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.

 

Gibs Café Bar

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I wandered into Gibs after a disappointing trip to the Wombat Café. From the outside, it looked like a pretty standard Czech pub: Pilsner Urquell sign, low lighting, couple of older gentleman smoking outside. I headed in on a whim, figuring that another beer would help me sleep and get the memory of Wombat Café’s gross decor out of my mind.

As I passed the threshold, I noticed with mild surprise that they’d made the strange decision to have a fan on the step facing inwards, blowing a draft through the bar. Ducking inside and heading to the bar, I smelled something unexpected and familiar.

Did you know that it’s legal to smoke funky cigarettes in certain bars in Prague?

That’s something I recently found out.

Maybe it was because of the mentality that goes with smoking that much, but the atmosphere in Gibs was great: I sat at the bar with a beer and chatted to everyone who came in, working my way through a massive bag of pretzels. The only moment I felt anything less-than-euphoric was when I tripped over someone’s dog on the way to the loo – I actually don’t know how I managed to overlook it, since it was the size of a small horse.

The clientele was almost exclusively made up of expats, so I didn’t get a chance to exercise my extremely terrible Czech; maybe that’s for the best. The owner, a guy called Roman, welcomed everyone personally, making an effort to remember names and backstories – partly to create a friendly, chatty atmosphere, and partly, I think, to check that everyone coming in was cool with being passively hotboxed.

The beer itself was nothing special: just Pilsner on draught and some cans of Kingswood in the fridge. That said, I think anyone who claims to go to that bar for the drinks is lying.

I rate Gibs a solid two joints and one unexpectedly massive dog. The only reason I’m not calling off my search for a local is that for me, weed is like trifle. Nice on your birthday, but I couldn’t deal with it every day.

Tricking yourself into being productive.

I’m fairly open about being one of the least productive people in the history of the world. It’s something I’ve had to make my peace with over the last twenty-something years. No sooner do I sit down, determined to do some work, am I distracted by my phone or an email or a passing moth. This is not ideal, to say the least, seeing as I’m a humanities’ student and blogger – both of which require a decent amount of independent work.

That feeling you get after spending a day sitting your desk without getting anything done is one of the worst in the world. Believe me – I’ve had it a lot.

And I’ve tried it all: telling myself off, writing a detailed revision plan, the “60 on 15 off” method, studying in cafes, studying in libraries, studying at the train station, even bribing myself with Smarties. (This method fell down when I realised I could eat the Smarties without doing any work. I ended up no cleverer, but whole tube of sweets fatter.)

Finally, after having been in education for nearly fifteen years, I had an epiphany: since I couldn’t be trusted to work under normal circumstances, I would have to be smarter than myself. I needed to outwit myself.

In a very calm, grown up inner voice, I told myself that I wasn’t going to do much studying at all today. I was just going to do a little bit, and then I would lie in my bed and read Guardians of the Galaxy fanfic. All I had to accomplish was that tiny, little bit of work, and then I’d be free to do whatever I wanted for the rest of the day.

And how would I know when I’d done that tiny, miniscule bit of work? Well, I told myself in that teacherish tone, I would make notes just until my pen ran out. That wasn’t so daunting, was it? After all, even I couldn’t remember when I’d started using this pen; for all I knew, it would run out after a single chapter of Czech: An Essential Grammar. Bolstered by relaxation that seemed only minutes away, I set about scribbling down declension patterns.

Four and a half hours later, my pen ran out and I stopped studying. I was thrilled: not only had I actually got a fair amount of revision done, I also had an unfamiliar feeling of accomplishment. I could get used to that.

Enthused by this success, I racked my brains for other ways to wring a little productivity out of my reticent brain. Bribery seemed hopeful, since I’m almost always one stressful situation from eating my bodyweight in chocolate. But this method, as I’d already discovered from the Smartie debacle, was fatally flawed because, instead of studying hard and then rewarding myself, I would simply eat the incentive and go and have a sugar nap.

But what, I thought to myself, if I couldn’t eat it? What then?

Instead of buying my reward beforehand, I lay out 70p on my desk – 70p that, if I got enough done, I would spend on chocolate. The bribe worked: unable to devour the money but still dreaming of a sweet treat, I got my head down and studied hard – although I did spend a fair amount of time gazing longingly at those silver coins.

After scheming up these two strategies, I have to say my general work output has increased. Sure, I’m still not the most conscientious student in the world, but I no longer feel like I’m basically incapable of sustained periods of concentration. I consider this a success.

It does seem fundamentally stupid that I have to cajole myself into studying in this way, by treating myself like an unruly schoolgirl, but hey – whatever works. As far as I see it, it’s better to study because you think you’ll get some chocolate at the end than not to study at all.

How do you stop yourself from procrastinating? Let me know in the comments.