Walking Without Music

Going for a walk to clear your head is not an uncommon suggestion.  With the wind in your hair, the rain on your face and the (very) occasional glimmer of sunshine on your skin, you are at one with the elements and at one with yourself; free to breathe in the fresh air and take in the sights and sounds of the outside world.

Sort of.

Chances are you noticed none of that shit. Bar the rain, of course. There’s no way you weren’t somehow shocked and disappointed that it decided to rain on you, despite the fact that it rains almost EVERY SINGLE DAY in this place.

I realise that I’m going to sound incredibly lazy when I say that I am not a fan of walking. I never have been. I view it as a necessary evil to get from A to B, not some kind of leisure activity in itself. But now that I have a child, I feel obliged to step outside every once in while – to ensure Caleb meets his minimum intake of vitamin D more than anything else. Sure, if the weather’s nice I’m much happier to take a stroll but that isn’t exactly a regular occurrence in drizzly old N.I. One day last week however, when quite possibly experiencing our entire summer, Caleb and I ventured out with little resignation.

Like most ‘walkers’ I insert the headphones, stick on shuffle, and head off totally unaware of what’s going on outside of the song playing. Listening to the music on my iTunes can only be described as a singular experience. During last week’s walk for instance I was greeted by a medley that ranged from The Last of the Mohicans theme song to Haddaway’s ‘What is Love?’ to Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ (my musical taste is admittedly slightly dated). This blend of genres and eras had the effect of creating a rather messy mixture of memories and emotions as opposed to providing some kind of cathartic walking experience akin to the likes of a Robert Frost Poem.

One song might remind you of a loved one who’s no longer with you. Another might bring back memories of an old flame you’d much rather forget. Or one might just painfully force you to remember the time poor Hawkeye lost his brother (The Last of the Mohicans reference). It all depends on the hand that ‘Shuffle’ has dealt you. In any case, if you’re anything like me, you end up feeling less like you’re on a head-clearing walk and more like you’re on some emotionally exhausting trip down memory lane.

This is not necessarily negative. The splendour of music lies in its ability to transport us to forgotten moments of the past; evoking our senses in a much more powerful way than any other medium. In my experience, it’s just simply not conducive to clearing your head. It’s what we do when we explicitly want to ‘feel’ something. Whether you want to wallow in your own self pity alongside Sinead O’Connor or psych yourself up to lyrics of ‘We Will Rock You’, music has the power to flick that emotional switch for you.

Isn’t the whole point of clearing your head though the exact opposite of this; being able to abandon the past, shut out the future and focus on the sheer wonder of the ‘now’. It wasn’t until I took out my headphones and replaced them with the ‘here’ and ‘now’ that I realised how much more relaxing a walk could be. Rather than feeling emotionally fucked by Jeff Buckley, I was free to observe the pleasant chirping of the birds, the occasional outburst of gibberish from my son and the warmth of the sunshine against my pasty skin. I was granted rare permission in the chaos of today’s world to fully focus on what is – not what was or might be.

This is not to say I will be shunning music from now on in favour of chanting ‘Om’ to some unknown deity but rather that when I feel the need to escape, I will do just that. I will put Prince (God rest his soul) on pause until the next emotionally drunken night with the girls and save the sweetness of Simon and Garfunkel for another time. But for those walks – the kind of walks you take when you really need one – I will resist the urge to get lost in the music and instead embrace the breeze, trace my footsteps, and watch the world. After all, sometimes all you need are a few drops of rain and a gust of wind to really clear your head.

Optimistic about Optimism

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By nature, I have always been a pessimist.  “I can’t do it”, “it’s my fault”, “what if…?” are commonplace in my vocabulary.  The mentality behind this disposition always appeared grounded in logic. If one can preempt disappointment, then perhaps one can also cushion the accompanying blow.

“That of course is the advantage of being a pessimist; a pessimist gets nothing but pleasant surprises, an optimist nothing but unpleasant.”  Nero Wolfe in Fer-de-Lance (1934) by Rex Stout

Recently, I have began to reevaluate this position.  If I consider my adopted approach and its rate of success, it becomes apparent that life’s greatest disappointments have in no way been softened by this negative perspective.  Those moments of true disappointment – whether anticipated or not – can never be fully realised until experienced.  The blow is inevitable and the fact that you have imagined its occurrence in no way counters the accompanying feelings of displeasure.  In similar fashion, by adopting an overall negative stance in life, the “pleasant surprises” that Stout refers to are often overshadowed by alternative worries and potential threats. Pessimism becomes a permanent state of being as opposed to a temporary reaction.

In-keeping with Buddhist tradition, by maintaining this distorted view of life we shoot ourselves with two arrows.  The worry and doubts might be seen as providing the initial blow, while the ensuing reality, whatever this may be, acts as a second arrow. If we eradicate the negativity that surrounds our thinking, we might be able to avoid at least one wound.  Furthermore, we might find that we can cope more effectively with life’s disappointments with thoughts of hope and optimism, rather than being blinded by doubt.

Proponents of pessimism would argue that their beliefs are grounded in reality: that pessimism reflects likely outcomes while optimism focuses on far fetched, idealistic results.  In some cases, this may be so.  However, these negative thoughts have the propensity to be much more damaging than their counterparts. Where pessimists feel they are one step ahead, avoiding problems, they may in fact be creating them. The concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy has been well established since ancient Greece. It rests on the principle that belief in your own prophecy may sufficiently influence your actions in order to bring that prophecy to fruition.  Take the rather arbitrary example of believing you’ll get fired versus believing you’ll get a promotion. Which is more harmful? Which is likely to effect your actions in negative way?

Whilst being able to put this position forward, it should be understood that pessimism is generally not a transient state of mind. It can be a temporary glitch in some individuals’ lives caused by a spell of negative experiences but on the whole it appears to be a way of life. Being able to spell out the benefits of a more optimistic approach is not going to, all of a sudden, revive those of us who have dwelled in pessimism for the majority of their lives.  Those who take this view, after all, do so for a reason:

  1. It is a choice or a philosophy for some people – a school of thought based on sound arguments and beliefs. Their glass is half empty and they have no interest in topping up.
  2. It is a product of one’s environment, perhaps learned through relationships with peers or previous experiences.  They are most likely unaware of their outlook.
  3. It is a genetic disposition believed to be “unfixable”.

This last instance is the most problematic. Research has indicated that some of us may in fact be “born with a frown” (Richie Holterman).  For an unfortunate number of us, this negative line of thinking is hardwired and it will take a lot more than a pat on the back and a message of “Cheer up” to bring about any significant change.  Fortunately though, there has been concurrent research to suggest that our brains are much more malleable than we previously thought. Just as we exercise the muscles of our body, we too can exercise the muscles of our mind. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks. With the aid of alternative techniques and practices, we can learn to reframe our thoughts and adopt much more positive ways of thinking. We can take some comfort in the fact that we are not destined to “be” a certain way but have the ability to choose our own course.  

In the end, the contents of the two glasses are the same and which glass we drink from is according to our own tastes.  As for me, I think I’ll take the glass that’s half-full; it seems to taste sweeter.