the waste books

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German scientist and man of letters Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was an 18th-century polymath: an experimental physicist, an astronomer, a mathematician, a practicing critic both of art and literature. Although he wrote and published a lot, he kept aside several notebooks  where he jotted down observations and aphorisms.  He numbered them by using the letters of the alphabet- all except ‘i’.  Surprisingly he never meant these to be published and therefore called them the ‘Waste Books’.

I came across the New York Review of Books edition.  It is quite amazing to discover these waste books were written in the 18th Century- they seem so relevant and contemporary.  A typical aphorism reads- “Everything in a man must move towards the same end.”  How pithily put- we must live and act by our values.

I looked at my collection of diaries and re-read some of these.  I would like to think that these are my ‘waste books’ but these contain much personal material as well as my aphorisms (see photo).  I used to feel ashamed of writing these as if it was some kind of subversive act but now having been inspired by Lichtenberg, I shall continue to do so.  Lichtenberg probably did not regard these outputs too highly, calling them ‘waste’ and he never meaning to publish them.  Yet reading them, I find them intelligent, humorous, humane and futuristic.  These waste books have become his most popular writings.

Sometimes we don’t realise the value of our thoughts and words.  For this reason, we must write everything down.  Then leave it to posterity to judge.  Did Lichtenberg the sage that he was, ever think that three centuries later, people from all over the world would be inspired by something he called waste?

What is mindfulness?

I used to think that mindfulness was about thinking, that I needed to think through everything I was doing- ‘I am opening the door, I am putting my shoes away, etc etc’.  But the more I thought, the more tired I got.  The chatter in my mind was not mindfulness- it was clutter.  Mindfulness is easy, is calm and clear.  I realised what mindfulness is when I read the following words from the Venerable W Rahula:

Mindfulness does not mean that you should think and be conscious,’I am doing this’ or ‘I am doing that’. No. Just the contrary.  The moment you think ‘I am doing this’ you become self conscious and then you do not live in the action but you live in the idea, ‘I am’ and consequently your work is spoilt too.  You should forget yourself completely and lose yourself in what you do.

So for  example if you are looking at something, then just look at it with your whole life and not think, ‘I am looking at it’.  I still get the sorts of thoughts I used to but now I simply observe the thoughts and let them float away like clouds until my mind is clear.

Even moments of joy and suffering can be tools of mindfulness.  As Nichiren, the Buddhist monk said, ‘Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life..’  Many a times, we suffer what is there to enjoy and enjoy what is there to suffer and thus, our whole life becomes miserable.  Instead as Thoreau advised, we should strive to ‘live deep and suck out all the marrow of life’ – whatever that may be.

Speaking lightly

‘The voice does the Buddha’s work’.

Our soul is manifested through the words we speak.  We may be nervous, excited, happy or sad- our emotions cannot be hidden when we speak.  Despite different cultures and languages, we share the universality of human tones – we can identify grief, passion, anger or any other emotion spoken in any language.  I have travelled to 36 countries and  although I do not speak so many languages, I have always been able to tell the emotion behind the words.  Our voices can be used to admonish or to encourage.  Mostly it is the encouraging, warm tones of our voice that does the creative and good work.  Sometimes we are so keen to get our point across that we lose the listener’s heart.

Like emails, words cannot be taken back.  I have heard people lie because they have been embarrassed by what theyhave said in a fit and then do not want to acknowledge those words later.  Words can hurt and stay in another’s psyche long after the speaker has stopped saying them or disowned them.  Through being hurt, I have learnt myself to be soft with words, to speak lightly.

The most powerful thing I have heard about last words came from Benjamin Zander, the British born conductor and music Director of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.  He was describing a lady’s experience of being in the Auschwitz concentration camp.  She was fifteen at the time and with her eight year old brother, on a train bound for the notorious camp.  Their parents had already been taken away separately.  In the train, the girl noticed that her brother’s shoes were missing.  She was angry at him, “You are so stupid.  Can’t you even keep your shoes?”  He did not reply, ashamed and she did not speak to him again.  She of course, meant the rebuke in a big sisterly fashion.  But those were the last words she ever said to him because she never saw him again.  When she came out of the camp alive, the only person from her family to have made it, she made a vow.  Her vow was to “never say anything that could not stand as the last thing [she] ever  said to a person”.

I thank this unknown woman for her wisdom learnt in harrowing circumstances and follow her spirit.

Living lightly- part III

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Now I come to the second book I bought from the library sale (please read the last two posts if you are new to this).  This was the ‘Healing power of the mind’ by Tulku Thondup (a Tibetan Buddhist monk).  I would like to share from this book, the most powerful visualisation and relaxation exercise I have done.

This is about nothingness and imagining that you are slowly dissolving into air and your surroundings- expanding to become part of it.  Most mindfulness exercises ask you to become mindful of your body, thoughts and actions.- you are asked to ‘look’ at your body, feelings or actions and consider them lightly, letting them go.  With this ‘nothingness’ exercise you let go of everything.  It is very difficult to achieve at first but becomes easier and easier, achieving this state easily.  Perhaps this is what drugs to you I thought but without the harmful effects.  The first time I did it, it was not easy.  However, with time, melting into my surroundings has become easier for me.  I felt relaxed with the heaviness of life gone- I felt like air and light.

Thondup also talks about not ‘grasping’ state of mind.  A lot of worry and stress come from grasping- people, power, position, fame etc.  By doing this exercise of dissolving, it is the opposite of grasping.  I have this photo of snow drops and other spring flowers which disappear after the spring, only to arrive beautiful and rejuvenated with life next spring.  We also do a similar thing during sleep, perhaps even during death.  So doing this while alive can also have a rejuvenating effect.

Try it and let me know if it works for you!

Lesson of mindfulness from my watch

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This is my watch- about 12 years old- an unusual design and so, many people ask me where I got it.  It has a sentimental value for me because it was bought so that I could hold my children when they were small as it has no spiky bits.  But since last week, this watch has become even more valuable to me.  All because it taught me mindfulness.

I was at a celebration last week because an affable colleague of mine received knighthood.  The venue was the beautiful Goldsmith’s hall in the City of London, shining in the resplendent glory of golden chandeliers, skilfully crafted tableware and oil paintings. Wine, conversation and food flowed; and time passed until, it was time for speeches.  I looked at my watch.  It was not there!

I recalled where I had been all day.  Perhaps I had lost in the crowded tube, perhaps in the ladies toilet, perhaps when I was at the drinks reception (I have a habit of fiddling with it), perhaps a pickpocket had skilfully taken it off- my mind raced around London, looking for clues about the missing watch.  The sound of clapping disturbed my thoughts.

It was time for my colleague to speak.  And it was time for me to give him my full attention.  I spent two minutes rationalising about the situation while he ascended the podium.  It was time to let go of this watch.  After all, I had another watch to replace it.  Okay, the other watch was not an unusual design but still, a good make.  Perhaps I would find it in the hall somewhere (I sent a message to the Senior Houseman).  But at the moment, I realised that I was sitting right in front of my colleague and I needed to listen to what he was saying.  I needed to respect his evening.  I also needed to enjoy the moment and be in the present, not in the past or future.  So after this small battle, I stayed focussed and really enjoyed his speech, being genuinely happy for him and his family.

Surprisingly for me, I even managed not to talk about my watch when the speeches were finished- there were things that were of greater importance than the loss of a 12 year old watch.  I tried to broaden my world and enjoy the last of the evening.

And when I returned to the cloakroom to get my coat on the way out, there was my watch waiting for me!  The cloakroom manager had found it- I had no idea when I had dropped it.  I was of course, very happy to get it back.  But I was happier to have learnt the big lessons of mindfulness and that of respecting people, rather than worrying about material things.  Of broadening my heart and learning to live with a loss (even though this turned out to be not true).  One day, this watch will breakdown and I will have to part with it.  But having already lost it once, I know it won’t be a big deal then.

Slow art

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This week we have the ‘Artists at home’ event where artists open up their homes to the public, show their works to the world and make sales and new friends.  I visited local artists, Kate and Jonathan, who make exquisitely detailed prints which are transferred on to paper, cloth, china ware and books.  They use box wood which can take fine work and use a very old and heavy press to imprint their designs on paper.  The work is slow, methodical and painstaking.  The materials are sourced locally or regionally.  This is a photograph of Jonathan showing his press.  Such slow art is therapeutic for both the artist and the buyer, not to mention the spectator.  As I stood in the studio, fast RAF jets flew overhead with a roar, celebrating the birthday of the Her Majesty the Queen- contrasting with the tranquility of the slow and quiet work of the artists below.  I bought one of their lovely china cups to remind myself of the value of slow art while drinking tea from it.

With my own creative work, I spend a long time contemplating what I am going to do- this I do while I am cooking or cleaning, a sort of meditation cum thought process.  The slowness of our minds helps to unblock the creativity of our hearts and what we tend to produce is much finer and introspective.  So how can we produce slow art?

1. Use your whole body– you may write with your fingers or paint with them, but to make true art, you must feel it with your whole body.  Any great work of art is that which produced with both body and soul.

2. Give it enough time– I used to only give just enough time, now I double and sometimes triple the time I need to spend on creative work.  If I ‘save’ time in doing so, then it is a lovely gift which I use for more creativity!

3. Do one thing at a timeMulti-tasking is a myth, not even women are good at it.  Mindfulness which is part of Buddhist ways of working is about paying attention to what one is doing.  So while I can just about clean and think at the same time because cleaning is not a ‘high’ skill work, I can’t listen to a fine piece of music while trying to open up my own creativity- both sets of activities compete.

So go on, try these things today if you haven’t before!  And on this note, as I have now written 50 of these blogs, I am going to go slow myself and put less pressure on myself to produce a blog each day.  So although I will not be publishing daily, I will continue on this creative journey by writing daily.  Please stay in touch!