Over scheduled and too busy to worry

over scheduledDo you have the over-scheduled virus? It is a type of modern flu that has all the symptoms you’re sadly familiar with: fatigue, poor sleep, low level physical ailments (sniffles! That half cough!), a constant sense of not quite being ‘all there’ (because you’re keeping at least one eye on the clock to make sure you get to your next appointment on time), and perhaps worst of all is the gnawing doubt that a helluva lot of what is taking up all that time is not actually important. You know, proper important. Especially compared to the things you’re too tired for at the end of the day, like conversation.

I remember conversation, it is when you talk about something other than the logistics of the next day or who will do which chores. I’m sure I’m still capable of it, if only I had the time. Of course any spare time gets soaked up quickly by the ever-present “should do” list or sleep but presumably there’s a possible future in which I’m caught up on all those things and so is someone I know and we could have a conversation. Hahaha When did that become an almost outlandish fantasy?! Even people I know who are retired from work are busy busy busy. Strange days.

Why you stay over scheduled

But you know, there’s a payoff to this behaviour too, a hidden lining that creates comfort. You wouldn’t think so but there’s plenty worse your brain could be doing and keeping you busy today and tomorrow is really quite clever because when we slow down our habit is not to stay in the now. Oh no, we send our giant brains out into the days beyond and into what might happen. Dangerous ground indeed for this is the hunting grounds for anxiety. Dwell briefly in the future and make a decision about the suitable path and all is well, one can navigate through events and respond when challenges arise. Lingering in the permutations of what might be is necessary for great work but demands huge capacity to defend and define one’s limits and scope. Otherwise the clever early-mammal part of your brain is lured into a hamster wheel of what ifs and becomes trapped in the momentum of its own spinning. Anxiety feeds on you again. There’s a nascent part of our (perhaps higher) self working hard to explain these traps and warn us of the dangers. We tend not to listen.

The ego believes passionately that we’re above such silly situations. The compromise is our over-scheduling. It appeases the puff of the ego and perilously protects the vulnerable brain from too much anxiety. It would be funny if it wasn’t so personal! So the payoffs are always there in our behaviours. You could call it the comfort of complaining. These habits can be so hard to acknowledge without someone to talk things over with and that time in which to reflect on our own patterns or those of our friends (actually I’m a lot wiser when it comes to other people than I am about myself). I’m also lucky to have some very wise friends! So although I’m over-scheduled I’m cautious about just stopping and so making a gap. Even if I could completely stop work and all my commitments and responsibilities that comes with a different risk. We all know that nature abhors a vacuum and in the past it has been another extreme – anxiety – that filled it. I’d like to do it differently this time. I’d like to find a middle way.

Have you ever tried a self-development course and come across a facile question like “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” Oh you’ve GOT to be kidding?! But I tried, I tried so hard to soar with eagles and do better and be better and unleash the giant within and all that stuff. But what I’ve learned is a hard lesson to share, and it is that pretending you can’t fail is unfalteringly useless and here’s why.

Making a friend of failure

Of course you could fail. Most of us actually live from a primary identity of failure. That’s a constant in our lives. From the moment we fell over learning to walk we have implicitly understood that failure is part of the human condition. Even as a mind game to expand our comfort zone it is really really the wrong question to be asking.

Here’s a question to try on. “What is so important to you that you will do it anyway, knowing that you will fail in part?” It is likely that you will fail to meet your fullest dreams, on the other hand there are amazing discoveries promised if unknown at the outset. How might you answer that question? Take a minute now if you like to roll it around and see what you come up with.

This choice, this engagement with your own private calling, does not ignore or diminish the idea of failure and instead embraces it. It is not some light optimism that evades the shadows or distorts the reality of challenge, but instead a serious call to us to face the source of meaning and value in our lives. It is a middle path that expects courage and offers a radical hope. I’m not quite proud of my failures yet, but I am ready to expand them. Are you? Share your proud failures or your middle path in the comments.

When love let me down

loveWhere is the love?

When the terrorist attacks in Paris happened last year I realised that I did not really believe in love. If “love is all you need” then how can people possibly shoot each other as a political process? If love is the greatest power why do we yearn for retribution in our justice, or worse, for revenge? If love is the ultimate force, then why was I trapped inside fear? It was a dark realisation and humbling. I couldn’t find a way forward. Peace eluded me. Love let me down.

At that time it was easy to notice a retreat into established, shared stories. The escapist movies released after that time in the lead up to the end of the year did particularly well because people sought a retreat from a complicated world. In blockbuster movies bad guys are easy to hate and the violence of the good guys is excused because the ends justify it. When you’re fearful, even kindness feels like a vulnerability. No wonder we draw back from love, it is too much to give! We can barely find love in our hearts for ourselves, families, neighbours or work mates. Why should we give when everyone else is taking?

So love as an ideal was tarnished. Love had not been a possible answer to terrorism.

Love is all we have

But. And yet. Nothing else could answer the question. “What would make the world the best possible place?” Telling people, forcing people, arguing shrilly and judging – none of those things work at any level, in any place, to create a more peaceful and harmonious society.

Love is the only answer that makes sense. Most of the time we think about romantic love and that confuses us. Romantic love is tied to personal intimacy, lust, sex, privacy. Then there’s parental love and so on. None of those are quite right either.

Asking to be healed

I’ve been sick and depressed in life and it isn’t fun, it doesn’t make for a peaceful outlook. I wanted to be better, so be well, to be healed, to be happy. I learnt that the first principle of healing is to participate. That means to ask for it. Ask who? Start with yourself. One of the first healers I ever spoke to said one transformative sentence to me: “What are you willing to give up in order to be well?” Not ‘what would I give’ but ‘what would I release’? In many ways that one sentence lead to all the posts here on this blog, all the ways of reframing worry and debt and embracing choice and the freedom of self knowledge. As I asked to be well over the months and years I was shown my patterns, my behaviours, the choices I was making. It was a process that gave lots of opportunities for experimenting with different ways, with different approaches and experiencing radical changes. We’ve talked around those topics in the last two years in a general way/

In the posts to come I’ll share what I’ve learnt in those experiences from a different perspective in the hope that they help you in your journey. Love didn’t let me down after all, it was there waiting for me, as it is waiting even now for you. We’re going to look at life’s challenges together from inside love. I hope we’re all up to it.

Living with depression

can't even adultA bout in the ring with the black dog this week. There’s never a winner so sport metaphors are fundamentally flawed but it does feel like a fight rather than a dance. In reflecting on what it is like to live with depression from inside it, I will use the first person. I don’t know what it is like for anyone else and indeed this illness is fundamentally isolating, so it is doubly hard to create any sense of connection at all from within it, let alone with my fellow travelers. Also, I chose first person to remind us both that this is a moment in time that I want to share with you as honestly as I can – not a story ‘about a friend’ or as an academic survey or a summary of therapy and help options. All these things already exist elsewhere and by people better qualified than me, I’m just someone living with depression who this week can think of nothing more useful or honest than describing what that is like.

I’m crazy to tell you I have depression

By the way this is not sympathy fishing or for pity or some kind of release for me. After all I’d be crazy to tell the world I have depression. Who’d hire someone like that or be friends with them!?  Well apart from that, from inside this place, those are not emotional states or exchanges I require. They don’t make any sense in here. I’m motivated because I know other people are curious about what it is like and generally they’re too polite or thoughtful to ask (or of course they have their own journey in these lands). In this place I am not verbally capable of answering and generally I work hard to hide this experience. This time I am doing something different. I’m telling the truth as gently and carefully as possible, but the truth nonetheless. If you’re uninterested in reading, I understand completely. I’m uninterested in continuing to experience this, so you have my sympathy.

Living through a depression is for me an experience of involuntary retreat. I can see my normal self at a distance. I have some limited access to the positive emotions of that person however not very much to the positive ones. I know I’m eating delicious food and it is a beautiful day but there is no connection to the sensation of pleasure or the emotion of joy. The bright colours of my clothes feel grey. They are part of my camouflage to try and act normal, to get by in the normal world.

A hollow world

My world today is hollow, grey and has no taste. I am become a meaningless burden on society and the earth. My body is sorrow and I am dissolved into nothing. Through that umbilical thread that connects me to my normal self, I can see that this hurts those who love me and that they’re reaching out, trying and wanting to help me. My normal self feels guilt for their pain and shame at this involuntary weakness. From where I am now, I brush it off. I smile (yes, I know it looks fake but I’m trying ok) and say ‘it is ok, I’m sure it will pass soon’ or some such distraction. It is a white lie that makes my normal self feel a little better about the cleanup she’ll have to do when it is all over and she hopes to still have friends. She’s aghast that I’ve decided to write this today but respects my decision and reasons to do so. She’s given her commitment to stand by it later, but I know that she’s worried about it. Selfish cow. As I like to remind her – we’re all in this together.

I am one, I am many

Does it make you uncomfortable that I’m speaking about parts of myself in the third person? It is something that helps me remember that the hollow lands of depression are not the only place I am a citizen. There are times when this me who survives these times of annihilation is just a memory too. When I didn’t have this technique, thoughts of suicide were common inside this place. After all the normal me was completely lost then in the maze. When no joys can be felt or even remembered, the hollowness that stretches out is unbearable.

Compartmentalising things is useful and so is keeping chunks of time in short bursts. There can be no far horizons in this place. Keep to just now as much as possible. For me this means the routines of life need to be honoured. Gentle exercise, scheduled tasks, as many as possible of the responsibilities of normal life need to be maintained. My normal self knows that these all contribute to alleviating the length and severity of the bout overall. They also help in hiding what is going on for such useful purposes as staying employed. I do all these things and it is an autopilot setting. It is not infallible. It feels stupid, but normal me knows it helps. I’m no brave little soldier, I need my time under a blanket too, but just as easily I can stop and sit and the day will pass unheeded around me.

So many days gone by

That’s what I used to do before I understood what this was and what was happening to me. When I was little it was seen as “being moody” and not simply snapping out of it was considered a belligerent act of rebellion. I can’t begin to unpack that right now, irony is also too subtle for this state. It was a long time ago, so it doesn’t really matter, but in hindsight there were so many days where I was lost in the hollow lands. I wish I’d had some help sooner, but I had no way of asking for it, nor of accepting it had it come.

Help did eventually come in the unusual shape of the suggestion in my normal life to help others whenever possible. This simple thing ended up creating a radical shift. We could summarise it as ‘learning how to be nice’. One of the life-altering outcomes of this that effortlessly translates from normal life over into the hollow lands is that I got a dog. I wanted someone to love and care for that wouldn’t be too harsh about my failings as a human and I had no idea that I would forever after be the greater recipient. Even in the hollow lands, that little dog fearlessly and lovingly trots next no me, happy to walk if I walk and happy to nap under the blanket too.

I’m trying to find a silver lining in the dark grey cloud, and it would be that little dog. His love built the bridge that I use to travel back to normal land. He taught me that love can survive even in the hollow lands and there could have been no greater gift for me. It lead me into a happy future, where this is a place I only visit, not live.

Boldly go in your direction

keep-calm-and-boldly-goWe’ve talked about starting over and it is worth touching on that idea again, because the pressure is often to do Big Things. You know, Those Boldly go where no man has gone before expectations*. That’s fun for a while if you are an intergalactic adventurer, or a woman. (I mean I even got to make a pennyfarthing where no wo-man had gone before) but at a certain point, most of us just want some help with the basic “boldly go” part.  Those first steps or stumble in a new (for us) journey are their own bold adventure. It could be asking for help to plan an overseas holiday when you’ve never left the city but everyone around you is infecting you with their itchy feet.

Taking action in alignment with your own values put you back into the driver seat of your own life. Freedom is in being bold on your own terms. Maybe committing to a slow shift in your eating habits, or starting to go for walks again or maybe a gym session or saving money. Whatever it is for you, where you’ve had a hint of fear, or worry about what other people are going to say, or if you’ll look silly, or fail, or or or … well, that’s an opportunity for some bold baby stepping.

Boldly go (but in bitty bubby steps)

We yearn for big wins and particularly successful people who are used to achievement forget that starting over is all about starting small. By small, we mean really small. Simple. Two minute tasks, being mindful, remembering to make a choice rather than react. These are the baby-what’s the next thing I could do that takes me towards what I want? Take a little action, bitty bubby ones but bold, feel bold. You’re courageous! You’re brave! You can totally do this!

Be bold baby!

By the way, it doesn’t even have to be about fulfilling your dreams, maybe just do the things that are bugging you and that let you simplify that endless to-do list.

Sometimes being bold is saying “no, thanks.”

No to more commitments, things that serve other people, or things that aren’t helping you get your own stuff sorted. Maybe being bold for you is asking for some help (maybe from all those people you’ve already been helping all this time?) or be bold and be brutally honest with yourself about what is really important to you.

So muddle onwards in your own direction and boldly be yourself. There honestly is no one better suited to it than you.

*Like discovering new galaxies or intelligent alien life. No pressure, right?

Heal the fear

healLast week we talked about fear a little, about how it might be possible to make friends with it. The reason we took that path is because another odd thing about the way fear works in us is that we hold onto the habits of being fearful and that habit can be just as destructive as the initial state of fear was. What if we could heal the hurt our fear left behind? Is that possible? I believe it is.

Fear scars our memory

Mostly we fear things that we believe are uncomfortable or painful. Public speaking, visiting the dentist, cleaning the pool filter. And so we put off doing them ever, ever again. fear can attach itself to so many things, and to little things (and that’s a trick too – you don’t want to own up to being afraid of something) it is easy to say instead “I’m too busy”, “too tired”, “Not right now” and we rush on, pushing our way through all the other things there are to do.  That’s why making friends is a good first step, but it isn’t the only step. You also need to be gentle with yourself for a while. We try and rush healing in our culture. It doesn’t work. We don’t work that way. Then you’re ready to work some magic and make something new in the place the fear used to be. Unless we transform the experience, we re-live it. Even if we’re never in the same situation again, we carry it around and act as though it is real and that is not freedom. That is being frozen by fear.

Transform your state of fear

Taking action, being courageous, facing up to the things you’re frightened of, these thing have value, but be clear that you haven’t transformed your fear. The habit of it, the scar from it will still be there, the pattern may repeat. We want to shift from a state of fear, into a state of peace, or safety or trust. From these states we can heal. From these states we have a chance to remake our patterns. There is a way out and you can do it. You can heal the fear that restricts you, that follows you around like a cloud.

This is your personal adventure. You are the magician with the power to shift your state, ask yourself what you need to make this happen, ask for help from the universe or people you know to bring what you need together, give yourself time to brew the right potion. Mindfulness about your intent and your existing habits is useful. Accept the help that will come. Accept the uncertainty of change. These vital steps put you onto the cusp of transformation. Your heart aches for comfort, but the mind creates the labyrinths.

The mind is where the magic happens, there in the cauldron of your skull.

Rinse and repeat

Healing is not a one-off thing. Habits form over time, and they take time to dismantle. This is not a ‘tick and flick’ exercise, you’ll be spiraling through these experiences. One thing leads to another, one memory raises three more. Humans are complex and we like to layer things. So go easy, pace yourself. You can heal, but you’ll need to give yourself time.

The payoff

Ironically, by the time you’re ready to cash-in the benefits of all this self-healing, you may have forgotten there even was a final stage! There is – all that energy that went into fear and worry is available for something else – something new. You might be so relieved to be basically fear and worry free that it feels like enough. Well and good, rest there for a while, when you’re ready the world will be waiting for you.

Frozen in fear

Rabbit medicine image by Angela C WernekeHave you ever done something so weird and against your own self-interests that your best friend says to you “That was self-sabotage.” And you can’t help but miserably nod your head and mumble “I don’t know what came over me.” It was fear that came over you.

Fear that was stealthy, sneaky, predatory. Fear knows how to trick you and catch you and then let you be the agent of your own downfall. If you’ve felt self-sabotage, it is a particularly horrible feeling. Sometimes, despite our rational intentions, we act like the natural prey of the thing we’re most afraid of – a rabbit covering under the screamingly fast approach of the eagle’s outstretched shadow. In that cramped crouch we are calling ruin upon us.

Snuggle down little bunnies and breathe deeply here in the safety of our burrow, we will learn a different relationship to fear. We currently have a curse on us, we turned away from something big one day and when we glanced back we’d lost sight of that strength and sense of personal power that gives us confidence in normal living.  Perhaps you didn’t know how to stand up to a verbal bully, or you took a fall of some kind, it doesn’t matter you got left behind in something important. Fear has found your signal now and you’re the hunted.

The fear and danger of beginning

One of the richest hunting grounds for fear is in beginnings. Rabbits make a great symbol for beginnings – so fertile, so closely associated with spring. They’re good eating too and mostly without weapons or armour. So when we begin something new, there’s a tendency to dwell on all the ways we’re vulnerable and at risk. How do you approach being at risk? Lots of times it makes sense to do research on the risks and plan how to avoid or respond to them doesn’t it? A lot of times, too, our friends or mentors suggest that we “face fears head on!” Ah. Sounds reasonable doesn’t it? Sounds brave and tough and more likely to be successful than cowering. Well maybe that works for some people but if this doesn’t work for you here’s something else to try.

Not everything needs a fight with fear

Most of learning something new, or making a new beginning isn’t about fighting, it’s about accepting. A beginning means something is going to be different and any fear that shows up at that time is a great invitation to expand. If you’re busy fighting it, it can use the distraction to send a flanking movement around to sneak up on you, all that energy you’re putting out is going in the wrong direction. Perhaps instead you could invite it over for tea and cake and once it has settled in, let it tell you what’s going on for it. Your fear is, after all, the shadow of your dreams. Let fear join your team, let it have a place at the table to discuss strategies and ideas it has seen further than you have right now down the path you desire and if you’re not fighting you have a chance of growing together and becoming more than the sum of your parts.

Fear might be uncomfortable to have around regularly, but much better there in your lounge room where you can get hot under the collar together and work things through than behind you with a knife in your frozen back.

Image credit: “Rabbit medicine” by Angela C Werneke in ‘Medicine Cards’ by Sams and Carson (1988).

Worry knot

Back in July we first talked about provisional living  and making choices.  At that time those concepts lead into a long talk about consumption and debt.

a hand drawn celtic knot in the roundLet’s spiral back to our beginning for a pass at the topic from a different angle.
There’s another powerful way that provisional living and avoiding choices haunt us and that is through worry.

Worry is an old word originally meaning ‘to strangle’ but those edges are now softened by time and use. We modern types resonate with the sharper ‘anxiety’ (maybe we prefer the strong sounding Latin root).  Worry strangles my day when it appears because it has a ravenous appetite for eating up my confidence, contentment and ability to make a decision. Maybe you have felt that.

Have you agonised over a decision, well beyond the rational weight or need of the implications? You probably have spent time chasing down all of the possible consequences of each permutation of action and attempted to double and triple guess what it most likely and how best to juggle the outcomes and payoffs. It can go so long you lose momentum to actually make the step, or the opportunity passes you by. Worse still, you can finally come to realise your health is suffering, you’ve become worried sick.

You’re not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in Australia and both the U.S. and the UK (I stopped looking after that, it was too depressing). That’s a lot of people with a knot in their guts over things that are on their mind.

Some of the things that connect our worry to the earlier discussions is to do with the addiction we have to comparisonitis. We lose touch with enough and drift into judging our situation against what we perceive others to have or to be. This outward focus of our energy and attention is draining, it blocks empathy and kindness (to ourselves as well as to others) and it is guaranteed to help us lose our way.

In worry we get lost in a maze. In comparing ourselves to others, we let go of our own thread and our path and step into a wilderness of subjective judgments based on guesses and hearsay. We do not know what is really going on for anyone else. We can’t know what battles they’re facing, what burdens they carry or what pain they’re hiding. It is too easy with social media to compare your own inner turmoil with the show reel other people promote.

When worry starts to get you into a knot, be kind to yourself and bring your attention back to your own reality. That’s not as easy as it sounds, but there are techniques that are easy to learn. Interestingly enough some of them correspond to spiritual practices and we’ll explore that terrain in the new year.

In the meantime, if you’re in Australia and you would like some help with your worries, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

How can I help?
Suggestions are welcome for blog topics for 2015. Comment here or email me directly.

Image source

Can’t find the stories for the books

Too much of a good thing?
Too much of a good thing?

Writing has stalled.
Bogged.
Lost in the wilderness.

The discipline is there, time in the saddle, words down each day but the fire in the line is missing. How to fix?

I got up from my desk, very slowly and very carefully so as not to disturb the references on my right, the notes and journals on the left, the correspondence behind me, the ideas and clippings behind me to the left, the recently read and waiting for review, the to-read, the not-sure pile and then finally the dog who had curled up on the stepping space. They used to be a path to the door but it had shrunk when I cleared some of the books out of the kitchen. The stovetop and the bathroom were the only places in the three bedroom house free of book piles due only to the unrelenting truth that fire and water remain the mortal enemies of paper.

I made a cuppa and sat on the back stairs as the couch was covered in magazines and papers and the dining table was hosting a long-term craft convention, complete with comparative pattern books and technique tomes. The dog sat in the sun in the yard and looked at me. I sipped and thought. Perhaps sometimes too much of a good thing is simply too much.
“Something has to go.” I said to the dog.
“Better not be me.” he replied and wandered off to sniff at some grass and see if the crows had dropped anything interesting from their headquarters.

I sipped on, realising that my bibliophilia had reached an unexpected crisis point. My hoards of books were suffocating the stories trying to come to life. It wasn’t just books stashed and crammed into the house until there was no room left for my heart to break but they were the most symbolic, they would be the hardest to release. Each one was a promise, a kiss, a call, and a friend. I believed in some deep and sad way that I would be irrevocably diminished in some ineffable but vital way without every single one of them and yet something really had to give and it had better not be me.

Trust in the process

Learning something just doesn’t work unless there’s a moment of surrender and I make or let myself say “I don’t know”. When I was a child I didn’t have this challenge. I expected that I didn’t know lots of things but as an adult, I am attached to the idea that I already know things, that I’m already good at some things.

Learning just feels like a lot of failures and plenty of frustrations and errors. That doesn’t feel great. “I don’t know” is a vulnerable place to be in our world of specialists and competition. I can see the value in it too. It is my ego that stops me from admitting I don’t know. My ego holds me back from the chance of learning!

When I reach the surrender of “I don’t know” then I know I am actually ready to learn. From that point, I am truly starting fresh. Then I just have to trust in the process and let the ‘failures’ and frustrations show me the way from there.