Every day, we have thousands of thoughts. Imagine if each one of those turned into £1. Now there’s a thought. But research shows that the vast majority of our thoughts are negative or repetitive - we tend to ruminate and replay unpleasant experiences and interactions.
Buddha says pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. In other words, we must accept that life will have it’s painful times, but clinging onto them for longer than we need to, is unhelpful. Rather than directly feeling the pain, our minds prefer to think about it over and over again.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional Buddha
Recognising that processing our thoughts in a healthy way is a problem for millions of people, record breaking world adventurer Colin O’Brady created the 12 Hour Walk Challenge. O’Brady went from overcoming a severe burn injury that left him nearly unable to walk to becoming the first person to cross Antarctica solo, as well as summiting Mount Everest twice. This man knows first hand how to harness the power of the mind. The Challenge requires you to get unplugged from the day to day distractions of ordinary life and instead immerse yourself alone in nature. No companions, no dogs, no music, no podcasts - just 12 hours of you and your thoughts. I was in. Paths, journeys, solitude, nature, a whole day out of my daily routine. This was literally right up my street.
But although I consider myself good at processing my thoughts through solitude, journaling, meditating and so on, I wondered how good I’d be for 12 solid hours, without the distractions of work, books, laundry, cooking, checking social media, listening to podcasts, making a cup of tea, and the other minutiae of life that punctuate my day.
How would it feel to be untethered to my home and my daily routines? In fact my biggest worry about the Challenge was getting lost, and then losing the motivation to finish, and giving up. Ultimately, my biggest fear was failure. Followed closely by cows.
It’s a funny thing dedicating a whole day to nothing but your thoughts. There’s no escape - the whole point of the walk is to become aware of just what’s going on behind the closed doors of your mind. To shine a spotlight in those shadowy corners and see what clutter might need to be cleared.
On the day of the walk, I woke up at 5am and my thoughts were these; I’ll do it another day. I don’t have time for this. I’ve got too much to do. It’s not for me. What if I have to cross a field of cows?
As I’ve learnt through meditation and mindfulness, I noticed these thoughts without pushing them away, I accepted them, and then turned my focus to my more beneficial thoughts. This is exciting, Imagine how I’ll feel at the ‘finish line.’ I can do this.
At 5.45am I took my rucksack, did a final check - water, flask of tea, sandwiches, snacks, loo roll, plasters, phone on airplane mode - and set off, my mind still like a swarm of bees. I’ll just walk for an hour or two - it can be a practice for doing the real thing another day. It’s really lonely around, what if I get attacked? What if I have to cross a field of cows?
When I got to the footpath that would take me all the way to Shoreham (and back) Oh my god, this is it, am I actually going to do this? No way, this is really happening! I can’t turn back now, what will my children say? If I don’t do this, I’ll regret it. What about the loo? What if I have to cross a field of cows?
I hesitated and thought of one of my favourite quotes from Cheryl Strayed. I considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one. To keep walking.
The first two or three hours were positively bursting at the seams - it was a sunny but cool day, I passed through woodland, open fields, by rivers, canals, streams. I saw foxes, deer, rabbits, birds of prey. It was idyllic. As my stride began to relax from faltering and hesitant, to rhythmic and relaxed, so did my thoughts. I stopped at the edge of the river Arun and had some tea and half a sandwich. All I could hear was the sound of the water babbling, and some distant church bells. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here now. Nature is so much more entertaining than anything else in life. What a great time to be alive.
But shortly after this, I hit my first obstacle and the first test of my mindset; a council sign telling me that part of the footpath ahead was closed. Next to it was an image of part of an Ordnance Survey map showing the section of closed path marked in red. Not being a map kind of girl, I couldn’t make head nor tail as to where exactly this closed section was. My negative thoughts began to awaken and spiral again.
WTF? This is so typical! Is the closure an hour ahead or 5 hours ahead? Why can’t they demystify it and make it more obvious? Why don’t they show a detour so that I can easily get back on the path without getting lost? I might as well give up right now and go home, there’s no point in going on if I’ve just got to turn round soon and come back on myself! Why didn’t I plan this better, I’m so stupidI don’t know where I am.
I began to feel angry, irritated, hot and tearful. I suddenly became aware of what was happening - I was getting caught up in those thoughts and beliefs like a fly in a spider’s web. I'd gone from calm and relaxed to full on pissed-off in the space of a few seconds. I was completely in the grip of my thoughts. This realisation led me to an instant decision. I would not give up. I was going to go on regardless. F*** it. What did I have to lose?
Over the next couple of hours, further reflection on the closure sign revealed some more patterns about my life that I hadn’t been consciously aware of - my tendency to overreact to the slightest hint of a potential problem, my custom of blaming others, particularly those in authority, for not being clear enough when I don’t understand something, my lack of self trust in being able to work things out and reorientate myself, my habit of not always taking responsibility for my choices, my inability to see the whole picture, and lastly my habit of ignoring warning signs and hoping for the best.
I could see that these patterns have played out in all areas of my life from careers to relationships, from parenting to health, from finances to time management, from education to community. It was a complete epiphany. I could see aspects of these limiting beliefs seeping through every aspect of my life. I began to understand the comments of others on the Instagram 12 hour walk hashtag about the life changing nature of investing this one day in yourself.
I became aware of some other patterns. I don’t like not having it all figured out. I don’t like my head not knowing something. I don’t trust my heart or my intuition enough. My brain is the only source I trust. I was brought up to ‘always use my brain,’ and if I don’t understand something then I feel a failure, that I am not using my brain, that I am defect in some way. And that feeling is deeply uncomfortable for me.
I began to see how attractive it is to cling to the past - to analyse and rationalise my life’s experiences, to make sense of them with the benefit of hindsight. I can map my past and see the terrain clearly. I can see the aerial view and all the spidering tracks that branched off from my main path. My brain likes the past because it has something solid to work on. I’ve already done that, I KNOW that. Experience is something my brain can cling onto. But the future? I don’t know what’s round the corner, it’s unmapped territory, it’s a huge expanse waiting for what - to be tamed? To be explored? To be created? A mystery. And when will the future be here? Tomorrow? No, because when tomorrow comes, we will call it today, and today is the present. And ultimately of course that is the big lesson in life, today is all we have. The present moment is all we have. Our present moment of being is all we are. And all that reflection from a ‘Footpath closed ahead’ sign!
As I came to the half way, 6 hour point on my journey, I could see ahead the colours of the council’s red and white barrier tape, signalling that this part was closed to the public. At last I had come to the biggest obstacle so far. Or was it? As I got closer I could see that the obstacle was nothing more than a metre or so of broken fence at the edge of a gently sloping embankment. A storm in a teacup. And clearly somebody else must’ve agreed as the tape had been ripped apart and tossed to the side of the path at both ends. Several people were passing through, unconcerned.
As I began my return journey shortly after this, I thought how different things would have been had I allowed my fears to stop me a few hours previously, at the first hint of trouble. The warning sign had seemed so ominous and prohibitive back then. Here was another lesson in life…The thought of the perceived problem is often worse than the problem itself. Often the problem isn’t a problem after all. There are various ways of getting round obstacles. The future sometimes looks scary but up close it’s not. Uncertainty can lead you to new vistas and experiences. Your thoughts literally create the path, your future.
Of course you don’t have to ascend Everest, or live like a hermit, or find the Wizard, or even do a 12 hour walk to learn about yourself. We can choose every day to be on our own unique small pilgrimage. To choose intentionally which direction to go, what signs need our attention and which we can safely ignore, to keep our gaze lightly on the horizon whilst never losing sight of the wonder of the beauty all around us. To spend time with ourselves, expanding our understanding of who we are, and discovering ways of shifting our thinking towards a more fulfilling way of living our one incredible life.
Our sacred pilgrimage starts right here, right now with the self. And ultimately that is all the transformative experience we need.
What is your burning question?
In a year’s time what path will you wish you had chosen today?
Tomorrow, what one thing will you do differently?
If you want to see changes, live a more fulfilled life and realign with who you truly are in this life, then self-awareness is key. Without knowing ourselves deeply, we're not living, we're existing. Maybe that sounds a bit 'new age' or 'woo woo', but the bottom line is that coaching works. And there's nothing mysterious about it. It's based on and draws upon principles from a wide range of fields, from positive psychology to training to spirituality to counselling and personal development. The coach's own personality, approaches and life experience will also come into the mix.
We all have a story, but sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are no longer helpful. They can keep us stuck in an unhappy situation and prevent us from moving on. Coaching gives you the space to tell your story, to talk, think and be heard; A coach will reflect back to you what you're thinking and feeling. It's incredibly powerful and often unexpectedly moving.
Being coached is a bit like creating a map of yourself, marking out patterns, exploring unchartered territories, discovering new terrain and ultimately identifying our true selves.
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