The cure for anything is salt water

The cure for anything is salt water

I’ve started throwing myself into the sea… in the UK… in spring… and it’s wonderful!

Bear with me…!

There is something about it, when the water is around 10 degrees, that brings you uncompromisingly into the here and now – both physically and mentally.

For the first few minutes, there is little you can do but be in the moment, focus on your breathing, finding it again from where it’s been whisked away from you; experience your flesh and nerves being first bombarded with cold and then numbed by it; feel the adrenalin flowing.

For some (me included) the first minute seems to be accompanied by surprisingly guttural sounds from deep within them. It’s a different way to use your voice, a different way to express yourself, one that has no filter to it.

You know you’re completely safe, that you’re going to become comfortable, but you feel on the edge of it, outside of your comfort zone physically and maybe mentally. It’s a good place to put yourself on a regular basis.

And as you acclimatise, a smile spreads across your face. Your system settles, but the exhilaration of it remains. You’re proud of yourself for jumping in. Your body is making decisions that you feel more acutely aware of than when you’re sedentary. Your capillaries have opened up and the blood is flowing. Your limbs are abandoned in favour of preserving your core, your essentials. The non-essentials are stripped away.

You feel whole. You feel solid. You are surrounded by water, as in your most formative state.

 You clamber out: connected, grounded, a little bit brave.

Wild swimming is having something of a renaissance in the UK, and around the world. The positive impacts on our mental and physical health are moving from anecdotal to researched and evidenced.

As well as being bloody fun, and perhaps a little terrifying, it’s about moving out of your comfort zone; trying new things; stripping away the non-essentials; being brought into the present moment; the euphoria and achievement afterwards; (and getting to feel a little bit smug that you did it).

Joining a group is a great way to get yourself out there! I’ve joined one here in Brighton called The Salty Seabirds . As well as being lovely, welcoming people, their conversations about ‘arctic flaps’ (I’ll leave you to figure that one out for yourself) drew me to them! 🙂 

We’re not all fortunate enough to live by the sea (I count myself very lucky), but lakes and rivers are just as exciting. There is any number of websites to inform and inspire, including www.wildswimming.co.uk

If you’re not able to swim in, or get to, an outdoors space, swimming or floating in any capacity is great for your body and your mind. Local authority swimming pools are one of the many things we can be grateful we have in this country.

I invite you to bare with me! 

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Spirals

Spirals

The spiral is ubiquitous. It exists in nature, in architecture, in the weather, in our galaxies! It has been used in mythology and across many different cultures, including several in South America and in Celtic art. It’s in our DNA.

It’s used to symbolise growth and continuity.

It’s a powerful symbol to use when we’re thinking about our own development – and one that I’ve employed time and again.

We can often find ourselves in a place that seems familiar and question why we’re there. There can be a tendency to feel frustration at the fact that we’ve been there before, especially if it’s not a place we feel we want to be, and to be hard on ourselves. ‘Why am I here again?’; ‘Am I never going to change this?’; ‘I can’t believe this has happened to me again!’, for example.

While it’s super important to be aware of patterns of behavior and work on the changes we want to make, it can also be counter-productive to chastise ourselves when we feel like we’ve returned to a place.

Life isn’t linear (and it definitely doesn’t always feel like a beautiful spiral – often more a of messy squiggle!) and returning to things is part of our development.

It’s important to remind ourselves that while it may feel familiar, we’re not in the same place, we’ve changed since we were last there. Returning is part of our learning. We need to be there for a reason, to see the place again with slightly different eyes, with additional knowledge and experiences within us.

 To return is to have the opportunity to reflect, to be aware, to shift how we respond on this occasion.

Embracing all of our elements

Embracing all of our elements

Alone on the South West Coast Path in Cornwall, UK, loaded pack on my back, I walked on through wind and rain coming horizontally at me from the sea. At one point, I turned, all alone as the path twisted and turned around the coastline, I held my arms wide and I shouted into the wind “Hello, world!! Let’s do this!!!”. For the first time in months, I heard my voice loud and clear and as unapologetic as the wind that howled in my face. It felt wonderful. It came from right inside me, it came from all of me.

In every situation, we show parts of ourselves and hide others; that’s a normal part of human interaction. It depends on who we’re talking to, what the activity is, how we’re feeling, and a multitude of other factors.

What so many of us also do, however, is hide or deny parts of our self on an ongoing basis. Especially as women, we know that we often modify our language, verbal and body language, we might make ourselves smaller, we can quieten a voice inside us because it doesn’t fit in the narrative of what we’re ‘supposed’ to be. Perhaps we’re afraid of being regarded as ‘bolshy’, ‘feisty’, ‘bossy’ or any one of the plethora of words used to describe women who step into their power.

Very often, we also deny parts of us even to ourselves.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the interplay between nature and stepping into our full selves, especially as women. And I’ve been thinking about the narratives that I hold around it.

I’ve noticed that as I’ve been starting to communicate my ideas through the lens of Rowan Tree Coaching, I’ve been focusing primarily on the ‘grounding’, calming elements of nature. Indeed, how truly wonderful it is to be still amongst the trees, to feel the peace that comes when we stare up at the stars. I feel so fortunate to engage with this so regularly, and it has most definitely been an integral part of me ‘settling’ inside myself.

Sometimes, however, the wind needs to howl and the waves need to crash. The trees need to lose their branches, and the thunder needs to roar.

Winter needs to bring introspection, just as spring brings us new growth and looking outwards. One couldn’t exist without the other.

Take anger: it can be a driving force – it can energise us to do great things, to bring about great change. It can push us to be part of the solution to an injustice we encounter.  We are certainly living in a world right now that is calling more and more for anger to be channeled into positive action – and there are so many that are answering that call.

And there is so much in between – so much in between the light and the dark. In fact, there is whatever you want there to be.

One reason I return to nature time and again, is that it reminds me, sometimes gently and sometimes forcefully, of the full spectrum of what exists and the full spectrum of who we are and who we can be. Nature can give us permission, if we need it, to be any or all of these elements.

The more I embrace and recognize that I ‘contain multitudes’, the more I feel myself and the more I trust myself.

And this is the basis of my coaching – to support you in being unapologetically you.

I will work to celebrate and empower all of the parts of me; all elements of you; all elements of us.

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When I sat in the woods

When I sat in the woods

Two years ago, I was signed off work, following an extended period of anxiety and depression and was in the midst of adjusting to the new medication I had decided to take. I felt paralyzed by indecision; I felt as though I was at the bottom of a hole. In the context of an on-going propensity for anxiety and low-level depression, my spiralling had been precipitated to a large degree by the challenges I was facing in returning to life in the UK after working overseas and trying to establish myself in new work, without knowing what I wanted this to be.

During this period, I decided that some time with the trees was overdue and so headed off to a beautiful woodland campsite close to Brighton, UK, where I live (unknowingly going on International Forest Day!). The campsite sits in a promontory of woodland that juts out into the surrounding fields, so that you feel immediately enveloped by the trees and have a secluded site to yourself.

The point of the weekend was to be still, to be there alone and to enjoy the surroundings. I read my book; I simply sat, listening and watching. I’d been learning a lot at this point about the importance of sitting and being. Just being. I used to find this extremely difficult and uncomfortable. I always felt as though I ‘should’ be doing something, or that simply sitting is lazy. How ingrained these concepts can be within us. My mind would often go to a thousand different places at once.

I’ve found over recent years that I’m developing a capacity for being still. Returning to the practice of yoga and meditation, working on self-compassion, and engaging in nature have helped me to do this.

There is something fundamental and elemental about engaging in these practices in a natural environment. Of course, you can practice yoga and meditation almost anywhere, and I would strongly encourage you to do so. But in nature, your pace slows more easily, your mind calms, you start to pick up the rhythms that nature presents to you, those rhythms that are sewn into our DNA and that speak to us when we connect with them. Each evening at my campsite, I eschewed a fear that someone might see me doing it (oh, no!) and practiced yoga by the light of the fire I built each evening. And as I did so, I felt something inside of me that was at once fire and air, passion and power, with calm. I felt more whole. I breathed and I was. I felt my power. Very specifically, I felt my female power.  

The fires that I made started small and they became larger and larger. The elemental nature of fire needs no explaining. The sense of being able to create this source of life for yourself is a powerful one. The heat, the light, and the feeling of protection that it provides spoke to the scared, untethered, fractious parts of me.

It was March when I camped: spring in the northern hemisphere, a time of renewal and growth. The woodland was alive with the sound of birds keen to make new life! I woke up to their song each morning and heard all it day. Over the days and nights, I heard robins, blackbirds, pheasants, woodpeckers, owls, pigeons, chaffinch, wrens and more. I woke one morning with full conviction that I could name accurately every birdsong I heard (I definitely can’t!). The trees were budding and spring was showing herself.

I spent one of my days walking through fields and woodland, along streams and down winding tracks. I clambered over fallen trees and worked hard to recall the shapes of leaves for different trees and the name for (I later remembered) pussy willow. I had conversations with the campsite’s resident pheasant (Phil).

The last night I had at the campsite, I was the only one there: only the second time I’d camped solo, ever. It was time for some bravery. A big conversation with myself was had about not running away from it even though I was scared – and even though I was sure that the helicopter that went overhead three times that evening was searching for the escaped murderer who was hiding out in the same woodland!  And I stayed. I sat in the fear, I explored it, I spoke to myself about it, I didn’t run away from it. I went on to enjoy (most of) the night, and was so proud of myself in the morning.

So, what of this experience, other than a wonderful few days away? How does this link with my anxiety, depression and overcoming the obstacles that stood in the way of finding work that spoke to me?

The four days helped me to press the reset button. They helped to calm my fractious system. My sympathetic nervous system, which had been twitching and being ‘set off’ so easily, was helped to rest. My brain was offered the opportunity to rest by what Rachel Kaplan calls ‘soft fascination’: nature presents us with many things that ‘entice our attention without demanding it, […] that are compatible with our sense of aesthetics and offer up a bit of mystery’[1]. We test the plasticity of our brains’ capabilities to adapt to the modern world almost, and sometimes fully, to breaking point. Sitting in nature enables us to return to a mode of operating that fits with the natural evolution of our brains. Florence Williams writes of the importance of providing our brains with opportunities to recover from the demands of modern life. In my case, I was recovering from what felt like more than the usual day-to-day stresses, but the same processes fundamentally hold true.

These days in the woodland helped to renew perspective. The oak and birch trees that swayed above me were there before I was born and would be there after the carbon that makes me has lost it’s human form. The stars that I looked up at each night are the most powerful reminder of the fleeting nature of our existence. That doesn’t mean we belittle our experiences and our obstacles, but that we are reminded to place them in a larger scheme. In some ways, the smallness of our existence in the world and universe is far from a pessimistic view, but instead can unshackle us and create space for a lightness and a playfulness to what we do.

The time away camping was one small part of my coming back to another part of myself; it was part of the spiral of learning, of being, of thinking; of feeling what my body was telling me; of embracing being in something bigger than myself; of feeling held and holding myself; of knowing that this engagement in nature was destined to play a larger role in how I live my life and how I work. It wasn’t a revelation but rather a whisper of a reminder: of what I have within myself and what I can be in the world.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson to Florence Williams, from William Wordsworth to Mary Oliver, and millennia before any of these, there is an extensive lineage of those who have lived, breathed and written about the power of our connection with nature. They knew. And we know. We have the connection within us; as with all connections and all growth, we need to nurture it, to water it. Being in nature doesn’t mean that we disconnent from the modern world. I am a political and social animal as well; being in nature regularly helps to equip me for being effectively in all of these spaces.

So start. Buy a pot plant for your living space; grow herbs in your garden, if you’re lucky enough to have one; take your lunch with you to the park; climb a tree and sit in it (hug it, even!); walk through the woodland for the day, embracing the sights, sounds and smells; camp, alone or with others who make you feel calm and safe; swim in the sea, jump in the lakes; climb the mountain; build the fire. There are a plethora of groups out there that offer opportunities to do this together, if you feel you need support in doing it. Be in it. BE.

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Whatever words I use, I find that the poetry goddess that was Mary Oliver has created some that encapsulate all I want to say. So, let me gift you this:

Sleeping in the forest

I thought the earth remembered me, she 
took me back so tenderly, arranging 
her dark skirts, her pockets 
full of lichens and seeds. I slept 
as never before, a stone 
on the riverbed, nothing 
between me and the white fire of the stars 
but my thoughts, and they floated 
light as moths among the branches 
of the perfect trees. All night 
I heard the small kingdoms breathing 
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night 
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling 
with a luminous doom. By morning 
I had vanished at least a dozen times 
into something better.

Mary Oliver


[1] The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, p49