Making the most of each day and why less really is more

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There’s been an inescapable realisation creeping up on me this past week. That there’s more. Yes, you know exactly what I mean right!? An explanation then.

I know there are times when I feel extra tuned in and sensitive to life. I notice things I ordinarily wouldn’t; the body language of someone I’m speaking to, connections between people and activities, a conversation off in the corner, the flavours of something I’m eating, previous situations that are similar. It’s being in the moment. Almost an animal-like extrasensory state of being. It’s incredible, but I have no idea what triggers it, and eventually it seems to wear off. When I’m in it, I’m creative, incisive and inspired. I get more out of every little experience taking place around me. It’s as though there’s this extra level, an extra 5% that I get access to.

Where the more lies, is not outside in the world – this is where I think is where so many go wrong. We have no shortage of access now to incredible people, inspiring literature, art, magnificent places. Our days and lives are more varied than ever before, and there is no shortage of sensory input. Yet, somehow on the journey that sensory input takes to reach our consciousness, much of it is filtered out. Neurologically, that makes sense, as our brain receives an incomprehensible amount of information and has to filter out what we are aware of. Can you imagine if we noticed every single time a bird shouts, or the precise actions of our fingers as they type, the pressure on our feet as we stand? It would be incredibly distracting. From an evolutionary perspective, I do wonder if this sensory overload is the reason why we can’t be more tuned in to what we’re experiencing. The brain has had to adapt to this incredible amount of input, and with only so much energy available, that means that there is less to be given to feeling in the moment. Every now and then though there’s a glimpse of it, and it’s phenomenal.

Sometimes I’ll listen to a piece of music and it will trigger off a strong emotional reaction, in turn giving me this heightened sense and with it greater creativity and inspiration. Or I’ll see other people go through an unexpected and emotional experience, which will provide them with greater insight. What is it exactly, about these experiences, that triggers our access to this extra layer?

Many people I meet seem so lacking in self-awareness. They don’t understand why they feel as they do, and can’t connect the dots. When they feel miserable or disillusioned they can’t figure it out. I see people repeat the same behaviours and choices time and time again, and then end up surprised when it leads to the same feeling they were hoping to avoid. It’s utterly bizarre. I see it in work decisions, relationships and even simple daily habits such as sleep. I wonder if this and the sensory overload/lack of consciousness are interconnected.

I see people rush through their lives. Dashing from one task to the next, one person to the next, one place to the next. They soak up the sensory input that’s out there, and in the process completely miss out on a whole level of sensation, experience and awareness that would come from paying more attention to how they feel inside. Often when people slow down that’s when they have these great realisations and epiphanies. A vacation, a break between jobs, a long walk. So many times I hear people come back from a holiday and express excitedly all these new realisations about themselves and their lives that they have discovered, just because they took the time to slow down. Imagine if you could do that every week…?

And if you slow down and allow those realisations to sink in, then with less stress comes greater creativity. I’ve heard it said that the first thing that goes when people cut down on sleep is creativity. Stress makes you productive yes, but how often do our greatest insights surprise us by appearing in the middle of a peaceful moment – a walk, when we get in to bed, cooking dinner? Compared to say… a busy period when we’re drawing up some document or ploughing through emails.

So when I talk about there being more, I don’t mean that there’s more out there in the world, I mean that there’s more inside of us. More awareness, possibilities, potential. Every now and then I meet someone who seems to have found a way to access this, and they give off an incredible energy.

I don’t think we’ll access it through being busier or having/doing more. That distracts us and negates our self-awareness. I think it may come from taking time to slow down, allowing for spontaneity, and through spiritual practice such as meditation. From living a more minimalist life, and cutting down on distractions. Keeping things simple, and demanding less of our energy for processing all this stimuli, so it can instead be redirected to conscious awareness. Buddhist monks are some of the most self-aware, wise people you’ll ever find, and yet they live remarkably simple lives.

We ought to pay more attention to what’s inside, rather than outside.

The marvelous powers of intuition

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I recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. After receiving a surprisingly hostile automated email from the UNSW library informing me that I had to return it by Monday, I quickly finished it off over the weekend. Writing a review seemed like an appropriate and logical action to take afterwards, but as I began to shape that review in my head I noticed a strong theme imbued within that review; intuition against logic. And so appropriately, I’m taking the intuitive route, and constructing this piece of writing around that theme.

To set the tone, have a read of the following quote from Jobs I’ve picked out about his return to America after a year-long trip to India:

“Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India. The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic; it is learned and is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.”

The way that Jobs used and trusted his intuition throughout his life completely gripped me. It seems entirely incongruous that you could shape a huge commercial enterprise, based initially around computers of all things, largely on one man’s intuition and instincts, rather than the power of analysis. Many of Jobs’ most incredible breakthrough products came about because he sensed the need for them before others – or saw the opportunity to do them as they should be done. iTunes, iPod, iPhone, the early Macintosh….to name a few.

The process of delivering these products was not based on spreadsheets, financial forecasts or market trends. It was instinctive. He infamously declared market research to be useless, stating that you couldn’t research what people wanted, because you hadn’t shown them it yet. Many of Apple’s marketing techniques were counter to what people expected from the industry. But they really, really worked.

Jobs often had such a precise vision of how things ought to look and feel, and would force people to redesign over and over again until it was just perfect. Often he would struggle to explain it, or give reason to the need for those changes. But as soon as it was right he knew.

There are similarities with Branson, who again explains that many of his best decisions were instinctive. Whenever Virgin was struggling, they would make a bold and risky move based as much on intuition than reason, and it got them out of some enormous holes.

I’ve grown up – as have, I believe, most around me – with the view that reason and logic can conquer all. The notion that you could instead (and dare I say it, would be better off doing so) rely on those things called feelings in order to make decisions and solve problems took me some time to get my head around. Certainly I’ve come to trust my intuition a lot more, and it’s served me very well. Even when it leads to in to a mess, I know that I’m learning and it will get better for it.

Recently, I wrote about mentally healthy living, and the importance of starting with acceptance and awareness of our feelings – as well as how deficiency in these areas can lead to mental illness. This is a kind-of-follow-up to that blog. I hope to illustrate in later blogs that on the other end of the spectrum there are those who are very finely tuned in to their instincts and that their trust in their intuition is so strong that it can lead them to make the right decision when the tide of ‘rational’ opinion is against them. That’s not to say that they don’t ever make mistakes, but doing so actually improves their instincts, rather than puts them off using them.

When I was studying Neuroscience, we had a module on decision-making. A fascinating theme emerged from the research; that even when people make impulsive decisions they do not recognize that this is so. They dress them up in logic and reason, when their actual motive was instinctive. Sometimes the logic was amusingly flawed, and yet they were convinced of it.

Intuition and instinct do have a big part to play in the modern world – bigger, perhaps, than society currently acknowledges. I think forms of meditation, such as mindfulness, can really facilitate these attributes. It’s a huge subject and I’ve barely even scraped the surface of it here, but I hope it’s piqued a little interest. Plus, if Einstein digs intuition (what a man), then it’s got to have some value.

So go and be more instinctive! Put that pesky voice of reason aside and see what happens.

Meditation: Why bother?

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Following on from my writing about the importance of psychological awareness; acknowledging our feelings, understanding what triggered them and ultimately using that to drive our decisions, I realized I had to tie in the role an activity that facilitates this entire process. Meditation.

Although I had been doing guided meditation for a few months before leaving the UK, it was only when I got to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand that I really understand the benefits of it. I had generally understood the objective of meditation to simply be calmness – very useful in itself for those caught up in the fast-paced western world.

The retreat I stayed at practiced a technique called Vipassana meditation, also understood as ‘insight meditation’. The aim is much greater awareness and understanding of all sensations that your body perceives; especially touch, sound and sight. You develop the ability to observe each of these sensations, and in time, even to observe your thoughts in the same way – observing all these different sensations at once you are practiced enough.

The whole experience was so tremendously….well, insightful, but I’m going to keep the focus on emotional awareness. As you improve and develop (which does happen when you’re practicing 8 hours a day), you notice the way that your attention is immediately drawn to any new sensation. It could be a bird singing, or an ant crawling up your leg (we were in the middle of forest, so this happen almost constantly). And as this new stimulus arrives, there’s an almost immediate emotional reaction in your body. If it’s a sound you find soothing, you feel a calmness in your body. If it’s a sound that could be dangerous, you feel an edginess. I couldn’t help tying this back to my studies and the neurological underpinnings of the flight or flight response.

This in itself isn’t especially surprising. It’s fascinating to be able to experience this with such focus, but it’s the next stage of learning where the insight starts to come. As I said, in time you can observe your thoughts in a similar way to sounds or sights. And much the same, thoughts can be quite random. I was amazed at how disconnected and jumpy they would be. At one moment a memory a conversation would jump in, ten seconds later I’d think of family, and then it would be breakfast. You wonder just how much processing is going on without your being consciously aware at any one time, and how the brain chooses what to make you aware of and what not.

By adding thoughts to the mix, you can observe their emotional effect on the body in much the same way. So as the thought of my parents came along, I would feel strong warmth. A memory of a break up, and I’d feel tense. Food…well that would be terribly exciting. The response is instantaneous and completely natural. There’s no time for logic or analysis to interfere.

The few examples I’ve just listed seem obvious, but when you’re unsure of a decision, then this process becomes very valuable. At this point in my travels I had grown pretty weary, and wanted something less superficial than brief friendships with other travelers and spending no more than a week in each place. I had no idea what an alternative might be though. When the thoughts of more travel came along, my body instantly felt heavy. Instead, when I thought of settling in one place for a few weeks, of trying to look at a place through the eyes of a local and not a tourist, I immediately experienced excitement. This was counter to my own logic and the advice I was getting from nearly everyone I spoke to about. Logic told me I should be seeing as many countries as possible, and sticking to my original well-thought out plan. I followed my instincts, spent a few weeks working in Singapore almost entirely in the company of locals and it stands out as one of the highlights of my trip.

I began paying attention to all sorts. What I felt when I thought of certain people, places, activities and came away with a very clear vision of how I would like my life to look once I settled down in Sydney. I was able to project in to the future, and predict very accurately how these different features would make me feel.

A lot of people I speak seem to be very disconnected from how they’re feeling; unable to understand what causes them to feel sad or happy. They keep repeating the same actions that produce a negative response in them, and then producing logic to justify it. Often their body language will be in contradiction to what they’re saying, but we’ve learned to pay more attention to words and reasoning than to these signs. We’ve forced experiential wisdom in to the backseat.

I don’t dispute the value of reason and logic, but I don’t doubt that we’ve come to lean on it too much at the expense of our intuition. For me, this certainly contributes to the high levels of mental illness we see in western cultures, and the staggering number of people who admit to feeling dissatisfied with their lives.

The rise of eastern philosophy and spirituality suggests that I’m not alone in feeling that perhaps it’s time to redress this imbalance.