Boarding Up the Soul

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 06.50.36
To those unfamiliar with the concept, sending ones children to boarding school is a shockingly weird thing to do.

Imagine you had never heard of a boarding school before, and I explained to you that parents would not only choose, but spend huge amounts of money (the equivalent of the average UK wage after tax), to remove children from their families and instead hand them over to a large, loveless institution where these youngsters would be tended by adults in a ration of ~1:20, far from home, with far less comfort. You would assume I was preaching a kind of dystopian nightmare. A ‘Brave New World’ of education.

Yet because boarding school is so familiar to us in the UK – synonymous with cricket, stiff upper lips and the class system – we are immune to its freakishness.

Unfortunately, there is no control experiment for a child who went to boarding school. Which means determining its impact is a problem. Certainly there are patterns, but the combination of nature and nurture ensures that there are almost infinite permutations. As with other aspects of growing up, no-one knows its impact on the specific individual and with that views diverge wildly.

Plus education is so important that we must make considerable sacrifices, right?

To many, boarding is highly beneficial, resulting in a world-class education and ‘preparation’ for the world (hence a ‘prep’ school). Or at least it is benign – a sacrifice worth making. To others, it is mildly or deeply harmful – the source of immensely damaging and lasting trauma.

For many years, I’d not given a huge amount of thought to the process or impacts of boarding on me or others. It seemed to me in context, as it is to most of those who participated, normal.

Yet through therapy, reading and exploring, one looks at the ingredients that make up the recipe of ourselves and try to determine the effects of significant past events and circumstances. At dinner the other night, I was reminded that I’ve been banging on about boarding school for some time. It has become ‘a theme’ and in the spirit of only really understanding something when I have written about it, I want if I can, to shift from ‘banging on’, to a more thoughtful, considered perspective.

To be objective, it is first important to eradicate any guilt: let’s forget about the perceived ‘privilege’, for a while. Complaining about boarding school can be seen as deeply ungrateful or unfair, considering the opportunity and that privilege. I don’t give a monkeys. To sweep impactful experiences away because we ‘should’ feel something drives us toward too many emotional follies. To ignore these problems because of some perceived luck only serves to perpetuate and amplify these issues.

I don’t feel guilty about going to boarding school. I would also hope that I can eradicate any guilt if I conclude that boarding school is, as I fear it was/might be, extraordinarily harmful. I don’t want to shy away from it just because it might offend or upset people – especially my parents. I fear that much isn’t talked about because of guilt, avoidance and, of course, some of the perceived positives that come from the system, such as creating those that are stiff-upper lipped, tough and unemotional. Character traits that are in fact a source of pride to some British. Boarding schools teach survival, so those who’ve been through its process tend not to complain, or rock the boat because it was instilled in us that such behaviour was weak and disappointing. In addition, there is a danger that for those who feel the effects of the human condition more keenly, especially those who had an unhappy schooling, it becomes an easy scapegoat, something to blame or use as an excuse.

Plus, my experience is of course, only that.

I first went away to school at 8 or 9. Whilst I don’t want to write an extensive memoire, it is worth exploring some of the feelings it provoked… When I think back, I remember many things – although much I had/have forgotten (deliberately?).

There was a marked transition on arrival from my happy, tactile home life into a cold, austere high-ceilinged dormitory (that looked very like the below, although we were lucky enough to be allowed to see in colour) with squeaking beds, itchy nylon blankets, fierce matrons, and twelve other children. I remember rows of sinks, a perpetual clinical smell, shorts in winter, frozen mud-caked fields, fear and missing. The opposite of a home.

dorm
In addition to becoming a boarder, I simultaneously started as a Chorister – singing seven services in a Cathedral a week and staying at school long into the holidays to ensure we were there for Easter, Christmas and Summer services. A Chorister’s life is extreme, cramming 2-3 hours of music into an already full day, most ending in a service dressed in a cassock, ruff(!) and surplice. Essentially embarking on a serious, adult and intensive job, alongside my schooling. Performing in an huge, ancient building each day with all of the strange ceremony that accompanies a religion. My childhood was murdered in that in that Cathedral.

Whilst the change was extreme, there was also a continual reminder of privilege, of excitement. It wasn’t all bad. As an eight-year old I felt grown up, I felt ready. There was the camaraderie of being part of something, of embarking in an adventure. I wasn’t ‘sent away’ – my parents are loving, kind, caring people – they just thought it was was the best thing for me. They thought the trade was worth it. They hadn’t boarded themselves, so they did not have first hand experience – although those that do often believe it was ‘the making of them’. I wonder if those people know themselves very well?

Yet there are some things that I have begun to see, with 25 years perspective, that are just plain abnormal. The unrelenting missing of those that you love. As hurtful as it might be for any parent to hear, there is a huge pain and misunderstanding associated with, essentially, becoming an orphan 6.5 days a week, even if it was a mutual decision to go away, a child isn’t capable of anticipating the pain.

A deeply intense hatred of the singing I had to do burned within me – so much so that I used to scream into a pillow to lose my voice. Strangely, the only respite that gave me was turning pages in an organ loft at the very same service that I was hoping to avoid – but it was enough of a rebellion and a change from the routine that it somehow helped and so I screamed and screamed. I longed to and loved to get sick, to stay in bed for a few days. I broke rules wherever I could, somewhat pathologically, my youthful spirit deemed harmful and dangerous.

When I look back, I simply didn’t know that the strength of the emotions I felt – the rage, anger, apathy, boredom, annoyance, missing, desperation – were caused by something external to me, or that they were abnormal. At that age, I had no tools to deal with or understand them, nor anyone save for remote, unemotional masters to model myself on or to seek solace from. There was no soft respite from school in the evenings or even when other normal children were on holiday. I thought the feelings I felt meant I was failing, a disappointment, that I was the problem, and because everyone else was hiding theirs, it was just me. So I just swallowed those emotions and learned to ignore them, to bury them away.

As a 9-year old you don’t have a clue what emotions are coming from where or how to stem those that are most painful. I didn’t know that the outside environment might be the problem. I thought I was alone in them. So much so that it took me many years to recognise that this wasn’t normal. The weakness associated with homesickness, in turn led to ignoring emotions because they were a noose that tightened as you struggled. Instead, I simply learned to survive, as best as I could… and the easiest way was to cauterise the pain.

As is mentioned in the documentary ‘The Making of Them’, there is simply no love in a boarding school, which means that for the majority of boarders lives, there is no love. Think about that. Go to a boarding school from aged 8 until 18 and you’ve essentially had a decade of surviving without love, with stunted emotions because you don’t want to feel the various pains associated with being in a non-loving environment, all whilst going through one of the most difficult times of life – puberty. 25-years later, I’m somewhat astonished that this is considered a good thing. Yet it’s so tied into the fabric of our society that even those who were subjected to it haven’t realised the impact or they have subsumed the feelings.

It’s unsurprising that a child shuts down. In my case, those years as a Chorister at prep school where followed by going on to a different school where for 3 years (out of 5), I was both unpopular and bullied. Bullying is unpleasant at any school, but at boarding school there is quite literally no escape. You sleep, eat, work and live with your aggressors and you cannot get away. You are trapped. That’s torture – to be reminded of your worthlessness every minute of every day without respite and, of course, without love or the sanctuary of home or just somewhere else to get away to. I think I’d rather go to prison than relive the 12-person dormitory situation aged 13, living amongst people that hate you and you hate. But I never really told anyone, I just lumped it because admitting you were struggling was a sign of weakness. My parents were no longer a support structure because they couldn’t help (save for extracting me from a school that they reminded me they were paying huge sums of money to keep me in). They would have, I guess, if they’d known, but I never told them. I kept quiet, as most are conditioned to do. So quiet that I haven’t even recognised it myself.

To this day, I think I have almost nightly dreams of rejection and of being cast out of a group. I say I think, because strangely, I’ve only recently become aware of these dreams, despite how regularly they occur. You might think that is an extraordinary oversight, to literally ignore something that happens every night. Yet remember, I have been schooled – for a decade – to carefully ignore these feelings.

I have spent much of my adult life feeling tired and never fully feeling rested, despite getting on average 8 hours sleep per night. I wonder whether this is because each morning my psyche has to painstakingly sweep an emotional basement of cobwebs under the carpet, and continues to do so subconsciously during the day? This might seem extreme, fanciful or just a neat scapegoat for the fact that I’m just not as sprightly as I used to be. Perhaps this is normal. Again, it’s hard to separate out the root causes or contributing factors to a infinitely complex emotional state. But I wonder. Are there scars that are still trying to heal all these years on?

Certainly, I believe there are scars that still significantly effect my love life. My relationships have been few and far between and have generally imploded because I haven’t been able to let go. I tend to have my excuses and my escape plan ready from the start – a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was a single big exception, when I fell in love very deeply, but I think subconsciously I thought that the relationship might make me ‘whole again’. That this feeling of love might cure my childhood wounds of separation. She never stood a chance. I plied so much pressure on that relationship, like a drowning man clinging to another, that I sunk it, the relationship ending with a mighty crack of my broken heart.

Through this prism of analysis, I notice classic symptoms of the effects of boarding in a previous post (Burned Man). Ironically (or perhaps poignantly), I am now in a relationship with the girl/lady who scooped me up after Burning Man, someone who saw me in my raw, unarmored state. Yet it has been a struggle for us both. I am not sure where I’ve put the keys to my heart that is hidden deep beneath my armour. Strangely, whilst I felt like I survived very badly at boarding school, the armour that I needed back then finally solidified many years later in my 20s and 30s, as if wheels had been put in motion for a Frankensinian (come on spell check, that’s gotta be a word) change that in fact took significant time to crystallise and was long past its sell-by date when it materialised.

I was and am sensitive person who has learned to keep my emotional nerve-endings protected. I’ve avoided authority (I’m an entrepreneur), I’ve avoided settling (living in multiple countries/cities as a single man) and I’ve avoided being trapped, or rejected (by being defensive and avoidant). This sounds very woe is me, but I had a fantastic time at University and have many wonderful friends and a deeply loved and loving family. I’ve pulled a huge amount back, but remnants remain. They say that boarding school kids do well in the world because of this emotionlessness, confidence and ability to survive in difficult situations. But I no longer think the armour does anything but weigh me down.

I started this post feeling like it might be a balanced exploration, but instead I find myself just astonished and more exercised than ever by the extremity of such a normalised practice in our society. I never suffered extremes like sexual abuse. Surely it wasn’t that bad? Reading other people’s articles (see below) brings painful memories. Those who didn’t go just simply don’t understand – in fact many who did don’t either. Those who went at 12/13 probably had a different experience from those who went at 8. In fact, everyone had a different experience.

Who knows, my control experiment might have had me suffering more going to a day school. I recognise that suffering is universal. I am not claiming this as my own, by any stretch of the imagination. At some point you have to take responsibility for oneself (like a good boarding school kid).

But today, I’d much rather feel well than do well, be open than be tough, have a heart than a stiff upper lip…

To grow I need to recognise what boarding was for what it was. Deeply traumatic and unhealthy. Now I simply want to coax that emotional me back out again from beneath the layers of armour – to value rather than to fear vulnerability… and, by writing, perhaps I can help others prevent, or at least recognise this problem earlier. I feel like I’m only just getting started with this topic – it is so deeply complex and masked – and yet I feel like I’ve said enough, perhaps way too much. That this is just self-absorption at fever pitch. There’s my boarding school ‘strategic survivor personality’ kicking in. Don’t make a fuss. Jolly good, carry on. Chin up.

But to be clear I’m not asking for sympathy. It’s not about excuses, but about recognition and working to enliven and exercise those deadened emotions, like a physiotherapist with a wounded body.

The accident has happened and it was exactly that, an accident. It was no-one’s fault – no one is to blame. It happened. Sorry Dad, you can’t have your money back. I am a survivor and now I must try to heal as best as I can.

Some further reading:
http://printheadz.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/a-new-reflectionemotional-shutdown-and.html http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jan/16/boarding-school-bastion-cruelty
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/feb/11/boarding-school-early-age-child-abuse-video

Constipatience

I’ve had writers constipation.. the literary yips. So much to write and yet for a litany of reasons I haven’t put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. A lot has happened in the last few months. I’ve started a few articles, keen to work through a problem, but slunk away. I could claim it’s because I’ve not wanted extra time at my screen, but that would be a convenient excuse. I’ve just not had it in me to write. Perhaps all this post will do is to overcome the hurdle of a few months of quiet rather than provide anything new. Ease things gently into being. A start. A spring-cleaning and cobweb removal post. Or perhaps I’ll finish here and go and do something else…

No… must… get… it… out…

A beautiful post by a friend Freddy reminds why we write. “The answer is simple. For myself.”

He goes on to say, “Like so many of us I feel scared to express that which may not be accepted. Sometimes that’s useful. Occasionally its essential – evolutionary-programming for societal survival in action! But so often I reject my own knowing in order to avoid creating imagined ripples, waves, or even wrecks! Ironically, that way, treasures that could blossom are lost, lying buried and unclaimed on the ocean floor of my unacknowledged being. I want to share my treasure, whatever that is. I am deeply grateful to anyone who’s willing to witness it. I suppose this is the curse of having my sun and moon in Leo – a great need to be “seen”! But perhaps there can be a positive outcome also, beyond my own selfish needs, to transcending the fear of authentically expressing oneself?”

An astral Leonine paw high-five to that. A sprinkle of quotation to help my writing on its way.

Also, by way of an apology for the lack of content, the first two tunes from my amazing sister’s upcoming EP.

Proud Brother Am I. Her music demonstrates how beautiful the fear of expression – as Fred mentions above – can be when manifested, explored and shared. The music speaks to her truth and feels like a expression of her voice and her being. It is like putting an ear to her chest and hearing her soul sing… in both its beauty and blackness.

Her treasures are indeed blossoming, with some sumptuously penned reviews here, here and many, many more.

And so, I get a blog post out… ending “the frustrating ricocheting quality of our internal dialogue

It’s good to be back…

Burned Man

P1210404

At the end of the summer I made my first pilgrimage to Burning Man. It had sat resolutely on my bucket list for a few years and finally it was happening.

The Burn has always appealed for a number of reasons. I love the values that emanate and encapsulate what it stands for – radical inclusion, self-sufficiency, expression, creativity, outrageousness, chaos, and counter-cultural rebelliousness, amongst others. It sticks two fingers up at mundane civility. It challenges adherence to stale norms. These, coupled with the extremity of its natural setting, make it one of the most adventurous, enticing events that exist. Something I just had to experience.

However, the reality was very different from the fantasy. Rather than enjoying the festival, I found myself despondent, lost and alone, exacerbated by the sensation that everyone around me seemed to be having the time of their lives.

Earlier this week back at home I went for a run over Clifton suspension bridge, only to be stopped by the police as someone had just jumped to their death. Whilst I was enjoying a deeply enriching autumnal evening, another person had ended their life. An extreme example, but a reminder that two people can experience the same moment in the same place in very, very different ways.

Burning Man was not all bad. In fact, I feel like it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my adult life. Months later, I’m still affected by what happened to me out there in the desert. I’m glad it was on my bucket list, as it taught me more than I could have imagined, in most unexpected ways.

This post is an attempt to capture some of that learning before – like the playa dust that I’m still shaking from luggage and clothing – it’s no longer perceptible.

But before I begin, a deep thank you to the friend who invited me to his camp and shared his tent with me. This post might sound unappreciative, or you might feel responsible for what happened to me. Don’t. My experience doesn’t reflect the extraordinary generosity and spectacle you and your team created. The responsibility is all mine. Secondly, to my friends who scooped me up at the end and, with oodles of love and warmth, nurtured me through the decompression. Thank you.

I made some interesting choices before the festival. I had a number of different offers to join camps, but none from people I know very well and so really, I was heading to this festival alone and, truth be told, I quite liked the idea. That should have been the first warning sign – I would never go to Glastonbury on my own!

Yet my life over the last decade, perhaps longer, has been one of the ‘lone wolf’. I have moved from country to country, business to business. I have transformed from someone who didn’t like to spend time alone, to someone who revels in it. My dependencies on people and life at home made traveling in my early years often painful and a discomfort. Yet I have become someone who can live on the other side of the world away from my family and friends and be happy, mostly. Before Burning Man I was proud of that transformation – I’d become self-sufficient. And in that independence, I felt powerful.

I believe that boarding school leaves a child detached long into adulthood, sometimes permanently. One learns to fend alone, away from family. During those years at school I never mastered the art – or perhaps never managed to feel comfortable in that aloneness, despite it being one of the things I was being unwittingly schooled in.

However, in later years I’d grown into it. The detachment became a useful armour. In San Francisco I’d lived in 10 different apartments and for a couple of years afterwards living out of a suitcase moving from country to country, working remotely and I loved it.

The entrepreneur’s way is one where you are forced to plough a lone furrow and I have done that on three continents. My independence has also become a defining feature of my love life – I have remained single for most of my adult years and, although it’s hard to understand what the alternatives might have been had I been more open, it’s felt right. Or at least no-one has convinced me otherwise… yet.

Others who’ve been to the armour-building world that is boarding school don’t seem to have taken such a radical approach to their independence. And whilst I have had moments of missing and wondering why I have shied away from opportunities to remedy this, I have been true to myself – even despite societal pressure and regularly attending events where dozens of my friends are all partnered up, without exception. It’s been a part of my growing. An analysis of my love life would be worth a separate post, or posts, but I digress.

This independent Tom is the person that ventured out to Burning Man – the man who’d learned to fend for himself. The powerful, independent being that had grown out of my lonely, bullied and troubled youth. (I don’t describe it this way to try to attract sympathy – after all, whose youth is not troubled?)

I felt ready to be able to dip in and out of the various parties, experiences and opportunities that the festival offered. I may be over-analysing but it was almost as if this was a chance to put that independence to the ultimate test… and I crumbled.

This selfie just about sums it up... :)

This selfie just about sums it up…

I’ve never really believed in Damascene moments, but this is as close as I’ve been to that, or a breakdown. Somehow the searing desert light shone a spotlight on many of the choices that I’d been making over the years and pierced deep into my hardened heart. I found myself in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been – the Temple at Burning Man – weeping. Anyone who’s been will attest to the extraordinary emotion that this remarkable place can induce. Yet, whilst others mourned for lost lovers, family and friends. I mourned the years without deep human connection in which I had slowly become protected against the world. It was all me, me, me – something again that the amour had hardened and encased.

The Temple at Burning Man

The Temple at Burning Man

In the desert, some combination of events led me to a place where my armour was removed and I, feeling naked without it, had the shit kicked out of me just when self-reliance was most needed.

I don’t really feel the need to go into much more detail regarding specific events. In fact, nothing particularly drastic happened. A clutch of moments. Wandering off into the uninhabited areas of wide expanse feeling deeply alone. Battling through dust storms and playa dust. Climbing statues and art installations. Riding art cars. ‘Sleeping’ (the use of inverted commas appropriate given I was 15 meters from a $160,000 sound system) for 24 hours solid to try to escape. Attempting to engage in conversations, but lacking in confidence so that, despite the radical inclusion, I couldn’t click and found myself regularly misconnecting. Heading off to a sunset party and finding the music, drinking and cavorting so predictable and so boring. I realized that over the years I had been to hundreds of bars and clubs pursuing cool, yet enjoyed very few. Alongside love, I’d like to write another post about the pursuit of cool and how unhappy it makes so many people.

Perhaps the overwhelming feeling was that, despite the fact Burning Man was new and many of the countries and adventures I’d been on were too, I was taking the same me on each of those journeys. Deep within the amour that once protected me, I had become less and less open to what was really happening, instead shielded by that disconnectedness. You can travel the world and meet extraordinary people, but if ones armour is too thick, you see and experience very little of it.

The realization that hit home was that life was about people, love, connection and being open. I know this already – I have read and acknowledged it a thousands times – but I have never really felt it like this before. Like many things, until you experience something emotively, knowledge remains conceptual.

Burning Man felt pivotal. I’m proud of the independent man that I’ve come to be. As a (sometimes too) sensitive, emotive, empathetic person – my independence had been hard won. But I hadn’t realized how resolute it had become, nor that the armour, that would have been far more valuable in my youth, had started doing much more harm than good.

It feels that Burning Man was the apex of that journey for independence. Now to turn back.

It will take time… little, gentle steps in a new direction. Personalities are like shipping tankers – they take a long time to turn around. Even in the last few months, I’ve slipped back into old ways. But… now I have new knowledge this breeds new power. I’ve noticed there’s strength in vulnerability and noticing the armour and that it is long past its sell-by-date, and trying to keep noticing it, is the first step.

Sadly, as people get older, I notice they often start to become less and less connected to people – the clichéd middle-aged man who over works and has few friends to confide in as they retreat into their family, work and responsibilities.

It seems I am swimming against the current, again… but so be it.

I’m ready to begin a return journey… to people, to connection and to vulnerability and back to Burning Man one day with a different agenda.

Coming back…

Adulescence

(or the art of Growing Down)

A previous, very silly, birthday

A previous, very silly, birthday

Yesterday was my birthday. I was dressed as a ninja cow at a festival, squeezed into a west-country barn full of ‘Almost Farmous’ revellers. We were ‘The Moo Fighters’, naturally. Seconded only by ‘Daft Skunk’.

The weekend consisted of dancing, laughing, drinking, firing water pistols at unsuspecting crowd members and generally indulging in large dollops of mischievous fun.

All perfectly acceptable fun for us youngsters, right? The issue being that I turned a wizened 34. My birthdays haven’t much changed since I was 18 and today my bones ache.  Peter Pan is alive and well and, as a casual glance around the festival would suggest, he’s not alone. You can spot him easily – he’s the one with the bags beneath his eyes.

Are we eternally young, or merely adulesents?  I wonder at what point we’ll become too old to find squirting people with water on a dance floor and then hiding most entertaining, and whether or not that constitutes a good or a bad thing?

I hope never. I’d like to nurture many of the wonders of youth – the lack of responsibility, humour, mischief, laughter, untidiness, carelessness, late nights, giggling, dancing that immaturity brings. I’d much rather live in a Roald Dahl novel than one by Austin, or Tolstoy, with their endless stream of grown ups, or children masquerading as adults.

We have many interwoven, sometimes contradictory, relationships with youth and growing up.

I was a late developer. As a summer baby, I was always playing catch up with hairier and taller friends in my year, some of whom had 11 months ‘extra time’. Not inconsequential when you’re a wee nipper on a frozen ruby pitch. Amongst those peers, I’ve now friends who’ve had three children, are captains of industry, divorcees, widows, drug addicts, alcoholics and celebrities. Some seem exceptionally grown up, with houses in expensive parts of London, pristine wardrobes, pensions and all the dinner party chat that complements their choices.

Others… well… haven’t. Yet some of the latter are more emotionally mature than the former and have had ‘richer’, more interesting lives. One friend could be described as the ‘furthest behind’, in terms of their careers… is one of the wisest, most worldly, experience-rich person I know. Another, a great friend who writes wonderfully here has just set off backpacking around the world, one-way, in his mid-thirties.

I’ve never understood the rush to grow up. Being one seems to mean attending parties where conversation never steers beyond pleasantries or politics. It means subverting ones true beliefs or self-expression. It results in wearing a uniform of chinos, collared shirts and boat shoes. It can mean rounding out all the passionate edges of youth and becoming ‘just another’ conformist. Add a bunch of reality, a sprinkle of boredom, a dash of failed ambition and a liberal sprinkle of responsibilities, loneliness and hard work to the mix and slow bake… and before we know it we’ve become a grown up. Past tense.

And yet, on the flip side, I’m envious of those adults who seem settled, self-confident and aware.

At a wedding a week ago the electronic music selection resulted in every person over forty retreating to the bar, save for one sixty-something who wasn’t scared to get involved. I’d rather be that person. Yet I want to do it because it feels authentic, not because of psychological stunting, or because I refuse to accept I’m the age I am. I’d like to be the godfather than a child goes to for both fun and sage advice, not one or the other.

Being ‘trapped in escapism’ is often an attempt to maintain the freedom of youth and avoid responsibility. Responsibility and maturity, particularly emotional maturity is, in my mind, always a good thing and yet so is a youthful energy and disposition to trying new things. Youth evokes passion, dreams, a healthy recklessness and hope that a weary elder can swat aside in the desire for routine, conformity and comfort.

So what to do? Can we bounce around like a child at a festival one weekend whilst holding down a job that requires huge responsibility, without giving one or the other short shrift? Can we extract the best from both maturity and immaturity?

There are good examples of a balance – The Dalai Lama, despite the weight that comes with being a religious leader, has a lightness, a giggle and a curiosity to match any child. David Attenborough, when asked about his passion said, “Many people ask me when I became interested in natural history. I’ve never met a child who isn’t, so I ask in reply at what age other people lost interest in the wonders of the natural world. I just never did”.

It’s a great shame when someone becomes too sensible to swim in the sea, dance, laugh, play practical jokes or takes things too seriously because they might look silly or get dirty. Both this beautiful poem as well as our deathbed regrets suggest that retaining the better parts of our youthfulness is important, and hard.

Let us nurture the wonders of youth. Let us be sillier, swim more rivers, make more mistakes, keep in touch with friends, work less hard, walk barefooted earlier, pick more daises and allow ourselves to be happy. I’ve started already this summer and it’s working. Come join.

(And I must leave you with this, which is the view from my window as I write this…)

Bristol evenings...

Bristol evenings…

Why Standing Still is Better Than Movement

My friend Pete, taking some time out from a group holiday to sit and write...

My friend Pete, taking some time out from a group holiday to just sit and write…

We are who we are.

No matter how hard we try, we’re unlikely a Damascene moment will transform us into the person we’d always hoped we’d be.

You might if you try over a number of years, change a bit. But it’s unlikely. Plus, we forget that we can get worse as well as better. Years sitting at a desk, or in an unloving relationship, can mean we become worse, not better.

I know now, despite many years railing against it, that I’m better off sleeping regular hours. I’m not very disciplined, but I have a strong will that can combat that lack of discipline. I’m lucky enough to have been blessed with a good mind, body and ear – I find work, sport and music comes easily. But that means I’ve not had to fight to be OK at them, so I’ve been lazy with those talents.

I’m good with people, but I’m also impatient and judgemental. I need people around me, to help me be a better person and yet I can lose and isolate myself in my own world. I love being active, yet I find it hard to get started and so laziness can easily prevail without a catalyst.

It’s good to try to know oneself and to work with, not against oneself.

When I did the vipassana, it gave me a chance to sit and just be and start to come to know who I am. For a while, my ego, or just sheer boredom, fought against the practice. Eventually, without anything to distract, I was forced to listen to myself.

I noticed, deep within me, somewhere at the very core of my being, that there was something constantly moving, a restlessness.

It’s hard to explain, but it was almost like there was a motor whirring deep in my abdomen. Something tense, aggravated and angry. A psychological hornet.

Vipassana enabled me to listen to it… to feel it. I realised that it had been there all my life, without ever stopping.

Throughout the 10 days, I not only noticed this phenomenon, but occasionally the motion would stop, just for a second, and I felt at peace. I remember there was a deep sense of release when this perpetual movement took a moments breather.

That’s why I often felt exhausted, I thought – because when asleep, awake, resting, drunk, happy or sad, I have been using energy to fuel this motor. A motor that does nothing. A motor that is powered by fear, stress, ambition ego and expectation.

The motor only stopped completely during vipassana, but my sense is that it moves at different speeds depending on how I feel – the faster it moves, the less balanced I am.

The motor exists to ‘drive’ me and ‘propel’ me. It is a force of ego that attempts to make me a better person and push me on, and yet it is destructive. It consumes energy without contributing. Its wheels spin in its desire to propel me to places that, paradoxically, can only truly be reached naturally.

This is a strange concept, but I’m now aware of its presence within me, almost as if my ear is now attuned to the noise it makes.

I’ve also noticed that lots of people seem to be powered by a similar energy. When we talk of stress, anger, frustration, ambition, anxiety, insecurity, desire… the elements that combine to create attachment – I notice this motor in others. I imagine the motor and the energy is used and dispelled in many different ways. We all process and cope differently. But boy, what a waste of energy.

My battle… In fact that’s the wrong word, because it wants a battle.

My challenge, I should say, is to slow it down and let it stop. To starve it of its fuel. To give up, let go and let be. To recognize that change comes through acceptance and can only be reached without this motor running.

Mental note to self (although so difficult to remember) – I am what I am and the more I nurture my individual self, the less fuel this motor has and the more likely I’ll get where I want to be.

Which, is right here, at peace… rather than over there, at pace.

Simply Solitude

Like many a seeker I found, lost, found and ultimately lost myself in Dharmasala.

I remember thinking that if I was to get a tattoo at that time, as a 19 year-old is want to, it would have been of a traveller with a cane over his shoulder, with all his worldy possessions tied into a handkerchief.

Fortunately I didn’t. It would have been a shit tattoo.

No, I wouldn’t have actually got this one, but you get the picture.

The reason – I was musing on self-sufficiency. I had been reading a load of the requisite ‘eastern’ literature. I’d realised, as so many had before me, that to be in control of one’s own emotions enabled freedom. To have that type of control enables one to deal with any situation, anywhere, with anyone.

For years during my youf, I never liked to be alone and chased company. Today, I love solitude – albeit it in moderation. Or at least I prefer no company to bad company.

Yet a while back I posted about not starting a business with partners.

My opinion has changed. I was wrong. Again.

I’ve spent the last 9 months working alone and achieved many things. Yet in the last few months as my business pivots, I’ve realized I need a partner, partners even. And as I begin to work with people, I remember the benefit they bring.

It’s possible to be effective alone, but as a social being, I believe that partnerships actually bring out the best. They help you to monitor your own mad thoughts, they create expectations and they keep one from disappearing into another rabbit hole of thinking.

The same could be said of my love life. Fiercely independent, I’ve preferred to remain alone rather than compromise. Yet I wonder if a relationships is, in fact, a more powerful place from which to grow. Scrap that, it almost certainly is. It’s easy to be alone – it prevents contradiction and challenges to one’s ‘way’. Yet, I’ve watched my friends become better people through the rounding that a relationship brings.

That’s the easy bit – realisation – now to find the balance, day-to-day.

A great friend enjoying a moment alone...

Simply Loosing It

Simpletom…?!?

Are you still there?

Is that you?

Oh dear.

This last couple of weeks, it’s just been Tom. Perhaps Stressedtom, Anxioustom or even Corporatetom…but frankly there needs to be some serious ember blowing on the coals of calm to be allowed to write here as Simpletom.

In addition, it’s entirely of my own doing. No external influence has induced this mania. There’s been no health scares, external issues, arguments, loves lost, keys dropped down drains, financial disasters or mishaps. Just a healthy dollop of self-induced pressure, layered-on expectation with a dash of flagellation.

As the cool of autumn creeps into the streets, is there a sense of another year passing that is igniting a sense of inadequate productivity?

Why do we tangle ourselves in these self-made balls of stress?

I’ve written here many times that more seems to get done when you let go of things than when you try to grab at things.

I’m no stranger to the world of hard work, but I lament the modern ideology that we must work faster and harder, despite our technological advances. Are many of our environmental disasters caused not because of basic need, but the hyped sense that we’re only human if we’re continually achieving?

This week I’ve achieved much, and yet nothing. I’ve made connections, sent mails and seen some chinks of light, yet I have nothing physical to show for my many hours spent tap-tapping away at this computer and yak-yacking away on the phone. The whole week I’ve been trying to do things more quickly, while lamenting my tiredness and inability to keep up a continual breakneck pace.

I’ve remembered to ‘manage my energy, not my time’, yet it still remains a concept rather than a reality.

It’s made all the more difficult by the knowledge that I ‘should’ be simplifying and that this momentum runs counter to my instincts, conflicting with the knowledge that building a business is difficult and needs utter focus. Sadly, my new entity isn’t a kinky platform that once built will scale exponentially – instead, it’s very much a ‘you get out what you put in’ type of business. That means every hour spent languishing and laughing could, through the lens of ‘success’, be viewed as a lost hour.

These last weeks I’ve not maintained the balance. When working, I’ve felt stressed at the weight of work to do. When not working I’ve felt guilty about the work I’m not doing. I’m neither here nor there.

Stress isn’t good for me. I feel breathless. No matter how long I sleep, I still feel exhausted. I just cannot enjoy myself.

Time for some self-medication (of the simple kind):

Please Stressedtom; remember that that one’s work is never…can never be done, because there is always more. You need to expect less, enjoy more.

You need to remember never, ever to compare yourself with others. They are exactly that – others – who have an entirely different physical, emotional and circumstantial makeup, which means that many of the things you covet in others are realistic, or would damage your own existence.

You need to remember that you’re all right sometimes. Flagellation isn’t constructive for growth.

You need to remember that Rome, or even Milton Keynes for that matter, wasn’t built in a day.

You need to remember what makes you happy.

‘Tis BE – not TO BE – that is the answer.

A reminder of less stressful times - an 'average' evening spent on the beach in Goa