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.
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.’
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?
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.