Letting go gives us freedom and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.
Thich Nhat Hanh
At a young age, I put on a mask. A mask to try to hide all my foibles, to hide my anxiety so I could be somebody else and so that nobody would know the real me. I thought I would never be able to take that mask off, maybe swap it for another but never to remove it completely. That was until the day I discovered the power of mindfulness.
As a young lad, I was introverted and generally scared a lot of the time. During my school years, I remember that feeling in the pit of my stomach every school morning, fearing what the day would bring. I would worry about everything but more than anything, I felt ashamed because I wasn’t like those boys that everybody seemed to like, the ones that seem to take everything in their stride and just got on with life.
Anxiety had got a grip on me at an early age, I can’t quite remember when. My parents divorced when I was 7, maybe it was then, but thinking about it, it may have been even sooner than that. Mum used to say as a baby I used to cry an awful lot and sit in the corner pulling my hair out. Who knows, are we born with anxiety? Quite possibly.
During my early teen years, I developed an ill thought out coping mechanism. I would wear a mask, pretend everything was ok, burying my anxiety and emotions so they wouldn’t show. On the outside I would try to fit in, try to be confident and cool. Underneath, I was suffering, anxious with constantly trying to prove something and be somebody else. This would last for years, as soon as I completed secondary school and nervously got through my exams, I left and never went back, never even spoke again to any of my school friends. Maybe it was a chance to start again and be somebody else, yeah another mask to wear!
My first job was working on a hotel narrow boat that traveled around the country on the canals, picking up different guests en-route. It was a great job and for a while it went well, but they never got to know me, I covered the real me up again. After a couple of years feeling yet again anxious, afraid and alone, I left and returned home looking for another new start.
During the next 10 years I worked hard, bought a home and found somebody to share my life with. All great things but by 30 I was feeling exhausted. Tired of not being able to be myself, constantly anxious and irritated. Anger had now come into the mix. The pressure of hiding my true self would bubble over and spew out as anger. Anger at other people but bigger than that was an anger at myself, I hated who I was. I would lose it at work for just silly reasons and walk out in a storm of anger. Just driving home would send me into a fit of rage and at home behind closed doors I would go to my bedroom, put my head into the pillow and shout whilst punching the bed. Day after day the same, I could see no escape route from the torment. Years of covered up anxiety, nerves and self-doubt had taken its toll. Attacks of panic were never far away and I couldn’t turn it off. It felt like I had stopped living, but still I kept on thinking I could just cover it up.
Over the next few years, whilst struggling to just get through each day, I slowly watched my step father fade away, in and out of hospital with a terrible illness that would eventually take him. The day he died, I walked out of the hospital, knowing my life had to change. Seeing a life end, seeing him battle to the end and not want to let go, made me understand that life is just way too short. The thought that if I didn’t change something, I could possibly carry on through life and get to the end full of regret. I was not going to let that happen, I had to find a way to remove the mask once and for all.
Over the next few weeks, I researched online and tried to connect with other people who had a similar story and had battled with anxiety. I kept coming across stories about mindfulness and how much it had helped people. I have to say, I just couldn’t see how it would work. The thought of just pausing for a moment or trying to sit still would give me even more anxiety. I worried that if I stopped, the anxiety would just get worse. I thought it was much better to keep busy, just keep going and cover it up. I didn’t understand then, that Mindfulness was the key I would need to remove the mask and see my real self for the first time in a long while. Although, even with my scepticism, something had gripped me. I was intrigued how something that seemed so simple could change so many lives, there had to be something in it. I kept on reading and researching.
In September that year I came across an advert for a Mindfulness summit, a 31 day online event from the amazing Melli O Brien of mrsmindfulness.com Everyday there would be a different speaker. The advert stated
“Learn how mindfulness can transform anxiety, depression and stress”
I signed up. The start of the event also coincided with a holiday we had arranged. We were to join a friend up in Scotland and stay in a remote cottage on the West Coast. The cottage over looks the sea-loch and is absolutely idyllic. There couldn’t have been a better place for me to start my journey with Mindfulness.
Sunset at the cottage
The first days speaker was Mark Williams, Clinical Psychologist and author of “Mindfulness:Finding peace in a frantic world”. His no-nonsense, calm and well spoken style had me hooked. Everything he mentioned I could relate to. During his talk, he did a short meditation exercise which I did. At the end of it I felt refreshed, calm and peaceful. That holiday in Scotland was one of the best ever. Each morning I would listen to the days speaker and then do some meditation. What struck me the most was how it changed the rest of the day. I saw things as if for the first time, simple things like mindfully making and drinking a mug of tea became a real pleasure, the sunrises and sunsets were like I had never seen them before, the sense of joy just going out for a walk, feeling the earth under my feet, the feeling of aliveness was slowly seeping back into my bones.
It was starting to click that there was something in this thing called Mindfulness. Everyday I listened to all the speakers, carried out the exercises and researched more and more. At the end of the 31 days, I knew that mindfulness and meditation would now be a part of my life, the anxiety was slowly loosening its grip.
For the last year I have been practicing mindfulness and meditation on a daily basis. I am also getting some amazing training from Mindfulness teacher, Suryacitta Malcolm Smith of Mindfulness CIC, I am so grateful to him for constantly showing me the way, each training session I have been to, has brought new insights to deepen my practice.
I sometimes still get anxious but Mindfulness has taught me to make friends with anxiety, without reacting, to just feel it, welcoming it in. I feel what it’s like in my body, I focus on my breath. I feel my feet firmly planted on the earth and I realize that I am alive, anxiety doesn’t take over anymore as it used to, it comes and it goes. Mindfulness doesn’t take it away, far from it. It teaches you to observe, to really watch what anxiety (or whatever emotion state you are working with) is, to sit with it, to feel its rawness, its shape. I will never tell you it is easy, it is not but it is in this observation without reacting that the magic will occur, the layers peel back, the masks get removed.
The learning will never end, it will last a whole lifetime, but one day it will end and I know I won’t look back with regret. I can look at myself in the mirror now and know that it really is me I can see, not a man in a mask.