A cluttered mind

I have recently been revisiting videos and writings on decluttering.  Why?  Because I forget to clear up and then I find more clutter when I am busy with other things but why is clutter collecting anyway?  Here are some things I have found out about reasons for clutter collection with some useful tips.  According to Oxford psychologist Stelios Kiosses, ‘There’s a bit of the hoarder in all of us … it’s when it gets out of hand, there’s a problem.’  My thing is once I have cleared up, it builds up again and then it gets out of hand.  I don’t have a cleaner, manager or organiser.  How can I stop cluttering?  I have tried so many methods.  As someone who is actively working in the environmental and ecological fields, I feel ashamed that I have so much stuff in my own house and office.

I have tried the Marie Kondo approach but you have to be very careful with that as you might end of throwing away useful things and also that approach doesn’t go far into why one creates clutter in the first place.  You have to know yourself in order to find out why you create clutter or collect.  So here is what I have learnt-

  1. Look around to see what it is that is cluttering up your environment.  In my case, it is definitely paper in some form- books, documents, paper, cuttings, etc. I spent more than £5000 on headed paper and have hardly used those and they clutter up my office storage.  Then there is also stationery that I have never used- dried up pens, rubber bands that have crumbled away, tags that don’t fit and so many items that don’t work. Kiosses also believes that hoarding comes from suffering owing to a loss of some kind.  But then we all have had loss of some kind and yet some of us hoard more than others.

IMG_2424.jpg

  1. Hence you need to think about why you hoard that particular thing– again in my case, it was always ‘just in case’. I write a lot so there are books and cuttings.  But there is also my fear of appearing ignorant, so I keep the backing for ‘ my proposition or thoughts to prop me up intellectually.  In other words, I need these bits of paper to help me because I can’t be bothered to think for myself or challenge an argument.  It is also a habit that is built up through our education system, with constant referencing that is required for any essay or paper you write.  But there is no need to store references- most are available on the Internet.  My headed paper also reflects an insecurity and an allusion to scarcity- I kept those sheets for the future.  Then the future arrived and everyone is using the internet and so paper sent by post is getting scarcer in every discipline.
  2. Be kind to yourself as you decide to change- I realised I had to treat myself gently in order to draw me away from drowning in my clutter.  The more harsh you are, the less workable decluttering is; which is why many give up on the Kondo method.  Rome wasn’t built in one day and the clutter wasn’t created in one day.  Clearing up one small area that is bothering you works best as the clearing ripple spreads. I am also now less harsh towards others- I recognise the hoarder that Kiosses talks about exists in me and others too.  There is no need to look down on others.  Also, I recognise that it is precisely because of this reason that you can’t clear someone else’s clutter.  That is why you can’t have decluttering theories that apply to everyone and follow ‘how to declutter’ books by someone else.  It is all in your mind.  Just as you are unique, your style and method of decluttering will be unique.

As one website says, “When you get rid of the vast majority of your possessions, you’re forced to confront your darker side:

  • When did I give so much meaning to possessions?
  • What is truly important in life?
  • Why am I discontent?
  • Who is the person I want to become?
  • How will I define my own success?”

The aim of decluttering, should not in fact be to purge your belongings but to enjoy the objects and environment you’ve chosen to live with.  That knowledge comes with knowing yourself deeply and well.

Community relations

 

About ten days ago, I went to a funeral of a neighbour. I had designed the ‘Order of service’ booklet which she had left to the last minute. Through doing this, I had learnt about the remarkable life of her husband.  I learnt about her life and her children.  From knowing nothing about her, apart from greeting her when I met her, I learnt so much about another person.  I felt uplifted by this experience.

IMG_2404.jpg

Unknown to me, she had mentioned to many of other neighbours who had come to give their condolences that I had helped her so much.  So couple of days ago, when I needed help to move furniture and sort out some house repairs, I was very grateful to have the help of neighbours.  My little act of helping someone had ignited the spirit of help across the block.  I regret now that it took a funeral for me to get to know someone and help them but also grateful for the realisation that all it takes for a community spirit to begin is to knock on people’s doors and ask them if they need help.  I am now helping another neighbour who is seriously ill.  So much of our modern lives are taken up with living just for ourselves or family.  Our human family is much bigger.  This is our privilege and honour to be part of this human family.

 

A hero

I have not been to any David Bowie concert but his music has existed alongside my growth as a person. His talents, not just as a ground breaking musician but as someone who is as a holistic as an artist can be (poet, actor, director, producer, writer, dancer, etc), has been so inspiring. Bowie was a well-read and informed artist who drew upon a wealth of influences such as Tibetan Buddhism, German Expressionism, Mime, Japanese culture, history and Jungian psychology. He has often described himself as a ‘magpie’ and he was able to synthesise diverse ideas and use them in his art. Coming from a poor working class family, it must have taken immense courage to proclaim his ideas and intent. As the philosopher Michael Foley says, ‘Appreciating art is not passive but active, not reverential but familiar, not a worthy act of self improvement but an audacious and cunning ruse. To seek out what stimulates and makes use of it- this is the work of art.’ And Bowie was a master at this and so his entire life became a work of art.

From becoming totally immersed in his various personas- Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, etc- to his campaigning for others- from Tibet to physically disabled children and to his perceptive thoughts on the internet, death, illness, etc. he comes across as a total person. He acknowledged his mistakes without arrogance or defensiveness (watch his interviews on Youtube) and his fears and died a hero. There was no drama about his death unlike his pop personality life. He even made his death into a work of art and then took his bow, humbly and quietly. I never realised how much influence he had on me until last Sunday when it was announced that he had gone. He wasn’t perfect but he was a hero. And most importantly, his life has taught us that we can be heroes too.  Here is a video of him tapping out his song ‘Heroes’ using a bottle cap on his shoe, raising money for physically challenged children at the Bridge School concert, 1996.

We are all Quasimodos

There is a Buddhist story about a simple man called ‘Never disparaging’ who seeks the good in all but people chase him away, throwing rocks and sticks at him.  However, he continues and in the end, becomes the Buddha, an enlightened soul.  In the novel ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ by Victor Hugo is Quasimodo, a deformed ugly man with a heart of gold, who is reviled by all yet comes out as the best of all.  Quasimodo is also a simple soul but his generosity and bravery make him worthy of praise.  Both Never disparaging and Quasimodo are not clever but good.  What they teach us is goodness is better than cleverness.  Also, they are not good looking on the outside but from the inside, they are good.  So they teach us that it is better to be good inside than outside.  Nature makes sure that no one is perfect, even the most beautiful person has some physical defect, one side of our body is slightly different from the other.  Quasimodo’s hunch signifies the baggage we all carry- whether inside or outside.  So we are all Quasimodos in that respect but just like him, we also have that goodness.  To recognise that quality in ourselves and others all the time is the most difficult part.  And that is the struggle of everyday- to be kind, compassionate and good, not matter what.

reaching out

My neighbour accepted a delivery for me when I was out.  When I went to collect it, I was shocked at her appearance- she had lost a lot of weight and looked very gaunt. Not sure of anything, I mumbled thanks and left.  But it bothered me that I hadn’t asked.  She was a bubbly young French lady, with two small children and her appearance and behaviour were totally out of character.

Then a week later, while shopping, I met another neighbour and asked her if she knew anything.  This lady told me that the French lady had cancer which had spread.  It all made sense to me now- why I always saw her mother ferrying the children to school, not her; and her appearance.  I felt deeply ashamed that I hadn’t said anything to her, offered to help even.   But even then, I did not do anything.  But my lack of action kept gnawing at the back of my mind.

Couple of days ago, I put a book for her and one for her children and a card through her letter box.  The book I sent was a book that I read when I was ill with a stroke.  That very evening, I received an email from her-

Thank you very much for your kind words and your prayers, it means a lot to me.

Ella was delighted with the book and I will read the other one with great care.

As you know, when sickness takes over your life, you see it differently and dream of normal things and I can’t wait to put this ordeal behind me. I am so lucky to have a supportive family who take good care of me and the children.

My treatment is going well but I spend most of the time in bed as I go through chimio every 2 weeks for 3 days… 14 done, 9 to go ! My kids keep me strong.

Thank you again for your kindness and I trust all is well.

I was touched that she had taken the time to thank me despite everything- a sign of a great person.  I write this post not to proclaim how great I am but perhaps to say that how stupid I had been.  As my other neighbour said me, ‘You don’t need to know the technicalities of someone’s illness but reaching out is enough- it shows you care.’  Secondly, I learnt that you need to reach out as soon as you can.  Life can go by too soon and you miss opportunities to show kindness and experience it.  You miss chances to be part of the human family.

how to live to be a 100

IMG_1797

This is my friend, whom I have known for 25 years. He is sitting there with his card from the Queen to congratulate him on his 100th birthday and the two cups of tea he made, one for me (he will never allow me to make the tea!).  (In case you wondered, when people turn 100 in the UK, the Queen sends them a birthday card)  When I met him last week, I asked him what he thought was the secret to being 100.  Of course, one must allow that unfortunate accidents and illnesses cut short one’s life, so if those are to be discounted, then he said the secret is to living a long life is being ‘open’ to life.  We then talked about what being open to life means.

One meaning of being open is about being grateful for what life brings.  David’s wife died more than 40 years ago and he still clearly grieves for her but he is grateful to have seen his great grandchildren and his own children and grandchildren leading happy lives.  He was a tiny boy when the Great War broke out and he was a young man who served in the RAF in the WWII. After that he settled into a life of domesticity and peace, working for British Council until his retirement. He is grateful for the chances that life gave him.  David has been a Buddhist for more than 30 years.

The other meaning of receptive, he said, was about being kind to people. He often tells me the same story (and I pretend I have not heard it before).  This is about his friend who hated ‘doctors, Jews and blacks’.  Once this friend collapsed outside a pub with a heart attack and he was helped by two young men who probably saved his life.  David visited his friend in hospital and found him to be a much changed man.  His friend who now had a different opinion of doctors, said, ‘You know what, one of the men who saved me was black!’ To which David responded, ‘Then the other one must have been a Jew!’  Being receptive and open means being kind to all people and free from prejudice.

Over and over again, most old people who have lived a long life, say similar things to me.  I can’t remember even one bitter and angry person who has lived a long life, even with the benefit of modern medical care.  David’s friend unfortunately was not able to mend his ways, despite being very rich and died early, always complaining and bitter.  So there you are, live a long life by being open and receptive!

Healing Art

I have wondered if art has an effect on healing of minds, not just bodies.  Yesterday, I went to an art show where six artists of different disciplines were placed in dementia care settings and looked at the different arts they produced- ranging from poetry to paintings.  In one of the comments, the writer wondered whether the quality or the content of the art work was less important than the fact that it was being made at all.  Was the art condescending in its presentation? David Clegg, artist and founder of the Trebus project, which documents the lives of dementia patients, says “I have been around a few care homes now and the level of individual care or therapy is horrendous – bingo or painting. I am not anti art therapy, but it’s a long time since I have seen anything that was accessible, enjoyable and relevant. There isn’t much fun in care homes.” IMG_0620 IMG_0621

According to Karen Haller, a creative consultant, art per se, does not heal- it is the act of producing the art that heals.  I agree.  In my opinion, creation of the art is more important on the person doing it rather than on the viewer.  David Clegg says, “I got a lot of very good responses from families who said they saw their relatives change before their eyes. One woman said she got her mum back for a while. I think what we’ve got reveals something really true and honest about the sad, funny, chaotic interior world of people with dementia and mental illness, which is a bit uncomfortable but I think really important. One of the disturbing and distinctive features of dementia is that people undergo personality changes – they are not the mums and dads that their children knew. One old lady developed a taste for Motörhead.”

At another event, I heard from Japanese artists who are working with the victims of the March 2011 Tsunami and the subsequent even more catastrophic nuclear disaster at Fukushima about how art is being used as form of expression of sorrow and participation. This made me think quite deeply about I had previously viewed art made by others- particularly those with less physical ability than others.  Of course, there are savants, like Stephen Wiltshire, an artist who draws and paints detailed cityscapes, and is autistic. Coincidentally, I was sent a link today to a programme made by an architect who had explored a city (Portland in the USA) entirely through sounds.  I wondered then if that was the way, the city sounds like to blind people, rather than sighted people who only view the city and never hear anything, especially with ears plugged to music or mobile phones.  So in fact, people with mental or physical disabilities can teach us more about the physical environment than we care to know.

IMG_0623IMG_0624

I reflected on how I ‘superior’ or complete I have felt in the past to people with less physical abilities than myself and consequently, learnt less about the world and about myself.  It was certainly a humbling experience for me this week.  I have learnt not only to respect others’ art and expression but also appreciate my own work and myself (something that I, in the past, had found difficult).  This is holistic healing.  The Trebus Project was named in honour of Edmund Trebus, a Polish war veteran, who filled his house with things thest of the world had decided were rubbish, convinced that in time a use would be found for them. Our minds with all their experiences, feelings and emotions are also a great storehouse for our art and consequently through those, we can heal ourselves- both mind and body.

my first art exhibition

Spirit 2014 Flame of the forest

This week, my first ever art show opened. It may have been something vaguely I wanted to do in life but I really hadn’t thought much about it, except that it was ‘impossible’. Then I heard an inspiring talk given by a blind artist ( see my previous post on Annie Fennymore) and realised how actually I ‘understood’ her and her techniques for painting. I got talking to the person who organised this show and suddenly she turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you exhibit your work too? We have a three month vacant slot here.’ I was deeply reluctant at first. My reaction was- ‘what if people don’t like it? what if people laugh at the work? what if people don’t get it?’ etc etc.

I was full of fear. But having thought about how much I was going to regret not taking this opportunity, I said yes eventually. Then I also decided to paint new work and re-worked some of the originals. I realised I had changed- I had taken on fear and won. Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”  You can always learn from mistakes, but what if you’ve actually never made a mistake (as if that is possible!)? Life is all about making mistakes, learning from them.

It was hard work but I thoroughly enjoyed painting again.  I didn’t try to please anyone- just painted to please myself and thought about what I would like looking at.  Having now done this, I am in a daze- people have written so many kind words about my work. One said, “I have just been to have a look and the art looks amazing. You are very talented!”

Many people helped out, working on Saturday at 8-00 am working solidly for four hours to hang the pictures- none of them got paid to do this (although I certainly will send something to them). Someone who helped out with the hanging commented,”Just to let you all know that the pictures are all hung safely and, personally, think the corridor looks great…..several people have already admired them…..”

What can I say, I am speechless with gratitude! If my art moves and inspires people, even though technically it might not be amazing- it is perfect for me and them. It is my gift to the world. By taking on fear and leaving aside regrets, we can only become more creative and live true to our hearts. It doesn’t matter if I get any more compliments or not, or even if I get some nasty comments- I have won!  So if you still thinking about something that you have never done, go for it now!

PS-writing this blog for the last three years also helped me to overcome my fears!

A beautiful mind- rediscovering my father

Now things have changed and mental health is gradually being given a recognition. Sadly for us, this is a little too late- my father is towards the end of his life. He cannot write or paint or watch the skies anymore.

IMG_0283

I have to confess I didn’t know my father until last month.  He was always working when my sisters and I were young and seemed very strict (he did not like noise).  I did know that he was brilliant a maths teacher and he could do huge sums faster than a calculator.  Now he is blind and disabled and unable to look after himself.  He suffers from Parkinson’s disease as well.  I went home for about a month to sort out his financial matters and get my mother’s eyes operated because she is the sole carer for my father. Working my way through my father’s papers over a few weeks, I uncovered many beautiful and terrible secrets that he had kept quiet about.

Apart from the incongruous materials in the 21 plastic bags that I sifted through (for example, two pairs of shaving sets, someone’s cheque book, x-ray sheets, medical reports and other things), my mother handed me two ‘special’ bags, which she said, he always carried with him. But in those two bags, I found many diaries ( and our school reports of which he was proud). I was trying to find out why there were 24 bank accounts but I discovered other things.  My father kept meticulous short notes in the diaries- ‘X delivered papers to me at 7-30 pm’.  But amongst those mundane observations were also one liners, ‘Watched sunset’ or ‘Looked at the stars tonight’.  I remembered how we used to discuss the clouds, stars and skies- those were lovely memories. He also liked to take photos and draw with water colours.  He had a great interest in rural technology and always helped anyone who came from the village to the city- although as a child, I resented anyone sharing our tiny one bed roomed home. I found a notebook with his lovely flowing handwriting about his teacher’s training- ‘The aim of teaching mathematics is to increase the thinking power and reasoning abilities of the student.’

But there were also letters that spelt out how he had been bullied at work, his pay withheld and once even assaulted.  As a child, I remembered these incidents but had not understood them- like my father coming back from his school in not a very good mood, not having enough money (I found the well-thumbed ‘ration card’ which listed the broken rice riddled with weavils in particular that we used to eat). I remembered one incident when someone had come to apologise for something.  All those memories suddenly made sense to me.  My father was a proud and honest man, who had worked his way into the big city from an impoverished background in the village.  But to some bullies who were already established, this good looking and clever man was a threat.  So not only did they make fun of him but also got students to do this for them.  His family also inadvertently became victims of bullying. I remember hearing about a student coming with a knife to threaten him because my father had prevented him from cheating at the exams.  I remember us walking back after an evening celebration and being followed by some students from his school and my mother saying to us, ‘Don’t look back or answer’.  I didn’t know why she was saying this and I was petrified.

Now my mother tells me that the students were making fun of my father because he had bought a big piece of cloth, enough for two shirts (to save money) and they called him a miser for having two shirts made of the same cloth. I found counterfeit bank notes folded up in his diary that had been given to him as payment. I don’t know how we must have managed without as we were already so poor.  No wonder he was working so hard.  He kept quiet about this. I found some newspaper cuttings where his plight at not being paid had been highlighted in the press.

All this followed me when I went to the University. I was happy when I saw ex-students from that school had joined the same course but they gave me strange looks when I proudly mentioned that my father was that famous maths teacher from their school.  One of them was distinctly cold to me and I often wondered what I had done (and in fact, I was shamed that he did not think I was good enough to be his friend).  I tried so hard.  Now I know that their behaviour had nothing to do with me.  I don’t know when my father’s mental health deteriorated beyond repair and therapy.  He was a very sensitive man and the many years of abuse simply overwhelmed him.  There is only so much a person can take. I feel sad that I did not understand all this was happening and that my father, protected us by simply keeping quiet and venting his feelings in his diaries.  No wonder he carried his diaries with him all the time- he was ashamed and did not want anyone to know about his humiliation.

Now things have changed and mental health is gradually being given a recognition.  Sadly for us, this is a little too late- my father is towards the end of his life.  He cannot write or paint or watch the skies anymore.  If I should meet these people again, I have the confidence and self esteem to no longer want to be friends with them.  They may not understand my father or me yet but I hope one day they will have enough compassion and wisdom to recognise the beautiful mind which taught them and gave them the means to that wealth and power. I hope they will be able to express their gratitude to their teacher someday.  For me, I feel I have paid that debt of gratitude to my father now.  As Nichiren says, “The old fox never forgets the hillock where he was born; the white turtle repaid the kindness he had received from Mao Pao. If even lowly creatures know enough to do this, then how much more should human beings! …Surely they should not forget the debts of gratitude they owe to their parents, their teachers, and their country.”

Giving and friendship

Christmas is approaching and it is a time of giving.  But we need to make sure that what we give is the thing that the receiver needs and is of value to them, not to us. Often we buy things we like and present it to someone.  So it is best to learn about the person first and then find a gift they need.  It may surprise us that at times they don’t want any ‘thing’ at all- what they want is company, assurance, love, time, friendship- not a ‘thing’.

As Nichiren advised us, we must be careful in giving, “If a person’s throat is dry, what he needs is water; he has no use for bows and arrows, weapons and sticks. If a person is naked, he wants a suit of clothes but has no need for water. From one or two examples you can guess the principle that applies in general.”