Try 90 minutes a week outside your comfort zone

I signed up to Biodanza on a whim. I was working too much and moving too little and this class promised all the fun of dancing with none of the tedium of learning steps.

I was immediately sold.

Biodanza, meaning ‘the dance of life,’ has its origins in the 1960’s. It was invented – for want of a better verb – by Chilean psychologist Rolando Torro who, working in a psychiatric ward, began using dance to treat his patients.

Torro was a firm believer in the importance of physicality. He pointed out that the most intense experiences; whether erotic, ecstatic or creative, have a distinctively corporal dimension. Free movement, he felt, was the ultimate form of self-expression. It was also the antidote to what he identified as the “broken gestures and empty and sterile structure of expression” to which our bodies had become confined.

I arrived to my first Biodanza class sweat-drenched and a quarter of an hour late, having taken a wrong turn after I got out of the subway station. Poking my head in the door, I encountered a circle of about 15 people – swaying, writhing and in some cases, sighing.

Unfazed by my arrival and without an apparent leader, I experienced a wave of panic as I wondered how to enter their midst. Eventually, one of them caught my eye. This, it turned out, was the teacher. She gestured for me to join the circle.

Before long I too was jiving to the music which, incidentally, came from a tinny laptop in the corner of the room.

With everyone around me giving it their all, there was no reason to hold back. Soon I was bopping along to the beats with the gusto and enthusiasm usually provided by a few drinks.

It felt good.

Biodanza is the physical equivalent to singing in the shower. A safe space for self expression – the embodiment of the multi-meme-inspiring mantra ‘dance like nobody’s looking.’

A typical class begins with the group sitting in a circle. (I managed to avoid this the first time by being late). It is my least favourite part. The idea is to share something – anything – with the group. I usually just say that I’m happy to be there. I like to keep it vague. After all, I’m here for the non-verbal expression.

That part only lasts a few minutes though. The rest of the class is devoted to improvised dancing – sometimes alone, sometimes with a partner or in a group.

One of the most interesting exercises I’ve done was with a partner. With just the tips of our forefingers touching, we closed our eyes and… danced. Slowly of course, since otherwise our fingertips would have lost contact. It was a remarkably intimate experience, requiring both concentration (to keep our movements in tune with one another) and letting go (so you didn’t feel weird and self-conscious about what you’re doing.) It is a form of meditation, transporting you to another plain while also grounding you in the here and now.

The music always dictates the movement. The selection is broad, ranging  from purely instrumental to sentimental pop. We are encouraged by the teacher to “let go” (it is her favourite phrase, which she utters in a thick German accent.) Sometimes, she lets out loud yawns as she is dancing, encouraging us to do the same to “einfach let go.”

There are occasions where the whole thing takes on a slightly evangelical quality and I wonder whether I may have stumbled into a self-help group. From time to time the ecstatic sighs of another woman (the class is all-female) or an unsolicited hug make me uncomfortable.

But if anything this only exposes my own beliefs about the acceptable boundaries of self-expression. It also gives me an insight into my own temperament. I am most comfortable dancing alone, while feeding off the energy of the group. I only feel at ease  when everyone is taking part.(Once for instance, we were split into two groups, with one watching as the other performed the exercises. The sense of being watched made me uncomfortable and inhibited my natural movement.)

I don’t mind dancing with others but there have been times when the level of physical intimacy has edged outside of my comfort zone. Once, during a dance, the teacher kissed me on the cheek. While I didn’t much like that, I found her impulse rather fascinating.

The best way to describe a session might be to say that it mirrors the experience of getting a little drunk. As your lose your inhibitions, you become increasingly well-disposed to your surroundings and those who inhabit them. You become more playful and flippant, less petty.

For me, it’s been a good way to “lätt go.” Cheaper, healthier and more efficient than a night on the town, it’s an ideal way to unwind after a stressful day. Plus, there’s no need to worry about a hangover. So whatever form it may take for you, why not try 90 minutes per week outside YOUR comfort Zone?

Being in control isn’t as much fun as you think

I signed up to Netflix recently. I thought it would be empowering to decide when to invite Don Draper into my living room. After all, how better to embrace the modern trend of Taking Control of Your Life, than by streaming on demand?

Or so I thought. As it turns out, being in control isn’t as much fun as you think.

You’d be forgiven for assuming otherwise. The idea that being in control is something worth aspiring to is shockingly widespread. In fact, many people seem quite obsessed with it.

Earlier this year, Forbes magazine published an article titled Six Ways to Take Control of Your Life. That was one-upped by success.com, which managed to come up with 7 Ways to Control your Life Today. The Huffington Post went even further with its now sadly out-of-date 12 Ways to Take Control of Your Life in 2014.

Apart from the confusion about the exact number of steps required to take control of your life, it’s far from clear whether it’s worth the effort at all.

When I was a teenager living in Ireland, the state broadcaster RTE showed Ally McBeal every Monday night at 9.30 pm. My sister and I would race to the television at the appointed time, curling up beside the fire with a Cadbury’s flake bar to discover the latest shenanigans taking place at Cage and Fish.

It was a ritual made possible by our helplessness. Monday at 9.30 pm was the only time to catch up with Ally. Miss it and miss out. We were prepared to wait a whole week for her. Not like nowadays, when Ally just paces around, ready to appear on demand as soon as I tire of Don.

People tend to forget that being in control means missing out on some of life’s most primal delights. Like the excitement and unexpected pleasure of hearing your favourite song on the radio, for example. Come on, we’ve all been there: you’re washing up, scrubbing a stubborn layer of grease off a saucepan with the radio on in the background, only to shriek in delight, rip off your rubber gloves and have a 3-minute boogie -break to Uptown Girl.

You could have just played it on your phone, couldn’t you? But it wouldn’t have been the same, would it?

Being in control all the time prevents you from committing what psychologists call a “fundamental attribution error.”

It sounds like a bad thing, but fundamental attribution errors (in laymen’s terms, blaming anybody and anything but yourself) let you get away with murder.

Back in the day, you could get away with saying things like: “Sorry I can’t make your boring cocktail reception on Monday; I have to stay at home to watch Ally McBeal.” Now, you have to say something like: “Of all the possible times available to me, I’m choosing to stream Ally specifically to coincide with your event.”

It’s hard to argue with the first. Asking someone to sacrifice their weekly ritual is a pretty big deal. Refusing to adjust your streaming habits just makes you sound like a jerk. So much for empowerment.

The Quiet Revolution

Susan Cain’s “Quiet“came out in 2012 and her TED talk about introversion has been viewed more than 8 million times.

So having just finished reading the book, I’m a little late to the party. But it’s one of the few I’m happy to be at!

Susan Cain’s argument is that introverts live in a world designed for extroverts. She says western society fails to value the traits associated with quieter, more reflective types.

And it’s true. We value speaking over listening, flamboyance over reservation and risk taking more than caution.

Cain believes that our schools and workplaces are designed for the loud and commanding and that such individuals often flourish at the expense of the more sensitive and careful-minded.

Of course, as a self-diagnosed introvert, reading “Quiet” brought with it a great sense of validation. As I raced through the book, I re-purposed all of my perceived failings (lack of assertiveness, fear of public speaking, dislike of group conversations) into virtues (talent for listening, social intelligence, capable of intimacy).

Susan Cain doesn’t dislike extroverts. In fact, she is married to one (which may or may not have inspired her to write “Quiet”.)

Instead, her “Quiet revolution” is about reclaiming the traits which have become sidelined in a society obsessed with the limelight and where what she calls the Culture of Character, which emphasised values and morality, has been replaced by the Culture of Personality, which values the ability to entertain.  And even if she herself doesn’t, her message speaks volumes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Freshly Pressed

For most people, “freshly pressed” means a glass of orange juice with pleasing bits of pulp, possibly accompanied by a croissant or lakeside view.

But for bloggers at WordPress, “freshly pressed” is an accolade.

It means that a WordPress employee has decided to feature one of your posts on their homepage, exposing you to lots of other bloggers, some of whom decide to “follow” your blog and a few who take the time to leave you kind and thoughtful comments.

Image source: www.ulaola.com

Image source: http://www.ulaola.com

For an introvert, it’s like winning a year’s supply of networking.

It’s like being at a writers’ conference, with sweaty palms, about to approach a stranger with an awkward, self-deprecating introduction, only for the entire spiel suddenly to be rendered completely unnecessary, paving the way for a return to the happy corner where you were munching a canapé and starting at animated people self-promoting.

Today, I was “Freshly pressed.” It made me very happy indeed.

It also made me think about encouragement and success.

I’m no neuroscientist, but sometimes I wish I were.

When I am sad or frustrated or overjoyed, I like to imagine the neurons in my brain squirting coloured impulses, which travel across convoluted chemical tracks at reckless speeds.

When some one says something kind or complimentary to me, a little cluster somewhere behind my forehead ignites,like a flickering light bulb finally screwed in right. I might respond awkwardly, by fumbling with my hands or countering with disproportionate (but heartfelt) praise.

But all the while, inside a little squirt of something which I’ll call adrenalin for want of an MRI, has begun to gush about my head, leaving me feeling unusually motivated.

Kate Katharina poses as an introvert suddenly relieved of the duty to self-promote.

Kate Katharina poses as an introvert suddenly relieved of the duty to self-promote.

It’s like magic, really.

Except it’s magic that anyone can perform, any time.

Encouraging people is deeply satisfying. My mother is so good at it, that she could probably turn professional.

My favourite people to encourage are humble types, whose faces immediately display a strange guilt when you tell them that they are wonderful and who can’t think of any words to say back.

Or people who have a secret dream that isn’t quite so secret and whose faces melt strangely when you casually remark that they could achieve something they’ve never admitted to desiring.

Fortunately, you don’t need a top hat or a bunny to encourage, though in some cases either or both could come in useful.

You can encourage with words or gesture, or even by keeping your dissent silent.

And like an alchemist, you can cause a little light to go on in someone’s mind, giving them the energy necessary to finish a painting, or take an exam, or learn to swim or ride a bicycle or sing a song.

Thanks to all my readers, old and new, for encouraging me to cultivate this little patch of blogosphere.

I wish I could say that being “freshly pressed” hasn’t gone to my head, but I’ve already told you all about the little light bulb that lives behind my forehead.

“Freshly pressed” or not, I promise I’ll try to keep my writing free of pulp.

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If you want to join in the fun on Facebook you can find Kate Katharina here.

And if you’re more of a Twitter-er, you can find links to my latest posts here.

An Aggressive Defence of Nice People

Someday my father and I are going to co-write a novel. We’ve been talking about it for years now. We are considering the epistolary form. The content will be largely autobiographical and we shall take a wry look at society and its conventions. Our own treatment as largely unsuccessful literary layabouts will be suitably ironic.

I have been collecting characters for our novel and I thought it was high time to write an aggressive defence of one of my most cherished prototypes: the nice person.

Since I’ve been in Berlin I’ve had the advantage of meeting lots of new people, many of whom vary substantially on a spectrum of pleasantness.

I have a “breaking news” example. I’m writing from my local library, where I am perched comfortably at a round table with my back to a radiator and a view to a study area.

Just now, my train of thought was interrupted by a booming voice. I looked up to see a large man approach a desk where two young girls, one in a floral headscarf and the other with a stripy jumper were studying.

“How DARE you talk in a library” he yelled. “This is supposed to be a QUIET area. The ImPERTINENCE. How DARE you?”

The girls’ faces were frozen with terror while his was red with vitriol.

Jumping in the air in defence of nice people in Philadelphia, almost a year ago.

“HAVE I MADE MYSELF UNDERSTOOD?”

They nodded.

I had not even been aware of so much as a whisper from the girls. But I was certainly interrupted by this foul-mouthed miscreant, who had taken library discipline into his own hands.

(By the way, I take respectful behaviour in libraries very seriously and absolutely believe in regulation. But in this case the offence was minor and the intervention disproportionate and without mandate.)

Nice people, thankfully, are not in short supply. They are the ones that instinctively apologise when you step on their toe and spend hours nodding sympathetically even when confronted by a dull narrative.

They are the cashiers that give you an extra nod when you’ve completed your purchase and the reporters that say “Oh don’t worry, I was useless at the start” when you display incompetence.

They are the people that do not recoil when a foul-smelling and batty woman sits next to them on the bus and the ones that engage in mini sprints to catch up with you when you’ve dropped a mitten.

Nice people, contrary to the individualist-inspired meme, do not (necessarily) end up on welfare.

Nice people are mostly self-consciously so. They have weighed up the cost of an unpleasant smell and dull conversation against the happy after-glow of having been pleasant. It’s moral mathematics.

Nice people are not walk-overs either. Sometimes they will startle you with their outrage or righteous indignation.

Nice people are sometimes quiet but that does not mean they are taciturn or shy. They are watchful. If you adopt a scornful and derisive tone, they will greet you with a steely silence. The effect is something in between disregard and non-compliance.

In our novel, the nice people won’t end up on welfare. And if they do, it will be very generous.

How the Iron Lady boils an egg: why private moments matter in politics

If I learnt just one thing from watching The Iron Lady, it’s that despite popular belief, politicians are people too. Margaret Thatcher might have sent missile ships to the Falklands and vowed never to negotiate with terrorists, but she still boils an egg, fills black sacks for Oxfam and asks her daughter to fasten the catch at the back of her dress which she can’t reach.

The snippets of Maggie’s domestic life are definitely the most moving parts of the film (which, in case you are wondering I would highly recommend). It’s impossible not to feel something as you watch the forgetful but resolute old lady plonked awkwardly on the floor in an uncomfortable cotton dress, trying to prise open a DVD case and twitching as she eavesdrops on conversations her daughter has with her carer.

It made me think that if Britain has its iron lady in ‘Maggie’, then Germany has found her equivalent in ‘Angie’.

Like Thatcher, Merkel is frequently portrayed as emotionless and inexpressive and ultimately, as Maggie was, “out of touch”.

A recent article published on Spiegel Online seeks to redress the balance. In it, journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit, who has spent many years accompanying Merkel on her trips, documents a series of moments, unrelated to the financial crisis, nuclear power, or the future of the Euro, in which Merkel shows herself as something more than a political machine.

As a Human Being in fact.

They are ordinary moments.

Once, she laughed uncontrollably and snorted while telling a story about the Lithuanian Prime Minister, who was detained by the Belarusian police while out cycling disguised as a tourist.

Another time, after her defence minister Guttenberg resigned following revelations that he had plagiarised passages of his doctoral thesis, she made an uncharacteristically emotional speech. During it, she kept tugging at a loose thread on her sleeve.

She makes her husband breakfast every morning.

Some, especially the French, might inquire as to why on earth it matters what a politician does behind closed doors. Can they not sew their buttons in peace? Have they not got the right to entertain several lovers without the world having to know about it?

The French media in particular thinks personal privacy is sacrosanct.

Back in November, at the G20 summit Obama and Sarkozy were having a chat. The Israeli Prime Minister came up in conversation.

“I can’t stand him anymore, he’s a liar”, said Sarkozy, to which Obama replied, “You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day!”

The problem with the conversation was that their mikes were on. A couple of journalists heard the whole thing. Instead of rushing to their editor with their enormous scoop, they stayed quiet, in the belief that this was a private conversation, and would be damaging to report.

Nothing was said for a few days until the French website Arret sur Images published their remarks. As soon as international journalists got their hands on the clip, it went global and the mainstream French media reported it too.

Why is this important?

Because it reinforces the point that politics is a drama encompassing the full spectrum of human emotions.

We must never forget that it’s the behind-the-scenes conversations over strong cups of coffee and dog-eared files that end up directing events on the world stage.

Political decisions, like any other are made on the spur of the moment, and under the influence of powerful personalities. If your leader is more eager to be liked than to do what’s right, it matters. If they are impulsive or inexpressive or icy, it will affect their governance. Personality counts.

It’s one thing to believe in protecting private comments from the public glare but it’s another to detach entirely the personal from the political.

Research has shown that politicians get elected on the strength of their personality rather than on their policies.

It’s not surprising.

People are interested in people. They are less interested in policies. Policies may be more important, but ultimately it’s people, not machines that make them.

It’s futile to remove the personal from the political. We can rationalise emotions but we can’t remove them. Margaret Thatcher’s style of governance was probably affected a great deal more by the values of her stiff-upper lip upbringing than by the pages of briefs and pieces of advice she got from various channels during her premiership.

The media have a choice to make between objectifying and subjectifying. Objectifying is talking about Hillary Clinton’s bum, while subjectifying is telling us how her mouth twitched when her daughter failed a maths test.

The future of journalism is uncertain: the overwhelming speed at which news now travels has eliminated much of what the job used to entail.

There is a new opportunity though and it requires us to slow down, to reflect and to write with insight rather than haste.

Demanding of our journalists to be emotionally astute as well as politically sharp will lead to a more complex picture of what is anything but a straightforward job: making decisions that affect millions of lives and the future of our planet.

Journalism may sustain its integrity into the future by maintaining a fine balance between the personal and the political. When it comes to reporting from the private realm, it must replace sensationalism with psychological realism.

It’s what’s missing in the constantly updated, hyper-evolving virtual media landscape.

Unless we begin to privilege the mundane everyday, politicians will stay “out of touch” with it, and the public will continue to see them as little more than worn out political machines; inanimate and inept.

How Maggie boils an egg matters, but you’d really better go and see the film to find out.

On being a creepface

I have the unfortunate habit of staring for long periods of time at strangers I find interesting. Conditions in early childhood encouraged the practice. My bedroom was at the very top of the house facing a busy park and a bus stop. From there I could observe ladies in leggings and ear muffs making their way to the shops and groups of children trying in vain to retrieve shuttlecocks they had misfired into trees.

Sometimes I would sit for so long by the window that I could see the ladies return with their Dunnes Stores shopping bags. It always gave me satisfaction to note the details, like that they’d removed their ear muffs and bought a stick of French bread or two packets of toilet paper.

Some people are interested in living life but I am surprisingly content just to look at it. When I was young, I used to find it fascinating to watch my sister play with her playmobil. She’d set up her toy ambulance, or farmhouse or schoolroom and assign names to each of the playmobil figurines, which she recorded in a special little book which I have preserved for posterity.

She became a scientist; I studied Psychology.

I don’t watch much television because my parents are always watching the Bavarian news or German documentaries about the Pope. When I get the chance though I love to watch people watching television.

My favourite person to watch is my mother.

When she has time, my mother watches sentimental German films, which feature families that seem to making a wholesome livelihood milking cows and running hotels in the Alps, but inwardly battling with deep-seated problems like long-lost loves and corruption in the bovine trade.

In the last thirty minutes of such dramas, my mother’s face changes. As conflicts reach their climax, and true thoughts are expressed, her lips begin to move a little, her eyes grow bigger and she can’t stop the tears that begin to roll one-by-one down her cheeks.

When I turn to look at her, she gets embarrassed and flashes me a sheepish smile. I pretend I haven’t noticed even though she should really know by now that her indiscriminate display of empathy is among the billions of things I admire about her and that her compassion for villagers in complicated love triangles is endearing.

My father’s expression becomes exceptionally benign when he watches trains bounding through glorious British countryside and stuffy antique shows where soft-spoken elderly males evaluate the worth of a 1786 gold-plated pocket watch.

In a domestic context, my bad habit doesn’t get me into too much trouble. Apart from the odd bus passenger sitting on the top deck, whose eye I catch as he’s looking out the window into my bedroom, I seem to keep my creeping quite covert.

It’s different when you’re on the luas though, or taking the bus. That’s a riskier business altogether. There you have to be careful. You see, I find observing people on public transport an indescribabe, insatiable delight. I frequently select my seat on the basis of maximum viewing potential.

The other day a south Dublin boy with a voice several decibels louder than the roar of the engine was making arrangements with his friend on the phone.

“Get us a mixer for tonishe will you”, he yelled. “I’ve got lieke three bottles of vodka but I toshally forgot the OJ in Londis. Ish’s going to be SUCH a laugh tonishe…. Definitely. You’re a star…Definitely. Such a laugh.”

He was speaking with such affectation and lack of self-consciousness that a man at the front of the bus turned around in disgust and stared at him for the duration of his entire conversation, and then again when his friend Lola rang back.

Unfortunately the man who turned had spotted me giggling into my scarf and tried to catch my eye. I didn’t want to catch his eye in case he thought I was only laughing because I wanted to share a special moment with him alone.

Once I was coming home on the last Luas and a group of drunk youngsters were amusing me with their unfathomable babble.

I was the tiniest bit tipsy so my subtlety was at an all-time low. I was caught.

“How are you tonight?” the one sporting a pink shirt with an upturned collar asked me.
“Very well”, I beamed.
“ Where are you from”, he asked.
“Bavaria”.
“Is that in Australia?”
“Yes! How did you know?”
“I’ve been there. It’s a beautiful place”
“It is! I love it there”
“People from there are so sound”
“I know, they so are! – Sorry, this is my stop”
“BYE darling! See you in Bavaria!”
“Bye now!”

When I got home, I turned off the bedroom light. As I was closing the curtains, I took a steely glance out at the quiet street below. I saw a couple kissing by the park railings. And I watched a man cycling by, singing to himself.