Apologies in advance for the overuse of inverted commas in this blog post!
It is 8.20am at King’s Cross Underground Station. Rush hour. People stream from train to platform, platform to escalator, escalator to barrier, barrier to stairs. I am always struck by the uniformity of colour. Everyone is wearing black or navy, with only infrequent splashes of anything brighter or lighter (for years I refused to buy a coat in either black or navy, insisting on red, pink, blue. Recently I gave in as, while being prettier, they also require far more frequent washing). Being on the tube at this time of day is often dead time. With neither enough free hands nor enough space to hold a book, and with too much noise to be able to comfortably listen to anything, I mostly choose to just stand. The only entertainment I can get is reading the headlines in the free newspapers people carry, or the adverts above people’s heads, both of which make me wish I had a pair of glasses which could remove my ability to read.
I have been awake for two hours and on the move for one, but this is the first time I feel like I’m participating in a rush hour commute. The early train can hardly be described as “rushed”; nearly everyone has a seat and it is usually completely quiet, without even gossiping colleagues to break the silence. Everyone is in their own worlds, passing this parcel of time in whichever way they prefer. People watch films or write notes, start work and read books (physical and electronic). Others take advantage of the well-cushioned seats and headrests to return to sleep.
I have choices in how I use this time. I cannot work as the trains do not have internet. There is enough intermittent connection on my phone to talk to friends, sometimes discussing in that early morning time urgent happenings from the night before, and I’m sure many would use this time on various forms of social media, catching up on tweets and news feeds and photographs. I am restricted in what I can do in this area. I chose some time ago to remove social media apps from my phone, so I cannot scroll the endless facebook news feed as I used to – I found I had got into the habit of doing it as soon as I woke up in the morning, which, even when there was nothing in particular going on, gave the morning a greyish tinge and a flatness which I decided to do without.
We are given so much advice these days on how to spend our time, but so much of it passes without our conscious thought. I have seen endless articles lately about the “busyness epidemic”, that we are all rushed off our feet and don’t have time to do – what, exactly? I know many people have jobs that take up most of their non 9-5 time, but I also know – from my own experience and these constant articles – that we are also “wasting” time on websites or doing “nothing.” But what are we doing when we do nothing? This is what I’ve been thinking about recently, since I moved and put an hour’s train ride between me and my job. I now have two hours every day, ten hours a week, which at the end of a year I will be able to look at as a distinct and separate area of time and think: what did I do with it?
The cultural feeling around long commutes is overwhelmingly negative, and I was nervous about how it would affect me. While getting up so early is not my favourite thing to do, I am finding some deep comfort in this neatly packaged and wrapped slice of time I have, every day, morning and evening, to use as I will. There is nobody to interrupt me or to tell me what they would rather I be doing. I am finding it interesting seeing how doing different things affect my mental state for the working day or resting evening ahead. There is some kind of expectation we should do something profound with this amount of time, seen in a block – learn a language, read heavy non-fiction, “improve” ourselves in some way. In some ways this is appealing, although there needs to be a balance between relaxation and personal improvement. And there are ways to pass the time and enjoy it without feeling at the end of the journey, week or month, that it was “wasted.”
One thing I am getting back into is listening to books. Audiobooks require a fantastic amount of mindful concentration. We are so used to paying attention to what is in front of our eyes, that attending fully and completely with our ears is a surprisingly difficult task. Your mind will wander and you’ll realise you’ve missed a few pages. You are conscious of every moment of daydreaming in a way you are not while you are reading, when I for one will frequently skip explanations, descriptions, and chapter headings without even noticing (it is only with books like The Time Traveller’s Wife that I realise how much I do this, when you need to read each chapter heading and fully process it to know whose past or present you are about to be in). Similarly, when we are speaking to other people, our mind is often not consciously engaged with what they are saying, but attaching extra meaning, processing an emotional reaction, thinking ahead to what we are going to say, or thinking about something completely different. Listening to an audiobook for an hour I am very aware of the time passing, but I arrive at King’s Cross into the swell and sway of commuters feeling very tranquil, very aware. I have been taken out of my own headspace for a full hour, unable to follow the often pointless and petty meanderings of my brain, and it is a deeply welcome break.
One thing I have been more conscious of lately, and which led to the deleting of facebook from my phone and the installation of an app on my laptop which allows me only five minutes on there a day, is how much social media can affect my mood. It is, for me, a deeply unmindful way of passing the time. Although I think in some areas restricting time on facebook is me using avoidance tactics on things which make me anxious, which I would do better to address head on, in other ways it removed a way for me to “waste” a lot of time. “Wasting” in the sense that I am not aware of what I am doing, I am glazing over and mindlessly absorbing what I see, which is only the falsely positive, overwhelmingly negative or lists of pointless platitudinous quotations. Into this gap I moved the reading of more articles (which led to more blog writing) and also participation in some online courses. I have signed up to far more of them than I have actually ritually participated in, but three have proven very useful in this ongoing quest I and everyone else seems to be on to “improve,” find some balance, feel happier, and (in my case) add tools to my arsenal to fight ongoing mental health issues.
The first (this and the others were on the free FutureLearn website) was on Literature and Mental Health, looking at the way poetry, novels and plays have addressed mental health problems or might be used by people to help them in times of stress or pain. As a result of it I have memorised several poems that are useful in calming me down and making me focus when I am having anxiety attacks (Yeats “The Lake Isle of Innsifree”, Oliver “Wild Geese”, Auden “Funeral Blues”). The second was on Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance. I won’t bore you by reiterating that mindfulness is very popular at the moment, but I will say that the course was extremely helpful day to day in helping me slow down my thoughts and feel more at one with myself. Sadly since the course ended I have struggled to keep this up, so I am now enrolled on it for a second time.
Mindfulness is all about the avoidance of wasting time, in this sense I am using of wasting time by being unaware of where you are and what you are doing. Mindfulness teaches you to concentrate on the present moment, accepting it for what it is if it is unpleasant, and enjoying it fully without past doubts or future worries if it is pleasant. It is all very well and good but, of course, extremely difficult. I also read an article once against it and in defence of daydreaming – the author quite rightly pointed out that it is only the daydreams about the fool you made of yourself in science class at school that are bad for our mental health; if we are cheerfully daydreaming about winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay or galloping along a beach on a chestnut horse, we are more likely to be happy at the end of the commute than if we were sat there concentrating hard on the exact shade of blue of the chair in front. However, mindfulness is very useful for combating negative thoughts, simply because it makes you focus on them and see them for what they are, whereas in “default mode” (or perhaps “toxic thought world” as Adriene, online yoga instructor, has termed a similar way of thinking) we allow the narratives of self-criticism and worry to run unchecked. I had a silly horoscope on an email newsletter the other day (Lenny, co-run by Lena Dunham) which told me that there wasn’t a real problem, the only issue was the ‘troubling narrative’ I had built up around whatever it was I was worrying about. Like all horoscopes it trod that beautiful line of being totally specific, and yet entirely vague, so that it could neatly apply to absolutely everybody. But for me it did give me pause for thought, and pushed me to try a more mindful way of thinking.
The third course, which for me builds on the mindful aspects of not “wasting” time and of “changing” your thought patterns (I am as yet deeply sceptical of things which tell me I can change how I think, which I hope isn’t the biggest obstacle to it actually working), is about Anxiety, Depression and CBT. As someone who has experienced anxiety, depression, and undergone a course of CBT, you might think this course would be rather in the way of teaching a grandmother to suck eggs (heaven alone knows where that saying comes from). But examining it all from the outside in has been remarkably helpful. The course spells out for those who have never suffered from either anxiety or depression how it affects the brain and the way sufferers interpret things. To cut a long story short, and oversimplifying wildly, people with these issues focus on the negative. They see neutral situations as negative, remember negative things far more easily and with greater depth than positive ones, and thereby encase themselves in a self-perpetuating cycle of shrinking worlds and increasing mental anguish. It is in many ways a form of unchosen self-torture. CBT teaches people to break the cycles of negativity which influence thoughts, emotions, physical reactions, and behaviours, by interpreting situations more realistically, and adjusting behaviour ahead of changes in mood to try and kickstart adjustments in thinking, then feeling, then living. It is, like mindfulness, far easier said than done. The four or five sessions of CBT I had were very good, but like the mindfulness course, without weekly guidance I have fallen back into old ways of thinking. This course, together with the mindfulness course, is helping to reiterate to me how much of what I think and feel is not real.
It is now 6pm, and I am on the train heading home. After a day at work I may not have the mental concentration for an audiobook, or an online course, or even a book, depending on what it is. Sometimes I will daydream but the time passes slowly. Fortunately my partner gave me a straight out of left field gift for my birthday: a Nintendo 3DS. As a teenager I spent a lot of time watching my two brothers, and later boyfriends, play various computer games. It seems to be a fairly typical experience for females, which is interesting. What is it that makes us observers rather than players? Is it cultural gender stereotyping, that girls are not allowed to play these games or will automatically be bad at them? In some cases I’m sure it’s a genuine lack of interest, but for me I think often it was informed by an idea that I wouldn’t be any good. This was reinforced as my brothers, having a ready-made two player game, would play each other very often and far more frequently than I would want to join in (you see, I had a stable of model ponies to look after). They were then far more proficient than I was, and I didn’t like to lose constantly or make them feel like they were being held back by me. But my partner thought this was a shame, and that a Nintendo 3DS might be a way for me to try my hand at games – single player, straightforward, and just about me. I was sceptical. But time never passes faster on the train than when I’m playing Pokemon. I’m sure some people will think this is time “wasted”, but I disagree. For a start, as I have said elsewhere, time enjoyed is never time wasted. Also, there is a strange sense of achievement that comes from playing these games. And, it is a mindful practice, as you are totally in the moment, unaware of the people around you or the worries of the day you’ve spent. It is a fun and easy way to switch my mind off. Why wouldn’t training a high-level Charmander be a positive way of evaluating how I’ve spent some of my hours on the train? Especially if, at the same time, it is stopping me from focussing on negatives or getting stuck in tedious, grey spirals of thought. And the less time I spend on that, the “better” I think I will be.