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Thursday, 28 November 2013

What will you allow into your mind?

When I lived in Argentina we would watch the news daily. It was in 2001, the height of the Cavallo financial crisis. The news got personal. It wasn’t that a politician had been found to be corrupt, a law change or lacy knickers found in the wrong place, it was much more personal. They didn’t say ‘Julia you will not be able to get your money out of the bank tomorrow there is a freeze’ or ‘Julia’s bus was held-up today with men with guns who went round person by person taking their wallets’ or ‘A lady in Julia’s village, Maipu, was killed today by children because she would not give them sweets.’ They didn’t use my name, but they could have. We were all watching, eyes glazed with fear, about what they would say about our worlds, about our lives.

That was how we began to walk with hunched backs, constantly looking over our shoulders. I didn’t like to stop at red lights in my little blue Fiat 500 when other cars weren’t around: it was just dangerous. My boss’s son had been shot like that, and it was only the fact he jammed on the gas knocking the barrel of the gun from his temples to his leg that he wasn't killed. Our very own road-side chicken stall, Angelitos Parripollos, was held up twice, while we, the proud owners were on holiday. The first time Pollo, my cunado, in shock, just handed over all our hard earned cash, the second time, feeling indignant, he didn’t and el suegro (the father) got shot in a lung and my brother-in-law in the leg. By sheer miracle the suegro’s workplace, a bodega that he had been working for for 40 years, had paid his social security that month (they hadn’t paid any wages for about 5 months) and he was able to be admitted into a hospital. If not?

This was life. It was scary. It was impossible not to be aware of what was going on, you could feel it. Watching the news only made it worse: I started to become paralyzed and in that shut down state couldn’t bear the thought of leaving my own house.

So I made a decision to stop watching the news, and if it happened it happened. But when it didn’t happen (which in my case was never): it didn’t happen. I decided I could NOT stop using the bus to get into Mendoza just out of fear. We had to continue to live, to work, to meet friends. I mean, if it’s going to happen then it’s going to happen, independently to if you have read the news or not. But while the horrible, terrifying things weren’t going on, why live in terror as if it were?

I had a similar experience in Nepal in 2004. There was a Maoist uprising, and often we couldn’t teach in the orphanage’s school. We were forced to ‘strike’. If they found you teaching they would burn down the school. We all heard, as the news spread from village to village, that there were riots outside the University. This went on for months. Meanwhile we had to continue to live, to eat, to play, to teach the children how to draw.

One day I had to go into Katmandu. I wanted to buy games for the children, I was starting up play time, something the orphans had never heard of. Trundling back to the bus, I took the direct route back by the University. And as per the grapevine, there were students out there burning tires and making black smoke, and police men at the end of the road trying to look important, but actually looking a bit bored, while students in the university threw toilet paper out of the window making waterfalls of white paper stream through the black smoke. They had also thrown nails down on the road so that cars would not be able to circulate. To me it all seemed rather pathetic to be honest, a sort of crazy bonfire night, though it was a street I really wouldn’t want to walk down.

I got home to the village and visited my friend who happened to have the television on. I saw footage of the riots in Katmandu, they had capture that fear of being too close to death and my mind said ‘Ohh I wouldn’t want to be there, that looks so dangerous!!’ until with a jolt I realised that I HAD been there, only an hour before, and that it was nothing like they were reporting. It wasn’t safe as houses, but it wasn’t the war zone they were capturing. I wondered what angle they had used. How they had managed to ramp it up so much?

So I realised that the media’s direct effect on me caused either unnecessary fear, or escalated my fears into immobility. It seems to me that the real danger of fear exists more than in the mind. I mean, last year many, many tourists (millions) didn’t come to Greece because the media showed it to be so dangerous. I walked through Sygmata Square in Athens and thought it was exciting. It was just like the week before when I had passed through La Plaza Catalunya, in Barcelona: tents, and camp stoves and hippies all smoking joints and lots and lots of people getting excited, thinking they were making history. Knowing they were making news. And then once in a while some uncover cop would come along, be violent and create a problem to stir everything up, so the media could put the wrong slant on it all. Again.

It started to get really ridiculous thinking about the ‘danger’ reported in the news while swimming in the beautiful clear azure seas, still and peaceful, and wandering back to my little sweet house in the lazy sun, past Micro Café to say hi to friends who were contentedly having a little drink as the news continued to say how dangerous Greece was, even away from that one square in Athens. The worst that could have happened is that you could trip over a bougainvillea bush.

Ohh the news! The news! Telling me how to look at the world around me! Why listen? I don't need messages that say I am impotent to change the world, even my own world. I don't need messages based on fear, impossible situations and no solutions warping my views of myself and the world into weakness and uselessness. I refuse.

Why allow ourselves to be disconnected from the peacefulness of natural reality, making us forget the quantity of love that flows through the world and of communities all over the planet making a difference. I will not allow the news to make me think that I am not powerful within myself.

But when my own mind does it to me, for some absurd reason, I believe every word.

Me and my mind. Not listening any longer!

PS A lot of people responded to this post in private messages as if I were going through a 'dark night' but the idea came to me while on a 10-day Vipassana...it is an idea of liberation! A way out of the monkey mind. I know I have one, and I'm pretty sure everyone else who hasn't worked extensively on their inner mind does too. Opera's such as Wagner's Parzival and Verdi's Magic Flute attest to the feminine character sleeping or under the harsh rule of a cruel tyrant (ego impurities of the mind), Sleeping Beauty awakens from her curse, Snow White gets out of the woods (the unconscious) with the help of her 7 little worker dwarfs, Psyche on her journey separates the grain from the chaff with the help of ants...

I feel as if facing the monkey mind as a monkey mind is an awakening, knowing that the mind sends these messages and being able to stand firm enough to be able to see them for what they are: propaganda not based on reality. It is liberating (to me at least) to think we can begin to recognise what is and what is not real.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Being Oneself in a Relationship

We met while I was having an English cuppa in front of my Greek white-washed flat on a tiny cobbled street too narrow almost for bicycles. Bourganvilla pink and purples brushed against the white walls that wedged my house besides a little orthodox chapel where I was sat under the orange tree. He was a tourist, and I was not into having relationships. End of story. I was out of the market. The last one had burnt me so deeply that I had decided that I could not be me AND be in a relationship: I needed space and time to develop myself, and stop being so utterly and completely lost.

Later by email (yes I admit we swapped contact details) he invited me for a drink which seemed safe enough because I thought he was gay. He also seemed to be one of those interesting people who you wouldn’t want to miss, especially when living in a small society where the social offer is not exactly continually dazzling. This guy seemed to have intricate ideas and an open mind, and mentioned being a dancer, but even so last minute I tried to get out of it, but my mobile wouldn’t send a text to his American cell phone.

He clinched it later though, after the drink when we wandered up to the church on the top of Paroikia. Overlooking the expansive Aegean horizon of the dark, moonlit sea, and I found myself in his arms, being twirled through the air, and all I could see was a palm tree coming in and out of my vision as I circled, flying almost weightlessly in the air. If a man can lift this sturdy lass, he’s worth looking into. 

The Church where we danced that night.

In the following days we went swimming in the sea with a full moon lighting our return along the cliffs, had a secret breakfast where all my friends spotted me, and walked hand in hand down the little Greek streets, laughing because once again he had thrown me over his back as if it were completely normal and nothing had happened at all. The big turn on was discovering he was actually as intelligent as he seemed.

And so those three heady days spent together turned into a risk: after a month of email addiction we wondered about a three month ticket for me to go stay with him. I looked at the photos of his picturesque house in the first range of the Rocky Mountains, a cycle ride from Boulder, Colorado, and did a ping pong game of yes-no for about two weeks.

It turned out to be a good bet: I learnt ‘merican words and ways, we fell in love more, got on well, argued well together. During the end of my stay his work asked him to go to a world-wide conference. It is held at a different location around the world, and this time was in Nottingham, an hour and a half from my family home, a week after I returned. Surely this was meant to be? We both saw it written in the stars in Arial Black font.

But no.

Like attracts like. He also seems to think he cannot be in a relationship and be himself.


So, instead of going for the dramatic surges of hormonal addiction to inboxes, we decided to be strong and separate: to walk our own paths. Sensible perhaps. We both sighed with relief, it had all been starting to get quite intense. It was beginning to be real.

And so I sit, hours and hours in the Vipassana center as a long term server and ponder all this, when I should in fact be not pondering or thinking at all but just quietly, equanimously, observing sensations arising and passing away.

Out of the meditation sessions, as a dhamma worker we can talk (imagine the disasters in the kitchen if not) and so as a children’s course ended I chatted with a woman who told me ‘It’s all about loving yourself.’ She said ‘Go travel alone, live alone, find a friend in yourself.’

Hmmm. Have done. Didn’t make the grade. I mean how much travelling alone must one do?

She says ‘Ohh but did you do it from love of self, or from lack? Running towards or running away?’


Thoughts flash of travelling alone and yearning for contact, for an arm to stroke, to feel someone’s hands on my lower back walking down a street.

‘Maybe you need to learn to live alone?’

I think of the isolation in the other house I lived in on the Greek hillside, hours playing the trumpet, painting, meditating, and doing all sorts of stuff that I like, thinking how much better it would be with someone else. 

She suggests baths, with Chardonnay and candles.

Yes, that would be nice.

But still it doesn’t get down to the bottom of it for me. Everyone has their own root causes, and sitting so many hours with myself, in that hall, is still not bringing out the love. Everything but. I’m finding that I am addicted to yearning for a man. I find I yearn for him more when I feel insecure. So I’m yearning for security. I yearn for him when I am tired. So I’m yearning energy. I yearn for him to tell me that I am funny, and bright and that I am worth keeping alive.

It’s not really a positive point of view.

‘Uff,’ I say ‘why is it so difficult?’

We look into each other’s eyes, sensing we have gone through the same: beating up on ourselves for no apparent reason.

‘I would never to talk to a friend like I talked to myself,’ she admits.

‘I know,’ I collude. I’ve thought that many times before.

‘But now, I’m pleased to say, I hardly beat myself up at all. I am loving to myself, I am soft, and as I become softer, the outer world does too.’

I realise in that wide, deep, chasm of comparison, that I have barriers to that inner calm, to that inner peace, where the mind is at rest.

‘I think I’m addicted to yearning for men,’ I admit for the first time out loud, as much to myself as to her. I shrink back wondering how she will react.

‘Who isn’t?’

I feel the relief flood through my pores.

Over these meditation days I have realised that I’m addicted to the fantasy of relationships, to craving for a man, as if ‘the one’ were the key to my everlasting fairytale happiness, where no longer will I need to sit through the agony of facing myself and my shadow: a magic cure for all.

I mean actually when you think about it, it is so embarrassing infantile, that you would only really want to admit it to a stranger at the bus stop.

‘You can spend half a meditation session dreaming about a man,’ she says.

I look at her alarmed, only thirty minutes? She senses it and amends, ‘I guess we can spend half our lives wasting away with all that craving.’

And so, the wonderful woman with the calm, deep still eyes, continues. ‘When you can love yourself, you begin to really get to know yourself, who you are, what you are, and only then can you set healthy limits.’ She pauses as if laughing inside to herself ‘I thought that I couldn’t be myself, and, be in a committed relationship at the same time. I travelled the world alone, I wrote a book, I did research in the United States alone…’

I look at her, wondering if she is going to add anything new.

With a blast to my innerds she says, ‘That idea of not being able to be in a relationship and be yourself, I realised, was just more bashing up on myself, more self abuse.’

Wow, what a turnaround!…Maybe it’s not always such a brave thing to march on alone with the banner of ‘self searcher’. Could it be just be another subtle way in which we can abuse ourselves, telling ourselves that we can’t be in a nourishing relationship? Perhaps being nourished in a relationship is actually what we need to allow ourselves? 

‘Because, actually,’ she continues ‘if you love yourself you can, you really can, maintain that relationship with yourself, while setting healthy limits and creating space for your own growth while in a relationship with someone else too.’

I checked. This seemed too good to be true, ‘Are you in a relationship now?’ 

‘I’m going into the beginning of a relationship.’


‘But of course setting boundaries might sometimes mean leaving a relationship with another if it is not as nourishing as being by yourself.’

I nod, suddenly eager to move onwards into the bubble bath, not alone but by myself.

Post Script

So of course I didn’t go into a bubble bath, there are no baths in a meditation center, instead I went into a ten-day silent course. In between one of the breaks I walked into the fields and stood there, it had gone dark and the stars were shining in that way where you wonder how so many fit in and yet still maintain the deep dark velvet space around them. 

I was alone. And I found myself wanting to get to the end the course so that I could tell someone what I had done so they could say ‘Well done! I’m so proud of you!’ when I realised there is no-one waiting for me at the finishing line. It was then that I realised that actually here, deep inside this meditative place, I could say it to myself.

‘I’m proud of you,’ I said to myself, and suddenly I realised that actually I really am.

It is not easy to do ten and a half hours of meditation each day, going into the depths, facing myself and I do it patiently and persistently, without complaining, waking up everyday at 4.15am even though I really don’t want to. I put in all my efforts, even when I’m exhausted. I keep chipping away into deeper concentration, observing, feeling sensations. It is not easy and yet I do it. 

I really am proud of myself. Really. 

And suddenly I don’t need anyone to tell it to me.