Losing and gaining

I depend upon a portfolio of small jobs for my income. I like that diversity of work and also I enjoy each of these.  Its like having a tasting menu, or as the French call it, menu dégustation. Dégustation is the delicate tasting of various foods prepared by the chef- a supreme sensory experience.  That is how I like my work too as a creative person.  So when people ask, ‘What do you do?’, I bring out these five or six different things I do, with much pride as a chef would.

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Yesterday, I heard that one of these jobs that I took such pride in, would be longer be mine in nine months time due to end of the contract (which realistically could have been extended as there was more to do but the person in charge was happy with the state of the project!).  In other words, I was sacked!  I reacted in a typical way which was about feeling rejected, hurt, and humiliated.  I know that I have other income streams to depend upon so I wouldn’t suffer financially.  And if I really wanted to, I could go to the Tribunal to contest this.  But Eric Fromm, the philosopher and author of ‘The Art of Being’, advises against such immediate action or rather reaction.  He asks us to reflect and learn from such painful experiences rather than choosing the easy way of confrontation and anger straightway.  Other philosophers ask us to separate ourselves from our ego (which is always the first to get hurt)

First, consider that time heals.  I remember from the past when such things had happened and I had cried for days. Yet today, those things do not bother me and they certainly did not hinder my progress.  Second, what is the lesson from this?  In some ways, it wasn’t my problem that the person in charge was happy to accept an incomplete piece of work.  Or perhaps, even that they didn’t even see it as incomplete in nine months time.  Maybe I would finish it to my satisfaction.  Being a perfectionist, my immediate reaction was that I had failed in some way.  So again, I realised it was my ego that was crying, not the real me.  I realised how much I have let my work define me. Despite losing this work, I was intact- I could always find more work but what did I achieve by needlessly thinking on about the end of contract?  Fromm says, ‘Modern man has many things and uses many things, but he is very little.  His feeling and thinking processes are atrophied like unused muscles.  He is afraid of any crucial social change because any disturbance to the social balance to the him spells chaos or death- if not physical death, the death of his identity.’

Many things that we depend upon for social status such as work, money, power, media presence, etc. are but fleeting.  They might go at any point.  They are indicative of relative happiness where we are comparing ourselves to others, not of absolute happiness.  But if we can become grounded enough to see our true self which is unchanging and unaffected, we can become absolutely happy. Nichiren, the 13th century Buddhist monk, uses the analogy of wind, i.e. something that may blow hard and cold, but passes in the end.  He said, ‘Worthy persons deserve to be called so because they are not carried away by the eight winds: prosperity, decline, disgrace, honor, praise, censure, suffering, and pleasure. They are neither elated by prosperity nor grieved by decline.’  Am I being a worthy person?  Yes, it hurts when work is elevated so much socially but it will pass.  In the meanwhile, I will get stronger and better.

Finding treasures when the skies are clear

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.

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My traditional Indian mortar and pestle 

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.

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Can you spot the food processor part?  The glass ‘vase’ was part of a tea maker and the tile it sits on was found in a rubbish dump in Caracas, Venezuela!  All marks and chipped bits on the tile tell me stories of the house it once was a part of.

 

Lesson from incense

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Two burn longer!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Launch of Energy Gardens

A recent project carried out by my charity, Charushila, where I have used the principles of Value Creation- Beauty, Goodness and Benefit

The Canny Gardener

I have written previously about the garden we were working on the station platform at Acton Central Station, West London.  We finally had a grand launch on Friday with members of the community, our work partners- Repowering London, Groundwork Trust and Arriva (the train company) and the local Member of Parliament.  The garden is complete with ornamental and food sections- from which the local community can freely take away what they need, as long as they leave something for others!  The centre piece of the project consists of a large ornamental bed featuring a stone plaque with the encouraging words of Nichiren, a 13th century Buddhist philosopher, ‘Winer always turn to spring’.  These words are not just about seasons but also about finding hope and inspiration.  The bed is also a tribute to a station staff, well loved by the users of the station and local community, who died suddenly…

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being an artist

not 1975

Jasper Johns, the ‘pop artist’, wrote about being an artist as opposed to ‘becoming one’. He said later of this resolve, ‘In the early fifties I was going to be an artist, and I thought,’Here I am. still going to be an artist. What was different? What needed to be changed, so I would be, rather than going to be?’  So he did two things- one, he destroyed previous works of art, almost to mark his resurrection as an artist and second, he painted the ‘Flag’- a modest piece of work that has become synonymous with Johns’ style.  It was as if he had discovered himself and his true calling. Buddhists call this ‘throwing off the transient and revealing the true’.

Sometimes it takes some kind of dramatic life event for the person to do this, sometimes it is subtle.  Nichiren, the Buddhist philosopher, was to be beheaded when he was dramatically saved and then after that, resolved to share his true self with others.  Whatever the cause, the effect of this recognition of one’s true calling is huge and transformational.  Mostly we are scared to reveal our true selves until something or someone forces us to.  But why?  Our true self is beautiful and creative, and yet we are afraid to show it.  As Marianne Williamson said in her famous quote, ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us.’

My resolve to be myself has been slowly building up since I had my stroke and as sometimes, strokes bring back early memories, I have been reflecting on the electrifying effect Johns’ works have had  on me as a small child.This work is titled ‘not 1975’. It is a collage of ideas about fear and revelation.  It came about as I reflected on several scraps of paper I had found and a significant year 1975 when I had been very ill.  I already had the central group of children peering from inside the tree- an image compelling and disturbing- what were they looking at?  So with this central image, I put a collage together along with paint scraping away and revealing and hiding things.  This became my way of explaining a sense of who I was, and who I had become from where I was.

Having support- the lesson of the tree

This Christmas I had the ‘flu and also twisted my ankle, so I have not been able to write for awhile.  But this has been good.  I have learnt that sometimes I need to look after myself.  I have a tendency to do things and not let others help me because either I am too impatient or think that others can’t do it as well (arrogance, I suppose).  However, after these ailments, I had to let others help me and support me.  I had to let go of many things to others.  Contrary to my usual thoughts of doom and gloom, all went well.  I am at the start of a new project and by letting others help me, I have been able to start it on time- it was beginning to looking like an impossible dream by the beginning of December 2014.

The numbers of times when we think we should and can do it alone, especially me, came to me as I stood surveying this fallen tree in the recent storms.  Human beings are connected and it is this kind of connection that enables us to survive.  From the food that goes into our mouths to the work we do, we are supported by countless people who grew that food to the shopkeeper who sold it and so on.  Sometimes it takes some adversity or accident to make us realise that this connection is vital.  I can’t believe how many people said that they would help when they saw me limping and trying to do the shopping or trying to cook the festive lunch- unbelievable though it sounds!  When we try to be too strong, we break.  When we connect and extend our ‘roots’ deeper in the ground, i.e. by having friends and support, we can survive tough times.

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The following bit of writing from Nichiren, the 13th century Buddhist philosopher, rang a bell for me, and not just because of the reference to walking on an uneven path!

‘When a tree has been transplanted, though fierce winds may blow, it will not topple if it has a firm stake to hold it up. But even a tree that has grown up in place may fall over if its roots are weak. Even a feeble person will not stumble if those supporting him are strong, but a person of considerable strength, when alone, may fall down on an uneven path.’

The mirror

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How we see ourselves is very different from how others see us- this continually surprises me.  Do we really see ourselves as we are or see ourselves as powerless, ugly or even useless?  Or, do we see ourselves as powerful, beautiful and creative?

This week I have been down with several health problems to add to my chronic illness.  I have felt let down by the medical system which prescribes drugs without checking the effect on a patient with long term conditions.  And I have been angry and felt useless- unable to work.   I felt ugly too.  At times I sat and stared at the screen, or at a piece of paper without as much as typing or writing a single word.  To inspire myself, I wrote to a colleague who is struggling with cancer which seems to come back again and again.  She has to wear a ‘bag’ to drain liquids and go for chemotherapy at least once a week.  Yet to me, she looks lovely and elegant.  I asked to interview her about how she balances work and health and looks so fabulous. I thought this might inspire ( or even kick) me back into work.

My jaw dropped when she wrote back to me, ‘One of the things that I would love to talk to you about is how you balance being a high-achieving woman with your health issues.’ What, me?!  Was she really talking about me?  It took me some time for this to sink in.  I wanted to protest- ‘No that is not me, you’ve got it all wrong!’  Then it occurred to me that perhaps she might have thought the same way about herself when she got my email.  That she looked at me very differently from how I saw myself.  That we might be seeing mirror images of each other- each person thinking that the other was somehow better or more fortunate.  Yet we are both powerful, beautiful and creative.  That I had done for her what she had done for me.

So this is what I now do.  I keep a small pocket mirror near me and whenever I feel down, I look at my reflection say,  ‘You are powerful, beautiful and creative!’  This is very powerful and magical!  As Nichiren says, “When you bow to a mirror, the reflected image bows back”.