Nomophobia …

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Yesterday evening I did something I’ve never done before, I switched off my smartphone. I’ve had to reboot it in the past, the ‘ctrl-alt-del’ remedy for the modern age, and I often mute it or place it in airplane mode when travelling, but I’ve never actually switched it off and left it. I guess I’ve never really liked the idea of being ‘disconnected’.

And I have to admit it felt a little unsettling at first – what if someone tries to call me? But that feeling quickly dissipated when I realised nobody ever calls me. Phew! That was a close one!

I normally faff about on my smartphone before I go to sleep. I use the term ‘faff’, because it’s mainly whimsical, unimportant stuff I do – an established habit of browsing social media and newsfeeds. Anyway, yesterday, sans smartphone, I set my alarm on my alarm clock (I bought one recently) and read a book. It was that simple. The lack of blue light meant I was soon tired and it wasn’t long before I fell to sleep.

I didn’t sleep that well, waking often, old habits I guess, but as I had no phone to reach for, I had to face the periods of darkness head on. I soon got bored and went back to sleep with little else to fill the void.

This morning I woke to the sound of birdsong (it’s an alarm setting on that clock I was telling you about), but … and this was the most interesting thing … as my phone was in another room, I couldn’t immediately plug myself back into the matrix and inject myself with my normal fix of social media distractions. Normally, upon waking, driven purely by habit rather than need, I reach immediately for my phone and browse shit – checking notifications, checking for missed calls (as if!), checking emails, checking SMS, checking WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and finally Twitter.

The great thing about Twitter is that it’s infinite, you can spend as long on there as you want, clicking links and sinking ever deeper into the online abyss – a procrastinator’s dream. And if I do ever get bored with Twitter, I can always start back at the beginning, rechecking the news, scanning for more emails, any messaging updates, seeing if anyone has updated their social media, and so on.  And as a last resort, if I am really, really desperate to avoid life, there’s always LinkedIn (Hell’s very own social media channel).

But this morning I had little choice. I just had to lay there in the darkness, thinking about my day, all on my lonesome. It was old school and my out of shape mind and imagination quickly got tired of having to think for itself, so I got up and showered, wondering all the time if WWIII had actually happened. When I sat down at my desk, much earlier than usual I have to say, I switched on my phone and only then realised the world hadn’t changed at all – war hadn’t broken out, nobody of any note had died and no catastrophes had ensued.

I might try it again tonight. I’m currently wondering whether to stay with ‘birdsong’ as my wake up theme, or possibly switch to ‘rainfall’?

Decisions, decisions …

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A more considered life?

The new year has always meant the same thing for as long as I can remember – a new set of one-dimensional, ego driven resolutions. And over the last 30 years or so they have barely changed, always pivoting around the following:

  • lose weight
  • drink less
  • eat less
  • exercise more

Not only are these all vague, dull, unimaginative and boringly predictable, they’re also primarily selfish, vain and egotistical. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they’re also unattainable and therefore ultimately pointless.

Improving oneself shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself, it should only be a means to an end, which is why this year I’m going to do things differently.

2020 will see me, for the first time in a very long time, not doing Dry January, not doing Veganuary, not turning vegetarian (again), not setting another exercise timetable, not subscribing to more meditation apps, not buying new self-help books and not starting any new diets. 2020 will hopefully see me living a better life, a more considered one.

Andy’s two-part, 8-step manifesto to a more considered life (v.2020/01)

PART 1 – ME

  1. Everything goes (but in moderation) – what I learned in 2019 when I completely abstained from alcohol, was that deprivation of any kind makes me sad and ultimately leads to failure (and I have years of evidence to back this up). What drove me back to drink was not a craving for alcohol, but a yearning for the ‘occasion’ of drinking. I was sat in a pub in Cornwall with some good friends last year and I wanted to drink a proper drink alongside everyone else, instead of drinking my 0% beer. I know it makes no difference what’s in my glass, but it’s a statement of intent, of camaraderie. I don’t want to become a heavy drinker again and I fully realise the benefits of not drinking, but I do want to be able to have a choice to drink whenever I decide I want one. The pressure of not doing something can be draining and feels like life is being filtered or restricted. It’s like living in black and white.  Similar things happened when I tried veganism (briefly) and vegetarianism (for only a little longer). I fully get the 3D benefits of reduction in meat/dairy (health, moral, environmental) but saying no to meat/dairy altogether, forever, really brings out the gloomy rebel in me. So instead of abstinence, I want to leave all options on the table, but with that comes responsibility and so I must in conjunction …
  2. Be purposeful – do whatever I want, but do it for the right reasons. It needn’t necessarily be worthy, nor wholesome, it just needs to be ‘right’. If I fancy a biscuit, I’ll eat one if, and only if, it feels right to have one. If I’ve just eaten half a packet of biscuits, then eating another is not a right reason. If I am stressed and looking for a sugar distraction, that’s not a right reason either. And if I want a biscuit because I can’t be arsed to cook a nutritious meal, that’s out of bounds too. However, after a wholesome, nutritious meal, a single biscuit to round things off with a cup of tea would be fine. And that glass of red wine with my cheese on a week night? Well, that’s cheeky, but it’s perhaps OK too … if it’s my first and only glass that evening. Purposefulness needs to underpin the ‘everything goes’ mantra to provide a level of control. Furthermore, if that one glass of wine midweek stops me binge drinking at the weekend, then that’s an added benefit too.
  3. Be mindful – when I drink that beer (step 1), for the right reasons (step 2), I need to also try and think just about the beer, study the taste, fully experience the pleasure it’s giving me and think about the occasion that rests behind it (this is step 3). I won’t be distracted, I will be present, because if I do something but spend that moment thinking about the past, the future, or something else, then I may as well not be doing that thing at all. And that’s a waste of a good pint. Live in the now, savour the moments as they happen.
  4. Look after the mind and body – we know that exercise helps both the body and mind stay strong and it also feels really good too. I will do it when I can, but I won’t punish myself when I can’t and I won’t try and do too much, too soon. I know what happens when I do that. Exercise needs to evolve at my pace, not driven by others nor by Strava competitions and league tables.

PART 2 – THE WORLD

  1. Be kind & considerate – Think societally, think of others; think of friends and family, think of those who are struggling, of those less fortunate. But don’t just think about it, do something about it too. Online petitions actioned from your sofa through your smartphone really don’t matter Andy, so don’t hide behind them. Action, not inaction. There’s plenty of room for change here.
  2. Be honest – don’t lie. Lying kills, constant lying is death by a thousand cuts. You despise a lack of integrity in others, don’t be hypocritical. Look at UK/US politics, we need to start being better and it needs to start with us.
  3. Be sociable – engage with real people in the real world. Turn off the computer occasionally and disengage from the internet. Visit the local, talk-don’t-type on the phone, occasionally talk to a stranger (but don’t make a habit of it because that’s weird).
  4. And finally, be nice to animals. A world full of animals is a happier world, and animals need our help now more than ever as we continue to make their life increasingly miserable. A koala bear stopped a cyclist during the bushfires in Australia this week, so desperate was it for water, this is truly heartbreaking. It needn’t be a koala, it could be a hedgehog, for hedgehogs have feelings too.

Living a considered life is to live life well, to experience life to the full. A considered life is a connected life, a compassionate life, a thoughtful life, an outward looking life, one that’s full and rich, one that above all else brings happiness not just to yourself, but to others too. A considered life shines light into the world, a light that acts as a beacon for others, and so we should all be shining our lights in the bravest and brightest ways we can.

Shine on, you crazy diamonds.

 

A concept piece in separating the self …

In truth, there’s only ever us, and then there’s life outside of us.

There’s me – my painful knee, my anxiety, my fear of spiders, my dreams, my guilt, my aspirations – and then there’s life out there – the dripping tap, the thunderstorm, Brexit, a spider under the sofa, a garden full of leaves.

These are two very distinct things. I am me, and those things over there are just, well, those things over there.

I control me – I determine my emotional state, my level of well-being, my industriousness, my laziness – and all that is within my control, but I don’t control all the things happening out there – the rain, the wars, the politics, the insects, the plumbing.

And yet, whilst I don’t control any of ‘that’, only ‘this’, I seem to be often held hostage by ‘that’.

Let me give an example …

I see a spider, I feel frightened. Before seeing the spider I might have been quite content with life, but the moment the spider does an 8-legged trot out from beneath the sofa into my line of vision, I become a pissing, gibbering wreck.

Yet I am still me, still the exact same person I was pre-spider – same body, same genes, same blood, same brain, same thought processes.

So what happened? I am now frightened and scared, whereas before I was happy, before that damned spider appeared. Except the spider didn’t appear, the spider was always there, it’s just that I couldn’t see it. What really happened was the spider had a thought, made a decision to walk left, out from beneath the sofa. Had it chosen to stay put, or turn right, I would have remained happy.

Think about that, a neuron fired randomly in a spider’s brain and it spoiled my day. Go figure.

I spill my tea, I cross the road and a car beeps its horn, it’s raining out, the news on the radio is all bad … and yet, in none of these cases could I have affected the outcome. Other people will always piss me off, whatever I do, rain will always fall when it’s ready, earthquakes will always happen, Brexit is Brexit.

Far better surely to live a life where a spider neuron firing doesn’t make or break your day? Far better to live a life where one feels good or bad because of ones own actions?

If, on my way to work, I call in on my elderly neighbour to check if they’re OK and perhaps make them a cup of tea, then surely I deserve to feel good, because there is a genuine cause and a genuine effect, instigated by me.

And more broadly speaking, through such actions can society not be incrementally improved? Whereas when the spider turns left, well, society doesn’t change one iota …

Nor does society change when the lorry driver angrily waves the wanker sign at me as I cross the road and I do the dickhead sign back. What happens is two people become angry, two people’s health suffers and that part of the world becomes a little bleaker, a little angrier.

Let the spider turn left, let the lorry driver wave his chubby, fat, porky, gammon fingers a certain way, let the rain fall. Throughout I can still be me, only ever me, exactly me, before and after.

I think happiness needs to be earned, dictated by the ‘self’, not commandeered by others (such as a spider). Happiness shouldn’t come from pride, but from action – by making a brew for the elderly lady next door, mending that fence, writing that poem, unblocking that drain. These actions make society better and are in turn worthy of happiness.

In a similar vein, nor should we be defined by our jobs or careers. We weren’t born as Accountants, Shopkeepers or Teachers, we became them. But we didn’t change into them, we didn’t switch from being a human being to suddenly being an angry lorry driver – the two things co-exist.  And whilst one is permanent, the other is only ever temporary.

I happen to be a Yorkshireman and I work in Sales. I will always be a Yorkshireman, but I won’t always be working in Sales. At least I fucking hope not.

Our occupations are simply cloaks we wear, uniforms if you like, but the mistake many of us make is that we rarely take them off. Many of us might have been working for so long that we feel like we’ve become someone else, like we’ve shed our original skin and grafted a new one, that of an Accountant, for example.

Think how we often greet strangers:

Them: “Hi, what do you do?”
Me: “Hi, I’m an Accountant”

Time to stop, perhaps. Time for a different tack …

Them: “Hi, what do you do?”

Me: “Hi, I do life”

Them: “Oh. You’re weird, a bit of a dickhead in fact.”

Me: “Look! A spider!”

Hmm, perhaps this ‘concept’ piece needs more work …

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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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

 

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.

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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’

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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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