Last semester, revolution; this semester, a virus.

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.

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.

How being crap at meditation is beside the point

A chap messaged me recently because he’d read what I’d said about my ‘bullet train’ mother, and he wanted to know more.

And since I am not an expert at meditation and all that, (although yes, I do it daily), I asked my mother, who happened to be visiting me in Spain. I created a mega mind-map, and this has resulted from that conversation. I wrote it, the mother edited it, and here it is.

From a walk with the Mother over the easter holidays. Spain, April 2019.

Travelling means bumping into other travellers

This week there’s a woman staying in the house with me, another Brit, another fed up soul who decided that the office didn’t suit her. She’s on her journey and I’m on mine, and for a week or two our paths run parallel.

The inevitable exchange of stories took place. Not where and who and what – although we dropped some place names and mentioned some activities and described some memorable characters – but the story about how we each became who we are, and how we’re going to become the people that we will be.

And it’s these people, running parallel, sometimes for a long time, sometimes a short time, who feed us with stories, who open our minds, who influence where we go.

And this woman, a yoga teacher, is one of the many who have reaffirmed that my journey involves meditation.

In this article, I’m going to talk about how meditation fits within my life:

  1. I’m going to talk about what I do on a bad day
  2. Then I’m going to talk about having a formal foundation
  3. Finally, I’m going to speak about how being crap at meditation is beside the point

To begin, I want you to imagine I’m having a bad day

My head is whirring. I’m thinking all the thoughts I shouldn’t. I feel small and vulnerable and helpless, yet at the same time as if I must act now. I crave the reassurance of busyness and chocolate cake. No… give me chocolate cake on the move. And yet, if I had chocolate cake, I would be bewildered by it, and were I to move, I’d end up going in circles.

On occasion I seem to lose all my marbles and I have no idea who I am or what I am doing. It’s possible I’m not the only person who does this, maybe there are other people as dramatic as me out there.

So feeling terrible, I lay down. On the floor. And I breath. First out, then in, but slow, gentle, soothing breaths. Like the air is caressing my insides. And I don’t bother moving. I want to, but I know it would only make things worse. It would fuel the need for more movement which, in turn, would make me more likely to break things or upset people. Plus, when I’m overwhelmed, my body has an awkward habit of giving in anyway, I become dysfunctional.

So instead of moving, I focus on breathing

Exhalation follows inhalation, one after another. I let the manic thoughts dance through my brain, kicking their legs up in a conga line until my mind begins to quieten down.

I stay there, lying on the floor, until I have felt calmness in my mind, a period of tranquillity, and then I lie there a bit longer. Now though, I begin to let myself plan what I will do when I stand up. More Cuban dancing starts up, and I let that die down, breathe, and then return to my planning.

I wait until I have a solid plan

That means I know where I’m going to move, how I’m going to move and why I’m moving. Only then do I let myself sit up. I take my pulse, check it’s normal, and breathe-in, breathe-out, repeat a few times. The pulse checking is an oddity that came about from the PTSD, but it does make me more aware of how my stress affects my body. Once I’m happy that I have a sensible heart rate, a plan and steady breathing, I stand up.

If you aren’t as bananas as me, maybe your mind doesn’t flake out with such drama. Maybe you can continue (or at least sustain yourself) through the overwhelm? But what with my amygdala having a trauma shaped dent in it, my brutal truth is, I can’t.

There’s no point pretending otherwise

If necessary, I would lay down on the floor multiple times a day, building up space within my mind. Much of what trauma taught me is wrapped up in this idea of getting myself lined up for what I want to do next. Now I can generally calm my mind much quicker. Now I am better prepared to go after bigger goals.

But I get the fundamentals back in place first. Yes, it sounds odd, but when I was fighting trauma, and things were particularly rough going, I did need to fight for the fundamentals. I don’t think people place high enough value on them.

Which is why having a system for emergencies is all well and good

But it’s not enough. You want car insurance before you drive into the lamp-post. As you want a foundation in meditation before life has a hiccup or big, unanswerable question starts to grow in your mind.

I believe that regular formal meditation helps

After much reading, I’m convinced that it strengthens my mind in such a way that I can be less reactionary and more deliberate in my actions. My mother has a wonderful formal meditation practice, whereas mine is less disciplined. I tend to, but not always, meditate before bed, seated, with a straight back, bum raised on a cushion, on my bed. I can meditate for hours if I have people around me, for example on a retreat, but in my own bedroom, with distractions abound, I sometimes find ten minutes to be hard work.

What though do those ten minutes look like?

Once comfortable, I either set a timer, or start an audio track, or load up a video. Then I stay there, fidgeting as little as possible, until the timer goes off or the media ends. If, when I sit down, I know I’m going to have a hard time concentrating, I make sure that I either have a guided meditation playing, or a sing-a-long meditation. My sing-along meditation involves repetitive finger movements. These stop me fidgeting. And the instructions in guided meditations (such as Headspace) were particularly useful when I first started.

When it’s me and the egg-timer (and yes I might peek at it every now and again if I’m bored) I sit and observe my breath. Every breath in, every breath out.

It’s easy, isn’t it

Sit down, observe yourself breathing for a while, done.

Or maybe not. You’ve found a cushion, sat down, noticed your breathing and then, you find yourself thinking. Your mind is sabotaging your efforts. Which brings me to my final point…

Being crap at meditation is irrelevant

Sometimes, we run around because we’re scared of what might happen when we stop. The more scared we get, the faster we run.

When we stop thoughts explode in our minds, we realise that we’re feeling things that moments before we were oblivious to. Our organised life loses clarity. Uncertainty builds. Are we doing this right? Is this what happens for other people?

These thoughts are discomforting, and to ease discomfort, if you’re anything like me, you desire action. You want results!

(Exclamation mark there belongs to the Mother.)

You need to do something. Anything. Now.

And feeling this urge and letting it pass ain’t easy. Perhaps we feel it should be, because we’re not doing anything. Yet it’s not.

Our brains like things to be at an equilibrium

They spend much of their energy making sure that when we’re hungry, we eat; when we’re tired, we sleep; when we’re cold, we put on a jumper. Whatever our norm, our brains and bodies try to maintain it. However, when you start a meditation practice, you begin a journey of change. Your defence goes to full alert. Sirens sound. Your brain is going to fight hard to make sure that its equilibrium is kept.

Even if your equilibrium happens to be sending you to an early grave.

Maybe you practice for some time and then your brain says no

It doesn’t want to right now. It’s too busy. It feels like you have no choice. You tell yourself that if only you had time, you’d do it, but you’re very busy, too busy. There are other, more important things to do than meditate. There’s no time. Wait… is that the truth? There’s not ten minutes in the day where you can sit still? No, maybe that one’s a lie. Maybe, you can’t face the idea of sitting down, still, doing nothing. Not a nice truth, but better than a lie. Anyway, you don’t want to. So you don’t.

Your brain is so used to being full that it’s become comfortable that way. It wants to maintain that fullness, it isn’t happy about having space in there, let alone awareness. Your brain’s doing very well at keeping you safe by hiding you from all that awareness of what you feel.

So you struggle.

 ‘Cause you’re normal

And you signed up to becoming a tranquil person. You wanted your stress-reduced in a proven-by-scientists method. The free health supplement. You didn’t think about how this would mean living, for months and months, years perhaps, on the edge of your comfort zone, in a place of change.

You thought it was sitting and breathing

Inhale, exhale.

You thought it was something you did

It’s not. It’s something that happens to you, in you, whilst you’re building the space for it to take place.

You thought it was private

And it’s not. Because whilst you may sit cross-legged in a locked room, the fact that you are changing is going to affect everyone around you. Sooner or later, you’re going to stop being quite as predictable in your reactions as you once were. You’re going to have a little more space between the BAM of an event and your RARH of a reaction, and this may make some of the people around you uneasy. They’re expecting an instant RARH.

But as you progress with meditation you start to realise that things don’t stay the same, they are always changing.

Meanwhile, you may still sit down and, by accident, find yourself planning a holiday

Or writing a complaint, imagining an argument with the neighbour, sobbing, fidgeting, trying to roll your rr instead of singing the mantra, slumping against the wall, cheating yourself out of the last thirty seconds, starting the timer before you’ve settled, or whatever.

That’s the embarrassing truth of meditation. Sometimes your brain is like a monkey. However, and of course there’s a huge ‘however’ here, if you stick at it regardless of what happens, you do change.

And one day, when you’re least expecting it, someone will say something that makes you stop. Something sweet, like they wish they could live more in the moment, aware of what goes on around them, more like you.

So in summary (because as I said, we’re practicing writing articles here):

  1. On a bad day, I lay down until I have a solid plan.
  2. But meditation isn’t a quick fix, you need to build a solid foundation.
  3. And building that foundation can be a strange and uncomfortable process. Change always feels a bit weird.

But it’s worth it

You remember how, at the beginning, I said that the traveller passing though my life this week and I exchanged stories: the stories about how we each became who we are, and how we’re going to become the people that we will be. Meditation has been part of these stories, and it’s clear, when we listen to each other, that the change it has brought has helped us craft the lives we want.

And keeps on doing so.

As for the chap who wrote to me, what I say is this, get your bum on a chair, or on the floor, and start practicing.

Start today.

Lessons from my mother – part one: Learning to meditate productively (i.e. like my mother, not like me)

This picture is from my time in Sicily where I was in one of my ‘meditate lots’ phases. November 2016.

My first foray into meditation was accidental

As a child I discovered an engaging tome on witchcraft in the school library.

I remember being captivated. Somewhere in the book I came across what I would now call a guided meditation. Although at the time I would have more likely described it as brain magic. So one evening, when my parents were out of the way and the house was momentarily quiet, I opened the book, settled myself on the carpet with four candles (my smoke alarm took exactly five tea-lights to set off), imaginary pets and my favourite cuddly toys and set myself to work with the enduring seriousness known to geniuses and small children.

I woke from my disorientating trance sometime later, terrified and in awe of the magical powers of my mind.

And then after returning the book to the library. I forgot all about meditation.

My mother’s first attempt to get me interested in meditation failed

Fed up of me complaining about my skin and mouth ulcers when I called her from university she sent me a CD of meditation tracks. I tried it out, figured it was wonderful. With incredible enthusiasm I lent it to a friend, who promptly had terrible nightmares. And then it was popped on the shelf where it stayed. University life came at me like a tornado and between complaining about my skin and the consequences of my ad-hoc impulsive decisions I didn’t have any time for sitting still.

Plus, my father had once said I was a meditative person anyway, so did I really need meditation.

My skin and mouth continued getting worse. Stupidly, I fought on.

Things changed though when my mother started using the Headspace app

Which she has now used daily for years and years. And at some point I cottoned on to the fact that she was changing in front of my eyes. My loving but imperfect father would say things, spiky things, designed to taunt her. My sister and I would tense at the dinner table, waiting for a sharp retort, and that sharp retort just didn’t come.

My sister and I would exchange a confused glance. My father would try again but his comment would not stick.

It seemed like overnight, although in reality it was a process of years, my mother who had been almost as emotionally explosive as me had become grounded. The more stress was poured on her, the taller she seemed to stand.

She started aging backwards

I want to just make this really clear. My mother, version a, the one I grew up with, was like a bullet train. Then the meditation thing started, and well… she’s become aware of the journey she’s taking. She’s still clock orientated, but the seconds tick by slower. Instead of snapping back at things, she’s making astute observations about how other people might feel.

By this point I’d dabbled again in meditation

I didn’t have a regular daily practice. I would start and stop. I read about meditation, tried different methods and frequently decided I was too busy or tired to bother sitting.

As with many of my activities, I would meditate intensely and then stop. I did ten days in a silent retreat and then didn’t sit again for a month. The mother meanwhile incorporated meditation into her daily routine and made it a steady daily practice.

And I was envious

Because my mother was changing before my eyes, proving that complaining and whining and emotional tantrums were unnecessary if only I practiced daily. I was buying books on meditation and she was finishing them and applying them before I’d got through the introduction.

What’s more she was doing yoga every morning. And if meditation is hard to quantify, yoga really is not. When I’m next to her on the mat and my hips don’t bend but her head’s on the floor it’s obvious that her little and often approach is so much better than mine.
Little and often also has other benefits.

There is a saying in sports, ‘too much, too soon’

In my experience, most sport injuries can be put down to people trying to change their routines too quickly. Amusingly I understood this concept easily when it came to something like running. I’m perfectly happy to spend a few weeks doing short slow runs, getting used to the terrain, to my shoes, building up the muscles in my legs, and therefore I have relatively few injuries. I know I can run 15km over the moors, because I have done, but when I first go out I aim for three and avoid the hills.

Applying the same knowledge to writing, or meditation just seemed silly.

My biggest excuse for all the things that I haven’t been practicing daily was that I was the sort of person who does bursts of intense focus

I also used to say that I wasn’t a runner. I didn’t run between the age of 13 and 23, which I though proved my point. But when I did start running (and I only initially ran to prove I couldn’t) I realised that I was wrong

For years I used to not be able to touch my toes. Today I can.

Yesterday I recognised I was getting defensive, and I stopped myself, paused and made sure my next word was ‘sorry’.

Mañana… tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. It’s so easy to put off things because it’s not who we are…

But we become the sort of person we practice being today

So today, when I woke up I proceeded through my daily practices: Spanish flashcards, photography video, yoga, writing… and the last thing before I go to bed tonight I will, as I have done all year now, meditate.

And now to quickly wrap this all up, because I’ve babbled on enough:

My mother tried to persuade me to meditate, but practicing herself is what really got me paying attention.

If bullet-train mother can slow down and find ten minutes a day to meditate then surely I can find ten minutes of my day to do the same. Even if it doesn’t feel like it’s in my nature.

We can learn the concept of ‘too much, too soon’ from sport and apply it into our daily life to balance our enthusiasm and focus instead on a regular training plan.

Nowadays, I feel ever so guilty when I feel like complaining about my skin or mouth ulcers. And when I hear others complain although I am initially frustrated, I know I need to breathe and find some compassion. There are many excuses we tell ourselves for not practicing the things we want to be good at, but in the long term you will be the person you practice being on a day-to-day basis. Not the character you take on once in a blue moon.

I might not have continued meditating from my encounter with the book on becoming a witch, and I haven’t learnt to levitate either, but I have continued the habit I set up back then of obsessively reading. It is through this incredible practice of reading that I realise I can now write the things I write.

And that obsessive reading, I guess I also picked that up from my mother…

If you haven’t tried meditating, or have once tried my CD and it gave you nightmares, I suggest experimenting a bit, there might be a meditation out there that suits your needs.

My mother highly recommends the Headspace App and Andy Puddicombe’s voice. If an app is not for you, he’s also written a book and done a TED Talk.

Finally, thanks to the Mother and Jessika for the very welcome spelling corrections…

A yoga masterclass, this time in Spanish

Sunrise across the salt lagoons at Mar Menor.

My father likes to say that I land on my feet. I like to think it’s the effect of my wonderful, charming personality. I compel people to be wonderful around me. Either way, when I arrived in Spain, I found myself falling straight into the safe hands of the Casera/Landlady.

Our first conversation, back in October, was the twenty-minute drive from the bus station to her house and was inhibited by our lacking language skills, neither of us could speak a sentence of the other person’s language. With another person, this might have led to a very quiet trip, but the Casera is an extroverted Spaniard who believes in good hospitality. We talked the entire way.

A few months on and we can converse in an almost fluid manner. Predominantly I speak Spanish and she speaks English, although we both regularly revert into our own languages for some clarification. Oddly this leads to us taking journeys together where I explain English grammar to her in Spanish and she explains Spanish pronunciation in English. Grammar is a good conversation topic. I like her to keep both hands on the wheel when she’s driving.

Anyway, the Casera is a woman full of life. She’s a national swimming champion, a professional coach and a pilates teacher. She’s also fascinated by some weird branch of yoga called Kundalini, which has some relation to yoga, but as she tells me on a regular basis is more spiritual.

Yesterday, she decided to go to a masterclass in Kundalini. Since she didn’t want to go alone she invited me. She made it more enticing by suggesting that I join her at her sister’s house and spend the afternoon in the large garden there with the puppies and 22 degrees of sunshine. She would cook lunch.

I’m not one to say no to such an offer. Plus, I figured I could write a blog post about it and that would amuse the Mother. I stuffed my book and my leggings in my bag and slathered sun cream on my legs and arms.

I could write about the afternoon, but you’d probably just be jealous. It was tranquil. And is rather overshadowed in my mind by the yoga. Now, I could write about navigational difficulties and getting the time wrong and the Casera forgetting her phone and my phone battery dying, but that would distract from the experience itself.

Eventually we arrived, early, having previously got the wrong time, and were welcomed into the yoga studio. Like other yoga studios, there was a place for depositing bags and shoes, a set of shelves holding mats, cushions, blankets and blocks, gentle music and dimmed lights. I was worried, initially, that the class was going to be just the teacher, the Casera and I, but soon another woman arrived. She looked normal, until she started getting changed into all white and covered her hair in a peculiar little white hat which reminded me of a swimming cap.

The Casera and the teacher clearly knew each other, and conversation was instant and voluble. I was introduced, and the teacher, smiling in a yoga-teacher-who-won’t-be-fazed manner, asked me if I could speak Spanish.

I told him a little. The cogs whirred in his brain. Then he started speaking in English. Not fluent English, but the broken English of someone who is a new but enthusiastic learner and has just realised that this is a grand opportunity to practice. I replied in my mixture of Spanish and English, smiling in a you-can-speak-English grin with regular encouraging nods.

In a gentle, unrushed style we found mats. The teacher made sure that I had everything I needed and asked me about my yoga experience.

The problem with my yoga experience is that I’ve never had a regular teacher. I first did yoga at the gym when I was at school. I did some yoga at university, but it was a large class and there was no specific feedback. I have been on a yoga retreat with the Mother, in which we did some different styles of yoga. I have frequently done yoga from the Mother’s over 50s DVD. And then there was a yoga experience in Germany, in German, a language which I don’t understand. I explained some highlights of this in Spanish, badly. Normally people frown when they don’t understand, but I’m not sure yoga teachers of deeply spiritual strange yoga practices, where they dress in all white, can frown. I was therefore uncertain whether I was understood at all.

The worry I think that the teacher had, I realised later, was that Kundalini yoga is not like other yoga. Asking me about my yoga experience was kind of irrelevant. It was the wrong question. The question they should have asked was about meditation, but they didn’t. The Casera reassured the teacher that I was a meditative, spiritual person, a description which in her English translates as ‘nun-like’ and involves her shutting her eyes and pretending to pray. It’s a subject to avoid when she’s driving.

I was given a card with the chants written on them, the teacher tried to explain, the Casera interjected that I didn’t have to chat, I asked for pronunciation clarification and we began. A gong hung on the wall. I sat on my meditation cushion and copied everyone else.

After a little strange chanting we began a few stretches. The teacher decided that this was the place to practice his English and so the Spanish instructions (which I mostly understood) were supplemented with English. When we got to ‘put your hands on your knees’, the yoga teacher couldn’t remember the word for knee and so paused to ask me. I successfully gave him the word.

However, the weird bending I was then supposed to do flummoxed me. The teacher came over to help. The Casera stopped bending and turned around to help too. The lady across the room kept bending, repeating what I found a strenuous challenge in an elegant manner. If I were her I would have been rolling my eyes at the commotion. The yoga teacher and the Casera wanted me to move my hips in a different way, but as nobody knew the word for hips the Casera resorted to some wild gesturing. Eventually I either got it or they gave up.

We returned to sitting on the floor. From then on, the session focused on meditation. There was no more strange stretching, just sitting very still. My posture was deemed acceptable for this and so we got going.

At this point it’s worth noting that I had no idea when the class ended. It started at half eight, but there was no clock on the wall and I had taken off my watch.

There was a gong. The teacher gonged the gong and I sat with my hands in front of my heart being still. The teacher gonged the gong again and again. I sat still.

A life of travel is very good at teaching you to surrender to the moment. It’s a life of train stations and airports, immigration queues and incomprehensible menus. I regularly don’t understand the conversations I have; the culture surprises me (we don’t greet our yoga teachers with kisses in England); and I’m frequently oblivious as to what I’m supposed to be doing – hence the earlier navigational difficulties.

The gongs kept sounding, every time I thought the chimes might be about to slow down, there would be another gong-g-g-g and after a long time I realised that I was going to be sitting here a while.

When I did Vipassana meditation, which my friends like to describe as cult-like and weird, I could barely sit straight for fifteen minutes. Feeling sorry for me, the people who look after the meditators gave me a back board. Since then I have not really done much Vipassana, it’s quite heavy-going meditation, but I have done some more ‘mindfulness’ style meditations and now have a daily practice. It turns of that if you practice mediation every day then your back does in fact get stronger.

This all might deceive you into thinking that when it comes to meditation I know what I’m doing. This isn’t true. Frequently, I find meditation rather challenging. My mind starts thinking about other things. When it falls into the trap of pondering the past I drag it back out, but when it is excited, creative, or fantasising about the future, I get swept up in my thoughts. Quite frequently I meditate with a little odd chanting meditation – although weirder it’s gentler than a more silent meditation – and instead of just doing what I’m supposed to I spend the time trying to roll an r at the end of every syllable. ‘Sa, ta, na, ma’ becomes ‘SaRR, taRR, naRR, MaRR’. I still can’t roll my r and it rather disrupts the meditation.

The book that I’m reading, Deep Work by Cal Newport, mentions the idea that sometimes, if you want to do something properly, deeply in fact, a good trick is to attack it with a grand gesture. He gives the example of J.K. Rowling, when struggling to finish the Deathly Hallows, moving herself into a hotel. I figure this is what enabled me to do ten days of silent Vipassana. I also believe that a serious Kundalini yoga masterclass, in Spanish, is a pretty grand gesture compared to my normal meditation practice which involves me sitting on my bed for ten minutes.

I think, that last night, kept myself going with the bewilderment that I could.

Then the session got weird. Instead of gongs or chants, which I do at least associate with more spiritually inclined meditation practices, I heard the teacher tell us that he would play a song in English. At first, I didn’t think I could have translated right, but nope, a few moments later, some feel happy some about flowers being reborn started playing from the speakers.

I was now instructed to put my hands on my forehead, and then a little later, just when my arms felt like they might drop off, on my head. Every now and then some English words would interrupt the Spanish, so I knew that I was clearing out my subconscious or whatever else I was supposed to be doing.

When I finally opened my eyes, I discovered that the lady in white had moved to lean against the wall and the Casera had stretched out her legs and moved around in her heap of cushions. I of course was still sat upright on my cushion in my elegant meditation posture.

More meditation followed, this time lying down. At first I didn’t understand the instruction but after a tangential conversation where the Casera explained to the teacher that it was past my bedtime already, and I rolled my eyes, I worked it out. The Casera thinks I’m strange because I still, even after months of living in Spain, insist on going to bed at dinner time. Personally, I’m quite happy with my ten o’clock bedtime and the more I encounter the zombie like Spaniards at work, the more convinced I become that I’m the one with the healthier strategy.

I stretched out my legs, lay down on my mat and covered my body with my blanket. There was another song, this time in some language that was neither Spanish or English, but which occasionally included a random line in English. I lay still, waiting, and then sometime later I started wiggling my toes and my hands, in the typical fashion that one reawakens oneself after such a yogaing, the teacher delighted in saying words like ‘toes’, ‘feet’ and hands’ in English. I smiled encouragingly and sat up. The lady in white continued to sleep and the Casera began making gentle noises to gently wake her.

We were finished. I was relieved to have survived. We expressed gestures of thanks, and then proceeded to, in a very Spanish fashion, leave. Spanish fashion because you can’t simple say thank you and leave in Spain. It is required that you first engage in a lengthy conversation in my case a discussion of why the English language has so many conflicting rules. We chatted about accommodation, rental agreements, the names in English of kitchen appliances, and the state of language learning in Spain.

Eventually, we left. When we arrived back at the car I glanced at my phone and discovered it was after 11.

I might have a tendency of landing on my feet, as my father so claims, but sometimes I have to admit, I land in the most peculiar places.