Audacity is our only option

My last blog post on audacity got a great response. I particularly enjoyed conversations with Documentally and Beth Granville, both of whom are models of mine for more audacious living.

My call with Documentally was interesting because, as someone often audacious, he was anxious that his audacity could be draining the world of generosity.

What if his asking meant other, more needy people would miss out? And what if everyone went around acting audacious and asking for free cups of tea? What would happen then? Wouldn’t all the tea sellers go bankrupt and leave us bereft of warming beverages?

Documentally also said that he always feels an obligation to reply his debt of gratitude to the people who help him. He’d been expecting me to share the location of the beachside kiosk where I got my free tea last week.

It didn’t even cross my mind. Why not? I have no good answer to that question, and now feel like an ungrateful little swine. 🙂

still.slave.status

In my defence, the thesis of my writing was not about the kiosk – or even about generosity. Generosity is the flip side to audacity, and a story for another day.

I also never imagined that you lovely readers would ever be interested in visiting that particular kiosk, so why would I share its address?

But why ever not? Embedded in my somewhat solipsistic writing was an endorsement of a generous hearted kiosk operator. Why wouldn’t other people want to visit this kindly young man and exploit – sorry, reward his generosity? Especially as I know at least 7 people who visit Bournemouth on the regular.

So, without further analysis, if you ever find yourself in Bournemouth, then the kiosk you absolutely must visit is attached to the Versuvio restaurant on the seafront at Alum Chine. If you’re looking for What3Words, it’s still.slave.status, which is heartbreaking.

The karmic torpedo

We could enjoy an hour or two addressing Documentally’s other concerns, throwing around arguments for and against the karmic repercussions of audacity. But a story Beth told me pretty much torpedoes the whole argument.

You see, something similar happened to Beth the other day – except she really had forgotten her wallet, and really was gasping for a tea.

She was out with a friend, walking the dog, so went into the park cafe and asked if she could have a free cup of tea. The woman behind the counter said yes.

So, while she was there, Beth asked if her friend could have a tea as well – oh and these wafers look good – and how about a doggy treat for Jilly?

Think that’s taking the piss? I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Firstly because Beth offered to come back and pay – and actually did. But secondly, and I think more importantly, because of this story’s torpedo effect on Documentally’s karmic concerns.

What is normal? This is normal

Everyone has a totally different take on what defines normal behaviour. Did Beth think her ask was audacious? Maybe a little, but clearly not to the extent that I did when, knees a-knocking, I asked for my free cuppa.

For Beth this behaviour was, although not an everyday occurrence, at least within the boundaries of normal. And why ever not? She wasn’t coercing the cafe server. She didn’t act entitled (although it has been said that no one is more ready to be famous), she asked.

As long as you stay on the right side of audacity, you should have no worries over the karmic repercussions of asking.

Indeed, I’d go much, much further. I think it is vitally important – for all of us, people and planet – that you act with audacity.

Would the world be a better place if everyone were so audacious? Yes, without question, it would.

Why we need an audacious world

Audacity puts an end to all regrets (and crimes) of omission. It wouldn’t put an end to regret itself – it’s perfectly possible to do something audacious that you later regret. But we regret the things we do far less and far less frequently than we regret the things we never did.

In an audacious world, there would be zero elderly men, nodding by the fire, dreaming what might have been if only they’d asked Mary to the ball in 1953 – zero!

There would be zero working women wondering what might have been if only they’d asked for a raise ten years earlier – zero!

And there would be zero activists wondering what might have been if they’d only done something more than sign a petition – zero!

Because, in an audacious world, they would have asked. It is in our acts of audacity that we improve our lives and the lives of others. In audacity, we don’t hold back; we leave it all out there; we do our best.

Anxiety is the opposite of audacity

I’m not saying that if you ask audaciously you will always receive bounty, of course not.

But the energy we channel into our anxiety over whether we’ll be rejected would be far better spent on dealing with the rejection (if and when it comes) and then asking someone else on a date, looking for a new job, or starting a more ambitious campaign.

The opposite of audacity is not, as you might think, conventional behaviour. The opposite of audacity is anxiety.

No one goes through life thinking purely conventional thoughts. No matter how straight-laced that man you see on his office commute every morning, you can bet your life that he’s fantasised about some pretty audacious behaviour in his time.

And you can bet your afterlife that he beats himself up about his conventional existence every single day. Instead of audacity, he feels anxiety.

Why practise audacity?

Breaking our habits of convention is not easy. We focus on the pain of failure far more often than we dare to imagine success.

Some people, like Beth, are pretty well practised at asking for what they want, but the rest of us can improve by taking on low-stakes audacity challenges where our future (not to mention our fragile pride) doesn’t depend on the outcome.

These training challenges will be different for each of us. For me, it might be taking a guitar out to the beach and playing for passers-by.

For you, it might be sitting down on a park bench and talking to a stranger (wait – that one’s for me too).

For someone else, it might be leaving work unfinished and goofing off for an hour to listen to birdsong (wait – that one’s also for me).

If nothing too bad happens, then screw your courage to the sticking place and try something even more audacious.

Audacity today; audacity tomorrow

Slowly, through this practice, we hope to learn that no matter how audacious, neither our future nor our foolish pride will ever depend on the outcome of one act.

Yes, our actions today will go some way to moulding our tomorrow, but tomorrow will be as ripe for audacity as today ever was. Even if you totally mess up, you have the chance to choose again, and right your course.

So meet tomorrow’s audacious opportunities tomorrow, without looking past those coming ripe today.

The risk is that the alternative to audacity – anxiety – will keep us frozen in place. Do you want to keep on making the same mistakes tomorrow as you did today? That’s one definition of hell.

Far better to take an audacious step – in any direction – than to fall where you stand. Which reminds me of this maxim from psychiatrist Viktor Frankl:

Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.

Documentally made some excellent points, and it’s always helpful to stress-test any theory against the pangs of your conscience. But, in truth, we have no worthwhile alternative to audacity.


Before you ask: the cafe Beth audaciously plundered was in Grovelands Park in Winchmore Hill, Enfield. W3W: universally.wisely.woven.

The best things in life are audacious

The best thing that has ever happened to me, has just happened to me.

In the spirit of rejection therapy, I left the house with the intention of sitting out on the clifftops and writing my newsletter with a nice cup of tea.

What’s this got to do with rejection therapy? Well, I didn’t take any money with me.

And yet, here I am, sitting out on the clifftops, writing my newsletter with a nice cup of tea.

There was no queue at the beach kiosk, but I still had to stand and wait while the kiosk guy faffed with the bins, head down. Pop music was playing loudly from an old speaker.

I was just wondering whether I should make some customer-like noise or take this golden opportunity to run away and save my embarrassment, when the kiosk guy lifted his head.

‘What can I do for you, buddy?’

Here we go: ‘This is an absolutely outrageous request, but I’ve come out with no money – I couldn’t have a tea, could I?’

He didn’t answer, just smiled a wry smile, and went to the machine.

‘That’s so kind, thank you. If you give me a receipt, I’ll come back and pay another time.’

‘No, no. I’m not going to make a fuss over a bit of hot water and a teabag – it’s nothing.’

What a legend. I mean, he’s not wrong: a bit of hot water and a teabag is nothing. But still! He didn’t have to do that.

As I walked away, I thought to myself – actually, I said out loud to no one but the gulls, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’

Then I sat down on the clifftops and took a satisfied sip.

Do you think kiosk guy would mind if I went back and asked for one with no milk? No, no – forget it.

On audacity and entitlement

There is a fine line between audacity and entitlement. The distinction, I think, is in the emotions attached.

An audacious move expects rejection. As a result, rejection doesn’t lead to resentment, and acceptance gives you such a buzz of gratitude.

Audacity, somehow, brings people closer together. If you asked me right now, I’d probably give that kiosk guy my spare kidney.

Entitlement, by contrast, leaves both sides cold. Entitlement expects acceptance – or at least acquiescence. The entitled feel no such buzz of gratitude – because they’re only getting the bare minimum they reckon they’re owed by the universe.

Meanwhile, the victim of entitlement can only feel resentment that they have been plonked onto a lower station in the social hierarchy, and exploited. Were the victim to stand up against entitlement, they will face aggression, passive or explicit.

Audacity is the world as an open game of negotiation, engagement, and possibility. Entitlement, by contrast, is the world as a closed system of rules, privacy and hierarchy.

Do you dare to eat a peach?

Hot last weekend, wasn’t it?

Families were streaming to the beach in their thousands. As we pulled up to the cliffs car park, a family were relaxing in deck chairs around their camper, polishing off a barbecue lunch.

Hanging from the night before, one of our party made an audacious move: ‘Smells great, guys. Any chance you’ve got a burger going spare?’

Of course they have. The materfamilias takes delight in splitting a roll and filling it with charred meat and oleaginous relish: but who would dare ask? Who would squeeze the universe into a ball, to roll it toward some overwhelming question?

Do you dare to eat a peach?

Rebellion begins with audacity

Clearly, a burger and a cup of tea are pretty small fry. But you can’t begin by asking for the earth. Not even when you are asking for the earth.

Extinction Rebellion didn’t begin with a blockade of London. I imagine it began the same way as the US civil rights movement, the South African rebellion against Apartheid, the revolution in Egypt, and the English Civil War: with an invitation to a meeting in a small room in a flat.

But the modesty of that first meeting doesn’t mask the audacity of the agenda.

Rebellions begin with audacity. In fact, all change – large and small, public and personal – begins with audacity: the audacity to imagine an alternative.

Asking your future partner out for a coffee for the first time. Negotiating for a job, or a raise. Dropping everything to travel overland to Australia – or buying a £550 Nissan Micra to drive to Siberia (never mind that the interior is carpeted entirely in greengrocer’s astroturf). Replacing commercial advertising billboards with more honest messages. Typing the first words into an empty script.

They say that the best things in life are free; I wouldn’t argue with that. But I think it’s more accurate to say that the best things in life are audacious.

Training audacity

My audacity at the kiosk was contrived: I knew before I left the flat that I was going to ask for a free tea. I could instead have come out with my wallet and paid for a tea that I can easily afford.

Other people don’t have it so easy. Do you think the kiosk guy would’ve been so generous to a dishevelled man who carries all his worldly goods in two stuffed plastic bags? Maybe, maybe not.

But this was never a test of my privilege. This was a test of my mettle, training my audacity for greater challenges ahead.

By asking for a tea that I didn’t really need, I tested my courage to engage and negotiate so that when I do really need audacity, I have reserves of confidence to call upon.

There are three stages to a rejection therapy challenge:

  1. Aim for rejection. Expect the answer ‘no’, but ask anyway. Don’t worry that the challenge isn’t big or clever enough – if you think you’ll be rejected, that’s plenty big and clever.
  2. Failure is success. You’ve found your limits – for now. Try the same challenge again, with different people, and different approaches.
  3. Success is failure. A cup of tea – as the kiosk guy pointed out – is nothing. Next time, be bolder, push yourself further.

Above all, if other people are involved, be charming. Smile. Be frank about the fact you’re asking something ridiculous and weird. Have a laugh about it and you might just find yourself a co-conspirator.

And when you are rejected – congratulations! – smile again, say thank you, and walk away with the deep satisfaction that you’ve pushed against your horizon of audacity, and – for now – found its limit.

What about you? Is this concept of audacity useful? How could you be more audacious right now?


By the way, the smug photo of me with my free tea was taken by an Iranian MBA student I met on the clifftops.

As well as my wallet, I came out without my camera, so I walked up to this woman and asked if she could take one on her phone and email it to me.

She took four.

She was the third person I asked.

Happy Bicycle Day!

Today might be Good Friday, but it’s also Bicycle Day – the celebration of the first deliberate acid trip.

On 19 April 1943, intrigued by ‘a peculiar presentiment’ and ‘excercising extreme caution’, chemist Albert Hofmann ingested 0.25 mg of lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate – ‘the smallest quantity that could be expected to produce some effect’. Or so he thought.

Hofmann recorded the details of his experiment in that day’s lab journal:

4/19/43
16:20: 0.5 cc of 1/2 promil aqueous solution of diethylamide tartrate orally = 0.25 mg tartrate. Taken diluted with about 10 cc water. Tasteless.
17:00: Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh. Supplement of 4/21: Home by bicycle.

What followed was a remarkable descent into horror and beauty, confronting demons and angels, and finally an experience of death and rebirth. 0.25mg of LSD, it turned out, was a pretty big dose.

The next day, Hofmann writes:

A sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me. Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure. When I later walked out into the garden, in which the sun shone now after a spring rain, everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created.

For more about the discovery of this remarkable compound, read Hofmann’s autobiography, LSD – My Problem Child, available online, for free. The story of his first self-experiment begins on page 11.

Happy Bicycle Day!

Empathy, society, and a nice cup of tea…

I never drank tea until I went to China when I was 18. There, I had no option. Green tea was served by default at all meals, and there was always a flask by your bedside in guesthouses and hotels.

Ubiquitous doesn’t really do full justice to the omnipresence of tea in China. Although the Chinese only drink something more than a quarter of the quantity that we do in Britain, they are by far and away the largest producers of the precious plant, responsible for a third of global production.

Only after my visit did I fully comprehend the staggering contempt implied by the saying, ‘Not for all the tea in China’.

Clearly not tea, but some sort of paddy field in Yangshuo County, China. As seen from behind a Fujifilm camera in 2001.

My Chinese education explains why I take my tea with neither milk nor sugar.

I dread to imagine the state of my teeth had I starting drinking tea just a few weeks before, when I was in Egypt. In the Nile Valley, the default is tiny glasses of black tea filled halfway with white sugar and, perhaps, a sprig of mint.

It’s got more in common with a Magnum ice cream than the restorative brew I found in China.

I digress.

The point is that, since 2001, I have rarely been without tea. Often green, occasionally black if I need the astringent caffeine hit.

Just as often, though, I’ll have what the French would call a tisane, or what the more pretentious English would call a herbal infusion – a redbush, a chamomile, a peppermint, or some other preparation of dried organic matter.

For me, the point is not the caffeine or even the flavour, but the psychological comfort of having something to do with my hands (behave yourself) between essays at the keyboard.

In days past, writers smoked cigarettes, cigars or cigarillos; many still use alcohol. I used to chew gum and eat biscuits. But tea, I find, offers something else.

Bob Dylan: listlessly creative with a pot of tea (milk, sugar). SOURCE: Famous People Drinking Tea

I’m preaching to the choir, of course. All of my friends, bar one, drink tea in copious quantities. So why bring this up today?

Last weekend, after a day spent working on Foiled, Beth and I went dancing. On the way home, I can’t remember why, Beth was holding forth on the subject of morning tea.

She told me that, whenever she stays over at her parents’ place, her mum creeps up to her room in the morning with a fresh brew. She knocks softly on Beth’s door, lays the tea (milk, no sugar) down on her bedside table, and gently whispers: ‘There’s a tea there if you want it.’

Her mum does this all so lightly that there’s no chance of Beth waking from a deep sleep, but if she’s already drifting to the surface of consciousness, then – lo and behold – the greatest start to a morning imaginable.

How to prepare the perfect morning cuppa, according to the first page, no less, of The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse.

This vignette led to a discussion on the role of empathy in relationships.

The Golden Rule exhorts us to treat others as we would wish ourselves to be treated. It’s good enough so far as it goes, but in my opinion the Golden Rule does not go even nearly far enough.

Most of us, let’s be honest, treat ourselves like shit. We have such a low opinion of ourselves, that we would never in our wildest dreams imagine anyone else would ever make us a cup of tea in the morning.

If we were to follow the mere Golden Rule for our behaviour, we would likewise never think of making a morning tea for anyone else. And – lo and behold – this is how many relationships pan out.

Yesterday, the same topic came up with another friend – let’s call her Ariadne for no reason whatsoever – who lives with a couple. Ariadne told me how annoyed she was that the boyfriend would never make a morning cuppa for his girlfriend.

‘He’s up at the same time as me. I’m always in a rush; he never is. And yet he never makes her a cup of tea; I do.’

Sometimes Ariadne brings the girlfriend tea when the boyfriend is in bed kissing her goodbye. ‘You’re just shit-stirring now,’ he says.

And of course she is. But if he swallowed his pride for one second and saw how happy that morning tea made his girlfriend, then he’d see that the cognitive cost of doing something for someone else is, quelle horreur!, outweighed a hundred times over by the closer relationships we earn.

Science has shown this. Give someone a warm drink and they feel more warmly towards you – and not just metaphorically:

participants who briefly held a cup of hot (versus iced) coffee judged a target person as having a “warmer” personality (generous, caring)
Source // Guardian write-up

We need a new rule. Perhaps we can baptise it the Astatine Rule, after the rarest naturally-occurring element on earth.

The Astatine Rule says that we should treat others as we would ourselves wish to be treated in our wildest fantasies of existence (behave yourself!).

This second part is crucial: unless your life has been an endless waterfall of rainbows and unicorns then there is no point merely repeating the behaviour you’ve learnt thus far.

Imagining a peak existence (or anything) greater than you’ve ever experienced is really hard; that’s why relationships all too often settle down to baseline.

We need inspiration more extraordinarily creative to set our empathic imaginations free and kick start a virtuous cycle of kindness (and cups of tea). Stories help.

The morning after our dance, I woke up before Beth. I crept into the kitchen, past where she was sleeping in the living room, and put the kettle on the hob. I caught the boil just before it whistled, loaded up her mug with black tea and milk, and stirred until it was the colour of caramel chocolate.

Then I tiptoed into the living room and laid the mug down by her bedside. ‘There’s a tea there if you want it,’ I whispered.

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.

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.

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…

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!

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.

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)

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.

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!

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!

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.’

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.

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.’

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.’

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.’

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.

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.’

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.

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.’

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.’

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

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.’

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.

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.’

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

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.’

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.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 16 'Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs.'

In today’s pages (p84-88), Frankl addresses head on the question of the meaning of life.

The search for this meaning is in itself a matter of life and death – for the deterioration of a man’s courage and hope bears a direct correlation to the deterioration of his physical strength.

Quite simply, those prisoners who hoped the war would end by Christmas were very likely to die by New Year.

The only cure for this malaise was to follow Nietzsche’s advice: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 16 ‘Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 15 'With the end of uncertainty there came the uncertainty of the end.'

In today’s pages (p78-83), Viktor Frankl addresses the dangers of the past, the sufferings of the present and the promise of the future.

For concentration camp prisoners, the ‘most depressing influence’ on their psychology was the fact that no one knew how long they would remain imprisoned for.

This created, in the words of one unnamed research psychologist, a ‘provisional existence’, to which Frankl adds ‘of unknown limit’. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 15 ‘With the end of uncertainty there came the uncertainty of the end.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 14 'If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.'

In today’s pages (p74-78), Viktor Frankl sets out the first principles of his theory of logotherapy: addressing directly the question of man’s search for meaning.

Following his description of the psychological trials of the camp inmate, Frankl asks whether or not the ‘human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings’.

Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? …

[D]o the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings?

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 14 ‘If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 13 'There they were locked in the huts and burned to death.'

Today’s pages (p70-74) bring us to the end of the Nazi rule of the concentration camp where Viktor Frankl was kept prisoner.

But not without one last twist of fate.

Frankl’s celebrations at the coming of the Red Cross delegate was short-lived. The SS arrived that night and ordered the camp to be cleared, and the prisoners taken to another camp where they would be transferred to Switzerland.

But after a mistake by the Chief Doctor, Frankl was not put on any of the trucks which understandably left him ‘[s]urprised, very annoyed and disappointed’. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 13 ‘There they were locked in the huts and burned to death.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 12 'They tried to save themselves, but they only sealed their own fates.'

Today’s pages (p64-70) concern Viktor Frankl’s attitude to fate.

Frankl believed that destiny will run its own course, and his only responsibility was to his own conscience.

One day, Viktor Frankl’s name (or number!) appeared on the list for transportation to a ‘rest camp’.

The other prisoners were all convinced that this was nothing more than a euphemism for ‘gas chamber’, but Frankl did nothing to get his name crossed off the list – even when the camp’s chief doctor told him he only had to ask.

I told him that this was not my way; that I had learned to let fate take its course. … He shook my hand silently, as though it were a farewell, not for life, but from life.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 12 ‘They tried to save themselves, but they only sealed their own fates.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 11 'One literally became a number: dead or alive - that was unimportant; the life of a "number" was completely irrelevant.'

Today’s pages (p60-64) start with the observation that, in the desperate fight for survival, the inmates could easily lose the feeling of being an individual with ‘inner freedom and personal value’.

He thought of himself then as only a part of an enormous mass of people; his existence descended to the level of animal life.

Viktor Frankl notices that the inmates started to behave like sheep, when herded from one place to another by the guards.

[W]e, the sheep, thought of two things only – how to evade the bad dogs and how to get a little food. Just like sheep that crowd timidly into the centre of a herd, each of us tried to get into the middle of our formations.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 11 ‘One literally became a number: dead or alive – that was unimportant; the life of a “number” was completely irrelevant.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 10 'Suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little.'

Today’s pages (p55-60) start with what must be one of the most shockingly apposite analogies in literature.

[A] man’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber.

Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.

The choice to use ‘gas’ for the metaphor is both macabre and entirely fitting. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 10 ‘Suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little.’

Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 9 'I bit my lips till they hurt in order to keep from laughing at one of his love poems, and very likely that saved my life.'

The prisoners’ inner life was so important to their survival, whether it was the mundane nostalgic memory of catching the bus or answering telephone, or the sublime sight of the setting sun through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods.

After admiring such a sunset, one prisoner said to another: ‘How beautiful the world could be.’ Continue reading Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 9 ‘I bit my lips till they hurt in order to keep from laughing at one of his love poems, and very likely that saved my life.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 8 'The salvation of man is through love and in love.'

Today’s pages (p45-51) are some of the most touching in the whole book.

Viktor Frankl begins by describing, almost light-heartedly, the ‘cultural hibernation’ that took place in the concentration camps.

Two exceptions to the absence of interest in art and intellect were ‘almost continuous’ discussions of politics and religion:

The depth and vigour of religious belief often surprised and moved a new arrival.

This deepening of spiritual life is Frankl’s explanation of why ‘some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature’. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 8 ‘The salvation of man is through love and in love.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 7 'In those ghastly minutes, I found a little bit of comfort; a small piece of bread.'

Today’s pages (p41-45) are largely concerned with food, notable for its paucity in concentration camps such as Auschwitz.

Viktor Frankl recounts the daily menu:

[T]he daily ration consisted of very watery soup given out once daily, and the usual small bread ration.

In addition to that, there was the so-called “extra allowance,” consisting of three-fourths of an ounce of margarine, or of a slice of poor quality sausage, or of a little piece of cheese, or a bit of synthetic honey, or a spoonful of watery jam, varying daily.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 7 ‘In those ghastly minutes, I found a little bit of comfort; a small piece of bread.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 6 'No dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us.'

In today’s pages (p37-41), Viktor Frankl describes how even the most hardened concentration camp prisoner can be roused through insult to rash – and potentially suicidal – indignation.

The beating Frankl received after defending his honour as a doctor against the insults of a particularly repugnant foreman was only relieved by the favour of the Capo in his work party.

How had Frankl won the good favour of this Capo? By lending a sympathetic ear to the Capo’s tales of matrimonial strife! Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 6 ‘No dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 5 'Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator could not really feel any more.'

In this section (p31-37), Viktor Frankl moves onto the second phase of the psychological response to incarceration: apathy, a ‘kind of emotional death’.

As he says, such an ‘abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour’.

This ‘mortification of normal reactions was hastened’ by the punishments meted out by the camp officials:

It was a favourite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage.

If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished with a blow from a Capo.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 5 ‘Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator could not really feel any more.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Cult: Day 4 'A man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.'

Today’s pages mark Viktor Frankl’s transition from naive optimism to the moment he ‘struck out’ the whole of his former life and started his bare fight for survival from Auschwitz.

Those who had survived the initial cull were stripped of all their belongings and shaved bare with not a hair left on their bodies.

While we were waiting for the shower, our nakedness was brought home to us: we really had nothing now except our bare bodies: all we possessed, literally, was our naked existence’.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Cult: Day 4 ‘A man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Cult: Day 3 'The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.'

These five pages (p22-26 in my 2004 Rider edition) begin with the first phase of the inmates mental reactions to life in a concentration camp. Unsurprisingly, the dominant symptom on admission to Auschwitz was shock.

There are three passages in today’s reading that stand out for me. The first is Viktor Frankl’s observation of the ‘delusion of reprieve’:

The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Cult: Day 3 ‘The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 2 'We know: the best of us did not return.'

These first pages (p17-21 in my 2004 Rider edition) of Part 1: Experiences in a Concentration Camp contain the most chilling passage I think I have ever read in a work of non-fiction.

After describing how desperate was the fight for survival in the concentration camps of World War Two, Viktor Frankl matter-of-factly states:

On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves.

We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 2 ‘We know: the best of us did not return.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 1 'A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to.'

Gordon W Allport opens his preface to Man’s Search for Meaning with an anecdote about Viennese psychiatrist-author Victor Frankl. Apparently he used to ask all his patients one question: ‘Why do you not commit suicide?’ Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 1 ‘A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to.’

It’s a wonderful life – isn’t it?

It’s not every day that the premise for a Hollywood film gets turned into a psychology experiment designed to make you feel more satisfied with your life.

But that’s what has happened to Frank Capra’s perennial schmaltz-fest It’s A Wonderful Life. Continue reading It’s a wonderful life – isn’t it?

The Only Serious Question of Philosophy The lesson from history is that humans are infinitely adaptable, and the most adaptable are those who are able to see the potential for growth among abject suffering.

In the preface to my edition of Man’s Search for Meaning, Gordon W Allport tells us that Viktor Frankl used to ask his psychotherapy clients what it was that stopped them from committing suicide.

It’s a question that existential philosopher and bon vivant Albert Camus considered the only serious question in philosophy. Continue reading The Only Serious Question of Philosophy The lesson from history is that humans are infinitely adaptable, and the most adaptable are those who are able to see the potential for growth among abject suffering.

Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning

I read a lot of books. Not a ridiculous quantity, like my sister, but a lot. I also make a lot of spreadsheets. Not a ridiculous quantity, like my dad, but a lot. Putting those two aspects of my nature together, I can tell you things like:

  • I read an average of 32.7 books a year.
  • About a quarter of those will be fiction.
  • I also give up on an average of 6.9 books every year.
  • In the last 5 years, I have given 45 books a rating of 5 out of 5. That’s 27% of all the books I’ve read.
  • Only 1 book in 202 has scored 1 out of 5. Most of the books in this category I don’t finish, and therefore don’t score. This one I finished, and it was irritatingly bad. It was by Jeffrey Archer.

Every now and again I read a book that defies my rating scheme. If I was a different sort of person, a more devil-may-care sort of person, then I’d break my 5-point rating for books like this.

This week I read such a book, after finding out that Alastair Humphreys reads it every year: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Continue reading Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning

Why I sauna

On Wednesday, for the umpteenth time in the last year, I found myself in swimming shorts, dripping in sweat, and making small talk with strangers. Even in the UK, saunas are a great place to meet people.

“What even is the benefit of doing a sauna, anyway?”

I’ve heard that question while sweating my guts out so many times that I really wonder what brought them there in the first place. You just walked through the door, son, you tell me! Continue reading Why I sauna