Major life changes can provoke all kinds of mental reactions; from the highs of great joy and excitement to fear and anxiety. At these times, I’m reminded of the wild nature of the mind and the risk of identifying too closely with every movement, every thought that it generates.
Since the nerve-racking first days after our son’s birth, I’ve had a bit of struggle coming down from the kind of hyper vigilance that having your newborn in ICU for the better part of a week inspires. In my case too, becoming a father isn’t the only major change happening. For nearly 2 decades now, my life has been centred around study and my own development. Now that is over (PhD graduation is in mid-December) that has brought up the natural question: What next? While often I view this question with a sense of curiosity and optimism, it’s also easy to slip into states of mind that are less enjoyable, to put it mildly. A few weeks ago I thought I was becoming sick. I had nothing physically wrong with me but my digestion was very erratic and I started to feel very tight in the chest making it quite difficult to breathe sometimes, especially if I did anything requiring exertion – riding became quite painful. Getting myself checked out by our GP was good to clear any concerns on one level, but it left me with the fact that I had to deal with anxiety. In spite of the almost constant physical discomfort I was feeling I had to turn my attention inward again, and find a way of letting go of some of the energy that was building up.
Talking to my wife and a couple of close friends at the time was crucial. I hadn’t felt that I could show any signs of weakness, of not coping, but this just made things worse.
After that I started to look for people who could help me, including my trusted supporters like Ari Diskin. I always know that I’ve started to turn the corner and am on my way back to health when I ask for help. I don’t want anyone to fix me, I know that only I can ‘fix’ myself in these situations, but others can provide powerful reminders, or can offer strategies that I can employ.
Of course, I’ve come through times like these before and I’ve written about just how great Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (or CBT) has been. This time I was able to apply some of the mental strategies that had worked so well in the past. At the heart of it, I just started to take notice of the kinds of thinking that I was slipping into almost as soon as I awoke. As I did I also noticed how my body and breathing would change with my thoughts, becoming increasingly tense.
I still needed to find some way to vent some of the physical energy that was trying to burst out. Riding was for the time being out of the question. Swimming proved to be good. Interestingly, I could exert myself in the water and still breath. But the best thing was gardening. We’ve got a lovely big garden, full of mostly native plants. Over the last 18 months though, everything has grown tremendously, including the weeds. One day, Ophelia was out there pulling some of them up. I went out for some company, and before long I had started also. Four hours later we had amassed a huge pile. Well it was pretty big. More than that though, I noticed how good I felt when I was doing it. I wasn’t aware of any discomfort. It was great.
For the next two days, I continued weeding and trimming enjoying both the physical relief and the satisfaction of seeing the garden’s form revealed. I contemplated how I might be weeding and trimming the mind at the same time. Indeed, while I was doing it I thought about many things, but I was increasingly able to observe rather than just get carried away with stressful kinds of thinking. I should add that we had also agreed that I had permission not to think about work at all for the week. One way of seeing this was that it had engineered a pattern interruption.
Talking about this with a friend, I found myself describing my thoughts like wild bulls. What I had realised (for the umpteenth time!) was that I didn’t have to jump on to each one. Often I would notice that I had, but then I could choose to let go again, no matter how rational the thoughts was. Thinking more about this I remembered the famous cycle of Zen paintings, the Ten Ox Herding pictures.I studied them years ago and the image made even more sense to me know. If you’re interested in checking it out, there are numerous versions of the paintings and the meditations that are often put with them. Here is one to start with.
Taming the Ox isn’t necessarily a linear event. Certainly that hasn’t been my experience. But by employing both mental and physical strategies, just as the ox-herd uses the rope to harness the wild ox, and by cultivating our awareness of our own mind we can start to return to health and experience joy in living again.