Serenity is defined as “the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.” In As a Man Thinketh, James Allen says “calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom … [it is] the result of long and patient effort in self-control.”
Anxiety and depression appear to be afflicting more young people than ever. Having seen several medical professionals about each of these issues at the age of 29, I can say I’m one of them.
The year 2019 made me appreciate the preciousness of having peace of mind, and positive mental and physical health.
It was a profound, transformative year for me. I launched my own business. Self-published my own book. Moved home for the first time. Prepared for my first solo backpacking trip in Africa. I buried and said goodbye to my treasured granddad.
Humanity surges with uncontrolled passion, is tumultuous with ungoverned grief, is blown about by anxiety and doubt. Only the wise man, only he whose thoughts are controlled and purified, makes the winds and the storms of the soul obey him.
Between these milestones my day-to-day routine could be summarised as overwhelming.
Working very long hours for six or seven days a week. Consistent and copious amounts of caffeine. Incessant dopamine seeking by email and notification checking throughout the day and well into the evening.
Unsurprisingly my hands would shake uncontrollably after months of this.
I was overwhelming myself during supposed breaks from work also with torrential quantities of information and sounds — consuming podcasts, motivational speeches, political interviews and pop music during my regular commuting around London.
Every breaking wave was a must-watch or must-listen video — my ‘Watch Later’ YouTube playlist and Safari internet tab list well into the hundreds.
I overloaded my nervous system with digital screen time and began to comfort eat in the evenings with huge portions for dinner — going all-in on the calories and sugar.
I was almost abusing myself, subjecting my subconscious to uplifting, up-tempo music and ‘positive’ material — but overpowering it all the same. I gave myself little respite outside of sleeping — and my 5am alarms created substantial sleep deficits. These created debts which needed to be repaid one way or the other.
Claude Debussy said that the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between. In the same way, life is the invisible force, and emptiness within every living thing. Our existence is relentless and binary –never pausing or resting, unless we consciously choose to.
Proper rest, and play were neglected. One by one I began to discard enjoyable hobbies which I deemed to be too large a time drain in my week from ‘purposeful’ activities.
Often football clubs allow their best players to leave for rivals, and neglect to replace them swiftly — sometimes opting to muddle through with no clear strategy for filling the gap, or at least lessening the shortfall caused by their absence.
This was the same for me as I consciously discarded, or felt forced to give up:
· Gym classes
· Boxing training
· Acting and improv classes
· Volunteering as a hospital radio DJ
· Public speaking classes.
I was slowly giving up my most enjoyable hobbies in favour of working — specifically to get my business off the ground and to promote my book, a project I’d spent over seven months of my life pouring myself into.
How insignificant mere money seeking looks in comparison with a serene life — a life that dwells in the ocean of Truth, beneath the waves, beyond the reach of tempests, in the Eternal Calm!
Delaying gratification is an important skill and discipline to learn if you want to achieve anything lasting or meaningful.
I had the worst of both worlds — sacrificing the short-term joys life had to offer to build myself a more prosperous, secure future, but also succumbing to vices like overeating and distracting myself with shiny notifications to get short-lived dopamine hits.
By autumn 2019 I was spending zero hours doing anything fun or recreational for myself.
If, like me, you spend the vast majority of your time always-on, sitting in one spot for hours on end and not allowing yourself any spontaneity or pleasure — then it should be no surprise that you become very serious, tired and dull to be around before long.
As a result, I was rarely fully present and engaged in any social interaction, putting on a mask of competence, calm and holding it together.
One red flag I discarded at the time was going on a disappointing date with someone I was both physically and intellectually attracted to. I found her ideas and hobbies as pleasing as her personality. Unfortunately, I happened to be in a very disjointed, disconnected and anxious state when we went for a drink nearby to where we both worked.
I was unable to be fully with her and show my interest in her as a person, from working so hard on a dozen different projects that I’d built up a flood of exactly the wrong type of energy for relaxing and enjoying yourself as you get to know someone new and exciting. That evening and other similar occasions I was self-absorbed, not my usual blend of self-assurance and self-deprecation. Heavy with stress and dull repetition, not light and playful and full of ‘craic’ as we say in Ireland.
To illustrate how much time I spent working in my local Starbucks in particular, I was even present there and grinding away, in the same spot, for two of the most significant phone calls I received last year:
· When my Dad called me early on a Saturday morning to tell me my sick granddad had passed away in Ireland.
· When a Sky News producer phoned me for the first time, a couple of months later, to ask me to go live on air in a few hours to discuss the British Prime Minister’s new Brexit withdrawal deal with the European Union.
First Sky News appearance
I thought I could justify jettisoning some of my hobbies because I believed I couldn’t afford the time spent on them — the opportunity cost preventing me from pursuing other avenues where I could be more productive and useful.
I was wrong. I realised that I couldn’t afford NOT to spend guilt-free time doing these things I enjoyed.
Just reflecting on the activities I dropped makes me feel emotional, because I can remember spells of my life where I was doing ALL of these activities, and contrasting this with a time where I wasn’t doing ANY of them for weeks on end.
You’re sayin’ those words like you hate me now
Our house is burning when you’re raisin’ hell
Here in the ashes, your soul cries out
But don’t be afraid of these thunderclouds
- Sia, Thunderclouds
My burnout in December culminated in a few episodes where I was inundated and bombarded with negative, anxious thoughts about some harm that was to befall me, or that I was going to do to myself.
I remember crying intensely in a session with a therapist friend of mine and coming to terms with sitting in my GPs office and the concerned looks on their faces as I described the thoughts in as much detail as I could stand.
You don’t have to be particularly perceptive to realise that your doctor’s prescription for you to start taking anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs means you’ve crossed a low point in your life. Embarrassment, shame and sheer self-pity were my overriding feelings.
One night soon after I couldn’t sleep at all, for the intrusive thoughts were causing my ‘fight or flight’ to kick in and raising my blood pressure with each attack.
The most painful part of this whole experience was that it was entirely on me. I generally don’t blame anybody for my circumstances — and on this occasion I truly could not point the finger at anyone else.
I’d put a brave face, an invulnerable mask on things for so long, rarely letting anyone see what’s going on inside.
I may have looked polished and having it together in TV studios — like a peaceful swan paddling furiously beneath the surface. In reality I was hitting the deck, dropping to the canvas repeatedly.
“Far from being an effective shield, the illusion of invulnerability undermines the very response that would have supplied genuine protection.”
- Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
Back in the summer I’d carried my granddad in his coffin, to his final place of rest in the cemetery. I wore a stern expression — never allowing a hint of emotion to show, avoiding eye contact with my relatives showing their feelings more freely.
One example of how I relentlessly was holding it together.
Our self-care is solely our responsibility. Our health and happiness, while influenced by others, lies squarely on our own shoulders.
How often do we trade our health, values and peace of mind in exchange for some short-lived, temporary or marginal gain? How much do we tie our self-worth to an arbitrary performance, to the level of exhaustion we feel or to impressing others with status? The transient rewards we chase — recognition, money, sex, security — offer only illusory benefits, and can come at great expense elsewhere.
The evangelical Christian missionary Jim Elliot, killed at the age of 28 preaching his faith to an isolated tribe in Ecuador, wrote:
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Even though we will encounter choppy waters and thunderstorms, it is down to us to navigate them safely. Although there are predatory sharks and snakes preying on innocent people and manipulating others as a means to their own selfish ends, it is still our lookout, our duty to be savvy and streetwise enough to handle them.
The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.
Rocky Balboa’s advice to his son above emphasizes that life can be as hard or as easy as we allow it to be. It can beat us down and keep us there, if we let it.
[The Creator gave us] a gift so powerful that it enables one to practically proclaim and carry out one’s own earthly destiny…
the control that you have over your own mind;
the ability to make it negative or positive;
the ability to think in big terms or in little terms;
the ability to establish your own pattern as to what you want in life and to make life pay off on your own terms,
or to accept the circumstances of life and allow life to ride you.
Continuing the animal metaphors, Napoleon Hill draws a clear visual distinction — life is something you can decide to ride and enjoy, or permit to ride on top of you, like a horse.
We do not control the events that happen to us, but only our responses to them. The only agency we have is over our attitude towards life — and it is this attitude, which determines life’s attitude towards us.
Put another way — in terms of work, rest and play — life gives you what you ask for.
Learning to carve out the time for proper rest and play, setting work boundaries and giving due attention to your own needs are part of this essential asking process.