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.



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)


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.


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


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!

A Flower for You

Clavel, Flower, Ben Curtis

I got an idea last night to put some colour back into my drawings. I got another idea to send flowers to everyone in the world! (Which made me think, that’s what artists have been doing for centuries! Sending the colour and beauty around them back out into the world!) So here is ‘un clavel‘, from a bunch on our living room table, for you! Whoever you may be, wherever you are.

At the bus station

I love passing through Madrid’s busy Intercambiador de Moncloa bus station. I walk slowly as waves of people pass from all directions, moving between myriad bus departure points, the link with the metro system, the escalators up to the outside world.

Hundreds of faces from numerous cultures, countries, places, backgrounds… and all essentially the same. A moving, miraculous bundle of cells and energy. That’s it. No difference between any of us at all at a basic level. I find an end to discrimination and labelling and fear of ‘the other’ easy and obvious when I see that. Thanks to the bus station. I used to find it stressful, so much busy, criss-crossing humanity, now I find it fascinating.

A Note on Spiritual Materialism…

I recently read the first chapters of a very interesting book, ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’, by Chögyam Trungpa. I’ve known about this book for years, and had a feeling I needed to read it. The author was both a highly respected Buddhist Lama in the Tibetan tradition, and quite a character. He was an alcoholic, a probable cause of his death was alcoholism, and he is rumoured to have had a serious cocaine habit, yet he was revered by many western spiritual teachers and students. A lesson in itself – ‘spiritual’ doesn’t always mean ‘perfect’.

I read bits of the book to my wife, and she laughed, “that’s you, that’s you!” …as with this quote for example, that described me for many years:

“If you are attempting to be good and give up everything, ironically it is not giving up at all; it is taking on more things. That is the funny part of it. Someone might think himself able to abandon the big load he is carrying but the absence of the load, the giving up, is heavier, hundreds of times heavier than what the person has left behind. It is easy to give something up but the by-product of such renunciation could consist of some very heavy virtue. Each time you meet someone you will be thinking or will actually say, “I have given up this and that.” “Giving up” can become heavier and heavier, as though you were carrying a big bag of germs on your back. … At some stage a person begins to become completely unbearable because he has given up so many things.”

How she laughed at that last line! Me too!

I laughed at myself too (and why not, this was in a chapter called ‘Sense of Humour’,) when he describes the feeling of being stuffed with spirituality:

“…if we treat the practice of meditation as a serious matter … then it will become embarrassing and heavy, overwhelming. We will not even be able to think about it. It would be as though a person had eaten an extremely heavy meal. He is just about to get sick and he will begin to think, “I wish I were hungry. At least that would feel light. But now I have all this food in my stomach and I am just about to be sick. I wish I had never eaten.” One cannot take spirituality so seriously. It is self-defeating, counter to the true meaning of “giving up.””

That is exactly how I felt as I read more and more Dharma books – I couldn’t take another bite.

So what does he suggest? “The real experience, beyond the dream world, is the beauty and color and excitement of the real experience of now in everyday life.”

I’m fine with that too. I stopped reading there, after about 5 chapters or so. To continue into his version of meditation and Dharma would have been more spiritual materialism for me. More overeating. Adding more to my bulging collection. Without doubt he confirmed my own suspicions, and helped me decide to let go a bit, or a lot, of ‘being spiritual’. To just slow down and enjoy good, ordinary, wonder-inspiring reality in the here and now. I think there isn’t much more to it than that.

Winter moon with ring

The moon up in the mountains last Friday night, with an extraordinary ring around it.

The Magic Valley

Camorritos Drawing, Ben Curtis

This is a magic valley, high in the Sierra above Madrid. The peaks behind are called ‘Los Siete Picos’, the farm in the foreground is the Finca Ecológica Río Pradillo, a biodynamic farm where they produce organic bread, cheese, butter, and vegetables. The place is Camorritos, above the town of Cercedilla. It feels more like Switzerland than Spain. Green pastures, grazing cows, pine covered slopes.

I sat here for about 2 hours making this drawing in the warm January sun, with a couple of friends next to me playing the guitar and singing. Lovely Spanish songs like Coque Malla’s Berlín

I made the drawing very, very slowly. A meditation. Normally I’d be rushing off into those woods behind the farm, for once I stopped to really look at them – both options are wonderful!

There’s an old single-track, two carriage train that rattles around this mountain bowl on its way up to Puerta de Navacerrada and Cotos, at the top of the Sierra. You hear it every hour or so, sounding its horn at level crossings in the village, then its iron-on-rails cacophony tumbles occasionally down the slopes as it heads around the mountains. Then it’s gone, into valleys beyond, and silence is back again.