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!


The world needs a little more compassion and a lot less anger

I won’t pretend that I had a hard life and I can’t even begin to imagine what it is like to grow up in a war zone or in a place where there isn’t enough food to go around. However, when someone travels from a adequately provided for existence in Southeast England, to the middle east to carry out unspeakable violence in the name of God, there is something very very wrong.

Yes, there has always been violence. Yes, there have long been wars over religion. The sad fact is that the majority of these wars pertain to the all to human interpretations of the words of the same benevolent all knowing god….

It was fortuitous that my wife sent me this lovely article about Esho Funi. “The oneness of self and environment (esho funi) means that life (sho) and its environment (e) are inseparable (funi). Funi means “two but not two.” “.

“At the most fundamental level of life itself, there is no separation between ourselves and the environment. According to Buddhism, everything around us, including work and family relationships, is the reflection of our inner lives. Everything is perceived through the self and alters according to the individual’s inner state of life. Thus, if we change ourselves, our circumstances will inevitably change also.”

I’m not too fussed about the buddahood (sounds like a band) stuff, but one of the last paragraphs pretty much sums it all up:

“The single most positive action we can make for society and the land is to transform our own lives, so that they are no longer dominated by anger, greed and fear. When we manifest wisdom, generosity and integrity, we naturally make more valuable choices, and we will find that our surroundings are nurturing and supportive.”

Sort yourself out and don’t expect external factors to make you happy. Don’t blame others for you troubles. You are just giving up control of your emotional wellbeing and without that you will never be truly happy, as you will always have to rely on others to make you happy. Accept that bad times happen, make the best of what you have and share compassion. It isn’t easy, especially if you suffered some devastating event, but ultimately it will make you a happier person and the world a better place.

Imagine a world where everyone were working toward improving them selves rather than trying to control/exploit others….. 


The smell of rain on a hot day

Some people dance in the rain. Others just get wet.

I can’t find who first said this. Seems that it is a tweak on Bob Marley “Some people feel the rain…”. It has always resonated with me and was brought to mind by this mornings deluge. Yes, by the standards of most parts of the world it was a little shower, but by San Diego standards…massive.

I just adore the smell of rain on a hot day. That afternoon shower that comes through, and clears the air and leaves a sticky warmth and a wonderful unique odor. The hard rain that usually precedes this lovely smell is so heavy, it is just begging for you to run outside, splash in the puddles and to slide on the grass. 

So what is the smell? And why do we all love it so? 

A couple of Australian scientists (Isabel Joy Bear and R. G. Thomas) published an article in Nature titled “Nature of Agrillaceous Odor.” that described the results of their research into this unique odor. They decided to call the smell petrichor [petra (stone) and ichor (the blood of gods in ancient myth)].

It seems that a unique blend of oils, excreted by plants during dry spells and absorbed by rocks and soil, are mixed with the water and released into the air. These oils the combine with substances such as geosmin and actinomycetes (a chemical produced by a soil-dwelling bacteria). Produced in dry spells the bacteria tend to collect in the soils until they are liberated by the rain. (Incidentally, geosmin is also responsible for the earthy taste in beets… no wonder I love them!)

Then there is the psychological element of why we like the smell of petrichor so much. An Australian anthropologist Diana Young has observed that the  Pitjantjatjara people of Western Australia associate the smell with the color green. I guess since they live in the desert, there is almost an instant transformation of an arid landscape to a blooming paradise in a matter of days. With it comes life and food. 

I wonder if any branding/marketing companies have picked up on this yet and tried to synthesize it to promote a green brand? Drawing on innate human instincts of joy would seem like an instant winner. 

What would you do with your time if someone gave you a years salary?

Michael Bohmeyer 29-year-old German tech entrepreneur, decided to quit working after his company could pay him an ongoing living salary. Not able to sit idle he decided to see what would happen if he provided the same amount of money to a person for free for a year. What will people do if they are unencumbered by the need to work? His interview with Chris Köver can be found here.

Photo by Jannismayr.de

Taking this interesting idea to a crowdfunding site, he has now raised twice as much as he had intended and has enough to “sponsor” two people with a “basic salary” ($1300). The amount seems to be enough to live off in Berlin, where he lives and even has a child. I’m not sure it is the case in San Diego, but then I am possibly a little old and used to my comforts to return to shared living situations. 

That aside, it is a very interesting question. 20 years ago, my answer would have been simple…..travel!  A 6 month bike ride in Asia in 1999 cost me $1500. So, a 12 month trip would have left me with wonderful memories and a surplus to invest in a business idea or education. 

These days, I think I would err more on the business education side and perhaps delve into some artistic pursuits. 

I guess the one year scenario varies slightly from Michaels situation, in that he seems to have a stream of money in perpetuity. As such he is not tied to making sure that when the 12 months are up he is employed or running a successful business. He can continue to pursue his passions. 

He, clearly also has get up and go, because he has already been successful. So, he may not be comparable to many people. An anecdotal study of 1 or 2 people is a fun experiment, but doesn’t really answer the question.

What would happen if every person in the USA were given a living wage? I doubt the math works, but lets say for arguments sake that we take a massive chunk from the top 5% wealthiest people and pay the rest of the USA a living wage.

Would everyone slack off and do nothing? Would people keep their jobs and take the extra money and spend it on necessities? Would they pay off debts? Would they splurge on luxuries? Now that would be an interesting experiment.

There would certainly be more money in circulation as people wouldn’t just sit on it. Retail, food and travel would probably prosper as money would be injected at the everyday level. Some businesses would prosper and want to hire more people.

Would people drop out of the workforce? As Michael points out people that have lowly or unpleasant jobs, may well decide to to opt out or ask to be paid a better wage. There are so many jobs out there that are vital to society, but are underpaid. After all the reason for business is not to make life better it is to make money. What if all the underpaid teachers and nurses just walked out? Would society change the way they valued these vital professions? 

People that weren’t working would probably not be inspired to go to work, especially those conditioned into a state of not working, and some working people would probably drop out. However, many may well take the opportunity to up skill and re-enter the work force, inspired by the growing opportunities. Whilst people over the “living wage” threshold would no doubt keep working and just enjoy the additional cash. I suspect there could actually be a net increase in people working.

china gdpWould the world be better off with everyone a little better off, rather than some people having so much money they could never figure out what to do with it except buying opulent things just so that they can be more opulent than the Jones’s. I believe the answer is yes. 

What would happen if you did in conflict countries where people have nothing to live on or for? Would improving peoples lives give them a reason to avoid conflict rather than risking what they have? Hmmmm….

Interestingly the biggest economic success of the past 20 years has been China and low and behold it seems they are starting to realize that GDP is not the best measure for societal wellbeing. 

I like your experiment Michael, but lets shoot for a bigger sample size!



Be the water – choose to avoid daily frustration

This short film is brilliant! We have all been there. Someone does something kind of minor, but because of your state of mind you blow it out of proportion and get really frustrated … and then you find out something tragic is currently happening to them. Yes, you feel terrible!

Now multiply that across all interactions throughout your daily life and your little judgments about other peoples actions add up to a deluge of frustration for you.

The answer? Choose not to think of yourself as the center of the universe and remove all those little judgments you make about people. Refuse to let the way they impact on your egocentric little world bother you. We have all had bad things happen to us and been “irrational” as a result. If people are doing things that get to you, choose to let it flow over you. Be the water.

This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. A short film based on extracts of David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. You can read the full speech here

There are so many times in the day, that simply choosing to see the bright side can make my outlook better. The car is a prime example. I have noticed that when the roads are empty I drive considerably slower, which is very counter intuitive. 

This is often not because I am in a greater rush when the roads are busy, as I generally leave enough time, it is simply because I allow myself to be frustrated by the drivers around me. Can I change the way they drive? No. Would I arrive at much the same time, but far less frazzled if I just went with the flow? Yes!

I know what you are thinking….but if I dodge and weave cars on the road I will get there faster…. I still recall the time I was driving in a column of cars, that was moving a little bit below the speed limit, but moving smoothly. Suddenly I heard a roar as a car recklessly overtook me. The driver continued to play chicken with oncoming cars as he hopped his way along the column.

An hour later when I arrived at the destination, I watched him get out of his car. He must have gained a minute or two and almost, yet had dozens of near collisions…. worth it, NO.

It won’t always be easy for me to let it go, but it is a practice and a choice. Control over my life always puts me in a better mental place.

I suspect I will continue to get irritated by that person that stood in the check-out queue in front of me for 10min, then waited till all the groceries were packed away before realizing that they may actually have to pay for what they are buying and spend the next 20min digging into their purse pulling out all manner of stuff, answering a phone call, cleaning their nails…. then spending another 20min repacking that purse, whilst the checkout attendant smiles sheepishly and the rest of the people in line sigh and get jittery…. I choose to think that they really did think the groceries would be free….i choose to think that a tragic event is stopping them from being courteous ….ahhh it isn’t working!

I will try to incorporate this idea into my daily routine and act spontaneously, with a smile and an open heart. It won’t hurt others, it may even improve their day  and it certainly will help me.

Water makes it better

As I was doing, what one does in a waiting room, the person next to me started a conversation. Turns out he is a real water baby. He is happiest when he is in the water, OK when on or near the water and not happy when he is inland. Strangely he is from a wee town inland Texas, devoid of great water sources, but now that he has moved closer to the ocean he is unwilling  to part with this life source.

As a fellow hydrophilic person I had to agree with him, but what is it about this liquid that makes it so calming and rejuvenating? Is it the open space the water creates in a built up and crowded world? Has it got something to do with being weightless in the same fluid that makes up the majority of our body? Is it psychological trigger for the safety of the womb? (If it is the womb thing, then my mother spent a lot of time rolling and jumping around, because I am happiest when I’m being pummeled by waves.)

I’ve heard theories about aligning molecules in the body, inhaling the ozone produced by the crashing waves, psychological links to the water molecules…. and many more. Beyond the hydration benefits and the exercising in weightless environment bits, I don’t believe there is a lot of scientific evidence for the remaining theories on the healing power of water.

That just leaves a bunch of theories about why water makes most people feel so much better. I would be interested to know why, but for now the important thing is that it works… for me… and like my acquaintance in the waiting room, I would struggle to move too far from a major source of this liquid. I guess I could do mountains…if there were a river.

As an aside, if you have eczema try salt water. My wife’s eczema flared up with her pregnancy … hormone stuff I guess … and she braved he ocean the other day. Bye Bye eczema. For years she had used cortisone as prescribed and it kind of helped…. salt water, job done. I’m sure it won’t work for everyone, but is there much harm in trying? Worst case you get to go for a swim on a summers day.

Those with the least often give the most

I loved this story from Reddit. It reminded me of so many occasions when kind people with nothing would have been happy to give me the shirt off their back.

“This homeless man found a bunch of my wife’s stolen property strewn all over downtown Tulsa,” Redditor anitasanger wroteon Friday. “He took the time to gather it all up in the rain and call us for retrieval. I just want to recognize him as an awesome human being.”

“He didn’t want a thing in return,” anitasanger stated. “We gave him the $15 we had and thanked him for his kindness. It’s awesome to be reminded that there is a lot of good in the world.

So many of us only give “once we can afford it”. Yet for this man these possessions could have been useful or even sold on, but no he decided to return them.  Is it because he appreciates the value of things more? Is it because it was just the right thing to do?  Is it because he doesn’t value things at all and just seeks human interaction (A friend of mine once decide to go homeless for a weekend, just to understand the experience a little. His take away was that it was nice when someone just acknowledged him)? I guess we will never know, but I it is heartwarming to hear about these acts of kindness.