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.
It is rude to ask someone their age, how much they earn and other personal stuff like religion and sexuality (unless they talk about it themselves) but I found there are times when it might be advantageous to reveal your age. This is when you work in an industry where age or experience matters and you look younger than you are. I look younger than I am and I work in a very male dominated industry where I’ve been dismissed by both men, and surprisingly by women too (I suppose these women follow the males). I was being also ignored for promotions and my suggestions or advice not being listened to. One colleague even calls me ‘kiddo’. Friends told me to stop worrying about it, saying, ‘You know that people actually reduce their age on social media?’ or ‘You are so lucky!’ People have different problems and I had this strange one. I wondered what I should do as it seemed a ‘non-problem’ to some, and even ironical to complain about it.
I spoke to a female mentor and she said I shouldn’t worry about this and should use this to my advantage. But what advantage was it giving me? None, I decided. Then I noticed a female colleague who had set out her date of birth in her C.V., unlike me. She is the same age as me but actually looks older. But instead of dismissing her, I noticed the men saying we should all support this ‘young woman’ and the women giving her respect too. So obviously being careful with online scams and ‘cat fishing’, I’ve decided to reveal my age (but not the day and month) on my social media profile on sites like Linkedin and my CV. I noticed that this also stops me from getting unwanted chatty emails from men saying things like, ‘I love your smile, shall we meet up when I am next in London?’
Have you had any experience of this? What actions did you take?
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)
In 13th century Japan, a low caste priest, Nichiren, who was exiled to a desolate snow covered island in the deepest winter after surviving a beheading ordered by the ruler due to a fortuitous arrival of a comet, wrote to a poor fisherman, Abutsu, who brought him some gifts of food-
Now the entire body of Abutsu Shonin is composed of the five universal elements of earth, water, fire, wind and ku…Therefore, Abutsu-bo is the Treasure Tower itself, and the Treasure Tower is Abutsu-bo himself. No other knowledge is purposeful…You may think you offered gifts to the Treasure Tower of Taho Buddha, but that is not so. You offered them to yourself. You, yourself, are a true Buddha who possesses the three enlightened properties.
I have often thought of these lines, particularly during this Christmas. For many years, I have been receiving some terrible gifts or none at all. While gift giving is part of the celebration of many religions, particularly Christmas, it can also be wasteful if you have received something that is not needed. So many of these gifts ended up being regifted or sent to charity shops, which was probably not intended by the giver. Also, at the time when everyone is receiving gifts, if you don’t receive them, it can be hurtful. This year, I decided to do something I’ve never done before- give a gift to myself. I realised I had never actually thought myself worthy of receiving a useful gifts. I also thought of some unkind ways in which I had dealt with givers of ‘useless’ or terrible gifts. I also would buy lovely expensive gifts for others, and ask others not to give me anything- thereby creating a miserable and peculiar martyr syndrome which was ‘I love receiving good presents but I don’t really deserve any’. Reflecting on this past history made me see how I had made myself less likely to receive good gifts- the ones that William Morris would described as beautiful and useful.
So I selected the most opulent gift bag I had kept intending to give to someone else as usual. In it I placed my best dark chocolates which I had again bought to give to someone else. I also put in the bag, a lovely Christmas card which I had kept for someone else. You may think this is strange, but for me keeping the best things for others was perfectly normal!
Yesterday during Christmas, I had the surprise of my life when I received the most beautiful and useful gifts ever! I also received the most cards ever. Although, by now I wouldn’t have cared about the gifts, they also revealed to me that if you don’t care or nurture yourself, you will not receive that back from the environment. Truly, you don’t give gifts to others, you give to yourself. How you treat yourself is how others treat you.
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?