The End Of The Tragedy

Recently my wife, my son and I set off for a walk to the park. I was nearly ready for a long time, while they were still a long way off from being ready to get out of the door. Then when they were nearly ready, I gave up, and went and lay on the bed playing with our son’s guitar.

At which point my son got distracted by me and the guitar, and lost all interest in collaborating with my wife’s desire to get his shoes on. Which lead to big stress on both their parts, no help from me (still on the bed with the guitar), and by the time we did all get out of the front door, tempers were frayed.

A typical family script set in motion. From the front door to the gate of the park 5 minutes away, a whole practically pre-rehearsed back-and-forth of blame and recrimination engulfed my wife and I, followed by a huge sense of guilt that we’d argued in front of our son again, ending up with no desire to be anywhere near each other, let alone go for a walk together. Which in the end, we didn’t.

Something clicked in my head as my son and I were walking on our own around the park 20 minutes later. “This has happened before… ruined family walk to the park…”… Followed by another, clear internal instruction, which for some reason popped into my head in Spanish: “Se acaba la tragédia” – The tragedy is over.

Becuase we were just running through, for the nth time, a perfectly practiced script. A mini play. ‘Lovely family plan degenerates into disaster due to dad’s dreaminess and mum’s reaction to it, and dad’s bad reaction to mum’s reaction, and her reaction to that…’ until, instead of a happy family story (nice trip to park), we have a tragedy (separate walk, anger, guilt, poor son).

It’s a script we’ve both picked up somewhere and refined. It’s a script that says, ‘in this family it’s hard to have fun’. It probably started out generations ago on both sides. Of course we have tremendous fun sometimes, but why not every time we set out together on a family plan? Why does the predetermined disaster story have to kick in so often?

Se acaba la tragedia – the tragedy is over.

That night I wrote it in a notebook I have, and it’s now a firm resolution. Two days later, we got another chance to put my new resolution to the test. My wife and I had a date. We got a babysitter for the first time in months. We were really, really excited.

While we were waiting for the lift in our building, she got a phone call from her sister, and so we had to wait before going down so she didn’t lose mobile coverage in the lift. I said, “call her back once we are downstairs! We are going to be late!” But she didn’t want to, and we spent 5 minutes standing outside the lift door before we could go down – by which time I was fuming.

And of course, following our favourite ‘we don’t have fun on dates‘ script, I let my frustration fly, “You could have called her back when we got downstairs, we’d be halfway into town by now….”, and stepping into her role in the story, she got cross with me in return.

By the time we got to the top of our street (and it’s not a long street!) we were arguing, and the date was looking like a total disaster… but alarm bells started to ring… ‘se acaba la tragédia!!’

And I stopped trying to defend myself. I stopped walking and put my hands on her shoulders. I became very present, and I very gently apologised. I told her that I thought we’d been here a hundred times before. That we’d turned so many of our few opportunities to go out together into arguments and ruined nights out. That I was sure we could change the script right here and now, and that I loved her very much and just wanted to have a lovely night out.

And by a miracle we did. We changed the script. ‘Ruined night out’ became ‘best night out ever’. By the time we turned the corner at the top of our street in fact, we were happily walking hand in hand. We went to a concert by Deva Premal (highly recommended!) and loved every minute of it.

Now I know for sure that these little life scripts that we’ve been unconsciously acting out for years can be abandoned. Shaken off and left behind. Scripts like ‘we don’t have fun on dates’, or ‘extended family meals never work out’. First I have to become aware of them, then aware of how I propagate them. Then simply say, enough is enough – the tragedy is over. There’s a much happier story. It’s script-less – we are free to make it up as we go along – and it’s the one I choose from now on.

Confidence

I haven’t written here for a while as I’ve become involved in a big project. So big that I had to do the old ‘how many cows have I got?‘ test and put all other projects, inluding this blog, on the side for a while to stop myself from feeling completely overloaded.

The project is to help organise a tour of Spain by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 2014. The planned events for the tour include a 5 day family mindfulness retreat for 600 people in El Escorial (near Madrid), a public talk for 1,500 people in Madrid, and in Barcelona, another public talk of similar dimensions and an Applied Ethics retreat (for educators). There will also be public meditation events, such as a peace march in Madrid, and a massive public sitting meditation in a square in Barcelona, similar to an event in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2012.

This work is of a dimension that I’m not entirely used to (as someone who has spent the last 7 years working from home on our business with my wife!), but I have every confidence that’s it’s going to be a success, and I’m learning the skills I might have been lacking as I go along thanks to the other wonderful people that are involved (there are four of us in the ‘core team’ of organisers, and many many more who are supporting us – We are all working on a volunteer basis.)

But already I’ve come up a few times against that difficult old friend of mine, Doubt. Will this all work out? Has this or that been the right decision? At first I would voice doubts to one of my fellow organisers, and always they would come back with a ‘no problem, here’s the solution’. And sometimes they would voice doubts to me, ‘how are we going to do a webpage for this?’ for example, and seeing as I know a huge amount about web pages, I’d say, ‘no problem! I’ll sort it out.’

So quickly I’ve discovered that for every doubt that arises in one of us, there is a solution from another member of the team that has the required skills or information, and as such there really aren’t any problems. Just solutions I haven’t found yet, or need some help in getting to.

This changes the whole ‘doubt’ thing enormously. Now, when I feel that sinking feeling of doubt creeping over me, I feel confident that I don’t need to go running to someone else saying ‘this will never work’, or ‘I don’t think we can do this’, or simply, ‘I think we have a problem’ – now I stop and first of all just recognise that doubt for what it is – just doubt! And if it doesn’t pass on its own from the simple fact of having recognised it and sat with it for a bit, then I look about for a solution, or for who can help.

And instead of phoning someone up and saying, ‘we have a problem’ (which just fills them with my doubt too), I’ve found it’s much better to say, ‘I wonder if you can see a solution to this’. Recently when I thought we’d made a mistake in a decision, one of my fellow organisers said, “well, let’s just be consistent with the decision we’ve made, carry it through, and see what we can learn from it. If necessary we’ll take new actions later to fill any gaps that might open up.”

That way of seeing things has helped enormously – “let’s just be consistent with the decision we’ve made, and see what happens”. It’s very liberating – there are no mistakes.

So in just a couple of months I’ve learned a huge amount about doubt. It’s a terribly tricky old friend! But once you get to know it, you can say, “hello doubt, my old friend, not today thank you, I know that everything is going to work out just fine!” Doubt is quickly replaced by confidence. And I’m totally confident that this project is going to be an overwhelming success. I always have been since the moment I heard about it and thought, “Now that’s something I definitely can help come to fruition!”

I’ll share more about the journey over the coming months. And if any of you fancy coming to see Thich Nhat Hanh in Spain in May 2014, come along! I’ll post full details of the events and dates shortly!

Thanks very much as ever for reading.

A warm spring smile from Madrid,

Ben

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