Making friends with my unquiet mind

We don’t talk much about anxiety, or depression, or mental health in general. And yet, in my privileged little pocket of suburbia, it seems to be endemic, whether it’s an edgy feeling lurking just below the surface (can’t survive without the 5pm glass of wine), or something more debilitating.

I’ve been dealing with anxiety for the better part of a year now. In retrospect, it had long been there, but had skirted the periphery lightly enough that I was able to smooth it over and ignore it. Until out of the blue I developed a fear of flying and confined spaces and just like that anxiety became something I had to learn to cope with.

Talking about it can be a bit of a downer, and is part of the reason I’ve held off on sharing my story. It’s way more fun to write about something light and frivolous than to fess up to the fact that sometimes I find life overwhelming. I’d far rather pretend to be one of the copers who effortlessly coast through, but truth is, I do find life overwhelming. Sometimes it feels loud and fast-paced and demanding and I want to run for cover.

I suspect another reason we don’t talk much about it is because we live in a country where so many live in abject poverty. If your life ticks all the boxes that society deems necessary for a happy and comfortable existence, your anxiety can start to feel like a champagne problem (which some might argue, it is). But adding guilt into the mix will do little to soothe your anxious soul.

Hopefully without sounding too preachy, here’s some of what has helped me:

Staying in the room
Perhaps the biggest lesson is that I can’t outrun my anxiety, I can only slow down enough to hear what it’s trying to tell me. Because like anything that’s uncomfortable and untimely and a giant big pain in the ass, it’s a chance to grow.

When we’re anxious or (*insert any uncomfortable emotion*), our instinct is to try push the feeling away or smooth it over, usually by reaching for the nearest distraction. But I’ve been experimenting with something that feels totally counter-intuitive—which is to surrender to any unpleasant feelings that crop up. To take them by the hand and welcome them as I would an old friend.

Enter mindfulness and meditation (it’s often said that too much future thinking causes anxiety, and too much thinking about the past causes depression, and by implication the only place we can find any real peace is in the present moment). 

It’s easy to dismiss mindfulness as pop culture woo woo, as it’s quite a watery concept that can be tricky to get a handle on. But it really is a wonderful balm for an overworked, exhausted mind. If you think of your anxiety as a little messenger trying to get your attention, try giving it that—your full attention. Experiment a little by stopping what you’re doing and engaging with whatever discomfort arises.

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes beautifully about how to do this. She talks about nailing yourself to the spot by leaning in to rather than backing away from any emotion that surfaces. It takes work (and courage) because you have to override that whole flight or fright feeling. Staying with it is hard and confronting. Like most mindfulness practitioners, Pema encourages us to do it as gently as possible, and to try not get caught up in any story about the emotions we’re experiencing.

Here’s an effective little trick she suggests: every time you catch yourself stuck inside your own head (you know that endless chatter in your mind?) just say to yourself ‘Thinking’. It’s a very simple way of bringing you back from wherever you’ve drifted off to. Don’t beat yourself up when it happens, and do it over and over again, a million times a day if you need to. It’s through watching your mind like this (and becoming the observer) that you start to cultivate mindfulness.

​Other excellent thought leaders in mindfulness are Jon Kabat-Zinn and his wonderfully titled book ‘Wherever You Go, There you are’. Eckhart Tolle’s ‘Power of Now’ is another important book, and any of his talks will give you great insights into the transformative power of the present moment.

The point of meditation—I think— is to get to know ourselves, and then to learn to love and accept what we find (our nice shiny bits, and our shitty bits too). Because ultimately all love begins with self-love (you know how they say we can only love another person as much as we love ourselves).

Self-love sounds so deceptively simple, but we can be unkind to ourselves in remarkably subtle ways. To use just one example—the plight of the modern woman. Women these days can be visible and make our voices heard, we have choices like never before and we can be fabulous and fierce. If we step into our power, does it come at a cost? And what if we don’t want it all? What if we want to live a simple life far from the maddening crowd. Is that enough? Will we forever disappear into obscurity?

It sounds like existential angst of the privileged, but we really are bombarded by so many messages of what we could be doing and should be doing, it’s easy to wind up feeling that we’re not enough. Which is a one-way ticket to anxiety.

Two pioneers in the field of self-compassion are Tara Brach and Kristin Neff. It’s worth checking them out if you feel you can be a little kinder to yourself. Tara Brach has wonderful guided meditations on self-love, and as a psychologist, has amazing insights into the human condition and how our minds work.

Yoga and Breathing
Anxiety is something that starts in our heads and travels down into our bodies — yoga is a wonderful way to interrupt that. Think of it as pent up energy that needs space, to open up and clear. The twists and the openings in yoga postures help dispel any emotional overload in the body, in much the same way that surfing or skiing or any physical endeavour that’s completely immersive does.

Breath work is an important part of yoga, and there are many breathing techniques you can experiment with. Here are three of my favourite:

  • Ujjayi breath—breathe in through your nose for a count of 3, exhale slowly and deeply through your nose for a count of 4 using the ujjayi or oceanic breath—that deep, throaty sound you make in the back of your throat as you exhale.
  • Box breathing—4 breaths in / hold for 4 / 4 breaths out / hold for 4
  • The 4-7-8 breathing exercise. Inhale though your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. This is great when you can’t fall asleep, or you wake in the middle of the night and your mind starts jabbering away.

The only way out is through​​
When I’m caught in the grip of an anxious spell (closed spaces and aeroplanes do this to me)​, I remind myself that I can’t hyperventilate and breathe deeply at the same time—it’s a physical impossibility. ​I​ remind myself that​ I ​might ​be uncomfortable​​ for a few minutes, it might even be agonising. For a few seconds I may even want to crawl out my own skin,​ but whatever arises, it will most definitely pass.

Emotions seldom stick around for more than a few minutes, if we just let them be. Somehow shining a light on them seems to dilute the intensity of the feeling and make it less compelling.

And if all else fails and I can’t remember my breathing or my mantras, these two words always come to mind: ​ ‘Don’t resist’​. The minute I say those words I can feel my body start to soften.​

‘The wound is the place where the light enters you’ —Rumi

​‘Stay brave, awkward, and kind’
I love this little phrase of Brene Brown, a researcher and storyteller known for her work on shame and resilience, vulnerability and courage. Brene is like a great gulp of fresh air in our endlessly striving world. If you’re struggling with issues of enough-ness (being enough, doing enough), get your hands on anything written or said by her, particularly her books The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly. It might just inspire you to ditch ‘perfect’​ and show the world your imperfect, messy, awkward self. 

I really loved her article ‘The Midlife Unravelling’. I had this idea that by the time I got to my forties I’d be pretty sussed— living life on my own terms, in whatever damn way I please. It’s not entirely panned out that way and that’s okay, because we can’t all be fabulous and fierce, but we can all be ourselves. It’s the only thing we can really be.

It can be quite a process to excavate who that person is. As Brene Brown puts it, we spend the first half of our lives building up our armour to protect ourselves, and the second half tearing it down to reveal our true selves. Removing our armour requires us to be vulnerable, which requires us to be brave, but it’s a journey so many of us feel compelled to take; we want to dig and unearth who we are underneath all that social conditioning.

Sometimes we get distracted, and we think we’ll get back round to it later, but then the universe steps in and sends us little reminders, which can come in the form of anxiety, or depression or any host of illness and dis-ease. It’s seldom pleasant, but if we’re committed to living as authentically as we can, and opening our hearts as much as we can, it’s often the reminder we need that life is precious, and the time is now.

‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken’ —Oscar Wilde

Do you have any tips or tricks that help you find a semblance of calm in this crazy beautiful world we live in?

I Am Man, Me Like Fire

Three moms and their six lads retreated to the mountains outside Cape Town for some fresh air and rock pooling. They missed the Dads terribly. But no matter, it was an illuminating two days as a thing or two was learnt about the Dads, and about fires, and about men and fires.

The Moms fared really well on night one. Nats, the Mom with a plan, had the good sense to bring along firelighters and before long, the flames had settled into beautiful simmering coals, cooking the burgers to perfection (not underdone, not overdone).

Night two was pizza night. Buoyed by the success of the burgers, they pooh-poohed the regular oven and decided to give the outdoor pizza oven a bash. Nothing like the smoky taste of wood-fired pizza. Having earned her stripes on burger night, Nats was put in charge of the fire.

The team got to work. The lads collected kindling, Nats created a wood pile in the oven. The other Moms, Rosie and Zan, got to grating the cheese, slicing the avo, chopping the ham, getting the plates ready, sorting the drinks, checking on the kids.

Nats stayed put in front of the fire. She poked and prodded, adjusted the pile, cranked up the heat, distributed the heat. It was just about time to slide the pizzas in when it dawned on Nats, who’s a doer and loves to get stuck in, that she hadn’t done much to help the other Moms. It was, she said, as if wielding the tongs and lauding over the fire gave her permission to do jack shit.

And they got to wondering. Why is it that men never leave the fire, ever? Staring into the flames is mesmeric for sure. Our relationship with fire is deeply primal; we relied on it for cooking, warmth, protection, survival. It draws us in.

The fire was also where the tribe gathered to tell tales and catch up on the day’s gossip. We closed in and the circle grew tight and somewhat impenetrable as we went deep into hanna hanna mode.

Manning the fire is important work, we totally get that. We can do without the salad and the frills and the beautifully laid table but without the fire there would be no main event.

But it is okay to leave the fire, just for a few minutes, now and then, to toss a salad or pull your warring kids apart. We’ll totally have your back. We’ll swan in and spend a few hypnotic minutes wrapped in the warm glow of the coals, keeping an eye on the flames. We’ll even hold your beer.

It’s a gender bending world yet somehow when we cook our food on an open flame we revert to archaic roles where Man Make Fire and Woman Do Everything Else.

But, guys, the jig is up. You weren’t around so we snuck into your hallowed domain. We sussed it out and we’re calling bullshit on the free pass that is braai duty.

Let’s switch it up. What’s it gonna take to hand over the tongs?

Waste Warriors

A single mason jar — that’s how much trash Bea Johnson, her husband Scott and their teenage sons Max and Leo produce in a year. Dubbed ‘the priestess of waste-free living’, Bea, a French native who transplanted to California, has inspired millions around the world to adopt her zero waste lifestyle, in which she sends virtually nothing to landfill.

Recycling — a sticking plaster?
It’s no secret that our addiction to single-use plastic is wreaking havoc with our environment. Recycling is often touted as the solution to our trash woes. But given that it’s not always clear where or how an item should be recycled, it’s far from a long-term solution. As Bea points out, “Once that piece of plastic leaves your home, you’ve lost control of it.” Plus, she adds, “Recycling uses a lot of energy!”

(South Africans are not great recyclers anyway. Of the approximately 108 million tons of waste we generate annually, only about 10% is recycled. The remaining 90% ends up in our landfills — toxic garbage dumps which are fast running out of airspace).

Recycling helps, but more important is to generate less waste in the first place.

So, while the rest of us put bags of trash out on the curb every week, how does Bea whittle her annual waste down to a single jar?

By following, in strict order, the 5R’s, which have become something of a mantra for aspiring zero wasters — Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (compost). For tons of tips on how to follow the 5R’s, check out Bea’s Zero Waste Home site where she spells it all out clearly and comprehensively.

Sounds daunting, right? But Bea is on a mission to blast through misconceptions that zero waste living is expensive and unattainable. “By buying bulk and eliminating packaging, you can save at least 15% of your monthly grocery bill,” she advises.

Once you start refusing what you don’t need and reducing what you do, you naturally accumulate less, she explains.

Plastic free groceries
What a plastic free grocery shop looks like, complete with reusable shopping bags. Photo credit:

Bea’s super organised package-free pantry. Photo credit:

Bea's bathroom essentials
Bea’s bathroom essentials. Her and her family brush their teeth with bicarbonate of soda and nothing else. Photo credit:

Bea is living proof that by declaring war on waste you needn’t compromise on style. With her endlessly versatile 15-piece capsule wardrobe — check out One Dress, 22 ways and 50 ways to wear a men’s shirt — Bea exudes an enviable Parisian chic. Her clutter-free home is a gorgeous, calm, light filled space that looks like it belongs in the pages of a décor magazine.

Bea's minimalist home
Bea’s minimalist home in California. “My family buys way less than before. In the past, if we went somewhere, we bought souvenirs. If my mother-in-law visited, we went shopping. We were constantly adding to our household’s inventory. Now, we’re happy with the amount of things we have in our home and we don’t add to it,” she says. Photo credit Connie Mirbach.

Bea Johnson in South Africa
Bea toured South Africa last May, giving the country’s burgeoning zero waste movement a major boost. Inspired by the 5R’s, Colleen Black of Life Lived Simply has been living waste free since early 2015. If you’re curious about how to dispose of your contact lens containers, what to do with your EcoBricks or where to get beeswax wraps, the Zero Waste Journey in South Africa Facebook group, founded and managed by Colleen, is a trove of ideas and solutions. It’s becoming the go-to online hub for South Africans wanting to live greener and tread lighter.

Colleen with her jar
Colleen Black with her single jar of trash

Opting out of the consumer madness that characterises modern life can be liberating. But those paving the way counsel that you can’t overhaul your life in a day. It’s a journey, one that requires patience.

Jade Khoury of Low Impact Living, an organisation that run eco-awareness workshops, has been living waste-free for many years. Her advice? Take it slow, and have fun doing it. “It didn’t happen overnight. It took a few years,” she says.

Jade Khoury
“Evaluate where your packaging accumulates — say stationary, or take away food for example — and tackle one thing at a time. Our brains are wired for comfort, so it has to be attainable, otherwise you’ll find a million excuses not to do it,” says Jade.

And, something echoed by eco-warriors everywhere — don’t beat yourself up when you fail, which is inevitable. “Be compassionate with yourself. Find solutions that are fun and creative, rather than feeling guilty, or deprived,” Jade advises. “If you slip up, see it as an opportunity to side-step that issue next time.”

It sounds like it’s worth persevering. That paring down your life in this way is not just gentler on the planet, it’s transformative, spilling over into every corner of your life.

“There are so many perks to this life,” says Jade. “It’s healthier. You remove a lot of the toxins and (heavily-packaged) junk food from your life. By choosing to cut out packaging, your start shopping differently, more directly. And that brings up a lot of opportunity for conversation and human connection, a sense of community.”

“The best thing about this lifestyle is the simplicity,” enthuses Bea. “The less you have, the less you need to clean, dust, maintain and eventually repair or discard. It’s made me grateful for everything we do have, and it feeds my creativity daily, as I’m always searching for solutions. We’ve discovered a lifestyle based on experiences rather than things. A life of being rather than having. And that’s what makes life richer.”

Bea and her family
Bea with her family. “Because of the money we’ve saved from the zero waste lifestyle, we’ve been able to afford things we couldn’t do before. We’ve gone snorkelling, ice-climbing, swum with humpback whales, gone skydiving. My kids have travelled to 20 countries. It’s brought us closer as a family.” Photo Credit: Stephanie Rausser.

Need local inspo?
Check out these South African Instagrammers showing us how it’s done. Left to right:
Shannon Goodman — @journeytozero_
Alex Radlinger — @zerowastejourneycapetown
Khaya Alexander — @wastelessafrica

Also check out:
Nude Foods — Plastic Free Grocery, Cape Town.
Wild & Waste-Free Co-Op — For your zero waste starter kit. Glencairn, Cape Town.
Faithful to Nature  Online Organic Shop (you can apply a plastic-free filter).
Shop Zero — Zero Waste, Plastic Free Lifestyle Store. Woodstock, Cape Town.

*Featured image credit: Connie Mirbach

Let them drink champagne

Cape Town has basked in a string of ‘Best City’ accolades in recent years, but we’re about to become known for something else — the first major city in the world to run out of water. Day Zero, the day the taps are turned off, has been brought forward to 12 April.

Predictably in times of heightened stress and anxiety, there’s been much finger pointing as we scramble to apportion blame. Rumours are swirling that the City was forewarned about this likelihood years ago and failed to act. There’s anger over the City’s unwillingness (inability?) to tap into other water sources (desalination and aquifers) and squabbling over what the different statistics mean (is it the worst drought in 100 years?).

At first it felt like we might be plunged into something resembling a dystopian novel, but with Day Zero looming, we’re getting proactive. Stinky loos, parched lawns and empty pools aside, Capetonians are devising novel ways to stick to the allocated 50 litres a day. Those with the resources are rigging up boreholes and going off grid (though there’s much uncertainty about the legality of this), enhancing their grey water systems, buying machines that make water out of air, and stockpiling boxes of 5l water bottles. There’s been this been-there-done-that post giving us some much needed perspective (it’s okay, we’ll survive, we’ll come out stronger).

Because of course we’re not the first city to be severely water stressed. California has been in a ‘mega-drought’ for years and Australia had its own ‘Millenial Drought’ in the early 2000’s. Droughts are becoming so frequent it’s predicted the next World War will be fought over water.

What sets us apart, as always, are the disparities. It’s a bleak prospect, queuing for water, wearing dirty clothes, being unwashed. But there’s this thing that happens in South Africa, which is that most of the time we’re ostriches, but in times of crisis we’re reminded how the majority of the population live.  When the rug is pulled out from under us, and our creature comforts are threatened, we remember just how fortunate we are. An estate dweller in my nice car, plotting how we’ll leave the city if things go belly up, I’m as guilty of sealing myself off from the realities of life in South Africa as the next person.

Let’s hope this becomes reminiscent of load shedding, where we retrofitted our homes, but then just as quickly Eskom turned the lights back on. Perhaps the soothsayers are right, and we will see flooding in March. We may just scrape through and avoid Day Zero, but our attitudes to water will have been irrevocably changed.  And absolute worst case for most of us reading this — rather than it being some vague notion out there, we will actually have to live the knowledge of what it’s like to be without water, and perhaps there are blessings in that.


A Depth Year

I love this, from the Raptitude blog. Such a simple but inspired idea:

I read it after a splurge at the bookstore, where I treated myself to three new memoirs, despite having loads of unfinished books on my shelf. It motivated me to set a goal for 2018 — to not buy any books till I’ve ploughed through my existing stack. It’s going to be an interesting one.