Starting to Stop

Plum Village Monk Relaxing in the Park

When the monks were in town, I noticed that whenever they had the opportunity, they stopped. Usually by lying down on the floor. If they had 5 minutes, it was 5 minutes, if they had an hour, then an hour. No matter what time of day it was, if they had the chance or need for a rest, they took it, practicing a little deep relaxation.

I’m a doer. I’m doing things all day long. Stopping is often difficult for me. Always something to read, something to write, email to check, something to do … I have a lot to learn still from the monks, but I’m discovering a few things that work:

Sometimes I go out onto the roof terrace and watch the starlings in the morning or evening sky – they worry about nothing but gliding around and catching flies – there is a lot to be learned from them!

Sometimes I sit on a bench in the park and watch joggers go by, or listen to the sounds of the park, look at the leaves of the trees in the breeze, or notice how odd it is that people can walk upright and not fall over!

Even just a few moments on the sofa with no book, no TV, no plans, can be a miracle of peace! Especially if I remember to just follow my breathing, or see how my body is feeling.

This week we are off on our summer holidays and I intend to stop quite a lot. Should I leave the laptop at home? Can I stop blogging here at for a few weeks? We’ll see! Getting obsessed about stopping everything doesn’t lead me to more happiness either!

I think I’ll just be peaceful, and let the holidays unfold, one day at a time.

3 Things…

1. A favourite video on stopping, from Plum Village:

2. A favourite blog: adventures in altruism from my friends Ian and Luis, full of wise words on living a more fulfilled and happier life.

3. Thank you! Happy Summer Holidays to you all. Thank you very much for reading this blog so far.

Back sooner or later (depending on how the stopping goes!) with more…


3 Year Old Zen Masters

Being Happiness

The other day my wife, my 3 year old son and I, went on a couple of car-related errands. First we had to pick the car up from a workshop, where our son gazed in amazement at the cars up on hydraulic lifts, and the mechanics asked him if he wanted to come and work with them for a few days.

Then we headed to the MOT/annual car check station, where we drove through a a huge warehouse having our headlights, indicators, brakes and so on checked, the highlight for our son being when one of the inspectors went down under the car and started rattling around the suspension and drive shaft.

All in all it was a pretty exciting day for a car-mad 3 year old boy.

Later I asked him, “which workshop did you like best, the first one with the cars up on the lifts or the second one where they did all the tests on the car?”

To which he answered, “Both!”

Aha! I remembered! For 3 year olds, where agreeable things are concerned, there is no “better” or “worse”. There is just good and good!

Along we come as adults and start introducing ideas about what is better, and therefore what is less good. Sooner or later we all end up with marked preferences, which means there are things we like more than other things, and when we get the ones we like less… we are less happy.

Sometimes I ask my son, “which is your favourite colour?”

To which he usually replies, “Yellow! …And blue, and green, and red!”

Everything is favourite! Everything is great, everything is fine! No dichotomy, no duality, everything is just perfect. How can you not be happier living like that? There is so much to learn from 3 year olds!

I’m going to see if I can remember not to ask him questions about what he likes better any more. Long may he enjoy life where nothing is better than anything else, but all is agreeable and fine. There is much happiness there.

Can We Change?

Pool, Andalusia

This weekend we were visiting friends in Jaen, in the south of Spain. It was about 42ºC (108ºF), but luckily the house we were having lunch at had a pool. Which is great, except in general I don’t like swimming pools. I’m more of a sea person… or at least that’s what I tell myself and everyone else.

So while the others were having the time of their life splashing about with the kids in the pool, I sat nearby in the shade, convincing myself that I was perfectly happy. Except that I was dying of heat and beginning to wonder if maybe I ought to be a swimming pool person after all.

Finally my son swung things for me. “Dad! Come swimming with me, please!”

And I realised I didn’t want my son to think his dad was the weird one who never went swimming, who ‘doesn’t like pools’, and I quickly asked our hosts to borrow some trunks, jumped in with my son, and had the time of my life too!

This fits in with a new ‘yes instead of no’ approach to life I’ve been cultivating over recent months.

Recently, my friend Tom’s girlfriend wrote to me in secret, asking if I would come to his 40th birthday party in Barcelona as a surprise. My initial reaction was, “No, it’s mid-week, it’ll upset the family routine, I don’t feel like it…”, which after brief reflection I quickly changed to, “What fun! Why not! Yes of course!” – and once again, I had the time of my life during my overnight surprise trip to Barcelona.

After finally enjoying the pool with my son this weekend, our hosts suggested a game of ping pong. Again, my first thought (and typical life-long reaction) was, “Hmmm, no, I’m rubbish at that, I think I’ll just watch,” which I quickly changed to, “Why not!” – and it turned out that a) I wasn’t that rubbish and b) it was some of the best fun I’ve had in years!

So I’m really starting to appreciate the benefits of changing “I don’t do that” to “That should be interesting”, of changing “Definitely not” to “Why not?”

I’m keeping an eye out for the negative response and changing it to the positive one, and life is improving immensely as a result. Every ‘yes’, especially at the level of “I’m not a pool person” to “Lend me some trunks!” is a small victory on the path to change.

‘Everything is impermanent,’ says buddhist philosophy, and people think that’s all about accepting the end of good things in life, or accepting the fact that we all die one day. But it’s also about the impermanence of bad habits or negative attitudes, and how they can change for the better, quickly bringing us more happiness in the process.

So, can we change? If I can become a swimming pool person, then of course we can!

“We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter is not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woman. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence our sadness and suffering will pass.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Corn field, Costa del Luz, Andalusia

The “5 Things To Be Happy About” Trick

I sometimes forget to do this for myself if I have an off day, but I’m annoyingly quick with it on the rare occasions I notice my wife frowning, or looking a little less than her usual happy self.

“Quick!” I say, “Tell me 5 things you are happy about! I’ll do it too!”

And I make her give me a list of 5 things she can still be happy about right now, no matter how bad life is looking, or whatever terrible things might be going on.

When she’s come up with her list of 5, I come up with 5 of my own, and before you know it, we are both much happier!

There are always 5 things to be happy about – we are going out to lunch tomorrow, it’s lovely weather, I’m really enjoying the book I’m reading, I’m fit and healthy, I’m seeing some great friends this weekend – it doesn’t have to be more complicated than any of that!

Next time you feel down, depressed, grumpy… try the “5 Things To Be Happy About Trick” – it works wonders.

(And you can even use it when you are already happy too, to feel even happier! Try it now!)

Too Many Cows – A Favourite Tale

Cows in New South Wales

My favourite tale from the buddhist tradition goes like this:

Buddha is sitting in a forest one day with some of his monks, when a farmer appears, looking very unhappy. Asking him what the matter is, the farmer replies, “I have lost my 12 cows, I am so unhappy, have you seen them?”

They reply that they have not, and the farmer runs on, distressed, in search of the cows.

“Friends,” says Buddha to his monks when the farmer has gone, “you are lucky, you don’t own any cows”.

The idea is that the more things we have to look after, and the more things we have to worry about, and the more projects we have on the go, then the less space we have in our life to just relax and be happy.

Every now and again I do an exercise I call “how many cows have I got at the moment?”

At the moment, my ‘cows’ list looks like this:

1. Being a good dad and husband

2. Work/the business

3. Writing this blog

4. Looking after 2 other blogs that I’m not updating right now

5. Art class on tuesday evenings

6. Sorting out the car problems before the MOT (ITV here in Spain) runs out

7. Finishing minimalising my stuff

This is at least 2 more cows than I want to cope with! In fact if I ditched all but the first 3, I’d be a lot more relaxed, and do a much better job at them!

But I see that I can release cows 4 to 7 by the end of the month – then I’ll have to watch out I don’t immediately invite 5 more cows onto the ranch!

Have you got (too) many ‘cows’ on the go right now?