Simply Be.

This is my birds and the b talk

We sit, stand, lie and stay still. We close our eyes, relax our face and breathe in deeply to the slow count of three. Hold it and notice how everything stopped, if only for this moment, for you to focus on this one breath.

Now the time to breathe out begins. Again to the count of three.

We notice how the calm air feels on our upper lip or how our chest falls as our lungs slowly empty.

The world has slowed to the beat of One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three.

That’s what it means to simply be.

Taking the time to find pockets of stillness in your day is important for it is one of the few times where we cannot be consumed by the anxiety of the future or beaten up by regrets of the past. No longer living at the pace of other people’s agendas or taking the frequent journey into our negative thoughts.

The thoughts that bombard us and attempt to dictate how we feel are allowed to pass for what they are. Unimportant.

As with many people, I’ve had multiple moments when I begin to worry nearly endlessly about what the future holds and my inability to control what’s ahead of me. It drags me away from the good things that I’m probably experiencing right now, no matter how small. But sitting down to meditate reminds me to notice the present. To enjoy it for what it is.

It does not force calmness onto any person but it begins to cultivate a habit of staying calm in the face of stressful moments. The act of remembering to appreciate the present instead of getting lost in the future. Taking time to be instead of imagining the worst.

The worrying slows because we don’t attach judgements to the thoughts that fly through our heads, nor do we linger and follow them. When we are still, the thoughts leave our minds with the same speed they joined us with.

Observing this is remarkable. It separates us from the thoughts we have about ourselves and the other things out there in the world. Ever so slowly I begin to understand why there’s so much joy in being as still as possible. There are many really convincing thoughts that fly through our heads – usually about how bad we are at something or a flaw that’s “obviously” irreparable. Spending more time building pockets of stillness into our day forces us to slow down. And more importantly, it doesn’t mean that we analyse the thought in order to determine whether the thought it true for that is a battle easily lost.

We can let it pass. Attach nothing to it. No judgement, no reaction just acknowledgement.

By doing this, we come to better understand that so many of the thoughts which plague us leave our heads then join us again. Then leave again. They aren’t stitched into the fabric of our minds.

This isn’t easy. Stillness doesn’t cure depression or anxiety. It builds appreciation of slowing down and experiencing the day more on our own terms.

We Simply Be. We do not live for the future nor dwell in the past. We experience how we are at the present moment.

simply-be-web

Pockets of stillness can be difficult to make and difficult to sustain. Especially if you can’t find an immediate reward to the practice. To that I say, simply keep trying – it’s worthwhile.

Meditation is a practice not a solution. It’s something you do and keep doing. In the process, you appreciate its rewards. The journey doesn’t end when you’ve reached your first “moment of stillness” – these pass too. With stillness, you won’t find perfection every day. What you can find is a separation from hectic thoughts and negative judgements. For all you do is be.

How can you build more pockets of stillness in your day?

  • Meditate for 2 minutes in the morning.
  • Slow down when you eat, appreciate the flavours and smells of your food.
  • Take 15 minutes of your morning and make it yours. No time for emails, messages, or mindless web browsing.

And so on.

Remember, to simply be, we…

…sit, stand, lie and stay still. We close our eyes, relax our face and breathe in deeply to the slow count of three. Hold it and notice how everything stops, if only for this moment, for you to focus on this one breath.

Now we breathe out. Again to the count of three.

We notice how the calm air feels on our upper lip or how our chest falls as our lungs slowly empty.

The world slows to the beat of One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three.


As always, thanks for reading :)

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I’ve written more on this topic:

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Care About The Important, Intensely

Create more. Consume less. Add value.

I live by these values because I believe they help me contribute to the world in an important way. Everyone is in this world together, and there’s something special about helping others without retreating to malice or hatred. Adding joy multiplies happiness but adding darkness only subtracts.

Of course, I ask myself (probably too often) for the point of living by these specific values. I haven’t been moved far beyond finding it helpful with creating a better world. Why spend my time creating instead of consuming? Why care about people other than myself?

Perhaps these values aren’t necessary but they are important, to me and I think extremely helpful for many others. So, I’ll keep them up and live my life accordingly. That’s the aim at the end of the day. To be a person of integrity.

Having this conversation reminded me of the book I recently finished. When Breath Becomes Air.

Paul Kalanithi, an upcoming neuroscientist-neurosurgeon who found he had terminal lung cancer, wrote a book. He spent his time in his life trying to understand what makes life meaningful. To do that, he wanted to wrestle with death and the mind. And he did so with grace and did so with quality. That alone is special. Just caring intensely about your craft because you think that it’s a moral duty. He didn’t view his work as a job but he viewed it as a calling. Even while he had cancer.

From all the pain he suffered, a question arose. Can you live with integrity while visiting the doorstep of death?

He answered that question with a resounding yes. Not with his words but with his actions. He never once said that he was going to fight cancer and beat it. For it’s somewhat of an unhelpful metaphor. To beat cancer. What if you lose? Does that mean you lost a battle? Apparently. But were you really participating in it in the first place? It does seem like something that just happens to you rather than something you engage with. The same seems to follow for many illnesses.

Despite the decision to not use such metaphors, the book showed me you can be a bit more generous here. Perhaps the focus of beating cancer or suffering in pain isn’t on whether you survive or the suffering ends. This way, your actions aren’t defined by something you may not control. Rather, it is on finding your values and making sure that you live in accordance with them as best you can. It means spending your time thinking about what is important to you and following these things intensely.

By living your life as such and always pursuing the good, by caring about people around you and never letting them out of your mind, by finding yourself and living as yourself the best you can, that is when you ‘beat’ whatever it is you’re facing.

It’s difficult to say that when you fail to live as yourself, as the values you care for, as a person who does good, you lose. Some things you simply cannot control and for those things, you should not be blamed for. In some cases, you can’t even control your efforts to do so.

But with the things you can control and hold dear to yourself, it is those things which define you. Don’t let illness or negative life events make you malicious or cynical. Don’t let it tear you away from the values you hold dear and most definitely don’t let it steal integrity from you and throw it into the night.

As the poem goes: “Do not go quietly into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I’ve found that ‘rage’ doesn’t have to mean anger. There are always going to be many moments of pain, suffering and death but this does not mean we must lose our will to care. I’ve found there can be so much more to the day if we try to care about it. Whether that’s talking to a friend and enjoying their smile, finding your favourite spot in the library, walking to work and hearing friends enjoy a joke or waking up and thanking yourself for trying to just get by for another day. These are small and my desire to care more isn’t accelerated by the fear of death. Kalanithi’s work is a helpful reminder that it is possible to live with integrity in good and poor health. And for that, I thank him.

We start with finding what is important to us and caring about it intensely.


I haven’t written in a while. I apologise – I’ll be back at it soon enough.

If you enjoyed the post, feel free to share :)

@improvingslowly

Who Would I Be?

‘Suppose you could take away the tics,’ he said. ‘What would be left? I consist of tics – there’d be nothing left.’

Witty Ticcy Ray

Who would I be without my disability?

Perhaps an odd question to ask. The answer should be ‘a better and happier person’.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. I found myself resonating with Witty Ticcy Ray – I might be nothing without it.

For most of my teens, I’ve had to deal with pain, walking problems, and more recently, the resultant emotional fallout. In the most developmental stages of my life, I’ve grown up with it and lived my life around it.

To some, it’s the same as growing up with a favourite sports team or book series. A lot of the conversations you have with friends and family are around this favourite thing. For me, my habits and motivations have been moulded around my disability.

It’s difficult enough to answer the question of who I am right now let alone who I would be without a life-changing event.

A simpler question to ask is: Would I be a better person?

At first, I thought the answer should be a resounding ‘YES!’ I’d be pain-free. I’d read more. I’d have more fun with friends. I’d live without needless discomfort. I’d still be able to play sports. I wouldn’t have had operations 2 operation in a year. I wouldn’t even have to grapple with this question.

Yet, there was some resistance to my answer. I don’t know if I would be a better person.

I tend to view my disability as a negative thing and wish it gone every day. I have never thanked fate for my problem. Still, my answer to the question was not confident.

My hesitation came from the good things that have happened as a result of my disability.

I probably wouldn’t have become interested in personal development as early as I did. One of my motivations for starting a blog was to see how I could improve life despite my problems. In fact, none of my readers knew I had a disability until I wrote Living with Chronic Pain.

It’s unlikely I’d be as concerned about the welfare of other disabled students. In turn, that’s probably affected how I treat people more generally.

Would I be interested in meditation and mindfulness? These are two things I am forever grateful I started.

My disability has shaped me in some good ways. Would I still have those good qualities without it?

If I say I wouldn’t be a better person, does that mean my disability is a good thing? How can I reconcile that with my efforts to get rid of it?

If my disability is a good thing, why name it a disability?[1] Surely everyone faces some discomfort and this is just my personal one.

If I can’t call it a disability, what has been the source of all my discomfort and frustration?

Currently, I’ve asked many questions and given few answers. When I started thinking about these questions, I thought about what I’d be admitting with my answers.

Despite my attempts to steer clear of this, perhaps my disability is integral to my identity rather than just an addition onto the core ‘me’.

Maybe I can’t complain about my discomfort if I cannot imagine a better future.

Now I know that I have a lot more to consider. I have more questions and uncertainty to live with. I have a difficult dance with self-honesty and awareness.

To take a further step towards honesty, I’ll say it’s really scary. It’s like existential angst all over again. Unfortunately, I don’t think Albert Camus wrote a disabled version of The Stranger or The Myth of Sisyphus.

However, I’m glad Witty Ticcy Ray inspired the question. Given the length of the problem and the uncertainty surrounding the end, it was going to pop up eventually.

As always, thanks for reading.

***

1. The quote at the beginning is from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. Put it on your reading list if it isn’t there already. Witty Ticcy Ray was a man who had Tourette’s and was given Haldol to stop them. He became angry because he it took away his wit and quick reflexes. However, he still faced the problem of not being able to live a normal life with them.

2. When I wrote and shared Living with Chronic Pain, I was surprised at how well it was received. To everyone who read it, thanks for giving me the confidence to write more about disability. Hopefully, it’ll not only help me but other people who have disabilities, and those who are simply interested in it.

3. Here’s some more stuff to read:

The last two are positive articles about disability. I’m not sure if I share their enthusiasm but it’s also important to consider that mine is much less severe than theirs. It’s always good to have differing opinions about this subject rather than an echo chamber.

4. There have been a lot of end notes. Here’s another one.

***

[1] Julian Savulescu and Guy Kahane offer a definition of disability in The Moral Obligation to Create Children with The Best Chance of the Best Life. I think I satisfy it but it doesn’t take away from the question.

A stable physical or psychological property of subject S that,

(1) leads to a significant reduction in S’s level of well-being in circumstances C, when contrasted with realistic alternatives,

(2) where that is achieved by making it impossible or hard for S to exercise some ability or capacity, and

(3) where the effect on well-being in question excludes the effect due to prejudice against S by members of S’s society.

Or more simply, had x condition not existed then the person’s well-being would be higher. But it excludes things like not being able to fly as a disability… so far.

Living with Chronic Pain

I’ve been trying to put into words what it’s like for me to live with chronic pain for a while now. It’s quite difficult to explain living with chronic pain beyond ‘it’s difficult’ without seeming overdramatic. However, I think it’s worth having a go. I’m going to split this into three parts.

  1. My motivation for writing about it
  2. What the problem is and how it came to be
  3. Chronic pain and me

If you want the main portion of the article, skip to the third section. The other two are brief and largely explanatory.

For those who don’t know, chronic pain is usually defined as pain that’s continued for over 3 to 6 months. Everyone experiences it with different levels of intensity and react to it in different ways. With that being said, this post will be completely personal to me. However, I hope it’s still useful if not entertaining.

My motivation for writing about it

I find writing therapeutic. Trying to write my thoughts out in a clear manner is helpful even if the result isn’t always particularly successful. I’ve made a few efforts to understand what I feel about the illness. They haven’t made it very far since my initial reaction tends to be nothing more than frustration towards it.

However, what could be more important than that is giving an insight into the issue to other people. The reason why this is important is not because I desire a flood of sympathy. It’s because a simple understanding of various illnesses, disabilities and limitations prevents prejudice and judgement formed due to ignorance. Not everyone has learned to withhold quick judgements so it’s useful to educate where I can instead of feeling victimised which will result in an even worse attitude towards the problem.

What the problem is and how it came to be

My medical problem is somewhat complex and boring to explain but I’ll try to keep it short. I won’t run through a detailed timeline of the issue.

The large majority of my pain comes from my back injury that was sustained about 5 years ago playing rugby. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. In reality, I don’t remember getting hit in a bad way or a specific moment where all the back pain came from. It just steadily got worse until I had to stop playing the sport. I have slipped discs in my upper back that rest on my spinal cord which slightly complicates the issue a bit more.

I still use a walking stick because my right leg is weak because of my back problems. More recently, I’ve also found that my hips are a bit rubbish so that’s affected my walking also.

Chronic pain and me

My relationship with my pain has changed a fair amount over the five plus years that I’ve had to experience it. It’s moved from apathy to anger to optimism which is sometimes marred by pessimism. To say it’s been a smooth ride would only be dishonest. Sometimes I wish that I could keep the bright optimism that I once had but of course, the experience has to change the longer I live with it. It’s the human thing to do.

In the first two years or so of my injury, it’d be best to describe my feelings towards the pain as positive.  Yes, I was in pain for most of the time, but that doesn’t matter too much. I’ll get better soon because it isn’t meant to be a very long term problem. The saying ‘other people have it worse so I’m fine’ often found itself in my justifications for why I was still happy. In some cases, I’d feel bad for complaining about the pain because in perspective, while my condition may have been worse than my friends and family, in the larger scheme of things, I was pretty lucky. After all, I could still see, eat good food and laugh. I couldn’t do sport or do things I enjoyed for as long as I’d like. But that was fine. I’d just adapt and slowly get better.

This reminds me of the time when I was stretching in class and my history teacher quickly remarked ‘it looks like you’re dancing!’ to which I later thought, since all good thoughts happen in the shower after the actual event, then invite me to the chronic pain disco! At the time, I laughed and continued to read whatever I was reading at the time. Such comments didn’t really make me feel isolated or worse off because of what I was experiencing. I just didn’t need to feel singled out because I was in pain all the time.

As I grew older, I began to view my pain in a different way. I went from a phase of using perspective to make myself feel better to feeling frustrated and sad.

The longer the pain lasted, the greater my feelings of frustration and hopelessness became. After two years or so, my optimism slowly began to crack and one of my most poignant fears revealed itself to me.

This pain is normal.

That might sound odd coming from a person who had already experienced it for far longer than necessary. Why had it taken so long for this to happen? If it’s normal, doesn’t this mean I can now live a more fulfilling life around the pain?

To the first, I’ll answer with a brief story. I went to my doctor for a check up on the most recent MRI scan I had taken. As is rare with pretty much every person in existence, I remember going to the hospital happy and hopeful. It was possible I’d be told there was a great improvement in my condition and I’d get some kind of timeline for when I could expect all of this to end. Almost as wonderful as being told two hour lecture would end early. I sat down and after a discussion of how useless my doctor finds my Philosophy degree dressed up in backhanded compliments, I was told that there wasn’t a difference in the scans that I had taken months ago. He’ll see me again in a year and hopefully there will be a difference then. When I got home, the frustration of being told such a disheartening thing resulted in me kicking a hole in my door. (Almost shocking from the guy who enjoys writing a lot about the value of meditation, right?)

Following from that moment, I guess it dawned on me that I could be stuck like this for a while. I could no longer fight it by comparing it to people who were worse off than me. I lost the comfort of genuinely being ok with my situation. I had to begin the arduous process of accepting my condition.

To the last question, yes and no. Realising the pain is normal has led me to improve some areas of my life. For example, I started meditation much earlier than I probably would have in an attempt to find more peace with my pain. Studying, by necessity, had to become much more efficient otherwise I would never get anything done on time. Such skills have spilled over to other areas of my life since being like this has simply motivated me to learn more about how I can improve myself and get back on a normal level playing field.

As you have hopefully guessed, the positives comes with its negatives. Realising the pain is normal has highlighted the fact that being in pain every day and tired as a consequence of that shouldn’t be normal for a 19 year old. With the pain being such a large part of my everyday life, my feelings of loss likes to tap me on the shoulder then punch me in the face. “You can’t go out with friends without being in pain!” “Can you walk around university without feeling tired and frustrated every single day? Of course not.” “Let’s be real, I took away parts of your teenage hood and I’m fine with it.”

Well, that’s what it would say if my feelings could talk like they were separate people. Instead, I’m faced with the wonderful task of reminding myself of those facts. It leads to a strange situation of trying to toe the line between self-loathing and blaming something on my pain. My situation has taken away small freedoms that I usually would take for granted and they’ve cumulated to restrict me greatly. Being able to work on something I enjoy is frequently marred by pain that hinders my concentration. Working on an essay takes far longer than I think it should because I’m too tired to work for longer than 20 minutes at a time. Even not being in pain is interrupted by the knowledge that it will come back. It leads to feeling extremely guilty for resting during those periods instead of making the most of it. Simply living my days without pain in mind was taken away.

Far too often, I fall on the side of self-loathing. I blame myself for things I know are not completely in my control. I get angry when I can’t complete something on time because of the pain. Why can’t I just work through it? Man up and get it done.

As much as I try, I cannot. I try to convince myself I can but it results in anger and disappointment. I’m unable to just brush past the pain even though it’s so familiar. Despite the pain being a regular occurrence in my life, it definitely hasn’t lost its potency. In a way, this familiar thing always feels new. It’s as powerful now as it was when we first became acquaintances.

Following closely from this is the indefinite nature of the whole thing. As I mentioned earlier in my brief story, I was told to wait by my doctor. Years later, I’m still waiting. I haven’t been told any kind of timeline for when I can expect my condition to get better nor have I been told it’s permanent. Given that information, I’ve tried a large variety of things to cope with or fix the problem but none have shown themselves as a solution to it. How many times need I answer the question of when can I expect to get better with “I have no idea”? Having to say that to other people and myself has proven to become a huge emotional burden. Maybe part of me has become tired with it all. Dealing with it day in and day out not actually knowing when it’s going to end has sometimes driven me to the point where I’d rather just disappear. Not die, but no longer exist so I finally have some rest.

If I’ve made it to this point, what could I be waiting for? It’s been years and an end doesn’t look to be approaching any time soon. I’m waiting for it to get better. I’ll eventually be free from the pain, worry about regular things and enjoy my days like I should have been for the past few years. My optimism has not failed completely. Even during the times where I’ve felt the most depressed. This problem is very difficult but I have valuable positives to take from it. I’ve become much more involved with personal development. Helping myself and (hopefully) other people become better and find peace with themselves is wonderful. I have wonderful friends and family with colourful life experiences who have and continue to bring joy to my days. I have a place to talk about this where people will listen so what I have written won’t be greeted with silence.

And finally, I’m still here.

Chronic pain for the most part is silent. One needn’t grimace all the time if she’s in pain nor does she need to cry when she gets home. She can just have the pain and live with it.

For those who have suffered in the past or currently are dealing with the problem of chronic pain, I hope that your relationship with it doesn’t become one of hate or anger. Of course, it’s terribly difficult to remain the happiest person in the world when you feel the suffering is so potent, meaningless and unfair. However, if it’s something we are to live with temporarily or permanently, that time, hopefully, won’t be of complete despair.

Unfortunately, I cannot give any professional advice on dealing with chronic pain but I do invite others to share any experiences they may have had with such issues. Perhaps we can help each other. For those who know someone else suffering from chronic pain, I can say the least one can do is to offer a warm smile and helpful hand if they need it. Depending on the length and severity of the pain, the relationship with it can change quite substantially. Chronic pain is just as emotional as is it physical.

In a way, writing this post has exposed a vulnerability I could have hidden but chose not to. Sharing my experience with it may have helped or you might simply know me slightly better now.

Whatever you may have gained from this, thanks for reading. It’s greatly appreciated.

I’m 19

Yesterday was my nineteenth birthday. I thought it would be worthwhile to share my thoughts on the year that’s just passed and things I have planned for the future. It probably won’t all be positive but that’s ok. Reviews are done so the future can be improved.

Looking back on the past year 

  • University

I started university last September and began studying philosophy. I’ve had to learn to become much more independent and proactive. Simple things like no longer having a structured school day could have resulted in excessive procrastination because I have so much more freedom from things. I’m no longer told to wake up at a certain time or even read relevant books. All of that is up to me now and I think it’s been more of a positive than a negative. It’s allowed me to break the basic monotony of going to school then completing homework. Now, I can travel around London whenever I want or sleep in then order pizza. The new found freedom has been nice but it does have its downsides. It requires a lot more self control since it’s much easier to travel in the right direction when there are signs everywhere but now there aren’t. I’m meant to be an adult now. I’m not. But I’m meant to be. I’ll get there eventually.

  • New Habits

I’ve also started writing and meditating regularly. These two habits have been the most beneficial things I’ve started doing and I hope to continue them with increasing volume over the next few months and years. Writing for this blog and my private journal has taught me a few important things. I know that I enjoy writing and researching articles related to personal development and similar areas. I know that I have many more ideas than I once thought I did about the world. Even if they’re based on poor information and faulty arguments, it’s something that I’ll slowly develop and work on. For the better ideas I have, writing about them is improving my ability to express myself clearly and effectively.

  • A Few Negatives 

Unfortunately, this year hasn’t gone without the bad. This year marked the 5th year of my chronic pain and leg injuries. That’s a difficult thing to say because of how normal it sounds. Over the years I’ve met a lot of new people and this means that nearly all of my friends at the moment know me as the person who is always on crutches. The pain appears quiet but it is as loud as the moment I first noticed it. Being in pain every day for over five years has started to take its toll on my mental health. My various coping mechanisms are struggling to handle just how prominent all of these medical problems are in my life. This year alone I’ve had two operations in the space of four months. It’s difficult and definitely hasn’t been the brightest part of my year but I’ll remain optimistic about there actually being an end to all of this even though the tunnel could not seem more dark.

Looking forward

I have a few simple goals for the next year. For now, they’ll be vague. I have reasons for that and I’ll say why in a future post (if I remember :D)

  • Writing 

I have a whole summer ahead of me and I hope to take writing, for this blog and possibly elsewhere, much more seriously. I say ‘seriously’ to mean I’ll dedicate more time to it, not to mean I’ll suck out all the possible fun from it in order to make it profitable or anything like that. I have been thinking about a number of posts I’m excited to write about and you should enjoy reading them too. One of the biggest posts (which will probably be a small series) is about why the world isn’t as bad as it may appear. For a long time I’ve had the desire to explain to myself and others why it’s better to put your money on the world improving as a whole rather than it getting worse. Another one is to expand on what it’s like to live with chronic pain. It will be personal to me so it won’t be a universal guide for people who haven’t experienced it but wish to learn more. Nonetheless, I still hope it’ll be useful, if not engaging, for some.

  • Personal projects 

The desire to learn everything can be infectious. However, I have narrowed that desire to a few things. Those being, computer science (mainly programming but I wish to eventually learn more about artificial intelligence) and learning languages (Polish and German). Those two areas have stood out to me the most because they are the most interesting and useful.

  • Health 

This will probably be the most ambitious of my hopes given my past track record but it’s worth a shot.

I hope to be walking normally again before I’m 20 and spend a whole week without worrying about my chronic pain. If I had to say which one was more probable, it would be the end of my chronic pain.

Overall view

This year has definitely had its difficult moment but it hasn’t all been terrible. Hopefully, there will be much better content to come and it’ll be a good year for all of us.

I’ll add that the inspiration to do this post came from Scott Young at scotthyoung.com. If you haven’t read any of his stuff, I strongly recommend it.