I have been noticing more and more when my actions are lining up with my values and, even more, when they aren’t.
And along with this, I have found how terribly inconvenient it can be to enter into a relationship with my own values, rather than the ones that I adopted without thinking.
I have always been vaguely aware of my values, or at least one form of them. I remember having no problem, when I was earning well, choosing to buy a second hand Skoda. To me, expensive new cars seemed like a terrible mistake and a big misunderstanding around happiness. This was a sort of value decision, but mostly just a consumer preference. Similar to feeling good about myself for buying Ecover instead of Fairy Liquid.
For a long time I have marvelled at how I can continue to eat meat produced by a process of industrial scale torture. But for no particular reason, last month I found that I was finally unable to put to my lips the McDonalds burger I had just bought. And yesterday, I found for the first time I was unable to buy chicken from Tesco, no matter how soothing the messages were on their packaging.
This goes beyond consumer choices, and deeper into actual eating habits, and also something bigger than just me. But rejecting something as an option on the basis of my deeper values is of course vastly more inconvenient than finding a way to sneak around it. (I bought mackerel instead of chicken, which made for a bit of a weird curry.)
An even trickier one for me is the realisation that at the moment, the whole idea of work and employment, as it is currently practised in our system, seems to sit outside of my own values. Would my first choice be to spend the majority of my life energy serving the empty cause of scented cleaning products or death nuggets, adopting the busy behaviours, habits and priorities that mainstream work ethics demand? Can I put money by default ahead of my family and my health (plus those even wider ethical considerations that I won’t even dare mention)? I cannot.
So what the hell am I supposed to do now – reject the very system that I am a part of and dependent on?
Maybe… as long as I do not get caught up in the rejection bit. Rejection is useful if it forces me to seek other options that dwell elsewhere, in an inconvenient, uncertain place. It is not useful if rejection the end rather than the means, just a way to vent some frustrated childish rebellion.
Only by listening to the quiet voice of my real values and moving past the things that butt them out of the way can I hope to be my own free person. It won’t happen stood next to the absurd booming loudspeaker of everyday normality. Away from that noisy place are the conditions where the solutions can present themselves while I wander. Because for me it does not feel like a matter of willpower – in McDonalds and Tesco the voice that guided me came from somewhere else inside, somewhere I don’t have a tight grip. I find willpower useful for many things, but redundant when it comes to values – like trying to fall in love with someone.
Values are tough and demanding companions but, as with so many things, their ordeals bring with them the joy of living well. Convenience - the bedrock of our age – is a cold, grey cement bypass that skirts the lush mountain which is home to the real matters of living. It is a motorway that crushes everything in its path in order to provide a smooth, featureless ride to nowhere.
I am thankful that I am being inexplicably compelled to carry my own values. I want to go the long, winding way, by foot.
My wife walked in the front door the other day, or rather sprang in like a lynx, and proclaimed how happy she felt. This was quickly followed by a dose of guilt about feeling that happy. This, as I understand it, is not the first time in history that this has happened to someone.
It is true that an outbreak of happiness will inevitably be followed at some point by some unhappiness, as the two require each other to exist. It seems to me that it is important not to pollute either of them, spoiling an experience of happiness by fixating on future unhappiness, or cutting short a good dose of grief with some old-fashioned pulling-yourself-together. Instead, just experiencing them as they arise and depart.
A 3 year-old girl last week was a good example to me of this. She was happy, and wanted to be chased and picked up. So I did, picked her up, turned her upside down and ran a bit more. She giggled hysterically for 5 seconds and then started to cry. I put her down and she cried for 5 more seconds, and then set off again happily through the field.
That sort of behaviour often gets depicted as fickle or schizophrenic, even with young children – but actually it is just truth and freedom in action. Feelings come and go… I remember how I feel moments before eating the Krispy Kreme and moments after: very different – awesomeness and awfulness in quick succession. But it is not fickle or schizophrenic, it’s just the truth about feelings.
Maybe it’s that way because in those moments I am at my most animal, my most human – most embodying my feelings and emotions, when my mind is safely in its box and my body in control of proceedings, my brain limited to its proper role of helping me move and breathe. These moments of climax – of happiness but also, I have increasingly noticed, of grief – are sublime. They make life lively; they dezombify.
Intellectual experiences do not compare to creative, intuitive, emotional moments. One big difference is that creative, climactic moments simply do not, can not, last. That is the secret of their beauty.
They are transient and fleeting, while intellectual bubbles can be resided in for prolonged periods, often at the expense of emotion and real human experience. Maybe that’s why there is such a fixation on sex, as it has become one of the last places where modern intellectual man can go to experience the chaotic sublime (or, perhaps, a convincing substitute for it).
The tragic twist is that, in truth, the sublime is everywhere, especially in the ordinary. But the emotions in which the sublime resides have so often been wallpapered over by sensibleness and rationalisation.
These days, if a tree were to move a man to tears he would be considered insane and unmanly rather than alive and free. That’s probably why I have chosen to live next to an unpopulated forest.
Over several years I have slowly been arriving at the understanding of how dangerous and misunderstood the idea of talent can be.
Talent, the idea that a particular person has a particular gift; there are few more destructive, dream-killing, power-draining concepts. The application of the idea keeps me in my cage, serving other people’s agendas, eradicating my own… Along with my human-ness, for it is the natural existence of talent that makes me human.
Talent is universal, a sleeping giant present in everyone – and it is everyone’s challenge to see if they can awaken their giant.
I find that the mainstream view is that talent is something you either have or you don’t. And if you don’t, then you had better continue with your vain random search for something where you somehow do. I have heard this called the “fixed” mindset. It serves the purposes of experts who can earn a living from it, for as long as their special talent makes them essential. But it also serves my purpose when I’m afraid of exploring my own power. Maybe afraid of the repeated failure that is an inherent part of doing anything meaningful. Or maybe afraid of the confusing flood of emotions that comes from uncorking my own creativity. The absence of talent (or money or time – two other great examples) is a perfect way to disguise that feeling of powerlessness.
But if I can hold on long enough, through that dark uncontrolled fog of uncertainty and intense emotion, I might begin to realise my own potential and the breadth of possibility.
Talent is a human gift. I think we get it mixed up with skill. My experience of developing skill is a combination of hard work and, more importantly, operating from a place of curiosity and enthusiasm rather than desperation and “being better”. I don’t find it an easy mindset to maintain, as there are many influences around trying to proclaim my powerlessness.
For me, it is a long and intensely active journey, to perhaps begin to operate from a place of love, to perhaps begin to experience what I have heard lots of other people describe as “a sense of greater purpose”. I start with crappy skills, but I have had the best time of my life writing, drawing, making, and sleeping in the woods, to develop a set of crafts that I might be able to work with but are also just fine being themselves anyway.
But what was never absent, only ignored, was the essential ingredient – the universally shared, inexhaustible well of inherent human talent that invites in the infinite and the eternal, and makes me and everyone else a quirky sack of powerful magical energy waiting for the chance to be unleashed.
The World Cup might have brought a frenzy of goals (at times), but in the World generally a goal frenzy seems to be going on all the time.
Where am I trying to get to? A better question: do I need to ask myself that at all?
I understand why I do – I am trying to bring about some certainty and rational explanation to please myself strategically and intellectually. A strategy and a good rationalisation can be very reassuring.
But trying to get somewhere suggests that where I am is not good enough, and improvement is required. This sounds very worthy, but it is also relentless and very anxious. The attitude of trying to get somewhere never ends, and just tends to pick up workaholism, exhaustion, alcohol and expensive holidays along the way.
What happens in the absence of trying to create certainty by getting somewhere? The answer in my economic, moralistic, compulsive conditioning is: I become a lazy bastard. Not getting somewhere is inherently passive, and we need to be pro-active, is the message I hear broadcast in many convincing ways.
However, living in this supposedly shameful absence of goals, I have found that not to be true; the opposite in fact. Another tasty paradox for me to feast on.
When I am not creating certainty, I am inviting mystery… and that’s when the real action kicks in. Instead of things happening by me, they seem to happen through me; it still feels strange to describe it that way. I guess I mean that I end up doing things I never could have predicted, in ways I never would have considered I could. With much less alcohol and holidays involved.
That’s one of the differences that seems to come from choosing free will over iron will.
Ideas – the good ones – only seem to materialise when I’m staring out of the window, unthinkingly. Possibilities I could never imagine only present themselves when I stop striving to imagine them. Aaah… how delicious.
But sometimes things that seem like a paradox are not really a paradox at all, they are just the unfamiliar truth peeking out from behind the convincing illusion.
A very obvious clue that I missed for so long: my dreams only happen when I have relinquished control to sleep. Without permitting a meaningful release, I live in a dreamless, imprisoned state, trying hopelessly to get somewhere else. Completely unnecessarily.
I shall definitely keep trying to stop trying. Oh, hang on…
Another article of mine has sneaked into the online Diet and Exercise magazine – this one is about one of my experiments around eating. Check out riveting articles by food and movement experts, and by me, by clicking here:
The World Cup has begun, and the world is coming together… in their lounges watching telly.
If you really want to get in the mood (in the mood for what exactly though?), then you might want to watch this inspiring video by Beats By Dre. Well, it’s not a video, it’s an ad. I managed to find the version where you don’t need to watch another ad before you can watch the main ad, so here you go:
Unfortunately, when I watched this ad hype, it made me feel sad inside (I hope you only bothered with the first minute). The slow, tragic crumbling of a culture has never looked so stylish.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our kids could have role models present in their actual lives, living in their own towns; real people? Our real role models, if they ever drag themselves away from their tellies, would probably not fluff us with inspirational images and noises so that they could sell us headphones on the sly.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could participate in our own dramas, rather than have our pinnacles consisting of watching other people’s?
And now look - my cherished role model has been caught shagging a prostitute. And the tournament has now finished and I feel strangely empty (just like I did after the Olympics) because I’m not actually doing anything heroic myself. And I can’t hear the birds any more because I have to walk around wearing these bloody headphones like everyone else is.
But the video is packed full of celebrities though, that’s cool. I saw Nicki Minaj for 2 seconds. And it was fun rewinding 5 times the bit where the Spanish girl is pretending to have wild sex.
We are reduced, while Dre and Apple (now part of the same corporation) and Panini and UEFA rake it in while they can, laughing their arses off.
And all because I sent my own story off to the bench and brought on some very poor substitutes.
This is just the latest example of everyday mainstream consumer emptiness, a padded cell filled with beguiling, numbing distractions. But the door is not locked:
Switch off the telly, allow a bit of space to shelter from other people’s marketing messages. Once our own dramas have inevitably begun to write themselves, we might become role models for people in our orbit, especially the younger ones, by following those dreams. Maybe one day we might be able to make a phonecall like that geezer at the beginning (but without trying to sell anything).
Do I view the world as a safe or dangerous place? As I was coming home from sleeping in the forest the other day, I realised this might be a rather important thing.
Last year, before I started doing it, the idea of spending a night alone in the woods seemed scary. But after giving it a try, I was surprised at how at home I felt; I felt part of it rather than an impostor. The only monsters were in my imagination, and the only man with an axe was me. Before long, my attitude shifted to seeing the woods, and inevitably by extension my world, as a safe place.
The opposite can easily be the case, however. Watching the news can fill me with negative images. Watching nature programmes can present a twisted Darwinian picture of the natural world as a cut-throat competition, driven by the Selfish Gene. And working in an office can reaffirm this too, in a human environment. Everyone is out to take what’s yours, because that’s business, that’s nature. Plenty of people seem to enjoy all that, but I have found that seeing the world as dangerous and competitive has crippling implications, especially on my human-ness.
It seems to me that an anxious outlook is often the result of a lack of independent thinking, from swallowing messages from other people (this is of course not true for those living in objectively dangerous environments). I can be made to believe anything if I am sat in my swivel chair not thinking for myself. By outsourcing my opinions to the mainstream – newspapers and politicians and experts – I open myself up to manipulation. There are entire industries that have evolved to feed this the mainstream point of view (or “common sense”, as these industries prefer to call it), and steer me to their solutions. Easily achieved through the simple mistake of me wasting my attention on them.
If I think my environment is dangerous, I will probably be deterred from taking any risks, which keeps me obediently on the straight and narrow of the mainstream. This serves the interests of the mainstream very well… but not mine I think.
In this situation, one big risk I will probably not take is to allow myself to trust, and to be honest. Cultivating, through my own direct experience, a view of the world as a safe place, a complex system that I am part of rather than up against, encourages me to take the risk of, say, trusting other people with my honest feelings. And trusting myself with them more to the point. I might also trust my intuition and, just possibly, I might let my own creativity out of the bag.
Perhaps taking this risk of becoming properly human could be the most powerful and healing act I might be capable of doing for the world, to actually make it a little bit more of a safe place.
A person’s worldview will always be wildly wrong, and only a creation of the imagination to grasp the ungraspable. But since I can’t help having one, I’d rather do the things that nurture growth and sanity. It’s funny how something so major can be sparked off by something as simple as switching off the telly and sleeping in the woods. Or at least just switching of the telly.
“I saw this and thought of you” is, for me, the loveliest reason for buying a present, and usually brings the most happiness. In contrast, “I bought this for your birthday” began to ring hollow quite a while ago. I have noticed a real dimming of enthusiasm on my part for annual celebrations of most sorts. It might be because I have become mean and grumpy, or it might be because I increasingly smelled a kind of guilty obligation surrounding them.
Writing this makes me feel so scroogey, but cards are usually an utterly empty gesture. Not always – home-made cards, or cards that contain a hand-written letter are wonderful gifts. But Clinton cards with Dear X, Love from Y, where the ‘happy birthday’ part is already pre-printed, are not a thoughtful gesture; but I will be seen as unthoughtful not to send one. I used to make it easier for myself by having a pile of pre-bought cards and stamps in a drawer, and a load of Outlook reminders popping up in my calendar. When a birthday reminder arrived, I could fulfil my celebration obligation in 2 minutes flat, and bask for the rest of the year as a nice, thoughtful guy to that person. It wouldn’t be too much of an extension of this to spend an afternoon scheduling automatic e-cards to everyone I know, for the next decade, securing 10 years of thoughtful ness in 2 hours flat.
What is at the heart of this for me is the energy drain that comes from abstract things that have no meaning any more. This usually happens when the spontaneity has been taken out of things, and replaced with a required or expected structure. Annual celebrations have been brought down to their lowest demoninator – just look at the mindless way that piles of corporate Christmas cards are signed every year, usually while the person is still concentrating on their Powerpoint.
We are busy folk, and the celebration industry has made it easier for us by taking the thought and effort away, while using branding to maintain the appearance that it is still a nice gesture. It works for the busy folk. It certainly works for the celebration industry. It’s the spontaneity fairies that suffer, but if no-one believes in them then no-one sees them die.
Spontaneity is the most original and potent conveyor of feeling and expression. It does not work well with planning and repetition. That’s why we might find ourselves saying “Oh shit it’s so-and-so’s birthday again – what the hell are we going to get this year?” The whole idea of annual celebrations are flawed from the start, unless you are the type that naturally revels in them, as some people are.
Much more spontaneous, much more meaningful, are daily celebrations. The ones that just blurt out – about how the light through the trees looks, how lovely that smile looks, how happy you are to be there. These are gifts and celebrations that speak directly from one heart to another. And they are moments that the celebration industry has not yet found a way to get their claws into. But they are usually the first thing to disappear when a person stays too busy. Withered hearts.
Only recently re-acquainted with the spontaneity fairies, I fear I have gone too far, and it often feels like a self-betrayal when I do things that feel obligatory. Spontaneity, by its nature utterly unreliable, will not steer me through the requirements of modern life and modern relationships by itself. I’m sure I’ll grow up a little. But mine was locked away for so long that it can be forgiven for wanting to rush around for a while after being let out.
I am writing my own rituals, discovering my own ways of celebration and expression. This is authenticity at work. It is free of charge, free of guilt and makes me feel free. But it is not free of mess. It is closer to the source than scheduled niceness, but when the Clinton card is not posted it can paradoxically appear thoughtless.