I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’ Francoise Sagan

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The transformative value of suffering…

Bad things happen to us all from time to time but I have always believed that what defines our value as human beings is the way we respond to such challenges. And sometimes out of the greatest suffering, the most amazing transformations can be born.

As those of you who regularly read my blog will know, at the beginning of this year I found myself facing a crisis in my personal life. I cannot say that I am grateful for this experience because the pain I felt was so intense that for a while I struggled to eat, sleep and do even the most basic everyday things. On the other hand, it did serve a useful purpose: something akin to a long overdue and much-needed wake-up call! With the benefit of hindsight, I now appreciate that perhaps only something of this magnitude could have made me see that I had inadvertently taken a detour down a blind alley.  For the truth is that I had been sleepwalking through life for many months - barely conscious of myself or my interactions with others - along a route that was taking me further and further in the wrong direction. I would no doubt have continued in this way had the invisible hand of destiny not intervened  - forcefully slapping me awake and breaking me open!

I have always been a person who is prone to extremes. Unfortunately, this means that I am very sensitive to both the positive and negative forces in life - with an innate tendency to lean towards a ‘glass half empty’ type of thinking. So, unless I constantly challenge myself to stay conscious,  when difficulties arise I can easily find myself sucked under by their negative pull. This is effectively what had been happening to me over a prolonged period and although I was vaguely aware of it, I hadn’t fully appreciated just how far down the road to hell I had travelled until the Universe decided to intervene by giving me a huge kick in the rear! At the time, I wondered what an earth was happening and how life could seemingly be so consistently cruel to me. But, I have come to see that although this has been an excruciatingly painful experience, it has actually been necessary to get me back on the right track.

I do not often refer to Buddhism in my posts but it is of particular relevance here, because the way I have dealt with my personal challenges is firmly rooted in the philosophy of my spiritual practice. Nichiren Buddhism teaches that life’s problems are necessary because, without them, we would be unable to develop ourselves as human beings and change our negative karma.  This is quite a radical concept and one that embodies a profoundly hopeful way of looking at life’s adversities. Instead of seeing pain and suffering as just pain and suffering, this school of Buddhism teaches us to see any kind of adversity we may face as an opportunity. In fact the Lotus flower – which represents the guiding philosophy of this form of Buddhism - can only grow in murky waters. This perfectly symbolises the concept that in order to grow and change, we actually need to experience adversity. And, at times, life can definitely throw plenty of mud our way!

With this in mind, I have dedicated myself body and soul to using my suffering to make some much long overdue changes in my life. This has resulted in a radical re-evaluation of who I want to be and how I want to show up in the world. Almost every aspect of my life has been questioned in this process – including how and where I live, what I do for a living and the way I relate to others. In fact, in this last area I am already beginning to see positive changes in the way I interact with some of my closest family members – particularly my brother.

As you know, the title of my blog is Forever Phoenix and I have always felt a deep connection to this mythical creature and all that it symbolises. At various stages in my life, I have had to rebuild my world and start over but I have never learnt so much about myself in the process as I have in the last few weeks. Of one thing I am certain – this suffering has allowed me to become softer, more self-aware, and more compassionate to myself and others; but, above all, it has enabled me to become much clearer about how I want to live my life. So, despite a deep sense of sadness and regret, I actually feel more alive and more awake to life’s possibilities than I ever have.

Suddenly it feels like I am poised at the edge of something very new and exciting. And, like a diver, I am flexing my muscles and taking a deep breath – ready to plunge wholeheartedly into the beautiful unknown.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Guarded Heart

The guarded heart dwells behind a fortress
designed to defend and protect
with armed sentinels at every point

The guarded heart defends itself from attack
by launching verbal missiles
sharp as knives
at anyone who comes close enough to pose a threat

Behind an impenetrable drawbridge
built to enclose and shut out
the guarded heart lives in fear and solitude

But somewhere deep within the darkness
the guarded heart hides a secret longing...
for a warrior prince/princess
strong enough to storm the battlements
and challenge its defences
brave enough to endure...

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

New beginnings and difficult endings...

The beginning of any New Year is usually a time of hope and optimism. It is also a time of reflection as we look back on the year just passed and think about our goals and resolutions for the year to come. But the transition from one calendar year to another rarely signifies a sudden change in personal fortune – whether positive or negative. It takes more than a change in date to make that happen, and many of us will have abandoned our plans for self-improvement before the month of January is even over. Yet still, we hold onto the hope that with good intentions and a bit of will power, the New Year will bring us what we truly desire.

On a personal level, I was very glad to say goodbye to 2013. It had been a year beset with difficulties at work and in my personal life. So like many others, I held onto the hope that 2014 would see an improvement in these areas and that perhaps grace and good fortune would be on my side. Unfortunately, just 7 days into the New Year, I have found myself still facing the same challenges as last year, only now I am facing them alone.  Just 3 days into 2014, my husband and I separated after 4 years together. The shock and pain of this is still so fresh that I barely know what to do with myself, but I am doing the one thing I can do right now – which is to write.

 I can’t say that this break up was totally unexpected, but just last month my husband and I had spent some meaningful and much-needed time together, so I had dared to hope that we had turned a corner. I had hoped that we could reconcile our differences and begin to move forwards in the same direction, sadly I was wrong. After a stupid and seemingly inconsequential argument, he announced that he had been unhappy with me for months and that he no longer loved me. I was stunned and devastated. When someone tells you they are unhappy in their relationship with you, there is at least some chance or hope of talking it through and finding a resolution. But, if that person tells you they no longer love you, there is nowhere to go from there.

What saddens me most is that although we had been feeling more and more disconnected for several months, instead of talking about it or taking action, we just let it go.  To be fair, during this time my husband tried to bridge the ever widening gap between us by offering me his support, but I just felt so exhausted and empty inside that I could not respond. I had become so caught up in my own problems that I didn’t fully realise that I was pushing him further and further away.

Someone once told me that when we are facing great trauma or stress in our lives, we revert to our default patterns – the ones we learnt in early childhood. Unfortunately my default pattern seems to be that when I am suffering, I cut myself off from the most important people in my life. I become self-involved, introverted, and stubbornly self-sufficient. From an early age, I have learnt to shield myself from disappointment and pain by not relying on anyone but we all need help and support, especially during tough times. Unfortunately, in the course of several bad relationships, including the one I had with my father, I also learnt that the only way to avoid being hurt by a man is to barricade your heart from him. Because of this, I refused to allow my husband to support me when I needed him most - inadvertently sending a signal that his help was not needed - when actually nothing could have been further from the truth!

It is not my intention to blame or berate myself for what has happened because there had been problems in my marriage for a long time and it takes two to break a relationship. But, I have to recognise the part I played, if only to make sure this never happens again. I do not want to live a life devoid of shared intimacy, unable to either give or receive love, so the time has come from me to take what lessons I can from this painful experience and make some long overdue changes to the way I live my life.

So, I intend to turn my focus inward and start doing the work. I don’t know how I am going to get there or how long it will take, but I must have faith that I am the master of my destiny and that I don’t have to let the past determine my future.  The only way the pain of this situation can have any purpose or meaning for me is if I can use it to transform myself – like the phoenix rising from the ashes.  It is not coincidental that I use this metaphor, Forever Phoenix, is after all the title of this blog. The reason I chose it is because throughout my life I have faced a series of major setbacks and losses and, each time, I have had to start over and rebuild my world from the inside out. I have no doubt that I will do this again, despite the heartbreak that currently engulfs me.

I don’t know how long it will take me to pick myself up and start over but I don’t think it is just a matter of time. They say time heals all wounds but in my experience, it takes a lot more than that. If we don’t really learn from what has gone wrong in our lives, we just carry old scars forward and carry on making the same errors time and time again. To change our destiny – our karma – we have to actively participate in the process, arming ourselves with courage to transform those things in ourselves that keep causing us to suffer. This is my goal, not just for this New Year, but for the rest of my life. Meanwhile, I pray that I may emerge from this experience, stronger, wiser, and happier.

Thanks for reading and wishing you all that I wish for myself - peace of mind, gratitude and the resilience to cope with adversity without losing hope - not just in this New Year but Forever After.