Minding your own business

Most of us live in a kind of temporal blur. We spend so much time regretting the past and fretting about the future that we completely miss the present. We have wandering minds. Sometimes I think that I am so busy being mentally else-when that I don’t even see my own children clearly.

Wandering minds tend to stray to whatever is bothering us at the moment, and to the many things that have bothered us in the past. Research shows that this habit of brooding on the negative is a kind of chronic stress that creates minds that are physiologically prone to exaggerate and overreact to problems.

Chronic stress actually causes the centre of emotional overreaction, the amygdala, to grow measurably larger. The amygdala is the “flying off the handle” centre of the brain, so a larger amygdala leaves us with a tendency to fight (or fly) before our conscious brains have even registered that there is a problem.  Having it grow large and over-reactive is clearly not going to end well for us.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” [*]

Mindfulness, in contrast, causes the amygdala to shrink, and makes the conscious mind quicker and more agile – more able to step in before we overreact. Mindfulness is nothing more than focusing on the present moment, on what you are feeling and experiencing right now. It can be as simple as listening to the birds chirping in the nearby trees, or as difficult as meditation.

Last week I was lucky enough to be present for a talk from an eminent mindfulness researcher, Dr Craig Hassed, that comprehensively blew my mind. Dr Hassed presented us with a summary of the current state of mindfulness research. Many of us probably think of crystals and hippies when we think of mindfulness. It seems like the latest spiritual craze, and not terribly relevant to our every day lives.

Except that mindfulness is scientifically proven in a whole lot of stunning ways. It boosts our immune system, reduces our stress, and causes measurable physiological changes in our brains. It also slows the shortening of our telomeres (a biological measure of ageing). In short, mindfulness meditation is better for you than antibiotics when you are sick, or any selection of vitamins you can name. Mindfulness also leads to better empathy, improved problem solving, and enhanced emotional control. It is an anti-stress, anti-ageing wonder drug – except it’s not a drug.

Chronic stress is physically and psychologically brutal. Sometimes you can’t reduce the stress in your life, but you can change your response to it, by simply bringing your mind back to what’s in front of you, instead of endlessly chewing over stress from the past or the future.

Sometimes I’m tired, sometimes I’m shot
Sometimes I don’t know how much more I’ve got
Maybe I’m headed over the hill
Maybe I’ve set myself up for the kill
Tell me how much do you think you can take
Until the heart in you is starting to break?
Sometimes it feels like it will

I go to Extremes – Billy Joel

Craig Hassed put it beautifully – you can sit in a chair and meditate, but it’s what you do when you get out of the chair that matters. It’s relatively easy to meditate for a short time. It’s much harder to be mindful throughout your day, every day.

I suspect there is a connection between mindfulness and what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow – that wondrous state where you are completely focused on what you are doing. Flow is a feeling that no time has passed when you have actually been absorbed in something for hours. It happens when you are engaged in something that you are good at, that you are challenged by, and that you enjoy. I feel it when I’m teaching. If you are lucky enough to have a job where you experience flow, then you will be mindful at those times. But this is “accidental mindfulness”. You are perfectly mindful, but only because you are engaged in the perfect task.

Being mindful when you are doing something mindless – something that doesn’t engage you – is much harder. For example, this morning I was putting out the washing. Not exactly a riveting occupation, so my mind began to wander. Instead of allowing it to dwell on recent traumas, I brought my mind back to focus on the breeze, and the feeling of sunshine warming my skin. I listened to the birds chirping nearby, and I noticed the flowers that have come out recently. In short, I paid attention to the moment. Rather than spending those ten minutes contemplating stress, I spent them contemplating the world around me. For ten minutes I was not focused on trauma, not reinforcing the negative pathways in my mind, and not ramping up my stress levels.

Ten minutes is easy. Doing it all day is much harder. I suspect that perfect mindfulness is not an achievable goal for a human being, but it does get easier with practice. Becoming aware of your thoughts and bringing them back to where you are is much easier than trying to force yourself not to think about stressful things. The more you stress about your stress, the more you reinforce it. If, instead, you think about the patterns of light and shade in the leaves outside your window, you can pull yourself back from stressing over the past and fearing the future, and immerse yourself in the present.

Teaching yourself to be more in the moment can literally save your life. It could obviously be the difference between life and death when you’re driving – paying attention to the road in front of you rather than the phone on your lap – but it can also add years to your life through increased health and happiness.

How mindful are you?


[*] Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science 12 November 2010: Vol. 330. no. 6006, p. 932 DOI: 10.1126/ science.1192439

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However you dress it up, it’s slavery

Startlingly cheap consumer goods like clothes, furniture and electronics all rely on one thing: slavery.

I am not trying to use an emotive turn of phrase to persuade you that there’s a real issue here. Our economy is fundamentally underpinned by real and traumatic slavery. Our discount stores. Our clothing. Even our school uniforms. Slavery here in Australia, or slavery overseas, the only way we can sustain incredibly cheap prices is by paying the people who make this stuff a pittance, treating them inhumanely, not spending money on fripperies like safe working environments, sick leave, or healthcare, and funnelling the profits off to those family friendly companies we rely on for our way of life – KMart, Bunnings, Target, Big W… those companies with pictures of happy smiley white children on all their catalogues.

Then every so often the media does a big exposé on factories that supply Apple, or KMart, or Nike. The company is, naturally, just horrified to learn of the appalling conditions its workers face. So it vows to clean up its act, and scuttles off into a new factory no-one has bothered to audit yet. Safe until the next exposé.  Happily preserving ludicrously low manufacturing costs, and not having to actually fork out any of their profit margins for anything so unprofitable as healthcare.

Meanwhile the workers at the original factory are saved, right?

Um… No. At this point the original factory, unless it can scrounge up another unscrupulous partner in crime, will close down. Those workers who roused the world to outraged indignation on their behalf? They are now unemployed and sunk deeper into the mire of inescapable poverty. They are unlikely to find work elsewhere. We might as well have signed their death warrants.

Bangladesh has now been exposed as a country chock full of sub-standard slave pits masquerading as factories. And KMart, Target and others are planning to step up, take responsibility, and ensure that a portion of their profit makes those factories safe, and provides decent working conditions, right?

Um… No. They will wring their hands, profess their undying horror at all these things they never knew, honest, and quietly move their manufacturing elsewhere, hoping no-one looks too closely at their new factories.

After all, no-one wants to pay a few dollars more for a t-shirt so that some poor stranger halfway across the world has access to healthcare, education and a decent standard of living, do they? If we weren’t exploiting them someone else would be, and we have to keep our prices down or people won’t buy our stuff. We are doing them a favour, in the end, paying them $60 a month to work 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week, in factories that could collapse on them any second. If we didn’t, they’d have nothing.

Which is exactly what they will have when KMart and their friends wash their pure white hands of them and move on to less visible slavery elsewhere.

So next time you sign a petition demanding that these stores source their clothing ethically, think about adding a comment. Demand that they create ethical conditions where they are right now. Demand that they take responsibility for the entire clothing chain, and build an expectation of decent conditions around the globe, not just where the camera is currently pointing.

For more information, check out Oxfam’s reports on ethical clothing.

There’s a longing in the sound

On the weekend I walked with my family on the beach near the Quarantine Station at Pt Nepean. It’s an exquisitely beautiful place, with surprisingly few visitors, despite the sunny weather. We had the beach to ourselves.

Beach at Pt Nepean

All our contact with the crew of the Polperro has made us very aware of litter and beaches. My 10 year old put hours into creating a digital presentation to persuade her whole school not to drop litter – because litter dropped in the city gets washed into storm water drains when it rains. In Melbourne those drains come out in creeks and rivers that lead to the bay, where rubbish wreaks all kinds of trauma and havoc on our wildlife. Dolphins and seals get tangled in string, fishing lines and plastic bags. Food waste and dog poo introduce nitrogen to the water and deplete oxygen, killing marine life and plants and polluting the bay.

So as we walked we collected the rubbish we saw. This is what we collected over a 50m stretch of beach – and bear in mind this was not long after heavy rains that would have washed most of the rubbish off the beach and into the bay.

Rubbish collected on the beach at Pt Nepean

There was a lot of polystyrene, wrappers and bottle lids. Many, many  soft drink and water bottles (surely the biggest marketing con of all time, selling bottled water in Melbourne where the water quality is so good), bits of string, and random unidentifiable scraps of plastic. There was even a toothbrush (the mind boggles).

In the process we found a rope that seemed to be partially buried, and we set about trying to excavate it, to get it off the beach and make sure it didn’t wash into the bay and cause trouble for our curious marine mammals. It was in an area of the beach where boats are explicitly prohibited, so there didn’t seem to be any legitimate reason for its presence. We dug and dug for over half an hour, periodically pulling on the rope to see if we could shift it. Every time the rope gave a little we got excited, thinking we almost had it out, but there was always more buried.

Buried rope on the beach at Pt Nepean

Miss 10 worked hard, accumulating blisters, scratches and grazes as she dug and scraped and pulled on the rope. She is passionate about dolphins, seals and the bay, and she was determined to get that rope out. In the end we had to admit defeat, taking consolation from the fact that the rope was so deeply buried it was unlikely to wash into the bay. I was proud of Miss 10 for her persistence, but even more proud that she was able to admit that we just couldn’t shift it and walk away, despite caring so passionately and trying so hard. Learning to let go is not a core skill of mine or Miss 10’s, so this was a big achievement for her.

We took photos of the rope, and the rubbish, to add to her presentation, and reminded each other that at least there was a bag full of rubbish that wasn’t going to wind up in the bay. Still it was disheartening not to be able to remove that rope, and it left visible scars on her heart.

With the rubbish on the beach still uppermost in my mind, I caught sight yesterday of a full page ad in the paper trying to persuade us all that a container deposit is a “great big tax” and monstrously unfair. The container deposit is an attempt to encourage recycling using the carrot of a 10c reward for every container returned. This 10 cent deposit is apparently a terrible threat to the likes of Coca-Cola, who are throwing the might of their PR and advertising budgets at it with an astonishing ferocity. It beggars belief. They are apparently afraid that people might buy less bottled water if it cost 10c more, and hence chip away at their profits.

It’s a tale that plays on endless repeat throughout our environment and our economy. Nothing must be allowed to stand in front of the great God Profit. Not dolphins or seals. Not the environment. Not climate change. Rubbish on beaches is good for Coca Cola’s bottom line, apparently. I can’t tell Miss 10 about this. She would demand to know why we put up with companies like this, and I just haven’t got an answer.

Lately I’ve found

when I start to think aloud

there’s a longing in the sound

there is more I could be.

Birds of Tokyo, Lanterns

That rope we failed to dig up is a good metaphor – for every bit of environmental destruction we tackle successfully, there are untold amounts still buried. We just can’t get to it all. We lack the strength, the persistence, the political will. We can’t dig the rubbish out of our economy. But maybe we can eventually learn from people like my 10 year old. She is determined to save the world where older and allegedly wiser heads have accepted the way things are. She inspires me to take action. She inspires her schoolmates. Maybe our children are the road to change.

Maybe they can show us that there really is more we could be.

A part of life

I love anniversaries for the excuse to celebrate. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries…any excuse to get together with my loved ones and say “Hey, we’re doing well” or “Hell, we’re still alive!” is ok by me. But just as reminders to be happy roll around regularly, so do the anniversaries of sadness and tragedy.

The anniversary of my Dad’s death is creeping up on me, and although I haven’t had time to give it much space consciously, it lies heavily on my heart.

The death of a parent is a funny thing. All around me I see people much older than I am who still have living grandparents, and whose parents take an active role in their lives, yet I also know that many lose their parents much younger than I lost my Dad. It’s not shocking, demographically speaking, to lose a parent when you’re in your 40s, but the heart doesn’t consult statistics before it reacts. I knew my Dad was dying. His death was a release from terrible suffering, but I still miss him.

A year ago I was sitting in a meeting when the phone call came. There followed a flurry of people to notify and things to organise. As the year went on there were more and more things to sort out. We are still getting letters for him in the mail from companies we have never heard of, still notifying organisations who hold accounts for him or want to sell him stuff. But slowly the administrative burden has subsided, together with the shock.

Now we have grandparent days at school with a hole in them, and music concerts that he will never attend. Stories he won’t get to appreciate, and family celebrations where he won’t tell those terrible, terrible Dad jokes.

Sometimes I think I wasn’t the daughter he hoped I would be, and there were times when he wasn’t the Dad I wanted. Relationships within families can be complicated. There were so many conversations we never had, so many truths we never faced. In some ways I am grieving for the kind of relationship we never managed to create between us, and the things we never quite sorted out.

No relationship is ever perfect. I suspect no parent raises a child to adulthood without regrets. My oldest child is only 10 and my list of regrets is already too long to count (which is probably another post or 2… hundred). My relationship with my Dad wasn’t perfect, but he was my Dad, and I love him.

One year on from that shocking day – the day that I waited for, wished for, and dreaded – and I am past the shock and well into the grief. I miss my Dad.

Sticks and Stones

Oh, they’re only words. It’s just a joke. Drink a cup of concrete and harden the F up. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words? Words can cut me to ribbons, destroy my self esteem and make me feel less than human.

There’s been a lot of noise in the media lately about racism. There have been a lot of comments on the wild and untamed internet about how some people are too thin skinned, can’t take a joke, and “as long as we don’t let it change the way we see you, it doesn’t matter what we say.”

These comments show a remarkable, and entirely unjustified faith in the objectivity of the human mind.

Here’s the thing. Words have intense power, whether we want them to or not. A classic psychology experiment asks people to do a simple task with lists of words. Those whose lists involved age – simple words like grey and wrinkles – left the building measurably slower than those whose lists were unrelated.

A similar experiment used words related to rudeness, words like “bother”, “disturb” and “bold”, or polite words like “courteous” and “patient” and “behaved” and then asked participants to come to see the experimenter when they were done. They would find the experimenter talking to someone else. Those with the “rude” words interrupted the experimenter 64% of the time. Those with the polite words interrupted the experimenter just 18% of the time. Many of the polite group waited a full 10 minutes without interrupting.

None of these people had consciously changed their behaviour. These are examples of what psychologists call “priming”. What it means is that our brains are very easily biased and redirected.

Which means that every time I call someone an ape, I cause a minute – but measurable – drop in that person’s esteem in the minds of all of those listening. Every time I denigrate someone because of their race, I cause a minute drop in the public image of that race. And all of these minute drops add up over time to a torrent capable of carving out a Grand Canyon in our hearts.

Words are potent. Words shape our hearts, minds and opinions in ways we constantly underestimate, and may never truly understand.

Whether we are denigrating on the basis of weight, accent, appearance, height, race, or ability, every time we do so we chip away at the public image, and the self-worth, of human beings who don’t deserve it. Human beings who are just as kind, empathic, intelligent, and deserving as I am. Human beings who are just as fallible, crazy, and troubled as I am. Human beings who don’t need any extra weapons chipping at their fragile shells.

Sticks and stones may break my bones. But words? Words can really hurt.