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.

Miyajima cherry blossom 170425

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!

A rainy day in Kyoto

This is going to be a miscellaneous collection of thoughts and pictures; a portfolio blog post if you like. That’s what today has been like.

It was a “free” day, when we managed our own activities. Daphne and I decided that we would start by visiting the temple at Fushimi-Inari. We caught the first subway train and arrived at the station where we changed to another line. All well so far. We found the right part of the station for the next change, and, after careful study of the subway map we boarded a train. It wasn’t very full, and we wondered where everybody was. Then we realised that they were all on the adjacent platform piling into a train that was going in the right direction.

We leaped up, sprinted across the platform (insofar as two elderly ladies can sprint!) and just caught the train. The doors closed and we departed. It went straight through the first station – we hardly noticed – and stopped at the second, where we realised what had happened. “I hope it stops at our station,” said Daphne, as the doors closed. I suppose it didn’t actually take us that long to retrace our journey by four stations…

When we finally reached the right place it was raining. Never mind. The temple is renowned for its many torii gates, and they were spectacular, brilliant orange, which in some lights shone golden. They became closer and closer, until it felt like walking inside a great cathedral.

Kyoto torii bright 170408

Above the torii gates, on Mount Inari, we walked through a forest, a mixture of bamboo and cedar. It was wonderfully tranquil. The trees were reddish-purple and green.

Kyoto cedar and bamboo 170408

One final thought on the temple. It seemed to be much more of a working temple. There was worship and meditation taking place.

Kyoto pilgrim 170408

When we returned to the station, we needed the loo. Most stations have European style toilets. Fushimi-Inari station does not. It has Asian squat toilets. I squatted, and then it was time to stand again. My knees and quads told me in no uncertain terms what they thought of that manoeuvre – in fact, I reckon I was lucky to make it without falling over!

We went to the Philosophers’ Walk next, which is a path by a canal whose banks are planted with cherry blossom. It was raining heavily by now, and there were crowds of people being slightly less courteous than they would have been in the sunshine. Still, at least we saw the place, and it is indeed beautiful.

Now we must pack. We’re off to Hiroshima in the morning, to see the Peace Park. That’s a serious business, and I shall blog about it tomorrow.