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What would David Bowie do? Advice from a Starman

Five years after David Bowie died his legend lives on. As we look for a hero to help us rise from the ashes (to ashes) of 2020, who better to draw inspiration from?

Times are tough right now. If you’re looking for a guide to help you through, how about David Bowie? That’s right – David Bowie.

We knew Bowie as a global superstar, and arguably the coolest man on the planet. But behind that façade he was a shy, isolated young man who struggled to connect with other people, or to understand his place in the world. Frightened by his half-brother Terry’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, Bowie feared that he too would succumb to what his grandmother had dubbed “the family curse” of severe mental illness.

To avoid this fate, the young Bowie turned for help to a collection of wisdom traditions, philosophies and religions which he used to guide him in his life, his career and his songwriting. At its core was Tibetan Buddhism which Bowie studied for two years. He then added ideas from Zen Buddhism, the psychology of Carl Jung, Kabbalah, Gnosticism and alchemy, among others.

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I explore Bowie’s extraordinary pick’n’mix philosophy in my new book, The Tao of Bowie, examining how Bowie used these ideas to guide him, but more importantly, how we can all use them to help us in our everyday lives.

In difficult times, what can we take from Bowie’s philosophy that will help us deal with life’s challenges? Here are a few tips…

1. Celebrate small triumphs

Bowie’s most loved song – “Heroes” – is on the surface the story of a burgeoning secret romance; but when Bowie discussed the song he said it was really a song about “facing reality and standing up to it” and about just getting on with things “from the very simple pleasure of remaining alive”.

When life is as tough as it has been recently, it can be helpful at the end of the day, to take a moment to recognise your own everyday heroism in dealing with life’s challenges, and also to send a message of support to others who have proved themselves to be everyday heroes for you.

2. Have your own tea ceremony

Bowie said that he became much happier “once I learned about simply enjoying the process of living”. A regular visitor to Japan, Bowie frequently met with Zen masters and appreciated their simple wisdom.

We have all sorts of ideas about Zen; but arguably Zen practice is best summed up by the master who said: “When you’re hungry, eat”. But don’t we always do that? No, we eat and check our emails; eat and watch TV; eat and catch up with social media; eat and read a magazine.

Perhaps you’ve already tried a bit of mindfulness, but found it hard to stay in the moment; or perhaps you just got bored. The easiest and most enjoyable way to be mindfully in the moment, is to practise mindful eating or drinking. Try making a cup of builders’ tea, or fancy coffee, or whatever your beverage of choice might be, and just drinking it – while not doing anything else.

Ten minutes to really savour the taste, the comforting warmth, the aromas, and the peace. When you start thinking about other stuff, focus your attention back on the liquid in the cup. Mindfulness and ‘me-time’ combined.

3. Begin your journey of self-discovery

Looking back on his years of Buddhist study, Bowie said that one of the most important lessons he had learned was that “looking for the source of one’s own being becomes important. And I guess that’s been my own personal journey, trying to sort out where my spiritual bounty lies, where my thread to a Universal order lies – and that can become a life search.” Indeed, it can; but although it sounds daunting, that’s no reason to avoid it. To begin this vital work of self-discovery, set aside a week, and at the end of each day, finish the following three sentences.

  • Today I most felt a sense of purpose when…
  • Today the most meaningful thing I did/said/was involved in was…
  • Today the most meaningful thing I observed someone else doing/saying was…

Write down why you felt the sense of purpose and why the event was meaningful. Then reflect on how you’ve chosen to define purpose and meaning – and what that says about you.

4. Embrace your shadow side

Bowie came closest to the mental health crisis he feared in 1975 and 1976 while living in LA. His weight plummeted; his drug use escalated; he began to experience hallucinations.

He recovered not by running away from his negative thoughts and feelings, but by confronting them. He described the process like this: “I stripped myself down, and took myself apart layer by layer.”

He knew very well that psychologist Carl Jung exhorts us to embrace our shadow side. If we try to push difficult thoughts and feelings away, they come back stronger. If we can stay, however briefly, with these difficult moments then they can naturally flow through us, as our emotions are meant to.

Try allowing your love to be bigger than the negative feeling. It sounds a bit woo-woo, doesn’t it? But just try it. When you encounter sadness, anger, worry, fear, simply place your hand on your heart and be aware that the love you have within you is greater. Try this with milder emotions. If you find your emotions are overwhelming, move on to the next tip.

5. If you need help, ask for it

For Bowie 1990 was a crucial year. He fell in love with Iman. And he asked for help: he began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to finally deal with his drink problems. The lesson here is that even superstars need support sometimes, so you’re certainly allowed to seek help.

When the world is in the middle of a crisis, it’s easy to think that your own problems are minor because “other people have it worse”. But if you’re struggling, tell someone. These days, there is no longer stigma around mental health issues or addictions. So if you need help, ask for it.

The Tao of Bowie by Mark Edwards is out on January 7 (Allen & Unwin, £10.99)