By Andre La Barbera
Tw/ suicide, depression, anxiety
Although lockdown restrictions are supposedly coming to an end by June 21st, the mental health crisis that the UK finds itself in is far from over. How can spiritual teachings from the likes of Eckhart Tolle help us in testing times?
Another ‘lockdown’, another string of weeks where a glimpse of social normality is pulled out from underneath us. In the wake of COVID-19’s new variants spreading faster than ever before, it’s widely agreed upon that limiting the need to leave home is a sensible idea. Yet it is a sacrifice – for one’s physical health, at the cost of one’s mental health.
Like an alarming number of people today, I suffer from mental health problems. Depression and, at times, anxiety have really impacted my life since I started university and, to be honest, I still suffer now. Despite not fully overcoming these problems, I’m certainly in a position now where I understand more. Via counselling, self-help books and experience, it’s a bit easier to overcome periods of feeling low and if I can’t overcome them, I now see that there’s always light at the end of it.
But it ain’t been all rosy, oh god no. There’s been times where I’ve thought there’s no way out but a few things I’ve picked up along the way have helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel. And for whoever is struggling, I want to share these with you, especially during these peculiar times.
Eckhart Tolle and identifying who you really are
If you haven’t heard of Eckhart Tolle, then he could change your life. Seriously.
In his New York Times Bestselling book The Power of Now, Tolle takes the reader to a period of his life where his mental state had plummeted to the lowest of lows and he was contemplating suicide. It was when the thought “I cannot live with myself any longer” kept going through Eckhart’s mind that he finally made a life changing breakthrough: that voice within his head was not him. He was merely the one who was hearing it.
We are not our thoughts, feelings or emotions, we are simply aware of them. Now, this might be confusing at first, but think of it like this. If you didn’t have a name, address, a home, an email address, would you still be a living being? Yes. Now, apply this logic to your thoughts and feelings. When your thoughts and feelings come and go, are you still there? Yes, you are. This is you, the watcher, the listener, the awareness. When you first discover this, it can be extremely relieving and peaceful.
How this can help you
The majority of thoughts that we experience each day are pointless. Imagine this. You’re sitting in your car, waiting for the temporary traffic lights outside Tesco Express to turn green. You gaze out the window, and in between the scattered drops of rain you see a mother emerging from the automatic doors. Her hands are full. In one hand is the hand of her young son in his muddy school uniform and, in the other, she tightly grips the handle of a 4-pint bottle of Cravendale semi skimmed milk. All of a sudden, your mind begins to do its thing. “I wonder if the boy scored during his lunch time football match?” “Why has she not just bought Tesco’s own milk?” “Who on earth decided that semi-skimmed milk should be associated with the colour green?” No matter how much I’d like to know the answer to these questions, are these thoughts of any real benefit? Are they fuck.
In spite of the uselessness of these thoughts, they’re harmless. But it can be a different story for negative, depressing, and anxious thoughts. These thoughts can lead to uncomfortable feelings which, in turn, may lead to even worse thoughts. The downward spiral has begun. For me, it’s any mention of suicide. Perhaps I’d see something on social media:
OMG, if … has taken their life, it could happen to anyone
OMG, I’m depressed at the moment, that could be me one day
An indescribable feeling of hopelessness spreads across me
OMG, if I don’t sort my depression out ASAP this is going to happen to me.
The feeling is even worse
The spiral continues. It’s a horrible feeling and I know similar processes of thoughts and emotions are being experienced by so many across the planet. Yet it can all be eased by becoming aware of who you are.
What a liberation to realize that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.ECKHART TOLLE, A NEW EARTH: AWAKENING TO YOUR LIFE’S PURPOSE
Take a breath and then watch, listen and feel at what’s going on within your body. Once you become aware of your internal activity, however disturbing or uncomfortable it may be, remind yourself that it is not you. Once you accept this, you will feel space within yourself. Shift your attention into this space and just be. You may soon after notice a thought or feeling come to the surface again. It’s easy to then think “ah, I can’t do it properly.” This is normal and will become less and less of a problem after more practice, but just remind yourself that it is your mind saying that, not you.
How to practice
Set aside 5 minutes a day to ‘thought watch’. This is something I learnt from a counsellor and it is also a common practice of meditation. Lie down, sit on a bench, find a space wherever; just make sure your phone is off or away. Now, pay attention to which thoughts arise.
Instead of these thought processes taking over you, acknowledge that you have just experienced a thought and then let it pass. Once the thought passes, another may arise. Again, acknowledge the thought and then let it go. It is helpful to see each thought as a passing cloud. You see a cloud in the sky, you have a look at the cloud, and then let it pass.
If the thoughts are funny, you may smile. If thoughts are boring, you may not take notice. If the thoughts are uncomfortable, you may feel unease within yourself, but remember that you are only witnessing the thought and feeling. The dark rain cloud will pass. You are the sky behind these passing clouds.
The more you practice this, the longer the gaps between your thoughts will become. The more clouds you acknowledge and let go, the more still, blue sky will come through. The purpose of doing this is not to necessarily get rid of these thoughts and feelings. Rather, it is about getting used to being able to distinguish them as thoughts and feelings and to experience focusing your attention on the space between them.
TIP: A very common struggle with this practice is having thoughts about the task. For instance: “I wonder what I’ll have for breakfast tomorrow” “Right, there’s a thought, I now let that thought pass” “Wait, I’m now just thinking about the thought” “Argh! I’m thinking, I can’t do this.” If this happens, take a breath in and out, then focus your attention on the small moment of silence before your next breath. This moment of silence is very similar to the peaceful gap between thoughts and emotions. Take another few conscious breaths if you wish, then start again, waiting for the next thought or feeling to arise.
Beyond the pandemic
Now that vaccines are rapidly being administered, it feels like there might finally be some light at the end of the tunnel. What’s certain though is that, even after this pandemic is finally behind us, life presents us with ups and downs. We can be agile and try to hop between banana skins, but these skins will be trod upon along the way, sometimes when we expect them the least. When these moments arrive, all you need to do is remind yourself of who you really are. Like Tolle says in The Power of Now “when you listen to a thought, you are aware not only of the thought but also of yourself as the witness of the thought.”
If you have more questions than you did before reading this piece, or you want to find out more, look up the works of Eckhart Tolle and Michael A. Singer. Their books: “A New Earth”, “The Power of Now” (Eckhart Tolle) and “The Untethered Soul” (Michael A. Singer) are truly life changing.
Graphic courtesy of Katherine Marriott