Ways to create more stillness in our lives

Pico Ier, a travel writer who lives in Japan, shares in this TED Talk some ways to create more space in our lives:

Why would you want more space?

To have more time to think and learn who you truly are, to develop more resilience against adversity and to know if you are truly happy.

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Trogen to Appenzell (Alpenpanorama trail)

On Sunday we escaped the intense rain that was falling over most of Switzerland. This time we tried a new national route, stage 2 of Alpenpanorama Trail, as it passes through the smallest canton of Switzerland, Appenzell. The name means “cell (state) of the abbot (of St. Gallen)” and religion had indeed a strong influence in its history: the canton is divided into two parts, the Protestant one and the Catholic one, and the capital. Appenzell is also completely surrounded by another canton, St. Gallen, because at some point in the 1300s the abbot of St Gallen taxed the people of Appenzell too much, they rebelled and eventually they became independent. The canton also has a fame of being the most conservative in the country.

We started the hike in Trogen, the capital of the Protestant part, and a place best known for its Kinderdorf Pestalozzi (Pestalozzi Children Village), an organization established in 1946 to accommodate and educate children affected by war. Whoever planned the Alpenpanorama trail had the great idea of making it pass next to the village so that was our first sight of the day.

Kinderdorf Pestalozzi (Pestalozzi Children's Village)
Kinderdorf Pestalozzi (Pestalozzi Children’s Village)

After a number of grass hills and cows we entered a forest of tall pines. From that moment on until the end of the hike I think we came across two couples over the course of the next four and a half hours.

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Trogen itself is at 750m above sea level so it didn’t take us long until we reached points from where we could see kilometers in every direction.

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The most memorable part of this hike was the large expanse of yellow flowers (flowers are not in my circle of competence) that the photo at the beginning and the following photos show. It wasn’t the view itself what I remember most, it was the fact that the trail was completely covered with grass, it made me feel more connected to nature.

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My happy hiking companion.

On the plus side we only got about five minutes of rain. On the downside that was more than amount of direct sunlight that we got.

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For lunch we sat down on a bench in front of a mud cow playground. It was either that or risking eating under the rain. Initially the cows in the field across us were randomly scattered but as we ate hummus the cows started to orient themselves in our direction and approach us, like those puppets in scary movies or like the Doctor Who Weeping Angels. Luckily a single thread protected us from them. When the cows finished orienting themselves the resulting scene first reminded me of Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, then I started looking around for an escape route.

Cows keenly interested in our hummus.
Cows keenly interested in our hummus.

Our next action after lunch was getting lost. This time we didn’t take the wrong direction, somehow we suddenly were on the wrong track. All the dirt and the trail being blocked by a pile of wooden logs should have been a strong enough cue but well…

A moment after the guide got lost. Meanwhile, in his mind: "Hmm, I like this part of the trail, it looks very rough and natural".
“Hmm, I like this part of the trail, it looks very rough and natural”.

After going down a steep hill with waist-high grass we found the trail where we continued until we reached an area with several interesting items.

I believe this was a sheep house, Loes disagrees. We still don't know the truth.
One of the various little buildings that I’m sure were sheep apartments. Loes, though, disagrees.

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Naked hikers are welcome.
Naked hikers are welcome.

We left this nudist friendly area through another mud field that made us extremely grateful of wearing Gore-tex hiking shoes.

The culprits of the chocolate cake like trail. To be fair they let us pass when we reached their point.
The culprits of the chocolate cake like trail. To be fair they let us pass when we reached their point.

The rest of the trail took us through more rolling hills with impressive views of Mount Säntis and the mountain chain around it.

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Dark forests.
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Rolling hills.
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Eventually we reached the town of Appenzell, known for its wall frescos but we were quite tired so that will have to wait until the next visit.

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Trail stats:
Distance: 13km (~4h20m)
GPX file
More info

What to say when you talk to yourself

What to say when you talk to yourself is the most effective book on personal growth that I’ve read in the last year.

The premise of the book is that our behavior, feelings, attitudes and beliefs are all a direct product of our mental programming. And our mind’s programs get recorded not based on whether they are true or false but simply by how many times and with how much attention we listen or “experience” the programming which, most of the time, happens as we talk to ourselves in our heads. So if you want to change certain behaviors or habits in your life the best thing you can do is focus on changing that self talk. I have been doing exactly that for more than a month now and I’m seeing progress with habits and behaviors that I hadn’t been able to change through other means so I’m spreading the idea.

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Here are some more notes I found interesting:

Most of our programming has made it into our brains unconsciously: it came through our parents and family, friends, tv and our environment in general. If you live in a poisonous environment and you’re not careful it’s likely that you have a poisonous programming.

Our brain is biologically designed to take in whatever programming we give it. It doesn’t care if it’s false and self-destructive. Once programmed, our minds will do their best to follow those instructions or make them reality (“fake it till you make it”).

Besides this external programming we also have our own mental self-talk: the stuff that we repeat to ourselves all the time. We are usually unaware of it and if the self talk is negative (“I’m so slow”, “I’m so clumsy”, “I’m an idiot”) you are not doing yourself a favor.

Your programming is likely to be extending to others because what you tell yourself all the time is more likely to come out of your mouth.

Ok, so you’re convinced you want to change your mental programming, how do you do that?

Most self help techniques fail because they don’t take into account two things:

  • Your self-talk is like muscle memory, you need to repeat yourself your new programming daily if you want to overwrite the old one. It this doesn’t become part of your daily routine and you don’t repeat it for at least a month you won’t see results.
  • When you want to change your habits you are not just competing for willpower against your old programming, you are also competing against the demands of daily life (work, kids, commute, etc). This means that any efforts to change yourself that aren’t simple are less likely to work because we physiologically have less energy to counteract the old, bad programming. Ideas must be simple, easy to use and they must work when you use them.

Five ways of reprograming yourself via self-talk:

  • silent: listen to your mental chit chat and notice what you tell yourself when you tell yourself something negative.
  • self-talk when you talk to others. Same as the previous one but take note when you talk to others, eg: “I’m so clumsy”, “I hate my job” and, if you can, stop saying them.
  • talk to yourself out-loud: it’s more effective than the previous two methods because it involves more senses and that means more neural connections and therefore stronger memories.
  • write positive self-talk (eg: in a diary): this isn’t for everybody but if you try it and it works for you keep doing it. Writing requires even more attention than talking which means stronger “recording”.
  • listen to self talk: very low friction method. Record your own affirmations or hunt for some that resonate for you on the internet and listen to them in any of the many 2 or 3 minute moments during the way that we generally don’t do anything.

Because of the way the brain works it does not matter that you tell things to yourself about yourself that are not true now. By repeating them constantly your brain will simply assume that they are truths and it will try to, within the physical world limits, make them reality. There is a difference between “I can fly” and “I’m a calm person, nothing stresses me”.

I suggest pairing this with kaizen.

Tactical notes: I started with 3 or 4 affirmations, each 2 or 3 minutes long but it was too complicated. Now I have 1 affirmation that takes me 5min to say out-loud and that I repeat fully 2 or 3 times a day (via phone reminders).

Spotlight (2015)

A group of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe uncovers a decades long cover-up of Catholic priests abusing children. Sadly the movie is based on a true story.

The Spotlight team.
The Spotlight team.

Why did the abuses happen?

According to a couple of studies, one of them by a psychotherapist who treated these priests for 20 years, the main causes were insufficient candidate screening and insufficient training to prepare for the challenges of celibacy.

You mix those insufficiencies with the Church’s power and authority and with the morbid shrewdness of those priests targeting vulnerable kids and you get these events.

Trying to think about it in terms of mental models the lesson seems to be: don’t give moral power and authority to too many people (where bad apples are likely to appear) in demanding situations (we are wired for reproduction). Corollary: if you devise such a system and you find issues (in this case children being raped) don’t cover it up and expect the problem to disappear.

What about the journalists?

The Spotlight team are heroes: in my mind they are kind of using the scientific method (make hypotheses, test them, refine them, keep a skeptical mind) to uncover new knowledge about human nature and their findings can have as much impact as many more traditional scientific discoveries like this story or others like Watergate.

Back to the movie: I didn’t find it lurid. The acting was strong and the plot gripping. Recommended.

Staffelegg to Brugg (Jura Crest Trail)

Yesterday we almost hiked from Staffelegg to Hauenstein and we almost saw its five passes. Instead, due to an unjustifiably confidence in my prep skills combined with me field testing a new hiking app, we took the wrong turn after getting off the bus and went in the opposite direction.

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I recently read about the power of visualizations so for this hike I prepared: I visualized where the sun would be during most of the hike, where we would begin and end. I also flew through the route with Google Earth and visualized us walking it. Now, yesterday provided us with an incredibly valuable learning experience, I learned that: the brain won’t remember a thing out of visualizing a whole route through Google Earth, remembering where the sun will be during a hike is useless when it’s cloudy, the weather app’s “clouds” tab is actually the “rain” tab, the “clouds” tab is the tab with the little cloud on it, when you don’t see your destination in signpost after signpost it’s a heavenly sign, pay attention.

In any case, I’m sure it rained a lot on the other direction.

A wooden owl.
A wooden owl .
One of the various forests we crossed.
One of the various forests we crossed.

The Jura Crest Trail is one of the seven Swiss national hiking routes and it connects Zürich with Genève. Yesterday the weather was so bad over most of Switzerland that we had barely any options. Compared to our previous hikes the most salient parts of this hike were how smooth the landscape looked and the lack of cowbells, people and sunlight.

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A future pizza.
A pizza in the making.

While we were eating our home-made hummus half-way through we met a friendly local from Aarau who was training for a multi-day hike later in the year. His dog liked to break branches apart with its teeth and I got to practice my German listening skills while Loes did the talking. I was really happy to catch most of the conversation although I wasn’t able to express it in words.

Spotted on the garden of a house in Via Enzo Ferrari.
Spotted on the garden of a house in Via Enzo Ferrari.

We also came across a 700 years old lime tree outside of Linn whose falling branches were being held by tight ropes. A couple was setting up a picnic table next to it with huge clouds in the distance.

A coming storm (no, we were faster :D).
A coming storm next to the couple setting up the picnic tables.
Arriving to Brugg AG.
Arriving to Brugg AG.

It wasn’t the hike we planned but we got valuable memories from it.

Brooklyn (2015)

What if an Irish girl emigrates to America, gets in love and has to come back Ireland?

This movie is set in the Ireland and New York of the 1960s and I found the story beautifully told. The main topic is immigration and what is “home” but it also touches on love, career and duty to your family. Given that I’m an immigrant myself I thought this could add another perspective to my experience.

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**SPOILER ALERT**

The main message is clearly spelled at the end of the movie:

[Some day…] you will catch yourself thinking about something or someone who has no connection with the past, someone who’s only yours. And you’ll realize that this is where your life is.

In my experience that is true. Since I graduated from university in 2010 I have been lucky enough to live in three different countries: Ireland, the US and Switzerland, but I met my wife soon after moving to Ireland and she has made me feel home since then. Would I have gone back to Spain or stayed in Ireland had I not met her? I don’t know. Part of my family lives in Spain and the other part in Japan. I look forward to visiting them every single time but whenever I visit them it doesn’t feel that I should have stayed there. It feels a bit like a level you have cleared in a video game. It brings you wonderful memories but now you are simply in a different place.

For me leading this nomadic life, which is a step up from moving back and forth between two countries that Brooklyn talks about, has the significant downside of making it quite hard to form intensive life-long connections and we are starting to feel the need to settle down. But whenever people ask me I recommend them to at least try the immigrant strategy over the “stay at home until you die” one: you get a better understanding of the world and exposes you to more views of life, it makes you stronger and you get more options both in terms of relationships and in terms of career which means more likely to lead a happy life. I wouldn’t have met my wife nor most of my friends had I stayed in Spain, I wouldn’t have the wonderful job I currently have and I wouldn’t have learned a big part of what I’ve learned.

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So yes, I would recommend the movie to most people, specially to those who haven’t left their home country, it may resonate with you and trigger an experience that may change your life :-).

The Fugitive

What if a doctor who has been wrongly accused of killing his wife and sentenced to death escapes from prison?

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What I liked the most of this movie are the main characters: Harrison Ford as Dr Richard Kimble and Tommy Lee Jones as Samuel Gerard, the US Marshal who is tracking him down. Richard is trying to figure out who killed his wife. He doesn’t care going being so close to the police and he cannot help but save lives when the opportunity arises. Meanwhile Samuel is giving all he has to catching Richard. He is rough and he is also the epitome of rationality: although his primary goal is to catch Kimble he doesn’t let that stop his skepticism and the questions that start appearing in his head.

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**Spoiler alert**

The other thing I liked about the movie is its tension: if you empathize with Robert you literally feel that you’re being hunted all the time. The symbolism is also everywhere: Richard is a doctor saving lives who is accused of killing his wife. The murder is actually missing an arm. Richard risks his life and his freedom multiple times trying to save other people like the cop at the beginning and the kid at the hospital.

So, what did this movie tell me about life? Society isn’t always just, sometimes you have to break the law if you want to have justice.

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