I've always been someone who has been grateful. Growing up in East Germany, we didn't have much material wealth and I will always remember my dad teaching me to be happy with whatever it is I've got. I definitely learned to find happiness in the small things: a flower, birdsong, a ray of sunshine, being together with your loved ones. All this was a massive part of my upbringing, but I realize here at the 3E centre, how much the unification, the fall of socialism and subsequent rise of capitalism had thrown me out of my own inner balance.
Suddenly I was a teenager (the wall came down just before my 13th birthday), trying to maneuver a capitalist world that my parents were even more lost in than us kids. So I watched and tried to learn from TV, papers, West Germans I met. It felt like I needed to adopt new values that were not in alignment with who I was. I wasn't made for the elbow culture I witnessed, where everyone seemed to be looking after themselves first (but in a greed sort of way rather than in the wellbeing sense of looking after your own needs). I can see now how I desperately tried to fit into a system I would never fit into. Capitalism was all about individuality when I had come from a society of community and being stronger together.
With time on my hands to reflect, I realise how trying to fit in was a struggle for many years leading up to my illness. I almost became what I thought the world around me needed me to be and lost sight of who I truly was in the process. Remember the guilt I felt? Well, living the life I was living, I felt guilty for having what I had. In my view I had done nothing to deserve this life and there was so much inequality and suffering in the world. Why should I have everything I had - a lovely house, food, luxury, travel - when so many people went hungry in the world. My East German values were in total confrontation with the middle class life I was living. Everyone seemed to never be happy with what they had: it was always a race for bigger, faster, more. Whenever I tried to be like that, I felt at odds with myself. Whenever I was me, I felt at odds with the world.
I was grateful for my sheltered life, but also felt constantly guilty about it. I felt guilty about being able to work part-time, when so many single mums did not have that luxury. I felt guilty about holidays, about being able to just hop on a plane to see my family whenever I wanted to, when others could hardly make ends meet working all hours. In a way this guilt was partly responsible for me not sharing how much pain I was in or what I was going through, because in my mind it felt like I shouldn't complain. So many people were so much worse off than me.
To fit in, I made sure that like everyone else I was busy. Running from A to B, filling every minute of the day with some sort of activity. The trouble is: if you are busy, you cannot listen to your true self. To hear that inner voice, you need to be still. I rediscovered this stillness when I first learned Reiki. Here in Germany, however, consciously practicing this stillness practically all day long, becoming aware of its effects on my whole being is a game changer. Besides daily meditations, which are really just one way of practicing stillness, we are asked to write a gratitude journal.
Every night we have to write down 5 things that happened each day that we are grateful for, things that brought us joy. Our "5 stars of the day". The first few days it is quite hard to write this list. But then, knowing I would need five things for my list each night, I start making mental notes during the day of things that put a smile on my face.
Slowly my awareness shifts from pain and everything I haven't (yet) got to all the things I do have. Looking at that list, the things that bring me joy are incredibly simple: watching nature, trying to do everything more slowly, reading, drawing, learning new things, listening to the birdsong, speaking to family, interesting chats within our group, learning to find stillness, the reflection of a ray of sunshine on the trees, a forest walk, yoga in the garden... None of it requires money. It's all there, right in front of me. It's free. I just have to open my eyes, become aware and take time out from the distractions of our busy world. The truly life-changing realizations can be very simple indeed.