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What happens when pillars of strength in our lives disappear or don’t show up? Three stories, two disappearing teachers and one dad-delivered home birth, show us how we are the pillars in our own lives.
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Sometimes after dropping my kids off at school I feel a sort of existential crisis – alone again for another morning! What am I going to do!
Work, or course, is what I need and usually want to do, but I still often feel a big void just after leaving the hubbub of the school gates – part of the working-from-home life.
Walking fixes it. Before going home I set off a at a strong pace around one of Madrid’s wilder parks, at roughly the same speed as my mind is moving – fast.
Today I found places to stop, and just look. Look at the trees, and the sky, and the now-dry grasses, and just take in every detail of the scene in front of me. For a minute of two. Feeling the sun, inhaling the pine on the breeze. Not caring what the occasional mountain-biker that passes might think.
And when I set off walking again, my pace has changed completely. The act of stopping and looking has completely changed me. I’m calm, happy. No existential morning crisis. Off I go again, and sooner or later my mind and my pace is up to full speed again, so I stop once more, look around, and come back to calm.
Walking fast is wonderful, walking slowly is wonderful, but stopping every now and again to take in the world seems to be essential if I want to get home better than I left.
This is the way to walk, and of course it’s the way to live. If we don’t stop, often, and just be, just look around, how can we remain calm in the speedy world in which most of us exist?
It’s a beautiful morning in Madrid. I hope it’s beautiful wherever you’re reading this.
I just discovered this, from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (part 48):
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
How wonderful this idea, to see ‘letters from God’ (whatever God means to you) everywhere you go – fragments of beauty, from leaves, to trees, to faces, to clouds, and why not the wind, and scents and sounds – and we can leave them where they are and move on to the next, as the source is infinite and wherever we go with our eyes open, we’ll find more.
This morning was materialistically profitless in every way. Last night I watched Walk With Me again, such a marvellous film, the perfect meditation on life in Plum Village, where we spent many summer weeks over the years.
And in the calm it induced, I saw how my mind has been tripping me up with its old troublesome ticks and tricks for the past few weeks, and I know that when this happens I need a rest, that I need to reestablish some inner peace.
So I headed for wild parkland this morning, full of ‘shoulds’ and ‘ought to’s’ and thoughts of work not-done, feeling overwrought by the usual demands on myself to be living a productive life.
I found a long grove of tall pines with a thread of a path running through the middle, and decided to walk the few hundred metres back-and-forth beneath those trees until my mind found some rest.
Lucky for me, I had some help. Tiny birds high up in the trees, whistling at me. Wake Up! Listen! And I set me ears to listen keenly to the birdsong, and the sound of the wind in the branches, and the sound of my feet crunching on wood chips – all ‘letters from God’ – and I found that when my mind was full of the sounds, and only the sounds, the shoulds and ought to’s and all the other tiresome mental noise were no longer there.
This is what meditation can do for us! I’d completely forgotten. It brings us back to what is in front of us, to the reality beyond my unhelpful thoughts.
The birds, and the wind, and the sound of my feet replaced thought and all mental troubles, and although I couldn’t say at first, ‘this is happiness,’ I could say, ‘this is peace.’ Which is the kind of happiness I really seek.
So perhaps it has been the most profitable morning I’ve had for months. And now with ears and eyes open I’m heading out again, to look for ‘letters from God dropt in the street’, to love them and ‘leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go, Others will punctually come for ever and ever.’
A reader wrote in explaining a difficult interaction with some relatives, where a great moment was ruined by a very negative comment, which led to their question:
“My question is, how to stay positive in a negative, toxic environment? My way is to not engage as I know I will never get them to see my point of view. There are many people like this around us.”
Many years ago my wife and I had a consultation with a very old and very highly respected buddhist nun called Sister Chân Không. We asked her what to do about some relatives who were causing us quite a lot of suffering at the time. Without skipping a beat, she gave us her answer: “Short, positive contact”.
It’s become a mantra for us where difficult people are concerned ever since: Short Positive Contact! There may be people that we just can’t avoid seeing in our lives, but who make our lives difficult. The only answer is to keep meetings few and far between, brief, and as much as possible, positive.
How to make them positive? Sometimes this might mean we feel more comfortable meeting in a restaurant than in one of our homes, where the meal gives a fixed beginning and end to the amount of time we’ll spend together, and being in public tends to encourage better behaviour!
Sometimes it might mean just bringing these people to our own house, and not going to their’s, so we feel more solid on home ground. It may mean planning a specific activity that seems to keep things in balance. The point is to feel as comfortable as possible with the plan to begin with.
As the reader says, “My way is to not engage as I know I will never get them to see my point of view. ” Quite right! Not engaging in the negativity is a very good plan. As is excusing oneself and walking away from a difficult conversation, or changing the subject whenever tricky topics come up.
I had a relative-in-law who was quite a hypochondriac, and hated any conversation about ill health. Whenever this topic came up, he’d immediately say, “So what’s going on in the football these days?” cleverly changing the subject. The Spanish call this tener mano izquierda – ‘to have left hand’. With this trick he escaped many a conversation that was toxic for him.
Of course, wherever possible it’s best to keep very negative people out of our lives altogether, and surround ourselves with positive people. When we can’t, as well as the above strategies, there are two more things that can help a lot.
Firstly, to make sure we are bolstered with as much of our own inner-positivity as possible. It’s like dealing with air pollution in the city – the healthier we are, the more walks in the fresh-air of the countryside we take regularly, the better our bodies deal with bad-air days. The more we find the best ways to keep ourselves happy and positive, and look after our own inner-lives, the better we can deal with difficult-people days.
Secondly, there is empathy. Why is this difficult person so difficult? What has happened in their lives to make them like this? What fundamental life-need are they lacking that is making them so unhappy and hard to be with? Very few people are naturally toxic or negative, something has made them that way.
If we can stand for a moment in their shoes, or look at where they have come from, or what they are lacking, and get even a tiny idea of the suffering in their lives, it can make the situation much easier for us if we need to spend time with them. This deep looking and understanding has made a big difference to my relationship with some people in my life, but it can also help us not to be too affected by the angry driver in the car behind, or the grumpy waiter or waitress in a restaurant – something’s up with them that we can’t see.
So, empathy, empathy, empathy, and if total avoidance isn’t an option: Short Positive Contact. As short and as positive as can be.
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.
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.
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?