The feeling of this writing, how I want to convey my experience, comes from a Welsh place – teimlad llawn llonydd – a feeling full of peace. But my words in Welsh don’t quite match up to what I know I must convey, and so English will have to do for now.
An experience with many parts, I am writing these tales of transformation as reflective pieces for myself, as a truthful report of my personal interest in transformations to be offered up alongside my thesis on system transformation, and as accessible tales to those who come across them and might have wondered, what does transformation mean for them? how? when? what? I offer no answers, only my experience as closely as I can describe it.
The first step on my journey was dealing with anger. As someone who has taken ethical and “moral” stances on things in the past, both in my personal life and my work, not without sacrifice, it can be an angry place to be in the world. One where you are making huge efforts and few people around you are following suit. One where you are full of righteous reactions to people, systems, governments, media or anything else that presents huge challenges to the perspectives you hold. You are full of little and big angers.
Big for the planet, big for future generations, big for those living in difficult situations, big for your boyfriend can’t leave his country, for your friend with acute mental health difficulties who has no support from the health system, big big big.
Small for the slights of everyday life, you were not invited to a party, somebody who offered you support from a place of knowing what you’re going through just neglected you, somebody took your parking spot, you didn’t get the job. Small but significant at the time. And most importantly, you felt that you couldn’t let go of your anger because that would be letting “them” get away with it – they must learn the consequences of their actions, as I was brought up to be acutely aware of the consequences of mine.
I first understood the idea of letting things go, of not making people see the consequences of their actions after being in Egypt for a year. Living in Cairo the sexual harassment was intense on the streets of 2013. To rise to every man who shouted lude things down the street after you or came too close and whispered offerings in your ear, or even just made sexist remarks about you while you were holding another man’s hand, was to permanently raise your blood pressure, to arrive at the office fuming at the mouth and riled up from the heady mix of patriarchal male gaze and toxic traffic fumes. I stopped reacting. I walked on, I smiled, I tried to think about something else. That worked for a while until I realised I was just internalising my reactions and getting pent up on the inside instead of the outside. Was it worse or better this way? It was different, but still unnecessarily uncomfortable just for a trip to the corner shop. I start wearing headphones. With the wise words of my amazon of a friend who’d lived in Cairo for much longer, “put on a massive pair of headphones, some banging tunes and don’t give a shit”. Either that or take a taxi.
Undoing years of learning that men can do what they want with women, that women on the street were fair game for the pressures and challenges of their lives, or just the inbred thinking that their opinion on my body matters, was not going to be undone by me shouting at them and asking what they really think they’re going to get out of this interaction. SEX?!
I stopped caring, I stopped reacting, this was no longer a major source of anger in my life.
The most important insight on my journey to free myself from debilitating anger, was that you can’t take on full anger about one subject or issue, and not have it spill over into other parts of your life. My righteous rage on climate change became righteous anger directed at friends and family who made decisions that would negatively affect climate change. It became snappy and impatient responses to people close to me or anyone who couldn’t keep up with me on any subject. I became aware of how brittle I had become – where had my patience gone and why couldn’t I access it anymore? I got more and more life-weary, relationships suffered and it made me a taskmaster/mistress in professional life because it’s what I expected of myself. I didn’t like this version of myself. After another professional let-down, my mentor tentatively but supportively said “you are so hurt by things”, and asked me “Isabel, who’s supporting you?”. It turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and I slept for 48 hours.
I didn’t have an answer to that, and it was an incredibly lonely place that meant reevaluating the relationship I was in, the way that I have chosen to work, and the places that I work. This meant I had got to 27 years old and not found the answers, I had ended up in a cul-de-sac of my own making. She suggested that Somatic Experiencing could be a very tangible and limited approach to get myself out of this place. Working with the body’s nervous system, where the trauma’s and tensions reside, you work through the process of enabling your nervous system to process them and let go. It sounded wonderful.
It’s my second session of Somatic Experiencing, having driven from Machynlleth to Bristol for the first time after passing my driving test, nearly dying in the process, and only catching the train to Bath with 30 seconds to spare – not exaggerating.
I landed in the wicker chair of the therapy room and reflect back to her on the blissful experience I had after the first session. I drove back to my godmother’s house and went to sleep on the bed. 15 minutes into my nap I had the sensation of every weight on my body lifting off, suspended in golden animation over me I had this deep feeling of absolute respite and relief, “things” had lifted.
She responded enthusiastically and informed me that I had been in survival mode for at least a couple of years now. And although I had been sexually attacked in 2012, had survived through difficult threatening times in 2014, really what had been most influential was the abusive relationship with my boss whom I had worked with for a year in 2015/16. Through working with the physical memory in my body, the charge on my nervous system that came from talking about certain experiences that still felt freshly wounding, I had activated them in my body and was given exercises to process them. There was some physical pain in doing that, not just in the session but in the weeks afterwards too. But it was absolutely essential in my being able to exit the survival mode of the previous few years.
When I re-entered the real world with conversations to uphold with strangers, friends and family, work to be done etc, I felt less reactionary, I felt my patience start to blossom again, and a suppleness in my heart return. I could give you space, I didn’t have to react, I didn’t want to bite your head off. It was like drinking a cool glass of water on a hot hot day. What a relief, I was not a permanent monster.
Alongside the revelation of releasing my body from trenches of anger and ruts of calcified moral opinions, I started to more consciously exercise. Instead of exercise for the fitness or the muscle tone, it was exercise for the love of being outside, for feeling the wind on my skin, having conversations with sheep, or being in a boat with friendly people. The combination of lifting my angered state, connecting with the beautiful places around me, and the exercise, allowed me to start inhabiting my body again. It sounds funny but I could feel all of my legs again, I felt that I actually filled my legs when I looked down at them, and my body became a whole organ, not a brain that thinks of top of something that needs to move me around or perform from time to time. I became my body, and my energy started to manifest to the tips of my toes and fingers. I went from someone with bad circulation and constantly cold hands and feet, to having much better circulation and much warmer hands and feet. It deflated my over-thinking over-aware brain, and as a result I started to feel and absorb through my skin in a way that made me porous and more sensitive to everything outside of me. It is a strange reality that in the process of being more in your body, you connect more to everything else, and yet also feel more bounded in yourself in the reflection of this connectivity.
Through this bodily awareness I started to recognise the huge tensions in my body. The day to day tension we host is absolutely unbelievable. I spent weeks just conscientiously trying to notice when I sat, stood, walked, lay down, exercised or with whatever I was doing, I scanned my body for where am I tensing. When you identify a spot, it tends to release at the point, and I was consistently surprised at how much I was tensing and what I was tensing. One way to get my body to train itself to release tension naturally was breathing. The last bastion of my tension-releasing attempts was my own breathing. In a panic I realised I tense every time I breathe too!! That was terrifyingly frequent, and it was a real task to persevere to notice every time I held my breath, to release it and then to focus on breathing in and out naturally thereafter – I still haven’t got that down completely, but it’s a work in progress. The inadvertent or subconscious effort my body was making to hold my breath, was a result of my being scared to hear something, scared to have to absorb the consequences and have to formulate a reaction, holding my breath tensed my body so that things bounced off me – nothing or nobody would enter this fortress. The medicine to that is then to simply breathe, to give your body the benefit of the life-giving, brain-cell feeding and generally servicing resource that is air. Feeling it flow around your newly un-tensed body is how I imagine taking heroin feels when it courses through your veins – but just for clarity, I am just talking about common old garden air.
By this point I started to understand what relaxing felt like, it is not a thing you do, it’s a state that either occupies your body or it doesn’t. And it shouldn’t be left for your annual holiday to be felt. I think this is what some people called ‘flow’ – and in the actual meaning of the word that is what it feels like, and it makes perfect sense to try and operate in flow and in a relaxed state as much as you can. I started to feel more supple in my responses to people, I could exercise patience, I could exercise distance (which was a difficult thing for a “passionate” person), I could be more whole in how I related to the world by starting to feel that whatever happened could be responded to, or at the very least, dealt with. You become less threatened and therefore less defensive. It starts to help your confidence flow, which also helps in creating and maintaining trust with other people because you start to trust yourself again. You feel capable and without crippling self-consciousness – for me this meant when walking into a room of people or down the street, I was no longer assuming they were all looking at me, that they were judging me, or that I need to respond to their presence, I just was.
A potentially really huge subject area, but only one that I will go into without much spirituality.
Someone much more energetically powerful than I became the catalyst for my transformation and my awareness around energy. After having this intense encounter, I started to realise that the pulse I often felt in my body, was not my heartbeat, and was not palpitations or digestive blockage, but actually the beat of my energy, sometimes as strong as a heartbeat.
Through all of the steps and insights described above, I was able to connect much more to my energy and enjoyed feeling its flow, or it come alive at certain times. I gave more credence to the “vibes” I got from people when I would come across them without knowing them. Some people I really started to avoid and at this delicate time in my unfolding understanding and forays into self-knowledge and inner work, I decidedly avoided certain people – some were even friends. Understanding that I am not a public service, I don’t have to respond, I don’t have to forward opportunities on when I see them, I don’t have to invite you or meet your expectations to do, say or be something, and that I must focus inwards on myself, was and still is a tricky task. As someone who is always reaching out, connecting people up and is also freelance so needs to remain networked and with fingers in pies – the idea of focussing on myself, turning my gaze inward, remains antithetical to how I have preferred to be in life. As such it’s a continuous work in progress, and whilst I’m not in the highly sensitive stage of this work that I was in, I try to identify and evaluate much more whether I’m being a rooted and strong tree before branching out, or whether I’m being a top-heavy expansive umbrella with very little to stand on. It can change from week to week, and as a result of noticing this, I can reign myself in.
In the summer of 2017, unpacking a box of books from years ago, I found a book I hadn’t read but I had bought myself a while back. It was on Tantra for women. I started to read this book from some deeper place of knowing that I need to read it at this point. It made me reevaluate and understand notions of energy and connectivity with others much better. But most interestingly it was where I found the first notion of female leadership that has resonated with me. ‘Leadership’ being the buzz word of today I have often baulked at it, and found it elitist. The way it’s packaged up and given coverage is more about egotistical recognition and being invited to speak at conferences than what it should mean – which is being able to lead at the right time and place where you are strongest. It is a quality, not an identity and not any one particular person. Being aware that some of this Tantra reading was pretty un-feminist and didn’t speak to a diverse audience where homosexuality could equally find a home, it nevertheless opened my eyes to un-gendered concepts of masculinity and femininity, of being able to focus on and harness your own energy system whilst still connecting deeply to others, and of taking a permanent state of relaxation to another level by attaining a continuous orgasmic state in the original sense of the word – not how we understand peak short orgasm’s which leach energy from our bodies. As a young woman, this obviously made me question how I choose to spend time with those I’m attracted to, how to practice more patience and that being free with my body shouldn’t compromise the inner work I had done so far. What this led to was a profound dive into understanding more about trust and my connectivity to other people in the world. I start to take my body more seriously.
Another huge insight that affected my capacity to trust others and myself was about taking responsibility. In one of those meaningful ‘aha’ moments where all the pieces come together and bring you something new from something so familiar, I started to understand why I was so hurt by everything all the time. I had created in myself a walking wound. It has been a point of pride that I plant a little piece of me in all the people I love, or that I care about, or that I want to work with. When my aunt died prematurely of brain cancer I couldn’t comprehend how to deal with this grief, and wondered how my mum was coping so much better than I was even though she was her sister. The penny finally dropped that the way I had been operating, by making all these wonderful people, places and projects part of my identity – they constituted the ‘me’ that gives me presence or status in the world – that when they died/stopped/did something against my interests, it felt like a part of me had died or disappeared or been stabbed in the back. I was dying piece by piece and expecting others to look after that piece of me, save me or see all this. I needed to recalibrate, gather in my pieces, make myself whole, and let go of all the ways I have sought identity in the past. Taking responsibility for myself and my development is all I can do, and it’s a huge task in itself.
This rung true with things my parents had said in the past “it’s always someone else’s fault isn’t it Isabel?” and it always genuinely seemed that way. Now I understand what a useless powerless place to occupy that is – but at the same time, it must be balanced with your internal introspection into yourself – that doesn’t mean that you need to be hyper-aware or constantly questioning yourself if you did it – is it my fault – what could I have done differently? Taking responsibility is the duty to ourselves and others in relation to us, but it doesn’t mean that everything will go perfectly or that we won’t be buffeted by unseasonal and unexpected winds along the way. It is the starting point that brings back authenticity and agency to ourselves, and from there our intention enters the wider world with its complexity and volatile relationality and it will change over time. We can only start from the right place and seek to maintain a balanced and flexible approach from thereon in.
Awe and Wonder
One of the first victims of “life”, turmoil and experience tends to be our sense of awe and wonder. It may sound a naive and child-like quality that we actually seek to shed as we mature, but that’s a falsehood of adulthood, it need not create any less wonder in our day to day experience than we want. Reading this excellent book on ‘A New Map of Wonders’ there are several rather beautiful definitions of the experience and its magical properties.
Philip Fisher described
“Wonder is a feature of the middle distance of explanation, outside the ordinary, short of the irrational or insolvable. It is an horizon, both personally and historically, between what is so well known that it seems commonplace and what is too far out in the sea of truth even to have been sighted except as something unmentionable.”
Martyn Evans described it as
“an attitude of altered, compellingly intensified attention towards something that we immediately acknowledge as somehow important – something whose appearance engages our imagination before our understanding but which will probably want to understand more fully with time.”
After my intense meeting which sparked a change in my energy, the most profound difference was the way that I saw the world. I had gone from cynical, sad and less than hopeful to being able to see beauty in the ordinary things again, to experience coincidences or synchronous events that defy logic and all you can do is be in awe that they happened, to receive kindnesses from strangers and to look at everyday objects, people and places in a new light, with a new attention that doesn’t impose its knowledge, judgement or opinions on it – it is unencumbered and therefore pure and boundless.
I still have a deep appreciation for my Granny’s training in seeing and observing, she was an artist and artists know and interrogate their ability to see – not just see what’s there but came before, how was the current landscape produced, what is the field or direction that it is moving into. The past, present and future are channelled through your capacity to see, to imagine and to trace lines and believe in your own voice to articulate it. The first step to feeling a sense of wonder – and not just the wonder of seeing an undeniably incredible landscape – is to being open to seeing, to stare without agenda.
After a particularly heavy period of work away, my Mum messaged me saying “Yes Izzy don’t plan anything for when you’re home, you need to just give yourself time to sit and stare at things.”
How right she was – and always will be on this one! Staring into the middle-distance or at specific things (I’ve learnt people don’t generally appreciate it), being outside or noticing tiny patterns on a leaf – while they can be channelled productively into art – even without output or agenda, are necessary exercises in contemplation and connection.
What were frustratingly boring sessions with Granny and a sketchpad in the local graveyards as a child, instructed and equipped to draw grave stones and endless lichen, were actually open invitations to see the tiny things we don’t usually pay attention to, and to practice the discipline of focusing attention, being quiet and distilling an essence that communicates from the art itself, no words needed. Like in the book ‘The God of Small things’, if you find yourself and find peace in the small things, they nurture a capacity to approach and taken on progressively bigger things.
I know that my desire to take on the challenge of climate change, was sparked by my sense of awe at the beauty of the West Wales coastline where I lived until I was 18. It was a formative period from 16-18 years old where having to walk the dog eventually made me notice what had been around me all along. A sense of wonder is very powerful in compelling action that comes from a good place, it’s an energetic and light place that can power a lot and lifts how you communicate your passion. After all, we can all feel wonder, there are no barriers, charges or class limitations to that.