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  • Shelley Dark


It's pouring when I wake this morning. The equine experience is cancelled. The horse doesn't want to get out of bed. It’s rescheduled for 6am tomorrow. Half an hour earlier than today for some reason. I really can't say I'm terribly upset because I'm feeling quite sluggish this morning. Maybe it's Woeful Wednesday.

The rain stops on cue at dawn and the wallabies are out feeding. The challenging walk today is down into the valley close to the main road, and then up the main driveway. I was flat out driving it, let alone walking it. The gentle walk is the same moderate one I did on the first day. I'm hoping there's a tour of the gardens with Shelley but someone says she's gone on leave, so that's out. Frisbee is the third activity.

It's a long time since I've touched a frisbee. As soon as I'm holding it in my hand, I'm transported back to when my own children were little. I’d forgotten how much skill is involved both in throwing and catching. Andy is our instructor, and we stand in a big circle and hurl it all over the lawn at the front of the retreat. An older man who is limited I think by arthritis finds it physically hard to twist his body and throw straight. I admire his determination. Often when I nominate someone I am throwing to, the frisbee ends up going to the next person many metres away from them. There’s lots of laughter. If you don't throw flat, the easterly lifts and catches it, and takes it sailing away across the lawn.

Andy tells us we don’t have to apologise. He’s a natural athlete. Wherever the frisbee is thrown, he is there, with his arm out, to neatly take it in one hand. While we’ve been watching the arc of the frisbee he’s been moving into position. Isn’t it wonderful how some people are just so gifted at eye-hand co-ordination? So pretty to watch.

By the way, all the staff are very good looking, including the groundsmen. Must be on the list of job criteria.

Speaking of the staff, they are outstanding. Really outstanding. Most share the story of their personal journey during class. Some are authors. Usually some event in their lives, sometimes traumatic, has led them to study a particular field of health - stress management, diet, meditation, naturopathy, nutrigenomics, breathing, colonic hydrotherapy. They're not bleeding hearts, but well-spoken, intelligent, highly qualified, empathetic, interesting and caring people. I’m very impressed. Sharon the manager must be a very special person to gather and keep all these wonderful people on her team.

There’s also a program in place where volunteers interested in the eco-tourism or the wellness field are given work experience. What a wonderful idea. They're all bright, well-mannered and intelligent. Good idea for those of you with children or grandchildren who might be interested.

I'm accepting the idea of the three-course breakfast now. Fruit: watermelon, passionfruit, grapes, kiwifruit, nuts. I’m not sure of the cereal - perhaps cold quinoa porridge with fruit through it. I don't sniff. I just eat it. (!) Followed by our protein plate with bean sprouts, poached egg, a big slice of avocado and some sort of bread which is so grain-heavy it could be classified as a weapon. While I'm chatting away to those at the table, I'm thinking that breakfast is the one meal in the day which I prefer to eat alone. I wonder if it's ever been considered to allow guests the option of eating outside on the deck by themselves. I’m not concentrating on chewing slowly and waiting until the mouthful is gone.

Then Ali gets up to speak. I have my phone in the pocket of my pants. I get it out on my lap and cover it with the paper napkin. It’s on voice memo and silent. I press ‘record’ and put it on the table under the napkin. I'd make a good spy. Ali talks for a while about the yang exercise option today. Finally she’s finished and she starts singing, the whole dining room singing after her. It gives me goosebumps again. I’m hoping that the napkin isn’t muffling the sound, but it should be good enough to help me to learn it, and to email to the few other people who've said they'd like it.

I listen to the recording after breakfast - it's not bad, good enough for me to listen to at home, but needs the beginning and end editing out.

The yin option is yoga with a different instructor. I’m not feeling fabulous, so I go to my room and have a nap instead, setting the alarm so I don't miss the morning lecture. I'm asleep before my head hits the pillow. Later, morning tea turns out to be a ‘cake’ with ‘icing’. They can't fool me. I'm not buying it.

The talk this morning is about The Conscious Mind. Sharon tells us that once she would have called it Stress Management. But things have changed to put the focus more on the physiology of stress.

A disclaimer: I don’t have a background in science, so I’m relying purely on hearing and comprehension for any notes on the talks at Gwinganna. I'm not sure exactly what is mainstream and what could be considered unproven alternate thinking. Additionally my interpretation is a simplistic version of what was said and could be inaccurate. For any of the information I give you from lectures this week, either don't read it if its too much detail, or please check the facts for yourself.

When we sense danger (read stress in the modern world), we have a reptilian brain stem which says, fight, flight or freeze. Our perception of the threat is naturally dealt with in the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system, which includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the amygdala. It tells our bodies to react (by raised blood pressure, pulse etc) so that we are best able to deal with the threat. The amygdala (emotional seat) sometimes dictates a more exaggerated response than is necessary.

If we have what we perceive to be continued pressure, we can begin to live in a state of heightened stress response over long periods, to the detriment of our bodies.

How we think about something, or perceive it, is more important than what the 'thing' actually is. It doesn't matter if a threat isn't really a threat. If we perceive it to be a threat, then our body will react as if it is.

When we get used to dealing with stressful situations in the same way, the synapses in our brain become stronger with use. So the behaviour reinforces itself. Are we using our mind, or is our mind using us? Stress management is an inside out job.

Instead of allowing ourselves to respond from the primitive part of our brain, we need to train ourselves to use instead, the pre-frontal lobe, the seat of emotional intelligence. It has a social conscience, is able to think critically, performs the higher mental functions. With this part of our brain we are able to name the emotion we are feeling, and work out more intelligently how to react. The more we do this, the stronger those synapses will become. And the more satisfactory the outcome will be both for ourselves and those we deal with.

Sharon says there is a basic reaction to immediate stress, which she calls B.A.D.

B for blame, A for attack, D for defend. She uses as a very simple example the situation where you find your key missing from the hook where you always leave it. First you want to blame someone. Who didn’t put my key back? Then attack: what on earth did they think they were doing, the idiots! Then defend yourself: I always put it there without fail.

None of this reaction is productive. It doesn’t find the key and it often causes an argument. We need to use our frontal lobe here, the CEO of the brain, the director of operations.

We need to train our frontal lobe to use C.O.A.L. instead. Be more like the wooden statue above. C.O.A.L is the brainchild of Dr Dan Siegel, who wrote 'The Mindful Brain'.

C.O.A.L. Curiosity to evaluate the situation, and name the emotion we are feeling: why is my key not there? It’s making me feel angry. Openness to be willing to listen to the explanation. X was probably in a rush and forgot to put it back. Acceptance to be able to accept what can’t be changed. It’s not there, so I need to decide what I’m going to do. And love, compassion and empathy for the other person and our self. They didn’t mean to inconvenience me. As a matter of fact, the opposite. C.O.A.L.

It's interesting to hear that alcohol limits blood to the pre-frontal lobe, so we are less likely to respond intelligently if alcohol is involved. Also that some people handle big pressures really well while small things tip them over the edge.

It's important to communicate with others what our boundaries are. If they understand this, conflict can be avoided better.

A good example of handling sustained stress was Nelson Mandela. When asked how he endured all those terrible years of imprisonment, he said 'I wasn't enduring, I was preparing.'

The latest thought on multi-tasking is that it's not good for us. We are not built for it. Deal with one thing and then move on to another.

How to deal with your own emotional stress reactions:

1. pause and breathe deeply - this stops the knee-jerk response

2. find a neutral position to observe your emotion

4. think about how you are feeling - name and acknowledge your emotion - I'm feeling angry, hurt, disappointed etc

5. manually over-ride the emotion - being angry is not going to help the situation, I acknowledge I'm disappointed and I'll have to work out what I want to do about that, etc

6. audit your thoughts and adjust your reaction - do it with love and compassion

7. avoid B.A.D and do C.O.A.L.

SUMMARY: Train yourself to deal with stress or emotional pressure in the prefrontal lobe, so that you respond intelligently rather than in a primitive emotional way. The more you do it, the stronger the synapses, and the more natural it will become.

At lunch I still feel a bit odd. It’s a chicken curry. Normally I’d be dying to eat it. I go to Glenn who is in charge of the dining room and ask if I may have something a little less challenging like perhaps brown rice. (I can't believe I’m actually ASKING for brown rice) He is sympathetic, and very kindly brings me some with slices of avocado. I eat a little. As I’m leaving the room I thank Glenn for looking after me. He tells me if I’m still feeling off tonight he’ll be happy to prepare something for me to have in my room.

After lunch I have a spa appointment for a facial, scalp and foot massage. I wonder how I will enjoy it, with this slight nausea. I needn’t have worried. My stomach settles while I’m lying down and I thoroughly enjoy the treatment. Face, head and feet. What could be better for right now? It's simply marvellous. I snore, but only right near the end and I wake myself up doing it. How can I sleep after that nap this morning?

The beauty therapist tells me there are 80 staff in the spa, not all full time of course. It’s the biggest spa in the southern hemisphere.

When I stand up I feel quite nauseated again, so I decide to ask the girls at the spa desk if they’ll contact the duty manager to arrange for my dinner to come to my room any time after seven pm. I just can’t face all the food smells and jolly chatter. They say it won’t be a problem.

I walk back to my room via the chapel so I can take a photo of the ceiling in daylight but it's too dark without the lights on and I can't find them. This chest of drawers greets me at the door.

This chest is at the back of the room.

I also walk down to the labyrinth, which is a circle of stones leading to a central point. I have heard that there is a ritual for leaving something there. I don’t know what it is, or what it means, so I throw a small stick into the ring, hoping it means I'll come back. Trusting I'm not offending the labyrinth god.

On a piece of concrete pipe nearby, there is a huge candelabra made out of iron. It must be stunning when it has lit candles all over it.

There are wooden statues round the outside with the most beautiful expressions on their faces.

I’m looking forward to the meditation talk tonight before we go to dinner. Meditation has become one of my priorities. It will be done sitting in comfy chairs in the room where we have all our lectures.

Time for a shower. Until later buddies….


Andy Kidd takes the meditation workshop before dinner. Turns out he’s our frisbee teacher from this morning. He’s a published author. I’m glad we’re in the comfy brown velvet tub chairs. He says it doesn’t matter what sort of meditation you do as long as you do it.

He encourages us to try a few different types to find what suits us best. He is going to teach us a very simple Japanese method called Jin Shin Jyitsu. He says it’s not necessary to have a quiet spot. Of course things will interrupt you. Noises, distracting thoughts. Take no notice of them. Just allow yourself to acknowledge that they are there, and decide to ignore them. You are sitting back as a spectator, and anything extraneous is just a passing parade moving in front of you. Notice your thoughts, and put them aside. Don't be worried or impatient if your mind wanders. It's natural. Just keep coming back to the meditation.

The meditation itself is very simple.

  1. Get comfortable, wherever you want to be.

  2. Breathe normally. Just as you always do.

  3. Don’t try to reach an altered state of consciousness. Just practise.

  4. Hold the thumb of left hand with your right hand, anyhow you like.

  5. Close your eyes

  6. Count 9 exhalations

  7. Do the same thing holding each finger of that hand, in this order: ring finger, middle finger, index finger, little finger

  8. To finish that hand, put the tip of your right thumb at a right angle to the palm of the left hand and count the 9 exhalations. That finishes that hand.

  9. Now repeat the process with the other hand. So hold the thumb of the right hand with the left hand etc.

  10. Keep doing the same with alternate hands.

Andy tells us that we’ve done it for 20 mins. I am amazed. I could have sworn it was ten minutes. I think I’ll do this at home. It’s so easy compared with concentrating on your breath which is what I’ve tried to do in the past. And found impossible. I’ll do it after I’ve sung the South African song and a bit of qi gong. I’m sure the neighbours at home will appreciate being serenaded at 5am too. And then my normal walk. Should be about lunch time by then. -:) But what a great way to start the day.

After the meditation I walk back to my room. I find a plum I brought back earlier in the day and eat it. Dinner should be here soon. It can't come quickly enough so I can go to bed. Ten minutes becomes twenty becomes thirty minutes. At twenty past seven I decide that my dinner isn’t coming. Well, it doesn’t really matter. I’m still nauseated, so I’m probably better off without it anyway.

I wonder whose fault it is. There must have been a glitch in communication and the message hasn’t got through. I feel sure I did it the right way, as the spa girls told me that the duty manager is roving and will get the message on her beeper. I’m starting to be a bit irritated because I'd like to go to bed for the night.

Then I remember Sharon’s talk. B.A.D.!!! Oh my goodness, I'm doing it! Who’s to blame? Feeling angry that dinner hasn’t come and disappointed that they don’t care enough about me to make sure it's delivered. Defending myself as not being responsible.

RIGHT. This calls for my new modus operandi. I won’t do B.A.D. I’ll do C.O.A.L instead.

Ahhhhhh. That’s better! I’m CURIOUS to know what has caused my dinner not to come. I’m OPEN to hearing why tomorrow - there is probably a really good reason why this happened. I imagine a couple of likely scenarios. I ACCEPT that I don’t really need dinner and if it doesn’t come it’s of absolutely no consequence. And yes, I think of how the staff are so caring and LOVING and this doesn’t mean that they don’t give a toss if I’m feeling sick. How much better is that????

Even as I’m thinking all this, there is a knock on the door. Of course. You guessed it. Dinner. They haven’t forgotten at all! After all that hullaballoo in my head, I only pick a tiny bit of food and leave the rest.

It makes me smile to think that this new way of dealing with irritations is working so well already! What a practical demonstration!

Night night buddies. It's our second last day tomorrow! We'll get up early so that we can have a bit of an explore before the equine experience at 6 in the morning OK? And did I tell you that I booked a Total Wellness Package with a naturopath for tomorrow afternoon? Iridology, live blood, all the fun stuff. Until then, sleep tight.

shelley dark, writer 

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