Filling the Silence: How I Learned Chinese from a Stranger on the Train to Penzance

We’ve been sat in silence for around an hour. Not actual silence, obviously – we’re on a train – but that specific breed of not talking that loiters aggressively on public transport, enabled by digital cocooning, fear of rejection, and an overzealous adherence to that childhood motto, ‘don’t talk to strangers’.

However, my own cocoon has seen better days. I’ve forgotten my headphones, grown bored of my e-reader and consumed more coffee than food, and frankly I’m struggling. It’s time to break the rules and TALK TO A STRANGER.

The opening gambit is less awkward than feared – “Do you know where you need to change for Penzance?” – and within minutes, the stranger next to me has morphed into Cathy from Beijing. Turns out she’s touring our fair isle for a few weeks before jetting home with a fresh-off-the-press master’s degree in Economics and Other Clever Stuff, and she’s excited to get to Penzance (aka literally the last train station before England becomes the sea).

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We talk about this and that, and as we do so, I realise that there’s potential here. This could become a truly Lifeshelf-worthy train journey. But I can’t ask, can I? It’d be impolite…

I ask anyway, because I’m supposed to be ‘living to learn and learning to live’, and because I have little to no shame:

“So, what would be the best way to start learning Chinese?”

Only a tad surprised by this new angle, Cathy suggests that as I’m a musician, perhaps listening to some Chinese music would be a good place to start. Additionally, she thinks that musicians have an advantage over others trying to learn, because we’re already familiar with recognising and mimicking changes in pitch; Mandarin Chinese is a ‘tonal language’, and words that are phonetically identical have different meanings depending on their pitch contour.

At this point I already feel that I’m in too deep, and should stick to chipping away at Spanish on Duolingo, but Cathy patiently explains by pointing to my bottle of water, speaking the word for water (shuǐ) and motioning with her hand to show how the pitch goes down, then up (the third of the four tone patterns).

I repeat after her, and all of a sudden I’m learning Chinese from a stranger on the train to Penzance. We progress to a full sentence – “Would you like water?” – which I record for posterity and the inflation of my ego:

NB: I think this literally means ‘You drink water?’ Correct me in the comments if I’m wrong! 

To her absolute merit, and my joy, Cathy is not the least bit phased by the hour of relentless linguistic questioning that follows: What does shuǐ mean in the other tones? How do I indicate a question? Am I saying this right? I try to repay the favour by sharing some anecdotal and inaccurate information about Cornwall: It’s green because it’s hot and rains a lot. Some days it’s really misty, because we’re near the sea.

This pitiful offering seems agreeable to Cathy, and when I disembark several stops before her, I’m feeling exuberant. Yes, I’ve learned a little of the Chinese language, which I’ll endeavour to retain and develop. And I’ve witnessed a traveler’s wide-eyed wonder at the Cornish scenery, renewing my own appreciation of it. But clearly, the most Lifeshelf-worthy part of today has been the realisation that in all probability, every stranger we encounter has the potential to teach us something amazing. Even if talking starts as a way to fill the silence.

Thanks for reading! Please subscribe for more articles like this, as well as life hacks, mindfulness, music and more. And thank you Cathy, if you’re out there. Safe journey.

Images from Pexels/Pixabay. Words by Alexander MJ S.

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Success, Pt.1: The Olympic Mind Games

Or…
‘What do Olympians think about in the shower?’

We all want to successfully accomplish our goals. If you disagree, feel free to challenge me to a duel (although commenting below would be less effort for us both…), but I think it’s fair to assume that whether you’ve set out to start a business, learn trombone, stick to a fitness routine or make an incredible toasted sandwich, you want to be successful. With this in mind, I’ve decided to learn about some of the ways that we can all improve our chances of success on a daily basis.

In this article (the first of two) we’re going to look at a group of people often regarded as role models for success: athletes. They love being successful, right? And we love watching them being successful. Well, it turns out that they love watching themselves being successful, too.

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Though it reads like the synopsis of an Inception rip-off, it’s true: Not only do the world’s top physical performers spend countless hours practising on the track/pitch/BMX ramp, they also dedicate massive amounts of time to imagining that they’re there, and that they’re smashing it.

This technique is called visualisation (also ‘imaging’ and ‘mental rehearsal’) and is widely recognised as a key weapon in the athlete’s arsenal, to the extent that many teams hire full-time sports psychologists to coach imaging techniques. As demonstrated in multiple studies, mentally rehearsing the successful completion of an event in vivid detail is an effective way to prime your muscles to conduct the correct movements when it matters most. In fact, it’s so potent that just thinking about doing bicep curls can lead to actual strength gains (note: World’s Strongest Man is yet to be won by the power of imaginative thought alone).

The trick is to incorporate lots of sensory information. Apparently when Wayne Rooney visualises, he can feel his foot connecting with the ball, smell the grass and hear the crowd – for the elite sportsperson, visualisation isn’t just about the visual. According to the Association for Applied Sports Psychology, it’s also important that imaging is done in real-time and includes specific, realistic details, such as the colour of the opposition’s clothing, or any identifying features of the competition venue.

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Finally, according to sports psychologist Nicole Detling, it’s vitally important that athletes do not visualise failure. Because it’s such an effective tool for training muscles to perform tasks, repeatedly imaging errors would be like programming the body with the blueprint to failure. However, the most effective visualisation routines do incorporate a range of possible scenarios, including those that are less-than-perfect. These allow the athlete to form strong mental images of succeeding under adverse conditions, such as poor weather or the pressure of a noisy crowd.

The best thing about visualisation is that it can be done anywhere – effective practice isn’t confined to the track/pitch/velodrome – and if Canadian bobsledder Lyndon Rush’s habit of visualising the trickier turns while he’s showering is anything to go by, we may have finally answered the perennial question, ‘What do Olympians think about in the shower?’

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It’s not too hard to see how visualisation could be applied outside of athletics, either. I once interviewed a professional musician who uses an extremely thorough mental rehearsal routine to prepare for gigs; just as in an athletic setting, this not only programs his muscles to perform correctly, but also builds his confidence. Both of these factors then contribute to a ‘successful’ gig. Likewise, visualisation could be applied in a business context, for example to rehearse your presentation and reduce the feelings of anxiety associated with public speaking.

As a guitarist myself, the prospect of using visualisation to learn new material without actually playing is really exciting (no doubt my neighbours think so too), as is using it to prepare my muscles for a new personal best, or to role-play the perfect job interview.

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However, visualisation is yet to be Lifeshelf-tested-and-approved (unlike coffee napping). Therefore I figured we could all do with a few more pointers before trying it out, and I watched this video, this video and this video so that you don’t have to. Here’s what I learned:

1.You should be feeling relaxed and positive before you begin. This might mean meditating, taking a shower or listening to music beforehand.

2. You can visualise sat down, or lying on your back, with your eyes closed.

3. You can visualise from your own point of view, but try the third-person too (looking through the eyes of someone who’s watching you win the race/make that toastie).

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4. Real-time visualisation is best for reinforcing behaviour, but visualising a goal as if you’ve already accomplished it can be motivational. If you’re trying to save for a holiday to X location, visualise yourself already there. What do you see/hear/smell/taste/feel? Top athletes do this too, imagining how they will celebrate after winning.

5. Like anything really worth doing, visualisation takes practice, ideally daily.

So, the science and the real-world results both suggest that visualisation is a habit worth adopting, whether we’re athletes or not. Do you think you’ll give it a go? If so, let me know how you get on, as I’ll be trying it for the first time too! And don’t forget, if you hit ‘follow’ then you definitely won’t miss this article’s less fortunate sibling, ‘Success, Pt.2: Plan to Fail’, when it blunders its way onto The Lifeshelf.

Thanks for reading! Words by Alexander MJ S, images from Pexels and Pixabay. 

Winning the Afternoon: The Secret Science of Coffee Napping

This scientifically-tested hack keeps you on your A-game and holds the key to defeating the afternoon slump.

We’ve all experienced the afternoon slump, right? There you are, doing what you do, and frankly you’re smashing it; productivity is not the word. You’re swallowing to-do lists whole as you bend the laws of time to achieve more in one morning than should be humanly possible (sounds like you’ve been meditating), and you’re intent on riding this magnificent wave all day.

And then, sometime after lunch, it strikes. A lack of energy so sudden and severe that your attention, motivation and productivity drop through the floor and obliterate the office/flat/pet store below. The afternoon slump. Aka the Netflix and duvet compulsion. Aka, no longer smashing it.

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I know the sinking feeling of the afternoon slump all too well. In the final weeks before my university deadlines, when the proverbial fan was a mess and time was not an ally, I would get up painfully early each day and get straight to work on essays and music projects. Progress was made, word counts rose and inoffensive singer-songwriter melodies began to sparkle. But for all that the mornings were a goldmine of productivity, afternoons were the equivalent of prospecting in the Thames.

According to the good folk of the National Sleep Foundation, sometimes the afternoon slump is our own fault. For example, eating too many simple carbohydrates for lunch (think: white bread, white rice or chips) results in a sugar crash. Likewise, sitting still for too long or getting dehydrated in the morning can lead to afternoon sleepiness. However, there’s also a key cause that’s beyond our control – namely, that we experience a natural drop in body temperature between 2pm and 4pm as part of our body’s circadian rhythm.

Therefore, it seems that even if we adjust our diets or work habits to reduce the risk of an afternoon slump, it’s likely to happen anyway. With that in mind, perhaps there’s something to be said for a more reactive approach, especially when an unproductive afternoon is simply not an option. I think I’ve found the ideal response for these occasions, for the times when you don’t want to waste time befriending the afternoon slump in the hope he’ll stop being mean in the playground; you just want to hit him back and be done with it.

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We already know that taking a quick snooze in the afternoon can bestow a host of benefits (if you didn’t, go and read this, I’ll wait), including the one we’re most concerned with here, alertness. But what if I told you there’s a way to supercharge your nap? A secret ingredient to help you tick off to-dos like there is a tomorrow, and it’s got ‘deadline day’ written all over it? Thankfully, there is such an ingredient, and it tastes great: coffee.

“That’s not exactly a startling revelation”, I hear you cry, before clicking away in disgust. “Have a nap, wake up, grab a coffee and get on with it, right? It’s not rocket surgery”.

Well, here’s the shocker: you drink the coffee before taking a nap. Now, common sense tells us that caffeine and sleep do not make the best of bedfellows. In fact, it’s been shown that consuming caffeine as much as six hours before bed is likely to disrupt your nighttime sleep. As such, I’m fully aware that consuming a steaming cup of the world’s favourite stimulant directly before attempting to catch some shuteye sounds somewhat counterintuitive. But there’s trick to this, and it’s scientifically supported.

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It’s not new science either. Researchers at Loughborough University’s Sleep Research Laboratory have been experimenting with ‘coffee naps’ since the ’90s. Their research has mostly been concerned with preventing drivers from falling asleep at the wheel, but the results could equally be applied to the potential car crash of your impending deadline; they’ve found that the caffeine/nap combo is more effective at boosting alertness than either caffeine or napping independently. Similarly, a Japanese study found that the alertness of people working at computers benefited more from the caffeine/nap combo than from naps combined with face washing or exposure to bright light.

More recently, a report that looked into ways to combat the drowsiness experienced shortly after waking from a nap (a potentially massive safety-hazard in certain industries) found that caffeine ‘administered prior to sleep’ is still the best-known option.

So how does it work?

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According to Vox, it’s all down to a substance called adenosine. This is a by-product of brain activity that accumulates throughout the day, and eventually makes you feel tired. Now, the reason caffeine is so effective at preventing tiredness is that it blocks the brain’s adenosine receptors. This is pretty neat, but the really clever part is that sleep also clears adenosine from the brain, which effectively removes the competition and allows the caffeine to get to work.

Therefore, to reap the maximum energy boost from your cup of coffee, it makes sense to combine it with a nap. In a further twist of fortuitous chemical coincidence, the length of time that coffee takes to be absorbed is pretty much exactly the same as the optimum length that your nap should be if you want to avoid ‘sleep inertia’ (drowsiness when you wake up): 15-20 minutes. By the time you come round from your micro-sleep, all that adenosine will have been cleared and the caffeine will be well and truly kicking in; the afternoon slump has no chance.

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Quick note: A common response to my lengthy and honestly-not-boring speeches regarding the benefits of short naps is, “There’s no way I can get to sleep that quickly”. This is an understandable concern, but the good news is that most studies agree that even lying there and dozing without properly nodding off is beneficialAnd you never know; I’ve often surprised myself by sleeping so deeply that fifteen minutes felt like hours (a similar effect can be achieved by listening to Donald Trump). 

So, that’s the science. Do you think you’ll give it a go? If so, here are a few practical considerations:

  • In most experiments, participants were given 150-200mg of caffeine. That’s roughly equivalent to the two shots of Espresso that go into a small Americano or a medium Latte at CostBucks. However, because you’re probably planning to try this out somewhere a little more private, I’ll add that the equivalent dosage in instant coffee is about three teaspoons (as someone with a low caffeine tolerance, I don’t need anywhere near that much…go with what works for you).
  • You need to drink the coffee quickly; remember that once you start drinking, you’ve only got a twenty-minute window to get some sleep. Therefore I recommend going for an Espresso-sized concentration, or letting a full cup cool sufficiently that you can drink it fast. And don’t get distracted between finishing your drink and lying down!

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  • I find that napping on a bed or sofa is dangerously comfortable. If you’re too comfy, the temptation to snooze beyond the allotted twenty minutes is going to be strong, despite the caffeine. Don’t forget, you’re not doing this for enjoyment, but because there’s work to do, and even a few extra minutes can result in sleep inertia when you eventually get up. Therefore I tend to nap on the floor, lying on my back with a cushion behind my head. This is probably either great or horrendous for my spine, I don’t know (ask me in twenty years).
  • You’ll want to set an alarm for 15-20 minutes. To ensure that you get up and back to work promptly, I recommend placing this far enough away that you have to stand up and walk over to turn it off. By this point you’ll be on your feet and raring to go, with none of that irritating sleep inertia to slow you down.

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  • If you wake up before your alarm – which is fairly common – gauge how you feel. If you feel particularly fresh and alert, then make the most of it and get back to work – coffee nap complete! Otherwise, I find it’s worth staying put; you may well drift back into a light sleep for a few more minutes, which will greatly contribute to the energising effect of the coffee nap.

And that’s it – the secret weapon in the war against the afternoon slump is coffee plus sleep, in an unexpected order. Tested by scientists, pilots, drivers, students and that cute fox halfway down this article, coffee napping potentially holds the key to the highest-performing afternoons of your life. Indeed, I can’t overstate the extent to which this little hack helped me finish my degree. So go, take this knowledge and use it well, experiment with the formula, and let me know in the comments how you got on. Happy napping!

Thanks for reading! Words by Alexander MJ S. Images from Pexels and Pixabay. 

Daily Prompt: What Makes An Expert?

Are some people just more talented than the rest of us?

Good morning! Following some great feedback from the friendly bloggers I found hanging around the Community Pool, I’ve decided to start publishing the occasional short post alongside my longer articles. Responding to the Daily Prompt seems like the ideal way to do this, and yesterday’s fits right on-trend with what The Lifeshelf is all about: learning to live, and living to learn! So here we go…

What does it take to become an expert? Are the greats born or made? These are the kind of questions that a group of researchers were asking themselves in 1993, when they conducted a study of violinists at an elite music school. What they found was that the very best violinists at the school had practiced much more than those who, though still good enough to be there, were not so jaw-droppingly incredible.

They found no evidence that innate talent determined how good each violinist was – which puts paid to the idea that some people are just naturally more skilled than others and there’s nothing we can do about it – and instead concluded that the world-class examples of expertise they had witnessed were the result of, on average, ten years of committed practice. They also worked out that the optimal amount of practice to conduct in each of those years was around 1,000 hours (that’s just under three hours a day, by the way).

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, Outliers, popularised this finding as the ‘10,000 hours rule’. And it makes sense: ten years times a thousand a year equals ten thousand. Except, one of the original researchers didn’t think the book was very good…at all. K. Anders Ericsson pointed out that Gladwell had missed the crucial point of his research; the sheer number of hours spent practicing is important, but exactly how they are spent is more important.

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You see, in order to achieve expertise, an individual needs to conduct deliberate practice. This is practice that is difficult. This is practice that stretches us, and makes our brain hurt a bit – practice that frustrates us because we can’t nail it straight away. Deliberate practice is specifically designed to take us beyond what we can already do, and incrementally expand our abilities.

For the guitarist, this might mean trying to work out the difficult section of a new piece, then repeating it to a metronome, rather than simply strumming through a song they can already play comfortably. For the footballer, this could mean refining their penalty technique by taking hundreds of shots and aiming for a specific corner every time, rather than simply going for a kickabout in the park. It’s the level of effort required that’s the difference between basic experience, and actual deliberate practice. In short, becoming an expert takes time, but it also takes hard work.

For a more in-depth introduction to the research on expertise, I recommend you check out Bounce, by Matthew Syed. Consider that a bonus recommendation from Books on The Lifeshelf…

Thanks for reading my debut Daily Prompt response! Have you learnt anything new? Perhaps you disagree that talent isn’t what separates the best from the rest? Let me know what you think in the comments (I always reply)!

Words by Alexander MJ S. Images from Pexels/Pixabay. 

Books on The Lifeshelf #1: Ghostwritten – David Mitchell

Introducing a new series of reading recommendations from The Lifeshelf.

Hey, thanks for clicking through. Even if you did it by accident, please stay, although I can promise that if you don’t like what you read you will not be compensated in any way.

If you did click deliberately, and have already read my article on meditation, you’re probably getting the sense that this one is veering into vastly different territory. Worry not; I think it’s going to be ok, because this is the first in a new series! ‘Books on The Lifeshelf’ is all about fiction and non-fiction reading recommendations, and will eventually become a sprawling archive with a consciousness far superior to our own, that goes on to rule the planet. In the meantime, it has to start somewhere. And luckily for you, that somewhere is here.

Why reading recommendations? Because The Lifeshelf is all about learning to live and living to learn, and lots of our learning comes from books. Other articles will focus on travel and meeting people and learning skills out in the ‘real world’, but this space on the shelf is dedicated to the wealth of opportunity that resides in the written word. I should clarify; these aren’t going to be reviews. If they were, they would be extremely predictable and one-sided, as I have neither the time nor the inclination to write 1,000 words on a book that I didn’t love. Only books that have enhanced my life go on my Lifeshelf (it’s a metaphor, go with it), and I’ll only write about those that I think you’d enjoy too.

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So if you’re always on the lookout for books that inspire and educate, you’re probably going to want to hang around. Of course, it’s a two-way street – recommend some to me and I’ll check them out, especially if they’re about psychology, creativity or otters. And if you’re not already an avid bibliophile (that’s someone who loves books, as opposed to someone with a hobbit fetish), I hope that you’ll stay long enough to be swayed by my relentless enthusiasm. Failing that, I’ll bombard you with quotes I found on the internet. Indeed, I do recall that the Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said:

‘Books are the training weights of the mind’.

And his name started with ‘epic’…so make of that what you will. Anyway, if this all sounds like a fair deal, then scroll on past the girl in the hammock and find out which book is first to grace The Lifeshelf. Spoiler alert: it’s in the title.

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Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell.

Now, let’s get one thing straight, straight away. We’re not talking about that David Mitchell. As far as I’m aware, Mark from Peep Show had absolutely zero involvement in this fine work of literature, which let’s face it, is probably a good thing. You’d be forgiven for making the mistake though. At least, I hope you would, because I made it too. Indeed, I’m ashamed to admit that I downloaded Ghostwritten for the following reasons:

  1. I thought it was the debut work of serious fiction from that David Mitchell (now we know), and I wondered whether it would be surprisingly good, or surprisingly bad.
  2. It was on offer for £0.99, so I wasn’t too fussed either way.

Thankfully, with my erroneous download complete, the ‘About the Author’ section was on hand to educate me.

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Buy Ghostwritten here (or get the moral satisfaction of supporting a local business, whatever).

To save you the trouble, here’s a quick rundown:

Ghostwritten is Mitchell’s debut novel, published way back in ’99 when he was teaching English in Japan. He was thirty and received a fistful of awards for being young and talented; certainly, Ghostwritten sets the bar at an inspirational (read: depressing) height for aspiring novelists.

Even if you’ve not heard of him, you may have come across his work – one of his later novels, ‘Cloud Atlas’, was turned into a film starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. I’ve yet to read any of his others, but they include ‘number9dream’, ‘Black Swan Green’ and ‘The Bone Clocks’.

Bonus: According to a recent Twitter exchange between this David Mitchell and that David Mitchell, there is also a Cumbrian origamist with the same name, so watch out for that.

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So now we’re all up to speed, what about the actual book? Lets start with something simple, like an overview of the plot…

Actually, let’s not. We’d probably all agree that, traditionally, a key component of a novel’s ‘greatness’ is a great plot. This delicately-woven-yet-unbreakable thread links the very first word to the very last, and keeps us excited and guessing throughout. Eventually, it all ties together and everyone breathes a sigh of relief, then claps profusely. It is by no means a crime to appreciate and expect a solid plot.

However, if you absolutely can’t stand the idea of reading a novel that, to be honest, doesn’t really have one, you should probably give Ghostwritten a miss. The thing is, it’s a ‘novel in nine parts’. In place of the usual format (short-to-medium length chapters, each doing their bit to advance the overall story) we have long chapters, and each tells a different tale, from a different character’s perspective.

Among others, this includes: a teenage jazz buff who works in a Tokyo record store; backpackers on the Trans Siberian Express; the owner of a repeatedly endangered tea shack on the side of China’s Holy Mountain; an art thief in St. Petersburg; and an English businessman struggling with life in Hong Kong. The stories of these nine narrators are inextricably linked to their locations, and much of my enjoyment came from the constant globetrotting between and within each chapter. The descriptions of East Asian locations are particularly vibrant (the author was living in Japan after all), and won’t do anything to suppress your increasingly demanding sense of wanderlust.

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It’s nearly all written in first person, and the writing expertly shifts in voice to reflect each character’s outlook. Honestly, Ghostwritten is so full of neat turns of phrase that picking out any for special mention is an arbitrary task. Some characters are thinkers; others go ahead and do. Some are loud and offensive in their thoughts and actions; others are poetic, even meditative, in their poise. Some, like the tragically-mislead narrator of the opening chapter, have a pretty disgusting view of other people:

‘The subway train in Tokyo was as crammed as a cattle-wagon. Crammed with organs, wrapped in meat, wrapped in clothes.’

Because we’re inside this guy’s head, Mitchell never has to explicitly tell us that he’s a horrible person, it’s readily conveyed in how he sees the world. We inhabit his perspective long enough to judge him, understand him, witness his story and ultimately, empathise with him, and then we move on to someone (and somewhere) else…eight times.

In this sense then, Ghostwritten is more like an anthology of independently conceived short stories than a novel. Except actually, it isn’t. Because there is a thread, it’s just much less solid – and therefore in many ways, that little bit more rewarding – than the one holding together say, a fast-paced thriller like The Girl on the Train, or anything remotely resembling good old Harry Potter and Whatever The Last One Was Called.

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The thread exists in the interweaving of the stories, but not in an obvious ‘nine strangers, one fateful day, all their lives changed forever’ kind of way. In the most overt cases, it causes characters whose stories began worlds apart to bump into each other, and although they rarely interact in anything but the most fleeting of ways, it’s just enough to remind you that this is actually rather well tied-together after all. Generally it’s through tiny non-coincidences that they invade each other’s chapters – an overheard news report, an unassuming mutual acquaintance, a visit to a now-familiar location.

Often these links are subtle, and I’ve doubtless missed many on my first read through. Ghostwritten will have you frequently feeling the stirrings of déjà vu, before realising that an identical sentiment or observation has been expressed elsewhere. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a sentence that’s re-used word for word at least twice in subsequent chapters. All this cleverness lends itself to the feeling that there’s some kind of meta-theme to understand and take pride in having understood. Indeed, much of the time you’ll be adamant that what you’re reading is deeply profound and definitely ‘about’ something, even if you can’t quite decide what it actually is.

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Of course, if there is a dominant unifying theme, it might be the one given away in the title. Certainly, one chapter tells the story of a ghostwriter (also part-time drummer and full-time womaniser) in London, and in other chapters, ‘ghostwritten’ takes on different but equally apparent meanings (vague I know, but avoiding spoilers is harder than it looks!).

My own interpretation is that Mitchell is the ghostwriter. He tells stories from his characters’ perspective, selling the words as theirs rather than his own. This is hinted at by lots of little in-jokes about writers, my favourite being:

‘I added writers to my list of people not to trust. They make everything up’.

Indeed they do, but not many that I’ve read do it quite so well as this guy. In fact, I reckon that my own capacity for making things up has greatly benefited from reading his work. Short of supercharging my writing skills through literary osmosis, it’s fuelled my ambition, influenced my approach, and opened my eyes to there being less ‘rules’ than I’d previously thought.

And it’s because of this that I’ll read it again and again; in other words, Ghostwritten is going on The Lifeshelf. For the inspiration and learning, let alone the hours of entertainment, it’s clearly worth far more than the £0.99 that I mistakenly paid for it. Maybe one day I’ll make a real-life Lifeshelf and buy a hard copy to go on it. Or even better, having stuck with my unashamedly gushing testimonial to the bitter end, maybe you’ll be inclined to check it out for yourself? Perhaps you’ll even buy it on purpose…

Now we know.

 

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Thanks for reading –  please leave a comment if you’ve read Ghostwritten, or want to recommend a book for The Lifeshelf! Words by Alexander MJ S. Images from Pexels, Pixabay and Amazon. 

 

 

 

 

4 Ways Meditation Will Improve Your Life (…and 3 Ways it Won’t)

Meditation has been practised in various forms around the world for thousands of years. However, over here in the Western world it seems to be more in vogue right now than ever before, with books, classes, apps and spin-off products everywhere you look (mindful colouring, anyone?). Despite the products and the hype, at the core of the trend is something pure and simple – meditation itself.

But what’s the point? What’s the appeal? If you give it a go, what can you expect?

In this debut post for The Lifeshelf, I intend to answer these questions by drawing from my own experience of practising meditation for the last two years.

In short, I’m going to tell you the top four ways that I think meditation will improve your life:

1. By training you to focus, like a boss.

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It’s a common misconception that the aim of meditation is to sit down and think about nothing. Have you ever tried that? It’s not just hard, it’s impossible.

In mindfulness meditation, the aim is usually to focus on the sensation of your breath. This gives you a point of concentration, and makes the task of letting go of all those random thoughts – whether they’re anxious concerns, ideas for dinner, or the hook from that Radio 1 banger that you love to hate – considerably more achievable.

Through learning to focus on the breath, you’re training the ability to focus on a task without distraction. Clearly, this has benefits IRL; I’m no Zen master, but through meditation I’ve improved my ability to knuckle down on an article in a busy coffee shop, or to ignore the screaming baby in the train carriage when I’m trying to read. Equally, I find myself engaging properly with complex tasks such as practicing bass guitar, instead of playing on autopilot and thinking about something exciting but irrelevant, like bacon. So, if you always find yourself getting distracted by the conversations around you – or even the ones in your own head – meditation can probably help.

2. By making you more aware, of everything.

It may sound like a contradiction, but one of the most intriguing things about meditation is the hard-to-describe feeling of being focused on one thing and aware of everything else, at the same time.

You’re aware of thoughts and outside stimuli. But they don’t distract you, because you’re focused on the breath, remember? Sessions on Headspace (my personal choice of guided meditation app, though I expect others are similar in this respect) begin by encouraging you to notice the sounds around you, the physical sensations of your body, and any strong emotions you may be feeling. And when you settle down to focus on the breath, you naturally begin to notice how each inhalation and exhalation feels; how its length varies or remains consistent; where it travels to in the body; how it’s cold as it enters your nose, but warm as it leaves…all little observations that help you to focus.

In this way, meditation trains you to be perceptive and curious. Even better, because your brain after meditation feels quiet and calm, it notices things that a busy or anxious brain probably wouldn’t. You’ve seen Limitless, right? He takes the pill; everything goes super high-definition. Imperceptible details suddenly become obvious, he’s super smart and life is great (give or take all the violent complications). Well, when meditation is really working for you, it’s…nothing like that.

However, after meditating you will start to notice more of the awesome details that are built into every day, even when you’re doing nothing out of the ordinary. And if, like me, you love to travel – to witness awe-inspiring sights around the world and extract maximum value from the experience – then these little details are a big deal.

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3. By bringing you a sense of calm.

If I had any money, I’d bet that the most common reason people take up meditation is to experience a sense of calm, and to help them deal with the potentially stressful occurrences of daily life.

I’d be willing to bet, because I can personally relate. Having struggled with the consequences of anxiety throughout my late teens, I tried many different tactics to get it under control and take charge of my life (no doubt the subject of a future post, when I’m feeling brave). With those difficulties now for the most part behind me, these days meditation is the cornerstone of my strategy for keeping day-to-day anxiety in check.

Because it involves sitting still with a balanced posture, and observing the natural rhythm of the breath, meditation is a surefire way to relax the body. And sometimes, simply allowing your body to relax is enough to encourage your mind to do the same.

But the real relaxation jackpot lies in the feeling of ‘intense clarity’ that comes from ‘letting the mind be free’ after focusing on the breath. I’ve borrowed the former term from the teacher of a class I attended in Bristol, and the latter from the Headspace app; both aptly describe the little slice of personal nirvana that (for me) marks the peak of a great sitting, and leaves the mind feeling cleansed and in balance.

However, meditation’s anxiety busting powers extend beyond the sitting itself (spot the theme here, anyone?). In my experience, most anxiety is derived from negative forecasts – anxious thoughts about something bad that may or may not happen in the future – or overreactions to things that are happening now.

But through meditation, we learn to be mindful. This means that our attention is directed solely to the present moment, and when we’re doing that, we can’t be worrying about what might happen in the distant future, or even the immediate one. Ideally, we observe what is actually happening in our environment – or in our own body or mind – from a more balanced position, and can respond accordingly without overreacting.

4. By slowing down time.

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If you’ve ever wished that there were more hours in the day, meditation needs to be on your agenda. Whether you’re a student, an artist, an entrepreneur, a writer or anyone else who works to deadlines, you’ve probably wondered how you could get more done in less time. Well, no prizes for guessing which ‘productivity hack’ I’d recommend…

It may seem counterintuitive to begin a busy day by meditating – by all outward appearances you’re sitting down doing nothing, when you should be hard at work, right? Wrong. Meditation need only take ten to twenty minutes of your day. I won’t speak for others, but I know that if I’m in the wrong frame of mind when I’ve got work to do and deadlines looming, I can wave goodbye to huge chunks of time spent stressing, procrastinating or running round like a headless chicken not knowing where to start. By contrast, after meditating I experience all the goodness we’ve already discussed – greater focus, an awareness of the bigger picture and the finer details, mindfulness of the present moment – and can feed it into the task at hand.

This really does feel like slowing down time. The deadlines lose a little of their fear factor; I approach tasks more logically and achieve more in the time as a consequence, without slipping into panic mode. There’s an old Buddhist saying that says it like it is:

‘You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour’.

In other words, it’s on the days that you’re so busy (read: stressed) that you don’t feel you can possibly sacrifice the time to meditate, that you’ll most benefit from doing so!

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But wait! Before you rush off to meditate, we ought to discuss a few ways that it won’t improve your life:

1.By giving you a quick fix.

Meditation is not a competitive sport, so it’s not about practising to become the ‘best’. However, a certain level of familiarity is required in order to experience most of the benefits we’ve discussed, and this comes with sticking with it.

If you’re expecting your first session to be easy, with an instant payoff, you’ll be disappointed and tempted to pack it in. Instead, I’d recommend approaching meditation with the intention of laying the foundations of a new skill, in the faith that your persistence will be worth it in the near future.

2. By giving you the gift of flight.

You might have seen videos of Buddhist monks levitating. However if you want to fly, may I gently suggest that you look elsewhere? The Ryanair website springs to mind. Call me a cynic, but I’m not convinced on the whole human levitation thing.

That being said, if you’re not after actual superhuman powers, but just want to feel like you’re levitating, a course of meditation might be worth a shot. Bear with me here. On a handful of occasions, I’ve experienced a distinct feeling of weightlessness whilst meditating. I’m sure this was just a variation on ‘intense clarity’ (or maybe I needed sugar), but in the moment it did feel like levitation! Come to think of it, I didn’t open my eyes to check…

3. If you don’t give it a try.

Cheap shot, I know. But the only thing that I can 100%, hand-on-heart guarantee about meditation is that it won’t improve your life if you never try it. Apart from ten minutes, what have you got to lose?

Here’s a couple of links to get you started:

Headspace: https://www.headspace.com/

Meditation classes in Bristol: http://www.hamiltonhouse.org/events/

Thanks for reading! Follow for future content on meditation and much more. Words by Alexander MJ S. Images from Pexels.