The power of gratitude

We’ve all had our priorities shifted here in Christchurch by recent events. Once the fact really sank in that we live in a place where any second, with absolutely no warning, the earth can rise up roaring under our feet and the walls come tumbling down, we had to accept certain realities, like ultimate lack of control, quite differently.

I mean, sure we can control our day to day realities up to a point, but the big things, the life and death stuff, that’s pretty much out of our hands. That’s the same for everyone, no matter where we live or what we do.

But there’s something we can control no matter what our personal situation. Our own response to life. This isn’t easy. In fact it’s probably the hardest thing of all. Often it feels easier to move mountains than control our own minds.

But here in Christchurch, when we feel so helpless in many ways, shifting our priorities to focus on the things we actually can have some small hope of controlling has been a very healthy thing for a lot of people I know.

I’ve been reading some interesting writing recently about how to grow wellbeing and happiness in our lives, and more specifically, the power of gratitude to increase happiness. I have a small daughter, so I’m particularly keen to teach her how she can nurture happiness in her own life. One thing many of these writers emphasise is how making a daily habit of stating things we are grateful for can create a sense of well being, and encourage the habit of savouring life.

Some people keep gratitude journals. And I am a stone cold sucker for nice stationery, so when I saw this puppy, well, the idea of keeping a book of things I am thankful for seemed all the more enticing.

But we as a family have chosen instead to go round the table at supper and ask each other what we are grateful for. Initially it felt contrived. Some days I struggled to think of anything I was thankful for. I was tired, I felt grumpy, work had been hard and I still had three hours of writing to do once I put the small person to bed. What had I got to be grateful for?

Well of course the answer in these situations is always, “so much, you self pitying twerp!”

As soon as I realised that, I begin to remember the good things, the little moments that illuminated a difficult day. I’m not talking about the bigger picture stuff, like the fact that here and now I am incredibly lucky just to have a job, a house and my family around me (although some days, believe me, when I say I feel grateful for these things, I really mean it). I’m thinking about the gilded instants that lift the whole. The moment when, walking home, the sun came out and the bellbirds started singing. The postcard that arrived from a friend. The hug that my daughter gave me when I picked her up from preschool. The little beautiful things. I’m grateful for them.

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Being Part of the Scenery

Ever had those moments, periods, even days, that seemed to flash by while you were looking the other way?  Ever been reading a book only to get to the end of a page and realise you’ve taken none of it in?

Every now and then I’ve had morning bus rides, bike rides and even scarier – car rides that I can’t remember.  I get to work, settle at my desk and realise I’ve just lost the last half an hour.  I remember being quite freaked out in the past when on occasion I’d driven somewhere and couldn’t really remember the specifics of getting there.  Yikes!

And not because I’d been drinking but because I had ‘transported’ my consciousness while my sub-conscious did the riding, walking or driving.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love daydreaming (best done when you’re not the one driving though) but sometimes we go through life in a kind of waking dream, not fully present in the moment or attending to the task at hand.  In short, we are not in a mindful state.

Mindfulness is the opposite of this.  Over on the Foundation’s website a fellow Health Promoter, Grant has described the practice of Mindfulness rather eloquently:

‘mindfulness helps us recognise and savour the wholesome moments that are already present in our lives. Often these are the quiet moments – they are so natural and smooth that they tend to slip by unnoticed. With mindfulness we touch these moments and we begin to taste the quiet joy that accompanies them.’

Grant discusses how Mindfulness has grown as a therapeutic technique but also transcends beyond treatment, becoming a lifestyle.

‘(Mindfulness is)… a way of being in the world rather than simply another technique that we ‘add’ to our lives.’

The beauty of mindfulness is it can be practiced anywhere, anytime (yes, even while driving your car).  It helps us to fully experience the richness of existence and appreciate the beauty of any given moment or place in time.  And that’s good for anyone, of any age, anytime.

I often used to think as I was driving my car to or from work how separated I was from the elements outside (sometimes that was a good thing – or so I used to believe).  But I didn’t realise until I started walking and biking just how much I was insulated from the world, from the experience that was ‘outside’.  And the more I say that word and think about it (“outside… out… side… outside”) the whole concept of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ starts to get pretty funky.  Whichever side you’re on, you’re on the side of something.  But what, exactly?

I digress.

I used to try being more mindful as I drove, or as I sat idling in traffic.  But I’m finding it much more rewarding when I’m walking.  Part of the appeal for me in going car-free was the opportunity to feel more connected with my environment – literally ‘part of the scenery’ – rather than a passive spectator.  I also needed something of a push (OK, a kick up the ass) to get out there and start doing it.  It was just never the right time, never convenient to begin.

As we’ve talked about before, going car-free for us was an idea whose time had come on the crest of a convergence of forces, reasons and aspirations.  It’s interesting to see which of those is becoming more or less important over the short time we’ve been doing it so far.  I’m really starting to love the walks up or down the hill, and even through town, in all sorts of weather.  I’ve now acquired a whole bunch of waterproof cycling gear and accessories to cope with every type of weather (no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothes) and I look forward to experiencing all of it this winter.

For those interested in the therapeutic application of Mindfulness, the UK Mental Health Foundation has started a major campaign championing Mindfulness.

Things I saw on the bus today

Two paradise ducks swimming in a rain pond formed in an abandoned building site. The site is a victim of the recession  but that pair of ducks, reflected in the pool of water glistening in the middle of that vacant lot, was far more beautiful than any retail development.

The fleeting glitter of the little golden onion dome of the Russian Orthodox church on Brougham Street. Half hidden by trees, and hemmed in by warehouses and car mechanics it looks like a whimsical toy dropped in a tool box.

Almost directly opposite the wee church are the grubby blue lego blocks of Brougham Village. I’ve been fascinated by this collection of tiny matching houses, watching them from the bus window and wondering what it is like to live there. Pieces of people’s possessions come and go in the windows, a pot plant, some china dolls, a half drunk bottle of tequila and a big sleepy ginger cat.

The bus driver was playing Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man at a volume that we could all sing along to. As we came through the traffic lights at the end of Brougham Street all the rocket ships were climbing through the sky. Everyone was quiet, listening. The sun was shining.

Out over the sea, a contrail carved a perfect white arc below the cirrus clouds as the plane completed its ascent from Christchurch airport and turned west towards Australia and the world beyond.

In Opawa two small boys climbed on the bus. They had grey school shorts on and their legs were thin and white. They climbed on the bus, two beetles bowed down under their giant backpacks. They sat together and as the bus pulled away from the stop they joyfully gave the finger to one of their class mates as he ran down the road, too late to catch the driver’s eye.

P.S. As I was writing this post a friend called by and told me about a blog by a writer who lives nearby and there I found this story about riding on the Christchurch buses, which made me smile.

The boredom of the habitual procrastinator

My new favourite occupation in that precious hour when the beast lies sleeping is to ransack the web for inspirational blogs.

This doesn’t vary that much from the usual. To you, standing on our deck, looking in the window, I’d still be seated at my computer, my posture probably not all it should be, as I peer myopically at the screen. Usually I’d be working, or possibly just wasting time, in a mental slump, slurping up the worldwideinternetweb in a passive haze, before the thud thud thud of little feet alerts me to the fact that I’m on duty again.

But I’ve noted there’s been a bit too much mindless mousing. I’ve ignored my child’s requests for a cuddle to click through one more vacuous pop culture link, or have opted to crouch half on, half off my chair while surfing, because that means that any minute I could leap up and do something more productive. But of course I don’t, I just stay there, contorted, until my muscles start to protest furiously. I have an aching muscle in the small of my back that tells of too much sitting and a dull persistent annoyance with myself that I’m not using this valuable quiet time to better effect.

So here’s my new resolution regarding using my computer, which I’m making right here and now. Once a week I get to have a goof online and mess around checking out newspapers, auctions, Facebook, various favourite frivolous blogs and estate agents (house porn darlings). The rest of the time, if I sit down at my desk, it will only be to work, to write or to research for writing. If what I am reading does not feed my mind, giving me ideas, making my fingers itch to be typing, or my muscles flex to be doing, then I’m going to put it down and walk away.

Now I’ve just got to muster up the self discipline to apply this excellent resolution to my promiscuous book reading habits, but not right now. I’ve got two Inspector Rebus novels and a biography of Coco Chanel out the library and I’m not made of stone you know.

Thinking harder about how we live as a family and why we live that way; has made me start to question many of the habits I’ve fallen into. It’s one of those big fat self evident facts that if you keep on doing the same things, day in day out; you’ll keep on getting the same results. Before you know it you’re in a rut and then you start to get bored. When I get bored, I get into trouble. The catch for me is that I’m not very good at changing the way I do things. I’m a creature of habit even if that habit is stultifying. If this exercise jump starts me to do some new things and find some new paths, well, that would be very nice and not at all boring.

So it’s been two weeks…how’s it really going?

It was easy to be all gung ho and idealistic at the beginning, but how’s it really going now that the car has been immobile for a couple of weeks?

There has been a bit of daily friction already as the rubber fails to meet the road and deliver us from effort. However the tricky stuff hasn’t necessarily been those things that immediately sprang to mind as potential stumbling blocks.

One of the main reasons that we are trying to live without a car is to save money, and that’s looking increasingly like a good plan, following last week’s awesome budget from our fabulous government, which should have been subtitled “bend over working families of New Zealand as we shaft you roughly up the family budget while simultaneously insulting your intelligence”.

However the other main point of the exercise is to live better;  to tread more lightly on our environment, and also maybe to slow down a bit, stop rushing about, find other ways to do things and get places, and hopefully to consume a bit less along the way. So this isn’t about cheating and borrowing cars from the legion of very kind friends who have offered them. Apart from the fact that, that would be like being the ex smoker who “only smokes when they are socialising” (your cigarettes, every fucking weekend), we’d actually like this small change to be a catalyst for living more mindfully overall.

So in the spirit of honesty and sharing, here’s a round-up of some of the things that have suddenly become issues, and some of the things that haven’t as well.

  • Groceries? Not a problem. Online delivery is amazingly user friendly and straightforward, and we are already getting a weekly veggie box, so it’s just an extension of that. There is a delivery fee, but it’s reasonable, and we’re probably saving money overall, as we’re not buying any of those tasty treats that just happen to fall into your trolley enroute round the supermarket.  Furthermore, I’m trying to do one big monthly order and on top of that make do with the veggie box, and get the rest locally or on Saturday at the Lyttelton Market. Partly that’s to save money, and partly it’s to cut down on the number of deliveries we get, as they are still car trips, just trips made by someone else.
  • Taking the little beast to pre-school on foot is proving to be good exercise, as it’s an hour round trip to drop her off, and another hour round trip to pick her up. I’m not complaining yet, as it’s hardly a chore to walk across beautiful Lyttelton on the golden autumn mornings we’ve been having since she started going. Ask me again in a month’s time, when it’s three degrees colder, still dark when I leave the house and pissing down and see how perky I am about it then. The other issue I’m grappling with here is that two of the four rare and delightful child free hours I am purchasing myself are spent delivering and collecting my little bundle of joy from the nursery. However I’m aware that this issue is attitudinal and maybe I ought view the walking as precious time for peaceful reflection and movement, instead of feeling guilty that I’m not writing scintillating copy for clients/cooking nutritious delicious food/working on my back log of illustrations/cleaning the ever grubby house/doing my tummy exercises/crafting the great English novel/corresponding with my neglected friends and family etc etc.
  • Filling our big gas bottles is probably not going to be a problem either if I can find a LPG delivery company that stays on the phone after I say the dread word Lyttelton to them.
  • The cat needs her WOF as well.  Haven’t solved this one yet, but she’s five months overdue and counting for a teeth clean, so I’d better solve this quickly before I have to make her chicken broth for the rest of her toothless existence. I can’t see her appreciating being taken to the vet on the bus. Nor indeed would the other passengers appreciate the agonized wailing. Stay tuned for our solution to this thrilling dilemma.
  • More seriously, and this is a bit of a nail biting one this, what happens if the baby gets sick and needs urgent medical attention? In the middle of the night? I don’t really want to think about this one. I guess we’ll be phoning a taxi or an ambulance.
  • Going out in the evening isn’t a problem as we rarely/never go into Christchurch anyway.  In fact we rarely/never go out in the evening at all, so when we do, the pulsating flesh pots of Lyttelton are plenty exciting. However, what is a cause for some chagrin is the abrupt curtailment of our tasty take away habit. No car, no piping hot takeaway. Although we are only a ten minute fast vertical hike from the town centre, so maybe if we mounted our smallest chilly bin on wheels we could run back and forth with the goodies.
  • Visiting Grilly, the Bobbin’s paternal grandmother. Bit of a tough one this as well. She doesn’t drive and lives two longish bus rides from us, which makes for a bit of a mission. We’re just going to have to adjust and make visiting Grilly the whole day’s activity at least one Saturday a month. On the very plus side here, she bakes a mean cake and increased effort expended in travel could definitely lead to increased reward in baked goods if negotiated correctly.
  • Getting to somewhere beautiful that isn’t Lyttelton may be the big sticking point with this experiment. Going somewhere in the city without a car isn’t ever a problem, so long as you are prepared to spend a bit longer getting there and maybe do a bit of walking as well. But right out of our window is Banks Peninsula, a big beautiful piece of landscape just crying out to be explored, and beyond that is the rest of the South Island, which has one or two things worth seeing as well. But it isn’t well served by public transport. How are we going to show our daughter the myriad of riches on her doorstep and beyond? Don’t know the answer to this yet, but we’re only two weeks into this and I’m starting to get cabin fever, so it’s something I’m thinking about.

All that said, tomorrow’s going to be a big fat day of cheating from beginning to end as we use illicit four wheeled conveyances to further our own trivial lifestyle requirements. If we’re not too ashamed of ourselves we may tell you about it. Or maybe not.