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.

Continuing here, very happily


Drawing, A Vast Oak, in charcoal.  (For Maria, and her breakfast in Atlanta.)

Right, phew, thanks for listening yesterday! I’ve decided to continue posting here, on this blog, rather than starting a new one. Thanks to all of you who commented on yesterday’s post, that helped me enormously. I had to write it out to work it out, and your feedback was very important.

Part of my doubt concerned whether the addition of drawings, and photos of wanderings around Madrid etc wasn’t what people had come to expect here, so perhaps I should start afresh, but you have kindly helped me see that isn’t the case. No need to move!

This marks a happy change. In the past, at the hint of a thought of a very slight change in creative output, I would have immediately spent days fretting over what to call the next project, checking domain names to see what was available, then designing another blog layout etc etc… as usual, exhausting! Always having to be extreme! Losing time to create!

How many times I have to learn the same lesson, I already have exactly what I need!

So, I’m going to continue to post more drawings and photographs here, and to write about this wonderful life, and without doubt indulge my fascination with trees:

Trees! Hands outstretched in ecstasy towards the sky in endless gratitude!


Have a wonderful weekend, and thank you again. Onwards with Being Happiness!

Moving on…

How we change in life! A month or so ago I bumped into a very lovely couple in Madrid who listened to the Notes in Spanish podcasts, and they said they felt they knew me from listening to the audios.

This made me think, later… I realised  that the Ben they knew was the Ben on the audios, mostly recorded from 2005 to about 2013, but that that Ben was somehow different. I had shifted slightly in ways of thinking and living.

So this was not the Ben they knew from the podcasts… and yet was! The feeling this gave me was very liberating. We are impermanent beings! Free to change as much as we like in life, and able to change whenever we like into whatever we like!

My adult life has involved many changes. On the ‘doing’ front it looks like this: (in London) working as an extra on films, being unemployed, studying photography, (move to Spain), English teacher, translator, blogger, podcaster, online business builder, event organiser, happiness writer…

All these changes have taken time, even the move to Spain – I came here first over the New Year of 97/98, but took 9 months to get here after that – and quite a lot of agonising. It’s hard to unroot the ego from attachment to a project and set it on a New Course. Recently I’ve been feeling the agony again, that anxious feeling, that a new course is required. A new creative or work course that is.

Everything suggests it’s about drawing, or art, and writing about life on a simpler level, not so philosophically, or searchingly. The last few posts have been in that line. The same thing happened, I notice, with my blog Notes from Spain. I wrote there prolifically about Spain for 7 years, then slowed down, one day posted there about happiness, and feeling it didn’t fit in with the original theme, decided to begin writing about happiness here instead. Our themes change.

So to Writing directly about Dharma, and ideas about happiness, I think, for now is done. If this were a book, this would be the final chapter. It’s time to write the next book. If I had to write a conclusion, I would perhaps invite the reader to flick back through the pages of this blog at random (this link does that). Each post is about happiness, each as good as another, and I don’t think I’d change anything.

In fact, checking the original post I wrote on happiness at Notes from Spain, before starting here, I don’t think I’d change much or have learned pretty much anything new since 2012! Which just goes to show, stop searching, stop searching – everything we need to be happy is already here. I guess I’ve learned that. Stop searching. But don’t stop moving and creating. (“Inspiration, she never visits the lazy”, I heard David Hockney say in an interview!)

What I increasingly realise is that happiness is about taking care of unhappiness, and knowing our mind (“Know thyself!”) Of knowing what takes us out of the here and now, where nothing is lacking, and taking care of it. In my case, the only problem I have is an overactive mind. THAT’S IT! And mostly my overactive mind tends towards the future (what should I be doing next, what project am I working on, what will I do for the next 50 years+…) Exhausting!

Calm my mind, or question it totally, and all is so well in the world.
Calming it works very well for me. Drawing is great for that. And walking, exploring. Thought slows or stops.

Whenever and however I come back to the absolute present, to what I’m doing now, there are no problems. Which is what made me realise that my only problem is an overactive mind. Properly directed it’s also a blessing of course! But when it gets carried away with the ‘what shall I do, what shall I do’ of the future, I’ll just draw, create, or go for a walk, whatever works to calm it down and bring it back to now. The better I know it, the easier life is. The more I can react with a smile.

Life is wonderful. It’s a miracle, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

What next then? This transformation continues. I love to write. I love to create. I love to publish my work and hope it inspires others to love life and the world too. I want to continue to head in the direction of creativity – away from adminsitering websites and businesses and events. To create, with the hands, the heart and the eye. Will I continue here? I don’t know! Perhaps for now, perhaps for good, but if I move elsewhere I’ll publish that move here. Perhaps this time a new title isn’t needed. Perhaps it is. I don’t know yet.

But this is a moment of change. From exploring ideas to exploring reality again. From searching to loving what already is. From concepts to creation. On with the observation of this wonderful life!

Thank you, as ever, for listening.

(Update: Thanks to all the comments below, and a little common sense, I’ll be staying here!)

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10,000 Years in a Day

Trees, Ben Curtis

The forest shivers with existence!
A single day lasts 10,000 years.

I love the idea that a single day can last 10,000 years. Or a million! When I’m rushing it lasts 5 minutes, but as soon as I slow down it lasts 10,000 years again. It’s the present moment that lasts 10,000 years! The short time I spent this morning looking at the lines of a winter tree, etched on the red glow of the sunrise, lasted 10,00o years. How long today will be if I stop to look at all the trees!

Winter Tree, Ben Curtis

[Both images, drawn from trees of the mind! Give it a try! Troubles float away!]

Storks on a Chapel Roof

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Country chapel, Perelejo, Near Madrid.

How do the storks do it?! They build these vast nests out of straight sticks on the highest, most exposed spots, and no matter how hard the wind blows, they never seem to come down, even from a sloping chapel roof!

We think we humans are clever, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do that!

Sitting up there against the blue sky, their song is an extraordinary click-clacking as they rattle their bills. Occasionally they’ll soar off high above the fields and villages into the complete peace above.

I spent twenty minutes with them, hiding inside the car to draw, with a bitter January wind whipping around outside.

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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