Home Truths Sophia Waugh
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?