Wobbling backward and forward, as the train bumps along, I watch the world bathed in the light of a late summer evening passes by outside. Illicit tents hidden among trees, people and cows alike entirely nonplussed by our passage, and advertising in garish colours pitched for train users such as myself emblazon slogans across the inside of my skull.
I travel up the West Coast Mainline to Scotland on a fairly regular basis, but there is always a gasp – sometimes internal, sometimes external – that emerges, as the towns subside and make way for the hills and mountains of the Lake District.
The landscape, filled with (almost) every shade of green, grey and brown stretches in every direction, filled with patterns, texture, and shadow as gullies cut into mountains or rocks are exposed. Countless paths entice me to take them, meandering along a river (my preferred direction is upstream – we always know where rivers eventually end up), or hiking up mountains – the upper reaches hidden behind a cloud veil; endless opportunities to explore collapsing shacks, historic buildings, rock formations, and copses.
Standing in the middle of this – surrounded by crickets, stones and sheep (there are always sheep), you are freed from observation, from the constraints of time, from the busy-ness of others. The silence and space to think, feel and observe pull you away from the mundane or day to day, and give you space to work through the big thoughts and focus on what is really important – before returning to daily life refreshed and anew.
Even the act of remembering previous adventures and explorations, while staring from a brightly lit tube out on to these hills, is enough to refresh. It’s enough to make me wonder, every time, how I can return to living in properly rural communities again, in all their breath-taking beauty, isolation, and harshness.
(Part inspired by the train journey up, in part inspired by playful comments made in this article – which part reminded me that while I love exploring cities, it has absolutely nothing on walking in the countryside)
Do I spend too long on a phone? I often wonder this. Building upon January’s goal of meditating more, I wanted to find other ways to be more mindful about how I spend my time – and I know my phone is my biggest time drain.
I decided to give up my privacy temporarily and install Space – an app that keeps an eye on how many times I’m unlocking my phone, on what apps, and creates a summary of how long I’m spending on my device.
The app has a habit of sending you slightly passive aggressive messages – suggesting you step away from your device. Sometimes this is exactly the nudge you need. However, if you are lost, desperately trying to work out where you need to go, and running 20 mins late to a meeting, a message like this is enough to make you want to lob your phone into the nearest bush.
I’ll be honest – the data showed to me horrified me. One day I spent up to 8 hours on my phone – and in the 2 months since putting the app on my phone in Feb and April 4, I spent circa 3.3k minutes on twitter, 2.7k on chrome, and 1.7k on gmail. There was also lots of time spent on Slack and Facebook.
Now there are some reasons behind the data looking like this. On one hand, I use my phone for almost everything. I use it as my map – and travel a lot for work. I use it as my WiFi hotspot when travelling for work – and as I mentioned I travel a lot for work. I also use it for work – and it’s been a busy as hell few months. The app also isn’t great at differentiating between those occasions when you are spending loads of time on a thing, and when you’ve just happened to leave your screen on (even on the home screen) and walked away.
I also happened to fracture my arm during the time in which I was trialling the app. Turns out having little to do than lie around while your arm throbs and stops you doing things like eat and playing computer games really increases your tendency to fritter your days away on social media.
Despite these caveats, the numbers are still much higher than I would like – and I have found that although I struggle to keep within my target number of minutes and unlocks, I am much more mindful about how and when I use my phone (outside of times that I need to for work). The app doesn’t quite create enough nudges to be a really effective way to help me reduce the amount of time on my phone, and has had the major impact of my demanding to use my partners phone to navigate us with when we go exploring together – however as an approach, I love not spending all my time in my phone, and deliberately noticing the world around me a bit more.
Let’s see how the next 2 months go – when I hopefully have fewer fractured arms.
I’d also love to hear if you have any insight or thoughts into how to help step away from your phone a little. Do you have an app that might be better than the one I’m currently using? Or another tip I could try?
This year I made a promise to myself that rather than trying to introduce lots of ways to be a ‘new me’ at one time, each month I’d make either a resolution to try something new or a commitment to break an old habit. While I’m managing the first part of this promise, I’ve failed slightly at the second part – reflecting on each and writing it up. I’m finally prioritising the second part – and this is the first in a series of 12 posts in which I explore this incremental way of trying new ways of being.
Month 1 – Meditation
In January I committed to mediate for roughly 15 mins a day.
I used to mediate a lot – I love the idea of taking time to myself, have always found it beneficial and enjoyable when I do it, but rarely prioritise it. I fell out of the habit the first time when I got a job that requires me to travel a lot and means I rarely have a fixed routine. I fell out of the habit still further when I moved in with my partner. And the final straw has been the fact that I use my ‘pre-work’ time at present mostly for core exercises these days. January was all about forgoing that pre-work physical work out to focus on a mental one instead.
What was it like?
Incredible. It helped me re-find some clarity in my mind.
Somewhere over the last decade or so my brain has gotten much ‘busier’. I’m not always good at working out that something is bothering me, or if I know there are niggles, not always what that ‘something’ is. Meditation really helps with that, and taking the time out to create space for myself helps sharpen the way I think and prioritise issues.
It’s hard sometimes – and the brain is easily side-tracked and sometimes I find the 15 minutes rushes past, and has been absorbed by working through a problem I haven’t managed to put to one side. However, when I managed to pause my thoughts and let myself be, it is glorious and I find myself being much more focussed in most of what I do.
Somehow, I need to make sure I keep this up – and I say that, writing this in March having let my meditation slip over the last few weeks. Part of that is that I’ve been in pain (from a fractured elbow) over the last while- and I’ve always struggled with meditation when I’m injured as I find if I’m not careful the pain can be hard to step back from.
Part of it however is just that fact that I don’t prioritise mediation. Reflecting on it now, a few weeks after I stopped my regular practice, I think that this is partly because I find some of the emotions and feelings surfaced while meditating uncomfortable and difficult to face.
While that makes sense, it’s not where I want to be – so I have to find a way to make it a regular part of my life. A commitment to mediate somehow needs to be built in because if it isn’t – I’ll let it (and the awesome feelings of calm and focus that the practice brings) drift away.
Even writing this has reignited my desire to meditate, so I’m damn well going to commit to doing it 3 times a week, and try and make that work. I’m sure I’ll try to duck out of it – but I hope the realistic time commitment helps me stick to it!
How about you (yes, you who are reading this!)? What experiences of meditation do you have? Do you find yourself sometimes being apprehensive about meditating because of thoughts and feelings that surfaces? And how are you doing on any New Years resolutions you might have made?
I always spend a few days at the end of a year thinking about the books I’ve read, and what I enjoyed and why. This year, I’m going to keep track of the books I’m reading as I go, making much more of an ongoing reflection than previously it has been!
Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie – fast, entertaining read. Not her best, with rather less quirks of Poirot as I would expect (He doesn’t complain much about the heat in the desert and the impact it will have on the ‘little grey cells? Or how the dust will ruin his shoes? Hmmm). Much better than the run I was otherwise going to do…
The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land In Between by Hisham Matar – The very precise writing in this memoir gives a very human and rational (perhaps too rational at times?) insight into experiences faced by those living under Gaddafi. Documenting the author’s journey to learn whether his kidnapped father is dead or alive, allusions to torture, controlled frustration at British politicians, and farcical interactions with Gaddafi’s son feature, with the author trying to come to terms with both the lack of certainty about his father and the fact he doesn’t fully belong in any one country.
13 reasons why by Jay Asher – Really didn’t like this young adult book at all. Tbh, I’m unsure why of my friends recommended it – but wish I could remember who so I ignored their recommendations in future… Tbh, screw anything that ends up broadly glamourising suicide in such a way.
Among the Russians by Colin Thubron – Had higher hopes for this than it ended up delivering. Have really enjoyed lots of Thubron, and a fascination for both what was the USSR and what is now Russia. However, I found the writing a little too heavy at times, and was frustrated that much of this felt a little bit like “An English Man goes abroad and has some thoughts…”, rather than providing a more complete picture of the place and and people.
Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon – Clearly on a bit of a detective theme at present in books. Not sure if it was this translation or the fact it was the first in a series, but wasn’t a big fan. Shall try to find a book from later in series before I give up on Simenon entirely.
Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie – Can’t go wrong with a Ms. Christie novel when feeling slightly rundown and wanting a Friday lazy night read.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Wow. One of those books which suddenly gives you an insight into other ways of being. Wish I had watched it before.
A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear – Anachronistic (language seemed off for the period) and seemed to spend too much time enjoying and showing off knowledge of Cambridge (and yet not bizarrely other arts of the country in which the UK was based).
The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane – This book made this former country bumpkin fall back in love with the countryside again. While not quite being sure of the ‘inner journey’ the author is doing on through this book, the descriptions of the landscapes visited are glorious rich and vivid.
Before She Met Me by Julian Barnes – Ordinarily I love this author, but I couldn’t cope with this book. His way with words kept me reading to the half-way point, but having got just past the 100 page mark I couldn’t cope any longer and skimmed to read the end. Terrible and weird ending, really jarring representation of women, unenjoyable story – it’s a piece of his very early work and it shows. Avoid.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – A book that makes me want to apologise for my ancestors, causes me to curse Christianity as a tool of colonialism, and that I want to hand to everyone who tells me the British Empire was a glorious thing. Jaw dropping, with an outstandingly subtle transistion to the perspective of the District Commissioner.
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng – I never felt a true connection to, or with, any of the characters – although I was fascinated with hints and much that was left under- , or un-, stated: how Yun Ling survived the war, learning about Aritomo. War, colonialism, terrorism, and questions about memory and forgiving/forgetting. All to a gorgeously described backdrop of Malaya – which giving me cause to learn more about the history of this place.
I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti – Someone called it ‘A nightmarish fiarytale’, and that’s a fair summary. The author captured perfectly the feeling of long, sun drenched summers that last forever, and of the battles and disagreements between children. Dark, claustrophobic feelings – and the whole affair is given an additional level of complexity when you realise that one of the village sings Bella Ciao (a song sung by Italian anti-fascists in WW2 – who knew my love of Manu Chao would help me understand a throwaway reference in an Italian book).
Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – 3 stars. I was fascinated by the premise, but found the parallels between the two women too heavy handed to be interesting, with the story feeing more Mills & Boon in places that a Booker Prize winner tends to.
Half a Life-Time Ago by Elizabeth Gaskell – None of the characters are pleasant, yet it’s a reminder of the impact our life choices have upon the shake of our lives, and a reminder to be less stubborn.
Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. If you dig beneath the perhaps hard to parse stream-of consciousness, you find words that are true and honest – ones that I found hard to read, as it brought past times home to me hard. The author can only be a woman who has experienced desperation, anxiety, and depression. It’s sad, hard, uncomfortable reading, but a fascinating book.
I hate this quote. In fact, I dislike a lot of ‘ inspirational’ quotes, and especially those which are found paired with pretentious photos of sunsets, beaches, or people jumping around in odd poses. But this quote in particular seems to be one of those that pops up all over the place, on top of pictures of mountains and difficult terrain.
A lot of my (possibly slightly irrational) hatred for this phrase goes back to a former partner of mine. A fair few years ago I was struggling with some bad mental health problems – the type of anxiety where you can’t even work out what to wear in morning, without melting into a crying wreck and where after trying 5 or 6 different outfits, you’d finally make your way out of the door, 20 minutes late, trying hard to hold your shit together while being certain that what you were wearing was wildly inappropriate, made you look horrendously fat and/or looked terrible. It was bad times to be fair. However, it didn’t seem like anything that new – for as long as I could remember I had been really rather scared of things: being thought of as weird at school, people finding out my family were a bit messed up, and not having enough money to live on when I moved out as a teenager.
My partner at the time was a fan of inspirational quotes. Quotes like “do something every day that scares you”. There were others – one about acceptance, one about letting go – but this is the one that stuck with me, as I lived so much of my life in fear and panic – and it frustrated me that he couldn’t see or quite grasp this, and told me fairly regularly instead that I needed to do things that scared me. He didn’t seem to see that even getting out of bed, and choosing what to eat for breakfast scared me.
Looking back it’s a) really odd to think how long ago that all was now and b) fascinating how far I’ve come, and how much has changed
There was a sudden realisation a few years ago that I had beaten the worst of the anxiety – that I could mostly handle the times I felt panicked, and not let it get the better of me (how this happened is probably a topic for another blog post). Then came a tremendously busy period in my life – a few years containing lots of house moves (including one from Cambridge to Manchester), a move away from freelance work, and then getting engaged.
I’m just settling back down after that intensely busy period, and I’ve just has the realisation of *quite* how far I’ve come and how much things have changed. The goals I’ve set myself for 2017 are things that I could never have imagined myself doing before at all. Fear would have crippled me on even one of them – let alone all. The current list stands at:
Completing a triathlon
Running a half marathon
Taking control of my finances
Starting to learn to play the violin
Curing my arachnophobia
Learning how to record a podcast
These may not sound scary to most people but they very much are scary things for me. I was terrible at P.E at school, and that had basically been the pinnacle of my exercise career. Added to which, during my 20s I started having joint problems – problems that left me reliant on a walking stick at times, and even now can leave me for a week barely able to get up stairs. As for anything to do with money? Well I grew up having none, so adopted an ostrich like approach to anything related to finance.
To some degree – the activities I’m doing this year still scare me. But I can’t get over the difference about how they would have felt a decade ago. And that’s for two key reasons.
Firstly, I’ve dealt with the anxiety. I no longer get the completely crippling, panic inducing anxiety of my past. I’m no longer sobbing about the idea of working out what to do in an evening – not wanting people to hate me for saying no – or completely incapable of dressing myself.
And secondly, life has changed. I’m in a (relatively) stable job that I enjoy, and living with a partner who can help me on the days when my joints decide they aren’t going to work, and who is willing to stand next to me while I try to get close to a spider (that in my mind is obviously going to jump up and kill me).
As such I’m now in place where I can try things that are harder. Like trying to run 20-odd km, or trying to cycle on the road (where else am I going to get the triathlon practice?), or turn up at my new violin teachers house and accept that I know nothing and will look and sound like an idiot at first (and yes, if I had told 16 year old me that in a decade and a bit I was going to be trying to do a triathlon and learning to play the violin I’d have laughed at how middle class I was going to become).
And the thing I find most interesting? The realisation that what I feel now is much more aligned with the ideas of ‘feeling the fear’ that many comfortable and well-to-do types have – often those who tell you to ‘do something every day that scares you’, or to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.
There really are many different ‘levels’ of feeling terrified of doing a thing, and you still are scared trying new things – but the fear is different. For instance, I still get a bit concerned before a long and difficult run – because I don’t know what will happen the other side. My body may seize up and I may struggle for a few days. But I no longer work in bars or as a shelf stacker, so if I’m physically less able for a few days, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not going to risk impacting my ability to earn enough money for rent or food. If I mess up when I try to make a podcast – its not going to be the end of the world. People (for the most part) won’t suddenly think far less of me.
Feeling this different type of fear –the type of scared where you force yourself into doing things that are hard for fun or for a challenge is something that comes with comfort. You have to not be draining yourself emotionally with worry about whether you’ll have enough money to make your next rent payment, knowing that your health is in reasonable shape – be that mental or physical – is hugely helpful (or in my case, knowing I don’t have to rely upon my body for my job any more), and knowing that partners, friends, family, and bosses will be understanding if there are any problems is beneficial also.
I feel very lucky to now be able to do things that I considered impossible years ago. I’m just mind blown to find myself in a place where they are far easier to do than even the basics were a few years ago.
(I wish I had a list of good resources for anyone who comes to this blog post and who is experiencing anxiety or struggling, but sadly I never found any. It would be great if people could post any good resources they know about in the comments section)