The Black Dog

Last Friday I posted a rough draft of this newsletter on instagram.

 
annie palm.jpg
 

After taking some time away from work in January I was excited to write about my process of stepping back. I had plans to write over the weekend and send this out on Monday. I'd been feeling a little flat and grey around the edges for a few days, but that's pretty normal for me in the home-stretch of winter so I wasn't worried. I generally stay afloat if I get enough sleep and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Fast forward to later that afternoon... Unexpectedly, at mudslide speed, I tanked. I felt inexplicably tired, disoriented and close to tears. It's not so much a mood as a full body experience, complete with a small truck parked on my chest.

The black dog has decided to come for a visit.

black dog.png

I wasn't sure what to do about writing this letter. 

It's a couple of days later, I'm still navigating this bout of depression and anything else I try to write about feels kind of fake and irrelevant. Obviously, I could just wait until I start feeling better, but it seemed like this might be worth sharing, despite my habitual tendency to hide out when I'm feeling down.

In part, my hesitation to be open stems from a concern about online emotional disclosure. I don't see this newsletter (or really any online platform) as a forum to work out my personal issues in real time, nor as a place to ask for and receive the sort of support and connection I need when I'm in pain. I do, however, see it as a place to cultivate honesty and share aspects of my own experience that might ring true for others.

As I write this I'm being cared for, and finding real-life ways to meet my needs.

What I'm saying is that I'm not writing this as a cry for help,
but I AM writing to say it's OK to need help.

I need it... We all do. Not just (but especially) when we've tanked. To feel whole and healthy we need love, support, empathy and understanding in frequent, reliable doses. The study of neurobiology is starting to reveal the complexity and intensity of our need for connection. We're wired to need each other and we're slowly rewriting the cultural story that positions this as a weakness or liability rather than a defining part of our humanity. Our need for one another is something to cultivate and celebrate.

The black dog and I used to hang out a lot, but over the years our visits have gotten shorter, further apart and less overwhelming. I generally remember that it will pass, which is huge. I depend so much on the love of my friends and family (particularly ones who send videos like this).

I'm also grateful that I tend to orient myself towards the love and warmth that surrounds me, even if I've come temporarily unmoored from them. I don't take it for granted that my brain chemistry works this way. My relationship with depression, while debilitating at times, has been relatively manageable... Some people experience a much stronger pull towards the self-destructive aspects of this illness. I ache for those who don't have the support and respite they need, who are taken under by the pain.

Here are a few questions I've been asking, as I make my way through this wave of melancholy.

What if sometimes "staying afloat" isn't what we need? 
What if sometimes we need to go under for a while, as scary as that may seem?
What if we all learned the skills to hold space for each other when we're "under"? To not overdramatize the situation on one hand, but to call in more help as needed, on the other.

My occasional dips below the surface are hard and scary, but not without meaning. I'm not sure I would be able to experience their value without the lifeline provided by my close people. Their love doesn't prevent me from touching the darkness, but it's the main reason I don't get lost in there.

I'm not suggesting that love is all we need.

Nope... Sometimes we need years of therapy, medication and other clinical interventions too. It's just that none of that can be completely effective if the fundamental human need for connection is missing.

Love may not be all we need, but I think it's safe to say we all need it.

May all beings be healthy
May all beings be happy
May all beings be loved
May all beings be safe and free from harm

With an extra-tender heart, and with much gratitude,
Annie

P.S. To be superheroes, all we need to do is keep taking care of one another.

annie brayComment
What Are the Possiblities Here?

If you're new around these parts, welcome! 

This is my first letter after some time off from writing and teaching this winter. I'm still digesting the effects of taking that space. It felt so important to step out of my routine and slow down. I expect I'll write more about the value of intentional time off in the coming weeks.

For today, I have a little story for you.

I was driving my daughter to her swimming class last Saturday morning. Ruth was reading in the back seat while I ruminated on my to-do list for the (relatively) large party I was hosting that evening for a friend's birthday. Having rolled out of bed a little tired and a little late, I was operating in default mode... A.K.A habitual thinking.

"How am I supposed to get this all done?"
"I should really go to the gym."
"I don't have time, there's way too much to do."
"Other people, fitter/thinner/more disciplined people would figure it out."
"I wish I hadn't agreed to this."
"My neck hurts."
"I just want to sit somewhere and have a coffee."
"As if... There's no time to relax."

This went on for quite a while, but then something else came through. A thought that was clearer and more alive than the previous ones. I felt like I was thinking on purpose:

"What are the possibilities here?"


This is what I often refer to as ordinary magic. Suddenly I'm awake and the impenetrable story I've been telling starts to dissolve. My old, habitual beliefs are momentarily brought to the surface and I get to choose how I respond to them.

I've always lived with perfectionism. In this case, it seemed impossible to host a good party without feeling stressed. No stress = Not good enough in the murky depths of my mind.

Imagine my relief when I saw the possibility of relaxing into my day, being kind and generous with myself and ALSO hosting a kick-ass party! A not-perfect party. A heartfelt offering that would be better because I could enjoy it too. Revolutionary.

 
 We had a piñata!

We had a piñata!

 

Sometimes my meditation students ask me how you can tell if practice is making any difference. For me, experiences like the one I just described are like sign-posts. They're so simple, just passing moments like beads on a string, and yet that flash of wakefulness and compassion changed my whole day. 

By learning to appreciate the magic of these ordinary moments, we reinforce the spacious quality of mind that has emerged. Tapping into this doesn't guarantee anything specific. We still regularly find ourselves in difficult, painful situations and our habitual responses will stick their toe in the door any chance they get. With practice though, we can learn to welcome our stagnant, stubborn thoughts. Once they're out in the light, we have the freedom to make a better choice.

Learning and teaching this kind of practical, daily mindfulness is a big part of my life and I've been thinking about ways to connect with you more often, so we can practice together.

I will be running another round of my in-person Introduction to Meditation course this April. If you're near rural Ottawa south please join me! People often drive out from the city, it's only 30 minutes. The course is already half full so get in touch soon to book your space. 

A new and expanded session of my online Introduction to Meditation will happen later in 2018. Please express interest here.

Finally, I'm excited to announce that I've opened a small number of spaces for students who would like to work with me one on one. I love the time-honoured tradition of working closely with a mentor as I integrate a new skill. This has been a crucial part of my meditation training, along with retreats and personal practice.
These appointments will be held online via zoom. Feel free to reply so we can chat more about this option. Spaces are very limited.

I'm looking forward to connecting in 2018. As always, feel free to drop me a line. I'm here!

With love, 
Annie

annie brayComment
Rest

 

Rest

is the conversation between what we love to do and how we love to be. Rest is the essence of giving and receiving; an act of remembering, imaginatively and intellectually but also physiologically and physically. To rest is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself through established goals. To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there to put it right; to rest is to fall back literally or figuratively from outer targets and shift the goal not to an inner static bull’s eye, an imagined state of perfect stillness, but to an inner state of natural exchange.

The template of natural exchange is the breath, the autonomic giving and receiving that forms the basis and the measure of life itself. We are rested when we are a living exchange between what lies inside and what lies outside, when we are an intriguing conversation between the potential that lies in our imagination and the possibilities for making that internal image real in the world; we are rested when we let things alone and let ourselves alone, to do what we do best, breathe as the body intended us to breathe, to walk as we were meant to walk, to live with the rhythm of a house and a home, giving and taking through cooking and cleaning. When we give and take in an easy foundational way we are closest to the authentic self, and closest to that self when we are most rested. To rest is not self indulgent, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and to perhaps, most importantly, arrive at a place where we are able to understand what we have already been given.

In the first state of rest is the sense of stopping, of giving up on what we have been doing or how we have been being. In the second, is the sense of slowly coming home, the physical journey into the body’s un-coerced and un-bullied self, as if trying to remember the way or even the destination itself. In the third state is a sense of healing and self-forgiveness and of arrival. In the fourth state, deep in the primal exchange of the breath, is the give and the take, the blessing and the being blessed and the ability to delight in both. The fifth stage is a sense of absolute readiness and presence, a delight in and an anticipation of the world and all its forms; a sense of being the meeting itself between inner and outer, and that receiving and responding occur in one spontaneous movement.

A deep experience of rest is the template of perfection in the human imagination, a perspective from which we are able to perceive the outer specific forms of our work and our relationships whilst being nourished by the shared foundational gift of the breath itself. From this perspective we can be rested while putting together an elaborate meal for an arriving crowd, whilst climbing the highest mountain or sitting at home surrounded by the chaos of a loving family.

Rested, we are ready for the world but not held hostage by it, rested we care again for the right things and the right people in the right way. In rest we reestablish the goals that make us more generous, more courageous, more of an invitation, someone we want to remember, and someone others would want to remember too.

‘REST’ From
CONSOLATIONS: 
The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. 
© David Whyte & Many Rivers Press 2015

annie brayComment