This is a photo I took- I regularly take photos of sunsets and sunrises. What I have learnt is that if there are more clouds, the sunset is more dramatic and beautiful. In the analogy with life, the more clouds or problems you overcome, the more beautiful your life will be, especially towards the end. So don’t avoid try to problems- welcome them!
For many weeks, I have been watching a spider in my garden. There is almost a zen like quality in the way the spider makes its web, busy but methodical. Then when winds and rain bring the web down, it starts again (I wrote a blog about that). That spider gave me a lot of hope!
I watched it getting bigger, swaying like a trapeze artist in its web when the wind blew, or (as I imagined), relaxing in its delicate hammock, enjoying the last of the evening sun. In some comical moments, I would imagine it reading a book and I would be envious of its carefree and contained life. I would water the plants around it, treading carefully so as to disturb it. Once I accidentally touched the web and it scampered off into the cranny of the wall, frightened.
Now I have to confess, I am not a spider lover- I used to be terrified of them. I still think I wouldn’t want to meet another one that I had seen once that was the size of my hand or the tarantula I saw in the Amazon forest. But this orange-brown one had landed from somewhere, lonely and singular, and I had become its admirer and human friend.
Then as the days went, while it got bigger, it started staying more and more in the wood of the surrounding wall. It would come out occasionally and I went once or twice to see how it was doing. The web started getting more tangled up but it seemed the spider had retired into meditation.
Yesterday as my son and I were clearing up after a thunderstorm, we found it on the decking, dead and dried. The web had gone too.
I wondered how good it would it would be if humans also lived like that. Enjoying the days of youth, eating what was local, making and living in a self build home, flourishing and then to die in contentment without leaving a trace. The perfect minimalist life style! A life without the complication of wills, money, inheritance, family beds, and pollution and waste.
There is so much I’ve learnt from my spider friend- thank you and farewell!
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.
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.
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.
This year we have lost many wonderful amazing human beings who made this planet a better place- my father being one of those. He was a maths teacher and lived his life the way he wanted to, despite threats and ridicule, helping the poor and disadvantaged. There are many like him, who have died unknown. Their legacy lies in themselves, while the luckier ones also achieved fame (see the quote from Stan Lee below). Regardless of whether you achieve fame or not in the end, I think the greatest achievement is to live your life in your own way, using your talents to help others.
Here I have selected some quotes from more famous people to reflect on, and to provide inspiration for the year ahead. These humans weren’t perfect because no one can be and you may not like them but what they say is an enduring testimony to the power of inspiration. Some quotes will make you even think about fame in a different way. Let me know if any of these appeal to you or if you have other inspiring quotes from people who passed away this year.
“However ordinary each of us may seem, we are all in some way special, and can do things that are extraordinary, perhaps until then… even thought impossible.”
– Sir Roger Bannister (UK athlete and neurologist, who broke the human speed record)
“Every guy in the world would love to be Mr Macho, but I am camp and you cannot lie to the public. If you’re yourself, they’ll either love you or they won’t.”
– Dale Winton (UK TV presenter)
“Because you run against each other, that doesn’t mean you’re enemies. Politics doesn’t have to be uncivil and nasty.”
– George HW Bush (past US president)
“Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”
– John McCain (US senator)
“Every time I go to a comic book convention, at least one fan will ask me: ‘What is the greatest superpower of all?’ I always say that luck is the greatest superpower, because if you have good luck then everything goes your way.”
– Stan Lee (US creator of many superhero comic characters)
“Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that.”
– Aretha Franklin (US singer)
And finally these great words-
“One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”
– Professor Stephen Hawking (UK scientist)