Monthly Archives: February 2015

Reflective Practice

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By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest”. Confucius.

I recently wrote about reflection in visual terms, examining various ways in which we reflect our life experiences and how they influence the way we display ourselves to the world.

Still on the topic of reflection, some years ago, I encountered the term “reflective practice” in the workplace and I believe that this kind of introspective examination may be applied to many everyday situations – including the grieving process.   Reflective practice is beneficial in increasing self-awareness, and this in turn expands one’s knowledge in how best to move forward in life.

But what exactly is reflective practice?

In its simplest form, reflective practice is mindfully considering the ways in which you react to a particular event.   There is a great difference between casually thinking about an occurrence and applying the principles of reflective practice to it.

Reflective practice is insightful; it is very beneficial in increasing self-awareness and through focused consideration, gaining a broader set of thinking skills. Whilst it is usually taught as part of a course or in the workplace by a suitably qualified professional, there is no reason why individuals cannot use the principles of reflective practice without supervision, adapting them to their own particular needs.

There are many reflective practice models easily accessed on the net.

Reflective practice is a common training tool – for example, when I was studying complementary therapies, I had to assess my progress as I worked through the numerous treatments given to my ‘guinea pig’ case studies.

After carrying out each reflexology treatment I had to consider a number of given points, such as: how effective was I as a practitioner, were there things I could have done better, was the client entirely satisfied with the treatment etc.

Reflective practice requires conscious effort to carefully consider events and develop your own insights into them. With training and practice it can become almost second nature to analyse your actions and reactions and it is a positive thing to do.

Thus it may not be surprising that having gained some experience in reflective practice for complementary therapies, I decided to adapt and apply the principles to the grieving process. I first did this around six years after losing James.

As an exercise, over a period of time, I considered the six suggested steps in Neil Thompson’s book, People Skills, which are:

  • Read
  • Ask
  • Watch
  • Feel
  • Talk
  • Think

The main conclusion I reached after exploring the grief journey in this way is that I could not have reached the point where I am today, without considerable interaction with others. I can read, feel and think in solitude, but the other three steps- ask, watch, talk require input with, to and from others. In particular, I feel that those who are treading the same path can make the most useful contribution to the expansion of understanding through reflecting on what has happened, ie in this case, our individual losses.

I would add a seventh and final step and that is to share because I believe that by sharing, we reciprocally teach each other much that is useful to apply in the future. The greatest pleasure in a learning experience is derived from sharing it with others. When I have learned something and I impart it, I feel satisfied to have passed it on; equally I hope the recipient then does the same; thus spreading knowledge and understanding. This element of reflective practice is a pleasingly altruistic activity.

I find it helpful to document my reflective practice, even if it is only in the form of short notes. That way, when I repeat the exercise, I can look back and see where I was then, compared to where I am now. This is a satisfying exercise in the main as progress can be seen.

Any form of journal keeping or diary writing is never wasted!

Overall, elements of reflective practice – as applied to grief – allow me to consciously, steadily and calmly evaluate and analyse my responses to my loss. This is something which would be very difficult to do rationally in the early days of grief, but I feel that the fulfilment of progress through my own reflective practice is something valuable which is cumulatively gained over time.

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What is the Vesica Piscis?

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I love the way an isolated incident can send my imagination along a journey of thought that is seemingly random; yet leads on to other unplanned connections.

Whilst I mostly write about grief and the grieving process, this post begins completely off topic, but it does eventually arrive there!

I recently wrote of visiting the gardens at RHS Wisley to see the tropical butterflies. Whilst we were there, Linda and I took the opportunity to walk round the gardens, as we usually do. We approached one of the ornamental lakes and saw that a small crowd had gathered and the people were watching something. It turned out that there were three men in waders at the edge of the lake, netting the carp that live in the water.

Now these are very lucky fish indeed! – for they live a life of luxury, free from predators and well fed by the many visitors to the gardens (even though the intended recipients of the food are the waterfowl that also reside on the lake). It was interesting to see that the usual British reserve disappeared as people were captivated with what the men were doing. We learned that they were culling the carp as the success of the lake’s environment had made it overcrowded, and some of the fish would be rehomed in other water courses within the gardens.

It was fascinating the see the vitality and strength of the fish as they thrashed around in the nets. In the water they glide along, cruising around slowly and apparently lazily; rising to the surface to grab a tasty morsel. In the nets, their muscular strength was evident in their movements, and their silvery scales were beautiful in the sunlight, the reflection creating kaleidoscopic rainbows. The men handled the fish with skill, lifting them only briefly, before placing them in a holding net or allowing them to slip back into their watery home.

It looked like random choice, but in fact was well considered.

The whole event detained us for just a few minutes, but afterwards I thought about just how important is the place of the humble fish. From the little minnow to the valuable koi, fish are significant and hold symbolic meanings of adaptability, determination, and the flow of life.

It could be said that the travails of fish, for example the leap of wild salmon, echo the trials and tribulations of the human condition. Salmon swim from the sea way up river to calmer water to spawn, and nothing will stop them from reaching their goal – not even a waterfall. They persevere, the entire journey swum against the current, until they make it to the top.

The attributes of perseverance and triumph over adversity are well illustrated by fish and man alike. In Chinese culture, the Koi is revered and stands for many things. Because of its fortitude in swimming against the tide, the carp has become a symbol of good fortune, prosperity, luck, masculinity, courage, strength of character, determination, perseverance, ambition, independence and individualism. In addition, the koi is tied to the yin yang symbol, with the black and white tear drops of the symbol said to be two representations of koi, one male and one female. The symmetry of the symbol reflects the perfect balance of positive and negative.

My train of thought’s next station was the symbolism of the Vesica Piscis, about which I have learned a little, as it is an important symbol at one of my favourite places to visit, Chalice Well Gardens in Glastonbury, Somerset.

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The Vesica Piscis is an ancient sacred symbol of two interlocking circles where the circumference of one circle goes through the centre of another identical circle. The almond shaped centre of the image is called a ‘mandorla’ – Latin for almond. The mandorla is also seen as a grail or chalice (hence another connection with Chalice Well).

The cover of the ancient well in the gardens was donated by a Glastonbury archaeologist, Frederick Bligh Bond in 1919 and features a wrought iron Vesica Piscis, with a lance passing through it.

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The design is repeated again at the Chalice Well pool at the foot of the gardens, where the spring meanders before eventually passing underground.

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I had no idea the Christian fish symbol is derived from this ancient representation. The word ‘fish’ translates into Greek as ‘ichthys’ which is an apparent acronym for ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’.

fishThe space where the circles interlock (the fish) is said to be sacred and it lends itself in imagery to be a good starting point for prayer, contemplation or meditation. It is also regarded as a doorway or portal between worlds, and symbolises the intersection between the heavens and the material plane.

Powerful stuff for a small, simple symbol!

Now I can say that fish aid me in my grieving process on a variety of levels….How is that for a great leap from the start of the piece!

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Is it all in focus?

bflies1aAs an amateur digital photographer, I enjoy creating images and recording what’s around me. This week I went to see the tropical butterfly display in the glasshouse at Wisley. This has become an annual event at the gardens and is very popular with snappers and non-snappers alike. Photographing the butterflies is something of a challenge. Firstly the humidity in the glasshouse fogs the lens; though it will eventually clear. Butterflies are notoriously camera shy and will perch on a leaf just ever so slightly beyond your camera’s point of focus… but despite this, in the event I was pleased with my shots.

But it was a butterfly I saw outside that really caught my attention. It is most unusual to see one of our native butterflies in February, but it was a sunny day and I imagine this Red Admiral may have been fooled by thoughts of a false spring.

I realised as I photographed it that images could have a place as a representation of grief. Photographers learn about depth of field – particularly in close up shots. Depth of field is the area of sharpness (from near to far) within a photograph. With modern cameras and a little knowledge of their settings, it is possible to focus on the foreground and put the background out of focus, and vice versa. Selective focus sees a chosen part of the image thrown into sharp relief against a blurred background. In theory, a lens is able to focus on only one object at a time and I wonder if grieving is so very different. The early days of loss for me were like this image:

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I well remember that every single waking moment included something of James in it. Nothing else around me held any significance. I was not interested in what was going on around me. Local, national or international happenings blurred into the background – and that was entirely right for that period of mourning.

The ideal place to be in grieving is akin to the photograph that is a ‘storytelling exposure’ – an image that shows broad depth of field. The butterfly and the surrounding background are all in reasonable focus, balanced and equal.

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Every day my son walks with me in my mind and in my heart; almost ten years on, this is not to the exclusion of all other thought and/or activity.  I have not left him behind but the size of the place he takes up has changed. I recently heard Sarah, a bereaved mother who lost her son eleven years ago say that during sessions her well-meaning grief counsellor tried to get her to ‘leave her son behind’.   Like me, Sarah feels that her son comes with her, is part of her and is with her every day. I totally agree with her when she says, “He’s not here to live his life; I am.     And I owe it to him and to myself to enjoy life”.  

Perhaps only other bereaved parents can fully understand that our children remain part of our lives and that even though their lives with us are over, they remain as part of our present and indeed our future, to enable us to balance out our grieving whilst continuing to live meaningfully. Our grief evolves over time so that is not as desperate as it was early on, and it is a great relief to arrive at this more comfortable place. From the outset, we need to hear from others that there is hope of achieving a balanced existence again.

There are times though, when I find it difficult to focus on my grieving. This is happening to me at the moment. James feels a bit remote, a bit blurred in my mind. I need to be able to call him closer, to be able to throw him into sharp relief again. Perhaps it is nature’s way of giving respite from grieving; for grief is hard, wearying work. We live it all the time, and some days or weeks are more difficult than others. It is not always possible to work out why, but perhaps the passage of time is significant here. The spells of less intense grief seem to have increased over the past few years, which I take to be a healthy sign, not a sign that I am forgetting, but that I am moving forward.

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I took one of my favourite images of James when on a visit to Brighton where he was at Uni in 2004. This is definitely a storytelling exposure … the little boy in the background reminds me of James when he was young, and James looks so happy and relaxed. It was a lovely day that I hold close in my heart.

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 So … if my grief for my son is a bit blurry, perhaps I need to take the time to look at some photos, or recall in my mind some of our time together, to bring everything back into focus and relocate it to the ‘right’ place for my day to day life.

Which Book are You?

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“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors” – C.S. Lewis

Inspiration for today’s post came from a conversation I heard when catching up with BBC   Radio 2’s GMS programme when Ruth Scott was a guest on the show.

Ruth said,                                                                                                                                               “Before we were married, my husband and I were asked what book would best represent us before we met our partners – and I replied, ‘Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’, whilst Chris’s answer was ‘Charles Dickens’ Bleak House’. Ruth couldn’t come up with an appropriate book to represent their lives today, but I asked myself: which would be my book?

My book would have to be Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’. One of the first spiritual books I read, the magical story of Santiago’s travels teaches so much about the wisdom of listening to our instincts, learning to read the signs which are there before us, and above all following our dreams and truly believing that we will ultimately achieve and arrive at our goals.

I had never encountered a book which seemed to speak to me as this one did, and it really had a life-changing effect on me at the time I read it, and beyond.

The world of literature is a wonderful place to take us out of ourselves in whatever direction we choose. It teaches, inspires, amuses, provokes thought, uplifts, encourages, relaxes, opens up new avenues of exploration, and in equal measure can disturb, perturb, or enlighten.

Reading is learning, but that is not to say it is the only way to learn. It is a huge part of our life education and how we read is important in contributing to how we deal with what life throws at us. If we read with sorrow or anger, we will feel pain and negativity.

I accept it is a blinkered viewpoint, but I choose not to read fiction that is gruesome or distressing as I dislike the imprint on my mind that is left by the imagery. However, it is not the case that I only read light and fluffy fiction – but I balance my reading between, say, a good thriller or family saga, with a factual account – perhaps an autobiography. I go to the library regularly to feed my reading appetite and my choice is usually led by what I feel will tick the boxes of a good read; it is one’s personal and individual choice which is a great part of the delight of reading. Some books leave far more impression than others and this is true of factual writing as well as fiction.

More esoteric reading such as Paulo Coelho’s ‘Manual of the Warrior of Light’ is a great way to start the day and may provide a platform for contemplation and meditation. Even a brief ten minutes spent in this way at some point in the day is helpful in processing all the ‘stuff’ with which we are constantly bombarded.

If we can find books to read that offer hope, humour, love, empathy and wisdom, then we will expand our knowledge with very little effort, and enrich our lives in a dimension that endures.

The pleasure that comes from being totally lost in an interesting story is immense. Whether our choice is poetry or prose, literary fiction or historical fact, adventure, thriller, romance…. there will always be a book waiting for us to enjoy.

There’s an exercise I do from time to time that I think of as an emotional barometer. It is very simple … in my diary I write three words to describe how I am feeling that day… if I were doing the exercise today I would write ‘calm, relaxed, grounded’. A week or so later I repeat the exercise without looking at the previous words, which I will most likely have forgotten. Then I look back and compare the words. It is surprising how often the same words crop up (in my case, I frequently write ‘blessed’) and it is a heartening exercise to carry out. I always try to record positive words rather than negative …if the words were continually negative I think I would look for some help to turn that round to a more optimistic viewpoint. In itself, reading an uplifting account has the capability to change mood and outlook. Even individual short quotations have the ability to inspire a sense of optimism.

It therefore seems appropriate for me to end with a quote from another of my favourite authors, the late Maya Angelou:

“If I could give you one thought, it would be to lift someone up. Lift a stranger up–lift her up. I would ask you, mother and father, brother and sister, lovers, mother and daughter, father and son, lift someone. The very idea of lifting someone up will lift you, as well.”


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