A quiet, uncluttered mind

I just spent the weekend in the mountains above Madrid with a large group of friends. 3 days of total happiness, enjoying their company, the countryside, moments alone, the end of autumn, and a Sunday full of sunlight and the first snow. Nothing was lacking.

When I got home I realised that I had had everything I needed to be happy, but that I’d taken almost nothing with me. A few clothes, a notebook (in which I wrote a few notes and did one drawing), and something to read (Life without Principle, by Thoreau) – which I read only a little.

No internet, no email, no Whatsapp, no music, no TV. I realise that none of these things are necessary for my happiness, in fact they are probably hinderances to it, as they increase the level of noise in my mind significantly. Anything that increases the level of mental noise, keeps me from seeing life in its purest form. All the noise of modern life keeps me away from the wonders of the present moment.

Do I want to live in a whirlwind of communications and an overload of ever-present ever-intruding information overload, or do I want to see and understand reality, nature, the universe as best as I can on this one-off journey through life?

Thoreau speaks forcefully about this in Life without Principle – that we cannot have a mind clear enough for real understanding and insight if we fill it with gossip and news from the papers – God knows what he’d say about email and Whatsapp – “In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.” Change ‘going to the post-office’ for ‘checking email’ – that has been me.

So my aspiration now is to continue further in this direction. To maintain a quiet, uncluttered mind. To protect it, and cleanse it, as Thoreau says:

“If we have thus desecrated ourselves, — as who has not? — the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to reconsecrate ourselves, and make once more a fane of the mind. We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”

Set the mind to the higher course – not to nations and news and politics, but to wind and sun and being – and the ground of being. Truth, thought, mind, illusion, nature, breath, listening. In my journey through life, the ever-present now, that is my greatest concern – seeing what is. Seeing, being, understanding.

How can I get close to that with politics, news, business, gossip, too much work, and too many projects in the way? The ground of being has to be as clearly visible as possible. I want to see the truth of life, and it’s not going to come from books, lectures, etc, but from the unfiltered seeing of a quiet, empty mind placed in front of the quietest realities of life. It’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s about calming the mind, observing the world, and letting insight arise.

Do less, live more

This morning I took an early walk around the side streets of our neighbourhood. It’s a leafy green area, and today was the first real cold morning of autumn. In the damp morning air I walked very slowly, enjoying the feel of the cool air, the smell of damp autumn leaves in the trees and on the ground.

It’s such a privilege to be able to walk slowly in the early morning, with so much rush in the world. More often I’m rushing like everyone else, but when I walk so slowly it feels like I’m putting some balance back, into me, into the world. Of all the mindfulness and meditation practices that exist, that’s my favourite. Slow mindful walking outdoors.

Yesterday a friend told me ‘I’ve got so many projects going on, juggling so many projects and activities up in the air. I’ve got a coldsore, I’m sure it’s because of that.’ I wonder if things like coldsores are actually a blessing – like a bell of mindfulness that appear to tell us ‘you’re overdoing it, slow down’.

I haven’t written here for a while as I’ve been slowing down. Taking stock of my cows, setting some free. Working to reduce the number of projects I’m involved in to just one or two. As Thoreau says in the wonderful wonderful book Walden, “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand;”

Now my affairs are but as two or three again, and I feel freer by far. Do less, live more!


A friend sent me this quote yesterday, so perfect for autumn.

I asked the leaf whether it was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and summer I was completely alive. I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not limited by this form. I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. So I don’t worry at all. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.’”

That day there was a wind blowing and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the tree. It was so happy. I bowed my head, knowing that I have a lot to learn from the leaf.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Life’s Treasure

Las Machotas, El Escorial

Las Machotas, El Escorial.

I climbed this mountain the other morning, getting to the top about 10.30 after an hour and a half’s walk. From the top you can see vast space, the sweep of the Guadarrama mountain range, down to Madrid 50km away, across to the Gredos mountains in the distance.

A very fine breeze was gliding over my legs, it reminded me of the breath in my lungs, they seem to be one and the same.

On the way I had a quote very present that I found from Thich Nhat Hanh:

“The Kingdom of God is a treasure. Once you have touched that treasure, you know that the things you previously considered to be conditions for your happiness are just obstacles.”

Which I take to mean that the Kingdom of God is the wonder-filled life we have right now in the present moment, and if we are distracted by things we think we need to be happy, like more money, more recognition, a better life, more fulfilment, then we will miss it.

I’ve just stumbled again upon ‘The Work’ of Byron Katie, and something she wrote echoes this perfectly:

Q Loving what is sounds like never wanting anything. Isn’t it more interesting to want things?

A My experience is that I do want something all the time: what I want is what is. It’s not only interesting, it’s ecstatic! […] I find that life never falls short and doesn’t require a future. Everything I need is always supplied, and I don’t have to do anything for it. There is nothing more exciting than loving what is. (‘The Little Book’, Byron Katie)

Everything we need to be happy is right here already – that’s the treasure.



Lightening and Space

Lightening Tree


This morning I went up to the mountains around El Escorial, and found this lightening-charred tree. It’s actually only about 8 feet tall. The branches to the left seem to threaten it with further strikes.

Having been in and out of bed for a few days with some sort of virus, I knew that the quickest way to a full recovery was to get up into those wonderful oak woods on my own, to surround myself with nature and space. The summer holidays can be long and intense for the whole family, and it’s essential to get out alone sometimes to renew oneself – or lightening starts to strike inside the house!

The space and the mountains did their wonders, and I feel almost 100% again. The Victorians knew full well the role of ‘good fresh air’ in recovering from illness, they were wise.

Two things, short and long, both perfect:

1. A quote I found on the net…

“The peace I feel as I take this breath is how I measure my success.”

How liberating to forget fame, wealth, or endless possessions as yardsticks for success! … just moment to moment peace…

2. A Talk from Plum Village

This summer we were in the Plum Village summer retreat again, for the first time without the presence of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Master we’ve been lucky enough to see speak and walk there many times. He is recovering from a stroke, and talks are now given by his senior Dharma teachers.

On the last day we say an extraordinary talk by a senior monk. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s called the “Swords of Wisdom”, and contains true wisdom born of his own amazing personal story of recovery from illness, and what he has learned as a monk and disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh over many many years. The first 16 or so minutes is a story for children (who are always invited to the first part of the talks in Plum Village in the summer retreat), the part for adults starts around 18m18s, here (though the kids’ bit is pretty good for adults too!):

North Devon Soul

Woolacombe Bay

Woolacombe Bay

Woolacombe Bay

Woolacombe Beach, North Devon. A vast expanse of sand, with chip vans strategically posted along the beach in summer, what a wonderful idea!

Dunes to climb, sheep moving in strange, slow scattered formations across acres of green valley behind, ice cream shops, Londis store, and family attractions.

All the worries of the modern world disappeared. Everything that seems so intense and pressing in Madrid evaporated. I ran ecstatic down the beach in the rain at dusk pursued by wild-eyed seagulls.

To be a Person of Peace

I had a realisation whilst on the summer family retreat in Plum Village. That I want to be a man of peace. That if there is anything worth dedicating one’s life too, and setting one’s compass by, then that for me, now, is it.

Primarily that means to have peace in myself, and to be sure in the knowledge that when we have peace in ourselves, that energy of peace cannot help but affect the world around us. ‘Peace in oneself, peace in the world’.

In last the few months I had various difficult meetings with a group I’m involved in, where tensions, passions, and emotions, including fear and anger, were running very high. It was very easy to get caught up in these energies and to come away from the meetings feeling quite disturbed.

I decided before the most difficult of these meetings that the best thing I could do was to simply sit and follow my breathing at the bottom of my belly, a technique I learned in Plum Village years ago. When emotions got particularly difficult, or raw, I focused my attention on my legs as well, like strong roots holding me firm to the ground.

The result in me was very striking. I was able to remain calm throughout the meeting, and keep quiet, just to listen while others expressed anger and great difficulties. Whether this calm in me lead to calm in others I can’t say, but I know for sure that if I had gone the other way, and become angry too, and expressed that anger, then clearly that would have increased the overall level of anger and suffering in the room. So based on that, there is a good chance that by focusing on peace, the level of peace in the room was improved somewhat as well.

It’s a small example of something that is very clear to me. We are a bundle of energy, coming into contact with other energies all day long. When I come into contact with angry people, I often find myself erupting into unexplained anger or grumpiness not long afterwards. When I come into contact with peaceful, happy people, that rubs off on me too, and I am more likely to be happy too.

So what wonders we can do by keeping the peace in ourselves, taking that peace out into the world, and bringing that peace to difficult situations when they arise. That’s why I aspire to be a man of peace, a person of peace. The greater the number of peaceful people in the world, the greater the energy of peace that will naturally expand amongst as all.


To be a man or woman of peace it’s clear we have to very carefully look after that peace in ourselves all of the time. In my case, that involves numerous avenues:

– Taking great care of what I let in, i.e. violence or anger in other people, in films, in TV, in literature, conversations, news… it’s all a kind of food, and the more peaceful the things I ingest the better.

– Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid difficult energy in others, or others with difficult energy, in which case, the mantra must be ‘short positive contact’, and breathe!

– Calming my own anger and fears. Which means calming my mind. Smiling lovingly to it when it hooks again and again onto old fears and difficulties, and letting them slip away. And being aware of everything else that takes away my peace, like too much web, hurry, and not enough sleep.

– Knowing what adds to my peace, like mindful walking, doing work I enjoy, and spending time in contact with nature. Nature is peace, and it seems to calm difficult emotions and dissolve difficulties in me in no time. Natural therapy!

–  Walking walking walking or biking biking biking! Just getting out and getting into the outside world to explore all the real wonders that exist beyond the screen!

– Taking time just to ‘be’. To sit. To watch. On the sofa, in the park, the doorstep, lying in bed at night in silence…

– Remembering there’s no need to run any more. There’s nothing to strive for, chase after, or to search for. Everything I need to be happy and at peace is already here, right now, in the depth of the present moment. This is the most liberating truth I’ve been lucky enough to find in my entire life. At the bottom of that truth lies true peace.

And if I take care of all these things, it’s easy to be a person of peace. It’s a joy! And I have no doubt at all that it’s an energy worth taking out into the world.


Last night I went to a concert in the small Pyrenean town of Sallent de Gallego. The concert was by a man called Bombino. I’d never heard of him. He was playing in the ‘Pireneos Sur’ festival here in the town, where you get to hear a different band or artist from a different corner of the globe every night. It’s absolutely terrific.

Bombino is a tall, moustached guitar wizard from a nomdic Tuareg tribe in the Niger Sahara. He grew up in a world so far removed from ours it’s hard to imagine. A matriachal society where grandmothers rule the roost. Where school was pretty much optional. Fleeing armed struggle. Where a guitar fell into his hands and he practiced for hours on end while herding sheep in the desert.

Now he’s become an internationally renowned sort of Berber Jimi Hendrix, travelling the world to sing songs about peace in a region none of us have a clue about, in a Tuareg dialect that no-one can understand, accompanied by wild guitar solos, that send shivers down your spine.

His whole being reverberates with life, cause, purpose, music, energy, Sahara, Africa, tradition, wilderness, and, curiously, he hold it all with an intense ease.

I got home and said to my wife, ‘Our life is “bluuuugh” (meaning dull) in comparison.’ In her usual wisdom she pointed out that our lives are not “bluuuugh” at all. And of course she is right. But here in the ‘West’, we have to guard against dullness constantly.

Thoreau said ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation…’, but these days I’d rephrase that to say ‘Most men and women lead lives of dull materialism’.

Many of us eat, drink, shop, work, in an aimless deadening cycle, tortured by our endless obsessive thinking and difficult, stuck emotions.

Clearly though, we can’t all be Bombinos. Clearly, we don’t have to have grown up in a tribe in the Sahara to be filled with the wonderful energy of life. Our heritage is just as valuable, and valid as Bombino’s. But are we taking life by the balls? Or are we asleep?

Do we know what makes us feel really, truly, alive and in touch with the present moment? Are we present for life right now? Or are we stuck in the convenient, mind-numbing routine of dull materialism?

In my case I’ve found that the dullness changes to a feeling of great aliveness when I get out into the world. Walk in nature. Sit in a plaza and watch people wandering past. Go to a music festival for the first time in the Pyrenees. Take photographs. Walk somewhere I’ve never been before. See new people. A mix of creativity and exploration.

What can Western man and woman do now that we’ve got everything and have nothing to strive for? Keep shopping madly until we’ve ruined the poorest half of the planet, then ruined our half of the planet too? Or be Bombinos, and take up a pen or a guitar or a camera or just a hiking stick and let art and deliberate living provide us with an answer.

At the very least, we can turn off whatever we’re reading this on, and really engage with what’s going on around us. Be absolutely present for life, friends, family, the present moment, now, today. Put on our walking shoes and get out. That’s already enough.