Archive for the ‘ mindfulness ’ Category

If money were no object

I’ve been a big fan of Alan Watts ever since I discovered this video (music and life). The video above is another wonderful piece of wisdom.  In it, he offers his advice on how to decide what you want to do with your life. And it is incredibly simple:  ask yourself what you would do, if money was no object. Write a list. Look at it. Then do that.

Most people’s first response is to reject this, and blame money. I can’t do that because it doesn’t pay, or it won’t pay as much as I earn now, or it would at the very least it would require a temporary drop in salary before I would be earning the same kind of money again.

And it’s true that the higher you go and the more you earn, the harder it is to consider dropping your income. Especially if you feel that you did your scrimping when you were younger, and now that you’re finally enjoying the fruits of a grown up salary, the thought of sacrificing those cappucinos is painful. Or maybe you’ve got a mortgage to pay for, or save for. Or you’ve got children and suddenly safeguarding their future becomes your biggest concern. Ultimately, the money seems essential to maintain your lifestyle.

Except we rarely step back and consider how much we really need to earn in order to live the kind of life we want. I did an interesting task once, where you write a list of the best things you did the last year, your fondest memories. And then you plot them on an axis in order of best experiences and level of expense. The results were surprising. My absolute favourite memory was a weekend away in the country with friends, which had certainly cost some money, but nothing compared to other major purchases I’d made that year which cost a great deal more but were quickly forgotten.

The other major barrier to choosing another path, more subtle, less acknowledged, is self identity. Whether starting out on a career path, or as a veteran in a profession, your view of yourself is often wrapped up in the status or comfort and familiarity of being X.  You’re used to introducing yourself as that. Other peoples’ perceptions of you are shaped by that. And perhaps what you’d really like to do, wouldn’t garner the same kind of response. Or maybe it would be equally respected, but you would not be, because you would be the novice instead of the master.

Yet the conclusion of Alan’s entreaty is simple and it echoes the sentiment of “music and life”. A life spent with money and with status but without enjoying what you do every day, is a wasted life. It misses the whole point of life, which is made up of minutes in the present, not memories or aspirations.

And if that isn’t provocation enough, the most common regrets of the dying offers us a Scrooge-like glimpse into our own futures:

I wish I didn’t work so hard.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

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Art or Vandalism?

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For me, one of the greatest luxuries of being on holidays is just sitting around and watching the real world pass by. It’s a rare pleasure, to have time on your hands, to have space in your head.

Here in London I sleepwalk. Too fixated on getting to my destination, my mind lost in work or errands or needless stresses. When I’m away, I’m aware. Everything’s different and everything’s interesting.

In Argentina (where I’ve just returned from honeymoon), there was no shortage of fascinating scenery, particularly in Buenos Aires where the streets are fast becoming a living tapestry of politics and art. The city is becoming one of the graffiti capitals of the world, flooded with every kind of expression from crappy name tagging to stunning large scale murals.

This is partly thanks to some funny planning laws in BA which mandate that buildings can only have entrances on two sides, leaving large uninterrupted walls just begging to be filled in. And it’s partly because of a strong anti-establishment vibe in a country which has had huge political unrest and economic instability.

But what’s interesting about the street art scene here, according to my insightful graffitimundo tour guide, is that unlike the US movement in the 80s and 90s, it’s never had that hard subversive edge and it isn’t driven by territorial gang warfare. The Argentinian scene was started by the rich middle class kids, who in Argentina’s wealthier times, travelled to places like Miami and New York and wanted to copy what they saw there.

As a result, many graffiti artists are professional graphic designers and fashion designers, people with a nine to five job that paint outside on their off-time. And street art is not just tolerated, but increasingly encouraged by the community and the government. In London, we see stencils and spray paint dominating, because graffiti artists here have to work at lightening speed before someone calls the police. In BA, artists can use paint and rollers and even scaffolding, creating intricate designs over a few afternoons. They can collaborate in groups, meshing different artistic styles together.

While traditional graffiti is often full of private in-group messages, only understood by a niche community that get the codes, in BA, many of the artists are trying to reach a wider mainstream audience. Whether through positive and beautiful images of hope, or through thought-provoking themes like that of Jaz, a prolific artist who creates striking images of battling beasts in football shorts, always two identical sides of the same coin, a commentary on the violent football hooliganism within the country.

In truth it’s a mixed bag – and this is where I think it draws a parallel with advertising. There’s the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Some would debate whether there’s enough artistic merit overall to justify the vandalism, the public intrusion. And it’s so totally ephemeral. As artists continually churn out new work, they paint over the pieces that were there before. It’s a rare piece which is respected enough to be left untouched by other artists or taggers. Painstakingly created, casually painted over and forgotten.

But like everything else, the good stuff stands out, makes an impact and lasts the longest.

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Good and Bad Autopilot

One of the reasons I moved to London was to slow down time.

Your teens and twenties are full of first-times, new experiences, surprising occurrences. We have a memory peak around that time called the reminiscence bump, because it’s such a unique period in our lives. Once you settle into adult-hood however, you start forming regular routines of work, leisure and socializing. And this repetition means the days and months and years can start to blur into one. The experience of being fifteen years old was a lifetime away from my experiences as a seventeen year old. In contrast, was life at 29 really so different from 27? If you’re not careful, it can quickly start to feel very same-ish.

So I’d read somewhere, that moving to a new place makes everything fresh again. You have to figure out a new routine, a new workplace, a new culture. You can’t slip into autopilot. The logistical challenges force you to be aware. And it’s this awareness of the present, that slows down the passage of time.  And it’s true. London has added a new and interesting chapter to my life. But that only lasts for so long, before the autopilot mentality comes creeping back in.

The wonderful words of David Foster Wallace are finding a new lease of life online at the moment, thanks to these guys. And in his speech one of the things he talks about is the evils of autopilot. The dangers of sludging through life in a numb, self-centered cocoon. It’s so easy to do.

Bad autopilot is letting life pass you by, because you live for the end of work at five o’clock, and you live for Friday evening when you can escape the office, and you live for your two week holiday when you can escape your regular life.

What Wallace is encouraging is a conscious awareness of your surroundings and your daily life. It’s the same practice of mindfulness that’s rooted in Buddhism and encouraged by psychologists as a way of increasing happiness. It’s something I have to constantly remind myself to do.

But there’s another kind of autopilot that’s the polar opposite of the type described by Wallace. It goes by many names and descriptions: “being in the zone”, “hitting your A game” or just “flow”. Flow is when you’re unconsciously engaged in an activity at that perfect balance of challenge and mastery. You get so absorbed in a task that it’s effortless and yet you’re completely motivated throughout.

Modern life can make achieving flow really difficult. Our noisy open-plan offices, our always-on phones and our “multi-tasking” conspire against us, and rob us of the opportunity to get into a flow state at work. And after such an exhausting day, it’s no wonder that in the evenings, all we want to do is choose passive activities like watching TV, over more effortful hobbies like playing sport or music or reading or gardening or painting, even though they would bring us more satisfaction.

Yet understanding these two versions of autopilot is so important for happiness. We need to break the mindless version of autopilot described in the video above. We need to slow down the passage of time by becoming aware of what’s happening in the present moment, avoiding the zombie life at all costs. But alongside this we need to pursue the positive, enriching autopilot state of flow, where we sometimes lose all track of time because we are so enjoyably engaged in what we are doing. Because in the end, it doesn’t really matter how much time we have, what matters is whether it was time well spent.

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