Mindful moments: stand, drink water

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(First published in 2015) In which a poem and song about the Christchurch earthquakes help me to take a mindful moment when I drink a glass of water.

One of my boot camp tasks is to increase the number of genuinely mindful moments—when I’m fully aware of what I am doing and feeling and thinking and sensing at at the time. Sitting and meditating is easy by comparison. Both are a pleasure—but it’s difficult to snatch that quick flash of mindfulness in a busy day.

Paradoxically, mindfulness comes easier when it’s a habit. My son Geoff, for example, aims to be mindful in two situations: every time he walks through a door and every time he takes someone’s blood pressure. One is a moment of transition, the other a moment of stillness.

At Capital Choir we are singing a powerful new song — music by Felicia Edgecombe, words by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. Here’s the poem.

After the tremor

after the tremor the neighbour
after the terror the stranger
after the stranger the doctor
after the doctor the soldier

after the soldier the looter
after the looter the vulture
after the horror the ruins
after the ruins the kindness

after the kindness the sirens
after the sirens the silence
after the silence the weeping
after the weeping the comfort

after the toppling the creaking
after the shaking the shaking
after the shaking the questions
after the rage and courage

after profound desolation
after the nurse and the undertaker

we stand and we drink from a glass of water

— (c) Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

See that last line? The people of Christchurch know what a privilege this is. The poem forces us through a relentless sequence of events and feelings experienced by Christchurch people during the last few years. The horror began with a massive earthquake that shattered the city, but that was only the start of hell time.

We stand and we drink from a glass of water.

Stability. Water. We take them for granted, most of the time. For older people, stability and water are even more precious. Sometimes when I stand and drink from a glass of water, I try to think of nothing else. I look at the water—what an amazing modern blessing, clean clear water running out of a tap! And the glass—perfect, it works! I’m standing firm and straight and steady. The ground is firm. God I’m lucky!

These are mindful moments, refreshing, stabilising. A flash of awareness incites gratitude. And how much time do they take? None, because we have to drink water anyway—especially when we are older.

After the tremor: the song

Image from The Art of the Dresden Gallery (1907) by Julia de Wolf Gibbs

Photos of Christchurch before and after the February 2011 earthquake


Game plan for the coming decades

accept the unfathomable
and face the inevitable

Rachel McAlpine

Image from “Prodigiorvm ac ostentorvm chronicon […]” (1557)  Lykosthenes, Konrad; Kandel, David, and Manuel, Hans Rudolf

How dancing has improved the function of an aging brain

Antique dancers’ brains benefit from dancing antique Greek dances

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(Written in 2015.) In which I perform a scientific analysis of the effect of dancing on an aging brain: three out of four cognitive skills have shown a marked improvement.


I belong to the Crows Feet Dance Collective. We rehearse once a week for 90 minutes and every year we perform a brand new contemporary dance show. “New”: that means every rehearsal is a learning session.

Any sort of dancing must surely be good for you physically, improving balance, flexibility, strength, and the cardio-vascular system. And let’s take it for granted that dancing is usually a social activity, which is also important for older people.

But how about the brain? Does dancing really make you smarter, as some research seems to suggest?*

I began dancing 9 years ago, aged 66, and I’ve been reflecting on certain cognitive changes that I can attribute largely to dancing. So consider me a walking, talking, fully subjective before-and-after case study.

Three cognitive skills have become much sharper: orientation, proprioception and kinaesthetic learning. I know: I was there. For my first four or five years I blundered around the floor in utter confusion. But eventually the truth emerged: yes, even at an advanced age, even with an incompetent driver, my brain was capable of benefiting.

Alas, I still give myself a Fail for focus, on which everything else depends. I understand that concentration does tend to get more difficult with age. But the other three areas of my dancing brain have improved so much that I will not give up.

Orientation: much improved

In the everyday world, I’m pretty good at knowing north/south/east and west. Provided you remain in the same hemisphere, sensing the compass points is not too difficult (hint: look for the sun).

But in a dance studio, orientation is not so simple. You’re whizzing around rapidly, occupying different areas, changing directions, spinning, turning left, right and upside down, told to face upstage or downstage or left or right or this corner or that corner, and you’re surrounded by other rapidly moving dancers. For the first few years, yes, years, I was constantly confused about orientation.

My sense of helpless confusion has passed. If at times I do get confused about orientation, I get it sorted pretty quickly.

Proprioception: a new era of awareness

It’s hard enough to pronounce this word, let alone actually do it. Proprioception is the sense of where each part of your own body is in space. Precisely where are your feet, your legs, your hands, your arms, your back, your head at this moment? At what angle is each leg, each arm?

Maybe I needed this skill more than most. I used to live in my head. I functioned OK, but in fact I had hardly any awareness of my body at all. I was aware of my busy little brain going 90 miles an hour, but as for my body, it was a kind of blur that came along for the ride. It was attached to me, but what it was doing—who knew?

Without good proprioception, you would never learn any choreography—your body would always be doing its own thing. You have to know how a certain position feels in your body: you can’t keep checking up, glancing at your limbs while you dance.

Happily, my propriocentric awareness has rocketed.

Kinaesthetic learning: damn fine

I learn so much faster now than before. Only a few years ago I would spend the whole rehearsal blundering from one move to another, copying the other dancers, thinking step by step in a dislocated juddering sequence of events.  Bend this bit, now flick that bit, right foot first, triplet, stop, run, stretch right… And I would use every memory aid I could concoct. Drawings. Diagrams. Videos. Narratives. Lists.

In those early years, learning choreography was horribly slow and horribly painful. Even when I could remember the moves, I was never really dancing. Still, by the time we performed I could stumble through my stuff more or less in the right place most of the time.

To be fair, learning new dances is pretty demanding on the brain. You’re watching and listening, and integrating oral instructions with your body, the music, other dancers and the geography of the dance floor. It’s not easy, which is why I like it.

Let me be blunt. I will never learn at a fraction of a young person’s pace. We all notice that. But when I compare my 75-year-old self with my 66-year-old self, the difference startles me. My muscle memory is stronger, and sometimes I even get that magical sense of flow.

Focus: must try harder

The one cognitive skill that I’m not happy with is my ability to focus.

It’s embarrassing to realise that I often look as if I don’t know the dance—but I do know the dance! I’ve just lost my focus temporarily.

In rehearsal, loss of focus is a nuisance and slows learning down. On stage, loss of focus can be a disaster.

Admittedly, it’s more difficult dancing in performance. The space is completely different, the lights are bright, you have to dodge obstacles, the auditorium is pitch black, and tension is high.

One night during our last season, I performed a brief involuntary solo. Inside, I was mortified, but I bluffed my way back to the gang. The stage was very busy at that point with at least 20 dancers in action, so I pretend that nobody noticed.

Next step: mindful dancing

Thus I give myself a 75% pass, which leaves room for cognitive improvement in the last 25% of my life. That’s great, because my motto is: Don’t peak too soon.

This is my boot camp goal: to focus on the dance consistently. In other words, to be mindful while dancing. To notice when my mind wanders and bring it back to the task at hand… and not to be too hard on myself.

The joy of dancing is immense. I want to carry on learning and growing and stretching myself body and mind and soul until I drop. And I don’t want to disappoint myself or my fellow dancers, who are all dear to me. For all these reasons, I will do my uttermost to focus on focus.


Use it or lose it: dancing makes you smarter, longer

Robert Powers of Stanford Dance summarises relevant research and its implications for us.

Image from The antique Greek dance, after sculptured and painted figures (1916) Emmanuel, Maurice. In the public domain.

Just when do you want to die?


Exactly when would you prefer to die? Soon, before you are too old? Most of us don’t have a choice. I wrote this poem for Sally Bond, who died at 95 in a rest home on Christmas Day, 2014. But perhaps it will fit someone else you know. Or you and me, one day.


Most of us are afraid
of a slow fade,
a late grave.

Most of us equate old age
with panic and despair
and things we could not bear.

We say, Not us! No way!
We want to be hit by a bus.
… But when?

Most of us blaze through middle age.
Much later, we mellow.
Less yellow. More grey.

And later still, we fade.
Then death is subtle
and dying is wise.

I asked my sister, When
will I be ready to die?
She answered, When you die.

poem & photo by Rachel McAlpine cc-by-4.0

This poem is in Senior Poems, a Kindle ebook to echo and soothe your thoughts and hopes and fears and joys as you face the bonus years.

Happiness is a trickle of little happinesses

Locusts swarming. So do our happy little moments.

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(Reprinted from 2015) In which I struggle against an urge to catalogue and dissect the little happinesses of everyday life.


Is happiness a warm puppy, in the immortal words of Charles M. Schulz in Peanuts? Or does a warm puppy bring a happy moment to brighten our day?

Any science of happiness must include a definition of happiness. There is a certain amount of consensus among researchers, as far as I can tell.

  • Happiness is a composite of life satisfaction, coping resources, and positive emotions
  • Happiness does not mean a sustained state of ecstasy, 24/7, unrelated to what’s happening in your life and the world. (That’s more likely to be mania or drug addiction or gross insensitivity.)
  • Happiness includes a kind of general satisfaction with your life. Even in times of sadness or stress, do you still feel OK about your life, deep down? Then hey, get this, I think you might be happy!
  • Happiness is sustained by lots of little episodes that give you positive emotions. Positive emotions include a big range — for example, joy, pleasure, amusement, pride, interest, satisfaction, affection, gratitude, admiration, awe.

Today’s catalogue of happy moments

I decided that today I would take note of these happy moments in my life, as an exercise. I would pick on three things that gave me those positive emotions.

  1. Gratitude. Woke a little late after a deep and satisfying sleep.
  2. Aesthetic appreciation. Enjoyed the reflection of pittosporum leaves on the windshield of a parked car.
  3. Excitement. Saw a shiny new orange garbage truck parked around the corner, instead of a yucky old green one.
  4. Gratitude. For our fully functional city with regular garbage collection.
  5. Physical enjoyment. Noticed pleasant feelings in my thighs as I gently jogged to the pool.
  6. Human connection. I liked the look of a skinny long-haired lad in a singlet running ahead of me, so casual and messy.
  7. Surprise. Back view of a beautifully posed man in a new navy pinstriped suit, talking on his cell phone, framed symmetrically by a lamppost, cafe, and sign.

Lordy, that’s seven already and they just kept coming, faster than I could register or analyse them.

The downside of over-analysis

Walking home from my swim, I analysed my analysis of happy moments and decided never to do such a ridiculous exercise again.

The usual trickle of small pleasures had become an onslaught, a flood, each pleasure obliterating a previous pleasure, each overtaken by new pleasures streaming past in a blur.

  • Because I noticed the truck, I failed to savour the pittosporum.
  • Because I noticed the pinstriped poser, I lost a delightful image of the skinny lad.

Na. That’s the opposite of mindfulness. That’s more like ADHD.

The self-conscious pursuit of happiness is counter-productive

The exercise confirmed what I suspected: life is crammed full to the brim of little happinesses. Life is a freeBay of little happinesses. They are there by the thousand, the million, all the time, right under your nose. They knock on your consciousness when you need them. They take their time. They pace themselves. They take turns. They play nicely with each other.

If you aggregate them, if you notice them all, they swarm and attack you, one at a time. Then each little pleasure jets past, lasting a split second. No time to savour a single one!

So up to a point, I’m attempting to disagree with Socrates when he said:

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Instead, today I’ll side with John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography:

Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.

What do you think?

Image: Locusts swarming. No known copyright restrictions.

How can we maintain our identity as we grow old?

Child contemplates two women turned to stone
Is this my future? A child contemplates two women turned to stone.

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In which, despite a disheartening deterioration of the ageing body and some ill-judged wardrobe choices, I discover a salutary harmony between the front I present to the world and my subjective experience of a dislocated identity.

“Be who you are”

That’s the eleventh challenge in my boot camp for old age, in which I work on improving my chances in the brain-gain lottery that lies ahead. This particular task is to figure out my changing identity — I’m changing into an old person — and starting to live with it instead of fight it.

Another way of putting this: I would prefer my outside to match my inside, for people to look at me and get an accurate idea of who I am and what I feel like inside. I’ve been searching for an inherent personal coherence, consonance, or harmony.

But this is not straightforward, because right now life is rapidly changing my outside. Grey hair, wrinkles and all that cranky stuff that shrieks “Old lady! Old lady!” — when inside, I’m still a bit confused. Like you (I presume) I have moments of feeling like a 6- or 26- or 36- or 56-year-old, which are all a big mis-match with my chronological age.

OK, I’ve had 12 months to complete the boot camp. Plenty of time, huh? You’d think so. But over the summer I got lazy, wallowing in late mornings and a dormant business and sweet sunshine, socialising and sea-swims.

The fruit of procrastination: a list

  1. Right now I sort of match how I feel: a vigorous 76 and I look like a vigorous … 70, perhaps? Not bad consonance.
  2. I’ve always enjoyed choosing what to wear and I still do, it’s fun. But nowadays I make more mistakes than previously. I never look like an old fuddy duddy (not in my own eyes, anyway) but I do sometimes look slightly ridiculous. I think that’s fine, that’s definitely a pass. Because this combination of sartorial qualities is a good match for how I perceive myself: not young but youthful; vibrant (colours); original to the point of seeming a bit “off” at times. I’m just me.
  3. A few people “get me”, people to whom I never have to explain my jokes or my serious opinions. That’s enough. I only need a few people to see right into my real self.
  4. Just as I’m scrutinising my own external appearance and inner self, I’m also scrutinising others. I’m discovering a new delight in seeing friends and strangers with new eyes. Far from thinking, “Why do you always wear that boring old cardigan/jeans/fleece/sneakers?” I find myself thinking, “Look at you! I see you: you are yourself through and through, and you are like nobody else in the entire world — how wonderful is that!”

We are who we are. Was there any need for this challenge at all? For you, probably not. For me, maybe.

Image by W Heath Robinson in ‘Old Time Stories’ 1921

Starter kit for a happy life at any age

Magic tricks for happiness in the bonus years

bootcamp2015-small 2(Reprinted from 2015) In which a skeptic succumbs to sheer weight of modern evidence about the foundation of happiness.


Here’s the nitty gritty message taught by the Science of Happiness MOOC from UC Berkeley. A surprising proportion of our happiness is under our own control. If you score a person’s happiness out of a possible 100, maybe 30% is a result of our own actions. Actions we can choose. Actions of mind as well as body.

These statistics (whaddya mean, 30%?) do my head in and arouse skepticism if not paranoia — so don’t ask me to explain them. All the same, I take it on trust that we can learn to behave and think in certain ways that increase our general satisfaction with life.

Here are four undisputed biggies which pop up consistently across many studies, trivial and massive, short and very long. According to the great They (as in They Say), most people who do these four things are more likely to be happy. I know that was an unreferenced comparative and a philosophically and scientifically meaningless statement. Still, you get the gist.

4 magic tricks to make yourself happier, provided you happen to be the mythical average person

  1. Exercise enough. That’s possible, yes it is. (Exercise, as a universal aid for aging bodies and brains, takes high priority in my personal boot camp.)
  2. Sleep well. That’s easy … for some. (I’m rather good at sleeping. I practise every night.)
  3. Have enough money — sufficient for the necessities of life. When that’s a problem, it’s obviously not an easy one to fix. But for many of us, “enough” is a matter of perception. Minimalism and decluttering your life overlap good old-fashioned thrift, and gives you a nice feeling.
  4. And here’s the easiest trick of the lot: just hang in there. Grow older. After hitting 50, the average person’s subjective level of life satisfaction begins to rise. Physical health declines with age but happiness increases, huh? Who knew? Actually, rather a lot of people by now. The latest research to confirm this counter-intuitive trend comes from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research.
    The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey: Selected Findings from Waves 1 to 12

The big four are well proven happiness predictors. Do we really need any more picky proof? Why not just do what we’re told? There’s more to it, naturally — this is just a starter kit.

Image in the public domain, from Internet Archive Book Images