The hat has me worried

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Its maw is threatening to swallow my peace of mind. Even though it is actually getting along just fine, since I have reached the decrease section without further mishaps. To date, that is. I sought out some expert online advice on the knit4togethers and althought I would like them a bit tighter, they actually look fine and very… controlled. A miracle in itself, considering the intricate fiddling and fuzzling that is involved in knitting four stitches together (the online expert handed me a cheat: knit one, slip back onto the left needle, pass three stitches over, slip back onto the right needle. Still lots of fiddling but it beats the alternative: actually knitting four stitches at the same time!).

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As you can see, I have come a long way already. What has me worried, though, is that I am supposed to continue decreasing according to the pattern until I have 16 stitches left. Now how on earth am I going to knit in the round with just 16 stitches? It is getting pretty tight already and I’m shifting the stitches around all the time. Does anyone have any suggestions?

On a positive note, it’s much better worrying about my knitting than all the other things in my life that are clamouring for constant attention in the background of my mind. It seems that problems can never await their turn like good little soldiers; they always have to come knocking all at the same time.

There have been times where I got totally overwhelmed and felt like I had no control whatsoever. That made me passive, angry, and totally frustrated with myself for being such a wimp that I was unable to make a better life for myself. Sound familiar?

These days, I am slowly learning to let things come as they may. I am being forced to learn, the alternative being drowning.

And it appears that my unhappiness in past times was as much of my own making as it was caused by the actions or inactions of others. I have found that the way I responded to events was at the heart of much of my sadness, fears and unhappiness, as well as the numbness, the sense of detachment and ‘deadness’, that these emotions caused. My way of dealing with external events and internal emotions also had a huge impact on how long such periods would last. Never having learned to deal with my emotions in childhood and then going through a long period of traumatic experiences often left me feeling like a ship set adrift by the storms of fate. I was also much too dependent on the emotions and opinions of others, letting their ideas of who I was determine how I saw myself.

Perhaps you are aware that depression (and I suspect any kind of psychological upheaval) causes changes in the brain. I won’t go into the particulars but what it boils down to is that if you have ever had a depression, you are more likely to experience further periods of depression in your life. It is as if the tracks associated with depression in your brain are carved more deeply and therefore more likely to be used. This is just like what happens to forest paths more frequently travelled; they are worn more deeply into the soil.

On the other hand, it seems that you can learn how to be a happier person, as well. And this is the path I started following some time ago. It is darned hard work, I can tell you. Similar to digging the Panama canal perhaps. It is not so much physical as psychological and emotional hard labour. I am slowly figuring out how to deal with negative emotions like fear, sadness, anger, anxiety and the resulting depression in such a way that they do not result in total paralysis.

I suspect that what works is different for each individual person. For me, part of it is seeking out the company of people I like instead of hiding in a corner. My mother once said to me: ‘When you stop calling, I know you are not doing well’. This was some time after my first life partner died. I still need solitude from time to time, to recharge, to reflect, to regain my balance. But I also know that isolation is one of the worst things I can do to myself when I am feeling down. The hard work is in seeking out company and being ‘sociable’ when it is, in fact, the last thing I may want.

I also rediscovered what is now fashionably called ‘mindfulness’ – simply being, instead of always thinking. I have always had this ability to see the beauty in the smallest, simplest things but in the past years – and indeed in periods throughout the past 20 years – I forgot how much love and balance can be found in the enjoyment of simple beauty. For instance when I am outside riding my bicycle, I try to stay out of my head (thinking about work, the children, all the stuff that needs to be done and worried about in general or particular) and simply see, smell, hear, experience what is around me. I enjoy the time I spend with my children, pay attention to nature, read good books. When I spend time surfing the net, I seek out blogs with beautiful pictures and lovely words, the stuff of life written by people who struggle, who fall and get up and seek moments of happiness, just like me. And I try to laugh as much as I can. It is an absolute truth that love, hope, and beauty heal. And so does laughter. The hard work here is in not falling back inside your head but staying outside, in your senses as it were.

The hardest work, however, has been in how I perceive things. In how and how long I let outside events affect me. Personally, I think it is impossible not to be affected on an emotional level and this is what I always found difficult about Buddhist detachment as I understood it. How can you not let things touch you? I am finding, however, that it is not so much about not letting things affect you but about how you deal with the resulting emotions.

I had two methods to deal with my emotions, both miserable failures. Either I would dive into them totally, immerse myself until I suffocated in my misery and found it nearly impossible to return to normal. I always did, eventually, but this generally took me a lot of time and a nearly inhuman effort. My other method was to drown my emotions out, to repress, ignore and neglect them. After all, what you can’t see (or feel, in this context), doesn’t really exist, right?

Wrong, of course. I think many of you who read this may know from harsh experience that it doesn’t work. It usually makes things worse and above all, it makes you do a whole lot of other stuff that you will come to regret. And regret, I’m sorry to say, is definitely an emotion that we need to avoid like the plague. Because while useful to make you see the error of your ways, regret keeps you from moving on and seeing all the things that are worthwhile in your life.

All this has given me a new understanding of the lessons many religions try to teach us. Now I must first acknowledge that I do not belong to any faith in particular. I take what feels right from each and so cobble together, pebble by pebble, my own private faith. I respect those who need a more structured, dogmatic approach but that has never worked for me. I ask too many questions that usually cannot be answered and I simply cannot accept that I will suffer torments eternal just for using the brain that the Almighty (by whatever name he or she may go) has given me.

But I digress. I am learning that it is alright to feel anger and fear and sadness. In other words, it is right and even needful to experience your emotions in full. But you must also learn to take some distance from them, to realise that your entire being is not wrapped up in them for all eternity. When you are angry, even in that moment you can remember that you will not stay angry forever (or at least you shouldn’t since that would be very unhealthy). When you are sad or depressed, even in the depths of your misery, you can recognise that you will not be sad or depressed forever. And when you hate or dislike yourself or think you are a loser, you can remember that this will not be so forever. There will always be good things to experience again, like love, laughter, beauty, your own accomplishments and those of the people you love. Or in layman’s terms and however dumb it may sound: there will always be sunshine after the rain, even if it is just the smallest ray or the tiniest spot of light.

Like life itself, emotions are temporary. They do not encompass the entirety of who you are.

And while you should not repress or ignore them, it is in fact possible to distance yourself from them and say: Yes, I am angry (or sad or depressed or lonely) and I acknowledge that emotion, but I am going to let it go for now. If I need to, I will come back to it later but at this point it is an obstacle in my life that I need to remove before I can move on.

And this, my dear readers (however many or few you may be), is the hardest work of all. Because emotions (and the memories associated with them) are pesky things that crop up at the most inconvenient times. I tend to get caught up in them before I even realise it. I fail miserably all the time. But I refuse to give up. I will keep rolling that bloody huge rock up the mountain no matter how many times it squashes me like a bug.

So what do I do, exactly, at moments like this, you may ask? I think this will be different for everybody so it may take some experimenting (and failure, obviously) before you find what works for you.

What I do is to tell myself firmly: ‘You are now letting this go. It is not useful, it is wasting your time, and it is unproductive. So you are letting go of your [insert whatever particular emotion or combination thereof I am feeling] right now’. Then I take a couple of really deep breaths, exhaling forcefully so as to really, physically, expel the emotions. And I move on.

Or rather, most often I try to move on. Because as I am still learning, it does not always work immediately. And when the emotions are really intense, my body also needs time to get rid of the adrenalin and other stuff it released in response to the intense negative emotions.

The key here, again, is time. When I am really really angry, upset, nervous or afraid, my entire body shakes and trembles. It is in full fight-or-flight response. This strong physical response is partly due to violent events in my past, I suppose, which may make my physiology respond more quickly and more intensely than it would otherwise have. But everyone’s body responds to emotions in some way or another. And it needs time to get back to normal.

So while I mentally may have made the decision to let go of the emotions, my body has not, in fact, let go of them yet. And I think this is where Buddhism’s detachment comes in handy – you can be aware of the fact that your body is still in condition red while the rest of you has already made the decision to let go. There are all kinds of ways to get through that time: going for a quick run, jumping up and down, listening to a favourite (preferably upbeat) song, getting involved with something you love to do. Pretty soon you will find your body is back to normal, as well.

There is one other method that works for me here. Crazy as it may sound, I sometimes choose to just ‘wait it out’. Some of you may recognise this from addiction therapy as one of the things you can do when you experience a trigger that would normally have made you use (or engage in whatever addiction you had to deal with). Once you know your body’s response and you also know that it will go away in a little while, you can just wait for it to actually go away. And then get on with your life.

I think this is an extremely enlightened response, in fact, in that you really learn to separate your being from your mind and body. Theoretically, anyway. Because I’m still learning.

So there you have it. A glimpse into the life of Iris. I hope that those of you who know me will deal gently with what I reveal. And that those of you who don’t, recognise me as a fellow human being seeking her way through a complex world. There is one thing that Jesus said that has always struck me as the essence of compassion: ‘Let those of you who are without sin, cast the first stone.’ I have learned the hard way that none of us are without sin. Compassion and true forgiveness are among the most godly gifts you can give another. The greatest lesson I have learned in the past year is that you must also learn to give compassion and true forgiveness to yourself.

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