Velvety Chains: Social Values That Bind

Today I came across an article by Steve Biddulph and one paragraph therein really struck a chord with me:

There is something happening, in the new century, to the way we live, which again is harming our basic humanity. Every economy tends to enslave, and ours is the most effective of all, since the chains are invisible, velvety soft against our wrists and necks. We are induced to work, long hours, all of us, without respite for parenthood, or for anything like a natural rhythm in our days, and rewarded with shiny toys and the ability to cross the globe at will for shallow, glitzy experiences of pseudo-wealth. Then back onto the treadmill. We trade away our lives, and we don’t even question if this has to be so.

I have mentioned before that social systems tend to ‘brainwash’ us. In effect, they make us adopt values which are not intrinsically our own and often not in our best interests. Some social rules are enforced through violence or strong obvious incentives; think of capital punishments or tax breaks for home ownership. However, such rules are not as dangerous to our well-being as tacit, implicit rules which we adopt without being fully aware. Biddulph pointedly describes these as invisible, velvety chains.

Using the word ‘chains’ implies that this is something intrinsically bad, and to some degree it is, but not all the social rules we are adopting in this way (without us being fully aware that we adopt them) are bad for our individual and collective well-being. For instance, if we get into a heated argument with someone else, we more often than not refrain from punching our adversary in the face. Often, this option doesn’t even occur to us; although it is arguably one of our natural ways to resolve conflict. We don’t do so because we have a strong set of social rules (not just laws) which guide us to avoid violence.

However, it is in any case better for us to be aware of the rules which we adopt, be they beneficial for us or not. The particular velvety chains Biddulph focuses on though are at the heart of what is wrong with our world today. Our desire for wealth, material consumption and economic growth brings untold misery into the everyday lives of billions of people. It makes those miserable which are poor, but it also makes those miserable which are rich. Biddulph mentions for instance “the astonishing decline of mental health as even the most affluent and secure kids melt down over homework stress and exam results or perfection of looks or achievement.” Our reward for our struggles is “pseudo-wealth”. Why pseudo-wealth? Well, if we can buy an expensive car, it gives the appearance of us being wealthy. But real wealth lies within our body, mind and soul; and to increase this real wealth requires deep contemplation, fostering human connection and community; none of which are aided by a car purchase. This purchase instead only makes us move the treadmill of the self-reinforcing cycle of work hard, spend, work harder, spend more.

We need to become aware of the forces that drive our lives and which bring misery to us and others. Biddulph suggests that “it might be time to quietly, carefully, walk away”. I disagree. We don’t have to walk away quietly. We should shackle our chains with a roar. A roar of anger over what was done to us, and a roar of newfound freedom; a roar which hopefully those around us will hear and join our emancipation.

However we must also do so while preserving some of the best parts of the economic system which drives our world today. In order to house, feed and care for the huge population currently living requires intricate interaction between many different industries and countries. If this system is broken in the wrong way, misery on a global scale will likely follow.

Breathing

Without a doubt, our body and mind are connected. Without our body, our mind cannot be. If we strive for a strong and enlightened mind, we must also strive for a strong and healthy body. Of course, it is still possible to achieve an enlightened mind even in a body stricken by sickness but it is just so much easier to achieve this if our body is strong.

One of the most effective ways to use our body to strengthen our mind is by controlling our breath. Thankfully our depth and speed of breathing is something we can control easily. We can make ourselves breathe slow and deep. This in turn has a positive effect on our body and on our mind. Our heart rate reduces and our mind becomes calmer. In that state, it is easier for us to be strong and pursue positive thoughts.

The health of our body and mind are linked closely. If our mind becomes healthier, so does our body and vice averse. It is a great gift given to us that we can start a process of positive reinforcement by such a simple and easy to do thing such as just taking a few deep breaths!

If you are looking for further directions on how to breath in a stress reducing way, the article Breath, Exhale, Repeat from Lesley Alderman provides a few good exercises:

Coherent Breathing

Coherent breathing simply requires to go into a comfortable position where your belly can easily expand (such as lying on your back or sitting upright). Place your hands on your belly. Then breathe in while counting slowly to four or six, then exhale to the same slow count to four or six. You should aim to complete around five breath per minute which might require some practice. The article recommends to do this for 10 to 20 minutes a day but I think much less time spent on this, even a minute or two, can already yield noticeable results.

Breathing for Stress Reduction

This exercise is designed to combat acute stress. Sit upright and place our hand on your belly. As you inhale straighten to sit upright. As you exhale, lower your head towards the floor and curl around your belly. Upon inhaling, straighten up again.

Energising Breathing

This exercise is designed to achieve the opposite effect of the previous two exercises; rather than calming us down, it is supposed to make us more awake and energised. You can achieve this by standing with a straight back and keeping your arms bend at a 90 degree angle with your upper arms next to your torso and your palms facing up. As you breath in, you pull your elbows backwards. Breath out quickly while saying ‘Ha!’ and as you breath out, thrust your arms forward and turn your palms downward.

Further Reading

The Healing Power of Breath by Dr. Richard Brown

Breathe by Belisa Vranich

Image credit: 4144132

Practice: Exercise

A healthy mind enables a healthy body, and a healthy body enables a healthy mind. Finding spiritual enlightenment and peace requires a strong and healthy mind and thus it is essential that we take good care of our body.

A healthy body requires a strong and happy mind, good nutrition and regular exercise. In this practice, I will list some pointers to get started with regular exercise:

Walking

If there is any form of exercise that our body has been designed for, it is walking. Before our modern sedentary days, we would have spent most of our days walking about. It is usually not practical for us to do so anymore. However, we can try to walk at every opportunity. Note that the faster we walk, the greater the benefit for our health. It has also been shown that spending time outdoors in a natural environment can help boost our mood; thus a walk in the forest should be preferred to walking on a treadmill.

Resources

  • Walking for Good Health: This excellent resource from our local state government gives a good overview of the benefits of walking and how best to go about it.

Running

There are few animals our size that run as slow as we do. However, running is another form of exercise that is very natural for us. The advantage of running is that it is an excellent exercise for our cardiovascular system. It has also been shown that running is good to reduce stress and for our cognitive development.

Resources

  • NHS – How to run correctly: Running may come natural to us but there are still plenty of things to keep in mind all of which are listed on this page.

Body-weight exercises

Especially for those short on time, high intensity interval training and other forms of body-weight exercises have shown to provide similar health benefits to more time-intensive forms of exercise. The idea is that short bursts of very intense exercise will trigger similar biochemical responses in our bodies than longer stretches of exercise will do. I must say that I am a little bit sceptical of this claim; it just seems a bit too good to be true. I think that body-weight and high intensity interval training are a good complement to other forms of exercise but not necessarily a complete replacement.

Resources

Weight training

Weight training has been shown to provide numerous benefits especially for the elderly. Weight training can help keep our muscles and bones strong and prevent injury. I think weight training should be practised in moderation though, especially in younger people, since other forms of exercise, especially those working our cardiovascular system can provide more significant benefits for our health and mind.

Resources

Stretching

Back pain is one of the most common causes of missed work days for office workers. Weight training and body-weight training can go a long way to alleviate the issues from too much sitting and computer work. However it is also essential to do stretching regularly, especially after long sessions at the desk or after doing exercises.

Resources

  • Fitness Blender: Fitness Blender also contains a nice collection of stretching, yoga and pilates videos

There are innumerable other forms of exercise we may engage in, from playing soccer or tennis, rowing, mountain climbing to bicycling. I have chosen the above exercises since I believe anyone, no matter the fitness level, time availability or access to equipment can engage in these. That is not to say that other forms of exercise are inferior. In fact, the best way to exercise is mix as many different forms of exercise as possible (as long as they are not harmful for us).

Image credit: Wikimedia