Tag Archives: Mental Health

Developing Lighthouse Awareness

Portland Bill lighthouse. Photo by Kevan Manwaring, 2021

“It might have been the lighthouse spark / Some sailor, rowing in the dark, / Had importuned to see!” – Emily Dickinson

Kevan Manwaring discusses how a late summer camping trip to Cornwall inspired a profound shift into what he calls ‘lighthouse awareness’.

It was the end of the summer and I was determined to grab a last blast of sun before knuckling down to the new term, and so I headed to Cornwall – the wild, wave-besieged peninsula in the southwest of England. I wanted to blow the cobwebs away with some bracing coastal walks, camping in remote spots, and some wild swimming. I didn’t expect to have an ‘epiphany’, which has if not made me change my life, certainly made me change my priorities — the ‘myth’ I live by if you will (I took some Joseph Campbell with me), my modus operandi.

To the lighthouse. Sitting by Pendeen Lighthouse soaking up the rays
after a long ride down… Kevan Manwaring, 2021

Gazing out across the glittering sea from a rocky headland it is hard not to think big thoughts — any coastline is the perfect place for some ‘blue sky thinking’, because the land falls away and the sea- and skyscape dominates. Also, there is a quality of light by the sea — a heightened effulgence caused by the sun’s beams reflecting off the water. It often feels like something is trying to break through: an immanence that is simultaneously beyond words, but also wishes to be expressed through you (maybe this is something writers feel in particular: artists might wish to paint it, dancers dance it, composers compose it, and so on). One can see why throughout the millennia mystics and visionaries have sought out such places. They are thin places where one feels closer to something transcendental. It is though something vast, ageless, and more-than-human is trying to communicate to us through a sunset, a ‘glisk’ of light (when a shaft of sunlight breaks through a cloud), the silent poetry of a soaring seabird, or the endless susurration of the waves and wind.

Land’s End – Wolf Rock lighthouse in the distance. Photo by Kevan Manwaring, 2021

And so it is not surprising I started to have some ‘big’ thoughts after a couple of days of peaceful walking and swimming, when I tried not to think about anything in particular at all – but just ‘be’ fully present, in my body, in the moment: sun on my skin, wind in my hair, sand between my toes. Surrendering to it all. Letting myself be held by the swell of the waves, rising and falling like a giant’s chest.

Dunnet Head – mainland Britain’s most northerly point. Photo by Kevan Manwaring 2020

As I walked along the cliff-top path one day around the Lizard Peninsula — where stunning lighthouses and lifeboat stations added dramatic points of interest on my walk — an idea came to me.

Forgive me if it sounds crazy, or blindingly obvious.

The sea is Spirit – it surrounds and affects everything. The land is Matter, which ‘matters’ while we’re alive (I believe we have bodies on this beautiful, broken Earth for a reason: to savour every second of the amazing, unlikely miracle of it all). The two are in constant conversation — on Earth the two collide or collude in us. Neither should dominate. The sea shapes the land; the land shapes the sea – neither ‘wins’. In the dance is the wild beauty of being alive.

So far, so good.

But sometimes some souls never quite make landfall in this life – they are ‘lost’ at sea, floundering in a fog of confusion, the classic Cloud of Unknowing. Or worse, they are suffering in a tempest, threatened to be smashed to smithereens. And so we need lighthouses – people and organisations willing to help these souls reach dry land. This may be as simple as a friendly ear, a cuppa, a hug, an act of kindness. Just being there. Listening. Not offering solutions or judgements. These ‘lighthouse moments’ may happen quietly throughout the day – in the way we choose to respond to an email, a comment; the way we choose to notice when someone seems ‘down’, when you sense all is not well. When we choose being kind over being correct. Other over ego. The selfless instead of the selfish. It isn’t about being saints though, or martyrs – just being ‘there’, a solid (or yielding), reliable, non-judgemental presence. We can be ‘lighthouses’ by just being who we are, by being role models and walking our talk. By helping others to shine. By offering the advice when asked for. Pointing the way. Sharing opportunities. Sending the lift back down, and holding open doors so the way is easier for those who come after us.

Portland Bill, sunset. Photo by Kevan Manwaring, 2021

Sometimes, in extremis, we have to make direct interventions too – so, to extend the coastal metaphor, there are times in life when we need to be ‘lifeboats’. As a writer I would like to think of my writing as (ideally) a kind of lifeboat, to guide those ‘at sea’ safely ashore. A single poem can do this. A story that suddenly gives us a perspective, or a myth to live by. Someone understands what we’re going through. We are no longer alone. A hand reaches out and grabs you from the water. You weren’t waving, but drowning. But now you are saved. Works of art can be ‘lifeboats’: it could be an album, a painting, a symphony, a sculpture, a stained glass window, an installation, a podcast … anything. Remember all of the times you have found solace in something – a favourite book, film, poem, or garden. Let us make lifeboats, and let us be lighthouses. One day we may need that light, or lifeline, to guide us to safety. And even if we don’t we would still have led a good life – a brief, bright pulse in the dark – before we return to the sea’s embrace.

Kynance Cove. Photo by Kevan Manwaring, 2021

Kevan Manwaring, 3rd October 2021


Of course, the amazing courageous volunteers of the RNLI are helping lives at sea in a very real way and deserve our praise and support. Donate here: https://rnli.org/

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 3

Woodchester Lake by KM

Calm the mind. Relax the body.  K. Manwaring 2018

One of the key strategies to bear in mind during all this preparation is: rest and relaxation. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information you have to bear in mind: your entire thesis in your short-term memory, all the advice, all the logistics. The preparation seems endless and insurmountable. And yet you have completed and submitted your actual thesis – against all the slings and arrows of the last three to four years. That in itself is a major achievement, and shows you can shape, you can finish, you can deliver. Yet to be burnt out is no good to anyone – certainly not the optimum state to be entering a viva. And so daily ‘time outs’ are essential. They are just as important as regular reviewing of notes and relevant literature.

I try to factor in at least one (usually two or three) of the following into my daily schedule:

  • A run (I prefer off-road, up on the hills or amongst the trees).
  • A walk, perhaps into town – but certainly outdoors, in the sunlight (hopefully) sucking in some fresh air into my lungs, perhaps maybe getting a hit of ‘forest therapy’.
  • A swim.
  • Sitting in the garden.
  • Cat-stroking.
  • Reading (non-specialist literature).
  • Watching a TV show or a film.
  • Listening to music.
  • Baking.
  • Drawing.
  • Fire-gazing.

Yesterday was a good example of that. It was a gloriously sunny, warm, autumnal day. I had a choice-point around 5pm. Either push on with my prep, or go for a wild swim. I chose the latter and I’m so glad I did. The literally immersive experience brought me back into my body, into the ‘here and now’. The bracing water got the blood circulating, the endorphins flowing. It felt great. I said hello to a few ducks. Afterwards I went and sat by a spring underneath a yew tree. A little Shinto-like shrine had been made there. The sound of the trickling water was very relaxing. Sitting underneath the canopy of trees I felt calm, safe, content. Gazing into the small pool I let my thoughts lightly consider the PhD. Just being away from my study gave me a perspective on it. I gleaned some insights. The key concepts were:

  • Clarity
  • Depth
  • Reflection
  • Peacefulness

All these are good things to ‘carry’ with you into the viva. I can picture the pool in the forest now and immediately feel a sense of calm. In the stress of the cross-questioning from the examiners I may use it as a strategy to remain calm. From that place of calm stillness, lucidity comes. This ‘cognitive set’ is far more useful than trying to remember a million things. Although preparation is essential – familiarisation with one’s thesis; practicing Q&A in a high-level academic discourse; continual updating one’s knowledge and awareness of the specialist field, etc – perhaps ultimately a clear head (and a rested body) will serve you better in the long run. Finding one’s centre, an equipoise, will enable you to cope with not only the ‘known knowns’ (things that you will expect to happen in the viva such as the general format and types of outcome) and the ‘known unknowns’ (the specific questions asked; mood and behaviour of the examiners on the day; reaction to your thesis and answers); but also the ‘unknown unknowns’. Having a calm but alert state of mind will enable you to be flexible in the face of the unexpected, and to cope with whatever circumstances throw at you.

See you tomorrow, Shadow-huggers. Until then, let the ripples of your mind calm. Be at peace.

VivaNinjadoodlebyKevan Manwaring.jpeg

Hitting the Wall

 

London-Marathon-2017-thumb-960x540

Sometimes you need a little help to make it through …

Anyone who has ever undertaken something difficult will know that there often comes a time when you really feel like you can’t go on. You’ve given it your best. You’ve done all the right things.

And you’ve got nothing left.

You hope you’ve reached the brow of the hill (one that has been one hell of a slog to get up), and can coast for a while – perhaps even race down to the finish line, euphoric at your accomplishment. But then, looming before you, is another summit, another hurdle, another bloody hoop to jump through. Obstacles bar your way, obstructing your line of desire – that wished-for completion — or maybe it’s just the realization of the sheer distance left to go, the gulf between your vision and the reality.

These reality checks, if they’ve been brought to your attention by allies (those with critical, constructive perspective, but ultimately rooting for you — rather than envious threshold guardians acting out their own issues) can be an essential part of the process.

Yet they’re still a pain in the arse.

Sometimes these critical slam-downs can even be devastating – completely knocking the wind from your sails, your confidence; your belief in your vision or craft; even your whole identity. If you’re feeling low anyway then the effect can be irredeemably crushing with sometimes catastrophic consequences. As this scenario is all too common in academe, there is major student support in place at universities these days – Wellbeing Services offering counselling and advice. Safety nets, tea and sympathy. I can sympathise as this week I experienced just this level of ‘knockback’ – I don’t want to go into the gory details, but suffice to say it was gutting. I was down and seriously considering some extreme options (in terms of my current PhD project). Things looked pretty bleak at the beginning of the week.

But a couple of things really helped me.

The first was running. Any physical exercise would be good – especially the cardio-vascular kind, as raising a sweat releases endorphins and blasts out any negativity. I found this to be exactly the case when I did a long training run – afterwards I felt in a far better place. More resilient, more able to cope with the ‘bad news’. Able to roll with the punch and come out fighting. Time and time again I’ve experienced the well-being effects of running, cycling or a good hike. And within these, if you’re undertaking a physical challenge like a half-marathon – then sooner or later you encounter ‘the wall’, as it’s referred to, familiar with marathon-runners all over the world. This is the moment when your body starts to shut down – you’re exhausted – and you really have to dig deep to keep going, sometimes running, cycling, hiking, etc, through the pain. I had to do just this mid-week, on my 13.5 mile training run. Those last 5 miles were tough, but I paused, refuelled, and girded my loins. It really all comes down to attitude, to mental stamina. Getting your head around what it is you’re facing, and soldiering on.

At the beginning of the week I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task ahead of me and I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel. Then I stepped back from it – went for the run – and looked at it all again.

What really helped me to ‘reframe’ the seemingly insurmountable challenge was talking about it – with my partner and with my supervisor.

After a thorough session at the end of the week with my supervisor I was willing to accept that I just have to knuckle down and get it finished. That the project wasn’t dead in the water – in fact, it is on track, and this ‘big push’ is merely the expected final stage, one that makes the difference between something being good and being excellent. I could accept the way my craft is now, or, keep going, and attempt to raise it to the next level.

To work through ‘the wall’. This is where the long-distance running has really helped me in facing this test of stamina and will. I will dig deep and I will keep going, and I will finish this thing.

Anything worth achieving is down to the difficulty involved. If it was easy, then accomplishing it would mean little (although of course we all have our own mountains to climb, and what is a minor hurdle for one person is a massive achievement for someone else). I have set myself a tough challenge – a creative and intellectual one – and I only have myself to blame! But while my heart and mind is set on this quest, then I shall endeavour to see it through properly to the end.

Whether I succeed or fail I shall at least I know that I gave it my very best shot, and didn’t give up at this critical stage.

Adjust your mental furniture and it’s amazing what you can achieve: you can even walk through walls.