Sunny

😎

After two house moves in two weeks; last Sunday, post visiting a loved one in terminal decline and absolutely physically and emotionally shattered – I cried for the first time in a decade. It was just too sad.

But five days later the sun has come back out. Life is very simple. Get some sleep, be kind, work hard, do stuff, and crucially (as I’ve recently discovered) ruminate less; and the sun comes out.

My single biggest achievement in the last year – and arguably in my life – has been to train myself to think, act and be more positive. If you’re kind, interested, positive and helpful there is no situation you can’t improve.

For me it is a feat of application, discipline and will. It’s not my natural disposition. But sunny is the best way to be. Today it absolutely was; and I absolutely have been.

: )

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.

 

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.

Great love and great compassion

  

I’ve just finished the Dalai Lama’s ‘How to see yourself as you really are.’ And a penny has dropped… 

Some of the Buddhist ideas: notably Karma, the cycle of returns and the idea that we are all constantly living and reliving; these are not for me. 

But I do like the concept of ‘impermanence’. Recognising nothing stays constant; and none of us live forever, is in some ways the sum of all fears. But it also means bad times will pass, and that tricky situations generally resolve. ‘Impermanence’ tells me I sometimes work too hard and worry too much. 

But the key insight for me came about two pages from the end. And it’s this – very simply put in the Dalai Lama’s own words:

It is important not to become inclined towards solitary peace, because by aiming merely at liberation for your own sake, you lengthen the process of attaining altruistic enlightenment directed to others’ good – the ultimate goal.

By mainly taking care of yourself, you foster a self-cherishing attitude, and this attitude is difficult to overcome later, when you train in great love and great compassion. 

Consequently, it is crucial from the very beginning not to fully invest your strength of mind in your own benefit.

Perhaps an easier way to swallow Karma (whilst dropping the reincarnation bit) is this: in every action we take, or person we help or hinder, we create ripples in the world. Mostly small ripples of course, but when added up, we can all do a lot of good – or ill.

Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings – a simple word or deed could help another ‘sentient being’ towards happiness; or push them closer to anger, hurt and despair.

I’ve sometimes thought that one person can’t make much of a difference… And so, given who I am, perhaps one day writing a half decent book, would be about the best contribution I could make to mine and future generations.

But shrinking into one’s self is not taking the Dalai Lama’s point – “By mainly taking care of yourself, you foster a self-cherishing attitude.” and “it is crucial from the very beginning not to fully invest your strength of mind in your own benefit.” 

I do believe that everyday kindness, care and compassion can make a difference. And since I have maybe as many as 20,000 days left; that’s a lot of help (or hurt) I could dole out. But ‘impermanence’ says I could have a lot fewer days, so best to get on with it.

‘Great love’ and ‘great compassion’ are worth aspiring to. Solitary peace, however beguiling, is not the point of life.

With a little help from my friends

The song says it all. It can sound cheesy; but it ain’t… This week, I got by with a little help from my friends.

The genuine care, interest, support and love of friends has gently and kindly steered me to a much better place. If last week ended in comparative darkness; this one ended in light.

A good friend briefly home from abroad, walked with me, talked with me and in the process put a supportive arm around my shoulders. The world of men can be a lonely place, but together we stared unblinkingly at the facts. And in so doing he gave me solace and strength – and followed up with a new opportunity.

More joyfully, with my great friend from closer to home, we celebrated our mutual success at goading each other to shed a few pounds – with a big fat gourmet cheeseburger each.

Today I’m wearing a sweatshirt the missus bought me for the Xmas before last – which for the first time in all that time, I fit in; trimly and unselfconsciously. Happy days.

Finally the missus herself. She knows I’ve been struggling and has been there for me all week. A kind word, a cuppa, a conversation – and a great big uninterrupted lie-in this morning.

The moral of the story; we all get by far better with a little help from our friends.

Broken Wings

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A great many birds with broken wings or ruffled plumage, have come to perch in my tree in recent weeks. Human beings are fragile and so easily damaged – usually by each other.

We all like to believe life is fair. So, in the end, very few people are able to cope well with anxiety or things going badly for them.

We were taking about this at home the other day, asking the question:

“Is it possible to communicate to other people you are stretched, stressed or tired yourself, without being pissy, shirty or sad with them?”

Probably not. Because ‘pissy’, ‘shirty’ and ‘sad’ are exactly the ways we communicate stress. To do it any other way just confuses people – or they simply don’t hear.

So for the various birds; small and large, young and old; who have come to unburden themselves on me, there are only really two ways to be:

1) ‘pissy’, ‘shirty’ or ‘sad’; and quickly break both their wings so they never come back to my tree again.

2) reach for patience, tolerance and kindness; give away some all-too-precious time, and hopefully help them a little, to fly onwards.

I’ve mostly managed the latter. Some are still chirruping in my branches. Some are permanently nested there; so they are to be lived with.

But at least a few have gently flapped away with splinted wings or smoothed feathers. And that’s a success of sorts. Kindness is always the best answer.

Maximum Kindness

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My son (who is kindness personified) came downstairs, this evening, keen to finish a conversation with me. We headed back up to his bed and he expanded on his earlier thesis…

This was that ‘kind kids’, once they reach ‘maximum kindness’ can give some of their kindness to their Dads making them kinder too. We’d agreed that probably does happen, and I’d become kinder since he’d been in my life.

The development in his theory (which he wanted to discuss immediately) was if you had ‘kind kids’ and they topped you up to ‘maximum kindness’ then maybe some of your kindness might spread to other families – making them kinder – and then maybe in a month or (maximum) a year everyone in the whole world might become kind.

Given everything that’s going on in the world, it might not happen this year. But a bit of compassion and kindness goes a very long way – the Dalai Lama can give you chapter and verse on that.

And with the amount of it my son has, I couldn’t be more fortunate. A top up to ‘maximum kindness’ is always just a conversation away.

Great Men

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The Greeks invented tragedy. Shakespeare explored its every facet. Hollywood is more ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. But does greatness invariably end in disaster? It depends on what you think great is.

Most of the ‘great’ men I’ve met have been greatest in either stature, ego or self regard. Far fewer in warmth, kindness or humility.

It’s this simple I reckon: if you’re great on the backs of others – expect one day to fail and fall.

If you’re great for and because of others – great of heart, integrity and kindness – you may stumble, but I believe you will never truly fall.

Why? Because those you have truly cared about and cared for will reach out to catch you in your hour of need, and will gently forgive you your honest mistakes.

The only greatness worth having is that which is earned for, from and freely bestowed by others.

Petit Prince

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After darkness comes the light. Bath time, a happy face under a towel, a hug, a chat and a cuddle.

There is no sweeter, kinder more caring and thoughtful boy in the whole wide world than this one…

My saving grace,
His smiling face.
He asks if I could be king?
As he fancies himself a prince.

“But you’d have to share the food,
Not be a greedy guts…”
Unlike his cheeky sister this e’en.
We’d all live very well, ruled by
The kindest boy in all the world.

Kindness

Three takes on kindness. First, a person I scarcely know – without any guile or hesitation – kindly bought me my coffee at work on Friday. I was completely thrown by it. An older man, he works in Human Resources. My implicit assumption, as we queued, was he would be against pretty much everything I’ve done in the last 3 years – targets, strategising, downsizing and redundancies. I expected him to look to get away from me as fast as politely possible. But no, he opened his wallet pulled out a five pound note and asked me what I would like. I had a coffee and a nice talk.

I sent him an email last night to thank him for his kindness. I said how touched I was and that kindnesses are like ripples from a pebble thrown in a pond. They multiply and spread and can go on to lap over many people. I said his kindness went on to touch everyone I met for the rest of the day. And this wasn’t an an idle promise – Wired thinks so too.

Take two. In a rare moment of peace, with the family out and about, I looked up the definition of cognitive dissonance this morning. I’ve got cognitive dissonance at the moment, as, in a significant life choice, events have unfolded in a way which completely mystifies me. Reading Wikipedia, I find one feature of cognitive dissonance is ‘sour grapes’. When expectations are not met, or the actuality turns out not to meet your expectations, we rubbish the things we previously wanted or valued. Like Aesop’s fox who branded the grapes ‘sour’ because he couldn’t reach them; we desire something, find it unattainable, and reduce our dissonance by trashing it. The technical term is “adaptive preference formation.” Sour grapes probably help keep us sane.

But as interesting for me was the ‘Benjamin Franklin effect’. I’m increasingly a fan of old Ben – he had a good life and good approach to it. When I get some time I plan to read his autobiography. I’ve already downloaded it in expectation. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the effect:

Franklin won over a political opponent by asking him a favour and he relates thus:

I did not … aim at gaining his favour by paying any servile respect to him but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

Apparently after lending Franklin the book, the opponent had to resolve the ‘dissonance’ of his attitude towards Franklin, because he had just done him a favour. He justified doing the favour by convincing himself that he actually liked Franklin, and, as a result, treated him with respect instead of rudeness from then on. Marvellous.

Take three. It’s a wonderful thing Wikipedia. The emergent wisdom of the crowd and the ‘perfect equilibrium’ between the supply of generous volunteer experts and demand from thirsty enquirers after knowledge. But economics is economics, and they do need a bit of money to make it work. I got an email this week from Wikimedia UK Foundation offering me ‘hearty thanks’ – in their words – for the kindness of my spontaneous donation on 22 December. As I noted at the time, they got the money largely thanks to Aristotle. Aristotle has convinced me that virtues aren’t born in, they are made. And I reckon giving £50 to Wikimedia was my first truly instinctive Aristotelian moral act. Instant, without question, recognising that there was no penalty for free riding, but just giving to Wikipedia because I use it, value it and am grateful for it.

So whether you subscribe to the the ‘cascade of kindness’ theory, the reverse psychology of Benjamin Franklin or the ‘trained’ ethics of Aristotle, of one thing I am certain – kindness is powerful stuff.