“Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace”. John O'Donohue

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Artists and the Bees

What if you knew someone who is a really talented artist? This artist is autistic and struggles to cope with even ordinary day to day tasks. He never sells any of his work, and relies on benefits, and on occasional handouts from his family. All he wants to do is paint. And it's all he is really good at. Promoting is work is so foreign to him, that it gives him panic attacks just thinking about it. (Based on a current, real story)

You may well be thinking: Well this person is clearly a burden on society and should be offered help to develop his social and coping skills so as to be less of a drain. I am sure he could get a job somewhere. A local cafe that supports disabled people, or something.

What if I describe another artist in a similar situation? This artist has severe mental health issues and is prone to self-harm. He struggles to cope with even ordinary day to day tasks. He rarely sells any of his work, and doesn't charge enough for what he does sell. He relies on charity, and occasional handouts from his family. He spends most of it on alcohol. All he wants to do is paint. And it's all he is really good at. Promoting his work is utterly foreign to him.

Did you guess I was describing Van Gogh? Does that change things? Would it have been better for the world if Van Gogh had just got a proper job?

Another (real, current) situation. A healer/body-worker I know. Utterly gifted. Almost magical in their hands-on intuitive ability to make people feel better. Cannot even begin to figure out how to get people to come and be healed by them, unless they are simply given the opportunity to just do it (which happens sometimes, and sometimes doesn't) 

My point?

There are some people whose particular brand of brilliance means that they need help with the other stuff. Without this help, their talent is lost. Until they are dead and someone else becomes a millionaire selling their work, of course. I believe that it is our responsibility to help. Society's I mean.

There is a danger, in sharing this, that people will think I am being a victim. It almost feels like a crime nowadays to admit to having difficulty without it being perceived as self-pity, and something that surely I should have dealt with via a self-help book or a course, or some life coaching or something, in order to overcome the unacceptable weakness of Not Being Very Good at Something. Because this is what I feel we have come to. A socially exploitable level of vulnerability is good, but there is a point at which people think you're taking the piss.

I have had several conversations lately which I could summarise as suggesting that a lack of success (and in this context we are talking about the standard ideas of recognition and making money) is simply down to hard work. And the rest is about good marketing, and talent. I am somewhat bought into this myself. I come from West of Scotland working class work ethic. Want something done properly - ask a Glaswegian. Including fighting your wars for you (another topic!)

If hard work was all that was required, my family would have been millionaires - not subject to the grinding poverty that some of my ancestors faced. If hard work and proper marketing were all that was required, I would not be counting pennies in the way that I have had to recently. If talent was all that was required - My God - so many of the artists and poets and healers I know would be rolling around right now in £50 notes.

I am calling MASSIVE bullshit. I think we are being sold - in fact (let's rid ourselves of the language of conspiracy) we are selling each other - a huge, godawful mistaken lie. The lie is a multi-fold and inter-dynamic tapestry of little lies that are just enough truth, just enough real for us to believe them, that we happily buy into the bigger lie believing it to be "just the way things are."

The lie? That everything is entirely within our personal capability to change it.

Yup - right now, your cognitive dissonance is firing on all cylinders. This is what we all believe. For the past century or so, a culture which evolved out of the enlightenment belief in personal responsibility has been morphing into something more akin to a cult of individualism. Based in a fundamental belief that we are ultimately only responsible to and for ourselves, and that we have, within our power, the ability to change, be, do and become anything we want.

Now, I love social media and  the wealth of opportunities for knowledge and connection it offers, but there is a world within it that is fuelling this syndrome in a deeply unhealthy way. It paints and punts a version of reality that is entirely designed to make us feel like everyone else is happier, having more fun, eating better food, is more spiritual and is generally more successful than we are. This causes a stress of "not doing enough" which - let me get cynical for a moment - requires us to spend money on certain platforms to promote ourselves enough to get noticed. Our pain is someone else's profit.

This (really) is how it works. If you don't believe me, there are people way higher up the social media nerd-chain than I am, who would agree with me.

I have spent the best part of a year attempting to make myself more visible. Doing painful, out of character things - Facebook Live for God's sake! - In order to build more range. It has been very helpful. It has also been exhausting. And I am conscious, all the time, of it being such a supreme fucking effort that actually it often drags me away from doing the actual work. And I am conscious, all of the time, that those who manage to make themselves more visible than everyone else are those who are successful (in our already established definition of the word) Now, this is not universally true, because I know several successful people - and I count my own teachers among them - who are also incredibly talented, and who are good enough and have been around the block enough to have carved out their niche.

But I could offer several examples of writers, coaches, artists, facilitators, yoga teachers... who may not be the best, or even actually very good or very knowledgeable at what they do, but have somehow managed to ride a particular wave and gather enough visibility to get noticed. The modern phenomenon of the celebrity yoga teacher is a good example. These people have agents, who do a fantastic job.

What these folk - or their agents - seem to be supremely good at is noticing a gap, or a trend, or a particular pattern. They have been good at sidling into an opportunity, spotting the right people that might help them, using hashtags, looking "the part" or changing their hair/style/body to look the part, being extravert enough, brave enough, and spending enough time and precious energy - or paying someone to do it - in constant, consistent and quality self-promotion, that eventually everyone loves them, or hates them. But at least they're visible right? Then, if they have enough energy left, they might be able to do the actual work they were promoting in the first place. Which I suppose is another quality - energy and tenacity. This isn't just hard work, it's hard sell. It's hard, constant, perpetual, exhausting self-promotion. It exhausts me just describing it.

Hands up. I am crap at this. Not the whole process. I am good at some of the elements of it. I make brilliant flyers and social media posts and - surface level - seem to do all the right things, but there is something fundamentally missing from my understanding of how these things work, that it always goes adrift. This is possibly, although not necessarily, due to being autistic, but the thing about neurodiversity is that no matter how many new skills, coping strategies, and mindfulness techniques I learn, I will still always be utterly crap at certain things. At my fundamental core, there is a whole aspect to this game that my brain cannot make sense of, and it doesn't matter how often you try and make me get it. I won't. I really won't. 

Of course non-autistic people have this too. My friend Steve, a brilliant salesperson, ideas person, bringer together of skills and talents, and committed socialpreneur is - by his own very loud and almost boastful admission - crap at admin. He loathes it. Whilst Steve can make almost literally anything happen, will always remember deadlines or details, and is happy to put pen to paper for poetry, he is very unlikely to meet a deadline that involves putting something important down on a piece of paper. He hates filing and would rather outsource taking minutes. It would be pointless to make him try, and it is a waste of his time. And because he understands this, he knows that it makes more sense to pay someone else to do it for him.

Really, what I need is someone who can sell my work, so that I can just do the work. But of course, without the work, I can't afford to pay someone to sell it for me. You see the problem! We live in a transactional society, not a supportive community. Last week, I took on a part time job in the local pub. Because, despite my outrageous degree of over qualification, if I don't work, I don't eat. And my yoga classes are, literally, costing me money right now. I am not proud. The pub is full, and they have money to pay other people. They need help. It is a pleasant place to work. And I can pull a pint. Easy transaction. But seriously. Here is a photo of (some of) my certificates, just for a little context.

This is not a pity party. Part of me is really amused by this picture, especially by the degree scroll perching on top, teasing all the other more rectangular certificates with it hidden Latin pronouncement of Magistrum Artium. They are laughing at it.  I should have it printed on a T-shirt to wear in the pub. It's hilarious.

And it isn't just me. My blog £5 back in October got record reads, shares and comments by people in the same boat. It is simply not possible for everyone to be successful in our measure of it. The system is not designed that way! Some people have to fail in order for others to succeed. And the only way for it to be different is for us to do it differently.

How would it be if we could all do the things we are good at most of the time? (I am not talking about things we don't like doing but are OK at and are essential - like emptying the bins!) we would get so much more done. Be less stressed, have less stress related illness and time off work, and generally be more relaxed and happy. What could possibly be bad about that?

However, in order for this to work, we would have to help other people to do the things that they are not good at, and, fundamentally, make sure that they are cared for (housed, fed, not left to freeze on the street, that sort of thing) in the process.

Steady on. That sounds like... socialism! Yes. Yes, it does. It also sounds very much like the things that Jesus said. And Buddha. It  could be socialism, it could be Christianity, it could be Buddhism. It could just be... community.

I am not remotely interested in the Left/Right analysis of this social stance. But I do accept that everything is political. Brand me as you will. This is what I know: That the idea that we are all individuals entirely responsible for ourselves is a lie. A big, fat, juicy and very successful lie. We are all, every single one of us, animals and plants and trees included, all part of the same ecosystem. All part of the one (still) breathable atmosphere.

We are so interconnected that losing just one species (bees) will literally wreck everything! I also believe that this extends beyond the physical and into the spiritual connection. We are connected because we are essentially part of the same conscious whole. This individual that you think you are is at an illusion. If you don't believe that, then you have to at least agree that it you are at least temporary!

Like the bees, we also desperately need the artists, the musicians, the poets, the healers, the storytellers and the weirdos. You need me to be doing the work I am qualified for and not pulling pints in the local. You need all the other people like me: the wise, experienced folk who know things. You need us. Not so very long ago, such people would have had a role in their communities - as bard, or storyteller, as healer, herbalist, shaman, scribe, elder. 

 Not so very long ago, people lived in communities where jobs were done according to the abilities of the people who did them. I believe it is our job, as members of the communities we are part of, to not only support and mentor our colleagues and friends, but to actively share our talents, to promote each other's work, to help those who are struggling, by doing the things we are good at and allowing them to do the things they are good at.

And hopefully someone will make the tea. 

In fact, I’ll do it. Just don’t make me do it as a Facebook Live!

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Angry Face

How Does this symbol make you feel? 

I hate it. 

Chances are, as well as mentally being aware that you are looking at the representation of any angry face, you are having some physical (embodied) reactions to it. Take a few moments to notice what those reactions are...

You may have noticed some fairly typical Fight or Flight responses, even if they were quite subtle. Perhaps a tension in the belly or jaw, a slight quickening of the pulse, shortening of breath, sweaty palms, an alertness to action, or maybe just a feeling that all is not quite well.

Now you (we) are having that reaction to a cartoon face. An emoji. But we had the same reaction to this symbolic face than if a real live human face was in front of us. It also turns out that we are hard wired to react to it. It is our evolutionary protection against danger. An angry face is not a safe face. Even human babies know the difference. There is even some evidence that this reaction is pre-attentive, meaning, we have the reaction, even before we have consciously registered that emotion on the face.

If you're a driver, you may have encountered Vehicle Activated Signs (VACs) that show a happy or frowning face depending which side of the speed limit you're on. These devices, including those that also display the driver's speed, have been shown to be more effective than speed cameras at controlling traffic speed. Nobody likes a frowing face.

However, although we are hard-wired to react negatively to the frowning face, evidence shows that greater speed reduction seems to happen in pursuit of a smiling face than in avoidance of a frowning one.

Interesting... as if we didn't already know that we prefer carrots to sticks...

The other day, I got my first angry face response on Facebook. (No, I don't know how I got away with it for so long either!) and I was surprised at my reaction. I shouldn't have been, I know this stuff from my study of psychology and embodiment. What interested me, when I felt into it, was that I wasn't so much bothered that the person had clicked on that emoji - I don't know them and we don't have a relationship that I need to worry about - than by the feelings that the face itself made me feel.

“Far from being a passing fad, Emoji reflects, and thereby reveals, fundamental elements of communication; and in turn, this all shines a light on what it means to be human”.
Vyvyan Evans- The Emoji Code -in The New Scientist

Those of you who regularly use social media (and if you're reading this, you almost certainly do!) will know that it has become increasingly difficult to have any kind of meaningful interaction without someone becoming outraged at some point. I don't think it's because we are angrier or more outraged I believe that the technologies have been deliberately designed to manipulate our emotions, our habits and our behaviour. At The Center for Humane Technology , several top level Silicon Valley insiders are saying similar  - and infinitely better informed - things about how we are all being hijacked by technology (without throwing out the baby with the bathwater!)

Facebook's Like button began our weirdly addictive relationship with the little thumbs-up hit of validation. When the other emojis came along, a whole new set of dynamics came into play. The angry face essentially legitimised its own use. And made us angry.

And if you are inclined to disagree, the guy who invented Facebook's like button agrees with me!

Ash Wednesday & St. Valentine's Day

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Creative Procrastination – Make putting things off work for you

cartoon from invisiblebread.com
I don’t like to boast, but I am a championship level procrastinator. I challenge anyone to put off doing stuff as well as I do. My tax return is due, and I also have several assignment deadlines for my Masters course. And what am I doing? Writing this blog!

Several friends are up there with me in the championship stakes, they are all cleaning behind the fridge, browsing vintage standard lamps on Ebay, researching the mating cycle of common toads and pretty much anything except the very thing that they are supposed to be doing. And the more people I ask, the more I am sure that, despite what we’re telling Facebook, most of us are out there doing exactly not the thing we are meant to be doing!

Although chronic, many of my procrastination activities do seem to have a purpose, in that they do mostly result in some sort of useful or creative output. I have come to call this Creative Procrastination. As I write I have several deadlines looming - among them the University assignments and tax return mentioned above. But I am doing anything and everything other than those things. In another act of Creative Procrastination, I have turned my championship level procrastination skills into a bit of a joke with my friends and family, all of us vying for leadership of the championship stakes. So I asked them “what are your favourite Creative Procrastination activities”

Here is my distilled list of our top five ways to Procrastinate Creatively.

1. Cleaning

Cleaning is top of the list of favourite procrastination activities. I found myself vacuuming the yesterday as one of my several delay tactics, and although I was definitely procrastinating, the floor still needed to be vacuumed, so it wasn’t a waste of my time. But there is more to cleaning the house than simple task avoidance. We simply work and think better in a clean, tidy and ordered space. Cleaning may feel like procrastination but actually our instinct to create order is essential in facilitating our creativity.

2. Meditation

We know that regular meditation decreases our stress levels and this not only improves our overall sense of well-being, it boosts our immunity and makes us less prone to stress related illnesses. Among the other myriad benefits of a regular meditation practice, however, is enhanced creativity. Spending a short time each day meditation frees up mental space and helps us focus on what we really need to do.

3. Artistic Pursuits

As a writer, I usually find myself writing about this other than the things I am supposed to be writing about. This blog is one of them. But my output is never wasted. I have come up with some of my better ideas in the course of avoiding another writing task. You might spend time drawing, painting or crafting, making music or dancing. Often the creative ideas and solutions emerge when we let go of having to do them and do something equally creative instead.

4. Cooking

Some of us spend our procrastination time making healthy home-cooked dinners. One benefit of this is that we can maybe stock our fridge or freezer for when we do get our heads down to doing the important work. Taking time to commit to nourishing ourselves, is also about nourishing our creativity. Cooking is also, in itself, a wonderfully creative activity. And we get to eat the results!

5. Gardening

If you are lucky enough to have a garden or a space to grow things - then grow things! Gardening is known to have many positive effects on physical and mental wellbeing, with
the added sense of having achieved something, and produced an end result in the plants, flowers and vegetables that grow. You also get to light big fires!

Even if our procrastination activities themselves are not particularly creative, the very act of procrastination itself has been shown to boost productivity and creativity. So even if our procrastination takes the shape of staring out of the window, browsing Pinterest, or playing Minecraft, we are giving our brains the space they need to be more effective, more creative and more productive. Doing anything other than the thing, actually helps us find the creativity, energy and motivation to finally do the thing and do it better than if we hadn’t put it off.