Alphabet therapy

Monday, July 23, 2012

It’s many years since I’ve had to conjure up car games to keep the little ones amused on a trek up north to see my sister. Since most of the miles were on motorway my options were distinctly limited. No pub cricket (you score the number of legs appearing in the pub sign) and very little scope even for i-spy.

Most of the time we were reduced to endless games of I went shopping and I bought…. moving through the alphabet from A (always apples) to Z (always a struggle!)

I only remembered how boring that was when I spotted on a friend’s timeline her A-Z of depressing words - despond, morose, unremitting…you get the idea, and I can’t resist a special mention for ‘nylon’ which sneaks into her list on the grounds that it really is too depressing to leave out.

If only I’d read this 15 years ago how much more fun would those car journeys have been. The A-Z of people/things you’d like to be stuck in a lift with perhaps. Or, in tribute to that ‘nylon’, how about the A-Z of clothes you wouldn’t be seen dead in? An a-z bucket list maybe, or, if you’re feeling ambitious, an a-z of things that have changed your life.

For now, as I sit idling at my laptop, staring out of the window in search of excuses to be distracted, I’ll settle for an A-Z of words that make me feel good.
And hopefully, will make you feel good too:

A is for allow
B is for breathe
C is for compassion (and also chocolate)
D is delight
E is for enthusiasm
F is for faith
G is for glee
H is for heartfelt (or) anything with heart in it
I is for intimate
J is for joy
K is for Kilimanjaro (it’s personal; you’ll have to trust me on this one)
L is for lusciousness
M is for miracle
N is for nibble
O is for original
P is for peace
Q is for quiet (how lovely that they follow each other)
R is for rich
S is for soft
T is for trust
U is for unconditional
V is for violet
W is for wisdom
X is for xxxx (lots of them)
Y is for you 
Z is for zzz (which always makes things seem a little brighter)

Posted by Jane Matthews on 07/23 at 04:59 PM
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Let yourself be seen

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sometimes I fear I use the word ‘authenticity’ too much. It feels as if a lot of what I am doing in the workshops, the coaching, and the writing, is encouraging people to peel back all the layers, one at a time, and see what lies at the heart of us. Minus all the beliefs, the habits, the stuff about how we should live and think and behave, that we’ve absorbed from the world around us, what does an authentic version of you or me look like?

Speaking for myself, I’m not sure I know yet; indeed I have a suspicion this peeling back the layers milarkey is the work of a lifetime. But I have had glimpses, and seen it in others as they sit in a workshop and, for a moment, trust themselves and those of us around them, to tell the truth. About who they are, and what they feel, and how much it sometimes hurts. And then they talk about what they really, really want and they light up with the recognition that that is also true.

Which brings me to the point of this blog, which is to direct you to a film of the academic and author Brene Brown talking about her research into living your best life. (She doesn’t call it that but I think that’s what it amounts to - looking at why some people appear to have a strong sense of worthiness and love and belonging, while others spend all their lives believing they are Not Good Enough.)

Please watch it for yourself, not only because I think what Brene Brown has to say is really useful, but because she’s one of us: flawed, cagey, doubtful, resistent, and very, very funny.

And when you’ve done so you’ll want to think on what her findings mean for you. For it turns out what makes the difference in how we experience our lives is how vulnerable we allow ourselves to be. Instead of hiding who we are, burrowing in under all those layers in the belief that if they ever saw the real us the world would end, we need to do more of what those courageous people I meet through my workshops are doing, and trust ourselves with others.

I hadn’t realised the word courage comes from the French ‘coeur’ - heart - but I love the idea that living with courage is really living wholeheartedly. Pain, pleasure, love, loss, fear, hurt, joy, peace, happiness, connection, and the rest. Allowing that life is all these things and that the opposite of courage or wholeheartedness is to be numb to all of it.

Which is where Brene ends her talk, with the warning that we can’t selectively choose to be alive to the positive parts of live but numb to the negative. “You can’t say here’s the bad stuff: here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these things.

“You can’t numb those without numbing the other emotions. When we numb these we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness…”

Something to consider about on your journey to a more authentic life then: to what extent are you willing to start letting yourself be really seen? To tell the story of who you are with your whole heart?

Posted by Jane Matthews on 06/28 at 07:52 AM
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Regrets? I have a few…

Friday, June 08, 2012

Ah, the power of a stand-out title for your book. How could anyone resist picking up a book called ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying?’. How could I?

Contrary to what you might expect, it’s a genuinely cheerful - and cheering - book and I’m already half in love with its author, Bronnie Ware, whose own life perfectly illustrates what she learned in her role caring for people at the end of their lives. It’s a life that she’s constantly re-assessed and adjusted, like ship’s captains used to do in the days before satnav, setting and resetting the compass in response to changing conditions and their own experience. Only in Bronnie’s case, it’s also been other people’s experiences that have helped her to change course.

And that’s one of the reasons this book is such a positive one. Because unlike the characters we meet in the book,  as readers we still have the chance to adjust the compass as many times as it takes until we can truly say we are finally living a life without regrets.

I’m not talking about past regrets here. There’s a great many things I’ve said, done and not done that I am sorry about, but I can’t change those now. Only learn from them.

Nor am I talking about the obvious stuff any of us would mind if our lives were to unexpectedly end: not being there for our children and their children, unresolved business with loved-ones, not being around to experience the utter joy of one more heady spring morning, one more hour spent alone on the beach listening to the waves, the view from one more mountain top. (Never mind the hour wasted on a pointless episode of Come Dine With Me, or going to bed before I was really tired because it was late and I thought I should.)

The real gift of Bronnie’s book is its reminder to review, review and review again, every day if necessary, the things we do, the decisions we make, the way we choose to live, against the question: if my life were to end tomorrow what would I be kicking myself for?

I’ll leave it to you to read The Top Five Regrets of the Dying for yourself to discover how simple and obvious most of the answers are. Obvious, not hard to implement and yet overlooked by most of us for most of our lives. Another of the reasons I love this book is because it reminds us that it’s we who have made things so complicated. Actually, it’s quite simple when we switch focus to living a life without regrets.

For me, that Big Question produced a set of answers that I can use to refocus – and, in the interests of simplicity I decided to do as Bronnie did and limit myself to five:

1. I would be kicking myself for the unwritten books. Writing is what I do. It’s what I love, and when I feel the most ‘me’. Right now there are at least half a dozen within me, waiting to see the light of day. What am I waiting for? That hour in the company of another set of dubious dinner party hosts is an hour I could have spent on my own creation.

2. I would regret the hours I haven’t spend sitting still in the garden; sitting still in lots of places actually. Most of my adult life I have railed against my busy-ness while continuing to encourage more demands, more speed, more multi-tasking into each day. Some of the busy-ness is important; a great deal of it isn’t. But the only times I can really see which is which are when I stop in order to sit in silence and stillness, breathing, feeling, being.

3. In the same vein, I am guilty of scheduling friends, family and fun around work rather than the other way around. Perhaps I had a little more excuse when I worked for someone else -though not too much I think. No-one but me said I had to be up and answering emails at 6.30am or reading reports at 7pm. No-one but me was responsible for not picking up the phone to friends more often and inviting them over, even though it was A Week Day.

4. I’ve never been a fan of those 100 places to see before you die titles. The world is an immense place and the truth is I’m just as capable of finding awe in the way the sun shining through leaves creates a symphony of dappled light on skin. Still, I have been saying for almost three decades that one day I want to walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End, not so much to see more of the UK but because I want to know if I can, and what three months of my own continuous company would feel like.

5. And finally, if it were to all end tomorrow, I would regret having taken it all so seriously – myself most of all. I love that quote about angels being able to fly because they take themselves lightly. Yes, I’m seriously guilty of mashing metaphors, having started out with a ship’s compass, but it’s amazing how much more clearly you see things when you choose to lift your sights above the clouds.

It will be in that same spirit that I continue to ask myself the regrets question from time to time. You may like to do the same. Not in a heavy, negative way or as an excuse to beat yourself up for getting things wrong, but lightly.

As a reaffirmation of life.

Posted by Jane Matthews on 06/08 at 11:40 AM
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Your one wild and precious life

Thursday, May 31, 2012

I’m just back from Serenity Retreat in Greece, where my workshop on Living your best life took on a life of its own as we found ourselves exploring what brings us alive, what deadens us (and what a powerful concept THAT is), and all the oh-so-familiar ways in which we may keep ourselves stuck in a sort of semi-alive state: fear, having to Be Good, believing we’re not good enough, busyness, and on and on.

One of the joys of this kind of holiday is that it breaks the habit. Away from the ways of thinking and being that most of us adopt to help us function in and cope with day-to-day life, the possibility that things might be different seemed as limitless as the horizon, gazing out to where sea and hills and clouds merged.

The trick is bringing that sense of freedom and potential back into the life of the other 358 days of the year, finding an answer to poet Mary Oliver’s huge question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

One way is perhaps by making a new habit of asking ourselves a few simple questions from time to time:

Who are the people who bring me alive?

What are the places that bring me alive?

What are the occupations or pastimes that bring me alive?

And finally, what do I love?

...And then, of course, making sure they are at least a part of your Every Day.

You’ll find more musings on Serenity Retreat, life, the sea, and everything, in this moving post - and poem - by @exmoorjane

Posted by Jane Matthews on 05/31 at 08:50 AM
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On watching another world go by

Monday, March 19, 2012

Let me start by saying I am ambivalent about zoos. I hate to see animals in cages. And yet, and yet… I think they may have a role to play in introducing people who may never stir much beyond their own backyard to the sheer amazingness of the natural world. And if that means those same people will eventually join the fight to preserve its brilliance then maybe it’s OK: the greater good and all that.

Howletts Zoo in Kent is a little bit different. Its wildlife may still be behind bars but the only reason visitors are allowed in at all I suspect is to provide the funds for a breeding programme that aims to preserve species on the critical list and repopulate some of the places in the world where future generations will otherwise never see them.

If you’re interested check out the Aspinall Foundation’s website to read why the gorilla breeding programme is so crucial. Between 1996-2006 51 gorillas have been reintroduced to reserves in Congo and Gabon and there have been 18 births from those gorilla families. Small numbers in the face of devastating losses to disease, poaching and encroachment but spend a day in the company of these wonderful creatures and you will understand why it matters.

Out of Africa
It always did matter to me, ever since I travelled through Africa and had the chance to see its amazing wildlife in its own environment. I can tell you, a giraffe may look out of place and ungainly in the confines of a UK zoo. On the African plains its spots are the same ochre as the earth and it is scaled to match the wide open spaces. I came home and read Gorillas in the Mist and began to despise the filmmakers who have turned such intelligent, gentle and fascinating creatures into objects of fear or derision.

But it matters even more since my sister and I took ourselves, two chairs, a picnic and a rug down to Howletts to spend a day in the company of the gorillas.

I’ve never ‘done’ a zoo like that before. Actually, I’ve never done an art gallery or a museum or anything else that way either. My usual style in museums, galleries and zoos is the same as my style in life:  pile in and try to see and do as much as I can.

But the relief on this gorilla-watching experdition of giving ourselves permission not to Do It All! Of just stopping in one place and immersing ourselves in the way these magnificent creatures live, eat, forrage, communicate, play, fight, and yes, even love.

It was a revelation to me that I could get so much more out of doing so much less. One I wanted to share with you, and remind myself of by writing this blog post.

Try it sometime: just stopping still and watching our wonderful world unfold. Ask yourself - as I intend to do a little more often now - are there areas in my life where I could learn more by just sitting still and doing nothing?

Believe me, there’s real freedom in that.

Posted by Jane Matthews on 03/19 at 04:31 PM
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How to mind your mind

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Understanding that it is our thoughts that create our reality, that we can think ourselves happy and at peace or think ourselves misunderstood and miserable, is one of those turning points in life. As Louise Hay says in the book that was my turning point, You can heal your life, once you understand that it’s only a thought, and thoughts can be changed, you are taking back the power to shape your own life.

You can choose to think rain puts a damper on the day or tug on your wellies and go out and enjoy that wet dusty smell that means the vegetables will swell and there will be cool water coming out of the tap on a hot summer’s day.

You can choose to think of life’s challenges as proof that you were born unlucky, or see every setback as a chance to learn a little more about yourself (and yes, it’s OK sometimes if the first reaction is to groan ‘oh no, not another learning opportunity’).

Thinking or being thought?
For most of us, however, it’s a turning point onto a path that has as many kinks and twists in it as the headphones on my MP3.

I’ve been using affirmations for almost a decade and I love the way choosing my own thoughts can bring me peace, help me stand a little taller, or let go of difficult situations (‘all is well’). But I also know there are just as many times in a day when my mind switches to automatic, replaying the thoughts I grew up hearing: it’s not safe, it’s not fair, there’s not enough.

Or when it clicks from automatic into overdrive – usually in the middle of the night – and suddenly I am terrorising myself with thoughts of failure, not being good enough, bad things happening to those I love…and on and on, out of control.

If there’s one question I am asked more often than almost any other in workshops it’s how to change the soundtrack, not just once but over and over again, each time we wake to a new day, and throughout all the hours of that day.

A guide to the power of the mind
I’m not sure the title of Barbara Berger’s book, The Awakening Human Being: a guide to the power of the mind, does justice to its simple brilliance. ‘How to think yourself happy’ might have been a more compelling title for a book that clearly answers precisely that question I’m always being asked: how do we change our thoughts?

Barbara’s aim is, first, to unpick the way our minds work, then to offer a range of simple and practical tools to help readers direct their thoughts towards a life of happiness – and to being present in life right here, right now.

Among the most powerful tools she shares is the technique of experiencing peace in every moment through staying detached. It’s a technique described by Byron Katie in the inspirationally titled Loving what is.  But in Barbara’s hands what it means to practice acceptance and non-attachment is brought home more clearly than anything else I have yet come across.

‘What happens if we drop our thoughts about the meaning of what’s going on?’ she asks, then describes how it works in her own life. ‘The first thing I always notice is that it suddenly gets very peaceful and quiet. There is this moment with whatever is going on. And I’m just in it or I am just it! For example, this moment right now, just me sitting in front of my computer…or this moment drinking a cup of tea. Or brushing my teeth…That’s about it. Life is right before me. Plain and simple. And it’s very simple.

‘Usually we don’t see this because we’re so busy living our interpretation of what’s going on…Your experience is your interpretation of what’s going on…it is our identification with our thoughts that makes us suffer.’

Beyond absence of thought there are all those thoughts and beliefs, all those interpretations, which don’t support our growth or peace of mind, and here too Barbara draws from Byron Katie’s work to replay three of the most powerful words any of us committed to choosing a new soundtrack can use: is it true?

Well, is it true I’m not good enough, is it true there is not enough time, or money, or that I am not deserving? Or any of the other beliefs that have often led me to behave in ways that prevent me loving myself, believing in my dreams, finding peace in life?

Barbara takes us through some of her own demons, demonstrating how challenging a thought such as ‘life doesn’t support me’  can be turned around into the realisation that not only is it not true, but that thinking the thought leads her to feel stressed and scared; whereas allowing the possibility that life does support her makes her feel good. Her conclusion – that it’s not life but her own thinking that’s not supporting her – is something we could all do with engraving on our walls!

I love Barbara’s personal and compassionate tone, and the careful way in which she explains and reinforces all the learning brings the book as close to actually being in one of her workshop as it’s possible to be in print.

But most of all I love the way her book brought me back again and again to the simple truth that as we mind our minds we experience for ourselves the Buddha’s truth that ‘It is your mind that creates this world’.

Choose well.

The Awakening Human Being by Barbara Berger with Tim Ray, o-books 2011

Find it on Amazon

Posted by Jane Matthews on 03/01 at 04:18 PM
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