A Case Of Kenophobia

It is time for our annual trip to Brittany, where we will stay by the sea with our friends for a week. Our target departure time from home is six-thirty in the evening. I have taken the day off work and have nothing to do but pack for our holiday. Having the equivalent of a full working day to get my gear together seems like a luxury but I am not complacent as there is a common principle at work that I must be mindful of.

Aristotle’s theory that a vacuum could not exist in nature, subsequently labelled with the term plenism, has an analogy in human nature. When contemplating a single task, we tend to expand its execution to fill whatever time we have available.

And so it was with my holiday packing. A job that could have been completed in three hours, had I not had such a generous allocation of time, instead took eight. One perspective might be that, in order to start the winding down process, I should take my time and relax. An alternative one would have me subconsciously slowing my work rate and expanding the activity to occupy the entire time slot.

The principle is not merely restricted to time. It can be applied to all of the limited resources we have at our disposal – including money, energy, health, brain power and opportunities. Instead of striving to use these as efficiently as possible, we extravagantly use up our entire supply – or, at least, too much of it. I believe that we do this because we are inherently lazy or because we are easily distracted and cannot maintain the required level of intensity. Perhaps, also, we have an irrational fear of empty spaces – a condition known as Kenophobia. How, in this state, could we enrich our lives through meditation?

I had planned to have a rest in the afternoon and relax before setting off for the ferry port. But it did not happen. My holiday preparation used up all of my time. This did not seem to matter in the end. After all, my packing performance was first class. Better to do one thing really well, you might say, rather than doing several badly. And we got away in good time. Everything went like clockwork.

But this favourable outcome carried a heavy time cost. If you were blunt, you might assert that I squandered some of my precious time. And as you are aware, The Knot Garden abhors waste. But, unlike Nature, it does not abhor a vacuum.



The Red Bus

It’s a familiar scene. I am walking down the road, bags in hand and rucksack on my back. Although I am not in a hurry, I feel the pace picking up involuntarily as I approach the A23. I alternate between gazing intently at the high street ahead, watching for buses, and deliberately looking down at the pavement in an act of avoidance.

I play this silly little mental game every morning on my way to the bus stop. I gave up on the trains some time ago. One of several advantages the buses have – at least on the popular route that I take from Streatham Hill to Brixton – is that timetables are entirely redundant.

Anyway, back to the game. Here’s how it works. The buses try to reach the stop well before I arrive and to depart without me. Their goal is to provoke a reaction from me in the form of frustration, an expletive or – best of all – a desperate race to get on board before the doors close. My objective, on the other hand, is merely to keep my composure. To avoid, through the artful use of mental preparation and discipline, any such aberrant behaviour or the slightest twinge of anxiety. I usually fail, albeit not in a catastrophic way.

In the knowledge that I will never wait more than a minute or two at the bus stop, I program myself to remain completely relaxed as I walk and allow the buses to go on their merry way without me, banishing any thought of undignified pursuit.

As I look up on this particular morning a 333 flashes by, almost empty and just beyond my reach. Uncertainty enters my mind for a split second and I break into a half-hearted trot for a few paces before checking myself, cursing silently at my momentary loss of self-control. I think about how silly I must have looked, running with my bags. I let the bus go but convince myself that the next one will be packed. When will it come and where will I put my luggage?

The game ends the same way as it always does. As I approach the bus stop another bus arrives – this time a 250. Numerically differentiated from the one that I just missed but pretty much as empty, it is just as good in all respects. As usual, I need not have worried.

This may seem to you like a mundane episode, unworthy of recording in a blog. But the subtle psychology at work during such unremarkable journeys to the office somehow seems important to me. Knowing how frequently the buses run (it almost seems that one can summon them using telepathy), I should not react at all when “missing” one – or two or three. I should instead be reassured that the service is operating normally and pleased that the vanguard is clearing out the bothersome crowds of waiting passengers, freeing up space for me.

That is what the red bus represents for me – an exercise in perspective – a metaphor even. And a device for assessing my mental state. How I react to the buses that pass me by tells me much about my mood, preparedness, awareness and even resilience. Do I see them as missed opportunities? If so, I clearly need to make an adjustment.

The Knot Garden likes red double decker buses. In addition to their practicality and their iconic association with London, these Routemaster successors give us the opportunity to gain small insights into our perspective and to make appropriate mind shifts.

Not Just For Knitting

As you will no doubt have gathered by now, The Knot Garden serves both a practical purpose and a symbolic one. Neither function is more important than the other. The Knot Garden’s symbolism is multi-faceted but one aspect stands out. Like all knot gardens, its layout takes the form of a pattern. Rather than examining the allegorical nature of The Knot Garden’s pattern, which will be revealed in the fulness of time, we will here take a wider view of patterns.

Patterns are not just for knitting wooly jumpers and manufacturing pretty coloured fabrics.  They are ubiquitous and infinitely variable in their form and application. I am particularly interested in the concept of pattern languages, as articulated by Christopher Alexander in his twin volumes The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language. Through these books we discover the idea that patterns that have evolved over long periods of time through widespread use can be combined in various ways in order to create buildings that “live”.

Patterns such as these emerge gradually over long periods of time from the experience of many practitioners in a particular field. They are both a product of continuous improvement and a method of achieving it. If we look at financial markets, we will find candlestick patterns, a charting system used in the technical analysis of securities. They were developed by rice futures traders in Japan around three centuries ago.

Market participants believe that candlestick chart patterns reflect the sentiment of investors and therefore increase their probability of successfully predicting price movements. These formalised visual patterns represent underlying patterns of human behaviour.

Patterns perpetuate because they work, adding value to our lives. Japanese candlestick patterns, when used in the context of a well integrated system, can help us to recognise inflection points in markets. In contrast to Christopher Alexander’s architectural patterns, whose purpose is to imbue buildings with life, the patterns learned by market professionals are used to interpret price action.

Candlestick charting is merely one single area of application for patterns in financial markets analysis. Many other areas of similar importance can be found in this field, including correlations between different markets,  expansion and contraction cycles, multiple time frame congruence and the volatility trends that occur during a company’s earnings cycles. Hence we can contemplate the use of pattern languages for creating effective trading strategies.

When we consider the areas of activity that are important or interesting to us, it is worth looking for patterns that can help us to achieve specific results. The Knot Garden, beyond advocating the use of patterns, is itself a living pattern – and a metaphor for many things.

The Other Side Of The Coin

When contemplating our busy schedules we tend, with good reason, to think about the activities we will perform – the things we will do. And these are determined by who  we are. Perhaps we should spend more time deciding what we will not do. After all, what we are not defines us as much as what we are. They are two sides of the same coin.

What may seem like a trivial distinction is actually quite important. Let’s imagine that we have discovered our One Thing – the enterprise that we have decided to pursue as our primary goal. Inevitably, our cluttered lives get in the way and distract us from the important tasks we need to perform. It’s not just the time we spend doing other stuff – stuff that perhaps we should not be doing at all – it’s the time we spend thinking about it.

We can see this mechanism at work on different levels. Even if we are engaged exclusively in our One Thing, we may still find ourselves trying to do too much. We think we can do everything ourselves – or at least that we should be able to. This is a form of self-reliance that we aspire to. The danger, of course, is that we turn into joatmons.

There are two conflicting forces at work in our lives that determine, in one sense, what sort of people we will become. The first, well known to Adam Smith, is the principle of specialisation, which moves us towards performing fewer activities, and then a single activity, and ultimately narrowing that single activity down to something very small in scope. And then, in direct opposition, we have the principle of independence, which tells us to reduce our reliance on others.

How do we resolve these competing themes and maintain a constructive tension between them? We do this through the important process of collaboration – or what Napoleon Hill referred to as employing a Mastermind Group. If we learn to work effectively with others, whose goals and principles align with our own, we can reduce the scope of our activities and excel at what we do.

That is the basic dilemma we face in any undertaking. Should we aim to be self-sufficient or should we instead invest time in finding the right people to do the stuff we are not so good at and developing effective working relationships with them? Clearly we need to maintain a balance between the two approaches.

I have generally leaned more towards self-sufficiency over the years but am finally learning that this often leads to inefficiency and, hence, waste.

If we truly aspire to stand out in a single field, we need  to regularly ask ourselves the question “What am I not?” And then stop trying to be those things. In doing this The Knot Garden, looking at the reverse of the coin, envisages by way of contrast “The Not Garden”.