Saturday, January 12, 2013

Snake Oil for the Soul

A recent study conducted by researchers at London’s University College has shown that people who describe themselves as being ‘spiritual’ without being ‘religious’ are much more likely to suffer mental health issues and substance misuse than either those studied who describe themselves as ‘religious’ or those that were neither religious nor spiritual in their outlook.
This contradicts studies done in America (surprise, surprise) that state that ‘spirituality’ leads to greater mental health.
As someone who describes myself as ‘spiritual’, this is rather confusing for me! It leads me to ask the questions - what could possibly be going on and why the seeming contradiction between the American study and the British one?
It is quite clear that the number of people who call themselves ‘religious’ – those who follow a given religion in a textbook way – is decreasing. Or to put it another way, the number of people who say they do not affiliate themselves with a specific religious belief is increasing. This seems obvious, but actually is not so obvious if you factor in the people who sit-on-the fence.
Looking at an analysis of a survey done in the USA by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life it is obvious that the number of people in the ‘nothing in particular’ section shows the highest percentage rise. The number of atheists is on the rise too, but at a much slower rate.
It is the ‘nothing in particulars’ that interest me. Why not just declare yourself atheist or even agnostic? To this group do the modern day charlatans peddle their wares. To this group is sold the ‘snake oil for the soul’.
Strong religious affiliation has repeatedly been shown to improve quality of life and increase longevity. Even in the UC study, those who call themselves ‘religious’ are less likely to indulge in self-destructive activities. Why is this? Religion provides many things that we, as humans, crave. It provides us with allegiance to a group – important in evolutionary terms for protection. These days the group provides emotional protection. It provides ‘meaning’ and answers to the difficult questions in life like ‘why are we here?’. People who adhere strictly to religious dogma also have a daily guide for living. There is a sense of peace in the idea that even if you do not have all you want in this life, it will be given to you in the next.
People who do not follow a set religion do not have the comfort of the group, the answers to the questions or the plan for daily living. They do not have the promise of a greater afterlife. They may feel a void in their lives. I heard it recently described as feeling ‘emotionally and spiritually bankrupt’. Into this vacuum step the snake oil peddlers. The people trying to sell you meaning and happiness in a book, on a DVD, in an evening class, in the looking glass. The irony of living in the developed world is that by having everything we need we have the time to contemplate the ‘meaning’ that we lack. If we were busy merely trying to survive, we would not have time to ask such things. By giving up ‘religion’ we have left ourselves open to whatever else comes in its wake.
Any intelligent, sentient human being will ask themselves ‘what is it all about? What does it all mean?’ at some point or another; possibly quite frequently. If the answers to those questions is not easy to come by, if religion does not provide them, then some people will come to the conclusion that we are no more than molecular structures and chemical reactions and that there is no meaning – the happy atheists. Others may choose simply to drown out the questions in the grind of daily life. There is also an increasing group of people – the ‘nothing in particulars’ who may seek it in spirituality. Sadly, there are also those who may choose to shut the questions out with drugs and alcohol, or suffer anxiety and depression trying to find them, and this is the group reflected in the British study.
The seekers – the ‘spiritual’ – those who recognise that there may be ‘something else out there’ but are not finding the answers in conventional religion are fodder for quackery. The ‘enlightened’ offer their spiritual quick-fixes; pseudo-religions and culty beliefs in inner voices and spirit guides. I heard the expression ‘emotionally and spiritually bankrupt’ that I quoted above on a TEDx talk by a woman who obviously fell into the ‘nothing in particular’ group. She ended up misusing drugs. But then she had a ‘spiritual awakening’ and is now peddling her brand of snake oil worldwide with lucrative book deals, DVDs and endorsements no doubt. Well, I am sure she is no longer ‘bankrupt’, that’s for sure. She made me quite cross with her self-righteous talk of inner voices. Why didn’t her inner voice tell her to volunteer in a soup-kitchen or a cancer hospice instead of the self-indulgent nonsense we are so used to hearing now about ‘finding oneself’. I’m right here!
The shelves in book shops are creaking with the weight of self-help books. They promise you meaning and fulfilment in 250 pages. Yes, you too could live your dream and fulfil your promise – if you write a self-help book. Deepak Chopra is worth 80 million dollars. Ah…but is he happy? For, after all, happiness is the ultimate aim in all this. A panacea for the soul is no use if it leaves you sad.
The American study says that by being spiritual you can be mentally healthier. What the British study shows is that the quest itself might make you mad. Is it simply that people who question things more deeply are more prone to anxiety, depression and seeking release in illegal substances? I haven’t found the answer to this, nor have I found the meaning of life (it can’t be 42 surely?) but I shall keep asking the questions, even if it drives me insane. As for happiness, it’s there for the taking and I don’t believe it’s found in a book or a DVD or an evening class – it’s probably found in the looking glass.
Now, will you be buying my book…?

Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Eve

Measuring time in arbitrary units often leads to confusion. The Mayans, for example, were obviously not using the Gregorian calendar when predicting the end of the world. The Gregorian calendar itself is not used universally; the Islamic calendar and the Chinese calendar are still widely used.

Having said that, it seems that cultures all over the world agree on one thing - everyone likes a party to celebrate the start of a new year.

I have, in the past, been fairly cynical about the whole party-like-it's-1999 thing. On the much-hailed eve of the millennium, my husband and I, exhausted by the needs of a new(ish) baby, decided to stay in. We invited the neighbours over. They proceeded to get massively drunk and have a row. We quietly sipped our champagne and watched the fireworks on TV, while they each carried on their diatribe outlining the other's massive perceived character faults. They made up (passionately) later.

Since then I have taken the view that a party is a party and the arbitrary start of a new set of 12 months does not mean I have to go out, spend a fortune, get drunk with people I hardly know, wear a silly hat and sing 'Auld Lang Syne'. Who actually knows the lyrics to that, anyway? We usually end up at the movies with virtually the whole cinema to ourselves.

So this year, when our plans for a quiet evening with some friends got turned on their head by circumstances outside of my control, I found myself agreeing to host a dinner at home, for many, with just 24 hours notice. Those who know me will know that this meant I would stress myself out about it.

Sure enough, last night, with a last minute shopping trip looming, I started the worrying. The usual absorber of my anxiety, my patient husband, told me not to worry (as if!). He said he would do the cooking (as if again!). I am a complete control freak and letting someone else take charge is outside my 'comfort zone'. I did not want to disappoint the people I had invited. I wanted the evening to be perfect.

Last night I found that we had bought ‘slimline’ ginger ale instead of normal ginger ale – this would never do as I was going to use it to cook my ham in (thanks Nigella

Oh, the worry that followed! I dashed to the supermarket this morning in the glorious sunshine and some great songs were playing on the radio. I bought the last of the ginger ale on the shelves, and some carrots I had forgotten to buy the day before and picked up a coffee and generally felt good. In fact I felt happy; happy to be out and about in such nice weather, happy that the new supermarket had opened in a small mall near our house, happy that the small mall had an excellent coffee shop, happy that I had found enough ginger ale and just happy to be alive. As I wished the man who bagged my shopping a ‘happy new year’ I realised that he would probably be working all day today and that his family are probably miles away. Would he be celebrating with friends? Would he be celebrating at all?

In that moment I had an epiphany. I would be celebrating this evening with my husband, my children and some very good friends. I was going home to prepare a veritable feast. My friends would all bring more food. We would have had enough food in the house to prepare a feast even if I hadn’t been shopping the night before. First world problem – worrying about having ‘enough’ food for a party?

So as the ‘new year’ starts, I am not going to make any resolutions I cannot keep. I am not going to resolve to lose weight – my muffin-top is now a whole muffin – because although vanity means that I would like to be slimmer, I am actually healthy and fit. I am not going to resolve to be a better wife or parent because I know I am being the best wife or parent I can be – I am not perfect and it is useless trying to strive for perfection. I read something recently in a book called The Happiness Project ( that came as a revelation for someone as perfectionist as I am – “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”.

So here I am, writing this blog, relinquishing control of the kitchen to my husband and making the one resolution I hope to keep this year…to see the good in all that is around me.

Happy New Gregorian Year everyone! Have fun whatever you choose to do.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Spring Clean

As is supposedly customary at this time of year, I decided to have a spring clean.
I am a terrible one for hanging on to things long after they serve any useful purpose. However, this time I was determined to do it right and rid myself of unwanted cutter.
Call it a mid-life shake-down if you will.
I started with my clothes. I am guilty of that terrible female crime of having lots of clothes and nothing to wear. Nothing ever seems to match anything else as I tend to impulse shop - buy in haste repent at leisure.
It came down to having the courage to let go of the old things that no longer fit - admit that they will never fit again and that no diet on earth will ever make them. The fact is that most of those things were of a very dated style or else too 'youthful' for my maturing years anyway. I created a massive pile in the middle of the bedroom floor which my long-suffering husband was delighted to see when he came home. He might not be so delighted by the hole I intend to create in the bank account when I go shopping for replacements.
Next came shoes and handbags and again a giant pile was created. It was therapeutic to finally admit to myself that certain things I had never in fact really liked and really shouldn't have held on to 'just in case'.
When I was done, what was left was truly worth keeping - quality items that made me feel good about myself.
The process made me open my eyes to other aspects of my life. So many of us hold on to old notions or old feelings that clutter up our mental space. We often stick with relationships or friendships that no longer fit or make us feel awkward.
My shake-down made re-examined old ideas, and discard a few that were outdated. I saw things in a fresh light and cleared some mental space. The clean-up was long overdue.
I recommend a thorough spring clean to anyone who feels there life has become filled with the old and worn.
Go on, free yourself of clutter!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Beauty Counter Vampire

I had a dream about a hamster last night. I figure it's the Universe's way of reminding me to update my blog.

I have just spent a week in a remote desert, and I have to say, my skin looks great for it.
Oh, alright, yes, I hear you...there was more to it than that. I wasn't there just for the complimentary sand-blast exfoliation treatment. I did actually work rather hard patching up those crazy biker boys and girls.
But for now I am not going to write about that. I want to write about my skin. When did I stop being a soap-and-water sort of girl and become a victim of the 'skincare regime'?
Here's what I packed by way of skincare, to take to said remote desert- make-up remover, foaming facial cleanser, toner, moisturiser, eye gel, night cream, firming body cream, lip balm and hand lotion. All in trial size, of course, but still, it means sharing a toiletries bag with my other half is a thing of the past.
I think being told that I had 'fine lines' and 'tired eyes' by the witch at the beauty counter a couple of years ago triggered a sort of panic.
This was exacerbated by another beauty counter encounter when I was innocently trying to buy hand lotion. Washing my hands before and after each patient and using alcohol gel makes hand lotion a necessity and not a luxury. I had picked up my usual brand when I was approached by a tall, pale man with a jet-black quiff wearing a white shirt open at the throat and tight black trousers. I could swear he was wearing a touch of red lipstick. Imagine if Dracula had been gay, and you'll get what I am talking about.
He looked at my choice and shook his head sadly. "What is it?" I said, knowing I would regret asking. "Show me your hands" he said, in a Transylvanian accent, like a particularly creepy palm reader. He took my hands in his immaculate, white ones and I immediately regretted missing that manicure appointment. He turned them over and inspected the backs and shook his head sadly again and sighed. "What is it?" I asked again.
"You must buy the cream for aging hands" said the seer.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because you have aging hands" he explained patiently, as though talking to a small, simple child. "Look" and he proceeded to point out all my wrinkles, dry bits and sun spots.
I did manage to guilt him into giving me the promotional gift even though I had spent less than the required amount. Trial size products are useful for trips to the desert.
I realise that I have become a sucker and an advertiser's dream. I really do believe the hype. A cream that makes you look younger? I'm buying. Another that destroys cellulite? Bring it on. My body is like a testing ground for chemicals of mass destruction.
Having said that, I didn't use all my fancy lotions and potions in the desert after all. Just the moisturiser really. And I was eating whatever junk we were served, as well as a sneaky Pot Noodle or two. And I was surviving on five hours or less sleep. Funny how my skin seems to look better for it. Maybe the sand, sun, soap and water were all I needed after all.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Choosing a name for a child is an agonising process for most people - apart from the woman on the ward when I delivered my eldest who named her baby 'Tray', obviously. The name you give a child may lead to glory or shame. Spare a thought for the Theresa Greens and Michael Hunts of this world (think about that second one). I knew of a urologist by the name of Richard Skinner. I have no idea what became of poor baby 'Tray'. Maybe she's a genius and her friends love her, or maybe she's routinely humiliated because her mother named her after the first household object that came to mind.
Naming my blog was almost as agonising as naming my offspring, I can tell you. I had wanted to call it 'Nice person, wrong planet' but there are clearly other space cadets out there with the same idea, as a simple Google search produced many a displaced nice alien. I racked my brain and wrung out my creative juices. After all, having conceived this blog, I am now responsible for it.
The name ‘Flying Saucer Hamster Wheel’ appeared to me – literally- following another Google search for ‘hamster wheel’. The idea of a hamster wheel being that the poor creature on the wheel keeps running and gets nowhere. I have often thought us humans are much the same; forever striving for unattainable goals and finding no happiness in the relentless pursuit of them. Sometimes you need to just step off the wheel and gnaw a bit of bark or scratch behind your ear. Or maybe, sometimes, you need a flying saucer to whisk you away.
When I step off the wheel I like to read. I also like to write-but if you’ll excuse me for now, I’ll just be in the corner nibbling on a carrot stick. Unless, that is, I happen to spot a passing alien craft...