Home Truths Sophia Waugh

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

At this time of year, with self­im­prove­ment in the air, I note a trend emerg­ing for the pop­u­lar­ity of men­tal, as op­posed to phys­i­cal, gyms. It seems that ev­ery­one – other than me – is putting ef­fort into re­train­ing their brains to think pos­i­tive, rather than neg­a­tive thoughts.

This is to do with the so-called neu­ro­plas­tic­ity par­a­digm shift. Sci­en­tists now know that our thought pat­terns need not, as pre­vi­ously be­lieved, be set for life in early child­hood, but can be changed if we work on them. The ef­fects of such dis­ci­plines as mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion ex­er­cises can al­legedly be mea­sured by phys­i­cal changes in brain struc­ture re­vealed by be­fore and af­ter scans.

Ruby Wax, armed with a masters de­gree in cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy and mind­ful­ness from Ox­ford, and one of the premier ex­po­nents of mind­ful­ness, is even set­ting up a chain of af­ter-hours ‘Fraz­zle’ cafés on Marks & Spencer premises, so that peo­ple who have gone into neg­a­tive mind­sets can meet up and re­pro­gramme each other.

Self-be­lief, pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment, thought con­trol, ‘You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf them...’ Oth­ers are aim­ing to con­sciously avoid ‘neg­a­tive men­tal spi­ralling’ just at a time when I am not only think­ing neg­a­tive things about my own life and the world in gen­eral, but also voic­ing these thoughts again and again. Mary says I’m the last man in the coun­try to be pos­i­tively seek­ing out things to be neg­a­tive about.

Yes­ter­day, for ex­am­ple, we were sit­ting to­gether in what we call Room 2, an up­per bed­room with a fine prospect of the downs. It was a crisp af­ter­noon and shafts of win­ter sun­light were gild­ing a par­tic­u­lar hedgerow with a ram­pant cov­er­ing of trav­eller’s joy. Pos­i­tive­think­ing Mary pointed out how each of the lit­tle seed heads was il­lu­mi­nated. ‘Look,’ she ex­ulted. ‘It’s just like an ex­quis­ite row of fairy lights!’

Then the sun burst through an­other cloud, this time to spot­light a group of Duke of Ed­in­burgh Award stu­dents pick­ing their pur­pose­ful way up­wards through the thick tus­socks of down­land grass. ‘That whole scene takes me right back to the chil­dren’s school­days,’ I re­flected. ‘From a dis­tance those tiny fig­ures re­sem­ble noth­ing so much as head­lice.’

‘What a hor­ri­ble im­age!’ groaned

Mary. ‘Why are you so neg­a­tive?’

She calls the con­di­tion neg­gorhoea. Then there was the re­cent news of a writer friend. Over the forty years we’ve known him this bril­liant but badly paid man has lived a cheesepar­ing life, often work­ing in bed to avoid putting on the heat­ing. Now at eighty, he’s sud­denly hit the jack­pot with a large and un­ex­pected legacy. While Mary was ‘over the moon’ my in­stinc­tive re­sponse was ‘What a shame it’s come too late for him to en­joy it.’

Yet surely there is room in life for both gush­ers and neg­gorhoeacs? Does ev­ery­one need to strive for a sunny Cal­i­for­nian mind­set when the nat­u­ral English mind­set is Eey­or­ish? I know my friend Cyril and his wife Ur­sula en­joy mining my care­fully cu­rated men­tal com­pen­dium of bad things that have hap­pened to friends and ac­quain­tances. They call it the En­cy­clopae­dia of Mishaps and Mis­eries.

The con­tents draw on my abil­ity to re­mem­ber mi­nor dis­as­ters which have af­flicted oth­ers: awk­ward ex­changes with trades­men or do­mes­tic staff, real or imag­i­nary so­cial slights re­ceived, his­toric dis­ap­point­ments over the wrong food or­dered in restau­rants. Even other peo­ple’s bad dreams and night­mares. Cyril and Ur­sula al­ways have a laugh when I re­mind them of one of their own long-for­got­ten mishaps or mis­eries.

Walk­ing on the downs my­self to­day, look­ing for hand-worked flints, it oc­curred to me that my long-term mem­ory for things which have gone wrong may have its ori­gin in a time of man’s early de­vel­op­ment as a hunter gath­erer when one mem­ber of the group would be able to as­sist by re­mem­ber­ing facts re­lated to places or per­sons which may pro­tect the group from bad sit­u­a­tions. ‘Don’t go there be­cause that was where Fred Flint­stone fell into quick­sands...’ This atavis­tic safety valve would thus con­fer an evo­lu­tion­ary ad­van­tage on the group as a whole.

If Mary wants to think pos­i­tively, why not re­train her mind to view my fa­cil­ity for the neg­a­tive as a bless­ing rather than a curse?

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