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.
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.
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.
Since the few days, I have been thinking about ‘grace’, being ‘gracious’ and being ‘graceful’. It is quality which is not talked about much, except in reference to movement or dancing. I am talking about grace as a way of life. Grace is about being polite, about being accepting of others and of being kind. I have been thinking about how to bring grace into my life and these are the things I thought of-
1. Time and space– one needs to have time and space, gaps in schedule, peace and reflection to have grace. People who are always rushing, bustling off or are abrupt are not graceful. Therefore always keep a little space in your life in order to be graceful.
2. Be expansive– Think big, even magnanimously of others, even if they have done you wrong. Do not go into their level, forgive and let go. Imagine yourself as a big hearted person, not grasping, not wanting approval from anyone but yourself.
3. Be generous– Take time to listen to someone without telling them all about yourself at the same time. Give generously, even if that person may have been mean to you. Imagine the universe as a benevolent entity, always kind, always giving. Even if you give and do not receive back from that person, you will get a gift from someone else. If you can’t give or buy presents, give your precious gift of time or your creativity, draw or write something for someone.
4. Do not boast– Your qualities and achievements will come to light without your needing to shout about it. It is much more effective and powerful when another person comes to know of them through other means than you- it is very powerful! No one likes boasters.
5. Finally, always be polite, even if you are provoked- I find this quite difficult sometimes. Just the other day, someone wrote a very rude email to me and my first reaction was to answer them back rudely. I am glad I didn’t and I continued to be expansive and generous in my thoughts about them. I have just received very good news about a piece of writing I did some years ago. This news was totally unexpected. I have risen above this person’s demeaning email through the good recommendation I have had about my work.
There is an important rule in relationships- that is, never hunt for a relationship!
Have you ever looked at someone and thought,’Ahh, he/she looks good (or has a great job/sense of humour/is rich/whatever), I could go out with them.’? Have you ever talked to someone all the while secretly judging them to see if they are worthy of being your partner? Have you ever thought about someone with the intent of meeting them because you thought that they might be good for you? Have you trawled bars, dating sites, school playgrounds for that one person? Then you have been hunting for a relationship.
And have you wondered why that person never responded, called you back, or hastily backed off in the middle of a conversation? That is because each of us have a ‘hunted’ radar- we can tell instinctively when we are being hunted and we run for our lives!
To get a good relationship, we have to become a person who can attract someone to us, without either party feeling hunted or becoming the hunter. That means developing kindness, compassion and respect towards everyone. That means being open to love and relationship. And then, someone will come along, drawn towards your human qualities, not your animal ones.
When things are not going well for us, we tend to go inside (both physically and literally) and huddle. There, in our state of misery we stay until we think that things will get better and we can emerge from under the covers and re-engage with life. Yet the longer we stay in that cover, the longer we take to heal. Reaching out and opening up to others helps to make our own sorrow go quickly. It is not simply about positive thinking. It is about taking action. When our own heart is full of sorrow, it is then we need to reach out and help others overcome their own. In doing so- whether by listening or helping with chores- this active engagement with others and with life, helps us to overcome our disappointment and sadness. In such ways, our problems become our ‘mission’- they are no longer obstacles but they are opportunities for growth and renewal. After going through the pain of several miscarriages, I went on to help others who had suffered similarly. When finally my son was born, alive and kicking, I realised that even if I had another miscarriage, I was already healed. Kindness towards others helps us heal mentally and physically-
There are many new movements around the world, calling for ‘Random acts of kindness’- latest trends on twitter is about someone leaving money in secret locations or buying coffee for others. However, we don’t always have to spend money. The kindest act someone has done for me which I will never forget consisted of being there and being silent. She just held out tissues while I cried after losing my fifth baby after five months of pregnancy. This woman did not say irritating or hurtful things like, “Don’t cry”- “You can always get pregnant again”- “it was only a miscarriage”- “At least you are alive” etc etc which others did in misguided acts of kindness. She did not have children of her own but yet understood how difficult it was for me. I bumped into her two days ago after ten years. I only had to say, “Do you remember?” She nodded and I squeezed her hand silently. One never forgets true kindness.
Have you sometimes looked at a couple and thought, “I wonder how that person could be with that person?” You might have thought one of the partners ugly/unfunny/morose/stupid etc. Well, I have realised that such superficial comparisons and judgments based on first impressions are never correct. First of all, one never knows what is going on in their homes. The unfunny/morose person could be the life and soul of the home. Second, it is never the superficial things that attract people to each other- it is their hearts. A kind but a ugly man might attract a beautiful woman. I have realised that sometimes despite the attractive packaging, what is inside someone’s heart is what matters. While looks and other external things like fame and fortune might fade, one has to live with that person day in and day out. Only a deep attachment of the heart can enable that. Never judge a book by the cover, as they say!