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.’
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.
Every day I burn incense sticks while praying and have began to notice something about them. If they are together, they burn for longer while single sticks burn more quickly. As a money saver, this appealed to me and so I have always burned at least three sticks together. But there is a bigger lesson here too. This is about unity, friendships and working together. There are phrases such as ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ in different forms in different faiths. There is also the famous story attributed to Aesop, about the father, who on his deathbed, invited his sons to break a bundle of sticks which they couldn’t. When the sticks were separated, they broke easily.
With unity and a common passion to make life better for humanity, we can become stronger and last longer. People who work alone without regard for others become lonely and less creative. Business away days, brain storming, networking, collaborative working, hot-desking – working together has many names these days. But it essentially means when working for the common good, you achieve a lot more together than going for it alone. In Buddhism, this is called ‘Itai Doshin’ or many in body (which acknowledges our diversity) and one in mind (which acknowledges the singularity of our purpose). Buddhism says that our interdependence can be compared to the threads of a woven fabric- the vertical warps and the horizontal woof. If one string is pulled, all strings in the fabric will react.
In a letter written at a time when society was broken into small communities and persecuted by feudal lords, the Buddhist teacher, Nichiren wrote, ‘If the spirit of many in body but one in mind prevails among the people they will achieve all their goals, whereas if one in body but different in mind, they can achieve nothing remarkable.’ Today when society appears to be broken by wealth, religion, wars, and cultures, and we face a common catastrophic end to the planet we live on, it might be useful to remember that unity is better than disunity if we are to reach our common goals of a healthy, happy and peaceful planet.