In his book The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton talks about the power of epigenetics or how environment influences genetic expression. Everything from nutrition to stress, emotions to thoughts effect our genes. Lipton’s views are the opposite of genetic determinism. In short, he argues that we can effect profound changes on ourselves. But how do we do this?
Day to day it’s so easy to slide into negative thinking or to become so busy that our environment overwhelms us. But there are ways to take control. We need to cultivate a daily practice that elevates each day and gives us a sense of the extraordinary.
To do this requires a holistic sense of the self. We need to have habits that support deep thinking and peak living. And, of course, we need these habits to be simple so that we can find a daily practice that doesn’t exhaust us, but energises and nurtures.
A holistic practice also needs to take account of all the elements of human life:
A tall order?
Remember how to play
There are a lot of voices telling us what to do to live well. Much of it may be great advice, but being on the receiving end of ‘preaching’ isn’t motivating. If we see ourselves facing uphill struggles that demand gargantuan willpower, sooner or later, we give up.
For example, eating well won’t last
- if you are not intrinsically motivated to eat well
- if your environment is full of sugar and white carbs
Similarly exercising will grind to a halt if
- you don’t love your body
- you don’t want to move your body and keep it in great condition
Instead of exhausting ourselves with willpower and effort through gritted teeth, we need to relcaim a sense of pleasure and play. No one needs to tell a toddler to do 10,000 steps a day. Play in children is joyful, creative, problem-solving. It’s not about productivity, but process.
Instead of making healthy eating and exercise serious burdens on a never-ending to-do list. get playful. Experiment to find the way of moving that energises you, that you want to do instead of make yourself do. Find a recipe book full of healthy food that makes you want to cook.
Love and do what you will
St Augustine’s advises:
Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. …
St Aurelius Augustine Sermon on 1 John 4:4–12
This is a dictum taken up by Joseph Fletcher in his development of Situation Ethics: the idea that we make decisions according to circumstances rather than according to rigid and fixed principles. The only absolute is Love and this motivates each decision.
As a complete ethical system it’s far from flawless, but it does point to the need to pay attention to our environments and to emotional life every day. It’s vital that you have the support of those you love and who love you. Mutual support is life-giving.
On the other hand, those who poison every encounter, who are always negative or who drain your energy, are entirely another matter. We can’t always avoid these people completely, but whenever we have the choice, it’s better to not spend time with them.
Relationships without mutual regard and respect can be damaging and the more we can limit and avoid them the better. Conversely, the more time we can spend with those we care about and who care about us, the better.
There are different kinds of relationship in life. Some are transactional — they revolve around what people can get. Others are transformational — they revolve around giving and the relationship develops so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
You need to make the most space for transformational relationships, for being with those who you share mutual love and support with.
You need to be happy. Easier said than done?
This is what Robert Louis Stephenson says:
The habit of being happy enables one to be largely freed, from the domination of outward conditions
In the book Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Malz insists that we can cultivate happiness. Simple steps like not taking every remark we hear personally or reminding ourselves to live in the moment are great starting points. Simple relaxation techniques can also be a boost. And Malz adds that we need to challenge negative thinking about ourselves. Too often we are harsh about ourselves in ways we would never be towards someone else in a similar situation.
Of course we often want to improve as people, but we won’t grow by being unkind and unforgiving to ourselves. Of course we don’t want to become delusional egotists, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a healthy dose of love of self as well as of others.
Imagine, imagine, imagine
Play and love are vital elements of life.
And, just as important, if our minds are not engaged and learning we ossify. To thrive, new ideas are essential. Where do we find them?
- Groups of people who talk ideas (not gossip)
Deep thinking and peak living happen when you are intellectually stimulated. when you engage and stretch your mental faculties.
Malz advises spending thirty minutes a day imagining the person you want to be. We then communicate this self image to what he calls the ‘Creative/Success Mechanism’. Malz uses the metaphor of the ‘steersman’ within, using the Greek root of ‘cybernetics’.
We might envisage this as our subconscious, but however we envisage the metaphor, the point is that we need;
- intellectual stimulation from a variety of sources
- the imagination to see ourselves as the people we intend to become
Change doesn’t end with imagination. We have to act on it, but imagination is where we start the transformation we desire.
People of all faiths and none need myth. Myth is the story we live in. And the language of ritual, borrowed from religious language, indicates a basic attitude to life. It’s one in which life has dignity and meaning.
D Stephenson Bond talks about the need to foster a ‘religious outlook’ that has nothing to do with following a particular creed or belonging to a religious movement. Such an outlook includes the notion of reverence. When we revere life, we treat the self and others with imagination and empathy.
When we have reverence for human life and the earth we live on, life not only becomes more imaginative, but we live more intentionally and with thoughtfulness. Instead of seeing life as endless goals to tick off, we see how our participation in life makes a difference. This is analogous to the language of devotion, which is so much richer than the functional, pragmatic language of goals because it is essentially about passion and caring.
Our daily rituals don’t have to be complex. Living well can be a simple thing. As simple as the pleasure of
- a regular walk
- at least one meal a day eaten with with mindful gratitude or with conversation and sharing
- quiet time in which to think…
In other words:
Your environment and habits should support you
Instead of berating ourselves to be better people, choosing play, love, imagination and ritual allows us to develop habits that nurture us.
Maxwell Malz makes that point that habits are like clothes. We put them on and take them off. We can choose to change them. To support a life that takes account of your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs you need simple and powerful daily habits.
And those habits are all the more powerful if you start your day with them. In this way, the tone is set for everything that comes after.
These are the elements of my morning routine that make the day work best when I achieve them. This doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, the day goes so much better.
Sleep well, then get up.
Sleeping isn’t my problem. I love it. But I also love working in the evening and don’t always turn off screens early enough to unwind. The optimum is to switch off screens at least an hour before sleep. (And add an app to mute the blue light when you use screens in the evening — I use F.lux)
Read a real book instead. Journal. Pour a bubble bath. Then go to sleep early enough that you can get up next morning with time to meditate, journal and exercise before the rush of the day begins. And without skimping on the sleep you need.
There are many ways to meditate, from taking time to be aware of your breathe and body to more complex practices. But taking time to focus, to feel grateful and to clear your thinking is a great way to start any day.
Meditation soothes the emotions and deepens our sensibilities.
My journal contains everything –
- to do lists; book notes
- ideas for stories
- snatches of poems or the occasional fully-formed haiku
- dreams and what they might mean to me
- records of my days and reactions to them
- constant reflection on my life, quests and who I want to become
- writing exercises
In addition to the constant journalling, I make a tiny book each New Year with that year’s aims in it. I ty to read it daily and I journal about small steps I can take towards them that day.
A journal is a great place to get perspective and to visualise the future you intend to create. My journal is the source book for my quest and sense of direction. Malz has a wonderful phrase:
develop a nostalgia for the future, not the past.
- Journalling keeps us thinking and mentally attuned.
- It’s a great way of processing emotions
- It’s a wonderful space in which to explore questions of quest and meaning and spiritual issues.
Commit to doing at least one thing that will you move toward your vision of life today
Small steps lead to tangible progress.
You can set yourself this one small step as the last item in your morning journalling. It can be simple or ambitious:
- buy a train ticket to see a family member
- book the writing retreat you keep promising yourself
- finish the application for an Arts Council grant to support your practice
- make that one important phone call
- write 500 words
Commit to it and do it.
Read for inspiration
Books are manna. Whether you are reading creative nonfiction, inspirational texts, novels, stories or poetry, books will feed your mind and heart and soul.
Let your imagination run free as a reader, and you will enrich it.
- engaging with books gives us deeper thinking and empathy.
- reading can take you into the past or into realities that might not even be possible. The diversity is endless and available: cheap and easy to find.
- reading helps to keep our brains active and is an activity that reduces stress.
- reading helps you to be alone with your thoughts.
As Henry Miller says.
We should read to give our souls a chance to luxuriate.
It doesn’t have to be yoga, but your body needs to move. We are not just minds. Go for a walk or jog. Cycle. Do some high intensity training. Dance. Your body will thank you, but so will your emotions — exercise raises your mood — and, by extension, your soul and mind. Holistic means exactly that: all the parts of your life and self are intimately and intrinsically linked. So move.
Whether it’s porridge with a scoop of hemp powder, a green smoothie, eggs or scrambled tofu, start the day with a meal that won’t leave you craving snacks by 11 in the morning. When you eat well, it isn’t only your body that feels better.
Days of play, love, imagination and ritual need a strong foundation. Set that up every morning. And at the end of the day, journal again — what have you done today to support your whole self on its quest? How have you nourished yourself:
And if you didn’t do this today? Start again tomorrow. Don’t worry about what’s past. The time to start is now. How will you do this tomorrow? Remember:
develop a nostalgia for the future, not the past.
Becoming a Different Story with journalling…
This autumn I’ll be launching a journalling course for becoming a different story — working on creativity and the writing life. If you’d like details sign up to my email list or email me @ firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll send you my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life. Or just feel free to continue the conversation here on Medium.