A Fantastic Book – A Gentleman in Moscow

Dear Amor Towles,

Thank you for your wonderful book, A Gentleman in Moscow. For years I’ve been reading non-fiction, mostly spiritual and biographies, and have just returned to novels. But I’m very clear that I only want to read novels that make me feel good – parenting young children I want to be uplifted and nourished by what I read!

Well, having immensely enjoyed the company of the Count in the Metropol, the evening that I finished the book I lay in bed waiting for sleep, and suddenly was struck by the realisation that one of the things I most enjoy in life is getting up in the morning and waking my family and preparing them breakfast, packed lunches etc. A task I’d occasionally complain about in the past.

Somehow the reading of your book changed the way I saw a mundane daily task, and turned it into something glorious. No idea what did it, perhaps the novel just made me feel better about existence. Or about being nice and looking after the small but important things in life.

All this has reminded me why it’s worth writing, or creating, too – art improves life!

Thank you.

Ben

Eating My Lunch

Eating my lunch too fast, I realised that I was missing all its deliciousness, so I slowed down and began to enjoy it enormously, and realised that life is just like this. Why rush through missing its goodness?


I’ve spent 10 years quite immersed in Buddhist texts, and books from other traditions, and though I now read much less from these books, this verse continually surfaces as my favourite. From the Buddhist text ‘The Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone’:

“Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.
We must be diligent today.
To wait till tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.
How can we bargain with it?
The sage calls a person who dwells in mindfulness night and day, ‘the one who knows the better way to [live].’”

Translation from the wonderful book/commentary ‘Our Appointment with Life‘ by Thich Nhat Hanh.

To ‘dwell in stability and freedom’, in peace, means to live free from all the things in our mind that keep us from enjoying life right now. This is wonderfully explained in this passage, also from the same book:

“I want to tell you that there is a wonderful way to [live]. It is the way of deep observation to see that the past no longer exists and the future has not yet come … to dwell at ease in the present moment, free from desire. When a person lives in this way, he has no hesitation in his heart. He gives up all anxieties and regrets, lets go of all binding desires, and cuts the fetters which prevent him from being free. There is no more wonderful way of [living] than this…

In observing life deeply,
It is possible to see clearly all that is,
Note enslaved by anything,
It is possible to put aside all craving.
The result is a life of peace and joy.”


So, to live in the present… free from exhausting desires… with no anxieties and regrets… not enslaved by anything…

What enslaves me? Everyone can answer that question for themselves and work out how to free themselves. Perhaps many things!

Why rush through life, enslaved by anything, missing all its goodness?

Walk! Take pictures!

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Today my body gave me very clear early morning instructions after dropping my son at school: keep walking! So I did.  Two hours in glorious minus two Celsius frosty parkland and city streets. Accompanied by further instructions from the heart: Take pictures!

It’s what I used to do all the time when I first arrived in Madrid (the big difference being that then I used a big Canon SLR and waited days to see the results, but now take, edit and post the photos from my phone!)

The best thing to read now would be Go Outside.

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Not quite the Seine, but Madrid’s river Manzanares is lovely in its own way.

How to Relax?

I’ve been writing for a few years now about inner peace, happiness and so on and I always love to read your reflections on what I’ve written. For this post, I’d love to hear from you in the comments the answer to two questions. How do you relax? What can give you instant peace? It’s such a personal thing after all!

I remember picking up a book called ‘How to Relax’ in a bookshop once and after reading a few pages of techniques that I’d read a thousand times and didn’t completely suit me, I started to feel slightly stressed! That’s when I realised that how to relax is such an incredibly personal thing, and that we each have to answer that question for ourselves.

In a similar vein, I read an article by a buddhist Zen Master once about the buddhist text ‘The Discourse on Happiness’, where the Buddha answers a question put to him about how to be happy with a series of practical suggestions. The Zen Master in question said we should each write our own Discourse on Happiness with what works for us, and went on to say that one thing that gave him great happiness was to have time to sit on the lavatory without having to be in a hurry to finish up and rush to the next thing to do!

How do I relax? Walking in the countryside. Reading a great book. Lighting a fire in the fireplace. Playing the guitar for fun as opposed to playing the guitar ‘to get good as fast as possible’! Cooking. All of these things, if, and only if, I do them without being in any hurry at all – like the Zen Master on the loo!

What can give me instant peace? This weekend I was up in the mountains with family and friends. On Sunday evening I was packing up the car, in a rush, so we could get back down to Madrid before it got too late. I realised I was in a rush, but couldn’t seem to stop until suddenly I heard the very gentle, slight, tinkling in the breeze of a small set of wind chimes hanging over the balcony of a little wooden house behind me.

The delicacy of the sound stopped me at once and brought back all of the wonder of my surroundings. Naked oaks, the chilling wind, the mountains rising in the distance at the head of the valley, the darkening sky – everything seemed to stop and come into focus all at once. I felt wonderful, and immensely grateful to the wind chimes for stopping me. The instant peace came from just that – from stopping, and completely connecting with the present moment – it seems that that’s all it takes!

So I’d be very grateful for any feedback in the comments. How do you relax? What can give you instant peace?

Thank you.

Dear mind, dear friend.

Dear Mind,

Here you go again 🙂

I’ve cottoned on to you long ago but you still get me every once in a while! Last night I had another attack of “What am I doing with my life?”, coupled with another classic, “tomorrow I’m going to feel lonely working on my own”. A real late night anxiety-depression mix, and the funny thing is that now it’s tomorrow and I’m working on my own in a library and doing something and I’m very happy. But still, those two thoughts got me again last night. Two old classics! Two that can floor me. In September they drove me round the bend for nearly a week!

And I know that the cure doesn’t lie in listening to them, and trying to cure them by finding people to be with all day so I don’t feel lonely, or finding a really important career or purpose, or plan – that would work for a while but sooner or later the old thoughts would appear again.

Since when have these thoughts bothered me? Since I was probably about 12 I’ve been troubled on and off by this ‘what to do with my life?’ anxiety. (Meanwhile doing plenty with my life! The irony of it!) Perhaps it’s because society, school careers days, parents, but in the end, me, wanted to pin a label on me that says ‘lawyer’, ‘doctor’, ‘architect’ etc. I still try to pin labels on myself now, like ‘writer’, or try out new fun ones, like ‘musician’, both of which are perfectly great, but do I need the label? It seems labels make me uncomfortable!

Whatever the reasons behind it all, when my son is about to start the school term again I always get an attack of this. And it passes. Thank God. How does it pass? Slowly and painfully if I let the thoughts go unchecked and consume me until they just run out of energy of their own accord.

Rapidly if I recognise such a thought as an old friend back again, smile to it, and see it as what it is, a ghost of a thought, come to haunt me for a bit. It’s got staying power that’s for sure, returning and returning after all these years, “what are you doing with you life?”, but I have the secret: a loving, embracing recognition. “Hello my old friend, here you are again!” I greet such thoughts (this and many other troublesome thoughts) just like that, smile to them, and remember, it’s just a thought. I only suffer in as much as I believe it, and reality always seems to play out differently, as my happy morning here in the library shows.

So last night felt like an enormous cause for celebration for mindfulness and all these years of befriending my ghosts – it works! The anxiety lasted all of 20 minutes until I realised what was going on and smiled to it. Perhaps I can even look forward to the next time these thoughts show up so I can greet them again, and again, until they hardly think it worthwhile to show up at all.

And meanwhile I can get back to what really matters. Not what am I doing with my life, but, Can I be happy in the present moment? Am I loving my family? And then get on with what interests and inspires me again, whether it’s got a label or not!

So, thank goodness, attack over, and a reason to recognise and love my playful mind, my dear friend, more than ever again.

This is it! The cold, grey, busy road of happiness!

This morning I received some Whatsapp photos from a friend, photos of the Caribbean Coast of Colombia. Blue sea, palm-fringed beach, then an infinity pool with a beautiful red sunset behind. Paradise!

I held my phone up to the window and sent him back a photo of a cold misty, Madrid morning and said ‘You win!’ Then I laughed to myself because I saw there was a single palm tree in my Madrid photo too! And the other leafless trees looked wonderful in the mist.

We both win I thought!

Look at these trees, below, from an evening walk in the park last night, so beautiful! Who needs more!

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I love the Zen teaching that says simply, ‘This is it!’ … don’t look further than what’s in front of you in this moment for everything you need! This is it! Nothing to search for, nothing missing, no enlightenment necessary, you are already there!

The day before yesterday I was walking down a busy road in a different corner of the city. It was a grey, freezing day, and I thought to myself, ‘I wish I was at home!’… until I remembered, ‘there you go again, wishing you were somewhere else! Dissatisfaction again!’ And I smiled and thought, ‘This is it!’

And that cold, grey, busy road became a wonderful place to be! Outside, seeing the world, just as good as sitting at home by the fire!

The Richest Person on Earth

Below is a poem I come back to again and again. I can be a real complainer at times. I can walk around in a daze lost in circular thoughts. I can be a real glass-half-empty person all along thinking I was always looking at an overflowing cup!

But I can see the incredible beauty in life, I can realise that I have all the conditions for happiness I could ever dream of! I can walk outside and be overwhelmed by the winter branches etched on the empty sky and not need a single thing more in that moment!

There is a bit of both. How wonderful it would be to shake off the complainer, the dazed thinker, the one who lives in lack instead of abundance. How wonderful it would be to live in happiness and wonder all the time!

I think it’s possible. This poem is about all that, it’s as if someone had given me the list of instructions that makes everything completely clear…

Our True Heritage, by Thich Nhat Hanh

The cosmos is filled with precious gems.
I want to offer a handful of them to you this morning.
Each moment you are alive is a gem,
Shining through and containing earth and sky,
water and clouds.

It needs you to breathe gently
for the miracles to be displayed.
Suddenly you hear the birds singing,
the pines chanting,
see the flowers blooming,
the blue sky,
the white clouds,
the smile and the marvellous look
of your beloved.

You, the richest person on Earth,
who have been going around begging for a living,
stop being the destitute child.
Come back and claim your heritage.
We should enjoy our happiness
and offer it to everyone.
Cherish this very moment.
Let go of the stream of distress
and embrace life fully in your arms.

Such a Magical Film


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I was wondering around Madrid’s Casa de Campo wild parkland the other day when I came across this, above. A lost red balloon.

Suddenly I remembered a favourite family film from the past! Le Ballon Rouge, The Red Balloon. I think it used be on the BBC every Christmas, because I certainly think of it as a Christmas film, though it has nothing to do with this time of year at all.

Here it is below, thanks to the wonders of Youtube. There is some discussion there of what it is about, but the only important thing for me is how it makes me feel in its 34 minutes – wonderful. Or as my son said, “It’s magical”.

Edit: It is no longer available on youtube due to copyright infringement (fair enough!) but you can get in on DVD from Amazon. Definitely worth it.