A few mornings ago I cycled up to the top of the Madrid’s Casa de Campo wild parkland, to a quiet spot between two great oak trees. I found myself looking at the parched grasses moving gently in the wind. They stand there quietly, in peace, free from worries and concerns, and when the time comes they’ll fall to the ground, returning to the earth that holds and sustains them, mixing with other organic matter to give new life to the trees, or next year’s grasses.
So they are not worried at all, they are from the earth, the earth holds them with a sort of gentle completeness, and it will help them later to return as something new.
If we have time to look, the earth offers us the same gentle completeness, and we can be as quiet and peaceful as the grasses as we move around on it. Why rush and fret and suffer at the mercy of wants and time and timetables? There is no reason not to live in stillness like the grasses, reassured by the solid, regenerative earth beneath our feet.
A few mornings later I left the house in despair, after receiving difficult words in a family argument. I went to the quietest suburban street near our house, and walked quietly, remembering everything I’ve ever learned about dealing with strong, difficult emotions like despair. Breathe, pay attention to your steps, come back again and again to the present moment, look at the wonders around you in the here and now… and I heard the wind in the trees, and saw the blue of the sky, and growing on the curb, a host of gently swaying, dry wild grasses. So beautiful! So peaceful! I stopped to look at them for a while, then carried on walking, returning home later with no more despair.
Here’s another section from Be Free Where You Are that struck me deeply, on the hell that we cultivate and maintain in ourselves, and the alternative:
“We contain the Kingdom of God [peace, freedom, happiness], the Pure Land of the Buddha, in every cell of our bodies. If we know how to live, the Kingdom of God will manifest for us in the here and now; with one step, we can penetrate it. We don’t have to die to enter the Kingdom of God; in fact, we have to be very much alive. Hell, too, is in every cell of our body. It is up to us to choose. If we keep watering the seed of Hell in us each day, then Hell will be the reality we live in twenty-four hours a day. But if we know how to water the seed of the Kingdom of God in us each day, then the Kingdom of God will become the reality we live in every moment of our daily lives. This is my experience.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, Be Free Where You Are
This struck me deeply, and made me think, and make lists. “If we keep watering the seed of Hell in us each day, then Hell will be the reality we live in twenty-four hours a day” … What are the things that cause my own version of hell, my low moments of depression and despair, and how do I water these every day? What are the things that lead me to my own ‘Kingdom of God’, or peace, happiness and inner freedom, and do I water those?
It’s very simple – if I do, watch, read, think or talk about, or listen to certain things, I feel bad. If I do, watch, read, think or talk about, or listen to certain other things, I feel good, in peace. So which do I want to do? How do I want to feel? Having a list for each, hell vs happiness, makes it very clear, very quickly, which path to take.
My daughter’s pre-school teacher suggested we try to make deliberate spaces in the day for silence with the kids, maybe just 3 minutes to start with. Find a quiet spot in the house, light a candle in the center of the space, and sit quietly. She suggested that these spaces would be incredibly nutritive for the children at many levels, mentally, spiritually, physically – silence is restful, regenerative, necessary, fundamental even for the human being. And we have less of it all the time.
Our first try at three minutes of silence did not go well. My son, who is pre-teen, took charge of the timer and introduced a competitive edge, “I’m going to win at being the most silent!” he said. OK, I thought, that’s fine, if it helps guarantee the silence. But after 10 seconds my daughter started talking:
“What should I do daddy?”
“Shhhhhhush, we have to be quiet – Listen to the birds!” I said
“You both talked!” said my son, “I won!”
“Quiet both of you!!” I hissed.
And from there the whole thing broke down into a mess of whispering and chatting and celebrating (my son) and me getting stressed trying to get everyone to shut up! Neither restful nor regenerative and definitely not what the teacher had in mind.
Curiously, earlier on that day, having already read the teacher’s email, I saw my daughter sitting still on the swing in the garden, hardly moving, just swaying slightly in total peace. I was going to call out to her, to ask what she was doing, but remembered the email about silence, and decided to leaver her alone. She stayed like that, in happy silence, for over 15 minutes. No space or candle or competition required.
So from now on, I’ll let the kids find their own silences and leave them in peace when they are in there. And when I find a bit for myself, I’ll try not to move or disturb it either.
I’ve just finished Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession, a peculiar (and pleasant) book in which very little drama takes place, but two nice, innocent and unassuming people move quietly through changes in their lives. Silence plays a big part in the book, and Hungry Paul, like my daughter when left alone on a swing, always knows what to do with it. Nothing. Here he is waiting for a job interview in a run-down old theatre:
“[Not owning a] mobile phone, he was not tempted to scroll through his texts or refresh his social media feed. His freedom from restlessness meant that he didn’t explore his nasal cavities or fiddle with his zip. His mental stillness left him untroubled by the passage of time or the spooky run-down emptiness of the place. Standing behind the stage curtain, hidden and peeking through a gap, were Arno, Lambert and the chair of the interview board, Mr Davenport from the Arts Council. They marvelled at Hungry Paul’s composure and were humbled by his profound inactivity. After fifteen minutes of observation they were in no doubt that they had their man.”
Later in the book silence is given the celebration it deserves:
“Hungry Paul stared at [his bedroom] ceiling and bathed in the quiet all around him. He tuned his ears to listen to the ever-present silence itself, rather than the bubbles of noise that floated in it. He began to appreciate its profound scale. All major spiritual and philosophical traditions throughout history had emphasised the value of silence. The universe, whether expanding or contracting, does so amidst a vast ocean of it. The big bang sprang from it and will one day return to it. And yet, silence, for all its ubiquity and timelessness, had found itself at odds with the clamorous nature of modern mankind. This noisy opinionated world had made an enemy of silence: it had become something unwelcome, to be broken or filled.” Both quotes from Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession.
In R. K. Narayan’s fine novel The Painter of Signs, set in the fictional South-Indian town of Malgudi, the protagonist Raman lives with his ageing aunt. She spends her days tending the home, receiving friends, shopping to feed herself and Raman, and in the evening, attending the local temple to listen to the reading of religious epics.
At some point in the book, she decides to take a long journey of unknown duration, taking everything she could possibly need:
“She packed into her jute bag her possessions: a couple of white saris, a little brass casket containing sacred ash for smearing on her forehead, a coral rosary for prayers, a book of sacred verse, and two tiny silver images of Krishna and Ganesha. ‘These were given to me by my father,’ she explained.”
And that is all she needs to be self-sufficient and happy. Raman clearly envies her cut-down existence – “He marvelled at the simplicity of her life and her minimal wants” – and so do I. To live happily with such few things! To pack up and go with nothing but a couple of items of clothing, a few tiny important keep-sakes, and one book you can extract joy and sustenance from again and again!
It reminded me again of Thoreau’s Walden (a candidate for my book of sacred verse):
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. […] Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.”
Raman’s aunt eats but one meal a day, she is Thoreau’s ideal personified. “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” Thoreau continues… Why indeed? Elsewhere he states his purpose for living simply in the woods:
“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…”
What is this “not life”? What is “life”?
Not life, perhaps, is working out when to get two cars through the overdue annual service, not-life is attending to a thousand messages and emails and websites. Not life is a hundred projects where one will do (“let your affairs be as two or three”…)
Life is an un-rushed walk, a lovely bike ride, a slow meal, a nice time with family and friends, spending unlimited time looking at plants and trees every day, having as few things as possible to tend to, as few inputs as possible robbing us of our invaluable time.
I read a great book on digital minimalism, but see that if we understand Thoreau and Raman’s aunt, and really live their way of life, then embracing digital minimalism and other similar ideas wouldn’t be necessary. We’d be so happy and complete living in simplicity that we wouldn’t dream of letting all that other craziness into our lives.
I’m reading Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession. I nearly gave up early on, nothing seemed to be happening, then I found myself enchanted by its beguiling, funny, undramatic normalness. It’s full of well-expressed passages that sound just right:
“With the morning all to himself, he moved to the living room and sat by the phone. Above all things, Hungry Paul was a patient person. He saw patience as a way of allowing things to happen by themselves, trusting that things would turn out as they were meant to, not by design but because of the innate orderliness of things.”
I believe in things happening the way they are meant to, all by themselves, but I have generally lived this process in a state of exhausting rush. Although patience is something I constantly aspire to improve upon (especially where parenting is concerned), it never occurred to me how much more I might enjoy life if I use patience – sitting back and watching and waiting – as a better way of happily and curiously accompanying this life-unfolding process.
So, time to sit back and wait and watch. Like a patient fisherman. Cast the line occasionally into the river of life – oh yes, have fun casting the odd line whether you believe in free will or fate or whatever – then see what happens.
Thank you Hungry Paul.
P.S. I like a name with an adjective in front, maybe I’ll be Patient Ben 🙂
On Monday, as part of Madrid’s ‘de-escalation’ process, the great Casa de Campo park opened. It’s a vast area of wild parkland right next to the city center, which I’ve been sorely missing. I normally go several times a week on my bike, and it’s been painfully off-limits since March 16th.
So when I found out on Sunday night it would open the following morning, I could hardly contain myself! I zoomed out of the door the next morning, biked over there and flung myself into its now wildly-overgrown pathways.
I felt surges of complete joy biking around, I wanted to stop other bikers and walkers and joggers and say, ‘Isn’t this great?’ I started singing a song I love by Bright Eyes, ‘This is the first day of my life’ …
And suddenly, cruising down one of the hills, I got this strong sensation: here I am, in the park, in the present moment, and nothing else matters. As far as the present moment is concerned, the Casa de Campo has never been shut! Now it’s open, now I’m here… and I remembered my favourite verse from the Buddhist Canon… ‘The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom…’ Live in the now, and all is well.
I came home and sketched my favourite oak at the top of the Casa de Campo, where I like to lean my bike and mill around for a while.
Some mornings I go for a bike ride (now that we are allowed to), and come back and draw what I’ve seen with my kid’s art supplies. Spring is incredible this year, with all the downpours we’ve had, alternating with warm sun.
I’m reading (along with Indian novels by R.K. Narayan, more on that another day…) Be Free Where You Are, by Thich Nhat Hanh, which is basically the text of a talk he gave to inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown in 1999. His simple approach to freedom and happiness wherever you are, and whatever your circumstances, is perfect reading during our recent, and currently continuing, confinement. But it applies to all life of course, all moments, all places.
Here’s a quote, followed by another I found in Thoreau’s Walden that expresses just about the same sentiment (I love finding overlapping ideas like this):
“This morning when I stepped into the prison compound, I walked very mindfully. I noticed that the quality of the air was exactly like the quality of the air outside. When I looked at the sky, I saw that it was exactly the same as the sky outside. When I looked at the grass and the flowers, they too looked the same as the grass and flowers outside. Each step I took brought me the same kind of solidity and freedom that I experienced outside. So there is nothing that can prevent us from practicing [mindfulness, happiness] successfully and bringing freedom and solidity to ourselves.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, Be Free Where You Are
“You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the woods.
I could read and quote and write about Thoreau and Thich Nhat Hanh for days on end, I love, respect and need people who say ‘look, no matter where you are, or what’s going on, in this very present moment there are reasons to see that life is still incredible, beautiful, wondrous, and you can still feel free and in peace inside’.
I’ve often heard that meditation should be a source of joy (and that if it isn’t, we should try a different way), but it has often felt like a ‘have to’, a duty, something that is good for you but you might not really want to do – like eating vegetables you don’t really like as a kid.
Now it occurred to me this morning that there actually are quite a few meditations, or ‘present moment practices’, which I do really enjoy, so I’m just going to do those and enjoy them (and forget anything meditatively arduous or complicated!)
1. Jin Shin Jyutsu – a sort of Japanese acupuncture using your own hands (no needles) which I came across maybe a decade ago and have done on and off over the years. I particularly like the Main Central Flow and do it once or twice a day at the moment lying on the bed (often before getting up). It’s a lovely bit of rest and recuperation and I have no doubt that it is good for me. (If you try this flow, remember to keep your right hand on the top of your head all the way through until the final step when it moves down – observing the body’s pulsations is quite interesting!)
2. The first four exercises of mindful breathing, as described perfectly in this audio (or video version here). I use these as a deep relaxation to remove tension from the whole body. Can be done over a 10 or 20 minute period lying down, or a brief version standing at the kitchen sink! Also very customisable, you can alter the steps as you like, or try variations like this one (shorter video, see full notes below the video).
3. 10 minute sitting meditation – sit (in my case on a chair), close your eyes, follow your breath, observe where your mind wanders (and learn a lot about it in the process!)… come back to the breath again when it wanders… continue… This is very recent, I’ll see if it lasts. Also can be done anywhere. Very resting.
4. Simply looking at, or listening to, nature – a tree, a garden, birdsong, even just observing the sounds of the house. A few minutes at a time.
5. Listening to calming music with careful quiet attention. The other day, lying down, listening to Bach’s Cello Suites, led to pure, relaxed joy!
6. Walking meditation. Can be done pacing the house. Or outside. A version I like is to move the glance from one beautiful thing to another with each breath (or few breaths) as I walk – so, a nice walk looking at beautiful things! Sometimes I just pace, counting 8 paces at a time, and a lovely, calming rhythm develops.
7. Drawing, playing the piano (improvising with very little actual knowledge!), making clay things with the kids. All calming and good.
Well, 7 things I enjoy that increase my presence and relax me – and I thought I wasn’t all that keen on meditation!
Two more things occur to me…
Firstly, that all of these are first of all about stopping, stopping the non-stop rush and input, which is already a great achievement.
Secondly, this is a very personal thing. Buddha became enlightened when he gave up learning from the great masters of his day, saw he wasn’t getting where he wanted, and resolved to sit under a tree without moving until he found what he was looking for. He explored his own, personal path. And supposedly his last, dying words, were ‘Be a lamp unto thyself’ – find your own way.
Todays’ picture, a fern from our small garden. Inspired by David Hockney and his beautiful spring drawings and timely reminder, “Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring” – worth a look!
Reading: inspired by one of my sisters, I’ve been reading short stories.
Short stories are like little dreams, or slices of dreams even, and a little dreaming is pretty good right now. Chekhov’s stories have been taking me to the welcome other-worldliness of 19th Century Russia. Short tales of innocent, innocent childhood in India with R.K. Narayan’s Swami and Friends soothe the soul, and I’ve been mesmerised in a suburban living room by Raymond Carver’s Cathedral.
The photo above is by my friend Mike Randolph. Usually we have lunch about once a week, favouring simple menu del día places around Madrid, but nowadays, well, we’re staying in for a while!
Apparently, partly inspired by a quote I mentioned to him, he took his professional photography talents to this new indoor life, and the results are beautiful. The hats photo above brings summer into my life, the hint of the drinks brings feelings of company and shared good times.
Inspired by Mike’s photos, I picked up my camera for the first time in weeks and spent a very happy hour wandering around in our small garden, seeing what I could find:
There are glorious, small universes in the spaces we have available to us right now (my middle-sister’s garden photos constantly inspire me too). Please do check out Mike’s photos, his universe, and his side of the story. May you be inspired to take some photos of your current universe too.