Why has the imagination been sidelined in literature?

Imagination is a powerful force for progress. So why has it been sidelined in the one place it should be most welcome – literature.

In his now famous quote, Albert Einstein claimed that imagination was more important than knowledge. When Einstein wrote those words in 1929, those who knew about such things might have said putting a man on the moon was impossible. But those who imagined more, including writers of science fiction, knew better. We know that imagination is a powerful force for progress in our lives and in society. And yet it seems that in the place imagination should be most celebrated – in stories, fiction and literature – it has long been sidelined.

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K Le Guin
The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin, arguably the greatest living writer of imaginative literature, made a powerful defence of imagination in her speech to the National Book Awards on Thursday, at which she was presented a lifetime achievement award. Le Guin dedicated her win to the “the realists of a larger reality” who for 50 years had been excluded from literature’s awards, her “fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction – writers of the imagination.”

It’s hard to dispute the exclusion of writers of imagination from mainstream literature, not simply from its prizes but from every part of literary culture. But why has this happened? The standard explanation draws on one part quality – genres like science fiction simply aren’t “well written” enough – and two parts the idea that imagination is in some way childish. Writers of imagination are fine when they address children and adolescents, but adults are meant to get their head out of the clouds and keep their feet firmly planted in reality.

This idea reaches further than literature of course. Over the same five decade period Le Guin references, our education system has systematically sidelined the imaginative disciplines of the arts and humanities, until we find ourselves at the position today where any non STEM subject has seen a de facto obliteration of its status and funding. That’s not a criticism of STEM subjects or their creative potential, but as Einstein was trying to tell us, those subjects are at their strongest when honed by a powerful imagination.

Such an imagination can look at our world today and see the vast potential for it’s future, and the terrible risks that threaten progress. It’s no coincidence that the imaginative literature of science fiction has made utopia – the discussion of how to make a better world (a discussion Le Guin has played no small part in) – one of its core themes. It seems more than credible that the forces that might lead us to a dystopian future might tend to surpress those powerful imaginations that can envision their defeat.

Imaginative literature itself has been in a virtual civil war in recent years. When fantasy novelist N K Jemisin called for a global literature of imagination, in a speech that echoes Le Guin’s both in its meaning and its passionate intensity, it was a recognition that imagination can not be limited by gender or race. But the venomous, racist attacks made on Jemisin in response suggest that some, a small but bitter minority, do not agree. When that same, bitter minority were involved with block voting at this years Hugo awards, they were sent packing by award voters outraged at an attempt to limit and politicise imaginative fiction.

Anne Leckie’s clean sweep of this years major awards for science fiction, and Sofia Samatar’s victory at the World Fantasy Award, suggest imaginative literature is indeed becoming global and starting to overcome boundaries that had held it back. Despite, or perhaps because, of the barriers placed in its path, imaginative literature arrives in 2014 far stronger than it has been for decades. Ursula Le Guin’s honouring at the National Book Awards is one of many indications that, far from being excluded any more, imaginative literature is now at the very heart of literary life.

But if anyone is responsible for that change it is not publishers, or even writers, but readers. The internet and it’s massive disruption of the traditional publishing industry has allowed readers not just to vote with their wallets, but to evangelise for imaginative literature across thousands of blogs and fan forums, to support diverse new writing through crowdfunding and other platforms, and to become the new writers, editors and independent publishers of imaginative literature. There’s a grass routes revolution in publishing, and the power of imagination is at its heart.

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Can you name Arthur C. Clarke’s top 5 astounding predictions?

An excellent guest post today from Jared Hill, a blogger living in Chicago who reads science fiction avidly, and who is also keen on sports and film. Arthur C Clarke was a visionary ahead of his time, but do you agree with Jared’s picks for the great sci-fi writer’s top 5 astounding predictions? Follow Jared on Twitter @JaredHill341

“Arthur C Clarke accurately predicted the rise of the internet, and even further, online banking almost to the year.”

When famed science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke passed away in 2008, he left behind an immense and multi-faceted legacy. Clarke, alongside contemporaries such as Isaac Asimov, demonstrated that science-fiction literature can enrich public discourse about the role of technology in society. Clarke was the son of a radio operator and his early exposure to the rapidly developing field of electronics led to a preternatural ability to imagine applications for future technology. His reputation as a visionary author was so powerful that when film auteur Stanley Kubrick was looking for a screenwriter for a science fiction film in 1964, he reached out to Clarke, who was living in seclusion in Sri Lanka at the time. The script he wrote would end up becoming 2001: A Space Odyssey and it would contain some of his boldest, and most precise, predictions.

In honor of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, his most noteworthy predictions have been compiled below:

Communications Satellites

In a 1964 BBC Special entitled Horizon, Clarke enumerated his personal predictions for the world of 2000 in honor of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. In the special he stated that satellites would “make possible a world where we can be in instant contact with each other, wherever we may be” and for those of us living in the present, Clarke had no idea how correct he really was. Strangely enough, Clarke’s predictions for a global telecommunications network were spawned in 1945 by a 28-year old Clarke in an article that he wrote for Wireless World entitled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-Wide Radio Coverage?”, regarding the potential uses of geostationary satellites. Clarke theorized that :rocket which achieved a sufficiently great speed in flight outside the earth’s atmosphere would never return.” Once the rocket reached orbital velocity, it would become “an artificial satellite, circling the world forever with no expenditure of power — a second moon, in fact.” Bear in mind that Clarke’s paper was written well over a decade before the former U.S.S.R. sent Sputnik into orbit. Today, telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbits have made the wireless information age possible and it was theorized and predicted in its entirety by Clarke decades in advance.

The Internet

As mentioned previously, Clarke’s mother was a radio operator and in this light it becomes clear why Clarke was so intuitive regarding wireless communications, but his theories extended beyond just communications, but also to the internet as a whole. Clarke’s article on geosynchronous satellite networks helped spur interest in the subject, and NASA actually began collaborating with Howard Hughes on the Telstar project in the early sixties (which ultimately set the path for everything from satellite television broadcasts to HughesNet internet plans as we know them today). As the technology was being developed, Clarke became a mainstay on televisions shows, and when speaking to an Australian news program in 1974 he told the host that by the turn of the century, people would be able to access “all the information needed for everyday life: bank statements, theater reservations, all the information you need over the course of living in a complex modern society.” For comparison, online banking services weren’t popularized until the late 1990′s and by 2000 80% of banks offered online banking, showing that Clarke accurately predicted the rise of the internet, and even further, online banking almost to the year.

2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

Personal Computers

Clarke understood how quickly computers were advancing in the 1960′s and 70′s and when he made his predictions about the internet and future society, he also described much smaller computer consoles that would allow users to access infinite information. But the most salient issue he pointed out, at least in this author’s opinion, was that Clarke added that people would “take it as much for granted as we take the telephone.” Clarke envisioned a world where people would use a console at home to communicate with a computer hub, of one kind or another, that would relay pertinent information back to them. Clarke had correctly anticipated that ultimately, home computers would enable humanity to do everything from checking their bank accounts to retrieving theater reservations. Clarke had also made allusions to this concept of a connected web that the whole of civilization was tapped into in his book Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible, when he talks about generations far into the future as “our remote descendants as living in isolated cells, scarcely ever leaving them, but being able to establish instant TV contact with anyone, anywhere else on Earth.”


The iPad

Following Samsung’s entrance into the touchscreen and tablet arena, Apple furiously pursued their alleged copyright infringements as Steve Jobs had submitted dozens of patents involving the iPhone’s technology. In a desperate move, Samsung cited the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Newspads” as proof that the design was not originally Apple’s. Clarke’s “Newspads” are practically identical to the popular Apple devices and smartphones and tablets have become fixations in practically the exact same way they were depicted in the film. There was a passage from the 2001 novel that may even cause you to look at iPads in a more whimsical way: “Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word “newspaper,” of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics).”

“men will no longer commute, they will communicate”


Clarke made several outlandish and inaccurate predictions including bio-engineered ape servants and the dissolution of cities, but the mechanism that Clarke believed would hasten the fall of urban areas did come true: telecommuting. In his 1964 World’s Fair television special, he predicted that by 2000, “men will no longer commute, they will communicate” and that a person could “conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London”. Clarke said that telecommuting would ultimately prove to be a “wonderful thing,” if only in that it meant that people “won’t have to be stuck in cities,” and they’d be able to live “out in the country” or wherever they want. Anyone in international business will attest that telecommuting and videoconferencing has saved countless hours of travel and agony as well as millions of dollars and that it is almost exactly as Clarke described.


I interview B&N about their new Sync-Up initiative

DAMO: So tell me about Sync-Up!*

B&N: Well, if a B&N customer buys a paperback book from us, they can now buy the ebook as well for $4.99!

DAMO: But…isn’t that about what ebooks cost anyway?

B&N: Actually the average ebook price is £3.99.

DAMO: Er…so why not just buy the ebook the usual way?

B&N: Because then you won’t be “Syncing-Up”! *sincere marketing face*

DAMO: Really, wow, the book and ebook sync up?

B&N: *nods and smiles sagely* No. Obviously there’s no way to sync a print book.

DAMO: Amazon Whispersync syncs ebooks with audiobooks…

B&N: I’m sorry we don’t recognise that word.

DAMO: What word? You mean Amaz-


DAMO: Woah there, are you OK?

B&N: No. Yes. We’re fine. We’re absolutely fine. Just fine. Why don’t you ask us about Sync-Up’s AMAZING gifting features.

DAMO: OK, but couldn’t I just give any book I’ve bought to anyone I like, I mean-

B&N: You’re not helping.

DAMO: Sorry?


DAMO: Oh. Kay. I think we’ll leave it there.


DAMO: I assure you I am.

*please note, this is a satire, not a real interview

Branding for writers – just don’t

Nicola Griffith has an excellent and in depth post up about the balancing act between developing depth of craft as a writer, and branding the art that comes of craft.

Branded. It’s a brutal word for a brutal practice: a label burnt into the hide without permission. On a cow a brand marks an animal that belongs to a herd. Yet to create art the artist must be as free as possible from the herd mentality: neither belong to any group nor follow any but our own particular, often peculiar path.

The short answer on branding for writers is – don’t. Here’s why.

Branding is about imbuing low value ingredients with qualities that give it a high value. To steal a line from Ricky Gervais, Coca-Cola is just fizzy brown water with sugar in. It costs pennies to produce dozens of gallons of coke. So those clever folks at the Coca-Cola corporation spend literally billions of dollars every year making advertisements that market Coke to you. They don’t do this to inform you that Coke exists. They do it so that when you see Coke, you associate it with certain brand values – America, vitality, sex, sun. To name a few. Now the fizzy brown water with sugar in has gone from low to high value, because when you drink Coke, you feel like those values apply to you, an experience worth paying for.

Now consider the strawberry. The strawberry requires no advertisements, no marketing strategy, and no brand values. Strawberries have been hunted by man and woman for all of human history, simply because they are fucking tasty. Do you know what isn’t tasty? Sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oil and modified starch. These being the main ingredients in Angel Delight (a kind of synthesised dessert mouse, for those fortunates never made to eat it). The modern food industry doesn’t start out with the desire to make a lovely dessert. it starts out with a cheap, abundant “ingredient” that often exists as a byproduct of another industrial process. In this case, modified starch, and asks “what can we make with this that we can sell for the highest mark-up? And hence the deluge of processed foods, that will do as much to ruin your health as smoking, and cause chronic obesity. Why does anyone eat them? Or worse, feed them to their kids? The answer? Branding of course. And a little artificial strawberry flavouring.


If you’re a working parent, who can’t afford real strawberries for your kids the this ad for Angel Delight, which is only “food” by the very loosest of definitions, hits all the right buttons. Of course! Angel Delight is like strawberries and cream! All whizzed together! Perfect for pud! And there, the branding has you. And it’s the same story for all major brand products – low value ingredients, made in to a high value product with the clever application of brand values.

What, as a writer, are you? Are you a producer of a low value product? Do you need to persuade readers that your writing has brand values that actually it doesn’t? Do you actually believe your writing has real value? If you’ve been through the complex process of learning to write that Nicola Griffith explores in her essay, you’ll be tremendously wary of branding. Because you know your writing is a strawberry. It doesn’t need to be marketed. As soon as people get a whiff if its sweet stench, they’ll come hunting for the fruit.

When writers do enthusiastically brand themselves, it’s always a sign that they’re trying to sell you Angel Delight. A book full of wonky sentences, half cooked plot ideas, and cheap characters. So they use the brand values of genre to try and make you think this botched epic fantasy will be like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or that this cliched cyberpunk novel will be a shiny chromium prize like William Gibson’s Neuromancer. But it never is. In fact, once you know the signs, branding is one of the most counter-productive things a writer can do. because if you’re channelling a lot of effort in to branding your work, it tells me that deep down you believe it’s of low value.

Whatever happened to cyberpunk?

The girl in the black vinyl minidress, shit-kicker boots and neon hair braids told me she was a cyberpunk. “Wow,” I answered, shouting over the club’s thumping techno-trance beat, “I love William Gibson.” I may as well have namechecked Samuel Taylor Coleridge at a Metallica gig. She stared at me for a while, then shouted back “I’m not into the Bee Gees.”

Pop culture rarely recognises its influences, especially when they are literary. But it’s a testament to just how closely attuned William’s Gibson’s work was to the zeitgeist, that in 1992 cyberpunk was manifesting in the cultural interface where 80s goth met 90s techno.

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Why I support #ReaderGate

They want you to believe that #ReaderGate is evil. The Literery Elite want to tell you, that we, the silent majority of readers, yes readers who are the only reason the Literery Elite even get to be elite at al, who have been silent too long, are wrong. But I’m here to tell you not to believe that elite who you made.

No. #ReaderGate began when vigilant readers became suspicious about the highfalutin so called opinions of so called “book reviewers”. It began as whispers by those too sacred to speak out. Scared by a Literery Elite who too long have towered like ivory towers over common readers. But we would be towered over no longer! And hence #ReaderGate was born.

#ReaderGate is a consumer revolution. A book is a bit of content, and it should not matter what that content is, just so long as we like consuming it. The demands of #ReaderGate are simple, and all #ReaderGators agree, except the ones who don’t who aren’t real #ReaderGators. Some say, they being the aforementioned Literey Eliters, that #ReaderGate is just abuse. Or excuse for abuse. Or both. This is a lie. #ReaderGators reject all abuse. Except the ones who don’t, who aren’t real #ReaderGators either. And also they started it.

#ReaderGate Conclusive Proof
#ReaderGate Conclusive Proof

Without readers, writers would only be men holding their pens. It has been proven, by vigilant readers of #ReaderGate, that writers are disgracing the noble profession of writing by making it corrupt. How? Let me tell you how. A key demand of #ReaderGate is that novelists stop making stuff up about people. That’s how.

Actually #ReaderGate is about ethics in book journalism. For generations book critics have discriminated against writers on the basis of quality. #ReaderGate demands equality for all writers regardless of quality. A book is just entertainment. It shouldn’t matter whether the book is quality or not for it to entertain some people. Don’t make the books political. Books are about people. They should never be political.

This is why I support #ReaderGate.

Julia Cameron on why creativity can’t be learned, but must be recovered

The bad old days when people were taught that creativity was only for a special, talented few are over. Most of us know we have the potential to be creative. But unleashing that potential can still be a tremendous struggle. Great artists of all kinds – writers, painters, musicians, dancers or any person accomplished in creative discipline – can often seem almost superhuman, able to achieve heights of creativity that are hard to imagine when we are stuck in the routines of daily life. So it’s natural, and all too easy, to confuse the technical skills those artists hold, with the basic human potential for creativity that we all possess.

“No matter what your age or your life path, whether making art is your career or your hobby or your dream, it is not too late or too egotistical or too selfish or too silly to work on your creativity.” Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

The Artist’s Way : A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron

In her seminal book on higher creativity, writer and filmmaker Julia Cameron shares her rich experience of helping artists reach their full creative potential, developed over hundreds of taught workshops with thousands of struggling creators.

The central idea of The Artist’s Way is that creativity is a fundamental quality of being human. We are all, every one of us, innately creative. But we lose our creative potential in the contest with daily life, and all of the stresses, pains and fears that are part of our lives. And because we are already creative, we can’t learn creativity, instead we must recover it.

The Artist’s Way is structured as a 12 week programme of creative recovery, modelled on the 12 step programme used by many alcoholics and others recovering from addiction. Cameron employs this radical approach because the causes of our lost creativity are very much like the causes of addiction. Her recovery programme employs many techniques and imparts many useful ideas, but at it’s heart The Artist’s Way is about learning to love ourselves, trust in our innate creativity, have faith in our potential, and recover the creative strength and courage that exists in all of us.

Cameron’s lessons use two words that many readers might struggle with – spiritual and God. But the relationship between humans as creators, and the creative potential of our universe, is fascinating to consider.

“Those who speak in spiritual terms routinely refer to God as creator but seldom see “creator” as the literal term for “artist”. I am suggesting you take the term “creator” quite literally. You are seeking to forge a creative alliance, artist-to-artist with the Great Creator. Accepting this concept can greatly expand your creative possibilities.” ~ Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

I have a long history with Julia Cameron’s wonderful book. I saw it in a bookshop when I was 12, and not being able to afford to buy it, I sat and read The Artist’s Way for two hours until the bookshop closed. Many years later I found the book again after it was recommended by a friend. Then finally in early 2014 I made the time to follow the entire 12 step course. It helped me realise how I had been knocked off my own creative path many times by fear and a lack of faith. It’s a book I can’t recommend highly enough, and an investment of time that will pay back many times over as your own creative recovery unfolds.

Are these words by Russell Brand baffling nonsense?

I just read a good humoured but frustrating interview with Russell Brand by Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times. Every time Kellaway quotes anything Brand says, she follows up by calling it nonsense and saying she is baffled. This is a fairly common strategy in response to Brand, whose ideas draw a lot on spiritual thinking that is widely derided in the UK, whether its coming from the lips of Russell Brand or the Pope.

But is it nonsense? Does it baffle you? This are the words that baffled Lucy Kellaway, after she had asked if  he thought much about capitalism.

“I find it hard to understand. It obfuscates truth and I think an economic ideology is oppositional to the spiritual ideologies that are what we need to adopt if we’re to save our planet and humankind. Capitalism, the economic arm of the individualism and materialism ideologies that keep us framed in a narrow bandwidth of consciousness, prevents us from seeing that we’re all connected.”

Revolution by Russell Brand

Are you baffled? I feel slightly awkward in saying that I’m not, as so many other people are. Brand’s words make total sense to me. As does his statement that “The economy is just a metaphorical device, it’s not real. That’s why it’s got the word con in it.” That’s basically Derrida boiled down to a one liner. Which is what you need to do with Derrida if you want anyone to understand. But how about you? Baffling? Or brilliant?

(Please don’t drop me a rant about Brand being a rich a*hole. No doubt he is, but that’s not the question.)

What do authors really look like?

A new guest post today from Ferdinand Page asks what, exactly, authors look like? Ferdinand lurked around doing everything to books except write them until the writer’s digestive tract kicked in. An urban fantasy, scripts and short stories are now poised, waiting to re-write the world. Read Ferdinand’s blog and follow @ferdinandpage


What do authors look really like? Countless moodily-lit faces, arranged against a background of bookshelves or graffitied brickwork, have failed to convince the public that they are looking at somebody who writes for a living. Or doesn’t. Authors’ photos are the tip of the iceberg. The problem is capturing what makes a writer a writer, and not just somebody in need of a makeover.

The only accurate visual representation of an author appeared in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the eighties. Krang, one of the best, and certainly the grossest character to emerge from TMNT is, in every way that matters, a writer. From the midriff of his robotic body, the disembodied brain of Krang peers at the world from its sealed capsule. Krang’s urges, the standard-issue drive of evil alien warlords everywhere, are to emerge into a world reconstructed in his own image.

In eerie replication, the writer takes the raw stuff of real life and turns it into stories. The writer’s brain is located, not in the head as commonly assumed, but in the stomach. Writing is, a digestive rather than an intellectual process, peering out at the world it will re-make according to the perceptions and capacities of each individual imagination.

We are doomed to turn everything around us into story, however well or badly we write it down. Writing is a skill but the urge to write is driven by an alien digestion. J. G. Ballard coupled skill with a powerful imagination that took the disturbing reality of his experience and made it even more disturbing. Interviewed by Thomas Frick for The Paris Review, Ballard identified why writing is so essential to our proper digestion of life.

“I take for granted that for the imaginative writer, the exercise of the imagination is part of the basic process of coping with reality … I know that if I don’t write, say on holiday, I begin to feel unsettled and uneasy, as I gather people do who are not allowed to dream.”

Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard

When I re-started my writer’s stomach recently, I was surprised at the demands of this dream-digestion process. In a small but Damascene moment on the Northern Line, I had the choice to write down a plot resolution or check I was on the right line. The writer’s stomach won. It took 40 minutes to get to where I should’ve been.

Fortunately we’re not looking for world domination, although a bigger share of the readership would be nice. But the process of the writer’s dream-digestion is powerful, and it doesn’t show on the outside. As Thomas Frick describes visiting Ballard in Shepperton:

“… It is inevitably rather droll to come upon the man himself … two shiny silver palm trees, bending amiably over a reclining aluminium lawn chair, inject the only note of fantasy into an otherwise quite normal-looking household.”

The outside of a writer, how they appear to the human eye, tells you little or nothing about their interior world. The silver palm trees don’t tell you about the writer’s alien digestive tract. They don’t tell you

we are Krang.



I have a copy of the magnificent Sci-Fi Chronicles to give away

One of the side projects I managed to slot in last year were some entries for the rather magnificent Sci-Fi Chronicles. I can now claim to have literally written the book on Gene Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K Le Guin and a bunch of other SF novelists. The Sci-Fi Chronicle is a visually sumptuous book, the kind of thing you can spend many hours flicking through, soaking in decades of amazing imagery from sci-fi in film, books and TV. It also has intriguing timelines so you can see exactly how the big events of SF tie together. Oh yes, and there are words!

Sci-Fi Chronicles

However, as I’m travelling at the moment, a weighty encyclopaedia of sci-fi isn’t something I can easily add to my baggage. So, my contributor copy is therefore up for grabs. All you need do for a chance to score this lovely prize is answer the question below in an email. You’ll also need a postal address and a phone number so the publisher can arrange delivery to your door.


Which sci-fi author would you like to write the book on? And why?

Answers on a Self Addressed Email to : damiengwalter@gmail.com

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Brene Brown on how the scientific study of stories can help us live a wholehearted life

Brene Browne is a scientist of human stories. As an academic and researcher she has interviewed thousands of people about their life experiences, and from this data she draws insights about human behaviour and emotions. In 2012 she became famous for her research on shame – the powerful emotion that leads us to “close down”, to switch off our emotions, and to close our hearts.

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

In her book Daring Greatly : How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead Brown expands her insights on shame, vulnerability and courage in to a philosophy of wholeheartedness. Wholehearted people, Brown argues, have learned strategies to deal with the hard events and emotions of life without closing down their hearts. She summarises these strategies as 10 guideposts for wholehearted living, behaviours that her research has identified as common between the wholehearted, and that we can all cultivate in ourselves.

AUTHENTICITY – it’s too easy to make what other people think the measure of our value. But this can lead us to very inauthentic behaviour, from copying fashions to going along with the mob even when they are wrong. The wholehearted are authentic and true to themselves.

SELF-COMPASSION – nothing and no one is perfect, so constantly striving for perfection can lead us in to punishing and self-destructive behaviour, that rarely if ever actually yields better results. Wholehearted people have compassion for their own self.

RESILIENT SPIRIT – modern life is full of ways to numb difficult emotions, from shopping and television to alcohol, anti-depressants and hard drugs. But we can’t numb life selectively, and killing our emotions makes us powerless. We have to cultivate a resilient spirit by facing and dealing with hard events and emotions instead of numbing out.

GRATITUDE AND JOY – is that glass half-empty or half-full? We’re a glass half-empy culture, however much we have, scarcity thinking means we think we need more. To be wholehearted we need to spend time being grateful for what we have, and feeling the joy that comes from just having enough and not needing more.

INTUITION AND FAITH – we chase after certainty, but life is not certain. The irony is that the more we try to feel safe and secure, the more damaging and self-destructive our behaviour becomes. Your life will be more certain if you never leave the house, but it won’t be much fun. Wholehearted folks tend to have faith that things will work out, and trust their intution to guide them.

“Go forth and dance, and take a step towards a more wholehearted life.”

CREATIVITY – it’s beautiful to play music, or tell stories, or make art. But when we start to compare what we create to the creations of others, we stop being creative and start to be competitive and ambitious. Letting go of comparisions is a powerful way the wholehearted become more creative.

REST AND PLAY – this is my favourite of Brene Browne’s 10 guideposts. I spend a lot of time sleeping, and as much as possible loafing around doing nothing. Too often in our work we make exhaustion a status symbol, “oh I’m so tired I was working all night” and measure self-worth via our productivity. The wholehearted take plenty of time to rest, and treat work like play.

CALMNESS AND STILLNESS – how easy do you find it to just do nothing? It’s hard, right? Humans are anxious creatures, but there’s rarely cause for such anxiety in modern life. One step to being more wholehearted is to put time aside for activities like meditation that help us to become calm instead of anxious.

MEANINGFUL WORK – wholehearted people tend to find meaningful work to do. We all want meaningful work, but sometimes we miss opportunities to get it by believing there are things we are “supposed to” do instead. For instance, if you are “supposed to” make $250,000 a year at work, there’s every chance you’ll miss lower paid but much more meaningful opportunities.

LAUGHTER, SONG AND DANCE – here’s a secret – cool people aren’t cool. In fact often they are very uptight, closed off, and unhappy. If you can’t dance, sing and have fun because you’re so concerned about what people will think of you, then you’re likely suffering from exactly the shame and emotional numbness Brown is taking about. Go forth and dance, and take a step towards a more wholehearted life.

I find it fascinating just how closely Brene Brown’s empirical, scientific studies of human stories mirror the insights revealed by religion and art. These 10 guideposts for the whole hearted have much in common with the 5 spiritual principles taught by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh or the subtle insights in to human suffering explored by Haruki Murakami in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Daring Greatly is a wonderful introduction to Brene Brown’s work, and is also complimented well by the Power of Vulnerability, a series of seminars recorded by brown with a live workshop audience. Essential listening.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh on the five spiritual principles that lead to true power

Power is an inescapable aspect of modern life. Our work places, social lives and even families are often made harder by the struggle for power, status, money and control. Everyone hates “office politics” but we all get sucked in to the dynamics of human power far more often than we would like.

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the world’s most respected teachers of Buddhism. A Vietnamese monk who was exiled from his country because of his activism during the American war, he has since gone on to found monasteries and teach Buddhism to millions around the world. Hanh’s work in the Zen Buddhist tradition is deceptively simple, focusing on every day tasks like walking, or washing the dishes, as gateways in to the present moment.

The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh

In The Art of Power, Thich Nhat Hanh puts forward a radically different definition of power. To be powerful is not to have a big house or car, is not to control armies, lead a Fortune 500 corporation, or be a billionaire. We pursue these things only because we believe – quite falsely – that once we have them we will be happy. But it is happiness itself that is true power.

“When you are happy, it is not difficult to earn enough money to live comfortably and simply. It is much easier to make the money that you need when you are solid and free. If you are happy, you are more likely to be comfortable in any situation. You are not afraid of anything. If you have the five spiritual powers and you lose your job, you don’t suffer much. You know how to live simply, and you can continue to be happy. You know that sooner or later you will get another job, and you are open to all possibilities.”

The five spiritual powers that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches are at the core of Buddhism, but expressed in such simple and down to earth ways that even the most most skeptical atheist can likely find some guidance in these spiritual principles:

ONE – Have faith in happiness. Unless you have some faith that you can be happy, and that being happy can come before having money, fame and status, you’ll never stop believing that money, fame or status need to come first. You have to take a leap of faith, and trust that your own happiness will catch you.

TWO – Be diligent in cultivating happiness. It’s hard to be happy when you keep doing things that make you unhappy. Gambling, drinking, arguing, negativity of all kinds, is addictive. While positive actions like eating well, exercising or growing friendships can feel much harder. But if you’re diligent in pursuing happiness, it will grow.

THREE – Be in the here and now. Mindfulness – being present in the moment, rather than lost in thoughts of past or future – is central to Buddhism, and increasingly widely understood beyond Buddhist teachings. But it’s hard! It’s only in the present moment that we can notice our thoughts, and sense our bodies, to really see the causes of our unhappiness – and our happiness.

FOUR – Get concentrating. The more time we spend in present awareness, the better we are able to concentrate on specific tasks. Anything from drinking a cup of tea, to performing a violin concerto. The better we concentrate, the better we do our tasks, and the happier we are.

FIVE – Insight is the goal. Faith, diligence, mindfulness and concentration build on one another to help us arrive at insights. These can be personal – realising that a relationship has become bad and needs to be fixed. Or they can be more universal – understanding a complex idea like interbeing. It’s these insights that make our happiness long term and lasting, far beyond the transitory “happiness” we assign to wealth or great fame.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas as I have described them are simple, and he continues to expand up them in The Art of Power. The full book is a short but tremendously valuable read. It is well accompanied by his early text Peace Is In Every Step, and the excellent After The Ecstasy, The Laundry by Jack Kornfield.

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Writer. Guardian columnist. Writing a book.


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