No Meat

After No Hot Showers and No Pressing the Open Door Button on Public Transportation, here comes a positive constraint that is, shall we say, a little more… meaty.

If in doubt, open with a pun, that’s what ma always told me.

My Old Diet: Meat and Beans

For the last two years, my diet has almost exclusively consisted of two ingredients: meat and beans. That might not sound like a varied diet, but sometimes the beans were butter and sometimes they were black. When I couldn’t get either, I’d settle for kidney.

Meat pie. Fray Bentos.
I even once ate this. Yuk.

Of course, I’m slightly exaggerating. These two primary ingredients were bonded together by a tin of tomatoes and served with a selection of coleslaw, hummus and/or soft cheese. That essential melange was what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For two years.

This diet might not sound particularly healthy, but over those two years I’ve managed to remain an active human being, who runs three times a week and cycles pretty much everywhere. The meat and beans combo is high in calories and protein, which gives me good energy, and low in carbohydrates and fibre, which means I don’t get bloated.

This monolithic diet had a few practical benefits on the side too:

  1. It’s simple.
  2. It’s quick.
  3. It’s filling.
  4. It’s cheap.

What more could a person desire? My taste buds aren’t up to much, so I wasn’t that bothered about endless repetition. In fact, repeating the same meal over and over meant that I got absurdly proficient at its preparation and, for someone whose priority is to spend time in the study rather than the kitchen, that’s a good thing.

More time in the kitchen.
No Meat means more time staring at these. Riveting.

 

Why No Meat?

So why on earth would I trade in that sweet deal for the unknown mystery of a vegetarian diet? The clue is in the question: if there’s one thing that I can’t resist, it’s an almond ice cream unknown mystery. I didn’t know what to expect to learn, but I knew I would learn something. And that’s the best reason for doing anything.

Like all good students, I started my education, not in the kitchen, but slumped in front of the computer watching a film. Cowspiracy examines the devastation the animal agriculture industry wreaks on the environment and, as the title hints, wonders why government, industry and even environmental advocacy groups like Greenpeace turn a blind eye.

Vegetarianism has never appealed to me on compassionate grounds. I am happy to kill animals for food. I’ve lived and grazed alongside pigs, turkeys, chickens and sheep. I killed one of those turkeys for food and I’d do it again. I understand the philosophical arguments for animal rights and I respect those who fight that battle, but it’s just not an ethical dilemma I can get riled up about.

Global warming and the environmental degredation of the planet, however, is something that does concern me. I don’t mind killing an animal for food, but if by killing that animal I am part of a vast unsustainable feeding industry, then that’s a personal moral decision I would like to investigate.

Cowspiracy is unambiguous:

Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill.

You can read more facts about animal agriculture on the Cowspiracy website, complete with percentages and dates, billions and millions.

But the main reason for giving No Meat a try was to learn more about food, food preparation, my body and my health.

No Meat

At the beginning of this week, then, I stopped eating meat. As I hope I’ve made clear, this was no small modification to my diet. Just in case it’s not obvious, about 50% of my calories, 85% of my protein and 50% of my fat came from meat.

This was going to be the biggest challenge: where would I find my calories, where would I find my protein, where would I find my fat if not from the flesh of an animal?

The answer, as it happens, was from different bits of animals: eggs, cheese and milk. So much for avoiding the animal agriculture industry!

No Meat 2015-09-18 001
Delicious saladiness. Spot the animal products.

Since Monday, I’ve been eating salad and scramble. In the salad, we have:

  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumber
  • Red pepper
  • Red onion
  • Avocados
  • Feta cheese
  • Rocket
  • Spinach
  • Chickpeas

All raw and dressed with pumpkin seed oil.

No Meat 2015-09-18 004
Well that looks gross. Sorry if you were eating while reading this.

In the scramble, I put:

  • Eggs (scrambled)
  • Mushrooms (fried)
  • Red onion (fried)
  • Black beans (boiled)
  • Lentils (boiled)

Even this wide variety of ingredients, it’s a struggle to eat enough to give me sufficient calories, fat and protein. Just to give you a sense of the scale of the protein problem alone:

  • I used to eat about 500g of meat a day, which gave me 170g protein.
  • To get the same amount from eggs, I’d need to eat 24 a day. Just about possible without throwing up.
  • To get the same amount from beans, I’d need to eat about 4kg, or 16 tins’ worth. Impossible without growing into a huge ball of bloat by the end of the day.

For every gramme of protein that I consume from beans or lentils, I’m getting at least a gramme of gassy fibre. This is not a good trade, so yesterday I bought some pea protein isolate, which I can throw into a blender with milk, almond butter and a banana to make a 40g protein, 22g fat smoothie.

Without this addition, I think the transition to a vegetarian diet would have been extremely difficult for me. Thank the lord for modern food technology!

The inside of my compost bin.
Real food technology: the inside of my compost bin.

Nutritional Comparison

Because I like to do these things properly, I have analysed, weighed and measured every single ingredient in my new vegetarian diet, so that I can compare it precisely with my good old meat and beans.

One new No Meat meal (excluding the supplemental pea protein smoothie) contains:

  • Much less energy (800kcal vs 1050kcal) because I simply can’t eat enough!
  • Much less protein (42g vs 100g) because there’s no meat, duh.
  • Much more fibre (28g vs 14g), mostly down to the avocados and increased bean intake.
  • Much more sugar (12g vs 4g). That’s those sweet cherry tomatoes and red pepper.
  • Much more salt (3g vs 1.2g), thanks to the feta cheese in the salad. I’ll go with something less salty next time.
  • Comparable carbohydrates (46g vs 44g). Mostly from beans in both diets.
  • Only slightly less fat and saturated fat (44g and 17g vs 53g and 21g). The eggs, cheese and avocados help here.

If I include one pea protein shake, then we can add:

  • 571kcal energy.
  • 38g protein.
  • 24g fat (of which 7g is saturated fat).
  • 48g carbohydrates (of which 34g is sugar).
  • 8g fibre.
  • 1.2g salt.

This pretty much doubles both protein (good) and carbohydrates (less good). Energy, fat and carbohydrate intake now exceeds my meat and beans diet, while protein still lags behind.

Next time, I’ll try it without the banana, which alone adds 31g of carbs. I might even try the pea protein on its own, mixed with water (urgh!).

Practical Difficulties and Lifestyle Adjustments

Unfortunately, however, the problems with nutrition were just the tip of the (rapidly melting due to animal agricuture incited global warming) iceberg.

  • Yesterday I spent 1 hour 15 minutes preparing my vegetarian meals. Cooking meat and beans used to take me 20 minutes, most of which would be spent playing guitar while the pan sat on the stove.
  • Meat and beans is a one pan, one bowl meal. Preparing vegetables uses all manner of kitchen accoutrements: a knife, a chopping board, two pans and two bowls. That means more washing up.
  • It also creates more waste by-products such as onion peel, avocado stones, egg shells and that juice that comes out of feta cheese. Luckily these are mostly compostable.
  • The shopping list for my vegetarian diet is much longer, having risen from three ingredients to fourteen. This means more time spent in the greengrocer. Luckily, he’s a great fella, so shopping turns into more a social occasion.
  • I find that, not only am I almost painfully bloated from eating so much, but I am also visiting the toilet a lot more, which is slightly inconvenient. I’m told that this may well settle down as my body gets used to the diet.
  • Because meat covers so many nutritional bases, from protein and fats to vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids, I’ve got to be much more organised with what I eat. The plus side is that, in doing so, I’ll also learn much more about my food.
  • The basic salad and scramble meal plan works out slightly cheaper, roughly £3 per meal compared to £3.30 for one of meat and beans. The pea protein smoothies cost £1.30 each, however, making the vegetarian diet more expensive in total.
Too much washing up.
Too much washing up.

What’s next?

This week has been largely delicious, if time consuming. I’ve spent a lot more time in the kitchen and learnt a lot more about vegetables and nutrition. As I write these words, I’m a bit hungry, but then it is lunch time. So what’s next?

As far as I can tell, I’ve got three options:

  1. I could continue with this No Meat experiment as it is, hopefully becoming a tastier, faster and more knowledgeable lacto-ovo vegetarian chef.
  2. I could reintroduce meat, but perhaps eat less. If not for the taste (my buds are really not fussed, remember), then for the wider nutritional palette. A 2011 study, for example, found that supplementation with 20g of creatine per day could enhance cognitive functioning in vegetarians. Not to put too fine a point on it, we get creatine from eating animals.
  3. I could go the whole hog (sorry) and try No Animal Products or, as it’s better known, veganism. This is what the makers of Cowspiracy would love me to do, for the sake of the environment. I also happen to have a good friend who is a miraculous vegan chef (I particularly recommend her Chocolate Orange Black Bean Brownies). If I can make veganism work for me the way it so radiantly works for her, then, quite frankly, winner, winner, (no) chicken dinner.

Whatever I decide, at least I’ve started the process of self-enlightenment, which is the primary purpose of all the best experiments in positive constraints. If you’d like to stay in touch with all my experiments – and get first news of the very exciting book – then please join my mailing list.

Now I can join in the meat or no meat conversation: What do you think?

No Pressing the Open Door Button on Public Transportation

This might sound like a small thing, but it’s really not. Wait a minute – my mistake – yes, it is a small thing. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a satisfying and worthwhile positive constraint.

My case study concerns the London Overground network, but this little behavioural change is applicable to any mode of busy public transportation where you have to press a button to operate the doors.

The Overground Buttons

If you use an Overground train in London, you will observe a strange confluence of panic around the door when the train arrives at a station. This is because, unlike on the London Underground, the Overground train doors don’t open automatically at every station; you have to press a button.

As a consequence, when my bit of the network started running in 2010, I needed to learn quickly, or risk being left stranded on the platform or trapped on a runaway train.

You still sometimes see bemused and bewildered travellers, who have been patiently waiting for the doors to open, suddenly start impotently flapping and flagging as their train sallies on without them.

Or you might spot the occassional traveller who’s managed to get onto the train thanks to the button-pushing skills of another, but has not learnt the technique themselves and thus can never disembark, standing at the doors in horror as stations come and go, from here to West Croydon.

On the Button Competition

There are three buttons to operate the doors: two on the inside and one on the outside. I can guarantee you that, ninety-nine percent of the time during peak hours, all three buttons will be pressed, almost simultaneously, by three different commuters. To leave one of the buttons unpressed is mildly scandalous behaviour.

I used to be one of the button-pushers, of course. I used to feel total disdain for the other chumps who tried to press my door’s buttons. Idiots! I’m the fastest draw in the East.

The train slows, I take up my position at the door, shoulder to shoulder with my hapless adversary. The brakes jolt, a warning beep, a light goes on and our fingers jab down on the buttons. Triumph!

A moment’s hesitation, though, and my finger hits a button whose door has already started to open. The humiliation of defeat is total. I can only avenge myself by beating him to the stairs.

What I want to know is why we do this. It only takes one person to open the door. It shows a distinct lack of awareness, surely, to fail to see that there are three other people who’ve had their fingers poised over the buttons ever since we left Wapping.

Do these people (myself included) think the others are such inept button-pushers that they might cause a delay of up to twenty milliseconds in the time taken to step down from the train and join the crush for the escalators?

Or perhaps they suspect that the other three buttons are mysteriously out of order and only theirs will have the magical Open Sesame effect?

Whatever the reason, this button-psychology is a remarkable example of how individual members of a crowd can be relied upon to act as if they were completely alone. And that kind of thoughtlessness is exactly what we can attack with a positive constraint.

Feel Like Transport Royalty

Now almost everyone knows the idiosyncratic ways of the Overground. Now there are so many newbies eager to prove themselves that it’s no longer a matter of life-and-commuter-death to be a button-pusher.

So, while the four self-elected button-pushers take up their posts, I prefer to wait for the chosen one to open the doors for me. I do still feel an urge to press the button myself, but delight in not obeying that urge.

Instead of behaving like I’m the only person on the train, or the only person who can use his digits to operate machinery, I am conscious of my fellow travellers and know they’ve got me covered.

It’s like someone politely holding the door for you: it feels nice, like I’m a bit special. It doesn’t matter that these people don’t realise they’re doing me a favour, but maybe I should start saying thank you.

Advantages of No Pressing the Open Door Button on Public Transport:

  • You can relax, free of the anxiety to press the button first. Travelling on public transport is stressful at the best of times, why contribute a mote more?
  • You’re giving others the childish pleasure of operating a machine. I call this the Science Museum Effect. Kids love pressing buttons.
  • Not touching the buttons means you have slightly less exposure to the myriad bacterial and viral contaminations that thrive on public transportation.
  • You feel vaguely royal, travelling with your own personal doorman, your majesty.
  • You can position yourself directly in front of the double doors, with your doormen flanking you. Because the doors open from the middle outwards, you will be first off the train, and straight onto the red carpet, presumably.

Disadvantages:

  • If you are alone, you should ignore this positive constraint and just press the button. I don’t want to be responsible for you missing your stop.

No Hot Showers

Ah, ah – ooh, ooh – eee!

No, these are not the lyrics to the latest chart-topping teenybopper execration. They are instead the chimp-like sounds of me showering, at least since I started my most recent experiment in positive constraints: No Hot Showers.

A positive constraint is a restriction on your behaviour that you’ve freely chosen. They’re really common in art and music (a picture frame or time signature is a positive constraint), any sports and games (the ban on using your hands in football is a positive constraint) and religion (the Sabbath, Lent or Ramadan are all dedicated to exercising positive constraint).

What I’m trying to do is bring the art of positive constraints into our everyday lifestyles, through experiments in everything from No Aeroplanes and No English, to No Supermarkets and No Walking.

Too often we flounder around in the rut of our unexamined habits, without asking why we travel by plane or shop at supermarkets. Positive constraints is the method through which we can find, almost always, a better way of doing things.

For the next three months, I’ll be publishing regular experiments in positive constraints right here. Among many others, I’ll be exploring life without swearing, handshakes, meat – and pants.

I’m also writing a book that goes into much more detail on a wide range of positive constraints, examining the psychology of experiential and behavioural change. If you want to be first to hear news of the book, then please sign up to my mailing list.

Designing the No Hot Showers Experiment

Designing a new experiment in positive constraints is easy. You just think of something that you do, and then don’t.

Every morning, for example, I have a nice hot shower. Incidentally, I’ve never understood why humans wake up in the morning feeling unclean – my hair looks like I’ve been sleeping under a hedge and somehow my skin feels simultaneously dry and oily – but there it is. The morning is unthinkable until I’ve had my ablutions: a five minute hot shower.

So that’s what I do. Applying the methodology of positive constraints, then, I should now explore what I don’t. I could have gone the whole hog and experimented with No Showers At All, but I think my housemates would have reported me to Environmental Health.

Instead, last week, I started taking No Hot Showers.

Why No Hot Showers?

When you’re experimenting, it’s important not to assume too much about your results. Before I started No Hot Showers, though, I knew two things. No Hot Showers would:

  1. Wake me up. Like a punch to the face.
  2. Save on heating bills.

I’m definitely right about #1, but #2 will probably be too small to measure, particularly as I live with 7 other people, all of whom take hot showers, some luxuriantly so.

Once I’d started the experiment, though, I learnt a whole lot more about the benefits of No Hot Showers, from the mildly useful to the genuinely life-enhancing.

  1. Because it’s so freaking cold, you’ll tend not to spend so long in the shower, saving water and, in some small way, the entire planetary biosphere. Maybe.
  2. It’ll stimulate and improve blood circulation and your cardiovascular system. Your heart will explode, in other words, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  3. Washing your hair in cold water will make it all glossy and shiny. Hot water dries and frazzles.
  4. Cold water is kinder to your skin, too. I have occasional eczema and I’ve noticed an improvement since switching to cold water.
  5. Cold water doesn’t create steam, so you’ll still be able to see yourself shivering in the bathroom mirror afterwards.
  6. This is more anecdotal, but cold water seems to make my eyes a more intense blue. I speculate that this is down to pupil constriction after the adrenalin rush of the cold.
  7. Cold showers will increase testosterone production in men, leading to increased energy and strength, as well as sex-drive.
  8. Hot water is deadly to men’s sperm; for men, a hot bath is a contraceptive. Cold water will help keep your sperm plentiful and healthy.
  9. James Bond takes cold showers. You can be like him, but less of a misogynistic sadist.
  10. You don’t have to worry about fiddling with the taps to get the water temperature just right.
  11. It doesn’t matter if your early-rising housemates have used up all the hot water. Similarly, you can feel good about not using it up for them.
  12. Cold water immersion becomes a habit, something that you get used to. By practising for ten minutes every day, my body has no problem jumping into the chilly British sea water. I can play in the waves without shivering or wishing I was anywhere else. And that’s FUN.
  13. Cold water stimulates your immune system, particularly if you take a cold shower after exercise. That transition from hot to cold does wonders.
  14. Cold showers are an effective treatment for depression.
  15. Really cold showers that make you shiver can help you lose fat and build lean muscle.
  16. Cold showers are miserable! Of course they are. Who would be foolish enough to choose a cold shower when hot is on offer? Well, the answer to that question is the same people who choose the difficult path in life, the people who embrace challenges and, through those difficulties and challenges, accomplish great things. There is no scientific evidence for this, but cold showers do make me feel more resilient and determined to overcome life’s vicissitudes.
  17. Cold showers are great! Yes they are. I enjoy the adrenalin rush of icy water on my face. Hot showers are comforting, good for when you want to fall asleep on the sofa, but cold showers are like a charge of lightning down your spine. I feel electrified.

Are there any down sides to No Hot Showers? As far as I can tell, the only down side is the absence of long hot showers.

Quite apart from the fact that hot showers are enjoyable, the steam opens up your pores and relaxes your muscles. Dilly-dallying in the shower can also be a moment of meditation and the unfocussed attention that leads to good ideas.

However, a shower is not the only way of accessing these states – and I never said hot baths were off the agenda!

How to Take a Cold Shower

  1. Turn on the cold tap. Full.
  2. Don’t turn on any other taps.

You’ll also need to take off all your clothes (wet suits not allowed) and position yourself under the shower head. If you’ve got the water temperature right (see #1 and #2 above), then there’s no comfortable way of doing this.

You could start by dousing your long-suffering feet and legs, before gingerly moving the shower head the rest of your body. At some point, though, you’re going to have to duck your head under and your head is not going to like this. Personally, I love the gasping shock of walking straight into the cold stream, but do it your way.

How long you stay in depends on what you want to get out of your morning shower. If you just want to wash and wake up, then a couple of minutes is ample. If you want all the possible health benefits listed above, then you’ll need a minimum of 5 minutes, 10 to be on the safe side.

I would add: do not attempt to judge this time yourself. In a cold shower, 5 seconds feels like 5 years. I take a countdown timer into the bathroom with me and don’t leave until the beeps go off.

If you want extreme cold exposure, then you’ll need more like half an hour, but do more research before diving into Andy Murray’s ice bath.

Medical Time Out: Cold water can be a shock to the system. A cold shower probably won’t kill you, but the shock of jumping into a glacial lake might do. Don’t be an idiot. Consult your physician if you have any concerns. If you’re worried about hypothermia, then pinch your thumb and little finger tips together. If you can’t do this, then your extremities have gone numb. Get out now before you die.

But, wait – there’s more!

One of the great things about positive constraints is that there’s always more. The “positive” in positive constraints refers to your agency in your decision to restrict your behaviour.

I’m not being forced to take a cold shower and I’m not merely submitting to the necessary evil of cold showers for such and such a health reason; I’m actively choosing cold showers for their own sake.

And this feeling of having control over your life is well-correlated with happiness. By choosing and living a positive constraint, I am training for happiness.

No Mobile Phone

I have had a mobile phone since 2001, over thirteen years, but for thirty days, from Tuesday the 10th of February until the 12th of March, I shall live without.

The big question is:

Why?

This project is part of a long term experiment with positive constraints, which are ways of opening up the imaginative space behind ingrained habits and unquestioned social customs. Having had a mobile phone for over thirteen years, I’ve fallen into lazy habits and lost both the benefits of a life without and my appreciation of the phone itself.

One of the best things about using positive constraints is that you don’t know what you’ll discover during your experiment. One of my friends recently gave up her smartphone for what she called “a shit phone” (it still made calls and thus would be considered a miracle in any other age but ours). She was expecting to experience a vast reduction in her communication; what she wasn’t expecting was that she would write more music, improve her relationship with her mother and become a graffiti artist.

Having said that, here are a couple of reasons why anyone might want to give up their phone (at least for a while):

  • Using mobile phones make us more anxious, which has unexpected knock-on effects.
  • According to a Science Museum survey, the mobile phone is the tenth most important thing people “couldn’t live without”, beating out central heating, fresh vegetables and shoes.
  • In New York, a third of people can’t even walk down the street without their mobile phones. Check out this video, part of a campaign by New Tech City called “Bored and Brilliant”:

So that’s it. If you need me, you can catch me online or at home. Otherwise, I guess I’m out!

Update: A New Website

As you can see, I have a new website. I appear to have leapt before I looked, leaving everything somewhat amateurish. But I am trying to ween myself off FATMAGS* and that means that Blogger (Google owned) has to go.

So hello WordPress and my own server space.


*Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and SalesForce – the seven tech giants without whom we cannot live. Apparently.

Experiments in Productivity: CompuTen

Last week I did something counter-productive. I switched off my computer at 10am. Switched OFF.

This meant that, after ten in the morning, I couldn’t do any writing on the computer, I couldn’t edit any of my works-in-progress, I couldn’t connect with people online, I couldn’t work on my blog, I couldn’t promote my book or advertise my English classes.

By switching off my computer so early in the day, I successfully cut out 99% of my capability for productivity.

How on earth could this help me become more productive?

Before starting this rather drastic computer-diet, I used to be on my computer all hours of the day. Some days I would be tied down for as much as 7 hours 34 minutes.

How do I know this? I signed up to RescueTime, which logs what programs I use and what websites I visit. RescueTime tells me that about 3 hours of that was spent on email, on reading the news, on social networks and on entertainment. Less than two hours per day (on a good day) was spent on writing.

The Plan

So the plan was that, by cutting off my computer-use at ten in the morning, I would be motivated to get up earlier and do more writing.

The rest of the day, when my productivity dips anyway (RescueTime tells me that I’m 50% productive in the morning, but only 48% productive in the afternoon – with a 50% reduction in time at the computer as well), I would be able to get out into the world.

I would teach, I would go on adventures, I would read and think and cook and perhaps do some writing with pencil and paper. I would, in short, become more human and less virtual.

The Results

In the last week, when I was on my CompuTen diet, I averaged less than 2 hours of computer-time per day. Great!

In addition, because my computer-time was squeezed, I became more efficient at doing the important things. Like social networking. I found that I still spent 20 minutes a day on Facebook or Twitter or Google+ (whatever that is).

And I spent significantly less time on the less important things like writing – just 2 minutes 23 seconds last Friday, for example.

Success!

Wait. That doesn’t sound like the plan. The plan was that I would get up early and write like hell for as long as I could, until the 10am cut-off time.

What actually happened was that I would wake up, somewhere between half seven and eight, and immediately get stuck into email and news-reading, pretty much until my alarm went off at 10am. This isn’t the healthiest thing in the world.

So what went wrong?

Well, as it happens: nothing. But as with all experiments, you don’t always get the results you’re expecting. 
I was expecting to get up earlier and be more focussed when I was on the computer. I certainly didn’t get up any earlier, but I was more focussed on the computer. I teach English, so I had to make sure that I prepared any worksheets or articles for my lessons first thing in the morning. No more procrastinating.
However, this compression meant that I had no time for computer writing or editing. I found myself mildly frustrated when all this free-from-computer-time brought writing ideas to the surface that I couldn’t implement.

So what went right?

It was easy. I had a concrete rule to follow and there was nothing so urgent that it couldn’t be achieved without a computer, or couldn’t wait until tomorrow.
It was relaxing. There was no rush and panic to check something immediately. If I thought of something I wanted to do, I would write it down on a piece of paper to do the next morning. And then, often, when I got to it the next morning, it wasn’t worth doing anyway.
I stopped using the computer for entertainment. Instead of watching the recent Montenegro-England football match online, I listened to it on the radio. This took me way back to my childhood and it was a real treat for my senses and my imagination.
I didn’t read so much news and comment online. I did read a lot more fiction and non-fiction offline. I learnt the obvious: offline reading (from a real book!) is deeper and more meaningful. Last week I read the entirety of The Impact Equation and I feel like I absorbed more of it than I would normally (for those interested: it’s all right).
I spent more time on my sofa. I spent more time in the kitchen. I spent more time idling. These are all good things in my book.
But, best of all, the CompuTen diet pushed me onto my AlphaSmart Neo 2. This cunning device is perfect for writers. It is nothing more than a keyboard with a tiny display. It does one thing and it does it brilliantly: it writes. Over the course of last week, I wrote more than 5,000 words on the dear little thing (including the kernal of this blog post).
Neo: The One.

Conclusions

I consider CompuTen to have been a success. However, it’s not a long-term solution. The main problem with it is the forced computer usage in the early morning. I would rather fill this time with meaningful writing (not necessarily on the computer), eating breakfast and showering.
However, CompuTen showed me a number of things:
  • I can resist the computer, if I have a concrete rule of when I can use it and when I can’t.
  • There is nothing so urgent that it can’t wait until tomorrow.
  • Multi-tasking is a killer.
Multi-tasking is surely the most pernicious capability of computers. My PC can deal with everything I throw at it: a to do list, six documents, a couple of PDFs, a novel in YWriter, iTunes, a couple of browser windows, each with five or more tabs open on news, social networks, Blogger, YouTube…
The problem is that I can’t keep up. Humans are programmed to be able to deal with one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is for dweebs. 
So my new computer regime (which I am using right now) is to use the PC like a precision instrument.
  • I will only use the computer for 25 minutes at a time.
  • Before opening the computer I will write down the goal of my activity. One concrete, defined goal, so that at the end of the 25 minutes, I can answer the question: Did I achieve my goal? 
  • Having just one goal should eliminate multi-tasking, but to make it easier on my will-power, I will only have one program running at a time (when building the links for this blog post, I nearly got distracted by another review of The Impact Equation – but stopped myself just in time!).
  • At the end of the 25 minutes, I will close my computer and walk away – no matter whether the goal is achieved or not. I can always set a new goal and work for another 25 minutes, after a short break.
  • If the computer task is likely to take less than 25 minutes – DON’T DO IT. I will batch these tasks until I have enough to fill 25 minutes. Email falls into this batch as well.
So that’s my experiment over. I do anticipate that my new regime will be harder. I’m going to need rock-hard will power. But I have only 1 minute 22 seconds left of this 25 minute block, so I’m going to press Publish right now! 
What are your techniques and tricks for staying on-task at the computer? Please do let me know in the comments – we can get through this if we help each other!

Having Hair

It all started over a pint of peanut butter milkshake. For the twenty-seventh time in seven and a half months, I take the piss out of Mike’s luscious locks of red hair. They reach to his shoulders in opalescent curls and have to be flicked out of his face whenever he laughs, which is often and loud. I know that taking the piss out of a man with long hair is childish and lazy, but I am both of those, so it seemed appropriate.

But there must have been something about that twenty-seventh insult because, instead of brushing it off like so many fallen leaves, he leans in over the milkshakes and says: ‘I’ll be cutting it soon.’

Like a wingey child who instantly regrets his playground cruelty, I shudder in alarm: ‘Why! It’s a part of you, Mikey – you can’t do it! How will I recognise you?’
‘Because,’ he replied, ‘I am making a wig…’
I laugh and start to say, ‘Who would want a curly ginger wig!’
But he cuts me off (pun alert): ‘…For little girls who have cancer.’
Oh. I felt so bad that I vowed there and then to do the same myself.

Little did I realise that my careless promise would involve eighteen months of hard work, as my lazy follicles strain to reach the requisite seven inches of cut-offable hair.

June 2011
June 2011

Now, as I stand on the cusp of returning to the normal world of normal hair, what have I learnt?

There are many phases to growing hair. There is the initial phase where nothing is happening. My hair was just growing, silently. I’d done a one-inch buzz cut a couple of weeks before the fateful promise, so during the first four months it grew to a normal length and nobody noticed.

August 2011
August 2011

Then I started to look like Shaggy from Scooby Doo for another month or so before something extraordinary happened. It poofed. Suddenly, without warning, my hair was cool. It stuck out all over the place and adolescent girls on the street walked past me, shouting things like, ‘Look at that guy’s hair – it’s so cool!’

November 2011
November 2011

It wasn’t to last, of course. Spring brought a growth-spurt, the poof fell in on itself and I was left with serious eye-flop.

May 2012
May 2012

Over the course of the summer it struggled manfully towards Kurt Cobain, defined as the point at which long man hair becomes cool. But Kurt Cobain is dangerous territory. It could, under certain conditions, look awesome. It could also be a total pain in the ass.

November 2012
November 2012

If I managed to eat breakfast without getting beans in my hair, it was a good day. Brushing my teeth took on a new angle: literally. I had to tilt my head to one side – like a GIRL – to flop my hair out of the reach of my toothbrush. It didn’t always work. Last night I dreamt of getting my hair stuck between my teeth, like dental floss – and it was a realistic dream. Any form of exercise had to be undertaken with a Bjorn Borg headband, which looked cool, until it didn’t.

The petty practicalities I never quite got the hang of. When to wash hair? How often to wash hair? What do you mean the hair blocks up the drain! It takes two years to dry instead of two seconds? There were times when my hair actually felt uncomfortable to wear after washing. It was dry and brittle and set my skin on edge whenever I touched it. Then someone told me to use conditioner. That helped. But it still looked puffy after washing and I was only happy with it about two days after a wash – by which time it needed washing again.

I had to learn how to brush hair – and that hurts! I learnt that if you hold the hair, then you can stop the hair brush from ripping from the root. I learnt the different in pull between a comb and a hair brush (thanks Cat for the hair brush donation). I learnt that hair gets everywhere, picking it off chairs, books, faces. I learnt about the smell of hair, the smell of grease, hanging down into my face.

Whatever my hair was doing, it wasn’t normal. I had joined an exclusive gentleman’s club of long-haired don’t-give-a-fuck dudes. Look at all those dorks who buzz cut their hair every month and for what? So they can carry on looking like every other dork on the street.

Hair on a man equals rocker, hippie, celeb, hipster – depending on where you are and what else you’re wearing. I am none of these things, so I felt like an imposter, as if I’d had a hair transplant from the eighties. That didn’t stop drunk people shouting at me in the Underground: ‘Look – it’s Allan Carr’s mate!’

Long hair was also most useful for my secret life as an undercover cop, instantly putting multiple disguises at my disposal. Hair up, hair down? Hat hair, bandanna hair? Top knot, pony tail?

I had assumed that I would become a hate figure for street urchins, but the worst came when a Tunisian lad squinted up at my beard and asked, ‘Are you man or woman?’ One of my ex-girlfriends refused to even look at me, demanding that I tie up the offending hair and squash it under a hat: ‘Better.’

More favourably, only last week I drew comparisons to Brad Pitt in the new Chanel adverts. But I still prefer the Kurt Cobain. I remember, when I was twelve years old, my sister telling me that (being blonde) I should grow my hair to emulate the suicidal pop star. I didn’t of course; I wanted to be normal as well back then. Well, she finally got her wish.

Now it is cut. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it next. I did quite enjoy the poof-phase, but it’s not for grown ups. On the other hand, the first comment my hair-dresser makes is, ‘You’re going bald!’ So maybe I will grow it out again, for the comb-over.

Long hair is an identity. I’d never had to identify with my hair like that before. It wasn’t an identity that I had chosen, but society foisted that identity upon me. The long-haired outsider. It was an entertaining eighteen months and maybe I feel like less of a person now I’m back with the short stuff. But then again, as my house-mate says, ‘A hairstyle is not a lifestyle.’

Now, for those of you with more patience than sense, a video of my locks being hacked. Warning: High pitched sqwarking may distress farmyard animals and the nervous of disposition.

No Money Mondays

This is something I’ve been working with for a while. The premise is simple: don’t spend any money on Mondays. This is a fairly meaty post, so I’ll cut to the chase:

Why No Money Mondays?

  • It helps me to be more mindful of money, of how easy it is to spend, and how pointless. A day without money somehow frees my mind. I feel less stressed. I’m out of the game for a day. I can look at adverts, but I’m not part of that world.
  • It helps me live more healthily. I can’t just buy a nice packet of biscuits when I feel like it; I’ve got to finish up those lentils that have been sitting in my cupboard since January. I can’t pay for the bus; I have to cycle or walk.
  • I realise how possible a day without money is. It makes me dream of a life without money and what that would mean.
  • It helps me become more creative with how I spend my time and energy. A quick thought comes into my head, like: ‘I need to buy some new batteries for my dictaphone.’ I hear myself think this, but I have to reformulate a solution. I can’t just buy some new batteries. I can take the batteries out of my bike lights for the time being.
  • It saves me money! Every day, I record my spending. Over the course of a year, this forms a fascinating record of my spending patterns. On weeks when I have a No Money Monday, not only do I reduce spending on one day of the week, but that parsimony spills over into the rest of the week. This is another good reason why I do it on a Monday, the first day of my week. (The main reason is, obviously, alliteration.)
  • I am more productive: no more time-wasting shopping-excuse excursions.
  • Monday is when I do my accounts (usually with horror). It feels good to have a money-fast after that.

The History of No Money Mondays

I’m not the first person to think not spending money once a week is a good thing. No Money Mondays used to happen every week in Britain. Not on Mondays, but on Sundays. Shops, markets and businesses were forced to shut down for a day – by law. But now Sunday trading is part of every British high street – and even if it wasn’t, the internet would provide for every fleeting desire.

Sunday trading surged forth as a result of the free market reforms of the moribund Conservative government of John Major. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 made buying and selling legal. I’ll rephrase that: before 1994 it was illegal for shops to open on a Sunday. Illegal. Those of a younger generation will find this hard to believe, but it’s true.

But Sunday trading didn’t come into Britain without a fight. It was vigorously opposed when initially put to the House of Commons by Maggie Thatcher back in 1986. It wasn’t just vigorously opposed, but it became Thatcher’s only policy defeat in the House. The only time Maggie Thatcher was defeated in the House of Commons was when she tried to let shops open on Sundays. I’m sorry for the repetition, but this seems impossible to believe today. She wasn’t defeated on the Falklands War, she wasn’t defeated on privatisation, she wasn’t defeated on emasculating the trade unions. She was defeated over her Sunday trading bill.

The Bill of 1986 was defeated by an alliance of Christian Conservatives and Labour trade unions. The Christians wanted to ‘Keep Sundays Special’, to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, and the trade unions opposed workers being forced to work on Sundays. When the Sunday Trading Act finally passed in 1994, it was only because of amendments that protected workers rights: Sunday working would be voluntary.

I’m interested in why Sunday trading was opposed. I can see why trade unions wanted to protect their interests: a seven-day working week isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. I can see why Christians wanted to defend the Sabbath: the Book reserves Sunday as a day of Holy rest.

But is there something more? I would say yes. I would say that behind this opposition was an instinctive desire to protect ourselves from continuous striving. A day with an open shop is a day with the possibility of buying and selling. And if you’re buying and selling, you’ll profit or lose: you’ll move up the escalator or down.

Close those shops and the escalator stops. A moment’s respite from the pressing needs of survival.

The Rights of Religion

I am a big believer in religions. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a Believer (or even a Belieber), but I can see that religion grows out of an instinctual need. And these instincts are usually good for us, or serve some purpose. Religion dominates in three domains:

  1. Community.
  2. Contemplation.
  3. Charity.

These three areas are not well served by other organisations and none cover all three, all together, all the time. Large, participatory organisations like Amnesty International offer us a combination of community and charity. Certain activities, like yoga, might give us community and contemplation. But religion alone nourishes all three. This comprehensive coverage explains both the rise of religions – and their ongoing popularity, in spite of all their absurdities and inherent threats.

It is with absolutely no surprise whatsoever that I see science gradually demonstrating the crucial importance of these three areas of life to our well-being as humans. A healthy network of colleagues and friends is an excellent marker for happiness. Purposeful contemplation, of the sort that prayer or meditation offers, is great for our physical and mental health. And charity, including volunteering our time, makes us feel happy.

To me, it is obvious that such a recurring and popular phenomenon as religion must provide the human race with some large benefits. I remain an unbeliever, but I am happy to take my lessons from religion. A money-fast Sabbath is one such.

I believe that the fight against Sunday trading in Britain, although economically indefensible, was an instinctive response to a real threat. But because it was a threat that we could not frame in a logical way, the Bill passed when all logical opposition was overcome (the trade unions’ objections to Sunday working). However, both the threat and our instinctive response to it, represented by the religious Christian Conservatives, remain.

So I would like to bring back the money-fast Sabbath. In my own irreligious fashion, I propose No Money Mondays. Instead of using laws, we will have to use our will-power, but I think it is worth it.

Grow your own charitable donation

Last week I found out why a friend of mine has long hair. I’d never thought to ask before. I’d assumed he actually liked his long, luscious locks. Sure he looks like a big girl, but I thought it rude to make disparaging comments. I like to think I’m fairly non-judgemental when it comes to my friends’ hair. At least to their face.

Turns out I should have pointed and laughed, then I would have found out earlier why he has really long hair.

I like to think the conversation would have gone like this:

ME: Ha ha ha! You look like a girl! Ha ha ha!
FRIEND: What? Because I have long hair?
ME: Ha ha ha!
FRIEND: Don’t you like my hair?
ME: Ha ha ha!
FRIEND: What’s wrong with long hair?
ME: Ha ha ha!
FRIEND: Seriously, Dave. I thought you’d be fairly non-judgemental when it came to hair.
ME: Ha ha ha!
FRIEND: At least to my face.
ME: Ha ha ha! Why have you got girl’s hair? It looks so stupid! Ha ha ha!
FRIEND: I’m growing it.
ME: Ha ha ha! Yeah, but WHY, man? You look like a girl!
FRIEND: I’m gonna donate it to kids with cancer.
ME: …
FRIEND: What are you doing for kids with cancer, Dave?

I am leaving civilisation for a few months soon. This seems like the perfect opportunity to grow my hair. I need 6″ of long, luscious locks, about down to my chin, for a decent wig. I currently have about 1″.

If you also want to possess the ultimate put-down response to people who take the piss out of your hair style, then why not join me? Check out http://www.littleprincesses.org.uk/Donate/Hair.aspx for more information.

Things To Do When You Don’t Have A Computer #1: Get Chicken Pox

So you were wondering how my week without a computer went, right? Well, here’s a few ideas:

  • I enjoyed how I was able to relax. I wasn’t stressing over the constant clamour of the internet.
  • I wasn’t very productive. I didn’t do much writing. The computer is where I compose most of my short writing, or at least where I edit it.
  • I didn’t miss the computer’s power of entertainment. I had the radio and a hefty supply of good (and not good) books.

But this is all academic really because I’ve spent most of the last two weeks in bed, with grown up chicken pox.

Farcical.

I might as well make this post useful, so if you’ve got chicken pox, here’s what to expect:

Days -4 to 0

  • A developing fever and a sore throat. You’ll think you’re getting a cold. Little do you know what the universe has in store for you: two weeks of ugly.
  • You are now highly contagious, but you aren’t aware of that so you give it to all your mates. They’ll thank you in 10-20 days’ time.

Day 1

  • Discover funny little knobs behind head. Think that’s odd.
  • Feel feverish.
  • Feel sick.
  • Collapse on floor in a faint.
  • Wake up sweating, inside washing basket. Wonder how you got there.
  • Discover the first pustule.
  • Pustules multiply, popping up before your very eyes.
  • A strange weight on your chest makes you paranoid that you’ve also developed pneumonia. Keep an eye on that.
  • You indulge in lots and lots of sleeping.

Day 2

  • Pustules spread to legs, arms, back, face, and multiply on chest and everywhere.
  • A few spots are slightly itchy. Not compulsively itchy, just a slight throb, a feeling of bulge that is tempting to check out. Don’t.
  • Headaches persist through the day.
  • Hard to sleep at night due to discomfort of the pustules.

Day 3

  • The weight on the chest, the sore throat and the headaches might have eased a little.
  • Neck still aches though and you’ve lost your appetite.
  • Pustules are multiplying and itching at a low level, but just enough to make you constantly aware of them.
  • You try to have a shower to clean up a little, but can’t really do much actual cleaning because of vast number of pustules on your scalp. Your hair is matted. You consider dreadlocks.
  • Notice that some have burst and some are starting to scab.
  • Your face is burning and you think you might have accidentally burst a pustule in your ear. But it could just have been general grossness as you are now the ugliest you’ve been since you came out of your mother covered in blood.
  • No chance of sleep because your face is covered with exploding volcanoes. The night is the worst time for sleeping. Get some in the morning.
  • Fever seems to alternate with itching.

Day 4

  • Sleep in the day. Read. Twiddle thumbs. Listen to radio.
  • Get the shivers before going to bed.
  • Have heavy dreams, exhausting, fever and wake up with a headache and the sweats.
  • On the plus side: the itching is almost gone.

Day 5

  • Feel ill some of the day. 
  • Appetite definitely back as you eat a six-egg omelette with sauerkraut and ketchup (because that’s all you’ve got left in the cupboard).
  • Scared to believe that you have no new spots.
  • Try a bath with bicarbonate of soda – yeah!
  • Have best night’s sleep since Day 0. Still wake up three times for some sweats, but feel fine. Start enjoying the sweat.
  • You dare to hope that you’re over the worst.

Day 10

  • Tired with a headache all morning and afternoon. 
  • The pustules have mostly crusted over and are beginning to fall off, or get rubbed off.
  • You feel bored and lazy. This lassitude is now your biggest enemy.
  • You’re not contagious any more, but you still feel disinclined to go out in public in daylight.

Day 13

  • Worst of the scabs are falling off all over the place. Gross.
  • Your first day of full-on activity, like a normal person.
  • You’re still a bit ugly, though.
  • The worst of the scabs leaves a crater in your cheek.
  • The face ones seem to develop and fall off faster than the chest ones.

Day 16

  • Could pass for a slightly uglier version of yourself. People stop screaming when they see your face.
  • Just a few marks on your face that could be dry skin or normal spots.
  • Your chest still looks like leprosy. Don’t show anyone.
  • Still some itching against your clothes.

And still it goes on. Apparently chicken pox marks can take months to fully vanish – and, of course, some of them will scar you for life.

Enjoy!

How to Live With No Computers

As you read these words, I have been nine hours without a computer. For the first time in my life-long dependency on computers, I am going cold turkey. I’m not going to use the old bastard for the whole of the rest of this week.

Thank god.

I know this might sound like a ridiculous rich-world conceit, but I am way too reliant on my computer. It sucks into every pore of my life. I wake up with my computer, I work with my computer, I get headaches with my computer. My computer informs me, my computer entertains me, my computer frustrates me.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in – check email – breathe out.

And, to be honest, it’s rubbish. We need a break.

Why No Computers?

One of my ambitions in life is to be as self-sustainable as possible. For me, this means reducing my reliance on things that are not me. Relying heavily on external matter will only cause pain when they are taken away – as all things are one day.

I’m not saying that it’s not desirable to have these things – I rely on a lot of external things for my life and I am grateful for them. But, so far as I can, I want to know what it is like to not have. I might learn something useful through privation. What will I find to do without my time-sucking computer?

I have become so habituated to computers, that they no longer demand my imagination. They no longer get me excited. They are a default. I turn to my computer when I’m bored. I surf the net. I write an email. I surf the net again. When the internet isn’t working I might actually write something. Or play Hearts.

Without my computer to entertain me, I’ll have to think. I won’t have my default available any more. Maybe I’ll find something more interesting, maybe I’ll find something more useful, maybe I’ll find something more human to do.

So for the next week I’m not going to use my computer. It’s not a long time, but it should be enough to knock me out of my mindless reliance on the computer, stop me from taking the privilege of a computer for granted and teach me about what is really important, what is really necessary for my life.

What does No Computers mean?

  • It doesn’t mean I can’t type. I have a rather nifty little typewriter that I intend to do my writing on.
  • It doesn’t mean I can’t use other electronic equipment. I can still use my phone and camera, for example. It’s not a smartphone though, so no sneaky computer use there.
  • I’m not going to be an idiot about it. If someone else is using a computer and wants me to look, I’m not going to throw my hands over my eyes and run screaming. I’m just not going to use it myself. 
  • However, it does mean that I won’t be able to post on this blog any more this week. Not until Sunday night, anyway.


A slightly more extreme opinion on what I am doing comes from a 1987 essay by writer and farmer Wendell Berry:

“I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct dependence on strip-mined coal. How could I write conscientiously against the rape of nature if I were, in the act of writing, implicated in the rape? For the same reason, it matters to me that my writing is done in the daytime, without electric light.”

Extreme, but I sympathise with his argument and admire the stand he is making. Even though I’m not at total accord with his dismissal of the power of computers to spread knowledge (you can’t blame him for not foreseeing the role telecommunications would play in the recent revolutions in the Middle East) the rest of the essay is well worth a read: http://home.btconnect.com/tipiglen/berrynot.html

This article, written for PC World around 2002, is much closer to what I expect and why I am doing it: http://pcworld.about.com/magazine/2103p119id108732.htm

No Supermarket: Week 4 – The End!

So it’s over: 31 days without spending money in a supermarket. Before the post-mortem, some details about this past week.

Things I learnt this week:

  • Eggs are cheaper in my local shop: only £1.09 for 6, compared to £1.57 in Sainsbury’s.
  • Tesco Express (i.e. a small supermarket) stocks 26 different varieties of bottled water. You do know that you can get it out of the tap, don’t you? For free.
  • Sainsbury’s is very useful: for their extensive recycling facilities and the pharmacy where I get my (free) prescriptions. This month I have shamelessly used supermarket resources in exchange for nothing.
  • Expenditure at No Supermarkets: £17.00
  • Hypothetical expenditure at Sainsbury’s: £16.18.

The Final Score

  • Over the course of one month shopping at No Supermarkets I spent £89.94 on food.
  • The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost approximately £80.28.

So what am I going to now it’s over?

Will I go running back to the fluorescent-strip-light warmth of Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Lidl? Hell no.

Was everything perfect about my month of No Supermarkets? Hell no (where the devil can I get decent, reasonably priced cheese?). Can I do it better? Hell yes. I promise myself every week that I’ll go to the local markets more often, rather than running out of food, panicking and buying soup and biscuits for dinner.

I’ve enjoyed visiting all my local and not so local shops. I’ve built up quite a rapport with a shop around the corner from where I study. Cherry flapjack: £1.05, thank-you very much.

But why do I like No Supermarkets so much?

  • I don’t have to queue, like I would in the Sainsbury’s just up the road. 
  • I don’t have to walk around six aisles just to find the flapjacks, like I would at the Sainsbury’s. 
  • I’m not paralysed by the choice of six thousand different oat-based snacks you can have from Sainsbury’s. Half the time my shop doesn’t even have any of the cherry ones left. So I have banana. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
  • I’m not advertised at.
  • I can have a little chat with the person who serves me and they say please and thank-you like they give a shit that I came into their shop. Because they own it.
  • It’s closer to the college where I study.
  • I like the fact that their prices are marginally cheaper than the other little shop just across the road. It reminds me that competition is alive and well. It hasn’t just been blown away by corporate supply chains.
  • I feel like the money I’m handing over for my flapjack is going to someone I know.
  • The lighting isn’t so bright. Not everything gleams. The floor might even be dirty. It’s human.

Yeah. I like it. In fact, I like it so much that I’d feel a bit wrong going into a supermarket now. Perhaps I will for some things. Perhaps I won’t. I no longer feel restricted in my shopping habits. I no longer feel compelled towards those glowing orange lights.

So here’s to much more No Supermarkets in 2011.

No Supermarket: Week 3

No Supermarkets again this week (apart from my little tourism on Tuesday). It’s really a lot easier now than I thought it would be. It’s hardly even inconvenient, in fact it’s fun. When I go some place new I keep my head up for little shops, pop in, have a chat, browse and buy. Already my local shopkeeper calls me ‘a regular’, which is nice.

Here’s another thing. This week I met up with a friend for dinner. Normally we go down to Sainsbury’s, do some shopping and get cooking. Not this week. We went to a restaurant. Shock. More expensive, maybe, but it’s about more than just the chow – it’s the experience. That might sound like pure guff. It is. But hey, I enjoyed it.

So how was it price-wise this week? Not including the restaurant, just going on what I bought at shops and markets, here’s the comparison:

  • No Supermarkets: £23.07
  • Sainsbury’s: £18.91

As usual, there are a few discrepancies: I would have had three less avocados at Sainsbury’s – but one extra banana and a smidgen more spinach.

One thing I found is that I spend a good deal more on fruit and vegetables at local shops, compared to local markets. This explains a lot of the difference in price this week. I can get fruit and veg cheaper at local markets than at Sainsbury’s, but the shops tend to be a little more expensive. The key to getting good deals at No Supermarkets is to shop around, travel, investigate and explore. The French had it right when they called their supermarket Monoprix.

I won’t bore you with a great long list of things I bought this week, but here’s a good one:

  • 48 Ibuprofen tablets from New Cross Station Pharmacy: £2.25
  • 48 Ibuprofen tablets from Sainsbury’s: £0.84

Massive.

However, this might not be such a big win for Sainsbury’s as it first appears. The purpose of buying Ibuprofen is to kill your pain, right? It shouldn’t matter how much it costs, right? – Wrong. Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, has shown that the more you pay for your pain-killers, the more powerful their effect. You can watch a short video of Ariely here.

It’s hard to tell if paying more has worked for me, but all I can say is that my foot is much better today than it was on Friday morning, when I started taking the tablets.

No Supermarket: Air Miles and Bursting Aisles

I went to my local Sainsbury’s on Tuesday – no, don’t panic, I didn’t buy anything. I went there to do a little research. I wanted to know a couple of things:

  1. Where in the world does Sainsbury’s food come from?
  2. How much choice is there at supermarkets?

And here is what I found.

Where is Sainsbury’s Food From?

Answer: Spain.

I only looked at the Fruit and Vegetable section because that seemed a reasonable sample size: 119 products. Astonishingly, these products came from a total of 36 countries. The top five were:

  1. Spain (20 products)
  2. UK (19)
  3. Israel (9)
  4. Morocco (6)
  5. South Africa (6)

I was surprised to see Israel at number three I have to admit. We get tomatoes, peppers, herbs and exotic fruit like kumquats and Sharon fruit from there. The West Bank did also appear on the list with two products, the herbs dill and sage.

I guess one big reason for the reliance on overseas fruit and vegetables is the time of year. Traditional English Summer produce like cucumbers, tomatoes and spinach have to be shipped in from Spain or elsewhere.

More concerning, however, was the number of products that ARE in season in the UK, and yet it was still possible to buy them from abroad. For example: apples, pears, beetroot and mushrooms, as well as packaged herbs. It seemed that if you wanted herbs in a pot, then they had to be British, presumably because of the care required for potted plants, but packaged herbs came from abroad, presumably because they are cheaper there.

The full list of countries supplying Sainsbury’s New Cross Gate (in order of products supplied): Spain, UK, Israel, Morocco, South Africa, Egypt, Italy, France, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, USA, Brazil, Chile, China, Holland, India, Portugal, Senegal, Thailand, Turkey, West Bank, Argentina, Burkina Faso, Canary Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Namibia, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia.

How Much Choice Is There?

Answer: Too much.

To focus my research, I examined just one type of product from Sainsbury’s 30+ aisles: soup. Here’s what I found.

There are, broadly speaking, four different kinds of soup product on sale at Sainsbury’s: tinned, potted, fresh and dried soup mix. Tinned represent the overwhelming majority of the market.

There are, in all, sixteen different brand labels on sale, including eight for Sainsbury’s alone: Be Good To Yourself, Sainsbury’s, Chunky, Basics, Microwave, Simmer Soups, SO Organic and Taste the Difference. Prices range from £0.17 for Sainsbury’s Basic tomato soup to £2.29 for some of the posh fresh soups.

This meant that there were, in total, on sale at Sainsbury’s… Wait for it – 138 different types of soup.

That, my friends, is ridiculous. Contrast my local shop, where I can purchase one brand in about six different flavours. Fine, considering I only ever buy cream of tomato! Prices there range from £0.89 to £0.89.

Is Choice a Good Thing?

Supermarkets rely on the idea that more choice makes us happier. But is this actually the case?

Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for supermarket-style choice in a TED video from 2006. He recounts a story of the psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz:

Vlasic Pickles came to him, and they said, “Doctor Moskowitz, we want to make the perfect pickle.” And he said, “There is no perfect pickle, there are only perfect pickles.” And he came back to them and he said, “You don’t just need to improve your regular, you need to create zesty.”

From this idea, pickles, spaghetti sauces, soups – everything – proliferated, all in the cause of making us happy.

You can see the full video here:

But Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, warns:

Beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures.

“In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis. And in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.”

In other words: choice, generally-speaking, is good, but too much choice is toxic.

At my local shop I have the choice of about six different flavours of soup. That’s a reasonable selection, given that I could make my own soup if I wanted something a little more customised. But faced with an aisle of 138 soups?

I wouldn’t know where to start.

No Supermarket: Week 2

Week 2 and I still haven’t been to a supermarket – or even so much as a High Street chain. I have to say, it’s going rather well. The Suma order arrived on Thursday with 12.5kgs of oats for our house at only £8. I also got a load of Jasmine tea, raisins and eggs. Cue massive omelets.

Yesterday, I went to another local co-operative, Fareshares, who sell organic, mostly fair trade food and other household goods at the right price. Here’s what I bought:

  • 1l washing detergent @ £2.96
  • 250g sunflower seeds @ £0.50
  • 100 rooibos teabags @ £2.83
  • 500ml Aspall’s balsamic vinegar @ £2.83
  • 680g sauerkraut @ £1.67

And I made an incredibly generous (!) £0.21 donation to make it £11.00 in total.

The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost me £10.34, but I would have had 500ml more detergent, 50g less sunflower seeds and 20 fewer teabags. [Incidentally demonstrating there the way you use ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ in the English language. I’m educational too!] If I’d been able to buy the exact same quantities, Sainsbury’s would have cost me a theoretical extra £0.05, so it more or less evens out.

However, as I’ve said before, it’s not all about price with No Supermarkets. The stuff I would have bought at Sainsbury’s probably wouldn’t have been fairly traded and certainly wouldn’t have been organic. I also wouldn’t have met the lovely people at Fareshares or ended up with some random sauerkraut!

Fareshares

Fareshares is a food co-operative near Elephant and Castle in South London. They buy their stuff from wholesalers and then sell it on to us little people at near wholesale price. The people who work there are volunteers and the only major overheads are for the building.

They sell all sorts of stuff. There’s lots of dry foods: seeds, rice, millet, oats, nuts and dried fruits. They also sell tinned things like tomatoes, bottled things like oils and sauces, cartoned things like soya milk. There’s also a small stock of fresh fruit and vegetables and bread (on Thursdays only) – and I’m sure much much more.

It’s a co-operative so try and turn up with a bag or some cartons for your stuff. Then go around picking and packing your own shopping, totting up the total as you go on a piece of scrap paper. Then head to the till and pay. It’s an honesty system, so be honest!

Opening hours: Thursday 2-8pm; Friday 3-7pm; Saturday 3-5pm
Address: 56 Crampton Street (near Walworth Road), London SE17 3AE

Go – it’s brilliant!

No Supermarket: Week 1

Well that was resoundingly successful. I haven’t been to a supermarket since 2010.

Here’s what I bought this week:

  • 3 loaves of sesame bread @ £2.67
  • Le Figaro newspaper @ £1.70
  • 20 bananas @ £3.18
  • 2 cucumbers @ £1.00
  • 15 tomatoes @ £2.25
  • 1 loaf seeded white bread @ £0.97
  • 2 tins of Heinz tomato soup @ £1.78
  • 125g tube of Aquafresh toothpaste @ £0.99
  • 1 punnet of red seedless grapes @ £1.00
  • 200g feta cheese @ £1.69
  • 350g jar of Ajvar sauce @ £1.29

Total: £18.52

So what would it have cost at my local Sainsbury’s? Obviously you can’t get quite the same things – what the hell is Ajvar Sauce anyway?

So, if we exclude that from the list:
My No Supermarket shopping cost me: £17.23.
The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost: £16.88.

So I spent £0.35 more than I should have done. Tsk.

There are a few differences in the shopping basket to note:

  1. I would have had 24 bananas, not 20 (Sainsbury’s Basics bananas come in packs of 8).
  2. I would have had only 12 tomatoes, not 15 (Sainsbury’s Basics tomatoes come in packs of 6).
  3. I would have had only 100g of toothpaste, not 125g (I couldn’t find 125g at Sainsbury’s).
  4. I would not have bought Heinz Tomato Soup, I would have got Sainsbury’s own brand Be Good to Yourself Tomato Soup, saving me another £0.30.
  5. I would not have bought feta from Sainsbury’s. I normally get mature cheddar on special; this week it would have been Cathedral City Mature Cheddar 400g for £1.99. Ouch. It hurts to see that.

I think those things more or less even themselves out (apart from the cheese).

It doesn’t just come down to cost though. It can’t. Even if you include the extra £0.30 saving from the soup, I would have saved only 3.8% on my week’s shopping by going to Sainsbury’s. That is a much smaller saving than I expected.

The Lessons of Week 1

If it’s not about cost, then what is it about? I have no idea, but here are some things I learnt this week:

1. No Supermarkets are less convenient

My ‘local’ shops are further from me than Sainsbury’s – and the markets are even more of a walk. This shouldn’t have been a problem, but turned into a complete disaster when I developed a debilitating foot injury which meant I couldn’t walk for most of the week.

2. I need to learn how to shop again

Without a supermarket crutch to support my dietary habits, my diet has been all over the place.

I’ve eaten a lot more bread than I normally do, simply because it is filling, tasty and widely available. At times in the week, I confess, I was hungry. I’ve eaten everything that was lying around in my cupboards – including muesli that was over a year old, yum!

I expect my diet to stabilise as I learn where to buy what I want to eat. And as I learn to walk again.

3. I can pay by credit card at my local shop

…if I spend more than £5. This is a nice bonus because the nearest cash machine around my way is… at Sainsbury’s.

4. There is an awful lot less choice at No Supermarket

This is a good thing, I reckon. Although it cost me on the soup and the cheese front, it did mean that I got to try Ajvar Sauce! See also #7.

5. There is a lot less packaging involved in No Supermarkets

The fruit and vegetables that I bought were either in recyclable paper bags or were loose. This is a good thing because it means I don’t have to lug all my plastic packaging back to Sainsbury’s for recycling.

6. Fruit and veg at No Supermarkets is a lot more variable

You actually have to look at what you are buying. Once I’ve got over the shock, I’m sure this could turn into quite a pleasant thing. It might make me less of a shopping machine.

7. I spent a lot less money at No Supermarkets

Not item for item, but in total. There is very little opportunity for impulse buying at No Supermarkets because there is a lot less choice and so a lot less to tempt you with. A lack of availability also means that you have to make do without. Things I didn’t buy this week include: a ball of string, a rubber and porridge oats.

Well, it’s been a promising start and I’m looking forward to increased mobility in Week 2!

No Supermarket: Suma Co-operative

I live in a housing co-operative. Which is awesome, not least because the people I live with try to do things together.

What that means is that every month someone from the co-op orders in bulk from the ethical retailer Suma. Suma is also a co-operative, which means that the business is jointly owned and managed by all the staff. Everyone is paid the same and they work collectively to do all the jobs that need doing (I discuss this mode of business here).

So today (for the first time ever, I’m ashamed to admit) I ordered some food from Suma. This is my shopping list:

  • 80 jasmine green tea bags @ £4.95
  • 1kg of raisins @ £2.95
  • 6kg of porridge oats @ £6.99
  • 12 eggs @ £2.62

Compared to Sainsbury’s, this isn’t bad. You can get 20 jasmine tea bags at Sainsbury’s for about £1, so that’s a touch cheaper at the supermarket. The eggs and the porridge come out at about the same cost. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics currents, which are dirt cheap at about £0.60 for 500g (I think), so Suma’s raisins are an expensive upgrade.

Anyway, that should be my breakfast covered for the rest of the month. Now I’ve just got to wait for the delivery on Thursday. At least I don’t have to walk to the shops.

No Supermarket: Deptford High Street

Yesterday I went to Deptford High Street for my first No Supermarket grocery shopping.

And it was rather good fun. This No Supermarket business forces you to pay attention to your surroundings. You can’t just go to the shelf, you can’t just look for the own-brand stuff because you know it will be cheap, you can’t very often even know the price of what you’re buying until you’ve handed over the goods. It forces you to look, to ask, to say no, to negotiate – in short, to connect?

A couple of traders just said hello to me, for nothing. Can I help you? Aright, mate? Another looked for a smaller ball of string for me. I didn’t have to ask, he saw from my face that it was too much.

In all, I went to two fruit and veg shops, a bakery and a newsagents – instead of one big supermarket.

This was what I bought:

  • £1.18 6 bananas
  • £1.00 2 cucumbers
  • £1.25 6 tomatoes (on the vine)
  • £0.97 Loaf seeded white bread (sliced for me by the bakers)

Total cost: £4.40.

I reckon at Sainsbury’s I would have spent about the same, or perhaps slightly more. I wouldn’t have spent so much on the tomatoes, but these ones are very tasty. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics, to be honest, at about £0.80. But the cucumbers were much cheaper – saved me about £0.50. So it evens out.

I have to say, pleasurable though this shopping trip was, it was not convenient. It’s a longer walk to Deptford High Street than to Sainsbury’s and I didn’t buy any string, an pencil rubber, porridge oats – or the dreaded toothpaste.

No Supermarket January

New Year Resolution: I’m not going to use supermarkets during the whole month of January.

For me, that’s quite a big deal. I am accustomed to going to my local Sainsbury’s at least four or five times a week, sometimes just for the walk or the simple pleasure of picking up a value bag of sultanas.

Well, no more. From the 1st of January I pledge not to purchase a single thing from any supermarket, be it Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Aldi, Costcutter, Iceland, Netto, M&S, Waitrose, Morrisons – or any of the other behemoths that bestride our consumer culture.

Why?

  1. I don’t like being too dependent on anything – and supermarkets definitely fall into that bracket of dependency at the moment.
  2. I fancy seeing a bit more of the world – or my local community at least.
  3. It’s embarrassing coming home with a pile of plastic-wrapped food of dubious quality.
  4. Somewhere inside me there’s a vague sense of unease surrounding the operation and supply tactics of supermarkets.
  5. I guess it will support local economy a little bit.
  6. It might be a good way to meet more people in my community.
  7. It might be cheaper, you never know.
  8. It might help me eat better, you never know.
  9. It might reduce impulse buying of sultanas.
  10. It’s something to write about!

The Toothpaste Test

At the moment my shelves are looking pretty bare so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the wonderful (so I’m told) markets in my local area. But, to be honest, I’m a little concerned about where to find toothpaste. I know I can get toothpaste at pretty much any corner-shop or mini-mart, but Sainsbury’s toothpaste is about £0.30 or something ridiculous. I like that: it’s good value.

The thing is, I’d like to turn this experiment into a long-term life choice, but I’m not going to cut off my nose to spite my face. Sourcing affordable, minty toothpaste could well turn into the acid test of my No Supermarket January. Wish me luck.

A Whole World of Hug: Amma 2010

Today I had a hug. But not just any hug. I got a hug from the most promiscuous hugger in the world, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi, otherwise (thankfully) known as Amma. Amma has hugged (at last estimate) 30 million people. If Planet Earth was a village of two hundred people, one of them would have been hugged by the divine mother.

So what was the hug like?
Hell, I’m not answering that question – yet. You’ll have to read the rest of this article to find out. 
Ok. Who’s this Amma?
You don’t know? Oh yeah. That’s just part of the Q&A conceit. Very clever. Amma is your mother. We are all her children. She is also an embodiment of the divine. A lot of people think that, apparently. That’s why they worshipped her feet when she arrived on stage. She’s a big cheese in the world of gurus and – in the same way that Henry Ford made his name with motor cars – Amma made her name with hugs. Hugs on the scale of mass-production. And don’t scoff either – through the power of hug, Amma has built one of the world’s biggest richest (and therefore most generous) charities. She is the proud owner of an ashram (er, monastery?) in India that houses more than 3,000 devotees. They live in 18-storey tower blocks in a gated community. But that’s just to preserve their spiritual purity and stuff. Amma’s so great she’s won loads of awards, including one from Cinema Verite, given to her by Sharon Stone. No I don’t get it either. 
Who was getting hugged aside from you?
A couple of hundred people, I’d estimate. I went to the morning hugathon, which is significantly less well attended than the evening shindig, apparently. There were a lot of European folks, there on their spiritual journey and a lot of Indian folks, there, I guess, for more traditional reasons. I saw a woman – a woman of a certain type, the middle-aged mother with blonde hair beginning to fray – reading a book called Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing, while her son played on a Nintendo DS. I overheard another woman – of the same certain type – twittering that she’d already bunked her daughter off school once this year ‘to visit Amma,’ making the divine mother sound like a favourite cartoon character. There was a young chap in the queue for hug-tickets dozing, his head slumped on his backpack, a bed roll poking out of the top -he looked like he’d spent the night in ecstatic anticipation. Another British fellow with an effete voice begged a steward that Amma hug him again, ‘I feel like she gave me part one of a two part thing!’ he implored. But Amma likes to give priority to people who are hug-less and I met a few people who lied about their hug-status just to get another one. The volunteers who poked and prodded us towards our hug-tickets, to our seats and to the hug itself were all dressed in pure white (some with dashing purple sashes) and were excruciatingly polite, like they were hiding some horrible perversion. Stop with the cynicism! Open mind!
What was the programme guide booklet like?
Ah – I was hoping you’d ask that question. It was very interesting. Full of adverts for things like Vortex healing, detox foot patches, theta DNA healing, sacred journeys, Vedic astrology, career intuitives, Tibetan singing bowls, past-life regression (recommended by a big brother winner), transformative yoga and supernutrients. A veritable A-Z of spirituality. And mumbo-jumbo. I expect. Must remember to keep an open mind. I did meet some Vortex healers, actually, and they seemed like jolly nice people.
What was the hugging-hall like?
Oh the hugging-hall was wonderful. It was packed full of hugging-memorabilia: teacups, candles, bags, t-shirts, saris, incense, books, magazines, DVDs, CDs, photographs, jewellery and assorted knick-knacks. There were also places to indulge in Ayurveda, naturopathy, massage and Vedic astrology. It struck me that this was not just about Amma – this was a fully-blown spirituality expo with Amma as the headline act. And, in between spiritual explorations, we could stuff ourselves with vegetarian dosas and bhajis and muffins. 
What was the ceremony like?
On Amma’s blessed arrival, we worshipped her feet and gave a prayer of thanks to, well, Amma. Her right-hand man did all this, in a deep voice that resonated through speakers (with the bass turned right up). Then we all did a spot of meditation, to the sonorous tones of this bass-boosted gentleman. In fact, this part was rather sinister because we couldn’t see where the voice was coming from and at times he was almost hissing at us, whispering, urging us to love and peace as if it was, er, some horrific perversion. My neighbours, impatient for the hug, foot-tapped and coughed through this bit. I closed my eyes and solemnly meditated myself into a doze. Then we were onto the hugging. There was a strict ticket system and I was C2. The board clicked around, like a cricket scoreboard, and you had to be alert otherwise you’d miss your turn. C2 was quite early and I joined the queue, took off my shoes and edged closer and closer to the hug-machine.
Right – so what was the hug like, god-damn you!
It was nice. That’s what hugs are. I walked away smiling, beside myself with smilingness, in fact. I tried to suppress it, like a true Britisher, but failed. So I smiled a lot and felt a bit silly. I was surprised by how fervently she held me to her bosom. I tried to keep my distance, like a true Britisher, but her grip was very firm and, besides, she had some very important things to tell me. Unfortunately I don’t speak Malayalam so I have no idea what it was. I had been hoping for some sort of UN-style simultaneous translation. It wasn’t forthcoming, so I just knelt there, with my face in her breasts, drunk on her musky scent of incense while these words babbled over me. Then as soon as it had started, it was over: Amma pressed a sweet and a flower petal into my hand like I was her favourite naughty schoolboy and I was shoved out of the way for the next huggee. And I smiled.

Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: A Philosophical Consideration

Please be warned: this is a lengthy post (3000 words), but it contains all the fears and joys of my experience of the ten-day Vipassana meditation course at Dhamma Dipa. I hope you find it valuable.

How I felt at Dhamma Dipa: A Summary.

Ten days of renunciation, renunciation of all the things I listed here, some I was glad to be rid of, some I was uncomfortable without. The purpose of the renunciation was to clear space for meditation, for the serious hard work of meditation, living the life of a monk for ten days. All my basic needs were comfortably covered, but I found that I was still not content. Food, water and shelter were not sufficient for me. What could I possibly still need after my basic needs were covered? I craved stimulation. I found I craved three big stimulations: mental, physical (including sexual) and social. I suppose there are other stimulations, such as psychotic and spiritual, but I do not covet these stimulations in the ‘outside world’ so I did not miss them at Dhamma Dipa.

Social and physical stimulation are expressly forbidden on the ten-day course and punished with expulsion (after warnings) so I could only indulge in mental stimulation. This is the last thing that another person can control. Physical and social activity can be observed, monitored and punished. But no one can observe my mind without pinning me down and sticking electrodes onto my skull. So I found solace from the boredom in my own mind. The evening discourses at Dhamma Dipa were the only brain-food that my poor mind found in the outside world so I turned inwards, naturally enough, and found that my internal world was a vast, unexplored territory. I spent hours and hours when I should have been meditating just going over small areas of this territory, discovering, rediscovering. The course was well worth attending just for this precious opportunity for self-exploration, even if I found the meditation hard going.

So why did I find the meditation at Dhamma Dipa hard going?

1) The physical pain was unexpectedly hard.
2) I’m not used to doing one thing repetitively for up to twelve hours a day.
3) I don’t like being told what to do and particularly when I’ve got to do it.
4) I was not ready for the hard work and mental focus that meditation demands. My mind was much more eager to explore itself.
5) I found certain aspects of the Vipassana meditation technique contradictory, confusing and frightening.

Now, numbers 1) – 4) are all about me. It would be unfair to judge Vipassana for these personal limitations. However, number 5) is more serious; an ideological barrier is more significant than a physical or even a mental barrier.

So what did I find objectionable about the technique at Dhamma Dipa?

1) False scientific claims.
2) Rites, rituals and holy men.
3) Egocentricity.
4) Fear of brain-washing.
5) Inflexibility.

1) The technique was repeatedly described as ‘scientific, rational and logical.‘ It was not. There were elements that had their own internal logic, correct, but the premises they were founded on were neither scientific nor rational. For example, the idea that the pains or sensations of pleasure that you feel in the body are ‘Sankharas bubbling up to the surface,‘ and that by simply observing them and not reacting they would ‘pass away,‘ and not trouble you again is absurd. Equally the idea that these Sankharas are the fuel that is required for mind and matter to ‘push the life force into the next life‘ is absurd. I need not explain why this is not scientific or even rational. It is prima facie absurd.

Unfortunately for logic, reason and science, there was a text-book religious escape clause built into the Vipassana technique: if you don’t agree with any of the theory, that doesn’t matter – ignore it, forget it, pay no attention. If the meditation works for you, that’s fine, and you might find that after meditating for longer you realise that these elements of the theory are in fact the truth also. I suppose anyone who puts a serious amount of time into something is going to believe more and more. I would suggest that the more ‘Christian’ you become, the more rational the raising of Lazarus becomes.

2) The method was also held up as free from all dogma, rite and ritual and yet, at the end of every meditation sitting, there would be the repetition of the phrase ‘Bhavatu sabba mangalam,‘ to which the response was ‘Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu,‘ and then a little bow (if you wanted). The teacher assured us that these were merely kind words of encouragement and that the response was simply thanking the teacher for his teaching. Fine. But why in this language, the dead language of Gautama the Buddha? Why not in my language? It reminded me of the Catholic church, with mass called in Latin. The sittings also start and frequently end with some chanting, also in Pali, this language I don’t understand. If this isn’t ritual, I don’t know what is. Metta meditation, which takes place at the end of a sitting of Vipassana and involves filling the mind and body with thoughts and feelings of goodwill for all beings, struck me simply as prayer: ‘May all beings share in my happiness.‘ Furthermore, at the end of the discourses, the teacher raises his hand and speaks some words of what I can only call blessing. It looks like he’s Jesus or something. I was not impressed; in fact I was scared.

3) Some aspects of the egocentricity in the technique were positive, like the belief that you should focus on changing your perception of the outside world rather than trying to force other people to change. But the egocentricity went further. We were urged to spread our experience of dhamma, the law of nature, to other people. This was essentially a call to proselytise on behalf of the Vipassana technique, which is the only true course to knowledge of dhamma and real enlightenment. We were urged to use our knowledge of dhamma for the good of the world. I found this frightening. Perhaps I am a moral relativist, but I find it hard to guarantee my good judgement in all cases, even if I were an enlightened being. The technique seemed to breed the sort of arrogance you see in religions: I know I’m right, let me help you to better yourself by teaching you my wonderful technique.

A development of this egocentricity was the idea of intentionality. According to Gautama the Buddha, intention of action is everything. If the mind is pure (ensured by following the sila, five moral precepts) then the action will be pure, even if it turns out to be a wrong or harmful action. Only from an impure mind can impure actions follow. In other words, honest mistakes happen, but it doesn’t matter too much, you can make up for them. Flip this around and you could say that unintentionally good actions from an impure mind are also mistakes and shouldn’t be counted as good.

Unfortunately, I disagree entirely. I happen to believe that hypocrisy is fine. We are all hypocrites (except perhaps Gautama the Buddha) – there’s no getting away from that, so why not fake it until we make it? I would argue that, as long as the action is good, the intention scarcely makes a difference. If the action is bad then a good intention only ameliorates things for the victim, doesn’t it? It’s mitigation in your defence and doesn’t necessarily lead to forgiveness and restitution.

For all we know, the intentions of Hitler may have been good. Surely every human on the planet believes in their own right action, we all feel sure our intentions are good. But the actions of Hitler were, by general consensus, bad. His (hypothetical) good intentions do not make the suffering of the victims any more bearable. Similarly, no one actually cares if the intentions are bad, as long as the actions are good. I could do something solely for my own personal gain and only inadvertently do endless good to others. I don’t believe that makes my action bad.

But perhaps Gautama the Buddha would say that your good action with bad intent would make you feel bad, that it would make you miserable. In other words, that, while intention might not matter from the perspective of the victim of the action, it does from the perspective of the perpetrator. But I would argue that good intentions only ameliorate the situation for the perpetrator also. If you are the one who pulls the lever that kills six people when you thought that it would save them, you are still overwhelmed with remorse, you go over and over the action again and again trying to work out if you could have done anything. Everyone may well say that there is nothing you could have done, that it wasn’t your fault – but still you killed six people. If you have bad intentions behind good actions then you might feel like a fraud, but good intentions behind bad actions might make you feel like an idiot, a blunderer.

4) We were asked, not only to renounce physical comforts, mental props and all kinds of things, but it seemed we were also asked to leave our brains at the door. We were told that ‘In order to give the technique a fair trial,’ we should give ourselves entirely to the method, to work hard and to focus for ten days solid. After the ten days we would be free again, we could throw it all in the garbage can if we wanted. But to give up your mind for even ten days is a huge commitment. I’m pretty sure I could make anyone believe in the power of writing if they gave themselves to me for ten days and worked on nothing but writing for twelve hours a day. It’s nothing to do with the wonder of writing (or plumbing or painting or accountancy, all of which would benefit from 120 hours hard practice), it’s to do with the sheer time commitment by the student.

This ten-day commitment at Dhamma Dipa was then coupled with a further commitment to continue to practise at home for two hours a day for a year. Again, if you do anything two hours a day for a year, you’ll sure as hell believe in it! You’d get good. The more you invest in something, the more your clever brain will squeeze out of it and, crucially, the more the brain will ascribe value to the activity. Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I’m not saying it is a good thing. It is just a fact. Vipassana doesn’t seem to do anything particularly harmful to its students or to the people around the student. It’s hard to disagree with the ethics of Vipassana (although I’ll try, later) and equanimity seems a pretty harmless life-goal (if a little dull). But why should I help spread this particular meme?

Unfortunately the Vipassana meme can also be addictive, ironic as it is supposedly about freeing the mind and the body from craving. My room-mate at Dhamma Dipa was addicted to meditation. I know this because he told me. He was upset on the last night that it was all over, another person in the hall was in tears. A co-meditator warned me about meditation becoming an ego trip, as it had become for him some years previously. Several people commented that either people go once and then never again or they get really into it. A young guy told me that you need a girlfriend who is into it otherwise they don’t understand when you don’t react to their love or their anger – they think you don’t love them.

Isn’t this the meme multiplying itself very successfully? But does this addiction matter if it makes people happy? There is an element of truth in the idea that happiness comes from simply committing to a life philosophy or a life goal. We see it all the time in people who have found Jesus (sorry to pick on Christianity, I use it only because it is the predominant background religion in the UK and my use is illustrative).

Perhaps it’s just that I don’t want to commit to a life philosophy; I enjoy learning as I go, trying new things, building my own system. That is the game of life for me. I don’t believe in any after-life, therefore I have no need for any system of getting there (or not getting there). All I need is something that will make me happy here and now and that will make other people happy (which seems to be what makes me happy). I am perfectly willing to concede that this purpose could well be served by Vipassana, but I prefer the liberality of my own vision. There are plenty of people in the world who share my ideas, including students of Vipassana. The main advantage (some could see it as a disadvantage – it involves thinking) is that I’m open to change, Vipassana isn’t.

5) I don’t like the inflexibility of Vipassana. The first precept, for example, is: ‘To abstain from killing any being.‘ This translates (in real terms: no human likes killing things) into vegetarianism (and not squishing bugs). But really, science has moved on. Plants are no longer the dumb biomass that people thought 2,500 years ago. They are sentient beings just like you and I. The moral justification for vegetarianism on these grounds is shot to flames. So too, therefore, is this precept, but they aren’t about to change it, are they? Of course not: the five precepts are fundamental and immutable.

I’m not saying that you can’t justify vegetarianism on moral or ethical grounds, just not on these moral grounds. You could, for example, argue that vegetarianism is the least disruptive diet to the ecology of the planet, given our current farming methods and our current population. Fine (but note that these conditions on the ethical rectitude of vegetarianism are subject to change), but you cannot justify it on the grounds of the immorality of killing any beings. It is this inflexibility that leads to dogma and unthinking. That is what scares me. And of course, once you’ve opened up this precept to examination, then all kinds of questions raise themselves, real questions that people have been facing up to for millennia, such as: when is killing acceptable?

So what did I like about the method at Dhamma Dipa?

You may have got the impression that, from a theoretical point of view, this ten-day course was a complete waste of my time. Fine: I may have learnt a lot about my own mind, but I could have done that without the Vipassana education on top, couldn’t I? Yes, but I must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. There were a plenty of theoretical points that I did appreciate in Vipassana and several very important lessons that I learnt, more ammunition in my arsenal against the demons, devils and dragons that we face in life.

1) Everything is changing. One can witness this by observing sensations on the body, by observing the feelings of pain or pleasure that arise and then pass away after some time. But the idea goes much much deeper than sensations on the body. Every situation we face, every being on the planet, every molecule is in a state of constant flux. This concept helps to develop equanimity, which can help you combat stress, help you make better decisions or simply make you happier. For example, if you have money problems, then understand that this is just a situation and that it will change over time. Sometimes you will have money, sometimes you won’t. You can then use this equanimity to develop a calm and logical plan for saving money or for earning more – or for deciding that money isn’t important to you.

2) It is the sensations that we feel on the body that provoke disgust or pleasure and that lead to our reactions of aversion or clinging. Understand that it is not the object out there in the world that causes your reaction, but the patterns of the mind that interpret how your body feels. With this in mind, it is much easier to resist the temptation to buy that videophone that you know will only cause you pain when it breaks or when it is stolen, that you know will only cause you to spend hours on Facebook when you should be working, that you know will only take you further away from real social interactions with the people you love. Equally it makes the thought of cleaning the toilet a much happier prospect: that disgusting stain on the bowl is simply that. It need not provoke aversion; perhaps it is something to be enjoyed instead. Enjoy it for what it is: just another object in the world, like a deer in the snow or that scene in There’s Something About Mary or a kiss from a lover – nothing to feel aversion towards or craving for.

3) Hard, hard work is the secret to success. The teacher had a mantra that is a great foundation for everything we do in life: ‘Work diligently, patiently and persistently, and continuously. You are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.’ It is not about sitting around and waiting for enlightenment (or whatever); it is about getting off (or on) your arse and doing some hard bloody work. We all think we’re perfect so the first step is to realise that isn’t true and to work hard at being better.

Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: What I did do

So that’s what I didn’t do during my 10-day study of Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa. Here’s a list of what I did do.

  1. Lived in silence.
  2. Lived in an all-male community where the loudest sound were the birds (until the Harrier Jets passed over).
  3. Saw rabbits before dawn.
  4. Saw not just every sunset and sunrise, but every moonset and moonrise.
  5. Watched a nest of spiders entrap their prey around a light. With our vow of no killing, there was no sweeping away of cobwebs.
  6. Lots of walking, slow and fast. I used the field as a clock sometimes, 6 minutes to make a circuit.
  7. Lots of sleeping (when I shouldn’t have been).
  8. Lots of sitting crosslegged, something I hadn’t done since primary school.
  9. Lots of pain.
  10. Lots of thinking. I spent a lot of time going over my memories and felt a deep appreciation for all the people I’ve met and ridden with.
  11. Lost any reasonable idea of social graces and personal appearance. Scoffed food, nails long and grubby, beard shabby and dandruff all over the place.
  12. Watched a bee pick pollen from a blue flowered plant.
  13. Ate gorgeous vegetarian food and spectacular breakfasts.
  14. Meditated (a bit).
  15. I learnt a bit about myself, about how frustrated I get with petty annoyances, how bored I get without mental stimulation.
  16. Sat in a hall with 120 other people and listened to the sounds of coughing, sneezing, sniffing, shifting, scratching, swallowing, farting, breathing, crying.
  17. Laughed hard at the teacher’s hilarious discourses in the evenings (the only intellectual stimulation allowed).
  18. Heard an owl hooting in the night.
  19. Heard foxes screeching.
  20. Woke up and got up at 4am everyday – or before.
  21. Had crazy cool dreams.
  22. Created an aversion to the sound of a gong.
  23. Got paranoid that my co-meditators hated me. The slightest body-language snub was a cause for boiling paranoia.
  24. Listened to the most appalling chanting noises, sounding like the final death rattle of our teacher, and still kept my equanimity (almost).
  25. Spent a lot of time looking at my clock, counting down the minutes and the days.
  26. Felt a surge of joy every morning to be out in the cold and sometimes the misting rain and to be looking out over the valley and the woods, out into the silence.
It’s a list that goes on and on, believe me. I repeatedly fail to quite capture the experience of frustration and joy that went with the 10-days at Dhamma Dipa. You’ve just got to try it for yourself. But you can read my attempt to capture more of my experiences here.

Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: What I didn’t do

I just got back from a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation at Dhamma Dipa in Herefordshire. I thought it might be interesting for people to get an idea about the sort of things that we got up to down there, but first, here’s a list of the things that I didn’t get up to.

  1. I did not see god, get converted or become enlightened.
  2. No meat-eating.
  3. No women, no children.
  4. No speaking (hardly) – in fact no communication at all, not even body language or a smile was allowed.
  5. No intoxicants.
  6. No caffeine.
  7. No reading (except for a few instructions posted on the boards).
  8. No writing.
  9. No clothes washing – or any other normal household chores.
  10. No exercise except walking.
  11. No email or internet.
  12. No telephone.
  13. No music.
  14. No games or other entertainment.
  15. No travel.
  16. No spectacles (except to watch the evening discourses).
  17. No refined sugar (perhaps a little in the desserts, but not much).
  18. No proper meals after about 11.30am.
  19. Only a five or six hours sleep a night.
  20. No news or information, no radio, newpapers etc..
  21. No solitude (really, not much).
  22. No freedom – the timetable was rigid.
  23. No days off.
  24. No difficulties at all – meals provided, bed provided, nothing to worry about, nothing could go wrong.
  25. No money.
  26. Nothing in my pockets except a few tissues and a clock.
  27. No stealing.
  28. No killing.
  29. No lying (I don’t think I lied – perhaps I did, not sure).
  30. No physical contact with anyone else.
  31. No contact with advertising! That was a good one.
All this was supposed to clear the way for some concentrated work on our minds. See what I did do at Dhamma Dipa in my next post.

Polyphasing Experiment: Conclusions

Things I achieved in the week:

  • Cleared out the loft.
  • Cleared out my bedroom – wardrobes, desk etc.
  • Threw out a load of clothes, books and general crap.
  • Sorted out my computer filing system.
  • Gave my website a complete overhaul.
  • Started a new money making venture.

Lessons learned:

  • I can sleep for 2 hours a day and still operate (more or less).
  • There are no serious side effects (I think!).
  • The limits of my endurance are much further than expected. I feel like I would be able to operate on 14 hours of sleep a week in extreme circumstances.
  • Sleep is something that can be trained and it can be modified to my own requirements: it’s not just a case of going to bed and waking up.
  • Naps are more important than I gave them credit for. The ability to nap every few hours to get through a night of work was a great feeling.
  • Without the habit of going to sleep for 8 hours straight I lost the sense of days passing. Time flowed constantly, not in fits and starts. It made me realise that every minute is sacred. 
  • With 22 hours in a day there’s far too much time to spend it on frivolity – that gets boring pretty quickly. I found that the more time I had, the more I wanted to spend it on something worthwhile.
  • It’s nice splitting the day up into more segments: it focusses the mind on achievement during the waking periods. Under this system of 20 minutes every four hours, however, I become something of a slave to the segments.
  • Beds are not necessary – and in fact I found it much nicer not to have a bed in my room. The bed, that huge piece of furniture, forced my room to be a BEDroom. This is counter productive both for working in that room and then for trying to sleep in that room after having worked there. It was really liberating to use a blow-up bed that I brought out only when required. It meant that I had a huge lump of space for other daytime activities. It meant I could put my rocking chair beside the window – I had never before realised how pleasant the sun was coming through there. The absence of a bed in my workspace lead to a healthy demarcation of day and night activities.
  • I like doing things that make me unique. I like to push myself into unusual situations that change my perception of the world – and then to encourage others to do the same. I like living with imagination and courage, not conformity and fear.

Positive aspects of polyphasia

  • Time for EVERYTHING – including complete and utter boredom!

I will have to let that time go on a monophasic schedule.

Negative aspects of a polyphasic pattern:

  • Socially it is difficult at best, antisocial at worst.
  • I found it difficult to perform creative work, in the adjustment phase at least. I got a lot of dross work done, but not much creative work – my novel suffered by about 2800 words over the 6 days of the experiment.

Negative side effects of polyphasia

These, I concede, could have disappeared if I had persisted through the adjustment period of about 30 days.

  • Hot flushes in the early phases.
  • Numbness in the extremities.
  • Cold sensitivity.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Brain freeze/fog.
  • Creativity blockages.

Action points to be taken away:

  • I don’t need a bed. Perhaps I should investigate buying a Japanese bed roll.
  • When I feel tired, I’ll sleep! I won’t feel guilty about sleeping or just ride through the rough period. I’ll take a nap. I know now that I don’t have to get undressed or brush my teeth or anything – I can just lie down and take 20 minutes out.
  • Evangelise the benefits of messing with your sleep to learn about yourself.

Finally, I exhort you: Experiment and Learn.

Thank you for reading.

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 6

01:51: Revenge of the Nap

I have had a change of tactics. Naptics you might say. Taking Pavlina’s idea and combining it with Buckminster Fuller’s technique: I’m just going to take a 20 minute nap every time (well, maybe not every time) I get too tired.

I just had one and it was unquestionably more successful than other naps. I am still scarcely able to keep my eyes open, but I did have vivid dreams and woke up before the end of the nap. These are good signs. I am still hunting the holy grail of refreshment, however. But at least I’m not tired!

Alertness rating: 4

03:20: Naptastic?

I’m not sure if I’m winning or losing. I think I feel better, although my eyes are having trouble adjusting to sight again.

Alertness rating: 4

06:40: Serial Napper

My schedule for this past night has been naps every 2 hours, rather than every 4. so that’s naps at 11pm, 1am, 3am, 5am and, coming up next, 7am. It has made it somewhat less painful to get through and I have achieved things, but I am still far from rested.

Alertness rating: 4

Disgusting: a 1 hour oversleep after initial wake up. Actually that’s not quite correct: I woke up an 20 minute intevals at 7:20, as planned, at 7:40 and then at 8:20.

18:34: Thoughts on Napping

There are some things that I have not been describing because I have not been sure. But I think now they are pertinent. A week ago I played cricket and did not stretch beforehand. Normally any strains would be gone in three days at most, but the pain in my back seems to have got worse.

Secondly, this sleeping pattern seems to have been playing havoc with my digestive system. This could be due to lack of an enzyme that is produced during deep sleep. Having said that, after two bike rides I am feeling pretty good – but that could just be thanks to watching Liverpool trounce Aston Villa 5-0!

Tonight is something of a test for the system: it is the first day that I have been able to socialise. Two of my friends are in town and we’ll probably go somewhere this evening. I obviously can’t go out until my 7pm nap, can’t drink and have to be back in bed by 11pm. I shall report back on the irritation this causes.

I have to confess that this experiment has been both easier and harder than I expected. I was expecting much more acute symptoms of sleep deprivation: hallucinations, narcolepsy and so on. I had none of these. But I have been really dragged down by the minor side effects: the dullness of thought, the hot flushes, the digestive problems, weakness when performing physical exercise. I have the time, but not the strength.

I do feel like today has been an improvement, however. Perhaps that is due to my oversleep earlier. Perhaps it is because my friends are here and I have someone to share it all with. Am I fed up with it though? Is it too much already?

Reading Dr Mednick’s book I am even more concerned with the long term effects – this was only meant to be an experiment, but is it worth the heartache just for an experiment? This 30 days could be spent productively – it’s not as though there aren’t a million things I need to be doing, but if I don’t have the strength then all the hours in the day won’t help me.

Alertness rating: 5.5

Still a thick head though, and that just kills me.

19:38: Sleep Inertia?

Seriously, waking up from a nap feels like waking up from a high speed encounter with the bull bars of a truck. I can barely focus my eyes, which is worrying – even after repeated shaking of the head etc. I wonder if this is because I am sinking quickly into short wave sleep and thus getting a load of sleep inertia on wake up. But once up and moving I feel fine again.

Alertness rating: 5.5

23:57: Nap to the Future

The evening with my friends was, predictably, terminated by me needing to nap. Post nap was the familiar feeling of being kicked in the face by a mule. As the clock ticks towards midnight I have trouble holding a conversation without feelings of great irritation and discomfort. This experiment is over.

Alertness rating: 4

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 5

3:00 Please let me recover!

Not the worst nap ever. But I’m still waiting to wake up refreshed. I’m lurching from nap to nap with my body just getting enough to keep going. It’s like I’m topping up to the level of sleep deprivation that I built up over the first night of not sleeping. Like the 20 minutes gives me just enough energy for the next 3 hours 40 minutes, no more, no less.

One other observation about this is that I really can’t read whilst in this phase. It makes me too sleepy. I can manage a few pages during the day, but even then I’m not really concentrating so I’m pretty sure it’s not very productive reading.

05:09: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 61 WPM
  • Simon: 9
  • Reactions: 82.38

Simon has taken a bit of a battering – concentration not great. But the others are fine.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 65.2kg
  • Blood pressure: 112/72
  • Heart rate: 48 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

08:56: Interdiurnal Nap?

I experimented with a nap between naps. I feel more rested, but have a feeling that it is only going to make things worse. I napped from 7:00 to 7:20 as normal, then got up and had a shower and napped again from 7:40 until 8:00. I then did a silly oversleep thing until 8:45. It really is odd that my sessions of oversleep are 40-45 minutes, not 90+. I wonder if this means that a 45 minutes Dymaxion would be possible for me?

Alertness rating: 4.5

17:34: Keep on napping

And hope it works out. I’m a little concerned that I don’t seem to be dreaming so much. Both the 11am and 3pm naps were more like falling into a faint and only rousing when the alarm goes off, what seems like hours later with a brain turned into oatmeal. My condition does seem to improve after waking, but I still struggle to read in my rocking chair. I feel dehydrated a lot of the time and exercise drains me. I’ve been for a long walk and a 15 minute bike ride and both left my head dense and craving sleep.

Alertness rating: 4.5

23:16:Torture?

Is this self-imposed torture? Sleep deprivation is a well-known technique and I have no gone five days without a decent deep sleep, always waking myself before the truly restorative phases of sleep.

Alertness rating: 3

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 4

02:21: Night Walking

I hope I develop a taste for dark, cold streets because I feel like I’m going to see them a lot over the next month. I find myself looking forward to the 7am nap because it seems like a true rest. When I wake up it is morning, just like for all the monophasers. It is a rare time of day when we are in sync, there is one other at 11pm when we all go to bed, ‘Good night!’ I say, knowing that I’ll be back up again in 20 minutes, but the others will slumber through the night, through to the morning.

Alertness rating: 4.5

04:16: Quiet Zone

That last nap wasn’t too restorative. Apparently night naps are harder than day naps. My body is still used to sleeping at night. But I have to say that I’ve been working on my cycling project quite productively in this quiet zone without too overwhelming feelings of tiredness. Still got two and a half hours to go though before the next nap!

Alertness rating: 4

07:22: Grogg

Dreaming again, but woke up to my alarm. When that happens I feel very groggy, especially if it was during a vivid dream, which it was this time. The dream took place on a film shoot. I was an extra and they needed me to eat a sandwich on camera. But they gave me the sandwich before the shot was ready and I ate it. So I felt bad and they had to make me another one. And I ate it again. Oops.

My eyes feel like they can’t focus, with heavy lids and a mist shading them from the world. Similar to yesterday morning actually. Not good.

Alertness rating: 2

09:20: Testing

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 64.1kg
  • Blood pressure: 121/61
  • Heart rate: 52 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

12:12: Snoozeville

My 11am nap was the same story. Good long sleep with REM, but the alarm wakes me and I have no idea where I am, what the time is, whether I am just going to bed or should be getting up. I’m still feeling head fuzz.

Alertness rating: 3.5

16:12: Experimentation?

I’m not sure if this counts as valid experimentation, probably not, but I did oversleep again, like I did yesterday on my 3pm nap. Perhaps my excitement over adjusting was waaay too premature. Again, it wasn’t a problem of alarms. I clearly recall switching them all off this time, but I chose to stay in bed. It is interesting that, even after choosing to stay in bed, I am only oversleeping by 40 minutes. That makes my sleep time 20 minutes + 40 minutes. I also never remember dreams from this second 40 minutes so I am definitely indulging in the NREM bit. But what does it all mean?

I’ve just re-read Steve Pavlina’s blog about the adjustment period and he didn’t feel 100% until Day 6 and even then still used an extra 20 minute nap in the early hours before dawn. I’m pretty sure that my two 40 minute oversleeps are more damaging than his extra 20 minute sleeps for the reason that I am not going straight into REM sleep, which is the purpose of this initial training, adaptation period. Does that mean that my body is ‘reset’ and I have another 6 days of perfect scheduling to get through? Or are two relatively minor oversleeps permissible and my body will be on track for 100% on my day 6 equivalent (which would be next Monday)?

One thing that I did not do for this nap was to place the alarms out of reach – a policy I implemented after yesterday’s oversleep – the problem is I went to bed about 15 minutes before nap time to adjust and read and I needed a clock to see the correct time to close my eyes. I shall move another clock to viewing distance and keep my alarms out of arm’s reach!

Alertness rating: 3.5

20:03: Napping for Napping’s sake

Well that nap didn’t feel very restorative at all. I woke up about 10 minutes in worrying that I had over slept. It feels like I am getting all the right symptoms of polyphasic sleep, but none of the benefits (yet). I’m going to work tonight on clearing out Liz’s loft so that should keep me wide awake and make the hours of darkness pass.

Alertness rating: 3
But after a big meal, Alertness rating: 4

01:45: Another Day’s Nap

My 11pm nap was no more than functional. It’s amazing how easily I fall asleep and dream, but they are not restorative. I just get up and resume my zombie routines. I can’t remember the last time my brain felt engaged. Scary.

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 3

00:40: Midnight Creep

The ‘day’ begins with me dragging three huge bags of clothes down to the Salvation Army collection point in the centre of the village. As I stuff the dense black bin bags into the skip I feel guilty, as if they were chopped up bodies and I were a 1920s gangster.

Alertness rating: 5

Surprisingly alert.

02:28: Epiphany

This really is remarkable. Here I am at half past two in the morning and yeah I don’t feel 100%, but I can function quite well and I do have enough energy and concentration to do the sort of tasks that suck hours out of our days (or just don’t get done at all). And to think that this is the worst of the adjustment period; I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have energy at this time of night on just 20 minutes napping time. I do look forward to the naps now and I think my brain would really love me to forget to set the alarm but I’m on track and loving it.

03:22: Changes

I feel as if the nap length is increasing. Of course it isn’t, but that’s the way it feels. It seems like the naps are a few hours, not just 20 minutes. I’m still not awaking refreshed though. Exhausted.

Alertness rating: 2

07:59: OUCH

I feel sick, I can hardly keep my eyes open, I’m very sensitive to cold. This is the pain.

Alertness rating: 1

I hope that’s rock bottom, but there is still room for worse I fear.

08:15: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 64 WPM
  • Simon: 9
  • Reactions: 69.47

I’m getting better at the typing! The other worse scores better reflect the way I feel: rubbish!

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 63.5kg
  • Blood pressure: 108/62
  • Heart rate: 56 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

11:27: Rushing Naps

They seem to be coming quicker. I don’t feel sick any longer: I just needed to eat breakfast. I am still whacked; this seems to be a hangover from each nap. I am groggy apparently. Also worth mentioning: I appear to have a cold, something happened yesterday about 6pm and my nose has been liquid ever since. Probably not making things any easier, but I don’t think it is affecting me too much.

Alertness rating: 3

16:00: Disaster?

I have no idea how, but I somehow managed to oversleep there. The alarms were all switched on and I woke up naturally 40 minutes late. I have a distant memory of possibly turning them off and just lying there for a moment… I’m a little groggy, but otherwise fine. I hope that has not put be back too far!

Alertness rating: 3.5

19:18: Back on Track

And I dreamed and woke up naturally for the first time! Woo-hoo! My dream was based in a middle eastern city (probably because I wrote 1000 words of my novel just before napping) – it could have been Cairo, it could have been Tunis – it was a melange. Anyway, I was there to learn Arabic and I was in a school room and there were two lesbians (I later assumed – but don’t worry, it’s not one of those dreams!) who came in and asked us if we wanted to watch some comedy sketches performed by two lesbians in French. I was surprised and pleased that they were so open about the homosexual content. I wondered if they were rebelling against the society or just determined to live their lives as they felt them, with no shame.

So: dreams, real dreams. I still don’t feel totally fresh, but this seems to be something of a break-through. And the fact that I woke ‘naturally’ – I use the quote marks because after the 16:00 nap I was worried about oversleeping and I woke in something of a shock thinking that I had overslept again. This also seems to be a constant in ubersleepers’ reports: the impression that sleep lasted much longer than 20 minutes.

Alertness rating: 4

And to celebrate my first successful polyphasic sleep:

White Hot Chocolate!

22:07: Testing

But first:
Alertness rating: 6 – I’m impressed.

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 62 WPM
  • Simon: 17
  • Reactions: 84.67

Typing speed was up, but accuracy was down. The other scores blown out of the water! If that is in any way indicative of the results of a good polyphasic nap then I’m in for a treat! Reaction speed up 22% from this morning – wow.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 64.0kg
  • Blood pressure: 114/68
  • Heart rate: 61 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

23:21: Good Night!

Or not. Dreamt again, but woke with the alarm. Feel very drowsy and just wish I could go back to sleep!

Alertness rating: 3.5

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 2

00:14: New Territory

This is the start of my first full day of polyphasic sleeping. Yesterday was great, but on the back of a full nights sleep it was no challenge. Today is a different kettle of fish altogether. Over the next 24 hours I will discover what it means to be sleep deprived. And it’s just the beginning.

Alertness rating: 6

03:00: Early Morning Nap

Got some light sleep in with a little para-dreaming: a marching band drummer with a big old drum strapped to his chest beating a marching rhythm. I woke up in surprise at this visit, only to realise that my brain was interpreting the music I had playing in the background.

I am napping on the floor with a duvet and a pillow, with a small lamp on and some soft music playing. I don’t want to make this harder than it already is by oversleeping! I am setting five different alarms, one on my phone which is fairly obnoxious and then four on this Salter Kitchen Timer I got off Amazon, each one set one minute later than the last. They all have different sounds and I haven’t needed more than one – so far…

I’m going to head out for a walk now to keep myself conscious – I’ll probably have a bite to eat as well. Only one more waking phase until I’ve done 24 hours. Steve Pavlina had to do three 24 hour polyphasic ‘days’ before he started feeling good again. There is no doubt that the hardest is ahead of me. So far I’m feeling alright.

Alertness rating: 4

Piano is an excellent tool for staying awake, as I thought. I only hope I didn’t wake the rest of the house up! Played for about an hour – Dos Gardenias and a bit of Gonzales. I’m quite hungry now actually – I haven’t eaten a full meal since about 5pm yesterday.

06:16: The Night Shift

The hardest part of the day is almost over. I got through the last hour by writing my 1000 words of novel for Tuesday. I did notice that it was harder to think straight, but once I got going it was fine. Dad is up already, dawn has broken. I have officially made it through the night.

Alertness rating: 4

7:20: Morning has broken

I’m yet to have a decent nap. This one was a kind of unconscious rest. Not particularly refreshing and I didn’t really dream, but I did sleep. This 7am nap will be akin to a monophasic sleep: I will now have a shower and breakfast.

Happy days! What a difference a good hot shower makes! Ready to face the day. Except every time I think that, I can’t help thinking that it’s not merely the day I have to face: it’s the next 30 days. I will never rest, not like I used to, and that simple fact is a mind bender.

Alertness rating: 5.5

08:52: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 60 WPM
  • Simon: 10
  • Reactions: 68.34

No change in typing accuracy or speed. Lower scores on both the concentration and reaction tests, however. I’m not surprised – I feel pretty slow.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 63.8kg
  • Blood pressure: 113/56
  • Heart rate: 59 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

11:00: Mid Morning Already?

Still no proper REM sleep. I am definitely sleeping though. It took about 8 minutes to fall asleep, about 2 minutes once I’d switched off the rather lively Cuban music…Feeling very fragile and sleepy.

Alertness rating: 4

14:32: A Walk in the Sun

It’s boiling out there! An hour long walk through the fog of brain fuzz and boy am I looking forward to the 3pm nap!

Alertness rating: 3.5

15:21: Afternoon Kip

Better, better. Slept the whole 20 minutes thanks to extending the alarm to about 25 minutes and doing a bit of reading before sinking into slumber.

Alertness rating: 4

Just fending off the zeds.

19:20: Evening Session

One really needs to prepare for one’s sleep about 10 minutes before the nap actually begins. I was clearing out the loft and didn’t lie down until 19:00 precisely so didn’t fall asleep for perhaps 8 minutes. This meant a shorter nap than I’m supposed to be getting and as a consequence I feel like death!

22:26: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 57 WPM
  • Simon: 10
  • Reactions: 78.41

Slightly worse accuracy in the typing test. Interestingly I was a lot quicker on the reaction test. Not sure what that means!

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 64.5kg
  • Blood pressure: 112/64
  • Heart rate: 64 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

23:27: ZZZ

Wow. I just slept the whole 20 minutes, possibly a fraction more. Woke up in another dimension, not sure where I was. I’m really feeling the pull of sleep now.

Alertness rating: 2.5

My eye lids are being dragged down by an invisible force. I should get up out of this chair and do something before I fall under the spell.

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 1

Today is the day it all begins. Or ends. No more bed for a week. I have just got up from a very relaxing 8 hour sleep. I feel fully rested, but a little fuzzy in the head. I haven’t had a full 8 hours for a few days.

Alertness rating: 7

I shall be taking my naps at 11am, 3pm, 7pm and 11pm as scheduled.

10:00am: Testing

Cognitive tests:
I shall be taking three different types of cognitive tests every day. These are:

  • Typing test: The score is words per minute adjusted for errors over a two minute test. Test here.
  • Simon game: Test memory of colours and sounds. The score is the number of consecutive colours I can recall. Test here.
  • Reactions: The score is a weighted speed. Test here.

  • Typing: 56 WPM
  • Simon: 10
  • Reactions: 71.47

Physical tests:
I shall be taking three physical measurements every day as well. These are:

  • Weight (kilograms)
  • Blood pressure
  • Heart rate (beats per minute)

  • Weight: 63.8 kg
  • Blood pressure: 112/56
  • Heart rate: 60 BPM

11am: Nap time!

Well, not surprisingly I didn’t sleep, but I did get two interruptions. Someone rang the door bell about 8 minutes in (no one ever rings the door bell here), and the National Blood Service sent me a text message asking me to give blood (which I can’t do for medical reasons). So never mind, I wasn’t expecting to sleep anyway. I feel slightly groggy from lying down in the dark for 20 minutes, but otherwise fine.

Alertness rating: 6.5

12:15pm: I Lost A Bed!

Before

After!

15:00: Afternoon Kip

Half an hour before hand: feeling pretty tired. There is no reason for that. I slept a full night last night, but my head feels like cotton wool. Quite looking forward to a little lie down.

Alertness rating: 5

Had a little pseudo-sleep. Not sure if I was entirely under or not, but there were what I can only describe as para-dreams. Now rather foggy in my head.

Alertness rating: 5

19:00: Evening doze

I’m definitely resting more and more as the day goes on. No para-dreaming, but a heavier 20 winks.

Alertness rating: 4.5

Bleurgh. I’m tired and cold. And this is day 1? I shouldn’t even be sleep deprived yet! I feel as you feel when you have overslept perhaps. The next sleep will be the test: I normally go to bed around 11pm, so my body will be expecting something good, something like 8 hours. It’s gonna be in for a surprise.

23:00: Night nap

Well I survived. I didn’t sleep, just some imaginative drifting. Now I am tired, properly tired like you are after a long day’s travelling just before you sink into bed. I’m not going to bed for another 30 days. At least I’ve tidied up my desk.

Alertness rating: 4

23:59pm: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 60 WPM
  • Simon: 13
  • Reactions: 76.69

So I improved in all areas of mental acuity. I can only conclude that my performance hasn’t been affected by being awake for 17 hours straight. I can believe that. I guess the improvement is simply down to being used to the exercises and standard variation in performance.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 65.1kg
  • Blood pressure: 123/68
  • Heart rate: 48 BPM

Everything pretty normal here still. The blood pressure is raised, but still within my normal daily range. The weight is higher, as you would expect after a meal and full hydration.

Alertness rating: 6

Actually I’m feeling alright! I wonder if doing the cognitive tests woke me up a bit.

Polyphasing Experiment: Testing, testing

Today I was analysed by my psychologist. One hour of intensive testing at the Starbucks in Covent Garden (Peppermint tea please). I’m not sure if I am normal, but at least we’ve put down a marker for the end of the experiment.

These tests assess attention, concentration, memory and my executive functions, i.e. problem solving and decision making. The theory is that sleep deprivation will make these processes sloooower.

The tests were:

  1. Visual memory: copy a complicated geometric drawing, then draw it from memory immediately, then draw it from memory again 30 minutes later.
  2. Trail making: point to numbers on a piece of paper in numerical order, then with the letters of the alphabet and numbers in alternation (1, A, 2, B etc)
  3. Zoo map: trace a route through the zoo following various rules and injunctions.
  4. Wechster memory scale: listen to a story and then repeat it back, marked for story details and themes. Then retell 20 minutes later.
  5. Verbal fluency: name as many animals as possible, then as many words beginning with ‘F’ in one minute.
  6. Verbal paired associates: given pairs of nouns, e.g. Elephant, Glasses, then have to produce the pair when given its other half immediately and then again after 45 minutes.
  7. Letter number sequencing: given numbers and letter jumbled up, then have to sort them and repeat back in numerical and alphabetical order.
  8. Digit span: given sequences of numbers, then have to repeat them back in the same order as given. Then more sequences of numbers, but repeated backwards.

My results were:

  1. Immediate reproduction with no mistakes; 30 minute delay with 4 mistakes.
  2. Numerical order: 16.24s; Numerical and alphabetical order: 33.65s
  3. Successfully completed in: 1:46.29s
  4. Logical memory test 1a: 13/25 story units; 6/7 thematic units. After a delay: 10/25 story units; 6/7 thematic units. Logical memory test 1b: 14/25 story units; 7/8 thematic units. With a second reading of the story: 19/25 story units; 7/8 thematic units. After a delay: 19/25 story units; 8/8 thematic units
  5. Animals: 40; F words: 23
  6. 100% recall immediately and after 45 minutes
  7. 13/21 sequences correct.
  8. 8/16 sequences correct; 7/14 backward sequences correct.

We will test these again at the end of the experiment to see how many of my brain cells have died.

Polyphasing Experiment: The Challenge

It was midnight and we were totally exhausted. We were sitting up late again, relaxing in the office at Makan, a cultural centre in Cairo. We’d spent the last two weeks working long days on my friend’s PhD fieldwork and now you couldn’t have kept our eyes open with matchsticks. Our heads were drooping into our beers and our metabolism was crashing after the sugar high that had fuelled the last few hours of frantic archaeology.

We wanted to celebrate finishing her research which had been a succession of progressively more intractable problems one after another. Our necks were stiff from bending over the microscope and our arms were aching from sieving endless archaeological samples. We just felt like we deserved to relax and enjoy ourselves, but with only hours to spare before our flight home our bodies weren’t willing.

Opposite us was Ahmed al-Maghrabi, the tireless manager of Makan. He was boasting that he hadn’t slept the previous night. Just what we needed to hear, this man in his fifties casually telling us that he’d spent all night at a film première and hadn’t slept a wink. We sat there, supposedly in the peak condition of our lives, flagging horribly and feeling rather pathetic opposite this insomniac. It didn’t seem fair and I told him so. What he said was to change my life. ‘Well you know Leonardo Da Vinci only slept 2 hours a day. Not that I’m comparing myself with him, but you know…’

That woke me up. I’m interested in what you might call lifestyle design. Last year I spent forty consecutive days getting up at dawn in an attempt to become less of a lazy bones. Turned out the reason I was so ‘lazy’ and sleeping an awful lot was because I had an underactive thyroid, but the experience was a real eye opener and great fun. I have been looking for something else to do ever since and here, with the warm night air of Cairo blowing through the curtains, I sensed an opportunity.

‘Really? Two hours a day? That’s impossible, surely?’
‘No, no. It’s all documented. Two hours a day, that’s all. He just slept for 20 minutes every four hours.’
‘That’s incredible. Just imagine – you’d have six more hours a day awake. That’s a quarter of a day! You could squeeze an extra 3 months into every year! No wonder Leonardo Da Vinci got so much work done.’

At this point my companion interjected, somewhat brusquely, that I was still an inveterate lazy bones and wouldn’t be able to find anything productive to do for that extra six hours anyway, so what was the point? Ah ha. A dual challenge: sort out my life so that I need six extra hours of work/play time a day and therefore need a sleep schedule to match the greatest genius that has ever lived. ‘I’m gonna do it!’