Spring

Scan 31

 

…A Sketch from a corner of our garden. It’s definitely a dandelion. I’d written a thousand words below it earlier this morning about Harlan Hubbard and how great his books are about a self-sufficient life on and by the Ohio river, and about having confidence in our own path as he did, but you know what?

There’s enough words out there in the world already for us today. My brain is full! I’m freeing up some space!

I highly recommend Harlan’s books though. I started with Payne Hollow, which really is the second part of his story, but I think it works well like that, and I’m only a little way into Shanty Boat.

Happy Spring. May you have time to enjoy much of its chaotic complexity (Harlan’s description).

135 words. That will do just fine.

 

What is a day?

This morning I woke up and felt the presence of the day I’d started. A new day. And I suddenly thought, “What is a day?”

Every day, we start a new day.

What is a day?

Answers came…

It’s an opportunity.

It’s life. Now.

It’s all there is. Today.

It’s a sacred space for us to move through and explore.

I asked my 7 year-old on the way to school. He has the purest wisdom of the family, the wisdom of the very young. “What is a day for?” I asked.

He answered at once: “To enjoy”.

A Good Enough Life

I’ve written a lot on this blog about my struggle with striving. Always thinking there’s more to achieve, that I can be better, do more, save the world! Never stop “being more” than I already am! And how exhausting that is…

It’s one of the things that so attracted me to the Zen of Thich Nhat Hanh, who introduced me to the concept of aimlessness, one of the buddhist canon’s ‘Three doors of liberation’. And it certainly was completely liberating to me to be told ‘you already are what you want to be’, ‘there’s no need to run or hurry any more, there’s nothing to search for, everything you need is right here in the present moment.’

It’s the best medicine I’ve ever tasted (there’s a perfect explanation of aimlessness in this transcribed dharma talk).

I’ve pretty much got the ‘there’s no need to strive’ thing sorted out now most of the time, as long as I keep myself relatively busy. My mind needs something new and different to work on, it seems to be healthier like that (I remember the guy who wrote the book Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell, saying he writes because if he doesn’t he basically drives himself mad very quickly, and I totally related to that!)

At the moment I’m learning guitar, with the help of the wonderful justinguitar.com, and the process is keeping me very happy – now I’ve slowed down a bit, realised I’m not in a hurry to be ‘really good’ at it. Hurry, rush and haste are still my biggest difficulty. So often I find myself leaving to meet someone, or pick up my son from school, or whatever, and being in a mad stressed rush as I leave the house. I think I just have to be prepared to accept being late. The rush is unhealthy. I need to join the ‘slow life movement’, if there is one.

The Spanish have a proverb, ‘vísteme despacio, que tengo prisa’ – Dress me slowly, I’m in a hurry.

But back to the striving and wanting and achieving thing. For a long time I focussed on having inherited this from my mother, but it’s more than that. It was part of my schooling, it’s part of society, our industrialised, materialist, consumerist world – be more, consume more, earn more, get more, faster and faster… My mother got it from there, her parents probably did too, and so on back (to the industrial revolution?) – and so on forwards to our children if we don’t work it out.

The concept of aimlessness has helped me enormously, but the other day I read something else by Thich Nhat Hahn that I thought summed things up so wonderfully that I’ve been thinking (and smiling!) about it every since. That a good enough life is good enough. It’s as simple as that. Why look for more if life is already good enough? He says:

“There is a Vietnamese proverb, “Tri tuc, tien tuc, dai tuc, ha thoi tuc.” That means, settling for “good enough” is enough. If we wait until all our needs and wants are met, we may wait forever. “Tri tuc” means “good enough.” “Good enough” means being content with the minimum amount necessary. Your shirt and pair of shoes can last another year. It’s all right for three or four people to share a desk for studying, there’s no need for each to have her own desk. Settling for “good enough” in terms of simple living will bring us contentment, satisfaction, and happiness immediately. As long as we think our lives are not good enough, we will not have happiness. As soon as we realize our lives are good enough, happiness immediately appears. That is the practice of contentment.” From Two Treasures, by Thich Nhat Hanh

So, yes, a good enough life is good enough. And mine, without doubt, is good enough.

 

God and Mum in the Woods

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March 21st I went up to the countryside above El Escorial again, to somehow connect with my mother. It was her birthday, a day which leaves me unsettled in the weeks running up to it every year, as she died 9 years ago. And there’s something about her birthday that is so powerful, sitting right there at the start of spring. I get blocked about it, get a little bit grumpy sometimes, short-tempered. All because of a date!

This year I wanted to undo some of all that, release it, so I went up to my favourite place, thinking of doing something ceremonial, but no idea what at all.

The skies were amazing. They got me thinking about God…

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“Do I believe in God?” I wondered. Absolutely in terms of the power that created all this beauty and wonder, but as a person, the old white-bearded man, no. More the force, the presence, the ‘is-ness’. So what do people connect with, I wondered, when they feel overwhelmed by the presence of ‘God the entity’? And the answer came as a powerful feeling in my chest which I could name as Compassion, Love.

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I walked up into the oak woods, still bare, hard buds waiting to explode into leaf in the coming weeks, and there I found my mother! Narcisus, daffodils, one of her favourite spring flowers.

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And I stood there, surrounded by these delicate flowers, and I looked out into the trees and I just talked to her for 20 minutes, out-loud, quietly. I told her how I felt about her, how I loved her, missed her, how much I was grateful for. About the fears her death had brought up in me. About my life now, what I was up to, about her grandchildren. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more direct communication. Blocks and tightness and all the stress around that day slipped away, out into the woods.

Up above the clouds tumbled and rolled, and I thought for a moment I could see her face up there staring off into the distance, then it dissolved away again.

I’ve got to talk to her more, I thought. Not just wait a whole year storing it all up, keeping it all at arms length, waiting for this huge pressure to build around March 21st. Perhaps I’ll make the 21st of every month ‘talk to mum’ day, give her an update, keep in touch. Then she won’t be so far away.

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With love from Madrid, dear mum,

Ben

The ants, the blackbirds and the water company

Dear world,

It’s a beautiful spring morning here in Madrid. The sky at 7.15 was a deep, dark blue, the trees lit by the first warmth of the sun, the magical transition time between night and day. The birds sing for spring now in the mornings, and ants are appearing again from the cracks in the pavement to scurry out and collect the seed pods from the platano trees, leaving piles of fluffy remains around the entrances to their nests having plucked out the seed for their hoards inside. Like the trees, they are awakening after winter. I can feel it too in me. Spring is an awakening time.

I was struck the other day by our ability to change our reaction to anything in an instant. We have our newborn baby in the house and like to take her out for a walk every day. One morning, a sunny spring morning that was far too nice to spend inside, I got back from taking our son to school to discover that the local water company had parked a lorry right outside our front door and set up a very noisy generator and a cement mixing machine. The generator was blasting away at high decibels, way too high to take a newborn past, and looked set to stay on all morning.

My first reaction was not positive. I was very, very annoyed. It was the best morning we’ve had for months, it was pulling me outside almost magnetically, but there was no way we were getting past that noise with the baby. We were stuck inside until they would go. And who knows how long that would be!

So I found myself annoyed, highly frustrated, and beginning to feel really p-d off. And then I said to myself, “I know this feeling, I always feel like this in this kind of situation, what if I just totally change my reaction to this?” And that seemed like the best idea I’d ever heard. Immediately all my frustration and annoyance just dropped away. I accepted I wasn’t going out into the glorious sunny day for a while, and went and sat on the bed with the baby, looking at spring out of the window. I spent a glorious, relaxing, content couple of hours like this, absolutely happy to do nothing and go nowhere, just to be, and to recuperate some much needed energy.

And then after those couple of hours the water company suddenly packed up and drove off. The street returned to peace and quiet, and we got our lovely walk in the spring sun.

So this has got me thinking. What else can I change my reaction to? It’s so easy after all! Even if it seems so difficult! I think it starts with the realisation “here I am again, reacting like this again”, and is followed by a simple decision that reacting like that isn’t what I want to do any more. So many things I can apply it to!

Three fat blackbirds are sitting on the fence on the other side of the road. The magnolia is coming into flower in the neighbour’s garden, it looks set to be another stunning spring day. A day to be in peace with the world.

I hope you have a wonderful day.

Love,

Ben

The impermanence of fear, and other strong emotions…

Woods, El EscorialSunlight streaming into the woods above El Escorial.

It seems to me that many people are troubled in life by one dominant, and often overwhelming, emotion, and that this is very often either fear or anger. Of course endless other emotions come and go, and bustle us about, but these two seem often to take centre stage, a difficult ‘old friend’. In my case it has been fear.

I realised recently that all the fears I’ve had over the years tend to disappear after a while. Or they come and go, but they always go. Which made me see that if something could cause me to be fearful one day, and the next week not, then it can’t really be frightening.

I’m talking about the things that haunt us for a while, making us miserable. Later we realise we aren’t frightened by them at all. Or that this particular fear has been replaced by a new one, that may last for a while too – maybe even years. But later that too gets replaced perhaps by another.

So I saw that all my fears are sort of empty of any real substance, and most importantly, impermanent. They go. Good news! How wonderful to remember this when a new one arises. I can smile to it, smiling to an old friend, smiling to its ephemeral, impermanent nature, knowing it’s just something that has arisen, and can blow away again on the wind! Leaving me in peace again, free, much sooner every time.

I think the same is true for all other strong emotions – anger, jealousy, shame, guilt – all impermanent, like mist that evaporates in the sun! The sun is our awareness that they are just emotions, and that with a smile and a nod to these ‘old friends’ they move on.

 

Just Listening

Plains around Segovia

Plains around Segovia

I heard the same message twice recently, in both cases second-hand – from someone who had spoken to the person in question.

In the first case, someone who had become very ill said he was a bit fed up with everyone coming around and telling him about their illness experiences.

What he needed was that they just listened to him.

In the second case someone told me about a person who had separated from her husband, and said the same – all she got to begin with was everyone ‘sympathising’ by telling her about their own relationship problems or break-ups. But she just wanted someone to listen.

I think we all do this because it seems like empathy, or because it’s so hard not to say ‘me too’. But clearly in both cases, the person just needed loving listening – someone just to hear what they were going through, and that’s that!

I was very struck by that. This week a friend told me about a health problem with his mother, very similar to something my mother went through. The natural thing would have been to say “my mother had that too…” etc etc… but I remembered to keep quiet and just listen without adding my story as well, and I’m sure it was the right decision. He seemed happy that I had just really listened.

I really believe in the power of just listening – certainly when I just listen to my wife when she needs it, instead adding my point of view, or becoming defensive about something, the difference is amazing.

We have been many times to Plum Village in France to hear the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh speak, and he emphasised this over and over again – just listen, it’s incredibly healing for the other person. Recently I found a comment on the Plum Village website that really struck me also:

Dear Thay [Thich Nhat Hanh], I want to say thank you for your help!

Summer 2014 I was in Waldbröl to hear your speech. Two years long I had no contact with my son (33 years old). He had accused me of being guilty for his problems in life and avoided contact since then. At the beginning of summer 2014 he wrote me a letter full of accusations. I was totally shocked and sad because after the separation from my husband, his father, I had tried to do the best for my children who I loved so much. And I suffered so much. So I did not know how to react and how to come into contact with my son again.

Then I heard you, Thay. The first sentences: you talked about a father and his sons who hadn´t have contact to each other for a long time. Then your advice: Listen, listen carefully. This I did. I went to a therapy with my son and listened. We had quite a number of therapy lessons and more and more I understood my son better and he me.

Since then we see each other regularly and have good talks. It gave me back my happiness. I feel so much obliged to you, dear Thay, and can´t thank you enough.

Thanks DH

Scan 26 (1)

Cyclamen

Dear David Hockey,

This cyclamen, above, sits by our front door, and cheers me up now every time I come in or go out of the house.

I hardly ever noticed it until recently, when a painting of yours (Cyclamen, Mayflower Hotel, New York), got me looking at ours with real love and attention. It got me thinking, “Yes! I’ve got to draw our cyclamen myself!”

And just now I thought, I really should write to David Hockney and thank him.

So, thank you.

Ben

Thrilled with Life

Mountain Oak Trees, El Escorial, Ben Curtis

Two short mountain oaks, up in the rocky mountains above El Escorial.

When I’m up in the mountains I feel like me.
When I’m drawing I feel like me.
When I’m swimming in the sea I feel like me.
Who is this me?
It’s a feeling. Of being alive, happy, thrilled with life and nothing more.
That’s the real me.

Excerpt from notebook after being up in the mountains drawing those trees.

Astromelia drawing, Ben Curtis

Astromelia

What makes you feel like you?

Life is like a…

Bar La Nueva, Arapiles 7, Madrid

My friend Mike and I have a passion for finding the classic old bars of Madrid. The ones that have hardly changed in maybe 50 years or more, that look like this one above, La Nueva, that I found by accident recently while wandering around the San Bernado district.

Sadly these are in decline, which makes us even keener to enjoy the timeless feeling they offer while they last. So when we meet for a menu del día, we usually check out one of these places first, and then follow up with a set lunch somewhere classically and timelessly Spanish too – another mission of ours, to find the best Spanish menu del día in Madrid.

So Mike was pretty surprised when I recently told him that my new favourite restaurant in the city was now an Italian! Like I’d committed some kind of act of treason! But what can one do? The food at Mercato Ballaro is incredible. They have this pasta, Linguine, with asparagus, parmesan, and truffle oil which provokes a feeling of ecstasy from start to finish!

Having said all that, I’ve only been twice since I discovered the place 6 months ago, the last time with my wife this week (so Spain is still winning!) I ordered the Linguine again, and began to enjoy it enormously. Then after a while I realised I’d been thinking about this and that, and that there was only a quarter of the dish left. I’d been dreaming for about half of it and missed out on it! No! What a waste! Right, I thought, I’m really going to enjoy this last quarter! Eating meditation time! And I made the most that last quarter savouring every bite!

And at the end I found myself laughing away internally as the thought had popped into my mind, ‘Life is like a bowl of pasta’ – as delicious and wonderful and ecstatic as this Linguine, but if you spend too long thinking and dreaming away in your head, you miss it!

I laughed because it sounds like something Charlie Brown would say, or the start of some silly joke, but it’s kind of stuck with me all week. Life is like a bowl of pasta! (Really delicious pasta!) Don’t miss it!