"There are many forms of spiritual discipline in this world, but the inner essence of them all is an understanding of oneself and others. The Buddhist tradition particularly emphasises that we must understand the basis of freedom before we can attain freedom. When we do not know ourselves, then frustration, ego fixation, passion and aggression, and all sorts of other negative things come up." – Chogyam Trungpa
Picture this: It’s Good Friday and a gorgeous, stunningly bright sun is shining onto the buildings across from me. Nature seems to be beaming from the park below me and from the French Prealps, aptly nicknamed the ‘balcony of Geneva’, which I can see from my bay window.
But I’m anything from beaming. I’m sick. The night before, I went to bed full of reproach for the universe (not for myself, this wasn’t my fault!). My first four-day break since early January and THIS! Have you noticed that when we’re unwell, illness tends to bring out the five-year-old in us? Mine was sullen and tearful. ‘It’s SO unfair!’ That little voice in me was clamouring. All I wanted was to be outside and play, basically.
So, I note the complaint and get some rest. Congratulations, I don’t give in to what Adam Grant refers to as “revenge bedtime procrastination”.
PLANNING MIND TO THE RESCUE
Sitting with my coffee the next morning, I stay out of the sun because it’s not advised for someone with a sore throat. Like I do every day, I pick up my journal. But instead of my usual ramblings (aka my daily practice known as Julia Cameron’s morning pages), I let myself deviate. This is not the norm. Some thoughts are popping up. I try not to act on any of them, but I get distracted, gazing at nature in the distance. Then oops, I pick up my phone and open Safari. Instead of letting the thoughts pass by and concentrating on the task at hand, which I’m so good at doing every other day, I let myself follow the distracting thoughts. I’m treating my inner child, indulging her. Essentially, having ‘failed’ at Easter, I’m starting to plan my summer holiday.
Instead of accepting my frustration, in order to cope with the solitude that comes with being sick when everyone else is out or away, my innate, intuitive response is planning. Planning is good. Planning makes me feel in control, and safe. It’s a gesture of belief in the future, despite our current uncertain times. Also, planning is an escape from my reality. I resist. I will make this time useful.
THAT FEELING OF NOT ‘GOOD ENOUGH’
There is another frustration building up though. I was going to do stuff. Like editing a podcast, writing some more, etc. Not only am I sick, but I failed at being productive. There’s a wave of mild anger that swells thinking about the fact I have to let go of my distribution schedule. A sense of ‘not good enough’ starts to make itself felt.
I hear some drilling nearby and I sigh, scanning the landscape to find the one annoying neighbour causing me distress by breaking my weak concentration, pulling me again from the page.
I have found myself increasingly being triggered by what are normal city noises. I’ve read that a lot of us have become more sensitive to noise, since the start of the pandemic. I’m feeling aversion towards what I deem to be aggressive sounds, yet I note they mostly represent a well-functioning, thriving city. I try to let this go, too.
All of these are small things. We are all going to go through small and big stresses. Plans may be cancelled because we get sick, or we might become disturbed or distracted by our environment, we might struggle with FOMO or perhaps lay down judgement at our own feet or someone else’s (I ‘should’ be able to deal with this, why can’t they do this somewhere else). Why can’t I do more? Why can’t it be easy?
"Where are you uncomfortable?' Asks Martha Beck, on a podcast, a few hours later. "Where could you go that would lighten your spirit?"
Hmmmmm. Martha, such a wise one, and funny too.
For the next few hours, I take my sick inner child by the hand. I stop resisting.
REST FIRST, THEN ALLOW
I can’t do anything big, but I am taking baby steps. Pick up the laundry. Then rest. Take care of that plant that’s sick tomorrow. Then rest. Sure, everything feels annoyingly hard. But baby steps are affecting me positively. Less frustration. More of that sense of comfort. No strain, minimum viable effort. I’m happy to be doing stuff, mindful of my low energy levels. I’m allowing myself to be sick, basically.
The same Martha offers this.
‘The biggest problem [...] is that people don't understand that the primary way you need to deal with a bad mood is by resting. Resting is not a thing in our culture.
So I get people who are just haggard and miserable and they're like, ‘nothing makes me happy anymore.’
And I'm like, how about you just lie down and watch TV for three days.
And they're like, ‘no, I could never!’
And they're horrified by the suggestion because it's culturally inappropriate.
But the fact is they're not well at that moment.
And usually they're exhausted and if they don't rest, then they'll get sick and then they will be forced to rest.
So my whole self-motto, when I start to feel bad, is cave early.’
First of all, cave early is my new motto!
Hearing this is like a healing balm. I’d never watch TV in the daytime. I mean, I’m not a teenager…! Having been given permission to feel my tiredness, I do what the lady said. A few hours of Netflix or Apple TV+ later, instead of trying to work around my annoyance, and plan another escapist strategy, I sit and try to find the underlying reasons behind the emotions.
Frustration is real, often a precursor to anger. And as I’ve learned, our strong emotions are here to pass certain messages onto us. Do we ever want to know what’s at the source? It seems a little scary to dig there, in what I imagine to be a dark corner of the mind. What if it’s something even more unpleasant?
Thankfully, I have the tools. I have resources. More importantly, I have great teachers.
THE MAGIC OF RAIN
Thankfully, the course I’m catching up on this week is a long lecture by Tara Brach on a practice called the RAIN of self-compassion. Good timing, right? Synchronicity is my friend.
The students in the recorded lecture, some new to the practice, share their experience with RAIN after Tara leads the guided meditation. The acronym stands for Recognise, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture.
Like them, I noticed how I was looking for something ‘big’ to apply to the practice. I too realise that all the small frustrations of life deserve as much attention as the big ones. RAIN is one of the most potent and life-altering exercises I’ve discovered over the past few years.
If you wonder how RAIN can affect a work environment, here’s a recent story to illustrate:
During a busy week - also nearing a holiday - I was getting increasingly annoyed with a client. Not happy with various people’s behaviour in the team, the motivations of the founder seemed weaker than I’d anticipated. The pressure mounts, as things do when we are crunched for time, and I catch myself behind my screen. My shoulders seem to have hiked up to my ears, like I am getting ready to pounce, and let’s be honest, I’m no wild animal. “What the hell is going on?”, I ask myself.
I pause, walk out of my model home office, and go to the other end of my home. I stand in a corner facing the wall (I couldn’t tell you why) and ask the questions of RAIN, unaware I was replicating the model.
I recognise there’s an issue. I am being massively triggered. It’s okay, I tell myself, it’s okay.
Then I investigate. What is the underlying cause for this frustration? And after the digging, I found a way to self-soothe. I took some deep breaths and walked back to my desk. At least I have an understanding of the underlying causes of my feelings. I feel more centred, and I have more choice in my actions. I am no longer in reaction mode. In this case, this event was the start of something bigger, which in itself was also a gift.
My frustration with said client became visible because I was already attuned to my emotional landscape. A few years ago, I missed the signs, despite my feelings trying to throw me warning signals. As pointed out by many, if we don’t listen, the body tends to find more direct ways to make itself heard. Bad back? Getting sick all the time? Auto-immune issues? Sciatica? Ulcers? Other?...
Where in your life are you uncomfortable?
On the same podcast, Martha adds how bad moods are generally a radical indication of larger underlying issues.
'When people come to see me, they're usually afflicted by one or more of six different things.
And the first one is the loss of a sense of purpose, which you wouldn't think would be excruciating, but it is. It's the number one reason.
After that come negative moods, negative emotional states.
And that is the deep psyche trying to say, stay away from the wrong life, go toward the right life. So bad moods, they feel bad, but they're actually teachers helping you.
Then they can develop into physical suffering. So that's the third thing.
Then problems in relationships begin to develop.
Problems with career.
And finally, sometimes addiction.
Those six things are what I call the dark wood of error syndrome.”
As we all know, it can be deeply uncomfortable not just to feel any or more of the above, but also even think of looking at what's lurking underneath. And yet, that's the real work, especially for those who want to lead others. I was reminded of this by Jerry Colonna, whose book I could barely put down, himself a big proponent of what he calls radical inquiry:
'When we are brave enough to admit our fears, uncertainties and doubts, we open the gift box. [...] we extract the ability to accept our humanity, our flaws, the wholeness of ourselves. Then in opening to our humanity, we open to the glorious, wondrous gift of our shared humanity. "Oh," we exclaim, "you feel broken too? Awesome, let's be human together."
HOW WE RELATE TO OUR OWN STORY
I'm feeling better. My inner child's still in need of nurturing, but I'm not ignoring whatever is going on. I like this inner inquiry. It never fails to surprise me, however much I think I know about my inner workings, there is always something unexpected, and, contrary to what you may think when I come into contact with it, I feel relief. I breathe more easily.
In the case of this past weekend, what was lying under my bad mood (and my sneezing fits) was loneliness, particularly while everyone I know was apparently having the most fun, ever! And an overwhelming feeling of ‘not doing enough.’ Whether that was cleaning the house, working towards new projects, or even reading ‘enough.’
But when I felt the overwhelm, thankfully, I was able to remember to slow down and look after myself. I mean, my body wasn’t giving me much of a choice, but I like to pretend this was a choice!
So if I ask myself why mindful communication matters so much to me, why I care about both coaching and storytelling, it’s because, through this, I continue to learn, and to resource myself, too. Or resource my younger self.
And this work is also continual reminder that we can choose how we relate to our own story.
So with that said, if you are finding yourself in any of the aforementioned states, get in touch. I have tools to share.
Until next week.