Three lessons from a Zen Taxi Driver.

Driving in London isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s bearable, but most of the time it’s crap. Too many cars, too many vans, too many bikes, too many humans. Unending lines of traffic, all trying to get from A to B, perhaps via C and D; all in their own heads and all wishing all the other people would just disappear and leave the roads to them and them alone.

In one of the opening scenes of Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie classic 28 Days Later, the main character walks across a deserted Westminster Bridge and around a London without a single vehicle. It’s meant to seem like some unreal and eerie waking dystopian nightmare, but for anyone who’s driven or worked around London much it’s an exquisite daydream.

Looks bloody perfect

I drove the streets of London myself for a while in the late 1990s, working as a medical sales rep. Every day I would hammer around the North West of the city trying to speak to doctors about some drug or other. They gave me five minutes of their time; I’d give them some branded tissues, or a car-care kit, or a pen.

I hated it, to be honest. I wasn’t very good at it for a start, because the whole thing – for me at least – seemed so fake. I pretended to be cheerful and chirpy [I know, not really my vibe] to the receptionists who pretended (sometimes) not to hate everything I stood for, hoping eventually that I might be allowed a few moments with doctors who were only after the branded foldable halogen desk lamp. Sometimes they pretended that they would try the drug I was talking about if they got the chance, and I’d pretend to believe them. I was talking to people all day, but not one conversation was authentic. I don’t think I’ve ever been so lonely in my life, and it ended up being quite depressing really – ironic as I had a load of sample anti-depressants in the boot of the Vauxhall Vectra 1.8 16v LS [that’s correct, I had the wheels to match the vibe]

Oh yeah, and the traffic.

On top of everything else, I had to pick my way around Kilburn and Camden, Neasden and North Farm, Holloway and Hampstead, Edgeware and Islington. Traffic everywhere. Every main road blocked, every back road full of people like me, desparately trying to balance a map on their knee as they checked the road signs. For this was a time before Sat Nav or GPS – I had a paper copy of the London A to Z, thumbed to death, covered in the fluff from Wotsits mixed with my own hot, despairing tears.

Okay the late 1990s wasn’t that long ago but this was the same tech

And I guess for a long time I carried that frustration with me whenever I drove around London, the tension I held in my shoulders and chest making my neck ache and my head pound. And I assumed everyone else did too.

And then, one evening, I met a man who changed all that. I met the Zen Taxi Driver.

It was a few years back now, not long after I’d joined CDM. After a long day of authentic and open leadership, I got a taxi back from the office – a car company taxi rather than a black cab – and struck up a conversation with the driver that has stuck with me ever since.

It started when he stopped for a young couple at a zebra crossing, and they moved like aged tortoises actually getting across the road, without acknowledging or even seeming to notice the fact that he had stopped to wait for them. I remarked that this kind of thing must be frustrating for someone driving all day, and rather than giving me the (probably expected) low energy agreement, he disagreed, for three very clear reasons. You may even consider them lessons, if you like…

This is a zebra crossing

The first lesson the driver talked of was about empathy, and honestly I felt a bit embarrassed that he had to point out the very obvious to me: that I had no idea what was going on in the lives of that couple, or the driver who was desperately trying to overtake in those one way, two lane roads through Hammersmith, the lady dithering about whether to turn right, or anyone else you could mention.

Maybe the couple had just had bad news about someone in their family.
Maybe the guy in a hurry was trying to get to his wife who’d gone into labour.
Maybe the lady was trying to remember the road where she had lived during the war.

Or maybe none of those big things. Maybe they just weren’t having the best few minutes, or hour, or day.

Whatever it was, none of them even realised that for that fleeting moment your lives intersected, and you were never relevant to any of them, any more than they should really be relevant to you. You have no right to judge them, nor should you feel the need to do so.

Which led on to the next lesson. My guide had hundreds, perhaps thousands of these micro-meetings every day… ephemeral encounters between people who may well never, ever cross paths again. And his philosophy on this was simple – that none of these people should willingly be given the power to influence your mood or feelings. You have it in yourself to decide what you will allow to affect you and what you will not. So have some respect for yourself, and don’t be so keen to give every passing person access to your emotions and the ability to affect your day. They have no right to affect you, any more than you have any right to judge them.

The third lesson that our teacher talked to me about was the individual experience of time. The way he put it was simplicity itself: “everyone walks to a different beat”. Some people’s internal metronome runs really fast – you’ve seen them doing a walk-jog-walk-jog thing down the pavement just to be half an hour early to work; you’ve seen them frustrated when things are ‘derailed’ or not going fast enough for them. And other people move at a much slower pace. Strolling rather than marching; always time for a ‘by the way’. Everyone has their own pace, one no better or worse than the other: just… different. Except for you, of course: just perfect in the middle, right? Hmm. Perhaps the truth is that to some people you seem incredibly impatient, and to others you’re glacially slow?

Empathy, and acceptance. People walk to a different beat. It’s not for you to judge.

By the time I got back home, I’d had one of the most in depth, introspective and interesting conversations I’d ever had. There was nothing I didn’t already know, as such, but damn if it didn’t make me consider how I was moving through the world.

I won’t say it was an epiphany, because there were so many other things happening in my life at that time which had such a profound effect on me too – new job, new baby, newly without a mum, to name but three [those and many others are in some of the blogs here too, somewhere, if you care to have a look around].

But here I am, probably seven years on, and I’ve decided to sit and write about that man, and the zen-like wisdom that he patiently and clearly articulated like it was all so very simple.

Lessons of self-control, self-respect. Of acceptance, of humility, of empathy. Crucial lessons for a life lived well, and I don’t know about you but I’ll take those with sincere gratitude from wherever I can get them.

In that spirit, I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts which I’ve carried with me from that moment and likely will continue to carry with me for as long as I wander (and wonder) around this planet of ours.

First, I still have to catch myself sometimes, so I let myself off about that. We are all in our own minds, our own worlds, and so it’s human nature (literally and figuratively) to be wrapped up in what we’re doing and where we are going. We are all the lead actors in our own biopic, and those people whose paths we cross are the extras [and given special effects techonology nowadays they could actually all be CGI and you probably wouldn’t notice]. But still, I make the effort to catch myself; to remind myself that they are in their own world too, that their fleeting actions shouldn’t influence my emotions, and that my beat (at that moment) is different to theirs.

And it’s a simple, kind of daft thing… but since that day, I’ve never said that “I’m in traffic”. Because I’m not in traffic, I am traffic. Okay, it’s not life-changing. But I promise you, it does change one’s attitude to all the other cars around. They’re not deliberately in your way, making you late, any more than you are deliberately in theirs. You’re together, at this moment, just trying to get somewhere.

And here’s the [probably quite obvious to you, dear reader] next bit… none of this is really just about traffic. I don’t think I got that at first, so I make no apologies for holding your hand through it.

Because the truth is that we are all traffic, of course. Human traffic, thrown together into lives that we often don’t really understand and certainly aren’t evolved to be able to manage. But together, fellow travellers, all just trying to get somewhere. Along the way you try to surround yourself with the people and situations that help you along and give you energy, and avoid those which drain you or bring you down. And thus you make your own way, making it up as you go sometimes, but hopefully with some broad idea of where you’re heading, and you criss-cross with other people doing the same. We are all traffic.

Who knows, we might need to ask one another for directions one day. In the meantime, safe travels. Make sure you text me when you get there, okay?

We are all animals

Imagine the situation – you’re in a whimsical conversation with a group of people, and someone asks “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”. It’s a classic question. What’s your answer? A bear, because you’re strong but cuddly? An eagle, because you’d like to float over the world seeing things from on high? A sloth, because you’re incurably lazy and haven’t cut your fingernails for a year?

Well when I’m asked this question, I’ve developed a habit of saying “I’d be a 40-something male human”.

Partly I give this answer because I’m a clever-dick/smart ass [delete as appropriate for your geography] and take a kind of weird pleasure in being pedantic and low-level irritating [a trait I inherited from my old man along with various other things including gout – thanks so much Dad!], but partly I give it because it reveals a simple, irrefutable truth that we often choose to forget about ourselves:

We are animals.

And that’s what our current crazy situation has reminded me. That when you strip it all away, in a way that we tend not to do, you land on perhaps the plainest truth of all.

We are all just animals.

We are strategically shaved monkeys, and despite everything we have built up around ourselves over the last few thousand years we’re at the whim of a miniscule little virus. We can’t see it, we can’t fight it.

We have little computers in our pocket which can tell us any fact on earth within a minute or two [just think about that for a second – it really is incredible isn’t it?] and we’ve developed a society where we all know where to stand on the escalator and how to order a very, very particular kind of coffee with a particular kind of milk and even a particular way to make that milk hot and put it in the coffee.

But all of that means nothing in the face of that fact that we are the same animals we always were, just as vulnerable to a tiny little virus as our ancestors were thousands of years ago. As our descendants will be in thousands of years to come.

And as animals – simple, needs-driven animals – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tell us we first need food and shelter, then safety (personal, economic, psychological) and so on.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology
Maslow, A.H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review. 50(4): 370–96.

But in a developed country today the lower levels are, for most at least, all ticked off. Not only do we have “shelter”, we have spare rooms, underfloor heating, an app to turn on the heating before we get home.

So we create a new world of needs around us. We convince ourselves that we ‘need’ a pizza with cheese in the crust, a haircut, that new pair of Nikes, a phone with a better camera. Faster wifi, better holidays, a bigger house.

And then it’s all stripped away, by a tiny little invisible virus that closes our society down within a matter of weeks. Can’t get the pizza delivered. No point in the new Nikes if there’s nowhere to go and no one to show.

If this weird time has done anything for us, it’s taken us back to basics, exposing the real needs in our lives.

The need to get out of our homes, if only for an hour a day, to get our fix of fresh air, exercise, nature.

The need to connect with friends or families, virtually as we can’t do it in person.

The need to show our support for each other, be that through clapping into the quiet night air or by singing across balconies or by picking up medicines for those who can’t get out.

Think about these – they’re all, in their own way, a little rebellion against the feeling of having our freedom curtailed. Like any animal, we’re not happy in a cage – even an imaginary cage made of social responsibility and societal peer pressure which is protecting us from potential danger.

As animals, there’s no question that we’ve got too big for our boots. Drugged by the intoxicating idea that we are special – as individuals and as a species – and have some kind of right to have whatever we want.

So this is a unique time to reassess what is really valuable to us, and re-evaluate how we’ve been living our lives. To really establish what our true needs are, as communal animals. Because we’ve been shown that we only function as part of a wider society.

And we all need that society. In its true sense: the word comes from the Latin ‘socius’ meaning companion. Companionship, togetherness, collaborative association with others.

Surely we can come out of this with more balance than we came into it, right?

Less hubris, more humility. Less ‘me’, more ‘we’.

Yes we are all animals. Yes, individually we are vulnerable, weak, susceptible. But together, we have shown we can love and protect each other and build civilisations the like of which our ancestors could never have imagined.

And what we build from here? Well, that’s down to us to decide from this point on. Let’s not forget what feels important to us right now.

Take care. Be safe. Stay inside. Stop touching your face.

Going viral

Last week as a birthday treat to myself [yeah, last Friday actually – not too late to send me a thoughtful yet expensive gift – I also accept PayPal] I got the new book The Rules of Contagion which has (totally coincidentally) just come out. It’s about how viruses spread. I know, right?

[In fact, it’s such a perfect time to publish a book like this that you can’t help wondering if it’s either a) someone very very quickly cashing in on a global pandemic/panic or b) that they actually started coronavirus in order to ensure people bought their book. But apparently neither are the case.]

Anyway, the book focuses around the concept of the R value, standing for the ‘reproductive value’, which basically mean the number of people that a single person with an infection will subsequently infect. Once the R value is below 1 – so that each infected person infects less than one other person (on average) – the virus starts to disappear.

For our new chum the coronavirus, that number is apparently somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5, the lower end of which is about the same as our normal seasonal flu. One seems to be that people can have mild (or even, as in the case of Idris Elba, pretty much no) symptoms which makes it more likely to get about, and old or infirm people get it really bad. But all in all, 1.5-3.5 is where it lands. There is a massive impact in the difference between those numbers, but that’s for another time…

[It does make me wonder about that guy who managed to infect 28 other people in New York – what was he doing, licking their eyes right after playing with his pet bat?]

The other part of the book – the part that gets really interesting for a behavioural scientist like me [posh name for a Psychology degree but hey, it’s my blog, right?] is that it’s not just a virus itself that will spread through contagion. So can information (or misinformation) about that virus can too, just in the same way, this time not through handshakes but through our “social” connections online, leading to worry and panic and eventually supermarkets being stripped clear of toilet paper like a corn field after a plague of locusts.

This got me thinking about the “super-spreader” of harmful misinformation that is Andrew Wakefield the ex-Etonian [really, again? What do they teach in that bloody place??] now disgraced and struck-off doctor who published a paper in 1998 claiming a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism.

It’s now claimed the whole thing was a money-making scam (he allegedly had his own patent for a ‘rival vaccine’) but regardless of his motives his research has been totally discredited and outside of a weird anti-vax bubble he’s a pariah… and yet the anti-vax movement is still raging, 22 years later, with overall vaccination rates (which need to be at 95% to protect us from outbreaks) down to 90.3% in 2018-19 in the UK. In some communities – more middle class and supposedly educated – it’s way lower. And guess what? Yep, measles is back. Measles can leave kids blind. It can kill. For immunosuppressed adults, it’s bloody dangerous. Well done dickhead.

Disinformation is a virus.

So is hate, abuse, division. And now our “social” networks spread these just as a handshake might spread coronavirus.

Look at Twitter (and Facebook to some degree, but as it’s less anonymous it’s less poisonous) and you’ll see the viruses being spread. They infect our world based on someone’s R value.

Which is why the Donald’s and Piers’ of this world are super-spreaders too. In their own selfish little way.

But wait…

If these “social” places do spread these negative feelings like viruses… couldn’t they also be used to spread something positive?

Over the last few days, Facebook has been full of people looking out for each other, setting up groups to offer help to strangers, sharing links to resources. As well as the cesspool which will always be full of shite on Twitter, there are pockets of love and kindness and connection between people who’ve never met.

This is community. This is society. There’s no time for division when we’re under attack from something we can’t see.

So let’s connect more, care more, include more than we ever have before. Isolate, sure, but do it with open arms and big hearts. Build bridges. Build connections. Seek to understand, to empathise.

See how compassionate you dare to be today.

What’s your R value? Go, spread love.

This too shall pass

Since Tuesday of last week, I’ve been in “self-isolation”. It started with having a high temperature on Tuesday morning, followed by generally feeling pretty crap for the next few days, including an annoying [dare I say “persistent”?!] cough for a couple of days too as well as feeling ridiculously tired all the time. It went from just ‘having a cold’ to “being in self-isolation” on about Thursday when the advice from the UK government around coronavirus changed…

So, have I had coronavirus?

Honestly, I haven’t a clue. If I had to put money on it I’d say ‘no’ because I really don’t think I’ve been that ill. But if this new virus chum of ours isn’t that bad for [relatively!] fit and healthy people under 60 then maybe I have. But I reckon probably not.

But suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we’re in the middle of a disaster movie from the mid-noughties, where things seem to be changing so quickly and really no one knows what the hell is going to happen.

Suddenly it doesn’t matter who you are or where you live. It doesn’t matter how much hand sanitizer you haven’t got or how much toilet paper you have. It doesn’t matter whether you think this is all going to go away like bird flu or smash through us like Spanish flu, because you’re going to be on the receiving end of what happens. Just like me, just like everyone.

[I’m sorely tempted to go down a rabbit hole where I point out that the virus doesn’t discriminate between gender, race, sexual preference, etc etc and that this show’s we’re all fundamentally just people, but I think that could end up with me celebrating a killer virus for its inclusivity credentials and whilst somewhat entertaining and whimsical I’m not sure that’s helpful for anyone…]

Okay, before I get too nihilistic, let’s consider something else, shall we?

The very first of the three Universal Truths in Buddhist teaching* is that everything is impermanent and ever-changing. To me, that seems pretty irrefutable for every possible subject: societal, social, biological, ecological, intellectual. Everything is changing, and will always change. Nothing is permanent.

Yet we wander through this world like we’re the end of evolution; like this society we’ve created around us represents civilisation is at its peak.

We’re not. And it’s not.

In evolutionary terms, our wonderful, fascinating, challenging civilisation doesn’t even register.

One day all the cities we’ve built will be found by the archaeologists of the future. Don’t believe me? Ask the Pharaohs, or the Greeks, or the Aztecs.

In fifty years the idea of social media will be laughable. I mean, we already raise a smile about MySpace or AskJeeves and they were only a few years back.

And next year we’ll look back at coronavirus, or COVID19 [sounds scarier but less interesting to me] and say “that was crazy, wasn’t it”.

“So what’s the point of all this Bartlett”, I hear you cry, “are you saying all life is ultimately futile because we’re all just dust in the wind?”

No. No I’m not.

I’m saying that whatever difficulties lie ahead – and difficulties there will be, of that we can be certain – you should just remember that impermanence, summed up so beautifully by one simple old Middle Eastern saying:

This too shall pass

This too shall pass – in Persian [apparently – blame Google if this isn’t right]

There will be a day when we look back at all this.

Perhaps we’ll sigh and say “remember all the fuss and nonsense about how it was going to end the world?”. Perhaps we’ll say “do you remember when we thought we’d be starting up sporting events in just a few weeks?”. And there will definitely be people who say “we’re never going to get through all this toilet paper”.

But until that day comes all we can do is remember to look out for each other, trust each other, care about each other. It’s how we’ve all got to where we are, and it’s how we’ll get from here to wherever the hell we’re going from here.

Take care x

*If you’re interested in learning a bit about Buddhism, you couldn’t do much better in my view than reading the fascinating book Why Buddism Is True by Robert Wright. It’s all about how ancient Buddhist teachings about the idea of ‘self’ align with modern neuroscience and psychology, and gave me an interesting perspective that’s allowed me to let go of a little of my personal angst along the way. Yes, this is the kind of shit I read for fun. Yes I know that’s a bit weird.