6 months ago I decided to take a sabbatical, my first complete break from office work in 20 years. This, I hoped, would allow me to de-stress and return to a more natural state of body and mind Â? my own natural rhythms.
When starting the sabbatical, I had no idea where it would lead me and I felt apprehensive, especially about the impending financial insecurity. However something deep inside me knew that if I were to really move on with my life, I had to take a risk and come out of my comfort zone. Looking back I can honestly say that taking a sabbatical has been one of the most progressive things I have ever done - a kind of mid-life pause that has led to important and necessary changes.
There were many factors leading up to and influencing my decision to take this break. After 7 years of practising mindfulness and Buddhist meditation, what was now rising to the surface was my long-standing restlessness. Something had to change and I did not know exactly what. The previous yearÂ?s SHEN Therapy sessions however helped me further by bringing me to a point of direct action.
The story of my healing journey however does not start with either Buddhist practice or SHEN Therapy but in the environment of my early childhood. It was there I learnt to hide certain types of feelings and fears. It was also there that I learnt of an inherited condition that, in retrospect, has been the motivation for much of my self-healing.
My Healing Journey
Although I consider my childhood a reasonably safe and secure one, there were two things in my life that cast oppressive shadows. The first was my father - a strict, overbearing, emotionally-repressed, hard-working man - whom I loved and tried to please but only met with coldness and rejection. Consequently I always felt not Â?good enoughÂ?. The second shadow was a skin condition called psoriasis (inherited through my fatherÂ?s side of the family). It first appeared when I was 7 years old, triggered by the shock of falling out of a high hospital bed combined with a throat infection. Having psoriasis led me to feel much embarrassment and shame about my appearance which caused me to want to withdraw and hide. The doctor prescribed various conventional medical treatments, for example coal tar and steroidal creams and UVB sunlamp sessions at a local hospital. However the psoriasis persisted and by the time I had reached my teens it had become a source of great distress. Like most teenage girls I wanted to be found attractive but I had developed a habit of covering myself up Â? emotionally as well as physically.
My teenage years and early twenties were somewhat rebellious and in some ways reckless. I spent most of my leisure hours with boyfriends and groups of friends, drinking, smoking and experimenting with non-addictive recreational drugs. (This was most likely a reaction against my fatherÂ?s restraining attitude and also a way to come out of Â?hidingÂ?). I see now that these activities were also part of an adventurous spirit seeking to break free, something also reflected in various outdoor pursuits around this time which unfortunately led to some life-threatening encounters: a near-trampling by a cantering horse whilst horse-riding in Wales; a near-drowning whilst scuba diving in Malta; a near-disaster whilst abseiling in Cornwall; and a near-head-on collision due to faulty car brakes whilst driving around Dartmoor on a camping holiday.
After leaving university I started work as a marketing researcher but after redundancy I became an administrator. On the whole I found this unsatisfying and so started to explore possible alternatives to office work as well as new ways to improve my health and wellbeing. In the early Nineties I began training as a shiatsu practitioner and learnt to practise TM (Transcendental Meditation). TM Â?promisedÂ? to soothe my nervous system and calm my over-active mind which in turn I hoped would improve my psoriasis (which can be triggered by stress). And I was drawn to shiatsu mostly on account of how good it felt to give and receive! Of course also because of its many health benefits and to learn more about the holistic medical theory of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). Whilst the TM and shiatsu really helped me to relax and become more grounded, they did not directly improve my psoriasis.
So I decided to change tack and during the following years tried various internal remedies such as Chinese herbs, homeopathy and nutritional supplements (e.g. aloe vera, fish oils). Again, these helped to some extent but did not by any means cure my condition. Some years later I decided to try an intensive naturopathic approach, flinging myself somewhat naively into a fasting and cleansing programme in Portugal. For 11 days we consumed only organic fruit juices, vegetable broths and vitamin supplements, helping the detoxification process along with self-administered colonics, saunas, yoga and complementary therapies. Afterwards I felt great, clear-headed and refreshed, and it inspired me to cook more using good-quality ingredients. But, alas, my psoriasis remained unchanged.
By 1997 I had completed my shiatsu training and started to practise shiatsu professionally, having reduced my office work to part-time hours. It was also around this time that I decided to train in a second therapy, reflexology, and to study for a Postgraduate Diploma in Complementary Therapies. Yet I was still determined to beat the psoriasis and decided to try 2 new approaches: psychotherapy and spiritual healing. Since at this time I was reflecting a lot on my issues with my father and their possible connection to my psoriasis, I decided to explore this more fully through psychotherapy. During 3 years of therapy I started to unravel some of the complex issues (e.g. low self-esteem, shame, isolation) that related both to my Â?failedÂ? father relationship and to my bodily symptoms. The other approach I came across at this time was spiritual healing. It seemed amazing to me then (and still does!) that a predominantly hands-off method of energy healing can bring about such deep states of peace, serenity and stillness. It was through experiencing these kinds of states that I was inspired to train as a healer and I attended various development workshops and groups organised by the National Federation of Spiritual Healers, followed in 2004-5 by a professional healing course. And 3 years later, whilst looking for ways to release some deeply repressed feelings of sadness and anger, I came across SHEN Therapy, a powerful hands-on healing technique for bringing about emotional change and personal growth. Yet none of these therapeutic endeavours proved (once again) sufficient to cure my psoriasis.
As mentioned earlier, my interest in the more spiritual aspects of health and healing first began in 1992 when I learnt Transcendental Meditation (TM). I practised TM regularly for about 5 years and found it very relaxing however did not feel drawn to learn any of the more advanced TM practices. Then in 2001, following a painful relationship break-up, I began to gravitate towards the practices and teachings of Buddhism. Looking back now, I can understand this shift towards Buddhist practices more clearly. The man I had been seeing, a refugee with a military background, had experienced enormous hardship in his life, to an extent I had not previously encountered. Our relationship had brought me face-to-face with the reality of profound human suffering and caused me to become more conscious of my own compassionate response. I saw in Buddhism a way to explore these things more deeply and began to practise Buddhist meditation and mindfulness. It did not take long for me to discover the wonder of going on retreat and soon I had become a veritable retreat Â?junkieÂ?, attending up to 6 retreats a year. Meditating regularly helped me to feel happier (e.g. more serene, centred and appreciative of others and the world). It also made me more aware of certain bodily imbalances that I had previously tried to ignore, for example areas of poor posture and the erratic nature of my physical energy. And never before had I been so acutely aware of the roller-coaster of my moods and the incessant chattering of my mind. One of the many things meditation practice helped me to realise was that I needed to move and stretch my body more (which would in turn, I hoped, even out my physical energy) and therefore I decided to explore the ancient science of yoga.
Over the following years, the way in which I practised meditation and yoga gradually changed as I came to realise more fully the value of a mindful approach - especially accepting what is already there in oneÂ?s experience (even if itÂ?s unpleasant) and moving towards difficulty, tension or pain (instead of the usual reaction of resisting it). Thus my yoga practice changed from a more dynamic form to the meditative approach of Yin Yoga. And in my meditation practice thereÂ?s similarly been a move towards practising mindfulness as a healthcare intervention. To this end, I attended various courses such as MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) for Depression and more recently the Breathworks Living Well Trainer Programme which trains people to teach mindfulness-based approaches for the management of stress, pain & illness.
The year of SHEN sessions preceding my sabbatical had the effect of helping me move beyond some fixed patterns of attitude and behaviour. For example, I changed my hair style for the better after 8 years of the same style. I changed my old yoga class after attending regularly for 5 years. A lot of necessary decorating and clearing-out of my flat (that had been constantly Â?postponedÂ? for approximately 10 years) finally got going. Even my eating habits altered. Eventually however the really big change arrived and I left the security of my part-time job of 7 years. Although I looked for other work after leaving, I found that my energy was not in it. In fact, I began to realise that what I really needed was a complete break from all my usual routines.
It is difficult to describe the overall effect I experienced after my SHEN sessions because they would often invoke various emotions both during and after. My diary notes indicate a sense of being freer and lighter as if I had had a Â?spring cleanÂ?. The phrase Â?moving beyond my comfort zoneÂ? is often written. Feeling Â?replenishedÂ? and Â?clearerÂ? are two other noted effects. The most prominent experience however was of being more aware of an internal connectedness as if all parts of myself were now working together as a whole - in other words, feeling consciously more integrated. Building upon all my previous healing efforts and practices, the SHEN somehow finally enabled me to let go, take a risk, and move into the unknown space of a sabbatical.
The break (later on to be recognised as a sabbatical) was necessary for a variety of reasons. The routines of office work particularly had not only become extra stressful but ever-more burdensome due to a diminishing motivation. In retrospect I now see the break had another purpose other than to allow me time off. The more I got used to my own natural rhythms as distinct from patterns imposed by society, the more I was able to really experience my inner life. Although meditation, mindfulness and retreats had allowed me to broaden and deepen my awareness of an inner life, not until an open-ended space was made available could I really bring it into a fuller manifestation.
I now realised from direct experience that Â?being too busyÂ? would often get in the way of me being true to myself. And by Â?being too busyÂ? I do not only mean external activities such as office work, therapies, courses, washing up, etc., but also the internal activities of over-thinking and worry. The sabbatical did not immediately reduce this Â?busynessÂ?. What it did do at the outset, however, was make it extremely clear how caught up in it all I had been.
It took me a few weeks after leaving my part-time job to actually realise that I was on a sabbatical Â? a process of rest and recovery, change and transformation - rather than simply having time off. The first major worry or fear I came across was the insecurity of not having a regular monthly salary. And facing this fear was no easy matter. I even conceived of reversing my decision! Was the break creating more worry? Yes, at that time it did seem like it. The next fear was about what any future employer might think about my actions. Would they see me as irresponsible and thus not employable? Indeed, was I being irresponsible (I asked myself)? These fears took me about a month to come to terms with and were partially abated by the simple fact that there was just enough money coming in. With my therapy client income, some small savings, moral support from friends, and by reducing expenditure on luxuries, I was getting by. Concern about having (now) to depend wholly on my therapy practice for all my income then also set in. At this stage, the cycle of worrying about one thing after another seemed to never stop.
If this cycle had continued without any emerging positives, I think that it would have become too overwhelming. But this was not to be the case. Into the unknown space emerged not only worries but also some new energy and ideas to start changing things - in a different way than before. Home improvements began in earnest in sync with a greater appreciation of simply being at home. I obtained some new leafy plants. My meditation and mindfulness practices intensified without any feeling of extra effort being involved. During one particular meditation (6 weeks into the sabbatical), I recall vividly Â?seeingÂ? a jug of green vegetable juice which led to the idea of undertaking a period of juicing. What I wanted was to find a way of revitalising my system and this seemed to be a good method. The problem was I did not have a juicer. Two days later a friend offered me her spare one! All in all, a series of life-enhancing developments appeared spontaneously and I flowed along with them as and when the energy dictated.
During the third month, the positive effects of the juicing and the break became obvious: I felt refreshed. In practical terms, I was motivated to take a good look at the business side of my therapy practice. As well as this, the Breathworks training in mindfulness teaching that I began in 2008 became imbued with an even greater enthusiasm. It was then that the idea arose of somehow linking together my previous complementary therapy trainings with mindfulness-based approaches. Mindfulness, I saw, had now become essential to both my personal development and my healing work with others.
By taking a sabbatical, I stopped my usual outer activity, followed the flow of what seemed natural and slowly this brought me to a place of refreshment. The positive experience of really allowing myself to Â?go with the flowÂ? led me to name my website Free Flow Healing in recognition of the process. It seems obvious now that this entire process is similar to what happens during Buddhist meditation: one stops, follows the natural breath, and accepts what is happening in the present moment. In a sense you could say that the entire sabbatical has been a kind of extended meditation. Or perhaps it is more fitting to see it as an inner pilgrimage Â? a journey to wholeness.
Needless to say, the sabbatical has not cured my psoriasis. What it has done is help me move further towards an acceptance of the things I cannot change by letting go of outworn attitudes. As a young woman trying to deal with psoriasis, I did perhaps what most people would do and tried to cover it up as well as escape from it. When this did not work I attempted the long and arduous journey of trying to beat it by finding a cure. When reluctantly I acknowledged that this too would not work then there was only one course of action left: acceptance. This too may be a long journey.
Article written in May 2009 for the SHEN Therapy international newsletter
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