The winter of our lives

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This weekend I have been helping a neighbour design an ‘Order of service’ booklet for her husband who died suddenly.  She is quite distraught and as a result, unnaturally disorganised.  She gave me a pile of photographs and three pages that she wanted typed into the booklet.  Sitting down with her, we went over the photos and writing, editing out things that need not be there.  I also found a suitable printing service that could do the printing at short notice.  I have never done anything like this before- normally these things are done by the funeral service but she had left it too late.  But I am grateful she asked me because it helped me to find a new perspective on life.

The thing that struck me while laying out the pages that someone will be doing this for me too someday.  What would they put in that booklet about me?  What if I could do that now?  After all no one knows when they could die.  So I after having finished her booklet, I am now trying to put together something for myself.  How do I want to remembered?  As a creative person, as non conformist, as a mother, as a friend, daughter, etc.? What music would I like to be played?  What special photos would I use and who would be in those photos?  It has been said that the best way of getting our creative selves out of procrastination and into production is to imagine our own funeral or write our obituary.  I come to realise that the best way to set our life goals might be to make our own ‘Order of service’ booklet.  No one needs to see it- it is there for your eyes only.  As a goal setter, it may be a sombre; but yet the clarity and the simplicity it provides is truly creative. Try it!

thanking 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, 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.

Bowie in his own words, spoken to graduating music students at Berklee College, Massachusetts, in 1999.

“Music has given me over 40 years of extraordinary experiences. I can’t say that life’s pains or more tragic episodes have been diminished because of it.
But it’s allowed me so many moments of companionship when I’ve been lonely and a sublime means of communication when I wanted to touch people.
It’s been both my doorway of perception and the house that I live in. I only hope that it embraces you with the same lusty life force that it graciously offered me.
Thank you very much and remember, if it itches, play it.”

Help for the distracted

I am naturally a person who gets easily distracted.  I might check my emails, or look at an social media post or read the online news many times while working on my computer.  This is not a good habit because work  interrupted is the flow of thought stilled.  It stops being thoughtful and perceptive.  For me being creative, for being ‘in the flow’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, comes from having inner peace, free of distractions.  So I had to write every day, despite a lot of resistance internally.  What helped me was reading bits of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations every night. Marcus Aurelius was the 16th emperor of the Roman empire, often called the Philosopher-King. The Stoic Meditations, written in Greek while on campaign between 170 and 180, describes how to find equanimity in the midst of conflict and how to overcome common human problems. In particular one passage that is a must read for all would be procrastinators or for those easily detracted is this-

Do not waste what remains of your life in speculating about your neighbours, unless with a view to some mutual benefit. To wonder what so and so is doing and why or what he is saying, or thinking, or scheming- in a word, anything that detracts you from fidelity to the Ruler within you- means a loss of opportunity for some other task. See then the flow of your thoughts is kept free from idle or random fancies, particularly those of an inquisitive or uncharitable nature.  A man should habituate himself to such a way of thinking that if suddenly asked, ‘What is in your mind at his minute?’ he could respond frankly and without hesitation; thus proving that all thoughts were simple and kindly.’

I have highlighted in the above passage the bits that struck me strongly- about wasting time, about keeping flow free from distraction and the discipline of having only simple and kindly thoughts.

I kept my wandering mind on a leash by imagining that someone would suddenly appear and ask what I was thinking and I could say honestly that I was being creative and thinking about my project.  Simple and kindly thoughts are actually the creative person’s best allies- I imagined brushing away negativity that was holding me back, every time I was feeling down or bad.  However, thinking like this is a skill that must be built up daily by the minute- so it goes on for me, although I have finished my book for now.

legacy

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This week was very exciting as my son’s first art exhibition opened to the public.  His installation consisting of videos, stills, paintings and construction, attracted much attention and curiosity because it was based on my family home.  He has been visiting his grandparents in India since he was five months old but it was after I watched the movie with his voice over that I realised how much he had absorbed about my life there without me directing his thoughts or saying much.

Of course, I was very proud that his work was selected for this exhibition and that it was received well.  But the most gratifying thing was that somehow by osmosis, he had absorbed ideas about expressing himself creatively by perhaps watching me.  Everyone wants to be creative but when one is able to inspire creativity in others, that is also a great thing. So I was amazed as well as chuffed.

As parents or carers, what we give to our children is something that we don’t speak about. What they are watching is what we do, not what we say.  My son is a teenager and we have the kind of arguments that parents of teenagers have with them.  So in that respect he is ‘normal’.  But overcoming those issues, he has managed to transmit our relationship and that of his with his grandparents into a tangible art form that others can appreciate. Awhile back, I had commented on my mother’s sewing and how I now display her work in my home as works of art.  So she had transmitted her love of creation to me and I have done that to my child.

So never underestimate your own creativity and what you might be transmitting to your children or anyone young.

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.

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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!

Inspirational words from a terminally ill architect

After watching this, as an architect who has suffered from stroke, it reinforced my desire never to miss a single opportunity to express gratitude, help others and be happy in every way that I can.  Also, very importantly it has taught me to follow my heart.

The mirror

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How we see ourselves is very different from how others see us- this continually surprises me.  Do we really see ourselves as we are or see ourselves as powerless, ugly or even useless?  Or, do we see ourselves as powerful, beautiful and creative?

This week I have been down with several health problems to add to my chronic illness.  I have felt let down by the medical system which prescribes drugs without checking the effect on a patient with long term conditions.  And I have been angry and felt useless- unable to work.   I felt ugly too.  At times I sat and stared at the screen, or at a piece of paper without as much as typing or writing a single word.  To inspire myself, I wrote to a colleague who is struggling with cancer which seems to come back again and again.  She has to wear a ‘bag’ to drain liquids and go for chemotherapy at least once a week.  Yet to me, she looks lovely and elegant.  I asked to interview her about how she balances work and health and looks so fabulous. I thought this might inspire ( or even kick) me back into work.

My jaw dropped when she wrote back to me, ‘One of the things that I would love to talk to you about is how you balance being a high-achieving woman with your health issues.’ What, me?!  Was she really talking about me?  It took me some time for this to sink in.  I wanted to protest- ‘No that is not me, you’ve got it all wrong!’  Then it occurred to me that perhaps she might have thought the same way about herself when she got my email.  That she looked at me very differently from how I saw myself.  That we might be seeing mirror images of each other- each person thinking that the other was somehow better or more fortunate.  Yet we are both powerful, beautiful and creative.  That I had done for her what she had done for me.

So this is what I now do.  I keep a small pocket mirror near me and whenever I feel down, I look at my reflection say,  ‘You are powerful, beautiful and creative!’  This is very powerful and magical!  As Nichiren says, “When you bow to a mirror, the reflected image bows back”.

how to channel your creativity

I had heard a Tedx talk sometime back from Elizabeth Gilbert, the best selling author of ‘Eat Pray, love’ about ego and creativity.  After the runaway success of her first book, she had many doubts about herself and her creativity when her second book did not do so well.  In the end, she decided to remove her ego from the equation, and thought of herself instead as a channel of universal creativity and power.

When one starts to think about praise, failure, prizes or those sorts of external motivations in connection with creativity, one can become disheartened and fearful.  Today, while at a restaurant that keeps books for browsing, I discovered that Turner made 19,000 drawings in a lifetime of 76 years- a massive output.  He wasn’t thinking of fame or longevity when he was painting- he was only channelling a huge creative power and displaying it to the world.

Creativity is about overcoming the terrible barriers that not only ego and fear place before us but also of those that our unique life places before us.  An exhibition featuring new works by the American artist, Dale Chihuly, opened this week in London.  Dale works with glass but now is working with acrylic with great swirls of paint, displaying his inner spirit and resilience.  Dale is partially sighted, having lost one of his eyes in a car accident and also has a shoulder injury.  He lost his only brother in childhood and a year later, his father.  But he carried on searching for a way to express his creative power and found that with the medium of glass.  Dale describes his role as an artist as “more choreographer than dancer, more supervisor than participant, more director than actor.” Below is one of his new works.

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These words from Dale really moved me and I share these with you all kindred creative spirits! You all have the access to the same power once you let go of the ego.

‘Somebody said that people become artists because they have a certain kind of energy to release.  That rings true of me. It must have an outlet. That is why I draw!’

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The power of dialogue, divergence and doing

Modern ethics arose out the philosophical questions of morality, right or wrong and about treatment of other people. In today’s world where we are more exposed to other’s pain and suffering, we are constantly trying to understand and overcome not just other’s pain but our own. Masao Yakuta, says, ‘One of the deepest forms of pain is the pain of separation. (SGI quarterly, April 2002, p 10). So how do we deal with this pain which starts from the time our umbilical cords are cut? To overcome this pain, strangely enough we create behaviours and barriers that we think distance us from this vulnerability such as anger, arrogance and superiority. We tend to emphasise our differences rather than connections. Yet obviously it is only through connection that we can overcome the pain of separation. The way human beings can make an immediate connection to another is through dialogue. Dialogue as tool for engagement and for furthering our understanding has been used for many thousands of years, from the Eastern traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism to the Socratic methods of posing questions.

As an architect, I have worked in many parts of the world where there is conflict and inequality. Conflict and inequality exist not just in poor countries or those with civil unrest but also in rich, democratic and stable countries, as I have described in my book, Architecture for Rapid Change and Scarce Resources (Routledge, 2012). Although we have had two major world wars in the last century, today’s wars may be smaller but equally vicious and more widely spread. The only reason I have been able to work in areas of conflict and unrest is through using the power of dialogue. I am not going to say that it is entirely safe or that one has to be naively trusting but through talking we can make the process of work easier and safer. This technique works equally well in a ‘safe’ office environment. However, talking takes time and understanding another’s position takes even more time. So while it looks like this is a slow process, ultimately this is the direct and best route. After all Gandhi, Mandela and many others have demonstrated the power of dialogue in overcoming impossible situations.

In Nichiren Buddhism, there is a concept called ‘cherry, peach, plum and apricot’ which signifies that we are all different. Our differences give rise to divergent thinking. The purpose of dialogue is not convergent thinking but divergent thinking. Many different mind sets and experiences bring a plethora of opinions and views to the table, and the discussion and debate that follow give rise to new solutions to old problems. There is no ‘one truth’- we have opinions and these opinions must inform us of the best action to take for ourselves and for greater good. However, if we stick to our opinion as if it were the ‘truth’ even in the evidence to the contrary, then we are in deep trouble because sure enough something will happen to make us examine this truth again. We will then need to invent another truth to cover up that failure. So we might as well surrender to the power of our vulnerability, to our pain and find creative solutions from that.

The final report into the investigation of the American guards’ behavior at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, described following aspects that allows a particular group to feel superior over the other-

  • ‘Deindividuation’: the anonymity, suggestibility, and contagion provided in a crowd that allows individuals to participate in behavior marked by temporary suspension of customary rules and inhibitions.
  • ‘Groupthink’ is characterized by two main kinds of illusions-
    first of invulnerability, i.e. group members believe that the group is special and morally superior; therefore its decisions are sound; and secondly that of unanimity which members assume all are in concurrence and pressure is brought on to those who might dissent.
  • Dehumanization: Individuals and groups are viewed as less than fully human
  • Moral exclusion: one group views the other as fundamentally different, therefore prevailing moral rules and practices apply to one group but not the other.

Although we are not working in these extreme conditions, we are constantly being exposed to similar situations in everyday life, perhaps even in our homes and offices. These situations are opportunities for us to examine our own behaviours and correct them. After all the prison guards in Abu Ghraib prison were also people just like us, yet by considering themselves separate and superior to others, they went down to the level of inhuman behaviours. By dialogue and consideration of diverse views, we can overcome common problems. So I am not disappointed when I see photos of Aung San Suu Kyi talking to the generals who imprisoned her, as many people were.

Finally by actually working in these conditions, one can really describe the reality. Armchair activists have many opinions but are those informed by experience? I have deep respect for those who have actually ‘walked the talk’. Working in areas of conflict is not the easiest thing to do-even the smallest project or pieces of agreement that are reached, conclude through months and years of dialogue. The UN’s work is thus a long affair but they and many NGOs are the only organisations that one can rely on to do ‘peace-keeping’ and working in conflict zones. Whether the dialogue is across the table or across a trench, peace in many parts of the world, including the Middle-east, is dependent upon dialogue and doing. If we stop talking, it is then that we need to feel afraid. By not speaking we separate and by keeping talking, no matter how hurtful it may be to our ego, we connect. As Joan Anderson says, ‘In fact dialogue is the only legitimate weapon for realising peace’. (ibid)