. They help us navigate between right and wrong. To fit suitably and appropriately into our social constructs. Without them we would be at best robots, at worst psychopaths. And yet, throughout life we are taught to suppress our emotions. It starts from the very beginning. As a baby, our cries are met with a ‘shh’, ‘shh’, ‘shh’. As a young toddler if we are boisterous in play showing great joy we are told to ‘calm down’. As a teenager if we are sad, we are told to ‘cheer up.’ By the time we reach adulthood the script is set: having emotions is bad. And they have become taboo. And there is shame in feeling our feelings. Show passion and you are at risk of being considered too intense. Show fear and you are at risk of being seen as cowardice. Show tears of frustration or sadness and you are at risk of being called unhinged. But what are we meant to be instead? Without emotions we are nothing but big cold lumps of clay.

Without emotion music would not move us. Without emotion poetry would not exist. Without emotion we cannot be in awe of significance, grateful for the mundane, or appreciate what is before us. We rely on our emotions to heal. We need them to make connections. So, give yourself permission to feel. Give yourself permission for others to see that you feel. That you really feel. Show the world big love. Show the world big fear. Show the world that you are an emotional being. And show the people around you how to feel.

Allow the children around you to feel their emotions. Let’s make sure the next generation and those to come, have deep respect for their emotions; and understand how powerful they are in shaping our lives. Lead by example. Embrace your emotions. Trust them. Celebrate them. But whatever you do, don’t bury them. Don’t hide them. Don’t bottle them up. Allow yourself to feel excited, at the risk of feeling disappointed. Allow yourself to feel happy, at the risk of feeling sad. Allow yourself to feel hope at the risk of feeling despair. Listen to your heart. To feel is to know you are human. To feel is to know you are alive.

The power of kindness

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I recently came to a firm conclusion about human beings. Something I really should have realised a long time ago, but I guess I can be a little slow sometimes.

What came to me, is the realisation that we are all vessels of joy. Each and every single one of us. That some of us are full of joy, and some of us have less joy inside. Like cups randomly filled with water, we each have a different volume of joy. And, within ourselves, our joy fluctuates. Some days we have more joy than other days. Sometimes we are simply bursting with it. Other times we have very little. At times none at all.

Thinking about people this way, as vessels of joy, got me wondering about what increases and decreases our joy. I came to the conclusion that, as relational beings, it is how we are treated and how we treat others, which impacts how much joy we have inside of us. That there is a direct relationship between joy and kindness. That it is that simple.

When you are kind to someone, their level of joy increases. When you show generosity of spirit to someone, their level of joy goes up. A genuine and authentic compliment can build the volume of joy inside the person receiving it. But only if the compliment comes from the heart. False flattery is manipulative and actually decreases the joy.

A kind gesture - as simple as noticing where someone is at, asking if they are OK - increases the volume of joy. Looking after someone, putting their needs before yours or going out of your way to help them, can build joy. And not just for the person you are being kind to, but also within yourself.

Each and every time you show a little genuine kindness, you increase the joy within you. You, as a vessel of joy, become fuller. This is the magic of kindness.

An impression of increase

I came across the concept ‘an impression of increase’ earlier this year. It was a key concept from one of the lessons, which was part of a course I was doing: Bob Proctor’s Thinking into Results, facilitated by Georgia Ellis from BlueChip Minds. I remember hearing the phrase for the first time and being really confused. I couldn’t wrap my head around what ‘an impression of increase’ meant or what it looked like. And then, as it was unpacked during the class and we explored the idea of being a giving person, sending good energy to the people you interact with and bringing to people’s attention what they do well, I realised it was, simply, what I call ‘kindness’.

We were asked, as homework for this lesson, to spend the week noticing when we left ‘an impression of increase’, and to write it down. To pay attention to our everyday actions and when we ‘increased others’. My first thought was, ‘Man, I do this a lot. I am often kind to people. I am going to spend a lot of time writing things down.’ Oh, how wrong I was. Half way through the first day of the exercise, I had nothing written down. I rationalised this (and gave myself comfort) by deciding it was the fact that we were actively doing an exercise, which was getting in the way. I remember thinking, ‘My kindness is organic and being asked to notice it, and write it down, is making me overthink it, and I am not doing it like I normally do. We learnt today that a critical aspect of giving is that it must be spontaneous. The exercise is taking the spontaneity out of it. That is what is happening, that is what is wrong.’ Yeah, you bet I felt much better after that. But, by the end of the first day, I hadn’t written anything down. Nothing at all. Nada. Zip. I went home and that night I had a very restless sleep with many sobering thoughts.

What this exercise made me realise, was that I don’t leave ‘an impression of increase’ as often as I thought. I am nowhere near as kind as I imagined myself to be. This was, of course, the intention of the homework.

Joy is not happiness

Joy is different from happiness. Joy is collective, happiness is individual. Happiness is an emotion, joy is a state of being. Joy is what holds a community together. It is the stitching in the fabric of humanity. And we are all responsible in our lives, as to how much joy is in each of our communities. Every family member contributes to the joy of the household. Each person impacts the joy of a friendship group. Every employee impacts the joy of an organisation. Joy does not come from the top. The head of a company alone does not dictate the volume of joy in a workplace, nor does a parent solely drive the volume of joy for his or her family. Everyone contributes, everyone is responsible. And usually, it comes from the bottom up, where the number of people, relationships and interactions are greater. We all have the power within us to unlock the power of kindness and fill the vessels of joy around us.

Filling the cup

Start noticing how often you leave ‘an impression of increase’, how often you spontaneously give to others and the frequency of your kindness. Do it for a week and then compare the reality to your perception. Make kindness a habit. Watch the joy increase in those around you, in your community and in your own self. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t have to be over the top. It can be the simplest thing, the smallest of gestures.

“When a child walks in the room, your child or anybody else's child, do your eyes light up? That's what they're looking for.” Toni Morrison

The beautifully talented author Toni Morrison, who blessed us with such wisdom in her writing, left this earth recently. Thankfully her words live on. This inspirational statement, these very real words apply to everyone, not just children. When someone, anyone, walks into your home, your office, your workspace, your life, do your eyes light up? That is what we are all looking for. It is how you leave an impression of increase. It is how you fill the vessels of joy. It is the power of kindness.

Discovering the freedom of writing

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Earlier this year, a dear friend pointed me to a beautifully written article sharing Thich Nhat Hanh’s insights on the art of letting go. Little did I know the power of this gift he had just given me and the transforming journey I was about to start. I had no idea this gesture was about to change not only the way I write, but also the way I live - that it would set me free. But I guess, that’s the power of words - and friendship.

I live to write and I write to live. It’s that simple. Writing and life: these two things are inseparable. No arguments. So, I shouldn’t really be surprised that finding freedom in my writing would transform the way I see the world and how I live. Finding the ‘art of letting go’ when I write has changed me for the better in a noticeable way, and as such my husband, work colleagues and close friends are actually commenting on the difference. And I am feeling that difference, big time.

When I first read Christina Sarich’s article The Art of Letting Go, I really struggled with the concept of detachment but really connected with three of the four forms of detachment described: joy, compassion and gratitude. It has taken me some time to understand the power of the fourth: equanimity.

Joy, compassion and gratitude were easy, they were part of my vocabulary already, they were important to me and part of me. I hold these virtues in my heart, they lead me through life. Equanimity, however, was not as familiar to me. The elements of ‘nondiscrimination’ and ‘even mindedness’ I connected with, but I very much struggled with understanding the concept of ‘detachment’ associated with being equanimous. I am so grateful that this is no longer the case as understanding equanimity has been a critical piece in learning the ‘art of letting go’ and finding freedom in my writing.

I laugh at the irony, that I got so stuck on the very term Sarich’s entire article is about: detachment. And that I struggled because I was finding it difficult to ‘let go’ of my long term understanding of this word. I was finding it hard to move past the fact that what I understood ‘detachment’ to be, was exactly what the article described it wasn’t: ‘a form of aloofness, or emotional disconnect from others’. I was so confused. How could ‘letting go’ mean ‘diving in’? Aren’t they opposites? But more on that later, because I want to point out that working through the things I struggled with in this article, served as a good reminder to me that when making a formative shift in life, the initial struggle we face is a critical part of the journey. Without the struggle, we don’t change. And although those words weren’t written in Sarich’s article, this was its first gift to me, and the first step in changing the way I write.

Embrace the struggle

So, if you are looking to write more freely, my first bit of advice to you would be to make peace with the struggle associated with the story you are working on.

When I write, it starts in my head - long before pen hits paper or my fingers hit the keyboard. Sometimes, like today, I wake up with the words forming in my mind and I have to get up and let them pour out. Other times, I walk around for days, with the story slowly building. Accompanying the ‘slow burn’ internal writing process there used to be a certain level of crankiness. Something my family got used to. They knew to get out of my way because ‘mum was writing in her head again’. And they probably couldn’t wait for it to come out; for the relief and calmness that followed. I also looked forward to the respite. I can’t explain why it was so uncomfortable. Perhaps, it was the fear that the words wouldn’t come out right. Perhaps I was just being impatient. I am not sure, but I do know that once I made peace with the struggle of this internal process, the negative emotions surrounding it disappeared (well, so far in most cases it did - for change takes time and practice).

I found this inner peace by letting go and accepting the struggle as part of the writing process. By finding joy in the struggle, being kind to myself during this process and being grateful for the struggle, trusting it would deliver what it needed, in time. I worked on being equanimous during the struggle: finding calmness and composure even if this part of my writing process felt difficult or uncomfortable. What worked for me was learning to detach myself from the struggle, stop trying to own it, or control it, and just letting it take me where it needed. Trusting the struggle to land where ever it needed to. Seems like Sarich’s article was starting to sink in after all.

Remember the joy

As a young kid, I never placed expectations on my writing. I just wrote with great joy and playfulness. Anything was possible. Rediscovering this joy and playfulness in my writing, has been a big part of learning to write with a free spirit again.

In Sarich’s article she explores the concept of letting go through learning to ‘love more completely’ and explains Master Hanh’s four elements of detachment as the pathway to achieve this. Giving joy and happiness to others is the first. So for me, it was about learning to love my writing more completely, loving it for its imperfections, loving it for what it is. And the first step in achieving this complete love for my writing, was remembering the joy it gives me and noticing how happy it makes me, and through this giving it the freedom to give joy to others too.

So, the second gift from Sarich’s article was Master Hanh’s quote:

‘The first aspect of true love is maitri (metta, in Pali), the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness.’

I always used to say I wrote for me, no one else. I would explain that my writing ‘falls out of my head’, it just needed to come out and that it ‘wasn’t about others’. But what is a piece of writing without a reader? What is a piece of writing that does not think about its audience? As a Communications Manager in a business setting, I always think about the audience. Why wasn’t I doing this with my personal writing? When I used to say, ‘Sure, I write a blog and I write poetry, but it doesn’t matter who reads it, because it isn’t about that.’ I was missing the point. The fact is, people will read it, and regardless of how many people read it, or what people think of it, someone will read it. I realised that even if it is only one person, it is a valid audience. Even if this person is the writer herself, it is a valid audience - when rereading your work, you shift from being the writer and you become the audience.

So from now on, I always start my writing with the intention to offer joy and happiness. Joy and happiness to myself and to others. I embrace my inner child, and remember the joy of writing and allow myself to be playful when I write. That doesn’t mean I can’t write about serious topics or write in a serious way, it means to enjoy what I write, enjoy the process of writing and, just like free-play, to be flexible when I write, embrace change and let go of any rules and expectations.

It is through this that I have become a better friend with my writing and learnt to truly love my writing. Inspired by a poignant quote of Master Hanh’s from Sarich’s article:

‘We have to use language more carefully. ‘Love’ is a beautiful word, we have to restore its meaning. The word ‘maitri’ has roots in the word mitra, which means friend. In Buddhism, the primary meaning of love is friendship.’

So, be a friend to your writing. Truly love your writing. Write with the intent to bring happiness and joy to others, including yourself. Find the ‘maitri’ in your writing.

Show compassion

During this journey of self discovery, I realised how nasty I was being to myself about my writing. How I would put it down and make excuses for it. I would write a piece, share it on my blog and when someone said to me what a great piece it was, I would sometimes say how much I hated that particular piece of writing, or how it was OK but it didn’t say what I really wanted to say. And I would say these things because I believed them to be true. I felt the disappointment, for the writing I had produced, deep in my heart. Ridiculously, I would apologise in advance for my writing before others even had a chance to read them.

My previous blog post was introduced in this way, in my Twitter post: ‘This doesn’t even touch the surface of what I want to say but here it is, a mere wondering about Nietzsche and Eastern thought.’

‘Doesn’t even touch the surface of what I want to say’. Why did I introduce my piece of writing this way? Why did I put it down in the same moment I was sharing it with others? Because it was true, it didn’t touch the surface of what I wanted to say and I was focused on the outcome. I was also frightened people wouldn’t understand it, and that they would see it as a poor piece of writing. Judging my writing is judging me. If my writing is no good, I am no good. I write to live, I live to write. They are inseparable.

Letting go of this fear, showing compassion for yourself as a writer, and showing compassion to your pieces of writing is so important. Learning Master Hanh’s art of letting go, is understanding that after ‘maitri’ comes ‘karuna’ (compassion), which Sarich describes as the ‘next form of detachment’ and beautifully brings to life in the words:

‘The Buddha smiles because he understands why pain and suffering exist, and because he also knows how to transform it.’

I write more freely when I smile with the Buddha.

Be grateful

Sometimes my writing makes me laugh. Sometimes it gives me peace. Sometimes it makes me cry and other times my writing surprises me. I am really grateful for how my writing makes me feel. Whatever the emotion may be. I have also learnt to be grateful for each piece of writing, no matter what it turns out to be. Helping me understand gratefulness in relation to my writing is the third gift from Sarich’s article and came from her words where she explained:

‘In truly letting go you practice gratitude. Mudita, or joy arises when we are overcome with gratitude for all that we have, such that we no longer cling to some other longed-for result.’

I didn’t realise how much I was clinging to a different outcome for pieces of my writing. I wasn’t aware how attached I was to my own definition of what it is to be a writer, until I read these words and let them sink in a little.

As well as finding happiness in whatever I have written, and for the writer I am today, I am also grateful for how my writing makes others feel and for the joy it gives to me and others. I am grateful for the conversations my writing starts and the connections it has given me. I am especially grateful when my writing inspires others to find their inner writer and when they share their stories with me. Stories which then give me great happiness and joy leading to a cycle of sharing and enjoying each other’s creations. It is a delight.

I get the same sense of happiness when reading the pieces of writing my friends write, which are completely independent of me. It is lovely to be part of a community of writers.

Sarich describes the Bhudda’s definition of ‘mudita’, the practice of gratitude, as ‘unselfish joy’ where ‘we don’t only find happiness when something good happens to us, but when others find happiness’.

‘Joy arises when you find happiness even when others find joy–and it has little or nothing to do with you.’

Set your writing free

A conversation some six months ago (although not word for word):

Friend: “I read your latest blog post, I loved it. There was so much in it, I actually printed it out to read it.”

Me: “Really? Oh, I so hate that piece. It just….I don’t know (big sigh). I don’t like it, it wasn’t what I was hoping for. It doesn’t say what I wanted to say.”

Friend: “Well, it’s not yours anymore…”

Wise words. Letting go means it is not yours anymore.

It took me some time to get there. I felt something the moment I heard those words, but didn’t truly understand their sentiment, but thankfully those four words ‘it’s not yours anymore’ kept running over and over in my head after this conversation until they landed and I got it.

Driving to work one day, the things percolating in my head collided. Ideas I had read, Sarich’s article and all its gifts, memories from my life, stories and poems I had written, the recent conversation about my writing and other conversations I had shared all fell into place as I discovered the meaning of the fourth element of letting go: upeksha (equanimity). I was standing on the metaphorical mountain top, the fourth gift from Sarich’s article:

‘Upa means ‘over,’ and iksha means ‘to look.’ You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other.’

From this psychological vantage point - standing under blue skies in the bright sunshine on top of the metaphorical mountain - I had an epiphany. The words I would use to describe the emotions I felt in that exact moment are, ironically, the four elements of letting go. I felt great happiness and joy, I was full of kindness, I was bubbling over with gratefulness and was suspended all of the sudden in a deep sense of calmness.

I felt maitri, karuna, muditi and upeksha as I realised it was these very four elements I needed to apply to my writing, and as I realised equanimity was to become the fourth pillar to guide me in life - alongside the intent to bring joy and happiness to myself and others, to be compassionate and kind to myself and others and to be grateful in the moment.

Writing more freely is about detaching from your writing. That does not mean being cold and distant from it, but truly loving it. Diving in. Letting it go to be whatever it will be to you and to others, in whatever form it is in. Knowing, it is not yours anymore. Not owning it. Not attaching your ego to it.

My writing is not mine to own, any more than my children are. I have birthed them from my body, I have loved and cherished them, I have guided them, but they are their independent selves, they are their own beings. They may have my genes, but they are unique, we do not share the same fingerprints.

Detach from your writing, let it have its own life and purpose. Accept it is what it is, and had to be written. Don’t put your beloved writing in your pocket.

‘We try to put our beloved in our pocket and carry them with us, when they are more like the wind, or a butterfly, or a stream, needing to move and flow, or risk dying. This is not love, this is destruction.’ Christina Sarich, The Art of Letting Go, May 2018.

My favourite piece of writing, which I have loved since I was 19, captures the very essence of not owning the things we love. Sylvia Plath’s beautiful poem, Morning Song, which she wrote after the birth of her first child Freida, expresses it beautifully in the third stanza.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

Rain from inside a cloud form a puddle. The puddle is not the cloud. It exists in its own right for children to playfully dance in, with their gumboots on.

Words from inside my mind form a story. Get your gumboots on!

Communication is so powerful, it can make you sick

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I just had to share a podcast I listened to recently, produced by ABC Radio National.

Placebo Power is part of ABC Radio National's All in the Mind series, exploring exactly what its title suggests. The podcast is a cracker and I loved hearing about the power of the placebo and how it all works. Unexpectedly, it really got me thinking about the power of communication.

Perhaps we take our ability to communicate a little for granted. We communicate, and are communicated to, every day all day. It is intrinsic to everything we do - in fact it is essential to our survival. This is true not just for humans, but for all animals and for plants too. Yes plants - they are quite the talkers.

In 2014, The Scientist published Plant Talk an article confirming 'far from being unresponsive and uncommunicative organisms, plants engage in regular conversation'. Author Dan Cossins covers a number of examples to support this, including one where a group of researchers bagged the leaves and stems of some broad bean plants after they popped some nasty aphids on them. They already knew aphid-infested bean plants release an odour into the air to warn their neighbours of an attack, and these neighbouring plants respond with gusto by releasing an odorous chemical of a different kind to attract aphid-hunting wasps. But what they were trying to find out was if the plants communicate under the soil. And they do.

'...plants can “talk” in several different ways: via airborne chemicals, soluble compounds exchanged by roots and networks of threadlike fungi, and perhaps even ultrasonic sounds. Plants, it seems, have a social life that scientists are just beginning to understand.'

Animals also communicate for survival through a variety of ways: visual displays, noise and sound, through scent, touch and other signals. They communicate to attract mates, scare off predators, warn others of a threat and create group cohesion. As humans are part of the animal kingdom, we too communicate in these ways to achieve all these things.

Humans will go to extreme lengths, and overcome enormous barriers, to communicate. Living with locked-in syndrome Jean-Dominique Bauby communicated with what only those suffering from this condition have available - movement of their eyes. Using this method he wrote a best selling memoir.

The brilliance of Stephen Hawking and what he had to say to the world was made possible through Hawking moving his cheek. Using a computer powered by his wheelchair and an open source program designed by Intel called ACAT, Hawking was able to talk by stopping a cursor running across a keyboard to select a letter by moving his cheek, the movement detected by an infrared switch mounted to his spectacles.

'This switch is my only interface with the computer. ACAT includes a word prediction algorithm provided by SwiftKey, trained on my books and lectures, so I usually only have to type the first couple of characters before I can select the whole word. When I have built up a sentence, I can send it to my speech synthesizer.' Stephen Hawking

I don't know about you, but I find both these stories extraordinary. Hawking was first diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) when he was 21. He was not expected to survive beyond his 25th birthday, and yet he did. He lived to see his 76th birthday in fact. There are many reasons why: he could have had the very rare slow progressing form of the disease, and this combined with the fact that his disease presented when he was young (when it usually hits after the age of 50) could also have contributed to his ability to live with the disease 11 times longer than expected. I can't help wondering though, if his ability to communicate, to contribute to the world and have purpose, also played a part in his longevity.

But let's get back to where this all started - the podcast. Placebo Power got me from the very beginning with a story from Associate Professor Damien Finniss about something that changed the course of his career some 17 years ago, when he was working as a sports physiotherapist treating professional athletes. Prior to a game or training, he would administer ultrasound therapy. One day after treating multiple athletes who all got up after therapy as normal, thanking him, saying they felt better and running off onto the field to play, Finniss realised that for the entire session his ultrasound machine was off. The light was broken, so he hadn't noticed it wasn't plugged in. At the time he was astonished that he 'wasn't actually doing anything' and yet it had the same effect as normal treatment. Now a medical doctor and Associate Professor at the University of Sydney's Pain Management and Research Institute, he understands more than most that on that particular day he was actually doing something, something very important. He was communicating the whole time that he was providing treatment, going through the ritual of treatment and setting an expectation of treatment - tricking the brain and spinal chord into believing the body has had treatment for pain so it releases endorphin-like chemicals and other natural chemicals produced by the body, such as cannabinoids, to counter the pain. This event prompted him to research the power of placebos, the body's reaction and the importance of the context of the situation, particularly the influence of words, gestures and interactions between health care professionals and their patients on the placebo effect.

At this point, less than a minute into the podcast, I was hooked and couldn't stop listening.

The host, Lynne Malcolm, goes on to interview a number of researchers and practitioners. Dr Claire Ashton-James, ‎Senior Lecturer at the Pain Management Research Institute at Sydney Medical School, talks directly about the influence of communication on our perception of pain. She talks about how changing the way we communicate can improve patient care by making procedures less distressing. Among a number of examples, she gives a simple but gorgeous one about telling her daughter that the stinging from a disinfectant applied to her cut or abrasion means the medicine is doing its job, and this helps her daughter feel less fearful of the stinging.

'Mummy, mummy the Dettol is stinging! It's cleaning! It's working!'

Dr Kate Fausee from the University of NSW, is interviewed about the media's influence and role in changing patient outcomes. She shares a story from New Zealand about a drug to treat under-active thyroid conditions. This drug had its binding agent changed but the active ingredients all remained the same. Regardless, people using this drug on a regular basis became concerned because the colour of the pill was different. The media across New Zealand broadcast reports about the drug changing, all running the same interview with a patient who talked about symptoms which came back because the drug had changed. Suddenly, many regular users of this drug complained of symptoms even though the binding agent had nothing to do with the effect of the drug and the drug company couldn't replicate any of these symptoms in thorough testing. This suggested to Fausse that these negative side effects were being caused by negative expectations driven by the media coverage. She mapped the reporting of symptoms correlating a link to the airing of these media interviews.

Intrigued by the power of suggestion on patient outcomes, Fausse took her research further in an experimental study. University students were told they were getting a fast acting beta blocker to reduce their anxiety by lowering their blood pressure and slowing down their heart rate. Subjects were given a sugar pill placebo and then asked to wait in a waiting room with another participant to make sure there were no adverse reactions to the beta blocker and to see if the drug would work. What the university students participating in the study didn't know was that the person they were arranged to sit with in the waiting room wasn't another student participating in the research but was actually an actor hired by the researchers.

When the researchers came in and asked the actor if they had any symptoms sometimes the actor said yes and explained them, sometimes the actor said no. The researchers also asked the actor if they felt the drug working. Sometimes the actor said yes, sometimes no. The findings from this experimental research showed people were influenced by what they heard. They too had symptoms if the actor did. They too thought the drug was not working, if the actor said they didn't feel the drug working. In fact, the students who reported feeling the drug was working (after hearing the actor confirm they too felt the drug was working) actually showed physical signs of the placebo effect - with lower blood pressure and lower heart rates. Yet all they took was a sugar pill.

So in short, not only does communication change how we feel about treatment, it also impacts the effectiveness of treatment.

 Another important take out from this podcast is the fact that we build trust through communication, and that this trust can be eroded in a microsecond. This is important because the health outcomes of a patient is linked to their trust and belief in their doctor,  and in their perception of their doctor's levels of empathy and care. A doctor can communicate in a microsecond, through facial cues, their disbelief or disgust in something and undermine trust previously built up. As humans we are hard wired to pick up the things others don't even know they are communicating. 

Although I have shared a lot of what is in the podcast, there is a fair chunk I haven't covered, so I would highly recommend you take some time out to listen to it. It confirmed for me how much of an important role communication plays in whether or not people feel better or sick, experience pain or no pain, or are fearful of pain or not.

It also reminded me of a time when I worked at BreastScreen Victoria, and research which showed that women were more likely to report feeling pain during their mammogram if the radiographer was perceived to be rude, and uncaring. 

I think we can all agree: communication is powerful and has a direct impact on our wellbeing and whether or not we feel sick or experience pain. So please, be careful what you say.

Gaming: what a brain changer

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Part 3 of 3 from my 2016 MayoInOZ talk 

Games have always been part of our story, part of our cultural learning. 

Vikings, for example, played all sorts of games, some were even like baseball and rugby we play today! They would have been tough rugby opponents for sure! Alongside the Vikings, ancient Egyptians and Chinese all played games similar to the modern game of chess to teach them strategies of war. The Viking game was called Tafl and was often played with an audience. A dangerous game according to one legend, where a Viking Jarl beat his King, and was, of course, ordered to be killed. Not the best career move, that one.

Games are said to be the oldest form of human social interaction. But games acutually predate humans and our culture. In his 1938 book Homo Ludens, Dutch Historian Johan Huizinga says:

Animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing

So true. 

Animals play games as part of their survival. When we watch that wonderful footage on one of those David Attenborough shows of young lion cubs playing, they are practising for when they have to fight to be leader, or kill for food. That swipe with the paw one cub makes on his brother, when playing, is preparing and teaching him to fight. That swipe is what he needs to assert himself when defending his position as pack leader in the future, or to bring down a zebra for food.

Games support cognitive development. Both in animals and humans. Research shared in the Lego Foundation's report The Future of Play, shows the amount of play we engage in, has a direct correlation to the development of our frontal cortex. Our frontal cortex is the part of our brain where we: monitor our behaviour, and the behaviour of others; work out what is relevant and what isn't; learn from mistakes; and exercise divergent thinking. Interestingly, these are all the things we do when playing a game.

When playing physical game, strategic mind games (cards or board games) or online games you have to work out very quickly what you need to do and what the other person is doing - monitoring behaviour. You also have to work out what to take notice of and what to ignore - what is relevant. When you make a mistake and lose, you refine how you play. And to play a game well you have to exercise your divergent thinking. When playing games we exercise our frontal cortex, making it stronger.

The Lego Foundation report also references the research of Marian Diamond from the 1960s. Marian experimented with rats. She put some in an enriched environment with games to play. The results of the experiment was that rats engaged in play were smarter. They had bigger brains and could undertake more complex tasks. This fundamentally changed childhood development practices. From that time on every nursery needed bright walls, with posters and mobiles hanging from the ceiling. Parents and carers were encouraged to play. 

It is no mistake that we play the most when we are younger. That games and play are intrinsic to our youth. There is a direct correlation between play and our brain development. And our brain is undergoing its biggest changes in the most rapid way in early childhood. This is why, at this time, we need to play. 

When we are born our brain has millions of pathways. To make us work more efficiently the brain prunes itself. It strengthens the pathways we use the most and those we don't use become dormant. New ones can also be created. According to the Lego Foundation, games support the pruning process because:

Repetition of sequences and actions in games...strengthen pathways and creates new ones.

For some time people thought the pathways that were not used, died and could not be resurrected, and that new ones could not form. That the brain was rigid. Norman Doidge MD through his book 'The brain that changed itself', has popularised the theory of brain neuroplasticity. The theory that the brain can rewire itself. A read I highly recommend. He shares inspiring stories about things like a guy, Philip, who had his arm amputated after it became useless following injury in a motorbike accident, but suffered terribly from phantom elbow pain in his amputated arm. A neuroplastician, V.S Ramachadran treated him by having Philip place his right arm in a mirror box, tricking the brain to think it is the left. After time the brain rewired itself curing Philip of his pain by altering his view of his body. Amazing. 

Another story in this fascinating book is of stroke victims unable to speak, play a therapeutic card game that incrementally rewires the brain through constraint-induced therapy to overcome learned nonuse. 

So when our brain is developing, games strengthen pathways and creates new ones. And when our brain is rewiring, games do the same - strengthening pathways and creating new ones. This is why games are so well suited to mental and physical rehabilitation. I am so excited to see what ReachOut are doing with their mental health game Orb and what Mira Rehab are doing in the physiotherapy space. And I can't wait to see what the future brings for this space, particularly when you throw augmented reality into the mix.

For all those believers out there, Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law says it all:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Healing has always been magical. 

(This post is the final post sharing an expanded version of my talk at the 2nd International HealthCare and Social Media Summit, Mayo In Oz, in November 2016).