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What prevented me from embracing happiness: Depersonalisation.

On the meditation weekend which provided me with a lot of content for these bogs, most of the people who came by themselves were given shared rooms. The room mate I was assigned was a softly spoken, quiet, middle aged man named Billy. Our room, apparently, according to the person who led us to it, had once been inhabited by King Edward VII. I very much doubted his presumption, owing to the fact it was quite clearly servants’ quarters, but I gleefully postulated his claims and let out some resounding oooos.

The food, completely vegetarian, was actually quite delicious. There were probably about seventy guests so every time we ate, it felt like being back at school (barring the distinct lack of greyish meat). I tried to talk to as many course delegates as possible and met people from all walks of life.

Something that struck me was that a large proportion of the people with whom I spoke had relatively recently, more or less, had a life-changing experience with which to awe me. This straightaway set alarm bells ringing in my head, leading me to assume that they were taking part in the weekend’s activities as a way to help them either come to terms with a recent trauma they may have experienced, or to search for enlightenment from their pain. It worried me that this was perhaps being done through the mind of a recently bereaved or distressed individual, whose senses were not entirely harmonious. I’m not saying that it is wrong to seek solitude by whatever means possible in your time of need but, as I mentioned in the religion vs spirituality blog, I don’t think life decisions made during times of pain and suffering can be suitably trusted.

Obviously not everyone was attending the course as a result of a recent traumatic experience, myself being one of the less dramatically-inspired attendees. It was quite interesting to observe the way the ‘tutors’ went about addressing us ‘pupils’. I hate to say it, and if any of them read this they will probably refute these comments, but they almost had a doom and gloom mentality surrounding the consequences of all our actions and the way we should lead our lives. It was like they were using and transfiguring the pain built up in many of the individuals – who had attended the course in order to seek refuge from life outside of the ‘commune’ – to formulate some form of guilt if the pupils did not dutifully acquiesce to the course regimen.

My humour and past experiences of the Christian camp in my youth saw me dubbing the course tutors ‘elders’. I automatically took a step back from the teachings, observing them with an element of scepticism. One of the main reasons I had attended the course was to develop my meditation skills. I was intrigued by everything they had to say about it and duly took notes as appropriate, to filter later. One thing I did take from this course and which I still now do every time I meditate, is to keep my eyes open and fully integrate myself in the present moment, the here and now.

For our sessions, we would all congregate in one of the large conference rooms and sit down. Once everyone was still, one of the ‘elders’ put on some incredibly sombre, almost depressing pan pipe music compilation and asked us to look into the eyes of a face on a large poster at the front of the hall. The elder then very quietly whispered through a microphone an instruction for us to transfix our gaze on this face, which we later found out was that of the founder of this community, back in the 1950s.

Being asked to gaze into the eyes of an individual to the sound of some melancholy musical harmony took me straight back to my teenage self at the Christian camps (with which I had already drawn parallels), trying to seek refuge in an all-loving God. The scenes in front of me put me in mind of the ways in which the tutors at the camps of my childhood seemed so determined to make us so despondent about the devilish world we inhabited, that the mere mention of a saviour would have us quaking, shaking and crying for the love of the Almighty

to rescue us. But I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I had become quite aware of how people use music and stories to manipulate the vulnerable.

Before starting one particular session, I had the opportunity to speak to one of the elders about their life at the stately home that hosted the retreats. I was absolutely amazed by what she had to tell me. For a start, they were not allowed to drink alcohol, which isn’t exactly a bad thing but it’s quite relaxing to have a glass of wine every so often.

‘How do you socialise with your boyfriend?’ I enquired, owing to the fact that she was too attractive to not have a man.

‘Oh!’, she exclaimed, ‘We’re all celibate’.

I didn’t really know how to respond to that so I swiftly moved on to asking about any other provisions that excluded her from normal life (I don’t think I phrased it quite like that).

‘Well, we get up at 4am every morning to meditate, we have to clean the areas we’ve been allocated, and then we take it in turns to either cook, wash or tidy up’.

Where fun or even simple enjoyment of life fitted into any of this, I didn’t know, but I assumed she must have been at least content with her life choice.

So there I was being advised to stare into the eyes of some hippy, to the sound of some suitably depressing music that had me welling up in misery. The elder leading us was a person who essentially lived the life of a monk. It was at that point, just before wiping the tears away from my eyes, that I realized that I was in the presence of a cult.

The weekend didn’t exactly fly by but I did manage to see it through. In the final session, just after the daily depressing meditation of staring into the eyes of the revered chap, we were asked if anyone would like to ask a question. My hand went straight up and I waited.

‘Yes?’, an elderly monastic lady enquired of me. ‘What would you like to ask?’

‘Well’, I said, ‘why do you make every meditation session so depressing by playing such sombre music? Surely life is about smiling and being happy, so how can you expect to smile if you don’t welcome in any joy?’

‘That’s a good question’, she replied but her following answer didn’t exactly enthral me. ‘It’s very important to focus on the founder of this faith, because we wouldn’t be here without him, so it only seems right to start every meditation off with him’.

She hadn’t answered my question in the slightest but I decided not to persist, because I could see she was set in her ways. I merely nodded at her and let her finish the session.

As parting gifts, we were asked to go up to the front of the hall to collect a white gown in which to meditate at home, before we went to the next elder to pick up a brownie. I wasn’t overly keen on the gown, even though it was the weekend before Halloween. The brownie-giving elder said that I needed to pick up a gown before I was allowed her present but after I told her that I didn’t feel ready for such a gargantuan offering, she handed me the sugary delight and sent me on my way.

Over the last few years I have tried to be as positive and upbeat as possible and to not dwell on things that are out of my control. Although this meditation weekend didn’t ignite any form of heartache or suffering, it most certainly did not encourage spontaneous laughter and frivolity, especially not during meditation. Every religion and sect has its own purpose but to not support or embrace such a life-affirming and heart warming practise as happiness is surely preposterous.

From the research I’ve shared with you so far, and from what you are about to read, you will begin to find that happiness is by far the most imperative thing in the lives of all of us humans and has the power to end any form of suffering. I’m not saying that personal happiness can end pain for eternity (although worldwide happiness would certainly help) but in a moment of pure, unadulterated happiness, however fleeting it is, all physical, emotional and mental pain can leave you in an instant. These moments can also give you the strength to keep on trying through the pain.

Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the holocaust, wrote an incredibly moving, poignant and uplifting account of his time in the concentration camps. In his book on the subject, Man’s Search for Meaning, he notes, ‘It is well known that humour, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.

I have never felt irreconcilably unhappy with my life, although I can almost guarantee that had I not encountered a way to reconnect with my inner self through meditation, I would certainly not be in the same position as I am, now. The accident that I had did knock me for six and I have fleeting memories of thinking that perhaps I would be better off dead. Luckily, I never did anything worse than just dwell on my situation and feel sorry for myself.

While I was researching this blog, somebody asked me what it would take for me to be completely happy. There are the obvious answers like money, well-paid job, great friends, partner, marriage, children, love, popularity, health, good looks, etc. These are surely what most people desire. I must say that a lot of my friends have already achieved the majority of those goals (maybe minus the good looks) but if I were to ask most of them whether they are totally happy with their lives, I can almost guarantee that they would say ‘no’, because it is not quite perfect yet. That’s not just my friends, though, that’s almost everybody I meet. I have never met anybody who can rest their hand on their heart and tell me that they are 100% happy. But maybe this is part of what keeps us trying, stops us from becoming complacent and helps us to appreciate the good things we do have.

I have researched so much about happiness and I can now honestly say that I am definitely on the higher end of the ‘being happy’ scale than I was when I was growing up. Excluding the accident and the years of recuperating and recovery, and excluding my lack of girlfriend, job, money, sex, etc. at various points, there was always one condition from which I suffered, which had the ability to shut me down in an instant.

Some of my earliest memories are of experiencing this thing and although I learned how to distract myself from it, after having it in my life for so long, it never fully went away. Before I tell you about it, I want you to understand that if this particular thing could have gone away, I genuinely believed its departure would have easily made me the happiest person, ever. That would have been very hard, though, because the condition scared me so much that I couldn’t even think about it, let alone talk or tell anyone about it, for fear of its reprisal. Every time it reared its head, I would try to shut it away again by taking my thoughts off it through mindless activities.

I suffered from a condition called depersonalisation, which meant that I never really felt present, or fully alive. I felt like I was in a dream, or that there was a constant mist around me which prevented me from feeling completely involved with the present moment. A brain fog. I think the best way to describe it would be as similar to the detached feeling you might get when you have a hangover and you haven’t really slept the night before. It probably first occurred when I was a young boy, so I had never experienced a hangover and I was just petrified. Although it could never hurt me physically, I was terrified of feeling completely insignificant and detached from reality, resulting in me trying to seek out techniques to keep my mind off it.

One of the most outlandish procedures that I adopted to try and divert my attention was the development of an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), as mentioned in the Power of Fear in Controlling Minds blog . I think I knew, even from such a young age, that it wasn’t normal to act in such a peculiar fashion, so I tried my hardest to not bring to anyone’s attention my weird activities. I had always to be in the same position at the end of an event, as I was at the beginning, because otherwise I thought something bad would happen. I had to retrace my steps. I have this one vivid memory of playing rugby at school and at the end of the match we were told to go and run around a small wooded area, beside the pitch. Everyone groaned because they just wanted to go into the changing rooms and rest. We all did it and then everyone else went inside. I, however, had to tell the master that I wanted to run around it one more time because I needed to burn off some energy. He looked a little bewildered by my request but let me do it anyway. Except this time, I went in the opposite direction to retrace my initial steps.

Because I felt that it worked so well, owing to the fact I might not have had an episode for some time, the OCD became an imaginary life tool to prevent the depersonalisation from taking over. The OCD consequently became ingrained in me as a secret tool for preventing all negative situations. As a result it slowly began to evolve and I started to tap things a certain amount of times if I had a bad thought, say certain things to stop ‘bad things’ from happening, and write obscure miniature letters at the bottom of every page of my work, in order to right any wrongs that could be occurring and to protect my parents from any harm. I would also avoid going into certain places because the depersonalisation may have once occurred in that particular location. There is a bathroom at my parents’ house, where I must have felt a little detached from myself at one point, many years ago. I think it took me about ten years, once I started to understand OCD, before I could enter that bathroom again.  

My life had turned into a huge set of rules and regulations to make sure that I was able to function correctly and also to make sure that none of my friends or family suffered any harm. All of this because of a feeling that I didn’t feel present in the world.

Having looked into depersonalisation, it turns out it didn’t just affect me, like I thought it did. In fact, it affects a large proportion of us. I’m therefore using this one major issue of mine as an example of how something from within me was able to limit my happiness. Like the depersonalisation for me, almost everyone will have a confounding concern that they believe is restricting their access to happiness. I can tell you from experience that whatever problem you have, it does not need to go away before you are granted the love and serenity of being totally happy, because happiness is already present within everyone, you just have to know how to access it. Once you have activated your happiness, that is when all the other problems diminish and disappear.   

How the depersonalization came about in the first instance, I will never know. I have vague memories of it developing at my prep school. If I had only been less afraid to talk about it, I’m sure it could have been easily rectified. That said, back in the late eighties, mindfulness was only just coming to light and I don’t think children were meant to be bullishly happy. Nevertheless, it was through mindfulness, thirty or so years after it first occurred that I got the breakthrough I had been so diligently searching for. By methodically observing the detached feelings that had made parts of my life a living hell, I slowly began to see them for what they were, nothing more than a collection of thoughts. By allowing myself to befriend these feelings that I hadn’t dared to even whisper about as a child, I confronted them, accepted them and then ever so slowly said goodbye to them.

For anyone reading this who is currently suffering from depersonalisation and wants to find a way to manage it, don't let it bother you anymore. Contact me here, and let me help you to rise above it.

The next blog will give you more insight into happiness and how to embrace it.

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