Compassion & Christmas

christmasIt’s Christmas and YET AGAIN I’m in a rush. I don’t know if I’m creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for myself but I always do this. Every year I swear I’m going to be organised. I promise myself that this year I will methodically do my christmas shopping, write thoughtful messages in all my cards and deliver them on time, calmly arrange travel between family engagements and not arrive at Christmas a stressy, exhausted mess dripping with cold sweat. It’s now three days before christmas and I have managed to do exactly none of the above.

At this years work do, and then at a Christmas dinner with friends the next day, I was dishing out Christmas cuddles rather than cards. Cards that I had bought from WHSmith, but had not written in yet and totally forgotten about, because I was more concerned with finishing an elaborately decorated Raffy toy for a competition in my studio than wishing my colleagues and friends a merry Christmas through a scribbled note on printed paper.

Maybe it’s just me trying to justify my distinct lack of organisation, but it felt like the giving of a warm hug and telling someone face to face that they’re important to me and that I wish them a very happy, peaceful holiday, could be equal to – or perhaps more meaningful than – giving a card that says ‘Merry Christmas’. Which got me thinking about the spirit of generosity at Christmas, the sacrifice of giving to another, and about the conflicting worlds of competition, commerciality and capitalism and that of kindness, compassion and love.
After the first blog post I did this year after a long silence, where I decided to be unashamedly frank about the fact that my wellbeing was totally out of balance, I received so much loving feedback and helpful advice. A particularly kind family friend advised me to read a book called The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert, and a few days later it arrived in the post with a lovely, encouraging note attached.
I have since found this book immensely helpful. It talks about how human beings have evolved to naturally respond to kindness and compassion, and how modern psychology and science is placing pro-social behaviour, caring and compassion at the centre stage in the development of well being. It also talks about how learning to accept and love yourself is important but can also be immensely difficult, especially in a competitive world where we are constantly rushed and easily feel disconnected from the ‘flow of life’. The dark catch to having an innate ability to understand the mind and thoughts of others in this environment is that it can perpetuate anxiety, depression, paranoia and violence.
Paul Gilbert writes “Although we’ve learned that we can build efficient systems, cut our costs and do things increasingly cheaply, this is not a very pleasant way to live. We can end up in an efficient world that is uninhabitable – except for the relatively few wealthy…Sadly, the Western world is riddled with people who don’t feel happy with themselves, who are critical and self-blaming. Treating yourself unkindly and critically is not good for your brain; it stimulates all kinds of stress…Although we in the West now live in a world with advancing medical science, material comforts and pleasures, we still yearn to find deeper meaning and sources of inner peace and joy”.
He looks in quite a bit of detail at the evolution of our behaviour, and especially emphasises how learning to develop a powerful awareness of our thoughts, desires, fears and drives – mindfulness – is intrinsic to creating a life filled with kindness, love and compassion – and he argues, with strong backing from new studies within psychology and brain science, that this is the source for meaning and happiness.

Throughout the West now there is a gradual movement towards seeking a more compassionate way of living. But in the East this has been a central philosophy in the guidance towards happier living for many thousands of years. Ancient wisdom traditions have developed exercises and practises that train the mind in compassion – particularly Mahayana Buddhism, the school of The Dalai Lama. But although you can practise and train your mind to be kind, almost like a musical instrument, it doesn’t need to complicated, or religious. As His Holiness says:

“There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” 

This time of year does inspire and encourage generosity and kindness, but it can often also generate feelings tension, competition and stress along with a chaotic sense of grasping and commerciality. We spend so much money and effort on Christmas, in a sort of attempt to create physical displays of our kind hearts and generous spirits. But in the process do we distract away from true compassion to ourselves, others and the world?
Thoughtful presents are a wonderful way to communicate your willingness to help make another’s life easier and better, but in the rush to buy do we forget that the most powerful gift of all is love and compassion? And what about kindness to our environment? Is that buried underneath a mountain of shiny products that we are told we need, wrapped in so much paper that it must surely be significantly adding to the destruction of the earth’s lungs. What about the approximately 10 million turkeys killed before Christmas, the majority of whom are crammed in their thousands into tiny sheds without sunlight or fresh air. These birds experience pain, discomfort, fear and distress just like any animal. Or if you want to reign your compassion in to just encompass our own species – what about all the hungry, cold and desperately poor in the UK? Luckily my buddy Matt has now got housing (until the Tories decide they’d rather spend more money on bombs than sheltering the homeless), or I’d be inviting him home to stay over the holidays!
And what about the kindness we show ourselves? The pressure of “avoiding gift face”, cooking the ‘perfect’ Christmas lunch and cramming the calendar with social commitments, not to mention the financial burden of Christmas, can all be incredibly draining. I know I haven’t been very kind to myself recently…Apart from the bashing my wallet has taken this December, I’ve been constantly on the go with deadlines, spending far too much time in front of a screen and averaging about 4 hours sleep per night – which is terrible considering my last blog post was about creating a bit of healthy detoxifying balance before the season of festive indulgence…today, as I am writing this, I am remembering to give some loving kindness to myself, to take the time breathe consciously, go outside in nature for a walk, eat well and to smile at myself in the mirror. And although I have plenty to learn and am sure choosing recycled wrapping paper or a nut roast over Turkey is only a drop in the ocean of environmentalism, I am trying to keep in mind the consequences of Christmas on the environment. The main thing I am determined to focus on in the lead up to Christmas (and throughout the holiday…and even beyond!) is making sure COMPASSION and KINDNESS is at the forefront of every action I take. This year I am giving my love as my main presents (but don’t worry mum, I’ve still taken note of your wish-list) and handing out reminders to my friends (old and new), family, and my wonderful boyfriend, who is far too patient with me, what crazy fantastic people they are.
 And here is my Christmas Wish to you….that you will find the peace of mind to spread your Christmas Compassion…because in the end this can only flow out of a calm, centred, loving, empowered, creative and positive mind.
Mental Wellbeing, Uncategorized

Feel the fear…

…and do it anyway. That’s how the saying goes, but if we apply it to fear that comes to you without purpose or application it’s difficult to know what to actually do. This post is about how I worked through my feelings when, a couple of weeks ago, for seemingly no reason at all I felt the panic rising.

It’s Thursday and I’ve left work an hour early to catch a train, and whilst ambling at a leisurely pace down towards Exeter St Davids I suddenly become aware that although I have an overwhelming urge to yawn, I just am not able to. Oh no…this is normally one of the first signs of a panic attack for me. The reason I feel like yawning is because subconsciously I’ve tightened up and haven’t been breathing properly, only to the very top part of my lungs. The feeling of being unable to take in enough air is intensely frustrating, so I try again…yawwwww…argh, it just doesn’t hit that lovely, stretchy pinacle-of-the-yawn bit. So I keep walking, feeling the tension in my shoulders build up, a thundering sting in my chest as my heart speeds up and a familiar dull ache thud under the shoulder blade on the right hand side of my back – these places are where my anxiety physically manifest themselves.

I start to rationally think through why. What was I doing or thinking before I became consciously aware that my breathing had gone funny? I’m honestly not really sure why I’m feeling stressed – I’ve had a perfectly fine day, I’ve eaten healthily, I’ve done some writing, I’ve hung out with two of my best friends at lunch and I’m on my way to Leicester to see my favourite person. It’s a perfectly good day and normal situation. I left the studio with an adequate feeling of organisation and I’m pretty sure I’ve packed everything I need. I’m not rushing. Still, I notice that my pace is quick, hurried. So I slow. Down. I remind myself I’ve got time. I stop for a couple of seconds, readjust my bags, close my eyes, breathe in deep and out, releasing the tension. I open my eyes and I walk on with steady purpose, feeling the ground under my feet. My heart is still racing but I tell myself that it’s ok…It’s only a panic attack, worse things have happened and I’m not going to feel like this forever…I’m going to calm down soon.

I get to the platform with plenty of time to go, so I sit down on a bench and liberate my shoulder from the burden of my satchel. There is still a twinging beat from within my ribcage and a relentless tension that longs to be eased with heavy sighs. The adrenaline pumping stress response is on full alert, but without any reason to fight or, despite being about to board a train, take flight. The frustration bubbles up again -WHY am I feeling so fucking stressed out? Ok, so I might be juggling four different deadlines, and perhaps leaving work early therefore wasn’t the most productive choice, but my boyfriend lives a million miles away which, yes, is a pain in the arse (or head, or chest) because we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like and it’s costing us both a small fortune each time we do, and yes, my credit card is constantly yelling at me from the depths of my repressed memories, which reminds me, I can’t afford to pay my gym membership anymore, but I’ve got shin splints and can’t run so I need to figure out how to keep fit as it would certainly help me sleep because I’m just SO TIRED OF FEELING TIRED!

The domino effect of negative associations cascades through my brain…with a mix of anxious adrenaline and hot anger I stamp my foot and rip out my earphones…and a multitude of sound flows back into my nervous system and synchs with the world around me. Its intensity surprises me, and I decide to take a moment to listen to it’s layers, suddenly remembering a kundalini yoga meditation technique I learned years ago to help me fall asleep. I decide it’s worth a shot so I take a deep breath, close my eyes and lean back – avoiding the feeling of looking a bit silly, telling myself that no-one else is interested in wether or not I have my eyes open. First, I notice sensations in my body, from the temperature in my palms, to the sensation in my toes, to the pressure of the seat underneath me. I tune into the sound of my own physiology, my breathing, the rustling of my coat as I shift position. I listen to the conversation of my fellow bench-perchers and the sound of footsteps up and down the stairs to the platform bridge; then to the noise of a train rumbling away from the station, an announcement about a delay to a Penzance train; and to the far away hum of traffic and the screech of a couple of seagulls above. I tune back to the rhythm of my breathing and notice that the flow of air in and out has eased


I then remember something I’ve just learnt in the NLP course I’ve been doing recently, about the calming, focused mindset you get into when you use your peripheral vision. So I look ahead and find a point slightly higher than eye-level, and whilst keeping my focus on this spot I also draw my awareness toward the things that are to either side of me, just inside my vision. Sometimes it can actually help if you waggle your fingers and pull them back until you can almost not see them…but I’m not about to start doing that in the middle of the station.

I try to continue this awareness whilst also taking in the details of the platform. I notice the way the iron beams in the roof are so beautifully detailed and symmetrical and the way the cold November air makes people’s breath steam up in front of their faces as they chat. I suddenly feel a sense of compassion and belonging from being surrounded by people who, like me, all have an inner dialogue and their own conflicts and their own beautiful light-bulb moments of awakened realisation.

I breathe deeply again, and try to notice where the residues of tension are located in my body. And I stop resisting the anxiety, I stop trying to change it…I just feel. And because I’m now trying to pin-point it’s exact physical positioning, like a map-maker trying to judge the placement a peak in the distance, I’m welcoming the emotion with curiosity and feel a wave of acceptance wash over me. It’s ok to feel like this. It’s only fear. I’m actually not doing too badly at all. And anything that isn’t going so well isn’t stuck and will change. I can change.

And to be honest, “well” or “badly” are just conceptualised reference points, that sometimes become warped, unrealistic and unhelpful. I am not good nor bad. I’m perfect, just the way I am right now. The fact that I am breathing, and that I’m aware that I am breathing, makes me a miracle. A stunning example of the intelligence of nature. And with that awareness comes the realisation that my experience is my own responsibility, and in my own control. And that is empowering beyond belief. A simple exercise has reminded me of my creative power to make choices in the now that propels me towards a future where my current worries aren’t worries anymore. A little bit of stillness of mind, reflection and grounding myself in the only thing that really exists – this moment, right now -has given me newfound respect and compassion for myself.

The ache in my chest has gone. I board the train with a spring in my step, marvelling at how lucky I am to live in an age where decent public transport and mini-bottles of red wine are available to me. As I sit down at an empty table seat I also remind myself that I’ve packed homemade hummus  and carrot sticks, and that I’ve got two and a half hours ahead of me just to sketch and listen to my audiobook on Integrative Nutrition. At the end of my journey I’m going to get the biggest bear hug from someone who really loves me. Life really isn’t so bad.

I’ve heard several people say they don’t believe in mindfulness. That it’s made up, new-age hippy bullshit that doesn’t have any basis in sense or application in reality. I’m here to tell you that it does. At least it does for me. And if I’m the only person in the word I’ll eat my blog.

Ps: As an addition, I would just like to say that if the panic keeps rising, and deep breathing, calming the mind through focused concentration and being kind to yourself by thinking positively (which, granted, IS HARD when you’re having an anxiety attack!), then I would advise to call a trusted friend or even a helpline like Mind (0300 123 3393). It can really help to feel like you’re not alone, to vocalise your emotions and to have someone understand, empathetically listen to you and reassure you…If you’re walking then sit down, If you’re driving then pull over, stay put in a safe place until the shaking has stopped!! You will be ok, it might just take a little while…

Hope this has helped!! All my love



Mental Wellbeing

Being Enough

Feeling aimless and lost is something I know I’m not alone in. It’s not a small task to figure out what you were put here to do. For a very long time now I have felt confused and frustrated, searching desperately for something to ‘stick’. Over the years I seem to have developed a habit of getting super excited about one life changing idea or another – something that’s going to improve everything, change the world, even if it’s just my own, make me happy, and important, and of value….and then…I give up.

During the summer a nagging voice at the back of my mind escalated to an ear-splittting scream that despite having a great job, awesome friends, a loving family, the best boyfriend, and living in a lush house with wicked housemates, I’m not successful, important or valuable. For years prior to this, my primary technique for attempting to achieve a feeling of being ‘good enough’ has been to create an overly complicated list of ‘shoulds’, aims and goals for myself. Trying to prioritise and organise this painfully long checklist, a colourful concoction of traditional (buy a house, travel the world) and unconventional (become a yoga teacher, create a comic) benchmarks, has been hectic and exhausting, especially as I’ve been looking sideways and feeling like everybody else has a much simpler and more eloquent answer to “What does success mean to you?”. The thought that I might fail has kept me up at night and made my chest feel like it’s constantly on fire. A big part of me has felt like I don’t really have it in me to ever achieve any of that stuff, even the basic stuff like getting 8 hours of sleep a night or remembering to pick up my bag before leaving a restaurant, and so even though I have the ability to come up with creative ideas and occasionally even make them work I’m still left with the feeling of being stuck, and unable to change…

One big excuse I have been giving myself for not achieving the things I want is “not having enough money”. To be honest I think I’d say it’s near impossible for most people in our society to not have finances popping into mind when ‘success’ is mentioned. We all rely on money to survive, it’s vital ingredient in our capitalist, profit-driven culture. Even Ayurveda talks about financial health as being a component of complete healing. Money is certainly an enabler and financial freedom is not a bad thing. But GREED is. The kind of greed that sometimes comes over me when I masochistically compare myself to all the successful people around me. I start wishing and scheming up ways to earn more, so I can ‘solve my problems’ and do all the things on my list…the worst thing is that this accelerates my anxiety and feelings of worthlessness and even guilt – I mean, for goodness sake, It’s not like I’m sleeping rough or having to escape my country because of war!!

The Dalai Lama, speaking at the O2 arena in London a month ago, hit the nail on the head when he said that the problem that can arise when wanting money is that when you get it you might realise it’s not enough. You need more, and then you need more again. If you need money, the hunger is never satisfied. Well, Buddhists say that about quite a lot of things actually…desire, grasping, needing things, apparently it doesn’t lead to lasting satisfaction.
Listening to him talk with passion, clarity and wisdom (giggling knowingly, the way he does) about developing understanding, respect and love for all people and aspects of life made me realise with sudden, immutable urgency that I hadn’t been very compassionate or kind to myself recently…at all! In fact, I’d been really fucking mean to myself! And not just recently…for a very long time.

And then I realised something else: I’d been relying on external events to be the litmus test for my feeling of personal success. I’d been going about it all wrong!! The thing is, If you don’t feel completely fulfilled and happy just being you as you are right now, if you don’t love yourself in other words, then it won’t matter how much you have or gain or achieve – it won’t be enough for you to FEEL successful . So…my final answer to my therapist’s question about what ‘success’ meant to me was:

“To feel that who I am and what I have right now is ENOUGH…just to be content, happy and at peace in each moment, no matter what is going on around me.”

OK great…so that’s a nice conclusion, right? But there’s one thing…where the duck do I start?

I have decided to give meditation a go. Seems like a small step, but after dragging a very obedient Alex along to a meditation class at Wilderness Festival three months ago, and feeling really great (I did, at least…Al was fast asleep throughout) I vowed to start and then never bothered to follow it up with the usual excuse of ‘I don’t have enough time’. But now I’ve downloaded an app called Headspace, which supposedly makes it all very simple. 10 minutes is all it takes, according to the app, so tomorrow morning a pillow on the floor at the end of my bed is dutifully waiting to be occupied by my meditating bottom.

Talking IS good. I’ve already acknowledged it as one of the first steps to healing. Voclaising your hectic, random, confused inner dialogue to an empathetic and non-judgemental listener can be incredibly powerful and a wonderful catalyst for positive change. Sharing your experience with friends is a great way to create trust and break stigma about mental health. But If you can sit with yourself in complete silence, and just let things be…if you can be aware of your pain, without having to fix it, numb it or run away….well, I’ve heard that can do wonders too. Maybe 10 minutes a day is enough to give myself a break from thinking that never-ending list of goals and will help me recognise that even if I don’t achieve all of those things I’m not failing because I what I am right now is still ENOUGH.