The Absolute Importance of Following Passions

One of the most difficult blocks in my path to happiness is not letting myself do what I really want to in life with absolute confidence that it’s OK to do it.

Take writing about happiness for example! I know lots of people that think only certified Zen Masters or gurus have the right to hold forth on how to live a happier life, and sometimes one of their voices pops up in my head, saying, “you ought to be careful, who are you to write about this stuff? You’re not a Spiritual Teacher you know”…

And so enters the great foe, doubt, and I wonder if I’m doing the right thing and nothing flows. My passion is blocked.

How often this happens! The voice of the “other” pops up and stops me from doing what my heart really wants to do.

But I know that it is essential to my overall health to follow my passions, otherwise they get blocked. I feel it as big build up of energy at chest level, just about, funnily enough, where the heart is.

The head – by worrying about what others might think, or if something is the ‘right idea’ – blocks the heart, I get stuck, the energy that I have stays in the chest, builds up, and eventually, boom, I explode or fall into a deep depression.

All because I didn’t give myself permission to do what I know deep inside I want to. Follow my passions!

So what I keep telling myself is, if I feel passionate about something, then it’s the right thing to do. And that’s that. When doubt sets in, it’s because I’m letting other people in on the plan who don’t belong there – society, that says what I’m doing isn’t serious enough, a parental piece of advice from years ago that says ‘are you sure you are doing the right thing?’… or, ‘but you’ve got to be responsible, haven’t you?’

What do they know! What do any of us know about what the right thing to do is?

So Adios to the doubting voices, we all have permission to do whatever we want, because blocking passions, or taking the sensible route instead, means blocking something inside that needs to get out, something that may well just do an awful lot of good in the world, and make us a lot happier too!

Proof:

7 years ago, I got passionate about a new technology called podcasting. I spent hours making my own podcasts and started sharing them with the world, and eventually by twists and turns this led to a business with my wife called Notes in Spanish that has given us huge amounts of freedom and well-being and made thousands of Spanish learners happy. I started podcasting because it was so interesting I couldn’t not do it. (I wonder if that’s a key? A passion being the thing you can’t NOT do…)

In Summary:

1. I have absolute permission to follow my passions, because the only permission I need is my own.

2. Not following my passions leads to a block in the flow of energy in my life and my body, and that is unhealthy.

3. At all times I am aware of my responsibilities, namely as a husband and father. One of those responsibilities is to be healthy and happy, by undoing blocks and letting things flow.

4. If I make a mistake as a result of following my passions, it doesn’t matter, as I can only learn something valuable from it. So there are no mistakes.

5. Taking this all into account, it’s OK, in fact essential, to follow my passions.

———–

If all this sounds like someone trying to convince themselves that something is OK, then yes! It is! I’ve been feeling that blocked-ness again recently, and here I am, thinking out loud, telling myself that it’s OK – now with the risks seemingly increased as a dad and husband – to give free riegn to my interests and passions again. It’s all based on experience of blocks and flows from the past 15 years, so I’m pretty sure I’m on the right track. If you read this, I’d love to hear what you think. Have a wonderful day!

How Mindfulness Helps – Second Arrows And Secret Codes

San Sebastian by El Greco

Image: San Sebastian, El Greco

Trying to explain to a friend recenly why mindfulness and meditation can be useful, three cases sprang to mind.

1. The second arrow.

Thich Nhat Hanh uses the anaolgy of the second-arrow. If you are shot in the arm by an arrow, it hurts a lot. If you are shot in exactly the same place again by another arrow, the pain is not twice, but ten times worse.

We constantly shoot ourselves with second arrows. If someone says something unkind to us, it hurts. If we then turn over and over in our minds what they have said, then our unhappiness becomes ten times worse! There’s the second arrow.

Mindfulness helps us avoid this, by learning to recognise when we are perpetrating our own suffering by turning something over and over in our mind. We watch the mind at work, realise when it is out of control, and change focus back to the present moment. Slowly our suffering diminishes as a result.

2. Recognising our Habits.

The other day I was pulling my son up the street by the hand, in a hurry – not a big hurry, just a little hurry as usual! An old man stopped as we passed and jested, “Daddy, you’re going to pull my arm off!” – as if he were my son talking to me.

“I don’t like what that man said,” said my son. But he was quite right, I was pulling my son along on a hurried shopping exhibition, just as my mum used to pull me around Oxford when I was small. She was usually in a hurry, it was usually stressful and exhausting for me at the time, and it’s a habit I’ve inherited from her and am passing on to my son.

In more aware moments, mindfulness helps me to stop, realise I am rushing around, and say to myself, “Hello mum! I think we can slow down now!” Immediately I slow down, stop pulling my son along by the arm, and let him carry on living his wonderfully mindful life in the present moment! I even start enjoying the shopping trip more too!

This time the old man had been my “bell of mindfulness”, and although my son didn’t like what he said, I was extremely glad to have picked up on his hint and reigned in that old habit.

3. Our Body’s Secret Codes.

Hurry is just one of the habits I have inherited from previous generations, which mindfulness is helping me to pick up on and change.

We all have others that can be still more damaging to us and those that are around us – anger, of course, is the big one, and mindfulness can often help me to catch it in time, and let me cool off before it explodes and harms those that are in close proximity.

Being mindful of the feelings in my body has let me develop a sense of when anger is bubbling up – usually, I’ve noticed, it starts as a powerful tension in my stomach. And my most difficult moods usually start as a feeling of bound-up tension in my chest. Tuning in to these in time lets me do something about it – leave the room, take some deep breathes, splash some water on my face, go for a walk, calm down again…

I manage to catch one in ten these days, so I’ve still got a long way to go, but it feels like I’ve discovered a secret code – something that I’d heard over and over, that if you listen closely enough, the body has all the answers. But if I hadn’t started to take time out to listen, I never would have known.

The Mindfulness Toolbox

In a recent Q and A session, someone asked Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, “When you have arrived on the other shore (When you are enlightened) do you still think? Do you still suffer?”

To which Thich Nhat Hanh, the very embodiment of a living enlightened being, reassuringly replied, yes, you still suffer, but you have the tools to deal with it and transform suffering back into happiness again.

And the tools he always reminds us to use, are the many practices of mindfulness.

How to develop mindfulness? Read these books, and practice!

Has mindfulness helped you? Please feel free to share your experiences in a comment.

 

Analysis Paralysis!

We’ve all heard of option paralysis, where you have more than one great option to choose from (and usually about 3), e.g. for what to do at the weekend, what new course to take this year, what shoes to buy etc…

Someone said to me: “It doesn’t matter which you choose, no choice is better than another!”

That’s great in theory, but I still often suffer from option paralysis whenever two or more interesting possibilities present themselves and a decision has to be made.

My biggest enemy however is Option Paralysis’s 2nd Cousin, Analysis Paralysis! Letting the mind go haywire and analysing everything to decide if it’s the “right thing to do or not”.

For example: Should I do an art course this year?

My initial idea was that it would be really fun, and a great way to give new life to my creativity, and I was ready to sign up on the spot. Until my head got involved, and starting asking questions… will it take away the little free time I have as a dad which I might rather use for other things? Is it really the right thing for me to do this year? Shouldn’t I be ‘being’ instead of ‘doing’ and is my desire to do another course just another symptom of my non-stop doing-ness?!

Imagine that lot going round and round all day long! Yes, it is enough to drive me mad!Constant analysis of a question that really comes down to the following:

Am I properly interested in doing it (What does the heart say)? Does it work logistically (do I have enought time-off to do it)? OK, great, then do it or don’t do it according to those two answers, and leave the head out of it after that!

Conclusion: No more over-analysing everything! Follow your heart not your head!

All this became quite clear again after visiting a fascinating William Blake exhibition in Madrid yesterday…

William Blake, Ancient of Days - Creativity!

 

“He who sees the infinite in all things, sees God…” William Blake, There Is No Natural Religion

Image: The Ancient of Days, by William Blake

Fear is Fantasy

Being Happiness

Recently I was staying at my aunt’s house in the UK. It’s a big old country farmhouse, probably 500 years old in parts, and rooms and staircases wind and weave in such a way that if you were sitting in the kitchen at night, you could never really be sure what might be going on at the other end of the house.

One night I was indeed sitting in the kitchen alone, having finished the washing up. It was Friday 13th. I looked at the digital clock on the radio, and it was 23.13. My mind jumped to the Friday 13th horror film series and was suddenly flooded by wild dark fantasies of strangers breaking into a distant corner of the dark house.

My wife and son were asleep two floors above me, and the silence, alive with terrifying horror-story possibilities, suddenly sent me into a cold sweat. I was properly scared. Scared of the dark, scared of who might be ‘out there’, scared all the scary things I’d ever read or watched or imagined. Just like the 7 year old me that used to lie in bed at night terrified of vampires.

But suddenly I was able to stand back and look at what was going on. I saw how my fear was simply based on all these wild fantasies my mind was concocting of what could happen in labyrinth, dark, isolated farmhouses at night. But they were just that – fantasies!

Something became very clear – Fear is Fantasy – ‘might happens’ and ‘what ifs’. Here I was in one of my favourite houses in the world, cosy, warm, a place I considered a second home, full of warmth and love, and my mind had invented a whole load of fantastical reasons to be frightened!

And it occurred to me that in the end all my fears were fantasies.

I’ve been scared of all sorts of things in my life, from flying to farming, dentists and doctors, and a whole host of everyday things that most people take for granted but at times I’ve managed to turn into a positive danger to my personal wellbeing.

And I see how all my fears in the end are just the fantasies of a mind inventing ‘maybes’ and ‘could bes’ and ‘just in cases’.

“La mente siempre miente” – ‘The mind always lies’, a teacher once told me on a yoga retreat in Andalusia.

“FEAR = False Evidence Appearing Real” – said Mary Burmeister, a Japanese American woman who brought branches of Japanese wisdom to the West.

Ever since the night in my aunt’s farmhouse, whenever I find myself frightened of something, and especially if I suspect it’s someting that other people wouldn’t genereally be afraid of, I take a mental step back and say calmly to myself – “Fear is Fantasy”.

And the ideas my mind has been turning over and over (some of them for years) to make me feel insecure or afraid, ideas that I have no idea are actually real or not, dissolve away into a more peaceful reality again.

But, there are times when fear can seem very real, when ‘Fear is Fantasy’ seems inappropriate, as the evidence for this fear seems too reasonable and strong to ignore. Then I find I just have to embrace it and say, “Yes, I’m afraid, and it’s OK”. But the miraculous thing is, that by embracing it, it slowly dissolves away too.

Being Happiness - Flowers from the Sierra de Madrid

Want to be Happier? Join a Happiness Group!

Being Happiness

One way to ensure more happiness is to find a group of people that are committed to making their lives happier, calmer, better.

I don’t think it matters if the group is Christian, Buddhist, Secular or Hare Krishna (even a local group of photographers or painters!) – there are a thousand paths to happiness, and we have to be our own best judge as to which one is right for us.

Over the past few years I’ve been attending meditation groups in the tradition of  Thich Nhat Hanh, because years ago I read his book, Peace is Every Step, which struck a deep chord in me, and so it happens that it is the path I most closely follow at the moment.

His book led to going to family retreats at his Plum Village center in France (where on my first visit the head nun said “don’t worry, you don’t leave here as buddhists”, and I was relieved to find it wasn’t a crazy sect bent on converting me to some drastic dogmatic religion or taking all my money!), and from there to local meditation meetings with others that also appreciate his teachings on mindfulness and the ‘art of mindful living’.

Tonight I went along to check out the local Wake Up group – for 18 to 35 year olds, an age range I just pass, but no one seemed to mind. We met in a big park, did a guided meditation to calm us down and come back to the present moment, a walking mediation around the park, sang a song, did another guided meditation on gratitude, then shared stories from our experiences of becoming calmer and happier.

Finally, one of the girls in the group read a meditation she’d devised on joy, then pulled out paper and coloured pens, and had us all draw our interpretation of joy. 16 adults sat under the trees in the park with big smiles on their faces looking like a bunch of happy kids.

I came home calm and extremely happy. Much happier than I’d been earlier that day. And I found a decidedly unhappy wife waiting for me!

She’d had a hard day, and was exhausted. Half an hour later, after I told her all about the meeting, she was smiling again. The happiness group had cheered me up to such an extent that I could pass on that good energy to her too. Happiness, it seems, is more easily generated in a group of people with happiness as a clear intention, and once you’ve had a good dose of it, it is clearly contagious.

The shy, retiring, protestant-upbringing, ‘our family doesn’t do that sort of thing’ part of me cringes at the idea that I should be encouraging people to go and join groups of happy people, let alone groups based around eastern philosophies and mediation. But the fact is that as a supporting presence it’s done me an awful lot of good.

For me the key to the Plum Village/Thich Nhat Hanh path has been the focus on mindfulness, cultivating an awareness of what is going on around us, and crucially, inside us – keeping an eye on our internal landscape of emotions, thoughts, feelings, consciousness – a careful appreciation of our own personal inner weather report. We learn to transform our suffering, stresses and problems first, and then are better able to be happy and present for others.

(By the way, these are two good questions to ask yourself regularly – How’s my internal landscape today? What’s my internal weather report? Stormy? Catch it early, get some space, and hold off the hurricane!)

If buddhism-based practices put you off, try a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, or check out other secular initiatives like Action for Happiness groups. Try a few until you find one you like. If you want to find a Plum Village/Thich Nhat Hanh group, then there is an international directory here, and for the Wake Up intiative, “Young Buddhists and non-Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society, .. a world-wide network of young people practising the living art of mindfulness” – see http://www.wkup.org/

In the end joining any group of nice people based around a healthy activity can lead to more happiness – it’s about finding community with similar aspirations to you. I always thought that this group of sketchers in Singapore look like they have the best fun in the world!

Despite all my original ingrained British reticence, scepticism and, at the bottom of it all, fear, hanging out with a group of other people that are firmly stepping along a path of happiness helps more than I could possibly have imagined.

The Bloom Of The Present Moment

Grasses in Plum Village, France

Visiting friends Ian and Luis this week, in their oasis of peace between the mountains and sea in Asturias, northern Spain, we sat in their garden discussing doing nothing.

Luis observed that after about 15 minutes of sitting still with his cats in the garden, things started to happen. Nature would become happy with his calm presence, and birds that usually  fled from human presence would return to the garden, he would get a keen sense of the weather from watching the sky. Ian mentioned how with time to stop and look at the mountain ridges towering in the distance, you might see the cloud flowing slowly and magnificently off the ridges like water.

All you need is time to stop, not turn on the iPod or iPad, not even reach for a book, just to stop and look. I tried it later that night when I got back to our accommodation in a quiet Asturian village. Sitting outside the front door of our house, with nothing to do, after a few minutes I noticed plants I’d never seen, the red in the leaves on a nearby wall, I saw how a vine had climbed quite amazingly almost to the very top of a pine tree that was twice as high as the house beneath it.

I felt quite delighted by all the things I’d never noticed before.

All this reminded me of a quote from the wonderous Walden, by Henry David Thoreau:

“I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune. As the sparrow had its trill, sitting on the hickory before my door, so had I my chuckle or suppressed warble which he might hear out of my nest. My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing day.” This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting. A man must find his occasions in himself, it is true. The natural day is very calm, and will hardly reprove his indolence.” From Chapter 4 – Sounds, in Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.

Don’t Make Happiness a Goal – Be Happy Now!

North Cornwall Coastal Path, Morwenstow

It appears my holiday blogging-break has lasted … 2 days – Happiness is the freedom to change my mind! I thought this was worth writing about.

“…becoming free of the ego cannot be made into a goal to be attained at some point in the future. Only presence can free you of the ego, and you can only be present Now, not yesterday, or tomorrow.” Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

I realised yesterday (during one of yesterday’s present moments, while staring into the bathroom mirror to be precise!) that this quote applies equally to happiness. There is no point in making happiness a goal, because that implies that it is something we hope to achieve in the future. Seeing as we only have the present moment to live in, it makes much more sense just to be happy right now.

Realising this made me smile and feel happier right then and there. Happiness isn’t my goal any more, it’s just a way to be right now, already, in the present moment. Why wait?

 

 

Starting to Stop

Plum Village Monk Relaxing in the Park

When the monks were in town, I noticed that whenever they had the opportunity, they stopped. Usually by lying down on the floor. If they had 5 minutes, it was 5 minutes, if they had an hour, then an hour. No matter what time of day it was, if they had the chance or need for a rest, they took it, practicing a little deep relaxation.

I’m a doer. I’m doing things all day long. Stopping is often difficult for me. Always something to read, something to write, email to check, something to do … I have a lot to learn still from the monks, but I’m discovering a few things that work:

Sometimes I go out onto the roof terrace and watch the starlings in the morning or evening sky – they worry about nothing but gliding around and catching flies – there is a lot to be learned from them!

Sometimes I sit on a bench in the park and watch joggers go by, or listen to the sounds of the park, look at the leaves of the trees in the breeze, or notice how odd it is that people can walk upright and not fall over!

Even just a few moments on the sofa with no book, no TV, no plans, can be a miracle of peace! Especially if I remember to just follow my breathing, or see how my body is feeling.

This week we are off on our summer holidays and I intend to stop quite a lot. Should I leave the laptop at home? Can I stop blogging here at beinghappiness.com for a few weeks? We’ll see! Getting obsessed about stopping everything doesn’t lead me to more happiness either!

I think I’ll just be peaceful, and let the holidays unfold, one day at a time.

3 Things…

1. A favourite video on stopping, from Plum Village:

2. A favourite blog: adventures in altruism from my friends Ian and Luis, full of wise words on living a more fulfilled and happier life.

3. Thank you! Happy Summer Holidays to you all. Thank you very much for reading this blog so far.

Back sooner or later (depending on how the stopping goes!) with more…

Ben


3 Year Old Zen Masters

Being Happiness

The other day my wife, my 3 year old son and I, went on a couple of car-related errands. First we had to pick the car up from a workshop, where our son gazed in amazement at the cars up on hydraulic lifts, and the mechanics asked him if he wanted to come and work with them for a few days.

Then we headed to the MOT/annual car check station, where we drove through a a huge warehouse having our headlights, indicators, brakes and so on checked, the highlight for our son being when one of the inspectors went down under the car and started rattling around the suspension and drive shaft.

All in all it was a pretty exciting day for a car-mad 3 year old boy.

Later I asked him, “which workshop did you like best, the first one with the cars up on the lifts or the second one where they did all the tests on the car?”

To which he answered, “Both!”

Aha! I remembered! For 3 year olds, where agreeable things are concerned, there is no “better” or “worse”. There is just good and good!

Along we come as adults and start introducing ideas about what is better, and therefore what is less good. Sooner or later we all end up with marked preferences, which means there are things we like more than other things, and when we get the ones we like less… we are less happy.

Sometimes I ask my son, “which is your favourite colour?”

To which he usually replies, “Yellow! …And blue, and green, and red!”

Everything is favourite! Everything is great, everything is fine! No dichotomy, no duality, everything is just perfect. How can you not be happier living like that? There is so much to learn from 3 year olds!

I’m going to see if I can remember not to ask him questions about what he likes better any more. Long may he enjoy life where nothing is better than anything else, but all is agreeable and fine. There is much happiness there.

Can We Change?

Pool, Andalusia

This weekend we were visiting friends in Jaen, in the south of Spain. It was about 42ºC (108ºF), but luckily the house we were having lunch at had a pool. Which is great, except in general I don’t like swimming pools. I’m more of a sea person… or at least that’s what I tell myself and everyone else.

So while the others were having the time of their life splashing about with the kids in the pool, I sat nearby in the shade, convincing myself that I was perfectly happy. Except that I was dying of heat and beginning to wonder if maybe I ought to be a swimming pool person after all.

Finally my son swung things for me. “Dad! Come swimming with me, please!”

And I realised I didn’t want my son to think his dad was the weird one who never went swimming, who ‘doesn’t like pools’, and I quickly asked our hosts to borrow some trunks, jumped in with my son, and had the time of my life too!

This fits in with a new ‘yes instead of no’ approach to life I’ve been cultivating over recent months.

Recently, my friend Tom’s girlfriend wrote to me in secret, asking if I would come to his 40th birthday party in Barcelona as a surprise. My initial reaction was, “No, it’s mid-week, it’ll upset the family routine, I don’t feel like it…”, which after brief reflection I quickly changed to, “What fun! Why not! Yes of course!” – and once again, I had the time of my life during my overnight surprise trip to Barcelona.

After finally enjoying the pool with my son this weekend, our hosts suggested a game of ping pong. Again, my first thought (and typical life-long reaction) was, “Hmmm, no, I’m rubbish at that, I think I’ll just watch,” which I quickly changed to, “Why not!” – and it turned out that a) I wasn’t that rubbish and b) it was some of the best fun I’ve had in years!

So I’m really starting to appreciate the benefits of changing “I don’t do that” to “That should be interesting”, of changing “Definitely not” to “Why not?”

I’m keeping an eye out for the negative response and changing it to the positive one, and life is improving immensely as a result. Every ‘yes’, especially at the level of “I’m not a pool person” to “Lend me some trunks!” is a small victory on the path to change.

‘Everything is impermanent,’ says buddhist philosophy, and people think that’s all about accepting the end of good things in life, or accepting the fact that we all die one day. But it’s also about the impermanence of bad habits or negative attitudes, and how they can change for the better, quickly bringing us more happiness in the process.

So, can we change? If I can become a swimming pool person, then of course we can!

“We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter is not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woman. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence our sadness and suffering will pass.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Corn field, Costa del Luz, Andalusia