Monthly Archives: May 2016

A Day On the Lake

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I am a recent convert to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme.                                          The premise is simple.  Guests are figuratively cast away to a desert island and allowed to choose and discuss their eight favourite tracks to listen to, along with a Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, one other book of their choice and a luxury item.

The actor Tom Hanks produced an interesting and emotional interview.  We learned that he had a disjointed childhood with a father who moved from job to job, scooping up the children and frequently moving them from place to place.  The clear message that Tom put across was that he turned to acting to assuage his loneliness.  Indeed, he said he was searching for the vocabulary of loneliness.   I was particularly moved and inspired by his words,

There’s a huge difference between loneliness and solitude.  Loneliness is to be avoided, solitude is to be sought.  It’s good for the soul.

 The movement from loneliness to solitude represents for me the gradual process of learning to still my restless spirit and embracing instead a peaceful sense of calm.  It is the difference between feeling alone in a crowd and accepting comfortable isolation – as a choice.

Last week, a day out on our holiday with friends exemplified for me the beauty of solitude.  You might not expect to find solitude on what is effectively a tourist trip, but we did …

It was a warm, still sunny day and we were in Dalyan, a riverside resort in Turkey. Alison and Bob booked a boatman to take just the four of us out on his boat for the day.  He collected us from the jetty behind our hotel.

We set off past the Dalyan rock tombs, and the town itself, before we reached a channel between tranquil reed beds, our passage disturbed only by the melodic sound of the reed warblers’ song and the gentle lapping of the water.

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We eventually passed into a large lake surrounded by the soft green slopes of mainly uninhabited, tree-lined hills.

After a while, the boat dropped anchor in a secluded bay.

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The experience was a total gift to the senses.  The touch of the cool milky green water as we swam from the boat was soft and gentle.  We exclaimed at the sight of the terrapins in the water and beauty of the land around us.  We inhaled the warm scent of the wild oregano and thyme on the hillside.

Our lunch was simple and delicious; fresh fish and meat barbecued on the back of the boat accompanied by salad anointed with oil and a squeeze of crisp, sharp lemon juice.  All we heard was the occasional bird and the chime from the bells round the goats’ necks as they scrambled effortlessly among the rocks on the shore.

But there was also a sixth sense present. This I can only describe as a deep sense of contentment with our brief time of solitude away from the bustle and clamour of the everyday world.  It was a magical, wonderful, memorable day.  Alison and Bob had been on a similar trip before and wanted us to share in their enjoyment, and it certainly worked on the TRI level – that is to say, it entirely nourished, for all of us, mind, body and spirit.

 The loneliness of grief is a desert.  Particularly in the early days, when you are most likely to be surrounded by well-meaning family and friends, all you can feel is a wrenching sense of being alone with your pain and loss. You feel that no-one else can comprehend what you are feeling, and you are right.  You have to learn to live with the loneliness and eventually be able to turn it from an arid stretch of barren scrubland into a garden of solitude.

The loneliest pain of loss eventually gives way to a solitude which possesses in it a kind of self-worth. 

Loneliness is fearful. 

Solitude is brave. 

Loneliness is barren, constricted by its own limitation.

Solitude is fertile, giving the mind free rein to be creative and expansive.

I echo the words of Tom Hanks but would take what he said even further and emphasise the difference in the nourishment of the soul that exists between loneliness and solitude.

To my mind, loneliness is an outward reaching, futile desire that hungers for company in a negative way.  Solitude reaches inwards to the soul to seek and eventually find, the peace and balance that come from positively knowing self.  Like most things in life, this is a learning curve and can only by achieved gently and gradually, taking small, ultimately rewarding steps along the way.

 

 

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Do you MIND?

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“Mindfulness offers us opportunities to reconnect with ourselves and to restore balance in our busy lives”

You can tell that mindfulness is a buzz word when Google returns 40,300,000 hits on a search.

But what exactly is it, how do we get it, and why do we need it?

I remember when I first started work, many years ago, there was talk of how we could all look forward to arriving at a four day working week and enjoying more leisure time.  But when we look around now we find ourselves scurrying around in a heightened state of busyness, flitting from one thing to the next and definitely not operating in accord with the suggested attributes of living in a mindful state.  Mindfulness is described in many ways but I think it is neatly encapsulated by the definition of being in a ‘state of active, open attention on the present’.  This ascribes to mindfulness the ability to apply ourselves specifically not just to one thing at a time, but to examine various aspects and facets of here and now.

Behaving mindfully necessarily precludes too much reliance on the technological advances which we now feel we cannot live without – many of us have become enslaved by what I have heard described as all the I-s; that is the iPhone, iPod, iPad, iWatch, along with the biggest I of all, the Internet. Plus you can now monitor practically every bodily function through Apps and Fitbits and the like.

Is it any wonder that we feel under so much pressure that we are beginning to lose the ability to switch off and be fully in the ‘here and  now’?

Our reliance on inanimate, interactive products is not necessarily healthy.

I have a personal watershed on technology as I found that if I was constantly fiddling with my phone or working on the pc into the evening (often whilst the TV was on too), it disturbed my sleep.  I now put my phone out of sight by 8pm and never take it up into the bedroom.  We retain a landline for emergencies.  I still prefer to read a paper book before I go to sleep rather than my Kindle.

I feel too that technology makes us indecisive in the extreme.  How often have you seen some hapless person hesitantly shuffling along in the supermarket aisle phone clamped to his or her ear, and heard a one-sided conversation that goes something like this,

“Well I am looking dear, but they haven’t got lamb chops.  What shall I get instead.  Pork?  Chicken? Steak? Burger? Sausages? A veggie option?…Well … you tell me what to get and I will pick it up.  I really don’t mind.  You choose”

Before mobile phones, we would just have selected something else without the need to confer with anybody.

Other times, you may see someone tearing up and down the aisle whilst in conversation on his/her phone, flinging things in the trolley with little concentration.

Are we slowly losing the ability to stop trying to do so much at once and to focus single-mindedly on one task at a time?

Social arrangements used to be simple, too.  When I met with friends before the mobile phone era,  I would make a telephone call, say on a Sunday evening, to confirm an arrangement for the following Saturday.  We would have no contact in between and would turn up as arranged.  Today, people tend to make plans by text and I have become used to exchanges like:

Me: Looking fwd to see you Sat. Where shall we meet?

Friend:You choose, I don’t mind

Me: Shall we say the Oak?

Friend: Oh. Didn’t like that last time

Me: Well, where would you prefer then?

Friend: How about the Cricketers?

Me: Ok, sounds good to me

Friend:What time?

Me: 1230?

Friend: Better make it 1300 to be on safe side

Then on the day I get a flurry of messages  …

Sorry, running a bit late …

Followed by … just parking.  Are you in the pub?

Me:  No, I am in the car park.  See me?  (waving) …!

All this unfocused to-ing and fro-ing via text feels like such a waste of time, it engenders frustration and it is a long way away from mindfulness.

There are many ways to practise mindfulness and it is not difficult to get into the habit of using it as a tool to step away from the stressors in life.  The simplest way I have found is to allocate a small amount of time in each busy day to really place myself mentally in the here and now.  I set my alarm ten minutes earlier than I need to get up and use those few minutes to focus on the day ahead, to evaluate and steady my breathing and examine how I am feeling.  I think about anything that is specifically on my mind and often, useful solutions will present themselves throughout the day.

Techniques for mindfulness abound, ranging from simple breathing focus to yoga, tai-chi and complex courses and classes.  Mindfulness offers many processes through which you can still the mind chatter, kick out all the negativity and embrace the positives in your life.

It is interesting that there is a section on mindfulness on the NHS website which neatly sums up simple mindfulness meditation that ‘involves sitting silently and paying attention to thoughts, sounds, the sensations of breathing or parts of the body, bringing your attention back whenever the mind starts to wander’. Simple!

I am sure that if we all regularly practised such a modest exercise we would feel far less stressed and anxious about things over which we have no control.

If you were a person who eschews the mobile phone, electronics, the internet, television and perhaps even the radio you would be a very unusual individual, perhaps best described as being akin to  the ancient ascetics who lived in self imposed hardship and a constant state of self denial on the negative side, and heightened mindful awareness on the positive.

For the vast majority of us however, mindfulness represents an opportunity, just for a little while, to practise some self-enhancing, simple techniques to take us away from the hurly burly of modern life.  The four day week may never have materialised but if we can approach our busy times with mindfulness we should be better able to deal with whatever comes our way.

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Hey – go and clean that bathroom!

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Have you ever noticed the way that repetitive, non-cerebral activities such as household chores free up your creative brain?  This blog post literally has its genesis in a swish and rinse round the bath, continues with a buffing of the taps and ends with a swirl of bleach down the toilet.

Distraction techniques, or focusing on an undemanding practicality, seem to allow the inventive, imaginative part of the mind to run at full tilt.

A similar thing happens, albeit via a different route, through meditative practice when you are mentally and mindfully taking yourself to a different place, clearing the mind and allowing whatever wishes to present itself, to draw across your mind’s eye.

This reminds me of a guided meditation in which I took part recently, based on the Buddhist principles of loving kindness. The foundation of this is that we should learn to practise loving kindness towards ourselves as well as others.

A friendship demands little but gives much. 

It expects no more than acknowledgement of its existence. 

There is a true grace in friendship which we should encompass and convert to give loving kindness to ourselves. It is all too easy to forget that our friends like us, despite our perceived shortcomings.

You first have to learn to be your own best friend … something that is easier said than done.

During the meditation, we were asked to think of ten attributes about ourselves that we like.  Now, how is that for a tall order? – I arrived at three or four before giving up.

Afterwards I thought about why this was so difficult.  And I think it is because generally we are conditioned to be self-critical, judgemental and constantly aware of our failings/shortcomings. It becomes an alien notion to like ourselves.

So … I am getting better at saying to myself, “Stop! – step back from a commitment or two and give yourself time for you – for your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual nourishment”.

When I have managed to do this, I definitely feel better for it.  This is a good example of how loving kindness towards self is achievable.

If someone asks me, “do you believe you are loved and supported?” Then I do not find it difficult to answer “yes”.  And that means that I know in my heart that I am worthy of being loved, something else that is all too easy to forget.

My family and friends affirm to me that I am loved, through their constant support, their many kindnesses to me and their constancy.  Surely then, it should not be too difficult to remind myself of the positives in my life. The lesson lies in believing and having faith in the fact that I am loved equally by those whom I can see and those whom I cannot…

Those who are living with grief and loss can operate at essentially a polar opposite.  They constantly use distraction techniques and general busyness to avoid visiting their grief and perhaps to evade the sorrow that accompanies introspective grieving. I often think that bereaved parents work overly hard to fill in the gaps left by their loss and they are not practising sufficient loving kindness to themselves.  Over time, loving kindness really can help to process loss in a gentle way.

It is really important to find ways that work for you to achieve the balance that enables you to choose how to process your sadness.  This is a steep learning curve.

If, like me, you operate on a chore/reward system, you will be well placed to practise these techniques.  For me, reward equates to having time to write, meditate, or examine how my emotions are balancing out in the now..  First of all I must get the boring jobs out of the way and whilst I am occupied doing these, I am setting myself up to for my chosen reward.  It works! – for me anyway.

So next time you pull on your Marigolds to tackle the regular dull chores … choose your reward first.  You won’t even notice the tedium …

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