Mind over matter

It seems that these days it is so much harder to focus on one thing as there appear to be so many more things going on. In part that is probably true, but in part it undoubtedly also because we have allowed our lives to dictate us rather than the other way round.

With an 80yo father that still skis and seems to ignore the fact that he is getting along a bit, I have always believed in the old “if you don’t use it, you loose it” principle. So, I am not surprised that a number of studies now point at the mental benefits of 20 min of mindful meditation. Essentially exercising your brain and I guess increasing the blood flow to the area.

The proposed benefits:

Brighter and faster: A number of studies studies suggest that long-term meditation will increase the number of folds in the cerebral cortex and higher gray matter density, which leads to faster information processing.

Better multitasking: Scientists have determined that meditation helps us to tame what Buddhists would call our hyperactive “monkey mind”. Meditation allows us to perform tasks for longer with fewer distractions, improves retention, and reduces stress. In a sense by becoming better at focusing on one thing and ignoring distractions, we become better at performing multiple tasks faster.

Increase short term memory: By blocking out the noise of daily distractions, we can soak up more pertinent information.

Feed creativity: It seems that if our attention is more evenly distributed, we can enter a more creative state of mind and we can generate more diverse ideas.

Add to that stress reduction and it would appear to be a mental panacea. It is just such a shame that it is so difficult to keep those random thoughts at bay. Ah well, better get practicing.

Fortunate to have mental health

The news is filled with people doing not “normal” things everyday. Fortunately, I had never really borne witness to how someone can go from the relatively normal but a bit odd to bonkers in the blink of an eye. Until now.

A few days ago, my wife and I again decided to take advantage of a balmy night and head for the beach to enjoy a sunset picnic. A lovely evening ensued and after a little walk we headed home.

On our way we noticed a police car U-turn, as if possessed, and race into our apparent complex. We drove on and took another entrance, where, to our horror a policemen stood on our road with a shotgun in his hands. Down the road stood another three police cars.

We were about to go for a little drive, when we realized he was returning the gun to the trunk of his car, so we asked if it was OK to head home.

Given the all clear we drove into the complex. There, lit by the high beam of two cop cars, we saw  our neighbor looking stunned, cuffed and sprawled on the ground with a few officers ensuring he didn’t move.

Now this is a guy that I have seen most days. He was always polite to us and at one stage even asked us if his TV was too loud in the evenings. He would often sit out on the lawn in his camping chair and read a book. When I gave him our old books, his eyes lit up like a christmas tree and he wanted to pay me for them.

Yes, he clearly wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box, and there had been stories about him having a rant with another neighbor, but I just assumed that sometimes people clash. No harm done.

On that night, by all accounts, this generally mild mannered man, suddenly flipped. Threw furniture from his yard, made racist slurs, then grabbed a knife and threatened to kill people. I guess it was at this stage that the police were called and we later happened on the resulting scene.

The next day one of the neighbors was canvassing for letters to the HOA to have him thrown out of the complex and I found myself torn. On the one hand, we have a baby girl on the way and I would not want my wife and daughter to be confronted by someone that could turn into a nutter at anytime. On the other hand I realize that this man needs help and stability…. a lot of help.

Sadly with a health system that is so expensive it is unlikely that he will ever be able to afford to get the support he needs. So, he will end up back with his parents, with whom he apparently argues regularly. What happens when his parents can’t cope anymore? This won’t go away…

It is one of those things we often take for granted, but I thank my lucky stars for my own mental health so well as the plethora of supportive friends and family that have allowed me to arrive at this juncture of my life unscathed of the numerous mental afflictions that could have befallen me. I hope and pray that my soon to be daughter will be able to say the same when she is my age!

Enjoying a moment

We are fortunate that we don’t live too far from the west coast and my wife and I try to enjoy a beach picnic dinner as often as we can. So, it was last night, and we were greeted by one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have seen in my time in San Diego.

Now, my overexposed phone camera image doesn’t do the fiery reds and stunning cloud formations justice. Nor does it capture the glowing cloud edges that framed the sun. What it does do is capture the three surfers, spell bound by the spectacle, staring out to sea.

Why is this significant? Well, the good fortune of living in San Diego means that these surfies see a sunset in the ocean on almost a daily basis. As a result, they usually don’t stop to appreciate the moment. They are focused on the next wave, much like the rest of us who don’t bother to take in the beauty that surrounds us until it hits us in the face.

Sitting there watching the sun go down, I looked left and right and it was the first time that I have ever seen the entire beach spellbound by the sight of the sun melting into the ocean. Normally there are people intent on exercising or talking or doing stuff. Yet for a brief moment last night, not a soul stirred as everyone soaked up the magic.

The sun setting is always a beautiful moment. It reminds us of our transience and the cycle of life and the need to savour every moment we have. This more spectacular sunset, was just a sign to say that we had perhaps become complacent in our admiration for beauty in the natural world.

It was a timely reminder and our unborn daughter voiced her admiration with a firm kick to my wife’s kidneys.

Talking to strangers makes us happier

So, if you travel on the London Underground there is an unspoken rule that you must never make eye contact with strangers let alone speak to anyone. The commuters generally look miserable, like cattle on the way to a cull. The only time that changes is on the last few Tubes in the evening and later in the week, when post work imbibing has rendered the stoic British aloofness defunct and lively banter fills the train carriages. 

In my naiveté I always assumed that it was purely the booze talking, but recent research suggests that there may be another reason. Seems that we are just social and actually enjoy social interaction with others. Yes there may be some nutters that we perhaps wish we hadn’t started a conversation with, but generally it is better than sitting there staring at the floor.

The really interesting thing is that the control group, believed that talking to strangers would make them far less happy. Where does this fear of talking to strangers come from? Is it from those people on the plane that force you to talk to them even though you would rather be sleeping? You know the one stat don’t pick up on social cues?

If you think about it though, for the most part, the people that tend to talk to you in public tend to be normal happy people. Are they happy because they talk to strangers? 

Having grown up in a small town, where one basically greets everyone and often has chats with strangers, I have noticed that there is a inverse proportion of friendliness to population density. If you live in an apartment, you scurry from your car to the front door trying not to look up. If you live in a townhome you wave to the neighbors as you drive into the garage. If you live in a house with some space, you stop to chat to the neighbor. If you live in Outback Australia, anyone you see is instantly your best friend and you are invited to the wedding/christening/wake all within the first 2 minutes of conversation.

Will the ever burgeoning population drive us from our natural desire to seek social contact? Can communities be planed to encourage more interaction and make people happier? Regardless…. take a chance, talk to a stranger today and every day!