Fear factored

A book I’m currently reading urges us to think of ‘fear’ as the mental equivalent of physical ‘pain’.

On one level they’re the things we want to most avoid; but looked at another way they are just simple signalling mechanisms. Pain is the body’s only way to draw our attention to a problem. Fear is the mind’s.

This opens up the possibility of a different approach to fear. Not do everything to avoid it; but objectively acknowledge it, accept it and maybe sometimes push through it…

The idea is that fear is just the psyche’s way of signalling boundaries to us – which is very much the same role pain plays in the body. They are both acutely and finely tuned signalling mechanisms.

Just like a burnt finger keeps us off hot kettles; so fear keeps us away from scary situations. But as a very experienced sports coach told me at work – strength is built by how you recover.

So the idea is to recognise when fear is signalling a boundary and just feel it – don’t fear it. And if it still seems like a good thing to do, push through that fear a bit.

I can’t say I’m quite there on this one yet. Stuff you don’t know how to do, can’t control or which could go very wrong still seems pretty scary to me. But if you accept it’s always going to feel scary, that calms the troubled waters a good deal.

And then what?

Well if you accept fear is often just a signal of the new and the unknown – and that variety is the spice of life – then trying new things and meeting new people are indeed things one might fear; but they’re not things to avoid…

To test my thesis I’m going paddle boarding this week on holidays: a thing I don’t know how to do, with the risk of humiliation and getting wet, for the first time, all on my own, with a lesson from someone I’ve never met.

Exactly what I’d generally avoid – so here’s to giving it go!

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Bouldering

I've had 'bouldering' on my to do list for a while.

Not even sure what it was, I thought it was some kind of paddling through streams, clambering on boulders thingy. And that seemed like a good 'Dad and Daughter' activity – following clambering about in trees last Christmas holidays.

So I googled it – and it turns out it's not quite that. It's low level free climbing without ropes; and what great fun it has turned out to be…

Climbing shoes tightly on, we've been three times now; and have tackled 'slabs', overhangs, bulges and 'volumes'… with a bit of traversing yesterday to boot.

The indoor walls we've found are generally full of cheerful, lean, taughtly-muscled young folk – but they're all very encouraging and just seem happy that you share their interest.

It certainly tests the muscles though! And even though you don't get that high, it's high enough to test the nerves a bit too.

What a lovely little world we've discovered – in an old disused biscuit factory (of all things) which has found a new life.

Bouldering is a keeper. There's no better place to hang out for an hour at the weekend.

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Re-wiring

Talking to a nice person at work this week, as we descended several flights of stairs; she said:

"Yes John, but you're about the most positive person I've ever met."

I nearly tripped and fell down the remaining stairs… As I subsequently texted to one of my finest friends:

And a good week it has indeed been – against all the odds!

Which goes to show why being more positive and following my new motto: trust the universe to provide an answer – is a goodie.

Still, another marvellous former colleague of mine (now working in a real zoo; not just a human one) offered an even better motto to end the week…

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Forgiving 

I’ve just finished Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s ‘The Book of Forgiving’, picked up (as all the best things are) at the local library. 

It’s a simple and powerful read, which is studded with some terrible stories of personal loss, sickening violence and genocide; and the remarkable power of forgiveness in the face of them.

The basic argument is forgiveness doesn’t excuse responsibility – it explicitly acknowledges and names it. Only once the ‘story’ is properly told, and the ‘hurt’ is ‘named’, is there the possibility to forgive. 

And doing so is the way to be freed from being a victim – including forgiving yourself if you were ever a perpetrator.

There is a straightforward path to forgiveness which helps people exit the alternative – a never-ending cycle of harm and revenge.

I saw this diagram the night before interviewing someone on a difficult HR standoff. It certainly helped me to listen for longer: to let the person ‘tell their story’ and ‘name their hurt’, which seemed to move things forward.

The final two steps – ‘granting forgiveness’ and ‘renewing or releasing the relationship’ are about seeing  ‘perpetrators’ as human beings – recognising none of us was born evil and we all have within us the capacity to do terrible things.

Easier said than done; but nobody said it was easy – and it’s the only path to forgiveness.

The ‘hurts’ Tutu has seen in South Africa and Rwanda – so many violent murders – seem too huge to ever forgive. But the Truth and Reconciliation commissions he oversaw all basically followed this fourfold path: tell the story, name the hurt, grant forgiveness and renew or release the relationship.

As both he and the Dalai Lama have said: forgiveness is both a source and a sign of true personal strength, 

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Think small


I’ve signed up to a terrific blog from a chap called Eric Barker from UCLA. Loads of great resources, links to thought-provoking books and simple ‘to do’ lists to do more.

This week’s top tip is how to create a habit: 

Think small. Real small. No, even smaller. From Stick with It:

“Focusing on small steps allows people to achieve their goals faster than if they focused on dreams. Focusing on small steps also keeps people happier and more motivated to keep trying because they get rewarded more frequently.”

Simple – I couldn’t agree more. 

This is one of the top lessons from Martin Seligman [as here]. Break stuff up into smaller chunks and you get more stuff done; and feel good about getting more stuff done. Simple. 

Thinking small wins big. Here’s to more from Eric Barker.

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Heartfelt


As a person (traditionally) of the head, I generally take the arrow of causation to be ‘the head drives the heart’…

Of course that’s not always the case. When the heart skips a beat or starts misbehaving; that certainly gets the head thinking.

But a book I’ve been reading advocates what many world religions say: rather than just a rather ugly fleshy pump, the heart is a rich source of information on what’s going on inside.

The thesis is, if you’re carrying some problem you’ve not ‘processed’, when your mind wanders anywhere close to it, you can feel it a sort of ‘blockage’ in the heart. Experimenting with this for three or four weeks – for me at least – there’s absolutely something in it.

The physiology and location of the actual electrical impulses is a matter for the neurologists and cardiologists; but if I concentrate on where I ‘feel’ angst, I do indeed feel it in the heart. 

And what an acute detection mechanism it is – when you properly tune in to it… If I think of something or someone and feel a slight (or indeed major) tension in the chest; then sure enough it turns out there’s some form of messed up feeling hiding in there.

A combination of taking a breath and exploring round the ‘blockage’, and lo and behold there’s invariably some unfinished emotional business to have a look at…

A few weeks in, and I’ve ironed out and processed a good few anxieties I didn’t know I had, rattling about my chest cavity. I find I’m pausing and reflecting; but also acting and reacting more contentedly, easily, helpfully and kindly. 

Instead of chucking the brain at problems, I’m tuning into and listening to the acutely sensitive and (thankfully) steady thump of the heart. It’s a very fine guide.

 

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Bees 

In a meeting this week I asked how people felt about ‘whacking the beehive again’. 


We are trying a new ‘change management’ approach (as opposed the University standard of ‘resistance management’) on a major move; part of which involves regularly asking people how they feel about what we’re doing to them and all the things we’re changing. 


It’s finely poised. As I pointed out, asking people to put on the beekeepers outfit again – as we bring out all the angry bees – feels like a big ask on the hottest June in record at the end of a long academic year…


Still the point of change management is to keep asking, keep answering and keep moving forwards; so we agreed to give the beehive one last whack before summer and ask people if they felt ‘adequately informed’, ‘knew what they needed to do’ and were ‘broadly positive or broadly negative’.

Afterwards, I sent two of my fellow beekeepers this [only slightly doctored] quote from Marie Curie; which serendipitously had landed in my inbox that morning: 

Nothing in life [including bees] is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less. 

Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)  

But later in the day we did have a laugh, agreeing that we might need to pump a bit of smoke in the hive afterwards, to calm it all down again. 


Still as I emailed them later: 

“A former colleague of mine who keeps bees claims that you have to keep your hive in a reasonable state of agitation otherwise half of them clear off and make a new one!”

And now we can practise the art with the real thing… on the vary same day, we discovered a bee panel has just been installed on one of our busy London campuses…

I’ll be making a bee line!
 

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Cetaceans

Famously clever like us, Cetaceans are the smart cookies of the ocean – and they’ve been in my thoughts at work this week. The question being which one to be…

The Sperm Whale?

Wikipedia tells us the Sperm whale “has the largest brain of any animal on Earth, more than five times heavier than a human’s.” Sadly however: “the spermaceti oil from which the whale derives its name was a prime target of the whaling industry, and was dominant for use in oil lamps, lubricants, and candles.” Ouch – so much for my strategy of staying below the waterline.


The Dolphin? 

Fast, flashy, polygamous and a glossy surface performer Wikipedia cautions re the dolphin thus: “Dolphins engage in acts of aggression towards each other. The older a male dolphin is, the more likely his body is to be covered with bite scars. Male dolphins engage in acts of aggression apparently for the same reasons as humans: disputes between companions and competition for females. Acts of aggression can become so intense that targeted dolphins sometimes go into exile after losing a fight. Sounds like a young man’s cetacean to me – as I said in my performance appraisal this week: “I’m knocking on 50; I’m getting too old for some of this stuff!”


The Orca?

This is the chap: “a toothed whale with a diverse diet, there is no animal that preys on them. Killer whales are a cosmopolitan species; their sophisticated hunting techniques and vocal behaviours, which are often specific to a particular group and passed across generations, have been described as manifestations of animal culture. Killer whales are highly social; some populations are composed of family groups (pods) which are the most stable of any animal species.”  


As the pack ice breaks up, and lots of things start moving around; the Orca’s my pick of the cetaceans!

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Gaia II – Truth and Beauty

James Lovelock ends ‘Gaia‘ with a rather profound summary: 

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them 

Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I googled for the origins, and should have guessed the first two paragraphs – they are from the King James Bible; Ecclesiastes 3. 

But the third line is interesting too. If indeed ‘beauty’ is the lion’s share of ‘all ye know’ and ‘need to know’ on earth, and ‘truth’ the rest; does this give a simple recipe for the ‘good life’? 

Perhaps not quite that simple. The meaning of this line from Keat’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn‘ has been heavily debated down the years.

Still – this week I found from myself looking at nature more intently as a result of Lovelock and Keats. But Lovelock’s own ‘last word’ set me thinking too…

There can be no prescription, no set of rules, for living within Gaia. For each of our different actions there are only consequences.

This connected my with my developing ‘inner Buddhist’. Life takes is course; many thing happened before us and many more will happen after. 

This morning, I scanned my instagram photos from the last few years, to look at what I take photos of… 

Far from exhaustive; but a funny old selection of the beauty of nature, mankind’s profound and profane imprint on it – and our ongoing search for truth…

Truth and beauty might not be such bad guides. 


Ecclesiastes – King James Version 

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

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Quiet 


Some weeks back I was talking to someone at work about the racket going on in her head. Too much on her mind.

As luck would have it, I’d just started reading a book which tackles the issue head on: what is all the noise in between our ears about…

In a nutshell the thesis is that we all live with a ‘noisy narrator’ in our heads – who is trying to be helpful but just can’t stop pointing things out, making suggestions, presenting arguments and/or things to remember or worry about. 

And the internal narrator likes nothing better than presenting competing options, then contradicting itself and coming up with wild half-baked fears and anxieties. All of which is ready and constant source of angst, brain ache and worries.

But that’s not the half of it… once you pay attention you notice your chatty companion also loves the banal and distracting – look at that tree; fancy a latte; what time is it; fancy humming this tune?

Now like most people I’d always assumed the restless, ceaseless, constant chuntering in my head was me. But the argument in The Untethered Soul’ is that you’re not the narrator… you’re the one quietly listening.

It’s a bit like being in a cinema; detach yourself from the action onscreen and you notice you’re sat in a row of chairs immersed in the film – but the observer of it; you’re not in the film.

It’s a bit strange the effect this has. Combined with taking a breath (of which more anon) I find myself experiencing quite a lot of quiet…

Of course it’s easy to switch the constant stream of ideas, actions and reactions back on; that’s still the default setting. But I do find myself sitting quietly and staring into the middle distance a good deal at the moment.

Quiet it seems is just that; quiet. It’s a whole new experience, but I quite like it.

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