The first time I cut myself I was asleep. I’d been having one of those classic stress dreams – running around, chasing my tail. Never being quite in the right place at the right time.
I must have closed the lid of my laptop sometime after 1 am. Fiddling over a feature, replying to tweets, triaging endless email requests. Living in a state of permanent reaction.
At some point in my fitful slumber, I’d sleep-walked my way to smashing a photo frame. Then, with slow, deliberate strokes, I’d scored the back of my hands into something resembling vermicelli in a pasta sauce.
Waking to a scarlet red bedspread when you’d gone to bed in cool white is something of a shock. But the biggest shock was that I felt better. Calm. Unplugged.
Yes, self harm works. There is, unquestionably, a release. Freed from the of tyranny of having an ‘always on, always available’ you, you’re instantly brought inside your skin. Reconnected with the person you’d abandoned for your avatar. For that person who tweets a picture of his dinner. A Facebook facsimile of life.
The more I practised multitasking, the constant absorption of stuff, the more I became a master of never being where I actually was. And, as my overheated, wired-up conscious mind shut down, my subconscious hatched its bloody revenge.
I told my friend, an editor for a woman’s glossy magazine. ‘You’re so on trend,’ she said, ‘Self-harm is so hot right now.’
She was joking, and she was right in equal measure. And me? I kept that little shard of glass by my bedside. Cutting was my night time companion. When the roar of the internet and the noise of being threatened to subsume me, I’d trace a red route back into the real world.
The present moment is a pretty vulnerable place.
Technology might well run 24/7, but we don’t. Our wet, analogue bodies are caught in a desperate struggle to catch up. A stone age brain in a digital world. Hotdesking in Bold Street Coffee when our souls are crying out for us to just stop and smell the beans.
And, as our lives get ever more enmeshed in the rush to get to the next thousand twitter followers, the unseemly scramble to be hyperconnected, we fool ourselves that this is the way it’s supposed to be.
After a month or so of scarred hands and feeble excuses (no, really, my cat is vicious) I make a decision. I’m taking a month off.
I enrol on a meditation course at the local Buddhist centre. There are about thirty of us. Pale, nervous, polite. I spot a chap I used to work with on a previous magazine – he’d just lost his job. He looks lost.
Our teacher is a Buddhist nun. Bouncy and beaming, like a shaven-headed Beryl Cook character, she guides us through a five minute meditation, and follows with a 90 minute reflection on a theme (a different topic each week, on our step by step guide to enlightenment.)
But as the weeks progress, the meditation takes second billing to Buddha’s teachings. Of how nothing is really here. Of how past-life karma bleeds into this life’s suffering. If we were bad then, we’re gonna pay for it now.
She holds up a flower. “Is the flower really here?” she asks, as she starts to relieve it of its petals. One by one, they fall onto her orange robes.
“Is it here now?” another petal floats to the floor. “Science doesn’t have an answer,” she says. “There’s no proof that anything’s really here.”
Yes there is, I mutter inwardly. It’s called mass and gravity. And you’re just playing with semantics.
It’s a Buddhist centre. I know. I get it. But I’m sort of wishing Buddha took more of a back seat.
“When you have a headache, it’s a form of delusion,” she continues, “By focussing your attention on the pain, you’re practising feeling pain, and reinforcing it.”
Try telling that to someone with a brain tumour, I think (I’ve come with my own particular backstory. But then, haven’t we all?)
No. Religion isn’t a salve for me. It raises my blood pressure, and brings out the skeptic. Sometimes, there are no answers. Sometimes, life hurts – and the jagged edge of cut glass drops you, instantly, into being: more than any metaphysical ministrations could ever do.
The Buddha, I learn, left his wife and kids behind. He was a renunciate. He had no broadband bills to pay. No rent. He simply retreated from the world. Attachment to things, he said, was the route to all suffering. Sorry, but that’s just not an option. I’ve got a lease on a shed at Baltic Creative.
Does it help to know that our miserable existence is some kind of virtual reality? That our earthly frustrations are due to us having a bad karma hangover from a former life? Reincarnation is dropped casually, like a flower petal, into the conversation, as a truism, when someone asks why they’re not getting on with their boss. Must be because she was a bad boss in a previous life.
Three weeks later, I learn that my ex colleague has killed himself.
No, religion doesn’t know the answer. Neither does my jovial teacher. There are no easy answers. But I know an untimely death is the end, not the beginning. Me and Buddha part ways.
But I feel there is something in meditation. In mindfulness without the side order of karmic claptrap. I try an online course. It works. Somehow, it manages to slow down time. The calm and stillness of those few stolen moments of meditation awakens something in me, even if the theological assumptions don’t.
A close friend is battling with self harm of another kind; alcoholism. At Birkenhead’s Archway centre he learns of Tapping. Small, regular two-finger taps to unlock blocked nerve centres around the body. Under the eye, above the lips, the karate chop point, and the collar bone.
I speak to Magnus, at Tapping.com – an online resource for this arcane form of self help.
“I like to do some tapping for personal peace,” he says, adding that he adds a mantra as he taps:
Even though I’m not Peaceful,
and I’m not at peace,
I deeply and completely love and accept myself.
I’m not Peaceful,
and I’m stuck,
and I can’t do anything about it,
and it makes me FRANTIC,
and! I deeply and completely love and accept myself.
Wow. That sounds ridiculous. So why does it make my senses tingle a little bit, as if some deeper part of me is telling me to shut up and listen?
“In June 2006 I had a three-day long experience of bliss,” Magnus explains, “during which I experienced everything as vibration and had the consistent, open awareness that I was one with everything and that everything was OK.”
“Unfortunately it faded, and since then I’ve been trying to return to that state. Being a computer programmer my brain automatically started analysing and deconstructing the state it was in.
“During those three days I knew, and still know, that there exists a 100% repeatable and reliable way to reproduce that blissful state of mind, and Tapping is it. The idea is that when you tap the script you’ll get it as a pure feeling, without your conscious mind interfering.”
Hmmm. Vibrations? It’s moving too far into Hallmark Channel territory for my liking. And yet…
“It works,” my friend insists. “If I’m starting to get anxious, I feel it as a physical sensation in my stomach. The tapping releases that feeling. It unblocks the nerve channels. I dunno how. But it does.”
Yeah, I know. So far so Bad Science, right? But my friend’s not had a drink for two months. Whatever neural pathway tapping taps into, even a placebo one, it works for him.
I try it in the car, on a snarled up Strand. I feel vaguely aware that the woman in the Ka next to me is mildly startled. But I run through the process a couple of times and, yeah, I do feel calmer. The repetition, the tactile, reassuring little tip-taps on my body. It’s oddly comforting. I forget that the traffic lights are out TO GET ME.
The concept of a mantra leads me Lesley, a holistic practitioner in Heswall. I’d gone for reiki, but after a consultation, she leads me to Hoʻoponopono, the Hawaiian practice of reconciliation.
No theology, no props, no teaching is needed for this refreshingly simple ritual. And it’s currently the mantra du jour in the stressed out cities of the world. It’s been used, I learn, on the criminally insane. So it’s got to be worth a go, right?
“The main belief of hoʻoponopono,” Lesley says, “is that we create our own reality. That stress breeds stress. To release yourself, you need to get into a state of surrender, and neutralise negative thought patterns.”
The mantra? I’m Sorry. Forgive Me. Thank you. I Love You.
Yeah, I know. It seems somehow comical. But we try it. And I cry.
“Any moment in which we’re not aware, is lost,” she says. “We’ve abandoned ourselves. This offers a message to the divine to forgive you, for whatever you’ve done to create this person in your life.”
“The divine?” I bristle.
“The divine is in you. We’re the cause and the cure of all that happens around us and that when we fix ourselves, we fix our universe.”
It’s not, I volunteer, a million miles away from Mindfulness?
“Meditation is another practice which brings you back into your body,” Lesley says. “When you’re in the present moment, time really stops. But it takes practise. Just as stress and frustration takes practise.”
The mantra, or the meditation, is all it takes. It’s no more than a spiritual technology – occasionally stolen by religions, but now reinforced by medical research.
“Give this moment your full attention,” she says, as I blubber, and cradle my scarred hands in my lap.
“If we don’t, we may miss the most profound elements of our own life,” she says. And I’m reminded of all those times I’ve spent nominally with loved ones, but actually glued to the screen of my Blackberry.
“This is a path that leads to freedom from suffering. And we’re all suffering, we’re all in the same boat,” she says.
“There’s a lot of stress out there, and there’s a heightened awareness that we haven’t been as mindful, or aware, as we could be.”
The next morning, having read some of Esther Sternberg’s book about the power of healing spaces, I head up to Liverpool Cathedral. I think of the trip as a sort of spiritual top-up between services.
“There is a physiological reason for the sense of awe we get in a beautiful landscape, or soaring cathedral. It can be measured,” Sternberg says. “They make you feel transcendent.”
When I arrive, the Cathedral is the noisiest place in the city. A team of scaffolders and stage hands are erecting a catwalk – hammering tubular support struts together, and shouting out instructions which thunder around the Gothic arches.
“What’s going on?” I ask
“Oh, it’s very exciting,” the lady at the welcome desk says, “We’re having a fashion show for L’Oreal tomorrow, and the day after we’ve got David Dickinson filming Real Deal…”
As a pellucid spring morning light floods the nave, I run for the exit.
Something has tipped the balance, and we need to get it right. Study after scientific study shows the physiological basis of the stress pathways. The stress hormones that rush through the bloodstream, the nerve chemicals bombarding our neurotransmitters, they all have a profound and immediate effect on our immune system.
The effects? No-one’s quite sure yet. But one thing is certain – it results in a parallel world of self help, yoga classes, online meditation courses and guided angel therapy.
We like to think we’re present. That our RSS feeds keep us connected to the world. But we don’t notice the space we’re moving into.
“The brain’s stress response is important. It’s life saving. But when there’s no fight, and we don’t need to flee, it tips into something darker,” Sternberg says.
In other words, I’ve been tricking my body into thinking ‘danger ahead’ when the reality is that the danger was no more than trying to post a Sound City press release about Noah and the Whale before anyone else. What is that all about?
I’m drawn to a quote from French philosopher Pascal: ‘man’s problems stem from his inability to sit in a room alone by himself.’
Little did he know that, four hundred years later, we’d be unable to cook our dinner, go for a mind-clearning run, or watch a sunset without being seized with the desire to tweet a tiny picture of it. Or to share how we’ve ‘nailed’ a 10k. To validate what, exactly?
I might not have discovered much in the past month. But I’m beginning to realise that silence, and reflection can tap into deep sources of peace. Can change my relationship with who I am. And that’s a good enough start for me.
Each of us at SevenStreets has known someone who’s taken their own lives in these past few months. Every one of us are fighting for our lives.
Yes, perhaps my Buddhist teacher was right. We are all suffering. And yes, the law of impermanence rules the universe. We can hold it together, stay on top of things for a short time. But at a tremendous cost. And not just in stained Egyptian cotton (which, let me tell you, is ruined).
“We need to pay attention” Lesley says on my next visit. “Actually,” she adds, “we need to just be.”
I throw away my shard of glass, and make a mental note: It’s OK to be last with the news.