Thursday, 26 January 2012

On Falling Apart (Part One)

Five years ago, I finally seemed to have the life that I'd wanted, the life that had been so elusive for such a long time. No longer carrying around the familiar feeling that I'd not quite made it, not quite lived up to my early promise, I had become the person I wanted to be. I'd created a wonderful job for myself as co-director of an award-winning holistic health project. I'd done up my terraced house. My son was thriving. I'd even met a professional man with a serious and important job title; a radical change from my previous boyfriends, mostly creative Bohemian types with intermittent incomes and dubious habits.  

I felt sorted on other levels, too. All those years of self-development - therapy, homeopathy, healing, transpersonal psychology and the like - seemed to have paid off. My childhood pain far behind me, I was no longer the one that didn't fit in, the ugly duckling, the waif. I was looking good, into the bargain - fit and slim. Perhaps a little too slim. 

And yet, in quiet moments, I had a palpable feeling that none of this was really The Point. An indefinable something seemed to be pulling me down and back. Despite its insistence, I ignored it. Now was not the time. I had too much to do - a new lover to keep up with, a project to manage, funding bids to write, a fitness schedule to maintain. A brittleness crept into me; I became controlling, harsher, more convinced of my rightness. It'd taken so many years and so much effort to reach this destination, I wasn't about to let it all go now. 

Then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, I crashed. I hit the wall at a hundred miles an hour, and it all began to fall apart. The structure that I'd tried so hard to hold together began to crumble. I'd known it was coming; despite my protestations, I'd danced with it, courted it. My house had been built on sand, and was no match for the storm. 

The first few months passed in a blur of tears, sleepless nights, anxiety, dreams, terror. I veered from desperately trying to find some relief (from doctors, therapists, healers and friends) to trusting deeply and surrendering willingly. All that I'd ever evaded, avoided, or distracted myself from came visiting. Nearly every day, a fragment of the past, both deeply familiar and shockingly raw, came into consciousness, unbidden. Shame, anger, fear, sadness, anguish, grief, humiliation, hatred, love, yearning...the pain of a lifetime was laid bare, and me along with it. Much as I tried, there was no longer anything to hold onto, and I was adrift. 

Agonising though it was, I was always clear on two counts. One, that I was hugely fortunate to understand - albeit dimly - that this was the bonfire of my vanities, the dissolving or burning up of all that was untrue. Two, that the only way out was through, and that I had to face it all head on, even if I did feel like I'd die in the process. 

Every once in a while, when I'd descended more deeply than ever, I'd meet the divine in some guise or another. One afternoon, it became clear that around the age of six, I'd begun to believe that I was not beautiful. I felt the searing pain of that little girl, convinced of her ugliness. As I sobbed, the truth of my absolute beauty was revealed to me. Suddenly, I looked up through my tears and beauty was all I could see. Beauty was everything and everywhere, from the cigarette ends on the pavement and the neighbour's broken fence to the trees on the Forest and the clouds scudding by. 

When a trusted and wise friend told me to read the books of A. H. Almaas, I did so right away. Slowly, my experience started to make some sense. This was about the falling apart of the false persona, the 'me' that I'd become in order to survive as a child. This was about the end of struggling, the end of effort, the end of becoming. Finally, I could begin to let go...

The way to the light is through the dark
Remember what has been scattered, scorned or neglected
Grieve for what has been lost, hurt or stolen
Atone for the times when you've been less than yourself.

In the meantime:
Drum, dance, write, play music, make art
And tell it like it is.  

Thursday, 19 January 2012

On Not Being Clever

I was a clever child. Recently, my mother recalled how a teacher once said that I showed 'flashes of brilliance'. I loved to be top of the class; I revelled in winning the weekly spelling contest, and aimed to get the best grades in every exam. 

By the time I reached the sixth form, I was less concerned about the marks I was getting, and more concerned with being cool. Being clever, though, was still a major part of my identity. As one of six children, in what was referred to in the 1970s as a broken home, I often struggled to get adult attention. I loved the fact that being intelligent won me praise and acknowledgement from nearly everyone. 

During my 20s, I was a community worker, involved in politics and feminism. Debating issues, being knowledgeable about what was going on in the world, and having the right views were all-important. I read the right books, watched the right films, listened to the right music. There were two sides, and my friends and I were very clearly on the right side.

As many people do, over the years I slowly moved from trying to change the world (in a decade, I didn't seem to have made much of a difference, and Margaret Thatcher was still in power) to changing myself. I started to work with a variety of therapists, and learnt all kinds of models and theories which purported to explain why I was the way I was. Maybe it was to do with insecure attachment. Clearly, according to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, mine had not been sufficiently met. Perhaps if I just had a dose of Natrum Muriaticum or Staphysagria, all would be well. If I could just figure it out, find the answer, then I'd be okay, and my life would begin to work. life sometimes seemed to work. More often, though, I still had the nagging sense that there was a crucial piece of information missing. I carried on searching, in the firm (and unconscious) belief that my life's ills could be solved by finding the right knowledge. For God's sake, I'm surely clever enough to work this out! I battered my brain exploring all the possible options, but seemed to come up empty-handed every time. 

This quest led me, inevitably, to non-duality. I began to inquire, to trust, to read and listen. For a while, I didn't really question my assumption that it was just about finding that missing piece of the information jigsaw. Then, one day, I suddenly realised that it wasn't about knowledge. I didn't need to be clever. What a supreme relief! 

There was no longer any need for me to prove my intelligence, to make sure that I was getting the right fact intake every day. I didn't have to understand quantum physics or mathematics. I didn't have to know what was going on in Mexico or Turkmenistan, or even the bottom of the garden. I didn't have to know the Prime Minister's name or the price of shares or who won this year's Booker prize. I didn't need to know people's names or job titles or ages or places of birth. I didn't have to know why I do the things I do or why sometimes I suffer.

So, the clever girl let go of the need to know, and is now (mostly) comfortable in the open space of not-knowing:

"Once the whole is divided, the parts need names
There are already enough names
One must know when to stop
Knowing when to stop averts trouble
Tao in the world is like the river flowing home to the sea."

Tao Te Ching Verse 32

Friday, 13 January 2012

On Truth and Lies

A couple of evenings ago, I was waiting at the university tram stop on my way home from seeing a friend. A very drunk man asked me if I had a cigarette. Like the other passengers that he'd asked, I had no tobacco to give him. He started to talk to me, asking questions as he swayed a little too close for comfort. He wanted to know my name, if I was married, where I was going, how long the tram would be. 

The answer to the latter was clearly visible on the destination board above us: five minutes. As for the rest, I unexpectedly found myself telling him lies. Simple factual lies. I said my name was Alison, that I was going to the end of the route, that I'd been married for fifteen years. As the answers came out of my mouth, the feeling that I had little choice but to reluctantly engage with him quickly dissipated. I no longer felt intruded upon; I was free, protected. Under duress, I'd given away nothing of the real me. We shook hands, and he was gone. 

By the time I got home, the feeling of liberation had grown. I was amused, joyous even. It had been fun to tell lies, to be someone else with a different story, even for a few minutes. I'd never before tinkered with the basic, immutable facts of my story, like name, age, or occupation. A couple of times, I'd told men that I was married in an attempt to ward off their unwanted advances, but that was about as far as my lying had gone. 

Like most of us, I was brought up to believe that telling lies is bad, and that honesty is a Good Thing, definitely the best policy. Well, unless someone's feelings might be hurt by the truth-telling, in which case it is permissible to tell a white lie...unless you're in a relationship or you're family, in which case even if their feelings are hurt, it's really important to be honest and to express how you feel...unless you really don't feel ready, willing or able to deal with their reaction, in which case... It turns out, of course, that all of us have a much more complex relationship with honesty than we'd like to admit. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the emotional realm. I love you may mean exactly that, or it may mean I'm scared to be on my own, so please don't leave me. I'm really angry with you may hide a deeper truth, such as I'm really disappointed with myself. I'm well aware that there have been many times in relationships when fear, shame, confusion, anger or cowardice have prevented me from being honest about my true feelings. 

We consistently tell lies not just to others, but to ourselves. All the beliefs that we have about ourselves and the world, whether they come from early conditioning or our culture, are often deeply embedded and may remain unquestioned for years. I need to be clever or people will reject me. I'm no good at art. People shouldn't be violent towards each other. Whatever our beliefs are, they keep us stuck, preventing us from moving towards the deeper truth of who we are. 

As we inquire into what is true for us in any given moment, we begin to see that there is ultimately no fixed truth to be found within our stories. We are freed from the beliefs that we have held to be true for so long. We see through the notion of objective truth, and hold our own versions of the truth a little more lightly. 

So Lee, wherever you are, thank you for showing me that lying can be liberating. And I hope you finally got that cigarette. 

Thursday, 5 January 2012

On Comparison

Of all the mind's activities, comparison seems to be one of the most entrenched. Our sense of identity is honed by comparison, by the ways in which we believe we are more or less than others. 

Yesterday, a young man I know was having a really bad day. Some of his friends are going on holiday soon, and he can't afford to join them. Unable to find a job for the last few months, he feels he is lacking the things that would make him valuable; money, a girlfriend, a car. All my suggestions to the contrary, that he is fine just the way he is, were rebuffed as "just words". I understand only too well how it feels to be in that place, where everyone else has, or is, all the things that you haven't, or aren't. It feels so real, because we believe that we really are lacking, by comparison. 

Other times, of course, we're the ones who come out favourably. We're better than others, we believe, because we recycle more, or we're more emotionally intelligent, or we're more sensitive, more liberal, less motivated by money, or have better taste. It's easy to sneer, or even subtly feel superior, when we compare ourselves to others who we've deemed to be greedy, or lazy, or racist, or pigheaded, or just not as nice as us. Sometimes, we derive a sense of belonging this way. Us feminists aren't like those awful, sexist men. The music that we like is so much better than the terrible stuff that they listen to. 

It's not just about comparing ourselves to others. We also constantly compare ourselves to how we used to be, or how we might be in the future. We run the measuring tape over every aspect of ourselves. Great, I'm so much thinner than I was six months ago. Let's hope I don't put all the weight back on. God, why can't I earn as much as I used to? I need to get my business sorted out. I'm a lot more confident than I was. I'm losing my looks - I've got so many more wrinkles these days. We're constantly weighing ourselves in the scales of the mind, constantly judging ourselves. Whether the comparison is negative or positive doesn't, in the end, make much difference. It's the act of comparison itself which is so corrosive. 

Of course, when we start to question this very act, we begin to realise that all comparison is illusory. Whatever evidence we may believe exists to support our claims of inferiority or superiority, there is ultimately no truth behind any of them. 

A few months ago, I was walking down a sunny suburban street. An old man was carefully watering his well-tended flowers. We said good morning, and I commented on his beautiful garden. Something about the simplicity, the absolute beauty, the total unaffectedness of his actions struck me. Suddenly, I saw as my mind moved to judge him. I saw all my middle-class, urban intellectual pride. Oh my God, the pride. I saw that there really is no better or worse. There is no better and no worse! In that moment, I simultaneously saw my mother's judgements about me, and my judgements about me, and my vain attempts to feel better by judging others. I saw how harshly I've treated myself, and how harshly I've treated others. I saw the true cruelty of comparison.

Monday, 2 January 2012

On Procrastination

Towards the end of 2010, with snow thick on the ground, I took Jack for a walk. For the hundredth time, my eye caught a wonderful sight, and I vowed to start a blog, on which to share photos and thoughts from our walks. 

All through 2011, this scenario played itself out repeatedly. The weather changed, the sights changed, our walks were varied, but every time, I remembered my idea, and chided for myself for not actually getting on and doing it. 

Now, with the season of resolutions upon us, I decided to investigate this phenomenon a little more closely. We believe that this time of year is a good time to start or stop, begin or end, gain or lose. All those things we've meant to do, but just haven't got around to. All those things we've promised ourselves we will do, but have been putting off. How does procrastination come about? Are we right to give ourselves a hard time over it? Can we actually control events and timings in the way that we think we can?

It seems to me that our procrastinating thoughts fall into two categories. Firstly, the 'When I...' category. So, the thoughts that frequently came up when I was thinking about starting the blog included; When I've got a decent camera; When I've done some more writing for myself; and When I've done an editing course. I concocted a whole set of conditions that had to be met before even starting. Then, I'd get into thinking through each of the conditions. I can't afford to go and just buy a camera, so maybe I can borrow one. But then I'd have to give it back at some point. Maybe I can get one on Freecycle - after all, I gave away that camcorder. And so on...

The second category is, of course, 'What if...' What if other people don't like what I write? What if it turns out I'm just no good at it? What if someone else has done the same, only much, much better?

So, we create a feeling of risk, a feeling that some negative emotion or experience may arise as a result of the action. The creative urge is stifled, belittled as our superegos have a field day, and we stay safe in non-action, keeping our creation unmanifest. 

Then come the recriminations. You really should have got around to that by now. She's managed to write and get published. You had the idea months ago and you still haven't done anything about it. More superego stuff. More shame. But remember: the mind that is now coming up with recriminating thoughts is the same mind that came up with the procrastinating thoughts. Giving ourselves a hard time about procrastinating simply fuels the superego. Much better to investigate the truth of all these thoughts. Inquiry methods like The Work of Byron Katie are a great place to start. 

All these thoughts also assume that we are able to control our selves and life, and that we are totally responsible for our actions and the timing of those actions. We believe that we are separate selves, at the helm as we navigate through our lives. It would seem, however, that this is just not the case; that it really is just a belief. Likewise, the belief that things should have happened sooner or later than they did, or that we are deficient in some way because we have or haven't done something, is also just that - a belief.  

Maybe if we stop giving ourselves a hard time, and accept that things happen in their own time, we can free ourselves of the critical, anxious, voice that leads to procrastination. Or maybe it really is time to go and watch another episode of The Wire.