The Sacred Centre

sharing – daring – caring – writing from the heart

Category: Stress and Anxieties

As Yet Untitled

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I think I’m finally on the mend.

I had a little cry today (while watching “The fault in our stars”).

I’ve been longing to cry since an “accidental” outburst nine months ago when I learned that my boyfriend had spent all afternoon alone in our hotel room in New York just in case I would come back and didn’t have to be alone after I had disappeared in the nearest underground after what I would call an episode of sorts in which my nerves just snapped and I had to get away from our friends while on holiday and legged it to the Brooklyn Bridge on my own.

Since then I’ve been having a tough time keeping my act together for another couple of months until my GP urged me to accept that being singed off work was a good thing to allow me to rest and recover, of which the recovery itself took a further three to four months until I finally found another job and escaped a stressful job that had plainly been making me ill.

And suddenly I not only had a new life ahead of me, but also a surprising amount of close friends, I found my distant dad and had a first real conversation with him, began painting again, joined a really lovely supportive new working environment, started to cook and bake a little more, and quite frankly am pleasantly overwhelmed by my sudden busy social life after years of social anxiety and persistent tiredness and lacking motivation.

I had found myself again.

So for me, finally being able to allow my tears to fall, is synonymous with allowing myself to feel a range and depth of emotions, which supposedly had somehow got blocked, either through my own pride of not admitting my weaknesses to myself and others or because I didn’t know where to direct them.

In the past month I had incredibly eye-opening talks with individuals, whom I never considered to have stories like those they shared with me. But by opening myself up, showing my own vulnerability, they must have felt save to share theirs with me, which added a whole nother connection between us, adding depth to growing friendships.

I’m still experiencing occasional bouts of anxiety but I now am aware of when they arise and am able to use new found tools to keep them under control, even if that means simply having to sit and breathe with the horrible wave of nausea instead of following the strong urge to run away and hide somewhere save.

Having been wanting to put all these suddenly emerging emotions into words over the past few months had proved difficult for me, there just weren’t enough appropriate words to describe what I was suddenly feeling. And I’m not even sure what I want to say, just that I am incredibly lucky to be alive and to be able to feel what I’m feeling, see what I’m seeing, hear what I’m hearing, taste what I’m tasting and sense that this life is a gift, that I should cherish and not waste with worrying about the future or past, but to just live it one step at a time while keeping in touch with myself and those around me, to connect with the world, its people and nature.

That is the simple truth of life: just live it.

With love
Anna

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Seventh Day – Departure to the unknown

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Farewells started early at 7am with one of my room mates and carried on with the other three hours later. I had caught up with taking some photos during the morning and surprisingly it felt like the most relaxing day of all. I got close to tears when the last of my room mates left but still the gates wouldn’t open. The longed for emotional release didn’t happen.

I wondered whether my own practice, however little and sporadic it might have been, since my last stay at Plum Village, had made more of a difference than I realised, meaning that I was already much calmer and more present than I had been during my first visit, despite my recent stressful experience. I also wonder whether this means that I will be able to re-integrate quicker back into the “real world” compared to the last time when I had difficulties to adjust.

Then thing is that we don’t always realise how deep we are into something – be it stress or relaxation. We simply carry on living. The only time we really notice how deep we have gone is when we experience the opposite. That’s how we measure success or failure. So without the bad we won’t know how good we are and equally we won’t know how bad we have got until we feel good again.

And even though I feel rather bad for having been so critical during my stay at Plum Village, I know that it was important for me to recognize and experience those emotions to be able to process them, so I would be ready to deal with them back in the “real world”. And where better to deal with such emotions than in the humbling embrace of a Buddhist community in the heart of Plum Village.

So forgive me if my past few posts made you feel uncomfortable but the point I’m trying to make is how stress and anxieties can impact on your life, how they literally suck the joy out of it and leave you in a bleak twilight state that can be very difficult to deal with. So if reading those posts made you uncomfortable, may I ask you to put yourself into the position of someone who struggles with day to day activities and try to understand that the discomfort you feel while reading is the same discomfort they feel most days while carrying on with their lives, just much worse. And it is not just a grumpy person or someone who’s having a bad day!

I will continue to write from the heart, because that’s what this blog is all about, even though it might not be the most uplifting of places at the moment. And what I find hardest is the fact that not many people are prepared to accept that not everyone can be cheered up with a joke or a cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean that you should stop trying. These people need you to just be there for them and accept them the way they are without judgement or overwhelming advice. Just have an open heart and listen deeply. Increasingly more people experience stress and anxieties, so there might be a time when you may need support yourself and I bet that those who previously struggled will be there to return the favour because they understand what it is like.

So many people with such issues hide because they don’t want to be a burden or a nuisance, they don’t want to ruin their friends’ day, and they avoid contact because the dreaded questions of “how are you” isn’t an easy one to answer. So they either hide behind that smile while silently writhing in pain inside or they might say how they really feel and expose themselves to the unpredictable reaction of others. I myself didn’t fully understand how it feels until I experienced it myself. And I want to make others aware of it, to broaden their horizon, to create more acceptance and understanding and most importantly to come to terms with it myself. I hope to keep your company for a little while longer, for hope is all I have.

Love
Anna

Fifth Day – Endurance

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I share a lot of similarities with one of my room mates. We both consider ourselves highly sensitive (read about The Extrovert Detox) and always aim for the same sitting cushion. Just like me she often feels like running away, not linking rules and even today felt the same irritation as me during meditation. We are both aware how easily we can pick up other’s emotions and mistake them for our own.

The “Mutant Message Down Under” revealed a few more insights to me. “There should be no suffering by any creature except what they accept for themselves. Each soul on the highest level of our being could select to be born into an imperfect body; they often came to teach and influence the lives they touched. All diseases and disorders have some spiritual connection and serve as stepping stones if we would only open up and listen to our bodies to learn what is taking place.”

“You cannot hear the voice of Oneness when you are busy talking. Clear your mind and thoughts and wait to receive.”

I wondered whether I should have just stayed at home with this book of wisdoms instead of travelling all this way to find peace at Plum Village in  France but realised immediately that you only learn by practicing, not merely by reading about it in a book.

After the alarm of one of our room mates had gone on and on and on this morning while she blissfully carried on sleeping, and not to mention the seemingly endless sitting mediation, we now returned giggling joyfully from a deep relaxation session which somehow resembled more a Chinese karaoke session. The singing just wouldn’t stop. Irritation arose and found release in laughter with each other. But the best was that the girl who slept through her alarm also managed to sleep through the relaxation! Unbelievable! 🙂

And it was only 10am… What else would we have to endure today? I can generally be quite impatient and when I feel I need to go I will just go. Sitting through mental and physical pain and discomfort is challenging but it also tests your endurance.

Me and one of my room mates skipped working meditation. Just gave in to the feeling of disinterest and irritation. I don’t know yet what it means in the long run but it did make me feel guilty, neglecting the community. I almost feel like I lost interest. I don’t know if this is part of my current issue with anxiety and depression or the medication adjustment phase, or even just plain disinterest itself. Maybe I’ve stressed myself that much that I really can’t find my quite core again?

My reluctance to carry on participating here might actually make it easier to re-integrate back into real life again after. Maybe that is also an indication that I’m ready to tackle real life again instead of hiding from it. I also haven’t taken a single photo yet since arriving at Plum Village. It made the flow easier I suppose. Anyway I have everything documented already from my last stay three years ago.

I had a deep moment during walking meditation where we stood by a still water and I momentarily got lost in the mirroring depth of lush spring green trees and leaves on the water’s surface as fellow participants appear one after the other like shy deer.

Me and my room mates finally agree to wake up without the extra alarm, promising we would wake each other up if the bell didn’t.

Second Day – Anger Manifests

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We all spend the day at the Upper Hamlet, a long day with dharma talk, formal lunch and dharma sharing. Inside of me it was boiling and bubbling, my back hurt with a passionate burning sensation which stretched all along the whole length of my spine. I was fed up with sitting and being “happy”. The dharma talk fittingly spoke of a crying baby inside of us that needs attention.

A humble moment occurred when Thich Nhat Hanh, zen monk and founder of Plum Village who was still affected by his illness, was wheeled in during the dharma talk while a hall full of monks, nuns and lay friends sang “I have arrived, I am home“. His presence was immediately noticeable. He was only able to hold up one hand in half prayer pose but with his eyes full of energy he scanned every single face in the hall, going along the rows of people. I also spotted Sister Chân Không, who helped to set up Plum Village, among the group of monks and nuns during the welcome song at the beginning of the day, as if seeking refuge. I was very touched and humbled to be in the same room as those two inspiring individuals.

I was hoping to see one of the monks again that I spoke with the last time I was there but I couldn’t spot him in the crowd. We had shared from the heart our experience of not being recognized and accepted by our parents. There had been no change in my situation apart from a new sort of anger that was brewing at still being ignored by my father and I was intrigued to hear whether there had been any changes for him. Later back at the Lower Hamlet, a girl who attended one of the other dharma sharing groups said how touched she was by a monk in her group who shared with his mother who had come to visit him from the other end of the world and that both had cried. By her description of him I could assume that it was him, tall, big nose, still with his hair, slightly curled and combed back. I was saddened to think I missed him, the lump in my throat tightened. But then I heard we might still meet the other hamlets again for a day of mindfulness later in the week. That would be good, maybe the time just wasn’t right yet.

During dharma sharing I spoke from the heart how I had tried to keep up my practice since my last visit to Plum Village three years ago and how I felt like a failure for my stress related anxiety despite my knowledge and awareness of mindfulness and had come to Plum Village in the hope to find my flow again. But instead, I said, I was experiencing frustration and anger, feeling like I want to run away, but figured that since I was aware of these emotions I might as well sit with them and see what happens. The dharma talk also mentioned how our emotions are not us, that they are mere visitors in our house. So we can sit with them but we won’t let them take over our house.

It was interesting to hear others share how they were struggling, especially in their second week (even if mine was three years later). It seems to be that way. Also, when the need to share arises it appears to be common to feel your heart race or a pressure feeling in your chest. For me it was also accompanied by anger at what others were saying, which subsided once I had said what I felt and was able to listen to the others without that negativity inside of me. I felt a little lighter afterwards, as if someone had lifted the lid off the pressure cooker, even had a few more natural and less constrained conversations with other participants afterwards.

I want to cry, let it all out, but it just wasn’t happening! My 48 hours were up, where were the tears?

And after learning about non-attachment we merrily go into the gift shop and buy pretty and useful things we don’t really need.

The key to a happy and emotionally balanced life is to let the heart speak when it calls out. I wouldn’t be depressed if I had been able to speak up openly and clearly express my opinion, regardless of it being different to others. I need to start doing that. No point in silently agreeing with others only because you get their point. You can bring your own point across as well and calmly work on finding a middle point agreement that suits everyone.

I probably also tried too hard to be mindful, setting myself up for disappointment. I feel suffocated by the rules of meal times. They are all different and I’m just never quite sure when to wait, eat or get up. Earlier we were unsure because there had been no bell and it was already ten minutes after beginning of meal time and lazy evening. So when I observed a nun take food I thought it meant we could help ourselves. But when picking a plate I was reminded that the bell hadn’t yet invited dinner and the nun had some other reason for taking food. Felt like such a fool! And my internal magma was bubbling…

 

 

Behind the Smile

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Lower Hamlet, Plum Village, France

Three years ago I spent a week at Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery in France, which teaches the mindfulness philosophy of Thich Nhat Hanh (read about it here). Ever since then have I been practicing to keep my calm but found it often difficult in the fast world outside the comforting surroundings of Plum Village, and the sense of peace I acquired during my week there soon dissolved like clouds in the sky.

A month ago I experienced work related stress and anxiety. Some might, and some did, say they saw it coming, I had been under a lot of stress at work over the past two years. I blame myself, because I took on so much, but there is also a lot to be said for the additional stress at work with unpredictable and often unmanageable workloads and also when our department moved on top of it all.

I also feel a failure for not being able to get on top of it and instead ending up unable to work, or even live, for that matter, despite everything I had learned about stress management and health and wellbeing. I went against my belief that we can heal ourselves with a healthy and nutritious diet, exercise, a positive attitude to life and whichever complementary or alternative therapy suits by taking antidepressants. I was always critical towards medications, the chemicals and side effects, and worried they might change me. But the stress and the anxiety had festered so much I already hardly recognized myself anymore, so taking pills couldn’t possibly be any worse. And it wasn’t. It turned out to be the best I could possibly have done since every aspect of my life slowly improved over the past weeks.

The physical, mental and emotional symptoms had become unbearable and are difficult to explain, especially since from the outside I didn’t look much different. It was the inner turmoil, the persistent unhappiness, constant worries, the tiredness, exhaustion and aching limbs, the acid cursing through my veins, the heart racing, that lump in my throat, the lack of focus and motivation, the deep sadness and feeling of loneliness, all hidden behind a calm smile, which only faded when nobody was watching. I didn’t know what to do, all my stress busting practices, meditation, yoga, walks, acupressure, acupuncture, psychotherapy didn’t seem to work anymore. Even worse, I was more and more unable to do them. I realised I was getting really bad when I stopped doing my usual daily yoga practice. So I summoned up my last strength and tried again to make an appointment with my GP.

At the moment I feel very good, calm, relaxed, at ease, happy. I have crossed the 4 week threshold of the adjustment phase of my medication relatively unharmed by side effects. I feel more peaceful within myself, enjoying time with my partner without fear and worries, being among people without panic, waking up without my heart racing, appreciating simple moments, having the motivation and will to get up and do things and not worrying too much about my return to work. I carried on with my daily yoga, meditation, acupressure and walks and am certain that without them I would either have gone down a long time ago already or would be much deeper into the illness and less likely to recover so smoothly and quick.

The thing is that we don’t always realise how deep we are into something – be it stress or relaxation. We simply carry on living. The only time we really notice how deep we have gone is when we experience the opposite. That’s how we measure success or failure. So without the bad we won’t know how good we are and equally we won’t know how bad we have got until we feel good again.

My second visit to Plum Village wasn’t as joyful as the first but brought on more of a struggle, which could be due to anxiety, the medication adjustment phase or simply because I had changed as a person. I will share my thoughts and feelings from that week with you over the next few days.

Until then
Anna