Waking Up Again

The birds are singing outside, it’s a sunny spring afternoon, it’s a wonderful moment.

I feel like I’ve recently woken up from a dream.

In fact I’ve been helping to organise a long-weekend meditation retreat not far from Madrid, with monastics from Plum Village. My ‘before’ and ‘after’ this event are vastly different.

Before, I went through quite a strange period. I spent weeks where quite a lot of the time I was obsessing over camera equipment, which lens to buy, which camera… I spent more hours than is healthy reading reports on websites and forums, and nearly spent a fortune at a camera shop in Madrid on a camera hardly any better than the one I have. (Luckily they didn’t have it in stock, which I took as a sign and gave up looking for it!)

I felt heavy, stressed, slightly off-center. Now, after the retreat I feel light, and feel I have no interest in new cameras or lenses at all! I still love photography, but on the equipment front it feels like I was gripped by a kind of madness!

What changed? For a start the event, the retreat, is over, that’s clearly a weight off my shoulders. It was a retreat for 250 people, with a party of 7 monastics from Plum Village over to facilitate it, and all of that involves a lot of hard work. Plus it brought up difficulties from last year. Last year I helped organise Thich Nhat Hanh’s visit to Spain, which involved 5 very big events, a party of 50 monastics, thousands of people attending the events, hundreds of volunteers, and had a very difficult effect on my family as I was so busy for months before.

The echoes of that were felt this year, though this time the much smaller scale of this retreat meant there was hardly any suffering at all on the family-front (plus I’ve learned to better separate family and work, last year that was almost impossible).

And March-April is a difficult time. The anniversary of my mother’s birthday and death-day in the space of 3 weeks, more echoes of suffering reverberating into the present.

And this year all of that came out in slightly obsessive camera equipment perusal! Like a dream, from which I feel I’ve woken up.

But what woke me up? Without doubt the stopping and returning to the present moment that we practiced on the retreat. And in my case more than anything, the daily walking meditation by a river with hundreds of people, and eating mindfully in silence with hundreds of people, two key mindfulness ‘practices’ that I enjoy very much.

Being on the organising team meant a lot of running around, but those moments of mindfulness practice brought it all back to the fore again – stopping, breathing, coming back to the present moment via my steps or my knife and fork, again and again… the effect is quite magical.

It reminded me how incredibly important these practices and these pauses in life are. This stopping. When all the camera lenses stuff was going on I was aware that I was in a bit of a spin, and I mostly knew why (the reasons above), but it was only by getting away from normal life into an environment designed to foster peace, stopping and awareness, that I was really able to step out of the mud and see how crazy the previous month or so had been.

I’ve learned a lot from this experience. Firstly, my desire to make these mindfulness practices a central part of daily life again is very strong. It’s a lifeline. A refuge. An everyday wake-up in everyday normal life. I’m doing walking meditation again at least once a day, out in the streets and parks – it’s the practice I most enjoy (so it’s the right one for me!)

Secondly I realise that these periods of being lost, of compulsion – whether it be with camera equipment, or whatever – are just part of life, and not something to feel bad about, but certainly not a place to get stuck in. Just a place it’s easy to fall back into as a response to difficulties or suffering, especially as our materialistic society quite wants us to be there! (And by the way, there is nothing wrong with camera equipment, just the way I’d been approaching it!)

And I see again how important it is to retreat from the habits of normal life every now and again, to get in touch with the source of the other, healing energies of mindfulness, peace, compassion. To wake up. On this retreat I saw so many examples of people being transformed – people who turned up in a state of stress and exhaustion and left with a beaming smile, people who had a clear breakthrough in entrenched suffering – all because they risked taking a long weekend to stop, and get in touch with that energy of peace. It really really works. And it clearly worked again for me.

And finally I’ve been reminded again that no matter what happens in life, in the world around us, there is nothing more important than being awake, aware, solid, strong, compassionate, free from our afflictions. I think not only is it possible, but that for me it’s a responsibility and an aspiration to foster these qualities, and to present that face to the world. And I’m sure that when those qualities are present, they will rub off on others around us.

The phrase ‘Peace in oneself, peace in the world’ has taken me a long time to fully understand. It seems too simple. But I’m beginning to see it. And to see that all it takes is practice…

[More on walking meditation here and here]

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Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Miracle of Mindfulness

When I part with members of my family after visiting them in the UK (I live near Madrid), as I walk away with my bags, I feel a strong pull in my chest, and it really feels as if invisible strings were linking my heart to theirs, that the atoms in my heart  are being physically stretched to the limit of my chest as this close heart-bond is being pulled away from the loved one in question.

I have the same feeling sometimes when I’m sad about something. The other day it was because one of my sisters had recently given birth and I’m 1500 miles away in Madrid, and was desperate to see her and the new baby. I’ve arranged to go in May, but those invisible heart strings were feeling stretched in that direction now, and it was a hard, heavy feeling.

So I decided to try some walking meditation. Just a long slow walk from home to a neighbourhood park. I remembered the idea of embracing difficult emotions like a mother embraces a crying baby, and I put all my concentration into embracing and feeling the heavy feeling in my chest as I walked slowly.

It was surprisingly easy. Easy to have something to focus on. Easy to be there lovingly for the feeling in my chest. And slowly the heavy, sad, stretched-heart-strings feeling began to diminish, feeling lighter and lighter all the time.

By the time I got back to our street I felt completely fine, happy. I’d decided not to go rushing off to the UK in a huge hurry, as I knew it would put stress on the rest of my life, and that I don’t want to live in that rushing-around mode any more, as I have done for years. I can happily wait for May.

This for me really was a miracle of mindfulness. From a depressed, sad feeling, to light and free in the space of an hour’s walk spent embracing a difficult emotion. It works. Since then I’ve gone back to doing a little walking meditation every day. I’m no good at sitting on meditation cushions, but taking my heart for a walk, especially in spring, is a real joy.

La Sal de la Tierra

I may have mentioned this before, but having watched it again last night, I have to recommend it again. The film La sal de la Tierra/The Salt of the Earth, about the life and work of photographer Sebastião Salgado.

It’s not just for photographers. It takes us through the darkest of humanity’s destructive madness through to our most radiant possibilities for change and hope. Highly recommended.

Dear Mum, I can’t change the world.

Dear mum, dear dad, dear school, mostly dear mum,

I can’t do it anymore. I can’t change the world. I can’t be famous, or a number 1 Best Seller or photographer. I can’t do it. It’s too much. It’s exhausting. It’s too much. I admit it.

It always felt like I had to. I suppose that’s why I used to read obituaries of famous people, desperately looking for the secrets to how they got to be there, in the papers – the height of recognition! Though ironically they were dead.

But I can’t strive for all that anymore. All that striving has led to exhaustion, and lack of self-esteem as those Great Expectations weren’t met. As I looked around for praise and fame that would make me think I was doing enough.

So I can’t do that any more. But what I can do is all this:

– Be satisfied with all I’ve got, which is so much!

– Be happy with what I’ve done so far with my life, which is already so much!

– Be calm, nice, quiet, and pass quietly through life.

– Be grateful, happy, and enjoy simple things in the present moment.

– Do what I love, what makes me smile, without a single expectation of greatness.

– Stop running, striving.

– Stop feeling inadequate and accept myself as I am, that this version of me is wonderful and enough. I am enough, just like this. There’s no need for more.

– Carry on watching and actively participating in the wonderful unfolding of life, which will all on its own bring as many wonders and adventures and surprises as I’ve been lucky enough to have already.

Dear mum, I hope you understand. I think you do.

Lots of love,

Ben

I often write letters to my mother, even though she died 8 years ago. It’s wonderfully therapeutic. About this one, that I wrote a couple of months ago: her parents, my grandparents, were on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Set, the Virginia Woolf literary crowd in 1920’s and 30’s London. Ever since then, that side of our family has been expected to move in such circles, but we don’t. Our whole private schooling expected it too. I think that’s where all this comes from. It’s been a recurring theme in my life, striving-for-great-heights, that’s finally calming down. That’s why I share this here, because I have a feeling it’s common to many people these days.

Easter Processions in Madrid

These images are from last Easter Friday’s procession, from the Nuestro Padre Jesús de Medinaceli church, in the center of Madrid.

Spain’s traditional Easter processions even amaze many Spaniards… they are without doubt extremely unusual. But very moving. There were probably a thousand people involved in this one, and many more thousands turned out to watch.

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That perfect state

Two days ago I was walking through our village with three six-year-old boys, my son and two of his friends, on the way back from getting the first ice cream of the year. They were happily babbling away in Spanish, it was gloriously warm, a perfect spring afternoon.

I was struck by how funny it was to be walking along with three kids chatting away in Spanish, but how normal too – how odd it was that this had ended up my normality! That Spanish should go in and out of my head as easily as English after all these years. That I should have a Spanish son with Spanish friends. How curious life is!

And I felt completely happy. This happiness involved no internet, mobile phone, gadgets, entertainment, just the realisation that the present moment was perfect just as it was. Being outside, with three happy children, was enough.

It reminded me of a few lines that spilled out into a notebook of mine the other night:

That perfect state
That perfect energy
When now is all there is…
This very moment
And all it has to offer
Is enough.

I’m convinced that mindfulness, or awareness, or ‘being awake’ is the perfect state. When we realise that we have enough with simply that, and what wonders of life cross our path from moment to moment. What keeps us from that state? The mind and its inventions, needs, desires, perceived lacks… But we need so so little to be happy.

I’ve recently been driving myself mad trying to decide which camera lens to buy next – but the one I have already takes great pictures – I have enough! My wife was wondering whether to take on new yoga classes at a prestigious center, but a little too far from home – but then she realised that she already has enough classes nearby to be happy.

I think the idea of having enough conditions for happiness already is so important – we just have to keep an eye on our dear mind and how easily it’s tempted – and let’s face it, we live in a society that is absolutely designed to offer us more and more of everything all day long – more things to buy, more things to experience, more things to learn, to do – we must consume all of this to keep it all going, and marketers will do their best to ensure we do! It’s no wonder we drive ourselves mad wondering what else we could ‘add’ to our lives to make them better.

‘I have enough, I have enough’, with this perfect moment, and all it has to offer. What peace there is in that way of living.

Trees and Life

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When I’m in need of a lift, or boosting my inner energy banks, I draw an oak tree. Last year I had to help organise a tremendous series of mindfulness events, and looking back I can’t imagine how I and the rest of us did it.

For my part I put it down partly to drawing an enormous oak tree with colour crayons a few months into the process. It gave me huge strength, I’m sure of it. The one above is similar, but in charcoal, from a couple of days ago. Big A2 paper, branches right up to and over the edges as an art teacher showed me.

It’s life-enhancing to draw a tree like this. And not so difficult. I highly recommend it if you need a boost. (By the way, I plan to fix the charcoal with skimmed milk!)

Meanwhile, more from the streets of Madrid…

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My son loves the next shot, he thinks the Plaza Mayor’s headless man is great…

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The final image is of the most peaceful evangelists I’ve ever seen. They stand in busy parts of Madrid with these adapted shopping carts full of leaflets, but never approach or stop anyone. The poster here says, “Jesus saves us, but from what?”

I don’t know, but it made me think of another banner I saw on a church recently that said:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28.”

It struck me firstly that just about everyone nowadays is burdened and weary and needs rest, and that this invitation is so beautifully worded that you feel better just reading it. And secondly, that this same rest is exactly what is offered by the buddhist wisdom I’ve been immersed in for the past 7 or 8 years.

I love it when I find these coincidences between philosophies or religions because it makes it clear that at the bottom of everything we are all the same, and all concerned with the same things, notably in this case, just a little bit of inner peace.

 

For my mother…

My mother died 8 years ago.  Her birthday was yesterday, the traditional first day of spring.

Dear mum,
Are you here?
Are you the flowers on the table,
Or the purple umbrella I bought
Without realising it’s the same as the one you always used to carry?
Or are you the spring rain falling outside,
Or the gathering green rising out of the earth?
Or are you a thought or a memory?
A feeling in the heart?
A special sensation never lost, you’re always there, dear mum, ever present.
It’s lovely to have you around.