Just because there is sh*t in the world, it doesn’t mean the world is sh*t

“And, God forbid, do not read the Soviet newspapers before lunch.”

“Um … Why, there are no others?”

“Do not read any then. You know, I observed thirty patients in my clinic. And what do you think? Patients who did not read newspapers felt great. Those who I specifically forced to read ‘Pravda’, lost weight.”

“Hmmm,” said the bitten one, ruddy with soup and wine.

“Moreover, reduced knee reflexes, bad appetite, an oppressed state of mind…”

[Translated from Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov]

Whenever current affairs get really divisive, my faith in humanity wanes. Like really, wanes.

I am referring to the combination of the Belfast trial, the upcoming referendum in Ireland, the Skripals, the Russian election and the tragic fire in Siberia…

Feeling overwhelmed by all the recent news coverage and watching friends engage in social media battles, I was walking down the street and I really didn’t know how to handle it… and then I realised I was near a gallery.

I went in to look at The taking of Christ by Caravaggio, the most celebrated painting available in Dublin. I sat beside it for like a half-hour, probably looking like a mad person.

I stared at it just to get my mind off the other stuff.

I vaguely remembered a lecture that discussed how the arms of the different characters are all disproportionate. Look at Judas vs Jesus vs guard in armour:

IMG_9559.jpg

And then I thought: Jesus, there are some serious problems with this painting! Yet, this is one of the most celebrated paintings out there. And it is, in my opinion, beautiful.

Just because there is sh*t in the world, it doesn’t mean the world is sh*t.

Ex-hurricane Ophelia

Ireland is beginning to recover from ex-hurricane Ophelia the worst storm we’ve had since 1961. Before getting herself to a nunnery, she claimed the lives of 3 people and left 360 thousand people without electricity.

I was down in Kilkenny during the hurricane and the power went. All in all, we were left without electricity for about 24 hours.

Here are my findings regarding life without electricity:

  • When it got dark, there was nothing left to do only talk to other people. You couldn’t read! I couldn’t go online because I was trying to preserve the battery of my devices. I cooked in candle light, but these really weren’t my finest dishes… But it didn’t seem like anyone cared, perhaps because they couldn’t really see what they were eating… We then sat around the dinner table for hours and told funny stories. I think I got to know a whole new side to the people I’ve known for a long time.
  • I got the best sleep since… forever. It seems that the artificial lights really do mess with our brains. I wasn’t even tired, but I don’t remember falling asleep and certainly don’t remember the last time I woke up this refreshed in the early hours of the morning.
  • It occurred to me that back in the day when there was no electricity you had no hope of surviving on your own.

In conclusion, this technology has made us unsociable and sleep-deprived. Not that it comes without huge benefits.

In our recent budget there is a tax break on electric cars. Where would we be if all cars were electric and this happened?

My heart goes out to the thousands of people left without power. The electricity people said it may be up to 10 days before some homes get it back, probably the ones who are most remote and vulnerable to infrastructure interruptions – and that’s a lot of old people. I imagine that’s going to be very challenging.

The neuroscience of creativity

As my readers will have noticed, I don’t publish as much any more. That’t not to say my commitment to this blog has lessened (I have big plans for it!) Having gone through a period of stress, I realised just how damaging it is to creativity. I blame my reduced creative output on my increased adrenal output. It is well known that the “rest and digest” (parasympathetic), not the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) system is associated with complex cognition and creative problem solving.

Where else would my brain then lead me other than to research the neuroscience of creativity?

neuroscience of creativity

1. Listening to happy music

Gene Rowe et al used a sort of a verbal IQ test and had the subjects listen to either happy music, sad music or read a bunch of neutral facts. The participants’ mood was predictably affected by the music. Indeed, the test performance was correlated with the mood level.

I am not sure whether this will get me to delete the Amy Winehouse tracks off my Spotify account, but as far as my n=1 observations go, there is indeed a relationship between one’s ability to function at a given time and a playlist.

There will some people who will want to discredit this study, but I want to note that there is nothing in this study to say that getting out of a bad mood with happy music will lead to creativity.

Indeed, I would say that listening to happy music when you’re sad can be awful. I would say that something energetic rather than cheerful is in order. I guess I will be working on a playlist in the next while.

Interestingly, a test used to assess the ability to focus yielded the opposite results when it came to music: results were improved with sad music and worsened by happy music. The proposed explanation is that happy music broadens our perception and makes us consider alternative solutions which is so important for creativity.

The interesting lesson here is that being creative means being distractible, not focused.

My encounters with people with bipolar affective disorder and schizophrenia come to mind: there is often no keeping them on topic when they aren’t well. The people who suffer with these are also known for their creativity.

I’ve been taught that distraction is a menace. Studying to be a doctor involves a lot of hours in silence, pouring over books, where the only distractions are laziness and loss of the will to carry on. Menace. The job, incidentally, is nothing but distraction. In a hospital, it is impossible to even walk down a corridor without getting five different requests from patients and staff. And it’s no excuse that you’re in the middle of something. In a world obsessed with focus and productivity, it seems anything that seems to be a distraction is disallowed. Maybe, sometimes it pays to chase our distractions.

what makes your brain more creative

2. Walking

I am surprised by the robustness of the finding, though not the finding itself: walking is associated with boosting happiness and creativity. Marily Oppezzo got participants to carry out a creative task while sitting in a chair, standing, walking inside or outside, or being pushed in a wheelchair. Walking won.

I would imagine that sports would also help with being creative. N. N. Taleb also mentioned that he walks a lot and went so far as to say that he gets x amount of pages per y amount of walking (something like 1000 words per mile?) My two cents are that sometimes I feel compelled to go walking. It’s the endorphins, the fresh air, the change of scenery. In fact, whatever it is, it works.

3. Variety

The more varied the participants’ typical activities, the higher they score on tests of creative thinking. People who are in a routine aren’t usually associated with creativity. It has become en vogue to say that everything is a habit, that the best writers have a strong discipline, that Anthony Trollope got up and wrote for 3 hours every morning… There is a difference between emphasising the importance pushing yourself to create and saying that the pushing itself produces creation.

It’s pretty obvious that creativity is the secret sauce, not the bread and butter of actually creating something.

Finding a new connection between two pieces of information (i.e. being creative) will only occur if the two areas of the brain that hold those two pieces of information are active at the same time. The more variety there is in the activation pattern of one’s brain, the higher the chance of a new connection forming.

making your mind more creative

4. REM Sleep

‹REM sleep is that part of the sleep cycles when we see dreams. It seems to be particularly important for memory formation and creation of associations, the direct input of creativity.

Denise Cai got a bunch of sleep-deprived participants to do IQ-like tests focusing on associations and analogies. The participants did some questions, but the real test started after the break. The break was different for the participants who were split into 3 groups: 1) those who got to sleep and enter REM. sleep, 2) those who got to sleep but not enter REM sleep and 3) those whom didn’t get to sleep. When all the participants returned to answer more test questions, the REM sleep group did significantly better than the other two.

This also explains why sleep deprivation results in a functional but lacklustre existence. When we sleep for 8 hours a night as opposed to 6, we get disproportionately more REM sleep. This is because REM periods get longer as you spend more time asleep. So when we cut down on sleep from 8 to 6 hours, we may only lose 2/8= 25% of our entire sleep, but we lose a much bigger percentage of our REM sleep.

A few remarks on the anatomy of the eureka moment

Mark Beeman’s studies focus on moments of insight when trying to solve complex problems. He used fMRI and EEG to reveal that a particular region in the anterior superior temporal gyrus became active shortly before a person reported having an insight. Interestingly, this region is associated with associating distant verbal relations or finding connections between information that is only loosely related.

Pulling it all together

All of the above studies are using crude proxies to creativity. Figuring out what French, cork and list have in common isn’t really creativity (it’s wine, by the way). On a personal level, I feel many of the above tips are useful. Let me know what has worked for you in the comments!

P.S. WordPress tells me I have over 1,000 followers. Thanks so much guys: I really enjoy the company 🙂

Lessons from the May challenge: all about anxiety

How did the 16 days in May challenge go? Not to the discouragement of my readers, I admit defeat.

16 day mindfulness challenge

This really was a challenge, and I am not that happy with how it went. Why? Life got in the way. I was under a lot of pressure to get a project done with lots of codependencies and lots hinging on it. During the early days of the challenge, I received fairly disconcerting feedback, so everything else went on hold. Anxiety took over.

A lot of people suffer with anxiety. Many refer to a small study that was done among the elderly and asked them what their biggest regret in life was. Many said that they worried too much. Well, of course! With the benefit of hindsight, that’s easy to declare.

A lot of people also say that anxiety isn’t going to help the outcome. Of course it will, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved it. Naturally, there is pathological anxiety – and I am not talking about that, but in these days of overmedicalising feelings strong anxiety is seen as needing to be gotten rid of.

Maybe the problem isn’t the anxiety? Maybe the problem is the thing that’s causing anxiety? Genius thought, I know. But it seems to be denied any viability in our society. [Then they ask how did we all turn out to be special snowflakes. Hmm.]

Well, I didn’t get rid of my anxiety or try to suppress it. Once I just admitted to myself that I was anxious, a weight came off my shoulders. This is that classic acceptance thing they talk about in mindfulness. Anxious. So what? It’s not a crime. It’s not a defect. It’s just my experience and right now, in this moment, it’s not actually that bad at all. Acceptance of reality gave me the opportunity to work on the underlying cause of the anxiety.

Right, closer to the point:

1. A day without assumptions

OMG. How do you live without assumptions? Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is usually correct. When I got my worrying feedback, I immediately started mind-reading, mitigating the worst case scenario, assigning probabilities to possible outcomes and acting. Acting is such a drug against anxiety. The problem is of course that directionless hustle isn’t necessarily better than inaction. It’s exhausting and it is possible to do damage like a bull in a china shop.

2. A walking meditation

Definitely a win. Interestingly, it was my olfaction that work up by doing this. I spent most of my life living in a city and that’s not the sort of place where you want to expose yourself to smells. Also, a walking meditation is kind of more lighthearted than the more perfectionist sitting meditation.

3. Get one thing that you have been putting off done

I’ve emailed a bunch of people about a project we all committed too, but all left it to stagnate. Two of the three recipients were very helpful in moving it forward and now, somehow, we have a fourth, who just contacted me out of the blue. Coincidence? Providence?

4. Make a list of your habits

I was too nervous to do that with all my stress. What if I exposed something so disappointing or annoying that I would be too upset? I simply didn’t have the reserve to do it at this time. I will add it to my list (guess that’s a habit…)

lessons learnt from mindfulness

5. Ask: Why am I doing this?

W was easy. I know what I consider meaningful. I also know that this changes. I know why I am doing what I am doing though sometimes I wish the routes were straight lines. Ultimately, we have to adapt to our environment and respect the peninsulas of circumstance that we navigate around.

6. Wear the worst clothes you own

Haha, well that led to a clearout! (Anyone of eBay?) It wasn’t so bad at all. Where I live, in Dublin, clothes aren’t as much of a status symbol as they are in some places – like Russia, or I imagine China, or even the UK. I am very grateful for that.

7. Spend the day on your own, no social media

Fail. I can spend the day on my own, but social media – that’s tough. I have this sensation that I am about to get some kind of interesting news via social media. All it is in reality is a trained dopamine-mediated habit. I need to get out of it. It’s not that hard, but once again, it may expose things. For example, it can expose just how lonely I feel sometimes. And then, if I commit to not having social media, at least on certain days, then I am leaving myself to confront the loneliness. As a teenager, I used to travel a lot – and it would always be a connection flight. Sometimes, the connection would be 4 or 5 hours. This was before the kind of engaging social media we have now and certainly before widespread free wifi. I just remember that horrible mix of boredom and loneliness and I don’t ever want to feel it again. Having said that, I always say I come up with some of my best realisations in transit. Maybe then, I should just take the bandage of and be alone with myself, whatever may bubble up.

8. Write down the things that annoyed you

Fail once again. I was worried that it would put me in a foul mood. That’s quite presumptuous and possible wrong. It remains on the to-do list.

9. Go through the notification settings on your phone

Done. Much less distraction now. Best decision ever.

10. Try some mindful cooking

I couldn’t really do that. I was worried that I don’t have the time with my project. It also felt a bit wrong to be messing around with new recipes when things are shaky. Once again, pretty presumptuous, but hey, all I can do is all I can do.

11. Note how much of the stuff you do isn’t for you

This turned out to be a surprise. Even from a Machiavellian points of view, I can easily argue that everything I do for others is done as an investment into a relationship.

12. Look back at where you came from and see where you are now

What a magical thing to do. I thought of my parents, of where I was born, of where I started, of the role I had to play in where I am here today. I think so many of us get upset as we feel that life happens to us and that we don’t have any real control. To any human being, it is very upsetting to not be in control. But is it true? On the one hand, in the grand scheme of things we are small and insignificant. But in the context of our own lives, we are a big deal. Just like the Stoics would argue it’s important to focus on what you do or think as a person. Circumstances aren’t always a form of feedback about how well or poorly we are doing. Looking back at how we navigated our circumstances, even back when we were younger and much more naive, is bound to generate some feelings of pride and invigorate the perception of who we are people.

13. Pay attention to the people in the shop queue

Well, let’s just say I was dragged shopping in IKEA during this time. There was a lady in front of us in the queue who changed her mind on what she was going to buy and was hiding the goods she was going to just dump at the cashier under a pile of bags. Before sneaking the stuff away, she looked over at us a bit like a poorly trained dog looks at people passing by when it’s eating. But I really couldn’t be bothered judging. Maybe she has too much sense to just buy 3 French presses (that don’t filter anything by the way)?

14. Check email only twice a day

Fail. What if something super important happens and I don’t even know?! I need to work on this.

15. Look back at the last 5 purchases you made and whether you needed them

They were all quite optional. I’ve learnt the lesson of not having useless clutter a long time ago (moving dorm rooms every year in college will teach that fairly quickly). However, I was quite surprised at how I could have gotten away without having a lot of these things.

16. Thank yourself for trying so hard

This is a lot like looking back at where you came started. Yes, sometimes the seas part, the light shines, the lucky break happens and we should be endlessly grateful for these blessings. However, we should thank ourselves for working so hard and having faith even when things don’t look good.

lessons learnt from mindfulness challenge

Mindfulness in a difficult situation 2/2

This is the sequel to part 1 . In short, I inadvertently scared a cat, she ran onto the road and was hit by a car.

What a relief

The cat spent a few days on a drip. Despite the initial suspicion based on the symptoms, her bladder was intact. As well as that, she was able to move her feet and so we knew the spine was OK. In order to be able to know whether she’d make it, we needed to X-ray her. As we all know, X-ray presupposes that the object doesn’t move – and for an animal that means sedation. As she was quite unwell after the accident, they delayed the X-ray. Those 2 days were pretty hard for me.

The morning of the X-ray, my mother and I went up to the clinic as soon as it opened. The exhausted post-call vet did the X-ray. It transpired that her pelvis is broken as is the distal femur. The femur fragment was more aligned with the tibia than it was with the femur…

By the cage-side, the vet asked me: “What do you want?” English isn’t his native tongue. He was asking me whether or not I wanted for him to operate (as distinct from putting her down). I didn’t understand what the X-ray findings implied at this point.

The vet explained that within about 2 weeks she will be back walking – and fully recovered within 6. A light shined somewhere inside of me.

The cat was asleep still with the X-ray sedative. Her surgery is booked for Monday.

mindfulness dealing with a difficult situation
“Why am I here?”

Some thoughts pass by

As I stand there, petting the poor cat, I hear a number of people crying inconsolably in the examination area. I instantly think: “That’s a very intense reaction in the context of a pet.” How could I possibly think this? Seconds after finally finding out the cat will get better after narrowly escaping death, after spending 3 days on the verge of tears, for that short moment their whaling seemed incomprehensible.

The Buddhists say that thoughts are like the weather: they aren’t really ours or anyone’s. What makes the difference is what we do with those thoughts.

I was certainly letting that particular thought dissolve.

It is interesting to note how quickly one can become unempathetic once their own pain subsides.

In that same vein, my guilt felt much diminished all of a sudden.

Guilt is confusing. In theory, it should be related to our actions, in reality, it is closely related to consequences beyond our control.

My actions could have lead to the cat’s immediate death – or her needing to be put down due to injuries that the veterinary medicine couldn’t help with. Now that I know that the cat will get better, I feel that my efforts over the last few days paid off – and the guilt is melting away. It’s not gone, but it is smaller. Feelings are, by definition, irrational – and all the more interesting to observe.

Trying to regain focus

On Monday, I am angsty – and it’s a bit difficult to hold it together in the office. I think I have a low grade fever. In my job as an editor of a healthcare publication, my mind kept shifting to the cat at each hiatus. I both do and don’t want to think about the cat. I do – I am naturally drawn to thinking about the poor creature. I don’t – I know that there’s nothing to gain by obsessing at this point. While focusing is hard, it is also pleasant because it takes my mind away from replaying the events of the last few days, perhaps, being a bit self-destructive.

This self-inflicted limbo is the standard MO for many of us. Just as we approach any fears, hopes or potentially unpleasant realisations – we look away and shift out attention on to our phones, our emails, work, whatever.

I made a conscious effort to focus by reminding myself to be here and taking a few deep breaths to interrupt the distraction.

I rang twice to see whether she’d had her surgery. These conversations are awkward as the receptionist keeps asking for the cat’s name – but the cat doesn’t have one. I didn’t name her because I felt it wasn’t my place. However, at this point this was clearly a vanity in the way of the cat’s welfare as it was interfering with communication. The vet referred to her as Tiger-cat because of her fur colour. I decided that will be her “working-title” name now, Tiger. I was told that the surgery will take 2 hours and is planned for 3 pm. Good luck, little kitty.

When I arrived to see her, she was just waking up. She was well though dizzy as the anaesthetic was wearing off. Over the last few days, she’s been improving. Her appetite is huge. She’s going to get better. I think I am repeating that too much.

mindfulness dealing with guilt
“When is that Dutch fella coming to paint me? Oh, and get me more fish when you’re coming”

Lessons in guilt

  • Guilt causes dangerous self-hatred.

Rationality and the survival instinct kick in to say that it is important to forgive myself.

  • Guilt caused me to not judge the situation as good or bad.

I see myself as part of the chain of events that caused so much pain for this innocent creature. All that was relevant was what I could do now to make things better – and what I could learn from the experience.

  • Guilt reminds me to be grateful by making me more aware.

This story reminded me of how transient and fragile we are. I am second guessing my decisions more too.

  • Imagining the world from the point of view of an animal is an incredibly good way to activate one’s empathy.

Words don’t matter here. There’s no explaining what happened, no blaming – action is the only meaningful thing.

  • The conscience screams that I ought to do everything I can to make it better for the victim.

It also questions whether I am labouring to alleviate my guilt – or help the victim, as those two things aren’t the same. Guilt evolved so as to minimise the consequences of a “bad” action for me, not for the victim.

  • Guilt is a strong motivator.

After realising my poor judgement and various ways I was incompetent, I was still able to mobilise my resourcefulness so as to do the most I could.

  • Guilt makes the rest of the world appear unempathetic and self-obsessed – until of course it subsides.

Then one is left wondering how they were so passionately involved and how people in similar situations are so overwhelmed. Genuine empathy cannot be consistently sustained.

  • Shame is part of guilt.

It is evolution’s way to minimise the consequences of our mistakes. It’s another reason why people write fiction and express experience in parables.

For work, I had to email an academic at a Catalonian hospital called Sant Pau – his email address ended in @santpau.cat. All I could think of was the cat and her paws…

I hope this story helps someone learn from my mistakes. I will certainly be rereading it time and time again to make sure I learn.

Mindfulness in a difficult situation 1/2

Mindfulness takes people away from sadness over the past or worries over the future. What if the now feels stressful? With the brutal honesty this situation deserves, I describe the fleeting thoughts and finer insights I’ve been able to obtain by being in the moment as much as I could – in a difficult situation I caused. I felt it more, which was painful, but I also learnt more than I would have by not paying attention. Once again I learn that what made this situation difficult was rooted in the past or projected to the future. This story may be difficult to read for anyone who love animals, especially cats.

A charming new friend

I’ve always loved the furry little creatures. Maybe it is growing up with The Lion King as a favourite cartoon, I am not sure. Last Monday, coming back from work I felt quite lonely. There are a lot of feral cats near where I live. The community here feed them, it’s like a little sanctuary for them. In case you were wondering, cats can live in a kind of a pride, they’re not always solitary like it is normally presumed. I don’t usually pet them.  i tell myself the reason is that they have all kinds of parasites, etc. There’s something else that bothers me though:

I feel there’s something disingenuous about petting a stray cat. I am interfering with its life, implying that I can be good for the cat, but really I don’t know if I am habituating it to being accepting of humans when it shouldn’t necessarily be.

However, this cute grey kitten of about 8 months old sat there on a garden fence, looking at me. I came over to pet it and it seemed very happy. I was very happy too. We played for about 10 minutes and then she followed me for a long stretch of the journey home. I even wondered – should I bring her to stay in my garden, feed her, etc. But there are other cats living there, who knows what they’ll do. We passed by someone in a man hole and the cat didn’t want to keep going.

She made eye contact with me as I regretfully waved at her – and ran back to her part of the beach.

Talking to a friend later that day, I reminisced about the cat that we had when I was younger. She had to be given away as I had bad allergic rhinitis. My friend reassured me that it was good for me to befriend a cat like that, and it would be right to have the cat migrate from where it normally lives.

On Thursday I was passing by the same stretch of the beach. All of a sudden the very same kitty appeared out of nowhere. I know that dogs have a fantastic sense of smell, but this cat new who I was as it came over very confidently awaiting to be cuddled. About 10 minutes later, I decided it wouldn’t be right to play with the cat and not feed it. After all, these cutesy cats know how to play us: they are very used to getting fed by humans. So I decided that we shall cross the road and get some tuna in the shop. You know where this is going…

Watching the consequences of bad judgement in real time

I carried the cat across the road, but as we were finished crossing, agitated, she wanted to get out of my arms. And I let her. She jumped on the pavement. We were a good few metres away from the cars at this point – and all of a sudden she bolted back to run to the other side of the road.

The next moment seemed to last forever.

I don’t know how long it took her to get across. I remember the tiny pieces of cat fur vaporised in the air as if they were feathers. I remember anxious drivers mindful of their blind spots but also aware of the traffic behind them on a busy road… At the same time, it happened so fast, I don’t even know which car hit her. I stood there terrified. Even after it was injured it relentlessly kept searching for safety, breathing fast, its back arched and eyes wide open, pulling itself by its front paws.

I felt that I had taken this defenceless trusting creature, promised her safety and negligently let her fall into the Styx.

The adrenaline was pumping, but I knew that I couldn’t just go out into the stream of cars to save her. Between the traffic coming from 2 sides and the frantic cat, all at night time, there were more moving parts than I could safely handle.The hardest part was standing there, watching the poor cat trying to get to safety having absolutely no insight into how traffic works knowing that this wouldn’t have happened without me and realising my own powerlessness.

Most of this blog is in some way related to mindfulness.

By and large, mindfulness makes life easier to be mindful as the vast majority of moments are better than anxieties about the future or ruminations about the past. This wasn’t one of those moments.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget it – neither should I.

There were just seconds between being a happy friendly kitten and suffering the most intense fear and life-threatening injuries.

When I came over to her, her little heart was pounding so fast I could barely distinguish a pulse.

As I lifted her, it was obvious her back legs weren’t functional. She tried to climb into a bush, dragging herself by her front legs.

As a doctor, I have a certain confidence when it comes to emergency situations: I was trained to handle emergencies. However, it turns out this only applies to specific emergencies. Given the time of day, it didn’t even occur to me to look for a vet. Just like the cat’s, my instinct was to hide in my own metaphorical bush – carry her home, to my safety. As I carried her, I thought she might be dying. Cats’ pupils are usually so tiny. This cat’s were so dilated, I could barely see the green of her irises. She was supine in my arms, staring into space, hyperventilating and foaming at the mouth.

I’d never seen so much anguish in any creature’s eyes.

Reflection and rumination

What stopped me from crossing on my own to get the cat food? It seemed like it would be so much fun to go together. It seems that with all that scrolling through Instagram, I’d forgotten that animals aren’t a form entertainment. They have fragile lives that we don’t understand the same way that they do. One of the reasons I didn’t think that it was in issue to bring the cat across was that I’d seen plenty of cats crossing the road like they knew exactly what they were doing. I’ve seen a few lucky escapes by less than knowledgeable cats, but they somehow didn’t come up in my mind quite so prominently. It was possibly a semi-conscious decision to refuse insight as it seemed that doing things together with this cat was my way to connect with it and to feel less lonely. She’s a lonely stray cat, and I felt like a stray that day too.

It felt right to pick her up – and felt wrong to be overly calculated about it.

As she ran back across I tried to stop her. Even at that point, I was a bit scared but mostly confident she knew what she was doing.

There’s a certain arrogance that comes with being human.

When I picked her up the first time, I was sure I knew how to handle a cat. I felt I knew more about what’s good for the cat than she did. But really, what am I capable of? I can’t pause the traffic. I can’t keep a cat due to family circumstances. I can’t expect to find someone to home a sick cat in a country full of stray cats. I can’t even be sure I can pay the vet’s bills.

It’s a terrifying realisation: how fragile we all are. It is so hard to handle this concept. It’s hard to not feel helpless knowing how vulnerable we really are.

Not only was this creature fragile, but also lacking in insight. This poor cat didn’t know how it worked even though it lived by the road.

And it just reminded me of how we all are: we don’t know why things happen the way they happen.

Things seem random and dangerous. We try so hard, we give it all we’ve got, but we don’t know how to get to safety any better than this little kitten.

Guilt, guilt, more guilt

Is it all just guilt? There’s a lot of guilt. While everything I did was well intended, it was also negligent. I should have known that the feral cat isn’t that used to being picked up, that it may want to run home, that it may not understand how the road works.

It’s difficult to recognise that being well intended, I ended up putting this cat into a horrible situation.

At the same time I know that I was never going to be perfect. I err; it is my nature as a human being. I can forgive myself at some point, given that I learnt. It’s tough to write this. All of this is written while crying. I’ve been crying multiple times a day since this happened. It’s my n-th draft. The least I can do is learn and share what I learnt. I can’t let go of this until I learn everything I can – and of course, do everything I can for the poor cat.

Of course, I realise that all of these ruminations aren’t very mindful. However, I have no intention of purging them as I know they’re trying to teach me something. Most of this is written as they occur.

I know it’s better to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings: the good, the bad and the ugly rather than trying to get rid of them. It’s the choices and actions that count, so that’s my focus now.

No vet was open at this late hour. I rang a few “emergency” numbers where the vets all advised me to wait until tomorrow. I struggled to fall asleep. I tried to focus on my breath as my mind insisted on replaying the events of the night as well as all the ifs and the should haves… It was particularly hard to let go of those. I couldn’t, but I kept trying. I woke up very early the next morning. It wasn’t clear whether it was alive as it hid behind the air conditioning unit. I didn’t want to wake it. It was only a fleeting thought of yet another part of me that I am seriously not proud of that she was dead so that I wouldn’t have to face difficult decisions at the vet’s like having to “put her to sleep”. It wouldn’t be sleep though, would it?

When we got to the vet in the morning, this woman in her early 40s didn’t seem enthused at having to see a stray. She examined the cat: there was reason to believe that the spine could be broken and the bladder ruptured, both of which a guarded prognosis. I cried again in the vet’s office. The vet wasn’t in any way unprofessional, but she had a cold and clinical style. It seems I was sufficiently inconsolable to get her a bit more involved. When she was writing up the cat’s chart, the vet asked me what the cat’s name was. This is when I really stopped being able to speak through the tears. Obviously, cats don’t give consent, but if they did, I felt that I surely didn’t have it. I failed this animal, I didn’t have any rights over her and surely she was not the sort of cat who has a name. She was a feral cat, and it was time for me to finally respect that fact.

I am crying again while I am writing this. My emotions seem completely overwhelming.

I had a role to play in this cat’s misfortune. I made an error in judgement. I realised yet again our fragility and transience. It’s bad, but it doesn’t explain how intensely bad I feel.

Transference and empathy

To some extent, I feel that this isn’t a stray cat, but my old cat from years ago. Freud called it transference. On another level, I feel that I have much in common with the cat. I believe that is what they really call empathy. Being an NT type on Myers-Briggs, it seems to me that I don’t feel things as intensely or as quickly as some others seem to. I might come across as cold to some people, but I it’s not really what it’s like for me. I cry from watching films, reading books… I can’t watch fail videos… I couldn’t even finish Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, in the same way that, I would argue, the main character wouldn’t finish it either.

Having a habit of reading deeply into things, I wonder if being a thinking type (as distinct from a feeling type) is a form of defence – because experiencing real, insightful empathy is utterly intolerable.

Perhaps that’s why most nerds seem kind of maladjusted socially and don’t relate well to people.

IQ combined with EQ allows one to see things that are very scary – and nobody wants to be this scared. Perhaps having a high grade on both of these stops being evolutionary advantageous.

Of course,  it is about how one uses it, but even that requires constant overriding of primal limbic empathy. I remember seeing pictures of Syrian children that went viral and feeling awful on one level, simply as any human being would towards a harmed child, on another – recognising that such emotionally charged images are used to promote certain political interests, that most people who see the images don’t realise this and that this lack of insight from the mass readership of social media and newspapers is instrumental in the advancement of the said political interests. It’s not that I have the opposite political interest, it is the fact that politics is involved that made it feel nasty. In other words, suffering children are used to condition the masses in a way that suits some elite. This isn’t all that deep, but it’s just an example of IQ and EQ working together to show how the world is a hugely complex place. Why am I using the word complex? Why not just say that its nasty? Well, because I know that I don’t fully understand it. Maybe the consequences of this media reporting are going to be better than the alternative. I will never know.

A few attempts at rationalisation

Years ago, I read about Shingon Buddhism. It’s not something that is written about a lot on the internet or indeed in print. It teaches about right and wrong in a way that we’re not used to.

For example, if a tiger kills an antelope, we conventionally feel sorry for the antelope. There’s something wrong about it. In reality, the tiger needs to kill the antelope because its little tiger cub will shrivel and die otherwise. What is right and what is wrong?

We like the day and fear the night: but they can’t exist without each other. I guess Buddhism, in general, tells us that it’s difficult to judge what’s good and bad, at least as far as external circumstances we’ve no control over are concerned.

Of course, part of me is consoling myself and searching for a rationalisation. However, there genuinely may be some good that will emerge from this experience. Maybe my learning will help me – or someone reading this – to do something better than what we would have otherwise done. In a strange twist, a day or two before this happened, I was replying to someone’s comment and saying that meaning remains after death, regardless of whether one’s top of the food chain homo sapiens or… a feral cat. I hope she doesn’t die from this, but in any case, she is very meaningful to me.

Lessons I learnt

We’re all fragile. A moment can change everything. It’s a bad idea to interfere in another’s life as I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do about it.

What else did I learn?

At no point during the ordeal did the cat show any signs of giving up.

I am here lamenting and analysing. The cat is getting on with her life. Tildeb recently introduced me to some old English literature, and in particular this:

Whether fate be foul or fair,

Why falter I or fear?

What should man do but dare?

The cat doesn’t give up. The cat is always preoccupied with her surroundings. She’s constantly looking around and just does her best to adapt. The night before we went to the vet she cried, I assume for her relatives and because of pain. I’d never heard a cat cry before. It’s kind of like a dog squealing, but less protracted and a bit more like a meow. It’s also completely heart-wrenching.

I also learnt a huge amount about guilt, compassion, motivation, bias, empathy, sense of self and expectations.

To be continued….

mindfulness in a difficult situation
No words

Top 5 music apps for mindful focus

There are a lot of apps that try to leverage mindfulness, music and nature sounds so as to improve focus, productivity, help with healthy sleep as well as alleviate anxiety and help to overcome depression. Here are my picks:

1. brain.fm

Brain.fm is music designed for the brain to enhance focus, relaxation, meditation, naps and sleep within 10 – 15 minutes of use.

I am a big fan of house music. Brain.fm is kind of like house music without the bass drops.

In my experience, brain.fm does help to focus.

I wouldn’t call it pleasant – and it has given me a headache once or twice. The music isn’t composed by a human, instead an AI engine does the creative work. An interesting and scary thought.

Artificial intelligence is an expectedly dystopian composer. Listening to it, I get visions of abandoned Soviet steel factories at twilight – potentially infested with zombies. It does help with focus though!

Perhaps this sort of music makes the thing you’re meant to be focusing on more attractive – and that’s the real reason it helps to focus! I am sure the guys at brain.fm will figure out how to cheer that algorithm up with time.

Their research isn’t very useful at present as there is conflict of interest. All the same, they were able to show  some promising results:

best music for mindfulness meditation

In short, brain.fm claims that brains like rhythmic things, attention is rhythmic and they try to align this so as to increase focus.

Here is some background neuroscience.

The dynamic attending theory is the idea is that attention is modulated dynamically to optimise sensory processing at expected intervals set by a rhythm.

Many natural stimuli and actions are rhythmically organised, such as speech, walking – and music. The brain is able to predict the occurrence of subsequent events of interest and optimise their processing. When a rhythm is present in the environment, neuronal oscillations can synchronise to this external rhythmic stream. Again, no real conclusive research is currently available to back up their findings, but here is what they’ve been able to show:

best music for mindfulness and focus

The science part is a work in progress, but it looks good at the moment. Brain.fm is available as an app or you can try it for free on the website, however, you do have to give your email address.

2. Pause

Pause claims to pause the active mind and lower the mental workload, release stress and regain focus. It is inspired by the practice of Tai Chi, and it is all about the here and now.

You need keep moving your finger on the screen following a little circle in a lava lamp-like environment – and it provides feedback. If you’re good at following the circle, it tells you “Good”, “Continue at a slow pace”, etc. There are different difficulty levels. It also plays soothing sounds. The sounds aren’t dystopian, rather they are futuristic.

If you’ve seen the film Her, about a guy who fell love with an operating system (a very fancy Siri), it’s kind of like that – pleasant, full of light, but also a bit eery.

There are birds singing in the background. It is relaxing for sure, but it’s also kind of.. lonely or something. If you enjoy futuristic things, it’s for you. It’s 1.99 to get on the AppStore.

best mindfulness music apps

3. White Noise

White Noise is free and a pretty unassuming useful app. It’s recordings of things like the Amazon jungle, a fireplace, rain, thunder… It does exactly what it says on the tin and does it well. I know it’s not technically music, but it serves a similar purpose.

Pro tip: there are few things as calming as the sound of a fireplace. We’ve been conditioned for millennia to feel safe and connected while hearing that sound.

Another pro tip: the sound of barking induces anxiety. Again, conditioning plays its role.

Having said that, Calm does it all too and much much more. You may want to read about the best guided meditations for beginners to find out more.

4. Get work done music

Get work done music is a little indie gem of a page (you have to open it in a browser, it’s not an app per se). Again, it is missing the veneer of the apps listed at the top. It is basically a set of curated electronic dance music tracks from Soundcloud. I thought Spotify was great, but whoever chooses these tracks really knows what it takes to focus – or get into a full on trance. I would especially recommend this to anyone who likes mindful exercise.

Running, spinning or HIIT to this is a completely different experience to your normal playlist. This little app will fill you with energy better than any amount of caffeine. Unadulterated bass drops ahead.

5. Focus.fm

Focus.fm tells us it is beats for work, productivity, flow. In reality, it is sweet old house, gentle EDM with mellow bass and generally pleasant vibes.

Some tracks are painfully 1990s. I can just see a girl in a glittery tank top and platforms.

best music apps for mindfulness

It is beautifully simple, it doesn’t make any scientific claims. It didn’t really help me focus as such, but it’s a nice blast from the past.

6. The piano

OK, I know this is cheating, but really, none of these beat Frederick Chopin.

Have a mindful Monday all 😉

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