Retreating mindfully

Yoga retreat, North Yorkshire, August 2018

The mother bounces into the living room and declares that Jon Kabat-Zinn thinks we should consider this whole lockdown experience as a ‘mindfulness retreat’.

She says it very sweetly

Parents may often be right, but they’re not always easy to listen to. Historically, my instinctual response might have been to resist such a suggestion. It is easier to reject advice when said in retort, but alas, the mother smiles serenely, speaks softly and then heads off to meditate, leaving me pondering.

Of course, like many people this year – although others may express it differently – I’m feeling a bit like the gods are having a party, got drunk and have lost the plot. They’ve decided to play a game and humanity is losing. I’m stuck with their throws of the dice, hiding against a virus, fighting against myself over the loss of my independence and freedom.

This attitude isn’t going to get me anywhere

If I’m being honest, living here is not a bad deal, especially in the circumstances.

In fact, mid global pandemic, I can’t think of a better place to be. Yet still I feel trapped. Monday looks like Friday looks like Sunday looks like Tuesday and there’s no clear end in sight. I hadn’t planned on being in this continent, and yet, here I am. I’ve no flights booked; no plans made. My calendar is an abyss of empty dates, falling one after another. I don’t like it.

At the beginning of all this I was angry

Now the anger comes and goes, then comes again. A dulled down anger – hot embers. It hurt to have my plans ripped away from me. The loss of my independence has forced me to realize how much my poor ego depends on freedom. This cage of rules gets smaller, then loosens, then tightens and in the middle of it I tell myself: breathe. The mother is right, there is only today. This is a bruise not an amputation. Be positive.

Each day I awake to the same goals

It rains. I go between my bed and my desk carrying my hot water bottle with me. My hands are cold. I type and scribble and eat through books. I curl up in front of the fire and wonder if my mind is coming to an interesting insight or is just blank. There’s time to reflect, to slow down, to reset. If we so choose. Perhaps something in the depths of my brain is churning away.

Luckily, I have that guide in the Mother

With her gentle nudges about awareness, she reminds me that anything other than a good effort from all of us to be mindful of each other is going to land us flat on our faces. So, I go for a walk, do some sun salutations, sit on the bed, legs crossed and meditate. I read Shakespeare and Herman Hesse and Virginia Woolf. I write and edit and write more, there’s a constant productive rhythm to my work, something I’ve been missing for a long time.

Maybe there is something good to come from all this

When, a long time ago I went on a silent mediation retreat, it was at first bewildering, then excruciating, then peaceful. My brain slowed down and old pains started to dissipate. I took the time not to give the depths of my brain the chance to recover.

As I’m stuck here I’m forced to listen to the impulse driving me away

I sometimes take this loss of freedom personally, even knowing that it’s not just me who’s had their wings clipped. Self-pity is the first spiralling step down a pattern of self-obsessive thought. Staying mentally alert, being mindful about how I’m thinking, not feeding the inevitable anxiety or exaggerating the fear is hard work. Hard work worth doing.

I’m left facing myself and the question of how I measure my value

If I do so through numbers, I’ll inevitably fall short. If I compare myself to the original idea of my future that I had back when I left school, I’ve fallen off the page. I have to let go of such measurements, which may be easier for me now, given the disruption my life went through, as I’ve already been forced to disconnect my self-worth from material wealth and other particular assumptions about how I ought to be living.

But perhaps my self-worth shouldn’t be based on my independence either. Maybe the freedom I seek has to be freedom in the mind, not stamps in a passport.

Life won’t begin again after the pandemic has passed; it’s going on right now. The Earth keeps spinning. We keep getting older, day by day. This is the moment to live.

The gods have been playing their games again

Moonvalley, San Pedro de Atacama.
January 2020.

I wake up some days and stare at myself in the mirror. There’s a dull look in my eyes and I think, here we go again. I feel my thoughts being to roll into paranoia. Sometimes my hands shake from the anxiety of living. My skin is a mess; my stomach clenches tight.

This pattern of behaviour is so familiar it seems almost ridiculous.

In sports people talk about recovery time. This is how long it takes your body to go back to normal after you’ve done exercise. Resilience works on the same principle – it’s not a measure of how far you’ve fallen or how damn bad it hurt, but how quickly you can rock back up to healthy.

I wake up and stare in the mirror and I see myself all ghostlike. The energy is robbed from me. I’m lethargic but I can’t rest. The negative thoughts come. I wonder for how long I’m going to need to grieve. I wonder how much I’ve lost. I wonder how long it will be before I feel generous towards life again. And then, because this is my ingrained training, I do something about it.

And sometimes I feel that my life is a woven patten of me falling in and out of grief time and time again. Things nowadays aren’t so bad though. Each weave is shorter, cleaner. Now I’m more skilled at pulling the threads back up, pulling them together. I remember when the time between feeling good about myself and my life was measured in weeks or months not days.

Every time is hard, but you do get quicker at recovering from setbacks as you become more resilient. I only believe that you can become resilient by doing the hard work, by learning to actively accept and grieve what you’ve lost rather than clinging onto a fantasy of what might have been. I believe that as you learn to recognise your defences you can learn to do yourself and those around you less damage each time you fall. I believe that recognising your coping strategies and being reasonable about them is vital for preventing long term harm.

Some weeks you lose your house, your contract terminates and there’s no way you can get a new visa. Some weeks a friend gets upset because you didn’t fall in love with them and it hurts. Some weeks you say goodbye to someone you fell in love with, not knowing how many months it will be until you are in the same continent again. Some weeks your flight home is cancelled and you find yourself with the prospect of an unexpected three days of crazy, mask wearing adventure to get home, passing through three continents with a bundle of certificates and permissions to evidence the necessity and validity of each step of the journey. Some weeks are more difficult than others.

I wake up some days and I look in the mirror and smile. My hair’s a mess and my skin pink and blotchy. Yet there’s a twinkle in my eye. Look, I’m here, I think. I exist in this mess of a world, but I exist and that is a truly wondrous thing. I smile and turn away from my reflection, ready to fight whatever the gods have chosen to throw at me next.

Let’s throw rocks at the sea

By Posted on Location: 7min read
The Pacific Ocean, La Serena
August 2019

This morning I have spent way too much time searching the internet for a statistic in a book. The statistic is that “Depression affects as much as 80% of the population [of Inuit peoples of Greenland]” the book is Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon.

As you might have thought, I started this investigation in the notes section of the book, but for this statistic, nothing. There were references to papers on suicide – and just googling Greenland suicide rates brings up a multitude of scary reports declaring Greenland’s suicide rate to be particularly worryingly high. Depression is referenced in such papers as a factor in suicide. However, I have nothing on the actual rates of clinical (also known as major) depression in the Inuit peoples of Greenland or any context on the original statistic.

Then again, I am sceptical about rates for such things anyway

After all, there is no official record of me ever being depressed and the only official record of me being sexually abused is the little red flag that I asked to be placed on my health record.

During the winter months, the Inuit people stay inside, in their usually small houses keeping close to keep warm. The book explains that “In these circumstances of enforced intimacy, there is no place for complaining or talking about problems or for anger and accusations. The Inuit simply have a taboo against complaining. They are silent and brooding or they are storytellers given to laughter, or they talk about conditions outside and the hunt, but they almost never speak of themselves. Depression, with concomitant hysteria and paranoia, is the price paid for the intense communality of Inuit lives.”

The other day, I stood in the living room and jumped up and down

A grand simultaneous two-footed stomp – and made an angry noise. My housemate glanced up from his phone and gave me a questioning look asking, ‘What in heaven’s name are you doing?’. I apologised and said, in Spanish, that I had to release some of my frustration at our current situation so that it wouldn’t pop up in my dreams. He nodded and went back to his phone.

The next morning our conversation went something like this

Him: How many people did you kill last night?

Me: Zero. I told you. With the ‘ragghh’ no bad dreams.

‘How many people did you kill last night’ is a reference to a morning some months back when I looked worse for wear and couldn’t speak Spanish very well and eventually explained that I was shaking off an unpleasant dream in which I’d become rather murderous. ‘How many people did you kill last night’ means ‘how did you sleep?’. It’s an invitation to express how I am.

If we don’t have safe, civilised ways to acknowledge our emotions, they will either show themselves in unsafe, less-civilised manners or submerge themselves silently within and we will become numb. Acting in an unsafe, less-civilised manner is a shortcut to relationship destruction and becoming numb is the highway to depression.

Last week I stood on the beach and threw rocks at the sea.

All of us have just lost an incredible amount of our freedom

Many of us have lost much of what gives us meaning in any given week. There is a tremendous amount to feel angry about, frustrated with and much to grieve. Then there’s the anxiety that’s churning through our bloodstream. I have ulcers in my mouth, my skin looks horrific and those muscles around my neck and shoulders are stupidly tense. Routines have shattered and relationships (both with those people whom we can’t see and those whom we are now seeing much too much of) are going to be tested. Rationally I understand the need for social distancing. Yet it’s against my instincts. My body believes that acceptance is conveyed with touch and that if no one is picking the fleas out of my fur then something is terribly wrong.

The fact that everyone is currently facing the same horrible challenge doesn’t negate any individual’s emotions. It is not self-pitying to grieve the loss that we are going through. It’s entirely reasonable to be ridiculously anxious when faced with tremendous uncertainty.

There was a dead sea lion on the beach. The vultures had gored out its eyes.

Someone else being worse off than you is not an excuse not to grieve your own pain

My sister and I had a long conversation a few weeks back about the difference between complaining and expressing negative emotions. Smashing a plate on the patio is expressing emotion. Verbally, when you’re expressing an emotion you probably are referring to the name of an emotion. I feel sad. I feel frustrated. I feel hurt. If you can say the sentence using the word feel, you’re probably closer to expressing emotion. Except ‘I feel that’, is possibly ‘feel’ masquerading as ‘in my opinion’.

The wonderful lady who led the yoga retreat I went on with my mother recently wrote:

View this post on Instagram

I wanted to check in. After the news of lockdown last night in the UK I wanted to see how you were. Maybe I am still processing my own feelings. When I closed my classes down a week ago I felt devastation. So sad for the people I was going to miss, grieving for the 9 years of hard slog I had put in to build the classes up. And overwhelmed by the thought I was going to have to stay away from family. And yet people kept telling me to stay positive. I felt like screaming at them. This for me was not the time. I had to let the other emotions in and give them time to leave. If I didn’t, if I put a fake smile on and posted positivity that I didn’t feel, those emotions would get stuck. And if they were still there, how does the positivity grow? So it’s okay to cry, to feel overwhelmed, to be angry. Let them all in. Go with them. They will leave when they are ready. Then you can get your positive pants on. And let me tell you, those pants will be stronger and more elastic, they will hug you in and they won’t give you a wedgy! 😉😉 #howareyou? #lockdown #stayathome #covid_19 #stayhome #stayhealthy #staysafe #emotions #itsokaynottobeokay #muchlove

A post shared by Elizabeth Hawkins (@lemontreeyogauk) on

Not everyone is articulate about their emotions

‘We’re doing fine’ or ‘surviving’ might possibly actually mean ‘I have uncomfortable feelings but I haven’t got a clue how to speak them’ or perhaps ‘I feel ashamed of admitting what it is I am feeling’. Or it might mean ‘my feelings are none of your business’.

My dear friend Jessika recently wrote a whole lot about her struggle to express how she feels sometimes.

Complaining tends to focus more on a series of events

And has much more to do with ‘you, he, she, it, they, the virus, the government, the economic reality’. Sometimes, when it can spark positive change, it is vital. Sometimes it does nothing but wears down the people around you. Think it’s fair to say that we are all a little thin-skinned right now.

I feel frustrated that I cannot work. I am worried about what is going to happen. I hate having my freedom restricted. I feel sad that I may not see my friends here for a long time. I am angry at my own helplessness and how this crisis is going to have such a harsh economic effect on those who were already struggling.

Finding a balance between speaking and staying silent is going to be challenging

Inevitably, we’re all going to sway too far into unhealthy complaining, excessive inward absorption of our emotions and spew few too many unkind comments or stay too silent. This is the reality of being forced into this new, uncomfortable, unnatural way of living. However, regardless of the accuracy of the statistics, it’s clear to see that if we don’t manage our situation, there will be a noticeable mental health cost further down the line.

Yet, although we are undoubtedly scared, maybe this is a moment where we can learn the names of some of those tricky words: sadness, grief, loss, anger, hatred, fear. Maybe this moment where we are forced to readjust can be a moment where we learn to see our emotional states a little clearer. Maybe we can look after one another and learn to ask and answer those tricky questions like ´how many people did you kill last night?’.

Let’s throw rocks in the sea.

For some not-so-light reading:

Last semester, revolution; this semester, a virus.

By Posted on Location: 5min read
Uncertainty.
Machu Picchu, Peru, January 2020

Unsurprisingly, the university has shut, again

This time due to coronavirus although our region still has no confirmed cases. As of Wednesday, the country’s borders will close. I cannot begin to imagine the social, economic and psychological impact that this is going to have upon people here. We’ve already had a tough time. I haven’t taught a full week of classes since the beginning of October, a result of the continuing social unrest of which there is likely to be more in the lead up to the referendum on the constitution – coronavirus depending.

The attitude at the university last week was to work fast as to get as much done as possible before any more chaos hit us. Unfortunately, the term lasted only a week before the emergency closure. I taught in two classes. Now everything is being adapted to online teaching. With my unenthusiastic students learning conversational English, I’m not convinced how well online teaching is going to work. Especially if they are all panicking about pneumonia.

It isn’t easy to organise one’s life when the structure that it was built upon crumbles

I spoke to my father last night – I was bitterly angry about my life plans being shunted around all over again – and what my father kept going on about was making sure that I have a routine.

Personally, I feel that I have had a lot of practice at structuring endless time – all those months when I was in therapy, all that time where work was closed because we were terrified anarchists would burn down the building with us inside, all that time travelling with no particular itinerary. What I’ve learnt though is that it’s not easy at all. It might take a lot of effort to make yourself get up in the morning to go to work, but when there’s nobody expecting you to be anywhere, getting up at a sensible hour becomes much trickier.

It has taken me years to build an independent routine

One that is adaptable to whatever circumstance gets thrown at it. Sometimes, I grouch about and have no interest in following my routine. Sometimes my emotions get the better of me. However, in other moments I look at the clock and my overwhelm dissipates because I know exactly what I have planned to do. All those scraps of to-do list written month after month whilst fighting the post-traumatic gloom, they’ve all built up into a series of strings of habits.

This means that this morning I woke up, had breakfast, made my bed, got dressed and sat down to edit this article. At about 11 am I will have coffee and something to eat before continuing to either write or study. After lunch, I will read or paint. I will go for a walk. If I siesta it will be post-lunch, but before 3 pm and only for 25 minutes. Undoubtedly, I will call someone back home for a chat. In the evening I will light my candles, meditate and fill my hot water bottle. All of this is automatic. Between it, I will stomp and rage.

There is a surprising amount of comfort in habit and routine

Not knowing what to do next can be freeing, or it can be overwhelming. When you can’t plan what to do next week, there’s a danger that you’ll end up doing nothing. We forget how much we depend on our lives being safely regular. Our bodies work tremendously hard to maintain inner stability, and they get exhausted if our external worlds change too rapidly. Adaption takes time.

With such a sudden shock to our systems of living, we are all at risk of becoming too gloomy. Depression often occurs when emotions overwhelm us and we fail at processing all that we feel. As much as the virus is a risk, so is depression. We are all social animals. We depend on human touch and comfort to psychologically thrive. Typically, we need a variety of interaction. Perhaps I take the threat of depression so seriously because I have had to put so much energy into fighting against it.

The other day I was reading a book on this morbid topic

In the book, the writer says how many people ask him why he’s on anti-depressants when he is no longer depressed. He explains that he isn’t depressed because he maintains his mind’s chemical balance by using anti-depressants. This got me thinking about the many changes I made to renormalize my life after trauma. A thousand tiny choices, like choosing to make my bed. Tiny choices which maintain my sanity, my balance.

As hard as I try, my life doesn’t seem to want to be normal

Frankly, I am pissed off that I have spent so long working to get to the point where I can steadily work and rely on myself to turn up to work and do a decent job every time, only to keep having my opportunity to work cancelled.

This though is just one more frustration that I will have to overcome. I must remember that in comparison to the monsters I’ve already slaughtered, it’s not such a big deal. Sometimes I feel silly writing out on a scrap of paper that today I am going to brush my teeth and have a shower. It seems ridiculous to write drink coffee, eat lunch, write a blog post. And then possibly crazier to systematically work through my lists and cross out the things I have done. Make my bed, tick. If I had great responsibilities then maybe a list would seem less silly, but since I don’t silly is going to have to be the way forward. Tiny choices, every day. It works.

The worldwide psychological impact of coronavirus is going to be huge

And in many cases, it’s going to be devastating. I believe it’s going to be the tiny, innocuous choices which make the big difference as to how we cope.

As for me, I’m sticking to my silly lists and repetitive self-care and self-soothing routines. I intend to take this ordeal as a challenge from which I intend to thrive.

Upside-down or downside-up (the yoga class that didn’t go as expected)

Life in Chile is proving to be subtly different, and it’s not just the yoga. Walking along the beach I came across two South American sea lions. Or sea wolves if you want the direct translation.
(Phone) Coquimbo, September 2019.

Here in Chile, I’ve taken up going to a regular yoga class. It’s a tad more spiritual orientated than what I’m used to, with the occasional bit of chanting or prayer thrown in amongst the asanas. I started with a Hatha class, but, because of my timetable, I’ve been doing Ashtanga yoga where the teacher gives each person individualised instructions, and spends the whole session instructing and correcting rather than demonstrating. Now and then, she’ll demonstrate an individual posture, but it’s on an individual basis. During this class the heater is on, blowing warm air over our sweaty bodies.

There are some ladies with incredible flexibility and strength in my class

They might not look much different from other women, but I am envious of what they can do. I have accepted that I am the only person in the class incapable of doing a decent downward dog. Although we don’t call it a downward dog in class, we use the Sanskrit which I can never remember.

Hence when I arrived at the Hatha class yesterday, with a different teacher, and I explained that I’m English I answered that yes, I could speak Spanish, but I had no idea of most the Sanskrit words. This proved not to be a problem as nobody else turned up for class. It was the evening of the 17th and the 18th here is a national holiday.

This didn’t worry the teacher

She had a calm happy yoga face. Thankfully, when she discovered that I was incapable of chanting, she adapted and taught me to ommm at the same time as her. Even her omming was pretty impressive.

The class commenced and feeling a tad self-conscious I proceeded to do as instructed. When it came to my downward dog she pressed on my back and pulled on my heels and managed to stretch my hamstrings in ways I hadn’t expected. We did some sun-salutations, a and b, which, thank the gods, I know. Some warriors including a warrior for which I didn’t know the English name. And I hung upside down on the wall.

I should explain

The earth, you see, is full of negative energy and the heavens full of positive energy so in life it helps to stick your legs in the air from time to time. Get some balance back in your life. Don’t worry, I haven’t gone mad. Energy is energy. It equals mc^2. There are many types of energy, but I save the positives and negatives for charges. Language fails to accommodate the difference between the emotional and the scientific. This earth and heaven interpretation of positive and negative functions to explain something human. Positive and negative emotions perhaps. But I don’t let that interfere with my very human practice of yoga. Pretty much like I don’t feel that god needs to exist to make prayer a worthwhile exercise.

Hanging upside down, I concluded, did make me feel good.

This though is an achievement

As a child, I was not the sort to hang upside down from climbing frames. I became suspicious of my body’s ability to support itself very early on. Since I couldn’t do the monkey bars then putting my feet were above my head would be dangerous.

However, this was a yoga class and the young super-flexible yoga teacher moved my mat to the wall. She took two, securely attached ropes and proceeded to walk up the wall until her feet were above her head.

There was no deep breath and go

Being yoga everything had to take place with a calm and even breathing. I moved slow, breathed steady and found myself hanging upside down. To my amazement, once I was up there, it didn’t seem all that much like hard work.

We continued this yoga class, with me sitting with my back against the wall, bum secure on the floor, legs stretched out in front of me. Another hamstring stretch which I am useless at, or so I thought. But no. Instead, my yoga teacher now explained that she wanted me to do the same position but to turn the whole thing 180 degrees. Although I understood the Spanish, I couldn’t grasp what she could want me to do. Then she showed me.

Oh.

My mind raced through a few scary things that I’ve achieved

Moving to Chile, reading poetry to my students, singing Frere Jacque to French children at the breakfast table. And I decided that trying a new yoga position, with an expert beside me, wasn’t very scary at all. My body had other ideas. I felt afraid to be sure. But my rational brain knows that fear isn’t always helpful and sometimes has to be noted and allowed to pass, like a thought in meditation.

So I placed my head and hands where my heels had been and lifted my legs, placing my feet upon the wall. The teacher moved them to where my head had been.

When I turned the right way round again, I was laughing

The teacher asked if I wanted to try again. I said, “Si.”

This time I got up into position and she challenged me to lift my legs, one at a time. This is almost a headstand I thought, which wasn’t a helpful thought to think because it made me hesitate, but right foot first, I did it anyway.

After class, she asked me how I felt

My face must have been beaming because I was on a high, amazed at what I had achieved. I told her I felt good, I liked the class and I was learning a lot.

It might be quite spiritual in its orientation and not what I’m used to but this yoga class provides a challenge. I need challenge. I need experiences of not what I’m used to. Otherwise, how would I know I could hang upside down from the wall?

Learning to see

An experiment in collaboration: this post was written by the Mother.

bee
I felt this post ought to be accompanied by a picture of a bee in the circumstances.
Lacock Abbey, May 2014.

Today there was a large bee trapped in the greenhouse. Well, he wasn’t exactly trapped as he could have left. The window and the greenhouse door were wide open. However, the bee kept going around in circles and hitting itself against the glass becoming angrier and more frustrated, unaware that it was so close to freedom. It just couldn’t see the way out.

When I first had glasses, I hated them

My daughters bought me a chain to hang them around my neck when I didn’t need to wear them (there had been a few tense occasions when I couldn’t find my glasses anywhere). I have never used the chain. It seemed like something an elderly spinster would use working in a dusty library, taking her glasses off temporarily to give a disapproving look to someone who made a slight noise.

I had a feeling that using them would make me age without even having a birthday. Nor did I want a constant reminder of the need to wear glasses.

Now, of course, I need to wear the glasses all the time

Seeing clearly can become quite tricky when I don’t have them on. For example when I am doing yoga. In my class, when someone waves to me from the other side of the room, I wave back in acknowledgement, not certain who the blurry face belongs to.

But of course, just getting a pair of glasses doesn’t mean that you can really see.

Sometimes you need a process to help you

Meditation has been described as ‘polishing the lens’ through which you see life.1 The intention being to gain clarity whilst also understanding that thoughts and feelings that you see are just that – thoughts and feelings. You then have a little space in which (hopefully) you can respond rather than react. In addition, over time, you start to see that there are choices and perspectives.

This process can happen not just to individuals, but also to societies

When I was at school and studying history a student in the year above lent me a book called something like “The Elizabethan world view”. The book set out the changes that had occurred during the reign of Elizabeth the first and the understanding and perspectives the people in England had about the world and their place in it. Things were changing. The world was a lot bigger and different than they previously thought.

I was reminded of the book again this week

I listened as my daughter explained that to her, travelling is about seeing the world, experiencing other cultures and connecting with other lives. Gaining both a view of the world and a world view. What she sees is reflected in her writing and her art.

Learning to really see can take time and effort but sometimes seeing the way forward may be so much closer than you think.

The exhausted bee finally lay down on the shelf in the greenhouse

I carefully scooped him into an empty plant pot and carried him outside, laying him down by some plants. Later, I checked, and he had flown away.

1. Headspace, Andy Puddicombe

Words Copyright The Mother, used with permission.