Admission

It’s been a while. In truth I’ve been tongue-tied, unable to pull the right words from the melting pot of my mind. Not even sure what to say, even if I could work out how to say it. So there you have it. Welcome to my mind.

How easy it is to blame things. Work being busy. Not sleeping well. Time just flying by. Excuses trip so easily off the tongue – far easier than admitting reality. But when we run out of excuses reality always bites. Why don’t we learn? You’d think we would. Or maybe not.

So anyway, time has flown, excuses have multiplied at speed like bacteria in a petri dish. And here we are. Here I am. Facing my reality. Admitting it. Holding a red rag up to it and waiting for it to charge. Come on, I’m ready.

Nothing is wrong. Things have changed, situations shifting like the sands of time on which we are so shakily standing. But nothing is wrong.

Earlier, I meditated. Took some time to step away from the to do lists, to quell the panic rising up inside. I couldn’t quite believe how well it worked. It’s always nice, of course, to close your eyes and find that space, to realise all that really matters is the breath, in, out. The here and the now is all there is.

But this time something happened, not at first, but after. A flash of inspiration, a hint at the solution to a problem I’ve been grappling with for weeks. I wrote it down. In ink. For permanence.

I think I will meditate again tomorrow.

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The Happy Place

Despite the wonderful Thanksgiving dinner that our friends hosted last night, I woke up this morning feeling sad. R only got back from five days away at 6.30pm last night, and left again today at midday for a work trip. Lately we’ve been like ships passing in the night, and the next couple of weeks promise to be just as tough. It’s hard sometimes living the crazy life we lead, but at least we both recognise the importance of staying emotionally connected as much as we can, despite the challenges. There is a lot going on and potentially some big changes afoot for us both – all very exciting, but transition always brings with it a certain trepidation.

So anyway, I woke up feeling sad and when R left felt even sadder. But instead of sitting around moping I gave myself a much-needed kick up the arse and went for a walk to my happy place, Tenbosch Park. There is one specific spot where I love to sit and listen to the birds tweeting and just breathe. In. Out. Until I feel calm again. It works every time.

Sometimes the world comes crowding in and it’s hard to get perspective, but there is always a way to get back to what matters, and, for me at least, it usually involves seeking out nature. Trees have a particularly calming effect on me, I think because so many of them have been there for so long, standing tall and strong. Nothing moves them, or riles them. I find them inspiring, and always think when I’m amongst them that I need to take a leaf (excuse the pun) out of their book and not let things get to me so much.

Life is crazy. The best way to deal with it is to accept it and enjoy the ride. Happy Sunday 🙂

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Gratitude, Acceptance and Umbrellas

It’s been a while since I last updated my blog. This is, in part, because I’m currently focusing on addressing some of the issues in my life that are blocking my path to fulfilment and success. At the moment I’m reading two neuropsychology books, one on Hardwiring Happiness by Dr Rick Hanson (whose TED talk on the issue can be viewed here), and the other on conditions arising from neuropsychological damage, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by the brilliant (and, sadly, now also suffering from terminal cancer) Oliver Sachs. Alongside the Chopra Centre guided meditations that I am trying to do on a regular basis (which I think I mentioned in a previous post), these books have been helping me to understand some key facets* of the human condition that need cultivating in order to experience true fulfilment. These are:

Part One: Gratitude

It sounds obvious, but how many of us really take the time each day to count our blessings? I think I’ve touched on this before, but now more than ever I am realising how important it is to consciously feel gratitude in order to overcome negative emotions like anxiety, jealousy and fear. It is only by recognising the value of what we have – primarily the people in our lives who bring us joy and make us feel secure and loved – that we can create a sense of calm and acceptance. Which brings me onto…

Part Two: Acceptance

This morning I walked past the elderly homeless man who sleeps in a doorway along my route to work. For a time, during January, he disappeared, and I hoped he had found somewhere warm to spend the rest of the winter. But no such luck. Recently he has been back, huddled with his worldly belongings on the grey concrete step. I have wanted to do something for him ever since I first saw him, but was unsure whether he would welcome being approached and offered charity. Today I had my chance, as I had slipped into my bag a slice of the delicious tarte au sucre that was left over from the dinner party I hosted on Sunday night. As I passed him I had the urge to offer it to him. He declined. And you know what? I stifled the selfish compulsion to feel rebuffed, and in that moment realised that acceptance is an important part of coming to terms with life. We can’t change other people; we can only change our own thoughts, deeds and actions. I’m glad I offered him something, even if he didn’t want it, because generosity is part of being human – it connects us to one another, and it makes us feel less alone.

Part Three: Umbrellas

Also on my walk to work today, the air was damp with the drizzle I’m coming to learn is characteristic of life here in Brussels. But rather than putting up my umbrella the second I felt a droplet of water on my forehead, I deliberately waited until the rain was sufficiently heavy to warrant me being protected from it. And in that moment it occurred to me the umbrella could be used as an analogy for life:

Life is about learning when you need an umbrella to protect yourself – and when you are strong enough to walk in the rain.

The path I’m currently treading makes me feel ever more keenly that it isn’t possible to protect ourselves from the negative things in life – they are an intrinsic part of it. What matters is working on our ability to face them head on; to be humble, selfless and brave.

*Interestingly, one meaning for the word ‘facet’ in the dictionary is ‘one of the small, polished plane surfaces of a cut gem’ – it struck me this was also a good analogy for life, which has so very many different aspects, hence the image I have chosen to accompany this post.

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I never knew facets could be so beautiful.

Doldrums

Today the carefully arranged mask of Zen which I discovered in my course last week and had actually started to believe could be my true and serene self spectacularly slipped aside to reveal a considerably less calm interior. Unsurprisingly this has led to an upsurge of those familiar feelings of failure and frustration I’d hitherto been doing an impressive job of burying somewhere in the back of my unconscious (along with jealousy, bitterness, anger, rage and all the other unwanted emotions that reside there – although those ones I have at least managed to batten down the hatches on again).

The most frustrating thing is that I know the way I’m feeling is in almost entirely self-inflicted. I spent the weekend over indulging, entirely neglecting my body and mind’s requirements for healthy food, sleep and nurturing (and, let’s face it, this body and mind aren’t getting any younger). As a result both body and mind became unbalanced, and it’s only now as I begin to recognise this and pay some recompense to both that the situation can begin to be resolved. It’s hardly rocket science – disrespect your body and it will disrespect you back (or something to that effect) – though it seems I’m failing in this most rudimentary of comprehensions.

But you know what? It may be how the day began but wallowing is most certainly not how I want this day to end. The plethora of ‘problems’ I perceive when I’m tired and emotional are First World problems; none have serious repercussions. Instead of letting my brain dwell on negative thoughts I shall, for the remainder of this day, embrace the positive ones – of which there are so many – and be glad. So what if I’m tired and a bit out of sorts? I had a great weekend with my friends – and it was worth every minute. Now if somebody could just pass the Berocca…

Canggu

She had come to this place in search of solitude. It was not so far from the beaten track, a mere fifteen minute taxi ride out of the heaving metropolis that was Kuta. But it was far enough to feel cleansed of the inherent grime that everything in Kuta seemed somehow steeped in, not least the throngs of intoxicated teenagers who lined the street each night after dark, preparing their drink-addled bodies for round after relentless round of vile neon shots. She was far from being a prude or a bore, but something about Kuta had unsettled her, made her feel unsafe and ill at ease. It was as if the town itself was intent on self-destruction and, as such, was taking all who resided there along for the downward spiral of a ride.

The taxi pulled up outside a delicate set of wrought iron gates. She climbed out and paid the fare, hoisting her rucksack onto her back as the taxi pulled away. Set into the lemon-washed wall was a buzzer, which she duly pushed. Moments later a man in a white linen uniform appeared to unlock the gate. He apologised that the owner of the property would not be back until later, and took her to her room. It was a decent size, with flagstone flooring that was cool under foot and a beautiful handmade patchwork quilt on the bed. But it wasn’t the room she had been promised – the room above the swimming pool, which looked out across the paddy fields. This was what she had come for.

The room – her room – would be occupied for a further night, she was told at reception, where two western tourists lounged on oversized cushions beside the small yet beautifully maintained swimming pool. She had felt a stab of disappointment to find other westerners in residence, having naively believed that she alone had found this calm oasis. This was not what she had expected, and a knot of anxiety formed in the pit of her stomach which she repeatedly tried – and failed – to ignore. She asked after food, was told she would have to venture out or order takeaway as they didn’t prepare food on site.

There was nothing else for it. She would go for a walk, explore the local area. Find food. After twenty minutes she realised she was walking in a big circle. She had not passed a single food vending establishment and was beginning to feel tearful when she saw a sign further down the road from where she stood. On closer inspection she saw it was a café. Relief flooded through her as she sat on a red plastic chair and waited to be served. But there was no sign of the owner. Instead, a curtain behind the counter twitched and two high pitched giggles could be clearly heard from the other side.

First one face, then the other, came into view. Two little girls peered out at her. She smiled and they disappeared in a fit of hysteria behind the curtain. The curtain moved again, this time revealing a man with a broad smile. He served her as the children ran around the table, occasionally stopping to sing her a song or involve her in their game. They shared no language but it didn’t matter. The girls were such absorbing company that she was lost in the moment, unselfconscious and somewhere near happy.

Once she had eaten, she regretfully took her leave, the girls waving sadly until she was out of view. When she returned to the homestay the owner had arrived. She too was a westerner, though she made a point of stressing she had been here for many years. She was apologetic about the room mix up, promising to get things sorted as soon as the current inhabitant checked out the following day. In the meantime she suggested her new guest might like to hire a scooter and head down to the beach.

In the absence of a better plan she did as the owner had suggested, and as the wind whipped through her hair and the sun beat down on her tanned skin she had to admit it was a good idea. After ten minutes she arrived at the beach. She parked the scooter and kicked off her sandals, stooping to pick them up from the golden sand. In front of the beach was a restaurant. She took a seat on one of the wooden benches outside and ordered herself a Coke. The beach was long and virtually deserted, save for a handful of surfers frolicking in the shallows and a couple of ponies trotting up and down, their owners on their backs.

Feeling restless, she drained the Coke as soon as it arrived, left a note under the bottle and walked down to the beach itself, covering a fair amount of ground before allowing herself to sit down near the shore. She wiggled her toes in the sand, took a deep breath and lay back with her arms flayed out either side of her. The sky was completely devoid of clouds, and she had to squint to prevent the sun from blinding her. What a ride this past few months had been. She could hardly believe it was almost over.

By the time she returned the late afternoon sun was beginning to set, reflected in the perfectly still surface of the pool. The man in the white uniform appeared with a key, handed it to her and pointed to the room above the pool – her room. The occupant had left not long after she had gone to the beach, he explained in broken English. She beamed at him and ran back to her other room to pack. Ten minutes later she was installed in her own private paradise. She flung open the shutters to catch the final rays of sun as they took one last careful caress of the green shoots of the paddy field. Then, quite overcome, she sank to her knees and wept tears of pure joy.

She had come to this place in search of solitude. It was not so far from the beaten track. But it was far enough. 

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This was that place. I remember it still.

 

Swami

Dawn breaks over the Agastya mountain range in southern Kerala. As the sun begins its lazy ascent from the horizon, a Chestnut-headed Bee Eater swoops across a lake, its surface so flat that the bird’s bright plumage is reflected back in glorious and unbroken technicolour. Rising from the lake are vapour trails, the ghost of night evaporating into the air and making way for day. The air is still, with no discernible sound besides the whooshing of the bird as it dips and dives down to the surface of the water. All is calm.

Beside the lake sits a man. Clothed in robes of orange, his legs are crossed, the thumb and forefingers of each hand touching one another. His eyes are closed. He looks to be in quiet contemplation, yet he is transcendent; half in this world, half in the next. No earthly troubles phase him, no thoughts chatter incessantly inside his head. He is a master of the art of the still mind, having experienced the peace that comes with being fully in the present in a way that few can comprehend. He sees in, on, above, beneath and through all things.

He is a swami, a man of great religious faith, a Hindu god-in-waiting. He sought enlightenment, and found it. He is at peace.

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This is the late Swami Vishnudevananda, one of the two swamis who were revered at the ashram where I stayed for two weeks of last year. He was my favourite because of his big smile and open demeanour, and because of this image with the caption: One has to ask oneself, what do I really want from life? That is the fundamental question. Indeed it is Swami.