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Moving Towards Serenity

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 173 - August 2010

Last Spring I was exploring the huge garden of an old house somewhere in Berkshire when I suddenly came across a large, tall maze, a kind of real live labyrinth. Of course I entered it and enjoyed meandering for a while among the lush shrubs, until I'd had my fill and began to look for the exit. Ten minutes later I was still looking, getting slightly stressed and cross, as every apparent opening turned out to be yet another dead end. Eventually I noticed a big boulder beneath a shrub and climbed up on it, hoping to get my bearings; and indeed, at a mere four feet above ground level, I could clearly see the layout of the maze, and the way to the exit.

That experience of finding a quick solution to a problem by looking at it from a slightly higher viewpoint flashes through my mind every time a client or a friend complains about the intolerable stresses of daily life, the worry about climate change, finances, work, health, family conflicts, aggravated by a bewildering sense of individual and collective chaos all around us. And yes, of course, we are in a state of transition, the usual accustomed certainties are growing more and more doubtful, belts are being tightened worldwide and the mass hypnosis of the consumer society, telling us that more is better, no longer sounds convincing.

Our artificial lifestyle doesn't help, either. We tend to forget that, despite our vast technological skills we are parts of Nature, and that Nature always has the last word. We forget that beneath motorways and city streets there is living earth, and that all life on Earth depends on a thin layer of fertile soil, which is gradually destroyed  by erosion, wind, destructive farming methods,  flooding and drought. The adult whose only contact with nature consists of watching wildlife documentaries on TV, and the child who thinks that food grows on supermarket shelves are equally far removed from the ground of our being. Yet even a fleeting contact with Nature is a great antidote to stress. For instance, it is known that hospital patients whose windows open onto greenery recover faster than those whose only view is of a brick wall. (The recent upsurge in urban gardening and the grow-your-own-food campaign is one of the most hopeful signs of returning to our roots.)

So - taking into account all the chaos, uncertainty and anxiety swirling around us, and our hunger for inner peace and serenity, where do we go from here? "If you find yourself in a deep hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging," suggests folk wisdom. And if you lose your way - like Dante in the first verse of the Divine Comedy, or, much more modestly, I in that Berkshire maze - then inspect from a higher vantage point just where you are, and what symbolic shrubs and misleading labyrinths stop you from moving on. Einstein claimed that no problem can be solved on the same level on which it arose;  a higher viewpoint is needed.

Having understood the problem of the moment, the next move is not to identify with it. Yes, it's a challenge, a chore and possibly a bore, but there are two possible responses to it: to try to solve it coolly, sensibly, in an adult fashion, or to let it become a painful obsession, absorbing time, attention and energy. Keeping a distance, setting up healthy boundaries around the problem is the secret. A wise example of non-identification comes from the traditional Buddhist who doesn't say "I am ill", only that "the servant of my soul is not well". And that's quite a difference. What I don't identify with cannot overwhelm me.

Another step towards inner peace is to realize that most fears and anxieties are caused not by real difficulties but by negative assumptions and expectations. Their power is enormous, made worse by the fact that we don't realize how they dominate our thoughts and feelings. The well-known question, "What will other people think?" tends to haunt us, possibly from early childhood. A former client of mine, herself an experienced therapist and head of counselling training at a famous London institution, occasionally got into a near-panic because, as she put it, "One day they'll discover that I don't know anything." Sure, I agreed, nobody knows anything compared to what there is to know. Socrates, the wisest man of all time declared at the end of his life that he only knew one thing for sure: namely, that he didn't know anything. This did not reassure my client. All right, I said, just who will discover that you don't know anything? "They", came the answer, "the others." Anyone you know? Do you recognize them? No. They were faceless. An amorphous crowd. Slowly, under my gentle but insistent questioning she realized that those 'others' didn't exist, she had created them, unconsciously reacting to her late father's frequent put-downs of forty years before. That sort of thing is hard to delete, until insight strikes. "At twenty, you worry about what other people think about you," Bob Hope once famously said. "At forty you decide that whatever they think, you'll do things your way. At sixty you realize that nobody ever thought anything about you."

It's a salutary exercise to discover just whose expectations one is trying to fulfil. Is it a parent, alive or dead, is it some hazy social norm, or a self-made imaginary 'higher authority'?  And what would happen if one politely refused to play the game any longer and chose another path? Now that's something worth considering..

Planning that other path, the first job is to decide what we don't want from life in future, and only then what we do want. For that we need to know our true values and aims. What do we believe in wholly and unreservedly, what is it we'll stand up for, and where are we willing to compromise? When I was a small girl, my wise godfather once told me that when a big storm hits the forest, the oak tree shouts "Stand firm!", but the bulrushes by the lake whisper "Bend down low, don't get broken!" Listen to both and learn from them, he added. I've been practising it ever since.

Ultimately it boils down to living consciously, to listen both inwards and outwards. What comes towards me from the outside world, and how do I react to it? Do I choose where I am going, or are events driving me along? Dare I challenge collective opinions and trends, and, if necessary, reject them outright? What kind of invisible sack do I carry on my back? Am I still influenced by the obsolete principles, opinions, inhibitions and habits of a remote past, which hamper my progress? And if so, what about beginning to discard them?

How do I relate to others? With a warm open heart, or held back by distrust and prejudice, because I've forgotten that we are all connected, that life is a network of countless subtle links, and that my every deed and even my every thought has an impact on our shared world.? Do I know the value of a brief daily spell of silence and solitude, just a few minutes to listen to the still small voice of intuition, which is often much wiser than the loud voice of the ever-busy brain? Am I ready to enjoy serenity, when it appears at the far end of the road?

These are the only questions worth asking if life is to be an exciting, though occasionally testing journey and not a bored bumbling around the same old labyrinth. 


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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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