Sunday, 20 December 2009


If you are a writer, you write.
If you are a runner, you run.
If you are happy, you smile.

If you write, you are a writer.
If you run, you are a runner.
If you smile, you are happy.

If you want to be a writer, write.
If you want to be a runner, run.
If you want to be happy, smile.

It really is that simple. We can't control our thoughts, but we can control our behaviour. And our behaviour exerts a powerful influence on our feelings over time. If I've learned anything over the past two years, it is this: if you seek true happiness, then smile. It is as simple as that.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Don't try to make sense of what is senseless

I've been reading Lance Armstrong's autobiography - "It's not about the bike". He is an incredibly inspiring individual, and his story (of surviving cancer, and going on to win the Tour de France seven times,) is gruelling to get through, but rewarding when you reach the end. Much like a cycling race.

I really like the way in which Armstrong reminds us that cancer is senseless. It made me realise that I still try to rationalise it, and give it meaning. But, as Armstrong points out, cancer has killed many positive-minded people who were determined to beat it; whilst it has spared many who had little will to carry on living.

It's tempting to give cancer a meaning, and imagine that we can control the outcome. But, whilst there are surely things we can do to improve our chances, ultimately cancer is a pretty random thing.

Lance Armstrong's strength of character helped him and his family get through the treatment, and it's what enabled him to go on and triumph at the Tour de France. But he was also extremely lucky, and he knows it. He has a really big ego, and he's quite up front about the fact that he's rubbed people up the wrong way during his career. But his cancer was neither a punishment, nor a reward. It was just some random thing that happened to him.

We can't control what will happen to us. We may or may not get a cancer diagnosis. We may or may not survive. What matters is how we respond to the challenges that life throws at us, and what we do with the time that we have. There's no meaning to cancer - all we can do is focus on the meaning of our own actions.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


You are what you do.
Change what you do, and you change who you are.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Savouring life, like a glass of fine whisky

I remember my first sip of whisky, and the intense feeling of disappointment I experienced when I discovered that this was what all the fuss had been about. I had expected it to be smooth, sweet and soothing. But it tasted dry, bitter and acrid. Not what I had expecting at all.

Life is not like a bowl of cherries. And nor should it be. It is not always attractive and sweet. Its pleasures are not always immediately accessible to grasp. Sometimes things don't go the way we plan, or the way we might have hoped.

I certainly hadn't been hoping for cancer. But the experience of treatment and recovery added a new layer of depth, meaning and intensity to my life that I am profoundly grateful for.

I remember one day when I came back from hospital, having heard that the chemo wasn't working, my tumours were getting larger, and that I might need a stronger treatment. It was the moment when I first realised exactly how serious my situation was, and I started to anticipate my own death. I sat down on my bed and wept. My partner rushed home from work, and held me. That moment sticks in my mind intensely, to this day. And whilst, in one sense, it was one of the lowest points in my life, I also cherish that memory. It brings tears to my eyes now, just remembering it - but they are not tears of sadness.

Whisky is a complex blend of flavours, some bitter and some sweet. It is this rich combination of accents that come together to produce a warm, rounded harmony. You can't enjoy whisky without its bitter notes, any more than you can enjoy life if you attempt to overlook adversity: the setbacks, challenges, moments of despair and loss.

We can't control what will happen to us. We need to let go of our expectations, and experience our life for what it is, finding the meaning in each moment as we go. I truly believe that the secret to happiness lies in learning to savour our lives like a glass of fine whisky - embracing the bitter notes along with the sweet - and recognising the exquisite perfection of our life as it unfolds. One sip at a time.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Tales of everyday hypnosis

When we think of hypnotism, it usually conjures the image of a stage hypnotist, or a 19th century therapist, mesmerizing his patient, by swinging a watch on a chain. But in reality, hypnotism is far more commonplace, and far less dramatic. Consciously or otherwise, we're all hypnotizing each other, all the time, influencing each other's behavior, for better or worse.

Hypnotism is concerned with suggestion. In all forms of communication, we routinely embed multiple layers of meaning. For example, if I say "I'm fine," whilst frowning, I've simultaneously communicated two seemingly contradictory messages. It's down to you, the person with whom I'm communicating, to reconcile them. Sometimes this will be done consciously - you might notice the frown, and realize that I may not be fine. But on other occasions, you may become aware of the frown without consciously thinking about it. As a result, the frown may affect your behavior without you even realizing it. Or in other words, you may be hypnotized by a simple facial expression.

For example, a friend of mine who had been going through a tough time, was planning to go on a vacation to get away from it all. However, when a well meaning person told him that "he could not take a vacation from himself," this advice gave him pause for thought.

The statement is really just a tautology. To say you can't take a vacation from yourself is really nothing more than saying that you will always be you. So what's the underlying meaning in this statement? Simply this: if you're miserable now, you'll be miserable on your vacation as well. What this advices does is to embed a tenuous premise on top of an unchallengeable statement. Of course, you will always be you, but this does not mean that you can't change your mental state. The premise of the statement deliberately frames the situation into one where change is not possible, and as such, it is disempowering. If the person who said it intended to be well meaning, then you would have to question their underlying, perhaps subconscious, motivations.

What is absolutely key in these situations is to consciously process this type of statement, and to identify the embedded command that is piggybacking on the message, in order to ensure that we don't unwittingly allow ourselves to be programmed in this way. For if we accept other people's framing of our situation, we will begin to limit the scope of what we believe to be possible. As a result, an initial positive idea - like going on a vacation in order to get away from it all - becomes doomed to failure, because we unconsciously accept that we will not be able to change our own frame of mind.

This fact was brought home to me personally, when I was awaiting the results of my cancer staging, which would determine what treatment I required. It proved to be a very difficult case for the histopathologists to diagnose, and as a result, I had to wait a long time for the results. When I called the hospital to ask if there was any news, my nurse apologized that there wasn't, and said "you must be out of your mind with worry."

My nurse was a fantastic emotional support to me. Throughout my treatment, she did an excellent job - she was incredibly well informed, and always seemed to know exactly what to do. By saying that I must be out of my mind with worry, she intended to show empathy with my situation - to show that she understood how serious the situation was. However, what she had actually done was to communicate an embedded command - telling me, consciously or otherwise, to worry. This was a rare occasion where my nurse had got it wrong.

Fortunately, I identified the command, processed it and rejected it. The most effective way of dispelling this kind of hypnotic suggestion, when it arises within conversation, is to challenge it within that same conversation, allowing your unconscious mind to be programmed by your own consciously positive words. I explained to my nurse that I wasn't worried, it was actually reassuring that the histopathologists were taking such care in arriving at a diagnosis.

There were many challenging times ahead for me when the diagnosis finally arrived, but I can honestly say that I didn't go "out of my mind with worry" during those weeks before it was confirmed. However well meaning the advise of friends and family may be, we should always take care to look out for these kinds of hypnotic suggestions, and dispel the negative ones, before they can take hold.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Finding hope in the most unlikely of places

It's easy to despair - to lose all hope, and begin to question the meaning of our lives, and the world we live in. There are times when we're challenged to the core of our being. Moments that cause us to question the purpose of our existence. Whether it's bereavement, rejection, conflict, sickness or loneliness, at these moments we suffer, as we struggle to find the strength we need to carry on.

Some turn to religion for this strength. And it can help, if it provides answers and offers hope. But what if, like me, you are not religious? Who can you turn to if you don't have religious faith?

Two years ago, when I was diagnosed with cancer, I was told that I would need chemotherapy. I think that I was more frightened than I had ever been in my life before. But I found the hope and strength I needed to get through it from a place that I never expected.

Chemotherapy is normally pumped into your body through a needle. The nurses hook you up to a machine, and leave you sitting there for an hour or so until you're done. It's poison that they're pumping into your veins. This doesn't hurt at the time, but it can make you feel unwell afterwards, and a week later, just when you're starting to recover, the nurses will pump more of the stuff into you.

And so we all sit together, me and my fellow cancer patients, in a big room, staring at each other as the pumps do their work. We're all in the same boat. You have to be pretty sick to need this stuff. We're all very scared, but you wouldn't know it to look at us there together.

Because in that room - the medical day unit - there is a kind of dignity, camaraderie and compassion that I don't think I've ever experienced in my life before. Everyone is remarkably brave and composed, considering the circumstances, and I realized at the time that we were all drawing this strength from each other. From strangers. All it took was for us to sit together, and take our medicine together. Providing each other with this companionship cost us nothing, but helped us more than I can say.

Looking back, I realize that these are the times and places where we can find hope - regardless of whether we have religious faith. This free and willing exchange of kindness between strangers, in the worst of situations, tells us everything that we need to know about the true value and meaning of the human condition. Hope needn't be a supernatural force from above. It's something we share between us, and the best place to look for it is in the kindness of strangers.