Headspace…

There is a term often used in Buddhism called “mind monkey” which attempts to describe times of unsettled, restless or uncontrollable states of conscious awareness; those periods of self-generating noises and voices inside one’s own head which are difficult to turn off.

I only came across this phrase last week which my seventy five year old yoga teacher very accurately described monkey mind as those subconscious thoughts which surface and compete for primary attention during times when we least want them to; as we drift off to sleep or in this case the fifteen minutes of meditation time at the end of the session. 

She gave the very clear and accurate advice on how to clear our “headspace” as she called it, a technique which would act as a sort of mind enema.

Last weekend, I attended a philosophy / yoga talk with her eighty five year old husband entitled “Awaken Your Healing Potential”, the pair of them are a true inspiration to others and an incredible advertisement for yoga (and he himself is recovering from a broken back using only yoga breathing techniques for pain relief rather than the prescribed morphine tablets from his doctor).

After sharing some of his decades of accrued wisdom, he instructed us to take in a full breath (a breath which represented an action in the physical realm). As we approached full lung capacity, he asked us to focus our thoughts on the “headspace” between the brows (the location of the pineal gland / third eye) and try to activate a connection with the meta-physical realm / universal prana field (also the location of the higher mind). Our instruction was to hold the breath and stay in that state for as long as we could before becoming aware of the physical realm once again by breathing out and channeling the tapped-in energy to areas of the body which required any healing attention. 

This action was to be repeated until we reached a state of pure relaxation and deep meditation, and as a bi-product the total annihilation and expulsion of the monkey mind.

I have been doing yoga on and off for the last four years yet this simple explanation and exact instruction gave me the instant ability to find a place hitherto unreachable within the space of a few minutes. I have connected with the prana field on many occasions previously through kundalini reiki but found the practice too strong for me, literally riding the lightning and wreaking havoc on my tinnitus. This approach was different, a calmer and more effective approach for inner peace and well-being.

As I am not working away at the moment, some focus has rightly turned to getting my house in order (physically and mentally) and part of that was to tackle the attic space. I had grand designs last year to build a “meditation loft” but decided in my infinite wisdom to erect a outside bar and seating area.

So I sat down and discussed my plans with the wife and she stated that the attic was currently a metaphorical and physical representation of my “headspace” in that it too  was loaded with junk making things that much more difficult to gain access to when required (trying not to take it too personally of course).

Whilst agreeing with her completely, there was one word that stood out immediately; headspace. Not only had my yoga teacher and husband mentioned this on separate occasions recently, not only had I downloaded the Headspace mindfulness / meditation app recently, but here was my wife giving me yet another subliminal message to go create that yoga suite upstairs and once I had finished it, to use the space to connect with my inner self and beyond and cleanse the system.

If minimalism has taught me one thing over the past few weeks it’s be ruthless. Pulling down the ladder and peering over the ledge revealed the truly mammoth task that lied ahead. Bin bags, boxes, books, board games and everything else beginning with the letter B (plus every other letter in the alphabet) was looking at me head on as if to say “I dare you to take me to the tip”.

Mindful that if I threw any of the wife’s stuff away without having her explicit permission beforehand would end up with me sleeping on the dogs blanket for a few nights, I was nevertheless very successful in my first cleansing exercise, and with the resulting twelve bags full of crap safely ensconced in the local recycling centre, I can once again see the exposed floor beams and fiberglass insulation goading me to cover them immediately with floor panels, laminate, Persian rugs and zabutons…

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Minimalism for Children…

I see the value in living with less. Everything I now own (with the exception of family items like TV’s etc) can be found in my triple wardrobe. All clothes, shoes, bags and gizmos can fit inside a solitary piece of IKEA furniture and I like it.

However, if you took a side swipe to the right and my wife’s wardrobe, chest of drawers, bedside table and under the bed space, that revealed a very different picture.

She came home from work a few weeks ago to see her bedroom rather tidy and rather roomy. My bedside table was missing. My chest of drawers was missing. All of the items previously on top of wardrobes were missing. She smiled and I knew in that split second that without explaining to her anything about minimalism, I had a fair to medium chance of persuading her to do likewise, and likewise (albeit to a lesser extent) she did.

I took a further side swipe to the further right and opened my daughters bedroom door on Monday morning which revealed (to me at least) total and utter chaos. As I have been travelling around our “little blue dot” for the last seven months, I have accrued a lot of annual leave so for the next two months I will not have to work any Monday mornings or Friday afternoons.

My goal over the coming eight weeks is to minimalise the house, decluttering and touching up the paintwork as I go.

As with all miniature princesses, my daughter has accrued a lot of stuff of the course of her nine year existence and previous attempts to cull teddies and dollies have been met with a river of infants tears.

So this time, I tried a different approach. She came home from school on Monday and I beckoned her into the office / dining room and sat her down. I asked her what she thought of my new bedroom and she said she liked it a lot. I then got out my scrap pad and pen and drew the following:

unnamed

This was my attempt at minimalism for children. Kid A (nice reference for all you Radiohead fans out there) was unhappy, she only had one toy in the world and could only have so much fun with a single item, but she loved that toy more than any “thing” in the world, 100% in fact.

Kid B had a larger number of toys than Kid A and was happy, although she did not play with everything at all times, she did play with them all from time to time and loves them all, 75% each in fact (with “Blanky” still firmly rooted at 100%).

Kid C had way too much, box upon box of dusty dolls, tired teddies and very bored board games. She only played with half of the stuff and didn’t really need all of the things she had, so she only really played with and loved a smaller amount, 50% in fact.

So after explaining all of this to her, I turned to look at her and her eyes were filling up, chin quivering. She said that I was going to throw all of her toys away so that she would become Kid A. Not so I said, all I was trying to say was lets go upstairs and see if she was Kid B or Kid C (and in truth she was at that point somewhere in the middle).

So we spent the next couple of hours evaluating the love for each toy and whether it could either go in the bin or to the charity shop.

After what seemed like an eternity and three bin bags later, I moved my old chest of drawers into her room (replacing her untidy toy box bookshelf) and placed all of the loved items in each drawer, the room looking tidy and minimalist.

We then proceeded back downstairs and I asked her where she was on the minimalism for children chart and she said she was happy and she was Kid B…

A Rough Guide to Happiness…

Ask people what do they really want out of life and the response from the majority will be that first and foremost they want to be happy.

Beyond that initial claim and things start to become more diverse, a lot more subjective. How we all achieve and measure our own happiness is quite rightly a personal thing and there is neither a magic formula nor a percentage barometer to measure whether one is in a nirvana state of mind.

happy

I sat down in front of the Apple TV after work on Friday and once again found an interesting documentary on Netflix called Happy, which had some real thought provoking moments and dovetailed in nicely to my new minimalist approach to life.

According to research, a study has found that around fifty percent of our happiness levels are from our genetic code, so for each and every half of us, our parents dictated at a biological level whether they passed on happy or unhappy genes to us (though I’m sure they were not thinking of that at the time, just their own, immediate and intimate “happy ending”).

Some people often speak of others in not so pleasant terms that folks who are grumpy or negative or psychotic are not “wired up” in the same way as others, so on reflection (although those words should not be used) there is some truth in that.

Imagine if you will that our happiness is a workman’s vertical spirit level, when the bubble is on the line, everything is normal and in balance. There are several mood related neurotransmitters generated by the brain which have a positive or negative effect on our “spirit” level. Serotonin is one (who can ever mistake that chocolate rush for something else) but the main one is Dopamine.

serotonin-and-dopamine

When Dopamine is generated in higher doses, the body reacts in a positive way and our pleasure centre creates a sense of happiness. Conversely, if not enough Dopamine is created, then the pleasure centre shuts up shop for the day so negative and depressive states of mind occur, and in extreme Dopamine lows, suicidal thoughts (when mixed with other factors).

Dopamine is created in naturally occurring higher doses when we experience positive variety or new things, be it from meeting new people, new exercise regimes or by travelling. We can also unnaturally temporarily increase those levels via other means (like drugs and alcohol) but what transpires after the hit is a real low when coming down, the spirit bubble falls way below the equilibrium point, and feelings of unhappiness return until either the body re-adjusts itself or the vicious cycle starts again, ad nausea.

Of the remaining fifty percent of happiness level, ten percent is attributed to our present circumstances (what we earn, where we live, our social status, our current health condition) and forty percent is attributed to intentional activities (actions we choose to do).

So it’s easy to see that with the right balance of a good genetic code, amiable social circumstances and varied / new experiences that folks would be naturally happy. It is also easy to see why those whose family have been troubled with a poor biological code who live under difficult circumstances and only run around the same track every day become depressed and seek out ways to alleviate their experience by turning to synthetics and chemicals.

No one person is excluded from the calculation above. In the current Western society, many folks presume that the happiest people must be the ones with the most money, the nicest houses and the best jobs. Not so.

Jim Carrey once said “I think everyone should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer”.

People are largely extrinsic or intrinsic when it comes to goals and life objectives. Those who have extrinsic goals focus in on money, self-image and social status, whereas those with intrinsic goals focus on personal growth, good relationships and a desire to do things for others.

There is no doubt that money and the availability of resources has an important part to play in everyday life, but beyond a certain point having more money and more things beyond the basics adds no value in terms of happiness.

Japan is a country I have never visited before (and I kicked myself for not going over there when I lived in Malaysia) but there is no doubt that it is by far one of the most diverse places in the world; it is both the happiest and saddest place on planet earth.

Take Tokyo, a highly extrinsic city which focuses mainly on money, image and status and breeds a culture of working until you drop and is quite literally working some of its people to death, so beyond the bright city lights a very sad and depressive place to live for some (not all) of its populace.

elderly_japanese_couple

In stark contrast take Okinawa, a highly intrinsic island which focuses almost solely on a sense of community and an ethos of human and spiritual connectivity with a wanting to do things as a collective and to do so for others and with it so much happiness. They live long and happy lives and it is the place on earth which houses the most centenarians.

It’s clear that when individuals are fuelled by ego and extrinsic values that unhappiness follows.

It’s also clear that everybody has to deal with adversity from time to time but in football terms, the happier and intrinsic people have improved levels of “bouncebackability” and return back to the centre line on the spirit level a lot quicker.

Society’s primary aim should be to produce a long and happy life for all of its citizens (not just the privileged few), but sadly in today’s climate it instead peddles such extrinsic values on the masses as this generates more income for the coffers and the rich get richer (though ironically and ultimately no happier).

So we can we do to become happier? I’ve revisited some of my old books and come up with a neo-Buddhist approach for happiness, a rework / take on the Eight Fold Path:

1. Right Diet: The right balance of all the things you are meant to eat, in the right quantity to the right amount of calories for you, everything in moderation.

2. Right Exercise: The right amount of aerobic exercise, the right stresses and strains (nothing too excessive or unnatural).

3. Right Community: The right selection of family and friends, surround yourself with the right amount of people on the basis it’s quality not quantity.

4. Right Things: The right amount of things to own, make sure that each item has a purpose and a value to you.

5. Right Hobbies: The right activities which keep those Dopamine levels up, seek out new and meaningful experiences.

6: Right Attitude: The right way to be and the right way to act around and towards others, commit to acts of random kindness on a regular basis.

7. Right Goals: The right things to achieve and the right way to achieve them.

8. Right Priorities: The right order in which to do things and not to forget which things are always important and take precedent.

And above all, don’t worry, be happy!

Minimalism and how to value things…

After what seems like decades of being submersed and trapped inside the capitalist / commercialist paradigm, I came up for air this weekend and it smelled good.

I was flicking through Netflix on Friday and as usual found little substance in the movie section, so I headed on over to the documentary section and found a programme which caught my attention called “Everything That Remains” fronted by a pair of Amercican hipsters who go by the name of The Minimalists.

Although a little self-centred at times, a lot of what they said (not neccessarily in the manner in which they said it) made total sense. Less is most definitely more. However, minimalism it seems, is not without a sense of irony as our hipsters friends try to sell us their library of written materials in an effort to “unminimalise” our bookshelves. 

I read “Faithlessly Religionless” by Timber Hawkeye on the long haul to Cape Town recently and whilst I was somewhat disappointed by the way in which the book was written (again rather self-centred for a modern Buddhist and the overuse of exclamation marks also grated after a while), one thing I did take away was his sound approach towards simple living or minimalism.

Here we had a man who worked in corporate America, a man trapped inside a machine who wanted to get out, a man surrounded by things he did not need. Whilst his next steps were admirable in leaving his life and possessions behind on the mainland, heading out to a gregarious lifestyle of sorts in Hawaii, as a single man with no committments it was a relatively easy thing to do, not much hope of a man with a wife and three children in following those footsteps quite as easily (not that I would want to either, well not just yet).

My main take away however was simplicity. He left behind his gizmos, gadgets and wardrobes full of clothes and reduced the amount of things he owned and travelled with to a more manageable and mobile level.

I have over the past seven months lived out of a suitcase (and a very large suitcase at that), travelling to several exciting and exotic locations for both business and pleasure. It was after getting back on the bathroom scales which displayed a particularly woeful number that I realised that entropy was back with a vengeance. There was no structure in my diet, there was no structure in the things I owned, there was no structure in my wardrobe. Chaos was once again reigning supreme but at least I had been able to stand back this time and acknowledge that disorder had made an unsavory reappearance.

I was both willing and able to change, starting off with the diet. My eldest offspring treats his body like a machine, his motto is “calories in vs calories out, try not to think about how good the food tastes, know that you can pretty much eat what you want as long as you have a set calorie limit”. Whilst no doubt that is flawless logic, knowing in advance what and when to eat requires thought process and planning so I began to adopt a minimalistic approach to breakfast and lunch. Every morning I eat low fat yoghurt with granola, every lunch time I eat a bowl of bran plus a banana, and my evening meal can have the variety the mind seeks to satisfy the wants of the needy limbic system.

My minimalistic meal approach very quickly reaped rewards and the seven kilograms I had gained during the previous seven months of travelling were literally flushed down the pan (very literally in Cape Town after suffering a particularly nasty bout of seasonal gastritis). 

It does become easy after a while, removing the noise from within for craving something different to eat helps to free up time for other activities, there is no pondering at the fridge as the majority of the food is predetermined, there is no anxiety over cravings after a while as the mindset towards food changes. What we give away in terms of palatte pleasure we take back in calorie reduction and more importantly time saved.

Still, there was more to do, a lot more. I opened both of my wardrobes and saw yet more disorder, not only were the clothes spewing from all angles, half of the clothes I did have I never wore. So again taking the minimalist approach, I took a scythe to the lot. I decided that five was a good number (it seemed to work well for the Jacksons and Enid Blyton) and that everything I owned should be reduced to five. Two large refuse sacks later, the law of five reigned supreme; five casual shirts, five formal shirts, five ties, five white t-shirts, five black t-shirts, five jumpers, five jackets, five jeans, five shorts, five (times two) socks, five (times two) pants and five shoes. I followed this up with five gizmos (Kindle, iPhone, SmartWatch, Wireless Headphones and Wired Headphones) and five (times three) books, so I now only possess ninety things. Ninety things sounds like a lot but from where I started from it is a big improvement. Not only has the local charity shop benefitted from the cathartic clothes purge, but I now get back the decison time back to do other things; when in work choose one of the five shirts, when not in work choose a black or white t-shirt with jeans.

Once again the noise of choice has gone, and with it comes real value. I am already starting to really cherish the few items I have in my possession. Going forward, I no longer need to buy anything new, anything which will break that rule of five simply will not be purchased, except to simply cycle out the items I have with replicas when the old ones become dysfunctional.

There is a lot to be said for minimalist living, it gives back time, it gives back money and gives a sense of real value in those things we do possess…