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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
There is much we don’t know about. While we may know about our own lives and that of close family and friends, our area of work or what is happening near where we live, there is much going on that we don’t know about. It is good to be curious, good to listen to others and good to learn about new things. Recently I have become a convert to saying, ‘I don’t know’ after years of saying, ‘I know’.
The reason comes from a childhood incident when a teacher told me I was stupid because I confessed that I did not know the words to a Christmas carol by heart. I was being truthful but was upset when this woman declared that I was stupid in front of all my classmates. So I started saying ‘I know’ to everything and saying ‘Yes’ to everything. Both are stupid reactions but how is a child to know? I carried this shame and reaction in my heart for many decades although I had long left that school and teacher. It is only now that I realise that saying ‘I know’ is actually stupid. There is very little we know and most of what we know is of little importance. It is better to be humble and look at the world with new eyes of learning and gratitude. It is also such a release. When you say, ‘I know’, you are also waiting to be found out that you actually don’t know. So less stressful!
It is also so powerful to say this because you open your heart to new experiences, to be able to listen and to gain knowledge. Even if you find out later that you knew something, it still adds to your skill and knowledge to hear it from someone else. Most people are keen to talk and tell you something. So the ‘I don’t know, please tell me’ has actually increased my knowledge and I have made more friends by being able to listen. It doesn’t sound unprofessional at all- in fact it makes you look more professional by wanting to listen and understand colleagues. Social media wants you to look like an all-knowing clever (and barbed) quip-a-dozen personality. But opting out of that restriction is always an improvement to one’s life! Be simple, be ignorant- or to follow the quote beloved of Steve Jobs, ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’.
While the UK and Europe are battling over the Brexit process, it is easy to find yourself drawn into this like a moth to the bulb, spending hours thinking about pros and cons, and who said what. Then there is a perpetual source of amusement coming from the USA, which generates reams of journalistic coverage and hours of entertainment. It is easy to lose yourself in these things everyday. But one day I took a look at my terrarium- and realised that there were small events happening daily in my own room that I ignored. Things that gave me joy and courage. And hope and happiness.
A life was emerging and there were more signs of life to be found in my living room that I hadn’t acknowledged, like this Peace Lily from a pot that hasn’t bloomed for years.
Then I realised there were big things also happening that could affect our life on the planet at the time when politicians appear to have taken centre stage. Climate change threatens our entire existence and no one really seems to be paying any attention, despite the student protests on Fridays. In December 2018, a meteorite came close to causing catastrophic damage to all forms of life when a force close to ten Hiroshima bombs was unleashed. Except, thankfully this meteorite exploded over a water body and no one was hurt. So I realise that when the immediate seems to capture and hold your attention, then try looking up into the heavens or inside your home. There are things happening there which are far more meaning to your life and others.
Couple of weeks ago, I posted about learning from the incense that I use on my Buddhist altar and this one is about learning from the candles on it.
Each day after finishing my prayers, I blow out the candles. The one on the left is blown out earlier than the one on the right. Towards end, you can see that despite there being less than one second difference in blowing out the the candles, they are two different lengths. One is slightly longer than the other.
It is the same with our lives- small actions done daily whether negative or positive, have a cumulative effect on us. At the end of our lives, these small actions add up even if no one notices. Daily efforts like revising for exams, showing kindness to others, cleaning small areas in our homes each day- multitude of small deeds- are important. Our lives are lived in small moments of decision making in which we can use time wisely . As Nichiren, the Buddhist monk says, ‘Little streams come together to form the great ocean, and tiny particles of dust accumulate to form Mount Sumeru.’
There are so many blogs, vlogs, books and other guidance on minimalism, money saving, and living simply these days, that it can be hard to distinguish between them and use the different techniques effectively. Does this thing spark joy? Should I put things in different boxes and if I haven’t used them in six months, then throw them? How should I go about getting a minimalist wardrobe (if I haven’t got a stylist!)? And how should I prioritise my day? How can I save money when I want to buy organic goods?
The title of this post comes from an ancient Japanese saying, used by many Buddhist philosophers, ‘When the skies are clear, the ground is illuminated’. It has become a key part of how I try to deal with everyday life, including clutter. First, the concept is about clearing your mind, so that you can take care of the mundane- the things ‘on the ground’. When your mind is free of worries and in an expansive state like that of the sky, then you can ‘look down’ and see what the priorities are. These include in order- treasures of the store house, the body, and of the mind. As Nichiren, the Buddhist monk, says,
‘More valuable than treasures in a storehouse are the treasures of the body, and the treasures of the heart are the most valuable of all’.
What he is saying is that the most valuable things are what is in our heart- our intention, followed by our health and matters of our body and lastly, come the accumulation of stuff. When our heads are clear, we can see instantly which work enables us to accumulate the ‘treasures of the heart’, then tend to our body, and then perhaps to material things. If we follow this advice, then clearly accumulating stuff is the last thing we ought to do.
So, for instance, for last couple of days, I decided to see some friends and listened to what was going on in their lives. Although they didn’t reciprocate and ask me what was going on in my life, curiously I wasn’t bothered as normally I would have been. I was accumulating treasures of the heart which mattered more to me.
Another simple thing I’ve been doing over the years for decluttering is the ‘non replacement’ technique. If something breaks down, then I don’t replace it. Usually I find I can manage quite fine without it. So when my food processor broke down several years ago, I found this piece of stone which was going to be thrown away from an exhibition stand on stone products, and a traditional Indian pestle which my mother had given me. The pestle had precious childhood memories for me. I now use this to grind wet spices and herbs- remembering this rhythmical action from my childhood, the sound of the stone against stone, my mother’s hands where my hands are now. I’ve not bought anything thus saving money (first by not replacing and secondly, by not using electricity); and also the hand pestle is a good way of exercising my arms and getting rid of tension (perhaps like kneading bread). Quite simply, as my experience with the pestle and the piece of stone proves, if you can associate something with the three ‘treasures’, then it is a keeper.
And what of the food processor? I recycled the electrical part but kept all the other bits as they are quite useful for storing liquids and dry stuff. One of the parts has become a an unusual plant holder for me. As the food processor was given to me by my son, again this is part of my three treasures concept- each time, I look at the plant, I remember my son.