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  • Writer's picturePaul Ehren

Life – are we a participant or a spectator?

I’m writing this on the afternoon of Tuesday 21st December, winter solstice, a time seen throughout the ages as one of death and re birth. The shortest day, when nature seems at its lowest ebb, leaves withering, losing their essence and disappearing from the trees leaving mere skeletons behind. Most flowers now long gone leaving apparently frigid earth behind. Many birds and animals emigrating to more welcoming environments or preparing to sleep through the worst that the harsh months of January and February may throw at us.

However, the shortest day heralds the slow expansion of the daylight, imperceptible as it may be initially. The flora and fauna is simply gathering its reserves, taking stock, pausing for breath and readying itself for the turning of the seasons which in a few short months will once again spread warmth and light and the rush of life which will follow.

For our-selves the allegory of the shortest day is quite apt. After a year like none of us can remember the latest body blow was announced on Saturday that with a new strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus tearing swathes through London and the South East Christmas is effectively cancelled, many of the European countries have closed their doors to the UK and we return to a form of house arrest never before seen.

I consider myself fortunate with my own personal circumstances but hardships have still existed, my Mother at the age of 94 has been without human contact from any of her family for months due to the restrictions in hospitals and care homes.

However, as human beings and in our case as practitioners we need, once again, to use nature as our template for life. To use this darkest hour as the pause before the re birth into a brighter future in 2021. Whatever your feelings on the vaccines now being given emergency use authorisation or the government’s handling of the situation there may now be a way out of this current cycle and if nothing else the way the scientific community has been galvanised by the greatest need has been remarkable.

It is a nature of the jobs we do, whatever our chosen speciality, to care for others sometimes more than we care for ourselves which can, in the long term, particularly given current circumstances, leave us even more open to maladies of the body and mind than those we call clients. Whether those clients are elite athletes or weekend warriors who also hold down responsible jobs few of them realise or appreciate the amount of work we put in behind the scenes on their behalf. Just looking at my own practice this year, and I’m far from exceptional, I’ve had clients win world titles, recover from serious surgery, battle chronic disease, come to terms with personal tragedy, contract the current virus and learn to deal with the effects of “long COVID”. As a practitioner with any degree of empathy we live these triumphs and disasters with the client.

Many years ago, I was given a piece of advice from a very old school and very successful coach “never become emotionally attached to your clients as at some point they will let you down”. This is inevitably true but something I find almost impossible to put into practice. I know that I am far from alone in this particularly with the ethos and training of organisations such as CISN.

At this point I refer back to the title of this article, how often do I, or you, simply “go with the flow” of our day to day lives. We are drawn and pushed from situation to situation like a broken branch in a river, swirling in the currents, in free flow when in open water or spiralling, caught in an eddy before cascading down stream again.

What if we could apply some mindfulness techniques to help us regain control, to experience our working and leisure time rather than simply observing it in some kind of out of body experience.

I would expect the reason stated for many, if not most, cases of anxiety or depression is a sense of lack of control. What if we could learn to take back that control and once again become the masters of our own destinies?? Could we become better practitioners by learning to care for ourselves before turning our attentions to our clients. Burn out is a problem across the industry but we normally spend so much time looking at the “nuts and bolts” of our profession – learning as much as we can about metabolism, physiology, nutritional science, exercise physiology, programming etc, etc that the old axiom of “physician heal thyself” becomes lost.

Part 2

In 1993 a film called “The Last Action Hero” was released. It starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater as the Los Angeles cop hero, Charles Dance as Benedict the master criminal and assassin and Tom Noonan as The Ripper, a crazed murderer. The film is a wild roller coaster ride full of explosions, car chases, impossibly choreographed fight scenes and fire fights, impossibly beautiful women, cartoon characters inter reacting with the live actors and all actions ae played out without consequences.

We are however watching a movie within a movie.

The real twist of the film is that it is played out from the perspective of a young teenage boy, Danny Madigan, played by Austin O’Brien who is Jack Slaters greatest fan. He obtains a ticket from his local old movie house to watch the film. The ticket however turns out to be magical and Danny finds himself able to enter the celluloid world and become part of the film. Cue many crazy situations as the real and imaginary worlds interact and Danny tries to explain to Slater how the laws of nature and physics have been suspended so what is happening cannot possibly be real.

The real kicker comes when Benedict and the Ripper learn of Danny’s true nature and manage to pass from the Silver screen into our reality, closely followed by Jack Slater in an effort to prevent bloody mayhem.

Reality however, starts to pose a few problems, guns do not have unlimited magazines, getting punched and shot actually hurts, it’s not possible to jump from tall buildings without breaking bones. On the flip side kissing the girl is a lot more pleasurable and Benedict and the Ripper find huge enjoyment in what they can inflict.

Pausing for a well-earned breath, can we make the quantum leap to allegorise that we all get in the habit of living in or watching the film as we move through life rather than actually participating fully in the reality with all the pleasures and pain that entails. Do we become de sensitized over a period until our own reality comes crashing down upon us at a velocity that we find hard to withstand?

To help re sensitizing us there are many Mindfulness techniques available to assist us connect with ourselves and our environment. A friend of mine has spoken at length about mindful eating and how we can use the whole experience of eating a meal to fully appreciate the food we are eating rather than simply using it as a method of re fuelling.

Taking my own morning routine, I normally start with an early morning walk, which at this time of year still starts in the pitch dark. I use this for 2 purposes, firstly as cardio vascular exercise and secondly as a form of connection/grounding. The first mile or so and the last section are up hill and these I tend to step out, get the heart rate pumping and breathing rate elevated. The middle section however is through the local country park containing both woods and open spaces. At this time of the morning and particularly at this time of year I am normally pretty much by myself and for this part I normally slow my pace and remove hat/hoods so that my face and head are exposed to whatever the winter weather decides to throw my way. At this point I will take note of my breathing, allow my body to provide feedback on any areas of tension or discomfort, to feel the wind and any rain on my face, to listen to the bird song, to take note of the trees and other vegetation in the emerging light of a new day.

Taking this one stage further I find that “living in the moment” allows my sub conscious to work on projects and issues that I may have on the go and very often ideas and solutions present themselves without having to force the process in a similar way to a computer running sub routines in the background while your screen is filled with the priority task.

Once home the next stage is often a resistance training program but if we can shunt this to one side as the psychology of strength/hypertrophy training is another article in itself.

Hitting the post exercise shower, apart from simply washing ourselves, is another opportunity to tap into that feedback loop. After the soap and flannel thing I run a series of contrast showers with firstly hot water then as cold as possible, the difference in physical sensations is marked, from the pleasant “tropical rain storm” feel of the warm water to the immediate “cold water shock” of the opposite temperature setting, feeling the changes to skin reaction, heart rate, breathing all things to help us focus on us as a conscious aware entity.

Then breakfast, we can use all of our senses, even well before the actual meal is served up in front of us to appreciate the food and the pleasure involved in the simple act of eating.

Throughout the rest of the day taking a few movements to breath, concentrate on our thoughts and feelings and asking ourselves a few simple questions:

What am I feeling?

Why am I feeling this?

What do I want to achieve from the day/interview/client meeting?

What motivates/excites me?

How can I enhance this?

What demotivates/drags me down?

How can I control these?

Most important of all, take control, explore and understand our sensations and feelings.

Don’t be a spectator of our own lives, be a participant.

Paul K Ehren - December 2020

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