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.


From sunset to sunrise

They say the sky is the same everywhere. Travellers, the shipwrecked, exiles, and the dying draw comfort from the thought, and no doubt if you are of a mystical tendency, consolation, and even explanation, shower down from the unbroken surface. But above Cambridge—anyhow above the roof of King’s College Chapel—there is a difference. Out at sea a great city will cast a brightness into the night. Is it fanciful to suppose the sky, washed into the crevices of King’s College Chapel, lighter, thinner, more sparkling than the sky elsewhere? Does Cambridge burn not only into the night, but into the day?

Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room. How many times have I thought of this passage, how many times recited it to myself, repeated it to others? “They say the sky is the same everywhere…” Perhaps it is merely as a traveller, an exile, that I have felt a sympathy with these words: so many years spent living out of England, a foreigner among foreign people, walking down unknown paths under unknown trees to the sound of nameless birds, animals and insects, yet finding consolation in the thought that the same sky that stretches over me – rarely blue and rarely seen – is the same that covers, shields and protects my family. Or perhaps it is my mystical tendency showing through.

For, as Woolf says, secretly I know better. A foreigner, yes, but oh how quickly we seek to make each place our home! To accommodate ourselves to it and appropriate it to ourselves. Buy the map, chart the street, put a name to the strange noises in the night, photograph, journal, dissect and label. Why else should I own so many photographs of the sunset over the South China Sea if not because the sky – the setting sun – in Asia, as over the Loire in France where the men stand thigh deep fishing at dusk, or from the balcony of a six Euro a night youth hostel dorm on the island of Ischia, or sitting with your feet in the sand over dinner in Koh Samui… if not because the sky is precisely not the same everywhere? Privileged enough to have known the skies over King’s College Chapel too, I know that very little is the same everywhere. The smallest changes in environment, climate, architecture, language entail a world of difference, and yet… and yet… the mystic in me resists. As the stone in King’s College bears a reminder of a presence that has long gone – “Softly I am leaving, Just as softly as I came” – so too do foreign, ancient and other familiar presences inhabit distant spaces, so that when I close my eyes and think of you… The fiction that it is the same sky, that I am sharing with you.

Well, from sunsets to sunrise, from taking the last ferry home from Central to Lamma Island to taking the first bus from the campus library to the campus sports centre, I now have a burgeoning collection of new photographs: another sky to add to my list. And then it is time to move on. My visa for India has arrived and already I can start to see myself, once again, taking out the map, getting lost, finding my way, taking photographs… On our yoga schedule and with the latitudes and longitudes of Goa I should be alive to sunrise and sunset. I certainly intend to be. For that has been one of the motivations for getting out of bed in the middle of a dark, cold English winter: to help me prepare for 6am yoga practice in India. And while, when my alarm’s gone off and I’ve torn myself out of my warm dreams and thrown on whatever leggings and tracksuit pants, thermals and jumpers, gloves and hats are to hand, I’ve often hated myself, by the time I’ve emerged from the pool and the sun has started its ascent I’ve always been grateful: to see the day begin, to be part of that, is a reminder of why we’re alive. Simply to be: to see it all unfold in all its splendour. To work its magic on us. Our transformation.

Shall I stay or shall I Goa?

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.

Mind, you…

Now that I am back in the UK, I can often be found on a Sunday evening chatting on Skype with my friend Niamh, bewailing the modern state of affairs, and last weekend was no exception.  It seems that our conversations in England are little different from our conversations long-distance. They still end up with me complaining about the phenomenon I call iADD: information attention-deficit disorder.

In my three and a half – almost four – years away, I often used to wonder about this: was it just Asia that was gadget obsessed? Was it just in Hong Kong that people were walking through the street staring at their phones, doing crunches in the gym while watching movies or dining with a loved-ones and Facebooking it on their phones? Or was the same mind-bogglingly, brain-numbingly bewildering thing happening in my own, old, homegrown, handpicked, strawberries and cream, cream and jam, jam and bread country too? Well, as my conversation with Niamh revealed, my image of ye olde England, where men in bowler hats, carrying umbrellas and copies of The Times gave way to women and children, and chimney-sweeps tipped their hats to the G’vnor, was a little out of date. It may only have been three and a half – no, make it, four and counting – years since I left, but the technology revolution has made another turn of its cataclysmic wheel since then, and left us…. left us… left us…. Sorry, what was I saying?

Oh yes,  a little distracted.

The conversation had started with Niamh jokingly asking if I was having a more relaxing Sunday than the one she found me ravaged from – a positive nervous wreck! – the previous week.

“Yes,” was my answer. “Indubitably.” (Because we do all speak like that in England.)

The previous Sunday I had woken up in somewhat of a panic. Something wasn’t right. Daylight was streaming in through the curtains, but this was still the middle of a long English winter: what time was it? Surely… no! It was nine o’clock and my phone alarm hadn’t gone off. In fact, my phone wasn’t even on, nor was it turning on, and after trying the fool-proof ‘two buttons for ten seconds’ method, still nothing. Dead. As a dodo.

Well, this was not good. I’d been meant to Skype with my boyfriend at eight, or 4pm in Hong Kong time, and he’d be wondering where the hell I was. I switched on my computer to see if he was still online only to find several messages, an email and a Facebook message all to the effect of: “Are you all right? Are you sick? Dying? Do you need to me send help? Message me as soon as you get this.”

It was also the day the first chapter of my dissertation had to be handed in (because it never rains but it pours!) so, plugging my phone into iTunes to see if iT knew what was wrong, I attempted to get on with my essay, checking every two minutes to see if life had been restored. It hadn’t, and as the hour passed I could feel my temperature rising, my anxiety soaring… It was as if it was my life that was hanging by a thread, rather than that of my iNaniMate iPhone.

Aiya! as they’d say in Hong Kong.

Of course, by the end of the day – cycling into town to take it to the shop and cycling back with it in the same unconscious state; spending several hours on Apple’s very unfruitful website, then on Skype, trying to get a replacement one sent out and this one taken away to be fixed; and finally resorting to throwing myself into fifty laps of the pool just to chill the heck out! – I had it sorted, my essay sent off and my boyfriend reassured that I wasn’t a) dead b) annoyed at him or c) crazy…?? No, I’m afraid on that score I had demonstrated to myself just how much more obsessed I was with my iPhone than I was with my boyfriend/work/PJs [delete as appropriate].

The episode taught me a valuable lesson. Having arranged for a replacement to be express-deliveried to me within the next 48 hours, I went to bed that night actually quite relieved. For the next two days I would be without a phone, yes, but I would also be without the  constant ‘beep, burr, cheep’ of messages, emails, reminders and alarms that punctuate my every waking thought. For how many times in the middle of a chapter, a page, a sentence, do I glance across, swipe open and check to see what new message has arrived, as if it is the oracle from Delphi I am expecting and not another circular from the department alerting to of yet another irrelevant seminar or call for papers that I will throw straight in the trash? Without my phone, I might be free to be with my own thoughts again. I might actually get some work done!

This was exciting, a brave new world. And as I related the story to my friend, and told her of my intention since then to keep my (replacement) phone at arm’s length and on silent during study hours, she had a similar story of self-discovery to relate.

Leaving the house one morning in more than her usual hurry, she’d made it all the way to the tube station before realising she’d left her Blackberry behind. Panic! Should she go back for it? There wasn’t time, but – and here’s the curious thing – she didn’t think how she would manage at work without it or how she would contact her boyfriend should there be an emergency; no, the first thought that went through her mind was: what would she do on the train without it? How would she pass the time if she didn’t have her phone to scroll through, browsing Facebook  or checking emails? How would she cope without twitter?

Well, she said; she soon remembered her favourite thing to do, the thing she had always done before when she had nothing else to do was:


“I just sat, and thought, and watched other people playing on their phones, reading their books… I looked out the window… It was quite nice,” she said. “I could just relax.”

Relax. Ahh, there’s a word. And here’s another: moment. Being in the moment.

This idea – newfangled, strange and subversive though it might sound – is garnering a lot of attention right now. I mean, it may have been being practiced for thousands of years in India, Tibet and the East, and for the past several decades by hippies and new age types in America and the West, but it’s only in the past few years that it’s importance been sufficiently proven by science for big business to sit up and take notice. Heck, Time magazine even ran a front page article on it this month:


And, as I started to read this latest rallying cry from another among the burgeoning numbers of mindfulness revolutionaries, I have to admit I smiled. “The raisins sitting in my sweaty palms are getting sticker by the minute,” it begins, as the writer carefully fondles the small dried fruit, places it provocatively in her mouth, giving even Nigela Lawson a run for her money in the food-porn stakes – that is, if Nigela ever ditched the ham on camembert on brioche and went in for a single, solitary, sweaty sultana. I smiled.  I smiled because I’ve been there. Been there, done that, bought the book and CD combo.

After years of stressing my way first through high school and uni, then out in the world of work and, well, life in one of the world’s most densely populated cities, I too have resorted to Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques (as Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-educated scientist calls it) or Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT, as Profesor Mark Williams of Oxford University and Dr Danny Penman call it). I too have tried finding “peace in a frantic world.” And I tell you something, it takes a lot more than eating a raisin – slowly. That woman on the front of the magazine – the blond-haired smiling angel, eyes closed and smiling as if she can actually taste nivana? – Well, you’re gonna need a whole stack of raisins and a whole heap of time to reach that level of bliss, especially if, like me, you’re reduced to a nervous blubbering wreck by the loss of an iPhone. But if you want to get off the treadmill of emails, messages, videos and PANIC! it is a start.

Because as with the American Dream “aim high, achieve high” ethos, we have been fed the myth that we are successful only as long as we are capable of juggling several tasks and projects at once, of multi-taking and managing our time to cope with the ever increasing demands of work, family and social life. If we aren’t “all-rounded” – a success in every part of our lives – we are odd-ball, a social pariah, a poor manager, a misfit. Isn’t it apparently that that makes women so much better and smarter and more capable than men? The fact that we can do everything at once? Gee, thanks! Which ever MAN came up with that idea deserves, as my mum would say, to have a broom shoved up their a*se and made to sweep the floor as they go along. Because in a world in which our attention is constantly being diverted by multi-media messages, advertising slogans, news alerts and political spin, project-management is becoming a health hazard, a toxic unattainable goal. We are no longer multi-tasking we are multi-failing. We have anywhere between 25,000 – 50,000 thoughts every day, depending on whether you’re Homer, Homer Simpson or OJ Simpson. That’s a lot of thoughts. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some say in what they are? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to choose our thoughts like we do our clothes?

But how, I hear you cry, can we possibly make sure that they are all positive, beneficial, life-affirming, career-enhancing…? According to The Wall Street Journal we shouldn’t even try. As anyone who’s suffering a break-up and been told “there’s plenty more fish in the sea” will affirm, not all the answers to life’s problems lie in Polly-Anna platitudes, bum-sticker brainwashing, sunshine and rainbows. Instead of trying to cheer yourself up by looking on the bright side, searching for that silver-lining, the Stoic philosopher Seneca advocated a more cautionary, some might say realist approach to thinking about the future. If, for example, you are fearful of losing all your wealth, he said, you should face it: “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?'” For some reason, I feel Seneca had my iPhone in mind when he said this, but perhaps that’s just me.

This Negative Path Psychology is a volte face of the typical “think big, dream big, achieve big” ethos of capitalist big business, whose goal-orientated approach, says Professor Sarasvarthy of the University of Virginia, can lead to a distorted set of values – such as lying and cheating, or working at the expense of your health or family commitments – or even to underachievement. The typical American Dream of “believe in yourself and you can achieve anything” requires some moderation if it is to avoid inspiring false or unrealistic goals that only lead to more stress and disillusionment.

Which is not to say one should live a shiftless life of no hopes and dreams, fearing the worst possible that may happen. Far from it. But it is to say that mindfulness is not  about false smiles and empty words. What it is concerned with is Seneca’s “scantiest and cheapest fare.” It is, as in the exercise of eating one raisin at a time – looking it, observing it closely, paying attention to the feel, smell, look and taste of it – all about bringing your full awareness into the present moment, to what is happening right here, right now, to how you feel, what you’re afraid of and simply sitting with that. It’s about facing your own thoughts and not trying to change them, not judging them, but simply noticing them as they come and go.

In practice what this means that every time something goes wrong – your cat knocks tea all over you in an attempt to be cute, you get a parking fine for being a minute over the time or your boss schedules a meeting that clashes with your lunch plans – you will be in a better, more resilient, more tolerant place to deal with it. You will not blame yourself, or get angry at others, or start thinking that life has it in for you. You will be able to rise above it, quit crying over spilt tea and get on with making a second, much nicer cup.

But did I say simple? Remember those 25,000 – 50,000 thoughts we are said to have every day? Umm, well they can take some taming. Just sitting for three minutes and noticing what you think can be hard work if your mind is chattering away like a monkey, jumping from branch to branch. Liz Gilbert’s depiction of meditation in Eat, Pray, Love is not an exaggeration. Believe me. But luckily we don’t have to dedicate our lives to yoga, opening our hips sufficiently to be able to sit in lotus for 12 hours on end, or master pranayama, the powerful breathing techniques developed by yogis to raise energy up through our chakras, or chanting in Sanskrit.

As little as ten minutes quiet reflection every day can help effect changes in those areas of the brain associated with decision-making, attention and empathy. And if you need a little help, here are a few tips:

– focus on your breath: without trying to control or change it in anyway, simply observe your breathing, the in and out, the way the belly and/or chest rises and falls

And when you start thinking what to have for breakfast, how you’re going to pay for your car repairs, whether you have time to be meditating at all right now or when the ten minutes will end and you can get on with those tax returns?

– bring your mind back to the breath, without any judgement or sense of failure.

Breath not working for you? Choose a candle to watch, or a phrase to repeat, a song to sing, or if like my boyfriend, food is your thing, do an eating meditation – a raisin or your whole breakfast. But pay attention. In Bali I was entranced by nuns performing a moving meditation: walking very very slowly through the temple gardens barefoot with their eyes closed. Bliss! Okay, so you may want to make sure there are no thorns, stones, bugs  – do it indoors on the carpet. However you choose to meditate – with a yoga practice or a run, or in a long hot bath at the end of the day counting the bubbles as they burst – bring your full attention to the act.

And however hard it is, don’t give up. Just remember, you’re not the first, nor the last to struggle to find peace in their minds, but if we can’t find it there, where can we? As Goldie Hawn says, “Peace can’t be achieved in the outside world unless we have peace on the inside.” See? The mindfulness revolution has already begun! And thankfully companies are sitting up and taking notice, with the likes of Apple, Deutsche Bank, McKinsey, Reebok and Starbucks incorporating mindfulness practises into their Human Resources toolkit. But if, like my friend Niamh, you are working for a less mindful and more mindless employer – think Spanish Inquisition, minus the Pythons – then at least remember that it wasn’t always this way and make a choice. We can’t always choose what happens, but we can choose how to respond and sometimes… The best response? Well, let me defer to an old Cambridge Physics professor who taught me this lesson and you can judge for yourself.

Many years ago now, before the days even of the iPhone, when I was back living in Hong Kong, I’d made a date: to meet with an old Chinese professor of Physics visiting his 104 year old mother who lived in Hong Kong. Yao is a dear old man and when he announced he was coming over at Christmas, we made an arrangement over email to meet on Boxing Day in Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station from where he’d take me for lunch. I couldn’t wait. Then on Christmas Day I got a call; my boss had scheduled a lesson for me right before lunchtime the next day. I couldn’t say no and I couldn’t get out of it, and although I emailed Yao I got no reply. He’d warned me he wouldn’t have internet once he’d arrived at his mother’s and he didn’t have a mobile phone so, what to do? My lesson would overrun our arranged meeting time and even if I ran to the station I’d be at least half an hour late. He’d think I’d forgotten, or worse. This was a disaster!

So, I got to work as early as I could, hoping my student might be there to start early too. No such luck. I whizzed through everything as fast as I could, which given that the student in question was certified ADHD wasn’t easy, and finished the lesson as soon as I could, which given his love of English was rather more easy. And I ran. I was half an hour late, breathless and haunted by the image of Yao hanging around on the station platform waiting for me for 20 minutes, looking at his watch, scanning the crowd and then, finally giving up, thinking the worst of me and never offering to take me out again.

But when I arrived there he was. Yao! I was so relieved and as I explained and apologised he just smiled at me amused.

“What would you have done though?” I asked, hoping that this if nothing else might convince him to please get a mobile phone.

“I would have waited,” he said, as simply as that. As far as Yao was concerned, he could wait for me. There was nothing else he had to do and nowhere else to go. He didn’t have a device to pass the time watching TV or checking emails or tweeting his annoyance, but as far as he was concerned we’d made an arrangement and it was only a matter of time until I arrived. He had all the time in the world to wait for me, and as a result…? I will always remember that moment and every one I shared with him, because that was Yao: he had his own time. He never lived by anyone else’s. Some people are just like that. They are timeless. Oh to be timeless too!