Creating clarity, making choices, and loving yourself through the process – Diving into 2018

The days between Christmas and New Years Eve were for me a time to recollect and reflect on the year gone:
…Remembering important experiences and encounters.
…Giving myself credit for courageous steps taken.
…Sending out gratitude to the people in my life who have supported and given me guidance.
…Trying to give words to and create an understanding of the connection between the different sources of inspiration and influences that have steered and pulled me.

I notice how much power it gives me to take time to reflect back. To not just go on and on, but to stop and take a moment to recollect and engage myself with what was there.
It is like a process of digesting, and same as with food, it is an important part of being able to take nutrions out of my experiences – to be able to grow through and with them. It needs to be given time, space, calm, respect…

This year I realised that I also really appreciated all the fireworks on New Years Eve – a explosively impressive sign – a collective setting of a boundary between then and now that can’t be missed.

So the boundary is crossed – we have already entered fairly far into 2018.
During the first week of the year I reentered my working room and started to prepare myself for work to come. During this process of reorganising and structuring my working space my eyes got caught by a small part of a vision board that I created together with a friend at the beginning of last year.
Vision board may sound ambitious… for us at the time it was actually more a play with combining images and colours that attracted us on a big piece of paper without thinking so much about how it connected to our visions and ideas during the process.
But like any creative work with images, looking at the finished product we could find all kinds of important hidden meanings. And looking back at the picture over the year (- I actually taped it to our kitchen wall to have it in view :)), it was amazing to see how much of the processes I went through could be related to different parts of the picture. The human mind loving to search for meanings and connections in things surely. But this is also the beautiful part of using creative processes to make sense of what is going on in us – our feelings, thoughts, imagination… Finding images and words that gives it an expression. Something that could possibly even be shared with and understood by others.

So this is the image I want to share with you – the photo at the top of this accompanying this post: Pinguins in line on a huge block of ice waiting to take the leap into a turbulent, black sea.
When I look at this image I feel the anticipation before entering something new – the dark sea attractive and repelling at the same time – the fear and the excitement. I see the one pinguin in mid-leap, the tension in the little body, the belly and chest pushing forward, ready to hit the water surface. I feel movement in my own belly, knowing how it feels being in the air in the middle of a free fall. And I see the two pinguins next in line twisting sharply back with their bodies, as if trying to stop themselves from sliding – holding back and delaying the leap.
Connecting with my memories of jumping from the cliffs along the Swedish west coast as a child – always with the thought: „Is this not too high for me maybe…?“.
The same kinds of feeling before entering a new context or project: „Am I really ready for this…?“.
I’m thinking now, is this not the point where we are almost always at?
We don’t really ever know what is ahead of us or what happens later. We can only decide at that moment to leap or not, to cross a boundary, to take a step…
And we also don’t know what happens if we decide not to do it. Moving onwards and daring to do something new, out of our control and comfort zone is extremely important and often very strengthening. But stopping and turning back can also be an equally important and strengthening decision.
One of the most important things I have learnt this year is how important it is to accept and embrace yourself whether you take the leap or not, and whatever comes out of it – to see how you always have the possibility to land in yourself, whatever place you end up in.
In my view this is also one of the most difficult things for us to learn – to respect and love ourselves in the process.
The sense of not knowing, feeling vulnerable, making mistakes, learning, responding, moving…
It takes practice. I definitely do not always succeed, but slowly I feel like I’m getting slightly better at it.
…Stopping for a moment and feeling what is really there.
…Breathing in and feeling how things in your life move and excite you. Breathing out and allowing yourself to be moved.
…Breathing in and experiencing the force of the pull towards what you want to have and achieve in your life. Breathing out and resting in this moment that is now.
…Breathing in and allowing all your plans, visions, dreams, thoughts to fill you to the brim and extend you into space. Breathing out and letting yourself sink back with the trust that it is enough – that YOU are enough, even just through the mere fact of being here, being present, whatever you decide to do.

I wish each and every one of you an inspiring, empowering and creative start to 2018!!

Is it enough? …A reflection on time and flow…

This is the question I am working intensily with in these past weeks. The pressing feeling that there is always more to do and that I never get to the end of my list. I could write more texts, I could make more advertisement for my work, I could work more, I could help more, I could engage myself more in things that are important to me, I could research and read more and go more into depth, I could take more courses, I could make more connections… and I would like to meet friends more – have more time for the people I love.

I feel that my head is exploding from visions and wishes and the time is not enough. The feeling is as if the time is just running quicker and quicker. I know this image from when I was a child – that adults used to say that the years go by quicker the older you get. I could somehow accept that as an adult truth, but I realise that I didn’t understand it until in the past years. Especially since friends around me are starting having children. Then I realise how seldom I really get to see them. Because it feels like just a moment between when they tell me about the pregnancy and the baby being there. And suddenly the child is rolling around on the floor, then the next time we meet it is standing, then walking, then talking, and then suddenly there is a second child there… and I have no idea where the time has gone.

A new person has been born and is quickly learning all the basic things about the world, and in the meanwhile I have still not managed to update my website or finished reading that book lying on my night-stand… And it feels like I am still so far from the vision I had a year ago…

It is so easy to feel inadequate and useless. In comparison with the speed of my mind coming up with new ideas, plans and visions for my life, my body putting it into motion is increadibly slow. I feel my mind getting frustrated and critical. „Why don’t you just do what I tell you to!?! What is stopping you all the time!?! Why can’t you just hurry up a bit!?!“ When I look at my life through these glasses I feel miserably incapable. And time feels merciless. I get a bit distracted on facebook while time just floats on and out of my sight and another day has passed.

Against this perspective it is impossible to win. For this critical part of myself I am always too slow and nothing is good enough. But recently I have started to turn the perspectives:
What is really time well-spent?
When do this feeling of fullness come?
When am I satisfied with what I have done?

I sometimes have days where I concentrate on just one thing and it doesn’t at all feel slow or ’not enough‘. Like when I write for hours on end I feel like the day couldn’t have been better filled. When I meet with a friend to plan a project and we end up flowing into it with playfulness and creativity. Suddenly it seems like ten practical steps can be ticked off in a matter of minutes without making any effort: The flyer makes itself, the words for the texts connects to each other like beads on a string. We pick them out of the air as if they were always there waiting for us. One idea adds to another and suddenly the plan is there – full and vibrant and alive with our intentions and energy.

Some tasks that have been on my to-do-list for months and that I keep agonizing over can be easily accomplished in a moment when I am in this state of mind. Suddenly it is not something heavy that needs a certain amount of time, but something easy and flowing.

Time is a funny thing. When I fight against it by trying to run faster and complete more things in shorter time – when I try to stuff in more and more things, it competes against me by speeding up. And it always wins! The evening light laughs me in the face, saying „You lost again!“.

What I keep realising is that I need to pay TIME more respect – I need to give it the things I value the most in life: my writing, my visioning, the people I love and that inspire me, beautiful places, good food, music… TIME is like a precious currency and I need to value the things that are important to me by paying them in plentitude of time. Because when I do time pays me back plentifully: It suddenly somehow slows down and lets me fill it and stretch it with meaning like a water-balloon. I write and write and look at my clock and only two minutes passed by. I stop and I sit on the bridge with my eyes closed and the sun in my face and suddenly a whole other dimension of the world opens. Beautiful images and ideas appear – they become something alive and tangible – I can almost touch them. I realise it is all there all along.

Time is the key that opens this space. It is not the competitor to fight against.

Still always back to this doubt and this question: Is this enough?
Can I trust that it is enough when I simply decisively turn towards and open the space for what inspires me? Can I trust that the other things – the important to-do-things get accomplished in time? What if I drift off and forget that I need to complete my tax declaration or respond to these important emails? What if the things that I decide to fill my time with don’t bring me the basic things I need – the money to pay my rent and buy food…? It seems too simple and too effortless to just allow myself to flow with it.

And the fact is that in the moment I choose to flow I can’t be sure it will pay off in money and success. It doesn’t give me any guarantees. But then again nothing in life come with guarantees. And exactly because of this the only thing I can trust is to turn towards what gives me the most satisfaction in the process. The pleasure of flowing needs to be enough payment in itself – then whatever comes out of it is simply like an extra bonus.

The experience of entering into a flow: For me a sweet lightness with butterflies in the belly. Like the feeling of falling in love. Or the feeling I know from biking through the city on a summer evening – a warm breeze carressing the skin, visions and sounds that I pass as if entering into me and becoming part of my story – of my rhythm. The pure pleasure of being alive and able to move.
I would so love to have this more in my life!

So my exploration in the past years, for myself and together with the people who come to me for sessions and workshops, keep turning towards the question what it takes to enter this flow.
And one of the most basic things I have found is that it is intimately connected with self-care and self-compassion – to allow and trust the feeling of ‚this is enough‘, ‚I am enough‘.

Flow is lightness but it is not ’simple‘. It is something complex and abstract – a channel I need to decide to open. And the opening process needs to be made with racor-sharp decisiveness but without force. I need to take great care to create the right preparations for entering – like before a great exploration voyage: Sleeping enough, eating well, relaxing and moving, collecting my strength… And then I need to ease myself into it like sinking into warm clay – more allowing it to adjust to my shape rather than forcing myself into it.

And everytime it is different. I can never expect it to be the same entrance. Only the preparation is similar. When I don’t take care of myself, something hurries up in me – I get impatient and start pushing… I start making effort and in that way actually wasting the energy I would have needed for the flow itself. Instead I quickly loose my motivation and start getting frustrated and self-critical.

What helps is dropping effort. And part of this is very simply taking care of my basic needs: Sleeping full nights. Eating well on regular times. Making sure I move enough – activating my body – sweating, breathing. Taking moments of relaxing and resting whenever I need it – sometimes even small afternoon naps. Surrounding myself with people who inspire me and give me energy. Turning my attention again and again towards me and my needs so that I again have the energy and force turn my attention towards others when I have recharged.

What helps is taking moments to just sit with what is there and take it all in:
Breathing in and allowing it all to touch me, breathing out and allowing myself to sink back and reestablish the connection to myself.
Breathing in and welcoming the challenges that I face, breathing out and feeling the value and worth my presence in this world has no matter what I manage to achieve or not.
Breathing in and sensing the world around me – the sounds, the smells, the air on my skin, breathing out and allowing myself to just be there, in the middle of it all.
Breathing in and welcoming the unexpected things that will come, breathing out and allowing my intentions and visions to flow out and find expression…

A small practice of reconnecting to what is there. Noticing the force that drives and motivates me to produce and change things, but also resting in the feeling of trust that it is enough no matter what of this all gets done or out into the world.

 

Recent studies show… a reflection on the value and function of research

In the past couple of weeks I have ended up reading and hearing quite a lot about the brain and about neuroscientific research. I have been on the search for findings that explain processes specifically in relation to learning and expression. Things that can in an interesting way back up and explain the work I am doing. Because it is really tempting to have proof – to have scientific evidence to back me up when someone is sceptical, or to inspire someone more critically minded to give it a try.

And I also keep searching for research about the body and mind because it somehow gives me a sense of substance – a necessary compliment to what I learn through my own process and through the experiences and exchanges I have with clients, colleagues and friends. Maybe because I come from a family and culture of academics and have grown up with a certain respect for science and with the conviction that everything needs to be viewed with a critical distance (- especially when it comes to areas that border to esoteric, spiritual and to religious or magical belief).

I have learnt that scientific investigation is something with weight – something valuable. And still, despite this respect, I sometimes find research fairly numbing and narrowing. The self-importance with which results are presented and defended as the truth, when we know that every research has its limits and can always be put in question. And knowing that history so often shows that the scientific truths of today can be seen as maddening erratic in a hundred years.

One strong example of this from a documentary on touch that I watched a few months ago: In the early 1900s the two big scientific ‚bibles‘ for childcare preached that touching, carressing or carrying small children should be reduced to a minimum. Reasons for this idea were both for hygenic and for educative – to avoid spoiling them and quicker making them more adult and controlled. According to this documentary infant mortality increased enormously in these years and only reduced when practices in relation to children and infants changed to make touch an important factor again. Now studies even show that prematurely born infants stabilize and grow much quicker when they are being touched more. It turns out touch is extremely important for our wellbeing, development and growth. This is a claim that I am obviously happy to agree with!

It seems to me often scientific research in these cases take a giant detour. Anything we simply experience can’t be trusted so instead we need to scan the surface with a magnifying glass, put on sensors, make X-rays and ultrasounds, measure every minute change. Only what can be seen or detected through scientific equipment and means is real. „Heureka!! Something actually does happen in the brain of people meditating.“ „Something really does change chemically and structurally in the body when we focus our attention in different ways.“ „Attentive touch can really speed up recovery processes“. „By imagining things we can really learn new skills and change something radically in the body – only through focus and imagination!“ And maybe placebo and nocebo effects are something real to take into account in the healing process and not just a neglectable unforseen consequence. Now it is scientifically proven!

Sometimes it feels to me like proving something I feel must be so obvious. If we try something out and it does us good and we notice a change in us, do we then really need to have it scientifically proved to be certain? Maybe at times it would be good to just trust what we feel and not to look for evidence to support it?

But at the same time I notice how important it can be for me to be presented with evidence or straight patterns of reasoning to make these inner processes and changes more visible for me. To have measurable proofs or a tangible way to explain what is happening and shifting inside of me can really sometimes help motivate me to go on. For example reading studies that show how certain forms of training or foods can stabilize hormonal balance over time, could motivate me to make a more permanent change in my life-style or diet, that the short-term benefits might not have done. Or hearing a person I respect say that meditating regularly over several years changed their life radically can motivate me to keep at it, more than only the short-term effects of the meditation might have done for me. Knowing from others what it could bring in the longterm makes me curious to see what happens to my own life when I deepen the practice.

One good example of this is also with pain, where it really might take a longer time of training and attention to bring a clear change to the symptoms. If we only judge from the short-term results there, we might just keep getting disappointed and shifting from one practice to the next without really giving each a real chance. I find short-term effects extremely important – it needs to in some deep way feel right also in the moment we do something. And I’m convinced we can learn to become a lot more sensitive to what does us good right now. But having the expertise and experience of someone else to recognise possible long-term positive (or negative!) effects is extremely valuable. This is definitely an important role of research.

When I remind myself what I read about how our brain works with learning – that we need to train things hundreds of times to make it sink in and that this is exactly what I have done over the past 37 years with some of my behaviours or patterns of thinking that I would really love to change now. Most likely I can’t expect it to go away or change in a couple of weeks, and I will most likely experience certain resistance to the change – inner arguments against changing, more or less conscious anxiety about what the change might bring and how my surrounding might react, urges to give up trying… It can help me having someone pointing out that even when I don’t notice the big change after two weeks it is still worth continuing practicing.

Yesterday I heard a man speaking about reseting the brain – how our brains pathways tend to want to take us back to where it feels safe, which in most cases means to what we already know. And that this is the reason why we often end up back in the status quo with things that we want to change – like financial situation, weight issues, procrastination… We have one force within us that fights against any change and that will bring us convincing arguments why it isn’t even worth trying, or telling us now we already tried and failed: „You are simply not good and strong enough to do it.“

This idea definitely moves something in me. I know this quick movement towards dropping everything I dreamed of doing and just go back to the comfortable spot of what I know myself to be – someone who procrastinates a lot, undisciplined, chaotic, unclear, weak-willed, insecure… „Maybe I simply don’t have what it takes to do something greater than this… Maybe this is simply as far as it goes. I can’t really expect to get more than this. Not everyone is meant to do great things. Maybe I just have to accept that I’m average. And apart from that it is really egoistic of me to want more from life when I already have such a privileged position. Think of all of the people who have so much less!“ There are always reasons to give up. And maybe in this spot where I am right now it helps me to understand more about the mechanisms that bring me there – the way that the brain functions. And to integrate it into my practice as another tool of motivation.

This morning while taking time to just sit still and try to not think of anything, I imagined I could physically feel how this process in the brain started up. I noticed how I kept moving from the feeling of space and endless possibilities towards a place in me that kept telling me how the day will inevitably unfold and how I will be and react. There was a huge temptation staying in this space of planning, predicting and knowing. And this time it really helped me to have the idea of the brain’s pathways fresh in mind – deciding to consciously train myself to reject the old pathways and conclusions and to make a clear decision to keep opening the space for new.

There is a good reason why we have this mechanism moving us towards what we already know and where we feel safe. We need safe spaces to rest and digest whatever new we learned and experienced. Learning a bit more about the mechanisms in me makes me at the moment be a bit more in peace with myself – blaming myself less for the urge of moving towards what is safe, but still gently shifting back my attention towards where I want to go, towards the changes I want to make and the challenges that am facing at the moment. There are good reasons why I am scared moving towards what I don’t know, and there are good reasons why things won’t change so quickly in or around me – it won’t be immediately easy, but it doesn’t mean I should give up or judge myself for the urge of giving up – making this into a reason in itself that I’m not strong enough to pull through.

Another research article I read lately showed how when we are worrying the brain automatically switches on the reward system. I’m thinking the reason for this is probably to sooth us enough that we can get to a state where we can think more clearly about what is making us worried – to encourage us to relax and give it the space for thinking, or maybe even to encourage us to generally engage with things that are troubling us. But the research shows that what often tends to happen is that we instead get addicted to the worrying itself – keeping finding new reasons to worry in order to get the impulse to reward ourselves. This is another interesting impulse to explore.
And again it points me to the start of the argument:
Research can bring us something very valuable – opening up the perspectives, allowing us to step back and getting a clearer view, supporting and motivating us to take on certain paths of change. Maybe also in the best cases engaging with research and expertise can open a field for exploration and dialogue with different people who have also dug in deep into this question. I think this is what I would like to use research for – not for the ultimate answers or instead of trusting my own feeling, but to help me go into serious interaction and critical reflection of what my experiences are telling me.

To have a voice – to bring something into expression

A few years ago I read a description in a book that really stuck with me. It was a small observation of a elderly man who had lost the connection to the words (-I think the condition is called aphasia). The man is out on the street trying to call for his dog, who is walking off, but the only thing that comes out is a range of random sounds „arhhh“ „hmmff“ „ushh“, which the dog doesn’t react to at all. The increasing frustration and desperation of the man touched something quite profondly in me. The idea of not being able to communicate, the feeling of being blocked, of being incapable of making yourself understood or at all listened to is something deeply scary… It is like loosing the connection to the world around. It is an experience I connect with learning a new language or being in a country where I don’t speak the language. I remember my first weeks in Berlin going through the whole complicated administrative process – opening a bank account, going to the registration office, speaking to the social insurance… how grateful I was when I met someone who had the patience to listen to my broken German and guide me in the right direction. And how destructively belittling it was being met with irritation, incomprehension, blanc expressions, or at times even simply being ignored… Maybe this is also connected to the old pain of being an infant and unable to communicate other than through sounds, screams, gestures and facial expressions… Being dependent on others taking the time to try to interpret what it is you need.

In this past year my explorations have been a lot about what it means to have a voice and to use it to express ourselves, to communicate and to make connections to others. I have realised that this is a large part of what my work is about on all different levels. Working with someone with a pain or other symptom the first step is for us to try to understand more what the pain is communicating: What is there? What is happening in the body? What is it trying to tell us? And on a deeper level I keep discovering again and again how essential it is, as part of the healing process, to allow something to be expressed – bringing it into words or movements or sounds that give expression to what is there. It is as if when we don’t allow ourselves to express what is there and what we feel, we need to make a tremendous effort to hold it in, that ends up bringing everything into a halt. Only when it is brought into expression things can flow and move and change and heal again.

Why would we hold back to express things that are important to us? Maybe exactly because we are afraid that we will not be understood or listened to. Because there were too many hurtful and frightening experiences in the past of being misunderstood, ignored or ridiculed. Expressing something now comes with the risk that it will happen again. But what I keep noticing in my own experience and in the work with others, is that bringing something into expression – formulating what we need, communicating what we want or wish for or how we feel, is almost always worth the risk, even if it doesn’t turn out the way we wanted and even if we don’t manage to make ourselves understood. The hurt of not being understood is still, despite all, much lesser than the damage we do to ourselves when giving up trying to communicate what moves us – when we pull back or hold back or quietly adapt.

I also think that we have learned to become too stuck on the idea of having to find the right words for what we want to express. Almost as if it is only when we use the ‚right‘ forms that we are allowed to express ourselves. And also as if we are only justified in what we express if the others immediately understand and confirm what we say.

We have hundred thousand possible ways of expressing something. The process of trying to find a way to communicate something can be challenging, frustrating, painful, but also extremely beautiful – as part of the inner process of trying to make sense of what our experiences and feelings are actually about by finding the way to express it to others. In the end it is maybe less important exactly how we express something, but the greater importance is that we dare to attempt to give it an expression.

 

Mindfulness – what would be the most beautiful thing you could do at this moment?

I don’t like the word mindfulness very much. The word somehow annoys me. It has long been like a label for all the things I don’t like about body-mind-oriented methods and approaches. The way it sounds to me echos a kind of annoying holiness and standing above the ordinary things – to be full, clear and at peace with yourself and everything around. A new word for the perfect state of being, the enlighted way, the ultimate solution to all the problems, the stress, the conflicts… A word repeated like a mantra, pulled out of the sleeve like a trump card, preached to the unknowing masses…

I strongly disliked the word from the first time I heard it.

But slowly the meaning behind it has started to touch me. I start to appreciate the collection of methods and practices that are gathered behind the word mindfulness.

A few months ago I heard a short radio interview with a woman who offers mindfulness courses in Berlin. She brought it to a point by saying that mindfulness for her is not about sitting still for hours or being calm all the time, but simply the decision to for a moment reduce the constant flow of inputs and pay attention to what we do and what is there.

We are so addicted to doing many things at the same times, always adding another simultaneous source of information – entertainment, pleasant distractions, background noise, a soundtrack to our daily lives… Sometimes it adds to the intensity of the situation – it flows into it and allows us to be touched by it even deeper. But very often it becomes a routine way of splitting our attention or manipulate our feeling for the situation in a specific way. Like putting on romantic or soothing music and hoping it will resolve the tension in the room. Maybe sometimes it does. But many times it just colours it over. Or even aggravates it, because it tries to force the attention away from what is really there – what needs to be said and heard and taken seriously.

We hold our hands over our eyes, over our ears, over our mouth… We try to take the real intensity out of the moment by adding something else on top.
The woman on the radio asks: What if you decide for example one time not to something else while eating – not listening to the radio or music, not reading a book or the newspaper, not checking mails or making phonecalls, not making mental to-do-lists… just simply concentrating on the act of eating, of the taste and smell and texture of the food…

When I’m alone at home I almost always routinely put on the radio as soon as I enter the kitchen. For a long time it was something very pleasurable listening to different radioprograms while cooking, washing dishes, planting things on the balcony… The voices accompanied me and opened doors to new worlds of knowledge, curious little facts and stories. But the more it has become a routine for me the less it actually interests or touches me what is being said. Instead it becomes like a carpet of sound, where occassionally something small peaks out and catches my attention for a moment. Most often it simply stays in the background as an accompanying noise that keeps me from having complete attention for anything.

I noticed this as I tried out the instruction of the woman from the interview. I resisted the automatic temptation and let the radio stand silent. The first thing I noticed was how incredibly strong the pull was to put the radio on – my mind kept coming up with new reasons for it: „Why not while preparing the food at least, a bit of music to wake me up. Now it is the time for the news, maybe something important happened. Maybe I’m missing something interesting…“

And managing to resist for longer, I started to notice the nervosity underneath the urge – all the thoughts that were rushing back and forth – the things that I had planned for the day, the tasks I hadn’t managed to complete in the last days, or weeks, or months, things I have pushed ahead of me or kept loosing sight of that suddenly popped up in my mind as stitches of bad conscience – I really didn’t want to hear it all. But putting on a background sound didn’t take it all away, it just numbed it for a bit.

I noticed that when I have the radio on I tend to take a lot longer with anything I do, and I tend to move randomly from one thing to another, not really completing anything. Sometimes this is really perfectly fine – like a meditative state of being. But when I have a day ahead of me with things that are really important to me and that make me nervous and excited for good reasons, it detours my attention for what is needed and what I need at that moment. I start doing mindless tasks that could be left for another day. I procrastinate, I reduce time for preparation until the last minute, I avoid the intensity.

Another thing I noticed was the incredible complexity and richness of inputs even in the simple, ordinary moment – without any extras added: The noises coming from the street giving me different informations about the day – the splash of the carwheels on a rainy day, the wind in the trees, children voices playing on a sunny day. And also all the information about me and within me: what do I feel like, how am I, what would feel good, what do I need… I noticed the choices I make in the moment more clearly – having another sandwich, putting on tea or just drinking water, the desire to get out quickly to have a bit longer in the morning sun on the way to work, or to take a bit more time just sitting resting after finishing eating. And the small beautiful, curious details: the way the spoon clinks against the bowl, the light reflexes on the wall, a pigeon walking by on the windowsill…

Another radio interview that touched me (- obviously radio-listening does bring some very valuable insights too! :)) with one of the artists from the Berlin-based collective „Institut für politische Schönheit“ („Institute for political beauty“). Speaking about their different projects (that are many times highly provocative, but bring important discussions to new levels), he touches on his approach to life and says that in every situation he tries to stop for a moment and ask himself: „What would be the most beautiful thing you could do at this moment?“

In one way it is such a simple question. And at the same time, taking it in fully it opens up entirely new dimensions. It forces me to look around, to look at things around me very closely, to take in the different possibilities… What is the most beautiful thing I could do in this situation? For me? For someone else? Something humorous? Something playful? Something filled with emotions? Something very authentic? Or simply something intensily pleasurable – following an urge at the moment? – Like deciding to buy myself and ice-cream or lean back against the wall where the sun is shining the brightest and let the warmth and light fill me.

It opens the vast space of opportunities and the relative freedom I have to make different choices. If I allow myself the space to notice what is there I can also notice what my options really are – my responsibilities, the limits I decide to set for my actions, my fears and expectations, my wishes, hopes and longings, my power to move and influence things around me.

Feeling good is a good enough reason

Over the holidays I read an extensive, funnily (and partly slightly obnoxiously!) formulated article about how there is no scientific evidence that stretching does anything of what sports and health experts for decades have claimed it does. According to the author (- a Canadian massage therapist with years of experience, who has read a large amount of research on this subject) the only thing any of the traditional forms of stretching in itself is proved to be able to do is to make you feel good while you are doing it: It simply feels good to stretch when you get up in the morning, to feel your body, to wake up, to get out of your curled up position. And when a muscle is hurting and tense it can feel tempting on the verge of manic to keep stretching it out ( – like scratching an itchy spot). Stretching however does not improve performance, it does not make you faster, help you warm up or reduce the risk of injury. It does not help heal, align or really change the shape or position of your muscles. Possibly it could make you more flexible if you do it often and long enough, AND if you have the right body build for it to start off with. However having more than normal flexibility, or being a lot more flexible than you actually need in your daily life does not in itself add to your health or wellbeing. On the contrary, many who too zealously aim for more flexibilty end up crossing the boundaries to what is healthy, ignoring the pain signals of the body and thereby damaging joints and muscle tissue. And if you do experience that you can reach your toes more easily after months of stretching exercises, it is most probably not connected with an actual change in your body (- i.e. your muscles getting longer, softer and more tender), but more likely with a change in your sensibility to the pain and discomfort of the position – your body getting used to it and therefore allowing it. ( – this is basically a short summary of the arguments and claims made in the article…)

It is funny, because during reading I find myself do millisecond shifts between angry defensiveness and excited agreement. I have advocated stretching so many times to friends, family and clients, because I see and feel it do a lot of good. But I can also totally see how many of these arguments against it make a lot of sense: Holding a static position in a specific way with a lot of effort can definitely do more harm than good. It is feasible that stretching, physiologically seen, does not really help warm up the muscles – and can rather create another resistance to counter when the muscle wants to activate and contract to perform movement afterwards. And I can also clearly see how the romantic image of long, lean, stretched out muscles, can be just as misguiding as the idea of hard, stable, corsett-like muscles holding the core of your body together and protecting your spine (- a subject that I keep hearing about in the past months and that I would like to investigate and reflect more at another point). Overall I always find it problematic with this idea of forcingly shaping our bodies into an ideal form, following generalized schemes and ideas that don’t take much consideration of our original shape, size, strength, condition, limitations and physical history.

But there is also especially one important idea that the article brings up (- in relation to medative movement practices), that I cannot agree more with: What makes a difference to anything we do has to do with the intention and attention we do it with. We can do hour long yoga sessions and run five marathons in a year and feel great OR do a lot of harm to ourselves through it. The intention to become better and faster at something – to excel in a certain field and to prove it in competition against others can be a highly inspirational force that can make us find new sources and potentials in ourselves that we wouldn’t have believed possible. However if this intention makes us narrow our attention for everything else in our lives and around us – to how we feel and what we need, then there is a high risk that we will do damage to ourselves in the long run.

When I think about stretching I don’t think of what I learned in gym class – not forcing myself to stay in awkward positions that simply feel straineous and wrong (and looking over my shoulder to see if I get as far as the others…!). The stretching that I have learned to value a lot through my work and practice in the past years has to do with using movements to feel into the body, to wake up the sense of the body, and to move between positions using the natural intuition and feeling for it. Moving, breathing, extending into space, feeling the extent of the movement, resting, enjoying it… Stretching should be pleasurable. I really think this should be the intention for doing it. It should feel right. It shouldn’t have anything to do with forcing the body to do something it doesn’t like. And at best it should be done with as much of our attention as possible in order to sense this sometimes thin-line difference between feeling good and trying to force a change.

Feeling good is a good enough reason! –That it feels good is a good enough reason for stretching! – And having attention for what feels good and in what way is an extremely important knowledge to have, to develop and to deepen. In fact I believe that one of the biggest health problems we are facing at the moment is that this is not given enough importance. The static idea and the image of health – what a healthy body should look like, measure up to and be able to perform – is allowed far too much to take the overhand over what it actually feels like to be well. We get flooded by statistics and rules and different forms of diagnosing to be able to tell if we are healthy or not. Sometimes we find it helpful and inspiring, but many times it brings insecurity and doubts where it is not needed, or where maybe it even makes us react in ways that are really not healthy for us. For example being so careful not to move in any ‚false‘ way with a ‚damaged‘ back that we end up just adding to the tension that was the origin of the back pain in the first place. (- Another subject I would like to dig deeper into another time.) Or getting so stubbornly stuck on the image of how to quickly fix or solve a pain or other symptom that we end up overtraining or in other ways try to force it away as if it wasn’t part of us – often thereby rather irritating or aggravating the place than soothing or helping it heal. ( – This, I believe, is the ‚itchy‘ kind of stretching that the author of the article speaks about – when we have the urge to keep stretching out a painful muscle even though it doesn’t bring us any noticable longer term relief.)

It can be extremely valuable to get advice and tips from people with knowledge and experience: To hear what could be good to eat or what might be good to avoid, to learn exercises that have already been proved many times to help strengthen or develop specific areas, to be motivated from someone else to take a practice to a new level, to try new moves, or get guidance how to get there, or to have someone else add their attention to ours in order to notice, interpret and learn more about what our bodies might be telling us in cases where it is not so clear for us anymore. (- If I thought this was useless I surely wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing!) But at the same time I do believe that all of the above reasons for turning to expert advice become counterproductive if we by doing this, end up loosing our trust in our own sense for what we are feeling and what we need. The advices and instructions we get from others have to make sense to us in a most basic way – it has to feel right. And this implies also that what is good for us at one point in our life could just as well not be so good for us at another point. And what is good for one person is not necessarily good for someone else. Its trial and error – or trying and experiencing and allowing for change.

AND coming back to the core of the argument from above: I believe we can achieve great things and create important changes in our lives by having more attention for our surrounding, the situation we are in, and for ourselves – what we feel, do, wish, and how we do it. When we manage to really bring our attention to something we can move and shift it in a really profound way – even when we in practical terms do very little. And in this way, anything we do, big or small, can have a big significance and change things for us depending on how we bring our attention and intention to it.

A small experiment at this point: Look around you and choose any small object (- a pen, glass, cup, book, piece of paper…) close enough for you to grab, simply close your hand around it, lift it up and then put it down again and let it go. Now again reach for the object, but this time focus your attention on it, feel how your hand is closing around it, feel the texture and temperature of it, feel the weight of it in your hand and the muscles you need to activate in order to lift it, feel the effect it has on the rest of your body holding the object – the slight shift in your weight in order to compensate. And when you put the object down feel the amount of control and minute coordination it takes to let it go at the right time: How does your hand open? How does it help the object to come to rest at the table right at the spot where you want it to be – not droping it from a height but right there on the surface? A simple routine act. But what difference does it make doing it with or without attention? What is the effect on you, on your body, on the way you perceive the room and the things around you?

At any time we have the possibility to use our senses in this way to focus our attention on something outside or within us. We can decide to sharpen our hearing and listen actively for the sounds around us ( – Which sounds are in the room and which are outside? From which direction do they come?). We can focus on the sensation on our skin (– Where is it more sensitive? Where does it feel numb? Where does it prickle? Where does it feel warmer, where colder?). We can let our eyes focus in on a small detail or open our focus to take in as much of the room as possible. And we can decide to feel into a certain part of our body and explore the sensations there – simply with our attention, without having to move, or touch, or do anything particular with it. And every time we focus our attention in this way it makes a difference to the way we perceive, to how we are, to the situation itself.

Relating this back to stretching: What does it do when we stretch with this kind of attention? – to the different sensations in the body, to how one part affects another, to how our body relates to and feels in the space around us, to our weight and the pressure of our feet on the floor…

I am convinced that giving ourselves some time stretching (and also generally moving) with this type of attention can do a very great deal for our health and wellbeing. And also that in this sense feeling good doing something is a very good reason for doing something – to feel how something feels good and why is a very good way to be in contact with our body and with ourselves.

So to anyone that I might have inadvertedly given any false hopes about greater flexibility or quick healing by advocating stretching – I appologize for that – but if it feels good for you, please do continue to stretch and move exactly for that reason and with that intention – not more and not less. Feel into your body. Be curious. Find different interesting new ways to move. Challenge yourself if you want, but don’t force it. Feel yourself. Have confidence in what you feel and how you feel. And find ways to be well with and in your body. This is what I hope I help contributing to through my work. And this is my wish for you (and for me!) for 2016.

Link to the article about stretching: Painscience – Stretching

Link to another interesting podcast: Eyal Ledermann – The Myth of Core Stability