A is for Awakening

live your life quote

My writing/inspiration/motivation has been in one of those periodic ruts that affect creative people. Last night I came up with a plan to get out of it: writing 26 pieces of creative non-fiction, one for each letter of the alphabet. Here is today’s musing :

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Two years ago a friend nagged me relentlessly about going on a personal development course. Every time I spoke to him on the phone, he mentioned it and told me how much he’d benefited from it. Eventually I gave in and booked a place just to shut him up. What harm could come from going?

It turned out to be three of the most uncomfortable days of my life and the repercussions are still affecting me. As I listened to other people go up to the microphone and unburden themselves of terrible secrets – abuse, bullying, affairs, regrets – thoughts long buried slowly percolated to the surface of my mind. My one overriding realisation was how unfulfilled my life was.

As I sat in the white-walled lecture room it dawned on me I’d spent the last decade sleep-walking through my life and completely lost sight of who I was. It was an endless cycle of childcare and domestic matters which I could do with my eyes closed and used about a tenth of my brain power. And if I didn’t do something about it now, I would become stuck in a prison of my own making, never able to break free. Now I’d voiced this feeling there could be no returning to my old life.

By this time I’d been writing for about a year but it took doing the course and its follow-up to restore my self-confidence enough for me to sign on to the journalism course I’m halfway through and to teach me to believe in myself.

And when I hit a bump in the road now, I remember the most important lesson I took away with me: words are easy, action is hard but in the end only action will move you forward, so take it.

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Landmark is Transforming my Life

Coming home on the train from a Landmark seminar in London on Thursday night, the final one of the series, I began thinking about what a positive impact on my life my involvement with this organisation has had. I’m surprised to hear myself say this, being the practical, down-to-earth kind of person I am, but I honestly believe that my ongoing involvement with Landmark since January is transforming my life. Now most of you are probably thinking, “Landmark, who are they?” which was my reaction when my boss asked if I’d ever heard of them. He explained to me that they were a personal development company that he’d been involved with for a long time and how much they had helped him achieve his goals in life.

My internal defences immediately went up; “Personal development,  isn’t that what Americans do?” “I don’t need that, if there’s a problem I always sort it out myself.” “It’s too New Age for me.” “Do you think there’s something wrong with me?” My cynicism increased when I looked at their website, which is full of marketing speak and rather overblown testimonials (or so I thought) from former participants claiming that Landmark has totally altered their life.

To cut a long story short, my boss didn’t give up encouraging me to register and eventually, I thought, well there’s nothing to loose, I’ll arrange the childcare and book onto a course. I was away for three days in January from Friday morning to Sunday night. On the first morning, having left my luggage at my hotel, it took me longer than I thought to walk to the Landmark building near Euston Station, so I arrived rather out of breath and feeling a bit fraught. It wasn’t an auspicious start.

Now as I’ve written about my experience on this course (called The Forum) for the magazine (http://impoliteconversation.co.uk/transform-your-life-in-just-over-three-days-really), all I’m going to say here is that at the end of the three days I achieved a much closer relationship with my younger sister, forgave my mother for something I’d wrongly been blaming her for and confronted the behaviour that was totally running my life and ultimately limiting it. I would never have dreamed these results were possible before going. I also learnt a great deal about the importance of communication; how bad we are at actually listening to people and how most of us don’t think before we open our mouths and often regret the consequences. On the Sunday night, I returned home and lay down on my bed feeling so serene it was almost as though I was floating up near the ceiling. It was quite amazing and something I have never experienced before or since.

I floated on a cloud of euphoria for the next week and really tried hard to alter the way I communicated with my family. The results were quite astonishing. By remaining calm and patient with my children instead of getting annoyed with them, they opened up and told me really personal stuff I never knew before. The same applied to my husband as well. When you have been married for 20 years, the relationship usually runs on automatic and you react to one another in the same way over and over again, becoming angry or frustrated even when you know you shouldn’t. You are constantly pushing one another’s buttons without being able to do anything about it. Now that I knew why I was behaving that way I had a choice; to get annoyed or to react differently, in a way that was ultimately more beneficial to our relationship.

Well of course the euphoria had to wear off and when it did I crashed quite badly, finding that my behaviour often returned to how it had been before and I became frustrated with what I saw as a lack of transformation in my life. After all wasn’t that why I’d been on the course in the first place? What I didn’t realise is that just by doing The Forum, the seeds of transformation had been sown in me and they certainly weren’t going to wither and die.

When you are on The Forum you have the chance to register onto the next course, the Advanced, which I did and I signed up for the free seminar series as well. A month later, I found myself back on the train to London for the first Thursday night seminar wondering what I’d let myself in for. The title of the series was Being Extraordinary. Oh that’s just another exaggerated claim I thought; I’m destined to stay ordinary all my life, running the house, bringing up the kids and doing a bit of writing. That’s all that life has in store for me.

The room on the 3rd floor was crowded and full of people I mostly didn’t recognise. I sat there trying to concentrate as a lady with blonde hair called Rachel came to the microphone and introduced herself. My concentration kept lapsing, as all I could think was, “You’re not Jerry”. (He was my Forum Leader and someone I’d formed a real bond with; I loved the self deprecating humour he showed while leading my course). I did however go to the microphone and speak when Rachel asked for volunteers to share what they’d got out of doing The Forum.

Sharing is one of the central practices of Landmark, whether it’s with the person sitting next to you in the classroom, at the microphone or on a phone call with someone. It is something I always get great value from, as by listening to others you always learn something about yourself. As I was talking I noticed someone in the front row wipe away a tear and I knew I was right to follow my instinct to come to the microphone; someone had gained an insight into their own behaviour from something I’d said.

Towards the end of the session we were split into groups of 6 and told we would be working with these people for the next ten weeks and as we left the room to go home we were given homework to do and told to support one another with it. As I walked back towards the station late that evening, I could feel that voice in my head complaining. “What have I got myself into now?” “10 weeks! Do I really have to come to every session?” “I don’t want to get home at 11.30 pm; that’s too late.” “I don’t want to do the homework and make conference calls with my group; don’t these Landmark people realise I already have a busy life”. Yap, yap, yap, yap, yap!

So did I come back the next week? Yes, because I’d already had a conference call with my group, we’d got to know each other a bit and had spent a long time discussing the homework and what we thought it meant. I came bouncing into the room the following week wanting to know more and the same happened the week after. You see I was forming a real bond with the people in my group, sharing really personal details of our lives with each other every week and our triumphs or failures in trying to lead our lives according to Landmark’s principles, which is something that takes a great deal of practice. We already trusted one another to keep any information shared strictly within the group and knew that we genuinely wanted to help one another.

Then all of a sudden, the depression which I thought had gone away, came back with a vengeance. (Any of you who read my blog regularly will already know about this). I struggled to get out of bed in the morning, let alone get myself on the train to London once a week. A few days after missing the fourth seminar, I received a very kind message from Rachel on my phone, asking if I was OK. The perverse thing about being depressed is that if someone is nice to you it can make you feel even worse; I just dissolved into tears. Other people in my group also rang and left concerned messages. First of all I just ignored them, not wanting to make the effort and then it dawned on me, actually what I needed was to talk to people. I told my group how I was feeling and they were very supportive; never once did I receive any criticism for missing a couple of seminars or not returning their calls. I had a long chat with Rachel too and she wasn’t sure how to help me with my depression but suggested one thing that has proved invaluable: Take action even when you don’t want to. So that’s what I did. There were days when I had to stop myself going back to bed after the school run, when I got no enjoyment from what I was doing but I got it done and eventually that horrible black cloud went away. What a triumph!

At the end of March it was time for my Advanced Course. Now it did cross my mind whether it was sensible for me to go, given my recent depressed state of mind but the fact that I was really excited on the train there told me I’d made the right decision. Why was I so keen? Because this course, unlike The Forum, is all about your future. As I have spent nearly two years reinventing myself, I was totally up for that. Who wouldn’t be?

Like all of Landmark’s courses, unless you have been on one, they’re impossible to describe in any meaningful way. It sounds arrogant; it’s not, just a fact. Now The Forum was easy compared to the Advanced Course but much more worthwhile in the long run. It was hard because I wasn’t just responsible for myself but for the other four people in my working group. We had to make sure that everyone really understood what this course was about and got the maximum benefit from attending. It took real strength of character and skills we didn’t know we had to achieve this. This is the course which has had the most  impact on my life so far because I have been given a profound insight into my character, my act, which at times totally runs me. It is very simple: I avoid doing things that I believe are too hard. Now I know that this is what dominates me I have the ability to overcome it. For me it almost has physical form, like an impish black monster, and most mornings I have to metaphorically shove it into the cupboard under the stairs so that I can be productive.

The other unexpected result from the Advanced Course is that I recruited two people to write for the magazine simply by inspiring them with my passion for my work and what I wanted to do in the future. It was an awesome moment and on days when I’m complaining that I have too much to do and I’m tired, I remember how I felt: invincible, like I could take on the world. This attitude has proved very useful, as in the weeks since then I have recruited two more writers, an audio typist and a social media strategist to work for me; they have no idea when they will start being paid, they want to do it because they believe in me.

As I had a friend attending the evening session of my Advanced Course and I really wanted her to do The Forum, I decided to get up and speak at the microphone in front of the room to share what I’d got from participating in the course. To my horror, I suddenly got stage fright, my hands started shaking and I desperately wanted to run away. Instead I clenched my hands behind my back and told myself to stay there, waiting for my turn to speak. All these weeks later, I don’t remember the details of what I shared but I know it moved people, as complete strangers came up and told me so. The course leader also said something after I stopped speaking, that I hadn’t realised before, that I was going to be a leader from now on. She was right. I am.

What Landmark has given me is the chance to actually participate in life; to stop thinking, “Oh I wish I’d done that” and actually try it instead and not be so afraid of failing. Yes, there are days when I struggle and boy today was one of them, at times I’ve been in tears but the fact is that I feel more alive than I have done in years. It’s amazing how far I’ve come in the last year or so. And can I be extraordinary? You bet!