ON WORRYING

ON WORRYING

In my youth and prime of life, I enjoyed a luxury and privilege that I was insufficiently grateful for; I did not suffer much from either guilt or from anxiety.

On guilt, I still largely hold the same position. I generally think before I take action and I decide that I’m comfortable with the damage I may be about to inflict. Or I decide it’s disproportionate, and then I pass quietly by. As I get older, I pass by more often than I used to do. I no longer demand or expect near perfection in others. I know I don’t achieve this myself, so why should I expect it of anyone else? But I still think guilt is something people indulge themselves in. They should have thought of that before. Or else they should attempt to make reparation.

I did of course get nervous like anyone else before interviews, making speeches, setting out on long journeys; but I also was confident of my ability to steer my way out of most difficulties, so I just dismissed these anxieties as trifling and carried on.

I have suffered from Parkinson’s disease for the past 20 years or so. If I get my drug intake wrong; if I make a mistake; if I forget the time; if I’m physically unwell; if I suffer an emotional blow; if I have to expend too much emotional or spiritual energy, or even if circumstances cause me to become extremely tired, then power can drain out of me like water from a breached dam. Then with hardly any notice I can find myself floundering, unable to move or to go from sitting to standing, with shaking limbs without power, couldn’t retrieve an object from my bag or put on my coat without assistance, and in extreme cases I am unable to power back up for several hours. I don’t lose mental capacity. I can still think my way out of the difficulty, but I need help from other people. To someone like me, accustomed from a very early age to depend upon my own judgement and although I have always been fortunate in my travelling companions I never-the-less had a clear sense that in the end, you stood or fell alone; this is a grievous calamity.

I’ve become aware that my anxieties are increasing, so that of late I’ve been unable to sleep for worrying about ridiculous things, which my logical self knows are stupid. Even the prospect of baking a cake – something well within my capabilities – can cause hours of anxiety. Tranquilisers are quite useless at fixing such a problem. They don’t deal with the root cause; in my case they adversely affect my balance; and you worry about being dependant on them and them rotting your brain. Come daylight, I can see that these anxieties are, if not entirely without foundation, exaggerated to an unreasonable extent. But by then I’ve not slept well, so you’re already not in peak condition, so more likely to suffer collapses. You begin to feel depressed, something I’ve never suffered from.

I came across a book – Anxiety Relief and Panic Attacks by Matthew Lewis Ph.D. – which appealed to me. The author writes clearly and sensibly about anxiety, with sympathy but not minimising the difficulties. One of the suggestions he makes, which I could really identify with, was that you had to call up your best self, and hold on to that self, as you tackled these various problems. He didn’t say it was going to be easy.

I’ve tried, from time to time throughout my life, various paths to relaxation and meditation. I’ve always found them tedious in the extreme. Relaxation tapes where someone talks become irritating after you listen once or twice – you already know the tale; the narrator’s nasal twang annoys you; it’s a colossal waste of time. Doing a body search where you concentrate on various parts of the body merely highlights minor aches and pains you were previously successfully ignoring. Reciting a mantra – Om – makes me feel I’m part of a cult. The thinking overview, detached and observant, that is always present in me, observing and judging, which in normal life is such an asset, simply judges these processes as silly and unnecessary.

But Lewis just suggests you deal with the anxieties by blocking them out. So you just acknowledge your anxious thought with a gentle nod, and you concentrate your energy on your breathing. You breathe in, counting in your head to 4, you hold for 2, and you exhale for 7, and then you start the next breath. When your next anxiety rears its head, you acknowledge it – you don’ t try to chase it out, nor do you beat yourself up for having it; you just make it quietly welcome and then you return your attention to your breathing and counting. You do this for as long as it’s necessary. I find I’m yawning after about 4 breaths, and even now typing this out, I’ve already yawned three times. Perhaps you’re just boring yourself to sleep but I’ve no issues with that. You’re in charge of the process; you can do it anywhere. You don’t need equipment. You make no attempt to understand the thinking process or alter your conclusion: you can certainly do that if you wish but you must do that in you working day. Above all, it’s all under your control and subject to your own judgement. The sleepless thinker is slightly sceptical but has been willing to suspend judgement. She’s not offended by the process and her defences are not breached.

I find it difficult to refrain from meddling in the actual examination of the problem on the spot, but I’ve promised myself to wait until next week. And behold – a miracle. I fall asleep, and into a deep sleep, and if I get up in the night I go back to sleep swiftly. And this has happened now for several nights.

Thanks be, variously, to God, to my essential self, to my long suffering husband, and to Dr. Matthew Lewis.

Hallelujah!

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FOR THE GODDESS ATHENE

FOR THE GODDESS ATHENE

I open my curtains.   The garden is misty and cool.   As I turn back to regain the warmth and comfort of my bed, I catch sight of my face in the mirror.   For a change, it is with surprise that I see that some of my former beauty still drifts around me much as the pale mist still lingers around the shadowy garden.   So often in recent times a tired, strained, pain-ravaged face peers back at me.   With its lines and stresses, the grim compression of the mouth, it reminds me of some older relative whom one once stared at as a girl, and felt that one would never reach such a strange and awful age oneself.   Yet age has come upon me stealthily, both slowly day by day, and suddenly and imperceptibly.   I am 63.   I am older now than other women whom in my youth I regarded as ancient.

And yet … and yet …    I would not return to the sunny optimism of former days.   The now, today, is always where you ought to be.

I have never wasted time lamenting my fate, and have on the whole been able to accept the joys and sadnesses of life and count my fortune a goodly portion.    21st century man suffers from the delusion that he is master of his destiny and can control his fate.   How the gods must laugh at our folly!   We can no more control our fate than one could turn back a tsunami and completely unanticipated events bear down on us as swiftly and unexpectedly as a deadly wave.

But there are compensations to growing older.    You have more time to reflect and understand.   You see that you do not have to strive so hard: or perhaps it’s just a gentler kind of striving.   Whereas once you may have directed, now you influence.   You understand the value of a good example.   A quiet word, a gentle touch, some modest encouragement, a small kindness – these tiny gestures can help people out of all proportion to the effort exerted.    You know this because you have received these kindnesses yourself.

My husband, when aged about 40, had a eureka moment, when he said to me, ‘I see I have to stop looking for father figures, and go out and BE one.’    Similarly, there comes a point in your life – and it is a bleak one – when the ladies whose example you have followed, those quiet models of good behaviour, courage, wise counsel, high standards – when they have departed one by one, when you look around you and realise there is hardly anyone on the road in front of you.   Soon there will be  only you and those coming after you.   You understand that you will have to BE that example, or attempt to be it, ill-equipped as you are.

These days I am attempting to practise meditation.   No practitioner of any discipline can ever have started with less aptitude, grace or facility at the art than the reluctant incompetence with which I attempt this.    You would think, being a cerebral type, that I would find this easy, but I do not.

Yet already I see some benefits.  I am calmer.   My face looks less stressed.   Actually my pain levels are reduced, though I am afraid to count this in case I lose it.    I think  it is fair to say that I have always been generous and just if well treated, but dangerous  if opposed.    The leopard does not change his spots, but still, I am able to make more allowances for people.   I do not get out my sword quite so quickly.

When I look back on my life, I have few regrets;  but I could have been kinder and more patient.   I never went looking for a fight;   I issued two warnings;  but once these preliminaries were over, I slew them.   As I hefted my sword, I used to think, couldn’t they see I held it?   Well , clearly they couldn’t.      There’s none of these people whom I regret in the sense that I think they didn’t deserve what came to them – and besides of course no-one was literally injured, so in theory they could live and learn.   But I was not particularly merciful.   I ask myself now, what was the rush to judgement?   The sword was mine.   I could always have used it later.

Sometimes (rarely) in the period of meditation, a physical image will arise unexpectedly and surprise you with its beauty or strangeness:  or an insight will occur to you.   While you are practising the discipline you set it aside, but you reflect on it later.

I realise I am content.   In some ways one gets older and weaker;  in other ways one gets (hopefully) wiser and stronger.   I’m still for the goddess Athene.    Even though I am an old woman, the girl I was still runs beside me.

If you believe, as I do, that the events which befall one are uniquely intended for one, then you can go out and meet your destiny, secure in the knowledge that however unwelcome are the circumstances which overtake you, never the less they are to be embraced for they are a gift of some description.

We do not control our  destiny, but how we rise to the challenges that face us can make all the difference from being swept away on the great wave of events, or surfing on it to a safer shore.

We should not fear old age, but be glad we have survived to enjoy it.