Play BIG: Exercise Choice And Control – No Matter The Circumstances


Recently, I have experienced life as difficult and troublesome. The temptation is to feel sorry for myself, to sink into apathy, to make excuses. So this conversation as much for me as it is for you.  Let’s begin.

I have in mind a man whose accomplishments include:

  1. becoming a respected ornithologist;
  2. making important contributions to avian pathology;
  3. running a successful business;
  4. publishing a successful book (Diseases of Canaries), ten years later publishing an updated edition (Stroud’s Digest On The Diseases of Birds);
  5. gaining respect and some level of sympathy among ornithologists and farmers;
  6. writing two manuscriptsBobbie, an autobiography, and Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons; and
  7. studying French near the end of his life.

Now, here is my request: please paint me a picture of this man – what kind of education did he have, where did he live, who did he live with, what were his circumstances, what was the style of his life?

Let’s listen to Ellen J. Langer, Professor of psychology (bolding mine):

Even the most apparently fixed and certain situations can become subject to control if viewed mindfully. The Birdman of Alcatraz was sentenced to life in prison with no hope of reprieve. All the world was cut off from him; one empty, grim day followed the next, as he stared at the flock of birds flying outside his window. One morning a crippled sparrow happened into his cell, and he nursed it back to health. The bird was no longer just a bird; for him it was a particular sparrow. Other prisoners, guards, visitors started giving him birds and he learned more and more about them. Soon he had a veritable aviary in his cell. He became a distinguished authority on bird diseases, noticing more and more about these creatures, and developing more and more expertise. Everything he did was self-taught and original.

Instead of living a dull, stale existence in a cell for forty odd years, the Birdman of Alcatraz found that boredom can be just another construct of the mind, no more certain than freedom. There is always something new to notice. And he turned what might have been an absolute hell into, at least, a fascinating mindful purgatory.

– Mindfulness (choice and control in every day life), Ellen J. Langer

It occurs to me that when I am feeling sorry for myself, it behoves me to get present to that which is so for every human being: existential freedom. Freedom to chose how I show up and travel in life – no matter the circumstances.  Talking about circumstances, the Birdman of Alcatraz spent the last 54 years (of 73 years) of his life in prison. And of these 54 years he spent 42 of them in solitary confinement! Compared to him, I find my life to veritable heaven – and there are no excuses for not exercising choice and control over the course of my life. Including and importantly, the attitude/stand that I take in life.

And finally, it is worth getting present to the circumstance, being, and accomplishments of Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Want a life that works? When you notice you are ‘on it’ then ‘get off it’!


If I want to ‘Play BIG’ then it is necessary that I be present to and mindful of ‘i getting on it’. And when I notice that ‘i is on it’ then ‘I get off it’. Sounds a bit abstract so let’s make it concrete and personal by sharing what happened this morning.

Guess what happened this morning?

Everything was OK, I had just returned home from dropping my daughter off from school.  I was in the kitchen (alone) and enjoying the peace.  Then my wife came into the house and started asking where the three boxes of presents (I assume they are presents as they were gift wrapped) came from?  My eldest son replied that he did not know.  I said that I did not know – I had not even noticed that they were there sitting on the black granite kitchen worktop.  Either my wife did not hear us or more likely her automatic machinery was hooked by the presents because she looked agitated and continued asking where the presents came from.  At this the automatic machinery that runs me kicked in:  she is being unreasonable and demanding so let her have it and i let my wife have it.  i made my wife wrong for continuing to ‘demand’ that we tell her what was in the presents and who they had come from.  Clearly i was on it and giving my wife a hard time.

Then my wife brought my attention to what i was doing by telling me to get off her back.  What she told me and the way that she said it paused i and brought I into the foreground.  And I being that part of me that is mindful and present to the game that I am playing allowed me to see that I was acting out of Integrity with my Possibility and my Stand.  Noticing that ‘i had been on it’ I got off it: stopped telling my wife off and apologised for my behaviour.    And I was back to being peaceful.

If you need the theory then here it is

If I want to ‘Play BIG’ then it is necessary that I be present to and mindful of ‘i getting on it’. And when I notice that ‘i is on it’ then ‘I get off it’.  When I say this what am I saying?  Let’s unpack this a little:

When I speak “i” I am simply pointing towards the machinery that is always running me, you, us  (the default condition that goes with being human)’.  The psychologist and Nobel Laureate in Economics calls this machinery “System 1” and he is clear that it runs us the vast majority of the time and we (“System 2”) are unware that we are being run as it occurs outside of our conscious awareness.

The nature of machinery “i” is stimulus-response. When certain things happen in the world (stimulus) our machinery kicks into action and we ‘get on it’ meaning we become righteous, we act out of the mode that something/someone should be this way and not that way and we start ‘throwing our weight around’ in some way – some of us do this through aggression other do it in other more subtle ways best described by those that are experiencing the effects as ‘death by a thousand cuts’.

When I say ‘I get off it’ I am pointing out that at some point mindfulness will be present and I will notice that my machinery is hooked and throwing its weight around (‘i is on it’) and so it is the responsibility of I (what Kahneman calls “System 2” and Stanovich calls “algorithmic mind”) to get off it – I think of it as unplugging the automatic machinery and getting of ‘shoulding’, being self-righteous, dominating the situation (with my story) and invalidating others.

Insight and practices for noticing that ‘i is on it’ and for ‘getting off it’

‘Playing BIG’ requires that I be a master of noticing when ‘i is on it’ and then ‘getting off it’.  How do I become a master of this?  First by practicising mindfulness – the daily meditation is making a difference here.  Second, by deliberately putting in place times/practices during the day (e.g. lunch) that call me to be mindful.  Third, committing to ‘getting of it when I notices that i is on it’.  Kahneman points out that spending time in advance thinking/picturing what we want is a good way of programming ‘System 2’ (the reasoning mind) to do a better job of monitoring/controlling the automatic machinery.  I used to be pretty good at these practices (and they worked) before I gave them up and entered a long period of darkness.  So I am confident that I can be great at them this time round.

6 practices for cultivating (getting present to) happiness and contentment


Let’s assume that we, human beings, want to be happy and contented.  If that is indeed the case then what should we do to cultivate and/or get present to happiness in our experience of living.  That is to say what can we do to experience happiness rather than think and make a statement along the lines of “I am happy” without feeling happy.  Each of us has his or own ideas about what drives, causes, gives rise to the state of happiness.

What do research studies on happiness suggest?  Are the practices that have been scientifically proven to cultivate and/or get us present to happiness and contentment in our lives?  Yes.  If you have the time then read “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt and “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky – I find the first a cracking read and inspiring, I find the latter a handy and practical reference book.  If you do not have the time then I simply wish to point you (and me) in the right direction by spelling out 6 happiness practices that have a scientifically sound basis.

1. Give Thanks (Gratitude)

There is enormous power in the simple habit of counting our blessings.  Regular expressions of gratitude promote optimism, better health and greater satisfaction in living our lives.  How often should you sit down and get present to all the stuff that you can be grateful for?  You might think daily and yet the science suggests that this does not work.  It is more effective to do make this a weekly exercise – make it a habit to take time out once a week to get present (make a list) of all that you can be grateful for and who you are grateful to.  Do this rigorously and we have the opportunity to get present to the huge contribution so many people (many of them strangers) make to our lives and how much we have grateful for.  For example, this morning I gave thanks for the hot shower simply by turning a tap and the gorgeous smell of coconut soap!

The Amish practice this everyday – they give thanks before they eat (“Living With the Amish”).

2.  Pay Attention (Mindfulness)

Studies show that mindfulness (being present in and to the present moment including self, others, the environment) matters.  Mindful people have stronger immune systems and are less likely to be hostile and/or anxious.  If you practice mindfulness you will be amazed at how disconnected you are from your body (living in the mind) and the present moment (living in the past and or the future continuously).  With practice we become more and more present and thus make the most of the present.

3.  Keep Friends Close

Make time for those closest to you.  I am particularly present to this as I have been immersed in a web of rich conversation with people that matter to me over the Christmas period.  Research shows that social connections are the key to happiness (the Amish totally get this).  And the quality of the social connections matter more than the quantity.

I find it interesting that the Amish practice this as well – they live with and work with their family members every day and they live within a community and within each community they know the people (their lives, live histories, the key people in their lives) – not just names of the people.

4. Drop Grudges (Forgiveness)

Research shows convincingly that when we forgive those who have wronged us, we feel better about ourselves, experience more positive emotions and feel closer to others.  In the course of watching “Living With The Amish” I got present to how wise the Amish are – they actively practice forgiveness.  An example was given of a gunman that shot dead 10 young Amish children whilst they were at school: despite the incredible loss the parents publicly forgave the gunman!  That is a hard ask and yet think about whose lives would have been the most damaged if they had not forgiven:  the lives of the Amish parents, their children and the people in their community.

There is a zen tale related to this.  One day a renowned and fierce samurai turns up to see a zen master.  Face to face the samurai asks “I am tormented.  I have travelled far and wide and asked many yet I have not attained the answer I am looking for.  What is the difference between Heaven and Hell.”  The zen master ignores him.  The samurai asks again and is ignored again.  The samurai asks again – this time more forcefully.  The master responds “Get out of here you worthless dog!”.   No-one has ever talked this way to the samurai nor treated him this way.  Rage grips the samurai and he takes out his long sword and is about to bringing it down on the zen master and end his life.  Right there the zen master says “That is Hell”.  The samurai gets it – right there – the sword falls from his hand.  Then tears flow from the face of the samurai – he gets that the zen master had put his own life at stake to be of service to him (the samurai).  When the zen master says that change of state in the samurai he says “That is heaven”.   I hope you get what this tale is getting at.

5.  Move (Exercise)

Regular exercise increases self-esteem, reduces anxiety and stress, and may well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all.  Again, it is interesting to note that the physical work plays such a large role in their lived lives – from dawn to dusk the Amish families work together making stuff and taking care of the necessities of life.

6.  Practice Kindness

Being kind to others makes us feel good.  Altruistic acts light up the same pleasure centres in the brain as food and sex!  Again I find it interesting that the Amish practice kindness vigorously when it comes to their community, their Church.  The make a point of sharing each other’s sorrows, they help each other out e.g. barnraising, they celebrate together…… Kind of explains why sex, fancy food and material goods (and riches) do not have the same hold on the Amish that they have on many of us.

A Handy Reminder

You can download a handy reminder of these practices by clicking on the following link:  Six Habits of Happiness

I thank you for listening and taking part in this conversation.

How present am I to the moments of delight?


Yesterday I driving the Mercedes with the sunroof and four other windows open.  I was in a little bit of a hurry to get to my end destination as my eldest son was waiting for me.  Then suddenly the breeze kissing my cheeks and playing with my hair was noticed by me.  I stopped: that habitually “I” was stopped in it’s track.  In it’s place was present joy – simple delight in being alive.  And then gratitude gave me a big hug.  gratitude for the brother that bought the Mercedes for me and keeps it in good order.  gratitude for being alive and being able to drive – fast.  gratitude for the breeze on a hot day.  And gratitude for family and friends…….

Then I got present to this simple fact:  most of the time wonder is present in the ordinary moments (like a cup of tea or the smile of a fellow human being)  yet the  “I” is so wrapped up in “getting somewhere”, “doing something”, “making something happen”, “not tripping up”, “making the best use of my time” and such like.  The absurdity is that the “I” says it wants to be happy yet it is so wrapped up for its happiness plan that all the raindrops of happiness land on the desert.

So the answer to the question is that in my everyday automatic way of being I am not present to the moments of delight.  That does not mean that the world is not full of them.  And if I want to experience the joy of these moments then I need simply to be present – to be aware, to be mindful, to move from the mind to the body and simply view the world from the lens of “what works” rather that “what does not work” and the lens of “gratitude” rather than that of “complaint”.