Thought for today

Thought for today

There comes a time in a man’s life when to get where he has to — if there are no doors or windows — he walks through a wall.
-Bernard Malamud, novelist and short-story writer (1914-1986)

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Do we have to choose between Meaning and Happiness?

Do we have to choose between Meaning and Happiness?

When you take time to think about it, charting a course through Life towards Happiness and Meaning appears to take more skill than one may imagine.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about “The Meaning-Happiness Disconnect”.
I see a lot of people suffering quietly, trying all kinds of permutations to integrate, or choose between the two. I can really identify with how agonizing it can be to make decisions that follow one path or the other. I decided I needed some help to think through the tangle and went looking for psychological research that may have tilled the fields for me.

Lets first differentiate between the two. Meaningfulness is associated with doing things for others. Happiness is associated with doing things for oneself. Engagement with others that sacrifices the self or that builds relationships over time contributes to meaningfulness, but it has a negligible or negative link to happiness.

~ Psychologists Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker, and Emily Garbinsky (2013)

Although, meaning and happiness overlap a good deal. In fact, “almost half of the variation in meaningfulness was explained by happiness, and vice versa,” Baumeister writes.
But that other half—the half that doesn’t overlap—is highly telling. It hints at all of the choices and compromises we must make as we intentionally and purposefully construct our lives.

Where Meaning and Happiness Diverge

Baumeister and colleagues found five areas where happiness and meaning diverge:

1. Getting What We Want and Need. “People are happier to the extent that they find their lives easy rather than difficult,” Baumeister writes in Aeon. On the other hand, “the frequency of good and bad feelings turns out to be irrelevant to meaning, which can flourish even in very forbidding conditions.”

2. The Time Frame We Focus On. The old mindfulness adage about staying present to increase happiness is true. Unfortunately, though, being present doesn’t contribute to meaningfulness. The study showed that, “the more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were.”

3. Social Life. Relationships contribute to both meaningfulness and happiness. That said, taking from social relationships increases happiness but reduces meaning, while being a giver is associated with meaning but not happiness. In fact, “helping others can actually detract from one’s own happiness.” This especially seems to be the case in parenting. While parenthood has been frequently shown to reduce happiness, people still pursue and undertake the endeavor because it adds meaning to their lives.

4. The Hard Times. Positive life events make us feel both happiness and meaning. It’s the hard times of life that reveal a divide. “Stress, problems, worrying, arguing, reflecting on challenges and struggles—all these are notably low or absent from the lives of purely happy people, but they seem to be part and parcel of a highly meaningful life,” says Baumeister.

5. Identity. The research points to the importance of finding work that expresses who you genuinely are, which is great advice in terms of increasing meaning in your life. But happiness? Not so much. “Even just caring about issues of personal identity and self-definition was associated with more meaning, though it was irrelevant, if not outright detrimental, to happiness.”

Why Meaning is Still Worth Pursuing

After reading this, you might be thinking, “Screw meaning. I’m going with happiness.” And given my sometimes low status during the holiday parental happiness trajectory, I can’t say I blame you.

I argue, however, that life is about much more than right now. Our existence is dynamic; life’s unpredictable curves are liable to snatch our present pleasures at a moment’s notice. Not only that, but questing after present pleasures becomes a constant search, called the hedonic treadmill, in which we adjust to what we have and always desire more.

Meaning, on the other hand, is satiable and “more stable than emotion…so living things use meaning as part of their never-ending quest to achieve stability,” Baumeister writes.

That’s probably why meaning is associated with higher life satisfaction, better physical health, and even lower mortality rates.

So this year-end, as I head off into the mountains for a couple of days, I’m going to sit in front of the fire with my head torch on and plot a course in 2014 that includes both Happiness and Meaning. I may be washed ashore but the journey could be fun.

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Ever wonder what an “ear worm” really is?

Ever wonder what an “ear worm” really is?

“Earworms”, some people call them. Songs that get stuck in your head and go round and round, sometimes for days, sometimes for months. For no apparent reason you cannot help yourself from humming or singing a tune by Coldplay or Pink, or horror upon horrors, the latest Idols reject, or my particular favorite, Sunlight detergent commercials.

To a psychologist – or at least to this psychologist – the most interesting thing about earworms is that they show a part of our mind that is clearly outside of our control. Earworms arrive without permission and refuse to leave when we tell them to. They are parasites, living in a part of our minds that rehearses sounds.

We all get these musical memories, and people appear to have different ones, according to a team at Goldsmiths University in London, who collected a database of over 5,000 earworms. True, the songs that we get stuck with tend to be simple and repetitive, but it seems we are not all singing the same number one song at the same time.

Lost in music

Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his book Musicophilia that earworms are a clear sign of “the overwhelming, and at times, helpless, sensitivity of our brains to music”. Music is defined by repetition, just like earworms, and this might make earworms so hard to shake – they are musical memories that loop, say a particular verse or a hook, forever repeating rather than running to completion. Some people report that singing an earworm to the end can help get rid of it (others report in frustration that this does not work at all).

As well as containing repetition, music is also unusual among the things we regularly encounter for being so similar each time we hear it. Fences are visually repetitive, for example, but each time you see the same fence you will look at it from a different angle, or in different light. Put a song on your stereo and the sound comes out virtually identical each time. Remembering is powerfully affected by repetition, so maybe the similarity of music engraves deep grooves in our mind. Grooves in which earworms can thrive.

Another fact about earworms is that they often seem to have something interesting or usual about them. Although they will often be simple and repetitive bits of music, tunes that become earworms have a little twist or peculiarity, something that makes them “catchy”, and perhaps this is a clue as to why they can take hold in our memory system. If there was nothing unique about them they would be swamped by all the other memories that sound similar too.

If you have got a particularly persistent earworm you can suffer an attack of it merely by someone mentioning the tune, without having to hear it. This proves that earworms are a phenomenon of long-term memory, rather than merely being a temporary “after-image” in sound.

But this is not the whole story. Human memory researchers have identified so called “slave systems” in our short-term memory, components of the mind which capture sights and sounds, keeping them alive for a short time while we focus on them.

One slave system is the “mind’s eye”, capturing visual information, another is the “inner ear”, the part we use for remembering phone numbers, for instance. It is this second part that seems to get infected with earworms. Rather than rehearse our plans for the day, idle thoughts, or lists of things to remember, the inner ear gets stuck on a few short bars of music or a couple of phrases from a song. A part of us that we normally do not have to think about, that should just do what we ask, has been turned against us, tormenting us with a jukebox request that we never asked for.

That our minds are not a unity is one of the basic insights of modern psychology – it is the story Dr Freud was telling, and, although it differs on many of the details, modern cognitive neuroscience says a similar thing. The sense of our selves is not the only thing going on in our minds, psychology says. The mind is an inner world which we do not have complete knowledge of, or control over.

Fortunately psychology can provide some vital intelligence on how to deal with an unruly mind. Consider the famous “don’t think of a white bear” problem, which as it implies involves trying not to think about white bears. Try this yourself, or you can set it as a challenge for a loved one you would like to torment. This problem is a paradox: by trying not to think of a thing you constantly have to be checking if you are still thinking of it – re-invoking precisely the thing you are trying not to think of.

The general solution for the white bear problem is to do something else, to avoid both thinking of the white bear and not thinking of the white bear. For earworms, the solution may be the same. Our inner ear, a vital part of our cognitive machinery for remembering and rehearsing sounds, has become infected with an earworm. This is a part of ourselves which is not under our control, so just sending in instructions to “shut up” is unlikely to be of much help (and has been shown to make it worse). It may be better to employ the inner ear in another task, preferably something incompatible with rehearsing the earworm.

If earworms survive because of their peculiarity, the hook that makes them catch, then my prediction for ridding yourself of an earworm is to sing songs that are similar. If your mind is poisoned by Brittany Spears’ Toxic, for instance, then try singing Kylie Minogue’s appropriately titled Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. By my theory this will erode the uniqueness of the memory habitat that lets the earworm survive. Let me know if it works!

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All you need is Love Bombing
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All you need is Love Bombing

All you need is love bombing

Psychologist Oliver James on how his new technique can transform children with common behaviour problems.

Oliver James: ‘Love bombing will reduce the time you spend imposing limits and nagging.’

In March 2010 I received an email from Miranda. She wrote that her son Tim, nine, “seems to not like himself and has no focus. He says he hates himself and that he’s rubbish at everything”. A bright boy, Tim refused to do his homework and was prone to temper tantrums.
The solution I proposed was love bombing, a method I developed to reset the emotional thermostats of children aged three to puberty. It entails spending a period of time alone with your child, offering them unlimited love and control. It works for a wide variety of common problems, severe or mild; from defiant – even violent – aggression to shyness, sleeping problems or underperformance at school.
This is not the same as “quality time” – just hanging out with your child. When you love bomb, you create a special emotional zone wholly different from normal life, with new rules. More than 100 families have tried it, nearly all with positive results.
So, how exactly does it work? First, you explain to your child that, sometime soon, the two of you are going to spend time together, one to one, and have a lot of fun. Your child is going to decide what they want and when they want it, within reason. You give the message that this is going to be a Big Event: It’s Coming Soon … How Exciting! The child then draws up a list of things to do. It doesn’t matter if it includes lots of SpongeBob SquarePants: the key is that your child has chosen it.
Throughout the experience, you are trying, as much as possible, to give them the feeling of “whatever I want, I get” – of being in control and of being gratified, as well as bombed with love.
You may be thinking: Is he mad? My child is a tyrant – rewarding him like that is just going to make it even worse! This is understandable. Love bombing seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which often recommends more control, not less, when a child is not complying, and stricter, firmer reactions to undesirable behaviour.
But the love bomb zone is separate from ordinary life. Outside the zone, you continue to set boundaries, consistently and firmly. In fact, the love bombing experience will feed back in a benign way, greatly reducing the time you spend imposing limits, nagging and nattering – the “Don’t do that”, “I’ve told you before, put that down”, “Leave your sister alone” into which all parents get sucked sometimes. Almost any child – even happy ones – will benefit.
A key practical decision at the outset is the length of time to spend in the zone and the frequency. At one extreme, you can take your child away from home for a couple of nights at a hotel, bed & breakfast etc.
Alternatively, as many parents have done, the rest of your family can spend the weekend with relatives or friends, leaving you at home with your child. There is no need to spend money. Many parents have done a day away or just bursts of a few hours.
In the case of Miranda and her depressed son Tim, as a dual-income family, they could afford two nights away at an inexpensive hotel. They settled in on the Friday night and set off into town on the Saturday. Much of the time was spent just wandering around, with a certain amount of shopping and a visit to an aquarium.
Miranda recalled that this day “made Tim feel very special. It worked. And when it came to spending money, Tim was reasonable about absolutely everything, much to my surprise.”
Children who feel loved are likely to be less consumption-obsessed.
After a peaceful Saturday night at the hotel with a takeaway and the television, Miranda and Tim pottered around again on the Sunday and visited a zoo on the way home.
As well as Tim feeling in control during this time, there was much affection expressed. Miranda recalls: “Tim spent a great deal of time cuddling up to me and telling me how much he loved me (always reciprocated). It was interesting for me not to be in charge. I do tend to lead. Here, it really was mostly Tim’s decision what we did next, what we ate and what we watched on TV.”
In the guidelines I offer, I suggest getting the child to give the experience a name before doing it, like Special Time or Mummy Time or Daddy Time. Often it helps to have a material object to remind them of the experience, like a stone from a beach or a teddy bear. Using this and the name to help as prompts, on returning, parents are asked to try to carve out half an hour an evening when they can briefly re-enter the love bomb zone together, even if only to watch TV.
The impact of Tim’s love bombing was immediate and dramatic. Five weeks later, Miranda wrote to me: “Overall he is happier. He still has tantrums, but since the weekend away I haven’t heard him say that he hates himself once.”
Eighteen months later, she reported: “It is getting better, largely due to the love bombing and subsequent changes in our relationship.”
I have had similar reports of sustained success – followed up one to two years after the love bombing – from parents helping children with violent aggression, myriad anxiety problems, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), sleeplessness, perfectionism and even autism.
In many cases, I suspect that the experience stabilises levels of the fight-flight hormone cortisol. If too high, the child can be manic or aggressive or anxious. If too low – blunted – the child may be listless or surly.
Even a brief experience of love and control seems to correct that. Recent evidence suggests that children are far more plastic than was once thought and that the way they are is not fixed, for the vast majority of problems.
The love bombing zone need not be a whole weekend. For instance, Sam, three, seemed a lot more sensitive than his younger brother, easily overwhelmed by simple situations. Sometimes he would melt down in toddler-like rages. He got very jumpy when separated from his mother, Emma. She said: “In the house, he wants to know where I am all the time. “If Emma was upstairs and he was downstairs he would scream asking her whereabouts.
For practical reasons, she planned two consecutive Saturdays away from home with him, rather than a night. Sam named the first Pirate Day because they went to a funfair. He adored feeling in control and the expressions of love. As recommended by my protocol of what to do, she told him that she loved him repeatedly. Once into the habit, she continued. Since that day they both have found it easier to express love frequently . She believes they have “much, much better communication” and says: “It reminded us of the good times that we can have together, setting us back on that track. It was a truly lovely day.”
Often it is not just the child’s thermostat that is corrected, it is also the parent’s in relation to the child. After love bombing, many report that it has been the first time for months, or years, they have remembered how much they love their child.
Emma and Sam’s second day was based at home and included a complete meltdown by him. It is extremely common during love bombing for the child to test out if the parent is for real – really loves them or will still love them if they are horrible. Emma rode it out and they emerged much closer.
Afterwards, she reported: “He has not had any unreachable tantrums since that one on the last love bombing day, four weeks ago.” What is more, Sam’s fear of not knowing where his mother is in the house has gone.
However you do love bombing, there is nothing to lose. What’s not to like about spending time having fun with your child? If it transforms them and your relationship, so much the better – the worst that can happen is you return from the zone having had a good time.

• Love Bombing: Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat is published by Karnac Books, £9.99.

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The Art Of Selving

The Art Of Selving

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, it was with this in mind that I took a magnifying glass and scalpel to my self this year, in an effort to explore and understand why parts of my very soul had grown stale. I delved into my projections, regressions, ego identifications, my complexes, my shadow and finally my ego’s Quisling readiness to be deceived, to believe what makes it comfortable to believe. It was harrowing work, alchemy, so much burnt away, sometimes I thought I was going to have a classic “nervous breakdown” and then, just as the night was darkest, I stumbled upon my self.

I found what Thoreau had stumbled across many years earlier, “…an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive more savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild no less than the good” Walden.

I observe how many of us lead lives of quiet desperation, how we can improve our homes without necessarily improving those who live within them. I refuse to live that life.

Things may be set in motion by forces greater than ourselves, but the choices are ours. The sum of those choices and their consequences which may ripple through generations to come, is the story of our lives.

Finding our story, the examination of how it has played out and the recognition of possibly another story which seeks to emerge through us is the evolution towards an examined life.

It takes courage and fortitude to encounter and interrogate the story that has sometimes grown over our true selves as we busy ourselves doing things we think are important. To cut through our numbness, the expectations of others, our fear, this takes awareness which always threatens to flee when the way is sharp and jagged. Stay on the path towards living in alignment with your true self. Nothing else will ever matter as much as this.

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The difference between living and being alive
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The difference between living and being alive

As I sit on my knees, laying my body forward and bowing humbly to the earth, tears begin to effortlessly graze the sides of my cheekbones.

I feel a slight pulsating of my heart, a tingling cringe in my upper thighs, and a swirling sensation at the base of my core. I turn my head from side to side and I hear a slight creek and crack as the knots in my upper back spread to my shoulders.

I attempt to pull myself up quickly but I stay, finding refuge in the internal tornado of what appears to be a breakdown. Amongst the knots, the cracks, and the cringes, I feel my heart screaming loudly at me; so loud that I cannot help but listen with a sort of desperate curiosity.

In the same way a starving body craves food, my heart is screaming for my attention. It is beating at me like fists to a punching bag, and weeping for me like a baby to her mother.

Stop hiding from me!

Stop burying me beneath a pile of worthless psychobabble!
Stop running!

Stop ignoring me! Please, please, please… it begs, it calls, it howls.

My heart begs to be ignited; lit with a fueling fire, embraced by passion and power.

I have found myself here before, but never quite like this. I have recognized a tug-of-war between my heart and my head, but never felt a literal pull from my soul like I am now.

I have never felt so humble, yet so hungry all at once. I have never seen so much clarity while experiencing such intense levels of confusion. In a state of seemingly permanent inner chaos, my entire being is calling to me with a craving for something, somewhere, to bring me closer to a feeling of alive-ness.

Alive-ness: What it feels like to be fully alive, while living.

Alive-ness: Waking up to the calling and the pulling from the soul, to do just that–wake up.

Maybe this is what a “spiritual awakening” feels like.

Maybe, just maybe, I’m in pre-breakthrough, mid-breakdown.

I remember the night I booked my flight to India and the exact seated position I sat in while the plane strained upwards. It took 9 months to travel from Goa to Nepal and I lost so many things along the way.

I delved into “soul-awakening” topics such as cultivating self-compassion, practicing forgiveness, and accessing vulnerability. I engaged with groups of people I didn’t know in places I had always dreamed of. I looked for answers in ashrams, in gurus, saw glimpses in the eyes of young children on the way to Varanasi. I went to India on a quest, to discover something uncertain, convinced it would spark an intensely rich form of healing that would allow me to live a courageously full life.

India was hard, I ended up in a Nepalese opium den where I grew a beard and wrote a bad book. When friends eventually found me, I could see the well meaning concern in their eyes as they ushered me towards a hot shower and a pair of scissors.

For this I am grateful.

Today, twenty two years later as I felt my heart drop to the earth, my hands in a very tight prayer in front of me, I felt many of the sensations I had while I hiked free in the Himalaya . I felt a similar level of desperation and a familiar desire to jump off the diving board and do something “courageously” extreme.

I’m not the best swimmer, but the urge to dive into the deep end has always been there, finding a sense of pride in working through struggle as I find my way back to level ground. I have searched and searched, waiting for that defining moment when a breakdown would transform into a breakthrough, and in the search, the dive, whatever you want to call it, I have plummeted, often.

I took off with a desire to find something and feel anything but came home feeling just as lost as ever. Now, all this time later, I see that it’s called a journey for a reason.

For me, there has been no singular “defining moment” that suddenly sparked a sustainable sense of being fully alive (like one sees in classic Bollywood movies), although I can certainly recognize the profound difference between living and being alive.

Ironically, today, bowing humbly to the earth, letting the tears effortlessly graze the sides of my cheekbones, feeling the pulsating of my heart, the cringe in my upper thighs, and the swirling sensation at the base of my core, I felt more alive than I have in a long time. I felt my heart screaming again and instead of running from it, I listened in stillness.

The beauty of letting go of the ceaseless chattering of mind is that it offers us the chance to break through. I always thought the breakthrough just happened, but the true breakthrough, or “awakening,” happens in the sitting with, the listening to a deeper core space, beyond mind.

Sometimes it doesn’t take diving into the deep-end to get there, but rather, simply, keeping the head above water without a struggle, gently sipping air.
The heart always knows what it needs.

I’m working on listening to it, and in doing so, I come alive.

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Mindfulness for beginners.

Mindfulness for beginners.

Psychologist Jeremy Dean has collected a couple of interesting studies on meditation. Sometimes the science behind the practice is what people need to foster belief.

Recent studies find meditation provides lasting emotional control, cultivates compassion, reduces pain sensitivity, boosts multitasking and more…
Meditation is about more than just relaxing.

In fact, if I listed the following mental benefits from a new pill or potion, you’d be rightly sceptical. But all these flow from a simple activity which is completely free, involves no expensive equipment, chemicals, apps, books or other products.

I’ve also included my own very brief meditation instructions below to get you started.

But first, what are all these remarkable benefits?

1. Lasting emotional control

Meditation may make us feel calmer while we’re doing it, but do these benefits spill over into everyday life?

Desborders et al. (2012) scanned the brains of people taking part in an 8-week meditation program, before and after the course.

While they were scanned, participants looked at pictures designed to elicit positive, negative and neutral emotional responses.

After the meditation course, activation in the amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain, was reduced to all pictures.

This suggests that meditation can help provide lasting emotional control, even when you are not meditating.

2. Cultivate compassion

Meditation has long been thought to help people be more virtuous and compassionate. Now this has been put to scientific test.

In one study participants who had been meditating were given an undercover test of their compassion (Condon et al., 2013).

They were sat in a staged waiting area with two actors when another actor entered on crutches, pretending to be in great pain. The two actors sat next to the participants both ignored the person who was in pain, sending the unconscious signal not to intervene.

Those who had been meditating, though, were 50% more likely to help the person in pain.

One of the study’s authors, David DeSteno, said:

“The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous–to help another who was suffering–even in the face of a norm not to do so.”

3. Change brain structures

Meditation is such a powerful technique that, after only 8 weeks, the brain’s structure changes.

To show these effects, images of 16 people’s brains were taken before and after they took a meditation course (Hölzel et al., 2011).

Compared with a control group, grey-matter density in the hippocampus–an area associated with learning and memory–was increased.

The study’s lead author, Britta Hölzel, said:

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”

4. Reduce pain

One of the benefits of changes to the brain’s structure is that regular meditators experience less pain.

Grant et al. (2010) applied a heated plate to the calves of meditators and non-meditators. The meditators had lower pain sensitivity.

Joshua Grant explained:

“Through training, Zen meditators appear to thicken certain areas of their cortex and this appears to be underlie their lower sensitivity to pain.”

5. Accelerate cognition

How would you like your brain to work faster?

Zeidan et al. (2010) found significant benefits for novice meditators from only 80 minutes of meditation over 4 days.

Despite their very brief period of practice—and compared with a control group who listened to an audiobook of Tolkein’s The Hobbit—meditators improved on measures of working memory, executive functioning and visuo-spatial processing.

The authors conclude:

“…that four days of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention; benefits that have previously been reported with long-term meditators.”

Improvements seen on the measures ranged from 15% to over 50%.

6. Meditate to create

The right type of meditation can help solve some creative problems.

A study by Colzato et al. (2012) had participants take a classic creativity task: think up as many uses as you can for a brick.

Those using an ‘open monitoring’ method of meditation came up with the most ideas.

This method uses focusing on the breath to set the mind free.

7. Sharpen concentration

At its heart, meditation is all about learning to concentrate, to have greater control over the spotlight of attention.

An increasing body of studies now underline the benefits of meditation for attention.

For example, Jha et al. 2007 sent 17 people who had not practised meditation before on an 8-week training course in mindfulness-based stress reduction, a type of meditation.

These 17 participants were then compared with a further 17 from a control group on a series of attentional measures. The results showed that those who had received training were better at focusing their attention than the control group.

8. Improve multitasking at work

Since meditation benefits different aspects of cognition, it should also improve work performance.

That’s what Levy et al. (2012) tested by giving groups of human resource managers tests of their multitasking abilities.

Those who practised meditation performed better on standard office tasks–like answering phones, writing email and so on–than those who had not been meditating.

Meditating managers were better able to stay on task and also experienced less stress as a result.

9. Reduce anxiety

Meditation is an exercise often recommended for those experiencing anxiety.

To pick just one of many recent studies, Zeidan et al. (2013) found that four 20-minute meditation classes were enough to reduce anxiety by up to 30%.

10 Fight depression

A central symptom of depression is rumination: when depressing thoughts roll around and around in the mind.

Unfortunately you can’t just tell a depressed person to stop thinking depressing thoughts; it’s pointless. That’s because treating the symptoms of depression is partly about taking control of the person’s attention.

One method that can help with this is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is all about living in the moment, rather than focusing on past regrets or future worries.

A recent review of 39 studies on mindfulness has found that it can be beneficial in treating depression (Hofmann et al., 2010).

Beginner’s guide to meditation

Since it is so beneficial, here is a quick primer on how to meditate.

The names and techniques of meditation are many and varied, but the fundamentals are much the same:

1. Relax the body and the mind

This can be done through body posture, mental imagery, mantras, music, progressive muscle relaxation, any old trick that works. Take your pick.

This step is relatively easy as most of us have some experience of relaxing, even if we don’t get much opportunity.

2. Be mindful

It’s a bit cryptic this one but it means something like this: don’t pass judgement on your thoughts, let them come and go as they will (and boy will they come and go!). When your mind wanders, try to nudge your attention back to its primary aim.

It turns out this is quite difficult because we’re used to mentally travelling backwards and forwards while making judgements on everything (e.g. worrying, dreading, anticipating, regretting etc.).

The key is to notice, in a detached way, what’s happening, but not to get involved with it. This way of thinking often doesn’t come that naturally.

3. Concentrate on something

Often meditators concentrate on their breath, the feel of it going in and out, but it could be anything: your feet, a flower, a stone.

The breath is handy because we carry it around with us. Whatever it is, though, try to focus all your attention onto it.

When your attention wavers, and it will almost immediately, gently bring it back. Don’t chide yourself, be compassionate to yourself.

The act of concentrating on one thing is surprisingly difficult: you will feel the mental burn almost immediately. Experienced practitioners say this eases with practice.

4. Concentrate on nothing

Most say this can’t be achieved without a lot of practice, so I’ll say no more about it here. Master the basics first.


This is just a quick introduction but does give you enough to get started. It’s important not to get too caught up in techniques but to remember the main goal: exercising attention by relaxing and focusing on something.

Try these things out first, see what happens, then explore further.

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First impressions.
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First impressions.

When people size you up, what are they looking for? …

“It turns out that when we decide how we feel about someone, we are making not one judgment, but two. The criteria that count are what we call “strength” and “warmth.” Strength is a person’s capacity to make things happen with abilities and force of will. When people project strength, they command our respect. Warmth is the sense that a person shares our feelings, interests, and view of the world. When people project warmth, we like and support them.

“So we warm to warm people but dislike cold ones. We take seemingly strong people seriously but often disregard those who seem weak and inconsequential. People who project both strength and warmth impress us as knowing what they are doing and having our best interests at heart, so we trust them and find them persuasive. They seem willing (warm) and able (strong) to look out for our interests, so we look to them for leadership and feel comfortable knowing they are in charge. Strength and warmth are the principal criteria on which all our social judgments hinge.

“Once you grasp this insight, it opens up a whole new window on the human experience. You can understand why a person is appealing by looking closely at how they project strength and warmth. Or, if a person is not so appealing, you can see what makes them seem cold or weak. The waitress’s sweet talk projects warmth, while her level gaze suggests she does not put up with nonsense. The boss’s awkward posture projects insecurity and undercuts his employees’ respect for him. The customer service rep projects warmth by sympathizing with the caller, saying that the snafu must have been aggravating — but then expresses confusion about the problem, projecting weakness and losing the caller’s confidence. Like a cost-benefit analysis or a pros-and-cons list, the strength + warmth lens reveals something fundamental about our experience.

“Knowing that strength and warmth matter is one thing, but when it comes to ourselves, acting on that insight turns out to be tricky. Any time we are in the presence of others, we are communicating, sending social signals, even when the message is just “This is who I am.” We project strength and warmth using many different signals, including ones we never think about. Most of us generally have only a dim understanding of the signals we are sending. In fact, a stranger who spends just a few minutes in your presence usually walks away with a much clearer sense of the impression you make on people than you have yourself.

“But understanding the signals you send is not the biggest challenge.

“The trickiest thing about strength and warmth is that it is very hard to project both at once. This is because strength and warmth are in direct tension with each other. Most of the things we do to project strength of character — wearing a serious facial expression, flexing our biceps, or flexing our vocabulary — tend to make us seem less warm. Likewise, most signals of warmth — smiling often, speaking softly, doing people favors — can leave us seeming more submissive than strong.”

Author: John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut
Title: Compelling People
Publisher: Hudson Street
Date: Copyright 2013 by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut
Pages: xi-xii

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A bright light goes out.

A bright light goes out.

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

~ Invictus, by William Ernest Henley.

Rest in the Peace, you worked hard Madiba.

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Bridging the gaps between us.

Bridging the gaps between us.

I have a friend who is a fantastically interesting chap, he has a vaudevillian mind crammed full of intriguing brightly colored facts and curiosities. He has a penchant for collecting interesting things, costumes, masks, rare prints, music and most recently, pre-world war 1 film footage which I watched with him last night.
I was immediately struck by how hard many of these people’s lives were. There were images of the suffragettes fighting for equality, strong, open faced women with fierce purpose in their eyes. There were people dancing in a village square, looking intently, honestly at each other with warm smiles as their bodies moved in unison. There were grime smeared miners walking home after a backbreaking day chatting amiably amongst themselves. One scene showed a group of fully dressed gentlemen (top hats, tails and all) swimming to a jetty, getting out, changing and swimming back. People seemed to enjoy doing silly things just for the sake of it.
Most of the footage showed people interacting, connecting with each other in such intimate and animated ways. It seemed that without all of the fancy communication technologies modern society saturates itself in, these long dead folk were able to reach each other, face to face, when they sat together, or ate together, or danced together, they were fully present.

Have you noticed how little eye contact there is out there? Or how a couple will sit together and be on their not so smartphones. How many people use technology as a transitional object (much like a favorite blanky) in public in an effort to show that although they may be alone, they are important and connected to something ‘out there’, but not here.

So I spent today trying to make eye contact with strangers, greeting people and trying to bridge the space that seems to have grown between us. I’ll load some of the footage on soon, its classic, but in the meantime check this out.

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