Photosynthesis: Connections to Life, Growth and Perspective

“I want my words to illuminate like the sun, as I give my daily lecture on photosynthesis to my houseplants.” ~ Jarod Kintz

In my daily watering of the fresh basil, parsley and coriander plants that sit on my kitchen window sill, I began to notice that over a period of a few days their slender stalks and rounded, green leaves lean markedly towards the window and the light streaming in. So much so, that if I don’t turn them they get tangled up with one another and almost start to climb the pane.

I move the herbs every few days to keep them balanced and limit any lopsided growth. Sure enough, each time they start to lean again, reaching for their source of energy and life.

It’s a complex, natural process – science calls it photosynthesis. Plants, flowers and nature as a whole never stray or deviate from what benefits them the most; they instinctively know that air, light and water enables and promotes life.

As I was tending to my sweet, fragrant herbs this observation sparked a thought, and here I am, duly expounding my extemporaneous insights!

Humans on the other hand, have a tendency to lean towards the shadows: thoughts and actions that don’t serve us. That is the divine burden, blessing and responsibility of conscious thought, infinite choices, free-will and intelligence.

Perception and perspective…

It’s easy to reach for the light when things are going well.  We are bursting with energy, and more likely to be happy and positive.

It’s when we are beset by problems, dealing with trauma, challenges and difficult situations that we can become caught in the shadows. We’ve all experienced times in our life when it felt like we were an unfortunate character trapped in a dystopian novel – enveloped in a story so unpleasant that even Charles Dickens couldn’t imagine or describe it!

“Please sir, I want some more” ~ Oliver Twist

We can become entrenched in our views that God and the universe have it in for us, and nothing will ever be good again. There was once a time when I was at rock bottom that I believed the implacable march of fate was against me. But perception and perspective is everything…

“Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, then it isn’t one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it. And to me, Denmark is a prison.” ~ William Shakespeare (Hamlet – Act 2, Scene 2)

How do we interpret such events and times? That’s the hard part. We can get down on ourselves, others, or our lot in life, or we can put it down to experience and try and glean something positive from such moments and move forwards. I’ve often exacerbated a tricky situation by self-sabotaging myself.

However, my greatest spiritual learning, growth and development has always arisen from my deepest and most intense suffering. Not that I relish suffering, none of us do, but part of life is embracing both the ups and the downs, the duality of existence.

I find it helpful to accept everything that constitutes my life experience, that way I recover quicker and put more energy into solving and improving things instead of grumbling and having a pity party. It doesn’t always happen straight away though!!

Rudyard Kipling had it right in his poem If, when he advised us to meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.

I have to constantly remind myself to practice gratitude. I like to think of 3 things: something/someone or a happening from my past, present and future. The last one takes a creative licence and leap of faith that things will be better. Afterwards I always feel happier. The problems are still there, but the difference is I’m better equipped to handle my life when I’m in a higher vibration and reaching for the light.

I’m quicker to notice when I start moaning and gently forgive myself for holding myself back. That has taken years to master. Other strategies are to do more of the things that bring me happiness and fulfillment, look to where and when I’m in flow and unencumbered by the cares of the world.

So when we get pulled off course and away from the light; whether it be a short deviation or a lengthy detour,  it requires being aware and taking steps to alter direction, just like a weed or flower will grow through the tiniest crack in a block of concrete; it is indefatigable in seeking the light.

It’s never fun wallowing in the shadows, and if we’re not careful it can be an addictive form of energy that our ego feeds off. Just like the leaves of the kitchen herbs lose their vibrant, green lustre and wilt if deprived of light and water, we too become spiritually, mentally and physically jaded. Being unplugged from our source is debilitating.

“Four elements, Hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, also provide an example of the astonishing togetherness of our universe. They make up the “organic” molecules that constitute living organisms on a planet, and the nuclei of these same elements interact to generate the light of its star. Then the organisms on the planet come to depend wholly on that starlight, as they must if life is to persist. So it is that all life on the Earth runs on sunlight.”  ~ George Wald (referring to photosynthesis)

Something simple like deep abdominal breathing, going for a walk, or being in nature can give an instant lift and help us through the moment.

Just as the leaves of plants will turn brown, crinkle and die if left untended, so we must dig deep and look to our strengths and sources of joy to lift us out of the gloom and bloom once more. Love is light.

Plants have no choice but to grow and nourish themselves. It is an automatic chemical reaction when carbon dioxide, water and sunlight are present; life-sustaining energy will be produced. Energy that not only benefits the plant, but also humanity, for the oxygen we breath and the food we eat.

For all you budding scientists out there!

Soul stamina

Our collective soul stamina was sorely tested this week, with the horrific events in London, and it is right to mourn and fully support those affected. Wisdom urges that we do not wallow in victim hood but tackle such evil at its root cause – the twisted, de-humanising and hate preaching ideology of extremists. Weak minded individuals who use religion as an excuse to vent their sick sense of puritanical outrage and violent tendencies. They live in the shadows, the unconscious.

Our anger at such heinous acts can make us bitter and resentful, but this is unhelpful if we wish to create a safer, happier and more prosperous world for the human diaspora.

The British mantra of ‘keep calm and carry on’ seems very fitting right now…

The terrible news of Wednesday’s events made me feel sad and tearful, but also grateful for another day with my family. None of us knows what will happen when we step outside our front doors. The brave PC Keith Palmer could not have known that fateful day would not turn out like any other normal day at Westminster, until he made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our democracy. The stories of the other souls who died in the attack (indeed, from all terror attacks, wars and their effects), are equally heartbreaking. Grief stricken parents, children and families who will not see their loved ones return home.

Whatever we may be dealing with, there is always someone who has it worse somewhere in the world.

In fact, millions do, the global challenges are great – but we can each make a brighter future if we follow Gandhi’s advice and endeavour to BE the change we wish to see in the world.

I’ll bid you farewell with a final analogy of the herbs reaching for the light. Let’s take a leaf out of nature’s book and adopt photosynthesis for our mind, body and soul!

Oxygen is the lifeblood of our respiratory system, powering our cells and movements, the influx of fresh ideas and zest for life. If you can’t escape a polluted area, have plants around you. Chlorophyll is the green pigment in plants which when consumed, keeps our blood and organs in an alkaline state – being as huge swathes of the population live in a toxic environment.

Water is the fluidity of our mind set and attitude; it needs topping up daily, and perhaps filtering to remove any impurities, (those stagnant, self-limiting and negative thoughts), thus hydrating our motivation and belief as well as our cells.

Sunlight, converts vitamin  D3 in our bodies and can be likened to our higher Self, our soul, the source from which we manifest physicality and spiritual resilience, even transcendence. It is our guide and home, showing us the way.

All these biological elements in photosynthesis are needed for an organism to grow and thrive. Our mind, body and soul are dynamic systems, each needs the right form of energy in order to follow our dreams and live life to the full. If we can only reach up into the golden rays of consciousness, those invisible photons of the soul, even on bad days…

Shining a Spotlight on Your Awesome Character Strengths

“Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses.” ~ Marilyn Vos Savant

Apart from the curriculum subjects that children are taught in school, not enough help is given to them to find and focus on their character strengths. Those all important innate traits that they can use to their advantage in every area of their life ahead: work, relationships and hobbies/passions. As a mother this is something I feel passionately about.

My five 'core' character strengths.

My five ‘core’ character strengths.

I’m only just becoming conscious of my signature strengths at an age when possibly half my life is behind me. Still, better late than never!

We are all unique, and if you can celebrate your special gifts you will know how you can make the best of your life and contribute to those around you and the wider world.

Strength Cards - Creativity

So, just as Jesus commanded us to love thy neighbour, (and I’m not remotely putting myself in his saintly category), I would suggest that the commandment of Positive Psychology could be know thy strengths. After all, the ancient Greeks were onto something with the aphorism ‘Know Thyself’.

The difference between pleasure and gratification

I want to expand further from a previous post – Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness by exploring how being aware of our strengths and working on them can propel us forward to greater satisfaction and happiness.

Strength Cards - Spirituality

Physical and emotional pleasures are fleeting, and although enjoyable in the moment they tend to fade rapidly after the stimulus has ended.  Pleasures also lose their impact if experienced too often, as we inevitably become accustomed to them and habituation ensures that in the future we crave even bigger doses to get the same kick out of them. This is known as ‘The Hedonic Treadmill’.

I think my tendency to eat the whole bar of chocolate may be where the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ comes from!

The evanescent and ecstatic nature of the bodily and emotional pleasures is wonderful while it lasts but we can’t build a life around them.

In past times of depression I resorted to ‘retail therapy’ more than I should have, and whilst that new top looked great and gave me a momentary uplift, the negative effects on my bank balance and the prompt return of emptiness and despair left me feeling even worse in the long run.

To help us step off the treadmill it helps to separate the pleasures from the gratifications.

Ithaca by C.P. Cavafy narrated by Sean Connery sums up the pleasures:

I can appreciate the sensation of curling up on the sofa with a glass of wine, a bar of Galaxy chocolate and a  good book, or watching a romantic period drama in HD, having a massage, enjoying a tasty meal, having a relaxing soak, listening to music, wearing perfume etc.

But it’s a different, deeper kind of satisfaction I feel when I can entertain someone with my writing; or transform someone’s health with my nutraceutical business, go on a trek, dance a Zumba class, help my kids with their activities or play my violin.

Martin Seligman says of the distinction between the pleasures and gratifications:

“It is the total absorption, the suspension of consciousness, and the flow that the gratifications produce that defines liking these activities-not the presence of pleasure. Total immersion, in fact, blocks consciousness, and emotions are completely absent.

For Aristotle, distinct from the bodily pleasures, happiness (eudaimonia) is akin to grace in dancing. Grace is not an entity that accompanies the dance or that comes at the end of a dance; it is part and parcel of a dance well done. To talk about the “pleasure” of contemplation is only to say that contemplation is done for its own sake; it is not to refer to any emotion that accompanies contemplation. Eudaimonia, what I call gratification is part and parcel of right action. It cannot be derived from bodily pleasure, nor is it a state that can be chemically induced or attained by any shortcuts. It can only be had by activity consonant with noble purpose.”

Seligman’s formula for enduring happiness (not temporary bursts) is:

H = S + C + V

  • H – Happiness
  • S – Your set range (your genetic steersman & hedonic treadmill)
  • C – Circumstances of your life
  • V – Factors under your voluntary control (the most important aspect of the equation)

Strength and Virtue

quote-Marcus-Tullius-Cicero-glory-follows-virtue

A major study was undertaken by leaders in the field of Positive Psychology of a large range and number of religious and philosophic traditions to ascertain if there were any correlations and consensus of virtues between them. The results of the study were startling and illuminating. Six virtues emerged as being common to every major religion and tradition around the globe:

  • Wisdom and knowledge
  • Courage
  • Love and humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Spirituality and transcendence

The perception and interpretation of these ubiquitous virtues varied between traditions, furthermore there were virtues found unique to each tradition.

Strength Cards - Appreciation of beauty

Knowing our personal strengths is the route to attaining these universal virtues. There is more than one way to reach these states and we are unique in our thoughts and character and the way we will attain them.

“Seek virtue rather than riches. You may be sure to acquire the first; but cannot promise for the latter. No one can rob you of the first without your consent; you may be deprived of the latter a hundred ways.” ~James Burgh, The Dignity of Human Nature: Book III. Of Virtue, 1754

For example one can embody the virtue of justice by acts of good citizenship, fairness, loyalty, teamwork and humane leadership. Each of these strengths is measurable and can be developed.

Strength Cards - Vitality

Strengths are not the same as talents. Valour, kindness and integrity cannot be compared to perfect pitch, facial beauty or being able to run at lightning speed.

The important thing to note is that a strength is valued in its own right.

My good friend Anke Exner who is a coach and mentor, helped me to ascertain my five character strengths that apply to me at the moment:

  • Creativity
  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence
  • Vitality (zest, passion & energy)
  • Spirituality (sense of purpose)
  • Perspective (wisdom)

The pictures I took detail the key elements of each strength. It’s not something you should have to think about too hard, it should feel authentic to you.

Strength Cards - Wisdom

I also took the comprehensive test on the Positive Psychology website to ascertain my 24 strengths. I strongly recommend you take half an hour out of your schedule to answer the questions in the VIA Strengths Survey and afterwards you will get detailed feedback based on your answers.

As a parent you naturally wish certain strengths for your new born offspring. I want my kids to be loving, brave, creative, integrous, kind, have a love of learning and be great leaders. You just wouldn’t say, ‘I want my child to have a job in middle management!’

As Public speaker and Personal Presence coach Sylvia Baldock states in her highly useful book – From Now to Wow in 30 Days:

“One of the keys to develop your ‘Personal Presence’ is to be really clear and assured in your own natural talents and abilities, knowing exactly where you add value and what is unique and special about you.”

Flow

One of Sylvia’s tips is to spend more time in ‘Flow’.

Sylvia Baldock - Flow

The concept of flow as it’s now understood and integrated into Psychology was first discovered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who travelled from Europe to America after the Second World War to study Psychology and Carl Jung’s writings. He wanted to discover scientifically the key to human beings at their best.

He explains it beautifully in this TED talk:

When does time stop for you? When do you find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing and never wanting it to end?

It could be painting, sculpting, playing sports, making love, public speaking, playing an instrument, listening to a friend in need and so on.

I’m certainly in flow writing this post…

Cultivating our talents, strengths and virtues isn’t always an easy task, unlike experiencing the pleasures, but it’s essential to live a life of meaning.

“Happiness is a virtue, not its reward.” ~ Baruch Spinoza

An Epiphany in Gratitude

“When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers. When we are down, though, we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of wellbeing.” ~ Martin E. P. Seligman ph.D. (Authentic Happiness)

This isn’t particularly easy for me to share, but I feel the lessons I learnt from my recent ‘mensis horribilis’ may be useful to some who are having a nasty time of things. The week leading up to Friday 13th was truly awful and stressful, I really had the kitchen sink thrown at me.

I won’t bore you with all the gory details, but suffice to say, pretty much every day I had a major challenge to deal with. On top of that I was tired, my kids were at each other’s throats and I had a constant ear ache that thankfully hasn’t developed any further. I felt like I had the world on my shoulders. I’d deal with one problem and then another arose more or less straight away, so I began reacting badly to my worsening circumstances.

Martin Seligman - positive psychology

I wasn’t flowing in and out of my emotions, I had become entrenched in my negative energy field. I certainly didn’t take my own advice from a previous post: Positive Psychology, the Science of Happiness.

Maybe if I’d been more positive I would have coped better with the events that presented themselves to me. I’m usually quite a positive and happy person, but somehow everything got on top of me and I was drowning in a sea of negativity. I was expecting the s**t to hit the fan, and it dutifully did! My pity party rapidly upgraded into a full-on woe-is-me rave…

However, after hearing about the barbaric and tragic murders in Paris something shifted in me. The terror of those affected must have been unimaginable. It has been incredibly distressing to watch the news over the last few days, but it helped put my life into perspective for me. There were many people suffering in much worse circumstances than me.

I said my prayers for the poor souls who were in pain, and thanked God for all that I had. Which, when I tallied it all up was quite considerable, despite the many setbacks of the preceding week. I had allowed myself to become pessimistic and because I was mired in that negative energy it magnified everything.

In a beautiful light bulb moment I started to feel grateful for all the good in my life, in light of the fact that so many just across the channel had needlessly lost their lives in a cowardly, heinous attack. Here one minute, gone the next.

My challenges haven’t disappeared, but the black cloud I borrowed from Eeyore has now left its temporary home above my head!

Everyone has bad events to deal with; it can’t all be plain sailing. It’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s what you do about it that does. It’s how you react to it.

happiness - steve maraboli

I admit, it’s harder to stay positive when you’re under an onslaught, but thankfully weeks like that are relatively rare.

Mum and I went to Oxford on Friday, I needed to do a bit of research for my next novel, plus it meant we could have some precious mother/daughter time, as mum now lives near the ‘city of dreaming spires’.

We spent a good hour and a half in Oxford Crown Court, mainly in courtroom two. After seeing a complainant be cross-examined in the witness box by a seemingly kind and softly spoken barrister who mercilessly went in for the kill at the end of her questions, I was grateful not to be in her shoes. I’m not permitted by law to reveal any details about what I heard.

Oxford Crown Court

Oxford Crown Court

Whilst I had sympathy for the person in the witness box, I was learning about the workings of a case. That defence barrister certainly operated like an iron fist cloaked in a velvet glove.

After hearing charges against another man for unmentionable crimes, I began to see that there is so much evil and drama going on in other people’s lives, that mine seemed relatively happy in comparison.

Passing Christ Church Cathedral en-route to the Crown Court

Passing Christ Church Cathedral en-route to the Crown Court

I almost decided not to go as we had a deluge of torrential rain that morning, but by the time we exited the court house at the lower end of St. Aldates the sun had come out and blue sky illuminated the city.  The heavy grey clouds that blanketed the sky earlier had completely evaporated. Mum and I had a short stroll around Christ Church before we had to get the bus back to the park and ride. It was a happy and productive day and I felt myself brightening up.

On our way back from Christ Church Meadow

On our way back from Christ Church Meadow

I stopped listening to the chimp on my shoulder and started making the case for all the success and good things I’ve done. This what Martin Seligman refers to as disputation. What I had perceived as a permanent failure was just a temporary setback. Having the setbacks all at once was probably a consequence of a deeper, more pervasive dissatisfaction with myself.

A cherished friend introduced me to Martin Seligman’s ground break book, Authentic Happiness, which is an invaluable companion right now! I took Martin Seligman’s Gratitude Test, and whilst the results weren’t bad, they weren’t particularly great. It’s obviously something I need to work on.

Gratitude - Steve Maraboli

Here’s the link to the Gratitude Survey, I recommend you give it a try!

The Authentic Happiness website has some great resources and further tests that you can complete anonymously to help further research into positive psychology.

Looking back, I can see that even in the midst of challenges there were some beneficial events unfolding and people helping me. I won’t mention them by name, but in my heart I am truly grateful to them!

forgiveness - steve maraboli

This is an easy to follow presentation about optimism and gratitude based on the positive psychology work of Martin Seligman:

I’ve seen the video before of Joshua Bell playing his Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius in the Washington Subway experiment and feel it’s very relevant to show, (as it’s mentioned in the video above), to demonstrate how sometimes people don’t appreciate the beauty all around them in their lives:

Since my recent epiphany my energy levels are on their way back up, and I feel grateful for so many things: family and friends (both in my physical space and online), having a roof over my head, transport, food in the cupboards, healthy, happy children, a new book to write, my violin and music, a new direction with my health and an opportunity to top up flagging finances, plus many more blessings that I have taken for granted.

My wish for the future (stealing a phrase spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address), is that you, me and humanity can be happy, grateful and content despite the everyday threats and challenges we face, by being true to the better angels of our nature.