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.

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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.

 

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.

a hundred year message from Mars

Last night I watched a movie, A message from Mars.  This movie, made in 1913 is the first full-length science fiction feature in the history of British cinema. It stars the leading comic actor of his day, Charles Hawtrey, as a selfish man who is taught a series of valuable lessons by a visiting Martian.  Painstakingly reconstructed from existing clips of films by British Film Institute (BFI) and BBC; and with a new soundtrack, it was a peculiarly haunting experience.  Apart from the beautiful dresses of the women and the very clean streets, not much it seems, has changed.  The eternal themes are still around- of being kind to those who are in need (Amelie or Pollyanna), the need for the man to change to win the hand of his love (Grease), the shock of having the same experiences again and again until one changes (Ground Hog day) or even strange alien visitations (Donnie Darko or ET).

Watch this incredible movie that brings the past, present and future alive-

A message from Mars

Amazing Grace

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.

the hunted

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.

Acts of Kindness

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-

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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.

book and the cover

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!

Conscious kindness

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This the lovely sage tea that the local residents used to bring for us when we worked on an community garden in Palestine.  It was hard work and it used to get cold in the winter evenings so this was very welcome.  This photo reminds me why we must remember to be kind to all- loved ones or strangers and of Goethe’s words, ‘Kindness is the chain by which society is held together.’

My aunt died recently.  With her passing, I remembered the many times I had been unkind not only to her but also to many others.  As a child, I made fun of my grandmother who could not hear or see.  Now many years later, as I struggle with my own eyesight and as a mother, I wonder how my grandmother coped with 11 children in spite of her disabilities.  I did not pay much attention to my aunt and now I know nothing about her life, her thoughts, her wishes and what she even liked.  Influenced by adults around me who should have known better, I made fun of her too.  She is gone but these awful memories live inside me.  Kindness is essential to our spirit and creativity.  I stilled my own life with my lack of kindness.  I am the one who has lost.  So in remembrance of my past unkindness, for the last month or so, I have been trying to be consciously kind.  This video also jogged me-

I know that in this world where there are people trying to kill each other at the slightest provocation, it is not easy to be kind or to have good thoughts.  So kindness has to be an active, conscious effort in our everyday living.  How can one be kind?  There are three steps, I have decided-

1. Empathy- try to find something common with the person or try to see their point of view.  This is a good ice-breaker too.

2. Politeness- Alain de Botton said that kindness is politeness (or perhaps the other way around, it doesn’t matter).  The kindest people are also the politest.

3. Time- one can’t be polite if one is in a hurry- slow down!  Acknowledge the other person and empathise with them and then say something polite.  All this takes time.

I have been trying these three steps for about a month- it is not easy but it has definitely made my life easier and sweeter.  Thanks to my aunt and my grandmother for making me a little bit kinder!

Forget yourself for a little time

Today I woke early and did everything slowly and got to my appointment early!  Most of my life, I have tried to get to appointments either just on time or a little late, so that I don’t ‘waste’ time. I realise not only is it such a stupid way to go about life but also disrespectful to the person who is waiting.  Because I got to the appointment early, I was able stand outside and enjoy the warm spring sunshine, listen to the birds and see the colours around me.  I had the time to be kind- I held open the door open, waiting for a woman struggling with pram and another child and she was so grateful for such a small thing.  I could smile at people and greet them.  In the past, I must have walked past people so many times without even noticing them.

Most religions have a way of acknowledging these simple things in life- gentleness, kindness and thoughtfulness.  These qualities are much appreciated in our hurried world today, precisely because they are in short supply.  So if one can cultivate these qualities, that person will be a very attractive one- I don’t mean just physically attractive.  Following our hearts also means finding time to develop these qualities and stop looking inwards.  Julia Cameron says in her book, The Sound of Paper, “We learn to stop watching the inner movie- the movie of ‘How am I and how is my brilliant career?’ – long enough to take a lively interest in the people and things around us.”

These little things of the heart that we stop noticing may be exactly what we need to follow our careers. Sometimes, I have done things for people that I thought were too small, just good manners but I have been repaid many times with kindness and gifts.  Think about how ‘rich’ our communities would be if everyone did that.  As Henry Miller says,Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.”

Thinking big

This post was actually written yesterday but did not have time to type it up.

Having written a book called, Architecture For Rapid Change and Scarce Resources and grown up in an impoverished family in India, the word scarcity is always on my mind.  So my challenge in following my heart is also about thinking big.  While we cannot deny the scarcity in many material things, things of the spirit are always impossibly big- love, compassion and kindness.  Scarcity of the spirit is about being mean, petty and grasping. Thinking big is about embracing, going beyond and giving.

Recently a colleague who I like and respect very much, reacted rather strangely to my intention of working in her former country- like as if I was taking away projects from her behind her back.    Interestingly, none of the organisations I had communicated with had mentioned her name and I was completely unaware of her involvement.  However from her reaction, I became aware of scarcity of a different type- where no one can even work without the permission of another, however ridiculous the whole concept may seem- where people are afraid to share, where competition instead of cooperation is seen as a way of life and where compassion is limited by the necessity to earn money and fame.  However, by letting go of any resentment and thereby refusing to be in her power, I felt lighter and stronger.  I know there is plenty of work around, so there is no need to be grasping of any thing.  I have read a lot about abundance (there is a lot on the Internet) and came up with these three things that seemed to very important in order to feel abundance and let go of scarcity-

1. Give, share and live freely

The Buddhist concept of ‘Jigyo Keta’ means to remove suffering and bring happiness.  This happiness includes your own happiness as well.  So don’t be afraid to share your happiness and good fortune with others.  Give and receive credit freely.

2. Hope

Hope brings about great benefit, it heals and restores.  In my Bengali culture, there is a saying, “If it happens, it is good; if it does not happen, then it is even better.”  There is always something bigger and better for you.  Let go of the small stuff!

3. Think big

There is another saying that spells it so well-“if you aim for the top of the tree, then you may get to the bottom of the trunk; but if you aim for the moon, then you will reach the top of the tree!”  Big and expansive ideas should be part of our personal ambitions-there is nothing wrong in going for the best, the most amazing and the most powerful- in terms of our spiritual development.

Give yourself the permission to think big!