Hello Mr Awkward

There is a part of me that finds life decidedly difficult at times.

Last weekend I went to an animal sanctuary out in the countryside with my family. It was very hot, Madrid in an unseasonably hot June type of hot.

I didn’t have a sun hat, and didn’t want to put suncream on as the water in our building was shut off for emergency repairs, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to wash it off that night.

“How annoying!” I thought. And for the first 20 minutes I was wondering how tricky it was all going to be, trying to enjoy a relaxed morning at the animal sanctuary, whilst rushing through the sunny bits to stop and hide under the patches of shade.

Just as this sun/shade/heat dilemma was beginning to become the sole focus of the day, I stopped, smiled to myself, and thought:

“Hello Mr Awkward! How are you my old friend?”

Because I realised that the awkward part of me that finds life decidedly difficult at times, had popped up again, and was planning on taking over the day.

Noticing this familiar old reaction and saying “Hello!” like this has an extraordinary effect. I get to smile at that side of me, greet him as the old friend he is, and almost immediately I’m left in peace to get on with enjoying wherever I am again.

Sometimes this side of me appears in restaurants if I don’t get to sit where I’d hoped to. Sometimes I find myself worrying too much about the comfort of others – like when helping organise mindfulness workshops recently, and being completely overly-concerned for the first half hour of one talk that no-one at the back could hear the speakers properly. Even though I was further back than anyone else and could hear fine!

On occasions like this, as soon as I see my ‘this is all a bit difficult‘ reaction crop up again, I smile, say “Hello Mr Awkward! How are you my old friend?” and he evaporates into the mist!

I get to let go of any worries and difficulties, realise they were all in my mind, and really enjoy the present moment again.

As for the day at the animal sanctuary, as soon as I’d seen what was going on, and said “Hello!” to that part of me I know so well, I totally relaxed.

I tried not to spend too long in the scorching sun, and moved when it was convenient between frequent patches of shade beneath the trees, but in a calm, unconcerned way. And I really enjoyed these moments of peace alone in the shade, aware of the people, animals and nature around me, while I waited for the rest of the family to catch up again.

 

You Are What You Read… Watch, listen to, talk about…

Rainbow, Asturias, Spain

We are not only what we eat, but also what we read, watch, listen to, the kinds of conversations we have, the websites we visit… I eventually discovered that I feel a lot healthier and happier if I take in inspiring or classic books and media rather than trashy, violent novels and TV series (which I really overdosed on in the past.)

Below are a few of the books, audios and films that have really helped and inspired me on the path to a calmer, happier life over recent years. This list is meant as a Thank You to them (rather than a suggestion that you should rush out and buy/consume them all at once! Don’t, you’ll go mad!) and will get bigger as I discover new wonderful things. Pick a title you like the sound of!

Happiness and Mindfulness Non-fiction

Peace is Every Step – Thich Nhat Hanh 

When Things Fall Apart – Pema Chödrön

Manhood – Steve Biddulph (For men)

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism – Chögyam Trungpa (you’ll know if you need to read this… I only read the first few chapters – enough!)

Novels, (Auto)Biography, Wandering, Creating…

Walden – Henry David Thoreau (so good…)

Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer

The Gentle Art of Tramping – Stephen Graham

Moonlight Chronicles – Dan Price

Radical Simplicity – Dan Price

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

Happiness Audiobooks

The Art of Mindful Living – Thich Nhat Hanh

Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life – Byron Katie

Happiness Podcasts

Thich Nhat Hanh Dharma Talks Podcast – Endless wisdom.

Jack Kornfield Dharma Talks/Podcast – Wise and Entertaining.

Film

La Sal de la Tierra/The Salt of the Earth – Directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado.

It’s a wonderful life – Directed by Frank Capra

 

 

Enough Already

 

You have enough, Plum Village Monk

I walked into a bookshop at Plum Village meditation centre in France on my first visit and, still convinced that consuming enough wise books and talks on CD paved the way to being a better person (rather than actually practicing things like mindfulness for example), I was ready to spend another 50 euros on whatever I could lay my hands on.

Browsing the shop I came across a postcard depicting a monk sitting quietly under a tree, and written across the top of the card was the slogan, ‘You Have Enough’.

“Wow! That’s trying to tell me something,” I thought, and left the shop without buying a thing. I’d already bought a few books about mindfulness the day before, and it struck me as true that yes, I already had enough!

Later that day I told one of the monks, “You have to take that card out of your shop, it’s going to put you out of business!”

I think it’s true to say that once we’ve got a few of the right things in place – a good home, good work, a healthy diet, good friends and family – then perhaps we really can say “I have enough” – I already have enough conditions to be happy with just what I’ve got.

Contrary to what I used to believe, I’ve realised that I don’t need to be a millionaire, or own lots of properties, or buy endless stuff, or run a big company, or visit every country on the planet…

I can happily say, I have enough.

(Feel free to print out my version of the card above, click on it to enlarge and download, stick it on the fridge!)

Striving Versus Being

Being Happiness

“What’s the goal of meditation?” I asked a zen teacher a few years ago.

“There is no goal!” he replied, which at the time sounded totally weird!

Why would anyone do anything without any measurable results? How would you know just how much you’d achieved?

Not having goals and non-doing is NOT something they drummed into us at my insanely competitive British private schools.

From the age of 9 I was positioned into a hierarchy of one of four classes per age group, the cleverest in class one, the ‘thickoids’ in class four, and within every class, and for every subject, we were positioned in a rank according to how well we did in endless tests, exams and homeworks.

Oh the greatness of being top of Class One! Oh the horrors of being bottom of Class Four!

By the time I left school at 18, I was a fully certified Striver, programmed to go further, do more, get richer and never stop. No wonder this ‘non-doing’, non-striving, mindfulness stuff was going to take so much practice!

While the ‘practice’ of mindfulness is still clearly the crux of the matter, one idea (from Thich Nhat Hanh) has really helped to keep the striving under control: “You are already what you want to be”.

“There is no need to put anything in front of us and run after it. We already have everything we are looking for, everything we want to become. All the elements for your happiness are already here. There is no need to run, strive, search, or struggle. Just be…” Thich Nhat Hanh

What? You mean I really am good enough already? I don’t have to strive and strive to change, to prove and improve myself all the time? Oh thank goodness!

“You are already what you want to be…” Really hearing this for the first time made me, the ex-British-schoolboy, the fully certified Striver, want to break down in tears from such a profound sense of relief and release.

How to stop worrying and let life unfold instead

Ferns unfolding...

My adult life so far looks like this:

After school, I went to Leeds university to study French

I changed to Philosophy

Then I went to London to be a photographer, which didn’t really work out

So I decided to go and live abroad for a while, and wrote to language academies in Paris, Madrid and Barcelona, about training to be an English teacher

Madrid answered first, saying, ‘you can start in 2 weeks’, so I did

I intended to move to the sea after that month’s training in Madrid

But they offered me a job in the same academy at the end of the course

Delighted, I stayed

Then I wanted to leave at the end of the first year and head for the sea again

But I met Marina (who is now my wife), so I stayed

And after a few more years teaching English I became a translator

Then started making websites

Until the one about learning Spanish turned into our job

We had a child

The Spanish website did better and better and now gives us time for other projects

Like thinking and writing about happiness and mindfulness and things like that…

And that’s how my adult life has unfolded so far from one moment to the next. How French led to Philosophy, and Philosophy led to Photography, and one month in Madrid has become 14 years. How not having a clue what to do with my life has turned into a wonderful life.

And yet, at almost any of the above stages I could have added ‘…and I worried madly about what to do next, until…’ …the next thing happened!

Almost every transition was fraught with indecision – and in particular, every seven years, by a major crisis! The transition from trying to be a photographer in London, to moving to Spain (aged 25), 7 years later from English teacher to starting to make a living from websites (aged 32), and 7 years later, only recently, from only thinking about our Spanish website business to “what else could I do now?”

Lots of worry and indecision, and big 7 year crises. But if I take them out of the story, and look at my adult life as the above list, I can see how well it has simply unfolded. There was no need for all that constant worry about ‘what to do with my life’, ‘what am I going to be’, ‘am I making the right decision’. All I had to do was move forward and see what happened next!

A French Zen Master named Thay Doji said this to me once during a meditation retreat in Spain. Detecting somehow that I was prone to hold life at arms length instead of standing upright in the present moment, he asked, “what are you afraid of?”

Remembering something he’d said, I replied parrot-fashion, “aren’t all our fears really fear of death?”

Paaa!” he said, “You’re still young, you don’t have to think about that! Just stop worrying and let life unfold from one moment to the next!”

Ferns and grasses and trees and clouds and rivers unfold, nature unfolds without worrying about it. When my latest 7 year crisis hit, for the first time in my life I was able to sit back and think, “ah, here it is again!” and despite a reasonable share of indecision and fretting, this time I knew at last to embrace the crisis, and to wait and see, with great interest, what happens.

All I have to do is to put one foot in front of the other, acting on my intuition and interests, and life will gently unfold.

So as for the question, “How to stop worrying and let life unfold instead?” …the answer is simple:

1. Stop worrying (Embrace a crisis! Follow your interests! Take a step!)

2. Let life unfold from one moment to the next…

 

My mother the secret buddhist!

My mother, Lou Curtis

Every now and again my mother would come out with things like this. It’s an excerpt from an email to one of my sisters, which the same sister later read at my mother’s funeral service:

An email from Mum

“I promise you on my honour that I NEVER dwell on gloom, despite what you believe! As I sit here working, every flicker of light and shadow of the silver birch on the wall opposite the window gives me surges of intense pleasure.

The fact that people are dying, who may be relatives or friends, is to me an intrinsic part of “living”. The ‘tristesse’ – somehow a better word than sadness – that that creates intensifies the pleasures of being alive.

That probably sounds like sentimental rubbish to you, and I have expressed it clumsily, but perhaps you can understand what I feel.”

I came across this again the other day while clearing out some papers and it struck me with some force: there’s a whole lot of Buddhist philosophy in there! – Don’t dwell on the past but enjoy the wonders of the present moment – suffering is part of life – without suffering there cannot be happiness – And I’d never noticed any Buddhist Sutras on her bedside table!

“The kingdom of God is available to you in the here and the now… You don’t need to die in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. In fact, you have to be truly alive in order to do so.”~Thich Nhat Hanh

Watching the silver birch shadows on the wall, I think my mother understood that.

Es como Es – It is as it Is

Park light

A friend of mine was about to move back to the States from Madrid when he discovered that his landlord had no intention of giving him back the 2,000 euro breakages deposit from his rented apartment.

They’d left the flat in perfect condition, but the landlord clearly hoped that since they were going to leave the country in 2 weeks, they’d have to just forget about the money.

What the landlord was doing amounted to theft, and instead of relaxing into their last few days in Spain, they had to rapidly initiate legal proceedings with a lawyer, and work out how to manage the legal process from the other side of the world.

“But you know,” said my friend over lunch, “what can you do? We’re just saying It is as it is and getting on with enjoying the rest of our time here.”

“Hey!” I said, “that’s my new favourite phrase, it is as it is!

Chus, my wise Spanish doctor-friend, had introduced this to me recently – es como es in Spanish. It is as it is – whatever happens, happens. You can’t fight reality, because it’s just reality. Shunning it, fighting it, resisting what is in any way just leads to suffering.

Yesterday the water was cut off in our building meaning the loo was blocked and unwashed dishes filled the whole kitchen. My mother-in-law was in hospital for an operation, and my wife, as well as being stressed about all that, was rightfully cross with me for not giving her a hand with something just when she’d needed it earlier on.

I promised to take our son out to lunch, then to the park, to give her some time off. She needed the space, and we really didn’t need one more bit of stress.

So on my way to pick up our son, the car broke down.

That clearly was going to mean an afternoon with tow trucks and repair workshops and calls to the insurance, and no lunch out with my son… and no space for my wife.

I left the car by the side of the road, jumped in a cab, and rushed off to get my son from school.

“If the car breaks down, the car breaks down!” said the taxi driver, “no se puede ir en contra de la vida! – you can’t go against life!”

He knew it too! Why had it taken me so many years to find this out?

Whatever happens, just happens, it is as it is, and everything else is just resistance to reality.

But,” Chus had pointed out to me when she first shared these few words of great wisdom, “that doesn’t mean you don’t care about anything anymore, you don’t just sit back and give up. You accept what happens and then make a choice about how to deal with things.” There’s our freedom, in how we choose to deal with what is.

My son and I got the taxi home for lunch. I spent the afternoon getting the car towed to the garage and dealing with the insurance, while my wife spent the rest of the day happily playing with our son. Her window of personal space had gone, but she chose to have a great time with him instead. “It doesn’t matter at all,” she told me later, “es como es! In the end I had a really happy afternoon”.

Es como es… It is as it is… I think you can apply it to anything that happens, and while the sky is still blue, and kids are still fun, and trees are still magnificent, you can always find ways to happiness.

Happiness Multiplies

May Canopy In the Park

 

I just got back from a walk to the park, to drop off a couple more books for the unemployed old guy (the Book Man) at the park entrance steps who sells them for 2 euros a go. This makes me happy for a start – the books get back into the world, my great unstuffing continues, he gets something for redistributing them, plus he gave me hearty thanks as usual.

The park was vibrantly green, the full spring trees shining in the sun – it was impossible not to smile as I walked into all that natural abundance! More happiness!

And the rose garden was so exploding with new roses that I decided to thank the two ladies that work in it all year round, tending the rose beds for this grand moment of blooming glory every May.

They were weeding and chatting, and as usual I changed my mind 3 times about saying anything as I approached them, walked past, then thought, “Hey, go on, don’t be scared!”

So I turned back, politely interrupted them, and said, “I just wanted to say thank you for all your hard work, the rose garden is stunning, it gets better every year!” To which they responded with their own thank you’s and two huge smiles! More happiness for them and me!

On the way back out of the park, the Book Man pointed to his wares laid out on the wall. “Your books – Gone already!” he said, “Sold both for 8 euros!” As they were big coffee table books, he’d sold them for double the price, both books to one man.

More happiness for him, more happiness for me, and more happiness to the guy who got two beautiful photography books for a great deal!

If my morning stroll were mathematics, it might look like this:

Giving something away + beautiful walk in nature + daring to thank strangers = Happiness multiplied!

3 monks on the living room floor

3 Monks from Plum Village, before a Mindfulness Workshop

Recently, 3 monks from Plum Village came to sleep on our living room floor. We were helping them organise mindfulness workshops in Madrid, and they said, ‘don’t worry, we sleep anywhere’. We learned a lot in the week they were here!

On their first day in Madrid, a saturday, with no workshops organised they wanted to check out the city. We left home after a very long, slow breakfast, and started to walk very, very slowly across town. My son said, “this looks like walking meditation”. It felt like it too.

We crossed Madrid’s big Retiro park, stopping on the way through at the citizen vegetable patch, where Brother Patience, an expert gardener, was asked his opinion on whether or not to snap the flower heads off onions, then proceeded very, very slowly towards the Prado museum.

Deciding to return there later when entry was free, we walked very very slowly through the old city centre (stopping to check out a church for a while on the way) towards a favourite vegetarian restaurant where we had a very long, very slow lunch.

Then we went to the big Reina Sofia modern art gallery for a couple of hours, followed by another few hours in the Prado museum, and finally the slow walk home.

That’s three times more than I ever achieve on an average saturday, yet we left home late in the morning and did everything at a snail’s pace!

I usually run round like a crazy person all day, never stopping, and achieve about one thing. So big lesson number one, just what the hare and the tortoise fable tried to show us when we were young: there’s no hurry!

Though it often returns… half way around the Prado Museum part of the day, overdosing on art, I nipped out of the museum for a tea in a nearby cafe. “Quick! I’ve got about 25 minutes,” I thought, and starting rushing down a side street – then suddenly I caught myself… “Hello habit energy!” … and slowed right down to monk-pace again. “There’s no hurry, there’s no hurry,” I whispered to myself, and wandered slowly, smiling, towards the cafe.

Unstuffing: How to avoid getting more stuff in the future?

Seeing as the simplification/un-‘stuffing’ process takes so long, I’m increasingly keen not to have to go through this again and again in the future. “It’s impossible,” says my brother-in-law, “things just keep pouring into the home, you just can’t help it – clothes, gadgets, toys…”

“Yes,” replies my wife, “I went shopping the other day to get one pair of shoes for our son, and came back with 3 bags – the shoes, plus a pair of trousers and 2 shirts – 3 times what I originally went out to get!”

The solution I’ve hit upon, is two-fold:

First of all: One in, One out. If I get a new book, one has to go from the shelves, if I buy a new sketchbook, an old one has to go (“…but you have to keep all your old sketchbooks to see your artistic development” says the voice in my head that really belongs to everyone else on the planet that likes drawing…) I realise this is going to be hard.

Secondly: And More importantly… I’m going to really think carefully about buying, accepting, or in any way acquiring any new stuff! I’m going to ask the question, “do I really need this?” whenever the temptation arises to bring something new into my life – be it a book, a gadget, a hobby, a project, a dream. Will it really make me any happier than enjoying what I’ve already got?

This applies to giving other people things too, like birthday presents. If I give someone a book, I’m putting pressure on them to read and give me feedback on it! If I give them an object, they have to find somewhere to keep it! As I get rid of the overwhelming amount of stuff in my own life, I don’t want to impose stuff on others.

My wife thinks the best present is homemade food, which gives great pleasure, and then is gone – I think she may be right.