Comfort

Yesterday, I took this selfie at my desk as the sun came in through the window and really highlighted my curly hair.

Two minutes later, my eldest daughter came home, and said that in the selfie I look as if I have arrived at the end of a movie, ready to say something profound before galloping off into the sunset.

After some discussion, we decided I would go off into the sunset Lego Batman style:

Emmet: Hey, guys? I think we’re about to crash into the sun.
Batman: Yeah, but it’s gonna look really cool.
(The Batplane smashes through the sun, making a hole shaped like the Bat-Logo.)

My daughter – who doesn’t like to think about it – looks just like me, Ruth, who looked like her mother, Jean, who looked like her mother, Phoebe, who probably looked like her mother, Rhoda. I don’t know for sure, as I’ve never seen a picture of Rhoda, cos we are talking 1800s here. But, it doesn’t seem possible that she couldn’t not look like us. I looked so like my mum and her mum that old people (well they seemed old, like I do to my daughter, which is why she hopes she’s not like me, apart from when I’m Batman) would come up to me when I was on the bus or walking down the street and say: Phoebe and shake their heads in disbelief at the carbon copy of a young Phoebe before reminiscing about what a wonderful woman she was.

Consequently, I have always liked my face. It is a friendly face, a familiar face, and one which resonates on such an emotional level with people that they will come up to me to say lovely things for no other reason than to have a moment. And, that has been a great comfort to me all my life.

I have said on here so many times that we are all looking to be seen, heard, and experienced. We want connection.

Attachment trauma therapist, Alan Roberge describes it beautifully as our noble need for emotional resonance attachment.

In my own mind, I’ve always called this comfort. I guess because connection to others is a massive comfort, it gives our life meaning. We are seen and heard, we feel that we matter. It doesn’t get more comforting than that.

Roberge says that an emotional engagement is a connection with another person who makes you feel nourished, validated and affirmed, and vice versa. And, it is so important, that he describes it metaphorically as going to church. To bear witness to another human being’s noble need for emotional attachment is nothing less than a sacred act. And, if someone cannot do this for us, if someone doesn’t participate in this resonance, then it causes enormous grief within us. And, we have to detach from them otherwise it can damage us. 

Wow! This has summed up for me the reason why I’ve had so many awful interactions for more years than I care to think about. I thought if I gave more, said more, did more, then people would respond in kind and things would be better. But, alas no, I know far too many people who cannot and will not participate in reciprocal emotional engagement no matter what I do, and that causes my heart no end of grief. But, they just can’t.

My mum died last year and I miss her terribly and grieve her loss profoundly. Most of last year is fuzzy for me because even though I was going about my day-to-day, my heart was aching and it took a lot of energy just to stay upright, and even though I told many people in the hope of getting some comfort, too many of them just couldn’t. I thought at times that I would go under. I would drown in my grief, the grief of losing my mum. Thankfully, I was surprised by a couple of people who really saw me and held that space for my pain.

Sadly, I missed my mum for such a long time before she died, because for many years she was no longer herself, and had no idea who I was. The first time she didn’t recognise my face – her face – my whole world shifted and I was lost. Had I had people around me who connected to me on an emotional level then it would have helped immensely to ease that pain. Instead, I had to learn to comfort myself.

I tried so many times to rekindle a connection to my mum and to help her remember who she was, and who I was, but she didn’t want to know, and sometimes she would get really angry with me. Oh my, I recognised her then in those moments. She was quite fiery, my mother. But, I wanted her to see me, to know me, to love me. I needed that emotional connection and grieved deeply in the space where it used to be.  And then on the day that she finally died, it was gone forever.  Or, so I thought.

If she was here today, looking at that picture she would probably say two things: 1) I love me, who do you love? and 2) Did you not brush your hair? It looks a mess.

She was a tough love sort of woman which didn’t sit well with me at all, as I am super oversensitive and I irritated her no end. She was always finding ways to toughen me up and would shout at me a lot: You’ll never get through life if you cry like that, Ruth. 

That said, she had a fabulous sense of humour and she could light up a whole room, and as my mum, me mam, she did a zillion loving acts for me, all the time, all through my life. I had forgotten much about how much she loved me, and all the ways she demonstrated how much she loved me, mired as I was down in the pain and anguish of watching someone I love slowly withdraw from life.

It has taken a good year for all the lovely memories of her to return and comfort me. I was afraid they never would. That she lived for another seven years after the first time she wasn’t expected to live, and pulled back from death many times more before she actually finally left forever, is a testament to her strength, her fierce life force and, her sheer bloody will. 

Over a number of years there was one person who used to reach out to me on my worst days, particularly on days when I had to have really difficult discussions about my mum’s care. The thing is, this person had no idea that they were doing it. We met online and then we met in person a couple of times, and they were a comfort to me. They would talk to me a lot, until the day that they completely withdrew. They just couldn’t.

I grieved this loss too until I learnt the lesson of love this grief had to offer me. This person and I emotionally resonated. We had a mutual love and respect for each other until they decided to shut down all emotional participation. Now they ‘phone it in’ if I get in touch. If I don’t get in touch, I don’t hear from them. I don’t exist. It’s like I have died, which breaks my heart. But, bless their heart, because that’s gotta hurt, or at least, it has to hurt to choose to be that numb because their fear of being vulnerable hurts more. They just can’t.

But, what they did for me with their ‘before and after’ behaviour, is that they shone a torch on all the other relationships I have in my life with people who are emotionally connected and those who are not. And, that has been an enormous gift. Now, I am choosing only to cultivate the reciprocal relationships in which there is room for mutual love and respect to flourish, and enrich both parties lives. I no longer look to emotionally unavailable people for comfort. I try not to get attached because the grief is exhausting and the relationship, ultimately futile.

I owe nothing less to my mother who loved me and wanted what was best for me. Why would I settle for anything that was not sacred? Why would I spend time and energy on people who don’t treasure me?

And, as it’s the end of the blog, the end of the movie, I am ready to crash into the sun,  because why it still shines when my mother is dead I just do not know and some days it is too much to bear. But then, I remember to take a breath and think about comfort. And, as I look in the mirror at the comforting sight of my mother’s face, her beautiful loving face, I realise that I was wrong, she hasn’t left me at all.

She never can and never will. I can connect to her whenever I want. I just have to look in the mirror and see her.  And, the comfort that gives me is so immense, it makes me cry.  And yes: I will get through life just fine like that, but, to answer her questions: 1) I love me and I love you, and 2) No, I didn’t. I’m growing it out and leaving it curly.

I imagine her tutting and rolling her eyes in her own way – our own way – to which I would say:

Yeah but, it’s gonna look really cool.

The inner life: Tarot and technology

The other day I read this tweet: I just assume people who don’t have a twitter account have no inner life. I laughed a lot and got to thinking.

Lately, I have been contemplating my inner life using tarot instead of twitter and, I like it. I did a tarot course back in January at Treadwell’s and ever since, instead of picking up my phone first thing when I wake up on a morning, I pick up the tarot.

I have written thousands of words about technology, in particular social media, and the advantages it gives us, the connection, the reassurance, and that it is popular because we all want to be experienced, that we all want to be seen and heard and to feel that we matter. But I am beginning to see that it has to begin with ourselves. We need to see and hear ourselves, we need to have a space to be able to express ourselves without interruption and feel received, which is hard to do online.

When I give a tarot reading, I am giving my full attention to someone for them to be seen and heard and to talk about what matters to them. In a normal day, how often do we do that for other people? How often does someone do that for us? And, does that ever happen on social media? That interesting broadcasting to no one in particular model which is so compelling and yet at times, so indifferent. We don’t know if someone has heard, or if anyone is listening as you cannot be a silent comforting presence on twitter.

I have had magical conversations online with people before I’ve even met them, but they are few and far between. Most social media isn’t like that and from a person to person point of view, to feel seen and heard online, social media works best in a: Here is my news until we meet next. It is not a complete replacement. We need the physical, the being experienced and we cannot be present for others unless we are present to ourselves which is difficult to do if we are permanently distracted by seeking consolation in our phones, for we take ourselves away from our lives, which is for better or worse, where we need to be in order for us to be able to define who we are.

Of course there are times when we need to escape – we used to do that with a book – or we need to physically be somewhere else and that is when technology helps. It can get us to connect where there is just a void and in the moments when you can’t get to be somewhere to say goodbye – perhaps forever – then technology can make a moment happen by compressing time and space and for that it is a blessing. Ironically, the only reason I am writing this blog is because I read a tweet and got inspired.

But for the inner life, to connect back to oneself where there’s only a void which needs filling; that Sehnsucht : (German) yearning or inconsolable longing which sometimes happens, or perhaps, as as someone else tweeted today, that Hiraeth: (Welsh) Homesickness for a home that you cannot return to; grief for the lost places of your past. Those feelings are hard to manage using technology, though knowing other people have them too can help. Personally, I hate the idea that someone else is feeling as miserable as I am, especially if I can’t help, and if, they have typed out a whole scary story which doesn’t end well. Staring at a tarot card which embodies that feeling until I see other things on the card as the feeling dims and hope returns is a more calming way for me to manage as I hate the vulnerability hangover which comes from oversharing online.

Growing up, the tarot was always a bit of a taboo, right up there with the oujia board. (Does anyone try to contact the dead with technology? I wonder! ) I grew up in the Church of England which frowned upon my dad’s spiritualist community, which in turn took a dim view of ‘occult’ practices like tarot. My dad was quite clear on not dabbling with things you didn’t know about, but that was after his automatic writing phase in the cupboard under the stairs where the gas meter was kept. I think now perhaps there was a bit of a leak which caused the visions.

But given that he was pretty eccentric and into the scary esoteric – like those days when the seances in the front room got out of hand – I got the impression that tarot was something way, way out, which begged the question: Who the hell did tarot?

After going on the course now I know: People like me, that’s who. Normal people who are curious and want a different way to think about things. Some of the lovely people I met were into Jungian Psychoanalysis and social work and saw the tarot as a way to communicate. The tarot, and cards and games are as old as time itself and we connect to others through them and then back to ourselves to make sense of the world.

The tarot has 78 cards, 22 of which are the major arcana embodying the archetypes of life, the events, feelings and situations we all experience whether we like it or not: birth and death, love and fear, loneliness and happiness, and so on. Archetypes bring an energy to our stories and to our design processes, and stories and design (as in games or cards or indeed technology) are the way in which we communicate and how we change the world in real life or online. The minor arcana represent the cycles our mind, body, spirit and emotions go through and the court cards represent aspects of our personality or other people. All of it only has meaning because we give it meaning.

So say I pull out DEATH XIII in any reading, most people, myself included, will be able to look at their lives and see that there will be somewhere in their lives where they is the need for an ending to happen, even if they don’t want one, it could be for the best in a situation, a friendship, a job, because with each ending as painful as it is, there is a relief, a release and the promise of the sun rising the next day.

I love the fact too that in the deck I have (the classic Rider-Waite) DEATH XIII looks just like the KNIGHT OF CUPS – the romance card, and I guess falling in love with a person, a project, an idea, is a beginning and the very opposite of letting go and feeling stuck and diminished. A beginning is an ending, and an ending is a beginning.

With technology there is no beginning nor end and we don’t look at twitter and question it’s meaning or relevance. We immediately assume if it is out there then it has meaning, and we make it relevant to our lives, even if it is to our detriment and impacts our inner life.

We set our intentions and our opinions by other people’s stories because we are conditioned to do so– normally we know people or the source of the information and we trust it, which is harder to do online. Lately there are lots of stories about fake news, fake reviews online and even this week the Pope had his say, warning us about robots. But none of this is new, we have long had fake news and spin and propaganda, in wartime it’s a good thing, in peacetime it’s manipulation. Technology just facilitates all of this with a wider reach.

Technology has no message. The medium is message. It is up to us to define the correct meaning for it and for our inner lives but that is a hard thing to do. Currently, my inner life is doing well using tarot not twitter and I am not feeling the sharing is caring vibe at the moment but should I change my mind I can easily and instantly on my phone and will try not to mind when no one answers.

Virtual Presence: Where do we go when we go online?

Steve Mann, Augmented Reality Man

I spent most of Sunday morning staring into the eyes of spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle. I was in my garden in London and he was at home in Vancouver giving a SoundsTrue webinar on The Power of Presence. Tolle was demonstrating to me and the other 100,000+ people on the webinar that it can be useful to connect with another human being who is free of mind, even on a screen.

Tolle’s demonstration of thought-less presence was a continuation of The Power of Now in which he discusses that we only have the now. Nothing happens in the past or future, our senses, perceptions, feelings and thoughts all make up the now. He extended this on Sunday by defining presence as being aware of ourselves as a perceiving consciousness deep in the essence of now.

And this, reminded me of a question I have been pondering for some time now: Where do we go when we go online?

As Tolle talked about the surface of now whilst I was staring into the screen at him, I was conscious of the external world outside of me and my focus on him on a screen, that is to say I was peripherally aware of the garden I was in, I could hear the birds tweet, the traffic go by and what he was saying all at once. Then, when he was telling me to feel my breath and my inner body aliveness I focused completely on my presence whilst Tolle said that I was entering the now, the external or surface now, and then the internal or deep now of my unseen thoughts and feelings.

And, this was all working until I began to wonder about presence, our physical presence like mine in the garden, and our virtual presence when we are connecting to the Internet at which point I missed what he was saying, I was off wondering:

Where do we go in the space? Is it a connection to our own thoughts and inner fire as I discussed in Lighting the Fire and The Space Between Us? Is it a connection to a collective consciousness as Jung believed and as Deepak Chopra believes? Or, is the Internet an external world of ideas as Plato postulated?

Tolle during his webinar mentioned that when he introduces language to describe presence as consciousness it creates a duality which reminded me of Decartes and his theory of Cartesian Dualism of the mind and body as separate. But, some scientists and artists don’t feel this way and think that our embodiment needs an upgrade as our bodies don’t keep up with our ever expanding technology which expands our minds.

The Internet is a medium which expands our capacity for thought, for ideas, for information and it demonstrates perfectly how the medium is the message. This medium – the Internet – expands us and influences how the message is perceived and so, creates a symbiotic relationship.

We talk about going online or being online. And when we talk about the Internet, which after all is just a network of computers, we talk about it as a space which we navigate, we surf, we go back or forward in. Is it a mental space for us? If so what happens to our physical? Where is our presence?

I have been online and had access to the Internet for over two decades now and I have often gotten lost online – not so much in hyperspace – but lost myself completely, lost all sense of time and space, or specifically an idea of where I was, during say a unix talk which would split the screen in two and you could see both sides of the conversation, or during chats on Facebook Messenger, or DM on Twitter, when both parties have treated this asynchronous feature as a chat in real time. According to Tolle this is because I have identified with, in this case, the chat, I’ve let them/it take me over and I am longer in the now. I have been drawn into unconsciousness to which I would add I have been drawn into the collective unconsciousness. But then most of us have had this experience when reading a book or in the cinema well before we all went online.

Research into literary realism – a 19th century art movement which we might call sociology nowadays – has established that human comprehension and language cannot encompass reality in its entirety. We may have a partial understanding which comes from our experiences and senses in the now, but most of what we understand is largely based in concepts, or mental representations.

So, since we are limited by our senses, perceptions and feelings which make up the now, it makes sense that we are easily led and go elsewhere, we fall into the collective unconsciousness. A while back I talked about flow, and the gap and falling into other people or into an online video, or argument in the Moments in modern technology blog as I couldn’t quite figure out if technology was causing us to miss moments or not – were we absent or present? Tolle says that being conscious of our presence in a moment is the way we feel super alive. Being taken over by thoughts and triggers is being absent.

In the field of literary theory, absence and presence has long been debated and understood that people can be made to believe that they are somewhere they are not, or in the presence of people and objects that do not actually exist. Our suspension of disbelief as Coleridge put it whilst reading text on a page, allows us to go online and enter virtual spaces.

Virtual architecture and design creates social norms in virtual spaces which affects how people use and communicate in a given space for they follow the cues offered. So, if an online group meet in a virtual lecture with a lecturer at the front they will behave quite differently to say if they meet in a virtual coffee shop, and it will impact how a student learns.

As I said in Games,Storytelling and Ludology, the more the environment demands of us, along with giving our senses all the information they need – sight, sound, touch (haptic feedback) the more complete it feels. And our minds, don’t really know, or care if it is real or not.

Sculpted virtual environments aside, even in text-only chats, we still lose ourselves online. I believe it is our desire to connect and experience and be experienced which really drives our minds, not the technology. It is our willingness to want to reach out. We are hardwired for connection and shared experiences are a quick way to connect. As Tolle says: When you are really present you are not looking past or future or comparing you are no longer a person… you and the now are one and the same… you can understand experientially or conceptually.

The yogis says that experience can be Nirguna (formless) and Saguna (with form), and I see now that this means, if we give it form, we break it down conceptually and then it is just a partial understanding. A formless experiential experience expands us and influences us.

I think that is what we do online, we experience experientially in the now, and when we come back from online, like on TV after an ad break, a presenter will say: Welcome back, as if we’d been somewhere, perhaps it is then when we interpret conceptually.

If we, as Tolle recommends, learn to cultivate a stillness inside us against which everything happens then it is will be easier to retain a sense of self online, a sense of presence, and our virtual and physical will be aligned.

However, if you are like me, I lose myself everywhere and anywhere and yet I am often told by people that I have great presence, just be reassured I’ve gotten lost a million times online, but I always find my way home.

Connection: Lighting the fire

In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit. – Albert Schweitzer

Before Christmas, I listened to a Sounds True podcast in which feminist Benedictine nun Sister Joan Chittister talked about lighting the fire and it is such a lovely phrase it has stayed with me ever since.

Sister Joan says that by choosing the right people to watch, the people who have distilled their life experiences into a wisdom which helps them to live a good and serene life, we can learn to do the same and light the fire for ourselves and in turn, for other people.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that we don’t always need a why life happens as it does, but we do need a how. Sometimes life events can be so truly devastating that we forget how to tend our fire and it goes out. Sometimes, if we are lucky, as Albert Schweitzer says above, thankfully other people light us up and get us going again. They give us the how and eventually we figure out the why ourselves.

In her beautiful book Tending the heart fire, yoga leader Shiva Rea says that the human body is a miniature version of the universe, which began in a fiery explosion and has the sun at the centre on which all life depends. Our bodies are formed from the same materials as our world, and our hearts, known in tantric yoga as the fire altar of our temples (bodies) are like the sun. This is a mystical way of reflecting on our place in the universe which thrills and delights me, not least of all because it is true.

Consequently, when our bodies honour the rhythm of the natural world, for instance, going inward in the winter months, keeping warm and getting the rest we need, we are more likely to enjoy peace, harmony and creativity, and we keep our fire lit as we live the serene, good life Sister Joan was talking about.

Moreover, Shiva Rea says we can, with practice, embody fuel, fire, and firekeeper to realise the extraordinary creative force that burns within us. For, it is this creativity and desire to expand which keeps us vital and evolving. I have said before, I think this is why we are culturally obsessed with youth. Our young constantly evolve and expand, and seem full of potential and promise, in a way older members of the population can forget. But we can all learn to keep our inner fire burning to centre our energy and maintain our passion – our love for life.

Scientists have found that when the rhythm of our hearts synchronise with our brainwaves that is when we are in our optimal flow. The ancient practices of yoga and meditation bring our biological rhythms back in sync, and make us feel balanced, and just a couple of breaths or any of our own rituals can do the same. I am a big fan of ritual to sooth myself or to make a moment resonate.

Tending our inner fire is a connection to ourselves, to the world around us and to others. Scientifically, the electric magnetic fields of our hearts go beyond our own bodies, so when we sync with others we can sense when someone is in flow or not and by breathing and creating space, we can put ourselves in an open-hearted synchronised state. I know this from personal experience.

Last year, I was on a two day meditation retreat with the extraordinary davidji, and during one session there was a woman sitting next to me who kept moaning and I felt like my space was invaded, which was extra irritating because not only did I judge her for moaning, I then judged myself harshly for not being more kind, meditative and tolerant. I thought that it was going to be a long session of me feeling irritated, judgemental and not feeling the love, and then we were asked to get into twos to do an exercise. Naturally, I ended up with this woman, rolling my eyes. However, keeping the faith, we got together and followed the instructions. We put our hands on each other hearts, looked into each others eyes, breathed in and our a few times and then shared our intention for the rest of the year. Hers was about something which touched me, and I am thinking it was a private moment so I don’t need to share her intention with everyone. I don’t remember mine because I tend to lose myself in other people (I know I need to get that sorted. Or do I?). Finally, we finished by saying to each other: You are beautiful, you are doing a great job, I love you very much.

The rush of love which I felt for this woman in that moment, wiped out all other thoughts, even with my natural talent/flaw to dive deep into someone else, I felt truly loving and loved in what was now a special moment of connection and intimacy. I loved her dearly and still feel a rush of affection for her as I write this now, and I hope she achieved her intention.

It was an extraordinary experience which showed me that connection is an energy that can happen at anytime with anyone because of the way we are biologically made. We are not born irritated or disliking people. We are born from love, and we love intrinsically. It also means all the woo-woo talk is true: When we are at one with all things, we respond and interact. When we are separate, we tend to react and contract.

As Shiva Rea says:

To tend the heart fire is to create a sacred expression of our life.

The sacred is available to us in any given moment. All we have to do is open our hearts, offer up our life force and fan the flames of our inner fire (or scientifically speaking: Breathe to get our brains and hearts in sync so that our bodies produce oxytocin, and feel a connection). So on the days when we feel sad and lonely, and disconnected from others, just remember to breathe in and out and create a space in which we allow air, or people in, to rekindle our fire – that spark of love, and passion for life.

[Part 2]