Christmas is often the season of peace, love and joy, but for many it can be a difficult or emotional time. We spoke to alumnus Tom Granger Devonald (Philosophy, 2008), a writer and illustrator who has worked for both the NHS and the UK's leading mindfulness teacher training organisation Breathworks. His new book 'Draw Breath' is helping people learn to become more mindful.
Studying philosophy would suggest a certain level of interest in the human mind on a deeper level from an early age?
You’re not wrong. Like a lot of geeky boys who were teenagers in the late 90s I was obsessed with philosophical films like The Matrix and Fight Club and political bands like Rage Against The Machine and System of a Down. My parents could see I was developing an interest in philosophy and so they bought me a book by AC Grayling – a popular philosopher who they had heard on the radio.
He was a kind of precursor to what Alain De Botton is doing now with The School of Life – making ancient philosophical ideas interesting and relevant to a modern audience. I read Grayling’s book, “The Meaning of Things” when I was 14 and it completely changed the way I thought… as in, I actually started thinking.
Your book has a novel approach, combining art, philosophy and psychology as you say, could you explain that a little more?
The book is heavily influenced by a number of topics I studied during my degree at Nottingham, particularly philosopher Maurice Merlau-Ponty’s musings on perception, a module I did on ‘the philosophy of emotion’ and another on ‘the philosophy of the self’.
Meditation can be an abstract thing to learn but inspired by the ancient Zen calligraphy tradition of the ensō; the book prompts readers to literally draw in time with their breathing – drawing up along pink lines as they inhale and down on blue lines as they exhale – tracing a series of unbroken, one-line illustrations. Completing each new image uncovers something different about the reader’s body, mind or breath. As the book continues, it offers alternative, unique drawing challenges using drawing-from-life as a tool to deepen the reader’s understanding of their own perception and attention.
Could you explain what got you to the position of publishing this book in the first place?
After leaving university in 2008 with a philosophy degree I went to the local job centre and quickly realised that there were, in fact, no jobs for philosophers (due to the recession?). I had always had an interest in drawing and I’m a very visual thinker, so after working at a number of awful bar jobs and cleaning cars for a few years, I decided to seriously pursue a job in media as a graphic designer and I looked to the advertising industry.
It turned out that the philosophy degree had broken many parts of my worldview down into movable pieces and given me a bizarre ability to think about abstract, pointless things in a logical way and make the mundane sound relatively interesting, so, after a lot of blagging, I ended up working as both a designer and a creative writer in advertising. This allowed me to develop the bare-bones skillset to eventually write and illustrate my own books!
My first book came out in 2016 at the height of the colouring book craze. It was called “The Colouring Book for Goths; The World’s Most Depressing Book” – unlike other colouring books that are supposed to make you happy, the book asks readers to colour-in entirely in black to help them achieve “a demeanour of aloof cynicism”. I also wrote a comedy activity book about how to get over breakups and a DIY scrapbook for people to fill in and give their partners on Valentine’s Day. So this is my first book that isn’t for emo teens!
What’s your key piece of advice for people who perhaps don’t see the value in taking care of their mental health?
I can give you a philosophical answer to that while we’re on the subject – the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said “It’s impossible to step in the same river twice”, but I’d add… “although, you can step in the same dog shit many times if you don’t notice it”. And that’s what’s happening with your repetitive, negative thoughts. The more aware of them you can become, and the more aware you become of the effects that these thoughts are having on your body, the more choice you have to interrupt those thinking patterns and live your best possible life.
And to use a trite and oft repeated analogy; if you’re going to the gym to look after your body, it makes sense to make time to look after your mind in the same way. Unlike #gymlife, meditation won’t make you look better to the world but it’ll probably make the world look better to you – I leave it up to you which of those you think is going to improve your life experience more!
This time of year in particular can be quite intense, how would you suggest people best cope with the party season?
I recently spoke with the health author Vidyamala Burch and we came to an interesting conclusion. All the popular modern diets and exercises, from fasting and paleo to HIIT and primal movement; they are about reclaiming the way we used to live in our ancestral environment – giving our bodies and minds the nourishment, stimulation, and even the stress, that they crave. The other vital health ‘trick’ that is missing in modernity is connection. When our ancestors were living on the African plains they would almost never have spent more than a few minutes alone.
Meditation is supposed to help you transcend your ego…connection is the other, probably more powerful, cure for the stress and isolation of ego identification – doing things for other people, feeling connected and loved and loving, dissolves the idea of your ‘self’ as something separate. You are being cut off from the rest of the world by your smartphone, your lifestyle, and probably your job. Use the holidays as an opportunity to deeply connect with the people around you by going out of your way to make them feel special and see how it makes you feel! It’s genuinely better to give than to receive. I’ll get down off my soapbox now!
Posted on Friday 29th November 2019