After the retirement party, the applause and the handshakes, Jenny was left with the ticking clock at 10 am on weekday mornings and an unexpected feeling of envy at the world rushing around to get to work.
Jenny felt she had joined an amorphous mass of pensioners, sidelined by the rest of the world and condemned to be deprived of any recognition for everything she had achieved. She was suffering from one of the side-effects of retirement : loss of validation.
Validation from others feels good. It starts with the need for our parents’ reassurance and approval. Throughout life we identify ourselves as, for example, parents and/or with our professions, so that when retirement arrives and we have none of these roles, it is hardly surprising many of us are left with a feeling we are nobody at all. “The day after I retired my access card to the building expired,” said Ronald who had got to the top of an international institution. “Security wouldn’t let me in to collect some things. I’d crossed that threshold for 35 years and suddenly I was a persona non grata.”
Recognition works in two ways – people at work recognising who you are (your name and your personality) and the acknowledgment we receive from the contribution we make to a company, institution or service. Virtually everyone dreams of being applauded, and finding oneself in a new role where applause is highly unlikely is tough. Work provides structure, identity and a feeling of camaraderie, an “us-against-the-world” culture. With this gone, we are left with the feeling of having fallen off a tower that took many years to climb and from where we used to be able to see the way ahead.
“We had a seminar for those about to retire in our company, a big multinational,” said Arnold, “and on the first day this woman comes in and says we shouldn’t worry because they had a long list of reputable retirement homes the company recommended. On the second day I grudgingly admitted I had gone home the previous night feeling a bit depressed. I soon found out everyone had felt the same.”
Retirement is the great leveller, since there is nothing to distinguish us from those who have done jobs with less status (in our opinion) than ours. We may find ourselves rubbing shoulders with people who we secretly sneered at before and would never have dreamed of associating with. It is worse when we find they are mightily unimpressed with our past careers, and may even never have heard of the job we used to do. Younger people still working no longer have to show deference either, and we have no claim on their admiration. Retirement may be the first time in our lives when no one recognises our achievements, and no one cares if we learn a new skill. “I thought of learning Italian,” said Samantha, a former banker, “but then thought, well what’s the point? I’m not going to need to put it on my CV”.
Older people droning on about their past glories may have irritated us in the past, and now we realise what they were about. The ego needs to prove we still are somebody. This is why it is so dangerous to hook our self-esteem exclusively to our job and yet most men and an increasing number of women do just this. It is important to separate who we are from what we do early on, to develop an inner life and natural confidence and to value ourselves more for the way we live our lives than for what we do at work. Work is at its most basic simply a means of earning a living. Would we have worked all those hours, and all those years for free?
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation. Retirement is a moment when many of these needs are suddenly – often very suddenly – undermined and threatened. But if we examine the top of the pyramid, it is obvious that retirement offers the greatest opportunity for self-actualisation.
The people who we feel no longer recognise us after retirement will one day face the same issues. Retirement is the time when we really can offer our skills and wisdom for free. It is a wonderful time for self-exploration. More than anything, it is the time to recognise ourselves at last.
There’s an old joke : How do you know if you’re codependent? When you die someone else’s life flashes before you.
Codependency is no joke nonetheless. When Nancy Sykes sang As long as he needs me in the musical Oliver! shortly before being murdered by her partner, she spoke for the millions of codependent people around the world who are in abusive relationships but cannot break free.
Codependency is an important issue for staying ageless because of the emotional stress it causes.
Codependent adults usually had an emotionally deprived childhood. A child who does not have his/her emotional needs met and who was surrounded by significant adults saying things such as, “Who do you think you are?” if the child asks for something is likely to develop codependency. A traumatic event before the age of six months is thought to cause the worst form of this crippling condition, programming the child’s subconscious to associate love and pain. A normal loving relationship between respectful adults doesn’t feel right to codependents (it is often discounted as boring, and the partner fails to command respect in the codependent).
The codependent is frequently exposed to angry outbursts from their partner. They react by dissociating – switching off emotionally – something they learnt to do as children when physical escape was impossible. Healthy people know when someone is angry it is the angry person that has to deal with their emotions. Codependents find anger terrifying, since they assume the anger is their fault – a message they picked up from their parents, who may have actually stated this was the case on numerous occasions when the real reason was work or marriage-related stress. But codependents are, none the less, addicted to expressions of distress and anger in others.
The codependent therefore believes everything is their fault and that they are responsible for the emotions of their significant others. This leads to toxic shame, the default setting for codependent adults.
Toxic shame causes someone to second-guess everything they feel and believe. Disagreements with others will lead to panic and severe feelings of guilt. They seek out people with problems because they do not believe they deserve healthy people, and through helping someone they find identity and self-worth. Compliments are shrugged off and rapidly discounted, and they apologise all the time. Many codependents are driven, high achievers – doing well in school was the only way to gain their parents’ approval when they were young. Their emotional lives are therefore often chaotic. They have problems setting boundaries, since their parents failed to respect the child’s boundaries. The parents of adult codependents may continue to do this throughout their lives –for example, entering a bedroom or bathroom without knocking, going through their things, telling them they are self-obsessed if they express feelings and so on.
Self-care is a big problem with codependent people, who feel it is self-indulgent. They will have been given the message when young that they did not deserve time out. Codependents feel an urge to spend any free time getting chores or odd jobs done.
Sam is a typical case. He booked a holiday for him, his two children and his new partner, a volatile young woman called Alicia. The children wanted to camp but Sam felt it would be better to book the hexagonal building on the camp site known as the folie, away from the other families. He told himself this was for more comfort. During the holiday, on cue, Alicia turned on Sam and began to abuse him in front of his children when she saw he had forgotten to pack her cigarettes. Idiot, asshole, can’t trust you to do anything, you make me want to vomit….her screaming went on for hours.
The cigarettes were an excuse of course: Alicia was repeating a pattern of severe holiday rows she had experienced in her childhood. Her mother had ruined all the family holidays. Alicia developed borderline personality disorder as a result and proceeded to do the same to her own loved-ones.
Sam’s background was being raised by narcissistic parents. Sam developed codependency. As Alicia screamed at him, he realised he had booked the folie because he knew Alicia would have several violent outbursts during the holiday and wanted to avoid the shame of being right next to other campers who would have overheard everything.
Alicia finally took the car and drove off at speed, leaving Sam with his two frightened children and no transport. In doing this she was reproducing the behaviour of her father who would regularly storm out of the house and drive off dangerously, disappearing for days. Her father had once abandoned the entire family without transport in the middle of the countryside leaving them to find their way home – ten hours away – by taxi and train with all the luggage.
Sam simply waited for Alicia to return, feeling a crushing sense of grief, rage, embarrassment she had humiliated him in front of his children, and shame. These negative emotions are also highly addictive. That night she returned. The screaming fit had ended, and she veered once again to idolising him, as borderlines always do. He apologised to her even though he wasn’t sure what for. This seemed to satisfy Alicia, and she complained of chronic stomach pain, a complaint which had plagued her for their entire relationship. He showed empathy, and cared for her. Sam’s codependency told him to just forget about the abuse and rage, for the sake of peace and Alicia’s health.
What should Sam do in such a relationship?
• Separate his feelings from Alicia’s.
• Stop giving her support at such personal cost.
• Stop modelling victimhood to his children.
• Stop playing the role of enabler. His compassionate attitude ensured Alicia would repeat the behaviour over and over on every holiday they would have from then on. Instead, he should have found a way of ensuring her bad behaviour had severe consequences.
• Realise that when Alicia stated she adored him, this actually meant that she needed him. Someone who loves us does not plunge us into mental and emotional turmoil and does not seek to humiliate us.
• See the humour in the repeated drama they are both playing out, and extract himself from the relationship immediately. This is helping Alicia change her behaviour which is ruining her health.
• Rehearse over and over how he will react next time he finds himself being drawn back into the same scenario – with her, or with someone else.
Sam eventually left Alicia a few months later, when she betrayed a secret he had entrusted her with. This action by Alicia was an act of revenge – common BPD behaviour – after an argument when she had accused him of being with another woman (he was in fact at a social event at work at which he had volunteered to provide drinks). Four months separation followed. Alicia had intensive therapy, and sent a mutual friend around to beg for another chance, saying she could not live without Sam.
Sam had not found anyone else with whom he had experienced such a bond. In fact he had not found anyone else at all in those four months. He agreed to see her, but not to live with her, and said if there is one more abusive incident when we are on holiday, our relationship will be over for good. Sam felt good about himself for saying this. For four further months Sam and Alicia were ecstatically happy. Alicia was a very funny, intelligent and attentive girlfriend, not to mention beautiful. She utterly captivated him. He was delighted he had agreed to give her another chance. He called this compassion, and understanding for her abusive background. He took her to Paris for a romantic weekend to celebrate their reunion.
On the second day, when he expressed exasperation over a work issue, she flew into a rage at him for ruining their weekend away with his ‘stupid problems’. To Sam’s astonishment, the exact same scenario ensued as on the camping holiday. He felt his bloodstream fill with adrenaline and toxic stress hormones. She left the hotel in a fury, and this time he did not wait for her to return. He paid the hotel bill and travelled home alone. Six months silence ensued, and Sam began to read books about codependency and setting personal boundaries.
This Christmas Sam’s children are going to their mother’s. He has not found another partner. Alicia will send him gifts, and then call him. The old loneliness from Sam’s childhood will return, and he will take her call.
Codependency is an addiction every bit as powerful as heroine. It is ruinous to our health, to the length of our telomeres, and therefore to our lifespan.
Self responsibility – it won’t work for anyone who considers suffering in the world to be indiscriminate and who believes that since the dawn of humanity life has been generally miserable for the overwhelming majority of human beings, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Not for those either who get angry on behalf of starving Africans/victims of natural disasters/orphans and street children. Being sad and angry won’t help them. This is simply about taking responsibility for what happens to us.
The received wisdom is that life’s a bitch and then you die, that shit happens and happiness is fleeting and elusive. If this is our world view, shapeshifting will seem nonsense. Shapeshifters surf across multiple realities and dive deep into one they prefer.
The idea we can change from one form into another at will is deeply embedded in the collective unconscious. It occurs in Western folklore (The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast), mythology (the gods often assume the forms of animals or humans) and in shamanism where the shaman gives up his sense of self and assumes the identity of a plant or animal. The shapeshifter is someone who has become aware of his own infinity. When he wishes to change his circumstances, he changes himself. But despite the fact it is part of world culture, most people believe it has nothing to do with our own lives.
Reality surfing is based on the idea that like attracts like. It states that consciousness and the material world reflect each other like a mirror, and therefore just as circumstances affect our mood, our mood can affect circumstances. Life, according to this philosophy, is dreamed up by what we are thinking and, above all, feeling. ‘Out there’ is part of our consciousness and it was created by us. Time is illusory. The reality surfer lives his life back to front – rejoice first, see the reason for rejoicing second. When we rejoice, the reality of being joyful already exists; our consciousness will interpret the world to match that reaction.
It is counter-intuitive and not intended to appeal to the materialist. The overwhelming majority of people will say it is at best wishful thinking and at worst complete rubbish. Many will get angry on someone else’s behalf – someone afflicted by multiple illnesses for example – and a great number will feel rage at being held responsible for their troubles. Psychologists might concede that deciding how to think about one’s circumstances can add to happiness, but hardly anyone will stand up and say that how we think will change our circumstances.
This approach to living is known as reality surfing because the science behind it is the parallel worlds theory. The suggestion is that we can skip from one parallel world to another, worlds which are adjacent, slightly different from our own, and to do so we use our perception and emotions. There are many versions of me in infinity, and today I choose to focus on the version who….(fill in a goal or dream).
How do we enter the parallel reality where I am what I wish to be? By taking on the identity, definition, belief, behaviours and feelings of the person I want to be. This is the work of the shapeshifter – alter your essence and the physical world will have to shift too.
We need to adopt the viewpoint of the person who never grew old (see video page, “Oldest yoga teacher“). If we wish to be shapeshifters, we must feel as the person would feel who acted and looked youthful forever, and rest in this view for the next few days and weeks. We come regularly back to the ‘body sense’ of such a person and cease behaving in ways that presuppose it is not already so.
Acting as if something is already a fact is the magical secret of the shapeshifter. Examples are setting out two glasses of wine when you are seeking a partner (and ‘seeing’ and ‘feeling’ their presence), spending a day as you would spend it if you no longer needed to work, or for us – acting as though we are young, really young, strong, without physical or mental limits, doing whatever we did when we were younger, whether it be work or play. This is going into the energy field of what we want.
What do we want to shift to today? Answer this question : wouldn’t it be nice if….?
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Repetitive negative thoughts can trigger emotions that sink into parts of our bodies and stay there, causing stress, which leads to DNA damage….and sickness and ageing. Performing a body scan can allow us to detect where there is a feeling of discomfort. These feelings sometimes surface during everyday life – for example, when we are hurt by a loved one, or after a breakup or a conflict at work. We may sense pressure on our lung and stomach area and a heaviness in the heart, almost as if a giant were standing on these parts of the body. More often however, these sensations are drowned out by everyday living, and a body scan can allow us to home in on them and eliminate them before they are allowed to grow into something physical that can harm us.
It is good to do the scan several times a week, because these feelings come back regularly, and can require repeated work before they are dissolved. New ones sink into place all the time. Performing a body scan on a regular basis is therefore good news for our bodies. The image above shows how we can use visualisation and sound to perform this exercise.
For each part of the body, starting from the bottom, we visualise the colour indicated above in that part, and make the vowel sounds at least three times, or as many times as it takes if there is a feeling of unease, until it disintegrates.
It is not necessary to ‘know’ what the issue is. A sensation is enough. If we wish, we can focus on a particular organ or body part – the kidneys, the knees, the back, the solar plexus for emotional pain – and breathe deeply, feeling the sensation become less dense, exhaling the tension and sensing it evaporate. Didgeridoo music or shamanic drumming is particularly effective in dissolving physical or emotional trauma. As we sound the vowels in the image, we imagine that the colours are becoming brighter and more perfect, and affirm that this organ or body part is healing completely and is now in perfect health.
Mindfulness is rapidly being adopted by the medical community as an effective way of combatting stress. It involves noticing what is going on – in the external world, and inside us, in our bodies and in the world of emotions. Mindfulness can be practised through meditation or by moving through tasks in a self-aware manner. In this way we live life fully, rather than constantly projecting into the past or the future. This is the meaning of living a true present. But what happens when the present moment is truly awful?
Nina, a primary school teacher in her forties from Aberdeen, found herself in just such a moment when during an argument on holiday her partner became physically and verbally aggressive. He bundled her into a car and, shouting insults at her, drove onto the motorway. He said he would be dumping her in a rest area and would choose one with no shops or phone. She did not know where he was taking her. She asked him not to be cruel, and he shouted that if she opened her mouth one more time, he would leave her on the hard shoulder. She fell into silence, while the car was being driven at top speed. This terrifying journey continued for seven hours.
Nina used mindfulness techniques to cope, which she had practised all her life. First of all she sank into her emotions. “I am afraid. My neck and back are tense. I am cold. My legs and arms are rigid. I am terrified he will drive off leaving me with no money and no coat. It is raining and windy outside. I am afraid I will have to ask strangers for help and I will feel shame. I am enraged at the mistreatment I am enduring. I am angry with myself I chose a man capable of treating me with contempt. I am wondering how far he will go, is my life in danger? Will his rage make us crash? I am confused at how he could be so loving before. These are my emotions.”
Then, she focused on a raindrop on the window. She glanced at his body, fixed, hands gripping the steering wheel, and noticed the power he was enjoying over her. She realised this power could not last forever.
Heraclitus of Ephesus was a Greek philosopher known for stating that change was central to the universe: “Everything is flux”. This moment, although it seems endless, is also in flux, she told herself.
The circumstances were external. The emotions temporary. Nina knew she was an immortal being, and that the moment could not touch her soul. Eckhart Tolle in his famous book, The Power of Now says of such moments: accept then act. Nina accepted her circumstances, then took action. There was no physical action she could take, but there was plenty that she could do in the privacy of her mind. He has taken my body captive, she thought, he is trying to frighten me. But my mind is still free.
In such moments we need to become alchemists, transforming the base metal of dark moments into the gold of the soul, into conscious awareness and detachment. When she realised she was indestructible, the resistance to the moment relented.
Having located the trauma in her emotions, she set about allowing it to dissolve, imagining the tension crackling and dispersing. The earth was still holding her, the air still nourishing her body. Much of her suffering was due to what she imagined others would think of her circumstances, the outrage other women would express at being called a whore and disgusting by her partner, the ‘received opinion’ of what constituted abuse in a relationship. This caused her shame. Accepting what is without judgment is central to sensing the true present when the moment seems unacceptable. I will make this moment my ally, she said to herself, and allowed a private smile to form behind her lips. He is gripped by rage and feelings of revenge, but I am just sitting in this moment, and watching.
Nina then acted by choosing not to suffer. For seven hours she focused on joy, filling her mind with the good things in her life. Periodically the fear returned. She observed it, dived into it, and emerged once again.
Marianne Williamson talks of the law of divine compensation. She says even when we experience diminishment there is more than enough for the universe to compensate for any lack. In a car if you take the wrong turn, the GPS automatically corrects the course. Even if there is material ‘lack’ in this moment, there are ways through our energy, attitudes, perspective and behaviour to invoke peace, a peace that cannot disappear. If you stop giving a problem energy, the moment is transformed. Nina clung to this concept as the hours ticked by. She found her sense of time dissolving.
Then she recognised the signs of their home town Aberdeen. They hit heavy traffic. She felt his power waning. She noticed his body language changing. He was screaming at the traffic, blaming her for the congestion, for the situation she had got them both into, in his words. He began to berate her for not speaking to him to try and ‘make things all right’. ‘You told me not to speak,’ she said. He denied this.
And then he stopped the car near her flat and she got out. He got out too and stood her opposite her, his face conciliatory. “Make me a cup of coffee and we’ll talk,” he said, sighing.
“No,” she said, and walked out of his life.
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