My Journey To Calm – Part 1

My Journey To Calm – Part 1

Once upon a time I was known as The Woman Who Stands In Doorways. I was 25 and living in a house share with three wonderful actresses and a lovely engineer who was dating one of the lovely actresses. We had all recently graduated from drama school and were working in various bars and restaurants to pay the rent while we hustled for auditions and our first big break. Number 3 Maunder Road was a big multi-story house with a large cosy living room furnished with a big squishy sofa and armchairs. And every now and then, when we all happened to have the same day or few hours off, ‘the family’ would gather in the living room to catch up, chill out and recharge the batteries watching crap TV. Except I never actually gathered ‘in’ the living room, or really chilled out in any way shape or form. Instead I hovered restlessly in the doorway, neither in nor out of the room. I’d get involved in the chat, alright, see how everyone was doing, what the latest gossip was (three of us were single – there was always gossip) but I could never bring myself to actually come in, sit down and RELAX. I just didn’t know how to. There was always something else I needed to be doing, somewhere else I needed to be. ‘There she goes, the woman who stands in doorways,’ my friend Noella would say, shaking her head ruefully.

The problem was I just didn’t know how to relax, I didn’t know what it meant to truly unwind, drop my shoulders, let all the tension flow out of my body and just be content in the moment. It wasn’t part of my DNA. I was a very anxious little girl, always worried about something, always in ‘fight or flight’ mode, so this became my default state. I was never at ease and never fully present or ‘in the room.’

This manifested itself in many other areas of my life. I was flighty, I was impatient, I found it difficult to focus, I was always looking for that ‘something else’ that would bring contentment or fulfilment and my reckless pursuit of the next big thrill soon began to take its toll. I partied too hard, I didn’t sleep enough, didn’t eat properly, and working frequent double shifts in a very busy restaurant meant that my body never knew whether it was night or day. I was frequently ill, and always exhausted.

By the time I got married, however, I had calmed down considerably. I had started running, staying in more, enjoying time alone with my husband and actually – shock horror – relaxing! He had the fine art of chilling out down to a tee and was determined that I should learn from the master. So, one night, as I tapped away on my laptop, very busy being ‘busy’ he stood by my shoulder and informed me that I was going to shut the damn thing down and we were going to watch Rome. It was the start of a beautiful relationship with great TV box sets, and though watching TV is certainly not what you’d call truly tapping into deep relaxation, for me it was a good place to start. And hey – I’m an actress, of course I’m going to love great TV 🙂

The problem was, while an hour of TV gave me a much needed escape from the chatter in my head that threatened to drive me insane, there were twenty three other hours of the day when my brain was still in overdrive; ideas whirring around like autumn leaves in a gale, anxious thoughts making me tap my foot incessantly and pick at my cuticles, and that ever present voice that told me ‘I wasn’t working hard enough, wasn’t putting enough into my business, wasn’t going to be successful’ and on and on and on etc. etc.

Things got worse after my son was born as now I had a whole new set of anxieties to chew over. I wasn’t being a good mother, he was going to pick up on all my stress, I wasn’t making enough money, I wasn’t working hard enough, he didn’t eat the pureed veg I made him for his lunch, his eczema was flaring up – was he stressed too? – I wasn’t paying my fair share of the household expenses, our flat was totally unsuitable for a baby, what if he smashed his head on the stone floor (this actually happened), I was doing it all wrong and he’d be in therapy by the time he was 12!

By then I had realised that the love affair with London was over, and I really needed to get away from the madness and frantic pace of the city. So, just before my son’s 1st birthday we packed up our belongings and our three cats and left London for good, moving 60 miles south to the wonderfully vibrant yet chilled out city of Brighton and Hove. I immediately felt at home and a lot of things started to slot into place for us. Ollie started at a really great nursery, I got more regular work and, after a year of renting we bought our first home. Things were looking good. However, my anxiety monkey was never far away, and though some days were better than others, but there were still times when I would find myself in tears at the kitchen table – again –  past hurt as raw and painful as it had ever been. My husband suggested that I find a new therapist in Brighton but I absolutely did not want to go back to therapy. I just didn’t see the point. I knew exactly why I was the way I was, what I didn’t know was how not to be how I was! I couldn’t seem to move on, let go, build that goddamn bridge and get over it. And then, after another tearful session where I despaired of ever feeling ‘normal’ (whatever that is) my husband suggested meditation. He believed that meditation might help me access the ‘calm’ layer of my mind (I doubted I even had one) and teach me how to get that all important distance from my negative thoughts. I might still have them but I wouldn’t be so emotionally attached to them. I was sceptical but, at that point, open to anything that might help, because, quite frankly, I was bloody tired!

A few days later an ad popped up in my Facebook feed promoting an exploratory talk hosted by the Brighton and Hove Transcendental Meditation Centre. The ad hooked me in with a quote from Hugh Jackman.

Huge-jackman-image-and-quote

And I knew right then that I needed to be at that meeting! Find out what happened next.

My Journey To Calm – Part 2

My Journey To Calm – Part 2

Duly persuaded by Hugh Jackman, that in TM lay the secret to peace, calm and contentment, I booked myself a place on the introductory talk that evening then headed off to the My Hotel in Brighton, intrigued as to what I might discover. I’m sure my husband had his fingers crossed as he wished me luck – ‘Please dear Lord let this work, she’s driving me insane,’ etc. etc.

The talk was hosted by a very lovely man named Mark Heath and while we were waiting for all the other attendees to arrive, we were shown a video in which Jerry Seinfeld explains how TM kept him sane through 9 years and 180 episodes of one of NBC’s most successful comedies. I was definitely intrigued. By the time we got to the part about the mantra being the conduit to the seabed of your mind, where everything was still and peaceful and calm, I was SOLD. I bought the book, I signed on the dotted line and waited for the next course to begin.

A month later, half way through Norman E. Rosenthal’s fascinating exploration of TM, I was absolutely ready to transcend. That said, there was a part of me that also thought, ‘yeah this might work on severely traumatised veterans, and kids from deeply troubled homes, and a whole bunch of really famous actors and directors, and even inmates in some of the toughest prisons in the US, but is it really going to work on me? I mean, really?’ I remained paradoxically open but sceptical.

The training begins with a short ceremony and you are asked to bring along some fresh flowers, a piece of sweet fruit (not a lemon or an orange) and a white handkerchief. So on day 1 of my course I raided the fruit bowl, borrowed a hanky from my husband, and (as the only things growing in my garden were weeds) nipped into the supermarket on my way to the TM centre to buy a bunch of daisies. Arriving ten minutes early, I had a few minutes to spare while my TM teacher finished up with his previous student. I sat in the waiting room, taking in the fresh flowers in jugs and vases on literally every available surface in the room, the pictures of Maharishi, the guru who famously taught The Beatles how to meditate and the general air of calm, peace and tranquility that pervaded the room. I’m an empath; I soak up energies like a sponge, and the energy in this room was nothing but restful and positive. Things were looking and feeling good!

A few minutes later I found myself in another warm room that smelled of incense, the walls adorned with yet more pictures of the mystical Maharishi. It felt safe and I was completely at ease with whatever was about to unfold. Our ceremony of thanksgiving duly completed, I sat down in a comfy chair and waited for the magic to happen. And here’s the thing about the magic – it is so unbelievably easy. I had been prepared for meditation to be something of a chore (a bit like running), and having read the wonderful Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert where she describes in hilarious detail how she initially struggled with meditation, I was quite prepared for my first session to be a little underwhelming. But it wasn’t. TM is such a simple, undemanding technique that you can have a pretty profound experience in your very first session. Mark told me what my mantra was going to be and after a minute or so of voicing this simple two syllable word out loud, I then began to internalise it, or ‘think it’ and woohoo – away I went into meditation. As I repeated the mantra over and over I noticed that my breathing began to slow down, I relaxed even more into the chair and though I don’t think I went right down to the very bottom of the seabed I was certainly a few feet down where the waves weren’t quite so choppy! After ten minutes Mark came back into the room and I had my two minute cool down – where you give yourself a chance to surface slowly if you’ve been very deep in meditation. This is to make sure you don’t get the TM equivalent of ‘the bends’, symptoms of which can include dizziness and headaches later on in the day. We then discussed how I had felt during the meditation, any thoughts that had come to me, whether or not I found these thoughts distracting, and how often I should meditate and for how long. And that was it – I was now a bona fide meditator.

Since then I have been meditating twice a day, almost every day (I did have a slip over Christmas and boy did I regret it) and I can honestly say that meditation has made me a less anxious, more focused, more positive and more patient person. That’s not to say it’s all been plain sailing as I have journeyed to the seabed of my mind. The first couple of weeks brought up some serious issues – anger that had been festering in my body for decades began to bubble to the surface and there were days when I could happily have throttled the first person to look at me sideways. However, Mark explained that this was not unusual when the body was holding on to a lot of stress and trauma. As I began to let it go, it was almost as though my body began to protest. ‘Hey, hold on a second, that’s mine, I’ve had it for 30 years, who are you to take it away from me.’ However, after a couple of weeks of regular routine, things began to settle down, and I began to understand what all the TM devotees meant when they declared that the practice had changed their life. It really is the most remarkable technique, and it has become as much a part of my day as brushing my teeth or that 11am talk I have with myself about why choosing the peppermint tea over the Diet Coke is definitely the wiser decision. So, thank you Facebook, thank you Hugh Jackman and thank you Mark Heath. I owe you my sanity.