Unchaining Ourselves

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” – Jean Jacques Rousseau

And we walked back to the road unchained.” – David Bowie (Memory of a Free Festival).

The last two years have been very tough on many levels. I lost my sister to cancer, and had my own brush with cancer and chemo. I also had to navigate a lot of challenging developments in my professional life, and I’ve been profoundly affected by the world and its troubles. Last year was especially difficult, and even though I have a long-standing meditation practice and good well-being habits, I was still exhausted and depleted by the end of the year.

So, I was truly grateful that I was able to go on an Ayurvedic retreat in Sri Lanka (which is where the photo was taken) in December. After a few days of being there, I started to notice something unusual – my body felt relaxed, and my neck and shoulders felt liberated. What was surprising was not so much the experience of relaxation, but that I had become so used to being tense that I didn’t even know I was tense any more – I just thought it was normal.

Of course, I’m not alone in this – the normalisation of tension is something that I see in almost all my clients and friends. Life and its pressures and challenges become part of the background of our lives, and we just get on with it, assuming that this is a normal way to be. For many people, it’s only illness or some other major life event that gets us to question this state of being.

One of the things that struck me when I was away was that the retreat would be meaningless if I didn’t make changes to the way I live life. I started to look at the chains that keep me constrained – both from the world I live in, and also those I had put around myself – the things I had said ‘yes’ to that I should have said ‘no’ to; the wasting time on social media; the stress caused by endless reading of upsetting news. Despite my commitment to good habits, it has still been all too easy to go off centre, to forget who I am and to end up stressed and exhausted. Meditation is all very well, but it almost becomes wasted if I would spend hours reading the news and latest developments about Brexit, and then becoming stressed and agitated – as I did all too often!

At the same time, let’s not be naïve about this – life is often exhausting – many of us are working longer and harder, running faster just to keep up with the demands of organisational and personal life. We can’t easily give up the shackles of modern life, we can’t give up our commitments or stop or cut down on working if work is what pays for our necessities. And there are always shocking world events and personal tragedies and health challenges to deal with.

In the face of this, going on retreat once a year is simply not enough, even if we could afford such a thing. Retreats can be a wake-up call, a chance to take stock, but what we really need is regular practice – daily and weekly ways to unchain ourselves.

I’ve often said, not completely tongue in cheek, that the worst thing Margaret Thatcher did when she was prime minister of the UK was to abolish the laws that limited Sunday trading. When I was young, Sundays were distinguishable from the rest of the week – they were quieter, sometimes even boring, and only a few shops were open. Now Sundays are pretty much like every other day – all the shops are open, and most companies customer service departments are also open – so that what was once a traditional routine day of rest, family and spiritual practice has become just another day of being busy. Whenever I go to Israel, I am struck by how quiet things are on Shabbat – most of the shops are closed, and the day is still special.

This is about more than just keeping Shabbat – this is about how we get to unchain ourselves. The point of that line in the Bowie song isn’t that we can free ourselves of our chains forever, but that we can take time to re-connect to ourselves, to our bodies, to our spirituality, take time away from the world and its chains, so that we can come back to the road – to everyday life and its busyness – unchained, and re-connected to something beyond the worldly (the song is full of references to a world beyond this one).

Daily habits, weekly rituals, regular ways to switch off from the world, are essential if we are to stay replenished, and connected to something bigger than ourselves, something beyond the material world, so that when we re-enage in life, as we must, we are renewed and revitalised.


The new year gives us the opportunity to take stock of our lives, and think about what we would like to be different.

Where in your life do you feel chained? What habits have you got into that keep you chained?

What habits and practices do you have that help you to switch off? What practices could you develop to build unchaining yourself into your daily and weekly life?

What might you need to give up or cut down in order to create more peace and serenity in your life?

Some examples might be – coming off social media (I’ve given up Facebook, and reading the news online, for example); taking regular walks in nature; going to church/synagogue/twelve-step meetings; switching off your work email over the weekend; turning your phone off during meals or when you are with your children; spending more time reading fiction, or going to art galleries, or with people that you care about.

I recommend taking some time to reflect on what might be habits that will work for you, and how you will keep those practices alive once the year starts to get busy again.