Shedding an Identity

In a previous post, I discussed surrendering to the process of shedding old beliefs.  There are also times when we need to shed an identity or an aspect of one of our identities.  In this context, identity relates to the way we conceive of ourselves as being different to others – it can encompass a set of specific skills or trade (e.g. an architect); a level of achievement in sport, art or literature (e.g. a writer); and/or represent identification with a particular group such as a cultural or ethnic group.  There are times, however, when assuming an identity ceases to work for us owing to outside influences, often beyond our control.

Elite sportspeople, for example, who suffer a career-ending injury are confronted with the need to reframe their identity.  Others may find that chronic illness or a disability makes it impossible to pursue the activities that they once saw as part of their identity.  It may mean that they can no longer teach, write or act in the theatre, so they need to rethink how they define themselves or suffer ongoing frustration and, potentially, depression.   People who suffer from the debilitating effects of Long Covid often find that they can no longer entertain an identity that has been a large part of their life – brain fog, fatigue, inability to concentrate and endless pain can preclude activities that they once saw as part and parcel of how they viewed themselves and their capability.

Shedding an identity is a long but rewarding process

 Shedding an identity takes time and self-care.  It involves acknowledging a declining competence, recognising a loss of self-efficacy and a need to address self-esteem issues.  While there can be residual elements of an identity retained in the event of major life changes, there needs to be acceptance that you are no longer like you used to be in relation to the identity being shed.  The challenge is to handle the change not only at an intellectual level but also on an emotional and physical level, particularly where a life time of competence building has been involved.

However, the rewards of shedding an obsolete identity are a sense of freedom, the opportunity to pursue other creative outlets, and build a new sense of identity.  One participant in a recent Creative Meetup noted that leaving her corporate job (and related corporate identity and trappings) provided space for her to pursue her artistic talents – she indicated that it had felt very constraining to be “an artist in a corporate suit”.

A personal example of the process of shedding an identity       

I prided myself as an “A” Grade tennis player, having won a number of team competitions at that level.   I enjoyed the feeling of competence and control that I could gain from playing great tennis shots and winning games (including my own serve).  Associated with this identity was a sense of agility, speed and endurance over many games and sets of tennis.  I would pride myself for being able to chase down a drop-shot and play a winning shot from this position (I was a school champion sprinter in secondary school).

However, more recently I have been diagnosed with multi-level spinal degeneration, exercise asthma and arthritis in my “trigger finger” (used to hold the racquet firmly).  The combination of these disabilities means that I can no longer use my “first serve” without causing injury to my back (because of the need to bend sideways), no longer play singles tennis (as a result of the exercise asthma) or hit the ball hard for a sustained period (because of the pain from the arthritic finger).  I have also had to avoid net play to reduce the risk of falling or being hit in the face (where I have had multiple surgeries for skin cancers, including a melanoma – a vestige of playing summer competition in the Queensland heat).  The challenge for my self-esteem is that I have gone from being a tennis player that people want to partner because of my proven competence to an aged player that some people resent playing with.

Over many years I have built up my sense of self-efficacy in playing tennis by recalling good shots that I have played during a match.  I would go to sleep at night replaying different shots in my head.  The net result is that I have virtually a video-tape library stored in my head that I can sort by tennis shot (e.g., backhand, volley, lob) covering shots that I have played over many years in both competitive and social contexts.  The challenge to my self-esteem now is that while I can envision these shots, I can rarely execute them.  As an opponent said on one occasion when I missed while playing a top-spin forehand shot down the sideline, “You must be playing from memory”.  He was right, but little did he know that I had spent many hours by myself just practising that shot when I was younger.

So I have had to make adaptions including shedding the image of being a very competent “A” Grade tennis player.  My adaption has involved making changes at three levels:

1. Mental
  • Giving up the goal of winning each shot/game (I no longer have the “weapons”)
  • Focusing on achieving shots that surprise my opposition as well as my partner (because of residual skills associated with my original tennis identity, e.g., being able to play different spin shots, able to “read the play”, sound positioning on the court, and an array of shots that I have learned and practised over more than 60 years).  The ingrained skills acquired through conscious effort have enabled me to retain the capacity to play instinctive shots in some situations (shots that I have never practised but just do intuitively in a rally, e.g., backhand, half-volley lob).
2. Physical
  • No net play or running down drop shots
  • No smashes or first serves
  • No lengthy rallies involving a lot of running
  • No singles play
  • No playing in daylight (because of UV radiation and the risk of more skin cancers/melanomas)
3. Emotional
  • Overcoming the worry about what people ‘think” in terms of my tennis prowess (or lack of it)
  • Being able to rise above my mistakes when playing tennis
  • Dealing with my tennis partner’s expectations and/or disappointment
  • Coping with the frustration of not being able to play a shot that I used to play with ease.

Reflection

    Shedding an identity is a multi-layered affair that takes time – sometimes it is two steps forward and one backward, particularly on the emotional level.  At least I am only dealing with an identity in a recreational/sporting arena.  A lot of people are dealing with shedding an identity (or multiple identities) that are core to who they perceive themselves to be, and by how they are recognised by others.

    Progressively shedding the identity of a competent “A” Grade tennis player has made room for me to develop a new creative outlet in the form of poetry.   Over the past few months, I have written at least eight poems of reasonable length that have caused one observer to comment, “You are a talented poet” – so something lost, something gained.   This provides a new arena for me to build a new sense of competence and self-efficacy – by writing poetry and researching this writing genre as I have done through books such as Kim Rosen’s book, Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words.

    As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, writing, and sharing in community, we can develop new creative outlets, build stronger emotional regulation and develop resilience to manage life’s challenges and setbacks that lead to the need to shed an identity.

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    Image by John Hain from Pixabay

    By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

    Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

    Surrendering to the Process of Shedding Old Beliefs

    There are times when we have to shed something of ourself that we hold dear – our beliefs, our self-stories, or an aspect of our identity.   Sharon Salzberg, in her new book Real Life, describes this shedding process as “the movement from constraint, narrowness and limitation to openness, connection, and freedom”.   Shedding was the topic introduced by Jennifer Harris, the facilitator of our recent Creative Meetup.

    Jennifer introduced the theme of shedding by sharing Harryette Mullen’s poem, Shedding Skin.  Harryette likens the process of shedding to stripping off “old scarred skin” and “sloughing off deadscales”.  In her view, it involves being open to vulnerability by “shedding toughness, peeling layers down”.   Jennifer also introduced the words of a song by Florence and the Machine in which she sings, “And in the Spring I shed my skin”.  These words from Rabbit heart (Raise Me Up) are interpreted to mean “shed timidity and become courageous”.

    Shedding old beliefs

    Neale Donald Walsch, in an interview with Kute Blackson for the Soul Talk Podcast, spoke at length about the challenge of giving up old beliefs.  He had been told by his father not to talk to black people because “they were trash”.  He sustained this belief for some time because he thought it would be disrespectful to challenge the authority of his parent.  However, his own life experience as a radio host caused considerable cognitive dissonance for him to the point where he had to shed his old belief about black people.  Neale found that when interviewing for his radio show the audience was predominantly black and he found that they were, in fact, “brilliant and incredible…nice human beings” and ended up having lunch with them and seeking a close friendship with one black person in particular.  He had to shed his old, wrong beliefs about black people to overcome his cognitive dissonance and sustain his relationships with members of his audience.

    Neale also had to shed his beliefs about women (again taught by his father) – “women should take care of the house and kids and not being paid equally, not being as bright as men”.  This belief undermined his relationships with women and resulted in multiple failed marriages.  His beliefs about women were constraining, limiting and narrow.  It took regular relationship crises for him to challenge his beliefs and to learn to behave differently in his relationships with women.  So, disconfirming evidence and/or life crises can lead to shedding wrong or outdated beliefs.

    However, some people continue to maintain firmly held beliefs despite disconfirming or conflicting evidence and will defend them with overt or covert aggression.  I learnt this at my own expense when I was a young manager in the 1980’s.  I participated in a national conference for State Managers of Training held by the Australian Taxation Office in Canberra.  At one stage in the process, an Assistant Commissioner of Taxation (2IC) joined us to provide moral support for the Central Office Training Team (who were “under fire” from the State representatives for trying to centralise all training).  During the Assistant Commissioner’s presentation, I politely challenged his statement that “The Taxation Office is at the forefront of technology in Australia.”  I explained that at a State level the opposite was true – in fact we were years behind the private sector at the time.  I was publicly abused for my challenge to his firmly held belief (which, while no longer true, was true in the 1960s and early 1970s).  His abuse was so memorable that I was stopped in the street 10 years later by a participant from another State who recalled the “abuse”.

    I also learnt again painfully that people in authority can protect their beliefs by covert aggression as well as overt aggression   When I was an academic, I was introducing action learning into my university and using it as a basis for my PhD research.  My Dean opposed my endeavours by trying to prevent my appointment as a tenured academic as well as my overseas travel for a World Congress on action learning in Colombia (I was a member of the international organising committee).  He eventually prevented my promotion to a Senior Lecturer – in the feedback afterwards, telling me that “you had the best application [because of my experience and rating as a teacher], but you are using a non-mainstream approach in your PhD research”.  Action learning promotes the view that we are all “personal scientists” building expertise through life experiences and reflection on our experiences – a position that conflicted with my Dean’s belief in the expert role of academics and the role of Universities as being the “repositories of all learning”.  In consequence, he used covert aggression to try to prevent my academic advancement.

    Shedding self-stories

    Negative self-stories can develop through the influence of our parents, teachers, peers or colleagues.  These self-stories can shape our beliefs about ourself and our worth and influence our behaviours in the face of difficulties and life’s challenges.  Negative self-stories can arise through traumatic experiences and are often at a sub-conscious level.  Self-beliefs such as “I’m not good enough” can arise from behavioural messages of parents (e.g. through neglect, constant criticism, or extended absences).  The “need to please disease” as a hidden motivator can also arise from a belief that “I’m not lovable” and “I have to be nice to be liked and not rejected”.

    It is difficult to overcome adverse childhood experiences that are often behind negative self-beliefs.  Tara Brach suggests that mindfulness practices (such as mantra meditation, writing and reflective conversations) can help us to loosen false beliefs about ourselves.  She offers a process for investigating and challenging false beliefs about ourself.   She argues that as we grow in mindfulness we can develop the self-awareness necessary to enable us to identify our habituated behaviour and to name and challenge our false beliefs.  In the process, we can loosen the hold of our false self-beliefs, restore our energy and engage more positively and creatively in everyday life.

    Surrendering to the process of shedding

    Participants in our recent Creative Meetup discussed the difficulty of letting go of old beliefs.  They suggested that the process takes time, patience and self-compassion.  They discussed the movement from the pain of shedding to the realisation of potential.  They suggested that the process of taking on new beliefs is uncomfortable, moving from the known to the unknown. 

    The rewards of surrendering to the process of shedding beliefs were valued and highlighted.  They talked about “a new way of seeing”, removal of blinkers, experiencing release and empowerment, and accessing a “deeper self” and a “a new way of being”.  The challenge of surrender is real, but the rewards are great.

    Tara Brach, with Jack Kornfield and colleagues, offers an online course, Power of Awareness, that is designed to help us “break free from negative thoughts” to realise balance, peace and joy.  They offer a mindful approach to achieving a quiet mind by bringing awareness and self-compassion to our “inner dialogue”.   I have undertaken this course and found it highly beneficial.

    Reflection

    Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Metamorphosis, capture the essence of surrendering to the process of shedding.  They encourage us to “keep letting go”, “trust in the process”, relax into the present and “stop resisting”.  If we can do this through mindfulness practices such as reflection and mantra meditations we can achieve healing and a metamorphosis that will enable us to spread our wings and fly higher.  This exhortation resonates with Sharon Salzberg’s encouragement to move from constraint to freedom, from narrowness to connection. from limitation to openness.  I have expressed these insights in the following poem:

    Surrender to Shedding

    There comes a time in our life when we have to shed old beliefs.
    Slough off our limiting self-beliefs,
    Remove constraints on our thinking,
    Break down the barriers of our defence mechanisms,
    Let go and stop resisting,
    Surrender to the process of casting aside what no longer works for us.

    The shedding process is painful.
    Discomfort with the new,
    Feeling lost,
    Leaving behind the known,
    Moving to uncertainty,
    Open to anxiety.

    The rewards of shedding are great.
    Releasing from constraints and limitations,
    Achieving a new sense of freedom,
    Moving from pain to possibility,
    Discovering a new creative self,
    Flowing like a river, rediscovering “Flow”.

    _____________________________

    Image by Jonathan from Pixabay

    By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

    Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

    The Healing Power of Social Support

    Social support can take the form of having friends, family or other people who can be a source of support in difficult times, such as chronic illness, death of a loved one or ongoing disability.  They can provide emotional, companionship or resource support and enhance our self-image while offering different perspectives on what we are encountering.

    Social support can be provided through a formal social network where people with common interests come together to achieve specific outcomes such as fitness, charitable work or a hobby (as with the Australian Men’s Shed).  Alternatively, they can be informal where a number of people come together on a regular basis to share a coffee and have a chat.

    The benefits of social support

    Julia Baird, author of Bright Shining: How Grace Changes Everything, highlights the mental health benefits of social support and points to the research that shows the “poor mental health” that results from isolation and loneliness.  She refers to a homeless support group organised by St. Vincent de Paul Society that she joined and noted that there was “no pretence”, people “just being who they are”.  The healing power of this transparency and normality was evident in the homeless participants developing a positive self-image and contributing from their perspective and reality.

    Social support is one of the three components for sustainable recovery from trauma, along with appreciating the complex nature of trauma and its impacts and adopting a holistic approach.  Research and clinical practice have demonstrated that social support builds resilience in trauma sufferers – they realise they are not alone, are encouraged to pursue their healing process, are reinforced in their healing efforts and learn vicariously from others who are experiencing difficult emotions and challenging situations.   The resultant sense of connectedness contributes to positive mental health.

    The GROW organisation over many years has demonstrated that mutual social support has contributed to recovery from many forms of mental illness for hundreds of people (as documented in testimonial stories by participants).  The peer-to-peer support process facilitated by a nominated leader within the “lived experience” group, promotes personal development and ongoing recovery – a process that may take a number of years.

    Reflection

    Social support helps participants to develop a sense of being cared for as well as feeling that they can seek assistance from others in understanding and managing their challenging situation.  People gain a strong sense of belonging and connectedness through sharing their personal challenges, their success strategies and their progress towards healing.  They grow in mindfulness as they share their stories and write about their insights, gaining increased self-awareness and heightened self-esteem.

    Creative Meetups, provided by the Health Story Collaborative, is a powerful social support system in that it combines the healing power of social support with the healing power of storytelling.  Participants feel fully supported by others engaged in compassionate listening or sharing their stories of challenging situations resulting from chronic illness, disability or their carer role.  The following poem expresses the sense of social support that can be gained through the Creative Meetups:

    Social Support

    When we share our stories of personal challenges, we realise that we are not alone.
    We draw strength from others experiencing and managing more difficult circumstances.
    We sense that we belong and feel connected to something outside of ourselves and our pain.
    We can be ourselves, free of pretence, unencumbered by the need to be “better than”.
    We build trust, savour our relationships and look forward to the next encounter.
    There is something magical and disarming about the process that leads to changing perspectives and healing.

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    Image by John Hain from Pixabay

    By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

    Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

    Forgiveness: Forgiving Others and Ourselves

    Forgiveness is hard to do, whether we are trying to forgive others or ourself.  It’s not a one-off event but is an evolving process which is why experts in the area suggest that we start off small – with a minor incident or hurt.  Forgiveness engages our feelings as well as our mind and body.  It is something that we have to work at consciously if we are to achieve our goal of “letting go”.

    Forgiving others

    Frank Ostaseski, author of The Five Invitations: Discover What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, suggests that one of the lessons from the dying is, “Don’t Wait to Forgive”.  In his extensive hospice experience he found that too many people were consumed by anger and rage on their death bed because they were unable to forgive others.  He argues that we should not wait until we are dying to forgive others and ourself.  Frank maintains that there is a natural resistance to forgiveness because we have a need to maintain our self-image (of goodness/perfection) and find it difficult to acknowledge that we are carrying challenging emotions such as anger, resentment and regret.   However, there is a real cost to ourselves and our relationships when we hold onto these emotions.

    Danette May in her memoir, The Rise: An Unforgettable Journey of Self-Love, Forgiveness and Transformation, argues that we need to “cut the rope”, or as Frank puts it, “letting go”.  These difficult emotions can hold us back, causing self-absorption and “emotional stunting”.  There is a real challenge involved in acknowledging our part in an interaction (or multiple interactions) that was hurtful.  We need to be able to see things from the other person’s perspective and understand what was driving their behaviour.   Frank suggests that in the final analysis, we need to be able to honestly face up to “what we don’t like in ourselves”.

    Fred Luskin contends that there are three elements of a grievance that contribute to our “maintaining the rage” and sustaining the hurt:

    1. Preoccupation with the ”offence” and exaggerating its negative impact on us
    2. Insisting that others are to blame for our negative/difficult feelings
    3. Developing and perpetuating a “grievance story”.

    Fred argues that the real costs of not letting go are extensive.  Not only do we lose our personal power because we are “controlled by emotions”, but also we lose the ability to focus and achieve peace and wellness.  If we are consumed by anger, hatred, resentment or envy we can’t see past our hurt and we use all our energy in sharing our story and maintaining our sense of hurt.

    Forgiving ourselves

    The starting point for self-forgiveness is acknowledging our part in the hurtful interaction. It is incredibly difficult to forgive ourselves for the hurt we cause to others – it can be a lifelong process.   Part of the challenge is dealing with strong feelings of guilt and shame – feelings that go against the grain and undermine our sense of who we are.  We can blind ourselves to our negative impact on others because it is too hurtful to ourselves to own up to our part in hurtful interactions.

    Jack Kornfield in the Power of Awareness Course argues that there are three myths that underpin our reluctance to engage in self-forgiveness:

    1. Self-forgiveness is a sign of weakness – the reality is that it takes a lot of strength and courage to face up to our hurtful words and actions
    2. We can forgive ourselves through a “quick fix”, e.g., a short meditation or exercise
    3. Forgiving ourselves is condoning our hurtful behaviour.

    Elisha Goldstein cites Lily Tomlin when discussing forgiveness of others, Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.  This insight can as readily apply to self-forgiveness as to forgiving others.  In self-forgiveness, we have to give up our “grievance story”, let go of wishing that we had behaved better and dismantle our defenses that prevent us from acknowledging our part in a hurtful interaction.

    Mindfulness – a path to forgiveness

    When we develop a mindful disposition by observing our inner landscape – our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations – we can reduce our negative thoughts and increase our ability to forgive.  Mindfulness can develop our “disposition to forgive” – it can unearth grievance stories, clarify our part in any interaction, help us to take the other person’s perspective, increase our awareness of negative emotions and related bodily sensations and cultivate compassion.  Ultimately mindfulness can help us to develop self-awareness and emotional regulation so that we are not captive to our strong, challenging emotions and can live in the present rather than the hurtful past.

    Forgiveness meditation

    There are multiple forms of forgiveness meditation.  Loving kindness meditation, for example, has been shown to cultivate compassion towards others as well as self-compassion.   Sharon Salzberg, experienced mindfulness trainer, offers a three-part forgiveness meditation encompassing:

    1. Seeking forgiveness from someone you have hurt or harmed
    2. Offer forgiveness to those who have hurt or harmed you
    3. Self-forgiveness for the times you have harmed yourself through being judgmental.

    Sharon includes an affirmation related to the last point, For all the ways I have hurt or harmed myself, knowingly or unknowingly, I offer forgiveness.  Other meditation trainers, such as Mitra Manesh, focus the self-forgiveness on the harm that we have caused to others, rather than to ourself.  Mitra, in her forgiveness meditation podcast, places a lot of emphasis on becoming aware of our bodily sensations as we deal with the “heavy energies” involved in holding onto grudges, anger or rage.  She also suggests a mantra for seeking forgiveness from others, For all the ways that I have caused you pain and suffering, I ask your forgiveness.

    In reflecting on a number of forgiveness meditations, I identified four common principles underpinning the meditation process:

    1. Stay grounded, relaxed and focused
    2. Manage distractions through an anchor such as your breath or sounds
    3. Start small with something that is manageable and recent (limited history or replaying)
    4. Adopt a healing perspective – show loving kindness to others and yourself.

    We can develop a mindful disposition in multiple ways , not just through meditation.  As we grow in mindfulness we can more readily adopt the perspective of others and understand their hurt.  We can own up to and name our own feelings, however negative or challenging. Over time, our disposition to forgive and our capacity to offer forgiveness to others and ourself will grow almost invisibly.

    Reflection

    Forgiving ourself can be a lifetime pursuit as I have found in trying to forgive myself for my part in my marriage breakup which occurred more than 40 years ago.  This is something I am working towards.  I find that forgiving others and forgiving ourself are interwoven activities – not discrete, independent steps.

    I have also been reflecting on my long-standing anger towards my Father for his alcoholism and its major impact on my childhood and my family.  I recently started crafting a poem called Paternal Forgiveness which I will publish soon in this blog.  In the poem, I offer forgiveness to my father, seek to forgive myself for my harsh judgments and express my sorrow for the hurt that I had caused him when he was alive.  In writing the poem, I have drawn inspiration from Kim Rosen’s book, Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words.  In the book, Kim describes how poetry has helped people to deal with challenging situations, including the need to forgive others and themselves, and provides insight into the transformative elements of a poem.

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    Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

    By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

    Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

    Creative Meetups: Action Learning for Health and Healing

    Creative Meetups are provided by the Health Story Collaborative (HSC) to enable participants to reflect, connect and gain support from other people who are also living with chronic illness or disability or are carers.  The free Meetups, currently facilitated by Jennifer Harris on the Zoom platform, provide a stimulus for writing “to access and release emotions, personal stories and creative spirits”.  They form an avenue for healing through the mechanism of narrative therapy.

    Alice Morgan, author of What Is Narrative Therapy?, maintains that narrative therapy can take many forms.  For instance, she suggests that it can involve “particular ways of talking with people about their lives and the problems they are experiencing”.  In essence, it involves people sharing their stories orally and/or in writing to gain insight into the meanings they ascribe to events, experiences and current situations (such as a physical or mental health condition).  Jodi Clarke points out that we carry multiple self-stories including those related to “self-esteem, abilities, relationships and work.”  She maintains that the process of “putting your narrative together” (however, this is created) enables an individual “to find their voice” as they explore  their life experiences and the meanings they attribute to them.

    What is action learning?

    Action learning can be described in simple terms as a cycle – planning, taking action and reflecting on the outcomes (intended and unintended).  It is used worldwide in public, private and not-for profit organisations and communities to create positive change and empower people to be the best they can be.  It can be undertaken by an individual by themselves (as I have done with my tennis playing over the years) or, more often, as part of a group or “action learning set”.

    Creative Meetups and Action Learning

    Creative Meetups and action learning have a core assumption in common.  Alice Morgan expressed this well when she maintained that narrative therapy assumes that “people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities” to resolve their own challenging situations – an assumption that underpins the process of Creative Meetups.  This is also a fundamental assumption of action learning (AL).  

    Reg Revans, the “Father of Action Learning”, charged with improving the mining industry in the UK, got mining managers together to solve their “here and now problems” in the mines.    He also got nurses in Intensive Care Units together to work on their challenging situations.  In an action learning context, participants are often described as “personal scientists”.  Some academics in universities, tied to the concept of universities as the sole repository of “expert knowledge”, had great difficulty accepting this core assumption and would actively oppose the uptake of action learning – it challenged their firmly held beliefs about knowledge creation and dissemination.

    Creative Meetups and action learning have a number of other elements in common and, in the final analysis, both seek to create positive change in a situation (either individual or collective).  Some of the shared elements are as follows:

    1. Peer support – a fundamental principle is to treat each other as peers – with no acknowledged hierarchical difference.  There is a recognition that we are “all in the same boat” – each facing challenging situations.  Reg described this element as “comrades in adversity”; more recently, people have termed it “comrades in opportunity”.  In essence, it involves providing mutual support irrespective of our work role, status, social position or experience level.
    2. Collaboration – participants work together towards a common goal (e.g. health and healing or team improvement) and willingly share stores, resources, and insights for mutual benefit.  People are unstinting in their sharing – often recommending or loaning books, highlighting helpful websites or identifying relevant expert people.
    3. Don’t know mind – participants adopt a “don’t know mind”, not presuming to know and understand another person’s situation.  Reg suggests that if you think you understand something fully, you are not only going to get yourself into trouble but other people as well.   Adopting a don’t know mind – not jumping to conclusions or interrupting another’s story with your own (erroneously assuming they are same or similar) – enables a person to tell their story in an unfettered way, opening up the path to healing and recovery. 
    4. Honesty – the conscious exploration of what it means to be honest with oneself (owning up) and with others.  This opens the way for improvement and change.  The process of writing in Creative Meetups helps participants to identify false self-stories and unearth truer and richer stories that open up new avenues for their lives and their relationships. Action learning, too, enables the development of honesty.  Reg, for example, recounts an action learning program involving industrial executives in Belgium who, after 18 months of action learning, identified “What is an honest man and what do I need to become one?” (they were all men) as the most significant question they wished they had asked at the start of the program.  He maintained that the pathway to learning and change involves “admitting what you do not know”.  Reg also maintained that if you are going to do “something significant about something imperative”, you will come up against how you define yourself and your role.
    5. Reflection – reflection is assisted by writing and sharing.  The more we reflect, the more it becomes a way of life.  Frequent reflection-on-action can result in the ability to reflect-in-action.  Reg suggests that reflection is best done in a group because when we reflect alone we can tend to reinforce our existing assumptions and maintain our blindspots.  He argues for diversity in the reflective group – diversity of culture, nationality, profession and orientation (business/not-for-profit/community).  The Creative Meetups provide a rich diversity in terms of location (participants are from different countries and cultures) and health/caring situation.   Participants can gain insight gratuitously when others share their reflections from their different perspectives.
    6. Questioning – the willingness and ability to ask “fresh question” to open upinsight into a challenging situation.  Reg describes this as “questioning insight”.  This approach involves “supportive challenge” – challenging assumptions to enable a person to be the best they can be.  Alice Morgan highlights the role of questioning in narrative therapy because we can often develop negative self-stories.  Both action learning and Creative Meetups (narrative therapy) cultivate curiosity.
    7. Action taking – action learning involves learning through action undertaken with others where possible.  Creative Meetups promote writing as taking action to become open to  the healing power of storytelling.   The writing can take any form, e.g. prose, poetry, dot points.  Action is also reflected in the changes in behaviour undertaken by participants as a result of insights gained through writing and sharing.
    8. Facilitation – to design and manage the process of sharing.  In Creative Meetups, the facilitator provides stimulus material (e.g., a story, music or poem) to enable participants to write and share.  In action learning, the facilitator guides the process of planning, acting, reflecting and sharing.  In both situations, the facilitator is not a teacher.  Their role is to create an environment that promotes safety, trust, openness and sharing – their metaprocess goal is to develop a learning community.   

    Creative Meetups, in promoting writing and reflection, are helping participants to grow in mindfulness which is described by MARC (UCLA) as “paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be with what is”.   Both action learning and mindfulness contribute to positive mental health because they increase self-awareness and heighten a sense of agency (belief in the capacity to have some control over our inner and outer environment).  In cultivating mindfulness, both approaches help people to develop resilience, compassion and creativity. 

    Reflection

    I initially joined the Meetups with a view to writing my stories in prose but have found that the stimulus provided by the discussions and my recent reading of Kim Rosen’s book,  Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words, has led me to write several poems about my health story and the process of the Meetups.  Kim’s identification of the transformative elements of a poem continues to provide a pathway for my poetic expression.   I used her elements to analyse a poem I had written called For the Love of Tennis that enabled me to express my gratitude for being able to continue to play tennis despite a diagnosis of “multiple-level spinal degeneration”.

    Following a recent Meetup, I unearthed my feelings about my chronic condition of food sensitivity/allergy resulting from Long Covid-induced Mast Cell Activation Syndrome.   I was surprised about the intensity of my feelings of frustration and alienation that I had not previously given voice to.   The poem, The Inflammatory Thread in My Life, provided a creative outlet and release for emotions I had kept “under wraps” and not expressed to anyone, including myself.

    In a previous post, I shared a poem, Compassionate Listening, that I wrote following a Creative Meetup where the stimulus input included an excerpt from Joni Mitchell’s performance of Both Sides Now at the 2024 Grammy Awards.  To me the poem reflects the stance of participants of the Creative Meetup in being able to engage in deep listening, provide active support of the storyteller and reflect back not only the feelings expressed but also the intensity of those feelings. 

    Compassionate listening strongly reflects the ethos of HSC where Healing Story Principals (such as Micheal Bischoff) sought to support people “to tell and listen to stories in ways that are healing, connected and empowering”.  The support and connection underpinning Creative Meetups and action learning promote health and healing.

    Reflecting on the process of Creative Meetups and my long-standing experience with action learning in multiple contexts, I was inspired to write the following poem:

    Where is “There”?

    When you share your innermost secrets

    and I say, “I’ve been there!”,

    where is “there”?

    It’s not where you have been

    with your unique experience and perception.

    I’m not inside you looking out,

    I’m outside you looking in.

    It’s like the glimpse of the Bay

    that I get from my back deck.

    It’s not the Bay!

    It’s only a tiny window

    on a complex ecosystem.

    ____________________________________________

    Image by Xavier Lavin Pino from Pixabay

    By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

    Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

    Joni Mitchell: An Inspiration for People with Chronic Illness

    Legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell has been an inspiration to millions of people and particularly those who suffer from chronic illness or experience long-term disability.  You only have to look at comments on YouTube about her Blue Album to see how Joni has impacted the lives of so many people – people suffering from loss, grief, pain and stress and recalling the joyful moments and the feelings of hope when they heard her sing.   She has the ability to positively touch the lives of people of all ages, as evidenced by her triumphant performance of Both Sides Now at the 2024 Grammy Awards.  The recognition of her stellar career was reflected in her 10th Grammy Award that night and her earlier (2002) Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

    Joni’s health challenges and courage

    The story of Joni’s health challenges and her positive approach to overcoming them is a source of inspiration in itself.  She had to learn to walk again after being diagnosed with polio in 1952 when she was 9 years old.  She suffered the painful and crippling effects of polio for 40 years, initially overcoming the disease in 1995, only to then experience “post-polio syndrome”.  If Joni had accepted the mantra of many medical practitioners about aging, she could have taken their advice “to lie down and die”, accepting one of the myths of aging.  Instead, she chose to seek alternative medicine options and to fight on.

    On a number of occasions, Joni spoke about her experience of Morgellons disease which she described in 2010 as a “weird, incurable disease”.   The Mayo Clinic describes the disease as creating “a belief that parasites or fibers are emerging from the skin” and involving  an “intense itching and sores”.  The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in their 2012 report stated that the “skin lesions and/or disturbing skin sensations” along with “multi-system complaints” can result in a “significantly reduced health-related quality of life”.   Health problems reported by respondents to the research included chronic fatigue, overall poor health and cognitive deficits.   

    Joni herself reported in 2014 that her immune system was severely taxed by the Morgellons disease which restricted her ability to fly and made touring impossible.  Her response to this debilitating disease was to say that she was not regretful about her condition but was enjoying the creative process away from singing – “painting, revisiting her music, prepping a four-act ballet or an upcoming collection of stories”.   This clearly reflects her indomitable spirit and her ability to focus on what she did have, not what she had lost.

    Her resilience was again severely tested in 2015 when she suffered a brain aneurysm.   In an interview with Cameron Crowe in 2020, Joni stated that the aneurysm took more away from her than her polio – it “took away my speech and my ability to walk”.   Her ability to talk returned relatively quickly, but even at the time of this interview she still struggled to walk.  Doctors had advised her that she would “never walk again” but she stated categorically that she would walk again.  She indicated at the time, “I’m a fighter” (with Irish blood) and told herself, “Here I go again, another battle”.   

    The aneurysm appeared to rob Joni of her singing voice, but in 2018 when some musical friends, including Elton John, turned up at her house for what had been famously called a “Joni Jam”, everyone was surprised and delighted when Joni joined in the singing with her “warm and familiar voice”.   Joni indicated that she was moved by the spirit of the group and stated that “I forgave myself for my lack of talent” (having “lost her soprano voice” and only being able to sing “a low alto”).  

    Joni continued her fight against her chronic illnesses and, in 2023, made a triumphant return to concert singing in a three-hour Joni Jam organised by American singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile and involving friends such as Annie Lennox and Sarah McLachlan.   Joni’s life journey can be revisited through BBC Radio 4 Legend’s Podcast – seven episodes of the Joni Mitchell story.   Her journey into singing and songwriting can be reviewed through the Joni Jams Podcast which “goes album by album through Joni Mitchell’s entire discography”.

    Reflection

    During the most recent Creative Meetup, participants engaged in healing storytelling (in writing and orally) partly stimulated by Joni Mitchell’s song, Both Sides Now.  Joni’s emphasis on “I really don’t know clouds [music, love, life] at all” resonated with participants who shared their experiences of unintentional exclusion by others.

    For some, the metaphors that we commonly used can exclude others whose experience differs, e.g., for people who are extremely “light sensitive”, metaphors such as “silver lining” or “let the bright side in” can contribute to their sense of isolation and exclusion.  For people who experience food sensitivity or allergies, metaphors such as “sweet as a mango” can be alienating.  For others, established traditions or practices such as enforced prayers as a child or Australia Day Celebrations can trigger memories of terror and/or loss.  As one participant noted, “Unless you are in my shoes, you don’t really know”.

    The Creative Meetup hosted by the Health Story Collaborative provided ample evidence of the healing power of storytelling and the energy and insight generated by compassionate listeningJennifer Harris, the facilitator of the Meetup session on Zoom, introduced Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope” is the thing with feathers, and this led to a participant’s comment that “hope emerges from dark places” – sometimes, when there appears to be “no hope”.  As all participants in the HSC Meetup are people who are living with illness or disability or are carers, they were able to draw comfort, support and inspiration from Joni Mitchell’s struggle with ill-health.

    My reflection on our Meetup is captured in the following Compassionate Listening poem that I wrote after our meeting:

    Compassionate Listening

    What you see is not what I see.

    What you hear is not what I hear.

    Your world is not my world.

    Your feelings are your own.

    I can’t know your reality.

    I can only listen with compassion

    … and openness to what is different for you.

    I can learn to adopt a “don’t know” mindset.

    As we grow in mindfulness through compassionate listening, reflection and sharing our story, we can deepen our self-awareness, cultivate openness and build resilience.

    ____________________________________________

    Image by xiSerge from Pixabay

    By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

    Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

    The Benefits of Positive Beliefs About Aging

    In a previous post, I discussed the pervasive impact of negative beliefs about aging.  Highlighted in that discussion is the research evidence that negative age beliefs can impact every aspect of our aging process and our quality of life.  In that discussion, I drew on the work of Dr. Becca Levy, a pioneer in the area of successful aging and a world-renowned researcher and Yale Professor.  In her book, Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Will Determine How Long and Well You Live, she contends that it is critical that we address ageism in our society both as individuals and as a collective.  

    Becca has a section in the book where she identifies the widespread influence of ageism and calls for “an end to structural ageism” in education, Governmental systems, medicine, mental health, advertising and media, science and the arts.  Ageism prevents people from effectively adapting to the aging process, from taking proactive action to maintain their quality of life, from achieving their potential both mentally and physically, and from realising the benefits that can accrue with age.

    The benefits of positive beliefs about aging

    In her book, Becca draws on her own research and that of researchers worldwide to demonstrate the numerous benefits of positive age beliefs and illustrates these benefits with stories of outstanding achievements by numerous people in multiple fields of endeavour.  Ageism is based on the assumption that all people who are old experience decline in mental and physical capacity at the same rate and that this decline is inevitable.  Becca’s research and stories of individual achievements demonstrate that each of us can arrest decline, or at least reduce the rate of decline, in our capabilities as we age.  Our beliefs about aging are a key determinant of the choices we make and how long and well we live.

    In providing research-based claims about the benefits of positive age beliefs, Becca identifies a number of findings that challenge prevailing myths about the aging process.  Her research demonstrates the following benefits of this positivity:

    • Pattern recognition improves with age so much so that neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin, suggests that radiologists past 60-years old should be preferred to younger people for reading and interpreting X-Rays.  Daniel is the author of the book, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives
    • Indigenous knowledge and memories held by elders in Indigenous communities that have been passed down in communities around the world to ensure the health and continuity of these communities such as in the Indigenous Australian culture.  This aspect of Indigenous aging was documented by anthropologist Margaret Mead in her book, Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap.
    • Functional health is enhanced by positive aging beliefs.  Becca demonstrates that her research and that of her colleagues disprove the assumption of the “stereotype of debility and decline” as the natural outcome of the aging process.  She draws on the example of Sister Madonna Buder, who at the age of 52 undertook her first triathlon with borrowed running shoes – now, at over 90 years old, she continues to compete and has completed in excess of 350 triathlons.  Sister Madonna’s view of aging is that it represents “wisdom and grace” and “opportunity”.
    • Irreplaceable knowledge and understanding can accrue to anyone in a specialised field with experience developed as they age.  Becca illustrates this by discussing the experience of a 75-year-old paediatrician called Jonas who had retired from clinical practice “when he was most skilled”.   A young colleague asked him for his opinion on what was ailing a baby because he could not work it out.  Jonas figured it out “right away”.  His young colleague had an instant insight and asked, “Teach me Doc, how’d you do that?”  Jonas now teaches “medical diagnosis” at a university and participates in group diagnoses of patients in a teaching hospital.  Jonas’s career transition highlights the opportunity for older people to make a significant contribution to society even after retirement – all that it requires is a positive view of aging and a willingness to make adaptions in their career role. Jonas has also acquired new interests and hobbies such as cultivating rare orchards, French cooking, close-up photography and amateur aviation. 
    • Mental health growth – during a placement at a psychiatric hospital, Becca found (contrary to her expectations) that more younger, adult patients suffered from mental illness than older patients and that the latter “can be successfully treated”.  Her own research, confirmed by others around the world, also showed that age beliefs heavily impact the nature and quantity of stressors experienced psychosomatically.  She found that positive age beliefs helped to mitigate the impact of stressors (even in PTSD cases), while negative age beliefs acted as a “barrier to mental health”.
    • Longevity – in a significant research study, Becca found that participants who held positive age beliefs “lived an average of 7.5 years longer” than those who held negative age beliefs. ` Other research has demonstrated that non-biological factors such as age beliefs (and social/cultural environments) “determine as much as 75% of our longevity”.
    • Creativity – contrary to the prevailing stereotype, “creativity often continues and even increases in later life”.  Throughout the book, Becca mentions people who achieved “their most creative work at an older age”, e.g., Matisse, Hitchcock, Einstein, Picasso, Bernstein, Lerman and Dickens.  She also noted that 65 is the average age of a Nobel Prize winner.  Becca also reported the comment of actress Doris Roberts that actresses/actors “get better and better in their craft as they get older”.  Michael Caine CBE is just one example.  Starring in 160 films over 8 decades, he produced an outstanding performance at age 90 in his last film before retirement, The Great Escaper.

    In the above discussion of the benefits of positive beliefs about aging, I have only “scratched the surface” of Becca’s research and findings.  However, it is very clear that positive age beliefs can impact us in multiple, beneficial ways – opening up opportunity and the realisation of our true potential.

    Reflection

    I can relate to Jonas’s experience (recounted above) when applied to a recreational context rather than a professional one.  I have continued to play social tennis in my late seventies and recently I played a half-volley, drop shot that left my much younger partner “gobsmacked”.  He responded, “Wow, how did you do that? Can you teach me to do that shot?”  At the time, I just shrugged but felt like saying:

    I can’t teach you as I have never learnt to do that shot – it was purely instinctive, as I was caught “in no man’s land”.  When you have achieved in tennis what I have done – played 10,000 sets of tennis over more than 60 years, practised Tai Chi for years (for balance and coordination), and spent numerous hours doing tennis drills – you, too, will be able to do instinctive tennis shots that surprise others (as well as yourself).

    Becca’s comment that creativity can increase in later years also resonates strongly with me.  I started this blog in 2016 (at the age of 70) and have now written more than 740 posts on this blog alone (my fifth blog).  I have reduced my output from three posts per week to one post to enable space and time to conduct manager development workshops (hybrid mode) and to co-author a book with my colleague of 16 years (as our legacy to younger managers and organisational consultants).  I am finding that connections and patterns come to me more rapidly and profusely  as I read and write and I now write an average of 1,000 words per post (compared to the 300 words per post, I started with in 2016).

    In her book, Becca recounts the comments of 69 year old creative dancer Liz Lerman who observed that as we grow old we “don’t need  to make major life change to activate creativity’.  In her view, “expanding our connections to people” can create life changes for us and spark renewed creativity.  I have certainly found this with my active participation in the Creative Meetups hosted by the Health Story Collaborative.  

    Additionally, I am finding (in terms of creativity) that, as I age and reflect, I am writing more poems that are longer and more complex in structure and scope.  In three days, inspired by Kim Rosen’s book Saved by a Poem,  I have written three poems – previously I wrote four short poems over five years.   One of my recent poems relates to the theme of this blog post and its predecessor about negative age beliefs:

    Beliefs About Aging

    To be positive, is to see opportunities

    To be negative, is to deny potentiality.

    Positive age beliefs open new horizons

    Negative beliefs hold us captive and inert.

    Positivity is openness to reality

    Negativity is a closed mindset.

    In being positive

    Our full potential is possible.

    With a grateful heart

    I live my positive beliefs.

    Reflecting and writing poetry enables us to grow in mindfulness. We come to realise that negative beliefs hold us back.  Through mindfulness practices, we can grow in self-awareness, concentration, creativity and resourcefulness – we can become increasingly aware of what is around us each day and what it is possible to achieve.

    Photo Credit: The photo incorporated in this post was by Steve Buissinne, aged 74, from South Africa.  He joined Pixabay in 2014 and has had 556 photos accepted, 148 of which have been singled out as “Editor’s Choice” – a sign of excellence.  His photos have been viewed 32.83 million times, resulting in 19.39 million downloads. Steve’s comment on his Pixabay site demonstrates his mindful awareness of the beauty that surrounds us:

    Everything has beauty – photography teaches you to see it

    __________________________

    Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

    By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

    Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

    The Transformative Elements of a Poem

    In a previous post I discussed the transformative power of poetry.  In that post, I drew on Kim Rosen’s book, Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words, to illustrate personal transformations that have occurred through poetry, including that of the author and Maya Angelou.  Poetry has a special power to transcend our analytical mind and capture our deeper inner landscape.  It has a unique capacity to move people out of darkness into light, out of depression into contentment, out of loneliness into connection.  In a section of her book, The Anatomy of A Poem (Chapter 5), Kim explains the elements of a poem that generate this transformative power.  She links her discussion of the poetic elements to their psychophysical impact on an individual, while acknowledging that each person reacts to a poem differently and may change their reaction over time – rejection can turn into admiration.    

    The anatomy of a poem

    In discussing the elements of a poem that may contribute to personal transformation, Kim identifies four aspects that can influence our reaction – (1) breath, (2) drumbeat, (3) song, and (4) image.  These are discussed below to offer a sense of what they may look like and feel like:

    • Breath – our breathing can be impacted by the pattern and pace developed in a poem through rhythm, line length and phrasing.  Rhythm, for example, can create calmness or a sense of urgency.  Line length can be slow and ponderous or fast and staccato-like.  Phrasing can be regular or irregular with disruption to an established pattern by short statements or punctuation.  Surprise and challenge can change breathing patterns because they can pull us up from our habituated behaviours.
    • Drumbeat – the sense of a drum beating can flow from accentuated syllables followed by softer syllables or broken with pauses.  The rhythm of a poem can create a sound experience similar to that of a drumbeat.
    • Song – a sense of singing can be generated through repetition, rhyme, or rhythm or alliteration as in the repeated “r’s” in this sentence. Words themselves can conjure sounds and their own sound can be a reminder of a song or singing.  Resonance in a poem has a unique quality that can reverberate in the listener’s mind and body.  Kim also maintains that “rhythm creates entrainment” and entrainment, in turn, “creates passion and movement” – the whole person synchronizes with the poem’s rhythm.
    • Image – can be created by word-pictures, metaphor, exploring ambiguity or opposites, and challenging linearity or expectations.  Kim argues that “the body feels the images” – images that create sensations arising from both left-brain and right-brain activation.

    While each component of an element (such as repetition, rhyme, or metaphor) can create an effect, it’s the unique combination of elements in a poem that can generate a transformational impact.  In a New Dimensions Radio podcast, Kim discusses her concept of the “anatomy of a poem” and describes poetry, in all its many forms, as medicine for the soul.

    Reflection: A poem about tennis

    My poem below was inspired by Kim’s discussion of the “anatomy of a poem”.  In writing the poem I was conscious of the transformative elements that Kim describes.  I did not actively try to incorporate all the elements but became aware as I wrote how Kim’s discussion and illustrations were influencing the shape of my poem, For the Love of Tennis:

    For the Love of Tennis

    I’m grateful to play tennis again

    The slice, the serve, the stroke, the sound.

    A different goal

    Not to win every point

    To play with appreciation

    And create surprise.

    I’m grateful I can run, bend, stretch and strain

    So much I’ve taken for granted.

    No longer annoyed at my mistakes

    Gratitude that I have the chance to make them.

    There are many components of the elements that Kim describes incorporated in my poem.  What immediately comes to mind is the alliteration achieved through the number of “s” letters/sounds present – slice, serve, stroke, sound, surprise, stretch, strain.  The word “sound” has its own resonance and each type of tennis stroke (e.g. slice or serve) conjures up a different sound.  The “strokes” together with “run, bend, stretch and strain” evoke images and conjure up a sense of movement.

    There are components of challenge as well as surprise in the poem.  There are challenges to expectations (to play to win; being grateful for the chance to make mistakes) along with “surprise” that is reinforced by the word itself.  The goal of surprise arose from my need to change my own expectations of what I am able to achieve on a tennis court in my late 70’s.  To this day I am able to create shots that surprise my partners and/or opponents (e.g., a backhand, half-volley drop shot; a  topspin lob from corner to corner; an unplayable backhand slice; or a half-volley, backhand lob) – so this element of surprise is an achievable goal for me (since I have lost a lot of my strength, speed of reflexes and movement around the court).   Surprise, too, is present in the sudden change in line length and equally sudden return to a longer line – eliciting the sense of a “drumbeat”.

    Permeating the poem is a strong sense of gratitude – that I am able to play tennis again (after a period of rehabilitation); that I have access to a tennis court, social tennis partners and the equipment and funds to play; that I have been coached, had practice partners and played numerous games of tennis with different players; that I can move (run, bend, stretch and strain); that I can play many different tennis shots and associated spins; that I have played tennis on different surfaces and on overseas courts in France, Port Moresby, England and New Zealand.  Finally, there is the personal challenge not to take these things for granted.

    Tennis to me, like writing poetry, is one of the many ways to grow in mindfulness.  Through tennis, I develop my powers of concentration and my gratitude, creativity, resilience and resourcefulness. I also become more able to “be-in-the-moment”.

    _______________________________________

    Image by Carola68 Die Welt ist bunt…… from Pixabay

    By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

    Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

    The Pervasive Impact of Negative Beliefs About Aging

    Dr. Becca Levy, Yale professor and world leader in the psychology of aging successfully, has written a groundbreaking book that is brilliant in its conception and exhaustive in its research foundation.  The book is titled Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Will Determine How Long and Well You Live.   Becca draws on global research, undertaken by herself and colleagues in the field, to demonstrate that our age beliefs impact positively or negatively not only our physiology but also our mental health.  Negative age belief, perpetuated through the media and our social environment, can lead to mental and physical ill-health and a diminished quality of life.  In contrast, positive age beliefs can enable us to transcend the limitations of aging in terms of mental acuity, physical strength, flexibility and longevity.  Becca draws on numerous stories of people from all walks of life – artists, musicians, actors, athletes, carers, and health professionals – to illustrate the very real impact of beliefs about aging.

    How our negative aging beliefs are formed

    Becca demonstrates the impact of nursery rhymes and cartoons on the early formation of our age beliefs.  These typically negative portrayals of aging are further reinforced by social media, films, newspapers and everyday social conversations.  The pervasive marketing of a desirable body image and associated cosmetic propaganda (a Trillion-Dollar industry), have served to embed a negative image of aging in our psyche.   We now have “age-defying” skin treatments that remove wrinkles and make our skin glow, along with a pervasive negative stereotyping of menopause (loss of youthfulness, sexual drive, physical prowess and energy).

    The impacts of negative age beliefs on institutions and individuals

    The resultant negative age beliefs underpin the growth of ageism – “discrimination against older people because of negative and inaccurate stereotypes”.  This discrimination is reflected in institutional bias, in interpersonal communications and relationships, and self-talk/limiting behaviours.  Becca gives examples of institutional discrimination in employment, the acting and legal professions and hospital protocols.  She explains that her research confirms that many health professionals have negative age beliefs and act on them.  Our language in conversations can betray an ageist mindset, for example, when we talk about “having a senior moment” (Becca devotes a chapter to this phenomenon and highlights the amazing memory of deaf people and the role of memory in the oral transmission of indigenous knowledge).

    The last mentioned arena of negative age beliefs, the intrapersonal, is difficult for an individual to realise and acknowledge.  Becca surprised herself by her ageist mindset when she suffered an injury while running in a charity event.  Despite her professional knowledge of aging, she immediately attributed the injury to her middle-aged body “succumbing – all too early – to the ravages of age”.  She assumed that her running days had come to a “premature end”.  It was only when her husband, a doctor, explained that she only had a “badly pulled muscle” that she was able to recognise and acknowledge the personal impact of her negative mindset about aging.  Like many people, Becca was shocked that ageism was influencing her own thinking.

    I can relate to Becca’s personal injury story.  I was diagnosed with multilevel spinal degeneration, in part, as a result of playing tennis for more than 60 years, including many years at a competitive level.  My doctor told me that I would have to give up tennis because the injury was the result of “wear and tear”.  Initially, I put the degeneration down to aging (I was 76 years old at the time) and decided that my body was no longer able to cope with the rigours of tennis.  For some reason, unknown to me, I decided to seek a second opinion.  The second medical practitioner gave me a referral to an exercise physiologist who provided me with a series of progressively more challenging exercises over a period of six weeks.  By the end of this period, I was able to return to playing tennis and have been doing so for six months (I play social tennis weekly at night).  This brought home to me that a negative mindset about aging can actually prevent us from exploring and undertaking remedies for health issues. We can adopt a helpless frame of mind that impedes our chances of improving our health, physically and/or mentally. 

    Reflection

    Becca reveals through her research and storytelling that our negative age beliefs can influence our behaviours, our ability to recover from illness and injury, our quality of life, and life span.  It behoves us to become aware of the influence of ageism on us, to become conscious of our negative thought patterns and to be aware of our resultant limiting behaviours (including our willingness to seek ways of healing).

    As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and mindfulness practices such as meditation, we can become more aware of our thought processes and their impact and develop increased self-awareness, including knowledge of our habituated behaviours.   Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield teach us about The Power of Awareness developed through mindfulness meditation.

    ______________________________________

    Image by John Hain from Pixabay

    By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

    Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

    Mast Cell Activation Syndrome and Covid-19: The Invisible Link

    There has been a lot written lately about Long Covid and its differential impacts on individual’s health.  More recently research has highlighted a connection between Covid-19 and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome.  It is important at the outset to reinforce the need to consult a medical practitioner for treatment of individual health symptoms.  We can too easily make assumptions about what is occurring for us if we go it alone.   For example, I assumed that my numb feet were the result of peripheral neuropathy caused by Long Covid.  When I consulted my medical practitioner, I  discovered, through the X-Ray that he requested, that my assumption was wrong – the actual problem was multi-level spinal degeneration.   However, it is important to consult practitioners who are open to multiple explanations of chronic symptoms, such as those induced by allergies and food sensitivities.  Often, this may involve a medical practitioner who has a holistic perspective and/or is  qualified in functional medicine.

    I recently participated in a Creative Meetup conducted by Health Story Collaborative.  During the meeting, Diane Kane responded to a discussion by a number of participants who were experiencing Long Covid symptoms such as loss of sense of smell, brain fog, and allergies.  When I mentioned my ongoing battle with food sensitivities and allergies, Diane shared some information about Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS).  She explained that her website is a research hub for MCAS.  On the website, Diane shares her own extended patient story as well as research resources including a video presentation on MCAS by Dr. Larence B. Alfin, author of Never Bet Against Occam: Mast Cell Activation Disease and the Modern Epidemics of Chronic Illness and Medical Complexity.

    What is Mast Cell Activation Syndrome?

    Dr. Kelly McCann in a video podcast interview explains that mast cells are a key part of our normal immune system.  Their role is to watch for invaders that would cause injury to our bodies.  They reside everywhere in our bodies from our head to our feet, and typically live in areas of our body that are at our interface with the environment, e.g. our skin, our blood vessels and our nerves.

    Mast cells are responsible for delivering chemical messengers, called “mediators”, such as cytokine and histamine, that produce an inflammatory response to the perceived invader, e.g. a virus, environmental chemicals, mold, or the flu.  Kelly points out that research has shown that mast cells play a major role in the “cytokine storm” that causes an inflammatory response to Covid-19.  If the “foreign invader” is overcome (e.g. we recover from Covid or the flu), “everything quiets back down again” and ‘inflammation goes away”.

    However, for some people mast cells become over-active, “hyper-vigilant” and hyper-responsive” – a condition identified as Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS).  What happens then is that our body “misperceives things”, some of which are actually good for us, e.g. healthy foods.  Hence, we can end up with food sensitivities and allergies (to things like smells, chemicals and some foods).  Kelly makes the point that because of the pervasiveness of mast cells in our body, “anything in our body could present as a mass cell activation symptom”, e.g. brain fog.

    Kelly explains that Mast Cell Activation Syndrome is “a spectrum” – ranging from mild to extreme.  A key feature of MACS is that over time, without intervention, there will be an “escalation in the inflammatory or allergic symptoms” of an individual.  The inflammatory response can be exacerbated by what Kelly calls “hits”, e.g. a virus, sustained exposure to mould, or a tick bite (leading to Lyme Disease).  For example, the progression of mast cell activation syndrome could be signalled by the worsening of food sensitivities for an individual.    

    Diane’s personal health story

    Diane created her website as a means of education and advocacy about the independent science research being conducted on mast cell activation syndrome.  Her own story is really about the extreme end of the spectrum of MCAS and is one of resilience, persistence and hope – a great source of inspiration for anyone experiencing MCAS symptoms.  Diane’s multi-dimensional health problems persisted over 46 years.  Despite visiting 80 consulting doctors and undergoing “extensive evaluations” at 15 major hospitals and suffering multiple anaphylaxis attacks over 20 years, she was not diagnosed with MCAS until 2017 when she visited Dr. Ali Rezale of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

    Dr. Rezale and Dr. Alfin are working with Diane to improve her health overall.  In the meantime, Diane is working on writing a book titled, The MCAS and Covid-19 Theory: A Multidimensional Epigenetic Phenomenon.   As an experienced medical researcher and author who suffered long-term symptoms of MCAS, she is well-qualified to document her story and the growing body of relevant scientific research.  Diane provides draft copies of early chapters of her book on her advocacy website. 

    My health story

    I have experienced multiple “hits” as described by Dr. Kelly McCann.  Having had asthma as a child, I am prone to respiratory problems and allergic reactions.  While I overcame the asthma by the time I was 12 years old, since then I have contracted pneumonia three times, RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) three times and Covid-19 in 2021.   In 2017, I experienced major eczema covering my whole body, following 8-weeks of intensive antibiotics to heal an infected leg (resulting from an operation to remove a melanoma).   Since then I have experienced continuous food sensitivities and allergy which are increasing in breadth and depth to the point that there are very limited things I can eat or drink without negative side effects. 

    Dr. Kelly McCann explains that there are two things going on with MCAS – a trigger(s) and reaction(s).  Both need to be addressed.  In terms of food triggers, I can relate to Dr. Kelly McCann’s comment that she was gluten-free, dairy-free and unable to eat a long list of foods.  As Kelly suggests in her presentation, I have been undertaking an elimination process trying to identify specific foods (especially those high in histamine or salicylates) that cause aggravation of my symptoms so that I can remove them from my diet. 

    In regard to reactions, Kelly argues that there is a need to dampen the hyperactivity of the immune response.  My naturopath, Dr. Mark Shoring, agrees with a tentative diagnosis of MCAS in my case, and recommended initially a course in Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), a herb identified by Mt Sinai Health System in New York as being “used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat allergies, infections, inflammation, cancer, and headaches”.  This treatment, along with Turmeric, is designed to dampen down my hyperactive immune response. So, my somatic strategies, at the moment, include identifying and eliminating aggravating foods and drinks while simultaneously calming the inflammatory response of my immune system.

    Mind-body connection and healing practices

    Kelly maintains that she experiences the influence of the mind-body connection everyday in her clinic when working with patients.   She points out that the impact of mind-body connections is developed through our early family and developmental experiences.  Unfortunately, we are often prone to misperceive these experiences or develop false beliefs that lead to emotional problems such as low self-esteem and emotional dysregulation.  She argues that we have to envisage the health challenge confronting people with MCAS in terms of a three-legged stool – Mast Cell Activation, Limbic System Activation (our emotional centre) and Vagus Nerve Dysfunction (the main nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system).

    Kelly mentions a number of practices that can help retrain the limbic system to get our “mental/emotional loops” and habituated behaviour under control, e.g. Dynamic Neural Retraining System, the Gupta Program and Cathleen King’s Primal Trust Program.

    Vagus Nerve Dysfunction can lead to people with MCAS becoming stuck in fight/flight/freeze behaviour which can impede healing.  Kelly maintains that the approach required here is stimulation of the vagus nerve to help people to get “back into parasympathetic rest and digest”.  She suggests approaches to achieve restoration of balance, e.g. breathing exercises, meditation and devices such as EmWave, HeartMath and Rezzimax.  Kelly mentioned that she uses mind-body techniques in her clinical practice when the person she is treating is receptive to these approaches.

    Reflection

    I think it is important to remember that MCAS impacts each individual differently.  The impacts are influenced by our biology and the number and severity of what Kelly calls “hits”.   There are so many confounding variables involved that self-diagnosis is likely to mislead us.  However, this should not stop us from being proactive, e.g. identifying and reducing or eliminating our triggers.  Actively seeking to grow in mindfulness can help us to stimulate the vagus nerve, activate our relaxation response and overcome negative thoughts.

    Reading about Diane’s experience prompted me to revisit my naturopath and discuss his diagnosis of my food sensitivity and allergy experience.  He explained that his recommended treatment approach was based on the assumption that I was experiencing MCAS.

    During one of my Creative Meetups, also attended by Diane, we listened to a reading of William Stafford’s poem, The Way It Is.  Listening to this poem and the subsequent discussion in the Meetup group prompted me to write a poem about my food sensitivities and allergy:

    The Inflammatory Thread in My Life

    There are many things I can’t eat
    fruit, gluten, dairy and red meat.
    I feel left out that I can’t share
    even with delicious family fare.
    I crave something sweet
    but the cost is too steep.
    Hives and rashes make me really itchy
    legs and feet are shamefully icky.
    Wine is off the table, not that I am unable
    it’s the swollen ankle, that renders me unstable.
    The endless cycle of elimination
    to discover the source of inflammation.
    It’s harder to share a meal with my wife
    what I’ve done for forty years of my life.
    Covid-19 has a long arm
    it’s still doing me harm.
    Almond croissants are my passion
    a loss of consciousness my reaction.
    Butter was a food sensitivity
    It’s now a dangerous allergy.
    Food and drink are tainted rewards
    a mindset change to move forward.
    It’s a long journey with a clear destination
    It takes patience, perseverance and dedication.

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    This post is provided for information purposes only and is not intended to replace personal medical advice provided by a trained medical practitioner.  Please seek advice from a qualified professional before deciding on treatments for yourself or other members of your family.

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    Image by Ingo Jakubke from Pixabay

    By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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