I Think You Ought to Know

The character known as the paranoid android, aka Marvin in the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was fond of saying ‘I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed.’  Eeyore has similar conversational openers although he is more adept at emotional manipulation (‘we can’t all have houses’, ‘very natural, and it was only Eeyore’s tail.  But still I wondered.’)

But when I’m feeling depressed I have a dilemma – to talk about it or not to talk about it?  I’m only too aware from certain miserablist individuals of my acquaintance of the total downer it can be when you subject others to your own depression; I’m also aware of the potential value of thinking and acting positive.  But then again there’s the need to talk about it, not to be in denial.  So what to do?

It seems to me that there’s an optimum amount of expression required.  Naturally I tell my dear OH when I’m feeling down and OH is always concerned and wanting to help.  But whilst it’s a relief to get it off your chest I’m aware that feeling better is largely down to me.  Fortunately most of the time I can find something that works: watching a comedy, digging the garden, going for a walk, reading a book.  Equally important is avoiding things that bring me down: listening to the news, reading Facebook, thinking about the future.

Food and drink can also help: eating good, fresh food gives you energy but there’s nothing to beat chocolate.  I avoid alcohol as it’s a known depressant.  Sleeping properly also helps; unfortunately this is not under my complete control and sometimes everything I try fails – or at least only succeeds partially.  I can drink my chamomile and swig my herbal sleep mix and put on my sleep CD and still stay awake for ages.  It’s very annoying.  It’s as if there’s a part of my brain that resists all efforts to put it to sleep.  This part of my brain is like a recalcitrant toddler and insists on being awake no matter what I do.  

In my previous incarnation as a yoga teacher I used to teach groups of depressed people.  I would always focus on active postures; plenty of movement, no contemplation or meditation and some high-up music like this:

video removed on request

High notes seem to reach a part of the brain associated with euphoria; there are better tracks than this but I don’t know what they’re called so I can’t find them.

I’m off now to buy some salad stuff and chocolate biscuits…

Kirk out

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Oh Wow. A Whole Decade

I had a little notification in the corner of my page this morning.   ‘That’s odd,’ I thought, as I’m usually told of comments and followers via email and I had just checked my inbox.  I clicked on it and it informed me that it was TEN YEARS AGO TODAY!!! that I started this blog.  I won’t bore you with the details as regular readers have heard it all many times before, suffice it to say that Hanif Kureishi was partly responsible for setting me off on this path.  I suppose I really ought to do something deep and retrospective, like picking out my favourite posts or summarising my journey or selecting the best comments, but the very idea fills me with a reluctance so deep that I can barely move my fingers across the keyboard; so I shall just say Happy Anniversary to lizardyoga’s weblog and a particular shout-out to those readers who have been with me since the beginning.

Thinking about it, the last decade has seen my transition from teacher/part time writer to full-time author and performing poet, which is quite a big deal.  I was updating my CV the other week and it was quite startling how many things I’ve done, from the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square to Leicester Riverside Festival to Left Unity’s national conference and Quaker Yearly Meeting to Sing for Water at Leicester Riverside Festival.  Publications include poems in Mslexia, blogging for the same and short stories in Everyday Fiction.

Maybe soon I’ll get it together and find some retrospective links.  But right now I’m getting ready to go to Wales which includes checking the car tyres (am I the only one who hates doing this?  I think I have a subconscious fear of blowing up one of the tyres.)

So if you’ve been a reader of this blog since May 2008, please drop me a comment and let me know how the last ten years have been for you.

Kirk out

Like the New Theme?

I’m trying to think of a word that isn’t revamp or makeover; words which strike gloom into the boots of every reader; anyway, whatever you want to call it, this blog is having one.  We’ve got a different theme called Penscratch and I’ve renamed it Sarada Gray to reflect the changing emphasis since I no longer write about yoga.  Now, I don’t expect you to get excited about this since this blog is about content not packaging; and I promise above all not to subject you to any surveys.  Surely everyone must be sick of surveys?  Every time I go on a website or fill out a form I’m asked to rate my experience: I swear to God that when I die I expect St Peter to be up there holding out a clipboard and a pen.  Please rate your life experience under the following categories….  Yeah, yeah, I appreciate that people are just trying to do a good job (or look as if they are) but there must be better ways of doing it than the infernal tick-box.

But I digress.  Sarada Gray, in case you didn’t know, is my pen-name.  If you don’t know where the name comes from and can’t be bothered to click on the link above, it happened like this.  In 1992 I was on a yoga retreat in Avila, coldest place on earth, at a convent in the mountains above Madrid.  The convent was basically a set of corridors open to the elements and the heating came on for half an hour a day, between 3 and 3.30 pm when I was usually taking a nap.  We got up at some ungodly hour to do meditation and at the start of the whole shebang we were invited to choose a ‘nombre espiritual’ – a spiritual name by which we would be known on the retreat.  This name should embody qualities which we wished to develop in ourselves.

I think it was that which inspired me more than anything in yoga – if you want to achieve something you should act as if you’re already there.  So I asked myself, where do I want to be?  The answer was of course, to be a writer, so I searched lists of gods and goddesses for suitable names and came up with Sarada.  Aka Saraswati, she is the goddess of creativity and wisdom (good combination) and is usually shown playing a veena, something like a sitar:

maa-saraswati-hd-wallpaper

Image removed on request

But believe it or not, it was years before I thought of using it as a pen-name.  For ages I played around with variations on my own name – Liza, Lisa, Beth… I knew I wanted to keep Gray but none of the variations seemed quite right; and then I had an epiphany.  Of course!  Use Sarada!  So there it is.  No-one else has a name like it; it has history and relevance and it sounds good.

So from now on this blog will be called Sarada Gray and soon it will have a new banner, courtesy of my talented son.

Now, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your experience of reading this post?

(Just kidding)

Kirk out

Tired of Brexit? Just Breathe – and Take Back Control!

It’s a long time since I’ve blogged about yoga.  Back in the day, I was posting about some yoga technique or philosophy on a weekly basis, but since I’ve stopped teaching the writing has taken over and now, when I’m asked to say what this blog is about, it’s hard to answer.  The tagline is ‘life and thoughts of a self-underemployed writer,’ and I guess that’s as good a description as any, though I’m not sure I’m ‘underemployed’ any more as I work basically office hours, 9-5-ish, Monday to Friday.  I’ve also got over the tendency to consider what I do as ‘not validated’ unless it is published: when you first start to write it’s very hard to justify the time spent doing it, and if years go by and you publish nothing that feeling can become almost unbearable.

The ultimate validation is to find your authentic voice.  I’m not saying publication doesn’t matter but I think it’s more likely to come once you discover your true voice rather than striving to be a copy of something else.  Still, it’s a loooooooooooong process: like Miles Davis said, it takes a long time to sound like yourself:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/783321-man-sometimes-it-takes-you-a-long-time-to-sound

None of which, I now realise, has much to do with the title; as I see that I’ve written several paragraphs very much not about breathing.  I have problems with breathing, as do a lot of people: I have asthma and rhinitis (like hay fever only not seasonal) and although I don’t often get a full-blown asthma attack I can feel short of breath sometimes.  The rhinitis is more of a pain really, consisting of a blocked and runny nose and frequent sneezing.  But hey ho – it could be worse.  I could have leprosy or syphilis.  I could be in a wheelchair having to prove to ATOS every couple of months that my amputated legs are still amputated and haven’t grown back.

So: what can I say about yoga breathing?  I have written essays on it; entire books have been devoted to the subject – but for me the most exciting thing about working with the breath is that it gives you control.  You want to take back control?  Learn to breathe and you can control your heart-rate and blood pressure.  You can slow down your thoughts and calm your emotions.  Stuck in a traffic jam?  Cut up by some arse in a BMW?  Been nice to someone who was rude in return?  All these things tend to raise the blood pressure and agitate the mind, and doing something so simple as merely focussing on the breath can really help.  Try some of these ideas:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/yoga-practice-of-the-day/

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/yoga-practice-of-the-day-energising/

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2010/07/16/yoga-practice-of-the-day-strength-and-serenity-when-feeling-under-attack/

Just breathe – it really is better than Brexit.

Kirk out

A Tragedy of Perfections

It occurred to me at stupid o’clock this morning when my brain had done its usual thing and whacked me over the head repeatedly to keep me awake, that the opposite of a Comedy of Errors would be a Tragedy of Perfections.  That struck me as a nice idea, and I began to ponder what a tragedy of perfections might involve.

The crossword is a case in point.  I may have mentioned before that I do the Guardian cryptic every morning to get – I was going to say, to get my brain in gear but as I said it’s already in top gear and revving hard – well, to get the verbal juices flowing and to sharpen my sense of what words are and how they work.  Cryptic crosswords are very useful for poets, and if I ever teach a creative writing course I will recommend them to my students.  But of course part of the joy of a cryptic is the puzzle.  If it’s too easy it’s not so enjoyable: likewise if it’s too hard.  Most of the time I get through OK but sometimes I’m stuck, and then those few blank spaces torment me.  Oh, if I could only get this crossword finished!  But here’s the thing: five minutes (or half an hour) later when I finally get it, my immediate reaction is disappointment.  It’s finished.  No more puzzle.  Now I have to wait till tomorrow.

And I guess that’s what I mean by the tragedy of perfection.  One of DH Lawrence’s characters (I think it was Birkin in Women in Love) said of the place where he was living: ‘Now that my rooms are complete I want them at the bottom of the sea.’  And that is the tragedy of being human; that we strive to complete things and when they’re complete we feel heartsick.  It’s like that old Chinese curse: ‘May your every desire be instantly fulfilled.’  We must have something to aim for, else what is the point of our lives?  Or, to put it another way, ‘a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’  (that’s Robert Browning, from this poem:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43745/andrea-del-sarto

I like Robert Browning: he’s very direct and conversational.  But I digress.)

What, then, is the answer?  How do we deal with this utterly perverse tendency?  I’m going to turn to yoga philosophy now and specifically to the concept of karma yoga.  Karma is a term everyone knows nowadays – or thinks they know, anyway – and yoga is something every second person practises.  But karma yoga has nothing to do with yoga postures; it is a way of doing everyday tasks which somehow helps you to wriggle free of this endless cycle of desire and frustration – the tragedy of perfection.  For example: suppose I vacuum the sitting room carpet.  As the machine hoovers up the dirt I feel a great sense of satisfaction at the instant swallowing of every bit of dust and fluff (and don’t get me started on the hair-balls which can only emanate from OH’s head).  The task is done: I switch off the vacuum which dies with a satisfied sigh.  I look around me.  I see that it is good.  But! five minutes later someone walks in with dirt on their shoes.  The sofa is moved, scattering fine toast crumbs over a wide area.  Snacks are eaten.  People enter and leave.  OH pulls out tangles of hair and drops them on the floor (and nobody can tell me otherwise).  And in no time at all my (yes, MY) lovely clean carpet is covered in filth.  And if I’m not careful I can get quite miffed about it.

Karma yoga gives a way out of this.  First, when you undertake a task it is done without end-gaining; in other words, without attachment to the results.  This isn’t the same as not giving a toss; it means that if the vacuum doesn’t suck properly or you get interrupted or if for some other reason the carpet is not as clean as you’d like it to be, you don’t sweat it.  At the same time the job is done with focus.  You’d be amazed how much more quickly a job can be finished when you focus your whole attention on it.  Last year when digging the garden I was totally oppressed by how much work there was to do and was unable to concentrate on a little bit at a time.  This year I have made a conscious decision to focus only on what I’m doing and to let go of perfection – and guess what?  I’ve done four times the work in half the time.

That’s all for today folks.  Now to edit this post and make it perfect…

Kirk out

 

 

 

 

Wish I Was Here

Am I here?  Are you here?  Are any of us actually here?

No, that’s not a philosophical question about the reality of this life; it’s a comment on the fact that many of us are, for much of the time, not fully present.  We are distracted.  We are talking to someone and a text arrives.  ‘I’d better get this,’ we say.  Why?  Or we are looking at a terrific view and our first thought is to take a photo and upload it to Facebook.  Why?  What could be better than just appreciating the view?  Or we are walking to work past a magnificent magnolia tree (it’s that time of year right now!) and we don’t notice it because we’re in a hurry or thinking about that meeting or phone call or email.  It’s spring, people!  But do we notice?

I first started to change my bad habits when I lived in Madrid.  It became clear to me that I wouldn’t be there forever; so I made a conscious effort to notice things: the architecture, the sky, the light, the art; everything I came across.  There is beauty everywhere, even if you live in a dump, as the film ‘American Beauty’ shows in that scene with the carrier bag.  Carrier bags are not considered to be beautiful, but they can be: look at the picture above and try to get past your feelings of disgust at the way plastic pollutes the world.  Is it not beautiful?  It flies in the wind with its own grace.  There’s beauty in everything if you want to see it.  But in order to see it you have to stop and look.

Much has been written about the desirability of doing one thing at a time.  If I was having dinner with someone who was continually on their mobile, I’d walk out: similarly to arrive at a beautiful location and just take photos is an insult to the location.

When I began to study yoga I was introduced to the idea that happiness comes from concentration.  By concentration I don’t mean a ‘Rodin’s Thinker’ style screwing up of the attention but an unbroken flow, like when you’re completely absorbed in a book or film (or person).  This, I learned, is the reason why new things make us happy – because we focus on them completely.  They absorb us.  But that soon fades and if we’re not careful we seek the next new thing, instead of learning that it’s the focus that matters, not the thing.

So in order to be happy we merely have to be present.

Are you here?

Kirk out

Yes! I Remembered! It’s ‘Be Insecure’ Day

It’s the first Wednesday in the month and for once I’ve remembered to be insecure.  I have to remind myself these days because I’m not half as insecure as I used to be.  I care a great deal less about what people think of me, and agonise a good deal less about whether they publish me.

So what – I hear you cry – has brought about this extraordinary state of affairs?  Well, it started with a pancake.  We used to have soya pancakes due to my daughter’s egg allergy, but since she’s left home we’ve reverted to the eggy variety: and as I was mixing, some thoughts were churning in my mind about Lent.   I have often in the past given something up for Lent but we are now so hard-up that the kind of things I used to give up (chocolates, TV, meals out, having a car, etc) I have perforce given up for good.  So the thought of renouncing yet another luxury did not appeal: take away my chocolate digestives and life is just not worth living.  And as the first pancake frazzled in the pan I had a brainwave: why give up something nice?  Why not something negative?  That, after all, is the idea of Lent: not spurious self-sacrifice but giving up those addictions and attachments which hold you back.  Like, say, insecurity and self-doubt.

So that was my decision: for six and a half weeks I would give up self-doubt.  The little voice that undermined my confidence and poured cold water on my dreams, would be shown the door.  But how? I hear you cry.

Well, there are various methods, but I chose to write affirmations.  Every day I would write at least 108 affirmations focussing on positive things (Why 108?  I’ll tell you in a minute).  I would write, for example, ‘I feel secure’ or ‘I am a good writer.’ (I mostly phrase things in the present tense to make them seem more real.)  After a while you start to feel it working – but then the doubts creep in – so to combat this I created a ‘doubt cloud’:  I squiggled a cloud-shape on the page and imprisoned all the niggling doubts inside it.

Writing – or repeating – affirmations is a technique I learned from yoga.  Traditionally yogis repeat a mantra; a word or short phrase in Sanskrit; and instead of counting they use a mala, a sort of longish rosary containing 108 beads.  The number 108 is held to be significant because it has so many denominators: it’s divisible by 3, 4, 6,8, 9 and 12.

Self-doubt and insecurity are the plague of the artist.  We need the critical voice but it comes in much too soon – at the start of the work rather than towards the end.  We need it when we’ve finished the first draft, but it pops up when we’re just beginning – and sometimes before, filling the blank page with dire prognostications.  For example, when I started writing again in 1981 I wrote a sentence or two and then underneath commented ‘too wordy and Dickensian.’

Consider the difference between these two poems:

POEM

Christopher Robin is going.
At least I think he is.
Where?
Nobody knows.
But he is going –
I mean he goes
(To rhyme with “knows”)
Do we care?
(To rhyme with “where”)
We do
Very much.
(I haven’t got a rhyme for that “is” in the second line yet.
Bother).
(Now I haven’t got a rhyme for bother. Bother)
Those two bothers will have to rhyme with each other
Buther.
The fact is this is more difficult
than I thought,
I ought –
(Very good indeed)
I ought
to begin again,
But it is easier
To stop.

This poem is written almost entirely by the critical voice.  There is no flow because Eeyore’s critical voice never shuts up.  Compare his effort (and I mean effort) with this flow of Pooh’s:

What shall we do about poor little Tigger?
If he never eats nothing, he’ll never get bigger.
He doesn’t like honey and haycorns and thistles
Because of the taste and because of the bristles.
And all the good things which an animal likes
Have the wrong sort of swallow or too many spikes

But whatever his weight in pounds,
shillings, and ounces,
He always seems bigger because
of his bounces

Piglet wonders whether the shillings ought to be there.  ‘They wanted to come in after the pounds, so I let them,’ Pooh explains.  And there you have it.  Eeyore never gives anything a chance to ‘come in because it wants to’ and so his poetry never gets off the ground.

If I’ve learnt one thing in writing poetry, it’s this: you may have intentions.  You may intend to write a poem about snow, or autumn, or a garden.  You may intend to write free verse or a sonnet or a limerick.  But the poem has intentions too – and if you are wise, you’ll listen to them – and not your insecurities.

And here’s the link to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/

Kirk out