I’m rather on the fence as to the value of New Year’s resolutions. I made one in 1991 to become vegetarian and, barring the accidental discovery of a bit of anonymous meat in what should have been a vegetable samosa and getting half way through an ostensibly vegetarian stew in Spain finding that it had more ham lurking at the bottom than I thought was spatially possible, have managed to stick to it. But other than that, when I’ve made conscious changes to my life they’ve just happened at whenever the moment seemed right, and for me that seems to work just as well. The fact that I’m posting this early in 2015 isn’t really about the proximity to the start of the year, but is more to do with the fact that my intention to blog regularly has been a something I’ve utterly failed to do, and a little guilt at not having missed the opportunity last year to share my family’s rather wonderful Christmas Cake recipe with the world at an appropriate moment (I must fix that, the world is a poorer place for it remaining hidden). This post is to share an idea: something that’s become so much of my daily ritual that I’d forgotten it might be a bit unusual but which a close friend thought was a good thing when I mentioned it to him last year. Think of it as a positive life-hack, if you like that kind of thing, or just a nice idea if you don’t. First, some background (if you’re impatient, skip the next two paragraphs).
I’m also a bit on the fence as to the value of social networks. Having slipped into Facebook use when it was a cool and crazy thing only available to people in academia, and then been caught up in it’s general expansion to world domination, last Autumn I decided to go on a Facebook diet. This wasn’t an attempt to to completely abstain, but to get a feel for the pros and cons of using Facebook, and to stop the many-times-a-day scroll through the infinite list of things in my timeline that had become — if not an addiction — an empty and time-sapping habit. There were two reasons for this: first, I’d grown increasingly uncomfortable about how insidious the social network had become and about how much of my personal life, likes and interests were being leaked and sold in ways that I had no control over; and second because what I saw in the timeline had become banal and rarely led to useful outcomes or positive states of mind. Reading through it usually left me with a feeling similar to having eaten too much junk-food: over-full, but somehow unsatisfied and maybe even a bit queasy. Mostly my feed was filled with adverts and click-bait, or things that were the unintentional side-effect of a side-effect of a friend doing something utterly trivial that I didn’t need to know about, and didn’t add anything meaningful to my life or my relationship with them. There may have been interesting posts in there, but they were for the most part drowned out by the algorithmically created revenue-attracting noise. Having put some effort into ways of controlling and managing the deluge of daily emails, I realised I’d voluntarily signed up to a kind of self-inflicted custom spam-delivery service. I wanted the abstinence to be an experiment to see if I genuinely felt a loss, so rather than deleting or deactivating my account, I changed my password to something completely unmemorable to stop me idly going back, saved it in a file in case I really needed it at some point, and logged out. I have in the meantime knowingly visited Facebook pages a small number of times; either because something is being arranged via a group (simply because everybody is on it, it really is very useful for this), or because a band/shop/somethingelse uses Facebook for its website. But I quickly realised that I don’t miss the daily trivia and invitations to like things one bit, and four months or so later nothing bad has happened. My social life hasn’t imploded. I’ve not missed any important events that I’d care about, or fallen out of touch with friends. And my head feels that little bit clearer for it. That could be because I’m getting grumpy and antisocial as I get older, but I think in part at least it’s because for many years I’ve spent a little while every day being mindful of my real friends in the real world, and that more than compensates for any distance from my online social network.
Mindfulness has had a lot of mainstream visibility in the past couple of years, with a growing amount of evidence that gently, consciously and repeatedly bringing your awareness to bear on something as simple as your breath has lots of positive benefits. If science is to be believed (and obviously, as a scientist I think it often is), it can make you cleverer and more creative. It’s generally good for your psychological well-being, and might even help you be physically fitter. Maybe. It’s definitely cheap — well, free — you don’t have to sign up to anything or buy any gear. It doesn’t take up much of your time, and it’s hard to see how it can have any negative side effects. I first came across the idea when I was training for Buddhist ordination nearly twenty years ago, although I dropped out of the process before being ordained, it’s stuck with me ever since. During that time I learned two forms of meditation: The Mindfulness of Breathing, where you bring your attention to your breath; and The Metta Bhavana, which translates as something like the ‘Cultivation of Loving Kindness’ and involves bringing to mind various people in your life — yourself, a friend, a neutral person, an enemy, and then (somewhat ambitiously) all living beings — and making effort to wish them well. My own formal practise has waxed and waned over the years, and I rarely sit down to do any ‘proper’ meditation these days, but what I have been able to do pretty much every day is a kind of informal mashup of these two things, and although I’m not suggesting that this is in any way an alternative to real meditation, I’ve found it to be a Very Good Thing Indeed, and lightweight enough that I can sustain it without much effort.
It’s a very simple idea: every day spend a short while bringing the people that matter in your life to mind, and for few moments be mindful of them as individuals, and reflect on the state of your relationship to them. I’m not sure it’s right to call this mindfulness (it definitely isn’t in the focussed sense of The Mindfulness of Breathing), and it certainly doesn’t have the lofty goals of the Metta Bhavana; but it is really uncomplicated and easy, and for me has a very positive effect of keeping me meaningfully connected to the people in my life in a much more satisfying way than the casual shotgun voyeurism of a Facebook timeline. I do it in a specific way, but I’m sure there are loads of equally good variations.
I have a mental list of the people who are important to me — family, and a small number of close friends — and every day I scan through the list in my head and bring each person to mind one by one… I reflect on their good qualities, why I value and am grateful for their love or friendship, and I do a quick health-check on their happiness and the state of our relationship. Maybe their life is going really well; that’s great, and a really nice and inspiring thing to reflect on because someone I care about is happy. Or perhaps they’re having some problems, and it might be that there’s something I could do to help. It might be that their birthday is coming up and it’s time to think of a present, or that we’ve not been in touch for a while and a text message or phone call would be good. Sometimes the experience is a little less pleasant: it could be that when you bring them to mind you spot that there’s something not quite right in the way that you feel about them. Maybe you’re being too needy or have treated them badly, and need to adjust your behaviour towards them or apologise for something. Or they might have upset you in some way, and you can mull over whether to consciously let it pass or do something about it (although this can feel uncomfortable, I think it’s always better to be aware of such problems rather than to let them fester in the subconscious; so even this is a good outcome). In any case, the act of reflecting on these things seems on the whole to have very positive effects for me; whether or not my friends and loved ones benefit from it is hard to tell, but the simple act of making friendship a conscious part of life certainly makes my world and richer and more rewarding place to be.
As to the practicalities, it’s all pretty flexible really; I’ve not got any rules for who is on the list, or how long or short the list should be, and it all varies depending on circumstances. I’ve found that my list has a fairly stable core (fewer than ten), with occasional others coming and going depending on the state of their lives and our relationships. I generally do it early in the morning sitting in bed with a coffee, but any time of the day should work (though doing it first thing generally sets the day off to a nice start). All you really need is a couple of minutes where your unlikely to be interrupted by anything and where you can bring your attention in a fairly focussed way to the matter of friendship. For me the amount of time I spend really is only a few seconds per person, just enough time to bring them to mind and get a feel for things, and if I spot something that needs further attention, I generally defer that to later in the day when I can have a proper think about it. If I miss a day for whatever reason, I don’t beat myself up about it, and just pick things up when I spot I’ve lapsed. The effect seems to be cumulative in a good way, and remembering who is ‘on the list’ quickly becomes second nature and stops feeling as artificial or contrived as ‘having a list’ may make it sound. And that’s it: simple, free, and really much more satisfying than being told that a distant friend likes a particular brand of shoes. It hasn’t really got a name, but I highly recommend it nevertheless.
Postscript, 6th January
A couple of people have asked me about getting started with mindfulness. I’ve only ever taught or been taught about it in the context of Buddhism, so though I know there are loads of non-Buddhist books and courses about it nowadays I don’t have any experience of them to make a recommendation (and personally I think that having a little understanding of the original principles on which mindfulness is based is essential anyway). My personal favourite guide to meditation is Kamalashila’s “Buddhist Meditation: Tranquility, Imagination and Insight” which I think is beautifully written and works really well both as an introduction and a touchstone for more experienced folks. Although as the title suggests this is a book about Buddhist Meditation, if that makes you uncomfortable you can just treat the more philosophical elements as being background context and still get a lot out of it. If anybody has other suggestions, please feel add them below.
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