Every now and then, we – certainly I – read a book which we feel is ‘life-changing’. However, I can’t think of a single book which has genuinely proved to be, for me, life-changing. I’ve read the books, felt, during the reading and when finished, that they were life-changing but then, over time, I’ve ‘forgotten’ them, ‘forgotten’ the stories, the quotes, the guidance and advice, and I’ve carried on living just as I was before I came across the books.
Sir Anthony Seldon’s ‘BEYOND HAPPINESS – HOW TO FIND LASTING MEANING AND JOY IN ALL THAT YOU HAVE’ (2015) is, I believe, different. I’ve just read it. I felt, during the reading, during the ‘process’, that ‘life-changing’ quality AND I feel, more than I have ever felt after reading a book, that it really will prove to be life-changing, partly, or wholly, because I am determined to keep this book alive, current, to regard it as a friend, an ally, a constructive critic, a teacher, a mentor, I’m determined to treat it as a template for living. Seldon commences the book with:
“The Twelve Core Propositions”.
Seldon writes that “This book advances twelve core propositions…”
I’m not going to list/detail all twelve but here are three, to whet your appetite:
“We all have a journey to make in our lives, in search of our meaning or ‘song’: finding our path, if a humane one, will make us happy. Not finding it makes for an aimless life.”
“Probe all your fixed beliefs, mindsets, and commitments to ideology, including atheism. Judge less, and be more open-minded and open-hearted.”
“Letting go of attachments to possessions, thoughts and feelings, especially in the ‘second half’ of our lives, is the way to the joy and reality that lie beyond happiness.”
Sir Anthony Seldon (I’m referring to the ‘About the Author’ section in the book) is:
“one of Britain’s most prominent head-teachers (he was, until recently, i.e. post-publication of this book, ‘First Master’, in essence Headmaster, of Wellington College) and is the acclaimed biographer of several recent Prime Ministers and author of many books on contemporary history and policy. In education, he is most associated with trenchant views on creative learning; bridging the gap between state and independent schools; holistic education and the teaching of happiness, which he introduced at his school, Wellington College, in 2006…He has been regularly asked to advise government on education and history, is the founder of (with Lord Layard and Geoff Mulgan) the national body Action for Happiness, launched in April 2011, and is the president of the International Positive Education Network that works to promote positive education for all globally. He became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham in September 2015.
BUT do not think that the author has led a charmed life! In the introduction, ‘The Imperative to Change’, he writes:
“This book is about you finding happiness and joy, but it is also the story of my life. It comes directly out of my experience as a schoolteacher for ten years, a school Head for twenty, a parent to three children, and sixty years of hard and often fraught living….I was perfectly happy until the age of fourteen when my life suddenly changed, for reasons I still do not fully understand. I found myself prone to all kinds of anxieties, including a fear of going to sleep, and I was plagued by regular depression. My response was hedonism and to take sharp control of my life and the lives of others. I thirsted after pleasure and was blatant in the way that I used people.…I flunked my A Level exams badly the first time I sat them…I…worked very hard to achieve better A levels. At Oxford…I drank every night without exception and smoked heavily. When I was eighteen I had an unfortunate experience with drugs; I feared I had lost my mind. If it hadn’t been for that, I might have become a regular user. As it was, I never touched them again.
After university, I knew I wanted to be a writer, a theatre director, a farmer in Wales or a politician (though I could never decide which party). I became none of these….in my mid-twenties, my life collapsed after repeated failed love affairs….
The second phase of my life began painfully, at the age of twenty-five. It was precipitated by a crisis…”
Need I say more?! Sir Anthony Seldon has had to fight to keep his head above water….
I referred above to the reading of this book as a ‘process’.
This book is no quick read!
“Three states: pleasure, happiness, joy
To understand where we are heading, we need to unpick three quite distinctive states: pleasure, happiness and joy. The attainment of joy is the ultimate end of our lives. The purpose of this book is to help us to arrive at secure happiness, and then to move beyond it…”
Seldon: “We all have free will, if we choose to realise it: we do not have to be or remain victims throughout life. We can be the artists creating our own lives.”
To truly, deeply, get the most out of this book requires of the reader a particular frame of mind:
a determined preparedness to be open and honest with, and tough on, him/herself. To maximise the benefits of the author’s teaching and guidance, to maximise the catharsis that flows from working through the book, took a lot of effort and discipline on my part. Working through the book, the ‘process’, was, at times, very emotional, draining, and tears welled up on a few occasions. The author asks of the reader many searching, personal questions. I had to ‘go places’ where I haven’t been for many years, had to ‘go places’ that I had forgotten, to memories that were buried in my subconscious: I had to revisit, dig up and unearth. I’ve realised that we have ‘ghosts’/’demons’ in our subconscious, ‘forgotten’/blanked out memories that are anchoring us to the spot and unless we do unearth them, face them, address them, deal with them, they will keep us anchored to the spot, prevent us from moving on, indefinitely. I think that that, for me, is the principal lesson in this book, that we can’t ignore, can’t hide from, what’s in our heart, that there are some issues that we simply cannot brush under the carpet:
Seldon: “If we choose not to leave our front door and to venture out into the great unknown, we lose our ability to discover depth in our lives…In the end, the journey of life is the inescapable reality for us all…The sooner we start to acknowledge that we have a journey to make, the better. It will take us from pain, beyond happiness, to bliss…” – and, obviously, the author advises the reader, from the perspective of the road he has travelled, and is still travelling, how we might find the right road for ourselves, how we might best navigate on our journeys and travel between the various milestones along the way.
One of the many quotes in the book which hit me hard is this one:
“Most men [i.e. human beings] lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them” (US poet and mystic Henry David Thoreau)
That thought fills me with dread, enough, I hope, to spark my own revival/rebirth.
I, for sure, must change the relationship that I have with myself – I must be open and honest with myself, I must be a friend to myself but also a hard task-master. I think, before reading this book, that I was often tough on myself when I needn’t have been but I’ve also been allowing myself an easy ride, I’ve cut myself far, far too much slack. I’ve excused myself too often, I’ve believed and accepted excuses when ‘tough love’ would have been more appropriate and would have paid dividends. We can be our own best friends but also our own worst enemies!
The author provides space in the book to answer the questions but as I didn’t want to write in the book, and I wanted, at times, to write more than I could in the space provided, I ‘unloaded’ in a separate pad of paper. As an illustration of how searching the exercise/process was, I concede that even though there was just me, the book, paper and a pen, I often found it difficult to be honest with myself, to write down the answers that I could see in my mind’s eye, that I found it hard to fully unearth and accept facts about my past and myself. It was as if by not writing down painful experiences from my past, I could keep them buried, I could avoid facing them, dealing with them, but I now know that I HAVE TO perform these ‘self-exhumations’. Examples of questions/exercises:
SOURCES OF PAIN;
SELF-LIMITING CIRCUMSTANCES OR EVENT AND METHOD TO FREE YOURSELF FROM IT;
WHAT YOU WISH YOU HAD DONE (ASKING YOURSELF AS IF YOU’VE GOT ONLY 3 MONTHS TO LIVE).
This one is a tough one! I wrote:
“I wish I’d lived with my mind, body, heart and soul in sync;
I wish I’d discovered, had the courage to look for, my authentic self;
I wish I’d been able to finish the jigsaw of my life, to match up all the pieces, to make it complete/whole;
I wish I’d discovered my perfect destination and that I’d had the courage and strength of character to set sail;
I wish, when I’d fallen down, that I hadn’t just picked myself up, dusted myself off and stood still but that I had moved forward;
I wish I hadn’t made excuses, so many excuses, excuses that, now that I’m out of time, seem pathetic;
I wish I’d had the same focus towards, determination in and hunger for living my whole life that I have towards, in and for my running;
I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time;
I wish I hadn’t wasted so much of my life;
I wish I wasn’t going to die unknown to even myself – I wish I wasn’t going to die a stranger to myself and to everyone who thinks they know me;
I wish I wasn’t going to die with so much ‘unknowing’, so many “maybe”s, so many “what if”s, so many “I wonder”s…
I wish I could have another chance, a chance to bury those regrets before I, myself, am buried;
I wish I could start again…
If I hadn’t made all of those ‘wrong’ decisions, if I hadn’t made all of those ‘mistakes’, I wouldn’t be where I am today, I wouldn’t have the wife whom I love, I wouldn’t have my kids whom I also love, I wouldn’t have these people in my life so I HAD TO take the road I took, I had to take that road to get to this ‘place’ with these people in my life. In that respect, what I regard as regrets might better be regarded as ‘blessings’! It is rarely, if ever, a straight road from A to B!
There were recurring themes in my answers that shocked me, memories that kept surfacing, memories which I really had forgotten and memories which I had not realised were, deep down, bothering and holding me back. Some of the exercises/questions, I couldn’t answer them there and then and I’ll have to revisit them and give them a lot more thought. Examples:
REPEATING FANTASIES / POSITIVE FANTASIES;
WORST FEARS / OCCASIONS WHEN YOU FACED THEM;
TRAITS OF WHICH YOU ARE LEAST PROUD / OF WHICH YOU ARE MOST PROUD.
I want to keep referring to the book, the advice and the guidance and to the questions – reassess, reappraise, update. I genuinely feel that unearthing the memories, facing the ‘ghosts’, has been cathartic, that it has moved me close to the point of my body, heart, mind and soul being in sync – to get them into sync, I must, of course, act on the author’s guidance, keep reading it, keep acting on it, keep the author’s voice in my head.
The four parts and chapter headings might give you a window into the substantive elements of life/living in the book:
Part I: Beyond Happiness
Introduction: The Imperative to Change
- Pleasure, Happiness, Joy
- Life As A Journey
- Pain, Unhappiness, Hell
Part II: Pleasure
- Benign Pleasure
- Harmful Pleasure
Part III: Happiness
- Why Happiness Matters
Part IV: Joy
- Why Happiness is Not Enough
In this section of the book, the reader is asked to consider “What I have learnt” and “What I will change in my life”. I wrote down my thoughts which, of course, had been developing during the reading ‘process’ but I’m sure that they will continue to develop and mature as I go forward…
What I have learnt:
1. I’m asleep: worse, I’m dying, not just in the sense that we are all dying, in the sense that our bodies are getting older, but in the sense that I’m not living, not really, truly, honestly, genuinely, deeply living.
I am alive but I’m not living: it’s better to die living than to live dying!
2. My heart, soul, body and mind are out of sync;
3. I need to take action, actively make changes;
In my current state, I’m losing, in some ways, more than I could lose by ‘having a go’ – what’s the worst that can happen if I do live, live an authentic life? I could die but that is, as I said, in some ways, what I’m doing now and if I keep living like this, nothing will change;
4. I need to see my psychiatrist again. My clinical depression ‘episodes’ are becoming more numerous, longer-lasting and more severe. I must accept that I might need to change my medication;
5. I need to ask my doctor to send me for an ADD assessment – it occurred to me a couple of years ago that I might have ADD, might have had it all my life, but it’s something that I have been trying to ignore;
6. I need a mentor (as opposed to a life coach although I am open to the idea of consulting a life coach as well as seeking a mentor [I have a mentor in mind!])
7. I must live an authentic life if I want to experience ‘joy’.
1. WAKE UP! FULLY WAKE UP!
2. See my psychiatrist again. Tell him that my clinical depression episodes are more numerous, and more severe, than they have been for many years;
3. See my doctor: tell her that I suspect that I have ADD and that I would like to be assessed;
4. Maybe I should see a nutritionist – I might have too much of an obsession with food, calorie counting, watching the ‘complex carb’ intake, my weight. I haven’t eaten a biscuit, a crumb of cake, a sweet, had an alcoholic drink, for over 3 years! For me, it’s about being in and feeling that I’m “in control”, “in control” of my food consumption and my life, but the irony is that whilst I feel that I am, I’m probably not, I’m probably being controlled BY my obsessions!
5. Maybe I should take some professional advice about my running and exercise generally. I might be running too much (for someone of my age), maybe I should be training and running differently, maybe (more than likely) I should be adding some different forms of exercise to my weekly regime;
6. Contact the person who I’d like to be my mentor;
7. Consider contacting the person who I think could be a great life-coach for me (might not be necessary if I have the mentor);
8. Get clarity, powered up, motivated – research and use:
9. Keep trying to put distance between myself – the ‘clear’ me – and the depressed me;
10. Connect more with people, ‘give’ more of my time to people (think: voluntary work in field of depression);
11. Infuse my life with that ‘something’ which empowers and lifts me when I’m running – keep challenging myself, keep raising the bar;
12. Always be aware of time, our enemy and our friend – if time was infinite for us, if it didn’t fly by so quickly, we’d waste it more than we (most of us) already do. The fact that time is running out, flying by, it should serve to make us realise that we have to get on with living an authentic and full life NOW! Time is passing by, regardless of what we’re doing, whether we are living an authentic life or sitting back and doing nothing;
Go forward in time, imagine that I ‘know’ that I only have a few months to live or that I’m 100 years old, weighed down with regrets, a ton of “I should have”s, “if only…”s and “I wish I had…”s, get a sense of those regrets, of the frustration and then go back to today, grab, with both hands, with my heart and soul, the time and the opportunity to do those things, act now to make sure that I don’t have regrets in the future! We hear more “I wish I’d done this” and “I wish I’d done that” cries than “I wish I hadn’t done this” and “I wish I hadn’t done that” exclamations! We tend to regret the things we didn’t do more than the things we did do!
13. This feeling that ‘Beyond Happiness’ is a life-changing book, hold onto it, the feeling, keep the book, the lessons, the guidance, alive – I must get out of my comfort zone (I have 3 or 4 ideas!), kick-start the re-birth process NOW….
Onwards and upwards…. I’m sure that this great book has changed, is changing and will change a lot of lives! Thank you, Sir Anthony! Wishing YOU all the best as you continue on your own journey…