After many years I have finally pulled my journalism, my books and my blogging into one central site. I have migrated all my content from here to my new site: http://exmoorjane.com
I do hope you’ll visit me there… pop by and say hello?
After many years I have finally pulled my journalism, my books and my blogging into one central site. I have migrated all my content from here to my new site: http://exmoorjane.com
I do hope you’ll visit me there… pop by and say hello?
At the end of autumn, as the season dies, signs of decay are all around. Walking down Wimbledon Broadway, the leaves are soggy on the ground. Shoppers sport red poppies in remembrance of the war dead and, to compound the gloom, a hearse passes in funereal pomp. Life is short, it all seems to say, and then you die.
Since time immemorial humans have railed against the grim reaper, desperately hunting for the elusive secret of immortality. The ancient Chinese sought P’eng-lai, the fabled Isles of Immortality, alchemists tried to formulate the elixir of life and magicians proffered their souls in return for life unending.
It hasn’t stopped even now. We are still trying everything we can to dodge the graveyard shift: from the Nemectron (an orb believed to regenerate brain cells via dangling rings suspended on the ears) to the oxygen diet (beloved of Michael Jackson) or placental implants. Fads come and go but undertakers are still making a good living out of dying.
But some people do live longer, if not perhaps forever, and from far-flung corners of the globe (the mountains of Tibet, the islands of Japan) come tantalising tales of humans who live to vast ages, their secrets ranging from a regular diet of arcane herbs and cigarettes, through happy, stress-free lives with plenty of sex, to frequent imbibing of a foul brew of lizard and dog-penis wine. But the grisly fact remains that no one beats the final rap, the last curtain call, that bony tap on the shoulder. No one, that is, except the group snugly ensconced in Wimbledon’s Wayfarer Hotel.
Around 50 people are sitting in a semi-circle, listening raptly to the tall, lean American in the centre. ‘I am an immortal being,’ he states boldly with total conviction. ‘I will be here physically forever and I will be here for you forever.’ He paused and the crowd erupts: people jump to their feet, clapping wildly and shouting, ‘Yeah!’, ‘Yo!’, ‘That’s it!’ ‘It’s not a question of becoming immortal,’ he continues, ‘its a question of remembering that we are immortal. The whole human race has the potential of never dying, but we have been programmed that death is inevitable.’ More cheers. Sighs of profound satisfaction. ‘So true,’ says a 30-something man in front of me. He shakes his head in wonder and clasps the hand of his neatly bobbed wife. They smile and kiss on the lips. Around the room shoulders are massages, hands are held, knees are stroked – it’s like a cross between an Evangelical service and a love-in, except this ain’t no inspirational choir and these sure as hell ain’t hippies.
I’m witnessing the testament of Dr Donald Leon, at a gathering entitled ‘Living Together Forever’, billed as a ‘two day event to explore daily living for physically immortal people.’ The participants are all members of the UK branch of the Flame Foundation – a worldwide community who believe that they have discovered the secret of eternal life – gathered together to hear Leon and his partner Lynne Erickson, who hail from the heart-base of the movement in Scottsdale, Arizona.
So what’s the magic formula? Two parts dog-penis wine to one part CoQ10? Lifelong study of mystical texts and three hours a day at the gym? Nope. According to the Wimbledon immortalists, it’s all in the cells. Once you remember that you are physically immortal, your cells can transform your body into a physically immortal structure – just like that. Yes, they take care of their diet, exercise and read up all the latest on longevity, but they firmly believe no one product or regime will keep them coming up roses. It’s simply being part of the group that counts.
Daft as a brush? Well, so it may seem but, curiously, the ancient texts back them up and even modern science is beginning to nod (albeit grudgingly) in their direction. The Sufis believed that mankind was infinitely perfectable and that when a complete balance ws attained between mind, spirit and body, then transformation could take place. It’s an idea that runs through most mystical traditions but nowhere more graphically than in the alchemists’ search for the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life. Transmutation of gold from base metals was merely the proof that the formula had been found – the transformation of the adept him/herself was the final goal and, throughout history, there exist accounts of strange beings who mysteriously vanished and appeared again through the ages.
Back in the recent world, scientists are discovering that the human body is not a simple slab of flesh. What we think affects what our body does. In his book Perfect Health: The Complete Mind Body Guide Deepak Chopra, MD, describes people who have cured terminal cancers by deciding to get well.
Discoveries in the area of multiple personality disorder show that the mind can influence startling changes in the body. Chopra documents cases of eye colour change between sub-personalities; of scars, warts and sores appearing and disappearing; even of sub-personalities being diabetic, or having cancer while the main personality will show no somatic indication of the condition. The New York Times reported a case of a six-year old boy who had one sub-personality that was allergic to orange juice. If the boy drank orange juice while in his sub-personality he would break out in hives. But when his main personality re-emerged, the itching would immediately disappear and the water-filled blisters would start to subside.
Scientists can grow replacement fingers on young children; they are even on the brink of forming fresh organs alongside their diseased counterparts. Dr Alex Carrel, MD, who won the Nobel prize for physiology and medicine in 1912, asserted that the cell itself could be immortal. He said, ‘If our cells are cleansed of all toxins and the proper nutriments are provided, as far as we know the pulse of life can go on forever.’ But despite all this they are still a long way from creating the immortal body, and they sure as hell don’t have any super-people on display. So what makes the immortalists so sure they won’t kick the bucket at the end of their three score years and ten? ‘It’s the cellular connection we have with each other,’ explains Leon. It seems that to stay immortal you have to hang around with other immortals so that, by some weird quantum osmosis, your cells take up an ‘agreement’ with everyone else’s cells and agree to oscillate together forever. Cosy. But how does it actually work. ‘I don’t know,’ admits Leon frankly, ‘but I do know when I experience someone who has that cellular agreement; it’s blissful, connected, exciting, alive. It transcends all beliefs, agreements, likes and dislikes, all knowledge – everything I’ve ever known.’
Paul Massey, a compact, slightly balding 41-year old who, along with wife Gemma, runs the Wimbledon group, puts it like this: ‘There are these sub-atomic particles and they are not just stationary in the body. They are moving at the speed of light and they are penetrating you as I speak and you are penetrating me as I speak.’ Rather sexual imagery but then the energy of the Together Forever group does have a distinctly sexual tinge. When we mere mortals meet and greet our friends and acquaintances we usually settle for a handshake or a chaste peck on the cheek; immortalists on the other hand hug and kiss on the lips and entwine more than a bunch of teenagers at the school disco. But sexual relations, they insist, are strictly one-on-one. All this physical contact, they aver, is simply because immortalists just can’t get enough of each other.
Which is pretty handy. Eternity might well be a very long time – especially if you’re living in Wimbledon. And here’s the rub: dedicated immortalists sell up and move to be near other immortalists. That means Wimbledon, or Scottsdale Arizona. But what if you don’t actually like your fellow immortalists? When Sartre declared that ‘Hell is other people’ I always thought he had a good point. ‘It doesn’t work like that,’ smiles Leon. ‘Personalities don’t matter.’ Massey agrees: ‘It’s what people used to call unconditional love. I want these people on the planet forever, whether I have a personal liking for them or not.’ Admirable, but surely someone who drives you nuts within half an hour is going to be a bit of a drag for eternity? ‘Most abrasive personalities are only due to defence systems,’ says Leon. ‘Melt the defence system and abrasiveness usually goes too.’
There’s certainly a lot of melting going on at this session. Walking into a Together Forever group is like being the prodigal daughter at a vast family get-together. I haven’t been so hugged, squeezed, kissed and grinned at since I was in the school play, aged six. At first it’s somewhat unsettling and just plain irritating, but after a while it becomes curiously addictive. You get the idea that these people genuinely want you to be there.
It’s easy to dismiss them as a bunch of cranks, weirdos or psychological misfits, but everyone I spoke to would have passed muster on the normality scale; in fact they all seems more balanced, happy and well-adjusted than most people I know. So, they have a rather unusual (some might say deluded) view on life; so, they have thrown way their life insurances and their pension plans. So what? And, at the end of the day, so what if they don’t achieve immortality, if they simply go the way of all flesh. Sure, they’ll be mightily pissed off but they will still have had a quality of life and a level of community and trust far deeper than most families and churches.
While they insist they are not a religion or sect (there are no hard and fast rules, no membership fees, initiations or ‘God’), Leon does use biblical imagery to explain the spiritual aspect of their world, that heaven isn’t up there but here on earth. And together, they believe, we can achieve anything. Ask them all the logical questions, like what will happen about overpopulation with all these immortal people; or what about genetic diseases; or what happens when we blow ourselves up with atomic power or drown ourselves through global warming, and they smile benignly. ‘We can’t even begin to fantasise about what will happen when we create heaven on earth,’ says Leon. ‘We’re still using only eight to 12 per cent of the brain and we haven’t opened the frontal lobes yet. When we open up all our brain connections and connect with everyone – six billion people – that’s beyond imagination.’
They believe there will come a point when the process will happen automatically – you might just end up immortal whether you want to or not. ‘It will reach a point where it happens spontaneously,’ says Leon. ‘We don’t know if it will take one more person or six million – we;ll just keep going. But the human race is an extinct race – there are only two choices. We either destroy this planet or we evolve into a race of immortals. We’ll be immortal human beings who have changed their genetic structure.’
The writing, you see, is on the wall. In this case, on the cave walls of the Hopi Indian in Arizona – home, remember, of the parent group the Flame Foundation. Apparently the Hopi predicted 40,000 years of history, dividing the future into hefty thousand or hundred-thousand chunks. But, come 1975, they started drawing it year by year and by the early 90s this 40,000 year line breaks into two paths. ‘The human race has a decision to make,’ warns Leon. ‘One line shows the energy of the sun destroying the planet. The other grows on year by year. The 90s are the most important ten years in a 40,000 year history. This is an extraordinary time and we are creating it.’
Walking back down Wimbledon Broadway, the leaves have all blown away. On a TV in a shop window is a news flash of the cenotaph ceremony and it seems unusually poignant. The scene shifts to scientists leaping around. It seems they have just discovered that nuclear fusion, as opposed to fission, can work. A brave new world indeed but what will it bring? Hell on earth or heaven in Wimbledon? Only time, and the immortalists’ continued existence, will tell.
This is a very old piece (as you can tell by the news references!), that first appeared in ELLE (UK edition).
Postscript: Just Googled Dr Leon and, er…he’s dead. Here’s an interesting piece on the full history of the Together Forever bunch.
Q: I am forty and never been married or had children. I have been seeing a man for six months who is lovely but I don’t feel the spark I have felt with previous partners. Should I settle and have the family I’ve always wanted knowing that I won’t be unhappy, but won’t be madly in love?
A: This is such a dilemma and I really feel for you – and for the man you’ve met too. The fact that you’re even asking for advice rings warning bells – if you really loved this man, you wouldn’t be asking what I think, would you? Equally, if you were twenty, or even thirty, you would know the answer to your own question – you’d walk away. The problem here is that your biological clock isn’t just ticking; it’s ringing its alarm bell.
But, of course, there is no guarantee that you could have children – with or without this man. Does he actually want children? Have you discussed the possibility?
Then again, there’s the magic spark you mention – which is obviously very important to you. You felt it with previous partners yet you’re not with them now. We all know that the heady ‘falling in love’ phase doesn’t last and, while some partnerships based on passion stand the test of time, many don’t. Equally more pragmatic relationships, based on mutual respect, shared interests and a gentler kind of love can endure and prove truly satisfying. The problem is you just don’t know – and you also cannot tell if you’re going to meet someone in the future with whom you have that ‘spark’. What would you do then, if you were committed to this ‘lovely’ man and if you had children?
You have to be very honest with yourself. What is most important to you? The spark or being settled? If you want a child above all else, then there are other options than being in a relationship. You also have to consider the man. Is it fair to make a home with him when your heart isn’t really in it? If you feel this way after six months, how will you feel after six years?
I’d suggest doing some heart-based meditations to find some clarity. Flower Spirit do wonderful healing meditations – check out their site. I have a feeling the Emotional Peace Process might be of enormous help.
This first appeared in Natural Health magazine.
How many of us simply muddle through life as best we can? There’s the job that stifles us, the family who drive us mad, the relationships that grate. Over the years we’ve learned to grit our teeth and put a brave face on it. But while gritting your teeth gets you through the days it is, according to biodynamic therapists, slowly destroying your true self. The “brave face” is a mask that we initially put on as protection but which, over the years, becomes a form of armour, cutting us off from our true emotions and banishing any real sense of joy. Take away the mask and see through the eyes of your true self and the world will become a far brighter place: more vibrant, more intense, more alive.
Biodynamic therapists say that as children we live only in our true self (which they call the primary personality) – spontaneous, exuberant, intuitive, really “alive”. But as we get older we gradually learn to hide our feelings from the world for fear of ridicule or disapproval – we literally build a secondary personality to shield us from the “dangers” of society. The aim of biodynamic therapy is to put you back in touch with the primary personality. It doesn’t mean regressing to a childlike state of unfocussed tantrums and unbridled fantasy but rather learning when it’s appropriate to let down the barriers and allow your real self to come out to play. As a result many people find they have the courage to take up new challenges, to take calculated risks, to dare to change their lives.
It’s a totally unique therapy which uses a variety of techniques. One week you could find yourself sitting in a chair talking about your life, just like regular psychotherapy. The next session you might end up pummeling your fists into a mattress on the floor. And then again, you are equally likely to spend an hour on a massage couch with your therapist giving you a deep bodywork session. The massage is perhaps the most famous (or infamous) part of biodynamic – it’s singular in that the therapist gauges the effect of the bodywork by listening intently to your stomach through an stethoscope. The rumblings of the digestive system, they believe, give a clear indication of whether or not you are releasing emotional blocks. It sounds so bizarre that it puts many people off, fearing it’s nothing less than sheer idiocy concocted out of thin air by a complete lunatic.
But Norwegian born Gerda Boyesen who developed biodynamic therapy over forty years ago was certainly no lunatic. A psychologist and physiotherapist, she realised that she could get even better results in her psychotherapy by working on the body as well as the mind. While most therapists either opt for a totally cerebral approach (by talking) or a purely physical approach (in bodywork techniques such as Rolfing), Boyesen combined the two. She found, like many other bodyworkers, that emotions were held in the body and that through certain kinds of deep massage they could be released. But she also noticed that the greatest release came when the gut started rumbling. She listened, experimented and finally developed what she called psycho-peristalsis, a finely tuned technique which encourages the body to literally “digest” emotional stress through deep powerful massage. “It sounds crazy,” admits biodynamic therapist Gillie Gilbert. “But we’re not the only people who listen to the sounds of the alimentary canal. Anesthetists listen to the gut when they are anaesthetizing someone.”
There is no such thing as a typical biodynamic session. On my first visit to Gillie, we started off by simply talking. She explained the biodynamic theory: how over the years we suppress our true selves and, in so doing, prevent vital healing energy from being allowed to freely flow through the body. As the energy becomes “stuck” so we build up what she calls “armour”, a straitjacket of rigid muscles and tense internal tissue. “We believe your body is the library of your life,” she says. “It stores your whole history. So we start by working with the body to bring back energy into it. With massage we can dissolve the stuck chemistry, take the muscle tissue and manipulate it to increase the blood circulation. Then the extra oxygen and water will diffuse into the tissue and disperse the block.”
I was very keen to experience the massage and Gillie agreed that it would be helpful. Generally the therapist will suggest what form each session takes but the client is always given the chance to ask for an alternative. “You have the inner knowing,” says Gillie, “at a deep level you know what you need to do.”
So I lay on the couch, fully clothed and waited. Gillie started work on the neck and shoulders, my head and upper spine. It’s a very deep touch, quite painful in places – in fact, if I’m honest, it really hurt at first. But you soon acclimatize and, within minutes, I was barely aware of anything except deep deep relaxation. Normally I flit in and out of consciousness during a massage, often lightly dreaming but this time I was knocked out completely: there were no dreams, no thoughts. After forty minutes I emerged and Gillie told me my digestive system had been making quite satisfactory noises so clearly something had been shifted. I smiled and left, far from convinced: it had been a great massage but I didn’t see it changing my life. But the next day I found myself a different person: lighter, brighter, as if a huge load had been taken off of my shoulders. It lasted several days – not bad for a gloomy week in mid-winter.
The second session was to be what biodynamic therapists term vegetotherapy. Gillie asked me to lie down on my back on a large mattress and to relax, slowing down my breathing and becoming aware of my body. At first I felt uncomfortable and a slightly embarrassed: it all seemed a bit pointless. Then I felt my fingers start to twitch, almost as if they wanted to claw at something. The feelings of irritation grew and I found myself thinking about how often I suppress my true feelings in order to keep other people happy. My session was very quiet but Gillie was pleased. If I were to continue with the therapy, she explained, she would ask me to explore the feelings in my hands and see what happened if I exaggerated the movement. Quite likely, she said, I would have clawed the mattress or turned my hands into fists and pounded it. People often find they can use the vegetotherapy couch to excise deep emotional blocks, acting out their feelings as hurts and anguishes surface.
“Your ability to control and suppress your feelings reduces when you’re on the mattress,” explains Gillie. “It can be fascinating for people to see what emerges when they take away the superego, the controlling part of the mind.”
She has treated people for a large variety of problems. Some people come for a few sessions of massage to clear headaches and migraine. Others look on the therapy as a long-term commitment to deep-seated change. Gillie has several clients who see her for terminal shyness. Two are high-powered business people who found that their careers were being blocked by their inability to communicate in front of crowds. Biodynamic therapy is steadily ironing out the problem. Others come to rid themselves of long-term depression or anxiety. But, equally, she says, many come because “they simply feel there has to be more to life. They have reached their late twenties or thirties, are climbing the ladder at work and have relationships and families. But they have come to the fundamental realization that the potential they had as a child and the reality as an adult simply don’t match.”
Biodynamic therapy slowly allows the secondary personality to relinquish power a little and allow the true self to emerge – like a butterfly finally emerging from its thick, hard, rigid chrysalis.
And when the true self frees itself of its old restrictions and beliefs, it can stretch its wings and simply fly.
This piece first appeared in the Daily Mail.
My book Wellbeing and Mindfulnessdescribes many different therapies in detail, with DIY tips and techniques.
A straightforward, down-to-earth technique could make you taller and slimmer. It can help silence stress and banish the blues. It can even give significant relief from back and neck pain and the ache of arthritis. Yet this technique is no new wonder-therapy, no esoteric healing – it’s been taught in this country for years. It’s called the Alexander Technique. In the past the Alexander Technique has suffered from an image problem. People equate it with “learning good posture” and it is seen as rather staid and boring. That view should change because although Alexander does take time and patience to learn properly, its effects can be nothing short of miraculous. A host of celebrities have used it – from John Cleese to Paul Newman and it is lauded by actors and dancers who need to be able to use their bodies to the optimum.
The technique was developed by Frederick Mathias Alexander, an Australian born in 1869. Alexander was a successful actor – until he started to lose his voice during orations. A host of doctors and voice coaches could find nothing wrong with him so Alexander reasoned he had to be doing something during his performance to cause the problem. Setting up a series of mirrors, he analysed his movements and discovered that he was pulling his head back and down onto his spine with an enormous amount of tension. The tension was impairing his breathing and causing constriction of the larynx.
Alexander began to experiment and finally came up with a solution for the tension. He gave his body three main orders: “Allow the neck to be free”; “Allow the neck to go forward and upward” and “Allow the back to lengthen and widen.” These mental instructions relaxed the tension and freed his voice. In addition he discovered that the asthma he had suffered from since birth also vanished. Alexander was so intrigued by his findings that he developed an entire system which would enable almost anyone to return to the comfort and ease they enjoyed as babies and small children.
“Those of us lucky enough to be born healthy have perfect posture when we’re small,” says Kate Kelly, an Alexander teacher who gave me my first introduction to the technique many years ago. “We lose it because we’re not really evolved to cope with the twentieth century. We begin to lose our easy freedom of movement when we start adapting ourselves to our environment – we use furniture which is not very well designed for us. Plus we unconsciously imitate adults around us.”
Our bodies will cope with these abuses for some time but then, generally in our 30s to 50s, they start to complain. “This is the time when the body will no longer put up with what Alexander called “misuse”,” says Alexander teacher Gail Barlow. “The body will no longer be resilient.” She explains that it is then that we develop neck and back pain; start getting headaches or migraines; feel permanently tense and stressed and have trouble sleeping. Some of us develop breathing problems because our lungs are cramped; others suffer digestive problems because we are squashing our colons.
Alexander Technique offers a solution, teaching us how to unravel taut, tense bodies. Teachers of the technique insist they are not therapists but do admit that the process can be highly therapeutic. “We would never say we could cure because we are not medical,” says Kate Kelly. “If someone comes with aches and pains I can’t guarantee anything.” However many people (especially those with neck and back pain and arthritis) are referred by their doctors while many psychologists agree that Alexander can often help to clear depression. But Alexander is not just for those with serious problems. Gail Barlow says that 97 percent of us have lost the easy co-ordination of youth and could benefit from learning Alexander. There are highly pleasant side-effects as well. Students regularly report they feel easier in themselves, that they have more energy and less stress. And yes, many people do actually grow.
Richard Brennan, author of several books on Alexander reports that, “Teachers advise students not to buy new shoes or clothes until nearing the end of their course of lessons. It is common for pupils to grow in height by as much as an inch and a half; and they appear to lose weight at the same time. Because we have a tendency to sink down into our hips, by allowing a lengthening of the torso, a redistribution of fat tissue takes place and the pupil becomes taller and thinner.” The technique is usually taught in individual lessons or small classes. Your teacher will painstakingly observe how you use your body, whether standing, sitting or walking. Then he or she will teach you how to subtly change your patterns of movement to restore your body to its natural balance.
Don’t expect miracles overnight – a basic course will consist of around thirty lessons and many people go on to take many more. Equally some people might find the minute attention to detail almost irritating. But persevere. Alexander technique is not exciting or trendy but it does work. And once you have learned the technique it is yours for life – along with all the benefits of a body which is deeply relaxed and comfortable in itself. “Do we need to go into old age with aches and pains, stiff and bent?” asks Gail Barlow, “It isn’t necessary. Alexander discovered a way of taking those bad habits away so we are left with that delightful co-ordination we are all born with.” As comfortable and relaxed in our bodies as a small baby? What a wonderful thought.
SIMPLE ALEXANDER TIPS FOR BETTER BALANCE
Sitting (at work): Don’t just throw yourself into your chair – this causes stress on the neck which can cause neck and back problems, even migraines and headaches. Bend your hips and knees so that your body is balanced until you reach the chair. Think about balancing on your chair. Keep both feet firmly planted on the floor. Is your seat high enough for you? If not, add a few telephone directories. Hunching over your desk affects breathing and all the internal organs. It’s far better to lean forward from your hip joints, so you lengthen your whole body.
Sitting (relaxing): Slumping is terrible for your body. It may feel comfortable but you are putting pressure on your digestive system, your heart, your lungs – your internal organs cannot work as effectively as they should. Alexander teachers say they don’t expect people to sit bolt-upright while watching television or reading but do prop yourself up with cushions to give your back support. When you get up from a low chair or sofa, come to the edge of it before attempting to stand.
Standing: Think of standing balanced equally on both feet. Don’t slump onto one leg. Don’t strain – just find your own point of balance. Become aware of your feet and where your body weight is being placed. Can you feel more weight on your toes or your heels? Is more weight thrown onto the inside or outside of each foot? For maximum stability you want the heel, the ball of the foot and the point just below the big toe to be in contact with the ground.
Driving: Car seats are designed for safety, not your postural health. Try putting a wedge in the back of the seat to stop you from sinking right back. Many people also give themselves injuries when they twist their heads round to reverse. Instead drop the tip of your nose to your shoulder and then turn round – it helps the spine to lengthen.
Carrying: Try to avoid heavy shoulder bags. They make your shoulder pull up to compensate for the weight which, in turn, makes your whole body re-align. A bag which can be carried like a rucksack on your back is best or use a small trolley.
RELIEVING TENSION IN THE BODY
Richard Brennan describes this simple Alexander exercise to relieve muscular tension. It involves lying on the floor with your head supported by a small pile of books. The number of books you will need will depend on your height and the curvature of your spine. Stand normally with your heels, buttocks and shoulder blades lightly touching a wall. Get a friend to measure the distance between your head and the wall and add about an inch to the measurement – this is the height of books you will need. Choose paperbacks (they’re much more comfortable!).
1. Get to the floor by getting onto all fours and gently rolling onto the books. Bring your feet as near to your buttocks as is comfortable, so your knees point to the ceiling. Your hands should gently rest on either side of your navel.
2. Lie like this for about twenty minutes. During this time try to become aware of any tension in your body: Is your back arched so it is not fully in contact with the ground? Are your shoulders hunched? Are your shoulder blades not fully in contact with the ground? Do the books feel hard because you are pulling your head back causing tension in your neck? Can you feel one side of your body more in contact with the floor than the other? Can you feel tension in either leg – do they want to fall in or out to the sides? Can you feel more pressure on the outside or the inside of your feet?
3. Don’t move or try to correct any problems – that will only make them worse. Instead apply conscious thought to help release tension. If your back is arched think of it lengthening and widening. If your shoulders are hunched imagine them falling away from your ears. If your leg wants to fall out then think of your knees pointing up to the ceiling.
4. Before getting up from the floor, pause for a moment – think about a less stressful way of rising to your feet. Roll over onto your stomach and go on all fours. Assume a kneeling position and then put one foot in front of the other to come back into a standing position.
The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT): http://www.stat.org.uk/
Let me confess. Before I had James I had never bathed a baby. I had never fed a baby. I had certainly never changed a baby. I had held one once (arms rigid, fixed rictus of a smile painted on my face) but it cried so I gave it back – very quickly. I’m almost proud of my achievement in a perverse way. After all it takes some ingenuity to avoid babies quite so effectively for over thirty years – especially given my sister had five of them, and most of my friends are parents. Frankly when I listened to friends talk about their raging hormones, about having to have a baby, I was bemused. Somewhere along the line I was missing the baby urge gene. I just wasn’t genetically wired to be a mother.
Then I fell pregnant. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment I sat on the toilet, paper strip in hand, staring like an idiot at that faint blue line. I felt faint. I felt instant morning sickness. My belly seemed to swell before my very eyes. Then I shook my head – this couldn’t be happening to me. I simply wasn’t the mothering type. Part of me was relieved – after all my husband Adrian and I had been having the “should we, shouldn’t we?” conversation for years and now we didn’t have to make the decision. But what was I doing bringing a baby into the world? Poor mite – how would it cope with a mother who had never even stepped foot inside Mothercare? My friends were singularly unhelpful. “Oh, that’s wonderful. It’ll change your life forever,” gushed one (owner of two babies and typical Earth Mother). Well, that’s exactly what was worrying me. I didn’t want to suddenly turn into the kind of person who eats at Harvesters, holidays at Butlins and has a penchant for teddy bear prints.
“Don’t panic,” insisted my sister, “it will come naturally.”
“But I don’t like babies,” I wailed down the phone.
“Okay,” she sighed, “I’ll let you in on a secret. I don’t like babies either.”
“But you’ve had five,” I stammered.
“Yes, and I like them. But I don’t like all babies. Trust me, you’ll like your own.”
I hoped and prayed she was right.
It sounds funny but underneath the jokes I was seriously concerned. Nature doesn’t always work and what if I didn’t naturally bond with my baby? What if those hormones didn’t click into place? What if I were a rogue mother, one of nature’s misfits? What if I had become so work-centric, so self-centred that I just wasn’t fit to have a baby? I held out the forlorn hope, as my body lurched through pregnancy, that I would suddenly become baby-centric. But I didn’t. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t go gooey over babies, I didn’t get a kick out of Baby GAP. I, sin of sin, absolutely and utterly loathed being pregnant. I wasn’t blooming, I was ballooning. It felt like my body was under invasion and I was losing – badly. I suffered virtually every ailment it’s possible for a pregnant woman to suffer and a fair few of which nobody seems to have heard.
Susan Maushart understands. She is the author of a very wonderful book The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend It Doesn’t which I think should be required reading for every pregnant woman. “At least part of the problem is that our society propagates a ridiculously positive myth of pregnancy,” she says, “At some primal level, pregnancy is the definitive incarnation of “womanliness”. And for many women, pregnancy genuinely does represent femininity in its fullest and most majestic flower. Yet for every woman who revels, goddess-like, in her pregnant body, there is another who feels downright grotesque. The prevailing mask of expectant motherhood suggests that there is something aberrant about such women, as if the failure to bloom hints at some intrinsic perversity of spirit.” That was precisely how I felt. That, by hating my pregnancy, I was disowning my baby. By feeling so untouched by “natural” feelings of impending motherhood, I was rejecting him.
I went to NCT classes feeling like a fraud. But, heavens be praised, I met a like-minded soul. Heather wasn’t a “natural” mother either. “I’ve never even touched a baby,” she confessed, “they scare the living daylights out of me.” Feeling slightly better (at least there were two of us unnatural mothers in the world) I went into hospital and four days and a totally unnatural birth later I had James. I was in instant panic. These nice trusting midwives were leaving me, a totally incompetent and utterly inept person (I still didn’t have the sheer nerve to call myself a mother) in charge of this helpless infant? They would come into my room and collapse in hysterics as they watched me scoop up meconium with one hand while the other held down the page on changing a nappy in What To Expect: The First Year .
I actually managed to avoid bathing James for three whole days, scared stiff they would realise I hadn’t mastered the origami of baby/towel/water/soap. One particularly low day, I overheard a couple of them talking, “She’s going to need a lot of support, isn’t she.” “Yes, poor soul, not a natural mother.”
Yet, as soon as we left hospital, everything changed. Back in the peace and quiet of our own home, away from the beady gimlet eyes of the staff, I felt able to be, if not a natural mother, at least some other kind of mother. I looked at my baby and fell totally, hopelessly and helplessly in love. As we snuggled down together in bed, I felt a huge wave of relief wash over me. This was motherhood – and it was okay. I was going to manage, we were going to be alright.
I began to wonder whether there’s not some curious myth of the “natural” mother that we’re all buying into. Maybe there are women out there who were born to wear maternity smocks (I just upped a size in M&S bootlegs and wore baggier sweatshirts), who were destined to cluck over whether to furnish the nursery with Pooh Bear or Dora the Explorer, who loved being pregnant and adored nothing more than the smell of baby vomit. I just wasn’t one of them. “Well, what is the mothering type?” asked Sarah Dening, a dear friend who also happened to be a psychologist (a useful combination), “maybe you aren’t the Earth Mother type with children endlessly clasped to her petticoats and suckling at her breasts – maybe you’re more of an Athena type (the typical intellectual working mother), or an Artemis, needing your freedom alongside your baby. There are many ways of being a mother.”
I held onto her words in the weeks that followed. Okay, I wasn’t a natural mother but surely I could learn to be a decent mother. Surely all it takes is a good book or a scroll through the web. So I bought every book I could find. Soon the house was littered with books on baby development, how to cook baby foods, how to diagnose baby ailments. “Bloody hell, next you’ll be buying a book on how to play with him,” joked Adrian. I smiled sheepishly: I had just the day before ordered not one but two books on just that subject.
But as the weeks turned into months, I began to relax into it all. I started believing my own instincts and trusting my own feelings. Above all, I really learned to watch and listen to James to discover his needs. “You’re a lovely mum,” said my health visitor and, although I still felt like a bit of a fraud, I took the compliment and, a bit smugly, thought she had a point. I may not be an orthodox mum but James and I have a lot of fun. Okay so he wears funny clothes and eats rather odd food but he doesn’t seem to mind. I can’t balance him on my hip because, being an unnatural mother, I don’t have child-bearing hips. I “talk” over my concerns and worries with my on-line playgroup whose babies are going through their milestones in far-flung places like Australia, Canada and Japan which is, I agree, a bit unusual and maybe a tad unnatural.
I don’t know if I’m the only unnatural mother out there but I suspect I’m not. So, if you’re going through your pregnancy in a dazed sense of terror, worried that you won’t make the grade I hope you take heart from my story. I think it’s important to remember Sarah Dening’s point that there are many different kinds of mother, many different styles of motherhood. If you’re the type who knits hand-made bootees and snatches every available baby to her breast, that’s great. If you’re not, don’t panic – I promise you’ll be fine. Most of the tasks of early motherhood are (relatively) easily learned – after a week you’ll be a nappy changing/bathing/feeding pro. As for the bonding bit, I guess nature isn’t so dumb after all. If even a hard-bitten, tough old boot like me can go gooey over my baby’s smile, I promise you will too. My sister’s right, you know. Whatever you think about other people’s babies, your own is always different. And, guess what? I’m even starting to like other babies too. Scary thing, this motherhood game.
If you know me, you’ll realise this is a very old feature but I think it’s worth reiterating that there really isn’t one way to parent. I’m not sure where this first appeared – possibly the Telegraph?
As a journalist and author of books on health and wellbeing I’ve tried pretty much every technique and treatment going. All were interesting but there were only some I fell in love with and made part of my regular spiritual ‘regime’. Shamanic journeying is one of them. Shamanism is not a religion: it’s a practice that is compatible with all spiritual paths. When you journey, you put yourself into a state of trance (usually by drumming or using a rattle) and travel to other planes of where you meet guides (either animals or discarnate teachers) for healing and knowledge. Shamanism treats the whole of the natural world as sacred – and as a teacher.
Floatation – where you lie suspended in 10 inches of highly salted water – is another of my loves. So the idea of combining shamanic journeying with floatation was just too tempting for words.
Recently I had been feeling a bit stuck. I had taken a gamble and tried my hand at teenage fiction. I wrote a novel about shamanism, Walker, and then a spooky supernatural romance called Samael. At first it looked as though Samael would be snapped up by a publisher but, what with one bit of bad luck and another, nothing happened. Then, to add insult to injury, my shamanic guides seemed to have deserted me. I didn’t feel their presence in daily life and, when I journeyed, they weren’t around. So I hoped that floating might be the extra dimension I needed to get back in touch.
Hands On is a small clinic not far from the gorgeous North Devon coast. Owner and bodyworker Phil Steward knew from the moment he planned the centre that a float room was central. ‘My healing journey started when I broke my back when I was 18,’ he says. ‘I was at university in Oxford and there was a treatment centre nearby with a float tank – one of the old pod ones. I went in it every other day, and suspended in zero gravity in water, my body could concentrate on healing. Up to 75 percent of the nervous system has to deal with keeping the body upright in gravity,’ he explains.
But I was more interested in floating’s other claim to fame – the way it switches your mind into a very deep state of relaxation. In shamanism, you use a blindfold to shut out the light and employ drumming or rattling to put the mind into a light trance state. I thought that floating would surely help the brain to fall into the right pattern even more quickly and easily. ‘Yes. When you float you produce slower brainwave patterns,’ says Phil. ‘They’re theta waves, normally only experienced in deep meditation or before you drop asleep. The two hemispheres of the brain work together (what’s called whole brain thinking).’ He explains that this is usually accompanied by vivid imagery, very clear creative thoughts, sudden insights and inspirations.
Phil’s partner Ellie MacGregor (a regression therapist) often uses the float room for trance work and considers it ideal for encouraging the intense visualisation of shamanic journeying. ‘It can be emotionally and spiritually transforming,’ she says. ‘Floating can help open doors into your inner world, gradually allowing access to those deeper levels at which real changes take place.’
I’m excited. But before I venture into the float room, Phil suggests I have some therapeutic massage. He believes that massaging before a float helps people relax and the floating session can ‘embed’ the shifts he makes to their bodies with a healing massage. He has a strong, assured touch, using a combination of techniques and also a fair amount of healing [Reiki and Theta]. The very base of my spine had felt ‘jammed’.
At the end of my hour I am so chilled I nearly collide with a wall en route to the floatation suite. Ellie laughs and sits me down to talk through the float process, ‘It’s totally different for everyone,’ says Ellie. ‘There’s no right or wrong experience.’
I go into the private floatation suite, strip right off (you get cold if you wear a swimming costume) and have a shower. Then I pop in a pair of ear plugs (to keep the water out) and open the door to the float chamber. Some clinics have small ‘pods’ (where you clamber in and pull the lid down on you) but this is a proper small room filled with 10 inches of warm water; large enough that you can stand up straight and when you lie down you can stretch right out. It’s beautiful. A soft blue light shines under the turquoise water and the ceiling is sparkled with tiny lights like stars. I lie down and the water lifts me up gently – it’s body temperature and feels curiously silky.
At first I try to hold my head up but then I release the tension, let go and allow the water to hold me. Once I’m used to the sensation, I reach for the two buttons and turn off all the lights (you don’t have to but for the best effect floatation should be done with total sensory deprivation). It’s not remotely claustrophobic – just blissfully serene.
Then the drum beat of the shamanic CD starts, steady and insistent. Yes, I can still hear it through the ear plugs. I visualise myself at my usual entry point, a young oak tree in a wood near my house. To my delight, a small snake (one of my spirit animals/guides) slithers up to greet me and we plunge down into the lower world almost instantly, down a tunnel studded with gemstones. In fact we go much deeper than usual, right down into the fiery core of the planet, and then my snake guide and I become two huge pillars of light – one red, one white. The pillars fuse and our energy shoots out. Then I shoot out too, back to the middle world (the shamanic equivalent of the world we live in here on the physical plane) and find myself being greeted by another of my spirits, a proud red eagle. I fuse with the eagle and we fly upwards and are joined by another eagle, this one white: together we circle upwards until we are way out in space. We turn into human figures again but now we are absolutely huge. Looking back down to earth, just a pinprick in the vast spaces of outer space, I am given the message: ‘Heal the earth from the inside out.’ And then another, which seems more personal. ‘Relax. Don’t try so hard.’
Energy courses through my body and I feel as if I’m going to explode with it. But then the drum beat changes, signalling that it’s time to ‘come back’. I thank my spirit guides and bring myself back to my starting place, by the oak tree. And then I become aware of my physical location, here and now, in the float room.
The drum beat fades and I am left in complete silence and blackness. I feel a huge sense of peace, as if I’ve had a vast burden taken from me. I do try too hard, all the time. I try to make things happen, rather than allowing them to be.
So I don’t try to do anything for the last part of my float – I just lie back and enjoy the sensation of being held, supported, without a care in the world. Time becomes meaningless but eventually some music comes on to tell me that it’s time for my float to end. I turn the lights back on and step out, being careful not to get any salty water in my eyes. I have another shower, dry my hair, and emerge in the reception area, slightly dazed and feeling like a newborn baby.
‘Was it good?’ says Ellie and then smiles as she looks into my eyes and nods. ‘I can see it was good.’
Phil gets me a glass of water and I sit down to ‘come to’ thoroughly. He tells me that, in the US, they do all-night dream-quest floats, more intense and long-lasting shamanic journeys. My eyes light up.
In the days that follow I remember more and more of my float journey and feel more and more reassured. I feel that I will be able to move forward, that what I need will come to me – and to the earth too. I just need to let go and relax. In other words, to float.
Hands On Clinic, Braunton, North Devon, EX33 1AH, 01271 812998, http://handsonclinic.co.uk/
A good introduction to shamanism is The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner
He has also produced a CD of drumming that facilitates journeying, Shamanic Journey Solo and Double Drumming
My shamanic novel, Walker, which is based entirely on real shamanic practices, is available on Amazon for Kindle. Click on the cover below to buy
You might also be interested in The Smudging and Blessings Book: Inspirational Rituals to Cleanse and Heal
This feature first appeared in Spirit & Destiny magazine.
Like most people nowadays I suffer from stress. In fact, juggling career, family and a farm without mains services would be enough to send most people into stress overdrive. But, when the going gets tough I simply sit down and start muttering: “My right arm is heavy.” It sounds as if I’ve finally cracked, but in fact it’s the first step in a series of exercises in Autogenic Training, possibly the most potent stress relief technique in the Western world.
The benefits of meditation have long been recognised in fighting stress – but resistance to “mystical mumbo jumbo” has been too much for many people. Autogenic Training is the answer. It gives all the benefits of meditation without any of the lotus-position and leotard connotations. Simply speaking, Autogenic Training (AT) consists of a straightforward series of mental exercises designed to switch off the stress “fight or flight” system of the body and bring about profound relaxation in both mind and body. It’s been called “mental circuit training”: I call it a sanity-saver.
Autogenic Training was developed by Dr Johannes Schultz, a neuropsychiatrist who studied with Oscar Vogt, an eminent researcher into human brain functioning, in Germany during the 1920s and 30s. It was then further researched and fine-tuned by Dr Wolfgang Luthe, professor of Psychophysiology at McGill University in Montreal. Autogenic Therapy has been taught in the UK for thirty years and over three thousand scientific publications have reported its beneficial effects, making AT about the best documented and consistently researched method of stress relief. In Japan a study involving 23,700 industrial employees showed that AT improved both physical and mental health, reduced industrial accidents by two thirds, increased productivity and brought about a reduction in both absenteeism and medical expenditure. A research review reported that more than 60 controlled clinical studies of AT gave evidence of positive effects in cases of hypertension, asthma, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, atopic dermatitis and frontal lobe epilepsy. People with anxiety, sleep disorders and depression also found it a real boon.
So what does it entail? I learned AT with Vera Diamond, one of the UK’s pioneers of the technique. For the first session we concentrated on the three positions of AT (lying down, sitting in a relaxed posture and sitting forwards in a kind of slump – ideal for practicing AT in public). Then we moved on to feeling a sense of heaviness in the limbs. I was instructed to go away and practice several times each day so the process became automatic. Eventually it just took the words “My arms and legs are heavy” and my limbs immediately relaxed. Over the next seven weeks we went through the body and I learned how instantly to make my heartbeat regular, to calm my breathing, to relax tension in the abdomen, neck and shoulders and to bring a sense of coolness to my forehead. Initially it takes a certain amount of time and commitment as you have to practice several times each day but, by the end of the eight weeks, you have an instant stress-reliever at your fingertips. You can run through the exercise in a mere five minutes and feel the stress drop away. It’s so simple it barely seems possible it can be so effective.
Yet the effects of AT are far-reaching and profound. AT lowers both blood pressure and blood cholesterol (key factors in preventing heart attacks). In fact its effects can be so dramatic that people with medical conditions have to be carefully monitored while they train. In some cases diabetics have found they needed to halve the amount of insulin they take and other forms of medication may also have to be lessened. Vera Diamond also worked with Parkinson’s Disease and was excited to find that it can even help to reduce tremor. “It is an amazing breakthrough,” she said, “If we reduce the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline by regular AT practice, this results in the conservation of “home-made” dopamine and maximises the absorption of L-dopa, both of which are improvements in the Parkinson’s scene.”
It is equally effective and popular for healthy people. Diamond worked a lot with people in industry, including Allied Dunbar, the National Coal Board, Mars and even members of the Obscene Publication Division at Scotland Yard. Many airlines use the technique to combat jet-lag and insomnia in their staff and it is practised quite widely in other industries to reduce stress and improve performance at all levels. AT has even been taught to astronauts and cosmonauts as part of their space training programmes. Sportspeople have found that their performance improves – the Russian and East German gymnastic squads have used it and dancers, skiers and footballers find it gives them an edge.
Creativity seems to shoot up and many businesspeople discover that not only do their stress levels drop but their communication skills and ability to make clear effective decisions improve dramatically. The reason, apparently, is that AT brings the two sides of the brain into better balance, allowing you the advantage of the intuitive, imaginative right side of the brain which is normally switched firmly off during waking life. While sitting in Vera Diamond’s living room waiting for my session one day I happened to notice a hardback copy of the best-selling novel The Horse Whisperer. Flicking it open I saw a dedication from the author Nicholas Evans: “To Vera – who kept my right arm heavy while I wrote this”. “Oh yes,” affirmed Vera on her return, “he uses it. Lots of creative people do.”
Autogenic Training doesn’t work for everyone. Some find the initial effort needed to learn the technique too time-consuming so don’t gain the full benefits. Others find some of the exercises uncomfortable or downright impossible. “Every time I tried the heart exercise I felt a sense of panic,” reports a lawyer who tried, and gave up on, the technique, “it was very unpleasant. I tried using a modified version of AT but it just didn’t really work for me.” I also have to confess that AT didn’t manage to cure my persistent insomnia during pregnancy.
Although AT seems so straightforward, it’s vital to learn the technique properly with a qualified teacher. Aside from the sheer physical effects that AT can have, the therapy can also work quite deeply on the mind. Sometimes quite deeply-hidden anxieties, feelings of anger or frustration can surface when you start the training.
“As you work with some people you can become aware that they need a deeper form of therapy,” said Diamond who (like many AT teachers) was also a fully qualified psychotherapist. “Then we would work with them on a one-to-one basis using a further form of AT called neutralisation. We take people into the problematic area and allow them to release memories and trauma a little at a time while in a deeply calm state of mind.” One woman, a 32-year old accountant, was suffering from acute anxiety. She couldn’t sleep without the light on and constantly felt as though she needed to soothe her throat with cooling drinks. “When we worked in the group with the neck and shoulders formula, she found her head kept going back,” recalled Diamond. “So I worked with her individually and it emerged that she had nearly drowned as a little girl – the trauma had stayed tucked away in her brain and lodged in her body, in her throat, as she tried to keep above the water. Once we neutralised that old memory, her life changed. She got a new job, a new partner and all the phobias that were bothering her simply went. She was able to sleep with the light off for the first time in her life.”
Progress can be very swift. Whereas conventional “talking therapies” can take several years to achieve a noticeable effect, AT can produce good results in as little as 3-6 months. Diamond believed AT is so effective because it works with the unconscious in a selective manner – the brain chooses what to bring forward and how to do it. In many ways it is similar to hypnotherapy but there is absolutely no suggestions given by the therapist – everything is self-generating.
Given AT’s proven track record in balancing both body and mind, it’s surprising that it isn’t better known in this country. Although it is practised by many doctors and nurses (and used in several NHS settings) it still isn’t a household name. Personally I think that should change. Given the deep levels of stress in modern life, there is a clear need for a simple, effective method for coping on an everyday basis. Autogenic Therapy fills that slot very nicely.
British Autogenic Society: www.autogenic-therapy.org.uk
To benefit from AT you need to be taught the technique individually. However these relaxation tips from The British Autogenic Society is based on the philosophy of AT.
1. Sit down and close your eyes for a moment. Practice quiet observation of yourself. Check for body tension: are you clenching any muscles? Don’t try to change anything; just be aware of it. If you have an ache or pain, such as a headache, quietly observe it. Decide that it is a form of stress release which may be beneficial. Rather than seeing it as a problem, take an interest in its movements or intensity. Watch your breathing. Let it lead you wherever it wants, whether in the form of sighs, shallow panting or quiet abdominal breathing. Don’t change it; just go along with it.
2. When you feel tense or upset, retreat to somewhere private, such as your bedroom or bathroom and “shake” it out of your system. Loosely shake each limb in turn and feel the wobble. When you catch yourself saying “I could SCREAM”, do it. Bury your face in a pillow and let rip. No-one will hear you and you’ll feel much better. If you need to cry and can’t, make some moaning sounds with dry sobs and you may start yourself off. Think how a child does it automatically – sometimes we need to relearn natural responses.
3. Have some fun. When did you last have a really good laugh? Ring up a friend and arrange a crazy night out. Go to a show: let some play-time back in your life. Above all allow yourself to believe you’re a worthwhile person, warts and all. Decide your feelings are part of you. Express them safely and honestly (in private), then turn your thoughts to a more positive outlook.
In memory of Vera Diamond – with great fondness.
When we were children we used to paint and draw with pleasure and delight. For a few short blissful years we could do no wrong with our paints and crayons – we were free to explore, imagine and create. Then we began to be taught what was “good” and “bad” in art: those of us who were “good” at art started trying to perfect our skills while those of us who were not “artistic” simply threw away our paintbrushes. And that, say the art therapists, is a crying shame. Uninhibited art, they explain, has the power to heal: it offers a clear, straightforward route to the unconscious, to the hidden depths of our psyche. Rediscover the joy of art and you could put yourself back in touch with repressed emotions and long-buried hurts. You could even start up a conversation with your very soul.
Art therapy is most definitely not about painting or drawing “properly” – the aim is not to make pretty or lifelike pictures but rather to let go of any expectations and simply see what happens. Art therapy is like a key to a secret language of the psyche. Paint and you could discover different sides to your personality; you could gain confidence and self-esteem; you might even find quite physical ailments disappear when you allow yourself a creative outlet.
Art has been used as a therapeutic tool for many years. Back in 1810 a German psychiatrist Johann Christian Reill positively encouraged his patients to paint. His colleagues thought it was a way of diverting them from their problems but he insisted it was rather an attempt to put them in touch with their “passions”, their inner desires, hurts and fears. Since that time many psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have discovered that when people paint freely they are able to express feelings and give a form to fears and terrors on paper that they are quite unable to express in words. Art as therapy is, quite simply, a direct way of communicating with the unconscious.
Since those early days art therapy has become well established in the NHS where it is often used to help those who are mentally or terminally ill, people who have been abused or who are addicted to drugs. It can be a wonderful tool to communicate with children with special needs and adults who find it difficult to talk about their feelings. But it is becoming increasingly popular amongst people with less pressing needs. Workshops are springing up around the country and more art therapists are starting to work with individuals on a private basis. Some people simply enjoy painting without the pressure of having to produce a masterpiece; others find it a wonderful way to relax. Yet more regard it as a serious tool for sorting out their lives: a way to look at problems or fears in a safe, controlled environment. Everyone, it appears, can benefit from holding a paintbrush and splashing paint.
I hadn’t painted since I left school and so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I made my way to The Pelican Centre, a rambling medieval house in a small Somerset village which used to host a weekly art therapy group plus frequent residential weekend workshops (sadly it is no longer operational). About twenty of us gathered, plied with coffee, in a comfortable room full of armchairs. Michael Edwards, a Jungian analyst and art therapist who was running the weekend, immediately put the most paint-phobic at ease. “I’m not asking for any skills,” he insisted, “you can’t make a mistake; you simply can’t do it wrong. Nobody has to know what your pictures are or mean – you are only answerable to yourself.”
Although many art therapists will allow you a totally free rein, to paint whatever you choose, he had chosen the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty as a rough theme for the weekend. For some time we discussed the symbols and themes of the tale. “Fairy tales pick up the deep truths of life,” he explained, “however painful, uncomfortable and impossible they may be – they touch the deep roots of life.” We talked about the many versions of this ancient tale, including its less well-known and vastly more sinister versions (full of child-eating ogres and grisly suicides) that Disney carefully chose to ignore. Then it was time to paint.
The art studio with its smell of paints and crayons brought back a flood of school-time memories. “Find a comfortable place,” urged Edwards, “you might want to hide in a corner – that’s fine. Sit and think quietly before you begin and let the story work on you. See what comes up. It might dimly connect to your life; you might just enjoy the images. Let them come.” I sat and stared at my blank sheet of paper with something approaching horror: it felt like looking at an exam paper and not knowing any of the answers. Then, slowly, I started tentatively to paint. It began as a representation of Sleeping Beauty – asleep amidst the briars. Then I found the paints I chose getting darker and darker, the paint strokes more and more harsh. “She’s not asleep – she’s dead,” I found myself thinking and almost burst into tears as thoughts of my grandmother’s recent death came flooding back into my mind. Fear, sorrow, pain, hurt, a bleak sense of mortality all poured out onto the paper. As if by sixth sense, Michael Edwards appeared at my shoulder and talked quietly and calmly before urging me to start painting again on a fresh sheet.
At the end of the day we all paused and assessed our work. “Try talking to your pictures,” urged Edwards to the group, “you might write a commentary or simply scribble a letter to your painting. Ask it questions: it might answer. I know it sounds nuts but it does seem to work.” “My picture said I needed a rest,” laughed one woman and added, “I think I’ll take its advice.” Another said, “I felt my picture had no point to it but then I thought why does everything have to have a point? I decided I could have time in my week where there didn’t have to be a point.” Some people chose not to say a word – nobody was pushed.
“Art leads people gently into their psyches,” says Edwards, “sometimes distressing things come up but somehow they can be contained by the paper. You might feel at the mercy of a nightmare or a fantasy but by putting it in a picture it becomes objectified. And you always have a choice, you can put that unconscious world, however distressing, away in a drawer.” In other words, art can give you back an element of control over your unconscious mind. Edwards is loath to claim the miraculous for his therapy but sometimes, he grudgingly admits, people even find physical problems disappear. One woman had suffered for years from a frozen shoulder: once she started painting, the shoulder cleared up almost instantly. “You can’t count on it, but yes it does happen,” he says, “I wouldn’t say come to art therapy and get rid of your rheumatism but it does happen.”
But most people don’t seek out art therapy as a cure for physical aches and pains. Rather they see it as a journey into the recesses of their own minds. And like a voyage over uncharted seas, no-one quite knows what they will find. It might be frightening, full of terrors or it might uncover hidden strengths and talents, new resources and strategies. Quite likely it will do both. I left the Pelican Centre with an armful of paintings, feeling very small, sad and vulnerable. As I drove home I quietly grizzled, realising that I still had not given myself permission to fully grieve. Back in the safety of my own kitchen, I allowed myself to let go and really cry. I sobbed for about three hours and emerged with red-rimmed eyes and a mascara-smudged face. From the outside I looked terrible but inside I felt 100 percent better.
Try it yourself: Paint your Lifetime
To get a feel for art therapy try this exercise from the book Inward Journey: Art as Therapy by Margaret Frings Keyes (Open Court).
* Take a large piece of paper and any art materials you choose (paints, crayons, felt tip pen). Imagine that the paper represents your lifetime – the beginning, the now, the future and the end. * Sit quietly for a few moments and then fill it as you choose. Don’t expect anything or try to draw “properly”, use whatever symbols or images you feel appropriate. You might choose to depict events in your life or simply choose different colours to represent different parts of your life or feelings.
* When you have finished, be aware of how you feel – both in your mind and your body. What is your painting saying – does it show more about how you think or how you feel about your life? What are the themes and questions in it?
* Don’t throw it away afterwards – keep it and look at it from time to time to see if any new insights appear.
A version of this first appeared in the Daily Mail.
“Are there any demons? Dark angels? An angel of death? Elementals of earth, water, fire, air or wood? Any negative animals? Birds, insects, reptiles or vermin?” The young woman lying on the couch considers each question and, in a low dull voice, answers with hardly a trace of emotion. “A hawk demon. A demon of self-deception. An eagle. A group of ants. A group of rats and mice.” The woman sitting at her head nods and continues the questioning: “Any ghosts or spirits? Any agreements with Satan?”
“Yes,” says the girl.
“What is the symbol of the agreement?”
“Claws, blood, evil. A devil in a black cloak. He’s not even a man – he’s a decayed skeleton with a sword.”
“Fine,” says the woman with a brisk nod of the head, “Now you’ve recognised it, it can no longer have any power over you. We will break up the energy and take it away. It is all going to break up like a black powder and collect on the surface of the brow and the crown of your head.” She picks up a rattle from a table by her side and shakes it as she lists the demons that she is asking to leave. “They are all going – the hawk demon, the demon of self-deception, the eagle, the group of ants, the group of rats and mice and the agreement with Satan – they are all breaking up. They are all to do with the past and are all collecting on the surface. You no longer need this energy and now you have recognised it, it no longer has the power.”
The rattling gets louder and louder and now it is joined by a high vibrant humming that fills the small room. Maybe it is a trick of the light but the girl’s face seems darker, older, almost evil. “Your aura is opening to release this negative energy,” continues the woman and, with her arms aloft, she invokes: “I call on the four archangels, Gabriel, Michael, Uriel, Raphael, the Living Christ, the Holy Mother and St Peter, to take this energy.” There is a perceptible pause, as if time were standing still for a moment, and then the girl’s face seems to clear and her body visibly relaxes on the couch. The atmosphere subtly changes and a ray of weak winter sunlight strikes through the small window onto her face.
The woman rings a bell with a curious high tinkling tone. “Vibrant energy is now flowing into your head. Beautiful pink and silver energy filled with the special qualities of your guardian angel.”
She moves around the bed, making sweeping gestures over the girl and sprinkles rose water over her face, stroking her forehead. Then, with her hands raised, like a priest at the altar, she intones: “We thank you, all the powers and angels that helped us with this work. We thank you. We thank you. We thank you.” Taking off the red stole, embroidered with two gold crosses, she kisses it and returns it to a satin bag. Wrapping the girl up in a blanket, she asks her to turn onto her side and rest for a few minutes until she feels quite well.
This is a standard morning’s work for Dr Francesca Rossetti who performs around 150 exorcisms a year. Felicity, whose exorcism I had just witnessed, is 24 and a beauty consultant. She had come to Dr Rossetti because she had an overwhelming fear of death and a terrible fear of hurting other people. Her terrors had been triggered following a party when someone had laced her drink with LSD and she had had a bad drug experience. Rather than seek help from a psychotherapist, she had turned to exorcism.
“I feel much better,” she says when she joins us in Dr Rossetti’s sitting room, “much lighter. And the terrible pressure at the back of my head has gone.”
Dr Rossetti performed her first exorcism over thirty years ago. It wasn’t a conscious career choice but something that just happened and she firmly believes she is simply carrying on work she started in previous incarnations. “I had quite a lot of supernatural experiences when I was very young and then people just started coming to me with their problems. By the time I was in my teens I was a bit of a Marj Proops.” She spent years studying and travelling round the world, learning from priests and medicine men and women of all cultures. She’s a doctor of Divinity and also an ordained priest in the Holy Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church.
Rossetti is a warm, bright woman with a healthy sense of humour. Amidst the books, videos and ornaments that clutter any home, there are stained glass images of the saints adorning her windows and a crucifix and candles sit on top of the mantelpiece.
She talks of demons and spirits as if they were nothing more than irritating ailments and lists angels of death, mischievous entities and elementals like a long, dreary shopping list. But, despite her matter of fact approach to exorcism, she insists her work is in deadly earnest and that demonic possession is a very real fact of modern life. Demons, she says, are attracted by negative emotions and will positively thrive in an atmosphere of fear, hate, envy, lust or jealousy. Add excessive alcohol or drugs to the picture and you have a good possibility of infection. Even worse, she is convinced that many of us are carrying demons from previous incarnations, from lifetimes during which we made pacts with the devil, indulged in black magic or performed acts of cruelty. “To think that, after thousands of lives, you have not had some dealings with Satan, is very naive,” she says.
It is also naive, she insists, to imagine you can remove the demon and expect everything to be alright. Most exorcists, she says, simply get rid of the demon and don’t worry about either the underlying emotion or filling the gap. “It’s simply not taken seriously enough in the West,” she says. “In fact, the church takes it really rather lightly; exorcist is one of the very minor orders of the church. So when a person becomes an exorcist they really don’t know what the hell they are doing. They simply haven’t had the training.” She says she has seen exorcisms in which the demon has simply waited until the rite was finished before “popping back in.”
And, she also points out, exorcism has to be tailored to the individual’s system of belief. “If someone comes from Islam there is no point in treating them with Christian symbolism. If you have a Jewish demon, it’s hardly going to respond to Islamic symbolism. You have to adapt to individual needs.”
Demons, she says, come in all shapes and sizes. People are often surprised that she questions them about animal and insect possession but, she explains, it can be very common and, certainly in the East, it’s not unusual to see people writhing on the floor like snakes or jumping around the room while being exorcised. Personally, she tries not to actually “see” the demons as they are being removed but on occasions she has inadvertently noticed strange forms. “Sometimes I just see a dirty powder coming out or I feel unpleasant-looking creatures and so forth. Once though I saw this little creature – it was a sex entity and it was trying to put me off the exorcism with little jokes and so on. It had an oversized penis which it was waving at me. And sometimes the smell can be unbelievably bad. It’s generally ammonia I smell but the angels take it away so I don’t suffer for more than about thirty seconds.”
Rossetti has no fear of the demons. Secure in the belief that her guardian angel and the archangels will take away anything unpleasant, she attacks her work with methodical precision. “Sometimes people have a very heavy energy. I remember one man who came to see me and I actually “saw” claws. He said he might harm me, he might damage me. It was quite unpleasant because you don’t normally see a human being with inhuman claws. But, no, I wasn’t frightened. If there is something really unpleasant, you simply break it up in stages. It’s like going into a field of bombs, you can’t diffuse them all in one go.”
For this reason she often performs exorcism over several sessions: like cancer, possession is often not limited to one part of the body or one demon. Demons of self-deception can mask pacts with Satan and sometimes it can take several hours of patient questioning to release all the entities trapped in a body.
The second exorcism I witness is that of a 50 year woman called Maureen. A self-confessed nymphomaniac, she appears nervous and suspicious. Her eyes flitter and shift from Francesca and me and occasionally she laughs in an eerie way for no reason at all. She repeatedly twists her hands as if she were trying to pull something off her fingers. “I think I have the spirits of four witches in me,” she says, almost with pride. “And I am so restless in bed; has a spirit been draining my energy in my sleep?”
Rossetti smiles gently and takes details, asking questions in much the way a standard psychotherapist would. Then we go into the small exorcism room and Maureen lies on the couch. Covered with a light blanket Rossetti places a white stole (for protection) around Maureen’s neck and calls on the powers to protect the work, to cast a circle of love and light around the room. Taking her into deep relaxation, Rossetti asks her to contact the part of her body that holds all her negative emotions. Unsurprisingly she goes straight to the vagina and brings through a demon of nymphomania. “What are the emotions?” asks Francesca. “Lust, longing for life,” she mutters. Then she gasps and shivers: “Something’s eating away at me. An animal. Four-legged. Like a horse.”
“Is there a demon of havoc in your heart?
“One, more than one or a group?”
“Is there a dark angel?”
“Yes. A group.”
“Is there an angel of death?”
“Yes. A group.”
More demons and dark angels of havoc, greed and nymphomania follow and then Rossetti asks one more question. “Is there a devil attracting all these demons?” Maureen pauses for a moment, her knuckles white with tension, before answering.
“Yes, in the solar plexus. It’s black and dirty.”
Rossetti seems satisfied and quietly calls on the powers to take away all the demons and spirits, all the Satanic energy.
“It is all going now, breaking up, giving you a feeling of wholeness, of stability and of beauty. You now have a feeling of connection with reality; a new balance that is right for you.”
Back in the living room, Maureen seems much calmer. Her eyes seek and hold contact and she holds her hands calmly in her lap. “It was very intense,” she says, with a sense of wonder. “I feel far more “here” now, more earthed. But I feel worn out.” Rossetti advises her to take it easy for the rest of the day, to take a walk in the park and then rest. She leaves with a warm smile on her face.
Before the session I had put Maureen down as a paranoid schizophrenic and privately thought that her answers lay with a psychiatrist rather than an exorcist. But it was clear that, whatever it did, the exorcism had a substantial effect.
Rossetti is quick to point out, however, that she does not automatically assume demonic possession: “One has to be very careful to check out what the physical and emotional condition is. You might get irrational behaviour if the person is eating something they are allergic to or someone might come along and say I’m so depressed it must be spirits – and their mouth is full of amalgam which is known to cause depression. I don’t think everything has to be a demon.”
Rossetti has written two books on her work. One – Psycho-Regression: A New System for Healing and Personal Growth
touches on exorcism briefly but her first, Casting Out the Devils (Aquarian, out of print), written under the name Francoise Strachan, deals solely with the subject. In it she describes how serious the effects of possession can be. One case involved a young woman who went to a spiritualist church and contacted what she imagined was the spirit of her lover who had died. She became obsessed with the spirit which eventually was able to materialise in a form solid enough to have sexual intercourse with her. Another woman became involved in black magic and made a pact with the Devil. She tried to kill herself in numerous ways: strangling, slashing her wrists, even swallowing razorblades. Both women might have been considered simply neurotic or deranged yet both responded to exorcism and made complete recoveries.
In some cases, Rossetti says, automatic writing will appear in a page of normal writing with the pen snatched and flung into the middle of a room. And, in very advanced cases, she says “the demon literally dominates the body, seizes on the organs and uses them as if they were his own. It can actuate the nervous system and produce movements in the limbs, speaking perhaps through the patient’s mouth.”
It’s quite common for demons to speak in foreign or unknown languages but Rossetti says she simply asks for a translation. She has, not quite respect or sympathy for the demons, but certainly a kind of pity. “I never scream or shout at them or send them to eternal damnation because that’s hardly very loving,” she says, “OK, a demon is a distorted form of energy but it’s still trapped. I feel, like everything, that they can be recycled and when the angels take the demons, they are transmuting them and allowing them to continue their own path of evolution. They can be transformed through the power of God.”
Her work gives her great satisfaction but, she stresses, what she wants most of all is to train more people in her profession. She would dearly love to find priests, therapists or others from the caring professions who could bring the necessary strength, compassion and understanding to the work. The modern world needs more exorcists, she believes, and good ones because, no matter how clinical and ordered life may seem, satanic energy does exist. “Satan is a big question,” she says, with a shake of the head, “and until Satan is transmuted, there will not be the completeness of God in all things.”
* Names of patients have been changed.