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.

 

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.

Knots, Seeds and Red Lights


I’ve just finished Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Peace is Every Step’. 

It’s never a bad idea to have a Buddhist book on the go in the pile by the bedside. The basic precepts of living in the moment, breathing and mindfulness are always a good antidote to the hurry and rush of modern life.

This one is a little twee in places, but the Vietnamese Monk is as deep as he is light, and there are some memorable ideas in here.

Three that have stuck with me: 

1) Breathe when you see Red Lights – Thich Nhat Hahn points out that ‘while we are driving we only think of arriving’. So every time we see a red light (and in suburban London that’s every 10 seconds) as he gently puts it ‘we are not very happy’. Not half. His tip is to take a red light as a cue to focus on your breathing – and it really works… And not just in the car. I’ve found a couple of times on a bus this week that just as I’m starting to get het up at the queue of red brake light in front of us, a turn inwards and a consciously deep breath – and peace miraculously breaks out in my previously troubled soul.

2) Avoid Knots – any time something bad happens that we don’t understand Thich Nhat Hahn suggests a ‘knot’ is tied in us. If we deal with it – through reflection and understanding – the knot is easily untied. If we leave them though, the knots get stronger and tighter. And this is particularly the case with those we spend most time with. The best thing we can do for those closest to us is to help them untie their knots, but if you’re all tied up yourself the odds are you’ll be making them more not less knotty.

3) Think about the seeds you’re planting – like a pot of peaty soil we all readily grow the ’emotional seeds’ which are planted in us. Plant a healthy, ‘happy’ seed and more will spring from it – let a hostile, angry seed sprout and Thich Nhat Hahn assures us the seeds of hostility and anger will spread. 

A deep breath on the bus, a few of my own knots untied; but the most important things I did this week were to stop seeds of hostility sprouting in a few places at work. 

My top New Year’s Time Management resolution from Chris Croft has been to have a daily diary reminder titled ‘biggest problem’ as my first job of the day. 

Thanks to Thich Naht Hahn I changed it this week to ‘Biggest Problem/Most Difficult Thing’. And one of them was to email, while walking into work, to explain and apologise to someone I’d talked at and talked over in a large forum. 

Knot untied, seeds of future trouble nipped in the bud and onto a bus; red light – relax and breathe. Life is good.

Root Canal Work

20131012-115945.jpg

Lots to reflect on after some time in China and Japan – not least how much I enjoyed it. Normally, in my past, being jetlagged and on display from morning till night would have seemed as much fun as the proverbial ‘root canal work’.

Facing myriad ‘state visits’, handshakes, speeches, staff talks and formal lunches and dinners, the curious discovery was – with few deep breaths and some positive thinking – it all went fine. And in fact, I really enjoyed it.

Talking to an interesting chap this week, he pointed out that, physiologically, the sensations of anxiety are pretty much indistinguishable from those of excitement. All that’s different is the mental picture.

Bungee jump = Excitement

Standing too close to a cliff edge = Anxiety.

I was back in the dentist’s chair for my actual root canal work yesterday. Injections, a clamp, a rubber sheet over my mouth, drills, cement, industrial disinfectant dribbling down my throat, UV, x-rays, smoke, fumes, thumbs, pins and screws.

The fear of pain put this in the ‘anxiety’ not the ‘excitement’ category. But every time I remembered to adjust my mental state, to breathe and to separate the physiological from the mental, it wasn’t half as bad.

Nobody wants a dull life. So realising anxiety and excitement are just two sides of the same physical coin is a good discovery – once again, the picture in the mind makes a very big difference to how it all feels.

Embodied

20130809-225811.jpg

Blame René Descartes. Mind separated from body – dualism – was his big idea. “I think therefore I am” is probably a fair bet, but Thomas Aquinas got the whole story – we are but one; body and mind entwined.

If in doubt, check out the limbic system or the brain of a crocodile – or indeed the limbic system responding to a crocodile. Fright, fight and flight. Simple instinct doing automatically what nature intended, without the need for laboured thought. The body is more intelligent thank we think. Conscious thought is a bit-part player in most of what we are.

As an aside, I’m increasingly persuaded that the main block to artificial intelligence is not the number and speed of processors mimicking ‘neurones’ but the lack of ‘sensors’ – ie no body to carry so called embodied intelligence. Look at an iPhone – is it software or hardware? It’s neither – it’s both.

At the recommendation of two friends I’m trying ‘mindfulness meditation’ in pursuit of ‘inner peace’. And in the process it’s a shock to discover I am blissfully unaware – almost 100% of the time – of what my body is doing, feels like or needs. All I generally think about is what I’m thinking about.

Bodies get a raw deal, celebrated only for ‘beauty’, reviled for decline and decay. But like a well kept older car, a classic chassis is something to celebrate – and keep rust free and polished.

This week, in my fist ever eye test, I discover I have two healthy optic nerves, two unblemished retinas and scored a perfect 16 in the ‘puff’ test of eyeball pressure. My eyes will neither explode nor collapse in the foreseeable future. Marvellous.

Part of the point of ‘mindfulness’, I’m learning, is to recognise that there’s 70+ kilos of amazing living breathing body here as well as 1.5kg of grey matter.

Remembering you actually are your body – forgetting the contemporary obsession with how it looks – and instead marvelling that it lives and breathes and broadly speaking works, is harder to do than it seems.

Western philosophy has largely forgotten bodies since Aquinas. So I’m going East for a few weeks to meditate on the philosophical reconnection of mind with body. It’s no more complicated than breathing.

Breathing

David Servan-Schreiber wrote about the power of breathing in his book ‘Healing without Freud or Prozac’. Basically if you can breathe at 6 breaths a minute you automatically convince your body and mind that all is well. Your ‘limbic system’ selects neutral and goes into a state of relaxation – and quietly puts into gear your immune system to do routine maintenance. Your head convinces itself that all is in good order too.

So steady breathing is clearly a good thing to do. It fixes your limbic, tunes up your endocrine and settles your cognitive systems. But what’s interesting about breathing 6 times a minute, is that it’s very hard to do. If you are agitatated, active or at all anxious you can’t do it.

I was reminded how hard it is watching ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The film is slow, often majestic but but frequently claustrophobic and disquieting. And nowhere is it more claustrophobic then when you are virtually ‘in’ the spacesuit with Dr. David Bowman, breathing steadily, but strenuously as he prepares for and makes his lonely space walk in the sequence I’ve just watched.

The astronauts set out to fix a malfunction set up by the rogue on-board computer HAL. They surreptitiously discuss the potential need to disconnect HAL’s higher ‘brain’ functions to enable them to use his basic systems to run the space ship. Bowman wonders momentarily what HAL might ‘think’ of that – HAL’s single red ‘eye’ compulsively scans their mouths to lipread. We conclude HAL might not like that.

The combination of Kubrick’s perfectionism and Arthur C Clarke’s imagination is still a powerful one. I challenge anyone to watch this sequence and calmly breathe at 6 breaths a minute. Breathing both signals and drives the state of our nervous system. Even if the head says it’s fiction, finding yourself alone with HAL 9000 listening to the strenuous breathing of Dr Bowman makes the nervous system very nervous indeed.