The Road to the Highlands

The Road to the Highlands..  [Ben More, Isle of Mull: Scotland]
“Maybe one day I can have a reunion with myself.”    – Sebastian Bach

At this time, exactly 7 years ago, I was feverishly contemplating my sabbatical. I was indescribably excited to be alone & to be free, as I perceived, for at least a year. I was on the road to the Highlands.. This was where I had yearned to be, for so long.

I had no thought of quitting my 20 year-long career that was so suited to me, at the time. I just badly needed a long break, time to myself – to be really alone, deeply alone. To find peace with who I was, or had become. I really had no idea…except to take the leap, the risk. My work, as an intensely-busy itinerant musician, had been equally feverish. Flights here, there & seemingly everywhere.. endless engagements, different people, different cities each day.. radio interviews, CDs to plan & schedule, diary requests for 3 years in advance, new programmes to devise to suit the latest whim of Festival Directors.. and so on. Later, it would seem to me that I had been living for so long on adrenaline, coffee, and sheer nervous energy: the imperative to keep going, to make this body go through yet another transatlantic flight & series of time zones (which it clearly loathed). Enough was enough: the body desperately needed a break. And so did the psyche, emotions, soul, so it felt at the time. So I devised the sabbatical I probably should have taken at least 3 years earlier – you live & learn. Reacting to circumstances & events through a sense of desperation isn’t the easiest or most flowing of experiences. But my reactive, artistic persona knew no other way at that stage: it was a case of brake (break) now, or allow that huge freight train collision & pile-up looming large on the horizon to create great havoc in my future life.

“The unexamined life is not worth living… beware the barrenness of a busy life.”     – Socrates

As it turns out, it was the single-most important turning-point in my life. Now, 7 years later, I am no longer an intensely-busy itinerant musician: I’m a happy dad & husband, settled in one place, enjoying & relishing each day as it comes – observing with awe how there can seem to be a whole lifetime in one day, sometimes. How does that work? I’m far less busy in many senses than previously: how can each day possibly seem, and feel, so rich & complete?

“If I can give you any advice, it’s this: every hour that you spend sat on the couch doing nothing, put it to good use, because when you have kids, an hour is like a lifetime.”    – Noel Gallagher

As I started my sabbatical, a whole universe opened up to me. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting at all.. Everything in Scotland was frozen; the roads were literally (and metaphorically) blocked – I couldn’t find anywhere to live at the end of the road to the Highlands, where I so desperately wanted to be..

The exquisite frozen wastes of Assynt, Sutherland: North Scotland

I quickly understood: the problem was with me – and, above all, with my expectations. I had been used to driving my life, being in control; and when I wasn’t, or my expectations weren’t being met, I would lose it & react hastily, often callously & with anger. And I was used to having little or no time to reflect: to reflect on myself, rather than simply to deflect myself & my deeper wishes & desires.

“I used to blame my problems on other people. But my moment of clarity, if you want to call it that, came when I was looking in the mirror one day and just burst into tears. It wasn’t just that I looked bad, it was that I knew my problem was me.”   – Tom Sizemore

As time elapsed, and I witnessed the frozen landscape around me, with few options as to where I could go, great swathes of pain hit me. I surrendered to them, sleeping many hours each day. Doing absolutely nothing. I had been emotionally frozen, and now the pain of that entire lifestyle of suppression was unravelling, slowly but surely. I was unravelling… I could feel it, and could do nothing about it. For the first moment in a long time, I was aware I wasn’t really in charge of my life at all. There was a hidden force at work, securing for me what I really needed, rather than what I felt I deserved or most wanted. And it came to the fore when I allowed myself the time & space to listen, and to allow.

“One day I looked at something in myself that I had been avoiding because it was too painful. Yet once I did, I had an unexpected surprise. Rather than self-hatred, I was flooded with compassion for myself because I realized the pain necessary to develop that coping mechanism to begin with.”   – Marianne Williamson
View of Suilven, the dragon’s head of Assynt

So, I was physically trapped in the Highlands. The road to the Highlands was actually a dead-end, a one-way ticket: it was in actual fact, a vision quest. The experience I actually needed, rather than the one I had idealised in my mind’s eye. But it released in me the dire imperative to do, to act, to succeed, to accomplish, to push, to strain, to be on top of the situation, to live in the fast lane, in the manic stream of humanity’s achievers. Because how could I do that without really knowing who I was any more? The edifice was crumbling, and all the long years of building it up were losing their magical hold. The real magic was seeing the mountains of bare rock, snow & ice – the naked, primal conditions of the Earth – and falling in love with it all over again, as I would have so readily in childhood. The walls of my mind prison were crumbling, and through the interstices & holes appeared shafts of light. Love seeped into my whole system, like a surprise tonic gifted from nature.

From those days on, I never looked back. The ‘high road’ for me became an inner vision & quest, no longer concerned with external recognition or achievement. It was focused on my own vision of personal success, rather than worldly adulation & praise. Even though few around me understood my path, I did, and that’s all that really mattered. I had begun to discover something profoundly precious; and despite the limitless frozen wastes of rock & ice, my heart began to thaw. “Only an act of true love will thaw a frozen heart”, as Olaf says in the animated movie, Frozen. My personal act of true love was, maybe for the first time in forever, allowing myself just to be me.

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