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: