Things You Can Only See When You Slow Down

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On a more serious note

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I started this blog about a year ago, largely out of kindness to my loved ones, who’d been the only outlet for my terrible humour for far too long. Inflicting myself on the general public instead, while bad for society as a whole, seemed like the best way to keep my relationships with my friends and family intact.

 

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Just some of the people liberated from my sense of humour by this blog

 

A lot’s happened since then – I went on my year abroad, spent time in Brno and Petersburg, decided to take a year out from uni, and moved to Prague to find my fortune (update: as yet, unfound).

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Jerry the cat digging my yellow top

Geography aside, it’s been a big year for my personal growth: I got a couple of tattoos, discovered beer and techno music, fell in love a bunch of times, came out as bi, and stopped wearing natural colours.

This year, whilst dramatic and at times frightening, and – especially in the last few months – not without its low moments, has been by far the best of my life. Even the rough moments have been mitigated by more long-lasting wellbeing and contentment than I can remember having.

I’ve never talked about serious stuff on this blog, partially because I wanted to try my hand at being genuinely funny and partially because I know that the readership is largely made up of people who know me personally – and that makes it weird. Lately, though, I’ve been really craving a platform for more well-rounded self-expression – I suppose that’s why I’ve not posted anything for so many months: because I really haven’t been feeling all that funny.

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I’m trying to keep moving forwards in terms of mental wellbeing, and I feel like this could be a good forum to work through some stuff. In particular, I’m spectacularly bad at remembering techniques to lift my mood, even the ones that’ve helped me before.

The title of this post, and the page where I’m going to post links to mental health/mindfulness blogs, comes from a book by the Korean monk and professor Haemin Sunim.

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The book is a compilation of Sunim’s thoughts about modern life and advice he’s given on social media, at mindfulness events, and to his university students.

It’s a lovely book, both because of the written content and the beautiful illustrations that accompany it. One of the things that stuck with me so strongly was the idea that our mindset shapes the way we see the world – that’s why, when you’re feeling rushed, the whole world seems to move and breakneck speed, but when you’re relaxed, everything is much more chill.

There were times in Sixth Form when I did genuinely feel like the world was a grim and unforgiving place. I’m sure that objectively good things must have happened to me then, but all I remember are the bad marks or dirty looks, or the day the canteen ran out of coffee.

It works the other way, too: I particularly remember a couple of times in St Petersburg when I arrived at the stop at the same time as the bus did, or got to the crossing just as the green man appeared, I thought to myself, with a warm feeling, “That’s just how my life is at the moment.” Even though I surely had as many experiences with unlucky timing as I did with perfect timing, I only really noticed when things went perfectly – I guess because everything else was going so well, it was easy to perceive of the world as a pattern designed to make me comfortable.

I’d been introduced to the concept of mindfulness before, by teachers at sixth form and counsellors/therapists, but the concept never seemed particularly powerful to me, and, honestly, I never put a lot of stock in it.

Even that idea which I found so powerful, that one’s mindset dictates the filter through which we perceive everything, would’ve seemed insensitive and reductive to me. What you’re saying, I’d have thought, is that the world seems depressing because I’m depressed.

That’s one of the frustrating things about mindfulness: it’s so simple that when you’re in crisis, it just sounds like platitudes. Once the world starts to brighten a bit, then you can take more active steps that’ll help you out.

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Maybe that’s why Sunim’s book appeals to me now – because you can’t employ mindfulness techniques when you’re at your worst, but when you’re somewhere a little better, you can be more open to them. Nowadays, even when I’m in a pretty bad place, a combination of medication and perspective helps me recognise that it’s not a permanent state. butterflu

That said, a big reason why I enjoyed this book so much is the way I got it. A couple of weeks ago, I was visited in Prague by a close friend of mine. Oll’s visit was preceded by the roughest time I’ve had for a while – I’d been feeling self-destructive in a way I hadn’t for a while. Oliver and I met in St Petersburg, when we were on our semester abroad there, and after that he’d returned to uni in St Andrews whilst I’d moved to Prague on leave from my university studies.

Knowing I was going through a tricky spell (I’m aware I use a bouquet of euphemisms to refer to depressive periods, but the real words are too scary), Ollie’d brought me, along with his infectious joie de vivre, a gift of five books individually wrapped in yellow paper.

“Unwrap them when you’re feeling good,” he said, “and then you can have them to look forward to.”

He gave me a sixth book, which was unwrapped. This one wasn’t from him, but from a friend of his, Rachel. Although Rachel and I’d never actually met face to face, nor, at that time, even texted each other, I felt like I knew her from what Oll had told me – she featured in a lot of his stories, either as a regular at his coffee shop, another person dancing at the raves he and his friends organised in St Andrews pubs, or, most often, as a good mate to have a pint with.

It turned out the feeling of knowing each other through Oliver was mutual. Rachel had gone to the bookshop with him when he went to buy my gifts, and she’d got me one too. I was honestly shocked by the gesture – even before I’d taken the book out of the bag, I was composing thank you notes and plotting ways to by her a pint.

The book she’d bought was, you guessed it, Things You Can Only See When You Slow Down. (After all that build up, it would’ve been really weird to reveal that she’d got me a Mr. Man).

Still overwhelmed by the generosity of a person who was, technically, a stranger, I opened the book where it had been marked with a sticker:

 

you are neither your feelings

Remember that you are neither your feelings nor the story your mind tells about you to make sense of them. You are the vast silence that knows of their emergence and their disappearance.

Rachel didn’t just get me the book: she marked specific passages she thought I’d find helpful. Honestly, I’m still disbelieving of how kind that is. Like – this girl has never met me, at all.

Despite Sunim’s suggestion to read his book slowly, with many pauses, I ate the whole thing in one night as Oll worked on his philosophy essay. There are parts of it, perhaps because I’m still struggling significantly with my mood, that I simply couldn’t understand; but the whole thing was written in this singular tone of calmness. I felt soothed by Sunim’s tranquil words, and Rachel’s generosity.

I know it’s a book I’m going to revisit multiple times over my life – I’ve already reread it once – and I wanted to share it, and the, frankly, remarkable story of how I got it, with you.

When life disappoints, rest a while.

 

Things I miss about living in Britain.

For the past four months, I’ve been living in Brno, a small city in the Czech Republic, as part of the Erasmus programme. Whilst I can honestly say that the past couple have months have been amongst the best in my life, there are a couple of things I do miss about Old Blighty.

Tea

OK, OK, it’s a stereotype: the Brit abroad with suitcase full of PG Tips, telling anyone who’ll listen what a watery mess Lipton’s teabags make. Determined to reject my own stereotypes, I stubbornly didn’t import a Boston Harbour’s worth of Yorkshire Gold in my cabin bag – and I regretted it.

Let me tell you about my first cup of tea in Brno. It’s a horrorshow.

It was my first full day in the country, and I’d headed to Albert, the local supermarket, to stock up on those student staples: pasta and teabags.

Pasta – no problem. Aisles of the stuff. I chucked a pack of spaghetti into my basket, and headed to the hot beverage section.

At first, things looked promising. There were enough different kinds of hot chocolate to satisfy even my sweet tooth, and there was clearly a wide selection of tea. I wandered over to take a closer look.

Of the thousands, if not millions, of kinds of tea on offer, only a paltry four boxes boasted black tea. To my horror, and with the help of a pocket dictionary, the deciphered labels revealed the truth: English Breakfast was not on sale.

Still, I thought, such is the reality of living outside of England. On the Continent, people just don’t have a taste for Breakfast tea. I picked up a box of Earl Grey, doubled back to grab a lemon, and headed home.

My (sadly not electric) kettle boiling, I grabbed my favourite mug and the pen that I had designated makeshift teaspoon. The teabags were individually wrapped in little paper envelopes, which I considered a good sign. All the best tea comes fancy packaged like that.

Listen, I’m not going to go into the taste, for fear of upsetting you. Let’s just say that if you dropped a teabag into a vat of Chanel No 5, you wouldn’t be that far off my brew. It wasn’t great.

The thing that really surprised me, though, was the way the tea stained my mug. Everyone’s been guilty of not washing their mugs properly and ending up with stains on the inside, but this was something else. After a single cup, my favourite mug looked like an almost finished jar of Nutella.

I stuffed the culprits into the cupboard, eyeing them with mistrust, and pledged never to leave the country without trunk of teabags again.

Gin and Tonic

Here’s a true story: my friend and I were in a bar here in Brno. I ordered the Czech classic – as much beer as can be physically lifted – and my friend opted for a G&T. Pretty standard stuff, right?

A couple of minutes later, the waitress was bag. She gave me my frosty one, and then turned to my friend and asked her whether she’d wanted a gin, or a tonic.

My friend and I looked at her.

“…Both,” My friend said. “A gin and tonic.”

“Oh!” said the waitress, giving her a look like she’d asked for a rum and Ribena.

We’d barely had time to comment on how weird that was when the waitress was back, holding a shot glass of gin and a can of tonic. When we gaped at her, bemused, she asked, “Oh, do you want a straw?”

The dog

I mean, look at her.

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Being in a different time zone from that Good Girle would sap anyone’s spirit.

Effortless Comprehension

This is pretty much the biggie. Although I’ve been studying Czech for two and a half years now, my most common response to any question is still, “ještě jednou (come again)?

I really surprised myself over the Christmas holidays by going out of my way to chat to people on the street, relishing the fact that they understood what I said, and, crucially, that I could understand them. It felt like a novelty, and I milked it until I realised I’d become that weirdo making conversation with strangers on the bus.