How to Release the Hold Difficult and Destructive Emotions Have Over us

It would be the understatement of 2021 to say that January and February and most of March were tough months for our nation. There’s the usual January blues, when it’s dark and cold and everyone is a bit skint; but this year the individual and collective malaise was on another level.

Like most of the rest of the world, we were hit by another wave of the coronavirus pandemic, (over 127,000 families in the UK are mourning the loss of a loved one to Covid-19).

Now that we have emerged from the dire months of being cooped up indoors, (alongside the mental health implications of our covid incarcerations), the nation is tentatively looking ahead and the schools (thankfully) have now reopened. Many businesses were forced to close or operate at a reduced capacity. Income levels dropped off. Then there is the inevitable Brexit fallout hitting fisheries, imports and exports, and business in general, with untold damage to the economy – the full extent of which is yet to be truly calibrated.  

With so many triggers for individual and collective stress, I may not be the only one who went through the January blues on steroids!!

Some days I felt like I was wandering aimlessly in a spiritual wilderness and would never feel joy again.

Image by Tengyart on Unsplash

Deep in the doldrums…

Now that I am on the other side of that particular episode I can reframe the experience and feel a certain relief and detachment. Some unresolved trauma from my childhood came up, which unfortunately was compounded as it coincided with lockdown and home schooling.

I barely managed under the extra workload of full-time home schooling two secondary school Year 7 & 9 daughters. For the most part, my youngest remained motivated and conscientious, but her older teenage sister did not, and trying to help her was exhausting. She suffered from a lack of social interaction. Those two and half months tested my patience and perseverance to the limit.

I’m sure many parents of school age children with limited indoor space must at times have felt some level of frustration, fatigue, lassitude, vexation, overwhelm and anxiety.

Most days, between the learning, the laundry and the kitchen, there was no time or energy for anything else. On top of that I was going through an intense healing process.

I have to admit that during those first two months I resorted to comfort eating and doing less exercise, (although I normally love hiking, we had biblical amounts of rain), and for most of January I went into total hibernation. I think my brain is still catching up.  

I’ve had to forgive myself for my less than perfect attitude and cut myself some slack however, as these are unprecedented times. The accumulation of stress hit me like a volcanic eruption I couldn’t control. I just had to go with the flow…

I also watched, obsessed, as the geological equivalent appeared in Iceland, a short distance from where our family stayed in Grindavik during the summer of 2019. It would have been great to witness first hand.

Watching this amazing footage reminded me of Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom…

At times the overloaded, antsy feeling on my Central Nervous System was acute and physically uncomfortable. At other times I felt suffocated by ennui, accompanied by a total loss of motivation. I caught myself thinking ‘what’s the point?’ I realise now that this thought (and others like it), had arisen from a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness.

I’m not seeking sympathy, I know many people have suffered over the winter and continue to do so; but I share this personal experience to illustrate that my months of introspection and healing did yield positive results.  

I needed to seek a solution; not just for me, but if it worked, to share with the wider world for anyone who continues to feel engulfed in an existential crisis, given all that we are dealing with.

What to do when you’ve sunk into a funk that you struggle to shake off?

I had to take it one day at a time. Deep breathing exercises and movement did help to calm me, as did meditation and practising gratitude. Even if it was only to appreciate that I had the opportunity to expunge some ‘dark’ emotional energy that was held deep in my body.

I realised I had to start small: I was only capable of making micro choices; which on a practical level helped me to regain some measure of control in my life. Focusing on the little steps and achievements built up my confidence and motivation bit by bit.

As I reflected on the difficult early months it informed my objectives for the rest of the year.

My main intention for 2021 is to live my life like a prayer. This is not a goal but a daily practice, and involves dedicating myself to being a servant of life in all its forms, appreciating the beauty of life, embracing a willingness to forgive shortcomings, to let go of the past (including resentments, negative emotions) and be a loving person.

Image by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

I’ve come to the conclusion that in the current global situation, being kind to one’s self and others, and a source of lovingness in the world is what will see humanity more serenely and successfully through this time. I knew I had to surrender my anger about the situation and the feeling of losing control of my life.

I rediscovered a book I bought a few years ago but hadn’t yet read: Letting Go – The Pathway of Surrender by Dr. David R Hawkins. I might have saved myself some anguish if I had, but they do say that when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Doc Hawkins has been a major influence in my life. I’m only a short way in, but already I have shifted my energy.

Fake thoughts!

Having let go of some heavy psychological baggage over the preceding weeks, I noticed, to my delight, that my mind was considerably quieter. The incessant yapping of my thoughts had abated. This has been quite a revelation for me!

Not having to waste energy fighting the negative voice that tells me I’m not good enough, or how tough my life is has brought some much needed inner peace.

According to Dr Hawkins, it is the accumulated pressure of emotions that sparks a myriad of associated thoughts. Painful and destructive feelings trapped unconsciously in the body foments unhelpful and negative thoughts.

As an example, just one painful memory from early life that proves too overwhelming to handle is subsequently repressed (buried deep), in the psyche, and over many years can generate hundreds or thousands of thoughts. Dr. Hawkins asserts that when we surrender the underlying emotion all of those thoughts disappear instantly.

The Gray-LaVoilette scientific theory integrates psychology and neurophysiology and their research indicates that feeling tones organise thoughts and memory.

Hearing a lot of negative inner chatter is a sign that there’s unresolved emotional material being held in the body. When an underlying emotion is buried, forgotten or ignored, and not experienced, a person may not understand the reason for their actions.

Dr Hawkins suggests a simple way to become conscious of underlying emotions behind any activity, by asking: What for? With each answer, what for? is asked again and again, repeatedly until the basic feeling is uncovered. To be effective this method requires self-honesty.

Another revelation was discovering that thoughts are impersonal. They arise from the attractor field that a person is aligned with at any given moment. Now I try to watch these thoughts scudding across the sky of my mind like jostling clouds, I just watch them come and go, I try not to identify with them. They are just thoughts.

It is quite liberating to learn that thoughts emanate from unprocessed emotions. If we watch our thoughts we can ascertain the type of feelings that are responsible for them and begin the process of letting them go. 

The 3 major mechanisms for dealing with difficult feelings

Essentially we have three major ways of handling negative emotions: suppression/repression, expression and escape.


This is the most common way of dealing with strong emotions. We don’t want to be overwhelmed, we are not sure how to cope, so we just sort of muddle through. Repression is the unconscious pushing down of feelings and suppression happens consciously. How we sort what feelings are repressed or suppressed is influenced by the unconscious programmes we carry within us from our childhood, upbringing, social expectations and life experience.

Image by M.T. ElGassier on Unsplash

When a feeling is repressed it is usually because there is so much guilt and fear over it that it is instantly thrust into the unconscious.

In order to keep the repressed feeling at bay the mind resorts to denial and projection.

Instead of acknowledging or observing it, we deny the presence of an unpleasant feeling within us and project it onto the world and those around us. The feeling is eventually experienced as if it belongs to someone else. ‘They’ then become the enemy. Blame is placed on people, institutions, social conditions, God, luck, foreigners, ethnic groups (Brexit right there), and all other things outside ourselves. Through projection the individual maintains self-esteem at the expense of another.

Both methods carry psychosomatic consequences such as the manifestation of physical ailments and illness. If we don’t clear out this emotional garbage it impacts our lives down the road and weighs us down, limits our quality of life, relationships and inner peace becomes more elusive.


As the term suggests this method involves talking, venting and verbalising our feelings. This allows for just enough of the inner discomfort to be let out so the remainder can then be suppressed.

Dr Hawkins makes the point that many people in society, (me included, until I delved deeper into these mechanisms), believe that expressing their feelings frees them from the feelings. It has been shown that the expression of a feeling tends to propagate the feeling and give it greater energy.

Expressing in this way also allows what’s left to be suppressed out of awareness. The balance between suppression and expression depends on early training and the cultural norms of an individual.

A note on Freud…

Misinterpretations on the teachings of Sigmund Freud have resulted in the desire to express as a cure, because Freud identified suppression as the cause of neurosis. Freud suggested that the repressed feeling or impulse was to be neutralised, sublimated, socialised and channelled into the constructive drives of love, work and creativity.

Image by Kat Stokes on Unsplash

I regret the times I have dumped my negative feelings onto others, as now I know that they experience this venting as a form of attack – which they are then forced to suppress, express or escape. It is now thought that the expression of negativity results in the deterioration and destruction of relationships.

A better alternative is to take responsibility for our own feelings and neutralise them. This begins with developing awareness. If we can do this only positive, uplifting feelings remain to be expressed.


Diversion in one form or another helps us to avoid painful or scary feelings. Socially condoned activities like binge watching box sets, over-eating, drinking, sex and being a workaholic may help us dull things momentarily so we can cope in the moment, but are detrimental if used as a crutch long-term.

Shifting to the perspective of the witness…

Feelings are transient by nature; the important thing is to know that you are not your feelings, but that the ‘real’ you is merely witnessing them. When you become the observer you can cease identifying with negative feelings. Becoming more aware of your internal landscape is a progressive undertaking that enables you to become the witness rather than the experiencer of phenomena.

It’s not possible to both ‘watch’ and ‘resist’ a strong emotion at the same time. Resistance doesn’t serve you. It is resistance that keeps a feeling going. A feeling that is not resisted will disappear as the emotion behind it dissipates.

In other words, to some degree, it’s wise to wear your heart on your sleeve. You can only do something that doesn’t serve you if you do it unconsciously.


What causes you stress?

Image by Ben White on Unsplash

To attribute stress to outside factors is the projection of repressed feelings. Repressed feelings make us vulnerable to external stress. The word ‘stress’ is a bit ambiguous. When we say we are stressed, it covers a multitude of deeply held emotions!

Dr. Hawkins explains that the real source of stress is internal. Using the emotion of fear as an example, one might react to stress with fear if it is already present within to be triggered by an event. And let’s face it, there are plenty of ‘events’ going on around us at the moment. The more fear we hold inside the more the world appears to be a terrifying place. To the angry person the world is chaos, a mingling of frustration and vexation. The inner state influences the outer state.

Essentially, what we are holding inside (resisted emotions), colours our world…

Next time I feel stress I will see it as a warning sign that there is an accumulation of pressure from supressed and repressed feelings. Understanding that the havoc wreaked by stress is the result of our own hidden emotions puts us in control of handling it more effectively.

The energy of emotions

Emotions emit a vibrational energy field (I will cover more on this in a subsequent post), which in turn influences what kind of people are in our lives. All living things are connected on vibrational energy levels so our basic state is picked up and reacted to by all life forms around us.

It’s quite a wake up call to understand that our basic emotional states transmit themselves to the universe.

I like to imagine a pebble being dropped into fresh water and sending ripples out in concentric circles to the shore.

I feel this erudite Beatles song sums up the optimal state of allowing-ness and acceptance of all our emotions, without judgement:

Handling major crises

The Letting Go technique is very helpful in daily life, but it is also fundamental to shortening and alleviating extreme suffering when one is going through a crisis.

In such a situation it is easy to become overwhelmed by strong emotions, when we are vulnerable to be triggered by one of the major areas of supressed or repressed feelings. In this instance the main problem is not so much identifying the emotion as handling the overwhelm.

The three mechanisms the mind consciously employs to process emotions that were mentioned earlier – suppression/repression, expression and escape can be employed in a deliberate manner. They are only harmful when used unconsciously, if the person is not aware of what they are doing.

In an overwhelm, it is advisable to use them consciously. This is done so that the sheer intensity and quantity of emotion can be disassembled and let go bit by bit. By holding at bay the bulk of the emotion we can deal with as much emotion as we are capable of in that moment.

In this situation sharing the strong feelings with close friends or mentors reduces its intensity and the act of expressing the feeling releases some of the energy behind it. It is also advised to consciously use the escape mechanism to create some distance to the emotion, such as walking the dog, socialising, going to the movies (whenever that may be allowed), watching TV or making music.

When some of the overload has abated it’s easier to start to let go of small aspects of the situation. As we come out of overwhelm it is wise to recall that a certain portion of the emotion was purposefully suppressed or escaped. This is a good time to re-examine the feeling so that it does not cause residual harm, such as bitterness, unconscious guilt or lower self-esteem.

There is much more detail in the book, it really is one of the few manuals for life you’ll ever need. I hope to have relayed a valuable kernel or two of the profound teachings inside.

Letting go is a lifelong process, but it gets easier the more you do it, as you begin to feel lighter and happier in the aftermath of releasing.

There are no short cuts to emotional mastery; letting go and surrendering is the most direct route, as long as we are willing to explore the shadow aspect of our psyche and by doing so, shine the light of consciousness into the darkness. It can be a turbulent ride, but as Dr Hawkins asserts, you only ever have to handle the energy behind the feeling – which is finite and eventually runs out.

If every human being learned to effectively process their emotions the world would be a happier and less violent place. However, we are all at different points in the evolution of our individual consciousness, and as Gandhi stated, it’s our responsibility to become the change we wish to see in the world.

During my period of healing I noticed that I was judging myself for my lack of obvious progress over the winter months, but in the wake of my nascent recovery and heightened awareness, I realised I had in fact made huge progress!

Self-awareness, letting go, and being liberated from past trauma and disempowering beliefs is vital work.

“Because we are all part of the whole, when we heal something in ourselves, we heal it for the world. Each individual consciousness is connected to the collective consciousness at the energetic level; therefore, personal healing emerges collective healing.”

Fran Grace Ph.D.

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Alice Herz-Sommer (Part 1)

“Every day is a miracle. No matter how bad my circumstances, I have the freedom to choose my attitude to life, even to find joy. Evil is not new. It is up to us how we deal with both good and bad. No one can take this power away from us.”
~ Alice Herz-Sommer

After reading a moving and inspiring book about the life of Alice Herz-Sommer (A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger), I’ve come to the conclusion that the word remarkable doesn’t exactly do her justice.

Alice Herz-Sommer was a phenomenon.

So many facets of her life were outstanding, her musical ability, her attitude and resilience, and her extraordinary longevity. Alice Herz-Sommer is known as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor. She was born on 23rd November 1903 in Prague, which was then part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire. Alice both experienced and witnessed the highs lows of the twentieth century before she passed away on 23rd February 2014 at the impressive age of 110.

What’s even more astounding is that Alice was practicing her piano for at least three hours a day when she was 107! Alice’s musical discipline proves that playing an instrument can keep the mind sharp and fertile right up to the end. There was no sign of atrophy in her grey matter, which included her amazing memory. She must have had a huge hippocampus!

Alice was probably as close to a flesh and blood angel as you can get.

Reading about her life has frequently moved me to tears, and made me reflect and re-evaluate my own attitudes. You can’t help but be drawn in by her warm, radiant smile and the twinkle in her eyes, or fail to be inspired by Alice’s pearls of wisdom when you watch her interviews.

Even though Alice’s mother and husband were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, and she and her son endured the horrors of internment at Theresienstadt (Terezin), for two years, she did not have an ounce of hatred in her.

She never succumbed to self-pity, bitterness or hating; she simply focused on what was beautiful in her life. For Alice that was mainly two things: her love for her son, Rafi, and her passion for the piano and classical music. One of Alice’s sayings was, “My world is music. Music is a dream. It takes you to paradise.”

She was young at heart because of her ‘joie de vivre’, and perhaps her deliberate immersion in beauty played a part in her longevity.

Her childhood friend, Franz Kafka, seems to have summed it up perfectly:  “Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”

Several aspects of Alice’s personality stand out for me: her unquenchable and eternal optimism, her work ethic, her curious mind and love of learning, her early exposure to culture and music which inspired her career path, her gift for teaching as well as performing, and her sweet, sanguine nature. Alice seems to have been friendly to all who came into contact with her. These formidable attributes combined were greater than the sum of their parts, the basis and core of her incredible life.

Alice’s life is an example to all for experiencing a richer, happier existence in the face of the seemingly random vicissitudes that we all face at times. It is surely a gift to humanity.

Malcolm Clarke and Nick Reed’s short documentary film about Alice, The Lady in Number Six won an Oscar in 2014. Filmed shortly before her passing, it is a poignant portrait of a beautiful spirit:

Childhood in Czechoslovakia

Alice grew up in the heart of Bohemia during its cultural zenith. Alice had a twin sister, Marianne (Mitzi), an older sister Irma and two brothers, Georg and Paul.

‘Alice’ in Czech means ‘of the noble kind’, a most fitting name for a truly wonderful lady.

Her Moravian mother, Sofie, was raised in a cultured environment. Her parents ensured that she was highly educated and she became a fine pianist who loved music. She instilled her own cultural education as best she could in her children. Sofie’s parents were friends with Gustav Mahler’s parents, so they played together as children. As an adult, Sofie moved in circles of the great artists, musicians, composers, writers, scientists and thinkers of the day; such as Gustav Mahler, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig.

In her wonderful book, Caroline mentions seeing an old photograph of a bearded man in Alice’s London flat, presumed to have been taken by her mother. Alice explained that it was Sigmund Freud.

Also born in Moravia, Freud had met Sofie through mutual family friends in Vienna. Alice recounted the story of a visit to a relative in Vienna with her mother in the late 1920s, who happened to live near Freud’s office on Berggasse. They would often run into him on their walks and Freud would always stop and engage with them in a brief conversation.

As a child Alice knew and spent time with Franz Kafka, whose best friend married her older sister Irma. She shared her treasured memories of him with the writer and pianist Caroline Stoessinger. Kafka would take Alice and her twin sister Mitzi on walks in the countryside outside Prague and regale them with stories. In Alice’s recollections of Kafka to Caroline she would remember him as an ‘eternal child’.

Kafka would often say to Alice, “Writing is a kind of prayer,” and although he did not know anything about music, he understood Alice’s respect for music. Alice mirrored his his sentiment in her view that listening to music, playing concerts, and practicing is a kind of prayer.

Through his friendship with Kafka, the journalist, biographer and music critic Max Brod also became a firm friend of the Herz family.

“Children must study music. It helps with everything in life. This beauty is always in my mind.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Sofie had taken Alice to Vienna with her in November 1907 to attend Mahler’s farewell concert of his Second Symphony, just before her 4th birthday. No doubt this partly inspired Alice to take up the piano. They chatted with Mahler after the performance and stood among the crowd to wave his train off alongside composer Arnold Schoenberg the following morning.

The Israel Philharmonic, the Prague Philharmonic Choir under the baton of Zubin Mehta perform Mahler’s 2nd Symphony ‘Auferstehung’ (Ressurection):

The theme of this symphony appears to be in harmony with Alice’s views on death, which were greatly influenced by Spinoza’s writings that death and life are part of the same infinity of God. Alice believed that the soul lives on without the body, as do I. She listened to Mahler’s epic work again and again, finding solace in the song ‘Urlicht’ (primal light), at the begininning of the 4th movement. The opening words of the song appear to have served as her spiritual theme song: I come from God and I will return to God.

Alice’s father, Freidrich Herz ran a local engineering factory, and was known to be kind and generous in spirit, something he clearly passed on to his daughter.

At some point in her childhood, Sofie had made it clear to Alice that Freidrich hadn’t been her first choice of husband, for she had previously been in love with another man, but had ultimately acquiesced to her parent’s choice of suitor. They made it work, but perhaps there had been some lingering resentment on her mother’s side at having to give up the love of her life. Alice remembered how her mother loved to play the piano, commenting, “It was one of her diversions from melancholy.”

A grand piano took pride of place in their living room, a precious heirloom passed down from Alice’s grandmother.

The Herz’s hosted many musical soirees and concerts in their welcoming salon. Alice and Paul would play Schumann’s ‘Träumerei’ together, Alice on piano and Paul on the violin, as well as sonatas and concertos.

I imagine they slept well if they played it anything like this:

“Music was always all around me. I mean live music, people playing or singing, not recordings. That came years later.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer (A century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger).

It is heart-warming to hear Alice reminisce about those early chamber sessions with her brother and how they stayed with her over the years. We should never underestimate the power of music in the home for our children.

Life as a piano virtuoso

Alice’s sister Irma, an accomplished pianist herself, began to teach Alice the piano in 1910.  In her lessons she imbued in her younger sibling her love of practicing. Their twelve year age gap worked well, as there was no jealousy or rivalry between them.

Alice was dedicated to improving and followed her sister’s instructions and guidance in the early years. As she progressed and showed talent and commitment, Irma took her to play for her former music teacher, the Czech musicologist and pianist Václav Štěpán, widely considered Prague’s finest pedagogue.

Alice performed an early Beethoven sonata at the audition, and Štěpán had been so impressed with her passion that he agreed to see her once a month (even though he did not normally teach younger children), while Irma continued her weekly lessons. A few years later Alice took lessons in earnest with Václav Štěpán, whom she revered as her mentor and friend.

During her time studying the piano at the Prague Conservatory as a young woman, Alice came under the tutelage of Franz Liszt’s former pupil, Conrad Ansorge. Whilst the brilliance of his playing wasn’t in question, it seemed Alice didn’t rate him as a teacher.

A vintage recording of Conrad Ansorge playing Mozart in 1928, only two years before his death:

She was surrounded by brilliant musicians who had been only one generation away from the immortal talents of Brahms, Liszt and Chopin.

Alexander Zemlinsky, (the founder of the German Prague Conservatory) befriended Alice. Himself once a favoured student of Brahms, he had been bequeathed the composer’s grand piano. She also learned from the pianists Wilhelm Backhaus and Moris Rosenthal, both students of Chopin’s pupil Karol Mikuli.

After Alice graduated from the conservatory Václav Štěpán arranged for her first debut as a soloist with the Czech Philharmonic, coaching her performance of Chopin’s E minor piano concerto. He also invited Max Brod to the concert, who was spellbound by her technique and tone. He duly wrote a glowing review, and Alice was launched in her promising career as a concert pianist.

“Stage fright comes mainly from caring more about what others think than about the music itself. The only possible fear that I might have had was of my own inner critic. But once I began to play, even that anxiety disappeared.” ~Alice Herz-Sommer (A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger)

Alice took masterclasses with Eduard Steurmann and Artur Schnabel, but rather than inspiring her they impressed upon Alice the need to trust her own judgement, and in the process she learned to teach others.

It speaks volumes about Alice’s character that she believed her life as a committed artist in search of excellence came before her performance career. To successfully experience the latter, the former is fundamental.

Alice was a frequent soloist with the Czech Philharmonic and she also undertook commercial recordings prior to the Second World War.

Here she is, playing Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2 by memory with arthritic hands, just before her 108th birthday!

Alice’s musical inspiration

I share Alice’s admiration and reverence for the genius of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. When asked in a private moment in her apartment by Golda Meir, (who she developed a close friendship with in Israel after the war) about her religion, Alice responded:

“I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.”

Her inspiration came from playing the works of the great baroque, classical and romantic composers, which included her compatriots Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, who had achieved international fame and recognition.

“When I play Bach, I am in the sky.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Her early duets with her brother Paul and her evening performances also inspired a deep appreciation for the works of Schumann, Chopin and Strauss.

Alice talking about how music takes us to another world:

Their family entertainment was mainly in the form of the Hauskonzerte (house concerts). It wasn’t just the Herz’s who indulged in this form of enjoyment; many families who had everyday professions were skilled amateur musicians and held house concerts.

Hauskonzerte by Giacomo Mantegazza

The word amateur is derived from the Latin word amator – lover – and during the Bohemian zeitgeist, music was, for many, their grandest love affair. I don’t think I’ll say I’m only an amateur anymore, because it somehow belittles the fact that music is an amatory activity.

I can’t think of a better pastime for improving memory, keeping your brain, body and spirit healthy, as well as bringing joy…

In her beautiful book, Caroline explained that Alice often talked about Beethoven, saying, “As I grow older, I appreciate Beethoven’s depth more and more.”

Alice would extol how Beethoven created new music dictated by fearless talent, breaking the bonds of established rules when necessary; becoming the first musician to call himself an artist, and about how he searched for meaning in life, keeping a journal and notebook of musical sketches and philosophical quotations.

Alice loved that Beethoven was free from conventional prejudice, standing up to royalty and nobility when he disagreed with them. She told Caroline, “Beethoven would not have been afraid to stand up to Hitler.”

Her love of Beethoven would provide Alice with moral and spiritual courage throughout her imprisonment in Theresienstadt.

“In the camp, I sometimes felt that I was protesting against the inhumanity of the Nazis when I played Beethoven. I could feel the audience breathing, feeling with me as they clung to their memories of a better time.”

Caroline marvelled at seeing Alice throw her head back in hearty laughter when she found a new solution to a difficult passage that she had already been practicing for at least one hundred years!

Alice’s work ethic is unmatched, because apart from her being the oldest Holocaust survivor, she was also the world’s oldest concert pianist.

“I am an artist. Some days I admire myself. Not bad, I think. But the longer I work, the more I learn that I am only a beginner. No matter how well I known a work of Beethoven, for example, I can always go deeper, and then deeper still. One of the rewards of being a musician is that it is possible to practice the same piece of music and discover new meaning without boredom for at least a hundred years. I study the language of music with the same fervour that scholars re-examine the holy scriptures. The artist’s job is never done. It is the same with life. We can only strive towards rightness. As with music, I search for meaning. I practice life.”
~ Alice Herz-Sommer (A Century of Wisdom, by Caroline Stoessinger).

She was most certainly on the same page as Nietzsche in his view that, “Without music life would be a mistake.” Alice had many interests to sustain her throughout her long and rich life; she loved poetry, art, philosophy and architecture, but she agreed with Schopenhauer that music is the highest of all the arts.

This lovely chat with Tony Robbins highlights Alice’s philosophy on life:

Marriage and Motherhood

Alice met Leopold Sommer in the wake of a personal tragedy. Her close friend Daisy had died aged twenty from an infection that could have been cured if she had had access to antibiotics. Alice was devastated, it was one of the few times she stopped playing the piano.

Shortly after Daisy’s funeral Alice’s friend Trude mentioned that her good friend in Hamburg, Leopold Sommer, had written her a comforting letter. She showed Leopold’s thoughtful words to Alice who then resumed her practice regimen. Leopold was himself a fine amateur violinist, also raised in Prague, but he had decided to carve out his professional path in the business world. Alice met Leopold at a Hauskonzerte hosted by their mutual friend Trude.

Their relationship quickly blossomed, and Leopold made many trips from Hamburg (where he was working), to visit her in Prague, and was there for Alice when her father died suddenly from a heart attack. As their relationship deepened Leopold began to seek employment in Prague. They decided to get married during a romantic walk around Prague Castle one evening, with the city lights glimmering beneath them.

Alice and Leopold were married in 1931. Alice’s career as a concert pianist was burgeoning, and for a time life was good. At their wedding breakfast I love that they both performed Beethoven’s Spring Sonata together as a fitting symbol of their union.

“I grew up in friendship. I fell in love with my future husband’s mind and his knowledge. In marriage, friendship is more important than romantic love.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice and Leopold lived in an apartment in the same neighbourhood as her mother and sister Irma, and Alice was gifted a Forster grand piano by Leopold’s parents. Alice practiced on her new piano and began giving lessons to young students.

Their son came into the world on June 21st 1937. They named him Štěpán after her beloved piano mentor, but he later changed his name to the Hebrew Raphael, and was always affectionately referred to as ‘Rafi’ by his mother.

Rafi was only six years old when the Sommer family were sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt. He was one of the few children to survive; most likely because of his mother’s musical skill and determination to protect him.

Sadly, in 1944 Leopold was moved to Auschwitz and later Dachau, where he perished just six weeks before the camp was liberated. His last act before being wrenched away from his wife and son was to save their lives.

Alice spoke of how Leopold told her not to volunteer for anything that the Nazi’s offered; no matter how appealing it might sound.

Soon after Leopold and many of the other men had been deported, the wives and children were given the opportunity to be with their husbands. Alice declined as per Leopold’s instructions. None of the mothers and children who took the offer and boarded the special trains ever returned.

Rafi had been taught to play the piano by his mother, but around age 11 he decided that the cello was his first musical love. He studied in earnest at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem and was fortunate to meet and play for the legendary cellist Paul Tortelier during a Kibbutz. Tortelier became a teacher, friend and mentor to Rafi, who, like his mother, was an outstanding musician and conductor.

Rafi’s sudden death at the age of 65, after performing a concert of Beethoven chamber works with his Salomon Trio in Jerusalem was a devastating blow for Alice. At almost 98 years of age, her closest friends worried that it might be the catalyst for her own passing, but their love and support and her connection to music sustained Alice through the immense sorrow.

Alice’s stoic approach to life and her concern for Rafi’s widow and her two grandsons also kept her going. You could forgive her for indulging in self-pity at such a time, but she told Caroline, “After all, I am not the only mother who has lost her son. Maybe I draw from the strength of Clara Schumann, who one hundred years before me lost two of her children, Felix and Julia. Music kept her going until she closed her eyes for the last time.”

In part two, I will cover Alice’s harrowing time in Theresienstadt, her immediate post war recovery in Prague, her new life in Israel, her formidable contributions as a teacher and mentor to her students, and her final years in London.

I feel it’s right to end part one with a video of her beloved son Raphael Sommer, playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata Op. 5 No. 2 with unbelievable emotional intensity and beauty:

“A sense of humour keeps us balanced in all circumstances, even death.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer


Delving into the Meaning and Mystery of Dreams

“For me, time is the greatest mystery of all. The fact is that we’re dreaming all the time. That’s what really gets me. We have a fathomless lake of unconsciousness just beneath our skulls.” ~ Anthony Hopkins

Since the dawn of time humans have dreamt, and those dreams have a served a purpose, but are we any closer to figuring out what that purpose is?

Borghese_Sleeping Hermaphroditus_Louvre

Sleeping Hermaphroditus, by Bernini c. 1620 (Louvre)

Have you ever woken up in a cold sweat, with your heart racing, gasping for breath, temporarily terrified that what you just went through in your sleep was real? Sometimes it can take a few seconds to realise that it was all a dream, albeit a rather vivid one.

I had one just like that just the other day. I might as well share it with you, it was quite strange!

The Nightmare, by John Henry Fuseli

The Nightmare, by John Henry Fuseli

I was working in some sort of complex, (I couldn’t tell you what I was doing, but it was scientific), and then there was a commotion, and we looked out the window to see a rocket coming towards us.  I saw the rocket hit the ground not far from us, and the explosion rapidly engulfed us. I didn’t feel the heat, but soon it became quite obvious that instead of waking up, as I had just perished in a fireball, that I was now a spirit. Somehow my spirit was asking questions. What just happened and why? I began to investigate the causes of the crash.

I was only aware that I was still in the land of the living when Ruby climbed into bed beside me, warming her cold feet on me, cuddling up to me, saying, “Mummy, I had a bad dream.” Comforting her helped me to forget the horror of my own nightmare.

I began to wonder what had transpired in my life to dream of such bizarre circumstances.  If I took Freud’s theory of ‘wish fulfillment’ literally, I might arrive at the conclusion that I have a death wish!

What I find amazing is that our minds can create such real scenarios that we live out in our sleep, so much so, that even after we become fully conscious those mental images can still haunt us.  Equally strange that some dreams we forget almost instantly; and others make us reflect…

Sleeping Girl, by Domenico Fetti

Sleeping Girl, by Domenico Fetti

It is surely a healthy release for our subconscious minds to process all the emotions and events going on in our lives, and interpret those sensations and thoughts into a series of seemingly unrelated mental pictures that, if analysed, could tell us about what is going on deep in our psyche. I find it fascinating that our ‘inner’ eye is every bit as detailed and accurate in painting pictures on the canvas of our minds, as are our biological eyes at capturing so called ‘reality’.

It seems to me that dreaming is our way of integrating our thoughts and beliefs that have been repressed or that are transparent to our conscious mind.  The illumination of our experiences, hopes, and fears into messages that our conscious mind can make sense of. Shining a light, (even if it is a blurry one), into the darkness.

Perhaps we are not meant to fully understand our dreams. Perhaps it is enough that we acknowledge them, and honour them, by paying more attention to what has been unfolding in our lives, thus making us more aware.

BBC documentary on  dream interpretation:

When I was a child I used to have regular recurrent dreams, one of which was flying over fields. Maybe I watched Peter Pan once too often! Luckily, the muscle paralysis in REM means we’re unable to actually physically live out our dreams. But I wonder, how do we sleep walk? That phenomena has long interested me.

Occasionally I find myself lucid dreaming, and during one such episode I had an out of body experience. I can’t remember the dream, only that I was awake in the dream and I was aware of what I was creating as I went along. I was on the verge of drifting back into sleep and I felt myself sinking into a super relaxed state when the OBE occurred. It was an incredibly profound experience, one that I think about often. It lessened my fear of death significantly.

Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung studied and analysed dreams, with Freud publishing his findings in his book The Interpretation of Dreams. Jung rejected his theory that dreams were meant to be secretive, and became immersed in his mythic world of archetypes and our universal experiences of the Collective Unconscious. For serious dreamscape navigators, there are two books that might be of interest by Jung: his autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, and his personal dream diary, The Red Book.

Carl Jung – The Wisdom of the Dream (A world of Dreams):

From Wikipedia:

Jung stressed that the dream was not merely a devious puzzle invented by the unconscious to be deciphered, so that the true causal factors behind it may be elicited. Dreams were not to serve as lie detectors, with which to reveal the insincerity behind conscious thought processes. Dreams, like the unconscious, had their own language. As representations of the unconscious, dream images have their own primacy and mechanics.

Jung believed that dreams may contain ineluctable truths, philosophical pronouncements, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, plans, irrational experiences and even telepathic visions. Just as the psyche has a diurnal side which we experience as conscious life, it has an unconscious nocturnal side which we apprehend as dreamlike fantasy. Jung would argue that just as we do not doubt the importance of our conscious experience, then we ought not to second guess the value of our unconscious lives.

The film A Dangerous Method follows the story of Freud, Jung and his disturbed young Russian patient, Sabina Spielrein. There is a great scene in the film where Freud and Jung are analysing one of Jung’s dreams:

Interesting article from The Harvard Review of Philosophy

Plato’s Dream – By Voltaire

I would sign off by saying, “Sweet dreams,” but maybe it would be better to say, “dream big, dream of your future, and trust that your present dreams are somehow leading you there…”

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe