It's Both



 I may be a slow learner, but I have come across something that has actually revolutionised my world – the idea of “and” as opposed to “or”. Very rarely is anything completely pure, it is usually a beautiful mixture of a whole lot of seemingly conflicting things – all mushed together in one big marbled messy stew of life.

 Now, this has been a very long time coming for me. I have always found it incredibly hard to work out exactly which “box” I fitted into. I never really seemed to fit anywhere, at its most basic level; this can be demonstrated by my taste in fashion.

 I remember growing up and being really torn between wanting to wear a tie-died petticoat and no shoes and a really lovely designer dress and Prada mules. I honestly thought I had to choose one style and stick with it. So, I did. I would flip flop between wearing twin sets one day and then opp shop gems another. Neither of these styles, in their pure form, felt authentic to me but I had no idea there was another option. Although, I felt, on a very deep level, like I was abandoning my true self to fit into a particular box and there was that gnawing sense of a lack of authenticity – or something akin to that, lurking in the pit of my stomach.

 And then one day, I realised, I am actually both. I can like both and I can combine both to create something completely new. I am the boss and I can create a whole new “box”. And, so I did. It started with fashion and now it has extended into other (waaay more important) areas of my life.

 So, working with the possibility that you too may be constrained by black and white, either/or thinking, I thought I would share some of my learnings across these areas. Of course, the general learning of “both” can go across pretty much every area of life, both personally and societally.

 Holding our emotions

We were holidaying one summer with friends. One day, the wife and mother of the other family was complaining about her husband (and father of the children). She felt he didn’t seem to be around much, he seemed to prefer to be at work or at the gym rather than with her and the children and when he was with them – he was distracted and snappy. I rather flippantly commented “so you don’t love him at the moment?”. She looked up from what she was doing and with a very serious look on her face she said:

“oh no, I never withdraw love, I always love him, I am just frustrated”

This was rather groundbreaking for me; it had honestly never occurred to me that we could feel two seemingly conflicting emotions at the same time. Love and hate. Happiness and grief. Gratitude and jealousy. It was some years later that I discovered mindfulness and then, it all made sense. I leaned that I am not my emotions – I am the sky and they are simply the weather (as the famous Pema Chodren quote goes). So, next time you feel consumed by an emotion, see if you can remember it does not need to take up all of you (or all of your relationship). By all means, let it be there, hold it, be curious about it, experience it fully but remind yourself that you can feel it all – the love and the hate, at the same time.

 Working with our mind

In my early 20s, at my quarter-life crisis, I read “You can Heal Your Life” by the wonderful Louise Hay. To be honest, my life wasn’t sick and really didn’t need healing, but I was not happy and felt a sense that something was missing. So, I studiously did the daily affirmations in front of the mirror. I would stand in front of the mirror and recite “I love and approve of myself” daily, for months. I imagined the life I wanted to be living, but it continued to feel artificial, as though I was forcing something. Then in my early 30s and, having abandoned positive thinking and affirmations as hippy dippy stuff that doesn’t work, I threw myself wholeheartedly into the idea that actually, we don’t have to “do” anything. I went from one extreme to the other! I now worked with acceptance (still getting the hang of this one) and non-judgement (always a work in progress) and spent many hours observing my thoughts and emotions, without doing anything in particular about them; all in the name of building my self-awareness. Then one day, this process of non-doing backfired. I had stopped actually listening to my intuition, my values and my heart and was just coasting along in a never-ending haze of acceptance.

As it turns out, we need both. We need both intention and attention. It is helpful to have a clear view of where we are going and what really matters (intention) but we also really need to stop and reflect on where we are first (attention). If all we do is manifest – we are never truly happy now, if all we do is sit contentedly in the now without assessment – how do we really grow?

We need to both work WITH our mind (accept where and who we are) and ON our mind (cultivate more wisdom, love and gratitude – or “grow the good” as Rick Hanson puts it).

Start where you are, pay attention, be present, be clear and keep your feet firmly on the ground. Practice mindfulness and meditate your little heart out if you are so inclined. Then, set your intention for what you would like in your life and watch for signs that you are heading in the direction (such as better sleep, improved relationships, clearer thinking etc) and change course when you need to. It is all good and the path, especially when it comes to the management of our mental health is incredibly personal. Finally, be wary of any teacher/psychologist/coach who tries to tell you there is only one way – I used to be one of these people (a slightly fanatical meditation teacher!) and honestly, we can serve you best by being a point of reflection and accountability – you are the only one who knows you, listen to you.

Managing our physical health

Health issues run in my family. My dear mum suffered with cancer 3 (or was it 4?) times and she struggled with a range of other auto-immune disorders. When, at 34 I was diagnosed with my own auto-immune condition (rheumatoid arthritis or RA) my own journey of healing and acceptance began. To be honest, getting RA was probably the thing that saved me, it was certainly the reason I took a deep dive into my own mindfulness and meditation practice. It was my body yelling (incredibly loudly) that something was not right, that the way I was living was not serving me well. Over the past years I have flip flopped between a 100% blaming attitude towards my genetics and early childhood (“it is just the way I am put together”) and a 100% blaming attitude towards myself and the way I have lived, thought or eaten (too much stress, too much negative thinking, too much sugar etc). After 9 years of exploration, and kind of tiring internal and external battles, I have pretty much come to the conclusion, you guessed it, that it is, indeed, both.

There is BOTH the genetic/early childhood learning component and the environmental/behavioural component and this realisation has allowed me to shift from blame to responsibility. Yes, some people can cure themselves with enough kale juice and deep meditation while others, need to add medication and deep interpersonal connection into their healing recipe and will still not slide into remission or be symptom free. Through this blossoming realisation of “both”, I have managed to make the massive shift from “fault” to “responsibility” – it is not my fault I have RA but it is absolutely my responsibility to manage it as best I can.

In conclusion, our very human tendency to think in absolutes, to be seduced by judgement, at the expense of inclusion, can create some real challenges for us – especially when it comes to managing our health. At the same time, if all we do is pay clear and accurate attention to what is happening, without weaving in a healthy measure of intention setting or effortful change, we may end up coasting along in a semi-superficial stage of fabricated bliss, missing out on all of the beautiful authenticity of being human. By accepting the marbling together of seemingly incongruent experiences, our world can open up and we can either create brand new boxes or get rid of the boxes all together. I vote for no boxes. Here’s to a box-free future for all!