Monday 28 October 2019

A Sabbatical. The Good, Bad and Ugly Days.


Marie and me some time
before the sabbaticals
My friend Michael decided to have a Sabbatical from September 2019 to January 2020.  Oh my God, I thought, I want one.  A light went on in my head, and I announced my own Sabbatical to run concurrently with Michael's.  My friend Marie was with us, and she took one too, and all three of us are hiding away now and not answering the phones. 

My own need for a break had been building up.  I was doing too many things and spending too little time on them to make them worth while.  The more I took on, the more frantic I became and the less grounded.  It never occurred to me that I was allowed to stop.  If Michael had not said he was now unavailable until next year, I would never have thought it possible.  Next year? I said, astonished.  And then as the penny dropped, I saw myself wrapped in blankets on the sofa, the doors padlocked, the house phone in the bin, the fridge full of apple crumble, and I said - I am having one too. 

Much of the work of a sabbatical is personal.  If I am stuffed full of ideas, plans, notions, movement and worry, then letting go of all that will create spaces and those spaces may not feel comfortable.  There is a difference between driving fast and being safe and in control, and careering off at the speed of light whizzing round corners and wondering how it got to be this fast.  And the slowing down, when we are going so fast, cannot be an emergency stop otherwise we will be chucked through the metaphorical windscreen.  When going that fast all our energy goes into keeping to the road, and we think that this is how fast we should be going, it is normal, so we better focus or we may crash.  Being reminded that we can slow down by seeing someone showing us how and then getting out of his metaphorical car and walking off into the sunset, changes everything. 

I went home, shut the door, made some tea and cancelled everything.  Then I sat down and waited for Nirvana.

Chapter One.  The Good Days.

These are the days with nothing in them.  It does not matter what time I wake, it does not matter if I get dressed or not and my only difficulty is which sofa to sit on.  The sense of peace and relief makes me smile, and I look about my home with real joy.  Deciding to disconnect from everything feels like a very good idea at the beginning - and it is a good idea - it just is not simple.  I can't not turn up for the things I have agreed to do, and so I do have to get dressed sometimes and go out and perform.  But slowly, I have wound my engagements back leaving only those that could not be tampered with, and found a growing sense of relief in not feeling like I had to do anything else.  My studio was left like the Marie Celeste, intact but abandoned mid flow.  My writing was put away into a locked casket and hidden fifteen feet below ground (not really) in case I felt guilty about not doing it, and I stopped making plans.  There is a saying that nature abhors a vacuum, and so does family.  Family will be sucked into free spaces if they are allowed to, so that is lovingly checked.  Oh the freedom to sit on the sofa and think about the books I wanted to read and catch up with.  The pleasure of letting the hours tick by, and as there is no plan for the day, nothing has to be achieved.  Bliss.  I had the image of my mind being like a kettle filled with limescale.  I was allowing the limescale to drop away, and into the nice new kettle bits in my mind, new plans were going to form.  Another image was that I was a blocked sink, and all the old tea leaves and bits of soggy lettuce clogging the drains were going to be washed away for ever, and the water of my new and wonderful ideas would then flow effortlessly down the pipes. 

Family abhors a vacuum 
Time is such a friend on the good days.  It lets me sit and look about me.  Once, I would have been compelled to make a plan and rush about.  Now, I decide if I want to watch Police Interceptors on the laptop, or plan my lunch.  Because I am on a sabbatical, I can't do both at once.  I know that Michael is sorting his creative life out on his sabbatical, but any sorting out feels too much like hard work, and so I must not be tempted.  I choose mostly one thing at a time from the following list
  1. What do I want to eat?
  2. Where do I want to sit?
  3. Shall I get dressed?
  4. Shall I stare at the wall?
  5. Are there any sweeties in the house?
The good days are about freedoms - mental, physical and emotional.  They are free from expectations, they are free from distractions and they are formless and delightful.  But then, as with all things, there is the contrast.  There is not up without down, not happy without sad and not good without bad.

Chapter Two.  The Bad Days.

 Too much of nothing becomes heavy.  But doing nothing is precisely what I plan to do.  In order to get rid of the soggy lettuce in my limescale kettle mind there must be a letting go, but I am used to my rubbish.  Having freedom in my mind is unfamiliar.  The limescale and old tea leaves cover all manner of feelings and difficulties that I do not want to deal with.  It is because I am avoiding looking at my choices and my thoughts about myself and my life, that I have become such a high speed driver and have allowed the limescale and old carrot peelings to pile up.  So to speak. 

And so.  I begin to access the hiding away bits in my mind.  I don't like them.
  1. No one likes me
  2. I have not achieved anything
  3. No one comes to anything I do
  4. I am too fat
  5. I am scared of people
  6. People are scared of me
  7. I don't deserve success
There are more things on the list, but the important thing is that if these thoughts are hiding in my head, I need to look at them.  It is uncomfortable to confront them but I am on a sabbatical precisely in order to let my mind unclutter.  But what if the thoughts are right, what if it is true and I am doomed to be a fat, unpopular, unsuccessful, frightening, formless blob?  

Now, sitting on the sofa letting these thoughts happen is no longer fun.  Time feels unfriendly, it is hurtling past taking me with it and soon I will die because I will be nearly ninety and still no one likes me.  I can't read because I can't concentrate. I can't get dressed because nothing fits.  I can't plan lunch because I ate all the food in the house an hour ago, I can only sit on the sofa because I am now too enormous to fit onto a chair and perhaps staring at the wall and feeling doomed is the only thing left. 

I know that all this will pass.  It is a measure of how I have looked for distraction with movement, work, plans, mad schemes and over reaching projects because underneath it all, I am very tired, not enjoying myself and having angst ridden thoughts that need to be looked at.  I do know that I have to sit with this and wait for some perspective to arrive, which, bit by bit, it has done.  One of the things I did was to change the list round.  Here is how it reads now -
  1. Everyone likes me
  2. I have achieved a lot
  3. People always come to things I do
  4. I am gorgeous 
  5. I am delighted with people
  6. People are delighted with me
  7. I deserve success
The bad days are part of the deal, but while I am having them, they feel like the only deal.  I do not paint, I do not even go into my studio, my painting days are over.  I do not write, I have nothing to say, and I can't believe I ever did paint, write, leave the house.  Oh dear.  But then, you see, all this nonsense is just that, nonsense.  I am allowing it all to surface so I can see what is holding me up.  No wonder I am tired, no wonder work has become such a trial, no wonder I am not enjoying my life.  I have forgotten how to have fun.  It has all got a bit outside-in instead of inside-out.  I am looking for results from outside, from everyone else, and have forgotten that all the good stuff starts with me, with what I think about myself, and what is coming from my own good heart.  What thoughts I have about myself are destructive because I have given away my power.  Oh dear.  These bad days on the sabbatical are sad, lonely, heavy days.  But they are necessarily interspersed with lots of good days, no sabbatical should be a singular trudge up a steep hill with no respite.  But then there are also what I call the ugly days.

Chapter Three.  The Ugly Days

Can it get any worse?  Isn't a sabbatical meant to be fun?  It is fun.  It is wonderful, but the decluttering of the mind, the putting on of the brakes when we may have been going faster and faster on the autobahn, will bring a certain amount of trauma when still and facing what we have lost sight of in ourselves and our lives.  Things like perspective, self examination, assessing what is working and what is not and so on.  I do not think my life was out of control, not at all, it is simply that I had forgotten what I wanted to do and what I am truly good at.  And I am prone to thinking and saying dreadful things about myself when I give away my power.  Then I feel sorry for myself.

A Balrog.  The people on the right are the neighbours who can't
ignore they live next to a Balrog an longer.
The ugly days are when I see myself and everything around me as ugly.  The house needs cleaning, the flowers need changing, the laundry needs doing, everything is messy and then, I pass a mirror and it cracks.  I have no desire to clean, change, wash or hoover anything.  I do not want to pass a window now because my neighbours don't know I am now a Balrog.  I have taken time off work and so there is no distraction, and it is just as well because now if I leave my house the army will come and have me blown up.  The ugly days which I have had to face down, are the days when it is not enough that I have made that list from the bad days.  On top of that, I feel hopeless.  That is very sad.  Loss of hope colours everything grey and feels bleak.  These ugly days manifest as perceiving myself and all that is around me, as inadequate, unlovely and wrong.  But, I say to myself, if this is what is underneath my busy life, then the sabbatical is working, and it needs to be looked at.  Why is this coming up?  What is it saying and what can I do about it? Not much while it is happening, I can't reason with a Balrog. I just have to let it pass, and it always does and thankfully, I know that it will.  Ugly days don't happen often during this sabbatical, but when they do, I am very glad I have taken time off to face them.


There are many more good days than bad or ugly and this sabbatical is still only half way through. I imagined I would have so much time to focus on cooking, writing lists, reading, sitting and having great thoughts.  Instead, my time has been spent dealing with all the nonsense I have allowed myself to come up with.  I have sat on my sofas a lot - I have two, a red one and a pink one - and I have tried writing lists but what I most need is time to think.  Thinking with attention, and thinking without.  Thinking with attention means focus and a furrowed brow.  Lots of deep and meaningful sequential thoughts.  Thinking without attention is letting your mind go on a wander.  Letting it meander off into the ether, you just watch it go and soon you are lost in a lovely journey without boundaries or stress.  Then you fall asleep.

I have not asked Michael or Marie how their sabbaticals are going, I don't want to hear that they are having a great time and it is only me doing the I'm a Balrog thing.  I will sum up the sabbatical below

  1. It is such an indulgence doing nothing
  2. It is really hard work doing nothing
  3. I am not doing nothing!
  4. There are sweeties in the house
  5. I am so glad I am doing this
  6. Some plans are forming for next year 
  7. I am not a Balrog
  8. Even if I was, I would be a nice one
  9. I am really glad I am not doing as much as I was
  10. My clothes do fit, I am just attention seeking.

My sabbatical ends in January 2020.  If all goes well, I shall sail out of it like a ship in full sail, filled with wisdom and good food.  I will meet up with Michael and Marie and we will all laugh about how good life is now, and getting into our metaphorical life cars, we will stick to the speed limit.  And I will have a clean limescale free kettle head with all the old bits of sweetcorn removed from the blocked drains, the water of my ideas will be flowing smoothly and no one will notice that my metaphors are really odd.

Emerging full of wisdom, food and metaphors.

Monday 14 October 2019

Whirligig mind and Buddhist mind

I pretend I have a Buddhist type mind.  I think it is evident if I present as calm and unruffled by life.  All that I have read about Buddhism makes perfect sense, and I tend to agree with it by feeling satisfied that actually, I already do that.  Whatever deep and meaningful books I read, I find myself thinking, well, lucky for me that I don't have to do any of that. I do it already.  I am actually, I think, a bit fab.  I like how advanced I am, I am lucky to be so wise and calm and perceptive.  I am lucky to be able to understand the energy follows thought kind of thing.  It is a very nice place to be.

What is more accurate is that I have a whirligig mind, wrapped up in some comforting distractions that I have lifted from very worthy and good books, and used to prevent myself from noticing I am not really that advanced nor Buddhist.  It takes a while to create the belief that one is safe in one's mind, and that it is comfortable in there.  It is comfortable thinking the things we think, and knowing the things we know, and having our views sorted enough for us to not be too challenged.  It is entirely understandable, it is inevitable, that we should create our safe space in our minds, because we have to live with ourselves, and make sense of the world.  At the same time, we are called upon to cope with things that we can't quite understand like love, and violence, and news stories, and other people, and why if we know it isn't good for us, do we still bulk buy ice cream and pot noodles?

So I have created an illusion of a Buddhist mind.  For myself.  I can do my projects, write my articles, rush about like a whirligig, all the while believing I am not rushing about.  I have it sussed, I say.

The whirligig mind does the following. It is unable to say no to ideas, it is as excited about the idea it has just had as about the project already in hand, and going well.  It doesn't give one idea time to sink in and start to work before the next four pop up and are given exactly the same amount of attention, even if they are (possibly) really silly.  It thinks it can start things off, and watch them hurtle about like spinning tops, and that somehow it will all be fine.  A whirligig mind agrees to do things despite already doing things, as if time will somehow become elastic and stretch to accommodate the new plans, and nothing will suffer.  When eventually, a whirligig feels they are run ragged, they get despondent and a bit sad, and feel a failure.  All the spinning tops are off out there careering about, some doing well perhaps, but most losing speed and crashing into each other.  "Oh dear", says the whirligig mind, " I tried so hard, nothing is working, I am so useless", and their friends give them hugs and say, that, perhaps they are doing too much.

"Too much!" says the whirligig, "Nonsense! This is just the beginning!" Whirligigs do not listen.

But in their quiet moments, they think that perhaps they are doing too much, and because they lack discernment and boundaries, they have no idea what to stop and what to continue.  So they may get back out there and carry on with all their ideas despite feeling dispirited, or they may disown the lot of them.  That is when they really do bulk buy ice cream and pot noodles.  They need a treat.

What is to be done. A personal take.

It is unlikely that we whirligigs will slow down and take stock unless life gives us a shove.  I was given a knockout in late summer this year, after which I was required to look around me at my choices, and to unravel them.  The ambition I had for a particular project had blinkered me to the consequences, I was on a roll, it was all going to be fine.  I was in control! And I so wanted to do this project.  It was personal. 

Of course I went ahead with the project.  Things were not going well, but the show must go on.  There was too much invested in it to stop and besides - what would people think? So we did it.  And far from being delighted with it, I was ashamed of the difficulties I had stirred up.  I don't think anyone knew, but I was shaken and challenged and found no peace.  When it was over, and everyone had gone home, I was left to think about what I had decided to do, and what I had allowed to happen. I was now required to look at what was real. 

It was very hard.  My whirligig mind had nothing to distract it.  I was involved with so many different things, I had given my time and focus to whatever came my way and now I had no desire to do any of it.  I needed to think.  This Buddhist mind business was a bit of a sham, I began to see.  I was no calm, detached, wise and illusion free person, I was an over busy, over committed, superficial jack of all trades.  "Time to stop", said my friends, and for once, I listened.  Things had become so difficult, I was really out of my depth, and I wanted to think and be alone.  I cancelled everything and went to bed.

In my dressing gown, from the sofa, in the middle of the day a long while later, I began a time of reflection and understanding.  Over the weeks, this is what I came up with and bear in mind, this is just a few  -

  1. I do not disappear into a puff of smoke because I stop.  I am still here.  A whirligig tends to think that the only thing that makes them real is doing things.  Hundreds of things.
  2. Be truthful. "At the end of the day," a dear friend said,"people decide how they behave".  And that includes me.
  3. I am not indispensable.  No one needs me.  Things happen without me.
  4. This project cannot continue.  I can start again with the same subject in a different way.  I must let this one go.  I must accept this did not work. And I got it wrong.
  5. In order to really take notice of my own mind, and what it is creating, I must close down the things that are really not working.  There are a good few.  It is dawning on me that I am very very tired. Emotionally, physically and spiritually.
  6. I don't want to be a whirligig any more.  
So I have taken my metaphorical phone off the hook, and am having what I call a sabbatical until 2020.  I am seeing what plans I have that are authentic, and well thought through, and sticking with only one or two.  Maybe three.  Or four.  I could do ten ..... (and breathe).  And I am not doing anything now.  I am thinking about them and planning them only.

However.  I am still busy.  But not that busy.  Remember, I say to myself as I start to fill in my diary - plan times to just do nothing.  It is so hard to just do nothing.  But persevering with it is a lesson in time, the passing of time.  It is a lesson in the decluttering of one's thoughts.  It is a lesson in realising you exist.  Simply, and wonderfully, just as you and you exist.  I had forgotten how to have fun.  I had forgotten how to daydream.  I had forgotten how to read all afternoon, how to watch the light change as the day ends or begins and I had totally forgotten how time will never come back, and to experience it passing is sometimes a luxury we don't allow ourselves.  To a whirligig, time is terrifying.  It is evidence that you haven't done enough, become enough, achieved enough.  A whirligig forgets that we have to be as well as do.

So.  How are you now?

Getting good at sitting down.  I have little insights into what I want to do, and I have long ponderings about what I don't want to do.  I get excited about new plans now that I am a recovering whirligig and then I remember, plan only one (or two) things at a time and do them well.  Yesterday I had a brain wave.  I will do a new one woman show.  It will be easy.  Now that I have stopped all my previous projects I have more time.  I know, I thought, I will call my friend Deb and she will help and we can get this sorted by May and she can put it on in Southampton.  Then I remembered.  I already have a project to plan and think about (just the one) and I am not doing this kind of whirligig thing any more.  It was really hard to let it go but I managed with a packet of biscuits.  I was on my super comfy sofa, the fairy lights were lit and it was raining outside.  I began to think, do I really want to fuss about again, and chase spinning tops?  Mostly, no.  But a bit yes. 

In conclusion 

After Gertrude Stein's A rose is a rose is a rose.
The two plans that I am allowed to have are -

  • The Addicts and Those That Love Them project 

  • My book I am finishing by Christmas

  • Loss Conversations I hold with my dear friend Gill - every second Wednesday in Bognor.

Damn.  That's three.  Damn.

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