Some pop-psychology for happiness that I think aggressive autocrats and those affected by them would benefit from knowing
Since the start of lockdown in March, there’s been a recurring theme in the game-playing I’ve engaged in with my two young daughters. It started with Salmon in a Rockpool. This was a fish Bolognese dish I’d often make at lunchtime, where the sauce – tinned fish with tinned tomatoes, oregano, garlic, olive oil, olives and capers cooked and then blended – is placed in the middle of the dish, with the pasta in a circle around it, representing a rock pool. Sometimes I would add extras – strands of dried edible seaweed, prawns, pickled cockles, even mussels in their shells. Sometimes we would actually play a rock-pooling game beforehand. I would operate the plastic toy crab; they’d lower a line and try to catch it.
More recently the game has morphed into Shellfish Shack. I set up a pretend stall, complete with the toy cash register, and then place on the counter of the stall little pots of prawns, squid, smoked salmon or somesuch, plus condiments and cocktail sticks, then charge them pretend money to come and buy them. Partly it’s down to the times when I become freed from homeworking to play with them during the day – meal times – but there’s more to it.
These games recreate the sense of story and poetry around food that is lost when things are delivered to your door ready-packed. Is it just a slab of white protein in a plastic pack? No, it’s a fish that got here because a fisherman went out in the early hours onto the wine-dark sea, tossed about on the waves far from the shore, returning to the cobbled harbour as the dawn sunlight glinted on the waves.
And setting up the Shellfish Shack recreates a sense of the exchange you get from a market. Markets have a long history. Thousands of years ago farmers, fisherman and other local producers and artisans brought their wares into the town for market day and set up their stalls. The market is absolutely central to the Greco-Roman culture package that has continued to the present day, sometimes in a completely unbroken line. The marketplace had its own divinity – Hermes-Mercury – the god of trade, the god of the exchange. You make an exchange with the guy or gal who grew the vegetables. Today we try to recapture some of that with photos of the pig farmer on the sausage packet, but though we might see his or her face, he doesn’t see ours, so it’s not a true exchange. It doesn’t activate the sense of giving and receiving that you get from a marketplace. That circulation is the true currency of the Universe: the joy of Giving Your Gift, the joy of Receiving Abundance and the joy of completing the circle by Expressing Your Gratitude. This is the Circle of the Three Graces. It would be a shame if – once the pandemic is properly over – we don’t return to the Old Normal of the actual, physical marketplace.
If you go down to the woods today
you’re in for a big surprise
as dozens of darling dinosaurs
compete for their opera prize
A phrase from one may establish its rhythm, but
then it’s lost as another phrase cuts blithely across it
with all the informality of free verse, in rich cacophony
And then that rhythm you heard before
will suddenly reappear
in a moment of ordered harmony
as if made for the human ear
Then it’s gone again, but the sounds still delight – heaven-storming chitterings
pulsing scintillating emanations through the sap-irrigated matrix of the Chloromyriad
The Old Romantics oh!’d and ah!’d
for they found it uplifting and freeing
and now the science is backing them up:
It bolters our mental well-being
So bathe in the forest and smell the earthy humus for even now
the Star-lungs are warming up their vox-boxes in readiness – may we likewise
prep our auro-tubules for sensitive apprecio-resonance with this ancient treasure of our planet!
If you’re on the road to Chitterfest
you’d better keep moving fast
for tomorrow’s the day the developers come
so this chance may be your last
Sing on, sweet birds, sing on your spasmodic gutterations of brain-brightening liquid light!
Star-lungs: stars are flowers; flowers is bird; bird is Spring…. No bird, no Spring
Should every bird that ever there was
stare mute from under glass –
just dozens of dry, dumb dodos –
we’ll despair that this came to pass
When we exercise, there is a release of the chemicals that encourage us to form a mental map of valued places, such as BDNF and dopamine. This makes total sense if you think about the evolutionary hunter-gatherer context, where extended exercise meant being out and about in the landscape, probably looking for food or finding the way home after obtaining food. That exercise should be associated with the chemicals that encourage the generation of new brain cells makes perfect sense – we ranged over vast areas and success was dependent on forming a mental map of useful places in that landscape, and of routes between them. So when we were exercising, our brains lit up.
That the neurotransmitters associated with good mood were also mobilised by exercise and mental map-formation also makes sense. Predominantly the landmarks in these mental maps were places of positive association. Here, berries could be found. There, nuts were available. This place had a fresh water source. That place had fruit. And so on. Emotions are required for the formation of strong memories; that’s how our brains know whether something is important enough to commit to long-term memory. So to form these mental maps full of places of positive association, it was necessary for the neurotransmitters, hormones and endorphins of good mood to be mobilised when we were out and about, ready to assist with the formation of a sense of value for a particular place at a moment’s notice.
There are two ingredients right there for optimal mood: movement and the construction and reinforcement of mental maps of places of positive association. If you combine physical exertion with the creation and reinforcement of the memory of the routes connecting valued locations, it’s very likely you’ll get a mood lift. Apart from anything else, you stimulate those positive associations and feelings. In fact, we’re kind of a shadow of a real selves without it, we need it. That desire to go walkabout has a name: wanderlust.
And we discovered that we could put those two things together in a different ways and still achieve the same result of elevated mood. We didn’t have to be out in the vast expanses of the open plains. We could do it from the comfort of camp. The exercise could be in the form of dance, and the exploration of the landscape could be undertaken in the mind’s eye – a spirit journey. And so you get the trance dance. And it had its own place in the evolutionary journey because it kept us fit and helped reinforce our memory of the landscape, both of which had advantages. Trance dancing combined with spirit journeys is so ubiquitous in human cultures because it actually became a hardwired ability. And it still is.
Nowadays, for a series of locations with positive association, we needn’t limit ourselves to places where edible berries grow. It can be something more subtle. It may just be a place you like for aesthetic reasons. You might just feel drawn to a place for some reason you can’t put your finger on. It might evoke some spiritual sensation. You might have developed a fondness for it because of happy memories of times spent there with friends or family. Or it could be that you’ve immersed yourself in the mythology of certain sacred sites. We have this ability to conceive of the landscape in terms of special places and the journeys that lead to them, with sacred sites joined by pilgrimage routes, songlines, ley lines.
And here’s a pattern we can still follow:
- First, explore the landscape, cultivating a sense of value, gladness, fondness, meaningful connection with sites within it, allowing a mythologised conception to develop.
2. Then, develop a system of connectivity that joins these sites mentally.
3. Finally, from the comfort of your home, dance to trance-inducing music and when the trance-joy starts coming on, let it expand by heading out in your mind’s eye to travel those routes around the landscape, visiting those valued places.
The system of connectivity doesn’t actually have to consist of real-world routes – it can be an intellectual connection, such as a geometric pattern. The simplest example would be the straight line – as with a ley line – where an actual road or path does not exist but an alignment of sites does, whether or not there is any historical aspect to this alignment, or whether it is a charismatically romanticised coincidence – it works either way. More complex geometries can be developed too that allow the positive sense of value to resonate around the pattern.
Trance Mapping is a practice in which I have developed a keen interest. The three blog sites I have on the go each deal with a particular aspect of it:
i) HowCurious! is primarily concerned with mythologised landscapes and schemes of interconnection that weave them into a unified plan.
ii) The Confessions of a Hungry Dawn Raver is all about an effective method for Trance Dancing without drugs (unless you count coffee).
iii) The Glory of Glad is focused on cultivating value, amplifying gratitude.
Put them together and you have Trance Mapping – a method for optimising mood so effective it can be thought of almost as a spiritual practice.
The current situation at the time of writing – lockdown to halt the Coronavirus – might limit our physical exploration of sites out in the field, but it can be used as a time to focus on those trance dance spirit journeys. Dancing to trance music, you let the joy build and the normal thoughts fade away as you focus on the music, and then out you go in your mind’s eye. Don’t waste this time watching fitness instructors taking you through workouts on YouTube when you could be flying with the gods.
There’s plenty more to read / see / listen to on this:
For an index of my explorations of mythologised landscapes, see here.
To look at a particular example that works up to a mythologised scheme for the entire globe, follow the chain starting here.
There’s a video that covers some of it here:
For a piece about my method for effective trance dancing, Hungry Dawn Raving, see here.
For a spoken word video of poem about Hungry Dawn Raving see here.
For a spoken word video of a poem reliving at rest the joy of expeditions, routes on maps, ancient sacred sites and wanderlust, see here.
And for a series of posts in how to cultivate gratitude by keeping a poetic gratitude journal, see here.
The Silver Birch
– a caudate sonnet
My gladness of the silver birch I wish
To share, that slender goddess of a tree
Her shower of silken hair moves in a swish
That stirs in me a mystic reverie
As turns this verdant, grassy leaf-fringed glade
Into her sacred grove, and I, her priest
Mid-frisson in the dancing, dappled shade
Call druids, bards and ovates to the feast
But let us now the details try to trace
The little leaves, heart-shaped, serrated trail
Along each pliant twig to form a spray
That’s bright and airy, made with measured grace
Cascading sprays together form the veil
That by the gentle breeze is set to sway
Her stretch of sky she turns to shimmering show
And whispers Summer’s secrets soft and low.
What poet now would ever dare
To sing an ode to morning air
The rosy mist that hovers there
O’er sea-girt folds?
What mind could ever fully grasp
The magnitude of such a task:
To frame in verses built to last
Vapours of gold?
Perhaps some master’s careful brush
Could set in oil the heart’s full rush
Paint here and there a windswept bush
With well-mixed hue
But how could we with words sing praise
And capture this ambrosial haze
To place on page for later days
This heavenly view?
Now most assume in ancient time
Some poet placed a fatted chine
Upon Aurora’s hillside shrine
None now could equal
And so the theme of their refrain
Will tend to be one more mundane
For who among them still would deign
To pen a sequel?
But poets! To her shrine turn back
Tread rhyming steps along that track
And do not worry if you lack
A perfect gift
For when we see the rosy glow
We will be comforted to know
We’re not the first to see the show
As sea mists lift.
For aromatic oils in herbs and shrubs
Let thanks rise to the gods, from whence they fell
When one but holds the leaves and gently rubs
There issues forth a mystic, fragrant smell
The living plants will ornament
A tended garden plot
The plants will then provide yet further gifts
For sprigs of these ingredients
When added to the cooking pot
The taste uplifts
Hellenic folk in golden ages old
These perfumes of the plants sought to explain
With stories down the generations told
Of how such shrubs some pretty nymph contain
How when Apollo yearned to kiss
Sweet Daphne, she, forlorn
With all speed did attempt to run away
Then saving metamorphosis
The pretty maiden did transform
To odorous bay
O Sage! O Thyme! O Rosemary! I praise
Your power to boost our health, our pain to ease
Our memory to strengthen, moods to raise
Our sense of sight and smell and taste to please
It must have been when we first burnt
Dry incense, or with mint
We first less pleasant tastes and smells disguised
That we, now that at last we’d learnt
To add a subtle herbal hint
To Wine – An Incantation
O Effortless Discoverer! O Wine!
Two-Things-at-Once! Dark Sunshine! Old-but-Young!
Bestir to tripping dance the Muse of Rhyme
Great Uninhibitor, loosen her tongue
Send forth your shelt’ring leaves over my mind
Embrace with dappled shade the grapes of thought
Protect them from the light of Trying-to-Find
Lest nude in Reason’s burning glare they’re caught
For season after season we entrust
This treasure to the cave of rustic stone
As silently the ruby liquid dreams
Long slumb’ring in the cellar’s dark and dust
What secret mysteries to you were shown
By under-dwelling nymphs of chthonic streams?
O gen’rous partner in the poet’s art
Now set the pen in flight, and help me start!
To Chamomile – An Incantation
O soft enchantress of the candle glow,
With gentle, caring fingertips caress
Our eyelids, with a stroke soothing and slow
Dissolve our thoughts in sweet forgetfulness
Thou angel of the cup, kind Chamomile,
Thy golden tisane, warming, wets the lip
We feel the face relax into a smile
Then raise the cup and take another sip
But how’s the mixture made? First fill the pot
And heat the water till the bubbles roar
Then add your spoon of flowers and let steep
Until the liquid’s neither cool nor hot
Now take your chosen cup and carefully pour
The potion, and partake before you sleep.
While drinking, say aloud or read this spell,
Which calms you and by calming keeps you well.
Text from previous blog post on Gratiludes:
A recurring theme in the Glory of Glad has been the way Odes can reframe things in a dignified manner. The idea I’ve been reiterating is that while you could just keep a basic gratitude journal to raise mood, if you really feel glad about something, why not show that it really matters to you by writing something far more dignified – a full blown Ode.?
But there will be draw back if this is all you do. Why? Because it’s likely to be consistently serious. The whole point of what we’re doing here is to raise mood by practicing gratitude. The self-image of the serious poet has become rather infused with the picture of the suffering artist, condemned by their nature to sink from time to time into the miserable, maudlin depths of gloom. To have an ongoing good mood, on the other hand, it is obviously vital to be able to lighten up, to see the funny side.
Yes, we want to harness the power of the heavenly ode; no, we don’t want to become po faced.
So I’ve come up with a solution, one that is a lot of fun and which will only expand your options for expressing gratitude. You see, one of the things that’s been found about keeping a gratitude journal is that it doesn’t matter hugely what you express gratitude for, as long as you express gratitude for something. It is the act of expressing gratitude that raises mood. Enter the Gratilude ( “gratitude” + “interlude”.) After a few serious odes, stick in a Gratilude to lighten things up. Gratiludes are short, and easy to compose, and give you the chance, therefore, to quickly bump up the number of things you’re expressing thanks for in your journal, while simultaneously lightening the mood after your more lofty odes. This really is the final ingredient that makes the whole recipe zing. Here’s one:-
To a Doily (A Gratilude)
What a marvellous thing is a doily!
What a wonderful thing to possess!
How divine to be able
To fling on the table
The essence of delicateness!
Gratiludes, therefore, are little, light-hearted poems, almost like limericks. They still express gratitude for something, but in a more frivolous way. They’ll tend to take a mere material object as their theme. They might be partly tongue in cheek – a bit of a parody of a proper ode. They don’t have to be side-splittingly hilarious, though, because comedy is not their sole purpose – they are still, at the end of the day, gratitude poems, they’re just not so weighty.
Here’s another example. Some more follow lower down.
To a Tea Cosy
O Tea Cosy! Tea Cosy! Tea Cosy!
What endeavour could ever be finer
Than, as if it did live,
To most gallantly give
A warm coat to your favourite china?
A lead here comes from the theatrical Dionysia festival of ancient Athens. Even before the Athenians began including full blown comedies as well as the tragedies in the Dionysia, already they had the satyr plays. Each playwright would put on one satyr play and three serious performances. These satyr plays provided comic relief, and were full of bawdy fun, satire and general merriment. The Gratilude is very much like the satyr play – a short interlude for light relief. If we go with the same 3 : 1 ratio as for the satyr plays, then with as few as, say, five short gratiludes, you have enough to cover a full fifteen lofty odes, and believe me a Gratilude doesn’t take long to write. Here’s another:
To a Bed
Oh how grand are clean duvets and sheets
On a well-made and comfortable mattress!
Yes it has to be said
What a boon is a bed
And big pillows all plumped up with fatness
Does this mean your journal will be pulling in two directions at once? Not at all. We’re not talking about undermining that sense of dignity we’ve been establishing with our odes; we’re just talking about introducing a lightness and fluidity and adding another string to the bow. The very act of dignifying ourselves reminds us that we deserve good things, and laughter itself truly is one of life’s good things. Here’s another Gratilude:
What ecstatical things are galoshes!
(The name that we call’em, I mean)
It’s half “gallop” / half “slosh”,
Oh my word! Oh my gosh!
The whole concept is just such a dream!