Saturday, 14 June 2008

Getting into the flow

I had the good fortune last night to be introduced to two young engineering graduates from Canada. Fresh from university, their first professional assignment is challenging. They’ve been sent to London to construct an architectural installation in Trafalgar Square. They’re working to a tight deadline, and the techniques involved in the construction are complicated. Nonetheless, these two seem undaunted - they’re incredibly focussed on what they’re doing, and they become completely absorbed in their topic when you ask them to talk about it.

Everything is new to them at the moment - it’s a new job, a new city, new construction techniques, new colleagues. They’re clearly very excited about it all - talking with raised voices, animated and enthused. The experience is all consuming for them, and right now they’re relishing every moment of it.

Their enthusiasm was infectious, and it spread across the entire group I was dining with. We all became engrossed in their engineering challenges, and engaged by their anecdotes about visiting London for the first time.

The encounter reminded me of what it is like to be young - where everything is new and exciting. Where one’s mind is constantly stimulated and engaged by each individual moment of existence. The ability to become completely absorbed in an all consuming task, and to focus upon it entirely, and with passion.

I wanted to give the pair some advice. I wanted to tell them what a unique experience it is was, to be doing things for the first time. To tell them that they should relish every moment of it - to enjoy these times. But I struggled to put this advice into words.

It was then that it struck me that I should not be giving advice to them at all - it was in fact they who were giving me advice. They were leading by example. This kind of youthfulness is not about age - it’s more a state of mind. Every moment of our lives affords a new discovery - an opportunity to take a look at things from a fresh perspective. Wrinkles, grey hair, no hair or whatever, do not limit our ability to be youthful in spirit. Only our minds limit us in this way. If we want to be happy in life, we should watch people who are happy very closely, and learn from their example.

The kind of focus that these two had was what sportsmen and women call being in “the zone,” and psychologists describe as “flow.” It’s the state of mind that we get into when we do our best work - it’s confident, relaxed and playful. We all have our own ways of getting into this mental state, and it becomes easier to achieve with practice. When you’re in the zone, the last thing you need is someone pointing it out to you, and implying that it won’t last for ever - this kind of talk only serves to distract us from the zone, and lose the moment altogether. When you encounter someone who is evidently in the zone, don’t distract them from it - learn from their example instead.

Getting older is a rich and beautiful thing - it means we’ve had the good fortune to experience more of life, and the opportunity to learn from those experiences. But however old we are, we can always learn from those younger than ourselves. We should take care to always regard our world with youthful eyes, experiencing things as if we’ve encountered them for the first time, and allowing ourselves to become entirely absorbed in the moment.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Tread with care

I walk across a beach, leaving footprints in the sand.
Looking at my tracks makes me think that I know where I’m going,
So I don’t look at them.

Ahead of me, there are no tracks,
The virgin sand makes me think that I know where I want to be.
So I don’t look ahead of me.

Beneath my feet, footprints are forming with each step that I take.
My steps become tracks behind me, and they guide my path ahead.
So I tread with care.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

The art of drawing and the wisdom of tattoos

A skilled artist never uses an eraser. This is not because they never make mistakes - although they rarely do. The reason that artists don’t use erasers is because drawing is about making marks on paper, and erasing a mark negates that process and interrupts the artist’s flow. If you make a mark that turns out to be wrong, move on and make a better mark. Over time, a picture emerges from the all the marks on the paper - and every mark tells part of the story of the drawing process.

To make great drawings, artists require the courage of their convictions, making each mark with confidence, and visualizing the path that the pen will take. A great mark is confident and flowing - the artist makes generous movements from the upper arm. By freeing their minds of the fear of making mistakes, artists tend to not to make them. With the eraser removed from the artists’ tool box, they no longer search for mistakes to erase. Instead each stroke forms a legitimate part of the whole.

In this sense, tattoos are the ultimate form of drawing. Before I had cancer, I didn’t understand tattoos. I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to indelibly mark their own bodies. Why make an irreversible decision that you may live to regret? I now realize that my thinking was flawed. Each and every decision that we make is irreversible. It’s an indelible mark on time. There are no erasers in life, and we each have a finite amount of time in this world. Like a tattoo artist, we must make our marks with confidence, and embrace the truth in every mark that we make.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

How cancer changed my life for the better

“People never change,” or so the saying goes. But that’s not true. People can change, and they do, and it’s happening all the time. Usually, change is for the better, as we learn and grow. Most people need some instigator to bring in the change. It may be something that inspires them, someone who challenges them or an unexpected event that comes from nowhere. It needn’t be something big or scary.

For me, it was cancer. And it changed my life for the better.

I thought I’d been doing pretty well in my life. Running a small web design business. Living with my partner, whom I love very much. A large circle of friends. A beautiful apartment in London. In many ways I was quite content. Better than content, even. It seemed that most things were going my way. But as I look back on those times now, I realise that one important thing was missing. I wasn’t entirely happy.

Some unhappy people say that they worry themselves to sleep at night. I had no trouble sleeping. My problems were during the day. I would worry incessantly, relentlessly and pointlessly. I’d worry about things that had happened, things that might happen, and things that would probably never happen. Somehow I was incapable of keeping anything in perspective. I’d live my life in perpetual fear, trying to anticipate anything that might go wrong. I guess instinctively I was trying to make things better, but in fact I was only making things worse.

Much worse, as it turned out. The excessive levels of stress that I was subjecting my body to were taking their toll, weakening my immune system, and perhaps even giving the cancer cells in my body a chance to take hold. Ironically, all of my anxieties that something was going to go wrong may very well have been a contributing factor to what actually did go wrong. But even I hadn’t anticipated contracting cancer.

In the months that followed, I underwent scans, surgery, chemotherapy, severe allergic relations to my antisickness meds and several very serious skin infections. The team at The Royal Marsden Hospital in London did a fantastic job in taking care of me, and they probably saved my life.

This was the most challenging time of my life. Yet strangely the most challenging aspect was not the surgery, nor the chemotherapy. It was the challenge of changing the way in which I think. I realised when I first received the diagnosis that there was no way I could carry on as I was. Given the amount of stress that I was subjecting myself to when I had nothing to worry about, heaven knows how that would be magnified now that I had something real to worry about. I knew that there could be no chance of recovery for me, unless I learned to stop worrying altogether.

I remember how I used to tell people that I got my best work done in the mornings, because first thing in the morning, my mind was like a tranquil pool, and it was easy for me to stay focussed. But by the end of the day, that tranquil pool had become a turbulent ocean of giant waves. As each event happened during my day, it was like a progressively large rock was thrown into the pool, stirring up the waters even further. What I find amazing now is that I used to tell this story about my pool to friends all the time, and yet I never considered what I should do to remedy the situation.

The cancer diagnosis finally gave me the unavoidable impetus that I needed to start getting my head straight. And in doing so, it put me on a path to a much happier life.

In this blog, I want to share my experiences as I was cured of cancer. I’d like to share some really great thinking that I picked up along the way from some very wise friends, and some remarkable books that have helped me a lot. I’m not a religious person, so my journey was not about scripture or faith. Instead, I discovered a kind of spirituality. To me, spirituality is about finding peace with yourself and the world around you – learning to be happy, and discovering how to share this happiness with others. It needn’t be about anything mystical or unscientific. Looking back, I can see that everything I’ve learned was pretty obvious to begin with – it just makes me realise how often I miss the things that are staring me in the face.

My chemotherapy was successful – and although the doctors still want to monitor me closely, the latest scans show no active cancer in my body. It’s a second chance for me, and I want to make the most of it. The feeling of surviving cancer is both liberating and humbling – and it is amazing how edifying this combination of feelings can be.