Mindfulness: skeptics guide

medatationI hate mumbo jumbo so I was initially very sceptical about meditation. I would go as far as to say that in the past i have openly mocked people for doing it. My wife does yoga and I am ashamed to say I once made a snide comment when I found out that yoga classes end with a guided meditation.

That having been said I think I have been meditating regularly for the best part of a year now and finally felt like I may have something constructive to say on the subject.

My early experiments with meditation didn’t go particularly well. I have a list of repeating weekly to-do’s and I added ‘5 minutes mindfulness’ to that list only to remove it after a brief period of time. Initially I found that creating an obligation with myself to meditate was adding to my stress levels. So i hit the delete button on that one pretty quick.

However on a very adhoc basis I did try and do some meditation throughout the year. I have heard that cocaine is a drug that becomes more addictive the more you do it. I think the same must be true of meditation, as the more i did it, the more i tended to get out of it.

I took the view that if there were any benefits to be gained from meditation that the majority of those benefits would be accrued with a very small but regular investment in time. So I decided that 5 minutes was how long I was going to try and do.

Now I do regularly meditate, almost every day and I will do 8 minutes. I have also found that I do find it to be a useful addition to my day. It is most useful for quickly reducing stress. Now we have had a child I just don’t get the enormous spans of uninterrupted time that I used to luxuriate in.

I didn’t know it before Isaac our baby showed up, but my once a week treat of watching the whole Andrew Marr Show on a Sunday before I did anything was a ridiculously decadent luxury. I find I can sometimes watch a whole episode in little bouts throughout the Sunday if I can be bothered. However that amount of relaxation can be achieved in a single 8 minute session of mindfulness. There is a tired almost hot feeling that I get in my head and being mindful of that almost feels like I am working those knots out of my mind a bit like a sports massage.

The other place were I find it really helpful is if I can’t sleep. If there is something on my mind, and that is stopping me from sleeping I can get up go next door and meditate. That has proved really effective at stopping thoughts from spinning around in my head.

How does it work? 

elephant eyeMeditation helps with insomnia by preventing rumination.

Rumination is the habit of turning something over and over in your head. Thinking about everything you have to do, or want to do. The trouble is that it is a self re-enforcing habit. The more you do it, the greater your tendency to want to do it. It also tends to amplify any feelings that you are having. If you are ruminating at night, you are also thinking about something at a point when you can’t do anything about it. So it is particularly pointless. Interestingly, you normally only need an activity to take your mind off the rumination for 2 minutes to break the cycle of rumination and meditation is a perfect activity for this, as it occupies the auditory part of your mind.

Meditation is an interesting activity because it helps you get a bit of a handle on how your consciousness really works. Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002. His great insight is that the voice you hear in your head isn’t the guy making most of the decisions in your life.

Kahneman describes system 1 and system 2.  System one is the one that you use for the vast, vast majority of the decisions that you have to make through the day. It uses unconscious reasoning. No matter how clever you are, you are making judgement calls largely based on how you ‘feel’. What is really cool is that particularly if you are intelligent, the conscious part of your brain retrospectively comes up with justifications for the decisions that you have made that day. This gives all of us the illusion that we made a decision because we really thought it through, but the truth is that often we just did something cos it felt right and then came up with a neat justification later.

System two is the slow thoughtful part of your brain. It is the voice you hear in your head when you think. The reason we don’t use this part of our brain, to do most of our thinking is that it is really expensive. It takes a lot of mental resources to think about things in detail, so we don’t. However we need to maintain an internally consistent record of why we did the things we did, and so our mind builds this illusion for us that we thought it all through.

The best metaphor I have heard is that the voice in your head thinks he is the oval office, making all the decisions, but in reality he is the press office, just telling everyone what the oval office wants people to hear.

I think meditation basically gives that guy in the press office something to do for long enough for ‘you’ to at least have a peak at what the guy in the oval office is dealing with.

monkeyAnother similar metaphor is that your mind is two animals: A monkey riding an elephant. the monkey is on the top bouncing around and making a lot of noise, he also thinks he is ‘driving’ the elephant, but the reality is that the elephant, is walking exactly where he wants to go and only very occasionally taking any notice of the monkey. Fundamentally that must be true when you think about it: If you aren’t woken in the morning by an alarm, then you are woken by some unconscious part of your brain. Basically you will eventually get up because the elephant realises it has to eat and like wise, even if the monkey wants to stay up all night and watch TV, eventually the elephant will sleep on the couch, or drag you to bed. The fundamental decisions including who you are attracted to aren’t in fact taken by the voice in your head, many of the important calls get taken behind some kind of psychological curtain.

 

What I do

When I meditate I close my eyes and point my minds eye at different parts of my body. A good trick I started with was to focus on the places where I could feel one part of my body touching another part of my body. You can feel were one toe touches another, then you might feel where your foot contacts the floor, or if you’re sat cross legged, your other leg. By moving from one contact point at the most distal parts of your body and heading slowly towards my head, I can easily do 5 minutes self-guided meditation.

The other thing I do is find my heart beat. Then I find my pulse in my hands, then I ‘listen’ for both, My hands and feet pulse after my heart. Once I have found those I can feel the pulse in the forearms. And if things go really well I can feel a pulse travel through my body out to my hands and feet.

All these things are normally below the level of conscious awareness. They need to be or even ordering coffee or holding a simple conversation would be an ordeal, but it is amazing to think of the shear number inputs and the amount of information that you lower brain is just handling for you throughout the day. I don’t imagine that i would ever get to see everything my lower brain is dealing with, but looking at those two things does give you some insights.

Why you SHOULD buy a Smartwatch.

It is fascinating to me that so much is written about new technology, and there seems to be so little about how to use established gadgets better. There is a recent trend for “life hacks”. These are nifty tricks that enable you to solve a problem quickly and cheaply usually by repurposing something for a use for which it was not originally intended and yet we never seem to want to look again at tech.

Apparently humans have massive brains not so we can think up new ideas, but so we can spot and quickly copy those individuals that are putting in the graft and coming up with the new stuff. Most of us are not Isaac Newtons or Albert Einstein’s. Those guys are freaks and outliers. The rest of us eat up the products of their labor and being normal are often much better at putting those good ideas to good (and normal) use.

We seem to be addicted to staring into the future and guessing what the next big thing is. I have just bought a pebble classic. It was the first ‘smart watch’ and i thought I would write about how i got on with that: So you can decide if you want one for christmas.

I am a big fan of the keyboard and think that at the moment we are embracing the touch screen for far too many applications. For instance: did you know that the touch screen was invented in the 1970’s, and remained dormant because correctly computer technicians  thought no-one would want to read a screen covered in greasy marks. Unlike the latest smart watches pebble Classic has buttons. This means the battery last  a week. When you press a button, you know a switch has been thrown in the machine. If it is being slow, you know it is thinking, not that it just didn’t feel your command.

I have hankered after a pebble smart watch for ages and recently the arrival of the apple watch has brought it down to a price point, where I felt it would be acceptable to ask for one for my birthday.  I followed the story of that watch from inception and I remember thinking the first person who I saw wearing one was very cool.

There is a reason why i didn’t buy one, I didn’t really need one. It would very much have been a toy. It was only recently that I started wearing wrist watch again and that was after I started running these wine rides events. Often I have my hands full and I want to be able to glance at the time without having to put something down to get my phone out of my right pocket with my dominant hand. This is because while I am working away getting your tent set up, you the customer will be bowling throw the english country side, heading in my direction and when you arrive, I want your tent set up and ready to go.

Often I don’t work at a desks owning and using a wristwatch is really helpful to me. My new pebble is also good because I exercise by doing 30 second sprints. one of the first apps I down loaded to the watch was an egg timer.  It just occur to me that what I may have ended up with for most of the time is a fairly basic digital watch.  I don’t even like to check my email more than twice a day as it distracts me from getting my work done. So I have even disabled the email alerts, one of the few things that distinguishes a smart watch from a ‘dumb watch’.

My problem with the iPad and why I have never, nor do I ever think I will let one into my life is that it doesn’t seem to do anything, that the devises I own already do for me. Its a digital bear trap sitting their waiting for me to get snagged in. As far as I can tell the iPad is just a way for you to blow loads of money on things you don’t need like candy crush saga.

If anything the one place where the smart what really distinguishes itself is in it surreptitious nature. The watch has no ring tone. It only works on vibrate. I know it wants to tell me something by feeling a vibration on my wrist. I can also tell it something by flicking my wrest and working the accelerometer inside it.  Hence the sat nav app on it is great when i am on my bike. At night  I can get the screen tonight up with a flick. Whats more i use it as a morning alarm as it will wake me up in the morning without disturbing my wife or our new baby.

Screening and dismissing calls from your wrist is great. When you are mid-flow talking to a builder, zapping a call buy tapping you wrist is less intrusive, and the other person doesn’t feel like they have to off er to let you take the call.

FitCat is the most popular pedometer app for pebble and I have enjoyed that a lot.

Now the dust has settled, apart from the sat nav app and the phone call screening, my one really feels like a normal watch. It is surprising how quickly having a smart watch becomes “normal”.

If I had to pick one reason why it is worth getting a smart watch, it is because ‘vibration” really comes into its own when the devise is small and strapped to your wrist. It is like saying to someone ‘tap me on the shoulder when jimmy arrives’. Basically it is a tactile way to interact with your digital inputs. That means that it doesn’t get in the way of listening to or looking at something that might be more important.

I have now come to a conclusion about when you should let a new technology into your life: When it’s cheap. And when it lets you transmit information to digit source or receive information from a digital source in a way that your existing devises don’t. If it doesn’t meet those two criteria, then just hold off. It will come down in price and be more robust when you finally buy it.

Strictly Come Dancing VS Rugby Wolrd Cup

 

Strictly Come Dancing is the most valuable TV programme on TV. On Saturday Night Jay and his partner Aliona Vilani showed us why.  They did Jive based on one of the most notable scenes from one of the most notable movies of the 1990’s.

It brought is home to me why the rugby world cup, really isn’t as good as this juggernaut of Saturday night TV. Just to be clear, I love rugby. In my youth I had a run out for bath and Worcester Rugby clubs, I played first team Rugby at university and to this day I still play touch rugby. My family left South Africa when we were young and watching the 1995 South Africa – New Zealand rugby world cup final in the UK was one of the seminal moments of my childhood, but even I can see how in many ways Strictly is better entertainment.

Rugby, less so than football, has very little interpersonal drama. It is broadly assume that each team is like a solid wall. there are no cracks the players are just in it to “get the job done”.  ‘get the job done’ was the England slogan before they crashed out of the tournament and I think reflects the supper manly and pragmatic self image that marketing people think appeals to everyone who plays rugby.

Both rugby and ball room dancing are subcultures. Unless you happen to be regularly involved in one of them, they can sometimes seem very odd. There are certain traditions and tastes the set them apart from the rest of culture. For instance the Rugby world cup has developed its own musical taste and conventions that need to be respected. When those conventions are infringed the natives of that culture revolt.  The best example of this being the ‘Petition to remove Paloma Faith from the Rugby World Cup’ which at the time of writing has 10,250 signatories.

A quick skim of youtube reveals that World in Union is a bloody awful and saccharin song, and every 4 years it is put upon a musical alter and torchered until it warbles to death. The sole exception to this being my favourite rugby world cup the 1995 South Africa World cup where is was nail by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. That being said I can fully understand why people didn’t want this cherish cultural artefact that’s melody is “Thaxted” — the stately theme from the middle section of “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”, a movement from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”, and was originally adapted for its use in the English/Anglican patriotic hymn, “I Vow to Thee My Country”. Ὲ seen shoved through the Commercial-X-Facture-Style-Homogenizing-Shit machine.

If the musical traditions of the Rugby world are strange they are nothing when compared to the clothing traditions on the Ball room dancing scene. It would be easy to mistake their taste in clothing as ‘fashion’ but they are not. Fashion by its very nature is transient. The clothing taste of ballroom dancers are relatively stable. this makes them traditions and lets face it they are pretty weird, be it glittery low-V shirts for the men or dresses that evoke colourful pubic hair extensions for women.

Strange dress sense

Strange dress sense

So why do i think one is better entertainment than the other? Rugby culture does have room for patriotism, by watching Rugby you can get to feel like part of a tribe. Strictly on the other hand allows you to back a horse but next year you will have to find a new gladiator to back, but each year you have to find your team.

Where strictly starts to pull ahead is that both men and women have roles. So in addition to the central action the dancing competition there is also the guessing game of trying to work out who is having an affair with who. Not only that, there is a very odd section that requires the dancers to run up a flight of steps allowing the viewers to speculate which female dances have real as opposed to fake boobs. Which I assume is supposed to inform how you feel about the dancers.

Finally strictly can and does make reference to wider culture. Normally the reference are ‘meh’, and pass me by completely, and then sometimes as with Jay and Aliona Vilani dance on Saturday the stand on the shoulders of giants and do something great.

They did a dance that evoked Pulp Fiction, a film which itself referenced Saturday Night Fever and was filled to the brim with absolutely loads of fantastic music.

Rugby by comparison is a closed shop. Once you are in, you can enjoy drama, but it is more like a night club with a bouncer on the door. Strictly on the other hand is open and exposes me to parts of our culture I would otherwise miss. To be honest, there wasn’t  a large void in my life labeled “The Wanted” before Jay showed me he could do something cool with that scene from Pulp Fiction, But I have now listened to his music and I don’t like it, but the point is now I don’t like it because i have heard it, where as before I didn’t like it because I assumed I would hate it.

 

24 years of watching rugby has never changed how I feel about anyone, However I would say every year My wife watches Strictly and I do something on the laptop promising myself that I ‘wont waist my life and get sucked in this year’. Every year one of the couples does something and i think, ‘yeah that is good and i didn’t expect it from them’, and then I have to start taking an interest. Therefore I, a rugby player can reluctantly accept that Strictly Come Dancing is better than the rugby world cup because it can bring any group of people together, where as the rugby world cup is only ever going to be of interest to people who like rugby.

 

Why People so Stupid?

In essence isn’t the route of most of the problems we face in the ‘First world’ the fact that we evolved to get our food by impaling what we want to eat on a sharpened stick. We now find our selves in a world where even explaining how the food gets on the table, involves a lot of information: You buy it from the shops. you use money. the money comes from work. you work in a job. you get a job by working for 12 or more years at school. If all those steps go ok you can eat.

As I look at my baby son I want to be able to say: ‘This is your bow, these are your arrows, heres how we make them. Those a antelopes, thats what we eat heres how you hunt them’.

Nothing about my professional life has felt like working in a factory. I feel like for the most part I was given a factory type education.If I am really honest with myself I don’t think sitting in class room rows doing problems from text books prepared me very well for the world I now find myself in. Teachers may disagree, but the humans brain is not just a bin to be filled with facts. If anything it is more like a gps for getting you close enough to an antelope to throw a sharpened stick into it. I think the fact that we have a memory at all is so we can remember which are  the berries that will make you vomit.

Jared Dimond contends westerners are like the domestic version of humanity. Just like domesticated animals that are fatter, less intelligent, and have worse senses than their wild counter parts we humans that live in ‘modernity’ were most problems have been solved before we even get up in the morning are less intelligent than our counterparts who still live in tribal bands.

Adam Smith,  the farther of economics said “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human to become.”

Wild type dog

Wild type dog

Domestic dog

Domestic dog

 

Us

Us

 

 

 

 

Complexity is our biggest challenge. In every domain the problem is separating the signal from the noise. There are so many conflicting accounts, that is sometimes feels like everyday you have to wake up and start behaving like a scientist. The only weapons I have found that have tended to work for me a keeping records, feedback loops, and patients.

More and more it seems that the best thing to do is treat life like a game of rugby, use the best tactics you can, be tough and accept that at some point you are going to take a few large and unexpected hits.

There is so much about this wold that I can’t wait to experience with my young son. Who knows perhaps he will be able to make more sense of it than I can. If I have one hope  for the future, it is that the world is flattening out. I hope that when my son is 32 years old the high priests of information like doctors, solicitors, Architects etc will all have lost some of their power.At the end of the day, there is no-one alive today who knows more than a smart phone, if that isn’t the greatest equaliser humanity has ever known then what is?

Perhaps the world isn’t full of idiots, it just that we are all made to feel stupid more and more often by the ever advancing complexity of the world we live in. And sometimes it just helps call everyone else a fool. 

 

Vibram Fivefingers Bear-Foot Running shoe review.

These shoes are fantastic. Here are just five reasons to buy these shoes.

 

Your wife will be certain you are not having an affair.

 

They are great for driving in. The sense of of control as you grip the pedals with your toes is amazing and sometimes driving gloves for your hands just aren’t creepy enough.

 

Your a lot more stable on the ground. I used to roll my ankle a lot. It was damaged during my rugby carrier. I haven’t rolled it at all in these shoes not even when fleeing an angry mob of toe hating locals from the near by village where i jog.

 

Socks have been steeling time from my day for years. I am sure that now I have these, I will have the edge. I will have an extra 2 Minutes, hopefully I will be able to come up with an idea as good as ‘toe shoes’ genius!

 

I have yet to find another item of clothing that tells absolutely everyone else in the room that you just don’t care what they think. If you dance to the beat of your own drum these shoes are for you.

 

I have had these a few weeks and I still love them. I have taken to wearing them almost habitually. I wouldn’t go to a meeting with them, or anywhere that requires you to conform.

 

I have been surprised where they have come in handy. the fact that they are so small, is itself a an asset. I got them muddy the other day and didn’t want to put them in my rucksack without a plastic bag, which i didn’t have to hand. Fortunately i did have an A4 plastic sleeve for documents which they fit in fine, once i removed my print outs. I think they would work great as a spear set of shoes for your bag if you think you’re going to get wet.

 

five finger

They really are great to run in. I go sprinting twice a weak and now only sprint in these. The only thing that compares to these shoes is running in spikes which is something I haven’t done in years.

 

Around the house, the closest thing they feel like is flip-flops. they are very comfy. I go hiking quite a lot in mine and really like them as walking shoes. Though the whole bear-foot thing does take some time to get used to, it real works your calves, which my I understand from my scant reading of the research is the point of bear-foot.

 

I have high hopes that the will confer the health benefits they are supposed to i.e. better fitness and posture. When my walking shoe wear out I think I will switch over to the five finger version of those shoes. I really have been surprised how much i like them. So if you think you can cope with the questions, and you will be asked about them, then they are great and you should buy a pair.