Small is Sociable London to Bristol

I am reaching the end of my winter sojourn in Bristol. I have been here, more or less, since October last year, and next week is my last.

Since leaving London permanently at the end of 2017, I have learned one thing beyond doubt: my local habitat plays an incalculably important role in the things I do, the people I see, and how I feel day to day.

Let me begin this piece by saying that I have enjoyed spectacularly wonderful days in London, and look forward to many more in the coming years. I particularly cherish the cacophonous abundance of nations and cultures, and the lush green patchwork of parks and gardens.

However, the accusation often levelled at London, particularly by outsiders who have never lived there, is that it is ‘too big’. After 16 years in the Big Smoke, I think I am at least qualified to agree.

Of course, many people live extraordinary lives of joy and connection in London and have no trouble bounding over its sprawling morass, or simply confining themselves to a more manageable slice of the metropolis.

I was not one of them. And, after a year apart from the old mistress, I think I understand why.

The truth isn’t earth-shattering; in fact, it’s pretty obvious if you’ve ever spent any time as a human being. In a smaller conurbation, it’s easier to be sociable and that sociability is what makes me happy.

Nowhere worth going in Bristol is more than about 20 minutes by bike from my house. The compact nature of the city has two effects on the population, each reinforced by the other, which I reckon result in a more sociable society.

In Bristol, I know that whomsoever I meet, and wherever I meet them, there’s a decent chance that they’ll live within about 20 minutes’ bike ride of my house. And this makes it likely that I’ll meet them again, either by chance or by appointment.

This likelihood has two consequences. Firstly, I’m less likely to be a dick to strangers because, chances are, our paths will cross either personally or through presently unknown mutual friends. Secondly, I’m more likely to actually meet up with people I do hit it off with, simply because it’s easy.

The second effect of smaller city size is that no one here has a commute time of more than 20 minutes – at least in theory.

Commute time is famously correlated with positive affect, or happiness. If you’re commuting for more than an hour a day, then you’re likely to be miserable. Or at least more tired and less likely to want to meet friends – old or new.

The converse is true. In a city like Bristol where commute times are short, people are more likely to go out after work to socialise and they’re less likely to want to stay in bed all weekend just recovering from work.

As a consequence, they’re more likely to have hobbies, be members of a club, or just have a local drinking haunt.

And what does that mean? You’re more likely to bump into them out and about, you’re both more likely to be feeling positive and open to new encounters, and, thanks to the size of the city, also more likely to meet up again.

In a city with an enormous population, people just don’t matter so much. You’re vanishingly likely to bump into the same stranger twice. When you spot a friend on the tube, you both react like you’ve won a million quid on the lottery.

(In fact, your chances of winning a million quid on the lottery are better. Assuming you only have one friend.)

If you’re confident that you’ll never see Joe Bloggs again, you’re hardly likely to be bursting with social bon homie – or even goddam polite, are you?

I speak primarily for myself, but that’s why we Londoners walk around with our eyes downcast, hidden behind sunglasses, or buried in newspapers and smartphones. What’s the point? Strangers aren’t important because they’re just one in ten million, all too often mere obstacles to circumnavigate on our way through the chaotic city.

In smaller towns, people are more precious. There are still 460,000 people here in Bristol, still plenty of personalities to mesh or clash with, but each one has a distinct value. I’ve bumped into countless people I know here. It happens most days I leave the house – and I’ve only been here for 4 months, remember.

Every interaction here carries higher stakes: we are both on something like our best behaviour because we both know that the social network will, more or less, hold us to account – even if we don’t get on personally.

Of course this close community has its downsides. London’s anonymity is not without its pleasures. You can do anything, be anyone, and reinvent yourself every other Tuesday if you please. But, for me, this luxury is not worth the price I pay in social isolation.

~

Talking of social isolation: here’s an interview with loneliness researcher John Cacioppo.
Talking of leaving London: apparently I’m not the only one.

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The Tomb of the Unknown Arbour

This photograph is a sideways look at the distinctive bark of a maiden sweet chestnut standing in an otherwise harmless green in Wanstead, East London. The tree is nearly 6 metres all around, making it a veteran, perhaps 275 years old. What were you doing in 1744?

One tree that won’t be making it into the next century was found sprawled across the high street in the early hours of the weekend. 50mph winds were too much for the pavement roots. Wanting to write some sort of eulogy, I asked the tree surgeon / coroner what kind of tree she was. He drew a hand across his stubble and shook his head. ‘I know, but I don’t know the name.’

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The Foiled Diaries: Life as a Way of Writing

Foiled has been clipping along all week, with the usual ups and downs. Example: We thought we had a lovely opening episode until our producers said the BBC won’t countenance anything to do with people going missing. Spoil sports.

As I write this, Beth is out networking with potential famos for Series 3. She’s pulled in some wonderful guests over the past two years: Felicity Montagu (currently in This Time With Alan Partridge), John Culshaw (Dead Ringers), Ralf Little (The Royle Family) and Miles Jupp (News Quiz). Blows my mind to see them all written down like that.

When writing with someone else, you have a balancing act to perform between working alone and working in tandem. Too much of one and you fall into narcissistic solipsism; too much of the other and you die from caffeine poisoning.

I think my favourite, most productive moments of writing Foiled have come in two thankfully common situations:

  1. Beth pacing up and down in the kitchen, and me at the keyboard frantically trying to synthesise her comic stream of consciousness into grammar.
  2. Working in the same house, but in different rooms at our different tempos, with enough excuses to share snippets while re-boiling the kettle or filling a bowl with homemade soup, and occasionally, for a change of scenery, swapping scripts.

These shared moments are why I don’t think I could ever be a solitary novelist – or at least, not a contented one. For some people, writing is a way of life; for me, life must be a way of writing.

One more thing…

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The Hollow Pond: A Run

It was one of those March evenings where the sun lingers longer than you expect for a land that’s still expecting winter.

I had been writing all day, under the influence of a single dried psilocybe mushroom. In contrast to my sedentary workflow, I enjoyed the feeling of my legs pushing away the ground and graffiti.

I ran alongside Eagle Pond with its magisterial views of the Crown Court, dodging between two boys on push bikes, and brushing the shoulder-slung handbag of a schoolgirl who veered digital drunk into my path.

As I ran into the forest, the water table rose to meet my trainers with a soft spring. Mud sops and splashes. My eyes and feet worked together deftly, skipping over roots, sinking into the sand, to the edge of the mythological Hollow Pond.

The pond is the afterlife of a gravel pit and you can easily imagine how its undulating dunes and hidden beaches inspired a song by Damon Albarn.

It’s Swallows and Amazons in Central London, paradise for fisher fowl. The swans make perfect mirrors of themselves in the water. Moorhens and coots dip and defend their territory. Canada Geese make a fuss on the shoreline.

Two laps of the skirt of sand that rifts and riles the waterside: I pause on a beachy spit, lie on the scratchy ground and stare out at a forested island, a puff of traffic just beyond the tree line. Fractal oaks against the sundown. A crescent moon hanging among twisted ribbons of cirrus.

Looking around at the amphitheatre of trees, the beech, the oak, the willow and the birch, for a moment I wonder why we can’t see sense sometimes, and I think of a friend who is a very long way away.

On the other side of a lapping inlet, another man is drawn to the water’s edge, where he holds a telephone conversation. I decide to run another lap of the pond, and surprise a woman with a red scarf as I crest a bank of gravel. ‘Glorious evening,’ I say. She looks up from her phone. ‘Yes, it’s lovely.’

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Domesday Trees

I’m not the first to notice that trees are operating on a completely different time scale to us puny humans.

Take this wild cherry, for example, just now coming into blossom in the park outside my house. She’s about as old as I, and yet still doesn’t have her own BBC radio sitcom.

Some trees – most trees – live lives that are unfathomable on our human scale.

What could I possibly have in common with a Norman gent of the Middle Ages? And yet, only twenty minutes’ cycle from my blossoming park is the Domesday Oak, a portly 8 metres in girth, perhaps trodden into the ground by one of the conquerors themselves.

There’s a yew in Wiltshire that’s been carbon dated to 2,000 BC.

We gaze in awe at the Pyramids, Stonehenge and other man-made wonders of the ancient world, but forget the astonishing ancient bark living and breathing beside us still.

‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Nothing beside remains, Shelley might have written, except a stand of oak trees, a churchyard yew, a scattering of larch, a copse of juniper and pine, a mighty beech and a 6,000 tonne quaking aspen.

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OK Foiled

People talk about the difficult second album, but what about the third?

Studious readers of this newsletter will know that Beth and I are in the throes of writing Series 3 of breakout hit BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled. (I’m pretty sure I can use the term ‘breakout hit’ thanks to our repeat on Radio 4 Extra last year.)

Over the past three years, we have developed enormously as writers of sitcomedy. Broadly one could sum up the progress as psychological, from scatterbrained panic in the first series, through sophomoric eustress in series two, right up to this year’s waaaaay too casual late start.

Fingers crossed that our trajectory as writers is following the course of everyone’s favourite emo-rockers, Radiohead.

Our first radio series was very much a Pablo Honey – an enjoyable collection with some terrific moments, but very much the sound of a group of people figuring out who they are and what on earth they’re supposed to be doing.

Extended Metaphor Tracks: Prove Yourself, swiftly followed by I Can’t.

Our second series was The Bends – emerging from the zeitgeist with a confident sound that draws attention from some of the industry’s biggest names.

Stretched Metaphor Tracks: Writing: Sulk. Recording: Nice Dream.

Third time around, we’d absolutely love to present for your listening pleasure the OK Computer of radio comedy – as rule-breaking as it is ground-breaking; as rabidly reviewed as it is devoured by an adoring public.

But, frankly, this analogy is growing thin, and we haven’t got two years to write the bloody thing.

Tortured Metaphor Tracks: Fitter, Happier – and almost certainly very soon Climbing Up The Walls.

Having said that, we’re feeling pretty Lucky about our ideas for episodes one and three, and if we get anywhere even half close to the artistic and commercial success of Radiohead’s third album then one day, maybe, just maybe, Beth and I can finally launch our own line of commemorative beach towels, RRP £35.00.

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Digital Minimalism Tech tips from Cal Newport

Not using computers for one day a week is fine as far as it goes, but it can’t go particularly far when you earn your crust within the confines of the information economy.

So what are we to do the other 6 days a week?

After devouring the excellent Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, I’ve been flush with ideas.

I’ve written before about what I call minimum viable technology, but Cal puts it nicely:

‘The power of a general-purpose computer is in the total number of things it enables the user to do, not the total number of things it enables the user to do simultaneously.’

I found Cal’s most effective recommendation was using an app called Freedom to set boundaries on the multi-tasking powers of my technology.

With Freedom I can set an automated schedule of when I’m able to check email and Whatsapp, the two major distractions from focused time in my life.

Rather than slavishly checking for superficial social interactions every five or twenty minutes, I can corral those messages into fenced-off playgrounds of digital distraction. But the playground is only open for an hour in the afternoon.

The app works across devices as well. Using Freedom I can turn my smartphone in to a single-use dumb phone at the touch of a button. I can even have the smartphone capabilities turned off by default.

The feeling is indeed one of liberation; no wonder the app is called Freedom.

If you have any sense that your devices are distracting you from the deep work that you value, I urge you to give Freedom a whirl. It is free to try, but a year’s subscription is only £13 if you use the code FOCUS40.

5 Ideas from Digital Minimalism

1. Swap phones.

When you’re with a friend, swap phones so neither of you can be lured away to the dreaded ‘third place’. Your phones are still there in an emergency, but the embarrassment of asking for your device just so that you can crush some candy will be too much.

2. Spend time alone.

Solitude is vital to our emotional balance and too little time alone leaves us feeling anxious. Finding solitude doesn’t mean ship-wrecking yourself on a desert island; you can find solitude in a busy coffee shop. Solitude is simply time spent without input from other minds. Leave your phone at home. Take a long walk. Write.

3. Use digital to facilitate real world comms.

Social media, email and messaging is not an adequate replacement for social interaction, but our brains can be fooled into thinking it is. Set up a meeting on the phone or in person.

4. Hold conversation office hours.

Tell your friends and family that you’re always free to speak on the phone at X o’clock – and be available at that time. When someone ‘pings’ you a text message or email, invite them to call you at X o’clock any day of the week. Alternatively, set up a regular time for taking coffee or a walk and invite anyone and everyone to drop by.

5. Prioritise strenuous leisure activities over passive consumption.

Activity gives you more energy, not less. When you’re tired, simply switch task. Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world. Become ‘handy’. Join or set up a club, community group or meeting.

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No Computers And my new favourite day of the week

I have a new favourite day of the week. It’s the day that I don’t use my computer.

To be fair, it’s only been two weeks now, but still. On my first day of No Computers I went for a long bike ride with friends, and then spent the evening reading and listening to the radio.

Last week I went for a long walk before eating my bodyweight in falafel and falling sound asleep. Tomorrow, I’m going to a day-long conference on the brain with my dad.

No wonder I look forward to these days!

But what’s No Computers got to do with it? Couldn’t I have a great day while still allowing access to those gleaming bits and bytes?

I suspect not, and my results over the last fortnight seem to concur. With my computer by my side, I find it hard to switch off – literally.

My humble Acer is a gateway poison: the one keystone habit that supports (what feels like) all the stress in my life.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I am able to work at any time and from anywhere. Thanks to the wonders of late stage capitalism, it feels like I always should be.

Remove the keystone, however, and the arch comes tumbling down. Sorry, but I can’t log on, I can’t publish, I can’t reply to your email. I am not available.

It’s not like I’m bereft of technology on my No Computer days. I can use anything else from my panoply of devices:

  • My smartphone for internet, email, messaging, music, radio, camera, podcasts, maps and yoga.
  • My digital radio and MP3 player for auditory entertainment, and my speaker system for amplification.
  • My Neo typewriter for distraction-free writing.
  • My GPS watch for tracking my runs.
  • My stop watch timer for meditation, saunas and HIIT exercise.
  • My clock, thermometer and hygrometer for tuning in.

As you can see, it’s not like I’m limited in what I could do. But the tool selection changes everything.

I really don’t like responding to email on my phone, except really short replies, and I don’t like browsing the web on my phone, except really simple, factual searches.

Without preventing me from addressing anything that’s really urgent, the tool selection gently pushes me into doing other things, like getting out of the house, listening to music, or reading a book.

I can still do the type of work that really nourishes me, like writing and thinking, but I can’t do work that’s draining, or straight-up unproductive.

No Computers has been such a relief that I’d like to expand it to two days a week. Older readers might remember these kind of regular breaks – they used to be called ‘weekends’.

I’d like to end by quoting from a long article I read this week that’s consonant with these ideas: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen.

We didn’t try to break the system, since that’s not how we’d been raised. We tried to win it.

I never thought the system was equitable. I knew it was winnable for only a small few. I just believed I could continue to optimize myself to become one of them.

Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.

Switch off.

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The day after Valentine’s

If the day after Christmas is nicknamed ‘Boxing’ and the Friday before Easter is supposedly ‘Good’, then what shall we call the day after Saint Valentine’s?

Love is something of an empty word, in that it means so many different things to different people with no one agreeing on much aside from its intrinsic value.

It’s the perfect hook for a marketing campaign.

Even the local British Heart Foundation are leveraging the season to hoick donations from people looking to advertise their love in the shop window on Gloucester Road.

But what I never hear about is the relationship between love and ambition. Bear with me.

You can’t love someone unless you truly love yourself.

Not only do I disagree with this card filler, but I actually think it is much easier to love someone else than to love yourself.

Do you love yourself? I don’t. Quite a surprising revelation if you’ve never properly entertained the question.

It doesn’t mean that I loathe myself, but I don’t love myself as much as I love other people in this world.

Think of how you feel when a loved one walks into the room.

If you’re anything like me, then you’re absolutely THRILLED. Your face lights up and you feel a ripple of excitement about how the next ten minutes are going to play out.

That is not the feeling I get when I wake up in the morning. ‘Ooh, look – I’m ME again!’

No. My first thought on regaining conscious control of my higher faculties is more along the lines of: ‘Ugh. How can it be morning again already?’

If you do react with unalloyed delight every time you realise that you’re inhabiting your own skull, then all credit to you. That must be a pretty special place to be (if a little disturbing for the rest of us).

The people I love, I love unconditionally. If there’s one thing about love that we all agree on, aside from its enormous marketing potential, it’s that it should be unconditional.

No matter what your loved ones do, you’ll always give them the benefit of the doubt, you’ll always support them, you’ll always think that what they’re doing is awesome and deserves to triumph.

But hold on. Always?

Actually, no. On serious mathematical reflection, I estimate that I unconditionally love my loved ones about 95% of the time (and yes I am aware of the contradiction in that sentence).

But 95% of the time is still pretty amazing, and sufficient that we all use the shorthand ‘love’ to account for such madness.

Madnesses:

  • You wildly exaggerate their positive qualities. In particular, you overestimate their intelligence, sense of humour, beauty and profundity.
  • Pretty much all the time, you can’t see their faults. When unambiguously confronted with their faults, they’re charming – or at least off-set by the fact that they own a Lexus.
  • You unfailingly interpret their intentions as good, even when bad things happen. Again and again.
  • You talk them up to others, who may or may not roll their eyes.
  • You feel completely comfortable around them (this might be a good test for whether a feeling is love or infatuation).
  • You are astonishingly patient with them. So patient are you that you can bear to live with them in the same house. Sometimes even the same room or – in exceptional circumstances – a two-man tent.
  • You are proud of what you see as their stunning achievements. Maybe not always in their presence because no one likes a braggart, but if anyone challenges them on their stunning triumphs, you’ll knock them out.
  • You do shit for them that no one in their right mind would do for another person. You find yourself doing things that you’ve never done for anyone ever before. Like their laundry.
  • You want to be close to them, physically. You miss them when they’re gone. Sometimes this hurts, physically.
  • You believe in their dreams and are pretty confident they’ll get there, unless the universe conspires cruelly against them.

Based on this list, I reckon that I ‘unconditionally’ love myself about 30% of the time.

I definitely overplay my strengths and I’m as susceptible as anyone to the cognitive bias that makes me overlook and excuse my own faults.

I don’t, however, own a Lexus.

I also give myself a much harder time than I do the people I love. I’m less likely to cut myself some slack, trust my good intentions, or even recognise, let alone be proud of my triumphs.

However, where I think our struggle to love ourselves harms us most is in the arena of ambition, life goals or dreams, as you prefer. After all, these are the momentous things that end up changing the world.

It scares me to think of all the dreams and glorious futures that go unrealised because no one ever thought that they were worth believing in. That belief comes from love. It’s called the astronaut test.

The Astronaut Test

Someone comes to you and says: ‘One day, I’m going to become an astronaut.’

If that person is just another Joe, then you’ll say, ‘Really? That’s great. Good luck.’ And in your head you’re probably thinking, ‘As if!’

If that person is someone you love, however, then you’ll probably say something like, ‘YES YOU ARE. THAT SHIT IS AWESOME.’ And give them a massive hug.

In your head, you’re probably thinking, ‘Fucking hell, that’s amazing! I love this human!’

Further back in your head, you might also dimly recall that the last time they got on a plane they had to be stretchered off while it was still on the runway because ‘It was a little bit high up’ – but overcoming such adversity only goes to show how incredible they are.

Now. Which of those two reactions do you show yourself whenever you dream big?

If you’re anything like me, it’s hands-down the first – to such an extent that I mostly keep my dreams buried deep down in the mudflats of my heart where no one can see them, least of all myself.

That seems like a bit of a shame. It’d be cool to get my love-of-self up to more like 50% unconditional and see whether there’s a corresponding rise in ambition.

The Day After Valentine’s Day

This is where we come back to that silly homily: You can’t love someone unless you truly love yourself.

But if it’s easier for me to love another than it is to love myself, then I’d bet it works the other way around too. (Standard exclusions apply.)

Valentine’s Day is all about showing our love to others – and I’m all in favour of that. But today I’d like to dedicate to ourselves.

What dreams and ambitions could we discover and realise if we all took February 15 to recognise and actually acknowledge the love-of-ourselves in the eyes of someone else?

Is there a Saint Narcissus*?


Thanks to the PTA for conversations leading to this. Love ya!

* Narcissus would be a totally inappropriate patron saint of love-of-ourselves. Narcissus was actively disdainful of the love people showed him: the exact opposite of what I want to encourage. But I really needed a flippant sign-off to this post. Sorry.

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‘Sylva’

It is natural for a man to feel an aweful and religious terror when placed in the centre of a thick wood.

John Evelyn (1664)

We point at the stand of trees that soar into the waterside air. Arranged in tribal rows, they are branchless for five metres before spreading spare spindly arms to the sky.

We speculate. Birch? Larch? Aspen?

I open the Woodland Trust app and we try to identify the trees from their only distinguishing feature: the bark, striated with fissures running deep in a sort of triangular fusion.

‘Twigs are amber or slightly pink – no – and hairless – maybe.’
‘Can you see any woody knobs?’
‘This one’s a hermaphrodite.’

It’s an entertaining game, but a lot like trying to guess someone’s Christian name from their birthmarks.

A man walks by on the path.
‘Excuse me, you don’t know what these trees are, do you?’
Without breaking stride: ‘Poplars, int they?’

Whence comes this easy knowledge?

The juice of poplar leaves, dropp’d into the ears, asswages the pain; and the buds contus’d, and mix’d with honey, is a good collyrium for the eyes; as the unguent to refrigerate and cause sleep.

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Tame the Mane

After last week’s missive on rejection, this week I’ve dabbled in a little rejection therapy. I can’t tell you the story of what I tried on Wednesday, but I can describe what happened when I took rejection out for a spin yesterday.

Picture the scene…

Drenched on the aptly named Fishponds Road, I walk out of the rain and into a hair salon. A lone woman sits in an armchair (I can already see that it’s a special kind of salon), footling with her phone.

‘Hi there. I’ve got a bit of a strange request.’
Oh god. That sounds like I’m going to ask for a lumbar massage.
‘Well, it’s not that strange. I’ll explain. I’m a comedy writer and – ‘
Confused looks. Legitimise, legitimise!
‘It’s for the BBC.’
Back on track.
‘It’s a sitcom set in a hair salon and I like to come into salons and, you know, soak up the atmosphere.’
What am I saying? Who, you know, knows that?
‘Would you mind if I sat here for fifteen minutes, if you’re not busy – or you can get on with what your doing, I can sit in the corner while you…’

This is a definite no.

She puts her phone down: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

I’ve caught Lara at a good moment. She’s got 15 minutes before her next client – an unusual occurrence at Tame The Mane, the only all-vegan, all-natural hair salon in the UK.

Teaching English to Libyan teenagers divided by Gaddafi’s Little Green Book, Lara dreamt of escaping that dead-end and running her own business. She spent 3 years writing up a business plan to set up a cafe, before her little brother had the temerity to suggest she open a salon.

Temerity because Lara hates hairdressers and, even more so, salons. She couldn’t sleep for three nights after her brother’s infuriating suggestion.

But the barb had lodged.

‘I’ve loved hairdressing since I was five or six. I used to beg my grandmother to do her hair. Every Sunday night: Can I do your hair, can I do your hair?’

As a teenager, Lara learnt hairdressing from an Italian woman and cutting hair became a great sideline for cash right through her English degree and even while she was teaching.

Then she realised that maybe her brother had a point: she couldn’t be the only one who hated your typical salons.

Sometimes we struggle to see what was right in front of us all along.

Tame The Mane looks more like a stylish living room than a styling salon. Potted plants crawl along any available surface. The walls are decorated with portraits of colourful women – not crass posed photographs, but original oils and pastels.

Lara wanted to create an anti-salon atmosphere and thought that her all-vegan, all-natural approach would draw in an exclusively (and quite possibly penniless) hippie clientele.

There’s a record player (‘Can’t play records, though, because of all the hair – didn’t think that one through’) and a bookcase where she does book swaps.

But she was far wrong about the hippies.

The mirrors are covered with scarfs, and Lara will only remove them if a client asks. So she gets a lot of clients who suffer from anxiety in other salons. ‘I get people who haven’t set foot in a salon for years.’

(Plus it’s weird, huh, having someone watch your every move while you do your job. I hate people looking over my shoulder when I write.)

Lara passes me what looks like a laminated menu. It’s a lucid explanation about why she only uses natural products, about how the salon business is so often built on convincing customers to put crap in their hair.

She offers suggestions about how we can reduce our reliance on products that aren’t all that different to Fairy Liquid, from diluting harsh shampoos to simply using a squeeze of lemon juice.

The back of the ‘menu’ has two recipes for Lara’s products: an oat conditioner and a flax gel. They sound delicious. There are more on her blog, free for you to create for yourself. If you don’t have the time, Lara’s got her own apothecary out the back.

With a mischievous smile she suggests that, if you want a protein-enriched wash, you should really just crack an egg on your head (although not in her vegan salon). It strengthens the hair, and gives a really nice shine, she says.

As an English graduate, Lara often dreams of writing her salon stories up. I’m lucky to have the chance to turn lives like hers into, well, this. And who knows what snippets from our conversation might turn up in Series 3 of Foiled…

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I believe in Rejection!

It’s not every week that I read a book cover-to-cover in under 48 hours.

Admittedly, at only 200 pages Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang is a quick read, but I absolutely guttled those pages.

Why? Because Jiang offers a creative solution to a problem that I think almost every live human being struggles with: rejection.

This video is how I first heard about Jiang’s 100 Days of Rejection experiment. It’s a good primer for what follows. Enjoy.

Dave’s Short History of Rejection

My history of rejection is short not because my life has been an endless cavalcade of glorious successes, but because, for the most part, I have gone to great lengths to avoid sticking my neck out and asking for anything, you know, worthwhile.

Example 1: Romantic Rejection

It took me until 2013 before I first told someone I really liked that I really liked them. Terrifying.

They did indeed reject my approach, but frankly by that point I didn’t care. The panic over saying anything to this person far outweighed the disappointment of the negative response by about a million to one.

This million-to-one ratio is about the same for ‘Love interests I longed to approach’ against ‘Love interests I actually approached’.

Combined with my everyday fear of social rejection, the number of missed opportunities for connection with other human beings is staggering, and all because of an egotistic, and unnecessary, fear of rejection.

Example 2: Book Rejection

For the most part, I have avoided professional rejection by not taking a profession. When I have held jobs, I have tended to do the work and then go home, not doing anything that would call attention to my work and thus invite rejection (or, indeed, approbation).

I have, however, written several books. Occasionally, I have sent the manuscripts to agents and publishers and have been rejected every single time.

I think I’ve received about 5 rejection letters in my life, ever, including the following unexpectedly expensive one.

Rejection Letter £1.11
Hilariously, this rejection letter was sent without the correct postage. I had to cycle to my local Royal Mail depot and pay £0.11 in excess postage, plus a £1.00 administration fee.

J.K. Rowling famously received 12 rejections for Harry Potter alone; William Golding got 20 for Lord of the Flies; Carrie by Stephen King garnered him 30 rejections before selling over a million copies in its first year and being turned into, not one, but three feature films, and, improbably enough, a musical.

It’s pretty easy to avoid rejection if you don’t put your work out there. I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t embraced professional rejection despite knowing full well that it is an essential part of the process.

Example 3: Rejection on the Road

Hitchhiking has taught me a lot about rejection. Standing on the side of a busy road with a smile and a sign, or walking up to strangers in service stations and begging for a lift: it’s a cold recipe for relentless rejection.

Even so, somehow I’ve always managed to get where I was going. Somehow, as Jiang says, ‘rejection has a number’ and persistence usually pays off if you’re willing to be flexible.

My least successful hitchhike involved about 3 hours of rejections – but I still got a ride (after changing my approach). How’s that for rejection? Pretty good, I’d say.

In most of the rest of my life, however, I give up after a single rejection (if I even get that far). Why is that?

Example 4: Critical Rejection

When me and Beth took Foiled to Edinburgh in 2016, we wanted to be judged. So much so that we actually paid a PR company to get critics in to review our show. We positively invited rejection.

The hefty weight of that judgement was shared between us, but it still wasn’t very nice when we got a stinking review from a well-respected critic.

I don’t think we ever seriously doubted our material, and it helped that the audiences didn’t seem to either, but the review was (and still is) there in black and white on the internet. A fulsome rejection of everything we’d worked so hard to create.

In this case, there was nothing we could do except rationalise what he had to say (it’s just one opinion, it was based on a preview, and we’d already addressed some of his criticisms) and use it as motivation to make the show the best it could be.

We didn’t shut down the PR company and tell them to invite no more critics. Thankfully, the critics kept coming and Foiled ended up with a couple of phenomenal reviews, which we could use to sell the show to producers and, ultimately, to the BBC.

Phew!

Example 5: Reader Rejection

My Friday newsletter is a weekly opportunity for people to reject me and my work. The unsubscribe button is right there at the bottom of every single email.

Even if people aren’t unsubscribing, I can still see who is opening the newsletter and reading to the end. It’s usually just under half.

After over 2 years of newsletters, I have become comfortable with the fact that some people will unsubscribe and no longer read my words of comfort and joy.

I have eventually come to see unsubscribes in a positive light. It’s not that I’ve failed them, or that they are repulsed by the very essence of my being; it’s just that we weren’t a good fit for whatever reason.

Indeed, with the unsubscribers gone, my reader percentage numbers should go up – and that’s a good thing. Seen this way, unsubscribes are a gradual honing of my audience to the shape of my work.

Notice that, unlike my approach to publishing, I have persisted at newsletter-writing, drilling through the prison walls of ‘rejection’ to the green pastures of unbounded creativity.

(Whereupon I abuse my freedom and write ridiculous sentences like the foregoing.)


The lesson is that avoiding rejection can be incredibly damaging – not in the short term, perhaps, but certainly and abundantly in the long term.

What opportunities have I passed up through fear of rejection? Could I be a published novelist by now? Could I have found the loves of my lives?

Fear of rejection is a crime of omission. If you give yourself no chance of rejection, then you also have very little chance of progress.

Tolerance of rejection is the difference between the approach and avoidant mentalities described by Carol Dweck, and these mindsets spread their influence through every domain of our lives.

If we follow the society status quo, it’s pretty easy to feel accepted. But is society perfect as it is? Is the world? Is life?

I don’t think so – as much as my gut screams at me to conform or die.

So, this year, I want to put myself into situations where I am rejected. And I want those rejections to really hurt.

Painful rejections will show me that I’m doing meaningful work, that I’m opening myself up and making myself vulnerable in the places that really matter, deep down.

And, if Jia Jiang’s experiment is anything to go by, this should be fun!

One more thing…

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This is not the only Universe

In 17th century Europe, ‘a black swan’ was a by-word for an impossibility. But it took only a single observation of such swans in Australia to undo the presumption forever.

Today, Black Swan theory uses the metaphor to describe any argument or system of thought that can be undone at a single stroke

A psychedelic experience has the potential to be a Black Swan event for the individual.

Brain scans of individuals high on the drug revealed that the chemical allows parts of the cortex to become flooded with signals that are normally filtered out to prevent information overload.

Study shows how LSD interferes with brain’s signalling (The Guardian)

By ‘switching off’ the filtering mechanism of the thalamus, psychedelic compounds can, at a single stroke, help us overturn entire systems of thought that we once presumed not only true for us, but ‘real’ and inviolable.

This might explain the seemingly paradoxical subjective effects often reported in psychedelic-induced altered states of consciousness that are characterized by increased arousal as well as a dreamlike experience, impaired cognition but at the same time reported perceived mental clarity, and psychosis-like effects combined with blissful experiences.

Effective connectivity changes in LSD-induced altered states of consciousness in humans (PNAS)

As Aldous Huxley wrote after his experience with the psychedelic mescaline:

It’s a very salutary thing to realise that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is.

Moksha: Writings on Psychedelics & the Visionary Experience

Thanks to DRL for the inspiration for this little piece.

One more thing…

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I believe in not taking showers! (Or do I…?)

The first time I visited Egypt, I was struck by a notice above a sink in a hotel in the Red Sea port of Hurghada.

We live in a desert. Please don’t waste water.

I’ve never forgotten that sign and, just 18 short years later, I’ve taken action and stopped taking showers.

Or rather: I’ve stopped taking showers a bit. Like the guy I met last week who was doing ‘a bit of dry January’. He told me this in the pub. With a pint in his hand.

In the last 10 days, I’ve had 3 proper showers. Normally, I’d have had at least 10 – without really thinking about it.

Avid followers of The Charles Offensive will suspect that No Showers sounds a lot like one of my famous positive constraints.

Although I haven’t been as strict as I would be with a true positive constraint, this experiment certainly bears their most important characteristic: challenging thoughtless patterns of behaviour.

Not doing what I’ve done almost every day for the past 25 years forces me to answer questions that go deep into my psychology and ecology:

  • Why, for the last 25 years at least, have I taken a daily shower?
  • Is daily showering strictly necessary?
  • What are the consequences of daily showering for my mind, my body and the rest of the planet?
  • What could I stand to gain from not showering every day?
  • What alternatives are there to daily showering?

Why do I take a daily shower?

The simple answer is habit.

I’ve conditioned myself to feel ‘a bit gross’ if I don’t have my daily shower: it keeps me clean and wakes me up. But these are easily divorced from the gush of water from a pipe in the wall.

It is true that water on the face helps humans become alert. Nothing says WAKE THE FUCK UP! like the imminent threat of drowning.

But there are plenty of ways of getting water to face in the morning. My personal favourite is jumping in the sea, but even a wet flannel will do the job.

In fact, the best wake up call is cold water so my hot shower isn’t even optimal in that respect.

Staying clean isn’t even best done with a 5 minute hot shower either. Stripping our skins of our natural oils every day isn’t necessarily conducive to a healthy microbiome – the bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in our glands and hair follicles and on our skin.

The New York Times has a story about David Whitlock, a chemical engineer who hasn’t showered for 12 years: He occasionally takes a sponge bath to wash away grime but trusts his skin’s bacterial colony to do the rest.

And, according to journalist Julia Scott, he doesn’t smell.

After a few days without a shower, however, I do. Not crazy bad – nobody swerves to avoid me on the street – but I do fail a pit sniff test. Perhaps I’m expecting too much, too soon from my surprised microbiome.

It doesn’t help that I don’t have any glorious rivers or waterfalls that I can jump into. Instead, I’m measuring out a litre of water into a bucket and using a flannel to wash. Side note: aren’t flannels great?

After a week of insipid bucket washes, I don’t feel like I’m really doing this experiment justice. I’ve only learned one thing for sure: showers aren’t necessary, but they are one heck of an aesthetic pleasure. That gushing water? It feels amazing!

I console myself with the feeling that every skipped shower saves the planet from needless water wastage. Doesn’t it?

What about the environment?

My shower takes just 10 seconds to spurt out a litre of water. The shortest shower I took in the last 10 days was 3 minutes and 30 seconds, which guzzled 21 litres of water.

According to the Guardian, the average shower lasts seven minutes and uses 65 litres of water.

Both these numbers sound – to me, at least – huge. Even if I was only taking those short showers every day then I’d still be flushing 7,665 litres of water down the drain every year.

This is where it gets controversial because those numbers are, in fact, tiny.

Miniscule. Infinitesimal. Minute.

According to a 2008 WWF report on the UK Water Footprint (PDF here), household water use including showers, but also including washing machines, toilets, kitchen sinks and hose pipes, makes up just 3% of our total water use.

Showers contribute perhaps 0.5% of my personal water footprint.

Most of the water we ‘drink’ is embedded in the food we eat: producing 1 kilo of beef for example consumes 15,000 litres of water while 1 kilo of wheat ‘drinks up’ 1,500 litres. (WWF)

In their summary of actions that we can take to reduce water consumption, WWF conclude:

As a consumer you can ask businesses, including your local supermarkets, to tell you what they are doing to ensure good water management along their supply chains. Everyone can help by reducing food waste. As a citizen you can urge your government to make good water management a priority both in this country and overseas.

Note that they say, Everyone can help by reducing food waste – not water waste. Household water waste isn’t mentioned at all in their summary of the most important actions we can take because it is a relatively insignificant contributor to our personal water footprint.

So what are our alternatives to the daily shower?

  • Go vegan, or at least stop eating meat. A 200g beef steak saps about 3,000 litres of water; a nice lamb cutlet drinks 2,000 litres, a pork chop more like 1,200 litres, a goat curry would be about 1,100 litres and a chicken supreme around 850ml. (SOURCE)
  • Stop buying new cotton clothes and bedsheets. Cotton sucks up 9,114 litres for every kilogram of product. (SOURCE, as above)
  • Drink from the tap. It takes at least twice as much water to produce a plastic water bottle as the amount of water contained in the bottle. (SOURCE)
  • Recycle paper and plastic. Recycling the equivalent of a typical newspaper saves 16 litres of water. (SOURCE, as above)
  • Don’t buy cheap consumer goods, buy quality that will last. Chucking stuff away is chucking away water.
  • Don’t waste electricity. Power stations use up to 168 litres of water per kilowatt-hour of electricity they generate, depending on how they’re cooled. (SOURCE: Table 1)

In the course of writing this email, for example, my laptop has wasted as much as 16 litres of water. You can see now why showers are considered pretty small fry…

But if you’re still up for changing your shower routine – and I’d always support that sort of thing – then you could:

  • Time yourself in the shower and challenge yourself to keep it below 3 minutes.
  • Turn off the tap while you scrub.
  • Capture your used shower water and reuse it to water your plants (if you don’t use soap) or flush your toilet (if you do).
  • If you want a really long shower, run a bath instead. A bath takes about 100 litres, so the equivalent of a 16 minute shower.
  • Fill a litre measuring jug and use no more than that. I found I could do a good job with a flannel and about 500ml of water.

Check out Rob Greenfield, who lived for (at least) two years without taking a conventional shower. From his photos, it looks like he had a much better time than me, frolicking in rivers, lakes, waterfalls, torrential rain and leaky fire hydrants. Not a bucket in sight.

Rob reckons he managed to conserve about 23,000 litres of water in that time. This is clearly awesome, but even he says:

Rather than giving up showering for a year you could just pass on six hamburgers. That seems a lot easier to me.

I guess that’s why there’s this Veganuary thing going on right now.

One more thing…

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34 Trees, 2 Magpies, and Me

There’s a small park less than a minute from my house. Squeezed between residential side streets and the A4032, it boasts no unbroken vistas, no soaring heights, nor even, in winter at least, a single startling flower bed.

This is, instead, a landscape for tree watching.

I count 34 living in the park and in the neighbouring playground. All but three have long since left their leaves to litter the lawn and their deciduous branches hold still in the dry air.

The sun splits the empty branches of a London Plane, and chases the shadows across the grass towards me.

In the playground stands a palm, its pineapple crown surprised to be here. Side by side in evergreen solidarity are a pine and a mature holly.

The pine’s cones have fallen barren below their mother, but the needles are shelved out of my reach, and well beyond my powers of identification. Scots or Black. No idea.

The gentle waxy leaves of the holly, on the other hand, wreath her unmistakeable berries. At her feet is a prickly child, keen on the shallow sunlight of the open parkland.

The sound of construction filters across from the street beyond the Plane. The workmen are from a company called Maple. The litter on the bench beside me is a bottle branded Oasis. Trees, huh.

But I’m not alone. A pair of magpies strut their way over the grass, turning over dead leaves, looking for lunch. The shoots of next month’s daffodils, meanwhile, go about their quiet business in the soil.

The dual carriageway bawls a background sludge of white noise, but I can still hear twittering hidden in the holly, while the magpies chatter companionably among themselves.

I’m less than a minute away from computers and phones and notifications and emails, but I could be on a different planet entirely.

I’ve only been here half an hour, but I could be a different person entirely.

My fingers grow cold, my Thermos runs dry. Sometimes we go outside to return indoors.

One more thing…

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Transcendental Meditation

Over the course of four days just before Christmas I learnt the Transcendental Meditation® technique.

Transcendental Meditation® is a simple form of meditation that involves sitting with eyes closed while mentally repeating a meaningless mantra for 20 minutes, twice a day.

I was given my mantra in a ceremony that involved incense, a photograph of a dead guru, a single white handkerchief, a Russet, a pineapple and a credit card.

As someone open to experiments with consciousness, I took up regular meditation in March 2018, practising for anything from 2 to 25 minutes a day, every day.

But meditation never quite found a regular habit-making slot in my day. I never even really knew what kind of meditation I would settle on until I’d sat down.

Vipassana? Body scan? Loving-kindness? Mindfulness?

It didn’t really seem to matter because most of the time I was fretting about work anyway. And then fretting about why I couldn’t meditate properly.

Although I didn’t miss a day between March and December, sometimes it was a close-run thing, and often I’d end up cramming in 5 minutes before bed.

All in all, I was left with the faintly unsatisfactory feeling that meditation had more to offer.

So when generous benefactors offered to pay for me to take a Transcendental Meditation® course, I was delighted.

This post is about what I learnt, starting with all the things about Transcendental Meditation® that make me want to throw up…

Those bloody ®s!

Transcendental Meditation® and its promulgators the Maharishi Foundation® seem irritatingly obsessed with protecting their intellectual property.

It’s not only the constant assertion of ®, but we were also made to sign an agreement that promised we wouldn’t tell anyone else about our personal experiences.

They say that this is to reduce expectations of other people coming to the practice, but their whole sales technique is about raising completely unrealistic expectations.

Browse through the Transcendental Meditation® website or brochures and you’ll find promises (scientifically proven!) that the unique Transcendental Meditation® practice will reduce crime, cure Irritable Bowel Syndrome and insomnia, and basically write that film script for you.

This is, essentially, nonsense. So I feel no shame whatsoever in breaking my agreement and telling as many people as will listen about my experience – exactly as I have done for other similar practices like Vipassana and Psychedelic Breathwork.

The science is overstated and crappy

On a more serious note, the scientific evidence for the benefits of Transcendental Meditation® is massively overstated by the Maharishi Foundation®.

This makes things very confusing for people without the inclination to go trawling through the hundreds of publications to see whether there is any merit at all in what the website claims.

Luckily, we don’t have to go trawling because there is a whole chapter on the science of Transcendental Meditation® in Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm’s excellent 2015 book The Buddha Pill.

Farias and Wikholm are academic psychologists used to picking apart research papers, and they found that a lot of the Transcendental Meditation® research suffers from:

  • sampling bias in the selection of participants
  • passive rather than active control groups
  • no placebo comparison
  • no double-blind experimental design, which can cause an expectation effect in both experimenters and participants
  • cherry-picked results that exclude negative or neutral outcomes

Unfortunately, this bad science casts doubt on everything the Maharishi Foundation® claims, and would rightly put off most people from spending their money.

Is it even worth practising Transcendental Meditation® at all?

Amazingly, Farias and Wikholm report one placebo-controlled, double-blind trial that tested the claims of TM.

The 1976 study by Jonathan Smith included an ingenious placebo for Transcendental Meditation® called PSI and compared the two for the treatment of anxiety in college students.

After 6 months of twice daily meditation, Smith concluded that:

the crucial therapeutic component of TM is not the TM exercise.

Psychotherapeutic effects of transcendental meditation with controls for expectation of relief and daily sitting. Smith, Jonathan C. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (1976)

In other words, when it comes to reducing anxiety in college students, Transcendental Meditation® works equally as well as sitting quietly in a chair for 20 minutes twice a day.

But, remarkably, it does work: both Transcendental Meditation® and Smith’s placebo PSI led to a significant reduction in anxiety and a more relaxed physiological functioning.

As far as I’m concerned, this paper is great news: a placebo-controlled, double-blind trial shows that Transcendental Meditation® works!

But you will be less than astonished to learn that this paper is not cited anywhere among the hundreds listed on the Transcendental Meditation® website.

Oh, and it’s appallingly authoritarian, exclusively expensive, and essentially amoral

The Maharishi Foundation® seems to promote a very authoritarian, paternalistic view of the world.

On the wall of the room in which I studied was an enormous schematic of the Transcendental Meditation® world view. It runs from the Unified Field of Pure Consciousness right up to the Head of State – who is, of course, a male.

Every head of state can fulfil his parental role of bringing maximum success and happiness to his people, and thereby create unified field based ideal civilization through the application of Maharishi’s Unifield Field Based Integrated Systems of Education, Health, Government, Rehabilitation, Economics, Defense, and Agriculture.

(c) International Association for the Advancement of the Science of Creative Intelligence (1983)

Scary.

Especially as, thanks to its £290 to £590 price tag, Transcendental Meditation® is also very exclusive. Hmm. Not sure I want to be a part of yet another boys club.


Side Bar: PSI

If you want a practice that gives you all the benefits of Transcendental Meditation® without the exorbitant price tag, then try periodic somatic inactivity – the meditation placebo created by Jonathan Smith for the paper cited above.

  1. Twice a day, sit comfortably on a chair, or upright in bed.
  2. Close your eyes for 20 minutes.
  3. Let your mind do whatever it wants. Whatever you do mentally will have little or no impact on the effectiveness of the technique. The important thing is to remain physically inactive. Do not talk, walk around, or change chairs. You may engage in an occasional action such as shifting your position or making yourself more comfortable. And you may scratch.
  4. At the end of the session, open your eyes, breathe deeply a few times, and continue with your everyday activities.

Adapted from The Buddha Pill by Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm.


Finally, there is nothing in the initial Transcendental Meditation® training about ethics. Yeah, ethics! It’s all very well connecting to the unified field of pure consciousness for 20 minutes twice a day, but what about the other 23 hours and 20 minutes?

Transcendental Meditation® is Hindu meditation stripped clean of the supporting ethical framework – presumably so it would be more appealing to our godless Western minds – but in throwing out the bathwater, we have also lost the baby.

Nevertheless…

Despite these complaints, I enjoy doing the practice, by and large. It’s a good excuse to sit and becalm myself.

I enjoy doing it in the morning, I enjoy doing it in the middle of the day, I enjoy doing it on public transport, I enjoy doing it before I go to sleep.

As far as I can tell from my experience (and this is supported by the more rigorous studies) the benefits of Transcendental Meditation® are similar if not identical to any form of relaxation.

However, this should not be underestimated (or misunderestimated).

I have never consciously dedicated time to relaxation this regularly ever before in my entire life.

Any practice that can actually convince human beings to switch off for 20 minutes twice a day is doing a fine job.

It doesn’t really matter to me that the Maharishi Foundation® use bad science to mislead: practising Transcendental Meditation® will still make me less stressed, less anxious and lower my blood pressure. (Probably.)

The method of Transcendental Meditation® is simple and structured and, as a result, many people including myself are able to stick to the practice for 20 minutes twice a day.

That is a considerable achievement and for that reason alone I would say that Transcendental Meditation® – if you can afford it, if nothing else seems to stick, if you can look past the bad science, and if you can fill the ethical vacuum – is worth trying.

Just don’t expect miracles.

Tim Ferriss, podcaster and self-help celebrity, also took the Transcendental Meditation® course, and seems to have had a similar experience.

For me, [TM] is what kicked off more than 2 years of consistent meditation. I’m not a fan of everything the TM organization does, but their training is practical and tactical. … The social pressure of having a teacher for 4 consecutive days was exactly the incentive I needed to meditate consistently enough to establish the habit.

Tim Ferriss, Observer

And if you find that Transcendental Meditation® doesn’t work for you, then don’t worry: there are a multitude of ways to find whatever it is that people call transcendence.

Try self-hypnotism, progressive relaxation, roller-blading, walking in nature, breathwork, yoga, a different form of meditation, climbing a mountain or contemplating the ocean, psychedelic trips large and small.

Good luck!


Note: I only learned the technique a month ago and will update this page as I discover more. I might be wrong about the benefits in the long term; I might also be wrong in my criticisms. Who knows, I might even become a patriarchal despot. 🙂

Note 2: Experimental shortcomings are by no means unique to Transcendental Meditation® . A more recent study into the prosocial benefits of meditation co-authored by Miguel Farias concluded the following:

We further found that compassion levels only increased under two conditions: when the teacher in the meditation intervention was a co-author in the published study; and when the study employed a passive (waiting list) control group but not an active one.

The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis (2018)

One more thing…

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Absolutely Gutted

Science is complex. The science of the gut is both complex and young. I’m not a scientist, let alone a gastroenterologist.

At best I am ‘sciencey’, with just enough reading to unwittingly mislead myself and other people on the internet.

And yet here we all are.

So, without further ado, here is what I think I know about the science of the gut, and how I have used it to completely change the food I enjoy and, most significantly, to wean myself off sugar.

Caveat emptor. Also: Caveat bullshitor.

The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis

First up, let’s define some terms.

Your microbiota are the various strains of different bacteria that help you digest your food. Yep, that’s right: there are trillions of microbial organisms living inside your gut right now.

Your gut actually behaves like a second brain of over 100 million nerve cells called the enteric nervous system, which can communicate with your head-brain through the vagus nerve, and also by releasing bacterial metabolites into the bloodstream.

(But remember that I did say that the science is young and, to be honest, no one is 100% sure how this all works, okay?)

This is called the microbiota-gut-brain axis and, quite frankly, I find the whole thing completely mind-blowing. (Or should that be gut-blowing? No, no it shouldn’t.)

For example, there is evidence that the bacteria in your stomach can influence your mood, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and even stuff like autism, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

However, for this dollop of sciencey writing, I’m going to limit myself to (what I now think is) the obvious.

The food you put into your mouth also feeds the bacteria that grow in your stomach, who use the microbiota-gut-brain axis to influence the food you crave and thus put into your mouth.

That sounds (fairly) straight-forward, but think of the consequences.

What I’m saying is that you might be able to stop your cravings for chocolate, pasta or steak not in a dieting willpower kind of way, but in a permanent I-simply-don’t-really-like-that-any-more kind of way.

No one can currently say this from a place of scientific confidence because it’s still only a ‘could’ in the couched language of gastroenterology.

But I say this from a place of anecdotal confidence because a couple of years ago I stopped craving sugary snacks and puddings (I think) by killing the bacteria in my stomach that loves those sort of treats.

Without that variety of bacteria (or as many of them) sending pestering requests to my brain, I simply don’t fancy eating cake any more.

I’m not saying that you can definitely do this as well – all bodies and guts are different, and the science is still somewhat alchemical – but you can certainly give it a try.

How it works (maybe)

This is the mechanism, so far as I think I know:

  1. Everyone has a different make up of bacteria in their gut. Some of this biome we’re born with and co-exist with us our whole lives; some we can change by changing our diet and our living environment.
  2. These different strains of bacteria get their energy from different food sources. Some particularly like sugar, some prefer fats. The more sugar or fats these bacteria get, the more they reproduce, and the larger their population grows.
  3. These bacteria influence the communication between your gut-brain and your head-brain, and can (could) influence the cravings that you have for different foods.
  4. The greater the population of a certain type of bacteria in your gut, the ‘louder’ the clamouring for their favourite food becomes in your head-brain.
  5. This is (could be) the source of what feels like unconscious cravings. Why do you reach for the cake tin, even when you know you shouldn’t? Bacteria done it (maybe).
  6. The more you ‘listen’ to these cravings, the more you feed that particular strain of bacteria, the larger their population grows, and the more dominant their ‘voice’ becomes. Congratulations, your gut is out of whack and you can’t stay off the Skittles.

How to kill the bad guys

In 2017 I spent about 3 months not eating anything sweet, including fruit.

Starved of their usual food source, I think I managed to kill off most of my unhealthy sugar-loving bacteria.

I had a few days of headaches, which I like to imagine was the starving bacteria sending increasingly desperate signals for food. Like a cruel despot, I ignored them.

Since then, I haven’t had a problem with sugar. I don’t use willpower to avoid chocolate or biscuits, I just don’t fancy eating them.

I can eat sweet things in moderation. Nothing bad happens when I eat a bit of Christmas pudding. But, in general, I simply find sweet things ‘a bit much’.

This isn’t about me and my personal preferences. This is my gut bacteria dictating to me the foods they need to stay alive. It just happens that I’ve killed all the ones that loved me scoffing six bowls of Christmas pudding and twenty-seven mince pies.

And I don’t think I’m special. I think this approach is available to other people.

Yay optimism

I find gut science to be very optimistic. Every time you put something into your mouth is an opportunity for change.

Your gut biome can respond to changes in diet within hours, not weeks or months. So whatever you eat today directly affects what you will want to eat tomorrow (maybe).

Yes, it might take willpower to make the initial change: the bacteria in your stomach don’t want to be starved to death and will put up a fight, but I think we are mistaken to believe that maintaining our new healthy diet will always need willpower.

After the headaches (which only reassured me that I was doing the right thing), I don’t think I needed willpower to keep to my sugar-free diet for more than a week.

What I think is needed instead is an understanding of how our microbiota, gut and brain work together and how we can use this nascent science to give ourselves the best possible chance of eating the healthy diet we want.

Your mileage will vary.

Perhaps my 3-month sugar fast was excessive or maybe I was lucky and my gut responded better than most would. Who knows? You’ll have to see what works for you.

The Fast and the Curious

A few sugar-fasting rules that worked for me:

  1. No exceptions. Even one biscuit could keep those bad bacteria clinging on for dear life. For me, this included fruit and artificial sweeteners. I wanted that craving gone gone gone.
  2. Trust the science. Vegetables are freakin’ delicious and the more you eat, the more you’ll love them. This works because it’s not ‘you’ who loves them, it’s the bacteria that you’re cultivating. Imagine you’re growing a beautiful garden: you’ve just got to get the soil right, pull up the weeds and keep watering the flowers.
  3. Fast for longer than you feel is necessary. I can’t remember exactly how long I felt that I needed to use willpower, perhaps a week. After that, the rest of the 3-month fast wasn’t difficult at all: I was happily eating the more healthy foods that I and my microbiota now loved.
  4. Replace your sugar intake with the type of food that nourishes the bacteria that you want. Eat at least 30 different types of vegetables every week. Don’t worry about 5-a-day or 7-a-day rules, just make sure your weekly shop involves something from every basket in the greengrocer.
  5. Change your environment. Remove every last piece of sugary-food from your house. Stop going to places where you have a sugar-eating habit. That might mean changing where you shop, the cafes you visit or even the friends you hang out with (for the fasting period, at least!).

Finally: good luck, and let me know how you get on!

Further Reading

  • The Diet Myth by Tim Spector (2015) Tim is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College London.
  • Gut by Giulia Enders (2015) Giulia is a resident doctor for Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology.
  • The Clever Guts Diet by Michael Mosley (2017) Michael is a broadcaster who trained as a doctor in the 80s, but apparently never practised.
  • Or anything else by an actual scientist…

Prefer listening? Try this All Hail Kale podcast from the BBC, featuring Tim Spector among others.

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Daves of the Year 2018

2018 is over and it’s time for me to reflect on what the heck has happened on this blog in the past year.

In 2018 this humble blog somehow garnered 18,218 views from 12,064 visitors. Bearing in mind that up to 60% of web traffic is ‘fake’, this is remarkably similar to 2017.

Thank you!

I published 85 new blog posts in 2018, including 29 about Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

However, the most-visited blog posts from the past year were very familiar, proving that – one exception aside – my best content is behind me. 🙂

  1. Hypnagogia: How to Dream like Thomas Edison (Published in 2010, 2,343 views)
  2. Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: What I didn’t do (2010, 924)
  3. Charity or Solidarity? (2015, 850)
  4. Experiments in Publishing: Unbound Crowdfunding (2016, 747)
  5. Lessons from 10 Years of Hashimoto’s Hypothroidism (2018, 660)
  6. Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: A Reference Guide Part I (2010, 655)
  7. Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: What I did do (2010, 572)

More Stats From 2018

  • I did 13,111 press ups
  • I did 1,633 minutes of yoga
  • I ran 755.7km over the course of exactly 100 runs
  • I spoke to friends 806 times
  • I wrote 292,593 words in my diary
  • I spent 1,533 hours and 50 minutes on my computer (data recorded from Valentine’s Day): an average of 4 hours 47 minutes a day. According to global RescueTime data, this is about average.
  • About two thirds of that time was what I’ve deemed to be ‘productive’. According to the same RescueTime data, this is above average.
  • I read 41 books (a personal best since records began in 2013, beating 37 in 2014), including 17 fiction (also a PB, beating 11 in 2013) and 24 non-fiction
  • I visited 26,251 unique webpages (a few more than this, actually, but it’s a good estimate)

Here’s to another year of reading and writing!

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More than a crime thriller

How was 2018 for you? Do you look back and remember a year full of bad news, bad news about Brexit, Trump and Russia?

In which case, here’s something to make you feel better:

“[The news] doesn’t relate to the ordinary person’s existence, any more than a crime thriller… But we are competing for people’s time and their attention, and the reality is that bad news does sell.”

Tony Gallagher, Daily Mail Editor (2015) [LINK]

As grown-ups, we’re made to feel like it is part of our duty as citizens to ‘stay on top of the news’. But who among us truly believes that what we’re sold as ‘the news’ is actually giving us the tools we need to fulfil our duties?

Academic Jodie Jackson has found that regular news reporting is disempowering, making us feel that our social problems are ‘inevitable and endless, rather than solvable and temporary’.

Cathrine Gyldensted, a masters candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, found that people’s positive affect (something like happiness) fell after reading ‘classical’ news reporting.

If you’re not convinced, then by all means do an audit of your favourite news sources. Does their agenda empower you, inspire you, or make you want to go out and change the world?

Does ‘the news’ give you the tools you need as a citizen who hopes to live a more fulfilled existence in a flourishing world?

If your answer is yes, then fine: keep them.

But if you feel ready to chuck in your usual news sources, I’ve got a few suggestions for replacements:

  • Books and libraries. Set your own long-form agenda. Learn something new and change the future. [Why Everyone Should Watch Less News And Read More Books Instead by Ryan Holiday]
  • Friends – yes, friends! Whether it’s their new baby, a job vacancy at their company, or an invite to a barbecue next weekend, it’s rare that our friends don’t offer news of real, immediate value to our lives.
  • Strangers. Or, as they are sometimes known: fellow citizens. We could all do with hanging out together more often.
  • Community politics. Politics isn’t something that happens out in make-believe world of ‘the news’. It something that happens right now, on the street. Go and say hi. (Okay, so I’m still buzzing that the council recently fixed a faulty street light outside my house, but I do think this is true.)
  • Go for a long walk outside in nature. What’s the news with the starlings, with the streams, or with the sunset?
  • An afternoon nap. Sometimes the best thing you can do is nap.
  • The Future Crunch newsletter. Try their roundup of 2018 for size – tagline: The world didn’t fall apart this year. You were just getting your news from the wrong places.
  • Positive News magazine and/or blog. If you are looking for more positive sources of ‘news’, then this list by Jodie Jackson will help. But honestly: do you need them?

As someone who hasn’t read the news for two years, I promise that you really don’t have to stay on top of everything. Trust that the important stuff will come to you because it’s important.

In the meantime, read a book, phone a friend, talk to a stranger, go for a walk. You’re free now. Relax.

And I wish you a happy news year!

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7 things I’m grateful I did in 2018

I can’t quite believe 2018 is already nearly over. More than 31.5 million seconds have tick-tocked, transferring their unfulfilled potential into the secure achievement of the past.

It hasn’t all been easy, but here are seven of the more mind-blowing things that have happened for me in 2018, some of which I’ve written about before:

  • Finding Frisbee, and all the friends I’ve made through Ultimate in London, Bristol and Athens.
  • Travelling overland through Europe to Greece, then volunteering with refugees, eating falafel, and gazing at the stars.
  • Thighs of Steel, both cycling Ljubljana to Sofia in the summer and joining the organising team for 2019.
  • Writing an application for a postgraduate degree course, and another for an adventure internship. I don’t know why it took me so long to realise, but writing applications is a wonderful way of clarifying what I want with skin in the game.
  • Spending time with family and friends: family reunions in Oxon and the Isle of Wight, living with close friends in Bristol, meeting new friends – and new family!
  • Walking in the wilds of Scotland, Wales and Dartmoor, taking my first steps into a new professional sideline.
  • Reading and writing. As you know, I’ve read some spectacular books this year. Writing the second series of Foiled was a blast, and my Happy Friday newsletter has been a constant spring of inspiration.

So what’s next? Here are seven things I’d like to be grateful for in 2019:

  • Starting to earn some of my corn in the G.O.D. (Great Out Doors). Professionally, I’d like to spend less time typing at a computers, in a city, on my own.
  • Growing an audience for whatever it is that I write about, particularly through public speaking and events.
  • More transcendence: more meditation, more psychedelics, more awe in nature.
  • Going on another awesome trip like this summer’s Greece and Thighs of Steel combo.
  • Spending more time with family and friends. You can never get enough of this. It’s important, so I’ve got a spreadsheet.
  • Doing my damnedest to make Thighs of Steel 2019 a success, while growing our network of adventurous and compassionate souls.
  • I’ll leave this last one blank for something unexpected. Maybe series three of Foiled going to TV, maybe finding a more scholarly outlet for my psychology interests, maybe something else totally unforeseen.

2018 has been a year of waking up. Stand by for 2019!

One more thing…

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Books of the Year 2018

As I’ve mentioned previously, I keep data. I’m particularly proud of the data I have collected over the last 6 years about my reading.

Firstly because I think reading is quite good, and keeping the data reminds me how important books are for my contentment.

Secondly because my reading tells a story.

For example, I finished a total of 41 books in 2018 – that’s 46% more than last year – and I read twice as much fiction.

Sherlock Holmes would deduce from this information that I had much more free time to spend reading in bed, and that, in all likelihood, I did not have a girlfriend. Elementary!

Anyway, enough chit-chat. Here are the 7 books I’m most glad I read this year, in order of their date of first publication.


FICTION

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (1946)

This is actually the second time I’ve read this astonishing novel, but the first time was about 17 years pre-spreadsheet so basically never happened.

It has been said that the British were so traumatised by the Second World War that the survivors couldn’t muster the creative energy to write a truly defining war novel.

The missing space on our collective bookshelf, it has been said, was (appropriately enough) occupied by the Americans and, in particular, by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

But in my opinion (and I wasn’t there) the horrifying aesthetics, the elaborate grotesquerie and the shadowy skulduggery of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (of which Titus Groan is the first volume) was exactly the novel that the Second World War deserved.

It’s also very funny.


PSYCHOLOGY / HISTORY / MEMOIR

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl (1946)

Wait, did I only read this book for the first time this year?

This book has been so instrumental in my thought patterns for the past 9 months that I can’t possibly have only finished it in March.

But the spreadsheet doesn’t lie.

I’ve written about this short masterpiece far too much in this newsletter already, but if you’re catching up then here’s the link to my famous 5-a-Day Book Cult.

(Incidentally, I’m pondering another accessibly high-brow Book Cult next year. Maybe Marcus Aurelius. How does that sound?


WRITING

Draft No. 4 by John McPhee (2013)

This is nothing more than a collection of essays that long-form non-fiction specialist-generalist John McPhee has written about his craft, and previously published in The New Yorker and elsewhere.

In other words, it is an indispensable logbook for any writers who one day dream of, say, writing a whole book about a tennis Grand Slam semi-final.

McPhee’s writing process is singular, and he is well-aware of the luxuries he has enjoyed with editors over the years. But his commitment to structure (how the heck do you write a whole book about one tennis match?) is an inspiration to us lesser mortals.

McPhee also shows us around his Luddite collection of low-tech and no-tech writing tools that fondly remind me of my own attachment to the now-out-of-production Alphasmart Neo.


NATURE

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2015)

This book made headlines for popularising the ‘Wood Wide Web’, the idea that plants, and in particular trees, communicate with each other through a network of fungal connections in the soil.

The headlines were deserved, but the book goes much further.

Peter Wohlleben is himself a forester, which lends an authority to the book that would be missing were it written by a generalist, or even an academician.

I believe him when he argues that trees in a forest care for each other when they are sick, to the point of sending vital nutrients to mere stumps.

I believe him as he carefully builds a vision of a forest as a society operating on time scales that are scarcely imaginable, let alone observable to the human eye.

I believe him when he suggests that this society of trees is as important to humanity and the rest of our ecosystem as the oxygen we breathe or the water that nourishes us.

And, when he politely points out that the forest is the only reason that we have such an amenable atmosphere in the first place, I believe him.


PSYCHOLOGY / NEUROSCIENCE

How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman-Barrett (2017)

I remember banging on about this book back in the summer. And I’m going to bang on about it again, goddammit.

Lisa Feldman-Barrett is a practising neuroscientist. This makes me like her.

In this book, she turns the ‘classical’ model of emotion completely on its head. This makes me like her even more.

To sum up her argument in one sentence would be grossly unfair to Feldman-Barrett and do the book a heinous disservice.

So here we go:

Emotion is a social construct: it’s a linguistic concept like ‘hot’, ‘ours’ or ‘breakfast’, and has a social reality that is not ‘real’ out there in the world.

This is good (if vaguely mind-blowing) news. It means that we can directly change our experience of the world by changing the emotional layer of constructs that we slather all over our lives like hot butter on our breakfast toast.

It means that, like the US Marines, we can decide that pain is just weakness leaving the body.

It means that we can go out and buy a book that changes the way we model the world (or at least read more about such a book on Dave’s blog).


COMEDY / MEMOIR / HEALTH / FUCK

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay (2017)

There are very few books that you think might change the prevailing political attitude to our public services, and even fewer that do so while being ALOLZ (‘Actually Laugh Out Loud’ – blame inflation).

Not so funny is the fact that Junior Doctor Adam Kay got so fucked off with the way the NHS was being treated by our politicians that he quit his job and become a stand-up comedian.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when ‘stand-up comedian’ is considered by anyone to be a more promising career than – well, almost anything – but certainly than being a doctor.

Please give this book to anyone who thinks that doctors are greedy selfish oafs or that the NHS should be replaced with Logan’s Run-style executions. Thanks.


PSYCHEDELICS

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan (2018)

Like John McPhee or Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Pollan is another one of those specialist-generalists who have done so much to popularise overlooked corners of our world.

In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan shows us the vast spread of our psychedelic knowledge, from the natural history of the mushroom and the social history of the 1960s, through his own first psychedelic experiences undertaken as research for this book, to the modern renaissance of brain imaging and medical therapies.

Our doctors are desperate for new treatments for serious afflictions like depression and addiction, and, in combination with a global movement to ease restrictions on the use of other previously taboo compounds like marijuana, this feels like the start of a big decade for psychedelics.

This book is a good place to start if you want to make sure you’re on board before take-off.


Honourable mentions go to Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, The White Tiger by Aravinda Adiga (both fabulous fiction), Carpe Diem Regained by Roman Krznaric (on how to seize your days), The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman (anti-positive thinking) and Into The Woods by John Yorke (storytelling).

Further Reading

  1. Really interested in my reading? Feel free to peruse my Books of the Year from 2017.
  2. The Nine Best Books Ever Written in the English Language (2010).
  3. Also: visit a library. Before the internet we had books and it’s not been an upgrade, he emailed with zero sense of irony.

One more thing…

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Learning to Walk On Dartmoor

I’ve been spending the last three days learning how to walk properly.

For those of you who have always known there was something excessively aquatic about my gait, I’m afraid that I have merely been training to become a Hill and Moorland Walk Leader.

What that means for me is lots of tramping, stomping and yomping across terrain ill-suited to my boots, which are, in turn, ill-fitted to my feet.

But what that means for this blog post is that it’s already 9pm and I’m squeezing in what writing I can with my laptop on my knees, my knees on a chair and that chair on a train clattering its way to a south coast resort best known for its twin Harvester restaurants.

Now, I suppose I could have written this post a few days ago, knowing that I would be spending the rest of the week on Dartmoor.

But then all I could have written about is the minor incident in which the car hire company (yes, I can drive!) upgraded me at no extra cost to what was effectively a Tiger Moth tank.

When it comes to cars these days, I feel like a great-uncle seeing a distant removable cousin for the first time in six months: My haven’t you grown!

My rented vehicle was exactly the sort of behemoth that, as an ardent cyclist, I usually bemoan. The SUV, a Renault, towered over the road, with the driver (me) a helpless mosquito in the cockpit.

Whatever happened to Nicole and Papa?

Despite the looming irony, I am grateful that I didn’t (to my knowledge) murder any cyclists, although I did very nearly have an altercation with a grazing of ponies.

But, you know, my graded-up monster truck did have in-built SatNav. Ooh, plus plus plus! … When you walked away from the so-called car with the key in your pocket it automatically locked the doors.

So probably worth the manslaughter charge anyway.


The only other incident of note before I stepped onto the moor was my arrival at the bunkhouse in Princetown.

When I sauntered into the attached pub to announce myself (having killed a family of four in the car park without really noticing), the barman smiled warmly and said, There are 11 of you, right?

Er, no. Not really. I mean, I can see why you’d think that thing outside is a minibus, but no.

Yeah, yeah, I’m sure there was 11 of you in the book. Let’s have a look.

(Cue much shuffling of leaves in the bookings ledger.)

See, look!

(We peruse the booking there indicated.)

It’s a half-sloshed local who has the tact to point out: You lummock – you’re looking at October.

We scrabble forward another couple of months and, in triumph, the barman jabs a finger down on today’s date: 11-13 David Charles.

See!

Erm. Right. I think what’s happened there is that you’ve confused the dates I am lodging – the 11th to the 13th – with the number of people that make up my party.

You lummock!

Anyway, the upshot of that little incident was that I had the entire bunkhouse to myself. Probably a good thing as I spent most of my resting hours completely naked thanks to the over-enthusiastic central heating.

So, yeah. Not much to write about this week. Sorry.

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I believe in Psychedelics

1. Psychedelics on the NHS?

Last Friday I was at the Cube cinema in Bristol to watch a documentary about the first clinical trials involving classical psychedelics in decades.

In case you missed it, in 2016 Robin Carhart-Harris led a team at Imperial College London that trialled the psychedelic treatment of 20 depressed patients, 18 of whom had ‘severe, unipolar, treatment-resistant major depression’.

The trial gave promising results, with all 19 patients who completed the follow-up showing significantly reduced symptoms of depression for at least 5 weeks after the two psilocybin sessions.

18 of these patients did not seek any further treatment (medication or psychotherapy) for their depression until after the 5-week mark.

This is remarkable for a cohort that had, on average, a history of 4 previous failed medications.

Subtitled ‘Can Magic Mushrooms Cure Depression?’, it is to the credit of director Monty Wates that his film Magic Medicine is more about the illness than it is about the controversial compound that could hold the key to its treatment.

Indeed, I would argue that the only controversy is that it took Robin Carhart-Harris and his team more than 3 years just to secure government and ethics approval to use the psilocybin.

The Class A / Schedule 1 classification of psychedelics means that scientific research, and future medical treatment, is bureaucratically arduous and expensive.

Now that this therapy has been shown to be safe, it is time we reclassified psilocybin and let the scientific community spend their time and money where it belongs: on the treatment of disease.

The focus of Magic Medicine is quite rightly not on the profound psychedelic experiences of its participants, but on the shocking symptoms and consequences of living with depression.

Psilocybin offers hope to these people and we owe it to them to do what we can to realign the law with the science.

Four separate trials have reported improvements in depressive symptoms after psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy (Griffiths et al. 2016; Ross et al. 2016; Grob et al. 2011; Carhart-Harris et al. 2016), including one in which ‘treatment-resistant depression’ was the primary criterion for inclusion (Carhart-Harris et al. 2016).

Psilocybin has shown promise in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder (Moreno et al. 2006), alcohol (Bogenschutz et al. 2015) and tobacco addiction (Johnson et al. 2014) and anxiety related to terminal diagnoses (Griffiths et al. 2016; Ross et al. 2016; Grob et al. 2011).
[CITATION]

Unfortunately, of course, the treatment is currently illegal in the UK.

One thing we can all do is sign this government petition to reschedule psychedelics so that researchers like Robin Carhart-Harris can redouble their efforts to find treatments for the greatest mental health diseases of our age.

2. Psychedelics and Society

Along with most humans, I am captivated by experiences of awe, moments in which my self seems to dissolve into nature, where time and space have little relevance, and which seem to unveil to me the meaning of my puny existence.

Psychedelics are by no means the only route to such experiences – look out from a mountain top, have sex, ride a roller-coaster – but, once experienced, it would be foolish to argue that they are not one of the most direct.

Such a direct experience of awe is, I believe, the birth-right of all humans. Psychedelics change lives for the good, and not just those of people who have a diagnosable mental disease.

Psychedelic experiences are associated with measurable changes of personality in the direction of greater openness.

What does that mean?

In a pilot study, Taylor Lyons and Robin Carhart-Harris found that after two doses of psilocybin the participants’ measures of nature-relatedness were significantly increased, and that their political authoritarianism was significantly decreased. [CITATION]

Not only that, but these personality changes persisted 7-12 months after the psychedelic session.

For someone who would really rather like to live in a society that is more connected to nature and less politically authoritarian, this is a good news story.

3. Psychedelics and Mundane Wonder

Psychedelics can be used as a remarkable treatment for some of the most stubborn illnesses of the 21st century.

They can be used to explore the outer limits of consciousness, experience awe and transcendence, and perhaps change society for the better.

But they can also be used in the mundane, as an extraordinary part of ordinary daily life.

Microdosing is the way that I am very glad I was introduced to LSD. I am by nature cautious and was brought up in a drug-negative society that taught me to fear altered states of consciousness.

It doesn’t help that almost everything we think we know about psychedelics is wrong.

I can scarcely believe that I would have ever had the courage to take a large dose of a psychedelic had I not learnt the small way that these compounds would not – as I had been led to understand – send me insane.

But taking miniscule amounts of a psychedelic like LSD can have a surprisingly profound effect on your day.

In my experience, I find myself more open to social interaction with strangers, more appreciative of the beauty of the world, more able to focus on creative work, and more content with life.

In the words of pioneering researcher Jim Fadiman, more often than not microdosing helps people have ‘a really good day’.

Psychedelics for a Better Future?

In our hyper-rationalist culture, psychedelics are reminding us that there is another way of seeing the world.

Perhaps it’s just the re-emergence of a tradition that has been squashed in this country ever since the Romans banished the druids to Anglesey.

With the work of scientists like Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College London, psychedelics are showing us that transcendence can have a measurable and positive impact on our lives.

We have to be careful not to screw this up, but the time has come to support scientific psychedelic research, to support the right of individuals to explore their own consciousness through altered states, and to believe in the potential of psychedelics to change our future for the better.

Further Reading

  1. The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience (11 minute read) Start here for an introduction to everything I have learned about psychedelics over the last 2 years.
  2. A Really Good Day by Ayelet Waldman (16 minute read) My review of Ayelet Waldman’s book on microdosing LSD is, on the one hand, nothing more than a non-fiction book review. On the other, it is a fully-featured 3,000 word guide to psychedelic microdosing.

One more thing…

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I believe in Minimum Viable Technology

How many devices have you looked at this morning?

I’m on seven.

  • I checked the time on my bedside travel clock
  • I listened to a comedy on my DAB radio
  • I used a stopwatch to time my press ups
  • I wrote my diary using a typewriter
  • I sent a text message on my feature phone
  • I took a photograph with my smartphone
  • I typed these words into my computer

You’ll note that all of these tasks could have been accomplished using only one tool: my smartphone. So why have seven devices when I could have only one?

After all, the smartphone does many things excellently.

Most people in the world will never have owned a camera as good as the one on the back of their smartphone (myself included).

Smartphones have normalised the miracle of GPS navigation, made mobile internet access a pocketable habit, and serve us as powerful micro-computers whose potential is limited only (it seems) by the imaginations of app developers.

I have used my smartphone to practice yoga, answer emails, chat with work colleagues, catch up on the cricket, check train times, monitor my sleep, write blog posts and, of course, track my smartphone usage.

Incredibly, this is quite normal.

But whereas the smartphone is a complex technology, basically indistinguishable from magic to most people (myself very much included), single-purpose tools like my travel clock or DAB radio are what I call Minimum Viable Technology.

Rather than starting out with what the tool can accomplish (Ooh! Look, it’s a clock and a radio and a stopwatch and a phone and a camera AND a yoga teacher!), the principles of Minimum Viable Technology first define what you want from life (Bleeurgh, what’s the time?), and then find the simplest tool to match (a bedside travel clock).

Principles of Minimum Viable Technology

  1. Clearly define the single task at hand
  2. Use the least complex tool that still accomplishes that single task
  3. Stop. Adding. Features. Goddamit.

I believe that such Minimum Viable Technologies offer significant advantages over complex multi-purpose technologies.

1. Focus
It is too easy to switch task when using a multi-purpose tool.

We’ve all been there with smartphones and computers, but it’s equally true of other complex technologies – a house, for example.

Would I be more comfortable in the lounge or the kitchen? Should I lie on the bed or rest in a deck chair in the garden? Does the bedroom need another lick of paint, and when am I going to put up those shelves? Is the heating on too high?

It sounds ridiculous, but the plurality of options and the ease of task switching is detrimental to our ability to focus. And losing focus quite possibly makes us more miserable humans.

2. Quality
Does the blade on my Swiss Army knife have a sharper cutting edge than the cook’s knife in my kitchen? No.

Similarly, does the camera on my smartphone take better photographs than a dedicated SLR? Clearly not.

The best multi-purpose tool will never be superior to the best single-purpose tool, and that has consequences for the way we work (and play).

Are we willing to accept good enough for the best?

In many arenas, the answer will be emphatically yes, but for the most important things in life, the answer simply must be no. Otherwise, what the hell are we doing here?

3. Waste
There is an argument that using one device to rule them all is less wasteful, and I wouldn’t like to argue with that.

I have now seven devices where one would do and at some point all those devices will end up in landfill and their useless lumps of plastic will out-live me. I feel pretty shitty about that.

But the principles of Minimum Viable Technology tend towards less wasteful behaviour, not more.

For example, the absolute Minimum Viable Technology for cleaning my hair is, quite simply, water. Having grown up in a certain society with certain expectations, however, I have settled on using diluted lemon juice.

No more need to buy expensive (or indeed cheap) shampoos and conditioners. No more need to wonder what all those ingredients are doing to my hair (let alone what happens when I wash them down the sink).

In the final analysis, do I really need my own travel clock? Do I really need my own phone? The wide span of human history argues in the negative. I just don’t have the guts to go without.

4. Skill
If we all use multi-tools, what will become of the artisan and the artist?

The more basic the technology, generally speaking, the greater the skill you must learn and deploy.

For example, motorists who grew up in the 40s, 50s and 60s had to become semi-skilled mechanics in order to keep their cars on the road.

Modern motorists have no such need. In fact, car manufacturers deliberately make their technology unhackable, so that you have to go back to the approved dealer for repairs.

Technology, as it becomes more complex, leaves in its wake a certain kind of ignorance.

Of course, this ignorance is not always or necessarily a limitation. Drivers who don’t know the first thing about car maintenance (myself included) can instead spend their time on other pursuits – but it doesn’t make them better drivers.


Side Bar: It’s not all about ‘devices’

Technology is everything humans have ever invented to try and make our lives easier, from agriculture and money, to shampoo and footwear.

Here are some other ways that Minimum Viable Technology influences my life choices:

  • I prefer to walk than cycle, if I have the time. This often surprises people who think that I’m a devoted capital-C Cyclist. I am, but also: MVT, baby.
  • I wear ‘barefoot’ shoes that don’t over-complicate the business of keeping my feet warm, dry and protected from sharp stones.
  • I don’t have a gym membership because I can use press up bars and a yoga mat in my own bedroom.
  • I eat a primarily plant-based diet: a more simplistic diet than meat-eating in almost every way, from food production to preparation and digestion.
  • I don’t use supermarkets when there is a low tech greengrocer in town.

If in doubt don’t spend money, say no to ‘upgrades’, and always check the ingredients.


With all this in mind, I believe that my original question should be flipped: Why have only one device when I could have seven?

Rather than depending on complex multi-purpose tools for everything, I believe that we should use them as ‘catch-all’ technologies to mop up the functions that are either unimportant to us, or we simply haven’t had the courage, the time, the money or the wherewithal to replace yet.

My smartphone does only one thing better than any other device I have found: GPS mapping when I’m on my bike.

Does that make it worth having? Frankly, no. I cycled around Britain without GPS: it’s not a big deal.

But my smartphone sweeps up a few other useful functions that are nice to have, but aren’t sufficiently important to me to find a dedicated replacement.

A yoga teacher would be vastly superior to the app on my phone, but I’m just not dedicated enough to make the switch. Likewise, I don’t care enough about photography to buy an actual camera.

And so we come to the 50ft-chameleon of the personal computer.

I wrote a line to myself recently: A computer is not a crutch. And yet that is exactly how I treat it.

My computer is my workstation and playstation combined. It is my portal into the world, and the screen through which I peer. It is the medium of my creativity.

I know that my life could benefit from applying the principles of Minimum Viable Technology to those moments when I turn to my computer screen.

What do I want from life right now? It’s probably not to stand here typing, reading on a screen, or replying to emails.

This computer is so far from being a Minimum Viable Technology that it’s actively keeping me from being the person I want to be.

Woah.

I’ll see you outside!

Further Technologies

  1. Minimum Viable Technology (6 minute read). The tool is not the task. In our search for the most efficient technology, we forget that 99% of a task is not about the tools we use. Cleaning yourself is not about power showers, hot water tanks or expensive shampoos; it’s about water and scrubbing. Jumping into a lake would do it.
  2. Productivity Positive Constraints (5 minute read). The Neo is a full size keyboard with a four line screen and a memory for hundreds of thousands of words. That’s all. There’s no internet connection to distract me. There’s no hunching over an eye-straining glowing screen. There’s no clunky weight to carry around or rest on my knees. There’s no power cable because there’s hardly any technology to power so the batteries (3xAA) last for years.
  3. No Money Mondays (6 minute read). I can’t just buy a nice packet of biscuits when I feel like it; I’ve got to finish up those lentils that have been sitting in my cupboard since January. I can’t pay for the bus; I have to cycle or walk.

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The Memory of Adventure

Ask me how I’ll remember 2018 and I won’t say ‘typing words into a computer’, even though that’s how I spent far too much of almost every single day.

Not all of that typing was unmemorable, of course. Writing the second series of Foiled was fabulous and I’m sure I’ll be writing about how I believe in creativity soon.

But these are the memories that stand out most in my mind from this past year:

  • Bothying in the snow-bound Cairngorms
  • Travelling around Greece, meeting with refugees
  • Cycling 1000 miles with Thighs of Steel
  • Hiking in the Brecon Beacons

In a word: adventures.

Adventure is a big word, of course. But the choice is deliberate.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, adventure is:

  • A course of action which invites risk
  • A perilous or audacious undertaking the outcome of which is unknown
  • A daring feat or exploit
  • A remarkable or unexpected event, or series of events, in which a person participates as a result of chance
  • A novel or exciting experience

Personally, I like the roguish simplicity of this definition: A wild and exciting undertaking (not necessarily lawful).

But who defines risk, peril, audacity, daring, expectation, novelty and excitement? We do. Adventure is relative and I’m claiming it for myself.

The events that are most memorable from my year are the adventures, those moments when I made an audacious move to go beyond the limits of my comfort, surrendered to novelty, and invited risk and chance.

But there is nothing in any of those definitions that limits moments of adventure to epic bike tours through foreign lands, climbing mountains and sleeping in cold huts.

So this year’s adventures also include meeting my new niece, a family reunion, applying for a job, learning how to throw a Frisbee, talking to people in saunas, and breathing deeply.

Audacity, daring, novelty and wild excitement are opportunities we can dig up anywhere, at any moment. At any moment, we can stretch out our lives like vellum and print them with memories of adventure.

Do you not feel like you live an adventurous life? Are you sure? Don’t you ever feel challenged? Don’t you ever worry that things won’t turn out, and thrill when they do? Don’t you ever see things you’ve never seen before, or talk to unexpected strangers?

Well, go on then, here, take this word – adventure!

Adventure isn’t only for polar explorers and hitmen. We can have it for ourselves.

Further Adventures

  1. Professional adventurer Alastair Humphreys reading Seneca Letter 28: On travel as a cure for discontent. A beautiful reading, set to a beautiful video. ‘Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.’
  2. The Most Interesting Country in the World: Part 1 (10 minute read) ‘At home, our comfort zone is vast, like a great big sofa, sucking us in to watch endless re-runs of Miss Marple, where the Toff murderer always gets his or her comeuppance and order is restored in the form of a pillow-dribble nap.’
  3. What Makes a Person Do a Thing? (12 minute read) ‘It seems extraordinary, but we do get scared of our power, we do fear our greatness; we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve such responsibility, or we feel like imposters when we do presume to act.’

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I believe in Running

This Sunday I’ll be running the Gosport Half Marathon for the third consecutive year.

I’m not quite sure why. I have no particular connection or affection for Gosport, aside from this one annual occasion.

It is, however, the largest town in Britain without an operational railway station, but that’s not reeeally a good reason to run there.

No. Running the Gosport Half is just one of those young rituals without which November is now unthinkable.

Actually, emend that last sentence: the calendrical absence of the Gosport Half would make the entire russet spread of Autumn barren indeed.

Running is not the kind of master that rewards the ill-prepared, so the Gosport Half must begin with a spike in training by September at the latest.

This year training began in October; this year I expect a slower time.

As a confirmed relativist, I believe that physical exercise is as close as we come to an absolute moral good.

Unlike the sessile (to show off a new word) plants, we humans were made to move. That’s why we have Achilles heels, thermoregulation and well-developed bottoms.

Apes are rubbish at running; dogs tank out at 7 miles; and a decent marathon runner is not much slower over that distance than a racehorse, a beast whose genetic inheritance is to run.

As such, there is an honesty in exercise that is disturbingly hard to find, at least in my other work.

My annual pilgrimage to the south coast gives me an opportunity to measure myself against myself. Can I break last year’s personal best?

Certainly not without being honest to the process, and by training hard throughout the year. Nothing holds you to account like a stopwatch.

Running gets me out of bed in the morning. Running is therapy with sweatbands. Physical training is mental training. Sweat is its own gold.

Running gives us a inarguable measure of our mortality.

On the optimistic side, I am 36 years old and I can run faster and further today than I could ten years ago. It’s always good to feel like we’re making progress in life.

There are, too, plenty of older runners quicker than me: next year I could be running faster still than I do today. At my local Parkrun last week 7 runners older than me ran a quicker 5km than my personal best time.

Eventually, though, I know that my times will begin to drift, like the tide receding both imperceptibly and indubitably away from the shore.

No one can resist the tidal pull of time; but we can prepare ourselves.

And so back to Gosport.

Further Running/Reading

  1. Haruki Murakami: What I Think About When I Think About Running | The novelist explains the correspondence between putting strides down on the pavement and putting words down on the page. Link is to my review.
  2. Christopher McDougall: Born To Run | Why humans love endurance running, and how the Tarahumara can run 100 miles at speed without injury.
  3. Scott Jurek: Eat & Run | A record-breaking vegan ultramarathon runner tries to explain.

UPDATE: I finished the 2018 Gosport Half in a course personal best time of 1 hour 29 minutes and 59 seconds, in a dead heat with my ‘race manager’.

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The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 28 'Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.'

Today’s pages (p149-154) commence with the second aspect of Viktor Frankl’s ‘tragic triad’: guilt.

How can we find meaning in our lives in spite of the presence of guilt?

For Frankl, no crime is fully explicable. No crime can be ‘fully traced back to biological, psychological and/or sociological factors’, he writes.

Totally explaining one’s crime would be tantamount to explaining away his or her guilt and to seeing in him or her not a free and responsible human being but a machine to be repaired.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 28 ‘Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.’

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Gifts Part 1: Life Let's go into the weekend with the oh-crap-now-I've-got-to-get-them-something mindset of someone who's just been given a wonderful gift.

I’ll kick off with that last resort of hapless students everywhere: looking up words in the Oxford English Dictionary. (OED.com, accessible by subscription: your library almost certainly has a subscription that you can use from anywhere. It’s incredible.)

I choose to ignore the etymology – from the Old English gift meaning payment for a wife – and instead zero in on the common definition:

A gift is something, the possession of which is transferred to another without the expectation or receipt of an equivalent.

Point A: I don’t know about you, but my first reaction when I read the bit about without the expectation or receipt of an equivalent was ‘Yeah, nice, but…’ Continue reading Gifts Part 1: Life Let’s go into the weekend with the oh-crap-now-I’ve-got-to-get-them-something mindset of someone who’s just been given a wonderful gift.

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The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 27 'Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change ... may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.'

Today’s pages (p145-149) address the question of the meaning of life itself. Finally – the promised land!

But rather than The Meaning Of Life As A Whole, Viktor Frankl has a smaller target in mind, at least at first:

[T]he logotherapist is concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout his or her life.

Frankl doesn’t deny that The Meaning Of Life As A Whole does exist, but that we can only fully understand it after having understood the meaning of each of the smaller moments leading up to the final moment of our death. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 27 ‘Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change … may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.’

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The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 26 'Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to "be happy". Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically.'

Today’s pages (p139-144) open the final part of Man’s Search for Meaning, written as a postscript to the book in 1984: ‘The Case for Tragic Optimism’.

An attitude of ‘tragic optimism’ means to remain optimistic in spite of life’s ‘tragic triad’ of pain, guilt and death. Or, alternatively:

How … can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects?

Frankl’s answer is hidden in the etymology of the word ‘optimism’, which is derived from the Latin ‘optimum’ meaning ‘the best’.

To be optimistic, therefore, is not to be deliriously blind to one’s circumstances, but rather to make ‘the best’ one can of any given situation. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 26 ‘Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to “be happy”. Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically.’

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The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 25 'Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.'

Today’s pages (p131-136) conclude the second part of Man’s Search for Meaning, ‘Logotherapy in a Nutshell’.

Viktor Frankl writes that ‘[e]very age has its own collective neurosis’ and believes that the mass neurosis of the present time is ‘a private and personal form of nihilism’.

Frankl warns against the danger of teaching that man is ‘nothing but’ the result of his biological and social conditions.

As a professor in two fields, neurology and psychiatry, I am fully aware of the extent to which man is subject to biological, psychological and sociological conditions.

But in addition to being a professor in two fields I am a survivor of four camps … and as such I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 25 ‘Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.’

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To Do List Bankruptcy Last night something snapped. I woke up at 3 a.m. silently screaming into my duvet.

The problem with a successful summer is that it can cause an overenthusiasm of doings.

A month living and working in Greece was exactly what I needed to get a fresh perspective on my life and work in the UK. Ideas for new ventures spilled easily from my split skull and they all, fatefully, found a spot on my Doings list.

None of this summer shower of ideas were bad, what is bad is that I can only work on three things at a time. Only three tasks on a given day, only three jobs in a given week, only three projects in a given month. And I already had three things that I was working on.

So what happened to this summer’s Trojan horse of ideas and ventures? It swelled and, bloated, filled my brain with to do list rot: a constant reminder that I wasn’t able to back up my ideas with action.

Last night something snapped. I woke up at 3 a.m. silently screaming into my duvet.
Continue reading To Do List Bankruptcy Last night something snapped. I woke up at 3 a.m. silently screaming into my duvet.

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The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 24 'The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure.'

Today’s pages (p125-131) address the logotherapeutic treatment of anticipatory anxiety, the excessive anxiety we all sometimes feel in anticipation of a particular event or circumstance.

Viktor Frankl observes that ‘anticipatory anxiety … produces precisely that of which the patient is afraid’.

When one is particularly anxious about blushing when faced with a large crowd, one is more prone to blushing in that situation. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 24 ‘The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure.’

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Lessons from 10 Years of Hashimoto’s Hypothroidism I couldn't find happiness by following a FODMAP diet, testing myself for diabetes, or taking Magnesium and Vitamin E for adrenal support. It was both harder and easier than that.

It’s been 10 years since I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Hypothyroidism. 10 years of taking two little white pills every single day in an effort to regulate what my body can no longer.

Those 10 years have been filled with a full 10 years of life: finishing a masters degree, cycling around a country or two (or half a dozen), self-publishing a smattering of books, teaching English to refugees, writing and producing an hour-long play, turning that into a radio series or two.

But every day, throughout it all, I’ve been taking those two little white pills. There is nothing I’ve done more consistently, so I think it’s fair to say I have some experience in this field.

So wherever you find yourself on your hypothyroid adventure, I hope these words give you some encouragement, and perhaps you’ll share your experiences with me, either by email or in the comments below! Continue reading Lessons from 10 Years of Hashimoto’s Hypothroidism I couldn’t find happiness by following a FODMAP diet, testing myself for diabetes, or taking Magnesium and Vitamin E for adrenal support. It was both harder and easier than that.

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The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 23 'Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered.'

Today’s pages (p119-125) begin, strangely enough, with something of a lament for the loss of clergymen as a professional resource for treating a loss of meaning in life.

Today, instead, people turn to psychiatrists (and are frequently mistreated for neurosis, is Viktor Frankl’s implication).

After making the point that life’s duration has no bearing on its relative meaning, Viktor Frankl turns to the troublesome (for a scientific mind) metaphysics of what he calls ‘super-meaning’. He begins by posing a reasonable question:

Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos?

Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 23 ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered.’

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The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 22 'The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.'

Today’s pages (113-119) begin boldly, with the sub-heading The Meaning of Life. But of course, Frankl has no catechistic answer.

For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.

He likens it to a chess move: ‘There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game’.

Indeed, the very search for an abstract meaning of life is futile: ‘everyone’s task is as unique as his specific opportunity to implement it’.

Instead, Frankl flips the question on its head:

[M]an should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 22 ‘The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.’

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Gandhi was wrong: you already ARE the change

We’ve all heard the famous injuction to be the change you want to see in the world. But these words (often and mistakenly attributed to Gandhi) skip over one far more salient point: each of us already ARE the change in the world.

Every little action (or inaction) we take in every moment of every day has consequences for the world we live in. That is an unassailable fact. We may not feel like we have a vast influence on the future, but we are all an intrinsic part of its creation.

This is something that perhaps we don’t think of an awful lot. We look up to inspirational leaders to make giant leaps forward, forgetting that we are part of the marching crowd.

Continue reading Gandhi was wrong: you already ARE the change

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The First Stile

One man chased after me waving his stick because my train ticket fell out of my pocket. Another beckoned me down a shortcut into town.

The pasty saleswoman seemed to be competing with me for variety and number of ways to say thank you.

The cafe owner took me outside to show me the Three Peaks (they were hidden by the houses and a dense bank of cloud), describing the distinctive challenge of each and the wonderful views to be had (on a fine day).

I set off down the pedestrianised centre of Abergavenny, clutching my map and compass, in a thoroughly good mood, and in thoroughly the wrong direction.

Correcting my course back to what turned out to be the wrong church, I realigned my map and strode up the lane to The First Stile. Continue reading The First Stile

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The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 21 'What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.'

Today’s pages are some of my favourite in the whole of Man’s Search for Meaning. I say that not lightly.

First, a (re-)definition of Frankl’s logotherapy:

[Logotherapy] considers man a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts.

This search for meaning, however, creates an inner tension on which good mental health is based.

This goes against what Frankl calls the ‘dangerous misconception’ of many psychologists that a state of mental equilibrium is desirable. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 21 ‘What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.’

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Black Sheep Backpackers Hostel: A mild review

Exceptional holiday accommodation deserves – nay, demands – to be saluted in that most modern of valedictions, the online review.

Sadly, my 1,000 word review (not including photographs, diagrams, maps, illustrations and appendices) of the Abergavenny Black Sheep Backpackers Hostel exceeded Hostelbookers paltry 500 character limit, so instead I will post it here and urge you all to make your own visitation at the earliest imaginable convenience. Continue reading Black Sheep Backpackers Hostel: A mild review

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Overwhelming Kindness

Everyone knows that it’s nice to be kind, but the Prof taught me something interesting: it’s even nicer to be overwhelmingly kind, to be so intensively kind on one single day that it blows your little mind.

That makes sense: if you spread your kindness thinly over the course of a week, you might forget the flavour – like the scraping of butter that’s senselessly lost in the riot of a bacon and egg bap.

In the same way, your moments of kindness will be diluted during the week by all the other occasions when you were a douche, or just being ‘normal’.

But if you save your week’s worth of buttery kindness for one huge dollop on, say, a Friday, then all of a sudden you become – albeit briefly – hot butter spread thickly on a crumpet. An unforgettably kind kind of god.

Of course, different people have different baseline kindness. We’re talking about kindnesses that you wouldn’t ordinarily perform.

For example, on Wednesday I let a woman go in front of me in the queue because she had… fewer items in her basket than I did. That’s a kindness I never would have normally performed, so that counts.

But that same evening, I volunteered with a gaggle of other GoodGym runners at a community garden in Bournemouth. That’s no doubt a kind deed, but it doesn’t count because I would’ve done that anyway – it didn’t require any effortful kindness on my part. Baseline.

I can easily tell these two varieties of kindness apart: the first gives me a buzz of almost electrifying, almost illicit pleasure. As I turned to the woman behind me, I thought to myself: Oh my god, I’m such a queue rebel! Is this even legal? This is going to blow her MIND!

As it happened, she just said thanks and walked in ahead of me with her Dairylea Lunchables. But I can’t control that. You are what you repeatedly do: I became in that moment a little more of a kindly person. And, like the bleeding heart liberal that I am, I think that is a goal worth pursuing.

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The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 20 'A man's concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress, but by no means a mental disease.'

Today’s pages (p103-108) mark the beginning of the second part of Man’s Search for Meaning: Logotherapy in a nutshell.

After some apologies for the inevitable failures for compressing into a few pages that which ‘required twenty volumes in German’, Viktor Frankl sets about explaining his therapy.

Logotherapy (as its etymology indicates) attempts to confront the patient with and reorient him towards the meaning of his life.

Frankl is very insistent that this ‘will to meaning’ is the overriding motivation for human beings: we live and die for our meanings and values, he points out.

Furthermore:

This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 20 ‘A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress, but by no means a mental disease.’

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The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 19

Today’s excerpt is a little shorter (p96-100), as we reach the end of Part 1 of Man’s Search for Meaning.

These are the final pages of Frankl’s description of the psychology of the concentration camp inmate.

Even after liberation, the former-prisoner is not out of psychological danger. For Frankl, progress from inmate to human being seems to have been slow and steady.

But for others, liberation was not so easy. Frankl describes the sudden release of mental pressure that occurred at the end of their imprisonment as similar to the bends.

Just as the physical health of the caisson worker would be endangered if he left his diver’s chamber suddenly […], so the man who has suddenly been liberated from mental pressure can suffer damage to his moral and spiritual health.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 19

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Thighs of Steel: A Community on Wheels

Today is the final day of the epic seven week cycling relay fundraiser that is Thighs of Steel.

At about 5pm, the latest peloton of steely thighed cyclists will sweep into Athens, hot, sweaty and exultant after an 85km day’s ride – the culmination of a journey that started 4,600km ago in London.

The bike ride, and the 80-odd riders thereon, have already smashed their target of raising £50,000 to pay the bills at refugee community centre Khora – and are pushing on to beat the record set last year of over £100,000.

These are the numbers. On the face of it, they sound very impressive. But, let’s be honest, there are more efficient ways of raising money for charity. Continue reading Thighs of Steel: A Community on Wheels

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Why I travel slow, or “Delays? Really?”

I’m a slow traveller. I’ve taken only one return flight in the last 8 years – and that was to prove to myself that I wasn’t not flying out of pride or habit.

So while the other Thighs of Steel cyclists packed up their bikes and drove out to Sofia airport for a three-hour flight home, I cycled down to the bus station for the first leg in a journey that took three days.

Sounds slow, right? Continue reading Why I travel slow, or “Delays? Really?”

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The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 18 'Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.'

Today’s pages (p91-96) address the psychology of the camp guard, and the psychology of the prisoner after his liberation from a concentration camp.

With regards to the guards, Frankl makes four observations:

  1. Some of the guards were pure sadists.
  2. These sadists were always chosen when severe treatment was ordered.
  3. The majority of guards were ‘morally and mentally hardened men’ who refused to take active part in sadistic torture, but did not prevent others from such behaviour.
  4. There were some guards who took pity on the prisoners and took active steps to ameliorate conditions for them. ‘Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.’

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 18 ‘Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.’

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Crossing the Border

If the wind changes direction, this man is in deep trouble. His mouth is so firmly down-turned that I wonder how he feeds himself.

He shoves out his hands, and I take two steps back. He stares at me, my little wine-red book on his counter.

The muscles in his face are drawn taught, toughness without any sign of strain. Only his eyes move: up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down. Matching photo to face, face to photo.

He flicks through the document, then slides it into a machine and stares expressionless at his monitor.

He returns to my face and my photograph. Except for his eyeballs, his face is completely frozen – do they teach that in border control school? Continue reading Crossing the Border

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The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 17 'Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.'

Today’s pages (p88-91, a wee bit shorter) are recollections of a speech that Viktor Frankl gave to his fellow prisoners at the end of a particularly hard day.

The prisoners had chosen to go without food rather than give up one of their number to the guards, and so were particularly hungry, tired, cold and irritable.

Frankl was called upon to give some words of encouragement, and he began with a very Stoic observation, that ‘our situation was not the most terrible we could think of’.

Losses of health, family, happiness and fortune were all replaceable in the future.

He quotes again from Nietzsche: ‘That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.’ Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 17 ‘Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.’

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Thighs of Steel: Ljubljana to Sofia

How do you sum up two weeks of doing almost nothing but cycling and refuelling?

We’ve cycled from Ljubljana in Slovenia, through the hills of Croatia, the plains of Hungary and the free ice creams of Romania to Sofia in Bulgaria. That’s about 80 miles a day for 12 days, with one day off in the middle to stumble around Timisoara in a daze and eat.

Sitting here now, in the cool of the shade of a fig tree, it’s time to wonder what will stay with me. Memories being what they are, what I write in the next 20 minutes may very well come to define my whole experience. So strap on your safety goggles and let’s see what comes. Continue reading Thighs of Steel: Ljubljana to Sofia

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A Morning in the Life of a Steely Thighed Cyclist

0505: Wake up needing the toilet. Hold it in.
0515: Alarm. Switch off with eyes tightly shut.
0520: Open eyes. Stretch out back in child’s pose on air mattress. Fantasise about a spa day. Search for glasses.
0525: Struggle into shorts from yesterday. They are damp. Start packing away unused sleeping bag. Keep searching for glasses.
0530: Pack away sleeping mat and other camping detritus in hope of finding glasses.
0535: Emerge from the tent into the morning dew. Wipe hands on grass and rub into face. Fetch shovel and biodegradable toilet paper from Calypso (the van) and find a suitable patch of ground for the morning constitutional. On the way back, make a cursory hunt for glasses.
0536: FIND GLASSES! Conclude that today will be a good day. Continue reading A Morning in the Life of a Steely Thighed Cyclist

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