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  • Writer's pictureCrone

The plus mind

According to Robert Carter in The Japanese Arts and Self-Cultivation, one should, or must, always approach aikido practice with a 'plus mind'. 'One minus mind can unsettle an entire group of plus minds, destroying group harmony, just as one ill-willed or grumpy individual at a party can dash the party before it begins,' says Carter.

Having a plus mind is always, or at least usually, something of a challenge for me. I have a feeling that my happiness set point is somewhere around five out of ten and although I do attain eights and nines, I also spend a disproportionate amount of time in the twos and threes. Because of the pain of twos and threes, I try to artificially boost my happiness. I say 'artificially', but by that I don't mean chemically or really unnaturally. It's just that I do try to 'set myself up' for glimpses of the better rather than the worse and I try to focus on what I am doing rather than wondering about why I feel only two out of ten.

For that last reason, I am skeptical about the value of 'talking about things'. Now, I don't want to denigrate either therapy or friendship here because I do believe that for many people working through complicated issues and feelings is a blessing and a healing process. There have been occasions, and still are, where I have worked through a particular problem, reached some clarity and been better off for it.

The problem is that for a genuine misery guts like me, the issue is not so much a lack of clarity as a straightforward case of anhedonia.

What happens is this: I feel like two and wonder if there is a particular reason which offers a solution - i.e. is there anything that I have control over that I can change? If it's pure loneliness, I can speak to someone. If it's an awareness of not having done certain things that I need to do (read more philosophy papers, for example), then I can do that. But usually what happens when I ask myself why I feel like two the answer is either 'I don't know' or, to put it another way, 'just because' or else it has to do with things over which I have no control - like, there's a pandemic, the future's uncertain, I am absent from those I most care for, I am getting older, I am not a Booker prize-winning author and so on. In those two, very frequent cases, there is nothing that I can do to change the circumstances substantively. There are things that I can do, of course, but before I get onto that, let me say why the talking doesn't help.

If I then decide to talk about it, this may be helpful if it leads me to see that in fact what I am really feeling two about is something that I can control, but it is very, very rare that my initial introspection will have failed to come up with that. But say that is the case, the talking is unnecessary once I have realised that: what I need to do is to do the thing I need to do, not to talk. On the other occasions what happens is that talking tends to make matters worse.

The other person might offer reasons why they think I might feel bad. This is not helpful for many reasons. They might give me something else to feel shit about that I had not even considered or they might lead me to have to defend why such and such a thing is not really a cause for feeling shit, which tends to make me feel that either I am a strange person who will never be understood or that I possibly have seriously distorted values. Besides which the whole adversarial process of feeling the need to prove my feelings and reasons to someone else is uncomfortable and alienating. It also makes me feel that the other person either judges my life in a way that sits badly with me or, if that bad thing is not in fact a part of my life, that the other person is talking to me across a chasm which thus appears unbridgeable.

The other person might also try to suggest that things which I do feel are bad but which I am not actually especially upset about - as in, they might contribute the background state for a valuation of two but that most of the time despite their presence I manage to feel a four or five. Still, I am then in a position where I have to explain that these things are in fact bad though not the causal reason for my feeling of two. The other person will either be suggesting that I have the truth of the situation wrong or that my evaluation of a real situation is wrong. And I want to say, 'How the hell do you know?' People often say things like, 'It's not that bad' or 'That won't happen' or 'Things will work out' and that is just crass, insulting and untrue. Of course, their intentions are entirely good and noble, unless they are just stating platitudes, but I am talking of either friends or therapists (though they tend to avoid evaluative or predictive statements, but they still suggest that my evaluation of a situation is faulty and, again, how the hell do they know?!) I might even and up exaggerating their significance in order to stop feeling that the other person is negating the felt-experience of my own subjectivity. And as a consequence, all this leaves me feeling misunderstood and on the defensive to the extent that I begin to get genuinely upset about the bad things that I was not upset about as well as about the conversation in itself.

Finally (well, for this post), if there is nothing specific and the feeling of two is 'just a feeling of two', the process of talking tends to make me try to create a reason for the feeling. In this case I start to construct a story that could plausibly lead to a feeling of two. This is the worst outcome as now I have novel cause for misery.

So, all that was preamble because I wanted to record what does help me.

Exercise can have an immediate impact - partly through endorphins and partly because for me, I feel like I have done something that I 'ought' to do and so I feel better about myself for having done it. In the same way, tasks like cleaning the house or the car or tidying the garden can perform a similar function.

Focusing on something educational or creative works because it forces me out of the state of noticing how I am feeling and into the thing itself. Sometimes pleasurable distractions like watching a film or reading a novel work - but only, for me, if they are really engaging. A badly written book or a cliched film throws me out of the experience by alerting me to something outside the 'story'.

Outside is good. I am not sure what it is about this. There is a sparrow who hops around on the paving stones near my patio table. It is just feet away from me and it knows I am there. It almost seems to choose to be near me. There is something magical about the self-willed proximity of a tiny, vulnerable, free sentient being. When I walk the fields and the woods, the places where I have been walking for twenty years and even more regularly since the dog came into my life, there is a sense of treading through my dreamtime. These places may not be the most beautiful places but they are places where my life has been paced out; where my mind has been enlivened by ideas; where my soul has thrilled at the sight of a merlin, a hare, a fox, a deer or the sound of skylarks above and falcons calling; where I have met the same people and their same dogs...

There are memories in the hedges and copses, hidden in the bracken and under the canopies of ancient oaks. Time isn't linear here, it folds back on itself along the tracks and the pathways.

Because these places matter, I notice the changes of the seasons... different smells and variegated colours. Life coming and sap rising; life dying back into hibernation. And I notice too the day to day changes of the surface of the earth, the fallen feathers, the collateral damage of the combine harvesters, the rain making streams of the paths and the drought cracking ground into miniature canyons...

The greenness of green, the sky in its transient states, the palette of spring growth and late summer harvest, the wild patches that breathe life into the cultivated mass, the busy activity of buzzing insects and birds on the wing. There are worlds of life overlapping and enmeshing.

Every speck of earth, every frond and leaf, every creature, every drop of moisture is part of a wholeness of time and of place and of life.

I go out with a plus mind so that I can notice. So that I can be-in-that-world and value it, even if I am at two and even if I stay at two. Somehow, I can raise my state to plus by virtue of the connection with place.

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