Learning

The year 2008 was the most interesting time of my life.  Never before have I had the range of highs and lows, challenges to the status quo, physical limitations, the stress of surgery and hospital stays and much more.  All this packed into twelve months has been an unforgettable rollercoaster ride.  Even now I could very easily slip into a state of depression and anxiety but I’m trying hard not to let that happen.  Early on I figured out that making the best of my situation was going to involve trying new approaches and learning what I could from my experiences.  This page is intended to distil a little wisdom from the mush that has passed through my mind in the process. I doubt if anything here is original or even particularly novel but I hope it will resonate with others.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. I really am going to die one of these days.  Contrary to Benjamin Franklin’s observation, the only thing certain in life is death, although it is true that I have paid my share of taxes.  It is one thing to know that intellectually and entirely another to feel it deep down.  The Buddha is said to have told his students that they should think about their death with every breath.  The key thing here is not to feel bad about it: it is just part of a natural process that we all go through – like toilet training.  Accepting this is the hard part but I’m getting there.  It doesn’t worry me but it certainly gives me pause for thought.  These days I spend more time making sure my affairs are in order, or at least not out of order by too much.
  2. In a more general way I am also much better at accepting things as they are.  My tendency is to want things to be right, whatever that means, and also well-defined.  As my psychologist once remarked, I like to know where the exits are.  This year has finally taught me that this is often not possible and that trying to make it so is a recipe for considerable grief.  The only guarantee about the future is that it will be uncertain so I might as well try to enjoy the ride.In the long run it is not what happens that matters to me: it is how I feel about it.  If I can be at death’s door in agony and enjoying it, who is to say that is a bad thing?  Granted, that is a rather extreme example, but you see what I mean?  The trick, I am finding, is not to get caught up in my immediate thoughts and feelings; they do not define who or what I am.This works especially well at those times when I’m feeling anxious and nervous.  After all, I may think or feel entirely differently in a few minutes.
  3. I am more gentle with myself.  When I screw something up I don’t get as upset as I used to.  When I’ve been goofing off instead of doing something productive I don’t tell myself I’m lazy.  When I do something strictly for myself I don’t feel selfish about it.
  4. I live life more fully from moment to moment and really try to throw myself into what I am doing.  This must be so obvious to some of you but for me it is something of a revelation.  In the past there were certain things (notably my work and my hobbies) in which I could get completely immersed.  Now it is much easier to do that with more mundane things.  Taking a shower, for example, is no longer just an exercise in getting clean as quickly as possible.  I start by washing my compression stockings by hand, then I luxuriate in the shower itself, after which I massage my foot, apply moisturizer etc., check my leg for lumps, floss my teeth, clip my nails, pick my nose and generally perform a sort of 1000Km overhaul on myself.  It takes longer than it used to but I feel really clean afterwards.
  5. Smiling, even if I don’t feel like it, can make me feel better. Laughter is good medicine.  Having an upbeat piece of music running around my head is good too.  I am much more aware of how my mind and my body work together and how to make that a positive process rather than a negative one.
  6. Understanding myself is at least as hard as understanding anyone else and a whole lot harder (mentally) than most other things I’ve done in my life.  I find meditation and mindfulness to be very powerful tools but using them effectively is a lot of work too.  The really good news is that this process is completely under my control: there are no miracles or magic:  it’s just a slog through the dense underbrush of my mind.  One of the courses that has helped me on my way is documented in the blog.

As a corollary to this it occurred to me that if I can do nothing else with myself, due to physical disability or emotional overload, I can always meditate.  At least the time will go a little faster.

Much of this is summed up very pithily in Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer:

God grant me
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

If I believed in God I’d be asking for just that.  As it is I believe that I can find most, if not all, of those within myself.  I wish nothing less for all of you.

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