In the moment – Growing Older

In the moment – Growing Older

When I was young – and even when I was mature – I had quite the wrong idea about what it was like to be old. I thought it was just slower, everything a little less acute. Perhaps, too, I felt that grey hair was an indication of a greyer, less vivid experience of life.

Now I know that I move slowly because I have less energy; that hearing less well makes it harder to have a conversation in a roomful of chattering people; that my sense of smell has deteriorated.

And yet, I’m more joyful now than I’ve ever been.

Largely that’s because I know and accept who I am. It’s also because I have learned, at least to some extent, to live ‘in the moment’ – savouring the experience of life, whatever it is, moment by moment.

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There are also blessings that are reserved for older people; grandchildren, plenty of time to reflect, leisure to spend with those you love.

So, although it’s been years since I could run upstairs, I can walk up them and read a bedtime story to my grandchildren.

Although I can’t smell the coffee in the morning, I don’t have to rush off to work. I sit with my wife over breakfast and enjoy her company.

I’m no longer the fastest to solve problems and learn new skills, but I can quarry my experience for memories and images, wisdom that I can share with others.

I no longer have the responsibility and status of working as a manager, but I have time for the privilege and joy of sharing love with my friends.

And as for ‘a less vivid experience of life’ – nothing of the sort! Life is great!

 

In the moment – be happy!

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Life holds many joys; the vigorous growth we’re seeing in gardens and fields; lambs gambolling on the moor; the love of families and friends. Even memories can bring us joy. Every day I look at the photograph of my wedding day – it’s in the bedroom, right in front of me as I drink my first cup of tea. It always lifts my spirits, not just as I remember the day itself, but because the picture reminds me how lucky I am to still be happily married to Daphne after more than forty years.

But life can also feel tough. There may be challenges at work, within the family, within society more broadly. Personally, I am deeply concerned about the political situation in Western democracies, where we seem to be increasingly polarised. We all have times when we feel sad; we all experience anger; we have all felt fear, or apprehension.

Now, here’s an interesting thing. Our brains process our feelings separately from our rational thought. Feelings come from our emotional brain, the amygdala, which is a very primitive part of the brain. When the emotional brain feels we are in a threatening situation it causes adrenalin to flood the body. This quickens the pulse rate dramatically and sharply raises levels of glucose in the blood. This is the “fight or fly” response, preparing us for combat, or for escape.

Once upon a time this was essential for our survival. In Western society that is no longer usually the case. In fact, repeated stimulation of the emotion of fear can lead to anxiety, where even ordinary daily life feels threatening. This can be sufficiently intense to disrupt our lives (been there, done that – it’s horrid).

Our brains process our feelings separately from our rational thought.

Our emotional brain has no way of knowing when it’s making the right response to a situation – it relies on our rational brain to tell it so. If our rational brain is consistently viewing a certain type of situation as a threat, then our emotional brain will believe it. So, for example, if we constantly worry about what’s going on in the world, our rational brain is sending the message, “I’m in a dangerous place. I’d better be on the alert.” Our emotional brain believes what the rational brain tells it, so that at the least sign of threat it goes, “AAAAGGGGHHHH!!! What’s that???”

The good thing is that our emotional brain also believes the rational brain if we consciously think positively about life. When, every night before bed, we write down three things that have gone well during the day, we are sending a powerful message to the emotional brain that life is good. When we count our blessings every morning, we are sending a message to the emotional brain that life is good. When I look at the photograph of my wedding day while drinking my first cup of tea of the day, I’m saying to my emotional brain, “Life is good. I’m happy.”

And when we do that consistently, day after day, the emotional brain gradually turns more to happiness, and less to vigilance. We become happier and more relaxed people.

And, while I don’t expect St Paul had this in mind when he gave the advice originally in his letter to the Philippians (Philippians 4:8), it certainly sums up well a good way of staying positive:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (NIV translation)

I hope you found this interesting and helpful. It’s meant to encourage a more positive, and therefore happier approach to life in those who are basically well. If you are constantly apprehensive, depressed, or listless, to the extent that it affects how you live your life, I strongly advise you to seek professional help.

 

In the moment – negative emotions

It’s easiest to open up and be aware of our emotions when we feel secure, and when we think the experience will be a happy one. Often, we have a special place for this. I have several – on Dartmoor, by the River Erme, by the sea, beautiful places where I usually feel happy.

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Despite this, though, there will be times when the emotion is negative. We’ll feel angry with somebody, or upset that something has happened, or let down because we’ve been disappointed. And that’s okay. We don’t feel good every minute of every day, and it would be wrong to expect that.

Mindfulness can be helpful when we recognise and accept a negative emotion as it happens. Note the phrase and accept’. This is a key part of being mindful.

Let me give you an example. Like most people, as I made progress in my career I needed training in new skills. I’ll admit something embarrassing; I’m not very good about being trained! Unless the training was very good, I became critical and argued with the trainer. For years I was probably a bit of a nightmare trainee! Then I started to practise mindfulness.

I needed to recognise and accept when I was becoming angry. That gave me space to ask myself “Why are you getting cross, Penny?”. Usually, the answer was, “Because I don’t think this trainer’s doing a very good job”. To which my mindful self could reply, “So what? They’re doing the best they can. It’s stuff you need to know. Getting cross is a waste of energy and you don’t need to do it.” Little by little I found that recognition of the anger enabled me to let go of it.

That’s a small example. However, if you add up lots of occasions when you’ve appreciated that you’re happy, and lots of occasions when you’ve recognised and dealt with negative emotions, that adds up to a significantly happier life.

One final point. Life has many challenges, both in the physical world and in our mental health. There will definitely be times when you feel a negative emotion and it stays with you. If there is an obvious cause in your circumstances for a negative emotion – bereavement, for example – then mindfulness can help a bit, but of course it’s not a magic bullet. If there is no obvious cause for persistent, frequent or long-lasting negative emotions, then, while mindfulness can help, you would be wise to also seek professional support from a counsellor.

 

In the moment – beautiful tulips

How beautiful tulips are, and how diverse! The chaste elegance of pure white, the sombre glow of purple, the flamboyance of scarlet and yellow parrot tulips, all grace borders and vases. In our garden there are some crimson and white blooms that are almost heartbreakingly lovely.

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And they seem to last so well, even as cut flowers. I’m sure they last longer than they used to in my childhood. Human actions have modified tulips dramatically. It’s an intriguing thought that this has been done largely for aesthetic reasons. We have changed the world to indulge our passion for beautiful things.

While we’re thinking about our impact on the world, we could also consider what we eat. Although most of my food is locally sourced, today I will also eat food from Morocco, Kenya and – where do bananas come from anyway?! The greater variety of food means that it is easier to prepare tasty, nutritious meals; but it comes at an environmental cost because the food is transported further.

It’s good to eat tasty, nourishing food. It’s good to plan a garden, to work to achieve harmony of colour and form and scent. It’s good to enjoy the results of that effort.

There is, though, a way that we can enrich our lives and, at the same time, lighten our environmental footprint. We can explore locally sourced food; appreciate seasonal variation in availability. We can be aware, too, of the beauty that is around us all the time, without effort on our part. Bluebells in a wood under the bright new leaves of the trees. Brave scarlet poppies flourishing on a building site for a few short days. The tiny flowers of toadflax clinging tenaciously to dry stone walls.

If we live in the moment, we will see beauty everywhere, perhaps in the sunset, or a cloudscape, or the harmony of a building’s proportions, or in the face of someone dear to us.

Let’s be awake to our surroundings, and open to the possibility of beauty wherever we are!

In the moment – the power of a symbol

Sufferers from anxiety know that the condition can be debilitating. I was in that state some years ago; thankfully I’ve now recovered. In the recovery, I learned a number of mental habits that help me to avoid recurrences; living ‘in the moment’ is one of them; hypnosis for relaxation is another. I recently came across another influence, namely the power of symbols.

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I’ve recently returned from a holiday in Japan. I’ll start this post by confirming what a wonderful holiday it was. It was full of interest, full of beauty, full of emotion. My wife Daphne and I really enjoyed it.

It was a big, important holiday; we cashed in savings to be able to afford it. I was looking forward to it eagerly – but I was also apprehensive, because I am prone to anxiety attacks. They are sometimes very unpleasant, and they’re triggered by stress…

Travel – especially long haul flights – can be stressful. A different culture – and Japanese culture is pretty different from European culture! – can be stressful. Visiting a place where you don’t understand the language can be stressful – and although English is taught to all children in Japan, it’s not widely spoken, and only the most important signs are in English as well as Japanese.

And yet I have returned feeling tranquil, and the feeling has endured. This was sufficiently unexpected that I have tried hard to understand it. I wouldn’t say that I’ve reached any definite conclusions, but here are some of the thoughts.

Before going to Japan, I recognised that I might suffer from anxiety, and I accepted the possibility. I find that acceptance is a big deal. It goes at least halfway towards dealing with anxiety symptoms. I must make a very clear distinction at this point. To accept the possibility that something might happen, is definitely not the same as expecting it to happen. It’s the exact opposite of worrying about something. It’s realising that something may happen, and saying “Yes, I understand that, I accept the possibility. I don’t have to worry about it.”

So I considered in advance what might happen.

The anxiety would be very unpleasant. Could I get through an attack without going home? Yes. Could I get through two attacks without going home? Er, yes, probably. What about repeated attacks? It would spoil the holiday but I’d survive.

What about a worst-case scenario? The worst case would be that I would have repeated anxiety attacks that would leave me feeling so vulnerable that we would have to return home before the end of the tour. It would be a great shame to lose the holiday. It would cost a lot of extra money to change flights for an early return.

I consciously accepted that this could happen, and used my usual hypnotic relaxation regime to put aside any worrying about it.

I’m sure it helped. But I’m equally sure that it’s not the whole story.

Could the tranquillity have arisen as a result of having succeeded in surviving the stress of the holiday? I took on the challenge of a visit that in prospect I found quite intimidating, and came through it unscathed. Was I just feeling relief?

Well, I suppose it’s possible. But the tranquillity seems such an active feeling. I’m a slightly different woman from the one who set off to Japan. I would have expected relief to be a reactive feeling, and to dissipate quickly.

One of the features of the holiday was that we visited some important Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines. Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eight-fold Path, and includes a recognition that human suffering is unavoidable. It also teaches, among many other things, that true happiness can be attained despite human suffering, by relinquishing useless craving and by living in the moment. Surrounded as we were by pilgrims, it seems possible that some of their piety ‘rubbed off’ on me, so to speak.

Beyond any of these possible explanations, though, my emotions tell me that the answer may lie in the symbol of cherry blossom. It was the ‘Cherry Blossom Tour’ that we took, and there were several occasions when the symbolism of the blossom overwhelmed me emotionally. The blossom is beautiful – and transient. But the symbolism goes far beyond the recurrence of beauty in the world despite personal tragedy. I can’t explain it; I had to experience it.

I suspect that Japan has given me a most valuable gift. I’m so glad we took the holiday!

In the moment – driving

“How are we today? Are we happy, relaxed, in good shape?” My boss was full of bonhomie at eight o’clock in the morning.

I shrugged. I had a meeting in Coventry at ten o’clock. There was no time to waste in small talk. I drove onto the ring-road, my mind full of my forthcoming meeting. It was going to be tough, explaining to a customer why we were having difficulty meeting his product specification, and persuading him to change it. Even before the meeting I had eighty miles of rush hour traffic to negotiate in a little under two hours.

A silver Ford pulled out in front of me at a roundabout. I swore, and braked harshly. I was too busy checking the other traffic to extend the middle finger of friendship to the idiot, even though he richly deserved it. Still, it wasn’t too long before I was on the motorway.

I’m a careful driver. I don’t break the speed limit. I was in lane two travelling at seventy when this stupid person in a blue Vauxhall wobbled out of lane one right in front of me. He bumbled along at sixty-five. Lane three was full of traffic, so I couldn’t overtake. I just had to sit there grinding my teeth until he completed overtaking the car transporter and pulled back into lane one.

I reached my customer with five minutes to spare, feeling like I’d already done a day’s work.

I felt that other drivers had driven badly, and maybe they had, but did my anger at this do any good? Even if they’d noticed me, would it have changed the way they drive? Of course it wouldn’t.

Driving becomes a lot less fraught when we realise that we aren’t responsible for the way other people drive. It’s not our job to fix their bad habits. There is absolutely no need at all to become angry, because it won’t get us to our destination any quicker, and it might make us less safe.

Mindfulness can help with this. When we practise mindfulness, we aim to become aware of our emotions as they happen. The first step to avoiding anger is to recognise when we are becoming angry. Being aware of the emotion as it happens gives us the space to say, “I don’t need to be angry,” take a deep breath, and relax.

Mindfulness can help us to be more relaxed when driving. Why not give it a try?

 

 

 

Theatre – Miyako Odori

I fear that you, my gentle readers, are going to feel that I cannot write without the use of superlatives. But it’s that sort of trip; the experiences that we’re having can only be appropriately described by superlatives.

Today we travelled by shinkansen, the bullet train, to Kyoto. It’s a train. It’s very fast. It’s very smooth. No, it no longer deserves superlatives, even though it travels at well over 150 mph, and we haven’t built anything that fast yet in the UK.

The countryside through which we travelled is interesting, but not particularly noteworthy. Think of the foreground being Holland and the background being Switzerland and you’ve about got it.

We ate a really pleasant okonomiyaki this evening, washed down with beer. Superlatives unnecessary.

But this afternoon. This afternoon we went to the Miyako Odori. This is a traditional theatrical art form performed by geisha. It has elements of straight theatre, opera, and ballet; and the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

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I expected to see beauty. I expected to see grace. I expected to be moved emotionally. What I didn’t expect was drama of such intensity that the tears were running down my cheeks. It was a simple story of loss set in the context of the continuity of human life, and performed with a hypnotic focus and skill that was shattering.

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It’s invidious to pick out individuals because it was the effect of every contribution together that made the performance so memorable – but I’m going to do it anyway!

The principal singer was superb. An astonishing voice, and such amazing projection of emotion. The flute soloist accomplished remarkable effects and her intonation was wonderfully precise even when using microtones. The little details were perfect, like the snowflakes in the winter grieving scene, which were small paper discs. When illuminated by warm light in the finale, they were revealed as pink cherry blossom underfoot.

So I have yet another memory that I shall cherish until the end of my life. And if I have time on my deathbed to think of this, I shall remember the cherry blossom and die with a tranquil spirit.

In the moment – Storm at Sea

Sailors in a storm have no choice other than to live in the moment. A brief lapse of attention brings disaster. Most of the time, we don’t need mindfulness to survive. But it is good to practise mindfulness in our daily life; it will always take us towards a place of emotional calm; and one day, when life’s difficulties batter us, it may make all the difference.

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The small boat flees before the wind

As the storm wrestles the ocean into a swell,

Throwing it through darkness across leagues.

Like a puma, a wave advances silently,

Gathers speed,

And flings itself with a roar upon its prey.

The sailors steer direct towards each wave,

Accept the fury and the peril,

Use the water’s strength to lift them clear.

The voice of the murderous surf deafens them.

It bellows of southern tempests where the ocean rears into cliffs

As solid and more perilous than a rock face.

It shouts of the calving of glaciers into the sea,

The surge of the sea when a million tons of ice plunge into it.

It whispers of Krakatoa, and breathes the name of Atlantis.

The small boat reaches harbour.

Behind the breakwater

Vessels great and small

Are safe.

In the moment – a favourite place

When we are ‘in the moment’, we do not worry about what happened in the past, nor dream about what we would like to happen in the future. Instead, we allow ourselves to cherish the experience as it happens. Being in the open air in a beautiful place can help. This poem describes sitting on Dartmoor in summer. Do you have a favourite place?

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The sun is hot on my hair and bare arms.

The granite on which I sit is cool,

Hard, rough and smooth, round and edged.

The turf smells of tea, stewed in the pot.

The sheep smell sharp.

They tear noisily at the grass,

While the song of the skylark is ever fainter and sweeter

As it climbs beyond hearing.

 

 

This moment is perfect

I wrote this poem when I was reminded by fellow blogger Aayush that a moment, once experienced, cannot be changed. It is in that sense, timeless. We can, if we choose, see it as giving some purpose and significance to our own experience. It made a good starting point for a poem about the love I have been privileged to share in my life.

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As we cling to each other in the darkness

I feel with your body and you with mine.

This moment is perfect.

There are no regrets, no hopes, no strivings.

We have accomplished a small part

Of the purpose of the cosmos.

 

We planned a route; we hoped;

And yet we stumbled here by chance.

The stars will splinter and part us,

Confining this perfection we have wrought

To this one instant.

I feel with your body, and you with mine.

This moment is perfect.