A Path To Stillness
Or: How I created a mindspace adventure to support mindfulness
You may have experienced it. The moment when you find yourself in perfect stillness, or looking back and realizing in surprise that for a stretch of time you thought of absolutely nothing at all. There are many names and versions of this sensation, most recently collected under the umbrella of mindfulness. Meditation teachers tell us to focus on the breath, to be alert and relaxed, to let everything be present, to let thoughts rise and fall like waves. It all sounds so peaceful and quiet.
In reality, or at least in my reality, it's another kind of battlefield. Specifically, a barren mindscape with three doors, the ground in between littered with mind traps and old TVs replaying scenes (often embarrassing, sometimes painful) from my past. There's a single walkway raised above the ground and you must pass through each door without being drawn off the path into distraction.
Just me? Maybe I've read too many fantasy books.
The point being, getting to this place of stillness is no walk in the park, and to get me there my mind has devised a process, a series of memorable rooms that help me transition from the chaos of the day into a moment of pause.
Just like the classic hero's journey, pass through each room, complete the task, take the ring to Mount Doom and the prize is a vast expanse of stillness. It is looking up into the night sky in the countryside and hearing nothing but nature and the stars. It's floating through galaxies. It's the perfect, unbroken surface of a pond.
What would your mindscape look like?
Below I describe what the path looks like for me. It may resonate with you, in which case let's be friends and drink to pesky monkeys and rooms full of locked boxes. Hopefully it prompts a spark in your brain; maybe an image, or a colour, or a feeling. My invitation to you is to follow that and see where it takes you. Maybe it'll lead you to a moment of stillness too.
Room One: The Monkey Brain
This may be unfair to the attention span of monkeys, but the path to the first gate is littered with shiny things: fidget spinners, scenes from films, half-remembered melodies, all the embarrassing moments in my life on surround sound. For a long time when I sat to mediate or needed focus for a task, the monkey would grab my hand and drag me around chattering away excitedly, incessantly. The monkey is mainly ego, afraid to sit with discomfort and quiet without acting on something. And it knows it all: things I've said, things I didn't, loves I missed, situationships I didn't (but probably should have).
How to silence the monkey? Trust me when I say talking back to it, railing, ordering and giving the silent treatment doesn't work. Instead I give it a ball and throw. For focus tasks that ball could be epic movie scores, in meditation its the awareness of my body thrumming away in the background and the imagined circle I create around me to keep interruptions out. Ultimately, the monkey brain is your old school danger detector. Give it something reliable, repetitive and safe like beats or breath to follow, and it'll settle down.
An odd note: I found that putting music on and deliberately tapping my foot off beat helps when I need to focus. My monkey is weird, go figure.
Room Two: The Fear Locker
Closing the door on the shiny playground, I enter a space that's a combination of dull office and high school changing room; permanently dim and off-beige, with small lockers running in rows into the distance. In a clearing at the centre, there's a white chair in front of a small desk with a screen. Now, this may sound like the start of a horror movie, but the reality is I needed a place to put my fears where I could leave them and not be ambushed by them. Worries about the future, about money, about relationships. The fears of the unknown that can sneak up on you and no matter how many fluffy clouds or waves you imagine they're looming like a rain cloud or tsunami, ready to soak you through.
My answer to this? Put them all in boxes. Locked in a room where it's my choice to take them out, put them on the desk, unlock the box and watch them on the screen. The desk can only fit one box, one fear at a time, and I don't need to solve them, or conquer them, just observe with the knowledge that at anytime I can shut the box, put it away and leave the room. CAVEAT: I don't try to push fears away or ignore them. Inherent in this is the acknowledgement that there is a fine line between having a container for fear, and trying to bury it. It's proved helpful, however, as now when one pops up either in meditation or before I go to sleep, I have a place for them, I have the key, and they aren't slipping away to cause havoc.
An odd note: I have a hankering to get an actual key on a chain as a physical representation of this inner locker. Would this turn into an albatross round my neck? Perhaps (i'm thinking a padlock-sized key here, not the-key-to-the-Lonely-Mountain-sized key).
Room Three: The Inner Mad Woman
Turning the key in the third door I enter a dimly lit opulent room, with a luxurious black velvet chaise long in the middle of a glowing pool of light, a glass of red wine on a simple side table of dark wood. More than the monkey brain or the fear locker, this is the room I struggle with most.
Here resides the inner mad woman, the woman in the attic, the inner critic, the little voice. However this part of my subconscious is personified it's a tricksy and sneaky mofo. It's the niggling doubt that i'm not good enough, it's the snarky voice that says I can't get away with a dress that tight, it's the whisper that they haven't replied because they don't actually like me. This particular manifestation sashays slowly into the light and reclines on the chaise long observing me with a raised eyebrow. She's me - if I had lived in an alternate reality vacuum (and potentially had less treble vodka red bulls at university -£5 only!)
Her skin is smooth, not acne-scared and freckled. Her stomach is flat and her curves svelte, her hair is perfectly smooth, not frizzy, and she knows exactly what she wants and what she brings to the party. She and I, we talk a lot. We can agree on some things: people are weird, rugby is better than football, wine is the fruit of the Goddess. But she can be nasty, and it's usually at those most vulnerable, quiet moments when i'm in the swing of meditating (or writing a blog post, ahem) that she chimes in.
She’s what Clarissa Pinkola Estes (Women Who Run With The Wolves) describes as the harpy brain, shouting down all your ideas before they can come into the world. What I learned from her book recently is that the screaming, mad, version of the harpy we know today was only one side of a coin, that the harpy also had a birthing, nurturing, caring side - part of the life/death/life cycle. But the patriarchy loves a raving, murderous madwoman don’t they?
So my challenge (and it's an ongoing one) is instead of viewing my inner madwoman as an adversary, something to conquer, maybe she is just one aspect of that life/death/life process, and if I had the courage to shuffle up with her on the couch and learn from her, we’d actually get along.
You Made It! What Happens Next?
The point of the rooms isn’t to rush through, complete them and get a new high score for speed. It’s not even to breeze past my inner harpy (like she’d let me) and magically be in some kind of nirvana. If you were hoping for that, sorry. It’s really about taking a microscope to the obstacles your mind can often put in your way and to identify them, hold them with compassion and then let them go when it’s time.
The path to stillness is no walk in the park. But the thing I’ve learned from creating space for these rooms is that they’re quantifiable and I know exactly which door they are behind. I can't tell you how much of a relief that is in managing anxiety in this mad world. Perfectly reasonable fears don’t jump me in the middle of the night, and honestly after a wine or two my harpy is a hoot (and only allowed voice with close friends).
Mindfulness is ultimately a journey of equanimity. Of being in balance with all parts of you. Maybe for you the journey is like a yellow brick road, or a mind palace you decorate. Whatever it is, spend some time with yourself and gently, with love and patience, see what is waiting to be created.
Sources of Inspiration
I'm on a constant adventure of exploration, below are a couple of sources that inspired the above meander that I recommend picking up.
Burnout: Solve Your Stress Cycle - Emily & Amelia Nagoski. A fantastic book (especially for women) and the source for suggesting writing about the inner mad woman, at least now I have brought her into the light and she's not a dementor (or Smaug).
Women Who Run With The Wolves: Contacting The The Power Of The Wild Woman - Clarissa Pinkola Estes. A must-read for identifying, reclaiming, and nurturing the wild woman - this book has always had the right message at the right time each time I open it.
Jeff Warren's Do Nothing Project. A fantastic source of meditation sessions on Youtube. Jeff's simple, accessible approach kickstarted my meditation journey via his Calm course.