As you’ve probably noticed, the world is phenomenally bad at the moment. The future’s not looking especially rosy for civilisation.
Then again, that’s been the case for a long time – and the fact that liberal metropolitans are wigging out so spectacularly over the (admittedly rubbish) news re the American Presidency shows just how detached people are from looming ecological disaster, immense, inexpressible suffering in developing countries, et cetera, et cetera, et cereta. But I digress.
Strange/stressful/horrible are these times in which we live. And, in order to 1) survive the mental ordeal of living through them, and 2) be as effective as we can be when it comes to trying to make them better, we have to take care of ourselves.
One way of doing that is enjoying the world around you in the simplest way possible. It sounds twee and trite and primary school, but it works.
Millions are dying needlessly. Billions are suffering. The planet’s burning. The political situation’s bad and getting worse.
It might be cold, your train home from work might be late, it might be pounding down with rain, and you might have to walk through it when you get off at the other end (like I did earlier today).
But, if you stop, and breathe, and think about it for a bit, you’ll realise that the rain makes a very nice, relaxing sound. And the train lights sparkle in the puddles. And that stormy skies in that sweet spot period between the sun going down and the evening properly setting in go a lovely shade of bruise blue. I’d like a T-shirt in that colour.
Don’t jam headphones in your ears. Don’t look at your phone. Smartphones are evil. I’m bordering on accepting they’re a necessary one, in a neoliberal dystopia at least, but they sap your attention and turn you into a hyper-stimulated, distraction-saturated drone. Leave it alone. Even better, leave it at home.
Just stand there and watch. And listen. Breathe in the nice cold air. It’s always going to rain. Has done for billions of years. Will do for billions more. Might as well teach yourself to enjoy it.
Don’t fume at the driver for the train being late. Or it being two carriages long and packed when it gets in. It’s not his fault. That’s decades of underinvestment in the railways for you. Enjoy the wait. Isn’t nature pretty. Isn’t it nice to be alive.
It could be worse. Could have to walk home. Could have no home to go to. Could be the radically unpleasant primary school teacher standing in the plastic lunchbox of the platform shelter, whinging down her phone about the seat being wet and sick toddlers in her class wanting comfort, and the fact one colleague tried to confide in her about being abused at home, and proclaiming the way to survive at work is sociopathic detachment from your co-workers, and treating the train conductor as some sort of irritant for having the sheer temerity to ask to see your ticket (“I’m on the phone?”). And relax.
Now, all this might sound completely out of reach for you. Perhaps your head’s too full of noise to even begin to imagine slowing down to that extent. If that’s the case, you should probably start meditating.
With its (completely understandable) aversion to all things religious and spiritual, the Left’s classically had no time at all for that sort of thing. Standard interpretation: it’s mumbo jumbo. An indoctrinating gateway drug for religion – a few steps away from brainwashing you into unconditional compassion and wanting to cuddle your oppressors better rather than topple the system.
I know it because it’s the main problem I’ve had with belief systems like Buddhism over the years – too much of it seems to encourage maximising happiness for yourself and dismissing critical thinking as angry and cynical.
But let’s look at what meditation actually is. It’s sitting (or standing, or lying down) and breathing, while not thinking about anything else. That’s it.
The sort of meditation I’m talking about it completely irreligious. I’m a committed non-believer – a strange kind of moralising far-left atheist who thinks we live in a terrible, godless universe, and that about the only really worthwhile thing you can do is try and eradicate preventable suffering. I think being too happy is offensive in a world where thousands of people die in agony on a daily basis for want of a bit of bread and water. And I meditate every day.
It doesn’t stop you being critical, or turn you into some sort of gormless love-everyone hippy. It just gives your brain a rest, and helps you better appreciate what matters and what doesn’t. It gives you clarity – an un-stressed, non-Duracell-bunny-hyperactive way of looking at the world.
I’m sure a lot of left-wingers would write it off as some sort of indulgent distraction from the things that matter. But the same principle applies to almost everything, including political activism, or writing, or even just thinking a lot about political issues – you’re not going to be as good at it as you want to be if you don’t have a break.
So sit down. Or lie down, or whatever’s best for you. Somewhere quiet. I realise that’s easier said than done – you can stick some earplugs in, play some music, find a meditation video on YouTube (there’s a lot of good ones to choose from).
Close your eyes. Breathe in a slowly and deeply as you can. Then breathe out as slowly as you can. Mentally, try and focus on your breathing rather than anything else. And just do that, over and over again, for ten minutes at least.
There are lots of things you can try to help you keep focus. Some people count the breaths – one for in, two for out, three for in, four for out and so on. Get to ten, then start from one again. Some people just say ‘in’ and ‘out’ in their head. Alternatively, you can try and tune in to your body and the space around you. If you feel a tingle in your nose, think ‘nose’. If you hear the clock ticking, think ‘clock’. If you hear the heater gurgling think ‘heater’.
Quite a lot of people have tried meditating a few times but stopped, because they don’t think they’re any good at it. I’m a terrible meditator. I get distracted all the time. But I still get a huge amount from it.
There’s no question – it’s hard. Particularly the clearing your mind bit. It’s like trying to walk in a straight line balancing a glass of water on your head. Quite often, it’s going to spill. But the more often you do it, the better you’re going to get at it. Even if you’ve been doing it years, you’re still going to get days when you fail completely – but the good thing about meditation is that you don’t keep have to buying new glasses and mopping up spillages.
One tip that works more often than it doesn’t – give yourself thirty seconds at the end where you keep your eyes closed but let yourself think about/focus on whatever you like. By the annoying laws of reverse psychology, even when I’ve struggled to concentrate in the proceeding ten minutes or so, at that point all the distractions suddenly get sucked out of my head and I feel about as peaceful and focused and quiet as I ever do.
Try all that for ten minutes a day, every day. Persevere. It will help. You’ll be calmer and less easily stressed. If stressful things happen, you’ll get over them much more quickly. And you’ll find yourself much better able to slow down and just appreciate the world around you.
That, and it’ll be easier to cope with a world in which monumental stupidity and crushing inequalities of wealth and power mean that the species probably won’t be around for all that much longer.