Friday, March 31, 2017

The Anatomy of Loneliness

Don't you get lonely?" someone recently inquired of my seemingly hermit-like, solo  existence in my small apartment by the beach. "No" - I proclaimed - "there are people who live all around me". 
On a Friday evening such as this one, mentally exhausted from dealing with teenagers all day, my retreat into my small alone-space, is a welcome respite. The notion of not having to speak to another soul again (except of my own choosing) for an entire weekend, is a welcome gift. The mental and emotional withdrawal from others, recharges my batteries and renews my energy - but lonely? I wondered.
There is loneliness - and there is being alone. At times I feel classicly "lonely" (not having another person in my immediate vicinity who gives a toss, is in a sense, a loneliness experience); and yet I have felt incredibly lonely in the company of people I know. But chronically lonely?  When I think of what "loneliness" looks, feels and sounds like, I picture sadness, as if the two are synonymous. No - I do not feel sadness at finding myself on my own; I do feel strangely at peace with this quiet, solo existence.
So it is with great pleasure that I announce to the inquiring person that not only was I surrounded by other people living in this huge old mansion-turned-apartments, but I was in fact of the other genre of "loneliness". I was the lonely of "unfrequented, remote, isolated". This, I believe, to be some sort of sub-conscious choice. Perhaps a fear of rejection; perhaps a fear of "getting in the way"; perhaps a long-engrained distrust. So - I therefore am alone; at times transiently lonely for human adult contact and conversation; but mostly lonely because I dwell in my head, in some remote, isolated place. This is what separates me. 
This is what keeps me, alone.


Friday, March 10, 2017

The Mindfulness Buzz-Word

Articles about mindfulness and gratitude have become popular reading fodder for those seeking to clear out some mental clutter, noise and restlessness from their lives. The thing is, these articles all make mindfulness practice sound so easy, when the reality is that it takes consistant practice and daily dedication to implement it successfully into your life. 
One could easily suggest that being "grateful" every day for what life offers and being mindfully engaged in the process of living, should be second nature. It is a compelling reflection on society (possibly more so modern western industrialised society) today, that we are at a point where we must teach people how to undo the damage that needing to "get ahead" has done; that we need to learn mindfulness and gratitude. Wow.
I have been reflecting on this a lot lately. I used to teach Les Mills classes - Body Combat, RPM, Body Pump. All these classes are high energy, full-on, pushing oneself to beaty basey music for an hour. Then along came Body Balance (a "mindfulness" class loosely based on the tenets of Yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates). This class was developed at a time when the trend was high energy group fitness classes - Body Balance was the antithesis to this. It drew a small core of people however, who could see the value in their daily lives. Now - two decades after its introduction, these classes are packed.


My point about mentioning these classes, is that we are taught from a very young age, to push; to achieve highly at school so we can achieve highly at life; to push ourselves physically in sport (the harder the better); to strive; to go, go, go. We get to earn our relaxation time during official public holidays or during our legally prescribed five weeks annual leave a year.
In-between times though, we must push ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally. All of this aimed at the reward of a "chillax" somewhere in the distant future - "I can relax when....." and "things will be better when...." We are taught to always be in pursuit of something. Check out this Alan Watts clip which outlines some of this thought.
We are not taught from an early age about self-care; about how things will only ever be as good as they can be in ANY GIVEN MOMENT. We are not taught to have an awareness of the moment we are in, everything is aimed at projecting us somewhere else - our education system is where this begins. 
I find myself thinking lately about how kids in school could benefit so much from "mindfulness" training as a method of mitigating negative behaviours, rather than punitive guidance after they have somehow messed up. 
I teach at a school where there is compulsory silent reading (yes - of hard copy actual books), for 20 minutes after lunchtime and before the final teaching session of the day. It is compulsory also for every teacher. It has been revolutionary in transforming negative behaviours; it has been transformative for literacy levels within the school, but the biggest benefit I see, is the kids come into last period relaxed and more receptive to learning. One could argue it is a form of mindfulness. Through reading the kids (and teachers) are in the moment - not on some gadget; not stressing about NCEA; not worrying about the coming sports tournament - they are sitting quietly engaged in reading. 
It is a first step towards mindfulness and it is a highly valued part of our school day.

But what of us busy frantic adults?
To be grateful for each small thing and to be mindfully aware and engaged, does indeed take practice. 
It is not as simple as "ten easy steps towards mindfulness" or "best tips on practicing gratitude". When the whole world is telling us to speed up, it seems almost impossible to slow down!
So, for want of yet another set of "how to" advice, here's what I (try to) do to enhance these things in my life.

1. I accept things as they are. "It is what it is". My karate instructor always used to say that, and he was so right. It is what it is.

2. I try to get some form of connection with nature everyday. This usually happens through a beach walk or a bush walk - anywhere away from cars, people, noise. 

3. "When doing dishes, just do dishes". This is another saying gleaned from karate. I always remember it every time I do dishes! It means, just be in the moment and be very aware of what you are doing at that moment.

4. Know that life doesn't owe you a living. 

5. I try to make positives out of my negatives. For example; right now I work part-time, so at the end of the pay fortnight I have very little in my bank account. Rather than thinking "oh my god I have only got $13 in the bank - I'm BROKE"; I think: "I have a roof over my head, I have a car to drive and fuel in the tank, I have food in the fridge, I have clothes and shoes to wear everyday, and, I have $13 in the bank - sweeeeeet". 

6. Lists. I write lists. These things help to sift through the must-do's and to help clarify if it is a must-do or a not-so-vital. A list also names the thing that is on your mind. This creates more space and clarity.

7. Smile at someone. Smiling is an act of being engaged with another person RIGHT THERE IN THAT MOMENT.

8. Get off the device (says she who is on the device a fair bit....). But let me tell you this; the device is a barrier. The device keeps us disconnected (not connected) from our true selves and others. The device lulls us into an altered reality. This is the thing - it is an object into which we project ourselves, taking us away from who we are.  

9. Make time. This is the big one. We are told to rush towards that ever elusive prize of "somewhere in the future where things are awesome", rather than to slow down, look - really look - and engage with the world around us. It could be as simple as sitting somewhere alone, quietly, for five precious minutes.

10. Don't wish for someone else's life. Don't wait for things to be "better in the future". Don't put things off until "the time is right". The time is never right; there is no time like right now here this very present moment. What happened yesterday, last week, last year, five minutes ago, has happened. It will NEVER come back or repeat itself. The future (tomorrow, next week, next year, the next hour) has not happened yet - don't project into it. It may not happen. NOW is what you have. 
This does not mean you shouldn't make plans or have some kind of draft plan for what you would like to have happen in future years, but the realisation must come that this moment now is a pivotal part of that hoped-for future.


One thing I have not discussed here is a personal spiritual belief. I have seen the rise and rise of "mindfulness" as a thing you make time to do. The attitude of mindfulness as a separateness from oneself does not sit well with me. But  I also acknowledge that we need to start somewhere, and makingntime for conscious connected mindfulness may be no different than making time to pray.
This post is aimed at discussing the all-consuming rush that society sucks us into and some simple ways of disconnecting from that and reconnecting with oneself and/or perhaps a spiritual connection. 
I use the term  spiritual very broadly. In New Zealand Maori - Taha Wairua - a deep sense of peace, contentment, well-being and clarity  through a connection to a higher self; or for some this could include a deep religious belief. 
Finding some small sense of clarity and purpose through mindfully going about ones day, could be the start of something wonderful.
So that's it from my limited perspective. There is more I could write but I have two delicious sons I hope to go and meet for coffee. To make that happen I need right now to get out of bed! And on that note - 
check this out!

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Tattoo Taboo

"He's covered in tattoos" she snorted triumphantly, when describing the new partner of a mutual friend. The statement emphasized with a shaking of the head and much eye-rolling, how obviously inappropriate this person was. I wondered how it answered my initial question of her meeting this new person in our mutual friends life - "what's he like?"
 Oh so now I get it - one should be able to make assumptions as to who he is, based on his many tattoos. Ok. Problem solved.
This conversation took place several years ago and it has bugged me ever since. Why is it that a tattoo taboo  exists? The more I looked, the more tattoos I could see. People of all ages and no longer just sailors or military folk, have tattoos.
A friend of mine in USA was talking to me on my recent trip there, about tattoos. He was telling me about how repugnant they were and that people who are tattooed have no self-respect; that they are defacing the human body. Little did he know that under my clothing, I had my own inked skin. I listened as his friends all chimed in about how gang members and prostitutes had tattoos; women certainly should never have them, and generally how ugly they were. 
Sure - I have seen some ugly tattoos, but I think one needs to pause and reflect first before judging, as to the meaning a tattoo might hold for that person; what it signifies; the history behind why it is marking someone's skin, forever. 
Historically, tattoos have been a significant part of many cultures, not just indigenous, but European cultures also.  The tattoo has signified many varying aspects of human life - from tribal rank, to fertility, to being a prisoner, a warrior, a sailor, a samurai ... the tattoo is a living art form, blending colour and creativity into the curves and contours of the human canvas. 
The tattoo is a symbol of empowerment (and yes, I know it has also been used as a mode of oppression); but largely a person makes a decision to permanently ink his or her skin, as an expression of individuality (again, I know tattoos have also been used as a way to identify members of the same group/gang/cult/prison).
Ultimately the experience of being tattooed can be incredibly emancipating - almost rebellious - and will almost certainly remain a talking point.


In 2015 I went to Nepal after the last round of earthquakes. While I was there I obtained two more tattoos. I went into the most modern state-of-the-art tattoo studio I had ever seen (Mohans Tattoo Inn - I highly recommend it).  This is in Thamel, Kathmandu; dirty, dusty, teeming with millions - Kathmandu. The Nepali take their tattooing very seriously and are amongst the worlds best.  Traditional Nepali artworks adorn many Nepali torso and women also - adding permanence to the henna tattoos that most women have. 

I was encouraged by the normalisation of tattoos in Nepal and it struck me about how culturally significant it was, once again causing me to consider why such a strong tattoo taboo exists in European culture.
The old adage that if someone has tattoos they must be untrustworthy, bad, a criminal or somehow less valuable than an un-inked person, is still difficult to dissolve. The tattoo taboo remains and possibly always will.
I came across this YouTube clip recently about the history of tattoos  Check it out (5 minutes long). It is an enlightening look at where the tattoo has come from and perhaps how society could reframe their view of this art form and the people they adorn.