Next stop: meditation station

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I have been trying to compose a piece of writing recounting my recent stay at a week long meditation retreat. However, to my great frustration the task has proven near impossible. This shouldn’t be surprising considering that every time I’m asked how the experience was I fall short of words. An appropriate expression doesn’t seem to exist, which is not to say that it was so fantastically amazing that words are not enough to describe; merely that it was unlike anything else, surprising but unsurprising, transformative in some ways but not others.
Purely practically speaking, it was a week spent in silence, sleeping less and eating less than usual. A week that felt like two weeks  – paying attention to every minute had the effect of making every moment last longer. Eventually even the constant chatter in my mind quietened down.

Sitting down to meditate, to establish a state of mindfulness is a whole lot easier said than done. The nature of the mind is to be anything but still; it wanders from plans to worries to daydreams, getting agitated by an itch or an ache along the way; making judgements about its own thoughts and feelings, abhorred by the boredom and lack of stimuli that the practice of meditation provides.
It is no wonder that our minds are racing at the speed of light most of the time since being able to multitask effectively is a crown jewel for a successful human being in today’s world. Ironically, we also tend to be deluded to thinking that it is only our minds that are totally chaotic and scattered, and that most other people must only think coherent thoughts and experience nice, neat, medium intensity emotions.
Of course it isn’t quite so; every human being has their own special cocktail of psycho-physical phenomena to deal with, and absolutely everyone sometimes thinks things they don’t want to think and feels feelings they don’t want to feel. Let’s take this moment to dismantle the idea that we are not able to learn mindfulness because our  minds are waaaayyyy to busy for that. We can if we want to.
Another related insight that I picked up is that in some ways I have less, but in some ways more control over my mind than I thought I did. In other words (that actually make sense), I have no control over my thoughts or feelings or whether or not they draw my attention; I do however have some control over the way in which I let said thoughts and feelings affect my behaviour.

My most persistent challenge seemed to be tiredness, and for whatever reason I really struggled to stay awake during sitting meditation – in fact, I once nearly fell over since my brain had kindly decided to switch off. I spent a lot of time at a halfway point just outside of sleep but not quite awake either. If you can recollect what it feels like in your body and mind to daydream, that’s the state I was at; just without any actual daydreams.
There were a couple of things that helped keeping me somewhat awake: recalling multiplication tables and steadily moving my hands up and down. As a last resort I would  sometimes stand up and continue the session on my feet.

Now a quick interlude to explain a mental noting method which should help clarify what I’m about to say in the following paragraph.
Imagine being able to slow down a cognitive process at will, like a video recording, and observing each individual step from the intention to do something to completing the action. In everyday life these processes are so quick that we don’t recognise them as series but merely as individual actions. Take the act of drinking water from a glass and break it down to intermediate steps, i.e. you lift the glass, drink some water and set it back down.
Or, you experience the sensation of thirst; you perceive a glass of water in front of you; you intend to take a sip from the glass. You move your hand toward the glass until your fingers touch its surface; you wrap your palm around the glass securing a solid grip with your fingers. You feel tension throughout the length of your arm as your muscles engage in the movement of lifting the glass off the table; you bend your elbow and wrist to direct the glass to your mouth, and stop once your lips make contact with the surface of the glass. You open your mouth, tilt your head back in tandem with the glass, which you lean against your lower lip until you feel water dripping onto your tongue. You note the cooling sensation as the water fills your mouth; you swallow as it reaches the upper edge of your throat, … and so forth.

In a nutshell, I was once again hovering at the edge of sleep at a sitting session. I remember thinking that I should stand up as it might help me stay awake – and then I drifted off. I thought about it again with more resolve, but somehow it felt as though I’d hit a dead end, and there was something keeping me from standing up. It’s all a bit of a blur but I know that I tried to make the decision to get up – and failed.
It felt like when your arm goes numb because you’ve slept on it and despite wanting to move it you can’t because your nervous system is all perplexed about the location of said limb. I had that same bizarre sensation of trying to locate the part of my brain that is responsible for making decisions but it just would not respond. This is not about struggling to move, but about an earlier stage of the process – you know, the process that I explained earlier. In the drinking scenario I mainly listed physical acts as consecutive steps but I could have added the intention of doing each thing as separate steps in between those acts.

This may well be total nonsense to some, but to me it was a very poignant lesson indeed. Do you ever walk into a room and then come to a sudden halt because you have no idea why you went there? Breaking everyday actions apart into a multi-stage processes helps understand why we sometimes just malfunction. The brain is a complex machine that runs multiple processes simultaneously. Not being able to do whatever it is you are meaning to do is not de facto a product of laziness or lack of motivation, but a genuine sign that you don’t have enough energy. After all, even the most insignificantly minuscule cognitive processes use up some amount of energy even though we don’t actively pay attention to them. Like apps running at the background on your phone still decrease battery life. Perhaps this is something we all sort of know to be true but it’s a lightyear’s difference to actually witnessing a simple process like standing up downright fail. You can study aerodynamics all you want but even all of that knowledge won’t make you a prodigy at snowboarding; you do actually have to get on the board and feel what it’s like in the real environment.

Some resources:
Calm – a meditation app for your phone. Download from iTunes or  Google Play
Sam Harris: Waking Up, chapter 1 – audio of the first chapter of Sam Harris’ book concerning meditation and spirituality in an atheist context
Satipanya Buddhist Trust – the organisation behind the retreat that I went to

An unlikely pair

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I happened to exchange emails with a dear friend of mine about our shared struggles in life a few days ago, and then found out through this poignant Guardian article that it is currently Depression Awareness Week. In the spirit of spreading awareness I thought I’d share my thoughts on two books that have given me surprising comfort in tough times. By the way I really do read authors that are not Patrick Rothfuss or Richard Dawkins. And one day I shall prove this – just not today.

I’m not into the self-help and spiritual literary genres at all. The brief encounters I’ve had with these kinds of books have always left a sickly taste of phoney sweetness and disingenuity in my mouth. In addition, being bombarded with popular self-help jargons like “you can be whatever you want”, “you can’t live a positive life with a negative mind” and “just be your authentic self” only enforces the deep shame of having a mental illness and not being able to cure oneself of it. Undoubtedly there are those who do find the delirious hype of self-help and New-Age literature motivating and eye-opening but for a sceptic, which I definitely class myself as, it rings hopelessly hollow.

Richard Dawkins: The Magic of Reality, 2011
This is a very different book compared to its most well-known predecessors, The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, both of which are enveloped in their fair share of controversy. With The Magic of Reality Dawkins set out to write for younger readers, combining his exceptional skills in storytelling and engaging science communication. In spite of its target audience this is a book for anyone to enjoy. The language is by no means over-simplified or condescending, and you can always skim over the paragraphs that focus on explaining some really basic scientific concepts that you might already be familiar with. It’s a light read, and a very delightful one because Dawkins brilliantly succeeds in conveying his childlike admiration of the natural world in a way that stirs the same curiousness in the attentive reader.

Patrick Rothfuss: The Slow Regard of Silent Things, 2014
I have expressed my adoration of Patrick Rothfuss’ work in a previous post where I discussed the feminist themes in his to-be-trilogy, Kingkiller Chronicles. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is sort of a spin-off  as it focuses on one of the secondary characters in the main series. It stands on its own though: the references to the trilogy don’t disrupt the flow even if you don’t catch them, mainly because the protagonist, Auri makes references to a lot of things that remain elusive to the reader anyway. It’s actually quite difficult to pin down this book. The best way that I can think to describe it is a literary portrait – through sharing Auri’s daily routines, thoughts and emotions Rothfuss paints a picture of a sensitive, deeply affected and troubled girl who has escaped daylight to the shadow world underground and become something other to a regular world dweller.

At a first glance there doesn’t seem to be much that a science book for youngsters and a dreamlike novel could have in common but rest assured, for me it’s all in the details.
In The Slow Regard… we come to notice that Auri’s life is dictated by a set of rules and rituals, completely unintuitive to the reader. She seems to be functioning under a constant of anxiety that flares up and escalates into a rush of panic as soon as something disturbs her safety-net of routines. Any mishap or disappointment will drive her into a deep depression. Mental illness isn’t pretty, and being able to write a piece about it that is both beautiful and heart-wrenchingly relatable makes Patrick Rothfuss practically a genius in my eyes; romanticising this topic is such a tired and disrespectful trope.
Auri finds joy and purpose in the smallest of things – collecting objects that don’t hold any value to anyone but her, and embracing such mundane experiences as brushing her hair. She is mesmerised by sights, sounds and smells, and being hidden away from the busy and loud world above the ground she spends her time noticing a lot more than any of us in our daily lives.

The Magic of Reality is compiled of a series of chapters each tackling a natural phenomenon through myths and stories, leading up to the scientific account. What are rainbows and earthquakes, and who was the first human are some of the questions that Dawkins takes on and explains. One might expect the mythologies related to each problem to be most entertaining part of this book, triumphing over the dry logic of science; but on the contrary. Scientists who have the rare gift of communication are so incredibly inspirational and compelling when explaining the mysteries of nature that they easily make fairy stories sound unimaginative, and Richard Dawkins is no exception. I always loved biology in school because I was blessed with multiple amazing teachers, but I have never been as impressed by evolution as I am when I witness Dawkins addressing it. He is so invested in science and reason without any hidden agenda that it’s hard not to absorb some of the excitation. The Magic of Reality is all about stopping to study things that we take for granted and finding out how they actually come about. It simultaneously encourages the reader to be an independent and critical thinker while also appreciating the small, seemingly inconsequential things.

The unlikely pairing of these two books is a perfect remainder for a conflicted mind to look for moments of peace and wonder in the details of life. Small revelations of everyday don’t have to be tied to some New-Age guru’s 30-day soul healing detox programme but are best experienced with a clear and rationally tuned mind. Negative thoughts and emotions are not poison, nor can we have any control over their emergence. What we can control are the things that we choose to linger on – and should those things be tangible and firmly rooted in reality, all the better I say. “You can’t think your way out of a thinking problem”, is one of the best lessons that I have learned, which is why I try to embrace as many things that exist outside of my thoughts, as I can. The fact that we see stars in our night sky, and that the very existence of those stars is what allows us to exists too, is one of those things.

Creative Ideas: Access Denied

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I have been in a very persistent state of creative block for several months now, not really knowing how to dodge it. However, very recently it seems like a glimmering light has appeared at the end of the tunnel, and suddenly I feel like I have some new insights into easing or even defeating that state of lacking productivity.

First of all, I think it’s important to accept that your artistic juices aren’t flowing like you’d want them to. Accept that it is goddamn frustrating that the most creative effort you can manage is the shopping list. Also remember that you are definitely not the only one having to fight the fight; everyone is sometimes faced with a brick wall.

Something that helps me to deal with the swamp of non-creativity is trying to work out whether there is anything going on in my life that could be the cause of it. For example, I’ve had a couple of stressful and ungrateful jobs that completely ate up my energy and motivation. I’ve also struggled with some mental health issues, and the change from university to working life has added its weight to the baggage to be sure. In this light, it isn’t such a curiosity that I’ve been lacking ideas and excitation. When you can name some of the things that might be taking over your mental capacity, leaving nothing for the arty side, it’s easier to get over the frustration of the situation.

So now that you’ve accepted you’ve hit a wall, and maybe understood some reasoning behind it, it’s time to do something that at least for me feels scary: take your mind off of it. Whatever creative task you need to be doing, just forget it for a couple of hours – or even days if you can. Do something else, something that you really genuinely enjoy. What works best with me is physically getting away from the place that I would otherwise be working at. Somewhere that I can be completely detached. A couple of weeks ago, I spent some time in Finland and went to see three incredible shows by my favourite band with some of my favourite people in the world. I didn’t spare a single thought to all of the wiring and image-making that I should be doing, but fully immersed myself in the experience. I returned home absolutely exhausted but also buzzing with new energy. I believe that creativity comes from a genuine place, a place of honesty and childlike wonder. Re-connecting with that place within you will most likely have a huge impact on your productivity and creativity.

Another thing that I always neglect is talking to other people about my work. In university, I got used to brainstorming with my peers and tutors, explaining my ideas, finding strengths and weaknesses and challenging my thinking. Out of the academia, not only do I not have the structured way of making work, but also there are no people at hand to discuss my research and practical issues with. Of course I can shoot a message at any one of my friends at any time, but the constant support of the peer group is just not there in the same way as it used to be. Having someone else give their opinion on your project is extremely valuable especially when they genuinely put their mind into it. For me, hearing someone talk about a project from three years ago was an eye-opening experience, which encouraged me to go back to it and expand those ideas. The most unlikely conversations can give you the best ideas, which leads us to my next point.

Keep an open mind. It’s sounds like a cliché but it rings true. Don’t try to assume how anything will unravel. Maybe the first way you’ve thought out of a problem is not the best one in the end. Maybe something that seems completely unrelated and irrelevant to what you are doing is exactly what you need in order to overcome your mental block. Creativity is after all, exploring and discovering something new.

Lastly, as a counteraction to my first pointer: instead of getting excited, get bored. When you’re sick of sitting with the non-existence of creative ideas, you automatically reach for a distraction. I play bubble shooter or hidden object games, and although sometimes the mechanic, mindless activity will actually help to massage those brain cells, just letting yourself be bored can be a whole other way to rekindle the artistic fire in your mind. For me this is again about being a little bit brave because in our world boredom is practically the worst faith anyone could be faced with. We all have the smartphones and tablets within an arm’s reach, and so we never have to just be with our thoughts in silence doing nothing, embracing the dullness of life. But how can we expect to come up with new ideas if our minds are constantly engaged with pointless distractions?
Maybe a creative block is just our minds’ way of saying: “give me a break, I need to rest”.

What helps you to find a way out of a mental dead end?

My Perfect Prison

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It is hard to begin writing. I stare at the blank page that stares back at me and continues to stare even as I frustratedly slam down my laptop screen and rush out to do something else in an effort to get distracted from the blankness. I enjoy writing. I’m even fairly decent at it, but I seem to suffer from a chronic writer’s block. There are dozens of topics I would like to turn into words but as soon as I sit down with purpose to write, the words cower somewhere to the far corners of my mind and I’m left with an aggressively white screen and an ever-growing, pounding irritation towards myself, the keyboard, and in some cases, life in general. I claim to know what is at the root of this issue, and so I should simply confront it, fight it, eliminate it. But of course it is not that simple. Why is it never simple? While I dare not call it a disadvantage, in this case knowing the problem does nothing to help me solve it; like the hindrance of many an endeavour, mine alike is fear – the fear of failure. Perfectionists are more often than not seen as straight-A-students, career junkies and generally hard-working, successful people. While this observation is not entirely wrong, it merely scratches the surface.

The word, perfectionism, carries the weight of its origin, perfect, which, in turn relates to faultlessness, precision, correctness and absolution. It must be said, and I’m stating the obvious here, that while a perfectionist’s ambition might be to reach perfection, even to embody perfection, perfection itself is not an innate quality to one striving for it. In other, more sensible words, that straight-A-student who always seems to succeed can still fail – a fact known to and accepted by everyone else but said perfectionist. And really, what all of us perfectionists have in common is the terrible, paralysing fear of failure. In fact, perhaps we are not driven by our goal of perfection, but rather by the fear of failing to achieve it. The difference between the two might seem trivial but it draws a line between ambition and obsession. I never considered perfectionism a struggle comparable to things like ADHD or OCD, but merely another personality trait among others. In the world where competition is encouraged and success rewarded it seems natural to set the bar higher and higher. I strongly identify with the term “perfectionist”. However, like any other label it easily becomes a way for me – and others – to minimise my experience. For instance, feeling stressed out I might bring it up to another person by stating: “Oh, I’m such a perfectionist I can get anxious just about anything”. What a wonderful way of simultaneously asking for sympathy and shitting on myself. When the statement has escaped my lips it’s as though I’ve given a permission for everyone to perceive me the way I perceive myself.

“Chill out! You’re such a perfectionist.”

“That’s just who she is, a total perfectionist.”

“It’s not a big deal. You don’t have to do everything so perfectly.”

Words are powerful. When uttered frequently enough they start to represent truth. They reinforce the idea that this is what it is; this is how I’m perceived so this must be who I am. As it becomes common knowledge that I always strive for perfection, my fear of failure increases. Now it isn’t only myself whom my shortcomings will disappoint but everyone, absolutely everyone. What if I they find out that I’m a fraud, an imposter, only pretending to be something special? What if I fail to meet the expectations that my perfectionist armour suggests are reasonable? What if it turns out that I will only ever be average at best? Ambition can be an incredible force for good when paired with passion, courage and resilience; unless, for whatever reason, it morphs into an obsession fuelled by panic, where the slightest misstep is a ground-shaking disaster.

Fear, like cancer, spreads by contaminating its surroundings, turning a body against itself. The fear of failure, if allowed to feast on its carrier, shrinks one’s universe into a very small reality where everything is so controlled by a looming terror that the simplest task becomes an arduous chore. In the midst of this turmoil, the perfectionist has completely ignored the fact that no one really expects her to never fail, and that the outside pressure is only her perception of how she is perceived by others. How to start a project of any size or amount of required effort when every idea is immediately plagued by the hypothetical failure at the end? “Just do it”, says the Nike tagline, but what if the anxiety is so paralysing that choosing which brand of non-dairy milk to go for, or whether to set the alarm for 7AM or 7:10AM becomes an ordeal. In such a fearful existence creativity does not come easily: it has to be fought for. Annoyingly enough, just doing it, really is the only way to stop the cycle.

The blank page has turned into a less intimidating mishmash of characters, lines and paragraphs toning down the irritating brightness. Now the only disconcerting element is the ‘Publish’ button. I allow myself to opt for ‘Save Draft’ and go obsess over something else for a time. The true challenge of perfectionism is accepting that whether you try or not, you still won’t be perfect so you might as well go for it. Trying and failing may even lead to you being the worst of all, which is singular in its own way, whereas remaining passive just gives your voice to someone louder.

So there, getting up close and personal right out of the gate. Now that I’ve minimised my own and everybody else’s expectations of this blog we can get started, hopefully with less of the aforementioned looming terror and more with  embracing Salvador Dali’s words:

“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it”