Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Humming

I surprised myself by humming this morning. I literally stopped in my tracks when I heard the slightly tuneless noise being expelled from my lips and thought, how interesting, I can't remember the last time that happened.

I equate mindless humming or singing in the morning with being happy. I was so surprised by it happening to me because for the last few years I have woken most mornings in pain and the first thing that enters my head is how many pills I have to swallow. The next thoughts are where I'm working, how far I have to drive, or the endless quest to find a home.

So, why was I suddenly humming? My circumstances haven't changed but there is something I've been doing for the last 2 weeks, upon waking, that seems to have completely altered my early morning mood. Meditation. Ok, I know what you are thinking... another person banging on about finding inner peace, omm-ing their way through life without a care in the world but I swear to God, it's the only thing I can put my altered mood down to.

I've tried meditation before without much success. When I was in Sri Lanka in 2004, I sat for an hour every afternoon with a local Buddhist monk from the village. I desperately tried to sit still, to stop my mind from wandering, and every single day I would get utterly bored and frustrated after about 10 minutes. I would get distracted by anything invading my senses... a dog barking in the distance, the shouts of the fishermen, the smell of cooking, wind blowing my hair in the wrong direction, even an ant crawling across my toe. I remember twitching my toe to get rid of it and it just kept crawling higher up my foot. I opened one eye to spot it and kill it, only to find the monk staring calmly at me, sightly shaking his head. I squeezed my eyes shut again and let the pesky ant continue its journey until I could bear it no longer and shot my leg out, shaking my trouser leg with a squeal. The monk did nothing. He sat there is such a state of focused bliss that I wondered what it would take to make him react. How did he do it, hour after hour?

A few years later I went to a meditation class in London. A group of about a dozen of us sat cross-legged facing a statue of Buddha, with some lit candles and an incense stick burning. I was fine for the first 5 minutes, focusing on my breathing and feeling quite calm. Then I got annoyed by the smell of the incense... it was too strong. The background music of chimes was increasingly irritating and the woman next to me was breathing so loudly it sounded as if she was gong into labour. No this wasn't going to work. My mind was too restless, I had too many things to think about, and once again I gave up.

In recent years, mindfulness has taken over from meditation as the thing to do. But it really is a clever re-brand of an ancient practise. The only difference really is that mindfulness can be practised anywhere at any time. It is simply being aware, being in the moment. You can practise mindfulness drinking a cup of tea, for instance. Instead of having a couple of sips whilst thinking about what you have to do next or what plans you have for the following day, simply focus on drinking the tea... the smell of the tea, the taste of each mouthful, the sensation of the warm liquid in your mouth, of swallowing the tea. Many people have moments of mindfulness when they taste something utterly delicious and have that Mmmm moment when all your senses are heightened by the taste. It sounds ridiculous but that is what mindfulness is about. Taking a minute to just be in the moment. Mindfulness is a form of meditation therefore. Meditation being the ultimate practise of being able to calm the mind, slow the breathing and concentrate.

So I began trying to be more mindful, to focus on the things I was doing, rather than letting my mind race all the time. Going for a walk and not talking, eating and really tasting the food, slowing everything down. And then I was told about an app for the phone that did guided meditations. You didn't have to sit for an hour in total silence, you could listen and be guided into different forms of meditation to help you keep focused, which I have to say, sounded a bit more like it.

So for the last 2 weeks I have been listening to a different guided meditation each day, for at least 20 minutes, as soon as I wake up. I do not leap out of bed and thrown myself into a lotus position on the floor, I simply rest my phone on my chest and lay perfectly still. The app is called Insight Timer and is a global community of experts with over 12,000 meditations. I do have my favourites already because there is nothing more annoying and distracting than a voice suddenly telling you what to do if they have a horrible speaking voice. So that is number one for me. A lovely calm voice. Secondly, I like ones that focus on breathing. As soon as you slow your breathing down, the effect on your stress levels is overwhelming. I also like visualisation ones although some I've listened to end up making me laugh. There was one I tried a few days ago, where you imagine yourself on a white sandy beach, waves lapping at your feet. That was fine, nice slow breathing to the sound of waves. But then suddenly she told me to get into a boat and float over to a deserted island, to get out of the boat, find a path and walk through a rainforest. In the rainforest was a clearing with a pool of deep water. She told me to take my clothes off and get into the pool of water. And then I started giggling. Of course my brain could not ignore the questions that came into my head... were there sharks in the water? How did the boat know how to get to the island? What if it missed the island on a weird current and floated out to sea instead? Who else was on the island and could they now all see me naked?

So, you see, not every single one does the trick of calming and focusing but I'm very much enjoying experimenting. The latest one, that I did this morning, involved me picturing bright balls of light, zooming and spinning around my body. That was quite nice. I actually felt a tingling sensation for at least half an hour afterwards... but that might have been my new medication instead!!



Monday, 14 August 2017

A left-handed diary entry.

I am currently typing this with my left hand and I am not left-handed. It will take me much longer than normal to write my blog but as my car is in the garage today, I am housebound with nothing better to do.

I am not one to drone on and on about my ailments. I only really talk about it to my family or to friends that know that I'm not going to drone on and on about it for too long. If people ask, I tell them but most of the time my pain is recorded in my writing. My pain diary. It is not a happy read. In fact, it would be silly to ever read it back because it is page after page of pain and painful thoughts. I get it out, every few days, and write about what hurts and what doesn't, what treatment I'm having, what pills I'm taking. I write it down and get it out of my system so that I'm not consumed by it and so that I can lead a normal life most of the time. It is my therapy.

I have kept a diary since I was a young teenager. I wrote about growing pains, wanting a nose job after someone called me Concorde, about having knock knees and pigeon toes. I wrote about being so flat chested and skinny that people still thought I was a boy at 14. I wrote about certain horrible school teachers, being annoyed with my parents and being more annoyed with my sister. I wrote endlessly about trips out with the family and how long the car journey took. I wrote in ridiculous detail about lunches and suppers and meals out, recording what each person had ordered and if they'd enjoyed it. We had a VHS recorder and the first video shop had opened in town so every single video we rented was written about and analysed, from storyline to enjoyment factor. As I got older the diary entries became longer, my writing became smaller and extra pages were inserted and taped in place. I had started writing about boys!

My mid-teen diaries bulge with information and are held together with elastic bands and string. I wrote about fancying boys and wondering what it would be like to kiss them. Ten pages about a particular boy, listing what he wore and how he looked, writing down every word he uttered to me. And then, only days later, that boy would miraculously disappear from my diary, to be replaced with a new crush, a new name. I was at a private girls school at the time so interactions with boys were sparse. We knew the local village boys but they were just irritating. We had family friends but they were like brothers and then we had the all-boys school that we had monthly disco's with. I can feel the awkwardness with such clarity when I read these diaries back. Excruciating verbal exchanges, embarrassing slow dances and nervous wet kisses. I wrote about my first proper French kiss after a night out at a roller disco and being caught in my parent's car headlights as they came to pick me up. I wrote about meeting my first proper boyfriend and being allowed to hang out in his bedroom. In my house, boys weren't even allowed upstairs so many pages were devoted to this brand new territory. But the pain was always there too. Of being let down, being disappointed and being lied to. My girl friends, a very tight group, began to split apart when boys became more of a focus. I wrote about betrayal for the first time, of how hurt I could be by my friends.

And as the years went on, I wrote about more serious boyfriends, about music and bands, getting my first car, going to pubs and weekends away. But the pattern of my writing started to change. There were no longer daily entries, logging my every movement and thought, I now wrote in chunks of time, of particular upsets, of meaningful events. As I entered my early 20's, there were months of blank pages and then suddenly an eruption of emotion would appear, a flurry of hurried angry words, written with such speed and angst that the paper is ripped and tears have blurred the words. Pain and emotion became the focus of these entries. Why became my most overused word. As life became busier, larger gaps appeared. No diaries for 1988, 89 or 90, when I moved to America. I began keeping larger sketch books with beautiful hardback covers and writing would be interspersed with drawings, lists or memorabilia stuck into the pages. Odd sheets of folded paper will sometimes fall out of these books, as I pack them in boxes when I move from house to house, and I will unfold them and find a sad paragraph, written on a whim. There are also letters and cards I've written that remain unsent, and they always unsettle me a bit. I re-read them and wonder if I should send them to the people that hurt me, now, after all these years? I don't.

Someone once told me, my surgeon I think, that people don't remember pain. Your memory of pain subsides, it's something the brain does to cope. Your memories of happiness remain though, and I know, between all the gaps in my diary entries, the hundreds upon thousands of days where no words are recorded, that I was, and am happy. There is no pain in the blank pages and those days far outweigh the painful ones I am relieved to say. I still write about loss and pain and frustration but I also write about love and life and adventure. There must always be some light in the darkness I think. Writing is my catharsis, even today, when I have only one working left hand and six paragraphs have taken me 3 hours. It's ok though, I don't mind. Maybe at the age of 49 I can teach myself to be ambidextrous. That would be handy.