Finding the Still Point

The title above is the title of one of the most useful books on my bookshelf.  I have given away about dozen copies of this book over the years. It is by Gerald O’Mahony, and although it is published under a series title called Exploring Prayer, it is actually about understanding your moods.  It is brilliant… and can still be bought on Amazon, buy up now any copies you can find, I had difficulty getting my last copy and I hope it’s not going out of print!

Anyway as my homage to this excellent book I’d like to say why it’s so helpful.  Do you ever have days when you feel rushed, hassled, stressed, like you are trying to keep a million things in your head and feel so defeated if you reach the end of the day and haven’t completed everything on ‘list of things to do’?  Then maybe you have other days when you just really cannot be bothered, everything feels like an effort, like you are wading through treacle and quite frankly you’d rather go back to bed?

Gerald O’Mahony is a Jesuit priest and survivor of two major breakdowns, he writes with authenticity about how our moods affect us and a huge amount of wisdom. He urges us to pay attention to our moods and he likens them to tides.

Imagine a low tide – feel the emptiness and desolation of the vast expanse of empty beach, feel the drag of the water as it pulls back out to sea and drains the beach of all life and energy.  This lowest point we will call zero on his scale of 0-10.

Now picture a beach in full chaotic turmoil of a spring high tide, the waves are crashing maybe even over the harbour wall, there is churning, energy, power but also danger and things are quite out of control. This is the mood that he calls ‘high’ and he rates it as 10 on his scale. 

If you are familiar with bipolar disorder you will have recognised that swinging between these two desperate extremes of mood is the major feature of that mental illness. However it is really helpful for the rest of us to remember that our moods also feature somewhere on that scale between 1 and 10

0 – very low, despairing, possibly suicidal

1 – very depressed, not able to cope or take responsibility, only able to concentrate on own survival

(people at o or 1 need to be cared for by others and anyone between 0-2 needs medical intervention)

2 – still depressed but able to manage… just. If on the way up from 1 perhaps beginning  to take an interest in life but only able to cope with small tasks. If coming down from  3, they are only just holding on grimly to what has to be done.

3- depressed but competent. What we might call ‘normal’ bad depression, may well respond to interventions such as talking therapy, more exercise, improvements in sleep/lifestyle

4- slightly depressed but hardly noticeable, this might be the normal state of people who are naturally a little sad ‘Eeyore’ types, but they have learned to live with it.

5 – The STILL POINT – the happy state in the middle of the two tides, perfectly still, clear, happy, content. He warns us that we all only enjoy this state rarely and fleetingly or when we are totally absorbed in some activity we enjoy deeply (Riding my Bike is a 5 moment!)

6 – Slightly strained, slightly over-excited, but barely noticeable, the natural state of optimists or busy, positive, meticulous people.

7. Beginning to feel a sense of panic/anxiety. This might affect me in one of two ways: I begin to feel over-whelmed by a pile of small tasks and lose my sense of proportion over them as well as the ability to move calmly from one to another. Or I might begin to suffer delusions about my own competence, my judgement begins to be impaired in a way I might not recognise ie  I might be telling myself ‘I can do this’ when actually I can’t.  Or I might set myself unrealistic goals. Most people cope with this mood without medication but if it becomes long-term, it will begin to exact a physical price (sleeplessness, poor immunity, stress headaches)

8. Internally the sense of panic and anxiety is very heightened but the person remains looking very calm and in control on the surface. This is a dangerous stage because the person in this mood feels their burden is all their own to carry and they will not seek help. This is the ‘classic’ high ‘I can do anything’ mood

9- out of control, paralysed by panic that begins to become obvious to others, the crash is on its way

10 completely out of control, may be delusional, definitely needs hospital care

What I found so very helpful about this scale is the recognition that all of us operate somewhere on it. There will be one side you will recognise more than the other and most of us live either slightly depressed or slightly ‘high’ in other words our moods waver between 4 and 6 or 3 and 7.

Why does this matter? Because only when you recognise your state of mind, can you do something about it. If you don’t stop and think about which way the tide is pulling you, you wont be able to compensate for that pull and keep yourself going in the right direction.  For example, when you know you are low, you can lower your expectations for yourself and only push yourself to do one significant task a day (bearing in mind that getting dressed or eating a meal might count as significant if you are at 2 or 3).  Or, if you know you are trying to cram too much in you need to take yourself in hand, cross of the last 5 items from the bottom of your ‘to do’ list and remind yourself to ask for help, you do not have to ‘do it all’. The sun will still rise tomorrow, you do not have to be a superhero.

It’s also really helpful to work out what it is that helps take you back towards the still point – it might be something that calms you down or something that lifts you up.  The still point is the place where we can hear God best and maybe also the place where we can be most relaxed about ourselves. With Advent just around the corner and the build up to Christmas being classically one of the busiest times of the year, I’d like to wish you all peace for this period. I hope you find your still point even if the midst of life.

“Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance”  T. S. Eliot

As for me, gotta go, it’s a beautiful day and my bike is calling me…

3 thoughts on “Finding the Still Point

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  1. Thank you so much this sounds like just what I need – I have ordered the book already as I’m currently in the 2 – 3 zone. I have just taken early retirement and had assumed that I would be kept busy at church but church has been thrown into turmoil (the deacons, against all the rules of a Baptist Church, dismissed the ministers) and I don’t know if I will ever be back in that building. You won’t be surprised to know that this has pushed me back into depression.

    1. I’m really glad you found this helpful Hugh. Am not suprised that two such big life changes on the work and church front has set you back. The book has lots of good stuff in that I couldn’t put in the blog so I’m glad you’ve ordered it and I hope it helps. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. with love Sheila

      1. The book has arrived but I haven’t started it yet as I’m currently reading one of my son’s MA books just because it sounded interesting – on the pre-existance of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels.

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