therapy journey

My journey to better mental & spiritual health

Tag: personal development

Why do assertiveness training?

I’m halfway through an assertiveness training course and it’s been a real revelation, as if somehow everything makes sense. I’m very happy with how it’s progressing and wrote about it in detail here:

https://therapyjourney.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/assertiveness-training-course-interim-review/

But what brought me to the point where I felt that an assertiveness training course would be beneficial for me? It was something I’d had in the back of my mind for years, but a recent fairly trivial event in my personal life had me thinking ‘I wish I knew what to say here’, whereas in reality I dealt with the situation in my normal manner, namely pretending it didn’t bother me. On the inside I got more and more annoyed and frustrated, sounding off to friends instead of dealing directly with the people involved. The people involved didn’t know how I really felt.

I know you have to pick your battles, but when you spend a lot of your life believing that your feelings are invalid, it clouds your ability to figure out what’s worth your time and what isn’t.

Learning the assertive way really helps, because being assertive means listening to yourself and being attentive to your own needs. It means being able to stand up for yourself when it is appropriate to do so. It means recognising what is worth your precious, finite energy, and what isn’t. And the way in which you act is so much more pleasant to others, because they know what they can expect from you. They find themselves feeling relaxed and happy around you, instead of having a general sense of unease but not being able to put their finger on it.

Although I have struggled with being overly aggressive at times in my life, my main problem at the time of taking on this course was acting too passively. Many that know me now wouldn’t think I’m a passive person but that’s largely because I work so hard at hiding my passive tendencies because they have not served me well in the past. Now I have decided I want to let them go once and for all.

These were some of the things I found myself doing, some recently and some not so recently. I started to pick myself up on a few of these things:

  • Agreeing with the general consensus way too often, even though I have opinions to the contrary.
  • Pretending something doesn’t upset me when it does
  • Saying things are fine when they are not to avoid a fuss
  • Avoiding people in order to side-step talking about an issue
  • Bending over backwards to please others
  • Ordering my own life around others, even those who are not close to me and don’t care about my efforts
  • Abandoning my own opinions, values, belief and judgments and being easily swayed by other people whose ideas were contrary to mine
  • Uncertainly about my own mind because I was always so willing to go along with others and let them decide things for me
  • Lack of disclosure about myself to others that I’m never going to get to know on a personal basis, because there seems little point ‘being myself’
  • Being unable to say no if someone wanted to employ me/ go out with me/ select me for something – they would make the decision and I would be powerless to resist
  • The constant nagging feeling that I am inferior to everybody else
  • Conviction that I can’t rely on myself to be consistent in my decision-making
  • Feeling that I can’t trust myself to have control over my own communication
  • Belief that my self-confidence fluctuates like the weather and is therefore not something I can control
  • Inability to say what I really mean in the moment without it turning into either self-pitying or aggressive remarks/behaviour
  • Angry outbursts when communication becomes simply too frustrating
  • Being unfairly judgmental and harsh towards others, but keeping these opinions to myself. Not valuing others as individuals perhaps because I didn’t value myself and our collective rights

That list was longer than I was expecting and makes me sound like I really had it bad and went through life in a depressive, submissive and powerless way. I didn’t – not for the last 2 years anyway. In fact, to the contrary I have better confidence now than at any other period of my life. I have good self-knowledge having spent years already working on myself. I have the best attitude towards the future I’ve ever had, largely because I’ve a lot to be happy about but also because I’ve the developed the skills needed to cope with life, whatever happens.

The passive person spends much of their time lying both to themselves and to others. This is hugely counterproductive and very destructive. Others may feel guilty for taking advantage of the passive person, or superior because their passive behaviour marks them as inferior. Probably others will feel irritation and pity towards the passive person and may cease to respect them. I was very intrigued to learn that others may actually feel awkward around passive people – because they cannot know what the passive person wants or likes. And of course, that makes perfect sense. Being around an assertive person makes them feel great, because they know you’ll always be honest and say what you really think. You’re open. People like that. So, to be a true ‘people pleaser’, if that’s in your nature, be assertive because that way people will feel safe and know what to expect around you.

Self-deprecation seems to be part of the British sense of humour but it can mask a seriously damaging self-image. Putting yourself down, like I do quite a lot, isn’t really a very nice thing to do – after all, if you wouldn’t speak of others in that way, why talk to yourself like that, e.g “I’m so stupid”, “Could I be any more pathetic”? If you’re a passive person, take the time to pay attention to your self-talk because it might be feeding an unhealthy self-image.

Passive people may make few demands of others, but make unrealistically high demands of themselves which they are bound to fail to meet. It is the same low opinion of oneself that makes passive people put others first, belittle their own views, and seek approval from others above all else. Really it comes down to a lack of self-esteem, and a double standard when applied to other people’s rights and opinions as opposed to one’s own. Why should we treat ourselves with any less respect than that which we afford to others? Surely, if we want to be respected we must respect ourselves first?

What I’ve written about here are the slow penny-drops of the passive person. I’m finally starting to face up to the less-than-perfect communication style I have, and problems with self-esteem and self-image. The specific goals I have with learning assertiveness include having more control over my communication; experiencing a better quality of life with overall needs being met; having the tools to deal with uncertain or unpredictable situations; having less anxiety (especially first thing in the morning when I can feel quite daunted by the day ahead); having more respect from strangers and loved ones alike; being better able to command attention; and having improved wellbeing overall as not so much is pent up.

Assertiveness is a communication style that informs all our interactions with others, but it really starts with recognising what is lacking in our own self-opinion. Only when you’ve accepted your own individual rights as the foundation for living life can the assertive way take hold and flourish. Breaking the patterns of the past is no mean feat and certainly change can be very wrenching and even destructive if you’re not prepared for all that it can entail. But when you’re ready to take control of life and to break the bad habits of the past, it can be very, very liberating.

reasons-for-assertiveness-training

Assertiveness training course interim review.

“Forthright, positive, insistence on the recognition of one’s rights” – Oxford English Dictionary

Assertive is a style of communication which contrasts with the passive, aggressive or manipulative styles. It is a way of expressing our needs while at the same time recognising that they are no more important or less important than the needs of others. When we act assertively, we are respectful of others, understanding that both parties are equal and accepting that someone else may say no or disagree with our viewpoint. Assertive people communicate clearly, directly, openly and honestly. And yet the assertive person can recognise in fact when to act assertively and when it may be strategic to lie, to walk away, back down, to be deliberately passive or aggressive.

The training course I’m currently attending at a local branch of Mind (a mental health charity operating across the UK) has been instrumental in helping me to see where my communication falls down and what I’m doing wrong. The reasons why I felt I needed assertiveness training are available in this post:

https://therapyjourney.wordpress.com/2016/10/16/why-do-assertiveness-training/

It has challenged me in quite significant ways which have sometimes felt a little uncomfortable but not as uneasy as some of the exercises on my recent psychodynamic counselling course. That’s because the nature of assertiveness training is essentially forward-looking.

With assertiveness being the goal there is the inbuilt premise that change is possible. One has to believe in change in order to achieve an identifiable goal. We spent the first session understanding the cycle of change adapted from the work of Prochaska and DiClemente. Upheaval brings with it pros as well as cons and can be a painful journey, but as long as the pros outweigh the cons it is a risk worth taking. There was a degree of healthy self-examination in the first couple of sessions as we pause to understand the rights we all have as individuals. This is the basis that must be understood if any lasting changes in our interactions with others can be made. What it calls for is an acceptance of certain rights which are:

  1. To state our own needs
  2. To be treated with respect as an intelligent, capable and equal human being.
  3. To express our feelings
  4. To express our opinions and values
  5. To say “yes” or “no” for ourselves
  6. To make mistakes
  7. To change our minds
  8. To say I do not understand
  9. To ask for what we want
  10. To decline responsibility for other people’s problems
  11. To not be dependent on others for approval
  12. To be unassertive

For many on the course, myself included, this brought a painful realisation of the rights we had denied ourselves over the years, perhaps over entire lifetimes so far. For me the ones I selected as needing the most work were 6. To make mistakes and 7. To change our minds. I was brought up believing that to make mistakes was a sign of weakness – and when I did make a mistake, I certainly didn’t own up to it, because it was so shameful! Similarly with 7, I guess there was an assumption I latched onto as a child that to change your mind was a sign of a weak character. The assumption went unchallenged and was in fact fed by significant others in my life for so many years that reading this Bill of Rights in class made me feel kind of emotional. It was like a great veil had been lifted and finally the unspoken could be said out loud. The great realisation was that I wasn’t weak or stupid if I changed my mind. I am human and it is my right, like it is everyone’s right.

The Bill of Rights is the absolute foundation on which assertiveness is built. If you believe deeply that you are entitled to those fundamentals, then what we call ‘assertiveness’ logically follows.

The first technique learned on the course was the ‘I’ statement. It can be used to ask for what we want or to state when a given situation is not working well for us and we want to change something. We express clearly what we really think and feel. We take responsibility for ourselves. We don’t blame or attack others, and stay calm throughout. We only talk about how something affects us (and what we’d like as an outcome) so there is less to argue about. The ‘I’ statement deals with facts, feelings and expectations.

The format of the ‘I’ statement has three parts to it, namely “I feel”… “When”… “What I would really appreciate is”…. To use it successfully, you must always keep the outcome in mind and be specific and concise about it. Crucially, you do not allow yourself to be dragged in to another discussion. You stick to your own agenda. You simply state your case using repetition if necessary and if that is not getting through, it’s fine to say “I’ve told you what I think, it’s up to you what you do with that.” Body language and tone of voice are key. The assertive way keeps in mind that 70%, or whatever the science says this week, of communication is non-verbal.

When we began to practise ‘I’ statements it soon became apparent that even in the safety of the classroom people found it jarring to say “I feel upset by”. The high value placed on feelings in this mode of communication is somewhat at odds with the culture we live in, in which feelings are not readily talked about. Many environments it’s simply not appropriate to talk of our feelings, such as the workplace or interactions with a stranger. The course leader made a very valid point regarding how we can subtly shift the language we use in accordance with the setting. In our culture at large, feelings are not valued but opinions are king. We reformulate our statement as the opinion, “I think it isn’t fair” instead of emotive language, “I feel upset by”.

After learning about ‘I’ statements we moved on to Saying No. This was something that many in the group struggled with. A cliché abounds of a typically passive, doormat-type person who gets persuaded and manipulated into saying, doing, and buying things they don’t want. A whole industry preys on these kinds of people. Perhaps they ‘don’t’ want to make a fuss’ or their motto is ‘anything for a quiet life’. They feel they will let people down or upset them if they refuse a request. This stereotype has some truth to it.

However we have a right to say no. Saying no doesn’t mean rejecting the person, it simply means refusing the request. When you say no, you must actually use the word ‘no’ – not ‘I’m not sure’, ‘it’s not a good time’, ‘I don’t think so’ ‘I’m too tired’, or any other evasion. The other person will be thinking that your answer is simply a preamble to negotiations.

So, clarity is key when saying no. When you are clear, people are less likely to pressure you because they have already heard your answer. They know where they stand. Also, a convoluted answer full of apologies, justifications and guilt can be uncomfortable for the other person to hear.

It’s really very freeing to know that we do all have the right to say no. Again it comes back to the Bill of Rights that we learned in the first session, and being committed to accepting those rights. If other people feel bad about our refusal of their request or try to make us feel guilty or duty-bound to comply, that’s their problem. Realising this is like a huge weight has been lifted from the shoulders of those whose sense of self comes – strange as it sounds – from compliance with others.

What this course has given me so far is permission to stand up for myself. Yes, we all have the right to state our needs. Yes, we all have the right to decline responsibility for other people’s problems. Yes, we all have the right to be treated with respect as intelligent, capable and equal human beings.

Being aware of our rights is more empowering than any of the individual techniques and exercises that we have learned so far, although they have been very helpful and eye-opening too. The effect of sitting in a room with other human beings who all now share the knowledge of our rights makes it very real. This has been the real surprise of the course. Undoing our disempowered self-image and replacing it with one in which we are allowed to express ourselves. That is the key to assertiveness.

assertiveness

An unnatural history.

Maybe I have cracked up. I fully accept that madness is a part of my psyche. I embrace it, along with other absurd sides of life. Maybe I am particularly susceptible to crazy ideas that I can really get my teeth into, because I am running out of things to believe in – things I can actually put into practice. My situation could be worse but I am frustrated and thoroughly not where I want to be, surrounded by people I regard (not literally) as robots in a small town I sometimes loathe. Boredom is the most toxic of all chronic states, and when I fear the darkness within myself most it is during times of boredom.

During my trawl of the blogs I follow recently, I came across an article regarding Jimmy Savile which led  me to this 2012 article, in which David Icke tells of Savile’s role as a “fixer” to the royal family of the United Kingdom and how in fact the bloodlines of all royal families and other leaders in politics and business (which are in fact but one family) being founded on Satanism and other occult knowledge, in which paedophilia and ritual sacrifice play a key role.

My interest was piqued. I’ve always had a fascination with conspiracy theories, as they are condescendingly termed, and some time ago while I was in the United States I started getting into the Zeitgeist movement but have failed to do anything concerned with activism for this cause, only the passive activity of watching the films. Nevertheless, my consciousness was awakened, which is supposedly happening in fact on a grand scale – but still so many allow themselves to remain comatose, deadened by meaningless entertainment, the treadmill of consumer wants, and the demanding, unnecessary work that keeps them in voluntary slavery. Peter Joseph said, in the second of the Zeitgeist trilogy, “Physical slavery requires people to be housed and fed. Economic slavery requires the people to feed and house themselves”. And it is this that people are so busy doing that they see no alternative.

It was from this open-minded standpoint that I began to read Icke’s 1999 book, The Biggest Secret, the entire text of which is available to download in pdf format free. What I’m about to share isn’t presented as the truth, merely as an interesting theory that is capturing my attention currently. My blog in its entirety is a document of my journey from darkness to light, from anger to peace. What I write isn’t the doctrine of myself, merely the reflections of a person that recognises life is made of change, not least within my own mind. I write for clarity, for therapy, for outreach. I write for myself.

The story goes that a race within a race of interbreeding bloodlines centred in the Middle- and Near-East have complete control over the rest of humanity, having introduced complex structures such as religion, politics, the military, government and business, and known as the Babylonian Brotherhood. See, I told you it was a crackpot idea. Furthermore, this race is not fully human, but part shape-shifting reptile that inhabits the fourth dimension. Nor are they of Earth but they are from Mars! But, of course!

There is a lot of highly contentious information in Icke’s book about a highly evolved race that lived on Mars at a time when that planet was a lot closer to the sun – in the position that the Earth currently inhabits, in fact. Our other next door neighbour, Venus, was an ice-coated comet according to scientist of sorts Brian Desborough, and its collision with Mars was what caused billions of tons of ionised ice to be attracted to our magnetic poles, which before 4,500 BCE had no ice. This would answer the question of what caused the mammoth, a temperate grassland mammal, to die out so suddenly. More importantly, the collision caused the destruction of the highly advanced Mars race’s home planet. With nowhere to go, they decide to colonise the Earth, and went to war with the native race of the Earth.

Now this is an entirely preposterous conjecture if I take a step back from it for a moment, and I cannot find a satisfactory answer to the question of how did this Mars race get to Earth with their planet destroyed? Why are there no traces of their technology? It also gets very dangerous as we are talking about racial divides, which is not something our planet needs more of.

Separately to this strand, there is an idea put forward by scholar Zecharia Sitchin who has translated Sumerian tablets which date from 4,000 – 2,000 BCE, found in present-day Iraq. They reveal that an extra-terrestrial race known as the Anunnaki came to earth 450,000 years ago. Humans were created through interbreeding as a slave race. Homo erectus appears to have emerged in Africa about 1.5 million years ago. For over a million years their physical form seems to have remained the same, but then, out of nowhere, came the dramatic change to homo sapiens and an even more instantaneous change to homo sapiens sapiens, with complex language and massive brains, about 35,000 years ago. Icke “feels” that only a “race from a reptile genetic stream” could have been responsible for such tinkering. Almost every ancient culture has reference to some kind of lizard-like, humanoid reptile species.

This is a fantastic reworking of our natural history and if nothing else, a lesson in broadening in the mind through entertaining impossible concepts. It is all oddly compelling to me as I struggle with lack of direction and meaning in my own life during the current fallow period. I stress that I do not subscribe hook, line and sinker to Icke’s theories merely that they hold a lurid car-crash fascination for me. (Or perhaps the lady doth protest too much). I know I shouldn’t read this tripe, as it’s only going to mess with my head, but I am hooked for the time being – and goddammit I’m bored.

truth

Fear and loving.

“The seat of fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Life continues on its mad meander, always. Finding myself returning to a community I always thought of as indifferent, I’ve made efforts to reach out and feel a sense of oneness on a par with true nature. I launched a group which aims to help other people to explore themselves, exchange ideas, embrace spirituality, engage with our fellow adventurers, and let go of fear, negativity and anything else that holds us back. I would like this group to unlock participants’ childlike inner states such as joy, creativity and being outside of time. It is my fond hope that as we build momentum through deeper connection and diverse activities, we find some measure of peace, happiness and unity.

We met for our first session a few days ago and had a great connective experience, meditating and reading. One participant read from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Freedom, according to the speaker in the story, is in rising above physical concerns. Freedom is painted as a strong, glittering chain, as a ‘yoke and a handcuff’. There was a line that refers to casting off ‘fragments of yourself’ in order to become free, which highlights the absurdity of that which, through sentimentality, materialism or notions of ownership, we think of as part of ourselves. All that we need for freedom is already an intrinsic part of the self, though expressing freedom requires self-discipline, integrity and sacrifice. Casting off the shackles of the slave’s imprisonment becomes itself the fetter of a greater freedom.

Peace and freedom are very noble, but days like yesterday remind me that I still have a long way to go on my little journey. I felt the resurgence of anger, and I took it out on someone. A stranger, who happened to get my goat and validated every stinking rotten suspicion I had about the people in this village. Of course, that makes me a hypocrite: what happened to engaging with community? The feeling of love for all is not automatic; it’s beyond hard, and for me right now, impossible. Not being able overcome the instinct to lash out makes me worry. I worry that all the time I’m being nice I was merely pretending. I wonder whether loving and respecting everyone ever can become automatic.

It comes from consciously choosing what we want in our lives. It comes from choosing what thoughts to have. So, I made a decision to become angry. While I regretted it almost immediately, I have to accept that it’s OK to feel less than OK. With everything I’m doing, I am learning. I haven’t yet had an experience that has changed me fundamentally. The last thing I would want is to miss out on my own humanity in single-minded pursuit of high-end spiritual programs.

When I am utterly frustrated, which seems to be happening a lot lately, I don’t feel very myself. For someone who runs a group about being authentic, this could be troubling. But what I want to say to myself is, “it’s OK”. Sometimes I sit and feel sorry for myself. Sometimes I silently sulk and stew. Sometimes I act like a giant baby. Sometimes I cry with epic frustration and total sadness. I both love and hate the fact that my life is so comfortable at the moment. I hate what that makes me.

To step out of my cushy comfort zone, I’ve developed this game in which every day I try to do something that scares me. I’m going to try and push through this every day I am in England. Years ago I attempted to commit to a guiding mantra of “let nothing and nobody scare me”. It was conceived at a time when alcohol provided me with a handy Invincibility Cloak. I’ve carried it around all this time. Now, rather than that motto be full of spurious braggadocio, I’m coming at things from a humble and loving standpoint. I’m seeking out fear, challenging its very existence and staring it down. It’s shown to be nothing more than a figment of my imagination.

And then I realised I was the earthchild.

The title of this post comes from a creativity meditation I attended a couple of nights ago. I felt it strongly and powerfully and it made my aching soul sing just a little bit. I’ve been feeling strangely misaligned recently – that really is the best word for it. My intentions are out of kilter with my reality, my perception isn’t in accord with true nature, and I’m failing to see abundance and joy some of the time. I’m experiencing anger rising sometimes. I’m rubbing up against people’s bad sides. And I’m experiencing that most ungodly of all emotions: fear.

However this is just one small part of who I am today. Yes there’s fear, neuroticism, panic, worry, anger, paranoia and doubt. But there are also measures of true authenticity, joy, laughter, the ability to see absurdity, as well as magnetism, happiness and the pure sublime. Above all the feeling is freedom, which propels me forward in a world without limits.

My wishes for this most sacred of times, the winter solstice of the year 2014, are to trust myself, to live with authenticity and to see the abundance that is all around. I also wish to be kind to myself, although I find this concept the hardest to understand let alone put into practice. I wish to acknowledge some of my struggles of the past as I work hard to put them behind me. There is literally no time for the past.

A friend sent me the link today to an article which puts everything I wanted to say better than I ever could on this auspicious day. We learn that by facing up to our deepest, darkest emotions we can move forward.  I believe that no-one is broken and ‘healing’ is a redundant concept but I agree with the sentiment that self-forgiveness leads to the release of toxic and self-sabotaging patterns. However challenging this may prove to be, writing about it here is one of the steps to making it reality.

As part of the ‘releasing the darkness’ stage, we are urged to write an intention, and then burn the paper on which it is written, followed by smudging sage. I am not doing this myself because I can’t get my head around rituals yet, coming as I do from a tradition full of them, and finding pain and inauthenticity there. Rituals still freak me out. Nevertheless the words Syma Kharal uses are beautiful and I wanted to share them here:

“Dear Higher Self/God/Spirit/Universe: No matter what has happened in the past, I am now willing to release everything about it that brought me fear and pain. I surrender to you all that no longer serves me for healing, cleansing and purification. Help me to forgive and be forgiven by all involved. Align my vision that I may see everything from your enlightened perspective and move forward with wisdom, grace, strength and love. So be it.”

Speaking of rituals, it is my fond hope that in the future I overcome my fear of ritual and prayer, and participate in spiritual rituals in order to experience what’s called “liminality”, derived from the Latin limen meaning boundary or threshold. These boundaries might separate the sacred from the profane. A ritual is a dynamic and engaged creative prayer that allows us to set aside the time to recognise, honour and celebrate seminal aspects of life. I’m currently reading about this in ‘The Red Book’ by Sera Beak. The book is all about igniting one’s divine spark and is intended as a no-nonsense guide for young women.

It’s a very inspirational book that I wish I could have read fifteen years ago. But – no regretting the past in any way, shape or form, as the present time is all we have. That’s why the present is a gift. Beak writes that when we open ourselves up to the divine,

“[…] life becomes much  more flavorful. Profound meaning illuminates even the most mundane of events. My relationships deepen. My voice becomes clearer. My work excels. My personal issues become less draining and dramatic. I am less affected I require less outside approval. My self-confidence beams. I laugh more. I judge less. My sexuality roars. Random acts of kindness become a necessity, not just a whim. […] My perspectives are amplified. I see the world around me at much more than face value, and as a result, I make clearer choices across the board […] I realize I’m not just some well-dressed biped trudging through life but actually an incredibly powerful and integral piece of the divine pie.”

She’s a spunky chick and I aim to go deep with my learnings into my divine spark and how to enhance it and be true to myself. Remembering always that authentic divine truth never separates people from each other, countries from each other, religions from each other. I’m receiving the tiniest spark of divinity but it’s possible to smother it with too much kindling, or to let the fire go out without the right nurturing. I want to see this through. Intention is everything. There will be times when I am rude to people. There will be times I am frustrated and utterly disappointed. I will continue to be angry some of the time, because this is a divine part of me, but these will be fewer and further between, I hope, as intentions and reality align. I am the earthchild, I am divine, I am myself, I am everything and nothing.

“It’s all about paradox, mystery, meditation, sexuality, long walks, and momentous haircuts.” – Sera Beak, ‘The Red Book’.

abundance

I have no self. I am not a self. There is no I. There is nothing.

I chanced upon an entirely philosophical idea recently that has mind-boggling power. There is a universal notion that we all take for granted – the notion of I. Me. That is, the first person self or “unified being which is the source of consciousness”. The thing I refer to as I is separate from the whole. It is unique and we each have a special personal duty to our individual Is. It is almost impossible to dispense with oneself as the source for the individual’s thoughts and actions. Every society has the idea of accountability or personal responsibility once we become adult.

It is interesting to see what happens when we shift our understanding and start to see this I as a fictional creation. What happens? We now the world as the seamless, dynamic and discrete organism that it is. Now consider that I am a part of this thing without an enduring ego or self. Suddenly there are no static pieces of the puzzle to be removed, reassembled and replaced at will. There are no meaningful boundaries between one organism and another. There is just what is. The detail dissolves into the bigger picture. It helps if we imagine consciousness as a mistake.

Of course we need Is in order to function in society. On the whole, we avoid what is threatening and seek out that which is beneficial to our survival and personal fulfilment. I search for ego validation constantly to confirm my sense of self. We all do. Self-affirmation proves that people that matter understand me, love me, accept me, respect me or whatever it is I’m craving at any given moment.

I’m considering the idea that the I is not real in an ultimate sense. It’s a meaningless fiction that only exists in our minds in the manner of a useful collective delusion. It represents a shallow and restrictive way of being that for many people, is absorbing to the point of obsession.

I know I am quite deep and self-obsessed. I like the I that… well, I have constructed. Not only does it serve me well in my interactions with other people, but it is endlessly fascinating. But suppose for a moment I consider the alternative. The Śūnyatā is a beautiful Buddhist concept which refers to emptiness, vacuity, openness. I have been watching a lot of maths programmes lately and an interesting connection is that Śūnyatā comes from the very culture that gave us the zero (śhūnya). The scriptures of the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, called the Pāli Canon, uses the Śūnyatā term in three ways. Firstly as a meditative dwelling. Secondly as an attribute of objects. And lastly as a type of awareness-release. It’s Śūnyatā as awareness-release that I’m most interested in.

One simply notes what is present without identifying those things with one’s own self. It is achieved through intense concentration and increased awareness of shifting and subtle levels of disturbance. This is an exchange between the Buddha and his attendant Ānanda:

Ānanda: It is said that the world is empty […] in what respect […] is it empty?
Buddha: Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: thus it is said, Ānanda, that the world is empty.

I love this idea of emptiness as a huge positive affirmation of life, its interconnectedness and oneness, rather than a sadness. Tonight I went to a creativity meditation class, in which we focussed on feeling awareness in our bodies rather than minds. It was a welcome relief as my mind has been chattering incessantly since I stopped taking paroxetine a week ago. The good news is the withdrawal only lasts between 2 and 6 weeks. I’ve started a heady cocktail of herbal medication which should combat some of the side effects of the withdrawal. The remedies I’ve started are Omega 3 EFA complex (for head zaps); B-Complex 100 (to boost mood as well as supporting metabolism and nervous system); melatonin (for sleep); ‘Scullcap’ (Scutellaria lateriflora for sleep, relaxing and overcoming anxiety); and an anti-anxiety blend of kava kava, passionflower, bacopa, albizia & lavender. I took my first dose of the anti-anxiety stuff a few hours ago and feel a little better already, plus the head zaps have abated touchwood as my brain readjusts.

Last night was one of my worst experiences. I didn’t fall asleep until 11am and then only for two hours. During the night I took six herbal sleeping tablets I had lying around to no avail. By 7am I was cold, bored and at my wits’ end so decided to go for a run around the neighbourhood. It helped warm me up, but I just couldn’t feel tired. The insomnia wasn’t even the worst part. That was saved for the fog of confusion in my head, the uncontrollable crying, feeling sadness so palpably, sheer irritability, feeling nauseous, diarrhoea every few hours – and the mind zaps.

That’s one of the worst things. Mid-morning, before I fell asleep, I counted how often they came. There were between one and four zaps every five seconds on average and this is for a few hours. Coming off paroxetine it feels like my mind just does not work. It takes a long time to do very simple things, and they feel utterly pointless. Earlier all I wanted to do was curl up and shut the doors on the world, but I’m making a huge effort to go about my life in a normal way, meeting friends for coffee, going to spiritual meet ups, doing my artwork, feeding myself, writing, playing with the dogs etc. I have faith I’ll get there, even if I have to go about everything in a slow and forced way for the time being.

Love is the drug.

I had some realisations about love recently. I don’t doubt that love is all that the universe is made from. I don’t doubt that to love is to live authentically. But I have my doubts about the existence of the love between two people in a romantic sense. This hit me like a punch in the stomach in the not so wee hours of yesterday morning, at a moment when I needed the kind of solace that only I can provide to myself. A shroud lifted and I felt strangely brighter. I felt relieved rather than saddened. It put an abrupt end to my epic and ridiculous nighttime weeping.

I’ve been living with more fear than I am used to because a few days ago I unexpectedly and suddenly ceased taking my anti-depressant paroxetine. I’ve found myself cold turkey just before Thanksgiving. The circumstances are somewhat convoluted but I will outline them so that others can see how easily these things can happen in the fractured world we live in. So, I came to the States a few weeks ago with a small supply of my anti-depressant, thinking that it would be easy enough to get hold of more. I intended for my friend to post me a couple of months’ supply, and provided her with the paper prescription. Unfortunately she informed me it turns out that all items entering the US through the postage system are scanned and medication isn’t allowed in.

My second idea was to see a doctor out here and get him to write me a prescription. Medical care is covered under my travel insurance so I thought I would claim back the costs of the physician visit plus the meds. Wrong. Because the meds treat a pre-existing medical condition, no costs associated with obtaining anti-depressants will be reimbursed by the insurance provider. And as the cost I was quoted was $220 for the appointment alone, I won’t be going down that route. My final idea was to buy from an online pharmacy, the kind that dispense anything you want without a prescription. After a bit of searching I was surprised to find the cheapest option would work out in excess of $2 per single 20mg pill for a small order. So that also isn’t going to work for me.

The upshot of all of this means going through real or imagined withdrawal symptoms of coming off paroxetine. These for me included complex and very disturbing dreams, severe difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep at any time of day, fear, anxiety, irritability, vertigo-like “welling up” short waves in my head not stomach, and bouts of crying for no ostensible reason. I did some research online and found that the following symptoms were reported in patients coming off Paxil. This is from the Royal College of Psychiatry website, with the rate of reported incidence in brackets:

anxiety (70%)
dizziness (61%)
vivid dreams (51%)
electric shocks/head zaps (48%)
stomach upsets (33%)
flu-like symptoms (32%)
depression (7%)
headaches (3%)
suicidal thoughts (2%)
insomnia (2%)

I have had all of them apart from suicidal thoughts. That’s probably a good one to skip out on.

While I didn’t plan coming off anti-depressants to be so sudden, I plan on weathering this storm. My doctor back home suggested staying on paroxetine until I am successfully installed in a more permanent and stable living arrangement in the UK, and I agreed with his advice but the non-availability of my drug here in the States has rather scuppered that plan. No matter though. I will stay off the meds even if by some weird chance there is a way for me to get my hands on more. I just hope the withdrawal symptoms abate soon. Not that I am letting that stop me from doing all the things I normally do, most of which includes “venturing into the complete unknown” which is awfully good fun.

The realisations I’ve had have made me feel somewhat disillusioned but at the same time grateful that a veil has been lifted that kept me encased in a bubble. I was willing to believe anything other than what was right in front of my eyes. Love is indeed all, and it’s simpler than I ever imagined. It is oneness without the complication of romantic relationships which are by their very nature confused, conflicting, contradictory, frustrating, complex and impossibly, horribly, resolution-free. I’ve heard it said  ‘let each soul walk its path’ and I understood the meaning of those words for the first time.

amor y respeto

Self-transformation leads to global transformation.

I truly believe in the providence that is all around me. It gets a bit cloying me banging on and on about the universe this and abundance that, but it’s the most important thing I’ve learned on my journey so far. There is enough air to breathe and land to plant crops. There is only an imbalance where humans intervene and upset the natural order of things, and made-up nonsense like money, politics and greed are invoked. There is also enough happiness in our souls, enough potential that exists in our minds like seeds in a tomato. With this potential we can achieve anything – yes, anything!

In crisp soundbite form: Self-transformation leads to global transformation. Think about all the amazingness and truth that that statement contains. Our biggest mistake is thinking that we don’t matter. When we believe our voice doesn’t count or our happiness is not paramount or we somehow don’t matter or don’t deserve the good things in life, the universe is so sad, it cries. Its tears permeate every solar system, every galaxy. The only reason you are here is to embrace the benevolent energy of the universe, to share in her innate and singular state of happiness.

We each deserve the best for ourselves, whatever that happens to be and it is different for each of us. We are here to learn and grow through change, challenge, belief, observation and simple enjoyment of every moment. We create our own reality as the universe lovingly feeds and nurtures us. Feeling good about ourselves helps other people. I know with absolute certainty that the more I give, the more I receive. I know that by focussing on what I would like to be, do or have I bring it into existence. My thoughts radiate out to every part of the universe and that influence never diminishes for all of time.

A lot of incredibly fortuitous things have been happening lately and I am convinced it’s because of the place I am in. I have spent my time so far in Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley: together quite a large area hosting almost a million inhabitants. And yet I keep running into people I’ve met before, and that help me somehow and vice versa. On the day I twigged on that I really should look for somewhere to live when my current accommodation ends on Monday, I ran into a guy I had met at the hostel in the City and the first thing he told me was about a shared house which is cheap and creative. The next day I ran into him again at San Francisco Public Library. A couple of days before that I ran into an artist that I knew from the painting class she runs. It turns out that someone I met at a spiritual event just happens to rent studio space with the artist from the class.

Most fortuitously of all, while I was planting beautiful redwoods at a primary school in Oakland on Saturday, I got distracted by a couple of cute dogs on the other side of the fence. I got chatting to their owner and in fact one of the dogs was found two days beforehand and he was looking after her. I said I’d be happy to look after her while she goes to work. And it just so happens that he and his housemate have a spare room and I’ll be moving in there and dogsitting in the daytime. What a great connection – thank you universe!

The people here are giving me so much and I like to think I am contributing positively to society too. I was privileged enough to have the second show of my prints last week, at not one but two galleries, which was a wonderful experience. It’s all thanks to the amazing people that I’ve met here and the friend that lets me tag along and exhibit at her shows. I’ve never been so creatively engaged, except for when I was a mad teenager. I am making all the time, reading, researching, pulling strands of thought together and doing positive things that benefit the community.

I’m lucky that my finances rarely cross my mind but that’s because I live humbly and within my means. I’m making an effort not to buy more stuff especially not after having shipped a load back home. I’ve also adopted a vegetarian diet for the moment and feel much better for it both physically, from an animal welfare perspective, and knowing that fewer of our precious resources have been wasted (70 percent of the grain and cereals grown in the US are fed to farmed animals); land hasn’t been wrecked (grazing uses a staggering 30 percent of the Earth’s land mass) and my meal hasn’t contributed to the 80 million metric tons of methane produced annually by the world’s livestock.

Every day I wake up thinking “I have never been happier”. That is pretty awesome. You should try it.

I cant find the map

Mountains of mottainai.

I spent the weekend in the beautiful hills of San Anselmo, Marin County. The panoramic views at the huge house were spectacular, taking in bridges, the City, mountains and more species of trees than I’d ever seen before. There were lizards, birds of prey and deer. This was the place where I came to terms with certain losses in my life, certain not-to-bes. It was a melancholic stay in many ways and I battled a mysterious illness involving a streaming nose the entire time. I was allergic to the good life, so it seems, and far from being invigorated I felt tired in my body and mind during my time there, despite the enthusiastic poetry and incredible pecan pie.

While I was in San Anselmo I spent some time when not gazing out of the window reading Affluenza. It hadn’t escaped my notice that the books I have been drawn to during my time in the San Francisco Bay Area have connections here – Affluenza was published in Oakland and The Story of Stuff was written in Berkeley, where I am staying currently. I’m in a student roomshare straight out of that Facebook film. I’m kind of fascinated by everything. It very much feels like leaving home for the first time.

The book has led to recognising hopes for the future. I would like to live in a society without money but this isn’t going to happen in my lifetime. As Affluenza tells us, the more real wealth we have the less money we need. Such real wealth might be friends, skills, libraries, belonging to a community, family, being in nature, and the holy grail of happiness: afternoon naps. There was an example that struck a chord with me, that of Lana Porter, an amateur gardener from Colorado. She views her garden as a logical extension of herself and her way of life. How many of us can say that about our hobbies? She says “I eat very well out of this garden […] and the organic produce gives me energy to grow more produce and get more energy. It’s a cycle of health that has cut my expenses in half. My grocery bills are lower, my health bills are lower, I don’t need to pay for exercise, and my transportation costs are lower because I don’t have to travel so much to amuse myself.” This is a beautiful example of living in the now, enjoying an activity because it is inherently good for you and as a sort of delightful bonus also produces fuel which you burn in order to live! Truly inspiring and so simple.

In the American culture, we give a hundred thousand hours over a lifetime in jobs that don’t inspire us, in exchange for houses too big to maintain, being frustrated by easily-broken consumer goods, connecting superficially with people, eating zero-nutrition food chasing counterfeit rewards. Why? Because we’re programmed to behave like this. The writers of Affluenza however believe that collective human intuition remains intact and as such it is possible to demand a new direction. Oh yes, we can “tap into the power of generosity and trust to override the momentum of a quick-hit culture”. Maybe in Oakland. I remain sceptical that society as a whole can make any kind of meaningful change – the best we can hope for are small pockets of society that choose to live outside the system and thereby create their own communities.

My working time spent in a conventional job is an expenditure of my essential life energy. I will never get this life energy back, all I get in return is money. And what is money? Nothing but debt and therefore slavery. Not an adequate trade-off. What I’m about to write is paraphrased from the first Zeitgeist movie. I want to explore how the money system is institutionally corrupt, no matter what country you live in.

The central bank is the institution that issues and regulates currency of a nation. These central banks control the interest rates and the money supply itself. The central bank loans money to its government with interest. Every dollar or pound produced comes with debt already attached. Where does the money come from to pay off this debt? It can only come from the banks that issue and control the supply of money. This means the banking system must constantly increase its money supply temporarily which we call inflation, to cover the debt created that in turn (because that money is loaned out at interest as well) creates more debt. The end result is slavery. It is impossible for the government and therefore the people to come out of this self-generating debt.

Every dollar in existence must eventually be returned to a bank with interest as well. The problem is this interest doesn’t exist. Only the principal of a loan is actually created by the money supply, i.e. the central banks. Where is the money to cover the interest that commercial banks charge? It doesn’t exist. This means bankruptcy and defaults are mathematically built into the deficit-producing system.

On a personal level, I’m not interested in being a slave to money anymore. Somehow, after five years of studying philosophy and art, I wound up working in the investment banking field for five years. It was a lucky break and I’m not going to knock it for a second because I got to know some incredibly humane people through my work in the City of London (and some unutterable bastards too); I just know that it’s very unlikely I’ll work in that arena again. I’ve learned that I’ll always have enough of what I need. And whatever that is, it sure as hell isn’t worth trading my vital life energy for.

nature

The land of opportunity.

“We buy a wastebasket and take it home in a plastic bag. Then we take the wastebasket out of the bag, and put the bag in the wastebasket.” – Lily Tomlin, comedian

It’s interesting living in the country where more stuff is consumed and disposed of per capita than any other place on earth, while all the time reading books like The Story of Stuff, Affluenza and watching the Zeitgeist trilogy. This is the country that spends 71% of their $15 trillion economy on consumer goods. The country that spends more on shoes, jewellery and watches than higher education. The country that has more than twice as many shopping centres as high schools. These are surely signs of a sickness, a disease to accumulate more and more while losing sight of what is truly important in life: for me that would be artistic creative pursuits, spiritual development, feeling in harmony with the universe, community living, appreciating nature, experiencing authenticity, being understood by others, living with humility for the Earth’s abundance, giving love and having my basic human needs met and inalienable rights respected.

These aims are noble and rather lofty. Affluenza according to writers de Graaf, Wann and Naylor, is a socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more. It is a virus that, unlike the God virus, I have not managed to avoid. I have succumbed to the ‘need’ to buy something to make myself feel better, or define myself to others. Addiction to stuff is not easily understood. It’s a bubbling cauldron of states such as anxiety, loneliness and low self-esteem. Pathological buying is typically related to a quest for greater recognition and acceptance, an expression of anger, or an escape through fantasy. When we buy, we experience heightened sensations and extreme levels of focus and concentration, similar to drug induced states or orgasm. I think what we need to understand is that for affluenza victims there is no such thing as enough. According to the economist Herman Daly, ‘Consuming becomes pathological because its importance grows larger and larger in direct response to our decreasing satisfaction’. We shop to fill the void but that only makes the void grow larger.

‘Tragedy’, observes Richard Swenson, former doctor turned writer who was interviewed for Affluenza, ‘is wanting something badly, getting it, and finding it empty’. I can relate to that on many levels. I still buy occasionally when I’m feeling down, just to cheer myself up. My purchases may be limited to the Dollar Tree but there is still a guilty buzz I get. I’m conflicted about my relationship to the stuff I own. Yesterday the pain of too much stuff was brought home to me. Coming to the conclusion I had brought too many things to California with me, I thought flitting between accommodations would be simpler if I shipped some of my belongings back to the UK. The $200 price tag to do so was a painful reminder of these things stuff I already have. It takes between 700 and 2,000 gallons of water to produce about a pound of conventional cotton – enough for a single t-shirt. In India, 91% of full time male cotton workers experience major health problems. I’m aware of the earth’s resources that have been pillaged and the workers’ rights that have been violated to get the stuff to me for a low price in the first place. The least I can do is look after it. Right?

Generating more stuff makes me feel uneasy. And yet a big part of what I’m doing here rests on doing exactly that. On Friday last week I took part in an art show which was part of Oakland’s Art Murmur First Friday event. It gave me a huge buzz to hawk my wares in a cleaned-out auto bodywork shop and talk to a wide variety of people (including the wrestler Rocky, who is now an artist himself – only in California), and I sold four pieces of artwork. The feeling I had at the end of the evening was fantastic and I loved to know that my works carry on by giving joy now to my buyers. Ironically the pieces that sold best were from the ‘I do not need more stuff’ series which was delicious to me. I felt that I had the last laugh but not in a cynical way.

What I’m learning is that it really is true that what you transmit, you attract. On the back of that one show and thanks to my good friend whose studio I use, I have four more exhibitions and sales in my diary plus a competition. In four weeks in the states, I’ve furthered my professional art practice more than I had in thirty years in the UK. It seems so easy and fun here and that is addictive – but it’s an enriching feeling, not an empty one.

Spiritual Structures. Energy. Earth

Wednesday 5th November 2014

The San Francisco Bay Area, where I currently reside, is said to express different manifestations of the Earth’s soul. The unique geology and seismology of this place invokes a spiritual connection. Once, all the continents were one, and then Earth’s consciousness divided the form the familiar planet we know today. If we were somehow able subtly to decipher what each continent is doing and giving, we can understand what expression of the Earth’s soul is taking place. The session I attended sought to discover and engage Earth soul’s life-flow, her expression in different landscapes and how it is reflected in each of us. Taking as our end place the sacred land around St. Mary’s Cathedral, the group stimulated personal healing and development, and contributed our responsibility to bringing balance to the land and the world.

Andrej, the group’s leader, said a possible way of understanding what expression of soul is manifesting is by using the chakra system. Different parts of the city (and the earth) correspond to different chakras. Not all places on earth have a planetary function but the Bay Area does. This area acts like engine chugging away in the background – a combination of the reproduction of each cell mingled with consciousness. The place is responsible for the Earth renewing herself an evolving being, apparently. That’s why this area is so diverse, it’s reflected in the culture and the innovation. Most of these innovations, being technological in nature, aren’t in sync with the spirit of the planet and misrepresent her authentic expression, but we are still learning and always expressing.

I love the Earth, I really do. I loved standing in Jefferson Square Park, tittering at a drunk woman who looked like Marla Singer in a ‘thrift store bridesmaid dress, that someone loved intensely for one day, and then tossed’. She was incredibly drunk and inadvertently funny. She picked up rubbish and gave us a running commentary of how she came to wake up in an umbrella in the park. Then there was an old guy who after parking his car made a special effort to come over to us meditators to tell us to get a life. Then there was the fat guy in the superhero outfit who lost his skateboard under Andrej’s car. There were the two young guys making eyes at me while I had turned around to face them and stepped into my soul. I couldn’t help smiling manically at them.

I felt the breath of the universe. I felt it in two specific places within my body. The first place is in my cervix, where I sometimes feel a physical pain. I think it signifies a misalignment between the earth’s purpose for me and my earthly concerns. But it could be my cysts, polyps, bad cells and copper coil. It is a reminder of the cosmic connections of cycles, tides and zodiacs. The second place I feel the earth’s beat is in the soles of my feet. Now I connect with something I learned at a body language session months ago: keep your feet on the ground in order to remain in the moment. (‘Apparently we take in 30% more information with our feet squarely on the ground compared with legs crossed.’)

We walked over to the grounds of the beautiful cathedral and I felt the Earth being happy and receptive. It wasn’t a clear reading as I was put off by the strong energy I felt from people crossing my energy field and driving across the little car park, but she felt calm, settled and welcoming. For me there was no conflict in this place, though others in the group told a different, far more conflict-ridden story.

I loved feeling the Earth’s spirit and knowing she was happy to have me here in her sacred land of San Francisco. I’ve quietly felt since I came here that it’s meant to be. The spiritual shift that I underwent before coming here was filled with trauma. Things fell apart so that they could be put together in a better way. My relationship with J came to a dramatic and irreconcilable end. I had no home, nowhere to go except back with my mother for the first time in twelve years. This, I believe was one of the signs that a spiritual transformation was about to take place. One of the keys to making it through a spiritual transformation is having faith in your understanding of why the chaos had to occur — and get past it to a better state of being. Many people get lost in the chaos and feel that their life is falling apart. Many give up and don’t see the spiritual journey through, and that is their biggest mistake. Not once have I ever wanted my ‘old life’ back for more than five seconds.

Many believe that the same thing happens on a geological level. As our planet undergoes a spiritual shift, there will be physical manifestations that accompany it. The vibration of the planet is rising as more and more people undergo spiritual awakenings. As a result, the energy on the planet is shifting and that is leading to changes that may feel chaotic and destructive, such as the earthquakes in this area. There is nothing to fear. Ever.

mono no aware

Monoculture.

Tuesday 4th November 2014

The monoculture tells the story of the time we are living in. Certain patterns of life emerge, rise to the top and dominate culture until they shape every aspect of our lives and we are unable to see an alternative. The monoculture informs our ideas about how the world works, what we can expect from our lives and from other people. In the seventeenth century, the prevalent monoculture was of science, machines and mathematics. Before this, it was a religious age, ruled by the Church, superstition, angels and demons. Our story today is an economic one. It infects every aspect of our lives from work to relationships with the natural world, community, health, education and creativity.

This is research carried out by F.S. Michaels, author of Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything, a penny-dropping, jaw-dropping read that seems to connect the dots which create a picture of all-pervading economic beliefs that shape our beliefs, values and assumptions at every level of our society. We are so entrenched in our monoculture that we forget our other stories and fail to see our culture in its totality never mind question it. The associated beliefs of our time include rationality, the ability to analyse, and efficiency. The best choice is always the most efficient option that is self-interested and the least extravagant, least scenic, fastest and pleases us most. Entrepreneurs, a phrase coined by French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, shift resources from one place to another to create higher productivity and greater yield, increasing profits and adding value.

Being part of the economic monoculture means our appetites are never satisfied. We’re driven by the desire for satisfaction, but because our individual wants are unlimited, resources are scarce. The gods that rule over our world are the markets. The forces of supply and demand set prices and wages. Peak efficiency is reached when both markets and the competition that occurs within them are as widespread as possible throughout the world. Anything can be bought and sold, and unless it can be shown to be ‘uneconomic’, its right to exist, grow and prosper is not called into doubt.

Competition on a personal level is of course a vital component of the story on a personal level. You compete with others for jobs and with other buyers for sellers’ goods, and other sellers for buyers’ dollars. Relationships with others in markets are impersonal and transactional. The quality of the information we possess gives us an advantage with which we can make the most efficient choice. Economic growth, measured by GDP, is an unequivocally good thing and translates to better standard of living, even if citizens are unhappy, feel unsafe, or live in areas rife with crime. Choice continues to grow, giving us the illusion of freedom and prosperity. One story changes everything.

For me personally all of this seems incredibly sad, but true. I struggle with buying new things as am often plagued with guilt by having made purchases, the momentary satisfaction so fleeting. I have fallen into the pitfalls just like anyone else – striving to define myself by what I own, giving into desires to buy a big-ticket item or unfeasibly cheap fashion piece that will make my life complete, and competing with others over promotions at work.

Now, the way we work has changed. Gone are the days of loyalty, commitment and reciprocity between workers and their employers. In the increasingly global marketplace, companies want a flexible workforce consisting of employees who are themselves expendable, like the products they peddle. Job security is no longer to be relied upon, and less training and investment is made than previous generations. The companies play a clever game by institutionalising values and investments in environmental, social and arts projects which bring higher stock valuations, a more motivated workforce and a boost in corporate reputation.

Markets encroach on our home time as well. In a society where women go out to work, domestic work is outsourced. Researcher Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote, “Efficiency has become both a means to an end – more home time – and a way of life, an end in itself”. Efficiency and flexibility are key. Family life in its traditional sense runs counter to this, making people less available to service the needs of the markets. The markets in our monoculture want us to remain individuals without close long-term relationships: thus ready to relocate, work harder and longer and less likely to defect due to personal commitments.

As well as community, work, education, creativity, public life and health (there is an enlightening chapter on the changing obligations of medical professionals, not just here in America but all over the world) being treated as markets, even our spiritual needs are being met in the marketplace. A church is an efficient and eager firm that exists to create, maintain and supply religion It operates according to the laws of supply and demand, with no particular code of morals, except what consumer preference demands. We are customers with requirements that might be strictness or permissiveness, exclusive or inclusive, geared towards older people or children. America’s most successful churches model themselves on businesses, with MBA-staffed management teams, strategy teams, consulting services and thousands of customers.

Isn’t all of this deeply cynical? That’s one way of looking at it, but the evidence speaks for itself. I, like many others, feel there is something wrong with our society. Something is rotten. I can’t put my finger on it exactly but it encompasses overconsumption; fakeness of people and things; single-minded preoccupation with accumulation of wealth; over-competitiveness; disengagement from others; and the expectation to be able to define exactly where we are in our lives, who we are and what we ‘do’. We live in a throwaway society, each of us ruled by markets and self-interest, that much is sure.

“[The] independent life begins with discovering what it means to live alongside the monoculture, given your particular circumstances, in your particular life and time, which will not be duplicated for anyone else. Out of your own struggle to live an independent life, a parallel structure may eventually be birthed. […] The goal is to live many stories, within a wider spectrum of human values. This is what it looks like to live free from the economic monoculture’s manipulation, to live the breadth and depth of all our stories, to live with dignity.” – F. S Michaels, ‘Monoculture’.

our way

I am filled with gratitude for the love that I am here to create.

Monday 3rd November 2014

On the same day I attended TJ Woodward’s Authenticity Group, I went to a meditation and conversation group run by Claudia on trusting your intuition in order to improve your outcomes. I have written about my previous block in this area. In contrast, the new me has promised to trust myself. There were long stretches in my life when I truly believed I was less than human. I heard so many positive messages around me and I didn’t miss out on the one about trusting yourself, but I thought it didn’t apply to me because I was ‘different’, a cosmic mistake somehow. I sought direction and validation from other sources, everywhere but within.

I feel very relaxed when I attend these groups. Even though typically I don’t know anyone else there, because I am trying a lot of things for the first time, I feel more filled with confidence than if I were alone. I speak, I share, and I really get in touch with my deep spiritual self. I receive great responses from people which make both my ego and my soul sing. I connect. I write down avowals like ‘I so want to be true to myself’ and ‘I so want to leave behind the spiritually vacuous’.

In this Intuition group, we sat on a comfy sofa in a homely environment. I was 45 minutes late because I had overslept and so was late for my lift, but even so I felt instantly welcomed. Claudia speaks so fluently and with deep conviction. She said that we are God and we are created in his image. The body is part of who we are but we are so much more than that. It allows the God within us to exist on this plane. As the only vehicle we have, the first gift back to God is to give our body temples our ultimate love. She gives us the gift of life so we give her the gift of health. Today I promised to look after my body.

The guided meditation was beautiful and peaceful. To trust our intuitions and call into being greater things, we seek oneness with our higher selves. Of course, without negative emotions we wouldn’t have access to the doorway that leads to oneness. Without ego we would not exist. But when seeking the God within us, the way is silence. It’s a straight and very simple line between me and God. We love and respect our ego but we sometimes we turn it down, tune it out and listen to the higher self. Organised religion is created by man and isn’t pure. In fact it’s pretty filthy and most them are as far removed from spirituality as it’s possible to be.

Claudia calls the meditative state one of being in-between. I now see the benefits in and of itself. Three minutes every day is enough, though one member of the group meditates for three to four hours each day. When you practise, Claudia reckons, what comes will be greater than our imaginations. I believe this. Trust, faith and belief are what comes. Don’t let doubt creep in. One technique she used was visualising white light flowing into the crown chakra or through the third eye. It’s very powerful imagery that helps when entering the in-between state.

This is just so beautiful, isn’t it? Living a life of giving to receive automatically. Being a conduit for whatever energy is waiting to be expressed. I felt it when I meditated there. This was a day that I realised how powerful energy is. I knew for the first time that I am made from the same spirit as the universe.

We were created in the image of God to thrive, not just survive. The reality of making a living is illusory and the result of indoctrination. We are all already hypnotised. We multitask by driving, talking on the phone, listening to the radio and drinking coffee all at the same time. The unconscious does all the work! Harmony comes when the lower and higher selves work together.  Ask your higher self whether something is real or not and you will know.

During one of the meditations Claudia used a well-known NLP technique (called anchoring or the power button as I like to say) in which we learn to associate a happy memory with bodily sensations of happiness. Coming back to the memory using the accompanying bodily trigger creates a neural pathway which supposedly allows us to relive the happy time. It’s never really worked for me, but one thing at a time.

The experience was wonderful. It is lovely to speak openly, to meditate together, to learn so much, to feel connected and to meet others. I feel very calm after these events. I know I have used my energy to improve my entire life.

always the sun

Authenticity, energy, abundance, the universe.

Saturday 1st November 2014

Today was all about energy. I learned something very special today, that energy is real and I am very susceptible to it. I have been given a gift, like every sentient being, that means I am a conduit that can sense the energy of others. I gave even more than I received today which has been extremely tiring and fulfilling. Straight after the experience I’m about to describe took place, I returned home and fell asleep making me late for my next appointment. I’m new to energy exchange and I think that because my receptiveness is so high – and I am so keen to give of myself – I end up wearing myself out. This is probably why being in amongst big crowds is my worst nightmare. They take so much from me.

TJ Woodward’s Authenticity Group offers sharing, support, guidance and the opportunity to transform your life as part of a nurturing spiritual community. The group is part of the same program as Awakened Living. I am part of that group and my contribution was one that only I could make. We started by meditating which is simply to recognise the oneness that exists in the universe and our inner selves. I acted a conduit for the universal. It felt amazing. I opened up after that in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible when I was plagued by lack of confidence and depression. I talked from my heart about recognising the resources within me, loving the abundance that surrounds me, trusting what I feel, doing exactly what I’m meant to be doing, connecting with energy, and feeling the light. I am free and true. I am calm and centred.

We are not here to be healed. We are already perfect and whole. We paired up and thought of a question that our partner would ask us again and again. My partner had some revelations about what it means to have it all, and that letting go of many things is part of this process. My question was how I can be at one with the universe – something that I am beginning to feel as of today, but have struggled with. The answers if they are answers cannot be put into words. They are a feeling to be nurtured. Trust and radiance.

During another meditation I felt again as if I was not only channelling the divine but it was magnified fivefold by the other participants. There was time to think on what we wanted to share next and TJ knew that two minutes in I had mine. He turned straight to me as soon as I opened my eyes and there it was, this revelation about energy – he had felt it. From that we decided to use the Tibetan practice of Tonglen, giving and receiving to centre in the spiritual self. Usually with conventional meditation we are encouraged to breath in love and light, and breathe out fear and anxiety, but with the Tonglen practice we use our energy altruistically, giving focussed relief to somebody in need. Someone who was going through pain sat in the centre and for three minutes we channelled to her. I gave her as much of my energy as I could, just giving and giving. At the end of it I knew that the light had shone into her soul and I would be pleased to know if it has.

It’s the ego that clouds us all and makes us experience sadness, fear, doubt and regret which are not part of the natural order. It’s the stories we choose to believe that makes it so. Connecting to our inner selves, that heartbeat that is part of the very essence of the universe, is such an incredible experience when you know it is there. With this knowledge I can overcome any challenges in my life. With the law of attraction I can call into being only that which is right for me. I have lived blindfolded for many years, paralysed by pain and fear that I mistakenly thought were real. I know this is not my purpose and I am capable of greatness just be virtue of realising what I already am, and forever have been.

It’s hard though, as doubt, fear and emotional pain are part of what it means to be human. Without these tangible emotions we would have no beauty, love and happiness. The domineering mind wants to shout ‘But this is all claptrap!’ ‘This is just a phase, a moment, like the depression was!’ I am doing my best to silence the doubt and give in to abundance which means sharing, giving, forgiving, receiving, trusting, listening, accepting, loving, appreciating. Doubt is not part of my purpose here. Repeat to fade.

forget

How to be a social dynamo. And then some.

Thursday 30th October 2014

As part of my ongoing journey which has encompassed research on academic subjects, therapy for mental healing, and ideas for spiritual wellness, my personal development quest has taken me to the realm of social intelligence, and how I can improve mine. My interest was piqued when I heard about a group called Jaunty here in San Francisco that promises social mastery through use and understanding of social science, psychology, the science of attraction, neuroscience and human behaviour. The organisation calls itself ‘Higher education for social intelligence and people skills’ and is run by Eric Waisman.

It’s a really simple premise and one that is definitely in demand in this city – the class participants numbered over 20 and places were filled up well in advance. A lot of these people were at the top of their games in various fields, and wanted that edge that sets them apart. Social anxiety is an increasing problem for many individuals, and is it any surprise with the varied forms of communication in which we all partake, and the resultant disconnect from actual human beings?

It all starts with our old, reptilian brain which is responsible for our basic survival needs – feeding, fighting, flight and f**king. From that we evolved into our mammalian, ‘middle’ brain where love and bonding come from, with a decreased number of young and a long gestation period. Lastly is the newest part of our brain, the uniquely human logical brain which we use to analyse.

To enhance our social intelligence, we need to understand how all of these parts of the brain fit together, and sometimes overcome the more primitive parts which threaten to overwhelm us. For example a car crash seems to happen in slow motion because one’s senses open up, everything is on high alert, meaning you take in visual and auditory information that you wouldn’t normally. This was how it was for me when I was involved in a minor car crash twelve years ago, I remember each and every moment of it like it was yesterday: the other car not stopping, the sunroof shattering, the airbags inflating, the sound of the crash.

With practice we can avoid falling into the traps of the reptilian brain, which evolved to deal with threats to survival in a hostile world. Social intelligence is the ability to connect with and get others to get along with you. Let’s say we meet someone new. At the bottom of the attraction pyramid, the foundation on which everything else rests, is our status and our health. So we look at a person’s relative position in the social group, confidence, skillset and belief system, as well as external status such as wealth, possessions and power. This relates to the reptilian brain. Next up is the emotional connection which encompasses their intelligence, uniqueness and the uncertainty of what could happen, which we thrive on as humans. Right on top is the logical part in which we can apply our own rational analysis of this person. (Just as a tangent, confidence is defined as ‘getting as close as you can to mastering a skill’.)

Interestingly in the online dating game which I have had some experience of, this pyramid of attraction is inverted, as the first thing we use to make a judgment is our logical brain, then we make an emotional connection and finally when we get to meet them we can judge their status, health and hygiene! This theory of social dynamics is to my mind just one of the many reasons why online dating doesn’t work, except if you get two people of matching desperation.

We were taught seven skills which will hopefully help us to be social dynamos. They only work if they are practised regularly as by exercising the skills, you break the neural connections that the old reptilian brain has forged unhelpfully in response to non-existent threats – which results in social anxiety.

1. Body language
Anxiety is betrayed by the way you hold your body. Defensive stances cover and protect our vital organs. Open body language helps other people feel relaxed as well. Humans are contagious!
2. Conversational agility
Always have good stuff to say. It’s only awkward if you make it awkward! People respond to whatever you present them with. Make a situation seem like the most normal thing in the world! People will be like ‘Oh this is how we’re doing it, cool’.
3. Assertiveness
The ability to express your views, opinions, beliefs and feelings while respecting the other person. There’s aggressive, passive and assertive. If you truly have good, respectful intentions you are simply not responsible for the feelings of others. So just be assertive!
4. A sense of humour
5. Magnetism & charisma
The art of storytelling. The use of touch to create bonds. Sexual presence.
6. The approach & introduction
First impressions matter.
7. Mental pattern shifting
Positive reinforcement. The attitude ‘what’s stopping me?’

One thing I was surprised to learn about is the strength in vulnerability. We say snooty people stick their noses in the air but what they are really doing is exposing the most vulnerable part of their body – their throat. Moving slowly and deliberately helps to create an air of dignity and grace. I’m known by my friends for my jerky and unpredictable movements, which says it all really!

The exercises were awesome and this is where it really took off. Standing in a big circle, we locked eyes with someone across from us for a few seconds, then caught someone else’s eye. There was a lot of tittering. Then we paired off and were asked to look our partner in the eye for five whole minutes. A lot of people expressed difficulty at first, and the awkwardness seemed to come in waves before settling down. We were told to put aggression into our stares, then gratitude. We all really felt it, and my partner reported feeling a twinge when I first turned up the aggression. Regrouping in a circle, we repeated the staring-across-the-group exercise. This time, guess what, it was so much easier and everyone was happy because we’d spent five minutes overcorrecting, and thus crossed the boundary that made it awkward.

The next exercise was in verbal dexterity. It was a game of ‘threading’, or using our partner’s last conversational titbit as a springboard into one of our own stories, opinions or trivia on a totally different subject. We would latch onto one word they had said then turn it around on us, using the phrase ‘speaking of…’.Very simple and we all learned a lot even though some people said it felt a little weird to commandeer the conversation rather than overcoming nerves by asking questions about their partner’s conversational subject matter.

The final exercise was a ‘cold-reading’ and quite revealing. This is something you can do to bolster a person’s ego because you get to complement them! We followed a script which began ‘so what do you enjoy doing?’ they answer the question, and then it’s ‘so what is it about that activity that you like?’ And when they’re answered, your response is ‘It sounds like you’re a really [insert incredibly perceptive adjective here] sort of person.’ Repeat to fade. I got a comment back from someone that I was ‘introspective’, which kind of riled me a little because while pretty close to the bone, wasn’t that complementary. I said she was visionary.

I’m not sure if I’ll remember to put all of this into practice in my day to day living but I will try. The energy and the vitality of the group’s leader, touched us all and inspired us. There was something about the zany start-up culture that was evident in the company’s cool offices, way over-subscribed session and Eric’s infectious humour that I aspired to.

start with yourself