Lesson from candles: part 2

Earlier I wrote about how I learn something from my altar when I do my prayers.  I have two candles, a little offering of water, and an incense urn along with two vases of greenery.  Watching my candles I relearnt the lesson of ‘slow and steady wins the race’.  One of the candles appears to be in the path of a slight breeze that blows through the gaps of my patio door.  This one splutters everywhere and naturally burns faster than the other one.

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The other one burns steady and lasts much longer. I try to switch positions to avoid one candle looking shorter than the other but the one that started life fast never recovers.

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So the lesson here is start and keep slow and steady.  You cannot make up for the ravages of a fast life later on.  There is something to be said about a life that concentrates on keeping still, rather than trying to out do everyone else. No wonder that someone doing too much suffers from what is called ‘burn out’.

 

My sunset lesson

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sunset over London

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!

The life of a spider

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.

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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!

The power of saying ‘I don’t know’

There is much we don’t know about.  While we may know about our own lives and that of close family and friends, our area of work or what is happening near where we live, there is much going on that we don’t know about.  It is good to be curious, good to listen to others and good to learn about new things.  Recently I have become a convert to saying, ‘I don’t know’ after years of saying, ‘I know’.

The reason comes from a childhood incident when a teacher told me I was stupid because I confessed that I did not know the words to a Christmas carol by heart.  I was being truthful but was upset when this woman declared that I was stupid in front of all my classmates.  So I started saying ‘I know’ to everything and saying ‘Yes’ to everything.  Both are stupid reactions but how is a child to know?  I carried this shame and reaction in my heart for many decades although I had long left that school and teacher.  It is only now that I realise that saying ‘I know’ is actually stupid.  There is very little we know and most of what we know is of little importance. It is better to be humble and look at the world with new eyes of learning and gratitude.  It is also such a release. When you say, ‘I know’, you are also waiting to be found out that you actually don’t know. So less stressful!

It is also so powerful to say this because you open your heart to new experiences, to be able to listen and to gain knowledge.  Even if you find out later that you knew something, it still adds to your skill and knowledge to hear it from someone else.  Most people are keen to talk and tell you something.  So the ‘I don’t know, please tell me’ has actually increased my knowledge and I have made more friends by being able to listen.  It doesn’t sound unprofessional at all- in fact it makes you look more professional by wanting to listen and understand colleagues.  Social media wants you to look like an all-knowing clever (and barbed) quip-a-dozen personality.  But opting out of that restriction is always an improvement to one’s life!  Be simple, be ignorant- or to follow the quote beloved of Steve Jobs, ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’.

anxiety in children

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.

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Anxiety by Edvard Munch

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.

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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.

Small matters

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Don’t judge me!

How many times have you heard this, ‘Don’t judge me!’  We hear it mostly from people who have been accused of something on social media and they hit back with this.  These are people who are doing something that is considered not ‘normal’ or have lifestyles or looks that are not what we are used to seeing in the media.  There are many examples- from overweight people, to how parents are bringing up their children to extreme lifestyles.  Do we really need to comment on everything others do? No, we don’t but it is not easy to stop ourselves from judging.

Making judgements is what makes us human and living beings. If we didn’t stop judging situations as dangerous or not, we’d be dead.  When we all lived in jungles and were in constant fear of survival, we had to judge each moment in order to survive.  But even now, we are still judging, especially in intellectual, cultural or social matters.  Judgements are passed on criminals by courts, or on artistic endeavours (whether it be music, art or drama) by critics or on sports performance by commentators. But those not working in the ‘careers of judging’, will also pass judgement on how other people look (especially for celebrities), live and what they say. People feel the need to judge and comment, even on innocuous matters about things that don’t really affect them. As a result, critics will get angry and those criticised will be angry and hurt.  In the days of media exposure of celebrity lifestyles, key board warriors can hide behind made up names and write cruel comments on anyone, people they don’t know and will never meet.  People have even trolled dead people, something that can be so devastating to their families.

This kind of cruel and unthinking social judgement has become so common that it has set off an extreme reaction- people do not listen to any advice, even if it comes from a good place.  People who work as ‘judges’, writers and critics find it harder to criticise anything or anyone, in fear of being sued or their work destroyed.  But living a non judgemental life is not good for us. We lose that sense of philosophical, moral and social progress in our lives if we cannot allow a well thought out criticism to come out of anyone.  Criticism also allows us to have a proper perspective on the situation and allow us to look at the pro and cons, thereby affording us the freedom to make a choice.  How can anyone progress if we are constantly told that we’re okay?  Constructive criticism is an essential tool for anyone looking to improve their lives and work.  But that criticism is best delivered in privacy, and face to face- not anonymously and online.  Being criticised is hard for anyone.  So we need to become more open human beings, open to being criticised and also being able to give well considered criticisms.  Reading, listening to others and reflecting are tools that can help us.  Critical thinking needs time.  In fact the people who write cruel online comments are usually ones who have often just read the headlines or looked at a photograph.

As Evelyn Beatrice Hall said, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

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?

Small mercies

This following quote caught my eye- “Never give meaning to a little act of sweetness for it might give you a wrong impression as well as expectation”.  I could not find the author of the quote but this struck a huge chord with me.

The reason is that being a sensitive and empathetic person, I have often attached immense meaning and gratitude to anything that has been done for me.  I have thought about it for days,  attached more significance to it than necessary and sometimes even forgotten what I have done for that person.  In fact, with one particular person I felt so ridiculously grateful for something that was most likely to have been a coincidence rather than deliberate help  that I ignored his later bad behaviour.  I used to put down my own contributions and disrespect my own needs.  Not anymore, though.  I have changed.

Recently for instance, this person was rude to me again, assuming that his past ‘act’ was enough to over rule this latest transgression.  I did not say anything  (I am beyond arguing or challenging) and I was surprised and empowered to feel my own reaction.  I felt proud and tall and this is why-

1. I am confident in myself: Although I remain the sensitive and empathetic person I have always been, I am no longer a doormat.  I am still grateful for the past and for people who help me but I see everything in its present context and respond appropriately.

2. I cannot change anyone- I remember that I cannot change anyone but myself so if the person is rude, that is their problem. I do not have to be in their company, listen to them or even be rude back.  I have the right to walk away.  It is their prerogative to change- it is not for me to wish they were different.

3. Feel grateful for what I am today- Many different people contribute to our lives, for instance how many times do we think about the person who grew the wheat, who ground it, who baked the loaf and who brought the bread to us that we eat? I send prayers to all, staying clear and clean of those who disrespect me and expect the world because they have done something small for me a long time ago.

And yes, I am very grateful for the unknown person who wrote that quote but if they turn out to be rude and disrespectful to me if I should ever meet them, then I would just say a small prayer and walk on.

Making decisions

All our lives, we make decisions. Yesterday, I was so tired and yet I was trying to push myself to go to another social outing in the evening.  In the end, my brain and body both refused and fortunately I decided to listen to them.  Although I still feel tired from the week’s work and I slept for 11 hours, I shudder to think what would have happened if I had gone out last night.  I had been saved from my own stupidity!  Social outings apart, we still need to make many big or small decisions every day.  So here are my tips-

1. Listen to yourself – Some one mentioned ‘instinctive intelligence’ to me the other day and it instantly triggered something in me. So many times, we ignore the voices in our body (and I don’t mean the voices in our head) that are telling us that something is wrong and that we should do something.  So yesterday’s not going out was a form of ‘instinctive intelligence’.

2. Do not hurry but do not tarry–  Set a time for yourself unto which you need to decide.  I recently had to replace my 8 year old computer.  I did all the research into the best computer for my use, what the best prices were, where to buy it and who could give me a hand getting it from the shop to my home and then waited until my savings were there.  Then I just bought it- no more thinking.  There are no check boxes in life!

3. Think about the impact– your decision will have an impact upon your life.  What sort of impact do you want it to have? What difference do you want to make to your life?  Try to visualise the end result and then take the steps towards it.