Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I was chatting to a graffiti artist. He'd been participating in the 'Battle of Waterloo 2011', a graffiti event in London. Graffiti is his life. In his spare time he made graffiti art in his home. To celebrate his birthday, he had a wonderful 3-D-effect graffiti-style tattoo done, his own design, on his arm.

It's a whole world in itself. A 'battle' is a contest of skills. 'Tagging up' is signing your work. To go out 'bombing' is to go and write, to cover a place with your work. Sometimes the artists get into trouble, go one step too far.

To get so involved in an activity is to take part in a whole subculture, with its own heroes, language and style. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as you're not hurting anyone. Go and do something that fulfils you.


Sometimes our brains just stop functioning… we want them to work, but thinking seems so difficult. Often it's at times of high pressure, when there seems to be a lot to process all at once.

I was mowing the lawn the other day, and noticed how the mower slowed down when the storage box became full of cut grass. It wouldn't function properly until I stopped, emptied the box, and reconnected it.

I think people process what happens to them in a similar type of way. When there's a lot going on, there isn't the time to digest everything that's happening, and our cognitive processes start to slow down. The short-term memory is crying out for time and space to empty itself a little. We can keep trying to push and push, but what is needed is to stop for a while, and empty ourselves of everything we've just been through.

For me, the 'emptying of the grass' in our minds is sometimes shown when we stop fussing and fighting, and let ourselves 'let go', or even cry, for once. That often seems to come before renewal. I think it is the way we become fluid again, and release ourselves to move forward.

Just a thought.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


What is it about a beach hut that makes the soul happy? I think it's the appeal to that bit of our brains that loves to have a home. As the sun went down at the end of a beautiful day, family groups of three and four sat in the doorways of their huts. Their chairs were slightly tipped towards each other, as though grouped around an imaginary fire. Often there was a kettle, teapot and crockery on a table inside. The huts are no bigger than garden sheds. But each one is a little home. It has a roof, and walls, and that's all you need.

And opposite beach huts is the sea. Miles and miles of ever-changing water. While we walked, it was blue, then green, then grey, then blue again. And above it the wide sky changed mood every few minutes. I can see why some people sit there all day, in the doorway, just watching the sea and sky. There's always someone coming, someone going, something changing. The sea is very healing. It absorbs the energy of your watching, and gives you more. It is bigger than us, and is never intimidated.

Between the sea and the huts, the beach and the little road curve around the coast. Everyone walks slowly. At the beach, you don't walk to get somewhere. You walk to breathe, to talk, to watch. Time doesn't seem to matter, and the end of the day surprises you. When you go back to your house, your skin is still singing with the sun and the wind and the sea.


There is a great article in the New Scientist this month which looks at the effect of the mind on health.

Belief can make a medicine have positive effects, even if it has no active ingredients. Most people are familiar with this 'placebo' effect. But recent studies suggest that this can happen even if the patient is TOLD that the medicine has no active ingredients. All that is necessary is that the patient believes that there can be a positive effect.

It is well known that optimism protects against stress - for example, by lowering cortisol levels. But some research has gone further, showing positive effects independent of mere stress-reduction. The body seems actively to get better at maintaining and repairing itself if you have a positive outlook. Additionally, as well as having a positive outlook on life, having a positive view of yourself seems to reduce levels of adrenaline and other fear hormones.

There is an increasing body of evidence showing that meditation protects against depression, anxiety and disease, and may even make you live longer. Structural changes in the brain can happen after only around 11 hours of training.

Although we don't know why hypnosis works as a therapy, it seems to operate through tapping into these same positive effects of belief. It can help with mood, eating issues and skin disorders, among other things.

If you are happy with your social life, and are with others you trust, evidence suggests you sleep better, stay younger, and respond better to many medicines. Evolutionary researchers have suggested that loneliness triggers chemical responses (e.g. cortisol) related to defence against injury. In contrast, social interaction may trigger chemical responses to protect against transmitted diseases (e.g. viruses). In this way, good friends can promote immunity!

Researchers disagree about the direct effect of religion, and spirituality. But some are convinced that living a life which you find meaningful, and doing what you love, can in themselves bring key health benefits.

In summary, it seems that a positive attitude, towards life, yourself, and others, can provide a significant health boost. More than that, I'd say, it's just a nice thing to do!

This is a very brief summary of an original article in the August 2011 edition of New Scientist ('Heal Thyself', p.32)

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Recently I was sitting in a friend's flat, admiring their fabulous view. The panorama included miles and miles, through something like a 270 degree angle, so that you felt you were somehow part of the sky.

"Look over there," I said, seeing a curtain of grey descending through the blue. "You can see the rain falling from the clouds miles away."

"Sometimes," she said, "you get a sunny day on one side, and a rainy day on the other."

She said it was strange to sit, on some days, and experience both good and bad weather in the same room.

The clouds have a flow that it's hard to understand, just as the world of people has a flow that can't always be explained so easily. Getting along with others is a bit like watching a big sky. We can't always know why people think what they do, or where ideas and events come from. We can't judge from appearances, because we can't always know what has happened to lead people to their own thoughts, or conclusions, or behaviour.

One of my favourite books has a chapter called 'Just Watching'. It talks about how we can't stop negative sensations:

'Nonetheless, it is possible to weather it out, like a gust of wind at sea. When we "just watch" we are not numb and insensitive, we are fully alive to what is happening…. Tranquility comes not by changing the world, but from allowing the moments of emotional pain to die a natural death. They are like a shower of sparks from a fire. Most peter out in a few seconds, unless they land in something explosive. Like sparks, the negative emotions - anger, despair, fear, attachment - burn when they fall on you. If we can accept the momentary discomfort, they soon burn out. If we flare up, they can smoulder for hours.

"Good meditators don't escape times of emotional pain. However, they can give those feelings space to be there and move through."

So maybe it's like that sun and that rain. We can sit and watch both, just like in my friend's flat. We may not understand everything that's going on, but we don't have to. We can 'just watch'. It doesn't mean we are insensitive. It just means we have our eyes open.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


A wonderful day in London, with the sun and the rain playing in grey-white clouds, and laughter singing across the park. And a funny, happy time, with a lovely friend who introduced me to this poem.

Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.


All was quiet at the house for once, and I felt a little alone. We all know that silence, when you have done your bit, and the world stops for a moment. After so much fuss this year, after so many times which try patience and test strength, I was trying to remind myself it is still a beautiful world. Just then, on the radio, came the gorgeous song by Labi Siffre.

Labi Siffre

The higher you build your barriers
The taller I become
The farther you take my rights away
The faster I will run
You can deny me
You can decide to turn your face away
No matter, cos there's....

Something inside so strong
I know that I can make it
Tho' you're doing me wrong, so wrong
You thought that my pride was gone
Oh no, something inside so strong
Oh oh oh oh oh something inside so strong

The more you refuse to hear my voice
The louder I will sing
You hide behind walls of Jericho
Your lies will come tumbling
Deny my place in time
You squander wealth that's mine
My light will shine so brightly
It will blind you
Cos there's......

Something inside so strong
I know that I can make it
Tho' you're doing me wrong, so wrong
You thought that my pride was gone
Oh no, something inside so strong
Oh oh oh oh oh something inside so strong

Brothers and sisters
When they insist we're just not good enough
When we know better
Just look 'em in the eyes and say
I'm gonna do it anyway
I'm gonna do it anyway

Something inside so strong
And I know that I can make it
Tho' you're doing me wrong, so wrong
You thought that my pride was gone
Oh no, something inside so strong
Oh oh oh oh oh something inside so strong

Brothers and sisters
When they insist we're just good not enough
When we know better
Just look 'em in the eyes and say
I'm gonna do it anyway
I'm gonna do it anyway
I'm gonna do it anyway
I'm gonna do it anyway

Because there's something inside so strong
And I know that I can make it
Tho' you're doing me, so wrong
You thought that my pride was gone
Oh no, something inside so strong
Oh oh oh oh oh something inside so strong

Because there's something inside so strong
And I know that I can make it
Tho' you're doing me, so wrong
You thought that my pride was gone
Oh no, something inside so strong
Oh oh oh oh oh something inside so strong

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


A flurry of juggling. Back from Italy, and the laundry needed doing in a trice. There was silence outside at the pond - the pump had siezed, so my only day at home was partly taken by replacing the broken part, and becoming an instant expert in outdoor rewiring. All done, and Hannibal the goldfish was happy.

Lawns mowed, clothes hung, kids contacted, weekends organized, bags unpacked and repacked for Sri Lanka, then - bliss! - an escape to my favourite restaurant with a lovely supportive friend, to laugh, catch up on gossip, and home to watch a film lying on the sofa like sleepy puppies.

It's amazing what you can do in twelve hours, when it's the only twelve hours available! And then landing in seat A1, on the flight to Colombo, in the peaceful dark of mid-morning, trying to remember the song I had put together in my head at the airport... well, if I forget it, it'll come back if it's worth remembering.

On the headphones, 'Every rose has its thorn'. Turn the volume up. The streetlights rise, the wheels bump, and I'm on the other side of the world.

Monday, August 22, 2011


OK, recent blogs have been far too serious! Here's an A to Z of living which a friend once gave me, and which I've treasured ever since…

Act silly
Believe in magic
Create adventures
Daydream every chance you get
Enjoy the little things
Find time for fun
Go to unexplored places
Join clubs
Keep it simple
Love all creatures
Make time for friends
Nap when you can
Open your mind to new ideas
Play when you feel like it
Question the answers
Run with the wind
Sing favourite songs
Take days off
Uncover your talents
Venture out
Walk on the wild side
Xpect the best
Yield to the moment
Z-zzzzz peacefully at night

Monday, August 15, 2011


It's so refreshing to hear different stories. At a Mexican party last week, women rather unsettlingly painted moustaches on their faces, and men wore black wigs. But every person had their tale. Some told of chaotic journeys through Thailand; of marriages gone wrong; marriages gone right… if you listened carefully, you could experience business successes and failures, romances, childhoods, lives in trouble, lives turned good… even the musicians had their story, and shared happily.

It sets life in perspective, to hear so many stories. You're only one of many, sitting like penguins on a beach, a congregated mass of odd creatures, sharing space for a while, making a lot of fuss, but all looking out at the same long sea.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


There is a garden in Liguria, with a stone buddha, and roses, and lavender. From its edge, you can see up and down the valley, to the olive groves carved out of its harsh hillside, and the reed-strewn river that bubbles along the valley floor.

I remember this garden when it was young. Borders had been sketched out, and young plants laid along their edges. Now I am back, those plant are maturing, some of them as tall as me. The great oak at the pool's edge gets bigger and prouder every year, and casts its protective shade across the grass.

The world seems so far away at times like this. Driving up the windy mountain roads, away from the busty, tanned artificiality of Nice, trouble and business give way to something more balanced, more serene. Away from anger, from stress, from confusion… away from all that, it's easier to see that it's just life in all its colour. I've often been asked, 'Where's your anger?' But, you know what? Hopefully, with enough love, there isn't room for it. If you keep to the truth in your own heart, no amount of noise and fuss changes that.

So, like this beautiful hillside garden, I'll spread more branches, grow more colour, and try to welcome much-loved guests whenever they return.


We love the idea of simplicity. In an age of informational complexity, we like to imagine everything tidy and under control. When our emotions become complicated, we like the idea of an easygoing peace.

But we are born with complex minds. We can accept lots of different and conflicting things into our consciousness. When these things fight each other, we become anxious. To achieve simplicity, we need to learn to become a peacemaker between competing ideas. Our love of adventure needs to make friends with our love of security. Our passion for newness needs to make friends with our enjoyment of familiarity.

If we can't accept part of ourselves, if we cannot 'integrate' it into our self-concept, then we literally lack integrity. We will try to deny any weakness, sometimes projecting it onto others; sometimes we'll even create enemies, risking upset to our our own lives in the process - and all because we can't accept ourselves completely. To make our lives simple, I'm sure we need to learn to accept our own imperfections, and to stop blaming others for our shortfalls. Blame and its associated feelings are often just ways of avoiding our own development. Then, once we have accepted our own responsibility, we can begin to make our internal world more tidy and peaceful.

Something magical happens when we relax towards others, and take responsibility for ourselves. We spend less time assuming wrong things, and more time seeing people and things as they are. We become empty, peaceful, and accepting.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


The wheel of a watermill turned gently above the river. Claudio made us feel like royalty with extra desserts and free aperitifs. Family means so much in Italy, and sometimes three or four generations were at the same table, shouting lost words between the deaf old and the inattentive young. The village children played in the dark square on bicycles.

Some houses are crumbling, but there is a basic beauty to even that. The cracks are coloured and shaded as though in a master's old oil painting. Italy seems to know that nothing has value without the extra touch of a person's hand; that meaning lies in the kind space beyond contract, where friends give because they want to give, and for no other reason.

On a table nearby, a man fussed over his woman, touched her unnecessarily often. She turned away from him. But on her face was the smile of a satisfied lover, of a woman in control.

Monday, August 8, 2011


People don't really get old; they just get better at disguising their youth. Last week, staying with fellow psychology students in Bath, there was no difference between generations. Everybody was equally capable of collapsing onto pavements in a heap in the early hours. Young and old alike acquired and messed up relationships in equal measure. I wasn't drinking, but there's something infectious about group behaviour, lunacy and music that carries you along. There was hard work in amongst the parties. We were all conducting cognitive experiments. Some were investigating aspects of memory. My favourite was a study investigating how we respond to what we hear. They played you various sounds - a baby crying, the sound of thunder or of breaking glass - and you let it remind you of a memory. Apparently, the 'people' noises - the sound of a gasp, or a scream - evoke much stronger memories than 'object' noises. That makes sense.

Being among new people is a chance to behave more freely. Faced with a competition in the bar, my competitive streak got the better of me. You had to pick up an empty cornflakes packet with your mouth, without hands or knees touching the ground. If you succeeded, they tore a bit off the packet, so it became harder and harder to reach down. Not to be defeated, I found myself 'in' to the end, legs apart and tongue brushing the floor to pick up the last remaining flat piece of card from the cereal packet. My bum muscles took all week to recover, but it was worth it: the prize was chocolate, which I could then use to keep subjects smiling in my experiment room through the week.

It had been so long since I'd 'let my hair down' in a club. But it was glorious and mad. Clubs at busy times are similar to evangelical religious meetings… shouting hard-to-understand noises with hands in the air… later, acting the 'mother hen', I loved making sure everyone was back safe by a very sensible 3am!!

Mixed in with the madness was some seriously interesting psychology. It was mind-boggling to deliver presentations and keep working with so little sleep, but everyone seemed to handle their exhaustion. And all through the week, a supply of cappucinos to stop everyone falling asleep over all the statistics. I will never forget everyone's fun, loving, listening and sharing attitude. I drove back up the A303 with a happy glow, and some special new friends to care about and compare notes with.