Zane – Olympian basketball player

“The Olympics is still like a dream. It was amazing. You would be walking in the campus and you would see all these superstars from all over the world.” Zane is a 6’6’’ Latvian professional basketball player, and she is the last person I would have expected to find living at Amaravati Buddhist monastery in Great Gaddesden. She played for the Latvian national basketball team and represented them at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. At high school she had won a scholarship to play basketball in the US and was drafted in to the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) after university. She married a professional basketball player in the States; “he was tall, he was good looking”. They were the envy of many, this perfect couple travelling the world, being paid well, driving expensive cars and following their passion. She was ticking off the list of her ten wildest dreams she thought would bring her the happiness she craved.

Zane felt her world had broken down

Zane’s early life was very different from this life as a globe trotting basketball star. She grew up in a suppressed environment in Latvia. For the first nine years of her life the country was part of the Soviet Union. Her family struggled with money and their attitude was that life wasn’t to be enjoyed, you just had to get through it. Her parents worked, but sometimes they didn’t even receive money, instead they were issued with ration tickets for food. The family grew extra vegetables in the summer and tulips in the winter, to supplement their income. Zane had a very difficult relationship with her father, who emotionally and sometimes physically, abused her, and she carries the scars of this today. Her father was very critical of her, instilling her with low self esteem and blaming her for everything, his actions included. Also being tall for her age she was bullied by her peers for her height. Growing up in this environment Zane felt her world had broken down. She had no where to go and was having suicidal thoughts. Her saviour was a teacher who had just graduated from university and wanted to coach a basketball team. She walked in to Zane’s maths class, looking for students to coach, and that was the moment that Zane’s life changed. Basketball made her feel useful for once in her life and good about herself.

Moving to the USA for her full scholarship, her basketball skills went from strength to strength and she started to earn good money, playing in the top women’s teams. But her insecurities her father had instilled in her were still there, just below the surface. She couldn’t believe she was worthy of this perfect lifestyle and every time she signed a new contract for a team, she would think to herself, “I am not this good to get this money”.

She found herself crying on the bathroom floor.

As her and her husband’s careers progressed and they started playing in different countries, Zane found out her husband was having affairs. Because of her low self esteem that had been conditioned in to her by her father, she felt the affairs were her fault. “I was always looking for the fault in me”. Her relationship with her husband was becoming like the relationship with her father, being bullied and criticised and always feeling she was the one in the wrong. “I was trying my best (in her marriage), until there was a point where I couldn’t move on”. She found herself crying on the bathroom floor, not knowing what to do. Eventually her and her husband agreed to divorce and although she knew it was the right thing to do, it was a very painful time for her. “I could feel my heart was broken”. The other hard part of her divorce was that her husband took all of their money, leaving her with 20 Euros to her name.

Zane first connected with the Buddhist principles when she heard the Abbot of Amaravati speak. She had stopped playing basketball in the summer of 2016, due to a knee injury. Having played professional basketball for 11 years, she really didn’t know what to do. Some friends were coming to the monastery for a short visit and one pulled out, so they asked Zane. She wasn’t really that interested at first, but decided to go. From the first day she loved the place. By the third day she asked one of the nuns if she could stay longer. She has now been there for over a year.

“Don’t believe everything you think”.

Zane felt the Buddhist philosophy was exactly how she wanted to live her life. It was “very close to my heart, even though I had nothing to do with Buddhism before”. For the first time in her life Zane felt like she was in the right place. She didn’t have to worry about what other people thought, a concern that had been conditioned in her since childhood. She realised she couldn’t live a happy life if she wasn’t happy within herself. And she realised she didn’t need other people’s approval to feel good about herself. Although the experience with her ex-husband was very painful, she feels it was one of her biggest lessons in life. It opened her eyes to her childhood conditioning. She needed to break the cycle of self criticism and low self esteem. Having lived for thirty years in one mindset, she knows now that “my mind is limiting me..I am learning to make peace with it”. And as one of the monks told her, “don’t believe everything you think”.

After her divorce Zane found her teenage list with her ten wildest dreams on. Although she had achieved 90% of them, even down to the specific detail of owning a BMW, what she realised is that how you appear to the outside world doesn’t make any difference if you are not happy within. Re-reading this teenage list, a year after her divorce, she still felt “in the same miserable place as before”. So now with regards to her future she doesn’t worry about what will happen. She isn’t looking to be a millionaire, which was the one dream she didn’t achieve on her list. “I just want to feel good, I want to feel peaceful, I want to feel happy. First I need to start with myself and make myself feel like that.” Only then will she be able to move on.

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Andy – Homeless but happy

Andy came to Berkhamsted to end his life; “my intention was to step in front of a train”, he says very matter-of-factly. A few years previously he took a day trip by train to Berkhamsted and saw how the fast trains flew through the station. At the time he thought it would be an easy way to end his life. So in 2016, with this thought still lodged in the back of his mind, he arrived at the station.

In the context of a long history of mental health issues, life had been spiralling out of control for Andy, and he ended up having a breakdown in 2014. He had enough savings to survive a couple of years without working, due to his career as an engineer. He tried to recuperate over these two years, but when the money ran out he knew that was the end, so he boarded a train to Berkhamsted. Arriving at the station he felt he couldn’t face ending his life right away, so he went off to find somewhere rough to sleep for the night. “I thought I would just lie down on the ground and I would do it tomorrow.”

His fear of death was now stronger than his fear of homelessness.

He had realised the platform at Berkhamsted wasn’t the best place to jump from. There was too much light and he didn’t want to be visible. He found an area further along the track that was more suitable. Twice he stood on the track in front of a train, but he couldn’t go through with it and moved out of the way. He sat by the side of the track contemplating why he couldn’t end his life. “Is it going to be painful? – well you’re not going to survive much longer if a train hits you. Is it the fear of the unknown? – but I’m curious to know what happens when we die, so I just came to the conclusion that it’s death itself, the actual act of death we are programmed to fear”.

Having been homeless and sleeping rough for a week, his fear of death was now stronger than his fear of homelessness. He had previously thought homelessness would be so traumatic that it would push him over the edge, but it was the opposite. For him, his homeless situation was “like walking out of one of the James Bond films, where he walks out of the rubble and then walks off in to the sunset, leaving this rubble of my life behind”.

“I am not trying to be anything at all..I just am”.

His relatively new nomadic lifestyle is much more compatible with his nature. “(Previously) I was trying to fit in with society and I was playing my role in society and it was contrary to my nature.” He comes back to this point again when reflecting on his past mental health issues and especially his anxiety. He sees a lot of his anxiety was to do with the self, “about who I was or who I was trying to be. Whereas now I am not trying to be anything at all..I just am. This is why I find my current lifestyle very comfortable: I don’t have to be anything”. The paradox of his situation is that he use to get anxiety when there was no rational reason for it. Then he had a good career, money coming in and a roof over his head and that is when he suffered from anxiety. Now, homeless, he has genuine reasons to be anxious about his situation, “where is my next meal? where shall I sleep tonight? will someone attack me? and I have no anxiety at all. That is a bizarre thing”.

He says everyone he meets has been very supportive and in his nearly two years of homelessness he hasn’t once had a bad experience. Early on when he was homeless, he was sitting in Gadebridge Park on a bench and a man with a shaven head, tattoos and a pit bull terrier approached him and asked if he was homeless. Andy, who is quite well spoken, replied he was fine, but the man insisted. “I thought ‘oh no, he’s going to get me dealing drugs!’, but this bloke reaches in to his pocket and says ‘Go on, have a fiver. I’ve been homeless, I know what its like’”. Andy says he felt so guilty, thinking the worse of this stranger. He is genuinely touched by the kindness that people have shown to him.

“I had accidentally fallen in to a kind of Buddhist lifestyle”.

Andy doesn’t see himself as a religious or spiritual person, but he has been drawn to Buddhism. When he first discovered the Amravati Buddhist Monastery outside Great Gaddesden and heard the Eight Precepts (the original teachings of Buddha), he felt a real connection, a parallel with his own life. For example in Buddhism there is a rule against using ‘high, luxurious beds’ and as he put it, “I was sleeping on flagstones!” Buddhist’s also only eat between dawn and noon, so before noon they consume a main meal. Andy had been attending the day centre that is run by DENS, who give out food to the homeless from 11.30am so he was also eating before noon. “I realised I had accidentally fallen in to a kind of Buddhist lifestyle, a lifestyle which was a very positive experience”. Buddhist’s also believe that nature will provide for you. “I don’t claim welfare and I don’t beg or ask for anything. I wait for things to happened and somehow it has. It’s extraordinary. For not a very spiritual person, that’s quite a weird feeling.” People have given him coats when he needed them for the winter, others have given blankets and one person gave him a bivouac bag to sleep in, so he has never been uncomfortably cold.

Andy spends his weekend at the monastery, where he gets a shower, a bed and can wash his clothes, in exchange for volunteering in the library. During the week he spends his days in Hemel, visiting the library and going to the day centre to receive food. At night he walks back to Berkhamsted to find somewhere to sleep. The library have been very supportive and are happy for him to sit and read all day. He chews through books, so he often is reading one whilst he has a request out for his next book to read. He also reads The Guardian every day, “I use to be an Independent reader. I bought the very first issue when it came out in 1986 I think it was!” but the paper version has ceased printing. The other vital thing he does every day at the library is to check the weather forecast on the internet, so he can plan his night. “If a storm is coming later on, then I leave earlier”.

It is like he feels he has been given a second chance at life.

When I ask about what the future holds this doesn’t concern him. Again he finds the Buddhist philosophy helpful. The Buddhist lifestyle is very much about living in the present moment and letting life unfold in front of you. “I feel there are these forces taking care of me. I am quite willing to say ‘let’s see what happens’”. He deliberately doesn’t have a plan and is fascinated to see what happens, who talks to him and who provides him with the things he needs, at the time he needs them. I worry about his glasses he wears, as reading is such a big part of his life. What will happen if his glasses break, or as his prescription changes. “It’s all for nature to sort out,” he laughs.

Andy is very matter-of-fact about everything – about his mental health issues and his previous desire to end his life. I think this is because he is so settled and content with his new life. He sees himself in this new exciting chapter, free from the anxieties and depression that plagued him since he was 15. It is like he feels he has been given a second chance at life and he can’t believe his luck.

RAW’s publishes a new interview every Friday. To keep up to date with RAW’s interview’s, click follow at the top of the page and you will be notified each time a new one is released.