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Here I sit in 21st century clothes: A creature forged and shaped through millennia of wielding donkeys' femurs in defence of my cave and tearing flesh from still warm deer to feed me and my own. And yet, across the millennia, forces of cooperation have honed a set of communication skills that allow collaboration and social interaction. These latter I offer now, on the understanding that the former are still very much influences in all our behaviour, not just mine. If you wish I can discuss Iambic pentameter, the role of cortisol in the developing foetus or how best to skin a rabbit. How wondrous a swiss-army-knife of a creature is a human! At least that is how it feels to me. And that is what I hope to portray in my verbal stumblings: Musings on sentience, because it still baffles and delights me.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Thoughts of Displacement and Continuity Amongst the Foliage

How green everything is outside! Walking to work last week down the leafy lane that is now my 1.6 mile commute, I was struck by just how lush the vegetation is at this time of year. It seems to crowd in on the road from the hedges either side, insisting that you feel its presence and acknowledge your own existence as a part of nature. It is all just so green! And so full of vibrant energy. It's hard not to feel included and uplifted by Nature's enthusiasm at this time of year. Oh, there are flowers too, campions and buttercups and poppies in bloom, all very pretty and occasionally gaudy. But it is the foliage that impresses most upon my consciousness. It fills the world suddenly and like a welcome exuberant visitor entering your hallway, exerts its presence in your life and the places in which you live it.

I quite like being able to walk to work. Oh,. I miss my ten-mile-each-way commute by bicycle, partly because of the cake it allows me to consume with metabolic impunity. But also, I was fortunate for so many years to have a route which many would have gladly ridden for leisure. I miss that immensely and intensely. I shall have to get my fill of two-wheel happiness by more deliberate journeys.

And walking feels so slow. You cover such little ground with every stride. That said, it does therefore give you more occasion for reflection: A tiny cat with beautiful grey ocelot markings popping out of a garden to greet me, a buzzard soaring on a thermal as the morning sun heats some patch of tarmac and causes a column of hot air to rise to dizzying heights, the contained and wobbling muscularity of a lady cyclists bottom in grey lycra as she freewheels down the bumpy lane. Yes, certainly the senses appear keener to  engage with the world and our instincts more responsive to what they encounter.

Oh, I have clouds on my mental horizon certainly. These are strange times and I miss my beautiful garden with its granny-bonnets and whispering black bamboo. But life goes on and no greater reminder of that could there be than the fecundity of verdant nature as Midsummer approaches.

So, with my metaphorical tail held high, though my metaphysical ears only half-mast turned down, I trot happily towards whatever destiny this day holds for me. Perhaps somewhere on my route, I will meet a fellow traveler coming in the other direction but whose eyes and demeanour reveal to me that even from the opposite perspective, they too can see how glorious, despite the setbacks of fate and fortune, existence truly is.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Perplexing Conundrum of Two Happinesses

It's been a while. I haven't had much enthusiasm for writing. I haven't much to say, I suppose, though this has been a tumultuous time in my life. I can't even really remember why I used to write here. except...
Sometimes I write in my van. In the woods, in the rain. I don't really know why.

It always seemed that use of words, in careful and considered combination kept the paths from being overgrown in my mind. To wander along them once in a while in order to reprise and express some thought that had popped into existence earlier is to to keep them open and accessible in order to get to other places of interest. The careful selection of words and phrases to explain exactly and precisely some indistinct meaning seems to be a very helpful analytical process to get at what I am actually feeling.

Life is a bit weird at the moment. I think I can safely say that here, since nobody really comes here much. But I think the key feature of this strange virtual "place" is that someone could. That these words might be read by someone else instills in me a discipline to ensure they are cogent and consistent.

Not that there is necessarily anything of value to read in these words. Just that life is stranger at the moment than it perhaps ever has been, except perhaps when I was in the depths of cognitive incoherence and it was an overwhelming challenge to discern a potato from a banana at the greengrocers.

Well, yes. It is a strange world I inhabit at the moment. All old certainties seem swept away by time's broom, out of the front door with one decisive swish of the bristles to be caught by the wind and scattered into myriad unrecoverable motes, never to be gathered and reconstructed again. No, a new reality lies before me now and I am both terrified and exhilarated by it. But mostly terrified if I am honest.

Enough of the cryptic. As a result of events, I find myself carefully regarding the notion of "happiness" and thinking how unhelpful the term is as a concept. It is not really one idea, but several, the most prominent of which are (and I shamelessly plagiarise Daniel Kahneman for this, since this is where the idea seems to originate) immediate or experiential happiness, which provides us joy in any particular moment, and "life satisfaction" as perhaps we might term it. This latter is what you feel when you regard your life in general terms and what you feel when you examine what you find. This type of "happiness" is enhanced by having goals and achieving, or even working towards them.

The two appear distinct, possibly even disconnected. And the question as to whether they affect each other is moot. I really couldn't say, though I feel somehow the aggregated experience of moment to moment pleasure must surely have a bearing on how satisfied you are with your life in general. And perhaps the ability to experience immediate joy might also be influenced by how comfortable you are in general with your place in the universe.

According to the research, Prof K says, in America, $70,000 is the point at which you stop being measurably miserable. I think this is the best way to term is since we have surmised that to say "become happy" is an ambiguous statement which does not distinguish between the two types of happiness.
Below this figure, life will usually be unsatisfactory. Does this undermine the pleasure of a sunset or a simple piece of crusty bread with butter and jam? Personally I don't think so, though if you are worrying about how to pay for the bread, perhaps. I find it cheaper and more satisfying to make it. That adds to both types of happiness as I get to eat really good bread and also to carry around with me the knowledge and experience to make it repeatably, which makes me feel like I carry something of value all the time I exist.

My famed Chelsea Buns and olive and sundried tomato sourdough. Which is never sour.
I am not sure how to look at the value of each of these two feelings. Life satisfaction must surely be the measure you use when you get near the end of your life and appraise all that you have achieved. How about "all that you have experienced"? Does a succession of happy times make you overall more satisfied with your life? And in which category does looking at thriving descendents in whose development you had a significant hand? Do the rope swings in the woods and subsequent delightful giggling of your children count as an immediate emotional happiness or a component of life satisfaction?

"What are you wittering on about, man!" I fail to hear you exclaim. "Surely it's just a mood thing? You feel happy or you feel sad! Or something in between!" Well, no. I have been thinking about it and I have conclued that it is definitely significantly more complicated than that. As does the esteemed Professor Kahnemann, and many others.

Only.. it is at this point I get a bit confused and have to throw this question out to you. It is a pertinent question: Are we well advised to sacrifice some of what we feel to be life satisfaction for the opportunity to engage in more experiences? Or vice versa? Will it be worth the trade-off? Or will the dread of regret assail us for ever more? Is the fear of regret at potential losses of life satisfaction worth a life of unfulfilled longing for moments of emotional pleasure?

I started writing this in an attempt to explain something to myself: To clarify the factors involved in some of the decisions I have recently made. These are big decisions. Subsequently I am not sure about how my life satisfaction has been potentially diminished in the long term, though admittedly the short term enjoyment of good times with friends has definitely been most incrementally joyful.
I am no closer to an understanding of what there is to be gained by any potential sacrifice.I only know that, for me, the key to both immediate and long term happiness is people; Access to people, interaction with people, connection with people. In this respect, I feel my decision has unquestionably served its purpose.
I think I have arrived at a conclusion of sorts (via several red-herrings perhaps). Albeit, as all conclusions should be, a provisional one: I have to go with the situation where there is a greater opportunity to interact with people. This is clear.

So thank you once again, words. You lead me to a place of, if not clarity (which I feel is always to be distrusted anyway) then at least calm and comfort. Though not necessarily of enlightenment. Maybe  I will, like this fellow, end up where I started, wiser and perhaps happier. Whatever that means.
Seen on a local coffee shop wall and encapsulating a thought I find simultaneous both comforting and disturbing.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

And then Suddenly.....!

Some days, for reasons I could only speculate upon, it is as if a brisk breeze has blown through the mind, flinging open the doors to every room contained therein. It flings around Papers of Significance and blows the dust off seemingly sepia-tinted memories, restoring them to Kodachrome brilliance. And best of all, it whips the covers off Piles of Possibility in overlooked chambers, where ideas and inspirations have been covered up for later perusal and subsequently forgotten as the detritus of daily life gets piled on top. "Is today such a day?" I fail to hear you ask. Yes it is and it feels good to be 100% in possession of one's mind.

I suppose in a mechanism as squishy and inconstant as the human brain, with all its various concentrations of neurotransmitters, hormones and nutrients, it is no surprise that the experience of being conscious can vary so greatly. Given the rudimentary nature of my own cognition over Christmas and New Year, the contrast is somewhat remarkable (inasmuch as I am actually remarking on it here). What could be responsible for such wild swings in the brain's emotional and intellectual performance?

Could it be perhaps the ingestion of lots of fermented vegetables which I am told will "repair" damaged gut fauna after a dose of rather brutal but necessary antibiotics? I confess, this is my latest nutritional discovery and I am impressed with how much tastier vegetables are if you shred them, add spices and leave them in a bowl for the  various bacteria to do their magic. It's an odd thing to be evangelising about but after a couple of weeks, I confess, subjectively that I do feel different, though well-known human heuristics make an objective judgement impossible of course.

Perhaps it is the disciplined resumption of my gym regime, necessary because a chap of my advancing years cannot be too careful, what with testosterone levels dropping year by year and muscle mass declining commensurately. Well not with me, Age, my dear adversary! Not yet anyway. I have dancing to do; Tango in dimly lit bars and elsewhere, energetic lifts to perform with ladies whose weight I must appear to bear without strain or complaint.
Expressing joy through the medium of dance, by flinging someone about.

Or perhaps the Earth, the Galaxy, the Universe, as it rotates, passes through wisps of some kind of field which induces in us inspiration and sprightly spirits? Could that be it perhaps?

Or maybe it is simply that I discovered Pinterest and have subsequently been amassing pallets in my shed in order to construct projects. Indeed, last night I made a beer crate out of planks and it gave me an inordinate amount of satisfaction. A Small thing, but mine own. Next: Pallet Patio Furniture for Summer evenings! Making things seems existentially satisfying.
I made this and I am deeply satisfied as a result.
 Whatever it is, I like it and I wish I could work out what it is so that I could firstly, reproduce it at will on days when the mind is cloudy and slow, and secondly, I could suggest it to others who profess to their own low spirits (recognising that not everyone works the same of course, but knowing some things are almost universally helpful, like chocolate or Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now").

With all the misery and tragedy in the world, societal and personal, perhaps a moment's thought about what lifts us to happier places is something worth trying every now and again. I saw crocuses today.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Being lesser versions of ourselves

It's difficult to know what put the damper on the Christmas break the most, having flu and associated opportunistic bacterial secondary infections for pretty much the whole month of December, or the absence from all those daily sources of tangential thought. Life can get very convergent in the same environment for two weeks whilst the office languishes unpopulated and unheated.
Sometimes, it feels as if someone is going through the rooms in your head, turning the lights off one by one and closing the doors as they go.
By January 2nd, I was a lacklustre shell of my usual self, with dull eyes,  slack jaw hanging open continuously and mind devoid of anything but the most rudimentary of thoughts (mostly regarding discomfort from the furniture and going to the toilet. Lack of appetite meant even hunger was absent and I couldn't drink on account of the antibiotics). This is not the fault of those around me throughout that time in any other respect than I know them so very well and so responses tend to be familiar. And it is the unexpected and unfamiliar that seems to inspire the sudden opening up of new avenues of thought with the attendant reward of that little squish of dopamine.
The most exciting thing that happened in my Street this Christmas

It was only a visit to Bristol where, in restaurant that things started to improve. Pondering the inordinate delay to our order as I contemplated eating the tablecloth as my now returned appetite intruded forcefully upon all other thoughts, a wall made of, basically, wooden crates caused some of the annexes of my mind to reopen and the light to go on. For some reason, my curiosity, an animal with its own opinions on where I should direct my attention and how quickly action must subsequently follow, sent me over to have a look at how they were constructed so perhaps I could make some myself form the huge pile of acquired pallets I am currently dismantling in my garage (they have such useful wood on them and once planed are useful for many projects. Like beer crates for instance. In fact, I have made two now and most satisfying it was too!)

Then on Friday, a visit to the Waterside provided excellent 1920s Jazz music and exhausting dancing. This somehow reignited the sparks so that by my return to the office on Monday, most of the rooms in my mind were open with a neat little fire burning warmly in the hearth and the windows thrown open allowing a healthy breeze to blow away all the cobwebs that had accumulated during their closure. Just in time for my return to work. Yes....

I wonder what it is that switches us on as opposed to shutting us down. I am surely not alone in this feeling that a large portion of our mental faculties are somehow put out of action or beyond our reach by circumstances. Sometimes, a period of comfortable but numbing low-stimulus leaves  me an intellectual and spiritual zombie. Other times, some small thing sparks a train of thought, seemingly from nowhere,  and the mind lights up like a country with heavily populated cities photographed at night from space.

This is not just me, is it?

So, how can we prevent the former and encourage the latter? I really don't know: It seems that the stimuli which fire up the brain can be so very unexpected in nature and yet difficult to identify that making them available adequately to keep ourselves recognisable as the people we enjoy being is a real challenge.

But it must be done as I really hate being that other dullard and it feels a waste of time being such rudimentary versions of ourselves when we know so much more is possible.

Ooh! I feel a bit more like my usual self again. Writing this must have helped!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

What was. And what remains.

Writing is hard. I recognise this. It didn't use to be. But now it is. This white rectangle here, the one which seems to be inviting text, it is intimidating. Somehow judgemental. I look at it for a long time before I feel able to make marks on it, for fear that the words which subsequently appear there do not do it justice. I fear whatever software that provides the space may disapprove if the words and their combination are not satisfactory.

Really I suppose, it is I who I fear the judgement of. I used to write better. A day passed when everything changed and things are no longer as they were. Oh, they are an approximation of what was, but the response of the system is different. Frustratingly so.

Time was, a ride on my bike, a walk round a town, even washing up, would elicit ideas which craved expression. A cascade of concepts would demand interpretation and exploration and then some level of eloquent translation of what was within to the world without would be made.

Now, these ideas are reluctant to appear. And when they do, communication of them into phrases is so much more difficult. "Oh, we all get this!" and "It's age! It happens to us all!" are common retorts. But this changed instantaneously. The change was sudden, subtle, but discernible. And I resent it. Words lie outside of my grasp; Not because I lack vocabulary. No, it's a conceptual thing. I fail to explain to myself what it is I am trying to describe. Once I know, the word is easily arrived at.
No, I am often aware that a word exists to describe some nebulous notion. But understanding the notion is the challenge. And this is a shame because the putting-into-words is the process by which the notion becomes not-nebulous. We can refine ideas by forcing ourselves to commit them to words. But the words are so often out of reach now.

However, I shall not admit defeat. Perhaps this can be regained, like all those other damaged abilities I have painstakingly rebuilt. If I keep trying, perhaps fluidity of thought will return and with it, fluidity of expression.

You have no idea how much hard work these few paragraphs were to articulate. From a miasma of inner frustration and confusion, it feels like adequate coherence has emerged. For the first time in a long time, I feel satisfied that something says exactly what I wanted it to.

Progress, then. Onward and upward!

Friday, 28 November 2014

How we thought we would feel (But didn't)

I love this picture. I don't know where it originated and if the original owner sees it and objects, I will remove it. But if that should be the case, may I say that it is a beautiful picture and it, and pictures like it have inspired me to do undertake some wonderful explorations into dance.

Oddly, however, a question arises in my mind to vex me. Allow me to elaborate:
When I saw pictures like this in the past, obviously my first thought was "Wow! That is an amazing thing to do! I bet those people people feel really cool doing that!" And I suppose my innate empathy attempted to inform me of perhaps what they actually were feeling. Looking at that picture, I supposed they would be feeling some kind of moment of artistic and interpersonal stillness and connection, coupled with a general sense of artistry and accomplishment. Inside me, I had some projection of their supposed feelings. And I wanted, on some level, to be those people.

Well, after a few years of Argentine Tango and some diligent practice, I can say with a level of confidence that I can perform a reasonable approximation of what the picture depicts, along with a lot of other almost-cool stuff.
And yet, when doing that, it doesn't feel like how I expected it to feel. It feels less cool, less exotic, more enacted if you like. Oh, the stillness and artistry is there (at least, it feels like it from the inside. An informed observer may disagree, and possibly rightly so). But the "coolness" is somehow not.

I don't say this to discourage anyone from dancing as a passtime, or as a disincentive to activity in general; only to illustrate that when we look at someone doing something we admire, we often think "That must feel...!" (add in your relevant positive adjective here)
But when we find ourselves in that position, somehow, it doesn't feel like we expected it to.

Are we so bad at anticipating our feelings?

A more childlike example: When I was about seven, my mother took me on a bus to Bristol. Two young lads in their teens got on and fished in their pockets for change to pay the conductor. Observing this, I felt that to have uncounted, unspecified amounts of loose change languishing in one's pocket must feel so grown up and louche. I longed to be in a position to rummage about in search of payment in a pocketful of coins. The casual way in which money could be kept in your trousers in unknown quantities instead of in a money box, carefully counted, or seemingly unreachably in a post-office account, seemed unbelievable cool. I wanted to have adequate money that I could jingle a pocketful of change without knowing exactly how much was in there or even really caring, and in a laid-back way, fling a few coppers and shillings over to pay for something with barely a thought. The thought fascinated me. I still remember how I thought this would feel.
Right now, I have change in my pocket. I paid for my lunch with a quantity of it and I couldn't tell you how much is in there now. A few quid perhaps. But gathering a handful of 20p and 50p pieces from the depths of my jeans pocket and handing it over absent-mindedly did not make me feel anything really, except perhaps grateful that I had enough to pay for my soup. It did not feel as my childlike mind thought it would when seeing these lads pay for their bus fare. It felt completely different.

Things rarely feel like you expect. Would winning the lottery similarly disappoint? Would a defined limit on my lifespan delivered from an authoritative doctor be less devastating then we think?(Actually, I can answer that one: Being faced with what I believed at the time to be my imminent death did not feel like I had anticipated at all. There was no fear. Only sadness at leaving people I loved and not doing things I had hoped I would. Like learning Tango and going to Istanbul, for instance).

I think perhaps this might lend a cautionary note to our endeavours: Not to strive for a particular experience, but to approach it, accepting that we probably should be open to accept whatever it delivers us without disappointment or surprise. Or conversely, not to fear something because of how we expect it to affect us. Your prediction will undoubtedly be incorrect.

Or perhaps it is just me. Perhaps the couple in the picture did feel as good as they looked and went home feeling utterly satisfied that they had achieved a moment of connection as profound as it was photogenic. Perhaps when I am a better dancer, I too will feel as cool as they did. We'll wait and see, shall we?

Friday, 14 November 2014

All adventures are really on the inside

There is a place where pinnacles of rock jut out of the sea, guarded by sea birds and hung with vines of ivy. Jagged and green-topped, they can only be viewed from a boat. Once past the breakwater, and into open sea, it feels as if you are now at the mercy of fickle Poseidon. With a whim, he could fling you to injury or death on the rocks. Or merely capsize you with a wave of his hand to drown or drift off as your body heat warms the mass of the sea imperceptibly. When this looks likely, it is best not to taunt him.

On days when the swell is small and playful, one can paddle out and circumnavigate these tiny islands where sea birds, alarmed by the proximity of this unexpected visitor, rush to the defence of their homes with well-aimed  regurgitations of fish. Best not to approach too close then perhaps if one is not to go home smelling like anchovy paste.
But so beautiful are these rocks that a kind of enchantment takes over and bobbing erratically, it is hard not to sit, string at the strata and tenacious vegetation in wonder. The roll of the kayak and the instinctive response of my hips lend a dreamy feel to the place. It is difficult not to feel like an explorer in some strange and exotic land, gazing upon some new habitat where tiny sharp-toothed dinosaurs regard one boldly from atop precarious crags. But it is "only" Devon, a mere two hour's drive from home.

But this misses the point: What kindles the sense of awe and mystery is not the rugged geology or environment of this rocky outcrop. No, it is the feeling inside that resonates - a feeling that I find is always there waiting to alight upon some place or idea and imbue it with a sense of adventure. it looks constantly for new and interesting perspectives, perhaps on the mundane, or in this case, on the difficult to reach and beautiful.

This feeling is one not reserved for places or situations. It prompts internal exploration too. The places and experiences we can imagine can be similarly exciting. Oh, we don't need to venture to inaccessible and dangerous places. No, we can explore the limits of our minds too. There is plenty in there to play with and examine.

This brain works differently to my old one. Not profoundly, but more like when you have had an operating system upgrade and the buttons and widgets are in diferent places to where they were before. And perhaps there are new buttons and some old, obsolete ones have gone.
I don't really know what it is capable of yet. I am still learning, exploring. What has become clear to me though is that there are places and capabilities we tend to overlook due to our focus on our external search for stimulating experiences.

In the last two years, I have rebuilt the broken parts and improved upon that which was here previously. To do this, one needs to approach capability with an open-minded curiosity and no self-reproach or timidity. I have learned to fairly adequately dance Argentine Tango, I have improved my memory immeasurably by exploration of memory techniques such as method of loci. The unicycle I bought I confess still defeats me but I will master it. And with each of the things I have examined, learned and assimilated, I have been delighted to observe the learning process in terms of the action of the neural machinery rebuilding itself into new configurations.

This is exciting. The possibilities, given a finite lifespan are essentially endless. Every day is now an adventure of what new faculties can be discovered and played with. There are languages that can be learned, dance steps to master, skills such as accuracy in woodwork, cooking, brewing. New abilities can be developed and old ones improved dramatically with a bit of application.

This brings joy.

So, don't be down! The world is full of interesting passtimes and activities. Go on youtube and learn how to juggle, get a book on how to improve your memory, dance in your socks in the kitchen and learn Charleston steps. All this is available to you, assuming a standard set of human specifications.

Or, if you would rather, go to the coast and, weather permitting, get in a small boat and explore a beach you can only reach via the sea.

But live! Use your mind and you body and all they offer to live a richer life, as much as your circumstances permit.
Which will be more than you imagined, I promise you.