[For my Spanish friend Jesus]
I’ve been wanting to start my posts like that for a long time. Sometiemes I want to start my posts, ‘Dear God…’, or ‘dear friends’… but I haven’t, because I’ve been feeling constrained, restricted… in so many ways.
Firstly, about food. Only eating really really really healthy stuff, and feeling bad, guilty or sinful when enjoying something which most people would consider normal. Like a piece of cake, or a rare glass of wine. Everything was about restriction, and the idea was it would make me healthy.
A funny thing happened when I went to Frankfurt recently. I ‘let myself go’ as they say. I lightened up. I had fun! I ate lots of nice cakes. I had some mulled wine and a nice German beer. I ate lots of whatever I wanted for the weekend, and amazingly, some digestive discomfort that had been occasionally bothering me for a while totally disappeared!
In my case, lightening up on being healthy, was immediately good for my health! I’d been living in ‘effort’. An effort to be healthy. Being healthy is clearly good, and I’m back here eating mostly healthy food again. But not doubting for a minute when I feel like letting go and enjoying something special. And I don’t call it ‘sinning’ any more. Now I call it ‘enjoying life’!
On another level I realised that I’d been making a huge effort to be spiritual. The spiritual path is of huge importance to me. Since reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh about 9 years ago, mainly his teachings have become a huge part of my life, mostly because what he’s talking about, living happily in the present moment, realising that living on earth is as wonderful as anything we can expect from paradise and we’ve got it here and now, resonates so deeply within me that sometimes I see that it was already written somewhere deep inside me.
I’ve experienced a lot of suffering in my adult life too – OCD, fears, grief at my mother’s death when she was 63, depression… all now much better, and what I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh helped enormously in finding my way out. How to make friends with my fears. How to embrace them and other kinds of suffering with mindfulness. Compassion and looking deeply at our own suffering and why others might make us suffer. It really does work.
But I’ve also often been caught in a sort of spiritual restriction that so misses the whole point of living happily in the here and now – non-judgementally! Because I’ve spent years harshly judging my every move – if I eat a sugary pudding, or have a glass of wine, or don’t spend every minute of my day working out how to save the planet, or if I splash out on an expensive meal… Guilt was constantly with me, which is hugely ironic considering this was coming from my journey into Buddhism, the most forgiving of spiritual paths. You are where you are, and you are always in training, practicing. And where you are is perfect!
I think it has something to do with what my mother used to call a ‘puritanical streak’.
I’ve also been reading a huge number of wonderful spiritual books over recent years, mostly by Thich Nhat Hanh (also called Thay), and spent a lot of my time saying to my wife ‘Thay says this, or Thay says that…’ – but what do I say? What do I actually think? Once again, ironically, the Buddha said, ‘Be a lamp unto yourself’, and Thich Nhat Hahn had been saying all along that you shouldn’t take any doctrine as absolute truth, not even Buddhism. You have to work things out for yourself, based on your own experience.
It’s easy to start parroting the wisdom of others, but what is actually deep inside my own heart? That is what needs to come out into the world.
It’s got to the point that when I pick up a spiritual book I feel a tightening in my chest, like I can’t take in another single paragraph. I’m full! Instead of reading about it all day long, I need to get out and live! If I stop making an effort to be spiritual, and loosen up a little bit, I’ll almost certainly end up more spiritual!
Effort pervades our lives. Blame it on the industrial revolution. Blame it on parents who grew up in post-war economies that needed to make a huge effort to rebuild. Blame it on modern schooling that taught us to climb, strive, climb, strive, work work work, and never give up!
But it’s all a bit exhausting, all this effort. Better just to relax, just to be, just to enjoy life. Writing this article has been effortless because it’s coming from the heart. We all have things we can do effortlessly, that we just do because we can’t help it, even if we haven’t discovered what it is yet. Some people paint, or garden, or sing, or write, or play the guitar effortlessly – so it’s possible – effortlessness is in all of us, and it’s profoundly healthy.
I’m putting the spiritual books aside for a while, and enjoying life. Continuing with the bits of spiritual life that I really love exploring and that have really helped me, like walking meditation in beautiful places, seeing God/spirit/consciousness (whatever you want to call it) in everything, particularly nature, looking deeper into loving kindness and compassion. But without effort, and without trying to be or sound too much like my heroes. I need to find what’s inside of me.
To end, here is one of my favourite wise men, the Japanese poet Ryokan. The once-philandering son of a rich village headman who abandoned his hedonistic life to become a monk, studied with a great master, then spent his life wandering Japan before settling again near his birth place. He spent much of his time looking in rapture at nature’s wonders – blossom in spring, falling leaves in autumn – playing games with children, and occasionally getting drunk on rice wine with farmers (and not feeling guilty about it!) His short poems contain vast wisdom and beauty.
Here’s one I love:
Even if you consume as many books
As the sands of the Ganges
It is not as good as really catching
One verse of Zen.
If you want the secret of Buddhism,
Here it is: Everything is in the Heart!
Ryokan, from ‘Dewdrops on a lotus leaf’, Translated by John Stevens.