Seeing is believing

It is impossible to really know whether what we are seeing corresponds to reality, and how much our social and family background serves as a filter to what is perceived by our brains. Certainly it is now well known that the environment can affect our responses radically. When care units for Alzheimer’s patients are designed intelligently, anxiety, aggression, social withdrawal, depression and psychosis all decline according to a 2003 study (Zeisel). Providing bright light can also reduce depression and keep the brain functioning optimally, since circadian rhythms affect hormone levels and metabolic rate. A study published in 2008 by the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience found that brightly lit retirement homes slowed down cognitive decline. This is not just important for the elderly – school design can account for some 15% variation in results.

Envir 4No studies have been done on the effect on the brain of moving into an assisted living facility, but it is possible the environment sends a message that primes a reduction in independence and possibly mental ability too. It is difficult to deny that our environment calls forth a response in us. Our thoughts and bodies respond differently to a work environment and to home for example; they respond in one way when faced with a shabby urban setting and another when contemplating a beautiful landscape. Graffiti for example has been described as a crime against an entire community because of the feelings of fear and decay it engenders, leading to insecurity, decline in property values and loss of services and businesses. Our environmental consciousness is largely subconscious, but all the more powerful for it, since it affects our thoughts and our bodies through the stress or relaxation response.

Envir 3The brain’s job is to maintain a coherent view of the world. It will therefore interpret what it sees to fit our assumptions, and this includes our beliefs about ageing. This begins the moment we are born. Newborns do not see the world the way we do. They cannot track moving objects but see mainly fuzzy shapes and contrast. Up to three years old their brains are making 24 million new connections every minute. What happens then is interesting – synaptic pruning occurs from age 10 to 18. This basically means that connections that have not been used are eliminated to free up space for the ones that are more useful in their environment. The brain is not fully developed until 25 (which is why teenagers cannot see the bigger picture). In this way our brains create our reality.

As we age the brain (probably the orbito-frontal cortex) puts together pieces of information to make sense of our ever-changing environment. However over time if something fails to fit what we have been taught, the brain will literally alter the information to maintain coherence. An example of this is the McGurk Effect. If we are exposed to the sound “bah” but watch a video of a person mouthing the sound “fah”, our brain will hear ‘fah’. Even when we are told the sound is in fact ‘”bah” (and verify this by closing our eyes), the moment we watch the person mouthing “fah”, the brain will again hear “fah” (see video page). Another example of how the brain discards information is motion-induced blindness. This may happen when driving at night when there are so many stimuli (lights, sounds, flashes) the brain avoids being overwhelmed by weeding out what we do not need. The same thing happens when wine experts are given white wine to taste and then the same wine coloured red. Their description of the taste alters dramatically.

So, how suggestible are we?

As we grow older, we are confronted with an onslaught of assumptions, reports, facts and figures about what it is to be over fifty, sixty, or eighty for example. It is all too easy to internalise this information and allow it to affect our mental and physical responses. But we have far more control over how we age than we think. An example of how our environmental consciousness can affect our health is stress. When faced with a challenge our sensory systems function more quickly leading to lots of mental energy. This continues as long as we feel we can cope. The minute we decide it is too much the amygdala is turned on which leads to a deterioration in brain function. However, the key here is that it is OUR decision – only we can decide when we are overwhelmed. Once the fight-or-flight response is triggered we go from creative ideas to no creative energy at all.

Envir 2Let us imagine facing a steep flight of stairs. A young person will ‘know’ they can cope, but when we are older we may think, “I can’t be expected to climb those stairs at my age.” The stress response will then pump harmful cortisol into our bodies. Unless we are aware of what we are doing, we may always react in the same way to those stairs from then on, signalling a decline in ability and fitness. Seeing the stairs as a challenge would trigger quite a different response.

70% of our brain connections change every day. From our first to our last breath everything we are doing is changing our brain. We allocate our 100 billion processors differently depending on what we put our attention on. Experiment after experiment has demonstrated that focusing on a particular skill or response will cause the corresponding area of the brain to grow.

The concepts we internalise and the words we use can cause us to get stuck in attitudes that do not serve us. Through questioning our response to the environment, and through meditation, we can transcend language and thought. The ability to think about thought, to have a sense of who we are outside time, space, our society and contemporary ideas empowers us not to be a victim of our environment but instead to transcend environmental consciousness. What we perceive and how we react to it will always be affected by the programme our brain is running until we become aware of it.

So, are we running a programme that tells us we are an old person?

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Are we primed to conk out?

Priming 2Exposure to certain stimuli can affect our attitudes and behaviour. This is priming. Numerous experiments have demonstrated its power. In one famous experiment participants were asked to describe the taste of wine while listening to music. It was found that their responses depended on the type of music – for example when listening to Carmina Burana by Orff a wine was described as powerful and heavy but when Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker Suite was played the same wine was ‘subtle and refined’. Priming, when used intelligently, can be life-changing. A therapist treating a depressed patient who feels she is useless and incompetent can prime her by asking her to recall situations in her past in which she has been competent. However, usually priming is unconscious. From subliminal advertising to politically correct – or incorrect – ideas and biased information, our view of the world can be drastically altered.
Priming 3 (2)

Kazim is a devout Muslim. A mystic informed him he would live until the age of 73; since then he has lived his life in accordance with this prediction. In his view this is God’s plan for his life. He looks forward to death when he hopes to meet his Maker. If Kazim lives beyond the age of 73, his whole belief system would crumble. His body is therefore likely to begin to deteriorate in time for this prophecy to come true. Another example of self-priming for death is that of Ezekiel Emanuel, director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. His blog explains why he does not wish to live beyond 75. He believes by then he will have lived a full life. He does not wish to witness the slow decline of his physical capacities and the vanishing of his creativity. Although he gives an example of a colleague who is still extremely productive in his nineties, he feels this person is an outlier. His father deteriorated suddenly following a heart attack at 73. In fact the way our parents experience life after 70 has a tremendous effect on our expectations. Their attitudes and actual health prime us perhaps more than any other example of older people. We believe that as we share their genes, we will fall ill and die at the same age. This may lead to a collapse in our immune system ‘in time’ for this to happen. It is more : any life after the age of death of a same-sex parent may be seen as living on borrowed time.

Priming 4There are clear biological differences between young and older people – for example sleep patterns due to melatonin levels and the ability (some scientists are now claiming this is merely willingness) to absorb random but not necessarily useful information. However, Ellen Langer’s classic study of a group of gentlemen in their 70s suggests priming has the greatest effect of all on how we age. The men were surrounded by magazines, movies and music from when they were in their 50s, and were encouraged to speak in the present tense about topics that interested them twenty years earlier. After just five days in this isolated environment the men showed greater concentration, memory skills, posture, eyesight, hearing, strength and flexibility. If just five days of positive priming can have such a remarkable effect, we can only imagine what a lifetime of positive priming about abilities after retirement age might do.

When we hear of a serious illness afflicting someone from our age cohort, or the decline in someone’s proficiency, we immediately wonder about ourselves. If we read an article stating the average composer writes his last significant work at 52, or that the prime of life ends at 60 after which ‘people’ generally experience a feeling of loss of control and dissatisfaction with life, information like this primes us. Our ambitions and expectations shrink. Sometimes priming is so strong reading articles which demonstrate the contrary frighten us. We think : if we internalize a positive stereotype about ageing, will this constitute denial? But there are countless examples of people who remained productive and active well into their eighties and beyond, and this is likely to be even more true for future generations.
Priming 5If you suddenly discovered your life was going to be 30 years longer than you thought….how would that change your plans and the attitude to the rest of your life?

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Does a younger partner keep you young?

Men the world over choose younger partners, but usually only by two or three years. The rationale behind this is that women look for good providers and men for good breeders. Especially successful men may be able to attract a much younger woman, and statistics suggest that a partner over 15 years younger can cut the risk of premature death by 20 per cent for men. Even choosing a wife seven to nine years younger will reduce his risk of dying early by 11 per cent, perhaps because younger women can care for their men better than older ones; natural selection may also play a role – only the healthiest older men are likely to attract younger mates. Still further reasons involve the social cues – and practicalities – of living with someone who feels there are still years ahead and of course who is interested in more physical activity. Sex drive may also be an issue – men complain women’s sex drive decreases with the menopause, but the flip side of this is that a younger woman usually wants children and an older man may not.

Keepyoung 3For the younger woman, however, marrying a much older partner does not have as many pay-offs. There are, of course, some. Women often value good treatment above good looks, and a man with relationship experience can be a much better partner than a younger man who is career-focused and perhaps more selfish. Younger men can be hormonally over-tuned, and not have the self-awareness it takes to build a good relationship, although age is no guarantee of this. However, the older man is likely to die before she does, and if she has been financially dependent on him, financial hardship may hit in the woman’s fifties. Being the caregiver mentioned above is stressful – in fact it can shorten a woman’s life span considerably.

This pattern is diminishing as the gender pay gap decreases. Women no longer place being a good provider at the top of the list when seeking a partner. Instead, a caring attitude and seeing their partner as an equal will get a man top marks. For this reason more and more women are beginning to seek younger partners. Sometimes referred to as cougars, this is a controversial term. Embraced by some as evidence of women’s new pro-active role in sexual matters, others feel it is derogatory as they do not see themselves as predators desperate for fresh meat.

Keepyoung 4Younger men are more used to the idea of equality at work and in the home than men from earlier generations. They are less likely to expect to be waited on, and the sex drives of a woman around 40 and a man who hasn’t yet hit 30 tend to be highly compatible. Partners of different ages open up new possibilities for each other, teaching alternative ways of seeing the world. The younger partner can offer stimulating new music, gadgets, cultural ideas and innovative ways of working. The older partner can offer perspective, skill in dealing with setbacks and a sense of what really matters. New ideas and ways of living can emerge when a relationship is based on what is known as ‘weak ties’.

However it is not easy to live outside what is socially acceptable. If seen with a much younger woman, men can be teased or even severely criticised for lacking gravitas or being in the male menopause. For women with younger partners it is worse – not only do they have the pressure to keep their bodies and faces attractive enough to carry it off, but they may be seen as using a younger person for their own personal gratification and depriving him of a ‘normal’ life. The relationship can come under stress if the young man has interests that the older woman has difficulty in sharing – video games spring to mind – although there are plenty of relationships between people of the same generation where the man’s time spent in the shed indicates a certain ‘cognitive dissonance’ between the two partners.
Nevertheless it does appear that women with younger partners are 30% more likely to die earlier if the age gap is over 15 years, perhaps due to the strain of living outside social norms. Social cues are immensely powerful. The ‘Mrs Robinson’ scene has entered the collective consciousness as the epitome of the taboo relationship which leads to disaster. These social constructs are difficult to shift. It takes guts to see the bigger picture and understand we are all trying, in some way, to conform to how we are expected to behave and that this may not ultimately serve us.

KeepyoungJulianne is a beautiful, slim, energetic woman in her fifties. She looks barely forty, and gets as many looks in the street she did fifteen years ago. “I’m supposed to be looking at men around 57,” she says. “Did you see the average man aged 57? Gut, scruffy hair, jowls….now why should I have made such an effort to stay attractive and then have to settle for that?”
There is no such thing as a right age for a partner. Although it is good to be able to remember the Abba hits or Woodstock together, this is not enough to cement a relationship. Rather what counts is shared values, mutual respect, self-awareness and the willingness to change. What is the first thing we must do if we want to attract such a person – including someone much younger – into our lives?
The answer is simple : be open to the possibility.

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Recognition 4After the retirement party, the applause and the handshakes, Jenny was left with the ticking clock at 10 am on weekday mornings and an unexpected feeling of envy at the world rushing around to get to work.
Jenny felt she had joined an amorphous mass of pensioners, sidelined by the rest of the world and condemned to be deprived of any recognition for everything she had achieved. She was suffering from one of the side-effects of retirement : loss of validation.
Validation from others feels good. It starts with the need for our parents’ reassurance and approval. Throughout life we identify ourselves as, for example, parents and/or with our professions, so that when retirement arrives and we have none of these roles, it is hardly surprising many of us are left with a feeling we are nobody at all. “The day after I retired my access card to the building expired,” said Ronald who had got to the top of an international institution. “Security wouldn’t let me in to collect some things. I’d crossed that threshold for 35 years and suddenly I was a persona non grata.”
Recognition 2Recognition works in two ways – people at work recognising who you are (your name and your personality) and the acknowledgment we receive from the contribution we make to a company, institution or service. Virtually everyone dreams of being applauded, and finding oneself in a new role where applause is highly unlikely is tough. Work provides structure, identity and a feeling of camaraderie, an “us-against-the-world” culture. With this gone, we are left with the feeling of having fallen off a tower that took many years to climb and from where we used to be able to see the way ahead.
“We had a seminar for those about to retire in our company, a big multinational,” said Arnold, “and on the first day this woman comes in and says we shouldn’t worry because they had a long list of reputable retirement homes the company recommended. On the second day I grudgingly admitted I had gone home the previous night feeling a bit depressed. I soon found out everyone had felt the same.”
Recognition 5Retirement is the great leveller, since there is nothing to distinguish us from those who have done jobs with less status (in our opinion) than ours. We may find ourselves rubbing shoulders with people who we secretly sneered at before and would never have dreamed of associating with. It is worse when we find they are mightily unimpressed with our past careers, and may even never have heard of the job we used to do. Younger people still working no longer have to show deference either, and we have no claim on their admiration. Retirement may be the first time in our lives when no one recognises our achievements, and no one cares if we learn a new skill. “I thought of learning Italian,” said Samantha, a former banker, “but then thought, well what’s the point? I’m not going to need to put it on my CV”.
Older people droning on about their past glories may have irritated us in the past, and now we realise what they were about. The ego needs to prove we still are somebody. This is why it is so dangerous to hook our self-esteem exclusively to our job and yet most men and an increasing number of women do just this. It is important to separate who we are from what we do early on, to develop an inner life and natural confidence and to value ourselves more for the way we live our lives than for what we do at work. Work is at its most basic simply a means of earning a living. Would we have worked all those hours, and all those years for free?
Recognition 3Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation. Retirement is a moment when many of these needs are suddenly – often very suddenly – undermined and threatened. But if we examine the top of the pyramid, it is obvious that retirement offers the greatest opportunity for self-actualisation.
The people who we feel no longer recognise us after retirement will one day face the same issues. Retirement is the time when we really can offer our skills and wisdom for free. It is a wonderful time for self-exploration. More than anything, it is the time to recognise ourselves at last.

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Urban Myths

Urban 2Recently an old friend contacted me from Athens. His father, he said, had just died at 101. He had been illiterate, had spent his whole life tending sheep in the Greek countryside, but had gone to Athens to get hospital care after a series of strokes. However, the old man remained completely lucid, and when his children visited him in his hospital bed and asked him how he was, he would say with black humour, “Waiting for death, but quite well apart from that.”
What is waiting for death like for someone who never needed to wear a watch?

Urban 4Contrary to most people’s everyday experience, space-time is not a rigid Euclidean framework, but is warped by objects, may be curved and bounded, is riddled with black holes and possibly wormholes and has 11 or more dimensions. The scientific theory of time and space is wildly out of line with the urban mind’s imaginings. Social time is not scientific time. Emotional time is not social time. Kant wrote that since we necessarily grasp the world through the structures of our brain we cannot possibly understand it fully. Time is an empty, elastic form that must be filled by emotions and thoughts, and so we dictate how it flows in accordance with our culture, education and programming, and each person’s time is individual.
Urban 3How did time pass for that man who could not read, and who lived his life by the rising and setting of the sun and by the seasons? Whose birth was registered at a time when children could be well into toddlerhood by the time the parents got to the nearest town hall…so he may have been even older than 101.
“In the last year of his life he was still walking up and down his fields and tending his vegetables in the garden,” said my friend. His mother, in her nineties, is still alive, also fully lucid…also illiterate.
These examples apparently give the lie to all the stereotypes about learning and keeping the brain educated and active in order to prolong life and mental agility. The research can’t be wrong though, and it seems logical….no doubt clean living away from the stress and pollution of the city helped my friends’ parents to live so long and so healthily. Perhaps being immune to social stereotyping too, and to counting the years as we are forced to do in an urban environment. There was no retirement age for a Greek farmer either…so no social cues to deal with… no age at which the mind signals to the body that it is time to slow down and prepare for decrepitude.
But …what if we can combine all of the above i.e. 1) immunity to social cues and stereotyping 2) clean living and 3) literacy and lifelong learning…? Then think how long we, the next generation, may now be able to live. 120 will soon be commonplace.

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Are we codependent? Why some relationships always end in disaster…..

There’s an old joke : How do you know if you’re codependent? When you die someone else’s life flashes before you.
Codependency is no joke nonetheless. When Nancy Sykes sang As long as he needs me in the musical Oliver! shortly before being murdered by her partner, she spoke for the millions of codependent people around the world who are in abusive relationships but cannot break free.
Codep 2Codependency is an important issue for staying ageless because of the emotional stress it causes.
Codependent adults usually had an emotionally deprived childhood. A child who does not have his/her emotional needs met and who was surrounded by significant adults saying things such as, “Who do you think you are?” if the child asks for something is likely to develop codependency. A traumatic event before the age of six months is thought to cause the worst form of this crippling condition, programming the child’s subconscious to associate love and pain. A normal loving relationship between respectful adults doesn’t feel right to codependents (it is often discounted as boring, and the partner fails to command respect in the codependent).
The codependent is frequently exposed to angry outbursts from their partner. They react by dissociating – switching off emotionally – something they learnt to do as children when physical escape was impossible. Healthy people know when someone is angry it is the angry person that has to deal with their emotions. Codependents find anger terrifying, since they assume the anger is their fault – a message they picked up from their parents, who may have actually stated this was the case on numerous occasions when the real reason was work or marriage-related stress. But codependents are, none the less, addicted to expressions of distress and anger in others.
Codep 4The codependent therefore believes everything is their fault and that they are responsible for the emotions of their significant others. This leads to toxic shame, the default setting for codependent adults.
Toxic shame causes someone to second-guess everything they feel and believe. Disagreements with others will lead to panic and severe feelings of guilt. They seek out people with problems because they do not believe they deserve healthy people, and through helping someone they find identity and self-worth. Compliments are shrugged off and rapidly discounted, and they apologise all the time. Many codependents are driven, high achievers – doing well in school was the only way to gain their parents’ approval when they were young. Their emotional lives are therefore often chaotic. They have problems setting boundaries, since their parents failed to respect the child’s boundaries. The parents of adult codependents may continue to do this throughout their lives –for example, entering a bedroom or bathroom without knocking, going through their things, telling them they are self-obsessed if they express feelings and so on.
Codep 3Self-care is a big problem with codependent people, who feel it is self-indulgent. They will have been given the message when young that they did not deserve time out. Codependents feel an urge to spend any free time getting chores or odd jobs done.
Sam is a typical case. He booked a holiday for him, his two children and his new partner, a volatile young woman called Alicia. The children wanted to camp but Sam felt it would be better to book the hexagonal building on the camp site known as the folie, away from the other families. He told himself this was for more comfort. During the holiday, on cue, Alicia turned on Sam and began to abuse him in front of his children when she saw he had forgotten to pack her cigarettes. Idiot, asshole, can’t trust you to do anything, you make me want to vomit….her screaming went on for hours.
The cigarettes were an excuse of course: Alicia was repeating a pattern of severe holiday rows she had experienced in her childhood. Her mother had ruined all the family holidays. Alicia developed borderline personality disorder as a result and proceeded to do the same to her own loved-ones.
Sam’s background was being raised by narcissistic parents. Sam developed codependency. As Alicia screamed at him, he realised he had booked the folie because he knew Alicia would have several violent outbursts during the holiday and wanted to avoid the shame of being right next to other campers who would have overheard everything.
Codep 6Alicia finally took the car and drove off at speed, leaving Sam with his two frightened children and no transport. In doing this she was reproducing the behaviour of her father who would regularly storm out of the house and drive off dangerously, disappearing for days. Her father had once abandoned the entire family without transport in the middle of the countryside leaving them to find their way home – ten hours away – by taxi and train with all the luggage.
Sam simply waited for Alicia to return, feeling a crushing sense of grief, rage, embarrassment she had humiliated him in front of his children, and shame. These negative emotions are also highly addictive. That night she returned. The screaming fit had ended, and she veered once again to idolising him, as borderlines always do. He apologised to her even though he wasn’t sure what for. This seemed to satisfy Alicia, and she complained of chronic stomach pain, a complaint which had plagued her for their entire relationship. He showed empathy, and cared for her. Sam’s codependency told him to just forget about the abuse and rage, for the sake of peace and Alicia’s health.

What should Sam do in such a relationship?
• Separate his feelings from Alicia’s.
• Stop giving her support at such personal cost.
• Stop modelling victimhood to his children.
• Stop playing the role of enabler. His compassionate attitude ensured Alicia would repeat the behaviour over and over on every holiday they would have from then on. Instead, he should have found a way of ensuring her bad behaviour had severe consequences.
• Realise that when Alicia stated she adored him, this actually meant that she needed him. Someone who loves us does not plunge us into mental and emotional turmoil and does not seek to humiliate us.
• See the humour in the repeated drama they are both playing out, and extract himself from the relationship immediately. This is helping Alicia change her behaviour which is ruining her health.
• Rehearse over and over how he will react next time he finds himself being drawn back into the same scenario – with her, or with someone else.

Sam eventually left Alicia a few months later, when she betrayed a secret he had entrusted her with. This action by Alicia was an act of revenge – common BPD behaviour – after an argument when she had accused him of being with another woman (he was in fact at a social event at work at which he had volunteered to provide drinks). Four months separation followed. Alicia had intensive therapy, and sent a mutual friend around to beg for another chance, saying she could not live without Sam.
Codep 5Sam had not found anyone else with whom he had experienced such a bond. In fact he had not found anyone else at all in those four months. He agreed to see her, but not to live with her, and said if there is one more abusive incident when we are on holiday, our relationship will be over for good. Sam felt good about himself for saying this. For four further months Sam and Alicia were ecstatically happy. Alicia was a very funny, intelligent and attentive girlfriend, not to mention beautiful. She utterly captivated him. He was delighted he had agreed to give her another chance. He called this compassion, and understanding for her abusive background. He took her to Paris for a romantic weekend to celebrate their reunion.
On the second day, when he expressed exasperation over a work issue, she flew into a rage at him for ruining their weekend away with his ‘stupid problems’. To Sam’s astonishment, the exact same scenario ensued as on the camping holiday. He felt his bloodstream fill with adrenaline and toxic stress hormones. She left the hotel in a fury, and this time he did not wait for her to return. He paid the hotel bill and travelled home alone. Six months silence ensued, and Sam began to read books about codependency and setting personal boundaries.
This Christmas Sam’s children are going to their mother’s. He has not found another partner. Alicia will send him gifts, and then call him. The old loneliness from Sam’s childhood will return, and he will take her call.
Codependency is an addiction every bit as powerful as heroine. It is ruinous to our health, to the length of our telomeres, and therefore to our lifespan.

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Shape shift 2Self responsibility – it won’t work for anyone who considers suffering in the world to be indiscriminate and who believes that since the dawn of humanity life has been generally miserable for the overwhelming majority of human beings, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Not for those either who get angry on behalf of starving Africans/victims of natural disasters/orphans and street children. Being sad and angry won’t help them. This is simply about taking responsibility for what happens to us.
The received wisdom is that life’s a bitch and then you die, that shit happens and happiness is fleeting and elusive. If this is our world view, shapeshifting will seem nonsense. Shapeshifters surf across multiple realities and dive deep into one they prefer.
The idea we can change from one form into another at will is deeply embedded in the collective unconscious. It occurs in Western folklore (The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast), mythology (the gods often assume the forms of animals or humans) and in shamanism where the shaman gives up his sense of self and assumes the identity of a plant or animal. The shapeshifter is someone who has become aware of his own infinity. When he wishes to change his circumstances, he changes himself. But despite the fact it is part of world culture, most people believe it has nothing to do with our own lives.
Shape shift 3Reality surfing is based on the idea that like attracts like. It states that consciousness and the material world reflect each other like a mirror, and therefore just as circumstances affect our mood, our mood can affect circumstances. Life, according to this philosophy, is dreamed up by what we are thinking and, above all, feeling. ‘Out there’ is part of our consciousness and it was created by us. Time is illusory. The reality surfer lives his life back to front – rejoice first, see the reason for rejoicing second. When we rejoice, the reality of being joyful already exists; our consciousness will interpret the world to match that reaction.
It is counter-intuitive and not intended to appeal to the materialist. The overwhelming majority of people will say it is at best wishful thinking and at worst complete rubbish. Many will get angry on someone else’s behalf – someone afflicted by multiple illnesses for example – and a great number will feel rage at being held responsible for their troubles. Psychologists might concede that deciding how to think about one’s circumstances can add to happiness, but hardly anyone will stand up and say that how we think will change our circumstances.
Shape shift 4This approach to living is known as reality surfing because the science behind it is the parallel worlds theory. The suggestion is that we can skip from one parallel world to another, worlds which are adjacent, slightly different from our own, and to do so we use our perception and emotions. There are many versions of me in infinity, and today I choose to focus on the version who….(fill in a goal or dream).

How do we enter the parallel reality where I am what I wish to be? By taking on the identity, definition, belief, behaviours and feelings of the person I want to be. This is the work of the shapeshifter – alter your essence and the physical world will have to shift too.
Shape shift 7We need to adopt the viewpoint of the person who never grew old (see video page, “Oldest yoga teacher“). If we wish to be shapeshifters, we must feel as the person would feel who acted and looked youthful forever, and rest in this view for the next few days and weeks. We come regularly back to the ‘body sense’ of such a person and cease behaving in ways that presuppose it is not already so.
Acting as if something is already a fact is the magical secret of the shapeshifter. Examples are setting out two glasses of wine when you are seeking a partner (and ‘seeing’ and ‘feeling’ their presence), spending a day as you would spend it if you no longer needed to work, or for us – acting as though we are young, really young, strong, without physical or mental limits, doing whatever we did when we were younger, whether it be work or play. This is going into the energy field of what we want.
What do we want to shift to today? Answer this question : wouldn’t it be nice if….?

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Age discrimination

There are two main forms of age discrimination, social and employment. The former leads to the latter.
Women seem to suffer most from discrimination at work due to age. In a recent case Miriam O’Reilly, the presenter of Countryfile, took the BBC to an employment tribunal after she was dropped at 53 when the programme moved to a primetime slot. The main presenter, John Craven (70), was instead joined by two new female presenters in their thirties. O’Reilly won six-figure damages.
Discrim 2Pay tops out for women in their mid-thirties and for men ten years later. Plenty of men are still in top positions in their sixties. This may be due to women’s family commitments at a time when men are reaching the top. Older men achieve ‘elder statesman’ status. Women are simply past it. The famous ‘squeezed middle’ – that’s middle-aged women – are dealing with ageing parents and school-aged children, and it’s not a good time to be trying to increase one’s earning power. No man feels guilty about spending too much time developing his career.
However, it is true that if a man loses his job in his fifties, finding a new one can be just as hard as for a woman. Some employers believe older workers aren’t adaptable, and may even be overqualified and likely to bolt if something better is offered to them (though this is just as likely to happen with someone younger of course). Older job-seekers are therefore often encouraged to stress their problem-solving skills based on a lifetime of experience, but this is frequently not enough to overcome the stereotype of the older worker who is seen as technophobic, intimidating to manage, less open to creativity and change and just biding their time till they can start drawing a pension. However as pension age edges further and further towards 70, someone at 50 these days is more than aware that not investing in a career could put them at a serious financial disadvantage. Employing someone over 55 is no longer likely to offer a poor return. In any case, research has found no correlation between age and performance on the job.

Discrim 3Do we then insist on being open about our age, in an attempt to overturn these stereotypes and redefine what society thinks an older person should work like, dress like and look like? In a 2010 interview for Kougar magazine, Marina Sirtis, who played Deanna Troy in Star Trek, made a plea in favour of honesty :
I’m not ashamed of my age. And this is something that I really hate – the fact that women lie about their age. They feel they have to because, when you’re over 40, it’s like you suddenly don’t exist….. I am 55 years old and I’m not ashamed of it ….
However, the flip side of this is, are we capable of overcoming our conditioning? Do we avoid associating ourselves mentally if not actually in practice with, say, the over-sixties, by being elusive about our age, in order to avoid not only being categorised by others but to undermine the subtle power of stereotype embodiment in ourselves?
Socially, we hardly notice age discrimination until it is used against us, and this can happen suddenly when a younger person says, “You’re amazing,” and means, “for your age.” Or, “Gosh, you’re so agile!” or describes us as feisty, sweet or “still sharp as a knife”. It is well meant, and yet makes us feel like we have been punched in the stomach. Such an experience immediately puts us at risk of stereotype embodiment. This theory states that we are brainwashed into attitudes about older people at a time when these beliefs are not self-relevant. Once internalised, these attitudes become part of a subconscious set of beliefs about older people. We therefore do not question them, and when we reach later life we unwittingly embody them, since we have always held them to be true. Behaviours, perceptions and physiological responses are therefore triggered that fulfil the self-concept of being ‘old’.

Discrim 4Women in particular may face a crisis after the menopause and a sense that having outlived their reproductive usefulness they really ought to be dead. Some may find it surprising that mentally and emotionally, nothing has changed. Then when the men their age drool over younger women, feelings of contempt may arise.

If we have spent our entire lives feeling separate from the elderly, finding ourselves suddenly perceived as one of them comes as a terrible shock. But as human lifespan extends beyond 100 for an increasingly large minority, inevitably perceptions of what 50, 60 and 70 means socially and professionally will change. The 60 year-olds of today bear little relation to those of our grandparents’ generation. Let us do whatever we can to overturn society’s ageism by remaining forever ageless ourselves.

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Motorways of the Mind

Neuron 5Emotional pain is just a neural pathway which has fired many times before. It is a habit, and habits can be broken. It’s easier than we might think.
When we receive an emotional wound, similar old wounds resurface. The neurological net surrounding that emotion is ready to spring into action. Love followed by pain may be one network. This is not our fault, but a result of things that happened to us when we were powerless, usually in childhood.
When we are hurt emotionally, the hypothalamus manufactures sequences of amino acids called peptides. There is a peptide for anger, abandonment, feeling a victim…for everything. These peptides are shot into the blood stream and dock on our cells. They enter the cells through special receptors for those peptides. When the peptide enters the cell, it hurts. Emotional pain is therefore very much a physical pain.
Every time we think about our pain, we reinforce the neurological net, since peptides are extremely addictive. If we block a painful thought, the cells which are addicted to the ‘loneliness’ or ‘shame’ peptides send a message to the brain to please allow that thought, so they can get their hit. Saying no is taking control.
Neuron 2This is not about denying ourselves feelings. When these painful feelings arise, we recognise them and validate them for what they are. Then, however, we have the option to allow them to pass unheeded, or to feed them.
For those who believe consciousness is separate from the brain, rather than generated by it, emotional pain is a belief which lands smoothly onto a slick runway in the brain, prepared and hungry for ideas. When it lands, the pain is generated in our bodies. Remove the runway by changing our thoughts and the belief disintegrates. The road is blocked. The pain cannot get through.
This is why psycho-therapy is not always good news. Understanding what motivates us and the reason for learned behaviours is important, but therapy which involves raking over trauma simply serves to reinforce the neural pathways of pain.
Very few emotional beliefs turn out to be completely true. For example, a single woman with no children may choose to believe she is unwanted and a failure. But married women with no freedom due to childcare requirements may envy her. Perspective is everything.
Conflicts are contrasting neural pathways. Between two individuals, the belief ‘I am right’ is an addiction to a route laid down in the brain which the other individual lacks. Beliefs can be changed. Conflicts within the same individual are like a motorway that divides into two. Both routes are equally well travelled ….for example, should I go full-time and enjoy a higher standard of living or should I devote more time to myself and my family? Should I return to my abuser, when the abuse is only sporadic, and otherwise he spoils me, makes me laugh and fixes things in the house? Should I eat this delicious cake now or lose weight?
Creating new neural pathways has been shown to stave off Alzheimer’s. This can involve simple things like taking a new route to work or brushing one’s teeth with the other hand.

Neuron 3What to do :
Brain neuroplasticity can be changed by self-observation. In this way we literally recreate our brains. Note to self : once we have understood the emotional situation it is not repression to deny ourselves painful thoughts. It is, in fact, self-mastery, and once learnt, an exhilarating way of living the life of our dreams.
When we sense the pain rising up, we must be instantly aware. The thoughts will soon follow, so it is crucial to be quicker – quicker than the addiction. When the same old painful thought begins to form, we make a physical move to shake it off – for instance, flicking our head to the side, stamping the foot, swaying quickly and back, or pinching ourselves. The thought will try to come back a few seconds later, and then again a few hours later. Let us remember, we will feel very uncomfortable when we block a painful thought. Our logic will tell us to allow the thought so we are not ‘in denial’. What is really happening is our addicted cells are desperate for a hit, and try to trick us into allowing painful thoughts.
Addiction to negative peptides can prevent nutrients entering the cell. It is aging to our bodies. Talking about and reliving past trauma reinforces the addiction.
Every time the familiar painful thought tries to form we nip it in the bud. In this way we weaken the neural pathway. The motorway becomes overgrown and disused, and eventually disappears.
To reinforce the rewiring we can do the following visualisation exercise:

Neuron 4We picture our brain criss-crossed by strands of light, and home in on the light pathways that carry negative emotional messages. We see them getting darker, and then burning up like a wick or a burnt match. Eventually they are dead pathways, and disintegrate altogether. Then we draw out new pathways, in different directions, and illuminate them with our mind. We then ‘fill’ those pathways with new affirmations (e.g. I am emotionally free. I live a perfect life free of pain).

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How to do a body scan

Body scan 4Repetitive negative thoughts can trigger emotions that sink into parts of our bodies and stay there, causing stress, which leads to DNA damage….and sickness and ageing. Performing a body scan can allow us to detect where there is a feeling of discomfort. These feelings sometimes surface during everyday life – for example, when we are hurt by a loved one, or after a breakup or a conflict at work. We may sense pressure on our lung and stomach area and a heaviness in the heart, almost as if a giant were standing on these parts of the body. More often however, these sensations are drowned out by everyday living, and a body scan can allow us to home in on them and eliminate them before they are allowed to grow into something physical that can harm us.

Body scan 2It is good to do the scan several times a week, because these feelings come back regularly, and can require repeated work before they are dissolved. New ones sink into place all the time. Performing a body scan on a regular basis is therefore good news for our bodies. The image above shows how we can use visualisation and sound to perform this exercise.
For each part of the body, starting from the bottom, we visualise the colour indicated above in that part, and make the vowel sounds at least three times, or as many times as it takes if there is a feeling of unease, until it disintegrates.

It is not necessary to ‘know’ what the issue is. A sensation is enough. If we wish, we can focus on a particular organ or body part – the kidneys, the knees, the back, the solar plexus for emotional pain – and breathe deeply, feeling the sensation become less dense, exhaling the tension and sensing it evaporate. Didgeridoo music or shamanic drumming is particularly effective in dissolving physical or emotional trauma. As we sound the vowels in the image, we imagine that the colours are becoming brighter and more perfect, and affirm that this organ or body part is healing completely and is now iBody scan 3n perfect health.

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