Songs For The Heart 2.

I think I’ve written about Ron Sexsmith before, but here we go again. I discovered Ron about ten years ago, having read reviews about this odd-looking, introverted songwriter from Canada who sang about lonely underdogs. His compassion and sincerity were often cited, alongside his skill with a melody. The intriguing name added to his aura of defiant individuality – maybe shy people can be sexy too?!

In those days I was still pretty deep in a sea of mental health issues, regularly returning to my flat at the end of the day (or night) filled with anxiety and despondency. It was long before I’d discovered spirituality and self-care; but I had an inkling that Ron would do something for me, having read about his heartfelt songs that spoke to and for the outsider.

As soon as I played the ‘Retriever’ CD (which includes this track) this was confirmed; at the risk of sounding excessive it was like finding a brother. As a highly sensitive person, things often hang heavy on my heart, and this is the mood of Ron’s songs, which throb with a gentle dignity.

Melodically, I felt a close familiarity too – Ron is grounded in folk music but with a McCartney-esque tunefulness, often with classy hints of The Smiths and Gershwin. His songs speak of being knocked about by life, but finding philosophical truths along the way. It is melancholy for sure, but uplifting at the same time. Melodies that soar like these couldn’t help being life-affirming, and there is a sense that he is sharing hard-won insights about the human condition for us all to benefit from.

Finding solutions to problems is what we all want (don’t we?) but hearing your soul sung back at you comes a close second. I found this album was a vital salve to my worries whenever I needed it. Obviously, I was keen to hear more, but despite listening to quite a few of Ron’s albums, none matched the impact of this one for me. It seems that this album was one where he decided to make a particularly melodic album – that’s a vital ingredient for me.  However, other tracks I would recommend are ‘Foolproof’ and ‘God Loves Everyone’. That includes you Ron. x

 

Songs For The Heart. 1

I want to post some music clips that put me in touch with a place of healing. Here is the first one. ‘The Circle Game’ comes from a live album Joni Mitchell recorded with James Taylor, who I think was Joni’s lover at the time. I think the song was featured on one of her other albums too, but this is my favourite version. The harmonies, chord structure and the intimacy between Joni and James are just so exquisite. Really touching. It’s about time and ageing, the bittersweet tones of life.

How to meditate without making time for it!

Most people these days are aware of the benefits of meditation, but many believe they don’t have the time. Sitting on a cushion with their eyes closed for an hour just isn’t an option. In fact, though you might not realise it, throughout everyone’s day there are numerous opportunities for meditation. Little pauses that we usually fill up with phone-scrolling or pointless mind activity. No matter how full your life is, you could be making the most of these moments and finding the peace and focus that everyone needs.

1. Kettle.
It only takes a minute for a kettle to boil, so instead of busying yourself with other things, why not sit down and notice the sensation of your breath coming and going. You may find the sound of the kettle helps to take you away from thoughts too. When you have made your drink, sit and savour it for a while if you have time.

2. Traffic.

Waiting at traffic lights (or in a tailback) can be so frustrating but there is no need to get tensed up behind the wheel. Use these few moments you have been given to relax. Keep your eyes open but bring your attention to the sensation of your breath, making the out-breath a little longer if you are tense. Glance up at the sky. Enjoy this moment you have been given. When the lights change you will be refreshed and ready for the rest of your journey.

3. Queue.

Standing in line in a shop, post office or supermarket can be very frustrating  as you are powerless to affect how quickly you will get served. See if you can let go of the need for control over the situation and accept that it will take as long as it takes. Your only duty in this time is to look after yourself by relaxing your body and mind. All it takes is to notice the sensation of your breathing and also non-judgmentally noticing and accepting any emotions, such as frustration, or anger that you may be feeling. Close your eyes for a while if you wish.

4. Phone on hold.

Calling a bank or utility company can be incredibly stressful, especially if you are put ‘on hold’. Anger mounts and you can feel powerless and humiliated. You can’t do anything to make them get back to you and there is little else you can do in the meantime. This is actually a great opportunity – you can choose to devote the next few minutes to self-care instead of feeling resentment. Notice the sensation of your breath, feeling the stress drain away as you re-connect with this natural process. Worried that you might get so relaxed that you forget what you want to say? Simply write it all down in advance.

 

5. Public transport.

Waiting for trains, buses and planes is no fun, especially when there are delays, but in these situations, when circumstances are beyond your control, there is nothing to do but give up your resistance to what is. You are here for the duration and you can’t change anything, so let go of the need for control. Don’t seek refuge in your phone; give your mind a break by turning your attention inward. Give your body a ‘scan’, starting at your toes and slowly sweeping up to your head, acknowledging every part and checking out any sensations, then sweeping back in the other direction. Whether you are sitting or standing you can do this and feel the relief – you will be so glad you did.

6. Lift (elevator)

Lifts are very strange places. Inside one, you are confined in a tiny space where there is nothing to do and nothing to look at. You are forced into close proximity with strangers, and everybody is strangely quiet as any interaction may feel too much in such a restricted space. The feeling is distinctly awkward, even though you have been in this situation countless times. This is a perfect time for a micro-meditation. Direct your attention ‘within’ – close your eyes if you wish, focus on your breath. These few seconds you spend in the lift can become a time of preparation. You will emerge more refreshed and ready to carry on with your day when you reach your floor.

7. Shower.

How often do we rush a shower, head filled with all kinds of random activity? Why not choose to notice the sensations as you shower, enjoying the warm water and soap on your body. You could vary the fragrance of shower gel or shampoo you use to keep the experience fresh and interesting. Notice the flow of random thoughts you experience as the water flows. You can also notice your breathing at the same time.

 

The Freedom Inside You

To care deeply about the world is a wonderful and essential thing. But if a news story or a political crisis feels particularly unbearable, you might feel your emotional reactions  affecting your resilience and dimming your light.

This is a great opportunity to observe your feelings without becoming entangled in them to the point where they become disabling. When you notice feelings of distress bubbling up you might find it helps to simply label them as ‘worry’ or ‘anxiety’. They are familiar feelings that you know well. Just acknowledge them without getting into a dialogue with them and let them slowly fade.

Distinguish between what you can and can’t change. Resisting what already is will amplify your sense of discomfort, while acceptance will help you to let go and come into the present moment, where you will find peace. Take a break from the world and spend some time doing things you enjoy to take you away from your busy mind. The peace you generate will benefit the people around you and the wider world. When you have rejuvenated yourself you can then start to work practically for the better world that we all want.

Focusing on your breathing takes you back into presence, but I have recently found out that concentrating on the out-breath is particularly calming. Try making that breath a little longer.

Currently reading: Mindfulness for Worriers by Padraig O’Morain

Why do I compare myself to others?

man-thinkingFacebook is minefield of potential comparisons with other peoples’ lives (or what they choose to present of them). If we are not feeling great, seeing news from people who appear to ‘have it all’ might lead us to descend into envy and despondency. But we can choose how to respond to these inputs. Just because other people seem happy and fulfilled, that doesn’t mean we can’t be. There is not a finite amount of happiness to go round. We can share in the love and fulfillment we see at a distance, be inspired by it and feel glad for people.

This is a list I wrote to remind myself how to interpret other peoples’ news on social media, tailored to what is important to me in my life. You could do your own.

Musical success
It’s exiting that Liverpool acts are getting recognition. How nice that people I like are getting recognised. How nice, how happy that must make him feel inside. Good to see happiness.
Achievement in projects
That’s interesting. Great idea. They must be very organised! Admirable. I can learn so much from that.
Who’s getting paid gigs
Very good. It’s good to get paid gigs. Well done.
Female attention
Ah, so much love and connection.
Disposable income
That’s their life, this is mine.
Holiday pictures
Beautiful. I’m happy anywhere.
Friendship networks
Lovely to see connection. We’re all the same, all have the same needs. And all are connected.
Coolness.
Fun for them. That’s their thing.
Well-readness                                                                                                                                 Wow. Amazing wisdom they have absorbed!
Poetic reputation/acclaim
Well done!
Magazine success
Not interesting for me. But enjoy what you do.

Lost For Words

The next time you are lost for words, remember this
The tree needs no words to tell it how to grow
Your body needs no instructions on how to heal
The clouds have never read a thesis on meterology
The planets continue in their orbits without reference
To equations chalked on a blackboard
They are not lost

When you experience a sunset what need is there for words?
Do not search for them
They are not coming to rescue you from this mystery
This inner stillness, this halted moment
Be speechless, dumbfounded, awestruck, blown away

Imagine yourself sky-diving

You throw yourself from an aeroplane
A delirious imitation of suicide
Wheeling, twisting and tumbling
Through an avalanche of upward air
Before being snatched back to safety by a rip cord’s cruel neccessity
You land like a newborn being
Helpless, helmeted, tethered to silken afterbirth
Grasping, fumbling for language to convey
What never could be captured or ever contained
The mind gives up, the self gives way
And you laugh
You laugh
You have lost something that was never needed
Let it go

Words are our foot soldiers, our worker ants, our couriers,
They carry the message, they are not the message
Words are our rubies, our jade, lapis lazuli, mother of pearl,
They are the messengers of magic but not the magic
And when you find it they will disappear

Next time you have a beautiful surprise
An unexpected moment that stops your tongue with gratitude
Remember you are not lost for…anything
You have arrived and the moment is full, immaculate
Be silenced, stilled, stunned, gobsmacked
You have found something that words could only point to

Feeling the Love at UK’s first Laughter Festival

Laughter yoga has become increasingly popular since it was first devised in India in the 1990s. It encompasses a range of techniques which have arisen from new insights into the mental and physical benefits of laughing.
I’d already been to a few of Jackie O’Carrol’s laughter yoga workshops in Chester. I can’t say that it was easy at first, but after a while there was a sense of stepping out of my comfort zone, into a potentially transformational world of freedom, trust and maybe…LOVE!

The first UK Laughter festival was held at Cabourne Parva, a festival site in Lincolnshire in June and offered the chance to experience a concentrated dose of these feelgood vibes.
Jackie and I arrived on Thursday night and were shown around the site by organiser Wes Floyd. Based on a farm, there are several areas laid out according to festival-goers needs: toilet block, washing complex (of which more later), a bistro operating out of the farm house, and various areas for stalls, marquees and stages where the activities took place.

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On the Friday, a series of presentations took place in the converted barn, which is used as the main venue. Several speakers explained their work around laughter, health and wellbeing. Kate Hull Rodgers, originally from Canada, was a very entertaining speaker, who recounted her young life as an aspiring actress and how her lack of success had led to a breakdown and years of being institutionalised in the mental health system, before discovering some key insights that enabled her to take control of her life and mental health. Kate managed to turn this often tragic story into a hilarious monologue. She now an international speaker who explains to large organisations the value of laughter and how “If you’re having fun, you get more done”.

There are areas of woodland around the site which are perfect for a meditative stroll whilst listening to birds singing. It was in this woodland setting that I took part in an improvisation workshop later on the same day led by Anetta Panczel, who is orginally from Hungary and now leads improvisational workshops in Bournemouth. A group of ten or so gathered and Anette set a series of exercises designed to bring out our silly selves. Advertising an imaginary product, commentating on a bizarre event, or speaking in gibberish were some of the games we played. It was nice to have a ranges of ages acting ridiculous in the workshop, from people in their seventies to an eight year old boy.

The festival site had a number of special features including an outdoor jacuzzi, infra-red sauna (not quite sure about the workings of it, but it sounded a bit like being cooked so I avoided it!) and showers powered intriguingly, by compost. Adjacent to the showers was a ten foot-high compost heap consisting largely of wood chippings (the farm produces timber), which contained water pipes for collecting the heat generated by the decomposing compost. This green technology was in keeping with earth-friendly ethos of the site.

On Saturday morning Jackie was to deliver her workshop on the theme of ‘grace’, drawing on writing she is developing for a book. I was planning on attending, but found myself checking out a gathering in the barn instead. This is very much the way I attend festivals – I go with the flow as much as possible, having found that sticking to an itinery is unneccesarily stressful for me. The session I happened upon was being led Joe Hoare – though leading is perhaps the wrong term as he tended to go with whatever energy was happening within the group at the moment. Hence, as soon as I sat down in the circle I asked the reason why he clicked his fingers as he spoke, and so he invited us all to do it for a while, effectively to find out ‘why’ for ourselves. As we all clicked our fingers, we found a sense of rhythm and connection, collectively devising rhythmic chants that evolved continuously, and moving and interacting with each physically. It was essentially all about staying in the moment.

Saturday was also the day of the music performances. Before my set, Helen Wilson played acoustic guitar and sang – in a voice reminiscent of Vashti Bunyan – some very open and honest songs. In preparing my own set I had looked through my songs and poems to choose ones that best suited the ethos of the festival. My song ‘Don’t Hide Your Light’ seemed to be appropriate in that sense.

On Sunday I had time for another workshop before packing up to leave, which was led by the bubble of joy that is Eva Provedel, an Italian based in London. After a few minutes of improvised dance and movement led by Eva in the marquee, a line of people went outside and encircled some unsuspecting festival-goers, dancing around them and closing in for a giant hug.

All these happenings I’ve described were interspersed with numerous special moments of talking around the fire, chilling out and bonding with new friends who were all on the same kind of frequency, having come together to tune in a little bit more. To be honest, I didn’t take part in any laughter yoga in the strict sense, but everything was complementary to that. I’m already looking forward to next year’s Laughter festival. This was a beautiful start.