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AofA People: Alan Dolan – Breath Coach


6 Minute Read

Alan Dolan, 55, is a breathwork guru. He’s known for this transformative work with the breath. He lives in Lanzarote. He says that ‘the deconstruction of the smoke and mirrors is the most worthwhile work that I have ever undertaken’. breathguru.com

Age (in years)    

55

Where do you live?         

Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain

What do you do?

I´m a self-employed breath coach

www.breathguru.com

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

55 has been something of a turning point. Whilst I´m beginning to notice the more tangible signs of ageing I know myself better than ever before. With this has come acceptance (mostly), understanding and compassion.

As I’m able to feel more compassion towards myself I find that I am automatically feeling more compassionate towards others which is a rather lovely position to be in. This relatively new level of open-heartedness has changed my experience of life and living. As my emotional spectrum continues to expand and I feel boundaries and perceived limitations disappear, I’m both elated and humbled.

On the one hand I see the infinite potential of what it means to be a human and on the other I see the sameness and ordinariness of that experience. I like Adyashanti´s perspective of ´enlightenment´ as being a process of deconstruction as opposed to adding anything into the mix. The deconstruction of the smoke and mirrors has been the most worthwhile work I’ve ever undertaken. I’m ok. I have always been ok and I always will be ok.

The misunderstanding of thinking that I have to be anything other than what I actually am has for the most part been embodied – and with that comes peace. And on the days when I feel anything but peaceful I remember the dynamic nature of having a human life and how the waking up process is ongoing. There doesn’t seem to be an end point only increasing awareness and presence coupled with decreasing identification with ones thoughts and emotions. Such a paradox. Unconditional acceptance of what is together with increasing clarity re what I am and what I am not.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?     

Self-acceptance, which I’ve found to be the precursor to self-love

An additional 30 years of experience and the wisdom that comes from that.

An increasingly global vision. The apathy and angst of my early years has been replaced with the acknowledgement of a shared responsibility for what we have created globally and a desire to contribute to the awakening that is happening within our species.

A more open heart

Perspective

Gratitude – for ALL of it.

A sense of awe at the ever-present intelligence at work all around us. The magic and the mystery of existence.

The ability to be present and live from the now. Historically, I´ve been quite future-oriented. I find myself much more in the now these days taking time to experience each moment as the truly unique gift that it is and finding delight in the fact that as we spend more time in the Now so the quality and depth of each moment becomes more apparent.

What about sex?

Surprisingly it just seems to get better. I didn’t expect that as I thought it was pretty amazing to begin with. I’m more grounded and connected to my body these days and with that comes increased sensitivity and intensity. I’ve done a lot of bodywork and yoga over the years and now diving even deeper via Breathwork. Bottom line is that it seems there is more light and shade as well these days and I enjoy the dance between the two. Last year, I began to explore tantric practices which brings a meta-context and intention to all things sexual.

And relationships?

There´s a direct correlation between the relationship one is having with oneself and those which are experienced with others. As my sense of self becomes clearer so I have more appreciation of meaningful connection rather than going through the motions at a more superficial level.

How free do you feel?  

As I’ve explored and become freer in my body I´ve noticed that I feel freer generally. As within, so without if you will. I recognise and value my sovereignty and am more comfortable with bucking the norm if I feel it´s appropriate. I recognise the parts of me that need validation and approval and understand why those aspects still hold sway with me. Being in the world but not of it is easier said than done. In my experience, the layers of self-imposed restriction, self-abandonment and self negation continue to be peeled away.

What are you proud of?

I think my journey to date and the fact I´ve come back to me in a sense. The word communion has been coming up a lot recently both in terms of deepening the connection I´m experiencing with myself and in relationship to others also.

What I´ve created and continue to create with Breathguru. I tend to be an early adopter so when I began promoting Breathwork in 2004, it wasn’t really on the map. Cut to 15 years down the line and it´s very much in vogue in the UK and around the world. I played a fairly major part in that process and I´m excited to see the results of all that attention and energy.

What keeps you inspired?        

Lots of things

Nature

The magic and mystery of existence

Individuals who are making a difference – I just read when the Body Says No by Gabor Mate which blew me away – he´s really challenging the status quo re our attitudes to addiction and I love him for that. Compassion in action. Its time.

When are you happiest?

When I´m in on or near water.

And where does your creativity go?         I

Everywhere. The whole thing is one big creation both singularly and universally.

What’s your philosophy of living?            

Be Love

And dying?

I’m not sure I have a philosophy of dying although death and dying is definitely on my radar much more these days. I can tell you that I value my life more than ever before and even though I have a new vision I´m beginning to create I can honestly say I feel ready. I ask myself that on a regular basis these days.

Are you still dreaming?           

Always.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I just asked a Belgian Venture Capital firm for 2.3 million quid. That felt quite outrageous and absolutely appropriate at the same time.

Qigong – Moving with the Times


1 Minute Read

The spelling of Qigong belies its simplicity. It can be ‘googled’ and you will find Qigong, Qi Gong, Chi Gong and Qi Kung (the list continues!). The correct way of spelling the name of this gentle, yet often challenging, movement system remains a mystery; however the effects on our health and wellbeing are backed by a growing body of evidence. They are also attracting mainstream interest from public health bodies, private companies and social care organisations.

The BBC programme ‘Trust Me I’m a Doctor’ (Series 2; 19th October 2018) compared Tai Chi to Zumba as a form of aerobic exercise by measuring flexibility of capillaries (they became more subtle and elastic so Tai Chi has a positive effect on blood pressure), chemical markers of inflammation (these increased in line with other forms of aerobic exercise – antioxidants also increased) and heart rate (this doubled so reached the same rate as the people doing Zumba). This is backed up by a paper published in the BMJ 24th March 2018 which compared Tai Chi to aerobic exercise. Similar physiological results were found and in addition, class attendance and adherence to home exercise was higher than in standardly prescribed exercise (patients found Qigong/Tai Chi more enjoyable and less painful) and physiologically had similar or greater benefits. Tai Chi and Qigong are so similar that the research can be applied to either.

Qigong is my daily practice of choice and I learnt it when I was training to be a Shiatsu practitioner. We were taught Qigong to maintain our own energy levels whilst treating others. Qigong is translated as Qi Harvesting (the Chinese character for Qi translates as air or space and so ‘breath working’ is another translation), it is far simpler to learn than its better known ‘sister’ Tai Chi and very adaptable. This makes it ideal for settings such as rehabilitation and palliative care.

As a teacher, I have taken my Qigong practice into many settings over the past 20 years; an NHS pain management and rehabilitation department, companies, schools and community settings. I run annual retreats and specialise in designing personal Qigong forms so that individuals can target specific health, emotional, spiritual or psychological needs. I have also facilitated Qigong groups in a hospice setting.

End of Life Qigong

St Christopher’s hospice is a flagship palliative care venue in South London. Known for its passionate commitment to making the end of life creative, fulfilling and of course, as pain-free as possible, I was invited to run Qigong classes there twice a week. I joined the Complementary Therapy team in 2016 and stayed for a busy year. The commute from North to South London finally wore me down despite practicing Qigong every morning on Waterloo East station! I sadly resigned at the beginning of 2018.

The classes were well attended and those who practiced even once a week gained great benefit.

Testimonials

‘I was sceptical, but I now use some of the movements on a daily basis to control my symptoms.’

‘I was surprised that my arm moved so much more easily after the class.’

‘Deeply relaxing.’

‘It felt as if I wasn’t doing anything and yet I feel like I have exercised well.’

There are many forms of Qigong, the one I taught at St Christopher’s Hospice is called A Fragrant Buddha and it can be viewed here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxTcm0fZSYk&t=49s

The Power of Images

Integral imaging is a technique now used by top sports coaches to improve performance. Imagining a ‘move’, for example, a tennis serve, before acting, increases accuracy, focus and so is efficient energetically. And it is the same in Qigong – the titles of the movements ‘White Crane Salutes’, ‘Parting the Clouds’ are suggestive in themselves, sending messages of beauty, as opposed to pain, through the nervous system and lessening the ‘flight or fight response’ so often alerted in this cohort of patients. When the bodily systems are soothed in this way, other ‘messages’ such as ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘ that will be too painful’ are overridden so that the physical body can do what it is capable of doing rather than be restricted by negative belief.

Sensing Paradise

The Fragrant Buddha form has a simple story attached to it – one travels through a landscape whilst moving in time with the natural breath, the suggestion is of sunlight on water, fish swimming slowly, bowls of delicious fruit and so on. The sensory awareness that is so often lacking in hospital and hospice environment is made available internally and again, the nervous system is soothed.

The Change factor – Mindfulness

Moving with the breath gives the same sense of peace as the time tested Buddhist practice of observing the breath, however, for people who are worried by their diagnosis and usually in pain, the addition of small movements and sensory images add an extra diversion for the distracted mind.

Do what you can Do!

Often people at the end of life believe this is the end of their journey – in tune with St Christopher’s philosophy, the practice of Qigong encourages adaptability and continued exploration and richness found in what you CAN do, not what you cannot. All patients expressed surprise at their progress and increased flexibility even though it felt like they were making very little physical effort during class.

The Loving Circle

Qigong has a ‘calling in’ feel to it. I concur with the speculation that Qigong originated in the movements and dances of shamanic priests calling in beneficial weather, spirits or resources on behalf of their communities. Qigong is rooted in the belief that we are magnetic to Qi, it is there for us, just waiting to be called. A favourite way of starting the session would be to sit like satellite dishes attracting love, peace, clarity, and to acknowledge that we were X (X = Number of people in the circle) times stronger than if we were alone.

Resources and References

St Christopher’s Hospice www.stchrispophers.org.uk

Open Age – lots of London venues offering Qigong very cheaply www.openage.org.uk

Sally Ibbotson www.willesdenbodywise.co.uk

Comparative study Tai Chi and standard aerobic exercise Wang C, Schmidt CH, Fielding RA, et al

NHS Networks – website for Tai Chi and Qigong practitioners working in the NHS www.networks.nhs.uk/nhs-networks/yai-chi-chi-kung-for…/news

Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation Vol 19 No.3 pp. 172-182 ‘Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong: Physical and Mental Practice for Functional Mobility@ Bill Gallagher MS PT CMT CYT

Support Care Cancer (2012) ‘A Systematic review of the effectiveness of qigong exercise in supportive cancer care’ Cecelia L.W. Chang RTH et al.

The Journal of Rheumatology 2003; 30; 2257-2262 ‘The efficacy…of Qigong movement in the treatment of fibromyalgia’ a randomized controlled trial. J.A. Astin Ph.D.

One 66 year old Man’s Route to Major Personal Change


11 Minute Read

This is about change, personal change, the desire for it, the need for it, the context of it, the possibility of it, and the experience of it.

I don’t want to come across as preachy, self-obsessed, needy, screechy, and so on, (as if!) and I am NOT a therapist, medical practitioner, psychoanalyst or expert in any way. I can only describe my experience.

I was born in 1951, a baby boy, in what was then Cumberland, a lovely part of the world. With friendly, open people, a strong sense of mysticism rooted in the dark hills, unpredictable weather, open countryside, the lakes, the moors, the ruins, the legacy of the Lakeland poets, standing stones, Roman occupation and invasion attempts from beyond Hadrian’s Wall. There was also immense potential for drama and isolation.

Black Sabbath lived in my hometown Carlisle for a while. Their doomy oeuvre is usually analysed in terms of bleak industrialism, soul-crushing factory work but I also hear their banshee call of the wild deserted moors that they would have crossed late at night in their van. There’s also the thrill of local supernatural legends, like the Croglin Hall vampire in their songs.

My childhood was spent in a society emerging from post-war shortages, attempting to rebuild Britain, with its new heroes, James Bond, Doctor Who, the rise of television and radio, the early days of multiculturalism. Into this world, shockingly to my parents’ generation, came the revolutionary force of teenage culture, rock and roll, hippies, drugs, permissiveness, Swinging London (it sounds so quaint now, it was so exciting then), and into this world, I emerged as a young adult, longing to be part of it, but not quite sure how to achieve that, and blundering along through a very large part of my life, a spoiled only child who threw himself at the brave new land.

Alcohol played a large part of my life. I regret that. But this is all history now but then there was a backdrop to a life of bingeing, yoyoing weight, car crash relationships, divorces, rock and roll, stressful work, money worries (yes, I know, it’s the same for pretty well all of us, but, of course, the world revolves around MEEEEEE), and a gradual slomo glide towards a final crisis. There was the slow dawning that I’d got a lot of things wrong, and harmed people I really cared about.

I had a full breakdown, lots of medical intervention (the NHS were brilliant). It was described as clinical depression, something I regard as different from morbid melancholia. My physical symptoms were – trembling hands, racing heart, gasping for breath, overwhelming feebleness (no driving, no socialising, crawling to the toilet, friends doing errands for me, even driving me to the GP), long, long periods of motionless sleep, hands folded over chest, periods of staring blankly into space for hours, no reading, no TV, no work, nothing achieved, no sorrow, no joy, nothing, but sudden attacks of helpless sobbing, coming out of the blue.

It wasn’t hell, or misery; it was just nothing. Nothing mentally, zoned out, blank, gone, withdrawn inside a feeble, trembling body overdosing on adrenalin. That was a few years ago. I recovered as my GP told me I would. She was brilliant, and she was right. But it didn’t dawn on me that the real underlying problem was still there. The horrible sense of guilt and regret that I’d conducted my life badly. I did share this with friends, but they dismissed my fears, kindly, compassionately.

I felt I was stuck in an inescapable prison, I just accepted it, and carried on with life, busying myself as my strength returned, business as usual, telling myself I’m okay. Really, I’m okay. And so it went on. With that lurking black cloud of guilt over divorce, financial loss. Things that would affect my son, not just me, but were caused by me. (I’m okay, really, I’m okay).

Still binging, still chaotic. My mother died, I had to look after my very old father for several years. That was pretty tough, but it did teach me that, well, sometimes, you have to face your destiny, and that life isn’t one long joke. He passed away in 2017, after years of decline. He was in the RAF in WW2, born during WW1. Imagine the difference between us; he actually had moral courage.

In March 2018, something happened. My son sent me a wounding, angry email (he lives with me, but he used email to communicate this message). He told he it was time I stopped messing around, harming people, blowing hot and cold, complaining endlessly but never doing anything to improve things. Brattish behaviour. Spoiled child behaviour. He said in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t sort myself out, within a week, then things would be unpleasant between us.

I love my son. He is everything to me, and I hadn’t realised how bad things had got, how oblivious I had been. He told me that he was worried about me, that other people were worried too, even though I thought everything was fine. So I did what he said. It was brutal, it was hard, but I tidied up a lot of loose ends. Actually, it was laughably easy. It occurred to me then that a metamorphosis can be easy. Even should be easy. Even actually is really pleasurable.

But how could I do it? I’d been on diets, I’d been to gyms, I’d cycled, I’d been slim, I’d been fat, up and down, round and round, precious little willpower (it seemed to me, making excuses yet again), I’d be drunk, I’d be dry … there was no consistency, no sense of real, long-term gain, just knee-jerk quick fixes, including lying, deception, secrecy, all those little monsters scurrying around in the spoiled little boy’s psyche, neglecting friends, disappointing people I cared about, losing their respect, all that stuff.

So how to go about it? Some lights started to go on. I read, I googled, I youtubed, I sought out the things I’d missed or sneered at, the pinnacles of human achievement, inspiration, courage and liberation. I reflected on the notion of self-reinvention, like Bowie or Madonna. If they could do it, even in the context of the music world, then why couldn’t I? I’d remember seeing a movie, with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, who were trying to survive in the wilderness. And Hopkins’ repeated mantra was: “If one man can do it, another man can.”

It stayed with me. But here’s the problem: I have got fit, then slid back; I have dieted, then gone back to large fries and chocolate shakes. It’s not just how to do it, but how to keep on doing it. So I youtubed, I read, I googled … self-help stuff, motivational stuff, this diet, that diet, and still I was blundering along, but things were slowly becoming clearer.

I knew I’d been very unhappy for a long, long time, and I couldn’t break the binge cycle of action and reaction, or so I thought. How to go about it? I’d look at drawers full of clothes that were too small and think I’d never be able to wear them, but not want to get rid of them, because that would signal the acceptance of final capitulation to a chaotic lifestyle, and its aftermath. I’d waste money, miss golden opportunities, break up good relationships. It was as though I was frightened of success.

It all came to a head last March, because that same weekend I’d seen Don Giovanni in Southampton, and I’d checked the dates. Strange that it was THAT opera. THAT weekend. Synchronistic, one might reflect.

In the course of youtubing, something clicked. Motivational clips are often quite boring, predictable, and usually they are angling to sell you something, but amongst all of that there was something. Two things, in fact. One was transformation. The other was toxicity.

Let’s do toxicity first. What my son was really telling me was – get rid of poison in your life! Get rid of it. Toxicity isn’t just about substances like alcohol, tobacco and so on. There is also social toxicity, emotional toxicity, moral toxicity and, for me the biggie: psychic toxicity. I’ve listened to people moralise about young people self-harming, and, yes, it is a terrible thing, but those judging these young people might be grossly unhealthy themselves, without realising that they are self-harming too, in a terrible, terrible way, blindly, with good intentions, and, (the most horrible thought of all), that I was like it myself. Quis custodiet ipsos custodiens? Is that how it goes? So true. I was poisoning myself with guilt, regret, overwork, dark thoughts, melancholia, rejection of society, negativity, introversion. I was a psychic self-harmer. We all are, to a greater or lesser extent. It was suddenly so clear and obvious to me. I could not become well, or at least better, until I stopped poisoning myself.

It seems to me that toxicity is very BAD for us, to put it simply, tritely even. But let’s think about it. Psychic toxicity is BAD too, banal though that might sound. You know, and you feel, how your body reacts to toxic junk food. That’s a given, I think, so … why did I do it? Some kind of post-Freudian self-flagellation thing? Probably. Nice flavour? Something like that. It’s the same with junk emotions, junk mindsets, junk values, junk irrationality, they poison you, and lead you to real self harm, to comfort eating, to retail therapy, as it’s jokingly called. To waste, to anger, embitterment, resentment, excess. Whatever. I became bloated, and limited in my choice of clothing. It was shit. Because of self-poisoning. Why? One thing is for sure: ultimately, you are the one who will pay for it. So don’t do it. It sounds banal and crude, and I do apologise for this, but I’ll still continue, even though you are already thinking about things you do to yourselves that are toxic. Do I need to name them? Do you need to throw them out, push them away like a raft that once brought you to safety, but is now allowed to drift off because it isn’t needed anymore?

It seems so obvious to stop. We beat ourselves up, and it is counterproductive. At this point I have to say this especially includes toxic relationships. Sorry. I apologise again for being preachy, I am truly sorry, but I am describing a life-changing experience. I am NOT telling you what to do.

Now is when you are really going to hate me. There is one thing that is not optional. We all know that, don’t we? Again, it’s obvious, so simple, but it seems so hard to keep going. Let’s think of it this way: not exercising is in itself a form of toxicity. You have the option. And all of this can be done at home. It is an incredibly exciting thing to experience, trust me. I’d say one of the most exciting things I’ve ever experienced, (in a very clunky, bedraggled life that has included clinging terrified onto a horse bolting through strange woodland), is to see the world this way, then react accordingly. You’re NOT on a diet, you’re NOT slogging painfully away. You are relaxing, and you are not beating yourself up any more. THIS IS THE KEY.

Soooooooo easy, soooo obvious, really. I’m ranting. Forgive me, I don’t want to piss you off. It gets worse though. It’s almost like … well, it actually is … a psychedelic experience. Seriously, your perception alters, things just seem to intensify. This is just what happened to me, between the ages of 66 and 67. I dropped from XL to M, waist from 44 to 36. Without feeling I had to do something, had to join a gym, had to get on a bike, had to limit what I ate, had to take supplements … once I stopped agonising (ie psychically poisoning myself), I just did these things naturally, with really very little effort, as though they were happening to me, and all I had to do was go with the flow, let it wash over me.

It’s boring to read this, I’m sure. I have zero willpower, but something stirred inside me (honestly, stop laughing) and I found myself going to a gym, then, imagine it, this hot summer of 2018, cycling nearly every day, off-road, in open countryside, along route 23 on the Isle of Wight, amongst rabbits, squirrels, herons, jays, woodpeckers … stopping for a pot of tea at Pedallers’ cafe (highly recommended). It was utter, utter, joy. It just was, and it still is. I even whistle sometimes. But exercise doesn’t seem like a task, it’s more like a pleasing ritual for me, doing crunches with music or a lecture playing, so I’m not exercising, I’m listening, and learning. I just do this and that while I’m listening. This has been my journey since March 2018. At some points before that, I did lose track, but life seems better now.

Tides in the body: Menopausal Musings


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I’m still on the edge, and not often there, as yet. Yesterday is only the second time I’ve had an encounter with the menopause. The first time was two years ago, when I didn’t have my ‘bloody days’ for three months in a row – after which I wrote the ‘Celebration of the Circle’ poem, published here at Advantages of Age – and the second time is now. Now is when the blood is still not coming. I’ve been waiting for my period after what I thought were typical premenstrual symptoms. It’s that strain and unnerved-ness, which ends when the period begins.

Period-experience had taught me that when blood comes, the tensions cease. It’s just that I had not been as conscious of this relationship as I am at this moment when it’s not here and I am still waiting! I have realized that it’s the blood-flow which actually brings healing to the body. The sight of the blood signals the transition from the lowest state of ‘ebb’ back to ‘flow’. So one can say that there are tides inside the body, and for a long time in a woman’s life it’s our blood-flow, which enables the flow of things – and we go with it! We all go with it, we all ‘go with the flow’, when we are at ease! So our period enables and teaches us this.

Flow, tide, ebb, flow, ebbflowebbflowebb: I think that as women, as long as we flow, we are like rivers. When we stop flowing, it might be because we have reached the sea. All rivers, as we know, flow into the sea! So we will all get there eventually.

There are tides by the sea as well, of course, and even more obviously so – tides in a river are more likely to be overlooked than they are by the sea – and it matches how we, as women, are overlooked; and also how we, as women, neglect the significance of our tides, our periods. Sign of the times, sign of the tide, precisely, it is! Period! We are Zeitgeist! We are time and space, within!

Once we flow into the sea, we merge with a greater body of water, and merge with the oceans, a taste of greater expansion. But this body of ocean is not a male or female body, it’s universal. So the ocean is both male and female (and ‘other’ too, as the sea is fluid!). More evidence that the sea is not just male is that it ‘answers’ to the moon. So it’s another aspect of us, and of us all!

A gender-politics note of caution: I do not consider this to be a ‘women and nature’ story: rather it is about ‘geography and the body’. It’s embodied psychogeography.

Psychogeography is, traditionally (though it’s at odds with ‘tradition’!) a radical/alternative/ transformative exploration of urban (and non-urban) environments. It developed around the Situationist International, highlighting the constraints of capitalism on our life-experience, space, place, time, boundaries. It’s about us and space then – landscape, and the effect that has on us: what industrial landscapes do to us, or housing, urban planning, coastal edges, and more. And in this tradition too, I have looked at my body in itself as a geographical space, and what our bodies do to us, and what that means.

I think traditional cultures often say that rivers are female, and the ocean is male – though some rivers are male too. My experience echoes the idea of women as rivers, to start with, though. This leaves more space for gender ‘fluidity’ as well. How would you write a male version of this? I am curious to hear other interpretations and experiences, with perhaps other ‘elemental’ immersions and configurations.

So my geo-spatial body experience (and my choice of elemental signification) is that I am not in the sea yet, but I have reached the river-mouth, I am still on my way to the beach, and happily taking my time, doing loops and turns rather than moving in a straight line towards the sea. But despite all of my twists and turns: the menopause is not too far off – the sea is out there! As of now, my period will most likely come back again – rolling down the river!

There’s one more thing I realized from this experience of period-intermission: the idea that the onset of the blood, as long as it comes, brings healing. It’s healing because it brings about a release of that premenstrual tension in the body, signaling that body is ready for another cycle-turning. What blood can do! And that makes me think of Christianity in an inverted way. The church uses the symbolism of blood as a means of healing, during communion. The way the church sees it, however, seems taken out of context. From my experience here it’s a woman’s blood that brings healing, not that of Jesus – unless, of course, Jesus was a woman! And that now, seems more and more inevitable to me.

One Middle-Aged Man Reclaims His Body as a Temple


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‘The human body is the best picture of the human soul.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein

‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own’ 1 Corinthians 6:19

I long since discovered that – like us all – I was born to be a vessel for something greater than myself.

And like most of us, I had spent the first half of my life confused as to what that might be, pouring in various substances and behaviours to get the desired result.

The ubiquitous mistake, of course, is to fail to empty and cleanse the vessel in preparation for that which seeks to enter.

One Sufi master put it this way: ’When I go out, He comes in.’ The injunction is clear – get out of your own way.

And why not, for who wouldn’t want to be penetrated by The Holy Spirit, which promises the ultimate joy – a kiss on the inside of your own heart?

As a young man, I was given devastating glimpses of what was possible, moments of utter bliss that were pure gifts and a joy that could not readily be put into words.

The trap is to spend one’s life chasing that one holy instant rather than accepting it with gratitude, knowing it is a herald for things to come and a peace that passes all understanding.

Given that, it would be sensible to put my own house in order.

But like many of us, my body had its own plans, which ran counter to my varied attempts to corral it under my control.

Looking back on my 55 years – and it’s a big ask for a man to admit this – I ran, pumped weights, shed three stone in three months boxing, took up various martial arts, dropped various martial arts, drank pukey powders, went weight watching, walked The Camino and of course, joined gyms the length and breadth of Britain.

I don’t think I have been to the latest one for months, with more pounds going out than there are coming off. What was missing, of course, were consistent good habits and regular daily disciplines.

Yet I seem to be seasonal and rhythmic – although not in a good way.

It used to be easy. In my 20s, I ran and yomped across the Malverns with a guy from the SAS. At 40, I boxed with other yuppies in Ladbroke Grove, both with heroic turnarounds.

At the end of last year, I began Ju Jitsu, but was soon out of action when the instructor landed on my rib cage with an almighty crunch.

Down the years, I had two girlfriends who were into raw food and, for a time, I would clean up my act. But try as I might, I would always return to couch surfing with an assortment of favourite, salty snacks.

The low point came when I found myself brushing my teeth with my own urine and realized the pendulum may have swung too far the other way.

The simplicity of moderation had always passed me by but the one thing I actually enjoyed was juicing. I started with a 30-day juice fast with raw foodie number one and then completed a 60-day fast on my own in 2015.

I felt vitalized, alive, marvelous.

But in the past two years, my blood pressure and my cholesterol had crept up as my good habits slowly began to unwind. When my iron levels went down, I had tubes inserted both ends to check for cancer.

It was clearly time for a re-think, although there remains no satisfying explanation for my iron deficiency and luckily no cancer.

I had heard about Vital Detox through a superb herbalist, Fiona Milligan, who had begun to despair of my lack of interest in my own body and quite fairly had me pegged as a hopeless case. She had been a key member of the staff team since it began life in Wales.

I turned up for the week at Middlewick outside Glastonbury – now luckily a stone’s throw from me – at the end of January. I had paid, spent three weeks with the flu, and had fallen out of the shower, tearing a cartilage, the day before arrival.

Crutches never look good on a detox but I wasn’t alone. We arrived in various states of health and, swaddled in blankets for morning meditation, turned the place into something resembling a care home with funk.

Groups don’t faze me. Having done and run so many over the years, I tend to stand back (sit back in this case) and pace myself, avoiding the usual temptation to over-talk as people get to know one another.

The warm, allowing atmosphere created by the staff team grants an immediate ease and there is an attention to detail that comes from a genuine love of human beings. (Founder Anna Tolson suggested comfrey oil for my knee and it appeared the next day via someone’s visit to Glastonbury.)

It slowly became clear there was something unusual going on: a business not motivated to make zillions but to reach people in a deeply personal and heart-centred way.

The regimen was strict, not rigid with meditation at 8am and juices and broths at 9am, 12 noon, 3pm, 6pm and 8pm, although everything was optional, including the excellent talks with Fiona, Fran, Barbara, and Annie. If we wanted food, said Anna, food would be provided.

What has been achieved and what is so key to healing – as any good therapist knows – is an emotional container that provides a safety that will allow unconscious material to appear.

Detox does not just mean of the body but the mind and the emotions too and all 26 participants had individual process sessions with members of the team, who have various skills.

I missed using the swimming pool but received a supremely soothing massage from Rachel and a less comfortable yet important abdominal massage with Andrew.

But there was one thing I was not looking forward to – the self-administered colonics known as colemas. I am not overly familiar with having things inserted into me (although my recent colonoscopy had given me fair warning) and I prevaricated for the first few days.

Finally, I hopped up to Fiona and asked for help. She set up the various paraphernalia, including a bucket of water above my head, and left me to it. While I couldn’t say I enjoyed it, I was aware of its importance so I gritted my teeth and surrendered.

By day four, the process was considerably more hardcore than when I started. I was now on daily colemas; the juices were now almost utterly devoid of fruit and I couldn’t wait for the day when there was more going into my mouth than out through my posterior.

Finally, we came out of the fast into raw food and a feast for the senses. People started to notice I had dropped both weight – and crutches – and had that famous fasting glow. I was clear skinned and ready to go.

A month on and now off wheat, dairy and sugar with the odd minor relapse, I turned up at the staff cottage to speak with Anna.

The child of a bohemian mother, after an ‘alternative’ upbringing she had trained as a homeopath but struggled, like many seekers, with what she calls ‘existential angst’, that wrestle to be here, on this earth, in a human body.

She had attempted to heal that split (I call it the wound of the Chiron in Pisces generation) through relationship and had finally reached a devastating rock bottom after another painful ending.

But victory came when her mother gave her Brandon Bays’ book The Journey: she qualified as a practitioner in a few months after chasing seminars around the globe. She condensed the process while working for another detox business and the rest is history.

‘It was a miracle and it was exhausting, but the results of combining detox and journeying were extraordinary. People are so emotionally available because they are so stripped bare.
I had been depressed my whole life not wanting to be here. I went into my rage and have never been depressed since.’

The effect on her relationships was that they transformed from being traumatic to supportive.

With a push from a client, she then set up her own team in Cardigan, before finally moving the centre to Somerset, her intent to create a happy team:

‘My driving force was to do this job but with people who loved each other. We would become an intentional family.’

One week a month that family lives on site in the lee of Glastonbury’s famous Tor and brings its well-being and care to others.

I had known that a session from home with a practitioner or even a series of sessions would not be enough to get me on track. I needed a new foundation.

Happily, I found it.

For more information visit: www.vitaldetox.com

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