Sunday, 30 November 2014

A Buddhist’s ramblings on Maslow’s Hierarchy

I’ve been studying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in class. It’s all about happiness. At the top of this well-constructed pyramid is ‘self-actualisation’, which basically means if you make it there, congratulations! You have fulfilled your maximum potential! It got me reflecting on my own life and the ways in which I’ve (we’ve) been conditioned. The theory behind the pyramid is that you can’t really achieve the next level of needs without satisfying the needs below. In class I listened to a bat shit crazy guy from Tennessee talk about the theory on YouTube. I watched another clip about how depression can be prevented using the theory. Hmm....

At the bottom of the triangle it mentions basic things like breathing, food, water, sleep. I reflected on my own life. Tick tick tick; I eat well...ish. Alright I drink too much Pepsi Max. I consume way too much sugar. I’d also eat pizza every night if I could. In terms of sleep I get about 6 hours...which isn’t enough - I stubbornly refuse to go to sleep before midnight otherwise I feel like I’ve been robbed of my day. Breathing? Yes I am breathing. So in terms of basic needs being met, I can check them off. Woohoo! Can I move up the pyramid now?

...But wait a second! How satisfied am I with those basic needs? I always finish a bag of Skittles and want more. It leaves me feeling unsatisfied. I want to be able to eat more ice cream without getting fat. I’d like better quality pasta. Or am I misinterpreting the pyramid? I can compare it to HALT – Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. These things I watch out for daily which affect my happiness. At the rare chance I’m none of these things, I’ll be sure to find something to moan about. I’m never satisfied. I still want a comfier bed, a new jumper, better incense, more sleep, more Pepsi Max. Give the things I have to a poor family living in rural Mongolia and they’d be in heaven.

Safety needs in the pyramid include employment, family, health. Well I’ve taught English all over the world to university students and I’m currently working for minimum wage making sandwiches. I’m not saying I’m ‘better’ than the people making sandwiches, but I’m not exactly fulfilling my potential. According to the pyramid, do I have to get a ‘good’ job before I can achieve confidence?

It got me thinking about cultural differences. The pyramid is a pretty westernised view of looking at things. Having lived in China I’ve experienced what it’s like not to have basic needs met. Water (drink from the tap and you get sick), sleep (lie on a wooden board with a sheet thrown over), food (chicken feet and MSG), and BREATHING which in a population of over 6 million where I lived was difficult. People wore mouth masks. I also didn’t have heat in my apartment or hot water. The students on my campus lived in much worse conditions. But they still seemed relatively happy. Obviously I can’t comment on how they actually felt, but they seemed child-like and buzzing with excitement. Families depended on each other. They seemed happy. I used to tell my students about life in the UK and they were astounded. And as much as there’s alot of ‘saving face’ in China, they are some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. When I got back from China I experienced alot of counter-culture-shock. I thought the society I lived in here was greedy, selfish and ungrateful. The first time I went food shopping I was appalled at all the choice. To be able to drink tap water was amazing. To sleep on a mattress! I could take a bath! Look at all the cereal I can have! In terms of my life, compared to what I had travelling, I was extremely satisfied. If you’d have shown me Maslow’s hierarchy of needs back then I would have reacted differently. But it didn’t take me long to revert back to my old ways. Soon enough I became lazy and unappreciative of the stuff I had. I got angry when Asda didn’t have the flavour of Ben n Jerrys I wanted. Irritated when the internet was working too slow. Today, a slow internet connection can cause me to flip out like the Hulk, whereas when I was in China, ANY internet connection made my day better. If I could connect to Google it was like Christmas.

Back to the pyramid – love and belonging, relationships, family, friends. Friends come and go. People change and grow apart. I alternate between being extremely sociable to being a hermit reading serial killer biographies. The thing with people is, is that they’re flawed. Including myself. I’ve always craved a friendship group like the ones in “Now and Then” where you get matching temporary tattoos and have sleepovers. I always had high expectations. Alas, friends never satisfied me. So I would literally have one friend growing up. I’m still trying to work that stuff out. Alot of people my age are settling now and most of my friends are married. So I’m not satisfied. Should I go down a level on the pyramid and work on my ‘safety’ needs? How many friends do I need before I am satisfied? Will I ever be truly satisfied with my friends?

And now for the big one – self esteem, confidence, respect, achievements. Again this is subjective. The way I perceive myself will be totally different to how someone else will. Others will see me as bubbly and outgoing. Others will see me as a miserable bastard. It depends on my mood which changes frequently i.e. if I feel comfortable around you, I will be silly and bubbly. If I think you don’t like me, I will be withdrawn and shut off. Sometimes I feel confident. Sometimes I have cripplingly low self esteem. No matter how perfect my job might be or how supportive my family are, I may always have confidence issues. So does that mean I can’t progress up the pyramid??

‘Self actualisation’. Pffffft. According to this pyramid, ‘creativity’, ‘spontaneity’, ‘lack of prejudice’, and ‘acceptance of facts’.  Well unless I’m under an illusion, I’m pretty sure I have those abilities right now. I am creative. But what is creative? I can draw a picture. I can make up a rhyme. But I don’t fulfil all the criteria on the pyramid. Do we have to be satisfied with our job in order to have a ‘lack of prejudice’ ? Do we have to be satisfied with our family unit before we can have an ‘acceptance of facts’ ? There are always going to be things we have to work on.

And that’s what brings me to the Buddhist principles and how they relate to the pyramid. I’m trying to live a life of simplicity and to look within myself to solve unhappiness. I meditate. If I’m not happy with my job then I either get a DIFFERENT job or I adjust to the situation. Why don’t I like the job? Is it something within myself I can change? I ask myself questions and assess what is causing me discontent. Maybe I just have a crap job? Maybe I just have a bad relationship? Maybe I just need another duvet on my bed if I’m cold? What do we change and what do we keep the same? Am I trying to run away from anything? I spent years trying to fulfil my unmet needs - changing jobs, partners, locations, friends, weight, hair, clothes, careers, substances, music tastes, values. The aim is to still have our self esteem intact throughout discontentment, or whatever is going on around us. If you’re happy doing a job way below your skill level, who’s to say you’re not fulfilling your potential? So if depression is caused by Maslow’s needs not being met, then why do people still get depressed? Of course if you’re ill it’s going to affect your mood. If you lose your house it’s going to cause anxiety. But what happens when you have ‘everything’, and still feel anxious and depressed?

Thanks for reading. I'm going to eat a full tub of Phish Food now.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Norway Days 4 & 5

Day 4

We spent most of the day up on Mount Floyen which was a disappointing 5 minute cable car ride from Bergen. We also somehow managed to choose the ONE carriage with a hyperventilating woman having a panic attack. It was marginally unsettling. She was scared of heights. Good thing she decided to go on a cable car ride. UP A MOUNTAIN *Slaps self* sorry that's not very compassionate of me...I mean, I hope she really enjoyed the ride...

The view on top of the mountain was incredible. As was the heat. It was so humid and I could feel my British skin burning. We sat and drank an over priced thimble sized cup of coffee. We were sat behind an elderly American guy wearing a cap that said 'GET CHEEKY' written on it.


We hiked to 'Shoemaker's Lake' on the mountain and sat on a bench watching happy dogs splash in the water. They were so happy. We ate sandwiches and threw crusts to seagulls. We then walked to a more remote part of the mountain, sat on the ground and ate Norwegian pick and mix with intermittent periods of meditation. It was bliss.

We walked back down the mountain through wooded areas and all of a sudden I was transported back to being a child pretending to hunt for witches and elves.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around Bergen looking at interesting buildings and moaning about how expensive things were. We avoided anything touristy and mundane like museums, not because we're ignorant toward culture and history, but because they tend to be pretty boring places. And overpriced. I think there's pressure to do the touristy things like engaging in museums and galleries. But what I find way more interesting is wandering around searching for things and going ''oo look at that!". The element of surprise... Like seeing a dog that looks like Cher. You don't find that in a museum. And if you do then I will be there shortly. Besides, you can learn more about the history of a place by actually talking to residents. We prefer going off the beaten track as opposed to organised fun. Abit of mild peril never hurt anybody.

Troll count - 2 - best troll here below!

Day 5

Goodbye Bergen! Hello Odda! We took the 3 hour coach trip to ''Norway's ugliest town'', Odda. We were expecting something horrendous looking, not too dissimilar to Leigh. To our surprise we were greeted with this fine piece of scenery:

...Yeah that's ugly as hell.

The journey to Odda was spectacular and really relaxing. Apart from not being able to use the toilet on board. That was not relaxing. 
    We walked from the coach stop and lugged our stuff to our next accommodation; Odda Camping. We rented a cabin (or so we thought) on the camp site and were really looking forward to a nice comfy bed and our own private space.
Unfortunately, we discovered we actually rented a ROOM in a cabin. Big difference. We had bunk beds. With no pillows or blankets. So we improvised and used clothes rolled up as pillows. Well, Jon didn't. Jon was pretty much planking. In the room there was just about enough space to do a star jump. Oh and there was a guy outside our door doing building work. We had no proper food and it was a 20 minute walk to town. We decided to make the most of the dire situation by laughing hysterically and eating instant noodles from disposable coffee cups. We also bought a chocolate bar and a Nutella pot. Dipping chocolate into chocolate is simply delightful and I advise everybody to go out and do it right now.

The evening was spent sat on the jetty at the edge of the lake on the campsite. It was so beautiful. We took travel Scrabble and chocolate and let rip. We saw people in canoes and got talking to the SWEETEST Canadian couple. One of them jumped off the jetty into the lake. It was hilarious but I was more concerned about my Scrabble pieces getting wet. Although I wouldn't have minded losing one of my 4 'I's... Oh and Jon proceeded to jump in too!

Troll Count - 0 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Norway - Days 2 & 3

Day 2

Our second day in Oslo consisted of - walking around, looking at a map, getting lost and getting sunburnt. Our first stop on was a quirky part of town called Grünerløkka. It seemed to be the artsy district full of weird antique shops and places your gran would shop at. It was also full of mannequins. Weird, creepy mannequins. Norway loves mannequins. 

We stopped at a cool cafe and I was peckish but wanted to save some cash, so I ended up choosing an item from the cheaper ‘small bite’ menu. Cheesecake. For £7. It was the cheapest thing on the menu. But it WAS a damn good slice of cheesecake. Jon even attempted to ask for the bill in Norwegian but the waiter failed to understand him…

We walked to the cemetery where Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Munch were buried. 

It was cool to find their graves. Plus it wasn’t the most touristy thing to do so we were the only ones there. Not creepy at all... It was so hot I walked past the hosepipes and taps along the cemetery path and wondered “would it be so wrong if I cooled myself down with one…?” After much deliberation my conscience decided it’d be abit creepy if I did. Alas, I sweated on.

Lonely Planet mentioned a cool part of Oslo called ‘Damstredet’ which was supposed to be a tiny picturesque street surrounded by wooden houses. We spent about 1.5 hours searching for this ‘dam’ (ahem) place. Eventually we found it and it took us about 30 seconds to walk through. Sigh.

Lonely Planet also mentioned one of the oldest coffee shops in Oslo called ‘Stockfleths’. We managed to find it and it seriously was the nicest coffee I had on the whole trip. On a scale of 1 to 10 of coffee ranking, I rate it a 9! And only because my medium size mug resembled a thimble. We wanted to eat cheaply so ate at ‘Tullins Café’ which was recommended as a cheap eating place. I was determined to eat some Norwegian food. I ended up having a taco pizza. It was the cheapest thing on the menu.

Troll Count – 1

Day 3

We had a 7-hour train journey ahead of us from Oslo to Bergen and I was glad to be moving on. I’m not much of a city gal and so I was ready to be around water and mountains. I couldn’t imagine staying in Oslo for the entire 12 days. We prepared for the train journey by eating a slice of pizza each and buying a mountain of pick n mix. Sorted. 

Now one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Norway in the first place was to go on the Oslo to Bergen railway. It was supposed to be one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world and after I did the Trans-Siberian back in 2010, I was itching for another cool rail journey. The prospect of sitting on a train for 7 hours didn’t bother me at all because I was once on a train for 2 weeks from Russia to China...And a non-stop train-of-hell ride for 27 hours in China. So I was prepared. Ironically on the Oslo railway we were sat right behind a big Chinese family the whole time which brought back memories. I managed to converse with them a little and practice my Chinese. I had more chance of understanding them than the Norwegians. A memorable event on the trip was when the family ate boiled eggs and passed around a packet cold noodles and spices. Oh China.

The journey itself was beautiful as you can imagine. Every few hours the landscape changed from green to grey to mountains to glaciers to rivers to waterfalls then back to green.

We arrived in Bergen which is a major city in the west of Norway. We chose it because it was a central point to the fjords and the hiking we wanted to do. We were due to stay in Bergen for 2 nights and chose another airbnb with a university student. The place was cheap and simple. I would have been uncomfortable staying by myself but luckily I had Jon to share the weirdness of it.

Plus, THIS is what we were greeted with outside the house: 

...How inviting!

We ventured into Bergen city which was a 15 minute walk from where we were staying and ate some Norwegian food. Just kidding. We ate Chinese food. We then walked around Bergen and saw a dog that looked like Cher.

We tried to cut costs by buying food from local supermarkets. We bought ham, cheese and bread. We were simply amazed by the fact that you could slice your own bread in a machine in the shop. This would never happen in England. There would be lawsuits. And adverts. I get a kick out of venturing into foreign supermarkets and ogling at the weird stuff on the shelves. It’s always different than what we eat in England and I have fun working out what the stuff is. I.e. brown cheese and bacon liquidised in tubes. Yum.

 Troll count - 13. And a whole shop of model trolls on key rings.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Norway Day 1

A bit of exposition...

Travelling is a huge part of my life. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting some truly beautiful places in the world. Some horrible. Some scary. Some weird. Some wonderful. After returning to the UK in Spring 2013, I started getting itchy feet a few months in. Sadly I couldn’t afford to travel anywhere that summer. It’s been a good few years since I’ve been on an actual ‘holiday’...Most of my travelling escapades have been short trips or have been part of migrating to a new country to work. I’ve not had much time or money for a traditional holiday. So after saving up for abit this year, I was determined to pack my rucksack and get out again this summer.

And that’s exactly what I did.

I REALLY wanted to go back to Asia and revisit the place I first started my big travelling adventure – China. Unfortunately, flights are expensive to that part of the universe. So I decided to plan a trip to somewhere in Europe. I really fancied somewhere in Scandinavia (in 2009 I made a little trip to Finland but didn’t think I gave it a proper shot). Now I didn’t fancy a city holiday. My favourite travelling experience was in Mongolia back in 2010. I wanted somewhere like this, around mountains and forests. But with Europe...

So I was told that Norway was super expensive. I prepared myself for this. Or so I thought. I got myself a Lonely Planet guide and went straight to the ‘budget’ parts of the book. I also researched like crazy online for cheap accommodation, which turned out to be, which I’ve used before. Turns out hostels in Norway are crazy expensive. Wherever I’ve been in the world I’ve always found a cheaper way of doing something. My experience in Norway, however, was VERY different. You’ll find out later.

Jon and I spent weeks planning this thing. We decided on the following itinerary: Oslo, Bergen, Odda, Eidfjord, Voss, then back to Oslo. We gave ourselves 12 days. Sounds simple? Not long? Well...yeah...on paper. It’s complex. Thing about planning a backpacking trip is that you have to start RIGHT from the beginning and plan every little detail. You find timetables (which normally have to be re-checked) and ticket prices. You gotta make sure you have enough time between inbetween all your buses etc so you’re not late for the next step. You also gotta find out WHERE you’re staying, which takes another couple of hours (you don’t wanna book a place 20 miles from your hostel). You gotta research and compare prices on everything. I have some experience planning a big trip (backpacking through Europe and Asia in 2010), but this one I felt was more complicated due to our finances...Anyway. After LOTS of planning and frustration, we were good to go.

Oh, and I WILL be keeping a troll count at the bottom of each post.

FYI – One of the reasons I’m writing this post is to help future travellers thinking of travelling to Norway; we struggled finding the info we needed prior to the trip online. Hopefully this will help someone!

Day 1

We arrived in Oslo early evening via the wonderful Ryanair. Our flight brochure had a picture of this in it - I thought it was worth sharing. If you go to Norway, you could be embraced by the presence of this picture - Any explanation? ---->

Anyway we managed to get super cheap flights that were booked a few months prior. First thing we noticed as soon as we got to Oslo? And I mean LITERALLY when we got to the airport? The multiple shelves of Haribo in Duty Free. It was amazing. Jon and I both love sweets. First impressions of Norway were awesome. We got the bus into Oslo which took 40-60mins and cost between £12 -£16. I purchased myself a student card before I left the UK which gets you discounts in Norway. Oslo was hot and humid. Transport across town was abit confusing and expensive. No Prague prices here. 

We were in Oslo for Days 1 and 2.  We stayed with a wonderful Norwegian woman called Heidi from airbnb, in the north-east part of Oslo (I think). As we were talking to Heidi, we asked her a bunch of questions about where to eat etc. We also asked her “is the city quite safe at night? Are there any places we should avoid?” She responded with “yeah...I wouldn’t go out at night”... Oh. Great. Heidi told us her job. Turns out Heidi is a policewoman. We were staying with a frikken policewoman. At this point we were both a little uneasy venturing out... But our hunger was more important than our safety. We walked into the city. Luckily it took about 20 minutes to walk across the city. Oslo is fairly small.

We knew our budget for meals and food. Norway was exceeding this budget we learnt, after the 20 minute walk into town. I genuinely thought I could do this thing cheap. We walked away from restaurants and walked disappointingly toward fast food places. Even a McDonald’s meal cost the equivalent of £9! We were in over our heads. We ended up eating at a chain restaurant called Max Burger. It was Norway’s answer to Burger King. It cost us £20 for two of us. Our first meal in Norway was horrendous. Max Burger, I do not approve. 

On the way back to Heidi’s we stopped at a convenience store and picked up some pick and mix and cake. We finished the night with a game of Travel Scrabble.  Oh, and there’s barely any darkness during summer in that part of the world. So by ‘bedtime’, it felt about 7pm. We had alot of late nights during that trip.

Troll Count - 0

Friday, 28 March 2014

A year of meditation practice

I wanted to share my experiences with meditation and mindfulness. A year ago I made a decision to change my thinking. I was living a very chaotic, soul-sapping lifestyle. Unhealthy behaviour, unhealthy thinking. It wasn’t a good way to live. Meditation was a big part of changing that behaviour and thinking. Mindfulness practice helped me to unlearn some pretty crappy habits. But it’s not easy. Or fast.

Meditation practice and mindfulness takes a LONG time. It’s not like you can do an 8-week course and be totally free of suffering or be a forever changed person. Day 1 of meditation = my mind is full of crap. Day 365 of meditation = my mind is slightly LESS full of crap. When you’ve been doing certain things for so long, it can take FOREVER to unlearn all that. 15 years of twisted thinking doesn’t just disappear overnight. Or over a year... You can revert back to type in an instant. Especially when things don’t go your way. Which is all the time.

But the problem is, human beings are impatient and want things right away. Instant gratification. Temporary satisfaction. If something doesn’t give me results immediately, I say to myself “RIGHT IT’S NOT WORKING”. I’ve had to be very patient with myself. And persistent. Self-discipline is a bitch. I want a magic pill that will transform me. I don’t want to have to put work in!

When I first began meditating, I couldn’t do it by myself. I certainly couldn’t sit in a room by myself with no distractions in silence. I’m the kind of person who watches television whilst painting their nails AND texts friends, probably with a drink in the other hand. And a year on, I can still do those things. To sit and focus on doing one activity is hard for me, because my mind is always in the past or the future. It’s instinctive. I have a racing brain that constantly wants to be distracted. And my god, I was SO distracted. So in the early days of meditation, I either had to listen to a guided recording online, OR set my timer for 3 minutes. Seriously. Three minutes. I couldn’t do longer than that by myself with my own thoughts. I found as soon as I closed my eyes and made the willingness to meditate, my mind would start thinking of all the stuff I needed to do that day. It was like “HEY EMILY YOU NEED TO TAKE THAT CHICKEN OUT THE FRIDGE TO DEFROST. OH AND PAY THAT BILL. OH AND IRON YOUR CLOTHES. OH AND SOLVE YOUR WHOLE LIFE PROBLEM ALL AT ONCE”. It was torture. So at the start I did a few minutes per day. After about a month I extended that to 5/7 minutes. Also, in terms of expectations, I had it all wrong. I thought meditating was thinking about nothing. Or reaching enlightenment. It’s all bollocks. And that’s the point where most people stop meditating, because they don’t reach that zen mental place. For me, it’s just about being present and focusing on your body and breath. And contemplating. Calming those racing thoughts. I find when my body is relaxed, so is my mind. Anyway, slowly over time, I managed to do 10 minutes of silent meditation daily all by myself with no guidance.

I eventually began to see the effects of meditation in my daily life, even when I wasn’t meditating – my irritability and anger started to lessen. All those little things that build up, like being late for an appointment... or the remote control not working... or my laptop freezing. These things can make my blood boil (first world problems eh?). Meditation practice helps with these things. And when I apply those principles to bigger things, it can have a tremendous effect. You can start to step back. Those tiny things that build up can have a detrimental effect on the world around you. For example when I have little 5 things I’m irritated by, I tend to give off an air of hostility. And when I’m feeling hostile, I take it out on the people around me. I lash out. Hurt people, HURT people.

When I lived in Prague, a few of us would meet every Sunday morning and practice meditation and mindfulness. We would do 45 minutes of silent meditation and then listen to an online talk about a variety of topics – fear, anger, depression, impatience... anything. It opened my mind to a whole other way of thinking. And 45 minutes is LONG. I struggled at first. But I experienced some pretty interesting things during it. My mind went to places it’d never been to before. It would take me about 15 minutes to calm down and be present. And I’d get sleepy. REAL sleepy. To the point where sometimes I’d drift off to sleep. It’s because my body isn’t used to sharpening its concentration through being still.

A year on, after many retreats and meditation groups attended, I’ve reached enlightenment. Just kidding. My head is still full of crap. I expected to be a perfect little Buddhist by now. But that’s been a big learning experience in itself. I can’t expect to be a certain way when I’ve conditioned myself to think in such damaging ways. For a while, I’d beat myself for thinking in certain ways. “That’s not a very Buddhist way of thinking”. Well duh. Why am I trying to be something I’m not? I’m a 26 year old neurotic female. I can be impatient. Intolerant. Selfish. Depressed. Anxious. Extremely self-centred. But, through meditation and mindfulness (and some other tools like CBT and the 12 steps), I’m reaching some acceptance about myself. I’m a human being with flaws. And incredibly westernised. I’m aware of this stuff today, instead of pretending like I’m not those things. It’s pointless acting like I don’t have anger, for example. It just suppresses it and then comes out in ways I don’t expect it to.
There have been some massive changes in the last year within myself. Even though I have the flaws mentioned above, I’m much calmer and kinder today. I say ‘thankyou’ to people and show gratitude. I don’t just think about my wants and needs. My relationships have improved significantly, because I’ve learnt how to be there for others. I’ve learnt how to be grateful. Show love and care. Pay compliments and praise.

At the moment I’m practicing one of the teachings in Kadampa Buddhism, which is ‘wishing others happiness’. This concept is about how getting out of yourself can actually be the root of your own happiness. Wanting others to be happy helps you forget about your own selfish wants. I.e. when you’re driving in a car park and see a space free and you go to drive into it but some arsehole takes your space, you get annoyed. You think that’s YOUR space. Well why is it MY space? Do I own it? Why is the universe centred around ME? Aren’t other people important? Isn’t the space anybody’s? – This kind of awareness is great for me because it helps me to stop being so goddamn selfish. If the bus is late, how is this going to affect ME. If the TV isn’t working, I won’t be able to watch MY favourite show. I’ve conditioned my mind to react in such ways that I carry a bagload of selfishness. The more I act in these ways, the more I’m focused on my own happiness, rather than other people’s. So what happens is when you think about other people, you forget about how bad/miserable you feel, therefore you get away from feeding your own ego/self-importance. Instead of “why me...poor me...things aren’t going my way...” and then getting into a negative slump, you can learn to appreciate the smaller things in life. Seeing people you care about happy can actually be amazing. It can improve your relationships and outlook on life. It’s hard to articulate but you just have to try it and find out what I mean. It has a huge domino effect on your daily life, I swear. It certainly has helped me in the last few days whenever I’ve found myself spiralling into negative thoughts.

So I highly suggest meditation and mindfulness practice for anyone. Especially if you’re like me and can get sucked into negative slumps.
Let me know if you want any guidance or resources to help get you started I Hope you’ve enjoyed reading!

Thursday, 19 September 2013

236 Days Without Alcohol. Going teetotal.

On the 25th January 2013, I consumed my last alcoholic beverage.

I don't remember what my last drink was, but based on my predictable nature I'm 90% sure it was some cheap-ass white wine from the Vietnamese shop near my flat in Prague. And probably a couple of vodka and diet cokes to speed up the effects of the wine. I've never been a classy drinker. You won't find a cheeseboard near this girl.

At what point did I realise alcohol was becoming a problem for me? Why now? What was the turning point? I mean, nothing had really changed in terms of HOW I drank or WHAT I drank. But maybe that was the problem...The way I drank at 16 was in many ways the same way I drank when I was 25. The difference between being 16 and being 25, is that you can no longer get away with saying things like:

"I'm just experimenting! You're such a square!"

"Everyone my age does this!"

"You don't know how to have a good time! Let's go get WASTED and steal traffic cones!"

"You just don't get it. I'm troubled. My parents don't understand me and I hate my life!"

Most of us have drank like students; the obligatory nights out where someone always ends up puking up outside a club after too many double-vodka-redbulls, house parties where someone ends up vomiting into your mum's favourite saucepan, drinking games where someone ends up setting fire to their back garden whilst burning their Dad's tomato plants, or even 'a quiet night in with a bottle of wine which always turns into a bottle of vodka'.  People often based how good their night was depending on how messed up they got. The problem was, was that I was always that someone who took it too far. It was rarely one of my friends and if it was, I sure as hell wasn't looking after them. I was too busy looking after myself.

...It's just British culture. Student culture. This generation of binge drinkers. Take a chill pill, love. In fact why don't you relax with a glass of wine?

Between 17 - 18 I'd call my friends up the morning after a night out and exchange 'craaaazy stories' about what hilarious antics took place the night before. It was part of the fun; hearing about stuff you apparently did, saying "ooo I never did that! Hehehehehaha aren't I wacky!"...........Well. That stops being fun. Once you grow up and get into adulthood, that stuff isn't funny anymore. You have a job. Some responsibility. The morning after phonecalls are more like "what the f*** happened last night? Did I do something stupid? Please tell me I didn't do X or Y. Oh no...  I wish I could take that back. How could I have done that?! I'm a terrible person" - You begin feeling a sense of overwhelming dread. You know you've done something bad but you can't remember what. You wish you had a tardis so you could go back in time and take back whatever shitty thing you did. Too bad tardises suck. And don't exist. Blackouts aren't necessarily where you lose consciousness, blackouts are where you have NO MEMORY of what happened. Blackouts became more and more frequent with me. I think part of me enjoyed them too.

The first time I got drunk was amazing. I was about 14 and I drank a few glasses of 'Bucks Fizz' around Christmas. I felt wobbly and light headed, but also energetic and full of confidence. I could talk. Dance. Laugh. Make jokes - Cut to 25 and I was incapable of going out to a social event without alcohol being involved. I think I've had ONE drink, a few times. Maybe on my 25th birthday I had a cocktail at lunch. I often drank to get drunk. I'd often have drinks before I went out just so I felt confident enough to be around people. I had a fear that people would think I was boring. In reality, I was losing myself more and more every time I drank. I put on this fake persona of "I'm a cool, calm and collected sophisticated woman and I won't take any crap off anyone!" I felt untouchable. And I was lucky because my hangovers were very manageable. I knew my limits. I haven't thrown up from alcohol for a good few years.

What I realise now, almost 8 months on from putting the drink down, is that I was very deceptive about my drinking. To myself and others. I'd have guilt all the time. The lying, sneaking, hiding... I'd been doing that for a few years.  Anyone who drank like I did know what I'm talking about. By 23, a 'great night' for me was sitting in my flat by myself watching a film with a bottle of vodka and some diet coke. I was very content. I loved being by myself. I didn't need anyone. But take the vodka away and I was bored and miserable. Alcohol made crappy TV tolerable, and good TV even better. It made lots of things go away - sadness, self-loathing, boredom. But it also made me incredibly selfish, self-pitying and boring. It made travelling to different countries easy and I had no fear. I never got homesick. It made changing jobs easy. It made going into classrooms and teaching 50 students easy.

Going teetotal

I could have kept on drinking for a good few years and I'm sure my liver would still be in tact. I'm young. My physical health didn't take much of a hit, aside from digestive problems and such. I hadn't lost a family or been arrested. I was just unhappy. And I knew putting the drink down was the start...

It's not been easy. It's like being hurled into the world as a foetus and starting all over again...learning things all over again. Like how to deal with feelings of inadequacy. Or being rejected for a job. Or going through a break-up. Or moving back in with my family. I had to start developing some tools to deal with all this 'life stuff'. The first few months were rough. Talk about self-loathing. But I've changed a lot, for the better. 8 months isn't actually that long, not when I spent 10 years doing the exact wrong things. It's one day at a time. It takes a complete psychic change, which is how I've got into Buddhism and spirituality and all this new-age-hippie-stuff. Don't worry, I'm not all gung-ho and eating quinoa and dancing around naked with a tambourine, but I'm certainly more mindful than I used to be, which isn't so hard considering I was a cynical atheist who mocked people who were religious. I just got sick of being sick and tired. I mean jeez, an idea of a good night for me NOW is to play a game of Battleships with a friend and sip Elderflower juice and eat jammie dodgers.

That being said, I still have the 'fuck it' button where I want to go out and do something reckless. I still have urges to drink, especially if something doesn't go my way. But even when things are good and it's a beautiful sunny day I want to go to the beer garden and drink (which is ironic since I NEVER drank so casually!...but it's the lure of the drink...I never drank like a lady.) I still want a quick release and switch off. I still miss that fire in your belly when the first drink goes down. And I mean...come is kind of dull without the crazy highs and lows when that's all you've known. I used to seek that stuff. It's just adjusting to the nice, serene existence that so many others seem to live in. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't lured by the chaos and destruction. But it will take a while to undo. Or so I'm told. And to be fair, I have had some amazing times in sobriety. Some natural highs that have been unbelievable. I have confidence to get up on stage and sing/play guitar to people. That's a miracle to me. I used to only do that whilst drunk. And I'd say I'm a lot nicer these days and less selfish. I actually think about other people. I have a conscience. I cry at happy things, like when somebody cooks something nice on Masterchef and gets complimented by the judges. I even hoover up for my mum without going into a strop. Or helping my dad attach a document onto an email without huffing and puffing, even though I've showed him a million times. Progress, not perfection...

And to conclude, I will leave you with a list of positive things that come from abstinence that you too could have! -

  •  Think of all the money you will save that you can spend on sweets.

  • Not having to listen to the same mindless conversations in the pub. People talk some absolute shite when they drink. Like, complete tripe. I know this because I was one of those people.

  • No hangovers! Yay! Think of all the FB statuses you will read on Sunday mornings and feel like a superhuman being. You're only one step away from the power of flight.
  • You don't have to worry about where you've left your phone. It's in your pocket, dumbass. Or on the table sat in a pool of jagermeister and spit if you are drinking.
  • Actually remembering the ending to a film. Unless it's The Avengers or Twilight, in which case you've probably turned it off because you're so bored.
  • Being able to own a camera longer than 6 months. (I'd lose it or break it whilst on a night out. This is my 4th camera.)
  • Remembering whether you've seen that episode of Dexter...and not pretend like you have when your BF asks "what did you think of that?"
  • Realising that the 3am takeaway pizza you 'loved' actually tastes like crap. You get your taste buds back and ACTUALLY know what peppers taste like!
  • You don't have to fake being sober. No eye drops. No glazed eyes!
  • Less toilet paper! (You know what I'm talking about...)
  • Not worrying whether people can smell vodka on your breath the day after.
  • Remembering if you've left your door unlocked. Or your hair straighteners on.
  • Having clothes that don't have cigarette burns on them. Or pant-leg-bottoms soaked in Sambuca and bathroom juices.
  • No drunk-dialling or emailing. Imagine all those innocent people you've saved from your drunken emotional outbursts? (A friend of mine showed me an ipod app for this. Where the hell was this when I needed it?)
  • Not having hideous/horrendous drunken photographs on FB where you're singing glazed-eyed to Bon Jovi in a club holding 4 jagerbombs for a fiver.
  • And most importantly, you are in complete control of you. On the flip side, you can't blame it on the drink anymore...
Hope you've enjoyed reading this post. I've been quite brief about my story because it's very personal and I've left quite a lot out. Jokes aside, alcohol destroys lives. I'm lucky that I got the desire to change so young and had people around me who inspired me. I'd be lost without them and have made some wonderful friends in sobriety. Real friends, not drinking buddies. If you think you'd like to give up drinking or that you may have a problem, I'd love to hear from you. Loves.


Wednesday, 1 May 2013

My First Retreat.

Oh hey there!

It’s been a while since I last blogged. My life has gone through all kinds of transitions in the past few months. I’ve come back to the UK whilst I’m at this crossroads in my life. All sorts of things have happened and for the most part, once I got past the initial crapness,  it’s been wonderful. I’ve reconnected with old friends, made new friends, became part of several little communities, played music with people, slept in an actual bed instead of a mattress on the floor, accessed healthcare without a translation ordeal… You know. Those kinds of things.  I’ve been running away from the UK for years. Changing countries, changing jobs, changing boyfriends, changing friends. The lot. I thought doing that would make me find that peace of mind I was searching for. 
Well, it’s funny how things work out isn’t it? I’m right back where I started. Despite all the uncertainty and indecision, I’ve never been happier. If you’d have asked me a few months ago whether I’d be living at my parents’ house with no job and no money, I’d have had a panic attack. Well here I am. And I’m okay with it.

I’ve learnt a lot in the last 4 months. Like, ACTUALLY learnt and not just claimed I did. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. I’m starting to figure out who Emily Lees really is when she’s not depending on people/places or things for happiness. I’m thinking about my future and career, which is to go back to university and study to become a counsellor. In the meantime, I’m taking it easy and learning how to enjoy life.

So, enough exposition; the point of my post today was to talk about my retreat that I went on at the weekend:

I’ve always been apprehensive about religion and spirituality. I've always been an atheist. BUT I am now spiritual. I had some kind of awakening about a month or two ago. It wasn’t one of those EUREKA moments where I was on the toilet and a light shone over my head. Conversely, I wasn't meditating on top of a mountain. It was more gradual. I don’t know when it happened. But at some point, I had an awakening. So anyway, I picked up a leaflet to a Buddhist retreat a month ago. It was sat on my dresser for weeks and I was about to throw it away until one morning I was straightening my hair, I picked it up. I saw there was a ‘walk and reflect’ weekend at this Buddhist centre near the Lake District. It was relatively cheap so I thought ‘hey why not’.

I was quite nervous about going. It was the first time I’d really gone out on my own again since I went back to Prague and had some kind of break down and came back home, but I knew it’d be good to face some fears. I went there with my backpack on the train on a sunny Friday afternoon. When I arrived I was in awe of the building I’d be staying in for the next three days. It looked like something out of Hogwarts (I’ve never sat through a Harry Potter film but I’d IMAGINE that’s what the buildings would look like).

The front entrance to Manjushri Buddhist Centre
I was taken to my dormitory and I stood looking at the beds for about five minutes, with my backpack on and carrying a bunch of stuff. I couldn’t decide which bed to take. Later on, looking back at this moment, it was one of the biggest things I learnt about myself during the whole weekend. THAT event exemplified so much. Why was it taking me so long to choose a bed? Well, I wanted the best bed. I wanted the best location in the room. “What if I choose the bed in the corner and end up regretting it because it’s too close to the door and I’ll get a draught and it completely ruins my weekend? What if the bed under the window is better because I’ll wake up with sunlight and be all happy? What if? WHAT IF?!” I wanted the BEST experience. I wanted to be fulfilled and get the maximum out of the retreat…Erm… Emily? As if what bed you sleep in matters! I want everything to be perfect in my life. I want to control everything around me so that it caters for my perfectionist needs. So, that was a huge lesson for me. Perfectionism.

My second lesson? Expectations. I tried very hard not to put many expectations in place and just ‘go with the flow’. I either live in the past or in the future. I spend so much pointless energy on wondering ‘what if’ and play imagined scenarios in my head, all so that I’m ‘prepared’ if anything happens. Well, I’ve learnt by doing that I end up either disappointed or worse, I get severe anxiety because things aren’t in my little bubble of expectation: “We find peace and serenity once we STOP expecting and START accepting”…or something like that... Okay…I’ll give it a go. How does that go now? - I realised by planning/preparing/expecting, it’s a coping mechanism to prevent me from feeling powerless. I don’t like feeling out of control. Unless I’m intoxicated. That’s why I developed an eating disorder all those years ago as it was a way of controlling the chaotic world around me.

Third lesson? Patience. I have zero patience with some things. It’s ridiculous. We went on a 5 hour walk during the retreat which was BEAUTIFUL, however, typical Emily gets impatient. She says:

“I could do this walk in 2 hours. Why are these people walking so slowly. Hurry up god damnit! I want to get to the lake!”

Half way to Goats Lake
I couldn’t understand why people were taking their time. I want things ASAP. If something feels good, I MUST have it. Right now. I’ve got a history of being impulsive which leads onto some unhealthy decision making and behaviours. And on the flip side, if something doesn’t feel good, I want it gone ASAP. I don’t like to ‘sit’ on uncomfortable emotions. If there’s a problem, I need it to be solved immediately. I couldn’t possibly sleep on it and shudder when someone advises me to ‘see how I feel tomorrow’.

Meditating at Goats Lake. Someone took a sneaky pic!
Thus I learnt three VERY important things about myself. I also experienced some amazing things. I met some pretty cool people from different walks of life. The people that came on the retreat, like me, all had unique stories as to why they were there. I also got talking to a couple of monks who were either living at the centre or leading our retreat. We had meditation sessions each morning and evening in a temple. Meditation is so much easier when you’re in a group. During our hike in the Cumbrian hills (which was fantastic despite once I got over my impatience) a few of us sat and meditated by the lake. I’ve never really meditated anywhere outside before. I sat on a big rock and felt like the Karate Kid.

Throughout the retreat we ate in a big hall together with the monks. The food was delicious even though it was vegetarian... By the end of the weekend I was craving meat and scoffed up my mum's lasagna on Sunday night. I also had some very interesting conversations with both the monks and the residents. Lots of interesting pieces of insight. The most memorable one was how we cannot find true happiness from external sources. What causes happiness? -  a state of mind; not in materials or distracting activities. Happiness comes from controlling our minds in a way which can make us happy. The people there are so peaceful. It’s like they’re floating when they walk. They are so happy. When I came home, I was in abit of a bubble. I think I fell in love with one of the monks too. Too bad he's ordained. 
What I passed on the way to the dormitories

I also was surprised by something; I went to the retreat nervous about spending time by myself and feeling lonely. Again, it’s funny how things work out, because I was around people the whole weekend and I actually WANTED my own space, quite a lot. And it links into expectations aswell. I thought I’d feel a certain way and actually I didn’t. “This too shall pass…”

I spent much of my time sat by Lake Coniston by myself, walking around the grounds or writing in the main hall til 1am. 

What a weekend.