It’s dark outside, the sounds of the waking world are still a ways off, but sleep is no longer a welcome respite from the incessant voices and shallow anxious breathing.
It’s usually around 3:30am when it happens: wide awake, thoughts racing, fear, doubt, stress, anxiety and some version of “I am not enough, I have fucked up, I am a fuck up, can’t do this anymore, why is this happening, why is this happening again, I have let them down, I don’t know what to do anymore, I don’t know if I can do it…”
Future fear, ruminating dread and demonising of self.
Those elements seem most prolific.
In my experience, it never leaves completely. However, if I were to think of it as a battle, I would say that my arsenal has improved over the 30 years it has raged in me. I have many more arrows in my quiver, and I have context and perspective.
The voice doesn’t only come out in that predawn period between 3:00am and sunrise.
It speaks at various times of day and night, in any and all scenarios. When jumping on the trampoline with my children, in a business meeting, brushing my teeth or pissing first thing in the morning, gardening, driving, sitting in restaurants, and on it goes.
At those times the voice can be vicious, overwhelming, and paralysing – especially when it has hold of me.
But as I said earlier, I have more arrows in my quiver now.
Recently the voice came to play in the early afternoon. At the time I was swallowing a tablet (a probiotic – I am not medicated and never have been). For whatever reason, I was finding it hard to get the tablet down and the voice was literally screaming at me.
“Really” I said out loud when I finally got it down and swallowed the mouthful of water.
‘Really? Has it really come to that? Is it really necessary? Do you really need to do that?’ – that is what the ”really” meant.
And I said all of that smilingly, because on that afternoon my arrows were straight and strong, and it, the voice, couldn’t take hold of me.
There are times when the voice is silent, places where it can not intrude or where it slinks away. When I shower, when I am meditating, when I am in men’s circle, when I am engaged in a gratitude practice, when I am teaching, and when I am writing.
The voice has a different cadence in all those situations
What I find fascinating upon reflection, is that the absence of the voice is not based on being distracted – when I meditate there are no distractions, and I meditate twice per day, every day.
When I meditate the voice arises, but I have learned to observe it. I have learned not to engage. I have learned to let it be without attaching to it. That allows me to be alone with myself.
That is distinct from being alone at 3:30am when the voice starts (on days it comes to play). Usually, it has been a restless night carried over by something that had happened the day before. For the first few moments of waking there is a period of limbo almost as if my brain is checking in with itself – and then I feel it.
I have labelled it “existential exhaustion” – an awareness of a weariness that no amount of sleep will satisfy. It is a weariness that feels like walking through black treacle. If it were to dominate me, it would take over. It would be paralysing.
I have learned though, that there is a way out.
The way out requires me to recognise and prioritise what I need to; to be straight with those around me, and to recognise that what is required must be prioritised.
If my kidneys did not function and I required dialysis, it would be clear to me that I need to hook up to the dialysis machine, and that if I do not – I will die.
This is no different. That is why I call them my pillar practices.
Pillars for Life
Pillar Practices are a foundation and an underpinning.
Without them, I would collapse internally and externally.
And so I take myself down to the beach pre-dawn, dig a hole in the sand, and sit. I drape myself in a poncho (it is why they call me Sherpa) and I meditate. That pillar is fundamental.
Most mornings I throw myself into the ocean after I sit. I dive under the surf and I count to 22. It restores context and perspective.
The challenges do not go away and neither does the voice, but now they are in context and the voice no longer attacks me.
The same occurs in men’s circle, which is an experience so profoundly different from that I experience in other social interactions and contexts, whether with groups of men or people. I find the voice can be the loudest during social engagements. The environment does not feel safe, I feel disconnected, in my mask, comparing myself and not sharing what is actually there for me.
Men’s circle is everything that such superficial social engagement is not. It is a safe container. I am fiercely present and fiercely authentic. I am talking from my heart. I am feeling into the men around me and they are feeling into me. I am not comparing. I am with my challenges and my victories and I am surrounded by men who are equally with theirs. I am aware with the men of life’s ebbs and flows. A man who a fortnight previously was on top of the world and conquering his mountain is now in the doldrums. Life has thrown him a curveball as it invariably does.
In circle, I am always reminded of a pivotal time in my life. It was a particularly challenging period in my late thirties. I moved into an apartment on the beach, and walked that beach every day. I saw with my own eyes that one day the ocean could be like glass and the next day or hours later it could be raging. And I realised that there was nothing wrong with it. The ocean was just doing what the ocean does.
I also realised that deep down, despite the shifts on the surface there was a deep abiding calm.
That calm is what I seek through my pillar practices.
One day I may have access to that way of being on a totally consistent basis. That is definitely an aspiration.
For now, I am journeying and on that journey, I have picked up many arrows in the way of learnings, insights and practices.
On that journey, I have also become a teacher. As a teacher, I only ever speak from direct experience. I also recognise that we teach what we most need to learn.
I also constantly remind myself of a meditation experience that I had some months ago. In that practice, in quick succession I was presented with everybody I have known with the statement “you are a teacher” and then I was presented with everybody I had known once again with the statement “you are a student”.
And so as I complete the writing of this, the sun has risen and its rays warm my face, my fingers and my mind feel free and calm. I stare at a man named Tom who sits a few seats away from me engrossed in conversation and I know from direct experience that this man is friend, teacher and student.
I listen to the cacophony of conversations and dogs barking. I hear laughter, and I hear opinions, but mainly I hear laughter – and it is not lost on me that I am sitting in one of the most blessed spots on the planet.
And my learning from today – the power of my practices and why my commitment is to connect men with themselves and each other because without that I am not sure I would be here.
And so my challenge becomes my gift.