Visitors

Some days I get more visitors than others. I’m not talking about the kind that knock on the door, or even those that fly in the window (yesterday a tortoiseshell butterfly) or make their way in through devious means (we are regularly visited by cats who take advantage of any opportunity, one of whom belongs to a neighbour but who long ago decided to take up permanent residence with us).

The visitors I am thinking of are those that arrive spontaneously and unbidden in my head, when I may be visited by anxiety, fear, despair, bewilderment, anger, dread and foreboding. I am happy to say that nowadays I find myself welcoming happier visitors such as delight, peace, calm, and joy on a regular basis, but this has not always been the case.

Our brains evolved to react with lightening speed to signs of danger and to register with careful attention signals of fear, anger and so on, as a survival mechanism. (Sabre-toothed tiger! Look out – run!) So much so, that feelings of pleasure, like (my, it feels good to sit here in the sun), – sensations that are important but of a less urgent nature in survival terms, are given less attention on the scale of what’s really important and tend not to register so memorably or with such powerful effect. They tend also to slip away, and don’t re-visit us as spontaneously or dramatically as the negative emotions do, which is why it’s important to redress the balance and give them more of the attention they deserve.

But I’ve also learnt to treat all these visitors for what they are – just that. They come, and they go. It’s no good trying to hang on to the nice ones any more than it’s helpful to stamp on the nasty ones. Far better to observe them; feel them –  there’s no point denying them whether you like them or not – but remember, they’re just passing through. As Rumi’s poem says, better to meet them at the door laughing. Besides, you never know what they’re trying to tell you….

THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Jelaluddin Rumi (Sufi poet, 1207-1273)

Living Like A Giraffe

I have been trying to live like a giraffe. Yes, I know this is a picture of a squirrel, and yes, a more appropriate animal for me would be a wild horse – and no, I haven’t actually been living outdoors, grazing thorn bushes on the savannah or nibbling grass or acorns. But the giraffe is the animal in question when Martha Beck describes, in her book Finding Your Way In A Wild New World, what wild animals do at times of trauma, shock or danger.

Unlike humans, animals (or wild ones, at any rate) are not burdened with anything other than the feelings and sensations of the present moment. They react quickly to danger with flight-or-fight responses, and once the danger is passed they slip back into a state of relaxation.

How very different things are for us – or for me, at any rate; I am still learning how events trigger responses for me that are not limited to the thing that’s happening, but rather go flying back into the past and worse still, skidding uncontrollably into the future. Before I know what’s going on my stomach is churning with the re-lived feelings of some previous stressful time and my mind fills with stories of how it’s all going to happen again and again like some horrible personal groundhog-day.

It doesn’t have to be like this, because, amazingly enough, we do have a choice about how we feel. This extraordinary fact took me a long, long time first to believe and then to begin to put into practice, but it makes life an extremely different experience in almost every imaginable way.

I watch animals whenever I can, squirrels, sheep, horses – and often feel a connection that is completely indescribable in words, and needs to be left that way. Now I have even more reason to remember this feeling of connection, and try whenever I find myself lurching into horror-story mode at times of stress, that all I need to do is to live like a giraffe.

Wendell Berry’s poem says all this and more far better than I could ever hope to do.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry