"Please put on your own oxygen mask before helping others."
If you've ever listened to the safety briefing on a commercial flight then you'll recognise this instruction.
On the 4th of November 2015, a close school friend of mine passed away. I was in India and he was in a specialist hospital in London. He suffered from Cystic Fibrosis and had a lung transplant just weeks prior, but his body seemed to reject the new lungs. I am very grateful that I was able to visit him before my trip, when he was still conscious and able to talk and joke with my friends and I.
At the very same time, whilst in India, my Mum developed a condition which led to her inability to work, or get out of bed much, for the following 4 months while she recovered. I brought her back to London in business class so she could lie down flat for most of the journey (and the food was way better than economy!).
Upon our return to London, I requested my manager to allow me to stay and work from home for a few weeks. This was crucial for my sanity as I was living and working 500 miles away in Aberdeen, Scotland. Staying in London for a few extra weeks allowed me to be around my Mum during her initial recovery, to regularly visit my friend’s parents and to surround myself with a solid support group as we celebrated the life of our friend who had passed away.
Despite taking the time for this, I continued to feel something tugging at me when I returned to Aberdeen.
I couldn’t clearly work out what it was, so I just continued working and living as normal. After a few months of staying with this feeling, I began to think that I just need to move back to London to be with my friends and family. Or to go back to India to complete the work I was doing with my Mum. So that’s what I focussed on for the next year. I secured a new position with Shell in London and, with great support from my manager, arranged 3 months unpaid leave before starting the new role.
My time off work was filled with confusion.
I attended a 10 day silent meditation retreat, with a military-style timetable that fit 10 hours of seated meditation in to each day (Goenkaji’s Vipassana for those of you who might be having flashbacks of your own experience!).
I followed that up with a 5 day visit to a Buddhist monastery complex in the mountains, a 10 day slow-yoga retreat in the jungles of Kerala and, finally, a booze-filled festive season complete with Bollywood-style weddings.
Amongst all this, my Mum and I still had more to do to complete our work in India.
Then my 3 months were up and I went back to work.
When I rejoined Shell, I did so on a part-time basis. I was under the impression that I would continue to spend my time split between my career and the work we had to complete in India. But I started to spend more and more of each day disentangling my own questions.
What were my values?
What was I truly feeling inside?
What was the source of my confusion, and why hadn’t it subsided despite my return to London?
I worked hard to climb up the learning curve in my new role at work. I succeeded in masking my inner confusion from most of my personal and professional interactions, but it was becoming more difficult to mask it from myself. I decided upon a long term break from Shell to address my personal matters and work in India.
It has taken me almost 18 months to put on my oxygen mask.
Only now, after leaving Shell, have I slowly come to the realisation that I had ideas and dreams for myself about what I wanted to do in life before I started working. As I became absorbed in my daily routine, I didn’t really focus on that big picture view anymore. It existed somewhere in my thoughts, but not at the forefront. When my friend passed away and my Mum became ill, it subconsciously reminded me of our limited time in this body . The finite nature of our personality and of human life. The ease with which we slip into the complacency of accepting the structure set up around us, rather than moulding the world to reflect the reality within. Without my knowing it, this was the feeling that was erupting inside me.
I have been prioritising my sense of duty to my work and family and lost sight of what I need and want for myself. As a result, I have been attributing my feelings incorrectly.
Yes, I want to be with friends and family in London.
Yes, I want to resolve matters in India.
However, my underlying question stems from the death anxiety that I subconsciously experienced:
When am I going to make my dreams a reality?
The time is now.
I can breathe again.
So who needs help with their oxygen mask?