Life today is full of choices, but few of them ever seem to lead to happiness. In this confusing maze, where each road taken is little more than arbitrary, it becomes too easy to follow the crowd and take no road at all.

According to the materialism of the 20th and early 21st centuries there is little room for anything but profit and ownership. We are encouraged to think of happy people as successful people, and with particular reference to Celebrity culture, desire nothing more than to be like them.

And yet for the most part, their lives are disasters. Over-inflated egos always hungry for possessions: more sex, money, cars and houses never seem to satiate them. Yet still unaware of the gnawing emptiness that greets everyone who has everything they could ever reasonably want, we are encouraged to follow every trend, every fashion in a contradictory and ever-thwarted quest for individual identity. In short, cut off from our roots we are in danger of becoming adrift and empty, a vessel longing to be filled by whatever rubbish is being sold by the media and society at large.Is it any wonder that as a Nation we are sicker than ever in body and mind?

A starting point to address these symptoms is to reassess our ideas and our definition of happiness. Does what we do to be happy feed our passion for life, inspire our spirit and help us to grow as individuals? Or is it mere momentary satisfaction that leaves us no better off?

I am certainly not championing a life of abstinence. What I am suggesting is that a night with old friends is very different to getting pissed ever weekend, and a blossoming relationship can offer more than a one-night stand. Egos that need constant inflation just to survive, self-esteem so low it needs emergency feeding; this is the cause of our addiction to what we might call  ‘surface’ happiness.

Does a man shouting ‘wanker’ at a passer by in the hope of starting a fight strike you as happy? Is the woman who has maxed out her credit cards any different apart from the new clothes she is proudly wearing? Is the womaniser who wakes up for the second night in a row with a girl whose name he can’t remember better off?

I am not saying do not do any of these things, they can be a lot of fun! What I am saying is do not expect any lasting happiness to grow from them.

The brilliant film ‘Groundhog Day’ says this better than I ever could. Once Phil has accepted that there is no escape from the day he is in, he passes the time eating, drinking, stealing and sleeping with any woman he can. But in his thwarted attempts to woo the girl he really wants, he suddenly sees the kind of man he wants to be. The next day he begins to learn to play the piano. This is the start of the self-growth that culminates in him realising the wonderful person he is capable of being, not in some distant future, but today.


Read-Only Emotions, Read-Write Behaviours

Many of us spend too much time worrying about negative thoughts and feelings and battling mentally to change them. I am no different. But eventually I realised that what I was trying to do was impossible.

It finally occured to me that my thoughts and emotions were not directly under my control – like a standard CD they were read only. I could sense them like listening to music but not over-write them with happier tracks no matter how much I tried.

This gave me some release from worry. If there is nothing that can be done, then there is very little point worrying, even for someone as obsessive as myself (See Freedom is  a confusing thing).  However this didn’t permanently solve the problem for me as at some time in the future I would no doubt be caught in a negative spiral again and be unable to do anything other than just ride it out.

The next piece of the puzzle fell into place when I was feeling particularly angry. I could not trace the source of the anger, I just felt it in my body. Slowly I became aware that all the muscles in my thighs (I was seated at the time) were tense. I took some deep calming breaths and the muscles began to release their tension and relax. Soon afterward the angry feeling had also passed. In a relaxed body the anger could not be sustained.

So by a change in behaviour – by physical breathing (clearly controllable by exercising our Will) we can change our feelings, in my case anger.

So behaviour is read-write, it can be both read (observed in ourselves and others) and written (by changing our actions).  And these changes in behaviour lead to a change in mental state.

The easiest way to do this is through paying attention to breathing. In the first place the change in perspective takes our mind off worries so our mental state cannot get any worse, and even more importantly by breathing properly and fully the body cannot sustain unpleasant emotions.

This works for anger, sadness and fear – each are symptoms are improper breathing.

I am not saying that if you are grieving this will solve it for you. Of course deep grief takes time to pass. But this technique, by working on the outer parts of ‘you’ that you can control, allows the inner parts to be changed also, reducing unnecessary suffering.

Freedom from choice

Freedom is a confusing thing. Take a step back a couple of hundred years and most of what we call freedom today would be gone.

“From Samurai father come Samurai son”.

Whether you were born into Feudal Japan or just outside Northampton your chances of employment were very limited and most likely you’d end up following in Daddy’s footsteps. Ditto with your chances of travel – though some did see the world, it took years and the chances of death on the high seas through malnutrition and disease were staggering. You’d probably grow up, live and die in the town or village you were born in.

Today we in the developed world have such freedom it is almost beyond belief. We can travel the world, we have access to education and health services, and we can read the words of wisdom gathered over thousands of years of human history. Sure there is vast inequality, as much or more than ever, but even those nearer the bottom of the pile than the top have access to far more than our forebears could have imagined possible.

I have a theory… No doubt others have had similar thoughts.

The choices we are presented with today are so numerous that, in general, they are more than the conscious mind can handle. The result is stress and paralysis. We have too much to choose between and all our choices either become arbitrary or like confused sheep we follow the herd. And yet, and yet….the world today is such an incredible place, with so much variety and opportunity. By rights it should be wonderful.

So what if our choices were removed or reduced in number to something manageable?

Say by the discipline of a trained mind…

It occurred to me many years ago that I was always very relaxed when having a hair cut. Soon I realised this was because there was nothing else I could be doing: No shopping, no cleaning, and no paying of bills: None of the mundane shit than can fill our lives if we’re not careful. Without them there was nothing to do but sit back, breathe and wait for my hair to be cut. I had the sudden realisation that I was free.

Let me use another example. I am a long standing student of the martial arts. Many times I have tried, with varying success, to create spontaneous, real time katas (patterns). On the occasions where I was successful I noted that the common factor was that I had restricted my choice of moves or the range of permitted motion. In this way suddenly less became more, as I found new ways of moving and striking using only basic techniques.

I realised that my past failures were not because I knew too little, but that I knew too much. I had to impose rules in order to free creativity.

There are many explanations for why this might be effective. My favourite at the moment is that in occupying the conscious mind with a task, we are freeing our unconscious to do its job. Why it works is not important. But the fact it does shows that to get the maximum enjoyment out of life we must have rules. Only then can we experience freedom.

Good intentions

In this blog I’ll try to write down all my thoughts, ideas and questions about life. Hopefully the act of writing them down will give some answers, as I reflect my musings in the Zen Mirror that is this blog site.

More than anything I hope that this blog will help me and any other readers/contributors to learn from my experiences and the experiences of others that I write about.

Good Intentions

A friend of mine has always said that he doesn’t believe in discipline. As he’s a rather deadly martial artist I didn’t feel like arguing with him and besides, as he elaborated I saw that his thinking made a lot of sense.

If you wish to get better at press ups or what-have-you, you can force yourself to do them. But this kind of motivation is short lived. Eventually you’ll have a bad day and just stop. And this doesn’t just go for physical training; it applies to all sorts of good intentions. Any long term progress must be driven by something more. Call it passion, call it inspiration, call it a force of growth beyond yourself.

I am not talking here about something you’d quite like to do. I’d quite like to play the piano. But guess what, it’s never happened. But I really, really wanted to learn martial arts, and I’m still training 6 or 7 years later. So there definitely has to be an element of personal Will here. It is my belief that you must make this Will or intention resonate deep down in your very being. But is that all that is required?

Any thoughts welcome!

I have decided to write this blog as often as I can. The question is: have I really decided to do so, or is this just one of those ‘would be nice intentions’? Only time will tell…

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