Shades of blue

25 03 2018

 

Blue 1If we are human, we have suffered depression. We’ve been disappointed, discouraged and disillusioned. In the darkest, most painful times, we’ve touched despair. Depression visits us in many shades: some days we might be feeling a little off-colour, other days it’s the full spectrum. Each one of us has the ability to paint depression in hues of our own making. Everyone who has suffered through depression longs for relief.

Animals, too, suffer alongside us. Dogs who are treated without compassion grow listless or angry and afraid and sometimes need years of patient handling to gain trust in humans who have no interest in prolonging their suffering. Monkeys who have been used in laboratory testing are forever twitchy. One of the saddest things I have seen is a rescue laboratory monkey neurotically pacing the exact dimensions of his lab cage in his new open enclosure.

A few  years ago Dragonfly, our super sensitive Arabian horse, went through a prolonged period of depression. He lost his vitality and became deeply introverted. Walks out did not interest him. He picked at his food and hay. The vet could find nothing wrong. The farrier checked his feet and found them sound. We spent time with him and tried to work out what was causing him to be so subdued, but nothing was obvious.

One afternoon I arrived and saw the horse in the stable opposite had not been turned out. His head was hanging low almost between his knees and looking at him I felt close to tears. I learned that his owner often left him in all day and all night and rarely spent much time with him. Dragonfly was effectively sharing a home with another being who was profoundly depressed. I wondered then whether Dragonfly was mirroring the mood in that sad stable block. His vitality returned when I moved him to a new place where he could bicker with his neighbours.

Few of us would choose to be depressed, but depression is inescapable if we are to live as feeling creatures. What if we could learn to view depression differently, as something that protects us from greater harm? The view of depression as a defensive protective strategy in Paul Gilbert’s work The Compassionate Mind is intriguing and perhaps ultimately consoling. Professor Gilbert, a clinical psychologist, reminds us that our brains are still not really that mentally advanced to keep up with the pressures and stresses of contemporary life, and so when we reach the point of overwhelm, we shut down. We retreat into ‘the back of the cave.’ We ruminate on our feelings of despair and weave a negative, blaming, shameful circle around our state of mind. The rumination can keep us depressed for years.

Professor Gilbert explores with great luminosity the idea that depression is a normal, natural response to trauma of any kind, to being bullied, rejected, threatened or abused. Depression steps in to keep us safe. It protects our minds from further harm and allows us time out of life to heal. With this understanding of depression, it makes no sense to blame ourselves for being depressed or try to fight it. It makes little sense to medicate against it either because medication dulls the very system that is doing its best to keep us well. This is a beautiful example of the mind being designed through evolution to heal itself.

Nevertheless, the healing process, as we know so well, is horribly painful. And just as you wouldn’t expect to go through life-saving surgery without medication to support you through the physical pain, medication will often support you through the pain of a mind that needs to mend. It’s blaming ourselves for needing the medication that causes more suffering. And to blame a mind already in agony is to compound real suffering.

As Professor Gilbert argues so eloquently, we need a more compassionate approach to healing the mind. We need to understand the mind as a system that serves us so well and most of time acts in our best interests, when we remember to step out of the way. Here is an idea that might be too difficult to accept: if instead of blaming our tendency to go down when we are threatened, we could reach out to depression and see that it is trying to be our friend, our wise companion through the darkness, maybe that would change our experience?

I was going to finish with another shade of blue photograph, but have included this one instead because today in this hemisphere, we mark the Spring Equinox.

Lamb

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To be amazed

18 03 2018

Old Jon 2

Looking after horses in the winter months is routine and heavy-going at times. Sometimes it feels as if I’ve been trudging through clay in my muck boots for weeks on end without much of a break, and so I welcome moments when I can gain a fresh perspective. Spending time talking to the farmer next door nearly always uplifts me. It’s become part of a spring ritual to hear about how each one of his new lambs made its way into the world. I like to listen to him talk about the ewes as if they were a flock of feckless daughters, the diligent ones obvious favourites; the lazy ones in their turn exasperating.

More than details of the labour of sheep, I’ve learned to listen to a way of life that is disappearing.  At the age of 85, this farmer still cares about the nuances of his work. I’ve heard him dragging new-born lambs, mimicking their bleating, across the orchard to encourage reluctant ewes to follow him into the warm shed. Most weekends, he starts up the chainsaw to work through a pile of timber for his wood burning customers. When I said I’d spread the word, he was wise enough to tell me that he didn’t need the extra work. He knows precisely how much he needs to keep him going.

Talking to him, I get a sense that he sees things exactly as they are. He has been through so many seasons and knows the intricate rise and fall of life. Through his eyes, I see the span of a whole life lived through close connection to animals and the land. His knowledge of the subtleties of growing grass is beautiful and poignant to hear because few people care for that depth of knowledge any more. Chemicals and mechanisation speak a different language. Nevertheless, every summer he insists on inspecting each new hay cut as if it were something personal.

The farmer drives his own car to the yard, and if you see him out on the lanes, he will wave and smile as if you have delighted him to the very centre of his being. He remains sharp, curious and engaged and even though he could put his feet up at home and sit by his fire, he prefers to be out in the world and to be amazed by what he sees.

So, when my shoulders are aching and I’m longing for a cup of tea and a hot bath, I just need to remind myself that I’m out where I most want to be. I can witness the world as it rises and falls through the seasons and through my own being and I can also be amazed.

snow March

 





The art of acceptance

4 03 2018

2018-03-01 16.07.12

So, you get home after two hours of crawling along a road you usually drive down in ten minutes. You’ve been listening to local radio all the way and the Red Warning means you shouldn’t be out in your car because your life is in danger. You tell the announcer that you’re doing your best to get off the road. The trouble is, everyone else is trying to do the same and some roads are already closed. Light cars designed for zipping around a coastal town are in trouble, wheels spinning on ice and snow. A woman gets out of her car and advises another driver to use second gear. Drivers cheer and wave at the sight of the snow plough. The atmosphere is giddy and tense and uncertain.

When you turn into your road, there’s nowhere to park and you end up leaving your vehicle halfway down the street, knowing that you probably won’t be able to move it in the morning. When you reach your house, your steps are immaculately felted with snow, which naturally you plunge your feet into, enjoying the crumpling sound and the sense of relief at having reached safety. The central heating is on, and you make tea and watch from your window the curious sight of snow drifts creating soft islands around the pots on your balcony. Later the lime tree fruits will be crystallised and the fingertips of the palm tree will flaunt perfect jewelled ice beads. Much later, the wind and snow and ice combine into a storm that takes your breath away and keeps you awake, your feelings skittering from awe to worry to incredulity.

You try to go out the next morning but the path around your house is too slippery and you fear that you may fall and injure yourself. You’d like to go out and buy some milk, as people are saying that supplies are running low and you want to feel prepared. You know that you already have enough food and don’t really need to buy anything. The radio is advising people to make soup from leftovers in the fridge. You’re amused because you make soup from leftovers when it doesn’t snow, so what should you do that feels different or special?

You settle into staying at home and try not to worry about the horses because you know they have lived through worse weather conditions than this so-called beast, but your mind keeps thinking of potential disaster such as the barn caving in and burying the big hay bale, or one of the horses twisting a fetlock on the hard ground, or dying of thirst or freezing to death or going mad with fear.

The horses, you learn, from reports from your landowners who can see them from their front window, have huddled together for warmth, ponies on the inside, horses on the outside, and they are quiet and calm. They have ignored the dried food put down for them. When you last saw them, they were settled and even joyful, each one taking a turn to roll in the snow. You learn that the ponies know how to unfreeze a spot of iced-over water with their warm breath and keep it open so that they can drink when they need to. You have been smashing the ice with a mallet, which sometimes doesn’t work. When you think of the horses in the snowy field you can’t help but make comparisons with how the human world is reacting to what is an utterly natural event.

When you next see the horses, they come forward for their feed, and their faces are clean and rain-washed. They are unhurried, beautiful and serene, and you feel a rush of gratitude to them and for them. You feel the layers of care from the past day, has it really been only a day, slip from your shoulders, and you are relaxed. You watch them eat as if for the first time. You want to do something more for them but there is nothing you need to do.

2018-03-03 17.08.49








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