Our spirit lives on

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Today was the first anniversary of my father’s death.  Next year will mark another one and the next, the following one; and so on. According to Eastern tradition, one year marks an important point in the grieving process.  It signals the changes in a person after a year of reflection, grieving and changes. So what have I learnt about myself in this year?

First, was that my father’s life is still a positive force, alive and inspiring to me and to those that knew him.  It is said that the dead give the living the gift of their lives.  My father’s life was that of absolute determination in the face of the most daunting obstacles and winning despite them.  I felt ready to move on and become a real adult by trying to emulate my father’s courage, his honesty and earnestness.  These were his real gifts to me. For the first time, I felt truly grateful to have had him as my father.

This morning I wrote a haiku to mark this occasion.

I saw the sunrise today,
Wrote my father in his diary,
Simple, direct and honest- like the man.

 

My sunset lesson

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sunset over London

This is a photo I took- I regularly take photos of sunsets and sunrises. What I have learnt is that if there are more clouds, the sunset is more dramatic and beautiful.  In the analogy with life, the more clouds or problems you overcome, the more beautiful your life will be, especially towards the end.  So don’t avoid try to problems- welcome them!

The life of a spider

For many weeks, I have been watching a spider in my garden.  There is almost a zen like quality in the way the spider makes its web, busy but methodical.  Then when winds and rain bring the web down, it starts again (I wrote a blog about that).  That spider gave me a lot of hope!

I watched it getting bigger, swaying like a trapeze artist in its web when the wind blew, or (as I imagined), relaxing in its delicate hammock, enjoying the last of the evening sun. In some comical moments, I would imagine it reading a book and I would be envious of its carefree and contained life.  I would water the plants around it, treading carefully so as to disturb it. Once I accidentally touched the web and it scampered off into the cranny of the wall, frightened.

Now I have to confess, I am not a spider lover- I used to be terrified of them. I still think I wouldn’t want to meet another one that I had seen once that was the size of my hand or the tarantula I saw in the Amazon forest.  But this orange-brown one had landed from somewhere, lonely and singular, and I had become its admirer and human friend.

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Then as the days went, while it got bigger, it started staying more and more in the wood of the surrounding wall.  It would come out occasionally and I went once or twice to see how it was doing.  The web started getting more tangled up but it seemed the spider had retired into meditation.

Yesterday as my son and I were clearing up after a thunderstorm, we found it on the decking, dead and dried.  The web had gone too.

I wondered how good it would it would be if humans also lived like that.  Enjoying the days of youth, eating what was local, making and living in a self build home, flourishing and then to die in contentment without leaving a trace.  The perfect minimalist life style!  A life without the complication of wills, money, inheritance, family beds, and pollution and waste.

There is so much I’ve learnt from my spider friend- thank you and farewell!

Losing and gaining

I depend upon a portfolio of small jobs for my income. I like that diversity of work and also I enjoy each of these.  Its like having a tasting menu, or as the French call it, menu dégustation. Dégustation is the delicate tasting of various foods prepared by the chef- a supreme sensory experience.  That is how I like my work too as a creative person.  So when people ask, ‘What do you do?’, I bring out these five or six different things I do, with much pride as a chef would.

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Yesterday, I heard that one of these jobs that I took such pride in, would be longer be mine in nine months time due to end of the contract (which realistically could have been extended as there was more to do but the person in charge was happy with the state of the project!).  In other words, I was sacked!  I reacted in a typical way which was about feeling rejected, hurt, and humiliated.  I know that I have other income streams to depend upon so I wouldn’t suffer financially.  And if I really wanted to, I could go to the Tribunal to contest this.  But Eric Fromm, the philosopher and author of ‘The Art of Being’, advises against such immediate action or rather reaction.  He asks us to reflect and learn from such painful experiences rather than choosing the easy way of confrontation and anger straightway.  Other philosophers ask us to separate ourselves from our ego (which is always the first to get hurt)

First, consider that time heals.  I remember from the past when such things had happened and I had cried for days. Yet today, those things do not bother me and they certainly did not hinder my progress.  Second, what is the lesson from this?  In some ways, it wasn’t my problem that the person in charge was happy to accept an incomplete piece of work.  Or perhaps, even that they didn’t even see it as incomplete in nine months time.  Maybe I would finish it to my satisfaction.  Being a perfectionist, my immediate reaction was that I had failed in some way.  So again, I realised it was my ego that was crying, not the real me.  I realised how much I have let my work define me. Despite losing this work, I was intact- I could always find more work but what did I achieve by needlessly thinking on about the end of contract?  Fromm says, ‘Modern man has many things and uses many things, but he is very little.  His feeling and thinking processes are atrophied like unused muscles.  He is afraid of any crucial social change because any disturbance to the social balance to the him spells chaos or death- if not physical death, the death of his identity.’

Many things that we depend upon for social status such as work, money, power, media presence, etc. are but fleeting.  They might go at any point.  They are indicative of relative happiness where we are comparing ourselves to others, not of absolute happiness.  But if we can become grounded enough to see our true self which is unchanging and unaffected, we can become absolutely happy. Nichiren, the 13th century Buddhist monk, uses the analogy of wind, i.e. something that may blow hard and cold, but passes in the end.  He said, ‘Worthy persons deserve to be called so because they are not carried away by the eight winds: prosperity, decline, disgrace, honor, praise, censure, suffering, and pleasure. They are neither elated by prosperity nor grieved by decline.’  Am I being a worthy person?  Yes, it hurts when work is elevated so much socially but it will pass.  In the meanwhile, I will get stronger and better.

Inspiring quotes from the departed

This year we have lost many wonderful amazing human beings who made this planet a better place- my father being one of those. He was a maths teacher and lived his life the way he wanted to, despite threats and ridicule, helping the poor and disadvantaged. There are many like him, who have died unknown.  Their legacy lies in themselves, while the luckier ones also achieved fame (see the quote from Stan Lee below).  Regardless of whether you achieve fame or not in the end, I think the greatest achievement is to live your life in your own way, using your talents to help others.

Here I have selected some quotes from more famous people to reflect on, and to provide inspiration for the year ahead.  These humans weren’t perfect because no one can be and you may not like them but what they say is an enduring testimony to the power of inspiration. Some quotes will make you even think about fame in a different way. Let me know if any of these appeal to you or if you have other inspiring quotes from people who passed away this year.

“However ordinary each of us may seem, we are all in some way special, and can do things that are extraordinary, perhaps until then… even thought impossible.”
– Sir Roger Bannister (UK athlete and neurologist, who broke the human speed record)

“Every guy in the world would love to be Mr Macho, but I am camp and you cannot lie to the public. If you’re yourself, they’ll either love you or they won’t.”
– Dale Winton (UK TV presenter)

“Because you run against each other, that doesn’t mean you’re enemies. Politics doesn’t have to be uncivil and nasty.”
– George HW Bush (past US president)

“Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”
– John McCain (US senator)

“Every time I go to a comic book convention, at least one fan will ask me: ‘What is the greatest superpower of all?’ I always say that luck is the greatest superpower, because if you have good luck then everything goes your way.”
– Stan Lee (US creator of many superhero comic characters)

“Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that.”
– Aretha Franklin (US singer)

And finally these great words-

“One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”
– Professor Stephen Hawking (UK scientist)

How my father’s death made me rethink social media

My father died two months ago and I am still coming to terms with his passing.  There were many personal issues for me which were separate from those of my siblings, and I realise I have to deal with these in my own way and in my own time.  The pain of these thoughts and processes are present with me each moment. Although I am trying to get back to work, immersing myself in new projects and also practising mindfulness, the sad thoughts still manage to infiltrate and I am forced to acknowledge the rawness of that pain.

But what has equally been painful and saddening has been to find out how many ‘false friends’ I had on social media.  Now don’t get me wrong. I have consciously had under 85 friends on Facebook, rooting out people who didn’t seem to respond to my posts, whose posts I didn’t relate to, and who knew me for less than five years.  I thought I could manage to take in the stories and posts of these 85 people and posted thoughtful and relevant comments on their posts.  I have friends from all over the world and it is easy to keep in touch via Facebook this way. I thought I had the perfect system not to get drawn into the dangers of Facebook with my more or less perfect set of friends.  I also chose not to show my birthday, and instead people who remembered would automatically wish me.  This happened and I was reassured. I was also careful not to post many photos of my father who was deteriorating in health and of other family members who might be sensitive to the exposure.

However, when my father died, for the first time I posted a photo of me and him together as a cover photo along with a very short tribute poem for him, and his birth and death dates. I didn’t want to announce, ‘My father is dead’- I felt this was a much better and personal way.  That cover photo got 34 ‘responses’ with 24 ‘likes’, three ‘sad’ and 10 ‘loves’ and 18 comments.  I did not post that photo to get ‘likes’ or ‘loves’- it was my way to inform my ‘friends’ some of whom who had met my father.  What I wanted was some show of genuine love and support for me, even some words of condolences to acknowledge the passing of my father, who was also a very brave man who had helped many.  But I realised that people had only looked at the photo, did not bother to read the poem and clicked on ‘like’ buttons- out of the 34, only 12 had read the poem and realised its significance.  They wrote their condolences and I thanked them- this should have alerted the non-responsive ones but none came forth.  They’d done their like and that was the end of the interaction for them.  I felt sad that for someone who had helped so many, how few remembered his passing. I’m ‘friends’ with one person and her mother on Facebook. When they both wished me happy birthday last month, I wrote a private message to them to say that my father had died (giving them the benefit of doubt in case they hadn’t noticed).  The mother wrote back to say how sorry she was and said that her daughter was too busy to write to me.  Too busy to write eight words, “I’m sorry to hear about your father’s passing” ?!  And I had thought these were my genuine friends.

In Japan and many other Buddhist countries, people do not celebrate anything for a year after the passing of a close relative.  As Buddhist, I have decided to have a ‘Facebook fast’ for a year. I have deleted my twitter accounts.  I have posted couple of times on Instagram, photos of the sky which my father used to love as way of remembering him.  I use Linkedin as it is for work and have posted a few things only recently. Now having had the realisation about how false this sense of friendship on Facebook and social media is, I realise why I am not getting any ‘likes’ and not even my so called friends asking me why I haven’t posted for so long.  So I am not just mourning the death of my father but also of friendships and kicking myself for not realising how shallow social media is, no matter how careful you try to be.  I have started talking to people in a more genuine way, listening respectfully and carefully to them. Who knows I might get some genuine friends now?

Your dreams can come true

I found this piece of paper while clearing out my parents’ home. I had written it more than thirty years ago. I had no money, we barely had enough to eat and no proper clothes and I lived in one bedroom with my parents and sisters in India.  This was an excerpt from Thornton Wilder’s, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

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This was the best selling novella by Thornton Wilder, published in 1927 that won the Pulitzer Prize. It recounts a fictional event when an Inca rope bridge collapses between Cusco and Lima, Peru; and takes down five people with it.  A friar who witnesses the tragedy reflects on why these people were there on that day and time on that bridge; and whether their fates were connected in some way, and seeks a cosmic answer to the question of why each had to die in that way at that spot and time.

The same year that I copied this paragraph was the year I took up Buddhism and by strange chance, was asked to design a mural which was then later inaugurated by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.  Four years later, competing against thousands of applicants, I won a scholarship to do my post graduate degree at UK’s prestigious Cambridge University.  This year I was able to go to Peru and see the Inca bridge at Machu Picchu. It wasn’t the same bridge but for me it was the bridge between my young teenage hopes and dreams and where I have got to.

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I often think that life is really connected- there are events and things happening that you may think are unconnected but years later, you will see a pattern.  That scrap of paper was my connection, my bridge to the past which inspired me to take an action to visit a place where I thought I’d never go. It is never too late to dream and somehow life will turn out to make that dream come true.

Deciding what to do

Recently I have been reviewing what to do, having spent many years doing it all, or rather trying to do it all.  I feel now I have come to the state in life when I need to edit things out.  This kind of editing has involved giving away of things I am not using; not going to events/shows/talks; editing out facebook and other social media contacts; getting out of mailing lists and also deciding what to do with work goals.

The Konmari method of cleaning out spaces uses the idea of throwing out anything that is not ‘sparking joy’.  William Morris suggested that everything in our house should be useful or beautiful (or both).

The author, Scott Sonenshein, says that the Konmari method is ‘not just about what we do to our physical space.  It’s about what we do to our mental space. Once we break that dependence that having more equals more happiness and more success” and apply the “spark joy” filter, we “can recognize what is most meaningful and important to us because it doesn’t get lost in clutter.’

However, it has taken me a long time (decades) to see what sort of rest of my life I want to lead.  So he says, ‘Deciding which projects to pursue may be more challenging for individuals beginning a new career, as they have yet to develop a strong sense of the work and environments they prefer.  However, just as the KonMari Method is structured so individuals can “calibrate before getting to sentimental items”, people may need time in their professional lives to gain a better sense of what “sparks joy” for them.’

Using the method by William Morris, one can decide if the project is not useful or creating something beautiful it is time to let go of it.  After all, we live short lives and in that time, we do not leave something behind that is beautiful or useful (and even both), then there is nothing to remember us by.  That leaving gift need not be a physical thing- it can be advice or love you give to another person.  For example, my Uncle did not leave me anything but his love and advice (which I use all the time).  He lives on in my life and also in my children’s lives as I recount things he used to say or do with me.

Worth watching this 12 minute funny TED Talk (assuming you are not offended by the language!)

Decluttering lessons: part 2

This follows on from my musings after helping to clear out my parents’ house.  There were many things that I realised and I kept on writing notes to myself as I reached certain milestones or achieved a key goal.  Most important was how was I feeling?  Did I feel good?  Did I feel sad?  Did I feel ‘lighter’?  Did I feel free? Did I feel guilt?  Actually as I moved on through the process, I felt all these emotions.  One of the worst moments of hat clear-up was finding cheques worth a lot of money, cheques that had not been cashed and now were worthless.  How much my mother had saved and scrimped; and yet so much money that was already there had simply wasted away because we hadn’t found them.  And the sadness from seeing her pristine and unread books given to her as marriage gifts now being bitten by rats which also had to be thrown out.  So from my notes here are some points-

  1. Fear of deprivation– Some of the stuff my mother was storing, like plastic bags, were not really needed- she had so many of these.  Despite feeling angry and frustrated at this, I realised that my mother’s needs to hold on to things stemmed on from her very deprived childhood.  I had to be sympathetic and understand where she came from.  But there was also a fear that my mother felt that if she let go of these things, she wouldn’t get anymore (again stemming from her childhood).  So my solution was to put all the plastic bags in front of her and ask her how many did she really want?  Could we get rid of some that were torn or dusty?  In the end, slowly, after selecting a few useful ones, my mother let go off most of the bags.
  2. Delayed action– My mother put things away for another time to do-, so one day she was going to sort out her children’s clothes.  In the years that followed, her children grew up and moved away from not only her home but also country.  Now that my mother is old, she doesn’t have time.  I wondered how much clutter accumulates because one day we are going to tackle it- receipts, clothes, etc, etc. As my parents have grown older and less mobile, the growing clutter was actually becoming dangerous to them in their daily lives.  After I explained that to her, she realised that she and we were at a stage in our lives where the things she’d saved up were of no use to either us or her and she was able to let go.
  3. Achieved function– Each thing that comes into our lives has a function.  So the purpose of the envelope is to bring to your a letter or bill.  Once that thing is has done its job, then you have to let it go. I have heard that Thoreau used to look at something once and then chuck it if it was of now use.  Now in our current age, we can’t just chuck things like that- we need to sort it out as most of our waste is not biodegradable anymore.  So we need time to do that and we should but let it go as you can.  It is now possible to recycle everything.  Give away unused presents.  This was the most useful thing I learnt about getting rid of clutter for others.

 

Happy clearing!

In search of perfection

Many artists like to produce perfect artworks- that is understandable.  They see beautiful works of art before them in museums, cities and in homes; and now in the media.  So the quest for perfection is ‘even more in your face’- if your work is not perfect, perhaps you are not perfect.  I have now heard from two artists who are suffering from depression and exhaustion, trying to be perfect, and trying to produce perfect pieces of art.  There is a Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi, which actually elevates imperfection

But there is a Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi, which actually elevates imperfection.  So cracks in pottery are filled with gold, literally emphasizing and embellishing the imperfection, instead of hiding it.  The Wabi-Sabi aesthetic is a beauty that is ‘imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete’. It is quite like our physical selves- our bodies are not perfect but using clothes, shoes and make-up we make them look perfect.  But the most memorable faces are those that highlight imperfection- such as David Bowie’s mismatched eyes.  The actress Jennifer Grey who had her nose done, regretted it- she felt she had lost herself or her unique character.

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These are two pieces of pottery that I found destined for the skip.  The creator had discarded them in this bin in a pottery workshop.IMG_3517.jpg

I took them home and I have used them regularly for the last three years. They have not broken or cracked (and I have washed them in the dishwasher) and were perfect the way I have used them.  As I use them, I thank the creator of these two pieces and sometimes feel sorry that in the quest for perfection, the artist threw away two little gems.  I am pleased they came my way- each time I look at them, I think about the imperfection of life and how we can create value of each imperfection through acceptance, patience and love.