The Tender Kindness of Gravity
I run frantically up the rickety steps, lured by sharp shadows drawing me relentlessly higher. At the top of the clock tower, I pause gasping, muttering, and staring wildly around, seeking the way to soar onwards and upwards to the beckoning sky. Footsteps approach on the stairs behind, an urgent voice momentarily shatters the powerful psychotic spell. I follow my rescuer back down to the ground - and my first experience of being sectioned in a psychiatric ward.
A decade on, I’m lying on my back on the cool grass gazing serenely into the deep blue sky. I breathe into my points of contact with the earth, the back of my head, my shoulder blades, back, buttocks, legs and feet. The places that touch the earth tingle, alive. On the out breath residues of charged tension in my body seem to flow into the reassuringly solid ground below. I’m on a Buddhist meditation retreat beautifully entitled A Vast Earth Beneath, An Infinite Sky Above and feel more slowed down and spacious than I’d have ever imagined possible.
Bipolar disorder is a rollercoaster of highs and lows, extremes of mood and energy that uproot the lives of those suffering from it and cause great pain and stress to the people around them. I was diagnosed 11 years ago but the signs had long been there. I’d had an episode in my early 20s, which I’d swept under the carpet, stoically following my motto of that era: keep drinking and carry on.
My life lacked two vital ingredients, time and space. My job in journalism was fast paced and interesting but also engendered deep cynicism. I wanted to work for truth and justice but my intention seemed destined to be ground into the prevailing pattern of trying to persuade people to believe whatever the newspaper or organisation I was working for wanted them to believe. I had plans for every spare moment - holidays, travelling, hills, festivals, gigs, clubs, and parties. I thought I was thriving on the constant buzz of adrenalin stimulated by deadlines, rushing around, flying by the seat of my pants.
I’d also become increasingly stressed about the state of the world. I worked with scientists and politicians - the scientists were in no doubt about climate change and were extremely worried about the growing threat to all life on the planet. Meanwhile the politicians carried on as normal, mouthing platitudes but unwilling to question the suicidal industrial growth system pushing us to the point of no return.
Travelling extensively in South America, I saw Andean glaciers shrinking, heard how changing weather patterns caused hunger and hardship. In the rainforests below, oil giants pushed inexorably into pristine ecosystems, sweeping aside all who opposed them.
I read, researched and despaired - then got involved in the Transition Town movement, which offered hope. This refreshing approach is all about communities taking matters into their own hands, acting at grassroots level to alleviate the devastating consequences of peak oil, climate destruction, and economic instability.
One unique aspect of the Transition movement, which sets it apart from many other groups, is the onus on Inner Transition. The instigator of this work, Sophy Banks, a deeply compassionate and inspirational woman, likens the way many activists work to the way we as a species treat the Earth; voraciously depleting our own resources in a sure fire recipe for burnout.
In his exposition of the Upanisa Sutta, the Buddhist scholar Bikkhu Bodhi explores the ancient wisdom behind such work. He writes:
‘We must come to see that the breeding ground for suffering lies not so much in the outside world as at the base of our own being, and that any cure that is to be permanently effective must uproot it at this inward source.’
Certainly, on reflection, I can see that the distress, breakdown and years of illness I used to blame on external factors are rooted firmly within.
Shunning my feelings was, and still is, a deeply engrained habit. Over decades I became more and more disconnected from my experience, often blotting out what I deemed unpleasant with busyness and hedonism. I had fun times for sure, but then came the inevitable crashing downers, bitter self-recrimination and a smothering of my appreciation of the beauty and richness of life.
Add to the mix the helpless, panicky ’rabbit in the headlights’ effect that obsessive ruminating on news and global issues tends to trigger and its little surprise that I totally lost the plot.
Tough times… and tough times that in retrospect I am immensely grateful for.
Bikkhu Bodhi emphasises the Buddha’s declaration that suffering is the supporting condition for faith:
“It reveals that spiritual awareness and the quest for enlightenment do not arise spontaneously in harmony with our natural modes of world engagement, but require ‘a turn against the current’, a break away from our instinctual urge for expansion and enjoyment and the embarkation in a different direction.”
So now here I am, approaching 50, trying to stay on an even keel and gently feel my way back to health, on long term gardening leave with a garden full of weeds. Cultivating awareness, practising the Dharma, spending time in nature, steering clear of the media. Learning simply to be rather than continually to do, to breathe and feel in the here and the now.
It’s hard to concentrate and I’ve scant energy for the ‘outer’ - so have had to step back from work, committees, endless projects, plans and parties. And through coming back, again and again, to my own experience, I’m reaping the rewards of increased awareness and calm. On a good day I see the patterns that can make me so ill, and can work with them with patience.
Shooting for the stars in a state of manic euphoria feels amazing at the time, but quickly gets dangerous and out of control. Thankfully I didn’t physically crash from that tower, but the mental plunges after the highs have left their impact.
Staying grounded is my focus and I feel profound gratitude for the beautiful landscape I live in and the gravity that keeps me here. And to my teachers who remind me to breathe, to feel, to be in my body, beneath the sky, held by the earth beneath. Part of everything, rooted, symbiotically connected like mycelium running. Radical indeed.
Title ‘The Tender Kindness of Gravity’ adapted from a line from the poem ‘Kindness’ by Naomi Shihab Nye