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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

thumbnailOnline social media highlights and exploits our universal human vulnerability, that we all want to be someone. We all want to be recognised, liked, admired, and generally believed to be an awesome human being because we think that, in the acceptance of our awesomeness, we’ll find escape from the horror of anonymity and obscurity in the face of inevitable death. Of course it won’t work.

We are none of us really anybody in this narrow sense. Even those admired and cow-towed to are no different to anyone else. They have their own problems, their own duel with death, one they’ll eventually lose like the rest of us. Then they’ll be forgotten, and even so little as a hundred years from now, no one will care. Many a good and talented man has gone to his grave unknown. It’s a sobering realisation, one we must face and understand why an obscure life is not necessarily a wasted one.

One of the pictures I recently put up on Instagram got forty likes. Experience tells me it’ll not get many more. It’s a about my limit, and seems to be a function of the number of people you follow and the amount of time you’re willing to spend liking other stuff, or somehow gaming the system. But it’s no big deal. It is, after all, just a picture of a hat. Sure, pictures of other people’s hats can garner tens of thousands of likes, and how they do that remains a mystery to me, but it’s still just a picture of a hat and as such will never confer immortality.

My Instagram account leaks a few clicks over to the blog, which in turn leaks a few clicks over to my fiction, which is why I’m on Instagram in the first place. It’s also why I blog. They are both subtle lures to my fiction writings, coaxing readers now and them into my fictional worlds. But my stories are not important either, at least not as influential tools to shape the zeitgeist, nor even just to trumpet my awesomeness. I leave that to others, more savvy, sassy, whatever, and dare I say, more celebrated for their craft.

My thoughts are perhaps too convoluted for a sound-bite culture to make much sense of, and I’m conscious too my outlook, though sincere, may be no more than a mushy blend of pop-philosophy sweetened by archaic Romanticism. The importance of the work then lies only in what it teaches me, and I’m coming to the conclusion what it’s teaching me is how to recognise those useless egotistical compulsions and to rise above words, that the forms of thought we pursue so doggedly throughout our lives, are just shadows of something we will never grasp. It’s not a question of lacking intellect, more that the brain is altogether the wrong shape to accommodate what it is we crave.

You don’t need to write to reach the same conclusion. You just need to live your life as it was given to you, and develop a mindful approach to it. I’m not talking about that self-help-how-to-be-a-winner-in-life kind of mindfulness either. It’s more simply an awareness of our selves in life, and the way we react to situations, and how we can tell if those reactions are the right ones or not, if they contribute to a general transcendence of this fear we have of living, or dig us more firmly into the mire of it.

It might sound as if I’m some way along the path towards nihilism, but nihilism isn’t helpful, other than as a place to bounce back from. Yes, so much of what we are capable of seeing is indeed unimportant, but the world is also rich with a transcendent beauty we are equally capable of recognising, at least in its more lavish manifestations, say in the natural world. And perhaps progress in the right direction is simply our ability to find such transcendence in smaller and smaller places. Indeed perhaps the ultimate success in life, the ultimate awesomeness, is the attainment of absolute obscurity, and the ability to sit alone, quietly, to stare closely at your thumb nail and go:

WOW!

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barcode

Here’s something to think about. You’ve pushed your trolley round the supermarket, done the big shop, got a pile of stuff and now you’re going to put it all through the checkout. You say hello to the checkout guy/girl, they take the first item, scan, then slide it down to where you’re waiting to bag it up.

This is where things become interesting.

You don’t want to look like a dope, so you pick the item up and bag it quick. The next item comes at you a little faster than the first, but you get it in the bag before the third item is coming at you. But the third item is a little faster still, and this time you don’t quite get it in the bag before the next item’s coming at you. You speed up, the checkout person speeds up too. What kind of game is this? Who does this checkout jerk think they are, pushing you like this?

Well, it’s easy enough to understand, once you see it from their point of view. The checkout guy/gal doesn’t want to look like a dope either, so the faster you pick up that first item, the faster they’re going the scan the second. The faster you go, they faster they think you’re expecting them to go. Maybe they’re thinking you’re a grumpy old git hissing at them while they struggle to find the barcode on that packet of crisps, or maybe the barcode won’t scan at all, or maybe the machine’s playing up today.

Not a word’s been said, but both of you are struggling now with negative perceptions of one another, both feeling threatened, and all simply because nobody wants to look stupid.

Insecurities start with negative perceptions, not just of others but of oneself. I can be a bit slow, especially when it comes to thinking on my feet, so when others are rushing about making decisions, or talking fast at me and expecting me to pick up complex information, I feel vulnerable, threatened, and this awakens the ego whose job it is to put me back on the pedestal of my supposed competence, and from which I feel I’m slipping. Ego tries to make us feel safe by making us feel strong. But mostly it ends up making us appear either mean or stupid.

Here’s another illustration. I called into a coffee shop, asked for a coffee. It cost £1.75. (Pay attention now) I offered the girl a fiver but she’d no change. So I pieced together £1.75 in bits and bobs, including coppers, from the corners of all my pockets, and gave it to her. She kept my fiver and gave me change (which I’d thought she was short of). I’ve no idea how much change she gave me, exactly, but it seemed a lot. I was now very confused and queried the fact she’d kept my fiver, even though I’d just given her the £1.75, and what was all this change, and was that right, and could she explain it to me?

She looked a little nonplussed, and gave me my fiver back. This didn’t feel right either, but I was also feeling self conscious and stupid for not getting it by now , so I walked away with my fiver, plus the change. As I went I made a rough assessment of the change, and it amounted to well over £5.00, but some of this was mine to begin with, so whatever the nature of the misunderstanding here, I felt sure I was considerably in profit.

I returned to the till to say I felt there was still a mistake, and could we start again? At this point however, the Maitre D became involved and, from the sourness of her expression I guessed she thought I was attempting to take advantage of the girl. I did the best I could, returned all the change that was in my hand – hers plus whatever unknown quantity was my own, but kept my fiver. I’ve still no idea if I actually paid for that coffee, and if I did, how much I’d paid for it, but I had the feeling throughout my drinking of it that I’d overpaid, and yet, paradoxically, that my custom wasn’t welcome any more because I’d tried to pull a fast one.

The girl had been a little slow, and so had I, neither of us with bad intentions, but the assumption of maleficence on the Maitre D’s part, or at least my imagining of it turned a quiet coffee into an embarrassing ordeal and a resentment of the Maitre D’s ugly cats-arse mouth which even now I’m struggling to expunge from memory. I was polite throughout, Ego wouldn’t let me get away without feeling a fool, and without making me promise (to myself) I would never frequent that establishment again – actually the coffee wasn’t that great – gave me indigestion – and the Maitre D was a real sour-puss, so this won’t be a problem at all.

But we can see how quickly the tension mounts as soon as we feel vulnerable and lose our basic trust in the good intent of others. To live well and happy lives we have to assume the other person is like us, wanting to do the right thing, wanting to help when needed, and maybe spread a little happiness along the way. Nor must we feel threatened by our own shortcomings. (I never was any good with money)And we have to assume that if we’re struggling, and we ask for help, others will be big hearted enough to help without strings or questions.

You might say, however, approaching each day with a naive trust in everyone’s best wishes makes us vulnerable to the con-merchant. But if someone cheats me, even though it’s obviously my loss, it’s not really my problem. My problem is how not lose touch with myself, or lose balance when things start to fall apart and my abilities are tested.

This isn’t easy of course when every day our email inboxes are infested with suspicious junk that wants us to “click here”, when scammers ring us up at home claiming to be from our bank in order to steal our money, or when the car insurance renewal notice arrives and you query it because it seems expensive, and they instantly knock off the two hundred quid they were trying to cheat you out of anyway. It’s not easy when even the State takes your children and saddles them with a lifetime of eye-watering debt because they wanted to get a university education. So, yes, I admit, it’s even more tempting than ever to capitulate and retreat to a defensive position, crouch behind the barricades, simmering with anger or quivering in fear.

Except,…

How can we live like that?

If at least in our every day interaction with the people we meet, we try to assume good intent, if we assume that should we struggle, others will help, and for no other reason than it’s the human thing to do, then we’re each pushing back the tide that sometimes feels as if it’s going to overwhelm us, swallow us down and wash us up as yet more zombified pawns, blind and amoral instruments of the machine.

So,..

Starting with the checkout tonight. Pick up that first item really slow, bag it like there’s all the time in the world, and see what happens.

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girl meditatingIt’s with a mixture of surprise and confusion I note the term Mindfulness cropping up in the Corporate literature these days. This is rather like coming across Mary Poppins in a brothel. Originally an ancient meditative technique for releasing the mind from self destructive thinking, Mindfulness saw eventual escape into the so called new age, then a growing acceptance among mental health professionals as a way of easing stress and anxiety. But more latterly, the scientific management gurus have been hyping it as a way of rendering employees more efficient – though I’m not sure how this is supposed to work. Indeed the term Corporate Mindfulness is something of an oxymoron, each term neatly cancelling out the other.

Mindfulness, it seems, has become a highly marketable brand to the extent that even I am becoming sick of the word. Now, after your fourteen hour day of spreadsheet gazing, video-conferencing, and boardroom jousting, you can drive your showy, rented, BMW to the gym, display your expensively honed, Lycra clad body to your fellow narcissists, then drive to your mindfulness class and show off your expensively reconstructed mind. Then, come work-a-day morn, refreshed, pecks and abs hard as iron beneath your clean white shirt, mind simmering, cat-like in its predatory stillness, you become the master of all you survey, a steely eyed corporate warrior!

I wonder if we’re in danger of losing our way here. Perhaps we need to call it something else? Or perhaps it’s just that I feel myself slipping out of the world, no longer enamoured of its constructs, nor trusting of its players, that when I see Mindfulness advertised in corporate magazines, I am instinctively uneasy.

The dilemma for the corporate world is that the practice of Mindfulness will inevitably reveal the corporate world itself to be insane, indeed so sick it infects us all, has us eating each other, like a mad dog chewing at its own paws. So the idea of practising mindfulness, all the better to rape the earth and further dispossess the poor of their already meagre incomes seems the ultimate irony.

Do we even know what mindfulness is?

It’s mediation, right?

When I began to meditate it was because I had difficulty fitting in with the world. Meditation was an attempt to stop thinking, to plug the channel from which there issued an endless stream of debilitating and largely self critical thought. But you cannot stop thinking by thinking about it, nor less by hiding from one’s thoughts, nor combating them by the force of other thoughts. You need to give the mind something else to do.

Hanging it on the breath is a better approach. Listening to the breath, feeling the breath, experiencing the breath with every fibre of one’s being eventually renders thought as an observable phenomenon and from here it is but a small step to the realisation we are not our thoughts, that there is an awareness beyond our thoughts, a silent watcher that is not in itself a thought, and finally the realisation this silent watcher is actually who we really are. Carrying an awareness of this awareness, as we go about our lives, living with sufficient space in our heads for this awareness to be, is the essence of mindful living.

This is where the way becomes strange. We imagine that without our thoughts, our memories, our hopes, our dreams, we could not be said to exist at all, that without them we would have no personality, no sense of self. But this is the illusion of thinking. It is why we are vulnerable to our thoughts and so often fall into the trap of trying to think our way out of our worries, into a better, happier, more peaceful way of living. We can’t. The self constructed sense of self is an illusion, and actually the source of all our problems. The more we try to build this illusion up, the flimsier and more troublesome it becomes.

Similarly the corporate world is something we have merely thought up. It is not how the world really is. Mindfulness therefore does not prepare us for lives as a corporate raiders. Indeed quite the opposite. It should make us wish there was another way to live, another way to earn money and provide for our families, even if there isn’t. Beware then – mindfulness will seriously hamper your prospects for promotion, because it makes you all the more mindful of what it is you are doing. This is the point of departure then, where the meditative tradition reveals the unsuspected nature of the world.

The world as we have thought it is an illusion and it’s only by recognising our true nature do we perceive the world as it really is, how stunningly beautiful and alive. It is at the root of mindfulness we therefore find the ethics of life itself, at the root of mindfulness we discover peace, free from the imagined monsters of the past and the present.

Where mindfulness fits in to the structure of the man-constructed thought up world illusion I don’t know, since whichever power base we examine – be it political or corporate, I see no ethical dimension to it at all. It is a machine, not a mind, so there is a fundamental incompatibility of terminology here, and I conclude the corporate world has either changed the practice of mindfulness beyond all recognition into something faddish and useless, or nullified it by presenting it merely as a brand to be marketed and sold at a profit. Either way this is not the mindfulness I know.

Beware then where you buy your mindfulness from.

Mindfulness is free.

You don’t even have to think about it.

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man in garden doing qigong with mouseYesterday closed with a beautiful evening. But I’d had a long and rather tedious shift at the day job and I’m afraid to say I arrived home too tired and grumpy to pay it much attention at first. A weariness and a sense of despondency hung on throughout my evening meal, and overshadowed my chores. Then I stepped out onto the lawn in bare feet and began my practice. The more airy fairy Qigong books talk of going barefoot because it connects you to the earth, and to the Telluric currents, but there’s no sense to be made from any of this, no firm evidence I’m aware of that the body is influenced beneficially in any way by being “grounded”. I do it on warm evenings simply because it feels good to go barefoot on the grass. Everybody know this.

I warmed up slowly, gently, then did a routine called the Eight Brocades. There are thousands of Qigong routines but to my mind the Eight Brocades is an important one, but only because it’s an easy sequence of moves to remember, and it takes about twenty minutes, which for me is about long enough without overdoing it or getting bored.

Breathing deep and in sync with those moves, I became aware of a familiar tingling in the palms, one that by degrees came down my arms and entered my body, until by the end of the practise, I felt my whole self faintly buzzing. You can call this “awakening the energy body” if you want; sometimes I allow myself to imagine it as such, and it does feel good – it feels relaxing and invigorating at the same time – but it’s better to keep your opinions about what it is to yourself because you don’t know for sure, and neither does anyone else.

Then I ran through the Yang 24 Tai Chi form, a little of the Chen Old Frame, then broke into a spontaneous freestyle that was mostly silk reeling. I closed with some Heaven and Earth Qigong, another simple set that’s easy to remember and nice to do. If I don’t close with the Qigong, settling this imaginary energy down, then I can come away not feeling as much of the benefits of practise and with a lightness in the head, rather than a more grounded awareness. Again, there’s nothing scientific here; it’s just a personal observation.

Throughout all these moves the palms were tingling, and at times it felt as if they were vibrating. The arms were also “charged”, though I make no claims for that word either and use it merely in the descriptive sense. During the Eight Brocades specific fingers experience a “fullness” – the index fingers during the second move, the middle and third fingers during the fourth. They feel swollen, they feel “charged”. These experiences are repeatable, but I don’t know what they are. You also feel a heat. It begins in the lower body, in the thighs and, if the posture’s right, it rises to the upper body so you feel an overall glow.

I used to be a ballroom dancer. Any dancer will tell you of the pleasure of movement, of how a sequence of moves can connect with something deep inside of yourself and raise a smile, raise a tingle in your bones that makes you want to do it again and again. Tai Chi and Qigong are like that – they’re slower than your usual dance routine, and there’s this element of control too, of mindful focus, and of measuring, of pacing with the breath. But dancing doesn’t result in the same sensations of heat and tingling. With dancing, the breath is not coordinated, it is the music that drives the pace. With Qigong it seems to be this coordination of breath with movement that is the key.

As I finished up, the sun was setting, and the lawn felt different through the soles of my feet. It felt colder, felt as if it were now drawing heat out of me, rather than raising a tingle up my legs. I stepped onto the patio where the stone flags had retained the heat of the day. I felt comfortably warm again, and sat down. The dusk deepened and the bats came out. I watched them for a while, thinking of nothing in particular, then brewed bush tea and went to bed.

These were are all subjective sensations and mean nothing to anyone else. I might also have appeared slightly ridiculous while I was practicing. And, since I didn’t break a sweat or feel myself getting out of breath, it’s arguable it was a complete waste of time in terms of physical exercise, and did nothing to extend my life expectancy for even a millisecond beyond what fate has already allotted. I did however feel deeply relaxed. I was able to think clearly. I was no longer grumpy, felt myself recharged, and magnanimous about the day’s events, I felt I had transcended them. I felt human enough and decent enough now to be with others.

I slept deeply and dreamed vividly.

This is the practical reality of Qigong and Tai Chi. It raises a feeling one cannot help but describe as “electric”, but seeking any definitive explanation of those sensations in the literature – either modern or traditional – is simply asking for trouble. In looking to deepen one’s practice, there is no substitute for the practice itself. It is a personal journey, a subjective experience gained through a framework of basic moves that are taught differently by every teacher, but this discrepancy is not important because the moves themselves are not the thing. Going deeper into Qigong and Tai Chi is not about “understanding” at the intellectual level. Nor is it about anyone else. It’s about you. And through you, it is about everything.

I feel most confident when speaking about the benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi in terms of the vascular and lymphatic system. Privately, I can speculate as much as anyone else about the electromagnetic effects, about the energy body, about the significance or otherwise of Telluric currents, about the best times for practise, about “chi” and the yin and the yang of it. But I can’t speak with any authority, and neither can anyone else, not yet, and not until the basic research has achieved sufficient momentum to shoulder aside the justifiable caution of the scientific establishment.

There are many who will try to explain it to you; they’ll do so with a straight face and an authoritative tone, while selling books on it at a tenner a time, or inviting you to expensive seminars on it, or selling you gadgets that claim to boost your chi, smooth your wrinkles, grow your hair back and make you live for ever. But their terminology, although it might sound scientific, is never grounded on anything firmer than the dubious claims of long dead researchers or “masters” that have never been independently verified.

Yet the practice of Qigong and Tai Chi persists, and has done so for thousands of years. Why? Well, practiced as a mind-body exercise, the truth is revealed as being at the same time rather more prosaic, yet also more remarkable than any of the claims made for it by its self styled spokespersons, authorities, Masters, and book peddlers.

And it’s this.

It’s not about the body at all. Not about the physical. It’s about the mind, the immaterial, it’s about transcending for a moment our self constructed sense of self, and revealing to us the void that is as much a part of existence as the mess we can see. It is about revealing to us the truth that we are less the atoms of the physical world, the physical body, and more the gaps in between. It’s about showing us that if we can leave off bothering about the physical for a moment and just be content not knowing who we are, the stillness and the calm awareness that is left, that is who we are. From this transcendent perspective everything else becomes trivial, and it puts a bad day at the office firmly in its place.

That the body benefits from practice is something you can only establish for yourself by practising. But this is secondary, a side effect of balancing the mind and the emotions. There are many in the west who are sceptical about Tai Chi and Qigong, and I don’t blame them because the spokespersons for this kind of stuff come across like lunatics and new age flakes. Practicing Tai Chi and Qigong will change your life, but don’t believe half of what you read about it, and never put your trust in anything you cannot experience yourself by simply practising. It should also be fun, never simply “worthy”, or it’s not worth doing.

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Manet

Back in 1977, when I was training in an engineering workshop, my mate ran his finger up a bandsaw blade. He swore and I fainted. I told everyone I’d had no breakfast and maybe that was why I’d fainted -only admitting the truth to the work’s doc. He was an old guy, long steely grey hair, an incongruous hippy type – a real-life Gandalf. He said I’d be okay, told me to get back on that bandsaw right away, and that I’d probably benefit from learning how to meditate.

The advice about the bandsaw made sense, but I ignored the bit about meditation because I had a fairly rational head in those days. When I think back it was probably the most sage piece of advice I’ve ever had from a medical professional. It was to be years later though, dropping a bottle of Prozac into the bin and wondering what the hell I was going to do next, that I finally took his advice.

By then I was struggling with panic attacks. You sit in a cinema, a theatre, a lecture at college, a presentation at work, and you sweat, you shake inside, you fear losing yourself, you fear drawing attention to yourself. You also fear getting cornered by the consummate bore and being too polite to tell him you’re busy, so you sit there, quietly tearing yourself apart while his interminable tale drones on, when what you really want to do is stick your finger in his eye and run away screaming – all of this behind a serene smile.

Scary, isn’t it?

I lasted a couple of weeks on the Prozac. Its effects were dramatic. They calmed me for a while, helped me to keep working, but I was not myself, and this intruder who was not myself took over my self, decided it no longer needed to sleep, that it was okay to do pushups in the small-hours of a workday morning, then decided it was in the mother of all panics and hanging on by its fingernails, needed a doctor more urgently than it had ever done before. This was definitely not me, so the Prozac went in the bin. (don’t do this without talking to your doctor)

So I talked to my doctor, but found him time-pressed and unsympathetic. He told me the medication would either help or it wouldn’t. Well, it wouldn’t. The message was clear: I was on my own; mental health issues may be ruining your life, but unless you’re thinking of taking your life, the amount of support you can expect is patchy. This was 1992. The only difference now is demand is even greater for fewer resources, and we are better at pretending they are not.

Gandalf’s advice finally broke through: I bought a book on Yoga, which introduced me to meditation. Meditation looks complicated, sounds mysterious, and seems bound up with a lot of transcendental, spiritual stuff. But the physical practice itself is straight forward, and it worked. I’ll probably still faint at the sight of a bloody injury, so don’t come looking to me for first aid, but the panic attacks are a thing of the past. I lead a fairly normal life, most of the time.

You don’t need a guru to learn meditation. Even self taught from books, meditation has an immediate effect on the mind, but without “messing” with your mind in the way anti-depressant medication does. In meditation we try not to think , or we try at least to separate ourselves from our thoughts, and to realise we are not our thoughts.

With a panic attack, we think we’re going to faint, when there’s no physical reason why we should – the pulse rate goes up, we hyperventilate, we experience dizziness; with obsessive hypochondria we think we have a fatal illness which we assemble from otherwise innocuous symptoms and we convince ourselves we are going to die; with obsessive behaviours we think we must carry out an action in a particular way or a set number of times and we think that failure to do so will cause something bad to happen. Thinking, especially faulty thinking, has lot to answer for. It can make us really ill. It can ruin our lives.

Meditation was developed to correct faulty thinking, admittedly more on the transcendental, spiritual level, and therein lies the problem for many in the west, and for two reasons: in the west most of us have either cut the spiritual dimension entirely from our lives, drained the vessel dry so to speak, or we have adopted a narrow, entrenched religious view that does not encompass spiritual philosophies borrowed from other cultures; we have filled the vessel instead with concrete, one that does not permit the natural convective dynamics of exploration and change.

So let me defend meditation by saying it acts upon the mental life, and we need not attach any spiritual significance to it at all. It’s just that in eastern cultures there is less separation between the mental and the spiritual realms. Meditation also acts upon the physical body by freeing up energy consumed in vast quantities by a frantically thinking brain. This is why, when we meditate regularly, we feel less drained by life.

You can find “how to” material on meditation just about anywhere online for free, including my own notes, here. We must meditate every day for it to have any meaningful effect, and we’ll most likely feel resistance to this notion when the pain inside us realises what we’re up to, but persistence pays. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of encountering what was once a sure-fire trigger-situation, and realising we’re looking it calmly and squarely in the eye, unshaken.

And just in case you’re a tough guy who thinks meditation is for girls, remember Kung Fu fighters meditate. It gives them an edge. It’ll give you an edge too.

Think about it. Or rather don’t think!

Meditate!

Thanks Gandalf.

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bearded man 2Men are not alone in suffering from mental illness, but the fact they do suffer is effectively suppressed by everyone in society, including the men who suffer. There is a stigma about it, the result being men deny the facts and are afraid to seek help. There are of course many forms and degree of mental illness, not all of which end in tragedy. But all mental illness, especially if borne in silence, will not only thwart the life chances others take for granted, but it will deny us even the basics of a happy life, one lived without the daily fear of some imagined calamity.

When we suffer from mental illness we become emotionally useless to those around us, also angry with ourselves for being “weak”. There is also a mysterious energy about it, and if we don’t take steps towards healing, it will form itself into a powerful vortex, sucking us down into an ever decreasing spiral, diminishing our chances of ever getting on with a normal life. We may begin to self medicate with alcohol or other drugs, self harm, manifest irrational, compulsive behaviours, and in the worst of cases begin to think suicidal thoughts.

It’s a remarkable fact that throughout all of this we will appear to be functioning well, turning up for work, doing a decent job, smiling, being nice, and bringing home the bacon. But it’s a mask. We are skilful at evasive tactics that get us through the day, avoiding the trigger situations we associate with our anxieties. All of this comes before we seek help, if we ever do – and 80% of us don’t. When we eventually stop functioning, we do so suddenly, catastrophically, and no one, including us, sees it coming. The really sobering fact here is that mental illness is not rare. It’s very common. One in five of us is suffering, right now. It’s just that nobody ever talks about it. How crazy is that?

So what do we do? Well, like all illnesses, much falls upon the sufferer to acknowledge the problem. Everyone experiences lows in life, but they pass. Mental illness is different. It settles in. If you’ve been feeling inconsolably down or on edge for months, let alone years it’s probably a good idea to talk to your doctor. That’s the litigiously-aware, super-sensible advice – go speak to your doctor, because what the hell do I know? But the reality of state primary healthcare services is that the time, sympathy and understanding one needs to sort things out properly will most likely be lacking. If you’re lucky you’ll get a hastily scrawled prescription for anti-depressants, and a referral to psychological counselling. The waiting time to your first session will be in inverse proportion to how much you managed to frighten the crap out of your doctor with what you told him, so don’t hold back because you need that referral, and you need it fast!

But sadly, again, the cash strapped reality of public mental healthcare is that it can backfire when you feel you’re not being given the necessary face-time with a competent or at least half way human counsellor, that you’re not being listened to, that indeed you never see the same counsellor twice in a row, that you feel you’re being fobbed off with drugs that aren’t right for you, that your regular sessions are broken up by spurious cancellations on their part, when, if you miss a session yourself, no matter what your excuse, you’ll be kicked into the long grass and left there to rot.

Then, those anti-depressants become your only hope, and are not to be sniffed at as they enable one to keep going without taking time off work, and more importantly having to explain why. Me? No, I’m fine! Just a touch of flu. But they don’t work in all cases, didn’t work for me, turned me into a zombie and robbed me of sleep for weeks on end. It also gave me pause how relaxed my GP was about putting me on them for life, careless of the risk of serious side effects and little or no supervision. But if you’re in a situation where you’re thinking of taking your life, they might just save your life and you’d be unwise to reject this option. It’s just that when we’re suffering from mental illness, we don’t always act wisely. We react instead to fear and to the isolation imposed on us by that illness.

Because of my  negative experience with mental health services, I’ve always been leery of the long term medication route, also guilty of labelling mental health care professionals (unfairly) as lacking empathy and being ruled by the same tick box culture as everyone else these days, merely there to fudge you off their books as a successful intervention with the minimum of time and effort, because time and effort costs money – and there isn’t any. Instead I became a lone survivalist, hunkered down in my flimsy home-made refuge with a handful of improvised weapons to keep the demons at bay. But they they bought me time, and time and effort is what it takes. There’s a lot we can do to help ourselves, and a lot of free information online these days to demystify those demons.

So ask yourself this: do I want to get better? The answer might seem obvious, but some of us are so benighted and so closely identified with our illness, we lack the mental focus to even understand the question. Once we accept the need for healing though, then proper healing can take place, but it won’t come solely through the intervention of a healthcare professional, or from out of a blister-pack. These are merely some of the tools at our disposal, to be used wisely and mindfully – mindful of the fact that even a doctorate in psychology does not give the other person a clear window into your head.

Mental illness is different to other illnesses; it does not attack the body directly, it attacks the soul and its methods are as unique as we are. Indeed it uses us to attack ourselves. It confuses us into thinking we are nothing more than the pain we feel. Unfortunately the defences we can deploy will seem as bizarre as the illness, indeed they will require the adoption of a frame of mind as irrational as the malaise under which we labour. Therefore, again, we encounter an internal resistance, because the possession of even the knowledge of such techniques is a tacit admission of the need to deploy them in the first place.

Such is the bind we find ourselves in! But anyway,…

As a first step we must dis-identify with our illness. The pain, the fear, the debilitating isolation, the strange compulsions, the damaging thoughts. These things are not who we are, they are just thoughts. Even if they threaten to kill us, they are still merely the things we suffer from. If we can find the space within ourselves to step back and say: no, I am not that, then we’re already moving in the right direction.

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keys

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

Presence is inner space. It is stillness. It is making room inside ourselves for the primary essence to return to conscious awareness. Without presence, our lives are dominated by our thoughts and our memories, and we mistake them entirely for who we think we are. Only when we still the mind, when we rise above the flow of thought and memory, do we invite presence and reconnect with the authentic self.

So, try this for a moment:

Sit down. Take a deep breath. Focus. Don’t reminisce, don’t anticipate the future. Narrow your sights to the present moment, and above all STOP THINKING! Do it now.

Did it work?

No.

It’s impossible to stop thinking. And anyway, we have to live, to work, to take care of our families, get through college, pass exams, fix the car. Try doing any of that without thinking! It seems “presence” is not only a difficult thing to attain, it’s also impractical and unhelpful in our everyday lives. So, do we live as we should, or do we retreat to a cave and nurture presence instead?

Actually, presence is helpful and practical; it’s just a question of how we get there. If we can somehow create that space within ourselves, we can move beyond our thoughts, rest in spaciousness, and from there recognise our thoughts for what they are: mostly imposters and prophets of false doom. We think when we need to, but we no longer confuse “thought” with “identity”.

The deliberate cessation of thinking is impossible. Even to attempt it is only going to make matters worse, risking thoughts of self loathing when we inevitably fail. We should think more of “presence” as a state where our thoughts proceed at a more measured pace, and where we no longer find ourselves caught up with their contrived chains of endless urgencies:

We must do this, we must do that, or this won’t happen, and then we won’t get that, so we won’t be able to go there, and so and so won’t like us any more, and then we will be unhappy,…

If we can distance ourselves from the chain of thought, it’s a start. And indeed, if we sit quietly we find it is possible to observe the run of thoughts from a place within ourselves, without actually engaging them. We merely watch their coming and going, without judgement. If we feel our emotions getting hung up on particular thoughts, we press them gently aside. This is a powerful practise, and we find, in time, moments of deeper presence creeping into our lives of their own accord.

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

There are many ways to nurture presence and they aren’t that difficult. They require a little imagination, and the cooperation of the ego. But that they require Ego’s indulgence is the reason so few of us make way in this search for presence – egos, being entities comprised entirely of thought, are not naturally inclined towards the cessation of thinking.

Try this instead:

Look at your hands. Now (in a moment) close your eyes. How do you know your hands are still there? Because you can feel them. But what are you feeling? You are feeling the energy of the body. It’s particularly noticeable in the hands. Now breathe in, and very gently out, and breathing out, focus more on the feeling in the hands. The feeling grows stronger. Breath, it seems, can help focus stillness and amplify one’s sense perceptions.

Remember this.

Using the imagination as the vehicle, and the outward breath as the energy to drive it, it’s possible to explore more of the body this way. Thus, we discover similar feelings in our arms and our chest. The region around the heart and the lower abdomen also respond strongly to the caress of breath-assisted imagination. The more we practice, the stronger and more readily these feelings come to us. And at some point, while we’re doing all of this we realise we’ve not been thinking about anything for a while. We have become still, we have become more “present” in the body, and we feel calmer. This is a very effective practice on the road to presence.

But there’s more.

When we become familiar with this feeling of centred calm, secure within the body, we begin to see and feel the outer world differently too. I’m looking at my keys – familiar things – but I realise I hardly ever truly see them, because the mind is not interested in them as they actually are. It labels them “keys” and moves on because it has so many other things to think about.

But, observed in stillness, a deeper dimension is revealed to my keys – the shape, the colours, the myriad indentations, the fall of light upon them, the reflections, the highlights. Be warned though: the mind may have trouble here as thinking tries to reassert itself. We might try to think about the keys: What doors do they open? This one is looking worn out and maybe I should replace it; I wonder if the battery is okay in my little torch thingy. Should I test it?

We cannot observe in stillness while we are engaged in thought. Thoughts are like stones tossed into the lake, breaking up its morning stillness. In stillness we accept only sense perceptions as they come to us – here primarily our vision, but we can also bring the ears, the nose and the sense of touch into play. But however we observe the outer world, we simply let it be, without analysis or judgement. We sense the world without thinking about it and if we’re doing it right, the feeling that arises is one of calm alertness.

Experienced on a larger scale, say in the outdoors, in the natural world, observing without judgement the tremble of every leaf and every blade of grass, this feeling of presence can be very powerful indeed, but as the lesson of the keys reveals, it can also be experienced in the minutiae we oftentimes simply overlook. And the observations need not be of static things. We can observe movement just as dispassionately and discover the stillness in it (stillness in movement) It can be experienced even in those things that we might consider a chore – ironing clothes, clearing out the garage, mowing the grass,… or washing the pots.

Master, when will you teach me?
Have you eaten?
Yes.
Then go wash your bowl.

Perhaps we should be more willing to embrace those mindless tasks for what they have to teach us.

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