For the latest in our WISE WORDS interview series - where stars from a whole range of fields share the important life lessons they’ve learned along the way - we’re posing some of the big questions to singer-turned-writer-turned-actor-turned-mindfulness-coach-turned-podcast-host, Will Young.
Five years ago Will, now 38, had the world at his feet - a number one album, a top five single, a TV special - but despite his undeniable success he was “fundamentally unhappy”.
He had a breakdown and was diagnosed with PTSD. He spent years in therapy and is now dedicated to spreading the word about mindfulness and his new-found life lessons - most recently to Soul Circus, a yoga and wellness festival, to discuss The Art Of Listening.
Sat cross-legged on the floor with no shoes on and sporting a ‘Homo Sapiens’ T-shirt (which, he jokes, is to promote the LGBTQ+ podcast he has just launched) he tells HuffPost UK it was a tough slog to find “enlightenment”.
He is still very much affected by his trauma - recently he was unable to perform at Wilderness festival because he was physically unable to get out of his car - but he now has learned to roll with it. (“I still get very bad hypervigilance, which is a trauma takeover. Now, I just accept it... If I’m in a terrified state, I’m not going to pick up a shame stick and start hitting myself with it,” he tells HuffPost UK.)
What remains striking is the way Will’s approach is his openness and sense of humour, despite still battling with mental health.
“The best thing about having a breakdown is you can just tell everyone you’re having a breakdown, because they don’t know what to say,” he says during his talk at Soul Circus. “I’d go to the local cafe and say: ‘I’m having a breakdown...and two lattes.’”
Here he tells HuffPost UK about happiness, the importance of personal boundaries and his beloved six-month-old Shetland Pony, Sheila.
How do you switch off from the world?
I meditate. I do visualisation and I have a gong that I use. I’m going to study sound therapy next year, which I’m really excited about.
I have a combination of my own keep fit and wellbeing exercises that I do... I lie on the floor and I release the bottom of my spine, because there are so many nerves there, and I roll a tennis ball under my feet, because we hold so much tension there.
How do you deal with negativity?
It depends what form it comes in... The word I would use is: boundaried.
If it were to come towards me, it would usually come in a shame form, and I would need to be boundaried to stop that.
If it were coming from within, I need to be boundaried to notice it, contain it and to understand it.
When and where are you happiest?
The whole time. There is no specific place. Happiness is within me so there’s no space or thing or person that I will rely on - it’s just there.
My happiness will go like any emotion. It will oscillate. I may experience a nine out of ten just off junction 10 on the M4, I may experience a two out of ten at 9pm tonight - who knows?
I cultivate it [happiness] through finding peace. For me, it’s very body-oriented, with thoughts there are ways of catching negative thoughts and that’s really useful. I’m really interested in body-based calming of the nervous system. If we’re calm and we feel safe, we kind of feel happy the whole time... I’m really interested in looking at myself as a living being rather than my brain.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given?
“Don’t expect from others what they’re not willing or capable of giving.”
I remind myself of that every day - at least twice a day. It takes away my expectations. They’re either not willing to do it and I can’t change that or they’re not capable and I can’t change that, either.
I had this amazing therapist who’s really camp called Lois Evans. She’s a New York Jewish lady with Tiffany earrings, which I’m convinced I basically bought for her. We did ten years of therapy. She gave me ten lines to live by in life and that was always the one that stood out for me... It’s good for family, friends, work and relationships.
What’s been the hardest lesson you’ve learned?
Going through trauma and recovery was very painful. I’d have liked to have gone through it sipping a Pina Colada on the beach, but it just doesn’t work like that. I can’t get to enlightenment without going through stuff to enable me to be enlightened.
The road of recovery through trauma - I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, but I would wish the end results on anyone.
But as an overall arch, I guess those five years of going through that was very hard. Terribly hard, like walking through treacle.
What would you tell your 13-year-old self?
I love my 13-year-old self, he’s quite cool and feisty. I’d say keep going, you’re so on point.
The wonderful thing about doing trauma therapy is I’ve kind of embraced every age. It’s like going through a layer of a cake. You embrace every age you may have left behind. I look back - I’ve got tingles - I look back at every age and think ‘oh, I love you’.
I’ve kind of healed every age. So my 13-year-old self is such a dude. He is very good - well, he’s within me - but he’s very good at pin-pointing people. He had to be. He can get someone in a millisecond. That survival tool has been amazing for me as an adult.
What three things are at the top of your to-do list?
Sound therapy training, I’ve got to finish this [TV] script and I’m doing some physical training.
I’ve got to get fit, I’m doing Cabaret The Musical again, I’ve got to get into this corset - I haven’t got into it for two years! [laughs]
What do you think happens when we die?
I used to be very scared of death until I saw a shaman.
To me, if I think of death, I just see lots of sparks and gold and beauty. I won’t be around and that concept I’ll never be able to get my head around, because I’ve always been around. So I’m not going to waste time thinking about that because it’s unthinkable - it literally is unthinkable.
So I just see it in colours and I see a lot of sparks, connection and eternity. I don’t think I’m going to be around, I don’t believe in heaven - although it would be lovely if that was the case - I don’t believe in any sense of consciousness or awareness of my life, but I do believe the energy becomes the most magical thing.
When do you feel a sense that we live in the presence of something bigger than ourselves?
I always have a notion of it, but to feel it… [would be] when I see signs. I’ve had a few premonitions in my time and I feel very plugged into signs. When I plug into that, life just takes me and I don’t need to worry about anything.
I had it recently with a job. I was unsure and I literally went on to the internet and this thing popped up and I said out loud: ‘Oh fuck, I’m going to have to do it now.’
Sometimes they [the signs] also warn me off of something, I can feel if something isn’t right. I just get out of the way.
What do you try to bring to your relationships?
Love and understanding... and space. Those three things.
Because if there’s not space for things to come in to a safe space - things can’t get resolved. A big part of listening is having that space. It’s fundamental otherwise we become a mess and co-dependent or we are too far away. There’s got to be containment. Because otherwise we don’t feel heard and no one likes not being heard in a relationship.
What keeps you grounded?
The ground keeps me grounded!
Kids keep me grounded. I have nieces and nephews and I love them. I would happily play with kids every day of the week. They are awesome.
And, weirdly, horses. They’ve got an amazing presence. I started riding when I was 30. I fell off and I was told off because I was doing an acting job and they said if you fall off 1. We don’t pay you and 2. You pay us because it’s in your contract and they showed it to me. But I want to start again.
I have 11 rescue horses in Cornwall and I go and sit amongst them. They are amazing. Their energy is super cool. They remind me of myself and of people, because we can’t demand trust from people. Because they are rescue horses, they are more flighty and so I really have to just sit. If I’m not settled, they won’t settle and so we kind of regulate each other.
I’ve got a six-month-old shetland called Sheila. She backs up to me to get her bottom scratched. She twerks. [laughs] When we rescued her she was so tiny and now she’s so fat. And no Shetland pony should ever run - they look so stupid. [laughs again]
What was the last good deed or act of kindness you received?
A woman wrote me a letter. It was hand-written and very long. She had been committed to a psychiatric ward as she had psychosis. I did not have a clue where this letter was going, it was quite an opening to the letter. Anyway, she thought she was my sister - convinced, she was. They used to play one of my songs in the ward - that reinforced it, but also calmed her. It was a time when the song was on radio a lot.
Anyway, she got out and her life is much better now. She wanted to thank me. She said: “Don’t worry I don’t think, you’re my brother anymore. But every time I hear that song it makes me calm.” It was so beautiful, I almost cried. We never know how much we affect each other.
It wasn’t so much an act of kindness but I was very grateful that she put it down on paper.
The song was ‘Who Am I?’ - the irony! [laughs] She didn’t know who she was, she had psychosis, a personality disorder.
Will Young attended Soul Circus festival to give a talk on The Art Of Listening.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org