A Meaningful Life

Spring! Just the word makes me feel optimistic. Lighter mornings and everywhere the green of new growth. Daffodil trumpets standing proud above white snowdrops, lavender crocuses and pastel primroses. Driving around the locale my eyes are drawn to blooms peeping through verges, each one gives a little lift.

Strolling down a country lane in Pembrokeshire recently, I spotted the wild primroses in the photograph, growing in waves like coloured rugs thrown over the banks and hedges, I love the fact that no one planted them, they are just there delicate and optimistic.

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All living things have a cycle, don’t they? A beginning, a middle and an end or put another way death, decay and renewal. It’s omnipresence is one of the few certainties in life, the knowledge we will all have an ending one day, so little wonder we appreciate signs of renewal, perhaps it gives us hope?

Whilst on the sojourn in Pembrokeshire I was reminded of the finality of death over a family lunch in the The Jolly Sailor pub. Feasting on slow cooked Welsh Lamb and roast potatoes, we marvelled at the breath-taking view of the Claddau Bridge, its span stretching across the high blue sky above us. Although very much a man made structure, we soon learned its ‘beginning’ was a rather tragic one.

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My father-in-law David was a policeman in Pembrokeshire in the 1970s when the bridge was under construction. The county of Pembrokeshire had previously been divided into two halves, a small car ferry being the only mode of crossing the estuary.

On 2nd June 1970 David was having an unremarkable day patrolling around Haverfordwest when an urgent call came through on the police radio. David and three other police officers were immediately dispatched to the town of Pembroke Dock at the southern side of the estuary.

Dashing to the scene, they arrived to find the partially built bridge, had all but collapsed. The sections of the structure were still attached, but had partially fallen, tipping forwards on to the muddy bank of the estuary far below. The black and white images I’ve seen remind me of the shape of a giraffe’s neck reaching forward as if to take a drink from the river.

Claddau Bridge Collapse

Recalling the traumatic events of forty-five years ago, my father-in-law’s face reflects the strain of that day as he tells of the ambulances arriving to ferry the injured and dead to the County Hospital. He doesn’t go into detail.

The reason for the disaster? A cantilever being used to place one of the 150 ton steel box girders into position had collapsed. Later the cause would also be attributed to inadequacies in the design of a pier support and operational failures. Eventually a new British Standard for bridge building would be developed as a result.

That Claddau was the last major bridge construction disaster in the UK, will be of small comfort to those directly affected by the tragedy. Four workers died, their ‘middle’ was interrupted prematurely and without preparation, a ‘good ending’ denied. Five were seriously injured.

Dying is inevitable, many feel its the how and why we get there that is more worrisome … If our parents are lucky enough to grow old we are aware of the twilight phase of life and however long he or she is ‘good for their age’, eventually there will be the messy part at the end, hopefully brief. Such thoughts cause most of us to shrug our shoulders, and dismiss the thought. We cross our fingers and hope for a mercifully swift departure.

So the prospect of our own death is always there in the background, pushing us on to do what? Live well though the spring, summer and autumn, even the winter of our lives; fuelling the desire to grow and flourish perhaps, to leave in our wake something of value, our offspring or some other legacy.

Many of us are busy doing everyday things, ploughing our own particular furrow. Even unconsciously, making meaning of our lives is usually important to us. Commenting on existential therapy and the inner conflict which confronting death may cause, Spinelli says:

“Meaning … is implicit in our experience of reality, we cannot tolerate meaningless.” (1989, 7)

Perhaps it is worth taking a few moments then to consider what influence we might have in the world. If you imagine writing your own eulogy for example, what would you like it to say?

Few of us will have helped construct a spectacular bridge or some other important landmark, but we all do something every day that makes an impression on others. And whatever inspires you may also inspire future generations. I hope at the very least my children will appreciate wild flowers growing in the hedgerows …

Spinelli, E, The Interpreted World, Sage, London, 1989

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Perfect Day

Now that January is safely out of the way, taking with it those dark days and doomed resolutions, I’m in a safe space to talk about being happy.

My inspiration? I recently went on a Flourishing and Thriving course facilitated by leadership coach, Kim Gregory. It sounded refreshingly upbeat compared to some courses I attend as a therapist; Death and the Dying is booked for later in the year …

My Saturday was spent with a relaxed circle of delegates learning about positive psychology techniques, some of them were new to me, some not. I have selected a few to share here with you.

I have mentioned before, in my memoir and blog,, the benefits of expressing gratitude. Yes, even to yourself, being thankful it seems makes you a happier person. For example, scientific research has proved we can help control our emotional reactions in difficult situations with the power of positive thoughts. Next time you are going to the dentist or whatever makes you feel bad, make a conscious decision to think about something that makes you happy. See for yourself if the normally intolerable, really does becomes bearable.

Need ideas? No need to overthink it. On the course, my happy thoughts were scribbled down:

I imagined choosing a nutty chocolate from a large selection (I can smell the cocoa bean aroma), slipping between freshly laundered sheets (I can feel the cool cotton on my skin and notice the lavender scent), imagine the smiling face of someone I love, the suspense of opening a beautifully wrapped gift, or giving a gift, even hearing I’ve passed an exam came to mind.

You get the idea … So next time you are feeling challenged or anxious just tune into your own happy thoughts and see what happens.

The gratitude exercise involves choosing a journal you like, or a diary would work just as well (avoid writing in a tablet before bedtime as it stimulates the brain). Before going to sleep, each night cast your mind back and recall three things that went well that day.

I keep my journal in the bedside draw, even if I’ve had a horror of a day, I can usually think of a few things that went well, or at the very least did not go wrong! Again, the science proves if you do this for three weeks and jot your findings down, you will be a happier person. That is how long it takes to grow new neural pathways in your brain. Amazing isn’t it?

If you are prone to depression or low days, and frankly everyone has some of those, this is welcome news and could help transform your life, optimising your mood and vitality. What is more, you can do it without spending any money; it just takes a little self discipline to get started.

You can also use your own powerful imagination to create new positive thoughts and images, then by simply learning to say “stop” to negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones, you will retrain your thinking processes and experience positive feelings as a result of those happy thoughts.

Apparently the “mother of all gratitude experiences” is to write a gratitude letter to someone you really respect and explain all the things you love and appreciate about them. Ideally you should take it to them and ask to read it aloud while they listen. Being British, and naturally inclined to reserve, this sounded somewhat toe curling, so this is work in progress for me; I’ve written the letter so will let you know how it goes.

The exercise I found to be most useful is the Perfect Day exercise. Cue Lou Reed’s seductive piano intro to his Perfect Day. This song immediately puts me in a good mood. Skip the lyrics if its not your thing:

Just a perfect day

Feed animals in the zoo

Then later

A movie, too, and then home

Oh, it’s such a perfect day

I’m glad I spent it with you

Oh, such a perfect day

You just keep me hanging on

You just keep me hanging on

etc …

What would your Perfect Day involve? What you would be doing and would you chose someone to do it with? If you are an expat you might recall happy times in another country.

My list included; a scenic walk with a friend or loved one, laying on a sun lounger in the garden while reading or listening to music, writing, having a massage, shopping without the pressure to find anything in particular, playing tennis and so on.Poolside radio

Sharing my list here makes me realise how ordinary it is, perhaps I should have mentioned skydiving or something more unusual. And yet these are simply the everyday activities that nourish me. And when I’m refuelled I’m more relaxed and happy.

My list inspired by my own awareness coming to the fore, I’ve managed to find time in the weeks since the course for these activities. If you, like me, are a big doer then you may find that writing your own wish list for a Perfect Day and giving yourself permission to go for it, will indeed help you to thrive and flourish. I’m sure you deserve it.

You can follow Kim Gregory on Twitter @StrengthsAtWork or visit her blog at:  

www.strengthsconsultancy.com/blog

Feeling Frazzled, Getting Focused

Blogging recently about Mindfulness has made me looking more carefully at my own process, the unsaid challenge I had set myself, how ‘in the moment’ am I? Well, the last few weeks have certainly given me ample opportunity to test myself. I have a busy life, mostly because I like it that way – I don’t feel like I do sometimes, and yet I am the architect in charge so must take responsibility for its design.woman with mixer

What is more tricky is those unexpected challenges; the spikes which overlay the normal run of things; being eight months into a building project involving our home being reconstructed while we are in it, my partner unexpectedly having to be away all week, for several weeks and then there was my parent’s elderly dog who was clearly struggling and at the end of her life. I felt I needed to step in and call time – it had become clear no one else could, or would, take her to be ‘put down’. My Mother is an Alzheimer’s sufferer; at the vet’s she hung on (literally) to her little canine companion, not wanting to release her to the inevitable. Eventually after fifteen very long minutes, she somehow dug deep and releasing the dog she was cuddling tightly to her chest said, “I know I have to be grown up and let her go”. It was heart breaking to witness.

I share this with you, not because I want to burden you with my life, but rather to pay homage to those of you feeling like an overstretched elastic band; possibly being pulled beyond your natural elasticity, out of shape and about to snap?

Behaving mindfully is certainly an effective way to still the mind and stop yourself feeling overwhelmed and being focused on one task at a time has other benefits too. In today’s technologically bamboozling world electronic messages of all kinds nestle in our palms, pockets and hand-bags waiting for response. This makes it tempting to multi task just that bit too much.indian lady

Having been asked by Faye Bran @rubyslippersdxb if I would like to do an interview about expat book promotion, it felt difficult to fit in, given what I had on and yet I wanted to get it done particularly as she is conducting interesting research. It so happens that you can’t really write and multi task (or at least I can’t) so I had to put aside 1 – 2 hours in which to do it. What I noticed, having completed the interview draft was a sense of satisfaction and achievement, a rare feeling of late.

Feeling buoyed by a sense of achievement, made me reflect on how exhausted I had become trying to do too much at the same time. Allowing myself to be constantly interrupted by incoming texts, phone calls, emails, Twitter or the men working on my house is energy sapping. I’ve been struggling to maintain good boundaries, concentrate and finish what I set out to do.

The analogy of the headless chicken, although not very pretty, is apt. Doing, doing, doing and lacking either focus or direction is neither satisfying nor productive. Allowing yourself a sufficient space to finish tasks is far more effective, I guess we’ve known this for a long while, but given the march of technology the challenge facing us is greater than ever.

Many of us enjoy our enhanced technology and would not want to be without it, some teenagers I know believe they couldn’t live without it … To be aware of the temptation to check-in too often is important, the habit becomes addictive and an excuse to avoid what needs doing. Unfortunately, avoiding just leaves us more stressed – something that will not be lost on the many young people studying at this time of year, as they prepare for important exams.

When I ask my children to put away their phones whilst eating dinner, it leaves their brains free to enjoy their food and the company of their siblings (the latter not guaranteed). Making sure that we grownups are not checking our pc’s, tablets and phones or trying to read a report whilst watching TV is also a good habit that I am still working on. It’s not wrong to do those things individually, just less effective and more stressful if you do them at the same time, not to mention inconsiderate of those trying to share the TV program with you.

CONSIDER THESE BEHAVIOURS:

  • First things first; get on with the most important job of the day when the urge to do so is high – usually first thing in the morning.
  • Do so without interruption.
  • Think short, medium and long term; set aside time to think about strategic activities rather than always doing what is most urgent.
  • Schedule time off for breaks during the day, have lunchtime and enjoy your food.
  • Avoid checking emails before turning off your device at night; it can lead to burnout before bedtime and disturbed sleep.
  • Research shows that taking regular holidays, even adding a couple of days to your weekend every few months, will make you more productive in the long run.

Lastly, I had thought it was the end of an era for my parents with the demise of their little pooch, but God and the universe move in mysterious ways; four days later, I bumped into an old friend and neighbour, he was looking worried and explained his mother-in-law was suddenly having to go into nursing care and adding to their concerns she had an elderly cat who needed re homing. Molly the cat was installed with my parents the next day and for the time being at least, they have a little pet to enjoy, an experience they have shared for over sixty years.

RESOURCES

Video: 10 Powerful Ways To Stay Focused On Your Wok Without Getting Sidetracked (Performance Management) by Chris Diamond

Book: Be Excellent at Anything: Four Changes to Get More Out of Work and Life by Tony Schwartz, Catherine McCarthy and Jean Gomes (4 Aug 2011)