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Posts Tagged ‘pain’

avia-peseus

An old cairn marks the end of a moorland spur. Away from the main routes, it’s little visited. We could sit here all day and not be see a other soul. It’s around noon, warm in the sun. We are lost in thought, ruminating, casting our minds back, running over the details of a tough couple of weeks.

We have a problem. Our magnanimity is crumbling. We feel unappreciated, feel as if we’re at everyone’s beck and call, forever feeding the insatiable demands of the world we inhabit. It’s been going on for years, our whole lives probably, and we are at times resentful we spend most of that time feeding others our energy. It’s like everyone we know is standing there with their mouths wide open and we are shovelling stuff in faster and faster. We are forgetting things now. People are asking us where we’re up to with things we cannot even remember being tasked with. Is this age creeping up, or is our mind so full now we cannot possibly process things any longer? And we are left wondering, who feeds us?

The weeks, indeed the years ahead look similarly frantic and with nothing in the calendar we can point to that we have underlined exclusively for nurturing our own sense of being. We might have had this moment, alone, on the moors, except by now we’ve carried the whole mess up with us, and we are lost in it, thinking about it. We’re exhausted, sleeping poorly, drinking too much,…

It’s a beautiful spot, views out across the plain, as far as the sea. Sunsets from here are magical. But we do not feel the way we once did about any of this. We are no longer present in it, our mind instead locked in the prison of incessant thinking, and much of it negative.

Then we hear a skylark, an exuberant twittering rush of song, hard to ignore as it soars above us. We remember the words of Matsuo Basho:

Above the moor, not attached to anything, a skylark singing,…

It’s the first thing in months to break through and draw us back into self awareness, and for a moment, though we do not realise it yet, we are no longer thinking. Slowly our awareness of the world expands. We notice too there are grasshoppers chirruping, and a gentle breeze like heaven, cool upon our skin. There’s the scent of the moor, the sedge and the reeds and the sphagnum and eons of peat layered beneath us. These sense impressions are there all the time of course, just mostly shut out by the infernal noise of thinking.

There is no need to concentrate. The world and all the life around us is simply there, and for a time we become effortlessly aware of it. We try a breath or two, deep, slow, and we become aware of the body again, the feel of it heightened in waves by the motion of the breath. It’s like another body, but inside of us and made of a purer, incorruptible energy, an energy whose presence is calmness itself and which provides an anchor against the capricious tug of our thoughts.

Yes, the thoughts come washing back, leaking in, speculative at first, testing the water. There is pain, anxiety, indignation at the rudeness of others, indignation that all the traffic is decidedly one way. Worse, there’s a buzzing from our chest – our damned ‘phone, message received, some jerk has sent a picture of themselves, a goofy grin as they raise a pint of beer. We don’t even know them, yet here they are intruding, someone else demanding our attention. Look at me! Like me! Bolster my self worth! We switch the ‘phone off, set it aside, try to recover our awareness, focus back on the lark’s song,… and the inner body.

Eventually, we notice there are gaps in our thoughts, like the blue sky between clouds. And more, when we expand our awareness we open up a space, a gap between us and whatever we imagine assails us. And what assails us is like a like a yard full of dogs, all yapping to be fed, but now there’s a fence between us and we longer fear their bite if we fail to feed them quickly enough. In another sense the dogs and the anxiety they arouse can be seen as indicative our failure to accept the moment as it, that we desire things to be other than they are. Thus we render ourselves at the mercy of the world and its noisy demands, at the mercy of things over which we have no control, then the world dictates the terms of our unhappiness, and we become exhausted.

But this spaciousness is like an opening now, a conduit to a source of energy both infinite and generous. This is what feed us, and it’s all we need. And as we gaze down upon the land we realise the effortlessness of our awareness, and in the midst of it glimpse the greatest secret of them all, that we are not our thoughts, that we can be free, for a time at least. They are just a story we tell ourselves, a story of the person we believe ourselves to be. But who we really are, who we have always and will for ever be, is the awareness that we are aware. We are the watcher of our thoughts.

The afternoon deepens. We feel rested, magnanimity returns. We become aware of ourselves in the world once more, yet buffered from its excesses. We make our way down from the hill, but slowly, not wanting to break this expansive feeling, nor lose the sound of the lark. We realise half way down our damned phone is still where we left it in the grass, by the cairn. Rain is forecast. Do we go back and get it?

Why should we? It’s old and cheap, and contains only a Pandora’s box of the absurd.

How about a bit of a bit of Vaughn Williams instead?

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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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Burne Jones and WIlliam Morris 1874Eckhart Tolle is a spiritual teacher, and a successful author. His books “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth” have been devoured by a worldwide audience in search of that intangible “something” that is missing from our lives. Tolle brings together insights from all the world’s religious traditions and, for me at least, his success lies in his non-religious, transcendental approach to matters of mind, body and spirit, also to his humility and his engaging sense of humour. It’s no secret that Tolle has suffered from depression and anxiety, no secret either that his success is due also in part to the way he has dealt with his own mental illness.

In a society built on rationalism, determinism, and materialism, people who are mentally ill are not seen as reliable witnesses to the facts of life, at least not usually by those who control the gateways to employment, and financial remuneration. But if we think about it for a moment, the statistics suggest one in five of us have or will suffer from a mental illness. Then, since 80% of mental illness goes undiagnosed, this suggests very nearly one in five of us doing valuable work right now is already mentally ill, yet managing to hold the place together somehow – so we can’t be that unreliable either, can we? What’s even more interesting is that by implication, statistically, probably one in five of those people who hold mental illness low regard, are themselves mentally ill.

As a student in England, Tolle, suffered terribly from feelings of anxiety and depression. One night he lay down so overcome, he told himself he could not live with himself any longer. Sadly, this is the fate of many – an illness held in secret, ending suddenly with a tragedy that leaves others shocked by its unexpectedness. But what happened to Tolle was not what usually happens. He experienced an inner separation and an insight that was to be the catalyst of his life’s work. I’m paraphrasing here but he asked himself something to the effect of: who is the self that cannot live with my self any longer? The self he could not live with, he concluded, was the bit he associated with the pain, the egoic self. And he reasoned that the essential part of “Tolle”, indeed of all of us, was something else, something above, and not part of the pain.

He went on from this potentially fatal moment to become a teacher, counsellor, and an engaging life coach to millions. His teachings are all over the place – on Youtube, in books, DVD’s, lecture tours. I find in them much that explains the highs and lows of the lives of human beings, but the story of Tolle is itself an inspiration, demonstrating that mental illness does not invalidate anyone from playing a constructive or even a leading role in society.

Yes, we’ll sometimes have a hard time from ignorants and materialists who think the brain is a computer made of meat, and that a part of our brains have gone rotten. But our brains are not rotten. You cannot diagnose mental illness from a brain scan. Our brains are like everyone else’s. There are no bits missing. What mental illness does, however, is it puts us on the edge of something, thrusts us into the depths of an unknown, even at times a frightening inner realm, but the stories we bring back from that place are important – not only for our own healing, but the healing of others like us. So tell the Internet your stories. Use your creative faculties.Get a blog, get a Flikr account, and get busy.

I spoke last time about the three vessels of being – the physical, the mental and the spiritual – and how attention to any one of them can help maintain the others and restore us to ourselves. Creative expression is very much concerned with the mental life, and is the most natural channel for the otherwise jagged and ferocious energies of mental illness. So many artists and larger than life celebrities are mentally ill, yet they are also possessed of the most remarkable abilities. So, write it, journal it, paint it, doodle it, tell it in poetry, sculpt it, and learn by it. Through creative expression we turn something negative into something positive and, as we give external shape to what has up ’till now been only an internal, mental thought form, we realise it is not who we really are at all, that pain. It dwells within us, yes, and it looks like that, but it is not who we are.

The search for who we are is the same as the search for our life’s meaning, whether we are suffering from a mental illness or not. But that you suffer can be interpreted as a sign you sense there is something vital missing from the world, that your inability to fit in with it is more a reluctance to dance with a partner who is not of your choosing. Again, one in five of us will at some point suffer from a mental illness. It is not our fault if society has difficulty in accommodating that fact, or in facing up to the question it begs regarding the nature of society, and the direction it is moving in. But neither can we blame society for its ignorance if we do not tell it how we feel.

Do not say how can I live with myself? but say instead who is the self that cannot live with my self. And in separating yourself from the pain, go seek instead the self you want to be.

I leave the last word on this to Eckhart Tolle:

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