Interviews

Ejo #158 – The Extraordinary People I Know: Melinda Norris (aka My Gratitude Partner)

Last month I wrote about the gratitude practise that I have shared with my beautiful friend, Dr. Melinda Norris, for over eight years.  This month the two of us sat down (virtually speaking) and had a chat about our project, its benefits, and how easy it is to incorporate an everyday gratitude practice into your own life.  Please give a very warm welcome to my close friend, and longtime gratitude partner, Mel. 

I’m still basking in the afterglow of the wonderful day we spent together when David and I were in Australia last month. After dinner at your place, I noticed a copy of your thesis for your doctorate in Psychology being used (egad!!) as a keyboard stand.  And I was absolutely blown away by it.  It’s such an impressive work.  Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Of course. My thesis was an applied PhD as part of a longitudinal project with Victoria Police.  I followed 7,000 staff over three years with a focus on wellbeing.  My research particularly looked at how people cope effectively with the daily hassles and stresses in work and life.  Which strategies are most effective?  How stable is our behaviour over time?  And, how much can be predicted by our personality, versus learnt by life lessons.  It highlighted the value of humour and seeking emotional, and practical, support as three highly effective coping strategies.  It also showed that a lot of our stable patterns of behaviour are just as much, if not more, learned rather than purely a product of our personality.  Which is great, as it means we can learn new ways, and improve how we cope with the challenges that life throws at us!  

Mel’s opus

This might be an obnoxious question, but do you ever take inspiration from our gratitude practise and incorporate it back into your work as an organisational psychologist? 
It’s really rewarding to tap into my passion, research and personal experiences to help others.  So I do take inspiration from our gratitude practice all the time, and build it into work, formally and informally.  For example, I try to explicitly express my gratitude for any support and collaboration with leaders and team members.  This builds relationships and trust quickly, leading to more effective collaboration as a result.  It also helps me to appreciate the small things every day, and to get through setbacks better.  I notice I don’t get stuck in a negative mindset anymore.  I can bounce back quicker, and find a more optimistic outlook. 

Trust me, I’m a doctor.

I think I got really lucky that you asked me to be your gratitude partner. You’re someone who’s made the wellbeing of others their life’s work, and I don’t think it gets any better than that! Do you remember how our gratitude challenge started all those years ago? 
Yes, I clearly remember how it started.  I was reading your Freedom ejo in our kitchen and getting really engrossed in your story.  I got the clear sense that you were committed to staying in Dubai for a variety of good reasons (career, travel opportunities etc.), but that you missed Australia desperately (your friends, family, the environment and climate).  And I got the sense you were struggling with the downsides of your day-to-day life.

I still miss my friends so much.

I could relate.  I too was struggling to feel the joy in my daily life, but for different reasons.  I was working in a high pressure, deadline-driven job with a lot of responsibilities.  Working four days a week, but squeezing what felt like at least five days of work into those days.  I was also a parent to two gorgeous young boys, and I wanted to be more a part of their lives.  I felt so much guilt and sadness, having to utilise before, and after, school care.  I found a solution with a nanny for a few years.  Kim picked the boys up from school, helped them with homework, and prepared dinner three days a week.  Still, I felt incredibly torn.  I wasn’t succeeding in all my roles in life like I wanted to.  And that was just the two most consuming roles.  I also wanted to be a better wife, a better friend, and a better sister.  There just weren’t enough hours in the day, the week, the year!  I was efficient like a ninja, making every minute count.  Doing so much work on my daily commute, so that I could drop everything when I got home and be fully present.  But I still couldn’t help feeling torn between my career and my family. 

I’d been trying different strategies to enhance my wellbeing and help make my life more enjoyable, and less stressful.  As a psychologist, I knew of the power and benefits of practising daily gratitude, empathy and mindfulness.  I tried writing a gratitude journal, but found it tough to stick with, so that strategy didn’t work well for me.  Something was missing.  A key ingredient.

As I read your ejo that day Chryss, I was inspired by the idea of a gratitude partner.  Adding a social component to any wellbeing strategy has an amplifying effect on the benefits.  Just like exercising with a fitness partner; you enjoy it more, you keep up the habit, and therefore you experience the full potential benefits on your wellbeing.  I was so delighted with the idea and thought that you would be the perfect gratitude partner for me.  You seemed like you’d be open to it, like you needed it too; and we were good friends.  Friends that had lost touch a bit over the years, but you were a friend I could trust, and be open with.  A friend I wanted to stay close to, but found that hard with the tyranny of distance. 

So I wrote to you then and there in my kitchen, letting you know that I’d read your ejo, and that I could relate; that I thought we’d both benefit from sharing the things we were grateful for with each other at the end of every day.  I suggested that we keep it simple.  I didn’t want it to feel hard, or like a burden for either of us.  I hoped it would help me to stick to my commitment and form a new habit.  But more importantly, I hoped that you would reciprocate, and also experience the benefits of practising daily gratitude.  What eventuated was much more than I’d ever really hoped for!  It certainly proved that my idea of adding the ingredients of social connection and reciprocation was incredibly beneficial. 

After the success of our first year of gratitude, we both decided that we wanted to keep it going.  What is it about our gratitude project that’s kept you wanting to continue, year after year? 
I’ve found it so helpful to have you as my gratitude partner.  It has definitely been the key ingredient that’s contributed to the desire to keep at it, and to continue the routine.  For me, it makes it so much more than just searching for, and noticing, all the good things that happen each day.  It makes it interesting and rewarding. And it’s the reciprocal nature of the relationship that makes it really special.  Having you, Chryss, as my gratitude partner, was a winning selection!  You care as much about it as I do, so we are well matched in our commitment to the habit.  You’re also a friend whose opinion I value, and a friend who I want to stay close to.  One precious outcome was that our old friendship was rekindled and deepened.  Actually, I don’t communicate this regularly with anyone else!  So the relationship provides me with a strong social connection, and frequent deep exchanges that I really enjoy, and need, to experience my best life.  

Another surprising benefit for me has been that I’ve felt heard, understood and even supported through some incredibly difficult times by our relationship and regular contact.  We agreed not to communicate negative things, or use it as a place to complain.  We didn’t want that to creep in.  We’ve both been very good at keeping that promise, demonstrating discipline and sticking to our commitment.  And I believe that has maximised our experience, and the benefits.  We keep each other going, encouraging each other and reinforcing the practice.  There are days, here and there, when we don’t communicate, but we always catch up.  These pauses tend to happen when we are on holidays, or deeply engrossed in a busy and challenging time.  Which is when it matters the most to keep at it.  The other partner keeps sharing and asking questions to nudge and help the other person along, but without guilt or judgement.  It has always felt supportive and uncomplicated.  Never a burden or a hassle.  Just a reminder that this helps, and that there is someone who cares and notices, in loving kindness.

It has also cultivated empathy.  You share in the other person’s triumphs and challenges. You realise that everyone has small and big struggles in their lives, regardless of how “successful” or “happy” they seem on the surface. You live through that with the other person.  Another thing Chryss, is that you always have a way of asking me very insightful questions or making thoughtful comments that trigger self-reflection, or just help me feel really understood and supported. 

Thanks Mel, I feel exactly the same way.  I always love getting your feedback, or a question probing more deeply into something I’ve shared with you.  And I think that’s another facet of our routine that has contributed to us becoming closer.  It’s never just a list of things.  It’s a real conversation. 

So, you and I have both experienced some pretty big emotional challenges over the last eight years.  Can you talk about how our gratitude practise may have helped you get through some dark times?
Our partnership started just fourteen days before Cara, one of my closest and most treasured friends, was diagnosed suddenly with terminal breast cancer.  It came out of nowhere, and at a stage that ruled out the hope for remission.  The only options were lots of treatments to prolong and preserve her life.  It was devastating news; news she only shared with me and one other close friend for a long time.  During that period I had a demanding job that required a huge amount of my energy and brain power.  And I was a mum to two beautiful primary school aged boys that needed me too.  Around the same time, my oldest son was suddenly, and frequently, hospitalised with recurring post viral myo-pericarditis.  Essentially, his heart, and the lining of his heart, became inflamed every time he became unwell with a cold or flu.  So as you can imagine, my life at that time, and for the next five years, required a lot of emotional energy each day.  It made practising daily mindfulness, gratitude and empathy critical for my own wellbeing.  Critical for sustaining myself during significant upheaval.  I think this helped establish a strong habit early on in our partnership.  I really needed it!  It got me through five incredibly hard years, and the death of a dear friend.  I coped well with this, and felt resilient, even greatly in touch with the meaning of life.  Trivial upsets, I could see clearly as being just that!

Three months before Melinda’s friend, Cara, passed away, she and some friends took a very special trip to Uluru.

Over the years, things have improved and I’ve not had so many huge challenges in front of me.  Or maybe I have, but my perspective has changed me forever!  Actually, when I reflect on this now I can see that there have been huge challenges – a global pandemic, my son having surgery on his heart in between lockdowns, and my nephew being diagnosed with leukaemia.  Mostly, I’ve come to realise that it’s like going to the gym each day to stay fit.  It’s only a habit if you keep it up; it only has the desired impact if you keep the recipe consistent.  You can’t expect to stay fit, if you don’t work out regularly!  Practising gratitude daily is the same.  It only works well if you form a rewarding habit that keeps you coming back for more!

Do you have any suggestions for people wanting to start their own gratitude project with a friend?
Find someone you feel you can share this experience with.  Someone who matches your commitment, and also desires the same outcomes.  Someone you care about and are motivated to help.  Most importantly someone you can be honest with, that won’t judge you, but simply offer support and encouragement.

Develop and agree to your own guiding principles for how you share.  Maybe you love writing in a journal each night.  You could simply photograph the page, and send the photo to your friend.  Maybe you send an email, or start a chat in Signal or WhatsApp.  You can make this your own.  But whatever you do, I’d recommend making it easy to do each day for you and your partner.

The only core element that I’d say must be included is finding and communicating at least three things each day that you were grateful for, no matter how small.  The secret is in noticing and being grateful for all the little things each day that we often take for granted.  If we only notice the big positive things in life there can be a long time between drinks!

In last month’s ejo I offered to be a gratitude partner to whoever was interested in trying it out for themselves.  A lot of people told me that they enjoyed the ejo and that they loved the idea, but so far no one has taken me up on my offer.  Why do you think that might be?  
Perhaps they need time for the idea to take hold.  I think you have to be ready for it, and really want it.  You and I had already been working up to it, so our desire and readiness was matched.  Snap!  Perfect timing; perfect partner.  I wonder if people also see that you already have partners in me and your sister, so they don’t want to add to that.  Perhaps they’d rather find their own special partner?

Fair enough.  I do hope that more people give it a shot.  But if the idea of doing a gratitude sharing project like ours feels too daunting, what is one piece of advice you can give to people right now to find more gratitude in their lives?
Even the act of thinking about what you are grateful for is beneficial!  So I would try to notice gratitude in the moment, to be mindful of it.  Most importantly, to express it then and there if another person is involved.  Express your gratitude to others explicitly in the moment, when you feel it.  They’ll appreciate it and you’ll feel better for it.  Be specific about what you’re grateful for, and why.  What’s the impact on you?  A simple wave when someone lets you in, while driving.  A clear thank you to your partner for making dinner.  Thanking your colleague for offering to buy you a coffee. It’s not that hard but it makes your day, and the day of others, so much better. 

I know you’re a super busy working woman and mother Mel, so I really appreciate you taking the time to have this awesome chat with me. I’ve really enjoyed taking a deep dive into our very special gratitude ritual, and I hope that by sharing it with the world we’ve been able to inspire others to look for, and express, more gratitude in their day-to-day lives.  And finally, at the risk of sounding terribly corny, I’d like to express how very grateful I am to you for being there with me, every day during the last eight years. And how grateful I am that I can count on you being there with me again tomorrow.

I’m grateful every time I see Mel’s megawatt smile!!!

Ejo #149 – The Extraordinary People I Know: Ziggy Attias

Chateau Orquevaux is a magnificent property perched on a hill overlooking the tiny village of Orquevaux in the beautiful French countryside.  With a population of about 70, the charming, centuries-old village was in grave danger of fading into obscurity, as its young folk flocked to nearby cities in search of a better life. 

That is, until Ziggy Attias came along and breathed life back into Orquevaux.  In 2015, he inherited the neglected property from his father, intending to fix the place up and sell it.  Instead, he very quickly fell in love with the Chateau and decided to transform it, and its gorgeous grounds, into a place where artists could visit and retreat from the world.  A place they could spend time with like-minded people, and find inspiration, creativity and collaboration.  A place in which artists could focus on their art, somewhere they could just be.  A place of peace and tranquillity, of breathtakingly pristine nature and an overwhelming sense of magic which radiates throughout the entire estate.  And so he created the Chateau Orquevaux International Artists & Writers Residence programme. 

I recently had the very great fortune of spending two wondrous weeks in residence at Chateau Orquevaux.  I shared those two weeks with twelve other artists; mostly painters but also a collagist, a photographer, a musician, another writer, a clay sculptor and a floral sculptor.  And while I was there I was very lucky to have the opportunity to sit down with Ziggy to chat about art, what being an artist is about, and his 100 year plan for the future of the Chateau. 

What is an artist?
What is an artist? I would say an artist is someone that can express themselves in the most honest way, the most vulnerable way.  I think an artist is someone that’s outside the box, somebody that is a free thinker.  There are a lot of people that call themselves artists that maybe aren’t.  The kind of artist that I’m attracted to is somebody who’s loose, not judgemental, somebody that accepts people as they are, and doesn’t try to put themselves on everything.  So they can be quirky, they can be a little crazy, all that stuff is okay.  But, if they want to be accepted, then they need to accept.  So to me, the purest way to be an artist is to be somebody who’s out there and free and expresses themselves, but also accepts that from other people.

So what makes Ziggy an artist?
I don’t really do any one discipline.  I would say my main discipline is manifesting something out of nothing.  So I’m an idea person. 

Like the Chateau?
Like the Chateau.  Seeing something from a little bit of a different angle than somebody else would see it. Obviously I didn’t build the Chateau, but I had an idea of what it could be.  I would say all the different forms of art that I’ve done, whether it’s film or jewellery or sculptural pieces or writing, I think I come at things from what I can do.  Because there’s a lot that I can’t do.  So my creativity, what I think makes me unique and gives me a voice, is that I find these cracks that other people don’t find.  I remove all that I can’t do and I see what’s left and then I have to be creative with that.

You know, I struggle with the term artist.  I know a lot of people do, and I think in my case, it’s because I don’t do any one discipline for long.  I tinker with everything, a lot of different things.  And there’s a lot of things I don’t do anymore that I do still think about.  Writing is something that I’m interested in, but it’s not necessarily easy for me.  

So that’s something you’d like to pursue?
Yeah, but not necessarily a novel.  All my writing is personal essays.  It’s always about my experience, and my experiences here at the Chateau.  And I feel like there’s something being built here that will possibly have historical significance.  So I think my writing is important in relation to that.  I don’t know if it’s important out there in the world, but in relation to what’s happening here in Orquevaux, I think I am an important part of that.  So I think my story’s going to be that I’m not an artist like a painter, who paints every day.  I feel like this whole place is my studio.  And at this point in my life, my strength is empowering a lot of artists, as opposed to me being in my own studio trying to make my mark.  I think my mark is in this giant studio that everybody gets to come into, and then hopefully they can do good work and then it goes out into the world.

So that, I see now, is much more important than me trying to make my mark on a specific creative endeavour.  You know, I think this whole bigger creative endeavour is more important than any smaller individual pursuit.  I don’t know if people necessarily define me as an artist on a day to day basis, even though I feel like I live my life that way.  I think my body of work will be my life.  And people will look back and they’ll see the different accomplishments I’ve had, different things I’ve done and put it all together and say, “Oh, he created art there”.  When you put it all together, I believe that there’ll be no question that, yes, that guy was an artist. 

What kind of training have you had?  Have you had any formal training or mentorship, or are you self-taught?
Everything’s self taught.  I didn’t know I was creative until I was around 21 or 22 years old.  I would say I was angry prior to that for a variety of reasons.  What happened was that I knew this guy who was a friend of the family, a neighbour, his name was David.  He was this angry guy, but he was a teacher, an art teacher.  And he made this thing with metal and solder.  I can’t draw, I can’t paint.  I can’t do any of that stuff.  And I was just really attracted to this thing that he made.  And it was like, can you teach me how to do that?  Which was a weird thing for me to ask, because there was no reason to think that I could do that.  But he said, well, if you’re serious, go buy these materials.  He wanted me to prove that I was somewhat serious. And I went to his house, I think we spent an hour together, maybe an hour and a half, and he showed me how to do soldering, which became, something that I turned, I believe, into an art form.

And because of that, I had a place to put this anger, which I wouldn’t even call anger anymore. I think anger is just one form of expression.  I found another way to express myself that wasn’t anger.  I was able to create something that people valued.  And I was able to turn that into jewellery, and it opened up my whole world.  And it opened up these doors of possibility.  So I would say that an hour with this guy gave me my whole life.

It led to this, essentially.
It 100% led, to this.  Because I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the other creative endeavours.  I would’ve been a guy cutting grass, because I had a landscape company at that time, and I think I would have been successful at that.  I always thought I was going to be a businessman.  But that started to change as I found new ways to express myself.  So I was becoming worse at being a businessman, and better at being a creative person.  And then because I had to make a living, I always tried to find a way to mix the two, like how do I pay the bills, but do something creative, not just for the sake of money.

And so with the writing, what made you want to write or think that you could write? When did that start?
I think it started when I did a documentary about a Native American tribe on Long Island.  So when we were trying to figure out a direction for the documentary, I realised I knew nothing about them.  So I thought that the film could be my personal journey of discovering these Native Americans on Long Island.  So then you have to write about that, if it’s a personal journey, you have to journal it in, and that became the film’s narration.  So from that, I started to think about my life in different ways, and I would get into these moments where I would just journal.  And then when I came to Orquevaux, I knew I could write – personal stuff, it’s all personal, I can’t do fiction.  So I started taking the writing a little more seriously when I was here.  

So you continued journalling?
I never journalled regularly.  I think it’s more when you have hard times in your life, that you write.  But I started to figure out my place within the context of this job, or this life, that relates to the Chateau.  And I started writing, and I’m always nervous when I write.  I write from fear, like I’m always thinking I won’t be able to finish the piece, or it won’t have an ending or whatever.  So I build it sentence by sentence.  Because I’m afraid to go past the next sentence –

So you aren’t able to look forward and see the end?
I can’t.  I can’t do it like that.  I have to have a feeling about something, and I start writing and then hopefully in the first few sentences I’ll find a theme and a direction and that gives me the story.  And then I have to do editing and rearranging, because maybe some thoughts came too early.  I don’t just write it.  I’m like, oh, this story relates to that thought.  Then we can consolidate those two thoughts together, things like that.  And from that, I discovered that my writing always forms a circle.  There’s always an ending that relates to the beginning, and a theme forms.  So I get excited by that, but I also get nervous that I can’t do it again.  So I don’t write as often as I probably should.  I have a bunch of works in progress right now, and I have been tinkering with one, finishing a piece that I’m going to read to you guys tomorrow.

Ziggy reading for Literature Night in the salon.

I look forward to hearing it.  Tell me about something new that you are working on?
Well, I have an idea for a contemporary art museum here that I initially thought was going be in a building that I bought that’s near the church, but we just made a deal for another property which has about five acres attached to it.  So now I have this idea that in the future we’ll be able to build a real contemporary art museum from the ground up, with a large sculpture park.  And the park will always be open to the public.  Obviously we would run the museum, but the whole thing would be for the people, you know what I mean?  So when people come to Orquevaux to do the Cul du Cerf, which is the walk to the source [of La Manoise River], it can become more than just the Cul du Cerf here.  Orquevaux will also be this museum and it’ll be the sculpture park and you can bring your lunch with you, and there will be a performance centre and art studios and a gallery.  And I think that I can get some help from the government for that, but I don’t think it’s something that is going to happen for some time yet.

But it’s something you’re working on.
Yeah, definitely.  I like the idea of creating a museum.  The residency is the same way.  In many ways it’s the unknown artist.  So I like the idea of this museum that will be filled with amazing work and that’ll be the reason that people will come here.  To see all this new work that they don’t know.  And it’ll still be a beautiful experience, because it’s not the obvious.  It’ll be completely original, by the power of all the people that helped build this place.  And I think we can all create something amazing together. And I love that idea.

What goals do you have for the future? What do you want to achieve personally, artistically, professionally creatively?
I think there’s only so much I can do in my lifetime.  If I’m lucky I have 30 years, or maybe 35 years left.  So I don’t know how much of it I can achieve, but I do want to create an art village, and I’d love for it to be the whole village of Orquevaux.  And I don’t think, in my lifetime, that I’ll be able to get the whole village for the residency, but I think we can get quite a bit of it. And then I think the next generation will continue that.

Tell us about your plan for the village?
My plan for the village is to make a place that, if you love art, is really a one of a kind village in the countryside of France, surrounded by cow pastures and agricultural land.  It’s in a valley, and it’s this magical place with two castles and a beautiful church and art studios, and artists living everywhere and there’ll be music and art and sculptures.  It’ll be a creative think-tank, of all the arts.  So of course artists will want to come here, but if you’re not an artist you’ll also want to come here to enjoy it and to discover artists, and maybe collect work.  I want to create a place that is art driven.  And I think it’s a perfect size village, because it’s not too big, but it’s big enough.

And how will that plan live on, after you’re gone?
It’ll be self-sustaining, and the question is whether it’s going to be a board that runs it.  It can’t be run by one person.  I mean, at the moment it is.  I have a team obviously, and it’s getting bigger, but right now I’m the driver.  But I think in the future, when I’m not here, it shouldn’t be a single person.  It should be a collective of some sort, and you could have a president and a residency director and all the jobs that relate to it.  Maybe it’ll be not for profit.  My first choice would be that the whole thing gets acquired by a big art university.  But then my concern is that they would just use it for their students.  I want it to be open to the world.  So the goal is to create something like that, and have it be self-sustaining, so that artists don’t have to pay to come here, because it shouldn’t be whether you can afford to pay for it or not afford to pay for it.  So we’ll see how it works out, but I’d like it to be open to everybody. 

Tell me about someone who inspired you artistically. 
I don’t think I have anybody like that.  I had a complicated relationship with my father, but I will say he was a person that just did.  So it was just, “do”.  I learned that if you want to do something, just do it.  Don’t worry about doing one thing a hundred percent, do lots of things at 80%.  Just keep moving and try to improve.  So I think that watching him as an entrepreneur and a businessman, it must have put those seeds in my head.  I’ve been like that ever since I was very young.  So some of that is just in me.  I think the world inspires me in different ways.  If I see something that inspires me, it can open up a whole world for me. And then, even though I don’t know anything and even though there’s obviously fear and anxiety attached to doing it, I don’t not do it.

Do you still get fear and anxiety about things?
Sure, all the time.  I don’t know how to do anything.  So whenever I want to do something, I have to just go and do it.  It’s the unknown.  From my life, I learned to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  I’m always uncomfortable.  And when I get comfortable, I’m a little bored. And that’s why every day I have new ideas, and I want to push it further, and push it further.  And I think as resources grow I’ll be able to create some amazing things.  COVID pushed me back a bit.  We were in a good run and then it just pushed it back.  

So I don’t know exactly if I could say a specific person inspires me, but I would say open people inspire me, and people that are open to ideas inspire me, because I’m always looking for ideas.  I’m always looking.  I’m always scanning.  I’m like Robocop, always scanning.  We have all the artists that come here, and I’m just trying to figure out how do I harness all that energy, and then how do I express that energy in my voice?  

Finally, what advice would you give to yourself when you were first starting your artistic journey?  And parallel to that, what advice would you give to someone else starting their artistic journey?  And would it be the same advice or would it be different?
I wouldn’t wish my life on anybody else, because there were so many decisions that had to be made and I’m like a cat with nine lives or 50 lives.  I don’t wish it on anybody.  There were so many minefields, and some of those mines exploded.  I’m just lucky I didn’t lose any limbs, and I managed to get back on my feet and keep moving.  And we’re not all cut out to make those decisions, or to make it through that.  So everybody’s got their own journey.

For myself – and I would still give this advice to myself now because I still worry a little bit – I would say it’s going to be alright, don’t worry so much, just keep doing the work.  And I think that’s the advice I would give to somebody else too.  Just keep going, get up every day and do the work.  If you want to write, write.  If you want to paint, paint.  If you want to – whatever you want to do, you gotta do it.  If you want to make movies, then go get an iPhone and make a movie.  So I think just do the work and, every day try to improve a little bit on what that is.  I think that’s the advice.  And I would give that advice to myself too.  And I would say to myself, try to worry less.

Do you think you’d listen?
I don’t know how to not worry. You know what I mean?  Because it’s not just about the money.  There’s always something to worry about.  I don’t know if anxiety’s the right word, but I think that you need a little bit of fear.  You need a little bit of risk.  There has to be risk, otherwise you’re on autopilot.  There’s nothing exciting about just being able to do it.  There has to always be a risk involved to try to break new ground.

The amazing gang of artists at Chateau Orquevaux (13-27th May 2022). Photo courtesy of Andrew Putschoegl.

For another very enjoyable chat in which Ziggy discusses the artist residency and his hopes for its future, check out this podcast.

Ejo #142 – Words With Chryss (Volume 3)

Do you place any meaning in life, either for you or for our species, and what philosophy do you apply to living your life?
Funnily enough, I do have some Words With Chryss® brand ideas of what life is about.  What it means to be alive, why we are here.  And what happens when we die.  My philosophy about life (and death) has evolved in recent years, and is still evolving.  An ongoing search for my life’s “purpose” has led me to much introspection and internal deep-diving.  It has guided me towards meditation, therapy, yoga and lots of reading and learning.  And all of that has led me to the basic conclusion that life is a bizarre phenomenon that we cannot explain using the information that we are in currently in possession of.  Which goes some way towards explaining why the idea of a god that actually gives a shit about people has gained so much traction over the millennia.  So, god.  A fantastic being that isn’t just omniscient and omnipresent, but also (cue fireworks and harpsichords) omnipotent as well.  Seems a little convenient, don’t it?  Look, I just don’t buy into all that jazz.  It feels nonsensical to me, and in the absence of any evidence, I’m happy to risk eternal damnation for my disbelief. 

But hey, speaking of atheism, have you ever thought very deeply about something and formed a belief structure around your efforts only to discover that an olde worlde Dutch philosopher by the name of Bucher Spinoza came up with the same idea almost four hundred years ago?  LOL, me too.  Of course there are huge differences in the complexity of our ideas – mostly because he spent his entire life in deep, critical thought and I spend all my free time binging Netflix.  And yet… we still somehow landed on the same idea.  That the closest thing to “god” in physical, scientific reality is the universe that surrounds us.  The universe that is a part of us, and that we are a part of. 

When people think of the universe they think of galaxies and stars and black holes and the big bang and dark matter.  But everything on earth is composed of elements of the universe that existed billions of years ago.  We are literally all made of stardust.  If I did believe in a god, that would be it.  And I don’t mean to brag, but Einstein was totes on the same page.  He famously said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” 

Everything that exists in the universe, everything, is a part of the universe.  Including us.  I think that sometimes we tend to identify as observers of the universe, rather than understanding that we are inextricably woven into its fabric.  Personally, I subscribe to the notion that human beings are expressions of the universe, and that the minutiae of our lives are absolutely irrelevant, serving only as distractions to our attention.  I believe that the true purpose of our existence is to shrug off those distractions in order to focus our attention on the present moment, and to be fully aware of ourselves and our own awareness.  And… to simply release everything else.  What do I mean by “distraction”?  I mean breaking your favourite mug, being hungover, your car breaking down, people gossiping about you, failing an exam, being bullied, running late, overdue bills, headaches, pulling a muscle at the gym, an argument with your partner, being overlooked for a promotion or getting mugged.  And if you want to level up, distractions can also include divorce, cancer, or being thrown in jail and tortured for your political beliefs.  I mean, sure, that’s some Mt. Everest shrugging, but it is possible. 

I believe that the universe breathes life into us, in the form of energy flowing through us.  And I believe that we die when that energy ceases to flow.  For the most part people tend to live their lives in a kind of weird denial of the fact that we are only here for a finite time.  Which is a shame because far from being a morbid preoccupation to think of your own death, it can actually serve to crystallise the fact that this moment (in potentially being your last) can be transformed into something extraordinary. 

How would I see the world around me, the room around me, the people around me, if I knew that my next breath would be my last.  I honestly think that right now, I could take a deep breath and look around and feel happy, knowing that I’ve lived an amazing, textured life.  Knowing that I’ve lived true to myself.  Knowing that I’ve been loved.  Knowing that I’ve loved others, and loved myself.  And even if I weren’t ready to die, if I did know that it was coming, I would be grateful for everything that came before.  Every moment is a beautiful gift.  And the gift is that we are here to receive it.  The gift is that we are here to experience it.  And I’ll say it again, because it bears repeating: the gift is that you are here. 

What do I think happens to us after we die?  I think that’s it.  The end.  Lights out.  We return to the place we were before we were born.  We return to oblivion.  Darkness.  Nothingness.  We simply cease to exist.  And after a significant amount of time passes, even the memory of us will disappear.  Nothing of us remains.  The universe is vast, it is powerful, it is everywhere, it is everything.  It is old.  It is beautiful.  The universe is us, and we are the universe. 

What do you dream of achieving? 
Transcendence.  That may seem like a flippant answer, but I promise you it’s not.  Apart from retirement, I don’t really have very many corporeal ambitions.  Every single day, however, I toil to break free from the binds of being “only human”.  This is going to sound pretty new-agey, but I feel like I’ve figured out what my purpose in life is.  In simple terms, it is to be present and aware of this moment, because that’s all I have.  The long version is that I aspire to rise above (transcend) the dramas and emotions, the ups and downs, the constant rollercoaster of the human condition, and to identify with the purest, most unadulterated version of myself – my consciousness.  My awareness.  My life force. 

So what does it mean to “be present”?  It simply means that while I am writing this, I know that I’m writing.  It means that when you’re reading it, you know that you’re reading, almost like you’re watching yourself doing it.  Being present doesn’t mean that you can’t think about anything else, it just means that when you’re doing that, you know you are doing it.  It means that you don’t lose yourself when you’re thinking about those other things.  You remain here, and now.  Being present means not leaning into the next moment, and not clinging to the last. 

People are funny.  We spend so much of our time engrossed in thought about things that aren’t even in front of us, things that may never happen, or things that have happened that we can’t change.  We spend a lot of time responding and reacting to the world around us when, in fact, nothing is ever actually happening to us.  Things are just happening.  Ooooh yeah, let that sink in for a second.  Nothing is happening to me, things are just happening.  Taking that to the highest level, (as much as it may have felt like it) my Mum’s death didn’t happen to me.  It was something that happened, but it didn’t happen to me.  (Fuck yeah, and if you want to get into some ninja-level shit, it didn’t even happen to her; it was just something that happened).

The concept that nothing is happening to *you* can be difficult to grasp.  You are the centre of your universe and it takes a bit of work to mentally shift your framework away from that sole point of reference.  It’s only when you are able to see yourself as being part of something bigger that your reference point can change.  Usually the “something bigger” is religion, right?  Because it’s organised, and actually designed to provide us with comfort and a sense of belonging.  It makes sense, to some degree.  But where it falls apart for me, personally, is that it’s all based on fantasy.  I totally get that seeing yourself as an expression of the universe is far weirder than imagining you are somehow descended from Adam and Eve, because we know very little about the mechanism behind how the universe works.  There’s no handbook.  Is the universe alive?  Is it conscious?  Is it self-designing?  Is it chaos?  Is it exerting a will?  If we are part of the universe, is our will our own, or are we just puppets being controlled by it?  If I am an expression of the universe, then….. shit, am I the universe?  These are big, scary questions for which we do not have answers.  My journey has taken me on a path that doesn’t even need answers.  I don’t need to make up stories to comfort myself.  I’m OK with the discomfort of not knowing.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m anywhere near achieving my goal of transcendence, but I’ve definitely seen some personal growth in my ability to just let shit go.  My progress is hardly linear though (as I’m sure David would attest).  Some days are more difficult than others, and I always do better after I’ve had a cleansing session with Zimmy.  I always do better when I lay off the booze.  But, I am no longer searching for my purpose.  I know my purpose, so I have a head start.  I just need to keep on trying.  Transcendence seems a long way off, but I am prepared to spend the rest of my life trying. 

What makes you angry? 
This was (hands down) the most difficult question anyone asked me.  I pondered this question almost every single day for months, trying to come up with what felt like the right answer.  It became a Gordian knot that I was driven to untangle. 

On a global scale, I’m angry at capitalism, I’m angry at massive, inscrutable corporations making zillions of dollars at humanity’s expense, I’m angry at governments for allowing it, and I’m angry at the injustice of it all.  I am angry that a handful of people benefit (obscenely) from the abject destruction of our beautiful earth.  The climate crisis is not the people’s fault.  It is capitalism which allows a very small number of people to gain everything, as the rest of us helplessly watch our home burn (and flood, and shake, and freeze, and fall apart).  I am angry about the information recently published in the Pandora Papers, exposing the billions of dollars of cash and assets hidden from public view by billionaires and government officials including kings, presidents and prime ministers from countries like Jordan, the Czech Republic, Kenya, Hong Kong, UAE, Chile, Sri Lanka and Ukraine.  Countries in which the divide between the rich and the poor isn’t just vast, it’s incalculable.  I’m angry that billionaires even exist.  Because to make a billionaire, millions of people must live below the poverty line.  I’m angry that capitalism lauds religion to soothe the poor and hungry masses, when it is the capitalists themselves who keep them poor and hungry.  I’m angry that despite it being a very broken system, we all cling to it because we believe that without it we may be stripped of all the nice, shiny things we’ve surrounded ourselves with under the illusion that they’ll make us happy.  I’m angry at Musk and Bezos for squandering billions in their small-dick race to colonise the planet Mars, our inhospitably dusty, red neighbour, when people are starving to death in muddy slums.  On this planet. 

WTF!

So yeah, I’m angry about a few things.  But these angers don’t burn red-hot in the pit of my stomach.  I feel them more as a dull, heavy weight, compressing me whenever I think about the state of the world.  It feels overwhelming, and hopeless, and I see no potential resolution for any of it.  I actually envisage it becoming worse.  If I allowed my anger to burn about these things, I would flame out and die. 

But hey, if we’re talking about anger on a personal level, that is something I have worked on a lot.  Holocaust survivor and psychologist Edith Eger mentions in her book, “The Gift” that anger is often caused when there’s a gap between our expectations and reality.  And I believe this to be the root cause of all anger.  Whether you are angry because you’ve lost your patience with someone, or you’re being disrespected, or you’ve suffered an injustice, it all boils down to reality not meeting the expectations that you had.  So, the easiest way to solve that problem is to not have any expectations.  Right? Well, actually it’s not easy at all; it’s extremely bloody hard.  It also happens to be one of the tenets of Buddhism. 

The Buddha considered “craving” to be the single greatest fetter (shackle, or chain) to achieving happiness and enlightenment.  Aspiring to something (a possession, a relationship, a state of being) is fine.  But as soon as you start to expect a desired outcome, it becomes a condition that can prevent you from being happy and at peace in your life. I want to be happy and at peace. Letting go of expectations doesn’t mean that you don’t give a shit about things or people. It just means that you can experience it all without gripping onto it for survival.  When you can learn to do that, you’ll be able to experience negative emotions, like anger, without reacting to them; and you will no longer be defined by these transient flows of energy.  You’ll be able to step off the rollercoaster.  And that’s a beautiful state to be in.

As well as learning to let go of anger mentally, and emotionally, I’m also learning to let go of it physically.  Last year, during the early months of COVID, I took up yoga as a way to keep my body moving, and I’ve been practising nearly every day since then.  At the end of every session there is a pose called savasana, also known as corpse pose, where you lie on the ground with your legs apart and your arms by your side.  Believe it or not, this is the single most important pose in yoga.  It is the pose in which we learn to relax our body on command, and I can’t stress enough what a gift that is.  Whenever I’m having trouble sleeping, I harness the power of savasana to assist my body and mind to just let go.  It has also helped me in moments of anger.  I might feel the anger rising up in my body, as a physical reaction, a tightness in my chest, but I am able to neutralise it, simply by relaxing my body, taking a deep breath and letting go of the tightness.  This is not the same as pushing the anger down or denying it.  I actually allow myself to feel the emotion, to honour it.  But then I just let it go. 

OK, so it’s not always as neat as I’m making it sound, and sometimes it’s extremely fucking messy.  Sometimes it just doesn’t work at all, and the anger erupts and I snap or yell or tense up.  Despite all my efforts, I am still only human.  But I’m working on it.

Do you lash out or project your anger onto others? 
This is something that I definitely make a huge effort not to do.  You know, I think I used to be a much angrier young woman than I am now.  I think I used to stomp around feeling like I wasn’t getting mine, or whatever.  I don’t feel that way anymore.  I no longer feel like I’m owed anything.  By anyone, not even the universe.  And so, with effort I have learned to manage urges to lash out.  I have learned to view the world as neutral, something to be observed.  Remember; nothing is happening to me, things are just happening.  And so there is no need for me to ever feel targeted or victimised by anything that happens.  Ever.  Instead of being personally affronted by things that would have made me angry in the past, I try to see them as an opportunity for growth.  A chance to practise letting go, almost like a game.  Of course it doesn’t always work, and yes, things happen that might be a hassle, or annoying, but it no longer ruins my day.  I can shrug it off and even choose to be happy!  And therein lies the freedom of being able to transcend all the bullshit, rather than getting mired in it.  All day long, regardless of what’s going on around me, I can make the choice to be happy. 

Are you angry with yourself for being taken in?
I am usually less angry with myself and more disappointed if that happens. 

And ultimately can you let it go and move on? 
I am always letting go.  I wake up every morning with the intention of releasing everything, and not holding onto anything.  I don’t need to be right.  I don’t need to be understood.  I don’t need to have my way, and I don’t need to prove anything.  I just need to be happy, and I make that my priority. 

Are you pissed off that you weren’t taught how to spot the flags of abusers?
No.  What I’ve come to realise is that someone can teach you to spot all the flags, and in the end it still doesn’t stop abuse.  My Mum was always a bit of a worry wort.  She instilled in us the very real knowledge that there are bad people out there in the world and to never really trust anyone.  It didn’t prevent abuse. 

At whose feet do you lay the blame for that?
I blame nobody but the abuser.