Thank you for your smile …

Nothing disarms me quite like a genuine smile.

When someone smiles a truly genuine smile you see into their soul, just for a brief moment. And whatever came before, whatever games are played after, in that instant, you see the spirit, stripped of any pretence.

I’m careful to talk here of genuine smiles, smiles from the heart. Smiles that are spontaneous, unplanned, unrehearsed and unpracticed. These are smiles that can’t be learned, smiles that are truly inimitable fingerprints of their owner. I believe everyone is born with a genuine smile that can never be masked. One can of course practice fake smiles, camera smiles, business smiles, polite smiles, flirtatious smiles, political smiles … but one can never fake, or hide, the genuine smile.

Genuine smiles happen when you are caught off guard. They’re triggered by something that provokes a primeval response, deep within. They catch you unaware, like when you trip or fall and your arms stretch out in front to protect you. You have no control of this reaction, no time to think, it’s purely instinctive, and a genuine smile is exactly the same.

The grown-up name for a genuine smile is a Duchenne smile, a term coined in 1862 by a neurologist called Guillaume Duchenne, who identified that the muscles used in a spontaneous smile are not merely the ones around the mouth – but also the ones around the eyes.

More formally, a Duchenne smile involves contraction of both the zygomatic major muscle (which raises the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscle (which raises the cheeks and forms crow’s feet around the eyes).

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Left: a nice man, right: a complete c***

Fortunately, we humans are quite good at spotting the difference, and we’re naturally attracted to Duchenne smiles because they’re unforced and genuine. I believe we are attracted to them because it signals a stronger virtue.

Two celebrities with particularly strong Duchenne smiles are Emma Willis and Robin Williams. When I see a Duchenne smile, I don’t need to think about it, or analyse it, I just react, usually by smiling myself. And I often wonder why I’m drawn to certain people, like Emma and Robin, and I’m sure its because they invoke a positive reaction in me, due in no small part to their generous Duchenne smiles:

And it isn’t entirely to do with beauty. Victoria Beckham has some very striking attributes, yet rarely displays her ‘Duchenne’, opting instead to hide behind a more formal, colder, practiced image – a fake smile with very little, if any, orbicularis oculi stimulation. This is sometimes coined the ‘Pan-Am’ smile, a familiar smile worn by many a tired air hostess. All very well intentioned perhaps, but … well … not for me.

Meh …

Last week I went to the cinema to watch The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, and came away from it feeling wonderfully warm, contented and happy. A truly joyous film, delightfully British – both warm and funny in equal measure, with a superb cast.

‘But didn’t you find the plot a little weak’? A friend asked.

‘No’, I replied ‘but I think I’ve just seen the finest exponent of the Duchenne smile that I have ever seen in my entire life’.

Lily ‘Duchenne’ James

 

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When we were young …

This amazing photograph, titled “Kids jumping onto mattresses” was taken by Tish Murtha in 1980, and rather beautifully encapsulates life growing up in urban Britain in the 70s/80s.

Youth Unemployment in Elswick

image by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved.

Notwithstanding the kid in the foreground holding the ventriloquist’s dummy (wtf?), the rest of the scene could have been from any summer in my early youth growing up in  an industrial corner of Yorkshire. We did that kind of thing to entertain ourselves – we climbed trees, rummaged through quarries for pram wheels (with which we would make and then race trolleys), and we played in and around abandoned, or semi-built, houses and burned out cars.

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Elswick Kids, image by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved.

How times have changed. No longer would such a derelict house or rusty old car be left so blatantly abandoned and accessible like that. And no responsible, modern day parent would ever dream of letting their children loose, especially unsupervised, in such dangerous environments.

Through modern eyes, and with seemingly ever increasing levels of paranoia, we can see nothing but danger and neglect in these scenes, but with our 70s outlook we can see only fun, excitement, camaraderie and danger.

Back then, we climbed and fell out of trees, we played football on fields laden with broken glass strewn with (white) dog shit. And we jumped out of abandoned or derelict houses onto filthy, disgusting mattresses, before returning home, scruffy, scratched and grazed, starving hungry and totally and completely knackered. If it was Saturday we may have had a bath, otherwise our mums reluctantly washed our faces with a flannel, fed us a jam sandwich and sent us to bed. The next morning we would wake up, hurriedly get dressed and repeat it all over again, for six glorious weeks throughout the summer.

Should we return to those days? Of course not, that’s a bygone age and we have moved on. But looking back, none of us died, yet we did have immense fun and learned ever such a lot about the harsh realities and dangers of life, something I wonder if kids today in their sanitised, indoor, digitised cocoons, will ever get to experience?

 

Petitioning for a better life …

We all have a choice – we can choose the red pill or the blue pill.

When we choose the blue pill …blue pill

These dark, wintry days can get to us and if we’re unsuspecting they can affect our mood. Sadness typically requires very little effort, just passivity. Sit back and let all the bad things wash over you – the weather, the current political landscape, getting old. Focus on all that wasted time, on all those other, more successful people out there, and bingo, life feels overwhelmingly grim.

We can watch the news a certain way too – Brexit, this hapless government, Donald Trump, all the greed, violence, terrorism, food banks, homelessness, death, immigration – wherever you turn it’s bleak, it’s nasty, it’s dystopian. It’s a terrible time to be alive.

We look at ourselves critically. We’re getting older, fatter, we ache more, we sleep worse, we make noises when we bend down all of a sudden, we forget things, books take longer to read, ideas take longer to digest, food takes longer to digest, we increasingly need to wear glasses, we can’t run like we once did, we can’t fit into those trousers any more, our hair has gone thin and grey. Yuk.

And we build our barricades to suit. We choose our friends and colleagues, all our newsfeeds, all our social media timelines raining down on us, echo chambers playing back that which we already feared. It’s true, this is what we have become, a worried, complaining spectator on life. A gloomy, sombre onlooker passing comment, occasionally shaking our soppy fists, but always helpless, entirely hapless and seemingly clueless.

When we choose the red pill … red pill

Yes the days are short in January, it is dark and cold out there, but it needn’t stop us. We can dress for the occasion, both metaphorically and literally. This is England, it’s about as moderate here as anywhere on the planet. It’s sometimes a bit chilly, a tad breezy (nay, blustery even) and quite often damp, but that’s about it. We don’t generally suffer from tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, flooding and bushfires. In fact there’s nothing in any of our weather stopping us gearing up and getting out there and enjoying the world. We grow accustomed to summer being good and winter being bad, but winter needn’t be enduring, it has just as much to offer us as summer. We can stop wishing the winter days away and instead enjoy them now. We can open your eyes instead of closing them, in the same way we can look forward to opening the curtains on a morning, not closing them on an evening. With the red pill we can approach things differently. A winter sky has far more to offer than a summer one if you just look with fresh eyes.

And we can choose instead to properly watch the news and instead of feeling overwhelmed and helpless, we can think of all the things we can change. We can think of the people who could really benefit from our help. We can start locally or we can start small, we can look around us at our neighbours and friends, even strangers. And we can soon realise we’re not the unfortunate homeless ones, we’re not the alcoholic in the park, we’re not unemployed, and despite what our bloated western bellies are telling us, we’re certainly not the hungry ones begging for food. The news can often be grim, but instead of letting it dictate our mood, instead of just sighing and rolling over or turning over, we can dictate the news, we can act and react. We can help make change.

And so what if we are getting old? That’s not news. Nor is it even a choice. It’s just a fact of life, of all our lives. I’m no longer 30 years old, so why strive to be 30? Surely its better to be the best 53 yr old I can be? Time, perhaps, to stop focussing so much on what I was, poring over what I have lost, and instead to focus more on what I have become – older yes, but also wiser, calmer, kinder? Perhaps focussing my energy on how I can grow spiritually, become better. A time maybe to seek out those who could really benefit from my advantages – family, friends and strangers alike. A time to stop taking, a time to give.

Although it often feels easy, we don’t have to complain, we can choose instead to campaign. To petition for a better life, not just for ourselves, but for those around us too. We don’t have to passively watch, we can, instead, actively participate.

Ultimately we are always free to choose the red pill over the blue.

Better lives don’t just arrive and happier lives aren’t searchable on Google. We have to make them happen, through our action and intent. There comes a time when we perhaps need to turn off the TV and the computer, a time to throw those curtains wide and open the front door, to start our campaigns for a better life, starting today, right now in fact, small steps, with a cold, damp, blustery, but beautiful wintry walk. All we need are our coats and sensible footwear …

The choices we make, every moment of every day, are always ours to make … the red pill or the blue pill?

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Twenty Eighteen …

So here we stand at the start line of a brand new year, a time when we both reflect and look forward. We ask ourselves what went well last year, what made us unhappy, what made us smile, what made us sad?

We plan, we want less of that, but more of this. We all make our own lists, at least in our heads, even if we don’t always write them down. Human nature means we all want a better life, somehow – whether we want to turn ‘bad’ into ‘manageable’, ‘manageable’ into ‘good’, or ‘good’ into ‘very good’, we all want to see some form or progress along our own happiness scale.

And if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s the importance of planning wisely. I’ve learned not to be too ambitious, but most importantly, I’ve learned to stop chasing the wrong things.

I’m never going to write a novel, but I can always write. A marathon is a tough ask that’s fading quickly, but jogging needn’t be a lost hope. Hiking Kilimanjaro takes a lot of time, money and planning – all in short supply – but walking every day takes very little whatosever.

Quitting drink by throwing myself into Dry January hasn’t worked in the past and it’s unlikely to work now. Veganuary is laudable, but is it realistic? Mightn’t it be better instead to just cut down on midweek drinking? To introduce meat-free days into the weekly calendar?

Lofty, worthy, ambitious goals are exciting, but they’re also disheartening when you inevitably fail to climb their long ladders. And that’s why my resolution this year is not to make any grand claims, but rather to focus simply on what’s next. Instead of trying to win the war right now, I’ll just focus on the next battle.

2018 will be about taking small steps, but well intentioned ones. In 2018 I aim to chip away at ambition, but not attack it. Health, financial security, relationships, friendships and general happiness are still as important as ever, but they’re not giants to be slayed. These aims and aspirations should be free to roam unbounded. These dreams, hopes and aspirations are organic, wandering free, sniffing and scratching the earth, interacting, learning, maybe even evolving themselves. There’s nothing wrong with next year’s goals being different to this year’s, so long as we can adapt, so long as we are clear where we are heading.

I don’t believe happiness can ever be conquered. Happiness, contentment, health, financial security – these mighty beasts will never be tamed, they’re simply beacons that should light our way.

All we need is the foresight to see them. And then all we need to do is take small steps.

Happy new year.

Stepping onto the pitch …

There’s total abstinence on one extreme of the axis, hedonistic indulgence on the other, and somewhere in between lies moderation. But exactly where moderation is on that axis is debatable, and that’s always been my problem with it.

Whereas abstinence is ‘0’, and indulgence is ‘1’, moderation is 0.x where ‘x’ is something that can never be defined. There’s no slippery slope with ‘0’ and ‘1’ extremism, no grey area, no line in the sand to keep to one side of, making decision-making very simple.

I stop drinking booze, ergo, I simply don’t drink alcohol. I quit eating meat and I open a vegetarian cookbook. But if I cut down, I still ‘do’, and I’m standing in no-mans land betwixt and between the end zones of abstinence and indulgence. To extremists, moderating your booze means you can still have a drink any-time. If you cut down your dairy intake you can still eat some cheese. Whatever the underlying reasons, be they ethical, moral, health related or financial, to the extremist every time you ‘do’, you fall short of that ‘reason’. You can also no longer measure success or failure in the middle, because in this analogue no-mans land everything is still possible and both failure and success continue to compete for attention, whereas in the digital end-zones of abstinence and excess everything is crystal clear, you either do or you don’t.

This is why I have always tended to operate in the end-zones.  If I choose to run I want to become a total runner. I buy books on running, I download running apps, I listen to running podcasts, I research running shoes to PhD level, I dream about running, I blog about running, I seek out running people, I bore other people with my running and I create pro-running echo chambers on social media. I run every day and I become a true running bore living wholly within the indulgent ‘1’ end-zone – a running legend in my own head and my own lifetime. And then I get injured and I can no longer run, but instead of cutting back I stop running altogether – apps are deleted, podcasts are unsubscribed, running gurus are unfollowed on Twitter – and I gather up my belongings and up sticks to decamp in the opposite ‘0’ running end-zone of total abstinence where I live as a complete non-runner, eschewing all running related facets in my life, mixing with like-minded sedentarists.

And that’s the problem with extremism. End-zone living might be very clear and very simple, but it does come at a cost. Most importantly, it’s extremely difficult to comply with. To never do anything ever again takes remarkable courage and commitment. But worst of all, when you fail, when your toe silently and subtly edges over the end-zone white line it’s over, gone, completely and forever.  You can’t ever be a little bit pregnant in the same way you can never be a vegetarian who eats the occasional chicken nugget, or a teetotaller who enjoys a sherry at Christmas. Extremism is a lifestyle not to be taken lightly, and it’s utterly exhausting.

Extremists eschew moderates, seeing them as weak and ill-disciplined, rudderless, with no rules or signposts for living. Extremists stand in both end zones, arms folded, tutting and sighing at the fickle-natured moderates who smile and giggle their way through life like it’s some kind of light-hearted and flippant game.

Take nutrition as an example. Not wishing to generalise too much but it’s fair to say that, generally speaking, Americans are extremists where the French are moderates. American food is covered in labels telling us they’re ‘sodium-free’, ‘gluten-free’, ‘zero-calorie’, ‘cholesterol lowering’ and so on. French food on the other hand, if it is labelled or packaged at all, is marked ‘cheese’, ‘beef’,  or ‘snail’.

And you don’t need me to tell you who are the healthiest and happiest nation. That’s right, it’s the one that sits out in the middle drinking wine, smoking Gitanes, eating fatty meat and indulging in sugary desserts. Meanwhile the extremists are drinking litre buckets of zero cal sodas through plastic straws and eating foods refined within an inch of their lives (but stripped of all devilish ingredients such as salt and sugar).

And the act of eating itself – a social construct to be enjoyed and shared with moderates, becomes a sin for extremists who hide behind their desk or the wheel of their car (whilst parked up in the end-zone). One is a meal that is also a social occasion lasting a couple of hours, not something sinful you endure for ten guilty minutes in isolation behind closed doors.

And the moderate who enjoyed steak and chips with red wine for lunch, may just have a small cheese dish for supper. He rarely if ever goes off the rails. He drinks most days but never more than a couple of glasses, although it’s perfectly fine to indulge too every now and then. After all life is for living. Everything goes when you’re in the moderate centre, nothing is banned or out of reach, and it is precisely for that reason that things are rarely abused out there in the middle.

The extremists future is by definition dystopian, a field of landmines to be delicately negotiated, whereas the true moderate’s presence is utopian, a busy road to be enjoyed and shared with others. Extremists fear the future, whereas moderates enjoy the present.

I’ve been a life long extremist but it’s time for me to move out of the end-zone and onto the pitch. I’m going to try and mingle, shake hands with some moderates and see what happens.

And I really, really hope I don’t end up in jail, hospital or rehab.

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The best playlist of my life … and maybe yours too?

I’ve always enjoyed compiling music. In the old days it was recording from vinyl onto cassette tapes, or recording songs from the radio where you had to try and stop the recording just after the song ended, but before Tony Blackburn or Simon Bates spoke and spoiled everything.

I used to compile tapes for friends (for friends read girls). They took ages to compile, each track carefully chosen, sometimes with accompanying lyrics handwritten out of sheer love and desire.  I would sometimes have to post the tapes in the mail in the hope she would receive, listen and come running.

It never really worked but it was immense fun. These days it’s much easier with Spotify, Apple Music or any other streaming service where 30-million tracks are just a click away, in high fidelity, with no DJ interruptions. And so it is that old fashioned, analogue compilations have now given way to digital playlists.

I tend to build playlists these days principally for me rather than for girls, but it’s still a great way to gather together certain genres, or composers, or songs from a particular decade, songs for dinner parties, songs for house parties, songs for flying, songs to run along to, songs to cook with, songs to sing along to.

The options are endless, but my most recent playlist has undoubtedly been the most fun to compile, and I wanted share this with you because it’s something you might want to try.  Mine’s called ‘Andy’s life playlist’, but you might want to give yours a different name.

Here’s how it works:

  1. You must add a song to the playlist if, and only if, it was a significant thing for you, at some stage of your life. It might be something you fell in love with, obsessed over, or just something that is so significantly memorable that it transports you back to a very specific place/time/age. Terry Jacks – Seasons In The Sun was the first 45/single I ever bought from Casa Disco. I was 9yrs old and I fell in love with music. I was on the way to becoming me.  So that’s in.
  2. It MIGHT be a song you didn’t particularly like, but which is so strongly associated with a specific life event that it has to go in. When our first child was born, I remember returning to the car bleary eyed and emotionally punch drunk, turning on the radio when ‘Sleeping Satellites’ by Tasmin Archer came on the radio.  That song will forever be associated with my wife and our son, and whenever I hear it I am immediately transported back to Milton Keynes Hospital Car Park in the autumn of 1992. So that’s in too.
  3. You MUST NOT exclude a song because you now find it cheesy, facile, simplistic or juvenile. This is just your 2017 self filtering and tainting your thinking. You loved that song back then when (and because) you were pure, you were untainted by other opinions, politics, self awareness and snobbiness. You just reacted biologically to the words, the beat, the harmonies, the chord changes. It affected the real you, it was you. I remember singing with a hairbrush into my bedroom mirror miming and dancing to ‘I Can Do It’ by The Rubettes. I was Alan Williams, I even had similar hair. So that has to be in, whether I like it or not.
  4. You CANNOT add a song that you like now, but didn’t like at the time, just to try and make yourself look cool. Stop playing these games. Just because you should have liked The Jam doesn’t mean ‘Going Underground’ should be on the playlist.
  5. Certain songs evoke memories of life events like nothing else can, and that’s what you’re trying to capture here. On the first anniversary of my dad’s untimely death, I remember I felt miserable all day. I was working in London and can recall coming home on the train that evening. It was a hot summer’s evening as I stared out of the window feeling bluesy when ‘Warning Signs’ started to play through my headphones. And when Chris Martin said “... and the truth is, I miss you, yeah the truth is, I miss you … so“, I started to cry, and I cried all the way to my car. But I felt happy, I felt connected to Dad somehow. You could be forgiven for not hearing that ‘so’ at the end of that line, but I don’t, and I never will. I don’t understand how all this stuff works but it’s very powerful, and that song evokes memories of my Dad and specifically his loss, like nothing else ever can. I often cry when I hear it now, and whilst Chris probably wrote it about Gwyneth, or some other lover, to me it’s it’s about Dad. It’s between me and him. That’s the kind of stuff that has to go in.
  6. And it doesn’t have to just be old stuff, you CAN add new songs to the playlist. If a song affects you in 2017, it’s just as much a part of your life playlist as the song that affected you in 1973. You might discover a song from ’73 that you hear for the first time in 2017, so that’s fine to go in too, but you CANNOT add a ’73 song you didn’t ever like or have no connection to, but you now wish you had (see point 4 above) – that’s one for your fake public playlist.

Just remember, this playlist is designed to be a musical portfolio for your life, not for anyone else’s. Build it for you. You won’t be able to do it in one go, just keep it running in the background and add to it whenever and wherever you remember a song. There’s no limit, it can be as short or as long as you like.

Also, please note that your playlist must never be shared. Once you know you might share you will start to filter, and it will no longer be your pure playlist, but rather a modified playlist you’d like others to think was yours. This is very important.  I have some right shit on mine, stuff I’ll never admit to in public, but it’s part of me, no one will ever know, it’s my little secret, it’s my life playlist.

And finally, but just as importantly, you must edit the title and append a number to each song title, e.g, ‘Seasons in the sun’ becomes ‘9_Seasons In the Sun’, ‘Hold me now’ becomes ’18_Hold me now’, ‘Linger’ becomes ’28_Linger”, and so on. This number is the age you were (or as close as you can approximate) when you connected with the song.

And this is the special bit. When you now play your playlist where the songs are ordered alphabetically, you now get to listen to the soundtrack of your life.

Belinda

 

Flawed logic and sub-optimal living

In my latest self help article, I look at the important role of logic in solving everyday problems, and examine, through mathematical reasoning, how flawed logic can lead to sub-optimal living.

I learned this the hard way, failure is the best way to learn, so allow me to share my mistakes with you, so you don’t fall into the same ‘unhappiness trap’ as I.

Let’s take the everyday dilemma of choosing an orange from a bowl of oranges to illustrate the point.

This is how my logic navigated me through life (before I achieved enlightenment):

Let’s say I have four oranges in my fruit bowl, three of which still look fresh, young, zesty and healthy, but one orange is on the turn, with blemished skin, dark patches and bruises forming. And let’s say I fancy an orange. Which one do you think I eat? I don’t choose at random, I use a form of logic that goes like this – eat the one on the turn because tomorrow it will have gone over and will be ruined, save the healthy ones, they still have a shelf-life.  And so I eat the fourth orange, the one on the turn. I find the experience mediocre at best. Satisfaction 50%

The following day I have three oranges in my fruit bowl, two of which still look fresh, young, zesty and healthy, and one that’s now on the turn, with blemished skin, dark patches and bruises forming … I eat the one on the turn. Satisfaction 50%. The following day I have two oranges, one on the turn, one healthy … Satisfaction 50%. On day four the final orange is looking very shabby, it’s on the turn, logic dictates it won’t last, I’m tired of oranges but I eat it. Satisfaction 30%.

Let’s assume the average orange delivers 10 units of enjoyment, my total enjoyment from my four oranges is 50% x 10 x 3 + 30% x 10 = 18.

This is how an enlightened person applies thinking in his life:

The smart person fancies an orange and discovers he has four in his fruit bowl, three of which are healthy and one that is on the turn. He bins the shitty one and eats the ever-so slightly inferior orange from the remaining three (note that it is still still very healthy and far from the turn). Mmm, it’s delicious, he scores a dizzying 90% satisfaction, harvesting nine enjoyment points in the process.

On day two, he only has two oranges left, but they’re still lush oranges, bursting with life and zingy fruitiness. He chooses the slightly weaker one of the two but it’s still a cracking orange. He scores 70% satisfaction, collecting seven enjoyment points.  On day three, he only has one orange left, the leader of the pack, the SAS of the orange world, the never-say-die alpha male, the king of the hill. He eats it, he derives 70% satisfaction and collects a further seven enjoyment points.

On day four he has no oranges left, but he doesn’t give a shit, he’s sick of oranges anyway and he doesn’t want to turn into a bloody orange!

Total enjoyment points = 9+7+7 = 23

If it were only oranges that would be OK, but sadly this is mirrored all too often through other facets of my life (and maybe yours too), for I also apply similar ‘orange’ logic to other daily challenges – like selecting underpants for example:

I have 10 pairs of underpants in my pants drawer. Three pairs are my absolute faves – comfortable, roomy yet secure, airy, stylish (in case of road traffic accident) – and seven pairs are getting old and a little tired. They’re also slightly tight fitting (I think they must have shrunk in the wash). They look a bit like old man’s pants too, somewhat dated and embarrassing if I’m brutally honest with myself.

So which pair do I choose? I choose one of the seven shitty pairs obviously, my logic dictating it’s best to save the good ones for another day. Satisfaction 20%. On day two, I repeat the aforementioned logic, selecting another pair of ill fitting, moribund Y-fronts, satisfaction 20%. This repeats the entire week, at which point I do some washing so at the beginning of week two I have 10 fresh pairs of pants, three nice pairs and seven shitty pairs.  Week two, by the same logic, I wear shitty pairs all week.

Let’s say the average pair of underpants delivers 10 units of enjoyment, my weekly enjoyment haul from my pants is a measly 2 x 7 = 14*, whereas the superior logician reaps (3 x 10) + (4 x 2) = 38*.

 

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Conclusion – live life every day, like it’s your last. Wear nice pants and eat fresh oranges.

 

 

* assumes only 1 weekly wash of smalls

 

Running to stand still …

Today was one of those special days when the sun came out and shone brightly all day long. Supermarkets were selling BBQ food by the skip load, lawnmowers were purring, the birds were singing and everyone appeared to be in a good mood.

And I had to go for a run. I just had to. There was no freewill involved, this was an executive order issued from upon high, and so I strapped on my lime green running shoes and I ran …

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Within seconds of starting my run I felt real joy, which sounds a little stupid and Hollywoodesque, but its the most accurate word I can come up with. It was like I was in sync with the world (there I go again). I felt the cool breeze on my skin (stop it), marvelled at the blue sky and cotton white clouds (no really, stop it), smelled the flowers in the fields (oh ffs), heard the birds in the trees (tra-la-la) and felt like an integral part of this sunny day, like I was somehow a piece of the jigsaw, instead of the jigsaw builder (better).

And that’s what running does to me, it’s what running does for me. It makes me feel whole. Running for me is an inclusive experience because it connects the dots and joins up the pieces. Running is the thread that binds me to the world, and for a few moments I stop being the passenger who watches the world go by, instead I become part of the world’s fabric.

I often consider myself a spectator. In a meeting room full of business people, I’m continually scanning the room, trying to work out or second guess people’s back stories, trying to see what lies behind their corporate facade. I’m the same at a party, on the outside looking in, searching for clues, gauging the atmosphere, trying to read between the lines. I float around the edges of conversations, a few feet above my own right shoulder, looking down on and witnessing events, but never really being part of them.

A consequence of such behaviour is a feeling of disengagement. I berate myself for not participating more in meetings, or for not chatting more at parties where everyone else appears so much more involved. Instead my mind appears distracted, in absentia, rarely in the ‘now’, usually to be found trying to guess the future or poring over the past.

Except when I’m running.  When I run I flow within the world (don’t go there). There is no third person at these times and no shoulder to sit on. The world is running with me and I’m running with the world. The world is running within me, not without me (another U2 lyric?).

Running won’t make me rich or make me a better person, but it does give me a sense of connectedness and purpose. Running opens up a brief window into a place where I suspect many luckier people already inhabit – people in meetings, people at parties, many of my friends and family, I suspect they’re all there already.

I wonder if a life can ever be lived wholly in flow.

In the meantime I look out of the window, somewhat disengaged, looking forward to my next run.

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This post was written on Sunday 9th April, hottest day of the year so far …

Mindfulness & the importance of ‘now’

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All we ever have is what is in our mind at any given moment. Wherever we are, at whatever time of the day, on any and every day, our mind governs who, what and how we are. Every experience we have, every mood we possess, whether it be a happy one or a sad one, is shaped entirely by our mind.

And there is nothing else.

Most of us, me included, spend the majority of our time pursuing and seeking out happiness. We constantly and consistently want to be happy or satisfied ‘now’. Our actions are chosen for this one specific reason and our days are formed by a series of decisions aimed at maximising happiness and minimising sadness, and yet at every turn we seem to be denied, foiled  and hoisted by our own happiness seeking petards.

A typical moment in a typical day for many of us might play out like this:

I have a headache (pain), so I choose to go for a walk to get some much needed fresh air, yes that will make me feel better (happy). I walk (relaxed), but after a short while I feel too hot, the sun is stronger than I anticipated and I start to feel uncomfortable (sad). I remove my jacket and immediately I feel better (happy), but there’s a cool breeze and after a few moments I feel a chill (cold). I walk faster. This is good (energised), but soon I feel tired, my muscles ache, is that a blister I can feel? (pain). I head for home, this walk has taken longer than I had hoped, I must get back, there’s things to do (anxiety). I get home, I feel good for the walk (accomplishment), but the positive feeling I experience is soon wiped out by guilt of the chores I need to accomplish today (guilt). I chastise myself for wasting time on a walk when I have so much to do (critical). I berate my weakness for procrastination (sad). I crack on with some jobs (productive). I am hungry (empty), I eat a sandwich (fulfilled), but all that the full fat cheese (guilt). I drink black tea, no milk, that’s good (healthy), but what about staining my teeth? (ugly). I want chocolate to round off my lunch (greedy). I eat chocolate (happy), but the guilt reappears (sad). I have a thirst (unpleasant), so I drink water (sated). I need the loo (unpleasant), I go to the loo (relief). I must work!(stress)  I work (productive). I’m bored and I feel tired (fatigue). I take a break and watch some TV (relax), but such mindless garbage on TV! (guilt). There’s nothing in for dinner because I’m working so damned hard (frustrated). It’s Friday, sod it I’ll get a take away, yay! (elation). I work excitedly until I order my curry (excited). I eat my curry, woohoo! (deliriously happy). But wait, I’m so full I think I need surgery (uncomfortable). I’m so stuffed I can’t move (fat). I waddle to bed, I can’t sleep (indigestion). I hate myself for wasting money on the stupid takeaway and now I can’t sleep (very sad).

Many of us live our days like this, constantly leaping from a state of happiness to a state of unhappiness, over and over again, see-sawing from high to low and back again, trying to zero in on happiness and contentment but only ever briefly experiencing it before being boomeranged off to the next trauma or disappointment.

Whilst we can only ever physically live in the ‘now’, our minds seem to live anywhere but there. At every turn we are either regretting a past event or trying to second guess a future one. On a pleasant summer’s walk, instead of delighting in the majesty of nature, we are thinking of getting home (future), of jobs undone (future), conversations planned (future). Or perhaps we are replaying old conversations (past) or reliving failed arguments (past), oblivious to the deep blue sky above (now), the bird wistfully singing in the tree (now), the rabbit running freely in the field (now).

We are, by nature, material seekers. We search out pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations, moods. We try and satisfy ourselves intellectually and surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We seek out art, music, fine wine, delicious foods, and yet our pleasures are rarely anything more than fleeting. Like the video game Frogger, we jump from experience to experience in search of happiness, like a hummingbird we stop briefly before moving on to the next, constantly trying to keep boredom and unhappiness at bay.

Yet most of us seem to fail spectacularly. Happiness seems to be at best temporary, and at times elusive, which begs the question – is there actually a true form of happiness? One which doesn’t depend on having 24hr TV, fast food, alcohol, or having loved ones within arm’s reach? Is it actually possible to be happy before anything happens? Before material gratification and in spite of life’s difficulties such as ill health, old age, financial concerns, disease and ultimately death?

Many of us live as though the answer is a resounding ‘no’ – see above – and so we continue to chase and to seek, and yet constantly and consistently fall short.

‘Mindfulness’ shines an exciting light towards a potential path to true happiness that seems to be free of the chase, and thankfully also free of unfounded hype and hope, based firmly in neurology and science. Mindfulness teaches us to live in the now, always and in all ways. And this isn’t at all new. Buddhists and other Eastern religions have known this for thousands of years, yet many of us are only just catching on.

Contrary to popular belief, Mindfulness meditation isn’t at all about thinking, but rather about experience. Mindfulness simply teaches us to live in the ‘now’, teaching us to develop a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in our minds and our physical body – thoughts, sensations, moods – without grasping at the pleasant or fleeing from the unpleasant. With mindfulness we stop the chase, we just ‘are’.

Mindfulness is easy to define but unfortunately very difficult to master. The principal enemy of mindfulness is thought distraction. The problem isn’t thoughts themselves, but rather the state of thinking without knowing that we are thinking. The pitfall is being lost in thought and thereby once again becoming a slave to the thought, suffering whatever emotion that thought conjures – happy one moment, sad the next.

Mindfulness teaches us to divorce our ‘self’ from our thoughts, placing a distance between us and them, rendering ‘them’ as different to ‘us’, and thereby freeing us from this slavery to emotional thinking.

Imagine that feeling where you’re so immersed in a horror film that you’re living it for real. You might scream with fear as the mad axeman chases the victim through the forest, your fists clenched, your throat dry, paralysed with fear as though you are the hunted, but then suddenly your phone rings and you realise you are sitting on the settee, merely watching a fictional play of plasma light on the wall. You feel immediate relief, suddenly the spell is broken, you are free.

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This is mindfulness. Many of us, me included, live most of our days lost in the movies of our own lives, slaves to our emotional thinking. Mindfulness provides us with an alternative, a path to what many refer to as true enlightenment. I’m not there yet, far from it in fact, but I see the way, I see the clearing ahead and I figure it’s worth a try.

 

 

 

A letter to my 17yr old self …

In response to A letter from my 17yr old self.

2016

Dear 17yr old Andy,

Thanks for your letter. Well, here we are. We survived, we are still alive and kicking! The good news is we generally did pretty well. I’m not going to tell you the details as it will spoil it for you, but we get through, so keep on keeping on young man.

What I will say, is that those guilty pleasures of yours – singing in the band, making people laugh – they’re not just lusty and pointless, so don’t keep dismissing them. Those are beacons in the dark, sirens in the quiet still of night. Despite what you might think, they are your soul speaking to you.

I just realised that last sentence might freak you out. Sorry, let me rephrase. Those are the things that make you what you are. Reading your letter brought back many memories for me, how we believed and trusted unerringly in our elders, and by consequence, how we felt anything we experienced that didn’t align with them was somehow incongruous, somewhat deviant and unhealthy.

I remember now, thanks to your letter, how we lived our life by a set of rules devised purely by teachers, parents, lawmakers, guidelines always laid down in tablets of stone. Our success was measured not by happiness, but by how well we stayed on that path of righteousness as prescribed by ‘them’.

If I can offer one piece of advice, it’s to stop always looking to others for guidance – instead start to look inwardly at your self, at our self. You know that ‘gut feel’ you get, but always push back if it doesn’t conform to The Book? Well, stop doing that. Stop it now. Immediately. Listen to the voices inside – I bet that spooks you too? Don’t worry, I am sane of mind, I just see life differently, through a less filtered lens.

I don’t mean to suggest you ignore The Book altogether – there’s a lot of great and sound advice out there, advice that’s built on thousands of years of hard earned experience – but complement it with your own thoughts and beliefs. Believe it or not you (we) are unique, and we do have talents that would horrify you if I were to tell you them now.

And so I won’t tell you, for you must find them on your own, because the journey is the biggest part of any experience, not the destination. That obsession of getting somewhere, stop that too. Retune your beliefs, redefine your passions and act accordingly. Most importantly, stop obsessing with trying to define the end point all the time. Instead set the rules (your rules), and let your own moral compass navigate.

By the way – I still don’t get electricity, it just works, and the sooner you get comfortable with the fact that you don’t need to understand everything, the better it will be.

Forget destinations and just enjoy the journey, young man, just make sure it’s your journey and not anyone elses.

Love,

Me (2016)
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