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?

morpheus-red-pill-blue-pill

 

 

Advertisements

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.

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 17.07.03

 

 

 

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*.

 

Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 09.52.10

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

 

 

* assumes only 1 weekly wash of smalls

 

Late onset vegetarianism?

vegetarian

I played at being vegetarian in my mid 20s when I shared a house with one, and I was about 85% successful, having occasional lapses whenever I returned home to my parents for a Sunday roast, or gorged on a kebab after a heavy session on the beer. I was ever so pretentious back then, and whilst I claimed I did it for moral and ethical reasons, I am fairly sure I did it because I couldn’t be arsed to cook my own tea. It lasted about a year, and then after the novelty faded I lapsed back into my old, omnivorian ways.

Fast forward nearly 30 years and hopefully stripped of most of the pretension I carried through my youth, I now find myself once again thinking more and more about vegetarianism.

I think initially it was for health reasons.  Health, and specifically healthy eating, are topics I spend a lot of time researching these days. Ageing is another topic I think about a lot too, and I think it was this impending fear of death that spurred me on to find healthier ways of living, and better ways of eating.

However, the more I looked into meat, the less convinced I was that it was bad for you. Certainly eating too much meat isn’t good, and smoked/processed meats seem to be particularly dodgy, but I couldn’t find much argument against eating modest amounts of high quality meat. After all it’s filled with stuff we need – iron, protein, zinc, B vitamins, magnesium, the list goes on … and so I couldn’t logically discount meat on health grounds, at least not in moderation.

But reading up on this stuff further, I learnt more about the way our meat is farmed. The ladybird book of our childhood depicting a farm where the calf frolics with the piglet whilst the hens sit playfully on the red tractor, is seemingly a long way from the truth. I’m not going to go into what I discovered here, it’s all online should you want to know more, suffice to say I found it very disturbing indeed.

4b-fun-at-the-farm-ladybird

I watched videos of slaughterhouses, not extreme cases, but everyday slaughterhouses. I forced myself to do this, on the basis that if I eat meat I should at least be aware how the meat is produced. But it was hard. Should you want to take a look for yourself, here’s one example from Belgium. This is how your pork is made. It’s very, very difficult to watch. So difficult in fact that it has forced me to seriously reconsider vegetarianism, not on health grounds, but on the basis of cruelty. If that’s what a pig has to go through so I can eat sausages, then I’m not sure I want any part of it.

So that’s animal cruelty, but what about the ethics? Is it right to kill animals? Well not really, although one can argue that if we rear animals for eating, we are creating lives that otherwise would never have existed. If we take the grim, slaughterhouse cruelty of death out of the equation and assume instead that the Ladybird book of farming were true, where Farmer Giles leads the family cow into a field, has a quiet word in his or her ear and painlessly ends its long and beautiful life, it’s still questionable to me whether that’s ethical. Speciesism says that it’s OK to kill that animal (the cow), but not that animal (the dog), unless you live in Korea where it’s OK to kill both. We eat chicken, pigeon possibly, but not squirrels or rats. Or guinea pigs. Double standards everywhere, no coherent logic, no consistency. Speciesism, ageism, racism – think about it for long and you spot a certain trend.

And then there’s the environmental aspects of the meat industry: Cowspiracy. Once again, utterly shocking. We shower instead of bathing, we research more environmentally friendly cars, we recycle our carrier bags, yet none of it even comes close to countering the environmentally disastrous and potentially catastrophic impacts of large scale, global factory farming. Cowspiracy is a well made and humorous film and well worth a watch (free on Netflix), and I urge you to watch it. Don’t worry, it’s not grim like the slaughterhouse.

And so here I am, aged 52. I still eat meat because its easier to eat meat than not eat meat, particularly in a house of meat eaters, but it’s getting harder. Whilst I enjoy the taste of meat, whenever I eat it now it’s tainted with a growing sense of guilt and dare I say some shame and slight disgust.  I ate meat twice this past week. You can’t be a little bit pregnant I hear you say, and you’re right. I’m a hypocrite. Whether I ate meat once, or 21 times in a week, makes no difference ethically. One could argue it makes a difference environmentally perhaps – if everyone ate less meat, less animals would be killed due to falling demand, etc. Less meat consumption also means less cruelty, but you’re still endorsing cruelty. Hypocritical

Oh and then there’s dairy farming. Milk and egg production are arguably just as cruel and ethically wrong as meat farming. Some claim even more so. And I have huge issues here too, and more exposed double standards. I gave up drinking cow’s milk two years ago, yet I still eat cheese, and I eat eggs.  I could at least source eggs locally, eggs that haven’t been factory farmed exploiting chickens locked in dark cages. And by consuming less cow’s milk I can claim I am making at least some impact on the numbers of dairy cows, but it’s still hypocritical, and it’s still only a start.

I really don’t know if I’m brave enough to ever become vegetarian, let alone vegan but morally, ethically I feel I really should try. A possible halfway house is to become pescatarian, eating fish only, but this is still dodgy ground for any moral crusader. Like it’s OK to eat a fish but not a cow or a pig? But, it might be argued, it’s a start. It’s a move in the right direction along the ethical/cruelty spectrum that goes something like this:

Omnivore -> Pescatarian -> Vegetarian -> Vegan -> Fruitarian.

Becoming a fruitarian is just silly, becoming a vegan is very, very hard and vegetarianism is extremely challenging. Pescatarianism might be a stepping stone, but if you’re heading that way for moral and ethical reasons it’s difficult to make that your end stop.

 

 

Mindfulness & the importance of ‘now’

images

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.

1531

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)
x

 

A letter from my 17yr old self …

1982

Dear 51 yr old Andy,

I’m sitting here in the common room at Sixth Form college. You remember this place? Defender video machine in the corner, table football, comfy chairs, coffee shop – we even have a radio, pretty cool.

I feel so much more grown here compared to Kendray Oaks Comp. I feel a hell of a lot safer too – there’s no bullying, everyone is here because they want to be (by and large), everyone wants to learn (by and large) – you know what I mean, you remember that don’t you?

Yeah, it’s cool here, I like it, but the work is so hard. A-levels are like ten times harder than O-levels. I’m struggling with Physics – I can’t grasp ‘electricity’ no matter how hard I try – electrons moving along a wire make a bulb light up – are you serious?? Economics is kind of interesting, it’s different, but some of the concepts seem a bit alien and I’m not sure what the point of it is? And maths is maths, just maths, although it’s much harder, much more abstracted than O-level.

That’s the thing about A-levels, it feels all rather ‘disconnected’. At school, working out the price of apples and oranges knowing that John bought 2 apples and 3 oranges for 19p whilst Jenny bought 1 apple and 3 oranges for  17p seems like a worthwhile thing to do. It has practical meaning. However, working out the value of ξ in a Fourier Transform that ranges from minus infinity to plus infinity seems somewhat unnecessary and unimportant to me:

\hat{f}(\xi) = \int_{-\infty}^\infty f(x)\ e^{- 2\pi i x \xi}\,dx,   

Quite frankly, as much as I like Sixth Form (I have a girlfriend!), I’m gutted about my subject choices. Anyway I’ll plod on because Dad said it’s the right thing for me and he’s always right. Besides, what else would I have chosen? The Arts subjects aren’t going to get anyone a job, jobs come from engineering and mathematics. That’s how the world works. People that study the Arts are a bit … well deluded, and silly. How hard can Arts be anyway? Drawing pictures and writing stories – these people will never get a job!

I plan on going to university. I have no idea what subject I will study, but I will go. It’s the thing to do, the teachers said so, and besides what else would I do?

Some friends of mine have formed a band, they play stuff I love and it’s cool, but what about their homework? They practice on school nights! Such a waste, they’ll regret that in later life. Although I am a bit jealous deep down – I’d love to be the singer in the band but I have to push that thought deep down inside, it doesn’t help anything.

I also really love The Young Ones – its a new comedy series on TV and Rik Mayall is brilliant. I have all the episodes on VHS tape and I know every word, every joke, every line from every episode. Mum and dad think it’s a bit odd, older people don’t generally like it and so I feel bad about that as older people are almost always right. They call it Alternative Comedy. I watch it when they’ve gone to bed. I’d love to tell jokes like Rik but I have to push that thought deep down inside, it doesn’t help anything.

So how’s life at 51, older me? I feel a bit nervous writing that – how did we do? And do you understand electricity yet!?

Andy, 1982

 

 

 

If I could turn back time …

Slide2

I suspect this is a question which has piqued us all at some point:

If you had one turn in a time machine, where would you set the dial?

What a wonderfully indulgent thought, to be given the opportunity to set the record straight, to right that wrong, to write that book. Would you go back to last week to relive that argument with your best friend? Would you go back to your last job? Your first marriage? Back to school? Even back to the crib? Or as far back as the womb?

I’m tempted to say I would go back to being a baby and do everything again. I’d grow up eating healthy food, I’d pass on the deep fried spam fritters and 1/4 pound bags of kali (northern English word for sherbert) that undoubtedly rotted my teeth beyond redemption. I would have continued running, cross country running was my thing, I was good at it as a kid, as a teenager. I found running easier than walking, and I should have exploited that, not neglected it.

I would have been more confident, less shy. I would have asked girls out at school and I wouldn’t have turned down that kind offer from Jane T. in 1981. I was bright and fairly academic, but I wasted my education. Had I applied myself I would have certainly attained better grades and that in turn would have led to better career choices and more money and … and …

So many choices, how far back do I turn the dial? So many choices! However, university was probably my greatest tragedy – 3 years of drinking beer and very little else, probably the single, greatest downturn in my life, certainly the period I look back on with the most regret, and so that seems to be a good place to return to in my time machine.

But wait, I met my wife at University. The Butterfly Effect, borne out of chaos theory, tells us that infinitesimally small changes can have huge longer term effects. Had I not been a beer monster, I may have turned left into the library rather than turn right into the top bar at Essex University. Had I done that I wouldn’t have seen her, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the girl that rocked my world. We would never have married, and in turn, our children would have never existed, and that’s unthinkable.

If I step into that time machine, whichever point I choose to return to, I risk losing everything I now hold dear. The butterfly effect tells us that anything we do differently during our trip back in time, risks changing everything from thereon in. If I stop eating kali, perhaps I replace it with something else more sinister – I may have nicer teeth on my 2nd attempt, but perhaps I have a more addled brain. If I start running more in my second life, perhaps I end up at a different university, studying a different subject, and most certainly never get to the top bar at Essex University in the spring of ’82, and never actually meet that girl in the green combat trousers.

To imagine, or to wish for a different outcome from our past, is to risk changing everything going forward, including all that one holds dear. I don’t think we can pick and choose, we just act spontaneously and we must therefore live with the consequences of our actions. You pays your money, you takes your choice, and you have to accept all that comes with it.  I might wish I had better teeth and a flatter stomach but would I risk everything for that? To change anything about us is to change ourselves forever, and that has unintended consequences.

On reflection I think I’m OK after all, so I think I’ll pass on the offer of a spin in the time machine, thanks.

In pursuit of rubbishness …

My blog hasn’t gone viral, my blog barely has a runny nose and an imperceptibly mild rash at best, but there are bloggers out there, seemingly ordinary people that blog everyday things, just like me, yet every now and then something they say resonates with their readership and beyond, far beyond – when everything goes a little mental and interstellar.

In this blog which can be found here, Cheri looks at four bloggers, four everyday blogging people who at some point said something remarkable and extraordinary. Cheri sums up what happened to them in her opening paragraph:

You wake up one morning, check your phone, and spit out your coffee. You have thousands of likes on Facebook, hundreds of retweets, and an inbox that has exploded. Your little blog — which normally gets a dozen views per day and has an audience of exactly two, your spouse and mother — has been shared all over the internet, and that post you wrote last night, in your pajamas, has gone viral.

Twelve views would be a good day for me, a fist-pumpingly awesome blogging day in fact, and I have to reluctantly admit to frequently having that gorgeous ‘what-if’ indulgent thought where my imagination runs wild, imagining a parallel world where I wake up to a chirping phone, lit up like the BBC switchboard on comic relief day – a day where my blog goes interstellar.

As a kid I dreamt of scoring a goal at Wembley, as a teenager I was the singer in the band at Wembley (a different Wembley day to the football I hasten to add – even for my egocentric imagination, scoring the winning goal to win the FA Cup and also serenading 100,000 singing Hey Jude, all on the same day, is a little far-fetched). Nowadays I imagine writing a blog that sparks the imagination of people across the world, just like the four bloggers outlined in Cheri’s blog.

They’re all amazing stories of everyday tales from everyday folk. Their blogs haven’t made them rich, but they have made them visible. They all now have a voice, a raised platform, a heightened status, a metaphorical megaphone and a substantial audience which spreads right across their social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. They’ve made it!

But then you read their back-stories, and you realise that all isn’t rosy in the garden of blog superstardom. As ever, success seems to come at a price. Suddenly these people are having to deal with trolls – people that write nasty, spiteful, hurtful and personal insults, and in every case they felt a pressure to maintain their newly found and elevated levels of success. Your next blog can never be as good, such a feat can never be repeated and the truth is the only way forward is down. You have peaked. That’s it, you’ve done it now – pressure, anxiety, expectation – these appear to be the new norm, the consequences of your new found popularity.

Whereas me, I can carry on dreaming, hoping, aspiring, sitting cross-legged at the bottom of my hill staring balefully skywards. My blogs can easily get better, I don’t have to try very hard to make improvements, and that’s the beauty of being rubbish. It doesn’t take a lot to cheer me. Even one new follower perks me up, I’m ever so easily pleased down here in my valley of loneliness. Any shard of light – a comment, a like, a new follower – I lap them all up graciously and covet them.

It’s good down here in my sun-starved blog-valley where the light is obscured by the majestic peaks of successful others – great and worthy, epic bloggers.

I pity them, their future looks bleak up there in the bright sunlight, and the truth is it kind of feels OK down here, hidden amongst the gloom, being ever so slightly rubbish. Yes, I like it here.

Yay for me! Yay for my rubbish blog!Slide1