A New Kind of Yardstick for Life

Images in this post: Shape and Light and Moment in Madrid

Did I do something to relax today?

Did I take it slowly instead of rushing at some point today, just once?

Did I do something playful and purposeless today, perhaps reading, biking, playing with the kids?

Did I look after my body, even doing something nice for it for 2 minutes, today?

Did I smile at someone today? To myself?

Did I wish myself happiness, ease?

If I did any one of those things I can count this as a wonderful day. And if I didn’t, and I notice, and I smile at myself for noticing and think, ‘doesn’t matter at all’, then I can still call it a wonderful day.

None of this was taught to me as being important, I was taught to look at other yardsticks in measuring my success in life: ladder-climbing, being recognised as being incredible in some way or another, getting on in the world, earning lots and having lots, striving away tirelessly, on and on and on.

This left me with a peculiar sense of ‘purpose’, a need that can drive me into turmoil, wanting to do great things, wanting to do more than ‘enough’. A sense of purpose that I can also be very grateful for, as it’s helped me enormously to achieve things that make my life wonderful in so many ways. Without our purposeful striving and effort, my wife and I wouldn’t have our business – Notes in Spanish – that pays the bills and makes lots of people happy as we help them to learn Spanish. Without the hard work and skills and yardsticks I learned at school, I wouldn’t have the free time to write this post.

But my purpose-yardstick is way out of proportion to a happy life. It always asks too much of me, which is what leads to the inner turmoil. I think I can calm it down enormously, so it looks more like this:

Did I do something that fulfils even in the tiniest way my need for meaning and purpose today? Perhaps work a little on our business, write a little, share something wonderful, do something for the family or be a good husband or dad? Just put one foot forward in any of those directions? Any of the above will do, even just 2 minutes of a single one of them. That’s enough. And if I didn’t, I can smile at myself again for noticing and think, ‘doesn’t matter at all, you are only human’, or ‘it’s fine, you’re on holiday!’ and I can still call it a wonderful day just for having been alive in it, and to have experienced this great life passing by.

Selfish walking meditation photography

After loving photography for most of my childhood and adult life, I sort of gave up a few years ago, put off by the amount of time it was bringing me back to the computer – where I was spending far too much time for work already. But recently that has changed…

I bought a new camera to make videos for our Spanish learning website, and it has got me back out onto the streets again….

I’ve also been inspred by a couple of photographers I discovered randomly on the web, Mattias Burling, and Eric Kim, especially his posts on Selfish Photography and Walking Meditation in Street Photography

So I’ve been spending a lot of time walking the streets of Madrid and El Escorial (the first three pictures in this post), taking Selfish Photos – photos I like, rather than thinking how many likes they may get on Instagram…

I was particularly keen on getting an umbrella photo…

I love this one, ‘greeting the chef…’

This dog on the train, such doleful eyes… so loving…

A wonderful building rising from the trees like a great ship…

Eric Kim says it takes 100,000 photos to get a good one, and he may be right. I took these last two about ten years ago, and I think they are my current favourites of all time. From the streets of Cordoba, and Madrid.

I’m thinking it’s worth far more to get out onto the streets of Madrid to do something that makes me happy, than to be thinking about happiness all the time 🙂

What’s the most important thing to remember?

If someone asks what is the mark of enlightenment or illusion,
I cannot say – wealth and honour are nothing but dust.

Set store by your riches and honour,
And you will only reap a crop of calamities.
Lao Tzu*

What’s the most important thing to remember?

Wealth and honour, recognition and reputation, are nothing but dust. Too much doing will lead to my undoing, as there is really nothing to be done. Nothing to be done but to live happily in the present moment, and to remember this again, and again, and again.

What does today have to offer? A sunny autumn day. A blue sky. People walking in the park. The smiles of my family. There is nothing so important as being in touch with all these wonders. Anything I hope to achieve… dust in comparison to living in touch with what is in front of me in the here and now.

May I remember this every day of my life.

(*1 – Ryokan, from ‘One Robe, One Bowl’, translated by John Stevens.
*2 – Chap. 9, Tao Teh Ching, Lao Tzu, Shambala Dragon Editions.)



Being a Barrio Bodhisattva

I love the idea of the nice elderly lady, or man, who lives just down the road, who everyone in the neighbourhood, or village, knows to be a really nice, generous, warm, caring, loving person. Not a historical saint from the pages of a book, not famous beyond her or his immediate surroundings, just helpful, loving and kind to whoever comes across their path.

I love the idea that doing small things in your daily life, in your small corner of the world, is already enough to change the world, by improving the lives of those right next to you. Just tiny things, right where you are. No need to be Mother Teresa, or Ghandi, or Einstein for that matter.

When I take my toddler daughter for a walk around our Barrio, or neighbourhood, in Madrid, she beams at every single passer-by, young, old, men, women, and salutes them all with a loud, delighted-sounding ‘HOLA!’ This happy, smiling, and totally genuine ‘Hello!’ stops everyone in their tracks. No matter if they are rushing along, looking grumpy or sad, or just plain distracted as they think their way down the street, my daughter brings 95% of them to their senses immediately and when they look down and see who has said hi to them so happily, their faces light up in a huge smile of their own.

So she’s wandering round our neighbourhood spreading happiness with nothing more than a happy ‘Hello!’ It made me think of all the times I walk into shops and say hello, or pass people in the street and bid them good morning, with all the intention of having a happy smile on my face, but most of the time all I can muster is a sort of polite overly-British tight-lipped and slightly guarded version! Well, my daughter has taught me how to smile genuinely to everyone I meet, and that there’s a chance it will improve their day – now all I have to do is practice.

Of course to have this sort of smile on my face, I’ve got to be as happy as she is. Like all toddlers she’s happy with whatever crosses her path in the present moment. No need for special plans or treats, no ambitions or lofty desires, life is already gloriously enough for her already! In my case I find a similar level of happiness with a bike ride, or a walk around the big boulders in the Sierra hills. I imagine these things put me back in the same child-like state that she lives in every day, and once I’m there, it’s likely to overflow to other people on it’s own.

The other night my wife and I went out to supper and she told me that I had sparkling happy eyes, that she hadn’t seen me so happy for a long time. I tried to work out what it was that had put me into that state, and came to the conclusion that it was most likely the 90 minute bike ride I’d been on earlier around Madrid’s wild Casa de Campo park on that beautiful, warm, sunny autumn evening.

As I’ve learned from my daughter then, being in a good mood, taking that out into the world, can already be enough to lighten up our small corner of the universe. To change people’s days, even if just for a moment. She spreads happiness with nothing more than a genuine, smiling greeting to strangers. Think how we can do the same with tiny acts of generosity, selflessness, quietness, compassionate listening, expressions of gratitude, offered help, all right where we are. There is no need to set out to change the whole world.

For some reason the phrase ‘Barrio Bodhisattva’ popped into my head recently to sum this up. A Bodhisattva is like a Buddhist saint, someone who is enlightened but stays around on earth to bring happiness and enlightenment to all the people who are still here suffering away. So the Barrio (neighbourhood in Spanish) Bodhisattva is the quiet saint down the road that will never make it onto the Pope’s list of future canonisations, but who is every bit as saintly as Mother Teresa, or Saint Francis of Assisi. How many there are in the world! We pass them every day and never know, and so easily we can join them by letting go of all our self-exhausting desires and projects and plans and just living happily in the present moment, and spreading that happiness in endless possible tiny ways to those that we meet with every day.

I don’t think that being a saint or a Bodhisattva has to be any more complicated than that. What’s more, as well as the changes we might affect in others with these small, local acts of smiley-ness, or generosity, or help, or listening, or being there, all these will light up our own lives far more than any of the great self-centred plans we had to get ourselves noticed out in the great wide world.

But don’t forget that bike ride, or walk, or time with a book, or ten minutes of silence on the sofa before everyone else wakes up. You need to look after your own peace and happiness too before taking it out into the world.

How a Zen Master washes his hands

A Buddhist monk once told a group of us a story about his teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, which often makes me a good deal happier when I wash my hands. At the time we were talking about Gathas, the practice verses that are used in Zen to help us to remain in the present moment. There is a verse for just about everything – waking up in the morning, doing the washing up, sweeping the floor, even driving a car:

Before starting the car
I know where I’m going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.

Reciting these short verses as we do each action brings us back to the present moment.

The gatha for turning on a tap goes like this:

Water comes from high mountain sources.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us and sustains all life.
My gratitude is filled to the brim.

The story the monk told us goes like this. A group of monastics were on a teaching tour of South-East Asia with Thich Nhat Hanh, when they stopped at a service station by the roadside, somewhere in Malaysia. At the time, roadside washrooms in Malaysia were not always as clean as those in their monastery in France, and the monk told us how he went to the bathroom, which was  a little dirty, then went to a rather grimy outside basin where a makeshift tap poured out rather dubious water. The whole experience made him wince a little.

He saw his Zen Master teacher going to the lavatory after him, and worried that he wasn’t going to enjoy the experience either. So he was immensely surprised to see that when Thich Nhat Hanh came to wash his hands at the grimy sink, as he turned on the tap and the water flowed out, he smiled, a big happy smile.

‘Then I knew what was happening,’ the monk told us, ‘he was smiling because he was reciting the gatha for turning on the tap!’

Water comes from high mountain sources. Water runs deep in the Earth. Miraculously, water comes to us and sustains all life. My gratitude is filled to the brim… When you feel this deeply, believe it with your whole body, and have recited this verse all your life every time you turn on a tap, how can you not smile, no matter where you are washing your hands? It is miraculous!

The monk understood that this was a great lesson in the power of using gathas to increase happiness. Now I smile whenever I remember this story when I’m washing my hands.

More on Gathas:

Book: See Present Moment, Wonderful Moment for 49 Gathas with commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh

From this blog: Nothing is lackingWaking up

A 9 year-old’s secret to happiness

Here’s a conversation I just had with my 9 year-old son, sitting in a café out in a village 30km from Madrid.

Dad: I’m writing a book about happiness, what do you think I should right about?
Son: I don’t know.
– Well, what do you think the secret to happiness is? What makes you most happy?
– Playing basketball!
– And why does that make you so happy?
– I love it!
– OK, what else can you tell me about it?
– It’s a nice sport. It makes me feel like I’m the king of the world! Like I’m the person who’s having the most fun in the whole city!

And here we are, us adults, writing books about happiness and trying to analyse it all, and all we have to do is to find the thing that makes us feel like we are the king or queen of the world, like the person who’s having the most fun in the whole city!

Someone sent me an email recently with a great quote in the footer:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

Exploring new streets and landscapes makes me come alive. Crossing the back roads of this extraordinary country makes me come alive. Riding my bike makes me come alive – in fact it makes me feel like I’m 9 again, like my son, and that’s probably the secret to it all.

What makes you come alive and feel like you’re a 9 year old who’s having the most fun in the whole city?

Smile: Enlightenment for the everyday man/woman

I’ve taken to writing the word ‘Smile’ on the back of my hand for the last few days. It’s a reminder that that is just about the best I can do for a calm happy life.

Getting up earlier, at 6 a.m., to start a new regular meditation practice… didn’t work. I just felt grumpy and exhausted when it was time to get the kids to bed in the evening. Trying to meditate after lunch when the house was quiet… didn’t work, I just fell asleep every time.

Filled with despair at the realisation that I’d never reach high level meditative states of mental calm by sitting still and breathing, I saw that to give up, to say people with jobs or families can’t live deep, happy, inner-peaceful existences, was silly. No one would deny us that!

I remembered that the Plum Village tradition I’ve been following for years had given me all the answers to this problem. I walk, don’t I? I eat. I turn on the tap. I get up in the morning. I talk to people. Drink tea. All of these are doorways, opportunities for mindfulness, for peace, happiness.

And easier than even all of that, the simplest thing, the easiest practice I have on hand at every moment, is to smile. If I deliberately put on a grumpy face all day, I’ll probably end up grumpy. If I take time to smile as often as possible, I end up happier.

And it’s an antidote to everything. Feeling tired? Smile to my tiredness and already it feels better. Angry? Smile to my anger and, well, it’s a start in the right direction! Smile to my fears, and they smile back and wander away.

So, with the realization that as a busy working dad I’m not going to become enlightened by sitting on a meditation cushion for ten hours a day, and that I’ll probably forget to be mindful when turning on a tap, ‘Smile’ has become my lowest common denominator.

Smile to life, smile to my wife, smile to people on the street, smile when I see smile written on the back of my hand. Smile when I’m interrupted writing this blog post. Smile to the bamboo leaves in the sun in front of this garden table, smile to the birds singing in the trees, and the whir of the construction crane from the house they are building down the road. Smile to my grumpiness at night, smile to my kids, smile to the ants, smile to the sky, smile to the wispy cloud passing overhead. Smile because I’ve just written all of this.

Which direction to take in life

I just read a comment on a blog post saying that the book Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh had literally saved someone’s life. I think I could say the same about that book. I discovered it about 12 years ago in the comments of another blog post, and it opened the doors to mindfulness, Dharma, Buddhism – not religion, just a new way of life.

Actually I’d studied Buddhist philosophy as part of my philosophy degree at university, and seen many Buddhist temples in Thailand and other corners of South East Asia in a pre-university gap year, so perhaps I was bound to encounter it again at some point.

But the book Peace is Every Step showed me a calm, present, beautiful way to live, without running, without chasing after things. For many years I attended retreats with Thich Nhat Hann, and then, after my second child was born a couple of years ago, life became very busy on the home-front, and mindfulness and Dharma faded into the background.

Now they are very alive in me again. Now it feels like they can save me again from the running-round-in-circles of my tirelessly over-excitable mind. They can gently sooth my busy, exhausting thoughts.

Our mind can create incredible things, but it can also drive us insane, can drain us of all our energy with our recurrent, obsessive thinking.

Or we can learn to understand it and calm it, and to live very happily in the present moment. For me, living happily, ‘Being happiness’, means being peace – living with inner calm, and I know that mindfulness, meditation, even just knowing enough to watch and smile at my mind, can take me there. It’s not about becoming slow, or dull – great energy, fun and creativity will arise from all this, but without the over-excited ups and corresponding crashing downs.

Many years ago I saw that there were two paths in life, one, which attracted me enormously for a while, involving lots of business work with the goal of making a huge amount of money (and thus being ‘successful’ in our Western sense), and another which led to peace and happiness, which would be a great success in another sense. Still I am pulled about like a ship in a storm by ideas from our Western system of values that ask me ‘What are you going to do with your life next?’, often tormenting me from morning to night with the inner voice that spurs me on to ‘do something else, do something more, do do do!!!’ until I feel exhausted and bereft.

But then I remember the other direction, that says these ideas can be calmed, can be released, that the tormenting, exhausting and recurrent ideas are just what I call ‘mind-made problems’, and when we come to understand and calm our mind, they evaporate in the breeze.

I have been listening to the first few of a series of talks and meditations by B Allan Wallace, from an 8 week retreat on Shamatha (calming the mind) and Loving Kindness. A friend recommended the meditation in Audio 3 (that starts at 8m31) as a great way to clarify again what I wanted from life, and he was right – highly recommended. In another of the audios, Allan Wallace asks if we are sure what direction we want to take in life.

In one direction I see the endless push and pull of certain western values that torture me when I give them free reign – ‘what next, what next, what next?’ And in the other direction I see practices and a simple way of life that take all these torturous questions and dissolve them into peace. This is the direction of inner peace, of loving kindness, of a calm mind. Which direction do I want to take? The second, without a moment of doubt.

Then I think happiness will not be something that we can chase after, or manufacture, or pay for. Real happiness is true, abiding inner calm. It’s a path with many steps – much to let go of, many distractions to remove, new ways of simpler living and new practices to embrace. But if the direction is clear, then all will be well.

To live happily in the present moment, with a calm mind, filled with loving kindness. Filled with creative energy and life. That’s the direction I choose.

A further recommendation: The film, Walk with me. Captures the essence of all this perfectly. Available in all the usual video on demand places.

“The past is no longer there, the future is not yet there, there is only the present moment…”

This morning, Casa de Campo. The warm smell of dried grasses, the sound of crickets, the gentle morning breeze.

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What I learned from the Zen Master

This is a list of the things I learned from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in about 10 years of reading his books, going on his retreats, and being an interpreter for Spanish listeners at his talks.

What I learned from the Zen Master.

The world is beautiful
You are beautiful
You don’t have to be anything else
Everything is as it should be
You don’t need to run any more
There’s nothing to do
Just live happily in the present moment
This is it!
You are already in paradise
You can be calm and relaxed
Just smile
Let go
Be solid, calm, fresh, free
Don’t let difficult emotions overpower you, just breathe
Walk and enjoy the world