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.

Servan-Schreiber

I was sad to read today that David Servan-Schrieber lost his battle against cancer the other day. But although he lost the battle, I think he won the war. He lived nearly twenty full and vivid years post diagnosis of a brain tumour. His cancer spurred him to develop as a human being and to write. Reading his books and fearing the big ‘C’ did the same for me.

His writing combined a rock solid scientific foundation with an interest in the whole person. As someone wrote in an obituary, he was tete, coeur et corps – head, heart and body. All I have to say is read his books: ‘Healing without Freud or Prozac’ for the head and the heart and ‘Anticancer’ for the body.

A good man, who it is tempting to say died too young. But reading about his full medical, research, writing, speaking, travelling and sporting life, perhaps at 50 he managed as Aristotle recommends: ‘to rise from life as from a banquet, neither thirsty nor drunken.’ I hope so.

Truisms iii) Dry stonewalling

Here are seven of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms I increasingly agree with:

Fake or real indifference is a powerful personal weapon

Expressing anger is necessary

Emotional responses are as valuable as intellectual responses

Giving free rein to your emotions is an honest way to live

Hiding your emotions is despicable

Humor is a release

Playing it safe can cause a lot of damage in the long run

For much of the last decade ‘stonewalling’ was a personal favourite of mine on the home and work front. I now see it was a form of emotional distancing I used to manage my reaction to people and situations. 

At one level it worked, but it drained my energy and at times frustrated people. Sometimes people would get cross with me. This was a quick route to me completely shutting down and quietly brooding, or more rarely reacting with excessively sharp-tongued vitriol. 

I’m learning that staying in touch with your feelings – although it feels risky sometimes – is important. Following my feelings can make me feel a bit ‘unbounded’, impulsive, eclectic, even a bit inappropriate sometimes. But often ‘in the moment’ I now do what needs doing or say what needs saying. And I have more laughs, with people I don’t know, as well as those I do. 

Constantly controlling my emotions was tiring, it drained my batteries and potentially prepared me to be hurt or hurtful. Better to be in tune and ready to speak up and speak out, flash a smile or crack up laughing. Life’s too short not to feel it.

Today

I heard Simon Armitage read his poem ‘Knowing what we know now’ on the Today Programme on Radio 4 on Wednesday. It features an Elf who makes the offer of turning the clock back to a man who is 44 – exactly half-way to the end of his life. It has a twist in its tale which I didn’t welcome but it certainly set me thinking. 

As I’ve written before it’s increasingly likely that I’m at, or close to, what Armitage’s elf calls the ‘tipping point’ – the half way mark. On Saturday morning in an unconnected thought I put it to myself, what am I going to do that will be memorable today? Cue 3 year old. I spent 3 hours doing 3 miles and 3 parks on a scooter with my son. We had great fun on what could otherwise have been a grey day. I love that boy.

Pondering it this evening, I thought to myself; what would be different if I counted life more often in days, not halves or years? Tapping 365 into a calculator, I realised that in the last year or so I’ve passed the milestone of living over 15,000 days. It’s a bit like when all the 9s turn over on another 10,000 on your car milage. That’s a lot of days. And since I reckon I have a reasonable hope of living another 15,000 that’s a lot of great days if I make them so.

And this reminded me of Seneca’s: ‘On the shortness of life‘. At the start he gently criticises Aristotle for bemoaning that nature has given man such a short span of life, for our many and great achievements, when animals have so long for so little. Seneca disagrees:

‘It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste so much of it.’

I listened to a very experienced and senior person describe his career on Friday. He had many thought-provoking things to say. But the one that stuck the most for me was a comparatively obvious one; you’ll spend more time working than doing anything else so make sure you do something you enjoy. He used the word ‘fun’ all the time to describe his work – great, enormous, tremendous… fun. Not a word I use anywhere near enough describe my working life.

And that is the thing I’ve been thinking about this weekend: enjoyment, fun and spontaneity. Thinking I’m half way to death makes me sombre and cerebral. Thinking I’ve got another 40 years, and probably another 20 odd of work, makes me think about my career and mortgage and school fees. Thinking I’ve got another 15,000 days makes me think about today – what’s going to be today’s highlight, what’s going to be today’s memory, what’s going to be today’s fun. 

As Seneca has it, the philosopher makes his life long by recollecting the past, using the present and anticipating the future. The most important of these for me though is remembering to have fun – today. 

Sleep

I was talking to a good friend on Friday about fatigue. One thing you don’t get with small children is any rest. On Saturday we had a day out, buses, boats, trains, ice creams and by the time we got home we were all shattered. A good day though.

I had the same experience with slightly bigger kids at work all last week. Meetings, conversations, communiques and some adult variant tears and tantrums. It all got done and objectively it was a very good and effective week. But…

What’s true of both is I ran my batteries on ‘drain’. A combination of complex emotions at work and simpler but no less demanding ones at home means I’m dog tired.

I have an excuse for a bad night’s sleep on Saturday – next door had a house party. But there’s no excuse for last night. After the clocks going back and two hours of ‘trick or treating’ an early night was what I really needed. But distractions and ‘jobs’ got in the way.

It’s 100% my own fault. I had the diagnosis, I ignored the medicine. Periodic rest and consistent good sleep are the key to happiness, contentment and any sustained attempt at eudaemonia. Note to self, get some.

Heart

With a heavy heart my partner and I agreed today that we would have our old retired racing greyhound put to sleep next Tuesday morning. He has a tumour which has grown to the size of a half football on his side which hasn’t bothered him much until now. But he’s in pain today, I can see it.

I spent the day with my son, who’s very small, but quite wise for one so little. We took a bus, a train, a boat and a taxi and then went out for a scoot together. Two nights ago he asked me if I would die. I didn’t really know what to say. I put my hand on his chest and said I will live a long long time and that we all live on through the people we love. His hand rested on top of mine sandwiching my hand on top of his little pumping heart. Since then he’s raised the topic of dying several times with me. Tonight we decided we would both live forever and this made him happy. I can save the truth for a bit.

I was talking on Friday to a friend who lost his father quite quickly and painfully. His demise hadn’t been a good one – messed about and messed up by the health service. His mother has developed a heart condition in the process. This got us talking about cardiac coherence – a concept I picked up in David Servan-Schreiber’s book Healing without Freud or Prozac. Cardiac coherence is when the physiological systems which accelerate your heart are perfectly balanced with those which brake it – you are in balance and your immune system is fully optimized.

He writes about a boy and his dog who happened by his lab and for fun they tested for cardiac coherence. Sure enough when the boy and his dog were together the electrocardiogram showed each of them to be in the state of chaotic balance which is cardiac coherence. When they were moved apart they kept a healthy heart rate but came out of coherence. Brought back together and the coherence returned.

I’m not sure my dog ever did that for me. He’s a lovely old chap, but he doesn’t bring me inner peace. One person that does though is my little boy. Like the boy and his dog, I have become aware that simply being physically close to him often swings my heart slowly but surely into perfect coherence – I am happy, at peace and have a full heart.

RGB

White light can be made from red, green and blue – just like in the Trinitron TV we had when I was a kid. Talking to a good friend this morning it came to us that finding a good balance in life needs you to get the RGB balance right.

We were comparing notes on our ‘re-entry’ into work after summer holidays and as Autumn is upon us wondering where the eudaemonia was going to come from in the short dark days of winter. Work is going to be tough. We live in an age of austerity. Home as family men is going to ask a lot of us too. I said if you think of it as spotlights (think of the Flickr logo) you have to get some balance between the work spot (red) and the home spot (green). I certainly had that balance wrong pre the summer and my life went red.

But to get to white, well-being and eudaemonia you need a blue spot too – and that’s the spot which is purely and uniquely for you. For most of my 20s I got nearly all I needed in my life from the red spot – work gave me money, laughs, sex and an international life. In my 30s I built a home: I found a partner and dog, mortgage and a family followed with the many joys and responsibilities they bring. In my 40s I have come to realise if I don’t do a few things for me I begin to get frayed and transactional. It is a truism that to really love others you have to start with yourself.

So we concluded this morning that the pure white light of fulfilment, flourishing, eudaemonia and just keeping the show on the road requires a spot of blue – some things you do just for you. It’s easy to feel guilty about that – a moment for a cuppa, a walk around the block in the sunshine, indulging a hobby or interest you don’t share with anyone else. I think you shouldn’t and you mustn’t.

Happiness and well-being are emergent phenomena I’m increasingly convinced. You can’t approach them directly and doing one thing or set of things however well won’t deliver them. Like the white light from an RGB monitor you need the red of work, the green of home and crucially the spot of blue for you.

Day one

Where to begin. I’ve blogged elsewhere for a couple of years now, so I know the score. Write what’s in your mind and go with the flow. It’s the day before my 42nd birthday and I’m typing (a little clumsily) on my brand new iPad which I’ve waited over 9 months for. Lovely. As Arthur C Clarke said the only thing which differentiates any sufficiently advanced technology from magic is the ability to understand the technology. The iPad like the iPhone is magic.

I decided to start writing because I’ve been thinking about it for a year or more. But I feared starting and in any case could never get my hand on the laptop – an iPhone is too fiddly for WordPress. So today is day one and what is in my mind? Mainly cancer.

Just thinking the word is enough to create tension in my chest. I had malignant melanoma over 15 years ago and had a big chunk of my left thigh chopped out. Strangely I can say melanoma more easily than cancer – I’ve said it more often to explain covering up in the sun or the large scar I have which shows in shorter shorts. Cancer riddling me is the sum of all fears. And one I’d long forgotten. But David Servan-Schreiber has reawakened my angst with his excellent book Anti Cancer. I think everyone over 35 should read it.

His curse is to scare me into going to the doctors. In rare cases melanoma returns and I have a couple of things to get checked out. His gift is to make me see – as I’ve been working up to for months, that looking inside yourself, caring for your own wellbeing and writing it down are all well worth doing. I had started a ‘to do’ list for my 50th birthday. The advice of a good friend, Anti Cancer and the fear of not making it suggests just getting on with it. Writing this is a start.