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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Finding the gaps

Mind the gap, please mind the gap.  If you travel the London underground you will hear it regularly and see numerous signs and placards ‘Mind the gap!’ I like these announcements as they encourage me to practice peace of mind.

 Seeking the gap?

Yes, I enjoy the gaps.  Not the physical gaps between platform and train that the warnings of the London underground caution;  I’m not a lemming.   The gaps I seek are those peaceful gaps in thought.

The gap of thoughts is that moment of tranquility between the self-chatter that our minds produce. The sometimes small pauses between discursive thoughts from our rambling mind. The problem, though, is that the untamed mind – the mind that always talks and thinks about anything and everything – is often far too loud and noisy to allow any gaps.

Meditation

So to find gaps, I meditate, not always conventionally.  And part of my meditation practice involves witnessing the gaps. Let me share my main approaches to finding these gaps in my consciousness and perhaps you would be kind enough to share yours.  My methods include:

1. The gap between breaths

During breath meditation (anapanasati) I often find it difficult to stay concentrated on the feeling of my breath moving in and moving out. The problem is that my mind, like an untrained puppy dog, will not sit still, but instead wanders from thought to thought. However, there is this brief moment when a breath transitions from drawing in to drawing out. In this moment, there is complete stillness. Having the alertness to witness these moments of stillness is a powerful method of bringing the wandering mind back from its thoughts. Furthermore, having the resolve to wait (like a cat watching a mouse hole) brings a sharp alertness to my practice of meditation. It also finds the gap in consciousness.

2. Turning when walking

Walking meditation also offers regular points to bring the focus of a meditation on mindfulness back to the task. In walking meditation, the object of the meditation is to simply walk, concentrating on the feeling of the feet on the floor. The aim is to feel as much as possible the sensations of the foot touching the ground, embracing the ground, then leaving the ground. However, as with breath meditation, my mind behaves like an attention-seeking puppy, so again it is useful to have some regular point to regain attention on the object of meditation. So, to achieve this, I set myself a small walking path; maybe 15 steps. At the end of the 15 steps I turn in a different direction and during that transition I find a gap in thoughts and reassert my attention to my feet.

3. The pause between spoken words

Another technique I sometimes use during meditation involves a simple set of words or a phrase that is repeated (a mantra). The mantra becomes the object of the meditation. With mantra meditation, the object of focus becomes the perception/feelings of the words. I find myself concentrating on the sensation of the sound. However, my mind can use virtually anything as a means for distraction and indulgence, including the words of the mantra. The beginning and end of each word or the mantra offers a small gap, a transition, and I can use this to reassert my focus and to enjoy the peace of the brief moment between things.

What and where are your gaps?

These are my main three techniques for finding gaps in thought during meditation. I would love to hear any techniques readers might have. Please feel most welcome to share your practice in the comments section below and I’ll add them to this post.

Peace and love,

Namaste.

Update: Reader submissions taken from comments

Observing and saying thank-you.  Anna Brzeski

Walking and using beadsVictoria

Pause between the dishes, pause between the laundryMatt

Breathing to the heartJanice

Observing and catching the thoughts without judgement, just noticing ’thinking’, Emily

The gap between the notes in music, Alex Colvin