Feeling Wonderful About The World

Early morning woods, Casa de Campo, Madrid

There are 500 ways to get depressed about the world today, and 500,000 ways to feel wonderful about it.

Let’s start with the problem. Depending on who you talk to or what YouTube video you watch, the number of existential threats available to us to latch on to seems to be greater than ever. If you spend 5 minutes with trending Twitter hashtags there’s a good chance you’ll go for a walk afterwards thinking, ‘well, better enjoy today’s stroll, it might be the last’. I actually found myself thinking that the other day after seeing a particularly worrisome set of ‘trending hashtags’ in Twitter’s number 1, 2, 3, and 4 slots at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning.

Which reminded me why I very, very rarely go near Twitter.

And that was two weeks ago – guess what, we’re still here!

Gloom and negativity and despair are pervasive and persuasive. I saw a few seconds of a short video on Instagram by a bright, usually positively-positive person brandishing what was, he said, ‘already, for me, the book of the year’ (it was about January 7th) – the book was called something like ‘The End of Nature’. A comment beneath read, ‘is this another one of those books about how we are all doomed?’, and I thought, ha, the commenter feels like me! Fed up with all this non-stop doom!

Let’s be clear. The world has major problems. At the same time, there are already enough people completely anxious and depressed by them, and adding to this number will not do any good. It doesn’t do me any good when I get anxious about one of many existential threats, it doesn’t do my family any good, or the people I hang out with. And I’m sure it doesn’t do the world any good.

So what do I want to do?

1. Put brightness into the world, marvel at and share the wonder and happiness and beauty that is still absolutely present in and all around us. The world is still incredible. In 500,000 ways! Trees, skies, birds, friends, happy kids, walks, butterflies, art, music, books, love, wonder, imagination, good food, good films, companionship, cats, dogs, leaves, central heating, shoes, clothes, beaches, forests…. and on and on the wonders go!

2. Recognise the common-sense-obvious things that are causing a lot of the world’s problems, like greed, rampant consumerism – of goods, resources, digital attention – and go quietly in the opposite direction – don’t do them so much!

3. Be careful not to fall into despair and anxiety. Repeated anxiety and despair are useless. They serve nobody, least of all ourselves or those around us. Whenever I come across something that triggers one of these emotions in me, I practice relaxing and releasing. As soon as I can I recognise the object of anxiety, let it go, and return my attention to the wonders of life again. It’s hard, it takes practice, but it works.

4. Remember, it might (most probably) never happen. Imagine many of today’s seemingly impossible problems are eventually solved – what a waste of time it would have been to suffer so much anxiety about them now! Every age has had terrifying existential problems to deal with. Imagine living in the 15th Century, or the 5th! Famine, war, violence, disease, cold – as Oliver Burkeman writes in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

“Try searching Google’s library of digitised manuscripts for the phrase ‘these uncertain times’, and you’ll find that it occurs over and over, in hundreds of journals and books, in virtually every decade the database encompasses, reaching back to the seventeenth century. ‘As a matter of fact,’ [Alan] Watts insisted, ‘our age is no more insecure than any other. Poverty, disease, war, change and death are nothing new.'”

5. Take note of the great, good, intelligent, powerful people out there who are designing, promoting and affecting great, positive change in the world, or putting great beauty into it. While the doom-crowd can be the noisiest, at the same time there are plenty of incredible minds working away on unimaginable solutions to the world’s real problems, and plenty or artists enhancing our lives. There always have been. That’s partly why we are all still here.

6. Make a firm decision not to join the doom and gloom camp. This camp is very well populated already. They’ve got it covered! They really have.

Deicide instead to make people’s lives better when they come into contact with you. To improve days.

7. Stick with the 500,000 things that make this world and our lives incredible, the blue sky, trees, laughter, beauty, a smile… Notice them, read them, listen to them, thank them, write about them, show them to others, save lots of time for them. They are everywhere you look, inside and out, at this very moment, right now.

The Silence and Joy of Books

Bench, oak woods, El Escorial
Bench in the Oak Woods, El Escorial

I found myself in a state of total digital overwhelm by the end of Friday night. Working on this blog, swapping back and forth between two Instagram accounts (why, oh why!?), admin tasks for Notes in Spanish, reading endless fascinating links from two newsletters I subscribe, unsubscribe and resubscribe to. My brain was fried.

I ran to our home office, where we rarely work as it’s cold and damp in winter, picked up an armful of books, retreated to the sofa in our living room, and dived in, a snippet here, a paragraph there, and soon felt much, much saner. I mostly found myself engrossed in Echoing Silence, a compilation of writing about the act of writing – letters, articles, autobiography – all written by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

I hold Merton in high esteem. He saw the madness of modern life and went decidedly in the opposite direction, towards the inner life, silence, reading, contemplation, shutting himself up in a Trappist monastery where his superiors, often to his chagrin (he’d wanted to give it up), put him constantly to work as a writer.

Anyway, in this book, there is an interview with a magazine where he’s asked who he is reading, what his most influential books have been and so on. As I love this kind of list, I’m going to copy the interview questions here, but with my own answers, except for one, where I’ll post his answer, because I think it’s great and pretty much mine too.

1. Name the last three books you have read:

The Surrender Experiment – Michael A. Singer (Audiobook) – An interesting autobiography, what happens when you say yes to everything life asks of you, whether your head says you like the idea or not.

Living from a Place of Surrender: The Untethered Soul in Action – Michael A. Singer (Audiobook) – I liked this quite a lot. It takes a little perseverance, but the ideas and techniques it reveals really can make life much, much easier and more enjoyable, and unravel and dissolve troubles from the past that persist in the present.

My Midsummer Morning: Rediscovering a Life of Adventure – Alastair Humphrey – A fun wander through Spain in the footsteps of Laurie Lee.

2. Name the books you are reading now:

The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober: Discovering a Happy, Healthy, Wealthy Alcohol-Free Life (Audiobook) – I’ve had enough of wine, even the small amount I have been drinking in the last few years makes me feel terrible every time. This book is an excellent ally in the decision to give up.

The Art of Noticing – Walker Rob – This book is a joy. Wakes you up to the world around you in all its exquisite detail. The kind of book I’d love to write!

Echoing Silence – Thomas Merton – As mentioned above. He’s a wonderful ally in the confusion, joy, difficulty, and necessity or writing. He rages against it at times but knows it’s infused by magic and very hard to stop.

3. Books you intent to read:

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction – Alan Jacobs – Apparently a book about the joy of reading, and the importance of reading on a whim, for fun, whatever you like, the way we used to read as children, as well as the importance of more ‘serious’ reading of the old and great.

4. Books that have influenced you:

Peace is Every Step – Thich Nhat Hanh – Was a salve to my soul and sent me on many an interesting journey!

Walden – Henry David Thoreau – Simplify, simplify simplify!

The Seven Storey Mountain – Thomas Merton – hooked me for a whole summer holiday, I love autobiography with a spiritual bent…

Gandhi, An Autobiography – The Story of My Experiments With Truth – M.K Gandhi – hooked me for a whole Christmas holiday, hardly moved from the fireside. My wife said it was a dream Christmas, having me so still!

One Robe, One Bowl – The Zen Poetry of Ryokan – rarely leaves my bedside table.

Awareness – Anthony de Mello. A recent find. I love someone who tells it how it is. Wake up, he says, most of this world’s endeavours, your thoughts, and all our ideas of success are insane. Wake up! Wake up!

Zen Battles: Modern Commentary on the Teachings of Master Linji – Thich Nhat Hanh – Complex and inscrutably Zen in parts, I’ve never read it all the way through, but the commentary, which I dip into at random, contains a few sentences that can change your life. I like the original title: Nothing to do, Nowhere to go. Medicine for the soul.

The 4-Hour Workweek – Timothy Ferriss – Funny how this fits in with the other books on this list, but this book gave me tools, and far more importantly, permission, to lead a different kind of stripped-back, free, minimalist working life that I had no idea was either feasible, or, from my education’s point of view, allowable.

5. Why have these books been an influence on you?

This is Merton’s answer, I’ll borrow it for myself, it pretty much sums things up:

“These books and others like them have helped me to discover the real meaning of my life, and have made it possible for me to get out of the confusion and meaninglessness of an existence completely immersed in the needs and passivities fostered by a culture in which sales are everything.”

6. Name a book everyone should read:

It’s A Magical World (Calvin and Hobbes Collection) – Bill Watterson

7. Why this book?

Really, I don’t have a clue what everyone should read. This one is fun, a classic cartoon strip that makes me smile and laugh and remember the best bits of childhood. What is your version of that?

So books saved me from digitally-induced anxiety on Friday night, and I intend to fill my life with them again (they were loosing out for a while to TV series…) You never know when one will crop up that immerses you so deeply and wonderfully that you can’t put it down for a week, and you come out a different person on the other side. And I’ve noticed how much reading books helps me and inspires me to write, which, in my case, is an enjoyable, healthy thing to do.

Sharing Creativity (Note to Self)

San Sebastian, Gros Beach
San Sebastian, Gros Beach

I’m excited about sharing creativity again this year. Putting stuff out into the world always feels good and always improves someone’s life somewhere, at some point in time.

I know a pianist who plays in a Spanish rock band. The band constantly creates and puts out new music, and at the same time, he occasionally puts out personal albums of his own. I stumbled upon his latest in Spotify recently and it inspired me enormously with my piano playing – there are some beautiful songs. I was so glad he’d published this work. Perhaps he needn’t have bothered? But he did, and it enhanced my life a few months down the line.

This is a note to self – keep bothering, keep sharing. It’s nice to put one’s work out there, and someone else will probably enjoy it somewhere, sometime too.

In this post are four of the photographs that have made me most happy in the last few months. Most snatched with the phone. More will appear here and @notesfromben on Instagram.

Monday in the Mountains, Sierra de Madrid
Monday in the Mountains, Sierra de Madrid
Windscreen, trees, rain, and Jazz trio on the radio
Windscreen, trees, rain, and Jazz trio on the radio
Trees in the lamplight
Gold-leaf trees in the lamplight

Zero Time

Sunlight and Tree Shadow

I saw this block of sunshine on the carpet in my daughter’s room and I knew I had to lie down in it and do nothing but sunbathe for a while. Do nothing.

I’ve noticed how hard I find it to leave spaces of nothing recently. I have a moment to myself, and I think… Netflix? Book? Play the piano? Read? Never ‘nothing time’. Zero Time. Zero input. The amount of inputs I have at my disposal is a wonder – the web, podcasts, Audible, Netflix, YouTube, blogs, books – so much to take in!

But it was in that bedroom that I remembered the wonder of nothingness a few nights back, while I was slouched at the end of the bed in the dark waiting for my daughter to fall asleep. No headphones in my ears, nothing to watch, nothing to read, just black nothing. I haven’t felt so wonderful in ages. So I resolved to leave more space for Zero Time.

I like Zero-input lunches on my own, where I just watch the other diners, and Zero-input walks – headphone free – just looking around. And Zero-input bedtimes, lying in the dark, waiting for sleep. Zero-input bus rides where I don’t look at Instagram, but at the world and my fellow passengers instead. These Zero-input moments are Zero Time, where I read, watch and listen to nothing, and reality washes its wonderful way in instead.

WallStar – from a Zero Input Walk