All by my self (-practice)

Life after a yoga teacher training course: that mixture of relief and fear as the gruelling early morning schedule is abandoned and the work of maintaining it one’s self begins.

Of course, this is not the first time I have experienced this feeling of aloneness – singleness and independence. Only a month ago I was in precisely the same position: four weeks of 5:30am wake up calls over, with the intention of rising every day at 6/6:30 to meditate and practice asana by myself very much in mind. In mind, that is, and body until I arrived in Hong Kong, jet lagged and exhausted and thankful for every bit of sleep I could get. And then? Well, then the next course started and I went back to the alarm clock, grateful for every day in seven when I did not have to set it.

As I have mentioned previously, however, there is a big difference between waking up in India at 5:30 and strolling five minutes down a quiet dusty street to the shala with only the occasional cow hanging out, munching leftover watermelon rind, and waking up at 5:30 in Hong Kong to walk 30 minutes through dirty, litter and vomit strewn streets, the taxis already circling like sharks and the buses picking up the first bleary-eyed children to take to school. There is quite a difference between happily dreaming your way into meditation, still warm from your bed, and having to down coffee just to wake-up enough to make it in one piece (i.e. without tripping all the way down the escalators!) to meditation.

But, now? No more. Not for five long weeks. And whatever (lazy?) part of me was looking forward to this, is now suddenly scared into staying firmly hidden under the covers, ignoring the 7 o’clock alarm, the 7:10 snooze and finally awaking, slightly annoyed at oneself at 7:50am.  But while this is an accurate reflection of what happened this morning – DAY TWO – the feelings are not. I was not scared but tired, and not annoyed but grateful. I needed sleep – present tense: need!!

Yesterday – DAY THE FIRST – I woke briefly at 7am, went to the bathroom and prayed that when I got back in bed I would be able to go back to sleep, and thankfully I did, until just before my alarm at 8:30am, and boy did I feel better for those 10 hours of sleep. A quick shower and a dreamy breakfast before going upstairs to teach the little twin three-year-old boys, I really wished for more time: more time to dream, more time to eat. But c’est la vie. I am living here rent free, the least I can do is go and spend an hour helping the boys with their English!

Yet the moment I sat down with the boys, Tat – the fractionally older and smarter (and hence generally ‘naughtier’) one – started pointing to the veins standing out on my too-skinny arms, saying “ugly, ugly, ugly.” I looked down to see what he was looking at and could feel myself flushing with embarrassment, but I didn’t tell him off or even tell him to stop. After all, is it his fault? He’s only a child. Clearly no one’s told him that Victoria Beckham skin-and-bones is beautiful, that you will only be successful and admired if you weigh less than the sticks of celery you live off, if you never even look at a bread roll for fear of the guilt that will ensue. But he’s only young, he’ll learn. And growing up with their mother, who already worries that the youngest daughter will grow up to be as “fat” as the eldest, while the middle daughter (competitive as ever she was when I used to teach them four or five years ago in Shanghai) consciously exercises and calorie counts more than I ever have (or any 13 year old, to my mind, ever should!), he’ll learn that lesson quite quickly and come to have much more respect for his ugly duckling/beautiful swan of a teacher.

I jest, of course. Part of me is very grateful to the child for his honesty, sad though it made me, and hence why I did not tell him off but instead redirected his attention to the work of the day. Because children are like that: they say it as they see it. Sometimes, yes, they know – as Tat did – that it is cruel and hurtful; they are purposefully winding you up, exercising their power over you, and then…? I would say it is the adult’s role to step in and socialise them, not let them get away with teasing and hurting other people. But as teachers it is also important to stand apart and not allow them to hurt you – perhaps not allow anyone, young or old, to hurt you with words. As our yoga and mindfulness teacher has been telling us, they are just concepts and one person’s concept can be very different from your own, but it does not make it either right or wrong. Tat is simply telling it how he sees it. You might say his concept are limited – he does not understand why I look like this – but essentially, I would agree with him: it is “ugly”, but more than that – for me, it is sad, a sign that I am overworked and underfed, still under-loving myself. But I will not let his comments or anyone else’s hurt me and bring me down. I will only allow his words to inspire me towards better health, not drag me down into a circle of self-criticism and self-hatred. For I know only too well where that will keep me: in unhappiness, in “ugliness.”

You might say, however, that this is easier said than done, and I would agree. I know only too well what it is to have negative personal comments and looks directed your way each and every day. When I returned from India last year, a shadow of my former self, I had to put up with people every day saying something about my weight, even one bizarre time congratulating me on my diet and wanting to know how I did it!? “Are you crazy?!” I wanted to scream. “Do you think I want to be like this? Do you think it’s fun to be collapsing in the middle of the night with diarrhea? To be stuck in the middle of nowhere in a monsoon that is killing hundreds of people and infecting our drinking water? To be cut off from all contact with friends and family? To be so weak with hunger you fear you are going to die?” Well, I didn’t say this either. I just shrugged, smiled and walked away, keeping my tears, my sadness for myself to learn from, to deal with. That time I knew better; I knew it was not my fault. But with anorexia it is harder, and it is lonelier, partly because you feel it is your fault, that you have no one else but yourself to blame. All by yourself, with yourself, killing yourself each and every day. But I don’t want to think like this. I know I have to rise above playing the victim and rise above playing the bully or judge. The first rule of being alone, all by myself – in one’s yoga practice as in life – is about cultivating compassion. It’s about love.

And this is what transpired yesterday. For after teaching the boys and leaving the Peak, I went to Central, tired though I was, for a gentle hour of yoga. Sometimes, for me, it is as much about taking yourself to a clean, neutral space and being around familiar and un-familiar people. But as it was, the bus was running late and by the time I arrived the only person in the changing room was Carol. Carol, aiya! How can I describe Carol? She’s the Cruella Devil, Devil Wears Prada, Know It All of Hong Kong high society who happens to patronise the same gym and yoga classes as I and who, over the years, has taken great delight in prying into my affairs – health, wealth, relationships, career, soul – causing possibly more hurt than any three-year-old could and yet with a sort of blindness and insensitivity that suggests she does not intend it and would be mortified if she knew she’d offended you, as I one time had to suggest to her that she had. So it was only Carol, finishing up and getting ready for her usual Sunday brunch at the yacht club with her mother, asking me – as I hurried in and hurriedly undressed – how I was and where I was living, and basically (so it felt) trying get a few more scraps of information to add to her file on me. But bleary-headed and late as I was I answered everything wrong – not at all to her satisfaction – and before I knew it I was stressed, trying to explain how the estate I lived on (next door to hers as it happens) was “far away” when she affirmed it was not. Aiya!

So, by the time I arrived in Arno’s class of only three other people I was grateful for the silence and simplicity of yoga: a few gentle sun salutations, a couple of standing poses, a headstand or three, and some floor stretches… I wanted to cry. Sometimes the sadness and emotion that’s been raising up in us through the weeks – sparked by little or big things – comes out in a deep seated forward bend, hip opener or groin stretch. (Or, at least in my experience. For others, I appreciate, it could just be more physical pain that is being felt.) A number of things, not least my run in with Carol and Tat that morning, was coming out: the dream I had had the previous night involving my ex, the exercises we had done on the yoga course the couple of days before…

The exercise on Friday had been to look deeply into the eyes of the person opposite you for two whole minutes, just observing their features, your thoughts, their breath and whatever else came up. The partner I had was someone I had spoken to a few times, someone shy on the outside but as I knew quite sociable and friendly, warm and caring on the inside; someone, perhaps, seeking greater confidence, greater love, greater acceptance from the world. But, as I looked into her eyes and saw all this – the sadness, the plea “Don’t judge me” – I suddenly wondered how much of what I was seeing was a reflection of myself. Was she looking so sad and earnest because she was seeing the same things in me? Was I only reading in her expression my own feelings of low self-worth, fear of judgement, desire for love, friendship and acceptance? It was powerful stuff, and the next exercise was no less so.

This time we had to sit in groups of four or five, looking at one group at a time as they went to stand at the front of the class. Again, we did this in complete silence, observing the people standing up, observing our thoughts, feelings, breathing. And as the second group stood up to take their turn, I caught myself thinking “Oh yes, I like all these people,” as if I hadn’t liked everyone in the previous group, had been able to find some fault with each of them, but luckily this group would be spared that. “How awful!” the next thought came. “You are judging everyone, trying to find something to say or think about each one – this one’s pretty, that one’s good at yoga, I like her clothes, I don’t know her so much, she’s shortest in the group, etc etc etc. How exhausting! Can’t you just stop thinking for a bit? Can’t you just stop judging?” And that’s when I started to cry, when I realised how much time I spent, how much of my life was being wasted, judging – not really others, but myself.

Then there was the dream: I was back with my boyfriend, though I am not sure I wanted to be or that we were properly together, not like before. (Dreams are annoying like that: kind of vague – but then, some relationships are like that too.) And I remember I wanted to catch a train; I was going to see Alan, the yoga guy in India. But we were sitting in the waiting room and just kept missing the train, or the bus, or anything that came by, and finally I was getting so frustrated that I just went out of the waiting room into the snowy street platform and hailed a passing taxi. There were already quite a few people in it, so my ex and I had to squeeze in, when I suddenly realised that it was going in completely the wrong direction and I just wanted to get out. We paid our share of the fare and as I got out of the car I turned to my ex and said something to the effect that I didn’t want to be with him anymore, that I wasn’t going anywhere the whole time I was with him, that it felt as if he didn’t really want to be going anywhere and was cursing – jinxing – every plan for foreign travel I made, every plan for us, our future. It would be better, I said, to go on alone, by myself. I’d get there quicker, I said, without him. And I think we left each other, or at least, the dream ended there, the scene – the relationship – dissolved. But as with all those heavy, involved dreams, it had lingered – through my shower, through breakfast and into teaching the twins, finally to come out in all its sadness during that yoga class, so that by the time I left the gym to meet my friends, I really did not feel good company at all, just sad and introspective. I just felt I wanted and would be better off being alone.

Added to this, the weather that we’d been counting on to stay dry for our walk up to the Peak to take photos had failed us, starting to rain (again) just at the crucial moment. IFC mall and all its coffee shops were crowded and when I met them I could tell we were all a bit fed up. Talk of the weather – English and Hong Kong – was dragging us down, barely disguising our ennui and disappointment: what were we going to do with ourselves now that all our best laid, most looked forward to plans had failed?

Yet, arriving at Agnes B – pregnant friend, Jacky, was starving – we were lucky to take the last vacant table and were able to hover in front of the menu board for a good ten minutes trying to decide between designer cafe lattes, before finally enjoying a rambling, lighthearted and reviving conversation about photography-art-literature-film-children-writing-etc-etc-etc. Within minutes of sitting still, slurping some warm gingery soya coffee, and relaxing while Lloyd took the pressure of “how does your new camera work” off me and went to work finding out himself, I felt better. All that melancholy, bluesy stuff of wanting to be alone was behind me. I realised I was alone. Of course I was. I was meeting up with my married, happily expectant friends for “coffee” (Jacky is off caffeine and Lloyd seemed to be keeping her company with an iced tea and a shared panini) alone, by myself, no boyfriend in tow. But that was how I wanted it, that was my choice. Because in terms of A relationship, it was not going to make me happy – not right now. The dream was all too symbolic of how I felt, of my conceptions about the relationship – whether he would agree or not, whether objectively valid or not, it was how I felt, how I saw it, and I wanted more than anything to be free, to come and go, to be myself, to choose my own role rather than feel it was dictated by someone else, their needs, their expectations. So I was alone, but for now not sad, not lonely. I had myself and I had these, my friends and their best intentions to help me while I was here – not only take photos without the lens cap still on, my finger over the lens etc etc – but to get better, to help myself get better.DSC_0008

And so I did leave them to have cake, but with the intention of going home, making a vegetable green curry, chatting to my mum on Skype and catching up with some reading. The sun now annoying shining and the weather was perfect for a walk, so I stopped on my way through the park to take some terrible photos of the carp in the lake, thinking of my friends and grateful to them for their company that had lifted me out of my blues and brought me back to the present moment.





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.

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.

Nursing a tiger

“Your flight to London is departing in less than 14 days,” Zuji writes to remind me. As if I could forget. Only last night I dreamt I was trying to fix the curtains in my flat when my sister, watching from her comfortable position reclining on the bed, informed me my flight was in fact departing in less than two hours and shouldn’t I be checking in already? Useful.

Stressful, more like.

It is perhaps hardly surprising then that, arriving in work horribly early this morning, putting on the kettle and returning five minutes later only to find my specialty Chai tea gone, stolen – and not even allowed to properly brew, god dammit! – by my sleepy colleague, put me in something of an end of the world panic, and not for the first time this week.

On Wednesday night I had been rudely awoken by rain and lightning crashing in through the windows. While my boyfriend slept peacefully on, I lay there in the darkness going over the events of the evening, feeling a storm brewing inside.

It is Hungry Ghost Festival here at the moment, the month in the Chinese calendar when the gates of Heaven and Hell are believed to open and the spirits of your dead ancestors come back to visit the living. Offerings of food, incense, paper money and goods (clothes, mobile phones, a new car – whatever you think your dead gran or granddad would most like or need) are made to appease their wrath and ease their suffering. Where I live on Lamma Island, these ritual burnings are a common enough and heartening sight. A practiced arsonist myself, I like nothing better than a good bonfire; we always had a fire glowing in the hearth back home and being able to make it was a rite of passage. But as we walked home on Wednesday from our long-looked-forward-to evening together, I gazed rather mournfully at the peanuts, oranges and crackers lying on the roadside, feeling a bit like a hungry ghost myself.

It’s a feeling that’s been building all week. As I prepare to say goodbye to my students, colleagues and friends, tie up the last loose ends and send a few final boxes home, I am left dull, distracted, distant and distinctly without an appetite. My boyfriend is good to me, putting up with my silences, buying me lunch and encouraging me to stay positive; but I am torn – happy to be leaving for new pastures, sad to be leaving him, and stressed by all the things I have to do (pulling down curtains the very least of them).

Still, I go to my yoga classes, seeking peace and calm, an escape from my thoughts and a direction for my nervous energy. And for a while – a few fleeting minutes – I can stand back, see the murk settle and the clear water appear, can feel it washing over me. Then it’s over; it’s late; I eat supper, go to sleep and start the whole thing over again the next day. It’s not long before I am tired, ravenously hungry and demonic.

“It’s like dating a tiger,” my boyfriend jokes, trying to get a kiss in while I hurry to have breakfast before starting work.

“Well observed,” I retort. “Keep five paces back and do not attempt to come between me and food.”

It’s a common enough scenario between us to have gained me the reputation as a vicious, knife-wielding, unsharing eater. “Caring is sharing,” he tells me. But I’m vegetarian yogi and do not eat all the steak, burgers, ice cream and banoffee pie he does. I get tired after a long day at work in the city, come home voracious with hunger and the only thing I want to make love to is hummus. “Stealing,” I say, “is unfeeling,” proving that anyone can come up with a bad rhyme to conjure with. And I have one other disadvantage over him: where he can find comfort in food, I find none. In times of stress, I’m an emotional non-eater and then of course the tiger in the cage is even more unpredictable, to be approached only with the utmost caution. Which is the situation I found myself in on Wednesday evening and the reason I was awake at 3am caught up in self-recrimination and remorse.

I’d started off looking forward to the evening so much it barely mattered that I’d missed breakfast and had only a hurried bowl of cereal for lunch. We were going to The Peak for a romantic dinner. But after a long two hours’ drilling grammar, I was starving and anyone whose ever been through an eating disorder will know that the brain in starvation mode is not particularly effective at decision making. Desperate for nourishment of any kind – generally the fattier the better – it battles against the mind that wants control. Imagine, if you will the dialogue that goes on – the continual monkey chatter of the mind  – every time an anorexic quietly, fearfully peruses a menu. It’s like listening to Goldilocks on the Gwyneth Paltrow diet: “Hum, what shall I have… This? Too rich. What about this? No, too bland. Okay, then this? Are you crazy? Too oily. Well, we’re running out of options; you tell me. Which has the least calories? This one. Too boring. What about this then? But you just said I couldn’t have that. That’s right, I forgot; what about….? You know what, don’t bother. I give up.”

“So, hunny,” my boyfriend says, looking up endearingly at me. “Are you ready? What do you want?”

Words can hardly describe how patient he is, not only suffering me to change my mind several times, but us to change restaurants in the hope that the other place will have what my heart desires. It does not of course and whatever I order will be wrong, because even if I knew my heart’s desire I am incapable of following it. My mind has far too strong a hold on me. I cannot even concentrate properly on what my boyfriend is saying. The constant white noise of my neuroses drones on in the background, taunting me with the regret: “You should have stayed at the other place.”

“Oh, now you know what you want? Now you can make a decision? Now you feel guilty for dragging your boyfriend away from his beef bourguignon and being a complete pain in the ass all night?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, but…”

And so it goes on.

Well, having spent a sleepless night full of regret and self-loathing for having allowed myself to get into such a state of nervous paralysis in the first place, I make a promise: to feed the hungry ghost in me, to make it offerings and present it gifts as I would to a sick child. In short, to try to ride out the storm and get a little better (each and every time I do it) at working through this illness. Because it is an illness, one of the mind as much as the body, and as John Donne said: “of the diseases of the mind, there is no criterion, no canon, no rule, for our own taste and judgement should be the judge, and that is the disease itself…And still I vex myself with this, because if I know it not, no one can know it.”