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What brought me to the “Be Better Blog”

My Journey to becoming a counsellor

I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.

— Carl Jung.

As I sit down, not only to write this blog, but to begin the long journey towards qualifying as a certified counsellor, I can’t help but consider the things that have brought me here today.

Of course there is the bigger picture: the fact that mental health is one of the biggest issues facing our society at this time. It is estimated that 1 in 6 people in the last week alone would have experienced some form of mental health problem. There is the fact that depression is thought to be the second leading cause of disability worldwide, or that in 2018 a staggering 93% of young adults polled reported having felt “overwhelmed or unable to cope within the past year”, or that suicide continues to be the most common cause of death for young men in both England and Wales.1

These are just some of the statistics that go to show how issues relating to mental health are some of the biggest facing our generation today. I could go on. It only takes a short search to see the far reaching ramifications of the mental health crisis and its effects upon us all.

But it is not only the negatives that attract me to this course of action. Not only is it a time of great struggle, but one of great hope. Whilst a large amount of the stigma around discussing mental health still remains, we are beginning to fight back against this. We now see issues surrounding topics such as suicide, anxiety, body image and depression entering into public discourse.

Those that suffer, do not always do so in silence.

I have seen individuals struggling with thoughts of suicide feeling safe enough to share their stories through social media. Whilst it is still horrible they are having to go through such struggles, it is hugely comforting to know that we are moving towards a culture in which they feel free to speak out, and their strength is something I can’t help but look up to.

As prevalent as issues surrounding poor mental health are, I can’t help but feel optimistic in regards to the direction things are going. Even if at times it seems like we’re swimming in shit, the tides are definitely changing. It’s like somebody keeps punching you in the face. It hurts. It fucking hurts. But if you look carefully enough, between the fists smashing repeatedly into your battered nostrils, you can just about make it out. You’re not alone. You’re not the only one, it’s the same for us all. And whilst it sucks that we’re all still getting punched in the face, you feel a bit better knowing you’re not the only one.

What a beautiful future it is. One where we are all being punched together. Unity in pain.

Silliness aside, I am serious. Despite society’s imperfections, I sincerely believe we’re going in the right direction. I work on a busy sales floor. The kind of place where competition and targets are king. In times gone by, any talk of feelings would be unheard of in such a place. But during my time at work I have discussed topics regarding mental health and well-being with numerous colleagues. Whilst a stigma remains, it is slipping. Communication is winning, and with it, we are better equipped to fight against issues revolving around poor mental health.

So yes, I find myself not only drawn towards this course of action by the growing necessity for change, but the shift in gears towards it. We are simultaneously living through a mental health crisis and revolution… And I simply have to play my part.

A bit about me.

My life has struggled somewhat in terms of direction. If I had to describe it in a single word, aimless comes to mind. At university I took English. Why? I likes it. Not for any specific purpose in regards to career, I simply enjoyed it. After uni I briefly considered doing a PhD, that didn’t last. I got a job at a school and before I knew it, I was training to become a teacher. Why? Why not!

For the most part, I did love teaching. One thing is certain, young people are fucking awesome! They’re hilarious, full of energy and always guaranteed to make you think, “What the fuck?” at least once a day.

The issue came with the school system itself. I find it interesting that the place we send our children for most of their time growing up, is a breeding ground for stress and anxiety. I saw pupils and teachers alike all struggling. The workloads drilling into the psyches of the teachers, which then filtered down into their classes. If I learnt one thing it’s this… Schools are toxic, and I had to get out.

After I left teaching I felt like I’d lost myself. I left my fiancée and my mental health suffered. My head was racked with migraines from the stress and anxiety. It took months of soul searching and even some counselling for me to feel anywhere close to myself. After a while I began to feel “well” again. I was able to live my life without thinking I might pass out, or die at any minute from whatever tumour I’d decided had taken root in my brain.

It is at this point I took some time to just be me. This consisted of:

  • Getting punched.
  • Jumping over some fire. (For reasons…)
  • And running further than anybody should really run…

Throughout this time I began to feel so much better. I wasn’t stressing over things and began to love what I was doing. The issue came with work. I love my hobbies and my life, but work just seems so empty. I tried to join the Navy but failed the medical due to my anxiety and ended up working in call centres. Whilst I am making money, it just seems so meaningless.

So this is where I am today. This is what has led to Be Better and my decision to train as a counsellor. In wondering where I want to take my life, I realised something. The last few years have been built around finding myself and learning to live my best possible life. From running ultras, to stepping into the boxing ring, I have focussed on pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and always reaching for new heights.

I am one of the fortunate ones. After slipping to my lowest point, I have come out the other side stronger than ever before. It is for this reason I want to work towards helping others make the most of their lives. Each day I push myself to be better. Whether that means running further, breaking new ground, or simply realising the pain I sometimes feel is a normal part of everyday life, and use this to take ownership of my struggles without ever allowing them to define me.

This has taken the help of my friends, family and an incredible support network that surrounds me. Not everybody has this, and sometimes those that do, aren’t able to realise it. By stepping into the world of counselling I hope to help others to navigate the paths that lay before them. I can’t ever offer all the answers. But hopefully, I can point others in the direction of the questions that matter.

This blog is my contract.

In writing this blog, I hope to take ownership of my future. In sharing my goals I hope to maintain the necessary accountability in seeing them through to fruition. I shall be posting updates on my training, and journey to certification. The ups and inevitable downs.

I also hope to share my own advice alongside discussing various topics in relation to mental health and well-being. Am I an expert? Fuck no!

But is anyone truly an expert in living well? Who knows.

We’re just a group of fools taking punches to the face, and maybe, just maybe…

When we share our experiences, we can all pull through this together.

Shaun.

X

For anyone struggling, who feels they may need some extra support, stay strong, here are some numbers you may wish to try:

Anxiety UK – 03444 775 774

Calm (For men aged 15-35) – 0800 58 58 58

Mind – 0300 123 3393

Samaritans – 116 123

Rethink Mental Illness – 0300 5000 927

1 https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-suicide (Accessed 16th August 2019)

The Last of Us Part 2: Why we need this game

Spoilers ahead…

I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.

Albert Camus

Anyone that knows me, knows I love nothing more than losing myself in a strong, narrative driven video game during my time off. I can’t get enough of playing through the experiences of others, and trying to place myself into their skins.

For me, gaming has always been an empathetic experience. When I am posed with the choices the characters must make in game, I find myself considering their thoughts, feelings and experiences up until that point. If I were Mario… What would I do?

It is no surprise then I have been looking forward to the release of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part 2. The original Last of Us is widely considered one of the greatest games ever made, often lauded over for its sophisticated portrayal of its lead characters: Joel and Ellie.

What is surprising, or perhaps not in retrospect, is just how divisive the game’s sequel has become. With recent outcries surrounding other sequels and conclusions such as The Last Jedi and Game of Thrones Season 8, maybe I am foolish for not expecting this to take place. After all, it does seem that nothing can happen anymore without some degree of controversy.

And The Last of Us Part 2 definitely has its fair share of controversy. After just a short internet search, here are some of the views expressed regarding the game:

Please, let’s return games to what they were and stop with the forcing of political and social beliefs. Those are some of the topics we are trying to escape when we play games.

In trying to subvert expectations, The Last of Us Part II discards the best aspects of its predecessor to provide a rote revenge tale that is ill-considered, ending on a note that makes everything — all the violence, all the loss, all the struggle — feel utterly, hopelessly pointless.

The Last of Us Part II tries too hard to differentiate itself from its predecessor. While astonishing cityscapes and more varied combat options are great evolutions, Part II lacks the poetic serenity that made the original road-movie-like epic such a masterpiece. On top of that, uninteresting new characters burden the story, making Ellie’s journey feel conventional and not nearly as captivating as the original.

And they go on…

At first it seemed like people’s hatred of the game may be political. The game’s protagonist is openly gay, and many have seen this as an attempt by the developers in “going woke”. Lots of the game’s supporters argued the attacks were coming from more extreme right wingers who had a problem with its contents.

This view is grossly reductive however. There does seem to be something far deeper going on. Something deeply unsettling that is causing people to rebel against the game and its narrative. Having said this, I personally believe the game is not only fantastic… But important. Whilst yes it is upsetting, and often difficult to digest, like vegetables or those disgusting flavoured antibiotics, it is a story we all desperately need to hear.

I warn you now, this one may become quite rambling as I attempt to make sense of my feelings towards the game…

Why so unsettling?

If I am to begin arguing why I believe the game’s narrative is so important, I need to begin by looking at why people take such umbrage towards it. Well, there are multiple reasons, but the simplest is the narrative, and more precisely, the decisions it makes.

It is within the first couple hours that the game kills of Joel, the protagonist from the first game. Many argue this is done poorly, and is only there to set up a cliched revenge narrative. Like the quotation above says, it “provide[s] a rote revenge tale that is ill-considered”. They argue that the death feels rushed, or unearned. Some will even argue that Joel doesn’t deserve to die. Simply put, a lot of people were really fucking upset.

A second point people take issue with is the characters. You see, throughout the second half the player takes control of Abby, the character that killed Joel at the start of the game. Many argue that she is hard to empathise with and that playing as her feels forced. This is something I personally don’t see, especially as Abby’s narrative is one of the most interesting parts of the game.

Finally, lots take issue with the games conclusion, or you may say lack of conclusion. As the above quote puts it, come the end, “all the violence, all the loss, all the struggle — feel[s] utterly, hopelessly pointless.” You see, come the end Ellie gives up on her revenge. She is about to drown Abby and get what she has chased throughout the game, but instead lets her go. You see, the game doesn’t give you the revenge its narrative promised. This would perhaps be fine if Ellie had died. You could see Ellie as a tragic hero with her death offering some sense of catharsis.

She doesn’t die though. Instead, the game ends with her alone, walking off into the woods as the camera fades to black. There is no great conclusion. Like the Camus quotation I began this blog with, the game finishes by opening us up “to the gentle indifference of the world”.

This is where I believe people’s issues come from. Not that it’s a cliched revenge story. But because it refuses to be one. It refuses to give the narrative conclusions we expect, instead leaving the player lingering, holding onto the feelings built across its 20 hour runtime without any form of release.

So why does it matter?

So I can see you wondering, what makes it good then? It withholds a satisfying conclusion from its players, if anything, that sounds kinda shitty. It’s far from necessary.

Well, I believe the game is important, because of its themes and conclusions. Whilst yes I believe it fails as a revenge narrative, I feel that’s because it was never supposed to be one. Not in the traditional sense anyway.

No. I don’t feel it is a game about revenge. No. It is a game about meaning. About finding meaning in an indifferent, uncaring world.

The Last of Us Part 2 Ending

I believe this is highlighted in the game’s ending shown above. Ellie says to Joel, “I was supposed to die in that hospital. My life would have fucking mattered.” This is a reference to the first game, where Joel massacred a hospital to save Ellie when the doctors were going to kill her in order to find a cure. This is the point that begins the whole game’s narrative. It is at this point Joel kills Abby’s dad and starts her journey towards revenge. It triggers all the events of part 2.

More importantly however, it is the point where hope dies.

In the first game, the Fireflies are a group looking for a cure. By killing them and stealing Ellie back, Joel ruins any chances for a cure. He destroys hope. All the characters in part 2 are shown looking for meaning in this world now devoid of hope.

At the start of the game Abby finds meaning in hunting Joel. Ellie seems to find meaning in her growing relationship with Dina, and in trying to come to terms with her relationship with Joel.

After his murder however, we see her find a new meaning. That is in trying to seek revenge.

This revenge tale then goes on for the first half of the game where Ellie tries to track down Abby. At the half way point however, she succeeds in her murderous quest and their paths cross. At this stage the narrative flashes back. We then spend the events of the game up until this point from Abby’s perspective.

A story about empathy

This is where things become interesting. In learning more about Abby, we also learn more about the other groups and characters we have met up until this point. We learn that Abby is struggling with life after killing Joel, and trying to rebuild her relationships. We learn about her lover Owen. He is an ex firefly and is obsessed with the idea of finding what is left of them out in the world. He has not yet given up hope. We then find characters who have found meaning in their communities. We have the members of the Washington Liberation Front, or wolves. Whilst they are shown as villains throughout the first half, we get to know them more throughout the second. For the most part, they appear xenophobic and cruel, even shown torturing other survivors. In conversations with them however, we learn they possess a degree of humanity, greatly caring for one another.

Then there are the Seraphites, or scars. These are a murderous cult that throughout the first half, stalk Ellie, only appearing to communicate through inhuman whistles. They are a voiceless, terrifying villain. In the second half however we meet the characters Yara, and her brother Lev. These are ex Seraphites who are now being chased down. The others wanting them dead. Lots of the second half follows Abby attempting to keep the younger of them, Lev, alive. Through Lev, we learn their beliefs were initially non violent, until their prophet died and the other scars twisted her teachings. We then learn that they want him dead because, whilst born physically female, Lev identifies as male and chose to shave his hair.

This second half seems so relevant to the world today. A world where individuals chase their own meanings at the expense of others. None are outright evil, but merely have meanings that differ from those around them. In Abby’s journey, we learn the power of empathy and how we can foster a new purpose through our growing relationships. This is encapsulated when Lev shouts angrily at Abby that the wolves were her people. Abby instantly retorts, “You’re my people!” From this point on her relationship with Lev becomes her raison d’etre. She lives to keep him safe. Something shown by her giving up on finally killing Ellie and avenging her friends’ deaths because Lev calls out to her.

The power of relationships

Abby and Lev’s relationship beautifully mirrors Joel and Ellie’s throughout the first game. Throughout both games, Naughty Dog shows us how we can create meaning in our relationships. In part 2 however, we learn how delicate this can be. How easily this meaning can be broken. The final act shows Ellie given a choice. One between her new family with Dina and… I can’t remember the baby’s name, so we will go with little potato. A choice between them and an opportunity at revenge. The issue here is, it is not as simple as revenge. Ellie is unable to make sense of her purpose. She should have died for a cure, but she didn’t for Joel. Without Joel around then, why was she here?

This is something we are able to follow throughout the game by reading her journal. We learn about her conflicting feelings throughout the game. A constant back forth between her love for DIna and lingering feelings surrounding Joel. Her notebook doesn’t linger on hatred and revenge, but instead questions her growing love and feelings of grief.

In the end, she needs to try and deal with her unfinished feelings towards Joel if she’s to find purpose. The thing that has held her back from creating new meanings and relationships.

It is because of this, she doesn’t kill Abby at the end of the game. She instead sees Joel and finally lets go of what has been holding her back. She realises this physical act isn’t what she has been chasing. Instead… She cries for what she has lost.

Conclusions

It interests me that one of the reviewers I’ve quoted believes the game to lack, “poetic serenity”. I feel, with its ending, this is what the game has had its characters chasing the entire time. When at the end, Ellie leaves Joel’s guitar behind and walks into the distance, she is finally able to let go. Throughout the narrative she repeatedly leaves Dina to play guitars. She keeps turning her back on the present for Joel.

Spoilers… She’s singing for Joel.

The ending shows the opposite. She puts the guitar, and the past down. She has finally opened herself to the gentle indifference of the world.

I find it interesting the game is getting so much hate, especially as its themes are so relevant today. We live in a time that’s so divided, where people find meaning in their own groups. We also live in a time of great indifference, a literal pandemic where people are dying all around us.

Perhaps, it’s the lack of easy answers that has people so angry. When it is so close to our own reality, there aren’t any quick fixes shown here.

The Last of Us Part 2 is far from conventional. It’s violent, unforgiving and unashamedly bleak. It shows people scrambling for some kind of meaning in a world gone mad.

Whether you like it or not…

It shows reality.

All the best,

Shaun.

x

Hard lessons: On making the most of our mistakes

Well-being in

practice

Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body.

Seneca

When discussing failure, I often worry that whatever is said will come across as tired, well worn aphorisms. In fact, I imagine you would be hard pushed to find a single individual that doesn’t already agree with the following:

That our mistakes are something to learn from. That each new failure, is a seed from which we can grow.

It is a truth peddled not only by every living self-help guru, but thousands of shitty gifs and instagram posts the world over. It is an idea that has been preached for thousands of years: from the stoic Seneca, to Samuel Beckett and beyond, it continues to be shared to this very day. In fact, Rou Reynolds of the British band Enter Shikari recently echoed Beckett himself in their latest album:

I think Beckett said it best

Try again, fail again, fail better.

Enter Shikari, Crossing the Rubicon

So, with the popularity of this topic, you may be wondering why I would even bother writing about it. Well you see, whilst it is something everybody knows and most likely accepts, I honestly believe the process of learning from our mistakes is easier said than done.

Whilst the idea of what has been dubbed a, “growth mindset” seems simple, this is to ignore one very simple truth about human beings. This truth being, our feeling mind often holds sway over our logical mind, and beyond this, it is far harder to change. So yes, whilst it is easy for us to comprehend that our failure is something we can easily learn from, it will be far harder to change our negative feelings about it.

You may know on the surface what has to be done, but deep down you can still be hurting, struggling with feelings of guilt or regret over what has taken place. Unfortunately, piffy slogans will do little to challenge these feelings. No. Negative emotions cannot be tackled without a certain degree of painful introspection.

For example, say you have failed an important exam. Cliched I know, but it is an easy example. Logically, it is easy for you ascertain what needs to be done. Look at how you prepared, decide what changes need to be made, and make these in order to perform better during future attempts.

It is far more difficult however, to manage the emotional fallout. You may have persistent feelings of guilt, perhaps believing you have failed your teachers or those that have helped you to prepare. Perhaps your future plans were contingent on passing this test, and having now failed, you are having to reconsider the identity you had envisioned for yourself moving forwards. These shifts in mindset are not easy, and can’t take place without enduring certain levels of emotional pain.

Whilst what Seneca said is indeed true, that our difficulties do in fact strengthen our mind, he does leave out one important detail. The fact that difficulties often hurt. They fucking hurt. And unless we are prepared to face this pain, learning from them is almost impossible.

This is my issue with the commonly accepted beliefs on failure. They are simply too optimistic. Too misleading in what they preach. Yes, what doesn’t kill you may possibly make you stronger. But this doesn’t change the fact that a shovel to the face is going to really fucking sting…

When we talk about making mistakes, we try to shift our focus ahead. It is all about how much better we will be in the future, rather than the pain we are feeling at the time.

The thing is though, by rushing ahead you may miss the point. It is important to take the time to feel that pain. To take those feelings on board. This is where the most significant lessons can be learnt. You are not wrong to feel bad about your mistakes. You don’t have to rush ahead. You must feel free to feel however you need to at the time.

This is one of my – many – issues with mindfulness. Well, not mindfulness in its entirety, but how it is all too often practised. My issue is highlighted in the following quote:

When we notice judgements arise during our practice, we can make a mental note of them, and let them pass.

https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/

I am not convinced about mindfulness focus on letting judgements pass. It implies a certain degree of disengagement. Of course, I don’t believe this was the original intent, but I believe it is too often seen this way. It is used as a brief respite, rather than a tool for productive engagement.

When the mindfulness is all said and done, any issues you had will still remain. Instead, when these judgements arise, we need to tackle them head on. Probe deeper. The more uncomfortable it makes you feel the better. After all, you’re not going to be able to climb out from any pile of shit without first digging your hands right in. Once things get all covered in shit, there ain’t no use trying to stay clean. It is a little too late for that.

Beyond this, the idea that all mistakes can be learned from implies we have ultimate control over our lives. We are left believing that if we fail enough, we will eventually succeed. Yes, this might be true in some cases, but not always. The world is not ours to control. Sometimes a mistake can have far reaching consequences. Sometimes there are no second chances.

Yes we can learn from it. But not necessarily in the way you would expect. The lesson may end up being that success is not what you originally imagined it to be. You may make mistakes within your relationship. The lesson may leave you stronger as a couple. Equally however, the lesson could be that, after dealing with some painful truths you have been fighting for a relationship that will never work. It is just not meant to be.

Yes. You have learnt from your mistake. But not in the way you had hoped.

We can’t afford to be rigid in our expectations. Only in fluidity can we hope to accept reality for what it is.

So in conclusion…

I know this may come across as overly pessimistic, but I don’t mean for it to. In fact, I agree that our mistakes are incredible learning tools. I just feel the social media slogans don’t paint the process in a realistic light. They can build up the false expectation that failing is easy. But no…

This should never be the case.

In overcoming failures we must surmount some degree of emotional trauma. It is supposed to be hard.

Hard lessons: these are how we make the most of our mistakes.

All the best,

Shaun.

x

A crisis of control: On coping with Corona

Mental Health and Society

I don’t get it, even what’s happening here. All official proclamations begin with, “No cause for panic, don’t panic”, and then all that they tell you is reasons to panic.

Slavoj Zizek

At first I really didn’t want to write about this topic. Like, I really didn’t want to. I mean, what more can be said? Everywhere you look it’s there. You turn on the news and get the distinct impression that absolutely nothing else is going on. It would seem that, the year 2020, is the year of Corona. I would now insert a joke about the beer, but well, it’s all been said a thousand times already.

This is why I wanted so badly to avoid this topic. It seems that we have been so submerged in discourse on the not so “novel” corona virus, that there is nothing of worth left to be said. But this is exactly why I have to talk about it!

The fact that it has taken over our lives almost entirely, the fact I can’t look on social media without an explosion of related posts, the fact the country has gone so fucking crazy over corona that I’m having to buy copies of the Daily Mail just for something to wipe my ass with shows I need to talk about it. Yes. It’s that bad.

In fact, one only needs to look at the pie chart below to see just how bad it has gotten.

The blue in this chart represents the proportion of conversations I have had the past week that mention corona. You may notice there are no other colours. Well you see, this is because there have been no conversations in which it wasn’t mentioned. Well actually there was one with a child I work with. He was asking about some new trainers he wanted us to order in for him. Sadly, I then had to explain they wouldn’t be coming as Amazon has stopped delivering due to… Fuck.

Never in my life has anything taken over quite like this. Nothing has caused people to react like they have to Covid 19. But why? Why is this so different? Well that’s simple.

We’re all afraid.

Craving for control

Almost every reaction speaks hugely of how afraid we are as a country. We have been told both not to panic, but at the same time just how serious this is. We have stories coming through from Italy of a country in complete disarray. And as you can imagine, it’s left us terrified.

But why is this? Why is this seeming so much worse than say 9/11 and the war on terror?

I believe we can find the reason by looking at just how people are reacting. One of the major reactions is panic buying. Huge swathes of the population are buying a metric shit ton of paracetamol, rice, tinned food and toilet roll. Everyday it seems like a new item is added to their lists. Some are even ordering in medical equipment, hogging masks that are greatly needed by our medical professionals but in short supply.

I can’t wait to see this explained in the history books…

Here is where I have to put my counselling head on and try not to judge them. Yes. It is tempting to just call them all idiots and move on with my day, but that just isn’t the case. Our reaction to corona is nothing to do with our intelligence. There is nothing logical about it. These are symptoms of fear. This is a heightened, nonsensical, and emotional response. This is an international neurosis.

So why panic buying? Well, as is well documented, we – as humans – hate things that our out of our control. We fear that which we can’t understand. So it is only understandable that, when posed with a situation out of our control, we will do whatever we can in order to regain some semblance of power over it.

“Argh shit! I can’t control whether or not those germs will get me. Whatever can I do? I need some kind of plan. What’s that? Everybody is buying up toilet roll? I better do that too. Yeah, I can stock up. I’ll do that. Fuck yeah. I have over thirty rolls. I’m so fucking ready!”

Our neurotic brains

Obviously, this response isn’t good. But it is understandable from a psychological perspective. But this isn’t the only method of reaffirming control. There is another, and despite how it may seem, it is just as dangerous.

You see, for every individual buying Tesco’s entire stock of Charmin, there is the vocal contrarian stating just how stupid they are. There is a small but loud contingent making it clear that they feel the whole thing is overblown, and that they are going to go about their days as normal. Screw the advice. I am going to go out and shake hands with whoever I damn please! These people would never admit they are scared, but their reaction says otherwise.

You see, whilst it is not quite as obvious as them ordering a box of two hundred face masks, they too are clamouring for some feeling of control. By saying no, life is normal, I am going to do exactly what I normally do, they are forcing the status quo. They are clinging to normality.

The issue is, this is denial. Things aren’t normal. To deny it so vehemently is foolish. This is to ignore the facts given by millions of experts across the planet. It is equally neurotic.

When I say this, it is not supposed to be insulting. I am not attacking anyone. You see, this is an exceptional situation and these are both normal responses to fear.

But why Corona?

So why is it Corona is causing so much fear? We have so much going on in the world such as global warming, why is this hitting us so much harder?

I think, based on people’s responses, the answer is clear. It is the lack of control.

Out of all the things going on, very few directly impact our day to day lives. Our rituals. You see, whatever horrific shit is going on across the world, we always have our little day to day habits to fall back upon. The repetition of going to work, walking our dogs, stopping at the pub etc. It is all a comfort to us. Despite the scary things around us, it’s our constant.

Corona has threatened this. It has thrown our coping mechanisms into disarray. As a result, it not only seems more tangible, but we are not able to cope as we normally would.

Take for example your average gym goer. Perhaps, whatever is happening in their life, they are able to use the gym to unwind. They’ve had a particularly awful week at work? Never mind. They know they can go to the gym, get back into routine and push it all aside. With Corona we are told we can’t do this. We can’t go to shops, or clubs, or pubs. No. We must stay indoors. Self isolate.

All those coping mechanisms. Nah bruv. Deal without them.

This is why it is so terrifying. All those things we use to feel a bit of control in our lives… They’re gone. The rug has been pulled.

So what now?

So what can we actually do?

Well first, we need to realise that it is okay to be afraid. It is normal. If we are going to cope in a sensible, reasonable manner we need to accept this.

Then we need to understand why it is we do things. To understand that, when I go to buy forty eight loaves of bread, that I’m doing it because of my fear. Because I feel I am losing control.

Once I have realised this, I can step back and think more clearly. Is this best way to cope with this? Is there a more productive way of keeping that feeling of control?

Because yes, there are plenty of productive ways to maintain that feeling: you could donate to a food bank in order to help those who are older or out of work, you could offer to assist those isolated local to you, or you could simply realise that, staying in is your way of helping. That by doing so, you are doing your part.

Expressing your power to take control.

The thing is, we never have any control over the world around us. We are just good at fooling ourselves into thinking we do. We have structured our lives in maintaining this illusion. The best way to cope now, is to realise that we don’t control the world around us, but we can choose how to react. We can’t try and restore normality. No. We must learn how to react with what what we’ve got. This is the only way of getting through this.

And now some good news…

With everybody losing their collective shit, I did want to end on a positive.

Yes, whilst this is bad, some good has come from this. We have come out of five years of non stop bickering. People arguing almost constantly over politics, Brexit and whether or not the latest Star Wars is shit. Society has become more and more divisive in recent years. Everyday it seems like there is more that divides us than brings us together.

Having said this, in the last few weeks I have seen people reach out to one another, offering help in whatever ways they can. I have seen teachers offer their services, local businesses reach out to those in need and the outstanding men and women of the NHS do their utmost in keeping our most vulnerable safe.

In having what has been considered normal taken away from us so suddenly… We are offered an interesting opportunity. One in which we can readjust, and reconsider how we act as a society. It is like the slate has been wiped clean.

From here, we have a chance to create a new, friendlier normal.

All the best,

Shaun.

x

At this time, with many out of work and struggling to get by day to day, it is only normal for things to be hard. For those that may find it too much, or need a helping hand, remember you are not alone. Here are some numbers you may wish to call:

There is CALM (Campaign against living miserably) who you can call on  0800 58 58 58. They are there to help any who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide or depression.

Samaritans can be called on 116 123 and will talk about anything that is upsetting you.

Youngminds can be called on 0808 802 5544 for any young people hurt by the disruption caused by recent events.

Hypnotherapy: Can it really help me?

My journey to becoming a counsellor

“You use hypnosis not as a cure but as a means of establishing a favourable climate in which to learn.”

Milton Erickson

When I learned that I would be covering hypnotherapy as part of counselling training, one thing went through my mind:

“Oh god. Not that shit. Next I’ll be playing around with shiny crystals…”

No disrespect meant to those that have a fondness for the supposed spiritual properties of certain crystalline structures. It’s just, I have never been the sort to invest much time in what I see as the more “alternative” forms of therapy. I know, I know. It may seem rich…

I do spend most of my time listening to Aurora, preaching mindfulness and was for the longest time a member of the green party. On paper, I am one step away from giving up on my material possessions, moving to Asia and spending my days practising shinrin-yoku.

The thing is though, something about the idea of hypnosis just always seemed so fake to me. It was either just too hippy, or something those slimy American entrepreneurs with headsets preached to gullible wannabe sales people. Without a doubt, almost everything surrounding the idea of hypnotherapy had managed to put me off.

Excuse me whilst I vomit…

So yes, when I first went into studying hypnosis as a form of therapy, I wasn’t too excited. But as I started reading around the subject, I realised something… A lot of its core ideas and fundamental principles shared a lot of similarities with my own outlook on life. I had spent much of my time at university studying Freud, and have always been fascinated by the power of the human mind. I have always believed that our perceptions are stronger than our reality, and that our lives are controlled by the stories we tell ourselves.

Throughout university, I had come to the conclusion that the way to better our lives, was to adapt our fiction. Years of Lacan, Zizek and Jung had made me doubtful of material reality. I lived in the intersection between the symbolic and imagined. The fold between the stories told by society and myself.

With this in mind, why was it so hard for me to believe that hypnosis could be used as a means to re-calibrate these narratives we tell ourselves?

Even my long time crush Sigmund Freud had utilised it for a time. Whilst he had struggled to successfully implement a trance state, and instead felt similar outcomes could be achieved through other means, Freud never doubted its ability to help one in communicating with the unconscious. In fact, his move towards the study of dreams, was in part due to the dream state’s similarities to that of the hypnotic trance.

My issues came not from what hypnosis actually is, but from how it has long been perceived.

Hypnosis has long been seen as synonymous with magic. It has been the weapon of choice for magicians and showmen such as Derren Brown. A means of overly dramatised entertainment. This has meant, few are able to take it seriously as a means of therapy.

However, one only has to read Happy by Derren Brown to realise just how much the study of psychotherapy and psychology has helped sculpt his performances. In fact, whilst “stage hypnotism” differs greatly from hypnotherapy, many of its performers come from a more therapeutic background. If one were to look at hypnosis as a form of communication, stage hypnotism is just a different way of implementing it.

So what actually is hypnosis?

Well, as I have said above… Hypnosis is a slightly altered form of communication. Put simply, it is about creating what is referred to as a trance state.

Many wrongly believe this entails placing somebody under your complete and total control, basically turning them into your mindless slave. This isn’t actually the case. No. That’s called capitalism…

He went there…

A trance state is actually something far more mundane. It is actually a perfectly natural state that people slip in and out of all the time. It is a state of increased relaxation, in which the conscious mind is able to take a back seat. Take for example when you become completely invested in a film. You may no longer be thinking consciously about the plot details, instead, you are completely invested, lost in what is going on. For you, the characters are real. This would be a form of trance.

Or perhaps when driving home you have found yourself reaching your destination without realising, having made the journey without any real conscious effort. This state of automation, of working outside of your conscious reality is trance.

So, as I have said, hypnosis aims to place an individual into this state of trance. But why might you ask?

Well, in order to understand this, one first has to understand how our mind is structured.

The shape of the mind:

Freud famously mapped out the human mind. He changed the way we think about ourselves forever by declaring that we are in fact, “not the masters of our own house.”

By this, he meant that our conscious mind is controlled by something deeper. Something we are altogether unaware of. For Freud, and those that practise psychotherapy, we have an unconscious mind that shapes our psyches without us knowing.

If our mind as we know it is the top of an iceberg, the unconscious is everything hidden deep beneath the sea. The larger structure that keeps us afloat. Over 90% of an iceberg is below water. Much in the same way, the majority of our thoughts and feelings are hidden beneath the surface. The mind is so vastly complex, so huge, there is no way any one person could remain conscious of everything it has going on.

Lots of our unconscious consists of our basest instincts and urges, as well as acting as a source of our desires. This is what Freud referred to as the Id. The important thing about the Id is that it does not work rationally. It cannot be consciously reasoned with. It also really likes sex…

The Id works in opposition to the superego. This is most easily understood as the part of our mind built by our relationship to the society around us. It is where we internalise cultural rules, expectations and develop our moral reality. This is an idea greatly expanded upon by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, in what he later referred to as the symbolic order. I only recommend those with way too much time look into this further…

The Id and Superego are mediated by our conscious ego. Our rational, problem solving mind. This has the difficult job of keeping the other two brats in check. It makes sure our desires are met whilst obeying the cultural rules set by our society. For example, the ego would try to satisfy the Id’s desire for sex, in a moral and consensual manner.

But again, why hypnosis?

So now that we understand how the mind is structured, we can begin to understand the reason behind the trance state in hypnosis.

As we grow up, certain things become accepted on an unconscious level. They become key truths from which our sense of identity is formed. For example, if you are told from a young age that you are worthless, and this negative idea is repeated again and again, eventually your unconscious will accept this as fact. It will get filed away as an indisputable truth, right there alongside Coldplay being crap, and number IV being the best of the Rocky films.

As a result, when your Ego, or conscious mind, comes to making decisions, it will do so under the impression that you are worthless. It will actively fight against anything that goes against this.

Take for example if you wanted to apply for a new job. In mediating this decision, the mind may begin to consider that going for the job would go against the accepted truth that you are in fact worthless. To go against this would be dangerous. Your entire sense of self is at risk after all, it’s better to not risk it. As a result, you may find yourself consciously making excuses not to go for the job. The thing is, you may not even realise it is to do with these deep rooted feelings of worthlessness. They’re unconscious and unspoken. They rule from behind the scenes.

Like Freud said, you’re not the master of your own house.

This is where hypnotherapy can come in. Once something is filed within the indisputable truth category, it cannot be easily changed. It is not something decided on a surface level, it can’t be reasoned with through logic alone.

In inducing a trance state, the therapist hopes to communicate on the level of the unconscious. On the level of these truths.

Once one is in a state of trance, they become more suggestible to change on an unconscious, emotional level. It allows them the opportunity to access their unconscious, and make changes to any of the lies they may have told themselves. It does this, because in a normal state, the conscious will step in. Like a bouncer, it will do all it can to protect what it believes to be true. By creating a trance, the therapist and client hopes to tip-toe around the sleeping or distracted bodyguard.

Hypnosis, is to infiltrate one’s own mind. To reclaim control of their house.

Is it dangerous?

Many people become nervous over the idea of hypnosis. They worry that the hypnotist can make them do anything. That they will lose control over their faculties and be at the whim of the therapist.

This is entirely untrue. The unconscious will only respond to things you want. An individual cannot be made to do anything against their will.

Why then do we get people on stage acting like chickens you might ask? Well why not!? Who doesn’t want to be a chicken?

But seriously, the circumstances surrounding stage hypnotism has to be taken into account when considering how such bizarre results are achieved. It is entertainment. Many of the people go wanting to be entertained. For lots, they want it to work. As a result, they are more likely to accept such surreal suggestions.

As for dangers, there are very few. Like I have said, it is a natural state we often fall in and out of. Having said that, hypnotherapy does deal with our emotions and feelings on a deeper level. As a result, those that have been through traumas and are likely to be triggered should always make their therapist aware. The therapist can then discuss it with them and decide whether or not it is the best approach. After all, there are some things more focused, long term therapy is better equipped to help.

So is it real? DOES IT WORK?

Hypnotherapy, as a hugely subjective practice, is difficult to prove. Whilst there have been experiments, it is not something that is easy to measure.

Unlike say, cognitive behavioural therapy which is far more rigid and measurable, hypnotherapy is almost impossible to quantify.

My personal opinion is this:

It is a form of communication. Different people respond to different modes of communication. Some will respond on a deeper, more emotional level to music for example, whilst others may not. Some will cry at films, whilst others feel nothing. Some like Coldplay, whilst some are right. Every person is different.

How well one responds to hypnotherapy, very much depends on how open they are to it and how much they want it to work. Milton Erickson, a hypnotherapist and psychoanalyst, famously stated, “You use hypnosis not as a cure but as a means of establishing a favourable climate in which to learn.”

It is not a cure. It is up to the individual mind to cure itself.

Hypnosis, is just one of many ways in helping it along the way.

So yes. If you are interested in hypnotherapy after what you have read, I would definitely recommend it. Best case scenario, it really does help you. Worst case… You have a nice relaxing time and get to talk to someone about your issues, and at least you’ve made the first steps towards change.

So what do you think? Hypnotherapy: is it helpful? Have you ever tried it? I would love to know.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.

All the best,

Shaun.

x

Awaking to engage: Premeditation over mindfulness

Well-being in practice

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Marcus Aurelius

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical professional, and the views expressed are merely my own opinions based upon my own experiences. These should not be taken as a replacement for seeking professional medical advice, and I always advise that those struggling seek the advice of a qualified mental health professional.

I wish to begin by making one thing clear. Despite how it may seem, I sincerely believe that mindfulness is a fantastic tool. There are huge benefits to bringing mindfulness into our day to day lives, and I would not discourage anybody from partaking in it.

Having said this, I am certain you can see the “but” coming, I feel it is often over relied upon as a quick and easy fix for a bad mindset.

BUT SHAUN! HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT!? MINDFULNESS IS LIFE HACKS… IT’S ALL ALL THE RAGE ON INSTA!


I know, I know. Perhaps it is simply me being contrarian for clicks, but I honestly believe the way mindfulness is too often implemented isn’t the best method for improving our well-being.

You see, whilst the idea of detaching from all the messiness of the world around us and allowing ourselves to simply exist for a moment is great… It’s far from a fix all. In my experience, it has done very little to make any long term improvements to my overall mental health.

Yes, it has helped me to detach and unwind in the short term, but when push comes to shove, you can only hold back the noise for so long: and without dealing with the preexisting frictions between ourselves and that noise; mindfulness simply amounts to a distraction.

La, la, la, I’m not listening!

Take the way it is used by so many businesses out there. You see, as mental health has become more wildly spoken of, all businesses are seeking ways to show they care. Often this amounts to giving seminars on mindfulness, or making time for meditation. This is to help de-stress the work force and help maintain healthy productivity.

The issue? Well, for a moment you feel great. Refreshed and re-invigorated. But then you go back to the world of work, the busyness from which you’ve had a moment’s reprieve. The issues you initially had remain and you’ve done very little to rectify them in the long run.

Their answer?

Work through the stress, let the psyche suffer… it’s fine. When you get home you’ll apply a nice liberal helping of mindfulness. That way you’ll go to bed all relaxed. You’ll forget how fucking dire the other nine hours have been.

So what do I suggest?

Well you see, I feel that mindfulness is too focused on building a comforting disengagement.

As you sit there, you may have some thoughts or stresses come to mind, just take note that they exist and let them fuck off… I mean float by. Don’t engage with your issues. Just think how great your ass feels against the floor.

Middle class person with a statue of Buddha

The problem is, real progress, real healing… It ain’t supposed to be easy or comforting. Take going for a sports massage. It hurts. It really fucking hurts! You pay some sick bastard to jab you where it hurts with their fist until it somehow fixes itself. It’s discomforting, but in the long run, you feel far better.

The mind is the same. It gets knots just like your muscles do. Over time, after years of stress and pressure it heals wrong. It causes friction and makes life hard. These knots need to be engaged with. Sometimes they have to be torn apart even, and allowed to heal anew.

This can’t happen through mindfulness alone.

This involves going deeper…

Obviously, tackling these issues is never simple and differs for everyone. Everyone is unique and responds to stimuli in different ways. Some people’s minds are quite malleable and susceptible to change. Others are rigid and may struggle.

The methods you use will vary based on the situation. Some may find talking therapies help, others hypnosis. Some may have deeper psychosis, and need the aid of medicines for them to reach a point in which they are even capable of engaging. There is no easy fix all.


That said, for those that want a practical method similar to that of mindfulness – perhaps you’re struggling with stress but don’t feel you require formal interventions – and simply want something you can try in order to give yourself a little nudge in the right direction, I do have something your can try.

Premeditation over mindfulness

The stoic philosophies shared many similarities with those of mindfulness. That said, they do have one slight difference. They instead focus on engaging more directly with your mindset and making positive changes. One method of doing this, can be through replacing your early morning mindfulness meditation with a bit of stoic premeditation.

This is discussed in great depth by Derren Brown in his book Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine. He talks about how the stoics would take a moment in the morning, before they were engaged with the busyness of the day, to mentally prepare. This could take the form of a meditation, or simply an affirmation into one’s mirror, but the individual would need to repeat a set mantra to themselves in order to foster a healthy approach to the day.

Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill. But I, because I have seen that the nature of good is the right, and of ill the wrong, and that the nature of man himself who does wrong is akin to my own…

I cannot be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him: for we have come into the world to work together, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth.

To work against one another is to oppose Nature, and to be vexed with another or to turn away from him is to tend antagonism.

Marcus Aurelius quoted by Derren Brown

This gives your mind a direction for the day from when it first awakes. It sets you on the right footing. Rather than awaking to negative thought processes, you start the day by planning the ways in which you’re going to positively engage.

Of course, your premeditation doesn’t need to take the same shape as Marcus Aurelius’. After all, you’re not him! You may have different frictions in your life you wish to prepare for.

A hypnotic twist…

I find it interesting that this method takes place first thing in the morning. When we are most relaxed and not yet fully awake. As such, I see many similarities between this stoic premeditation and modern self-hypnosis. Both involve being in a relaxed state, and both involve some form of post meditative (or post hypnotic) suggestion.

“I cannot be harmed by any of them” Marcus affirms to himself. This very much matches the kind of assertive suggestions one may repeat throughout hypnosis. There are multiple forms this suggestion may take:

I will remain calm, and totally at peace.

One may tell themselves when preparing for a particularly stressful day at work.

I will engage positively with any opportunities that appears before me.

They may say before engaging with some new, anxiety inducing situation.

You see, rather than focusing on relaxation alone, on distractions from external reality, you can shift the focus to internal preparation. To imagining a better mindset for the day. For preparing your reactions, and avoiding some of the inevitable friction.


So what do you think? Are you a strong believer in mindfulness? Or perhaps you agree with me that it’s overused?

However you feel, it might be worth trying out a more stoic approach and awaking to a bit of premeditation.

Who knows… It might just make a difference.

All the best,

Shaun.

x

For those interested in reading more on this topic, here is a link to purchase Happy by Derren Brown:

Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine

Full disclosure, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Dangerous Polemics: Society and the need for Philosophy

Well-being and Philosophy

In times such as ours there is a great pressure to come up with concepts that help men understand their dilemma; there is an urge toward vital ideas, toward a simplification of needless intellectual complexity. Sometimes this makes for big lies that resolve tensions and make it easy for action to move forward with just rationalisations that people need. But it also makes for the slow disengagement of truths that help men get a grip on what is happening to them, that tell them where the problems really are.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

I recently started reading Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death for the first time. During its introductory section I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the above quotation. Whilst the book was initially published way back in 1973, the “urge toward vital ideas” he speaks of, seems hugely relevant to the world today. If not more so than ever before. It seems we live during a time in which academia, and “intellectualism” is something to be rallied against. A time in which prolonged discourse and discussion is curtailed in favour of direct aphorisms offering quick solutions.

It was only in 2016 that politician Michael Gove posed the idea that the British public had now, “had enough of experts”. This was all part of a campaign in which both sides arguments hinged on spiffy slogans and personal digs in place of any extended discourse on relevant issues. As Becker describes, we saw a simplification of so called “needless intellectual complexity”, and instead allowed the discussion to be lead by “big lies” on the sides of equally big buses…

This diluted the facts at the time and made it almost impossible for anyone to come to any kind of truly informed decision. The tragedy is, there was a debate to be had. Arguments on both sides. What should have been an intriguing and fulfilling discourse became a race to the most appealing lie.

That’s how this move away from philosophical, intellectual thought has played out more politically, but it has also taken place in our modern approaches to well-being. This has created what I see as, a shift from philosophy to quick fix self-help.

You see, it used to be that the goal of understanding our lives and what it means to be happy was the realm of great philosophical thinkers devoting much of their lives to seeking an answer. A back and forth discussion over multiple centuries. Much debate went into trying to decide what it actually means to live a good life. So much so, that to read it all would almost certainly take up multiple lifetimes of study.

(Yes, one day I will be writing about The Good Place!)

Now however, it only takes a few seconds online to find a single – often pretty short – book offering you the literal secret to a happy life. Self help you see, focuses upon simplification over discussion. Convenient lies over the long, laborious and inconvenient struggle for an actual truth.

So why this shift?

I strongly believe that this shift is partly due to the outcome driven nature of our society. Whereas philosophy often focuses upon the abstract and delving for more emotional truths, much modern self help often comes down to achieving a desirable lifestyle. Or, put simply, a fuck ton of money. Whereas philosophy may debate the link between physical outcomes and internal happiness, and ask what is happiness, self help will tell us what happiness is and how to get it.

If you want to see this drive towards outcomes, you just need to look at who’s writing these books. I’ve done a quick search of top self help books:


The seven habits of highly effective people, Stephen Covey. A businessman.

How to win friends and influence people, Dale Carnegie. A professional salesman.

The power of now, Eckhart Tolle. A spiritual teacher.

The subtle art of not giving a fuck, Mark Manson. Personal development consultant, writer and entrepreneur. (This one is actually really fucking good!)

You are a badass at making money: Master the mindset of wealth, Jen Sincero. Success coach and writer.

Think and grow rich, Napoleon Hill. According to Gizmodo, “the most famous conman you’ve probably never heard of”


It is interesting to note the proportion of these that have some link to money or business. It would appear happiness and wealth have become synonymous. With these, we see an outcome, and often a nice simple approach to obtaining this. A recipe to riches if you will. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s already a book.

Close enough I guess!

Philosophy however, isn’t at all outcome focused. It is discursive and often does more to confuse the truth than solidify it. Just compare these quotations from Stephen Covey and Martin Heidegger.

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Stephen Covey

Cool. Pretty to the point. Sounds simple enough and makes sense. You’ve got to be driven and focus on your main goals. GOT IT!

“Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.”

Martin Heidegger

What the actual fuck Heidegger…

So what’s the issue?

The Covey quotation seems fine enough. It isn’t really doing anything wrong and Heidegger sounds like a bit of a pretentious prick. The issue comes in the passivity brought about by Covey and similar individuals. In offering a “guide” to better living, they attempt to spoon feed the answers. It all becomes a simple equation:

A + B = Happiness

Whilst this may work for some, well-being is far more complex that simply achieving success. I see these kinds of self help as making the already happy feel even happier about themselves. They do very little to help those truly struggling. The man or woman who is already a success but still finds themselves empty, or unfulfilled. The individuals that don’t suit the discourse of wealth = happiness.

The issue is that you’re following a road map to somebody else’s happiness. It has you look outwards, rather than inwards. You disengage from yourself and what happiness is actually is to you.

This polemic approach to self help, this “simplification of needless intellectual complexity” is dangerous as it can leave an individual feeling even worse off when the truth they’ve been sold doesn’t work for them. They don’t realise that everybody’s truth is different, instead believing that there is something wrong with them for not fitting the mould.

This is where philosophy becomes so important. It is not something you simply consume. No. It is a process with which you engage. Nothing is black or white, right or wrong. You are entering a millennia old dialogue, and must actively partake in the discussion. Much philosophy involves interpretation, and it is through this act of interpretation, you are able to better understand yourself.

Rather than taking another’s ideas verbatim, it is about working through their ideas, disputing or agreeing with them in an attempt to grow your own.

We are in a time where questioning other people is harder than ever. Truths are becoming more and more ingrained. It is no surprise then, that in this climate, poor mental health and anxiety is on the rise. People are picking sides, and the issue with nailing yourself to a single truth is this:

Truths are fragile. And when we’re beholden to them… We become fragile as well.

Philosophy is about elasticity of thought. Of constantly changing and adapting our truths. This way we aren’t so likely to crumble when they’re proven wrong. It allows us to live a happier, healthier and more adaptable life.

But these are just some of my thoughts. These aren’t some polemic truths. Lets be philosophical about this. What do you think?

All the best,

Shaun.

x

Building Gods: On Creating Comfort in Chaos

Well-being in philosophy

Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet.

John Keats, Love Letter to Fanny Brawne

In an 1819 letter, a young poet John Keats, famously said to the “love of his life” Fanny Brawne that love is his religion. This was quite the diversion from the more religious sentimentalities of the earlier Romantics from which Keats took his inspiration. Much of their thinking had taken root in a place of religious faith combined with a deep appreciation of the natural world. That said, the Romantic religion, the Gods of poets if you will, deviated greatly from the perceived dogma of so called “organised” religion.

“You smile with pomp and rigor, you talk of benevolence and virtue; I act with benevolence and virtue and get murdered time after time.”

William Blake

Blake, a man of considerable faith, was hugely critical of the religious organisations that surrounded him. He saw a network of rules and laws that benefited the organisations themselves, over any kind of true virtue. He saw a world of false idols that did little to benefit the truly faithful. He, in a perhaps more poetic manner, shared the feelings of so many today. Why do pricks get all the luck, when the actual good people get shat on again and again.

His thoughts comes from a similar place as those of the much quoted Friedrich Nietzsche.

God is deadGod remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882

I can imagine many jumping to question this comparison, “Urgh… Shaun. Blake was like, well, deeply religious, and well, Nietzsche was a bit of an atheist prick you know.” Well yes, their thinking went in different directions, but the core complaint was much the same. You see, in saying “God is dead […] And we have killed him”, Nietzsche was not saying that we’d literally thought, “fuck it” and murdered his Lord all mighty. Nah bruv, like so much in philosophy, his thinking was far more nuanced.

We hadn’t killed God through any physical action, but through a combination of science and the church itself. Ironic ay, but the church killed God!

You see, for Nietzsche, faith become transfixed on ritual and ceremony above all else. Rather than fostering a connection with God, it became overly invested in the window dressings of worship itself. Enlightenment thinking and the growth of the scientific method had caused many to question the plausibility of God. This created a dilemma for the church. What was it to do? Faith had been stricken from God becoming faith for faith’s sake. It become a practice, a sequence of rituals and rules separate from any true connection to any God him or herself.

So how did we as a culture respond to this dying church? In Blake, we saw a man seeking a return to a true, simplistic religious faith. In Keats, we saw a different response. A substitution to a new religion. Fuck God. It’s all about them ladies. That’s my religion. Nietzsche also sought his own response to the death of God.

His answer…

Superman.

“Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth.Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra,1883

He created a new God. And that God was man above man. The man that overcomes him or herself. So yes, rather than doing away with a deity, he created a new one. We became the deities ourselves. It would seem, Gods are not something we can do without. There needs to be something there to replace them. The discourse was not if we actually need a God, but now they’re gone, whatever shall we do without them?

It seems so interesting to me, that once we had done away with one God, our society went about immediately building new ones. Be it love, Christianity or the Overman…

Humanity needs a religion.

So why is this?

In trying to come up with a reason behind this need for a religion, I find myself drawn to the writings of Sigmund Freud.

“Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures… There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensible to it.”

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Discontents, 1930

For Freud, life is unbearable for the the individual. As a result, we need measures to help diminish the pain it inflicts upon us. He poses three of these to his reader.

One is to find what he calls substitute satisfactions. We may nowadays think of this as consumer therapy. The idea that we can diminish our suffering with other things that satisfy us. That we can buy and consume more and more stuff in an attempt to tip the scales in our favour.

Another method is through “intoxicating substances”. What does he mean by that? Well…

Shant on! There is no doubt that alcohol and other forms of narcotics are used as a method to soften the pains of our oh so troubled existence. It is no surprise that so many descend into addictions when the weight of living becomes too much.

But, out of the three methods given by Freud, the one that interests me most is the use of “powerful deflections” that help us to “make light” of our misery.

These deflections often take the shape of religious, or holy figures that make light of our current suffering. It’s not such a big deal that your life’s shit if there’s a higher purpose! Religion acts as an illusion that fools us into thinking we have some aspect of control over the world and our suffering. In The Future of an Illusion he even refers to it as a form of childhood neurosis carried forth into later life. As such neurosis can be seen as a method for our psyches interacting with outside stimuli, we may begin to understand why religion is merely replaced, rather than gotten rid of entirely. The neurosis, or symptom will always remain, as long as the stimuli is present. With the stimuli being the world itself, it is not so easy a thing for us to do away with.

This thinking is echoed by Mark Manson who sees religion as a means of dealing with “the uncomfortable truth”.

“One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will ever matter. This is the Uncomfortable Truth of life. And everything you think or do is but an elaborate avoidance of it. We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose—we are nothing.”

Mark Manson

He believes that we tell ourselves certain hope narratives that help us to make sense and survive within the world.

Perhaps then, when Keats replaced God with Fanny – pun entirely intentional – he was merely replacing one hope narrative with another.

As much as we want to be objective, scientific beings seeking a truth, we are not built to ever accept this truth. No. We are made to obscure it with whatever fantasies or opiates we can. As the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would say, we will create whatever discourses we can to protect us from the trauma of the real.

But what next?

So yes, whilst this might be an interesting bit of analysis, how does this help us? How can we benefit from understanding this?

Well, I personally believe this can help us in living a smoother, less divisive existence. You see, because these hope narratives are helping to maintain our ever so fragile psyches, we don’t do so well when they are argued against. Just think, how many conflicts are a by-product of religion?

As an atheist, you might ask why are so many people able to die for these things? Well it’s simple, they’re actually fighting to protect their sense of being. Their religion failing would be as bad as death.

This isn’t to say only stereotypical “religions” are prone to this. We all are.

How much hatred has been spewed in the name of politics in recent years? In remainers vs brexiteers? We align so strongly with our positions because they are fulfilling the role of a religion. They unknowingly become our hope narratives.

Our sense of self is so contingent in maintaining these internalised religions, that we will do anything to protect them. Even to our own and those around us’ detriment.

In realising this, we can hope to better navigate our own existence and maintain healthier relationships. When we realise many of our Gods are narratives, we realise that we – like Keats or Nietzsche – are free to write our own. They don’t have to be unbending. They’re malleable.

We don’t have to fear the things that go against them.

As well as opening us up to change, it can also help us in dealing with others. We are able to become more aware of why others may cling so closely to their own beliefs. Of why they hold onto their dogmas. As such, we are better equipped to live side by side with the Gods that differ from our own.

There are a billion differing narratives, and we have to learn to accept that. After all, we’re all just coping with the chaos in our own way. No right. No wrong.

Just people coping…

That’s all it is.

Thanks for taking the time to read. Apologies if anybody is offended by the views expressed. No harm was meant by this, they’re just the thoughts of a man coping in his own way.

All the best,

Shaun.

x

Beautiful frauds: Dealing with the impostor within

My journey to becoming a counsellor

Judgement does not come suddenly; the proceedings gradually merge into the judgement.

Franz Kafka, The Trial

During a conversation with some of the others from my course, the concept of impostor syndrome came up recently. This got me thinking back on my own life, and the times in which I have felt inadequate, as if I don’t deserve to be in the position I’m in. The times in which I’ve felt a fraud.

Of course, like so many of our neurosis, this feeling is nothing unique to me. So many of these feelings we see as so unique to ourselves, the ones we feel the most shame over, are often perfectly normal, and felt by many.

It is important to note that, whilst it may work alongside one, “impostor syndrome” itself is not a form of psychosis. It is not an illness such as bi-polar disorder, or schizophrenia. No. It is a natural byproduct of the ways in which our mind works.

In fact, a 2019 survey of 1000 UK adults had quite shocking results. 85% of those surveyed admitted to feeling inadequate or incompetent at work, despite having been in their job for at least three years! It even found that one in four of this people admitted to experiencing these feelings either often or all the time.

The impostor and expectations

Interestingly, impostor syndrome is most common in women and those who come from minority ethnic groups. This is something I find hugely interesting, and I believe to be vital in how such feelings come about. Personally, I believe that a major cause of impostor syndrome is when our personal truth diverges from the cultural narrative in which we find ourselves. It is a failure of expectations.

Because of this, you may wish to consider this post a spiritual successor to my earlier blog on expectations. As a recap, that blog explored how our expectations of where we should be in life often work to stop us from making positive and meaningful steps forward. You see, we may believe – quite wrongfully I add – that we need to be at a certain stage in our life’s narrative. For example, by thirty you may believe you should be married with kids, getting ready to settle down. This however, is simply the story society tells us, and we may judge ourselves harshly for not following along. Despite being our own authors, we review our lives’ stories in accordance with the greater narrative society gives us.

I posed the idea that, in order to live a fulfilling and honest life, we must not be afraid to fight against this pre-designed narrative. We’re all different, and following another’s story over our own does nothing but breed anxiety.

So yeah, expectations can stop us from living how we should, but how does this help elicit the falsehood that we’re impostors in our own lives?

Well you see, we use the world around us to make sense of ourselves within any given situation. If you spend your whole life wishing to be a doctor, once you reach that stage, you may measure your success in terms of how much your current reality matches the narrative you’ve learnt of what “doctorhood” actually means. So yes, you may have the qualifications, passed all the tests and proven yourself beyond the shadow of a doubt. But you may still feel lacking.

Perhaps you’re a female in an overly masculine narrative? Perhaps you’ve immigrated from another country and find yourself culturally distinct? Perhaps you aced the tests with little revision, and doubt your credentials as you’ve lacked any of the struggle the narrative dictates?

It can be something big, or something small, but it only takes a single thing to create that tension and for a dissonance between your life and expectations to settle in.

You may not even realise it, but this friction between your reality and expectations can cause you to grow insecure, and anxious. Worrying that you don’t truly belong.

Fake teacher

My clearest experience of such feelings was during my time as a teacher. Despite having a degree in English and having studied teaching, I always felt like an impostor in the classroom. A charlatan who would be found out at any moment.

These thoughts, alongside other anxieties at the time, got in the way and stopped me from ever being able to settle successfully into the role.

There was no symmetry between my truth and expectations of what a teacher could be.

A billion different stories

So what can we do to re-calibrate these feelings?

Whilst it is a complex subject with numerous facets, I feel a large part can be through re-framing our understanding of the social narrative. We, as people, tend to follow society’s narrative as if it’s an absolute. We don’t question it. After all, it’s our road map.

It stops us from losing our way.

Beyond this, we are social creatures. We want to fit in and are programmed to believe everybody is living this exact same narrative. As a result, we can begin to imagine judgement from those around us if our course deviates. We begin to believe we’re the outlier.

The trick is to realise that nobody’s story is the same. We’re all unique. A billion contrasting networks of thoughts and feelings struggling for some semblance of synergy. The problem is that we think everybody else fits together and we’re the only ones on the outside. In reality, there are little correlations. Just a lot of lost puppies struggling for structure, and when it doesn’t fully match up, thinking they’re the ones that fucked up.

Of course, whilst understanding this on a logical level may help somewhat, our psyches sadly don’t work through a system of logic.

This is about changing our feelings. Our Story. Our unconscious foundations.

The answer?

I wish I could offer some quick fix. But emotional change takes time. This can often take place through a variety of actions. You may use positive affirmations to shift your mindset. To tell yourself a new story.

Another process for rewriting this story could be hypnotherapy. This is an approach I will be trying alongside my fellow trainee. This can be used as a method to interact with ourselves on the unconscious level of imagination.

“Logic works with the conscious mind, but imagination is the language of the subconscious. Hypnosis helps the subconscious by enhancing the ability to imagine.”

C. Roy Hunter, The Art of Hypnosis Mastering Basic Techniques

It lets us engage with our stories through their own language.

If you are struggling, hypnotherapy may certainly be an option. However, when issues become more complex and multi-faceted, things may need a higher degree of unpicking.

In these situations you may wish to invest in some counselling. This can really help us in broadening our understanding of our own stories. Think of the anxiety as a knot, and the counselling physio. It may help us to locate it and begin the journey of making amends. It may even offer us some exercises to take forwards to help in our recovery.

For a lot of cases, counselling or hypnotherapy might not even be necessary. Perhaps it is just the need to step back and take a more considered approach to life. Whatever the case, it is something that can be helped, and we don’t have to sit back and accept these feelings.

And if we are feeling unworthy, like an impostor in our own lives. Don’t worry. That’s perfectly normal, because there is precisely no such thing as normal. Just a collection of beautiful frauds.

So what do you think? Have you ever suffered from impostor syndrome, and if so, what has helped you?

Thanks for taking the time to read this, wishing everyone a happy, healthy Christmas.

All the best,

Shaun.

x

Kintsugi: Gabrielle Aplin on the beauty in scars

MENTAL HEALTH

IN MUSIC

These perfect fractures,

telling of such subtle truths,

that we have survived,

Kintsugi, by Shaun Beale

Since my post on Enter Shikari’s Stop the Clocks and its portrayal of certain issues surrounding mental health, I have been excited to approach numerous other songs. The list of possibilities is pretty much endless, with so many artists looking inwards for topics they wish cover.

Music has long been a coping mechanism for many. Maya Angelou went as far as to say that, “music is my refuge,” offering her a space away from the numerous difficulties and stresses of our day to day lives.

Much music however, goes far further than acting as a simple refuge. Instead, it can offer a means of engaging more proactively with our anxieties and troubles. Whilst this is especially true for the artists in the act of creating these tracks, I believe it can benefit the listeners as well. Especially when the listener takes the time to consider the themes and ideas discussed.


Now, some may argue that I am reading too deeply into this. That perhaps the act of creating these songs is not actually some form of personal therapy for the artists. No. Maybe they’re simply made to be consumed and enjoyed, and not engaged with on some deeper level of emotional understanding. It’s no secret I’m somewhat of a pretentious prick. Perhaps this just further evidence of this?

In her upcoming album Dear Happy however, Gabrielle Aplin appears to support my approach quite explicitly,

“Without knowing it at the time, the start of this album coincided with the moment I made a definitive decision to start to unravel and rewire my brain. ‘Dear Happy’ subsequently became a documentation of this journey to myself. I wanted to use writing as a way of understanding.”

Gabrielle Aplin

The creation of her music goes hand in hand with the pursuit of self-betterment, and personal growth. As a result, I believe she has released some of the most poignant singles of her already exceptional catalogue.

With every single focusing on some part of Aplin’s journey, I could have easily chosen any for this blog post. I could explore the difficulty of forming healthy relationships alongside the corrupting influence of our innermost anxieties in Losing Me.

“Wanna lie to you

Say  I’m doing so well

Show you photos too, to prove that I’ve been doing so well

Wanna hide the truth

Wanna dress up hell and heaven, like we all try to do”

Losing Me, Gabrielle Aplin

Or I could have delved into the difficulties of coping with, and taking ownership of our own shortcomings in My Mistake.

Am I jaded?

Am I meant to feel this way?

I’m a loser, getting beat by my own game

But if I falter, well at least it was my mistake

My Mistake, Gabrielle Aplin

Whilst both these songs are exceptional and I highly recommend a listen, I have instead chosen to look into her most recent release Kintsugi. Why this one in particular?

Well, I guess you will just have to read on and find out why…


So what is Kintsugi?

Kintsugi is a Japanese art form in which one puts pieces of broken pottery back together. This is often done with extremely noticeable golden seams in which the prior breakages are highlighted rather than hidden.

As well as a functional method of avoiding waste, by putting the broken pottery back together in a more aesthetically pleasing manner, Kintsugi also shares some more philosophical roots.

The act of Kintsugi extends from the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of Wabi-Sabi. This school of thought focuses on the importance of an authentic simplicity in life, and taking pleasure from our imperfections.

In his book on the subject, Richard Powell states how it is,

“a way of life that appreciates and accepts complexity while at the same time values simplicity,

Richard Powell

This simplistic approach to living diverts from our modern pursuit of perfection, instead, falling back upon the simple truth that we are all in certain ways flawed. After all, part of living is that mistakes will be made, and as a result, we are all left with our scars to bear.

It is here that one learns to appreciate and accept the complexity of life. We are all broken. There is nothing wrong with this. It is just the way it is.

The imperfections are appreciated, as they offer a glowing reminder of time’s passage, and things that have come to pass. Rather than loss or simple deterioration, they are reminders of the natural world around us. The journey of which we’re all a part.

All my scars are golden…

Kintsugi, Gabrielle Aplin

So there we have where the name comes from, but what about the song itself?

Straight away it sets the scene, showing a situation with which many of us can no doubt relate. The opening lines, “Sometimes I got a smile on my face / Sometimes I guess that I’ve gotta fake it” highlights one of the sad truths of our society, and something that is quite often promoted. This is the idea of having to “fake it”.

So much of modern “self help” focuses on trying to be happy. This is often explored alongside a focus on the significance of mindset. Whilst it is true mindset is a vital component of our well-being, all too often it is oversimplified with dangerous consequences.

The concept of changing one’s mindset, is morphed into some corrupting desire to feign joy. Rather than deal with our own issues and the vulnerability that comes with this, we choose to put on a smile and just act happy! It is no wonder then that Gabrielle Aplin proposes a situation in which, “everyone’s afraid to be naked”.

Instead of coping with naked reality, we are left dealing with the pound shop pseudo-philosophies of charlatans such as Rhonda Byrne.

“Remember that your thoughts are the primary cause of everything.”

The Secret, Rhonda Byrne

Without properly expounding upon her inspirational soundbites, Byrne is left peddling an idea that the secret is to simply be happy. If you’re happy, happy things will follow.

Gabrielle Aplin poses a far more interesting, thoughtful response however:

Cause now that I’m shattered, I’m all kinds of me

Was knocked off the shelf, but I’m also complete

Kintsugi, Gabrielle Aplin

Despite being “shattered” into pieces, she still believes she is “all kinds of me”. She’s not any less herself because she is struggling. She accepts this as a part of who she is. We are left with the interesting dichotomy of reality, that one can be broken, but no less complete.

There is no denial that she is in a bad way. This is echoed in the repetition of, “I’m broken, b-b-broken”. But, she has accepted this and is, “ready to feel better” by putting in the appropriate work. Self-repair comes from an acceptance of our flaws rather than an avoidance.

The metaphor of Kintsugi comes in more explicitly with the refrain, “all my scars are golden”. These golden scars reflecting the cracks of a piece of Kintsugi pottery. Besides this, it implies that the scars will never fully heal. She is very accepting of the fact that the events of her past will leave a lasting mark. Rather than begrudging this, she shares in the philosophy of Wabi-Sabi and finds a beauty in their truth.

In fact, these natural imperfections will make up a map of her life we can trace. Thoughts can not fight off the imperfections and damage placed upon us by life. They can merely choose to work with and accept them as part of the journey.

It is this aspect I love about this song!

Something I feel is emphasised by the lines,

“I’m broken into so many pieces

Would be easy just to throw them away

But I don’t wanna give up on feeling”

Kintsugi, Gabrielle Aplin

Rather than indulge in the self destructive denial of the past, she opts to take on the hard task of putting things back together. Despite the fact it can hurt, she doesn’t want to “give up on feeling”.


It is important to note that, despite the upbeat tone of the song, the ideas discussed are not supposed to be easy. Note how throughout the song she focuses on the future. She says she is “ready” to feel better and that her life “will be” a map you can trace.

These things are not easily done. It’s a process, and a hard one at that.

Talking about her new album Dear Happy, Gabrielle Aplin states,

“Sonically I wanted to capture these moments and experiences in a positive light. I want to listen back to these songs in five years and hear happiness and positivity. It’s an album about saying ‘fuck it!” to your worries and insecurities. Or maybe it’s an album that invites your worries and insecurities to sit with you. It’s an album about saying ‘no’. It’s an album about saying ‘YES’. It’s an album that is a past, present and future letter to myself.”

Gabrielle Aplin

I can’t help but love that artists are being so open about their mental health, and the role it takes in their music. We all have methods for coping, and whilst these are different for everyone, we can all learn from one another.

For those interested, Dear Happy comes out on January 17th next year. I for one, know I’ll be listening day one.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you have any thoughts on your own feelings towards the song, please drop me a comment.

All the best,

Shaun.

x

Ten things we can take away from the Stoics!

Well-being in Philosophy

Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.

Marcus Aurelius

In our modern society, the concept of being “stoic” is very different from the term’s philosophical roots. When we now think of a stoic individual, we will often think the following: quiet, dispassionate, cold, hardened, and all too often it seems, manly. Stoicism has recently been conflated with our rather warped conceptions of masculinity and how men should behave.

Think how often men attempt to live up to the image of the stoic, powerful Spartan.

This… is… STOIC!

Stoicism however, was initially something very different. It was a branch of moral philosophy developed by Zeno of Citium in Ancient Athens. The school of Stoic thinking continued to grow with further thinkers adding to its philosophies. Some famous practitioners of Stoicism were Seneca, Epictetus and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

The endpoint of Stoicism was to achieve ataraxia, a state of profound tranquillity. This is a state in which one is free from stress and worry.


“Well-being is attained little by little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself. “

Zeno of Citium

With Stoic philosophy basing itself around the pursuit of a healthy, happy life, I thought it would be good to look at the ways in which we can learn from it in our modern lives. Many modern “self-help” gurus borrow from the work of the Stoics whether or not they are overtly aware. With this in mind, I thought it was about time these absolute mad lads got the credit they so rightly deserve.

So, with the scene thoroughly set, here it is…

Ten things we can take away from the Stoics


1 – Provides a system for dealing with worry and stress

Our modern society is extremely stressful. There is no denying it. Our minds are constantly bombarded by external forces that often conflict with our core values and beliefs. These are often set in direct opposition to us living a stress free existence.

Equally, the men and women of ancient Greece and Rome had a pretty hard time of it as well. This was a time where wars were common place and individuals had to live without the majority of our modern luxuries. Life wasn’t easy.

Take the life of the Stoic thinker Seneca for example. He suffered from tuberculosis early in his life. At the time, this would have been a death sentence for most. In fact, even John Keats in the Nineteenth century saw the disease as a death sentence. The fact Seneca somehow survived is nothing short of incredible.

Later, under the rule of Emperor Claudius, Seneca was sentenced to death but got off lightly with exile. This however, never stopped him and his exile was eventually overturned. Despite the multiple hardships he had endured, Seneca never gave up.

Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body.

Seneca

This ability to cope would be in no small part due to Stoic approach to life. Stoicism offers a system for dealing with hardships, coping with the stressful situations around us and obtaining peace of mind.


2 – Offers an escape from hedonism

With the advent of consumerism, we are an extremely hedonistic culture. Retail therapy is an extremely common form of distraction from our stresses.

Despite how this act of buying new shit appears to help us in the short term, it never lasts. As soon as the initial euphoria of our new purchase wears off, reality settles back in and our anxieties return. Sometimes, it even makes us feel even worse as we grow to regret purchasing that fancy new Iphone when we realise its no different to the one we already had. The good feeling is often supplanted by ones of guilt.

Stoic thinking allows us to get off the hedonic treadmill of capitalism and obtain a more lasting peace. This is due to its focus on the pursuit of arete (virtue), over the pursuit of fancy new shit.

This Stoic sense of virtue, is far removed from Christian virtue and isn’t a strict moral code of rules and religious tenets. Instead, it based around the fulfilment of one’s individual purpose. The act of living up to one’s full potential.

In pursuing such a goal, one is gifted a prolonged meaning in life, far outlasting the short term fix of buying a new pair of shoes.

” Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

Epictetus

3 – Promotes a purpose in life

Anxieties are so often brought about by the lack of purpose and meaning in life. This meaning we seek, is often external to ourselves.

For example, we may find purpose in religion, or in saving the rain-forest, or in finding that sweet, sweet Szechuan sauce. It is only natural that we search for meaning outside of ourselves. We long for a greater purpose.

“Seek not the good in external things; seek it in yourselves.”

Epictetus

The focus on living a virtuous life, gives us an inescapable, internal meaning. The purpose becomes life itself. Living the best life you can. But what does it mean to live the best life you can? This brings me nicely onto my fourth point…


4 – We must live to our own values

Stoicism is not prescriptive. There are no ten commandments, or set goals to living a “good life”. Yes there are the four cardinal virtues. But these are pretty vague and open to interpretation. They are wisdom, justice, courage and self-discipline.

These do not have necessarily prescribed meanings however. They are simply traits we should value. Wisdom is living with perspective. Justice is living with integrity. Courage is living with bravery and honesty. Self-discipline is about putting the cupcake down…

Arete is simply about being the best version of yourself – whatever that may mean to you. It involves having a degree of mindfulness and deep thinking. You must really consider who you wish to be.

For me, this involves self-betterment. Relentless forward progress through my own efforts, rather than at the expense of others. Forwards towards what? A better, more thoughtful me than I was the day prior. Simples.

So this is an important lesson from the Stoics. We must each decide our own values and live accordingly. THEY AIN’T GONNA DO IT FOR YOU!


5 – Teaches us to focus on our intentions, rather than outcomes

Fuck vision boards.

Sorry about that. My reaction may have come across a little extreme, but I am not the greatest fan of vision boards. Whilst they can be great when done in a considered and thoughtful manner, this is often not the case.

You see, they often focus far too greatly on outcomes.

This for me, is an unfortunate byproduct of Rhonda Byrne and her not so well kept secret. That however, is a topic for another blog post.

Stoicism instead focuses are gaze not onto the outcomes we want, but our intentions. We must live with good intentions, the outcomes are irrelevant. This means, we can not punish ourselves for fate getting in our way. Sometimes the world won’t play ball and you simply won’t achieve the outcomes you want.

This can be extremely damaging to the self-esteem of individuals that place too much weight on achieving set goals.

Take for example, the goal of losing 10 Lbs by a set date. Perhaps, some external event gets in the way. A tragedy, or a busy schedule throwing a spanner into your well oiled dietary machine. As a result, you fail to meet your outcome.

What happens next? You feel guilty. You may think you don’t deserve the body you want and your motivation disappears. You end up giving up on your desire to live a healthier life.

Now, lets reframe this where you focus on intentions. Rather than thinking I want to lose a set amount of weight, you live with the intention of being healthiest you possible. The same thing happens and tragedy strikes.

Rather than feeling like a failure, you are able to consider your intentions more deeply. Yes it has been hard, a struggle even and I’m not where I’d like to be, but my intentions were there. I can’t be blamed for what happened, but I can take responsibility for my actions going forwards. I will continue to keep trying harder to live as the healthiest me I can.

You can then make small changes, each nudging you towards the lifestyle you want. That’s the things with focusing on intentions over outcomes. It’s about building a healthy, fruitful lifestyle.


6 – Allows us to take responsibility for how we react to the world around us

“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them”

Epictetus

We have no control over the world around us. Donald Trump, Brexit, the Game of Thrones finale…

We can’t change any of these things. What we can do however, is choose how we respond to them. Stoicism teaches us to take responsibility for how we choose to respond. Often, our responses to negative things can be to play the victim.

This can perceived victimhood can lead to us giving up and being pushed around by the world, or even lashing out angrily. What’s the point!

I am definitely guilty of this at times. When things don’t go my way, I often think, “Fuck it! Why bother?”

Living like this, your happiness is reliant on the world around you going your way. Your mood constantly shifting at the whims of external forces.

By taking responsibility for you responses however, you are able to remain composed, happy and relaxed even when things don’t go your way. Often, you will be able to think clearly and find a solution, or if not, at least put them into context and realise things ain’t all that bad.


7 – Teaches tolerance to others

Basically, Stoic philosophy teaches you not to hold onto the things you can’t control. As well as the external world around us, this includes other individuals.

All people are different. Thus, each individual’s pursuit of virtue will result in a massive diversity of differing approaches to life. As a result, in trying to live a virtuous life, we should all focus on treading our own paths, rather than concerning ourselves with those of others.

In getting caught up in arguing with others, we grow distracted from being our best selves.

This doesn’t mean we can’t argue against things we disagree with. No, in living with good intentions one might wish to fight for their beliefs. What we can’t do however, is get caught up in rash, emotional responses.

Instead, the Stoic approach would help us to remove ourselves from the situation, and allow us to engage in a more rational discourse.

“After all, what is it that frets you? The vices of humanity? Remember that all rational beings are created for one another; that toleration is a part of justice; and that men are not intentional evildoers.”

Marcus Aurelius

8 – Promotes a growth mindset

“Every night before going to sleep, we must ask ourselves; what weakness did I overcome today? What virtue did I acquire?”

Seneca

The Stoic mindset demands growth. As has been discussed, it is based around the search for a better you. This singular focus asks us to accept the fact that we can always be better. We are never truly a finished product.

In this way, weaknesses are not things to hold us back, but gaps to be filled. They are areas that are open to be improved upon.

This a part of Stoicism that really resonates with myself as an ex-teacher. We must always be open to improvement: to – not to big up my own blog – being better.

Without this drive, it is easy for us to sit and stagnate. If you have no reason to improve, life could become pretty boring. The act of growing gives us purpose and drive. Learning new things is a brilliant way to improve our mental health. Not only is it great for our self-esteem, but in opening ourselves up to intellectual growth, we are less likely to become trapped in persistent, negative thought patterns.


9 – We are our own absolute

It is often a lack of meaning that leads to our anxieties. Without this, life can become purposeless and mundane. As a result, we – as humans – spend much of our time in search of absolutes.

” No one can stop you living according to the laws of your own personal nature, and nothing can happen to you against the laws of the World-Nature.”

Marcus Aurelius

It is not the pre-designed tapestry of some great gods by which we live. Yes, nature, or the world around us may play a deciding factor in what happens to us, but we decide the laws by which we live.

In many ways, one of the greatest aspect of Stoicism is that we are able to become our own philosophy. Our own meaning.

“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”

Epictetus

10 – Through Stoic thought, we can bear any burden

Throughout history, Stoic thought has helped incredible people bear even the greatest of burden

” You can bind up my leg, but not even Zeus has the power to break my freedom of choice.”

Epictetus

Whatever people do to you, they can’t change the person you are. They can damage your body, but never your virtue. This is a major lesson of Stoic thinking. It is believed a Stoic sage – an imagined figure that lives exactly by their virtues – would be able to bear any pain.

This is due to the fact that, they are able to remove the physical experience from their internal self.

Whilst obviously this can be taken too far – it doesn’t make us invincible – it is useful in tackling otherwise difficult situations. Stoicism has actually helped myself in running huge distances as I am able to better deal with the toll it takes upon my body. It gives me a framework for coping.


So there it is. Ten things we can take away from the stoics. Obviously, this list is far from exhaustive and barely scrapes the surface of this deep philosophy. Hopefully however, it does give you some food for thought. There is a lot to be learnt from these great thinkers.

If any of this interests you, I definitely recommend digging a little deeper. A good place to start for those interested, is the book Happy by Derren Brown. Whilst it is not focused on Stoicism specifically, it is a fantastic introduction and helped to inspire this post.

I hope this has been a useful read, or at the very least given you all some food for thought.

All the best,

Shaun.

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