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Thursday
Aug252011

Catastrophe theory of feeling really rather good

In the 70s catastrophe theory was used to explain things that chaos theory explained in the 80s and the tipping point has explained for the last few years…however there is more than a grain of truth in the idea that some things have a threshold that needs to be broken down by cumulative assaults- and then it spreads like wildfire. Humour for example- if you have three funny things on a page the fourth may produce a belly laugh. It is the sheer density of humour that eventually makes people think- hey- this is really funny, rather than the individual quality of a gag. The same with feeling good about yourself- three good things one after another suddenly flip that switch and you’re really up a level of personal content and happiness and energy. This happened to me today- a talk I’m giving has sold out, then I heard a friend will be visiting Wigtown festival when I will be there and a rather tricky repair I effected on our house has worked better than I thought- all small stuff taken individually but cumulatively suddenly I am winging along feeling very good indeed- because everywhere you turn in your mind you see something good to think about. Perhaps the lesson is- since good things can’t happen everyday- maintain this happy interior landscape by having good things ready to think about whenever you are in downtime mode. The other thing is that once you are through the threshold you can hang on in there a long time after what got you there has receded, so an element of timing is involved. If you have three good things happen rapidly in succession, say, once a week then I speculate you’ll be in the highest of spirits…

Saturday
Aug202011

one minute tai chi

I have friends who do a ten minute yoga routine every morning before breakfast. I applaud the notion, and from time to time I have had my own press ups/exercise type routines early in the morning but, let’s face it- who’s got the time?

Now we all know this is nonsense. We have loads of time, we just waste it etc etc. But the outer brain, the public brain, the social brain REALLY DOES THINK that it has no time. That’s why we always kind of perk up and agree when people suggest we have no time. Like you are now. And why WE LOVE anything that ‘saves’ time. Like ONE MINUTE TAI CHI. Yes, you’re loving it already aren’t you?

One minute Tai chi starts with doing the slow up and down sweep movements – watch a tai chi basics video on youtube to get the picture. You do this routine – do the legs bit as well if you can- until you get bored. Then segue into all the exercise and warm up bits you can remember- but do them only once, twice or thrice- one sit up, one press up, one weird yoga dog posture, one touch the toes etc etc. Pretty soon one of these will get your fancy. Hey that feels good you’ll think- then go with it- do five or ten. But no pushing. This is one minute tai chi. If you only want to- spend only one minute on the whole routine. I just did and I feel FANTASTIC!

The main benefit is that you go through a massive RANGE of movement in a very short time. In Japan old people don’t have bad knees, neither do men in the middle east- why because they get on their knees every day (in Japan to use a squat loo and to generally squat and sit, in the middle east to pray- women aren't required to do the knee bending public prayer ritual so they have terrible knees often) - if you don't use it you lose it. The second benefit is that you’ll be tempted to go for a bit longer from time to time and that will actually improve fitness. The third benefit is that you can claim to be a one minute tai chi master.

 

Thursday
Aug182011

britain's moral collapse?

There is an awful lot of talk about rebuilding morality and saving Britain from a moral collapse but what is on offer seems shallow and wrongheaded about where moral sense actually springs from. The idea that morality is derived from a set of principles is something only modern philosophers need to take seriously. That’s the inheritance of a more ancient philosophy where the rules were always contingent on something suprahuman, something bigger than us, something awe inspiring, often, but not always, a recognisable deity. That’s the real well spring of any moral behaviour- the recognition that you are a tiny part of something massive and meaningful- you can feel it in the face of nature or perhaps in the face of intuitions of forces beyond our paltry abilities to know or describe.

Appeals to family and community and such like only work when you are in the right relation to the world, when you feel the abundant awe inspired by the planet we live on.

In the past such feelings were usually dragged along in the giant trawl net called religion. Where now?

It may even be the case, as others have pointed out, that a certain amount of moral collapse is due to take place before something new can takes its place. 

Wednesday
Aug172011

saying yes is not easy

It’s not often that an acronym works out meaningfully. Usually you have to bodge it a bit, but yesterday I was writing something about energy and attitude and then I thought about the need for stamina in any human enterprise- E.A.S- and without even thinking I said to myself Yes. EASY eh?

Let’s start at the end, a good place to start- at least you’ll know where you are going. Yes. Or maybe Yes! Saying Yes to something- to a trip, to an idea, to a project, to a meeting- or even to a night of jazz and poetry. We live next door to a rather splendid art gallery that stages events from time to time. They had advertised an evening of jazz and poetry. All we had to do was walk about fifty yards. Did we go? No. Because we never said yes. We kept putting off the decision, until, of course, it was too late. That’s when you start telling yourself you’ve never really liked jazz anyway and as for poetry…

‘Yes Man’- the Jim Carey film- shows the power of saying yes rather well. But it never depicts the problems of saying yes to things that conflict. Most people have way too many things to say yes to which would interfere with, say, writing a book or making a long journey. 'Yes' people may be happy- but they never get anything done because there is always something else better coming along.

But the valuable, almost magical part of yes, what we could call a ‘deep yes’, is when you take something on board sincerely, when you commit. Strangely I have found this to be the opposite of what you may imagine. Instead of ‘telling the world’ you often make a silent inner pact. It’s literally too important to blab about. The fairly trivial but hugely important to me at the time decision to quit smoking  only happened (after years of public announcements to friends and family) when I just stopped. And told no one. It was too important to me to tarnish and cheapen with mere words.

So a ‘deep yes’ or an inner yes is a powerful thing. You can’t fake it- by definition. It’s rather like being with children and one says “I’m going to write a book”. They want the attention you get from writing a book but they don’t really want to write it, or even know what writing one really entails. So this kind of public ‘yes’ is weak. Doesn’t mean it can’t work- the power of shame is stronger in some than others. But for me- I’m pretty shameless and rather good at sliding out of things. So there has to be that inner yes first- then I know something will happen. You get better at recognising them. It’s a calm process, you’re not pumped by it or even that excited. You realise the responsibility implied. It has an inevitable feel. That’s the best description I can think of.

You may have to flout what appears to be ‘the sensible thing’ to get to a deep yes. Often a clue that the sensible thing is wrong is after you have ‘made the decision’ in your mind you still have qualms. And not qualms that are easily allayed. Umming and ahhing over what size hulls to buy for a catamaran (this is going somewhere I guarantee) I said in the end: what size seems right even though it doesn't on the face of it seem the most sensible? I was surprised by the answer, but was happy with it. The qualms magically disappeared. I had my deep yes.  You can sharpen your sense of saying yes in the most everyday of circumstances- which can only help you with more important decisions.

But without that deep yes it doesn’t matter how much energy, attitude and stamina you have you won’t get anywhere with your project.

Take the traditional schema of a human being represented as a cart, pulled by a horse with a driver and passenger. The cart is the body, the horse is the emotions/energy, the driver is the intellect/reason and the passenger is the real you.

The driver does what he is told – otherwise he’ll just go where the horses take him or where his ‘reason’ suggests. Usually that will be a mix of emotion and intellect- the emotion being the desire to copy others and the intellect being how to do it in a clever way. But despite having lots of energy, a strong body and a powerful brain you’ll get nowhere ‘you’ want to go unless the real ‘you’ makes his or her demands heard.

One of the stories told by my friend Fat Frank the carpet dealer is of an Iranian of great energy and intelligence who ran a carpet shop and made no money…until he was caught in a terrible road accident and lost the power of his legs. Wheelchair bound he became a millionaire. What happened? He found the passenger by becoming one. No longer able to run about after ideas and people he sat and planned and got others to do things for him. He focussed on planning what needed to be done and working out ways of doing it rather than reacting and losing direction. Stuck in his wheelchair, denied distraction he was forced to learn how to say yes in a meaningful way.

So, how do you get into that ‘head state’ where a real yes, a deep yes if you like is more likely than a whimsical one? You have to use your inner compass. You have to recognise you have one and then trust it. Then you can ‘test’ your decision by making it match sensible(ish) requirements.

We all know the situation: you want to do something, maybe even are required to do it, but somehow you just can’t get excited about it. Over time this feeling ‘that you ought to do this thing’ grows alongside a feeling that it’s ‘wrong in some way’. And it probably IS wrong- the question is- how do you free your inner compass to find out the right manner to do this thing?

Years ago I was in the common position of having to find a flat in London. We wanted somewhere central for a low reant- ie. a virtual impossibility. My flatmate spent every night visiting potential and entirely unsuitable apartments. I did nothing for two weeks because it just ‘felt wrong’ (having to resist accusations of bone idleness too). Then one day I remembered a friend had once rented a flat from a free ads paper that was three months old. There was a free ads paper on the table- only a few weeks old. I found somewhere promising, rang up to find that though the place had gone and even better flat was available from the same company right now. In three hours I had paid the deposit and arranged to move in.

The inner compass seems to get nudged into action by a random almost nonsensical thought like the one about my friend using an old paper. If crazy thoughts like this occur during an otherwise rational process give them some attention- you have nothing to lose and they may nudge the inner compass needle.

On another occasion I moved somewhere because I thought someone I knew (and admired) lived there. It turned out they didn’t but the place was really excellent in every respect. So the clue can be half wrong- it’s just a supernatural nudge if you like, a nudge from another dimension.

Of course you could end up slavishly copying what friends you admire are doing (and these nudges often seem to be prompted by thoughts of people you hold in higher esteem) and I think the clue is – does the idea just pop into your head or does it end up there by a kind of dull dredging process?

To make that inner compass work you can’t be too needy and desperate. You need to be kicking back a bit. You need to be able to get some detachment- going for a very long walk- at least half a day works for me. Have a party, meet friends, deliberately focus on something very small such as making a plastic kit or even, like Norman Mailer and David Beckham, making a lego model…

Thursday
Jul212011

how to be zenarchist

Zen is an exercise in letting go of attachment to outcomes, to things, to thoughts. Some people might consider it just got a bit out of hand with all that sitting around for hours and getting hit with sticks when you doze off. Whether your take on zen is low key and about finding the ineffable where you least expect it, or full on and reminiscent of shifu in kung fu panda chanting “Inner peace. Inner peace. INNER PEACE!” I think the notion that zen+anarchy might produce some interesting freeing up of thoughts and directions.

First- anarchy- make of this much abused word what you will. I’ve lived through a revolution where the police suddenly went AWOL for three days- and anarchy didn’t break out. People organised themselves- that’s what people do. So anarchy as ‘mob on the rampage’ is clearly misleading. People form networks. When these networks start oppressing others there is resistance. Anarchy is more a cry of liberation than a statement of revolution. It’s not a political creed, really, because for politics you need rules, or seem to, rules made by others and forced onto people who disagree with them. Anarchy is what happens when you make YOUR OWN RULES- and the less the better. When Ueshiba started aikido his dojo had no rules. Then someone was caught stealing and he announced there was one rule: no stealing. It’s just a word- if it get’s you somewhere new, great.

Now add the Zen bit. Zen is about stilling the inner noise so that the real you, the inner radio that’s tuned to the real thing can start functioning. We’re always tweaking that inner antenna, when we can, if zen helps then all well and good. You know that slight ‘off note’ you make, when you’re with people who are cooler, more fun, calmer, more relaxed than you? No good beating up on yourself, just tweak the aerial by dropping down a gear, listening a bit more, doing stuff instead of thinking about yourself, helping instead of taking, judging others a bit less- that sort of thing.

Zen is about nothing because the moment you talk about it it disappears. Doesn’t mean there isn’t something there- it’s just very fragile and allergic to chat. So you work on REMOVING noise that gets in the way and then you get what everyone has been going on about for centuries.

We don’t even need the word Zen, in fact, it could very well get in the way. But I like it and I think it’s entered the general lexicon as meaning ‘detached, but not in some nihilistic way’.

All political creeds are pretty much bunkum- if you take in human beings from Bedouin and New Guinean headhunters to New Yorkers looking for a cappuccino, to Englishmen worried about the weather to Inuit sniffing glue- or hunting seals- I take Zen Anarchy to mean a cheerful realisation of this fact, an openness of mind, a zeal to not shut others down…there are enough waves out there for everyone to surf. If that’s what you want to do.

Monday
Jul042011

Creativity

It's not about creativity. It's about focussed creativity. And creativity only becomes focussed when it is constrained, trammelled, formatted. Find a format you are happy with.

Sunday
Jul032011

life begins when you say I am a...

What’s the biggest predictor of childhood musical genius? Innate ability? Hours of practise? Parents are musicians? Nope.

The single biggest factor is whether the kids see themselves as long or short term committed. If a child self-identifies as very long term committed to music ie. sees themselves as ‘a musician’ even though they aren’t, then this far outweighs other factors. To put it into perspective: a child who calls him or herself ‘a musician’, who practises a mere thirty minutes a week will outperform any child over any time period who practises an hour and a half a week but who doesn't self-identify with the idea of being a musician. Practise doesn’t make perfect. Perfect plus some practise makes better sense. You need the self-image first, not last. Don’t we all know this…despite its counter-cause-and-effect feel. It’s the way the real and mysterious world works. Nicholson Baker wrote how he called himself a writer even though he hadn’t written anything. I called myself a poet long before I wrote any half decent poetry. It was the image of being a poet that kept me going , but more than that it gave a scale and context to my efforts. How many pop stars call themselves musicians and then learn to play their instruments? Loads.

This insight about youthful excellence by the way comes from the superbly suggestive and informative ‘The talent code’ by Daniel Coyle. It’s full of great stuff.

Anyway- back to the main idea. We can see that ability or great talent is, in fact, an act of impersonation. Is it any surprise that great actors turn out to achieve high standards in reality- Robert De Niro was considered by real boxing champ Jake La Motta to be ‘in the top 10 boxers in America’. This was after intensive coaching for his role as…  world champion boxer Jake La Motta. Stephen Fry, in his autobiographical novel ‘The Liar’ gives a clue to his multi-talentedness- the book’s theme is that the hero despite his high achievements always feels like a fraud who is merely acting the part, and will be found out at any moment, in other words, he acts the part and then becomes it.

The clue for potential polymaths is to find out the key to self-identifying with any talent they want to achieve. This is where intensive training comes in. I did aikido three times a week for an hour at a time- but I still didn’t think of myself as a martial artist. I upped that to five days a week for five hours a day and everything changed. Over a year I got a lot lot better. But it wasn’t the practise, or only the practise, it was the fact that this was what I did so this must be what I was.

By meeting and becoming ordinary friends with people who do what you want to do you learn how ‘they aren’t that special’ ie. they are human after all. Which means you can impersonate them and become that role too. Why are so many top tennis players eastern European? Because just by coming from Czech/Serbia/Croatia you are already halfway there. I mean if you’re Brazilian you must be good at football right? This may be half humorous, but it's more than half-true.

Now, the big question is, is there a way to switch on the ‘I am a…’ button so that mastery of a subject is assured? I think there is. Start with the following:

1)Immerse yourself in the subject to one level above that at which you wish to compete.

2) Make ordinary friends with people doing what you want to do. See what they do in their regular lives not just when they are doing what they are doing best.

3) Do your thing – practise conjures up the wrong image- what I think sums it up better is ‘apply your own creativity to your own improvement’. You have to jump higher. Figure out your own way to do this first. Seek help too, wherever you can find it, but in the end you have to personalise your improvement, ‘find your own way’ to do what everyone else is doing ‘the standard way’- if doing it the standard way doesn’t come naturally at first (and it may later).

4) From the beginning call yourself ‘a writer’, ‘a poet’, ‘a photographer’, ‘an athlete’, ‘a pilot’. Do what you have to, in terms of improvised sleight of hand to half convince yourself, three-quarters convince yourself, to be able to convince others at a party, say, that yes you really are that role. And then you’ll become it. If that’s what you want.