The Lowest Of Aspirations

This week, while working at the office,  I overheard two people who were conducting an informal meeting on the nearby sofas discussing a subject that has become a favourite of many people in the UK (and no doubt other countries too).

They were talking about winning the National Lottery. And to show that they were not greedy, avaricious people they made it clear to each other that they would be content with just a few million: “That would do me“. Such modesty!

Apparently somewhere in the region of seventy percent of the UK adult population play the Lottery. From many overheard conversations similar to that described above, I find myself wondering whether the participants have no higher aspiration in life than to acquire a large sum of money without providing anything of value in exchange.

If you were to offer a group of citizens, approached at random on the street, the opportunity of starting a business or simply being given several million pounds free, which proposition do you suppose they would go for? I would choose the former.

You may think me a crackpot for turning my back on the chance to win the jackpot but there is an important principle at work here. Who we are is determined primarily by our thoughts and if you play the Lottery you will – at least to a certain extent – allow your mind to be taken over by the something for nothing mindset.

Let me ask you this: can you play the Lottery without turning your imagination to the various ways in which you will deploy your newly acquired wealth? What is wrong with this, I hear you say – there is no harm in dreaming! Well, in this case there is. First of all, you are occupying your mind with a scenario that has a one-in-several million chance of happening (assuming that you do not buy thousands of tickets each time). Secondly, you are focusing your attention on a field of endeavour in which nothing of any value is created. Except as a by-product of the charity element. But is that why you are taking part?

Entering the draw takes very little time and effort. But between times you will think about the desired outcome often and contemplate your transformed life, experiencing a warm glow. These thought patterns will become a tangible part of your life, helping to shape your character.

Does this sound like a good use of the miraculous power of the human brain? But what if you win – does that not make all of your daydreams worthwhile? Perhaps it does, but think about this. If you did nothing creative prior to winning the Lottery, what chance do you have of doing so after landing the prize? What motivation will you then have for doing anything constructive? Perhaps you see yourself as a kindly benefactor, using your winnings to dispense largesse to the deserving and needy. But will that really happen?

The Knot Garden believes that the National Lottery is a great idea for those souls who crave wealth without feeling the need to give anything in return. Provided, that is, they can live with the ludicrous odds of winning. And if they are willing to pay the subtle psychological price. After all, the mind is like a garden that, if poorly attended, will quickly become overgrown with weeds.

The Meaning Of The Knot

The Knot Garden values integrity above all other qualities. In the garden’s physical manifestation integrity is symbolised by the knot, which forms its principal element. Although the precise geometric design of the garden is yet to be determined, we know that it will include certain definite characteristics that will remind us of the role of integrity in our lives.

In line with the recurring theme of quadrality that lies at the core of The Knot Garden’s view of the world, we will restrict ourselves here to four such properties.  The first, appropriately, is to be found in the knot’s quatrefoil form, which emphasises the importance of the number four in both physical and abstract human realms.

Secondly we may assert that the rope of which the knot is formed, in order to properly represent the concept of integrity, shall be continuous. The absence of both a beginning and an end will suggest timelessness, constancy and perpetuity.

Turning to the garden’s geometry we can envisage shapes that have both rectangular elements, representing solidity, and circular ones, characterising wholeness, fluidity and the cycles that are fundamental to nature.

Finally, with an eye on invoking a sense of balance (and hence apologies to Gary Keller) we can visualise the knot as a representation of both simplicity and complexity, with neither attribute gaining the upper hand. The intricacy of the knot’s design, with its carefully interwoven threads, does not obscure the clarity of purpose that it displays to those with an eye for such things.

This garden’s knot, unlike that of Phrygian legend, will not need the sharp edge of Alexander’s sword to unravel its meaning. Nothing more than simple contemplation will be required to yield its secrets and inspire creativity in the thoughtful observer.

Neither is it necessary for us to examine the nature of integrity here. For those individuals for whom the trait matters, its meaning is clear enough. However, who would not find the idea of constructing a living metaphor for integrity compelling? Perhaps this constitutes the most central thread of The Knot Garden’s purpose – its very raison d’etre.

True to life, The Knot Garden’s uncomplicated symmetrical pattern, imbued with meaning as it is, will obscure the finely tuned machinery and dynamically balanced tensions at work below the surface.

Pareto’s Powerful Principle

Everyone knows about the 80:20 ratio. But how many people exploit it effectively in their own lives? And how many people believe that the ‘Law of the Vital Few’ should be adopted by all of us? I imagine that Pareto’s principle is anathema to socialists because of the high degree of inequality that it represents.

The Knot Garden is not, however, concerned with the murky business of politics but is instead very much interested in productivity. And I was reminded yesterday, on revisiting Gary Keller’s influential book The One Thing, that the Pareto principle, named by quality icon Joseph Duran after the nineteenth century economist who extrapolated an observation of pea pods in his garden to wealth distribution patterns, can be a powerful tool when applied to business efficiency.

One characteristic of the rule is its apparent universality. We see it at work in all fields of human endeavour. But whereas the golden section phi is a precise number with particular arithmetic and geometric properties, the eighty twenty ratio is a rough and ready guide, intended only to give a sense of the level of disproportionality at work.

Rather than being a mathematical phenomenon, the Pareto principle is nothing more that an observation on cause and effect – albeit a profound one. It asserts marked inequality in size between a scenario’s various inputs and their associated outputs. Hence the idea that “20% of the causes are responsible for 80% of the effects”. The implications of this are obvious.

None of the afore-going really matters much unless we can harness the power of the principle to gain some advantage in our lives. In seeking to do so, we should not restrict its application merely to business but should spread our net far wider.

Ultimately the Pareto principle is a time management device. If we can concentrate most of our effort on the things that give a comparatively high return for the investment of time, we can achieve our goals far more quickly. Or, more to the point in today’s hectic world, we can achieve much more with the limited time at our disposal.

How can we apply the principle practically? We can assess the relative cost and value of each task we contemplate before deciding to perform it. This allows us to choose the tasks that are most worthwhile and reduce the amount of time we waste on the others. This process teaches us to value our time more highly and critically examine the uses to which it is put.

The Knot Garden considers Pareto’s principle an important weapon in its productivity armoury. One that, perversely, provides an opportunity to embrace inequality in order to improve our lives. And those of others too. Perhaps a zen practitioner might see this as an enlightened  path to equality but we will take a more pragmatic view.

Beware The Flying Start

Here’s an odd notion.  Weeks that start well end badly. Happily most of my weeks get off to a shaky start. I get up at 4 o’clock on a Monday morning to catch the coach, a truly rude awakening, and things go downhill from there. Perversely, this sort of inauspicious beginning reassures me – as I know that there is almost certainly a happy ending to follow. For the opposite is nearly always true – weeks that start badly usually end well.

This has become a very familiar pattern for me. I keep thinking that if I am not careful it will become self-fulfilling. It makes a mockery of the idea of achieving constancy in one’s life. But how do we explain it?

Here is my theory. Like many theories, it does not explain everything, but is nevertheless a good starting point. I have relaxing weekend, switching off completely from work. The feeling carries over into Monday morning, where it gets translated into complacency. We all know that Mistress Complacency, together with her ugly twin sister Miss Arrogance, are fond of courting Count Calamity, but we sometimes have trouble keeping them out of our lives.

Complacency typically ends with a reality jolt. We realise that we are going down the wrong road and make extra efforts to get back on track. We perhaps even feel a twinge of guilt at our own neglect and are determined to make up for the performance shortfall. We keep this going, a model of resourcefulness and purposeful concentration, into the end of the week. Feeling pleased with ourselves, we start to wind down and the cycle is ready to kick itself off once again.

How about the reverse scenario, which is where we began this post? Why do flying starts peter out into rocky endings? Well, to be honest, they should not. We should be able to maintain our performance for five days at least. But here is what I have found. If I am psyched up for work on a Monday morning – perhaps after having suffered from anxiety over some awkward or over-challenging situation at the office – I perform at a high level for a day or two. But then things go a little flat and my awareness and concentration waver. Little mistakes or bothersome episodes start to creep into the day’s affairs.

Perhaps the problem lies in my inability to maintain a high level of performance for five days at a time. After a few days my energy starts to wane. The Knot Garden sensibly recognises that our lives move in cycles and suggests that, rather than trying to break them, we simply make sure that we are aware of the cycles and adjust our approach accordingly. In this way we can smooth things out a little and prepare ourselves for the dips.

In the coming days I will give more thought to riding life’s cycles and to this remarkably reliable pattern in particular. In the meantime, I look forward to another rough start to the week. I will surely not be disappointed.


Letting Go

Our holiday in France has ended. I am lying on my basic bed in the cabin we booked on the ferry from Caen to Portsmouth, trying to empty my mind of all thoughts. I am not bothered by kenophobia, whether manifested in the concrete world or the mental one, but nevertheless find meditation challenging.

Perhaps a cross-channel ferry is not the ideal environment for such an activity because of the distractions, which mainly take the form of noises – from the boat itself and from passengers belonging to rowdy families. But the sounds reaching my ears as I adopt my supine resting pose are hardly intrusive.

I have discovered that when I instruct my brain to stop formulating conscious thoughts, it comes up with some pretty flimsy excuses. Such as “how will you wake up in time for our arrival in port?” An image appears of me scrabbling to reach the car, which is holding up hundreds of fellow passengers. A ludicrous idea given the number of failsafe devices at hand.

First there is the alarm on my ancient iPhone, which has never let me down. Then there is my wife. After that comes the announcement made over the ferry’s public address system. Finally, if I manage to remain oblivious to all of these alerts, a member of the crew would arouse me by knocking on the door, reminding me to vacate the cabin.

Or perhaps – an even more irrational notion – I would not wake up at all. There exists a fear, however slight and fleeting, that if we manage to stop thinking entirely, we may not be able to start ever again. Preposterous as it seems, the idea lurks in a dark corner of my mind.

As I lay on the thin mattress, eyes closed, I try to focus on the murky gloom that roils before me. I imagine that the seething mass is composed of thoughts, ideas, fears and inspirations that have sprung from the minds of all humans in existence. Messages sent through the ether, perhaps at the behest of the Universal Mind, whatever that may be. By means of this metaphor, or simply through intuition, I hope to acquire knowledge.

I also use a familiar old technique that involves switching my mind to operate fully in listening mode, focusing intently on the words spoken to me by my subconscious. This stops the idle chatter because my mind can only do one thing at a time, leaving the business of multitasking to computers. While it is fully engaged in listening (even to itself) it cannot talk.

Today, my attempts at clearing my mind do not succeed. I try to create an empty space but the thoughts keep popping up and occupying it like uninvited guests.

The Knot Garden understands the importance – and difficulty – of letting go. But, like any other valuable skill, meditation takes practice. The real problem is that I have neglected this particular form of brain exercise for too long. I resolve to rectify the situation.