I’ve realised that I don’t need a lockdown to make me feel isolated. I am the master of self-isolation – and I don’t need anyone to tell me to do it.
Ironically the lockdown I am currently experiencing has brought to light my tendency to self isolate. Well it’s the combination of a fresh lockdown from last Friday in Wales which coincided with the Mindfulness Associations Members’ Retreat which took me on a journey from Mindfulness through Compassion to Insight and Wisdom. All the practices are imbued with all the others and in my practices anything can happen and usually a mixture of them all. My journey out of what Buddhism would call ‘ignorance’ (or what feels like ‘many ignorances’) into mindfulness began with an insight – the seminal insight that got me started on my journey. Can you remember your first mindfulness insight?
During a practice led by Choden an insight arose which highlighted and connected aspects of my life which I had never connected before.
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This current Welsh lockdown – there’s no tier system here – our level is: ‘Don’t Even Think About Going Anywhere or Talking to Anyone’. The area where I live on the border of Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion has the lowest covid incidents of anywhere in the country (in some statistics) and I think it’s because everyone here seems to have a community will to keep the numbers low – there is no hospital here for miles so that’s a bit scary for us all – and so we are happy to put our masks on and to protect others as well as ourselves. A healthy community support network has popped up with motorbike riders zooming around collecting peoples’ prescriptions and shopping for them. Someone has started making needle-felted ‘local heroes’ which has been such a wonderful and jolly thing for everyone. And the rainbows are still cheering us on the way to the supermarket. So despite distancing – community spirit is thriving in these parts – there’s a sense of connectedness.
I love the idea of working creatively with the community and helping out and have spent years designing and directing community projects – and through my Masters in Mindfulness Studies I hope to add the depth and support to that work which I was not able to provide before. But since burning out – I need to be careful about what I take on.
After overloading myself with community projects a couple of years ago I gave myself permission to stop, not forever but just to refill the well. I had run myself ragged and my well spring of creative enthusiasm had run dry. I had nothing left to give. In giving out, without taking care of myself and my own needs, (“that’s selfish”); I had caused myself enormous stress and burnout. I was connecting with everyone – and no one. The role I had assigned myself – director, facilitator– my role aimed to bring out the best in everyone. I maintained a professional distance from people.
Or was there an emotional one I’m wondering now. Self-protection, self-isolation.
To devote myself to my practice right now will have much greater benefits than if I were to run something just because I could, or from feelings that I should. Compassion has taught me so much and above all enabled me to hear the quiet voice within. This voice has been drowned out for years through busyness, striving to do the ‘right thing’ saying yes to everything, being a workaholic, and it makes me feel such grief when this comes to mind. I had forgotten to reconnect with motivation and intention and looking back it seems I was hell-bent on people pleasing. I feel emotional about the self-harm I have inadvertently inflicted on myself over the years without realising it. Now I can comfort and forgive myself when I feel those painful feelings arise. Mindfulness practice is helping me to reconnect with my true motivation and intention.
The first lockdown was a bit of a novelty, an opportunity to settle in peace, I could retreat into my life and work without feeling guilty about it. It felt like life had become a meditation – nowhere to go, nothing to do – I actually loved it. I melted into it and felt a lot of stresses melt away. I felt at home like this, without the effort required to ‘defend myself’ from the ‘demands’ of people. I noticed how I had become sensitive to other people’s energy – because now suddenly I didn’t have to interact with anybody – and had realised how incredibly drained I became when faced with emotional pain, or negativity in others, when listening to stories going round and round. I had not (and not sure if I have yet) developed the skilful means to be with someone but not take on their pain; how to extricate myself from someone else’s misery and retain my strength. Do they want me to fix them? Can I fix them?
In Mindfulness we learn that we don’t need to fix people. This takes the skill of skilful enquiry, which I can’t wait to do more of. It will help me in these interactions with friends and family to help them to help themselves. We have all the answers inside us. During one of Fay’s sessions at the beginning of the teacher training I was so impressed with the subtleties of this this skilful and essential dialogue – ‘enquiry skills’– it’s a life skill as well as being vital for the skilful mindfulness teacher, and we can train to master those skills. I’ve just decided yesterday to begin my journey on the teaching path – a thought that terrifies me – but I have seen the skilful way the teachers work and I trust they will guide me through the process. I’ll see how it goes. On the MSc I read about mirror neurons (the brain’s empathetic function to mirror what is happening to another and make it feel like it is happening to us – and produce appropriate hormones in response) – I realised mine have been on overdrive– I would get lost so completely in someone else’s undercurrent – no wonder I felt exhausted – mine is bad enough! Imagine two undercurrents joining together – too much!
This weekend I attended the Members’ Autumn Retreat Weekend, and for the first time I felt a longing, an excitement and a relief to connect with people, mindfulness people – it felt so comforting. I felt so proud and lucky to be part of this amazing team. There were faces I knew from over the years from my first mindfulness courses at Samye Ling, and from the MSc Mindfulness course. To have this support and connection with other mindfulness practitioners feels like such a blessing and I felt a warm gratitude for the circles of friendship. I was surprised at this longing and heartwarmth after feeling quite emotionally cut off throughout my life.
The weekend allowed me to fully engage for two days and recharge my mindfulness batteries. I have found that Mindfulness practice allows little pockets of difficulty to surface when they are ready to. Three insights over 3 years (no rushing here!) have concerned the same issue – of my inclination to psychologically self-isolate from others. Now I have an idea where this may have come from, and I have never wanted to talk about it or dig things up – that doesn’t feel safe to me, as I write it now it feels wobbly and takes me to a vulnerable place (ah! maybe slowly surfacing) – and yet I have found that the mindfulness practices and I mean the full spectrum of practices that we are offered gently gently clear the muddy obscurations away; the compassion training provides a compassionate cushion, for when these sometimes difficult and painful feelings or memories arise. It seems that as the subconscious becomes conscious it reveals a different facet of the same problem- and as I just stay with it, I make way for insight to arise like a diamond (once all the facets of the issue are made clear the diamond of insight shines with all its facets) – and equally – if insight doesn’t arise, nothing wrong – that’s ok too– it’s on its way. I have learned not to think too much about these facets, just notice them and be with them. Insight does itself.
I find retreating at home creates a tension in my body. Settling into an insight meditation I was aware of my family busily banging and crashing in the background, feet on stairs (is that angry footsteps? Do they think I should I be ‘doing something’? There’s so much to do! I’m going to have to get up and do the laundry! instead of sitting here ‘doing nothing’!) I watched my thinking – which of course the longer I sit in mindful awareness the more urgent the mind becomes with its demands. I sat with this. It’s not new, but it doesn’t seem to be going away. I notice annoyance at my brain for doing that to me. I notice a feeling of failure, and frustration at wanting it to go away wanting it to be different. I breathe. I come back to the to the guidance. I reminded myself of my intention and my motivation as a route back to starting my practice again from the beginning. My mindfulness practice is the most important thing in my life. That deep knowledge grounded me with such strength and weight that I felt nothing could budge me – I had become one with the ground beneath me with everything around me – I felt so strong, rooted to the earth, secure in my practice.
Then the door to the kitchen closed, blocking the dog from reminding me I needed to walk it, and creating a more solid barrier between me and the household activity. My body, I noticed, immediately relaxed at this action. But my undercurrent was still very active and was trying to suck me back into it’s sticky thinking. Now I was really cross with myself for so dismally failing at equanimity. But here was an insight arising. Can I find a way to access this state of equanimity whilst in the company of others? What is actually preventing me from accessing this state of equanimity?
I realised that the door closing (physical barrier) and subsequent bodily relaxation gave me the insight of my ‘preference’ to psychologically self-isolate (mental barrier) from others and their (imagined?) expectations. Which I find draining. Trying to write this is hard to put into words. I think it has something to do with people pleasing. It still feels like there’s a bit more unravelling to do with this. I saw that my mind has a tendency to be concerned with what I think other people think I should be doing, (either emotionally or physically.) My actions then have come from that place. This is a nonsense! People are busy having their own thoughts (and delusions!). I am putting thoughts in their heads and they don’t even know. How long have I been doing this?
I went for a walk in the woods during the break. It’s where I walk the dog, and where many insights arise after meditation. I felt emotion arising and grief. I felt grief for all the time I had lost to worrying about what I thought others were thinking, how I had really believed those thoughts, but now I saw how those thoughts are self-generated. By trying to please others’ imaginary demands, I had lost connection to myself and my own needs, and had at the same time created a psychological barrier to protect me from the harmful thoughts of the other, which actually were my own thoughts.
I hope you have a good week whatever type of lockdown you are experiencing, and that insight may arise for you too this week.
What was your first insight on your journey into mindfulness? Can you remember? I’d love to hear. You can post on facebook, or email me at email@example.com.
I didn’t say what my first insight was – but that first insight was so significant for me. It was like I was being led in the dark and suddenly a lightbulb went on to show me the way!