Greetings from Perth where winter still permeates the air even though the bright Aussie sun is shining. I will not be fooled! I am still wearing layers of clothing and using a hot-water bottle at night! Meanwhile, over in Ireland, I’ve read that its been the wettest July on record. Having grown up there it’s hard to imagine that it could be wetter. I remember groups of us huddling in doorways, sheltering from the rain after school and laughing as we tried to light damp cigarettes in a bid to get warm. I hope you’re finding joy no matter what the weather is doing where you are. Thanks to those of you who sent feedback on my last blog – it was a hard one to write and tears were shed but it was cathartic all the same. Click on this link if you’d like to listen a recording of this blog instead.
Joy to be found
A typical day in my sober life can include the full spectrum of emotional experiences. I embrace all of them with curiosity and acceptance whether that’s feeling deep sadness for someone’s suffering, feeling huge excitement because of someone else’s achievements or simply feeling overwhelmed by my lack of progress with my writing. But what I try not to do is become too attached to any one feeling. Thanks to being more self-aware, I am learning to observe what’s happening to me, how I am responding to people or events, and choosing carefully where I put my focus. I’ve learnt that it’s okay to be uncomfortable sometimes. If a memory pops into my head of a painful experience I acknowledge it and know that it will pass. My father always used to tell me not to dwell on the past. He had a point. The thing that I’ve learnt though is that there is a vast space between dwelling on something and blocking it out completely. In this space in-between is where we find healing. In this space we get to be with the memories for a moment and make sense of the them. It’s easier to do this with the support of a counsellor, especially if the memories trigger extreme pain such as that associated with traumatic experiences. But either way, these memories are a part of us and deserve to be given the time and space so that we can move forward in a less hindered way. There were many things that I blocked out with alcohol and drugs over the years because I didn’t know how to do any different. Eventually I learnt that, in blocking these things out, I also prevented myself from experiencing some of the joy to be found.
I started studying philosophy a year ago and it’s led me down a path of enlightenment. I’m not saying that I am now enlightened…. far from it, but I am noticing a significant shift in how I see and experience the world. You may recall the blog I wrote in April called Wonder Down Under about the awe-inspiring experience I had while swimming with whale sharks out on the Ningaloo Reef. I have since come to realise that I don’t have to go anywhere at all to feel that same sensation of being rapt in awe because it comes from inside of us. One of the amazing things about humans is our capacity to use our imagination to create mental concepts that can then translate into feelings of wonder or even love. An author who I’ve mentioned many times before and who continues to inspire me is Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who went on to become professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School until his death in 1997. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote about his struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. The following quote from the book has stayed ingrained in my brain since I first read it. Here Frankl is explaining how he came to realise the power of his imagination to conjure up the face of his wife who had been taken to another camp. He was facing extreme conditions of deprivation and hardship while being surrounded by death.
‘I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still many know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings, man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.’
How beautiful and inspiring is that? And what a powerful reminder to us all that we can close our eyes at any time and imagine whatever we wish.
Stillness in action
In my work in the mental health space, I get to meet inspiring people. People who have overcome challenges that would make the average bear crumble. One in particular is someone who experienced neglect and trauma as a small child and his way of coping with that as a young adult was by using drugs. Now in recovery for a number of years, he told me that the feeling he got from using heroin was like the warm hug he didn’t get from his mother when he needed it the most. I felt a piercing sensation in my heart when he told me that and it explained an awful lot. I asked him if he has found another way to feel that warm hug without using alcohol or drugs and he said that meditation is his new medication. He didn’t have to do much to convince me of this as I am already a convert. I have been practicing meditation in a disciplined way for the past month and it is truly transformational. There is much peace to be found from stillness in action. Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it, but stillness is something you actually have to do. Firstly, you have to decide that you want to be still, then you have to find a comfortable seated position, close your eyes, rest your hands on your lap and gently observe your breath going in and out of your nostrils (keeping the mouth closed) until the body becomes still. Meditation kicks in when the body is still. Of course, the mind is going to fight this. The mind loves to be busy. This is why the mind is a wonderful servant, but it makes a terrible master because of the amount of stuff it throws at us. The secret to a successful meditation is to remember you are not your thoughts. You are the observer of your thoughts. You watch them come and you watch them go. Once you realise that you have the choice as to whether a thought stays in the mind or not, you can eventually, with practice, enter a state of being fully conscious and without thought, tuning into the mystical energy of the universe, for a little while.
I’m currently spending 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening being still. Of this time, I am lucky if I get a minute or two spread out over that period where I am fully conscious without thought. It’s a slow process but it’s extremely relaxing and makes me wish I’d discovered it years ago. But I guess I just wasn’t ready. As long as I was using alcohol or drugs to alter my mind, I was unable to harness the power of my own mind and spirit in the way I can now in meditation. Better late than never. I feel very lucky that I get to experience it at all.
When I choose to take my healing into my own hands, I feel empowered. Nobody is telling me to sit in that chair for 15 minutes. I am not following a doctrine or listening to instructions. I am digging into my own reserves of consciousness that connects me to the higher power. This higher power is something that scholars and mystics have tried to describe for millennia. Some people call it God, others call it The Tao, the source of everything. I have recently started to refer to it as Mother Nature. When I am close to nature, I let her wrap her energy around me like a warm hug which I then bring with me when I return to my chair to meditate. I remind myself that I am blessed by her and lucky to be part of this miracle that is life, that will go on long after my body has departed, and my energy has been re-absorbed into the source. So, my take-away is one of spiritual awakening, finding peace within that serves me well in all that I say and do. My inner peace permeates the space around me and inspires me to love more. I’m going to wrap this up now, it’s been a long one. Thanks for staying with me ‘til the end. Here’s a quote from the stoic philosopher, Seneca, which he wrote over 2,000 years ago: ‘If you wish to be loved, love!’ I hope this makes as much sense to you as it does to me. Sending you a warm hug. Love, Gill x
PS: Do you feel the warmth of the hug I gave my daughter just before I headed to my desk to write this? I know that my daughter did by the way she skipped off to meet her friends. 💚