Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,
I have to wring out the light
When I get
- St. Francis of Assisi
Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,
I have to wring out the light
When I get
- St. Francis of Assisi
Every morning when I wake up, I say the same thing, a verse from the Plum Village practices of Thich Nhat Hanh. The original verse goes like this:
Waking up this morning I smile, 24 brand new hours before me. I vow to live fully in each moment, and look at beings with eyes of compassion.
But I’ve adapted it a bit over time, so what I say is this:
Waking up this morning I know I have a brand new 24 hours ahead of me and I smile. I smile to life, I smile with every cell in my body.
I promise to life every moment deeply and mindfully, and look at others with eyes of compassion and love.
And saying this helps my day immensely! When I say the words ‘I smile’, I really smile. When I smile to life, I smile to life, and when I smile with every cell in my body, I really feel that I do.
Not many years ago I would wake up every day in a terrible state. Sometimes with a stabbing pain in my stomach, sometimes with terrible hypochondria. Nowadays, thanks to everything I write about here, those have gone, but I still wake up sometimes feeling all over the place after crazy wild dreams that I can’t for the life of me decipher.
And saying this verse helps a lot. It readjusts the start of the day with a whole-body smile. A recognition that there’s another day ahead, and that’s a wonderful thing. A Plum Village monk told me once that he had chagned this verse after the Japanese Tsunami disaster a few years ago, and that he had begun to say, ‘…24 brand new hours ahead of me, perhaps’… in recognition of the fragility of existence, that anything can happen at any time, that it’s worth enjoying and really living every moment.
The second part of my version of the verse is an aspiration. ‘I promise to life every moment deeply and mindfully, and look at others with eyes of compassion and love.’
I really do aspire to live every moment deeply and mindfully, in the here and now. Noticing all the wonderful details of life. Of course it’s impossible. My mind spends most of the day wandering, planning, looping around in circles, but increasingly I do stop and look. Focus on my son’s face, on what he or my wife are saying, on nature, people, life. I think staring out the day with this intention helps.
And looking at others ‘with eyes of compassion and love’… For me this is about seeing that we are all essentially the same. That we all come from the same starting block. I like the analogy of the seeds. That every single person contains good seeds, like love, kindess, generosity, and difficult seeds, like anger, hatred, jealousy, unkindness.
We all start with the same bunch of seeds, but some of them are watered more than others, depending on our upbringing, our families, our ancestors. If someone is cross with me, then I can’t really blame them for being a cross person, I can’t even hate dictators or terrible politicians or pickpockets… if I’d been born in the same cicumstances as them, and certain seeds had been watered more intensely in me, then that would be me.
And the very first person I have to be compassionate and loving towards is myself. I have all the same seeds of anger, jealousy, self-destruction, as anyone else. And slowly I have to make time to understand where they come from, and how not to water them, but to water the good seeds instead.
Thinking about these things every morning by reciting this verse, and really smiling with my whole body as I start the day, helps a lot. Sometimes it isn’t enough and I still put my foot in it before we’ve even sat down to breakfast. But in general, it makes a tremendous difference. It’s a really wonderful way to start the day.
Highly Recommended Further Reading:
Twenty Four Brand New Hours - from the book Peace is Every Step.
Please Call Me By My New Names – The text that really helped me understand compassion more deeply.
Recently my wife, my son and I set off for a walk to the park. I was nearly ready for a long time, while they were still a long way off from being ready to get out of the door. Then when they were nearly ready, I gave up, and went and lay on the bed playing with our son’s guitar.
At which point my son got distracted by me and the guitar, and lost all interest in collaborating with my wife’s desire to get his shoes on. Which lead to big stress on both their parts, no help from me (still on the bed with the guitar), and by the time we did all get out of the front door, tempers were frayed.
A typical family script set in motion. From the front door to the gate of the park 5 minutes away, a whole practically pre-rehearsed back-and-forth of blame and recrimination engulfed my wife and I, followed by a huge sense of guilt that we’d argued in front of our son again, ending up with no desire to be anywhere near each other, let alone go for a walk together. Which in the end, we didn’t.
Something clicked in my head as my son and I were walking on our own around the park 20 minutes later. “This has happened before… ruined family walk to the park…”… Followed by another, clear internal instruction, which for some reason popped into my head in Spanish: “Se acaba la tragédia” – The tragedy is over.
Becuase we were just running through, for the n-th time, a perfectly practiced script. A mini play. ‘Lovely family plan degenerates into disaster due to dad’s dreaminess and mum’s reaction to it, and dad’s bad reaction to mum’s reaction, and her reaction to that…’ until, instead of a happy family story (nice trip to park), we have a tragedy (separate walk, anger, guilt, poor son).
It’s a script we’ve both picked up somewhere and refined. It’s a script that says, ‘in this family it’s hard to have fun’. It probably started out generations ago on both sides. Of course we have tremendous fun sometimes, but why not every time we set out together on a family plan? Why does the predetermined disaster story have to kick in so often?
Se acaba la tragedia – the tragedy is over.
That night I wrote it in a notebook I have, and it’s now a firm resolution. Two days later, we got another chance to put my new resolution to the test. My wife and I had a date. We got a babysitter for the first time in months. We were really, really excited.
While we were waiting for the lift in our building, she got a phone call from her sister, and so we had to wait before going down so she didn’t lose mobile coverage in the lift. I said, “call her back once we are downstairs! We are going to be late!” But she didn’t want to, and we spent 5 minutes standing outside the lift door before we could go down – by which time I was fuming.
And of course, following our favourite ‘we don’t have fun on dates‘ script, I let my frustration fly, “You could have called her back when we got downstairs, we’d be halfway into town by now….”, and stepping into her role in the story, she got cross with me in return.
By the time we got to the top of our street (and it’s not a long street!) we were arguing, and the date was looking like a total disaster… but alarm bells started to ring… ‘se acaba la tragédia!!’
And I stopped trying to defend myself. I stopped walking and put my hands on her shoulders. I became very present, and I very gently apologised. I told her that I thought we’d been here a hundred times before. That we’d turned so many of our few opportunities to go out together into arguments and ruined nights out. That I was sure we could change the script right here and now, and that I loved her very much and just wanted to have a lovely night out.
And by a miracle we did. We changed the script. ‘Ruined night out’ became ‘best night out ever’. By the time we turned the corner at the top of our street in fact, we were happily walking hand in hand. We went to a concert by Deva Premal (highly recommended!) and loved every minute of it.
Now I know for sure that these little life scripts that we’ve been unconsciously acting out for years can be abandoned. Shaken off and left behind. Scripts like ‘we don’t have fun on dates’, or ‘extended family meals never work out’. First I have to become aware of them, then aware of how I propagate them. Then simply say, enough is enough – the tragedy is over. There’s a much happier story. It’s script-less – we are free to make it up as we go along – and it’s the one I choose from now on.
I haven’t written here for a while as I’ve become involved in a big project. So big that I had to do the old ‘how many cows have I got?‘ test and put all other projects, inluding this blog, on the side for a while to stop myself from feeling completely overloaded.
The project is to help organise a tour of Spain by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 2014. The planned events for the tour include a 5 day family mindfulness retreat for 600 people in El Escorial (near Madrid), a public talk for 1,500 people in Madrid, and in Barcelona, another public talk of similar dimensions and an Applied Ethics retreat (for educators). There will also be public meditation events, such as a peace march in Madrid, and a massive public sitting meditation in a square in Barcelona, similar to an event in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2012.
This work is of a dimension that I’m not entirely used to (as someone who has spent the last 7 years working from home on our business with my wife!), but I have every confidence that’s it’s going to be a success, and I’m learning the skills I might have been lacking as I go along thanks to the other wonderful people that are involved (there are four of us in the ‘core team’ of organisers, and many many more who are supporting us – We are all working on a volunteer basis.)
But already I’ve come up a few times against that difficult old friend of mine, Doubt. Will this all work out? Has this or that been the right decision? At first I would voice doubts to one of my fellow organisers, and always they would come back with a ‘no problem, here’s the solution’. And sometimes they would voice doubts to me, ‘how are we going to do a webpage for this?’ for example, and seeing as I know a huge amount about web pages, I’d say, ‘no problem! I’ll sort it out.’
So quickly I’ve discovered that for every doubt that arises in one of us, there is a solution from another member of the team that has the required skills or information, and as such there really aren’t any problems. Just solutions I haven’t found yet, or need some help in getting to.
This changes the whole ‘doubt’ thing enormously. Now, when I feel that sinking feeling of doubt creeping over me, I feel confident that I don’t need to go running to someone else saying ‘this will never work’, or ‘I don’t think we can do this’, or simply, ‘I think we have a problem’ – now I stop and first of all just recognise that doubt for what it is – just doubt! And if it doesn’t pass on its own from the simple fact of having recognised it and sat with it for a bit, then I look about for a solution, or for who can help.
And instead of phoning someone up and saying, ‘we have a problem’ (which just fills them with my doubt too), I’ve found it’s much better to say, ‘I wonder if you can see a solution to this’. Recently when I thought we’d made a mistake in a decision, one of my fellow organisers said, “well, let’s just be consistent with the decision we’ve made, carry it through, and see what we can learn from it. If necessary we’ll take new actions later to fill any gaps that might open up.”
That way of seeing things has helped enormously – “let’s just be consistent with the decision we’ve made, and see what happens”. It’s very liberating – there are no mistakes.
So in just a couple of months I’ve learned a huge amount about doubt. It’s a terribly tricky old friend! But once you get to know it, you can say, “hello doubt, my old friend, not today thank you, I know that everything is going to work out just fine!” Doubt is quickly replaced by confidence. And I’m totally confident that this project is going to be an overwhelming success. I always have been since the moment I heard about it and thought, “Now that’s something I definitely can help come to fruition!”
I’ll share more about the journey over the coming months. And if any of you fancy coming to see Thich Nhat Hanh in Spain in May 2014, come along! I’ll post full details of the events and dates shortly!
Thanks very much as ever for reading.
A warm spring smile from Madrid,
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.
For a change, I thought I’d record today’s post as audio. It’s all about how to deal with dark thoughts, fears, anger, and other difficult emotions… with a smile.