“We may decide to protect our bodies from other people’s judgements, but let it never be that we need to protect them from our own”.
I would guess that 80% of the people I’ve ever worked with have spent a significant number of sessions sharing with me their longing to live somewhere other than London so they could experience peace more regularly. Some of my clients have even moved overseas to find a better quality of life. At least that’s why they said they were moving 😉
Most of us on the self-development / recovery trail have heard repeatedly that fantasy usually lies beneath the stories that we tell ourselves that start with the phrase “I’ll be happier when…”
“I’ll be happier when – I live in the countryside / by the sea / in a hut up a mountain”.
“I’ll be happier when – I’m earning £40k / work for myself / retire / get the Director position”
“I’ll be happier when – I meet my soul mate / get my divorce”
The universal wisdom is that the thing we have the most control over is our inner state, that happiness / peace is an internal condition, that the truly wise learn to turn within, in any environment, and cultivate peace regardless of their surroundings and situations. And I’m not disagreeing. If we wait until all the conditions are right and for peace to come to us, we’ll be in for a long wait. And wherever you go, you’re going to take your head with you, and when the problem is the way your head works, then… Fortunately, we are blessed to live in this age – there are so many tools to be found in the positive psychology movement, and in the realm of CBT, and we have unprecedented freedom to explore spiritual traditions that appeal to us for practices that help us experience well-being regardless of our circumstances.
And yet, this morning in particular, I got a first-hand dose of the need for really skilful navigation of the waters of self-help-tools. Since my motorbike crash, I’ve been confined to the use of public transport for my commute, and honestly, I just don’t know how anyone does it. Let the photo be Exhibit A. Back in the early to mid 70s, there was already research going on into the effects of over-crowding on people’s stress-levels. The more we’re crammed in, in trains, or houses, or neighbourhoods, and the less control we have over being in a crowded situation, the higher our stress levels get, as measured in terms of adrenaline and catecholamine secretion. People who travel and work and live in what they perceive to be overcrowded environments just are going to have almost constantly elevated stress levels. The natural human craving for space is easily converted into defensiveness, aggression, and withdrawal into non-social behaviours. Being jolted around with your face millimetres from someone’s rough backpack, you can be forgiven for believing that if you were standing quietly in the park, or on a beach in Thailand, you’d be happier. Because you probably would be. Or at least, there would be a lot less environmental stress affecting your neurochemistry (all things being equal). But I wasn’t in a park. And whilst it’s probably true that my perimenopause is part of the picture, I was starting to experience something that felt disconcertingly like rage.
I wanted to feel peace. I was feeling rage. How the @&%$#! do we get from rage to peace using self-help tools and without recourse to weapons?!
Should I try breathing in white coloured light? Find compassion in my heart for my fellow cattle-commuters? Should I try to remember all the things I’m grateful for? Perhaps I should just do my best with my usual morning prayer and meditation sequence – after all, “trying to meditate IS meditating”…
None of those options are wrong. I use all of those tools at different times. But hopefully you’ll know what I mean if I say that sometimes, the idea of trying some practices just, well, kind of makes you want to kill something a little bit more. And then if you’re not careful, you’re in a subtle, or not so, shame-spiral. “If I had spiritual discipline I’d do it anyway”. “I’m lazy”. “See, you can only do it when it’s easy.” (I’m not dissing discipline, but there’s an easy flip for some of us from knowing discipline is important into beating ourselves around the head with it.)
I ended up getting off the train for 10 minutes in the hope that the next one would be easier. It was worse. And really, I needed to get to work. Peace was going to have to stay out of reach. I was going to have to surrender. I think it was Pema Chodron who said that negativity isn’t the problem. It’s negative negativity. Meaning, getting negative about feeling negative. Fighting it. Wanting it to change. I mean, of course we want it to change. But that’s the paradox.
The quickest pathway to change is the pathway of acceptance.
So I started to straightforwardly breathe the rage in, rather than trying to fend it off. Naming to myself, affirming to myself, that yes, I was feeling really [EXPLETIVE] angry; trying to feel the detailed sensations in my body of feeling enraged, simply allowing myself to feel that way.
The wisdom of the mindfulness tradition is that rather than focusing our attention on, say, the candle flame, and hoping to escape the feelings disturbing our peace, those feelings become the candle flame, and we discover that our peace can include them.
The importance of this for so many of us (and particularly for ACOAs / codependents / those living with c-PTSD / those of us who are often anxiously-attached), and in particular when it comes to anger, is that the programming we are trying to undo is that it isn’t OK to feel angry. My good friend K and I hypothesised together several years ago that there is probably a very significant link between anxiety and anger. It’s a well-established understanding in the psychotherapeutic community that depression can often be “anger turned inwards”. I wonder whether anxiety is the psyche’s reaction to flickers of anger. If you’ve learned that your own anger is usually punished or shamed, or that other people’s anger is dangerous and out of control, then it’s rational that the beginnings of angry feelings might trigger anxiety. The association might have been so powerful that we aren’t even aware of the start of anger, only the reflexive anxiety.
I could talk and write about anger, and anxiety, for hours. I still have an under-developed relationship with the former and an over-developed relationship with the latter. For now, I want to come back around to that longing that most of us feel for peace, and that conviction that so many of us have that we’d find more peace if we lived in a more spacious and natural environment.
I believe we’re right.
But I don’t believe that we’re doomed to stress and an absence of peace until we can afford to permanently relocate, and we also don’t have to punish ourselves by insisting that we must always learn to find peace in difficult conditions. I know how easy it is to be absolutist, but I also know that even five minutes a day standing in my garden, or a park, makes a difference. That a quiet walk up a hill or through some trees once every couple of weeks is restorative. That it’s possible to make time a few times a year for a couple of days away somewhere out of town. And lastly – the imagination is a realm entirely within our reach at all times, and as brain-activity mapping experiments have recently shown, the brain does not easily distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. If all other options are currently out of reach, close your eyes and craft a natural landscape for yourself to imagine taking a lingering walk through, and breathe it in for two or three minutes.
Claire @ A Time To Heal
PS if you’d like to spend a couple of days away from town working with your anxiety creatively and in nature, my next workshop is on the weekend of the 29th and 30th April, 25 minutes south of London by train, in the beautiful Caterham Valley . You can find out more here.
Taking a brief stroll in the sun this afternoon, I walked past “Clarence Gate”. Meaning, I had never heard of “Clarence Gate”, and as I walked through it, enjoying the blossom on nearby trees, I almost entirely missed that I’d even walked through a gate. I’m not sure what caught my eye. Maybe the unassuming sign on the railings. But it stopped me in my tracks. It’s a dull, uncelebrated bit of history, serving no purpose. Presumably listed.
Like the visual artist Clare Lewis, I’ve always been fascinated by “liminality” – in-between times, places, spaces, states. Often so deeply uncomfortable for the human psyche, which in general prefers certainty, solid ground, a well-triangulated location. Learning to tolerate, lean into, even celebrate The Unknown, usually takes a lot of courage and training. Even though “the” reality (whatever that means) is that so much of our life is made up of the unknown, if we dare to admit it. Seeing and photographing Clarence Gate put me in mind of liminality again.
As I carried on my way, I started wondering how many long-forgotten gateways exist in me. How many times have I been on the threshold of something, in an in between place that seemed never-ending, longing for solution, resolution? The agony of an unsolved situation, unknown answers; that painful place – especially in therapy – between understanding a self-defeating way of being in the world, and being able to change it.
My supervisor recently reminded me that, when we’re stuck, or disheartened (she was recalling an often arduous trek along the Camino de Santiago), there is much to be gained from turning and looking back “whence we came”. Seeing the peaks, valleys and stony pathways already behind us, already mastered. How easy it is to forget, almost instantly, how much of a problem something was for us, once we’ve surmounted it. How many long-forgotten gateways exist in us, where we once stood agonising and full of despair? How heartening it could be, when we find ourselves yet again standing in a gateway, to remember that one day, the gateway will have disappeared from view, un-marked, un-remembered, despite its enormous significance to us in this moment.
No more than 100 yards further along the road, I came across this.
The connection between the two thresholds wasn’t lost on me. It suddenly struck me that, if I’m going to have to stay for a while in a transitioning space, if I’m going to have to confront it again and again, perhaps I can look for or create beauty there, look for the art of it, and not forget that the doorways themselves can be celebrated, not just the spaces they separate.
And it also has me reflecting.
Because of course inevitably, humanly, naturally, reflexively – many of us will be experiencing fear. In our thoughts, our emotional reactions, our bodily sensations.
Some of us will also be experiencing great sadness. Or anger.
And it’s important to not mistake the #wearenotafraid message for the more pernicious, shaming and bullying “man up” attitude that is so detestable, out-dated and psychologically ill-informed.
At its most inspiring, #wearenotafraid, as I relate to it, means something like
“I might be afraid, and there’s nothing wrong with me for being afraid, and yet, I will find within me the courage to carry on with my life in spite of my fear, as an act of defiance and resistance.”
With a big nod to Susan Jeffers, we both allow ourselves to feel our fear, and to “do it” – live, love, gather, work, travel, laugh – anyway.
I personally often need to remind myself that one of the essential steps towards finding the courage to “do it anyway” is first feeling and owning all the feelings and physical sensations I have in response to something, and if they’re overwhelming, talking to someone else I trust about them. Without this step we’re dangerously close to the realms of dissociation, denial, and supression, which have no part in true courage.
In the immediate face of danger, of course, the amazing human psyche is capable of suppressing debilitating fear in order for us to save ourselves or others. I am constantly in awe of what people are capable of in the face of terror. And men and women who regularly face threat in the line of their duty know better than most of us that some form of after-the-fact, healthy, honest decompression, mixed, usually, with an impressive dose of black humour, is essential to getting up again the next day and doing it all over again.
This caught my eye at the beginning of my commute. Not left on the floor but kindly placed where it might be found. “Please touch”? I was touched. Message for me?
Today, kindness is the key.
What if the most important thing you could do today was show that sometimes it’s ok – it’s essential – to be doing nothing? Here are some thoughts from Quaker Faith and Practice. And you might also be interested in this poem about the sacred gift of doing nothing.
Living a full life
There is, it sometimes seems, an excess of religious and social busyness these days, a round of committees and conferences and journeyings, of which the cost in ‘peaceable wisdom’ is not sufficiently counted. Sometimes we appear overmuch to count as merit our participation in these things… At least we ought to make sure that we sacrifice our leisure for something worthy. True leisureliness is a beautiful thing and may not lightly be given away. Indeed, it is one of the outstanding and most wonderful features of the life of Christ that, with all his work in preaching and healing and planning for the Kingdom, he leaves behind this sense of leisure, of time in which to pray and meditate, to stand and stare at the cornfields and fishing boats, and to listen to the confidences of neighbours and passers-by…
Most of us need from time to time the experience of something spacious or space-making, when Time ceases to be the enemy, goad-in-hand, and becomes our friend. To read good literature, gaze on natural beauty, to follow cultivated pursuits until our spirits are refreshed and expanded, will not unfit us for the up and doing of life*, whether of personal or church affairs. Rather will it help us to separate the essential from the unessential, to know where we are really needed and get a sense of proportion. We shall find ourselves giving the effect of leisure even in the midst of a full and busy life. People do not pour their joys or sorrows into the ears of those with an eye on the clock*.
* My emphasis
Caroline C Graveson, 1937, Quaker Faith and Practice 21.22