This week my blog buddies and I have been collectively wondering what inspires us. Inspiration can be a funny old thing - the root of the word is linked to breathing, and therefore life. So perhaps another way of approaching the question is to ask yourself what gives you life?
When I took up swimming more seriously in my mid-twenties, having been inspired to take up triathlon after spending time with some triathlete friends during the Three Peaks Challenge, I very quickly learnt what it was to become very out of breath. Recently I was reminded of this when competing in a team triathlon. Neither of my team mates particularly wanted to do the swim, so I gallantly took the plunge (excuse the pun), despite not having swum properly for about three years. All was going well until about halfway in, when I realised with some alarm that I'd gone off far too fast and wasn't able to suck enough air into my lungs in the short side-breaths every other stroke and was on the verge of hyperventilating! Typically this was mid-length, and I had to pull up rather self consciously, gulp some air down and wait for my heart rate to slow before resuming at a less ambitious race pace (I may have pretended I'd just swallowed some water).
Breathing's really important, but if I recall correctly from Biology at school, most of the time we only use a smallish proportion of the air in our lungs, only deep breathing occasionally or during exercise. The air we breathe matters too, as well as the degree to which we really breathe it in (but the way, I bet many of you have just taken a deep breath - I have as I've been writing this!). Athletes know the benefits of training at altitude, where the pressure of the oxygen is lower, causing the body to overproduce red blood cells, the body's system for transporting oxygen around the body. When back at lower altitudes the athletes get the benefit of having more red blood cells to transport oxygen around, giving them the ability to perform harder for longer. In a similar way, if you're at hospital you may be put on oxygen to help your body to recover from some trauma and heal faster.
Perhaps in a similar fashion, finding things that inspire our souls is akin to deep breathing, or training at altitude, or enjoying the benefits of an oxygen mask. It helps us be more healthy, more energised, to perform better, and maybe to heal us as well - emotionally and spiritually.
There are lots of things that I take inspiration from, and I feel that in the last few years I've been more consciously seeking inspiration in different places. I'm a voracious reader, I love learning new things and I love facts and ideas, so books on interesting topics inspire me, as do stories of people who've done amazing things, or travelled to interesting places. We have a section of these adventure type books on our bookshelves in our lounge, including people who've cycled home from Siberia, run around the world, run ultramathathons, climbed mountains, taken up fell running, or run marathons with cancer (we like books about running clearly!). One thing I really appreciate about these stories is that they're real people and therefore the achievements are somehow more in reach for mere mortals like me. I often take inspiration from Rosie Swale-Pope's world run when I'm plodding up the steep hill home from the station with a heavy rucksack in bad weather - if she can run around the world I can jolly well make it home!
I find music very inspiring. I feel it very deeply, as I've written about before, and perhaps the most lingering musical inspiration I've had has been the TV programme the Transatlantic Sessions, which features top folk and country artists from the British Isles and North America. As a gawky fifteen year old, six months into playing guitar, stumbling across this music show on BBC2 one evening was dynamite, and the aftershocks remain with me still. Happily the show has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the last few years, and I even saw them on tour here in Birmingham a few years ago. To date I've been inspired by these phenomenal musicians in my songwriting, my singing, my guitar playing, mandolin, banjo and accordion as a consequence of the inspiration I received as a teenager from the show. As an aside, the other week I had the delight of playing in the most Transatlantic Sessions-esque band at my church, which was a dream come true! People commented that 'even the banjo' sounded good, so it can't have been all bad!
There are certain people who are inspiring to be around, and one of my hopes is that I become an inspiring person for others to be around - my family, colleagues and friends. A bit like in a nuclear reactor, when we bounce ideas and dreams off inspiring people this leads to a release of energy, so it's good to find those people in your life who give you the energy and encouragement you need to dream big and step out.
I can't write about inspiration without mentioning how grateful I am to my parents for inspiring me to be the person I am today, and providing an excellent example for my siblings and I to follow. And without meaning to be super spiritual, my relationship with God is the deepest and most foundational inspiration I have to become the best expression of who I'm made to be. It's God's Holy Spirit that breathes life in to me on a daily basis - whether in the good times, the mundane times or the tough. For me, everything else flows from this source, and all the other things that inspire me are subject to the immense gravitational pull of God.
"And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely and admirable. Think about these things that are excellent and worthy of praise" (Philippians 4:8, NLT)
So what inspires you? Are you getting enough inspiration? Do you need to spend more time with people that draw the best out of you? What are you listening to and reading - is this building you up or dragging you down? Maybe, like that poster of Everest, you need a daily reminder of a big dream - perhaps a post it note on the fridge, or a quote on your mirror. Whatever it is, whatever builds you up, maybe this week you could carve out some time to breathe in some inspiration - you may feel more alive as a result.