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…

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

Work is the Opposite of Worry

One of my favourite aphorisms is “Happiness is the very opposite of selfishness”, attributed to Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University and obsessive historian of Tony Blair. [Read an elucidation of his aphorism on the BBC]

This aphorism is a great tonic for when I find myself footling around in my brain for that elusive drug, happiness. It gently nudges me back onto the path, calibrates my compass, gets me out of my head and connects me with others.

But there are times when it doesn’t work. Continue reading Work is the Opposite of Worry

Carpe Diem: Dancing with Death

Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Even as we speak, envious time flies past: harvest the day and leave as little as possible for tomorrow.

Horace, Ode XI (65-8BC)

I’m currently reading Carpe Diem Regained by Roman Krznaric (incidentally, a book funded by Unbound – it is possible!) and this blog post is inspired by the tools and techniques he explores in the second chapter: Dancing with Death.

The ancient philosophy espoused by Horace in the first century before Christ is one of the most ubiquitous in modern culture, but its ubiquity disguises how little any of us actually think about what it would really mean to live by. Continue reading Carpe Diem: Dancing with Death

After the Christmas, the Crisis

After the Christmas, the crisis. Or Crisis. I’ve been helping out at the Harris Academy Bermondsey, where volunteers have transformed a school into a week-long refuge for homeless people.

Crisis at Christmas is a brilliant idea that started 50 years as a publicity stunt. It’s been going every year since and thousands of homeless guests come through the doors for the good food, companionship and advice offered by more than 11,000 volunteers across 13 sites in London and beyond. Continue reading After the Christmas, the Crisis

“No one ever died while breathing.” Psychedelic Breathwork with Alchemy of Breath

“No one ever died while breathing.” Anthony Abbagnano’s words are only somewhat comforting, as I settle down on my girlfriend’s yoga mat for an hour of hyperventilation.

Last night I spent the evening with about a hundred other yoga-matted breathers in the vast domed sanctuary of the Round Chapel in Clapton. The event was called Psychedelic Breathwork, and jointly organised by the excellent Psychedelic Society and Anthony’s organisation Alchemy of Breath. I had no idea what to expect – but at least now I could be optimistic that death would play no part in it.
Continue reading “No one ever died while breathing.” Psychedelic Breathwork with Alchemy of Breath

Wim Hof: The Cold is Our Teacher

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, summer is sliding inexorably away. With heavy hearts, we pack away our shorts and sandals and dig out our autumnal garb. This is it, guys: we’ll be layered up until next spring.

So why haven’t I worn a jumper or a coat since Tuesday? Continue reading Wim Hof: The Cold is Our Teacher

Stoicism and The Word of God

I’ve always been somewhat in awe of Christianity: two millennia of earnest study on the nature of being and how to live the good life – all based on one book. And there is plenty of good in the Good Book. Like Mark Twain said:

[The Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.

Continue reading Stoicism and The Word of God

Counselling, Meditation and Psychedelics

Some of you probably know that, over the past 10 weeks, I’ve been studying person-centred counselling at the CityLit in London.

Some of you are perhaps also aware that I’ve recently (re)turned to mindfulness meditation to manage stress levels, as part of a concerted campaign against elevated Thyroid Peroxidase antibodies in my bloodstream.

And probably all of you know that over the last couple of years I’ve been investigating the transpersonal potential of psychedelics.

What I am slowly realising, however, is how tightly these three areas are woven together. Continue reading Counselling, Meditation and Psychedelics