Resolutions 2: The Energy Experiment



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The Thinker – Rodin
Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.
– Jose Ortega y Gasset –

I have decided after an inordinate amount of thought,  that this year there will be no resolutions – no vows to do this or that, or not. I don’t much like rules anyway and a life filled with what you should or should not do, with a Greek Chorus of inner voices constantly judging and criticising every move is somehow lacking in joy and spontaneity.

New Years Resolutions have become something of a standing joke in my house…. give it a couple of weeks and even the most resolute amongst us tend to be back on the old well worn paths – and with good reason: whilst acceptance and awareness are a pretty good start when trying to make changes, most of the patterns we’d like to change are controlled by psychological habits which suck up our energy  – some of which gain momentum over months and years to become programs that begin to rule our lives, potentially using up resources and crippling our actions and well being. They become embedded as well worn paths of thought and behaviour – often so well worn that we begin to buy into their story as they pose as real and necessary parts of our identity.  I can certainly testify that battling against these tides – or at least standing strong and resisting them, is hard work.

Without a steady opposing energy we’re at the mercy of these  “drive and crash programs” semi aware but unable to respond effectively. They’re infinitely more likely to be a problem when we re already stressed and tired, or when our energy is manic and unfocused. It’s a vicious cycle – the more out of balance we are, the more likely we are to be unable to oppose the self destructive behaviour and as a result in the long run it becomes more and more difficult to avoid the coping strategies that landed us up in this mess in the first place.

My resolve for 2016 is to attempt “The Energy Experiment”:

Given that energy and time are infinitely precious resources, I’m constantly astounded at how much of both I waste in distractions, meaningless behaviours, fueling the very habits I’d most like to get rid of. My attention is so frequently grabbed by (rather than given to) so much that’s neither fulfilling or useful: never ending internet trawling, mindless grumbling thought patterns, eating or drinking just to pass the time. Sometimes energy can be dissipated in ways that are less than obvious – One of my most energy depleting habits is the need to “hack life” to work out the whys and wherefores, I suppose to bring coherrence to chaos. The last few months – maybe it’s an Autumnal thing, have been a time for this kind of reflection as many of these recents post testify. It’s been immensely helpful for me to put pen to paper but I’m well aware of my tendency to get caught up in the patterns of thought and processing.

The irony is that the dripping tap of wasted time and energy results in less of both being available for the things I really value – the things I feel passionate about and that actually serve to make life better in the long term.

So The Energy Experiment is all about setting boundaries: an attempt to say “no’ with resolve when I’m tempted to expend energy on something that’s not worthwhile or that I cannot control or change. Sometimes a committed  “yes”  to see something through – with determination and energy even when things get tough and it would be easier to go with the flow,

I am sure sometimes I will fail, but I hope to find it’s worth coming back to these boundaries – I look at them as “edges”  – places to keep a watch on, to notice when they cave in or are too tight and to learn a few things.

It’s simple stuff: the theory is to cultivate awareness, chanel energy wisely and then act with commitment and resolve – attempting to be kind to myself  when things don’t go to plan, recognising that old habits die hard. Progress not perfection as a zeitgeist.

So that’s it for 2016

I’ve loved writing here – and am looking forward to continuing in a more simple and quiet form in the coming year. Thank you for reading and many good wishes.


Resolutions 1: Start by accepting what is



Having been mulling change – which is something I don’t find very easy, I was struck today by the reason that I so often fail when making resolutions – by starting in the wrong place.

Change comes with accepting reality. Acceptance brings peace and often acts as a turning point for change. By acceptance I don’t mean some kind of resigned victimhood – but more being at peace with what is. In my experience this doesn’t come without a struggle, without recognising the beasts of anger, denial, sadness and hopelessness. It comes from stopping running away, fighting and attempting to control and  instead simply being.

There are days – in particular those when everything is going my way, when it’s an easy practice and there are others, full of loss, pain and upheaval where denial,blame or distraction are the go to stratedgies. Sometimes reality is simply more than I can bear.

The problem is that until we accept where we are in the present, we can’t look objectively and peacefully at our situation – and without that we can’t make helpful decisions and act from a place of peace and stability.

It’s the ultimate paradox – until we really accept and understand who and where we are, we’re living in a state of delusion and are not in a situation to make changes.

I’m running alot at the moment, partly in training for next year and partly because the Christmas excesses of body and mind – in both social and calorific terms seem best remedied by some exercise. The past few days have been a struggle, the Christmas Holidays are still in full swing, with children in hectic, happy, fully present evidence and the eldest siblings who usually supply my respite childcare  away for a week. I’ve felt the resentment brewing internally, spilling over into irritation, frustration, a feeling of claustrophobia. I haven’t been able to run – and to my shame have blamed my small children who have bourne the brunt of my “bear with a sore head” attitude.

Today I woke with the clouds of angry denial clearing, I could see that my reaction was unjustified and instead of casting myself as victim I was able to make a change. Instead of lying ruminating in bed, dark thoughts brewing, I decided to exercise where I could – in this case half an hour of unpleasant but deeply satisfying hill repeats (runners will understand…) on the road outside the house, whilst the children finnished their list of jobs.

It sounds to good to be true – but it worked. By accepting how life was in the moment without being clouded by emotion I had my running fix, the training plan continued and life was balanced once more. I did return to a couple of broken pictures as a result of Paddington’s attempt to hoover the stairs – but it was a small price to pay…..


Growing Up


The “Dragon Tree” in Brighstone, irresistible jumping, swinging and climbing platform. Reputibly a dragon which killed and ate thirty village children, turned to wood by St Tarquin of Vectis in Medieval times. Undeniably a very fine, “Grown Up” tree.

It’s telling that the phrase “middle aged” is frequently used in a critical sense. I think this says a lot about our culture which values the feverish energy and unblemished beauty of youth over the peace and wisdom that can only come from a life that has been lived..

The years when one is no longer young, but not yet ancient, in particular are glossed over with a veneer of distracted agitation – it’s noticeable that with our cultural terrific emphasis on youth, action and material success, middle age is either belittled or denied as we try to push the clock back, continually overstraining ourselves in unnatural effort, tying to become what we once were, or more likely what he had once hoped to be.

It’s easy to understand why midlife is often synonymous with restlessness, discontent, despair and doubt. Similar feelings in fact to the dawn of adolescence. Like any period of change the temptation is to deny or rail against, to fall into nervous breakdown, drink, love affairs or frantic fruitless overwork. It’s sad that we try to “cure” these signs of change, instead of using them to accept the change, to grow a different stage of life that may in many ways be more fruitful than previous times. Maybe youth is a closed world, that whilst beautiful at the time, we need to learn to outgrow?

By middle age, most people have attained or ceased to struggle to attain, some kind of place in the world – the huge attachment to place, people, material surroundings and accumulations is somehow less important as little by little life changes – children leave, career loses its intensity. If we’re not careful it would be easy to become attached to the outmoded model of life, living in a stone walled fortress of our own making. Maybe being open to the discomfort, the emptiness of failed ambition and disappointment is as good a springboard as any, to becoming open to  other forms and experiences. The shedding of the shell of ambition, the shell of material accumulation, the shell of ego – the things that protect us from the competitive world, could be a blessing, an opportunity to be completely ourselves at last – a real liberation far more empowering than clinging on to the vision of everlasting youth.

There are certainly doors which will be shut to us when youth is left behind – maybe the chance to raise a new family, the dream of an olympic medal, being the most beautiful girl at the party or a latter day Prince Charming. Certainly this may be a time for mourning, but maybe in some ways this is a relief. For many of us we now have time at last for the creative, intellectual – or physical activities we pushed aside in the heat of the race.

It’s true that society in general doesn’t help us to interpret this part of life in this way, but I see it more and more as a time with increasing freedom to fulfil the neglected sides of myself – hopefully bringing to the process a little wisdom, courage, curiosity and wonderment gained along the way. The experience of  being “bien dans sa peau” – in English literally “well in one’s skin”seems to come more easily with age – and that, for me at least, is something worth celebrating.

‘Tis the season


Written for everyone who has admitted, with considerable bravery that  they are not really looking forward to Christmas…..

In Victorian times, the early pioneers of the railways experimented with the contraction of tube trains – closed metal tubes or tunnels which propelled or suctioned the carriage within, by either pneumatic (akin to being fired from a pea shooter) or atmospheric (sucked by a giant vacuum). These trains rapidly fell out of favour as locomotive design improved although the same approach to sending documents – something like the flue travel described with a touch of magic in the Harry Potter novels, persisted and there has been a resurgence of interest recently with entrepreneur Elon Musk announcing plans to shoot capsules containing passengers through tubes at around  the speed of sound. However interesting as a concept, I am unlikely to be a willing passenger.

As the season of goodwill approaches, I’ve felt a knot tightening within myself – an unpleasant sense of powerlessness that I can best describe as being as I imagine it would be to be in one of these trains – accelerating wildly and powerless. It’s unpleasant and anxiety producing to the extent that Christmas has frequently brought  with it a sense of impending doom – hardly full of festive cheer.

I’ve tried to completely embrace the spirit – inviting all and sundry, attempting (none too successfully) to combine, Delia’s/ Nigella’s and Sarah Raven’s magical Christmases – with some Buddhist wisdom and family traditions thrown in. Unsurprisingly a lot of the time, by mid afternoon I was almost bed ridden and seething with unspoken anger and resentment at my poor victims (guests) who’d dared to turn up and actually expect to be waited on.

In latter years I swung towards a more ascetic vibe – if overindulgence and excess didn’t work then perhaps a more monastic Christmas vibe would do the trick. I experimented with the “Minimal Christmas” where my children had a few presents from the charity shops if they were lucky and I myself eschewed gifts in favour of donations to charity or other similarly worthy endeavours. Fortunately for all my friends, these occasions were limited in scope to only close family and tended to be somewhat lacking in joy and vitality – and I very much hope that I haven’t scarred my children for life as a result of my dysfunction.

As is so often the case, the middle way has proven the most rewarding path – and again as is so often the case, once I stopped blaming everyone and everything else for my unhappiness, the light began to shine once more. Sure – the commercial aspects of Christmas may seem so me to be pointless and immoral – but I was not forced to get involved, just as I was not forced to make sure everyone had a fantastic time and the right presents. I wasn’t forced to invite the whole community or pretend that I was having a great time when I wasn’t. In the end the swing from an almost pathological fear of Christmas to something bordering on enjoyment, came with an acceptance that I needed to look after myself, be kind enough not to run myself into the ground and to realise that other people were responsible for their own good times – or bad moods. I gave up trying to do everything for everyone and begun to expect others – in particular my children, to help too and suddenly, as if by magic we were connecting, we were actually having fun in a way that had previously eluded me – fun doing the washing up (I know that seems a contradiction in terms…) laughing together, slowing down.

So my recipe for this year is more of the same. There will be presents – not all of them from the charity shop…but maybe the biggest gift that I’ll try to give is something I struggle with in the day to day hurly burly of family life – attention. Attention for my children, my friends and possibly though I hardly dare say it,  for  myself too.


Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.

Albert Einstein


Moon over Tennyson Down

OK – this is going to turn into something of a rant….

Last week one of my children, whose school topic of the moment is “Space” came home having been encouraged to consider whether the reported 1969 footage of astronauts walking on the moon was fact or fiction. Fantastic! This was a ten year old being encouraged by a creative, confident and far sighted teacher to actually question what he had hitherto assumed to be a fact.

It was brilliant – isn’t this what education should be about? Challenging, not taking the written or spoken word as gospel, critical thinking. It’s ever more important in the age of global communication where (as I mentioned in Skinners Pigeons) the research shows that the majority of young teenagers actually believe without question what they google. Given the internet is to a large extent unregulated, aren’t skills to question, to objectively evaluate what they’re being told and act accordingly, what we should be instilling rather than filling the curriculum with facts to be regurgitated when required and as a result ticking the boxes of “normal” development – with those kids who don’t tick the results somehow being made to feel less than.

I went through an extended essay with one of my older kids recently – initially it read rather like a Phd thesis – it didn’t flow, the child didn’t really understand what she was trying to say, it had a “copy and paste” feel about it – even though it wasn’t. When we tried together to work on is, I constantly came up against “The marking scheme requires….” The marking scheme is the thing that gets “points” and the points are the things that determine overall grades. The sad thing is that in this case, the marking scheme seemed to make no allowance for individual interpretation, for a fresh way of structuring the writing in a way that made sense to the child. It was actually discouraging individualism.

We want to teach our kids to be themselves, to celebrate their individualism, to create, to explore, to get it wrong sometimes and to learn resilience. This is not in any way a criticism of teachers – who I think are actually trying to develop these things in their pupils but are fighting a constant battle against lack of time, funding, testing and constraints of the curriculum.

So my thought for today is to celebrate and encourage the individual – don’t get caught up in feeling that you – or anyone else “should” be a certain way. Keep testing, don’t blindly follow the flock, learn and encourage a pragmatic, suck it and see approach to life. Don’t live “through a glass darkly” for fear of being seen to be different.



Dancing in the moonlight


A ” Nuit Blanche” is the typically elegant French way of describing the night when sleep won’t come, when the wandering mind begins its uncontrollable rumination and the distinction between reality and fictional catastrophes becoming blurred. A wonderful antidote is to tiptoe outside, to gently begin to notice the sensation of cold damp grass on bare skin, the vastness of the dark sky and the gentle rustlings of the creatures of the night going about their mysterious business.

I am spending the winter immersed in the outdoors – in part necessitated by my line of work, but importantly also because during much of my leisure time, I choose to be physically active and in touch with the elements that frequently batter and buffet our small Southern English Island.

I often wonder why I choose to drag myself from  the warmth and comfort of a blazing hearth into the world of slate grey skys, wintry drizzle and biting wind that often seems to define my local environment at this time of year.

I run. At the moment I run alot. I run for all the usually cited reasons but above all, I run – or walk, swim, cycle, surf in our inhospitable turbulent sea, ski where nobody else goes, seek the icy blast of wind on exposed ocean shores, for a reason that goes beyond the typical list of why we should exercise.  I do all these things because they help me to feel alive.

As a generation we were bought up to know with our minds – taught to embibe and process knowledge as a baby suckles milk. We weren’t taught to feel – and particular to feel our own bodies – infact most of us are barely in our bodies alot of the time. We are the disembodied.

This disembodiement is largely as a result of living a life dissociated from our enviroment and increasingly from each other too – with thermostatically controlled heated buildings, remote communication,  a constant feed of knowledge, speed, pressure and momentum to be producitve. It’s not the world we have evolved to live in and the bodies’ natural response to this “threat” is often to close down  both emotional and physical senses in order to facilitate a quick  and efficient escape from the percieved danger without having to deal with any emotional responses or bodily feelings. Of course that’s useful when escaping from a predator in the African Savannah – but when this response is constantly triggered and doesn’t switch itself off by the required physical burnout of hormones, we are potentially in trouble.

The result of this is that for alot of us there’s a kind of emotional numbness and sterility that accompanies life which isn’t pleasant – and it takes fairly hefty physical stimulation to actually feel “in” your body.

If you doubt this try a body scan meditation (1). This involves sweeping awareness over the body slowly, focusing bit by bit on each area. It can be an  interesting experience largely because we are ususally completely unaware of how a particular part of the body actually feels at any given moment – unless of course there’s a problem somewhere in which case it usually signals loud and clear.

Experiencing  our body in this way brings with it a huge sense of stability – a groundedness and connection to the outside which is stable, which bypasses the mind with its omnipresent chatter. If we listen hard enough we can begin to feel that the body has a kind of natural intelligence that knows how to handle pain and pleasure, energies and impulses. It knows how to hold them and to let them go. We can also begin to celebrate the wonderfulness of being alive. it’s incredible that we spend so much time and money trying to look a certain way but we neglect to notice everyday that our body is a marvel – a wonderful creation to be grateful for and to care of with kindness. Even when we are old or ill ,whilst we are still breathing we can notice and give thanks for that

Mindfulness mediation is often recommended for those seeking inner calm and equanimity – but sometimes meditation is not a good medicine for the disembodied person. For many people living in the modern world, maybe a more useful approach would be to actually begin to feel the sensations of their body – to gain steadiness from real embodiment  – to put body into its natural environment within a context that it participates in – even if, or perhaps especially if it’s challenging. That’s what being outside does for me.



Skinner’s Pigeons – pecking for crumbs


Many many moons ago, in what now seems like another incarnation, I studied animal behaviour. Sadly my romantic teen dream of working with primates in Borneo – or at least something covered in fur and relatively appealing, was soon quashed by hours spent in dusty laboratories watching the unhurried tortuous paths of the Giant African Landsnail  – followed by even less glamorous afternoons of statistical analysis. My career as a behaviourist was thus quickly quashed but I was at least exposed to a term of lectures spent learning about the ghoulish and often frankly unethical exploits of the  pioneers in this field:

Pavlov and his dogs, Konrad Lorenz closely followed by his orderly line of greylag geese, imprinted on hatching and conned into believing that this bearded German Gentleman was their birth mother.

konrad lorenz

In recent times, the experiment that I’ve had most cause to recollect and that seems to apply with an eerie precision to the design of 21st century digital experience, is that of  B F Skinner, a Harvard psychology researcher in the middle of the last century:

Skinner’s unfortunate pigeons were trained to earn food by tapping a clear plastic door. In some scenarios, the pigeons got food every time they pecked. In other arrangements, Skinner set timed intervals between each reward. After the pigeon got food, the system stopped dispensing treats for, say, 60 seconds. Once that period had elapsed, if the bird pecked, it got another payday. The pigeons never quite mastered the timing, but they got close. Skinner would randomly vary the intervals between food availability. One time there’d be food available again in 60 seconds. The next, it might be after five seconds, or 50 seconds, or 200 seconds.

Under these unstable conditions where rewards were variable the pigeons went bonkers – one bird pecked the glass 2.5 times a second for an unbelievable 16 hours, whilst another tapped 87,000 times over a day despite getting rewarded for the behaviour less than 1% of the time.

It would be expected that the pigeon would learn to peck for a reward – and that the release of the grain would be enough to teach the bird to try again – thus learning the behaviour ( this is known as operant conditioning) – what was less expected was that by far the most pecks were elicited by intermittently rewarding the behaviour with a random time interval before the reward appeared – something that’s know as intermittent reinforcement.

This effect is often used to manipulate human behaviour – the random rewards of gaming machines being perhaps the first example  to spring to mind – and close to my heart, the wise advice never to give in to a tantruming child – even the one moment of partental weakness out of a hundred, is enough to reinforce the behaviour……

We cultured, civilised and aware adults may well believe ourselves superior to Skinner’s pigeons but take a moment or two to consider the last time you found yourself compulsively checking emails, that one last look at Facebook before you went to sleep which morphed into ten minutes…. and then the emails call again.

So who’s in charge here? A handful of corporations determine the basic shape of the web that most of us use every day. Many of those companies make money by capturing users’ attention, and turning it into page views and clicks. They’ve staked their futures on methods to cultivate habits in users, in order to win as much of that attention as possible. Successful companies build specialised teams and collect reams of personalised data, all intended to hook users on their products.

As with the pigeons, uncertain and intermittent rewards can lead to obsessive behaviour. It would be interesting to know how many people reading this could honestly say they’ve never felt this compulsion whilst using the web. I certainly have. We (or at least I) tend to blame ourselves for this behaviour – and particularly blame our computer obsessed children. But in reality look what we’re up against – a system designed by the most skilled psychologists and integral to the system are persuasive and hook forming design principles. It begins to be a rather uncomfortable thought.

We tend to look at overuse of the internet as just another form of distraction, but what’s actually being developed, when you check email or Facebook neurotically, or get sucked into pinterest, is actually a particular kind of focus, one that prioritizes digital motion and reward. Couple this with the alarming results of a recent survey that found that, a fifth of children aged 12 to 15 have unquestioning faith in information that they find through search engines like Google. (Ofcom 2015) and it would make sense to be worried that we may be raising a generation hugely vulnerable to the manipulation of the tech wizard.

Of course, as with most aspects of life, there remains a balance and self-control/ self-regulation is obviously an important part of healthy (and I would suggest moderate) internet usage – but should the designers themselves bear some responsibility? If the architecture of today’s web is any indication, the balance at the moment is strongly  skewed toward the designers. Unless we want to keep pecking compulsively for our online crumbs like Skinner’s pigeons, maybe it would be worth paying a little more attention to those whom our attention pays.

Ofcom 2015