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!

There’s something about Japan…

Why did I visit Japan?

I expected to enjoy the food and the scenery; I anticipated seeing cutting-edge technology; I already knew from working with them that I liked Japanese people. The country seemed slightly exotic without being intimidating. A tour of Japan felt like a suitably ‘special’ holiday to mark my retirement, especially as we chose the cherry blossom tour which takes place around the time of our wedding anniversary.

Many Japanese celebrate cherry blossom season with a hanami party, which is a picnic under the cherry trees. On day two of the tour, our group was going to enjoy its very own hanami party! Unfortunately, the weather was poor, cold and wet, and we picnicked in the rain. Our tour guide had prepared copies of a traditional Japanese cherry blossom song for us to sing, and provided a recorded accompaniment. We sang it. It all felt a little silly.

Until the next day.

We took a boat trip on the Sumida River, and there, in the background, was the cherry blossom song, ‘Sakura, Sakura’, we had sung the day before. Suddenly, the symbolism of cherry blossom made perfect emotional sense. I don’t think I can explain it; it’s something you need to experience before you can even begin to understand it. It goes way beyond the obvious reading of the transience of beauty.

Then, a few days later, Mount Fuji. What is it about that peak that makes it so potent? I’m not Japanese; it’s not a national icon of mine; and yet seeing it evoked a sense of awe in me. And it wasn’t just my response. We were travelling by bus, and the whole busload of us  gasped (and I really mean that – you could hear the sharp intake of breath) as we first saw the mountain.

Mount Fuji 2 170413

In the afternoon, I walked a short way along the ancient Tokkaido highway, which is planted on either side with 400-year-old cedars. There was one especially majestic tree. I stopped and rested my hand against its trunk. Abruptly I felt…disrespectful. I felt as though it would have been more appropriate to have bowed to the tree.

The next day we saw the Miyako Odori. I have rarely watched a performance of such intensity. I understand some of the theatrical devices that made it so powerful, but there’s more to it than that. Once again, it leads back to cherry blossom, the exquisite beauty of the world that humans are privileged to share for a short period.

Miyajima 170413

This holiday has changed me. A small part of that change is that I feel more tranquil. I haven’t changed my religious belief; I’m certainly not a Shintoist, or an animist; but I’ve experienced emotional responses that go beyond my ability to understand or describe them more than superficially. I’m glad of those experiences; I’m the richer for them.

It was a good holiday. Thank you, Japan!

Mount Fuji – a Japanese icon

The coach zigzagged its way up the hill, around a seemingly endless sequence of horseshoe bends. The scenery was pleasant but not startling, mountain scenery that you can enjoy in many places, steep slopes, evergreen trees and a few inches depth of unmelted snow, the last remaining from the winter. We were focussed on the next stage of our trip, which was a ride by cable-car down to a lake.

And then, abruptly, there it was. We gave a collective gasp. It was miles distant, and yet it loomed over us, the perfect volcano, an icon of Japan, Mount Fuji. The upper slopes were thickly snow-covered, gleaming in the sun, dazzling under the almost cloudless cerulean sky. I couldn’t help but feel the power of the symbol.

Hakone Mount Fuji 001 170404

My photographs cannot begin to do justice to the sight; indeed, I hesitate to offer them at all as they fall so far short. My words are no better.

Hakone Mount Fuji 002 170404

The Japanese feel a great sense of pride in the beauty and majesty of Mount Fuji, and that is as it should be. However, national symbols come with dangers. Think of the American flag, the singing of Jerusalem at the Last Night of the Proms. Because they cause men to come together with a sense of national pride, they can be used by unscrupulous politicians to set us against each other.

Today I sat in a coach with Japanese people, and shared their awe and delight in the might of Mount Fuji. As a human being, I am one with them, they are my brothers and sisters, just as Americans are, or Australian aboriginals, or continental Europeans. I must not, I will not, allow myself ever to be distracted or led away from that profound truth.