Monthly Archives: November 2015

Fill your head with learning, leave less room for sadness

The word ‘learn’ comes from the Old English verb ‘leornian’, which meant to learn – or to teach. Interesting that. Until the early 19th century, there wasn’t always a distinction between learning and teaching, and it would have been quite proper grammar to say ‘The teacher learnt the students their lessons’.

Therefore when we hear a thug in a movie telling a victim ‘that’ll learn ya’, it’s actually a throwback to the English of the 19th century.

See what I’ve been doing over the past couple of paragraphs? By looking at the word itself, I hope I’ve demonstrated that learning new things can be rewarding. It also seems highly likely that a willingness to think in new ways, about new things, makes a healthy contribution to maintaining a good state of wellbeing.

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Learning comes in all manner of shapes and sizes of course, and it doesn’t necessarily have to involve the formality of a teacher and student.

All that’s required is a thirst to acquire new knowledge, and the recognition that the process is likely to work most effectively when you’re motivated by your interests. If you’ve no appetite for languages, you might not benefit greatly from learning Japanese. But if you enjoy cooking, perhaps you’d love finding out how to prepare sushi or sashimi, say.

Your learning could be how to perform a card trick; how to hang wallpaper; how to play the ukulele; how to write a simple computer program; how to change the ringtone on your phone; how to tell a bedtime story; how to knit; how to grow tomatoes; how to dance the tango; how to darn a sock.

It doesn’t matter. There’s a world of things out there waiting to be learned, and a world of advantage to be had from doing so.

Pay attention as though you were an attention millionaire

Interesting, isn’t it, that when we talk about attention, we speak of paying it?

Pay attention.

It’s a rather odd turn of phrase, which suggests that attention has a value (and of this, I’ve no doubt) but also that once you’ve paid it, you no longer actually have it. If I paid you ten dollars, it would be yours rather than mine. What does this mean about the attention you’re giving to this message from me?

Well I’m not sure, but thank you for it in any case. Attention is definitely something that needs to be earned, definitely something never to be taken for granted.

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So, in life, what do you get in return for your expenditure of this valuable resource we call attention? I believe you get rather a lot.

Let’s think about what might happen if you went through your day taking no notice of the world around you. Among other things, you’d almost certainly end up wrapped up in your own thoughts which, if you happened to be going through a bad patch, might well be a bad thing.

A lack of awareness of what’s going to be around you today could lead you to either dwell on the past, or to worry about the future – neither of which are necessarily helpful.

Pay attention, however, and you’ll be focused on the present, on the here-and-now, rather than on what’s already gone or what’s still to come.

You might have no money in your pocket, but you do have a certain amount of attention. Spend it wisely and you’re likely to see a real reward. What does this involve? Simply observing – properly – everything you come across during the course of the day.

And thanks again for your attention over the past couple of minutes.

I know, an ironic email about turning off your technology

If you were observing the behaviour of someone in their home, and they went to their front door six times an hour – all through the day – to check if there was any mail on the mat, I think you’d be forgiven for doubting their state of mind. This would be pretty extreme behaviour, although just about excusable if you were awaiting important exam results, say. Not every day, though.

However, substitute email in-box for front door mat, and I bet many of us could be guilty of acting somewhat obsessively when it comes to checking whether anyone has contacted us.

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Technology CAN be a wonderful thing, but it may also consume us, turning what should be well-deserved downtime into a life where we feel a need to be on call 24 hours a day, not going anywhere without a cellphone, feeling a need to log-in to email multiple times a day, and frittering away time with Facebook and Twitter.

These channels of communication all have their place, of course. I’m no Luddite, and overall I’m certain we’re better connected than unconnected.

I just think, though, that there’s much to be said for occasionally switching off. Until I made some adjustments to my iPhone, for example, it was waking me up in the night with a ‘plink’ when someone else had commented on a Facebook entry to which I’d added something earlier. I mean, how ridiculous. I’d admired someone’s hat, then was actually woken up when others also thought it was snazzy headgear. Sheesh.

You owe it to yourself to make opportunities to be calm during the course of the day – to relax and rest – but this is unlikely to happen when you’re on tenterhooks waiting for one gadget or another to bleep its way into your consciousness. If you get a chance, turn it all off for a while. You may just like it. Remember: thirty years ago, that’s how everyone lived.

A Pooh approach to wellbeing

Poohsticks. To the uninitiated, the word may sound like an expletive, but those who know will, of course, be familiar with the game first mentioned in A. A. Milne’s book ‘The House At Pooh Corner’ in which you throw sticks in a river from the upstream side of a bridge, then race over to the downstream side to see whose comes through first.

I have fond memories and photos of a 1980s day trip to Ashdown Forest, where the original Poohsticks Bridge (it used to be called Posingford Bridge) is still to be found. Everyone should have a game when the opportunity arises. Any bridge will do.

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Of course, the players can’t actually see what happens under the bridge, but it’s every bit as fascinating to watch a twig float down a stream or river when your view is unrestricted.

While one might visualise it moving unimpeded down the centre of the waterway, the more realistic outcome is that it will take a zigzag course, briefly bumping into one bank or another (or kissing an overhanging branch) before once again going on its way.

That makes its progress slower than it might otherwise have been, of course, but it’s just the way nature works.

Perhaps it’s an apt metaphor for the way you and I sometimes go through daily life? We know that having contact with others tends to be good for our wellbeing, but now and then I’m certainly inclined to swoosh through things without making time for others. There are almost certain to be dozens of opportunities to connect during the day, and added together they can be really beneficial, but all too often one can be self-absorbed, missing out on the chance to top-up on together time.

I’m not necessarily talking about significant connections: little interactions with shop workers, neighbours, officials and even passers-by can all add up.

So don’t rush down the middle of the river today, ignoring everyone. Feel free to meander (just a little) and enjoy bumping into the banks of life.

I’ll scratch your back and I’ll scratch mine

At my all-boys grammar school, only the smartest were invited to study Latin, so the nearest I’ve ever been to the subject is when I’ve used ‘pretend Latin’ (the kind which starts ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet’) for mocking up designs that need areas of dummy text.

It doesn’t stop me being curious about Latin phrases, however, which the other day had me thinking about ‘quid pro quo’, literally ‘this for that’.

You give me a dollar and I’ll give you this bag of potatoes. You work these hours for me and I’ll pay you this wage. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

The idea of trading one thing for another is pretty embedded in life, one way or another, so much so that one might be tempted to think that there is nothing in the idea of ‘something for nothing’.

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In fact we’re led to believe that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, an adage with its roots in 19th century American saloon bars which offered free food if you bought a drink. The trick, of course, was that the ‘lunch’ largely consisted of salty food – encouraging customers to buy more drinks. Steady with those peanuts, barman.

The truth, of course, is that most of us do indeed do things for others with no expectation of anything in return. Why would we do this, though? One explanation is that humans, it seems, are hard-wired for altruism. It’s in our genes. Another is that we generally get a buzz from lending a hand to someone else. Maybe the two concepts are related? Other instinctive behaviours are associated with pleasant feelings, and this of course encourages us to indulge in them.

When you do things for others, it leads to the world being a better place. It also provides you with a healthy dose of the feelgood factor.

So maybe you’ll get an opportunity to put this into practice today? Or, as Google Translate suggests that my school Latin teacher might have said: ‘An hoc in praxi locum habere te hodie?’

The real you is already inside you

Five hundred years ago, Michelangelo was going about his business creating some of art’s most enduring images: extraordinary icons, such as his statue of David, on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and as a full-sized plaster-cast replica in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (the latter complete with a nearby half-metre-high (ooh-er) plaster fig-leaf, used to cover up David’s nether regions when official visitors of a blushing and nervous disposition came to call).

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When asked how he went about producing sculptures such as his David, Michelangelo suggested, of course, that he didn’t find it that difficult:

‘In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.’

In his mind, he wasn’t creating something new, just simply releasing what he believed already existed there inside the stone.

Maybe this is a helpful metaphor when it comes to viewing who we are now, and who we want to be? While some may approach this with the view that we could be literally anything we choose, perhaps it’s more helpful to be comfortable with the thought that our ideal form is already there, and simply waits to be revealed?

Be comfortable with who you are, fig leaf or not.

When a positive approach is impossible, there’s always a neutral one

When you see a ‘Wet Paint’ sign, why is it so difficult to avoid reaching out to touch whatever it is you’re not supposed to? And why does a ‘Keep Off The Grass’ notice make you want to do the exact opposite? There’s something about rules such as these which seem to make us want to break them.

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I mention this because I think something similar can happen if you’re feeling down in the dumps and someone suggests that you should ‘take a positive approach’. Yes, yes, yes… You know it would make sense, but following such advice probably feels like the last thing you’d be able to do.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Rather than approaching your day with a negative mindset, simply decide to put a smile on your face and go about things without a care in the world.

Although this makes a degree of sense, it’s likely to feel utterly impossible. I’d be inclined to tell whoever suggested it: ‘Do you honestly think I’d actively choose to feel like this if it was even remotely possible that I could snap out of it? Do you seriously believe that I could simply decide to feel differently, and do it?’. I suspect I might then go on to tell this do-gooder where to stick their positive approach.

And yet, and yet, I would of course know that if only I could just change my attitude the teeniest amount, it could just make a difference.

The trick? If there is one, perhaps it’s to twist the admonition around, treating it like the ‘Keep off the grass’ notice, and turning it into a self-suggestion that it would be sensible to ‘keep off the negative outlook’, or at least to avoid making it a permanent part of your day.

On days when adopting a positive approach seems impossible, you may be able to aim for a neutral one, and this will almost certainly make things a little better.

Why there’s a way out of every maze

I wouldn’t say I’m particularly claustrophobic, but I must confess to a slight moistness-of-palm at the thought of being confined in an overly-tight space. A walk along a wide open beach a week or so ago was a perfect reminder of how good it can be to feel unfettered and free.

To some, the idea of being lost in a maze might be pretty nerve-wracking, but I guess my anxiety about being shut-in somewhere doesn’t really extend to complicated arrangements of privet hedges.

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If someone plopped you down at the centre of a maze, provided you kept calm, you’d reach the exit sooner or later. Sooner, if you used that logical trick of always keeping one hand on the wall to your left (or right if you prefer) – you’d end up visiting every single part of the maze, but would discover the way out eventually.

Although a maze is (to most) only a fun thing, perhaps the techniques for success can apply in other more serious avenues of life?

For a start, it’s good to set off believing that you’ll find your way out, even if it takes a bit of time. In the same way, when you find yourself in one of life’s spaghetti-heaps, a little self-belief goes a long way. Have confidence, keep the faith. Your end goal may not be in view now, but steady and gentle progress will get you there in the end.

Some mazes have an attendant sitting on a very high chair: they can see things you can’t, just like someone you know who probably has a clearer view of your dilemma than you. So if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.

Then there are always the little secret tips (like the hand on the wall one). You’ve probably ridden out storms before. What worked then? Look back and learn.

It may not always feel like it, but humans have a tremendous survival instinct. We nearly always bounce back, even though it may sometimes take a while.

When you need help, it really makes sense to ask for it

Why is it sometimes so hard to ask for help?

Why, inside, are we sometimes hoping against hope that someone, somewhere will help us, yet we don’t actually do the sensible thing, which is to just ask?

Why don’t we ask for help when we desperately need it?

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Perhaps it’s hard to admit that we can’t cope on our own, because it feels like being weak.

Or maybe it’s because we believe those we might ask already have enough on their plates without us adding to it.

Alternatively it could simply be that our thinking is muddled.

When things have got to the point where you feel you really can’t cope on your own, it’s likely that the negative thoughts will have taken a firm hold: I know that when this happens to me, I don’t always make the best decisions.

Fortunately there’s a pretty simple rule of thumb which might help you get a better sense of perspective if you’re in a fix like this.

Imagine that rather than being you, you were the person whose help you might seek.

And imagine that you only found out that your help had been wanted long after the need had passed, probably too late to be able to do any good.

How would that make you feel?

Almost certainly you’d be exasperated – a bit cross even – that you hadn’t been asked.

You’d probably suggest that you, not the other person, should have been the judge of whether you had too much going on yourself to be of use.

I’m pretty sure you’d be horrified to learn that someone had needed you but didn’t ask.

So now put yourself back in your own shoes.

If you need help, doesn’t it make sense to ask for it?

You know, I’m pretty sure it does.

Why it will help to pay attention like a kid today

Why is the sky blue?

Why do I have to go to bed?

Why are there wars?

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Why do people get hiccups?

Why do I have to eat my dinner before my dessert?

Why do people die?

Why do cats have fur?

Why do I have to go to school?

Why mustn’t you pick your nose in public?

Why do you always make that funny face when I keep asking you questions?

Kids ask a lot of questions.

It’s how they aim to make sense of the world (good luck with that one) but it’s entirely natural.

It can also be entirely exasperating at times for parents whose offspring clearly expect them to be experts in everything.

Let me ask you a question of my own, though, one fairly grown-up human to another.

Do you think that in general children’s answer-seeking makes them happy or unhappy?

I suspect it’s the former, don’t you?

When you’re preoccupied with attempting to understand life, you probably have little time left to mope and ruminate.

Noticing the world around you and attempting to work it all out is pretty much a full-time job for kids, who on the whole (you may have noticed) tend to take a positive view of life.

Of course, it would be over-simplistic (or would it?) to suggest that acting like a kid is a good mental health strategy, but I’m sure there’s value in remembering a few of the things you did naturally when you were knee-high to a grasshopper.

Rather than simply taking everything around you at face-value, why not relive the feeling of being intensely curious?

Study things as if for the first time.

Take notice.

Ask questions.

It’s what you did as a youngster, so what’s to stop you doing so again?