Blind Paralympian Verity Smith On The Core Stoic Teaching, Finding Inner Tranquility, And Transcending Physical Limitations

This is our second interview with the great Verity Smith—a blind international dressage rider, singer, songwriter, author, and longtime student and practitioner of Stoicism. Verity was told at the age of eight that she would soon lose her vision. Attributing her youthful innocence, Verity’s response was one of optimism if not enthusiasm. ‘Going blind’—it sounded, she recalls, like an interesting challenge, a new skill to practice not unlike reading and writing, a game she needed to figure out how to win. In the years since losing her sight, Verity has become an elite internationally-ranked athlete, a singer and songwriter whose collaborated with Oscar-winning and Grammy-nominated artists, a spearhead of campaigns in advocacy of the Ability in Disability, to list just a few. In other words—when adversity strikes, Verity figures out how to overcome it. Which is why we sought Verity’s wisdom again. Below, Verity details many of the lessons she’s learned and the tactics she’s honed in the nearly four decades without her eyesight, how she’s been adapting and utilizing them during the pandemic lockdowns, and how others can as well. Please enjoy this interview with Verity Smith!

You were working towards becoming the first disabled dressage rider to compete in both the Paralympic and Olympic Games. The Olympics have been postponed and you are now unable to train. It’s the core Stoic teaching: we don’t control the world around us, we only control how we respond. Talk to us about how you’ve been handling all this.

Covid 19 has proved to all of us that we cannot control the world around us but, hopefully, has enlightened us as to how we can respond to it. I often feel that control is something we perceive we have but rarely do. Being blind has taught me that control is an intangible phantom that haunts our desires but rarely manifests itself in reality. Losing my sight has meant that, to a degree, I have had to relinquish control of certain external elements in my life. I am reliant on others to help select my shopping—my time table for life is dictated by public transport and the convenience of others. This dependence has imprinted patience upon my character. I have trained myself to accommodate circumstances and to not always try to control them. Covid-19, and our subsequent confinement, has thrown us all into a situation in which our individual spontaneity and choice have been walled in by circumstance. We feel that we have lost control—a new experience for most people—so how should we respond?

One of the many casualties of this pandemic are the Olympic Games in Tokyo which have been deferred for a year. Although a sensible decision it is very hard for athletes who psychologically prepare for years for certain sporting goals. To sustain such level of performance requires great physical and mental determination.

So it is important in this moment to try not to, metaphorically drop the ball, we need to pick it up and run with it, all be it just the length of our living rooms.

I have focused hard on training to become the first dressage rider to represent her country in both the Paralympics and Olympics — a huge goal but one with hard work and training, I hope, will be achievable. This period of confinement has, frustratingly, halted this training as I am unable to journey to the stable yard or continue my training with my horse due to the strict lock down here in France. From a sporting perspective this has been tough and frustrating but personally and emotionally I have battled with the loss of the freedom that my horses afford me. When I ride my feet don’t touch the ground , it is like flying, I forget I am blind and for that moment I am physically free, striding out without consequence. Since I was a child horses have aways been my solace, the means by which I can ride the storm of my blindness. For the first time in my life I have been separated from them which initially left me feeling grounded like a flightless bird. However the knowledge that this is a circumstance completely beyond my control has made me leave these feelings and frustrations at the door of my confinement and challenged me to find other ways in which I can keep mentally and physically fit for the sporting goals ahead. 

I have tried to turn this time into a pause of positivity—to use this isolation as a means of strengthening my mind and body. I am fortunate that in some ways, my world is already geographically more anchored than most, due to my blindness, so perhaps I am more accustomed to adapting to the restrictions we currently all find ourselves under. Physically my world can be as narrow as my arms can reach or as impermeable as the walls around me but I have learned, over the years, to extend my domain further by reaching out with my other senses and my imagination. I can lengthen my wingspan by spreading my thoughts and flying above the practical confinements that can incarcerate me.

To ensure I do not lose fitness, I have created a routine for myself that allows me to dissolve the walls around me and prepare physically to step into my sporting future. I have devised methods and exercises to keep my coordination and suppleness finely tuned. Sadly I do not have my horse in the living room with me but I can sharpen my skills none the less! I think of myself as being a ballerina without a stage to perform on but with a bar and a mirror to perfect her movements in front of. I also trot up the tests that I need to ride in competition around my living room whilst trying to avoid the coffee table. Of course it is not a 20m by 60m Olympic arena but it helps to stream my muscle memory with the sequence of movements in each routine – just like practicing a piece of music. I try to see the time as a golden time that hopefully will enable me to work hard behind the scenes and allow me to emerge stronger and fit to fight.

An assortment of household implements have been used to facilitate this training, from my guide dog’s ball as a squeeze reflex tool, to champagne glasses filled with water to help my balance whilst on the pilates ball.

I want to respond to this time in a positive way. It is time that we will never get back and time that is uniquely still, a blank canvas that we can sketch our futures upon. It is a time to reflect, a time to work smarter, a time to galvanize, a time for ourselves to grow stronger, a time that life never usually affords us. 

In our last interview, you mentioned how you looked at going blind as a challenge and that it didn’t confine your world, it expanded it. “As my eyes went to sleep my other senses awoke,” you said. We’re all facing that challenge. How can we wake up our other senses, how can we expand our world even in confinement?

I was fortunate to have gone blind when I was a child. My naivety and innocence blinded me to the consequences that loosing my sight might have upon my life as an adult. I simply saw going blind as a challenge that I had to win, something that I had to get good at, like learning to read or write. I needed to understand how to exercise my other senses in order to win the game. I learned at a young age how to see beyond the blur and how to magnify my ever shrinking world through the enlargement of my other senses—as my eyes went to sleep, my other senses awoke. 

Oddly sometimes I can feel confined even when standing alone in a vast expanse of countryside, in the same way that I can feel confined in a small apartment. Thankfully experience has taught me that this feeling of confinement is simply a question of perspective—a state of mind as opposed to the reality. We construct walls around ourselves, be they imaginary or made of stone, but it is how we set about eroding these walls with our minds, our will, that enables us to feel genuinely free. Yes a man can run for miles with his feet but he can journey millennia with his mind.

My view of the world has been visually blocked for years, ted up a long time ago. I have learned to see the exterior world through my interior eye—my minds eye—its beautiful tableau made up of the collage of colors of my other senses. Other people’s perspectives have also helped to paint my impression of the world, as being blind, I get to glimpse how people see the world around them through their visual descriptions. However during this confinement I have struggled with the lack of physical contact with others. I cannot see a smile or a wave from afar so a touch on the arm or a hand to hold is how these sentiments are communicated. Social distancing has handcuffed this contact leaving those around me expressionless and invisible and me feeling a little dislocated and quite literally ‘out of touch’. Also the prohibition against touching objects and surfaces has gloved my tactile vision. I ‘see’ things through my hands, through my sense of touch. Covid-19 has rendered the simple act of ‘looking’ a dangerous art. Of course through this self isolation we all feel the frustration of being caged birds surrounded by the walls of our homes unable to leave but we must throw open the windows and allow ourselves to fly and journey as far as the sounds we hear through those open windows.

Frustration is often the companion of blindness. As a child I felt the raw frustration of not being able to physically escape a situation. I was confined in my body. Sometimes I could not find the most mundane of things, such as my tooth brush, which could lead to the most explosive irritation. I had to train myself how to digest my frustration internally, how to pause and calm myself before I hit critical mass! I tried to divorce this maelstrom from my inner self by imagining that frustration was simply a little devil that I had to pluck from my shoulder and shut in the cupboard until he calmed down. I would then immerse myself in something that embraced my other senses to distract myself from the visual frustration that was nibbling at my rational. This is still a tactic that I employ as an adult and especially during these times.

Cooking is a great thing to do. Go to the kitchen and leave the little devil of frustration in the living room. Fling open your kitchen cupboards, fling open your other senses and feast yourself on touch, taste and smell. It is a sensory distraction from the frustration of the visual blindfold of confinement that, if your lucky, has an edible outcome!

During this time we are all frantically tidying our cupboards, organizing the homestead but what are we actually doing whilst we reorganize our shelves? We are reorganizing our minds. However this is where so many of us think the job is done. We sit on our sofas pleased with the result the spring cleaning of things and thoughts accomplished, but this is not the end this is where we begin. This is when, having cleansed our physical and mental environment, we have the space to spread the wings of our imaginations and fly into our futures, to fly beyond the walls of our confinement and create a new story.

The Stoics talk about cultivating an inner citadel that could be a source of strength in difficult times. You’re someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about and fortifying your interior life. What would you recommend to people who are struggling with finding inner tranquility? Any daily practices that help you get there in your own life?

I am certain that many people are struggling with the situation we all find ourselves in. We live in such a visual world that to have our vision so violently blinkered by the four walls of our own homes is incredibly hard for people. I have found that you can have a view beyond the normal horizon if you simply look for it through a different lens. I was the same when I could see, I spent a lot of time visually browsing the moment but not actually investing in it, not living it. My Guide dog Luna is a helpful reminder to me of how to live in the moment. She lives in the present and with a wag of her tail can rescue me from going off piste in an avalanche of anxiety, worrying about the future. The time we are in, forces us to stop, think, and reflect. Although we are stationary we can still have an impact.

We almost need to think of ourselves as Russian dolls—there is the inner you, the small embryo of self carved by nature. Then there is the outer you, carved by experience. Then we have the outer casing, the thick carved wall that we present to the world. Each doll has its own face. This is our inner citadel and we need to open up and go right back to the simplicity of the inner you before we reconstruct and put back together the other dolls. This is where, I believe tranquility liesin the simplicity of things. Something as simple as making my bed in the morning helps me to feel in control. My day may well unravel into a complete mess, but at least when I get into bed at night, my bed is made, my sleep unruffled in preparation for a new day.

It is not always easy to feel comfortable in your own skin, to feel trapped with your own thoughts but in this stillness we must pause and give our thoughts the mental space to expand, to move, to realign. As we go through the process of uncluttering our homes we need to be conscious of applying the same rigor to our minds. As every physical step I take is literally into the unknown I have learned to take mental steps in the same way. We are all currently stepping into the unknown and we can either brace for a fall or embrace the changes. Make friends with yourself. Reconnect with others. I find it wonderful that in the silence of this time of isolation a simple ‘conversation’ with a loved one or friend has become the crescendo of our day. The lost voice of community and family has risen up over the noise of our individualistic society. This can only be a good thing.

Something we’ve been talking about here is how we always have a choice between alive time and dead time—whether what we’re facing is an obstacle or an opportunity. You’ve been doing this your entire life. Can you talk about that and how you’ve been trying to make the most out of these uncertain times?

In my mind there is no such thing as dead time unless you are actually dead. Even if there are moments or long periods when you are, or feel, inactive this is not dead time this is recharging time—as with sleep the mind and body need time to do the house keeping and we all have a huge amount to digest and process at the moment. I do believe that we can turn obstacles into opportunities. We simply need ‘to think outside of the box,’ the box being at this moment our homes. Of course it is far from ideal to feel forced or obliged to lockdown your life but perhaps, with a moment of stillness and reflection, we have the opportunity to reassess, reconstruct and find new ways to profit personally and professionally from our lives. I find that I have little if any time in a normal day to think. I am far to busy ‘doing’. In fact the only time I often have to reflect is usually when I am waiting for a bus, or for a lift. We so rarely have neutral intervals in our day during which we can consider for a moment. These are not dead times, these are very much essential alive times which we should all nourish. For it is in these moments that our conscience and sub conscience get to have an articulate conversation that may bear fruit in all sorts of ways in our relationships or in our working lives.

There does however need to be a balance. Covid 19 has hurled us all from one life extreme to the other. The majority of us were living lives that were squashed full of actions and routine that barely factored in our need to breathe. We now seem to be in a freeze frame of stillness in which we are left free falling into ourselves. It is impossible to exist successfully in either one or other of these extremes. We need to have a equilibrium between the two. This means that in these times of suspended animation we need to lace some practical and physical actions into our day, we need to introduce an element of physicality into our dailyness in order to relieve the mind. Perhaps we can learn from this time how to allow ourselves more contemplation and mental space in our unconfined daily routines when the lockdowns are lifted.

Could you leave the Daily Stoic community with a final piece of advice? It could be a question to journal on, a philosophical practice to try, or just something to think about as they go about their day.

”Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no I discarded it, because it was within me, in my perceptions— not outside.” Marcus Aurelius

These times bring huge pressures both personal and financial, exterior and interior. It is foolish to believe that these pressures will evaporate if you will them away. There will always be moments of feeling overwhelmed by circumstance and we must all be kind to ourselves in these moments and allow ourselves to feel low or frightened, I find that when I hit that emotional black ice, I try to stop myself from sliding out of control by progressively breaking with my breathing and gently calming myself with the thought that its ok to sometimes go off road. We just need to stop and regain control, give yourself a helping hand, a reassuring hug and do what you would do for a friend, make yourself a cup of tea and sit quietly until the worry has subsided – be kind to yourself. A phrase that I have carried with me through my pre locked down life is ‘success is just failure turned inside out’, perhaps in the same way ‘confinement is life turned outside in’, we just need a different outlook.

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