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.
Thick, soft tresses of maidenly blossom cascade – scented surf in a heavenly flood,
Pure white dress of the Hawthorn will one day become berry necklaces scarlet as blood
At the sight off a-gathering filling my basket I’ll go for a plentiful store
Of the berry that brews to a tea with the power to soothe and relax and restore
Hawthorn tea you delight me
You calm yet excite me
When daytime to evening gives way
A swift end to anxiety
Perfect for closing the day
I feel I should probably write a second verse to that at some point, echoing the same stanza structure, but for the moment, there it is.
When I started the poem I was just writing about hawthorn blossom but then it came to be about the tea too. So it leaps from early Summer to Autumn with the line: “pure white dress of the Hawthorn will one day become berry necklaces scarlet as blood.”
The effect of the tea is a recognised one by the way – something to do with opioid receptors and vasodilation – a rush of blood to the head. Only thing I’ve ever found that is comparable to alcohol in it’s ability to take the edge off things at the end of the day, but a healthy alternative. Very effective at lowering blood pressure I understand and great for rounding off a day when you’ve been hitting the Java. Hence: “drunken sobriety” in the poem
The bit about gathering them is poetic license – I did do that a couple of autumns back but now I just buy pre-dried. I use about 50 berries, and I leave them boiling in a pan for about 12 mins, then I stand them for a further ten minutes in the water, steeping, having also added a chamomile teabag, then I sup away. I’ll then give those same berries a second boil but in less water and only for a couple minutes, for a second cup.
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.
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!
This blog has focused so far on sending out the gratitude you feel for the Universe, but I thought I’d look here at receiving the gratitude the Universe feels for you, because this is all part of the same thing – the circle of Grace, as represented by those three goddesses dancing in a circle. Receiving the concomitant reciprocation of likes from the Universe refills your creativity tanks ready for the next project. It genuinely is a circle because receiving the gratitude back will help you give better things going forward.
Now, you can’t force people to like your stuff, and that’s not what I’m going to focus on here. Rather, I’m going to be looking at hacking into the hardwired response we have in us that triggers the state of feeling liked.
When we meditate, we create a safe haven for the mind. In that space, because we’re focusing on what we’re thinking, we’re able to let go of thoughts we don’t want. This is what creates the safe haven. In Buddhist thought, meditation takes you into the Pure Land, imagined as a symmetrical, geometric mandala representing a fortress whose strong walls keep the forces of chaos outside. As you let go of thoughts that create stress, or which limit your self-image and dampen your mood, it’s natural that your mood will lift.
So meditation is already a safe-haven for self-image, and what I’m talking about here is just a more specific example of this. It’s amazing how tied up mood is with self-image, and it’s also surprising just how tied up human self-image tends to be with what other people think. We evolved that way, of course, to make society work. Think of the buzz you get when you’ve made something and people think it’s amazing. The Reward System gives you big treats in the form of considerably elevated mood. Think of the massive buzz popular musicians used to get when getting to the top of the hit parade back when that counted for something, i.e. when singles was a thing. Think of the uncontrollable smiles of the Beatles when they first met an audience that couldn’t’ contain how much they like them. This is my interpretation of the Simon and Garfunkel song Cecelia. St Cecelia is the patron saint of music, so when he’s down on his knees begging her to come home, or finding that someone else has taken his place, that means his songs aren’t doing so well. But when she comes back and he sings: “Jubilation, she loves me again, I fall on the floor and I’m laughing” – that’s the big buzz when the songs start doing well again.
But it’s your reward system that’s doing it. I’m not saying that there’s not also a transpersonal giving and receiving on the etheric planes – of course there is. But you are still the master of what hardwired response gets triggered. So why not hack into it? In an evolutionary tribal context, this treat is triggered because you’ve just made a good hut, or something like that. Grateful, congratulatory compliments from other tribe members trigger a response which feels great. We evolved to be like that because it made us into good hut builders, digging stick makers, spear makers, etc., all of which gave the evolutionary advantage. This of course is a potential added bonus for your gratitude odes, i.e. having created something good in the form of a poem, you might get some appreciative noises coming back to you, and this might trigger a further elevation of mood, beyond the expression of gratitude itself.
But what if, for whatever reason, such noises don’t come back? There’s any number of reasons why they might not. In the modern context where the made thing has become cultural, there are many different tastes and there’s a lot of subjectivity and most people are not time rich and the market place is flooded with competing attention grabbers including the media and shiny new electronic devices, and concentration spans are not what they were, and so on. You might write what you think is a great gratitude poem, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the World will reflect that, or even find a chance to give it the attention it needs.
Yet, it seems silly if you know it’s good that you don’t feed your own thoughts in as a replacement, hack the system, make the hardwired response work for you – create a safe haven for self-image. While the question for this book as a whole has been: “How can we harness the heavenly power of the ode?”, the question in this chapter is: “How can we activate a state that mimics the honeymoon period of success where the serotonin sluice gates are wide open?” The response may be ‘hardwired’ but the trigger is soft, because it’s mental, a perceived state of affairs. Anything that’s all-in-the-mind ought to be hackable.
Clearly a balance is needed here. We don’t want to suffer the ill effects of walking off into cloud cuckoo land. This balance can be reached with a little checklist. First, make sure you do actually think the thing is great yourself, and are not just pretending. Also, continue to pay some attention to feedback, but with a glass half full attitude, assuming the best where there is silence or ambiguity, and shrugging off criticism with generous assumptions along the lines of “they must be having a bad day.” Thirdly, avoid big-headedness by constantly cultivating a sense of deep gratitude about your success (external or internal).
This is what I’m interested in and working on at the time of writing and I have the feeling that the more I master this balance, the more I’ll have life licked.
So how can we tap into this? I’ve done a bit of experimenting and have had some positive results, so I thought I’d share a few suggestions. The surprise for me was that maintaining this feeling made me feel like being creative. It’s an addition to your meditation, in the form of a visualisation designed to trigger that feeling. But I want to make clear, and this is kind of crucial, that this is not ‘Creative Visualisation’ – you’re not visualising something that you want to happen in the future. The purpose of it is right in the present – to trigger the feeling. Then once it’s triggered, you’ll then shift your focus on to that feeling, and work out how to protect, maintain and amplify it, coming back to the visualisation as and when you need to if the feeling needs re-triggering.
There’s lots of things you could visualise. A good tip is to apply the Buddhist principle of non-duality – dissolving barriers between self and other, so you can resonate with the feeling of successes embodied in all well made things, by transpersonal morphic resonance, a painting, a poem, a cathedral, a teapot – whatever. Image you’re the one up on stage with an appreciative crowd, not because you’re becoming a denizen of loony land, but just to get a sense of what it feels like, and then work out how to get that feeling just by willing it.
The visualisation doesn’t need to be excessive and you don’t have to be delusional for very long. You are going to be delusional here just for a bit, to get the ball rolling. A deliberately delivered delicate dose of delusion. This particular visualisation is designed to be used as part of the process of being a poet, and so it has that as a theme. You can use it when you’ve finished a poem and not yet started a new one.
I find this a good visualisation to do during an afternoon siesta – I’m not entirely sure why. What you’ll do is imagine yourself at the site of Delphi, but it’s all come back to life as it was in the Golden Age of Athens – the temples are all standing in all their glory. This was the site on the side of Mount Parnassus in Greece where there was a great temple of Apollo, the leader of the Muses, and where there were great poetry competitions every eight years. There was no higher honour for a poet. You’re going to image a scene like the one in Poussin’s painting Parnassus.
In this painting, Poussin depicted a poet receiving the highest of honours. Muses are gathered round, and one of them places a laurel wreath on his head, a mark of honour, as with the idea of a poet laureate – i.e. a poet wearing a laurel crown. Other poet laureates are gathered round, watching on with respect and admiration. The very god Apollo gives the poet a drink from a sacred golden vessel. This is at once a reward, a reciprocation for good work, as well as a draught of inspiration for future works, and the two are indeed closely linked. We can say it represents a refilling or a refuelling. It’s believed the figure being crowned in the painting was actually Poussin’s early patron, the poet Marino. So Poussin was mixing real people from his contemporary life with an image of gods and goddesses in Golden Age Greece, which sets a perfect precedent for us to do the same.
The idea, then, is that you are going to imagine yourself in such a scenario, as the one being crowned with laurel, and watching on you will imagine peers and other figures whose opinion you most respect, and those from whom you most crave recognition. For a bit of fun, you could even Photoshop yourself in Marino’s place, as I have done here:
Poussin’s The Laureate Coronation of William Glyn-Jones
If you’re the sort of person who complains that you’re “not very good at visualising things” then what I would recommend is simply that you focus on fleshing out the details, and ask yourself what might greet your senses. The trickling of the sacred spring, the smell of the incense, the sound of the cicadas, a warm breeze on the face, the Mediterranean sunshine on your skin, and so on. Somewhere a dove is cooing.
There’s something else you can image here. You know how on Facebook where someone is streaming a video live and you see like and love emoticon symbols floating across the screen? You can image a shower of these cascading down over you, as I’ve shown in the above image. Not excessive amounts – but enough to trigger that feeling.
Once you notice the feeling – being liked, appreciated, your talent being recognised – now focus on maintaining and expanding it. If it drops away, what was the thought that just diminished it? Release that thought – let it drift away. Work out how to groove with this pleasant feeling. A groove is a repeating rhythm that’s fun to dance to. With the first few repetitions the groovy feeling is not very strong, but as it repeats it gets stronger. That’s the nature of getting into a groove. You want to work out how to do that with this feeling that you’ve triggered – staying with it that allows it to grow a little with each breath.
If find yourself wanting to make the cascade of like emoticons excessive, it could be a sign of an insecurity you’re trying to overcompensate for. If so, root that out and heal it, release the repressed emotion and move on, let it go, because this isn’t about big-headedness; it’s just about maintaining a natural cycle of flow that helps you continue being creative. Just a trickle of likes should be enough.
At the end of a session like this, see yourself getting a badge or certificate or some such to signify that you are now able to self like. Then in your day to day life if you find your mood dipping in response to perceived criticism, remember this certificate, and remember the feeling.