The tryanny of lists

I’m really no good at DIY but I am good at lists and ticking them off. Although there’s always a list forming in my head, I have been a bit less ‘listy’ of late, so it was with renewed fervour that I raced through a to-do list this week, so much so that I couldn’t stop.

Life always gets a bit intense before I go overseas – I’ve got about 12 sleeps to go – and the devil is definitely in the detail. Today I tried to print off my train ticket from Vienna to Zurich (a bargain 49 Euros for a seven and a half hour scenic journey – if you can work out how to print off the ticket…). So drawing on my (rusty) university German, I called the OBB, the Austrian railway, and got through to a most charming woman. I managed to explain the problem and found out that I had chosen the pick up at the counter option rather than online printing. Everything was going swimmingly until I realised I didn’t know how to end the conversation. Luckily the woman got in before me and I remembered it’s Auf Wiederhoeren – meaning until we hear each other again – rather than Auf Wiedersehen (as in pet, anyone remember the British comedy?) – until we meet again. Another thing for the list: brush up my Deutsch!

Back to the DIY: one of my jobs has been to re-paint a couple of shelves in the bathroom as the paint had peeled off in two sections where a bottle of essential oil had spilt. I duly went into the shed for the vile oil-based enamel paint that the rip-off painters (see https://thisquirkylife.com/2014/06/24/renovations-stopped-play/) had used back in July. Then I put on some really old clothes, set up the dust sheets, did a bit of light sanding, pulled on a pair of special gloves (last time I got paint all over my hands and even my nose!) and did a reasonable job only spilling a bit of paint on the glass shower screen. Once completed, I felt proud to have done the job and celebrated by taking Bertie to the park. I met a fellow dog walker and apologised for smelling of turps. She said she couldn’t smell anything but noticed I had quite a bit of paint in my hair… It never ceases to amaze me that I am perfectly competent in many areas of my life but develop Mr Bean-like tendencies when it comes to home maintenance.

In between the freelance writing, I’ve also done some cooking (got my former (elderly) neighbours for morning tea this weekend), cleaned my high maintenance black and white bathroom floors, went to ALDI, op shops, second-hand furniture shops, prepared my spare room for next week’s Airbnb photo shoot, cleaned up my garden and leaf-strewn carport and took photos of my house to show folks back home. I also put up three small pictures in my guest bathroom (a few holes short of precise but my bodged attempts were easily covered) and then zipped off to JB HI-FI for new back-up drive (the old one died) and an HDMI cable so I can watch films playing on my computer on the TV screen. All very satisfying stuff but rather helter skelter, achievement-driven and rushed. So I’ve been delighted by the series of beautifully written and well observed blog posts from a friend who is a WWOOFER (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) in Japan. She’s living with a very eco-minded family who have a deep connection to the land, observe rituals and live with precision, total attention and mindfulness, qualities that are uncommon in today’s ego-driven materialist world. Her blog is called A Man, A Woman and Four Languages, and I thoroughly recommend it.

“Yesterday evening I was given a lethal hatchet knife to slice up spring onions. But my 3mm slices weren’t good enough; 1mm was what was required. Not for the first time I felt very uncivilised. So, this morning, when Rie asked me to arrange some umeboshi plums from the bin where they’d been soaking in brine, to a flat basket, to dry, I made sure that they were arranged exactly as briefed. Which meant really slowing down, and concentrating. It’s the same with the gardening, because of the approach to weed control

How do they get anything done when it all takes so long? I asked her over email. She replied “most of their life centres on the basics of growing, cooking, cleaning, washing, heating, maintaining. And these tasks aren’t chores to be completed as fast as possible; they are the stuff of life, i.e. the end as much as the means. ….doing jobs as quickly as possible isn’t the point.

I really must hurry up and look at self-publishing my book titled, SLOWING Down in the Fast Lane: From Adventure to Zen and Everything in Between.

Life Lessons at the School of Life

“Lost for words, copywriter ditches job and calls it a day.”

I wrote this mock headline as part of a wonderful class – How to Stay Calm – at the School of Life in Melbourne. The exercise was to coin a headline summarising a situation where we lost our cool and did more than just feel our anger, we acted upon it.

For those who haven’t come across it before, the School of Life was started by philosopher, TV presenter and author Alan de Botton and has its headquarters in London. To quote from their website: The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world.

Melbourne’s School of Life is located at the Spencer St end of Bourke St and has a small cafe framed by natural wood bookshelves stacked with everything from the classics and contemporary literature to self-help, philosophy and the humanities. The lecture-style classroom leads off the cafe and is also book-lined, intimate and inviting.

Copyright: School of Life

Copyright: School of Life

For three hours last Wednesday Elise Bialylew, founder of Mindful in May (www.mindfulinmay.org), led us in a wonderfully rich discussion drawing on the works of some of the great philosophers and thinkers from Kierkegaard to Buddha as well as contemporary thinkers, psychologists, neuroscientists, futurists and researchers.

I’ve explored all sorts of therapies, attended different types of retreats and experimented with various styles of meditation and ways to stay balanced, but there’s always more to learn and re-learn. It’s not as if we were taught how to manage or relate to our emotions at school or university, at least not when I was in the education system. Elise reminded us that emotional wellbeing is a skill and takes practice just like a sport. So, as well as going to the gym, we need to make time for training our minds.

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Emerging research shows that mindfulness – training our minds to focus on one thing at a time and staying in the present moment – can actually develop our pre-frontal cortex. This is heartening as our brains haven’t kept up with the pace of change and evolved to cope with the demands of modern life. But a little mind training can help update the software. Want to know more? Try reading Daniel Siegel’s The Mindful Brain or do what I did and download some guided meditations onto my phone. I love guided meditations as I find it much easier to still my mind and focus.

During the class we also reflected on what it is to be human, and the fears that we all share. According to Buddhism, mankind’s five greatest fears are: fear of death; fear of illness; fear of losing your mind; fear of loss of livelihood; and fear of public speaking. Who hasn’t experienced one or all of those at some stage in their life?

Given our inherent human vulnerability – it’s time we learnt to listen to the likes of researcher and author Brené Brown who writes that owning our vulnerability can be a strength and actually connects us to others – the last part of the class focused on five key prescriptions for living. (If you’ve not yet discovered Brené Brown, I highly recommend one of her TEDTalks http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame?language=en) –

The Five Prescriptions

1. Acceptance – survival stories – Elise recounted the story of a shipwreck survivor entitled the Sinking of the Trashman which is part of a collection of extraordinary stories called The Moth (more about the Moth in a future blog). What emerged from this tale of survival was a belief in a higher power, a conscious choice of focus (expressed as a sense of wonder at the sky, the stars etc), a talisman (she threw a black pearl into the sea as kind of offering), a determination to focus on positive memories even in the face of death (two crew members were eaten by sharks), a great deal of resilience and lots of common sense practicality; for example, she used seaweed for insulation.

2. Discernment – mindful awareness – a recent study showed that five hours of mindfulness actually changed the body’s genetic expression and can help with inflammation and chronic pain. What’s more, it can even boost production of an enzyme that protects against ageing. Forget botox and collagen…

3. Surrender to the Ascetic or Aesthetic – perhaps losing oneself in nature or becoming absorbed in a work of art.

4. Compassion – empathy and identifying with others – which can sometimes mean simply holding the space for another person rather than trying to fix them. But equally important – and it’s not valued in our culture – is self-compassion. How can be kind to others when we insist on beating ourselves up and criticising ourselves?

5. Communion and Connection –this is about connecting to others. I’m reminded of that famous John Donne poem – ‘No Man is an Island’. Where would we without friends and community?

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

On sea dragons, mindfulness and writing in bed

I’m so excited! Well no, I haven’t spotted the Easter Bunny but, even better, I’ve seen a weedy sea dragon. Sea dragons, despite the fearsome-sounding name, are the most beautiful and delicate marine fish belonging to the same family as sea horses. In fact, the weedy sea dragon is the marine emblem of the State of Victoria. I was walking along the beach with Bertie dog (thankfully he was too taken up with his new ball to notice the long-snouted creature washed up on the sand) and there it was. What struck me most apart from its elongated form were the amazing colours on its body: reds, pinks, yellows and oranges. What a wonderful creature to behold!

A weedy sea dragon

A weedy sea dragon

Later that same day I was reminded of the deep red patches on the sea dragon as I was slicing beetroot to roast for a salad. And, for once, I was really absorbed in what I was doing. I noticed the marbling inside the beetroot, the shapes reminding me of the knots and rings you find in wood. There’s something so richly rewarding about slowing down the mind and its incessant chatter so that we notice and really see what’s around us. And our focus and concentration improve dramatically.

Much as we think we’re getting ahead by multi-tasking, research in neuroscience shows that we’re actually creating scrambled wiring in our brains when we do two or more tasks at once. And, apart from damaging our brains, the bottom line is that it’s impossible to give our full attention to two things simultaneously and do them both well. To quote from Mind Gardener (mindgardener.com) the average person has up to 50,000 thoughts and 12,000 internal conversations a day. It’s amazing we manage to get anything done at all!

And so I was fascinated to hear Sir Michael Dobbs, author of the best-selling House of Cards and, more recently, his Winston Churchill novels, telling Phillip Adams on Late Night Live that he does some of his writing in bed. Dobbs described going back to bed in the morning when the family house is quiet and he can write with a pen and paper without being interrupted by flashing icons on a computer screen. Of course, as Phillip Adams reminded listeners, Barbara Cartland was famous for penning (churning out) her romantic novels in bed wearing one of her pink negligees. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia she left behind 160 manuscripts which have now been published as ‘The Pink Collection.’ I don’t like taking to my bed to write as it reminds me of being ill and confined to barracks. However, I like to take a notebook around with me and write long hand in a café or park. I often find it overcomes writers’ block and frees up the flow of ideas. Staring at a screen – especially one with distracting emails and messages popping up – does little to stimulate creativity.

I can fall into the mindless, multi-tasking, rush-rush-rush, go a million miles an hour habit as easily as the next person. But when I tap into a bit of mindfulness, I remember why it feels so good. Although our natural tendency is to speed up to get things done, slowing down actually creates more time and brain space. And that’s when we spot treasures like a sea dragon on the sea shore. Wishing all my followers a mindful and restful Easter. Watch out for the bunnies!

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Totally into Tea

As a tea drinker living in one of the world’s coffee capitals – according to one website I checked, metropolitan Melbourne gets through three million cups of coffee a day – I’ve decided it’s time for tea to steal some of the bean’s thunder – you could say it’s the war of the shrubs, camellia sinensis versus coffea. Because although there are plenty of other tea fans out there, coffee is still the beverage du jour and it’s all got increasingly fancy what with hand-picked beans, computer-controlled roasting, humidity-controlledfridges, syphons, grinders, dripper, filters and frothing jugs. You name it.

Freshly picked tea leaves from the camellia sinensis shrub

Freshly picked tea leaves from the camellia sinensis shrub

The good news for us teAtotallers (teAtotal being the opposite of coffee careerist) is that tea drinking has also reached a level of sophistication that makes dusty tea bags dunked in a cup of hot water seem a travesty. Tea is a whole world unto itself as I have been discovering.

Writing an article on tea for a health insurance magazine recently, I discovered that tea drinking dates back to around 2700 B.C., making it older than coffee and younger than wine. Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was boiling his drinking water when leaves from a nearby tea shrub blew into the cauldron and, hey presto, the cuppa was born. There are four main types of tea: Black ,Green, Oolong and White tea. The difference lies in the degree of fermentation and processing. White tea, for example, is made with minimal processing of young new leaves that can only be picked for a few weeks a year. So, while it’s one of the pricier teas, it’s also very high in health boosting anti-oxidants. And then there all the wonderful herbal brews and tisanes made from herbs, fruits, flowers and spices. I am currently drinking Revive tea from Husk, a gloriously fragrant blend of lemon scented tea tree and hawthorn berries.

Nothing beats the humble cuppa

Nothing beats the humble cuppa

In my perambulations around the subject, I came across Sarah Cowell of Teasense, whose love of speciality teas has taken her to China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. She’s been a Tea Sommelier at Melbourne’s Vue du Monde and Storm in a Teacup and now runs tastings and trainings, encouraging people to approach tea as “a sensory experience and something you develop a ‘sense’ or feel for if you listen. Like commonsense, over time, you can develop your own ‘teasense’.” (See http://www.teasense.com.au).

Last week, I put my teasense to the test at one of Sarah’s events, a chocolate and tea pairing. We sampled 6 different teas: Roasted Green tea, Hojicha from Japan; Dry Season Uva Black tea, a high altitude from Sri Lanka; Oriental Beauty Oolong from Taiwan; Bi Lu Chun green tea (translated as green snail spring) from China; Jasmine Green and pear tea from China; and Genmaicha green tea from Japan.
She encouraged us to engage all our senses – this was mindfulness in a tea cup – and to notice the aroma, colour, feel, taste, texture and flavour of the tea. Just like with wine, one of the best ways to ‘feel into’ the tea is by slurping and aerating it in the mouth.

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One of the teas we tasted was Oriental Beauty Oolong from Taiwan. Sarah teamed it up with a 64% dark chocolate from Vietnam. Some of us got vanilla notes from the tea and, from the chocolate (no biting allowed, only a slow sensuous melt in the mouth), notes of dried cranberry and banana. And, interestingly, the tea felt creamier and smoother in the mouth with the chocolate.

We ended with one of my favourites Genmaicha rice green tea from Japan. Now something of a delicacy and treat, this tea originated in post-war Japan when times were hard and puffed brown rice was added to make the tea stretch further. I love the toastiness of the rice and find it softens the green tea. What’s more, you can eat the pieces of puffed rice after brewing! We paired it with a green tea Kit Kat (available in Asian stores), an excellent combination of earthy greenness offset by the sweetness of the Kit Kat, which has a white chocolate base with green tea added.

It was an excellent evening and I learnt some great tips to enrich my experience of tea:
• Decant tea into a second pot to stop it brewing and getting too strong. This may seem obvious but rarely happens. If I order a leisurely pot of English breakfast in a café, it ends up like brown stew by the time I pour my second or third cup.
• Brew oolongs and white teas in a small pot and re-steep, because the second or third infusions are often the best.
• Heat the water to 90 degrees for green tea. So, for those of us without fancy temperature-controlled kettles, simply leave for a few minutes after boiling and then let the tea infuse for one and a half minutes to avoid bitterness.
• Aim to pour your tea anti-clockwise. In China, this means ‘come in and welcome,’ while clockwise pouring means ‘scarper, bugger off, go home’!
• And, one of my favourites, in Chinese tea ceremonies they never fill the cup full so there’s room for friendship.

The evening left me inspired to host my own tea tasting and to always leave plenty of room for friendship!

Waxing Lyrical about Mindfulness

I’m a big fan of mindfulness and so was interested to read a review of Sane New World by Ruby Wax. Wax took a master’s in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy at Oxford and looks at what happens when neuroscience meets mindfulness. And how we can re-wire our brains and be masters of our minds with more flexible ways of thinking. And she would know.  Wax is a depressive and in between filming a show about people with mental illness (ironic in itself), was recovering in London’s clinic The Priory.

I agree with Wax that human beings are not equipped to deal with the mad, multi-tasking (studies show it can actually shrink parts of the brain), instantly responding demands of 21st century living with its skewed update on Descartes:” I’m busy therefore I am.” That says it all. I reckon we’re suffering an epidemic of busyness.  And it’s doubly disastrous for those of us who are busy types by nature with to-do lists running in our veins.  I’m the kind of person that can feel fraught EVEN on holiday, what with all the things to see, visit, do, eat and photograph – I call it guidebookitis.

Most days, one part of me rushes around striving to get everything done so I can relax afterwards (needless to say I never get there as there’s always something pending in life’s inbox…), while the other part of me LONGS to slow down, focus on one thing at a time and live more mindfully.

Having a new puppy has sent me into my manic, scattered pattern (think burnt rice, half-drunk cups of tea, half-written emails, scrappy lists, lost keys, glasses, phone etc.,) not that it’s dear Bertie’s fault. He’s very good at living in the moment especially when it’s dinner time or when I’m stroking his tummy.

Two weeks ago, feeling a bit frazzled by the constant poo, pee and chewed shoe patrol, I booked myself in for a therapeutic massage. Time to unravel, breathe and stop worrying.  Well in theory anyway. But as I lay on the massage table and felt the knots begin to ease up, my mind was still motoring. So much so that as I walked to my car afterwards, I was already mentally trawling the supermarket shelves and back home feeding Bertie his lunch.  In rushing to get ahead, I got stuck in my head, my body got left behind and I fell with a bang on the pavement injuring my knee and right arm.  Rushing around and living head first never works.  Time to get back to some mindfulness practice, re-set my focus to calm mode and remember to BREATHE!

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