Case dismissed; non-judgemental thinking

Please preside as judge and juror of this familiar scene from life. A scene that we can all probably relate to and yet something that is quite revealing of ourselves.

The scene begins at around 9:30am on a weekday morning, it was a really warm day for southern England in July (around 30 degrees), the day had a spotless blue sky, it was school summer holidays and the coffee shop was near the coast. The object of this scene was a parent sat at a table in a local coffee shop, a man who looked in his early thirties. A man who was seemingly buried in his iPad. He had two young children with him, a girl of probably 8 years and a boy around 6 years. Like him, they were also buried in technology watching some YouTube video. They did not really talk much or engage.

A judgement seemed fairly obvious to me and my gavel fell sharply as I made my verdict, ‘What a bad and dysfunctional family they must be.’ But wait! The man was me, I was the parent and they were my kids, and we are far from dysfunctional.

This occasion got me thinking about how quick we make judgements of others, how quick I am to judge and that if I had witnessed myself in similar circumstances, then perhaps I would have judged myself poorly. Perhaps I was being overly sensitive, but a few people queuing casually glanced at me and my offspring with cold looks of disapproval. We were definitely disheveled, unbrushed hair and dressed in shorts and t-shirts, me included.

The reality was, we were camping in a nearby eco-ish campsite, secluded in the woods, we had no internet nor power for technology. I confess to needed a morning coffee, of that I am guilty, so this coffee shop served a dual purpose of letting me have my coffee and my darlings could have 45 minutes on their beloved DanDTM or clumsy ninja before we had our full day of activity. We were having a wonderful family time, just the three of us. We had been to a theme park and made campfire food the day before; as Londoners it was great for them to experience the rawness of camping a bit wild. The day in question we were going to an adventure centre then the beach. All rare experiences for my big city dwellers. These 45 minutes were but a brief moment and a tiny piece of civilisation for us all.

So the reality was very far from the perception. For all the world we must have looked dysfunctional, on a gorgeous day, away in a pretty town, a parent and two children, lost in technology. On a bad day, I might have made that judgement myself.

What I took from this little moment was that I should not judge people too quickly. I should probably not judge at all as its nearly impossible to know a thing from a brief encounter. All I can really know from meeting a situation is my prejudice and preconceptions about the situation, never the situation as it is. Giving time and space might allow the situation to reveal itself but more than likely it will just pass away and I will be left none the wiser about the nature of the situation. So, since I cannot accurately judge what I cannot know I will make more of an effort not to judge things so fast, but to let them unfold if the choose or simply blow away in the wind as a mystery.

So why not join me with a goal to practice non-judgement a little more? It involves putting our judgemental thoughts aside in a situation and finding a peaceful spaciousness to just witness events. Even if it’s just once or twice a day, it’s a little practice towards a more open and objectively real world.

Freud’s requiem and the joy of transience

This writing is a translation of an original short essay written by Sigmund Freud in November 1915. It’s often referred to as his ‘Requiem’ (an act or token of remembrance) and is quite a positive outlook on the true nature of our existence.

I came across this writing during one of the darkest moments of my life and I offer it as a crutch to everyone else.

Enjoy!

On Transience, By Sigmund Freud (Novemeber, 1915)
Translation by James Strachey

Not long ago I went on a summer walk through a smiling countryside in the company of a taciturn friend and of a young but already famous poet. The poet admired the beauty of the scene around us but felt no joy in it. He was disturbed by the thought that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish when winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty and splendour that men have created or may create. All that he would otherwise have loved and admired seemed to him to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.

The proneness to decay of all that is beautiful and perfect can, as we know, give rise to two different impulses in the mind. The one leads to the aching despondency felt by the young poet, while the other leads to rebellion against the fact asserted. No! it is impossible that all this loveliness of Nature and Art, of the world of our sensations and of the world outside, will really fade away into nothing. It would be too senseless and too presumptuous to believe it. Somehow or other this loveliness must be able to persist and to escape all the powers of destruction.

But this demand for immortality is a product of our wishes too unmistakable to lay claim to reality: what is painful may none the less be true. I could not see my way to dispute the transience of all things, nor could I insist upon an exception in favour of what is beautiful and perfect. But I did dispute the pessimistic poet’s view that the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss in its worth.

On the contrary, an increase! Transience value is scarcity value in time. Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment. It was incomprehensible, I declared, that the thought of the transience of beauty should interfere with our joy in it. As regards the beauty of Nature, each time it is destroyed by winter it comes again next year, so that in relation to the length of our lives it can in fact be regarded as eternal. The beauty of the human form and face vanish for ever in the course of our own lives, but their evanescence only lends them a fresh charm. A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely. Nor can I understand any better why the beauty and perfection of a work of art or of an intellectual achievement should lose its worth because of its temporal limitation. A time may indeed come when the pictures and statues which we admire to-day will crumble to dust, or a race of men may follow us who no longer understand the works of our poets and thinkers, or a geological epoch may even arrive when all animate life upon the earth ceases; but since the value of all this beauty and perfection is determined only by its significance for our own emotional lives, it has no need to survive us and is therefore independent of absolute duration.

These considerations appeared to me incontestable; but I noticed that I had made no impression either upon the poet or upon my friend. My failure led me to infer that some powerful emotional factor was at work which was disturbing their judgement, and I believed later that I had discovered what it was. What spoilt their enjoyment of beauty must have been a revolt in their minds against mourning. The idea that all this beauty was transient was giving these two sensitive minds a foretaste of mourning over its decease; and, since the mind instinctively recoils from anything that is painful, they felt their enjoyment of beauty interfered with by thoughts of its transience.

Mourning over the loss of something that we have loved or admired seems so natural to the layman that he regards it as self-evident. But to psychologists mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena which cannot themselves be explained but to which other obscurities can be traced back. We possess, as it seems, a certain amount of capacity for love—what we call libido—which in the earliest stages of development is directed towards our own ego. Later, though still at a very early time, this libido is diverted from the ego on to objects, which are thus in a sense taken into our ego. If the objects are destroyed or if they are lost to us, our capacity for love (our libido) is once more liberated; and it can then either take other objects instead or can temporarily return to the ego. But why it is that this detachment of libido from its objects should be such a painful process is a mystery to us and we have not hitherto been able to frame any hypothesis to account for it. We only see that libido clings to its objects and will not renounce those that are lost even when a substitute lies ready to hand. Such then is mourning.

My conversation with the poet took place in the summer before the war. A year later the war broke out and robbed the world of its beauties. It destroyed not only the beauty of the countrysides through which it passed and the works of art which it met with on its path but it also shattered our pride in the achievements of our civilization, our admiration for many philosophers and artists and our hopes of a final triumph over the differences between nations and races. It tarnished the lofty impartiality of our science, it revealed our instincts in all their nakedness and let loose the evil spirits within us which we thought had been tamed for ever by centuries of continuous education by the noblest minds. It made our country small again and made the rest of the world far remote. It robbed us of very much that we had loved, and showed us how ephemeral were many things that we had regarded as changeless.

We cannot be surprised that our libido, thus bereft of so many of its objects, has clung with all the greater intensity to what is left to us, that our love of our country, our affection for those nearest us and our pride in what is common to us have suddenly grown stronger. But have those other possessions, which we have now lost, really ceased to have any worth for us because they have proved so perishable and so unresistant? To many of us this seems to be so, but once more wrongly, in my view. I believe that those who think thus, and seem ready to make a permanent renunciation because what was precious has proved not to be lasting, are simply in a state of mourning for what is Lost. Mourning, as we know, however painful it may be comes to a spontaneous end. When it has renounced everything that has been lost, then it has consumed itself, and our libido is once more free (in so far as we are still young and active) to replace the lost objects by fresh ones equally or still more precious. It is to be hoped that the same will be true of the losses caused by this war. When once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high opinion of the riches of civilization has lost nothing from our discovery of their fragility. We shall build up again all that war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before.

Giving freely, confidence and human expression

Do you consider yourself a generous person? You give to charity, help friends and colleagues out when they get into trouble?  If so, that’s good, but let’s not shelve a consideration of generosity just yet.  Let’s dig a bit deeper first. 

What does giving really mean?

Europe has had a refugee crisis for years yet all our politicians talk about is what we can ‘afford’ to do; ‘How many people can we afford to take to our shores?’  Don’t worry, this is not a political post, but I want to make this point.  In the UK our leaders have decided on a little quota of refugees that we can take; ‘little’ as they do not want to inconvenience existing British society. Heaven forbid anyone should have to wait longer for their medical treatment on account of some ill people from foreign shores. This highlights such a lack of generosity, something that feels to me like a King throwing his scraps from the table to the poor.

Now, I admit my faults in this too. A major part of this blog and these posts are about me figuring out how best to think about things in my life so I can form them into something approaching coherence which can then guide how I operate in the world.  And upon reflection, I definitely confess to having been the King at the table who has very often only spared that which can be spared.  

However, I will stand up now and make my statement; ‘Hello my name is Simon and I confess to clinging too much to my possessions, my thoughts, myself and in fact nearly everything I value’.  I vow to do better. In fact, I want to put forward a discussion of giving as a vital part of human expression that can uplift our existence. A giving that manifests as the opposite of sacrifice but rather as an expression of my being, my confidence, and my freedom.

Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.
Erich Fromm
Letting go

Sadly for me, it took a total life crisis and the loss of much of importance to really see that grasping and clinging to things was not actually providing the satisfaction that I thought it would.  You see, this clinging feeling came from a fundamental base of insufficiency. I had this underlying feeling that I never had enough, so I could spare little.  My satisfaction was firmly rooted in the belief that happiness stemmed from the stuff in my life, my possessions, my thoughts, my time, my partner and myself. Ultimately though, the clinging generated a constant feeling of tension and stress. There was this underlying worry about either ‘how to get more’ or ‘how to not lose what had’.  Breaking down this mentality not only made me less tense but also opened up my world  to a freer generosity.

This is not exactly a new insight, the Greek philosopher Epicurus (crica 300 BC) stated:

If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.
Epicurus
 So what brought this change about for me?

In short, having children and a major life crisis (Link to my post about finding emptiness). My children gave me a very interesting opening into what it means to give in the truest sense. With my children, I know that they will leave me, they will one day go their own way, they will be independent and yet I still have this strong desire to give to them.  In fact, parents stand up! Let’s be honest, our little darlings don’t very often thank us for what we give yet there is still this deep sense of satisfaction in giving to them.

A good example for me is the lovely warm satisfaction and delight of watching them eat. They are simply sat at the table scoffing down the dinner but I love it, all of it, they way they roll into the kitchen with the swagger of  royalty, then the sight of them in their chairs, heads down, plate of food in front of them, dessert to their left, fruit smoothie front and right, them contented, a little bliss for me as a parent and a pure gift from me to them. I look at them in these moments and think, bless you, enjoy my darlings.

Even if you do not have children I am sure you have had similar feelings with ‘feeding’.  Perhaps with animals, throwing bread or seeds to birds in a park, feeding seagulls at the beach or animals at the zoo.

This kind of giving is an expression of love in a true sense and that’s something that I find myself searching for in life.  It’s giving without receiving, it’s a loss of time, money, energy with no return compensation, except that inner joy that giving can generate.  You might say, ‘but they give you love back?’  They do, yes, but like the animal in the park, they are ultimately destined to leave and live their lives. So there is also a touch of transcending the false notion of permanence;  giving knowing something will not last is all about a pure moment of human expression of the truth of reality. The notion that ‘I know it will not be mine – but I do it anyway out of love for it’ And it’s that feeling of giving regardless, a feeling that I found through my children (thank-you darlings) that prompted an expansion of generosity into other areas of my life.

Mother Teressa reportedly had a version of  Kent Kieth’s ‘Paradoxical Commandments’ on the wall of her orphanage in Calcutta which summarizes this notion so very beautifully:

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

Getting back to the issue of children and/or romantic partners it’s worth mentioning that a clandestine style of giving is not exactly the notion. One aspect of generosity when limited exclusively to close partners, is that generosity might be something of a false dawn. Erich Fromm commented that some romantic relationships can lead to the formation of a joint self (aka a joint ego).  In this mode, the self-view expands to encompass the other into oneself. A partnership becomes one but is still very much disjoint from the outside word. This could extend to families which become one unit but are essentially hostile and defensive to the outside world. Fromm wrote about this as ‘Egoisme a deux’ – the ego of two. So in that sense, giving and loving is not really achieved with another as the other is simply subsumed into the self – the ego of two. This notion could be extended further  into insular organizations, be that groups of friends with no generosity for those outside the group, religion, societies and even to countries.

So what caused this ‘stinginess’ in life?

I think most of my life, and life in general, involves trading not giving. Take romantic relationships as an example, in some way there is this need for something, I cook dinner, I get thanked. I stay at home and watch the kids so my partner could go out, she reciprocates. I love you, so you love me. All goes well until someone perceives that they are not getting their slice of the cake. At this point, they might begin to feel unappreciated or even abused in the relationship. They might ask, ‘Why am I the one doing all the giving?’

The problem is that in most of our lives, we trade, we don’t give and this certainly carries into our supposed love relationships too.  Trade is the transfer of something in return for something, the transfer of money, time, goodwill and anything else that can be bartered and exchanged for something.  Perhaps receiving in return, money, time, thanks, goodwill, future favors, good behavior and ‘love’.

Trade has become such a central part of the subconscious of Western life that it is embedded in the fabric of nearly every transaction we make with others in the world. Western society values good trades, the so-called ‘clever man’ is able to trade profitably, he gives away less than he receives.  Conversely, only ‘a fool’ gives away things for less than their worth, be that time, love, money, etc.

What a fool l am now, and what a glad fool

At many points in my life, I have felt ashamed to give freely to others. I have also had to explain why I am giving something away. Western society actually made me feel wrong for doing something out of compassion. This does not necessarily or solely include possessions, money or effort, on a more intimate level, ‘giving’ love can be a challenge.

But giving – by definition – involves the loss of something. This might sound severe as the act of giving generates such an inner pleasure, but the point I am trying to make is that to truly give, is to give without any expectation in return and that involves parting with something.  However, there is some inner gain as it feels like a liberation and freedom.  Free because giving does not make any demands that require judgement of value (nothing is expected to be returned therefore there is no weighing of its merit). It’s simply an act without the judgment, even on the part of yourself, except perhaps that you feel it might brings something good to another. So it’s a moment of freedom and letting go.

So how about giving oneself?

Can we be open, free and remove the armor that shields our emotions and protects our egos? I think for many people, myself included, interactions between people can involve a certain shyness because someone is afraid to give themselves. Ultimately I think this comes from needing something in return? From looking for the trade, perhaps some approval?  ‘Shall I smile – oh wait I cannot smile at this person as they may not smile back’.

Giving without any expectation of anything in return liberates this tension since nothing is expected in return, there is no fear of rejection and as such, there is a sense of total freedom. I will smile at you, I will talk to you, I will help you, I will love you. I don’t worry about it being returned – it’s a gift.  Living like this brings about freedom.  It’s like the joy of throwing a stone into the sea, watching them fly freely through the air before disappearing beneath the water. Thrown and gone.  Being free with yourself is a similar feeling, your speech and deeds fly freely with no grand purpose, you will not get them back once you let them fly, but neither do you need to. 

Finally, the notion of giving can itself become superfluous. Since giving is predicated on relinquishing ‘something’ owned – something held personally – if there were nothing owned or held then there would be nothing to give.  I believe this is the super human consciousness of enlightened beings and Buddhist monks.  And it’s something that seems so beautiful and peaceful.  Something that my musing here have, in some way, enabled me to at least touch;  the beautiful notion of what it must be like to let go completely and therefore have everything to give and nothing to lose.  What a beautiful and free loving place to be.

Peace.

Living free; shedding the good and bad labels

Life is full of events that at the time can seem like a disaster or a triumph.  However, we never really know whether an event will have some long term good or hurt; perhaps not until the fullness of time has passed. This is my take on another old story.  Just as before (see a short story of simplicity) I will not add much commentary but let the concept of the story speak. Enjoy.

—–

When I was in my forties I was a single parent, with two children and struggling with finances. After breakfast one morning I received a letter with some photographs. The pictures were of a charming looking log cottage in the hills facing the sea. It looked beautiful, surrounded back and sides by tall pine trees and secluded; what a lovely house I thought. The final picture was of an unfamiliar old man. After dwelling on the photos I read the letter. My heart raced as I saw the words, apparently a distant relative had died and as their only living relative they had left me the house in the pictures. A dream home I thought and potentially a new start for me and my kids. I was so happy, what luck, I felt so elated.

Now, at this time, my best friend had just returned from a long trip to Asia. He was a bit of a hippie at heart and just suffered a marriage breakup, so he had jacked in his job to travel for a year. I had invited him over for a meal tonight and now had this wonderful news to share. So later that day, with the meal served on the table, my best friend sat next to me, I made a toast to life and told him the good news. His reaction though quickly wiped the big smile from my face – he just shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said “could be good, could be bad, who knows” and changed the subject to the meal we were eating. People can be strange I thought, perhaps he was jealous or perhaps he was sad I would be leaving, eitherway, I was still happy about the situation. We ate and had a pleasant dinner together.

Time passed quickly, I relinquished my rental property, organised removals, planned new schools for the children – thankfully it was summer – and even had a new job lined up for myself to start the week after the move. Everything was going perfect, until the day of the move. Carrying a heavy box up the stairs in my dream home, I slipped and the box fell with me underneath it. The result was a broken leg and me in hospital, the prognosis of a wheel chair for a while. Damn my luck I thought, how stupid of me to attempt to lift such a heavy box up the stairs, now all those plans could falter. I was distraught.

I was so sad, everything was now going wrong just as it looked to be going right. I lamented my fortune to my friend, explaining how I must be cursed to receive this event at such a time. His reaction, “Good, bad, who knows” and a change of subject back to practical matters. Hmmm, perhaps his trip had done funny things to his mind? I wanted both him and my children close, so offered for him to babysit my two kids in my new home.   However, whilst he agreed to look after my children he had an important job interview the next day so he would have to take them back with him tonight.  He promised to return at the weekend.

The next day he called me with then news that he had failed his interview and would be driving back to visit me earlier than planned.  What a waste of time it was for him to return for the interview I thought.  I tried to console him but he just said, “it could be good, could be bad, who knows”.

Another day passed, it was now the second day since my hospitalisation.  That morning I woke to a blaring loud television in my hospital room.  News reporters were giving briefings of an ongoing disaster, aparently there had been some kind of fire, scores of people were dead, helicopters were battling a blaze.  The fire was in the hills. Gradually, like a bad dream, the realisation hit me.  These images were the same hills as my new home. Sure enough, later that day, I received news that my new home had been burnt to the ground.

When my friend came to visit. He came in smiling and pointing at my legs. By this time I had lost my patience and shouted, “I have lost my new house, broken my leg and all you can do is laugh, what’s wrong with you!” He smiled gently and said, “good, bad”, but this time I would not let him finish, so I interrupted and shouted again, “What is it with you and this damn expression?” He sat gently next to me, grabbed my hand with tenderness and said, “My beloved friend, if you had not broken your leg, you would have been in that house with your children and you likely would have all be dead.”  Finally, I understood, took his hand and said, “and thank goodness you had a job interview, otherwise it would have been you dead instead”.

—–

I love the concept of this short story, it affects my thinking constantly. Often I find myself ‘suffering’ some event that seems negative and unfair but now I try to think to myself, wait, let’s see what happens, perhaps this might turn out to be a blessing rather than a curse.  Likewise something seemingly wonderful might turn out to be not quite the godsend it first appeared.

We just do not know the fullness of the story of life to make a judgement about events. Even a major crisis like a depression, while devastating at the time, can in the fullness of time transpire to be the birth of something unforseen and wonderful.

Peace and love.

PS If you like a happy ending, perhaps we could add I had insurance against fire. However, since we are all connected in this world, that’s good for me but bad for others who pay the insurance premiums (see A pie for an eye), but since they are also connected to me, they should be happy that we are all safer from having security.

A pie for an eye? Why kindness and interconnectivity really matter

The notion of ‘an eye for an eye’ is that a negative act should warrant a similar reprisal as compensation. If I lose an eye, you lose an eye in return, jab! However, ‘What if the perpetrator was our own family?’ or ‘ourselves?’. Would we want to create harm to ourselves for the sake of revenge? Heard of the expression ‘cutting off your nose to spite you face’? Yet this is exactly what we do every time we seek revenge or retribution.

We are all connected in this world, not just on some notional hand holding ‘I see man as my brother’  level – although that’s really nice.  But something deeper.  An intrinsic connection at a very fundamental level, the fabric of reality.  Whereby we are all part of the same collective consciousness of mind.

We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality . . . Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured; this is its interrelated quality. 
Martin Luther King

With a feeling that I really am being too ambitious in attempting to articulate what I mean, here goes.

Conditioning

What happens when you close your eyes to sleep at night? More than likely your mind brings up thoughts. Even those people that fall asleep very quickly, like me, have some mental activity.  Paying attention to these thoughts is pretty interesting, even if a little distracting from the goal of sleep. Watching my thoughts I have observed the following. Most of what is thought, is related to what has happened in my preceding period of life or what is being planned for the future. Many years ago, back in my darker days, I used to play cards pretty seriously for money and had terrible trouble during that time falling asleep. I was always analyzing events and thinking what I could have done differently or better. Thankfully, my life is a lot less stressed now, but still perhaps there is some incident from the day. Someone was rude to me, perhaps I said something I later regretted or perhaps I just finished watching or listening to something and its was repeating in my mind. The point is, that there is this kind of momentum in thinking that continues.

This is not really surprising as we are conditioned beings, but don’t take my word for this:

We are what we do.
Fromm

 

We are what we do repeatedly
Aristotle

 

Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.
Ghandi
The unconditioned

Meditators know this problem from a different angle, they are not trying to sleep but to stay fully and sharply aware while clearing their minds. But, just as with sleep, the events and thoughts of the day have a certain momentum that needs some quietening. So an experienced meditator begins a sitting using various techniques to clear their mind of thoughts, this could involve concentration on bodily sensations, counting breaths or beads; something to stop indulgence in thoughts.

In addition to preparation activities, an important observation from my practice is that having a ‘peaceful’ meditation often requires some cultivation of wholesome stimuli throughout the day. Some people advocate meditating in the morning, before the mind really cranks up its torrent of activity as a solution to thinking bouncing around in the mind; in the morning most people have fairly quite minds. However, I frequently find I don’t have the time in the morning, I have two young kids whose needs are a priority over my own. By the time I finally want to sit and meditate, events have already transpired. Cultivating a good day is an excellent approach, but not always under my control, perhaps then at least I can make peace with the agitations and to let go of the future plans for the duration of the meditation, this is a skill that times some learning – letting go. However, sometimes events are ongoing rather than limited to a particular day, so cultivating a good life becomes important.  

Even if you do not meditate, hopeful you can relate to the experience of thoughts being a continuation of what has taken place or needs to take place. Its easier to sleep when you are not stressed out, just as its easier to meditate under calm conditions. We also have some control over the conditions that precede our attempt at quietening the mind. 

‘We’ are what we do

One rather startling realisation that changed my view of the world was a result of the mental chatter at the start of the mediation. As per normal, my initial sitting involved the bombardment of thoughts and stimuli. Lots of little things from the day came up in my mind.  But, what happened next was really interesting. For small periods of time, my mind stimuli ceased and with them my experiences of the external world also stopped. Instead, I was left with this awareness of nothing, it was a powerful observation, punctured periodically by thoughts but nonetheless a taste of something quite calm.  The thought then occurred to me, that the physical world of existence which is made up of everything we sense, people, sounds, touches, speech, etc. – a world which incidentally is the world that the vast majority of people experience as their only world – is mostly responsible for the content of the mind and its thoughts. The mind (aka egoic mind for the ‘Eckhart  Tolleites’) is just this reaction to the stimuli to which it has been presented or acquired, just a maelstrom of conditioning. Most of what I think of as me, my thoughts and experiences, are actually the result of external stimuli.

So if my mind is this reaction to stimuli, then ‘What is really me?’  and ‘What am I without stimuli to react to? ‘  This was the first part of something big for me.

They are what I do

This developed a bit further, if my egoic mind is a reaction to the external, then other minds must also be a reaction to the external.  Since I am human and you are human, thus we are human. So others then are a reaction to my mind and at the same time my mind is a reaction to them.  We are both conditioned by the world and at the same time conditioning the world. There is then, this interplay between beings, between all things, some degree of taking in and giving out, where neither is independent and all are codependent. This is the Martin Luther’s “network of mutuality”. Incidentally, this moment felt like the ground beneath my feet giving way, something profound shifting underneath me, not at all unpleasant, very spacious actually. So, if this thing I took to be ‘myself‘ was constructed mostly of input from things outside of me, then I am intrinsically intertwined with these external things and they with me; we are all dancing together in this world.

What now?

This idea really had a profound impact for me, from that moment, I have had the belief that everything I do shapes the collective consciousness of the world, everything is part of the dance where each of us reacts to each other. Every good act to the external world (which is actually not external but rather just the world), has the potential to create a better world for me personally, and likewise bad acts have the potential to create a worse world for me. Thus small changes that I can make throughout my day, much like the lighting of a candle to bring light into the world (see my post on positivity) help to shape the world into something better.

We reap what we sow
This idea is not new, just about every religious or ethical doctrine has this notion at its heart.  They all give a high priority to the ‘golden rule’:
“Just as I am so are they, just as they are so am I”
Sutta Nipata, Pali Canon
“Wish for your brother, what you wish for yourself”,
Prophet Muhammad
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Gospel of Matthew
Likewise, ethical philosophers such as Kant also came to a similar conclusion:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”
 Immanuel Kant
So how does this shape my world?

Well, I now have a choice every moment of the day, I can create a better me or a worse one, and this involves what I do to others. For example, If I am driving my car, I choose to be rude, to not let others in front of me, to be selfish. This would create the scene whereby the world is more selfish and others behavior would be a little more conditioned.  I should not then be surprised if others treat me similarly, since they are just reflecting me, by hurting them, I am hurting me; the dance gets nastier. The alternative is that I could drive nicely, I could let people out at junctions, I could smile and laugh, even when faced with rudeness and hostility. This would give others the view that the world is positive and friendly and they would be so conditioned in future to believe that of the world. Perhaps this has an impact on their world and their behavior; the dance gets better. I am not overly naive, I accept that this won’t shift many people, but perhaps one or two, who then act differently and so the interconnected interplay goes. Being kind to others is being kind to myself.

The feeling of inter-connectivity, that I am everyone else and they are me, is really a beautiful notion. It promotes care and consideration for the entire world, since all of the world shapes what we are individually and collectively. We really are that connected, we are made of the world and the world is made of us, we are all the world together. What better motivation is there to put out kindness into this world than that.

Thanks for reading, peace.

PS There is a deeper realisation too, namely that we are not the mind at all, but rather a conscious observer of the dance of being. But, this is something I cannot easily write about just yet.

How to nurture a life of simpler happiness

Modern life looks complicated with many ties, but it needn’t be. This simple short story illustrates how a small problem can develop and overwhelm us.

—–

When I was in my thirties I lived for a year in a simple room in the country with few possessions and commitments. I enjoyed my simple life of walking, meditating, writing and peace. I had few possessions, just my clothes, some money to last the year and a few articles for writing.  

All was well, until one day I woke and noticed a hole in my only pair of trousers. Some investigation led me to believe that the hole was caused by a mouse nibbling through the material. To protect my trousers, I decided to get a cat to keep the mouse away.

However, the cat soon got hungry and needed feeding. Initially I just bought her some milk but I grew tired of walking to the shops, so I formed another plan; I should get a cow! Yes, a cow to provide the milk to feed the cat to keep the mouse away.

This idea though, provided complications.  The cat was more easily fed but the cow was more tricky. So out I went  to buy some cattle feed. Once again, this involved a walk to the shops and again, I soon grew tired or this chore. I needed a new plan. So I decided to buy a small field next to my house. The cow could then graze and I would have the milk to feed my cat to keep the mouse away.

However, the grass began to grow too long too fast and the field needed maintaining. Hmmm, I thought, I need a small tractor. If I had a tractor I could then cut the grass, so my cow could graze and I would have the milk to feed my cat to keep the mouse away.

Soon though, this plan proved problematic too, the tractor needed fuel.  The solution I chose was to sell some milk and some hay to buy the fuel.  The fuel for the tractor, so I could cut the grass, my cow could graze and I would have the milk to feed my cat to keep the mouse away.

My days by this time quite full, I was milking, mowing, selling the surplus, my trousers were without holes but I had little time for the simple life that I had enjoyed. If only I just bought a needle and thread and lived peacefully alongside the mouse.

—–

We make our lives so complicated by taking on more and more things that need care and attention in the false belief that they will bring us happiness. What we end up doing though, is becoming slaves to their maintenance or procurement. We just add another problem on top of other problems. The happiness is then ‘just around the corner’ but the corner never comes.

Choosing a simple life that does not add extra unnecessary responsibility seems far wiser. Cutting down on the things in our lives is one way to achieve this goal.

Enjoy!

Living as art, mindfulness and alchemy

Alchemy is the alluring art of turning ordinary base metals into gold. For many years scientists spent hours mixing powders, fluids, cleaning soot and smoke off their faces in their attempts to succeed and find untapped wealth. Some were driven mad by their efforts but all ultimately failed and now alchemy is a long forgotten footnote in history. But, they were approaching it wrong, it is possible!  The mistake they made is that they aimed too low; they only considered metals. How about turning anything mundane into gold? Don’t think of King Midas, this is not that kind of notion. This take on alchemy involves turning everyday living into something better, something golden. So it’s a different kind of alchemy- one that involves seeing life as golden. By practising the art of mindful alchemy everyday we become an artist;  we practice ‘artfulness’  or if you prefer we practice art in everyday living.

Art in my life involves the practice of daily activities in a way that uplifts my consciousness and reveals the spiritual and aesthetic harmony in my world.  Indeed, the late Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa said:

meditative experience might be called genuine art. Such art is not designed for exhibition or broadcast. Instead, it is a perpetually growing process in which we begin to appreciate our surroundings in life, whatever they may be-it doesn’t necessarily have to be good, beautiful, and pleasurable at all. The definition of art, from this point of view, is to be able to see the uniqueness of everyday experience. Every moment we might be doing the same things-brushing our teeth every day, combing out hair every day, cooking our dinner every day. But that seeming repetitiveness be-come unique every day. A kind of intimacy takes place with the daily habits that you go though and the art involved in it. That’s why is called art in everyday life.

Chogyam Trungpa

This concept always leaves me with a sense of involvement in my own life. It gives me a confident resolve and fearlessness to put attention and love into my world. This blog started in part as an inspiration from his writing. The idea of writing was difficult for me, partly due to some shyness and partly to avoid conceit.  Chogyam cautioned:

When we talk about art, we could be referring to somebody deliberately expressing the beauty and frightfulness or the mockery and crudeness of the world that we live in, in the form of poetry, pictures or music. That kind of art could be said to be somewhat deliberate art. It is not so much for yourself, but it is more an exhibition, however honest and genuine the artist may be. Such an artist may say he simply composed his poem because he felt that way. But if that’s the case, why should he write it down on a piece of paper and date it? If its just purely for himself, it does not need to be recorded. Whenever a need for recording you work of art is involved, then there is a tendency toward awareness of oneself: “If I record that brilliant idea I’ve developed, in turn, quite possible accidentally, somebody might happen to see it and think we of it.” There’s that little touch involved, however honest and genuine it may be.

Chogyam Trungpa

So I am left with this dichotomy, I started this blog just for me but there is this little touch of exhibition, subscribers, viewers, etc. Trungpa went on to say, never sell your art, doing so destroys the art of it.

Getting back to topic, the notion of living art really uplifts my daily world, specifically 1) fearlessness of expression and 2) that it’s okay not to have a purpose other than just the appreciative awareness and love for what is taking place.

Not meaning to state the obvious – perhaps I have been a slow learner – but for me this needs constant learning and reminding. I suspect this is cultural. We are conditioned beings and in the West we have been conditioned to obsess about efficiency in our lives – contemporary western culture demands the efficient. It demands time savings, cost savings, faster, bigger, stronger. However this attitude really is an alienation of life.

Erich Fromm, another favourite author of mine, talks a lot about people living alienated lives. Essentially that people see the results of their actions as more important than the process of the activity.  In doing so people have become alienated from the main bulk of their lives, the part which involves the actual activities. Modern efficiency really does seem to be the death of life and also the death of much aesthetic in life. Consider this common scenario; if I am travelling somewhere and have a Sat Nav, I can find the fastest route – efficient, best then? But best for who? There is a slower, more costly but more scenic route. Since my care is not just to arrive at the destination, I’ll choose to take the less efficient route. I can enjoy the travelling, focus on it, care for it, love it rather than just try to be done with it as quickly as possible. To care only about arriving would relegate the whole journey to a chore, I would become alienated from the journey itself. So screw efficiency. I’ll drive slower and enjoy the journey.

The practice of art in everyday life involves making choices and taking actions that give care to the experience, taking the scenic route, feeling things, smelling the roses, essentially  being alive. The daily mundane present an opportunity of working with the material of life as an artist rather than as a chore. Cleaning the kitchen, folding clothes and interacting with people can all be undertaken in an artist manner.  I give care and full attention to what I am doing and put effort into producing some experience that is 1) conscious and 2) hopefully pleasant.  Rather than deriving satisfaction just from the result, which is but a tiny fleeting part of life, I can focus on the beauty and pleasure in the tasks themselves. This is the alchemy – ordinary life becomes gold.

Alchemy then and the ‘Art in everyday Life’ is about having the courage and fearlessness to do what I feel is right, just because it is pleasing, without a clear goal or need for a result, but just for the experience it brings. So now, I fold my clothes with care and attention, I sit upright, I smell the flowers, I look at the landscape and I do all manner of ‘inefficient’ things and doing so makes me happier and it makes me more alive.

Short quote from Jung on alchemical studies

A lovely quote from Carl Jung describing one of his patient’s awakening and his subsequent acceptance:
Out of evil, much good has come to me. By keeping quiet, repressing nothing, remaining attentive, and by accepting reality – taking things as they are, and not as I wanted them to be – by doing all this, unusual knowledge has come to me, and unusual powers as well, such as I could never have imagined before.
I always thought that when we accepted things they overpowered us in some way or other. This turns out not to be true at all, and it is only by accepting them that one can assume and attitude towards them.
So now I intend to play the game of life, being receptive to whatever comes to me, good and bad, sun and shadow forever alternating, and, in this way, also accepting my own nature with its positive and negative sides. Thus everything becomes more alive to me.
What a fool I was! How I tried to force everything to go according to way I thought it ought to.”
an ex patient of C. G. Jung (Alchemical Studies, pg 47)

Conscious parenting: When the going gets tough

Anyone that has kids knows that parenting can be really challenging. However, like most suffering in life, it’s workable and can be transformed with the right mind set of conscious parenting. I find that parenting still pushes my psychological limits but I do have a workable strategy that I want to share. The key is to change my attitude to the situation.

Conscious parenting - AnAccidentalAnarchist.com

Even simple things like a child’s bedtime can be a challenge as a parent. Take my youngest of 6 years as an example.  His routine involves, cleaning his teeth, changing for bed, an upside down ride which is me carrying him upside by his legs to kiss his sister good night, a story in bed and then some kisses and cuddles. Simple enough on paper. However, the critical challenge around bedtime is that everyone is tired, for my part, a single parent, I have been busy with them for 12 hours and would really like the quiet time of the evening to arrive, to arrive as soon as possible. It is that mindset that causes the problems.

There was a time when I would try to rush this routine so I could get to the ‘me time’ quicker. This led to me feeling tense, objections from my boy and to a general feeling of suffering in myself, the feeling that “I just did not want to be doing it”. There is a better way though. A more conscious approach to parenting uses acceptance, concentration and mindfulness of the now to bring peace into these moments. How does it work?

Firstly, I surrender to the moment and give away the desire for anything other than what is taking place. I drop that desire to get to the ‘me time’ and instead put all of my awareness into the tasks at hand. In essence, I align myself with events rather than aligning myself in opposition to them.

Conscious parenting - AnAccidentalAnarchist.com

Mindfulness then becomes important once I have made that mental commitment to let go of my desires in this moment and to concentrate. Mindfulness at this point involves not judging what takes place but instead witnessing it more fully. This allows me to look at my boy more fully, suddenly I might see his face, his eyes, his smile, I sometimes see his tiredness, his fatigue and grumpiness, this allows me to feel compassion to his state of being and to feel love. While engaged in the task, I try to engage with them fully, for example I might read his story with gusto rather than as a chore, I might really look at the pictures in the book too, I just try to concentrate on the task and not to let my mind wish it were elsewhere. This approach is very nourishing for me and also for him.

A great inspiration in this attitude for me comes from the “Three questions” short story by Leo Tolstoy (spoilers of this story incoming) and I often find the answer to these three questions come to my mind when I find myself in an objectionable moment. The story involves a King seeking answers to three questions, namely 1) What is the most important moment? Now, it’s the only moment we can influence, 2) What is the most important thing in life? The thing you are doing, in the case of a child’s bedtime it is the child himself and 3) What is most important to do? To care, to care for the moment and the person, to love. So that’s my approach to parenting when it gets tough. It’s really liberating to feel a stressful moment collapse into something more peaceful. It’s like suddenly finding myself in the eye of a hurricane.

Its not something I always remember to practice, I am no saint nor Buddha, but when I do remember it brings about a transformation of the situation. Suddenly the situation becomes more alive, more pleasant, more peaceful. I hope others find this approach useful. It’s really nothing particularly special. It just an application of acceptance and mindfulness practice into everyday life, someone of my personal art of living well.

Short: ‘Do something today to challenge your ego’

How about a gentle exercise of conscious awareness? Rather than strengthening the ego, why not try to knock it down a little.  How? Just consider this for a moment:

Expose something you find awkward,
Discard something clung to,
Admit something you fear to admit,
Throw a caution to the wind,
Jump without looking,
Trust the ground of your being,
Be free.

If you find this notion scary, then hold that feeling because that’s your ego.  The something that you hold dear, the part of you that you could not bear to expose – even to yourself – that tiny piece of the intolerable.

Can you imagine what would happen if you let it go?  Just one small thing, perhaps just admitting something to yourself.  Try, everything will be okay.  In fact, you might find you feel a lot lighter without the burden.

Peace.