Monday, August 28, 2017


We are often looking for our next thing.  Whether it is the adrenaline rush of a new activity, or a new relationship, or a new car - whatever it is, we are often looking for it to bring us out of an imagined rut, or a sense of things being too still.  

Sometimes we seem allergic to stillness.  When it arrives, we mistake it for boredom, and go about trying to remove it as though it were wrong.  We are so used to reporting to others on our activity, that to contemplate doing nothing almost becomes a thing of fear, as though we imagine we might die if we are not always seen doing something.

But what is it to 'do something'?  Are we not 'doing something' simply by living and breathing?  We don't see a rabbit in a field and remark: 'well, that's all very well, but why isn't that rabbit doing anything?'  We assume that wildlife has an idea of what it is up to, and we are quite fascinated when it stands still.

What if we are like wildlife?  What if, sometimes, all we have to do is sit or stand still and do nothing?  Or rather, stay still and breathe, remain aware, perhaps walk a little, relax, see what's around us, chill... whatever we want to call it, there's a place for it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Picky is an interesting word.  Allegedly first used in around 1900, it is used to refer to people who are fussy, choosy, demanding... also critical or fault-finding.  The idea is often that someone is focusing on finding fault, rather than being positive or supportive.

Think of animals evolving in a competitive environment, where those best-adapted might survive.  Intelligent animals use internal models of the world, held in their head, to find their way around.  For instance, when you are going for a walk where you live, you rely, in part, on a mini version of your neighbourhood, a kind of map if you like, held in your memory.

If you watch a cat or a bird in your garden, you will notice that they are constantly on the lookout for surprises.  The cat pricks up its ears at all unusual sounds; the bird turns its attention to anything out of the ordinary.  They are being 'picky'.  The function of this kind of attentiveness is to notice, as quickly as possible, parts of the environment that have changed... are not as expected... and make sure that any danger they represent is neutralised, often by running away, sometimes by combat.

Being animals, humans have a similar way of doing things.  We spend a lot of our time constantly checking our surroundings for exceptions to our rules, departures from our internal maps.  While walking the road, we are responsive to anything surprising or unusual, because it may represent a threat.  In our communications, too, we tend to be very attentive to exceptions rather than rules.  For example, we are likely to notice others' rudeness more quickly than we notice their courtesy, because the first alters us to difference and danger, whereas the second is just a confirmation of familiar patterns.

For the above reasons, I would suggest that we should expect other people to be 'picky', to be alert to anything that is different from what they expect.  They are simply doing what their animal nature demands of them - that they operate according to internal rules of what to expect, and become alert and responsive when those rules are broken.   Pickiness is built into us.

Socially, humans seem to have developed the ability to be picky in groups.  In other words, when several people are gathered together in a common culture, they seem to develop, together, a whole raft of common internal rules.  They spend years educating their children into sharing those internal rules; and teaching them how to spot when those internal rules have been broken.  Families develop internal sets of rules, not always immediately apparent to the outside world, that determine what will be picked on and how.  Gangs and clubs are a little more explicit in their enforcement of certain rules, and also more explicit in their reaction to, and punishment of, infringements.  There are all social uses of our internal ability to (a) make an internal map of expectations regarding our environment, and (b) to become alert and responsive when those expectations are not met.

However, different people respond differently when faced with exceptions to their rules.  Young babies have a vested interest in seeking out exceptions to rules for learning purposes.  You will notice that a baby often takes great delight in surprises, and turns the head towards interesting exceptions to what they know so far.  In contrast, old people may often have a rather grumpy response to difference - they perhaps have a vested interest in keeping things as they expect: comfort takes precedence over the need to learn more and more variety.  A general rule might be that we begin our lives with a preference for learning from greater variety (though even babies get scared and like their security!), and end our lives with a preference for being more critical of the new, and more welcoming of stability, expected-ness and comfort.

During their lives, you will also notice that individuals have markedly different responses to surprises and differences.  Some are openly picky with those that break their rules, until the other falls into line, or drifts away.

Others, however, have learned to disguise their pickiness behind a veil of sociability.  Thus, you will find people who initially seem friendly and welcoming of difference and surprise; but, later, they drift away from it.  They don't openly pick fights or criticise - but behind the scenes they take action to retreat into commonality, and protect themselves from it.  An example might be a group of rich people who are very polite in immedite society, but in the medium term build gated estates in which to live together to defend themselves from unfamiliar intrusion.

So, we have a tendency, increasing as we age, to become alert in the presence of the unexpected, and take action to remove surprises from our experience.  We are, naturally, 'picky'!

But what if we want to overcome this tendency?  What if we find that, in a relatively safe society, our animalistic 'pickiness' is making us hypervigilant, over-anxious, almost allergic to change and difference?

We could take a developmental approach.  We could notice our own pickiness, and then try to seek some kind of mastery over it, so that our animal nature governs us less, and we become more masters of our own minds.

The next time you find yourself being 'picky', take time to notice it.  What, in your environment, have you decided is scary, or to be avoided?  Is it a person, whom you and your friends have decided is 'persona non grata', too different to be welcomed?  Is it a colour, or a noise, or a design, or a piece of technology, or an item of clothing, or a sexual preference, or a political view, or a way of behaving?  What have you decided, in your animal being, is some kind of threat to you and your friends?

These 'pickinesses' are very hard to notice in ourselves.  (Though we are great at noticing other people's 'pickinesses'.  In other people, we call them 'prejudices'.  In ourselves, we call them 'standards', or 'tastes'!)  But try.  Then, when you feel you have identified a 'pickiness' that you are inflicting on the world, ask yourself:

(a) Does the object of your pickiness really represent a threat to your survival?
(b) Are you distancing another person from you to try to make yourself safer?
(c) How might you become less of a slave to your own pickiness, and become more tolerant?

I have illustrated how pickiness might be ingrained in us because of our evolutionary past.  But our past was one in which we faced daily threats to our survival.  Constant attentiveness was perhaps more understandable.  These days, many of us do not have such daily personal threats.  Yet we are left, as individuals and groups, with the residue of this defensiveness... we jump at exceptions to our rules; we hide, in our groups, behind group rules, defending ourselves against perceived violations and differences from the norm.  In mental health arenas, terms such as 'disorder' are used to isolate the different.

A more masterful way of conducting ourselves might be to attend to our own tendency to be picky, both as individuals, and as groups.  If we can notice when we are doing it, and attend to our own responses before reacting, we might learn to 'downsize' our own internal models, and 'upgrade' the interests of others.  This might avoid us all constantly alienating those who are different from ourselves.

A certain amount of watchfulness is understandable.  A bird that did not pay attention would get eaten by a cat.  And a cat that did not pay attention would get attacked by other cats too often for comfort.  But a being that knows its own attentiveness, and has mastery over it, can defend against immediate danger, whilst retaining sufficient detachment from its own biases to stay free.  In other words, the biggest benefit of mastery over one's own pickiness, is that we can switch it off when appropriate.  This opens a way to peace; because if enough people learn to switch off their 'pickiness radars', then tolerance becomes the norm, and defensiveness isn''t needed.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


Despair is something common to most of us humans.  Now and again, we all, or nearly all, get that sinking feeling that something we hoped for is lost.  It can make us irritable; it can make us angry; it can make us depressed; it can even make us anxious... but loss is like that:the human body will often do anything but face loss head on, and just accept it.  We push, we pull, we act out... anything to get away from us, as quickly as possible, the feeling of loss.  We even sometimes create little battles we know we can win, so as to reduce the impact of the battles we have lost.

But despair teaches us a lesson, if we want to hear it.  It teaches us that there is something we have been hanging on to, whether it's an ambition, a relationship, a possession, a state of mind or being even.  The despair would not be there if we had not had a hope in the first place.  Without hope, despair can't happen.

So, logically, it would be true to say that the existence of despair tells us that we have, yet again, been hoping for things, in a world which is almost assured to disappoint.  If we despair when someone dies, then our feeling shows us we have been pretending to ourselves that death doesn't happen, that we are somehow protected from it.  If we despair when we lose money or possessions, then it shows us that we have been pretending that those possessions were part of us, that we needed them to truly be ourselves.  If we despair at the end of a relationship, then it shows us we have been hoping that the relationship would be with us for ever, and would protect us from unhappiness.

It is a certainty that everything we have will be taken away from us: our bodies, our possessions... everything.  Attachment to things, material things,is something bred into us by millions of years of evolution: the ones who were not sufficiently attached to their parents, or food, or their homes, let them go and did not survive.  The ones who fought for their relationships, their food source, their territory, perhaps survived.  But they, too, in the fulness of time, will lose everything, because the end happens eventually.  That's how our bit of the material universe seems to be built.  We are like fireworks: we fly for a while, and then we run out of fuel, and crash to earth.

In meditation, we can contemplate this, and, ironically, gain some happiness from the thought.  If we can face, head-on, the fact that everything we have will be taken away from us, and really accept it with our deepest mind; if we can learn to be calm, in the firm understanding that there is nothing material that lasts; if we can learn to let everything go as easily as it came... then it does bring a particular kind of happiness.  Partly because we understand that to be here, now, seeing what we see, and experiencing what we experience, is a little miracle in its own right.  OK, we die, but while we fly, we are fireworks.

We may feel guilty, that we can feel unchained to loss, and be happy when people die.  But this would be to misunderstand the source of the happiness.  The happiness comes from a deep understanding of the nature of things, and death's place in the nature of things.  We can still aim to remove suffering from people and other beings who are still here, stuck in the world, if we want to.  So there need be no guilt.  To reconcile oneself to death is not the same as wishing death on others.  Accepting loss is not the same as causing loss.  We can still be as helpful as we want, even if we accept losses when they happen.

So listen when you despair.  What you will hear is a part of you that is not yet reconciled to loss.  Be kind to it.  But at the same time, try to allow that part of you to see that loss is everywhere.  Every moment of every day, someone, somewhere, is dying.  Why are you not in constant despair at this?  Because you are not attached to the others, the ones not so close to you.  To have someone dear to you is to expose yourself to loss... unless you can accept that endearment may be lost at a moment's notice.  If you can learn the art of living constantly with the threat of imminent loss, then, ironically, you will get used to it, and it will cease to be a threat.

So, in short, if you find yourself despairing, look for the hope in which the despair originated.  I guarantee there is something you are clinging on to that is causing that despair.  The hope that people live for ever; the hope that we are always protected; the hope of continuity.  When you have found the hope, then you have found an unrealistic thought.  Contemplate its unreality for long enough, and you will find that you were hoping irationally for something that never was.  When you accept the irrationality of hope, then you will accept the irrationality of despair.  When you have rejected both, then you can live in complete acceptance.  It may not guarantee you a longer life, but it could easily alleviate your suffering - because suffering depends on irrational hope, and fades away altogether where there is complete acceptance.