Confronting Challenges with Resilience

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My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present.
Steve Goodier

In the gratitude and generosity journal that I am writing at the moment, Navigating Change with Gratitude and Generosity, I have created a template to make it easier for my readers to incorporate gratitude and generosity into their lives. With “generosity,” I am referring to small acts of kindness rather than to huge donations to charity. Time, acceptance and attention can be as precious a gift as mountains of money.

My template, of course, includes a picture and a short description of the day’s inspiring stallion, gelding mare or foal. One of the prompts concerns the challenge(s) the reader faces that day. It looks like this:

Biggest Challenge Today – Name the biggest challenge that you are dealing with today and note what you are learning from this challenge.

Yesterday, I came across a very good article on the Mindful.org website, about how to cultivate resources for resilience. Resilience seems to be the buzzword of the moment. No one has enough of it, everyone wants to know how to develop more so as to cope more effectively with the challenges that come their way. I tend to agree, the more resources we have, and the better these resources are developed, the more resilient we will be.

Becoming more resilient is not difficult. One way to do so is to use what we have learned from experience to increase or develop our current resources. In his new book, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakeable Core of Calm, Strength and Happiness, Rick Hanson, the writer of the article mentioned above, talks about how to turn passing experiences into lasting inner resources. This makes a lot of sense to me and that is why I have added this “Biggest Challenge Today” prompt to my journal. We all have to face challenges, often daily, but do we actually learn everything there is to learn from each challenge, whether we succeed in dealing with it or not? Especially if we do not manage to handle a crisis well (it happens,) there is potentially a lot to be learned from the experience. Instead of trying to forget our mistakes or failures as soon as we can, we could look at the experience in more detail, to see what resources we can gain or develop further to help us be more resilient when the next challenge comes along.

Confronting our challenges, big or small, can help us identify resources that we can acquire or develop further to make ourselves more resilient.

Take patience, for example. Many of the challenges I have to cope with involve a lot of sitting around and waiting. Or it would have, had I not decided to develop my patience resource further. I can wait, patiently, if I have to. I live with 5 great role models who show up every evening an hour or two before feeding time and then wait around patiently and more or less passively until 6 o’clock for their evening hay to arrive. But I have too much to do, I do not have time to sit around patiently. So, I decided to try to wait actively instead of passively. I can make a gratitude list while I wait for my turn to pay in the supermarket. I can write a blog post in my head while waiting in traffic. I can practice mindfulness while I wait for a friend in a restaurant. I can wait actively and productively. These days, whenever I wait, the temptation to grab my phone for mindless entertainment online is nearly irresistible. I try not to do that anymore. If I do use my phone while I wait, it is to send a message or make a phone call.

The list of resources that we can use to make ourselves more resilient is long: compassion, kindness, patience, perseverance, gratitude, awareness, understanding, insight, generosity, confidence, courage, knowledge, assertiveness, the ability to forgive, to let go of resentment…Looking back at an experience you can ask yourself, “Would it have helped if I had been more patient, more determined, more generous, more confident etc? Or you can look towards a challenge that you have to cope with deciding to be more patient, more determined, more generous, more confident etc.

Self-confidence is a resource that can make you much more resilient. My book Self-Confidence made Simple: 16 French Women’s Confidence Secrets introduces its readers to a variety of confidence-building techniques.

Self-awareness, being mindful of yourself, is just as useful a resource as self-confidence, if not more so. In my book Mindfulness and Meditation Options, you can find out how to become more mindful, with the help of 5 mindfulness masters, my horses.

The most effective way to put mindfulness into practice and significantly increase your self-confidence would be to attend one of my Connect with Horses Personal Empowerment workshops here in the south of France. Consider yourself to have been personally invited.

 

If you read both these books and found inside one or more ways to make your life easier, it would be great. Even greater would be if you enjoyed the stories about my French friends in Self-confidence made Simple and about my horses in Mindfulness and Meditation Options.

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Travelling with a bag full of boisterous emotions

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“Travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
Cesare Pavese

It is always the same, every year. For some reason or another, I am incapable, as other people are so effortlessly, to disconnect from the life I leave behind when I travel. When I leave those I love behind in the northern winter cold to go and visit those I love under a southern sun, I have to divide myself in two. Part of me stays with those I love in the north and part of me is present with those I love in the south. Luckily, this does not stop me from fully engaging with life and everything it has to offer wherever I am going, but I do find myself lugging around a heavy bag full of contradictory emotions that has, over the years, become a characteristic part of this journey for me.

Gratitude

The most prominent and present emotion when I travel is always gratitude. I am grateful that I can once again make this annual pilgrimage, that I am well enough to travel, that I can still see enough to find my own way and feast my eyes on the never-diminishing beauty of this sweet and savage land. I am also sincerely grateful that modern technology allows me to stay in contact with those I leave behind.

Wonder

It is a long journey, nearly 24 hours door to door. It feels much shorter because what I see, hear and feel fills me with wonder. I have been making this journey for four decades. I am still amazed, as always and yet again, by the onslaught on my senses of riotous colours, violent sounds, disturbing sensations and unsubtle smells. Often, I have to stop, stand and stare to make sense of what I see. To take stock, to re-orientate myself, with so many people around me, all jostling to get to wherever they are in such a hurry to get to. So alarmingly different from the peaceful and familiar countryside I have left behind.

Fear

When I travel on my own, as I did this time, I feel uncertain. I no longer see well enough to take for granted that I will find my way. People are generally helpful, they answer my questions and help me down steps, but not always. Sometimes they get impatient, sometimes they think I must be mentally retarded not to be able to see what is right before my eyes. Then I long for the safety of my own home, for the guidance of those who know my limitations. I miss my friends, their reassuring presence, suddenly so very noticeable in its absence.

Anticipation

I look forward to going on this journey, I look forward to coming back home.  To see my family again, to sit outside in the sultry evening air and talk about everything of importance and of nothing that matters. To sleep for hours uninterrupted at night and even during the afternoon, something I never do at home. To be loved unconditionally, to be accepted without reserve. To be understood, without having to explain. To hug and be hugged, as often as it feels necessary. At the end of my visit, I look forward to coming home, to be with the horses again, to horse hugs.

Sadness

Every goodbye saddens me. Saying goodbye to those I leave behind at the start of my journey, saying goodbye to those I leave behind at the end of it.

My Coping Strategy

When all these feelings threaten to overwhelm me, I find somewhere to sit down and catch my breath. Literally. For a few moments, I concentrate on breathing only. Breathing in, breathing out. The sensation of air flowing into my lungs, the release as the air escapes again. I am aware of my emotions, but I do not interact with them. I acknowledge their existence and I name them: “This is Fear,” “This is Anticipation,” “Insecurity,” “Sadness,” and “Joy.” My emotions do not own me, I own my emotions. I can, therefore, decide to be mindful only of what I am grateful for and to let the other emotions go.

Mindfulness anchors me in each moment of this journey, in the good moments as well as in the bad moments. It helps me to hold onto every second, experience it fully, whether it makes me happy or sad. Mindfulness enables me to acknowledge the contradictory emotions in my bag, without having to react to them, without allowing them to interfere with my enjoyment of the current moment.

To travel is to change and coping with change is not always easy. Many of my friends are distressed by the Brexit threat and are lugging around bags full of riotously contradictory emotions themselves. I want to help, so I thought I would share my coping strategy with them, as a gratitude and generosity journal. At the moment the working title is “Navigating Change with Gratitude and Generosity.” I have written 14 000 words so far. There is still a long way to go, not least trying to figure out how one publishes a book with pictures in it – of horses, of course! I’ll keep you posted.

“The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”
Alain de Botton

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You can be happy too

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One of the most coveted items on my bucket list has always been a visit to the annual Feira Nacional do Cavalo in Golegà, in central Portugal. A couple of months ago, I developed a condition that put the limited sight I have left in my one good eye at risk. I decided that I wanted to go to Golegà while I could still see. Since then, the danger has been averted or has at least been postponed, but we had already booked our trip. So here we are in Minde, less than 20 minutes’ drive from Golegà, the Portuguese “Capital of the Horse.”

Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, Golegà

It is still too early for breakfast, so I have time to write a few words. I originally started writing as a daily exercise in mindfulness. Initially, I wrote morning pages, but I needed a bit of motivation to do so daily, so I started a gratitude diary. Little did I realise how much happier this simple (and often very short) exercise would make me.

Whenever I now start to work with a client, this is the very first exercise we do. I have found this exercise of enormous use with every client I have worked with. It continues to enrich my life in ways I never expected when I started. It has evolved over time, nearly beyond recognition. It is no longer just a question of listing 10 things I am grateful for every morning and evening, as is recommended in most self-help books about gratitude.

It has become a full mindfulness meditation, often only lasting 5 minutes. Sometimes longer, it all depends on what I have to cope with at the time.

Nearly every self-respecting self-help author I know has written about the benefits of making time in our busy schedules to feel grateful for our many blessings. Even in difficult times. There exists an abundance of literature on the subject so I won’t go into detail about it here. In summary, being grateful attracts more to be grateful about. The more you have to be grateful about, the happier you are. It’s no secret that mindfully being aware of what you have to be grateful for promotes health and healing. Being grateful causes biochemical changes in your body that increase your energy levels, enhance your immune system, balance your hormones and reduce stress. I have found this to be true in my own life, it is one of the most powerful stress management strategies I know. I can not recommend it highly enough, even if you just start by listing 10 things you are grateful for every morning, without writing anything down.

Writing down what you are grateful for does make the exercise substantially more powerful. Some days are so challenging that I can barely manage to list 10 things in my diary, but most days I manage to write a paragraph or two as a mindfulness meditation. It moves my focus from what is troubling me to what makes me happy.

Turning a simple gratitude list into an exercise in writing mindfully is easy. I will explain what I do during my morning (and evening) mindfulness practice below. I don’t do it every morning and every evening, life sometimes gets in the way. Occasionally I have skipped a few days. Soon I feel off-kilter, I start catastrophising and life generally becomes unbearable. So back to my gratitude diary I go, now the tangible proof of what I have survived over the last few years and proof of how much better I cope when I stick to this practice.

This is what I do:

Anchoring

First, I use my 5 senses to anchor myself in the moment.
What do I see? Four black cats in strategic positions on the bed, fast asleep on top of the duvet, making it impossible for me to move without causing serious discontent.
What do I hear? The horses calling to each other: “Is it time for breakfast yet? No? Bass, could you give us a shout when she appears? Service here leaves a lot to be desired…”
What do I smell? Freshly brewed coffee, the aroma of pure bliss.
What do I taste? As above.
What do I feel? Wide awake, no doubt due to my excessive caffeine consumption.

My new hat, my 4th cup of Portuguese coffee yesterday and my sunglasses. “There is a place where friendships start with a great cup of coffee.”

Breathing

Next, I do some “square breathing.” I breathe in, to the count of 8, hold my breath for 8 counts, breathe out for 8 counts and then wait for 8 counts before I breathe in again. This very effective breathing exercise calms my body as it calms my mind, allowing me to concentrate fully on the task at hand.

Short Listing

I usually start the exercise by making a quick list: I dot down 10 things that I am grateful for this morning/evening:

Portuguese coffee. The thoughtfulness of our Portuguese hostess, supplying us with coffee making facilities. The book I read till way past midnight last night. A warm comfortable bed in a warm, comfortable room. The extensive Portuguese breakfast I have to look forward to, flavoured by tales of local folklore and accompanied by more (absolutely excellent) coffee. Yesterday at Golegà, my dream of attending this exceptional event finally coming true. My mobile phone, allowing me to stay in contact with my friends and family (and adopted family, you know who you are.) Our much-appreciated friend who is looking after the cats and horses at home – I really must buy her some of this remarkable coffee. Today at Golegà, the opportunity to see the presentation of the Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre this evening at 22h. Sharing this experience with my husband, who agrees that the coffee here is outstanding.

Adding a Paragraph

I then choose one item and I write a couple of paragraphs about why it makes me feel grateful. The easiest way to do this is to write a little story about it. Everyone loves stories, it is a great way to keep a diary. I often write about a friendship that I am especially thankful for. I usually start like this: ” I am so grateful to have a friend like X. He/she makes my life much easier. Just the other day, he/she helped me by…” More often than not, I am inspired to do something later to show my appreciation, thus putting gratefulness into action, further enhancing its power. I might buy a small gift: some dark chocolate, liquorice or shortbread biscuits. Or I might just send a quick email or text a short message.

Coping with Difficulties

If you have difficulty finding something to be thankful for, try focusing on the present moment. What are you grateful about right now? As you have probably gathered, I love the aroma and taste of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, so if I can not think of anything else, this is the first thing that goes on my list. In the evening I have a cup of soup, mushroom, courgette, tomato and seasonally, power pumpkin. One of my dearest friends makes this soup, so the soup and her generosity go on the list. On my list, the things that I can still see often feature prominently. The horses meditating in the morning mist. Autumn colours. The buttons on the espresso machine.

Why don’t you give it a try? Writing about gratitude as an exercise in mindfulness meditation might change your life too. It might make you happier too.

I am going to get up now. Golegà awaits and in any case, I need another cup of coffee.

Golegà, a great place to make new friends.

Gratitude is not enough.

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I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that I am going to say, “Gratitude is not enough, it should manifest itself as Generosity if it is to result in a state of Grace.” I have, indeed, said this many times before and I continue to believe it wholeheartedly, but I have learned in 2017 that gratitude and generosity still are not enough.

It has been a difficult year. Pain has been my constant companion for nine months of this year. It started on the 4th of April, the day after I had attended my annual check-up at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, where the professor assured me that all was well with both my eyes. Less than 24 hours later the pain started in my left eye.

I have had corneal transplants twice in the past, thanks to two generous donors to whom I am profoundly grateful. Usually, a corneal transplant lasts for ten years and my current transplant was already more than twenty years old. I knew it would have to be replaced sooner or later, but as the two previous operations were painful experiences that I prefer not to dwell on, I had hoped that it would be later, much, much later, before I would need to undergo this operation again. As a cornea gets older, it gets thinner and thinner and mine was so thin now that I developed one corneal ulcer after another, on a background of continuous keratitis. Which basically means that I was never entirely pain-free, although the pain would increase and decrease depending on whether an ulcer was developing or healing.

Life, of course, went on, with all its demands and dramas. I was afraid to have the necessary surgery, so I kept hoping that the problem would go away of its own accord, as you do. This did not happen and by June I was desperate enough to go and see an ophthalmologist, recommended to me by a friend who is an optician. Not surprisingly, he confirmed that I needed a transplant and referred me to a specialist centre, two hours’ drive from where we live, for the operation. It took another 5 months, during which I had an urgent operation on my right eye before everything was in readiness for the transplant.

Even now, two weeks after the transplant, due to post-operative complications, I am not yet pain-free. One lives in hope.

I coped with these nine months by practising what I preach. I made a list every morning and every evening of what I have to be grateful for that particular day. My list was always long and this kept me going, one day at a time. During the day, I spent as much time as I could living in the present moment, being mindful of the gift of that moment: a mind-blowingly beautiful sunset, the laughter of friends, the taste of my first cup of coffee of the day, the inquiring whinny of one of the horses near my bedroom window, the luxurious feel of the summer sun on my skin…and I translated this gratitude into generosity, by focusing on what my friends and family needed and helping where I could. My main coping strategy was: “The busier I am helping others, the less time I have to focus on my own problems.”

There were many difficult times though, of course, there were. Times of uncertainty when I did not know how much longer it would be before I would be able to undergo the transplant. Times of apprehension, when I worried about the operation itself, whether it would be successful or not. Fearful times, while I was afraid that this operation would be as painful as the previous operations. Times of despair, when my coping strategy made the pain worse. Times of intense frustration, when the transplant had to be delayed as I developed glaucoma that needed to be treated urgently. Eventually, I had to have surgery to my right eye to secure the only vision I had left (my left eye is blind.) I did a lot of praying during those endless months.

It was only towards the end that I, purely by accident, found out that gratitude and generosity are not enough. Not for me, in any case. I spend a lot of time and energy every year making advent calendars for the people closest to me. I usually start the hunt for the twenty-four perfect little gifts for each calendar mid-October. It is one of my all-time favourite Christmas activities. I wrap each small gift individually, adding a card with a quote chosen especially for the day and the recipient. This year, I was surprised to find just how beneficial this burst of vigorous creativity was to my state of mind.

Being grateful and generous was helpful, to me and to the people around me, but being creative was my saving grace.

It seems to me, that just as gratitude can be expressed as generosity, it can also be expressed as creativity. I find creativity as beneficial to my well-being as gratitude and generosity. My main creative outlet these past few years has been writing. I have done very little writing over the last 9 months. Reading and writing had been too painful. Now I am thinking this may have been a mistake, that it is time to start writing again. As motivation and for inspiration, I have just downloaded a book from Amazon: “Called to Create: A Biblical invitation to Create, Innovate and Risk” by Jordan Raynor and I am looking forward to reading it as the old year makes way for the new.

Here is to a 2018 filled with Gratitude, Generosity and Creativity!

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No More Meditation

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Meditation is no longer working for me. Especially not sitting meditation, but then I had never taken to that. I used to practice two types of moving meditation: walking and writing, but I no longer find either of much use. I have practised meditation for many years now, I have even taught it. I know how to do it and I have listed the benefits of meditation on this blog time and again. I just no longer experience those benefits. Until now, my Connect with Horses Workshops were all about meditation. The workshops introduce participants to various different meditation methods, including meditation with horses, by far the most popular part of these mindfulness and meditation workshops.

Meditation – the end of an era

I stopped meditating at the end of the summer. Did the world come to an end? Not really. Am I worse off now that I no longer meditate? Cannot say that I am. The reason for this might be because I have replaced it with something else, something that works better for me, as a kinaesthetic interpreter and learner. I never took to sitting meditation, as to make sense of my environment, to interpret it, to understand it and to learn from my experiences, I need to move. I learn by doing, unlike most others who learn by seeing and talking, the visual and auditory interpreters. I can still meditate, I just no longer want to.

Morning Pages – starting something new

Looks as if I shall have to design a new workshop for summer next year. Instead of meditating, I know practice free writing. It is similar to writing meditating in many ways, different in others. I have been playing around with this idea since I first read Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, many years ago now. I could see the therapeutic benefits that this practice might have. That was before I started writing books. Now that writing is a daily activity, I revisited Julia’s book and decided that free writing might suit me better than writing meditation. At this stage of my life, it fits me like a hand in a glove. I love writing, so the activity is nearly effortless. It clears my mind at the beginning of the day. It helps me focus during the day, it helps me process my emotions, it helps me to make decisions. I have learned a lot about myself since I have started free writing. As Julia so eloquently says: “Once we get those muddy, maddening, confusing thoughts [nebulous worries, jitters, and preoccupations] on the page, we face our day with clearer eyes.”

Freewriting, and specifically morning pages, has boosted my creativity in a variety of surprising ways, more than meditation ever did.

You may be wondering what morning pages are. Julia explains, “Morning pages are three pages of longhand (about 750 words,) a stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. Morning pages are about anything and everything that crosses your mind – and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand.”

Mindfulness – always present

Julia Cameron advocated mindfulness long before mindfulness became a buzzword. I entirely agree with her when she says, “In times of pain, when the future is too terrifying to contemplate and the past too painful to remember, I have learned to pay attention to right now. The precise moment I was in was always the only safe place for me.” I will never tire of practising mindfulness. It is my number one coping strategy. When I feel overwhelmed, I attend to the moment and specifically to what I have to be thankful for in said specific moment. I also include a list of things I feel grateful for that happened to me in the last 24 hours when I write my morning pages. I have always believed in the power of gratitude to transform people’s lives, and I always will.

It is my intention to base next summer’s Connect with Horses workshops on writing morning pages, mindful gratitude and of course, on connecting with horses. Because this is what is working for me at the moment, in the run-up to yet another serious eye operation, a corneal transplant to my left eye. I can not teach something that I no longer believe in. Teaching what I do believe in, on the contrary, feels more or less effortless.

I shall keep you updated on my progress.

If you would like to try writing morning pages yourself, I would recommend you visit Julia Cameron’s website: JuliaCameronLive.com. Another website I found very useful is 750words.com – it will help you get into the habit of writing every day.