Turning points

So the nights are getting longer. I was doing walking meditation in the library courtyard, feeling relaxed and yet self-conscious enough to walk at such an angle that the late shift librarian couldn’t see me from the café. He didn’t care, he was playing an electric piano, though I couldn’t hear it through the glass. Libraries are such important community spaces. My band used to practice on the sixth floor of the local library on Friday nights when we were too young for rehearsal studios (and pubs). Now I pace slowly backwards and forwards accompanied by a silent pianist. It’s a little surreal, I suppose.

Anyway, there I was shuffling up and down and the paving, walls, and surrounding buildings were lit with a kind of intense twilight that made everything more vivid. The deep blue sky contrasted starkly with the clouds, which were dyed candy-floss pink by the descending sun. Within five minutes, the light faded and suddenly night had crept into the scene. I remember seeing a similar vivid glow while camping in the Dart valley. My tent was surrounded by a carpet of fallen leaves which were suffused by hazy autumnal light. Similarly, on returning from a quick trip to the bothy, I was surprised to see the startling effect had already gone, replaced by limpid daylight. When you gotta go, you gotta go.

There’s something refreshing about the turn of the seasons, though I’m increasingly grateful for the return of the light after winter. This season of mists and mellow fruitfulness used to be a favourite but now I appreciate the change most of all. Probably twenty years ago, I was kicking leaves while walking through a village and saw a bookshelf and lamp in the window of a terraced house. That’s what I want, I thought. It’s funny how these blueprints stick and before you know it you’re on the other side of a window, fixing a broken bookshelf and surrounded by books and more books: many of which you haven’t read and have no time to read. Or at least it sometimes feels like it. But that’s OK. Moving south-west has been a big undertaking/adventure but the house is coming together, we’ve been extremely fortunate to find freelance work so far, and things like this meditation group are fostering a sense of connection to the area. I don’t know what the next change will be but I’m still excited to keep shuffling through the leaves and see what I find.

Failure

titanic-mould-loft-design

The ship’s design pictured is the Titanic. The cross-section is drawn at full scale and the length at quarter scale.

I visited the Titanic exhibition in Belfast recently. The timing couldn’t have been better as I’ve been reading Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking, about how we learn from failures both catastrophic and small. The ‘unsinkable’ ship that went down on its maiden voyage is a prime example of the gap between our expectations and the complexity of the real world. One of the striking quotes in Syed’s book outlines how progress is largely bought with failure, and in safety-critical areas, with blood. There are starkly important areas where black box thinking and a related concept, marginal gains, can be applied. Syed contrasts case studies from aviation, medicine, and the criminal justice system to name a few.

The importance of feedback

Syed has an interesting metaphor for thinking about failure and feedback. Some disciplines offer instant feedback on whether you’re on the right track; others permit you to flail around without ever knowing. He likens it to practicing your swing on a driving range in total darkness. How would you ever know to adjust your technique? How would you improve? He quotes a statistic that says trainee psychotherapists “obtain results that are as good as those of licensed ‘experts’.” The reason for this, Syed argues, is that psychotherapists have only indirect access to their patients’ inner experience, and few therapists track long-term outcomes once a client relationship has ended. This means they have little opportunity to revise their judgements based on real-world feedback. Another example: apparently, people learn to steer cars much faster than boats because the effect of steering on tarmac is immediate where as the action of a rudder is delayed. So in any number of disciplines the question becomes how can we give ourselves more immediate feedback?

I wonder if the same problem faces meditation teachers, and how it might be overcome – perhaps through standardised questionnaires, as some therapists have advocated for. In meditation, many teachers encourage an attitude of playful exploration. A large part of the practice seems to be trying various approaches and inquiries, and seeing for yourself what the outcome is – classic trial and error. We call it meditation practice for a reason perhaps. One conception of how this works might be that meditation reconnects you to the feedback mechanisms of body and mind. After all, you are the most sensitive, subtle instrument at your disposal. The non-linguistic right hemisphere of the brain is constantly processing thousands of datapoints and expressing these through the body as feeling, intuition, emotion. If you’re wary of becoming a quantified self (as opposed to an unquantifiable one), take heart. In my view, as sensate human beings we are already data-driven so wearing a fitness tracker is like putting legs on a snake, to use a metaphor from zen: unnecessary.

Some feedback is hard to face, of course. And this is where the problem of cognitive dissonance appears. To accept that we have made a mistake may imply some uncomfortable facts about ourselves that we do not want to see. It’s very hard to accept that you have made mistakes when it comes to parenting, for instance, but that admission could fuel future growth. This is how children themselves learn, after all. Every tumble and setback is part of an epic process of trial and error that leads from sitting upright to cartwheels and handstands. We are failing and learning all the time. Following Syed’s logic, perhaps one of the deep problems in depending on unhelpful strategies to cope in life is that when we go to excessive lengths to avoid failure and pain we also turn away from the mechanism that will spark future growth. As always, it probably pays to know where a compassionate balance lies.

Creativity

Syed emphasises that creativity is a response to a problem in a specific time and place. While we often buy into the idea of lightning bolt of inspiration, it is engaging with a well-defined problem that turns us into a conductor for the muse. Inspiration often then strikes when we step back and switch off, or when we are jarred into an epiphany by criticism, paradox, or an unusual connection. Syed, like others before him, claims that such a creative epiphany can almost always be characterised as a connection of ideas from previously separate conceptual categories. He also believes that true progress often requires both a paradigmatic shift and compounded marginal gains. Optimising existing processes may get you to the top of a particular hill while the mountain remains unclimbed.

Craft improves through failure. Sometimes exclusively so. This is the learning mechanism at the heart of practice. For example, every author begins by writing badly. Over the years, style, ability and judgement develop as we innovate around now familiar pitfalls. Every failure tells us something new about ourselves, our craft, and the world. Even an experienced writer will produce a bad first draft. In a sense, with each new project they should be trying something they have never done before. We wouldn’t call this a failure but it’s essentially the same: an iteration. Bad dialogue can be replaced. Awkward plot points can be straightened out. Instead of stigmatising failure and falling back on blame, applying the same mindset to other areas of life could be similarly fruitful.

With this mindset, there’s less resistance to thinking about why I haven’t managed to complete a novel, as I said I would two years ago. The idea, I think, is not to allow self-blame creep in but to analyse contributing factors compassionately. In the case of the novel, after trying for a few weeks I felt it was simply not the time, and not the right idea. I’d been cranking out words and projects of all kinds and had a unique opportunity to slow down, enjoy life, and let things happen by themselves.

If I undertake another long writing project in the future, I’ll know what I’m getting into a bit better, and where a few more of the pitfalls are. I hope that I’ll take Syed’s advice and get feedback early on to motivate myself and improve the work. In fact, he uses Pixar as an example of iterative story writing. The animation studio’s writing teams often end up drawing 125,000 storyboards or more. While I don’t think I can pump out quite that many iterations, I could start writing some scenes and character sketches on this blog and seeing what folk enjoy.

Every poet has a long career of being rejected from magazines and crashing out of competitions. Often, no feedback is provided. This is understandable because of the huge workload and time pressure editors and judges face. However, just think how helpful even a line of feedback could be to developing writers. One of my poems, ‘Vardøger‘, was rejected from Poetry Review with a one-liner that they really liked the first three stanzas but not the rest of it. They were right. I cut the poem down and submitted it in the Poetry School/Nine Arches Press Primers competition, where it was probably my strongest shortlisted poem. Perhaps in the future I’ll be more tenacious about asking for feedback.

Back to Titanic

But what of the Titanic? What was learnt from that? Well, not only were serious design flaws brought to light – the inadequate rudder, flooding compartments, lack of lifeboats – but regulations governing safety at sea and responding to ships in distress were overhauled. Probably not every lesson that could have been learnt was. As humans we often take the most efficient approach to problem-solving by doing things the way we’ve done them before. As a friend of mine says, “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”

Failure is inevitable but Black Box Thinking argues that embracing setbacks liberates us from future mistakes. It frees us to learn from failure instead of turning from the pain of it and being doomed to repeat it.

Dharma Dudes: No Thyself

Dharma Dudes - No Thyself

I haven’t had much spare time lately what with work, moving house, and spending time with the kids. It’s been busy, exciting, rewarding and all that. Did I mention busy? But a couple of weeks ago I felt the unexpected urge to sketch some comic strips about meditation and related issues. Here’s the first, there may be others to follow.

Bad juju

While supposedly training for a half marathon, I went out for chocolate and crisps. As I’d been working at the computer for most of the day, I decided to loop around by the old cemetery. Though it was evening, the birds were still singing as I came to the grey stone wall. No doubt they were confused by the dawn-like haze of the road. Beyond lopsided gravestones and the derelict church, the sea was calm and azure.

A stone angel crouched at my left as I cut in through the gate. You know how it is in these places: the limbic system wakes up. You keep a wider field of view. Sounds get your attention more easily. What was I keeping an eye out for? The kind of people who hang out in places like this? Something else? It was getting dark and the headstones made it difficult to spot danger. Is that a person? No, it’s another cross halfway to sinking into the grass.

A white veil was blowing from one of the tall trees, hanging above the path. I gazed up at it. Just bubble wrap. Then a crow shot past, startling me with its yammering. I jumped again, as something howled in front of me. A large black dog started pacing towards me barking, no owner in sight. I took a few more steps and turned on my heel. The gate by which I had entered now seemed distant, and the dog for its part seemed determined to usher me out. It reminded me of the nights when Pablo and I would wander through the woods and over the hills after the pubs kicked out. Sometimes we’d come to the turn-off and look out over the unlit expanse and just get that feeling: no thanks, not tonight. It often happened on a new moon, when everything was that much darker, but not always. Bad juju.

The Hero’s Inner Journey

This morning I belatedly saw a connection between two ideas I’m interested in: the hero’s journey and attachment theory.

The hero’s journey is a fundamental narrative that’s claimed to be at the root of all stories. It was proposed by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in books such as The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The theory goes that in every quest the hero progresses, or fails to progress, through a series of common stages: the call to adventure, initiation, mentoring, journeying beyond the bounds of their world, trials and tests, ordeals, defeats and victories, and a final return to the world with a boon. Campbell and others have proposed various heroic archetypes who undertake this journey. Campbell noted that these heroes are frequently orphans or those whose parents are conspicuously absent. For modern reference points, think of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins.

Attachment theory is a widely accepted psychological model of human development. Developed by John Bowlby and others, it emphasises the importance of parental, particularly maternal, love and connection for the healthy development of identity. This connection should be neither abandoning or engulfing: ‘good enough’ is best. Bowlby was sent to boarding school aged seven during the bombing raids of the Second World War. It was a terrible time for him and he would later investigate the psychological effects of separation on infants and young children. Bowlby found that children with unmet emotional needs carried them into adulthood. As adults we then try to satisfy these needs through certain behaviours and strategies – some healthier than others.

Could it be that the hero’s journey is fundamentally a quest to resolve a deeply rooted childhood fear of abandonment? Do our mythical heroes respond to the call to adventure because of the desire to resolve an unmet need for connection? Notice that nearly always, the hero undertakes a project for the good of society and returns to society – if he or she can – at least briefly to bestow boons. Similarly, the quest nearly always involves mentoring, a kind of reparenting, in which the hero participates in a special bond with a teacher who initiates (or births) them more fully into previously hidden ways of the world. I was encouraged to make this connection by hearing therapist Mark Epstein talk about his book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, in which he reinterprets the Buddha’s journey in light of his mother’s death one week after his birth – Epstein describes this as almost a passing detail in the canon, but perhaps a crucial one.

Perhaps these stories resonate with us so deeply because – regardless of how well we were parented, and how fully our emotional need for secure connection has been met – we all carry unresolved needs. Life, then, is the enactment of the hero’s journey as we find a mode of living, connecting, being in the world that enables us and those around us to identify and meet those needs in mutually constructive ways. This is indeed a heroic quest requiring much courage and fortitude.

Dream selves

Interesting that in dreams we seem to have a self – whether that be a butterfly or a WWII soldier – though we have no physical body, and the world around us is a tottering, malleable palace. It’s as though the mental machinery that constructs our everyday perception of self and other can at last be seen making shapes out of the mist.

Sea swimming

There’s a charge to swimming in the Atlantic that you don’t get at the local leisure centre. Perhaps it’s the abrasive quality of salt, or the electric feel of the cold. Getting in is the hard part. The passive among us may let the waves do the work: a progressive submergence. The bold will run and dive, but this is rash. Showboating may be followed by an abrupt exit. Waist deep is significant progress. Then all that’s required is one duck into the water. Once you’re wet, you’re wet. You might as well start swimming to keep warm.

Once in, the waves move you and cold surrounds you, making feel connected to something larger than yourself. At Porthgwidden beach you see birds arc around the chapel, and Godrevy lighthouse bob on the horizon. Boats cut the water out beyond the buoys. It may even feel that the experience wouldn’t be as refreshing were the water a mediterranean 25ºC. Just be sure to have a warm coffee waiting when you get out.

The Tump and the tree

I’ve just finished a short run to Maes Knoll Tump from our holiday cottage. The Tump is a huge earthen wall nearly eight metres taller than the surrounding land, built to defend an Iron Age hillfort. It offers a panoramic view of Somerset including views to Bath and Bristol had there been no mist. As it was, there was nary a soul in sight. The sound of the birds was as arresting as the sight of the hills. As with many ancient sites, perhaps keenest was the sense of my own transience within the landscape. This is exacerbated when you think that what we consider ‘ancient’ really is not so old at all.

After sitting for a while I saw a grey tree standing in a green sward and decided to make my way down the steep sides of the hill to it. Tiny birds popped out of the grass and darted in the mist. As I was walking past a bush a muntjack startled, running under the fence and into the next field before flattering itself by stopping to see if I’d given chase. I might have shown it who’s boss but I was trying to keep my heart rate in zone two…

The dead tree was entirely hollow and open on one side. It was strange to stand inside. Bird calls were made dull. The air was completely still. There was a small echo, a closeness. The tree branches seemed to have small buds at their tips and were completely still against the grey sky. There was a metal spike in the back of the tree, perhaps what killed – or nearly killed – it. There was no evidence of the spike on the outside so bark must have grown over the wound.

After regaining the hill I made a quick descent back to the cottage to appraise my uneven split times.