Saying f**k it to goals

My goal, ahem, for what’s left of 2016 is to try and put up all my publications online.

This article for Together magazine focused on goals. Is it good to set goals? Yes, they give you direction, a target, and a sense of achievement once you’ve reached them. On the other hand, no it’s not good, as you can become goal crazy, putting your health, self or others at risk just to achieve them.

Sometimes, it’s really nice not to have a goal. It’s great to just drift along and see where life takes you. You may be pleasantly surprised. I’m quite partial to the “go with the flow” attitude, but once and a while, I check in with myself and stay conscious of where I’m going. When it no longer feels like the right direction, I pull over and get my map out (or ask someone)!

So I hope you enjoy the article.

Finally, you may have noticed that the citizens of the US did something quite spectacular on Tuesday. There’s been a lot of fear mongering since and it’s true, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. But just with Brexit, maybe the best thing is to focus on today, rather than on what might be, and on what is beyond our control. Let’s do what we can: protest peacefully, hold our politicians to account and be part of the citizenry.

P.S I’m with Dilbert.

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Know Thyself

Die to the future, die to the past, and wake up now.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn

I have come across this incredible resource on philosophy – BBC Radio 4’s A History of Ideas. The presenter of this programme, Melvyn Bragg, asks a question of philosophy, such as “how can I tell right from wrong?” to a panel of experts including philosophers, scientists, historians and writers. After the programme, each panel member then investigates the question further for their own follow-up programme.

I came across the Know Thyself short animation as part of the “What does it mean to be me?” episode. This animation touches on four thinkers – two philosophers and two scientists. It begins with Socrates, who went to great depths to know that he didn’t really know much. Then to Thomas Hobbes who said that by engaging in introspection, observing ourselves and understanding our thoughts, feelings and desires, not only would we know ourselves better, but so would we too of others. The unconscious plays a big role in knowing who we are, and it’s something that we still don’t fully understand. Freud believed that our repressed desires only come out in dreams or slips of the tongue, making us wonder whether we ever truly understand our behaviour. Finally, the evolutionary psychologist Bruce Hood said that actually the self is just an illusion – there is no self to know.

Therefore, how do we know that we actually exist if there is no self, or at least the jury is out on what ‘the self’ is? The philosopher René Descartes said that we exist because we have thoughts. But, in contrary to Descartes, we are more than our thoughts. As Aristotle reminds us that “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

According to probably one of the most well-known mindfulness practitioners – scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn –  he says that the key to the good life is to know ourselves. In a recent lecture of his, he basically explained that to be mindful is to be awake. In order to be awake, we have to tap into ourselves. This talk reminded me of a story that I read recently, as part of a book on philosophy. It is a fictional story about two passengers on a plane. The female passenger doesn’t like flying, so she takes a sleeping pill that lasts the whole flight. Yet, she’s not actually asleep, it’s her awareness that is. She still functions as a normal human, having deep and engaging conversations with the passenger sitting next to her. She tells him about the pill she has just swallowed, and he is amazed at how she appears to have full use of her senses.

How many of us spend our days being fully functioning but not actually awake? “Die to the future, die to the past, and wake up now,” said Jon Kabat-Zinn.

To figure out how to know oneself is probably one of the hardest things to do, because identifying what the self is in the first place is still a tricky task. For now, I turn to poetry as a source of help. For my post on ‘Know your value, know your self‘, I referred to a part of the poem ‘Nosce Teipsum’ by Sir John Davies. We can easily go to each end of the poles, and yet still be unacquainted with our own soul.

For this post, I leave you with the poem by the St Lucian Nobel prize-winning poet and playwright, Derek Walcott, which Jon Kabat-Zinn recited during his lecture.

Love after Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

All about intuition

Every decision that has profited me has come from me listening to that inner voice first. And every time I’ve gotten into a situation where I was in trouble, it’s because I didn’t listen to it. I overrode that voice, that instinct, with my own head and with my own thinking.”

– Oprah Winfrey

I am a big fan of Oprah. I watched an interview that she did at Standford University and I was just so impressed with how in touch she is with her intuition. She’s not the only successful person to do so. My relationship guru, Matthey Hussey, does the same. He admits that every mistake that he’s made is because he did not follow his own advice.

Intuition, trusting our instincts has always intrigued me. For this article in Together magazine, I try to understand what it means to follow our instincts, and also what they actually are in the first place.

Enjoy!

Going with your gut: Gemma Rose attempts to subject intuition to rational analysis

Every decision that has profited me has come from me listening to that inner voice first. And every time I’ve gotten into a situation where I was in trouble, it’s because I didn’t listen to it. I overrode that voice, that instinct, with my own head and with my own thinking,” counselled Oprah Winfrey in the recent interview ‘Oprah Winfrey on Career, Life and Leadership’.

I have always been fascinated by this counsel embedded within us. Sometimes it’s a voice; other times it can be a sensation or a feeling. It can even be physical pain or discomfort. It prods us, awakes us. It tells us that it’s time for a change; or that something isn’t right; or it is. There are many attempts to label it: intuition, instincts, gut feelings, the subconscious, a hunch, the inner voice. I’m not sure one term ever sufficiently describes this thing that voices its opinion ever so delicately one moment, and then blasts a code red alert the next.

Intuition is defined by the German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer (who’s considered an expert on the study of intuition) as this: “I use the terms gut feeling, intuition, or hunch interchangeably, to refer to a judgment that appears quickly in consciousness, whose underlying reasons we are not fully aware of, and is strong enough to act upon.

‘Go with your gut’ is common self-help advice, and it appears to hold the key to our search for the good life. But how do we know what our intuition is? How can we tell the difference between it and the other voices in our head or sensations in our body? Can we really trust it? I cannot do this topic full justice, but my gut is telling me to write it all the same.

According to Gerd Gigerenzer in his TedX Talk, trusting our gut appears to be useful in a world of uncertainty. It is not so clear what or where this world is, but I can imagine it’s this messy, jumbled-up and confused world we live in. Freud believed that intuition was best reserved for vital or complex matters such as choice of a profession or a mate, whereas a pros and cons list suited the more simple problems. Gigerenzer also argues that more information, more time and more computation are less conducive to good decision-making. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink certainly agrees. He says that too much information over-saturates our brains so that it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees, hence hampering our good judgment.

Our intuition can also get it wrong. The fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999 – shot at 41 times – by NY police who instinctively thought he was a criminal and that his wallet was a gun is a tragic example. Research from Yale University last year showed that unstructured job interviews and going on a hunch when selecting a candidate is not an accurate predictor of the right person for the job. Our intuition can fail us in relationships: divorce and break-ups can signify that the one who we thought was ‘the one’ actually wasn’t. It can be argued that these decisions may not have been based on intuition, but rather on fear or conditions or beliefs that are familiar to us. How are we really to know what intuition is and what it isn’t?

Perhaps one of the ways to be attuned to our intuition is to listen to ourselves. Easier said than done, I know. Keeping a journal of our thoughts and sensations may help us to distinguish the wisdom from the paranoia. Meditation is also a good way to clean up the mind and to stay present. Sometimes, something just feels right or wrong. Pay attention to it; you don’t have to act on it just yet, especially when you feel you have insufficient information or there is no sense of urgency. Just be aware.

Plato believed that intuition must be subjected to reason. For Malcolm Gladwell, the best way to make a decision lies in the balance between conscious deliberation and instinct. Research from the careers charity 80,000 Hours states that we can trust our intuition when: the environment is sufficiently predictable to make decisions; we have enough experience from making similar decisions in similar environments; and feedback on decision making is quick and accurate, enabling us to learn from it.

Fully understanding our intuition is probably one of the greatest mysteries of life. It takes trust and courage to listen to it and to act upon it. My rule of thumb is Oprah: if she goes with her gut, then I might as well too.

A cup of tea: extending the olive branch

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

It’s highly probable that each of us have some sort of tea ritual. Some of us may cherish the first cup of tea in the morning, when we are bleary-eyed, cold and disoriented. Others may prefer the tea of the afternoon or early evening, perhaps taking it on our own, hands cupped around our mug, our thoughts a million miles away from the moment. We may only be able to take our tea a certain way: with a dash of milk, a slice of lemon or two spoonfuls of sugar; in our favourite cup, at the right temperature, or made by our Mums.

There is simply no other beverage that exists which is as diverse in its benefits as tea: “Tea tempers the spirits and harmonises the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thoughts and prevents drowsiness, lightens or refreshes the body and cleans the perceptive facilities,” wrote the Chinese writer Lu Yu in what is considered to be the earliest specialist work on tea, ‘The Classic of Tea’. But tea is more than just an antioxidant or detox for the body and mind; it’s the fabric that holds society together. The ritual of tea in the morning brings the groggy and moody to the breakfast table seated next to their bright-eyed counterparts; the tea-round in the office offers respite and relief from the grind, giving each colleague the chance to be charitable and sacrificial by making tea for the greater good. Putting the kettle on can be an ice-breaker between us and the builder, plumber, electrician or a new neighbour. It can be an offer to make amends or build relationships. Making the tea is the modern day metaphor of extending the olive branch. The stakes are high however; not asking how someone takes their tea could just as easily undo all good intentions.

It’s always the simple things in life which gives us the most pleasure. Having a cup of tea is not just enjoying a hot drink, it’s an experience to be savoured and enjoyed. It’s an alms-giver, peace-dealer, relationship-forger. When we decide to make someone a cup of tea, it’s an expression of our willingness to that person: be it to love, to tolerate or to show humility.

Let’s have a tea truce, a tea party, or just a tea for two. Then let’s take pride in the joy and harmony that we have just created.

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My tea ritual

My first magazine publication

This week, a Brussels’ lifestyle magazine Together published my article ‘Three deep breaths’. It is about how leaving space in our lives can help us make more positive and healthier choices. Just click on the image below and it will take you straight to a Pdf version of this month’s issue. My article is on pp.15-16 of the Pdf version.

Together magazine

I hope you enjoy reading my first ever magazine publication and do let me know what you think!

Your love keeps lifting me higher

“When I sing, I am taken out of the mundane world into another place – and it is always a pleasure to return to that place.”

– Michael Bourke (from a case-study in ‘Flourishing’ by Maureen Gaffney)

One of my absolute favourite things to do is sing: I sing when I cook; I sing in the shower; I sing in front of my computer screen at work. I love it.

I was an active singer at school, being part of the school choir and occasionally singing my own songs for music class. If I felt inadequate in other areas of my life or even in music (I always felt a bit rubbish at playing the piano, for example), I knew that I could sing.

During most of my twenties, I did far less singing. I never properly found an outside opportunity to sing. I thought that choral choirs were too stuffy, serious and much better suited to an older generation. What I wanted was a choir that did traditional and modern pieces. I wanted a full range (or near enough to it).

But it wasn’t solely that I found it hard to find a suitable, easy-to-get-to choir in London, I also felt like I could not spend the time being part of one. My working hours were split between work and studying, my free time was spent commuting or preparing for classes. As I have written previously on this blog, London living was hard, and I did not have enough energy to expend it on something I really loved doing.

What a mistake that was! What I have learnt about passion is that I should never forgo, suppress or give up on what gives me great joy in life. I believe that part of the reason why I felt so unhappy at times living in London was because I wasn’t in a choir. And science has shown that singing in a choir is one possible secret to happiness. The author Stacy Horn does a brilliant job of describing the wonderful effects and release singing in a choir has on your brain, body and well-being. She says that it doesn’t matter if you can’t sing well as long as you can carry a tune, which according to the BAFTA and Emmy award winning choirmaster Gareth Malone, anyone can.

Since moving to Brussels, my return to choir-dom has been gradual, first in a choral group at work to now in a choir at one of the music schools in the heart of Brussels. My choir is a mix of students and non-students, young and old(er), Belgian and other nationalities. We sing a range of music, from Bach to the Beatles. Our choir director is charismatic, vivacious, motivational and not to mention funny. The rehearsals are filled with laughter and energy. It is my dream choir.

When I sing in the choir, I experience flow. ‘Flow’ is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experience of deep engagement in an activity, in other words, losing yourself in what you are doing. The psychologist Maureen Gaffney describes in her book ‘Flourishing’ that when someone is in flow, their mind is “completely and effortlessly focused on the next move. The experience is poised at the sweet spot between conscious (but not effortful) concentration and being on automatic”.

“Singing reflects the innermost of your soul,” my Dad said to me most recently. In fact, his words provided me with inspiration for this week’s post. Gareth Malone says that the choir is an expression of something that is deeply personal and that is deeply human. When I sing, I often reach a state of ecstasy: my mind is empty; I am wholly and completely lost in the moment; my sense of time has altered. I feel like my true self has come out to shine. In the choir, I sense that I am part of something bigger than myself. We breathe together, we work together, we play together, our hearts may even beat in synchrony. It is said that singing in a choir is likened to a spiritual experience. Amen to that.

I may have convinced you to join a choir. But even if singing is not for you, here is my hope for you: that whatever interest, hobby or work that reflects the innermost of your soul; that lifts you higher and higher (as the song goes) – you keep doing it.*

*Lawfully and the “highs” are natural, of course.

January

A year from now, you’re gonna weigh more or less than what you do right now.”

– Dr Phil

For the last seven years or so, I have written in my journal on New Year’s day, or as close to it as possible. I start this ritual by reading what I wrote on the previous New Year’s day. I then take stock of what has happened over the past year and compare it to the previous year. In my journal I reflect on this process and I then make resolutions for the New Year. Except for last year; that journal entry ended up being some irrational rant about the trials and tribulations of romantic love – the subject for a future blog post.

So I actually did no stock-taking, no comparing and no resolution-listing. I began 2013 with no expectations of the coming year.

Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise. Because I made no resolutions, I had no demands or targets to meet. I put no pressure on myself to be a better person, to be more loving and charitable, to strive in my career or even to be in a relationship. I did not reminisce about happier times or ruminate about regrets, which is something I would often do in my stock-taking – comparing – listing ritual. The first of January 2013 was very much another ordinary day.

The F**k It philosophy talks about how plans and goals can be troublesome. One reason for this is that they can keep you too rigid and inflexible, and – to an extreme – chained to something which instead of bringing you satisfaction, may end up bringing you the opposite. In her book ‘Flourishing’, clinical and academic psychologist Maureen Gaffney states that a key element to living a flourishing life – that is a life that has meaning, that brings out our best selves, that makes us happy and positive – is to have three life projects, preferably one that relates to work, the other to family or friends and the remainder to a personal interest. A life project is bigger than a mere goal, it has to be something that fits with our values and emotions, and is something that we freely choose to do, rather than it being an obligation. Gaffney advises that life projects do not need to be big, noble nor public.

In order to choose a life project, Gaffney sets out the following criteria:
– It must be freely chosen;
– It must have meaning to us;
– We must believe that it is achievable;
– We must set goals in relation to it;
– We must dedicate enough time and effort to achieve these goals;
– We must have adequate resources to pursue it (like commitment and drive);
– There must be a reasonable chance that we can achieve the goals in the specified time.

Last New Year’s day, I made no goals, not to mention life projects. And what resulted was a year where I achieved many things, some of which I have spoken about on this blog. I began reading Gaffney’s book a year ago and was extremely put off by the idea of having life projects. I much preferred the F**k It philosophy, it seemed to work for me.

I returned to ‘Flourishing’ again during this Christmas. I was less daunted by the thought of having life projects, probably because I had already started some unwittingly: writing this blog is a life project for instance. Another life project was my decision to eat more healthily and lose weight, thus prompting me into learning how to cook well.

To me, the F**k It philosophy and ‘Flourishing’ are not mutually exclusive. I think it’s important to leave space to be flexible and open to new ideas, as ideas of life projects may not come to mind straight away and neither should they be forced. I guess however the two can be contrary to one another – having a life project is about having a sense of control whereas the F**k it philosophy is about giving up control and going with the flow.

In the end, we must work out the best way to provide meaning in our lives. And I think that if we do set ourselves goals or projects or resolutions we must do so from a healthy starting point. Giving up chocolate or signing up to the gym because of guilt or feeling bad about ourselves should never be the driving force for achieving any of the above. This is because the motivation is focussed on the negative, rather than the positive. We are doing things out of punishment, not love. And because of this, the likelihood of us accomplishing our goals, resolutions, targets or projects are small, hence making us feel worse about ourselves.

Resolutions don’t have to start this week just because it’s the New Year. They can start whenever it feels like a good idea. Or like me last year, you don’t have to have any and you can just see where each day takes you. If there are things that you would like to do or achieve towards the good life, I encourage you to go for it! But go easy on yourself, take your time, leave lots of space and listen to yourself.

I wish you a wonderful start to 2014.