Here Sarah Kokai Thwaites looks at the benefits of practice for her life:
How do you measure whether this practice is beneficial for you?
It seems that any question can have many ways of looking at it and many possible answers. Here’s one that presents itself to me at the moment – how differently my life feels. Recently a brief but interesting return to how life used to feel gave me a powerful reminder of the benefits of practice and of living life from a more open perspective.
For many years I probably looked like I functioned in day to day life reasonably well. Most of this though was only possible by burying, at least during work hours, how anxious and insecure I felt and adopting a persona of a ‘work me’ who was far more confident and capable than I really felt. Outside of work, where that persona didn’t apply, I built walls to protect myself and my family from what seemed like a hostile and scary world. I didn’t socialise much and when I did my head was so full of storylines that I couldn’t relax and enjoy myself.
It has been some years now since I have lived like that and I have really enjoyed discovering life with fewer of those stories and self-imposed barriers in place. Recently, I found myself briefly with my head full of all the old insecurities and saw what an unpleasant way to live it was. I was attending an annual conference which includes a formal, rather self-congratulatory evening meal. After the daytime sessions, there is a short break when I always take off outside for some fresh air and exercise. This time I found myself really not wanting to go back in for the evening meal. The thoughts in my head included “do I have to?”, “I’m not going to have anything in common with any of them”, “everyone else will be drinking and having a great time and I’ll be the boring sober one”, “I’ll have nothing to say”, “they won’t like me, I won’t like them, it will be awful”. When I saw that I was sitting next to a grouping from a posher area of the county my self-talk got worse. Of course I could have nothing in common with them even in terms of our work, there would be no shared subjects to talk about. I wondered if I could swap to another table with some other northerners and maybe some familiar faces. Behind those thoughts were a mass of old stories and assumptions. I found myself calculating how much of the evening I could waste hiding in the toilets and what would be the earliest socially acceptable time to leave. I felt anxious, sick and wary of everyone.
It was easy to see how my projections of how the evening would go could make themselves come true. Had I approached the whole evening with those kinds of expectations I would have avoided conversation and shunned anyone’s attempts at friendliness. I would have come out convinced that I was right about no one liking me and expecting the same the next time. Fortunately I stopped to laugh at myself. I recognised the ‘old me’ and the old familiar stories and knew that I didn’t need to live like that – that I really don’t any more. I remembered with delight that I really like people nowadays, that I love meeting new people, am endlessly fascinated by their lives and seem to find common ground with just about anyone.
So, when the person next to me started a conversation, I let go of my assumptions about them and just took the situation as it was. By the end of the evening I’d shared and received new ideas for work with the “posh people I’d have nothing in common with”, we’d laughed and joked and taken the p*ss out of each other. I’d had a conversation with someone I only knew through rather formal emails spin off in unexpected and interesting directions and bonded with someone else over our awkward dietary requirements and the confusion we caused the caterers. Dropping my stories made the evening easier and more enjoyable not only for me but also stopped me lowering the mood for others. Maybe it made the evening more valuable for others too, as the next day I bumped into a couple of the people I’d met and found that parts of our conversations had been, by chance, quite significant to them in terms of some of the things that they were dealing with. I was reminded of some chance conversations I’ve had with people in the past where casual comments they had made really struck home and had a lasting impact on me. I thought of how much I would have missed had they been too cut off to share their words and thoughts with me and how grateful I was in retrospect for their openness. In appreciation of them, if nothing else, I decided that I need to do the same, to be willing to really be with the people I come into contact with, and not allow set my old stories to cut me off from life and others.
On train journey back home from the conference I sat grinning like a fool at everything and everyone, feeling really grateful for the difference that practice has made to my life. I had been reminded how mentally exhausting and narrow my old way of living was and was delighted once again that my life no longer feels like that. The old stories will no doubt keep popping up but now I don’t need to believe them and I don’t need to let them rule my life. Beneficial? I’d say so!