As we step out into this brand new year, I find myself thinking about wealth, and what that really means. I’m not talking here about material wealth. Nor am I talking about wealth of experience – the way accomplishment is now synonymous with possession, the way we talk of acquiring knowledge, or the way busyness and its by-product exhaustion are held up as social status symbols in the same way salaries, homes, cars or fancy holidays once were. What I mean is wealth as it exists when we detach it from our black and white language of ownership.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the scarcity myth. Brené Brown describes it in Daring Greatly as the never enough problem, which we see played out on social media, in our families and workplaces, in politics, in advertising, and most damagingly of all, in our own psychological wellbeing. At a time when our species is richer than it ever has been, many of us couldn’t feel poorer. And it’s kind of hardwired into our hunter-gatherer brains to think this way, as Paul Gilbert discusses in The Compassionate Mind: we so often regulate our primal fight or flight system through resource-seeking; the drive to gather what limited resources we believe there are and then hold those resources close, even if that comes at the expense of other people.
Indeed, these ideas are now so subtly pervasive in our culture that even some of the ways we’ve devised to make ourselves feel better rely on the binary language of have or have not. As wonderful as the gratitude journals that always become popular at this time of year can be, they carry an implicit assumption that we should thank our lucky stars for what is in front of us in this moment, because tomorrow it may be gone. We strive to think positively and to usefully fill our time as a way of casting off the experiences and feelings we believe might deplete us, most especially the losses in our lives. Above all, we commoditise wellbeing, conceptualising it almost as though it were a possession to gain, rather than the life-long process it is.
And as therapist I am not immune to any of this. My decision to take the leap into self-employment last year brings me face to face with these fears on a regular basis. It’s there in my creativity, too, because shiny new ideas are some of the most sought-after, precious possessions of all. And as a human being I would be lying if I said that these fears don’t arise in my relationships, also. At the end of the day, so many of our shared, universal fears are about what will happen when the money, the love and the time runs out.
So what to do? Mindfulness, and some of the newer CBT approaches, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be very helpful. The more we lean into, rather than away from these key fears, the fuller our lives become. As Brené Brown suggests: the opposite to scarcity isn’t abundance at all, but wholeheartedness – the willingness to be all in, even when there are no guarantees. She also has some inspiring things to say about how limitless our generosity can be, once we have the right foundations in place. And Paul Gilbert’s related work is all about how we can develop the third of our emotion regulation systems – our compassionate minds – as a way of soothing threat that doesn’t rely on endlessly striving for more. Both thinkers are also very clear that vital to these approaches is connection rather than competition.
Above all, though, I find most of my solace and guidance in nature. And although it often doesn’t feel like it, so soon after Christmas, this is almost the richest time of the year for all the wisdom the natural world can offer us. That wintering field? What happens to our emotional experience when we view it, not as empty, but as the fertile evolving earth it is? Those first snowdrops, those first glimpses of blossom? As Zen Shin reminds us: they’re not competing with one another, they just bloom. And one of the most reassuring things I’ve read lately is Robert Macfarlane’s reminder that the mountains will go on being glorious long after our species, with all its destructive consumerism (and need to bag their summits) has gone.
And here’s the thing: on the handful of occasions lately, generally lying awake at night, when I’ve noticed myself fretting about income, or about something that I fear might threaten one of my relationships (and believe me, there have been plenty of occasions in which I haven’t been so mindfully aware), instead of throwing all my new brain problem solving at it (because problem solving is so often worry dressed up in fancy clothes after all), I’ve taken a deep breath, leant into the not knowing (the not yet having of the answers), and asked (and tremblingly trusted) the universe to hold that, so very lightly, alongside me. And on those occasions the sleep, and with the sleep the solutions, have been quick to follow. Indeed, on those occasions I honestly couldn’t have felt wealthier.
So this year I’m taking that as my starting point. Instead of resolutions (often, in and of themselves, things to achieve) I’m looking to the space that surrounds them. I’m taking inspiration from those fallow fields and continuing to hard prune all that doesn’t fertilise the whole of my heart, even if that means difficult decisions. I’m committing to taking a long in and out breath every time I notice the black hole of fear opening up alongside me, leaning into it, and waiting until it offers me all that I need. And beyond that who knows – the language of the universe is so very far from black and white, and thank goodness for it.
Wishing you a 2018 wealthy beyond measure or description, shared with wide open hands and even wider open hearts.