Author: chrisbell

Control is limited

Tap the screen. That’s it. One action. One control. Tap the screen and the bird flies upwards. Don’t tap the screen and gravity takes over.

We have many more ways to control our lives, but they are all equally limited. You can do nothing about the storm or earthquake or the out-of-control car  that will change the course of your life.  It’s easy to think that we are in control over our lives, but it makes those times when we realise that we aren’t all the more horrifying.

We have one action and one control. It always comes back to the breath.

Space is vital

Tap the screen. Fly through the gaps between the pipes. Only space will keep you alive.

Space is potential. Interesting things happen in the gaps between things. You cannot dance around a cluttered room. Walls reduce possibilities. Emptiness can become anything.

Only the present counts

Tap the screen. Tap. Tap.

Each tap happens now. Each non-tap also happens now. Now is the only time we get to influence.

Don’t get too attached

Tap the screen. This time the bird is red. Tap the screen. This time it is blue.

Colour is character, but it is all transient.

Demise is inevitable

There are no extra lives, power-ups or invincibility potions. There aren’t even levels to provide respite. There is only an up-and-down journey towards death.

This is the hardest lesson for all of us to learn. We are just a temporary alignment of molecules.

We are all extremely sensitive to time. It is measured out for us almost everywhere we look. Alarms wake us up and clocks suggest when it is time for bed. We eat around noon and again around 6pm. Work is expected between 9am and 5pm and is often half-expected anything up to two or three hours either side.

Of course, we are not alone in our dependence on time. My dogs are fed every evening at 5:30, and from 5:20 they will gently remind me of their presence so they can be sure I won’t forget my duties.

We might make time to sit and breath during the day. Sometimes for ten or twenty minutes. Many people use gentle alarms to suggest when this time is over. And then we spend our days encouraging our minds to stay present in the moment. But what do we mean by that? How long is a moment?

A moment is usually thought of as being “a short period of time”. We think of it as being here now. But now is a tricky concept. If we say the word now out loud it only takes a fraction of a second, but the start of the n is at a different now than the last lingering w.

And thought usually precedes action. So if we think, “I am going to say “now“”, and then we say “now“, which is the moment we are interested in. The thought? The action? The start of the action? Then end of the action?

We’ve quickly fallen into Zeno’s paradox territory, where trying to break down a continuous flow into it’s instantaneous parts leads us in an infinite spiral towards zero.

If time is a continuous flow, then now is just a point in that flow. Trying to determine the position and duration of a single moment is like trying to isolate a drop of water in a great river. All we can be certain of is that we are looking at a huge mass of moving water.

But time is tangled up with space. There was no time before the big bang at the beginning of the universe. Time has flowed along with space ever since. So as the two concepts are so inter-twined, why don’t we instead consider moments in space rather than moments in time? We may be extremely sensitive to time, but we have an even greater connection to place.

When I am at the sink, I need to concentrate on doing a good job of the washing up. When I am at my desk working, I have to just focus on the task at hand. Let the moment be determined by the place, not by the time.

But now I have to run. I have a train to catch.

image by Magdalena Roeseler

We all have jobs to do around the house. Cleaning. Tidying up. Changing lighbulbs. Oiling hinges. Maybe the car needs its oil topping up or the tyre pressures checking. You know, general maintenance.

There are also jobs to do around ourselves. Some of them overlap with the ones we do around the house. Keeping clean. Brushing and trimming. Making sure our collar is straight.

Others require more introspection. Checking our motives. Considering how our actions are being perceived. Taking time out to sit and breath. It’s still maintenance. But when do we have time to do that when the jobs are piling up at home?

The answer is implicit. “Maintenance” is from the same linguistic root as the French word “maintenant”. “Maintenant” means “now”.

Right now. This moment. And each and every other moment.

image by  árticotropical

Of course, he was an actor reading words, but he read the words beautifully. All the time.

This is an example that I use and re-use. It has kind of become a catchphrase for the wife and I.

We’ll see.

I was walking along some disused railway lines yesterday when I came upon this bridge. I’ve always admired the confidence with which the Victorians went about their work, seemingly convinced that everything they did would last forever. This bridge is a great example.

It will have been built in the 1860’s to carry a road or farm track over the railway so as not to impede the flow of coal from the mines down to the nearby ironworks. The effort involved in putting it there would have been immense. First of all, an Act of Parliament had to be passed to allow the railway to be built. Then the whole area would have been surveyed to choose the optimum route for the line.

As you can see from the picture, the bridge stands in a pretty deep cutting which would need to be dug out, along with foundations for the bridge. Now, I’m no quantity surveyor but there must be tens of thousands of bricks there. Hundreds of man-hours would have gone into the brick-laying alone. At the load-bearing edge are huge concrete lintels. This being the Victorian era, attention to detail is everything, so these have been cast to look like pock-marked sandstone. I can only imagine the huge, clanking steam-powered crane they must have used to lift them and the shouts of the cloth-capped men as they To-me-to-you them into place.

Next come the iron road supports, which are themselves great feats of hot and dangerous engineering. Pouring and rolling and riveting iron with only a leather apron and gauntlets for protection is unimaginable to us today. Would they have used the same crane to lift them? Who knows. But once they have been nudged into the perfect position, back come the brick-layers to finish the job.

Hundreds, if not thousands of man hours went into that bridge. Months of back-breaking effort for dozens of people. All with the confidence that comes from knowing the bridge will last forever.

And it’s still there one hundred and forty years later. And it’s a credit to the men that built it.

But the road over the top has gone. And so has the track underneath. There’s no reason for the track to be there anymore because the coal mines have all closed. And the ironworks they fed are long-gone, too.

How should we feel about all that wasted effort? Sad? Angry? Disappointed?

I’ll leave that to you.

For me, the bridge stands as a reminder that whatever it is you are stressing over today will be unremarked and unremembered pretty soon. The effort and diligence with which you are going about your work is a credit to you, but life is a game and it can be fun if you want it to be. Those bridge-builders will have laughed a lot while they went about their work. You can, too.

 

A common objection to the idea of spending ten minutes a day sitting and breathing is, “I’m too busy. I just don’t have the time”.

Who has the time?

The only answer to that question is “nobody”. But of course, the question is an odd one because it implies that there is only one time, and that this singular time can be possessed.

Isaac Newton built his view of the universe on a single, perfectly linear idea of time. It starts at the beginning and carries straight on towards infinity. Or the end. Whichever comes first.

Clearly, if time is a straight line, it must, in some sense, be possible to travel along it. In 1895 HG Wells built his fictional Time Machine on this concept, and the idea of time travel has enthused millions of people ever since.

Imagine the possibilities! We’d be able to follow Frank Sinatra’s burger recipe, or grab next week’s lottery numbers, or speak firmly and persuasively to Hitler, or start a dinosaur farm…

Sadly for the “what if” fantasist in all of us, ten years later Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity. To be fair, it took a while for anyone to figure what it meant, but broadly it explains that time travel was now possible, but only within certain virtually impossible parameters. Time, it transpires, isn’t a straight line at all. It bends and twists and speeds up and slows down depending on how quickly you’re travelling or how much gravity is thereabouts. It’s a mess.

But time only responds to what you are doing from the point of view of somebody else. In other words, we each have our own time. And, according to the ever reliable Wikipedia, “the rate of a clock is greatest according to an observer who is at rest with respect to the clock”.

Of course, this runs contrary to our own observations that a watched clock appears to tick more slowly than it does when we’re rushing around trying to get things done.

One way to get yourself the time to sit and breathe is to rush around as much as possible yourself. This would slow down the rate of the clock with respect to you. Otherwise, get your team (or your boss, depending on where you sit in the corporate pecking-order) to do the running around, forcing their clocks to slow down so that you can use the extra time you have for simply sitting without their noticing any fall in your output.

By far the best and most effective method to be sure you have the time to sit and breath is to accept that time is a construct of mathematics and convention. In fact, the only time that exists in any meaningful way is this exact moment. You should use each moment to its fullest potential. And if that means focusing on your breath, then you have all the time you need.

image by Oskar Karlin

 

 

Some days, you just can’t see the wood for the trees.

Your To-Do list is across two sides of A4, emails are bouncing in at an alarming rate and you now have three conference calls to attend that weren’t in your calendar first thing this morning.

It’s all too much. Everything is clamouring for your attention at the same time. And to top it all off, you know that there is no food at home so you’ll have to make a special visit to the supermarket and grab whatever is still on the shelves for dinner.

You can’t live like this. You’re simply too busy. Your day is packed so completely full of stuff that you can’t take any more. All you want is to go home, eat whatever you find in the shops, open a bottle of wine and relax in the bath. All you want is to do nothing.

But sadly, you’ll never be able to do nothing. There will always be something.

According to the ideas of physics, if you were able to create a perfect vacuum with absolutely no energy in it at all, tiny quantum particles will continuously and spontaneously appear. Some of these particles may instantly disappear, while others may exist for ever. It is impossible to produce a situation where nothing is able to exist undisturbed for very long.

Buddhists also reject the idea of ‘nothing’, as it can only exist outside of what is real. They prefer a concept of ’emptiness’, which, like the popping a fizzing of quantum particles in a vacuum, is a state close to nothing but full of potential. Zen teachers would argue that the world we perceive is made of a broad and continuous spectrum of ‘something’ and ’emptiness’.

Let’s look again at the trees:

woods or trees

How many trees are there? Count them for me.

What was your answer? 30? 40? 50? Now look at the branches – how many of those are there?

Of course you haven’t tried to count the branches. That would be a ridiculous waste of time, but did you notice all the shrubs. I wonder how many of those there are…

Seriously, though. Look at the picture again. This time, don’t look at the trees. This time, look at the emptiness.

How many kids of emptiness are there?

One?

Isn’t that easier to deal with?

Looking at the picture this way it becomes clear that we only really know that we are looking at trees because of the spaces between them. In fact, it’s only the ’emptiness’ between the trees that makes them exist as trees at all. The branches stretch into the space between the trees because of the potential of the ’emptiness’. This potential makes the trees able to grow at all. And they seem to be flourishing.

Now look at your day again. Is it better to look at it as a packed schedule and an overflowing inbox, or as a continuous sweep of empty moments?

Accept each moment as it comes and realise that it is empty, but full of potential. Focus on each task and fulfill its potential to the very best of your ability. Do the same on your way home, when you’re in the shops, when you’re talking to your loved ones.

And while you’re in the bath, remember that you are still doing something.

Can you see the wood for the trees?

On Sunday I was driving my family up to my parent’s house to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. As always, when I want something to listen to in the car, I was listening to Radio 4. It being a Sunday morning, Desert Island Discs came on. The guest was violinist Nicola Benedetti.

Time for some honesty here. Classical music generates very little excitement in me. Perhaps it is due to the dogmatic enthusiasm of others who declare that it is the only music of choice for the genuinely intelligent. Maybe it is because it conjures up mental images of Tom and Jerry chasing each other around a house (or sitting together in a corner gently weeping if it’s a melancholy piece). Anyway, there is a disconnect between the way I feel about it and the way I’m told I’m supposed to feel about it, so normally I would reach for the off-switch.

I’m pleased I didn’t.

Eight minutes in, after a particularly bleak piece from Shostakovich (which made Tom and Jerry skulk in dark corners thinking murderous thoughts about one another), there came this as Benedetti explained her mindset during a performance:

“I’m trying not to think. I’m desperately trying not to think. The minute your thoughts start to formulate they can distract you.

If you imagine you’re on stage for maybe twenty-five to forty-five minutes and you constantly have the lead part, the solo part; always technically very challenging. You’re trying to be loud enough to soar above the orchestra all the time. There’s so many things to keep a control over that the minute you start thinking it can be the beginning of the end. So I just try to stay in the moment and try to have as much of a spiritual experience as I possibly can. I’m trying to life my whole being and my whole intention to the highest place that I can and then allowing everything I’m doing physically to follow that.”

I like that. I like that a lot.

There is a huge distance between thinking and concentrating. Thinking is noisy and messy, concentrating is calm and clean. When we are in a meeting with others, listening to their point of view and working together to formulate answers, we are thinking. When we are off by ourselves and devoted to fulfilling a specific task we are concentrating. Both are wonderful things, but both are very different.

When you spend time every day sitting and breathing, you are encouraging your mind to concentrate. As you do this, you will notice thoughts bursting in unexpectedly. With practice it becomes easier to let the thoughts pass and return to concentrating on breathing. Over time you’ll notice that tasks that require concentration, whether it is reading through a contract or producing a perfect hollandaise sauce, become easier to complete as distractions can be ignored.

Anyway, have a listen to the original show. Let me know what happens to your own mental Tom and Jerry during the Shostakovich.

Happiness, like so many things in life, exists on a spectrum. For example, if Happiness is the red colours, then Fear would be violet. Everything in between can be said to be shades of Anxiety. Most of us will slide from side to side as we go through life. Some days we will be in the orange, full of joy and pleasure. Other times we will literally have the blues.

“That’s life”, as the song says, “riding high in April, shot down in May”.

And as Dean Kay’s lyric suggests, you really aren’t in too much control of which way you slide, nor how quickly. External forces dictate how good you feel.

The sun is shining? Great! Traffic jam on the way to the office? Awful! Just seen your child’s first steps? Amazing! Rumours of redundancies at work? Oh, no! Unexpected phone call from an old friend? Wonderful! But they tell you they’ve got cancer? Disaster!

While your happiness obviously depends on others, it is worth remembering that their happiness depends on you. And the relationship isn’t straight-forward. If I’m happy, it doesn’t follow that you are. There is an enormous amount of Relativity at play.

As Morrissey put it, “we hate it when our friends become successful. And if they’re northern, that makes it even worse.

Humans have an amazing facility for comparing their lives with others and a surprising knack for feeling that their lives are worse. Study after study has found that we tend to think that our friends have things much better than we do. They have more friends; in fact, they have better, more interesting friends. They have better jobs. Their better jobs earn them more money and so they take better holidays. Their relationships are better than ours. They have more sex. They have better sex. They laugh more. They have more shoes. They have better shoes. Their interests are more interesting than our interests. And so on. And on. And on…

If only we were like our friends – then we could be happy, we tell ourselves.

But guess what? Your friends think exactly the same way about you. Your friends think you’ve got life sorted out. They wish they had your range of beguiling stories, your understanding of modernist architecture and grasp of international affairs.  They watch you deal with life’s challenges with grace and dignity. They see how you greet strangers with warmth and generosity and their one aim in life is to give a dinner party with the same calm insouciance as you.

They also look enviously on your shoe collection. Not all of them, of course. But that pair you wore to the office last Thursday – now they were really nice.

So whether you derive pleasure from providing your friends with a dining experience that you know they simply couldn’t muster, or if you are sent into apoplectic shopping-frenzies by their choice of footwear, there is balance. The happiness and anxiety you derive from your friends is exactly equal to that which they derive from you. If this weren’t the case then you simply wouldn’t be friends. Friendship must be balanced.

In fact, this balance can be extended to include not just your friends, but the whole world. While you may worry about the latest geo-political upheaval somewhere in the world there are countless acts of kindness going on around you every second. The internet is full of cute pictures of kittens because there are also some pretty bad things going on in there, too.

Now, it takes practice to achieve balance in life. It is very easy to allow yourself to be dragged up and down the emotional spectrum by the smallest of things; reading a news story, your kids being too noisy, that swine cutting you up in the queue of traffic, the soulful look in they eye of a kitten – they are all tempting you to make a judgement and shift your mood accordingly. After spending a lifetime learning to shout and shake your fist or go “awww!” and click retweet, it is difficult to learn that it is all part of the equilibrium and to let it wash over you.

Once you have found that balance, though, you can do something that is quite remarkable. Once you have stopped washing up and down the emotional spectrum, you can find stillness. In other words, you can look at the emotional possibilities and choose where to position yourself. And once you are in position, there is no reason for you to move from there. So where are you going to place yourself? Fear? Anxiety? Or Happiness?

You choose.

 

Just because something has niggling faults doesn’t mean you can’t still love it. Even the most ardent Powerpoint-er would still have a list of annoyances the length of, well, the average presentation.

One of the most commonly raised gripes is that Powerpoint is extremely difficult to design for. The default layouts invite text rather than images, and text never translates well with an audience. This usually combines with a complaint about the average Powerpoint-er having the design sensibilities of a half-hundredweight of deep frozen octopus eggs. The result is a blog-post about choosing fonts or paying for some decent photography.

This isn’t one of those posts.

We have created a beautifully simple and thoughtfully designed Powerpoint template. If you just want to grab it and go, then help yourself.

Grab a beautifully-simple-and-thoughtfully-designed Powerpoint template and Go

 

If you want to find out what makes it so special, read on.

Laying out the basic rules of layouts

Powerpoint produces pages. We really shouldn’t lose sight of that simple fact. We call them ‘slides’ because they are meant to be projected onto a screen. However, it is increasingly common to find ‘decks’ are emailed around organisations so that executives can absorb the information more quickly than they would be able to from reading reams of paper written out long-hand. They are documents that encourage a visual shorthand and bulleted lists  They are basically pages, though. And over the centuries lots of people have put lots of thought into how pages are laid out and presented. There is a magic in good page layout.

Gutenberg didn’t just invent moveable type and printing as we know it. Along with his acolytes he developed a visual language for the printed page. The language was only taught to those young men apprenticed into the printing and book making businesses. Nobody else needed to know it. Freedom of the press was at that time limited to those who had one. You certainly didn’t need to understand the aesthetics to understand the words.

Here’s a page from a Gutenburg bible.

Gutenberg_bible

We could have chosen a page from any of thousands of early printed works. They largely shared the same balance, regardless of the size of the page. The proportions of the red box to the page size were always the same, and lengths ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and ‘d’ were always in the same ratio. Outside of the printing world, however, these things weren’t widely known. In fact, the geometry wasn’t well understood at all until the mid 20th Century when printing became available to a wider population.

The so-called “Secret Canon” of page layout was first demonstrated by J. A. van de Graaf (not to be confused with Robert van de Graaff, the American physicist who liked school-children to have crazy hair). Using only a straight edge and a knowledge of geometry he came up with the following construction for facing pages.

Van de Graaf Canon

There’s a lot going on here. It is explained in greater depth over here. We’ll not detain ourselves further.

Now, while this layout works brilliantly for books, with Powerpoint we have to make certain concessions. The margins in the Van de Graff canon allow the reader to hold the book at the bottom corner of each page while reading. This puts plenty of whitespace underneath the text area. Powerpoint slides typically require a title section. Because the eye is first drawn to the top of an object, it makes sense to put the title at the top of the page. So let’s rotate the page 180°.

VdGupside

We now have space at the top of the page for the title to live. But now we need to place it such that it ties in with the rest of the layout.

Happily, the layout fits beautifully in a 9×9 grid. If we take the same proportions but just focus on the area above the text area we end up with our bog-standard, instantly recognisable two-column slide.

VdG2Column

Once we have the two-column slides, we can take the same set of proportions and create single-column slides. Of course, because of the ratios of the margins, we get a large column, which we have aligned to the left and to the right. Here’s how we made the left-aligned slide.

1Column

 

We then used a similar method to create title slides, this time turning our two column construction on its side.

Title

 

 

Grab a beautifully-simple-and-thoughtfully-designed Powerpoint template and Go