meaning

THE WOOD NOT THE TREES

I met a friend yesterday, who was listening to jazz in his car. Though the instant I said it I realised I was wrong, I identified the trumpeter as Miles Davis. A safe bet, given he and Louis Armstrong are the world’s most well known jazz trumpeters and the song didn’t have that New Orleans feel. Neither was it Miles, whose tone is often melancholy - this was friendly, extrovert. A pause would have led to me accept that I didn’t know the mystery player - but could say who it wasn’t.

Rush for certainty is a classic example of premature closure. We identify what seems to be a gap, and plug it with whatever at hand seems to fit. It’s a smart move at one level - we’re wired for survival and picking up on hazard helps us do that. We start to perceive something in our field of vision within around 50 to 75 milliseconds. In that time, an awareness of colour and boundaries and distance forms. By 200 milliseconds we’ve shifted from perception to recognition. That particular combination of textures, movement, and sounds is a dog – one you may like if it reminds you of a pet, or fear if you were bitten by one of the same breed.

All very well, but that process means we’re wired for picking up sameness and can miss vital differences. Once a label’s in place, we’ve got no incentive to change it. Dogs aren’t the only things we can have prejudices about. If we’re lucky, someone will point it out and we can update our concepts - or get angry with them. Otherwise, it’s like the guy rocking a defiant mullet long after they’ve been even ironically fashionable - something that helps define who we are, that not only others mistake for us but so do we.

As with bad hair, so with beliefs.

A bit of uncertainty helps shake things up. There’s an interesting paradox in all this. Robert Anton Wilson noted “imposition of order equals escalation of chaos”. One classic example is the groundnut scandal in the country we now know as Tanzania - on maps at the time the area was marked Tanganyika. It was an attempt in the 1940s to develop the local economy, instigated by a senior Unilever manager who believed peanuts could produce vegetable oil. What followed was an escapade costing many millions of pounds as tens of thousands of British soldiers and engineers turned up with tractors, most of which never even made it to the intended site. Undeterred, men and money continued to pour into the region. The few nuts grown were flooded away, and the British finally went home leaving behind them land needing a long time to recover thanks to their antics.

If only they’d thought to pay attention to their surroundings, and listen to the locals.

Something similar happens when a professional of whatever sort attempts to attach a pre-fabricated solution in the erroneous belief this is another instance of something they’ve seen before. It won’t be. Even if there are many things the previous and current situation have in common, focusing on those will blind you to their differences. And it’s in difference that the particular tells its truth, if only we can pay attention.

Shaking up patterns can be really helpful. And there are many implicit in what happens between people when one is paid to support the other, as in sessions that get names like coaching or therapy. Quite often such interactions happen in an office or over a coffee. For quite a while now, I find more interesting results emerge from a walk. Around town can be fine, but city settings are by definition blaring with logos and other markers defining ownership of space.

Get out into greener areas, and something else starts to happen. Walk in places where physical demarcations are unclear, and personal boundaries too can take on different forms. The physicality of what’s happening is also beneficial - people walking at a pace with a rhythm in an area maybe neither has been before has a different quality than ‘person with intention’ and ‘person with solution’.

We might not be able to label what’s happening to us and around us, but that doesn’t make it bad. The badness is often our felt response to an inability to create such a label. Relax into that distinction like a dog rolling in leaves. Somewhere in your experience you’ll have a reference for what it’s like as perception slides from the unknown to the known. It’s a state worth accessing again. Novelty helps, and one way to encourage our resistance to difference is to make the experience of discovering it something fun.

Feelings work much like perceptions. They arise, followed by whatever linguistic tags go with those emotions: fear, anger, disgust, etc. As neuroscientist Rick Hanson notes “The brain is Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” We skew to the negative because survival requires that we respond, even though much of the unpleasantness we are made aware of at this point in history is fake news. Worse yet, people know that and want more of it, not least because they’re sick of being lied to by experts who won that status by being better at schooling geared largely for rewarding obedience.

Advertisers clamour for our attention, lying about why we should invest the survival tokens we work for in them and not rivals. What truly does matter is the consequences of such acquisition and competition based thinking on a global scale, but so successful have political classes and the branded world been at installing their priorities we’re more concerned about mortgages and holidays and student loans than what’s happening to the planet we share and people we’re invited to hate. And yet - there are glimpses of hope. Younger people intolerant of the intolerance of the older generation. Technologies that can help heal the environment. A surge of interest in alternative ways of thinking and doing, old and new.

It’s a lot to take on, and many prefer not to. Yet, simple choices can make a real difference. Time in the woods can reduce stress, depression, and blood pressure. Children playing among trees increase cognitive skills, manual dexterity, and ability to assess risks. I’m willing to bet that’s because they’re dealing with things as they are, rather than referring to a mental template. The branded world fools you there’s such a thing as consistency and reliability: see logo, feel good, spend money, get stuff. Rinse and repeat. Nature makes no such pretence. Instead it presents pattern, and there’s a big difference between responding to those and mass producing illusory solutions.

All of that loops us back to Wilson and his observation that chaos arises from imposing order. Between the two there’s a space where each possibility can be perceived. In that space is paradox. As Durrenmatt noted, exposing yourself to paradox exposes you to reality - because it’s in those moments beyond language we start to get some sense how much of reality we have a hand in creating.

That realisation will fade, but while it exists the possibility of change can be glimpsed and acted on. If you’d like someone to go on that journey with, to find and hold that space, get in touch. I regularly work with entrepreneurs and artists, coaches and counsellors, mothers and managers, to support them in escaping constraints that limit their awareness and ability to achieve results. Let’s plan your jailbreak together.

IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT, OVERWRITE IT

Often, when I'm meeting someone for the first time, I'll say that I took early retirement at 25. It's a harmless and supposedly amusing way to avoid talking about something bigger that happened half a life ago, when I and about a third of the staff at an ad agency were made redundant.

I suspect I was the only one who left something like happily and willingly. And that's down to something that had happened a few months earlier.

This night wounds time. The expression has haunted me since I encountered it on the cover of Starless And Bible Black, a King Crimson album. It was there thanks to Tom Phillips, an artist most known for his work A Humument, where he took a Victorian book - A Human Document by W.H. Mallock - and created his own text from it by highlighting and connecting some words and phrases, and painting over the remainder.

Now, nobody much talks about Mallock's book. But what Phillips did with it lives on as a significant alteration of something that was already there. I wish the same could be said for the town centres I see across Britain, and sometimes elsewhere when I have been abroad. Centuries of urban development and complex local histories and understandings have been overwritten by the same few shops that can be seen again and again as you travel about, square footage consumed by voracious multinational businesses that populate their space with goods aimed at whatever demographic they've opted to feed on. Their logos are seared into our consciousness, because isn't that what brands do?

As space is corrupted, so is time. Retailers are seeking to co-opt the calendar with events like Black Friday, and National Pastie Week, but corporations haven't yet succeeded in redefining the way we structure time with the success that the Gregorian calendar had when it replaced the Julian one. Besides, raw human experience can still overpower prepackaged options. 

February 28th was my dad's birthday.

But the year I was made redundant it was overwritten by my brother Nigel's death.

He was at the wheel of a car he and some friends had stolen.

Dad had to identify his charred corpse.

 

This night wounds time.

 

And wounds can heal.

 

When we buried my brother, the route taken by the hearse took us past the homes we shared with Nigel as a family, in the order we'd lived in them. That wasn't planned by either of my parents. It happened to be the route that made most sense given where the journey started, and where it ended, chosen by the driver of the hearse. But that particular shape, recapitulating the years we lived and grew and changed together, inevitably felt significant. Well, it was significant - just unplanned. There's a reason Jung called synchronicity meaningful coincidence.

That journey was a condensed version of our lives with Nigel, much of the time spent travelling down roads we'd played, fought, laughed, argued. It's how they'd do it in a film, so is it any wonder I ended up writing scripts when life itself seemed to be overdoing the job on this and so many occasions?

And now it's a New Year, according to the calendar I favour. A blank page. And one which we don't have to write on at all, let alone with resolutions. But have a think, about the extent to which your choices are shaped by organisations that are only interested in you as a source of revenue. If there are people who treat you similarly, then pay them some attention too. Thing being, it doesn't have to be like that. You get to choose a lot more about your life than you might imagine, and it's worth doing if the result is trading a way of living primarily experienced through your economic value to others for one where you get to determine what's significant, and how you allocate your time as a consequence.

This needn't involved giving up a job and becoming a hermit or self-employed. There are plenty of people I know who find their jobs rewarding and worthwhile. And there are more I know who trade hours put into organisations that mean nothing to them for cash allowing them to enjoy their time outside of it. If that's a transaction that works, then good luck. It's best to be in charge of making the big choices in your life, than be forced into a major reassessment of how you live because of the death of someone you love.

After my brother's death, I moved to Nottingham. Yesterday, I took a walk through Beeston, the area I first lived when I came here. And part of what made that experience good is the choices I've made since have overwritten whatever I may have formerly felt about the place, let alone what created those feelings. Wandering through the place ('a seaside town without the sea', a much-missed friend put it once) and beyond, I walked through the university grounds, and spent time at a couple of arts centres there. You could say that a university is a brand, but even if that's the case I'm much happier with brands that decorate their space with opportunities to occupy time in nature, and with paintings, and the company of people out for a show or a walk with their children, than I am in a city where I could be anywhere judging by the familiarity of the names on the shopfronts.

Capitalism has imprinted its offerings on us in part through using what makes art work, and it's easy to mistake its products for our desires. Given that I'm writing this in a house full of books, DVDs, comics, CDs, and other paraphernalia of consumer society, that may be hypocritical to some extent. So be it. And I know that much of what I enjoy and pay money for goes on to shape my own creativity, and the stories I offer the world, and the forms in which I offer those stories. Maybe stories isn't your thing, but we've all got something to offer that you can't get by wandering around town and finding it for the best price. Whatever that something is, do more of it this year.