Jung famously wrote about synchronicity - and I think my deepening interest in Jung’s approach is in part fuelled by spotting auspicious linking of events and phenomena more and more. Currently, it is as if the whole universe is pointing out the importance of space to me - I can’t help but sit up and listen. I recognise that insecurities and vulnerabilities developed in childhood have biased me towards structure and form - the more static masculine aspects of the psyche; and in the pursuit of harmony, I am being invited to consider the feminine. Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve been writing about this theme for some weeks now.
My drum beats to the rhythm of the academic calendar, and the summer often presents contradictory responses to its call in me. Longing for the space and the rest it will bring (and I need); then the arriving of that space and me reacting like I have an insatiable itch. Aided by my path as a meditator and therapist, I recognise the messages that life sends me - this is an obstacle that needs working through (rather than jumping over). I have been contemplating how to work with this rather than find a way to “get rid”.
Each Monday night, my wife and I sit down together to explore ideas and share experiences on a topic. We have both struggled historically with loading expectations high on our shoulders, taking on the script of ‘please others’ and in that pursuit, we squeeze ourselves dry, string ourselves out thinly. We are prime candidates for burn-out, and I have been there or there about many times in my working life. Last Monday we sat down to consider how to shift this dynamic? How might we go into the next working year living a slower rhythm and finding more space?
To help our discussions, I found an article posted by Leo Babuta, a favourite online blogger of mine. In this blog post, Leo shares “8 Key Lessons for Living a Simple Life”. I won’t repeat his ideas, as I don’t believe I can express them anymore eloquently than he. I encourage you to take a look, and what I will do here is simply respond to each of his invitations.
1. We create our own struggles. I absolutely see how I make life harder for myself. As Buddhist, I am asked by the dharmic teachings to make this one of my main contemplations: It is the first and second “Noble Truths” - there is suffering, and the root of that suffering is how we resist things as they are. Leo mentions ‘busyness’ as one hurdle, and I see how times at which I could be resting are sabotaged by my fitting in “one more thing” in to my schedule. This happened only yesterday in a very striking way: in squeezing in “one more thing” before leaving for an appointment, I ended up having to increase my walk to a jog so I wouldn’t be late. Okay, this sometimes happens when we underestimate the time it will take to get somewhere; but like I say this was very striking yesterday - because the appointment was with a consultant to discuss my ongoing issues with energy and fatigue. Irony? No, blatant underlining of what must change.
2. Become mindful of attachments that lead to clutter and complexity. Buddhism’s second noble truth is more specifically how attached we are to getting things to be the way we want them. Leo uses one example of “doing lots of activities and messaging everyone”, and this is a classic behaviour for me. Because of my work, a lot of my connection to people is as ‘therapist-to-client’. A reaction to this can be looking at my week with a need to connect with friends and family in a more regular relationship. Before I know it, my diary is full and I am resenting having no space in my week. A new practice of mine is absolutely keeping in touch with friends, but noticing when my motivation to reach out is based upon meeting-up. Its a lovely way to spend time but it does compromise spaciousness. There is a need to consider what truly resources during a busy working week.
3. Distraction, busyness and constant switching are mental habits. As I draw out in the example above, busyness is a trap for me. I think its a hangover from a ‘be perfect’ driver: one in which I am trying to maximise efficiency. The story goes “I can rest when I’ve done [fill the blank]”. And of course, [blank] is never done, another one always comes along. For me, the practice is how to rest while tasks are incomplete and not feel an axe-like presence over my head. Permission to put my feet up after finishing client work rather than press on with household chores until my partner comes home and we prepare dinner.
4. Single-task by putting your life in full-screen mode. I’m pretty good at this one now. There used to be a time I would read whilst eating, or listen to podcasts all the time I was travelling. Taking up mindfulness helped me learn the benefit of not multi-tasking - devoting my attention to the one task or experience at handing feeling that fully. It can also allow mind space to be mindless. Now on the way to work, I am more likely to be found looking out the train window and this time for decompression helps me transition in to and out of teaching all day.
5. Create space between things. Again, I am pretty good at knowing how long a task might take me and ensuring I allow enough buffer time between obligations. However, I am aware that this is one ability that slips when I am stressed or anxious about something. Its as if I deliberately set myself up for being in ‘hurry up’ in order to berate myself - to somehow give myself evidence as to why I should be feeling stressed or anxious! On the whole though, my training as a therapist has helped me appreciate transitions and the need for firm boundaries: with time, but also with expectations.
6. Find joy in a few simple things. Ok, this needs more effort on my part. Perhaps a trapping that I love my work, I am just as likely to be found with a book on psychotherapy in my hands as a novel. Learning is nourishing. However, I recognise in a diet we need various forms of nutrients. I am going to make this one a major contemplation as I move from summer to autumn: what brings me joy? Picking up my end-of-day gratitude practice is one way I know I can hone in on my joy.
7. Get clear about what you want, and say no to more things. During my psychotherapy training, I remember talking to my then therapist how tired I was and how little space I felt I had in life: but I couldn’t see a way for things to change without letting people down or without giving up something I loved. She remarked “too many good things is still too many”. I had to work through the ‘loss of alternatives’. In choosing to say “yes” to something, it inevitably means a “no” to something else - and that “no” is a loss that needs acknowledging and letting be. Life has a finite timescale and we have to make choices as to what we can do in that limited opportunity. In my coaching work, clients have often benefitted shifting from doing a variety of things in a one week to a more ‘serial project’ basis. So rather than doing yoga, salsa classes and a quiz night each week perhaps we can focus on one for a season and then switch in the next.
8. Practice doing nothing, exquisitely. Some might say that meditation relies upon this - and yes, the more advanced we get as meditation practitioners, the less “doing” (as a technique) meditation becomes. In Zen, there is the instruction “just sit”. But there is still the effort and commitment to work with one’s mind. In the past month, I have taken to just sitting in the lounge - no aim, no task…not even having a cup of tea. Sometimes my kitten tries to make me stroke her, so my nothingness gets a little waylaid…but you get the point. Nothing. Boredom is the route to contentment. This is something I experienced on my four week retreat; but we needn’t have to go to those lengths to touch that opportunity. This will be harder for me to ‘allow’ when my working week picks up the pace as it inevitably does in the autumn term.
It is worth concluding that simple living is not so simple. Simply being is one of the hardest aims we might set ourselves in the West. We don’t receive societal accolades for championing rest. YET, we have probably all envied people who seemingly benefit from a more restful life. I have more and more enquiries from people suffering from pervasive fatigue; and incidences of such conditions are on the up. Research studies estimate around 15% of the UK population have to endure conditions such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and fibromyalgia: that figure roughly matches what I see in my client work. And its sad to see. It is sad to see the expectations we put upon ourselves to ‘measure up’ and the toll it can take.
So, I invite you to join me and take more rest. I’m going on holiday for a couple of weeks, and I will use that time to consider how to micro-dose rest even when not on holiday. But right now, I’m pressing “publish” and then going to sit on the sofa with my feet up. See you in September.