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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Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Salute the life you didn't choose with help from Cheryl Strayed

One of the biggest changes of my last five years came during EMDR therapy, when my therapist asked me to imagine my ten-year-old self. He then asked me to tell her she was safe and had a good life ahead of her.

This all sounds like generic therapy stuff, but I think it really was a turning point. I had been stuck in the past, holding onto my old ideas of who I was and wasn't. It was then that I finally understood it was possible to break away and start afresh.

Every younger me seems like a different person now. Like a room of unfamiliar faces who occasionally stop by.

I don't want to say goodbye to them, I just want to look back fondly and pass on regards. To know how far I've come and how much was inside them all along. I'm proud of each younger me, but I know they are behind me for happy reasons. So if they show up, I can give a friendly wave and moment of acknowledgement. But then keep moving forward on my way.

This journey has been made all the better with some help from Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who's Been There. Here are the pieces of wisdom I wanted to share with you.



1. Salute the life you didn't choose from the shore

“I'll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don't choose. We'll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn't carry us. There's nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”


2. Continue to be bold and courageous

"This is who I am even if you’ll crucify me for it".


3. Do everything you can to avoid regret

"Do not reach the era of child-rearing and real jobs with a guitar case full of crushing regret for all the things you wished you’d done in your youth. I know too many people who didn’t do those things. They all end up mingy, addled, shrink-wrapped versions of the people they intended to be".


4. Read in your twenties... and keep reading

"go to a bookstore and buy ten books of poetry and read them each five times. Why? Because the truth is inside."


5. Sometimes, your choice is to build something better or let go

"Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go."


6. Think about the future you

"I make lists. I attempt to analyze the situation from the perspective of my “best self”—the one that’s generous, reasonable, forgiving, loving, big hearted, and grateful."

"I think really hard about what I’ll wish I did a year from now. I map out the consequences of the various actions I could take. I ask what my motivations are, what my desires are, what my fears are, what I have to lose, and what I have to gain. I move toward the light, even if it’s a hard direction in which to move. I trust myself. I keep the faith. I mess up sometimes."


7. Make life lists

"Write down everything you don’t know about your future life—which is everything, of course—but use your imagination. What are the thoughts and images that come to mind when you picture yourself at twice the age you are now?"

"What is a good life? Write “good life” and list everything that you associate with a good life, then rank that list in order of importance. Have the most meaningful things in your life come to you as a result of ease or struggle? What scares you about sacrifice? What scares you about not sacrificing?"

"The sketches of your real life and your sister life are right there before you and you get to decide what to do. One is the life you’ll have; the other is the one you won’t. Switch them around in your head and see how it feels."


8. P.S. Your English degree isn't pointless

"I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative writing degree you’ll say: Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire; or maybe just: Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters. And then smile very serenely until they say, Oh."

And finally, "know that all those stories, poems, plays, and novels are a part of you now and that they are bigger than you and they will always be".


You can get more sage snippets in Cheryl Strayed's great selection of quotes and wisdom, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who's Been There. After reading her bestselling Wild,  I went down a Cheryl Strayed rabbit hole with Tiny Beautiful Things and then Brave Enough: A Mini Instruction Manual for the Soul. I read the latter from a Copenhagen coffee shop, on my way back home after wandering around Greenland. It was a perfect choice.


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Monday, 28 November 2016

How to make your head the best possible place to spend time in (featuring Stoicism, Sherlock, and mindfulness)


Do you ever get told to get out your own head? To stop thinking? Yeah. It's a real challenge to stop overthinking on command. But I think we can reframe the solution. Instead of trying to stop thinking, we could focus on making our minds the best possible place to spend time in.

It all goes back over 1800 years ago to the Stoics, when Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor.

This is the man who wrote in his Meditations:

"Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul."



It is from Marcus Aurelius that I – and so many others – have learned how to adjust the mind's base state and maintain a deeper sense of tranquillity. With some conscious upkeep, this can provide both a retreat to seek out when we need it most and a more mindful way of approaching life's trials.

Here's what I've learned from Marcus Aurelius on making our mind a more rejuvenating place to be. The soul becomes "dyed with the colour of its thoughts”, after all.

Furnish your mind how you want it

In A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the first Sherlock Holmes story, Holmes says to Watson: "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose".

This is a great description of the Holmesian mind palace, but I think it can also apply more broadly to the housekeeping we do in our minds.



I think of it this way. Your mind is the room you spend most time in. And the only interior designer or housekeeper it will ever have is you.

Stimulus goes in and it's up to you what you make of it. You decide if an external event is going to leave you calm and collected, propel you towards anxiety, or make you want to retreat into bed for the rest of the day.

Sometimes we make the right decisions. But often we jump to conclusions and get thrown in different directions by situations outside of our control. We lose control of the traffic and it soon becomes gridlock in there.

Redirecting incoming traffic and having quiet, sunny roads to drive down is a choice we can make at any time. It's about getting our authority back and deciding what's allowed in. Once we've done this once, we can do it again. And again. Until it becomes a habit and our go-to way of being.

"You have power over your mind - not outside events", wrote Marcus Aurelius, "realize this, and you will find strength”.

Our aim isn't to become Marcus Aurelius in sixty-six days, it's to exert just enough willpower to stop and briefly ponder whether something is in or out of our control.

Do this once, then once more, and keep going until it becomes a part of our mental furniture.

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. You decide what goes in.

Have time to enjoy the room

Once you have a lovely new room in your house, you sit and enjoy it. Pour a cup of tea and admire the beautifully decorated walls, the framed pictures, the furniture. You enjoy how comfortable and warm it is sitting there.

Pretty quickly though, it loses its appeal as something new and exciting. But if you keep it well-kept and clean, perhaps with a renovation or small change every so often, it remains a relaxing place to sit down and chill.

Why don't we do the same with our minds?

Take some time to look inwards. This might just be a few minutes of sitting quietly and focusing on the breath. I try and do this a few times a day, just to check in and see how my body is feeling.

I also sometimes like to bring up fond memories, beautiful mountain top views I've seen around the world, and thoughts of favourite places. This has a good way of filling me with happy and calm sensations.

You could also have some guided meditation or mindfulness, perhaps with the help of Headspace, Buddhify, or the Calm app. I find the Calm "body scan" exercise to be really useful – you can choose how long you want it to last so it best fits with your day. Although the idea of meditation is to be both relaxed and awake, I'm guilty of breaking the rules (guidelines?) and do it before falling asleep. I do try and check in when I'm feeling fresher as well, though.

Check in and make repairs

I really gained a lot from reading Search Inside Yourself: Increase Productivity, Creativity and Happiness by Chade Meng Tan. It's full of mindfulness and meditation exercises and handy tips to keep in mind as you become more present.

One idea I like: when meditating and unsure of your posture, try sitting like a majestic mountain. The idea is to think of your favorite mountain, say Mount Fuji or Mount Kilimanjaro, and then pretend to be that mountain when you sit. Also, don't raise the bar too high for your meditation practice: "I may be the laziest mindfulness instructor in the world because I tell my students all they need to commit to is one mindful breath a day. Just one. Breathe in and breathe out mindfully, and your commitment for the day is fulfilled; everything else is a bonus".

We can also help ourselves out by getting rid of the clutter. It's way too easy for us to use our minds as a sort of filing cabinet, holding everything we might possibly need to remember. Even if we do an exceptional job at this, it's tiring. It depletes our willpower and mental energy that could be spent on creative tasks or problem-solving.

To tidy up our mental clutter, David Allen advises in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity and in his GTD system that we need to get things out of our mind. Anything that works for you goes – it could be on paper or in an app, it just needs to be externalised. Once you have it written down (and even better if it goes into a system with deadlines and priorities, so you know it'll be taken care of), you can commit your mind to more important things.

Use your mind as your best tool for a happy life

Where the head goes, the body follows. How we anticipate and interpret events dictates how our body will prepare or react. We need the right perspective to ensure the right actions.

One final bit of wisdom from Marcus Aurelius: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”


Recommended books:

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Search Inside Yourself: Increase Productivity, Creativity and Happiness by Chade Meng Tan

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday

The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage by Ryan Holiday


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Sunday, 27 November 2016

On living like Thoreau (or creating your modern version of Walden)


Since I first read Walden, Henry David Thoreau's account of his decision to live deliberately, I've dreamt a little of staging my own retreat into the woods. Like many an introverted, nature-loving bookworm has, I'm sure.

More than once I've googled modern-day walden to see what comes up (not too much, it seems, although "The Terror and Tedium of Living Like Thoreau" is worth a read). So, after Google disappointed slightly, I decided to put my brain to use.

What does my own modern-day Walden look like? Am I already living it? Are there any small choices I can make to bring it closer?

During my pondering, it quickly became clear that a lot of my choices in the last few years have brought me closer to my personal Walden. I had already incorporated my favourite parts of the book into my life.

I wonder, how might my life today be different if I had read different books? How has the life I've created today been inspired by those I have read? Or have they just helped me to define what I should prioritise? Whatever the reason, I'm glad of it.

Here's an exploration of my personal Walden and the building blocks of choices and priorities that it consists of.




- - - - -

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. – Walden


1. Being in nature

Friluftsliv is a Norwegian word that often makes its way onto those beautiful words that can't be translated lists. It means, or so I'm told, living in tune with nature.

I don't quite live in the woods, and I think that would probably be one step too far, but I do live in a very small Swiss town with plenty of trees around. And lots of hiking routes (albeit ones I should make more consistent use of). Being able to look outside and see the colours of the season change, snow gather on the mountains, and cow bells jingle nearby is a real pleasure.

I want to read more books about people who escape from the hustle and bustle to actually live in the woods – successfully. Alexander Armstrong in his autobiographical Land of the Midnight Sun: My Arctic Adventures describes his brief stay with one couple doing the whole works (building the cabin, hunting for food, making jam) in Canada, but I haven't come across many similar stories in non-fiction.

We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. ― Walden




2. Having everything I need

I arrived in Switzerland in August 2015 with my everyday backpack and a hand luggage suitcase. I'm trying to keep my belongings to a minimum, but mostly to keep clutter out. It's easier said than done, but I like everything I own to have some sort of meaning to me.

When I head out on an adventure, be it to the mountains or to the Arctic Circle, it's usually just the same bag on my back. It's funny how the same things tend to suffice for a day or so or two weeks.

All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be. – Walden

3. Keeping a small library

Rather surprisingly, this is where my own modern Walden falls slightly short. I hardly have any real books here with me in Switzerland – I usually read them on my Kindle instead.

No matter how much I love proper books, I don't want to end up with hundreds of books over here: it's just too heavy and not at all portable. Maybe Thoreau would agree with me on this. But I would like to bring some of my real favourite books over here. I do miss those.

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. ― Walden

Books I have here in Switzerland:

Penguin Little Black Classics –

Others on my kitchen bookshelf –




4. Oh, peace and quiet

Complete silence is something I long for during my day at work. My office is open plan, packed with people, and full of noise and distractions. Coming home, the only noise I hear is what I create. That and a few cowbells and occasional alphorn practice somewhere in the town.

It's blissful. And it means that when I sit down to write in the mornings and some evenings, there are hardly any distractions to deal with. Any barrier I come up against is usually in my head. And there's a good cup of coffee to help with that.

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. ― Walden

5. Being able to sit back and look at the sky

I love how my windows show such a wide expanse of sky. It's beautiful to watch how it changes across a day, a month, and a season.

"People who are exposed to natural scenes aren't just happier or more comfortable; the very building blocks of their physiological well-being also respond positively." – Adam Alter, The Atlantic: "How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies"



6. And a healthy dose of the sublime

It's not just the sky that I find myself monitoring day by day, it's the mountains too. I look at them first thing in the morning and see what the visibility is like, what colour the sky is around them, what clouds are surrounding them. How much snow is there? How bright is the light shining on them?

I wonder if living in a mountain town might guarantee a slowly developing friendship with the local mountains; one with constant check-ins and curious and kind looks out of the window.

The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. – Walden

What's your Walden?





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