Monday, 24 March 2014

The Cultivation of Love-1


“My grandmother used to liken happiness in life to a field we need to cultivate. You need to sow for the long term, she used to say, to reap a better future. It's about cultivating what you need, not coveting what others tell you to want.”
— Mickie Kent

We have shared the wisdom of many sages. We have read up on many secrets. But which ones really work? Are they all just a load of pseudo-inspirational guff that ultimately amounts to nothing? Or is the truth that nothing IS really everything? If that's true, and less is more, instead of constant accumulation should we be more concerned with peeling off the layers that suffocate the authentic self?

Or are we fooling ourselves into thinking that we can stop the tide of time, or ever gracefully follow its flow to greater heights of enlightenment? Can we overcome the square one of humanity, and ever progress to a higher stage of understanding? Or do we have it all wrong? And when did our appetite for ascendancy begin? This mini-series looks at how best we can better ourselves, taking us on a journey that stretches right back to the Renaissance of old through to the very renaissance of ourselves.

The hobby horse of self-improvement

It seems that just about everyone is into well-being. We love to talk about it at great length. We all scour articles for tips on how to live a better life, whether that be to look for some stress-busting tips, or how to get a good night's sleep, to the foods to feed our kids.

But it feels like we've all spent years of literally throwing money away on fake promises. Still, if someone were to offer us the "secrets" to power up the mind, and transform our lives, many of us would grab at the chance to boost our brains. If someone were to offer us a simple pill that could detox our bodies from all the toxins said to invade our every waking moment, we would swallow it in a heartbeat.

Nowhere is this more clearly evidenced than in a series of documentaries about Los Angeles by Louis Theroux. Relocating his family to the city, Theroux found himself gradually embracing the Angeleno way of life and their constant fad of self-reinvention. In an article published by the BBC, Theroux writes about what he describes as this shallow side of LA:

I reasoned it could only be a good thing for my work if I lived in the midst of the strange tribe I was studying, in classical anthropological style. The alleged negatives of Los Angeles are well known. The people are shallow and obsessed with appearances. It's "faddy" - there is always a new ludicrous self-help regimen which involves drinking "kale smoothies" while "soul cycling", then spending the afternoon in your dojo studying the Kabbalah and getting a butt-wax.

Theroux is quick to qualify this shallow, trendy side of LA is part of its appeal, however. That's what LA is for after all, he claims - to celebrate the shiny surfaces of life, for the sense of un-selfconsciousness and the chance of self-reinvention. But his incursion into life in La La Land shines a stark light on its take on reinvention and its limitations.

People in LA like to offer solutions and look on the bright side, even when reality has other plans for our physical image. Thus the story of LA is not exactly a feel-good one, because it highlights that the onus today on how to change ourselves has been misinterpreted - or more correctly lost in translation - by Western societies across the globe. It seems that change has become synonymous with how we look, rather than who we are. Proof that change must not be confused with progress, or necessarily with decay, either.

Today reinvention seems to mean we all need to aspire to the "same" ideal of beauty - straight, dazzling white teeth, perfect alabaster skin, a great physique and the strength to match, while managing to effortlessly look 25 at the age of forty. But this isn't change; it's a type of freaky conformation so well exposed in a "must-see" episode of the Twilight Zone aired in 1964, "Number 12 Looks Just Like You". Charles Beaumont's story involves a young woman who desperately wants to hold onto her own identity, in a future society where everyone must undergo an operation at age 19 to become beautiful and conform to its general notion of beauty.

Beaumont's futuristic fantasy about a world in which plastic surgery and looking like everybody else is the true measure of "happiness" is thought provoking and absolutely chilling. Even though we know that our problems won't necessarily melt away if we change our looks or starve ourselves skinny, this fantastical tug-of-war between beauty and reality is one that people find themselves in today.

For instance, elective foot surgery known as Cinderella surgery is just the latest in a long line of gross things women do to fit into clothes. Apparently women get surgery to correct "high heel foot" (when your foot is stuck in the shape of a high heel) or "hitch-hikers toe", (when your big toe sticks out.) This surgery-for-shoes phenomenon, as much as this might sound like a plot point in some horror-themed instalment of Sex and the City, is actually a thing that more than a few women are choosing to do. Likewise vagina steaming, fatburn injections, ab coaxing and a myriad more.

But in truth, the greatest accomplishment is being yourself in a society that is constantly trying to make you into something "acceptable", and it's a dilemma that has existed for longer than its Americanisation of "beauty worship" in the previous century. Providing a clear illustration of this is the documentary series A Very British Renaissance, which tells the story of the painters, sculptors, poets, playwrights, composers, inventors, explorers, craftsmen and scientists who revolutionised the way we saw the world. The BBC series' first episode, "The Renaissance Arrives", traces the tale of how the arrival of a few foreign artists in the 16th Century sparked a cultural revolution in Britain - and how in art, at least, the battle between beauty and reality, and the way we viewed ourselves, can said to have began. This changing of consciousness would in turn change the way we viewed the world itself.

Of importance in this context, was Swiss-German painter Hans Holbein, who marked a turning point in British art when he arrived in England in the autumn of 1526 at 29 years old. As a reputable portrait painter, he was the first artist to bring the ideas and techniques of the Renaissance portrait to Britain - a place where portrait painting was almost non-existent at the time. His genius looked closer and harder at British faces than anyone had done before him, and captured their idiosyncrasies and imperfections - and in doing so made us think differently about each other and ourselves. His technique captured the fragile, the fleeting, the transient quality of life itself.

As such, his drawings are the first really lifelike faces in the whole of British history and mark the beginning of a major British tradition - "a warts and all" preference for reality over beauty that has persisted ever since. But even more importantly, Holbein's portraits contained the seeds of a new idea. They arguably marked a moment when people stopped thinking about themselves simply as types - as kings, as knights, as courtiers - and started thinking about themselves as individuals, with their own unique characteristics, hopes and fears. And this birth of the individual is a defining feature of the Renaissance.

Although the Renaissance era signposts the transition of Western civilisation from medieval to modern times (tapping into the desire to be realistic), the word itself signifies a new birth - a rebirth or revival of learning - a transformation of sorts through the acquirement of knowledge. It's through such change we discover who we uniquely are, rather than trying to fit into an "LA-type" mould of what others believe we should look like - as Theroux highlights. Yet, we've become so fame obsessed, and so selfishly snap-happy it's thought that 10% of all the photographs in the world were taken in the last 12 months. And hasn't such a culture made us a crueller, more voyeuristic, more self-obsessed society?

Our airbrushed, photo-shopped, eerily similar looking selfies - and our back-breaking vain efforts to turn these into physical reality - are a world away from Holbein's realistic portraits produced in an era as transforming as the one we live in today. But the wind of change today, as surely as it did then, blows ever strongly. The successful learn to bend with it, or fly with it; ultimately, however, the certainty of change shouldn't be about giving up your individuality - it's about finding it, and cultivating it.

Change is imperative, because life is a progression. Even a new born baby is an apprentice of old age. It's a part of life. Acclimatizing to change is not only one of the keys to living life well, but is an aid in helping us find balance, and harmonise our micro and macro lives. But what we're increasingly doing, however, is replacing real restoration, rejuvenation and the realisation of our true selves for the "quick fix", a superficial change namely to do with the body alone, whilst ignoring our mental and emotional well-being. It's easier to correct crooked teeth than a crooked attitude granted, but to cultivate real change we need to go deeper.

For as Theroux and his documentaries show, once you get past the superficial layer of the city of LA, the connections that people forge through the darkest times are the real inspirations for change in our own lives. When change forces us to strip back our layers, and we are at our most vulnerable, then we become the most human we can be. Existence becomes precious beyond a monetary tag. We begin to learn the value of things, and not their price. In fact, such change is the only way to progress to a wisdom that drives us to better ourselves.

To seek internal improvement truly is wisdom, and its external results - our technological and scientific advances - should be of great pride to us. Change in this way might even be limitless according to our current understanding, but can we go too far in wanting to change ourselves - even in our attempts at emotional or mental "perfection"? Because the right focus really isn't in changing ourselves to perfection, but changing those bad habits that block us from our true selves.


— "Can Love Truly Fix Us?", Mickie Kent

Unless we define transformative change in this way, it feels an easy and slippery route to see any "weakness" as "bad" and something to shun, and "failure" as shame. But such sabotaging fear and shame are toxic. Individuality disappears, as it does in our superficial pursuit of a perfect norm of beauty. In our highly competitive world, we prize success and hate it when things go wrong, but is there actually a value in "failing"?

For example, lots of discoveries happen by mistake. Every breakthrough we enjoy today is as a direct result of a myriad of failures. The internet search company Google has a secret laboratory where inventors and engineers are encouraged to collaborate on audacious ideas - and it rewards its staff for failure. The thinking behind Google [x] is that you must reward people for failing, otherwise they won't take risks and make breakthroughs. If you don't reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences, wasting time and sapping an organisation's spirit.

Similarly, an exhibition entitled "Fail Better" at the Science Gallery at Trinity College, Dublin has sought to encourage debate about the informative aspects of failure and how it can encourage greater creativity in all aspects of life. Thus it's only by accepting and embracing our imperfections that we balance our dreams and the harsh reality of overreaching - and provide the foundation of courage that pushes us to try nevertheless. Moreover, only when we embrace the uncut gravel within us do we allow ourselves the opportunity to polish them into diamonds.

Improvement in the form of the betterment of mind, body and soul, therefore, comes not only from the end results, but from the actual process itself. Every perceived "failure" or "mistake" along the way is actually an aid to learn, or a diversion onto the right path for you. Every time we learn to use a difficulty, the challenge becomes a help rather than a hindrance. In this way, the real focus of transformative change is not on a "change" away from who we are, but a road to improvement that leads us rather to discover (and thus return to) our authentic selves.

Thus pursuing the beauty of the self or the soul - rather than any obvious physicality first - means that we are partnering our goals up with real love, because love is the beauty of the soul. Then your task becomes one of not seeking love, but merely seeking to find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. Simply put, even if we seek to "change" who we are now, it's so we can be who we are truly meant to be.

But what does that mean exactly? The term "authentic self" is one I use frequently for it, but that's an elusive term, too, isn't it? What do we exactly mean by that? Is it just some other esoteric mumbo-jumbo to ascribe our "faults" and "mistakes" to, and so excuse?

Or does this increasing elusiveness mean spiritual soul-searching and mindful self-improvement really HAS lost its way, and merely become the latest tired fad - as the BBC documentaries on LA prepared by Theroux claim? Part two of this mini-series tries to tackle those questions, as we take a look at the many journeys people have taken on the route to a better life.

End of Part One | Read more in this series: -2 -3

Yours in love,

Mickie Kent