The 2016 to 2017 transition post.

Following the rich tradition over here of year transition posts, having just rounded off a brilliant outdoorsy take-your-mind-off-of-everything vacation with friends, and also inspired by wogan.blog’s nicely personal 2016 review post, I decided that a farewell-2016 how-you-doin’-2017 post was in order.

By the way, by rich tradition I mean that I wrote the grand total of one (1) similarly titled post previously, as the year ticked from 2009 to 2010, and at least one other, disguised as a weekly head voices, as we entered 2012That last one is worth another read, early 2012 cpbotha had some really good tips. There might be more such posts, this blog has been around for more than 15 years and much of what I’ve written is not available from my short-term memory, which is nice.

Warning: This post is long (1800 words+), rambly and sometimes even a bit mushy. I hope you enjoy it!

2016: The Review

The bad, with a hopefully slightly positive outlook at the end

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way as soon as we can…

For me the biggest disappointments of 2016 were the double-whammy of the Brexit followed by the Trumpocalypse.

I really did not expect either of these events to go the way they did.

This is probably because I was, ever the optimist, over-estimating the level of human development of British and US voters.

The exclusionist, nationalist, xenophobic and in many cases even white supremacist thinking associated with Trump’s support in the US and the Leave vote in the UK are truly abhorrent.

I understand that there were many other factors at play. However, these voters were either throwing out the baby with the bath water, or, much much  worse, agreeing with the abhorrent sentiments mentioned above. Especially this second possibility depressed me greatly after the US election.

After such setbacks, one needs to look for solutions.

After Brexit, analysis showed that education level was the strongest indicator of a vote for leave or remain. Higher education was strongly associated with remain, whilst the opposite was the case for leave.

Leave / remain voter analysis by The Atlantic. Click to go to article + interactive version of this graphic.

For Trump voters, you probably guessed it, it was more or less the same idea. Less educated citizens voted for Trump, more educated citizens for Clinton.

This is yet another strong indication that we should really be pouring every resource we have into the education of our people. (yes, correlation and causation, I know. hence the terms “strong indication”. discuss in the comments if you like.)

Lawrence M. Krauss, superstar theoretical physicist and author of the book A Universe from Nothing, recently tweeted this 1920 quote by H.G. Wells:

Human history has become, more and more, a race between education and catastrophe.

The way things are going now, that thought, and movements like #feesmustfall, are more important than ever. There can be absolutely no excuse for neglecting the highest quality and accessible education (basic up to tertiary) of future generations of humans whom we expect to further our civilization.

The running and the mindful

In 2016, I ran 440km.

There are a great deal of people who have run much more than that, but those are my 440 kilometers and somehow they brought me a great deal of deep satisfaction.

During the year, my per-run distance and speed have gradually increased.

Besides fitness gradually increasing, I discovered experimentally that shorter, quicker steps get me further and a higher pace. It took a biomechanical friend to explain to me that this was about muscles operating within the more efficient middle of their full extension/contraction ranges. I could probably just have read this somewhere, but doing it the hard way and then having a friend explain it on top of Table Mountain definitely added something to the experience.

For the last 200 kilometres or so, I have listened to the exact same album: Skin by Flume. Every single run, I start that exact same album with the exact same sequence of tracks. As I learned from the SwimGeek’s blog, finding your soundtrack and putting it on repeat whilst exercising is apparently a thing.

With the surroundings over here being what they are, it does not take much to slip into a state of mindfulness.

No doing, no planning; just absorbing all of the surroundings, physical and mental, the music, and feeling how the meat-based machine that houses me propels us forward.

On the topic of mindfulness, for the last few months I added a repeat event to my todoist, helping me to spend five minutes every morning before work doing the breathing exercise. More recently I do this without any voice track, but previously Prof. Mark Williams at one point would say (original quote is due to Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD):

Each breath a new beginning; each out-breath a letting go.

There’s a whole lot in there. I have spent quite some time with it and I am far from done.

The blog

The first rule of blogging: You don’t blog about blogging.

However, I hope you don’t mind me breaking that rule to mention that in 2016, this blog was viewed 133 thousand times. I already get happy when one other person reads a post. You can imagine how happy it makes me to know that there are even slightly more people who have come here to consume some of the words I have written, and even some who have taken the time to leave behind comments!

The lion’s share of those views were due to focused posts that got picked up by some of the more popular nerd sites. I have to admit that I derived the most enjoyment from the more personal posts that were only read by friends.

Whatever the case may be, this has to be my most satisfying hobby. Thank you for the crucial role that you who read play in it!

The new life

In early(ish) 2016, our third daughter, affectionately known as Genetic Offspring Unit #3 (GOU#3 for short) around these parts, was born.

This wonderful little cellular mega-cluster is currently making noises that have the primary purpose of being immensely cute, but are also slowly starting to make sense. Her ambulation capabilities have increased immensely, and she is on the verge of standing up by herself and so we will probably have to re-arrange our interior. Again.

Long ago, I wrote here about my unexpected new role as someone else’s Tooth Fairy. In the meantime, working as a part-time tooth fairy and a full-time papa to three little humans has turned out to be a more fulfilling career than I ever could have imagined.

2017: Not much planned yet, you?

I prefer making resolutions in secret, then carrying them out or not, and only then reporting on them. However, that would mean that I would have to wrap up this post right now, and for that I’m not quite ready yet.

Experiment Alcohol Zero

One resolution that I am already executing on, is performing an interesting little experiment. After reading about the effects of alcohol on one’s (running) performance and general energy levels, I have decided to go for 30 days without a drop of alcohol to try and get a subjective idea of its potential impact.

Those of you who have spent more than 8 seconds in my or my blog’s vicinity know that I absolutely adore craft beer (this includes local, but also special beers of the Belgian type) and local wines, both of which are regularly consumed by me and “business partners” during “business lunches” in the not-unattractive local surroundings.

This decision was not taken lightly.

It is mid-morning of day 2 of Experiment Alcohol Zero (EAZ) as I write this. With the air full of smoke due to local vegetation fires, I have not been able to go running yet, but I am imagining that my energy lasted later last night, and I got up easier this morning. I have 29 more days to investigate.

Reminders for a hopefully better life

Every day, I remind myself to be the kindest I can possibly be to everyone I come into contact with. We have infinite amounts of kindness to spread.

I also remind myself to be grateful. It takes continuous practice to identify the many things one can be grateful for every day, but it is definitely worth it.

I often remind GOU#1 (#2 and #3 are not old enough yet for this lesson) that, besides the guidelines above, we have to keep on working on two more related characteristics: being useful, and being likable.

Being useful means continuously developing and refining skills that enable one to contribute value to one’s surroundings. Being likable means understanding and appreciating how we humans stick together. Kindness, see above, is an important component of this.

In 2017, I would like to write more (on this blog probably), and read more.

Rapidly morphing goalposts jumping randomly through even more randomly pulsating hyperspace, with a slightly positive outlook at the end

Yes folks, this is going to be my parting thought.

When I was much younger, I used to believe that one’s life could be “cracked”. That is, if you searched, and you worked really hard at understanding yourself, your people and your surroundings, you could come up with some kind of answer with which you would be able to attain contentment.

In the meantime I’ve come to the realisation that that Much Younger Me, although quite dashing, was of course utterly wrong.

Life is utterly dynamic. You Now are a different person from You Last Year. The same goes for people around you, and the same goes for everything around you.

The goal posts are not just moving all the time, they are an illusion flashing in and out of an hallucinogenic and especially dynamic perception.

One trick to help one deal with this, is to stop thinking about goals in the first place, and instead consider the directions of your movement.

Also keep in mind that there are no answers, only choices. You work to make the best ones you can with the means at your disposal at that moment.

Importantly, in this restless environment, some peace can be found by realising that a large part of the restlessness originates from within you. Fortunately, you have slightly more say in you than you have in your surroundings.

What one can do then, is nicely summarised by Prof. Mark Williams in the audio accompanying his mindfulness book:

The deep stillness we seek does not arise because the world is still or the mind is quiet. Stillness is nourished when we allow things to be just as they are for now, in this moment, moment by moment and breath by breath.

The End (for now)

Alright friends, that was it from me, for now. I hope that you have the best 2017 possible. I hope especially that your kindness and that of those around you flows deeply and freely.

As a parting gift, here is the high-resolution panoroma I made from the top of Table Mountain, after hiking up Platteklip Gorge with friends:

The view from the top of Table Mountain, photo by cpbotha.net. Click for high-res.

Weekly Head Voices #81: Middle-aged zen.

(Warning: This post has an extremely high backyard philosophy content. Will probably greatly offend any real philosophers, and a bunch of other people I probably have not even thought about.)

I recently became middle-aged. As part of the thank you I wrote for the many kind words people posted to my facebook wall, I made a short summary of the things I had learned over the past N years. I hope you don’t mind that I post them here as well:

… here’s what I’ve picked up over the past decades (only two things, I’m a slow learner):

  1. Relationships – the most important thing (and maybe even the only thing) in the world.
  2. Kindness – it really looks like we have unlimited quantities of this to give, but somehow there’s not as much of it going around as there could be. Let’s fix this!

Since that note (I’ve skipped a number of weekly posts here as you might have noticed; really really busy) I have also been thinking about the relationship between one’s happiness, one’s circumstances, and the plasticity of one’s self.

I’ll start this little story with me during a coffee-induced zen moment:

Zen is a real thing that you can read about on wikipedia, in a billion blogs and also in BookBooks. I don’t think that I’m deviating too far from the real deal when I use zen to describe any form of personal enlightenment, or that elevated state of self I should be striving for every moment of every day, but mostly forget to do because I get caught up in life as, ironically, I am not yet zen enough.

Sometimes, I find myself in a perfect little moment of warmth and humanity with close friends or family (and/or with a perfect coffee) and I am somehow able to observe and appreciate the moment in real-time from a spot somewhere outside of the conversation, for example while I’m walking to school with my daughter on a spring morning and realise that life in these simple moments is even greater than I thought. Sometimes I am briefly able to distance myself from some perceived life complexity, a distance from which everything actually looks pretty fine and then turns out to be exactly that. Was it that way to start with, did it change, or did I change?

I think being able to take a few (or a thousand) steps back in order to better see yourself and your situation is related to one of the few fundamental zen principles: Enlightenment through growing self-knowledge. I also somehow had in my mind that there was some connection between zen and the principle of mind like water, or mizo no kokoro if you prefer its prettier ring. In searching for this link, I stumbled onto this Bruce Lee quote:

You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.

During those occasional and coincidental flashes of increased perception I mentioned above the quote, when I was both in the experience and outside, at a good distance, I was able to look inwards and see how I could best change me to suit the situation better. The better I suit the situation, the more it agrees with me. Harmony.

Let me restate that: Most often I am not able to change my environment. However, I am apparently able to train my ability to change me, which in many cases can lead to the same desired harmonious outcome.

So, sort of in addition to the things I’ve learned over the past years, here are the things I strive to have cultivated when I grow up:

  • Mindfulness, of me, the human beings I am fortunate to be surrounded with and all of the interactions between us. This includes the ability to take a thousand steps back, and to see clearly.
  • A mind like water, not to do kung fu fighting, but to be able to change and flow continuously to contribute more to harmony and happiness.

Because I’m not sure how else to do this, I’m ending this story with a photo of a beer that I took during a really sunny zen moment:

Have a beautiful and harmonious week fellow humans!