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.