On a (Not Writing) Retreat: Somewhere in Perth Part 4

In the first post of this series I wrote, ‘Part of my plan is to “report”, via Elixir, my progress… to… share what challenged me… how I stayed, or failed to stay, on track…’. I can, this week, share that I’ve haven’t achieved what I set out to do. I have, however, started another utterly unexpected quest. My writing dried up, but I unwittingly began a deeply personal, psychological and spiritual investigation.

‘Retreats’ writes Jules Evans in his recent blog,

are not the chill-fests people imagine. When you remove external distractions, you come face-to-face with your inner restlessness and dissatisfaction in its rawest form. You see all the spikes of your likes and dislikes. Outside, you think you could easily be happy if it wasn’t for all the idiots around you. Inside, you begin to see the problem might be you.

Alone in the silence, bereft of ideas for my novel, let alone the motivation or inclination to work on it, I devoted myself to writing my Daily Pages. As a result I fell, like an aged and jaded Alice, into a rabbit hole of profound introspection, personal assessment, and discovery.

pexels-photo-268092Evans is right; the time, space and silence integral to a retreat invariably confront participants with the imperfect, often monstrous and usually querulous inner self…the being we hide not only from others but from ourselves. Such a confrontation is no task for the faint hearted.

I won’t go in to the grisly details of my ‘adventure’. I will say I’ve been, at times, angry, anxious, and acutely aware a change in attitude…in my attitude and my perspective… is needed.

Here’s some of what I learned in the last week:

  • The support, in the form of phone calls, text messages and emails, from several women in my life has been astonishing. While none were aware of what I was dealing with, they all contacted me at the exactly right time. I am grateful for their sensitive, generous and compassionate spirits. They each, in their own way, helped me get through the difficult days,
  • Over the last few months I’ve tried to build a regular meditation regime. During my stay in Perth I’ve explored and practiced familiar and new meditation techniques. I read a book and several articles about self-compassion and started reading a book about women in Buddhism. I am, therefore, grateful to the men and women who wrote this material. When Lynette Benton’s Brevity Essay arrived in my in-box late last week I gained a much-needed perspective on why I write, and my hopes and dreams concerning my writing.

During the difficult times I consoled myself by:

  • Listening to women jazz vocalists and exploring classical music (something I neglected in my youth). It’s a marvelous way to soothe and uplift the troubled ‘retreater’,
  • Getting out of the house even to just go shopping. My trip to Perth’s Art Gallery was an enormous boost to my troubled spirit,
  • Writing my ‘Daily Pages’ helped me explore my experience and gave me the means to express it coherently. I returned to journaling, after a long break, late last year and I approach it differently to when I was a young woman. I start each day’s journal entry with ‘what made me happy today?’. This supplies a much-needed perspective, while reading back over happy or pleasurable moments keeps me balanced,
  • Planning and writing blog posts helped me stay mindful and grounded and,
  • Reading the biography of Mary Shelley, and a novel, helped me appreciate different perspectives and allowed me to stop focusing on my problems.

I’ve always wanted to go on a ‘proper’ retreat, one run by an experienced meditation practitioner. Part of me, however, has been afraid of what I might learn about myself. Because the intended focus of this retreat, working on my novel, didn’t work out as planned, my time alone has morphed into a rich, confronting and rewarding discovery of the ‘inner woman’ who dwells in the very heart of my writing.

I can’t wait to see what next week brings.

accessory balance blur close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Have you ever started one task only for it to become something completely different? What prompted the change and how did it feel?

Have you been on a retreat? Do you agree or disagree with Jules Evans’ comment and why?

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

 

Writers and Self Compassion

Several months ago I met a woman who challenged me to investigate the meaning of selfishness. Part of me was intrigued, part of me was irritated; we all know what being selfish means, don’t we? Most of us have met self absorbed, self-interested people whose chief concern is getting what they want when they want it. For some reason, however, the word and it’s significance continued to niggle at me. As well as looking the word up in the dictionary and reflecting on it’s meaning I did a little extra digging and chanced upon the idea of self compassion.Dino Reichmuth

Since last November I have found the tension between art and life is no longer an abstract issue but a very real concern. I’ve struggled to find a comfortable balance between the two, and my friends and family are casualties of the struggle. That bothers me more than I can say. It also feels extremely selfish. My exploration of self compassion is incomplete but I am interested in how it might help me establish a more convivial balance.

Kristen Neff defines self compassion as

being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness. Self compassion also involves offering non judgemental understanding to one’s pain, inadequacies and failures, so that one’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience.

Exercising self compassion, claims Dr Neff, is knowing the difference between self-kindness and self judgement, between feeling isolated and excluded and acknowledging our shared humanity, and between being mindful of our difficulties and ruminating or worrying about them. This is how I suggest self compassion can help writers:

  1. We need to acknowledge that writing is hard. It is really hard. It is exhausting, painful, soul destroyingly hard. This is not a new idea. Talk to your nearest friendly writer (if they’re not writing) and even the most optimistic and successful will admit there a days when writing a reasonable sentence is a chore, let alone trying to write a novel. A self compassionate writer will acknowledge the difficulty and understand all writers share this experience. Being creative is a glorious, absorbing, exciting, rewarding chore. It feels like consorting with the gods one day and burying yourself in a pit of foul self-loathing the next. To pretend otherwise is to disconnect from the self and from making art. Writers need to be kind to themselves. Most writers are their own worst enemy; they are scions of self judgement and superstars of self criticism. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with our stories, novels, plays or poems we need to look for what is right with them (and work from there). We need to celebrate sentences, praise the standout line from poems, and honour the hours we spent honing that chapter.
  2. We need to understand we are not alone. I suspect that’s one reason writers blog. Bogging is connection, blogging is sharing, blogging is knowing someone on the other side of the planet is awake and has stumbled onto your blog and noticed that you, like they, are miserable. Clusters of writers are found at writer’s festivals chatting about their latest projects; at workshops learning how to write intelligently, sensitively and knowledgeably about indigenous people, people with a disability or transgendered folk; in suburban lounges reading their latest poem or a draft chapter of their novel. We are a supportive community. The image of the lone writer ripping sheets of paper from the typewriter in an orgy of writerly frustration must be laid to rest. The self compassionate writer seeks other writers, seeks the comfort of shared problems and shared celebrations when writing goes well.
  3. The self compassionate writer is a mindful writer. Novels are rarely written by a committee. Even writers who belong to a writing group write alone in the quiet of their study or a corner of a coffee shop where they are undisturbed, apart from the waiter discretely placing the fifth cup of coffee on the table.  Padurariu AlexandruSelf compassionate mindfulness acknowledges and releases the self critical judgements that loop through your brain, replacing them with your plot, the rhythm of your sentences and the delicacy of your images. How to do this? Meditation. Regular breaks. Going for long walks (with a pen and notebook). Reading, lots of reading. Eating properly. Getting a good night’s rest. Spending time with writers, artists, dancers, actors and other creative folk; going to an art gallery, a play, a movie. And did I say meditation?

I admit I don’t always practice self compassion. I believe I am the only writer to create tedious, ungrammatical, poorly punctuated sentences. As a perfectionist I have self criticism down to a fine art. Despite being a member of a writing group and living with an actor (who patiently waits and watches as I discover all of this), I feel isolated and adrift from fellow writers and intimidated when I meet other artists. I forget to be mindful, I forget to meditate, I forget to go for a walk. I sit in front of a keyboard for hours and forget to eat or drink.

It’s time I stopped thinking and reading about self compassion and started practising it regularly. It’s time I stopped confusing selfishness with self compassion. It’s time to acknowledge that writers, artists of any kind, constantly balance their need to make art with the rest of their lives and that’s okay.

If, says Neff, we lack self compassion we risk becoming self-esteem junkies hooked on the marvel of our amazing selves, our accomplishments, our gifts and our talents. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what teachers and parents have tried to do since the late 1960s? Raise children who believe in themselves, who are confident in their abilities? In her article, Neff demonstrates that good self esteem is no longer the positive achievement we thought it was. Self esteem fosters narcissism, self-absorption, self-centredness and a lack of concern for others. Being told we aren’t successful in our job, we failed a test, or did poorly on the playing field threatens our sense of self and triggers negative emotions. Neff further explains that self esteem is founded on comparisons; we feel good about ourselves because we compare ourselves to others. By reinforcing our self esteem we put others down.

If we feel compassion for ourselves, if we acknowledge our failures and weaknesses, if we understand that all of humanity suffers and grieves, we can turn to the person next to us and acknowledge their humanity. Self-compassion inspires compassion for all creatures, all beings. Self compassion encourages us to try to end our suffering and the suffering of others.

self-compassionThat’s something worth writing about.

What do you think? Is there a difference between selfishness and self compassion? Has the self-esteem train run off the rails? Do you practice self compassion?

REFERENCES

Neff, Kristin. ‘Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself.’ Self and identity 2.2 (2003), pp. 85-101.