Never lose faith

What is happening right now?

I feel in turmoil, the upheaval and fear and uncertainty and emotion running through each individual in the country right now is palpable. I have seen first hand rifts caused within friendships and families between those who voted one way and the other. I feel sorry for those who have been outvoted and will be dragged through years of change and uncertainty against their will, those who have already suffered financially or in their work, those who are hanging on a knife edge to find out what happens next. I feel equally sorry for those who went into this decision with completely inadequate knowledge, unknowingly voting for what seemed like promise for our health system, our families and our country’s independence from a body of faceless bureaucrats so seemingly far away that they appeared to have no business making decisions about our future. I feel sorry for those who don’t understand the gravity of the situation, that still aren’t clear how our future will be affected. Which, by the way, is pretty much all of us. Because what happens from here is still a big black hole of speculation.

I find it much harder to feel sorry for those who let racism wash over them and even more so for those actively partake in it. I’ve heard some sickening stories about Europeans being told to “go home”. Well, this is their home. They have families and jobs and houses and lives and friends here. “They” are not “they” anyway. We are all just we. Each of us is human. Each of us have loved ones we want to protect and passions we want to follow and money we need to earn. I was looking forward one day to living and working abroad, hopefully in Italy. And then I would be “they”, the other, the invader, the foreigner. It is bad enough that you move somewhere for excitement and adventure and to experience the world and share cultures and then feel nervous and scared because you don’t know the language or the cultural norms, it’s harder to make friends, the food is alien. And then to be made to feel so totally unwelcome is completely unjust. Life in this current age lets us experience the extraordinary variety and richness of each unique way that groups and cultures across the world have learnt to navigate life – if only everyone would make the most of this opportunity.

However, I do feel some sorrow for those who can’t see past the labels we place on each other and believe that it is right and required to separate ourselves based on language, skin colour and culture. Some people were born and brought up to think that that is the only way to react and behave. The connections they formed as they grew and developed, which we all crave as human beings, meant that creating an “us and them” culture was the only way to survive and ensure you felt part of a community. The information they have been exposed to and the education they have received has not allowed them to see what a thriving, wholesome life can look like when diversity and equality are championed. I don’t support their views, but I understand how they could have got to that point.

I feel privileged to work at the University of Essex, as diverse and supportive a community as you can imagine. 40% of our students and staff are not from the UK, and I wholeheartedly believe we are a greater and richer institution for that. I love walking through the squares and hearing 3 different languages being spoken as I wander past groups of people chatting unashamedly. The University has already declared its continuing support for diversity of culture and I am thankful to feel surrounded by people who, whether they voted to Leave or Remain in the EU, love to live and work with a wide ranging group of cultures.

I can only hope that the emotion that has charged through the nation will subside and be replaced with a gentler understanding of individual backgrounds and the impact and influence that has on people’s decisions. I truly believe there is nothing stronger than people with differences of opinion, background, culture, interest, passion and strength coming together to unite and drive our society forward with the great variety of power that gives us. Whatever our future holds we can still do that, embrace those who are willing to be part of it and educate those who aren’t. I am not giving up now, nor ever, on the unitedness of the world and whilst there are still those who believe the same there is still a chance to make it happen. Never lose faith in yourself or your fellow man as that is the only way great futures are made.

Riding out the bad days

I’ve specifically decided to write this when I’m having a really “bad day”. I’ll explain the quotes in a bit.

Bad days are like a bad smell – they can hit you very suddenly, you never know when they’re coming and they just seem to permeate everything. They can’t really be avoided either – humans are made to feel the whole range of emotions for a reason, they are there to tell us something, even if that something isn’t very obvious.

I think my “bad day” was fairly explainable to be honest – I went back to work after a wonderful 4 day weekend away full of sun, it was rainy, I’ve started coming down with some sort of illness and I made my child cry by taking away her toy before bed.

If I’m really honest, it wasn’t even that bad a day – my meetings at work went pretty well, I ate good food, I went for a little drive through some lovely villages after work with the family. Hence the “bad day” quotes. All in all, could have been much worse.

So what do we do about these bad days? Well, the natural response is to catastrophise, slump back into your worst habits, whatever form they may take, and mourn the good days, wishing time away until some external factor makes you happy again.

However, perhaps we need to approach bad days a little differently. Perhaps they should be given a bit of a break, allowed to have their time and move on. If you fight them, you just spend more time feeling guilty, annoyed and anxious. Perhaps we could even relax into them a bit, allow ourselves the time to relax because maybe they’re trying to tell us we just need a bit of TLC. And even, a radical idea, we could celebrate them, thank them for allowing us to realise how good a good day really is. Because if all we had were good days we wouldn’t be able to appreciate them, we wouldn’t have anything to compare them to.

Writing this post has made me feel better. Acknowledging my rubbishy day has been cathartic, and perhaps there’s something I just love about writing too.

And to make you (OK, me) feel better, here’s a pretty little picture from the weekend:

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Where is your spiritual home?

My friend and I were having a really interesting conversation about spiritual homes the other day. I’m not talking about going to church or a weird cult or something. No, I’m talking about that place in the world where you just feel like your soul belongs, no matter where you are or where you’ve come from. That place that when you look at a picture of it you feel an indescribable pull to be there, or perhaps an inevitability that you will end up there. Not just “ooh, that looks like a nice place to go on holiday” but more like “yup, I have to go there one day, even if it kills me”. You long for it.

This doesn’t have to be far away or exotic. For some it might be London or somewhere else in the UK or even the other side of town. I imagine there are some who live there already. Lucky you ūüôā For me, it is fairly exotic, certainly compared to where I live now, although I’m not even sure where the exact place is, I just know what I love:

  • Nature
  • Trees
  • Water
  • Epic scenery and landscapes

I’ve found a few examples of the sort of thing I’m talking about:

A selection of photos of Croatia, Venezuela, Canada, Borneo, New Zealand

This is my friend’s spiritual home¬†by the way:

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Helmingham Hall, Stowmarket

And my husband’s looks a bit like this:

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Caribbean island

Where does your soul want to live?

 

 

Things I’ve stopped doing to make way for The Good Stuff

 

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How easy it is to slip into those habits that waste our precious time¬†– the ones that are a daily ritual or something we “need” to do, or something to make us relax. The TV watching, Facebook checking, house tidying or book re-reading. Things which keep us vaguely entertained, but don’t make us excited or stimulate interesting conversation or give us ideas to change our lives or the lives of others. Things that probably fall into the procrastinator’s “dark playground”, as described by Tim Urban in his Wait But Why blog post.

Everyone will have their own form of time wasting – they might even make it look really productive and useful on the outside. But the truth is, you know it’s not something you really REALLY want to do. You might know what Good Stuff you could be doing instead, or you might not. And I don’t mean “I should be doing the dinner but I’m going to watch TV for a bit instead”. No, I’m talking about The Good Stuff. Those things that drive your passion and interest, that excite you, that you think about when you’re at work or in the shower. Those topics of conversation that get you really fired up or that you¬†bore your friends and family with by always talking about them. The stuff you can’t not do or think about.

Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes time wasted is not wasted time –¬†I get excited about sitting down to watch my favourite TV show or scrolling through Pinterest or re-reading Harry Potter again. Just watch for when that slips into a habit or procrastination tool. If you don’t actively look forward to it or want to do it, then don’t. Do The Good Stuff instead.

These are some of the things I’ve cut back on to make way for the good stuff:

  • Pointlessly and habitually checking my phone
    In the morning, and at other times too, particularly looking at emails, messages and Facebook (argh that place is a time suck!) This is an easy one to slip back into though as I always have my phone on me.
  • TV
    I used to watch hours of TV every night. Then we cancelled our TV license and only watched dramas and films – better as I was more interested, but still a couple of hours a night and sometimes just vaguely interesting stuff to fill the time. Now I watch 1 or 2 hours occasionally with my husband if there’s something really good on Netflix, or a film with friends. This is probably my biggest ¬†time save.
  • Things that other people have told me to read / watch / do
    I always found it easy to feel compelled to undertake¬†a suggestion made to me, particularly if something had been lent to me or I knew someone was going to ask me what I thought of it. New experiences that interest me¬†= great, I’ll definitely do it! Obligation to use my time for something of no interest = I try to avoid it.
  • Internet surfing
    I used to read and watch thing after thing on the Internet, getting sucked into a vortex of stuff that didn’t really interest me at all but I couldn’t tear myself away from. I don’t really do this at all any more actually.
  • Household chores
    Yup, my house is messier than it used to be and the bathrooms don’t get cleaned that often and the washing piles up to unfathomable amounts before I get to breaking point when I run out of underwear. But you know what, I’m still a functioning member of society and my friends still come round and haven’t labeled me a hobo,¬†so it can’t be that bad. Probably quite a bit of time saved here too, and I no longer give into the “shoulds” of chores so feel much happier.
  • Sleep
    OK, this probably isn’t the healthiest habit so it’s not like I’m recommending this. However, I have realised that I actually need less sleep than I thought I did – 7-7.5 hours a night does me fine, and if I’ve had a particularly late evening I can get by on 6, I can still get up and do things I want to do in the morning. In fact, that’s what I did this morning to write this blog. I can catch up later. Just don’t do it too many times in a row!

The Good Stuff

It can be really hard to give up time wasting habits when you don’t know what Good Stuff you’re actually going to fill that extra time with. Start¬†making a list, physical if you can, of The Good Stuff. This list might change over time as you meet new people, discover new things or saturate your brain with all the info it needs on something. It might be a very small list to begin with. It might have things on it you think make you boring or crazy. But it should always contain stuff that fires up your soul. That makes you passionate or excited or see possibilities you didn’t see before. Things that might scare you, but are so rewarding to do.

My list of Good Stuff consists of but is not limited to:

  • Writing this blog (quite a ne wone for me!)
  • Education – reading about the state of affairs, talking to people about it and dreaming up ways it could be different
  • Reading about neuroscience and understanding how the brain works
  • Thinking about starting a business helping people to see the world differently
  • Colouring in
  • Listening to the podcast of Kristen Kalp
  • Listening to the audio book of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (I listen to both of these on my ride into work actually)
  • Watching courses on Lynda.com (can’t believe we get this for free at work now, hurray!)
  • Reflecting on experiences with friends
  • Learning about Human Centred Design and Design Thinking (through this IDEO.org course)

How will you make way for The Good Stuff?

Is there a scientific reason for seeing the world more brightly?

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This morning I woke up about 7 minutes before my alarm went off after a really good night’s sleep. I had a refreshing shower, spent some lovely time with my daughter and ate a good breakfast whilst watching an inspiring TED Talk (this one about How To Find The Work You Love if you’re interested). The sun was shining brightly on a chilly but beautiful morning as I jumped on my bike to ride to work. I felt like the world was in sharp relief, the edges of things were clearer, colours were more vivid and there was literally more in the world than usual.

I also noticed a sharpness about my other senses as well. I noticed smells more acutely and could distinguish multiple different sounds far more easily than usual. My energy levels were higher than I’m used to in the morning.

This vividness and clarity extended beyond my senses to my mind as well. I’ve been incredibly inspired about in and out of work projects. Getting on with difficult tasks seems simple today. I can literally get more done. Even making decisions is easier (which is something I often struggle with).

This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this, although I’ll admit it doesn’t happen as often as I would like. I hope you’ve had days like this, they are absolutely wonderful and make what was originally going to be a fairly dull and dreary day a delight and amazingly productive.

However, I’m not just trying to show off about my good day. I wonder, what is the¬†scientific reason for this extra vividness and clarity? Both in my senses and in my cognitive function? Was it just two good night’s sleep in a row? I’m sure I’ve had good sleep without this effect before. Is it the fact I watched something inspiring that boosted my whole vision of the world? I try to do that often, but it doesn’t guarantee me a fantastic day. Is it simply the sunshine? If it is just that though, why don’t I feel like this on every sunny day?

With my zero neuroscientific research background, my guess is that the combined effect of good sleep, good food, serotonin from the sun and lots of good feeling chemicals in the morning caused my brain to remove its mental fog and literally leave more cognitive space for soaking up the¬†surroundings. My eyes, ears and nose hadn’t changed, just the amount of brain processing power I had to compute all the incoming information. As David Allen talks about in his Getting Things Done methodology, I had more “psychic¬†bandwidth”.

I wish I could bottle this feeling and give it out to all. Maybe one day that will be a possibility. But until then I’ll keep exploring the ways we can get to this state¬†ūüôā

The miracle of mindfulness

I was reminded yesterday (via a Lynda.com course) of how wonderful the art of mindfulness is – so easy, so simple, open to anyone and has been shown to have miraculous effects. I haven’t read an awful lot of research on it yet (will do soon though) but the evidence I’ve heard about and seen for myself seems pretty clear. When I spend time, even just a minute or two, focusing on nothing but my immediate surroundings, with no judgement or opinion, just observation, my stress levels lower, my head clears and I can make better decisions, understand others better and get more done.

I think the mindfulness practice can get caught up in a whole load of what people see as hippy bullshit about meditation, loving yourself, hugging trees etc. While I’ll openly admit I could probably imagine myself doing all of that with the right group of friends and mixture of drugs, I urge you to suspend your judgement for 5 minutes and give it a go. Not just once either, do it a few times cos it might have a different effect each time dependant on circumstance, how long you do it for, the weather, your mood, which pants you’re wearing, whatever. I sometimes find it harder some days than others.¬†And if you¬†find it hard to believe it will make a difference, DO IT ANYWAY. It’s only a few minutes ūüėČ

Here’s the ways I get mindful:

  1. Focus on the food I’m eating. Really feel the textures in your mouth, savour the tastes and take a long time to chew every mouthful. Try to pick out all the different flavours and work out which you like best. Find out whether you actually like the taste of the food (surprising how often I do this and realise I don’t really like what I’m eating!) Best done on your own otherwise your friend might wonder why you’re ignoring them. Also has the added benefit of making you eat less as you’re more aware of how full you are.
  2. Notice all the sounds around me. I did it this morning in fact while I was walking the dog Рthere were birds singing, cars going by, someone banging a hammer whilst building and the gentle rustle of the poo bag I was holding (ah, the joys of dog ownership!) Notice all the sounds around you, the obvious and the less obvious. Let your thoughts that stem from these sounds drift on past and re-focus just on the noises themselves.
  3. Create a calming and repetitive vision to focus on. Mine is a stick man (representing me) walking alongside a road and sitting on a bench. I see cars driving past on the road (I think of these as my thoughts, just driving on past). There are a few cartoon trees and stuff too. My stick man can sit there for quite a while and watch cars go by. It probably works best if the vision isn’t too complicated and can go on for a while.
  4. Notice my breathing. A ¬†yoga / meditation classic, but also works pretty well. Quick and easy, although I find this one easier in a quiet place otherwise it’s easy to get distracted.
  5. Look at my surroundings. This is quite useful for if you’re travelling or stuck somewhere and can’t move for whatever reason and need a mindfulness fix. Look at your surroundings and notice all the details, the colour of a wall, the shape of a chair, the weather, the number of cars on the road. No need for any of this to stem further thought, just notice things. I sometimes do this on my bike ride to work in the mornings – I notice the type of trees, the clouds in the sky, the colours of cars, the surface of the road. Possibly not quite as effective as other ways but can be useful sometimes.

Happy Mindfulness! Let me know what else you’ve tried that works for you ūüôā