Gaia 


I’m reading James Lovelock’s famous ‘Gaia’ – the first airing of the hypothesis that the planet (and not just we creatures on it) is itself a self-regulating living system.

Lovelock got plenty of stick for this book. A scientist accused of straying into mysticism and anthropomorphism for personalising Gaia as a ‘being’ or a ‘living thing’; not just a bunch of chemical and physical processes.

He freely admits in the later foreword, that he had to write a much more dull and prosaic version to get anywhere with the scientific community. 

It’s one of those books like ‘On the Origin of Species’ which more people will know of than will read. But I’m glad I picked this out of an otherwise lifeless ‘Science’ shelf in the local library. 

It’s a super read. And even allowing for all that has changed in our knowledge and understanding in the 40+ years since it was written; like ‘On the Origin of Species’, you feel you are witness to a remarkable moment of synthesis. A whole array of concepts and ideas join together in one person’s mind and become a new picture on how the entire planet – and possibly the whole of creation works.

The simple facts of how the ‘perfect’ level of of the supremely reactive ‘vital’ ingredient oxygen (21%) is kept in the atmosphere are fascinating. It simply could not and would not be there without deeply interconnected living systems. 

Similarly the seas – without Gaian processes they’d get saltier and saltier within 80 million years; instead of the aeons at a stable 3.5%, which allows half the earth’s biomass to life in three-quarters of its surface.

It’s a terrific read. A moment in historic and scientific time maybe; but as important a science book as has ever struck the popular conscience. It’s also a book which reminds us that the planet we live on is so much more wonderful than we yet understand.

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To infinity and beyond…


Last weekend at twilight by the seaside, I took this photo. 

It picks up a theme I’m reading about at the moment; which is getting into the habit of looking a little beyond what’s happening right in front of you. 

Simple really – look up… 

Urban life is so full of people, noise, distractions, aggro, interruptions, obstacles and incidents. But if you look up at the sky or the far horizon they all melt away. 

It’s a clever trick… As we were driving to the seaside a football flew out of a local park and slapped hard into the side of the car with a very loud thud. Just a quick look at the clouds and the moment had gone…

This is not an argument for indifference or distraction – quite the contrary. When you look up you see things: trees, clouds, birds, fine rooflines, planes; or sometimes just the limitless sky, which expands into the boundless upper atmosphere and on to the unending universe. 

It’s simply that when you look up; it’s almost impossible to feel down. 

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Everybody’s talkin’ at me…

I sat through nearly two days of interviews this week. And, as so often, was amazed by how much people like to talk – and what they shared! 

Surely the most valuable thing to learn in life (and certainly in interviews) is that the most important and influential thing you can ever do is stop talking; all the time you’re talking, you’re basically draining the interview panel’s energy away!

We all want to talk; but if you want to get a job, in the words of the otherwise flawed Aaron Burr, from the wonderful Broadway musical ‘Hamilton

“Talk less; smile more…”

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Smile, surf, sleep

Smile

Talking to my daughter about her friendship angst this morning, I advocated she try a welcoming smile. 

I told her about the nice lady at work who told me about the cold snap in Romania and how it’s threatening the cherry trees; people are tending fires to gently waft smoke through the branches to protect the cherries. We both wished them well.

This lovely encounter grew from simply smiling, on three occasions as she made me a latte; and the smile developed into an exchange and then a conversation. 

Let’s see how my eldest gets on – I suspect it might take me than a smile with this ‘friend’.

Surf

I’m reading a rather terrific book about letting go of anxiety and fear and tapping into your own energy. 

More of this anon, but one of the many useful reminders is nearly everything that happens to us, in truth, is outside of our control. This means there are only two options, try to resist, control or avoid life – or roll with it. 

This week (like so many) looked on Tuesday morning (after an enjoyable but tiring bank holiday) like wave after wave of bother, problems, egos, unreasonable demands, risks and stressors; culminating in large forum event – at which I would have to orchestrate, perform and keep the whole show together. 

So it was; but by (largely) surfing along on the top of it all and not fighting it (and myself) I got through it just fine. By saving the energy on worry, avoidance and fear – I got it all done quite happily. 

As King Canute amply showed, there’s little point trying to stop the waves; may as well get up on your board and ride ’em.


Sleep

My old friend sleep. I need it so much, I never get enough of it and I never do enough to make sure I do. But I have improved in a few areas… to earplugs I’ve added eyepatches and from last week a booze curfew at 9pm. 

All the book and all the sage advice in them can’t help me when I’m tired. Without my sleep I’m hopeless; with it I’m smiling and surfing along.

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Smorgasbord 

Bank Holiday view; spot the nuclear power station… oops.

Feeling a little jaded today after a late night and a long drive back from the Welsh borders – I’m not much looking forward to work tomorrow.

How fortunate to stumble across this rather super smorgasbord of eleven answers to the question: ‘how to live?’ by Carolyn Gregiore from the Huffington Post in 2013. It was rattling about in the inbox I’m slowly tidying.

Get a good night’s sleep is the only other advice that’s missing, I’ll make sure I will tonight.

Aristotle (at number one appropriately…) 

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,” Aristotle wrote.

The ancient Greek philosopher came up with one of the most famous definitions of happiness, eudaimonia, or human flourishing. By this theory of self-actualization, personal well-being and happiness are the highest goals that we can strive for.

Martin Heidegger

For German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, a good life could was not possible unless you were living authentically, directing your life on your own terms, rather than following the blueprints set by others.

“Anyone can achieve their fullest potential, who we are might be predetermined, but the path we follow is always of our own choosing,” sais Heidegger. “We should never allow our fears or the expectations of others to set the frontiers of our destiny.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

Sarte may have been most famous for saying “Hell is other people,” but the French existentialist thinker also had some keen insights on happiness and the meaning of human existence. Freedom, he said, was the highest goal we could aspire to.

“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you,” said Sartre.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

To Emerson, the early American Transcendentalist thinker, taking each day in stride — as unburdened as possible by worries about the past and future — was the best route to a life well-lived.

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can,” said Emerson. “Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Albert Camus

For French existential philosopher and novelist, over-thinking and over-analyzing can make us miss the moment.

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of,” said Camus. “You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

Epicurus

“Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends,” said the Hellenic philosopher Epicurus.

The Athenian philosopher believed that friendship, more than anything else, contributed to the development of a healthy and fulfilling life. He lived this notion in his own life, creating a school called “The Garden,” where he and his followers studied philosophy together in a close-knit community.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche may have been a nihilist, but he still believed that there was one thing that truly made life worth living: The creation and enjoyment of art. Nietzsche was particularly fond of music, and loved to go see the operas of his German contemporary Richard Wagner (As he wrote, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”)

He also said, “We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”

William James

American psychologist and philosopher William James coined the term “will to believe” to refer to way that we are able to choose our attitudes and beliefs — and in doing so, change our lives.

“Be not afraid of life,” James wrote. “Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

Simone de Beauvoir

Feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir — the longtime partner of Jean-Paul Sartre — believed that caring for others was what gave life meaning.

“One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, and compassion,” she wrote.

Thomas Merton

American Catholic thinker and mystic Thomas Merton believed that we could all find happiness — if only we looked to our inner wisdom.

“We have what we seek,” said Merton. “It is there all the time, and if we slow down and be still, it will make itself known to us.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

For the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, cultivating the intellect was essential to the good life. He once said that all you need in life is a garden and a library, and many times waxed poetic about his love of reading.

“Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labor; read as one goes in; read as one goest out,” said Cicero. “The task of the educated mind is simply put: read to lead.”

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Confrontation and Compassion

Compassion came up a number of times this week – on Tuesday in the context of confrontation; and yesterday as a way to run an entire organisation. Of course the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu would argue (in the book I’m reading below) that compassion is what we should use to run the entire world.

Back to confrontation through – a colleague of mine was arguing for a ‘public hanging’ to show that the behaviour of some people will no longer be tolerated. I said I felt not; I was accused of appeasement. 

That stung a bit, but my considered counter was: when I’ve ‘gone to war’ with people at work all manner of ills have followed – for me, them and everyone around us. 

So I offered what The Book of Joy suggests instead:

“There is an important distinction between forgiveness and simply allowing others’ wrongdoing. Sometimes people misunderstand and think forgiveness means you accept or approve of wrongdoing. No, this is not the case. We must make an important distinction.” The Dalai Lama was speaking emphatically, striking on hand against the other. “The actor and the action, or the person and what he has done. Where the wrong action is concerned, it may be necessary to take appropriate counteraction to stop it. Towards the actor, or the person, however you can choose not to develop anger and hatred. This is where the power of forgiveness lies – not losing sight of the humanity of the person while responding to the wrong with clarity and firmness. 

This is easier to say than do – both ways. I sometimes find it hard to respond quickly to a ‘wrong’ with ‘clarity and firmness’ without drawing on anger; and once the incident has passed, it feels like I’ve missed the moment and the best thing is probably to move on. But the Dalai Lama invites me to do better: 

“We stand firm against the wrong not only to protect those who are being harmed but also to protect the person who is harming others, because eventually they, too, will suffer. So it’s out of a sense of concern for their own long term well-being that we stop their wrongdoing… We do not let anger and negative feelings develop, but we strongly oppose their actions.”

Desmond Tutu sets out the personal benefit of forgiveness, which I buy completely and have experienced fully in recent years: 

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past. Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and feelings. We become our own liberator.”

The Dalai Lama picks up: 

“So it is totally wrong,” he said emphatically, cutting his hand sharply through the air, “to say that practice of tolerance and practice of forgiveness are signs of weakness. Totally wrong. Hundred percent wrong. Thousand percent wrong. Forgiveness is a sign of strength.”

The Archbishop adds with a laugh: 

“Those who say forgiveness is a sign of weakness haven’t tried it.”

Forgiveness I have largely cracked. Responding to ‘wrongs’ with ‘clarity and firmness’ but without hot or cold anger… that is a work in progress.

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Joy

The rather wonderful Disney kids film ‘Inside Out’ suggests the eponymous ‘Joy’ (above) represents our original childlike state. In the film, the loss of ‘Joy’ deep into the vaults of memory is the bridge to the discovery of the more complex emotions of teen and adult years. 

It’s a lovely film. From our family watching experience, it helps both kids and adults better understand their emotions and personalities.

Interesting then – at the other end of life – to read two famous eighty year olds advocating the same simple emotion. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu invite us to do better than ‘happiness’: a rather stolid state of satisfaction; and aim for ‘joy’. 

So what makes for joy? Here’s what The Book of Joy says:

Our ability to cultivate joy has not been scientifically studied as thoroughly as out ability to cultivate happiness. In 1978 psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman published a landmark study that found that lottery winners were not significantly happier than those who had been paralysed in an accident. From this and subsequent work came the idea that have a “set point” that determines their happiness over the course of their life. In other words, we get accustomed to any new situation and inevitably return to our general state of happiness. 

I’ve read this before and there’s good and bad in it, I think. It helps with resilience as you know you’ll get through stuff, but doesn’t lead to much hope for joy; whatever you do you’ll just default back to ‘average’ happiness… But the next para is VERY encouraging:

However, more recent research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that perhaps only 50% of our happiness is determined by immutable factors like our genes or temperament, our “set point.” The other half is decided by a combination of our circumstances, over which we may have very limited control, and our attitudes and actions, over which we have a great deal of control. According to Lyubomirsky, the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are: 

  1. Our ability to reframe our situation more positively
  2. Our ability to experience gratitude
  3. Our choice to be kind and generous

These are exactly the attitudes and actions that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop had already mentioned as central pillars of joy.

I realise looking at them that I really started making headway on the three factors in joy in my early forties – not the least through reading and blogging. 

As the saying goes ‘life begins at forty’. Perhaps if you’re lucky the rediscovery of ‘joy’ begins too.

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi


This rather wonderful documentary was recommended to me nearly four years ago, when I visited Japan. 

With the hustle and bustle of family and working life I’d forgotten it; but thanks to the digital traces we leave everywhere, I re-found it the other day. 

I hardly ever watch TV and never have time to watch a film alone. But I consumed this in four (sushi-sized) chunks on my iPhone over this weekend. 

Jiro has made sushi for more than 70 years: and lives, works and dreams of nothing else.

It is Japan – its culture of craft and specialisation and seeking perfection – in a nutshell; or an eggshell given the 10 year of apprenticeship Jiro expects before you are allowed near the eggs…

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The Emperor’s Questions 


I think I increasingly knew this; but sometimes you need someone to express it clearly for you. Thich Nhat Hahn quoting Tolstoy does the job: 

“One day it occurred to a certain emperor that if he only knew the answers to three questions, he would never stray in any matter.

  1. What is the best time to do each thing? 
  2. Who are the most important people to work with?
  3. What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The emperor issued a decree throughout his kingdom announcing that whoever could answer the questions would receive a great reward. 

Many who read the decree made their way to the palace at once, each person with a different answer.

In reply to the first question, one person advised that the emperor make up a thorough time schedule, consecrating every hour, day, month, and year for certain tasks and then follow the schedule to the letter. Only then could he hope to do every task at the right time.

Another person replied that it was impossible to plan in advance and that the emperor should put all vain amusements aside and remain attentive to everything in order to know what to do at what time.

Someone else insisted that, by himself, the emperor could never hope to have all the foresight and competence necessary to decide when to do each and every task and what he really needed was to set up a Council of the Wise and then to act according to their advice. 

Someone else said that certain matters required immediate decision and could not wait for consultation, but if he wanted to know in advance what was going to happen he should consult magicians and soothsayers.

The responses to the second question also lacked accord. One person said that the emperor needed to place all his trust in administrators, another urged reliance on priests and monks, while others recommended physicians. Still others put their faith in warriors.

The third question drew a similar variety of answers. Some said science was the most important pursuit. Others insisted on religion. Yet others claimed the most important thing was military skill.

The emperor was not pleased with any of the answers, and no reward was given.”

It took a life and death experience with a hermit (here) to reveal the answer to the emperor, which Tolstoy says quite simply is this: 

“The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. 

The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you.

The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

As Thich Nhat Hahn goes on to say: 

“Tolstoy’s story is like a story out of scripture: it doesn’t fall short of any sacred text. 

We talk about social service, service to the people, service to humanity, service for others who are far away, helping to bring peace to the world-but often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all. 

If you cannot serve your wife or husband or child or parent – how are you going to serve society? 

If you cannot make your own child happy, how do you expect to be able to make anyone else happy? If all our friends in the peace movement or of service communities of any kind do not love and help one another, whom can we love and help? 

Are we working for other humans, or are we just working for the name of an organization?”

As I’m increasingly finding – here, now and by paying attention to the person in front of me is where kindness, a feeling of connectedness and a happy life is found.

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Slimes of Passion

Some weeks ago I started to notice blobs of candy-pink sludge in the bottom of cups… The outbreak spread to larger food containers, before regularly plaguing all three sinks in the house…

Then my shaving foam started moving about. Tackling my eldest, she was concocting slimes. With a bit of huff and puff on the messes she was leaving, I left it and moved on.

Some weeks later there was a regular psst and a pervasive whiff of artificial fragrance seeping from her room… 

It transpires cans of Airwick 6-in-1 are the last source of ‘Borax’ left in the European Union. It was banned in cleaning products a few years back; and borax is the indispensable companion to PVA glue in the slime makers art.


She and I had a rewarding if ultimately costly and unsuccessful weekend down the seaside Pound Shops – trying to find an alternative to Airwick. But we did find some handy pots – and the following week two types of slime hit the underground school slime market at 50p and £1.


So I googled borax again – not least since all of us had developed a splitting headache from the fragranced fug in the kitchen and found… Kershaw’s Traditional Laundry Starch! 


No fug, no headaches and the slime maker is back at work – now the only psst is my shaving foam being expertly worked into a particular variant. We have styrofoam balls and glitter on the way for ‘crunchy’ and ‘sparkly’ to add to the range.

I said last weekend watching her at work: “It’s great you’ve found a passion, Honey.” She said “It’s not a passion Dad, its just fun.” And indeed it is… I took a particularly excellent slime in to work this week, which delighted two of my colleagues; reminding them of ‘potions’ and ‘flubber’ from their childhoods.

Simple pleasures, and sharing an interest with your kids and colleagues; is there any better combination?

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