I awoke very early on Friday morning. Ironically, the morning I can take an easier start I wake up bright as a button early. I’ve a long term relationship with insomnia though, so waking up at 4am after 6 hours sleep doesn’t feel as irritating or worrying as it used to - especially when I wake up with the feelings I did Friday. Once I “came to”, and felt below the story of “its too early” I connected to my experience - I felt alive, energised, excitement was there coursing through the core of my being. There was a wholeness and a potential that I came to realise and acknowledge has not felt within reach for maybe a couple of years.
This time two years ago, I was struggling with severe Reynauds in my hands - the first winter in our new home, at first I put it down to the challenge of keeping an old Victorian house well-heated. But the poor blood flow to my fingertips became an ever present dull ache in my finger joints, and the symptoms seemed to spread across my body and worsen. In the summer of 2019, I arrived at a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue. I provide this summary to give some context to my experience on Friday. As I met with my supervisor later that morning, I explained to her that it felt like I was beginning to bounce back after 2 years of walking through treacle each day. I hadn’t had this energy and relish for my life, my work for so long. As well as the excitement there was relief.
How come? What is coming together that is allowing a fogginess to lift?
This week, University staff across the UK are on strike, their action pointing towards pensions, pay and conditions. Not being a UCU member, I am still at work this week - not a straightforward decision. In fact, in the past 2 weeks I have felt a growing sense of anxiety. A child growing up in the 80s, I have memories of the miners industrial action and all the aggression and violence associated with picket lines. Coming to work this week has been the first time I have had to cross a picket line in my working life and I have been aware of the stories building in my imagination, noticing how each one adds to the anxiety. And whilst I could see my attempts to avoid the issue (e.g. “how can I change my teaching so I can work from home?”), I knew this was an opportunity: to meet my fear with courage.
As I walked off the train and up the platform towards the picket line, I did my best to stay in touch with my experience – to not push it down and stay with the growing physical sensations. In the past two weeks, I have been practicing this on the cushion – each time a remembering of what was ahead arose, dropping the story and coming back to my chest, the shallow breath, the beating heart, the tightening shoulders. Practice makes perfect – or at least, practice makes one prepared. Preparation in this sense is not a rehearsal, as that can make us act from a script. Preparation in this sense is becoming confident in being open to, and being with experience.
Returning from retreats are always interesting times; transitions from what was to what is; from the extraordinary to the ordinary. Relief to have made it; sadness to have left; reconnecting with loved ones and the familiar; overwhelm of returning to normality. A few friends have been in touch with me today, my first day back, asking “how was it?” - and all I can answer is “I don’t know” - which is really the short (and honest) answer to a multitude of feelings and thoughts which all depend on the exact moment I am asked that question. One moment I am okay, the next overwhelmed.
Since 2010, I have been on retreat a couple of times per year. My longest time away was the 4 week “Dathun” I attended last Spring, but normally I go away for a week to 10 days. That was the case this time around. Two reasons this retreat was different: it was my first solitary retreat, and the first time with the practices I am undertaking as a recent initiate of the Vajrayana (the third ‘vehicle’ of Tibetan Buddhism). The very foundation of the Buddhist path (and indeed of existential-based psychotherapy of which I am also a practitioner) is working with uncertainty, ambiguity and groundlessness. So of course, going in to such retreats with any kind of expectation is risky - and I really did do my best to stay open to what might be, what might not be. I examined my hopes and my fears ahead of the retreat, recognising the storylines I was creating of how it would be. I’ve shared with you before how my emotional ‘default’ if you like is an anxious presentation - so, I like to plan for every eventuality. Planning brings me control…and so the first lesson of the Vajrayana: that ain’t possible. And, I sit here now quite bruised and battered - physically: my body has taken a beating (6h of sitting a day, and taking on a new practice of prostrations), and emotionally: my ego did not like having the carpet pulled from underneath me.
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