Posts Tagged ‘panic attacks’

The_ScreamCome Friday my flexi-time balance is usually in credit, so I finish at lunch-time, then head up to Rivington Barn for an egg and bacon butty. It’s a popular spot, and you’ll probably have to queue. I was there last Friday, and I was about half way down that queue before realising what I was doing would once have been impossible. When was that? Ten, fifteen years ago? It wasn’t just queues either – the cinema was out of bounds too, and music concerts, and the theatre – anywhere with lots of people in a captive environment, so to speak. Some things you can avoid, of course, while some you can’t, and the ones you can’t are a nightmare. You live in dread of them.

We do not always realise the distance we have travelled; nowadays, I’m pretty much functioning with a level(ish) head, and grateful for it because living like that was awkward. Panic and anxiety, these are manifestations of the psyche, a storm of sorts, and therefore a reaction to living in a way we find somehow threatening. But when we watch the news bulletins, we see so many have died now on the long migration routes to the west, gambolling their lives on a chance at sharing even a little bit of what I take for granted, it seems immoral I should even question it. After all, mine is an ordinary life, secure in the bosom of the west, and it’s irrational to panic, when my life is clearly not threatened. But I never said it was my life I felt was threatened, more my sense of being.

I worry now if even writing about it will open a door on the past, that the next time I stand in a queue, I will have cause to regret it. A panic attic is like being turned inside out. We focus obsessively on our own mental noise and we imagine the eyes of others upon us, imagine ourselves seen through their eyes, this person, wobbling, perhaps looking strange, perhaps about to faint. The fear feeds upon itself, reaches a terrifying resonance in which we simply must flee the scene. Anyone who has suffered this will tell you it’s deadly serious. It’s also becoming commoner in the general population.

The cure? Well, obviously there is a cure, or I could not have waited the five minutes for my bacon butty, and received it in the same calm mental state as when I had joined that queue, nor even sat and enjoyed it. Medication? No, I don’t take medication. I have nothing against it these days, though I’ve been guilty of an anti-med zealotry in the past. Medication can save lives, so I accept it has its role to play. But medication is never without risk or side effect, and it’s true to say I have also felt uncomfortable with the psyche that remains, after medication, a psyche that is, in a way, still imprisoned, and prevented its desired freedoms, only this time, apparently, for its own good.

But for all the cherished values of the west, the way we live is the cause. If you want to get philosophical about it, it’s the feeling that in our guts we are more than the material world gives us credit for, that we are not machines, yet are being squeezed at every turn so we might fit into a machine-like world, a machine driven in such a way that even a dollar profit will outweigh the most basic, uncosted, intangible human need.

Happiness? Who needs it? Purpose? So what? Love? Buy it. A sense that things can never be any better than this, that we have killed God, and even the priesthood seems not to have noticed? Who cares? Well, we all care, but we feel powerless to bring about change, so we do nothing. And some of us panic.

But standing in that queue, I was no longer aware of my own mental noise. My thoughts were few, my head was quiet. I was aware of my body, my breath, and I was aware of others, but not in the sense of morbidly and self consciously wondering how they saw me. I was more the observer, observing them – snippets of conversation, body language, their choices, demeanours. I had become the watcher, rather than the watched, but not in the sense of judging others – just watching, and I was no longer inside-out of myself. I was simply more my self. It is a state that allows one to become quietly curious of the world and all that’s in it. We become more grounded.

But one should never take these things for granted, hence my abiding interest in the secrets of the psyche, and its various palliatives. Meditation is perhaps the most powerful of these, but also methods that reconnect the mind with the sensations of the physical body, both in motion and at rest – things like Tai Chi and Qigong. Notably these are not western techniques, but things we borrow from the east.

As I sit now, I am aware of my energy body. This will already sound unpalatable to many who are steeped in the materialist tradition. But there’s nothing spooky about the term “energy body”. If you close your eyes, how do you know your hands are still there? Obviously, you can feel them, but what you are feeling is the mind created sense of your physical being, the energy body, for want of another term. If you wiggle your fingers you can feel it more strongly. If you take an inward breath, and let it out slowly, the feeling becomes stronger. You can play with it.

Once you show the mind a way back inside the body, it will crave a deeper exploration: arms, legs, chest; there is no part of the body that cannot be felt this way, and in feeling it we ground ourselves, root ourselves back in our selves, and in the world. The feeling is one of great calmness, and allows an alert resting awareness in which the world seems all the more alive for the undivided attention we can now give it.

There is no single reliable method of attaining this state. You have to experiment and find the one that works for you. This is part of the journey into the inside of yourself and worth undertaking. Although it takes years to de-program the stress response entirely, meaningful results should come within months or even just weeks of daily practise. That said, I find having been once been prone to panic and anxiety, it is something one needs to keep working at.

I have not suffered much hardship in my life, but it’s an unfortunate fact that the mind can create hardship where there is none. Our quiet backwaters then become personal warzones, and the most innocuous activity fraught with imagined danger. Returning to our selves then, we are also reminded that, compared with the actual physical suffering of so many others in the world today, how lucky we really are.

And yes, that egg and bacon butty was well worth the wait.

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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!


Thanks Gandalf.

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Being a holistic approach to coping with a nervous disability, a rejection of therapeutic druggery, and the values of secular society that would have us believe it alone possesses the key to the meaning of our lives.

In this essay I speak as someone who has suffered from a troublesome psyche since I was a boy. My earliest encounter with it was an inexplicable feeling of dread in large social gatherings such as school assemblies or church services, a dire panic at having to stand through hymn-singing because I had become irrationally convinced I was going to faint.

The medical profession call these episodes panic attacks and, since the 1990s, have controlled them with a family of drugs called SSRI’s. Two of the most common of these are known as Prozac and Seroxat. In fact they’re prescribed for a wide variety of emotional problems: anxiety, depression, or indeed anything that prevents us, emotionally, from somehow “fitting in” with the world. They work by altering the way the brain handles serotonin and essentially alter what an individual sees as stressful, like putting on dark glasses in bright sunlight. My personal experience of SSRI’s was brief and unpleasant though useful by way of being a formative experience, one that was instrumental in pushing me into a more holistic view of things.

I’ve never understood the cause of my own panic attacks, which somehow added to the feeling of helplessness when I was in the middle of one – but fortunately, their grip has slackened in recent years, and though I hate to tempt fate, I can’t remember the last time I had one – though the old defence mechanisms are still a part of my routine: when entering a room of people, say at a lecture or a music concert, I still naturally take up a position at the sides, by the aisles, and in line of sight of the exit, so I can leave with the minimum of fuss should I begin to struggle with myself later on. Even in my darkest days, I never actually had to make a desperate bolt for the exit, but reminding myself of these facts did not help struggling against the urge when the mood was upon me.

The problem morphed and splintered over the years into a number of other related manifestations. For example, at concerts of classical music, where the listening experience tends to be subtle and intense, I once developed the peculiar habit of wanting to swallow in order to ease a certain dryness of the throat which threatened to erupt into a cough. Swallowing would then become compulsive, and had to be repeated every few seconds until I lost all sense of pleasure in the music. Thus, concerts that should have lifted the spirit left me feeling only jittery and ashamed of my weakness. I would also sometimes suffer a peculiar sensation of imbalance when walking into a room full of noisy people, say at a party or in a crowded restaurant. Outside I would be fine, or if the room were empty, but in a gathering of people, my legs would become strangely tense and wobbly and the floor would become like the swaying deck of a ship. And again there was the situation of being cornered by the consummate bore, the person who told you everything about his life from birth to the present day by way of answer to even the most succinct enquiry. How often have I found myself trapped, not listening, for what seemed like hours, afraid of breaking out into a sweat, afraid of a dizzy spell coming on, and too polite, too sensitive to the bore’s feelings to break him off abruptly, stick my finger in his eye and run screaming for fresh air and freedom?

Yet another peculiar manifestation once concerned my driving. Many years ago now, I suddenly discovered that at certain key points of my daily commute I would experience the very real sensation that my forward motion had been arrested and that I was slipping backwards. This last peculiar episode was perhaps the most frightening because, unlike all the other “trigger environments” driving was not something I could easily avoid: it threatened my freedom to get about.

Somehow though, one muddles through, unable to explain to others for fear of being labelled a nutter,… and the medical profession unfortunately, I always found to be less than helpful. For all the good intentions of the British National Health system my personal experience of it is an inability to deal with any illness that does not show changes in blood and urine samples or cannot be quickly fixed up by a few stitches, a plaster cast, or a dose of antibiotics. There was a doctor, some twenty years ago, who listened to me for all of five minutes. I seemed barely to have begun explaining myself before the man was confidently writing up a prescription for what turned out to be the new cure-all wonder-drug: Prozac. For a few days this was my one and only foray into the chemically adjusted reality of the then modern age. My experience of it was short lived and, though rather distressing, I view it now with all the detachment of an impartial observer, and with the magnanimity of one who has learned his lesson.
For a time it was like putting on a warm straight jacket. A bomb could have gone off and I would not have cared, nor I suspect would I have moved, except perhaps to glance up slowly and brush the dust from my clothes. I was stoned, literally, it seemed, turned to stone. Unfortunately it also stopped me from sleeping, for sleep is a human thing and stones have no need of it. After about a week of doing pushups into the small hours, in order to wear myself out, in the vain hope of encouraging a collapse into a fatigue induced stupor, I experienced for the first and only time in my life a profound sense of drug-induced despair. The whole experience of the medication was far more emotionally disturbing than the occasional fit of the jitters I was trying to cure, so the Prozac went into the bin.

Nowadays I no longer trouble the medical profession with any ailment that I cannot point to such as a sore thumb, or a swollen eye. Of course, this probably means that if I contract a fatal disease I shall probably die from it – but the chances are I’ll die from it anyway, so I’m willing to take the risk.
My slow road to regaining control over my life began with the memory of an experience from my first year as an engineering apprentice, in the latter days of the 1970’s. While doing basic training in manufacturing processes, a colleague injured his finger on a machine. This caused him to swear and me to faint. I was seen by the work’s doctor as a precaution and he advised me to get back on that machine as soon as possible, and to consider taking up some form of transcendental meditation. The machine part made sense, but the meditation did not. I possessed a very rational mindset in those days and I rejected anything that was not grounded in material “fact”.

But always, I wondered.

Later, following the Prozac episode, I overcame my overwhelming prejudice and bought a book on Hatha Yoga. I learned a few basic postures and some breathing exercises, and much to my surprise, they seemed to work. The jitters did not entirely pass, but they were suddenly subdued, and the fact I had discovered at last some means of holding them at bay was itself crucial in changing my life. I turn to Yoga now, and other esoteric practices, whenever I feel the jitters coming on and the jitters duly pass. I’m afraid I’m not disciplined enough to practise all the time and I’ve never attended a Yoga class or anything, but even doing these exercises in a half-assed way, succeeds where the medical profession failed completely, either due to lack of time or interest. To be clear, the jitters are still there, for it seems it’s a part of my nature to incubate them, but I am no longer at their mercy, and I get by.
Perhaps after all of this I have given the impression of my being a twitchy, jumpy neurotic, the sort of person you’d easily pick out of a crowd, the one who leaps a mile whenever anyone says “boo”, but you’d be wrong. People who know Michael Graeme’s alter ego (or is he mine? I forget these days!) describe him as “laid back”, to quote the vernacular, which always makes me smile. Appearances can be deceptive you see? Next time you look into the eyes of someone you think you know remember this: you do not know them at all, though you might like to think you do. What you see is a mask. The reality lies somewhere beneath and that reality might both surprise and disturb you.

I say I don’t really understand the origins of my own particular neuroses, and this is true, at least in any detail, but in a broader sense I think I understand them well enough. Psychologists tell us a neurosis is born as the result of an event that we find uncomfortable, frightening or embarrassing. We may no longer remember what that event was because we’ve shoved it deep into our unconscious mind and we’re pretending it never happened. We hide from these things, but the unconscious is very good at remembering what we would otherwise choose to forget, and so we are never truly rid of our skeletons. They become suppressed, and therefore troublesome. Once this happens we’re stuck unless we can afford the time and the money to have someone painstakingly analyse us and expose our fears for what they are. Personally I’ve not gone this far. I probably would if I could afford it, but I’m just an ordinary Joe, and psychoanalysis is a luxury for the wealthy, for the people whose mortgages and pensions haven’t been screwed by twenty years of robber-barron economics. It’s for the ten percent of the population currently sitting at the top of the global financial food chain, rather than the rest of us who are sitting nearer to the bottom, and sliding ever closer into ruin.

So, I live with it, and for most of the time, I’m as happy as the next person. On the positive side, I have sometimes found my neuroses useful, and looking back over the years I see a definite pattern to their awakenings. These patterns correspond to changes in my life, changes of direction when I’m sailing close to the wind, when I’m involved in situations or relationships that are likely to do me harm. In a positive sense then, my neuroses can be viewed as warnings to change course, now! Or else! Unfortunately though, we are all prisoners to a way of life and to some extent also the life choices we have made, and changes of direction are not always possible, no matter what our unconscious is throwing at us.

Personally I’ve come to believe that our natural inclination as human beings is not to live in the sort of society that the secular west is becoming at all. I believe we are meant to live a much freer, more open sort of life, closer to nature perhaps, less regimented, less structured, one where people are free to engage with their spiritual or psychological sides without being exploited, brainwashed or just plain hoodwinked by either charismatic charlatans, or organised religions. Too much conformity, too much of doing what we’re told, rather than what we please is bad for us. Bad for our psyche, bad for our spirit. As Aleister Crowley once wrote [and I paraphrase]: If it harms no one, (and presumably this includes ourselves), then we should be able to do as we like.

My first brush with the pain of compulsory conformity were my school days, which I hated with a passion from beginning to end. I was taken from the meadows and woodlands around my home and placed in the stifling confines of primary school. It was to be the first of many yokes – each one telling me I could not be what I wanted to be. I could not even have the time to think about what I wanted to be. There is a system to life you see? It imposes itself upon you. You do not shape it. It shapes you. So we become, not really ourselves but a mask in the form of what we believe, or what we are taught will be acceptable to society. We measure our words, we do not say what we feel, yet at the same time try to convince ourselves that we do believe in what we say. The illusion is complete: Individual and society engaging on terms that are mutually delusional.

Then comes work and marriage and children, and mortgages and pension provisions, so you will not starve when you grow old. And all the time a part of you is thinking: I’m really not meant for this. There’s something else I was supposed to do with my life, except there’s no longer any time to remember what it was. I do not care about money or fine houses or fashionable cars – easy for me to say perhaps: I have a roof over my head, not a big house but a nice one, and I drive a seven year old car, but – I think I’m old enough now to understand the trap of our possessions. All I have ever really wanted is to be free, to think my own thoughts and simply “be”, without having to speak in a manner that I believe will be pleasing to someone else, so that I won’t get fired or be thought of as strange. And I’ve long held the belief that my own neuroses are the inevitable consequences of being entangled in a world, in a system, and to a lifetime of conformity that I was not designed for.

If this is true, then there are an awful lot of people like me, and I fear my own neuroses are as nothing compared to those endured quietly by others. If you count yourself among our number then this essay’s for you. It may not bring you much comfort beyond the reassurance that you are not alone. But also I hope I can show you that far from putting you on the outside of life, your differences actually make you all the more a part of it than the seemingly happy majority who have never experienced the power or the horror of a sudden volcanic eruption from their unconscious mind.

For a person to suffer under the pressures of our society does not mean that person is in any way weaker than others,… just more sensitive to the absurdities and, to be quite frank the sometimes outrageous indignities we have to endure. Are we the crazy ones or are we simply the only ones left with eyes to see?

It is no measure of health to be to well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

J Krishnamurti

I’m too old to have any illusions about our way of life in the west, which since about 1985 seems to have been slipping into a sort of neo-conservative, survival-of-the-fittest, free market, free for all, one in which it’s assumed we’re all out to get whatever we want regardless of the heads we must trample in order to get it. But I refuse to join in such a cynical and demeaning game, and am presently trying to see my way through to retirement in as inoffensive and inconspicuous a manner as possible. Then, I tell myself, I’ll have a couple of decades to savour my freedom and soak the neuroses out of my system, that perhaps then, in the brief decades remaining, I will finally remember what it was I was supposed to have done with my life.

But the way of life that supports us has shown itself to be founded on a philosophy that’s no longer sustainable, and it looks like the financial securities we took for granted twenty years ago simply won’t be there when we finally come to rely upon them. Indeed, our politicians are presently laying the groundwork for an argument intent on convincing us that some of us may never retire at all, and if we insist on doing so we will live in a sort of grey poverty until the end of our days.

For all my dislike of our way of life, I always had a faith in its reliability. I may not like it I thought, but the system seems to work, well not any more. In five years time the mortgage on my house will mature, and after paying my dues to the building society every month for the past twenty five years, it looks like I will still owe as much as when I started. The financial mechanism that was to provide the money needed to pay it off has simply collapsed. As an example of the utilitarian depths to which our financial institutions have now stooped, I contacted my mortgage company, trying to find the best way of sorting things out, the way that was going to be least financially crucifying, but they refused to advise me, claiming it was no longer their policy to do so. They could sell me a “product” that was of benefit to them, on their terms, but their responsibility went no further than that. I suppose I was naive for even asking. My mortgage payments have now trebled.

Also, the same financial system that was to provide a pension in old age, I discover can no longer do so unless, again, I treble the contributions I make. So it seems all the promises that were made have now been broken by the small print that basically absolves the financial vendors of any responsibility. In the 1980’s we dared to harbour dreams of retirement in our fifties in order to pursue the things we all wanted to pursue, outside of the world of mundane work, but twenty years later we are waking up to the reality of a life spent in debt and servitude, for the term of our natural lives.

My apologies for the rant, but generally what I’m trying to illustrate here is that, these past years, and especially since the turn of the century, society has shown itself to be in state of undisguised crisis. There is a climate of uncertainty, and fear. Indeed we find ourselves subjected to an apocalyptic vision in which we dare not move or even breathe for fear of armageddon – either from a terrorist outrage, or a climatic upheaval of Old Testament proportions. Both government and increasingly influential fundamentalist religions seem united in encouraging this belief.
Now, in a sense all of this comes as a relief to me because it suggests I was not wrong to have spent my whole life viewing the world with an attitude similar to one of politely enduring the irritations of an obnoxious relative. The truth is out; it wasn’t just my imagination: he was obnoxious after all!

Life goes on, but there is an appalling sense that the future will be radically different from the one we imagined. And I’m not talking about the threat from global terrorism. In spite of the terrible outrages perpetrated in recent years, you’re still about as likely to die at the hands of a terrorist as you are from being struck by lightning, and far more likely to die as a result of a drug related gun crime, or a stupid car accident. What I’m talking about here is the death of hope, the death of meaning, and the loss of any dreams of comfort by way of compensation as we enter the latter part of our lives. What need have we to sit and think, to while away our latter years in idle pleasure,… when we could be earning our keep and paying our taxes until the day we drop?

Depressing, isn’t it?

If you suffer from your own neuroses, take comfort from the fact your sufferings are not your fault. They are perhaps the result of a society imposing something upon you, asking you to accept something as being normal that your natural self, perhaps your unconscious self finds simply too outrageous to bear, but is too polite to say – so you’ve swallowed it and it’s been giving you indigestion ever since.

Now, there’s not much I can do about the slow demise of western society, the breakdown of the family, the flood tide of drugs that lay waste to entire communities, the philosophy of slash and burn economics, or the rise of meaningless terrorism against which there appears to be little defence other than a knee-jerk leap into the Orwellian nightmare of a techno-totalitarian state. The social exterminations wrought by the utilitarian swings of the global economy are equally quite beyond my influence. I’m just an ordinary man tapping words into an old computer. I cannot save your mortgages, nor your pensions, and if the retirement age is jacked up to seventy five, or even abandoned altogether, there’s not much I can do about that either.

What I can do however is reassure you that it’s not your fault, that the jitters you feel are the natural consequences of enduring something that is alien to the nature God gave you. What you can do, however, is accept yourself for what you are. The jitters, the neuroses,… these are differences in you that serve only to affirm your humanity. They do not separate you from anything other than the false idea of conformity to some rosy image of what a normal human being is supposed to be like.

My own neuroses over the years have carried messages for me that I was too deaf to heed at the time. You’re going the wrong way, Mike, they said. Pull back, stop, turn the car around! Meanwhile poor Mike couldn’t imagine what was going on. He didn’t have a stressful lifestyle, he wasn’t some ruthless, corporate go-getter, and his marriage wasn’t on the rocks. So what was it that got under his skin so much that at times he wanted to scream?

In this sense, my neuroses seem to have had the same intent as bad dreams, not just the expression of an anxiety, but a clue also regarding their cause, and cure. The agoraphobic is perhaps the most illustrative of the meaningful malaise. I’ve known a few agoraphobics over the years, and this condition for the sufferer, and their loved ones is no joke. A normal, attractive, healthy person becomes by degrees less confident in dealing with the world until a state is reached where the whole world is viewed with such anxiety that the person withdraws completely, feeling safe nowhere outside the bounds of their own home. They get by, day to day, but survive in a sort of prison of their own making. It is a total disengagement from a reality they have come to abhor. In order to be cured the agoraphobic has to lose their dread of society, or at least become more accepting of it.

But what if it’s society that’s at fault?

What if it really is better to withdraw than to sup with the devil himself?

For me, it was the school assembly and the church service, a lack of comprehension and a total reluctance to be away from the things that meant most to me in my childhood. Conformance was demanded, but as a result I have always been stubbornly elusive when it comes to committing myself to anything I do not wholeheartedly believe in. The trouble is, there seems to be so little worth believing in, so I slip through life unconnected and uncommitted to anyone or anything outside of my own close family. The only exception seem to be my writings which bear witness to life through these, my own eyes.
I did not rationalise it this way at the time. I only knew I was afraid of something, afraid of the inexplicable physical manifestations, the tension, the dizziness, the increased pulse. So the physical symptom, the sense of strangeness, became the thing to be feared, and for many years the root cause was overlooked.

The medical books tell us that our flesh and blood bodies have developed a physical response to things that frightens us. Our heart-rate goes up, we become tense, poised ready either to fight for our lives or run like hell. But how can you run from a reluctance to conform? How can we run from the demands of our society, from the responsibilities we all have and which inevitably involve facing up to things we’d really rather not do? Indeed we’re conditioned to accept this as a normal part of our lives. But equally we hate it.

It’s easy to stand up and begin whining on behalf of everyone who’s experience of life has left them jaded and jittery, but that’s not really my aim here. My aim is more to look at society and ask the question, what is it that we are afraid of? We have no control over the life we are born into and therefore it seems cruel that we should come up against circumstances over which we have no control but which nevertheless are sure to drive us mad – not all of us perhaps – just those unable to adapt or to cope well enough with the reality of the world as we see it.

In my own case, it has always been a fear of emptiness, that our lives mean nothing. It has always been my desire to explore life in a way that was most meaningful to me. This seems to be a thing that gains the approval of my unconscious because time spent in focussed introspection is time rewarded with a sense of calm, while time spent dealing with the day to day chaotic scatter of a workaday life is punishable by tiresome neurosis – at least it was until I came to believe that there was indeed nothing more to society than a chaotic scattering of half-bakedness.

To be sure, it’s a closely guarded secret that “society” is not actually the purpose of our lives at all. It’s more the stage on which we play our life out. It’s when we come to believe that somewhere in society might lie the secret of our purpose that the problems begin. Society itself holds no meaning whatsoever. If we want to experience any sort of genuine fulfilment, then we have to provide that meaning for ourselves as individuals. True purpose is the indefinable belief in something “other”, something outside of society, like the guiding hand of a beloved parent. When we let go of our parent’s hand as children, we suffer the bewildering crowds as they swirl around us, careless and oblivious to our need. We fear the loss of ourselves, the inability ever again to feel the warmth and the sure guidance of those we love. We fear losing our centre, losing our self.

Now and then, when I’m feeling particularly tired and jittery I will experience a moment of complete disengagement. It can be anywhere – in a meeting at work, in a restaurant, or when chatting with others. It comes suddenly – a sense of shifting outside of myself and of leaving behind only a disorientated shell, a shell momentarily paralysed and fearful for its existence, alone in these strange surroundings without a guiding psyche. It is unlike a daydream, for in daydreaming the action always takes place inside one’s head. What I call the disengagement of my soul is quite different. In disengagement of the soul,… the soul seems to momentarily slip out of the host.

I might be fearful for my sanity, prone as I am to such episodes, but I’ve experienced them since childhood and they seem to have done me no harm. They are not, then, a symptom of advancing madness, but more perhaps a looseness of grip. The feeling is one of bearing witness to a dream, a feeling things are not real and that I need to wake up and find my true self, my true reality, except of course the self that is dreaming protests that it is the real self and I’d better hang on to the dream because it’s all there is!

Well,… such are the storms that periodically sweep this particular mind. The worst thing is the suspicion that I am alone in these experiences, that only the inmates of an asylum can experience anything worse, but of course I am far from alone, and my storms are as nothing compared to some – rendered sluggish perhaps by the chemical quagmire of Prozac or Seroxat, but there all the same.

Now, it might seem a little childish, harking back to pre-school days as being the happiest of my life, or later, the temporary freedom of those delicious six week summer holidays when the time stretched out each morning, an infinity of choice, and when each day was a pleasure sipped like fine wine. But you can’t live like that, can you? You have to make a living. You have to contribute to your society by paying your way, and paying your taxes. Of course you do, but what you must not do is look to society, nor even to the people around you, to provide the meaning in your own life.

As Margaret Thatcher once famously said: “there is no such thing as society”. Now, I’m not sure in what context this was meant to be taken, but from one particular angle at least, I find myself in agreement with the Iron Lady. Society is an abstract concept of varying parameters that are entirely dependent upon an individual’s perception. Society does not feel anything. It does not look down upon individuals with either compassion or contempt. It owes us nothing, as we owe it nothing beyond our legal dues. It is simply an organisational structure, and I’m afraid to say that in modern secular terms this boils down to people who are either customers or salesmen. How many times a day does your telephone ring with someone trying to sell you something? In short, there is no meaning to the secular society beyond a system of financial transactions.

The only practical advice I can offer, if you don’t do it already, is to do as that old medical officer told me, mysteriously, so long ago, and that’s meditate, which is really no more than sitting quietly and alone from time to time. Some people buy books and tapes and learn to do it in the way of the great meditative traditions, while some go to classes, and this is fine if you can make the time, because the deeper you go the better. Do it every day if you can. If not, if like me the kids burst in, or start to whine every time you sit down, then just do it whenever you can, even if it’s only for a moment. And when you’ve done it, remember that the way we live our lives does not provide the meaning to our lives. Meaning is what we carry in our hearts. It is personal, meaningful in a way specific only to ourselves. Others need not share our vision, or indeed know anything about it at all. Our vision, our sense of meaning is ours alone.
In meditating, we cut back to the centre of ourselves, we reach out for the hand we let go of at the moment of our birth, the only thing connecting us to something safe and sure in a world that is otherwise completely bewildering. That hand is there for each of us and it has nothing to do with this world at all,… it is completely beyond it. We have only to touch it in our minds, for a kind of enlightenment to ensue.

And it goes something like this:

If contemporary society truly possessed the meaning of our lives, it would not offer it back to us for free. We would have to pay for it, and the price would be so high that only a few elite individuals would ever be able to possess it. Or, it would be owned by a mega-corporation that might allow us to pay for it in instalments over a lifetime, with the promise that, like our homes, it would eventually be ours. However, there would probably be something in the small print that absolved the mega-corp from any responsibility when at the end of our term it presented us with a dog eared piece of paper with the number 42 written upon it.

[if unsure Google 42 “meaning of life”]

But the meaning of life is not a thing, not a number, not an equation, nor is it an explanation of any kind, for there is not a question that can be adequately framed to solicit anything approaching a satisfactory answer. It is much simpler than all of that. It is a state of being, a state of grace, and I’m sorry but that costs nothing at all, and it is the birthright of every one of us. What is it? You know what it is. Just sit still for a moment, close your eyes and listen to the sound of it coming from that space between your ears, and no, I don’t mean the tinnitus! Maybe you can even see it with your mind’s eye, but rest assured, if you sit there often enough, pretty soon,…

…. you’ll begin to feel it.

Michael Graeme

April 2007

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