Where do you go to (My Lovely)?

So sang Peter Starstedt, back in 1969 (click if you want to be reminded!)  Although I’m too young to remember the song at release, it was none the less a frequent enough occurrence on the radio of my youth. The song, in a style described by its Wikipedia article as “faux European waltz tune… with brief bursts of French-style accordion”, is still bringing in significant royalties for Mr Starstedt, decades after its release.  The lyrics mention all sorts of things – Marlene Dietrich, Picasso, the Sorbonne, and Napoleon brandy among them.  All in all, a somewhat random collection, although there is an underlying theme that roughly tracks through them.1

And that’s the way with our own thoughts, isn’t it?  When we’re just gazing into space, or perhaps when we’re meditating, our train of thoughts just noodles along, things popping up more or less at random, but likely with some underlying connection if we poke hard at them.  That thought about the dog needing its flea medicine?  Perhaps you heard it scratching a few minutes before.  Remembering an old school friend?  Maybe you saw someone on TV last night about teaching in lockdown, and you know they’d always wanted to be a teacher.

You can do a couple of things with thoughts that occur while you meditate.  One is to just try and watch them, without getting caught up in them.  This can sometimes be hard to sustain: you notice the first few, and catch yourself before going off with them, and return to the sensations of the breath or the body.  But them you find you’ve been off on the “thought train” for the last five minutes, stopping in all sorts of interesting, somewhat random, but vaguely connected, places.  So one thing you can do, when you finally spot this, is to investigate the last couple of thoughts, and see where they might have come from.  You only need to spend perhaps a minute doing this, but it’s sometimes quite revealing of what’s on your mind.

The other thing I like to do is to categorise my thoughts.  I first started doing this when I was on a silent retreat for a few days, so I was spending a number of hours a day in meditation – lots of which was invaded by thoughts.  There’s nothing wrong with this, of course: it’s just what my meditation was like that day.  When I noticed my thinking, I just returned to the feelings of the breath.  But thoughts kept coming.  And I eventually realised that many of my thoughts needed somehow to “complete” before they would stop recurring, and one way of doing this seemed to be to name them.

So I started noticing that the thoughts fell into different groups.  Some were about the past, some about the future, and others were pushing around some problem I was working on.  That gave me labels of “past”, “future”, and “analysis”.  The ones about the past were either re-runs of particular episodes, or fantasies – more or less improbable – about how my life or some small part of it might have turned out different.  So I labelled these “re-runs” and “alternate histories”.  Thoughts about the future were more or less improbable, and more or less immediate.  Suitable labels included “planning”, “fantasy future”, and “possible future”.  Other times I just felt emotions – “sadness”, “happiness”.  

In the end, I had about a dozen labels, and I found that most of my thoughts and feelings could be put to bed quickly by simply by noticing, acknowledging them, and labeling.   In my case, over those few days, the most-used label was “alternate histories”, iirc, but there’s nothing particular to be read into that: on another day it might just as easily have been something else.  The thing to do was simply to notice what they were, and acknowledge them, so they could be put down and I could return to the object of my meditation.  

So, next time you meditate, or next time you notice your head is full of thoughts, try this labeling trick.  Where do you go to, when you’re alone in your head?


1My favourite Wikipedia fact about this song is that, years after writing it, Sarstedt admitted to a gossip columnist that it had been written about his girlfriend at the time, Anita, whom he later married and then even later, divorced. The columnist noted “Anita is now a dentist in Copenhagen. Peter Sarstedt has spent 40 years singing about wanting to look inside her head. And for most of that time Anita has made a living by looking inside yours.”

Reality versus humanity

Lenin once said that “there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen”.  We all know which one of those we’re in right now.  This feels like a whole new world, full of strange conventions and unknown dangers.  And we – as evolutionary creatures – are not good with new worlds.  You’ve perhaps seen how your pet reacts to something new in the house: it’s treated with the utmost suspicion until it’s been tested out.  Well guess what, we’re just the same: the unknown can produce anxiety, and fear.   Fear.  The fear of empty shelves, of the person standing too close,  of the consequences of all this for our loved ones, of what tomorrow will bring – and simply of the unknown.

How can we get beyond this? Well, we’re not our dogs or our cats, we’re capable of so much more. 

So let’s start with using some of those capabilities which we have as humans.  Let’s start with self-awareness – awareness of what’s going on in your mind.  (Cats and dogs may do this to some extent, and some of the great apes seem to have it, but we humans know we have it!)   

Using our awareness allows us to stop identifying ourselves completely with what’s happening to us.  Instead, we can (mentally) stand back from it.  We can do this with our thoughts, too: we can have some part of our mind witnesses what’s going on in the rest of it.  It’s curious to see what happens when you do this.  When I do it, it feels to me as if the witnessing part is somehow larger than the thoughts, as if it’s a vast space somehow, in front of which the thoughts are doing their thing.

This witnessing part – however it feels to you – can recognise amongst other things that these fearful thoughts are not helpful.  When you notice this, you may also see that the thoughts themselves don’t want to let go.  They can fight back.  They say – sure, although these things aren’t happening right now, they might happen tomorrow, so worry now!  

So it’s important to acknowledge that some kinds of worry can be useful – in particular, when they lead to plans and actions.  You can’t overcome these problems before they’ve happened, but you can often make a plan about what you’ll do if they happen.  That’s useful.  If the events do come to pass, then you have at least something of a plan, and you’ll cope better.  If you can take action now, then that’s good.  

But other kinds of worrying thoughts aren’t useful.  Instead, they feed on themselves, and the thoughts themselves make you suffer. These loops of worry leading to more worry can be difficult to stop.  There is a feeling sometimes that the more you worry, the more control you have. But that’s not true here – it’s an illusion. Worry will not give you control. Rather, the worry will control you.

So how can you stop these “worry loops”?  Again, you start with witnessing: you need to be aware of your thoughts themselves, to catch when this is what you are doing.   Of course you often can’t just stop thinking these things when you’ve spotted them, like turning off the light. Your fearful thoughts, in this regard, aren’t voluntary: they are happening to you.  These things appear all on their own – you aren’t doing them, they are “doing” you!

But you do have (some) control over what you do next – when you’ve noticed what’s going on.  That’s when our best selves can kick in.  You might try and make a plan – write it down, perhaps.  Even if the plan is to talk to someone else.  You might decide to take some exercise – I saw a story the other day about a man who had run a marathon in his back yard!  You could help someone else, just with a phone call or a text. Or you can just sit as we do in meditation itself and witness it, and notice that you are bigger than it: it doesn’t define you.  It’s a storm at sea – the storm is happening, for sure, but you are the ocean, not the storm.  Eventually, this storm at least will pass.

And all of this – from the awareness to the action or the witnessing – you can improve with practice. Start with awareness, the realisation that these things happening to you fulfill no useful purpose, that they are in fact destructive.

Once you’ve done this for a while (weeks, probably), you may come to realise quite how much of the unhappiness is produced by the narratives in your mind.  Other people have endured the circumstances you are in without being unhappy – so it’s not the circumstances themselves that are making you unhappy, it’s how they are interacting with your mind.  You can choose to continue, or to step out of it. To put your attention elsewhere.

None of this means you shouldn’t recognise the reality of your situation.  You have the ability to do this in much worse circumstances.  I read an interview recently with Admiral James Stockdale, who had been held captive in a POW camp in the Vietnam war for seven and a half years, repeatedly beaten, and in the end confined to a windowless cell, three feet by nine feet.  He spoke passionately about how you could simultaneously recognise the deeply uncomfortable reality of your current situation without letting it overwhelm you.  He said “You must never confuse the faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be”.  This has been called the Stockdale Paradox – confronting a difficult reality, while not loosing faith that we will prevail.  

We can do this, too.  It’s not a grand thing, it turns out to be a very simple thing.  The reality will still be out there, doing whatever it’s doing.  We just need to put a break into the thought loops that are telling us different.  Turn it to the breath, specifically to the feelings of the breath, at your nose or your belly.  You can either simply watch the breath, or if you find yourself too distracted, you can regulate it.  Try “box breathing” – count to four as you breath in, hold the breath for a count of four, count to four as you breath out, then hold the outbreath for a count of four, and repeat.  At first it will last maybe five seconds or one breath cycle before you find the worry starting again, maybe at first in the background. As soon as you realise that’s happening, return to the anchor of the feelings of the breath.  Keep practicing – start with five minutes.  If the anxiety returns later, do it again then.  Keep doing it every day.  It’s your new habit.  It’s you, in control.  

Action for difficult times

These are the difficult times. When we can make a difference, to ourselves and others, by what we do in the moment.

What should we be doing?

There’s an old Zen saying, that if you don’t have time to meditate for thirty minutes, that’s exactly when you should meditate for an hour. For many of us, we now have time do actually do that. Maybe it’s not an hour in your case, maybe it’s twenty minutes instead of ten minutes.  You’ve all heard the message on airplanes, to put on your oxygen mask first so you may help others?  That’s what your meditation is for you, right now.

Whatever it is, it’s taking time to sit with your own feelings. Not to drown in them, but to sit and watch them, to understand them, to let them know you recognise them, to be their friend – or at least their companion.

We do this with all the questions we ask ourselves during our meditation. We sit. We breath. We notice any feelings that there are. Where is this feeling in the body – is it in my stomach? My head? (where exactly in your head?) My hands, my feet? How does it feel – hot, cold, tight, heavy, burning, freezing? How does it change over a few minutes?

We don’t seek to change our feelings. We seek to understand them. And to remind ourselves they don’t own us. They are part of us, but they need not be all of us. We can see them, acknowledge them, and sit with them.

And we help others. This isn’t a crisis at the individual level, it’s a crisis at the level of society – or even at the level of us as humankind. It’s time to step up, as human beings. The time may come when it’s right for us to think about the broader implications of this, of what we’ve done to the planet that allowed this to happen. But right now, today, this minute, your family, or your friend, or your neighbour, they need your help. Reach out to the vulnerable people you know, and do all you can.

And stay safe, so that you may help others stay safe.

A guide to coping with anxiety

Life today can a truly anxious place. Maybe you find yourself getting worried about things in your work or personal life, and aren’t sure if you’re anxious about too much, not worrying enough, or just not coping effectively with whatever life is throwing at you right now. In this note (which is a bit longer than usual, with some practical suggestions at the end), we will have a look at how psychologists and cognitive scientists think about fear and anxiety, and what they might offer that can help us.

First, let’s understand why we get anxious and scared. Your brain is a massive resource drain: about 20% of your resting energy is used just to power your brain, more than any other organ in your body, and a much higher proportion than in any other animal. So when it tells you something, it’s probably important: it’s warning you of what could be imminent danger, of shadows that may contain stalking beasts, of things that may damage your physical or emotional well-being. Even social rejection once would have carried a high price – if you’re living in a tribe of hunter-gatherers, as our ancestors did for several hundred thousand years, being ejected from the tribe was likely to be a one-way ticket to an early grave.

The thing is, we aren’t in that tribe of hunter-gatherers which was around when our brain’s instincts were formed (our “ancestral environment“, as it’s known). Most of us don’t live in situations where starvation is around the corner, or where we’re in danger from every passing stranger, or ejection from the local library means imminent death. So instead our brain may be oversensitive – telling us of hypothetical problems, and dressing them up in the same clothes. The corner shop is out of milk and the shelves are emptying fast? The upcoming public speaking engagement? Not being where you expected in life by your 30th/40th/50th birthday? Any of these events, and our brains might bend then into anxiety and fear, which can become overwhelming despite our best efforts.

This last element is really important: all this is kicking off despite our best intentions. There isn’t any sense in which you are “imagining” these feelings, or deliberately doing this to yourself. These things start in the lowest levels of the brain – your hind brain, the “lizard brain” – and it’s under conscious (or even unconscious) control. Once it gets into your conscious brain, it can start to spiral on its own, and it’s here, if we’re lucky, that we can grapple with it and start to affect it.

There are two basic scenarios that might be going on: first, the lizard brain might think something bad is about to happen – a scary situation, or you’re about to loose something valuable – and your “fight/flight” reflex is activated. Second, we might find that unpleasant “what if” scenarios are popping up in our head – “what if” the house burns down and the cat is trapped inside, “what if” this tickle in my throat is the cancer coming back? These can overlap, of course – something might trigger a concern about a house fire, which your conscious brain then spirals around and around.

Both of these reactions can be useful, of course, which is why they exist at all. It’s useful to prepare for difficult situations that are coming up: heightened alertness before a big presentation at work is “good” adrenaline. It’s also useful to be motivated to avoid a loss, or to work out a plan to make it less likely. And it’s useful to plan for particular situations that might occur: change the fire alarm battery every year, decide that if that tickle is still there in a week you will go to the doctor.

But both can also be unhelpful. If the adrenaline boost is so much that you’re shaking uncontrollably, the fight/flight reflex is counterproductive. If you fixate on a possible loss without making a practical plan to avoid it, or if you are significantly overestimating the chances or size of the loss, then you’re going to be worrying without any benefit (statistically, you will have a significant fire in your house about once in 730 years in the UK). And if you cycle around on particular “what ifs” that are either very improbable, or you’ve taken the necessary action already (and the doctor said it’s fine), then again that isn’t great.

Getting out of any of these spirals is a bit of a trick, though. Using the anxiety to motivate you to take action can be the best route: rehearse your presentation in front of your partner, make a plan for what you’ll do if you have a panic attack as you’re driving, back up your photos to the cloud so they can’t get lost.

In the moment, you can take slow, deep, breaths – focus on a really long out breath; this will trigger your “rest and digest” reflex, which will calm your lizard brain. Try reframing the thought in a more positive or different way – that’s what is behind the old trick of imagining your audience naked when speaking in public. Sometimes, it’s possible to distract yourself, for example by talking with a friend, taking some exercise, or walking outdoors. There are some great apps out there, too, for anxious moments – Mind Ease is really good, and scientifically backed.

If you have a bit more time, you might look at what underlies your anxiety – the Downward Arrow technique is useful here. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) will often improve general anxiety, helping you reframe your negative thoughts systematically.

And, of course, meditation can help, in two ways. First, the act of meditation tends to calm and relax you, reducing the likelihood of an anxiety attack. Secondly, as you improve in mindfulness, you become more aware of your own thought patterns. This gives you the ability to spot when you’re on the edge of an anxiety attack, but still on the right side to pull it back, using some of the techniques we’ve already looked at.

If you want to dive into all of this in a more systematic way, I can recommend this article on clearerthinking.org, which I shamelessly mined for some of the ideas above!

Happiness: want more?

One of my favourite things about meditation is how I get to talk about happiness with people without it being childish. Happiness is, it seems to me, simply a good thing. Why wouldn’t people want to be happy more of the time?

Well most of us might, perhaps, but somehow we don’t think we can talk about it. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it, that when we talk about “being happy”, other people seem to regard us with a look that says we’re not a serious grown-up, but have instead reverted to a child-like state and are incapable of seeing all the bad stuff. Being a grown-up is apparently a serious thing, to be undertaken with a stern face. Smiling is for lightweights, it seems.

To which I say: balderdash! It’s you, oh stern-faced people, who have the world all wrong. You, who seem to want to grind every spark of joy out of the situation. You, who are not seeing the world as it really is. For of course there are bad things going on. Terrible things. Earthquakes, tsunami, plague, famine, the lot.

But – and this is the crucial point – taking all of this seriously doesn’t mean you can’t be a happy person (you aren’t happy about those things, of course). You can still be extremely effective in your work as (say) a doctor, treating those with terrible illness, taking their sickness and their treatment very seriously, and still be happy in yourself. “Serious” isn’t the opposite of “happy”: the opposite of “happy” is “unhappy”. You can be happy and serious! And – this is a really important point – being unhappy isn’t going to make you a better doctor (or tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, or friend, or partner, or parent, or just general person in the world).

So, if happiness is a good thing, how can we get more of it? Well, first we should recognise that our genetics and our upbringing tend to have given each of us a “set point” on the happiness scale, around which we will vary, but to which we tend to return. This set point is quite strong: for example, people who win a lot of money on the lottery do tend to be much happier for a while, but after only a few months or a year they tend to will revert to their “set point”. The same is true of people who end up confined to a wheelchair after accident or illness – initially they will likely be very unhappy, but after a period of months they will return to their set point of happiness. (We are also very bad at forecasting what will make us happy in the long run, so you perhaps think this isn’t true of you – but I’m here to tell you it almost certainly is!)

However, there are things we can do that will change that set point – and meditation has been proven to be one of those, along with activities such as spending time in nature, getting enough sleep, and meeting with friends and family (checking out Facebook and Instagram doesn’t count – it may even make you less happy!)

There are specific styles of meditation that are about happiness, too – what is known as “metta”, or loving-kindness meditation is known to be particularly effective. In my everyday meditation practice, I will often combine a few minutes of this “happiness” meditation with more traditional breath meditation. I’ve recently recorded a short meditation in this style, which you might enjoy as well!

So whatever you do today, you can spend a few minutes being happy and not feeling bad about it.

How things change all the time

One of the things you’ll recognise about yourself if you are at all self-aware is that you’re somewhat of a different person this year, compared to a few years ago. You’ve perhaps had a few knocks, maybe a couple of lucky breaks, and you’ve learned from these experiences, and you’ve changed. Some of this is going to be for the better, and some of it is likely for the worse – we all age, get sick, end up in a ridiculous fight with our loved ones about who’s turn it is to walk the dog in the rain or whatever. This is, as we would all acknowledge, just life.

The thing is, or at least the thing that the Buddhists would have you believe, is that there is a deeper truth in all of this. The deeper truth is that of course everything changes over time, we all know this. But none the less – and this is the most important thing – the primary cause of our suffering is the wish that it wasn’t so. That it’s our very wish for things to remain the same that causes suffering – for our knees not to get old and creaky, for the sunshine to remain long enough for us to walk the dog, for them not to cancel your favourite TV show. You know that this stuff will change – some for the better, some for the worse – but it’s not the change itself that is the problem, but our attachment to, or craving for, the un-changed thing that’s the problem.

At one level, this is obvious. “Of course I want things to be great all the time, not horrible! What do you expect? That I would be happy with this?”, you will be thinking.

The problem isn’t quite in wishing for things to be good and not bad, it’s a bit subtler than that. It’s about our reaction: that when these unpleasant things arise, we very often wish to get away from them, to pretend it isn’t so. But the thing is, that’s not going to happen. The world is how it is – things change, and right now this bad thing has happened. You need to find a way to acknowledge that, because refusing to accept that the world has done this thing is exactly what’s causing the suffering. Splitting reality into “how I wish it was” versus “how things are” is causing the suffering.

Note what I’m not saying. You do not have to be “happy” about it, you do not have to “pretend” that it’s ok, you do not have to “accept” it in the sense of not trying to improve the situation. All you have to do is accept that this has happened, you are where you are, and try and put away the urge to wish it were not so. It simply is the case that this has happened. Accepting it (in the sense of acknowledging the truth of the situation) is the first step to getting out of the suffering. If you’re lost in a strange city, pretending that you’re not lost isn’t going to help you find your way to the railway station. If the proverbial has really hit the fan, then pretending it ain’t so isn’t going to get the mess cleared up. It may be painful to acknowledge – it perhaps means the failure of plans years in the making – but Step One is to acknowledge it. Give yourself five seconds of rage (in your head is best!), then accept that it has happened, it’s in the past (even by a minute) and can’t be changed. It has happened, so acknowledge it. This step alone will massively reduce the suffering you are feeling in the moment.

The cup is already broken

Sometimes, we all have problems getting started on something.  This may be something as trivial as doing the washing up, to something as difficult as having a difficult conversation with someone close to us.  This can be through everything from laziness (the washing up), to fear of a really bad outcome – that the reaction we’ll get from the close friend will cause the end of a cherished relationship.  Everyone does some variation of this – some of us seem to do it almost hourly, indeed!

So, you might well ask, might meditation and mindfulness help us with this?  And what’s it got to do with a broken cup?

Well the Zen Buddhists have a phrase: they say “the cup is already broken”.  It comes from one of those lovely but slightly odd Zen stories, this one about an old master’s answer when his students asked him how he could be so happy, knowing that terrible things could happen in the world.  He held up his teacup, and said: “Someone gave me this beautiful cup for my tea.  I really like the patterns on it, and I love the sound it makes when I stir the tea.  It keeps my drink at just the right temperature, and it’s comfortable to hold.  And one day I may drop it as I’m washing it, or the wind will blow the my book open and it will knock the cup to the floor, and it will smash.  And I say ‘ah, now it has ended’.  I know it may end, in a day or in ten years.  So every moment with it now is precious, and I admire its beauty”.

It can be the same with getting started on something.  Acknowledge the end you fear – maybe it’s certain to happen.  All things come to an end.  But also remember that it may not happen today, or next week, or next year.  And, in the meantime, enjoy the cup to its full.  In the future, it is already broken, but right now, we can, and should, enjoy it – the laughter of friendship over a misunderstanding, the feeling of warmth on our hands as we wash the dishes. 

Book review: On Having No Head

I recently re-read Douglas Hardings short book, “On Having No Head”. He wrote this classic in 1961, and I read it first as a young man perhaps 30 years ago, but it has not aged one drop.

On Having No Head by Douglas E. Harding

This is a true gem of a book – it sparkles in the light and when viewed from some angles it is beautiful indeed, but there are some sharp pointy bits, and it’s quite hard.

If it seems like I took a metaphor too literally there, then that’s what this book does, using it to drive home some very deep points.

From where we look out to the world, Douglas Harding points out that we quite literally can’t see our own head. There’s this vague pink cloud which on other people seems to form a nose, but from where we look, it’s translucent and appears either on the left or the right, depending on which way we’re looking, so that doesn’t seem to be like other people’s noses. If we see our head in a reflection, we aren’t seeing our head itself, we are seeing a reflection – often distorted, in water, at an angle on glass, in a shiny door knob or the back of our spoon. Which of these is the real shape of our head? We are indeed unreliable witnesses:

If I fail to see what I am (and especially what I am not) it’s because I’m too busily imaginative, too “spiritual”, too adult and knowing, too credulous, to intimidated by society and language, too frightened of the obvious to accept the situation exactly as I find it at this moment.

Which is the start of the deep points that are being made. We seem, if we look from this point of view, to be directly connected to the whole world. The whole world is where we used to imagine our head was, and we are deeply, intimately, as one with that world:

There are no obstructions here, no inside or outside, no room or lack of room, no hiding place or shelter: I can find no home here to live in or to be locked out of, and not an inch of ground to build it on.

Douglas Harding had these revelations on his own, and his pursuit of others who might at least understand what he was talking about led him eventually to Zen Buddhism. This short book, then, is really about the Zen experience from an intensely first-hand point of view. Harding found that the Heart Sutra, daily recited in Zen (and other Buddhist) monasteries, declares that the body is just emptiness: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”, it famously declares. This is the profound experience of Zen. Hardin quotes the 16th-century Zen master Han-shan:

“I took a walk. Suddenly I stood still, filled with the realization that I had no body or mind. All I could see was one great illuminating Whole – omnipresent, perfect, lucid, and serene. It was like an all-embracing mirror from which the mountains and rivers of the earth were projected… I felt clear and transparent”

This is the direct experiencing of non-duality, of Advaita, as the Buddhists call it, the Zen experience of Satori It’s not a Zen or a Buddhist concept alone, either – you see it in Christian mystics, in the writings of Hindu and Muslims as well. Even Shakespeare knew of it, when in Measure for Measure he has Isabella say, in a much-quoted speech:

…man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he’s most assured, His glassy essence, like an angry ape

This is indeed a short, but profound, book, directly confronting our inner angry ape. Harding ends with a sketch of a path, of experiences and exercises, that might help us along our way to finding this truth at the heart of reality. He achieved the “direct path” to this insight, and I toil along the lower slope of the mountain daily, with rare glimpses of the glorious peaks when the clouds break. But Werner Erhard had it right:

This is it. There are no hidden meanings. All that mystical stuff is just what’s so.

If it’s Happy Christmas, why am I not happy?

Some days you just feel sad.  Things might be going ok at work, the family are in truth at least somewhat lovely (all things considered), maybe it’s even stopped raining for twenty minutes and the sun has come out, but for whatever reason, you’re not feeling it at all.  Maybe you were feeling ok yesterday, maybe yesterday wasn’t so good either, but today definitely isn’t up to the mark.

And you know what?  That’s perfectly ok.  Even at Christmas – perhaps especially at Christmas – it’s important to acknowledge what we’re actually feeling.  (And before we go further, let me emphasise: if the feelings are severe, you’re feeling too overwhelmed or having thoughts of self-harm, or it’s been going on for a while, you should definitely seek help from a professional.  Start with your GP, or just talk to someone experienced – you can even do it online, or on the phone.  Put this down, and go do that if you need to.  Literally nothing is more important right now.)

If you’re still here, and you’re still sad, then like I said, that’s still ok.  Sadness is a curious emotion, perhaps not uniquely human, but still pretty much a defining characteristic of the human condition.  Perpetual happiness is definitely a myth, packaged by advertisers to sell you things you don’t need.  But there are some things you can do that might help with sadness, even in the next 15 minutes, even without eating or spending anything – or at least, not money. 

Start with where you’re spending your attention.

One of the features of sadness and depression is how it can hijack your attention.  Our mood very often affects our thoughts, and if you’re sad, you’ll likely be remembering the bad things, or anticipating further difficulties. This can lead to a downward spiral.  We imagine that our thoughts are a true representation of the world.  This is of course is impossible, as the world is vastly too big and complicated to fit into our head.  You can’t even know what someone else is thinking – how would all their thoughts fit in your head, when it’s already full of your own?  .   

So sadness captures our attention, demanding we think of nothing else.  At some level, so what if it does?  You don’t have to be happy all the time to have a good life.  Nobody is happy all the time – again, it’s a myth (even for the Dalai Lama).  And you don’t need to get rid of those negative emotions, either.  They’re just what your attention is on right now.  Your attention is like a mental theatre, complete with stage and spotlight: right now, someone sad and upset has the limelight, strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage.  You don’t have to get rid of them.  You can just remember them as a feeling that you have right now.  Unpleasant, sure, but you’re more even than the whole theatre – you’re definitely not just the character in the spotlight this morning.  

The mindfulness that Buddhists talk about can help with this.   Buddhism is founded on the very human experiences of sadness, love, and openness – the first Great Truth of Buddhism is the reality of suffering.  Our profound sadness, it says, is often caused by an instinctive realisation of the impermanent nature of something in the world (that’s the Second Truth).  Our joys are fleeting, and then very comes the downswing – after the comic relief, enters the gloom. 

Sadness, in this reading of it, is to some degree a window into our soul – a gift, even.  Understanding the nature of impermanence doesn’t have to make us permanently miserable.  Sadness itself is impermanent.  While it’s here, though, give it your attention for a few minutes.  For if we look,  within the sadness we may find a precious jewel: a deeper understanding of some joy.  We once knew joy, now we’re sad.  Within the sadness is still the seed of joy, just as within a wizened apple, fallen on the ground, is the seed of a new apple tree (actually, five seeds, because, well, evolution).

So what might you do in the next fifteen minutes?  You might think about that seed.  Be realistic – the good thing might not come back.  You don’t control it all.  You can still acknowledge that that it was there, whether it can or is likely to come back or not.  You can’t control what you think, not really – the Buddhist metaphor is of a rider on an elephant.  You can prod that elephant all you want, but if it really wants to go crashing off into the gloom, then you’re going with it.

Mindfulness says: all you can do is look at the world right now.  Right this second.  Even if you’re in pain, emotionally or physically, look it square on.  Really hard.  All things are impermanent.  This, too.  Storms fade, but so do cherry blossoms fade.  Both were once beautiful, and you should still enjoy them when they’re around – you might even plan specifically to do so.

Finally, if you stick with it for a while, you might start to see the deep heart of the truth: that the way you experience yourself and the world – your feelings, emotions, all of it – it’s truly and simply how the world is represented in your head (and the rest of your body, too, of course – most importantly, in your guts).  Doesn’t mean it’s not real, of course – stuff inside your head is even more real to you than stuff outside, after all. 

So at the end of your fifteen minutes, do something that gets you out of your head – something for someone else.  Anything.  Reach out to someone and try and improve someone else’s day, just a tiny fraction – a text, an email, smiling at the next random stranger you walk past or at the person serving you in the shop.  Move the world to kinder, one tiny grain of sand at a time.  It may even improve yours, just a fraction.  


We never know what we’ll find around the corner

We never know what we will find around the corner

One of the wonders of Life is the constant unexpectedness of it all. A long time ago, when I was driving along a road I knew very well, and had driven all my driving life, I came around a corner and was confronted by the sight of a very large pig, just standing in the middle of the road. I just about managed to avoid the embarrassment of a pig-related insurance claim, pulled over, and soon found that it had escaped from a nearby farm.

And, as with many things, our inside world is just a reflection of the outside world. Although lots of our thoughts seem to run along predictable roads and round predictable paths, we can suddenly find ourselves confronted by the unexpected. If we look carefully, as with the pig, we find that they are explainable in hindsight: we see that we had such-and-such a thought because something happened that set it off. We suddenly thought of visiting our aunt for tea because we caught a sent of lavender in the air, which reminded us of how the potpourri smells at our aunt’s house, which made us think of how it really was time we popped round for tea. At the time, though, the thought of our aunt’s teacakes just seemed to appear out of the middle of nowhere.

The Buddhists have this concept of “dependent origination”, which means that everything was caused by something before it – everything depends on something before, which in turn was caused by something before it, and so on, all the way back to the Big Bang (or even further, if we can ever work that out!).

One of the lessons we can learn in meditation is that of the truth of dependent origination. We think we are the originator of our thoughts, but we’re not, really. It’s all conditioned – based on what has come before. Try it now – think of an animal. Go on, really. Think of one. I’ll wait.

Now, before you’d thought of that animal, did you know what animal it was going to be? No, of course not, that wouldn’t make sense. So that animal was unexpected, right? Well, perhaps: but it’s an animal you’ve heard of, yes? And you have some familiarity with it? Perhaps it’s one you like particularly, or had seen recently? Think about it – why, in retrospect, did you pick that animal? There was a reason, wasn’t there?

Same with meditation. We are there, trying to stay with the breath, when suddenly a thought comes up. If we are really paying attention, though, we can often see how it came about. It perhaps came from a smaller thought before it, which came from some rumination we had had before we sat down. Or from a sound we heard, or from a task that we’d left unfinished. Or from some other trigger – some other condition, internal or external, which in turn (if we looked hard enough) had its own cause, and so on.

This is why the whole cycle of noticing is a vital part of meditation. It’s why the point of mindfulness isn’t to have no thoughts – otherwise you’d never have the chance to notice the origins of thoughts, to keep our awareness open (while we are still following the breath, naturally!) and to spot them as they start to grow.

Once a thought is significant enough to disrupt our attention, of course we need to do something about it. So we perform the cycle which we all do about ten thousand, thousand, times, as we sit in our meditations:

  • Recognise that we’re now paying attention to the thought, not the breath
  • Release the thought – gently, no need to do it suddenly!
  • Relax for a moment – perhaps even take a breath, going “ah-ha!” to ourselves, with a little smile, acknowledging another stone laid in the foundation of our mindfulness
  • Return to the object of our meditation – usually the breath

And of course, as within, so without, too. We can use this same cycle to catch ourselves out there in the world, especially if we’re falling into negative cycles of thought. We can Recognise, Release, Relax, and Return to whatever we should have been paying attention to.

I’ve put up a new guided meditation on the website, 20 minutes long, which you might like to use to try this out. Have fun with it!