The meaning of life and post depression musings

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When I had clinical depression my daily life was dominated by a pervasive feeling of pointlessness. It was all-consuming, terrifying and nearly destroyed me, but I coped because I saw it simply as a symptom of an illness which I expected to completely disappear when I got better. Except it hasn’t.

While these days not every waking moment is punctuated with the feeling that we’re all just pointlessly spinning into the abyss, neither do I wake brimming with a deep sense of purpose each day, or, to be honest, any understanding of the point of my earthly existence. Was I naive to assume that once the mists of mental illness cleared my path through life would become clear and abundant with meaning?

Deciding whether or not there’s any point in going to the cinema/bowling/leaving the house at all doesn’t catapault me into an existential crisis anymore, and I can’t express how happy I am to no longer have that devil clinging to my back – but I suppose I’m a little disappointed that my brave new depression-free world isn’t as simple as I’d hoped. It turns out you actually have to work at creating meaning within your life, it doesn’t just gently drop into your lap like a whisp of dandelion fluff on a summer’s day.

I’m not religious but I’ve always envied the way faith provides comforting, iron-cast answers to the big questions – proffering meaning and purpose in the face of the worst kinds of abject cruelty and indiscriminate destruction existing in our world. One of my good friends from my University days is a devout Christian and she has mental grit and inner strength to rival a she-bear. But, alas, the God thing’s just never held water with me – so I have to place my faith elsewhere.

One thing I am getting to grips with pretty successfully in these halcyon days of better health is an ability to shake off any anxiety arising from these thoughts about why we’re all here and what on earth we’re doing. These moments of philosophical meandering rarely reach any sensible conclusion, and that’s alright. My life is pretty great in the present – and as long as I’m appreciating it in the here and now, moment to moment, it doesn’t really matter too much what it’s all about.

Is the way to avoid terminal angst over the meaning of life just to accept that there isn’t one – we’re all just floating in the void, and it’s time to get OK with that? Perhaps. Or maybe the key lies in just not caring too much either way. Now the black dog isn’t constantly snapping at my heels I can usually get through the day without some sort of hysterical crisis over what the point of my daily activities are, and maybe that’s enough for me.

Image credit: http://www.snapollie.com

Adventures in meditation – part 1

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‘Go away I’m MEDITATING!’ wasn’t something I expected to snarl at the knock on my bedroom door while in the throes of meditative bliss, but as it turns out, finding inner peace through this traditional Buddhist practice isn’t as easy as it looks. For something that from the outside looks like ‘sitting doing nothing’, learning to meditate is bloody hard.

I’ve signed up to Headspace, a project founded by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe. It’s a social enterprise with a simple mission – to get as many people as possible to take ten minutes out of their day to sit in the here and now, decreasing stress levels and improving their mood. Except, as I’m discovering, being still and ‘in the moment’ isn’t something that comes very naturally.

I’m doing everything right. Sitting upright in my chair my feet rest lightly on the floor and my hands are still in my lap. As instructed by Andy, I focus on the various sounds of my immediate environment – the ticking of a clock, the gentle whirring of my laptop and the booming thuds and rattles from next door’s building site. I begin a simple breathing exercise, counting my inhalations and exhalations up to ten, then starting again at one. So far, so good. Except rather than feeling more connected to my body and the present moment, I find myself battling the urge to get up or to drift off in random thoughts. I just can’t concentrate, I’m fidgeting and it’s all I can do to resist bolting out of the chair and running outside to throw myself in the canal in despair.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. How often do we just stop, and be still? When you think about how often most people are attached to phones, ipods, tvs, laptops, books or are simply lost in their own thoughts, it’s not difficult to see why stopping everything feels foreign. And meditation is far from ‘sitting doing nothing’ – I’m fast learning that the simple act of being present requires a delicate balance of relaxation and concentration. Too much relaxation and you’ll fall asleep, concentrate too hard and you become stressed and agitated. The endgame is a calm state of what’s referred to as ‘mindfulness’ – where you’re aware of how you feel in that particular moment.

Claiming that just ten minutes daily can help even the most time starved of people achieve profound life changes and a healthier, happier mind, the Headspace website is crammed full of guided meditation podcasts aimed at equipping you with easy-to-learn tools to learn ‘meditation for modern life’. The aim is to guide you through a short meditation session, no pressure, just so you get a feel for what it involves and learn the skills to bring a little calm into your life.

This couldn’t be more appropriate for an age in which stress has become a precursor to a whole host of nasty illnesses and depression is projected to be the number one global health burden by 2030. Mindfulness practice features at the core of some modern talking therapies – cognitive behavioural therapy in particular – which have become very popular in treating psychological disorders, but it’s not just mental health that’s affected. Research suggests that meditation can actually slow down the ageing process ; one study indicated it could even delay disease progression in patients with HIV. It seems that on top of eating well and getting enough exercise, learning to meditate could be one of the healthiest things we can do for our wellbeing these days.

With the aim of ‘demystifying meditation’, Headspace cuts through all the usual myths – that there’s not enough time, it’s impossible to stop thoughts etc. The focus is on the concept of short periods of mindfulness – simply becoming aware of your own thoughts and feelings – rather than having to shut your mind off in any way. At one point in the meditation, Andy instructs you to let go of any focus and ‘let your mind do whatever it wants to do’, and bizarrely it’s at this point that my hyperactive mind stops trying to leap and vault into a thousand different thoughts at once, and can’t seem to think about anything at all. I’m positively blank, and perhaps that’s the point.

So far I seem to have mainly spent the ten minute slot squirming anxiously on my seat and trying desperately not to think about chips…which is actually exactly what you’re not supposed to do. Instead of trying to stop myself from thinking and pushing thoughts away, I need to simply notice when I become distracted and bring myself back to the present. I’ve got some serious work to do before I can find my inner peace while omming in a field. Watch this space.

100 days of happiness

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Apologies for the dearth of posting lately, I am ferociously tired. Right now I’m seriously contemplating whether or not I can be bothered to eat the apple I’ve just sliced up, as the energy gained from chowing it down vs the energy lost through the sheer effort of lifting it to my mouth seems like a costly transaction.

So imagine my joy to see my Facebook newsfeed positively overflowing with smug photographs of various friends grinning ludicrously over something they’ve enjoyed that day, coupled with the hashtag ‘100 happy days’. Yeah, great, just what I need to see when my fatigue congested eyeballs are literally steaming in their sockets and the most exciting thing I’ve done that day is inch my way to the end of my bed. Excuse me while I chew off my arm in despair.

However as is so often the case, curiosity got the better of me and I found myself googling away only to land on the homepage of a rather interesting campaign – the 100 happy days project. Essentially the idea is to  submit a picture – either just to the site or on a social network of your choice – of something that made you happy that day, forcibly carving out a little time slot to focus on a joyful moment that’s taken place in our increasingly hectic and fast paced world. It’s actually quite sweet.

I’ve been a long-time advocate of practicing gratitude as a mechanism for honing in on the positive things in our lives and thereby increasing everyday happiness and wellbeing. Living in the moment is such a foreign concept in our ridiculous breakfast meeting, 24/7 email checking society that it’s just far too easy for a weary mind to zone in on all the negative aspects of the day. A happiness log is such a simple, effective thing you can do to refresh a gloomy perspective – but I’ve yet to really put this into practice in a regular, documented way.

I’m not really one for stuffing my social network feeds full of personal details about my life. I’ll happily post the occasional photo of my brother’s dog rolling in deer poo, or a ranty status update decrying the absence of quinoa in my local shop, but I’d definitely shy away from doing this every single day. However if I want to spotlight some of the sunnier shades of my daily existence as the 100 days project advocates, I don’t see why jotting them down in a private journal couldn’t have the same effect.

And so begins my first attempt at a gratitude diary. My endeavour to write down just one thing that’s infused me with a warm, fuzzy inner glow every day begins now. And if I really can’t think of one single joyful moment I’ve experienced, then just any small act of kindness I’ve witnessed will do. Although to be honest, I think the beauty of an exercise like this generally lies in the realisation that there is always some small thing that’s managed to make you smile at least once in any given day. Even the darkest, most depressing of days usually encompass a small sliver of light at some point, if only for a split second, that will briefly penetrate what feels like a never ending fog. Sometimes it’s the small act of remembering these moments that keeps us going.

I’ll let you know how I get on.