‘Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor the body’ Seneca
Having just returned to New Life for the fifth time in four years I was reminded of some of my earlier journeys, from the relatively smooth to the incredibly torturous.
I discovered New Life at the age of 28, which feels like a lifetime ago now. I was navigating my way out of a second nervous breakdown, exactly 10 years after the first. I’d just come out of a three-year relationship in which we were very much in love but unable to work things out. Needless to say, I was feeling extremely fragile, lost and heartbroken.
I remember booking tickets to Thailand with the intention of sitting multiple Vipassana retreats and meditating my way to happiness. It’s not unusual for me to have ridiculous ideas when deep in despair.
Instead of the usual excitement you’d hope to feel when setting out on an adventure, I was filled with dread. I’d lived with adrenaline coursing through my body for as long as I could remember and most my thoughts and actions revolved around fear and avoidance.
To the outside world, I’d always seemed confident and easy going yet my internal world told a very different story. As Rainer Maria Rilke said ‘Who has not sat before his own heart’s curtain? It lifts: and the scenery is falling apart.’
I’d maintained the pretence that I was fine and doing what I wanted with my life, yet deep down I knew I was lying to myself and it was only a matter of time before the dam burst again.
My breakdowns had tempered me, making me stronger by exposing me to despair and grief I’d never known before and forcing me to accept aspects of life I’d desperately avoided. Yet, on the other hand, they’d put huge chinks in the delicate armor I’d stumbled through life with. As I prepared to leave I felt like an exposed nerve, ‘too sensitive for my own good’ as I’d been told before.
I vividly remember the day I was leaving for Thailand. My brother drove me to Heathrow airport and we stopped at Avebury, an ancient henge more impressive but lesser known than Stone Henge. We walked among these huge stones, and I cried as I thought about what had become of me. All this wonder and beauty surrounding me, all this
opportunity and freedom and still all I could feel was pain. He dropped me at the airport with a concerned look on his face, and as he left I felt like a child being torn from his parents. I was alone.
A sleeping pill forced me into an anxious sleep on the plane. I felt my heart being pulled back home, to the girl I loved, to my family, to familiarity and safety. I had the most intense and bloody dream that all my teeth fell out in public and everyone was shocked but nobody helped. I woke up gasping through my dry mouth and looked around to see everyone sleeping soundly. I went to the toilet and broke down.
Just before I left England I’d been searching to see if there was anywhere I could get help with my anxiety. Somehow I stumbled across New Life Foundation and I booked in to be a resident for a short time.
To say I was petrified would be an understatement. I’d spent 10 years avoiding any situation that might involve having to speak in front of a group. If I could have remained in the cocoon I’d created for myself I would have, but I no longer had a choice.
‘And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’ Anais Nin
I was greeted by friendly faces and welcoming people, but I felt desperately uncomfortable. I didn’t sleep as I knew I’d have to introduce myself in the morning meeting and when that time came it was all a blur; a cocktail of fear and confusion as I managed to mumble a few words. It took me weeks to calm down to my usual anxious baseline after my arrival. Luckily I was supported by an amazing life coach who is now a dear friend and teacher.
I tentatively found my way, slowly but surely I opened up, connected with strangers, repeatedly challenged myself and reaped the benefits. It was painful but as Carl Jung said ‘There is no coming to consciousness without pain’. I was now face to face with the fear that had been nipping at my heels all my life. My original 3 week stay turned into 6 transformative months and I returned home confident that now I could ‘make it’.
Looking back now it all feels very shortsighted. I went back to the same place, the same friends, the same lifestyle, and not surprisingly I found my way back into the same states of anxiety, fear and insomnia.
Eventually, I decided to return to New Life feeling like I’d failed. It was a bumpy landing again, my insomnia leading to a breakdown on the first night. I was surprised to find that within days I felt at home again. I felt safe again.
This pattern repeated itself; my delusions of making it work back home followed by a desperate return to the community. Every time I learned a little more about what I needed and adjusted my trajectory.
Eventually, this uprooting of the life I knew and moving to a completely different one on the other side of the world became more manageable. My feelings of where ‘home’ was were changing. I knew where was supposed to be my home; the place where I grew up, where my family and old friends were, where many of my difficulties were. Yet I felt this growing kinship with the community and the people in it, and this surrogate family seemed to constitute more of a home than my ‘real’ home.
Many stories stop at this point and it’s easy to imagine a perfect happy ever after, but I don’t want to paint a picture of community life as being a conflict-free utopia. New problems and difficulties always present themselves, wherever you live and whoever you are. I’ve since developed a chronic problem with my throat which has made using my voice very painful every day for a year and a half, forced me to spend huge amounts of time in silence and led to intense feelings of frustration, depression, anger, and isolation. It’s easy to delude yourself into thinking you’ll be happy once the current problem resolves, yet something will usually come to take its place.
The Buddhist teachings make this very clear, but unfortunately, the only way to truly learn is through your own experience. It seems every human must go through triumphs and losses, and ancient wisdom can’t be passed on to spare any of us, only to guide us through. Life is difficult; the Buddha knew this and so he found a way to not make it worse for himself and others. ”Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
I try not to get lost in illusions of an idyllic life free from suffering, as alluring as it sounds. Buddhism teaches you that your happiness depends on what you do, not what you wish for, and for me this community is living proof of that.