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 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…


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

The “5 Things To Be Happy About” Trick

I sometimes forget to do this for myself if I have an off day, but I’m annoyingly quick with it on the rare occasions I notice my wife frowning, or looking a little less than her usual happy self.

“Quick!” I say, “Tell me 5 things you are happy about! I’ll do it too!”

And I make her give me a list of 5 things she can still be happy about right now, no matter how bad life is looking, or whatever terrible things might be going on.

When she’s come up with her list of 5, I come up with 5 of my own, and before you know it, we are both much happier!

There are always 5 things to be happy about – we are going out to lunch tomorrow, it’s lovely weather, I’m really enjoying the book I’m reading, I’m fit and healthy, I’m seeing some great friends this weekend – it doesn’t have to be more complicated than any of that!

Next time you feel down, depressed, grumpy… try the “5 Things To Be Happy About Trick” – it works wonders.

(And you can even use it when you are already happy too, to feel even happier! Try it now!)

Too Many Cows – A Favourite Tale

Cows in New South WalesMy favourite tale from the buddhist tradition goes like this:

Buddha is sitting in a forest one day with some of his monks, when a farmer appears, looking very unhappy. Asking him what the matter is, the farmer replies, “I have lost my 12 cows, I am so unhappy, have you seen them?”

They reply that they have not, and the farmer runs on, distressed, in search of the cows.

“Friends,” says Buddha to his monks when the farmer has gone, “you are lucky, you don’t own any cows”.

The idea is that the more things we have to look after, and the more things we have to worry about, and the more projects we have on the go, then the less space we have in our life to just relax and be happy.

Every now and again I do an exercise I call “how many cows have I got at the moment?”

At the moment, my ‘cows’ list looks like this:

1. Being a good dad and husband

2. Work/the business

3. Writing

4. Looking after 2 other blogs that I’m not updating right now

5. Art class on tuesday evenings

6. Sorting out the car problems before the MOT (ITV here in Spain) runs out

7. Finishing minimalising my stuff

This is at least 2 more cows than I want to cope with! In fact if I ditched all but the first 3, I’d be a lot more relaxed, and do a much better job at them!

But I see that I can release cows 4 to 7 by the end of the month – then I’ll have to watch out I don’t immediately invite 5 more cows onto the ranch!

Have you got (too) many ‘cows’ on the go right now?

Have you got a favourite fable or life-sorting exercise?

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.