Dear mind, dear friend.

Dear Mind,

Here you go again :)

I’ve cottoned on to you long ago but you still get me every once in a while! Last night I had another attack of “What am I doing with my life?”, coupled with another classic, “tomorrow I’m going to feel lonely working on my own”. A real late night anxiety-depression mix, and the funny thing is that now it’s tomorrow and I’m working on my own in a library and doing something and I’m very happy. But still, those two thoughts got me again last night. Two old classics! Two that can floor me. In September they drove me round the bend for nearly a week!

And I know that the cure doesn’t lie in listening to them, and trying to cure them by finding people to be with all day so I don’t feel lonely, or finding a really important career or purpose, or plan – that would work for a while but sooner or later the old thoughts would appear again.

Since when have these thoughts bothered me? Since I was probably about 12 I’ve been troubled on and off by this ‘what to do with my life?’ anxiety. (Meanwhile doing plenty with my life! The irony of it!) Perhaps it’s because society, school careers days, parents, but in the end, me, wanted to pin a label on me that says ‘lawyer’, ‘doctor’, ‘architect’ etc. I still try to pin labels on myself now, like ‘writer’, or try out new fun ones, like ‘musician’, both of which are perfectly great, but do I need the label? It seems labels make me uncomfortable!

Whatever the reasons behind it all, when my son is about to start the school term again I always get an attack of this. And it passes. Thank God. How does it pass? Slowly and painfully if I let the thoughts go unchecked and consume me until they just run out of energy of their own accord.

Rapidly if I recognise such a thought as an old friend back again, smile to it, and see it as what it is, a ghost of a thought, come to haunt me for a bit. It’s got staying power that’s for sure, returning and returning after all these years, “what are you doing with you life?”, but I have the secret: a loving, embracing recognition. “Hello my old friend, here you are again!” I greet such thoughts (this and many other troublesome thoughts) just like that, smile to them, and remember, it’s just a thought. I only suffer in as much as I believe it, and reality always seems to play out differently, as my happy morning here in the library shows.

So last night felt like an enormous cause for celebration for mindfulness and all these years of befriending my ghosts – it works! The anxiety lasted all of 20 minutes until I realised what was going on and smiled to it. Perhaps I can even look forward to the next time these thoughts show up so I can greet them again, and again, until they hardly think it worthwhile to show up at all.

And meanwhile I can get back to what really matters. Not what am I doing with my life, but, Can I be happy in the present moment? Am I loving my family? And then get on with what interests and inspires me again, whether it’s got a label or not!

So, thank goodness, attack over, and a reason to recognise and love my playful mind, my dear friend, more than ever again.

This is it! The cold, grey, busy road of happiness!

This morning I received some Whatsapp photos from a friend, photos of the Caribbean Coast of Colombia. Blue sea, palm-fringed beach, then an infinity pool with a beautiful red sunset behind. Paradise!

I held my phone up to the window and sent him back a photo of a cold misty, Madrid morning and said ‘You win!’ Then I laughed to myself because I saw there was a single palm tree in my Madrid photo too! And the other leafless trees looked wonderful in the mist.

We both win I thought!

Look at these trees, below, from an evening walk in the park last night, so beautiful! Who needs more!

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I love the Zen teaching that says simply, ‘This is it!’ … don’t look further than what’s in front of you in this moment for everything you need! This is it! Nothing to search for, nothing missing, no enlightenment necessary, you are already there!

The day before yesterday I was walking down a busy road in a different corner of the city. It was a grey, freezing day, and I thought to myself, ‘I wish I was at home!’… until I remembered, ‘there you go again, wishing you were somewhere else! Dissatisfaction again!’ And I smiled and thought, ‘This is it!’

And that cold, grey, busy road became a wonderful place to be! Outside, seeing the world, just as good as sitting at home by the fire!

The Richest Person on Earth

Below is a poem I come back to again and again. I can be a real complainer at times. I can walk around in a daze lost in circular thoughts. I can be a real glass-half-empty person all along thinking I was always looking at an overflowing cup!

But I can see the incredible beauty in life, I can realise that I have all the conditions for happiness I could ever dream of! I can walk outside and be overwhelmed by the winter branches etched on the empty sky and not need a single thing more in that moment!

There is a bit of both. How wonderful it would be to shake off the complainer, the dazed thinker, the one who lives in lack instead of abundance. How wonderful it would be to live in happiness and wonder all the time!

I think it’s possible. This poem is about all that, it’s as if someone had given me the list of instructions that makes everything completely clear…

Our True Heritage, by Thich Nhat Hanh

The cosmos is filled with precious gems.
I want to offer a handful of them to you this morning.
Each moment you are alive is a gem,
Shining through and containing earth and sky,
water and clouds.

It needs you to breathe gently
for the miracles to be displayed.
Suddenly you hear the birds singing,
the pines chanting,
see the flowers blooming,
the blue sky,
the white clouds,
the smile and the marvellous look
of your beloved.

You, the richest person on Earth,
who have been going around begging for a living,
stop being the destitute child.
Come back and claim your heritage.
We should enjoy our happiness
and offer it to everyone.
Cherish this very moment.
Let go of the stream of distress
and embrace life fully in your arms.

Such a Magical Film


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I was wondering around Madrid’s Casa de Campo wild parkland the other day when I came across this, above. A lost red balloon.

Suddenly I remembered a favourite family film from the past! Le Ballon Rouge, The Red Balloon. I think it used be on the BBC every Christmas, because I certainly think of it as a Christmas film, though it has nothing to do with this time of year at all.

Here it is below, thanks to the wonders of Youtube. There is some discussion there of what it is about, but the only important thing for me is how it makes me feel in its 34 minutes – wonderful. Or as my son said, “It’s magical”.

Edit: It is no longer available on youtube due to copyright infringement (fair enough!) but you can get in on DVD from Amazon. Definitely worth it.

 

Relax and Write

I like to take messages from books like they are instructions from beyond… In a Pema Chlordan book I have, When Things Fall Apart, she mentions how her teacher told her once to just ‘relax and write’. I got very excited about that a few months back and thought, ‘yes, that’s what I have to do, just relax and write’, but I haven’t really done any of that since then. I got fed up, or self-conscious, with writing about myself all day long and thought it would be nice to live privately and quietly instead. Off-line.

But the thing is, I like writing, and I like blogging. When I found out about WordPress in about 2003 or 2004 I got hugely excited. Wow! I could write anything and publish it to the whole world! The trouble was that I had no idea what to write about for the next couple of years and WordPress just sat there looking at me saying, here I am, your publishing tool, what are you going to do with me?

Eventually I started writing blog posts about life in Spain, which lead to ‘Notes from Spain’, which lead to ‘Notes in Spanish’, and to this latest WordPress production, Being Happiness.

I started Being Happiness because, once again, I got some instructions from a book. The book was called ‘Answers from the heart’, by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, and one of the questions to which he provided an answer concerned what people could do in these difficult times to improve the world. He replied something along the lines of ‘film makers should make films about awakening, journalists should write articles about awakening, artists should…’ and I though to myself, well, I’m a blogger, so I can write a blog about it. And here I am, uncertain ever since about my qualifications to write about such an incredibly immense topic.

But I took another instruction from him – only write about what you yourself have experienced, not theories or ideas you have got from books, teachers etc. If it’s real, from your own life experience, share it. And that was the idea for this blog from the start.

But why ‘awakening’ and happiness? How did it become such a strong presence in my life?

I came across Thich Nhat Hanh around 2006 while reading a blog about productivity and getting things done. There was a post on mindfulness and I thought, ‘now that sounds like a very interesting word’. In the comments someone suggested his book ‘Peace is Every Step’, which I ordered straight away, a book which changed the course of my life. The simple, short passages about living a simpler, happier, more present life in the here and now were like a tonic for my soul. It seemed this book had been written specifically for me, it was all absolutely spot on.

I discovered that this immensely wise man, this revered Zen Master, lived in France in a place called Plum Village, and that you could go and spend time there. Terrified, my wife and I took our then 8-month-year old son there in July 2009. It’s a funny thing to be driving down the back lanes of the Dordogne and suddenly catch a first glimpse of Vietnamese monks and nuns wandering along the verge in brown robes and those triangular, conical straw hats. We were booked for one week but stayed for two and have been every summer ever since, usually for two to three weeks of the summer family retreat.

I began helping to organise retreats with Plum Village monastics in Spain, and eventually helped organise the May 2014 tour of Spain of Thich Nhat Hanh himself and 50 of his monastics – I was part of a team of 5, the ‘nucleo duro’ we jokingly called ourselves, that were in charge of it all, working for a year up to the events (I traveled back and forth from Madrid to Barcelona all year with my laptop on the AVE high-speed train, my wife joking that I was a ‘spiritual executive’).

Organising the tour involved running a retreat for 600 people in El Escorial, and renting theatres for public talks in Madrid and Barcelona, for 1500 and 3000 people respectively, ending with a huge outdoor public meditation in Barcelona for 5000 people at the Arc de Triomf. It was like being a concert tour promoter (ticketing, venue booking, team management, promotion etc) but instead of rock stars we had a Zen Master and his entourage of monks or nuns. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever worked on and it nearly killed me. Someone who had done it before, in the UK, told me, ‘you can’t do this job if you have a family or run a business, it’s just too much work’. I had both, but once again, this seemed to be some sort of instruction – when the idea of his tour of Spain came up, I knew I had to do it. It was the experience of a lifetime, and I wouldn’t repeat it for a minute.

Why has all this come up? What am I mentioning all this for? I’m reading the wonderful ’Tis by Frank McCourt. He talks about an English class he teaches in New York to ‘paraprofessional’ women, who are in their twenties to fifties. He tells them they have to write a paper on ‘anything they like’ – ‘anything?’ they say?! ‘We haven’t got anything to write about!’ But it seemed like another instruction to me! ‘Relax and write’, plus ‘write about anything’.

And I’ve enjoyed this twenty minutes very much, with this little bit of ‘anything’. I love writing, and I love the immediacy of blog writing. I often agonise about publishing it, about publishing bits of my life, particularly the inner life, putting it out there so willy-nilly-ly, so immediately. And I wonder if it’ll be another two months or not ’til the next post but I hope not, because as I’ve said, I love it, and I think it’s OK to ‘relax and write about anything’.

So there we are, another blog post. I am immensely grateful to WordPress, to Thich Nhat Hanh, to Pema Chodron, to Frank McCourt, for their unwitting help and instructions!

And finally to my friend Mike. Mike and I have a menu del dia in Madrid every week or so and often talk about whether or not we are being creatively ’productive’ – he is a writer and photographer. The other day I joked we should set up an accountability partnership thing and promised I’d write a story a week for a while – and then immediately regretted putting myself on the spot to write regularly again. And today he told me he’d just published a photoessay, Madrid Through the Looking Glass, which I leave you with below. It’s so beautiful, the result of months and months of work out on the streets of Madrid, and by way of accountability to my friend Mike, I offer this blog post in return, as a way of saying thanks for inspiring me to publish something too. Here’s Mike’s work:

On the Way to Stupid

A friend was driving me round Madrid today and I told him I always used a GPS to get to the shop we were going to. He told me he never used a GPS if he could avoid it as he had always been good at finding his way around, had good spacial/directional awareness and wanted to keep using it.

This struck me as a very good idea. I told him I used a calculator to check my 8 year-old son’s maths homework (I’m talking multiplications like 2,340 x 8), because it was a pain to think about doing it any other way. He was shocked – he does the sums.

I told him I can only remember three phone numbers now – my mobile, the landline, and my wife’s mobile – all the rest are in the phone, so why bother memorising them? He told me he makes sure he can memorise at least all the numbers of his family.

Clearly, all this tech could make me stupid. How are our brains going to be when we are 70 if we don’t have to exercise them nearly as much as we used to? Memory? Calculation? OK, we don’t need to memorise phone numbers any more and never will, but memory is still useful and it wouldn’t hurt to exercise it!

The most challenging thing my brain is doing these days is learning to sight-read music. I was thinking of ditching it as you can get away without it perfectly well on the guitar (at my level anyway), but I think this is one more reason it’ll be worth continuing – to keep my brain challenged! To keep it making new, fresh connections with new, tricky material.

And whenever I can avoid it, the GPS is staying in the glove compartment, I’d rather have fun getting un-lost every now and again using the compass in my nose!

Images of Inspiration

Sometimes I go down to our local church, when it’s open but there is no Mass going on, and sit in the pews for a while. It’s very very quiet, there is often incense burning, and occasionally quiet Gregorian chant over the loudspeakers along the aisles. I’m not catholic, and for the first few times I went I would worry that a priest might approach me and check my religious credentials, but after a while I realised no-one had any interest in my presence, and I could use the church as a temple, a place to settle and find some real peace in that quiet space.

I’m fascinated by the other people that come in, mostly elderly Spanish ladies, 90% women in fact, some younger than me, and one middle-aged man who comes and kisses the feet of the life-size crucified Jesus’s feet perhaps 50 times before leaving by the back door. There is an elderly man too who prepares the alter for the next Mass, then walks around and around the outer aisles, clearly using the near-empty church as his exercise grounds.

Recently I looked up at the alter and was struck by the wooden panels depicting scenes with the Saints. What struck me was the bright golden halo around the Saints’ heads, painted as a thick gold band similar to these (not from the local church, courtesy of wikipedia):

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What was it that these men and women had done to earn that halo? Can you imagine living a life so worthy that an aura of gold should shine around you? The halos seem very real to me and  bring to mind great goodness, kindness, compassion, strength, faith, peace. Not religious qualities necessarily, but qualities of the greatest human potential for good. And those figures with halos fill me with a desire to live a life that embodies these qualities too. They really inspire me.

In our garden we have a statue of Buddha, that I often pop down to see when I’m feeling troubled. He too embodies many of the qualities above, but more than anything he embodies peace and equanimity. He sits in the garden, eyes half-closed, a half-smile, and no matter what happens in life, this composure of his never changes.

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Obviously he is a statue, but I am sure the real Buddha was as peaceful and equanimous as this. When I’m stormy or unsettled by events in life, his peace gets me back in touch with mine. He sits there and says, don’t worry, this will pass, like everything else does. Mountains sit in much the same way, with that same timeless knowledge.

Finally, I received an email recently from a group in Seville that practice in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Master whose teachings have made such a huge difference to my life. It included this image, below, of Thich Nhat Hanh, and for weeks I was unable to delete the email from my inbox, because every time I looked at the image it reminded me of the qualities embodied by this man, above all an enormous energy of compassion, and a reminder to return again and again to the most important things in life – love, listening, inner peace, and the wonders of the present moment that cost us nothing and are available to us 24 hours a day. I leave you with that image, and a link to a short audio (or video if you prefer) of his that reminded me too of all this, the title of which says it all: Our appointment with life.

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Las Negras – El Playazo

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This is El Playazo, a wild beach not far from the village of Las Negras in Almeria. It’s reached by winding down a sandy desert road past cactuses, ruined houses, and a small, ragged palm plantation, until suddenly the vast beach unfolds before you.

The landscape here is arid beyond words. It could easily be somewhere in the Middle East, and the simple, dry intersecting lines of the landscape are particularly calming on the mind as they offer such simple visual information.

For the first few hours it shocks me, this boy from Green Old Oxford, it seems to go totally against my landscape-DNA, but soon I’m surprised to find I love it. I feel like I’m somewhere special at the far end of the world.

Wandering past a VW camper in the carpark I looked in to see that the owners, a young couple of free-living beach-roamers, had two black and white prints hanging on the inside wall of the van. One was of a chequered courtyard in, perhaps, Morocco, with two men emerging from deep shadow into a pool of light to one side, in flowing white robes.

The image was so striking – the contrast of light and dark, the beautiful figures, the suggestion of another far-flung part of the world – that I felt instantly enamoured by photography again and ran to the beach with my camera – in this case my phone – to capture the image above of the sea rising up to the shore.