Thursday, 18 November 2010

Being alone

 As we’ve seen in previous blogs, we get a lot from close loving relationships, and from the support of family and friends.   But it’s also good to be on our own.
Being alone gives us the chance to rest and recharge our batteries. When times are tough, it helps us get away from difficult situations, difficult people. Have you ever had a duvet day, when you just stay in bed and hibernate? Liberating!   
Being alone also gives us time to reflect, and develop our creativity and imagination. As Libby Brooks wrote in the Guardian last week, ‘an an individual's capacity to be alone contentedly is as much a mark of maturity as the ability to sustain relationships with others’.

Do you feel able to be on your own? Or do you worry that you couldn’t cope, that you’re not strong enough? You’d disappear, sink without trace, get hopelessly lost, if your partner (or your parent, or whoever you rely on) was not there to look after you.  
Or do you believe that you have to stay there? You have no choice. You have to accept all the hassle, the abuse, the violence that your partner is dishing out to you. It’s your fault. It’s what you deserve.
Not true.  Absolutely not true.
You are capable. You have the right to be on our own.  You deserve better than that. You are stronger than you fear. Like Gloria Gaynor, you will survive.

Or is your life so busy, so committed to others that you have no time for yourself? I’m thinking particularly of mothers with young children, but it can also be a problem for people trying to make their way in the world of work.  Having a new baby is - usually - a wonderful experience. But sometimes the pressure, the responsibility, the relentless, bone-crushing, mind-numbing weariness is overwhelming, suffocating.
It is so important, when you can, to carve out some time for yourself.  As the advert puts it - time, dedicated to you.
Being alone is positive and important. Being alone gives us the opportunity to attend to what is troubling us, to begin processes of healing.
One way of doing this is through mindfulness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn brings Buddhist teaching and Western science together in mindfulness meditation. This involves attending to our experiences in a non-judgmental manner. It is about being fully in the present moment, without judging or evaluating it, without reflecting backwards on memories, without worrying about the future, without trying to solve problems or avoid unpleasant aspects of the present. It is about maintaining awareness moment by moment, disengaging ourselves from strong attachment to beliefs, thoughts, or emotions. It helps us gain emotional balance, and well-being.  

[If you want to know more about mindfulness, have a look at Jon talking on – but ignore his crumpled shirt!]
People living with chronic pain and cancers have found mindfulness helpful. So have people with depression. Mark Williams, a psychologist from Cambridge, has shown that mindfulness meditation increases the well-being of people who have suffered several episodes of depression.

Monday, 8 November 2010

What if you don’t feel at home?

Maybe you used to feel at home, but you don’t anymore.
This is a big problem for people who migrate from one country to another. For me, it was very difficult leaving my home in Ireland when I was 11, and finding my way in a boy’s boarding school in England. It is much worse for people who are forced to leave their homeland and travel many thousands of miles, to escape from poverty or political danger. 
Here's how someone moving suddenly from Vietnam to Australia describes the shock of the change in her life. She sees Melbourne as a cold place with empty streets, and wonders how she can possibly start a new life in this strange country:
‘Oh, my first impression was that it was so cold…It was…cold.  From Malaysia where it was hot, we had on only light clothing.  So it was terribly… cold… It was on a Saturday that we arrived; there was no one in the city. … I thought how come there were no people in this country?  The streets were deserted.  I thought now I was in another country, and I did not know English, I did not know how I would start a new life.  That was my continuing worry.’
[You can read more about this person and people like her, on DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2009.01228.x ]
What to do?                                                                    
We are told that immigrants should adapt to the ways of their new homeland as quickly as possible. That’s what I did at boarding school. I lost my Dublin accent and became as English as everyone around me. But that meant losing touch with my past self, my past friends. It was alienating. 
If it is possible, it makes much more sense to keep in touch with home, to live with people from your own background, speak your own language, eat the food you're used to, do the things you're used to doing. Once you feel safe and comfortable, then look around and see what new opportunities there may be for you in your new country, your new home.

Or maybe you’ve never felt at home - anywhere, anytime. Maybe your life has been so difficult, so troubled, that you’ve never felt safe. Maybe people who were supposed to care for you failed to do so, leaving you exposed to danger and abuse. Or maybe it was the people who were supposed to care for you who were cruel, or abused you. 
This is very tough, very damaging. It’s one of the hardest things in the world to deal with.
Sometimes the only place you can feel safe is inside your head. Sometimes you need to create an inner world where nobody can get at you, where pain doesn’t register, where you can escape from the turmoil outside.   
This can be fine. We all need a refuge, and if inside your head is the only one you’ve got just now then use it, and enjoy it.
Problems arise, though, if your inner world becomes a prison cell - if you find you can’t escape from it even when you want to, even when the danger has passed. If that’s happening to you, you’ll probably need some expert help to find a way out.
As there was a way in, there is always a way out.