Bombino

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.

The creative work of life

A friend who writes films told me, “it really is like you are a channel for something bigger when you create. The first time it’s really difficult, but then the work just flows through you.”

I’ve heard this before from artists and writers. That they just channel a greater creative force, be it God, the Universe, Universal Consciousness, whatever you choose to call it.

And I believe it. It’s a very humble idea as well. The artist and the ego are not wholly responsible for what they produce, they just help bring something beautiful into the world. Birth. Delivery.

But if that’s true, what is the place for the art or literary critic? We don’t look at a natural landscape and say, ‘I think the universe could have done a bit better with that shoreline’…

And in the same way, how can we be judgemental of ourselves? If we too are the work of a greater, or divine, or universal creative force, how can we think ‘I’m awful, or stupid, or no good etc etc’?

And we shouldn’t feel that because we aren’t artists or writers that we shouldn’t be involved in this great Creative Act of channeling some greater creative energy.

Every minute of our life can be a great creative work. The way we live, the way we treat others, the way we treat ourselves, the way we work, think, ‘be’ – all this can be as much a channeling of something universal and beautiful as a great novel, screenplay, painting… or outstandingly beautiful landscape.

Our lives are a work of art of exceptional beauty. All we have to do is set our compass in that direction.

All life

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Sierra de Guadarrama, one hour from Madrid

I once heard, ‘there is no life without death’, and I couldn’t really work it out. The opposite is easy to understand, there is no death without life. But how could death cause life?

I sat by the river in the picture last week and this idea came back to my mind. I thought of the river eventually flowing into the sea, the ocean, from where it would evaporate and turn back into rain, or snow, that would fall on the mountain tops, and return once again to the river, where it would again give life to trees, grass, mayflies…

Because the river ends in the sea and is reborn as rain and snow, all life follows!

Nothing is Lacking

Recently I came across this gatha (mindfulness practice verse) for saying to yourself as you lie in bed at night:

Resting in the ultimate dimension,
using snowy mountains as a pillow
and beautiful pink clouds as blankets.
Nothing is lacking.

It contains such beautiful images! But the part that really struck me after saying it to myself in bed one night, was ‘nothing is lacking’. It felt absolutely true.

And the phrase keeps coming back to me. Sometimes when I’m wondering if I need anything else to be happy. From seemingly silly things, like another piece of cake at a children’s birthday party yesterday, to bigger dreamy things like a holiday home to escape the summer heat… No, nothing is lacking.

And sometimes it pops into my head when I’ve found myself just being still, looking around at the garden or something, and realising, ‘Nothing is lacking’, this moment’s got it all.

Go outside!

For a long I meant to put a link on this blog that just said, ‘go outside’.

It would say, ‘instead of reading this blog too much, you’d be much better off getting offline and going outside. It’s better for you!’

The reason I’ve been writing a lot less lately is that I’ve been following my own advice. Getting offline as much as possible. Reducing my online responsibilities to a minimum, making space for real life! After years of being solidly online, I really need it.

Yesterday I cycled 60km around the outskirts of Madrid, in a loop called the ‘anillo verde’, the green ring. Some of it is quite green, but mostly it’s quite urban, and often quite near big roads.

But I saw… an eagle following me overhead (and wondered if it was waiting for me to fall off from exhaustion and eat me!), I saw a tiny church built into the arch of a vast bridge, I saw endless school playgrounds with the kids playing at break-time and loved their screams and laughter. I sang from spontaneous happiness for a quarter of the trip. I watched how my mood changed as I got tired. I had a Snickers bar for the first time in years and loved it. I saw how the trail was accompanied again and again by one of my favourite blue flowers and made up a gatha (mindfulness practice verse) about it:

Cycling through the ultimate dimension,
Blue flowers line my path.
My heart is full of happiness.

And I really felt it! I saw a despondent, shaven-headed teenager sitting on a bench in an empty park, looking lovingly into his dog’s eyes as he held its head in his hands, and I wondered what he would do without it. I saw vast houses behind great walls in El Puerto de Hierro, and the run-down poorer blocks of San Blas. I saw the most wonderful clouds sailing above me, slid fresh from a baking tray by the great cloud-cook in the sky.

I saw so much on my day on the bike that I’m still remembering it now. Rollerskaters, walkers, bikers, mums, dads, kids, bridges, tunnels, buildings, the smell of pine, of honeysuckle, of strimmers on dry grasses…

So if I don’t write here that often these days it’s because I’m out there soaking up the wonderful outside world in the here and now. What a joy! I hope you can find time to get outside and look at the extraordinary world too. Right now perhaps? As my wife always says, “It’s good to get out”.

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.