tension

Humour Me

When I started running a diversity inquiry group with my friend Philip 8 years ago it never occurred to me that having serious conversations could be so entertaining, or that laughing didn’t necessarily mean losing the threads of meaning. A classic example was a recent meeting when we’d decided to talk about voluntary euthanasia given its topical relevance in the media and the fact that Philip was directly involved. The two of us spent time planning the facilitation, by planning I mean considering the alternative ways to approach the delicate edges of ethical and moral dilemmas without plunging into the pendulum of ‘for and against’ like some Newton’s cradle with the energy passing directly through and simply knocking backwards and forwards.

So lunch time came and I’d scrambled to get the list of words together – not bothering to check my spelling and being more concerned that having this conversation on a mufti day where the theme was pyjamas could seem a little trivialising. Although a panda onesie could almost pass for a suit. When students arrived and started looking at the words there the usual questions began. Starting with the Hippocratic oath. But for some reason I had typed ‘hypo’cratic. Goodness knows where my head had been, but to their credit they wondered about the meaning given hypo as a prefix meant something under. This signalled my awareness to the error so quick correction to hippo and more wondering about hippopotamus until we finally got to Hippocrates the Greek ‘father’ of medicine. The group scooted into a robust discussion about ‘preserving life’ and ‘doing no harm’ and quickly gathered some strands to anchor ideas. As we delicately stepped through the web of sticky questions the weight of some ideas required lighter approaches and at each point someone seemed to pick a moment to bring humour in.

But nothing could prepare us for what happened next. A new person joined 10 minutes in, she had been invited by a friend. The intensity had built and there was a moment of pausing to introduce people before launching back into it. A perplexed look fell over her face as we continued until she piped up ‘I thought you were talking about ‘youth in Asia’” and there it was – the irresistible and contagious explosion of tension which spiralled into a temporary mingling of strands into some bizarre hybrid that allowed us to hold both contradictions. Voluntary youth in Asia and coercion mixed briefly with choice and control and then dissipated. Picking up some dropped lines and sticking them back, the shape of ideas changed as the synergy and balance returned. As we turned toward emotional pain there was another language twist where sanatorium and sanitarium were interchangeable and a momentary picture was painted of mental illness and being treated with cornflakes and weetbix. Ironically the terms can be used interchangeably depending on where you are in the world but in NZ Sanitarium produces the breakfast of champions.

While we all regained our composure and recognised the heavier strands that could scaffold some future thinking it seemed what mattered is it didn’t matter what the law was, or who’s beliefs were right or what evidence was presented. It seemed in the moment that pleasure and pain can only exist because of the presence of the other. That without some medium from which tension can arise there can be no release. In fact if we look at the original meaning of humour it derives from Greek medicine, where the balance of bodily fluids or humours was essential for good health.

Laugher is not trivial or trivialising, in fact it recognises the pain, and dis-ease and makes it bearable for a moment just enough to give space to think the unthinkable and stretch our capacity to hang over the edge and search the face of the void rather than shrinking away in fear.

Cramping my style

There is nothing quite like the vice like grip and pain of muscle cramp. The gradual and relentless contracting of fibres and a desperate knowing there is not much you can do once full tetanus has set in. I’ve had some fairly intense take overs by cramp, usually during endurance events and there is just no way to ignore it. You know it is inevitable and the warning twitches are setting in. I once had cramp from me feet up to my chest. At the 41.2 km mark in the marathon in my first Ironman I literally stood frozen to the spot hoping it wouldn’t or couldn’t creep any higher. People were cheering me on but it was like a bad dream where I had lost more than my pants but the bottom half of me. A guy shuffled past like he had no knees or ankles literally running from his armpits. He could see I was in the same state and encouraged me to just ‘do what he was doing’. No thanks, I didn’t come this far to cross the line looking like that. So I waited and eventually my body caught up and I was able to shuffle gingerly down the carpet and across the line, twitching all the way.

I like to ‘play’ with cramp, curl my toes until the familiar clench grabs then carefully wait and see if I can stop it just in time. I like the feeling and the sensation if I can control it. That moment when the tension hurts but if you gently move in opposite direction there is relaxation and a return. Although cramp is a generally associated with muscles, I wonder if the idea or concept of paralysis creeping in to draw attention to something, could it apply to other aspects of experience? When we encounter fatigue or a sense of strain of other kinds. Could spiritual cramp for example be possible or described in similar ways – a slow or sudden loss or gain of movement. Or emotionally, when something unfamiliar moves us from comfortably uncomfortable to painfully uncomfortable which can sometimes induce somatic pain. Functioning as usual isn’t possible. So it could be a chance to pause, go slow, get support, adjust an approach. Using energy differently or creating space to massage the tension before it seizes. I suppose writing like this implies there is a separation or distinction between the physical and non-physical aspects of ourselves. The similarities and ways subtle energies work and flow in our bodies, awareness, consciousness, stirring and stimulating impulses that might necessitate a pause or create an opportunity to notice fibres that have remained detached, still free. When we are ‘locked in’ a particular way of thinking, being, the urge could be to push against it and to keep going. This might work if there is enough flexibility but it can also pull things in tighter. Stopping us dead in our tracks or sending us searching for instant relief.

So maybe feeling a bit ‘twitchy’ signals there is something worth paying attention to? Is there some other form of intensity or overly repetitive movement in life creating a form of fatigue? Can experiencing ‘cramp’ enable careful noticing and observation or gaining the ability to move differently through the world. If readying for a major ‘life event’ it might help to develop an ability to recognise the social/psychological/spiritual (for want of some new language) ache. Then simply be kind, gentle and patient. It will pass.