Letting children be

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“If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.” – C.G. Jung

Despite having half a dozen children, I’ve never felt that I was a naturally, nurturing “earth mother” kind of parent. Maybe this is partly as a result of the sheer overwhelmingly complex logistics of managing such a large tribe, or maybe  I tend to have an approach that’s more pragmatic than most. My children are certainly the most important thing to me in life – but I feel that my job as a mother is more along the lines of allowing them to become themselves, to gently allow them to develop emotional and physical resilience rather than to protect them from life’s inevitable peaks and troughs.

Of course parenting is one of lifes greatest experiments – since none of us are experts, we are all learning on the job so to speak and for me at least, there’s always been a vague underlying concern at my sometimes unorthodox and frequently somewhat chaotic attempts.

Much of the unease comes from a feeling that things should be done in a certain way –   with an emphasis on academic performance, highly tuned social skills, – and of course children with perfectly coiffed locks, who arrive at school on time every day without the marmite stained faces of my small urchins.  In my household this seems a complete impossibility  – something which has sometimes secretly led me to doubt that my  children will ever “succeed” in the conventional sense. The nagging concern beneath this is  that their failure will have been as a direct result of my inability to coax, control, cajole or bribe them into submission.

It’s been an extremely welcome surprise, as the older members of the family begin to leave school, to notice that at some point along the line, they’ve made their own decision to become – for the most part –  responsible, hard working, interesting and likeable. There have been plenty of moments when I’ve been pretty sure that one or other has been destined for a life as an unemployable and irresponsible hooligan  and in these moments I’ve often made some kind of frustrated and angry attempt to take control, only to find that this kind of aggressive assertiveness is bandied straight back at me by the enraged teenager and we enter some kind of escalating friction filled war zone, where all communication breaks down.

Pretty soon in my career as a mother, it became obvious that this kind of approach didn’t work for my children – that they were very much their own people and that the most respectful and effective way to look after them was to allow them to be themselves – putting forward a scaffolding of boundaries, values and integrity and then to a large extent letting them find their own way. Letting go of the part of me that wanted to say that I knew best and instead making some kind of attempt to lead by example has been liberating for us all. It’s a lesson in curiosity, in the realisation that diversity is a good thing – that our way is not necessarily the only or the best way – and that even if we are “right” we can’t and shouldn’t force our view of rightness onto other people – even our own children.

It’s something I still struggle with – but I’m beginning to notice that dropping the expectations that your children should be a certain way – whether it be sporty, sociable, kind, mild, hard working or whatever –  and replacing it with kind curiosity about how they actually are, is worth doing.

Trust is a big part of this – trust that things will work out in the end regardless of my attempts at control – and more importantly trust in my children that they will find their own way and that in doing so they’ll gain the confidence to carve their own  future.

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The B&Q Man


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She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

Millais’s “Mariana” inspired by word from Tennyson’s poem

Having spent a wonderful and very moving evening singing Mozart’s Requiem with Camerata Chamber Choir last weekend, I’ve been reminded about the power of music and art to stimulate an emotional response.

I’ve certainly struggled with feelings in the past. Battled to feel them, to recognise them, to realise their importance. I’ve often felt life would be easier without them – and tried to create that experience much to my long term detriment.

Psychologists call the avoidance of thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations and other internal experiences  “experiential avoidance”. It works something like this:

Imagine you have a splinter of glass in your finger – deep inside, close to a nerve. Every time this shard is touched, even gently, it hurts. Really hurts.

You have two choices:

You might choose to look at your situation and avoid anything that gets near to the glass – maybe you walk around with the finger covered up. It’s mildly inconvenient – it stops you playing the piano, but you feel better most of the time. Now and then the finger will accidentally be knocked – so maybe the next step would be to build a protective box around it. For a while, life is wonderful – no more pain and you’re only mildly limited by its presence. After a couple of months you are offered a fantastic new job – but a few weeks down the line you realise that when you sit at your desk the protective device is getting in the way of your computer screen so you set about building a new, more flexible covering…….

The truth is that before you know it, the glass in your finger is controlling your whole life – affecting where you go,who you spend your time with. Your energy and time is focused on producing new strategies to prevent it being touched.

This is how we normally deal the threat of inner disturbance – by protecting ourselves. In the case of feelings this often involves avoidance, distraction, procrastination, trying to change our thoughts, maybe numbing with food or alcohol. In short doing anything to make ourselves feel OK again – or to avoid the possibility of an unpleasant emotional state being triggered.

Many of these behaviours do make us feel temporarily better – but once the “fix” ends we’re often actually worse off than we were before – the discomfort returns together with the negative feelings associated with whatever we used to avoid the pain in the first place. So we set out searching for the elusive “happiness”all over again – convinced that if we uncover the magic key and we will never again need to feel the unpleasant sensations we’ve been fleeing from.

In life, option one works something like this:

You modify life in order to avoid experiencing feelings that are uncomfortable. If you fear being hurt, you must avoid closeness with other people, you must control those around you in order to make sure they behave in ways that you are comfortable with. You may find yourself alone and lonely as a result and the next step will be to avoid this loneliness – maybe you will look for the perfect partner – one who never triggers the uncomfortable feelings of insecurity – but before you know it, a new fear arises – a fear of being abandoned. This isn’t such a great experience either – so you cling tighter – or push your partner away to avoid the new unpleasantness. Eventually the original problem is buried under layers of “coping” behaviours and your life becomes limited by the very protective mechanisms that you thought were securing your equanimity.

The irony is that chasing happiness in this way not only leads to more and more unhappiness, it also leaves the root of the discomfort firmly in place within your mind, ready to be triggered again at some point further down the line. The search for freedom by avoidance tends to result in us residing in a prison of our own making, struggling to maintain a comfort zone in an uncontrollable and unpredictable world.

Fortunately – there’s an option two:

Just as you realise that you’re not the inner voice, it’s also possible to realise that you are not your feelings – you are not the pain and anxiety that threaten to overwhelm you at times. You’re  the observer. The watcher.

It’s simple really – to remove the shard that started all this in the first place, you  leave the piece of glass alone rather than constantly fiddling and pushing it deeper – it will then work its way out in its own time.

It maybe counterintuitive and takes some courage, but it is quite possible to sit with feelings – to look at how they affect your body, without pushing them away or getting wrapped up in their story and attaching to them. It gets easier with practice – and once you’ve learnt to allow the negative feelings to just be, they quite simply lose their potency. When you begin to trust your ability to experience feelings in this neutral way, you realise that they can’t hurt you.

Ironically very often the search for freedom and happiness often results in a pyschological trap – the more we strive, the more they evade us.

It becomes  possible to live without avoidance – to let go of the need to control your environment and to experience true freedom.

I love this poem – it’s pinned on a scrappy piece of paper to my fridge as a reminder when I wake up feeling less than elated:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi,

And if you’re wondering about the title of this post – try getting someone in the next room to read the first couple of lines to you… my 7 year olds rendition resulted in baffled teenagers wandering around outside looking for the delivery van.

Riding the waves

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Almost twenty years ago, I and a handful of other dubiously titled  “mature students” had the equally dubious privilege of completing the first two years of the Vet course in a single year.

After a relaxing spell as a Zoology student, followed by “work” as a  marine biologist in Bermuda, I found myself back in a cold, rainy city, faced with  the seemingly impossible task of passing two years worth of professional exams in a single sitting without having attended the lectures. Life was further complicated by my discomfort  and hidden insecurity at being surrounded by straight A science students – most of whom were incredulous that someone who’d started studying English, before giving Philosophy a try and finally settling on Zoology, had even been accepted onto the course….

For the first time in life thus far I actually doubted my ability to cope – I felt out of control and on the verge of admitting defeat. I could feel myself getting caught in a spiralling whirlwind of anxiety and out of control thought – and actually starting to question my sanity. With panic rising I phoned my father who somehow within the space of a couple of minutes introduced me to a life changing concept:

“You are not the voice of the mind – you are the one that hears.”

It’s an incredibly simple idea – inside our heads there’s a constant mental dialogue that never stops – a chattering chorus of monkeys commenting on everything, disturbing everything you’re doing. If you step back from the voice and watch it objectively you will see that most of what the voice says is meaningless. The truth is that most of life will unfold in accordance with forces outside your control regardless of what your mind says about it.

It’s an interesting experiment to spend a day observing the mental voice: if you watch carefully you’ll see that when there’s a build up of nervous energy, fear or anxiety, the voice becomes really active. It also acts as a narrator describing and defining your experience, judging and labelling – processing your current experiences in the context of your views about the past and expectations about the future. It helps to create a semblance of control allowing you to buffer the experience of reality as it comes in. Reality is too real for most of us and so we use the voice inside as a protection mechanism, a form of defence to make ourselves feel secure.

What I came to notice – quite suddenly, was that there were two quite distinct experiences going on in my head: the mad woman who had taken up residence and was busy telling me I couldn’t cope – and the quiet one inside who noticed the voice talking. What my father taught me was that I could choose to disengage from the melodrama being acted out by my crazy roommate – that I could simply notice the conversation without getting caught up in it – and in doing so it became clear that  even in times of extreme stress, I was able to become the quiet observer of my predicament and in doing so I could objectively watch my problems rather than getting lost in them.

In my state of crisis I was so lost in the energy of the problem that no solution could possibly exist – only once I’d realised this and objectively watched the situation rather than getting caught up in it was I clear enough to deal with what was left.

It’s not really that complicated – most of the things that we identify with as “problems” are simply fleeting thoughts and emotions, past experiences and our reactions to them. They make compelling viewing – so much so that much of the time you get sucked into the experience and are never aware of being separate from the web of intrigue and drama created by the mind – before you know it you’re believing its spin  – you’re taken over. Scary as it sounds, most of the time this is our predicament in life.

Real freedom isn’t the avoidance of suffering, it’s the ability to ride the waves of life as the conscious observer – constantly remembering that you’re the one inside that notices the voice talking……

Photo courtesy of Paul Blackley and Chris Mannion from ISurf

The media famine experiment

Patience - polo pony resting

Patience – polo pony resting

We have had a quiet, still Autumnal morning in my household – one that wasn’t punctuated by the familiar background chatter of computer noise. It was a brave move on my part to break the morning routine which usually allows the small people of my house to scamper quietly downstairs and plug themselves into the electronic drug of their choice. Brave because those few golden morning minutes spent warm and still under the duvet seem like a haven of calm before the launch of the day.

The incentive for this new rule was the realisation that all of us – and in particular my two children on the autistic spectrum, function so much better in a quiet and ordered environment – it’s a tall order indeed in a family with six children, but the new system, which means that all homework and chores need to be done before any screen time, has had remarkable results already with homework completed without the usual battle, one child having taken himself on an early morning cycle and the car cleared of the beach detritus from the previous evening’s revelry. The day’s tasks were written clearly on the kitchen blackboard and followed without a squeak of protest.

Let’s hope my resolve continues after a late night and a couple of glasses of wine…..

Inviting discomfort

My mornings so often begin with running – it eases the body into the rhythm of the day, takes the edge of the energy of the dog and provides some grounding in the world – a feeling of being in touch with the raw outdoors.

This week was no exception – although the steepish Isle of Wight downland hills were exchanged for the decidedly mountainous Dorset Coastal Path – some of which was almost frightening to walk down let alone run up.

Running – together with many of my other passions, brings with it pain and discomfort at times – and with that a lesson in tolerance, the realisation that these feelings are transitory. It’s always tempting to avoid anything experienced as unpleasant – whether it be emotion, physical stress or just boredom, mundanity. To avoid is to miss the essential wisdom that suffering is part of life – and that to reach real contentment the secret lies in learning to accept and live through all experience – pleasant or unpleasant in order to cultivate real equanimity which is regardless of external circumstance.

A happy, incredibly messy and as always very inspiring, few days were spent in Clare Trenchard’s studio, battling with the art of sculpting in plaster. The lovely Clare welded my armature this time – but the next challenge is an arc welding day course, after which I will be let loose on larger creations.. I’m secretly hankering after a life size Highland Cow ….

Standing lurcher - work in progress

Standing lurcher – work in progress