Monthly Archives: April 2013

… when did you last smile? …

When did you last smile? The question started us going. I belong to a bunch of friends, 10 to 20, who meet monthly. We rotate the facilitation of sessions. People propose themes worthy of engagement. Our April session had the theme of Positive Psychology. The term, coined by Martin Seligman, has been called unoriginal and evokes ongoing controversies, not least because basic theories promoting well-being have been around for a long time, for centuries. Overall, the disputes are creative.

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The off-the-track cottage and studio we hire for our monthly meetings has a delightful atmosphere. We love it, though its structure is gradually falling apart. The custodians of the property have more pressing concerns, and so have we. After a unique international creative centre was lost to us eight years ago, this liminal space offered itself. Here we challenge and cherish each other, explore ideas and welcome guests.

As to the initial question of the day – when did you last smile? – Of late, I frequently smile at my quirky thoughts. That day however, I recalled waking early and passing a vase brimming with pale double daffodils, splayed open to full perfection in the morning sun. No matter how fleeting an instant of wholeness, it tends to ravish me into my veiled wholeness. The exquisite flowers invigorated every cell in my body and set the tone for my day. It was a moment of transcendence, of grace.

We explored scientific findings as to what goes on in different parts of our brain when we experience emotions. There is evidence, for example, that prolonged stress weakens the immune system. Stress may be real or imagined. It can be maintained by resentment, anxiety, learned helplessness and the anticipation of negative outcomes, often based on scary experiences (even in the womb) that informed expectations, like the world is unsafe and we have no control over events. Neurobiology is fascinating, though I wonder if it can ever explain existential questions about phenomenology. Some of us bring along a lucky or unlucky disposition, but a great deal of what we become seems to depend on the interpretation and meaning we give to what is happening to us.

Bang head here

Which begs the question, can optimism be learned through challenging negative self-talk, the kind that rubs it in, like – here we go again, I should’ve know, stupid me, no matter what I do –  and so on. For some people prolonged attention to self-talk works. Many brilliant techniques have been developed to overlay fixed habits. Extensive research has gone into the mastery of happiness, especially in the US. This said – Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, acknowledges that negativity is part of the human condition. As such, I see negativity having a compelling function in social systems that first make us ill and then sell us pills, a larger story…

I tend to huff when a generic psychological approach is wrapped up as a brand and turned into an industry, and Positive Psychology has become a successful industry during the last decade. Then again, there were a great many innovators since Abraham Maslow, who, inspired by ancient wisdom traditions was the first to challenge Psychology’s focus on pathology at the time, by researching what motivates people up the hierarchy of needs, and by defining the qualities of achievers. The work of Seligman and his colleagues seeks to encourage functionality, resilience and well-being. It provides further valuable applications and insights regarding human potential that are worth studying.

I personally lean towards the subtle wisdom regained during my training with Psychosynthesis in the 1980s. We may reach peak states of awareness as our consciousness expands, bliss even, yet each higher view calls for a journey down, into denser spheres. C G Jung put it well … As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.’

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Our group is an irreverent lot. We had fun, warm and lively discussions, and we engaged with personal questions. From a set of 24 cards we chose our 5 dominant signature strengths. Humour trumped several times, followed by creativity, perseverance, appreciation, fairness and perspective. Oddly, there was one card I ignored but which jumped to the top when I did a test on-line – Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. I later figured out why I had held back from picking up the card. This appreciation, which I have to a high degree, is also the source of lingering sadness, because Beauty and Excellence touch me deeply, are glimpsed rarely, and are hard to live up to and shine with. Then again, moments of grace, a sudden seeing that stops time, like the daffodils of that morning, carry me through periods of melancholy and questioning. The theme of the day stayed with me, and after some reflection I came to this conclusion:

I would not be happy being happy all the time. For better or worse I walk the tightrope of contradiction.

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The cards we used are available at:  http://mindspring.uk.com/shop/strength-cards/

Here is a site with a questionnaire that measures your character strengths http://www.viacharacter.org/www/ It’s free, unless you want a longer report.

The photo of the Stress Reduction Kit poster is by Programwitch, found on Flickr.

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… inner time – writing – rant …

Beyond my window, robins, wrens, blue tits and blackbirds are nest-building, with bursts of passion. Dipping in and out of view, they settle shortly on a deck chair, branch or flowerpot, balancing lavish bouquets of fluff, moss, twigs and leaves, before darting off towards the next promising material. The birds winging through my garden make me happy.

Yesh

My thoughts wing in similar fashion dedicated to another passion, no less preparing for a new round of birth – in my case the writing of the next chapter of a novel. I anticipate with joy each few hours of unstructured time that allows me to visit my garden of recollections, a space where myths re-weave themselves from the fluff, moss, twigs and leaves of memories. Like the visions I brought into this world, ambivalent responses to my existence, altered states, affinity with elements, genetic markers, epigenetic quirks … my bundle of life that fell into a mould and was conditioned by socially convenient patterns of time.

Dividing reality into past, present and future time, measured by clocks and dated events, called facts, is a fairly modern idea that made Science the grail of knowledge. The best of science deepens our understanding of the cosmos and improves the quality of our lives, but its method is limited, not suited to go to court on another reality dimension, inner time, infinite, immeasurable, where our experiences assume meaning. We may walk through life like snapshots of ourselves, collecting capture after capture of evidence for our existence, while longing for a dimension within, the bridge to a spiritual presence hidden between each breath, a truth impossible to evaluate? Some religions banked divine capital in heaven. Science too, in its present phase, projects a kind of heavenly capital, hijacked by corporates selling us the future, a Promised Land of artificial intelligences catering to our every need, uncannily resembling the Matrix or Plato’s cave.

My rhythm of life changed when I dropped out – the second time in my life – taking the financial risk to work from home and make time to write, which I had failed to combine with careers, family and social obligations. The experiences were vital, up to a point. Now I relax about clocks and tend to my inner worlds. I crave unstructured time. Not everyone does.

Recently a friend reflected humorously on her frustration at finding herself with one hour to spare, having miscalculated her travel time. She would have been happy had she brought a book to read. Instead, she endured a dragging hour of unplanned, wasted time. Intrigued, we reflected on this sense of loss when there is unexpectedly nothing in particular to attend to.

Is there merit in unstructured time … what do you think? Is it only for children, is it a luxury, a waste, or an opportunity to shift perspectives, discover your passion, break the mould and loosen up your ideas of reality? I don’t see unstructured time being much encouraged, or its lovely randomness being valued. I was burdened by the message that my imagination is fanciful, a kind of debility. It took me decades to claim the time for my passion, writing …

Little Prince

This seems the place to share a personal rant, blaming no one in particular, since, from where I look the rift between head and heart that is tearing apart the fabric of western societies may yet need to become wider before the peril is addressed. If the media is anything to go by, meaningful purpose, visions, let alone joie de vivre, are overshadowed by collective gloom. Feel free to disagree with my take on this. Straining under the pressure to change, I see our systems are attempting to cement a shaky launch pad towards a logarithmic future, with good intentions, though the consequences are dire. Every aspect of our lives is in danger of becoming: over-calculated, over-regulated, over-efficient, over-specialised, over-mechanised, over-prescriptive, over-secured, over-insured, over-compartmentalised, over-conglomerated, and over-economised.

On a more cheerful note, young people in their 30s, at least the ones I know, are asking sharp questions, and are finding ingenious ways to play with, while not getting sucked mindlessly into programmes that abuse data, spoon feed illusions, appeal to personal anxieties, invade privacy, and insult the intelligence of creative individuals.

Back to the birds winging through my garden …

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To see a world in a grain of sand

And Heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour … W. Blake, from Auguries of Innocence

 

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… healing sounds …

Healing sounds at the hub

Round and round … the cyclic drone underlying the melodic scale reverberated in Kala’s bones, re-rearranging the cells in her body. The sound of the reed organ embraced her like a cradle, made her feel held, warm, secure. The melody climbed upwards. There it was again, the wonder, the curiosity, a desire – the impulse to stretch her limbs and reach out towards a colour, almost touching it, then, with the tune circling around that pitch, the slowing down to uncertainty, with only a longing left. From a faraway place an echo sounded as if in response, people she could not see called out to her. She was restless with anticipation of a discovery, anxious too, of its beauty. The sounds kept flowing through her, or she flowed through the sounds, and the cycle repeated. Y-image posterized Or was it a spiral lifting her to the light she desired, and equally dreaded?

From an immeasurable distance she heard him shout, ‘Run, Kala, run, run … survive. Promise me to free the forbidden words.’ A band of men dressed in black were tearing her away from Liam, towards a thicket. Others rounded her up, sneering, ‘We’ll help her to free the forbidden.’ They dragged her along to the river and tossed her into the reed, like a puppet. A hand muffled her screams. She bit the hand, scratched the man’s arms and tried to pull her knee up, to kick him in the groin. He spat at her, hit her hard across the face, over and over, calling her names, laughing. Four other men wrenched her arms and legs apart and then she was crushed, and all went dark … a faint voice, a woman’s voice, reassuringly familiar, ‘I’m your mother …’

‘No!’ Kala screamed. Her eyes snapped open. A gentle hand folded over hers, reached out to brush her brows. Kala blinked, trying to understand what she was seeing. Were these her own eyes looking back at her?  Was this her mob of unruly amber curls? An ideal vision of her, mocking – strong, spirited, more substantial, more beautiful, more …

‘Hi Kala, welcome, I’m Mirre,’ your sister.

Oruba reduced the volume of the musical scale on his reed organ and let the last chord slowly fade until the tune lingered on in silence. He nodded to Mirre and left for the next room, where Zap looked up from his absorbing work. He had explored every minute feature of Kala’s lovely face, had re-composed its bone-structure from every angle. He had depicted his new love in imagined action, dancing in a meadow, drinking from a fountain, stepping from a doorway, all in the sincere belief that he could bring her back into the present that way. Oruba bent over Zap’s shoulder to look at his latest creation – Kala, her eyes open, verdant as spring. ‘Good timing,’ he said, ‘she’s come round.’

Zap jumped from his chair and hugged Oruba. ‘Can I see her?’

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This is an excerpt from chapter 19 of Shapers (sequel to Cabal of Mirrors.) I post a snippet on my blog for a change, since visitors tend to not look at my excerpt page, where I used to rotate writings from my novels.

Kala did not know her mother, who has now been murdered, nor that she is a Shaper, people of a scientific, mystical community, admired and feared. They live in underground hubs, generously funded by the super controlled society of Rhonda, under one condition, that they keep out of politics.

The main protagonist in Shapers is not Kala but Mesa, the re-embodiment of Ana from Cabal of Mirrors. In this sequel Mesa returns from the future to collect a darkness lost. I’ll introduce her some other time. For my Beta readers, Zap, in the excerpt above, is the re-embodiment of Little Snake.

Feedback is welcome. And questions, of course.

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The image was taken by my son, Yeshen. I only gave it a photoshop treatment.

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