Lockdown 2020

Written after several months at home

For decades I’ve run from

this raging mind, whose

intensity had the propensity

to erupt and destroy.

I fell in love and weathered

birthing, mothering, teaching,

trying, training, attaining, whilst

battling my long-suffering body.

Confined with my mind,

now there’s nowhere to hide.

Uncertainty cannot be boxed

or resolved, so I sit with the

thunder, wait for the calm, and

finally breathe in time.

My self, your self, our selves.

The fragmented beauty of the inner world.

The part of the mind that Freud described as ‘the ego’ can be described as ‘I’ – the part of the personality that we think of as ‘ourselves’ and that needs to arbitrate between our drives, passions and desires and the internalised constraints of the society within which we live and work. We all know the struggle of wanting to do something, like punching some work colleague smack in the mouth, and suppressing it, only to stick a middle finger up at an impatient driver. The id and the superego are easy enough to define: one wants sugar all day and the other wants us to be disciplined and well-behaved. For those in committed partnerships, one imagines random strangers getting naked and the other reminds us to behave like a civilised adult.

Photo by Merlin Lightpainting on Pexels.com

However, it’s the ‘I’ that I’m concerned with. What is the ‘self’? Some say it’s a construct, always changing, thought up by the imagination – a construct that exists within the particular cultural and social context of each individual. The ‘self’ might be ‘kind’ or ‘generous’, ‘passionate’ or ‘brave’. The ‘self’ might simply be described as a character that we have assigned to ourselves and thus ‘self-esteem’ relates to how that perception is created. Therefore it can change with focused work in this area of linguistic description.

I don’t think the ‘self’ is exactly this simple a construct. I think it’s the part of our brain that experiences the world, and interprets each and every experience that confronts it, in a way that works for the individual. When, for example, I stand in front of a crowd and am asked to speak, my ‘self’ is the fragile hologram shaped by a combination of abject fear and the requirement to present myself as confident, articulate and knowledgeable. My ‘self’, therefore, is the receptor of a bombardment of emotional, sensory and intellectual stimulation, required in each given moment to interpret these and respond in a way that doesn’t shatter me in a hundred different ways. As people, we are exposed to dangers, both real and perceived, on a minute by minute basis, and our ‘selves’ have to negotiate these in a delicate balance of inner and outer worlds.

Our ‘selves’ therefore are amazing, intricate marvels of evolutionary development. But how do most of us face each moment and its infinity of stimuli? There are a gazillion answers to this but I suspect that lots of us use a variety of defensive techniques. Humour is one of them. Intellectualisation is another. How many of us show our ‘selves’? How many of us even know our ‘selves’?

I believe that we are drawn to those who feel intensely. It’s surely why we love animals. They do not hide behind humour or intellect but demand love and attention. Anyone who sees the bliss in a dog greeting its owner, the complete abandonment of joy and adoration, smiles in recognition of its purity. When we see a scared cat, revealing its fear in a cowering posture, seeking to make itself as small as possible, we feel a sense of love for the helpless creature. Children and babies captivate us with their emotional transparency. When they’re sad, their lips shoot out and when they’re happy they jump and hug themselves. I’m not sure what to say about people who don’t feel these reactions, other than that I pity them because anyone who doesn’t like animals or children has really just lost at life already!

At times of emotional need in my life I have attracted people who want to defend me. Open and obvious vulnerability brings attention as does passion, excitement, happiness and enthusiasm. It’s fine to be a closed book – if we want to live a lonely life. If we want to be loved, then we need to let at least one person in. Which leads me to connection.

What connects people? Is it inane conversation about the weather, how many kids they’ve got or what their job is? Although these chats can be sociable, enjoyable and engaging, they are precursors to true connection, which only occurs with the sharing of emotion. Not just the re-telling of emotion, but the experience of it. Tears in the eyes, whether of laughter or grief, bring an opportunity for that spark of magic. The re-hashing of emotion isn’t the same; it doesn’t work in words alone. It’s the experience. Being present in the face of genuine emotion is a privilege and a gift. If somebody lets us into their world, they show us who they are on the inside. They show us their ‘selves’. And only in that revelation, can we truly connect.

It is these connections that make us healthy. Knowing that at least one person knows us and has experienced the revealing of our emotions and has our backs makes us live longer. I don’t mind having friends on the fringe, but I want to know people deeply, too. At least a handful is enough for me. Some people need less.

Even outside of my closest friendships, I love to discover what people experience. I remember and treasure heartfelt observations from others. At Newark Toad Rescue, a high-end operation which involves buckets, nets, torches and high-vis jackets, I chat with a woman who obviously loves the warty little creatures as much as I do, for ‘their intrinsic value’ as she put it. This revelation of her inner world and perception, combined with the tenderness with which she places toads into her red bucket, makes me feel connected to her. A child told me recently that his mum makes him happy and I felt warm and fuzzy. Another child started to cry when it was time for us to leave, and his untamed emotion made us all adore him.

Who we all are on the inside is an amazing kaleidoscope of perceptions, memories, images, connections and experiential truth. We all have this treasure trove of worth within. It’s not connected with what we do in my opinion. People do terrible things because the ‘self’ has experienced and interpreted something badly, in a way that doesn’t reflect the society within which they operate. It doesn’t make them fundamentally less worthy. Like the toad, each individual has intrinsic worth.

Psychoanalytic theory believes that anxiety, depression and a host of other mental conditions occur because of an imbalance in the parts of the personality. Superego has a lot to answer for with its internalised shame. The healing of the ego, or ‘I’, is the only way to heal the whole person. It is possible through the formation of a ‘bond of trust’ with another person, who may be a therapist, and the development of health promoting behaviours in daily life. The type of therapy doesn’t matter. It’s the ‘bond of trust’ that creates the healing.

Therapy provides an opportunity for two ‘selves’ to connect in a way that probably doesn’t often occur in daily life, because of time constraints, embarrassment, self-absorption and distraction. As a therapist, I hope I can bring my deepest self, my ‘I’ into the therapy room and meet other ‘I’s, and connect with their experiences, perceptions and emotional lives. The privilege of doing this work is something that fills me with anticipation because it’s real in a way that most of us rarely encounter.

And outside of the therapy room, I want to focus on the fact that it’s this ‘bond of trust’ that promotes healing, no matter what the approach or the technique. I want to focus on that because, in the final analysis, what heals us every time is love. Not the self-seeking, pleasure-grabbing, exoticised type of love that is portrayed in our shallow media, but the sharing, compassionate, powerful acceptance of one another’s deepest selves.

Meditation Mashup

I think it’s safe to say that most of us know that meditating is great. It’s good to temporarily dial down the pace of our thoughts, whether for 10 minutes, half an hour or a few moments. A few deep breaths and a quiet moment of mindful observation is restorative.

A visualisation for regular practice

I am sure we have all read about other evidence based benefits. Lower blood pressure, recovery from stress, lower cortisol, reduced risk of chronic illness, better sleep, changes in the brain and more helpful thought patterns.

There are apps like ‘Calm’ and ‘Headspace’, both of which are fantastic tools for grounding and finding some inner peace over time, when used regularly.

Most proponents of meditation say it’s a daily practice. 10 minutes or 20 minutes a day is ideal. Personally I find even one every few days is good. I get a bit obsessed about streaks and it works for me to be a bit less rigid. Even one a week is good for the head. The most important thing is practising enough, initially, to learn it and train the mind to go into a meditative state, which is so beneficial.

About a year ago i started to look into transcendental meditation but quickly found out that it requires training with a registered TM teacher, for a cost of several hundred pounds. I joined a zoom chat with one in Leicester to find out whether or not I wanted to invest. I decided not. I would be paying for somebody to bestow upon me a sacred mantra which i must never disclose, and then to teach me how to use the mantra to reach my inner calm. I figured that i couod repeat ‘o mani omin a’ or ‘mummbo jummbo’ to myself and find my inner calm whilst keeping my £500.

I don’t subscribe to anything now as I can do my own thing to very good effect. It is a mishmash of mindfulness, a mantra and a visualisation. I’ve attached it as an example. Just write one out, record it and be your own guide. Or feel free to use mine. It works. I can get to my calm place within seconds now, whenever I want to. Very handy pre interviews, public speaking or facing a terrifying person, not that I know any.

And if it doesn’t work for you, or you think I’m batshit crazy, I hope you have a good day anyway and thanks for reading!

Why you should boost your ego.

As I’m training as a counsellor and am currently only a baby at this, with an exam in January, I have spent a fair bit of time pondering what the theory all means.  I don’t mean what it actually says, or even what it means on the surface, I mean – how does it actually help anybody?

Last week we scratched the surface of Freudian theory.  Despite all the problematic elements of the ideas and the person himself, he remains the founder of psychotherapy and his ideas still form the bedrock of more modern interpretations of the ideas.  We went through the idea that the personality is made up of three parts:  the ego, the superego and the id.

I think most people know more or less what these are.  To recap, the id is an inner child with no conscience or awareness of morality, societal norms or acceptable behaviour.  It is the part of the personality that wants everything and gives nothing.  Its only concern is survival and it does not constitute rational thought:  it exists in the subconscious and presents itself as emotions, desires and perceived needs.  The superego is the foil to the id.  It is the part of the personality that cares deeply about morality, society and acceptable behaviour.  It is the part of us that is concerned about fitting in, being liked, looking the way that society expects us to and behaving in ways that will result in positive outcomes.  The ego is the wavering, confused, often weak and sometimes exhausted person in the middle, trying to tread a path that keeps the others happy.  It isn’t moral and it isn’t especially thoughtful.  It just has to make a decision that will make the person feel OK and won’t end in disaster.  I think that about sums it up.

How does this help?  I know that there’s a ton more to psychodynamic theory, but I’m just thinking about this tiny bit.  I like to apply knowledge and ask whether it’s useful, which is why I love Professor Steve Peters’ ‘The Chimp Paradox’.  It’s not only a useful analogy of the brain, but he provides lots of really useful and practical advice about how to manage the chimp and how to become more human. 

As somebody who struggled most of my life with an eating disorder, starting at thirteen with anorexia and then developing binge-eating, then exercise bulimia and a whole host of EDNOS stuff in between, I often try to figure out what was going on in my brain.  I think that in Freudian terms, my obsession with food and eating must have developed in some sort of rebellion to the control and dominance of the church community.  There was no escape from it; we were controlled in every way.  But there were always cakes.  Yummy, sugary, pink French fancies, homemade chocolate tiffin, moist Victoria sponges and of course Mr Kipling varieties every Sunday at home, church, bible class and Tuesday special.  There were sweets, sandwiches, roast dinners, packets of crisps, club biscuits, penguin biscuits, jelly and icecream, crumbles and tarts.  Churches in the 70s were a smorgasbord of culinary delights, and ours was no exception. 

I enjoyed eating so much that, aged 18 months, I snuck into the larder and ate the centre out of every piece of bread in the bread bin.  There’s a photo of this auspicious event.  As a child, I was a big eater and remember the doctor patting my tummy and complimenting me on ‘enjoying my food’.  I guess this eating enjoyment was driven by the id, but then the superego kicked in at the age of 13 when I inadvertently lost some weight on holiday and was told how amazing I looked and how I was slim like my Auntie and pretty now.  All this societal praise and admiration made me determined to lose another half a stone like a good girl and be slim, worthy and more acceptable to everybody.  The great thing about this strategy was that the approval came from everybody and not just the Christians!  School friends, boys, my pervy piano teacher, more boys and everybody in the family and at church.  Nobody ever expressed any concern as I got thinner, developed a thigh gap and became too exhausted to walk up the stairs, never mind bike to my piano lesson. 

I started eating so little that I was starving by the weekend and started bingeing cake.  The id would win at that point – survival instinct – but then by Monday the superego would kick in again and the diet would re-start.

Where was the ego in all this?  I don’t actually think I ever made a decision that was based on anything good for myself.  I was so busy trying to please everybody around me that I didn’t know who I was.  I’d say it wasn’t really until I was 33 at university and achieving 1st class grades at a good university that I began to consider myself as even having a brain and possibly using it from time to time.  I started to reason, to be logical, to apply critical thinking and quickly the whole pack of cards of my internalised belief system came crashing down. 

I have built myself up from scratch and spent considerable time getting to know who I am.  The upshot is that I’m an OK person who likes to learn, read, talk about meaningful issues, have a few good friends, keep to myself a lot, exercise every day in fresh air and is kind, loyal and sensitive.  I’m OK with myself now.  I can spend whole weekends in my own company and look forward to it.  I am friends with myself.  I didn’t know how to do that before and I think it’s that and only that which can drive significant change in life.

When there’s one of the three Freudian components running the show, whether it be the id or the superego, the person is described as ‘neurotic’, which to me just means unhappy and unbalanced in some way.  It might be anxiety, depression, eating disorder, OCD, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or just low-level dissatisfaction.  The ego needs to be in good shape to take charge of our lives.  Here some some of my thoughts about achieving this. 

Get superego into perspective

Getting the personality in good shape might mean burning down traditions, scrapping the status quo and doing whatever it takes to be in the centre of our own lives.  So many of us go through life in servitude to what others think.  Pretty much every woman I know has had ‘mum guilt’.  What?  Has anyone even heard about ‘dad guilt’?  Why do we drive ourselves insane feeling guilty because a) we go to work or b) we don’t?  This is the superego and, really, it can piss right off.    We are here for a reason and it isn’t living a ghost life trying to keep everybody happy.  Instead of saying, ‘I can’t keep everybody happy’, just accept that we can’t do that and get on with doing the best we can to live a meaningful life as best as we can and in a way that works for ourselves and our families.

Be kind to the id

If you’re craving sugar, or finding yourself binge-eating, shopping too much or doing anything that you don’t really want to do and wish you could stop, and your id in running the show, there’s probably a very good reason for that!  Are you living your own life or is superego in charge, shouting expectations at you about how to behave, what to wear, how to change your body, judging your parenting, saying you look tired and should be wearing makeup?  This aspect of the personality is annoying and mostly wrong and inappropriate.  It’s helpful to have superego because she will stop you murdering your child or throwing dinner over your partner when they bring mud in the house.  But mostly I really think she is shouting abuse in an attempt to control what she thinks is dangerous.  It’s wrong!  And if superego is shouting unrealistic things, then id is going to kick off.  Id doesn’t like to be controlled and there will be an outlet somewhere along the line.  The answer to this is to look after yourself.  Properly!  Say ‘no’ to people, practice being honest and setting boundaries and take time to actually have fun and do what you enjoy for once.

Boost your ego

I’ve had therapy and it’s really helpful. Nobody ever told me about the id, ego and superego, but along the way I learned to make good choices and build a solid relationship with me. It’s so worth it for whatever it is that’s making life difficult. Buy less shit and get a course of therapy. Best money ever spent.

Woman in Adultery

Trigger warning: A poem written during a time of despair, this explores themes of religious judgment, condemnation, gender inequity and divine forgiveness. Not a morning cuppa kind of read as it’s visceral and violent.

The inevitable judgment descends.

Voices in the corridor outside.

Her lover melts into the background.

He will never feel the full weight of condemnation,

 an unfettered, liberally raised male.

The door busts open, battered by blood-lust,

hateful hands grasp the soft skin of her upper arms.

Sobbing, she stumbles down the muted hotel corridors.

‘Take her to that Jesus of Nazareth’. 

‘Yeah, he’ll have to condemn her. 

Him with all his forgiveness;

he’ll have to acknowledge The Law.

She’s guilty and she even knows it. 

Look at her, snotting and snivelling’. 

Tart.  Liar.  Bitch. 

She doesn’t know Christ, she’s never known him.

He died the death that we deserve, they said.

Stretched flesh hung in toe-curling agony,

blotched, weeping face like an over-ripe plum,

a scorching suffocation,

solemnly described every Sunday.

‘This is his body, broken for us.’

‘This is his blood, spilled in our stead.’

And now they’re dragging her along the street…..

Dad once said he’d break her neck.

Now they’re going to break her bones.

She’s seen others, floppy limbed,

brains spilling out on the sand.

Smashing tearing chunks of skin and hair,

and after that, the God

who’d turn his face away:

‘Depart from me, I never knew you’.

Waking up cold with sweat,

Stumbling through darkness to the bathroom,

giddy with the magnitude of nothingness.

A doctrine of violence,

of slaughtered firstborn sons, youths killed by bears,

milk-mouthed,  peachy-headed babies

 ripped from their mothers’ breasts

and skewered by marauding warriors at the Lord’s command.

A gaping eternity of flame that tortures but does not consume.

As a child, padding through darkness

 every night to make sure

Mummy and Daddy

hadn’t been Raptured away

in the twinkling of an eye.

What about Christ?

Sitting calmly there in the sand,

he turns  from conversation.

Thrown to the floor she waits,

naked, miniscule.

They tower above her.

She never was the same as them.

Now they’ve got her and they’re

going to do what they should have done

years ago –

bury her to the neck in the sand.

Her head will be tiny and trapped and

unable to twist or turn any more

they will snuff her out,

til all that’s left is a broken skull

and a mess for the vultures to clean up. 

Quite right, too.

Now just a matter of time.

A lifetime.

She hears their voices staccato sharp.

Jesus, drawing in the sand.

The crowd are silenced.

 ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’.

……………………………………………

Too many fuckers forgot.

Teaching, time and money.

An alternative to teacher burnout

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A facebook entitled ‘Exit the Classroom and Thrive’ has in excess of 39,000 members and is growing at a rate of over a thousand members per month. A quick join and visit would reveal scores of distressing stories of stress, overwhelm and leadership bullying. One member revealed that her SLT send out an email every day with a list of who is off sick and how much this costs the school. Others relate, every day, how their job is making them anxious, sick, exhausted, overwhelmed and burned out. The latest craze hitting the news recently is for students to put recordings of teachers on TikTok in order to mock them.

I was a teacher in state secondary schools for fifteen years, starting in 2006 and finishing in July this year. I did experience some of the toxicity that has been related by members of the facebook group, although, at the time, I felt that I could deal with it. My first difficult experience was with a line manager who regularly accused me of missing deadlines and generally not being any good as a second in department. Without any idea what she meant, I asked for examples and she was unable to provide any. She lied about me to a member of SLT, who believed her, and I subsequently got ‘moved sideways’ eventually proving myself and my ability through a different route. Many others in the school experienced her as a bully and her effect on me was terrible. I experienced anxiety so severe that I became dizzy with brain fog whenever she approached me and had panic attacks in the staff toilets.

Later, as I was due to be reviewed for the highest pay scale, UPS3, I and others in the school received a shitty letter in out pigeon holes saying that we weren’t eligible for the pay rise, in my case because some A level results weren’t good enough. With the support of a line manager, I laid out a folder of evidence to the contrary, asked for a meeting and received a pay rise and an apology from the head. The experience, however, seems to be repeating itself in schools across the UK, with far worse outcomes. UPS3 teachers are being observed, put on ‘support plans’, reviewed and criticised regularly and effectively bullied out of the profession. They are taking time off with stress, sitting behind closed curtains, crying daily and questioning what has happened to the profession that they loved and worked all their lives to enhance. This is unfortunately what happens when a government consistently underfunds a profession for more than ten years and SLT are forced to make cuts wherever they can.

For myself, I thought I was OK – that the niggling squirm of anxiety in my stomach, every morning, as I walked to school, was something to observe, using mindfulness techniques, and simply learn to live with. Later, in another school, I thought that some anti-depressants would get me through the first difficult winter, with classes who shouted, rolled about on the floor, threw bottles and covered the ceiling with glue sticks. I thought their behaviour was my fault, my lack of behaviour management skills and my ‘too nice’ personality. My anxiety was confirmed by some other teachers who muttered about the noise the class made, or boasted about how they would never tolerate bad behaviour. This competition is another toxic part of schools. Don’t get me wrong – there were plenty of teachers who supported me until I got control of the situation, but there’s a lot of really nasty, snidy comparison in schools. Why? Because SLT encourage it, with favouritism, special mentions, requests from ‘outstanding’ teachers to lead briefings and training sessions, and ‘support plans’ for teachers who are struggling. They are not supportive, by the way, from what I have heard.

I kept telling myself I was OK even as I started to dream of escape. There were many wonderful things about teaching. The happy look on a student’s face when they grasped a concept, the hilarious comments, the flow of a great lesson and the enriching class discussions that made me feel like punching the air. I would never have stayed for fifteen years had it all been awful. But there’s an 80% rule – if the happiness is less than 80% of the total, then it’s not enough, and mine sat at around 75%, consistently, for years.

Once I had a plan to leave and work as a tutor or a supply teacher whilst looking for other work, I felt the beginnings of an enormous weight lifting from my mind, but I couldn’t explain exactly why. Children’s worsening behaviour was certainly one reason, an arrogant twerp on SLT who visited my form group and hectored me about the fact that a boy was scooting on a wheeled chair (whilst I was listening to a gay student telling me about how he had been the victim of hate speech), and stale, boring schemes of work that made me want to run away from my own lessons. The lack of creativity, autonomy, fun and laughter. Students in rows and seating plans, post Covid, at one point even masked up, led to such apathy and resentment of school that I dreaded going in.

I am now out. I am working for my local council as a one to one special needs tutor. I’ve taken at least £500 a month pay cut, which worried me enormously when I started, but I’m beginning to realise something that I would previously not have dared to dream of. Time away from that environment is slowly cleaning my mind of clutter and worry, washing away my anxiety, smoothing out the furrow in my forehead and gently massaging the knots in my shoulders and back. I have time to walk to the allotment, my work up to date, my time my own, and I owe nothing to anybody. I’m looking forward to Christmas without wondering how I’ll have the time to get everything done. My lack of anxiety makes me feel a bit confuddled. I’m not sure who I am without it. It’s been a constant companion for so long that I am now left with a sense of freedom so huge that I don’t know what to do with it. The fact that I’m happy is difficult to comprehend. Why did I put up with that shit for so long? Security.

Teacher pension, a steady income, holiday pay and the promise of regular work are all the things that keep us stuck in jobs that we don’t even know are strangling us. I have so much compassion for teachers who need every bit of their income to pay the mortgage, bills, children’s clothes, groceries and all the expenses of family life like I did during my time as a single mum. Even with the considerable maintenance money that my ex had to pay, I still needed the regular £2500 a month on UPS3 with a couple of TLRs to be able to have days out, holidays, a car and some savings for birthdays and Christmas. But, for those teachers who want to get out and currently can’t, you can start to do what I did and make a plan. My plan got me through the last four years.

Going part-time is an option. I took a pay cut and went down to £2000 a month working four days a week, which helped a lot. I got my weekends back and got to see my elderly parents once a week. This was my halfway house and also freed up time. My kids had left and become financially independent, so without university costs the pay cut was affordable. There is supply teaching but I think the money is pretty bad. Leaving in July is a good shout because there are six paid weeks to find alternative income. On ‘Exit the Classroom and Thrive’ there are hundreds of suggestions for other jobs that ex-teachers can do. Private tuition is an excellent option as it’s in such demand right now. There’s a video on there entitled ‘The Pit Pony’ where several experienced ex-teachers give excellent advice on how to set up a tutoring business.

My good friend Rachel has also left – we went at the same time. We both experienced considerable worry about how we were going to manage on less income. She is currently working as a private tutor and doing some supply for agencies. She spends less money and more time with her three dogs. She is beginning to trust that she will be OK. My final point is this: time is also a form of income. It’s powerfully enriching, used wisely. It gives benefits that money cannot: mental health, time to exercise, get out in the fresh air, cook healthy meals and talk to your kids.

More time can mean planning a cheaper way of life, seeking out bargains, selling all the crap you don’t use any more and living with less. I know we need money but do we need everything we buy? I’ve pretty much given up regular coffees and that saves £30 a month alone, as well as less paper and plastic waste. There are so many ways to live a meaningful life that don’t involve spending a lot of money. A walk in the park, a telephone call, listening to music at home, having a home spa, podcasts, makeaways, film nights in, taking own food to the cinema, not going to the cinema. The time is so much more valuable, we have only so much of it, and it’s worth spending with intention for the absolute maximum benefits. To all the teachers out there, still plugging away in schools: if you’re happy, that’s great. If you’re not, please do whatever you can to get out. You are worth so much more, and it can definitely be done!

Spirituality

What does it mean to be ‘spiritual’?

For years, I resisted this word, connecting it to religion, man-made (as opposed to woman-made) structures, strictures, boxes, rules and shame. ‘The spiritual man’ is a concept discussed in the bible and many born-again Christians talk about ‘being in the spirit’, or being ‘spirit-led’ and they may be talking about being moved to pray, or heal, or speak in tongues. I was not raised to believe in these modern Pentecostal practices and indeed the brethren church in which I was raised preached that they were actually devilish. So any mention of ‘spirituality’ has previously made me deeply suspicious, deeply sceptical or deeply bored.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

In the brethren, ‘spirituality’ meant MEN praying in deep, monotonous voices: ‘Our Heavenly Father we thank thee today for thy great mercy in giving thine only begotten son for our heinous sins and crimes against thee’, by which time my inner child is screaming to run away and dive into the sea and swim for the nearest ship to take me as far away as possible. And the Pentecostal tongues, happy clapping, dancing, Toronto blessing style of spirituality I find simply baffling. If anything, I put it down to the charismatic nature of a large crowd egging one another on to greater displays of abandonment.

Despite these negative views of spirituality, I have known forever that there is something in me and in others that constitutes a beautiful knowing and wisdom that is beyond logic or explanation. It’s what I felt when I sat in church listening to a compelling preacher and tears came into my eyes when they preached about God’s love and mercy. It was in the power of the words and the power of the love in their hearts, that thrummed in their voices and thrilled even the air. It’s what I felt when I first heard the second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and lay on the floor, unable to move, physically trapped by the mighty power of each unspeakably sad outpouring of Beethoven’s grief-stricken heart. It’s what my brother felt when he was at an abbey on holiday, standing in front of a set of stone steps that were worn by the bare feet of monks, many thousands of monks through the ages who trod those steps in prayer and contemplation and Jon felt that inner knowing and awe that I have come to call spirituality.

I don’t believe in mediums and fraudsters who claim to be in touch with the dead. Having born witness to the great Derren Brown’s ability to ‘read minds’ using trickery, memory and neuro-linguistic programming, I think these people are using the same skill set and conning people ruthlessly and callously. But I was once hosting a German student who had become depressed and increasingly lonely, sitting in her room reading every day and even avoiding her friends. For her 18th birthday, I decided to make her favourite cake and invite some of her college friends over. As I was whisking up the ingredients for a black forest gateau, in my kitchen, alone, thinking of her and her inexplicable sadness, I found myself rooted to the spot, unable to move. A tingling feeling took hold of every atom of my body, tears came into my eyes and I was filled from top to toe with the deepest, most profound love that I have ever experienced. In that moment I knew that her father loved her and was thinking of her and that I should tell her so. I didn’t hear a voice but I experienced a knowing and, when the tingling stopped and I returned to normality, albeit very shaken and confused, I considered how to share this information with her.

The next morning, she emerged from her room for a coffee and some breakfast, and I said I’d like to talk to her about something that she might find confusing and odd, and that my intention was not to upset her. I shared my experience and the feeling that her father wanted her to know how much he loved her and was thinking of her, at which point she broke down in tears and explained that her father had died in a car accident when she was seven. She had been thinking of him for the past few weeks and wishing that he could see her at 18, becoming an adult. I held her as she cried, and witnessed her return to her bubbly self later that night when her friends came for her little party, and I knew that this was a spiritual experience that had nothing to do with church, or religion, or anything man-made of any type. It had never happened before nor since and I do not think of myself as psychic. I believe that something greater than me occurred, that could well be explained by psychology, buried memory or intuition, but the explanation does not matter when the outcome was nothing but pure love and healing.

I used to want to have a set of beliefs that would be unchanging, wise and ever-helpful. I looked to books, programmes, philosophies and theories to try to find them. When I left the brethren there was a gaping empty hole in my way of being because up until then there had been certainty, security, community and structure. Anyone who has left a fundamentalist church will know the aching emptiness that happens when it is gone. It goes far beyond the loss of friends and the community. We were shaped by that religion. It is in our DNA. Without it, we are lost, like de-programmed computers that don’t function properly. But we aren’t computers. We can think outside of the conditioning and brainwashing. We left the fundamentalism because, despite the loving community that it provided, it hurt us and harmed us. I was offended by the shunning of a friend, the demands that my six year old child cover her head and the rigid and often contradictory, cherry-picking interpretation of the Bible. As I completed a literature degree as a mature student, I began to see the Bible as a collection of texts, with fascinating historical contexts, and I began to see the brethren’s insistence on seeing it as one cohesive message from God as an addiction.

Because we aren’t computers, we can re-programme ourselves by learning who we are outside of our conditioning. It’s hard, because it seems like everything. But since I left, over fifteen years ago, I have realised that my deepest self is wise and good. Somebody told me to ‘head for the light’ when I was lost in a bad situation and wildly grabbing for external guidance. When I thought about it, I knew what he meant. The light of intuition, the lodestar of MY truth. These are my truths: life is not fair, we cannot control people and love is the only thing that matters. Love for others and love for ourselves.

My truth actually resonates with what Jesus said, and every other religious leader that ever existed. It’s not the religious leaders that are at fault in this world: it’s the humans that grab it and twist it and make it a tool to control or manipulate. Inside and outside of churches, there are beautiful, wise, loving souls who live in light and love.

When I am digging the allotment and Mr Robin comes and waits for a worm, I feel an inner peace wrought in silence, physical exercise and the energy of nature. When I write, I am lost in the quest to speak truth and bring value to myself and others. When I walk in the mountains or look at the stars, I experience that inner knowing that I have come to call spirituality. I’m not sure what it is that I know. God? Possibly. But I have so many issues with the name ‘God’, infused as it is with patriarchal bollocks.

I know that there is more, so much more, than what we can understand or explain. I know that there is an energy, a lifeforce, a mighty power in every leaf, beetle, cloud and rainbow that we can’t explain or understand. I know that we’re connected to the stars and the cosmos and that a newborn baby carries in its tiny, helpless body and searching, grasping fingers the very essence of the divine love from whence it came. And I know that, when I die, I will return to that divine energy. While we live, we can be spiritual, when we are still for long enough to notice. The fact that it escapes definition and can’t be captured in words matters not; if it could, it would become something else, trapped and limited within the confines of human communication. And it’s so much more than that.

The Art of Failure

Making things better is the mission that drives me. In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.

Making things better is the mission that drives me.  In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.  Relationships, nutrition, work life, home environment, fitness and strength, education and understanding of the world.  It’s not just myself that I try to better: other people and animals are a part of my mission.  In my teaching career, I have strived to provide children with a better understanding of literature and the worlds within the texts that we read.  As a mum, I worked relentlessly to give my children a better childhood than mine, and better opportunities as they grew up.  As a friend and acquaintance, I try to support others to achieve better states of mind and happier lives.   As a vegan, I want to improve animal rights and the environment.   

Alongside these worthy thoughts and dreams, I have become aware of a subtext, born directly from my inner ‘truth’ that I must always get better.  I regularly find myself pestered by thoughts and ruminations about all the times in my life that I have got things wrong, and I haven’t known how to handle the sense of failure.   The list is long and goes back to incidents at school where I made up stories for attention.  ‘My cat has had kittens’, I told the class one afternoon, in circle time.  When a friend turned up at the house, with her mum, to buy one, the truth was revealed.  I’d made it up because I wanted the class to look at me with the ‘oohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ that other children received, with their exciting lives.  I can still feel the shame of that doorstep conversation, with my mortified mum denying the existence of any kittens, and my friend’s accusatory voice.  ‘But Ruth told the whole class!’ she persisted, disappointed and shocked. 

I don’t intend to write a list of my failures here.  The kitten story is difficult enough to confess, even now, although it happened when I was five.  There are many more.  I’ve been bitchy, two-faced, untruthful, cruel, weak and immature.  I have a failed marriage, which still bothers me.  He wasn’t the only one who messed up.  I did, too.  Many, many times.  It’s true that we were never compatible, and something was always off from the get-go, but there were times that I behaved badly and it’s difficult to live with that.

Why is it so difficult to know that I haven’t always been ‘good’?  I guess in my case there is a lot of conditioning behind that.  A Christian girl should be (insert a list of self-sacrificing bullshit).  Raised in a small sect of conservative Christianity, wearing a headscarf in church and being taught that men are leaders and women should submit to their leadership, I knew that I wasn’t supposed to feel, or express, anything challenging.  Taught that self-denial is a virtue, I learned to keep my true self hidden, and I simply behaved ‘well’ and mimicked the words and actions of others, to ensure my own acceptance and safety.  It has always felt like a terrible thing to say, ‘I failed’.  Getting things wrong is not acceptable.  I have tied myself in knots, time after time, trying to convince myself that what I did was understandable, and what I said was actually alright.  Given the circumstances, I couldn’t have done different etc etc.  ‘I failed’ has never been a phrase that I could live with.  It has seemed like a pointing finger – pointing to damnation and self-loathing.  In trying to forgive and accept myself, I have exhausted my frazzled mind attempting to justify and explain away my mistakes and wrongdoings.  When asking myself, ‘Am I a good person?’, I find that the failures make the answer a firm ‘no’.

Until this morning.  As I bumbled about, getting my breakfast and cogitating on the previous few days, analysing everything and anything as usual, something changed in my thinking.  I considered a recent failure, and instead of trying to justify it to myself, I said aloud, ‘I failed’.  The world did not change.  I said it again, with a growing smile: ‘I failed’.  It was strangely freeing and acceptable as I found myself accepting that failure is human.  We can be glorious and we can be diabolical.  I have been glorious and I have been diabolical.  We all fail.  Instead of justifying and explaining, I accepted, this morning, that I sometimes fail, and that’s not great but neither is it a disaster.  It is a fact.  If I wish to forgive myself, I must first acknowledge that I was wrong.  It wasn’t OK.  It was crap.  But that doesn’t make me any worse than the next person.  I’m no better and I’m no worse.  The average person gets many things wrong.  Even the most saintly type has a bad day.  So today I see my failures.  They make me human.  ‘I failed’.  And what?  It would be impossible to stop trying to get things right, to take the better path and to be the kindest version of myself possible every day.  But when I fail, I fail – and from now on, those are the times that I will put my arms around my fragile, failing self and remind myself that forgiveness and compassion are the most important qualities of human kindness, even and especially when it comes to ourselves.

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