Evolution and Consciousness

24 11 2009

The Origin of the Species was published 150 years ago today. It’s publication ushered in a new era for biology and began a debate between science and faith that rages still.

As yesterday, I have to declare an interest. I’m a zoologist. Yes, really I am. I have been lots of things in my life so you’ll have to get used to the things that I say I am ….most of which will be true!

My own copy of The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection is a very well thumbed paperback with a classic introduction by another great zoologist J. Maynard Smith. As you can guess I am a fan. It is as good an explanation as you can hope to get of how the world came to be the way it is. The theories that Darwin postulated 150 years ago have been supported by all of the geological and physical discoveries made since then and have withstood all of the challenges thrown at them by scientific and rational minds up to the present moment. The theory has also survived the abuse and misuse it has been subjected to by eugenicists and supremisists and assorted cranks over the years.

The theory of evolution tells us how the current state of the living world arose but making sense of it is a different matter. As living breathing creatures we have awareness and, maybe uniquely, we are aware that we have awareness. This is what we typically call consciousness and it opens up a whole pandoras box. We look for meaning and purpose to our existence and for answers beyond our 3 score years and ten. We look for answers, and having found them, formulate yet more questions.

When Buddha was asked whether the universe was finite or infinite he refused to answer, saying that any answer would be speculation.  We may never have all of the answers to all of the questions but how we use our self-awareness is important. We can choose respond positively and with creativity and, as buddhism has it, evolve morally and mentally without limit.

We can look to the wonder in the natural world and the explanations that Darwins fantastic theory brings and learn to respect and value all around us.  That is a sensible use of our self-awareness in these times of credit crunch and climate change.

Yoga IS NOT an olympic sport

23 11 2009

I have first of all, in the manner of all good politicians and journalists, to declare an interest here. I am a trained yoga teacher and one of the first things I tell every class I teach is “Be gentle with yourself…yoga is not a competitive sport”

At the weekend a friend forwarded a link to an article in the New York Times about Yoga Competitions being proposed by a man named Bikram Choudhury.  Some background. Bikram Choudrey  is a very shrewd and successful businessman. He is the Bikram in Bikram yoga; a specific series of postures performed in a hot room as championed by sportsmen such as Andy Murray.

But is he a yogi?  No. And I’ll tell you why.

Yoga is not just about the postures. Indeed the postures are possibly the least important aspect of yoga practice. As Patanjali puts it in the Yoga Sutras, yoga is about stilling the mind. I practice Ashtanga yoga, primarily, which is a series of postures performed in sequence, which was developed at Mysore, India by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and I have been fortunate to be instructed at a workshop here in Scotland, by his son Manju.  Manju told us that his father had given up performing the physical aspects of yoga as, having stilled his mind, it was no longer necessary to stretch and pull the body. The postures are a stepping stone to stilling the mind.

Yes, the postures are important but there are seven other aspects to consider as there are eight-limbs of yoga.  The postures are the entry point for us in the west wanting to embark on life based around the yoga principles of right thought and right action.  We are more familiar with the physicality of exercise than we are with internal practices such as meditation so attending a yoga class and mastering the postures is a good way to start.

A good way to start…

….but for lots of westerners  a yoga studio becomes little more than an exercise class with buddhist chants replacing the bass-beats of body pump or body combat. Students look around, see fitter, sleeker more flexible bodies and start to compare themselves…they become competitive with others in the room. Then, worse, they become competitive with themselves. Getting into lotus becomes a challenge that they will force their body to accept and defeat. This is not yoga! It is on this focus on the body beautiful and our inability to control our ego that allows Bikram Choudhury to suggest the idea of competitive yoga and even hopes to have yoga accepted as an olympic sport!

I repeat…

…yoga is about the mind. When I see someone in a perfect headstand how can I tell what is in their mind? Am I seeing a yogi or a great gymnast? By definition if I am seeing a perfect headstand in a yoga competition I am not seeing a yogi!

Getting Old

19 11 2009

Well, we all are, aren’t we? So why am I compelled to write about this now?

My grandfather was 94 yesterday.

He’s an absolutely fabulous old man and is still able to live in his own home,  supported by regular visits from his daughters, my aunt and Mum. He has smoked a pipe all of his adult life and despite an industrial accident suffered in his early 40’s that left him with a limp and prevented him taking regular, vigorous exercise, he keeps great health…excellent health in fact as he takes no medication.  He is becoming increasingly frail and worryingly forgetful. This doesn’t worry him, of course, but it is a concern for the rest of us.  For example, when he stayed with me a couple of months ago he told me at pretty much hourly intervals that he was getting a new TV ahead of the digital switchover. The new TV duly arrived and when I asked him a couple of days later whether he liked it he was adamant that he hadn’t got a new TV! However he can still do the maths puzzle on countdown much quicker than me! So what to do next? When to intervene? He isn’t going to get any less frail or forgetful. My friends uncle has dementia and is unable to care for himself but has sufficient clarity that he has decided to refuse food and water. What should be done? He is in hospital and clearly the NHS cannot allow him to die of hunger even though it appears he has decided he has lived long enough.

And my cousin, who I grew up in constant competition with as we were the same age and constantly compared to one another by our grandmother, was 50 yesterday. So I must be 50 soon. I don’t feel 50.  Not that there is a universally accepted definition of what 50 feels like, of course.  What I should say is that I don’t feel how I thought I would feel at 50 when I was looking ahead aged 30! I still feel the same in m head looking out as I have for the past 30 years. Standing outside and looking in through the mirror tells a different story. I look as I thought I would look when I was 50.

And I am a fan of Strictly Come Dancing. Yes, who would have thought it? I don’t think that Arlene Phillips was the best of the four judges and I guess that if the programme was in need of new faces, she was the obvious one to go, but the feeling that she was removed solely because of her age is a disturbing one.

And finally, there is the creeping certainty that there are more things that I can’t do now than can. For example, I will never win an olympic gold medal for the 100m. Now I know that this was never likely but had I trained hard, applied myself and actually entered a few races, who knows, it may have been possible. Now it is absolutely impossible.

We don’t deal with well with age and ageing. We don’t, on the whole, grow old gracefully. We don’t respect the elderly for the wisdom of their years. We fight to stay looking young. We spend millions on anti-ageing creams and hair colourants to hide the grey.

Maybe this love affair with youth is what makes it difficult to deal with growing old and with making good decisions on behalf of our elderly relatives.

My son will probably never have a JOB

17 11 2009

My son is 17, wears trousers that hang low enough to expose virtually all of his boxer shorts, plays xbox and studies far less than I would like.   I try not to worry about him;  he is an articulate,  charming and intelligent boy-but I do worry for him. He doesn’t know what is coming.  With the pace of change in the world, none of us do.

This afternoon I had to wait at Glasgow Central Station. There was a boy standing, apparently waiting for a train to arrive. He wasn’t causing any problem. There was no hoodie. There wasn’t a gang. He made me think.  He looked to be about the same age as my son. He was clean, pale-faced and thin. He didn’t look ill or ill-treated but his clothes were torn and dirty. I started to wonder what he was doing here. What he did. Why he was standing in the station in the early part of the afternoon. I looked down to pick up my bag and when I turned round he was gone.

Then I looked across to the newspaper seller – a wasted man, thin, dirty and with the look of an addict. With him was a boy of about 17 years old.  He was laughing and cursing and hopping around from foot to foot.

And then there were the teenagers serving in Burger King….and I realised that I have no idea about JOBS.

I am middle-class. I could make a very good case for being working class based on the struggles of my grandparents in the early trade union movements of the industrial northwest of England in the early 20th century. The truth is that  their struggle and their efforts allowed their children, my parents, to become middle class…..and, therefore, so am I.

So, I read The Guardian and worry about my son but I have NO IDEA. I think in terms of careers and so, very probably, do you. I don’t think in terms of him getting A JOB, any job, 9-5 in order to pay the rent. They are working class choices.

While we are busy being inspired entrepreneurs or dynamic coaches or miracle mentors let’s not forget that there are still JOBS to be done and think how we can inspire some of these kids, to allow them to have progression and a career path and life choices beyond taking any job just to pay the rent.

Twitter Ye Not

11 11 2009

I don’t twitter
I have never twittered.
I have never been onto the website – honestly-I haven’t

So why am I compelled to write about it?
It’s because I just don’t get it?

It seems to me, admittedly just from what I have heard/read in the media, that because of the limitations in the number of words you can post, twitter is essentially a place to tell people where you are:
I’m in the bath
I’m on the train
I’m in the garden
I’m on the internet

My life is pretty interesting, I’m told, at any rate it interests me, but are the internet masses really interested in my whereabouts or those of anybody else?

I do Facebook, poorly I suspect, because I feel that I should. At least here the is enough space to write about what I am doing;
I am enjoying a relaxing bath at the end of a busy day
I am taking the train down to my parent’s house for the weekend
I am in the garden rooting out ground elder from around the hostas.

That last one is a lie. I hate gardening but it does serve to illustrate how easy it is to tell small lies in order to sound a bit more interesting that you really are!

So Facebook appears marginally more useful and entertaining than twitter. I am unconvinced. One of my facebook friends posted information to the effect that she was having fun programming the autokey on her computer. Maybe I just have odd facebook friends….or at least friends that should get out more!

And here is another odd thing – the concept of “friend”.

Before becoming an overt dating site, Friends Reunited encouraged people who knew each other at some point, or at least who shared a history, they lived in the same street, went to the same school, to make a connection. But facebook friends? I don’t have many facebook friends and the majority of those are people who I’ve never met, though it is true that we do often have interests or enthusiasms or prejudices in common.

The old saying has it that “a stranger is a friend that you haven’t yet met”. What then a friend that you are never likely to meet?

I do Flickr. I have a genuine, though thoroughly amateur interest in, photography. On flickr it is also possible to connect with people from all over the world, the majority of whom you will never meet. The difference here is that the common interest has already been established, taking photographs, and there is a clear platform for friendship. Tellingly, flickr terms the connections you make “contacts” not friends, and while this is less, well, friendly, it feels more appropriate. Even on flickr I don’t have a huge number of contacts. I could have. Flickr does not require someone that you tag as a contact to confirm or accept the approach. So anyone can have hundreds of contacts…..but why would you? Some people do.

And here I think we might be getting somewhere. Lots of people have lots of contacts, lots of on-line friends – are these really just “pretend friends” like children conjure up to help them through their early years?

I have listened to several radio presenters over the past few months urging people to follow them on twitter. I will leave aside the morality of a state funded broadcaster shamelessly promoting the services of a commercial organisation. And the reason they gave for asking for listeners to twitter was “to have more followers (fans/friends) than Stephen Fry.

So there we have it. If you have more followers than Stephen Fry you must be more popular than Stephen Fry. Who wouldn’t want to be more popular than the lovely Uncle Stephen but will having thousands of listeners following you on twitter REALLY make you more popular? Will it really make you more real friends? Will it really make you a better person? Or is it all down to insecurity and ego?
Ah, but I am writing a blog. If I don’t think it is important or interesting for people to know where I am (I am on a train) or what I’m doing ( I am on a train heading down to see my parents), why on earth should I suppose that anyone is the least bit interested in what I think?

Well, maybe you are, you’ve got this far.
Or maybe you are not and have stumbled onto word number 746 entirely by accident. In my defence I have always found that writing things down is a good way to get my own thoughts into some kind of order. Now, thanks to the internet, or at least because of the internet, I can share my ramblings with the planet, though I do know that 98% of blogs aren’t read by anyone but the blogger!

I suppose that the best bloggers fall into the same category as the great diarists like Johnson and Pepys. Great diarists are still around. If you don’t believe me have a look at The New Statesman.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression, though I probably already have, that I am a complete Luddite. After all I am the managing editor for the 3rdi.co.uk and the associated social networking site at youcubed.co.uk and in the recent past I founded and ran a multi-million pound internet retail business.

The point I am trying to make is that there has to be a point! At the magazine we are aiming to cover all aspects of work from a woman’s viewpoint. With the social networking site we encourage comment on the articles in the magazine. There is a point to what we do on the web. But twitter seems to me like an end in itself. Would the world be a worse place without it? Would your life be enhanced by knowing that Stephen Fry was at the dentist?


Postscript 2010

BUT….and it is a very BIG but…..all of the above are hugely important and valuable business tools so, while I am personally sceptical about their value to me as an individual I am now convinced of their value to my business, and so should you be if you are running a business.

So watch this space…or follow me on twitter x

Being Princess Leah

11 11 2009

This week my facebook friends have been Ja Ja Binks, a wannabee geek, Mr Burns, Dylan the Rabbit and the scary one with the ginger hair!

Am I alone in being amazed at the vast number of personality tests out there and at puzzling over why we are addicted to taking them?

I do not know which Star Wars character I most resemble and I have little interest in finding out but I have found myself considering paying $100 for a wealth dynamics profile and I am a wondering why?

Over the years I have taken a fair few personality tests and have found that while some traits stay constant – the fact that I’m still female is actually the only one that springs to mind – most have changed depending upon my age, state of mind and whether I really wanted the job! That is to say it is often easy to give the answers that the questioner wants; we give the answer that we think will show the character traits that we want to be revealed at that time.

Defenders of the personality test will no doubt suggest that the better, more sophisticated programs will be able to see through our artifice, that they will be able to discern the real Dorothy under our created-for-the day persona.

I’m not so sure.

A close friend who is very successful, very bright but totally self-absorbed recently completed a profile that showed her to be tolerant and nurturing. In my opinion, and that of everyone else that knows her, this is complete nonsense. She has many fine and positive attributes but tolerance and compassion are definitely not among them. The interesting thing, however, is that she sees herself as a nurturing person. Could it be that her self-delusion is so complete that it allowed her to fool the system?

But the accuracy of the diagnosis is not my main concern with these profiles. The big problem is what are you supposed to do with the information? It might be comforting to complete a profile and see that you are Princess Leah, pretty, brave and always gonna get your man, but what real use is that information, other than to generate a warm glow to the ego while you enjoy a well-earned coffee break – after all you deserve a break, you have just spent 20 minutes working on your laptop filling in a personality profile!

It seems to me that knowing the kind of person you are is only a small part of the picture.

Another friend has a small tattoo saying “knowledge is power”. To an extent that is true but it is the use to which you put the knowledge that is the real power. I know that Liverpool will not win the league without a couple of quality signings and probably a change in manager but I have no power to act on that knowledge and so am condemned to spend another season with my head in my hands listening to the boasts of Mancunians.

Having the ability and opportunity to do something with the knowledge you have is the key.
So, maybe I should take the test as part of a workshop session so that I can be given advice on what to do with that information. In theory that seems like an answer, but is it really? Well, provided that the people running the workshop are not complete cowboys, and I will assume for the sake of this argument that they are not, then two days support is better than nothing, surely?

My gut feeling is that change, proper, integrated, permanent change can only come from within. We are all looking for a quick fix – oh look, I am Princess Leah but will you still be Princess Leah tomorrow or the next day or next year? Will a stranger, or an automated personality profile, telling you that you are Princess Leah make it possible for you to head off and blow up a Death Star? I think not. If you feel certain that you are Princess Leah then you can go off and save The Empire but that knowledge, certainty, power comes from within.

Not convinced? Think about this. When most women are asked what they most want, it is to lose weight. Our own bodies are, pretty much, the only things that we can fully control. The formula is very simple. Everyone knows it: eat less, or exercise more, or both. No-one force feeds me cake and red wine. We all control what goes into our bodies so the one thing we can do on our own if we want to, surely, is to lose weight. But it is still top of our wish list. If we cannot do the one thing that we really can do on our own how can we hope to take control of other aspects of our lives that are subject, in many big and small ways, to the influence of other people?

As I mentioned to a friend and colleague when we were discussing this the other day, I already know my profile – I’m a sceptic!