A Tale for Dark Days: “everything will be alright”

One day, many years ago when I worked as a freelance designer, I found myself in a familiar place of having no work and as a result worrying about the future. That week a number of creative projects had fallen through and there didn’t seem to be much work on the horizon. As the weeks ticked by and money was quickly running out I was getting increasingly anxious. 

Being freelance, I’d been through this situation many times before. So you’d think, by now, I’d be familiar enough with the scene and therefore more relaxed about it, right? Alas not, and despite many years of psychological exploration and meditation practice I would find myself back in this same place of dread and worry. It repeatedly felt as if all the tools, techniques and wisdom I’d learned over the years just flew out the window and were forgotten. Each time I’d turn my life into one huge internal drama with fantasies about never working again, running out of money and losing everything including my mental health. It was an unreal horror story but felt as if I just couldn’t help but torture myself in this way.

However, on this particular day I’m describing, something drove me to sit down and attempt to meditate. All morning I’d been fretting about not being able to cope and as a result the stress upon stress had been rapidly escalating. But even as I sat down and closed my eyes they would fly open again, my mind racing and I’d be on the verge of getting up and ploughing on with frantic emails in a desperate bid to drum up some work. 

After this happening a couple of times I suddenly heard a voice inside myself say, “BE STILL”. It was so powerful and distinct that I immediately complied and a sudden calmness descended through which I was able to quieten my mind for the next hour or so. During that time, as I sat on the floor with eyes calmly closed, I heard the mail being believed but felt no pressing urge to retrieve it.

Eventually I got to my feet, now feeling settled and clear, and collected the post, which included a small brown envelope with my address in a handwritten scrawl. Inside was a plain white postcard with nothing on it. However, on closer inspection I noticed, embossed within the centre of the card, the words “everything will be alright”. There was no other information and no return address. I was astounded and the card, along with the internal instruction, stayed with me for days and facilitated in me a deep steadiness. 
Within a week or two I had more design work and, as per usual, the stress of the previous weeks had vanished. 

It later transpired that a close friend of mine, who was also a freelance designer, had been doing a print making workshop the weekend before my stressful episode and, having made several embossed cards like this, she sent them out to a number of friends.

Irrespective of the reasons, I felt as if the universe had, internally and through the actions of my friend, reached out to me. It was as if it had put its hand on my shoulder to calm me down. Synchronistically it was exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. I am, by nature, very curious and open-minded about the mysteries of the world and how we influence our lived experience, consciously or unconsciously. Had I not I may have discarded the experience as mere fluke. 

So is there an explanation for this coincidence? The truth is I don’t know and, for me, it doesn’t really matter. What’s most important is that, firstly, I paid attention and secondly, that it really helped to ease my fears. To say I know and can rationalise what happened removes the magic and awe of the experience 

Since that day I’ve remained self-employed and whilst, in the meantime, I’ve changed career I’ve still found myself in that space between work and projects. Sometimes similar fears and agitations have come up but never as acute. During those moments I’ve kept my eyes and ears open for similar signs, but non have materialised. It’s as if that previous experience, as marked as it was, etched itself into my life. I’m taken back to that memory every time panic and stress threatens to overwhelm me and when life suddenly seems uncertain.

The collection of words that form “everything will be alright” is potentially the most powerfully reassuring sentence we can hear when spoken by someone we trust during times of fear or sadness. So for me, It’s interesting to consider that those same loving and supportive words may also be available to me at all times and in unexpected forms. I don’t need to buy into any defined mysticism or beliefs it’s just a simple case being open to it and then if I choose to pay attention.

As to whether I’m able to believe and fully trust in it – now that’s quite another story.

For other articles, posts and ways in which to support yourself during difficult time check out –psychotherapy4london.co.uk

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The Fear of Fear: 3 tips on how to calm the dread

When thinking about an upcoming situation or event many say that what scares them most is the anticipation of fear more than the fear itself.


So what’s the difference? Essentially one is a fantasy about something that is in the future and yet to happen whilst the other is a sensory reaction to something that is happening here and now. Both, one could argue, are as a result of negative mental content about the self – “I can’t cope”, “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t handle failure or rejection”. Whether it’s a fantasy about the future or a difficulty happening right now the same stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, are released into the body as the mind signals danger and prepares the body for fight or flight. Being on full alert like this can lead to sleepless nights, panic attacks and general exhaustion.

The anticipation of future fear engenders feelings that can best be described as ‘dread’. Here, it’s the fantasy of the awful feelings that accompany the situation that crowd into ones mind. One feels powerless to stop them. This might include projecting into the future and imagining the worst case scenarios or replaying past situations over and over and from different perspectives as if to figure them out. The problem is that the past and the future don’t actually exist, other than in the mind, memory and imagination. So all that happens is that we get lost in an illusion but with all the real feelings of fear.

With all this mental time travelling the mind is stretched between two imaginary worlds, which drains our mental and physical energy and is a sure recipe for stress and worry.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this.

Here a few quick ideas for when the fantasy of fear strikes;

1. Unplug from the future and the past. Bring yourself into the present moment. The here and now is the only true place and time that actually exists and the only reality that really needs your full attention. Therefore the first thing to do is just notice – “Ah yes my mind is now in the future or the past”. Next, come back to the present by focusing on your breathing, your body sensations or something in front of you within the physical environment. This might simply be the ground under your feet or an external three-dimensional object. Then see how long you can remain present with this before your mind takes you off again, which it will. This is the nature of mind and so you’ve got an ongoing fight on your hands, as we all have. It’s a life-long practice. Learning the art of meditation is a great way to train yourself in how to tame the mind. If all fails app games on your smartphone are a good way of distracting your mind for some time during intense periods of stress.

2. Welcome the fear. For many people this is a bit of a stretch and you might yell, “What??!!! No way, I want it gone!!” This is understandable, but given that fear and anxiety does happen and is an unavoidable human condition you might like to entertain the notion of accepting the reality and working with it. Here, you can put worrying about the future on hold and just wait for it to happen. This does not mean discontinuing to work on what is causing the fear and acquiring tools to further support yourself. It means that you learn to expect fear and then attempt to live alongside it. As such, you’ll realise that it is possible to coexist alongside fear and that fear and non-fear can happen simultaneously. An example of this might be a presentation at work – your heart might be pounding, you might be shaking and sweating, you may be going red, your voice and breathing might be restricted. Whilst this is happening your ego will be labelling these experiences as ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’. Your ego’s nature is to seek and cling onto perfectionism, certainty and safety. Meanwhile, another part of you is getting on with delivering the presentation. This is fear and non-fear coexisting. By giving space to your fear in this way you ‘let it be’ and as result you may have space in which to generate some compassion and kindness for that scared part of ourselves, which is like a frightened child. How would you speak to a frightened child?

3. Step out of thinking. This is what meditation masters over thousands of years have strove to achieve. As such it’s much easier said than done. However, there is great power and simplicity in understanding that you don’t actually HAVE to think all the time. At our current stage in human evolution we have all conditioned ourselves to be driven by our thoughts. The truth is that thinking is a wonderful gift that helps us solve problems and create the world around us. Conversely, the curse of thinking is that we often create problems within our selves. The philosopher Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”, which perfectly encapsulates how we currently and firmly identify with our thoughts – THINKING IS US. However, if we turn that around, “I am, therefore I think”, thinking becomes a part of our human experience rather than the totality of it. Thinking is just one of our six-sense faculties, which we have learned to over use and over identify with. So when you’re next lost in your fantasies (thoughts) about the future it’s helpful to know that, firstly, this is just your thinking faculty that is running the show. Secondly, you don’t HAVE to think. You can step out of the flow of thinking, as if it’s a fast flowing river, onto the river bank and rather than be swept away by it watch it flow past. Most of the time you feel you have no choice in whether to think or not. Generally we all have very busy minds. However, taming your minds is no easy task and takes time, perseverance and patience but is absolutely achievable. The important thing to become aware of is that you are in charge, not your thoughts. Thoughts are your workforce whilst you are the CEO.

I hope these quick ideas will be helpful whenever you next find yourself feeling overwhelmed by thoughts of the future. For further information about how to further deal with fear and anxiety please check out my other website –

www.psychotherapy4london.co.uk

New Year’s Eve Anxiety : Endings and Beginnings

photoIt’s December 31st 2013 and tomorrow it’ll be 2014. Whilst one year ends the next one begins and this is a pivotal time for reflection, looking back and for contemplating the future. This time of year can also bring with it a great deal of anxiety – from the pressure of having to have fun and being part of a group as we see in the New Year in to dealing with the aftermath of Christmas and the dread of returning to studies or work.

Questions might arise such as; What am I doing with my life? Where are things going? What have I achieved? What should I be doing? These are all queries that put enormous pressure on us to do or be something other than we already are. Then, of course, when this time of year roles around again and we haven’t transformed our lives as we promised ourselves earlier in the year we focus on what we haven’t yet done rather that what we have done and so the cycle starts over again.

In our culture we have leaned to judge the end of things as often negative but, whilst endings can bring with them a natural degree of sadness and worry, we forget to allow room for the other side of the coin, namely beginnings. If we are mourning the loss of a loved one it is only natural that we allow ourselves time to grieve and mourn their absence. Other endings such as loosing a job or the end of a relationship can, similarly, take us into a place of despair and hopelessness. We dwell on the feelings of rejection or loneliness, which means our recovery takes longer or our confidence is knocked entirely.

Instead, we could to allow both truths to co-exist understanding that, whilst something ends something else begins. This is the law of change that exists throughout the entire universe. Incorporating this universal truth into our lives means allowing ourselves to fully experience whatever the end of something brings up for us. At the same time we can turn towards the other reality where a new beginning is already taking place. In doing this we don’t allow ourselves to deny our wounded feelings nor do we completely lose ourselves within our challenging emotions. Instead, we allow both to run side by side until we are ready to let go of the ending process and embrace the possibilities that the beginnings also offers us. In doing this we enable hope and optimism.

So whether you’re coming to the end of a project, a relationship, a job or simply contemplating the end of the year spend some time also allowing space for beginnings by asking yourself – what is beginning right now, who am I from this moment on? If you find your mind travelling into the future and dwelling in fear gently bring it back to the present moment.

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” Alexander Graham Bell

Loneliness Vs Solitude

It’s December 23rd and it’s the time of year when getting together with friends and family or perhaps cosy-ing up with a loved one is what many of us will be planning to do. It’s a wonderful time of year but also comes with a pressure and strain that can lead to that tinseled dream turning into an icy nightmare.

After many years of trying various tactics that have included both avoidance and throwing myself into it completely, I finally feel at peace with Christmas. I can now let it all happen around me without judgement or anxiety. However, in all my experiments I have found that I most enjoy Christmas when I spend it alone. In this space I can enjoy the indulgence of it, generally relax and take it all at my own pace.

Being alone can be a difficult space to inhabit in which a sense of deep unease and restlessness arises as we search for ways to fill that space with distractions such as – hours of watching television, emailing and texting or drinking and eating much more than we would do normally. We want to feel busy and connected and when alone with ourselves we can experience a profound boredom and loneliness.

For this reason being alone doesn’t come easily to many of us. For natural introverts it may be second nature while for other it takes practice and a little more effort. Part of the problem is that being alone is regarded, by our society, as something to move away from and generally encourages us to move more towards socialising and activities. Yet if more of us learned the art of solitude rather than the perceived sadness of loneliness there would be less of an ‘either / or’ situation and being alone could be regarded as an empowered personal choice.

Solitude is different from loneliness. Solitude is a choice in which to be fully present with our selves, whether that is in activity or inactivity and stillness. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an internal state of need in which we yearn for connection with someone or something outside of ourselves. This state is not a bad thing unless we turn it into something desperate and grasping. Rather, loneliness can direct us towards the needs within our heart and from there we can calmly align ourselves with what our hearts yearn for.

Meanwhile, solitude invites us to accept our aloneness completely, get still and enjoy the peace that is there inside ourselves beyond all the noise, stresses and distractions. Here we can re-charge and then, when we’re ready, move out into the world. We now feel more ourselves and more able to connect with our world in a genuine, authentic and fully alive way that is good for us and good for others. All we need do is give ourselves wholehearted permission.

The everyday art of Meditation

For the past twenty one years I’ve practiced Vipassana meditation. There are many other forms of meditation out there many of which I’ve explored, however I keep coming back to Vipassana as I find it works at a much deeper level than any others I’ve experienced.

For me, meditation has helped me understand the nature of my busy mind and to bring myself more into the present moment. It has also enabled a better connection to my body and before I discovered meditation I was often stressed, angry and lost in my thoughts. All of this was what was perfectly normal to me and it had never occurred to me that perhaps I had a choice in what I did with my thoughts or how I reacted. Instead I was a slave to my reactive mind and body and a prisoner of my thoughts. Fantasising and worrying about the future or dwelling in past were states I was very familiar with and alcohol or other distractions being ways I coped with difficult feelings such as anxiety or depression.

Twenty one years ago I was coming to the end of a three month student exchange at a design college in Melbourne, Australia. My plan was to travel around the country before heading back to Manchester in the UK where I was in the middle of a three year design degree. Before leaving a friend, with whom I’d been to see the Dalai Lama give a talk at the Rod Lever arena in Melbourne, suggested doing a ten day meditation retreat outside Sydney in the Blue mountains. She explained that there was no charge and payments were based on donation. She also talked about the wonderful location and the great vegetarian food but beyond that she said very little. As a student with not much money the suggestion instantly appealed. I called the centre and miraculously they had space on the next course so all was set. Doing something alternative, becoming a beacon of calm and tranquility along with attaining the ability to sit in some sort of lotus-type position, I have to admit, where the only thoughts and expectations floating around in my twenty four year old mind.

Setting off from Melbourne I spent a few days exploring Sydney before heading up to the Blue mountains and the small town of Blackheath, which was a quiet contrast to the energy of Sydney. It was early June and so the beginning of winter. At the station I was met by a man in a truck and he drove me and a couple of other prospective meditators up to the centre. I remember that he parked at the end of a driveway and a we walked the rest of the way as snow fluttered in an icy breeze. Winter was not something I’d associated with Australia and so by this stage in the year I was ill equipped but thankfully had remembered to buy a jumper and a beanie hat in Sydney beforehand.

The centre consisted of a series of timber structures nestled amongst eucalyptus trees with landscaped gardens and carp ponds all on an escarpment over looking the Blue mountains and the valleys below. On first sight it was exactly what I’d expected of a meditation centre; peace, tranquility and beauty. This was going to be a great story to add to my experience down under and share my friends and family back in the UK.

After registering I was allotted a room but discovered that I would to be sharing with 5 other men and I would have to clamber up onto a bunk bed. This was the first blow to my idyllic fantasy. Back in the dinning room all 50 or so people who were taking part gathered and waited for the course to begin. Soup was served and we chatted in between uncomfortable silences. It was now dark outside and as the hours ticked by my impatience and uncertainty mounted. Thoughts such as “What the hell am I doing here?” and “This isn’t for me – I’m going to end up in some cult and so better make a run for it whilst I still can” played around in my head. However, before I could do anything about it the course manager came in with a series of announcements and introductions, explained the rules and pointing out various practicalities. The course was due to start at 8pm and he would bang a gong at which point we would enter ‘noble’ silence. By this stage I was feeling very nervous.

Some time after 8pm we were taken into the meditation hall and allotted large square cushions that would serve as our seating position for the duration. Men and women were kept apart with separate sleeping quarters, dining rooms and in the meditation hall men sat on the left and women on the right. As I adopted the Buddha-like position I watched, through squinting eyes, to see what others were doing. Was I doing it right? Suddenly someone, who I thought must be the teacher, entered and serenely positioned himself on an cushion facing us. I straightened my back. Through the ensuing silence and my half closed eyes I could see him fumbling with a tape which he clattered into a machine and pressed play. As he straightened himself I quickly closed my eyes lest he spot my fake buddha-hood and eject me from the course. From the speakers deep guttural chanting that sounded more like groaning filled the room as my mind filled with the idea of a goat being dragged in and slaughtered any minute. This was a weird cult after all but there’s no turning back now I thought. Never mind – what a story! Eventually the voice of the taped teacher, a man called Goenka, spoke, “You have all assembled here to proceed on the noble path of wisdom.” Enter goat! He went on to take the group through five precepts which included; no stealing, no lying, no killing, no taking intoxicants and no sexual misconduct. We all repeated the promise not to do any of these things for the duration of the course and were instructed to ask the teacher for guidance which also repeated in unison, sort of.

A tape recording? I couldn’t quite get my head around it. Perhaps this was just the beginning and the actual person sitting in front of us would impart some instructions tomorrow. At 9pm the introduction was over and we went off to bed in silence to be woken early the next morning.

When the gong went at 4am I was keen to hear the ‘real’ instructions on how to do meditation so quickly got ready in the chilled darkness and eagerly positioned myself in the hall. It was still dark and bitterly cold which added a cosiness to the meditation hall. A silent landscape of blanketed adults began to take shape like soft rocks, which struck me a quite beautiful. At 5.15am the teacher appeared, positioned himself as before followed by the clatter of tapes once again and Goenka’s chanting. Once that had finished Goenka instructed us to observe our breath as it enters our nostrils and as it exits. That was it.

Bewildered, I headed to the dining room for breakfast at 6.30. As we silently ate our breakfast I was wowed by the view from the dining hall. The moon, huge and peach-like, appeared to be setting over a lake of cloud down in the valleys below. It was a striking backdrop to my confusion.

Returning to the meditation hall later the same procedure ensued and then continued for the next 4 days. Observing the breathe as it comes in as it goes out. I couldn’t believe how easy it was yet unbelievably difficult with often 20 minutes passing before I realised I was lost in my thoughts and had forgotten all about my breath. On day four the focus of attention changed. Starting from the top of our heads and slowly moving down to our toes noting all the sensations then back up again. For someone like me who regarded my body as just something that held my head up this was uncharted territory.

By the end of the course any expectations I might have had were obliterated. Becoming all buddha-like was irrelevant and tranquility and peace were bi-products but far from the actual experience of the course.

In fact, by the end of the course everything seemed to have changed. The icy snow flurries had vanished and although we were now further into winter there was a distinct feeling of spring in the air. Flowers seemed to be blooming, the sun shone and animals came into clearings as if out of a scene form Snow White. After 10 days of silence talking was a shock and at the same time a verbal flood ensued as everyone who had taken part for the first time couldn’t wait to share their experiences. Meantime, those who had come back for a second or third time, avoided the chattering masses. At the time I couldn’t understand their need for continued seclusion let alone the fact that anyone would come back to go through the ordeal again, it was mind boggling to me.

Looking back I now understand both. The budding nature of spring that I was experiencing outside was actually inside me as something opened, shifted and was in the process of a major transformation.

21 years on I’ve now completed many 10 day retreats with each experience different from the last despite the instructions and the structure of the course being exactly the same as that first one back in Australia. I continue to get benefits from both the daily practice as well as the occasional experience of spending time in silence. I find that through the silence and the intensity of the extended periods of sitting I get insight and clarity into what direction I want my life to go. Any confusions and internal conflicts seem to get ironed out and I often emerge feeling clearer and refreshed. At other times it’s hell from start to finish but I’ve come to know that this is just as ok as the clarity and openness. It’s the nature of change.

Stepping back into the outside world can be a bit of a shock but on the course silence is lifted on the final day providing the opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with our vocal chords. Talking acts as a shock absorber before leaving and re-entering the outside world the following day.

Back in the busy world I recently, watched a documentary film on the artist Marina Abramovic who is famed for her physical installations that explore the relationship between pain, relationships and the body. The film charts her creative life but focuses on a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Central to the show was her most recent piece entitled ‘The Artist is Present’, which was also the title of both the exhibition and the film. Within the piece Marina sits on a chair as visitors queue to sit opposite her. During that time they look at each other in silence for however long the visitor wishes. The show lasted for four months and Marina sat all day for the duration of the exhibition. Marina later described how she’d encountered a broad spectrum of emotions in the faces of her visitors that ranged from anger to sadness and love. She also described the pain of sitting for such long periods and how she’d have to look out beyond her suffering to connect with the other.

I found this film hugely inspiring and whilst it was an expression of the artist’s creative ego it also represented some of the challenges of meditating for long periods of time and the range of experiences that can be encountered during that time from bliss to boredom and depression. In ‘The Artist is Present’ Marina Abramovic turned sitting and observing into an art form. Similarly, I find that meditation provides a space in which creativity takes place and from which inspiration and insights emerge. One of the main aims of meditation is to become present. Marina’s presence beyond the suffering enabled connection with another human being. In meditation we seek connection with ourselves, our truths and the reality of each arising moment within the framework of our minds and bodies. From here, we can move out into the world bringing our presence and inspiration with us in order to be in better relationship, not only with ourselves but also, with everything around us. http://www.dhamma.org