A Resilient Approach To Life’s Complications

I just got a phone call from my bank.

Bank: Hello, we are phoning you to tell you that as a valued customer, we’re sending you a free Visa card, it’ll be free for life.

Me: I don’t want it, but thank you very much.

Bank: But it’s totally free for life.

Me: Yes, but I don’t want another card thanks.

Bank: Can you tell us the reason why you don’t want it?

Me: (OK, I’ll tell her the truth) Because I want to live a simple life and I don’t want to accept things that I don’t need.

Bank: But the reason for the call is to tell you that we are sending you the free card and all the documentation by post.

Me: Can you cancel that please?

Bank: Yes, of course.

Me: Thank you, Bye bye.

One thing I’m finding, is that it takes resilience to live a simple life these days. You have to keep a kind eye out for people and institutions that are constantly keen to keep complicating it for you – and the temptation to say yes and let them!

Remembering to Trust In The World and Yourself

I spent the weekend on my once-a-month art course, and this time we were working in 3D. Everyone brought in bits-and-bobs – wool, sticks, card, feather boas, toilet rolls, old umbrellas, clay, bits of cloth etc – a complete junk shop of materials, and we spend the weekend turning these into an amazing array of sculptures and towers and totems.

I was half-way through creating  a towering construction made out of old photo frames, bits of wood, and combed wool, when I suddenly realised I didn’t have a clue what I was up to. I’d totally lost my way.

One of the teachers passed by and I said to him, “I don’t know what I’m doing!”

“You’re doing what you are doing,” he replied with a smile.

So I carried on for a while, until that old friend doubt jumped in for a second time and my thinking mind started getting overly involved once more, and I could not for the life of me work out what on earth I was doing.

The other teacher passed by, and I said to her, “I really don’t understand what I’m doing or why I’m doing it.”

“You don’t have to understand, it isn’t necessary” she replied, so on I went, constructing, raising my tower of frames, wood and wool.

And in the end I was delighted with the result. The final sculpture looked good, and made me feel very happy with my work. So when the group sat down afterwards to comment on the creative process, how it had felt for each of us, I said that once again I’d had to remember an important lesson.

That you don’t have to understand what you are doing all the time, you just have to trust that it’s going to work out OK. You have to trust that the process you are going through is forming part of a great result that you can’t even imagine yet. And that’s fine (even if the thinking mind doesn’t like it one little bit!)

I told them that my life is a bit like that at the moment. I’ve got lots of things on the go, but I don’t completely understand where I’m going. I know that I’m building something, but I don’t know exactly what, and at times I find that exceedingly disconcerting, especially when I stop to think too much about it, and try to work it out.

But just as with the scupture, I know that all I have to do is keep going, keep doing what I’m doing, stop analyising, and trust. Trust in the process, trust in myself, and see what happens. And that’s a much more relaxing way to carry on. It’s amazing how art reflects life.

Good Grief

February is a tricky time of year for me, because it comes just before March, and my mother’s birthday was on the 21st, the first day of spring. She also died in April, on a stunning spring day. So  in February every year I notice myself feeling a bit strange. Occasionally remnants of old fears and obsessions, now mostly gone, resurface, and ringing loudly at me like a bell of mindfulness, eventually the message they bring get’s through: I’m approaching mum-time-of-year, and even though she died in 2007, this is still a grieving time.

This year I decided to embrace it. I dug out my box of family photos, and took out two wonderful pictures of her, and put them on a corner table in our living room. Here is the first, taken in Cornwall:

Good grief

When I think of death I think of a return to an infinite source of beauty, creation and light, something my mother constantly pointed out to us while she was alive by highlighting the beauty of the world around us.

There, on the cliff-tops in cornwall, you can feel the most direct connection with that infinite source, out of which perhaps everything emmerges, and into which perhaps we’ll return. Like the wonderful analogy of the waves and the water – we are to the Universe as waves are to water – we rise like a wave out of everything into this human form (and if we look deeply we can keep a feeling of connection with the Universe/water from which our waves rise, while we are alive) and later we return back into the water of everything again, perhaps to rise later on another wave – “surfing the waves of birth and death”.

The other photo I found was of my mother and her bother-in-law – my uncle Colin, who died the year before her – in his vegetable patch. To the extent that I do have an image of a more conventional heaven, it would look just like this, and this is what they would be doing in it:

Heaven Here On Earth

A glorious summer vegetable patch, and my mother and her brother-in-law would almost certainly be up there gardening in it, peering out at us from behind a giant sunflower. Thanks to the benefit of wisdom far greater than mine, the wonderful thing is that I can take this heavenly garden idea with me into the here and now. When I walk in the park and see the early spring buds bursting with life on the rose bushes and tree branches, and the white blossom on the almond trees, if I look carefully I can see my mother.

My mother returning-as-spring. She isn’t in that heavenly garden in some far off place, she is part of the heavenly garden that is available to me right here and now when I walk in the park and quiet my mind enough to be open to these very healing realities. My appreciation of the beauty of the park is my mother’s appreciation of beauty passed on to me, so she lives on with me like that. The deep warm reds of the new shoots on the stalks of the roses, are the colours of the scarves she wore as winter turned to spring, so she lives on in their new life, and greets me in the rose garden.

Seeing things this way makes me smile, and even though the strong emotions of grief can still surface when I’m not expecting it – like when I saw some happy grandparents dropping their granddaughter off at my son’s class today and I realised his grandmother would never do the same – by embracing this time of year like this, everything has changed for the better.

My mother is in the park and the way I look at the surfacing spring flowers, she is in this heaven we have all around us on earth right now. She is with me whenever I look deeply for her, she can even be with us when I drop my son off at school if I take her along, and in all these ways, she has never really died.

Recommended Further Reading: The Book No Death, No Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh

Minerals Matter

My sister was visiting at the weekend. While wandering around the city, I showed her my phone, and pointed out that it seemed to be prying apart on one side.

“I must have dropped it,” I said.

“Just get a new one,” she replied.

“NO! That’s why the world is in such a mess!” The strength of my reaction surprised me, and I apologised. I don’t like being too opinionated about things, but the constant product cycle upgrade madness our world is consumed by really gets my goat.

Every camera, smart-phone, tablet, laptop etc, is deliberately made out of date after a year, and we are mercilessly made to feel that our life will not be cool or worthwhile if we don’t keep up with the latest model.

We all know that, but what surprised me was when, a few days later, I was reading through a version of the Buddhist 5 Mindfulness Trainings – ethical guidelines for a happy, meaningful, life – and the theme cropped up again.

I read, “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.”

I’d always thought the bit about the minerals was a bit odd. But that’s what the product replacement cycle business is all about – minerals. Everyone on the planet has the right to upgrade their smartphone every year, but if we all do, how long will the mineral supplies last? Will there be any left for ten generations down the line? Even three?

It’s hard to write about this stuff without sounding like a smug eco-crusader (and I recently bought a new camera after all), but the fact is that I am writing on a 6 year old laptop, I have a four year old phone, and a twelve year old car. And they all work beautifully. They are good enough. Long may they last.

Note: I realised the next morning that this post is about mindful consumption – and I saw that we can be mindful not only of what we eat, and what we read or watch on the screen (the media we consume and its effect on us), but of the way we consume every type of natural resource – plants, minerals, animals – and even of how we consume other people’s time and energies.

If we are mindful of everything we consume, on so many of these levels, our health, and that of the planet and everyone else that inhabits it, will surely be in better shape now and going forward.

How to Feel Alive

Yesterday I took the morning off – a luxury I’m very aware that as a self-employed person, I’m lucky enough to enjoy – and went up to the mountains for a walk up a steep hill.

On rare occasions I go up to the mountains on my own like this on a weekday morning – always when I’m feeling a little out of synch with the world, or moody, or something’s up and I can’t quite work out what it is, and I know that a few hours on my own in pure unadulterated nature will set me back on track again. Simply put, being alone in nature with no distractions is immensely healing.

It was just above freezing point, and a strong wind brought the wind-chill factor down by several more degrees. The sun was low in a bright blue sky, and there was snow on the ground. I set off up the hill into a low, leafless oak forest, the wind howling tremendously through the branches of the trees. I followed tracks in the snow – a fox?

I stopped where a break in the trees gave a view out over a valley, and then across a wide plateau to Madrid, far in the distance. Holding on firmly to an oak trunk, the wild wind seemed to pass right through me, the strong, low february sun lit up my face, and as every cell in my body seemed to leap into awareness, a powerful statement jumped to the forefront of my whole body and mind – “I – AM – ALIVE!”

Alive in a way you only every feel with nature all around you, alive in a way we all need to feel as often as possible – so how to feel alive? Disconnect. Get out to the countryside. No phone, not even a camera. Just me and the outside world. Not much can make you feel more truly alive than that, and transport costs aside – it’s free.

Something else happened up in the hills that day that I thought was interesting. When I parked my car in the car park where the trail begins, there was barely anyone else there. Just two other cars. No one around. Then another car turned up, and as I got out of my car, the young man in the other car got out of his. We eyed each other suspiciously…

In Steve Biddulph’s excellent book Manhood (I hugely recommended it to any men who feel a little lost sometimes as to their role/job/place in the world), he mentions how men typically view other men with huge suspicion – for example, if you are sitting on a park bench, and another man comes and sits nearby, our first reaction is often to think, “is this stranger a threat?” – I imagine this is even more the case for women.

I remembered this as me and the other guy in the car park looked at each other as we got our stuff together. We were both about to head off into the same empty wooded mountainside, and in my case I know that the old ‘fear’ habit had jumped right into my mind, a primordial reaction, weighing up a potential threat.

But for some reason I smiled, and called out, “Quite a wind isn’t it!”

“Certainly is!” he replied with a big grin, and said something else that was lost in the wind. Suddenly he looked like just a really friendly guy! We waved, and I set off up the hill. A few minutes later he caught me up, running up the hill in sports gear! He stopped for a moment to ask if I knew which way the trail went.

“I’m not sure, I think it just follows this old wall,” I said.

“Oh well,” he said, smiling again, “a la adventura!” (it’ll be an adventure!) – and he bounded off up the hill.

After my first instinctive smiling comment in the car park, fear of the other had changed to friendliness, and as I carried on up the mountain, I was following his happy footprints now as well as the fox’s. The adventurous runner. Another happy soul healing himself on the windswept mountainside.

Perhaps that helped make me feel so ALIVE that morning as well.

What’s Now Like?

Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. Albert Einstein, The World As I See It.

If the present moment is all there is, why is it so difficult to be in it? It’s so crystal clear and perfect in its real, absolute stillness, but we get lost, we lose it… how can we lose something that is so directly at hand?

The past, the future – we are constantly dancing, or running, between one or the other, and the present moment doesn’t get a look in. Naked reality. If you stop for a minute and look at any inanimate object around you right now, just freeze and look at it without naming or judging it… What’s it doing? Just being present. It’s just there. Reality just sits quietly all around us.

Every morning I take my son to school and on the way we seen the moon, fading away as daylight creeps into the world. It gives me enormous solace to see the moon in the sky every day. The other day I realised, “It just sits there, in total peace, so solid,”  – ‘sailing in the sky of utmost emptiness…’ If you want to know what the present moment is like, you just have to look (really look!) at the peaceful stillness of the moon – or the branches of a tree described against the sky – the art of nature.

Or follow your breath… It took me years to realise how nice it is to follow your breath at moments in every day life. All the books I’d read and all the meditation retreats I’d been on, all telling me to follow my breath, and it worked pretty well there, but back in real life? Impossible… until recently, when I see how useful it is, always there, in and out, the perfect anchor, clearing the mind, bringing me back to my body… back to the present.

“Someone recently showed me the annual prospectus of a large spiritual organisation. When I looked through it, I was impressed by the wide choice of interesting seminars and workshops. It reminded me of a smorgasbord, one of those Scandinavian buffets where you can take your pick from a huge variety of enticing dishes. The person asked me whether I could recommend one or two courses. “I don’t know,” I said. “They all look so interesting. But I do know this,” I added. “Be aware of your breathing as often as you are able, whenever your remember. Do that for one year, and it will be more powerfully transformative than attending all of these courses. And it’s free.” Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

And what has the present moment got for us anyway? What is raw reality all about? I don’t know the answer to that! But by looking I get an inkling… a sense of wonder that can’t be described in thought. And peace. Above all I get a sense of peace. When I stop running, stop thinking about what to do next, what I did last, what happened in the past, what might happen in the future… all of those things are important – how else do we get anywhere or learn anything? – but we can’t be there all the time … it’s just exhausting.

Last summer in Plum Village on a meditation retreat, after two weeks of slowly slowing down, I was lying beneath a deep blue sky, by a big lake full of lotus flowers, when I read the following passage….

 “Our true home is in the here and the now. The past is already gone and the future is not yet here. “I have arrived, I am home, in the here, in the now.” This is our practice. […] Whether you are sitting, whether you are walking, whether you are watering the vegetables in the garden, or whether you are feeding your child, it is always possible to practice “I have arrived, I am home.” I am not running anymore; I have run all my life; now I am determined to stop and to really live my life.” Thich Nhat Hanh. No death, No fear

…and it was like a tidal wave washing over me… I realised that I had hardly ever, ever stopped in my entire life, and yet there was nothing I wanted to do more… just to stop running. Not to stop working, or growing, or learning, just to stop running, striving, searching, just to live in peace, just to live a little more in the now.

And as soon as I got home to Madrid, and the school run/work routine started, I was running again! I couldn’t believe it… but now, 6 months later, perhaps I am starting to slow down, sometimes. To go for more meditative walks in the park… to follow my breath every now and again… to take my tea away from the computer screen so I actually get to notice it… to learn something from the intense, wonderful, real presence of the moon every morning, and the tress so beautifully drawn in the park sky. They remind me: it’s OK to stop, it’s OK to slow down. It’s OK to live in the present. This is what it’s like – just peaceful, solid, wonderous, and free.

“Breathing In,
I have become space
without boundaries.
I have no plans left.
I have no luggage.

Breathing out,
I am the moon
that is sailing through the sky of utmost emptiness.
I am freedom.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, Call Me By My True Names (from the poem, Breathing)