Sunday, 5 April 2020

The Joy of Childhood

Right before COVID-19 distancing measures came into play in the UK, I was fortunate enough to squeeze in a trip to London, including a visit to the Wellcome Collection museum. I often see reviews of interesting exhibitions at the place and wish I could go more often, so I relished the chance to check out the Play Well feature that occupied the downstairs gallery (which is usually hosting something on an intriguing psychology-related theme).

Now, I have to admit I’m not a huge museum person in general – I usually grow tired and disinterested quite quickly when I visit them - but each time I’ve been to the Wellcome collection I’ve found their exhibitions to offer a very engaging experience. Through a thought-provoking mix of historical artefacts, artwork, video and more, Play Well explores the impact that play has on our lives – including its benefits to wellbeing – and how it has changed over the years. The exhibition really struck a chord with me, and I’d like to share my thoughts on some of the most pertinent features here.

The paradox of adulthood

I’ve often reflected on what a shame it is that we lose something of our propensity to play when we become adults, and this exhibition really brought that sad fact to the front of my mind. Indeed, the very first thing you see when you walk in the front door is a video of some primary school children answering questions about play, one of which was something to do with whether adults need play. Poignantly, a [roughly] 9-year-old matter-of-factly states that yes, adults do need play, so they can have a break and a rest. It’s a simple truth, but one that isn’t given anywhere near enough attention in day-to-day life. It’s an unfortunate paradox that perhaps the very reasons we need play to help us let go and wind down – increased responsibility, more stress, less time for doing the things we enjoy – are exactly what rob us of it as we grow up.

One person who talks a lot of sense about this stuff is actress, author and stand-up comedian Miranda Hart. Her fondness for ‘jollying life up’ shines through in everything from the exaggerated version of herself she plays in her sitcom to the fact that she’s released a book for the specific purpose of offering the reader a Daily Dose of Such Fun. To quote a favourite scene from Miranda:

“If adults had even the slightest in-the-moment joy of a child, then frankly the world would be a better place”

Never has something so profoundly poignant and philosophical been stated so simply and eloquently in a slapstick sitcom, but there you have it: wise words from my life hero. Everyone should play more and have more fun; end of!

The sensation of simplicity

Fröbel's gifts
One of my favourite parts of Play Well was the display of Fröbels Gifts, a set of materials designed by German educationist Friedrich Fröbel for the original Kindergarten in the 1800s. The Gifts were designed to facilitate learning and creativity throughout infancy and childhood, and comprised activities such as building blocks,  paper weaving, mosaic building and creating shapes & structures from, for instance, semi-dried peas & toothpicks or coloured pieces resembling lollipop sticks (to name just a few; see the video for more!). I was both surprised and heartened to find that as I viewed the artefacts, I did so with a compelling sense of familiarity: I warmly remembered playing with a lot of this stuff at school and at my grandparents’ house, and a bittersweet sense of nostalgia ensued.

I was pleased to hear from another visitor that these types of materials are still being used in her own work setting – a special educational needs school – but I wonder whether many kids still get to enjoy such activities today. More to the point, I wondered whether as adults we might benefit from such an opportunity: paper-weaving, for example, would make for a lovely mindfulness activity, and I’d rather hoped to purchase some papers and start practicing this at home. Alas, a quick search on Amazon reveals that you simply can’t but this stuff today, at least not from mainstream sources. What a shame.

The power of exploration

Another highlight of my Play Well experience was engaging with the ‘live-action role play’ (LARP) piece; a phenomenon designed to get people exploring and acting out situations in the context of a specifically-designed set of props. In this particular case, there were no rules or objective, but the designer had provided shapes and objects that were deliberately ambiguous in order to foster creativity and discovery. Visitors were particularly encouraged to interact with others on the set, which is indeed what I did myself when I finally plucked up the courage.

A playful moment
It was certainly true that the props on offer were ambiguous: the shapes seemed random and there was no clear way of using them or putting them together. My new companion and I had a bit of a laugh stacking them this way and that, seeing how well we could balance on them and so on. Then, all of a sudden we had a eureka moment we could form the pieces into a perfect tree with a snake climbing it as if to reach the forbidden fruit brilliant! We were childishly delighted with our creation, as you can see in the picture, and I think that’s exactly how it should be. Experiencing that in-the-moment joy from the smallest of things is something we surely all need more of.

I was just amazed by how simply being in that environment, letting go, experimenting and interacting with a stranger enabled a bunch of random shapes to become something meaningful. It goes to show that creativity is really facilitated by certain conditions, and conditions that most of us perhaps don’t experience much in our daily lives. How much better might we be at our jobs, or coming up with meal ideas, or thinking of novel things to do at the weekend, if we could offer ourselves those circumstances for creativity just a little more often?

Food for thought

As we live through the strange and unique experience presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, these thoughts are perhaps more poignant than ever. I talked in my previous post about the lightness that could come from such a dark situation, and I feel it brings with it an opportunity to cultivate creativity, enjoy the simple things and reconnect with the joy of childhood. A friend recently shared with me a quote that captures this quite nicely, a snippet from which reads:

“And the people stayed home. And they read books, and listened, and rested…made art, played games…And the people healed.” – Kitty O’Meara

I’ve added the italics myself for emphasis, as this is the crux of it all for me. Playing, and letting go, and spending time just being, is immensely healing. I hope we can discover and leverage that healing power and the joy of childhood through this difficult time and, more importantly, beyond. 

Sunday, 29 March 2020


As we find ourselves in what is probably the strangest period of many of our lives, I am inspired to revive this blog, which I’m alarmed to find I haven’t posted on regularly for 2 & a half years! With the COVID pandemic and related distancing measures in full swing, it’s not so much the thought of having time on my hands that brings me here, but the wish to express what I hope you’ll find to be some pertinent thoughts on the situation.

I remember talking to a Buddhist once about my despair at the way we humans are treating the planet - plastic waste, endless short journeys by car and the like – and she consoled me with a perspective from Buddhism that we must allow nature to run its course: if the earth needs to destroy itself in order to start again and rejuvenate, then so be it. The universe as we know it stands as just a speck in time against backdrop of forever. In the grand scheme of things, it is nothing. All will be well.

Indeed, all it takes is a perusal of the opening chapter of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything to discover how tiny and insignificant the size and lifespan of our planet (let alone ourselves) is when stacked up against infinity and eternity. And indeed I found a certain comfort in adopting the perspective that, however messed up the world becomes during my lifetime, it won’t always be that way.

However, I’ve continued to experience increasing dismay at the state of affairs: extortionate prices to travel sustainably on public transport; having to visit 2-3 stores for the weekly shop to get both value and minimal packaging; an ongoing obsession and preoccupation with (sole-occupncy) car use… Whilst heartened by conscious living (tackling plastic waste in particular) becoming ever more present in the public psyche, I can’t help but feel it’s too little too late.

Enter global pandemic. For all the chaos and heartache caused by the current state of affairs, a common theme in our collective coping mechanisms seems to be 'finding the positives'. From the appearance of Facebook pages dedicated to acts of kindness, to reports of wildlife returning to previously-too-polluted places, the world really is embracing the happy by-products of a challenging situation. On a more individual level, I think we’re all counting our blessings and finding heightened appreciation of life’s small pleasures.

As the pandemic unfolds and its more favourable consequences transpire, I become increasingly convinced that nature really does know what it’s doing with this one. Yes, it will be hideous. Lots of people will die; everyone will suffer in some way or another; some countries, areas & groups will be hit particularly hard. But inevitably, we will come out of the other side changed. By ‘we’ I mean as individuals, societies and as a whole world. Perhaps this was just the catalyst to accelerate some cultural changes that were sorely needed. I like to use the term “societal recalibration” to describe this. To explain further, allow me to present some examples of things that deeply trouble me about modern (British) life and how the present situation contributes to putting them right.

Travel & environment:

I’ve already hinted at my level of dismay about the tendency to get in our cars and drive everywhere, often with only one person per vehicle (I use ‘our’ in the widest sense to reflect the nation as opposed to a group that specifically includes me!). Added to that, the financial and practical ease with which we can hop on and off planes like there’s no tomorrow is deeply disturbing when you consider the environmental consequences of this. I heard that one person flying from London to New York is the equivalent, in carbon emission terms, of the average individual’s car use for a whole year. A WHOLE YEAR! Multiply that by the number of people on that flight and the number of flights taking off daily, and the scale of the problem becomes incomputable to the human brain.


The good news is that this tragic circumstance is being partially reversed by the current lockdown on movement & travel. Stories of swans returning to the canals in Venice, for instance, illustrates the substantial impact that just a few weeks of changed behaviour can have. Now of course, the current limitation on transport can’t be maintained, but if each one of us were more thoughtful in our choices in the long-term – a short journey by bike here, a local weekend away instead of jet-setting to wherever is cheapest there – imagine the impact we could have on saving the planet. Immense.

Health & lifestyle:

90% of people in the UK are putting their health at risk by either smoking, having a poor diet, not being active enough or drinking too much. Some 70% have at least 2 of those risk factors, and over two-thirds of the population is overweight. Alcohol consumption is glamorised to the extent that even the most reserved of ‘normal’ social drinkers are often well-over the threshold of the increased-risk-to-health category. The advent of processed foods, motor vehicles, cheap booze, ‘smart’ technology that enables us to do anything & everything without leaving our sofas, and a whole host of other cultural and technological changes, are essentially slowly killing us. Usually the easy thing to do is the unhealthy one, and we’re in a terrible state because of it.

Enter a semi-lockdown state though and all of a sudden the population of joggers and walkers has quadrupled in my local area. As an aside, I’m proud of the UK Government (and I don’t think I’ve ever said that before!) for taking such a balanced public health approach to all this and continuing to encourage people to get out and exercise whilst maintaining social distancing and sheltering in place the rest of the time. Since this is one of the very few legitimate reasons for leaving the house, it seems that people who you couldn’t usually get to exercise if you paid them have realised that getting out and moving isn’t so bad after all. Others still are adopting home-workout routines they’d never normally have thought to do, in a bid to not go stir-crazy with all that time in the house. It seems that this phase has enabled many people to discover all the wellbeing benefits of exercise, and I hope this will help instil some long-term healthy changes and improved population wellbeing.

Sense of community:

It breaks my heart to think that we have almost no sense of community these days. People don’t know their neighbours; we rush around cities refusing to make eye contact with each other; many of us don’t know who we’d turn to in our local area if we needed help. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that social isolation (and its direct & indirect effects) is a bigger killer than any of the lifestyle factors mentioned above, with the scale and severity of the situation described in detail by an excellent report by the Eden Project.

I’m sure you’ll agree that the way people have pulled together during this time has been astounding. The NHS made a call for volunteers this week hoping to get 250 thousand sign-ups over the course of a few days. In less than 24 hours, 405 thousand people had registered their interest. Similarly in my local area, I’ve signed up to be part of a co-ordinated ‘community response’ to the crisis; I’ve not been offered any work yet as they’ve been so inundated with volunteers that it’s taking days & days to simply collate the details and work out who can do what. On a smaller scale, I went for a run this morning and was amazed how every single person I passed – from a distance of course! – offered a smile, wave, nod or ‘hello’. (It’s not rare for this to happen normally, but you don’t usually find that every person you cross will interact with you!) I am hopeful that whenever we return to some kind of normal, an enhanced sense of community will remain as a legacy to these times.

Pace of life:

Perhaps the thing I struggle most with in daily life is time pressure: what with work, socialising, fitness, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and general life-admin (lifemin!), there never seems enough time to get everything done (and this is coming from someone who in ‘normal’ life is largely absent from social media and rarely works more than her allotted 37 hours per week!). British life seems to have become something of a competition about who can be busiest all the time. Our diaries are so crammed you have to do things like plan dinner with a friend several months in advance, or block out time specifically to do nothing. My best friend, a Brit who lives in Italy where people simply take life as it comes, finds this particularly baffling. And she’s right; it’s stressful and encroaches on our ability to live spontaneously and simply enjoy the moment or see where the wind takes us. I often find myself grappling with the desire to ‘make the most of life’ versus a hankering for a simpler way of being, and wish I could find the ideal balance between the two.

As my mum said of our current situation, “I think it’s nature’s way of getting us all to slow down”. Having time to reflect, take stock, reconnect with ourselves and simply relax could do us all the world of good. We’ll find more time for things that usually go on the backburner, like reading, crafts and catching up with loved ones. We’ll realise we don’t need to be rushing around like headless chickens all the time, and that joy can be found in the simplest of pursuits. We may even find that a simpler life has healing qualities beyond that any type of therapy or medication could ever bring. I saw a quote on social media this weekend that nicely summed it up: Before rushing back to normal life, take time to consider which parts of it are worth rushing back to.

So there you have it, the bright side of what is in many ways a very dark period. If the world needs to dismantle itself temporarily in order to repair, our sacrifices will be worth making.

Note: if you’re curious about the title of this post, I committed when I started this blog that the vast majority of posts would be named from a song title or lyric. Dismantle.Repair is a song by a favourite band of mine and my brothers, Anberlin. Whilst the song itself isn’t particularly pertinent to the theme of the piece, I felt the title was rather apt and summed up the overarching point I was making rather nicely.   

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Stuck in This Paradox

I recently read about the results of a survey on public attitudes about the NHS. There were two main results that were most striking for me: first, out of a list of eight options, people rated public health interventions – those that maintain wellness and prevent ill health – lowest, in terms of priority for NHS spending. To me this suggests that the general public is not well educated on the benefits of preventive measures: by prioritising treatment over prevention, we are missing the point that the need for treatment is reduced by effective prevention.

In an interesting twist though, here is the other result that grabbed my attention: when asked whether particular types of treatment should be rationed by the NHS, people were least likely to agree that bariatric surgery and liver transplants for alcoholics should be given freely for all (conversely, people were most likely to agree that drugs should always be given to extend life by less than 6 months in terminal illnesses). In other words, it seems that there is something of a tendency to believe that conditions most obviously associated with lifestyle factors are less deserving of free treatment. It also implies an attitude that people are, at least in part, responsible for their own health, and perhaps should not be offered treatment so freely for conditions that are seen to be more avoidable.

So, how does one minimise their chances of needing such treatment? By having a healthy lifestyle. And how do we improve people’s chances of having a healthy lifestyle? Preventative measures that help maintain wellbeing and promote good health! It seems there is a bit of a mismatch between these two key results of the survey, and one that should perhaps be addressed by educating more widely on the benefits of such interventions.

The Psychologist: 'unlocking the social cure'
Such a lot of money is being spent on transforming the NHS right now, to respond to the increasing demands of poor health on a population level. Aside from the obvious ones, more illnesses than we realise have their roots, to some extent, in lifestyle choices and social connection (or lack of). It is frustrating to know that so much could be achieved by investing more in social and public health measures, yet the immediate pressures placed on our health services make is almost impossible to invest proportionately in these. Even if we did, it seems the fallout would be massive: how dare we spend so much on the thing ranked bottom of the public list in terms of health spending priorities?!

How do we address this issue? I certainly don’t claim to know the answers, but I think those doing good work need to keep chipping away at it and perhaps the scales will eventually tip. I’m particularly impressed the examples given in May’s special issue of The Psychologist on the ‘social cure’ approach to health and wellbeing. I hope to see more and more of this type of work in the coming months and years. If we continue to tackle the deepest roots of poor health and wellbeing, little by little, perhaps we can ultimately ease the burden on the NHS and on people’s lives. It’s a conundrum that won’t be easy to solve, but I plan to do my best to do my bit.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Let You Lead

In recent years, mindfulness practice has become one of the most important aspects of my life, of my efforts to maintain and improve my mental and physical wellbeing the best I can. Naturally this has led me to be a more spiritual person; I love the feeling of being more connected to myself, the world, life, and the people around me. The simple act of purposefully taking notice of my thoughts, feelings and actions is immensely therapeutic in many ways, and I am thankful that mindfulness has become, for me, one of the best tools for managing the stresses and strains of daily life.

Spirituality comes in all sorts of forms
Spirituality is sometimes confused with religiosity, but whilst having a faith constitutes a form of spirituality – which is about feeling connected to something beyond oneself – the concept spans much wider than religion. For some it comes in the form of feeling more attuned to one's own mind and body, for others it is brought about by the experience of overwhelming natural beauty, for others it might be as simple as connecting with those around them through a shared hobby or interest. Either way, this sense of connectedness to something or someone is one of the keys to wellbeing, bringing joy to our lives and offering a coping mechanism during times of hardship.

Given the overlap between the two, it’s easy to see why spirituality and religion are sometimes thought of as synonymous. Although I can see the difference between the two clearly, I find it fascinating to consider the parallels between them, which have become apparent to me through various routes in recent times.

The first was last Christmas when I had what has become my annual catch up with a friend from school. It would make sense to note at this point that I myself am not religious; this particular friend, on the other hand, is devoutly Christian. She doesn’t preach or judge in any way toward non-Christians (which I am thankful for as I have very little time for that type of religiosity!), and is very open to discussion, questioning and debate about her faith. This led to a very interesting conversation about the similarities between her religiosity and my spirituality.

My friend had spent some time telling me about a large Christian conference / convention she had attended, one element of which was a workshop related to dealing with emotions. This was not the sort of thing she would usually partake in, but thought she’d give it a go, and found it a very powerful experience that generated some epiphany-like self-insights. She talked of how the prescribed activity involved thinking on a particular issue and silently asking God for answers; simply allowing these answers to present themselves in their own time.

I was struck by how immensely similar this was to an experience I’d had in my mindfulness practice: during a day retreat, I partook in a guided meditation involving inner inquiry about self-compassion, which lead to a poignant moment of insight that kick-started a powerful healing process around something that had troubled me for years.

For both myself and my friend, important personal insights were found by sitting quietly, focussing one’s attention on a specific issue and allowing whatever presented itself to be. I am fascinated by how the psychological process seems to be pretty much the same; the difference was in whether one’s energy was being directed toward God or toward self.

The other arena in which I’ve found congruency with Christianity is music: despite not connecting with the religiosity of the lyrics, it just so happens that quite a lot of Christian music is right up my street. Of course, not all songs from all Christian artists are about religion, but even when they are I enjoy seeing the alternative meaning in the lyrics. Indeed, this is one of the things I love about music in general; the way in which a song can tell a story and that each of us might relate to that story a little differently based on our own experiences.

One such album I have been enjoying immensely of late is Philippa Hanna’s Speed of Light. My favourite song from this album is the wonderfully uplifting and anthemic Let You Lead, through which Philippa seems to express her faith in God to take her safely through life’s course, and how she holds such faith no matter what happens. Despite my non-religious nature, I can really draw parallels with these sentiments from my own standpoint of mindfulness practice (which of course has its roots in the religion of Bhuddism, but has come to Western culture in secular forms).

“I like a straight line, without a left turn

But I keep on finding, that’s not how life works

I see one moment

And you see forever”

In religion, one has faith that God is implementing a lifelong plan; thus one can better accept what is happening right now even if it doesn’t feel good, safe in the knowledge that its all part of this bigger story that’s unfurling. Similarly, mindfulness teaches us to accept the present moment however it is, with one of its mantras being “this too will pass”, enabling us to recognise that everything is transient.

Hindsight is always 20/20

With every dark twist, you never left me

Forever faithful, no matter what I go through

Why would that change now?

I’m gonna trust you

I put one hand on your shoulder

Feel my faith grow bolder

Don’t have to know, don’t have to see

I’m just gonna let you lead

I like the allusion to life unfolding in mysterious ways, something I have experienced often over the years. How often have you been able to see the value in a difficult experience only after it’s happened? Or seen in hindsight that when it appeared a door was closing it was simply giving you space to find another door that led to a more delightful room? Whilst one person might see this as God working his magic others might see it as life itself just doing its thing. My own feelings ae really echoed in the religious notes of these lyrics, and I am fascinated by how two experiences can be so similar yet so different at the same time. 

I suppose this highlights how very similar we all are as human beings:  we may differ in religion and culture, but human nature is human nature regardless of these features. Whether one comes at it from a religious or secular perspective, accepting life’s ups and downs as they are, and not fighting against them too much, is a powerful coping mechanism.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action to change things when there is a need: there will always be a balance to strike between this and acceptance of that over which we do not have control (as a hint, nothing outside of ‘your own actions right now’ fall into this circle of control). Sensing that we don’t always need to know what’s going to happen next, that the present moment, just as it is, might be enough, can be a wonderfully powerful way to feel more at ease with life. I find that beyond offering comfort, this mindset can be is really life-enriching, encouraging us to live for the moment. For me this approach to life comes from mindfulness, for others it comes from trusting in the power of God, for others there will no doubt be a whole host of other influences. Either way, allowing ourselves to enjoy our moment-to-moment experience and ‘letting life lead’ from time to time feels like a great way to live.