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SAND Italy 2019: Vulnerability, Intimacy, And Avoiding Self-Sabotage

Posted in Mindfulness, and Psychology

SAND Italy
Presenting at my first conference, SAND 2019.

I’m enchanted by exposed brick, arched ceilings and passionate discussions about the nondual nature of existence. The magical space I’m sitting in, this sweet July afternoon, is the cellar of Castello di Titignano, Orvieto. Its shade and air circulation offers respite from the intense Italian sun. I’m grateful. And cool.

Barrels of fermenting grapes from nearby vineyards are replaced with pop-up chairs, projector screens, speakers. A colourful poster for SAND Italy 2019 reminds me of how far I’ve come. 12:35pm. It’s my turn to present at the Science and Nonduality Conference:

Welcome to the Age of Re-Enchantment: Magic Transforming Mental Health and the World. 

Here we goooooo! Months of visualising, mind-mapping and soul searching has come to this.

I walk to the front, greet the technicians. As I’m fitted with a microphone, I feel a childlike sense of playful importance. I plug in the USB, upload slides. They work, thank God. Good to go. I get the thumbs up. I turn to a roomful of expectant smiles and inquisitive minds.

I feel calm. I talk. I move. I’m enjoying myself. Wait. What? This isn’t in the script…

Presenting at SAND Italy 2019.

A sense of ease has overcome me. My heart rate slows, my awareness expands, my mind is quiet. I’m fully present, lucid, alive. I find flow, spaciousness, confidence. All the mental rehearsals, the crises, the moments of despair are redundant now. I’ve never felt better in front of a crowd.

But I’ve certainly felt much worse. And I almost didn’t make it here.

Self-Sabotage On The Brink Of Manifesting A Dream

There was the morning I travelled to a lake, alone, far outside central Berlin. I sat on an uprooted tree, a symbol for my mental state. I reflected. I journalled. One option was cancelling everything. Cancelling my biggest event as a coach. It seemed rational, the saboteur always does. Later that day, I had a session with my coach, Nick. Skillfully and directly, he brought my attention to the self-sabotage mechanism blurring my thinking. 

My hand was hovering over a big red button, labelled “self-destruct.”

Buoyed by fresh perspectives our conversation offered, I committed to seeing it through. But self-sabotage remained. My hand was hovering over a big, red button, labelled “self-destruct.” The impulse to press it, to let everything I’ve worked for crumble to the ground, took willpower to resist. What was going on?

On some level, I was minimising the stress of preparation. Sharing the “micro” with my mental health story required a lot of self-enquiry. I revisited and relived my darkest moments. I wore the cloak of recollection. I played the part. I felt. While this was going on, the magnitude of interconnected ideas — the “macro” element of the talk — was overwhelming. So I procrastinated. A lot.

There was the day I called Sanya, my cosmic partner, desperation in my voice. I was fortunate for her enduring support. That evening I paced my room, rambling about synchronicities, universal fine-tuning, the Age of Aquarius, subjective realities, the unconscious, faith, God, panpsychism, quantum entanglement, Carl Jung, spiritual evolution. Sanya furiously scribbled, capturing streams of thought on pastel post-its.

To me it made perfect sense. After the presentation, she tells me, she had no idea.

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When In Rome… Freak Out

Closer to the build-up, the saboteur returns. Again and again. The red button loomed. Minutes after arriving in Rome, internal pressure reached boiling point. “I can’t do it,” I tell Sanya. I mean it. I’m contemplating a return flight. “I’m having a crisis, I’m on the brink of a breakdown,” I say, watching passers-by, sipping my Americano, craving non-existence.

The saboteur which once ran my life, all memories and moments revisited and re-lived in the build-up, the echo from days gone by growing louder, now present, archaic feelings and thoughts and ruminations and terror and need to isolate.

I’m the past self, the one that self-hated, that scanned every room, saw smerks and laughter and heard voices of ridicule in my head and my head only, the one that never felt recovery was possible, the broken one, the crazy one, the small inner child, curly-haired, chubby-cheeked and chubby-kneed, crying out for rescue, wanting to escape, always wanting to escape.

I can’t. I can’t. I can’t…

Gentle guidance from Sanya activitates my “bigger picture mind” and we begin to talk of abstract ideas of human design and consciousness. Astutely, she knows this changes my state. I come to my senses as that part of me comes alive, the transcendent, the soul, the place beyond the claustrophobic confines of ego. I ground myself. We continue the journey. 

Eventually, the purge of the old subsides, settles. I arrive. I accept I can. I know I will.

An Unexpected Lesson From A Forgotten Intention

I believed SAND was chiefly an opportunity to take ownership for my credentials, talking to peers and to those established in the field — scientists, artists, spiritual teachers, philosophers, shamans, healers. I now realise all fear-based doubt and imposter syndrome was experienced in the build-up; this lesson began the moment I was invited to talk.

The lesson of my time spent at the conference was deeper. On Valentine’s Day, I wrote about intimacy, away from the myth of romantic love

“Last Valentine’s Day, I explored the myth of romantic love, its illusions, restrictions and misguided messages. Moving on from the myth, my goal main goal for 2019 is to cultivate unconditional love, to open my heart to intimacy in all areas of life.”

Surrounded by like-minded, open-hearted and generally awesome people, the real lesson was intimacy. Inspired conversations over breakfast, lunch, and dinner formed connections beyond the norm, catalysed by each of us willing to surrender to the flow of the week, to be truly vulnerable.

This picture moves me; to see how MindThatEgo was born and manifested from imagination.

In some respects, my talk was the easy part. I’d mentally rehearsed. I didn’t rehearse remaining open-hearted when seriously outside of my comfort zone. Give me intellectual conversations all day long, but intimacy workshops? Eye-gazing? Multiple times a day, my fear-based retreat was challenged. Yet love won, repeatedly, as strangers became friends.

The first half of my presentation went into intimate details of my story — the hopelessness of depression and suicidal tendencies, the sudden death of a friend, drug taking, psychosis, paranoia. I surrendered to vulnerability, my gleeful imperfection. A million miles from desperately trying to hide signs of anxiety.

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Now I am equipped with faith. Now I am guided from something outside of myself. Now I know.

Faith And The Path Of Heart

Faith is tested on the path to achieving dreams. My faith was tested in moments of despair and resignation, the recurring sense of “I can’t.” Back in the days of panic, I listened to this voice, and public speaking was a distant dream. Now, I’m learning to trust the process, of trusting myself, of knowing — it’s going to be okay. It’ll work out.

Fear is the signal of impending growth.

I challenge you to challenge the voice that says “I can’t.” Allow space for doubt, but don’t be suffocated by it. Know doubt is part of the test. Feeling fear and acting regardless is the path of heart. The biggest breakthroughs arrive following bouts of extreme doubt and fear. I’ve grown to understand fear is the signal of impending growth.

Synchronicities And Soft Spots

Deep within, I knew the stars were aligned. My ego’s resistance couldn’t match the support of friends and family, the flow, the willingness to reject the saboteur. I was guided by an abundance of synchronicities — indicators of being on the right path.

Most explicit was realising Stephan Bodian was attending. He wrote the first book I ever bought on meditation, Meditation for Dummies. I’ve carried it from Bristol to Sheffield to Berlin. I refer back to it frequently. His talk clashed with mine. Oh, universe…

Still, our paths aligned on the piazza. We talked. We shared space, silence, insights on life. I thanked Stephan for his work, and told him my favourite excerpt from the book was “the soft spot,” an indicator of vulnerability and open-heartedness which has “a tender sweetness to it that’s often tinged with a certain sadness or melancholy about the human condition.”

The irony of its resonance and the subsequent path isn’t lost on me.

As I recollected those darkest days, I felt a tender appreciation for all I’ve been through, leading me here, in this space, sharing, learning, connecting, being, loving. Frequently, tears filled my eyes. One day I retreated to my room and as the tender sweetness reached a crescendo I cried, dumbfounded by beauty, overwhelmed with gratitude for being here.

Life Is Best Lived On The Verge Of Tears

Life is best lived on the verge of tears. Only when we open our hearts, become vulnerable and access the tender soft spot do we truly love. My time in Italy — the workshops, the inspirational talks, the Q&As, the conversations, hugs, meaningful connections — reinforced the power of vulnerability, the fruits of intimacy, the reason it’s all worth it.

How lucky I am, to be here, now, enchanted by love, sharing and experiencing so much intimacy. How lucky you are, to be here, now, experiencing love, to be the beautiful expression you are here to be, to be part of this cosmic play, this blessing, this gift.

How lucky we are.

How lucky.


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