When I walked up to the top of a mountain pass recently, and sat looking out over incredible views of distant sierras, with birds breaking the silence occasionally on either side, I thought about what we can really know. And I came to the conclusion that the only thing we can be sure of is what is right in front of us, in the absolute now. We can say, ‘this is’, this scene, this happening, and when? Right now. And then a second thought occurred to me… This is, now… and it’s incredible.
Goodness only knows what we are doing here in this bizarre life, but it’s not worth over-thinking too much (take all the greatest philosophers who have ever lived, and all the great religions, and they all have different theories about what’s going on!) Life comes upon us every day in one form or another, just as it likes, and it’s quite unbelievable what shows up from one day to the next. People, places, joys, sorrows, trees, buildings, sky, sun and leaves. It’s incredible. And we strive and talk about productivity and worry and fret… but with a moment of awareness we can sit back and watch it all and say, this is, now, and it’s incredible, and that’s about all I know, so I might as well relax. Relax, watch it all, take part in it all, but no need to let anything get to me too much. It’s all just a bizarre and inexplicable magic show. Let’s enjoy it!
I heard this today from the poet Rumi… “When you enter a garden do you look at thorns or flowers? Spend more time with roses and jasmine.”
And this from poet Mary Oliver:
For years and years I struggled just to love my life. And then
the butterfly rose, weightless, in the wind. “Don’t love you life too much,” it said,
I asked my friend Mike, ‘What do you call it when you have a blog and you think you should be writing it regularly but aren’t and you feel bad about it?’
And he replied, ‘I think that’s just called being a blogger these days’.
This post is in rebellion to my inactivity and his spot-on answer! We had driven up to the side of a mountain between Madrid and Avila and were staring across a vast open space of pine trees towards the gentle, hazy, wave-lines of the Sierra de Gredos range in the distance. Like in the photo Mike took above. Below us lay a finca, a ranch, where the trees where cleared a little and lime-green grassland surrounded a lone farmhouse like the sea.
We sat up there for two hours, just chatting, eating sandwiches, doing nothing. Looking at that vast open space, that slowly works away at opening up a similar vastness in your mind. Later we drove to another spot nearby, another version of the same view, but with a pine forest right at our backs. We watched black vultures, eagles and kites with his binoculars and spotting scope. I realised that no amount of even the best nature writing can beat the meditative feeling of watching such magnificent birds in flight, out in the fresh air.
Well, Madrid heads back into a strange semi-lockdown tonight, or soon… it’s hard to work out what’s going on. We’ll be able to move around our own neighbourhood, or maybe the whole city, and get out of the center if work or school-runs demand, plus go to bars, terraces and restaurants if we so wish – they’ll be open at 50% capacity.
But no more mountains for a while it seems. That’s OK, between our summer holiday in the Pyrenees and September trips up to the Sierra de Madrid, I’ve had more mountains in the last few months that I’ve ever had in my life. Now it’s time to sit quietly for a while, something I find very hard to do, but think will do me the world of good.
Young children are said to need firm limits from parents, about what they can do, where they can go, how they can behave, otherwise the world seems way too limitless, dizzyingly so, and it can drive them a bit crazy to feel so boundless. Limits keep them calm. I heard a talk by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh describing how monastic precepts, which often tell new monks and nuns what they now can’t do – like drinking alcohol, or wearing make up – actually give them more freedom. If you know you can’t drink, you are more free, as you don’t have to think about drinking or not drinking all the time. No cosmetics – free from having to worry about that anymore. So I’m looking for the freedom in these latest limitations. I think there is a lot to be found.
And the chimney has been swept, ready for autumn fires. We have plenty of art supplies, lots of books. Time to be happy and keep still for a while.
But I’ll miss hanging around on the sides of mountains with Mike while we sit this one out.
My wife Marina and I started a new podcast last week for our Spanish-teaching website Notes in Spanish. It’s called “3 Words for Ascuas“. We made episode 1 and put it out into the world the next day. She said, “Let’s record a few more before we put the first one out, it’s good to have a few in the bag just in case we can’t record one week for some reason.” And I said, “No, let’s put the first one out now, and next week we’ll make another, and if one week we can’t put one out, it doesn’t matter, but we need to get episode 1 out now!”
She sighed, she knows what I’m like. So I put together some cover art myself (above) in Photoshop in about an hour, found some intro music on a music library website I found via Google, and that was it, our new podcast was made and launched in 24-hours flat.
Now it may have been a better idea to get a profesional to do the cover art, to record a few other episodes to have just in case as Marina suggested, but I think we would have lost the joyous immediacy of just getting going…
In my book Notes on the Internet Dream, about how we started our Spanish podcasting business, I wrote about the importance of starting imperfectly, as soon as possible:
“… don’t worry about being tech-savvy, don’t hang around, don’t worry about having a vast, complex business plan (you’ll only end up changing it as you follow your nose along the unimagined paths the real world feeds back to you), and just get on with it. Today. Start that blog now! Get recording your new podcast this morning! You’ll make endless mistakes, put out some very mediocre things to start with, but you can forgive yourself, because if you didn’t begin imperfectly, you’d never get going in the first place.”
I think it really is that simple. Just start. Imperfectly. Get on with it! Get it out into the world. We published our second episode of “3 Words for Ascuas” today, we’re getting some great feedback and listener contributions, and best of all, we are enjoying recording it immensely. Go on then, get going with your imperfect idea now 🙂
We had the unbelievable luck of spending the summer in the Spanish Pyrenees in the region of Aragon, and photography came flooding back into my life. I would nervously send photos to friends and family knowing that they might think I was a provocative pain in the backside for sending them a continuous stream of unbelievable views. Really (I think), I just wanted to share the absolute glory I was seeing every day.
The photo that got the most animated responses (OMG! … Wow! … Bloody Hell! – things like that) was the image above. I was cycling on dirt backroads to the town of Panticosa, seen in the valley below. I came round a corner, saw the view, and got off my bike. It took my breath away. I felt unbelievably lucky. I grabbed my phone.
Down in the village 20 minutes later, I sat at a bar terrace I like very much and had a glass of wine. The Estate Agents next door had speakers above the pictures of houses and flats in the window display, and was playing surprisingly relaxing, happy, summery music. I kept Shazaming things to add to my summer playlist. Kids ran around in the street in front of the ancient, honey-coloured stone gothic church on the other side of the street. All was right with the world.
I’ve looked often at the photo since – it has begun to fascinate me – what makes it so ‘OMG-Bloody Hell-Wow…’? The mountains are amazing, the village is perfectly nestled below, but I think it’s the lines that lead us into the picture and the stories they might tell. The road I’m on, down to the village where unknown joys await. The great mountain valley in the middle of the picture that leads the eye, and perhaps (we wish!) our feet, off to distant peaks and unknown, magical lands beyond, the grassy path that veers off to the right – actually a ski run – which takes us off into the forest, or the hidden valley on the left. And the shadow figure at the bottom, me, dreaming of which way to go.
It’s like a grand old landscape painting, full of all the possibilities of the great vistas of life. Full of what’s waiting for us, full of beyonds. I take no credit for it, it was there for the taking, so to speak. It’s what happens when you get on your bike, or take to your heels, and head off down unknown paths. Pure magical possibility awaits!
Now I’m obsessed with going into mountains and taking pictures with paths in…
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.