Why we need to talk about loneliness

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Confession time:

1. I feel lonely a lot of the time the last few years

2. I’m (still) crap at being deeply vulnerable

During my adult life, I’ve moved around a lot. Different jobs, different cities, different countries.. So I’m pretty used to starting over somewhere new, exploring and opening and making every effort to be sociable and meet new people…and make new friends.

You learn a lot about human psychology in this way.

How most people (who stay in the same place) are happy to stick with the friends they grew up with, do the same things every weekend, and aren’t that interested in making new friends outside their established circle (which is why, as an expat, you usually just end up being friends with other expats; not because you don’t make an effort to make friends with the indigenous folks, but because they’re not that bothered about extending their circle of friends).

How after about your mid-twenties, men are no longer (ever) interested in being friends (I realise at this juncture some people will ask the rhetorical question “Were they ever?”, but even if they weren’t, back in the day they pretended and you could hang out and have a few beers together without it getting weird at least some of the time).

How rare and precious it is to meet someone with whom you have that instantaneous click, that feeling of recognition, of having known each other for ages, of intrinsically understanding each other. And how the deliciousness of that never diminishes.

How deeply everyone longs for connection. How making new friends is vulnerable. How so many people seem to settle for less than what they long for.

How much harder it is in your 30’s than when you were a kid, or at university.

How no one talks about it because we’re scared we’ll be called friendless weirdos and pointed at like lepers.

So I’m breaking the silence.

Connection

From the moment of separation at birth til our death, we are all seeking connection. Not just people to party with, but searingly deep connection. The creation of a space between you that fuses you together, so that you are no longer separate. A shared reality in which you are no longer facing the world alone.

We tend to search desperately for this in romantic partners (who should also ideally fulfill an assortment of criteria that will nurse our childhood wounds, love and accept our shadows, and caress our sense of worth and value), and then fall apart when the intensity of the demand implodes the relationship.

The people I know who are great at life, are also great at friendship. They swim gracefully through the reefs and rocks of friendship as they do life, washing over troubles and rounding upon new encounters with all the ease of a particularly well-adapted eel.

But many people (most) are not such natural experts at cultivating deep connection. Many people spend much of their lives feeling isolated (even when they’re surrounded by other people). Many people bear their joys and their sadnesses alone. Particularly in a society where anxiety disorders and depression run rampant, but where there is still so much stigma attached to both that shame is added to the mix and the pain of it is borne silently.

Friendship and me

My own experiences with friendship have been mixed.

I always had a few very close friends but had trouble in bigger groups. I never felt like I ‘belonged’ in the general mix. I made friends easily in one-to-one connection but struggled to show myself and connect in groups.

To a large extent, that is still the case.

At school and at university I had my tribes, easeful places of soul connection, for which I am infinitely grateful, because growing up feeling understood by at least a handful of fellow humans eased the existential anxiety that was my constant companion.

But since University, with all my moving and the craziness of life (admittedly some people tell me I cram a lot into mine) it’s become much harder.

There are old friendships that have run their course; where interests and approach to life have diverged to the point of losing that shared space. There are old friendships that persist doggedly, in spite of long absences and missed birthdays; where the shared moments of that particular brand of madness is all that is needed to rekindle the flames of connection, no matter how much time goes by.

There are new friendships that remain at a disappointingly superficial level, despite attempts to infuse them with more meaning. And then there are ones that are born out of that magical elixir of shared understanding, the ones that make you feel like you’ve come home.

There are many in my somewhat nomadic life, that come into being and infuse us with joy for a short time before one or the other of us is swept away once more on the currents of life. Many that are separated by thousands of kilometers. Many that never had the chance to blossom.

The bottom line of it is that the last few years, the sum of these friendships has felt insufficient. I long to have a few close girlfriends (guy friends would also be great) who actually live near me to really share my life with.

Because the reality is that when you’re officially ‘grown up’ and single and nomadic, you don’t automatically have people who share your life. And that feeling of being witnessed is something that we are wired to need.

Vulnerability

As I’ve come to know myself more over the years, I’ve learnt that there are particular environments where I am much more likely to find kindred spirits. However even in this age of Meetup.com, Facebook groups, expat groups, and the myriad other ways of finding people who have shared interests with you, it’s still not that easy to find those people who you can connect with on a deep level (whose particular brand of madness, if you will, matches yours).

Even for me, with my deeply rooted desire to be fully transparent and authentic, it’s hard to just get naked in this world. To be brave enough to really show who you are; a vulnerable, big-hearted human searching for connection, towing behind you all your scars and hopes and dreams, and the meandering story of your life.

And I think that part of the reason for that is that we still live in a world where vulnerability is regarded as weakness. And that this perception is so pervasive that in most environments it still feels like the weight of a fully open heart will crack the brittle veneer of social norms. And God help you if you do that. After all, in most places you need to show up not just as normal but as cool.

The dark side of human nature

This culture of coolness (where coolness is almost entirely externalized and the material is valued over the intrinsic) is responsible for so much of the shame and anxiety that people have about showing and sharing themselves fully, in all their scared, ugly, damaged human truth. In a culture where there isn’t space for those ‘undesirable’ parts of ourselves, the result is twofold.

1. We will never be fully seen and therefore only partly witnessed, and the sense of wholeness that is derived from having our experience as a Self be seen and shared is elusive. All manner of psychosocial disorders arise form this, and we have yet to establish any approach that yields sustainable results on a bigger scale.

2. The repression and secreting away of our ‘undesirable’ dark parts mean these are externally expressed in unhealthy (unconscious) ways, often masked in socially acceptable forms. Hence the ugliness, cruelty, and violence that we see across almost all cultures, as well as the unrepentant ravaging of the earth.

Our fear of the darker aspects of ourselves has led us to create a culture that tries to pretend that they doesn’t exist. That this doesn’t work is indisputable at this point, and yet our resistance individually and culturally to transform into a society that is open and accepting of all the intricacies of human nature is slow to yield.

A culture that accepts only the light creates an underbelly for the expression of the dark. And until we learn to value and express both the light and the dark side of human nature, we will continue to have the dark furtively expressed externally. In a world where one man can cause enormous destruction, that is a dangerous game to continue to play.

So how do we go about changing culture?

It starts with me and you. It starts with individuals being brave enough to face their own dark side, to work on integrating it, and to show up in the world as the beautiful, complex, multidimensional beings that we truly are. Owning ALL of who we are. Showing others that it’s ok to be in the world just as they are.

Bringing all of who we are into the workplace. Into sports teams. Into business and politics and education. Creating systems that support and honour full human expression. That make space for the dark side. That value vulnerability and understand that connection is the basis of all of human endeavour.

The Quiet Revolution is a revolution of the heart, of the soul. Vulnerability is not optional.

We have no choice but to bare our hearts, if we want to save the world.

//

 

Photo credit: wattpad.com

An ode to my body

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I want to cherish myself.

To love each inch of this precious pulsing body.

To feel the blood running rich and ripe through me like tiny rivers of magic.

To revel in each movement it can make,

To feel the delight of my limbs

As they reach and stretch and jump.

 

I want to be the dance in my hair

When the wind lifts it,

I want to kiss the earth, the grass, the sand

When my feet meet the ground

I want to make love to the air

As it caresses my skin.

 

I want to let it be heavy and soft in sleep,

And wild and fiery in love

I want to let it skip and jump and run and play

And laugh and cry and kiss and sing

I want to feel it open and vulnerable,

And strong and sure and bold.

 

I want to listen to each secret that it whispers

To be present for each pleasure and each pain

To conspire in the ever increasing awareness

Of the sensual, the soft, the subtle

Hazy line where I encounter the outside

Where I end and the rest begins.

 

I want space within

To be in every moment while it lasts

Breathing its beauty, touching it lightly

Then letting go.

It’s all for me, this sensing, feeling, breathing delight,

This body.

//

Photo credit: threeriversdeep.wordpress.com

Even Now There is Hope

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Our hearts are like flowers.

The open and close according to the weather; how much sun there is, how warm it is, whether it’s nighttime or daytime.

They’re our barometers of wellbeing; opening in flow and closing in fear and pain. Opening to the light, even if it’s windy and raining, closing to the darkness when it seems the night will never end.

H O P E

Our hearts need to be watered by hope. For floods of it to wash through all the grief and despair about where the world is at today, until the petals of our heart are gently prised open once again so the light can get in.

Because there IS light.

Even now. Even now.

Even now in this murky ugliness, oozing with the dank odours of human greed, even now with our dirty skies and our poisoned waters, even now with the wars, the abuse, the endless and persistent hate.

Even now there is hope.

There is hope because there is light. Even in the darkest places, tiny cracks of light. The soft spring breeze of a new generation, filled with youths’ disregard for the possible. The silent multitudes using their scratchy voices for the first time since they learned it was safer to be silent.

The compassionate wave of a mindful revolution.

The unfaltering courage of the human heart in showing kindness to strangers, to love when it feels impossible, to give when there is nothing to give, to keep this fragile, bleeding, raw heart open.

Yes, even now there is hope.

And as one flame lights another, so these little sparks of light kindle others and spread. May they spread like a forest fire, flames flaming higher, winds blowing stronger each minute, until soon the raging burning engulfs all that is dark and dank and foul and cleanses our broken civilisation in the sacred flames of redemption.

May we open those pulsing flowers, those loudly beating hearts, to enclose all that we are, all of us and everything, to the furthest reaches of the universe and back.

Because we are all one. It’s all the same.

Dark and light are simply different paths.

May we choose the light.

//

 

Photo credit: merde-petit-maitre.tumblr.com

Letting life unfold; how to make great decisions

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Our lives are defined by the choices we make.

The only constant in life is change, and living an awakened life involves active participation in each moment as it arises.

We do this by making decisions.

Choosing.

(Not choosing is also a decision.)

Decision-making has always been something of an issue for me. ‘Outside’ choices (those in relation to the world, my likes and dislikes, opinions and so on) are easy, but when it comes to making decisions for myself (‘inside’ choices) it’s always been a horrific tangle of interminable arguing back and forth, weighing of options (I am a good Libran after all), and considering every possible outcome (the control freak in me might also have a little something to do with that).

I’m happy to be able to say that nowadays decision-making is almost always easy-peasy for me (it can still get sticky when expectations of people I love are going to get disappointed), and that recently, in a somewhat ironic twist, several friends have reached out to me for help with their decision-making process (and each time a happy conclusion has been reached).

What I’ve discovered is that the best decisions come from the heart – not the emotions, but from within the deep well of quiet wisdom that each of us carries in our hearts.

These decisions do not require weighing of options, balancing of positive and negative aspects, an abundance of logical reasoning, or input from the ego.

They just ARE.

When we make decisions from this place we find that they just happen somewhere within us, without our minds being consulted. All we need to do is check in with our hearts to collect the answer. Living from this space, the act of decision-making becomes a process of decision-discovering.

For those of you who are questioning the wisdom of not having any rational input; the heart also has objective wisdom – we don’t have to rely on rational arguments from the mind. Heart-based decision-making is NOT emotion-based decision-making; it’s soul-based decision-making.

Our hearts carry the whispers of who we truly are. Of why we are here. Our hearts know what the best decision is for us, in each moment.

Often we are not conscious of it; sometimes we don’t want to know. A lot of the time we are too caught up in the chatter of our minds to be able to have even a hope of hearing the wisdom our hearts are holding.

Learning how to access that wisdom, and then learning to trust it, will change your life.

How to hear your heart

Find a quiet, calm space where you will not be disturbed.

Sit comfortably, spine straight. Breathe deep into your belly. E x h a l e, let your shoulders drop.

Feel your weight relax into the ground beneath you. Let your eyes fall closed.

Breathe deeply, and now place your awareness on the space between your eyebrows. Focus your concentration here until you can feel a slight pressure.

Now move your awareness down, through your face and neck, into your chest, and let it settle in your heart.

Rest there a moment, notice how you feel.

Bring the decision you need to make into this space. Just hold it there, not thinking, simply being with it, unattached to what happens.

Ask your heart what it would have you do?

And listen for the answer.

Fear vs love / contraction vs expansion

An easy habit to get into is to ask what is the fear answer/decision and what is the love answer.

Out of love, what would you do?

When we begin to consistently choose the love option instead of fear option, we get out of the way of our life unfolding. Decisions arise out of a place of BEing, rather than DOing as we allow our hearts to direct us, rather than our minds.

We can also ask how each option feels in the body; does it open you up, breathe more easily, let you expand? Or does it make you shrink, close, contract?

Your heart knows. Your body knows.

The best decision is not always the rational one. Not always the obvious one. Not always the one that’s easy to explain.

Our lives are the direct result of each decision we make, moment by moment, day by day. Learning to make decisions that nourish our souls and honour our truest expression is the fastest way to nurture our authentic development.

And when we learn to listen and live – to really listen and really live – from our hearts, our souls wake up in delight, and life becomes a fluid unfolding.

//

 

Photo credit:  hmhippie.com

How to Manage Overwhelm

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a serious objection to January.

In my ideal world, Januarys just wouldn’t exist. December would be immediately followed by February (which I’m not a huge fan of either, but it’s better than January), or even March.

The only January I ever encountered that didn’t fill my soul with darkness and gloom, in a manner that seems never-ending, was when I lived in Barcelona (it was 14°C and sunny every day).

I haven’t written a blog post since December.

I haven’t, in fact, written anything since December. And when I don’t write, something in me starts to die.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it begins to wither, the juice dries up, and one day I realize I feel shriveled and brittle, and that any creativity I may ever have known has deserted me.

It’s frustrating (and humbling), that as someone who’s spent over a decade exploring mindfulness practices, and trying to learn how to find a slightly less tumultuously emotional way of experiencing life, I can still get into a state of such severe overwhelm that I worry myself.

And yet, that’s what it came to.

Last Monday, at work, feeling far too close to the way I was feeling before my meltdown in Switzerland four (!) years ago, I remembered that I still had some of the anti-anxiety pills I’d been given back then (they’re probably past their shelf life but that didn’t cross my mind in that moment).

It’s also awkward because I’m currently creating a mindfulness course – and yet I myself, in extreme cases (and this has been an extreme case), can still have trouble committing to the practices that help keep me sane.

Hello integrity check number 278 (or thereabouts; I’ve lost count the last few months).

And despite the frazzled state I have whirled myself into once again, I am proud of myself for coping as well as I have. Of giving myself spaces to breathe and nurture myself, of letting go of things, of appointments, of ‘doing’ in order to re-connect to myself in those precious pockets of be-ing.

For dragging my butt out for a 7k run every week. For letting go of a million ‘shoulds’. For doing what needed to be done despite how I was feeling. For taking the decision to stop any and all arguing with reality.

Overwhelm may still be able to sink its teeth into me occasionally, but nowadays I know how to fight back.

Self-Love

All this overwhelm (moving house, emptying & letting go of my childhood home, a plethora of issues with the new house, an intensive coaching course, and a full-time job and too many side projects) has provided an excellent setting to practice self-love.

Limiting commitments. Letting go of previously made commitments. Getting enough sleep. Being endlessly gentle with my weepiness and need for extremely cheesy pizza. Many (many) long hot baths with candles, bubbles and giant glasses of red wine (yes, multiple glasses were often necessary). Re-committing to sitting (meditating) every day.

Using aromatherapy. Colouring mandalas. Buying myself flowers. Reading “Eat, Pray, Love” (for about the 100th time). Lighting candles. Sage-smudging. A delectable new skin-nourishing oil. Deep belly breaths. Flower essences. Kind words. Tea. Kitten snuggles.

And slowly, the stillness is returning.

It’s also been a great opportunity to practice asking for what I need, and for allowing other people to see me when I’m feeling like my skin is paper-thin, when I don’t give a rat’s ass what my hair looks like, or that I haven’t worn make-up in weeks, or the possibility that I might never get rid of the ‘winter weight’ (especially if I keep munching on those immeasurably comforting, overly cheesy pizzas – I’m fairly certain at this point that cheese must be good for the soul).

Managing Overwhelm

So that said, here is my list of everything I’ve found to deal with overwhelm:

  • Know your habitual mental/emotional/physical patterns of behavior when overwhelm begins to creep in (the sooner you spot it, the better)
  • Notice when you’re starting to stretch past what feels comfortable and slip into those habitual patterns
  • Take immediate steps to reduce/let go of activities that feel draining at this point in time
  • Check your priorities, and if necessary (re-)align them with self-care; are there things that can be let go of, backed out of, said ‘No’ to?
  • Write out a giant Self-Love List of every single thing you can think of that nourishes you/makes you feel safe/makes you smile/makes you relax
  • Insert at least one of the things from your Self-Love List into your program each day
  • Watch for where you’re numbing rather than nourishing yourself
  • If the issue(s) causing the overwhelm are likely to be part of your life for a while, brainstorm with a partner/friend about longer-term systems to put into place in order to support you
  • Especially if you’re someone who’s prone to anxiety, make sure you share where you’re at with one or more close friends/family members. If you’re in a partnership, make sure you also seek additional sources of support
  • Take a few minutes to visualize how you want to feel. Breathe it into your cells and anchor it in your body. This is the feeling you are aiming for; make yourself a cute note to stick in your workplace or somewhere you’ll see it at regular intervals that will remind you to plug in to this feeling at regular intervals throughout the day
  • Take ten minutes every day (it can be 5, but every day, non-negotiable) to sit somewhere quiet and just be with whatever is there 
  • Journaling can be helpful if you feel like getting your insides on paper is calming
  • Be incredibly gentle with yourself; try to speak to yourself as you would your best friend, or if you’re really strung out, as you would a small child. You’re overstretched right now – give yourself as much leniency and kindness as you can (and if you can’t, ask a friend to provide you with these words)
  • Physical activities really help to release stress (the product of overwhelm) from the body – a daily activity outside (Oxygen! Nature!) is great; yoga or other indoor activities that activate the parasympathetic nervous system are also wonderfully supportive
  • Get enough sleep, Get enough sleep, Get enough sleep
  • Eat as much fresh, colourful, leafy goodness as possible (in addition to ludicrously cheesy pizza, if that also happens to be your comfort food of choice) – this will support your nervous system and help to balance your endocrine system (which is probably spinning out on crazy cortisol levels)
  • Breathe deep. Expand. Stretch 
  • Take Magnesium and B vitamin supplements to help your body combat stress (or just eat tons of the above-mentioned leafy goodness)
  • Have this ACIM (A Course in Miracles) lesson as your mantra: “I could see peace instead of this”
  • Aromatherapy can help your mood; lavender, rose, ylang ylang and patchouli are my favourites
  • Read Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart.” You will feel better

As a general rule of thumb: do anything and everything that you know is good for you. Try out different things. The struggle against overwhelm is a battle that must be fought on all fronts; body, mind and soul.

That being said, in a state of overwhelm, less is more.

Rather than desperately adding things to your schedule in an aggressive assault, be mindful that it’s going to serve you more to release things. To do less. To have more time to simply be.

So let the words ‘Nourish’ and ‘Peace’ be your guides, align your behaviour with self-love, and practice breathing and expanding into each moment.

And remember; nothing lasts forever. This will pass. And you’ll emerge tougher and wiser than before.

Hang in there.

You’ve got this.

//

 

Photo Credit: scriptical.wordpress.com

We HAVE to hurt people – we have to speak the truth

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“We HAVE to hurt people – we have to speak the truth”

These words were spoken by a man I respect enormously, a teacher. We don’t have time, he said, to become perfect ourselves before we start taking action in the world, before we can act with complete compassion, complete love, complete selflessness.

We must speak the truth that is in us, even if it hurts someone.

To me, with my desperate desire never to hurt anyone, that’s a radical thought.

And yet somewhere in me, I know this is not only necessary, but a secret possibility for grace. When we allow our truth to come out of us, something a bit mysterious happens – as that energy leaves us, our state changes, and if we are speaking with a pure intention, what is left afterwards is love.

I’ve only experienced this once that I recall – I was so tense, angry, frustrated that I felt like I was going to explode, so I spoke. I spoke my anger and frustration, directed at one person, but as I did so I stayed anchored in my heart – and she heard, was with me as I spoke, allowed herself to be impacted. And as I spoke what was there, it softened, and ebbed, until it was almost completely gone, and all that was left was love and compassion.

Radical Responsibility

Those of us who see – what is wrong, but more importantly, much more importantly, where the path lies for positive change – must act, and empower others to do the same. The urgency of this feeling is getting increasingly hard for me to ignore.

And these things that stop us, or at least which stop me – “Who am I to…” / “What can I possibly hope to change…” / “I’m scared I’ll be rejected…” etc. – are all ego-based fears. But this powerful desire to change things does not come from ego. It is driven by a heart-based desire for a more just, balanced, beautiful world – and allowing ego to stand in the way of that drive is to give in to the most base aspect of human nature; which most of us who hear this call vehemently do battle with in other areas where it holds us back.

So why not here as well?

It feels big, and powerful, and terrifyingly audacious to think about changing the world. And horribly humbling to realise we can only do it one small action at a time. And to take that responsibility, even if it means hurting someone.

Something that massively lessened the load for me a few days ago was realising that when I allow what is in me that comes from this deep desire, to emerge, the consequences are not just on me, on Steph. If I am truly allowing the creative impulse (or Divine impulse) to flow through me, then what happens as a result is not just for me to hold.

This can be seen in certain group settings, where many people are tuned in to a transpersonal/collective truth, and one person speaks it – the impact/effect of that will be held by the whole group (if they are holding a commitment to collective growth rather than individual), and doesn’t have to be borne alone by the individual who put it out there in words.

Power And Vulnerability

Holding the growing urgency of this desire to change things is becoming increasingly interesting. The last few weeks I’ve had intense creative energy washing up in waves from my second chakra, bringing storms of ideas and insight.

It feels immensely powerful (which is intoxicating), and most interestingly, it doesn’t feel like “me”. It’s like a force sweeping through me, and not part of my Self that I’m identified with. This is what helped me tune in to the idea that what comes from that energy is not 100% my ownership – because it’s not “mine.”

This power (I feel it as feminine) is strong and demanding, and she’s pushing me to take these ideas and insights and put them out into the world – which is great, but also terrifying (to my ego, which feels increasingly like it has no say anymore).

And so the flip side of this power is intense, incrementally increasing vulnerability; the more I tune into this power and follow the creative drive and put myself out there (Really? Me? Or just my creativity?), the more vulnerable and naked I feel.

And it feels like a paradox – as my power increases, so does my vulnerability.

It feels like that’s somehow a necessary balance.

And there’s a beautiful lesson in there as well; non-attachment to what comes through me/what I create. To not take things personally, whether ‘positive’ or ‘negative.’ To live, fully expressed, and rest in that, whatever the outcomes of my living, of me.

And…I feel like I have no idea yet really what it’s all about ;)

“Are you really naked?”

I was asked this recently, by a – highly perceptive – man who reads my blog, shortly after meeting him. And I was forced to say “No, not entirely –  I’m working on it.”

Ouch.

This was just one of many integrity checks that have been coming my way (internally and externally) in the last few weeks. Another thing I’m discovering about putting more of yourself out there into the world is that the stakes get higher, people’s expectations get aimed at you more, and being certain that you are walking your talk becomes a knife point of precision.

Thinking about facing that as ‘Steph’ is way too scary.

But tuning in to the feeling I have when I allow the creative force to flow through me, and not being attached to it or identifying with it takes away the fear – or rather, there is simply an absence of fear in that state.

And I don’t want to create anything that doesn’t come from that place anyway.

 

//

 

Photo credit: rifmnet.ru

What sweet torture after all, to stand here in the wind, to fall

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My restless mind is running wild,

Beyond the strength of my denial

Mocking words that I abhor –

I want you, I need you, I am yours.

The breadth of your shoulders 

Has made me bolder – 

There is nothing of my desire

That is not fed as fuel to fire

The curve of my back whispers free

Of sinuous movement, of ecstasy

The parting of my lips suggest

That they are yours, and all the rest

Of what I am, pulses fiercely as it can

To call you in, oh wanton man

You who have stripped me of my pride

And left me naked at the wayside

Trembling now with open fear

That you will go and leave me here

My yearning heart a lone wild beat

On this cold and dark and windy street.

How is it you can twist and turn 

And make me weak and melt and burn

How is it you have conjured me

Into a wild raging sea?

But what sweet torture after all

To stand here in the wind, to fall;

To surrender to this ancient call,

To love no matter what befalls –

This call that I can not resist

That woke in me at our first kiss

That asks of me to simply be,

That urges me to wait and see.

//

 

Photo credit: Aneta Ivanova on Behance