Relax and Write

I like to take messages from books like they are instructions from beyond… In a Pema Chlordan book I have, When Things Fall Apart, she mentions how her teacher told her once to just ‘relax and write’. I got very excited about that a few months back and thought, ‘yes, that’s what I have to do, just relax and write’, but I haven’t really done any of that since then. I got fed up, or self-conscious, with writing about myself all day long and thought it would be nice to live privately and quietly instead. Off-line.

But the thing is, I like writing, and I like blogging. When I found out about WordPress in about 2003 or 2004 I got hugely excited. Wow! I could write anything and publish it to the whole world! The trouble was that I had no idea what to write about for the next couple of years and WordPress just sat there looking at me saying, here I am, your publishing tool, what are you going to do with me?

Eventually I started writing blog posts about life in Spain, which lead to ‘Notes from Spain’, which lead to ‘Notes in Spanish’, and to this latest WordPress production, Being Happiness.

I started Being Happiness because, once again, I got some instructions from a book. The book was called ‘Answers from the heart’, by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, and one of the questions to which he provided an answer concerned what people could do in these difficult times to improve the world. He replied something along the lines of ‘film makers should make films about awakening, journalists should write articles about awakening, artists should…’ and I though to myself, well, I’m a blogger, so I can write a blog about it. And here I am, uncertain ever since about my qualifications to write about such an incredibly immense topic.

But I took another instruction from him – only write about what you yourself have experienced, not theories or ideas you have got from books, teachers etc. If it’s real, from your own life experience, share it. And that was the idea for this blog from the start.

But why ‘awakening’ and happiness? How did it become such a strong presence in my life?

I came across Thich Nhat Hanh around 2006 while reading a blog about productivity and getting things done. There was a post on mindfulness and I thought, ‘now that sounds like a very interesting word’. In the comments someone suggested his book ‘Peace is Every Step’, which I ordered straight away, a book which changed the course of my life. The simple, short passages about living a simpler, happier, more present life in the here and now were like a tonic for my soul. It seemed this book had been written specifically for me, it was all absolutely spot on.

I discovered that this immensely wise man, this revered Zen Master, lived in France in a place called Plum Village, and that you could go and spend time there. Terrified, my wife and I took our then 8-month-year old son there in July 2009. It’s a funny thing to be driving down the back lanes of the Dordogne and suddenly catch a first glimpse of Vietnamese monks and nuns wandering along the verge in brown robes and those triangular, conical straw hats. We were booked for one week but stayed for two and have been every summer ever since, usually for two to three weeks of the summer family retreat.

I began helping to organise retreats with Plum Village monastics in Spain, and eventually helped organise the May 2014 tour of Spain of Thich Nhat Hanh himself and 50 of his monastics – I was part of a team of 5, the ‘nucleo duro’ we jokingly called ourselves, that were in charge of it all, working for a year up to the events (I traveled back and forth from Madrid to Barcelona all year with my laptop on the AVE high-speed train, my wife joking that I was a ‘spiritual executive’).

Organising the tour involved running a retreat for 600 people in El Escorial, and renting theatres for public talks in Madrid and Barcelona, for 1500 and 3000 people respectively, ending with a huge outdoor public meditation in Barcelona for 5000 people at the Arc de Triomf. It was like being a concert tour promoter (ticketing, venue booking, team management, promotion etc) but instead of rock stars we had a Zen Master and his entourage of monks or nuns. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever worked on and it nearly killed me. Someone who had done it before, in the UK, told me, ‘you can’t do this job if you have a family or run a business, it’s just too much work’. I had both, but once again, this seemed to be some sort of instruction – when the idea of his tour of Spain came up, I knew I had to do it. It was the experience of a lifetime, and I wouldn’t repeat it for a minute.

Why has all this come up? What am I mentioning all this for? I’m reading the wonderful ’Tis by Frank McCourt. He talks about an English class he teaches in New York to ‘paraprofessional’ women, who are in their twenties to fifties. He tells them they have to write a paper on ‘anything they like’ – ‘anything?’ they say?! ‘We haven’t got anything to write about!’ But it seemed like another instruction to me! ‘Relax and write’, plus ‘write about anything’.

And I’ve enjoyed this twenty minutes very much, with this little bit of ‘anything’. I love writing, and I love the immediacy of blog writing. I often agonise about publishing it, about publishing bits of my life, particularly the inner life, putting it out there so willy-nilly-ly, so immediately. And I wonder if it’ll be another two months or not ’til the next post but I hope not, because as I’ve said, I love it, and I think it’s OK to ‘relax and write about anything’.

So there we are, another blog post. I am immensely grateful to WordPress, to Thich Nhat Hanh, to Pema Chodron, to Frank McCourt, for their unwitting help and instructions!

And finally to my friend Mike. Mike and I have a menu del dia in Madrid every week or so and often talk about whether or not we are being creatively ’productive’ – he is a writer and photographer. The other day I joked we should set up an accountability partnership thing and promised I’d write a story a week for a while – and then immediately regretted putting myself on the spot to write regularly again. And today he told me he’d just published a photoessay, Madrid Through the Looking Glass, which I leave you with below. It’s so beautiful, the result of months and months of work out on the streets of Madrid, and by way of accountability to my friend Mike, I offer this blog post in return, as a way of saying thanks for inspiring me to publish something too. Here’s Mike’s work:

On the Way to Stupid

A friend was driving me round Madrid today and I told him I always used a GPS to get to the shop we were going to. He told me he never used a GPS if he could avoid it as he had always been good at finding his way around, had good spacial/directional awareness and wanted to keep using it.

This struck me as a very good idea. I told him I used a calculator to check my 8 year-old son’s maths homework (I’m talking multiplications like 2,340 x 8), because it was a pain to think about doing it any other way. He was shocked – he does the sums.

I told him I can only remember three phone numbers now – my mobile, the landline, and my wife’s mobile – all the rest are in the phone, so why bother memorising them? He told me he makes sure he can memorise at least all the numbers of his family.

Clearly, all this tech could make me stupid. How are our brains going to be when we are 70 if we don’t have to exercise them nearly as much as we used to? Memory? Calculation? OK, we don’t need to memorise phone numbers any more and never will, but memory is still useful and it wouldn’t hurt to exercise it!

The most challenging thing my brain is doing these days is learning to sight-read music. I was thinking of ditching it as you can get away without it perfectly well on the guitar (at my level anyway), but I think this is one more reason it’ll be worth continuing – to keep my brain challenged! To keep it making new, fresh connections with new, tricky material.

And whenever I can avoid it, the GPS is staying in the glove compartment, I’d rather have fun getting un-lost every now and again using the compass in my nose!

Images of Inspiration

Sometimes I go down to our local church, when it’s open but there is no Mass going on, and sit in the pews for a while. It’s very very quiet, there is often incense burning, and occasionally quiet Gregorian chant over the loudspeakers along the aisles. I’m not catholic, and for the first few times I went I would worry that a priest might approach me and check my religious credentials, but after a while I realised no-one had any interest in my presence, and I could use the church as a temple, a place to settle and find some real peace in that quiet space.

I’m fascinated by the other people that come in, mostly elderly Spanish ladies, 90% women in fact, some younger than me, and one middle-aged man who comes and kisses the feet of the life-size crucified Jesus’s feet perhaps 50 times before leaving by the back door. There is an elderly man too who prepares the alter for the next Mass, then walks around and around the outer aisles, clearly using the near-empty church as his exercise grounds.

Recently I looked up at the alter and was struck by the wooden panels depicting scenes with the Saints. What struck me was the bright golden halo around the Saints’ heads, painted as a thick gold band similar to these (not from the local church, courtesy of wikipedia):

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What was it that these men and women had done to earn that halo? Can you imagine living a life so worthy that an aura of gold should shine around you? The halos seem very real to me and  bring to mind great goodness, kindness, compassion, strength, faith, peace. Not religious qualities necessarily, but qualities of the greatest human potential for good. And those figures with halos fill me with a desire to live a life that embodies these qualities too. They really inspire me.

In our garden we have a statue of Buddha, that I often pop down to see when I’m feeling troubled. He too embodies many of the qualities above, but more than anything he embodies peace and equanimity. He sits in the garden, eyes half-closed, a half-smile, and no matter what happens in life, this composure of his never changes.

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Obviously he is a statue, but I am sure the real Buddha was as peaceful and equanimous as this. When I’m stormy or unsettled by events in life, his peace gets me back in touch with mine. He sits there and says, don’t worry, this will pass, like everything else does. Mountains sit in much the same way, with that same timeless knowledge.

Finally, I received an email recently from a group in Seville that practice in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Master whose teachings have made such a huge difference to my life. It included this image, below, of Thich Nhat Hanh, and for weeks I was unable to delete the email from my inbox, because every time I looked at the image it reminded me of the qualities embodied by this man, above all an enormous energy of compassion, and a reminder to return again and again to the most important things in life – love, listening, inner peace, and the wonders of the present moment that cost us nothing and are available to us 24 hours a day. I leave you with that image, and a link to a short audio (or video if you prefer) of his that reminded me too of all this, the title of which says it all: Our appointment with life.

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Las Negras – El Playazo

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This is El Playazo, a wild beach not far from the village of Las Negras in Almeria. It’s reached by winding down a sandy desert road past cactuses, ruined houses, and a small, ragged palm plantation, until suddenly the vast beach unfolds before you.

The landscape here is arid beyond words. It could easily be somewhere in the Middle East, and the simple, dry intersecting lines of the landscape are particularly calming on the mind as they offer such simple visual information.

For the first few hours it shocks me, this boy from Green Old Oxford, it seems to go totally against my landscape-DNA, but soon I’m surprised to find I love it. I feel like I’m somewhere special at the far end of the world.

Wandering past a VW camper in the carpark I looked in to see that the owners, a young couple of free-living beach-roamers, had two black and white prints hanging on the inside wall of the van. One was of a chequered courtyard in, perhaps, Morocco, with two men emerging from deep shadow into a pool of light to one side, in flowing white robes.

The image was so striking – the contrast of light and dark, the beautiful figures, the suggestion of another far-flung part of the world – that I felt instantly enamoured by photography again and ran to the beach with my camera – in this case my phone – to capture the image above of the sea rising up to the shore.

Beginning again

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It’s been a long, hot summer in Spain, the greatest relief from which was a trip up to Sallent de Gallego (drawn above) high in the Pyrenees. It’s a beautifully preserved village where a music festival is held in the last two weeks of July every year, the very best escape imaginable after the rising heat of a Madrid summer.

While walking around the streets of Sallent I came up with a fun sort of meditation practice which was simply to say ‘begin again’ to myself every time I found my mind wandering from the present moment. When I said it I’d clear my mind and look closely at whatever I had in front of me – so that everything was new time and again. I enjoyed this enormously, and it kept my chattering mind a little quieter as well.

It made me think a lot about ‘beginning again’. Can’t we begin again at any moment in life? A relationship? A project? Whether these be new, old or just continued. And just as a person can begin anything anew at any time, couldn’t a nation begin again in its relationship with another country or the rest of the world? Perhaps it wouldn’t take much.

All of us have that ability, to begin anew.

Now, two notes on the present moment. After the Pyrenees we went to Plum Village, the retreat center set up by Thich Nhat Hanh over 30 years ago. We’ve been to the summer retreat there every year for the last 8 years.

At one moment I found myself sitting at the steps of a Vietnamese bell tower rather overwhelmed by various things going on in my mind, looking at a monk I know well and thinking to myself, ‘I want to go over there and ask him if there isn’t some magic pill I can take to melt all these troubles away and put me straight into the present moment.’

At that moment I remembered – ‘but that’s what they’ve been teaching me here for all these years! All you have to do is follow your breath!’ But before I could even do that I just felt the breeze on my neck and listened to a guy playing the guitar a few feet away and there it was, in crystalline perfection, in its absolute simplicity, the present moment in the music and the breeze.

There is no magic pill. It’s just there waiting for us, perhaps all we have to do is to ask to be in touch with it. And when you find it, all the mind-made troubles disappear. The labyrinth falls away to reveal just this – just what’s right in front of you. Pure beautiful reality.

Later this summer I listened to a fascinating podcast about a police officer who had brought mindfulness into her work on the streets, which included an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh. He said:

“My practice is to live in the here and the now, and it is a great happiness to be able to live and to do what you like to live and to do. My practice is centred in the present moment. I know that if you know how to handle the present moment right, with your best [intention], then that is about everything you can do for the future. That is why I am at peace with myself. That is my practice everyday and that is very nourishing.”

How wonderful! To dedicate one’s life to living in the here and the now, and by taking care of the present the best you can, to take care of the future.

But what struck me equally was the phrase ‘That is why I am at peace with myself.’ Can I say that? At the time I took out a pen and paper and wrote down all the things that I thought were keeping me from that peace, and whether I could do anything about them in that present moment.

I was able to resolve the biggest thing on the list with a single phone call to someone very important that very morning, in that present moment, and peace returned for the rest of the day, and the days that followed. It’s true, all we can do is take care of the present. It’s all we’ve got, and it’s alive with myriad possibilities for resolution, peace, and beginning again, in any way we care to imagine, and at any moment we choose.

British Spanish Double Nationality

I have happily signed this change.org petition to allow the roughly 24,000 British people like me who live, work and pay taxes in Spain, the right to double UK-Spanish nationality.

As things stand, the most sensible thing to do now for people in my position in response to Brexit is to take on Spanish nationality, something I am delighted to do as I feel more than half-Spanish after 18 years here, but under current legislation, that means I have to renounce my British nationality to the Spanish authorities at the same time, as they do not allow Brits to have double nationality (they do allow this however to all South American citizens, and a few other countries, so it is quite possible).

To give up my British nationality feels like renouncing a great part of my identity, and allowing double nationality with the UK would solve this serious problem that Brexit has created.

A life well lived

I still read a lot of biographies, mostly on wikipedia, the ‘early life’ section, to see how very talented people got where they got to. I sometimes wonder if this is healthy, but then again 20 years ago it was obituaries that fascinated me, and seeing as a lot of the bios that I read are about people that are still alive, perhaps I’m heading in the right direction.

The answer to how very talented people get where they get to is that they usually started doing what they do very young and did it obsessively for ever afterwards.

So now I’m learning the guitar I read bios of guitarists that fascinate me, always interested to see the path they took, and I discover that they all started somewhere between the ages of about 9 and 15, and were usually very good very quickly.

But why am I so fascinated by this? Do I want to become a famous guitarist? No! Yes! (…says my inner teenager)… No – really, it isn’t necessary.

One of the best days I had recently was up in the mountains above Madrid on my own watching butterflies in the woods, thinking they live for only a day and look how well they spend it. Fluttering amongst flowers and grasses. Relaxing on sticks or tree bark. Finding a mate. Then they’re gone.

They just live. And in fact they live from between a week to 9 months or more, the one day thing isn’t true, but still, not long. And unless there is a butterfly Jimi Hendrix or Mozart or Shakespeare which we have no idea about (who knows!), I’m pretty sure they aren’t comparing themselves to famous butterflies and just fly about, enjoying the flowers, being outside, and consider that a life well lived.

I’d have to agree with them.

The Internet Buffet! All You Can Over-Eat!

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This is self-art-therapy. All that’s missing from the image above, is my own arm reaching up to operate the pump! Because I’ve only got myself to blame for my recent Youtube indigestion!

The Net is so immense, such a vast all-you-can-eat buffet these days that I really have to take care when I sit down in front of a screen. First, years back, I managed to kick Twitter, fed up with it sending me all over the place for half an hour every time I checked in. Then Facebook, which tipped me over the edge when the autoplaying videos got added, but Youtube? I thought I was safe there!

No! With my new interest in guitar playing I now have twenty seven quintillion 2 to 15 minute videos to watch! Want to learn a Simon and Garfunkel song? Here are 423 people to show you how! Want to find out about a new amp you want to buy? 735 reviews are ready to watch right now!

And I sit and watch them all, and stuff myself ’til I’m dizzy and nauseous and swear I’ll never do it again… until the following morning! But I’m learning, slowly. This human body isn’t up to opening the great Internet Tap and sitting thirstily underneath, senses wide open, gorging and gorging.

So here’s to internet self-control, to ‘consumo responsable’ as it says on bottles of booze in Spain. The internet is incredible. In the right doses. These days, I’m better off outside.