published: Jan. 13, 2021, 12:22 a.m.
(Another one of those ‘life is….’ posts I seem to churn out these days though…. N.B. I wrote practically all of this blog post under a year ago but perhaps rather aptly, in keeping with the theme, I’ve only just got round to tidying it up now.)
That’s it. We’re barely into the month of February and I’ve already reached the pinnacle of the year. 2020 has nowhere to go now (January 2021 reflection: this surprisingly turned out to be true – probably the only thing I got right about 2020!) I managed to do the one thing which I’ve failed to do for the past 5 months since I moved into my apartment back in August (despite the returns in time completing the task would have saved me) – I finally filled the dishwasher with enough rinse aid and dishwasher salt and used it for the first time. One small step for man, one giant leap for lazy people. Inexplicably, I clean the bog every weekend and yet I couldn’t be bothered to do the quicker and less arduous task of enabling the use of the dishwasher.
It demonstrates the power that routines and habits hold over us; I had got so used to washing the dishes by hand that it just seemed easier to carry on that way. Also, the first time I attempted to fill it soon after I moved in, the dishwasher seemed to require an infinite amount of both rinse aid and salt and it kind of hurt to be crouched down for so long. So I gave up (as you do) and promised to finish loading it another day, when I could be bothered……except that day didn’t arrive until 1st January 2020 when this mod con finally saw action.
Here I am with all these life goals of wanting to learn how to play a musical instrument, to swim, to speak a foreign language to a conversational level, to create a beautiful painting……..all of which will take a considerable investment of time and effort……..and yet, it’s taken me almost half a year to complete the very simple, 2-minute task of filling the dishwasher. Goodness knows how long it’ll take me to start one of those undertakings, let alone to finish it. It’s all the more galling when, after finally having the resources to work its magic, I realised how much easier it would have made my life; not only no more scrubbing of residue off plates, but the 10 minutes it now saves me every day does add up, especially on the odd day when I’m feeling particularly tired and/or lazy and thus doing the dishes requires a greater emotional effort.
Well, I may be a snail (or a tortoise) but life isn’t a race. Part of my anxiety comes from the realisation which we all have that life is short and a resultant desire to make the most of it, since it can easily be snuffed out…….but it certainly will be shorter if I constantly stress myself out trying to do too much at once. This is also true on a minute level, in the daily routine. I have to remind myself of this when I try too hard to make the most of my spare time and do too much by trying to cram all my hobbies in while taking care of life admin and meeting the compulsion I feel to keep up to date with the news through reading the Metro (something I’ve always feel, not just in light of the recent coronavirus outbreak). It’s ok to put some things on the backburner. I’m not always going to find or be able to carve out time to read, practise Mandarin, watch a cartoon and start learning how to paint every evening, while also making the time to cook a healthy dinner and to meditate. I seem to see life as one big, long to-do list, an approach which has now infiltrated my hobbies, but the danger of trying to apply structure to ‘free’ time is that activities which should be fun almost become more of a chore. In attempting to optimise your life, you can overdo it and end up sucking the joy out of spontaneity of (just) simply being.
Life isn’t a checklist of milestones to be ticked off as fast as they can. Everyone is on their own journey, with different starting points, different obstacles along the way and different destinations. In the words of Confucius, “It does not matter how slow you go so long as you do not stop.” Enjoy the ride and embrace the serenity, possibility and freedom of an afternoon with absolutely nothing to do. Or as Socrates put it, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life”. If we don’t want to continue along the pathway to destruction, we ought to slow down and recalibrate…..now, more than ever in the midst of the Covid pandemic, you get the impression this is what Mother Nature is desperately trying to tell us. Will 2021 be the year we finally learn our lesson?
published: Oct. 7, 2020, 10:50 p.m.
Reflecting on all the overwhelming changes taking place, not only in the world at large and society in general but also in my professional and personal life, with so many comings and goings – people leaving either voluntarily or because their contracts have come to their natural end and friends heading back home after finishing their Masters' – it made me think about the big drama that is life.
Everything passes. The good and happy moments don’t last forever, but neither do the bad and sad moments….and that is both the tragedy and beauty of life. We all have roles to play on this planet. There are many entrances and exits. Many people pass through our lives. Many more never even enter. Some pass through and they leave footprints in the sands of our time. The best ones enter and they stay forever.
Although the pandemic has obviously been terrible, if it hadn’t been for lockdown, I probably would never have made an entrance into the life of a person (and nor she into mine) who I met in June on Zoom, through the 5-week online Spanish course she was delivering. A person whose weekly conversations and virtual company I’ve enjoyed through our regular language exchange that we started after the course ended. A person who has been so patient, who has taught me a lot (or ‘un montón’ as they say in Spanish) over the last few months and someone who I hope to meet in person soon. Only time will tell which of the above she'll fall into but I'm happy to observe, without expectation, the drama of life unfold.
We are all just passing through this life, playing our roles which can seem so small in the grand scheme of things. Yet if we can brighten up each other’s lives and turn on the light in this dark time that our planet is going through, it can create a ripple effect. It can help us all to get through this pandemic before we make our own exits from this adventure on Earth called life.
published: Aug. 1, 2020, 2:45 p.m.
- The anxiety I have is the so-called ‘high-functioning’ form. I have perfected my mask, beneath which lie the vulnerabilities that are almost too entrenched to expose – this doesn’t mean I’m ‘faking’ it. It just means I’ve just somehow managed to operate reasonably ‘well’ within the limitations of a hypervigilant nervous system. So, what I need is for you not to judge but to be understanding, accommodating and flexible. If you are, it will make it easier for me to be and do my best for you because I will see giving 110% as a way of returning the favour.
- I need saving from myself. If overthinking was an Olympic sport, I would probably win the gold medal. Due to pathological self-doubt, I preface almost everything I say with ‘I think’, even when I’m 99% sure of what I’m saying. Literally, it feels like the only certainty I have is what my name is. Please take me out of my own head from time to time.
- I have a compulsion to be constantly doing stuff and consuming stuff, as if life was a race towards personal development and diversity of productivity was the benchmark by which progress was measured. I wish I could turn off this constant need to be busy but I don’t know where the switch is. I don’t know if a switch even exists.
published: June 15, 2020, 5:33 p.m.
The TV was blaring in the living room but the noise paled into the background when I suddenly heard the distressed screams of my mum as she was forcibly carried downstairs by paramedics concerned by her behaviour. They had been called earlier by one of our neighbours who was worried about her welfare, probably because she was acting on a strange hallucination and/ or delusion of some sort about Chinese black society members coming to our house to poison her….. I can’t remember exactly; I was only 10 or 11 at the time. Confused and worried, I had gone upstairs with them to try to calm and comfort her but they prised me away and told me to go downstairs and let them deal with the situation. Then the front door closed and I was all alone. Numb and struggling to process the shock and overwhelm of it all. How it happened so quickly. The noise from the TV turned into incomprehensible chatter. I can’t remember what programme I was watching, only that the content was cheery – it might even have been Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway – because it contrasted sharply with my downbeat mood. She had had relapses before but it was worse this time. I didn’t know, maybe was too young to understand, what had just happened. All I knew was that the world seemed a very scary and unstable place.
Around 7 years later, when I was doing my A-levels, I had panic attacks for the first time. During my time at university, I occasionally turned to the counselling service - including when she was sectioned again in the second year of my degree – sharing my anxiety and insecurities in a way that I felt unable to do with my mum, for fear of adding pressure and potentially triggering further relapses. Ever since, I’ve struggled with anxiety and its physical manifestations, due in part, I believe, to suppressing negative emotions and vulnerability in dealing with her relapses and having been labelled ‘too sensitive’ in my childhood. Personally, I feel if we could all feel more comfortable opening up about our mental health, it might help prevent things from escalating and turning into deep-rooted psychological issues.
Now the world seems like a scary and unstable place to many of us, in the midst of a global pandemic on a scale that hasn’t been seen before in our lifetimes, it’s become even more important than ever to talk about our mental health. With the isolation forced by lockdowns across the globe, reduced therapy access and many of the things we’d usually do to make ourselves feel better off-limits (like meeting up with friends or making a trip to the local cinema or theatre), we’ve effectively had to manage our mental health on our own. To navigate these unchartered waters without being able to send an ‘SOS’ call for help. Many of us were struggling to stay afloat even before we were all plunged into this brave new world, which brings with it fresh pressures and challenges, and where starting an email with the sentence ‘I hope you’re keeping well’ has effectively become a euphemism for ‘I hope you’re still alive’.
Life is in a constant state of flux. We need to be our own lifeline and empower ourselves through sharing our experiences in order to have a chance of making it to shore. We need to find people in the same boats, whose support we can count on as we make this turbulent journey separately yet together, helping each other through the common obstacles we will encounter. We need to realise that kindness is what makes the world go round.
I remember a conversation I had with someone who I frequently saw around campus, as I was a regular attendee at the skills workshops she would often welcome students to. She was friendly and would ask me how I was (and genuinely care about the response) whenever we bumped into each other. On this particular day, I had been studying in the library and went for a walk outside. She was sitting on a bench in the library grounds, also taking a break. We greeted each other and she asked how I was. I responded that I was fine (which I was) and decided to sit next to her as I reciprocated the question. She also said she was fine and asked how my day had been. Earlier that morning, I had been to my GP who asked if I wanted to try antidepressants for the first time to treat my anxiety and the hair pulling that it physically manifested as. I was a bit wary, seeing artificially messing with my brain’s biochemistry as a last resort and also conscious of the possibility of entering into a cycle of dependency on them, but I thought there would be no harm in trying them as a temporary measure that would be reviewed. Ordinarily, and being a rather private person, I wouldn’t have disclosed details of this trip to the GP and would have given a generic response instead. Frankly, it made me feel a bit uncomfortable and vulnerable but I somehow gave an honest response and told her the reason. It was at this point that she revealed that she also had trichotillomania. I suddenly felt a burden lifted, like I wasn’t crazy any more. I felt validated. We both divulged that we thought we were the only ones to suffer from this. I wasn’t even aware that it was an actual condition with a name; to me, it was just an expression of my anxiety. This single conversation made us feel more connected to each other.
Sharing experiences like these can deepen relationships with those around us. It is only by sharing that we can find new, more compassionate ways of relating to one another and to people we might otherwise have felt unable to relate to. Talking about our struggles is vital for reducing stigma and promoting better collective mental health – after all, no person is an island. More importantly, it reinforces our collective humanity and normalises our responses to events or situations which would adversely affect the mental health of a lot of people. It makes us human.….and to be human is to live the essence of life to the full. That is, to be truly alive.
(As an aside for anyone who can relate to the experience of dealing with someone experiencing psychosis, I thought I would add the following. As I’ve grown up and even now, I’ve always found it and continue to find it hard to distinguish between fact and fiction whenever my mum talks about her perceptions and beliefs, even in a relatively sane state (that doesn’t require hospitalisation). Some things seem so far-fetched that they don’t make sense, especially when she talks about people breaking into the ‘unsafe’ house to steal her clothes and spirits moving around the house. She says she can’t see them and can only identify their presence through extraneous sounds, like the fridge door opening (but not her opening it), yet she knows they are the spirits of Chinese children. I can’t understand the logic and how she comes to these conclusions. Perhaps she’s connecting her beliefs of persecution with her extra sensitive perception (or even auditory hallucination?) but I simply don’t know what to believe sometimes. It makes me question my own sanity because I don’t want to dismiss everything she says on the basis that she has a mental illness. I don’t want to be a source of the same stigma I try to reduce in other people when the subject is broached.)
published: May 31, 2020, 9:02 p.m.
Now we’ve all been socially distancing for the last 2 months, the weirdness of it all is still occasionally a bit jarring. So too is the prospect of the ‘new normal’ we’ll all be returning to when lockdown is gradually and more extensively eased, with images from other European countries of face masks in public and Perspex screens separating restaurant diners on the same table providing insight into what may follow here. It’s like experiencing a completely different way of life, almost like we do when we go on holiday (depending on where exactly we go), but to a far, far more extreme extent. In fact, it’s almost as if the entire human race has become distanced from planet Earth and has been temporarily transported to another planet where the inhabitants lock themselves in and only communicate with each other via their computers. Then the inhabitants slowly decide to advance initiate the process of civilisation and interact in a physical space with each other but with distance and PPE because goodness knows what diseases their fellow inhabitants may carry IRL (in real life).
Social distancing wasn’t even a thing a couple of months ago, at least not officially (though us introverts have implicitly been socially distancing since the beginning of time of course)….. Before the pandemic, the theme of distancing in general cropped up as a common thread in several areas. In self-defence, the concept of distance (specifically, an arm's length) from an attacker is important to give us space and time to respond rather than to react. In mindfulness, we aim to get distance from our thoughts and the emotions they evoke (by simply observing and accepting them), in order to respond to them rather than to react. Resistance can create so much suffering. Then I read what someone said about the particular importance of living in the moment for doctors (especially those who work in intensive care), paramedics and other emergency responders. They have to focus on the situation at hand and not think about, or let themselves be affected by, other factors or wider issues which might otherwise impede their ability to do so…… In other words, they have to emotionally distance themselves to an extent to remain professional. Now, in a global pandemic, we have to distance ourselves physically from each other…..maybe also to respond rather than to react to our way of life.
published: April 30, 2020, 10:55 p.m.
Glowing with a soothing green light, an aroma spa diffuser on my bedside table emits a supposedly calming mist of lavender oil into the air every 30 seconds. Next to it lie a few abandoned dusty philosophy books, which I turn to in the middle of the odd night when my brain is stubbornly refusing to let me fall asleep and I decide to put myself out of my misery from all the tossing and turning…...and turn instead to a thought experiment (or two), like you do. On my return from the land of nod, the increasing brightness of the sunrise light from my alarm clock gently wakes me from my slumber and I go about my day. Returning in the evening, I sit on my height-adjusted chair and open my laptop, which rests comfortably on a stand, and log in using my external keyboard and mouse. While I wait for it to load, I admire the pure greenness of the leaves and the air purifying qualities of the peace lily sitting prettily next to it. I turn my head slightly further to the left and melt at the cuteness of the picture of the squirrel on a calendar (its front paws clasped together, head slightly turned giving me a quizzical look and standing next to some mushrooms, with red-pinkish leaves and auburn leaves hanging up above).
……On a material level, I have as good as thrown the metaphorical kitchen sink at my wellbeing, under the impression that my anxiety (and all its physical and behavioural manifestations) can be managed if I optimise my external environment by surrounding myself with home comforts. I also thought if it wouldn’t do any harm if I looked after myself physically too. Before the lockdown, I practiced yoga, volunteered, went to meditation and relaxation sessions, usually got my 5 fruit & veg a day and played squash, badminton and table tennis every week. I also kept and continue to keep a daily gratitude diary which I add to religiously every morning and attended talks and workshops on all things wellbeing. In short, I had an obsession with wellbeing which maybe was, ironically, almost detrimental to my wellbeing.
Yet, despite all this, I’ve still suffered the same ongoing issues as when I first started this blog. I still pull out my hair, often in intense bouts where I find it almost impossible to stop, a compulsion which – along with my eczema – had initially worsened over the last month and flared up all over, no doubt due in part to the global pandemic. I don’t have any of the listed underlying health conditions which would confer particular vulnerability to coronavirus…..or at least, I don’t think I do. There always existed the possibility in the back of my mind that I might have one which I don’t know about (hello anxiety!). Hypothetical questions of ‘what if’ almost never help; after all, I can’t control what I can’t control. Besides, it's clear now that the virus can be lethal even to those without underlying conditions. Fear must be tempered with reason and reined in before it wreaks havoc on us. Thus I reason: even in the (hopefully unlikely) event that I do contract coronavirus and become gravely ill because of it, if fate were to so dictate, would I really have wanted to spend my last weeks or days of good health worrying and stressed? Severity and suffering-permitting, would it not be better to try and enjoy them and make the most of my life? As Michel de Montaigne put it,“He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.”
All these material privileges, yet I’ve realised what matters most in the battle with anxiety is actually the internal machinery of the mind. It’s all good and well having supposed ‘wellness’ products and things which otherwise enhance the comfort of quality of my life nevertheless in some way, but what matters significantly more is a mindset change in breaking bad habits which may be detrimental to my mental health and adopting healthier ones. I felt relatively ‘normal’ on most days though in the early days of the university closure, which happened a week before lockdown, there would be moments the overwhelming sadness of the situation really hit home (despite not being personally affected). The frequency of these moments has reduced almost to the point of disappearing altogether as I’ve ramped up the meditation practice to twice a day at least and continued with my yoga practice (but also more frequently). As if my body was almost listening to the signals I was trying to send it, I’ve found the frequency and intensity of my hair-pulling has reduced and my eczema comes and goes in different parts of my body but has calmed down overall, though it’s a constant battle (as anyone with this skin condition knows, it’ll never go away; you just have to manage it). It’s kind of playing a game of whack-a-mole with your skin. Or that one where you’re in charge of looking after a whole farm or garden and a few crops or plants would suffer while you frantically attended to others, then the reverse would happen when you then attended to the previously suffering crops/ plants etc. So I try to think of it like that: a game where the objective is to reduce the extent and intensity of my eczema, even if it does seem to have a mind of its own sometimes.
I also realised there were other ways where I didn’t really help myself when it came to my mental (and physical) health. The sudden lack of structure and dynamic nature of a fast-moving situation initially meant I ended up checking in on the news more often than usual, maybe even with a slight degree of obsession. It’s too easy to fixate on the negative so it’s better to limit exposure to maybe only once or twice a day and occupy your days in other ways.
Another thing I tried to do (albeit not very consistently) in the early days of lockdown was to check in with how I was feeling at various points throughout the day. On some mornings after waking up, I would ask myself ‘Are I alive and safe at this very moment in time?’ If I was asking myself the first part of that question in the first place, that would strongly indicate that I was still living! If I could answer yes to the second part too, I could get on with the day and my life as normal (or the new normal, at least) and the fear of mortality didn’t enter my head for the rest of the day. Now I seem to have adapted and just make sure to check in with myself from time to time. Life throws us some curveballs sometimes. No-one can predict the future; we have to go day-by-day. That is the best approach. A lot of people around the world are sick, suffering and dying but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find moments of peace, joy (in our own little worlds) and purpose in each day, even if we have to actively seek them out……and this will look different for all of us. For my part, I’ve felt the compulsion to dance (if you can call it that) and pretend play imaginary instruments to songs on the radio where before I just enjoyed listening. Despite being so lazy to grate carrots that I would get bags of grated ones, I’ve somehow managed to over-write my default lazy setting and have started chopping garlic to throw in my stir-fries, which arguably takes longer (I have no idea how my brain works). I’ve learned how to make brown sugar ginger milk tea, which was an occasional purchase at the bubble tea place I frequented before lockdown, and have been snacking like there’s no tomorrow. One part of my routine has stayed the same as I’m still getting my evening dose of The Big Bang Theory but now I’m also occasionally learning random trivia from The Chase. I’ve discovered the joys of short dance cardio workouts (followed invariably by a generous helping of ice cream - the best combination) and a sudden penchant for TED talks (including one on 'how to be contagious' – the title seemed very inappropriate for the current climate but I was glad to see it was talking about social and emotional contagion, not the pathogenic type).
“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”Alexander Graham Bell
I’m fortunate enough to have a job that can be adapted to working from home, something I’ve always wanted to do and have thought about for the future, but which I never envisaged would be brought about by a global pandemic. While recognising and fully appreciating that the economic consequences of the situation are bleak for many, I’ve tried to embrace my own luck in being able to work remotely and also use it as an opportunity to slow down and recalibrate. As with any change (let alone one of this magnitude), it's not been without its own challenges, mainly being productive when my energy most of the time is really not in that space which is conducive to productivity, but the upside is that it's made me practise self-compassion. It's not often you have to deal with a raging global pandemic. Life is not a race and it’s important to be grateful for the good things. The one thing I’ve really noticed and appreciated the most about being at home is the sound of the birds chirping away in the background, seemingly oblivious (or not) to the global chaos unfolding around them. Then there are the beautiful cherry blossom trees on my daily walks and occasional clear blue skies with not a cloud in sight…….the simple things in life.
While I don't constantly check on the news now, I made a mental note of the positive, uplifting stories I did find (below) and social media has also posted its fair share of humorous memes. As an introvert who embraces the solitude, I’ve especially appreciated the ones joking about how us introverts have been practising for a moment like this our entire lives! (If you haven’t guessed by these mammoth blog posts, I have no problem with spending a lot of time in my own head). As if the universe was trying to tell me something, I recently found my ‘Introverts unite – separately, in your own homes’ T-shirt which I couldn’t locate for so long. Seems like we’re all uniting separately in our own homes at the minute but hey, we’ve got to find the good moments, the cute cat videos and the humour in life (Innocent Smoothies’ Facebook page has been helpful for the latter – their social media team are genius). The world is in an utterly strange place at the moment. In mid-February, I remember my last proper outing with a friend at an art gallery who had to return home in Beijing the following week as her visa was expiring soon and her university wanted her back too (she was finishing a postdoc here). We were talking about the situation over there and kind of joking about how China probably wasn’t the best place to be at that time….but little did we know just how much and how quickly it would escalate in the UK. I’m sure the Chinese government have downplayed the figures but arguably, the tables have turned and China is a much safer place to be now. Perhaps, as well as teaching us to slow down and to not continue apace at a rate that is rapidly destroying the planet, this pandemic will also teach us all the fatal cost of complacency. Maybe now there'll be a seismic shift in our attitudes and we’ll truly realise how fragile it and human society are. Who would have thought that, in the 21st century, access to toilet roll would be our main concern at any one point in our lives and that technology - so often vilified - would be our saviour in keeping us all connected for real?
Still, we ought to be relatively relieved that coronavirus has chosen to sweep the globe in an age of technological advancement. If this had happened 30 years ago, we would have been even more isolated and may have struggled from a logistics point of view too. Can you imagine how even more difficult things would be for truly isolated people in quarantine (without reliable support networks) without online deliveries (and the invention of the internet which enabled them)? How would people have been able to hold meetings and see family and friends or colleagues (even if only through a screen) from the comfort of their own homes without video conferencing technologies like Zoom? These are things we take for granted today but they would have been nigh-on impossible then. Even 20 years ago, it would have been difficult with the internet in its relative infancy. Now apps (from another recent invention, the smartphone) have been championed as one of the main strategies in the next stage of the battle, facilitating contact tracing and tracking how infections are spreading in real time…..silver linings.
……and of course, the internet has given us all these other great stories:
• International collaboration – Germany (and Switzerland) treating patients from overwhelmed hospitals in France and Italy
• Italians singing from their balconies.(Also enjoyed the excellent violin skills of these Italian twins performing Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’) – the power of music is infinite in times like these
• Captain Tom Moore raising over £30 million for the NHS by completing a walk of 100 laps around his garden
• Kind volunteers in Wuhan checking in on abandoned pets whose owners were stranded outside the city due to lockdown
• Goats taking over the empty streets of Llandudno
• Dog sprains tail from being overjoyed at owner is home for quarantine
• 101-year old lady who has survived the Spanish flu and cancer has now overcome coronavirus (Spanish article)
• Improving water pollution in Venice making small fish and crabs visible and ….drop in air pollution causing the Himalayas to be visible for the first time in 30 years
Of course, it's also worth remembering the amazing efforts and courage of all front-line and key workers around the world, from hospital and care home workers to refuse collectors, police officers, pharmacists, prison officers, farm workers, supermarket staff, delivery drivers, undertakers, bus drivers and many more, in saving lives and ensuring society is still running as smoothly as possible under the circumstances while selflessly putting themselves in harm's way.
Finally, this note outside a hairdresser’s made me chuckle:
Not quite sure I would call it the ‘zombie apocalypse’…..not yet anyway……
published: March 15, 2020, 11:54 p.m.
A new virus has hit China and is spreading rapidly around the world, threatening the survival of mankind. It has inevitably now arrived in your country and with exponentially increasing infections, it may just be a matter of time before you contract it. Do you……...
- Stockpile for the rest of your expected lifetime and lock yourself in your house, refusing any face-to-face contact (anyone could be a potential infection carrier……Armageddon is here!)
- Carry on life as normal but take the advised precautions (stockpiling is for selfish idiots and even if you do contract it, you’ll probably survive it, but you want to minimise the risk and you also don't want to spread it to others in case you do get it)?
- Ignore all sensible advice and continue life as if the virus never existed (germs are good for you and we’re all going to die one day anyway so…….carpe diem!)?
If life was some sort of board game, then the coronavirus would be a curveball card, the outcome differing depending on the choices you (and indeed, many others) make. Whilst appreciating the gravity of the pandemic, I’m trying to see it in a more light-hearted manner because we don’t have any choice but to laugh at the absurdity of the situation when we turn up at the supermarket for the weekly shop to find the shelves completely cleared of loo roll, pasta, tinned stuff and even sugar, as I found today (how quickly do people get through a 1kg bag of sugar?! – No wonder this country has an obesity problem).
It’s better (healthier) than ranting or complaining, which is understandable and perhaps shouldn’t even be surprising, especially in individualistic cultures. Collective human behaviour seems fairly predictable in an unprecedented situation with a much higher degree of uncertainty than even Brexit (there were news reports on demand for ‘Brexit survival’ kits, including packs of freeze-dried food, founded by fears of a no deal exit from the EU). Even if misguided, it comes from a need of control and a place of fear, a feeling we’ve all felt at some time or other in our lives and so, more than anything else in the world right now, this situation calls for kindness. It calls for empathy, even if it brings up feelings of frustration because of the inconvenience of running low on a necessity and needing to try and find somewhere else that has stock. After all, is a lack of empathy for others (driven by fear) not arguably what causes people to stockpile in the first place? If we don’t at least try to understand why people do this, are we therefore not displaying the same fault that we see so clearly and criticise in others? More importantly, we can only attempt to rectify these things and change people’s attitudes and behaviour from the place of calmness that empathy engenders. It also calls for acceptance. This is how certain people have decided to play the game, whether we like it or not; this is the hand we’ve been dealt.
“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” said Hamlet. While I don’t agree 100% with this quote – things are rarely ideal, and the coronavirus outbreak is obviously not preferable, particularly if we’re unlucky enough to catch it ourselves (which is not too dissimilar a perception to ‘bad’) - I think the sentiment is right; we have to deal with things, everything that life throws our way. Let go of idealism and embrace pragmatism (while also accepting the inevitable element of luck in life). Sometimes appraising a situation in a certain way can hinder us in our ability to tackle it effectively. Maybe it might even be helpful to approach the outbreak from a perspective of curiosity. It’s like the start of a sci-fi movie only, rather than having front-row seats, the whole world finds itself centre-stage as the protagonist. How is this adventure going to unfold? How will it end?
No-one really knows but what we do know is how we can – without sounding like a Brexit politician – take back control in a healthier way. Count our blessings and the good things we have been fortunate to experience in life in the face of the media bombardment of bleak facts and predictions. Look after ourselves and look out for each other. Remember that us humans are a more resilient and resourceful bunch than we realise. In essence, do our best to play our cards right. Life is a game but it is one we can play with hope, gratitude and determination.
(I was originally going to write a blog post later on the same theme, but applied to a different situation, specifically delaying on making a decision on accommodation only to then find that they had raised the weekly rent just before I finally took the plunge……kind of like landing on the ‘Pay $200 – Income Tax’ square on Monopoly. The coronavirus seemed a bit more pertinent to say the least and certainly helped me to put that mistake in perspective!)
published: Feb. 18, 2020, 11:17 p.m.
Insights from a workshop on stress I went to a couple of weeks ago and a hypnotherapy webinar on ways to deal with stress:
We’ve all experienced the unpleasant feeling of feeling stressed and often want to be rid of the fight-or-flight response it induces in our bodies. Stress, however, is a good thing (at least temporarily) because it warns us that something is wrong. The way we react to stress is the silent killer (not the stress itself). Stress is caused by pain which tells us that there is something we need to change. If the pain (stress) continues, it tells us there is something we need to learn.
This makes sense, right? The stress of procrastinating tells us that we need to focus and start revising for that upcoming exam. Speaking from personal experience, the stress of sub-optimal living arrangements which were affecting my mental (and physical) health was telling me that I needed to find somewhere else to live. But perhaps we’ve not always viewed stress in this light.
One major source of stress revolves around our identity, which is influenced by how other people see us and the external labels from others may sometimes lead to a negative and limited version of ourselves. However, if we see ourselves through the eyes of others, we try to be who others want us to be (rather than who we really are). How often do we do something just to please others or to influence their perception of us, even when it is of detriment to ourselves? In order to free ourselves from fear and stress, we need to find out what our values are and therefore who we really are.
Action plan to relax more and maintain well-being
- Observe your thoughts
- Accept they are your creation
- Respond – Change your thinking
We also need to talk about stress differently; to see it as an opportunity or challenge to be overcome rather than a disaster (we can still acknowledge the intensity of the feeling by labelling it as irritating or vexing). Depending on the source of stress, we nearly always have a choice: to deal with it or feel bad about it. The way we think determines the quality of our lives. Where our attention goes, energy flows and where energy flows, life grows. We should not let in negative energy; the best revenge, after all, is to be happy and to like ourselves. Therefore, negative thoughts should be given short shrift and be treated like uninvited house guests (told to go away and/or shooed out the door!) and positive ones invited in instead.
That which we take in will come out in one way or another sooner or later (take in positivity and it will come out). Our output is the result of our input so let’s make the first thought of the day a positive one so that it sets the tone for the rest of the day. It’s important to be aware that our subconscious records everything we say because it is always switched on, so feed it with positive messages.
Besides our thoughts, if we’re overwhelmed and our minds are racing too much for us to be able to slow them down, there are physical ways of dealing with stress because ultimately, mind and body are closely connected and nowhere can this connection be seen (or felt) more clearly than under conditions of stress. One thing that commonly happens during stress is that our mouths become dry. As strange as it may sound, if we fill our mouths with saliva and swirl it around out mouths, this will send a signal to our bodies that there is a not a threat on the horizon. Similarly, relaxing our shoulders (keeping them down) has the same effect. Finally, when animals experience a stressful event (think an antelope being chased by and narrowly escaping a lion), they often shake in the aftermath in order to release muscle tension and return the body to its normal homeostasis. Although shaking is usually a cue to others that shows a state of extreme nervousness, it is good for our bodies! It helps us to recalibrate our nervous systems ........Taylor Swift was right after all - we just need to ‘shake it off, shake it off…..’.
published: Dec. 31, 2019, 10:15 p.m.
Well, as the year (and decade) draws to a close, I thought I’d fit in a final blog post for 2019. After 3 Christmas parties in as many weeks and coffees with a few friends, which included socialising for 6 hours on one day, I was ready to go and hide in a cave for a few days at least and ‘introvert’. I am now in said cave (well, metaphorically speaking anyway……I’m not sure how well I would fare in an actual cave…..) aka, my apartment.
The few days over Christmas provided the middle ground I needed through spending time with family but also having unstructured alone time to spend however I wanted (or at least, time spent together but doing our own separate things – the best way). Of course, there was the customary watching Christmas specials on TV, eating lots of food (with minimal effort on my part – ah, the perks of going home for Christmas!) and napping. I went home with 2 books and came back with a suitcase packed with a load of other books. One of the 2 books was partly an impulse buy from Amazon (‘Thinking Fast and Slow’) after ordering another book as a Christmas gift for a friend and the other was borrowed from the library (‘From class society to Communism: an introduction to Marxism’). A conversation with a friend in which he talked about the initial, catastrophic failure of communism in China, leading to the 3-year long ‘Great Famine’, and also referenced Marxism theory, sparked a sudden interest in learning more about the roots of communism and capitalism.
When home, I discovered a few books which I had reading in the recent past but which had got abandoned by the wayside at some point when or even prior to moving out, along with some on the bookshelf relating to philosophy which I bought years ago but never really got round to reading in any depth (‘Breakfast with Socrates’ and ‘The pig that wants to be eaten’). I also found the ‘Django for beginners’ book for when I was having initial teething problems with creating the blog. So I might either finally get round to coding the sidebar at some point soon as it is getting pretty loooonnng now, or end up breaking the blog.
I indulged in one particular hobby which I’ve not really had time to enjoy for a long while and remembered the unbridled joy of watching an episode of Doraemon (a Japanese manga series) in Spanish on YouTube. In it, Nobita balks at the idea of joining Gigante and Suneo for another baseball game and, as per his modus operandi whenever he has a problem, turns to Doraemon who digs out a machine which allows him to change the date to whatever date he desires. (They only play baseball in the summer so Nobita changes it to a winter day so that the boys don't want to play. As always, Nobita abuses his privileges a bit too much and the machine ends up malfunctioning and bringing about armageddon - well, the sun draws ever closer to the earth, melting everything in its path and eventually about to reach the running Nobita - .......only for this apparent living nightmare to turn out to be a simulated experience for Nobita when he wakes to the sight of Doraemon and friends laughing at him and realises it's April fool's day.) The joy it gives me is two-fold: the nostalgia hit back to the care-free times of childhood and fulfilling my love of learning, in this case picking up or finding out the meaning of new words in a fun way.
Going home provided a welcome contrast. Being free of expectations and the usual routine set me free from their shackles and meant I could appreciate the silence of reading on my bed when I have developed the bad habit (or more accurately, addiction) of having songs on the radio blaring in the background in the evenings. This is awkwardly ironic, given that I wrote about how golden silence is a few months back. I think my brain has got dopamine-high on the novelty of not knowing what song is going to play next – it’s like the music lottery. As much as I enjoy listening to music, I can’t do that and concentrate on reading a book at the same time. Our brains are not designed to multitask. But it has kind of taken over my evenings at home, often not turning it off until I’m just about to turn in for the night. No wonder I’ve found it hard to fall asleep these days.
I don’t usually bother with new year resolutions but those few days made me realise that I need to restore a bit of balance in my life and that – to use that cliqued phrase – ‘going forward’, I need to wean myself off the music, also spend less time on social media and invest that time in doing the one thing I loved to do the most during my spare time in childhood – reading. I had forgotten what it was like to be so engrossed in a book that you don’t notice or at least are not bothered by the passing of time. Besides, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can listen to any song you want on demand at any time of the day. My brain needs instead to appreciate and learn to love the novelty of new knowledge and perspectives on the world and on life I may not have considered.
Now I know all new year resolutions are made in the merry spirit of self-improvement and promptly broken before we’ve even reached the end of the first month of the new year. As any pragmatist will tell you, any goal without a plan is just a dream. So my plan for this particular goal is to restrict having the radio on to when I do the dishes and to develop a wind-down routine where I set an hour aside solely for reading for leisure before I go to bed. If this is a resolution I can keep, my attention span (and sleep) will thank me for it.
Here’s to a healthy, peaceful and prosperous 2020 for one and all!
published: Dec. 8, 2019, 7:07 p.m.
In a world of prevailing social media influence, it can be all too easy to be taken in by the glamorous stream of carefully managed images and to forget that the picture-perfect shots of your friends on nights out or on their tropical holidays may be a masquerade to compensate for the less pretty parts of their lives. Combine this with living in a capitalist society which almost equates our worth to our productivity and no wonder rates of anxiety and depression are rising across the spectrum.
Interested in how to reconnect with my own inner worth, I attended a workshop on the subject of self-esteem a few months ago. We started off by thinking about what forms our identity and the facilitator drew a diagram which started off with ‘I’ in the centre, surrounded by another circle to describe the senses or how we interact with the world around us (i.e. see, hear, touch etc.). This in turn was enclosed within an outer circle of deeper things such as relationships, culture, body and health, with the outermost layer consisting of the anchors with which we typically define ourselves by e.g. job, house, car, money and clothes. There is a big problem with grounding our sense of who we are in several or even all of these external aspects……which is that the only constant in life is change! For example, we may suddenly be made redundant, lose our home or suffer a breakdown in our relationships. Therefore, it takes a lot of energy to root our sense of self in any of these things. It is far more stable to base our self-esteem on internal values or what could be thought of as virtues e.g. kindness, sensitivity, strength, compassion, humility.
We then did an exercise which was related to this point where we had to think of a person, animal and flower that we admire or like the most, giving 3 reasons for each one. For the animal one, I chose the cat because of its independence, calmness and strong sense of self. The facilitator asked for an example from each of us, building up a mind map of adjectives, before revealing that we already have what we spot in others. We couldn’t recognise a rose unless we knew what it looked like. In the same vein, we wouldn’t be able to recognise sensitivity in others if we have not experienced it through ourselves. So it is about cultivating what is already present inside us because what we feed will grow.
Materialism persuades us that what we need in order to feel good about ourselves is external to us; spirituality shows us that everything we need can already be found within. In an increasingly uncertain and divided society, our self-esteem should be a source of stability, allowing us to value and appreciate our uniqueness and the inner good of what we bring to the world at large.
published: Dec. 3, 2019, 10:52 p.m.
Today is Giving Tuesday, an international day of kindness where everyone is encouraged to give back in their own way, creating a chain of kindness which passes from one person to the next. When people think about giving, they typically think about money and big gestures but there are so many other ways of making a difference, from giving up our time through volunteering, giving someone a compliment or even random acts of kindness such as holding the door for someone. The university has supported this day by placing envelopes dotted around different areas of campus, each containing a message of encouragement. Here is one my friend found on a bench whilst eating lunch under the lovely clear blue skies:
Action for Happiness's calendar for this month is also focused on the theme of kindness:
published: Nov. 7, 2019, 9:50 p.m.
Over the last 2 weeks, a big white wall (well, 4 walls to be exact) has stood in the open space on the main campus at the University of Manchester. It seemed almost menacing at first; a familiar sight for students, like staring at a blank sheet of paper when trying to start a daunting essay. Gradually, more and more students could be seen grabbing one of the coloured markers and taking time out of their day to scribble away or draw uplifting messages of positivity and kindness for anyone struggling. Before long, it became a magnificent masterpiece, canvases overflowing with colour and creativity, a beacon of light shining on the upbeat spirit of Manchester students amidst the darkness (and the seemingly torrential rain here).
The Big White Wall marks the launch of Let’s Talk, the student mental wellbeing campaign that gets students talking about the way they feel, as comfortably as they would feel 'talking about last night's football match or the latest Netflix series'. It also coincides with the start of the university's partnership with a virtual Big White Wall, a free, 24/7 online mental health resource for all staff and students, which is monitored by trained counsellors. It provides an anonymous space where participants can express their thoughts or feelings and includes self-guided courses, personal assessments and peer to peer support for those living with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions – and for those interested in exploring resources to support their wellbeing.
It will initially be available for a 12-month trial period, which I would love to see rolled out permanently at the end as it seems like a fantastic initiative. Sadly, the physical Big White Wall outside the 'tin can' building has been taken down now, which is a shame. I think having a space like that for people to spread messages of love and encouragement in a world of conflict and pressure can be a great source of comfort. Spending even just a few moments reading and contemplating some of the messages instantly brightened up my day and served as a reminder that none of us are truly alone. As Dumbledore once said, "Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light."
published: Oct. 12, 2019, 9:02 p.m.
When the weather’s nice, I usually have a weekly (or sometimes twice-weekly) tennis session practice with a friend, which we started a couple of months ago (we play table tennis on rainy days). We met at the free badminton sessions last summer which the university holds. We would usually play together as regular attendees. With the summer season approaching again, she roped me into playing tennis though equally, I was keen to pick up a racket again since I hadn’t played since the PE lessons in school, which was a decade ago! It was another way to keep fit and I had also forgotten what it was like to play tennis. The first time we played, we spent more time retrieving the balls than we did actually having rallies since we would usually (and hopelessly) send them flying, neither of us quite knowing how to or being able to control the ball whenever we swung our rackets at it.
Over the course of the next few months, we both improved a bit but it was still very much hit-and-miss. The trajectory of our progress was up and down; we could get a rally going of a few shots and then the next run of play would see us miss a serve or send a return flying over the other’s head. The session we had a few weekends ago started off like it was going to be one of those days, except worse…….we could barely get a rally going at all for the first 10 minutes or so, either messing up our serves or sending our returns into the metal ‘net’. It looked like it was going to be an off day for both of us. Gradually though, no doubt aided by the regular practice we’ve had, we improved and could regularly get a rally of at least 5 or 6 shots going. Heck, I was even hitting consecutive backhands consistently. It was then that I started to feel ‘in the zone’ (or in the ‘flow’ state). I became mindful when striking the ball, fully focusing on the point of contact with the racket and concentrating to make sure it went where I wanted it to go, and also noticed a new found confidence. It felt like we were actually (finally) playing tennis. It was at this point, when I experienced the joy of progress, that I became more aware of my surroundings, tuning into the chatter of the kids playing on the neighbouring basketball court, the sound of police sirens going off from a nearby road and the subtle din of aeroplanes flying overhead. I also noticed the towering beauty of the trees, which surrounded 2 sides of the court, and a sense of gratitude for having a friendship with someone who both values exercising and enjoys playing racket-based sports as much as I do. Being able to practise my Cantonese with her was also a bonus.
Experiencing this state of centredness reminded me of what my former A-level psychology teacher used to drill into us to encourage us to practise our exam technique on past papers: “Practice makes better”. This was of course a modification of the well-known adage, “Practice makes perfect” but with a spin of critical realism to it. It made me reflect on the relative wisdom of the former saying. Frankly, who gets 100% on an exam anyway (ok, there may be the rare occasion that someone does…….but what does it matter)? We could practise for many more hours and still get nowhere near the level of top-level players like Roger Federer or Serena Williams for example. At our current level, I’m sure that if either of us started to put more power and/or direction into our shots, such that we weren’t directing the ball to places on the court which made it relatively easier for the other person to return it, rallies would go back to being non-existent. But it doesn’t matter. We are making progress in developing our tennis ability …...and practice wasn’t only making me better at tennis but also making me better as a person in the sense that it made me live in the moment and appreciate things which I might otherwise (and often do) take for granted. It was the same with yoga. In the first few sessions, I really struggled with doing the shoulder stand, wondering how some people could execute the pose with such ease and poise. After consistent and patient practice, I gradually found that elusive ease, a sign that my body was developing strength and flexibility. My initial frustration became replaced by a sense of being grounded in the moment. After all these years - well, 8 to be precise - my old psychology teacher is still right…...and not just about psychology exams, but also about life.
published: Sept. 12, 2019, 9:57 p.m.
So I got offered the role in the end, the one I mentioned in a previous blog post and for which I thought I had screwed up the interview. This reminded me of a moment of awareness I had when drafting my application for the role. The process was simple and just involved answering 4 short, competency-based questions once personal details had been filled in. After polishing up my answers way in advance of the deadline, I asked a friend, who currently worked in the role, if she would mind having a quick look at my application and giving me feedback on how to improve it. She happily obliged so I sent them to her via Facebook and told her to check in her own time.
A few days, I logged in to see that she had replied. Upon clicking on the Messenger icon, I saw that she had sent 3 separate messages but could only see the last one, which simply said ‘I’m really sorry’. Suddenly, I felt a jolt of fear. Were my application answers really that terrible? With trepidation, I reluctantly clicked into the conversation. It was only then that I saw, in her 2 previous messages, that she was saying sorry simply because she had been very busy and hadn’t yet found the time to read my application yet. In that instant, I realised I had jumped to the conclusion that she must be apologising because my application answers were so bad that she thought I had no chance of making it to the interview stage. …...That moment gave me an insight into myself and the lens through which I see the world. Fearfully. If we are not completely secure in ourselves (for whatever reason), we will be primed to perceive ‘threats’ more easily. It’s the way the primitive, ‘reptilian’ part of our brains is programmed. Thus, it was a reflection of my not-very-confident self being racked with its usual doubt rather than an objective state of or perspective on the situation. She was to say a few days later that she thought my application was really strong.
What could I learn from my reaction? Don’t we all jump to conclusions sometimes? I guess the first step would be to notice our triggers and take a step back. Be kind to ourselves. As cheesy as it sounds, thank our minds for looking out for us and trying to protect us from harm because that is exactly what they’re doing (just in a very misguided way), but soothe and reassure it. This is a false alarm; there is no real threat here.
Another similar scenario arose over the bank holiday weekend, which I spent in the beautiful city of Hannover. The holiday itself was great and hearing German being spoken all around us reminded me of why I chose to study the language for the first year of sixth-form. I was visiting my sister, who is based there for a couple of months and conveniently had those 3 days off work. We explored the Sprengel Museum (effectively an art gallery) on the first afternoon before resting our weary legs by the nearby lake (Machsee) afterwards. There is something infinitely calming about seeing the orchestra-like movement of water, the ripples moving in tandem on the surface. More nature was to follow with a visit to the immaculately-maintained Herrenhäuser Gardens on the next day and a few hours spent walking through Europe’s largest city forest, the serene Eilenriede, on the last day. It almost felt like we had most of the forest to ourselves as there was hardly anyone else about. Imagining how busy the parks in the UK must have been on sunny bank holiday Monday made me appreciate the peace and tranquility even more.
Having found my Zen, I then went and lost it all after missing my night flight back to Manchester. For some reason, my brain seemed to get the departure and arrival times mixed up and made the costly assumption (up until it was too late) that the flight was leaving Hannover Airport at 10:45pm and not 10pm. God knows why I didn’t bother to double check. Subconsciously, it must have known the actual departure time because at around 9:20pm, after I had taken a leisurely shower and was gathering up the few remaining items to put in my suitcase and backpack, I suddenly had an epiphany that my flight might actually be leaving at 10pm. As I was busy packing up my stuff, I got my sister to check on her laptop and she confirmed my fears. Thanks, brain! You couldn’t have given me that epiphany any earlier, could you?
I hurriedly made sure I hadn’t left anything and we power-walked it to the airport, which was only a 3-minute walk away on foot, so we got there by half 9. Being aware of just how small the airport is (going through security was to barely take 5 minutes), I had a hope that I could still make it, even though I needed to check in and get my boarding pass (note to self: check-in online next time and ask the hotel reception staff to print off the pass. For goodness sake, they were only 2 floors down!). On arriving, we saw the sad and lonely-looking Flybe check-in desks in the dark. There was nobody there. Panic started to grow. My hope started to fade. I accosted a passing airport staff member who informed me that check-in closes 40 minutes before departure so I wouldn’t be able to get on the flight. Luckily for me, there was a Flybe flight to Birmingham which would have departed at 10pm as well but was delayed by an hour and so I could get onto that flight. Given this fortune, I should have felt relieved, especially as I had a friend who had just finished her Master’s and was going back to China for good the day after the next and I wanted to get back to Manchester to see her before she left. But relief was far off my emotion radar.
The first thought that came to my mind was ‘How could I be so stupid?’ Rather than seeing my mix-up as being part of the inherent fallibility of the human mind, I saw it exclusively as being something to do with me personally, conveniently ignoring all the other times my brain has organised itself sufficiently to get me to the airport on time. This was the first flight I had missed and yet I was acting as if I expected to sail through life without ever missing any flights (or anything else going wrong for that matter), as if my mind was programmed like a perfect robot. Despite my attempts at mindfulness, the intense frustration and occasional self-reproach continued all the way to Birmingham, compounded by being sat behind a screaming baby. My mind was losing all sense of proportion.
Then I reflected and thought about how I was reacting to the situation, the lens through which I was seeing it. Maybe I can try to change the ‘lens’, like they do at the opticians when testing my eyes. If I have the ‘fear’ lens on (as in the first situation) or the ‘anger’ lens, why not try switching it to the ‘curious’ or ‘light-hearted’ lens and see such mishaps not only as an opportunity to see how I react to challenges, but also as being part of the wonderful adventure that is life? Also, knowing that I can take life a bit too seriously at times, sometimes I try to think about how a comedian would handle or see the situation and then I realise it isn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, despite what my emotions may be screaming at me otherwise. Try a different role on for size and see how it fits you.
The brain is an amazing organ. It does trillions of calculations every day to keep us alive (many of which we are not even aware of because they are done automatically without entering our conscious awareness) and functioning as optimally as possible. It allows us to think, feel and interact with our fellow human beings mostly with ease. It enables us to enjoy what life has to offer and experience the full essence of what it’s like to be human. But we forget that it is part of us, imperfect human beings. So sometimes it may take unhelpful shortcuts and cause us to misplace things, misjudge words and miss flights. Forgive it. Forgive ourselves. In a week’s time, maybe even in a day’s time, these emotional storms will have passed and we will look back at it with only a residue of mild irritation, the mark of having learnt from the experience.
published: Sept. 3, 2019, 8:20 p.m.
A while ago, I started using a meditation app called Pacifica, which has now rebranded itself (with a few additional features) as Sanvello. Although my meditation practice has somewhat done downhill, I've tried to find the time recently to get back into a regular routine of listening to a guided meditation every day. Anyhow, one of those features, which I quite like, is a daily quote on the homepage which is usually inspiring, insightful or otherwise uplifting. I particularly liked the one today, which is why I would like to share it with you:
Taken from: https://www.sanvello.com/quote/en/44
It reminds me of 2 very similar quotes I saw a while back, "Until you change your thinking, you will always recycle your experiences." and the other by the great Carl Jung, "Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate." We all develop patterns of behaviour, habitual ways of acting which can be detrimental or even self-destructive, but until we correct the errors of our attitudes, beliefs or thoughts (or are made aware of how to go about correcting them), we are almost destined to repeat them. This is why I think therapy of any form can be so helpful because we don't always have the capacity or presence of mind to change that which seems to dictate our lives and cause a great deal of unhappiness as we don't necessarily know where we are going wrong and need the perspective of someone outside looking in.
published: Aug. 10, 2019, 10:43 p.m.
Having had a very busy couple of weeks, with a report submission, house move and interview, I came across a timely article, prior to all those things happening in the space of 5 days, on the power of silence (which I’ve written towards the end of this post). We live in a world where it feels like everything happens at 100mph and we barely get a moment to stop and breathe. I think the fast pace of modern day living has partly fuelled the gravitational-like pull of mindfulness for many people, but mindfulness is not an easy practice to do, let alone to commit to on a regular basis. Focusing on the breath, noticing when the mind wanders and bringing attention back to the breath are effortful. Silence, on the other hand, only requires us to observe what arises in our environment, be it sensory things or thoughts. It is simply about consciously acknowledging what comes into our awareness. What it has in common with mindfulness is the emphasis on non-judgment but where it diverges is in the lack of demand for attention to be brought back to the breath. We fill our lives with so much noise - think email notifications, music, chatter in the restaurants we dine in, an endless to-do list - all things which demand a piece of our time and effort, that I sometimes feel the last thing we need is something yet more effort-intensive. Silence provides the perfect, passive antidote to our busy, active lives. It not only calms the mind but also cultivates an appreciation for life in its full essence.
I started to feel a sense of this awareness that silence imparts when typing the translation of the article in the quiet of the studio apartment I’ve recently moved into; understanding through application, its magic suddenly taking hold. Listening to the tactile sound of the keys being pressed punctuating the silence was soothing in a way I hadn’t expected or indeed even really noticed or paid attention to before. A day or two ago, my mind had been marinating in the disappointment of an interview which could have gone better and in the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome yet. Again, in the quiet of my apartment, I made peace with myself and decided not to get so hung up about the outcome. Come what may, I gave it my best shot and if it wasn’t to be, then not getting the role would free up time for my other pursuits. It was like the peace triggered a switch that made me detach from it a bit more emotionally and made me realise life was bigger than just this one interview. Perhaps it also had something to do with the fact that I had spent at least the last few months living with my mum who (has schizophrenia and) talked to herself seemingly non-stop, to the point where it was driving me crazy. The peace and quiet were therefore a welcome contrast but what silence does is it allows you the space to sit with uncertainty and to be ok with it.
Silence also accentuates the sensory. After such a hectic week, which also involved an improvisation workshop and software training, I was grateful for the good weather and took some time out towards the end of the week, when my calendar was practically (and blissfully) empty, to sit in the sun, surrounded by plants. Finally having some time to myself, I could really feel the warmth of the sun’s rays on my skin. It also made me appreciate the sounds of everyday life, from the mundane sound of footsteps and someone riding a bicycle to the beautiful sound of birdsong.
FOMO (fear of missing out) seems to be more of a concern among people these days but the unfortunate side effect is that it makes us say ‘yes’ to almost everything. Silence gives our hearts and minds the clarity and freedom to be more selective with how we spend our time and only agree to the things or experiences that truly give us joy and enrich our lives…...and that is what is truly important, to know that we’re not missing out but rather enhancing the experiences we do decide to go for. Life is a bit like squash (the drink): the less you dilute it with other experiences, the sweeter it tastes. Who doesn’t want to make their life sweeter? Now here is a whole article on why it's important to embrace silence in our lives:
Silence allows extraordinary things to happen
It’s a requirement for communication in its most authentic sense and also for music.
Silence forms part of life; in each instance, we have the opportunity to listen to our inner world and discover what silence brings us.
In society and with the pace we live at, we are so used to the noise that even unconsciously, and therefore in an automatic way, we look to fill our time with more noise, sounds, words, etc. However, when everything switches off, on disconnecting the mobile phone, the music, emails and any other daily habit, it’s possible to realise that something even bigger arises.
In silence, the magnitude of life appears, the simplicity, the flow, the possibility of observing things from a wider perspective. We only need to give ourselves permission to be with ourselves, or better, to be in ourselves.
To listen to silence is within everyone’s reach and it requires neither rituals nor sophisticated skills. Listening to silence properly requires an act of generosity with yourself and of understanding of the mechanisms of the mind. Our thoughts are in constant movement, it’s something that forms part of human nature. Whatever happens, the mind usually expresses some opinion in that respect; sometimes to criticise or demand more of ourselves, others to analyse what happens in pursuit of the vision that it judges more appropriately. Yes, it’s true that the mind carries out vital functions and important cognitions for our survival and well-being; it’s also the case that it can’t resolve all the issues we face using logic - well, there are aspects that pass it by and that it can’t manage to understand.
The mind also makes mistakes. It’s what usually occurs when it turns over many things. It seems then that the mind gets stuck and, not being able to find any solutions, repeats the same reason with the hope of finding an answer. In those moments, it’s very useful to disconnect from the process and rest.
It is then that silence gives us the opportunity to observe ourselves from another place, without judging our behaviours and decisions so severely, and recognising our capabilities in order to resolve what worries us. Many big discoveries are the fruit of moments of silence in which what are called ‘insights’ are produced: instances of intuition and clarity where everything fits together and makes sense.
How to cultivate silence
Simply, it’s necessary to want to do it, putting intention into it and being kind to yourself. It’s about being aware and deciding what we want to pay attention to. Over the day, we are exposed to many external stimuli that we attend to without even deciding to do it. This not only happens with sounds but also with images and public messages, the press, the internet, the establishments etc.
In order to cultivate silence, it helps in the first instance to get away from the noise and find a space to be alone. It is then when it’s possible to start practising, getting to know what our internal dialogue is like and coming to terms with it.
Respecting thoughts as part of our mental process and at the same time expanding the internal vision to other spaces free from judgments is a journey that brings us closer to inner calm. That is the objective of many mystiques and meditators: the state of complete awareness, the prelude to enlightenment. In such a state, everything is here and now, an instance of spaciousness and fullness. But such a practice taken to the extreme can take us away from the life that unites us more with others. The question would therefore be until when it is appropriate to be in such states as a priority.
Life is broad and complex. To know that we have in each instance the opportunity to stop ourselves in order to listen to ourselves is important and very efficient. It’s not necessary to retire to a temple, to disconnect from our daily routines or to learn a certain skill. It’s enough to trust in our own instinct and inner wisdom.
Silence helps us to be aware of the here and now and to have more strength and presence in our lives.
An underlying ability
All human beings have the ability to listen to themselves. Learning to do it in a constructive way involves respecting ourselves and understanding that many of the things that a person says to themselves is the result of a habit maintained during a good part of their life.
Silence requires inner listening and sometimes, that can frighten, but who dares to cross that first threshold for listening discovers very kind and enriching spaces inside. There are people who hide from silence so as not to hear what they don’t like about themselves. However, whoever gives themselves the opportunity to observe what is said to themselves can understand how that affects their behaviour.
On crossing this first stage, we can start to recognise what we think without having to fight against it. We then start to discover a space which not only leads us to get to know ourselves better but also to be more in ourselves. So we access the purest of human essence and the power of reconciling with ourselves and with the environment. Relationships and daily activities become easier and more fluid. Silence requires an attitude of inner recognition that can be practised in daily acts. There is where we can really find the most valuable silences, the pauses and the most surprising answers.
The calm of looking
On looking, we usually focus our attention on a concrete goal. For example, on the pavement we walk attentively in order to make our way between people and dodge possible obstacles, but there are ways of observing from the stillness and without intention. When the eyes widen and we relax because there’s no need to analyse nor to control anything external, stillness settles and allows you to experience inner silence, being aware of the outer pace of life. To be able to feel inner stillness, respecting the fact that everything outside follows its own pace provides strength and better decision-making capacity. This practice allows us to be in ourselves and not to be dragged by the pace of others. We gain an authentic presence.
The meaning of silence
Silence helps us to be aware of the here and now, and therefore, to have more strength in life and presence in the face of others. Silence connects us to life, to breathing and the essence of things.
It helps to simplify, to differentiate the important from the irrelevant, to look after ourselves with respect and to give us the opportunity to be with ourselves from another place, living completely in the body. Silence brings a wide and comfortable environment. The key to finding the journey towards wellbeing and the comfort of our silence and that of the others resides in our attitude. To do that, we need to learn to listen to what occurs to us and what crosses the mind of others without having to add noise to the silences.
Beauty and sense
When we stop to contemplate a landscape or scenery or a daily situation from a point of inner stillness, it’s possible to perceive how something more beautiful is born which goes beyond the sounds and the images…..because everything that is looked at with wholeness and awareness acquires beauty and meaning. In those moments, the mind empties in order to fill itself with the fullness of silence and harmony.
Faced with such a pure and enriching experience, words are therefore not needed. Recreating those states of contemplation is possible in daily moments: waiting for the bus, in a park, in the queue of a supermarket, cooking, in the light of the moon… Any time is good if we commit to the intention of discovering what emerges beyond the sounds.
Paying attention to the outer silence allows the inner calm to rise to the surface.
The company of silence
Every moment is full of silences. With practice, we come to discover that even in the noise, there are silences that can become more present in our lives. It all depends on where attention is focused, because what we attend to becomes bigger and more important.
We can practise listening to the silences that are produced in the spaces between the words of a conversation and see what happens. A feeling of greater presence and depth may appear in that moment and with that person. In any place, we can pay more attention to the silence than to the sounds. As Eckhart Tolle says in his book ‘The Power of Now’: “Paying attention to the outer silence creates an inner silence, it calms the mind down. Every sound is born out of silence, dies again in silence and during its lifespan is surrounded by silence. Silence allows the sound to be.”
In a conversation with a friend or relative appears the opportunity to listen to one another and at the same time to listen to ourselves from inner silence. Experience listening between the words, the silences of the words and the words of the silences. It’s usually not uncommon to neglect listening to another person when conversing with them. Often, we anticipate the speech ahead or our response when the other person still hasn’t finished their explanation. The result is that the other person does not feel listened to, the communication dilutes and loses quality. To listen to the other person is to stay silent and emptied of thoughts while they speak. It is to learn to respect the rhythm they need in order to express themselves. The impatience for wanting to give a response can lead to not listening attentively and therefore to not understand the needs of the other person.
To be aware that we can have a time and space of inner silence to respond is to respect ourselves and others without having to fill the silence that is created in that moment. That is the discomfort that is worth overcoming. A silence can come to be more illuminating than many words rushed in the anxiety of saying something and arguing out of the blue.
As the Arabic proverb says: Keep quiet if what you're going to say is no more beautiful than silence.
(Taken from: https://www.cuerpomente.com/psicologia/silencio-permite-que-sucedan-cosas-extraordinarias_4726)
published: July 14, 2019, 9:26 p.m.
published: July 1, 2019, 9:10 p.m.
Came across this helpful calendar that Action for Happiness have published this month. It contains a single action which we can do each day to improve our resilience:
published: June 24, 2019, 7:28 p.m.
I recently joined a small group of people from the University of Manchester library on my first proper hike in a long while at the weekend. We followed a very scenic route through The Carrs park in Wilmslow, following the path of the River Bollin, past Quarry Bank Mill (part of the National Trust), and then into Styal Country Park. Walking among trees and sitting down for lunch to the sound of a nearby stream brought a special sense of peace and calm that had a beneficial effect on the strong anxiety I had been feeling the previous day. I instantly appreciated the appeal of hiking and of spending time in nature in general. We were quite lucky with the weather and even the spell of rain towards the end, not to mention the fact I didn’t even have the appropriate footwear - I was wearing trainers (which I immediately noticed upon seeing the walking boots everyone else had on) - couldn’t dampen (pun entirely intended) my enjoyment of the hike. In fact, it was almost as if Mother Nature took pity on me with the timing of the rain, arriving perfectly towards the end of the walk, when we were back on flat, concrete ground to wash away the mud that had accumulated on my trainers……plus, I didn’t faceplant in the mud at any point. Victory! Being unaware of just how close the park is to Manchester Airport, seeing the planes take off from the runway was an unexpected bonus. We ended our walk by dropping into a conveniently located pub and refuelling with drinks and chips before heading to the station. By the time we were on the train back to Piccadilly, I had well and truly reached my social limit but certainly felt refreshed and reinvigorated.
The next day, I was not surprised to read an online article that I had coincidentally came across, which was based on a scientific journal paper and said how spending 2 hours in nature per week is good for our wellbeing and health. With the tranquil memories of the previous day still fresh in my memory, I could certainly believe the findings from my (admittedly limited) experience but they also seem to fit a broader pattern with the rise in ecotherapy. The article is from a Spanish news outlet (La Vanguardia) that I follow and naturally, is in Spanish but having spent a month in Barcelona several summers ago, I try to keep up my level of Spanish. So one of the things I enjoy doing whenever I have the time is to read articles related to my 2 main areas of interest, namely psychology and wellbeing, and not only learn new words in the process but also see what extra wisdom I can glean from them. The article is quite short so I thought I might as well try to translate the whole thing rather than do a summary. This is the link to it for those interested:
If there are any Spanish speakers reading this, feel free to comment on any parts that could be better translated! I know I’ve probably translated some words a little too literally. So apologies if it’s a little clunky to read in places for native speakers but hopefully the gist of the message still comes across!
2 hours in nature a week: the key to wellbeing and health
A British study shows that people who spend more than 120 minutes weekly in the natural environment have a better chance of being healthy.
Breathing clean air, walking through a forest, enjoying the scenery….. In general, being in contact with nature is associated with frequency of personal wellbeing and health but is there a minimum dose that is necessary to detect the effects of this medicine?
A team of researchers from the School of Medicine from the University of Exeter (United Kingdom) and the University of Uppsala (Sweden) seem to have hit upon the formula. According to a paper published this week in the journal, Scientific Reports, spending at least 2 hours a week in nature can be a necessary threshold to obtain health and personal wellbeing.
Specifically, the team led by Dr Matthew P. White show that the people who spend at least 120 minutes in nature per week have a significantly greater probability of reporting good health and better psychological wellbeing than those who don’t visit nature at all. However, such benefits are not found for people who visit natural surroundings like urban parks, forests, rural parks and beaches for less than 120 minutes a week.
The study used data from almost 20,000 people resident in different cities in the UK and found that it didn’t matter if the 120 minutes was achieved in a single visit or in several shorter visits. It also discovered that the threshold of 120 minutes applied as much to men as to women, to older adults and young people, across different occupational and ethnic groups, between those who live in rich and poor areas, and even amongst people with illnesses and long-term disabilities.
Mathew White highlights that “it is well known that going outdoors in nature can be good for the health and wellbeing of people but until now, we hadn’t been able to give a concrete figure to detect these effects”, according to a statement by the University of Exeter.
The majority of the visits to nature in this investigation were carried out only 3 kilometres from home, so even visiting local urban green spaces seems to be something positive, the authors of the study point out. “We hope that 2 hours a week is a realistic objective for many people, especially given that it can be distributed in a whole week in order to obtain the benefits,'' suggests Professor White.
The popular Arashiyama Bamboo Forest in Kyoto, Japan (FilippoBacci / Getty Images)
One of the co-authors of the investigation, Professor Terry Hartig, of the University of Uppsala, emphasises that “there are many reasons why spending time in nature can be good for health and wellbeing, including aspects such as having a perspective of the circumstances of life, reducing stress and enjoying moments of quality of life”.
The conclusions of this study “offer valuable support to health professionals to make recommendations about how to spend time in nature in order to promote basic health and wellbeing, similar to the guidelines for the weekly physical examination”, Dr. Terry Hartig highlights.
So we all now have an official scientific excuse to go out in search of our nearest green spaces and enjoy all the health benefits that Mother Nature brings!
published: June 14, 2019, 9:14 p.m.
Perhaps it was a sign that I was getting older and tired of all the irritations associated with travelling but jetting off somewhere no longer held the same luster. The hassle of going through airport security and wishing I could suddenly morph into an octopus and simultaneously take off my belt and coat and out my laptop, phones and plastic bag packed neatly with liquids, while the traveller behind impatiently tuts at me. The chore of booking flights / accommodation and sifting through numerous TripAdvisor review to ensure that a) the hotel isn’t in the middle of nowhere and b) it’s also not some fly-infested dump in a seedy area of town. Then there was the small matter of packing, a task that, rather than helping to build excited anticipation for the little vacation I was about to embark on, somehow seemed to require more effort with each trip.
My wanderlust had faded with age; flitting between destinations on spontaneous trips between assignment deadlines had become less of a frequent thing. But this trip was different to all the ones that had gone before it. This trip reminded me why I loved jetting off on European city breaks whenever the opportunity arose in my undergrad days. As soon as I was on the plane, I felt the excitement of the sensation of the plane gathering speed on the runway again and the moment of take-off into the skies. I felt like a child again, or at least, the young, bright-eyed 18-year old fresher I still saw myself as, and not the 25-year old heading towards a quarter-life crisis that I actually am.
Perhaps my frequent trips had become routine but this time, it was more breaking out of the monotonous routines that I almost felt trapped by. Once I was in Budapest, I was instantly reminded of the joy of travelling. New surroundings, different sensory experiences and connections with people who I would not usually have crossed paths with combined to freshen my outlook on life. Such simple, affording comforts like stuffing my face at the generous breakfast buffet when a boring bowl of porridge would normally pass for breakfast at home and tasting the delights of apple rooibos tea, not to mention vegetables dipped in a chocolate fountain. One of the joys of travelling is also experiencing another culture through their cuisine. We had a memorable dinner in a candlelit restaurant tucking into dishes like salmon, catfish and perch brochette (posh name for a skewer) on soya-flavoured vegetables, while a talented musician happily serenaded our ears with such classics as ‘Hallelujah’ on a Hungarian instrument known as a cimbolam, similar to piano. There’s nothing quite so powerful as the combination of two of the simple pleasures of life, in music and food. It was also nice to hear the local shopping mall blasting out familiar tunes as we walked through it (a bit of Katy Perry, anyone?) - not only a reminder of home but also of the universal, transcendental appeal of music.
Not only was I reminded of the beauty of music but also that of foreign sounds. I found myself occasionally repeating after the station announcer the stops in Hungarian under my breath on the tram, as if it was some involuntary tic (‘O-kuv-veh-ket-so-meg-gal-lo’, ‘Seh-chen-yee-ist-van-teer’ - next stop: Széchenyi István tér) and wishing I had done what I always used to do whenever I packed my bags temporarily for a foreign land, in which I did not speak any of the language, and learn the basics of the lingo. It not only enriches your experience and appreciation of the place you’re visiting but sometimes the locals seem to appreciate it when you make the effort.
Then there were the chance encounters with friendly, interesting people. Walking around with a map trying to look for the connecting number 19 tram stop, a young lady - clearly taking pity on how spatially challenged we both are - approached us and helpfully informed that the number 17 tram stop (which we were practically on) also went in the same direction towards the museum. She happened to be travelling in that direction and so we chatted on the tram. She had recently graduated in Applied Linguistics in Ontario and was on her way to teach English at a school on the outskirts of Budapest. Following a visit to the National Art Gallery on the last day, we also met a gentleman from St. Albans on the bus back to the city centre whose wife worked as a director in supply chain management for Tesco in Budapest. He mentioned that they’ve hosted many friends as visitors in the past year who they’ve been able to put up in free accommodation and we were pleasantly surprised to hear him generously extend this offer to us, 2 strangers he had only just met.
View of parliament building at night
Things I wouldn’t normally have found interesting in certain environments suddenly became fascinating in a different context. History was probably my least favourite subject at school but I became immersed in perusing the lengthy descriptions at the Budapest History Museum and learning about the turbulent history of the city. Budapest actually used to be 2 different cities, with Buda on the western side of the River Danube and Pest on the eastern side, before being united initially as Pest-Buda. They clearly realised that the name didn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as the city’s current name and the two were thankfully reversed.
This knowledge gave a context to some interesting contrasts that suddenly made themselves known: the sight of bullet holes from the 1956 revolution imprinted on the buildings opposite our hotel, juxtaposed with the peace and serenity of the jacuzzi inside it; the beautiful views and sense of peace within the Citadella fortress, which was meant to be the site of a battlefield; the violent events symbolised by the poignant shoes on the banks of the Danube contrasting with the gentle ebbing and flowing of the river into which innocent people were shot.
The inspirational travel quotes on one of the walls of the breakfast room in our hotel summed up the trip, my favourite being: ‘Travel because you have no idea who you are until you experience yourself through different people and realise how we’re all the same’. The world is such a vast space and travel reinforces the sense of common humanity. I landed back at Manchester Airport feeling renewed, refreshed and ready to resume normal life.
So if you’re stuck in a rut, take the opportunity to jet off and switch off. Visit museums, go on a river cruise and immerse yourself in the wonderful experience and opportunity that is travel. Go on an adventure and you’ll come back feeling rejuvenated. It might just be the mental reset tonic that you were looking for.
published: June 11, 2019, 10:57 p.m.
As someone who suffers from anxiety, trichotillomania and stress-related eczema, I understand the importance of looking after one’s wellbeing, especially when faced with all the pressures that modern-day life brings, and thought it might be a good idea to set up my own wellbeing blog. I have previously written ‘content marketing’ (student-related blog posts) for a bus company, which gave me the idea and confidence to set up my own blog.
I see this as my own little ‘pocket’ in cyberspace where I'll try and keep my own wellbeing on track. I write for myself but if people are interested in reading my blog and find it helpful, then that’s an extra bonus; it would be counterproductive (not to mention ironic!) to get stressed about making a wellbeing blog ‘successful’......whatever that means. The fact that it merely exists already makes it a success in my eyes given my limited coding skills. Besides, success is subjective and means different things to different people depending on their life history and circumstances. For me, I’ve come to realise it should simply mean being healthy and writing contributes to that by giving me a certain freedom of expression, a sense of joy and of flow which I often struggle to achieve when talking.
As you can probably see, the blog is not the most sophisticated in the world (no links to organise the posts and in an ideal world, this post would have its own separate page), but maybe I’ll play around with it and learn how to code that functionality with time. I'll be posting my own observations or reflections, summaries of wellbeing talks or events I've been to and positive affirmations from time to time. I’ll occasionally also try to post some humorous content because hey…...what would life be like without the ability to smile or laugh at its many oddities? I’ll probably post once a fortnight, mostly on weekends. So if you’re interested in the random ramblings of this neurotic introvert, feel free to check back from time to time.