That’s how the light gets in

That’s how the light gets in

Imperfection is fascinating. It is how we notice difference. It is what the mind picks up on. Our minds find imperfection interesting.
Everything is in flux. Our worlds change and decay. We cannot stop this and we cannot hide from it. We cannot be perfect. We can be present for it. This is the only refuge. Perfection can not be attained and it won’t bring calm to our agitated minds. We can only move with the changing reality.
This piece was inspired by Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

We can try to find shelter in our own inner shadow. Sometimes this is comforting for a short while, although it can keep us from facing the brightness outside our own illusions. We can’t keep the light out.

Observing Existence

Observation is inherently existential. It is communication about our experience of our existence. I find it impossible to separate the two no matter how mundane an object I choose to paint. The human form is not mundane – especially not to humans- yet it is ordinary. It is something we all possess. And everything about this fact is interesting. This is existing and this is experiencing.

 

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Lightheaded by Jodi Hugo

On Anxiety

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”
― Georgia O’Keeffe

Anxiety is a topic that I struggle to talk about. But I do believe it is an important one because so many people in our society suffer from anxiety disorders. It is estimated that 18% of the US adult population suffers from an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders can be so destructive and disruptive. They can completely paralyse a person. I struggle to talk about it or face it because I feel like I would be stigmatized or shunned. It makes me feel weak and pathetic. Yet, I would never think somebody else was weak or pathetic if they were to talk to me about their mental illness. So I decided I would write a post about my experience with anxiety just to put it out there.

I have been suffering from a bout of Anxiety – or an Anxiety Attack- for the past two weeks. I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) which means that I am constantly anxious but it varies in severity and the past two weeks have been horrible. It has been so difficult to keep my routine and even more difficult to stick to things outside of it. And every time I have not been able to live up to my inevitable expectations of how things will go or how they should be or how I should just be able to deal with it, I have felt like a failure. This perfectionism was driving the anxiety even more. I was struggling to be mindful of what was happening and I just wanted to escape it all.  So I have been struggling to work. My house has become a disaster zone. Some mornings I couldn’t even get dressed and driving anywhere became almost imposable. Yet I had to do it. This is a very frightening and debilitating feeling.

You can easily end up comparing yourself to all the other people who don’t find it difficult to do these things.  I have been sitting in my studio but nothing would happen. Nothing would come. And if I did work I would just immediately destroy it. I couldn’t even look at it. I have written many blog post attempts in this past week and then deleted those. I tried to write about other topics. Topics that weren’t Anxiety related but this was impossible.

How Anxiety feels:

It started with an ominous feeling. Something in the atmosphere seems to vibrate at a high frequency, never ceasing. This annoying buzz that seemed to be outside of me was interfering with my mind. My stomach started to churn and then it was as though my mind started to search for the reason for this feeling. My body seemed to start the fight, flight or freeze response before I had consciously recognized that I had something to worry about. I can’t place the trigger and then I start searching my mind for it: for some rationalization for this feeling of impending doom.

This means that I often end up making up reasons for this feeling. Or I can’t place it and so I end up feeling very paranoid about every little thing. Every response from other people is weighed. Can they be trusted?

I was so frustrated because I was exercising and meditating and even taking my medication. I was doing everything ‘right’ but this state wouldn’t go away and I started to feel as though I might slip deeper and deeper.

Six things I have learnt to be true about Anxiety:

After so many years of dealing with this I have realized that I always make the same mistakes and then it spirals out of control. So I decided to focus on the things I know:

1. I am being irrational. The fact that I feel incompetent and mistrustful is just a symptom of the anxiety. It does not mean that it is true.

2. This feeling will subside. It will inevitably feel better after time and being a perfectionist and getting depressed about it will only aggravate it.

3. I must keep my routine. Even if I get nothing done it helps to just sit in my space and just be. I need to keep the structure otherwise things spiral into a feeling of instability. But it is ok if nothing actually is done during this routine. I just need to show up. This is incredibly difficult and that is ok.

4. I must not isolate myself. I tend to become a hermit when I feel like I am a huge burden to other people. But this can easily become a situation where I become so lonely and focussed on ruminating that it leads to a deepening of the Anxiety and even switches into Depression.

5. Anxiety will always be there. It is not something you can fight or suppress. Sometimes it will bubble up stronger and sometimes it will be somewhere under the surface. But will show up and it will always be there.

6.Mindfulness is not a cure. Meditation, Mindfulness as well as exercise, medication and other stress relieving ’tools’ are there to help manage the Anxiety. They help a lot but Anxiety will still show up every now and again. In my experience these attacks are less frequent and less severe and I have a different view of it because of the lifestyle changes I have made.

I focussed on these and just tried – sometimes successfully and sometimes not – to keep my routine. And it calmed down. I always feel somewhat anxious but right now it is manageable.

If you have somebody in your life who suffers from an Anxiety Disorder remember that they are aware that it is irrational. They are aware of how they come across.

The best thing to do is just to be understanding because then you become a safe space. This does not mean enabling or indulging avoident behavior. It just means that this person will be able to relax a little bit and break the cycle a little. Don’t shun their experience. They know how it sounds.

Do you or someone in your life have an Anxiety Disorder? How do you deal with it? I would love to hear about it.

work in progress
work in progress

 

Practicing Art

Practicing Art

Some new works are appearing as I keep working. I made one commitment: keep working.

The idea is to get up every day, start again and just keep going – whether inspiration strikes or not.

For a very long time I avoided having anything to do with the topic of Creativity or even Art. This seems strange as I am an artist and have been doing art for so long. The reason – I suspect- may be because I was rebelling a little. After having Art and Creativity as the focus in my life since the age of two (when I started my formal art education) and then going on to studying it for 4 years at University: twenty years had added up and I think I was tired of the subject. And I felt somewhat disillusioned. I felt like I hadn’t gained what I expected to gain from all the academics. I was lost. How do I carry on on my own?

What I hadn’t really ever been taught was the practice itself. The ‘how to’ of being an artist.I found a roundabout way back to my practice. By reading books on Mindfulness, mindset, Minimalism and a myriad of other – seemingly unrelated – topics like Physics, Evolution and parenting. Yet all of this information and self help seems to show a pattern – at least to my pattern seeking mind- everything in incremental. We need to keep building one brick at a time and eventually we have our dwelling. So obvious. But it has taken me a decade since studying to understand this.

Last year I read the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. This was the first time, since studying, that I had read a book about Art. I think what attracted me was that it is not theoretical or philosophical. It is just describing the rituals and routines of some of the most creative people in history. It is not telling me why or who I should be but showing me how others do it.

This book had an amazing impact. These people had such ordinary, sometimes simple and even, from the outside, boring lives of repetition.

I realized that my need for routine was actually the right route to take. I seemed to have been sold the idea that my life needed to be filled with all these other whimsical things to make it exciting to bring out my creativity. Yet all I wanted to do was sit and work and drink tea. I wanted a boring routine with space and quiet and time.

This book showed me that this instinct I had was not just some silly desire but that it was and is absolutely essential for a creative life. Just as it is for my four year old – some wisdom from the parenting books! I had to develop a routine. This is the basis for creating and sustaining this reality I longed to pursue.

I now view my art as a practice. It is something I do regardless of whether I  feel like it or not, regardless of the perceived success or failure I am experiencing and regardless of the amount of inspiration I feel.

Now I am also adding my blog to my routine. (I have changed it a little – you may have noticed!). After quite a long silence, I feel the need to share some of my thoughts and processes. I hope that they might be of some relevance to you. Either way: you are welcome on this journey.

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 Turning Thirty-Three


My birthday was two days ago. My brother phoned that morning to wish me happy birthday and then asked me how old I feel.
My response: “ageless” 
This was because of something one inspiring woman had said to me in the past week. 

Last week I attended a white belt training intensive in The Nia Technique. This has been a long awaited opportunity and was the fulfillment of a dream to teach Nia. Dancing has always been an important source of happiness for me. A friend suggested that I should take a Nia class a number of years ago. I instantly realized that this was something I wanted to share with all the people in my life.
Nia has been an amazing mindfulness tool for me as well as cardio and brain exercize. It also gives me a boost of fun, imagination and inspiration. 
The training intensive was amazing. I met wonderful women there; beautiful people in every way. I was the youngest to attend. Our ages ranged from women in their thirties to women in their sixties. To be the younger one was a lucky position to be in, since I was surrounded by beauty, wisdom and inspiration. It was strange to feel young at (almost) thirty-three. I spent the week in awe of these women. They respected themselves and were treating their bodies with compassion. They moved with joy and ease. Even though some had been through physically challenging times, and some still are, they were respectful of their bodies and celebrating them.
Absolutely amazing in a world where women are taught to be at war with their bodies. 

I left feeling so grateful for my body. 
How amazing to have this human body! It can dance, play, express, grow, change, heal and breathe.
Growing older is a priviledge. It should be something we are grateful for, something to celebrate.  

 






Expectations: Letting Go of Outcomes.

Expectations: Letting Go of Outcomes.

|This will be the first of a few posts on expectations. So I will start with a general discussion.|

Mindfulness of Expectations.

Practicing Mindfulness and Minimalism have made me realise how many things I need to let go of.So many are in the mind. Every time I hit a roadblock it is because of an idea I am clinging to. Anxiety is my biggest mental challenge. When I am anxious I try to watch my mind and body without judgement or making up a story about the feeling. And this helps immensely. Until I anticipate the next thing… Then it reappears. Then it fades and I anticipate.
I started thinking I should let go of anticipation but I realised that the root here was not the anticipation (although ‘anticipation’ definitely means I am not being mindful of that moment in the moment and so it is something to let go of.) I realised that the problem was my expectation of the outcome of whatever was happening whether good or bad.
So when I notice anxiety or excitement now I try to watch what the mind is expecting and let go of the expectation. Expectations will still arise but we can notice them and let them go. Specifically letting go of the outcome.
When we have an expectation it means we have an idea of an outcome and think or wish it to be a certain way. We try to control things in our future or as they occur.
In this way we are identifying ourselves with results. We are imposing our hopes on outcomes and trying to predict the future as though it were fixed.
This sets us up for frustration, demotivation, delusion, disappointment, suffering, heartbreak, feeling sorry for ourselves, underestimation, overestimation, narcissism, perfectionism, anxiety… The list gets longer the more one thinks about it.

Anticipation

Whenever the feeling of anxiety or excitement arises in us it is in anticipation of a certain expectation we hold.
We can become fixated on outcomes. In small ways – like how my next sip of tea will taste- and in big ways – like expecting someone to be your perfect partner and to make you whole and marry you before the age of 30.
What breaks us is our rigid mindset. We get so invested in these outcomes and when things change – even slightly – we can’t cope.
Whether we are expecting good things or bad things, we are expecting something from most situations.
Good expectations provide excitement and bad expectations give us anxiety. It is the anticipation of these expected results that are the feeling of excitement or anxiety.
We expect things to turn out a certain way or people to act or react a certain way.
Many of our decisions are based on our expectations of how other people will receive it. And many of our decisions are based on our expectations of other people’s expectations.
Excitement is when you are anticipating positive results.
When your positive expectations are realised, you feel good temporarily. If they are not you feel disappointed or unsatisfied. We can often have such high expectations that we will never be satisfied. This leads to feelings of frustration or even unhappiness.
Anxiety is a state where you are anticipating negative results.
When negative expectations are realized, you feel justified. If not, you feel relieved temporarily. Often you don’t even see that things are better than expected or you start expecting the next negative result.
When we are caught in the anticipation of expectations we miss out on reality on what is truly happening. We are not mindful of the moment.
All of this does not mean that we do not have goals, make plans or set intentions.

Confusing goals with Outcomes

A painting I was working on was frustrating me so much because I had invested in an expectation of what it should be. This perfectionism and obsession with the outcome paralysed me for months. And in the end: I was disappointed with it. As I always have been. I was dissapointed in myself. Why did I always feel this way about my work?
I became so fascinated by this question. After thinking about it for weeks it dawned on me: I always confuse the outcome with the goal. I associate myself and my worth with the result. Every single time. And the expectation of this was paralizing me and keeping me from my goal.
It seems like we confuse goals with results, outcomes and expectations.
A goal should not be a fixture. It should be a direction to move towards. If we can let go of outcomes and our expectations: we free ourselves from being disappointed or disheartened or even overly confident or righteous. The goal is still there no matter what the outcome. The intention is still set in the direction of our goal and the plan can change. We can get up and try again.
When you let go of the outcome you are free to work toward your goal.
It means that you can respond instead of react in changing situations. The world is in flux and we need to be flexible. If we let go of expectations we are flexible and open.
You can be calm.
You can be happy.
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The loss of self – finding it – then letting it go

The loss of self – finding it – then letting it go

How mindfulness has helped me cope with anxiety

Do you have a constant inner voice narrating your every move and second guessing you at every turn? 

 I certainly do. 

In fact: this voice may actually be a whole panel in a sort of discussion about every choice you make no matter how banal. Is this inner narration “you”? 

This inner voice is what often gets in the way of happiness. It constantly worries about the future or regrets the past. We spend very little time in the present moment. Our minds are mostly fantasising, planning, stressing or worrying. This could mean a route to distraction, dissatisfaction, unhappiness and, in its worst form, suffering.

Mindfulness is a method to train the mind to be present. It is a practice which helps to calm the inner chatter. It can help you feel connected to yourself, other people and your environment.

This post is about how I discovered Mindfulness meditation and how it helped me deal with depression and anxiety. 


I needed to write this because I know that life can be dark and I know that there are ways to find light. I have found some wonderful support in reading people’s blog posts. It is important to have a community – no matter how remote- and to know that you are not alone.

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Losing the self

When my daughter was born I had immense difficulty in separating the concept of having been pregnant and the reality of now having a baby outside of me. It simultaneously felt lonely and strangling. This being needed everything from me. There was overwhelming love for her and so much fear of this new responsibility. 

The difficulty came in understanding where she started and I ended. Every sound she made drove me to react anxiously. I didn’t sleep, not because she was a bad sleeper, but because of a fear that I would not be present if she needed me. I lay awake whole nights. Was she breathing? Yes. Next breath. Yes. Next breath. Yes. Every one until I was released by daybreak. Then I would switch to zombie mode for the day fearing the moment the sun would set and my mind would take over again and relentlessly refuse me any peace. 

I forgot my own needs. Sleeping and eating became something my husband had to remind me to do. And with this came a loss of sense of self and purpose. 

I suppose this is what is called postpartum depression. I was breastfeeding and thus refused to take medications that might harm my baby. I had taken antidepressants some years before which did help me. This is not criticism of the idea of medication, or the use of it. I just really needed to be able to breastfeed and not fail at this too.

I remember feeling that I was missing everything. I was missing my daughter’s development. I was missing out on life. I was missing. Where was I? 

And everybody else seemed oblivious. Other people with children seemed like they could cope just fine. Why was I so weak?

There was no ’me’ anymore- just a void. Was this what life would be from now on? 

The problem with this way of thinking is that the focus and obsession is very much on protecting the self whilst constantly trying to locate this self.  The sense of self is easily lost in circumstances, like becoming a new parent, where roles and identities have shifted. Especially when all one’s focus is on trying to keep someone else alive and happy. 

Empathy seemed to overwhelm me so easily. I have always found it difficult to bear other people’s problems. I always want to help, yet other people’s difficulties weigh on me so heavily that I become obsessed by them and feel like I am being dragged down and swallowed whole. I take on the stress and pain. So I attempted to stay away from everyone besides my child and husband. Other people seemed to make me feel smaller and more useless. They seemed to completely drain me. Even less of me left. I became very isolated.

Every time my child cried I would become confused and sad: taking on her emotions until I had relieved the issue. If she had been hungry and then fed I would feel satisfied and fed – even if I hadn’t had any food all day. Then she would cry about something else and the panic would spread through my whole body until I had changed her nappy – relief. Where was I?

Anybody else who expected something of or from me or needed me in any way became a huge burden. I was not coping. 

Coping

My husband, who is a very rational en calm person, took me to see a psychologist. This helped immensely. Her advice and care was priceless. She gave me some guidelines to follow. These were difficult for me at the time but I followed them:

My daughter was moved to her own bed in her own room.

No baby monitor.

I wore earplugs.

My husband took responsibility for my daughter during the night.

This had an enormous impact on my mental wellbeing. Suddenly I was forced to give over responsibility and I could feel the relief. It was important to sleep. And the psychologist kept reminding me that my daughter needed me to be sane more than she needed me to be hyper vigilant. She was fine. I wasn’t.

It seemed to take forever but eventually I was sleeping some hours at night. This made an incredible difference. 

Unfortunately seeing a psychologist was not a financially sustainable route. And I still found myself dwelling on my weakness more and more. My anxiety has always been out of control but now it was taking over. How would my daughter become a strong independent woman if her mother was this ‘pathetic’?

Needless to say, I had to break free from this mental trap. If not for mine, then for my daughter’s sake. 

Finding the self

Out of sheer desperation I wondered whether a self-help strategy could work? After all: we have so much information at our fingertips.  I would not, however, try things that had no scientific basis. So I started investigating Positive Psychology. This opened up some new insights into my state of mind. Somehow I would have to change my cognitive default setting. Slowly I started working on viewing things differently and on being who I wanted to be. 

My daughter had to see that it is possible to follow one’s dreams and that this meant working at it no matter the obstacles.

My obstacle was (and still is) my critical inner monologue. I realised that I never judge other people as negatively as I would myself -in fact – I hardly ever judge others at all. It would completely stifle my work. When painting, to shut my inner voice up, I then started listening to lectures on interesting topics. This would keep my mind occupied. Suddenly I could work again.

My parents started babysitting my daughter two days a week. So I was relying on ’my community’ for the first time and not trying to do it all alone. Suddenly I had some space and time. Audiobooks and lectures occupied my mind and I worked. Things were looking up. But I was still petrified of my inner critic.

Being a failure in my daughter’s eyes was unacceptable. 

This drove me to keep trying and seeking and reading. I read and listened obsessively. 

Gratitude

The first thing I tried was a gratitude journal. This is an amazing way of forcing yourself to focus (however briefly) on the good things in your life (however small). I became more and more grateful and noticed things outside myself. I was so grateful to my husband, my child, my parents. And this mindset has grown ever since. 

Letting go of self

One of the topics that kept coming up in my research on happiness was Mindfulness. I started listening to this course: 

Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation

The research on meditation gripped me. Here was something that could be practiced in a secular way and seemed to be able to satisfy a spiritual need I had always had. It also had very strong scientific support in helping people cope with all manner of mental states. Could I do this? 

I started by doing 3-5 minutes of guided mindfulness meditation practice every evening after my daughter had gone to bed.

Meditation was not what I had thought it was. It started off being something that was very difficult and frustrating. After a month or so it became very calming. Later I managed to glimpse moments where my mind would settle somewhat. My thoughts became thoughts; nothing more. I even started feeling empathy for the parts of me that were being so critical. This was the key.  More and more reading about mindfulness ensued.

Slowly I built up to doing more minutes per sitting. Giving my mind some quiet focus.

Here are the thoughts, the emotions, the breath. And this is ok. No fighting or fear of their presence. Just acceptance. Then judgement would arise. Then accepting this too. It was so simple: these were just thoughts. This was not the self. The obsession I had had with trying to find this coherent ‘self’ was starting to fade. And that even this was ok. This mind was just doing what this mind would do in this situation and I could observe this.

This is not a claim of any kind of enlightenment. In fact keeping focus for more than a few seconds still does not happen and that is fine too. This is only a realisation that feeling pain did not mean I had to suffer. It is okay and it is temporary like everything in life.

Now I have tools. If the voice criticising voice appears – she often does- I try to notice it and let it go by focussing on what is happening now. Sometimes it takes a while to realise that you are caught up in mindless thinking. This is also ok. Every time I do notice it I realise that it is a step in the right direction. Nothing has to be perfect and stumbling is learning. 

My mind is still an anxious and highly sensitive one. But now, a year and a half later, I know that this is just the way it functions and that in turn calms me sooner. It helps to stop the downward spiral. I do 25-30 mins of mindfulness meditation a day. 

Work is easier now. I still listen to audiobooks very often but I don’t need this constant distraction anymore. I just try to stay mindful if the self-criticism creeps up. 

Community

Mindfulness meditation and especially Loving Kindness meditation (Metta Meditation) increases empathy. This was a scary thought: empathy seemed to be my downfall before. Yet with mindfulness  you can be mindful when dealing with other people’s emotions. They are just what they are. They are not you and feeling them is fine. This is an incredible skill to learn. Empathy and compassion grow, yet your ability to see things in perspective does too. I can be mindful of other people’s feelings without becoming overwhelmed (most of the time) and now there is more of me to give because I am letting go.

Family and friends are so important. It really does take a village to raise a child. It is difficult to hand over the steering sometimes but we need to let others in and let the illusive ’I’ go. It is a work in progress.

We cannot function alone. We need other people no matter how introverted we may be. Especially when we are going through a difficult time.

There are some amazing people in my life. 

My husband. I honestly do not know how to express my gratitude, admiration and love for him.

My parents who support me in every way. They are incredible grandparents. So too are my husband’s parents.

My sister. ❤

I have friends who have supported, inspired and helped me to start pursuing new avenues in my life – Like this blog (another community) and my doll making business. 

I have reconnected with the important friends in my life. 

Now I spend one day a week crafting, chatting and laughing with my dearest friend and her adorable new baby boy. 

…and my daughter is thriving. She is my light and inspiration.