Consciousness Road Trip with Vanessa Potter
Joining the conversation this week is author, TEDx speaker and meditation advocate, Vanessa Potter.
In 2012 the **** hit the fan when one day she woke up blind and paralyzed. And yet a strange thing happened — meditating saved her mind!
As she recovered she followed her curiosity which led her to Cambridge Neuroscientists and began her research in the inner mechanics of her mind. Her TEDx talk tells that story.
Fast forward to now and she has just spent 3 yrs as a ‘human guinea pig’ as scientists recorded her brain using EEG while she explored 10 different ways to 'train her mind' and improve her life.
Her Book -"Finding My Right Mind" is out now.
Interview with Vanessa Potter
*Text has been edited for clarity
Calla: You went on this journey to "find your mind." You wrote an insightful and relatable book that we couldn't put down, and you've spoken about it on some pretty impressive stages. So I wanted to know if you could speak on the experience that led you to start out on this journey.
Vanessa Potter: Wow. So we need to go back in time. It's funny because I get asked this a lot. It's a long story, actually. Sometimes it isn't easy to find the beginning. But there is probably an event, let's face it, that kind of precipitated that started this all off, and that was in 2012. I was an advertising TV producer. I made TV commercials! Remember TV commercials? Those things that we ignore and fast forward? Well, I made a load of those.
Leanne: Thanks for that, Vanessa.
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, I was actually Head of a Department, so we are doing pretty well. And I got to a good place in my career. And I went freelance. I had two little babies. So I was like, that's it like I've done the career, I'll just put that on hold and spend some time with the kids. I'll go freelance, and that's how life will work for me. And so that was my grand plan. And then, of course, fate came along and threw me a curveball. And that was that. Basically, I had this dreadful flu virus, which knocked me out, and I thought I was recovering. And then, on a Monday morning, I woke up and I was feeling very strange. And it's funny because I woke up knowing that something really big was happening. I felt very, very dizzy, and I was sent off to Accident in Emergency. They did every test they could, said that there's nothing wrong with you, and sent me home. The next morning, I woke up, and I'd lost 70% of my vision. And that was where my life changed. And throughout the course of that day, numbness of a strange tingling started in my fingertips, and that crept up my hands, and eventually, it went to my toes and started to creep up my legs. And within 72 hours, I had lost all of my sights. It had gone completely black. It went smaller and smaller through like a pinprick ended up with a pinprick. It's like a halo that was getting smaller and smaller, and the world was going sort of rounds and then dark rounds, then dark Gray's, and then eventually black. And in the meantime, the numbness spreads and causes paralysis in my hands, arms, and legs. So by that Thursday morning, my life was something completely different. And I had to find resources. And that's kind of where this story starts. And that's what's so incredible about all of us. I'm still kind of in awe about the mind and my mind and what they can do minds. And I had resources. I had never really thought about this, but I'd used hypnobirthing during the birth of both my children. And so I had some tools. So I started doing what I've been taught to do, which is to visualize, and I visualized a beach because that's what I've been taught to do. And I went on this beach in my mind. It's an imaginary thing. And I walked up and down, and I created a safe sanctuary. And this was incredibly powerful. And I also use breathing. So I use something called a yogic breath called Golden Thread Breath. And this is a very, very simple model. Lots of breathing techniques are based around a shorter breath in and a very long exhale. And those are the two things that I did to save my mind. And they were exceedingly important. Now, I can't kind of put my hand up and say that at the time, I knew what I was doing, I didn't, that there was no kind of cognition. This was pure gut and Bible instinct. I had doctors around me telling me; you might have a brain tumor, you might have multiple sclerosis, we just don't know, we don't even know if you're going to live. So I needed a way to be able to control this kind of rising fear and panic. And these tools, they didn't take it all the way, they didn't. But they took the edge off. And the other really important thing is they gave me something tangible that I could do for my own well-being and health. So it gave me control over a situation that I literally had no control over. So it was many months later when I looked back at this, and I saw what I'd, you know, I kind of have the stand back perspective of what I done. I just kind of went, Wow, that was incredible. And that's where the journey started that and also researching my vision. As it started to return, it took two weeks to start to return, not to come back, I should say, it took a whole year for my vision to return. And it came back very slowly, a bit like an old computer rebooting it came back layer by layer. And I was basically legally blind for about four months. Bit by bit, more and more detail would come so I'd be able to see outlines. I could see some contrast, which is the difference between light and shade. And then I might see a bit of like a skeletal like a leaf skeleton I used to see like little outlines. Color didn't come back for months and months. So I lived in a very different world from my family, and I had to learn to walk again as well. And that took months and months. So yes, during this recovery, I continued with the visualization with the breathing. And yeah, a kind of curiosity started to grow out of all of that. That was kind of my coping mechanism because you have a choice when this kind of, you know, they call it a catastrophic episode. It's a very good term.
Leanne: It's pretty catastrophic.
Vanessa Potter: It was catastrophic! It stopped me in my tracks, but I kind of made a choice. It's like, okay, you know, I've had this thrown at me, what am I going to do with it? And I thought, well, curiosity, you know, that's my instinct, is to understand this. And in some ways, I suppose, to kind of conquer it, and turn it into something that will actually suit me. So I used it as a springboard my whole experience. I thought, well, dammit, if you're going to wipe out my career, you'll give me another one, you're going to give me a much better, much more interesting career. And that was kind of my mindset.
Calla: I love that. Very, very relatable. Well,
Leanne: In your book, it's all about all the different types of meditations and breathwork. And everything that you try, but you, you kind of glazed over the beginning, like what you just went over now? Did the doctors ever tell you what caused this catastrophic episode? Or do you have any idea of what got you to that place?
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, well, given kind of, you know, historically, through this, I actually wrote a book called "Patient H69", which is all about that incredible period of time in my life, which is why it's skimmed over a little bit in the second one.
Leanne: I gotcha. Okay.
Vanessa Potter: They called it NMOSD, which is otherwise known as Devic disease. But I was getting used to being a really rare and unusual case. It was kind of one in millions that would have had the variant that I had, which was something called a monophasic variant, which means that you, the idea is that you get it once, but you get it really badly. And that was what happened to me. So it's an autoimmune neurological illness.
Leanne: Wow. Does stress bring it on? Or is it just totally random? Or do they know?
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, they don't know that there are markers. There's an amazing organization in the US called Guthy Jackson, and I've actually gone and spoken on their stage. They do a lot of research into the causes, symptoms, and treatments, and hopefully cures. We don't know is the answer. It affects more women than men. It tends to affect people over 40, but it also gets younger people, and You can affect people in very varying ways. Some people just have their sight loss. Some people have full paralysis, and they don't recover. I went on stage to talk to the patients. It was patient day for that big conference in LA. That was a very humbling moment because I walked on stage, and half the audience was in full tilt reclined wheelchairs. It's funny because, I mean, I laughed about it on stage with everyone else. They put a glass podium in the middle of the stage, which is the one who's partially sighted, which is me.
Leanne: Oh, god.
Vanessa Potter: I'm walking. I got to guess where to put my piece of paper on there. And they also have this bizarre carpet, a swirling carpet, a real kind of slightly late 70s, early 80s, maroon, and cream, and it was a nightmare visually. I'm trying to look at all these people. And there's a swirling carpet. And then they've got these flags behind. And halfway through the talk, it's actually on YouTube. So I go, "Oh, is anyone else like, really messed up with this room? I mean, Guffy Jackson, I love your but, why did you book this? Visually this is a snowstorm. I've been walking into tables all day long." And of course, because, you know, visually, we all have lots of strategies. And a lot of people with NMO have to create strategies to survive because you don't see the world in the same way. And anyway, it was just a little defining moment.
Calla: Yeah, they should have thought that one for a little bit. Maybe call somebody you know, get some advice on how to set it up.
Vanessa Potter: Exactly.
Calla: A big theme for you is loving-kindness. Leanne and I talked before this about how we could relate and just how brutal that was for you. Because that inner voice and compassion for others and yourself is very difficult, can you speak on that a little bit?
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, compassion is this funny word. Certainly, in Britain, if you say, you know, compassion, people kind of recoil, and their toes curl a little bit. And we're kind of just, you know, look a bit embarrassed. And it's this idea of having, you know, a love for the people that is non-conditional. It's such a misnomer. It's something that we don't think about enough, if at all. So loving-kindness was what I thought would be this wishy-washy, easy practice after learning transcendental meditation and mindfulness. As our often tantric, I can, I can do this; it will be easy. And it was by far one of the hardest techniques because it makes you confront yourself. And we spend a lot of our life making ourselves busy, we travel at great speed, don't we in life, and so to actually slow down enough and confront yourself, and actually, those raw emotions, and that compassionate element that sits very deeply within the well of whoever you are, is a very difficult thing to do. And it's very common for anybody who practices or starts a practice using loving-kindness. You struggle enormously and actually to have quite, you know, an emotional breakdown, you know, or to find it very challenging and upsetting. Because I found and I, I've related with other people, since I couldn't find any love. And that was just a shock. And the more I practice, the more that started to grow. And of course, within Buddhism, they use this word, cultivate. And I love that now because it's exactly right. You know, the more you do something, the better you get at it, and you can get better. This is mad, but it's brilliant. You can get better at compassion. You can get better at loving yourself and looking after yourself. And once you've got yourself, you know, topped up, then my goodness, you can flow that out to everyone around you. And so this was a really, it was a game-changer for me, actually, in terms of the experiment, but also in terms of my life, it literally changed the way I viewed my family. If meditation is about, you know, kind of countering the contraction of life, that the shrinking, that business life can do to us, and stress. Then compassion was, you know, expansion, and that expansion was one of the most profound things, and it kind of almost went a bit the other way for a while. I found myself walking around, you know, feeling compassionate love towards strangers at the bus stop, and you know, people in the supermarket. I just don't think gushing of compassion for people. So I kind of had to rein it in a little bit. But it was, yeah, it was a pivotal moment within the experiment for me, and for those around me, people really notice the difference. And people actually started treating me differently. Because I had opened, I'd open this door to Yeah, to that four-letter word, which we don't ever say. It's like, we don't say it. But it's such a cool thing.
Calla: I love that story when you talk about how you tried it out on your mom, just saying I love you, you know, that I was like, Oh, that's so honest. That's this whole book that you wrote was just so honest.
Leanne: A lot of people have heard that before? Like, oh, to love others, you have to love yourself first. And it's like, okay, yeah, that's such a nice concept, but, a lot of people, I feel don't even know where to go with that. So what was your first step in realizing, like, I have to be nicer to myself, or I don't treat myself with the love that I would treat others?
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, I mean, you mentioned the inner voice. So one of the things that tends to get amplified, doing a compassion-based practice, is the inner voice. The practice is about listening to that in some respects. And when I started off doing all this, I said, Oh, you know, I don't beat myself up. But you know, I'm not mean to myself. I'm kind of my own champion. But then I realized that that inner narrative is really sneaky. It's kind of low level sometimes, and you can have these voices that are really deep in your consciousness, that are critical and judgmental. I never had nasty inner voices, but they were really judgmental. And in fact, I love to search, Sharon Salzberg does a lot of work on compassion. And she's a really good teacher to go to if anybody is interested in pursuing compassion work. And she has this great theory that you can name your inner critic, and I love that. So I rather than try and push these things away, or reject them, you know, we've got to embrace them, it's the only way really, that you conquer and kind of find any kind of balance. And so mine is called Cruella de Vil. I could instantly I could picture her; she had a sterling, long cigarette holder. And she was a bit mean, but you kind of knew there was a story there. So I personified her, and that really helped me, and others have done that. I think that's quite a nice way to start to build that relationship with yourself rather than reject these other sides to ourselves, these other personas that we all have within us. When you meet them, go with curiosity, know who you are, and let them be there in your life. And, you know, you can choose how far forward they are or whether you can push them back. So Cruella has never gone. She's just, you know, she's kind of in a back room these days. She's not front and center. And that's really important. But it's also possibly worth mentioning how our loving-kindness practice work in the nation. So if you do want to start opening that door to self-compassion, then it's a stepped process, using the Buddhist form of loving-kindness, and you just repeat affirmations. And you know, there "May I be kind, May I be happy, May I be well," and for some people, they may just say that in meditation and burst into tears, that's not uncommon, because when do we ever say that to us?
Calla: Right? Yeah, we don't talk to ourselves like that often.
Leanne: No, I mean, like, "May I be on time, that's, like, the nicest mine gets.
Vanessa Potter: Just asking yourself, may I be well, is really, if you really let that drip into your consciousness, which is what you're doing in a meditation session is, is quite even just doing that is quite a lot of work going on there. So in the stages, you then move on to somebody you know really well, and then you go to someone neutral, you know, like, in my case, it was my local pharmacist. He is a nice bloke, but I don't know him. And then you move on to someone that you have, you know, some difficulty with, that's good, that can be challenging as well. And then you go on to kind of the whole world and that, and that's the stages so there is a formula if you like that you can follow if you want it and thought on that journey.
Leanne: When you were doing these affirmations at one point in your book, there was a part in that mantra that was "May I be safe," and you said you got kind of teary about it? Because you realize, I guess you didn't feel safe in your body after waking up, and your body had betrayed you like that? So how did you start to trust your body again after that trauma happened to you?
Vanessa Potter: Yeah. Isn't it funny, it's another of those four-letter words, safe. I mean, there is so much depth and so much meaning to it, and to every single person, safe means something different. A strange thing goes on with an autoimmune illness, which is your body has attacked itself. You know, this isn't an external bacteria that's come into your system and caused havoc. This is your own immune system that got it wrong. So I found the certainly within the compassion practice, there has to be hand in hand, a lot of forgiveness, a huge dose, pockets full of forgiveness. If you are to go through any of those barriers, you have to forgive your body. And the way I looked at it was actually, it was doing its best. It got it wrong. But it was absolutely doing its best. But it was out to save me. It just tried to save me too hard. So I rebranded that relationship, and I rebranded that experience to allow, you know, a big dose of forgiveness. And what makes you good, because you can move on from that.
Leanne: Have you moved on? Do you feel like you have a full sense of trust in yourself again, in terms of your own body?
Vanessa Potter: Absolutely. In terms of how it failed me. I mean, I have frustrations. There'll be things I can't do. And there'll be moments where my family forget because I'm, you know, very capable. And there are, but there are moments where all my strategies go out the window. And the classic is like in busy places. So in fact, my son did it the other day, we went shopping for football boots, and I said to him, you know, the store, don't disappear. Because my children are like Houdini, they're very good at disappearing. And this is a very big store. It was one I haven't been to before. So I haven't mind-mapped it. That's a system I use for locating myself. And so, and also with all the sounds and the colors, I have no idea where I am. So I get very visually disorientated.
Calla: Very overwhelming.
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, it's very overwhelming. It's complete visual noise for me.
Calla: Yes, I have that as well.
Vanessa Potter: So, do you have a visual problem? Or?
Calla: No, I just have an anxiety overwhelm problem, and busy spaces tend to do that. I am very much like you said, map things out. You have to know to be comfortable to function to get in and out and do what you need to do. So I have to plan that way in order to get things done.
Vanessa Potter: Yes. Well, that's exactly what I do. Yeah, and there's a visual, those strategies are very effective until your children don't listen to you.
Vanessa: And they break the rules.
Leanne: That was not the plan.
Vanessa Potter: That was a little sad at the moment. And so he disappeared because he's football mad. And he went, he went off trying to find a football kit. And so when he came back, I couldn't find him. I was livid. And I was much more cross than I would normally be, and that was not his fault. It's because my strategies had failed me. My anger wasn't what had happened. It was at that moment in time that I, I couldn't control it. And that's you actually have to let that go. And it's hard. And that's why these practices and so important for those moments, and they don't change them. They offer a little bit of mitigation if you like. They allow you to intercept that moment, and breathe a little bit, and put a bit of space between you and the wayward son that's disappeared. And while I was cross, I pulled it down much quicker than I might have done, you know, in past years. But the frustration still was not at my body. It was the situation I was in.
Calla: Yeah, you do have to differentiate the two to kind of keep moving, I would assume. That inner critic, you refer to it as spitting venom. I know we talked a bit about how you cope with that and Cruella and things like that when she rears her ugly head. How do you put her back in her place? What do you say?
Vanessa Potter: The first time I mentioned when I was writing my first book, I talked about inner narratives, and I was sitting around about six neuroscientists, and one of them very kindly went, " When you hear these voices..."
Calla: Yeah, it's not like that!
Leanne: What are they telling you to do?
Vanessa Potter: And they all kind of went, "Oh, thank goodness."
Calla: Yeah. Don't you think it's more of like the tone in which you speak? And that's kind of how I differentiate it. It's you very much. Oh, it's not? Yeah, it's not multiple personalities living inside of you, by any means. It's the tone in which you speak to yourself. And it's how you kind of navigate, at least for me, that's my experience.
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, I mean, I think they can have kind of different personalities. So I think several psychology models follow this idea of kind of inner, inner kind of versions of yourself. It can be somebody from childhood and Teen times, and they're often attached to a certain narrative or story. When those moments come up, and the voice comes up, I hear it. That's actually the most critical part of this. It really is. The acknowledgment that it's there-which may sound a little bit mad. But if you know it's there, you've got the choice to do something. It's when you are listening to it, and you're so absorbed, you can't separate it, and so you act on it. And that's the difference. That's the critical difference. So I wouldn't say that I ever get rid of them. I have got the ability to push them back. I've got a number of tools that I can use.
I can do that with breathing. I go into my body. We have this incredible tool, and it's a body. And, you know, body awareness, somatic awareness is just amazing. So my feet are my grounding thing. I can work my attention down to my feet and whatever they're feeling like wiggle my toes, and just because it's been conditioned to do this, that will instantly ground me. It calls me back into my body. And that has a brilliant effect because it just pulls you out of your head. And even if you just do that a few times, what happens is I get space, and it's the gaps in the space. That's so critical. Because then the rational mind can start to go okay, we know what's happening. We can deal with this. We've got tools. Let's bring it down. Let's come back to baseline. So that tends to be it. So yeah, I go into my body. I will use a very simple scan on my feet.
Leanne: In one of your first meditation groups that you went to, the instructor said you don't have to believe your thoughts, and you said that was very much an "aha moment." Reading your book was so refreshing because I had that same "aha moment." I got this book. I don't even remember where I got it from. But I was sitting on the beach, and it was called the Untethered Soul. And it said that your thoughts are not you. And I was just like, what? What do you mean? I thought it, so it's, it's me.
Like what? And I would sometimes think that because these thoughts can be crazy, they can just pop into your mind and be absolutely insane. And I would like to judge myself for even thinking that I somehow conjured it up and why would that come to me, but he refers to that inner critic or that voice as your roommate. So instead of living in that one little studio apartment, you can expand your apartment with the awareness and create walls and doors and create the space you were talking about instead of those thoughts, just zooming through and you believing like, Okay, this is what I'm thinking, so this is me. Then you create the space for your rational mind to come in and think, will that thought serve me? No. Okay, let's move on. Yes. Okay. Maybe I'll dig into this a little bit. And that was a life-changing moment for me as well.
Vanessa Potter: I wish I'd known that when I was like, 13.
Leanne: Yeah, that's exactly what I thought too. It would have saved me so much pain and confusion.
Vanessa Potter: And I was angry. I was kind of like, pissed off. Like, hang on. Why didn't nobody... Why? Why didn't this written on the blackboard at school?
Vanessa Potter: I taught my daughter all the time. I have a 13-year-old, and I'm like you write your thoughts. They've just done Nonsense. Yeah. Believe it is this sometimes nasty, some mostly irrational voice making up stuff. Yeah. And actually, it's interesting because your brains basically your mind is basically just guessing. It's making guesses. And I learned this through researching my visual system. So we see through best guesses. So your brain prunes out loads of visual information, and it is processing and helping you navigate through the world by guessing, statistically guessing what you should be seeing. And so, because I knew that about my visual system, that kind of helped me. I really liked the Science. Science feels very concrete and measurable. And I like that. I mean, not never, you know, awareness. Well, we actually can measure awareness as well. But I like having something like that I can really anchor on to. I also use humor to look at a thought, narrative, or thought train that's gone off. And another good question to ask yourself is what evidence do you support that? And that's a clanger is a really good one because that little voice goes off.
Leanne: Cruella goes back in her closet.
Calla: yeah, she's in the back corner of the house.
Vanessa Potter: If you've got evidence step forward. We want to hear this.
Calla: I'm using that in my parenting immediately.
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, you parent yourself weirdly when dealing with your inner critic. Yeah, yeah. No evidence Off with you. Goodbye.
Leanne: I have been dying to ask you about this. And you brought it up right at the beginning, too, and just brushed over it in the book, but hypnobirthing, like, please, can you explain. I need to know everything about this.
Vanessa Potter: Hypnobirthing is incredible. And I had a very traumatic, awful experience with my daughter. And then I completely rewrote that experience with the birth of my son. So I can't actually go back and find the trauma and the PTSD that I actually experienced with my daughter, it just, it's not there. And that's how powerful the mind can be. And hypnosis, for me, has been with me the whole way through this journey. We can invite our minds to believe different things. And with hypnobirthing, it was a natural creep effect because she listened to all these audio tracks. So basically, that's what you do.
You lie in bed. And you and they seem kind of, and they don't really seem connected, they're not talking about having a baby, they're talking about walking through a field of coneflowers. One of them is about being like letting go. One of them is about a balloon that takes a lot of weight, you know, it takes rocks after the rock sack you've got on your back. So a lot of very visual language is a real hallmark of hypnosis and visualization. But it's so powerful because what you're doing is you're feeding the unconscious, this message, which is you are empowered. You got this, the natural process. And actually, wealth is good to have medical people around you, and your body knows what to do. And in when we allow that part of us actually to be the controller. That's the most incredible thing. So when I had my son, I was deeply fearful. I mean, I was absolutely terrified because of what had happened with my daughter. So I started using hypnobirthing, and I ended up agreeing to have a home birth, which might sound crazy, but that was because I got a one-on-one with a midwife. So back to the safety, it was more important for me to feel safe with her in my own home than going to a hospital. Anyway, so we had a pool. Yeah, my husband pumped that pool up.
Calla: What a guy!
Leanne: That was his contribution.
Vanessa Potter: I was actually telling someone about this earliest day; we had a big roundabout it because my daughter was a week earlier, and I knew my son would be early. And my husband doesn't like doing things on time. We're very different.
Calla: Yours too?
Vanessa Potter: We're complete opposites. Let's be honest about that. So I said, right. You know, it's eight days before, and I said to pump the pool up, and he said you don't want a swimming pool in our living room, and I was like, yes you are because this baby's going to come. So anyway, he did pump it up; bless him for six hours with a hand pump. Six hours it took him.
Leanne: Get the guy a blow-dryer or something.
Vanessa Potter: He went off to work at six o'clock the next morning, and my water broke. I didn't have my husband there because he had a four-hour commute to work and back. My midwife was having a root canal. She wasn't around, and I didn't give two hoots. I was at home with a pool of water. And by the time another standard midwife turned up, I was in the pool, and I didn't care if anybody was there because I was in such a deep hypnotic trance. I was in such a euphoric state. And I was saying, I'm not doing this. My body did this. And my uterus just was just this incredible, powerful organ, and it just birthed that baby in the pool, and it was the most triumphant euphoric, painful. Let's not forget.
Leanne: I was wondering that as well. Yeah. You're not totally separated.
Vanessa Potter: That's like, the fifth thing I will tell you. It was euphoric. And triumphant, triumphant is the best word I could I've ever kind of found to describe that moment. It was utterly the most amazing, empowering moment of my life. And that was rewritten. All that fear, there's no fear. It was just jubilation. And that was all through hypnobirthing. So perhaps I'm a good advert for hypnobirthing.
Leanne: Yeah, I mean, I'm converted.
Calla: I know you were dying to ask about the Hypnobirth. I cried real tears when I read your chapter on psychedelics; I was blown away by your experience in the way you relayed it back to the reader. It was so beautiful. Can you talk about that experience with us a little bit, and how nervous you were going into it?
Vanessa Potter: Thank you. Oh, my gosh, so I'm a TV producer. I've researched stuff, you know, I do my homework. And with all the different modalities or 12 modalities that I tried, I didn't research because what I didn't want to be was biased. So I didn't want just to copy or unconsciously mimic someone else's experience. The one exception to the rule was psychedelics because there was no way I was walking down that path without knowing what would happen. And of course, now even hearing myself say that I have to laugh at myself, because you can't prepare, like, and you can prepare as much as you like, but it'll be the experience you need. And actually, the controller was a kind of critical factor for me during that that actually, you have to relinquish control. So, I went to a retreat in Amsterdam called Synthesis, and I highly recommend them. They are lovely. I felt very safe and nurtured. I was the only Brit, and there were quite a lot of Americans.
Calla: Imagine that.
Vanessa Potter: I was kind of intimidated like, Hello, I'm British, I'm writing a book.
They gave a lot of what they called flight instructions, which is the preamble. So one of the most important things to talk about with psychedelics is to split entheogens, which is plant medicine, using it for therapeutic means from party drugs. And it's really important that we separate those out because taking LSD or a mushroom at a festival is such a different experience from taking it in a very controlled therapeutic environment. It's called set and setting, which has to do with your mindset and environment because that will inform what happens without question. So it's very important that you feel safe and have protection around you from other people watching you. I mean, I have to laugh because we have the same ratio that you have at nursery; it pretty much is one on one. And but yeah, so I had a bit of an extraordinary experience with my psychedelics. I was introduced to breathwork in the morning before my psychedelic trip, and that blew my mind. So I remember walking around. I just walked in a big circle around the retreat, going, "Oh My God," because my brain had just been blown with this incredible experience of transformational breath. So weirdly, when I walked into the psychedelic experience, I was slightly off the boil.
Actually, when I went to take, you make your own little tea they give you, not actually the mushrooms; they give you the truffle bit underneath the ground. And that's for legal reasons. But the truffles aren't bound, but the mushrooms are in Amsterdam. Anyway, so it does the same thing. It contains psilocybin, which is the active part of the plant, and you crush it up, and you make this little tea. And so you drink some tea, and when you lie down, they give you an hour. And you've got these things called mind shades, which is like a block over your eyes, and you're under a big blanket, and you've been very comfortable and safe. And then and then the gong goes, and there's an option to take more drugs if you want, you know, to take a bit more tea and talk about Cruella, Oh my god, she was just like here going, what you're doing, you've got it wrong, yours isn't working. Isn't this typical? You've just done this all wrong. You know, Cruella was just here for the hour. And I had a lovely lady behind me. She tapped me on the shoulder, and she was like, Do you want more tea? And I'm like, Hell yeah, I want more tea.
You know that you're tripping because your default mode network quietens. And so the Cruella's of the world go. So then the two of us, she's scooping up this tea. So I'm taking every little last residue in my little teapot.
Calla: You're licking the side.
Vanessa: I was pretty much licking the inside of the teapot. Yeah, I was like, it's going to work, lay down. And then I blasted off into outer space. And it's pretty common to go through stages. I mean, there is no real prescriptive experience, but it's not uncommon. Do you feel like you go through, like a death experience where you kind of dissolve. I just bypassed that; I just became the universe really quickly. And I was everywhere. And it just felt like it was this enveloping world. But I was in the enveloping world, and it was quite extraordinary. And yeah, I kind of became the universe for about six hours. And I was left tripping on my mattress way after everyone else because I take it about twice the amount. And yeah, so yeah, it was incredible. But it was kind of exhausting because I spent a lot of time trying to control it. And I'm very contracted, I think. And actually, there was a point about three quarters away through where my whole body just went; you got to stop the control, let it go. And there was this massive letting go. And I remember thinking, "Ohhh!" because you get given messages, and this is very common again. You get your own message, and mine was all about control. And I realized I've been trying to control my recovery, my illness, these strategies. And this experience was about letting all of that go. So that was a really interesting thing. And the psychedelic experience doesn't end when the drugs wear off, it stays with you for weeks, and it drips into your consciousness. It kind of stopped doing it now. But it did it for Yeah, up to kind of six, six months when you suddenly have a little moment, and you just have this little thing of an awareness shift or a real recognition of a pattern. And you just understand yourself a bit more. And that's the coolest thing in the world that I mean; it's all that we want, isn't it?
Calla: Such a gift to be able to give yourself.
Leanne: Do you feel like that only lasted for six months? Or it kind of became more of your new mindset, so you didn't notice it as much anymore?
Vanessa Potter: I think it bleeds in. Again, it informs. I mean, every single thing we do informs. You know, I am biased towards that more. So yes, it has informed me, and I want to go and do another psychedelic experience now that I don't need to control it. Because there is the fear of the unknown. So I don't have that now. So this is a familiar door to walk through. And so I'd be quite open to try and do that again, in a very controlled environment.
Calla: I'd be curious to see what it was like this time, too. I have to wonder if the reason why you skyrocketed so fast through everything, when when the psychedelics kicked in, do you feel like it was because you had been doing so much work prior to the psychedelics because psychedelics was near the end of everything that you had done, correct?
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, and that's a good question. There's some really interesting research going on at the moment at that intersection. So, for example, breathwork is considered a non-ordinary state of consciousness. So this is what the scientists work on; that's their kind of area of expertise is these different nuanced states of consciousness. And psychedelics is absolutely one of those. But meditation is on that same scale somewhere. It's just further down. And there's a really interesting intersection and a crossover. And I'm really fascinated about how you transition from one state into another. And particularly if you can notice those shifts, because, with breathwork, I think those shifts are quite measurable. And so yeah, I think everything I'd done up until taking the psilocybin was groundwork, but I can't think that about life, every single experience, I have, it's everything you think you're going down the wrong path, and you're making wrong decisions, you think you don't know what you are, you know exactly what you're doing, what you're doing is something in the future, you just haven't gotten there yet. And when you get to that moment, in the future, you look back and go, " that's why that happened."
Calla: It was all working for me.
Vanessa Potter: And all I was doing on that deviation down that side was learning. I was gaining these skills for now. Because it all ties up, and that's what happens in the psychedelic experience, your life, kind of you see the threads, and you can see how it all links and ties up. And that's kind of beautiful.
Calla: I tell my kids all the time, it's like, it's just research. Let's keep going. We're just doing research. We'll get there when whatever we're working towards is supposed to happen. It'll happen. Right now, we've just got to find out what works and what doesn't. And that's really a theme throughout your book, really, with trying everything. Remind me? Did you know which 12 options you were going to do from the very beginning? Or was there some that didn't make the list or anything like that?
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, there's a couple that actually aren't in the book. I did do Tai Chi as well. The difficulty with that is that they have got the data for that as part of the overall experiment. But the data gets a lot of noise because of the movement. And then we can kind of strip that out. But yes, I did kind of know. We kind of made a plan. So MBCT was the foundation, the bedrock because it's a precursor to so many different practices, not all, but a lot of them. So that was a really sensible place to start. And I would tell anybody interested in a practice to go and consider an MBCT or an MBCR course, for the simple reason that you learn really useful skills, but also about how your mind works.
Leanne: What does that stand for? MBCT?
Vanessa Potter: Oh, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. That's more common here in the UK, but we have MBSR as well. MBSR being the more Americanized version that Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn originated. A little bit of the kind of journeying was what became available because I didn't want to just go to the top teachers. I wanted to go by what was on my doorstep because the idea about this was for someone reading the book, you come with me, so this is the same as me, or you doing it.
Leanne: That's what we loved.
Vanessa Potter: And a lot of it was serendipity. I think I said at the end of one of them, and I get this ping on my phone; it's just completely true from my friend saying, "Are you looking for a TM teacher because my neighbors just come back from a retreat." And then, you know, I had Kundalini Yoga on the list, but it took me a while to find a teacher, but then that just slotted in when I needed it to slot in, and it was kind of nice that fate kind of took me on this wiggly path. And it's weird looking back. The only one that I wish I'd perhaps done later because I was still quite the newbie was the Tantric Visualization and the Green Tara meditation because that was a difficult technique to learn. I still got a lot from that. So that's the only one, but otherwise, all of the others I just think came in the right order. They delivered what I needed them to deliver at that time, good or bad, because, you know, the books got the bad ones as well.
Leanne: Of the 12, What do you continue to do, and is there one that was the most impactful?
Vanessa Potter: Psychedelics are slightly, you know, to the side. You can't call it meditation. Right? You know, it's a consciousness road trip, so it's legitimately in there, but it's not meditation. I have a separate, you know, relationship with and we'll be interested in doing more things in the future. So I suppose there are different answers to that. So the one that probably impacted me the most, in the most sort of instant way, was breathwork. So much so that I actually came back. And I said to Tristin, the professor at Cambridge who I work with, I said, "Oh, my God, what do you know about breathwork?" I said, "It was this incredible experience. And it's kind of distinct sort of stages in terms of consciousness. There's a lot there. There's real transitioning, and, you know, the cognitive mind is very dulled. It's the emotional body that comes up. Loads really." and, interestingly, I am training to be a breathwork practitioner, and we are doing another study into breathwork. In the year since I said that, there was a Ph.D. student there now starting at Cambridge, and we're going to do another study.
Calla: Congratulations. That's amazing,
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, it's pretty big, which is really exciting. Because I will be obviously a big collaborator on that, and I'll be the teacher. But in terms of my personal practice and passion, is that, but I, what I've learned from doing this, and this is perhaps one of the most, I didn't expect this, one of the best parts is that we don't be too rigid with meditation. It can be prescriptive. So I prescribe I use what I need when I need it. Now, I don't jump around, because I would never advise anyone to go from technique to technique because that's, you know, you wouldn't do that for your body. You wouldn't go Zumba one day, you know, you have to be a bit sympathetic to what it is you're doing. But at the same time, I've got such a wealth of experience now that I know exactly what I need. So compassion underpins everything, but I will sometimes do a practice which is all about, you know, joyfulness if I feel like I need that. And part of that is having that awareness of what it is you need because if you know what you need, you can do it. So yeah, I know, it's not quite the answer. Everyone kind of wants one. There isn't one technique. It is a little bit of dabbling, but I don't think dabbling is bad. I also don't think we need to shoehorn something brand new into your life. I also often say this to people just adopt what you're already doing. You know, this silly thing that you know, it's going to be candles and sitting in a special room, and a special cushion, and the outfit. Like, you've got to get these weird baggy trousers who says, and even you can do mindful walking in your local park. I'm doing a project at the moment public engagement project, using forest bathing and mindful walking, and a whole lot of the other techniques that I've devised.
Calla: I want to talk about that too.
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, that called ParkBathe is a really cool project. I'm involved with it. So you know, you can you can be mindful while you're washing up. And this is the other thing; you don't necessarily have to go and sit for 30 minutes. I mean, yes, you get a lot from that. But you can do two minutes if you just recalibrate by standing while you're washing up, and just go to and in the water, what's, how warm is the water? Where are your feet? But if you go to that whole somatic experience, two minutes, just connecting with your body can change your day. And you just if you do that four or five times, that's I say to build, that's a practice. And that's the drip, drip drip effect. So I think we've got to get away from this. You're grandiose that we've got to sit in a room and go on. It doesn't need to be as complex as that. I mean, if you want to do that, but if you want to start small and simple, there are many little ways of doing that.
Calla: Can we talk a little bit about the project? Tell me all about it.
Vanessa Potter: Okay, so, ParkBathe is another of my crazy mad ideas. This is what I do.
Calla: I love them. Keep having them.
Vanessa Potter: I found another scientist at Derby University, Kirsten McEwen, and actually interviewed her for my podcast. And she did a lot of work on compassion. She's informed. It's a really great interview. She's just so knowledgeable. I mean a brilliant chat. And then afterward, I said, you know, I'm really interested in a new series for the podcast about walking and walking in nature. She's all I've just done the first forest bathing study in the UK, where she actually compared it against the compassion practice. I was like, Oooo
Calla: I mean, meant to be again.
Vanessa Potter: I was like, we need to have a chat. And I was like, You need to know what I'm like. I'm a doer. I'm a producer. So I go 100 miles an hour and undertake of your life. Are you alright with that?
Calla: That's how I conned Leanne into this.
Vanessa Potter: Honestly, that's what happened. And we started in March. And so on the ParkBathe Facebook group, there is a film we made a film we got funding for the film We did a pilot study where we took a small group. And the idea of this, so I should explain what the idea is. The idea is that you can walk mindfully in nature to improve your well-being in a lot of different ways. Your physical health, whether it be a respiratory illness, improve your immunity, your heart, in terms of heart rate variability, so that means that you can regulate stress better, and obviously improves your mental health now, to the people who are what we call the believers. So, people who already use mindfulness, they're like, Yeah, I know this. But then there's a whole range of people who are like, what we call the eye-rolling skeptics who go there's no way on Earth, you're going to get me walking around, you know, hugging trees. So we're really interested in those people. Because, actually, it's simple. And you don't have to hug a tree. And so I wanted to make forest bathing accessible, streamlined, simple, whoo, three, and a tool that you can switch on and off as you need it in your local park. And that's why it's called ParkBathe. And so customers really interested and yeah, our first study was really successful. Yeah, hopefully. Right? Yeah. So the forest bathing study, one of the measures is to measure people's anxiety. And they had a 29% reduction in anxiety in their group, after three hours of walking and doing a forest bathing exercise in an ancient woodland. So we did one hour, and we got a 24% reduction in anxiety, which is really interesting.
Calla: How is it measured in what does the walk consist of?
Vanessa Potter: So so the walk is slow walking, and, and it sounds, but I tell people, they kind of look at me, like, I'm a bit mad, like, it's so obvious.
Calla: The best things usually are.
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, it really is one of those, what we call the bleeding obvious. I switch on those senses. So you know, I always equate this to like, we live in a mode where like 100 miles an hour, foot on the pedal more locked in your, you know, frontal vision. And the idea with this is you just slow down, come down a gear, and slow you're walking, and when you slow you're walking, you can look around yours. It's safe to do that. A lot of research as well about vision and about being in it has to do with being in the sympathetic. If you're locked into front vision, that will increase your stress levels because that's a trigger.
Leanne: It's like tunnel vision, almost.
Vanessa Potter: Correct, and that's because you need to be safe and escape or whatever. So when you can have a softer open vision, this is triggering the parasympathetic, which is the more relaxed state, and that's what's called the feeding breeding state. So we're basically trying to encourage the body to go into this much more relaxed state. And we do that by mindful looking. So we look at different, like we do a perspective on why you look at trees close up, mid-range, and in the distance. And then we switch back and forth. We want to do some exercises around that we do ones with touching, we don't do the touching, first of all, because British people you say good touch a tree they go, I'm out of here.
Leanne: Time for tea!
Vanessa Potter: So we do the touching towards the end. And smelling is really good because as you walk along, and there's no talking, this is really important. Because even if you go to the park, and you walk with your friend, or you walk your dog because you've got headphones in whatever, your attention is mostly on what's in your ears and not on your senses. And so, all of this is about opening up and smelling all the different smells around you. And then we do like touching leaves. And if they can bear it, you know, touching a few of the trees. And actually, what happens is that most people do the kind of look around, make sure no one's looking and have a little feel. We took skeptics. We took people who did not want to do this, who scored very high on our skeptic score. And by the end, they'd all change their mind. Wow. Oh, that was just really awesome. So it was a beginning study. It was really positive. We've got we've got funding bids in now. In fact, I'm hoping to hear in the next month. And we've got another big study planned for October in my local park got permission to do that. And then that will run as a podcast series. So I'm going to interview a skeptic each week and take them out, and we're going to see what happens. So Oh, that's very exciting.
Calla: It's so genius. I just want this to work so badly because it is the simplistic methods people can use to heal themselves. And I love that your curiosity took you there. Both Leanne and I were saying how much like this should be required reading. It should be at the top of every book list because it really was that impactful and relatable.
Vanessa Potter: Thank you so much for that, because, you know, that's why I wrote it.
Leanne: Well, it's totally worked. Also, that's why we're doing this because we're trying to spread awareness about different types of therapies and ways to feel better. And I was just like, Oh, we should have just had Vanessa on because she did all the work for us.
Calla: How has this impacted how you parent your children?
Vanessa Potter: Big Time. If you're going to, have kids in the house and spend three years wearing this. *shows headset"*
Leanne: Okay, it's not as bad as I pictured, though.
Vanessa Potter: This is the third model. The others were twice the size that came right up here, where I did the walking meditation. I went, and honestly, I was Egghead. I looked ridiculous. Honestly, you should have seen.
Calla: You did it for Science!
Vanessa Potter: I did it for Science.
Leanne: That's more of meditation, just like putting yourself out there and not caring what people think.
Vanessa Potter: Like, I just thought, this is an experience. I'm just going to go with it. It'll be awful. But I'll get something to write about. And you know what? It was amazing. Yeah, that was the thing. I look stupid. I was really embarrassed. And it still worked. I was like, Woah. How can i feel calm when I'm embarrassed? So this is kind of interesting.
So I've included my children because I can't wear this thing in the house without having them be a part of this. So they've learned body scans with me, they've done mindfulness, a lot of the time they get kind of curious, and I talk about it, and I try and normalize it. And they've seen changes. I still lose it, you know, when they disappear in a clothing shop. But it's a lot less on, and it's much more reasonable. Just bring it back down quicker. I'm less shouty, I think, is what they'd say. And the compassion work changed my relationship with them. I'm much more tactile. I stop, look them in the eye, and do my best to talk to them. We have something called 10 minutes of time, which perhaps in school holidays, sometimes goes a bit out the window. But mostly, we do have this where they each get this one-on-one time. And I really try and remember that, because it's a game-changer in terms of the relationship. And it's such a simple thing. It's just 10 minutes where they lead the time you do what they want. And my little bees have me jump on the trampoline, which is really funny because I mostly pee myself.
Leanne: Torture Mom time. Alright, grab the diapers.
Vanessa Potter: Oh, my son loves it. I mean, I'm quite glad actually, he's slightly outgrowing the trampoline now. But yeah, but he'll have me, you know, crawling around the floor doing this silly game with a soccer ball. You know? And that's the idea is to have them you go down to their level? Yes. See, so it has made me parent maybe parent differently. It's made me much more empathetic to them as people. I was always doing my best. But I think I'm, you know, we all just do our best. But I think I'm doing a little bit better. I've still not got it nailed. I mean, who has the parenting nailed?
Calla: If they claim they do, they're wrong.
Vanessa Potter: Yeah. Like, I mean, I don't think I'll ever have it figured out.
Calla: Show me the evidence.
Vanessa Potter: I'll be good enough and stop at that.
Calla: That's right. That's right. I'm sure it's poured over into your marriage with Ed as well. You said he's still a bit of a skeptic. He doesn't do the practice. But he's seen the changes and his What is he implemented for himself?
Vanessa Potter: You know, it's really interesting because he totally rolls his eyes. And because he's my husband, he gets dragged into these things. But it's funny because I hear him talking to his work colleagues on the phone, he tells them all about it, but you do listen, you do listen. But actually, he was our very first guinea pig for ParkBathe. And this was really interesting. So Kirsten and I went to walk around the park, and we measured heart rate variability with a strap. It's actually a little electronic strap that goes around your chest. And it takes a constant measure of your heart rate. So what we're measuring is how quickly you can regulate stress. And actually, we want to see a change basically by doing the forest bathing the streamlined forest bathing model that we've devised. And so we took him in the pouring rain, and he didn't want to do it. And he was very resistant, and he was, you know, and at the end, because he's Science-minded. He said, Oh, you know, what, What's the score? Do I when I'm casting when Oh, wow. Just being a five-millisecond increase and increases are good, by the way. So that means you've regulated better. And I think it was six milliseconds. That's right; it was six milliseconds because five milliseconds is significant. And he was really like, Oh, my God. So this works. Stress levels are very low, like a two or three out of seven. And at the end, he went, "I was wrong. It was higher."
There's a lot in that. He thought about that for days. And I know he did because I could see it.
Leanne: You got to him.
Vanessa Potter: I think I'm changing him slightly. We could all do these things in our own ways.
Calla: I think that's the message, right? That your curiosity and your body will cope. But your curiosity can lead you out of it if you're really willing to try to follow that and see what your body needs and listen to yourself. I think it's absolutely incredible.
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, another thing, you know, this resilience word that we're all seeking, you know, everyone wants resilience. What is resilience? You know, it's at the other end of curiosity because we are our own healers. And it sounds a bit, you know, but we are, we know what's best for us. It's just about being open, exploring a little bit. And allowing for failures and getting things wrong, and just seeing that as part of the journey. And getting rid of this perfectionism that I still suffer from and loads of people I know suffer from. And just yeah, I think to go and, you know, again, this, I do believe don't try and do something new. Just adapt something you're already doing. It's much easier. And so head does, you know, the walking thing. It did go in. It definitely did go in. And yeah, asked me in six months.
Calla: Oh, I will 100% you circling back? I'm so curious about the breath project and the ParkBathe that I think that it's just absolutely wonderful. I know. I keep saying that. And echoing that statement, I just think what you're doing is just very, very unique and interesting and important.
Leanne: And so thorough, like I appreciate the shit out of that.
Vanessa Potter: I mean, it's absolutely, and the great thing is working with these scientists, you know, they're scientists, so they're really on it. And Kirsten is great because she was a skeptic. That's what I really liked about her. She's a health researcher. So she's looking for models. And the idea with this is we roll this model out across the country in every local park. And in fact, there's a couple of American mindfulness teachers that I've connected with as well, and they're really interested in watching what we're doing. And the idea is that this is, you know, a public health model that everyone can do. When she first came across the forest bathing research, she was just like walking trees, really? No. So she was kind of skeptical herself, and then the research was overwhelming. So she was like, well, I've got to look into this. But I liked that she comes from the skeptic perspective, as well. It really makes it legitimate. And I think if we can, if we can even just help 1% of people, then you know, it's worth all the time and effort. Yeah. And we just want it to grow. So yeah, come and join the Facebook group, you know, find us on Instagram, support it, and follow what we're doing.
Calla: We definitely will. Thank you so much for coming and talking to us. Yeah, I learned so much.
Leanne: Can I ask one more question because I'm curious, and I don't know the next time, I'll get to talk to somebody who completely lost their vision and got it back. But you were talking about how when your brain was healing, and you were experiencing, I think it's called synesthesia, where you had kind of like the blending of the sound and the vision. What is that experience?
Vanessa Potter: Yeah, so synesthesia is exactly that. It's the blending of the senses. And it can be any senses. And in fact, it can be more than two. It can be two or three senses. And this is where we are just such incredible people that actually, more people have synesthesia than you might think. It's where a classic is, if you see the letter A if you were to imagine the letter A inside your mind's eye, it's red. So if you associate remembering words by a color scheme, then that's synesthesia. If someone plays a letter C on the piano, and you taste coffee in your mouth, that's synesthesia. There are so many interests, different crossovers, so it's a crossover within the sensory range. And there are some really, really interesting ones.
I mean, there's one called mirror than the sees, yeah, and that's where you feel someone else's pain, which is nice—loads of different types. And Jamie Ward is our kind of UK big researcher. And I went and talked to Sussex university researchers about that. And in fact, I wrote a feature for Mosaic magazine, which was part of the welcome. It doesn't exist anymore. That had 100,000 downloads. Wow, whoa, I know, it was syndicated. It was on CNN. Yeah, so that's a really good piece to read. I think that's why it went so far and wide because it was a first-person writing about a first-person piece. I mean, writing about synesthesia was a very unusual one because it was acquired synesthesia. So the difference is, I had it for a short period of time, and mine was vision and touch. I went through a period, my Picasso period, where I saw sparkling blue sparkled. So as my color vision was returning, it didn't just switch on. It comes very, very slowly. And I write about this a lot in the first book. And I had a very strange three-month period where our local blue refuse bins all started to sparkle, like a little sparkle, like literally alive. And I will be walking with my stick with my friend, and my friend would go"Oh God," and I'd be stopped in front of the bin going "It's sparkling!"
Leanne: She's on one of those psychedelic trips again!