Surrender: A Pathway to Gratitude

In the May Creative Meetup, sponsored by the Health Story Collaborative, we focused on the theme of “surrender”.   The discussion proved to be both inspiring and insightful with participants freely sharing their wisdom born of their lived experience of dealing with chronic illness or disability.  One area we looked at was the act of “letting go” of what is holding us back – our old beliefs, self-doubts, negative self-stories, fears, and expectations of ourselves and others.  Associated with surrender, too, is the possibility of shedding an identity that no longer works for us.

Another sub-theme was that of “giving up” as Lily Tomlin comments, “to give up all hope of a better past”.  It also means accepting ourselves “as we are” with all our foibles, mistakes, deficiencies, hurts, disappointments, losses and limitations.  It involves accepting that we are not perfect and, in the process, opening ourselves to life’s challenges and vicissitudes.   It is about achieving equanimity through acknowledging the fragility of the human condition.  Our facilitator for the Meetup, Jennifer Harris, shared a passage from Jeff Brown in which he encourages us “to celebrate how far we have come”, noting that the “river doesn’t ask itself why it is not an ocean”.

Negative self-talk – an impediment to creativity

In their book, What Happened to You?, Dr. Bruce Perry and Winfrey Oprah point out that personal trauma can lead to a distorted worldview, sensitivity to cues (triggers) and negative self-messages.   In reflecting as part of the Creative Meetup process, I realised that my adverse childhood experiences contributed to my sense that I was “not good enough” and, at times, that I was actually an “impostor”.  

Seth Godin, best-selling author of 21 books, maintains that this kind of negative self-talk is an impediment to creativity and the realisation of our potential.  There were times in my life when I was full of self-doubt and beset with “fear of failure’ or inability to achieve my desired outcomes.  I also felt discouraged by resistance to organisational changes or innovations I was trying to create.

Seth Godin contends that uncertainty about outcomes is integral to the concept of creativity – we “go out on a limb” or “leap into the unknown” when we attempt to develop something new or introduce a change to the way things are done.  For Seth, the chance of failure is always present when you are being creative.  He argues that focusing on process rather than outcomes can free us from fear and enable us to explore new opportunities unimpeded by uncertainty.  

Seth reinterprets the concept of “impostor” to acknowledge that whenever we are being creative the outcomes are uncertain.  In that sense, we will feel that we are “fake” or not the “real thing” because we cannot guarantee the outcome – a natural sensation in the face of uncertainty.   The ”impostor syndrome” can occur whether we are engaged in writing, facilitating, managing people or undertaking some other creative activity.

Gratitude for social support

Social support can take many forms and may involve groups or individuals.   Sometimes it is being  supported by a group, such as the Creative Meetups, where you share your stories, challenges and insights.  At other times it may involve emotional and intellectual support from someone who helps you overcome fear of failure.  When I reflected on the theme of surrender, I became acutely aware of the many people who have helped me during my life to achieve significant outcomes despite my ingrained self-doubts – to help me “let go” of the fear and embrace the creative challenge.  This reflection, in turn, engendered a strong sense of gratitude towards all of these individuals who have had a positive influence in my life by believing in me and my capabilities. Some outstanding examples include:

  • My Mother, a devout Catholic, who supported my education at a private school and believed that I was destined to be a priest and was capable of successfully undertaking the relevant study and training.  To that end, I joined a Contemplative Order and completed five of the six years required for ordination as a priest.  However, I left before my final year owing to illness and external factors.  During my training, I excelled in my studies, was exposed to the emerging fields of Existentialism and Phenomenology, enjoyed the practice of silence and learnt to meditate and sing Gregorian Chant.  It was a life of incredible richness and balance – with strong group social support, challenging learning, daily prayer and meditation, sport and recreation and work on the farm owned by the Order.
  • Charlie Venning, my boss and mentor in the Brisbane Taxation Office, who believed in me to the point of promoting me to be Chief Internal Auditor, Manager of 90 staff engaged in collecting AUD700 Million of taxpayer revenue and, eventually, an Executive Director.
  • Peter Sullivan, a visionary Executive who worked in the Canberra Head Office of the Australian Taxation Office.  Peter had such a strong belief in my capabilities that he engaged me over a number of years to work on three significant national projects involving the organisation-wide development of the Taxation Office.  Peter always believed that I was capable of achieving more than I ever dreamed was possible.
  • Emeritus Professor Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt, author/co-author of 50 books, who first engaged me in 1989 to be the Government representative on the First International Symposium on Action Research in Higher Education, Government and Industry held in Brisbane.  In 1991, Ortrun and I were founding executive members of the Action Learning and Action Research Association which continues today and has had a significant role in promoting action learning and action research on a global basis through World Congresses, international conferences, publications and speaking engagements.  I was President of the Association for five years from 1992. Ortrun proved to be my mentor, PhD supervisor and friend of more than 30 years.  When I doubted my capacity to do a PhD, she encouraged me strongly and provided me with ongoing support.  I have become one of her international “critical friends” for her book writing and provided concept editing for some of her books as well as book reviews. I have also contributed chapters to four of her books and a chapter, The Practical Visionary, to the book produced to honour her lifelong contribution to action learning and action research.   Ortrun is a visionary who has enviable tenacity, resilience and resourcefulness – part of her German inheritance.
  • Reg Revans, Father of Action Learning, I met Reg Revans in 1990 when he was a Keynote Speaker at the First World Congress on Action Learning and Action Research.  Ortrun was Convenor of the Congress and had invited Reg.  I picked up Reg from the airport when he arrived in Brisbane from the UK and took him to his motel opposite Griffith University.  Reg asked if I could show him the QE11 Stadium, the site for the 1982 Commonwealth Games which was adjacent to the University.  In 1930, Reg had represented Britain at the Commonwealth Games and won a silver medal in the triple jump and long jump. After taking him on a car tour of the site, I joined Reg for dinner at his motel and his charisma was evident to all in the restaurant – he was a great storyteller.  Reg inspired everyone at the Congress and his work continues to inspire me today.  I completed my action learning PhD in 1996 drawing heavily on Reg’s work and his book, The Origins and Growth of Action Learning.  My colleague, Julie Cork, and I have conducted over 70 longitudinal, action learning programs for managers over the last 16 years (involving more than 2,000 managers). We are currently co-authoring an action learning book for managers based on our experience in our manager development programs.  Julie, too, has been a very positive influence on me through her belief in my facilitations skills, my understanding of action learning, and my knowledge of manager and organisation development, as well as her willingness to explore the unknown and to collaborate on creating innovative programs.
  • Dr. Bob Dick taught me about organisation development and facilitation skills at the University of Queensland in the 1980’s when I undertook my MBA majoring in training and development.  Bob had an acknowledged, unique, participative style of teaching.  I have modelled my facilitation/co-facilitation of more than 1,000 workshops on his style.   Bob also provided mentorship for me when I was engaged in organisation development activities in the Taxation Office over a number of years.  We have also worked together to promote action learning and action research and to co-author a book on this topic.  I highly value our 40 years of friendship and collaboration.
  • Selva and Param Abraham who had an unshakeable belief in my action learning expertise and sound knowledge of the Tertiary Education Sector.  They are founding owners and now co-owners of the Australian Institute of Business (AIB) – accredited to doctoral level and the largest provider of MBA’s in Australia.  During my 32 years working in an adjunct capacity at AIB (1985-2017), I designed postgraduate courses, was a member of the Academic Board and eventually, Chair of the Research Committee. I also contributed substantially to the organisation’s ongoing accreditation within the Australian Higher Education System.   In my final year when I retired as a Professor of Management, I was honoured with the award of Emeritus Professor.
  • My State Director in the Federal Government Department of Social Security who appointed me as HRM Director as an external applicant (against the trend of internal promotions) and, subsequently, Director, Corporate Services, with responsibility for training and development, human resource management, staffing levels and pay for 3,000 staff in 30 locations across Queensland.  He eventually recommended me for secondment to Griffith University where I spent 11 years as an academic.
  • Emeritus Professor Fals Borda of the Bogota University who believed in my capacity to co-convene a World Congress on Action Learning and Action Research, held in Cartagena, Colombia (South America) in 1997.  The Congress was attended by 1,800 people from 61 countries.  I arranged seeding money for the Invitations to Present; participated as a member of the International Planning Committee as well as an Expert Panel Member; acted as Coordinator of the Organisational Development Stream; and officially opened the Congress with Orlando.  The occasion led me to conduct an impromptu workshop on action learning and organisational change with a group of postgraduate students who were Spanish-speaking.  One of their number acted as interpreter as I progressively explained a major action learning, organisational development project that was the subject of my PhD.
  • Seth Godin, among other things, was the creator of the social media platform, Squidoo (2005).  The platform enabled people to create Squidoo Lenes (effectively individual, modular websites) on any topic – a very strong encouragement to write and share knowledge and understanding.  Revenue from the site, generated through affiliate links/modules, was shared with authors and charities.  Squidoo was also an active community of writers from across the world and became the source of two of my long-standing friendships with my German counterparts, Anne Corcino and Achim Thiemermann, who were resident in America.  Together we collaborated in 2011 with two resident German programmers, Hans Braxmeier and Simon Steinberger, to build the Wizzley social media site – an online community of writers still operating today.   Seth and Squidoo proved to be a great inspiration for my writing and I became a “leader’ in the platform with more than 100 Squidoo lens.  I then went on to create a 6-month social media training program and developed a blog and e-book on Squidoo Marketing Strategies.  Seth provided personal encouragement when he featured my biographical Squidoo lens in his monograph, For the Love of Squidoo, commenting positively on my interesting career and humourous article, An Ethnographical Study of Cartagena Taxi Drivers.   Unfortunately, Squidoo became one of the dead websites after a very successful run and was sold to HubPages – which proved to be a sad day for Squidoo advocates.  Seth, a globally acknowledged marketing guru, has a blog on which he writes daily posts.  Seth’s blog has been a long-standing inspiration for my own blog on mindfulness.  I started writing posts daily too but this became too much when I had to conduct workshops in multiple locations across the State.   However, since 2016, I have created in excess of 750 posts on this Grow Mindfulness blog.

I am conscious that, owing to time and space, I have not done justice to the level of influence that these people have had on my career and life.  I am also conscious that I have omitted other people who strongly influenced me in a positive way such as Emeritus Professors David Limerick and Richard Bawden

Reflection

It is clear to me that social support is critical for personal development and the realisation of a person’s potential.  It also has a significant healing power.  The social support, both individual and group support, that I have enjoyed over many years has enabled me to overcome some of the residual effects of adverse childhood experiences.   Social support enables us to surrender – to let go of negative self-stories, to build self-efficacy, open new horizons and go beyond where we have travelled before.  I can relate strongly to the metaphor, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – an allusion to achieving intellectual and emotional progress by building on the ground-breaking understanding of those who have gone before.  

In reflecting on the social support provided by the individuals who helped me to let go of my self-doubts and fear, I am filled with gratitude for their positive contributions to my career and life.  Surrendering by “letting go” thus provides a pathway to gratitude.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection on our life journey and appreciation of all who have helped us on our way, we can gain renewed strength to move forward and contribute to a better society.  The Creative Meetups sponsored by the Health Story Collaborative have a key role in this endeavour by enabling writing, reflection and storytelling for health and personal development.

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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.

On Being Deaf

Jessica Kirkness in her memoir, The House With All the Lights On, lets us see and hear what it is like to live with grandparents who are Deaf.   Her story covers her experience of living under the one roof with her parents and grandparents and coming to understand the “language of light”.  In the process, Jessica enlightens us about what it means to be deaf and how to interact with adults who are deaf.

Jessica’s grandfather spent a lot of time in and out of hospital.  She highlighted the problem of a lack of understanding on the part of hospital staff despite being told of her grandfather’s deafness. She maintained that his hospital care was often compromised because “staff had no clue how to interact with him”.   This was despite explicit instructions to get his attention before speaking to him, use pen and pad to enable him to understand their message and respond and ensure they actually looked at him when talking.

Jessica herself had studied Auslan (Australian Sign Language) to communicate with her grandparents, particularly with her Grandfather who refused to learn how to speak.  She even had to use sign language to communicate to him in hospital that he was dying after a cardiac arrest.  Jessica provides an enlightening  insight into sign language and its accompanying “visual and spatial tactics” generated by the hands and body movement.  She explains that movement serves to direct the viewer’s attention.

Being deaf

Jessica makes the point that, contrary to the general opinion in the community, her grandparents viewed their deafness as a “way of being in the world”, not a deficit (the focus on something missing).  They were able to recognise nuances in facial expressions and insisted that everyone faced them directly when they talked to them.  This enabled them to expertly read faces and attempt to lip read.

Jessica points out at one stage in her book about the lipreading  traps inherent in the English language.  She explains that this is the result of what is called “homophemes” – “words that sound different but involve identical movements of the speaker’s lips”.   The words themselves have different meanings, leading to confusion and stress for the lip reader.

Discrimination

Jessica quotes Rachel Kolb’s TED Talk, Navigating Deafness in a Hearing World, when she discusses the “primacy of voice” in our hearing world and the fact that “mouths are not a prerequisite for speech”.   Rachel makes the salient point that if you can’t hear, how can you learn to speak?  She was born profoundly deaf and has become a Rhodes Scholar, writer and disability advocate.

Rachel knew that her speech was defective and had to come to terms with her difference.  She spent 18 years in speech therapy to be able to talk, spending a lot of time learning speech through feeling the vibrations in the throat of her speech therapist.  Still people thought that her difference in speech was due to a foreign accent.

Jessica highlights the discrimination experienced by her grandparents in what is a “hearing world”.  People expect to be understood when they speak (“being heard”, “being listened to”).  The distortions in the speech of many deaf people lead to misunderstandings and assumptions about “lack of intelligence” or dumbness.  Jessica states that “deafness is the thing that we cannot look away from but cannot bear to face”.

The disruption and disorientation of deafness in a hearing world is not understood and sometimes feared.  People lack an appreciation that a deaf person can have a heightened sense of sight and an enhanced peripheral vision (so that actions “behind their back” can sometimes be detected and seen as derogatory).  People who are deaf often have a strong sense of touch and vibration.  As Jessica remarks, “sound is received in the body in all sorts of ways” and people who are deaf can “hear” music through vibrations in the floor.  I had personal experience of this in Melbourne when a group of us visited a school for deaf children and watched them dancing enthusiastically to music by sensing floor vibrations.

The language of light

Jessica’s Grandmother insisted that ‘the entire self is required for conversation”.  She could not tolerate people turning away from her when listening to what she had to say.  Jessica does point out, however, that the exception to this “whole-self rule” was when she was driving.  She notes too that “touch and sight were always interwoven” for her grandparents.  The world for them was “experienced through the interplay of the eyes and body”.

Consciousness of light was important because being in front of windows when communicating could create shadows that distort the images of hands and faces.  The world of deaf people is “driven by sight” where looking is equivalent to knowing.  Gerald Shea titled his book The Language of Light to express the role of light in sign language and the centrality of the visual for the deaf.  When the lights go out there is no dialogue.

Reflection

Jesscia’s book helped me to understand how easy it is to unconsciously exclude a person who is fully or partially deaf.  It reminded me that I have a friend in her eighties who is hard of hearing and I often overlook the need to face her when I talk.  She points out that being able to speak multiple languages, she has developed a propensity for lipreading – something I deprive her of when I am not facing her.  She often notes too that I “mumble”, failing to properly articulate my words which increases her sense of isolation.

By gaining an understanding of what it is like being deaf, we can learn to better include deaf people by more conscious speech and actions.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can increase our awareness of people’s differences, our own limitations and biases and be more compassionate in our interactions with others.  

Having been considerably moved by Jessica’s book, I wrote the following poem from the perspective of someone who is deaf:

Being Deaf

Being deaf is not a deficit
It’s a way of being in the world.
With refined senses of sight and touch
A reliance on light for meaning.

Face me so I can read your lips
Be in the light so I see the nuances in your facial expressions.
I am not dumb, I am deaf
I sense sound through vibrations.

While I can’t hear
I can see and feel things that you don’t notice.
My vision is not narrow
I can see my periphery clearly.

Don’t avoid me out of fear
Approach me out of curiosity.
Don’t judge me for my voice distortions
Listen intently for my message.

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Image by Ivana Tomášková 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.

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.

    Finding Strength in Vulnerability

    Kylie Orr in her novel, The Eleventh Floor, has her lead character, Gracie, comment after experiencing the impact of deceit in a relationship, “I was committed to loving up close, to being open, vulnerable”.  While Gracie acknowledged that “there is danger in that”, she was willing to take the risk inherent in vulnerability because “a life held together by lies fell apart so easily”.   Being vulnerable exposes us to the possibility of being harmed by someone else emotionally, intellectually or physically – it   involves showing our true self with our emotional weaknesses, character faults and physical defects.

    Vulnerability, however, is a source of strength.  It underpins perseverance and resilience, facilitates sustainable relationships, enriches our contribution to community, and enables the writing of an entertaining and enlightening memoir.  To access the strength in vulnerability we have to face up to being vulnerable – we need to name our feelings (e.g., fear of rejection) so that we can tame them.

    Perseverance and resilience

    Contrary to the Alpha Male depiction of power, dominance and the trappings of success, Lance Alfred (legally deaf NBA player) contends that perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity require a totally different orientation.  He maintains that there is real strength in vulnerability – owning up to our feelings, being authentic, having self-awareness and self-intimacy (acknowledging our own thoughts, actions and consequences), forgiving others, moving beyond other people’s expectations to be our true self, accepting our inadequacies and mistakes and overcoming the fear of failure.  

    When we fear failure we can be trapped by inertia – unable to move forward beyond the current challenge.  In her novel The Brightest Star, Gail Tsukiyama describes a time when Chinese-American actress, Anna May Wong, was making her stage debut In The Circle of Chalk and was terrified that her speaking voice and singing were not up to the expected standard (after spending so much time acting in silent movies).  The critics were having a field day about her voice but she acknowledged this weakness and “went on the offensive”, hiring a voice coach.  Despite the criticisms of the critics, the show had a “successful run”.  

    Sustainable intimate relationships

    We can hide our fear of being vulnerable in a relationship in multiple ways including excessive criticism of the other person, aggression (anger), withdrawal (silent treatment), overcontrolling or projecting our own weaknesses or fears onto the other person.  These defence mechanisms only serve to push the other person away, to wound them and disable them.  While they provide protection for our ego and self-concept, they create a barrier to a sustainable intimate relationship.

    Tara Brach provides a meditation which enables us to explore the ways that we create separation or distance in a relationship by resorting to defence mechanisms to ward off vulnerability.  In the meditation, we are asked how we are impacting our relationships(s) by avoiding vulnerability.  The challenging questions relate to self-protection, projection, judging, withholding, distrusting or engaging in “superior conceit”.  Tara points out the power of being vulnerable (overcoming our natural defence mechanisms) in terms of building closeness and sustainable relationships. 

    Enriching our contribution to community

    Tara tells a number of stories where being vulnerable led to someone else finding strength to manage a disturbing or embarrassing circumstance.  One of the features of the Creative Meetups hosted by The Health Story Collaborative is the vulnerability shared by participants in the monthly, online meetings.  Participants are people experiencing chronic illness or disability or are in a caring role.  They willingly share their pain, difficulties in coping, inability to think clearly, physical weaknesses, anxiety or depression or lack of energy. 

    The level of openness and trust enables individuals to express their vulnerability without fear of being taken advantage of, or being consciously harmed by anyone else present.  Vulnerability, enhanced by the culture of sharing and collaboration, builds closeness and healing.  There is the implicit recognition that being vulnerable is integral to the human condition.

    Developing a memorable memoir

    In the Art of Memoir, Mary Karr, stresses the need for authenticity – revealing our real self, not the projected self or the deemed “virtuous self”.  She highlights the importance of being vulnerable rather than self-protective.  She sees the memoir as a personal unfolding that is sometimes painful – an honest exploration of our “inner landscape”, not just a recording of external events.  Mary suggests that as we are developing our draft memoir with recalled stories “what burbles up onto the page is what is exclusively yours, both as a writer and a human being”.  She maintains that we have to trust the power of truth enough to “keep unveiling yourself”, despite the shame in the revelations, and, in the process, the memoir will structure itself and you will show up ”warts and all” – leaving a memorable impression that highlights your contribution to relationships and community.

    Reflection

    Being vulnerable is difficult as self-protection is our natural fall-back position.  As we grow in mindfulness through writing, reflection and meditation, we can begin to draw back the veil that hides our imperfections and inadequacies.  With the inherent growth in self-awareness and self-intimacy, we can become more real and more invested in telling the truth about ourselves. This is a progressive inner journey – a slow unveiling of our true inner self.   By letting go of shame and expectations (our own and that of others), we can develop authentic connections, friendships and intimate relationships.

    I wrote the following poem as a reflection on the negative impact of defensiveness on relationships and the power of vulnerability to create intimacy by removing our constructed barriers.

    Sustaining a Relationship

    Deceit destroys a relationship.
    Closeness is beyond us, as we retreat behind the wall.
    Facing up to who we are can be painful.

    Without vulnerability, our relationships are shallow.
    We hide behind our self-projected mask.
    We engage our defence mechanisms.
    We fence off our inner landscape.

    Sustainability lies in vulnerability.
    Openness to ourselves and others.
    No longer the frightened child.
    Now exposed to risk and reward.
    Intimacy is in our hands, if we reveal who we truly are.

    ___________________________________________

    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.

    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.

    ____________________________________________

    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.

    Paternal Forgiveness – A Reflective Poem

    Since I started participating in the Creative Meetups organised by the Health Story Collaborative I have been writing poems. It’s as if there are feelings inside me that need to get out.  It reminds me of my PhD supervisor who told me at one stage of my extended procrastination, “You have a doctorate inside you, unless you let it out, it will undermine whatever you are doing.”  Once I wrote the PhD, it released a whole new world of opportunity.

    Over time, our disposition to forgive and our capacity to offer forgiveness to others and ourself will develop almost invisibly if we grow in mindfulness through appropriate practices, such as forgiveness meditations.  The following poem grew out of my mindfulness practices and Meetup reflections:

    Paternal Forgiveness

    I didn’t forgive you while you were alive.
    I didn’t even forgive myself.
    Now I don’t know how to say sorry to someone who has passed.

    You served in the army during World War 2 before I was born.
    You spent four years in Changi and worked on the Burma Railway.
    Shortly after your army discharge, you reenlisted.

    When I was four, you left to work in Sydney and Woomera.
    And served 18 months with the Occupation Forces in Japan.
    There you were an “enemy stranger” in a foreign land.

    In your absence, Mum was seriously ill following the birth of Michael.
    You returned for two weeks to take Mum and my two brothers to Brisbane.
    While baby Michael spent time with your sister before getting ill himself.

    My younger sister and I were separated and left with different relatives in Melbourne.
    Three month old Michael was eventually placed in a Founding Home.
    When Mum returned a month later to collect the three of us, you told her that Michael had died while she was in transit.

    I spent 18 months in an orphanage at the age of four while you were away.
    Those were the months of my imprisonment and harsh treatment, shared by my younger sister.
    Though we were separated from each other by the Institution.

    Mum was only allowed by the Institution to visit us monthly.
    It was only then that I saw my brothers and my sister, despite her being in the same Orphanage.
    I felt isolated and alone.

    When you returned from Japan, you became an aggressive alcoholic.
    As a young child, I would freeze and dissociate when your rage flared.
    As I got older, I would take flight by riding my push bike into the night as fast as I could.

    I didn’t understand PTSD – no one did at that time.
    I had not been where you had been or seen what you saw.
    I didn’t see the triggered images that tormented you.

    The war, the explosion, hospitalisation, capture and prison life.
    You suffered the loss of mates killed in action or dying from cruelty or malnutrition while you were in Changi or working on the Burma railway.
    You experienced unimaginable horrors.

    I understand now that alcohol was your way to drown your pain and sorrows.
    To block out the horrific images.
    I forgive you and forgive myself for my harsh judgments – I didn’t understand.

    It was easy to take sides when you were drunk and wasting our income.
    While Mum slaved away at the local Woolies to keep us afloat.
    And vented her anger and frustration at night.

    As an adult, I had to take Mum away from your violence for her survival.
    I was fearful at the time that you would try to find us.
    As we took shelter in the small rooms at the back of a General Store.

    The separation proved to be a godsend.
    You both improved your lives.
    With new partners eventually and a healthier way of life.

    You even gave up alcohol and walked an hour every day.
    On Sundays you took Mum to Church.
    But we were not able to reconnect.

    You had been a professional boxer, winning 20 of 22 fights.
    You won trophies for tennis and athletics.
    You became Player Coach of a Reserve Grade AFL team in Brisbane.

    I am truly grateful that I inherited your genes.
    The fighting spirit, resilience, determination and fast reflexes.
    All of which have helped me in my tennis and my work and life.

    I am sorry that I did not know what you were going through.
    That I saw myself, instead of you, as the victim.
    That I did not acknowledge your unbearable pain and unbelievable courage and tenacity.

    ____________________________________________

    Image by Gerd Altmann 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.

    ____________________________________________

    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.

    How to Develop Positive Beliefs About Aging

    Previously, I discussed the pervasive impact of negative beliefs about aging and the life-enhancing benefits of positive age beliefs.   In those posts, I drew on the mind-opening research of Professor Becca Levy, author of Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Will determine How Long and How Well You Live.  In her book, Becca not only explores the potential negative or positive impacts of our beliefs about aging, she also  offers multiple ways to develop a positive mindset that will enable us to live longer and with a better quality of life.  She provides numerous examples of people in different fields who have achieved incredible things in their old age.  Becca stresses the need for each of us to be proactive in building positive beliefs about aging to counteract the influence of ageism which is with us from the time we hear our earliest fairy tales until we experience palliative care

    The ABC approach to developing positive beliefs about aging

    In her book, Becca introduces the ABC Method to liberate us from the socially-derived negative beliefs about aging and free our minds to realise the potential inherent in aging.  Her ABC method incorporates three core elements – awareness, blame and challenge:

    A – Awareness

    Becca suggests that developing positive age beliefs begins with ourselves, increasing our awareness of our own thoughts and the way this impacts our words and actions.  We can increasingly become conscious of how we speak to people in different age groups – how we positively recognise “age diversity” (rather  than perpetuating “age blindness”).  She recalls that on one occasion, she found herself talking in a childlike manner to older people (“elderspeak”) and immediately pulled herself up and changed the way she spoke to these people.  Her newly  adopted adult-to-adult communication was respectful of the wisdom and experience of the people she was addressing. This is an example of reflection-in-action, a skill we can develop by practising reflection on our actions as a habitual approach. 

    Our awareness can develop by building a “portfolio of positive images of aging”.  We can do this by reading newspaper reports and articles about people who have excelled in various fields of endeavour.  Another rich source of positive age images is memoirs written by people who describe their accomplishments in old age despite early childhood setbacks, including traumatic experiences.  An incredible exemplar of this approach to developing positive beliefs is Maya Angelou.  She not only broke new ground in writing memoirs but wrote her seventh memoir, Mom and Me and Mom, in her eighties.  Her accomplishments in many fields such as  poetry, writing, acting, film, singing and activism are memorialised in a website in her name.  Becca cautions us, though, to avoid trying to model ourselves on a single, exceptional older person – she argues that a more attainable goal is to strengthen qualities in ourselves that “older role models” exhibit (such as Maya’s work ethic).

    We only have to look around us for positive models of aging amongst our friends, relatives, colleagues, our medical carers and other professionals.  This involves developing relationships with, and paying attention to, people who have aged and yet who continue to contribute positively to their career arena, the local community or society generally.  We can also seek the company of elders.  Nadine Cohen, author of the exquisite, debut novel, Everyone and Everything, actively seeks people of her mother’s and grandparents’ age and finds that she is “usually richer emotionally” because of their counsel and wisdom.  

    B – Blame

    Becca argues that we should put the blame where it truly belongs – not our biology but the ageism that surrounds us in every facet of our life.  This involves consciously developing awareness of our social environment in our everyday life.  It means being able to identify “negative age stereotypes” perpetuated in education, the arts, medical professions, and in daily conversations with friends, colleagues and family members.

    As we develop this external awareness, we can begin to identify the “upstream causes” impacting the health and wellness of the aged. Becca maintains that “age beliefs are an upstream predictor of health and well-being”.  She contends that if we actively develop positive age beliefs we can change our health habits.  This approach is in line with the research that shows that to create new behaviours, we need to challenge the assumptions that underlie old behaviours – it is not enough to practise new behaviours if we want sustainable change.

    C- Challenge

    Becca recommends challenging ageism in whatever form it takes.  She points out the example of antiageism activist, Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, and the blog Yo, Is This Ageist?   Ashton is actively and publicly challenging the hidden negative beliefs as they are reflected in newspaper articles, headlines, advertisements, and elsewhere and educating readers by responding to their questions about ageism.  She also has a YouTube channel incorporating her Talk at Google and other presentations addressing ageism.   In her Ted Talk, Let’s End Ageism, she points out that ageism is “a prejudice that pits us against our future selves – and each other”.

    While people like Ashton and celebrities such as Madonna and Robert De Niro are speaking out publicly against ageism, Becca contends that we can help to overcome ageism in society if we “call it out” when we encounter any form of ageist remark in the relationship circles in which we move,  Becca recounts her discussion over coffee with Irene Trenholme who at 99 years of age ran the Secondhand Prose bookstore which donated all it profits to the local St. Johnsbury library.  Irene proved to be an exemplar for challenging ageism.  Whenever she encountered an ageist remark or action, she would firmly indicate that this was inappropriate, including challenging her doctor who spoke too loudly to her (assuming that, because of her age, she was “hard of hearing”).

    Becca challenges many myths that surround aging and encourages us to take up the task of questioning firmly-held beliefs that have no scientific foundation.  She provides an Appendix in her book which she describes as “ammunition to debunk negative age stereotypes”.  She lists common negative age stereotypes and offers facts (proven by research) that can be used to debunk these stereotypes, including “cognition inevitably declines in old age” and “older persons are technologically challenged”.  In relation to the latter myth, Becca points out that Mildred Dresselhaus innovated the field of nanotechnology in her seventies.

    Underlying the assumption that older people are technologically challenged is a foundational ageist myth that I call the “blank slate myth”.   People often assume that those who are older lack any related knowledge, skill or experience in a particular area, e.g. technology.  They forget that the technology they enjoy today was pioneered and developed commercially (long before some were born) by people who are now in their later years.  I am now 77 years of age (2024), but I have a long history of involvement in the development and application of technology in education and the workplace in the 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s and early 2000’s:

    • National Project Team – the design and implementation of the first online, national, accounting and management information system in the Australian Taxation Office (1973 -1977);
    • National Project Team – the introduction of word processing and personal computers in the Australian Taxation Office;
    • Role of Director, Computer Operations, Australian Taxation Office, Queensland and the Northern Territory;
    • Sensitive National projects associated with physical computer security and deterrence and detection of computer fraud;
    • Role of National Change Manager for the implementation of online learning and teaching in the Technical and Further Education Institutes across Australia (2000-2004);
    • Role of a Leader in Squidoo – a social media platform developed by Seth Godin (2007-2014);
    • Creator of a 6-month, online Social Media Marketing Course – 24 weekly PDF’s (2010);
    • Creator of e-books on internet marketing, social media marketing and Squidoo marketing strategies (2009-2012);
    • Creator of blogs on affiliate marketing (2005-2012) and small business marketing (2011-2012);
    • Co-Creator with colleagues in Germany and America of the article-based, social media platform, Wizzley.com (2011);
    • Sole author of my current Grow Mindfulness blog (2016 – present; 745 posts).

    I spend very little time on social media platforms these days, not because I’m “technologically challenged” but because I have other priorities.  My priorities at the moment are to write my mindfulness blog (1,000 word post per week); co-author a book on “managing people”; and write a memoir.

    The “blank slate myth” not only applies to technology but also many other areas of endeavour.  I found that it applies even in social activities.  I still play social tennis in my late seventies and I am often confronted with the manifestation of this myth in our social tennis games.  For example, I recently played with a younger partner who shouted out to me not to hit a shot that was clearly going out (by at least 2 metres), assuming that, through lack of experience (or loss of memory/faculties), I had not been able to judge that the ball would be out.  Having played more than 10,000 sets of tennis (including competitive tennis at an A-Grade level) over more than 60 years, I have a fairly advanced awareness of what shots are going to go out – it’s embedded in my body memory.  I can, for instance, when lobbed by an opposition tennis player, chase down the tennis ball and hit it back over my head and land it in the court (the secret is to face parallel to the back fence of the court so your body knows where it is in relation to the court outline).   To me, the “blank slate myth” defies logic and denies the richness of skills, intuition, insight and reflexes developed over many years.

    Reflection

    In thinking about the impact of negative and positive age beliefs, I became very conscious that, despite social conditioning, what we believe about aging is up to us – and our beliefs determine our actions. I incorporated this reflection in the following poem that I wrote recently;

    The Choices You Make About Aging

    If you are positive, you open up your potential –

    life’s joys and pleasures are yours to gain.

    If you look, you will see what is possible –

    aging models of achievement are everywhere.

    If you challenge the myths, your mind is freed,

    you can pursue your goals without constraint.

    If you remember what you have achieved

    you can draw on your sense of agency.

    If you exercise your mind and body

    you can restore your acuity and strength.

    As you grow in mindfulness

    through reading, research and reflection,

    you can become more self-aware

    and free of stereotypes, assumptions and insipidness.

    What you believe about aging

    influences the choices you make.

    ____________________________________________

    Image by GreenCardShow from Pixabay

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

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