The Bright Side of Life

“If I was 15 years younger I’d be packing my suitcases right now”… So said the lady we call Granny Argentina. She runs a bakery down the road, and isn’t too happy with the way things are going in Spain at the moment. The government is beginning to exhibit unpleasantly right-wing tendencies, the economy is in dire crisis and not about to improve, and the country is, both financially and emotionally, depressed.

So Granny Argentina, who brought her family from Argentina to Spain, via extended periods of life in Italy and Helsinki (so she clearly isn’t afraid to move with the times), says that if she was younger, she’d be off.

At a lunch party the next day, my sister-in-law asked me the same thing – “…haven’t you considered leaving Spain? It’s so depressing here, and you could easily go back to the UK with the family. You’d be much better off tax-wise too”.

This began to bother me. Yes, working from home we have the flexibility to leave Spain and start up just about anywhere new at a moment’s notice, but do we want to? Is Spain really that bad?

Let’s see. The landscapes of Spain are still stunningly beautiful. Our son still goes to a great school. We still have great friends here. It’s still sunny most days. It’s still a democracy. There are still a million beautiful things to see and enjoy every day we walk out of the door!

Later on that day, after the lunch with the relatives, I went to a two-year-old’s birthday party with my son. The parents, bright, positive, happy people, had put a lot of work into the occasion. Great food, baloons everywhere, toys… but best of all they’d invited the music teacher from their daughter’s nursery to come and give a little concert.

He started with a kind of feast of sounds from a wild range of intruments he’d brought with him – a huge, pancake-thin drum that he dripped little ceramic balls onto so that all the kids said, “oooooh, it’s like rain!”, and he blew a meter-long brass hunting horn, and sang/wailed African chants and rang tibetan singing bowls, until both the kids and the adults fell into a deep melodious musical trance.

Then, after a wonderful story from the birthday girl’s dad, about a mouse that spent the summer collecting colours and the winter collecting sounds and the spring collecting smells, the music teacher picked up the guitar and fired off an hour of rip-roaring classic Spanish party songs, while we all clapped wildly and sang along at the tops of our voices.

The first song had a little English chorus that all the Spanish knew, “Always look on the bright side of life…. Always look on the bright side of life…” with the happy whistling that accompanies it.

Standing in that room, singing and clapping with beaming adults and children, with a magician of a music teacher leading us on from the front, life had rarely seemed brighter. There was no crisis in here, no doom and gloom, no need to pack our bags and ditch the sinking ship. While we still have work and Spain is still a democracy (which I’m pretty sure it will continue to be!), why would we possible leave when we can have as much fun as this?

So in the face of future invitations to go and live somewhere with a little bit less tax, or (if such a place exists) with slightly less useless and corrupt politicians – I’ll say, I’m fine thanks. There’s nothing wrong with Spain (or the UK, or the USA, or with this day wherever you are…) if you keep looking on the bright side of life!

And if anyone still needs convincing – What a Wonderful World!

How To Make Decisions!

I’ve been agonising recently over various decisions. First of all, I wanted to buy a new camera, which in this day and age means that I had about 1,000 options to choose from, and a billion on-line opinions to listen to. After weeks of analysis paralysis I narrowed it down to 3 possible candidates, and by a miracle one day I decided which one to get, and just went out and got it.

What a relief that was! How painful those 3 weeks of reading camera forums and blogs had been!

But then I remembered I had to make another choice. There are two courses that I really want to do, both on the same weekend in October, and I just couldn’t decide which would be best for me right now. Back to the agonising over decisions again!

I realised that this is a losing battle – in a world of infinite choices, every one we make will instantly be followed by more, all with mouth-watering, just as good alternatives.

I needed to find a solution to this problem. And removing all wants and desires to live a monk-like life isn’t the answer right now.

My first approach was to just deliberately forget about niggling decisions every time they popped into my head, every time I started another huge cycle of analysis. My thinking was that if I took my head out of the equation, my heart would work out on its own what it really wanted to do, and let me know the answer when it was ready.

This sort of works, but the head still keeps trying to get involved as often as possible, and trying to ignore it doesn’t make the decisions go away.

Then I thought, I could go for the ‘just pick one and go for it’ approach, arguing that all options are so good these days that you can hardly ever really make a wrong decision as far as things like what course to do, or what camera to buy go. But my head wasn’t having that – decisions have to be the right ones, no ‘whatever, it’s all the same’ thanks very much!

Finally, a very wise friend gave me the solution I needed: “Just put a number on it, a percentage. For example, how much do you want to do course A – is it 60% or over? If so, that’s enough, go for it, your heart wants to do it! If it’s only a 30 or 40% then you aren’t really bothered, and it isn’t for you.”

Wow, that cleared things up on the spot. I immediately knew what course I wanted to do, and all doubt evaporated.

So for the next 6 million impossibly appetising decisions, I’ll know exactly what to do. Put a number on it. Anything over 60% is a winner.

In Case of Emergency: Go for a LONG Walk

This morning I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, or got up on the wrong side of my head, or something like that, but the day did NOT start well. Once again I’ve got 28 projects on the go (literally, I counted my “cows” the other day and came up with 28 things on my mind!) and I had no idea where to start, what to work on, etc etc etc.

I walked into the library, walked out, walked back in again. Sat down, didn’t do what I set out to, and watched my blood pressure rise bit by bit. It was not enjoyable.

So I went home and did a lot of washing up, which helped a bit, but not enough. It was clearly one of those days. Then I remembered how some of the boys (never the girls!) at my son’s school are made to do 5 laps of the playground before they come into the  class for the morning, to get rid of some of their crazy energy, and I thought, “I’m just like them! Full of crazy energy again! Time for a LONG walk.”

So I went for a long walk in the park, an hour to be precise, and felt ENORMOUSLY better and knew just what to do with my life again. Which was to come and write about the whole experience here on beinghappiness.com (a reminder for next time I get into such a ‘pickle’) and take things from there.

Sometimes I see enormous resemblances between young children and puppies – playfulness, the need to run around, ravenous appetites etc – but today I saw an enormous resemblance between me and adult dogs – I need walking, regularly, to stay healthy, happy and sane!

Happiness is: One Small Change – One Great T-Shirt

I’m writing this from a local public library, which amounts to one of the single most significant changes to my life in the last 7 years.

I’ve been coming here for the past few weeks, first thing every morning, laptop in the backpack, no longer sitting down to work in our living room, three feet from where I’ve just had my breakfast.

It’s the first change of many I’m noticing, a big shift that is occurring, a definite improvement in my overall level of happiness.

After the Easter holidays this year, I was talking to a good friend who had just been on holiday. He told me that when he was away, all his backaches and headaches, which plagued him in everyday life, had disappeared, but that as soon as he got back, they started again. I told him the same had happened to me, with similar aches and pains.

It was obvious that being on holiday meant a change in the conditions of everyday life, and that in order to keep the aches and pains at bay when we got back, rather than watching how they immediatly returned again, it would be necessary to really change some of these fundamental conditions as soon as possible.

And the biggest change I’ve made – though it took me 6 months to work out where to start – has been coming to work in the library.

Others seem to be occurring naturally since I began – I’m drawing again, writing more, involved in new projects (like enjoying photography again through Making Time To Live), and having great fun working through The Artists Way – the famous book on creative recovery which is also having a wonderfully unblocking effect.

Did all this start with the morning trip to the library? Did something else cause this shift?

All I know is that I love it. Every morning the first thing I do is to get out and see what the world is doing. 3 days ago I passed a girl walking up the street towards me wearing a t-shirt with the simple slogan “happy!!!”

It made me smile. “Yes,” I thought, “I’m happy!” And now every morning as I head out to work at the library, I have an image of her passing me in the street, with her t-shirt reminding me first of all how much better, healthier, and alive I feel after making this one small change to the conditions of everyday life, and secondly that I have to get one of those t-shirts!

The Mistakes the Urban Monk Made

For the past couple of years I secretly envied the monks life – no outside pressures, no bills, no bank accounts, living all day in a state of meditative calm, communing with nature, no stress…

But, with a wife and child, becoming a monk was never an option, so instead I wondered how I could live a monkish life here in the big city. Or at least, a very spiritual life. That, I thought, would certainly lead to happiness, good health, and longevity.

So I gave up meat, and alcohol, and cakes (and even cheese for a while), and tried to be aimless as much as possible, and tried to do more yoga, and tried to cut down on impure thoughts, and rejected materialism and new gadgets, and felt guilty about making money in our business, and stopped reading novels and only read spiritual texts…

And eventually I saw that the result is that I:

Got very thin by giving up so much sustenance at once, mistook ‘aimlessness’ for doing nothing and gave up a lot of my creative outlets, felt bad about my business doing so well, didn’t read any fun books or novels anymore, and generally did NOT end up leading the happy spiritual life I had envisioned!

But it’s hardly a surprise if you look at some of the language I use above! It’s full of ‘tried to’ and ‘rejected’ and ‘stopped’ and ‘gave up’ and ‘guilt’ – how far can I expect to get down the path to happiness if I’m spending all day aimlessly trying and stopping and feeling bad about things!

Over the summer I met a friend who had spent a long time in India, “doing yoga all day long”, living a very spiritual life. Like me, he was now very thin.

He told me he’d taken things a bit too far, and that it had actually ruined yoga for him – he’d overdosed. “It’s a shame really, yoga was the innocent victim in all this”.

Talking to him was like looking in a mirror – he’d taken ‘the spiritual thing’  too far, but now he was back in a middle place. Running an ethically oriented business. Going on retreats just sometimes, but realising that he needed periods without delving too deeply and stirring things up too much – time just to live.

He was studying again, a subject he really enjoyed, making art again too. Eating healthily, but whatever he felt his body needed. He was active, engaged with the real world. Just living! Having more fun!

“Other people are our mirrors, they show us everything we need to know about ourselves – aren’t we lucky to have so many mirrors around!” I have no idea who said that, but I like it.

Looking into the mirror of my old friend, I saw how much this is all about balance, not self-mortification! And how out of balance I’d become in my attempt to be the urban monk…

So instead of trying so hard, I can just get on with what requires less effort. Instead of being aimless, I can be creative. (I spent weeks this summer being ‘aimless’, doing nothing, not being creative at all, just ‘trying to be’, and it nearly drove me insane … and actually did drive my wife insane with the resulting impossible-to-live-with me!)

And “rejecting” material things implies exactly that – rejecting – which in the end is almost an act of aggression! It’s a pushing away, not an accepting. Instead of rejecting materialism, perhaps I can just release or side-step the aspects of it I don’t need.

And feeling guilty about earning money? As our business is ethical and our products make people happy and help them grow, that’s just pointlessly rejecting abundance in life! The same goes for happiness, wellbeing, friends, good luck – if we reject or feel guilty about having a lot of any of these, we are rejecting abundance. But the world is abundant in its gifts, and it seems like a pretty good idea to accept rather than reject them.

Another friend (another mirror!) went to see a doctor who told her, “when you are changing your life, be careful about trying to sign up for the whole pack all at once.” She was warning against trying to tick all the right boxes: yoga, veganism, minimalism, self-sufficiency, low spending, avoiding x, rejecting y, stopping z. Trying to be exactly the right kind of enlightened parents, with only the right kind of friends, the right kind of work, only reading the right kind of books etc etc etc…

How exhausting it is to suddenly get all that right!

But sometimes we need to go to extremes to realise where the balance point is again. I’m sure my friend had to go to India and do endless hours of yoga to find a happy middle place back at home again. And my attempts at being the urban monk have taught me a lot too, namely that trying to be an urban monk while running a business and looking after my family is not good for my health! (Or theirs!)

It’s time to relax, and enjoy life in the middle place again. Time to eat a little bit of the good food I used to enjoy, while still eating healthily. Read some novels, the good ones. Rejoice in how well the business is going. Buy a new camera and not feel bad about it! Get out into the real world again. And be creative.

As for being monk-like and spiritual – that still fits too: far from self-mortification, I think it’s about paying good attention to myself, getting to know myself, being kind to myself. Looking into the others-as-mirrors all around me. Seeing what works, what doesn’t – it’s about learning, readjusting, enjoying life … relaxing, smiling. Following the Middle Way. And from that place, paying careful, kind attention to the world around me again.

“Know thyself”, I’m beginning to see, is perhaps the greatest of all spiritual wisdom. The secret to inner peace, the foundation of happiness.

Life as Fiction: Changing the Ending

In one of my favourite podcasts, World Book Club, Jeanette Winterson talks about her book Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

I haven’t read it yet (interviews with authors about books you haven’t read are still fascinating!), but understand it’s based on her pretty horrendous childhood with a psychotic mother who banned books, locked her in the coal hole, and read the bible to her every day at breakfast. She comments that by all rights she should be dead after a childhood as appalling as hers.

What saved her were the books she managed to read clandestinely – at one point she amassed a collection of over 70, hidden under her mattress, until her mother found them and burned them in front of her in the back yard.

She read fairy tales about how it was always the stupid third son of the woodcutter who ended up the hero and got the gold, and thought, “that can be me”. While locked in the coal hole she made up stories of her own. And slowly she realised, as she says in the interview, “I can change the ending – if it’s your story you can, you’re not stuck, you can change it.”

And instead of ending up dead too young, she is life-enhancingly vibrant. She wrote and got published and found success and freedom. She changed the ending.

But she went through hell first. I think that sometimes we do go through periods of hell, of deep suffering, but we don’t have to stay there. Where is the line between life and fiction? If we are writing our own stories, why shouldn’t we, like Jeanette Winterson, realise that there is another option: get on with things, break out of the stuckness, and change not only the ending, but the entire script.

Or better still, abandon the script altogether – the script that might say ‘I am doomed to suffer/be depressed’, or ‘I am stuck’, or even, ‘I must work hard to be successful’ – who needs a script anyway?

Perhaps the ending only changes when we recognise the script for what it is – a script dictating our story – and decide we don’t need one. We can throw it out of the window, and say, “OK life, time for a change, I’m going to take a different direction now, let’s see where we end up!” And, like Jeanette Winterson, keep stepping forwards, smiling, eyes wide open in excitement all along the way.

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