When I started this blog back in August last year with the heading ‘Going the Distance,’ commitment – something that once terrified me – presented an appealing challenge. Could I go the distance on three years of doctoral studies? Could I manage to maintain a relationship across time and space? Could I steer my recovery, mentally and physically? My confidence in myself and the choices I’d made made it all seem infinitely possible – all within my control, my reach. It was part of the adventure.
Well, as any regular reader of this blog will know, the answer to these questions has – unfortunately – since proven to be ‘no.’ As I related to a friend (or let’s say ‘frienemy’) over coffee last weekend, returning to Uni after Christmas I entered what could be called a dark night of the soul. Did I want to be here? What was I doing this for? Where was the life, the self, I once knew?
The thought of going to Goa for my yoga teacher training at Easter was about the only thing I felt I had to look forward to, and yet, drastically underweight, crying everyday and so anxious that I could barely put food in my mouth, how on earth was I going to be strong enough to get myself there? Wouldn’t illness strike once again? Wouldn’t I be exhausted by hours of Ashtanga every day? Unable to balance in my yoga practice – barely enough muscle on my hips and legs to move seamlessly between tree pose and warrior III without swaying like a elm in a storm – the only life-saver I had, my yoga practice, would in all likelihood finish me off for good. Or if it didn’t, then what? I would return to university after Easter? That was supposed to be the plan. But I no longer knew that I wanted the PhD. Wasn’t it that that had made me ill?
Then the post arrived bringing the article I wrote for Namaskar magazine about my last time in India.
Throughout the whole of the previous term, every time I found myself on my yoga mat I was brought back face to face with my experiences in India. Not painful memories, but poignant reminders, it was like being haunted by Casper the friendly ghost bringing me back to what was important, to the lessons I’d been shown. I say ‘shown’ for I cannot any longer lay claim to having learnt, absorbed or been miraculously transformed by these lessons. What can I say? I’m a bad student, a slow learner. All the promises I remember making to myself, such as never ever starving or denying myself food ever again, have been undone by the pressures of … well, work, loneliness, worry, of in short, being myself by myself.
So the article from India came at a crucial time, much as India had kept returning to me before, to insinuate itself between me and my unhappiness, to remind me truly of what was important: my health, my survival. For if India nearly killed me, anorexia was threatening to do the same. I would say that for anyone with mental illness they do not need tsunamis, monsoons, landslides or disease to bring them close to death… but then I would qualify that by saying the same for everyone. As the recent flooding in the UK has shown, a natural disaster can bring to the surface and make explicit our weakness, our dependence and fragility, but we do not even have to go to such extremes. As my recent blog on mindfulness suggests, we are only a panic button away from mental, emotional or physical ill health. Some are more prone to it than others, and some are better at acknowledging it, at seeing the signs. Hence my frienemy – a no nonsense academic for whom weakness is not an option, mental and emotional imbalance unconscionable – simply not on her radar. I am not sure whether to envy or feel sorry for her. But no, walking away from that coffee date, I knew that, crazy and incomprehensible as I and my life seemed to her, I was glad and actually proud to be me. For there are those who seem never to suffer, then there those who, having suffered themselves, are alive to can sympathise with it in others, and offer grace. For such people, it is precisely our weakness that makes us human and, possibly, divine.
In his sermon on Lent 1622, John Donne preached Jesus’ humanity, saying: “Jesus wept as a man doth weep, and Jesus wept as a man may weep.” But for Donne, Christ’s tears were also divine – divine because they were not inordinate, not bred of original sin – not, that is, for his own lost interest and power, but for mankind. Well, here, as a non-Christian, merely a humble Renaissance scholar, I can quibble with Donne. I do not believe in any original sin that we must repent for, but I do believe in an original sorrow, a feeling that many people experience of loss and lack, of unworthiness or insufficiency, of loneliness or anxiety – a feeling that brings many to look for love and reassurance in another, in a job, in a god…
Lucretius, my choice Latin philosopher, would explain it thus: we are born of chance – from the contingent collision of particles falling through the immense, immeasurable void – and from that moment begin our decline towards death, bombarded by our environment from without and shedding films of ourselves, emitting images and layers onto others as we go. We are part of nature and subject to it at the same time, and this vulnerability leaves us feeling that we not enough by ourselves. There remains the original chaos or emptiness in and outside of us, beyond our control, incomprehensible and infinitely fearful. A gap between our desire for stability, certainty, immortality and the ever-changing nature of the world, we would wish to bridge it and seek many ways to try – a lover, fame, wealth, family, god – but so often we find it breached, and ourselves – our vulnerability, contingency and ephemerality – betrayed.
It was in these difficult weeks spent living face to face with and in my own createdness that, having already made plans to be in Goa at Easter, I made a bigger decision: not to come back to Uni again afterwards. I announced this decision at the time by changing the title of my blog to the rather wordy ‘Going the Distance Finding the Balance.’ Unable to balance – to stand, not exactly on my own two feet (any fool can do that), but on one leg – in my yoga practice was due to my life being out of balance. As I tried to explain to my frienemy and as I endless bewail to my boyfriend, I want it all. I have had times in my life of intense study – three years at Oxford no less – and I have had years of putting work and money first; I have had periods spent with my family away from and without a boyfriend, and too many years away from my family living the life in Asia. I have, quite literally, lived my life piecemeal, putting up with just one bite at a time: try a bit of this, taste a bit of that…
“Yeah, that’s nice, but wouldn’t it be better with a bit more…?”
Ask my boyfriend and he will affirm, this is the cause of many of our arguments in the kitchen. “You can’t just add everything. Just stick to the recipe.”
But I wasn’t raised that way. Our mother never followed the recipe. Used to feeding not just her three girls, but their friends, her friends, her brother and sister and their partners, children…she always put in more than even we thought necessary (the old mayonnaise from the back of the fridge, really mum?), and the result? Delicious, of course. At the ripe old age of twenty-somethingunmentionable I am ready, if I wasn’t already ready before, to get cooking. No more living by half measures, no more shopping for one, cooking for one…
“So, if I could wave a magic wand and give you everything you wanted,” my frienemy asked (not, I thought, a little unpatronisingly) “what would you wish for?”
Well, I will tell you what I told her: there are any quick fixes or miracle cures; I don’t believe in fairy godmothers. But if there is magic – and I do kind of believe there is, for what if nothing else is anorexia than a black magical thinking of the mind – well, I have waved my magic wand myself. I am going to Goa and I am not coming back to uni afterwards – not right away at least. I will go on to Hong Kong for a few months, do some yoga and meditation practice with one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met (the advertisement for whose course was on the page opposite my India article: surely a sign if you are ever desperate and need one?!), spend some time living with and teaching a wonderful family I used to work for, and actually date my boyfriend. Whether we will go the distance I still cannot say, but having just completed his first full marathon, he has been equally demonstrative in showing his commitment to us; and I’m willing to make a gesture in return: a chance for us to reconnect, to remember, to recognise….
It is all part of my therapy. RAIN – Lord knows the UK knows all about this! But not that kind of rain. RAIN:
Non-identification: resting in pure consciousness…
So I am working on turning my weeping into rain, to feeling it healing me from the inside out.