To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we chose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should love, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory
Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (Beacon Press 1994) quoted in Noam Chomsky Occupy (Penguin Books 2012)
I have fled the never-ending English Winter for an instant, well-established Spring in Cyprus.
And sitting among the purple vetches and white wild garlic, with bees missiling past my head and birds being very urgent in their sexed-up calls, I had a lovely long meditation looking out over the mountains about Limassol.
Part of the reason I booked a last minute flight towards the sun was to give myself some time-out between a lot of teaching and a long summer of filming. But there was so much interesting stuff in the teaching that is still buzzing round my head.
Mindsprings ran a weekend course at the Abbey on ‘Anxiety: The mindful approach’ (which sounds like a franchised film title, but was actually a great two day workshop). I was so happy with the way it went. And one of the many interesting things that came out of it was the concept of ‘surfing’ one’s neuroses through to a certain age and then hopping off them.
Having negotiated 40 and had a physical meltdown at 42, I’m feeling quite good about being 43. It seems like the ‘mid-life crisis’ is more of a ‘mid-life’ opportunity.
The surfing idea came up while we were discussing a concept I use from ACT therapy, called “dirty (dis)comfort.”
Basically a dirty (dis)comfort is a defence that is meant to make us comfortable by avoiding the experience of anxiety.
So a thought or a situation arises that rightfully makes our physical body send out anxiety signals (heightened heart-rate, pained breathing, stomach contractions, sweat, narrow thinking) and rather than acknowledge it we pretend it’s not there by indulging in an avoidant or defensive behaviour which ‘takes our mind off’ the anxiety. So for example, if we remember something our boss said that belittled or enraged us, and then we suddenly find ourselves half way through a bottle or beer or a tub of Hagen Daaz. Now we have the angry thought + the hangover/lovehandles. The dirty (dis)comfort is meant to make us feel better but actually makes us feel worse – hence the bracketted “dis”.
Dirty (dis)comforts (DDs) can be one-off behaviours like lighting a cigarette or shouting at your partner but they can also be habitual stances or behaviours that become part of our personality.
So, as I mention in my last post, we might react to the anxiety of being abandoned by always being a ‘people pleaser’. The DD momentarily assuages our anxiety by winning a reprieve but does nothing to dislodge the faulty belief (“people hate me”) that caused the anxiety to arise in the first place. In this way, the seeming success of DDs lead to them becoming endlessly repeated but futile character traits.
With mindfulness we get a chance to see through the thought and also experience the anxiety for what it is: an appropriate physical reaction to (possibly) inappropriate thoughts.
However, the thing that came up in the course was that these character DDs were not bad. Nothing is bad in mindfulness. They’re not bad but they may have outlived their usefulness.
We have to remember that these defensive decisions that we took when we were very young were the ones that helped us survive through to adulthood. OK, in the clear light of the 40s, they may not have been the best decisions we ever made (and believed a million times over) but they were good enough. They got us through.
But now, as adults with the ability to think clearly, with independence and more wisdom, we can change.
Neuroplasticity says that our brains can change – admittedly less swiftly than in infancy or in teenage, – and this moment right now, seems a good one.
We can acknowledge that our DDs have carried us like a wave through life to this point but now – before the wave crashes destructively into the gravelly shingle of the beach – is a good moment to jump off the wave. Before it breaks.
No regrets, no rubbishing what we have been, but a clear-sighted decision to do things differently from now on. Let’s thank the wave for getting us this far alive and hop off into buoyant waters, full of fish and life. No more surfing. Let’s go snorkelling among the corals before they die.