A yoga mala prayer

And just like that, it’s all over – 200 hours of yoga teacher training completed and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. It is over and we, who came together from all over the world – Australia, Canada, Hungry, Spain, Finland, UK… – will go our separate ways again, some travelling together, new friendships having been formed and to remain for a lifetime, others to return to their normal lives, touched by but not attached to those they met. For me it is like this. We came together as separate beings united by a single purpose – so many beads on a chain – and as that chain dissolves once more, returning to formlessness as yoga teaches us all things must, I make a prayer. A prayer of thanks to each and every bead in that chain. Some may have stood out for me more than others, but all were important – all unique – and I am grateful to each and every one.

*

At 5:30am yesterday morning, I got up and walked down the beach to the shala for the last time. The sun was rising behind the palm trees as I arrived at the shala for the practicum and fire ceremony, found as usual only one person other there. For some reason she has always been one of the first to arrive. I have often wondered why and have, over the weeks, been drawn to her, sensing her openness to the fearful process of stripping away that asana and meditation works and witnessing her appreciation, her transformation as she truly allowed herself to surrender – more perhaps than most – and as a result getting all the most out of the experience.

It is funny, but somehow, despite all the sun and tanning, her complexion has grown more transparent over the weeks - paler in a way, but not a bad way. Slightly vulnerable perhaps, but in a new-born baby way. Fresh, revitalised, renewed. The light when it shines shines bright, right from and through her. It is as if her outer-most layer has been erased away and there is only the prettiest, most delicate film of ‘self’ left. I feel honoured to have been a witness to this. Truly humble and in love – with the power of yoga, with the strength of this woman’s spirit, her honesty. She has truly been an outstanding jewel in the chain.

But perhaps what I see in this one person is true of us all when you look closely. I think we all feel it, even if it is not visible to others on the outside. Yoga has polished and refined us. Asana has stripped and sweated away toxins, baggage and left only what is most pure behind. Meditation too, chanting and pranayama has taken us closer to our true selves: our quietest breath and most sonorous inner voices, the loving OM that emanates from the heart, not the chitter chatter that waylays and distracts us, sending us sometimes to near panicked distraction. Yoga has touched us all, and I have been touched by all.

From Laura, I have seen how wonderful it would be to be a mum and share your life with a natural born yogi, a carefree and inhibited being who has brought more joy and insight to me than most of the very wonderful, experienced and adept teachers on our course. From Claire, to how to be direct and assertive with a big smile, a lot of grace, good humour and generosity towards others; to look outside of yourself and give support and constructive criticism to others, using the benefit of your intelligence to value and recognise the gifts of others.

From so many of the beautiful women – too many to mention by name – I have observed what it is to be graceful, feminine, soft and strong all at the same time. To be calm and quiet in spirit and still have endless joy and energy for life. To have a zest, a passion that is unsuppressible, insurpassible, boundless. To make friends with everyone you meet – man, elephant and child – and yet remain centred and true. Truly your own. How too to have hidden talents, hidden depths, and yet let them come to the surface and shine – to sing!

To burst free with laughter, yet speak slowly softly with forethought and intelligence. To measure each word and let nothing of violence be heard, though anger, frustration and pain may linger beneath the surface – a battle with yourself that you will not pass on to others. To have a compassion and care for those around you that is not self-interested, that has no thought of reward for the ego.

To be humble; to know and accept and walk with grace within the limitations and narrow constraints of one’s own body. To have humour, warmth and self-possession, even while you let the tears freely fall, the emotion freely pour out. Not to be a harsh critic of yourself or others, but to give everything a try and revel in your own success and others. “Wonderful!”

To smile quietly and patiently, giving to and caring for others; being tolerant with your own body and sensitive to the weaknesses of others. To truly listen, not to judge first and to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, because at the end of the day “it’s only yoga.”

To use just enough effort and force to stand up, and sit down again. To work slowly at balance – on the mat and in life – allowing yourself the freedom to take a step back so that you may take that step up. And so much more. From learning a love of Savasana to a goddess-like serenity with which to sail through the heat and hassle of the toughest of days, I thank each and every one.

And I could be here all day and still not do justice to all the people who have shared their time and energy, their joy and pain. They each have their own story to tell, and it is not for me to share. I can only tell mine, but I am infinitely grateful to each and every one of them for embarking on this journey and staying the course; for being there from sun up to sun down, from alignment and anatomy through meditation and mysore to yoga nidra and yoga acrobatics. I’m not sure we quite reached Samadhi (there is only so much you can do in 200 hours after all), but we got pretty close. It was certainly joyful and blissful in equal measure. Thank you one and all.

Nameste

How we are hungry

We are all thirsting, hankering, yearning for and craving one thing or another, whether it is time off from work and a holiday in the sun, or a new car to replace the one that keeps breaking down on us, that fabulous pair of shoes you saw in the shop window, or a lover to share our bed, breakfast and idle chatter with. We are all hungering for something. Me? I realise I am hungry simply for food.

This has been the persistent theme of morning meditation and yoga practise. Waking at 5:45 and under instructions not to eat or drink (too much) until breakfast time at 10am, my mind is already by 6:30am trying to figure out what to eat. Whether my tummy is ready for nourishment or not, my mind is moving in those old familiar circles, conjuring up enticing images of banana porridge drizzled with honey, omelettes with raita and roti, toast spread thick with homemade peanut butter and stacks of pancakes running with maple syrup, a pot of steaming hot coffee standing by. But I am meditating, I tell myself, and bring my myself back to the beam of clear white light emanating from the point between my eyebrows, my third eye or ‘ajna’ chakra. Sure enough, within minutes we are back there and with greater interest and attention: should I have the banana soya shake or the mango smoothie? The homemade muesli with nuts and coconut or the fruit salad and yogurt? If I had the muesli with curd then would I still want the shake? And so it goes on until I catch myself and bring my attention back, again and again and again to my third eye, a point of emptiness and peace, momentarily, from these cycles of samskara, the old familiar thought patterns that have become so enmeshed, so entrenched that I cannot distinguish them from myself – so loud and persistent are they that they seem to be all there is, all myself.

But I know this is not true. I am learning (relearning really) slowly that I can turn these thoughts off and when I do….? That is the scary thing, and my mind will try to frighten me that without these same old thoughts I will be lost, I will have nothing, life will be even worse. But, as I say, I know this is not true. I remind myself that without these thoughts I still have my breath, so I tune into this. Ah, that’s nice, a nice soothing sound, a peaceful wordless rhythm. Or is it? No, not much. It is short, choppy. It starts and ends in my chest, around my heart. The months and years of restricted eating and low-weight have put a strain on my internal organs, shrinking them, making them work harder – making my heart beat faster – to stay alive. I focus all my attention, engaging my well-trained stomach muscles and literally forcing the breath to move down deeper into my abdomen, then up into my chest and back down, rolling in and out in a wave-like motion to the sound of the waves on the beach just a hundred metres away. Imagining it massaging me, filling me, expanding me from the inside out, and focus here, inhaling and exhaling until the voices intrude and I am carried away again, bring myself back and start all over.

In the twenty minutes of meditation practise we do (after pranayama) I must gain only about five minutes of respite, of peace and ease. Tranquility. But what is better than that – at least for now – is that I am learning about myself, starting to feel and sense myself, my needs, listen to them, really wake up them in a way I have never had to do before, or at least, not for a long time – possibly the three years since I last dedicated a couple of weeks to just yoga and meditation. And what I am realising is how hungry I am and how long I have been hungry. How long I have been denying myself, ignoring these signals from my body and overriding them with the noisy chatter, the absolute controlling nonsense of my mind.

It came to a head two mornings ago when, after waking up moderately hungry, I finished meditation already totally ready for breakfast. Quick cup of tea? A banana? I don’t really like to eat or drink right before asana; even a cup of masala chai can leave me feeling sickly as we start to inhale rise up, exhale fold forward, jump back, through, up-dog, down-dog for half a dozen rounds of sun salutation. But, trying to be wise, I took the tea and watched hungrily as my friend tucked into her fruit, feeling the the pain and suffering of hunger growing as we began our class and with it the desire to leave.

But it was Joanna’s class, a modified Ashtanga – the idea being to go gentle and easy on yourself, so I made a deal with myself: I’d stay, take it easy and move through the first  half, just give my body a warming up, then I’d leave and do myself the greater kindness of having breakfast. And this is what I did, moving mindfully, feeling my body, feeling my energy low but pacing myself and actually managing to stay until the end, even through the Savasana (ironically, Corpse’s Pose – just about how I felt!) that I thought would be just torture to lie through, the ache of emptiness in the pit of my stomach, the desire for food clawing at my throat. I stayed. Albeit in tears as I realised that the suffering, the hunger I was feeling so acutely that morning, was a hunger I’ve been ignoring for a dozen years; the pain that I was suffering, a pain I’ve been inflicting on myself since I was 17.

As I say, we are all hungry for something. I was, then, at that age, hungry for life, for its opportunities; ambitious for knowledge, for credit, achievement, recognition. But in seeking to gain the world, I paid dearly – with my health, my heart, my soul. I put myself through slow starvation, an act I repeatedly keep coming back to – an old habit, a samskara so powerful and so hard to break.

But I am breaking it. I am literally breaking – breaking my heart, breaking down in meditation and asana, breaking the need to push, push, push myself… And so I am glad I stayed to the end of the practice, the hardest practice (ironically, given how slow and gentle it was) that I, perhaps, have ever done. Because with it this realisation came and promise, once again, never to put myself through such torture, but to start feeding myself body, mind and soul, working on building up the strength of my heart that I may live for and love myself – as well as all those around me. Because, as in meditation this morning when we were asked to look forward, backwards and sideways at all the people in our lives (past present and future), I know there are many people around me that I would wish to share my life with, give my time to and even be a mother to, but until I can sit and breathe easy for myself, I cannot hope to spare a breath – be it a kind word, a smile or a kiss – for all these others. So I am working on my heart, drawing life to it that it may shed life and light back out into the world. And if you wish to help me, join me, I ask you simply to repeat these words:

Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu

May all the beings in the world be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all.

Namaste

To the One

Last weekend I was in Palolem, for my sins – well, actually to visit an old friend who is teaching yoga over there, and after a lovely relaxing brunch in Little World – a hot, sultry tiny garden cafe run by a beautiful and equally hot and sultry couple, I dragged him off around the shops, for his sins, and ended up having my fortune told my an old Indian shopkeeper who was selling me a beautiful embroidered bikini top while my friend, Alan, patiently examined the array of trinkets cluttering the shelves.

“What would I do with these?” he asked pointing to a line of tiny elephants, “bury them” he answered himself – cluttering the shelves. Alan, you see, is renouncing all worldly possessions, including buying new t-shirts to replace the pink sweat-stained ones he’s been living in since I knew him back in Hong Kong; but I was, until Palolem broke me, still somewhat caught up in the excitement of lots of cheap hippy shit, Everywhere! I have since been cured of this, thanks largely to Alan’s example but also to the frustration of having young Indian guys keep trying to sell me the same hideous bikinis to replace the one that keeps getting washed off in the uber-waves. “No offense,” I tell them, “but you really have no idea.” Why won’t they listen? Are they secretly sporting these under their shirts? Somehow I doubt it.

“You have not been in good health lately,” the old Indian man said, “but you are getting stronger.” Humm, not bad, but perhaps self-evident from my slender frame and pale skin -black circles beneath my sunglasses from where I’ve been sleep-deprived by our early morning meditation practice all week. But I listen on; I’m working on my heart chakra after all, trying to keep myself open to every and all experiences and people I encounter.

“How old you?” he asks. “29. You will be married by the time you are 31.” Okay, interesting… “Your boyfriend he is very good man.” I hesitate. “You have boyfriend?” I nod. “What his name?” I tell him. “He is good man. Good family. You will be very happy, healthy. You will have big house. Two children. One girl, one boy. Girl look image of you. Boy him. You will have a big house, and a car -”

I stop him here. I have to. I cannot go along with this. Lovely though it may sound, sweet as he may think he is being in a bid to get another 200 rupees out of me, I am about to have a panic attack! Well, okay, not quite, but this does not sit right. Not only is the person in question no longer my boyfriend after having broken it off with him some three weeks ago, but I cannot and will not give myself over to the fantasy of the ultimate happily-ever-after marriage-plot ending, not with anyone. I’m just not sure I believe in that, not for me. Perhaps I did once upon a time, perhaps there was a time when I longed for it, actively sought to make it a reality, but not anymore.

If I’m wrong and in two years time I find myself married, living in a big house and with two kids and a great car, I’ll happily come back and give him his 200 rupees, but for now I’m jumping in a tuktuk and getting as far away as fast as possible, back to the peace and tranquility of Agonda, back to the beating of the waves against the shoreline that sends shockwaves though my entire body, that unnerves me as much as it thrills me, that beats harder and louder than my heart, shaking my whole being.

Because relationships. What is there to say about relationships? Too much it seems, a subject we cannot stop talking, thinking, obsessing about. Even when we have made the decision to end it, to walk away, we keep looking back over our shoulder, emailing, messaging, regretting….

Me? No, not this time. But perhaps I am different, or my situation is different. Because for the last six months, all I’ve had is email, text message and Skype communication. Words, words, words, as Hamlet famously says. And it is exhausting. Hardly a relationship at all, more a meta-relationship, a conversation about a relationship you wish you were having or once had or hope you will one day have again. Not a relationship, but an attempt not to lose the relationship you had, like two swimmers clinging on to each other to save themselves from drowning. Sweet but sad. Tragic.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t wish to melodramatise. I would wish we could simply be friends. Friends is easy, friends is cool. Like: “How are you?”  “Good, thanks. I ran a marathon today.” “Wow, that’s great. I went the library. The sun was shining.” Easy huh?

But we can’t stop there. Or few of us can. We want more, we want the emotional accompaniment of “I missed you. I wished you were there.” My boyfriend always said “if wishes were fishes we’d all be casting nets.” I never understood what this meant and it infuriated me. I still don’t know that I know. Something about how we’d all like to try and get what we want but we can’t? Yeah, I guess that’s true. But I’m a try-hard. Perhaps that’s part of my problem. I don’t want to just wish for things I can’t have. I either have to try for them or let them go. And that’s what I feel I’ve done: let it go. Not because I don’t care, but because I cannot go on giving my energy to a fantasy.

It all comes back to the yoga, to the need to be present in one’s body and mind, united in time and place (more or less). Lord knows I can daydream and fantasise like the best of them, but for and with myself, and to be able to bring your thoughts back, rein in your daydreams and distinguish them from real life; that seems important, not to be a fish – a wish – on the end of someone else’s line, kept dangling, kept just barely beneath the surface, not free to swim away but not wholly caught or secured either. A half life, half breathing half dying.

It is, I realise, my “fault” for letting this happen. Fault in inverted commas, because that is not really a game we want or need to play. Things happen: we fall in love, we care, we don’t want to hurt anyone (ourselves or the other), we try for things, we hope, we hold on… But at some point we realise we are hurting ourselves more. We are, to put it in the language of yoga, leaking prana – allowing our energy to be misdirected, expending so much time and thought and…well, energy thinking about, worrying about, hoping for, getting angry or frustrated or upset about a situation or a person which/who is not what or how we would like it to be and this brings us pain and suffering. We are trying to change things we cannot change, rather than accepting the situation, the person for what is, who they are and letting it go, making peace with that.

Hence, I let it go and immediately felt the energy shift within me, stir within me, and the realisation – stupid as it may sound – that I was responsible for myself, for my health and for my happiness. Instead of looking to and blaming or lamenting that my relationship, my boyfriend was not supporting me – not there to make me dinner at night when I was sh*t tired, not there to go to the cinema with me when there was a movie I wanted to watch, not here to take a walk in the park with on a Sunday, share a coffee, read the paper and have brunch… Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I felt empowered to wake up and start doing all those things for myself, just as I should have been doing all along. My health and happiness was in my hands and just like that I started to take ownership of it and have been cooking for and feeding myself ever since, with love and kindness and care: true attention to how I feel, what I need right here and now.

I can only hope my partner is doing the same, fulfilling his needs, desires, wants himself, instead of looking to me who, so far away and distant in time and space, caught up in her own issues, cannot give him the love or support he wants. Perhaps, for me, I will never be  in a place to be that person for another, but somehow I hope that is not true and suspect that once I have learnt to love myself, manage my energies and train my mind, love for others – for another – will come, just as it did before when, after a period of yoga and meditation in Bali I met him.

Until then, I stay strong to the belief that “we are on this journey, home to the one” – a one who is not the One of Hollywood movies, but a greater life force, the creator or spirit of us all, and it is not until we find and make peace with that One inside ourselves that we can truly meet with and be happy in the company of another, our other One.

Homage to homah

“You are about to go on a journey. It is a journey through the layers of your own self. It is a journey through your life, through the worlds within and around you. It begins here, in your own body. It begins now, wherever you are. It is your own personal quest. Make yourself comfortable, for the journey is not short. It could take months, years, or lifetimes, but you have already chosen to go. You began long, long ago.” – Opening Meditation

7am this morning found me sitting cross-legged (as I would be for most of the day when not in downward-facing dog, or the shower!) in somewhat of a daze as our new teachers went about the strange and strangely beautiful rites of homah, or fire ceremony.

We’ve always said in our house that there is nothing like a good fire and this was a good fire, one intended to cleanse us of our impurities and align us with the divine powers. Our teachers presided over it, chanting and feeding the dancing flames with what looked like confetti, while all 29 or 30-odd of us new young yogis (some newer and some younger than others, most of us still jet lagged and I for one feeling incredibly in need of coffee and breakfast!) sat in a large semi-circle dressed all in white but for the yellow and red ash on our foreheads – our “third eye”.

But it was magical: the sun slowly coming up at our backs and batheing the shala in golden light, the rhythm Sanskrit incantations, the sense of possibility, of new beginnings. Anything can be offered up to that fire – any impurities, any baggage, any pain, fear, regret – it can all be sacrificed , risked. We do not need it where we’re going.

And as the day went on more and more was offered up, individually and collectively, to that fire –  beginning with our physical selves in anatomy. Going around the circle one by one (a bit like a Yogis Anonymous meeting!), we made our introductions to our teachers and the group: our names, country of origins, injuries, yoga history and current practise, hopes for the future… Everyone of course has their story to tell: from six months doing yoga to nine or ten years; from broken this, fractured that, dodgy something or other to bad, bad, bad…. But there were inspiring stories too of recovery, discover, an easing of or an end to pain, all thanks to yoga; each person realising as the fire grew that they were not alone, that they could also unburden themselves – share – and perhaps, one day, that their current pains, fears, inhibitions, limitations would just be another chapter in their yoga history, a faint scar to a wound they had given themselves permission to heal. For isn’t that after all why we are here? To heal?

So when it was time for me to take centre stage I did what I have been practising in this blog: I got up (and, well, sat down again, cross-legged again of course) in front of everyone and said as honestly and simply as I could “hello, I’m Becky. I’m a yogi and I’m (sometimes) anorexic.” And you know what? It felt good. Good to be able to say it and good to let it go, especially in front of all of these wonderful, beautiful smiling people who, without knowing it, have already just by their health, vitality and openness given me so much new life.

So it’s there in the fire now. It’s gone and I’m free of it. It cannot cause me (nearly so much) pain anymore … at least, not for now, because I know I have these amazing people – this strong, positive collective (and I must say, very female!) energy – with me, on my side, and we are facing our pains together, learning to live with them and (we hope, one day)  without them. The journey starts here, with acceptance and love and forgiveness. Of oneself and each other.  A journey to self discovery in which I could not be in better company.

Nameste

Committed

I began this blog with commitment in mind. Going the distance: in my studies, my relationship, my health…. Well, it seems I am not much good at that. Having lost my health – body and mind to anorexia again, pretty much resigned from the PhD after not even six months and from my long-distance relationship, I could feel something of a failure, a drop-out, a quitter. But forgive me if I do not feel like this.

Commitment: a big word, and one I used to be scared of – especially with another person. The idea that you could or would swear to be together for ever and ever amen used to terrify me, then I meet J and for a while it seemed right. For quite a long time I thought it was what I wanted. Then suddenly – or is it slowly? a slow awakening, a dawning realisation, a waking up to the smell, sound and taste of your relationship as it is now boiling on the stove? Either way, I found I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure – no, I knew – I could not give him what he wanted, and he wasn’t able to give me what I needed. Commitment, security, troops on the ground.

Yet he said he wanted this too, and perhaps he does – did. But when I pointed out that people say all the things he was saying over the phone to me – all those wonderfully romantic declarations of love and fidelity – but in a church, in front of other people and then live together, start a family and live (more or less) happily ever after. Silence. He did not respond. Was I pushing him too hard? Was I expecting and demanding too much? Possibly. Was it even marriage I wanted? No. I wanted us to live together, to be at least in the same country, to be there for each other at the end of a long day and for brunch at the start of a leisurely Sunday. Not to be calling each other from opposite ends of the day, writing letters or sending texts from opposite sides of the globe, because when the chips are down, when family crises come knocking or deadlines are looming, a bunch of flowers isn’t going to resolve what to have for dinner. They are not going to be a shoulder to cry on.

Seeing my mother’s health deteriorating, feeling her helpless and anxious, feeling inadequate, powerless to help her myself, I turned to my father for help. “I wish I could be there for you right now.” Thanks Dad, but wishes only get you so far. Along with my sisters, I wish that my mother had always had someone there to support her, someone that would care for her instead of visa versa, or someone at least who, when she is feeling lost and frightened, could do more than call her up drunk, blaring at her down the phone, demanding attention, taking her energy, draining her self-worth. I wish she’d always known she was worth more than that.

So I had to make a decision: who or what was I committed to? To the hope that, while we are miserable now, we will some day be happy together again? Or to my health and happiness now? I made a decision and – as with the PhD – I chose myself, here and now, or in India, as it maybe, but to myself in India, alone but not alone because with other like-minded people who are all hoping for and seeking the same strength of body and mind, the same ability to stand on your own two feet and shine.

And yes, i grieved for a day for the loss of what was, of what we had. But, having done that six months ago too when I left Hong Kong, I realised that I was done crying and the next day could find myself smiling, freer to look after myself rather than looking to or blaming another for not being there for me, and get on with being here. With being. It’s a cliche, a line from a song, but it’s true: Alone again, naturally. And it’s never felt more natural or more freeing.

Repatriation revisited

Originally posted on Going the distance:

As I prepare to head back off out of England, once again, it seems more than appropriate to take stock and reevaluate the title, purpose and success of this blog. I say, blog, but I mean of course the period of my life captured in this blog: repatriation, reeducation and relationships.

Let’s take Repatriation first.

It’s not the first time I’ve come back home to England from living abroad, nor I hope will it be the last. I still harbour dreams of living and working in France, Italy, Greece or Spain. The latest fantasy oscillates between me on a bicycle riding through Paris on my way to see my editor/agent/publisher and teaching yoga on some olive grove hillstop surrounded by views of the glistening blue sea. Either way, Audrey (the cat)’s nearby and she’s pretty damn happy too. But for now I’m home, and in my experience that’s about as…

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Repatriation revisited

As I prepare to head back off out of England, once again, it seems more than appropriate to take stock and reevaluate the title, purpose and success of this blog. I say, blog, but I mean of course the period of my life captured in this blog: repatriation, reeducation and relationships.

Let’s take Repatriation first.

It’s not the first time I’ve come back home to England from living abroad, nor I hope will it be the last. I still harbour dreams of living and working in France, Italy, Greece or Spain. The latest fantasy oscillates between me on a bicycle riding through Paris on my way to see my editor/agent/publisher and teaching yoga on some olive grove hillstop surrounded by views of the glistening blue sea. Either way, Audrey (the cat)’s nearby and she’s pretty damn happy too. But for now I’m home, and in my experience that’s about as “for good” as it gets, because the last time I came home was for good, as was the time before that…

That time It’d been a long, lonely year in Hong Kong and (just like the first time I was there) I vowed never to do it again. My family were all of the same opinion and even splashed out on a Welcome Home party for me. This was very sweet, but even with their best efforts the only guests they could recruit were their friends and I was left feeling a bit of a lemon, straining like an alien visiting from another planet to follow the conversations and not wishing to bore them with the only subject I had to talk about: the place I had just left. And, if that was not enough, to make the whole situation incongruously worse/better, my older sister had just ‘announced’ she was pregnant but that we weren’t allowed to tell anyone. If we had been allowed, we could’ve turned this failed Welcome Home into a Well Done You’re Preggers party, but instead we had to hide our joy while Anna, very undiplomatically we thought, refused to drink, pretty much giving the game away to all Mum’s wise and suspicious friends. Aiya! It was hard work, and I noticed they did not try to repeat it when i came home this time, even though this time it really is for good. Unless, that is, my fantasies of Paris or Greece come true. And moving to Jersey or a remote Hebridean island wouldn’t count, right?

Okay, so unless that happens, this time it’s for good, and here’s why.

Last time I came back to England, to take up a Master’s at Cambridge, I was in shock: where were the Chinese people? Where was the good Thai food? This milk… it’s fresh? As in, from a cow? Ah, that’s way it tastes so…. real. And this weather? Oh, that’s real too. I see. Interesting…

Culture shock, or rather reverse culture shock. For anyone who doesn’t know, RCS is that thing people who’ve been away living in other countries get where they can’t stop complaining about how bad English weather is, how terrible the transportation system, the price of things extortionate…how nothing ever changes in Englan, no one ever goes anywhere or does anything. How the whole country is f*cked, the culture so close-minded, the food so bland and boring. If you only knew what real Thai food was like, they say, or how the trains run in Japan, or how hard-working and respectful children are in China. Boy, if you’d seen the poverty of India, or the monsoons in the Philippines, then you’d know how lucky you are! England, they say, may be shit but we don’t know we’re born.

Umm, right. Reverse culture shock. Annoying isn’t it? Yeah, well, let’s just say it’s not much fun for the sufferer either. But RCS doesn’t just mean that you pine nostalgically for everything you’ve just left and loathe everything you’ve come home to, nor does it simply mean you don’t have the foggist clue or care for what’s going on in Eastenders. That may be true, but five minutes will probably suffice to get you up to speed. (Look, there’s Stacey Slater, and she’s shouting. Yeah, now you’ve got it.) No, RCS means that the very worries and cares of your nearest and dearest can feel… well, worlds away. For, unlike the characters on Eastenders, real people’s lives really do move on. They change jobs, get new boyfriends, get married to old ones, have kids… Or even if on the outside nothing seems to have changed, how they feel about things (their jobs, their boyfriends, their kids…) does.

Each and every time I’ve come home – even just for a brief visit – I’ve been astounded by how easy it is to pick up with these lovely people I call my family. It’s like slipping on an old pair of gloves: it still fits perfectly! But, wait. Within minutes you realise these aren’t your old gloves at all. Something has happened to them. Someone must’ve borrowed them. There’s a hole here, and look, someone patched that finger back together there. Sure they look good as new, but clearly there’s been a lot of use, wear and tear, good times and bad had with these gloves while you’ve been away, and you missed it all. And just like when I was a kid and one of my sisters borrowed my perfume, scarf, sweater etc, I could even feel jealous that in my absence these gloves had looked better on them… which, if you’re about as lost with that metaphor now as i am, means: I was jealous that they had each other through all those times and I had not. I’d not been there.

But that’s not going to happen this time. The next time one of them splits up with their boyfriend, quits their job or collapses on the kitchen floor at Christmas and has to be airlifted to hospital, I intend to be there. And if nice things happen? Sure, I’ll be there too. Because all the sunshine and mango in Asia can’t make up for the warmth and comfort of home. Sure, the winters here are long, the transport cripplingly expensive and the …. Wait, look, I can’t even think of a third item for my list! Because really, as I was about to argue anyway, there are pros and cons the world over and, creatures of habit, we adapt easily to whatever new environment. Believe me, give it a year – give it six months – and anywhere from the Antarctic to Auschwitz, Guantanamo to Grenada will come to feel like home. Don’t believe me? Think you could never find yourself spending three or four years ex-patria?

Just think about how comfy you make yourself in a hotel room after 24 hours and what a state you end up leaving it in! With the key to the door, your pyjamas laid out on the bed and your toothbrush by the sink, you’ve made yourself at home, and when you leave your bag is always strangely heavier, after all you’ve worn those slippers so you might as well take them, and that soap, well, you’ve unwrapped it too so it’ll only go to waste, and the rest of that packet of biscuits you were saving til later…

Expatriation is just like that: when you first arrive you get to work, unpacking and making yourself at home, opening cupboards, looking into wardrobes, rooting through the goodies in the minibar and surfing the TV channels. Relishing the freshness and newness of everything, you fight any sense of austerity, insecurity and impermanence – the idea of foreignness presented by those whiter than white sheets – by putting your mark on the place, your feet on the bed. For the next however long, this room is yours, this territory your home. Like a cat, you rub your scent on it, take a piss. Ah, Bisto! You’re at home.

Then after a few days, the sense of freshness starts to wear off. No one’s emptied the bins today and that banana peel you put there last night is starting to rot. In fact, your whole wardrobe is soiled and stinky and you start to look forward to emptying it all into the wash, catching up with  friends and family, making tea with fresh milk instead of those annoying little pots of UHT, washing your hair with a conditioner than actually softens it and drying it with a hairdryer that’s not kept in a desk drawer. That’s when it’s time to call the concierge, get them to run up your bill and order you a cab. You’re going back home. Repatriation.

You know that that first pleasurable flush of feeling at coming back home won’t last forever: your own carpet as you run up the stairs won’t always feel like this – at once so new and yet so familiar, that the novelty of running up stairs in a mad dash for the bathroom won’t always feel so good. But for now there is something inexplicably comforting in filling the kettle from your own kitchen tap, opening the door of your own cupboards for that dusty old box of teabags and drinking tea out of your own favourite oversized novelty mug: Number One Teacher/Daughter/Mug. Even giving the cat the stinky scrapings from the tin in the fridge has a satisfaction to it. Because you’re home and there are no words for that.

If I only had three wishes…

“You probably know this already,” my very clever younger sister recently said to me, “but if you want good mental and emotional well being, there are just three things you need.”

I was immediately all ears. I did not already know, but knowing my sister works for a community arts project working with people with social and disability issues (incredibly capable and intelligent, her modesty is always amazing, as is her ability to undervalue herself, like most women I know), I was very keen to find out. What could these wonder drugs be? What three things could I not afford to live without? Money, a good job, and a fast car? No. My laptop, yoga mat and my cat?

As lay back on the floor thinking, she takes a pen and paper and starts drawing. Intrigued, I stop second guessing and sit up to watch. A lesson is about to be given and I better sit up and pay attention.

She draws a circle, then divides it roughly in three, turning the page around for me to see. “This,” she says, pointing to the first segment (it looks like cheese to me, but you can imagine pie or pizza) is love; I nod in agreement. I probably could’ve guessed that. She writes it in the segment. “This,” pointing to the next, “is freedom.” Okay, yes, good, that too…maybe. “And this,” she pauses, knowing I think myself a clever clogs, but I’m drawing a blank. “This is security. When you are young, if you have all of these in equal measure you can pretty much guarantee growing up to be a well-balanced, happy and healthy adult. The love of your parents and friends, the freedom to make mistakes, go your own way, make your own choices…and the security of knowing you are safe, that you will be clothed, fed, provided for.”

So far so very good.

“But,” she continues, “if anyone of these are missing…” She starts drawing again, taking nibbles out of the edge of the segments, “then negative emotions arise. Not enough love you feel loss or rejection, low self-esteem. Not enough freedom, you feel anger and resentment. Not enough security… you feel anxiety.”

Oh, now this was really getting interesting. This could explain a lot, I thought, thinking not only of myself but the friends I knew – my boyfriend…

“Throughout your life,” my sister went on, drawing now a big wobbly line around the circle, turning the wheel into something more resembling an amoeba: one of those wiggly cells we used to draw in biology – “the circle will morph. You won’t necessarily always have these in exact proportion. Sometimes you might be without the love of family or a partner, then you might feel grief or loneliness; or out of work, then you might feel anxiety…”

I was listening to her, for sure; but I was also looking hard at the circle, trying to figure out which of these was me: what was I needing more of, what might I be lacking? What had I always valued above the others? What did I have enough of?

Well, this was a no brainer. It was like looking at one of those tests for colourblindness in which the green dotted number 11 is supposed to stand out from the red dots in the background. Well, I am not colourblind and the numbers were looming all too large to me.

They say that we learn from the best and I guess this is true, because looking at that pizza pie I knew my favourite, biggest slice was Freedom, Choice. Exactly the same as it had been for my mother, escaping the demands of her mother all those years ago; and my father, escaping his. It was the thing I had always craved the most, the thing I valued the most and the thing fortunately I had always had in abundance. From deciding what A-Levels to take, what universities to apply to, what country to live in, what boyfriends to date: the choice was always mine. No anger, no resentment issues for me…. or, okay, only when our dear, overbearing babysitter turned life-long friend and uncle-type figure, offered to kayak to Hong Kong to rescue me. But we all know he’d be late, pack enough to sink the canoe and then probably get lost along the way. Or, if he did make it to HK, be so overwhelmed by the noise, I’d have to rescue him! So, no, few anger issues over lack of freedom for me. Thank you.

But what about love? Ah, that word. It’d been haunting me all week. What was it? What did it mean? I was not sure I knew any longer. I’d always thought love could be as selfish and as selfless as the ocean, or that perhaps it just comes in waves too: an eternally shifting shore. So long as it was, more or less, in balance, it’d be okay. But what if love became too much, asked too much, demanded too much? Was it then still love? I suspected not. But equally, what if love was restrained, distant, cold, uncommunicated? Was that love? Well, from my mother, sisters, friends, I’d never been in short supply. There may be others in my life who could not express it quite so easily, or rein it in when necessary or who simply did not believe in keeping it under wraps, within bounds. For them love was there to be felt, expressed and acted upon in all its big, overflowing romantic gestures. (Including fifty pounds on a bouquet of flowers for the lady at the council, Mr Brady.) But what about myself? Where was my love for myself? When did that go so far astray? It was, certainly the smallest slice of my pie. Maybe I needed to pay more attention to Love?

Then, finally, what about Security? Well, anxiety was certainly something that had been looming large in my life the past six months, something I was starting to feel I knew all about – though, more modestly, I can say I know I have had only a glimpse at its terrifying depths. I’d given up my job of two years, the cherished flat I’d so enjoyed coming home to, the freedom of money in my pocket to spend on whatever I chose, of friends I could spend time with at the drop of a hat and the knowledge that at the end of a busy day my cat would be still there, crying her head off for food, waiting for me to snuggle up in bed with her. So, security, yes. This was the thing I most lacked – the thing I’d given up to move back to England – and the thing that I most craved. It was this, after all, that had had me working all hours in first term, scrimping on my shopping bills, limiting portion sizes and then, of course, becoming severely underweight – a shadow of myself in the ‘hope’ that this shadow would be small enough to survive, to get through life without causing anyone too much trouble, without being too much noticed, cared for or loved by anyone. Not even herself. Or no, only herself. For if she didn’t provide – if she didn’t somehow come up with a plan to save herself who would? Wasn’t she used to being independent and looking after herself by herself? Well, these were the voices, this was the strong, controlling, defiant voice, and it crowded all the more loving ones out.

Well, as my sister said, if you are without anyone of these three things at any time you can fall into ill mental health. My sisters and I – our mother too – were brought up without some of the necessary securities. Unlike our mother, we could not doubt for a moment that ours would always be there for us; but other people…. other men? They did not always seem so dependable, and there were times when we knew we’d have to just make do without them. In fact, things were usually a heck of a lot better when they weren’t around. But little by little, we have learned to let some in. They are a select and gentlemanly bunch; our knights of the long wooden table. Sir Gareth, Sir Andy, Sir Paulus… others have come and gone, some are still on the waiting list, about to be knighted if we think it will not go to or make them lose their heads.

But financial security…? Insecurity, more like. It’s something we know all about and still fear being without. We keep the wolves from our doors as best we can, are generous to a fault when we have it (though not quite as faulty/Fawlty as Good Sir Paul) and generous with each other when they have not. Because, as our mother always said, it’s only money and you can’t take it with you.

So while I may be, for now, without all the security of job and home  I desire, I have the love and freedom of those who give me more safety and comfort than money ever could, and for that I am entirely grateful.

Transformation here I come

The 1st of March, St. David’s Day, how quickly that came around! Only two weeks until India. Only one week since I turned 29, which as anyone new age and hip(py) enough will know is a big year: my Saturn Return. An exciting time. The sun is shining with ever increasingly radiance and warmth, the flowers are coming up in ever more abundant colours and my energy and positivity is picking up too. 

But it has been a busy and tiring time, a battle to stay focused and calm. Last week saw me frantically writing applications and travelling down to London and back for a job interview, running back and forth to the doctors for check-ups and vaccinations, and trying to fit in a bit of much needed yoga practice somewhere in between.

But when I finally got back my application through the online Kryptonfactor-style assault course of “computer says no” late last night, I slumped elated but exhausted in front of Jonathan Creek with a celebratory pot of yogurt and breathed a sigh of relief: February – one of my favourite months – was over, and from now on it’s all eyes on yoga.

For as my flatmate Julia, who is a certified yoga teacher herself, assures me: transformation awaits, and I can start to feel it happening already. The past few months I could’ve chopped a whole mountain of onions with the amount of tears I’ve shed, but now it’s time to go deeper and – now like the onion myself – shed a few of last year’s outer rings. Perhaps it’s the spring and that feeling of wanting to bare your skin to the sun, to feel yourself walking through the parks and gardens a bit lighter, without that duffle coat done up to your ears and your hat pulled down over your eyes.

For it’s been a long, hard winter – not as cruel as previously known: hardly a spot of snow fell from the sky – but a time of stealing oneself nonetheless, of waking up in darkness and coming home in darkness, and I for one am ready to walk with my eyes wide open into the sun and feel it reflecting back out from within.

This is, apparently, the effect of Saturn’s Return: shaking one’s foundations, facing one’s fears, letting go of whatever is not really you. Another chance, a fresh start. I believe in this for I believe in transformation.

I gotta feeling about this…

Instinct: our innate inclination toward a particular behavior (as opposed to a learned response).

Gut feeling, or hunch: a sensation that appears quickly in consciousness (noticeable enough to be acted on if one chooses to) without us being fully aware of the underlying reasons for its occurrence.

Intuition: a process that gives us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and nonconscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reason.

Whether you like to call it instinct or intuition, my gut has been responsible for some of the biggest decisions of my life: applying on a whim, a hope and a prayer to Oxford, moving to Hong Kong, quitting and rejecting more jobs (and money!) than I care to think about, asking out guys, and hiking over mountains to escape natural disaster in deepest India. So far, it’s got me out of trouble about as many times as it’s sent me rushing headlong for it. But is it time to stop listening to my gut, to quit while I’m ahead? Or could it be the best friend, counsellor and careers advisor I’ll ever have?

Me, my gut and I

My gut and I have always had a close relationship. Fear, panic, excitement, nerves: my tummy’s where I feel it. Don’t we all? Those butterflies in your stomach, that churning, lurching, wrenching feeling. Whether it’s love or loathing, our bodies can have a pretty violent reaction, telling us faster than our brains can what we think about something – or someone – and possibly what we should do about it. But do we always listen?

Preparing to go to India last summer in a bid to find the peace I craved, I was reading one of my favourite yoga books – by the aptly (and beautifully alliteratively) named Beryl Bender Birch. Her path to enlightenment was one I very much wanted to share with my boyfriend who, for better or worse was trying to conquer his terror and accompany me on my trip, apparently under the impression that he would worry less about me if he was there just to worry about everything. So wishing to spread the love and light I embarked on relating her tale of a near-drastic encounter in India when, having made friends with a few fellas and been taken for chai, she started to come over a bit funny, hallucinating like, and when Ganesh started to run down the walls she knew – in fact, a voice, very loud and very clear told her – to “Get the hell out!” Out on the street, where they’d been no taxis previously, one suddenly appeared from the darkness and she jumped in just in time, before the guys who had quickly followed her out could stop her.

Well, we’ve all heard horror stories of what can happen to women in India, but here was an inspirational tale about trusting yourself and trusting in something bigger, about being awake to your own inner guide – precisely the point I’d been trying to make to my dear, nervous-wreck of a boyfriend for weeks. The previous story I’d told him about a monk who every night was hit over the head by his master until finally he stayed alert enough to hear the master coming had had some effect. My boyfriend was starting to sit up, take notice and be mindful. But with this latest tale he was suddenly so wide-awake he was actually having a panic attack.

That’s what happens when a scientist and a English major yogi collide; he has to put up with my beliefs in astrology and the efficacy of homeopathy and I have to deal with his lack of faith in …. well, anything that’s not available over the counter or on prescription, i.e. faith and intuition. As a biologist he’s not about to deny me my instincts, and Lord knows I put up with his. His instinct to fear danger and protect me from it, is one that I not only suffer but actively try to allay in him: “Put them away,” I say, “your fears are not needed here.” But intuition…? “Ah, that’s different,” I say. Well, is it?

Magical, mumbo-jumbo or a bridge between our instincts – our gut – and our reason? I’m here to find out.

Thinking not feeling

The war between emotion and reason is age old. Think about it: how many times have you been accused of being “irrational” when you’re merely angry, of having your point of view disregarded because of the vehemency of your expression, your passion? It’s not simply that emotion and reason are considered antithetical, it’s that reason is typically seen as superior to emotion. But are they really that different?

The Stoics are famous for advocating the use of reason to control the passions, which – they argue – if left to their own devices lead us astray. Take Shakespeare’s Othello for example, led astray by his love for Desdemona into jealousy and murder, while in the Roman plays almost the opposite is true: Brutus’ love of Rome is abused. But here we see the Renaissance’s obsession with stoicism, with people nobly falling on their own sword to avoid a worse fate (less of honour and death at the hands of another). Take Portia (Julius Caesar again) as another example and one of my favourite heroines of all time. She is desperate to uncover the source of her husband’s introspection and malaise, trying every which way to persuade him to unburden himself to her. True to his nature as a Roman (and, possibly, a man) he is being stoical, keeping his problems wrapped up in himself, not giving way to emotion. But Portia, true to her nature as a Roman (and a woman – Cato’s daughter no least, as she proudly says), reveals at the end of the scene the stab wound she’s given herself in the thigh – the blood trickling down her leg and the pain she must have been suffering all this way only imaginable. “Can I,” she asks, in a final bid to move Brutus, “bear that with patience and not my husband’s secrets?”

Well, apart from having a lot to tell us about ancient attitudes towards women, the play reveals the high status given in classical times to patient suffering. It was noble, heroic. But not only then. For who, if not Christ – an icon of religious persecution and suffering, dominating art, literature, sacred and secular discourse over the past two thousand years – makes a virtue of turning the other cheek? So, what should we do? Master our emotions and put up with our pain and suffering quietly, like a man. There is certainly something to be said for the power of mind over matter in certain cases. I’d be the first to hold my hand up and testify to this: will power, positive thinking, eye of the tiger…Grr! But then there are times when… Take Christ’s appeal on the cross: “My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” While it may not have made him a man, did it not make him human? Christ’s “Passion” refers, after all, not to his love or emotion as we interpret the word, but to his suffering, and the question is: do you want to be a modern day martyr? Who, in the end, will thank you?

We’ve all seen it, probably even been it: the busy worker bee who never gives into illness but goes straight to the nearest Boots, Watsons or Mannings (depending where in the world you live) and pops pills – decongestants at night, bunger-ups by day, a Vit C for all occasions and a dab of tiger balm just in case – to get them through the long office day. It was a typical scene at my workplaces in Hong Kong: one person coming in red-eyed and coughing fitfully behind a white mask, and slowly as the week progresses that person is joined by their neighbour, then your neighbour, until finally you contract it too and what was once a research department of an international real estate agent now resembles a medical research laboratory for infectious diseases.

Surely much better to do like the Brits and pull a sickie at the first available? Or like the Americans and call upon your constitutional right to duvet days? Or could the West’s lack of stoicism be the reason Asia is leading the way?

Yet stoicism as we’ve been defining it here is only its Mickey Mouse version: a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out, a parody of what true Hellenistic and Roman Stoic philosophy advocated. For as Martha Nussbaum writes in The Therapy of Desirethe Stoics’ bold claim was for the emotions as judgements – complex forms of cognition – about whether an object in the world poses good or ill to ourselves. Think about and it makes perfect sense. Why do you feel fear? Because you value your life and something appears to be endangering or threatening that. Why do you feel pleasure or love? Because something or someone is enhancing the quality of your life. It can be experienced in animals, when they cower from a raised hand, wag their tails at the sign of walkies, purr or roll over when we pet them…

Their emotional responses are linked to thoughts – the recognition – of what will enhance or endanger their wellbeing. And we are little different. Though the signs may be harder to read and the good or ill signified may be less obvious, less direct and therefore harder to assess, our emotions are not the polar opposite of thinking, but intrinsically related to it. You could say they are an intuitive form of thinking.

Back to nature

Another criticism of Stoic philosophy – as with so much Hellenistic philosophy – is its claim on the one hand to be concerned with questions of the good life and on the other with its advocacy of detachment. How, one cries, can I be a good person – a loving, caring, tolerant and sympathetic member of society – and be detached at the same time? Hence Macbeth’s famously ambiguous response to the news of his wife’s death - “She should have died hereafter” - or Brutus’ complete poker face feeling at Portia’s death makes them cold hearted husbands in our eyes, while Othello’s murderous jealousy at least shows that he loved her. But Stoic detachment, as with the Epicureans’ goal of pleasure, meant only freedom from pain and suffering – that you might, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, “meet triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.”

For some this remains unacceptable, a half-lived life. As the transcendentalist Thoreau wrote in Walden; Or, Life in the Woods: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” For Thoreau, living deliberately meant living “deep and suck[ing] out all the marrow of life,” the desire expressed by so many for a full experience, complete immersion in all that life has to offer, both bitter and sweet. However, more immediately – in a cabin in the woods of New England – it meant living “sturdily and Spartan-like…driv[ing] life into a corner, and reduc[ing] it to its lowest terms.” It meant, in short, simplicity and even privation.

True living, drawing deep and sucking out the marrow does not then mean hedonistic pleasure – all night parties, lines of coke, penthouse hotel rooms. It might mean going a bit Bear Grylls, a bit Lord of the Flies and getting back to nature.

Why oh why do we bother?

To suffer and feel pain, while not everyone’s idea of the ideal summer vacation, can be entirely useful. I mean, there’s nothing like putting a staple through your thumb to teach you there’s a right and wrong way to load a stapler. It is, in evolutionary terms, in our best interests. The lessons we learn through failing painfully ourselves can have more power than the dire warnings and threats of our parents, teachers and bosses. However, we don’t always have to go through this pain or trauma to instinctively know that something is fatal to us.

The modern world of information sharing and second-life gaming would have us believe we can live and learn vicariously, and we know that athletes and musicians can practise just as effectively mentally as they can physically, going through the jumps or chords they will perform in their minds before a big gig. This is because through repetition certain movements and sequences become hard-wired into the body’s – more specifically, the muscles’ – memory, enabling it to execute these in perfect timing and synchronicity on demand, with a conscious thought barely passing through your brain. In fact, it’s only when we start to think about what we are doing – be it running on the treadmill, signing our name to a cheque or reading these words off the page – that we start to come unstuck.

As psychologists Dr John Baugh of New York University and Dr Tanya Chartrand, Ohio State University, explain it: “Our consciousness is biased to think that its own intentions and deliberate choices rule our lives. But consciousness overrates its own control.” Thus the phenomenon of Parkinson’s sufferers who, unable to stop their hands, arms and legs from shaking, can yet run up stairs without any trouble or remain perfectly still as soon as they pick up their golf clubs, because their body’s ability to remember and perform deeply ingrained complex tasks overrides their neurological condition. And if this is true of learnt behaviour, what about those you (or, okay, your ancestors) have been doing for millennia?

It’s a miracle! No, it’s instinct

I have always been awed by the seemingly miraculous survival stories and heroic feats of war veterans: the tales of soldiers who walked miles back to their home trenches on the stumps of their legs, their feet – blown off in a mine – hanging around their necks by their bootlaces. What these stories clearly demonstrate is that the mind’s ability in times of extreme danger (or excitement) to override (and subsequently forget! as famously with child-birth) pain is an incredible and life-saving mechanism. (Less inspiringly of course, there’s the friend who keeps on dating Misters Wrong and Wrong-Again.)

According to the Instinct Theory of Motivation, we all have innate tendencies that help us to survive: a baby is born with a reflex for seeking out the mother’s nipple and suckling, while birds have an ingrained, unlearnt need to build a nest and migrate. We all know that dogs emerging from a dirty pond or river are going to shake their wet coat all over us, or that if you turn your back for a minute a puppy will ravage your best shoes. Their behaviour is predictable because it is ingrained, a spontaneous reflex, an instinct. And humans are no exception.

The Moro reflex, also known as the startle reflex and which can be best observed in babies describes what happens when you hear a loud or frightening noise: they extend their arms and legs and brace their spine as if they are about to fall, even when they are not. Amazing huh? Well, my boyfriend does just about the same thing still, no doubt accounting for my increased rapid heart since I met him (or perhaps that’s just love for you). But most of us have learnt to temper and control our natural reflexes so that we can go about our day without exhibiting signs of Tourette’s. Or have we?

“Instinct theory proposes that organisms engage in certain behaviors because they lead to success in terms of natural selection,” writes Nancy Melucci in E-Z Psychology. She cites migration and mating as examples of instinctually motivated behaviour in animals – deep-seated drives that cannot be denied. This sounds all too familiar to me: I am motivated to flight, my partner to mate (and vice versa as soon as I mention that little word “marriage”). But what about all those other instincts? Freud proposed life and death as the two key forces driving us, while his predecessor in this field Professor Douglas McDougall outlined 18 different instincts, ranging from curiosity and laughter to hunger and sex. A

re all these instincts – complex unlearnt patterns of behaviour  - still going on beneath the surface, and should we be listening to them more, giving way to our most basic needs and drives?

When enough’s enough

To feel pain is human, to forgive – they say – divine. But do we forgive ourselves the pain we suffer, or do we not, in this age of 24 hour rapid-action off-the-shelf analgesics and painkillers, not simply try and mask it? Do we cope with it stoically or do we seek to be rid of it asap? What could our pain be telling us if we really stopped to listen? And could it be garnered to be actually useful – beneficial, life-enhancing – to ourselves?

Take that gut feeling again. Feeling nauseous, tension headaches, irritable bowel; not only do we feel unwell at the idea of going into work, we are afraid even of calling in sick. But what do you do? You know you’re not really ill, it’s just the nerves talking: you have an exam, a big case, a lunch meeting or presentation you’d really rather not go to. You have to suck it up and get on with it. Or do you?

When I was just a little girl, I was terrified of everything. Quite literally. From rehearsing for the school nativity play and competing in sports day to birthday parties and visiting my own cousins, I’d be found awake at night crying as if the world were about to end – or, rather, as if I wished it would. My poor, sympathetic mother covered for me for a time, excusing me from competitive sports and giving me her locket to wear as a talisman at Christmas, Easter, Harvest and any other time the school thought they try and have some festive fun with us. But in time even she grew tired of my anxious suffering and clinginess. Why couldn’t I just go out and play with the other children like my sisters did?

Well, this pattern of fearful avoidance didn’t really change until about the age of 15 when, taking a look around me – at the boy in the upper years I had a crush on going off to university, my best friend moving away to live up north – I realised that if I didn’t do something to get out of the safety zone I’d created for myself, I’d be stuck in my small town, stacking shelves and pushing pushchairs, forever and ever Amen. This gave me about the same heart-wrenching fear as sports day did, and I knew something had to change.

All in the mind?

You might think that my fear of being left behind while my friends all went on out into the world was a natural response to a rational judgement, and in part you would be right. But just as our thoughts, for example, of a loved one, of a nice holiday, a deadly animal or an old school bully conjure up emotions – joy, love, fear, loathing – so too do our emotions reveal our unconscious thoughts. “We’re finding that everything is evaluated as good or bad within a quarter of a second,” says Dr John Baugh. But it’s not just our conscious minds that do the cognitive processing required in everyday decision making and action taking; it’s our bodies too.

If it’s a question of which comes first the chicken or the egg – the reason or the emotion – we might say our instincts come first, but this is not to say they are irrational or against reason. According to Psychology Today magazine, “Hunches are formed using our past experience and knowledge.” But more than that, they can be clues to a deeper, possibly as yet undiscovered, rationale or judgement within us. As Aristotle noted in De Anima, perception – that is, feeling – involves discrimination. It involves judgement. Whether it is the right judgement is the work of our minds or brains to figure out, but if you are tuned into your body then you are already one step ahead of the game.

Start counting

It’s rumoured that adorning Albert Einstein’s office was the phrase: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” As rational beings we spend a lot of our day counting, measuring, evaluating, assessing. Consider the amount of time you spend calculating: how long it will take to get a task done or travel from A to B, your salary going in versus your expenses going out, whether you would rather have cheese and pickle for lunch or ham and mustard (or neither, eugh gross!). And from thinking we can all too often find ourselves over-thinking: “If I do this, say that, wear this… what will X think, say, do?”

Intuition or gut feeling works the opposite way: if questioned you may not always be able to come up with a coherent verbal explanation for why you acted in a certain way at the time, but it seemed right and nine times out of ten it probably was. This is because intuition works instantaneously, getting in there before you brain has a chance to get involved. “It’s automatic, fast and practically “thoughtless” since it doesn’t require analysis or deep thinking,” Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. And you’d be amazed how many of our judgements and how much of our decision-making happens in a flash thanks to the power of intuition.

However, science remains sceptical of this ancient, magical form of thinking, and as Psychology Today writer Peg Streep writes in The Art (and Science) of “Trusting Your Gut”, it remains unclear whether the slow kind of thinking works in tandem with or interrupts fast thinking, or whether they work sequentially. As a rather slow, ruminative thinker myself (most of my best ideas coming to me while in the shower or while taking downward-facing dog), I am in favour of both, but experience has taught me to be wary of letting my brain get too much involved and interfere with my intuition. After all, there’s only so long you can stand in the cereal aisle trying to choose between Shreddies and Shredded Wheats (the mini raisin ones. Yeah, now you know my difficulty!) before someone’s likely to take pity on you and offer to return you to the home.

Einstein’s fellow physicist Richard Feynman is one who has cautioned against taking too much heed of one’s intuition: “The first principle,” he said, “is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Indeed, intuition’s airy-fairy, unscientific reputation  is not helped by the fact that it is hard to observe or/ and hard to measure. As John Donne acknowledged of his own emotional health, “of the diseases of the mind there is no criterion, no canon, no rule… if I know it not nobody can know it.” Emotional knowledge is, as the literary critic Brian Cummings writes, “self-reflexive in the deepest sense. The only test for how I feel is how I feel.”

Are women more intuitive?

As if this was not enough of a stumbling block, intuition’s reputation been further maligned by the West’s traditionally gendered approach to theories of knowledge and the mind, in which men have been considered the rational ones while women have been the guardians of feeling and intuition. “I know because I know,” we women cry, or more proudly, “it’s female intuition!”  And how many do you suppose were burnt at the stake or dunked in a well for saying that? But are women really more intuitive than men? Is intuition the preserve of witches and new-age hippies?

Well, there is a wealth of evidence that states quite categorically “No.” Dr William Ickes has been conducting research into empathic accuracy (aka everyday minding) for the past 20 years, and his findings reveal that in tests of men and women’s ability to read other people’s thoughts and feelings, there is no difference between the sexes. They both perform equally well – or badly. Where was that so-called women’s intuition?

Then they found it. In a series of tests where women were asked not only to read other people’s feelings but to rate how well they think they performed, the women outperformed the men. That is, when they knew that they were being tested for their empathic response – something that stereotypically they knew they should succeed in and were motivated to do so – they performed better. The women, that is, tried harder, while the men, not feeling the need (or perhaps the desire) to be more empathic, didn’t. What is even more interesting, however, is that when offered a financial incentive the men could perform better than the women, be more empathic, more intuitive, suggesting that we all have the ability to tap into our innate, empathic knowledge if and when we are motivated to do so.

But why should we? What – apart from being a more feeling, sympathetic human beings – are the benefits of nurturing our inner voice, listening to our gut feeling?

According to Toby Storie-Pugh, founder of Expedition Everest, listening to your gut could be the key to realising your deepest, most heartfelt, yearning, burning passions. We may not all have it in us to climb Everest, but the lessons that Storie-Pugh learnt along his ascent are ones that I would assent to.

Travelling in India last summer – making the trip of my spiritual lifetime, remember? – proved to be everything my boyfriend feared. Well, no, that’s not quite right: it was worse. I got caught up in Uttarakhand’s disastrous floods, falling ill and getting cut off from the nearest town and doctor, without electricity or mobile signal for a week until I decided – my gut told me – to get the hell out. So the experience, far from proving my boyfriend’s instinctive fears right and my intuition wrong, to me affirmed everything I already believed in. And he’d say the same. I am going back to India in a few weeks full of hope, love and faith, and he will not touch it with a barge pole.

In the end, I guess, we make a decision: to follow our instincts, our intuitions, our dreams out into the world and test them there – were they right or were they wrong? – or we let them keep us safe at home, never knowing, always doubting. As Elizabeth Bishop asks in her poem ‘Questions of Travel’: “should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Well, I’ll let you decide, but my advice, for what it’s worth – as Tobie Storie-Pugh’s – would be, whether it’s setting up a business, starting a family or deciding whether to donate to a beggar on the street – to Trust Your Instinct.

1. There will never be a right time.

You might think that tomorrow the sun will shine and you can get out and hike, or that next year you will be in a better financial position to start a family, move house, take that round-the-world trip, but what are the chances it won’t rain then too? What’s that famous Latin phrase… carpe diem, seize the day? If you let obstacles get in your way, if you put it off for another day, you are always one step further from achieving your goal.

2. Be patient.

So you’ve just left the comfort and security of your old job/country/partner and are finding it tough going. If you are just starting out afresh, it can take time for things to fall into place, but remember your original gut instinct and all the rational judgements that supported that decision. If you’re acting in honesty with yourself, happiness is not far away.

3. Let your dreams be big, let your dreams be ethical.

Your gut should be telling you what is really important to yourself – moving to live closer to family, starting a landscape gardening enterprise, taking a course of study or embarking on a spiritual path. It should also be telling you what is the right thing by those around you, serving their better interests, long-term ‘survival’ and happiness as well as your own. This and their support will help keep you going even when the going gets tough.