What can artists do for us?

Summer Grasses

Spring grasses

In this madly commercial world in which we live, it seems to me that the artist shows us, or reminds us, of the other side of the coin. The other day I was walking in wild parkland just outside Madrid, making a note of all the wonderful things I saw…

Highways of ants collecting seeds, a stork passing just a few metres above my head, beak clicking… the first swallows of May, blown in on the night’s storm and swooping and feasting on insects over the lake, the grasses already tinged with gold, swaying in the breeze, a small golden beetle crossing my track…

I revelled in all this because David Hockney reminded me recently of the deep beauty of the world that we hardly ever stop to really look at, and because Thoreau reminded me to walk and walk and walk and see the wonders of the world as I do so, and because my mother, inspired herself by artists, had pointed all these treasures out to me over and over again in my childhood.

And I realised that as I saw all these wonderful things out in world that morning, that I couldn’t even begin to think about wanting more things, or marketing or business, because everything I was looking at on that walk existed on a completely different spectrum that fulfilled me in a completely different way.

And this is what artists – be they writers or poets or painters or musicians or bloggers, all creative people – are doing for me these days. Pulling me out of the mad swirl of 21st century life to remind me of other, incredible things.

I started this blog years ago after reading two Q and A’s in one of my favourite books – Answers from the Heart, by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh is mentioned constantly in this blog, as he was the artist who awoke something inside me many years ago, my own need to wake up.

He is asked: What can we do to help save the earth, what can artists do to contribute to the improvement of the world? And he answers:

“The artist, the actor, the filmmaker, the novelist may be inspired by a desire to [help people] to touch the seeds of joy, of peace, of happiness in themselves, helping them to remove and transform the seeds of discrimination and fear and craving. The artist can do all this. If you are motivated by that desire, you will have so much joy and energy that fame and power will not appeal to you any more. Nothing can be compared with that kind of joy, knowing that your life on Earth is beautiful and helpful.”

…and elsewhere he continues:

“Filmmakers should make films that inspire awakening. Journalists should write articles that help people to wake up.”

I’m a blogger, I thought at the time in response to his answers, and started this blog with a desire to share what I’ve found helpful, inspiring, and awakening.

Do I find it joyful? To the extent that I can get out of my own way, that I can quiet the doubting voice in my head that says “who are you to talk about all this stuff?” When that voice is quiet, and the writing or recording is flowing, this is one of the most enjoyable things in the world.

So… Create! Draw, write, sing, paint, play! Enjoy it! Share it! And make time for other people’s great art. As the commercial world with its ads and social media and its shopping and shopping and shopping swirls faster and faster around our heads, appearing unstoppable and uncontrollable – remember, art can stop time! Art can bring us back to superhighways of ants out in the fields collecting seeds, or the weave of a spiders web, to swaying spring grasses and a stork swooping overhead.

May enough art and artists slow us all down, and awaken enough joy and common sense to keep our world on the right track.


Today’s post answered a question of mine, what can artists do for us? If you have a question related to the kind of topic found on this blog – awakening, art, creativity, life! –  that you would be happy for me to answer as a blog post, please send it to me via the contact page. Q and A’s help me to understand what I read, see, and appreciate. Comments are welcome via the same contact page. Thank you.


Provoking Arguments With The Family

Sometimes it amazes me that human beings manage to form any kind of lasting, intimate relationships at all. Each of us is a constantly-evolving and ridiculously complex recipe of emotions, uncontrollable thoughts, unmet needs, delights, troubles and desires – and most of us have a hard enough time just understanding and getting along with ourselves, let alone the people we spend our lives with!

This really strikes me as important. Being me and getting through life is already enough to be getting on with. It can be tricky! Fitting together and sharing life with other people that also have to deal with being themselves every day – it’s a lot to ask. In this sense, long-lasting relationships are a complete miracle!

With this in mind, obviously we can forgive ourselves, and the other person involved (be it a partner, child, parent, sibling, friend or co-worker) when things aren’t going too smoothly.

One thing I’m very interested in at the moment is the role of arguments in close personal relationships. As far as I can see, arguments are very rarely about, well, what they seem to be about on the surface.

For example, my wife and I might be arguing about the fact that the living room is a horrendous mess, and who’s fault it is, and who was meant to clear it up, and we might end up really angry with each other, and an hour later I’ll realise that I didn’t care at all about the state of the living room, I was actually really pissed off about a conversation I had with someone completely different the day before and hadn’t really processed yet. The living room had been the catalyst to let all that out.

In fact, I think that my wife and I, and occasionally my son and I, actually may provoke arguments with each other, completely unconsciously, just to let off steam about something completely different and usually significantly deeper.

The truth is, this is not a fun way to live. The person who wasn’t looking for an argument didn’t need it, was probably having a nice afternoon or evening before the unconsciously grumpy one came along and led them into a big emotional mess. One minute my wife and I are innocently talking about the summer holidays, the next minute we are arguing about some aspect of our parenting that in general we are both pretty good at! The next day one of us realises we were just having a hard time about x, y or z, and our partner got the brunt of it during that argument the night before. It’s crazy.

And at what point, I wonder, do innocent conversations, in this example about the summer holidays, become recognisable by one of us as a vehicle to let off steam about something else? At what point do we subconsciously start to provoke the argument and ruin our evening? The moment we sit down? Half-way through the conversation about the seemingly-innocent topic? Only at the instant things turn difficult?

These are all questions I’m interested in solving at the moment. Solve these, and life would be more harmonious. Perhaps that’s expecting way too much, but in any case, the conclusions I’ve reached so far are as follows:

  • Be aware of when I’m provoking an argument completely unnecessarily, and get out of there fast so I can work out what it’s really about.
  • Be aware of when an argument might be being provoked with me, do not for a moment rise to the bait, and get the hell out of the way. Do not respond! Beat a retreat! No need to be right! Let go! Shut up and run!
  • Process life’s tricky stuff as often as possible with a pen and paper/journal, so it doesn’t spill out into my personal relationships as these crazy and unnecessary arguments.
  • Realise that I am only human and likely to mess up the above three points of very-good-intentions on a regular basis.
  • Many arguments may just be about a need for space. You argue, disappear to opposite corners of the house, and get space – there must be an easier way!

My wife and I have been together for over 20 years, and these days we are in general very peaceful. But there are times when we are stressed or don’t have enough personal space and this argument-picking does seem to be going on. Or am I imagining it?

Are most arguments not really what they seem to be about on the surface? Do humans really unconsciously pick arguments with their nearest and dearest just to let off steam about something else or get some space? What do you think? What can be done about it?


Dialogue with my Inner Zen Master

Me: I’ve got this underlying tension.

Inner Zen Master: Why?

Me: I suppose I worry too much about lots of things.

IZM: Haven’t we been over this before? Didn’t I find you all those self-help books to read?

Me: Yes, yes, but it’s still there! Not always, but often!

IZM: Well, why don’t you let go of it and have some fun?

Me: What?

IZM: Yes, just, you know, let go.

Me: Of the underlying tension?

IZM: Yes!

Me: Easy for a Zen Master to say!

IZM: Well, what causes it?

Me: Hmmm, worrying about everything I suppose.

IZM: Like what?

Me: Health, what to eat, what to do, where to go. Whether to give up the odd glass of wine or not. Mainly those things.

IZM: What did you do today?

Me: Had a healthy breakfast, went for a long walk, sat down to do some work.

IZM: Worrying?

Me: Not really, pretty much the perfect day actually.

IZM: Seems like you are doing fine then.

Me: Yes, I suppose you are right!

IZM: So?

Me: OK, thanks. But…

IZM: Look. How much worry are you capable of?

Me: Pfffff, oceanic quantities on a bad day.

IZM: How much inner peace are you capable of? True answer.

Me: Well, based on the times I’ve really got in touch with it… I’d say boundless amounts.

IZM: Which do you need more of in your life?

Me: The boundless inner peace.

IZM: Well, choose that every time worrying comes up.

Me: Ah. Wow. That makes sense.

IZM: So go and do it! And have a bit of fun while you’re at it!

Where you put your focus is where you are…

Morning walk

If I focus on bad things all day I’m unhappy. If I focus on good things all day I’m happy.

The other night I was pondering some distressing episodes from my childhood. Later that day I was a horrible dad to my children. I don’t think this is any accident.

The next day I read a beautiful piece of writing (by Nick Cave) about being kind, and later on I found myself being much kinder to my children.

To experiment with this idea of focusing in the right direction I plan a week of making ‘Lists of Good’.

Here’s todays, just up to lunchtime:

List of Good, Tuesday

– Got up at 6.30 am and got some work done in my invaluable, secret private time while everyone else sleeps.
– 6 km walk before work in Madrid’s Casa de Campo park.
– My son and I are massively enjoying Calvin and Hobbes collections.
– Spent 10 minutes watching ducklings in the park.
– I’m alive! Being alive is incredible in it’s own right!
– I’ve got some excellent books to read (Thoreau biography and Journals).
– I’m writing.
– It’s a wonderful sunny day!
– I crystallised a desire to be kinder to my children:

Let me be kind to my children every minute of every day. As kind as they were to me in all their innocent beginnings, as kind as I need to be for them to grow up kind and extend that kindness on. Let me be kind to myself and kind to my wife, and kind to everyone I come into contact with. Above all, let me be kind to my children.


Being Happiness Podcast 7 – What Is The Meaning of Life?

[Download as an MP3 by right-clicking here]

In the 7th Being Happiness podcast, Ben looks at the meaning of life! We go on a philosophical journey with help from Albert Camus and Thich Nhat Hanh to come up a wonderful way of living…

Mentioned in the podcast…

Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh

Albert Camus and Absurdism in Wikipedia

Albert Camus and the meaning of life at Bigthink.com

Thich Nhat Hanh on The Outsider

Love of Life

Boating in the Retiro Park

I once heard the artist David Hockney gently raging against the health sections of newspapers, saying they are just filled with fear and lurking dangers. ‘That’s not health!’ he says, it’s just a fear of death, and as far as he is concerned, that’s a waste of time.

‘The opposite of fear of death is LOVE OF LIFE!’ he says.

What a great idea! You can walk around all day shrouded by a fear of death or you can jump up, kindle your internal fire and love life!

You can see Hockney’s love of life in his paintings, they shine with bright colour, they prod us in the ribs, stating clearly: ‘have you really looked at the world? Are you walking around in a dream or are you looking at this bright, shining, life? Are you really seeing the world as it is in all it’s glory? Wake up and love life because it’s absolutely incredible, much more so than you ever thought!’

‘To lose the present is to lose life’, says my old friend Thich Nhat Hanh, he and Hockney would get on well. They both see the world in front of them, sparkling with colour and light and possibility. They both see.

Highly recommended documentary: DAVID HOCKNEY ~ The Art of Seeing

Being Happiness Podcast 6 – Celebrating and Angry People!

[Download as an MP3 by right-clicking here]

Today Ben looks at celebrating life even in difficult moments, how to deal with angry people, how we can see what people are saying yes to when they say no to us, and why Richard Branson plays tennis.

Books mentioned in today’s episode:

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography by Richard Branson