1.1 About me: Part 1

How I came to find meditation, buddhism and therapy

As a psychotherapist, I have had the privilege to listen to people’s life stories in some depth; furthermore as a coach, meditation instructor and educator who has run numerous workshops, I have had the opportunity to tell the story of my path. Our worlds are made of stories, we find meaning through our stories - saying them out loud, sharing them with others. When I look back on my own story of how I came to be here, now, the steps along the way seem to make perfect sense: I have often had people remark how “well thought out” my path has been. I can assure you, it didn’t feel like that at the time.

To provide some placeholders on my personal timeline: I started out studying Sport Science which led to a specialisation in exercise physiology. After completing my PhD, I was fortunate to have been offered a research contract. From 1998 to 2006, that was my passion - one thread that runs throughout my timeline is my thirst for learning and mastery, and a full-time research role was my dream. Alongside my time ‘in the lab’, I developed an interest in actually participating in the field I was researching, that being endurance exercise. At first that was running, and then a knee injury while training for the London marathon transformed me in to a cyclist. I will never be able to convey the surprise: “me, Helen Carter…an endurance athlete?”; especially when I became quite good - at the height of my athletic career I was flirting with podium places at National Championships and winning team classifications with Science-in-Sport. My full-time research career at first subsidised a project - to attempt qualification for the Commonwealth Games; but then it eventually gave way to living as a semi-professional. I didn’t come even close to going to Melbourne in 2006, but as my one time lecturer Pete Keen pointed out, I “had been close enough to the summit to help others get to the top”. Although I kept competing between 2006 and 2008, my passion had become helping others become the best they can be. From researcher to coach, I set up a sport science and consultancy unit, eventually taking this out of the University to become an entrepreneur and business owner. To this day, I am still proud of making that move. It allowed me to experience life outside of the Ivory Tower, and to some extent ‘get real.’ I also had the opportunity to work with some great people - from ‘weekend warriors’ to Olympians and professional cyclists.

Moving out of the lab and in to the field was opening my eyes to the pressures and stress experienced by athletes. People outside of sport might look at athletes as the prime of the human species - but in my experience, despite obvious physical prowess it is a population blighted by emotional and psychological pain. It started to dawn on me how unhappy my athletes were: issues of low self-worth, eating disorders, and anxiety that went beyond performance nerves and more toward the ‘existential’. My background as a sports physiologist had prepared me well for writing training programmes, considering nutrition, advising on race strategies, and planning recovery protocols BUT, I was finding myself completely lacking in what we might call the ‘soft skills’. So, with this in mind, I decided to train as a ‘Personal Performance Coach’.

When I consider my decision to train as a life coach, I can see now there was a force within me that was seeking a solution to my own growing ‘angst’: setting up my own business and the pressure to make enough money for my monthly outgoings was taking its toll. Entering personal coaching was my gateway to the self-development world. I started working with my own ‘coach’, and this work developed in to a more therapeutic relationship. I remember a discussion with her in mid-2008 in which I explained how my mind was “full of different voices, like a crackling radio set”, and she responded “and I can imagine you just want to find the volume dial or tune in to a station with just one voice”. Someone ‘got’ me, I was not on my own after all. Stress of carrying the business, anxiety of letting go of my athletic achievements, and a growing sense there “must be more to life than this” took me first to my GP and my first experience of medication. It helped me get the sleep I needed to gain some clarity and to arrive at some significant life realisations. I needed to re-establish some meaning in my life - working in sport fell short for me: how could I work in an environment that provoked inner demons and created unhappiness?

One evening in February 2009, I found myself sitting in the back row of a meditation class. On the surface, my motivation came from the wish to find another ‘tool’ to help with my insomnia and anxiety. So you can imagine the shock when a little bald-headed, maroon-robe clad monk appeared on the chair at the front of the class. Helen, the research scientist with very rational ideas, was not quite sure what she was doing there with all these people with hands in the Anjali mudra and reciting opening mantras! A part of me wanted to run…but a curious part wanted me to stay in the chair, close my eyes and begin following my breath. I left the class slightly confused, strangely excited and overall, hopeful. By the end of that same year I was meditating daily and studying Buddhist courses online. Finding the Interdependence Project online was the route to finding the Buddhist teachings of Chögyam Trungpa and the community he founded, “Shambhala”.

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