Meditation for body liberation

May I accept you the way you are.
I wish you ease of movement and wellbeing.
May you experience pleasure and satisfaction.

I cannot control you.
I cannot change the way you are.

May you be free from suffering.
May you be protected and safe.

May all people in all bodies
of all sizes, colours, orientations,
genders and abilities
be protected and safe.

May you, my lifelong companion,
the home of my soul,
be happy and at peace.

May you and all bodies be liberated.

Perspective

I ate a doughnott, secretly,

after the café owner told me

not to eat outside food in there.

I tried to eat it mindfully

and it was only partially pleasurable:

stodgy, sickly and somewhat disappointing.

I bought it because I’d gained weight

when I stood on the scales that morning.

I could explore that for hours

but in the context of the epic montage of my entire life

it would be a huge waste of time.

In Heron foods, with a friend, on the way back to the car park,

I spotted pringles.  I bought them because

I’d gained weight when I stood on the scales

that morning, and because I’d eaten a doughnott.

I could explore that for days

but in the context of my value for the equally peculiar people who accept me

wholeheartedly for reasons other than what I eat

it would be completely unnecessary.

I ate the pringles in the car, on the way home,

relishing each powdery explosion of taste and crunch,

awed by the artificial magic of the overpowering flavour.

I noticed each sensation of taste and texture

and after two thirds of the packet realised that the joy was gone

but I ate the rest anyway, because I did.

I could explore that for weeks

but in the context of my existence as a whole person, a soul,

I have limited it to ten minutes. I’m done.

Refurbishing

Stripping away decades of cracked paint

revealed power, intelligence, intuition and kindness.

Steaming off wallpaper that was once in vogue

laid bare natural compassion, understanding and articulateness.

The original is wise beyond measure,

connected deeply to others and their experiences and

in communion with the loving spirit of us all.

This shining light carries no shame. It compassionately observes.

It is soul and spirit, the goodness and light

that is all of our birthright.

Powerful, capable and nurturing,

my arms are wide to others and to myself.

I can care for my spinning mind

and so can we all.

Encounters with the divine

A personal account

I will start by saying that I completely reject the God described in many parts of many scriptures of many religions. I reject any God of dictats and demands, threats and control and prisons of the mind. The great romantic poet Blake refers to ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ which aptly depicts the effect of fundamentalist, literal application of scripture on the psyches of those subjected to the dominance of those powerful men who wield it. I reject this God as a man-made construct, defined by ancient peoples all over the world who projected their own thoughts onto a creation entirely of their imagination, a creature to dread, as capricious and unpredictable as they themselves. This God could comfort a person with one hand and beat them up with the other. This God could bully, cajole, manipulate, coerce, love passionately and reject utterly. This is a caricature of a person. I am not there for that.

Outside of religion, however, I have experienced something so profound and awesome that I can only refer to it as God as I have no other words for it. The first time was when I was at a play park with my two year old daughter and my newborn baby. Abi was playing on the swings and the slides while Kirstin slept peacefully in her pram. I smelled freshly cut grass and the sun shone. I wasn’t in an especially good mood and nothing special had happened that morning but as Abi climbed off the climbing frame and ran towards me something amazing happened. I saw her blonde hair as a halo of light and I was rooted to the spot as tingling warmth filled me from the scalp to the toes and tears filled my eyes. I recognised the feelings in language such as ‘happiness’, ‘goodness’, ‘joy’, ‘wellbeing’, ‘wonder’ and ‘awe’ but the reality is that language can’t touch it. It was momentary and I continued with my day but felt glowy and blessed for hours afterwards.

The second time was when I was hosting a Swiss girl. The visit had been arranged by a Swiss friend of mine who had taught this girl and knew that she was looking for an opportunity to stay with an English family and improve her English. She was seventeen at the time. I hosted her on the basis that she would have free meals and accommodation and would help around the house and with the children after finishing college. A few weeks into the visit it became apparent that she was hiding away from friends and spending a lot of time alone in her room. I felt concerned that she was down and lonely and decided to host a surprise 18th birthday party. I contacted her college class and invited people over and two of her best friends planned to come and stay for a week from Switzerland. The day before the party, while she was at college, I made her favourite cake: black forest gateau. As I stood alone in the kitchen, mixing and stirring, I was filled with the tingling feeling, again from head to toe. This time, however, it was the most powerful experience I’ve ever had and I was completely unable to move. It was as though I was surrounded and filled with a mighty force that was totally impossible to resist. I stood, tears filling my eyes, and a thought came to me that my guest’s dad was incredibly proud of her. I didn’t hear a voice or anything like that. It was my own thought in that moment. As the tingling subsided and I came back to normal, I was consumed by what had happened. I considered that things like that don’t happen for no reason and decided to share it with the girl. Later that night I knocked on her door and said that I wanted to share something with her that might sound very peculiar and might make her feel uncomfortable and awkward but that I thought it was important and good. She agreed to hear it and I explained as best as I could what had happened and that I strongly believed that her dad was incredibly proud of her on this, her eighteenth birthday. She immediately started to cry and continued to cry for some time as I tried to comfort her, worried about what I’d done. When she calmed down, she explained that she had been very down and sad as her eighteenth birthday approached, because she so missed her dad, who had died in a car crash when she was seven. She had wondered how he would feel towards her now as she was approaching adulthood and she had imagined speaking with him and how it would go. I don’t believe that her father’s spirit came to me and I can’t explain what happened. At no point in my life before nor since have I had a psychic Sally tendency and I find it all quite inexplicable but nonetheless it was wonderful and healing in that moment.

My third spiritual experience occurred when I was driving home from work. At that point in my life my family was seriously struggling. My marriage had crashed and my second child was seriously unwell with bulimia that had taken her to very dark places indeed and my worst fears had been realised: one of my children suffering. I couldn’t fix her. I couldn’t change it. I’d fought for many months to get the appropriate treatment but mental health services were underfunded and nothing was available, not even privately. I was permanently tense, filled with anxiety and prone to my panic spilling over into everything. My job was the least stressful part of my life and the only place where I felt competent and appreciated. As I drove home I saw a large, ominous, navy-blue cloud spreading over my area of Leicester, the area I was driving towards, which represented how my life felt. Then the tingling started, spreading from my head to my feet, and I had the thought: ‘it’s only a cloud’. The tears came and I had to pull off the road until I was more composed. But the relief that I felt was immense as I understood that the sun would shine again. One day (big reveal: it did).

My last experience, and the one that has prompted me to write, was last night, as I drove home from the Level four counselling course that I am undertaking. I have been slowly stripping back masks and defences since commencing my training, and have unbelievably freed myself from decades of disordered eating. This has left me feeling strange. It’s like losing a frenemy. I didn’t like my food and body obsession but I did know it and knew where I was with it. I have, therefore, been feeling a little untethered and naked without the strictures of my multitudinous food and exercise rules. Last night, I had opened up to my fellow trainee about my unfortunate tendency to feel as though I’m not real without some big project or self-improvement programme – as though me, as I am, is nothing and nobody, not good enough, insubstantial and empty. Thinking back it’s easy to understand why I experience a lack of identity, filled as I was with fundamentalist rules, expectations, shame and fear. I easily go to shame, feeling ashamed of many aspects of myself on a daily basis. My social anxiety is sometimes unbearable. I hide it but it’s horrible. I compare myself to others and usually estimate myself to be less worthy and less important. Having shared these things in the group, I was driving home feeling vulnerable, when the moon peeped through the clouds, fuzzy-edged in mist, and it reminded me of posters depicting God. As I imagined that the light was God, I realised that I was leaning forwards, open-hearted and trusting towards my understanding of God, and the tingling began. This time, I recognised it and welcomed it. I said ‘thank you’. It was a blessing. Again, I cried and had to pull over. To consider that God was there and not to be afraid has previously felt unimaginable for me.

I don’t like the name ‘God’. It is too biblical and Christian and patriarchal for me. I don’t know what else to call this thing, however, so God it remains. I don’t believe that it’s a person or a humanoid. To me it feels like some type of energy or power that is in us and all around us. It seems that it can manifest itself in moments of vulnerability or love, and can manifest through imagery, thoughts and an open heart and mind. It is unpredictable and can’t be summoned or manipulated. It appears when it appears and although we can’t summon it, we can block it through our cynicism and closed mindedness. When it fills me it feels like a blessing. It exists outside of words. I could try to describe it but ‘good’, ‘pure’, ‘holy’ and ‘awesome’ are inadequate. Our language is as limiting as our bodies and minds. This power may or may not be harmless. I would not like to be held by that particular force if I was guilty of malice or cruelty. I wouldn’t be able to bear it.

Those who use their concept of God to tell others what to do are just bullies. I believe that people within organised religions can and do have equally valid experiences of God. The only people I respect are those who speak from their own experience of God, not their dogmas and their doctrines. My mum is one such person. My Christian brother is another.

I am aware that calling this power anything is just another language label. It might not be anything more than chemicals in our brains. If this is the case, our brains are truly marvellous. I continue to believe, however, that this power is bigger than any individual human. It can connect and heal and it exists in us all as what the Quakers call the God within. Perhaps we, collectively, are both God and Devil. For now, however, I will live in the blessing of the moments I’ve had and trust that there will be more.

Diet and Wellness Culture

And I say burn it all.

Burn your straight sized magazines,

burn your Instagram wellness accounts,

burn your kale smoothies and clean eating bullshit,

burn your cosmetic surgery befores and afters,

burn all your gym befores and afters,

burn your £50 bottles of magic potions,

burn your self-improvement books,

burn your circles of shame,

your trackers, your watches,

your thin, white, cultural, racial supremacy.

Only when you are gone, from the ashes,

people of all genders will be free.

Redemption

In these monochrome days I breathe my way to a still lakeside

where all living creatures retreat into sandy banks and underground spaces.

Out there, my spirit has sung with sounds of orca,

the curling fingers and wise navy eyes of my three newborns,

a halo of shining hair as my three year old ran towards me and

pinpricks of warm energy rooted me to the freshly cut grass.

I have communed with others so completely that I could not

tell you where I ended and they began. As a speck among

craggy mountaintops and volcanic wastelands, and even here,

in the silence, so far within that each atom is a universe,

I hear the rhythmic harmony of the stars.

Daughter

Flung together into the ocean,

some found safety,

some disappeared from sight

and some stayed alongside her

as she clung, disrobed and

white-knuckled, to debris.

The future shrank to terror, of

salt-eyed thrashing through

mountainous waves and needle-sharp rain.

Darkness tore her to unearthly spheres,

ravening lions, bulls of Bashan,

starless, infinite stretching of night.

Hands beneath, above, around, she

gasped at raw morning air and

saw the faint, tangerine-tinged horizon.

All hail the yoga nidra

I hate ‘doing nothing’ too!

After signing up to a free trial of Gaia, a platform for a host of wellbeing films and series, most of which I discovered are pseudo-scientific crap, I found that it offers a multitude of yoga and meditation sessions with a range of teachers and styles, and set about going through them all.

I love meditating and have done the Calm app, Headspace and freebies on Youtube. Guided meditation is lovely stuff and I wholeheartedly recommend it to find that bit of space, to lower the stress levels, to get a breather in the middle of a hectic day or after a period of high anxiety. However, when I did my first yoga nidra, I felt like I’d discovered Nirvana – the spiritual kind, not the band.

For yoga nidra you lie down comfortably on your back, covered with a cosy blanket and some warm socks, arms by your side, palms facing upwards, and are guided through a complete relaxation of the body. The focus is on the chakras and you are told to focus on each of them in turn, relaxing the whole body and breathing deeply.

I believe in the relaxing power of a deep breath. Science backs that one up. But chakras? People who talk about chakras have usually been regarded by me with deep suspicion. What the hell is a chakra? My suspicion may well come from a deeply Christian background but I think it’s more to do with the spiritual nature of the idea. All the talk about chi and energy flowing into the body from some mysterious source of light and love gets me huffing and eye rolling.

The first time I did a yoga nidra, though, I found myself suspended in space with no sense of the weight of my feelings, my thoughts or even my physical body. I experienced myself as filled with pure light that shone from the stars on each of my chakras. ‘I am light’ I thought, and the knowledge of this filled me with joy so profound that it brought me to tears. What was that about?

The whole experience of this practice continues to bring me a sense of deep peace and healing such that I haven’t known since the time that some beautiful Christian people laid their hands on me and prayed for me when I was really sad. They weren’t strange controlling Christians – just loving people who wanted me to feel better, and I did.

Every time I practice, I feel this weightlessness, and a sense that I am made of light. Even the thought of it makes me smile, and the more I practice the more I can summon up the feeling. When I’m anxious, I recall that I’m made of light. I delivered a two hour training session today and had been anxious about it for weeks, but for half an hour before the presentation, I breathed slowly, focused on these points on the body, and reminded myself that I’m light and free. It’s as though the me of me, the deepest core of my identity, is a being of purity and goodness, and this is a great thing to feel, given that I’ve spent most of my life feeling the opposite! It also reduces the pressure of pleasing others and worrying about what people think of me.

I don’t believe in an eternal soul and I don’t believe in chakras or anything else that isn’t supported by proper science. But I know that there is plenty of evidence for spiritual, meditative practices changing the brain and transforming the neural pathways so that we come out of the limbic system and into the calmer states that bring a sense of calm and peace.

Gaia costs £9 a month and it’s worth it for the yoga alone. I do the strength stuff as well but it’s this meditation that’s been a game changer. If you, like me, have to reduce anxiety for medical reasons or just because anxiety is horrible and unpleasant, this is definitely a strategy worth a go.

Social Anxiety

The doorbell rings and my panic rises because it might be a friendly neighbour who wants to talk to me or doesn’t want to talk to me and I might talk too much or too little and they’ll think I’m annoying, rude or both but I can stand in front of three hundred teenagers and talk to them about self harm, gender identity and love.

I am reminded that somebody should do a toast at a party and that somebody could and probably should be me and I think I am about to fall over because of the sudden buckling of my knees and the terror of getting the words wrong or looking stupid but I am about to deliver training to a county wide team about strategies that I have used to teach GCSE English to low ability classes.

Somebody I know a little has invited me to celebrate their birthday at a local pub and I really want to be sociable but I worry about what to do if nobody speaks to me or they do speak to me and I can’t hear them over the music or if everybody else there knows the person really well and they think I’m pathetic because I turned up looking so hopeful in this new town full of people who don’t know me but I can dance like a maniac at a party or do a random handstand in a park.

I stroke a person’s cute dog and the dog starts licking my ear and wagging its whole body and I’m so happy but then the person starts chatting and I worry because I don’t know when to stop the chat and how to say goodbye or end the conversation without looking weird but I can rock up to a therapy training course and talk about anything and everything with a class that I just met.

Coming up to any social occasion where there are people who are posher than me, which isn’t difficult if you saw where I come from opposite a high rise block of flats in a council maisonette with a corridor outside that people urinated in and a washing line that people stole underwear from, I spend days worrying about whether to kiss one cheek or both cheeks, how long to hug them for, whether to hug them at all and what to do if our mouths accidentally collide, but I can talk to a homeless alcoholic and offer him a job helping me to move house and I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t.

There’s a new neighbour and I know I’m supposed to be friendly and welcoming so I see him and say ‘hello I’m Ruth lovely to meet you’ but the words stick in my throat and I don’t think he’s seen me so I quickly open the door and scurry in like a terrified cat but I write about almost everything in my life on my personal blog and I don’t care whether or not anybody likes it.

Religious Trauma Syndrome

A very secular problem

Most of us have a mental health problem of some sort or another and most likely won’t fit any particular label. It’s more likely that we all exist on a spectrum between perfect, unabated joy and unbearable mental anguish, oscillating between two points on that spectrum much as we lose and gain a certain amount of weight over the course of the average year. Our mental state, when poor, is often an amalgamation of conditions: depression, anxiety, OCD, disordered eating, PTSD, bipolar, BPD or countless mixtures of each. What are the labels for anyway? Mostly diagnostics to ascertain how to treat the condition as cheaply as possible on the NHS. Or perhaps that’s overly cynical and the diagnostics are genuinely helpful and informative. They can certainly be useful in helping others and ourselves to understand and show compassion.

In amongst my particular mental makeup and the challenges that present themselves as I face the world every day is the result of my religious upbringing and it was brought to my attention during my counselling training when I ticked every NHS question for diagnosis of PTSD except for the triggering event (because religion isn’t officially a triggering event). There is now some growing evidence that religious trauma is a real issue for many and symptomatically it’s the same as PTSD: nightmares, severe anxiety, replaying of terrifying scenarios, flashbacks, feeling of imminent doom and certain situations that are triggering. I generally don’t have these symptoms badly but I have, and do, experience them all. Most of the time I jog along OK. But sometimes a comment about Hell or a preacher in town shouting about the last days can put me into a state of fear for days such that I can’t sleep or think about much else.

Anybody raised in a fundamentalist church will know how it goes. The second coming, the antichrist, the tortures, beheadings, burning fiery flames and everlasting torment. Of course there were wonderful parts of it, too. There was divine love, a God of mercy and forgiveness and an eternity in Heaven for the saved. The resurrection was a particularly pleasant story that sent happy shivers down my spine. But I focused on the negative as a child. I’d wake up in the night and feel the flames of hell because I knew, deep down, that I did not believe. When it all hinged on my belief I felt fragile and disconnected. I’d get a floating feeling of flying away from the edge of the world, into space, where I’d whirl around into outer darkness and nobody would be able to reach me. I know now that this is dissociation. It happened a lot in the middle of the night.

For years I tried to resolve these fears by seeking to acknowledge and understand a more liberal Christianity. I realize that the brethren presented the bible in a narrow and simplistic way that is not representative of Christianity on the whole. I’ve been to churches that do not preach hellfire the way that they did. Many Christians don’t believe in it at all or any kind of afterlife. Many say that the Bible doesn’t even teach it. It’s hard to unlearn and rewire the brain, however, and I wonder if even going to theological school would completely undo the interpretation of scripture that I was taught.

Now I am beginning to see that everything in the bible is human. The God of the Bible can be merciful, forgiving and expansively, endlessly loving. The God of the Bible can also be jealous, exacting, cruel and breathtakingly unfair. I could cite countless examples of both. I mean – sending bears to eat some young people who laughed at a prophet is pretty horrific. Striking down a couple with immediate death because they told a lie is fairly despotic I’d say. As for whether the biblical God actually condemns millions of souls to eternal torment because they failed to trust in the sacrificial and atoning blood of Christ, specifically, is questionable, but if the brethren got that right, it’s unspeakably horrific!

All of these attributes, both good and evil, are human. The Bible was written by people. I really feel that this is the point. If we are to gather anything from the Bible, or any other holy book for that matter, we have to understand that it was written by people, which sounds obvious, but in a fundamentalist faith the holy book is a magical, divinely inspired revelation for all mankind for all eternity. It is imbued with an unquestioned stamp of authority and then the fundamentalist must find a way to make it a cohesive whole. This requires mental gymnastics of the sort that made my mind boggle even as a 5 year old. ‘Did God create evil?’ ‘Does God love Satan?’ ‘Why did the grannies have to drown in the flood?’ I was seeing contradictions as wide as a barn door before even tackling the great questions of predestination, free will, pre-millennialism and the question of what happens to those who couldn’t accept Jesus (babies, people with learning difficulties and those who never heard of him).

No. The Bible is human in all the glory and diversity of human thinking and emotion. There is love, beauty, transcendence, radical forgiveness and stunning wisdom. There is eroticism, intelligence, logic and redemptive hope. There’s also vengeance, hatred, jealousy and rage. There’s hunger for power and longing for control. This is humanity. We’ll never be in a perfect world. Never have been. We’ve got war in Europe again after all we should have learned from the last ones. There will always be people like Putin who become megalomaniacs and somehow others have to limit the damage caused by them. We humans fuck things up. That’s why the Bible doesn’t make sense and is so far from being cohesive. Because people don’t.

I once wanted to rip the Bible up and throw it out of the window, or burn it to shreds, or stamp on it. It incensed me so much with its capacity to strike fear into my soul that I wanted to destroy it utterly. But I never did that. Somehow that Bible had woven itself into the fabric of my being and I loved it despite the damage that it caused. Some might call this a toxic relationship. It was certainly dysfunctional. But I could no more stamp it out of existence that I could harm or disappear my family or any other human (except potentially Putin). We are all glorious in our imperfections and that includes the Bible, which has all of the characteristics of any other expression of humanity. It’s the perfect representation of what it is to be human in this world. Light and dark, yin and yang, good and evil: call it what you will, it’s all of us and in all of us and thus it stays on my bookshelf while I continue to work on my mental health!

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