Tag Archives: mindfulness

Enough for now

Life has run away with me. The seasons have turned, autumn is here, and I almost let September go by without writing a blog post.

an old storage heater has been opened - the red bricks are visible inside a beige case next to my blue sofa

Out with the old, in with the warmth

I like autumn. I like the sense of new beginnings, probably because I associate it with school years starting. I like picking up conkers. This year, I’ve had new heaters installed in my flat (the dramatic part, pictured above, was removed the old ones).

eight jars of various sizes, all with different coloured lids and filled with brown chutney, stand on a corner of a kitchen counter

Green tomato chutney.

I’ve had a horrible cold – the kind of thing we used to call ‘fresher’s flu’ – and have been obscurely glad that the growing season is coming to an end. Visits to the allotment down to once a week from twice a week; green tomatoes gathered in and made into chutney; soon the time of armchair gardening, when it rains and you stay at home and read seed catalogues, will be here.

a collection of objects on a shelf: a grey feather, a multi-coloured autumn leaf, four small conkers, a white stone, a green/terracotta clay Goddess image, a white and silver candle in a green saucer, in front of a black speaker

Nature table

In the midst of all this, I’ve found myself going back to one of the practices of my childhood: the nature table. It would be easy to big this up with long words (it’s mindful! it’s spiritual! it’s about connection with nature and gratitude and seasonal awareness!) but it for me it isn’t really motivated by any of those things. It’s an instinct: something interesting fell off a tree (or a bird, or came out the ground) so I’m going to take it home and look at it.

Enough for now.

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Not to possess anything which should belong to others.

The Second Mindfulness Training says, among other things, that “I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others…”

Not stealing is, at least, reasonably obvious – if I take someone else’s belongings, I usually know, and if I do it by accident it generally becomes obvious once it’s drawn to my attention. Not possessing anything which should belong to others, though, gets trickier. Sometimes I do know that something in my possession should belong to someone else – if my grandmother gives me something which is actually my father’s, for example, I haven’t stolen it but it should belong to him, not me.

In broader terms, though, what of mine should belong to others? What do I have which would be more use to someone else, or improve their life more than it does mine? Do I have a right to keep useful things in storage for when I want them, or should I pass them on and rely on finding another when I need one? With books, I find it fairly easy to conceptualise the second-hand market as a kind of library; I keep books to which I refer, or which I think I’ll read or consult again, and pass on those where I currently foresee no use for them in my life, reasoning that if the need does occur I’ll buy or borrow another copy. A handful of very rare books might stump this system, and I do keep a few just for being unusual, but my experience so far has been that this works (and that it’s actually very rare that I want a book I passed on – Stig of the Dump is the only example which comes to mind over perhaps ten years of running my book collection like this).

Somehow, I haven’t managed to conceptualise other things like this. My kitchenware, for example, is currently sitting unused in boxes in a spare room. I’m sure it could be useful to other people; but I’m keeping it, as a collection, planning to one day use it again myself.

Carbon footprints: a number I do worry about

For all I wrote last week about not living life by numbers, there is a number which I do try and keep in mind as I make my day-to-day choices: the CO2 equivalent emissions.

In fact, it’s very hard to pin this down to a precise number for many things, because of the complexity of them, so usually I’m trying be aware of which things are higher and which lower, which raise my carbon footprint and which reduce it. Of course, carbon footprint is not related to quality: it may well be that my quality of life would be higher if I did things which produced more carbon dioxide, and the global trend at the moment – which is for the poorest in society to produce the least CO2 – might lead us to think that, to a certain level at least, we should all be entitled to a carbon footprint.

There are three problems with this. One is that the carbon footprint of something represents a hidden cost, to the environment and to other people. (In particular, some of those who will be soonest and worst affected by climate change caused by CO2 and similar emissions will be among the poorest.) Another is that carbon emissions, like the use of many other resources, are hugely unequal in distribution. Individuals in countries like the UK take up much more than their fair share of the carbon footprint of the whole population of the world. The third is that my ‘fair share’, the amount to which in an ideal world I would like to reduce my carbon footprint, is actually not mine, but emitted on my behalf by the government.

In 2012 I became a vegan, not because I thought it would improve my quality of life (although the quality of my life and my food hasn’t suffered at all, as it happens), but because I was ready – called – to do something to lower my carbon footprint. I’ve written about this in the past, but the point here is that worrying about a number, a difficult-to-calculate removed-from-my-observation but nevertheless relevant number, was in fact a big part of my motivation.

And it remains so. As I contemplate my choices for the future – places to work, jobs to work in, places to live, ways to live, participation in society – I am intending to try and keep that number in mind and let it affect my choices. I think that’s the right way to go about this because the ultimate aim of both exercises, letting go of some numbers and trying to remain mindful of others, is about awareness: being aware of myself in the world and the way things are. If I dropped the idea of the carbon footprint, as I can drop some other numbers, I would lose track of it altogether. I can get feedback on, for example, the time in other ways – my body, the sky, other people. The effects of CO2 are so removed from me that without a number, I could ignore it altogether, and that has been one of the chief causes of the problem.

Numbers as Toxins: living qualitatively not quantitatively

A line in the last of the Five Mindfulness Trainings says, “I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations.” I discuss these every month with Stephanie, whose thoughts on the process you can read on her blog, and we quite often end up discussing this line. What counts as a toxin?

Previously, we have identified certain kinds of always-negative talk about people as a problem (the thing where you complain about a colleague or a child you volunteer with and never have anything good to say about them, for example), and some kinds of celebrity talk and advertising (film posters which only tell you which actors appear and not anything about the plot, or even the genre, of the movie, for example), and talk about weight and diet which adds moralising to actually-neutral choices (‘Cake?’ ‘Oh, I shouldn’t…’ ‘I’ll be naughty…’/ ‘You’re vegan and teetotal? Do you have any vices left?’ and so forth).

More broadly, I am considering the possibility that living life by numbers is a toxin. I don’t mean that numbers are themselves toxic, they’re a useful tool for measuring things if often arbitrary; but rather that, in quantifying everything, we can get trapped in living by the numbers – in particular, trying to reach a certain number of something – rather than appreciating the quality. I am therefore experimenting with ignoring any numbers and making judgements on other grounds.

An obvious example is my body. I don’t know what I weigh, and I don’t much care; I’m not worried about how much body I have, but rather I want to be comfortable in it. I don’t count calories or weight-watchers points or anything else. I have cake if I want it and not if I don’t. I try not to clock-watch for meals; I eat when I’m hungry and not when I’m not. (Actually, I happen to live in a body which is quite predictable in this regard, and I can tell friends when I’m likely to want to eat and plan to meet them for a meal then, which is handy. I know that not everyone can do this.) I let doctors take my blood pressure but I make no attempt to know what it is – when it’s too low I get dizzy and that tells me what I need to know without worrying about a number.

Similarly, I have abandoned alarm clocks for all but the most important occasions or really unusually early starts. I have the good fortune to live a life in which this is easy, and a very predictable body which wakes at much the same time every day – and a fairly socially acceptable one, to boot. (Socially acceptable among workers and the middle-aged, that is, I stuck out like a sore thumb in a university hall of residence with my bed-at-9pm up-at-7am thing.) I know that I need more sleep than much of my peer group, but I am trying to give up counting it in hours. Who cares? I need what I need, and I’ll wake up when I’ve slept enough.

I do get sucked into job hunting by the numbers, sometimes. If there are x applicants for every job, I should get an interview every y applications, and they interview z people, so I need this many interviews to get a job… Only b in c people with such-and-such a qualification get this-or-that kind of work, so my chances are… This is completely foolish, of course, job hunting and interviewing don’t really work this way anyway. I am looking for the right job for me, and employers are looking for the right candidate for them, and the number of previous applications I have done affects this not at all. It’s tempting, though, because when I’m job hunting the whole exercise seems terrifying and humiliating and it is mostly if not completely outside my control. Trying to predict the outcome is a way of trying to assert a tiny amount of control and to assure myself that the process is not an endless torture but will, eventually, have an outcome.

Another area in which I can sometimes be trapped by the numbers is money. Money is a useful number, and I can’t see a way to give it up entirely. (Likewise, I think I will always need to start with numbers when buying shoes, for example, and baking cakes – although I reject the idea that you need to use numbers for bread dough, which can be done by feel.) However, I think it’s possible to get trapped into tiny numbers, worrying about pennies when spending hundreds of pounds. I try to make sure things are within a reasonable price range – this should be less than £5, that should be less than £50 – but to let myself shop for ethics and convenience within that range. This approach might not work for everyone. The advantage for me is that I can let many choices be made for quality instead – I can buy organic vegetables, I can take a bus when I need to and not worry about it – and because I have reasonably cheap vices, and a reasonable income, I don’t need to get bogged down in justifying every choice to my mean-angry-thrifty internal voice who objects to spending anything ever.

Other areas of life I have identified as ruled by numbers include time management, word counts for writing, and everything which involves making a list on a computer (to-do lists, wish lists, X Things You’ve Never Believe/Remember/Care About lists). I am still debating the extent to which these numbers are useful tools and to what extent they create a tyranny of targets.