Sunday, 1 January 2017

Stargazing as therapy: reminders to look up at the night sky from Tim Ferriss, BJ Miller, Ed Cooke

One of my favourite books of 2016 was Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss. It was also one of the longest I read last year, at 704 pages for the hardcover. 

The title of the book is intriguing, and it delivers too. The content is heavily based on the Tim Ferriss Podcast – which includes interviews with some of the most interesting and accomplished people out there – but it also dives deeper into the tactics, routines, and habits that have brought them such brilliant results.

As expected, some things come up again and again. Meditation, morning rituals and setting aside time for pondering were oft-cited as secrets of success, but it was something lesser-mentioned that intrigued me most: stargazing as therapy.


Yes, we've all looked up at the stars before. And calling it therapy could seem silly. But it's something that I appreciated being reminded of. It's so easy to forget about the stars.

I feel very lucky to have my walk home from work. When it gets dark early in winter, I have the privilege of an unspoilt nighttime panorama with Orion above me.

After reading Tools of Titans, I now pay a bit more attention. I try to sit out on my balcony at night more often, or just look out the window after turning the lights off. I sit, admire, and ponder. It's my nightly free therapy session. Sometimes I need a reminder to do it and pay proper attention, but when I do, it's absolutely worth it.

As BJ Miller says in Tools of Titans:

When you are struggling with just about anything, look up. Just ponder the night sky for a minute and realize that we’re all on the same planet at the same time. As far as we can tell, we're the only planet with life like ours on it anywhere nearby. Then you start looking at the stars, and you realize that the light hitting your eye is ancient, [some of the] stars that you’re seeing, they no longer exist by the time that the light gets to you.

He adds,


"Just mulling the bare-naked facts of the cosmos is enough to thrill me, awe me, freak me out, and kind of put all my neurotic anxieties in their proper place. A lot of people—when you’re standing at the edge of your horizon, at death’s door, you can be much more in tune with the cosmos."


Ed Cooke, the Memory Champion and Co-founder of Memrise (who I've been so impressed by for years), shares something similar in Tools of Titans:


I'd just think, ‘Oh, everything feels terrible and awful. It’s all gone to shit.’ Then I’d [consider], ‘But if you think about it, the stars are really far away,’ then you try to imagine the world from the stars. Then you sort of zoom in and you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s this tiny little character there for a fragment of time worrying about X.’ 

Looking up at the stars and thinking about our place in the cosmos doesn't come with a price tag. If you can see the sky it's accessible, and you don't need to do anything to turn the stars on. You don't even need to travel. All you need is a clear enough day and the motivation to go or look outside.

Like Tim Ferriss says, "The effects are disproportionate to the effort". The stars are one of nature's finest beauties and they're just out there waiting for us to admire them.


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Sunday, 18 December 2016

Living and hiking the literary heritage of Tolkien in the Swiss Alps


Looking out of my window at the Reichenbach Falls and the mountains above it comes with a small sense of triumph. I have hiked over them to reach Grindelwald on one hike and more recently Chaltenbrunnen, the reddish Hochmoor (or upland moor) at 1875m. The landscape is awe-inspiring here and, of course, more so as you venture up.

The literary heritage that the Swiss Alps have acquired is not really a surprise – beautiful landscapes produce beautiful art. And being such a bookish person, it's probably also expected that as I learn more about the echoes of my surroundings in literature, I love the mountains here that little bit more.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set "The Final Problem" here in Meiringen, home of the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland. Tolstoy recorded in his diary his impressions of a walk from Montreux on the Lake Geneva shore to Meiringen in the spring of 1857 (more on that another day). And in 1911, J. R. R. Tolkien came to Switzerland, aged nineteen and about to start his first term at Oxford. 

The Wellhorn, Wetterhorn and, hidden away, the Reichenbach falls of Sherlock Holmes fame.

"On foot with a heavy pack", Tolkien set off with a group about the same size as that in The Hobbit and, in the Alpine heart of Switzerland, walked from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen and Mürren.

The group then went northeast to Grindelwald and Meiringen, south east through the Grimsel Pass, and then south west by the Aletsch glacier in the direction of the Matterhorn, arriving finally at Sion in the Valais canton.

I took the opposite direction of Tolkien for only a portion of the way – from Meiringen to Grindelwald, then Grindelwald to Lauterbrunnen and Mürren - but still savoured the overlaps with Tolkien's own adventure.


Following Tolkien's hiking path through the Swiss Alps. This point is close to the Kleine Scheidegg train station.


The Aareschluct in Meiringen, one of the towns that Tolkien passed through in 1911. 


Switzerland's Misty Mountains: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

Like so many other travellers, Tolkien and I have both admired the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Tolkien went on to use these mountains as inspiration for The Misty Mountains in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings among other components of his legendarium.

Only once before have I seen them from afar in waking life, but I know them and their names, for under them lies Khazad-dûm, the Dwarrowdelf, that is now called the Black Pit, Moria in the Elvish tongue. Yonder stands Barazinbar, the Redhorn, cruel Caradhras; and beyond him are Silvertine and Cloudyhead: Celebdil the White, and Fanuidhol the Grey, that we call Zirak-zigil and Bundushathûr.

- Spoken by Gimli in The Fellowship of the Ring


Tolkien is also thought to have based Rivendell on the Lauterbrunnen valley. It makes sense: the landscape here is utterly sublime. Even the name, 'Lauter Brunnen', meaning 'many fountains' in German, is magnificent.

Tolkien's original illustration of Rivendell, 1937 (public domain).

Walking down into the Lauterbrunnen valley from Grindelwald

"Evil things do not come into this valley... We are sitting in a fortress. Outside it is getting dark."

- Spoken by Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring

- - - - -

Being here in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland is in itself rejuvenating. I love the peace, the mountains, and the life I've cultivated for this stage of my early twenties. But thinking about the inspiration that Tolkien found here in the Alps also reminds me to set aside time for writing. 

Of course, it's not that I want to follow in Tolkien's literary footsteps. It's rather so I can document my experiences and create something out of them. It doesn't have to change the world, it just needs to be written.

Memories are wonderful furniture for a mind, but they don't leave a physical mark. Even if your audience isn't much to speak of, there's still much to be said for journaling, documenting, writing, and creating. I think that one of the obligations of having beautiful memories is to share them with others, or at least to put them out there so they have a chance of discovery. I hope you can find the time to do that too. It would surely be a worthy goal to have for the year ahead.


A version of this article was originally published here.


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Saturday, 17 December 2016

The 28 books that stopped my worrying, sent me travelling, and shaped who I am today


It's a long, long journey out of the trap of anxiety and not believing in yourself. When you're used to hiding away, making yourself smaller, and never speaking up, a bold change is needed for things to be different.

When I was living at home, I didn't have the motivation nor the opportunities to leap out of my comfort zone and I feared what people might say if I were suddenly not shy. I had to go travelling to test drive a more confident version of myself. And when I had experienced what it felt like to not hide in the corner, I decided to move abroad and keep challenging myself.

Even when you have shed the most unwelcome and crippling parts of anxiety, the kind that stops you from going out and experiencing the world like everyone else, sometimes it can still suck. A niggling feeling threatens to take you back to where you were before. The world can feel too much and you just want to get back into bed. At those times, it can feel as if you haven't progressed at all. 

While this doesn't happen to me so much these days, it's more likely when I visit home and I'm surrounded by the people who knew what I was like growing up. Then I can revert back to my young-and-painfully-shy setting and my achievements in work and life seem utterly implausible to everyone in the room.

But I've grown so much and I know that these are momentary blips. My confidence bounces back. I go back to my job and jump into my habitual I'm confident and got my shit together persona. I remember that I don't have to be shy and nervous and that it's much easier and less stressful if I'm not.

I wasn't sure I'd get here, but it happened – with the help of a whole lot of brilliant books, a few people who really left a mark on my life, and a bit of professional intervention. Of those things, there are some I can't share with you, but I can definitely share books. Here are those that come to mind first.


Livraria Lello Porto, Portugal – an influence for Harry Potter and probably the most beautiful (and busiest) bookshop I've been to. Image from Local Porto.

Non-fiction


1. Meditations - Marcus Aurelius

This is the book I reread to...  Learn by heart how to approach life with more resilience than I thought possible.




2. The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe

To make sure I keep reading and talking about books.




3. Gratitude - Oliver Sacks

To remember life is "an enormous privilege and adventure".



4. Walden - Henry David Thoreau

To spend more time in nature and living simply.




5. Deep Work - Cal Newport

To learn how to really focus.



6. Man’s Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl


To think about the true value of a sunset.



7. When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi

To decide how I want to be spending the time I have.



8. The Creative Habit - Twyla Tharp

To fiercely defend my creative time at the crack of dawn.



9. The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank

To never forget how lucky I am.



10. Philosophy for Life: And Other Dangerous Situations - Jules Evans

The first book I ever wrote about on Tolstoy Therapy.




- - - - -


Fiction and verse


11. Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami

To offer dreams of coffee, whisky, mountains and libraries.



12. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

To imagine life and love, war and peace.




13. "Ulysses" (poem) - Alfred Lord Tennyson

To be strong when I think of the past.




14. The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim

To imagine escaping abroad.




15. The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

To think about what’s enough.



16. King Lear - William Shakespeare

To contemplate how small a place we occupy in the world.



17. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis de Bernières

To love.



18. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J. K. Rowling

To think back to my first role model in fiction.



19. The Odyssey - Homer

To learn how humans have kept going since the beginning.



20. The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

To persevere.



21. The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende

To realise that quiet can mean power.




22. The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng

To create a garden in my mind.




23. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

To remember that spring is the best season "for plans and proposals".




24. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

To never forget my family and where I came from.



25. The Hobbit - J. R. R. Tolkien

To just set off.



26. Brooklyn - Colm Tóibín

To be conscious of the repercussions of changing myself.




27. The Secret History - Donna Tartt

To marvel at a mind filled with poetry, language, and facts.



28. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

To seek refuge in bookshops.






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Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Making your life an epic adventure with The Gutsy Girl by Caroline Paul


I read The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure by Caroline Paul when I was travelling in Greenland in June 2016. I had first heard about Caroline Paul a few months before, in her Tim Ferriss podcast, and fell in love with her incredible bio (including credentials such as lunger, firefighter, paraglider, author, and pilot). For a book about being a gutsy girl, there couldn't be a better author.

Yes, the book is aimed at younger girls, but that shouldn't stop you from reading it. There was so much in the book that I would've loved to hear when I was that "shy and fearful kid", but it's just as welcome now in my twenties. And I think it would be for my forties, fifties, and onwards.

From The Gutsy Girl. Image: Wendy MacNaughton.

I don't know about you, but I know my life is simply better when I can sea kayak, climb trees, and enjoy a sandwich on a mountaintop. Adventure balances out my occasional seriousness and inability to understand jokes. I'm no Bear Grylls, but I give myself permission to call myself an adventurer. It's a title that you give yourself before others do. And when that's how you define yourself, it's pretty hard to live a boring life.

It's so easy to hang on to our fears when all we need is a gentle nudge to remind us that our life should be a grand adventure. That's just one reason to have books like The Gutsy Girl around us. Another reason? The beautiful illustrations.

Here's an excellent summary of the book from Caroline's website:

It's Lean In for middle grade girls, set not in the workplace but on bicycles, tree branches, sea kayaks, and cliff edges." If you’re a female adventurer on any level, you should read it. And buy it for all the young gutsy girls you know.


Notes and takeaways from the book


"I had been a shy and fearful kid. Many things had scared me. Bigger kids. Second grade. The elderly woman across the street. Being called on in class. The book Where the Wild Things Are.”

“What had happened to the shy and fearful kid? She was still there. But somewhere along the way I had decided that she wasn’t having a lot of fun. I wanted a life of Grand Adventure, the kind I had read about in books. So I started to kindly tell the shy and fearful girl to step back, and make way for the adventurous girl that was also there. The girl who really wanted to captain a milk carton pirate ship.”

“Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” —Amelia Earhart, pilot

Never be limited by other people’s imaginations.” —Mae Jemison, astronaut

'You’re there, but I’m not concentrating on you!' I told Fear".

“What’s wrong with this picture?” —Barbara Hillary, seventy-five-year-old retired nurse, upon hearing that no African American woman had been to the North Pole. She hired a personal trainer to get in shape, learned to ski, and went.”

Daring makes a difference.” —Mae Jemison, astronaut

“Never give up, because that is just the place and time that the tide will change.” —Harriet Beecher Stowe, author, human rights activist

Image: Wendy MacNaughton.


“ In 1895, Fanny Workman biked 2,800 miles with her husband across Spain—in a skirt. She also biked across North Africa and through India. But in 1898 she fell in love with mountaineering. Still wearing skirts and fashionable hats, she climbed peaks all around the Himalayas.”

“If you’re never scared, or embarrassed, or hurt, it means you aren’t taking any chances.” —Julia Sorel, artist

“Rita Pierson is an educator who tells students who want more confidence to say to themselves, “I am Some-body . . . I am powerful and I am strong . . . I have things to do and people to impress and places to go!” She says of this mantra, ‘If you say it long enough, it starts to be part of you.’”

What’s the sentence you’re going to tell yourself day in and day out?

Image: Wendy MacNaughton.


“There’s a difference between being careful and living in fear. The former will keep you alive, the latter will make you a bystander in people’s lives.” —Anna Fitzpatrick, writer

“One day Roz Savage wrote herself two obituaries: the first for the person she actually was and the second for the person she wanted to be. Realizing the two obituaries differed mightily, she gave up her job as a management consultant, sold her house, and embarked on a life of adventure. She is best known for being the first woman to row alone across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.”

"Get out a globe. Find Croatia. See where it is in relation to the rest of the world. Spin the globe a few times, and find another country you’re curious about. Look up its history. Look up its sights. Now write down your ideal adventure itinerary! What town/mountain/river would you first visit, and what would you do there? Where would you go next?"

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” —First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt


Action points


  • Write your two obituaries, just like Roz Savage did. One for the person you are now and a second for the person you want to be.
  • If you haven’t built anything lately, write down what you want to build, and why.
  • Keep an adventure journal (remember, an adventure doesn't have to be scaling a high mountain). Write down how it makes you feel, be it confident, nervous, or proud.
  • List four people who you admire, then write down the qualities in them that are so inspiring. Think about how you can incorporate those qualities into your own life. Look at the list when you need guidance, want inspiration, or just for fun.
  • What adventures and goals do you have for the future? Write a Life List. Don’t worry if they seem impossible, just write them down.
  • Learn to ask for what you want. Write down four things you want that a person can grant if asked
  • Now write down the name of the person you would have to ask and the sentence you need to say in order to obtain it.
  • Write “I want to gain confidence in . . .” and fill in the blank.

Now, go off and embark on your "grand journey of leadership, bravery, humor, intermittent failures, repeated successes, serial resilience, sporadic embarrassments, exhilaration, connection, and utmost joy..."


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Sunday, 4 December 2016

Escaping hectic city life for Burma with Jan-Philipp Sendker

I have a real fondness for reading about Buddhism, beautiful temples, and real and imagined retreats. I love the thought of taking off from a busy life and landing in a quiet spot in nature with plenty of time to sit and think. To look out the window. Tend to some plants and flowers. Brew coffee the long way and sip it slowly. If I can make my idea of a retreat come to life, I usually do. If not, I'm satisfied with imagining it.

As a teenager, I’d imagine the worlds of Haruki Murakami and Tan Twan Eng while greedily wishing they wrote more. Now, a few years later, there are a few aspects of my favourite fictional worlds consciously woven into my life. I live by the mountains, nurture my love for good coffee, and try to keep the yellow chrysanthemums on the side of my house in flower.

But I still read these books, continue dreaming, and remain on lookout for similar novels to lose myself in. One such find was A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker, the sequel to The Art of Hearing Heartbeats.





I read this while travelling around Portugal this November, starting in Lisbon and heading north up to Coimbra and Porto. I bought the book fairly unenthusiastically, expecting it to be just an acceptable piece of holiday reading, but soon fell into the story's unravelling.

A Well-Tempered Heart continues ten years after The Art of Hearing Heartbeats left off, when Julia Win returned from visiting Burma (or Myanmar), her father's native country, to her life as a successful Manhattan lawyer. 

Back in America, Julia is lost, exhausted, and faced with a relationship that's just ended and an unsatisfying job. When she hears a female stranger's voice in her head during a business meeting, Julia knows she has to do something about it. The voice asks questions that Julia has been trying to avoid: Why do you live alone? To whom do you feel close? What do you want in life?

Julia returns to Burma, reunites with her brother after a ten-year absence, and finds her story interwoven with a Burmese woman named Nu Nu who had also found her life turned upside down. It's a story about the human heart and love in its many manifestations: for others, for the world, for life, and for ourselves.

- - - - -


After a fairly unremarkable first chapter or so, I turned the pages faster as I delved into questions of a life well-lived (“What is important to you?”) and cheered on the big-city-lawyer-turned-soul-searcher as she pondered life and love in Burma. And like her, I soon fell in love with the country's stories, its human connectedness and perhaps above all, the scents, colours, and flowers:

"The morning sun beamed through the bushes. The leaves of the banana plants seemed greener, their fruit larger and yellower. The hibiscus and the bougainvillea had never looked so beautiful. A warm breeze caressed her skin..."

Despite all the of hardship and echoes of hard times, there's red hibiscus and wreaths of fresh jasmine, and as Julia is "filled with a lightness that I had not felt in years", we too feel replenished and mindful of how our body is feeling:

"I felt better in the monastery than I had for a long time, in spite of the physical strain, in spite of having a wooden crate for a toilet, in spite of the absence of a shower. I slept well. Had neither backaches nor headaches. At times I was filled with a lightness that I had not felt in years. Amy would probably have described me as “deeply relaxed.” Moe Moe brought hot tea and a fresh hibiscus blossom to my bedstead every morning. Later she would tuck the blossom into my hair."

If we’re not at this very moment in a monastery or a paradise of flowers, birds and loved ones, reading books like A Well-Tempered Heart shows we can still forage through the private garden of our imagination. With the winter months upon us, this is just what I was looking for.





"The courtyard was teeming with flowerbeds and hedges blooming in stunningly beautiful colors. I saw rosebushes, yellow and red hibiscus, oleander, violet bougainvillea, gladiolus, and amaryllis..."


A possible companion book: Search Inside Yourself by Chade Meng Tan

I read A Well-Tempered Heart at the same time as Search Inside Yourself: Increase Productivity, Creativity and Happiness by Chade Meng Tan, which turned out to be a beautiful idea. Chade Meng Tan provides dozens practical lessons and exercises in mindfulness and looking inside ourselves, while Jan-Philipp Sendker illustrates characters that have strengthened their minds to an incredible degree. If you enjoy reading fiction and non-fiction in parallel, I'd keenly recommend these two as a pair.



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Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Does bibliotherapy actually work? (My two-years-on take)

When I started Tolstoy Therapy in 2012, I hadn’t yet heard of bibliotherapy. I launched the website to share my own brand of using books to feel better, and while I shared these ideas publicly, they were mostly for my own benefit. I never really thought about writing for others or having an audience.

When I did find out about bibliotherapy, it made complete sense to me. Yet putting a name to it doesn't really change much. So many of us use books as a therapeutic tool without needing to put a name to it. It’s simply one of many benefits of spending time in a good book.



If we look at some of the research, there are dozens of benefits claimed to be associated with bibliotherapy. Experts suggest that reading reduces stress levels by 67%, which most of us readers would probably agree with – it's one of our favourite ways to unwind for a reason. There are also studies suggesting we mimic the behaviour of our favourite characters, which is probably the area of research that's of most interest to me.

In my own informal, very unscientific and unqualified experience, bibliotherapy has been a great success. The books I've read have contributed so much to the huge personal changes I've undergone in the last few years, especially after I started making a more conscious effort to choose the right book for the right time.


I used books to…



As with many approaches to wellbeing, bibliotherapy needs to be accompanied by others too. In my case, these were EMDR therapy, building my confidence by travelling alonemoving away from my home village, and accepting that I was never going to be like most people. 

The latter made life a lot easier, especially in terms of overcoming my last major echoes of social anxiety. But, like many truths, it’s usually not enough just to hear them once – whether from yourself or others – and feel immediately better. You need to truly believe it. And follow a path to the point of understanding in your head. That tends to take some time. But you get there, especially when stars suddenly align and you find your courage. 

Here are some of my favourite articles I've published on bibliotherapy:


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