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April Fools?

In many ways, I love being the butt of someone’s joke, I love to be duped and fooled. Love magic tricks, especially of the Derren Brown variety that always reveal something profound to us about ourselves and others. As well as entertaining us in the process of fooling us.

I love Penn & Teller’s Fool Us. I particularly love it when those two Great Foolers themselves get fooled. And I love it when I am able to make a fool of myself (of my often-times pompous notions and ideas, at least when I’m defused enough to see the pomposity and ego-driven nature of them). And if done with love, and a kind of, hey-we’re-all-bozos-on-this-bus cameraderie, I can even enjoy it when others make a fool of me.

But I also feel uncomfortable when I see people being laughed at or mocked, especially if they are unable to defend themselves. I hate to see defenceless animals and children being treated unkindly, or made fools of.  I also don’t like the more cruel spectrum of practical jokes that shock and alarm, or even really dismay people on this day where we celebrate all things foolish and fooling. Would I eradicate the day itself if I had the power to do so? Never. Because life is a series of April Fools’ days you might say, a constant series of small and large practical jokes sent to challenge us and teach us. Here are just two of my favourites:

-We grow up in a culture that tells us romantic love is the be-all and end-all in terms of living a rich, full, and meaningful life. And then when we get into a relationship, and at some level we start to feel duped by that narrative. So we fight, bitch and moan at our other halves, because we’ve all bought into those lovely, lovely lies of Pretty Woman or Sleepless in Seattle. When instead of the happy-go-lucky romcom we get Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Her,  or Fatal Attraction, perhaps even The Shining, don’t we feel like fools? And when we’re not in relationships, we feel outcast or alienated from this Core Romantic Narrative pumped into our minds through everything we watch and read 24/7, embedded in every song we’ve ever listened to.

April Fools y’all!

-Or what about the reality slap, that wonderful term created by Russ Harris to describe the gap between what we have and what we want: of jumping through hoop after arduous hoop (academic, interviews, various forms of social ingratiation) to get that prestigious job, or car, or amazing holiday, or nice house -whatever we think might bring us happiness- only to find ourselves miserable with the glamourous trappings we’ve worked so hard to attain.

April Fools y’all!

And by y’all, I include myself first and foremost in that dupery.


But the ultimate April Fool is the fool our minds make of us on a daily basis. Never out of pure malice – for how can a lump of meat, the brain, sitting between our ears bear malice towards us? Rather, as a function of their problem-solving, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding programming. Every time my mind tells me that the reason so-and-so didn’t respond to my text message is because a) they don’t care about me or what I’ve written to them, or b) they don’t fundamentally like me, or whatever other narrative they come up with, and I buy into that and suffer. Again: April Fools y’all!

Every time my mind singles out something I don’t like in someone else and then tells me that’s a reason to hold that whole person in contempt – April Fool!

Every time my mind says: that pleasurable thing you want (the extra glass of wine, the seventh chocolate digestive, the checking-of-Twitter or firing off an email ten minutes into a walk, or a yoga session, or some meditation) DO IT NOW – April Fool!

I don’t know about you, but my mind makes a fool of me dozens of times a day. 

What to do? Recently I’ve gone back to doing a particular kind of meditation practice, both formally (as in a sitting practice), but more so informally, which I’ve found really helpful with my foolish mind. It might surprise you, as it doesn’t involve trying to argue with your mind, saying to it “No mind, you’re wrong when you say that your [boss, brother-in-law, mother, father, colleague – choose where applicable] is NOT a [insert choicest, most damning criticism of that individual]”.

Arguing with our minds doesn’t work because the mind is the best barrister ON THIS PLANET! It has hundreds of files, videos, taped phone calls, enough to fill 256 gigabyte’s worth of memory on a standard laptop demonstrating the ways in which that person or situation has said or done something foolish, fallible, unfair, unreasonable, and just generally shitty in a bid to hurt or upset you. And maybe they have. This is not to downplay the foolish, fallible, unfair, unreasonable, and just generally shitty things we do and say to each other. I have been a veritable font of foolish, fallible, unfair, unreasonable, and generally shitty words and actions to other human beings in my misguided and suffering mind-states. And I have also been privy to other people doing some of that around me too.

But if you even attempt to argue with your mind about all of this, it will win. It will prove you wrong, and itself right over and over again. And you will then be left in whatever state your mind gets you into when it plays and replays those particularly juicy, particularly painful tidbits, as verifiably true. So that doesn’t work (at least in my experience – has it ever worked for you?) – that will just lead to more suffering, which is something we want to try and reduce, right? I do. 

Apart from defusion, when our minds start getting Practical Joker/Tormentor on us, what else can we do? A clue might lie in one of my favourite poems of all time, one I know by heart:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Man! (Also: woman!) Isn’t that the reality-gap/slap encapsulated in one small stanza?! This bears repeating:

What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.


Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.


My cynical/judgemental/critical brain sometimes can be a bit hard on kindness. “Hallmark card sentimentality,” it sneers. And I don’t argue with it when it says that. Yes, Dave, I say (I call that part of my brain, Dave), yes, that’s one way of looking at it, thank you.

You could say, not that I’d get Dave to agree with me on this, that a kindness practice rather than the word itself or a nice Instagram quote on kindness (the word/quote lasts a millisecond, hardly registers in the mind at all) is a “medicine” for all those inadvertently unkind parts of ourselves.

Inadvertently unkind because they are trying to be helpful in their sometimes heavy-handed suggestions, comparisons, judgements, lectures and sermons. They don’t realise that, just like our parents and teachers and political figures (at times), they only further torment or make fools of us rather than being useful or helpful. Their comparisons, judgements, lectures and sermons only make us suffer more not less.

A kindness practice, ideally done on a daily basis, in the same way we might take some vitamins or brush our teeth daily, works at the very roots of our mind’s magic tricks, the illusions and delusions it feeds us to keep us safe, but which also separate us from the world, other people, and often times our own deeply held values and beliefs. When I remember to do some of the kindness practices below, it often feels like an almost selfish pleasure, in that the gain for me is huge (over time) but also doesn’t hurt anyone else. In fact might make their challenging, suffering lives a tad lighter too.

A win-win is always great. Bingo! Or “Yahtzee” as one of my kindness gurus, Dan Savage, will sometimes exclaim when he suggests a win-win outlook for his suffering callers. Dan Savage is also a great example of how you don’t need to be all whispery and quiet, all holier-than-thou to practice kindness. His Savage Love podcast is the kindest advice show on the planet, even though Dan is often scabrously blunt and pragmatic, but his advice and wisdom and good humour is always delivered with kindness and a desire to be helpful.That’s the kind of kindness I aspire to.

So here’s a challenge for us in our bid to become kind in a way that some of your Kindness Warriors* are kind.

  1. If you’d like to do a formal practice (I’m aiming to do this once a day for the whole of April) I’d recommend this 15 minute guided meditation from Russ Harris. I think it’s structured in a way to really get us into a kinder space towards ourselves and others, without being sentimental or “spiritual” in a cloying/annoying way (although finding our mind’s response to sentimentality and spirituality annoying, would also give us another way to be kind to ourselves):

2.  Informally, the next time you go for a walk with your whirring, chattering mind, focus your attention on random strangers passing you on the pavement, and then instead of the usual stuff our minds do (commenting, ignoring other people, feeling intimidated by their “otherness”) silently direct some of these well-wishing phrases to them in a mantra-like loop:

“May you be peaceful, healthy, content.”

“May you experience love and kindness.”

“May your life be rich, and full, and meaningful.”

It may feel a bit weird when you start doing it, but notice what happens to the mind if you push past the cynicism and boredom of your Inner-Dave.

3.  Start learning by heart the whole of, or a part of the poem Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye, or some poem that has a similar kind vibe that speaks to you. Maybe Hopkins’ “My own heart let me more have pity on”, or Pat Schneider’s “The Patience of Ordinary Things”, or Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”. Recite these poems by heart when you feel low or anxious.

4. Think of something you’re struggling with at the moment. Close your eyes, maybe even place a hand on your head or chest, and imagine someone kind that you know, or even a pet, saying some simple but kind words to you in sympathy. Whilst writing this today I’m strugging with a stonking head cold and am feeling fairly grotty. I had my kind person, and Max, say to me: “I’m sorry you’re feeling so crap today. Go easy on yourself, give yourself a bit of cosseting, Steve.”

If you try out any of these, please do tell me how they go in our next session together.

*My kindness warriors, also my ideal dinner party guests, just off the top of my head: Dan Savage, The Obamas, David Mitchell, K D Lang, Stephen Fry, the Queer Eye dudes, Russell Brand,  Adam Phillips, Caroline Lucas, Steven Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Penn & Teller, Mary Oliver, Ajahn Sucitto, and many many folk from various spiritual traditions. Also, even more so, all those people you wouldn’t recognise if I named them. My clients, each and every one of them: all sensitive bods, and all incredibly kind people. My parents and other relatives, even with all their flaws, their sometimes foolish, fallible, unfair, unreasonable, and maybe even shitty and unkind ways at times. And what about that guy who stopped his car when he saw little Max, my dogchild, running in the middle of a busy road after he went AWOL in Fryent Park a few years back? Or the kind elderly lady and her husband who always stop to say a few kind words about my garden when they see me outside weeding over the weekend. The list goes on and on. As does this one]

By Heart De Profundis Feel Better Gerard Manley Hopkins Poetry Koan Self-care Self-compassion

By hearting MY OWN HEART by Gerard Manley Hopkins

My own heart let me more have pity on; let

Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,


It is one thing to believe in a well-being practice and to espouse it as effective to others, but quite another to feel it working deeply and directly on oneself. This week, learning Hopkins’ My Own Heart poem by heart, I have felt time and again, especially with these first few lines, the medicine of the poem kicking in as soon as I began to recite it, decisively and without delay, restorative, as much as any fast-acting drug might work: insulin, nitroglycerin, beta-blockers, morphine, heroin, poetry.

What am I saying here? That the act of intoning these words mantra-like, over and over again, learning them by heart, taking them into my psyche, allows me to feel almost instantly and proprioceptively the poem’s calming influence. Even at times when I was not aware of needing to be calmed or soothed, it seems to do the job. How can that be?

Hopkins, Jesuit trained, might have intimated divine intervention, the power of De Profundis (out of our depths) prayer, a petitionary genre of talking to God originating in Psalm 130:

Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice:
Let thine ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications.

This might be the case. But I am probably more wont to believe that this poem-prayer-spell is testimony to the therapeutic power of self-compassion, which in the last couple of decades psychologists and neuroscientists have shown to have impressive healing potential.

How does this work? Building on the research of Richard Davidson, and Jaak Panksepp, key to understanding the power of De Profundis prayers or poems lies in grasping the basic emotional circuitry shared by every mammal from humans to rats.

In this case, we’re particularly interested in the neural pathway that Panksepp calls The Care Circuit, extending from the hypothalamus to the ventral tegmental area (VTA) which is key to generating feel-good neurochemicals like oxytocin and endogenous opioids that have been shown to sooth negative emotions and reduce distress.

We get our first taste of these feel-good drugs as infants, either when self-soothing (with a soft toy, a dummy, or finger-sucking) or when being caressed, cradled, hugged and rocked by our parents or other caregivers. Interestingly, just as we can scare or make ourselves feel angry by dwelling on certain kinds of thoughts and situations, activating our own Fear Circuit or Rage Circuit, even when there is nothing in our environment that is tangibly threatening through autonomous self-compassion can recruit the Care Circuit to produce those feel-good oxytocins and opioids.

As Tim Desmond puts it: “from your brain’s perspective, comforting yourself, is almost identical to being nurtured by someone else”. Before this can become a spontaneous habit of well-being, a certain amount of effort and attention might be required though; as much effort and attention as it takes to learn and repeat a poem or a prayer over the course of a week, or a lifetime. And it is this effort of self-care, in opposition to our punitive super-egos telling us we don’t deserve this care, that makes it a challenge for most of us to “have more have pity on” ourselves, to give ourselves a break.

Hopkins alerts us to this in the first line of the poem, shifting the quantifying determiner “more” from its expected position in front of the noun (“let me have more pity”) to the verb (“more have”) so as to highlight the conscious effort required for self-compassion. Just as it takes a similar kind of application when learning the poem,  to keep Hopkin’s “unnatural” prosodic choices in place as we commit his words to memory. With repetition, these new, somewhat contorted forms of language begin to feel as legitimate, if not more legitimate than the habitual phrasing we usually employ. Which is perhaps what happens too if we practice kindness and self-compassion towards ourselves.

Onerous as it can initially feel, self-compassion is a very simple recipe with just 3 ingredients:

1. I KNOW I’M SUFFERING (“With this tormented mind tormenting yet”)

2. I ALSO KNOW THAT I WANT BE HAPPY (“let joy size”)

3. I KNOW I’M NOT ALONE IN THIS QUEST (“Soul, self; come, poor Jackself”)

SO…LET ME BE ESPECIALLY KIND AND CARING TOWARDS MYSELF (My own heart let me more have pity on / … call off thoughts awhile / Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size…” etc.)

But like many simple recipes (brownies, tomato sauce, pesto, ice-cream) the difference between mediocre results and something truly excellent is often immediately discernible.

What comes out of this poem is the necessity for what our current healing practitioners, aka science-ratified psychologists, might call Dialogue Based Mindfulness, which is also a key aspect to many therapeutic practices like Schema Therapy or Internal Family Systems.

This essentially requires us to separate the part of us that is suffering, referred to in the poem as “poor Jackself” from the part of us that can offer care and comfort. In the second stanza, we see this dialogue in action with Hopkins compassionately “advising”, guiding, even genially wheedling to some extent his “jaded”, depressed self to call off toxic ruminations and cut himself a little slack.

The wisdom of this dialogue is that Hopkins also seems to be suggesting that we can create a certain kind of terrain for happiness to embed itself (“leave comfort room-room”) just as I’m about to do later in the garden today, weeding and enriching the depleted post-summer sod with nutrients so that I can grow next years bulbs and flowers. We can to some extent orchestrate the conditions for happiness, but there is also the understanding that its advent might be something of a gift: “whose smile / ’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather”.

And yet, when comfort does come, “as skies / Betweenpie mountains – lights a lovely mile” the freshness of Hopkins prosody, that lovely punning portmanteau word “betweenpie” (mountains as pies? pie as in “Pied Beauty“, “glory be to God for dappled things”?) squeezes an extra slug of neuromodulating opioids from our skittish neurons, and we really do feel, physically as well as metaphysically more at ease.

Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself! Take a self-compassion poem that speaks to you, like this one, learn it off by heart and repeat it as often as you need to throughout the day when feeling a bit off. Feedback below in the Comments box if you like.

Feel Better Max Nature Self-care Things My Garden Has Taught Me

The Constant (Caring) Gardener

If you don’t water your plants carefully and consistently, especially those not embedded in earth, but exiled in pots and planters, they’ll soon let you know, becoming pallid, etiolated husks of their former selves. Take this poor wilty tomatillo plant on the left that greeted me a few mornings back: not a happy camper.

This is the garden’s way of saying to us: “In order to flourish, constant care is what I need. So please, assigned caregiver, try as best you can to develop this habit. For me, but also for you too, for all of us.”

Only the garden gives us such expeditious feedback. If we ignore other valued life projects or goals, they generally don’t let us know they’re on the verge of expiring in the way that plants do.