Music Meditation, Leonhard Cohen.

There is a wonderful mediation in the back of the book ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’, that goes like this:

Listen to a piece of music. Breathe long, light, and even breaths. Follow your breath, be master of it while remaining aware of the movement and sentiments of the music. Don’t get lost in the music, but continue to be master of your breath and your self.

A piece of music that goes supremely well with this is ‘Spiegel im Spiegel for violin and piano’ by Arvo Pärt. It’s sort of transcendental. When someone tells me about music they love, and I find I like it too, it’s like receiving a gift. This piece of music by Arvo Pärt was one such gift from my neighbour.

My sister’s partner recently gave me a Leonhard Cohen song, ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’. What a gift! Not only the gift of that wonderful song, but the gift of Leonard Cohen. I’ve been exploring his music, and feel extremely lucky to have found it. (I’m probably the last person to know – in meditation circles he’s very popular as he spent a number of years mid-90s as a Zen monk). If you have never heard his music then here are three classics:

Hallelujah (from ‘The Essential Leonard Cohen’)
Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye (from ‘The Best Of’)
Lullaby (from ‘Old Ideas’)

And the Arvo Pärt song, Spiegel im Spiegel for violin and piano, is from ‘The Very Best of Arvo Pärt’.

Space for Spring

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By mid-May last year, I had a terrible sensation: that I’d missed the spring. Or that due to the fact that I had been working incredibly hard on a very exciting project, with the final crunch lasting from January to May, that I hadn’t paid spring any attention at all. How could I miss spring! What a waste!

I swore that this year it wouldn’t happen again. Now, in late February, the days in Madrid are getting warmer, just, and spring is hinting at its early arrival. The huge yellow-flowering mimosa tree on the corner of our street is just starting to come into flower.

Last year I did notice that, at least. The tree’s infinite, tiny, yellow sun-like blossoms together formed a vast yellow sun that blazed at the end of the street, the perfect example of interbeing – the sun in the sky, the sun-tree on the corner, the sun that was every one of its tiny blossom flowers, all perfectly interconnected.

I certainly noticed that tree, once or twice, as I rushed back to work, but little else! Now the tree is starting to burst into yellow flame again (see photo above!), and I realise that whether I miss spring or not this time round is entirely up to me. Whether I miss life or not is entirely up to me! Work isn’t the only thing that can keep my mind on other things. It’s capable of spinning off at the slightest excuse, and I can wander my way through to summer with my eyes down, and my thoughts consumed by all sorts of wild dramas and inventions if I’m not careful.

If I want to really see spring this year I’m going to have to really pay it attention. Walk through it and look at it, hear it, smell it, really see it! Spring is one of the most glorious miracles of life on earth. It’s the Great Unfolding, divine creativity painting the world anew. It’s nature’s explosive capacity to right itself and return again and again and again. It’s rebirth, and it’s continuation. Who’d want to miss that! What could be more important!

Though I’ve been less busy recently, once again I’ve just started a new project that comes to fruition at the beginning of May. I’m going to get busier. But I’m keeping a wide open space in my life for the spring and saying a clear ‘no’ to any extra work that might try to sneak in and get in its way. Who want’s to be so busy that they miss spring? (Or all of life’s other wonders?) It’s been two years since I last saw spring properly, and I’m already enjoying the first signs of this one.

“Once you are fully in the present moment, you touch all the wonders of life that are available within you and around you.

Your eyes are wonders of life.
Your heart is a wonder of life.
The blue sky is a wonder of life.
The songs of the birds are wonders of life.
If you are available to life, then life will be available to you.

All the wonders of the Kingdom of God are available to you today, at this very moment.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

 

The Sun Always Comes Out In The End

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This is the best mug in the world. Firstly, because it was given to me by a very very nice person. Secondly, because it has pulled me out of many a downward mental spiral! Argument with a loved one? Difficult situation occupying too much of your thoughts? Don’t worry! Al final, siempre sale el sol! – The sun always comes out in the end!

(If you like it, it comes from Mr Wonderful. Currently Out of Stock, but a rainbow version here.)

The Magic of Making Art

I discovered two of the most important things in my adult life via blogs on completely unrelated subjects. One was mindfulness (found on a blog about work productivity), the other was drawing (found on a blog about photography).

I’ve written plenty here about mindfulness, so now a bit about art… It’s just as fantastic!

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Yesterday afternoon, feeling kind of ‘February-ish’, I sat down with some wax crayons, and drew the winter image above, thinking of the Thames in Oxfordshire, where I grew up.

Later that night, feeling a little overwhelmed by that heavy February sky, I sat down again with a bunch of watercolours to paint the Mediterranean scene below, from another image I had in my mind’s eye. It cheered me up! I sent it to my sister via Whatsapp, she said it cheered her up too! Great! The Mediterranean swept away the Thames Valley blues!

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This all started when I began drawing and painting again a few years ago. As is typical, I gave up making art in my teens, discouraged by other kids being much ‘better’ at school. I carried on with photography instead, which satisfied my creative needs for years. But then photography became so digital, and so linked to the computer, that, being so long on the computer all day anyway, I got fed up with it and took less and less photos. That’s when I found an article about learning to draw on a photographer’s blog.

That led me to a wonderful book called “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards, which taught me to draw from life, which has given me enormous pleasure. Drawing things like this:

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I ended up doing short art courses, going on ‘sketch crawls’, ‘urban sketching’, and recovering something that was long lost – the magic of making art. Something that uses a whole other side not only of our brain, but our soul.

And it doesn’t matter at all how ‘good’ we are (in our or other people’s eyes), because really in art there is no good or bad. That’s just the judging mind! (And observing the self-criticising voice in our head, having a go at our art, is an excellent mindfulness exercise!)

Something magic happens when we play with lines and colours to make a drawing or painting from our imagination. Or when we observe deeply the outside world to draw it carefully onto a piece of paper. It’s transformative! I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’ve lost it since childhood, bring art back into your life!

At the moment, while it’s too cold to be sitting still outside for long, I’m mostly drawing and painting trees from memory, playing with indian inks…

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…drawing every tree is like a meditation.

So if you think, like I did, ‘Hmmmm… That looks like fun!’ – It is! Have a go!

“What an artist is trying to do for people is to bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing: you wouldn’t be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought. I am constantly preoccupied with how to remove distance so that we can all come closer together, so that we can all begin to sense we are the same, we are one.” David Hockney (Hockney’s Pictures, Thames and Hudson)

“I have always believed that art should be a deep pleasure. I think there is a contradiction in an art of total despair, because the very fact that the art is made seems to contradict despair.” David Hockney (Hockney’s Pictures, Thames and Hudson)

Just Trees…

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A few trees I’ve found on my walks over the past few days. My sister reminded me the other day how they look like upside-down drawings of the inside of our lungs – and they are the lungs of the earth. Isn’t that extraordinary?

Trees are a constant source of wonder to me. I used to be bothered that I didn’t know the names of many kinds of tree, but the other day I realised it doesn’t matter. No need to label everything! They are incredible just as they.

Fictions – The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The other day I wrote in a notebook, “All my suffering is created by my mind… and what I think others think about me or my life. The judgement of others of me, in me! What crazy fictions!”

OK, so not all my suffering comes entirely from there, but a huge amount of it! It’s amazing what stories we invent for ourselves! And my most torturous stories often involve what I think the outside world, other people, think of me. Still worried about that aged 42!

And mostly, in my case, these stories focus on ‘what am I doing with my life’, or more precisely, what do other people see me doing with my life. Because as always, problem number one in our busy, busy world is thinking that we are being good, useful members of our society. No, better still, some kind of superstar in some incredible field of work or other.

Time and time again I come up against this in my own thoughts. Am I being useful? Does it look like I’m being useful and more of less fantastic to the outside world? It probably looks like I could be doing more or saving the world a little bit better! I better make sure I put myself across right!

Stories stories stories! Some stories say “I’m not making the most of my talents… I’m wasting my life… (or on a really bad day) – I’m useless…” and other times the stories say “I’m saving the world… I’m being super creative… I’m learning something worthwhile… Phew, everything’s OK!”

But it’s all fiction that we write for ourselves every day. I read somewhere that ‘Good therapy changes your story’, so that you go from “I’m useless” to “I’m great!” or “I’m held back by my terrible childhood” to “I’ve processed that now and I’m OK”.

And it’s true. Good therapy does change your story. It helped me enormously to move from point A (I’m not OK, the world’s not OK) to spend a lot more time at point B (I’m OK, the world’s OK).

But there’s more (or perhaps… less…). I think that meditation, or mindfulness, or Zen, goes beneath all the stories, sees them as the stories they are, stands back to watch them telling themselves, and finds that underneath all the fictions and masks we weave for ourselves, there is nothing but freedom and peace.

“Mediation is to sit on the bank of the river of our mental formations and observe them,” said a very wise man (Thich Nhat Hanh).  It’s like lying on our back in a warm garden, and seeing the stories we invent slip past like clouds in a deep blue sky.

42 and I still get caught and pay attention to the stories and let them drive me mad every now and again! But 42 and I’m starting to be able to stand back and watch them tell themselves, and say “what fictions I invent for myself!” and let them slide away. A victory for mindfulness! And a true source of happiness. Lying back beneath the stories and gazing up at them, letting them float by, that’s where peace and freedom lie.

And then what? Sit around and do nothing? No! Love life! Explore! Follow my nose! Create! Enjoy! Watch! Listen! Just… Be! Without having to wrap it all up in a constant tale of my own telling and worry about what the outside world thinks of it all!

That’s a kind of freedom that we all deserve to enjoy on our journey through this incredibly beautiful world.

On charity

At the end of the 2014, we posted the following on our Notes in Spanish blog:

“We are incredibly lucky to be able to continue to make a living from this business that we started nearly 9 years ago, and a few days ago we passed the sales figure we need to cover our cost of living for a year. So we’ve decided to donate the rest of the year’s sales (from 16.12.14 until 1.1.2015) to ACNUR, the Spanish division of UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.”

We also wrote that it was increasingly difficult to know who to give money to these days, but that ACNUR’s campaign, “1€ = 1 dia mas de vida” – “One euro means one more day alive”, for the 1.2 million refugees in Africa who are currently at risk of dying of hunger, seemed a very worthy cause.

The result of this campaign

First of all people responded by buying things in our store, and the total sales, and therefore the total donation, came to 4,697 Euros – or 4,697 more days alive for refugees at risk of dying of hunger.

This campaign raised a number of questions and ideas for me…

Should we make giving public?

It would have been easy to have run this campaign privately, that is to say, to give the money to ACNUR from those two weeks of sales without telling anyone about it. But I think it’s important that businesses, whatever their size (we are small!), let others know that they are sending money to people who need it, as it is bound to encourage others to do the same. I call it the ‘Bill Gates effect’.

We all know that Bill Gates has given over much of his life to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and is channeling most of his fortune into incredible causes such as wiping out Malaria, Polio, and “to help the world’s poorest people lift themselves out of hunger and poverty”. He’s putting billions of his own money into this, and inspiring countless others, many with fortunes to rival his own, to send money in these directions as well. There is no doubt it is changing the world.

So I think that businesses should definitely publicise all donations. In the case of individuals, we probably should to – not in a ‘look how good I am’ way, and not necessarily every time, but there is no doubt that when I see others being charitable, it helps me to be charitable too. It’s the principle of social proof (I see many others doing it, so I’m more likely to do it), and whether the charity comes from individuals or businesses, it saves or changes lives.

What next? How to decide where to give

Secondly, we received lots of emails with suggestions about where to give money, and how to make that decision. There are many sites out there that tell you which charities are the most effective in terms of efficiently distributing the money they receive. The one that struck me most was thelifeyoucansave.org, set up by Peter Singer, whose very convincing TED talk on this subject I was sent by one of our listeners. I highly, highly recommend watching this talk:

Going forward…

1% is not enough. Many companies now donate 1% of their profits or sales to good causes. Amazon.com now runs Amazon Smile – if you are an amazon.com shopper you should look into it -  you can shop as usual on Amazon, and 0.5% of your purchase price goes to a charity of your choice. Great idea, but only if you shop from the smile.amazon.com subdomain, and only 0.5%.

Amazon could be as powerful a force for good as Bill Gates. What Amazon has done is wonderful, but they need to implement it in all their international stores, make it clear that you can opt-in on every non-smile sale, and consider increasing the percentage.

For our part, we’ll continue to run and publicise campaigns like the one above, and to maintain a fixed minimum of how much Notes in Spanish gives to charity every year – currently 5% of sales. I’ve set up a corner of the site to publicise this work.

This year we’ll also focus initially on one of http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org’s recommended ‘efficient’ charities, most likely Oxfam, as I like the diverse range of projects they support, and, on a purely emotive basis, I’m from Oxford and have always felt an affinity with Oxfam.

Last thoughts… The other person is you

Finally, I see that in the western world most of us have an astoundingly high standard of living. In the developing world, most don’t, and millions die unnecessarily, particularly children. The dictum ‘the other person is you’ is an undeniable truth. Any other human being is a collection of cells and energy and feelings and emotions and ideas and imagination, just like me or you.

If another human being somewhere else is suffering immeasurably then that person is not separarte from us. They are us. With a tiny amount of conscious generosity on our part, help moves from those that have enough, to those that are in real trouble. And that is a flow of a caring, loving energy on a global scale whose effects will be felt in the human consciousness for eons to come. In every way and on every level, as the other person is you, when we help someone else, we are helping another part of ourselves.

Planting one million seeds of happiness

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When I was about 37 (I’m now 42), I had a plan. To be a millionaire! Not very original!

Our internet business was doing well enough that if I could continue to work many-many-hour days in front of the computer, and expand and grow and keep marketing etc then there was a chance that it could happen.

And what I’d learned already was that if I put a goal in front of myself, and worked and learned enough, then I could achieve it. The first goal had been to start an internet business so that my wife and I didn’t have to keep going to jobs we didn’t like, and that had worked out well. The next logical goal seemed to be to make as much money as possible – to become a millionaire by 40 would do!

But by about 38 and three quarters, I worked out that this goal was immensely unfulfilling. The word that best described it was ‘empty’. So, still far from getting anywhere near that target, though I still thought it was nearly attainable with an insane amount of work (I’d already done an insane amount of work over the last few years, so a bit more would have been OK), I decided to give up. Being a millionaire was not a satisfying life purpose.

Better, to explore being happy in simpler ways.

Recently the idea of ‘millionaire-dom’ has been on my mind again. Instead of making a million pounds or euros or whatever, what about making a million people happy? A different kind of millionaire! OK, so it’s still ‘goal based’ and I’m not convinced that’s always a good thing, but it’s a good goal, so I think it’s OK.

But how do I make a million people happy!? How do I quantify that?

I can’t, only a million people can make a million people happy! We are all responsible for our own happiness.

But what I can do is aspire to plant seeds of happiness. All of us can aspire to do that! Thinking about it, there are so many ways in which this can be done!

Here are some of the ways that occur to me to plant a million seeds of happiness:

1. Write, record and publish about things that in my direct experience have lead me to move from unhappiness to happiness. For me, hearing the direct, real experiences of others in this field has been extremely inspiring, and has planted positive seeds in me that have made my life happier. It’s worked for me.

2. Organise events that promote or provide happiness. Last year I helped organise some big mindfulness events in Spain, and a small Christmas fete at my son’s school. I like to think more about the small Christmas fete – I contributed to the fact that it happened, and 300 people came and had a great day and felt part of a community and almost certainly felt and feel happier as a result.

3. Not complaining to, but smiling at, and being friendly with, everyone I meet! Every smile and pleasant, positive interaction is planting a seed of happiness. (This is a tough one! It means saying ‘I’m fine’, which you probably are really, when someone asks you how you are, even if you feel like having a good moan! They don’t want to hear it!)

4. Being a good dad. Which hopefully will lead to a happy child. Who in turn will plant millions of seeds of happiness in his lifetime.

5. Sending some money to those who need it. This is quite indirect, but a tiny percentage of my income sent to people in extreme poverty, to help get them out of it, will doubtless lead them to be happier, and be able to pass that on.

6. .….

There are myriad ways to plant seeds of happiness in the world, and it seems to me that being a ‘happiness-millionaire’ is a lot easier that being a money-millionaire! And a lot more interesting, worthwhile, purposeful and fun. And once you get started, and see how planting one seed of happiness can have an exponential ripple-effect and grow into multiple seeds of happiness in others, it would be quite easy to become a happiness-billionaire before long! What wonderful wealth that is!

Being a happiness-millionaire has only one rule: The first person to make happy is myself.

Happiness in me, happiness in the world. If I’m not happy, how can I plant real seeds of happiness in others? Impossible! So it’s vital, crucial, importantísimo, to look after my own happiness first. Get out, explore the world, go to that gallery, make that trip, eat that meal, learn that new thing, see that film… have a good time, do things that make me happy, exhilarated – live happily in the here and now – it has to be the basis of this plan. Make myself happy first, guiltlessly! I need to look after my own happiness before I can be a good dad, or husband, or a nice person to bump into in the street.

From there, planting a million seeds of happiness, being a happiness-millionaire (for want of a better term for it!) is a realistic objective for any of us.

If you’ve got more ideas about how to plant a million seeds of happiness, I’d love to hear them. If you want to join me and be a happiness-millionaire too, all the better!

Have a wonderful, happy, happy day.

Enjoing Life, Effortlessly

[For my Spanish friend Jesus]

Dear World…

I’ve been wanting to start my posts like that for a long time. Sometiemes I want to start my posts, ‘Dear God…’, or ‘dear friends’… but I haven’t, because I’ve been feeling constrained, restricted… in so many ways.

Firstly, about food. Only eating really really really healthy stuff, and feeling bad, guilty or sinful when enjoying something which most people would consider normal. Like a piece of cake, or a rare glass of wine. Everything was about restriction, and the idea was it would make me healthy.

A funny thing happened when I went to Frankfurt recently. I ‘let myself go’ as they say. I lightened up. I had fun! I ate lots of nice cakes. I had some mulled wine and a nice German beer. I ate lots of whatever I wanted for the weekend, and amazingly, some digestive discomfort that had been occasionally bothering me for a while totally disappeared!

In my case, lightening up on being healthy, was immediately good for my health! I’d been living in ‘effort’. An effort to be healthy. Being healthy is clearly good, and I’m back here eating mostly healthy food again. But not doubting for a minute when I feel like letting go and enjoying something special. And I don’t call it ‘sinning’ any more. Now I call it ‘enjoying life’!

On another level I realised that I’d been making a huge effort to be spiritual. The spiritual path is of huge importance to me. Since reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh about 9 years ago, mainly his teachings have become a huge part of my life, mostly because what he’s talking about, living happily in the present moment, realising that living on earth is as wonderful as anything we can expect from paradise and we’ve got it here and now, resonates so deeply within me that sometimes I see that it was already written somewhere deep inside me.

I’ve experienced a lot of suffering in my adult life too – OCD, fears, grief at my mother’s death when she was 63, depression… all now much better, and what I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh helped enormously in finding my way out. How to make friends with my fears. How to embrace them and other kinds of suffering with mindfulness. Compassion and looking deeply at our own suffering and why others might make us suffer. It really does work.

But I’ve also often been caught in a sort of spiritual restriction that so misses the whole point of living happily in the here and now – non-judgementally! Because I’ve spent years harshly judging my every move – if I eat a sugary pudding, or have a glass of wine, or don’t spend every minute of my day working out how to save the planet, or if I splash out on an expensive meal… Guilt was constantly with me, which is hugely ironic considering this was coming from my journey into Buddhism, the most forgiving of spiritual paths. You are where you are, and you are always in training, practicing. And where you are is perfect!

I think it has something to do with what my mother used to call a ‘puritanical streak’.

I’ve also been reading a huge number of wonderful spiritual books over recent years, mostly by Thich Nhat Hanh (also called Thay), and spent a lot of my time saying to my wife ‘Thay says this, or Thay says that…’ – but what do I say? What do I actually think? Once again, ironically, the Buddha said, ‘Be a lamp unto yourself’, and Thich Nhat Hahn had been saying all along that you shouldn’t take any doctrine as absolute truth, not even Buddhism. You have to work things out for yourself, based on your own experience.

It’s easy to start parroting the wisdom of others, but what is actually deep inside my own heart? That is what needs to come out into the world.

It’s got to the point that when I pick up a spiritual book I feel a tightening in my chest, like I can’t take in another single paragraph. I’m full! Instead of reading about it all day long, I need to get out and live! If I stop making an effort to be spiritual, and loosen up a little bit, I’ll almost certainly end up more spiritual!

Effort pervades our lives. Blame it on the industrial revolution. Blame it on parents who grew up in post-war economies that needed to make a huge effort to rebuild. Blame it on modern schooling that taught us to climb, strive, climb, strive, work work work, and never give up!

But it’s all a bit exhausting, all this effort. Better just to relax, just to be, just to enjoy life. Writing this article has been effortless because it’s coming from the heart. We all have things we can do effortlessly, that we just do because we can’t help it, even if we haven’t discovered what it is yet. Some people paint, or garden, or sing, or write, or play the guitar effortlessly – so it’s possible – effortlessness is in all of us, and it’s profoundly healthy.

I’m putting the spiritual books aside for a while, and enjoying life. Continuing with the bits of spiritual life that I really love exploring and that have really helped me, like walking meditation in beautiful places, seeing God/spirit/consciousness (whatever you want to call it) in everything, particularly nature, looking deeper into loving kindness and compassion. But without effort, and without trying to be or sound too much like my heroes. I need to find what’s inside of me.

To end, here is one of my favourite wise men, the Japanese poet Ryokan. The once-philandering son of a rich village headman who abandoned his hedonistic life to become a monk, studied with a great master, then spent his life wandering Japan before settling again near his birth place. He spent much of his time looking in rapture at nature’s wonders – blossom in spring, falling leaves in autumn – playing games with children, and occasionally getting drunk on rice wine with farmers (and not feeling guilty about it!) His short poems contain vast wisdom and beauty.

Here’s one I love:

Even if you consume as many books
As the sands of the Ganges
It is not as good as really catching
One verse of Zen.
If you want the secret of Buddhism,
Here it is: Everything is in the Heart!

Ryokan, from ‘Dewdrops on a lotus leaf’, Translated by John Stevens.

Today is a magical day

Leaving for school, golden autumn leaves pressed to the windscreen of the car by the pouring rain.

Autumn is a huge folding-in of the energy of the earth! Leaves fall with the rain, all soaking into the ground ready for the great regeneration of spring. The appearance of autumn’s death, the silent pause of winter, then the Great Unfolding starts all over again in spring! There’s no death in the dying of autumn, just a precursor to the next generation, to the great cycle of rebirth, the bursting green creativity of nature just down the line.

Today is a magical day. Rain, falling leaves. Alive, breathing, here to see it all. No need for praise, success, fame, fortune, new things, just this. Just the wonders of the season, the warmth of the people we meet, just this, the perfect present. Plenty of reasons for happiness!