The Buddhamama Blog
Finding Calm within the Chaos
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I have a very mundane superpower. I always know if I haven’t finished my piece of toast or have not drunk the last mouthful of a cup of tea, even if I have mislaid either.
I often eat breakfast on the trot, endeavouring to mistakenly multi-task. So often I will take my tea or toast with me as I stuff a washing machine, pair some socks or look for child’s mislaid shoe. And even if I am down to my last bite of toast that I have haphazardly balanced somewhere, or I have a single slurp of tea left in a cup that I have lost in the tread of domesticity, I know - somewhere in my mind- that something is unfinished. Which means I can reliably retrace my footsteps and find it, always with a sense of disproportionate satisfaction that comes not just from knowing my instinct was right, but with that last bite of anything.
In its simplest sense, this is an example of the Zeigarnic loop; the notion that unfinished tasks are better remembered than completed ones. It explains why it is impossibly difficult to get the attention of waiter in restaurant once they have served you your food and you’ve paid your bill. In their minds, you are a completed task, and they have busily moved on to the uncompleted ones. The notion has been used to devise strategies for better remembering things, with some psychologists even suggesting that regular interruptions to studying might help improve recall ( A fact -incidentally- that I am refraining from telling my teenagers).
But I am convinced that the concept also explains why uncertainty can be - for some- so difficult to live with. Because in a sense, uncertainty is an unclosed loop. It’s a question without an answer. Its a hypothesis without a conclusion. And as an interrupted thought form, it can take up residence in the mind, living there- like a stuck record- on its own merry loop. Why? What? How? When?, Why? What? How? When? etc etc
There is no doubt some people are better at living with uncertainly than others. I have always been terrible at it. My indecisive husband, on the other hand, seems frustratingly good.
For anyone who struggles with uncertainty, I believe there’s every chance that the situation we find ourself in might be proving especially tricky.
We are living with unprecedented levels of uncertainty and a constant news cycle that feeds into it. I have had many a discussion with friends where we have concluded that if we had an end date, a time line where normality got drawn into the sand, then we’d be better able to cope with it. At least it would be something to work towards. The loop might still be - as yet- unclosed but we’d find solace in knowing when the ends might meet.
Instead I have found myself regularly acting like some impatient person in a queue, constantly craning my head to see if I have edged closer to the front, only to slump when I feel I haven’t, or that worse still, that when I wasn’t looking a few more people queue barged and I found myself further away than I’d imagined.
And then sometimes I don’t feel like that. Sometimes, I stop craning. I stop refreshing the news, I stop thinking ahead, I stop making up spurious and pointless calculations based on population and vaccinations and case numbers, and instead I just take up residence in the day. And then- almost without fail- I feel better. I might focus on a rare blue sky, the newly fallen snow, the sound of rain outside my window or even far less poetically the task of feeding my children, or mopping a floor, lighting a candle or simply following the steady rhythm of a weekday and my attention draws in and the anxieties fall away. This honed focus, this attention to detail, this living with awareness of the smaller things enables us to more fully inhabit the world that is still available and thereby naturally resist any unfruitful attempt to prophesise or catastrophise. We can- as the unlikely guru Laim Gallagher counselled us once- just 'be here now'. And if ever there was a time that called for present moment living, then this time, when life is at its most uncertain, is probably it.
The truth is, we have no idea what might happen in this current future. But we do have some control over how we live in our present. Training in the art of staying focussed just on any singular day might prove a simple but possibly helpful state of mind in this moment. And because uncertainty is woven into the nature of things- we are always living on shaky ground just rarely see it in such stark relief- living a little more day by day could well prove a helpful tool to have developed, even when normality returns.
As the wonderful Puma Chodren says ‘ “The root of suffering is resisting the certainty that no matter what the circumstances, uncertainty is all we truly have.”
(Incidentally, her books Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change and her latest one Welcoming the Unwelcome seem to have 2020/2021 written all over them- I highly recommend them both).
'We have calcium in our bones, iron in our veins,
carbon in our souls and nitrogen in our brains.
93 percent stardust, with souls made of flames,
we are all just stars that have people names.'
On the 14th February 1990, a now iconic photograph was taken from the Voyager 1 space probe. Taken at a distance of 3.7 billion miles from the sun, it depicts our planet as a barely perceptible speck, nothing more than pixel sized, floating in a beam of sunlight.
The picture became known as the Pale Blue Dot, which Carl Sagan- a prize winning astronaut and physicist - then borrowed for the title of his book, in which he gave us perspective and called for our awe.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being that ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor, and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Carl’s response - as poetic and even profound as it is- is not unique. The near spiritual altering of consciousness that comes from looking back upon the earth and seeing it suspended in space, is apparently nearly universal amongst astronauts. Termed the ‘overview effect’ it is described as the experience of having their perspectives immeasurably widened, and of being struck simultaneously with wonder at the immense beauty of the earth, acute awareness of its fragility and the reduction of everything- big or small- to nothing more than marbled swirls across a glowing blue planet. Things that matter so much on earth; divisions & differences that seem so concrete from the ground are rendered invisible from space and for many this offers up a revelation bordering on the sacrosanct.
Whilst the vast majority of us will never have the luxury of seeing the earth from this angle, zooming out on our quotidian lives can help to reduce the anxiety inducing experience of feeling entangled within its minutae. It is exactly what is meant by the invitation to ‘see the bigger picture’. It can also offer up undoubtedly helpful perspective when faced with larger issues too, be they personal or global. When we put things in their proper context, it is possible to see that much of what we will face - given the fact of impermanence and the inevitable passage of time- will pass. And in all but the most trying of circumstances, we will find ourselves to be okay.
Only last week someone said to me - when i asked how he’d sped with lockdown- that if he’d known everything was going to be okay through lockdown, he might well have been able to relax into a little more. ‘I feel sure there is a lesson in that,’ he said.
When we were at the coal face of lockdown, with death numbers rising at an alarming speed and the nation under virtual house arrest, the writer and thinker Mo Gawdat, ex google executive and known for having devised an algorithm for happiness did a podcast with Elizabeth Day. In it, he suggested by way of perspective that no global pandemic had ever lasted forever. Whilst we are arguably still embroiled in this one, his words have served to offer up genuine perspective- a zooming back- on the days when the experience felt entrenched.
This altering of the lens, and in doing so changing our perspective, works at the other extreme as well. The counsel at the heart of most spiritual traditions is to narrow our focus to rest solely on the present moment, acutely aware that many of the trials of our minds exist in the layers that we impose upon an experience and not the experience itself. Our worries tend naturally to recede when our attention draws down. Developing an acute presence of mind enables us to see the poetry and beauty in the smallest of moments. Not only do we miss much of life because of the disconnect between our bodies and our minds, but we also fail to capture the true gift of mental presence, which is the recognition that in any particular pixelated moment, everything is actually okay.
The difficulty is, that we tend - necessarily- to inhabit a place between these two extremes. Not entirely present to the moment, but neither drawing back and taking in the bigger picture. In many ways, this is for good reason. Grand philosophical perspectives and contemplating our insignificance in the face of the vastness of time and space could quite easily descend into nihilism. And whilst zen monks might counsel entire and absolute presence of mind, turning their every act into a meditation, most of us live resolutely in the temporal world, with the pressing concerns of daily life and our need to make plans and to project our attention forward. Whilst there is opportunity for philosophy in the mundane, you can’t always escape its drudgery.
But acknowledging that our anxieties are often the result of us needing to live in this perspective hinterland can be of help. It allows us to start to see things for what they are- offering a little space around the edges of things. But it also means we can- when we are struck with the overwhelm of a given moment or day - take a moment to deliberately change our field of view, stepping back or leaning in, and use this change as a useful antidote to our very real but thankfully also mutable concerns.
‘Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are’
‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice then you have chosen the side of the oppressor’
- Desmond Tutu
In my most recent blog, I wrote about the tonic that is nature and the blessing that the coincidence of sunshine with lockdown has been. Which is all still true. But the truth is, its only half the story. Because if I am completely honest I have equally found the immense beauty of the weather and of nature over this time a little haunting. I have spoken to so many people who are relishing lockdown, attesting to loving it much more than normal life, willing it not to be over. I too have been one of the lucky ones, able to pick out the best of it, and concentrate on lockdowns silver linings.
But I have also never been able to shift the underlying feeling that this is no holiday. People are suffering , something that the beauty of the weather is in danger of masking - especially those of us who have the luxury of lovely gardens and incomes intact or government supported. There is the reality of global death tolls, of course, and the illness running rampant through care homes and amongst people at their most vulnerable and lonely. But there is also the much bigger picture of livelihoods lost, the backlog of urgent medical treatments been put on hold, the mental health of vulnerable children and the grotesque inequality in how this experience is affecting people- being in an ethnic minority has now been found catergoriacally to be a risk factor for COVID-19. And consider the horror of the lockdown experience for people who were already living close to the bread line or whose sunny days have been largely spent staring at what must feel like the cage of only four walls. We are in this together, but we are by no means experiencing it equally.
And then last week, whilst many of us we were no doubt basking in the twilight of another glorious day, the horror of horrors was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. A white policemen with his knee to the neck of an unarmed black man, killing him, mercilessly and without any hesitation in broad daylight. Watched by his police peers, and immune to being filmed by passers-by, whose lives too will be forever scarred by what they accidentally witnessed.
8 minutes and 26 seconds of brutality that lead to the death of an innocent black man but also serves as the microcosm of a history, past and current, of police brutality, entrenched racism and a broken society. I echo the words of a fellow yoga teacher when I say, as traumatic as it is, every white person needs to watch the video of George Floyd’s death.
When you do it is impossible to stop thinking about it. Or to contain the emotions it provokes; the horror, anger, shame, despair and utter utter unbridled sadness. And so, I would be lying if I said that the sunshine didn’t somehow feel bitter sweet. A shiny and unreal gloss over the very real cracks that need addressed by every single one of us if anything is truly to change.
I am fundamentally dedicated to well being and mental health. My quest in my work is to help you, and me, navigate life in all its messy glory and with all it inevitable suffering. Though I have always been deeply political, I have equally tried to keep politics out of my blogs. But this transcends politics and sits right at the heart of health. I feel I can’t write about anything else until I write about this. For it is impossible for us to be well when society is sick. And it is simply a mark of our privilege if we feel otherwise. Our well being is necessarily and inextricably linked to that of society’s.
What happened to George Floyd might not have happened in our own homeland, but it is very definitely our problem. A few years ago, the journalist Caitlin Moran wrote a very compelling piece on date rape. In it she argued, with her particular brand of acerbic wit and fierce insight, that whilst it was largely women who campaigned against rape, the only way in which things would change is if men started to take part in the conversation. That it wasn’t enough for a man to protest that he would never, not in a million years rape a woman - in the same way that white people might proclaim, loudly and vehemently that we as would never be/endorse/accept/tolerate racism - they needed to do something about it. Their silence, like our silence is part of the problem. White supremacy, and that is what it is, is a white problem. We can’t hijack the conversation, but we can and we should listen, and we should call out disparity in all the places it lurks, both seen and unseen.
I grew up in Singapore in an entirely multicultural community. I had barely any friends who were from the ‘same place’ as me. I went to an international school - one of the now 13 United World Colleges- who aimed, in their own words, to ‘foster a global education movement that makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future’. There were 1200 students and 44 different nationalities and aside from United Nations Day when we deliberately celebrated our culture differences, we were a melting pot and our nationalities were an aside. It followed, almost naturally, that race relations and international understanding were at the heart of our thinking as teenagers. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were idols of mine, as much as Tears for Fears ( remember them?!), U2 and The Cure. I read about race relations, apartheid, the slave trade and segregation. I precociously & relentlessly took people down over dinners - especially the older generation- if they said something that even sniffed to me of racist.
And then, at some point- and I can’t work out exactly when- I went quiet. I moved to the UK and found myself surrounded increasingly by friends of largely white descent. They were political and insightful and engaged, no doubt, so I didn’t notice the change to begin with. And then I got consumed with the largely white rave culture and with Brit pop, with an ever growing family and anti-capitalist marches, with the Iraq war and folk music and to the perils my growing family of children faced in mainstream education. I was still political, but very gradually and without realising it, I unknowingly hung up my racial injustice rage. I never actively decided that race wasn’t my problem anymore, but I behaved as though I had.
And then last week I read this quote from Martin Luther King, ‘In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends’ and I realised that my silence has been making me complicit. By default rather than by design but complicit all the same. Every time we don’t call out racism where we see or hear it, every time we don’t follow a news story because it isn’t about ‘one of us’, every time we say thank goodness the UK isn’t as bad as the US and then turn back to our comfortable lives, we are being complicit in a system that values white over black. And that is allowing white people to kill black people and get away with it.
So - and its not much at this stage I know - but I have become determined to re-educate myself. To contribute to causes where my means allows, to follow and listen to black activists and to take their lead, to educate my children in the ways in which racism can enter their lives insidiously ( because this generation is far more on it than ours has ever been) and the way in which they can, I can, we all can, call out racism every time we see or hear it.
I spent the afternoon of BlackOutTuesday researching where we can all start if -like me- you feel a need to engage.
The list below is by no means exhaustive. I find those just overwhelm me to such an extent that I file them away, alongside all my good intentions, and then unwittingly forget about it all.
So this is my whittled down short-list.
There is still a lot here, so my plan is to try and realistically weave an ongoing education into my life going forward. A donation by direct debit, a book a month, one podcast series at a time, even just an episode a week. My teenagers are pledging to do the same.
Things that take 5 minutes-
The musician Dave’s performance at the Brits in February this year. Immense.
Sign a Petition
Color of Change
Petition that seeks the arrest and charging of the three other officers complicit in the killing of George Floyd
You need a US zipcode. Here is NYC one 11201.
Lobby your MP and the DofE to update their school syllabus’
Michael Gove stripped the GCSE English syllabus of all black female writers in his questionable overhaul a few years ago and Black History barely features anywhere at all.
For those of us with UK schooled children I feel this is key. Follow links here. https://www.theblackcurriculum.com/action
and sign this petition
Donate to an organisation or cause and consider setting up a direct debit
- Black Lives Matter Movement; to support ongoing fight to end state sanctioned violence, liberate black people and end white supremacy forever.
- Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust is named after Stephen Lawrence who was killed in a racist attack in 1993 in Southeast London. The organisation is a legacy to his memory, and aims to support young people to ‘ transform their lives by overcoming disadvantage and discrimination’, encouraging greater diversity in business and continuing to campaign for fairness and justice. www.stephenlawrence.org.uk or donate here
Broaden your social bubble by following these people on Instagram
THINGS TO LINGER OVER
Podcast Series that have been recommended
A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson.
Hauntingly prescient, and another angle on issues of race- his poetry about Grenfell is some of the most beautiful, and heartbreaking things I have read about it.
Documentaries to watch ( while you still have empty evenings)
Ava Duvernay's 13th - fascinating and blood boiling documentary about racism and the judicial system. Details here & watch it on Netflix.
Ella Fitzgerald; Just One of those things. On BBC Iplayer now.
Toni Morrison - recent documentary about Toni Morrisons life ‘The Pieces I am’. Available here.
A Book List
( I’ve piled them these by my bed and intend to read them, one by one, over what is now going to be the longest summer holiday on record. A massive list is here if you need more. )
How to be Anti-Racist by Ibram X Kendi ( out of stock but available as an audible book)
Why I am no Longer talking to White People about Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women White Feminists forgot by Mikki Kendall
Me & White Supremacy by Layla Saad
White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Queenie - by Candice Carty Williams, currently free on Soundcloud
And For Young Adults
Noughts and Crosses ( also now a BBC documentary, but am told by my teens that the book is better)
The Hate We Give
Pledge to call out racist commentary or assumptions, against any person of colour or ethnicity, when you hear it & even if it is an otherwise trusted friend or family member. There are areas in life where political correctness has arguably gone mad, but this is not one of them.
‘Our origins are of the earth. And so there is a deep seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity’
It seems silly, beyond the age of seven, to think about your favourite colour. But lockdown has, on certain days, reduced me to conversations of equal banality. Not long ago, and I am not making this up, I started a conversation with my twenty year old daughter with the words, ‘If I was a sheep…’, so pondering favourite colours is highbrow by comparison.
If anyone were to ask me, I’d say my favourite colour is blue. The deep blue of Sydney sky and sea, the longing for which I have become used to carrying around with me, with the inevitability of a shadow. England has, admittedly, done an unparalleled job in serving up every equal to that usually unrivalled Antipodean blue. The coincidence of our lockdown days with the gift of an unprecedented spring almost warrants suspicion. Is it a reward for our resilience? Or god given to fashion it in the first place? Whatever the reason- and there probably isn’t one- it has certainly helped.
But for all a blue sky’s majesty, it is the green of the English countryside that has most bewitched me in the last few weeks. Watching the monochrome landscape become increasingly green- washed, and now wallowing in its almost insane lushness. My daily immersions in the natural world have been accompanied by little prayers of thanks, to no one in particular, for the tonic that is the green of nature.
And that it is a tonic is not imagined. Just the colour itself is said to be the most restful of the whole spectrum as it is is most easily seen by the human eye. Psychological research shows that just looking at the colour green stimulates the pituitary gland, which is responsible for cultivating feelings of calm and relaxation.
Literature is littered with references to writers and thinkers who have sought solace in nature; to ease melancholy, to provoke thought and to inspire creativity. Thoreau, Kant, Nietzche, Darwin, Hemingway- and that list is by no means exhaustive- all used walking in nature as means to order their thoughts and provoke more positive thinking. Scientific findings now abound which back this instinct to seek out the natural world as artful help to living. In one study in 2015, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in the natural world, as compared to those who walked in an urban setting. Those in nature were found to have much lower prefrontal cortex activity- which is the part of the brain most active during rumination and catastrophist thinking -so anything that reduces its activity is beneficial. Spending time in nature has also been also shown to lower blood pressure and cortisol levels- so much so that holistic medicine in Japan includes ‘forest bathing’ ( known as shinrin-yoku). So potent is the simple act of sitting or walking in a forest that it is prescribed - successfully and widely - as an antidote to depression and anxiety. And so compelling are the findings as to the impact of the natural world on our mental health, that the psychologist Oliver Sachs said quite categorically, that after 40 years of medical practice, and alongside music, gardens were the single most vital non pharmaceutical therapy for patients with neurological illness.
It sounds simplistic, but if you are feeling blue, then immersing yourself in green - by walking, gardening or even simply lying on a grassy spot and staring up at the trees- would be a potent first port of call.
For those for whom green spaces are further afield, all is not lost. Even simply listening to natural sounds - real or recorded- has been shown to provoke the same soothing brain connectivity that naturally occurs when we are in wakeful rest or daydreaming.
None of this should come as a suprise. And yet for many, it has taken so much else being stripped away for us to realise that much of what we truly need is actually already within easy reach. And free. Our disconnect from nature- stifled as it is by our indoor living, our rushed commutes and our pavement pounding - is only a relatively new phenomenon. This communion with concrete and cities, and with screens and their neon lights- which we up until now have taken for granted- is only really several generations old. For far longer we were farmers, our lives tied to the rhythms and actuality of the land. And for milennia, some 50,000 years or more we were hunter gatherers.
The truth is, our disconnect from nature is only surface level, whereas our need for it, and our deep-rooted connection to it lies deep within our DNA.
If the gift of lockdown has been that we have been given a chance to re-explore this deep rooted need, then we can be, at least in part, thankful for the lesson. And as we emerge from lockdown, little by little, we would be wise to make sure a daily interaction with nature is the very last thing we give up.
WAYS to COMMUNE with NATURE
Walk- on the doorstep for rural dwellers, but still entirely within reach for city-slickers too, whose green spaces are now entirely open and beckoning. Footpaths is a brilliant app to help you devise walks from your door.
For Londoners this Green Chain Walk is an amazing resource https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/walking/green-chain-walk and this article contains a host of ideas for green London walks.
And whilst long walks hold a particular charm, even twenty minutes a day walking in a green space is said to be notably impactful on the mind.
Listen to the natural world - the dawn chorus at this time of year is a pleasure, and even those living in cities have attested to the fact that the birds have been louder under lockdown. Sleep with your windows open, and use it as an early alarm clock.
This soundscape created by the Guardian has also completely captivated me - I have listened to it and scrolled down more times than I can count, and is lovely to show to children.
Get Your Hands Dirty - It has been shown, in countless studies that exposure to a bacteria in soil, known as MYCOBACTERIUM VACCAE has been shown to encourage the production of serotonin in the brain, which is the chemical responsible for happiness. Planting up a herbs in pots to put in a sunny windowsill or tending to indoor plants will have the same effect.
Watch these videos - the weekly videos by the florist Willow Crossley are one of the most soothing things I have found in lockdown. Utterly enchanting as well as so useful to the budding gardener. Follow her on instagram @willowcrossleycreates and scroll back to find the whole archive.
Her book, The Wild Journal, is equally magical. Perfect for reading under a tree and inspiring you with countless ways to ponder & enhance your connection to nature.
Take your yoga mat ( and perhaps one of my recorded sessions) outside and practice under a tree. You might be more off balance if you are grappling with grass and root systems underfoot ( as I was this morning), but there is something entirely magical about doing yoga whilst immersed within the elements. And the breath is definitely more potent. It is best to follow the advice of the yogis and not practice in full sunshine if possible.
n his 1959 campaign speech, John F Kennedy suggested that the Chinese character for crisis was made up of two brushstrokes, one for danger and the other for opportunity. Though the strict validity of what he said has since been much debated, there is no doubt that opportunities so often lie in the less obvious places. And often in the midst of difficulty.
Circumstances and particulars of character have determined, thus far, the extent to which people have seized lockdown as an obvious opportunity. There was much talk initially about the chance it was giving us all to lead simpler lives, to delight in the domestic, to learn Greek, plant vegetables or take up water colour painting. Which was wonderful for the few that responded in that way and entirely guilt inducing for the rest, who were and are coping instead with a much headier cocktail of endless hoovering, gritted teeth and a steady flow of wine and series on netflix. But all guilt here is entirely misplaced. For a start, there is no right way to get through this pandemic; no medals to be had for what you made of it & nothing to say that creativity trumps coping when it comes to grappling with an experience for which we have had no rehearsal. More heartening still is that however you are choosing to navigate these entirely uncharted waters, you can be entirely secure in the knowledge the sheer act of living through it, of putting one foot in front of the other, is cultivating the inner qualities of sheer grit and determination. As a friend insightfully said the other day, she was fascinated by the way in which this was feeding into everyone’s resilience. Which by design or by default, is exactly what this is doing. It happened to the war generation, and it will happen to us all. The Queen even said as much, when she so beautifully suggested that the Britons of today would be remembered as being as strong and as resolute as any other.
In the same way that we strengthen an arch by putting weight on it, difficulty and discontent is fertile soil for personal growth. We might covet the times when life is comfortable and sun tinted, but the truth is we develop most through those that are altogether tougher. The Stoics overlap with many spiritual traditions in seeing problems not simply as an inevitable part of life, but also to be courted as a necessary condition for growth. Of the stoics, Cato was the most famous for using pain as a teacher- wearing clothes to entice people to laugh at him so that he might drill himself in the art of indifference, choosing to subsist on poor man’s rations to develop hardiness and walking barefoot and bare headed in both heat and rain so that he might cultivate resolve in the face of physical discomfort. And whilst I would never advocate making life harder for ourselves than necessary, especially not now, that we might be inadvertently developing resilience could be considered a very handy byproduct of this global experience.
In the same way that there is absolute certainty that this crisis can not last forever- no pandemic in history ever has (thank god)- it is also true that as night follows day that this will not be the last difficulty we ever face. It might not be anything of this magnitude or breadth again, but life is by nature both up and down and a life well lived requires an acknowledgement of this at its very heart. The sun will rise again, for sure, but so too will it set. In the same way that it would be wise to build up our physical immunity in whats left of lockdown (the topic of my next blog), developing a level of emotional immunity as we live through this will be wholly helpful for navigating our necessarily still cyclical lives to come.
So whilst the painting of lilac might still be left undone, the Duolingo prompt ignored, even the child left unschooled, you can - I would argue- still exhale deeply in the knowledge that having simply got through another 24 hours you have added to your stockpile of resilience. And that without moving a muscle, this is yogic core training at its very best.
It seems that some people are finding lockdown harder than others. My sister, whose children are like chalk and cheese, has said it has been fascinating to see their opposing reactions. Her daughter, a natural extrovert, has been pinned to the windows, on the constant lookout for any sign of human life and when there finally was some, in the form of the arrival of the gas meter man, she befriended him without drawing breath- albeit at a distance. Without the solace of her band of pony-tailed playground comrades, anyone - it seems- would do.
In contrast my nephew is apparently in his own version of seventh heaven. A natural homebody, lockdown has gifted him days that he always yearned for; at home, surrounded by family, knee deep in a box of lego.
My husband too, is nearly unequivocally delighting in the experience. A social introvert, he is the only person I know to have ever answered the question as to what he wanted to do on a sunny Saturday with ‘Think’. That he can now do so, unencumbered by my plans, is for him pure joy.
There is no doubt that this is the introverts time in the sun. And arguably its is long overdue. It has always struck me that the before Covid world ( BC and AC now taking on a whole new meaning) alway rewarded the extrovert. Noisy, social, accumulative, people were being increasingly measured by where they went, who they went with, their parties totted up like notches on the proverbial bed post and event invitations displayed like art. Time alone was a rarity & silence increasingly hard to find. Calls to minimalism and the simple life were drowned out by the value seemingly given to the exotic over the ordinary. The description ‘homebody’ admitted to as a whisper, and only if you dared.
As with all brash labels, introvert v extrovert does not - of course- paint the whole picture of anyone. Most people are not in either camp entirely, but lie somewhere along the spectrum, a shade rather than an absolute. We are all, in truth, a combination of introverted and extroverted, a balance of outward and inward, of light and dark, of solar and lunar energies. And as my daughter insightfully said to me, introverts and extrovert isn't just about being shy or not, but much more about where we naturally draw our energy from. About whether solitude or company feeds us most. And the truth is, most people need a healthy combination of both.
For now, lockdown is forcing us to tap our more solitary selves. Our hand is being forced to seek more solace in the quotidian. To satisfy our wanderlust in the contours of our immediate surroundings or the landscapes of our minds. We are being called to draw inward, to see beauty in the details and to delight in the domestic. That many of us are yo-yoing daily between delight and despair is no surprise- we are many facetted beings. But perhaps we would be wise to recognise the discomfort it is throwing up as the age old battle between wants and needs. Could it be that the harder we find it, the more- perhaps- we need it?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells us that ‘ the secret of good old age is none other than an honest pact with solitude’. That we are all inevitably ( and god-willing) headed in the direction of ‘older’ means we will fare best if we take some time to nurture our more introverted selves. As long and as entrenched as this experience feels, the one thing we know for sure is that it will pass. It could well be weeks or months or years, but impermanence is on our side with this one, and some version of the normal world will eventually return. When it does, its health and our own will be dependent on our capacity to need less, to do less & to keep ourselves entertained in simpler and less taxing ways. Which would make practicing being something of an introvert an entirely wise thing to do.
I was out on my daily walk yesterday, and about a mile in, the incessant mental chatter that is always my early companion began to cease. Meditation teachers speak of the magic ‘8 minute mark’- the moment when the usually ceaseless wandering of the mind naturally starts to settle when in meditation. Whilst walking alone, the same thing happens to me about a mile in.
I especially love that moment, when the irritations of mental meandering gives way to the space that comes with more just simply noticing. And in this case, I was spoilt for choice. Spring has sprung this week with a force that is nearly unsteadying. A landscape that was still holding on to its monochromes and its silhouettes only a week ago, is now acid greening by the day- as though someone has been overzealous with a green paintbrush, not that i imagine you could ever be too so. The primrose still edging the hedges have now been joined by bluebells within them, and the buds of wild apple have either burst or threaten to - part of me fears turning away too long lest we miss it. And the air smells different, now laden with scent that is so heavy you cant distinguish its particular threads anymore; it is both heady and intoxicating, as is the hum of insect life, brought to sound by the unusually warm days that have been one of the blessings of lockdown.
And it struck me then and there, that the seasons have no idea about COVID-19. They haven't heard of coronavirus and they certainly aren't in lockdown. Whilst the human world has been turned on its head, the natural world has - unencumbered by our busyness and with not so much as a skipped beat- continued to tread its own reassuring rhythm. Winter giving itself up for spring, or for those in the southern hemisphere, summer stepping gradually aside to make way for autumn. As it does, in the way that it has always done.
As my Buddhist teacher Geshe Tasha says, these are the teachings of Buddhism in action. All that is superfluous has fallen away and we are left with the underlying.
Turning to what is - by nature- more essential is at the very heart of Eastern spiritual teachings. Their counsel has always been to not place too much reliance on the house of cards that is the external world. They have long suggested that real delight and well being comes from digging a little deeper. We often nod in the face of such lessons, whilst still merrily clicking the buy button on another piece of clothing or another experience, overfilling our diaries to such an extent that they crowd out everything else. But I have been struck as a teacher how in lockdown, people are infinitely more open to suggestions than they ever were. What was hearsay is now actual lived experience, and there is no better teacher.
All that is truly fleeting has now being exposed. In the same way that society has come to understand who the key workers actually are, who we most need in a time of crisis, we are being guided - by necessity of not by design- to find what is more essential and enduring. The more underlying rhythms that are still within the reach of a locked down life. The things that can not be cancelled. The unfurling seasons. Or the dawns and dusks that we now have more time to drink in, no longer shrouded as they usually are by a rushed start to the day or a distracted commute. The waxing and waning of the moon, mapping out twenty eight days and lending its rhythm to the tides, over and over, whether we are there to notice it or not.
And if lockdown is calling for even more reflective depth, then we could do worse than to look towards our own river of breath. Mostly ignored as we go about our normal lives, our breath is nonetheless our constant companion. It is no accident that it is used as an object of meditation across so many traditions. Free, always available,the breath serves as both a barometer and a tool. Turn to your breath and you get an immediate snapshot of how you are. Are you breathing high up in the chest, a sign perhaps of your resistance to all of this change? Does your shallow breathing attest to your understandable anxiety? Or is your breath long and languid, freed of its usual burdens of busy?
And then in the face of what you find, can you start to edge towards a softer rhythm. Can you direct the breath to places that seem to hold tension within the body? Can you use the breath as a soft focus, becoming aware of the way in which the mind dances around it? Can you seek simple solace in the undulations of the breath, in the constant ribbon of inhale followed by exhale that exists entirely beneath and beyond the more unreliable material world.
To help to turn inwards, I am attaching a breath based meditation for you all to practice. It is short, so simply an introduction but you can choose to pause it at any point and extend the time that you notice the breath.
On Thursday two weeks ago, we were rallied to go outside our houses and clap for the carers. Its a tradition that was begun in Europe and made its way, via a Danish yoga teacher, to our shores. And as many of us had hoped after the first week, this is now to be a regular event.
Clap for our Carers, Every Thursday at 8pm, for the foreseeable future. In the diary. In ink.
Whilst we struggle with the inevitable and very real ups and downs of being locked in our homes, carers and key workers up and down the country are being asked to put themselves on the line and be at the very epicentre of this pandemic. The accounts of what NHS doctors and nurses are coping with, as the cases mount and the beds fill, is sobering to say the least. Even the most level headed doctors I know, and it so often comes with the territory, are saying they’ve never experienced anything like it. Not just the overwhelm of numbers, or the hours they are required to spend dressed in stifling protective equipment, breathing in CO2 build up behind their masks, but also just the sheer hopelessness of so many of the cases. Not being able to help is surely the dread of every doctor.
To applaud them, as well as everyone else involved in front line work or keeping the wheels running on whats left of society is- quite frankly- the very least we can do.
And when we all clap, I hope they can hear it. Or see the spine tingling footage that circulates of it afterwards. So they get the uplift that will hopefully come when they know there is a groundswell of support across the country, willing them onwards.
Expressions of gratitude have a measurable impact on the mind. Those being clapped are lifted by the appreciation. And, so too, are those showing the gratitude. It is said, that in clapping we resurrect long held associations with previous positive experiences- a moment of delight when a child hits a new milestone, an impulsive standing ovation at the theatre, raucous applause at a sporting event or the viscerally electric experience of clapping, in unison, arms aloft, at a music festival. They are sounds that we might have to do without this summer, but the well of memories can be drawn upon, when we bring our hands together.
As my yoga teacher Max Strom once said to me, the amazing thing about gratitude as a sentiment is that when you feel it, you don't have room for anything else. When it takes up residence in the mind ( or in the heart, for I think thats actually where you feel it most) it crowds out all else. Which makes it the perfect antidote to anxiety or despair.
Sometimes we feel gratitude spontaneously. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, or perhaps because of it, we will wake up some mornings, grateful simply for the dawn chorus, or the shaft of sunlight that comes through our window or the fact that our situations are easier than some. And other days, rightfully, we will feel floored by the experience of lockdown and isolation, totting up what’s been cancelled & commiserating our losses.
And it is on these days that the practice of gratitude becomes important. For practicing gratitude has an uncanny way of changing our perspective. In my yoga class last week I told a story about my son when he was little. When he was still very little - too little to be involved- I had started to make a point of telling the children all about my day when I picked them up, to give them a template for when i asked of theirs. The result was often vivid levels of detail about what they’d eaten, what they’d played, who had say what and to whom.
When my youngest was able to speak, the too got involved. I noticed, over the years, that he would always start with a lament. With what had gone wrong, and more often than not, something had.
One day I decided to tell him about the expression of the glass being ‘ either half empty or half full’. We even got a glass out so he could visualise it. I explained that even though the glass was the theoretically the same, our perspective could make it look very different. Afterwards, I suggested that when we spoke about our day we could start with the positive things. Of course there was still room for lament, I assured him, but that wit might be helpful to start with the good. I then watched, as over the days and months, his perspective very naturally but very definitely began to change.
This is exactly what we are doing when we keep a gratitude diary. Or tagging three gratitudes on to the end of our meditations, or stopping for a moment ( and we have been gifted a lot more of those recently) to drink in a smell, to go on a long slow walk or simply pause with our thoughts and a cup of tea. We are helping to shift our own perspective. As with all habits of the mind, it can be slow to start with. Re-grooving doesn't happen over night. But the more we practice gratitude, the more we look for reasons - be they big but better still small-in the midst of our now narrowed lives, the more we we hone - little by little- our capacity to see the glass as being a little fuller.
THINGS I HAVE LOVED THIS WEEK-
Listening to Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin’s Album ‘Cheek to Cheek’ & imagining what it would be like to have them as grandparents. (I have it on vinyl but you can listen on spotify too).
Opening the advent calendar that is my online zoom yoga classes, to find all the shining faces in their living rooms. Thank you to all of you who turn up to the mat, you are my tonic too.
Rereading ‘The Gift from the Sea’ by Ann Morrow Lindbergh, It sits by my bedside always, and every time I reread it, it tells me something that is so relevant. Like it can read my mind.
Moon bathing in the garden and listening to Ali Gunning’s lyrical words and immensely powerful gong playing with the whole family wrapped in sleeping bags. I can not recommend the experience more highly. For future zoom gong baths with Ali click here.
The times when everyone has done the washing up without being asked and without arguing. Think this last one might be my all time favourite.
'The earth spins, on its axis One man struggles, while another relaxes'