mindfulness and faith

For mental health week in May, a reader of my blog requested that I wrote about christianity and mental health. I haven’t yet found the will to go there completely because giving my opinion about such a thing takes me to a place of vulnerability and discomfort that I’d rather avoid. I suppose I ought to practise what I preach and push into the discomfort. To ease myself in, here is a Radio 4 Thought for Today from back in March. Mindfulness can be confused as something that is completely separate from christianity but I don’t think it is, either…

‘More and more people today are finding some help through the practice of mindfulness.’ Rt Rev Lord Harries – 03/03/17

Good morning. The word of the week at Westminster has been “security”. The security of EU citizens living in this country and the security of British citizens living in mainland Europe and what is the best policy to give them assurance about their future homes and jobs. This is because having somewhere we can settle for the foreseeable future and a way of earning a living is fundamental to the peace of mind of all of us. Insecurity, as experienced by the homeless or jobless, and even more acutely by refugees, can only give rise to acute anxiety. So a prime moral obligation we have as a society is to try to give one another that security which those of us with a home and a job can too easily take for granted.

Yet, that having been said, there is a fundamental insecurity about human life itself that all of us have to face and learn to deal with. In short we worry. My mother was rather a worrier and too often I find myself distracted and thinking about how to manage an imaginary future. Jesus gave us some wonderful words to deal with this. He told us to look at the birds in the air-they don’t worry, to consider the lilies in the field-they don’t worry and even Solomon in all his splendour was not attired like one of these. “Set your minds on God’s kingdom and his justice and all the rest will come to you as well.” He said, and continued “ So do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will look after itself.” He himself lived with that radical, total trust and a few other Christians, like St Francis of Assisi have done so as well, but most of us find it mighty hard.

However, more and more people today are finding some help through the practice of mindfulness: learning how to attend to what is before us now, being fully present in the present. In fact the good practices of secular mindfulness can also be found in the long tradition of Christian spirituality, and I am afraid the church is at fault for keeping them hidden for so long. One of its practitioners was the great philosopher of anxiety, Soren Kierkegaard. He said it was all very well birds not worrying about the future but we are different, we are conscious of time, we have a sense of eternity. He suggests that we should be like rowers in a boat, not looking over our shoulders at what is coming next but letting that sense of eternity plunge us more fully into the present moment. This he said, makes us contemporary with ourselves.

This practise of mindfulness, seeking to be fully alive in the present moment and trustful about what comes next, should not be thought of as a piece of self-indulgence. For if we are free of the little anxieties of daily life we are much more likely to be ready to help those whose insecurity is extreme.

 

A good place to start when feeling anxious is to literally look around you.

Be curious about what you see.

Visualise parking, or packing away your concerns about tomorrow.

Think grateful thoughts about today.

gratitude-quotes3

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why i am proud of my scars and my story

Most people don’t know this but…

I’ve been stung by a jellyfish.

I was just looking myself over in the mirror, as one does from time to time (squeezing spots, checking if my moustache has re-grown, etc.) and the light fell in such a way across my shoulder that it highlighted my tiny scar. I had three torturous strips but sadly I don’t have a striking three-striped scar to flaunt in the summer months.

 

I never even saw the perpetrator…. Translucent beast. Apparently they were teeny little sprogs my Dad casually batted away with his hand. Why was I oblivious to the danger floating on the surface of the deep? I was probably too busy worrying about what was deeper down in the deep…

Here’s the story:

I was 14. We were on a family holiday in Ibiza. Unconventional family destination, you might say. We were in the most beautiful villa out in the sticks, away from all the clubs and 18-30 depravity. My strongest memory was bickering constantly with my siblings. Aged 16, 14 and eleven, we were. A volatile combination. My brother was the youngest and most often the target. Naturally, we felt it was OK – nay, enjoyed by all – if we pulled down his trunks by the pool and then ran off. However, when he returned the favour it was completely and unspeakably inappropriate, to say the least.

For some reason, my parents didn’t find our antics relaxing.

Anyway, we went to this gorgeous little beach and I was rather enjoying myself lounging on a sun bed, taking the occasional dip, when a shadow appeared over me. It was Dad.

Let’s go snorkelling, Jen!

No, Dad. Just, no.

Oh, come on!!

No. I don’t like to know what’s swimming beneath me, Dad. Why do you? Please explain.

It’s amazing!

I really don’t want to.

Come on.

OK.

(My Dad didn’t give up easy when it came to us experiencing things)

Besides, I did spend every Tuesday evening for six months of my middle-school existence going to ‘Snorkelling Club’ at a local pool. That was alright though because there were no fish. I figured I needed to make having my head held under water whilst I tried to breathe through a snorkel a worthwhile experience (not just the stuff of sweaty nightmares).

I grabbed the gear and followed him down the beach to the water. I can’t even remember what I saw but I know that I know that I know –

It wasn’t worth it.

We were floating along, holding hands, when I felt the sting on my shoulder. I shot upright and Dad came up too.

What’s wrong?

Something stung me!

It’s just the salt water, it stings a bit.

No!

At that moment I felt a less intense sting on my upper arm and became slightly frantic. I bolted for the shore as fast as my flippers could flip. It was rather unfortunate that the pain had removed access to my rational brain because I drew rather a lot of attention trying to move across the sand, hysterically crying, whilst still wearing the flippers.

It hurt, a lot. The rumours are true. For an introvert, I was surprisingly content with being stared out by the patrons of the beach cafe not too far from us as I bawled my eyes out. I’m not sure I was that expressive in labour.

Just in case you were wondering, no one urinated on me. We used western medicine in the form of antihistamine cream. Or something for stings. You know, wasp stings… nettle stings. I don’t think it was cut out for JELLYFISH stings.

So, this is where I say I shouldn’t have ‘given in’. I should have stuck to my guns and not done something I really didn’t want to do. Well, maybe. Sometimes in life you take a punt. This one went awfully wide. Yet you don’t know you won’t enjoy it unless you try it and sometimes it’s ok to make someone else happy at your own expense.

What strikes me most about this event is my sense of pride over my scar and my story. You can bank on it that in a room of about a dozen people in my little town on the south coast of England where the most offensive thing in the sea is seaweed, no one else will have been stung by a jelly duuuude.

There is something fascinating about ‘war wounds’. They are impressive and, at times, awe-inspiring. Wow, you really went through that and you’re still here? Your body put itself back together? Incredible. Some scars can even become a thing of beauty.

Here’s the thing though, what has hurt me the most has left scars on the inside.

It’s hard to see those. What you might see is my anger. What you might see is anxiety or depression. They aren’t all that impressive or awe-inspiring. My body can heal itself, perhaps with a little help. But my heart needs love, empathy and connection to heal in a way that leaves the smallest scar.

Perhaps, next time you’re hit with someone’s anger, blame or rejection, consider what scars they have that you can’t see.

I know I need to learn to have pride in my scars and in my story – instead of shame.

Perhaps you do, too.

grief: coping with endings and transitions

We are moving from Worthing to Bromley in a month’s time and this week involves a lot of endings. I find myself feeling exhausted, easily upset and just unable to get a handle of my thoughts and feelings. It is all exacerbated by the fact that I have to help my kids deal with their endings and manage the emotional fallout.

Something we had to reflect on during my counselling course was how we feel about endings. For one exercise we had to choose a “good” ending and consider why it was positive. I chose leaving work to go on maternity leave with my first child. I was ready to finish for a start as I was carrying what would turn out to be a 10-pounder (yep, it’s no surprise that sneezing whilst walking when I have a full bladder doesn’t go well these days).  I was also well prepared for the ending; I had about seven months warning. Thirdly, I was excited about the next step. It was a step I had chosen and I couldn’t wait to crack on with motherhood and all it involved.

However, as I reflected on this I realised something…

It wasn’t really an ending.

Even though I had a fairly good idea I wouldn’t go back to the same role and would have another child fairly soon after the first. The organisation was run by my Dad and I knew I’d always have connections to it and would probably work for them again at some point in some capacity. I was right.

It led me to question, do I actually only deal well with endings that aren’t really endings?

How has experiencing a major bereavement at the age of 20 and then another at 29 impacted the way I view endings? I came up with a few things:

i expect endings to be bad

I can’t really help it. Well, I can but it’s taking some CBT effort and perseverance. I am trying to notice the negative thoughts and counter them with positive ones. I am also attempting to focus on today and be mindful about the present moment.

I very much need to be kind to myself and this is where I can often get in turmoil. My incredibly noisy self-critic tells me I can’t cope, won’t cope, but should cope. My thoughts tell me that it’s inevitable that I won’t manage and that in itself equals failure.

This morning, I had an awful dream in which three people died and in the dream I was feeling waves of stomach clenching pain. I woke up completely immersed in those feelings. It was horrible. My subconscious associates any goodbye with the worst kind of goodbye I have experienced and therefore, self-compassion is due (but rarely given, in all honesty).

endings = anxiety

It’s very hard to control the sense of panic that seemingly comes out of nowhere when approaching a major change or transition. You may have felt that the day before your driving test, or appraisal, or exam. Perhaps not though over moving house.

The anxiety feeds itself because as I feel anxious I then feel less able to cope and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

i feel the impact of other endings

During the past week I have felt similar to how I felt in the throes of grieving for my Dad. Fragile, tearful, lonely. At the time of this transition I wish he were here to support and also encourage me in the unique, Dad-way that he did. I wish he could help us with decisions. I wish he simply knew.

As I start to grieve over leaving the life we have here I am experiencing a fresh wave of grief for my Dad, which leaves me feeling as though this ending is going to be worse than it really is.

I was in this state at the beginning of the week and anticipating saying goodbye to the toddler group I have been attending for five and a half years, yesterday. Yet, it wasn’t all that bad. I didn’t shed a tear. That could sound like I don’t care, which isn’t the case. It’s that the reality was nowhere near as painful as the scenario my grief gave rise to. In fact, in some way, my grief for my Dad overshadowed it and therefore you might say I am more resilient to goodbyes now. That’s just not what my anxious thoughts and my wounded heart believe right now (nor my self-critic).

After yesterday’s experience, I no longer feel anxious about other impending goodbyes. Though I know some will be #totesemosh. That’s one of the challenges of recovering from grief: it is a journey and part of that is simply bearing with yourself as you gradually experience more events that prove to your battered psyche that not everything regarding loss involves intense pain.

How do you find endings? Have you considered it before?

ending quote