‘Your homework this week is to practise being in the moment,’ said Jennifer Grace, creator and master trainer of the Creative Insights Journey I am currently taking on Monday evenings. I could feel my whole body tensing with resistance before she had even finished the sentence. I don’t do Be Here Now. I do plenty of Be Somewhere Else Now – as in the recent and not so-recent past, the possibly-may-never-be-future and the fabulous fantasy life I create for myself where I’m five pounds lighter and can run up hills without looking like a particularly decrepit zombie. Here – not so much. I’m just too much of a butterfly; my mind always flitting off to find the next tasty cabbage leaf.
But, you know, homework is homework, and I’ve paid hard earned pounds for the privilege of doing this homework, so I put my positive head on and resolved to give it my best shot. But maybe I wouldn’t start straight away, I’d just see how I went. Do the ‘wandering butterfly’ for another day or so and just ease myself into it. This, I decided, would be the best plan, so I went about my business and didn’t give the Here And Now another thought. The Universe, however, had other plans for me, and just a couple of hours later, a particularly brutal toddler-incubated tummy bug was beginning to make itself at home in my very tired and run down body. By midnight that night, the only thing I could focus on was the hhhhhhhhheeearrggghhhhhhh and now. If you get my drift…!
The following day was what you might call a total KO. Like I say, it was a brutal bug, and the sweats, aches, shivers and judders that accompanied it were exhausting. I managed to drag some clothes on and take the biological weapon (my three year old) to nursery, then returned home to collapse in a heap on the sofa where I lay for most of the day, practising entirely unintentional mindfulness. I felt so bloody awful, all I could think about WAS how bloody awful I felt – but here’s the thing, there was a lesson to be learned in it. I focused intently on the aches in my body, I tuned in to the pounding in my head, and was curious about the involuntary shivers that shook me every now and then. I listened to my breathing, and I was acutely aware of the very strange sounds emanating from my tummy. It was all just so…’mindful.’ ‘Hey,’ I thought to myself, ‘look at me being all Here And Now with this bug. I get it. I’m doing it.’ Now, one might argue that it wasn’t so much mindfulness as wallowing I was practising, but when I dragged my sorry self off the couch approximately 7 hours later to go and collect my wee man from nursery, I decided to put my learnings to the test. Just to see what would happen.
Wee man was in fine fettle, completely oblivious to the fact that Mummy looked like a cadaver, and all fired up to play his current favourite game of ‘giving Mummy presents.’ This involves gathering up every toy, book and cuddly toy he owns and piling them up in the vicinity of wherever I happen to be. Usually at this hour, I am trying to get some housework done, or cooking dinner, or still on the laptop trying to get some work finished, and my mind is on anything but the game of ‘giving Mummy presents.’ But today, as I lay supine on the sofa, being buried under toys, all I could do was join in – in spirit at least. I watched my little boy as he toddled around the room, gathering up things to give to me, and telling me to close my eyes every five seconds because everything was a ‘surprise.’ I tuned in to the sound of his little voice, high pitched with excitement and the sheer joy of what he was doing. I noticed the smell of his hair as he climbed beside me to pile yet more ‘presents’ on top of me, and I, for the first time in a long time, just enjoyed ‘being’ with him, engaging as much as my poorly body would allow with this delightful game we were playing.
And then, I felt really really sad as it dawned on me how much of my time is spent not really ‘being’ with him at all. Oh I might be here in body but my mind is elsewhere, planning the next step for my business, fretting about all the things I have on my to-do list, getting fed up and flustered because the house is a mess. And all the while, precious seconds are ticking by, seconds that could and should be spent enjoying this remarkable little person who, in the blink of an eye, will be on to the next stage and no longer interested in burying Mummy in a pile of cuddly toys. The Here And Now is those precious seconds, they can never be replaced and they are gone before we know it, taking the gorgeousness that is my toddler at his most adorable with them. As a solitary tear made its way down my face, I resolved that this would change. I get to be his ‘Mummy’ for such a short period of time. I get to hold him and cuddle him, look for dinosaurs under the stairs, hide from dinosaurs under the duvet, make blue sparkly cookies and cats out of Playdough for just a few more years before ‘Mummy’ inevitably becomes Mum and he no longer runs to me with arms outstretched for a hug. How can I be anywhere else but Here?
So, thank you to Jennifer Grace, and thank you to the Universe for your impeccable timing with that tummy bug. You have brought me back to the present, where my beautiful little boy spends every second of his time, and where I intend to spend a lot more of mine.
So, here’s the thing – I was one of those kids at school who ALWAYS ended up walking instead of running, literally five minutes after P.E class had started. We’d usually start off with laps of the hockey pitch to get the blood pumping, and while the super-fit and super-sporty guys and gals loped gracefully around the pitch, hardly breaking a a sweat, I found running painful in the extreme. It just wasn’t my bag. I wasn’t a natural runner. I had no runner’s rhythm. My lungs just weren’t cut out for it, and a whole bunch of other excuses I came up with every time to explain why I ran like a zombie. Oh I tried a few times to get into running when I was on one of my many many many teenage diets, because I’d heard that like, running was, like, THE best way to burn calories. So I would half heartedly run ’round the block’ after school and on weekends, never managing more than five or six minutes (at an absolute push) at a time. Same deal when I joined my local gym. I’d see people pounding away on the treadmill for 30, 40, 50 minutes while I invariably ended up walking. I had resigned myself to the fact that running just wasn’t for me. And I was OK with that. Kind of…
And then my little brother joined The Royal Marines. And my little brother had to run – A LOT. For his final Commando test he ran 30 miles with a weapon, a full kit weighing 50lbs and hideous blisters across the Devonshire moors and countryside in the freezing cold – and he had a time limit in which to complete this run in order to earn his green beret.
And he did it.
And the day my little brother passed out as a Royal Marine was a very proud day. And it got me thinking about mindset, and about how absolutely determined, single minded and 100% focused he had been on achieving his goals. And I realised that me not being a ‘natural runner’ was, quite frankly, a load of old bullshit. And I also realised that if I was giving myself excuses not to tackle my fear of running, what else was I giving myself excuses about? Probably, quite a few things that I wasn’t even conscious of. So, I decided, I was going to become a runner.
I bought the trainers, I bought the running tights, I downloaded the 0-5km App for my iPhone and in January 2013 on a very very cold Monday afternoon I set out for my first run in a very very long time. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with the 0-5km training App, it basically does exactly what it says on the tin, takes you from a standing start up to a 5km run one step at a time. So, whereas in the past, I had been disheartened by the fact that I could only run for a few minutes at a time, which must mean I was a totally crap runner, initially, the App only wanted me to run for a few minutes at a time, with walking breaks in between. And all of a sudden I found myself in a whole new mindset – because the first goals were absolutely achievable and I felt really good when I hit them. And each time I pushed myself a little bit further, and then just a little bit more, and a little bit more again until finally I was running a whole 5km without stopping at all. And it felt bloody amazing. 5km – that’s like a whole 3 miles. Never in a million years as a decidedly chunky and ungainly teenager would I have imagined that I could run a whole three miles without stopping. I was on top of the world. Woo! And then I decided – hey if I can run 5km I wonder can I run 10km? 10km – now that was serious running to me, that was what ‘proper runners’ ran. Was I now in the league of the ‘proper runners’?
So I began to increase the length of my runs again. 5-7km was tough – man was it tough. My body had to step up a gear and get used to the idea of pain – because let me tell you it hurt. At no point did I ever think, you know what I’m just cruisin’ on down the tow path here, enjoying my lovely run. I enjoyed it but I really did not enjoy it at the same time, and some days I downright hated it. But I kept going, one step at a time. And then I started equating each km with a life goal. If I can just run one more km then I am definitely going to get the money I need to bring this show to Dublin. If I can just run one more km then we will definitely get full houses and make our money back etc etc. And something pretty amazing started to happen. I realised that though it might hurt like hell at times and there might be a little voice in my head screaming at me to stop, give my body a rest, just give up, 10km wasn’t going to happen today, there was also a little voice that I could choose to listen to that said ‘just keep going, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t worry about the hill that’s coming up in a few hundred metres, just focus on right now when the going is good.’ And I did that. I just. kept. going. And after another month of regularly running three times a week I hit the 10km mark and began to make it part of my weekly running routine. 5km on Monday, 7km on Wednesday, 10km on Sunday. I even managed to keep on running until about 5 months into my pregnancy before severe back pain forced me to slow it to a brisk walk. And I was proud of myself. Really proud.
Now, when I feel overwhelmed by challenges, when that little voice in my head says ‘there’s too much to do, you’ll never get it all done, your goals are a million miles away, just stay in your comfort zone, I remind myself that my comfort zone is not the place where dreams come true. My comfort zone is not where I find a real sense of fulfilment or achievement, and my comfort zone sure as hell won’t keep me fit! I listen to the voice that says ‘just keep going.’ Because every single step brings me closer to that 10km – both real and metaphorical.
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.
And I knew right then that I needed to be at that meeting! Find out what happened next.
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.
In his most excellent book ‘The One Thing‘, Gary Keller argues that there is really no such thing as a balanced life, that there will always be times when we find ourselves at the extreme outer edges of the see-saw (working crazy hours while setting up a new business for example) and that all we can really do is find ways to counter-balance. And I guess, if you think of balance in purely mathematical terms, where equilibrium is only achieved by an even distribution of weight at either end of that see-saw, then he is 100% right. However, I think of balance in a slightly different way. I know a lot of women who live and work at the ‘outer edge’, putting in long hours day in day out while they build their businesses, raise families, and somehow still find the time to train for marathons and triathlons and all sorts of madness. Would I describe them as well-balanced? I absolutely would. To me, balance is about having this crazy thing called life well-sussed and understanding exactly what you need in order to be your very best self. It’s about being ‘in flow’, being 100% aligned to your purpose, feeling centred and grounded and in control of your destiny, and – most importantly – knowing when it’s time to put the juicer away and pour yourself a damn Pinot!
Did I always feel like this? I most certainly did not. I was as far from balance as Katie Hopkins is from tact. I lived what I would call an ‘extreme’ life, punishing myself with work then partying to excess because I felt like I’d earned a good blow out. Going through periods where I spent money with complete abandon because hey – saving is for goal keepers, right? – then six months later having to take my piggy bank to the coin machine at Asda because I had literally no money left to buy food. Lurching from one drama or crisis to another and never really enjoying my life or finding peace and contentment in anything I did. Happiness was always ‘when I do this’ or ‘when I have that’, and never right here, right now. I was so far on the edge of that damn see-saw I was about to fall off and land with a very painful thud. Something needed to be done – and pronto!
Here’s what I learned as I searched for that ‘something.’
Stage 1 of the journey to balance begins with slowing down. It begins when we choose to take control of the maelstrom of negative thoughts and emotions that have been running the show for too long, and finally decide that it’s time to see them politely to the door. And that’s not always an easy decision to arrive at. For a long time there was a real tug of war going on with me. On the one hand I was tired of living in emotional chaos, yet on the other hand I was almost addicted to it. Jude the drama queen was such a part of my identity that I wasn’t sure who I would be without her. How does calm, well-balanced Jude function in the world without some anxiety or other to chew over. Will she lose her drive, her ambition, her need to always be doing something? On some level I believed that ‘sorting myself out’ would fundamentally change how I operated and that the frantic energy that propelled me along would dissipate and I’d be left floundering. What I didn’t realise was that this frantic energy wasn’t so much propelling me along as causing me to ricochet and pinball all over the place without any clear idea of where I was going and what the hell I was going to do when I got there. Slowing down would not mean that I ground to a halt, it would allow me to find some clear purpose and direction and finally step out with sustainable energy knowing exactly what my plan was.
Stage 2 involves a lot of soul-searching and researching, as the fog begins to lift and we finally start to get some clarity on the things that have had us all out of whack. It could be a relationship that’s just not doing you any favours, it could be a job that’s sapping your will to live, it could be the fact that you spend so much time running around after everyone in your family that there’s literally no time for you. For me, the frustration of knowing that there was ‘something’ I was supposed to be doing with my life, but not quite knowing what that was, was driving me slowly mad. I had a good job, well paid, I worked from home and my boss was great, but I knew that I had so much more to offer, and the more time and energy this job took from me, the more I started to really resent it, and resent myself for having ‘ended up’ in a job I was really starting to hate. How do I get out of this? What am I supposed to be doing? Is this as good as it gets? I felt worse with every passing week. Balance and alignment? What are these strange things you speak of?
Then two things happened – I started to meditate, and I started to get some help. I knew that the answers were somewhere inside that spaghetti brain of mine, but for the life of me I couldn’t access them on my own. So I reached out to a good friend who I knew had worked with a coach and I asked her to introduce us. Sometimes all we need is a listening ear, someone to help us tune into and identify what we already know, someone to ask the right questions and shine a light on the obvious. Working with a coach proved to be a brilliant move, and a mere three sessions later I was in such a better head space. I added lots of reading to the mix, I watched videos, joined webinars, signed up for online courses and generally threw myself into the job of ‘finding my purpose.’ And after a while, the fuzzy idea that was floating aimlessly around in the dark, musty corridors of my mind began to get its shit together and make its way to the ‘creative room’. And there The Well Balanced Woman was born.
It’s been a frustrating, infuriating, interesting, exciting and remarkable journey but isn’t this what life is all about? Ups, downs, wrong turns, dead ends, utter confusion and sometimes a complete inability to even find where you are on the map! But once you get your bearings and know exactly where you’re going, you can set out without fear or trepidation.
I am now living what I would call a well-balanced life. I meditate and exercise daily, I have clear goals and I take steps towards achieving them every single day. Sometimes it’s a big step, sometimes it’s a smaller step – like editing or writing this blog for example – but as long as it’s a step forward it gets a little round of applause. I’ve learned that living a balanced life requires you to listen to your body, mind and soul and take action at appropriate times. Tune in to the messages, use them as your compass and know that you already have everything you need in order to remain on track, in alignment and perfectly placed on the see-saw.