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.
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 hasmany 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’.
Lately as I have been struggling with work, health and having time for myself. It seems that life throws things at you one after the other without space for a breathe. Zen like calmness was eluding me while worrying thoughts criss crossed my mind like the way wheat grass stems are thrashed about in the winds. Then I saw the spider. The day before I had been admiring the beautiful silky web it had built, its delicate threads coming together in a perfect octagonal shape. Now after a day of winds, the threads had become tangled up and the perfect shape was gone.
And yet, the spider wasn’t sitting around moaning about that its beautiful home was gone. I thought about how humans do that all the time. Yes, we don’t have the skills to built our houses and we have to employ others and pay them good money to do it. But the tenacity of the spider was what inspired me. And how much we humans can learn about patience, dealing with disasters and rebuilding our lives from lowly insects. You can also learn about reuse and zero waste- the little spider hung her new built home from the remnants of the old web. I don’t think I will ever look down on the so called ‘lower species’ any more- they seem higher than us humans most times.
PS- that book is fantastic if you want to learn about what amazing structures animals, and insects, and even one celled organisms can ‘build’ and how the instinct to create is part of our DNA that we share with all living things.
I have children who always seem to be anxious about something or the other. My older son used to have many anxieties and had counselling. My younger son is now doing his school exams and constantly studying or revising. His only method of relaxing is texting and seeing his friends from time to time. In his anxiety about the exams, he started revising during his school lunch breaks and forgoing eating and meeting his friends in the break or after school. I tried to get him to relax through conversations over dinner and asking him about things other than exams. But he seemed very averse to the whole thing and told me that I didn’t understand ‘modern exams’. I also enrolled him into a service that offers telephone counselling on anxiety issues but he refused to speak to them. I told him he should join some local sports which would help him with anxiety issues.
Talking about this situation with a friend over lunch, it struck me that I was asking my son to do things I didn’t do myself. I was constantly talking about work or working all the time without breaks, I didn’t meet up with friends regularly enough and never did any sports myself. I spent many sleepless nights due to anxiety over various things (last night I slept for about three hours!). My two children were only reflecting the anxiety I felt myself and were modelling themselves over me. But what a terrible role model I was. Social media has made our lives difficult when we see people being successful and earning money, having millions of followers and having public profiles. Although I don’t think anyone tries to become like these lucky people (and they are lucky); we also want to achieve smaller victories in our lives. But what if we just tried to be happy and not ambitious?
I have just started re-reading the ‘One straw revolution’ by Masanobu Fukuoka. Fukuoka was a scientist turned farmer who started a farming revolution by doing nothing. He was laughed at and ignored for over 25 years until people noticed that he was growing far more crops that way using no insecticide, no fertilisers, tillage and no ‘wasteful effort’. This morning as it turned 5-00am and the skies became light, I started reading the book after having failed to sleep. In the book, Fukuoka says bluntly, ‘There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is futile, meaningless effort.’ I realised that we overdo everything- work, thoughts, worries, money, relationships- when we could just relax and be happy. In trying to overdo everything, we get anxious. Realising this at dawn today after a night of no sleep was rather ironic but enlightening. Fukuoka’s terse words reminded me of the movie ‘The fault in our stars’ in which the lead character, Hazel Grace, says that in reality as we die, everything we do dies with us. Though again quite a sobering thought, it really means that we are not that important in the scheme of the universe. If we just let go of our own importance, relaxed and became happy without trying to accomplish and over achieve, we would be happier beings.
So this morning, I tried some ‘no or little work’ gardening following the advice of Fukuoka and my son joined in. He then went to a see a friend for lunch and as he left, I joked, ‘I hope you don’t talk about exams!’ He laughed and waved goodbye. In his writing, the Buddhist monk Nichiren advises his follower, a typically hot headed alpha male samurai warrior, Shijo Kingo, ‘Though worldly troubles may arise, never let them disturb you. No one can avoid problems, not even sages or worthies. Drink sake only at home with your wife….Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life.’ I had smile as I realise that often I enjoy what is there to suffer and suffer what is there to enjoy! But it is actual so much simpler just to enjoy life.
I have a close relative who, until this week, I did not recognise as being depressed. The signs were all there- habitual untidiness, slowness, procrastination, hoarding and wearing of mismatched and old clothes (some of which were in tatters). She would refuse to visit others and refuse to let others visit her (except me).
I could see her habits were having a detrimental effect on her family and her children. The hoarding also helped to prevent others visiting her and her husband was complaining that they could not invite others. Her husband would come home from work and stand, drinking his tea because there nowhere to sit- just stuff everywhere.
I thought it was a simple case of being careless about her appearance. For many years, I sent her books and videos on decluttering, self improvement, spirituality, household management, and even fashion. She never read or saw anything I sent her, instead all this piled up on the existing clutter. I’d cajole her sometimes and sometimes plead with her. I took her to other people’s homes on other pretexts but I was secretly hoping that she might be inspired by other’s tidiness. Each time I visited, I would tidy up her place, hoping that the change would inspire her to keep it that way. She would refuse to part with anything, so I would leave these things in a bin bag and pray that after I left she would throw the rubbish away. Each time after a few days, the place would go back to how it was. She would explain that she was so busy that she had no time to tidy up but in reality she was at home, not working elsewhere. Her home was her work.
She resisted any efforts to ‘improve’ her. People would always talk about ‘poor her’ and how she could not manage- and I didn’t like hearing people talk like this about her. But I felt there was nothing I could do. Slowly I stopped visiting her, instead I would ring her from time to time.
This week has been the Mental awareness week in the UK, and I was listening to a young woman on the radio talking about her depression. One of the things she said that struck a chord with me was that she deliberately wore tattered or mismatched clothes to draw attention to her mental state, i.e. she would use her choice of clothes, instead of words, to show the world what her mind was going through. I realised that my relative was doing exactly the same. I had failed to understand that and instead in a superficial way, was trying to ‘correct’ her. I feel extremely ashamed now of what I had been trying to do. Instead of seeing her inner life state (depression), I was viewing it as a superficial problem, which could be solved through ‘logical’ and rational means such as self help videos and books. I had been extremely insensitive for decades while she had descended into chaos- she wanted help in other ways but not through books and videos. She had let me into her life perhaps hoping that I would help her but I had failed to even grasp the problem for years. I had failed, not her!
I have now reflected on my own selfishness and ignorance and am no longer going to tell her how to live her life or tidy her home. Instead, I am hoping to rekindle our friendship and love- and help her in the way she wants. People sometimes confuse grief and depression and I had done that too in this case. In some decluttering books and videos, hoarding is viewed as signs of grief and loss. People are asked to look at things and ask if they ‘spark joy’ and to let them go if they don’t. While grief is a natural response to a loss, while depression is an illness. People who are grieving find their feelings of sadness and loss come and go, but they’re still able to enjoy things and look forward to the future. In contrast, people who are depressed don’t enjoy anything and find it difficult to be positive about the future. So for depressed people, nothing sparks joy- this is a useless question to ask of hoarders who are also depressed. This is what was going on with my relative. This incident also showed me how judgmental and insensitive I was- I am grateful for my relative for helping to reveal this part of my nature to me. After all these years, I realised I needed to work on myself, not her! She was my mirror but I had not looked properly.
Have you faced a problem like this, trying to help someone close to you? How did you go about it? Let me know by commenting.
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.’