On Scatteredness and Chocolate Sardines

Surrender and acceptance leads to calm and reduces stress
After spinning too many plates in the air - and dropping them - Charlotte Francis has found her way to calm acceptance.

It feels like it's time I got better at stillness, but that, of course, is a contradiction in itself. It's not about being good at it and getting it right; it's more about dropping down into the stillness that lies within - under the layers of thinking, doing, worrying, competing and comparing. Easy, you might think.

Especially if you, like me, have done workshops and retreats, meditation classes, yoga, Feldenkrais and other mind-body-spirit activities where you have experienced - if only fleetingly - a sense of inner peace; a place where there is nothing do and nothing to prove, where you just are and life just flows.

Towards the end of last year I spent a fair bit of time chasing around in circles, and my life was defined by the absence, rather than the presence, of stillness. I fell back into an old pattern of not trusting the flow of life and, instead, letting insecurity, doubt and fear take over.

It started with a period of financial turmoil, which led to an avalanche of classic survival fears. Any freelancer has to be able to cope with periods of feast and famine but, in my case, there wasn't enough feast to balance the famine. As my confidence plummeted, and self doubt muscled in, I spent vast amounts of mental energy wondering what would happen if things didn't pick up.

Would I end up lonely and impoverished in my old age?

I did the Feng Shui thing of keeping the loo seat closed to avoid flushing away dollars, but that was (forgive the pun) a mere drop in the ocean. And I didn't really believe in the affirmations I was spouting. I might as well have been muttering "rhubarb, rhubarb". Then a bit of self pity -"it's all so hard" - would creep in followed by despair. Each morning, I was back in full blown survival mode muttering, "I'll show them," (them being my family who have an annoying habit of chipping in with: "Why don't you get a proper job?")

So at this stage I am juggling self doubt and struggling artist with much of my focus on the very thing I don't want, lack of money. Meanwhile, as I go into overdrive and scatter my energy in all directions, the universe can't work out what I do want. You know the Paul Simon song, "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover?" Well, I took a similar approach to work. And, with the benefit of hindsight, it's been an amusing dance full of rich learning.

Just before Christmas (a time of heightened emotion for many of us) I saw an ad for casual help in a gourmet food and kitchen shop. The first step was to do a trial run for a couple of hours in the local store. In at the deep end on a busy Saturday, I did my best to master the computer in double quick time. Savings, cash, credit - is that chip or pin? Oh, I've put the card in upside down and, oops, there's a minimum of $15 for credit card and EFTPOS. And oops, I should have asked for a gold coin donation for the wrapping paper even if my wrapping is pre-school standard.

They seemed happy with my progress, but it was rather deflating to learn that in the time it took to show me the computer, someone had probably walked away with $150 of shoplifted goods. The boxes of sardine-shaped chocolates are particularly easy to drop in a bag, you see.

Having passed the first test, I arrived early for the two and a half hour training session at the flagship store the following Sunday evening. Expecting a positive marketing spiel – "You're going to love working here!" - the owner (let's call her Flo) greeted me with a lament about shoplifting. More stories of chocolate sardines accompanied by instructions to open the boxes (that makes them harder to steal) and place them on the more visible shelves. Ever conscientious, I started to write all this down along with the instruction to hand out baskets (they buy more) and offer customers a coffee (so they linger).

Hopping from foot to foot (oh dear, already tired and I hadn't even got behind the till yet), I listened as Flo tut-tutted her way around the shelves. "Christmas is great for sales but otherwise hell," she said, rearranging jars of jam into pyramids. But the pinnacle of awfulness was the lesson in hamper making. And you have to take into account that we (there were about 10 of us ranging from about 18 to 60) were volunteering our time.

The closest thing to spatial reasoning (and it's a while since I sat one of those brain bending tests), hamper making involves turning a flat piece of cardboard into a box. I bent double over the wretched thing and almost got RSI in my wrists from smoothing out the sides so the "feet" slotted into the grooves, but it still wasn't good enough, and fixing it with Scotch Tape was not an option.

Beggars can't be choosers runs the phrase - at least in my family - so I thought I should (note the should) give the shop a go. But when Flo asked me to show up at my local store at 7.30 the next morning and then follow up with a few more training sessions with her - all for nothing - I bowed out. You want me to volunteer more time, I said, channelling Oliver Twist. And that was a bit of a turning point - my self esteem was clamouring to make itself heard.

After the shop fiasco, an evening of market research came my way. For $50 in cash, the job was to taste foods and fill in an evaluation sheet. The client turned out to be Subway and I don't eat wheat, but, hey, I was up for the challenge. It was worth it for the sheer amusement of recounting to friends how I had spent an evening tasting six inch samples smothered in my choice of condiment. I nibbled just enough bread to answer the multiple choice, made dinner out of the fillings, and, this time at least, got paid.

Then I was tempted by various affiliate marketing schemes and the promise of passive income. The truth is that you have to be pretty active to earn passive income. I got as far as giving my credit card details over the phone to some highly persuasive salesman in America and signed up to a "bronze level" scheme. Talk about a blind date! The minute I put the phone down, I knew I had made a huge mistake and rang to cancel on the Monday. It was never my intention to set up an online business (not my thing at all), I had simply answered an advert about data entry in my local paper and somehow been swept through cyberspace to an affiliate marketing site.

There were more ads in the local paper – modelling - well why not, I thought. I am the wrong side of 40, but I'm slim and not too lined - and then I spotted in capital letters the word NUDE. While this was a BIG clue, I still tried to convince myself it might be some kind of charity thing along the Calendar Girls line. If Helen Mirren can do it, so can I. I went as far as calling them up. "It's not pornography, is it?" I ventured. "Well, we don't call it that," said the girl at the other end...

This hectic scattergun approach to diversifying my income was driven by the survivor in me, but also by fear, a lack of clarity about my values as well as unhelpful attitudes around money, self worth and work. And the more I worried and spun into overdrive, the more I blocked the flow of energy, of abundance and of life itself.

Manifesting classic sacral chakra issues, I began to battle with flagging energy and went back to some of my favourite self help books for inspiration and comfort. And so, like a 1970s crazy game show host, I began to spin even more plates in the air with a selection of half-read books - NLP here, Artist's Way over there - adding to my workload. I started to feel overwhelmed and fragmented, burnt a few saucepans, forgot a few appointments, lost quite a bit of sleep - and my sense of self - in the process.

So how did I break the pattern? I simply began to reclaim the real me from under the layers of fear and doubt. Over Christmas, I unplugged from the computer, from the anxiety, from the doing, the proving, the searching and the plate spinning. Getting out of my head and into my body, I let myself sink back into the rhythms of nature. I swam in the sea, I sat in the garden drinking tea from a beautiful bone china cup, I walked along the beach, I listened to Noel Coward plays on the BBC, I baked and cooked, I listened to music and gradually felt myself dropping back into stillness. I stopped closing down to fear and opened back up to life.

I stopped comparing myself to what others were doing, particularly other frantic freelancers whirling themselves into a frenzy on Facebook and Twitter. For me, social networking became yet another plate to spin and simply kept my energy circuits jammed and muddled. So, like a hot potato, I dropped that too (and still haven't returned).

On New Year's Eve, I said a firm and polite no to party invitations and, instead, celebrated in my own company. As the thunder roared in at midnight and swept away the previous year, I surrounded myself with treasured objects, a few candles and crystals, and wrote out my intentions and wishes, simply and clearly with no mixed messages, for the New Year.

As soon as I started to trust and allow opportunities to come in, my life began to open up again. My work is now flowing and taking me in new and interesting directions. I am feeling more optimistic and confident and have even branched out into public speaking and delivering workshops (not long ago that would have left me speechless with fear).

I sometimes still go too fast, but drawing on the lessons of the wonderful Zen and Ayurvedic retreat I attended last September, I know to sit still, surrender and quieten the agitation of my mind by inviting in warmth, patience, kindness and self acceptance. Life is a work in progress and sometimes you need to take one step back in order to go two forward. Anyone for a chocolate sardine?