Is 'positive thinking' always the answer?

By Gabs Brown



Are you worrying like crazy about something right now?

Are you feeling angry, frustrated or confused?

Perhaps you’re going through something really difficult and just feel all-round awful?


Problem solved?

Hmmmm, I’m thinking probably not…

If your Facebook and Instagram feeds are anything like mine, then you’ve probably seen a fair few of these ‘positive thinking’ quotes, which while I appreciate the sentiment behind them (to make you feel better), I wonder if they might not be very helpful at all - perhaps even harmful.

So long as we’re alive, we’re going to have preferences for how we want things to be. We’re not going to want our loved ones to die. We’re not going to want our marriage to break down. We’re not going to want to be made redundant. We’re not going to want it to rain for two weeks on that holiday we just spent £2k on. We’re not going to want to get cancer. We’re not going to want our children to be bullied. We’re not going to want to get overweight and unfit.

But sometimes these things will happen, and when they do, we’re probably going to experience a whole host of difficult, uncomfortable, painful, powerful emotions, and, crucially, these emotions are meant to be there.

Having a negative emotion doesn’t make you a negative person. It doesn’t make you weak, it doesn’t make you incapable, it doesn’t make your life any less good.

It makes you human.

Well, that’s not very positive.

Well, that’s not very positive.

Nobody is immune to suffering, and we each have our own particular problems. For example, it’s all too tempting to scoff at the rich and famous as they complain about their struggles, and perhaps even their depression (“But they have everything they could ever want!” we proclaim), but we can’t measure another person’s feelings of security, safety, and love. If someone tells you they feel alone, or sad, or scared, then that’s what they’re feeling, regardless of whether or not you think their circumstances justify their feelings.

Sometimes, the strangest things can bring a sense of relief and that magic feeling of life being on our side – of being ‘at one’ with the universe. The strangest things can take it away too.

Sometimes, we feel desperately low for seemingly no reason at all, and whereas the temptation might be to do as we’re so often told and, “man up,” “cheer up,” “dry our eyes,” or, “focus on the positive,” – i.e. turn away from our true feelings – the problem is, our ‘negativity’ is there because it wants our attention. It wants to tell us something (even if it’s not something we can capture into words).

Turning our attention away from something we don’t like - a fear, an unpleasant thought or memory - very rarely makes it go away. Often, having been ignored, it finds a new way to present itself to us (perhaps even as pain or stress in the body).

If we reject our feelings, then we’re rejecting ourselves. We’re declaring our feelings to somehow be defective, or wrong, and we’re not giving ourselves the opportunity to understand where we’re at or what we might need.

So many of us live our lives with the belief that we are a substandard version of who we are supposed to be. We might become ashamed of not only how we behave or what we look like, but also how we feel about ourselves and our lives. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to add layers of suffering to our suffering

If you are suffering, you are no less whole. You are still a viable, contributing component of life – not just your life, but all life.

The happening of your life is a happening amidst all life. Sometimes you will like what’s happening and sometimes you won’t. You might become worried, upset, or frustrated, but this doesn’t make you in any way defective or lacking, or in need of ‘improvement’. You can be negative at times, and you can lead a rich, fulfilling life too.

If you never allowed yourself to acknowledge any negative emotions, then you might become numb. You might start living your life through a lens, or as a retelling of a story for the benefit of…no one, ultimately.

However (and this is an ENORMOUS however), many of us ‘shun’ our dark sides out of fear - fear of being overwhelmed by our negative emotions, fear of not seeing beyond them, or fear of getting so caught up in them that we become them.

So, what’s the alternative to ‘ignoring’ unpleasant experiences and feelings, or popping a ‘positive veneer’ on them as a means to not be overwhelmed?

The best way to deal with worry, is to ‘kill’ it…? How about showing yourself and your feelings some compassion?

The best way to deal with worry, is to ‘kill’ it…? How about showing yourself and your feelings some compassion?

Meditation can help, in that as we sit and be, and as our thoughts quieten, we experience ourselves as something beyond our thoughts and feelings – we see that our feelings are not who we are. This makes us less likely to be knocked for six when something big and scary pops into our ‘waking’ life and less inclined to want to shut it down. But not all of us meditate, so how can we remind ourselves that we are more than our feelings - that we can have a really bad feeling while at the same time remain steady?

Sometimes, a simple acknowledgement and question can help us regain a sense of ‘being OK with things not being OK’. For example, “I am afraid, but will I be afraid forever?” Or introducing a time frame so that you can sense the impermanence of your experience, “I am so angry with her right now.” Or, you can imagine your emotion as a visitor, one who is not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but someone who wishes to spend a little time with you - perhaps to share something with you. You can imagine yourself as that friend of yours who’s the ‘good listener’ – the one who doesn’t feel compelled to jump in and offer wisdom or advice. Just listen. If your visitor doesn’t appear to want to ‘talk’, you can try leaning into that feeling of you being the host and experiencing yourself as separate and possibly even impartial to your visiting emotion (or memory, or whatever it is).

There are all sorts of approaches to ‘allowing’ – or ‘welcoming’ (which I sometimes find a little too positive a term…) but all are processes that lead you to ‘being’ with your emotions and recognising that all your emotions are a valid and useful component of your experience.

Diversity is one of the most significant political, cultural and sociological issues today. Slowly but surely our society is finding ways to foster acceptance, allowance, recognition and inclusion for those people we previously rejected or boxed up into something more palatable – those who we didn’t understand, or were afraid of, or who somehow disturbed our beliefs about what it is to be human.

I think it’s time we did the same for our emotions.

I’m totally late to the party here, but having just watched the movie The Greatest Showman, there’s a scene where the newspaper critic who had notoriously slated Barnum’s circus of ‘freaks and misfits’ for being low-brow and fraudulent confesses that the performance might in fact be a ‘celebration of humanity’. By putting those people who had been considered the epitome of suffering and darkness onto the stage - by allowing them to be seen - the audience now sees how, rather than being something best ignored, they are vibrant beacons of vitality.

Perhaps your emotions, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, are a celebration of your humanity.

Give yourself permission to witness what you might think is your ugly, uncomfortable, negative side, and something beautiful might happen…

At the very least, you will have been yourself.

And that is a beautiful thing to be.

Do you feel guilty about doing nothing

By James Reeves


One of the most essential things for any of us in this life is to feel at ease. You might not necessarily value it, or even recognise your need for it, but most of our time is spent looking for it.

Many of us work hard so that we can relax about our living costs, and we shop for goods and services that simplify our lives, and we seek activities and objects we believe will make us feel more at ease. We want an easy life, and a restful life – a life full of rest and ease - and ironically, many of us undertake a search for it that is somewhat frantic.

There’s a movement taking place right now that focuses on creating a minimalist lifestyle, whether that’s by overhauling your home with a de-cluttering exercise, simplifying – or even restricting – your diet, or reworking your approach to shopping so that you buy fewer goods though ones of higher quality and longevity. There are countless books, television shows and social media channels devoted to such ‘life edits’, and I love a lot of the ideas presented and the ethos behind them. It’s no coincidence that this movement comes in line with another: that of ‘experiences’. There is somewhat of a shift from acquiring and ‘showing off’ things, to instead acquiring experiences, and then documenting them and sharing them with the world. Whether it’s a trip out for food, a walk in nature, a holiday abroad or a party with friends, “pics or it didn’t happen!”

Despite ‘restful activities’ (!) becoming increasingly popular, such as yoga, mindfulness, meditation, ‘nature baths,’ ‘gong baths,’ and probably just ‘regular baths’ (a personal favourite), as much as we are intrigued by their potential to leave us feeling more rested, we’re excited for the extra layer of experience – and the potential to document this experience – they offer.

With our homes sleek and refined, our diets cleaned and our social media accounts bursting with a catalogue of neatly curated spaces and ‘enriching’ experiences, have we all at last created a life devoid of clutter and loaded with meaningful activity?

Are we feeling all the more lighter for it? Are we at last at ease with our lives?

I can’t answer that question for you, so instead I will ask another: how might all this affect that part of you that doesn’t care about clutter or experiences? That part of you that remains still, constant, at ease and impartial whatever is happening in your life and regardless of what you may or may not possess?

This could be a difficult question to answer if you haven’t taken a moment lately to check-in with this part of you – the part of you that remains when all else is gone. When we rest – when we stop, completely – we might catch a glimpse of the constant awareness that is the background to all our experience.

When it comes to rest, we might struggle to ‘simply’ stop and let go. Our ideas about rest often encompass an activity that’s more restful than our usual day-to-day life – a long walk by the river, a good book, a massage – but we’re still not really stopping. If the walk is long, you don’t get much rest. If the book is good, you can’t put it down. None of these activities is really a stop. A full stop.

There are plenty of people out there resting – we know this, as it’s such a necessary part of life. If we’re ill, or exhausted, at a certain point we have to stop. If we reach the end of the road with a certain job, or are burnt out of a relationship – and these things happen all the time – we reach a dead end and can no longer continue along the trajectory we were on. In this way, rest is happening all the time, but what we’re maybe not seeing is that despite people everywhere partaking in such rest, it’s not talked about very much, and it’s certainly not celebrated. It’s not an Instagram sensation (yet).

Rest isn’t something you can easily talk about in an engaging way:

Jane: “What did you do at the weekend, Peter?”

Peter: “Not much…but I did I sit down and close my eyes for half an hour on Sunday morning!”

We might applaud Peter’s decision to rest, but from a conversational point of view, it has little value. It’s not juicy, exciting, photo-worthy or engaging. It’s nothing.

To take this point further, not only do we see and hear of lots of examples of (on the surface of things) busy and fulfilling lives and a lack of representation of the healthy aspects of rest due to its inherent ‘nothingness’, we might also have been given conscious or unconscious messages that refute or even cast rest in a negative light  (“The devil makes work for idle hands,” etc.). Particularly since the dawning of the industrial revolution we’ve been called to make the best use of the time we have by being busy and productive, and rest has been deemed as something of a counter-position to these qualities – something that might make us lazy, idle, stagnant and dull. You may have even been shamed for resting in the past, perhaps by a parent, teacher or sibling. Perhaps in a moment of taking necessary rest, you were made to feel bad about it in some way. I know I certainly have, many times (I will name no names…).

There are countless factors that contribute to a feeling of guilt whenever we choose to stop. You might feel guilty about stopping when it appears nobody else is, or you might have bought into some of these beliefs about rest being an unconstructive undertaking. We might push on, still looking for that sense of ease (by keeping going we might think we can avoid those negative feelings of shame and guilt and hope for a more restful future) or feel bad when we do stop, knowing that everybody else is busy, (even though they might want to stop too!). Perhaps there’s part of us that believes if we’re not striving and pushing forward, we don’t fit in, or are abnormal in some way.

Maybe staring at a blank wall looks weird from the outside, but have you tried it recently? It’s really nice.

In short, rest either gets no press, or bad press. So I see it as my mission to share the brilliance of rest.

There are indeed some clear benefits to rest: an increase in creativity and problem solving, more capacity for insight, higher energy levels, fewer stress hormones in the body. Nobody could argue against that list, what’s not to like?

However, whereas these benefits could be described as brilliant, the brilliance I wish to point you towards goes even deeper. Brilliance, or radiance, can be taken at a personal level (to be bright of mind and body) but there’s something ‘brilliant’ about the underlying quality of rest itself. When we rest, for long enough periods of time, we start to uncover the very essence of who we are. We start to know a quiet place, a stillness, which is our own consciousness shining forth. This ‘nothing’ (it’s not a thing , and in that way, Instagram will never get a hold of it) we see is the stillness out of which all life unfolds. It’s the space in which our thoughts and perceptions happen. It’s the stillness behind the activity of living. Whilst yet uncreated, it’s the potential out of which everything manifests.

There is undeniably something that starts to ‘shine’ from this place of stillness. Our sense of ease, abundance, joy, and calmness all rise forth from this stillness, without the need for anything whatsoever. When we are well rested, we sparkle. How amazing to fizz with life without having to do anything to make such a thing happen. No planning required. No skills needed. No kit. Nothing. Just you, just as you are, stopping.

I’ve been experimenting with rest and making a generous place for it in my life for quite some time. I’m a much nicer human when I’ve taken time to rest. Stopping is essential; it’s not a luxury.

‘Nothing’ may not seem very exciting on the surface, but if you’re prepared to embrace it, it could become life-changing.

So please, go on, have a lie-down. Stare out the window. Listen to the birds. See if you can indulge in a little guilt-free nothingness. It’s yours for the taking, and it’s brilliant.

All you have to do is nothing.

(And don’t try to take a picture of it.)

A short piece on peace and silence

By Gabs Brown





Sometimes, all we want is for everything to stop…and for there to be nothing.

Actual quiet – the absence of noise – is not something I am ever likely to experience again. Several years ago I developed a ringing in my right ear, and it has never gone away. It came in the middle of the night. I woke up, wondered what that bleeping noise was, and soon realised it was coming from within my own head. I couldn’t block it out. I never have since.

My tinnitus is two-tone. It’s like a siren that sounds at me always. In the beginning, it felt like torture. Now, believe it or not, it’s more like an old friend. A companion who never leaves my side.

We’re sort of buddies.

If you’ve ever seen a movie in which a stiff control-freak character is forced to spend time with a fun-loving buffoon only for the two of them to become best friends, that’s me and my tinnitus. I begged it to leave me alone. I sought out countless methods and medicines that might send it packing. None of them worked. Tinnitus kept on singing in my ear, and the more I willed it to stop, the louder it sang.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I practise meditation and yoga. I seek out stillness and silence on a regular basis, though I know that in practical terms I will never find them. There will always be noise. In the same way, I might take myself out into the country on a long walk into the woods, knowing that in the depths of the forest away from the hum of the motorway and the shrill of human chatter, I will find not silence, but sirens. When all else is gone, the ringing in my ear grows louder.

A lot of people get depressed when they develop tinnitus, and I can see why. When the backdrop to your every experience is a bleeping noise, all experiences seem tainted.

But, perhaps herein lies the gift of tinnitus too. It gets your attention. It shakes you up. It wakes you up.

You cannot ignore it, and therefore you cannot ignore anything.

Imagine if every time you slipped into automatic pilot in your life, a little bell rang to urge you to pay attention. That’s what my tinnitus does. I step out into the garden to do something mundane, and bring bring! I’m jolted into noticing the peace that lies behind the tinnitus. I notice the garden, the birds, the sky, and all those clichés.

And yes, I do sometimes wonder what that garden would be like without the little sirens blaring in my ear. But I know the answer: I probably wouldn’t notice.

Instead of ruining my every experience, tinnitus opens my eyes to experience. It’s taken me a few years to realise that my tinnitus is not destroying my peace, it’s teaching me about peace, and so far I’ve learned that I am no further from it than I was before. If anything, I have more awareness of peace than ever before.

Sometimes, the thing that comes into our experience and seemingly ruins it brings with it a gift we would never have had the insight or courage to ask for.

This isn’t a matter of gratitude, but attitude. I am not grateful for my tinnitus, but now that I’ve stopped trying to evict it from my life, I can see how, in its own way, it’s important - or more, it draws my attention to things I would never otherwise have noticed. Sometimes, it makes me notice the silence that is there regardless of the noise above it.

Sometimes, me and my tinnitus, we have a moment. A good one. A precious moment of awareness.

Whatever 2019 brings for you, may you seek out the gifts in the darkness (and while you’re at it, take a look at the darkness in the gifts too…)

Life. It’s everything.

Happy New Year.

The Joy of Not Letting Go

By Gabs Brown


It’s been over twenty years since we were properly together and I’m still not over it. I think it’s the intensity of the relationship I miss more than anything else - the fierceness of the emotions, the discomfort of wanting everything to be perfect and it not being anywhere near, and then the giddy-making hope of a future where I thought it would be.

That future never came. The relationship ended in stops and starts in a strange and inconclusive way. Bits of our togetherness lingered on for years. They’re still there, in my head at least (I cannot speak for the other party). I have dreams so real and emotional they affect me more than my present-day waking experiences.

Anyone who knew me at the height of the relationship would have seen a young woman struggling with a thick grey cloud of subtle, destructive despair and yet a person happily infatuated and inspired; I was intoxicated by art and beauty and nature at the time in a way I have not been since. The most confusing times of our lives can be the most creative. It’s as though amidst the turmoil a channel opens to the soul that is powerfully imaginative, raw and true. We hate where we’re at, and yet we’re buzzing from it.

I am surprisingly shy and inept at expressing myself in person, but when we were together I felt connected and understood, without having to use words. In those moments it was not only like someone was holding me close but also that the Universe was taking me into its arms and showing me something greater than love and certainly more powerful than anything two people could muster between them.

Perhaps it was my age. Is anything easy or meaningless when you’re eighteen? When I think about who I was at this time I see myself floating in space, disconnected from the past and hurtling towards a future over which I knew I had no control.

I was an intense person to be around.

Like all heroines desperately in love, I couldn’t eat. Food repulsed me and yet I wanted to swap out my cold bony frame for something softer, curvier, more inviting. I made no sense. My actions didn’t reflect my desires. My body betrayed who I was. I was loving at my core but outwardly sharp and unemotional. I was only capable of communicating my feelings through music – cadences that someone else had composed, lyrics that were not my own, beats that were not from my heart but so could have been. It made my expressions second-hand I suppose, but nonetheless authentic.

Regret is a beast that doesn’t so much grow with time but decay into something perhaps smaller but altogether sourer.

So, I have not had closure on this one. I carry the weight of this failed relationship with me and sometimes when a song comes on the radio that reminds me of it I cry. And it feels good.

Sometimes I think that if I didn’t have these two decades of unresolved feelings I would be a monster. I’ve had to live the majority of my adult life humbled and inquisitive. I’ve had to take extra care over the things I love and want to work out knowing that desire and ambition are not enough to keep them within my reach. I know that even those things that are most important to me can wriggle away, without fanfare, if I’m not careful enough. Emotion without action is not enough. For everything I love, whether it’s a person, a job, a hobby, a friend, I know I must ask myself: how can I keep this here? How can I nurture it? How can I show it that I love it? How can I let myself love it well and be good to it, good enough so that it will want to stay in my life if not forever then long enough for me to be able to let it go properly and at a time that feels right?

In short, having utterly failed to nurture the love of my life all those years ago has forced me to live with awareness, to pay attention, to be considerate, to live knowing that I am vulnerable and disposable.

Here’s to you, piano: my first love, my finest failure, my absent friend forever, whatever.




Why I stopped believing in everything I had believed about childbirth

By Gabs Brown


Childbirth is such a touchy subject. There are very strong opinions on how it should be done, often with ‘natural’ and ‘assisted’ pitched against each other with one side very much being ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’. The truth is, whatever vision you have for the delivery of your baby is not likely to match the event itself, especially if you are a first-time mum, regardless of whether or not your baby is catapulted out at high-speed by Mother Nature or artfully removed by a surgeon performing their third C-section of the day.

Labour and birth typically involves an intense coming together of the most powerful forces of nature with all the wonders, limitations and bureaucracy of modern-day medicine. It tests your ability to know when to submit and when to protest like nothing else, all the while playing out an almost-entertaining dance between opposites. I could name five women who all shouted, “I CAN’T DO THIS!” just at the moment they totally did it. I could name three times as many who were overcome by equal amounts of fear and excitement as they held their little bundle of scary tiny strange newborn life in their arms for the first time.

So, how should we approach such an overwhelming and unpredictable event? How can we come out the other side, however things went, feeling OK - feeling, at least, like ourselves? Feeling like we did the absolute best for our self and our baby? How can we make peace with those terrifying first whispers of post-natal depression? How can we feel good, even if everything ‘went wrong’ and felt so, so bad?

I had wanted a natural birth and set everything in place to achieve just that. I attended pregnancy yoga classes, went to natural birth talks, listen to hypnobirthing recordings, watched documentaries that, e.g., revealed the ‘SHOCKING TRUTH’ about the maternity care system, read Ina May Gaskin’s famed book Spiritual Midwifery and consumed countless videos on YouTube of women ‘breathing out’ their babies into a candle-lit birthing pool. The only thing that could possibly get in the way of my natural birth, I thought, was my mindset, and an overly zealous doctor. I believed, with all my mind, body and soul, that I could do it, and I was excited to prove to everyone that I could. I believed that belief would get me through.

When push came to shove (haha), to eliminate the possibility of anyone getting in the way of my au naturel birth, I wrote in my maternity medical notes that under no circumstances was I to be given pain relief and that I wanted only the midwife and the father present at the birth. I prepared myself only for a natural delivery and completely closed off my mind (and body) to the possibility of anything else.

You’ve probably guessed that I didn’t get the birth I had been planning for. I won’t go into the gory details, or harp on about the fact that it was CHRISTMAS EVE, but for reasons out of anyone’s control, I had a long, difficult labour and a baby that needed to be unceremoniously removed using forceps by a team of very many more people than I’ve ever wished to have staring at my nether regions. Half way through labour, I really, really, really wanted pain relief, and despite begging for it everyone respected my documented instructions to hold off. Excellent.

In the end, because it was procedure for the delivery I ultimately had to undergo, I was given a spinal block. That feeling of the anaesthetic kicking in was the single best moment of the entire birth. Afterwards, numb from the waist down, I didn’t feel the rush of overwhelming love that is ‘supposed’ to overcome you as you hold your baby for the first time, and I certainly didn’t feel like the empowered female goddess-giver-of life Ina May Gaskin alludes to in her writing. Everything I had believed that would help me ‘go natural’ had failed. I felt physically butchered and spiritually bereft. 

I did, however, experience a tremendous and unexpected rush of respect for everyone in the operating theatre: the doctors, nurses and midwives who had given up their Christmas to help me bring life into the world (the baby was eventually born on Christmas Day). I realised I had been exceptionally narrow-minded in my approach to childbirth, and unduly negative towards the medical professionals committed to minimising all the many risks associated with such a precarious endeavour. I had approached childbirth as though it were some kind of battle between nature and science, when my actual experience showed that the line between them is indistinct.

The main thing that led to me having a far rougher ride than I had hoped was my beliefs. I believed that a natural birth was the best for me, I believed that all births could unfold naturally if only left to do so, I believed that my belief in myself would get me and my baby the best labour possible. If I could visit myself in the hours before going into labour, I’d tell myself to let go of all my beliefs and roll with what was actually about to unfold, not my imagined version of events.

I felt monumentally out of sorts for the weeks that followed. I hurt, I was traumatised, sleep deprived and had to cope, practically and emotionally, with a colicky baby who would cry for hours on end. I could feel the anxiety that had bedded itself within my blood during the labour growing like a hungry little beast into something quite serious, but for weeks I was too scared to look at it. I hoped it would fizzle out on its own accord…of course, it didn’t. Rather than keep pushing that anxiety away, I had to welcome it, see what it wanted, give it some air time. In the end, it was a single yoga nidra session that got me back to feeling like myself again. I lay down, allowed my body to move any which way it wanted, observed many different sensations (physical, emotional, visual...) as they unfolded, and, with help, invited the anxiety beastie to come forth and show itself fully. Turned out he was quite a friendly little fellow who merely needed a quick chat about how rubbish everything had been and could we please now just crack on with this parenting lark. You could say I gave birth a second time – to the anxiety I had been warily nurturing, albeit against my wishes.

So, what did I learn from all this? Firstly, that seeking to control any aspect of my experience is a daft business, no matter how good my intentions. Secondly, despite years of yoga and meditation, I am physically and emotionally vulnerable. Sometimes, I will need help, and that’s OK. Thirdly, the birth itself is a mere small step of the parenting journey that lies ahead, and regardless of how it goes, there’s no shame if those early weeks are spent not enjoying your baby or motherhood but recovering and carefully steadying yourself for the long road ahead.

A few years later I did it all again. This time I envisaged rocking up to the hospital and quickly hooking myself up with an epidural. “Bring on the drugs!” I proclaimed. Typically, out flew my little bundle of joy without me needing so much as a whiff of gas and air*.

Oh The Universe! How thee jest.



*Slight exaggeration, had to push like b****ry for an hour.