Curing Title-itis: Design Your Own Private Masters Degree

 

There is a contagious disease in Spain (though I think it’s fairly global these days), which the Spanish have given the wonderful name of ‘titulitis’ – in English it would be title-itis I suppose, and it goes like this:

You get a degree (a typical titulo), then you realise you need a Masters degree in something, because everyone else has got a degree too, and then you feel an urge to do some important and well-recognised language exam, because everyone else is getting one… and so it goes on, the accumulation of ‘titulos’.

Examination boards flourish, our inner striver feels wonderfully nourished, and we keep taking exams and putting ourselves through hellishly exhausting courses, when we are often only interested in a tiny percentage of their actual content.

I have a degree, and a good qualification in a well-recognised Spanish language exam system, so I have not been immune to this affliction, but I have found a cure.

I call it “My own Private Masters Degree in Whatever I Feel Like!”

A few years ago I wanted to learn more about setting up, running, and making a success of an online business. We were doing OK with Notes in Spanish, and had the creativity side of things sorted out, but no idea about how to grow this into something that would really pay my wife and my wages, securely, for some time to come.

So I set about looking for a program that would teach me what I wanted to learn, and found there were exactly none.

I knew just want I needed – some self-confidence boosting, a pinch of ‘personal development’, lots of entrepreneurial skills, a great deal of (internet) marketing know-how… so I set about designing my own Do-It-Yourself masters degree in, well, all that stuff.

After spending a lot of time researching online, reading blogs, forums, and talking to friends that had some know-how in any of these areas, I came up with a list of books to read or listen to, and small-scale self-taught courses to work on. Soon I was happily studying and, crucially, putting into practice, my own fully-tailored, totally interesting, 100% useful, private masters degree.

And the results were amazing… our company grew, I grew, and I was really happy doing things my way instead of worrying about whether I ought to do an MBA or something equally exhausting instead.

Nowadays I’ve got two long-term, hands-on private masters degrees on the go: one on happiness, the other on parenting. I’m much more relaxed about these. I read a book or two about happiness, follow a blog for a while, listen to a talk by a Zen master, occasionally go on a retreat, go to talks about being a better dad at my son’s school… and again take care to put it all into practice.

There’s no title at the end of these courses, no certificates, no governing bodies or exam boards – just the happiness of knowing I’m learning exactly what I need, just when I want to.

If you think an MBA will make you happy or help you follow your dreams, go for it, but if you worry you’ve just got a classic case of titulitis, there is a cure: have fun learning exactly what motivates you, on your own terms, and in your own time.

There’s no university course or masters degree on the planet as good as the one you invent for yourself.

The Art of Life

 

Being Happiness

Last night I was at an art class, diligently painting away at a field of flowers, when suddenly I lost my way and had no idea how the picture was going to turn out. The background was too strong, the flowers a bit generic, and why on earth was I painting flowers anyway?

Catching myself on the verge of a moment of artistic despondency, I made a decision: Smile, keep painting, keep smiling, keep painting, see what happens!

Half an hour later the background was under control, the flowers looked great, and I was really happy with the picture. Wow, I thought, life is probably as simple as that too! Keep smiling, keep going, keep smiling, see how it turns out!

Apart from smiling, there are all sorts of other artists’ tools at our disposal. Kindness, calm, generosity, patience, peace, just Being… all playing their part in creating a real work of art of our life, every day that we are alive.

“I know artists whose medium is Life itself, and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel, or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased Life. They SEE and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive.” Frederick FranckThe Zen of Seeing. Seeing/Drawing as Meditation

“If we just act in each moment with composure and mindfulness, each minute of our life is a work of art. Even when we are not painting of writing, we are still creating. We are pregnant with beauty, joy, and peace, and we are making life more beautiful for many people.” Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step

 

Greener Grass And The Trouble With Dreams

Asturias, Northern Spain

The grass in northern Spain just is greener than it is around here in Madrid, and coming as I do from the UK, it seems to make some deep part of me happy. Ever since I discovered the Northern Province of Asturias, with its many mountain ranges, cloudy forests, wild-flower-filled pastures and breath-taking coastline, I’ve wanted to live there.

For long periods over the last few years, it has been a persistent nagging dream of mine to spend at the very least a year up there amongst all that greenness, and with the persistent nagging dream, comes the persistent, nagging side of my character that thinks I can only be happy if I get to fulfil this dream.

That’s all very well, but I also have a wife and a child, and my wife is perfectly happy with her life in Madrid. She’s on an important path here, our son is settled in school… it’s only me that has been clinging to this dream, and occasionally making life very difficult for them as a result. That’s the trouble with dreams…

Things came to a head on a holiday there recently. Finding that the landscape seemed to connect with something so deep within me, almost like it was part of my DNA, the dream was sparked off again with a vengeance!

“Just a year… think about it…. we could have a veg patch… all this fresh air would be so good for us… I’ve been in your city for so long, isn’t it my turn?” That last remark hit well below the belt, and all this did not lead to a harmonious holiday.

It took me a while to realise that by trying to drag the rest of my family in on my dream, I was seriously undermining all their stability. My son loves his school. My wife has friends, family, work, courses, and aspirations here in Madrid, and I was trying to pull all that out from under their feet.

Realising that this was the case lead to a second insight: I also have friends, family, work, courses, and aspirations here in Madrid!

And moving to Asturias was also going to pull the rug out from under my feet! Plus I love my son’s school just as much as he does!

Slowly I’ve come round to seeing how this dream was causing all of us, but particularly me, more harm than good. How can I be happy when I am dreaming of being somewhere else? Haven’t I got enough where I already am, without always having to look over the horizon at what might be better?

So I think I’ve laid my Asturias dream to rest for now. We’ll keep going on holiday up there, and who knows, maybe we’ll suddenly find ourselves living there in another stage of life in the future. For now, I’ve realised how much more we can all gain if I focus on deepening the wonderful roots I already have here.

I can be perfectly happy right where I am. Despite outward appearances, the grass is already perfectly green enough here in Madrid.

“…if you think that the conditions aren’t right where you find yourself, and you think that if only you were in a cave in the Himalayas, or at an Asian monastery, or on a beach in the tropics, or at a retreat in some natural setting, things would be better, your meditation stronger… think again. When you got to your cave or your beach or your retreat, there you would be, with the same mind, the same body, the very same breath that you already have here. After fifteen minutes of so in the cave, you might get lonely, or want more light, or the roof might drip water on you. If you were on the beach, it might be raining or cold. If you were on retreat, you might not like the teachers, or the food, or your room. There is always something to dislike. So why not let go and admit that you might as well be at home wherever you are? Right in that moment, you touch the core of your being and invite mindfulness in to enter and heal.” Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn

 

 

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.