At Ease, Ease off or Ease Together?

I don’t meditate as often as I’d like but when I do I use one of the several meditation apps I’ve downloaded to my mobile phone. The other day I chose Meditation Studio’s meditation, ‘Ease with Everything’ by Noah Levine. It was the first meditation I’ve done that specifically used the word ‘ease’ (or it was the first time I consciously registered that word). The meditation suggested I ‘be at ease with myself just as I am.’

Now, I know we’re not meant to analyse our meditations but experience them and relax into their bounty. The word ease, however, and its use as a goal of meditation, intrigued me. I’m a wordsmith. I write because I love choosing  words that clearly convey my understanding of, feelings about and attitude towards a subject. I decided to explore the meaning of ease so I can better understand why my recent meditation was so positive.

My dictionary of etymology tells me the word ease was in use before 1200CE and was probably borrowed from the Old French aise, meaning comfort or pleasure. That led me to The Oxford Dictionary of English (on line) where I discovered that indeed, ease is from the:

old French eise, aise (modern aise) feminine, cognate with Provençal ais, Italian agio (formerly also asio), Portuguese azo masculine; late Latin type asia, asium, of uncertain origin. The earliest sense of French aise appear to be: 1. Elbow-room […and …]: 2. opportunity. It has been suggested … that *asia, *asium may be … āsa, a recorded vulgar form of Latin ansa, handle, used figuratively in sense [of] ‘opportunity, occasion’. With reference to the sense ‘elbow-room’, it is remarked that ansātus, ‘furnished with handles’ is used in Latin for ‘having the arms akimbo’. This is not very satisfactory, but it does not appear that any equally plausible alternative has yet been proposed.

I wonder if this is the origin of the military injunction to ‘stand at ease’, a command that means to stand with feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind the back. soldier-1713107__340  This means the arms, or more specifically elbows, will invariably be at some degree of ‘akimbo’ (a term possibly related to the idea of a ‘jug handle’ or ‘pot handle’).

To paraphrase the rest of the entry in The Oxford Dictionary, being at ease means the chance, or skill, to perform a role or action,  or to experience contentment or freedom from anxiety or anguish. For some, ease comes in the form of an appliance that does their work for them so they don’t need to exert themselves. For others it means release from life’s  tribulations through apathy, heartlessness or lack of moral accountability. It is also, and this is a personal favourite, the

freedom from […] embarrassment or awkwardness in social behaviour.

I wonder if the ability to feel at ease in our world has been lost? Our leaders are almost universally rude to their opponents. Both sides of the political divide behave like bullies, bringing the worst of the schoolyard to the very places where measured, properly informed, congenial discussions should prevail. The extreme vagaries of the weather feel like a portent of the devastating climate change many scientists have, for decades, tried to warn us about. Poverty, racial discrimination and gender inequality make me wonder if we can ever be ‘at ease’ again. And yet, my meditation app instructs me to feel at ease with myself and where I find myself. meditate-1851165__340

Who benefits from such injunctions? Is there an alternative to meditation that can achieve the change – and the ease – we desperately seek? I am not against meditation; I’d like to develop a regular practice, I’d like to sit for longer than ten minutes, to focus on my breath, to accept my anxieties instead of fighting them or keeping them at bay. But I also wonder if my attempts are another form of burying my head in the sand?

A dear friend admires the collectivism of the early to mid 20th Century, a political movement born partly from the terrible loss of life in two world wars. Collectivism reached its apotheosis in the 1960s and 70s but was superseded by the rugged individualism that swelled in the 80s and 90s to the present time, and whose current avatar is the newly elected President of the United States. Mindfulness has, in the last two decades, been adopted in the west as the new hope for mental health, an ideal with which I concur. Is it, however, aligned with individualism, with the cult of the self, with the potential failure to understand that many of our problems are created by our current economic and political system?

My friend added that he feels most at ease when with others: at the theatre, for instance, or a gathering of friends or family. I, on the other hand, am more of an introvert. I am at ease with my family, and certainly while babysitting my granddaughter. Despite my having to be responsible for her well-being and therefore cautious about what she does, where she is and what she eats, her artless, innocent, exploration of the world gives me most ease. I don’t enjoy large parties, preferring small and intimate dinners where everyone’s voice is heard. I also find peace when I’m reading, although that, too, is communicating and connecting with the mind and heart of the author and her characters. Compare these forms of ease to mindfulness and meditation as an aid to mental wellbeing. How does meditation fit with our obligations, as members of society, to the collective? Whose ease are we expected to care about, ours or others?

Giving ease is to

render more comfortable, relieve from pain, … refresh with repose or food, … entertain, accommodate hospitably, … give relief to (any one suffering from oppression, or burdened with expenses or laborious duties), in wider sense: to benefit, help, assist … to relieve, lighten, set free (a person, etc.) … from burden, pain, anxiety, or trouble,

but it also means to ‘ease off, or to release or reduce one’s efforts’.

Practitioners and advocates of mindfulness assert that it will help me to be calmer and more at ease with myself and allow me to confidently venture out to the world so I can help others. I have no doubt this is true. I have already found, even doing one or two brief meditations a week, that my writing has taken on a more collective tone, particularly in my blog posts. I want my words to make a difference to the lives of others. tea-lights-1901005__340

My mother was a gifted dressmaker who, I believe, was most at ease when sitting in front of her sewing machine. She taught me to sew when I was young, so I was interested to find, as I scrolled through the entries on the on-line version of The Oxford Dictionary, a definition of ease I heard many times as a girl:

To join two pieces of material whose edges are of unequal length in such a way that the extra fullness of the larger section is distributed evenly along the join.

I want to adopt this definition as a mantra for my meditation practice. While I find mental and emotional ease through breathing, centring, contemplating and reflecting I am, in a sense, the shorter piece of the two sections of fabric. The collective, my tribe, my community, is the larger piece. Meditative and reflective writing has the potential to stitch the scarcity of the individual to the immensity of the collective and create a healthy, functioning whole.  By writing meditatively, I can share my belief that ignoring our community means we renounce the right to wear the garment of humanity.

What or who puts you at ease? How do you ease the lives of others? Where are you most at ease?couture-1896454__340

 

Four Quotes about Therapeutic Writing and what they Mean to Me

I cannot remember the last time I wrote a post specifically related to therapeutic writing. Most of my posts are reflective, but the chief impetus for creating this blog has faded somewhat.  Today, while tidying up and relocating old files, I reflected on the five years I spent researching the power of creative writing to heal, or at least assuage, grief, loss and trauma. As I sorted through my files I found the following quotations from people I consider experts in the field of therapeutic writing and I decided to share them.

Art allows a safe revisiting of that place of revulsion. (1)

cta7f7bwt5o-serge-esteveThis is a confronting assertion. Who wants to return to a place of fear and loathing, who wants to expose themselves to memories of pain and sorrow? How is reliving the bad times healing? Research demonstrates that when we relive a trauma on the page, when the power of a pen (or computer keyboard) is in our hands, when we say what we want to say, feel what we need to feel, share as little or as much as we choose, we can find relief. Reliving and retelling the story of our suffering gives us the power to interpret, engage with and revise that story. Writing is a way of standing up and facing the demon and telling it to back off.

The etymological roots of the word `record’ are `re’, meaning again, and `cord’, meaning heart (Oxford English Dictionary). Recording is getting closer to what is in the heart. The writer is their own first reader, their own primary interlocutor. So, writing, in the first instance, is a private communication with the heart of the self. (2)

Never one to take anything as given, I checked Bolton’s claim and she is right. The heart is not a site of revulsion, pain is what happens to us while our heart keeps beating. The body and the psyche may be scarred but the heart remains the animating principle. To survive is to cherish our heart beat no matter what happens to us, no matter how others treat us. This is therapeutic writing as a stethoscope (from the Greek, stethos; breast: skopien, look). Therapeutic writing is a way to look within our heart and record what is found there. It is also, in terms of the verb to breast, a way to press on confidently, to struggle with, and to overcome or conquer.  If we examine the word interlocutor we find it means ‘conversationalist’; to write therapeutically is not to converse with either the pain we experience or who or what caused our suffering, but to converse with the self that has survived, that will survive, the pain. Once again, the power is placed back with the therapeutic writer. We are no longer victims, we claim instead a profound tool: the power to record not only how we endured our pain but how we survived it. cropped-u3ges0susni-jeff-sheldon-e1485849771431.jpg

In every case, the writing on the page speaks back to its writer, offering resolution, solace or posing more questions about life and writing. (3)

Here we are then, at a place of power, offering the surviving self comfort and the means to resolve our trauma and move on, to be curious once more about life and what we can do with the life we fought so hard to keep.

Our days are filled with moments. Most of these never get written and usually that doesn’t matter but sometimes it feels like it does. Sometimes a moment happens that causes a jarring, a disturbance, a confusion or such an explosion of feeling that you know you will have to re-live that moment in nondescript jolts and shivers, shakes of the head or blinks of the eyes unless you find a way to process and make sense of it in some other way. (4)

Yes, most moments are fleeting; we are unmindful of their passing and they are lost forever. Other moments, however, the moment a loved one takes her or his last breath, the moment a car swerves into our path, the moment someone harms us, those moment are seared into us, we are forever branded with them. Therapeutic writing is one way to do the crucial work of processing these scorching, indelible moments. To process means taking a series of actions or steps to achieve an outcome.  It is an operation, a procedure, a treatment, but it is first and foremost an action, one we can perform, with the help of a trained counsellor, on the page.

window-855371__340As I muse on these quotations and play with words, I remember reading, early last year, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. While I cannot say with certainty that Porter wrote the book as a form of therapy, it is based on his experience, when only six, of losing his father. His book is, for me, an almost perfect expression of profound loss, crippling grief and the essential work required to survive, not just for ourselves but for those who love us. The book describes moments of recovery, of survival that never nullify the moment of grief but honour and dignify that loss. Not everyone, of course, will see loss and grief this way but Porter’s novel demonstrates the possibility.

When I wrote, as part of my thesis, my memoir I discovered a mature, feisty, woman comfortable with breaking the rules. She always existed, of course, but she either hid away, for fear of censure, or expressed her pluck in inappropriate ways. I also rediscovered my mother, who experienced a profound loss and trauma, one I believe she never processed. If this blog can, in some small way,  demonstrate to one person the power and potential of therapeutic writing, then I have honoured my mother, her trauma and the little brother that she loved deeply and lost.

References

(1) Gillie Bolton, quoting from a participant, Teenage Cancer Trust Unit, Camden Palliative Care Unit, King’s College London Arts and Medicine Unit (English Department) in Bolton, Gillie, Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011, Kindle Edition, loc. 89.
(2) Bolton, Gillie, Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development, loc. 94.
(3) ‘Preface’, by Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field, Kate Thompson, with a Postscript by Fiona Hamilton, in Writing Routes: A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing (Writing for Therapy or Personal Development), Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Kindle Edition, loc. 157.
(4) Cheryl Moskowitz, ‘Letter to a Stranger – Processing the Momentary’ in Field, Victoria, Kate Thompson, and Gillie Bolton, Writing Routes: A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing, loc. 826.