Here are some observations made concerning psychological and cognitive aspects of the journey of Skycatcher as elaborated upon in Part One. As an 'Adventure Psychologist' and cognitive scientist interested in how the brain functions in the 'real world', such an experience is hugely rewarding to understand first hand what factors come into play, how the brain adapts to its environment, and how an individual can benefit from being exposed to the challenges thrown up by circumstance out 'in the wild'!
A key component of effective seamanship rests on the qualities of the crew. The crew must work together, shoulder responsibilities, look out for each other, work in unison, take shifts and put in extra work where needed. They must be flexible, amenable, ready to act, considerate. People come down ill, so extra responsibilities are assumed. Shift patterns necessitate a recalibration of one’s own capability and preparedness. You must learn to snatch rest when you can. I normally do not sleep well outside my own decades long established pattern. And I tend not to nap. I have a highly active mind and seek to stimulate it during rest periods. Not so on board. You work, you assist, you eat, you rest (sleep) you do it again. Get rest in the bank so that when rest is sparse and shifts double, you have enough stores of energy to get you through.
Personalities change, but groups of individuals accentuate differences, and facilitate commonalities. A rumbunctious individual may be reduced to withdrawn quietude when stricken with sea-sickness. Resolve comes out in such moments. Moods ebb and flow like the tide. Discipline is a cornerstone for prevailing, particularly against one’s normal routine.
There will be low points where you doubt yourself, your resolve, your purpose being here, even your sanity! Then the tide shifts and you perk up, finding extra energy stores, humour, capability. Enjoying yourself even in adversity. At the moment when I may have been most anxious ‘turning the corner’ rudely awakened at Land’s End, I found myself grinning manically. It felt all so surreal, wild, primal. The darkness and mist beckoned, the wind threw it’s might against us, we pitched and yawed. It was exciting! This carried me through the night with zero sleep.
Slow progress led to frustration, a sense of hopelessness. At times like these, as the Foo Fighters might have intoned, you learn to live again (!), actually no you learn to knuckle down, take redundant systems offline, focus on the task.
This latter is key and the foundation of my research into brain functioning under duress.
We have an internal focused ‘network’ of brain regions that allow thoughts to percolate, attention to wander, daydreaming to be enabled. We also have an externally focused network that processes the outside world, keeps attention on the task at hand, accommodates information from ‘out there’ that supports completion of the task. At the helm, keeping the ship a-sail, responding to environmental circumstance, necessitates being in this ‘zone’ of attention, and importantly means keeping the internally-centred network ‘switched off’. This was highly apparent when sleep deprived, struggling to keep eyelids from shuttering down the windows to the world. No room for rumination, for daydreaming. As soon as your attention falters even for a second or two, you lose course, the hand on the tiller slips and the compass bearing goes off-kilter. And at these moments just imagine a ship comes careering out of the gloom, invisible in thick sea fog. You need to be switched on at all times, alert, scanning the environment, preparing for adaptive action if need be.
Add to this the extreme fatigue, and if you lapse into daydream, then surely you will also fall swiftly asleep. Do not fall asleep at the helm!!! Number one directive at sea on lone watch (or any watch).
This situation is cognitively demanding. But the solution is an adaptive capacity to take offline the components in the brain that ‘at rest’ actually use a lot of energy and resources. And which indeed, if allowed to buzz away as background noise, will sap energy further, and reduce effectiveness on the main task. So, by being task focused, and disciplined with it, you can become more efficient, more productive. And better able to switch off unnecessary noise. Incidentally that ‘noise’ is a key component in construction of ‘self’, the internal narrative that tells us who and what we are, admonishes, critiques, distracts. Turn this off and you get a better handle on what you are capable of, losing your self momentarily, and better able to deal with circumstance and the passage of time...
Interestingly, and obviously due to extreme fatigue, you tend to fall asleep quickly. This is a revelation for someone who is normally plagued with insomnia due to an overactive ‘default mode’ (internal rumination). The very discipline of, for concerted periods of time repeated throughout the day and night, keeping my ‘task-focused’ networks on the external realm and preventing the internally-focused ‘default mode’ from activating, massively helped by ability to rest and recuperate, and sleep more or less on demand.
As a brain scientist and cognitive psychologist, the opportunity to observe how the brain operates in an extreme environment (at sea) was of great benefit to my work. I endeavoured to capture some data ‘live’ using a portable EEG system coupled with physiological data concerning ‘sympathovagal balance’ (I.e. heart rate variability which gives an indication into the status of the Autonomic Nervous System preparing the body for ‘fight/flight’ or ‘rest and recovery’). This was somewhat challenging given my multiple roles in the proceedings (crewing the vessel) as well as the conditions themselves (difficult to set up an experimental protocol whilst heeling or buffeting violently in a turbulent sea state, let alone whilst pumping out the bilge, or indulging in numerous other bespoke tasks and duties). I gained some data nevertheless, and of course the insights into the challenge of capturing meaningful data. Observational insights were invaluable throughout of course, not least from an introspective perspective, seeing and feeling first hand what it is like to go through this experience. And I got sea sick for a good day and a half at the start of the proceedings which hampered my abilities significantly early on!
Nevertheless, being at sea under conditions where inevitably things go wrong and one must deviate from the plan, is an invaluable experience to develop an ‘adventure mindset’. It encourages flexibility in attitude, and a capacity to adapt to circumstance. Resolve is built through the process, sometimes quite challenging, and an ability to focus on what needs to be done. The result of this is better control over one’s own distracting mind, and ultimately a greater efficiency in brain functioning! Finally, the ‘self’ becomes better controlled – by learning to ‘switch it off’, or at least give it less indulgent attention or pander to its needs. And from this process, one grows, develops, becomes more attuned to one’s capabilities. The trick is how to RE-ADAPT once back on land, for that is when the culture shock comes back to the fore! After a night or two of rest and sleep restored, you ‘ll be clamouring to be back out in the blue, plying the waves and broadening your mind!!
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
Sea Fever - John Masefield
Must remain focused. Incessant motion, bobbing up and down one moment, pitching to port, picking up speed as she heels to windward. Eye-hand coordination is paramount to keep on course, and to maximise catching the wind. A little more to port and she is too ‘into the wind’, nullifying forward progress. Too much to starboard and we are off course, perhaps gathering speed, but heading too far from our intended destination. These small increments make all the difference on an open passage across the sea, with landfall a hundred miles north. It’s a tricky game however, as the wind direction is directly from the north, and the direction we want to head. It’s been like this all of the way, for the whole of the south coast! Frustrating. This means our only course of action is to tack. That means heading off on an angle to catch the wind obliquely, and to periodically about turn 90 degrees in a zig-zagging fashion. Doing the ‘math’ this adds up to significant extra mileage, slowing progress, increasing frustration!
In the end we will be over a day behind schedule, provoking concerns from loved ones back ashore, out of reach (no signal), particularly given deteriorating weather conditions – an impressive storm has been percolating on land. We will encounter this storm as we finally make our approach into the channel and destined port, Milford Haven, on the ‘snout’ of Wales’ south-west coast. An eventful trip holds in store a final sting in the tail in the form of forked lightning, torrential rain, and the prospect of losing engine power at precisely the wrong time heading into a busy shipping lane in the dark...
There is much to tell about our voyage along the south coast of the UK, round the corner at Land’s End and up across the Bristol Channel to our stopping point at Milford Haven, but I also want to focus here on the pertinent psychological aspects of being at sea, the benefits, the challenges, and the ‘cognitive’ elements that are relevant to my research on how the brain functions under duress (some observations made in Part Two). The voyage was aboard ‘Skycatcher’, a sturdy racing-equipped vessel with an impressive heritage having been sailed round the world single-handedly by a previous owner, taking all that the elements could offer. We were taking this craft up north to extend the fleet, and ‘see what she’s got’. It turned out to be a good test of character – hers and ours!
Going to sea requires a degree of flexibility of mindset, for the sea herself, the weather, and other human-derived factors can all conspire to ‘upset the applecart’ and provoke a change in plans. This is part and parcel of what it takes to adopt an ‘adventure mindset’ that can accommodate change, and embrace opportunity – even when things are certainly not going to plan!
Our original plan was to go from Eastbourne, down near the south-east corner of England’s south coast, up to Whitehaven in Cumbria – furthest north-west destination in England at the edge of the Lake District National Park. Even before we planned to set off the weather was already heralding complications, there being northerly winds setting in for the foreseeable future, which would make progress slow to impossible. An alternative, shaving off some of the time and distance was to head to Liverpool (base of Shadow Wind, and the sister vessel in the fleet), and to ride out a prospective weather window by delaying departure from Eastbourne by a few days. So far so flexible.
In the end we would set sail only a day beyond initial schedule, but southerly/south-westerly winds would hamper our passage along the south coast, forcing us to tack considerably, and to make agonisingly slow progress past the isle of Wight – to the point of staying still it would seem for several hours! The tides of course have a massive impact on sailing in our fair isle – even if you get the wind right the tide may be against you, and if both conspire together you are going backwards or at best staying still even under engine power!
Resultantly, we had to break the journey in Devon, at the port of Brixham, whereby we regrouped, reconsidered our options, but also lost half of our crew due to time running out and commitments holding sway. Down to skeleton crew of 3 we decided to capitalise on another weather window which promised lighter winds (we were pushing hard into the wind on the previous stage which created difficult sailing, and inevitable human casualties due to violent motion-induced sickness) and more amenable conditions. The goal was Milford Haven – some 200 miles round Land’s End – aiming for 48 hours sailing.
The gods were destined to be against us all of the way.
Making initially steady progress with the tide we hit Land’s End around midnight of the second day, but with the tide turning, the Atlantic encroaching and the wind changing – all against our favour. Roused from fitful slumber, having not long since relinquished my own watch and snatching any moments of sleep possible, all hands were required on deck. The wind was indeed picking up. Skipper James was engaged in a flurry of movement looking to change tack, release the headsail, keep course, and battle the elements.
Adrenaline can prepare one for action even coming so suddenly from the depths of dreamless sleep. The night was dark, the boat being tossed left and right, an ominous mist had cloaked us. A silhouette to starboard presaged land. And rocks. We were in a narrow passage and were being forced to tack. The engine had been giving us problems on the previous leg, but wasn't sufficient to pass muster alone right now.
We scrambled on command to unfurl head sail, pull it in, then switch direction, pull it out. Ropes became entangled, caught up. Needing releasing. Clip in, shimmy along the deck, wrestle the lines free. Sorted.
The next 4 hours of cold, wet, uncertainty necessitated multiple tacks like this to safely navigate this iconic patch of UK waters. We took turns to go below for half hour respite, to warm up, regroup resolve, relieve comrade of burden. In some ways this was harder than shivering up top. For returning to some semblance of comfort and warmth gives the body incentive to recalibrate, downgrade status from high alert to one promoting rest and recovery. But that means it’s harder to stay awake, focused, and ready to act again. In short, you want to just go to sleep but that would make it much harder to rouse back to action 30 minutes later!
Around 5am we had asserted ourselves back on course, and into the Bristol Channel. With that our skipper set us back onto the watch patterns that was our mainstay throughout the voyage. I took first watch, which meant another 2 + hours straight away as we headed into dawn’s early light. It took an act of will to remain wake and alert and helm the course, with winds dropping, sails flapping, and mist all around. I managed to keep myself active and present, singing songs accompanying my I-pod, shifting my weight, and seating position, stamping my feet, and embracing the cold, wet conditions so that my body didn’t try to take rest and slip into drowsiness.
Relieved of the helm around 7.30am, I sank into my bunk anticipating a good 2-3 hours. But I awoke around an hour and a half later to hear some tinkering with the engine, and got up to help man the tiller whilst my crew mates attended to the latest issues (soon resolved thankfully).
There followed another 2 days of tacking, observing watches throughout day and night, in thick fog, and occasional lightning (at night), being mindful of the shipping lanes that pepper the Bristol Channel. Occasionally the wind picked up, other times it dropped off. One of my watches was spent doing ‘doughnuts’ spinning slowly around as I struggled to edge into a light wind only to lose it and involuntarily tack and spin 360 to catch it again.
Finally, on the last day, already behind our scheduled arrival time at a destination still 50 miles away, we caught a stronger headwind that allowed us to tack at speed a little closer to our end point.
Some pools of liquid collecting down below seemed to have spread, and deepened. Heeling 30 degrees to starboard, this seemed exacerbated, having not taken that angle in some time. We discovered on opening a sealed hatch at the stern down below that a significant amount of water had collected and was sloshing around, precipitating an urgent need to find the heavy-duty manual bilge pump that was buried under all sorts of heavy stuff rammed earlier in before disembarking Eastbourne. Somehow, I managed to half crawl inside and tug with all my might to release the various components and bring out into the steeply listing heads. Skipper pumped the handle whilst we sweltered down below and I fed the bilge tube as far out the small porthole as I could to ensure water-diesel mixture didn’t recirculate now out onto deck and fill our cockpit with dangerously slippy liquid. We carried on for some time scooping leaked diesel from various compartments where it was running free around the vessel inside, then precariously mountaineering our way back to the listing deck to dispose of the spillage again without losing a drop. Urgency increased. Would we make it back to port before the leakage ground the engine to a halt? Were we taking in extra water or was it simply recirculating from fore to aft and back due to earlier deposits that had not made their way out of the craft?
Finally, our last couple of tacks got us on track to make landfall and into the entrance to the channel towards Milford Haven. It was at this point we noticed a large cloud off the starboard stern dispensing crackling forks of lightning straight into the sea. Trying to fix as fast a course as possible in the general direction of port I struggled to maintain wind on sail, as it became apparent we needed to get away from the open sea, with our 72ft metal mast beckoning on nature’s electricity! Lightning increased all around now, a huge black mass of cloud behind, and an amphitheatre of sparking skies surrounding us. The lights of Milford Haven coupled with this ominous scene created an impression of heading into an industrial fantasy land, redolent of Blade Runner, or Mordor!
The coast guard had been alerted to our late arrival, with concerns over safety given the stormy conditions that were battering land and heading out to sea. We didn’t alert them on getting a signal to our compete safety as we still had to negotiate the potentially busy shipping lanes into Milford, and with an engine that might give out if the leak had not been sufficiently contained. An emergency plan was in place to raise the genoa and sail into port if need be (last resort). But it didn’t come to that thankfully. A final deluge of torrential rain soaked me to the skin on the tiller, but one had to laugh! We moored up at the waiting pontoon outside the lock at the marina, jaded, exhilarated, exhausted. We were told ‘no room at the inn, you’ll have to go back out to sea...’
Au contraire my friend, you’ll have the coast guard to speak to who will insist otherwise....
It’s important to practice what one preaches. This helps test and validate the theoretical assumptions, and to incorporate additional insights so that the model and recommendations can be refined and ‘made live’. I have been talking a lot about breathing of late. This includes how it can help give one a semblance of control over the Autonomic Nervous System functions that govern homeostasis, and which thereby impinge upon brain networks and cognitive functions that involve attention, and ability to perform tasks (or conversely spawn anxiety and negative thinking patterns).
Yesterday I went climbing. I have been putting it off to be honest for quite some time. I don’t seem to have the motivation I used to have. Giving in to this and finding reasons not to go has impacted on my confidence in a downward spiral. It was damp, so I put in place plan B to go for an evening walk instead, or ‘scope out other crags’.
But it turned out to be drier than I thought.
Ok, let’s do a climb that I have done previously, but which does not easily yield its secrets, is polished, and is something of a conundrum. At least there is familiarity on my side. And it’s towards the ‘harder grades’ so it is a challenge after all this time out, and meaningful for it. It requires good technique, problem solving, and a slightly bold approach. (This is very subjective as one person's hard climb is another's doddle, but when one has lost confidence in one's ability, even the easiest route can become insurmountable, and that's the point of finding ways to overcome that obstacle within yourself!)
I vowed not to get worked up, or panicky. As soon as I was on the route, low down, but struggling to figure things out, my legs started shaking. I could feel that old sensation of futility, frustration, and building anxiety. The 'why do I bother with this caper?' that threatens to undermine all future prospects of continuing in this game, if left to build momentum. So I decided, 'think about your breathing'. Think about the assertions made that it is possible to parasympathetically calm your system, clear your head, reduce your overactive default mode. And from that find a focused attention that will ‘help’ solve the problem, achieve the task, press on, ‘approach-centric’.
I breathed in through the nose, out through the nose. I repeated this a few times. I didn’t initially advance further up the route, but I did become more composed and keen to think my way out of this predicament, I frowned, puzzled, saw this as a problem to solve. I decided to commit to a position and press on upwards. Up I went, the next move worked as I balanced precariously on a toe hold, a pinch grip. I stood up and there was the next hand hold. I reached for it triumphantly.
And off I came!
Evidently my left foot, on which my weight was relying, as I reached up now complacent that I was past the hard move to grab at that right hand hold, shifted, and the small amount of friction gave way. Not to worry, I slipped only a few inches to rest on the rope. No big deal, that’s what ropes are for! Main thing is I had stilled the inner voice, lowered my increasing heart rate, and focused on the problem, tried a solution, made a small mistake.
Learning from the experience I attempted the move again, this time somewhat successfully. A little higher up I came unstuck again, at the ‘crux’. I repeated my earlier strategy, breathed, considered the problem more objectively. I mulled over various positions and strategies for quite some time. Frustration was building.
This time though it was irritation, annoyance, I became mightily p*ssed off. I could not see a way up at all. I could try and place a couple of fingers in a crack, spread my feet wider, a small nub leftwards for my toe to angle on. A right pinch onto a concave pocket with a small spike to pull on if I could only move holistically and not rely on a single point of contact. But it would be very committing and more than likely have the same result as before. I froze - undecided. Then the annoyance got the better of me. Galvanised aggression. I went for it.
Somehow I glid upwards, saw the large jug like block in the widening crack, stuck my hand in. Sorted!
Maybe not ‘composed’, but angrily, aggressively motivated nonetheless. And focused outwardly, on achieving the goal, using the features, the affordance, the perceptual cues and opportunities at my disposal to complete the task.
What we have here is a means to use some of the insights I talk about, concerning how we can intervene in natural reactions to a challenging situation. First by gaining composure, using breathing, forcing the internal system back to equilibrium, and with that still the racing mind. You need to establish that initial sense of control. This then better facilitates a focus on the problem at hand. Being stuck becomes just a perplexing, objective conundrum that a little application of the grey matter can help solve. Sometimes the mental effort with this more receptive, and intrigued, attitude is sufficient to make a solution pop out. Other times a little experimentation in the moment gives way to a gut instinct that this could be the right approach, and then it’s down to the committed decision to go for it. Of course, the consequences of failure can then hold one back, or worse propel one forward with the brakes still on, to inevitable consequence. Far better in this moment to ignite a fire inside, become dominant, aggressive even, take firm control and act assertively. The body will respond favourably, happy to be under command from a forceful leader when such a directive is necessary...
So, with this, and the big step forward gained from ‘having a go’ rather than being beaten before you start, you build impetus for future motivation. Failure in itself becomes a motivating force, something even to look forward to (safety factors all being considered of course). There is far more to be gained from having a crack, and wearing proudly the badge of failure rather than the self admonishment that comes from not even trying, or giving in to one’s anxiety. Simple tricks that come from such a fundamental ‘technique’, such as steady breathing, can work wonders. The key is to embrace the concept and use that as motivator to go find situations to put yourself in to see how the technique works. Explore its limitations! Obviously there is a spectrum of risk within which one has to make judgements and overcome anxiety and self-doubt. But the pyrrhic victories can accumulate from the day to day overcoming of small, (trivial even) obstacles which may become inflated in one's mind to the point where even getting out of bed can be a challenge. But there again, in really perilous situations this instilled approach might actually have exponential benefit, when you are frozen to the spot, paralysed with fear and its really important you rapidly gain control over a homeostasis in danger of going haywire! So why not practice these techniques daily, and recognise the situations where the panic begins to rise, the way forward seems blocked, but ultimately you can overcome by mastering your own reflexive responses to circumstance....The more you do it, the better you become and recognise your potential (stemming from first seeing your limitations and then working to surmount them. And the more you will relish the opportunity to place yourself in those situations where your system rises eagerly to the challenges that you will certainly grow from!
For what it's worth, my two biggest, lifelong fears and which have given me countless anxiety over the years since a small, perpetually worried child: heights and water. Yet I seem inevitably, inexorably drawn to both. Maybe I am just a sucker for punishment. Or I just like to find situations in which to employ techniques (such as breathing) to overcome these banes in my life!!!
[As it happens I used this technique earlier today whilst underneath a boat in cold water. I was assisting on a job to fix the engine up, and volunteered to be the underwater component. It turned out to be a little more complicated than anticipated and needed me to remain stationary in the cold water for a lot longer than had been expected, already cold from an initial foray that didn't quite work out, repeated, and not quite knowing when I would end. I could feel panic rising and cramp setting in. My buoyancy wasn't quite what it needed to be as I didn’t set up my kit for such a protracted exercise. So, as I could not imagine a more fitting environment in which to do so, I breathed. Slowly, steadily, relaxed, brought myself (and my shivering) under control. Focused on the simple task of holding myself steady and my hand pressed upwards against the hull and the small hole I was keeping sealed to prevent water entering the engine compartment above. My world shrank to the purpose of the task. I remained calm. Eventually the task came to an end, the signal came from above and I was freed to come back to Terra Firma. So it works! Explains why am so knackered today after two stressful stints, and completed tasks!]
Covid-time has revealed some interesting perspectives on the state of things – perhaps cutting through the fog of confusion, bewilderment, malaise of pre-Covid times. Aside from taking stock of environmental issues and what we can actually do about these (I.e. stay at home, don’t fly, reduce movement, allow nature to re-flourish in our leave of absence), human behaviour has become more overtly available to the spotlight.
Now we have the forum of social media to pontificate, observe, proselytise from, alongside the slew of other media drowning us in the opinions of others, both well and ill informed. How does one tell the difference – after all the Leader of the Free World regularly tells us it’s all ‘fake’ and we can wash our mouths out in disinfectant if we feel otherwise?
A crisis perhaps brings out the ‘true colours’ of people, be that to positive or negative effect. Sides are drawn, insults are hurled. Friendship boundaries are redrawn, or consolidated. Them against us.
The not-too-surprising latest revelations concern the wanton pillaging of the nature that has been so recently rediscovering its serene place in the scheme of things. The ‘end’ of lockdown, so ‘apparently’ obediently observed now brings the slavering hordes out in their droves, laying waste to beauty spots throughout the land with their beer cans, crisp packets, loud music and brattish behaviour. Why shouldn’t we do as we please? After all Boris has rung the dinner bell and let us out to play. Pass me the Stella so I can lob it in the drink and scatter the ducks.
The wisdom of crowds. Something about gathering in large groups is infectious. Quite literally as it has been made all too clear in recent times. But also in terms of a capacity to blend in, become nameless, get away with naughtiness. To in effect regress to a tribal sensibility and let the ‘powers that be’ sort out the mess.
At what point does 2 or 3 ‘become a crowd’? We might start off well intentioned and mostly individualistic, but soon, exponentially, things change, peer exerts pressure, organisms gather and form some kind of emergent mass entity. We flock therefore we am.
It is increasingly difficult to maintain autonomy in the face of a group of others encroaching on our space and our identity. Perhaps this lies in a relaxing of attentional effort. Once ensconced with-in the tribal structure, there is little need to ‘pay attention’ to threats outside the perimeter fence. Behaviour can become laxer. Oops where did that crisp packet go? Doesn’t matter, someone over there will see it and pick it up. Let’s have another tinny and we can all sing songs about the here and now and not worry too much about the aftermath.
I suppose the burden of responsibility lies in doing one’s best to avoid becoming subsumed into the masses. Perhaps that is easier said than done – when I turn up the place is empty, I stake my flag on the beach and enjoy the surrounding space. Awakening from a snooze I am perplexed to see that I am now at the heart of a seething mass of bodies. Think turning up early at Glastonbury, revelling in the pick of a pristine field to set up your little fortress of solitude. Fast forward a few hours and in the darkness you are trapped in a web of guy lines, haphazard tarpaulins and collapsed forms – where the hell is my tent??!!
So you can try to not go to areas where others congregate. Mmm, tricky. What was once a treasure map of hidden jewels is now laid bare for all to see. No more ‘special laybys’ for one’s campervan. The roads are chock-a-blok with every man, woman and dog setting down their bivouacs. The frontier has been torn down and replaced with a car park. That car park is called Nature...
At the risk of becoming Orwellian, perhaps we can develop some kind of Artificial Intelligence that is able to take action against (or even pre-empt) the formation of crowds. An exponential-coalescence algorithm...A proximity alerting system with bells and whistles – rising in pitch as we get close to critical mass in an expanding social bubble...Wincing becomes the new deterrent. Maybe a special breed of the populace (hitherto known as ‘chavs’) will develop a special imperviousness to such sounds – a sensory filter that blanks out the nails-down-a-blackboard warning noise. Like a virus in itself that cannot be eradicated, it becomes stronger for being attacked (strike me down and I will become drunker than you could possibly imagine, Luke: use the farce and all will be well).
All one can hope, in the urge to defend the fragile sensibilities of a bewildered nature (which needs to be-wild) is that when the pub bells ring ‘time’ (to open) then the virus will swarm indoors, chug their pints and fall over comatose in their social bubbles surrounded by twiglet wrappers. Then ‘normal’ service can resume and nature can get back to being natural, rather than plastic. We can but hope.
But moving forward we have to realise that the accessibility that nature has grown accustomed to comes with the curse of populism. And with that, the carelessness and the inevitable ‘relaxing of attention’ which causes litter, detritus to coalesce all around. Unfortunately in today’s society, everything is in place to devolve responsibility for one’s actions, one’s attentions to a system that will clear up after one. Somehow, we have to break this assumption, enforce ‘effort’ and with that social responsibility. Surely Covid has evoked (in some quarters at least) an increased consideration for the welfare of others – the welfare of the tribe even when it comes down to it. The trick is maintaining that sensibility and proliferating it out ‘into the wild’.
So next time you sit back into the crowd and celebrate your commonalities (be it in singing football songs or waxing lyrical to your neighbour about the lovely weather), try to invest a little attention in making your contribution worthwhile. Long live the individual!
Now who has nicked me twiglets??!!!
"Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him." Capt. Benjamin Willard, Apocalypse Now
The strains of John William’s theme still raise goosebumps with those ominous opening bars. It’s a wonder I ever took to the getting in the water. JAWS had really quite a profound effect on me. Until much later in life I had little confidence in open water, after which I seemed to take to it like the proverbial duck...
At some point something shifted in my mentality – I figured out how to tread water, after which you couldn’t get me away from the depths. SCUBA came several years later and I was hooked to travel the world, and have experiences well beyond the ‘norm’, from dragons in the mysterious Indonesian archipelago to the albino intelligence of the Beluga whales of norther Russia in winter, and beyond to the far Arctic north!
But something back when I was a child watching JAWS on a bank of TV monitors in a nightclub at a children’s birthday party (don’t ask) inspired my fascination with the deep blue, and the denizens that lurk within.
It also provoked an urge to eventually have a boat just like The Orca – Quint the salty sea dog’s watery steed in his battle against The Leviathan.
Many years later and my dream is realised, through a circuitous series of events. My Orca is called ‘Nirvana’ and I have been working hard upon her to restore her to former glory!
She reminds me of Orca, and down in her main cabin, an urge to sing ‘Show me the way to go home’ and reminisce about encounters with deadly adversaries in far distant oceans. I’ve had one or two adventures in my time, and have indeed come face to face with sharks of various shapes and sizes in their natural habitat. People often recoil in horror at the thought of being underwater with one of these creatures, but rest assured, generally speaking it’s a different kettle of...well fish, when one is immersed in nature rather than viewing it through a screen, prone to sensationalise and amplify the threat!
The journey to ‘Nirvana’ started a couple of years ago (pretty much to the day), when I took away to sea. I was not in the best mental state of my life and in need of an antidote to anxiety, depression, general unhappy circumstance. I happened upon an opportunity to help crew a vessel from the south coast, up past Wales and into Liverpool – current berth of Nirvana. A different boat then, 5 of us were thrust together straight into the thick of it, through a central connection – the skipper, but no-one knowing each other or what anyone was capable of.
Sailing is a pivotal environment in which to develop one’s skills, mentality, and capacity for pulling together, under stress, and potential adversity – the sea is a very unforgiving and challenging environment. In a tight, cramped space with unfamiliar people, under continuous voyage, throughout the nights, is a daunting prospect. It MUST work, or things can go south very quickly. By good fortune, it worked out well. Very different personalities, but a communal spirit, maverick tendencies, nevertheless we bonded over the shared purpose, taking the helm, sharing roles and responsibilities, focusing on tasks and the common goal. I had never been sailing before, yet was on the helm ten minutes after arrival at port from a long land journey to get to the starting line. I also took the first watch after sunset and took us to Land’s End. This was a formative experience standing me in great stead for the days to come. By the second and certainly third day I was confident, thrilled, to helm alone, steering course by the stars in accommodating seas.
By the fourth day I was hallucinating for lack of ability to adapt to sleeping and watch shift patterns. The sea became an undulating, yet somewhat uniform disc with no land in sight for several days. I saw wherever I looked to the horizon, parades of ‘circus animals’ tumbling over one another in a frenzied attempt to race to a distant ambiguous goal – reminding me of the ‘Wacky Races’ cartoon from childhood!
Occasionally, porpoises and dolphins aquaplaned at the bow, came to pay their respects and commune with their kindred mammalian cousins.
We heeled at sharp angles and ploughed through belligerent waves, picking up speed to 11-12 knots under full sail. These are the times on the helm when one becomes attuned to the vessel, and to the environment, working harmoniously to steer course and fulfil purpose. At other times in calmer, steadier conditions, simply maintaining course on the wheel gives rise to a zen like calm as the mind remains focused on this simplest of tasks, zoning out, at peace.
So it was inevitable I would end up with a boat of my own subsequent to this formative encounter with Mistress Sea.
Of course, I am heavily influenced by literary and other cultural motifs when it comes to pursuing activities and goals. This in itself is a great motivating force to tap into when one is struggling to find the drive to move forward. But then that is the great value of artistic output – the capacity to inspire, to emblemise the ‘hero’s journey or the thematic basis for human soul searching, the pursuit of one's life quest and meaning, and importantly our capacity to adapt to circumstance and harness the possibilities that come with immersion in our environment.
There is an element of Joseph Conrad in my whimsy as I stand at the wheel (in dock nonetheless!), recalling Marlow’s (or rather Captain Willard’s, from Coppola’s movie, Apocalypse Now) obsession with pursuing the trail to deranged Kurtz up the Congo (/The Delta) in Heart of Darkness. Whilst Jim Morrison sings of The End over my speakers...
But ultimately it comes back to JAWS. The thrill of the ocean captured so succinctly by a precociously talented youthful Steven Spielberg. The subtle characterisation of it’s protagonists (from Brodie’s intimate family moments with his son mimicking his pensive actions at the dinner table; Quint’s stubborn tenacity and the most chilling monologue possibly from any film “eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945”; Hooper’s all round kiddy in a sweet shop demeanour – until he comes face to face with Ben Gardner’s visage, sans eyeball in possibly cinemas most lauded jump-scare ever). No wonder I was terrified of the water for years to come.
The Sea provides an environment and a metaphor for overcoming the challenges that life throws at you. A truly hostile, changeable ‘scape, that defines our planet (the Planet Ocean, otherwise mistakenly referred to as ‘Earth’), and demands one submits to her moods if one is to prevail. It is a humbling ‘place’, it demands respect, it demands adaptability, it requests that one leaves the ego ashore, pay attention to detail, to one’s responsibilities, and to one’s crew. If you can cast off the ‘self’ from port and sail beyond it’s confines, then you are onto a firmer path towards destiny and progression.
I am now working with a charitable enterprise (Shadow Wind CIC) that takes under-priveleged individuals and groups and seeks to invest in them this sensibility: that the sea can offer up salvation, reframe goals, and inspire purpose. My voyage has been revelatory to date, and the potential is as yet untapped to take this to it’s furthest reaches!
So I must thank JAWS for imprinting on my impressionable young mind a sense of awe, fear even, about the mysteries of the sea, the depths beneath and the expanse ahead that promises untold treasures buried on far off shores.
Maybe I can harness ‘Nirvana’ to this end and pursue my own Leviathan!
Enough talk, I am off to find that big fish. You know the one that always seems to get away! But what sport is the one that stays put and makes the hunt far too easy...?!
Show me the way to go home,
I’m tired and I want to go to bed,
I had me a little drink about an hour ago,
And it’s gone right to my head..
I am shattered. It’s been a long and busy week. It’s a different type of tiredness to the usual routine that involves using my grey (and white) matter. I have been renovating a boat, getting my hands dirty. Long, hard hours of good honest graft! Such work can be exhausting, back-breaking, frustrating at times. More and more little (and large) jobs emerge as you scrape the paint off and probe below the deck. But slowly, surely, with application of good old elbow grease, results start to become evident. A transformation takes place, and pride is restored along with the paintwork. And all is vindicated when neighbours and passers by remark on the improvement!
When one is focused on a goal such as this, and consumed with the list of tasks that need to be accomplished, once head down and ‘stuck in’, there is little room for self-recrimination, rumination, ‘default mode’ thinking that threatens to capsize your own mental boat! This is a both goal-directed and task-focused state. The rewards come with the effort expended, the outcomes achieved, and the inevitable break from ‘self’ that might otherwise take precedence. Manual skills are employed, attention is vested in the external environment, in fact refreshed, purposefully directed to the details that sequentially accumulate until the whole is realised!
This is not only a metaphor for how we can enhance our own sense of direction, and mitigate self-doubt, anxiety, lack of purpose, it is also a pragmatic and practical template for gaining control over our own mental states, and the mechanisms that take hold and enslave us. That is, actions and tasks that we can engage in to ease the cognitive load that comes with being weighed down by the draining self.
As I have explained, the default mode holds sway when given nothing to occupy the task-centric drivers in the brain. But by looking at what needs to be done and tackling jobs one at a time, with this underlying goal towards holistic end improvements, the impetus is set in motion to get cracking. The perceptual system hones in on the details, the cognitive system (with it’s ‘executive control’ centres) delegates roles and responsibilities, plans and strategies. The task-positive network, buoyed by the salience network of attention, seeks out the cues that motivate next steps and keeps the work on track. And importantly, ‘switches off’ that default wandering state of mind that can take one off track and back to square one.
Occasionally, when thoroughly absorbed in the task, the default mode may come back online, but offers suggestions, creative input, identifying new opportunities. This is ‘active mind-wandering’ and occurs when the mind is engaged in effortless, automatic tasks that don’t require remaining overly vigilant (as long as you’re not wielding a power tool or cutting something with a sharp implement when all attention needs focusing on that task!).
Thus, the focused, goal-directed and purposeful mind can work harmoniously with its constituent parts, efficiently galvanising the bits that ‘crack on’ whilst tuning down the bits that do not need to be online and which potentially distract off-task. Or drawing on those later parts that can offer creative insight, bringing attention inwards momentarily to solve a problem in the outside world, and re-engage on-task with fresh ideas...
This approach can be hugely beneficial for mental health, and for general instilling of goals and purpose, along with a strong work ethic. Whilst at the same time, with a little awareness of the mechanisms ‘beneath the deck’ (I.e. your brain), a better sense of how you can switch on and off the right ‘bits’ to perform more optimally and in a motivated state of mind...This is the approach that an enterprise I am involved with, Shadow Wind, is adopting to help people who need a little extra impetus in life, be it to set new goals for themselves, or to pull back from the brink of adversity, including sufferers from depression, mental health issues, and a lapsed sense of direction and identity.
The beauty of restoring a boat is in the wealth of opportunities for adventure the finished outcome can offer. It is a vehicle that can transport one to new destinations, new perspectives, new environments. It is a vehicle for change and of transformation. It is a metaphor in literal form!
And once finally adrift on the sea in the gleaming vessel, sitting watching the sun go down, finally you can rest, switch off from task, and let the mind once more drift, but renewed in it’s capacity to dream of the next adventure, the next goal that you can get stuck into. The mind, directed, harnessed, is the vessel that will take you where you will in life. It all starts with painting a boat...
What does COVID-19 post-lockdown mean for travel, for holidays, for ‘resuming normality’?
First of all don’t expect ‘normality’ to resume. Unless you accept that the current situation is now ‘normalised’. In which case expect the future to look somewhat like the present. The temptation during a crisis is to get the head down, push on through and aim for that end point, the light at the end of the tunnel. The island oasis across the turbulent, endless sea. The all-inclusive deal at the end of the rainbow where one can breathe at last, smell the coffee and put it all behind one.
It is a facet of human nature that we’ll ‘get through it’. We are habitual creatures who like an easy life at the end of the day, and are happy to ‘go along with things’, as long as someone points us in the right direction.
Offsetting the doom and gloom that insists ‘things will change for good’ is the notion that actually things already have, and we are coping (sort of) just fine. Social distancing, at first responded to with bemused acceptance, has rapidly become something you just do. The brain’s sense of personal space has expanded to a bubble 2m wide. In Britain we readily conform to ‘spatial allocation’ of our peripersonal zone. We have always traditionally been aware of where ‘I’ end and ‘you’ begin. We aren’t continental types after all...Likewise with queueing. Our national sport, at which we perhaps lead the world.
There’s one norm readily accepted already. The supermarket provides the template for our future behaviours, and how the environment itself can effectively facilitate these new norms. After all, the supermarket represents our most primal arena – the modern hunting ground wherein we forage and stock up our supplies for the Long Winter ahead. And in such an environment we are most receptive to behavioural prompts that help us conform. Any wild animal, required to submit in lean times to the providing benefactor that offers scraps, will likely adapt it’s feral nature, and become partially ‘tamed’.
We are also already conditioned and receptive to the prompts and directives of another environment we willingly subject ourselves to, and indeed subjugate to the indignities that inevitably come hand in hand. The Airport. Here we give over our ‘freedoms’ to an intimidating space in which Authority watches our every move, requires us to strip down our veneer, perhaps confiscates our personal possessions. We agree to be told what to do as we are funnelled through channels, checkpoints, sombre portals that can reject us and send us back whence we came. Then we are at the behest of technology and procedures over which we have no control (conveying us across swathes of ocean in giant metal tubes).
The point I am driving at here is that actually the calibration of norms of behaviour come hand in hand with the environment that is designed to evoke specific behaviours. To behave, to act out our ambulatory freedoms takes effort, and we rely on ‘affordance’ in the environment to tell us implicitly what to do, where to go, how to walk...(pedestrian crossings, pavements, staircases, barricades, elevators, escalators, and so on and so forth).
So we already have a system in place, an unconscious pact with the environment that we’ll do as it ‘says’, it will take some of the cognitive load from us – a small price of relinquished freedom to open up access to the benefits beyond (food, new destinations, a chance to recalibrate one’s perspective).
With all this in mind, people are likely deliberating about travel, holidays, release, in the aftermath of this particularly stressful couple of months. In fact many have already booked their trips away (or are rescheduling from ones postponed more recently). It is a natural consequence of the need to ‘let off some steam’, open a release valve after being cooped up for so long, and in such a state of uncertainty. And especially coming after a particularly dire winter of relentless rain, storms, flooding.
It comes back to habit. We adapt to circumstance, grudgingly sometimes, we put our heads down and plough on through life on a day-to-day basis, getting the job done, the necessary tasks, the obligations, the requisite behaviours to ensure survival. But we focus on that 2 week annual period when we know we can release the valve, burst free from the ‘prison cell’ of daily grind. We can escape! There is an awful lot to be said about aiming for a target at the end of the tunnel. When there is no end in sight it is a lot harder to maintain resolve, dig down and deep, keep pushing on. This is a tactic in endurance activities, such as the military use to break candidates and test resolve. We are a goal-centric species, without goals, a target we exhaust ourselves with aimless wandering.
Now more than ever we seek solace in the routine, the ‘normal’ - and the holiday at the end of ‘all this’ is a motivating factor that should not be underestimated – hence why people are clamouring to book their time abroad. We tend to seek assurance that ‘things will get better’, and so we recourse to the comfortable familiar routines, and pursuits that have given us solace in the past. But with this comes a tension, a source of conflict. For on the one hand we can’t wait to get away and re-establish a sense that things are ‘ok’, but at the same time now there is added uncertainty, anxiety in the mix. What if we get caught up in The Virus, as a result of this? What about a second wave? Mingling with others, changing our environment, going through airports, are we upping the risk to the point that it conflicts with the point of going?
People are no doubt holding these conflicting notions in their minds right now, but many will still be proceeding with their bookings, their plans. We are talking about a state of cognitive dissonance whereby opposing/conflicting notions are held in mind at the same time. There is a need to escape, the fantasy that things will be alright, balanced with the heightened anxiety that the reality is at odds with this. But we are very good at telling ourselves stories. It’s how we brush under the carpet the doubts, the fears, the uncertainties.
One way we resolve our conflicting ideas harkens back to what we talked about earlier regarding habits, behaviours driven by the environment. We accept that in fact we live in a system of governance. The government, its institutions, an innate sense of social rules and practices, all ‘tell us’ how to behave. It makes our lives much easier to accept that, and to also have faith (trust if you will) in the system that has our interests collectively at heart. Whilst we may be rebels deep down, it's hard work constantly bucking the trend, and so much of our behaviour is rooted in unconscious drivers, automatic routines. The new norm makes it easier to stand 2m apart in a queue than to rebelliously stand 1m apart, or to circumvent the queue and brave the tutting and eye rolling that will put you back in your place.
At the end of the day, you may decide to carry on with your travel plans, but ultimately you will expect that the airport, the travel agent, the hotel, the public transport network, THE GOVERNMENT will take care of your concerns about how to act, where and how to walk, how to relax and rejuvenate on your hols. Someone is in control, surely??!!
Underlying all this is a motivation to escape from yourSELF. You’ve been stuck indoors with it for an eternity. You can cope with your in-laws to an extent, but the SELF...that’s another kettle of fish. So no wonder people are resorting in droves to booking their vacations and hang the Virus and all it’s consequences. You’ve already adapted to the new normal without realising it.
Post script - a local town for local people:
Something to consider. Much is said about staying local. Maybe its time to normalise ‘local’ as the new ‘global’. This period has given more impetus to reconsider our immediate surroundings. There is nature in your vicinity, closer than you might think (obviously depending where exactly you live). There is a community in your neighbourhood that has perhaps flourished , provoking new conversations, helping each other out, coming out to clap the NHS on a Thursday evening... If you cycle or walk and have the benefits of green spaces, countryside on your doorstep, maybe it’s time to embrace that – lightening the load on transport networks beyond, whilst also provoking a sense of ownership in your surroundings – an increased respect and affection for your locale which can help investment in sustainable thinking. We also could benefit with injection into our local and national economy by again staying local – be that in your neighbourhood and region, or also meaning by engaging in domestic tourism rather than international travel for it’s own sake. Our land is green and pleasant, and now more than ever needs to be nurtured and tended to, and respected. And likewise our own neighbourhoods, communities and fellow species! So let us try and find new norms all around in community, neighbourly behaviour and care for our local environment.
This morning I was feeling lethargic, unmotivated, struggling to kickstart the day.
Should I move forward my daily exercise routine and go for a run first thing? Self-isolation has instigated a routine that I am reluctant to disrupt, and my once-a-day exercise takes place at the end of the day, a welcome break that sets up for the evening. A sensible, healthy structure important to embrace in these troubling times.
So I decided to ‘cheat’ and entertain a supplementary spot of ‘exercise’. A collective intake of indignatory breath erupts! Don’t do it!!
Nevertheless, I wandered out into the fresh air. The deep blue sky and a piercing sun washing across the landscape before me. I felt invigorated. Could ‘smell’ the clarity of the air. Was inspired, moved, motivated. Overjoyed even. I roved far and wide and felt much better for it. Liberated.
I stepped back ‘inside’. Ready to tackle the day with renewed vigour and perspective on things.
How dare I, you might say, go for a ‘second’ period of exercise (actually that would/will come later on when I go for my evening run in the environs surrounding my home).
Did anyone notice my double-foray? Were curtains twitching with the echoes of mass-tutting across the neighbourhood? No. Not a peep. They wouldn’t have noticed anyway.
I was strolling across the desert. Monument Valley if you must know. It straddles the borderlands between Arizona and Utah. A barren, yet somewhat ‘lush’ stretch of desert-wilderness as old as time, and home to the Navajo nation, themselves casualties to the Great American Dream that swept across the country obliterating any native claim to the land...
It is a hugely spiritual and ancient land, replete with vibrant colours, red-orange hues counterpointing the deep and endless blue and yellow of the sky above. With hardy shrubs pinpointing miniature oases of green, and hinting at an abundance of desert life beneath the surface. Much has been written of this ‘scape, of it’s legacy, of it’s role and that of the far-reaching extent of the American South West canyonlands and deserts in myth, in burgeoning national identity out at the frontier. It’s role in popular film documenting the pioneers, the lawlessness, the grandiosity of the human spirit and it’s capacity to flourish at the extremes.
Of course I wasn’t ‘really’ there. I live in north-west England! But in effect I was. In a virtual rendition of it. A suspension of disbelief helping to transport me from the living room. Via Google Earth VR.
The scene was provided for me in glorious immersive 360. The rest I provided with my imagination, memories of having been there before. And most of all belief that I can go then again. One day when this all dwindles into a poignant memory.
For now, I can happily enjoy my multiple sojourns ‘outside’ knowing full well I will not be spreading a virus, will not be coming into contact with anyone, will not be cause for indignation or admonishment.
The point here isn’t to smugly extol how wonderful it is having access to all the toys. Rather, it is to simply reinforce that the power of the imagination is a key facet in ‘winning the war’ against anxiety, isolation, concerns over ‘going stir crazy’. You don’t need a VR headset (though it might help if you are that way inclined). A photograph might suffice. Or in fact just the imagination. Meditation, mindfulness, are techniques that much is written about these days – all you need is to sit still, focus on being calm, observe thoughts – occasionally letting the imagination wander (but in a disciplined way). Focusing on something positive that will stimulate you and keep you in that headspace that is excited, enthused, motivated – dreaming of bigger and better things. It might seem blindingly, irritatingly, obvious. But the most obvious things are frequently overlooked in life. And discipline is a key component in keeping even the obvious at centre-focus – even just momentarily. I have alluded to this previously, talking of how a simple moment of contemplation on an object, an artwork, a memory, your breath can instill a focus, calmness, impetus that outweighs the apparent ‘triviality’ of doing such a thing. But by doing this rigorously, every day - first thing in the morning - you can switch the gears inside, prime the motor, prepare for lift off!
Any other ‘tools’ that might facilitate this, are just that, ‘tools’. VR is my current ‘tool’. Imagination is the key. But discipline is the enabler....
So use this time as an excuse to have more than one period of ‘exercise’ in your day. You might not be venturing outside to do so, but don’t use that as an excuse to not to anything at all. Use it instead 'other' forms of 'exercise': inwardly-focused, attentive, imaginative - and designed to rejuvenate the 'self'!
Right, I am off up Everest. See you later!
Meet John. John has had a hard life. Ups and downs. A lot of downs. Maybe some of the deepest downs one might face in life. He lost it all. His livelihood, his wife, his kids, his esteem. Even his sense of who he was. His world became the confines of his prison cell. Meaning was sourced through substance abuse. Getting the next fix. A lost cause adrift in the system possibly never to break free back to a purposeful existence.
Fast forward a few months and John is painting a boat. A picture of a boat. He has picked up his palette as well as his toolbox and is finding purpose anew. He has a real talent for fine art. He says he used to sell pictures in prison, and his talent was the envy of his cellmates. Nurturing this innate talent, plus a pride in a work ethic that fell by the wayside but is gradually resurfacing, he is a skilled craftsman. In need of a focus for this aptitude.
His long term dream, at times pushed to the recesses of his mind during those darkest of moments, was to have a boat. To live on a boat, to feel the sea spray on his face and breathe the fresh air of freedom that the ocean can offer in abundance.
To achieve one’s dreams can be a long hard slog, but it’s important to have that as a focus, an impetus to persevere against adversity.
Now out of prison, clean of substance addictions, and with a newfound energy stimulated by his current environment, John is on the path towards that dream, building momentum with his painting, and his adaptable skillset and pride in his work.
John now works with a new enterprise that is based out of Liverpool Marina. This is Shadow Wind. The brainchild of James Lovett, a ‘psychological coach’/therapist and lifelong sailor, Shadow Wind is a Community Interest Company that is bringing new opportunity to the region and offering an outlet and a focus to people such as John, groups of ‘marginalised’ or ‘disadvantaged’ folks who have fallen by the wayside, through life’s circumstance, lost their way, but can have a revitalised sense of purpose and goals to aspire to: through the medium of sailing, and access to the therapeutic benefits that living and working on water can bring!
Shadow Wind offers sailing experience and a grounding in the basics of practical boatsmanship. But much more than that it offers cameraderie, a shared purpose amongst disparate individuals united under the spell of ‘Mistress Sea’!! This encompasses all aspects of sailing, not just the glamorous lifestyle of helming a yacht across the Irish Sea under the full summer sun (!), but importantly the foundation of maintaining one’s craft. And with that the basics of woodwork, joinery, painting, cleaning. Good honest work!
Since John came to Shadow Wind he has by his own admission found a new vitality in life that has kept him on the straight and narrow. He says, if it wasn’t for this outlet for his skills, talents, work ethic and a fresh environment in which to see new perspective, he would have been ‘back inside’ some time ago. The fruits of his labour are evident on the flagship vessell (Shadow Wind herself). From an earlier functional shell, now below decks has a homely feel, but conveys her status as a seaworthy craft that can empower all who set off under her mast towards new adventures!
The most important note in this story is that John has not only come back from the brink himself, but he has reunited with his family. His wife is rehabilitated from her own demons, and their kids returned from foster care. Reunited as a happy family. Not conventional, sure, but together most importantly, re-bonded and ready to progress in life as a unit.
So John is the true flagship component in this story of Shadow Wind rather than the vessell herself!
Moving forward, Shadow Wind’s ‘corporate’ mission is to spread the message throughout Merseyside and beyond, that the sea, sailing, adventure can help those who are struggling in life. It can bring people from all walks together under common goals. We can use this platform to educate the community about the mental wellbeing benefits of working hard, whilst embracing adventure to set new course in life! And with that we hope to also inspire those who journey alongside us about the fragility of our local (and global) marine environment, offering education on Ocean Literacy. We are exploring STEM opportunities for school groups and other youth networks, tying in with the local academic and scientific communities as well to forge new connections and partnerships that will promote shared values and benefit us all through this medium.
So please, get in touch with us if you want to be involved, find out more, or talk further about new partnerships that can help us build this venture and push the sails to new ‘heights’.
Importantly, heartfelt thanks to John from all at Shadow Wind for taking that first step, and casting off into the unknown...!
“Out of the ruins, out from the wreckage...
.. We don't need another hero,
We don't need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome”
Terry Britten & Graham Lyle (or is it Clive Gollings and Graeme Willey?) as sung by Tina Turner – We don’t need another hero
The desert air shimmers. A form dissolves, undulates, begins to re-solve into a semblance of recognisable shape and meaning. A human figure cresting a symbolic horizon, striding triumphantly (?) into centre frame. In time to save the day, to bring vital knowledge, ability, leadership to the desperate. Fuel from across the wasteland. An artefact with crucial powers to ignite hope and resilience. The grail. An ark. Droids! The returning hero with the map to a more sustainable land...
Indy hurtles down the corridor, darts whistling past his ears, cobwebs stringing across his face at every turn. Pursued by...something. An albatross hanging heavy on his neck...?!
Finally, Dave Bowman relents, steps into the void, plunges through the Stargate and into an impossible yet entirely realisable present. A transfiguration that requires the giving up of his last umbilical connection to what he/we cling onto as ‘reality’. The ultimate sacrifice. Plunged through a vortex of torment, of utter destruction of ego, identifiy, self. Through a miasma of light, aural chaos and the banishment of all sense and concept of what ‘is’ or should be in conventional wisdom, he is thrust out naked, vulnerable, reborn. Transformed.
What on earth is all this about?! The narrative medium that encapsulates our rich source of myth, storytelling and symbolic mythology draws a common thread through the theme of the Hero’s Journey. Popularised (but not originating with) Joseph Campbell in his seminal works on mythology and symbology, this is the ‘story’ that recurs throughout our literary heritage. It is the returning hero who started out ‘innocent’ but curious on the road to discovery. (S)he set out to see what lay beyond the garden gate, to see where the road led. To wander to the edge of the map and see in what form there ‘lay dragons’. Curiosity gave way to commitment as the road steepened and the distance from home and invested effort warranted continuing rather than abandoning the journey. Fatigue set in, and spawned concern, anxiety, despair. Commitment waned but now s/he felt lost, uncertain, doubtful. Something within kept the drive in forward motion. At the point beyond no return, complete breakdown threatened. And somewhere deep inside this ignited hidden reserves, and a second wind. Trauma catalysed growth, the building of strength, and invigorated new heights of composure, of confidence, of resolution and resolve. Identity reconsitituted, strengthenened. Wiser and more resilient. And now the desire to return and relay these lessons back home, inspiring through fortitude, and a sense of purpose for the good of the many.
The seeds of this Hero’s Journey, a quest for transcendence through the necessary trials and tribulations found on the road to Mount Doom, Camelot, Dagobah, Beyond the Infinite can be argued as being at the heart of what motivates us to embark on adventurous experiences. Such as we might aspire to travel somewhere 'a bit different'. Or try a new activity. To stretch ourselves and push beyond the sedentary, conformist nature of daily life seeking to live renewed. It is that resolve tomorrow morning to do things differently. To kick that habit. To approach life with a fresh perspective. To make things happen. In short too change. This rests in the archetypal unconscious, that desire to transform. And as the archetype implies, this will be a traumatic process by necessity.
As a concept for providing ‘transformational experiences’ Adventure Tourism is an arena that is tailormade to facilitate this ‘hero’s journey’. Why does anyone seek to have such an experience, whatever that may constitute? (For instance, from a guided tour of a place a little ‘off the beaten track’ through to a self supported expedition to climb a new peak – all arguably different points along a contimuum of ‘adventurous’ experience.) At some level this speaks to a desire to travel that same road to self discovery, breakdown and reconstitution. In the course of further pieces I will explore further how the way the brain functions connectively mirrors this mythical process, enabling growth, and in parallel, ‘self-development’ as is ‘experienced’ by the individual. In doing so some usable principles should emerge as a sort of (neural) map towards self-mastery (in a sense not intended to sound pompous or aggrandising). Dovetailed with this are other strands, for instance the prospective role of technology in the future of experience, adventure and personal development. In particular concerning Virtual and Artificially Intelligent modes of technology that become ever more integrated in our cultural milieu and sense of self, identity and capacity to ‘experience’ the world, reality, and our very place own future role in proceedings!
Max surveys the wreckage of the civilization to which he has returned. Battered, battle weary, limping and haunted, he nevertheless knows he has done what he was required to do. The community is provided for. Their stability and security assured...for now. He is neither jubilant nor dismayed, he has been into the hellish wastes, lived as a soul in torment, been destroyed, but somehow...survived. For that he holds deep down a sense that he can prevail against the worst that the desert can throw at him. And with that, his work done, his function complete, he turns about, surveys the endless horizon, the inferno of the wasteland, and slowly limps back in the direction he came. Smiling the crazed smile of a man who has not a care in the world.
I write about various subjects.