Discover more from Thinking Out Loud | Michael Ashcroft
Desire, focus and Singapore's solarpunk vibes | #21
1 March 2020
Welcome to March! I for one am relieved that, at least here in the northern hemisphere, the days are starting to get longer again. And, since I’m so obviously solar powered, I’ve used my increasing energy this week to dive into two interesting topics:
the role of desire in allowing us to focus effortlessly
Singapore’s solarpunk infrastructure and what it means for the rest of us
Until next week.
Desire drives focus
Do you know what you desire?
I'm reviewing W. Timothy Gallwey's book, The Inner Game of Work, particularly in the context of my previous discussion on procrastination.
There are a few quotes I want to pull out from early in the book, which describe his experience coaching tennis players (his first book was called The Inner Game of Tennis). This section is quote-heavy because his words are better than mine (emphasis added).
It occurred to me that there was a dialogue going on in the player's head, an internal conversation, not unlike his external conversation with me. In a commanding tone, the voice in his head would issue teacherlike commands to his body: 'Get your racket back early. Step into the ball. Follow through at the shoulders.' After the show, the same voice would deliver its evaluation of the performance and the performer: 'That was a terrible shot!' You have the worst backhand I've ever seen!
I think all of us know this experience intimately. In my first weekend of coaching training, one of the assignments was for us to form groups and ask a member of the group to share a goal they wanted to achieve. The rest of the group then pretended to be this voice in their head and come up with directions and judgements. We'd all chime in with comments like 'this is a terrible idea', ' you're too old for this', 'what makes you think you can do this?', 'you should do a lot more research before you get started'. And so on. It was done in a safe space and a spirit of good humour, but it was also pretty brutal.
I played one of the critical voices and it struck me how easy it was for me to summon and slip into it, almost like I'd had a lifetime of practice. Gallwey wondered what role this voice played and reflected on his own tennis experience:
When I was playing at my best, I wasn't trying to control my shots with self-instruction and evaluation. It was a much simpler process than that. I saw the ball clearly, chose where I wanted to hit it, and I let it happen. Surprisingly, the shots were more controlled when I didn't try to control them. I gradually realised that my well-intentioned instructions were being internalised by my students as methods of control that were compromising their natural abilities. This critical inner dialogue certainly produced a state of mind very different from the quiet focus reported by the best athletes.
What he found was that the voice of the teacher, coach or critic created a kind of forced effort that interfered with the player's natural ability. The harder we try to direct ourselves, the worse we perform. This is expressed in the book as Performance = Potential - Interference.
Gallwey recognised the presence of two selves within each of us:
I called the voice giving commands and making the judgements 'Self 1'. The one it was talking to, I called "Self 2". What was their relationship? Self 1 was the know-it-all who basically didn't trust Self 2, the one who had to hit the ball. Out of mistrust, Self 1 was trying to control Self 2's behaviour using the tactics it had learned from its teachers in the outside world.
But who is Self 2? Is it that unworthy of trust? In my definition, Self 2 is the human being itself. It embodies all the inherent potential we were born with, including all capacities actualized and not yet actualized. It also embodies our innate ability to learn and to grow any of those inherent capacities. It is the self we all enjoyed as young children.
Self 2 fascinates me. It's the part of us that operates in the world with an economy of effort, elegance and lack of force. Ultimately, it feels easy and great work gets done when Self 2 is free to do its thing. Is this what becomes liberated when we practice non-doing?
What fascinates me about Gallwey's framework is the role of desire in unlocking Self 2 focus: desire leads, focus follows. You can see this in your own life. You don't need to try to focus if you desire something. You don't try to focus on your delicious meal, or the person you love, or your favourite track by your favourite band. It just happens – trying to focus just gets in the way of it. Letting Self 1 say things like "come on, focus! This report is due tomorrow. Why are you reading the news?" just strengthens Self 1 and further suppresses Self 2 in a vicious circle.
Gallwey captures this perfectly:
Our choice is over which desires to nourish and which to starve. Nourishing the natural desires of Self 2 builds stability and leads towards self-fulfilment. The nurturing of Self 1 desires strengthens self-interference and leads to inner conflict and distraction.
I've been struggling for years with this self-interference, inner conflict and distraction and I think I'm coming to understand the root cause. In any given moment, I don't have a clear desire. Instead, I try to assert multiple contradictory and competing desires. This just creates anxiety, and suppresses the thing I want to access, the thing that would make me feel good and get the work done to a high standard.
I can feel it right now. I have the desire to write this newsletter, but I also have the conflicting desires to 'check' Twitter, to get some cheese from the fridge and to meditate. Because they are all mutually exclusive, this sets up a conflict that leads to anxiety. That anxiety then distracts me from writing in some form or another. I may either do a bad job of writing, or go and get some cheese, or check Twitter, and then I'll feel bad for not being focussed on the writing.
It gets even worse when I consider that each desire has different levels of challenge associated with it. I desire to write this newsletter, but the page below this line is completely blank, so I keep encountering ambiguity and uncertainty around the need to create something from nothing. This often leads to feelings of Resistance in me (see Steven Pressfield's The War of Art for more about Resistance.)
Conversely, looking at Twitter or eating cheese don't come with a sense of challenge, but reward. If I have multiple conflicting desires in my mind, it doesn't take much to be derailed from the one that just happens to be occupying my attention for now – writing.
What's the way out? To be clear and honest about my desires. This is no trivial task. It quickly gets to the core of what it means to be a sovereign human. For now, I'll take comfort in the fact that I'm not the only one to be grappling with this and that the process of addressing it will itself be a huge source of personal growth.
And I remind myself that I am sovereign in all this. I have capacities around perception, sensemaking and agency, and I can use them. As Gallwey says:
But where humans have desire, we also have choice. We have the choice to nurture and which to starve. By our choices we create the priorities by which we act in this world. When we are clear about these priorities, focus is easier to come by. When we are unclear, our agendas are in conflict, our orientation becomes ambiguous, and focus is difficult to sustain.
I desire to fully recognise and accept my desires, because when I do I'll unlock my hugely creative Self 2. To do otherwise would be to live my life trapped by an overly critical Self 1 that I inherited from others, and that would be intolerable.
Singapore’s solarpunk vibes
I’ve been on a bit of a solarpunk binge recently, and that’s not going to stop yet. I posted a few times about it on Twitter and was pointed in the direction of Singapore. As it turns out, quite a lot of Singaporean infrastructure has a distinctly solarpunk aesthetic.
Check out these images (huge thanks to Visa, Twitter friend and Singapore resident for highlighting these places).
Gardens By The Bay, Singapore. Image source.
Park Royal Hotel, Singapore. Image source.
Jewel Changi Airport, Singapore. Image source.
Oasia Hotel Downtown, Singapore. Image source.
So let’s talk about this a little bit, because there’s clearly a thing going on here.
The first thing to say is that this is intentional, the result of policy direction and incentives. Singapore is absolutely tiny, far smaller than I had appreciated. Here is all of Singapore compared to London, where I live:
This interview with Cheong Koon Hean, the first woman to lead Singapore’s urban development agency, shows how the constraints of high population density and extremely limited land area – coupled with ambitions for high quality of life – led to a Singapore’s unique architecture.
Given our land constraints, Singapore has no choice but to adopt high-density development. At its essence, livable density is about creating quality of life despite that density.
Innovative design can reduce that feeling of density by creating the illusion of space using “green” and “blue” elements. We intersperse parks, rivers, and ponds amid our high-rises. These bodies of water also double as flood-control mechanisms. And we plant lushly—some three million trees cover Singapore, including a stand of virgin rainforest, rich in biodiversity, right in the heart of the island.
Those natural ‘green and blue’ elements are a key part of what makes a small, densely populated space feel like a nice place to live. There’s a clear focus on biophilic design, which puts connection with the natural environment at its heart. Those elevated gardens in the tower, the green walls and the flowing water in the airport are design choices that seek to improve the subjective experience of the people interacting with them.
Often these natural elements also have benefits in terms of the functioning of the buildings and local environment. Green roofs reduce thermal loses and can help collect rainwater while providing a space for pollinators and birds. Intentional green spaces can act as wildlife corridors that people can also enjoy, allowing animals to move around in a much larger ecosystem than a single park. Back to Koon Hean:
We are also connecting our many parks into a network. Some hill parks are linked by iconic bridges, another example of how we create the illusion of space. As this park connector expands, Singaporeans will have access to a few hundred kilometers of cycling and walking trails throughout the island—they’ve already spawned a new cycling culture.
This focus on ‘livability’ goes beyond environmental factors and can include social and economic benefits too. The way we relate and interact with our buildings and local environments are, again, design choices:
New solutions will support the urban lifestyle: More people will be based in Smart Work Centres—shared work space for employees from different companies—near their homes, reducing the need to travel, improving productivity, and enhancing work-life balance.
Of course, all this costs money. Singapore’s GDP per capita in 2019 was about US$64,000, which put it at #9 globally. That’s a lot of wealth that can be spent on expensive airports and green walls. But just because Singapore has opted for some flashy infrastructure, the design principles that underpin it are transferable. The same ideas can be implemented on more austere scales, but those choices still need to be made.
And here we come back to desire. A cursory reading of Singapore’s history, particularly around infrastructure, gives me a sense of intentionality through a lot of hardship. Even though they necessarily aim for solarpunk, there seems to have been a strong desire for it to be better and in specific ways that led to some solarpunk.
As I said earlier, desire drives focus. If you know what you desire then it’s much easier to put in the focus necessary to get there. Or, as Seneca put it:
If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.
I have a desire for our future world to be better in the dimensions of high quality of life for as many people as possible, ever deepening scientific and personal advancement all within the context of a thriving natural environment. My focus follows and, like Gallwey above, I am very open to being surprised as to how it happens. My desire is to put the ball over the net, so to speak, while avoiding telling myself exactly how to do it.
What about you? What do you desire, and how does your focus follow that?
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