Zigzag walking in Madrid

I recently mentioned the wonderful book “The Gentle Art of Tramping”, by Stephen Graham, written in 1926. Some of it could have been written by a Zen Master:

“It is a pleasure to meet the man who disdained not to linger in the happy morning hours, to listen, to watch, to exist. Life is like a road; you hurry, and the end of it is the grave. There is no grand crescendo from hour to hour, day to day, year to year; life’s quality is in moments, not in the distance run.

Fallen trees are to be sat on, laddered trees to climb, flowers to be picked, nests to be looked into, song-brids to hear, falcons to be watched…”

In his book he suggests the art of the zigzag walk for wandering in cities. From your starting point you take the first left, then the very next right, the next left, the next right and so on and so on, so that you walk down roads you would never otherwise find, even in your home town.

Yesterday I tried it out, and it was indeed an enormously pleasing way to explore, with some surprising results…

I started from Madrid’s Retiro park…. (click any image to enlarge).

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…taking a left when I exited, then a right, then a left that brought me to San Jeronimo church. The young nun in the righthand aisle was taking down the nativity scene in one of the naves…

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Zigzagging on, strictly according to the rules, changing direction at every street corner (not following a street to its very end, but changing as soon as another crossed it), I came into the ‘Barrio de las Letras’…

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…and a few zigzags later, the first surprise, here I found myself at the top of the street where I lived most of my first year in Madrid, calle Zurita, between Anton Martin and Lavapies… (a few zigzags later and I found myself at the bottom of calle Lavapies, where we lived for 3 years shortly after that!)

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The building below with the maroon balconies is one of Lavapies’ original ‘corrala’ buidlings, ancient tenement blocks…

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…here a view into one of its patios

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And here the old tobacco factory, now a community-run art and culture centre, in Embajadores.
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… and onwards, this chap making me think of food…

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…but not wanting to eat here,  below, south of Embajadores… I had to look up ‘Gallinejas’ when I got home, and when I discovered they were ‘Chitterlings’, I had to look that up too! (Definitely don’t want to eat that!)

DSC04318Street scene on a bar facade. The good old days!

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Zigzagging on towards the river…


…and crossing the river at a bridge that I’d only seen in photos and had always wanted to find!

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…and ending here, below, by Marquis de Vadillo metro, where after 2 hours of energies my zigzagging energies ran out and I went home for lunch. Next time I hope to zigzag across Chueca and Malasaña, just north of the centre.

I highly recommend it for city exploring, even as I said, in a city you know, or in this case, in an area I’d lived in for years and knew very well. It makes you feel free and happy, like the man on the flying carpet in this final image…

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Between rainbows

Ben Curtis Tree Drawing

Vast tree above allotments tool shed, near El Escorial

Again I’ve been up to El Escorial to hike up to the high pass where you can see the Gredos mountains rising in the distance on the other side.

The whole El Escorial valley was filled with a dancing interchange of sun and rain, so that I counted 5 or 6 rainbows in the few hours I was there, some of the boldest and closest I’ve seen. How unbelievably magical is a rainbow? Is there anything that is more enlivening than being outside in close contact with nature when it’s really stirring something up?

On the way home I saw a vast tree rising from a vegetable allotment, above a small tool shed, and stopped on an old stone bridge to sketch it as fast as I could before my hands froze. Last night I told my sister I had a new mantra, ‘walk, draw, write, repeat’, and she said “ha ha, you’ve always got a new mantra”. And as I kept forgetting the order and getting it wrong, I decided to forget about mantras and just do it anyway.

Winter trees

Ben Curtis, ink drawing trees

It’s pouring with rain outside, and windy at last. It’s never windy around Madrid. I went for a walk this Sunday morning at 9.15am, the streets were empty. I was blustered all over the place! And I completely loved it.

“Is it because I’m English?” I asked a Spanish friend at lunchtime. “Yes”, she said, “it’s because you’re English”. But I don’t think it’s just nostalgia that makes me grin madly when I dive out of the house in the wind and rain. It wakes up every bit of me.

This ink drawing above is of the trees in our street, pruned back hard by the council in November, seen from our kitchen window. They are wonderful naked totems, something I learned to appreciate after looking at David Hockney’s pictures of Totem-like cut and pruned trees. Which made me appreciate part of what artists do – they help us see things in a different way, or things that we might otherwise have missed.

I mixed the India ink with water to get the different shades (something I’d wanted to try for ages) and saw more of those trees in half and hour than I’ve seen in two years of breakfasting with them. That’s the wonder of drawing.

It’s still raining, thank God. Before this week I think it’d rained once since September.

Happiness is Wandering

On Monday I went up to the mountains above El Escorial (again!), to the North of Madrid. I walked for half and hour in light rain up through naked oak woodland until I got to a half-way point where the trail levels out for a while. This point was just below the thick cloud line, and standing looking across an ancient dry-stone wall and the field beyond, I could see what happens at the base of a rain cloud. It was fascinating!

Great banks of sweeping moisture as big as Madrid apartment blocks danced left and right, back and forth, up and down the slope that rose again beyond, greys, blacks, whites, like vast spirits hurling themselves around the mountain, casting off millions of droplets of water as they spun one way and another.

“I’ve got my head in the clouds!” I thought. “Truer than ever!”

I came back down the hill immensely happy. This is what life is about! Being outside, looking around!

I’m lucky to have found some excellent literary wandering companions recently. Stephen Graham and his ‘The Gentle Art of Tramping’. Hermann Hesse and his ‘Wandering’.

A friend asked me just now on the phone if I had any grand Projects for 2016 (meaning beyond normal life projects like parenting, work, etc). I’ve always had ‘Projects’. I’ve suffered unless I’ve had ‘Projects’. And right now I have none that I can put my finger on (or none that I can explain in simple terms so other people can say, ‘oh yes, that sounds productive, or amazing’).

Just ‘Wandering’. Exploring. Seeing. Getting my head in the clouds every now and again. Filling blank books with related notes and sketches. Plenty! I need little more than a wood and a rain cloud to make me happy!

True! The previous night I’d been tangling myself up trying to answer the self-imposed question “What would make me happy? What would I enjoy doing?” – trying to work out what to do next in life. On my way down that mountain I realised that I was doing something that made me immensely happy right then, and that it had involved no analysis or introspection, I’d just got in the car and gone and done something I already love without thinking! Don’t plan happiness, I thought, just do what you like doing already and enjoy it! Made me laugh at myself on the way down.

Happy 2016.

A quiet, uncluttered mind

I just spent the weekend in the mountains above Madrid with a large group of friends. 3 days of total happiness, enjoying their company, the countryside, moments alone, the end of autumn, and a Sunday full of sunlight and the first snow. Nothing was lacking.

When I got home I realised that I had had everything I needed to be happy, but that I’d taken almost nothing with me. A few clothes, a notebook (in which I wrote a few notes and did one drawing), and something to read (Life without Principle, by Thoreau) – which I read only a little.

No internet, no email, no Whatsapp, no music, no TV. I realise that none of these things are necessary for my happiness, in fact they are probably hinderances to it, as they increase the level of noise in my mind significantly. Anything that increases the level of mental noise, keeps me from seeing life in its purest form. All the noise of modern life keeps me away from the wonders of the present moment.

Do I want to live in a whirlwind of communications and an overload of ever-present ever-intruding information overload, or do I want to see and understand reality, nature, the universe as best as I can on this one-off journey through life?

Thoreau speaks forcefully about this in Life without Principle – that we cannot have a mind clear enough for real understanding and insight if we fill it with gossip and news from the papers – God knows what he’d say about email and Whatsapp – “In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.” Change ‘going to the post-office’ for ‘checking email’ – that has been me.

So my aspiration now is to continue further in this direction. To maintain a quiet, uncluttered mind. To protect it, and cleanse it, as Thoreau says:

“If we have thus desecrated ourselves, — as who has not? — the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to reconsecrate ourselves, and make once more a fane of the mind. We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”

Set the mind to the higher course – not to nations and news and politics, but to wind and sun and being – and the ground of being. Truth, thought, mind, illusion, nature, breath, listening. In my journey through life, the ever-present now, that is my greatest concern – seeing what is. Seeing, being, understanding.

How can I get close to that with politics, news, business, gossip, too much work, and too many projects in the way? The ground of being has to be as clearly visible as possible. I want to see the truth of life, and it’s not going to come from books, lectures, etc, but from the unfiltered seeing of a quiet, empty mind placed in front of the quietest realities of life. It’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s about calming the mind, observing the world, and letting insight arise.

Do less, live more

This morning I took an early walk around the side streets of our neighbourhood. It’s a leafy green area, and today was the first real cold morning of autumn. In the damp morning air I walked very slowly, enjoying the feel of the cool air, the smell of damp autumn leaves in the trees and on the ground.

It’s such a privilege to be able to walk slowly in the early morning, with so much rush in the world. More often I’m rushing like everyone else, but when I walk so slowly it feels like I’m putting some balance back, into me, into the world. Of all the mindfulness and meditation practices that exist, that’s my favourite. Slow mindful walking outdoors.

Yesterday a friend told me ‘I’ve got so many projects going on, juggling so many projects and activities up in the air. I’ve got a coldsore, I’m sure it’s because of that.’ I wonder if things like coldsores are actually a blessing – like a bell of mindfulness that appear to tell us ‘you’re overdoing it, slow down’.

I haven’t written here for a while as I’ve been slowing down. Taking stock of my cows, setting some free. Working to reduce the number of projects I’m involved in to just one or two. As Thoreau says in the wonderful wonderful book Walden, “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand;”

Now my affairs are but as two or three again, and I feel freer by far. Do less, live more!


A friend sent me this quote yesterday, so perfect for autumn.

I asked the leaf whether it was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and summer I was completely alive. I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not limited by this form. I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. So I don’t worry at all. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.’”

That day there was a wind blowing and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the tree. It was so happy. I bowed my head, knowing that I have a lot to learn from the leaf.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Life’s Treasure

Las Machotas, El Escorial

Las Machotas, El Escorial.

I climbed this mountain the other morning, getting to the top about 10.30 after an hour and a half’s walk. From the top you can see vast space, the sweep of the Guadarrama mountain range, down to Madrid 50km away, across to the Gredos mountains in the distance.

A very fine breeze was gliding over my legs, it reminded me of the breath in my lungs, they seem to be one and the same.

On the way I had a quote very present that I found from Thich Nhat Hanh:

“The Kingdom of God is a treasure. Once you have touched that treasure, you know that the things you previously considered to be conditions for your happiness are just obstacles.”

Which I take to mean that the Kingdom of God is the wonder-filled life we have right now in the present moment, and if we are distracted by things we think we need to be happy, like more money, more recognition, a better life, more fulfilment, then we will miss it.

I’ve just stumbled again upon ‘The Work’ of Byron Katie, and something she wrote echoes this perfectly:

Q Loving what is sounds like never wanting anything. Isn’t it more interesting to want things?

A My experience is that I do want something all the time: what I want is what is. It’s not only interesting, it’s ecstatic! […] I find that life never falls short and doesn’t require a future. Everything I need is always supplied, and I don’t have to do anything for it. There is nothing more exciting than loving what is. (‘The Little Book’, Byron Katie)

Everything we need to be happy is right here already – that’s the treasure.



Lightening and Space

Lightening Tree


This morning I went up to the mountains around El Escorial, and found this lightening-charred tree. It’s actually only about 8 feet tall. The branches to the left seem to threaten it with further strikes.

Having been in and out of bed for a few days with some sort of virus, I knew that the quickest way to a full recovery was to get up into those wonderful oak woods on my own, to surround myself with nature and space. The summer holidays can be long and intense for the whole family, and it’s essential to get out alone sometimes to renew oneself – or lightening starts to strike inside the house!

The space and the mountains did their wonders, and I feel almost 100% again. The Victorians knew full well the role of ‘good fresh air’ in recovering from illness, they were wise.

Two things, short and long, both perfect:

1. A quote I found on the net…

“The peace I feel as I take this breath is how I measure my success.”

How liberating to forget fame, wealth, or endless possessions as yardsticks for success! … just moment to moment peace…

2. A Talk from Plum Village

This summer we were in the Plum Village summer retreat again, for the first time without the presence of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Master we’ve been lucky enough to see speak and walk there many times. He is recovering from a stroke, and talks are now given by his senior Dharma teachers.

On the last day we say an extraordinary talk by a senior monk. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s called the “Swords of Wisdom”, and contains true wisdom born of his own amazing personal story of recovery from illness, and what he has learned as a monk and disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh over many many years. The first 16 or so minutes is a story for children (who are always invited to the first part of the talks in Plum Village in the summer retreat), the part for adults starts around 18m18s, here (though the kids’ bit is pretty good for adults too!):