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


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!