Tag Archives: mind

The Conservatory of the Mind Palace

sherlock__s_mind_palace_by_firelight_12-d4oc1nhWith absolutely no disrespect meant to Benedict Cumberbatch, he doesn’t own the phrase “mind palace”.  Using the method of loci (or going to your mind palace or whatever you want to call it) is a very useful thing to do, especially if you’re like me and your memory is about as reliable as Southern Rail.  I’m currently working on a show at the VAULT Festival, and a lot of the conversations I have with my producer Kate rely upon the idea of a mind palace, because we’ve got so many things to do:

“What was that rehearsal technique I said I wanted to use next week?”
“I don’t know, dear.  Look in your mind palace.”

“We said we were going to email Adam about something.  What on earth was it?”
“Er…I dunno, let me look in my mind palace…I can’t find it.”
“Have you checked the library?”
“Yep.”
“The ballroom?”
“Yep.”
“The cupboard under the stairs?!”

So far, so silly.  But what I am discovering is that, quite apart from being just an excellent memory aide, having a mind palace is a very healthy thing to do for emotional reasons.

For example, people talk about burying their feelings or locking negative thoughts away.  This would be very easy to do in a mind palace, because you could build yourself a cellar or a dungeon or whatever else took your fancy.  However, being the proud architect of a mind palace makes you feel the need to be more creative about these things.  For example, when I come across a particular fear or worry I let it loose in the palace grounds to run around the rose garden and splash in the ornamental fountains.  Mentally ‘releasing’ bad feelings is very helpful, because you can acknowledge their existence in your life without constantly feeling the need to monitor them.  They can really get under your feet if you keep them cooped up all the time.

“Hey Vicki, nice mind palace.  Where’s your fear of commitment got to?”
“Oh, he’s running around on the croquet lawn with my concerns about career trajectory.  They’re having a great time, don’t worry.  Would you like some tea?”

The best room in my mind palace is the conservatory.  It has no strange wicker/fabric combo bits of furniture in it, and it most certainly does not have leaves all over the roof.  It is a quiet, calm room where there is always sunlight streaming in from all angles, and it’s very warm and cosy the whole year round.

The sunlight in this room is a concoction of all of the things that make me happy: memories, people and other bits and pieces of life.  Highlights include the moment in Moulin Rouge when Jim Broadbent runs away screaming “LIKE A VIRGIN!”, my friend Andy’s laugh, the smell of coffee, the Dad’s Army theme tune, cheese jokes, watching Christmas movies with my family and excitement about my best friend’s wedding next year.

The reason why I am talking about these big, small and silly things that make me happy in my mind palace conservatory is that they are a huge part of how I maintain my mental health.  I think mental wellbeing is a very specific thing, and a huge part of why we struggle with it is that we always end up feeling isolated by our own thought processes.

One of the greatest and loveliest things about the show that I’m working on is that we teamed up with mental health charity Mind.  Mind do incredible work for people who struggle with their mental health, and I am so pleased and proud that they promote conversation about what is still a pretty taboo topic.  They effectively knock on the door of everyone’s mind palace to check that they’re ok, and to reassure you that you’re never alone.  Mind palaces exist in neighbourhoods.

So to conclude, dear reader, go and build yourself a mind palace that you would love to live in, and invite people in who will appreciate being there.

Have a stupendous evening.

 

Forget it, Jake. It’s Edinburgh.

Happy Sunday!  Shall we have a roast?  I’ll do the spuds if you don’t mind chopping the other veg.  Ok?  Great.

Today I would like to tell you, fabulous reader of mine, about mental health at the Fringe.  If living in London can be compared with being in a bad relationship, doing the Edinburgh Fringe is like having an affair with the Marquis de Sade.

It’s incredible.  The noise, the people, the flyers, the weather: everything about this festival conspires to give you a complete sensory overload.  The Fringe is very good at casually sauntering up to you and nicking the things you hold most dear, like time with loved ones, decent sleep and a sense of reality.  And yet we love it.

I really do love it, by the way. I know I sound a bit overwhelmed (blame the lack of sleep), but this is my favourite time of year.  It’s something that my cast and I have been working towards for about seven months, and we are determined to enjoy the hell out of it.

The thing about doing the Fringe a few years in a row is that you can usually track your progress.  For lots of people this is in terms of their career: my gorgeous comedian friend Laura Lexx has posters EVERYWHERE this year, which is good because she has an excellent face and an even better show – but personally I’ve noticed more progress in terms of my mental health.

Looking after yourself in Edinburgh should be very simple: eat well, get enough sleep, drink water, exercise, try not to stack it on the cobbled streets.  These all sound very straightforward, and hopefully they are also rules which we apply to our general lives.  But trying to preserve your sanity at the Fringe is akin to balancing a sea lion on a chopstick, so it’s important to learn lessons early and stick to them.  Here are a few of mine:

  1. Exercise.  I’ve been to the gym most mornings since we got here, and at the Fringe most people choose to walk everywhere rather than worry too much about buses.  I cannot tell you how much of a difference it makes to get a few endorphins going through your system before you tackle flyering on the Royal Mile.  (Plus, if you time it right, you might get to overhear some excellent conversations in the changing room at the gym.  The other day I was in there when a group of old ladies had just come out of an aerobics class, and the lewd comments they were making about their male instructor were beautiful to hear.)
  2. Sleep.  I’ve only had one “oh my God when did it become 5am and why is the sun up?” night since I got here, which is definitely for the best.  Last year I wasn’t so much burning the candle at both ends as setting fire to the candle factory, and I can already feel the difference this year.  It’s always tempting to stay out for one more drink or a bit more chat, but the same lovely people you’re talking to will be here tomorrow.  Go to bed.
  3. Eyes and ears.  There’s a weird phenomenon at this festival called “Fringe eyes”, which is when you’re talking to someone and they start to look past you, just in case someone famous or influential is in the vicinity.  It is the rudest and most irritating thing in the world, and people who do it are to be politely moved away from.  In the same way, if you’re talking to someone about their show, you know that this spiel is rehearsed and has been said a thousand times.  Ask questions about the rehearsal process, or where the idea came from.  Listen to the answers.  Treating flyerers and performers like human beings is weirdly rare up here, and they’ll remember you for it.

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    My producer Kate Goodfellow with one of our lovely posters. We were on our way home from the gym, actually. That’s fitting.
  4. Passing Ships.  You will see lots of people you know here: ex-colleagues, very old friends, intimidatingly famous people and that girl who was in that show last year with thingummy-jig, what’s her name again?  Amy?  Alice?  Something like that.  Can’t remember.  Text whatshisname and ask him.  It can be frustrating to only see these people in passing, but the trick is to realise that the month is intense for everybody, and most of us are perpetually late for a show.  Don’t take it personally if your oldest friend is a bit difficult to get hold of, or the person you’re madly in love with is never at the same bars as you.  A month is a decent amount of time to catch up, network, flirt and generally converse.
  5. Treat yourself.  Your mind, body and emotional well-being can take an absolute hammering at the Fringe.  Be nice to yourself.  You’re working hard and you deserve to be proud of your work.  Make the most of your time off, see some shows that interest you and for the love of all that’s good and holy make sure you do something that has nothing to do with the Fringe.  Edinburgh has a lot to offer; climb a hill, jump in the sea, visit the Royal Botanic Gardens and go to the zoo.  The Fringe is only one tiny aspect of an incredible city.  (My main non-Fringe activity is going to be getting a tattoo with my friend next week, but by all means you can go for something less extreme.)

Whether you’re at the Fringe or not, have a smashing day.  I’ll start peeling the potatoes.

Crowded Carriages Are All in Your Head

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Good morning, you marvellous creature.  How’re you doing?

Today I would like you to imagine that your brain is a London Underground tube carriage.  What do you think it would be like?  Is it full of commuters?  Is there a school trip of fluorescently-clad children accompanied by one harassed teacher?  Maybe it’s the last train home, and a few sozzled friends are giggling manically in the corner.  For many of us, it will be the one with a homeless person wandering through asking for change, and a baby screaming at top volume.  In other words, our brains are crowded, noisy, awkward and confusing.

There are approximately 34 seats per tube carriage on London Underground trains, but you hardly ever see a train carriage that’s just neatly filled with 34 seated people, do you? In the same way, our thoughts and feelings do not sit neatly in our brains in a designated space; they run around and confuse us.  For example, the items on your mental to do list are like the school kids on a day trip, who run around and worry you in case one drops off.

Life is difficult , and worrying, and exciting.  It’s also going by very quickly.  Particularly in cities and especially for people who have busy lifestyles, it’s difficult to feel properly connected to one another.  (Like ships passing in the night, perhaps.  I have no idea where this transport obsession has come from, by the way.  I’ll be banging on about the “aeroplanes of ambition” next, I expect.)  It’s so irritating in its self-exacerbation: we get stressed out because we’re so busy and we have no time to see our friends and loved ones, and then we get more stressed out because we haven’t seen our friends or loved ones for ages, ad infibloodynitum.

It’s not easy to do, and for some people social stuff goes completely out of the window when the pressure’s on at work or what have you, but we have to keep connections with people during times of stress.  I’ve got a huge to do list on my desk (and I’m genuinely starting to think that it might be sentient), but I am aware that I’ll go loopy if I don’t talk to a good friend today.  Similarly, my friend Laura is studying all morning in the British Library, and her PhD will make her crazy if she doesn’t switch of from it for half an hour, so to solve both of our problems we are going to drink coffee together and have a chat.

Sounds like I’m encouraging procrastination, doesn’t it?  I’m honestly not.  I believe in working hard and doing something you’ve set out to do, but I also believe that burning out and cutting yourself off from people is an incredibly stupid and damaging thing to do.  Thinking that you are alone with your crowded carriage mind is silly, because everyone feels like that.  Also, when did you last see a train with six empty carriages and one full one?  Exactly.  Now go and ring someone who likes you.

Have a fantastic Tuesday.

Fight or Flight (or Flail)

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Hello, lovely reader!  How are you?  Yeah, I think I’m coming down with something too.  Do you want some Lemsip?

Last night was the Empty Photo Theatre performance Date Night, and I would like to take this opportunity to say a massive thank you to everyone who came, was in it or has listened to me wittering about it recently.  Also, thank you to everyone who has contacted me to say nice things about it.  You are far too kind.

For absolutely no good reason, today I am thinking about our instinctive responses to stressful situations.  In physical terms, the fight or flight response is pretty fascinating: did you know, for example, that under stress our digestion and immune systems shut down to allow more energy for emergency functions?  Me neither.  I’m so glad that we’ve evolved to be able to deal with a sabre-toothed tiger.  Our bodies are weird and wonderful.

Our brains are weird and wonderful too, but in a different way: our emotional instincts tend to mirror our physical ones, and when an emotionally or just cognitively stressful situation occurs, we tend to either confront it or flee screaming in terror (metaphorically, of course.  In reality we tend to smile politely and change the topic of conversation).   Most people would respond very differently depending on different situations: for example, the person who would calmly walk away from a bicker with their friend might pull a machete on their partner in the event of infidelity.

Having said that, there are some people who tend to respond pretty much the same way to most things, and we know about this because we have terms for them.  For instance, the people who would usually favour a flight response to emotional problems are referred to as “emotionally unavailable”.  (I love that phrase.  It makes it sound like we’re doing a nativity play, and the emotionally unavailable people are the innkeepers shouting “NO ROOM AT THE INN, I DON’T LIKE TO FEEL THINGS!” before slamming the door on an awkward conversation.)  Bizarrely, people who would rather fight in response to emotional issues tend to be drawn to those who would not, and the consequences are usually frustrating and confusing.  I know lots of outspoken, heart-on-sleeve kind of people (myself included) who are attracted to fairly stiff-upper-lip types, and that has yet to end well for any of us.

Weirdly, I think that that’s probably for the best.  People who would run away from confrontation need the argumentative types, and people who are easily upset need to spend time with those who are slightly less fragile.  No one has yet worked out a sure fire method of dealing with emotional stress, so we need to try to learn from each other.  If we balance out fight and flight we usually end up with a flail, and although that doesn’t sound very effective, at least you won’t be doing it alone.

Have a supreme Thursday.

Autobiography is Irrelevant

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Hello, lovely reader!  How’s everything going with you?  Did you get that essay/presentation/murder trial sorted out in the end?  Oh good, glad to hear it.

Last night I went to the Etcetera Theatre in Camden to see a play called Leaves of Glass.  While it was hardly light-hearted mid-week viewing, it was a very powerful and incredibly well-written play.  The story featured disturbingly empathetic ideas of dishonesty within families in order to keep the peace, and papering over bad memories in order to enjoy the present.  It was so riveting that I didn’t notice almost two hours slip by without an interval (and an audience always notices stuff like that).  I love it when you see a play, or film, or read a book that completely takes over your head space for a few days.  Even if it’s because it’s disturbed your inner well-being a bit, it’s good to really digest stuff like that.  It means it was good.

One of the first comments I heard when I left the theatre was a woman walking in front of us who turned to someone and said “God, d’you think it was autobiographical?”  Strap yourselves in, kids, I’m going in for a rant:

1) If it were autobiographical, would that make any difference to the quality of the play?  Would you enjoy a well-written, energetically performed and cleverly directed play any less because you found out that these things did or didn’t happen in real life?  Theatre is ABOUT life: the whole point of theatre is to show us something that could actually happen.  That’s why we have political plays.

2) It’s really none of your business.  If the playwright has been through any of the things that the characters have then s/he should not have to go into detail about it to gratify your morbid curiosity.  Also, you just watched a whole bloody play about it; how much more detail do you really want?  Wise up, as my friend Carly would say.

(I’m not really cross, by the way.  I know I sound it, but I’ve actually got a very nice day planned, so I’m pretty chipper.  Sorry for ranting.)

I love it when people see elements of themselves in my plays, because it means that I’ve managed to write characters who are sympathetic (and more importantly, empathetic).  But that’s about having a good experience as an audience member and relating to the piece, not trying to look behind the curtain and undermine the story.

Playwrights get very annoyed when people try to detect people they know (or themselves) in their work, because it implies that we don’t have the imagination to come up with our own characters.  Sure, we take inspiration from our real lives and the people in it, but we’re not writing Made in Chelsea here.  Give us a break.   If you switch your brain off to stop worrying about whether your friend’s play is about you or someone you know, you’ll probably enjoy it more.

By the way, I know that in my blogs and articles I talk directly about my friends and family all the time.  I’ve named Carly in this one, for example.  Oh look at that, I did it again.  (Hi Carly!)  But this is real life, not a story I made up.  I don’t have to use my imagination to tell you about annoying my vegetarian friend on an Underground train.  (Sorry – read this blog if that reference baffled you.)

Have an amazing day.  Go to that slightly posh place near the office for lunch; you deserve a mid-week treat.