But I get why it’s important

I get really annoyed when people say “be in the moment”. It’s become such a mantra, it’s like the phrase has lost all meaning entirely. And what if the moment’s boring, or irritating, or painful? Why would I want to be in it?

I mean, I suppose I do actually get it. The times I’ve managed to be fully present, even to unpleasant emotions, I’ve realised it feels MUCH better than running from them.

Feelings pass, but only when we don’t resist them – and fleeing is resisting.

But the mantra makes me feel guilty because I so rarely succeed at it. I tend to jiggle this way and that to escape the discomfort of the moment. Even when I try to allow myself to feel fully, I tend to migrate the emotion quickly into my mind, where I analyse and investigate the feeling into a whole new frenzy.

Take yesterday: I spent the better part of Saturday writing an excruciatingly personal essay about my childhood. Then I posted it and was immediately filled with regret. What if my siblings think that I am co-opting their story? What if my mom reads it? Am I oversharing? I was also feeling rather raw, as dredging up the past is wont to do – raw and sad and somewhat cabin-feverish.

To top it off: On Thursday night I got quite terribly drunk with my neighbours. I live on a small farm and there are about seven houses here; we know each other well and walk back and forth, borrowing spices, returning dog toys. Now, since none of us are leaving the farm anytime soon, we get to visit a bit and get more safe social contact than most people would. At Thursday midnight the great South African lockdown was about to descend for 21 days and of course we all wound up on one porch, dancing to Kings of Leon and drinking too much wine.

I might have offered to guide everybody on the farm through an impromptu 21-day meditation course. Facepalm. I also tried to convert everybody to the joy of magic mushrooms (why do I do this all the time???). And I sang VERY loudly to every song my neighbour was willing to play on the guitar, googling lyrics when I didn’t know them, harmonising at the top of my lungs at every chance I got. I can’t be sure, but I am willing to bet quite a lot of money that I was decidedly off-key.

So on Friday I stayed resolutely in bed. My dog, Waldo, kept checking in on me, poking his head gingerly through the door, but I was having none of it – no walkies today. I tried to work remotely (life goes on), but mainly I ate popcorn and watched Netflix the entire day long, trying to distract myself from the embarrassing memories.

But yesterday I had no more excuses. After putting up my newest post, I had to return my neighbour’s jacket which I’d somehow managed to stumble home in on Thursday. He looked abashed. Oh God, did I flirt with him? That would be so like me. Please tell me I didn’t flirt with him – I really like his girlfriend and also, I am not even a little bit interested in him. Did I flirt with anybody else perhaps? I clearly remember telling another neighbour that I’d missed his face – would he have taken that as a come-on?

Haaaaaaaaaaaah. This moment is so cringey. I don’t want to be in it.

I think that embarrassment is legitimately the hardest kind of moment to stay present to – except perhaps for shame. And so I find myself, over and over again, trying to distract myself from my thoughts. Aargh, I think my sister might be angry at me. Okay, new thought. New series on Netflix! …Is my neighbour looking at me weird? No, new thought! What shall I eat?? …Oh fuck, everybody on the farm definitely hates me.

So I did yoga. Yoga with Adriene has a video up, “Yoga for insecurity”, that sounded perfect. I got on the mat. Waldo planted himself in front of me, as he does whenever I try to do some exercise, so I gave in and cuddled him first. I buried my face in his stinky neck – he smells exactly like a sour cloth, one of those you forgot to wring out, because he swims in the swimming pool all the time and never gets a chance to dry. I inhale. This is home.

Acknowledge how you are feeling,” says Adriene. “I feel really shit”, I mumble while in plank. Oh, that works. A little bit. “I’m afraid that nobody’s going to like me anymore”.

Oh! I’m not embarrassed, I’m afraid. It all comes down to fear, doesn’t it? Every time I feel yucky, when I dig down I find fear somewhere in the mix.

Let’s investigate – what does my fear feel like? This time it feels like extreme tightness between my shoulder blades. And like something’s a little bit stuck in my throat.

But you can’t really be in the moment and continue to be afraid, because fear implies thinking about the future.

I realise this with a tiny jolt as I continue dropping into my body and some of my fear dissipates. I’m a little nauseous, I also realise; but that might just be because I’m still in plank. Okay, down to cobra. My back makes a creaky sound. And whoosh, back to downward dog. I hang out there for a bit. My arms ache. This feels present. This feels good.

It’s half a day later. I’m not all better now – but I’m a little better. At least I did some exercise. And I understood something: I’m afraid. So I said to my fear: never mind, you can hang out here for a little bit if you need to. It’s okay, I’m chill.

I AM chill. I check in with my heart: it’s very full. I am loved. I love. I get to breathe this moment out.

Being in the moment is a pain in the arse, but at least a pain in the arse takes your attention off your fears.

When COVID-19 forced me into isolation five days ago, I wondered what effect it would have on my well-being. Would I enjoy this time alone? I was definitely looking forward to it, and initially I was a bit perplexed when people were commenting on social media that their mental health was suffering due to the enforced aloneness. Sleeping late felt luxurious. Doing my work on my own time felt amazing. The silence felt amazing.

And then it didn’t. I live alone, and boy, is this head noisy when it isn’t balanced by other people’s voices. Also, it turns out I’m not very disciplined when nobody’s forcing me to get up. Yesterday I sat around in my dressing gown until 11 a.m., and my dirty dishes have become rather…abundant. I haven’t done any batch cooking like I planned to and instead have been intermittently eating cashews, lots of tomatoes, and ice cream every two hours.

But the worst is the weird angsty feeling creeping up on me.

I have struggled with some anxiety in the past, and that feeling has been gone for long enough that it feels deeply unpleasant to encounter it again. I have this sense of vague foreboding – I don’t want to get in my car because it feels as if something bad is about to happen. I’m a little emotionally off-balance, my movements are sharp and quick, as if I’ve had too much coffee. I imagine that my neighbour is angry at me. (She really might be, she caught me shouting at her dogs who were barking incessantly. There was this deeply awkward moment where I yelled at them furiously to shut up and then realised she had come home early and was standing right there. To explain the awkwardness of this, you need to understand that my neighbour madly deeply loves her dogs. And she thought I loved them too. Also, we live on the same smallholding, we share the same lawn, we even share a wall as our houses are semi-detached. We need to get along. And as it is, that has been challenging because our lifestyles are vastly different. I imagine that she now intensely dislikes me, and it bothers me that this bothers me so much. So I am profoundly overthinking this and wondering how to apologise to an extremely conflict-averse person without making it worse…)

See? I’m anxious.

There have been many good things about the past few days too. I’ve sloooooowly cultivated good habits over the last couple of years and they are standing me in good stead. To some I am now returning with more fervour, others have been there all along. When I emerged from the clinic in 2018 I decided to approach my own well-being differently: I would build manageable small rituals into my life. These rituals would either be things that came naturally, or things I could easily adopt into my life – they would not be turned into chores, I decided, because then I’d quickly abandon them and have one more thing to feel bad about.

Now many of these rituals have become an important part of my life, significant anchors when my heart was buffeted by storms last year. Returning to them has always felt like returning to joy. And even at my lowest points these habits were doable enough that I managed to roughly maintain them. So here’s a list of tiny rituals that I have found useful. I hope that you might too.

  • I make playlists. Two years ago I started amassing songs from wildly different genres into one Spotify playlist, and because the songs had nothing in common except that they made me feel better, I named the playlist “soul food”. It’s now a rambly, rambunctious list with Leonard Cohen, Natasha Bedingfield and Nahko And Medicine For The People sitting uncomfortably next to each other. I have other playlists too, but I listen to this one almost every time I drive to work in the morning., and arrive replenished. Since I’m not driving to work anymore, now I just listen to them when I’m driving aimlessly.
  • Which brings me to the next thing. When I’m feeling jittery, I drive. I try to limit my drives for fuel consumption purposes, but this habit actually started long before self-quarantine did. We have some beautiful winding roads in the area. I put on my playlist du jour and I drive slowly up the winding road. And then I turn around and drive back. Having to focus on the road while singing along very loudly to “So long Marianne” really brings life back into my bones.
  • I walk. I started doing this during one of the million times I quit smoking: I’d feel an itch to smoke and I’d walk instead, to nowhere in particular. Again, I know that I’m fortunate to live in a space that is both open and relatively safe – it’s harder in a city, but it’s worth the effort to find a nature reserve or a beach or a park that allows for walks, especially walks that aren’t headed for somewhere specific.
  • I listen to something nourishing before I go to bed/as I fall asleep. I have had rather severe issues with sleep for most of my life, and none of the recommended relaxation techniques have ever worked. Lights off? Mind on. Then I realised that I quite easily fall asleep if I’m watching a movie or series while allowing my eyes to close – trying to focus on the story prevents my mind from running off. But I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life sleeping next to a blaring laptop and awake to a screen staring at me, so I switched to podcasts. Spotify has this neat option where you can set its sleep timer to turn the app off once the episode is over, instead of running to the next episode and playing through the night. I listen to Tara Brach’s podcast because her voice is soothing and the contents feel healthy for my soul – usually I fall asleep about 15 minutes in, so the next evening I fast-forward to the spot where I fell asleep and listen to the rest. In this way I gradually ingest a whole lot of wisdom, and I fall asleep more easily than I have ever done before. (I don’t listen to her meditations though, only to the full talks, because I don’t want to train myself to fall asleep during meditation.)
  • I listen to podcasts while I cook. (I’ve heard this also works well with audiobooks, but personally I prefer reading over listening to books). I have a list of favourites: “On being with Krista Tippett”, “Poetry unbound”, “The future is beautiful”, “Getting naked with Nate” and “Under the skin with Russel Brand” – and when I’m a little tired of overtly uplifting or deep stuff, I spend an hour laughing to “Wine and crime”. (And I’d love some more recommendations – leave a comment!)
  • I do short sessions of yoga. I’ve always been drawn to yoga, yet every time I’d attend a class I’d leave feeling ugh – I couldn’t do the strength poses, the teacher would keep telling us to push ourselves, my tights made me look like a gangly grasshopper… Then Yoga with Adriene took Youtube by storm and changed my life as well. I started by choosing her shorter videos – nothing longer than 15 minutes. Gradually I worked myself up to longer videos, and now simply moving has come to feel so delicious that I do this every day. I’m often not much aware of my own bodily sensations, and the value of arriving more fully to my body has been tremendous. There are other great embodiment practices as well, or perhaps a simple stretch will do – sometimes I just do a forward fold and hang there, limp, for five minutes while breathing consciously.
  • I meditate, but I do it MY way. For instance, I don’t push myself to meditate every day because then it becomes a duty, a Thing That I Must Do To Be Spiritual, which I think misses the point entirely. This might change in future, but for now, meditation for me looks like this: I sit down and start breathing more deeply. I check in with my body, sometimes for the first time that day. I become aware of some stuff happening – anxiety, perhaps, or sadness, or excitement. Sometimes I lean into that and explore the feeling, sometimes I focus on my breathing instead, depending on what feels right. Often I change my position – I might end up lying on my back with my legs up against the wall, or in child’s pose, or I just put my hand on my heart, acknowledging myself. I try to stay in the position I chose for about ten minutes, but if I feel the need to move again, I do so. And sometimes, instead of focusing on my breathing, I listen to the sounds around me. I imagine being really IN the sounds, expanding my ears and my consciousness to envelop everything I can hear, the birds, the far-off cars. Sometimes I talk to the Earth, or to my vague concept of God/Source, or to the part of me that feels like a scared child. The thing is just to sit, and see what comes up, and stick with it for a little bit, without chastising or ignoring any of the information our body is so willing to give us when we listen.
  • When I have a burning or repetitive thought that won’t leave me alone, I record it. It’s faster than writing it down, and it always breaks the obsessional hold that it was gaining over me. Often I talk to somebody specific in these recordings (but I never send them). If I’m struggling to let go of resentment over something somebody did, I tell them about it in detail. I try to get to the heart of what’s really bothering me, as if I’m journaling. And then I let the recording chill on my phone for a few days. When I listen to it again, I realise that I’ve moved on from the issue. I might delete the recording then, or keep it for longer to listen to again. This really helps me figure out what’s mine to deal with, and what should actually be discussed between us.
  • This one’s new; I was introduced to it at a discussion session I attended a while back and it really spoke to me: I greet the Earth and the four directions. For this, it’s nice to be barefoot and to be standing outside, somewhere relatively private. I figure out roughly where north is. I pick a plant, or a rock, or a piece of soil, and I greet it silently. Then I turn east (where the sun rises). I acknowledge all the beginnings in my life, the new things that are coming up for me. I turn south. I acknowledge where I came from – my family, my ancestors, my own story. I turn west; I acknowledge the things that are ending for me. I turn north; I acknowledge my own spiritual journey, my intuition and the guidance I am receiving from within and above. I breathe silently for a moment and remember that all things ebb and flow.

The beauty of these tiny rituals is that they bring a small sense of accomplishment, but without much effort. On really tough days, I can list the healthy things I did for myself today: “today I went for a walk, AND I did yoga, AND I sat and breathed quietly for ten minutes – yay me!!” They also become refuges, ways in which to punctuate my days with minutes of peace.

But the important thing is to create one’s own practices. The internet is full of advice on how to live better, more wisely, more efficiently. Taking up too many habits at once, or setting an unattainable goal (‘I’m going to meditate for two hours a day’) only contributes to exhaustion. Starting with one small thing, one thing that resonates, that suits your own style, makes a huge, but gentle, difference.

I dedicate this post to the healthcare workers of the world – without your service we’d be lost.

Last night I feel asleep listening to an episode of a podcast by Tara Brach.  I often do this when my heart and mind need quieting. It calms me profoundly to spend my last waking minutes remembering that this too – the stress and rush of the day – may serve the expansion of my spirit.

Cooped up and cabin feverish, lately at night my mind roams restlessly. I text back and forth with family and friends, re-read my own blog posts and nit-pick any small errors, lumber to the fridge to see what else I might raid from it.

There is a tense hush in the atmosphere. The whole of South Africa seems to be holding its breath as we watch the numbers of Corona cases mount (to date 150, more than double what it was two days ago). Self-isolation is our only line of defence and we are doing it imperfectly at best. Total shutdown seems a terrible option in the face of what seems to many to be only a rumour, an “oh, it wouldn’t happen here”. How do you explain to millions of people that staying home indefinitely, losing the wages that are feeding their entire families, would be better than being infected with this still mainly hearsay virus? As shops close I think of the grim face of the owner of my favourite local café as he sends home his two employees, Tumi and Marbella. They will receive a skeleton wage, but money might run out.

Both my brothers, Benjamin and Zeb, work in the tourist industry and judging by the amount of prank videos they are sending me on Whatsapp, business has come to a grinding halt. One of my sisters, Luna, is alone on the other side of the country – she works for a wildlife rehabilitation centre and they are bracing for the impact this might have on their funding. My other sister, Esther, her husband Wolfgang and their three children live in Rwanda. Their borders are closing tonight. Many of the expats they know are flying home while they still can, but my sister’s household is staying; Esther sends me long flustered voice notes in which I can hear her children running and screaming in the background.

As for my mom – she owns a guesthouse and a bakery. Her guests have all cancelled and the weekly market where she sells her loaves has closed down. After much hurried recalculating, she’s purchased a ticket to Rwanda for today. She wants to come by my house on her way to the airport (we live 300 km apart) to say goodbye; somehow this time feels different from all the other times we’ve parted. I wonder if she should go, I think about the busy airport and its roving germs. But in four days my mom is turning 53 and I think of the joy, the togetherness, she’d have surrounded by her vibrant grandchildren. I’m envious – it’s strange that we live in the same country but that it feels safer for her to go elsewhere.

In the meantime my phone is lighting up in a flurry of texts as my aunt tries to get us all to phone my grandpa.

He’s 90 but he’s refusing to stay at home, even though my cousin offered to do his shopping. As a compromise he’s promised not to go to a restaurant as he usually does on Fridays, shrugging off all other concerns with typical headstrong bonhomie. I catch myself feeling weepy – I’m not ready for my grandpa to get sick. I didn’t answer his last call because I thought I didn’t have the time, and now I wonder whether he knows that I love him. And so I send him a voice note (my grandpa is very much with the times when he wants to be) and when my voice catches I realise the beauty here.

What a great privilege: to love so many people, to be loved by so many. I sit alone in my house with my dog (who can’t believe his luck at my continued presence) and yet I am utterly rooted in a sense of belonging. My heart aches deeply when I think of South Africa. We have roughly three million citizens with untreated AIDS, many more with active TB, so many sick or old or immunocompromised. We do not have the capacity to weather a full-flung pandemic – if Italy didn’t have enough respirators, we don’t stand a chance. Suggesting good handwashing practices and self-isolation to people without running water or a house of their own is ludicrous. I imagine the impending losses, how powerless we are before the face of this giant, and my heart contracts – and expands.

This is what compassion feels like: a deep ache. Something larger than myself moves in my chest and I feel heavy with wonder. There is no room for superficial optimism in this vastness, only for grief, and for gratitude. It is my honour to stand and witness the joys and the suffering of the world. Where I can reach out, where I can provide support, I will do so from a place of being profoundly humbled by this Earth and by the life she brings forth. This life carries all the meaning I could ever ask for.

In her podcast Tara Brach speaks about the prayer of the Bodhisattva: “may this serve the awakening of compassion”. Awakening feels uncomfortable. We become aware of aches and irritations and of the fleetingness of life. But it also feels beautiful.

Our individual and collective stories hold the breath of something sacred within them, flawed as we are, tired as we are. This life, these stories: this is what I will continue showing up for.

I love you, world. I’m sending you a flower from my garden. May this time serve the awakening of our compassion.  

I live in the Boland, the mountainous winelands to the north-east of Cape Town. In a good winter here it rains almost continuously, enveloping the region in a blanket of dampness reminiscent of European autumns. In summer the heat can be stifling, relieved only by the great gusts of the south-easterly wind we also call the Cape Doctor. Everything smells of fynbos and the mountains go hazy in the strong afternoon light; roads shimmer and somewhere a bush fire is blazing its way up a hill.

And then we have autumn.

Autumn makes me want to weep. The wind carries an indefinable crispness, foretelling the cold to come, while also laden with the last scents of summer: the mustiness of grapes, drying scrubland, stone. The harshness of summer mellows into long mornings of shimmering sunlight. From my home I can hear tractors driving up and down, carrying the late harvest grapes to their destination.

Even my Labrador, Waldo, sleeps later into the mornings, and now that I am working from home, I wake up in my own time to a chorus of guinea fowl occasionally interrupted by the haunting cry of a fish eagle.

Autumn is the season of mangoes, of gradual ripening and voluptuous eating. In my garden only the hardy plants still bloom – the rosemary, the scarlet geraniums hanging from their baskets. It is a time of stillness, this year much intensified by the spectre of COVID-19 gathering us each into our own homes.

This morning I took Waldo for a walk and no car passed us on the road, only cyclists.

They say that humans too have seasons. Some seasons seem to last for ever, just like a Boland summer lingers interminably, but then one day you wake up and realise with surprise that something has indeed shifted. The air is softer, somehow.

I wrote earlier about feeling beckoned to sit with and accept my deepest aches.

The thing is that you can’t force acceptance. You can only hang out with your pain as well as you can.

You show up. Perhaps that means crying. Perhaps that means feeling generally ugh and uneasy without judging or shooing the feeling away. Perhaps that means washing three dishes and celebrating this tiny accomplishment. Sometimes you distract yourself with other stuff, because you catch yourself spiralling into thoughts that aren’t useful, and that’s okay.

To me acceptance these days has often meant feeling achingly lonely, and sort of…leaning into that. Not in a self-pitying kind of way (although I think it’s very useful to acknowledge sadness without ‘positive thinking’ it away), just in a calm way. Oh, I feel bereft. Oh wow, my heart really yearns for connectedness. This feels…heavy. My chest feels heavy. The back of my neck feels tight. I feel small and tired and I want to be comforted. And then sometimes I hug myself, laughing a little bit because it feels so silly. But I am reminded that I’ve got my own back.

Building practices into my life that allow the realisation of fear or sadness or aloneness to arise naturally has been really useful. I don’t meditate every night, but when I do it often ends up completely different from the quiet mindfulness practice I’d envisioned. I sit down on my blanket. I greet all the feelings in my body and start breathing more fully. And then anxiety, or loss, come knocking. “I hurt”, my gut whispers. I’ve learned to listen to that, instead of forcing my mind to clear and rise above the painful sensations, and so I respond:

“Why do you hurt?” I ask my gut.

“Wrong question”, answers my stomach. I sit quietly.

I hurt”, whispers my gut again. “It’s right here under my rib cage, a heavy tense emptiness.”

I’m sorry that you hurt”, I whisper back. “What might make it better?”

“Lean forward. Do a child’s pose.”

I lean forward, knees splayed wide under me, chest against the floor. It’s nice down here. My blanket smells of washing powder and slightly of dog. I can hear crickets and Waldo snoring in the lounge.

I breathe. The emptiness is still in my stomach but the ground is holding me. Slowly in the silence my own presence unfurls.