Sunday, 10 August 2014

Being Off-line, Being by the Sea, and Learning to Deal with Disruptive Thoughts

I have been, more or less, off line all last week. I did Tweet the occasional tweet (last Monday during the candle commemoration of WW1, and a retweet of the Guardian newspapers superb critique of the shambolic Healthier Together consultation) but for the rest of the time I've been off line completely. I have been up in the House in Scotland enjoying a week’s annual leave in-between the busyness of Graduation and Registration. I even chose to leave my mobile phone switched off, not a hard decision to do given the screen shows the number of emails received and needing attention on my return to work tomorrow. My brother and his family also spent some of last week up here. He lives in London and chose to spend much of his time here staying connected to the 'outside world'.

It’s perhaps not surprising really, whilst 22 million households in Britain have their own internet connection, those living in London use the internet more often than anywhere else. Interestingly, according to the Office for National Statistics the area where the highest proportion of adults who have never used the internet live is Dumfries and Galloway, the location of the House in Scotland.

The house sits on the edge of a very small coastal village. This means at weekends, (when I spend most time here) I get to benefit from seeing the forests, hills and fields, the sea and the estuary, but avoid having to see the holiday makers who flock each weekend during the summer to stroll along the sea front, eat at one of the two pubs, or set off on a day’s hillwalking. Of course the village benefits from the holiday makers coming, and during the week it’s much quieter. So as I was staying up for a week I wanted to make the most of this quietness and spend some time contemplating and recharging my emotional battery's and improving my mental well-being.

For me, turning off the phone and disconnecting the computer and iPad was akin to what ethnomethodologists call a disruption (or deliberate violation) of the prevailing social order. Ethnomethodological research offers the notion that society behaves as if there were no other way to do so. Generally, we all go along with what is expected of us and the existence of any underlying norms only becomes apparent when they are disrupted. Harold Garfinkel first described the concept of ethnomethodology in 1954 and gave his students some wonderful ‘disruptive’ exercises to try out at home.

However, for me it was a different kind of exercise I indulged in. My favourite daily walk is between my village and the next one around the bay. It’s a short circular walk just over 5km long and for me it’s the pathway to my place of mindfulness, a place of calm and equilibrium. For Cello it’s a chance to chase after deer (no he has never ever come close to catching them), having fun with other dogs, and generally give free reign to his non-stop exhibition of sheer exuberance.

I find Mindfulness Mediation helps me during those times where thoughts, worries, and feelings lead to distress and anxiety and the inability to focus on the present, sleep or enjoy life. The primary focus for mindfulness mediation is on ones breathing. What I find helps is to bring to mind an image, in my case it’s the view of the seashore. I can see the sea, the horizon, the island in the distance, feel the heat of the sun on my face, feel the solid ground under my feet and smell the salt in the sea breeze. I have sat on a bench on many, many occasions observing all these sights and sounds with all my senses, and in doing so, have also learnt to focus on my breathing.

So when I am faced with trying to sleep and have thoughts a plenty racing around my mind, it is this image that I bring to mind and concentrate on my breathing until I can let those intrusive thoughts go without becoming involved in worrying about them. Having other good memories helps. For example, yesterday evening I spent a pleasant few hours with my No 1 favourite artist Upru Sellar and her husband Dawson at their house and studio. We talked about what life had presented us in terms of opportunities and challenges, some of which, it has to be said, were more challenges than opportunities, we talked about Finland, Scotland and the world we had all experienced. It was a relaxing and life affirming few hours.

When tomorrow I sit at my desk once again, and get re-connected to a different strand of reality, this past week of contemplation and relaxation will be a powerful ally as once more I start to tackle the tyranny of the emails, and the incessant organisational and managerial demands that come with being Head of School to the largest and most diverse School in the University. I am also fortunate to work with a fantastic team of colleagues who are always there to support each and everyone of us, whatever it might be the world throws at us.