Simplify

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.

Patience…

On a hill near Madrid…

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 🙂

Joy – Bike – Park

Oak tree, Casa de Campo

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.

Park Bench, Casa de Campo
Park Bench, Casa de Campo

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.

Bike on the Oak

Happy Where You Are

The Arroyo – Fields of flowers

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’.

Swallows over the Arroyo

Actually Enjoying Meditation

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!)

I enjoy:

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.

Slices of Dreams

Garden fern

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.

Circles of Inspiration

Mike’s house…

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:

My blackbird friend, taking grubs to his chicks
A shadow of ivy
Rose 1
Rose 2
Spring
Trunk
Bamboo

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.

Windows of Happiness

Windows of happiness

While confined at home with the kids, drawing with them is one of the most relaxing things I have found to do. Above is a view from a window, an imaginary view in my mind that I drew with their felt-tip brush pens.

I think I had Matisse in mind, his warm colours in paintings like this (a poster my mother put up in the house I grew up in – thank you mum):

Matisse, Purple Robe and Anemones

Then, searching around today, I found this painting of his, The Window, and the following interpretation of it:

Matisse, The window

“In the year of the Battle of the Somme [1916], he painted The Window… It’s not that Matisse didn’t care about the trenches, a day’s journey from Paris. It intensified his sense of the loveliness of the trunk of a tree just glimpsed through the gap in the curtains, or his delight in the pattern of the floorboards – and the overall freshness and charm of a bowl of flowers in an elegant, but unpretentious room in the city. It’s as if he is reminding himself (and us) that these things are still here. They haven’t been destroyed. It’s not the work of someone who is indifferent. It is created in recognition of how easily one could be paralysed with despair. And the hint of light green leaves through the window might speak kindly to us, even today, when we’re overburdened with our own sense of the weight of life.” From The School of Life, on Matisse

Yes! This is what we need, not to fall into despair, burden, weight – what good does that do? We need a sense that the world is still incredibly beautiful, that this beauty is still available to us today, seen from our own windows, found in our own homes, or in our imagination.

It’s as if he is reminding himself (and us) that these things are still here…”

Putting our version of this onto paper with warm, bright colours, or simply recognising the enduring presence of beauty in our lives, is an uplifting wonder still available to us right now. And we have an eternal right, a human birthright, to uplifting wonder, no matter what is happening outside.

This Day, in Peace

Joy…

First, the illustration, it’s from another Haiku challenge from my sister:

Autumn evening,
there’s joy also
in loneliness.

Thank you to my friend Vincent V.G. for helping me with the sky 🙂

Now for a verse I wrote:

This day, in peace.
Whatever comes up,
Letting go of everything.

I keep this written on a piece of paper in my pocket, it occurred to me a few nights ago, after a particularly difficult day of homeschooling and home-working life.

It seems to me the only important thing right now (and really, always!) is to live in a peaceful, calm state of mind Today… which is made up of this moment. Looking after every moment – every ‘now’ – it’s all we have (the past is no longer here, the future has not yet come… )

And whatever comes up – news from the outside world, internal fears and confusions or difficult emotions – let them go as soon as possible and come back to the peaceful present moment which is full of wonderful things.

And the biggest thing to let go of all – the idea that we are in control of anything in this life and this world. It’s like the famous line, ‘you can’t stop the waves but you can learn now to surf’. Let go, and live in peace.

This day, in peace.
Whatever comes up,
Letting go of everything.

Haiku Fun

My sister Ellie sent me a challenge, illustrate this Haiku:

The mad girl
In the boat at midday,
Spring currents.

Here’s mine…

Haiku illustration
Ben’s

Here’s Ellie’s:

Ellie’s

I really enjoyed this 🙂 Seems like a fine way to spend these strange days.

Apt advice from other times:

“None of us know what will happen. Don’t spend time worrying about it. Make the most beautiful thing you can. Try to do that every day. That’s it.”
—Laurie Anderson