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  • Great Quotations and their explanations #3 “There is no limit to looking upward.” Japanese Proverb

    Young couple

    One for our times.  There is no limit to looking upward – thank goodness!  But why upward?

    Because our emotional state (internal) affects our behaviour (external) and thinking affects our emotional state – often generating a sequence of changing emotions as we process whatever thoughts we are having at the time – thinking ends up being a whole-body activity.

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    Wrapped up inside of ourselves, the way we are when thinking about a thing, we are often unaware of our own behaviour, of what our body is doing during that time.  But others can notice and pass comment, “Penny for your thoughts.” or, “You’re going to catch a fly with your mouth open like that.”

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    As a species, our behaviour is similar to each other whether schooled in Switzerland or born into a remote New Guinea tribe, never to leave.  We smile, laugh, frown, grind our teeth, clench fists and stamp our feet, hold our head in our hands, rub the back of our neck, pout, shuffle our feet and dance with joy like one big, close-knit family.

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    At another level entirely, our hearts race or slow to their lowest rate, we blush, dilate and contract pupils, lose blood from our extremities at times of danger, pump it elsewhere at times of passion (lips and earlobes to name just two locations), generate and release into our own bloodstreams whole ranges of exotic hormones powerfully and rapidly and with precise timing, our hairs stand on end, we salivate or dry up, muscles tense or relax and our eyes dart about in patterns which match large numbers of others (but not all).

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    By any measure, there’s a lot going on and one aspect of it is our more general posture.  Like the small details, the bigger picture conveys meaning.  Imagine then, a person shuffling along slowly, with hands in pockets, head down and seeming to be looking at his own feet as he kicks small stones along in front of him.  What’s going on?  Deep in thought yes but what kind of thoughts is he having?

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    Consider the opposite, the lady walks briskly, her small handbag clutched in her left hand, swings with her gait as she takes each step, so light in her feet she’s almost skipping.  Her arms are out at something of an angle, her gaze is upwards and maybe, she does a flamboyant twirl and laughs at herself, although it wasn’t necessary for the purpose of our mind-reading exercise.

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    He’s down, literally.  He’s down in the dumps, downcast, downright miserable. She’s up because things are looking up.  So, the phenomenon is encoded in our language too.  Our knowledge about this stuff is not new to us scientifically and nor is it new to you.  It’s as old as the written word (consider the alleged locations of heaven and hell) and so maybe, it’s an unnecessary lesson.  As soon as the situation is described, you know what it is, you’ve seen it, experienced it first-hand.  It’s simple really; in terms of attitude and emotional state, looking up is positive, looking down, negative.

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    If behaviour was only ever the consequence of state, we’d have a way of interpreting internal state from external behaviour (useful), but no more than that.  But that’s only half the story.  At some point, we’ll interrogate Socrates’ “The soul and the body…” quote and approach this same discussion from another perspective, but suffice to say for now, that the way you behave, influences your thinking too.

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    Perhaps you are processing dull paperwork and make an error, correct it, make another one.  Reach for an earlier document but can’t find it.  You search among the piles of papers and it’s nowhere to be seen.  Now you’re frustrated and as usual, a task you don’t enjoy much is stressing you out even more than it really should.  You get up from your desk and put the kettle on and while looking out the window, see a bird pecking the grass for food.  You open the window and allow a gentle breeze of fresh air to waft in and toss out to your little feathered friend the remnants of something Mr Kipling made.  Tea is poured and you spend a few moments watching nature, breathing fresh air and sipping the elixir.  Returning to your desk you see the missing piece of paper and can’t imagine why it wasn’t obvious earlier.  You are now able to continue the dull work at a much better pace and with accuracy.  The brief interlude with its change of behaviour, transformed your state.

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    So, what if things are difficult?  What if events have conspired to send you down?  Slumped and downcast, trapped in the loops of thinking which seem to have no agreeable solution is a bad place to be and quite ineffective too.  States are sticky and staying like that for extended periods will make it increasingly hard to escape and can actually be harmful to your health.  For some people this kind of misery can begin to become the norm and in the most serious of cases, their brain becomes considerably less active and struggles to generate useful thoughts.  Their brain/blood chemistry is more harmful than healthy and they sit alone in their cold, broken-down car on a dull and rainy roundabout.  There are no exits, just a loop and they can’t get their car started and don’t have the energy to walk.  Other cars, bright-coloured ones with happy people inside, flash past, on to, and through their little grey world, but they know they can’t follow the happy folks to Sunnyland.  No fuel, no spark, exit closed.  They are depressed, the far, far bottom of the place we call ‘down’.

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    It’s okay though, those clever Japanese offer a useful piece of advice for everyone whose experiences of life include a mixture of ‘up’ and ‘down’, that is, There is no limit to looking upward. You are free to simply do it, to treat it like an act of creativity, or as a cure, or some armour against whatever slings and arrows fate tosses your way.

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    Take a moment to look at the clouds and the blue, blue sky, swallows swirling at a great altitude, buzzards circling while making that peeping-whistle call.  See the vapour trails of an aircraft, notice the moon is visible white on blue in broad daylight.  At night, count your lucky stars (there’s a lot) and see, like a good omen, a shooting star – more common than you think – and do all this because it’s good for your mental health and because this behaviour will generate better quality thinking.  And states.  And behaviours.

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    You’re not stuck on a roundabout.  This road has a fabulous display of flowers, a rockery, even a waterfall (Sponsored by Percy Thrower’s Garden Centre) and the roundabouts you navigate all have an endless choice of routes to exciting destinations.  If you take it slowly enough to enjoy the journey, you’ll have time to look up through your sunroof.  And aren’t sunroofs and skylights the best windows of all!

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