I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’ Francoise Sagan

Monday, 5 December 2011

A timely reminder...

A friend of mine recently asked me why I haven't written anything on my blog for some time. In the course of our conversation, I was surprised to discover that he is a regular follower of my internet musings and that, furthermore, he actually looks forward to reading my new posts. I was unsure how to respond at first, partly because I hadn't fully articulated - even to myself - the reasons why I had stopped writing but his question got me thinking. So, after a few moments of reflection, I replied that I had not written any new posts in the last couple of months because I have been going through a very dark period in my personal life. I also ventured to speculate that, perhaps as a result of this, my creative muse has temporarily abandoned me. Yet, as I said these things, I realised that there had actually been another deeper reason for my recent silence. So, I finally admitted  - both to him and to myself - that a sense of shame and failure had been preventing me from writing; this is because my previous blog post was on the subject of happiness and since I had so clearly failed to follow my own advice about how to be happy, I no longer felt that I had anything of value to say. I also felt like a fraud: after all, what is the point of writing knowledgably on a particular subject unless you are able to practice what you preach?!

What happened next was one of the most beautiful reminders I have had to date of the abiding presence of grace in my life. To clarify, those of you have read my previous posts will recall that I have a strong belief in the existence of angels. I believe that these benevolent beings can take any form and that they act as messengers who invariably appear when they are most needed – whether to save us from danger or merely to offer a much-needed piece of advice. When times are bleak, I sometimes forget that I am not alone and do not need to struggle with my burdens single-handedly but this chance encounter was a reminder of their presence and of the protective forces supporting my life. I should add that I had not seen the friend in question for many weeks and I certainly did not expect to see him at that moment in time but suddenly there he was, telling me exactly what I needed to hear, just when I needed to hear it. What he actually said was very simple but it seems to me that simplicity is often the hallmark of true wisdom. In essence, this is the message that my angel in disguise had been sent to convey:

- There is no reason to feel like a failure because you have not yet found the happiness you deserve.
- Just because you cannot always live up to the words of wisdom that you share with others does not invalidate what you have to say or detract in any way from its truth.
- Writing is what you most love to do and, whether your words are of hope and inspiration or sorrow and regret does not matter; what matters is only that you use this talent to communicate your truth and connect with others.

For now, this is all I want to share with my readers but I wanted to take this opportunity to give thanks to those who love and support me – known and unknown – and to offer up a prayer that you may always be with me. I feel truly humbled and blessed by your presence.

Friday, 23 September 2011

The Recipe for Happiness - for Alejandro

It often seems that happiness is a short-lived, ephemeral experience but over the last few months I have learnt that it does not have to be this way. For the fact of the matter is that happiness - like everything else of value in this life - can only be sustained with effort. The problem is that many of us think of happiness as a state of grace that relies on external forces beyond our control -  like a gift from the Gods or a favourable conjunction of the planets in relation to our birth sign. However, if we want to experience an enduring sense of contentedness and fulfilment that is untouched by life’s inevitable highs and lows, we have to build the foundations for this to occur. It is easy to forget that we are one hundred percent responsible for our own well-being; consequently, rather than being something that just happens to us, our happiness is very much the fruit of our own labours.

I have discovered that one of the most effective ways to experience more joy in my life is to focus my mind on the many blessings that I have been given and to cultivate a deep sense of gratitude for them. Many of us were told as children to count our blessings – usually in a context when we were not feeling particularly blessed or grateful – but the simple act of focusing on the good things in our lives really does have its benefits. For, no matter how dissatisfied or disgruntled we may be feeling, we can all find something to be grateful for; and the great news is that the more we focus our attention on this, the more the things that are troubling us seem to fade into the background. Cultivating a deep sense of appreciation for the blessings in our lives – starting with the very smallest of things that so many of us take for granted, such as a beautiful sunset or a delicious meal - is a very simple yet powerful way of experiencing a greater sense of well-being. Furthermore, by cultivating the habit of feeling gratitude for everything we have, we literally re-programme our minds to notice and acknowledge what many of us simply take for granted. The fact is that the more we focus on the good things in our lives, no matter how small, the more we will find to be grateful for and the happier we will feel. The law of attraction simply states that you attract into your life whatever you think about; consequently, your dominant thoughts will always find a way to manifest.

However, maintaining a positive outlook and a sense of gratitude is not easy, especially when times are hard, and it is precisely because we have to actively participate in the manifestation of our own blessings and good fortune that happiness can so easily elude us. Buddhism teaches that enlightenment comes from learning to master your own mind and I believe that this form of self-mastery is central to developing the sort of happiness that endures, irrespective of personal circumstances.  For me, this challenge to master myself – and in the process become happier - has involved developing a greater awareness of my own internal dialogue and thought patterns. This may seem like a strange thing to do but I believe that it is crucial to preserving and maintaining a sense of wellbeing. As Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray, Love" puts it: “You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day.

Learning this skill takes time and effort – and I do not claim to have mastered it yet – but I have started to make positive progress in the right direction. Like many people, when things are tough I have a tendency to compare myself to other (more fortunate) people or to imagine that the grass is greener someone else – and from time to time this old theme continues to replay itself. However, these days – whenever I find my thoughts wandering down this particular pathway to misery – a warning signal immediately sounds in my brain alerting me to danger.  This is important because if the same negative thought patterns occur frequently enough, in time such thoughts crystallise into beliefs, which flourish like weeds in the fertile territory of our minds. Of course we cannot monitor every single thought that goes through ours heads but, as the content of our thoughts has such a direct impact on the quality of our lives, it definitely helps to be more aware of what is going on up there!

Over the last few months, I have started to observe the idiosyncratic workings of my own mind as one might study an alien species - with interest, incomprehension and, at times, dismay! During this process, I have made several interesting discoveries, including the identification of a critical and rather sceptical pessimist who dwells inside my head. Although she has inhabited my interior landscape for what seems like forever, she had never fully revealed herself to me until I started watching out for her. In recent weeks she has kept a low profile but each time she appears,  I acknowledge her with a smile and then send her on her way with love.

The results of this process, over a period of about 8 weeks, have been truly transformational. One of the most noticeable developments has been a fundamental change in the way that I interact with my husband. By simply becoming more aware of my own thought processes and reactions, I realised that I sometimes allow the daily challenges of conjugal living to escalate in my mind to the point where relatively minor irritations acquire monstrous proportions.  This tendency to focus on the negative and react with anger to even the smallest of aggravations was literally destroying my marriage, so I made a decision to practise recognising and releasing myself from these destructive thought patterns.

The following is just one small example of how things have changed for me. In recent weeks, I found myself poised on the verge of a heated argument: my husband had said something thoughtless and I had automatically reverted to my standard default position in these situations - in other words battle mode! However, instead of responding with the usual recriminations, I stopped. Instead of reacting, I paused, took a deep breath and asked myself why I was feeling this way.  This pause gave me the clarity to realise that I had been holding onto a number of unspoken grievances for several days and that this latest aggravation had triggered them all.  Although I had kept my feelings of irritation to myself, each time something had vexed me, a new spiky-edged resentment had taken up residence in my mind. Armed with this new awareness, I decided to give myself some space from the situation. Once the fog of anger was no longer clouding my mind, I was able to take a step back from myself and assess things more clearly. On further reflection, I realised that my tendency to dwell on things that have upset me means that I never let go of minor hurts; unsurprisingly these bad feelings then snowball in my mind until eventually – with the right amount of external pressure – an avalanche occurs!

So, I asked myself a simple question:  what would happen if instead of wallowing in negativity and gathering resentments, I directed more of my attention to the positive things in my life? Just by posing myself this question, something immediately shifted inside my head. I suddenly found myself thinking of all the things that I truly love and appreciate about my husband and remembering the good times we have shared. This refocusing technique was so effective that within minutes my anger and resentment had evaporated; so much so that I was able to completely let go of my self-righteous indignation and tell my husband how much I value his presence in my life. 

This leads me to the conclusion that, ultimately, happiness is just a matter of choice. With each new day, it is up to me to decide whether I will spend my waking hours feeling gratitude for the blessings in my life or whether I will focus instead on my troubles. This may sound naively simple but it really is that straightforward; we make it hard because we forget that we are responsible for our happiness – but the fact is, nobody can give us peace of mind and nobody can take it away, without our permission.  For me, the best discovery of all has been that it is not that hard to lead a happy and fulfilled existence - it just requires patience, practice and perseverance. In fact, the recipe for happiness is actually quite simple: to a base of gratitude, add a generous measure of positive thoughts - carefully sifting to prevent any lingering negativity from contaminating the mix - add a dash of self-awareness, half a dozen handfuls of compassion, sprinkle lightly with a few heartfelt prayers  (this will help the ingredients to bind together) and then gently heat with love. The end product will be well worth the time and effort it takes to prepare.

“Happiness cannot be travelled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.”  Denis Waitley

Monday, 15 August 2011

Looking back…

Since creating my blog in March of this year, I have discovered that writing has given a new sense of purpose and direction to my life; at times, it has also been like a welcome balm for a troubled spirit. When things have been difficult in my personal or professional life, writing has given me a platform for self-expression and a means of connecting with the outside world.  It does not matter that those who read these words are mostly unknown to me; just knowing that you are there - reading these posts - gives me a sense of connectedness to you.  For me, the joy of writing is that it has allowed me to create something greater than myself – to step outside my own small, confined world and share my thoughts, ideas and experiences.

My writing has evolved over the course of the last few months to convey a vision of the world that is gradually becoming less personalised and localised and more expansive and inclusive; this feels to me like quite a natural progression. Although the themes of my recent posts are still determined by my unique experiences and reflect a subjective perception of the world, I have become increasingly interested in exploring the intersection between my world and the world, between the personal and the universal. Consequently, when I write about my experiences as a 41 year old woman living on the south west coast of England, what increasingly fires my imagination is how my little corner of the universe forms part of a greater whole; and, how I can use the written word as a bridge - connecting the personal with the universal and the local with the global. There is no doubt that we are all moulded by the society, culture, and family in which we grew up and that we all filter reality through eyes that have been conditioned by our earliest experiences. Yet, despite the huge differences between people, what unites us far outweighs any divisions of class, gender or nationality. After all, we all have to grow up and find our way in the world; we will all experience heartache at some time or another; and, if we live long enough, we will all grow old and come face to face with our own mortality.

I have frequently observed that the most gifted writers are those who have a talent for vividly recreating a picture of a world they know and situating it within a wider framework that reflects the commonality of human experience. In this way, The God of Small Things transcends the local reality of Kerala, India with its rigidly hierarchical cast system and speaks of greater universal truths about division and exclusion. Similarly, on one level, One Hundred Years of Solitude recounts the tale of the lives of successive generations of the same family in a remote part of Colombia; yet the novel also contains a metanarrative that speaks of the nature of time and memory and Man’s struggle to break free from the shackles of the past. In this way, Garcia Marquez’s prize winning bestseller transcends a localised sense of time and place to touch on universal truths that extend beyond Colombian borders.

I would like to think that I have achieved something similar in my own writing - albeit on a much smaller scale than these great authors; and that, in the process, I have reached beyond the confines of my own finite existence in time and space to create something of universal relevance and enduring value. I also hope that anyone that reads these blog posts can relate on some level to their content - no matter what corner of the world they inhabit and no matter how dissimilar their life experiences have been from my own. It would be gratifying to know that my readers in Russia gain as much from my blog posts as those in Dorset!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Communication in a Digital Age

No doubt, most of you are familiar with the expression, “a rose by any other name is just as sweet”, but I for one, beg to differ with the sentiment of this old adage. I suppose that it is unsurprising, given my love of words and writing, that I like things to be called by their proper name but my feelings on this subject go deeper than this: the fact of the matter is that I utterly abhor the current all too common bastardisation of the English language. Sadly, the misuse – or perhaps, should I say the abuse - of our language has become all the more prevalent since the invention of “text talk” with its convenient shortening of words. This unfortunate tendency, combined with the fact that we now have a young population who read far less than in previous generations, is turning us into a nation of people with a limited vocabulary and only the vagueness of notions of correct punctuation and spelling.

In fact, it is precisely because of my love of words – both their meaning and their sound- that I gave a lot of thought to the names of my children. Unfortunately, at the time, it did not occur to me that the beautiful Russian Princess name of my daughter would morph from Tatiana to Tat; although I probably should have realised that Christian Eduardo would become Chris – fortunately, I decided to make Eduardo his middle and not his first name, otherwise he would now be known as Ed. As for me, I am Claire-Louise (with a hyphen), not Claire and not Louise but Claire-Louise. It is no doubt a sign of the times that I am almost apologetic when I point this out to people, but I sometimes wonder why I should feel this way, after all, I am not being pedantic - this is my name! Of course, I realise that, unlike the French, the English do not really have a tradition for hyphenated first names, but it is not difficult to get your tongue around Claire-Louise so there is not really much excuse for getting it wrong.

This brings me back to my original point about the misuse of language. I think it fair to say that there is a growing tendency among the younger population of this country to be lazy or careless in their use of language; and, since the dawn of the era of digital communications - and with it text messaging and other forms of instant messaging - this laziness is becoming ever more pronounced. Furthermore, it seems to me that an increasing overreliance, if not downright dependency, on such mediums of communication is significantly diminishing the quality of personal interactions between people everywhere. However, before you accuse me of being old-fashioned and contemptuous of modern technology, I hasten to point out that I have nothing against such mediums per se – text messages are fine for sending short messages: for example, letting people know your whereabouts or telling your other half not to forget to pick up some fish for dinner. However, text messaging is not a good medium for communications of a more personal nature or as a substitute for a face-to-face conversation; and, whilst it can be fun for flirting and playful banter, in the context of more serious conversations it presents far too many opportunities for error or misunderstanding.

To give an example that some of you may relate to, it can be dangerously, and almost seductively easy, to get into an argument by text. Words fly back and forth with the velocity of a ping-pong game, making this an excellent medium for delivering verbal blows conveniently, thoughtlessly and effortlessly by a quick touch of the key pad. Then, before you know it, you find yourself embroiled in a text war!  The same is true of email although, unless you are having a chat via Instant Messenger, the time delay between the sending and receiving of a message makes it less likely for an argument to escalate with the same kind of out of control velocity. This misuse of a medium not well designed for such serious and personal communications has resulted in a growing number of people succumbing to the temptation of terminating their relationships by text! No doubt, in such cases the sender imagines that they have saved themselves considerable time and effort, in addition to having avoided a potentially painful confrontation. Yet, in some instances there is no substitute for face-to-face communication, particularly when two people are in conflict with one another, and if at such times we are tempted to communicate remotely instead of actually talking to each other and making eye contact, the outcome is unlikely to be positive.

A similar scenario would be unlikely to occur if we had to express ourselves in longhand by letter: for one thing, we would have more time to reflect, so our words would probably be more measured and moderate once we had allowed ourselves the chance to calm down. Secondly, it is possible that the cramp in our hand brought about by writing under the influence of blind anger or the effort involved in buying a stamp and taking our “missile” to the post box would be enough to deter us from sending it in the first place! Similarly, if such an exchange were to take place face-to-face, body language and eye contact would allow us to attribute meaning more accurately to words and misunderstandings would be less likely to occur.

It is the sheer ease and convenience of the many forms of instant messaging currently available that pose the greatest threat to the nature and quality of our interactions. This brings me onto the subject of text messaging whilst under the influence of alcohol – apparently an increasingly common phenomenon – and, suffice it to say, that something similar applies i.e. greater ease of communication=greater likelihood for making errors= potentially huge embarrassment.

The reality is that there are a significant number of people who have been so seduced by the idea of constant, and almost instantaneous communication, that they think it perfectly acceptable (normal even) to send text messages when having dinner, driving their cars or even in the midst of a conversation with someone else. I sometimes cannot help but wonder if these people were actually born with their mobiles attached to the umbilical cord connecting them to their mothers! Unfortunately, this observation does not exclusively apply to those who are still young – I have seen parents who are too busy writing text messages to engage properly with their children.

My feelings on this topic tend to reach boiling point when one particular family member comes to visit. It often seems that we are barely able to exchange two words before her phone alerts her to a new text or BBM (BlackBerry instant messaging for those of you not in the know). Once that happens, there might as well be a hologram in front of me rather than a real human being! Whilst my beloved relation lends half an ear - and probably less than a quarter of her brain - to our conversation, there is a discreet but unmistakeable tapping sound in the background as her fingers conduct a parallel conversation under the table!

I realise that those of you who do not know me might assume that the writer of these lines is a woman of a certain age, giving vent to her frustrations with modern life; you know the type - the kind of person who likes to bemoan the passing of the good old days and the loss of traditional values. Well, up to a point, you would be right because, make no mistake about it; I do lament the loss of certain things associated with a past era. Yet, the fact of the matter is that I have always been a purist when it comes to language, I have never understood why some people prefer to substitute good conversation over dinner with the drone of the T.V. and I have long lamented the decline of certain forms of communication - such as the ancient art of letter writing. I think I first noticed this when I was in my mid to late twenties and email communications gradually started to replace hand written letters. It may be that I am more a product of my upbringing than my generation, but either way, it seems clear to me that modernity and “progress” are not necessarily synonymous. We have created a society in which everything can be done faster and where geographical distances have shrunk to the point of being almost irrelevant (at least in terms of communications) but what is more questionable is whether in the process we have actually improved the quality of human relations.

On a final note, I would like to add that I still have every love letter that I have ever received, stored away in a couple of boxes under my bed. To me these objects are of inestimable value – not only because of the poetic beauty of their content – but also because of the obvious thought, time and effort that went into writing them. Of course, there is no doubt that the same sentiments could have been conveyed more economically and easily by text, but luv u babe would not have won my heart or given me a lifetime of memories to look back on.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Falling in love: an unpalatable truth

With time and experience most of us discover that even the most stable and enduring relationships have a dark underside. However, some relationships appear to be programmed from the start to reveal this uncomfortable reality.  In such cases, it often seems that the more passionate and intense the relationship, the greater the propensity for love’s shadow to emerge. This may be a union of hearts but it is rarely a meeting of minds.  At times heaven seems near but hell is always just around the corner and a fall from grace seems both imminent and unavoidable. There is an underlying sense that time is measured and an uneasy awareness that something dangerous lurks just beneath the surface: a self-destruct button, waiting to detonate given the right amount of pressure.

Of course, being in love and truly loving someone are different things. When we truly love another, we cherish and nurture their hopes, needs and dreams as we would our own. Such altruistic impulses are rarely associated with infatuation. Furthermore, we see the imperfections of the one we love but continue to love them anyway - in spite of or maybe even because of their flaws.

By contrast, falling in love is easy and requires no effort. You can fall in love just as easily as you can fall ill with flu and we often feel that we have little or no choice in the matter. Furthermore, the intense attraction we experience when we are infatuated with someone temporarily blinds us to reality. We have fallen victim to the love bug, whose symptoms include: elevated heart rate, inability to focus, obsessive thinking, mood swings (varying from rapture to deep despondency depending on how the object of our desire is responding to us) etc. On a purely chemical level, the physical symptoms associated with being in love are not dissimilar from the high a drug addict must feel after taking a hit of cocaine: an instant shot of euphoria which gradually wears off over time…. until the next dose is delivered. It is therefore hardly surprising that we are unable to see the object of our affections with any real clarity whilst in the grip of this turbulent emotional state.

Looked at objectively, it seems likely that this uncomfortable state of irrationality, to which all human beings fall prey, is nothing more than a devious strategy invented by Mother Nature to ensure that babies continue to be born. What else could explain the fact that sometimes two clearly unsuited and emotionally incompatible people get together?!  Unfortunately this cruel and crafty lady does not care about the wellbeing of the two people involved; her only concern is their biological compatibility.

In my experience, the unpalatable truth about falling in love is that you can fall in love with anyone, including someone you may not particularly like and whose values you don't share! And, for us poor perverse souls who see love as a challenge, the intensity of our feelings only grows stronger when the object of our desire is unattainable. Marcel Proust describes the disastrous consequences of this kind of ‘love delusion’ in his epic book Swann in Love. Needless to say, this kind of infatuation can lead to some spectacularly ill advised decisions and problematic partnerships.

The kind of rapturous, passionate love that I have so far described is very different in nature from the kind of love that nourishes and sustains us. There is a world of difference between the kind of love that allows us to grow and flourish, becoming better people for the experience, and a passion that both blinds and enslaves us. It is, in short, the difference between what the Greeks describe as Eros and Agape. While Eros is characterised by passion and obsession, Agape is more like the unconditional and selfless love a parent feels for a child; it is the kind of love that requires us to look beyond on own self-centred needs and it always requires patience, understanding, forgiveness, flexibility, and a willingness to extend ourselves.

Of course, most relationships would not come into being in the first place without the initial intensity of Eros but, unless the influence of the God of erotic love is tempered by the balancing and stabilising presence of Agape, the flames of passion can rage out of control leaving nothing in their wake but charred ashes and shattered dreams.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Prince UnCharming: an unlikely Fairy Tale.

Prince UnCharming was a good and handsome man but nonetheless he was an unusual prince. When he was still a young man, his father, the King, had fallen in love with one of the ladies in waiting and banished the Queen from court. As his mother had been banished and her marriage to the King declared null and void, the Prince was disinherited and expelled from his father’s kingdom. And so it was that Prince UnCharming was forced to leave the lands he should have inherited and fend for himself in a hostile and far off country.

During this period of exile, the Prince became accustomed to living alone and gave up all hope of finding a fair princess to share his life with; for he had no prospect of making a good marriage to a woman of noble birth having lost his fortune and place at court. He was now forced to work for a living and even had to learn basic survival skills such as cooking and ironing since there was no longer anyone to do it for him! Worse still, during this prolonged period of exile and solitude, he had forgotten the skills that men rely on to charm and impress women. In fact, because of his disagreeable nature, he had become known locally as Prince UnCharming and nobody ever used his regal title of His Royal Highness, Prince Alessandro Enrique del Toro Reyes.

One day, however, events took a dramatic turn. Lady Rosa Isabella de la Nieve, the Prince’s only remaining confidante and contact with the noble court of his former kingdom, invited him to a dinner party at her country residence. Prince UnCharming had hesitated whether to accept her invitation as reminders of his former life at court were not always welcome and he was no longer accustomed to social interactions. But Lady Rosa would not take no for an answer; she was very fond of the Prince and deeply concerned for his wellbeing. Furthermore, she thought she might just have found a solution to his problems. So, having resolved to take action, she invited her good friend Lady Clarabella Houghton-Smythe to spend a few days with her in the country.  Lady Clarabella lived in a palatial residence in Marylebone but she never passed up the opportunity to get out of the city at weekends whenever she could. She was a woman of good breeding and some fortune and, although she had been unlucky in love, she had not given up hope of finding a man who might be worthy of her. She dreamed of meeting her own Prince Charming and starting a new life with him, somewhere far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Luckily, it seemed that the universe was listening to her, although perhaps only with half an ear; for the Prince she had dreamed of would be quite different from the man that her destiny would bring!

As things turned out, Lady Rosa’s matchmaking did not exactly go to plan. Truth be told, she had harboured some misgivings all along about introducing the Prince and Lady Clarabella, for it had occurred to her that they shared certain character traits that might not make them ideally suited. But, being a woman of good heart and wishing to see them both happy, she had decided to put her doubts to one side and hope for the best.

Things went wrong almost from the outset. First impressions count, and neither party received a favourable impression of the other: Lady Clarabella found Prince UnCharming to be uncharming indeed which, despite his name, was still a surprise to her because the men from his land had a reputation for being suave, sophisticated and very attractive to women. She knew this from firsthand experience because she herself had been courted by a number of suitors from that particular kingdom. As she observed the Prince that evening over dinner – Lady Rosa had thoughtfully seated him directly opposite her - Lady Clarabella found herself wondering whether if she were to kiss him, this so-called prince might not turn into a frog! She had kissed a few frogs in her time in the hope that they might turn into princes but she couldn’t help feeling that this man, for all his noble credentials, might well be a frog in disguise as a prince!  

For his part, Prince UnCharming quickly formed the impression that Lady Clarabella was both rude and self-obsessed. She made no effort to make conversation with him throughout the evening; instead she monopolised the attention of their hostess, complaining vociferously to her about the uselessness of the various men who had recently courted her.  Confused and insulted by her derogatory comments about the male sex, Prince UnCharming took refuge in a book - thus giving her the very pointed and unambiguous impression that his attention was engaged elsewhere. 

Lady Rosa could hardly fail to notice that her plans were coming unstuck and tried to steer the conversation towards topics where they might have something in common. This worked initially but  to her dismay, it soon became apparent that Prince UnCharming and Lady Clarabella could not agree on even the most trivial of subjects. A simple discussion about the weather turned into a violent disagreement and politics was definitely a no go area. Lady Clarabella had a great admiration for Cuba, a country whose rulers she had met and admired, whereas Prince UnCharming was quick to express the damning opinion that they should all be hung, drawn and quartered! Lady Rosa observed that her friends made no effort to be polite to one another and just said whatever happened to be on their minds at the time, with no regard whatsoever for the effect that their words might produce! She had noticed this characteristic in both of them on previous occasions but it had never been quite so apparent to her until the pair of them had been brought together. It seemed unlikely that a romance could blossom from such a mismatch of personalities, so Lady Rosa realised that she would have to accept that this was a union not meant to be. But as it happened, she had overlooked a couple of small but significant facts about her friends: outspokenness and tactlessness were not the only traits they had in common; they were also both unusually curious and fond of a challenge.

And so it came to pass that within just a few short weeks of their first meeting, this improbable pair became a couple. Unsurprisingly, theirs was not a conventional courtship. Prince UnCharming, who had been instantly drawn to Lady Clarabella  - almost in spite of himself -  immediately realised that though she was of lesser birth than he, she was in fact far out of his league in most other ways. For one thing, she had had many suitors despite her difficult character, whereas his lack of charm and general outspokenness had not endeared him to the fairer sex; and furthermore, his royal lineage seemed of little consequence to those ladies he had tried to pursue. So having realised  he would never seduce her by conventional methods, the Prince had decided that the best course of action would be to feign indifference. This strategy produced unexpectedly rapid results: Lady Clarabella was used to men falling at her feet and her vanity would not tolerate such insolence! Consequently, the more the Prince resisted her, the more determined she became to have him! Within a very short time, the Prince had got Lady Clarabella wrapped around his little finger. Fortunately for her, she was blissfully unaware of his deceit and continued to congratulate herself on having finally won his heart. 

When Lady Rosa was eventually informed of this unforeseen turn of events, she became even more anxious than before - remaining firm in her conviction that nothing good could possibly come of such a union. Furthermore, she was worried that her mismatched friends would end up blaming her when things inevitably went sour between them! Initially it appeared that her misgivings were not unfounded, for this was a relationship beleaguered by difficulties from the outset. These problems were fairly inevitable because on the one hand, the Prince and his Lady shared a fiery and undisciplined character; and on the other, they did not share a common language.  So, the Prince would say one thing and his Lady would hear another, and vice versa. This is undoubtedly a common enough problem between men and women, but it was made far worse by the fact that although the Prince had successfully mastered the language of his host country, he had not learnt to grasp the subtleties of its humour. Consequently, he was frequently offended by Lady Clarabella’s remarks. This inevitable led to all kinds of misunderstandings between them which often culminated in angry exchanges and mutual accusations.

Time passed and the Prince and his Lady eventually married. But the problems between them continued, and they would almost undoubtedly have continued indefinitely had it not been for the unexpected arrival of an unusual gift. This item was delivered by messenger a couple of months after their marriage with no note to identify its sender. In the circumstances, they both assumed that it was an overdue present from one of their wedding guests who wished to remain anonymous. The object was enveloped in layer upon layer of delicate tissue paper so it took them time, and some patience, to unravel. But, when it was eventually removed from its packaging, they discovered a beautiful, gilt edged mirror. Next to the mirror was a note which read:

I am the mirror of truth, look into me and you will see what you need to know. If you are not afraid to open your mind and see what I reveal, you will be blessed by many years of happy marriage. 

The Prince and his Lady were intrigued by the cryptic meaning of this message and being of bold and curious nature, they did not shirk from the challenge it presented. Wasting no time and determined to discover its secrets, Lady Clarabella took the mirror in her hand and gazed unflinchingly into its depths. She had imagined that the mirror might have magical powers that would transport her backwards or forwards in time or take her to some parallel universe whose mysteries she would be required to uncover. So you can imagine her surprise and disappointment when the image reflected back from its shiny surface was the face of none other than her own Prince UnCharming. For a moment Lady Clarabella was lost for words, but when she eventually recovered her power of speech, she looked over her shoulder to see if the Prince was standing behind her. However, he had not moved from her side and stranger still was the fact that the mirror did not reflect her face at all - only his. Meanwhile, the Prince was impatient to try the mirror for himself. So, leaping forwards, he wrenched it from her hands. For a brief moment the mirror’s surface clouded over and became opaque. Then it seemed to flicker and waver like a dying flame. All of a sudden the mirror cleared and the delicate and unmistakable features of his Lady appeared before the Prince’s confused eyes. For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Then Lady Clarabella finally broke the silence:
Is this some kind of practical joke?!” she demanded. “How can this be a mirror of truth when it doesn’t even reflect reality! For how is it possible, that I look at myself and see you and you look at yourself and see me!”

There was a brief silence while they both considered the implications of this statement. Then, very slowly, they turned to look at one another. It was a hot day and, due to the interchange of light and shadow, Lady Clarabella could see herself clearly reflected in the pupils of the Prince. Suddenly she exclaimed:

“I look in the mirror and I see you, then I look in your eyes and I see me!”

And in an instant, with no need for further discussion, they finally understood.

From that day forth whenever the Prince and his Lady engaged in a dispute, they would remember the mirror. Then instead of blaming one another, they would silently give thanks for the gift of understanding that it had given them. For the mirror had allowed them to see that whenever it appears that we are struggling with another, we are actually just struggling with ourselves.

However, this is not quite the end of this tale because although they had learned the wisdom of the mirror, the Prince and his Lady still found it difficult to communicate. The Prince would say one thing and his Lady would frequently hear something quite different from what he had said, and vice versa. Fortunately, help was at hand: for the benevolent forces of the universe are generous and there is no limit to the gifts of wisdom available to those who are ready to receive them. And so it came to pass that one day a few months later, a small parcel arrived - again by messenger and with no accompanying note. This time our protagonists could barely contain their excitement and nearly fell over each other in their rush to receive it. The Prince grabbed hold of the mystery package first and impatiently began to rip off the wrapping paper. Inside there was a book, the title read:

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

And from that day forward, the Prince and his Lady lived happily ever after. The End.

Mirror, mirror…

I know of many successful women (myself included) who, despite their careers and independence, still secretly yearn for a modern-day prince to rescue them from the reality of everyday life. This myth is so deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of many women, that when a good man appears before us - after what seems, to some of us, like an eternity of kissing frogs – we often totally fail to recognise him. The reason for this is simple: the chances are he will be nothing like what we were expecting and, unless we are unusually lucky, he is probably not very princely either! Of course, not all women yearn for the contemporary version of the prince of our childhood bedtime stories: someone who will treat us like a princess and keep us in Jimmy Choos “til death do us part!”; but, even if we are not dreaming of being swept off our feet and carried off to the land of happily ever after, many of us still dream of a prince who will at the very least help with the washing up, share the childcare and save us from the horrors of DIY!

However, even the most romantically minded of us recognise that modern-day love stories rarely resemble fairy tales; particularly in an age where women no longer rely on men to give their life meaning and purpose and few would be content to languish in a castle while their Prince Charming slayed dragons all day! Yet, the reason that fairy tales have not lost their relevance and universal appeal is that, on a fundamental level, we still want to believe in the myth of happily ever after.  I hesitate to use the word myth here but it is the only term that fits; not because the desire for a happy ending is per se unrealistic or childish, but because the kind of happily ever after that some of us yearn for is as far removed from reality as the script of a romantic Hollywood film. Of course we know that films like Pretty Woman represent pure fantasy, but part of the appeal of such modern day fairy tales is that some of us still cherish the notion - consciously or not! -  that love can save the day; and that maybe all we have to do to bring about this miracle is look pretty and smile! 

It is surprising how easy it is to forget that human interactions are, in fact, far more complicated than fairy tales and romantic movies would have us believe!; consequently, many of us remain attached to the idea that love somehow ought to be easy. As a result of this deluded assumption, in many cases, when the going gets tough, we get going! Consequently, rather like take-away dinners, relationships have become easily disposable because few of us are prepared to go the distance. When faced with relationship difficulties, many of us will take this as a sign that we are with the wrong person - rather than realising that we may have something to learn. Then, instead of staying and trying to work it out, we walk away and continue searching for that elusive soul mate: the person who will guarantee our happiness and make our life complete.  But, we would do well to remember that life is not a fairy tale and that our relationships, like every other area of our life, require sustained effort to make them work. Happiness is not something we are entitled to after all, it is something that has to be built every day with patience, perseverance and a positive attitude.

It seems to me that one of the reasons that relationships can be so difficult is that everyone we attract into our life is a mirror for us in certain ways; and how we feel with someone is usually an indication of how we feel about the parts of ourselves that they mirror. When two people meet and feel an instant and deep mutual attraction, it is often because each person reflects some key aspect of the other. For example, it is not uncommon for us to find ourselves drawn to someone of similar background, temperament or life experience. If we are drawn to someone of similar temperament, this can make for a very challenging relationship as they will not only reflect back to us our positive qualities, but also the more negative ones that we may not wish to see! Conversely, when we are attracted to someone who appears to have developed qualities that are opposite to the ones that we are most identified with, they often mirror our disowned selves, and we mirror theirs. In other words, those characteristics that most attract us to the other person mirror the hidden aspects of ourselves that we have a subconscious need or desire to develop.

The kind of relationships I have described above are usually emotionally highly charged: we either love the other person, hate them, or both! We feel very attracted to them, and/or very uncomfortable, judgmental, annoyed, or frustrated with them. The stronger the feelings, the more important a mirror they are for us. But ultimately, we have drawn them into our reality for a reason: to make us more aware of something that we need to develop or change in ourselves. Either way, the fact that we have such strong feelings (one way or another) towards the other person, means that they are showing us a part of ourselves we need to acknowledge, accept, and integrate. Here is where most of us struggle because, unless we are extremely well-balanced, self-aware and uncomplicated individuals, this can be an uncomfortable process. In fact, once the euphoria of falling in love has faded, we may start to feel infuriated by the very characteristics that initially attracted us to the other person - either because they serve as a reminder of what is lacking in us, or because they remind us too closely of aspects of our own character that we would rather not see!

However,  for those willing to go the distance, these challenges are a gift because they provide a unique opportunity for self-development. Of course, sometimes we may learn what we have to learn and still walk away. But, even if a relationship ends, as long as we have shown a willingness and openness to work through the difficulties it presents, we will always gain something in the end. What follows is a fairy tale with a difference. So, don’t expect the usual “they met, they fell in love and then they lived happily ever after” scenario!

People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that's what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life." Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love)

Monday, 6 June 2011

Amazing Grace: Angels in Disguise

At times of difficulty, I often receive little reminders that I am not alone. These messages from the universe show up in different ways but they never fail to reassure me that something out there is watching my back. I believe that they are all manifestations of something I will refer to here as ‘grace’.

Despite the religious connotations of this word, the concept of grace is not limited to the standard theological definition, which describes it as the ‘the spontaneous, unmerited gift of divine favour in the salvation of sinners’ - Encyclopaedia Britannica. I prefer to think of grace as a protective and fundamentally life-affirming force that is bestowed on anyone, irrespective of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.  

The author, Scott Peck, has written very eloquently about the subject of grace in his book ‘The Road Less Travelled’. To illustrate his ideas, he describes events from the lives of some of his patients that reveal what he refers to as 'the presence of grace'. From listening to their experiences, he has identified some characteristics that they all seem to share. The following extract is taken from the chapter, ‘The Definition of Grace’.

a.      They serve to nurture – support, protect and enhance – human life and spiritual growth.
b.     The mechanism of their action is either incompletely understood (as in the case of physical resistance and dreams) or totally obscure (as in the case of paranormal phenomena) according to the principles of natural law as interpreted by current scientific thinking.
c.      Their occurrences are frequent, routine, commonplace and essentially universal among humanity.
d.     Although potentially influenced by human consciousness, their origin is outside of the conscious will and beyond the process of conscious decision-making.

The kind of serendipitous events or ‘acts of grace’ that Scott Peck describes in his book include accounts of people who have:
·        walked unscathed from major accidents,
·        had seemingly irrational thoughts guiding them to take preventative action in the face of some imminent but unseen danger
·         experienced a seemingly chance encounter with a complete stranger who appeared at exactly the right time to offer words of encouragement and wisdom

The reason that Scott Peck’s writing resonates so deeply with me is that what he describes mirrors my own experience.   I have felt the unmistakable presence of grace many times throughout my life. And my repeated encounters with its benevolent presence have given me the unshakable certainty that no matter what difficulties I may face, I am always protected. I am convinced that we all have this protection and support at our disposal but it is easy to overlook it. So, it is important to remain alert and receptive.

Some of the greatest and most unexpected blessings in my life have been delivered by those who I now think of as my angels in disguise.  I have not always immediately recognised their function or importance, but in time I have come to appreciate the gifts they have brought me. The fact is that we all have encounters with grace but we are sometimes too distracted by the frenetic pace of daily life to even notice!

A few months ago, I was going through a very tough patch in my personal life. On a day when things seemed particularly gloomy, I decided to cheer myself up by taking my son to our favourite local restaurant. Although I was trying my best to put a brave face on things, my true feelings must have been visible. This turned out be no bad thing, as my unhappy demeanour gave the benevolent forces of the universe yet another opportunity to assist me! Anyway, my son and I were sitting side by side waiting to be served, when a lady who I had never seen before suddenly approached us. I was surprised because I had been to that restaurant countless times and no one had ever struck up a conversation with me.  In any case, our encounter turned out to be one of the most serendipitous events of my life. It still seems remarkable that a chance conversation with a complete stranger could have had this effect, but our meeting gave me a renewed sense of hope and purpose. Shortly afterwards, I began to write again after months of creative apathy. I also began my training to become a Reiki master.  I am certain that this lovely lady was an angel in disguise. After all, not only did she appear at the right moment but she was the catalyst that caused my life to change direction.

I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the presence of grace in my life because it has often kept me on the right path when I have been about to take a wrong turn. Or as a dear friend of mine would put it, just in time to stop me taking a detour down ‘Fuckwit Avenue’!  At times like this, it has often felt as though an invisible hand has descended from above, giving me a firm but loving shove in the right direction – just to remind me that if I am carry on as I am, things will not turn out well!

There have been other more dramatic examples of my various encounters with grace, but I do not think any one of them has been more significant in terms of its long term effect on my well-being. The only difference is that they have been out of the ordinary and therefore harder to miss. But because I don’t like to pass up the opportunity to tell a good story, I will share an example of one that definitely falls in the category of Extraordinary.

I first felt the awesome presence of grace during my extensive travels through South America in the 1980s. This was a period in my life characterised by a sort of fearless abandon – I was hungry for new experiences and nothing was going to stand in my way. Least of all a little thing like prudence! What I am about to share may seem like a cautionary tale about the naivety of youth but I hope that it will also illustrate the amazing power of grace.

During my first visit to Colombia in 1988, I took a memorable road trip along the Caribbean coast. I had been staying in Cartagena with friends but they had gone travelling for a few days and I had stayed behind. In their absence I had befriended a local girl, who worked near our apartment. When she told me she wanted to visit her family in Santa Marta but didn’t want to travel alone, I was pleased to be of service! So we set off one afternoon by bus on what should have been a straightforward 4-5 hour journey.

On route to Santa Marta, the bus stopped off at Barranquilla - a coastal city a couple of hours north of Cartagena. Instead of continuing directly with our journey, we decided to get off the bus in Barranquilla as we were hungry and restless. Anyway, we somehow lost track of time and when we eventually decided to get another bus to Santa Marta, we discovered that we had missed the last one. Faced with the unwelcome prospect of having to spend the night in Barranquilla, we decided to take a ‘colectivo- a kind of cheap taxi that transports several passengers all going to the same destination. Unfortunately, what we didn’t know then was that the so-called colectivo was driven by a pair of Mafia guys who had decided to amuse themselves by posing as taxi drivers. These men must have been well practised at spotting wide-eyed innocents because they pounced on us before we even had a chance to give the matter the consideration it deserved.  We must have seemed like a gift from heaven! Anyway, by this time, dusk had fallen and we still had another two hours ahead of us on the open road to reach Barranquilla. Although the route from Barranquilla to Santa Marta is on a main highway, there was very little traffic on the roads that evening. In fact, it was strangely and rather eerily quiet. But my friend and I weren’t concerned because we had no idea what these guys were planning.

Not long after we had joined the highway connecting Barranquilla with Santa Marta, I happened to glance down. The first thing I saw was the unmistakable silhouette of a submachine gun, jammed under the seat in front of me. It was partially hidden under a coat but its bulky outline was unmistakable. Even though this was my first trip to Colombia, I had already seen enough of these guns to recognise it. At first, I was alarmed but then I remembered that most people carry fire arms in South America. Furthermore, as these men were taxi drivers, I assumed they needed it for protection on long journeys. Nonetheless, it puzzled me that they would carry a weapon of that size for self-defence when a standard revolver would have been adequate. But still, I remained unfazed. It was only when I caught my friend’s eye and realised that she had seen it too that I began to feel afraid.

Struggling to hide her anxiety, Eva had immediately turned to the driver and asked how long it would be before we reached Santa Marta. Her innocent enquiry was met with a peal of cynical laughter that made my blood run cold. Inclining his head towards his companion and fixing his eyes on us in the rear-view mirror, the driver said:
Compadre, why don’t you tell these nice girls where we are really going?’
Without missing a beat, his side-kick had turned to look at us. Then, as if accustomed to delivering these well-rehearsed lines, he replied: 
 ‘Well see sweet ladies, there’s been a change of plan. We’re taking you to meet our boss. He can’t resist a pretty face.’
In that instant, we realised that we were in serious trouble and that nothing short of a miracle could save us from rape, serious injury or something worse.

After his companion had relayed this spine-chilling piece of news, we continued our journey in silence for several miles. But my mind was racing the whole time in a desperate attempt to come up with an escape plan. As we passed a sign indicating that were just 12 kilometres from Santa Marta, the driver began to slow the car. I noticed that there was a toll up ahead and it suddenly hit me that this could be our one and only chance to get help. But, unfortunately as we drew nearer we could see that the toll was unmanned.

I will never forget what happened next. Without warning, Eva suddenly flung open the door on her side and simultaneously grabbed me firmly by the arm. Within seconds we were out of the car and rolling in the dust at the side of the highway. Although the car had slowed to around 20 miles an hour, it was still going fast enough that jumping out at that speed could have resulted in some nasty injuries. Yet incredibly we were fine - just bruised, shaken and very scared.  But the most bizarre thing about this incident is that, just seconds after we had jumped from the car, a bolt of lightning shot across the sky. There had been no signs of a storm brewing so we hadn’t expected to see this sudden burst of electricity, which illuminated the night sky for miles around. It also apparently startled the driver of the car. I will never forget the look on his face as he pressed the accelerator to the floor and disappeared in a cloud of dust - leaving me and Eva stunned and shaken by the side of the highway.

Without doubt, this was one of the most dramatic demonstrations of the power of grace that I have ever experienced. We could have been in serious trouble that night. As it was, we escaped with a few bumps and bruises and a valuable lesson about the dangers of travelling in unfamiliar territory at night. Looking back, the fact that I escaped unscathed from so many similarly precarious situations must be evidence that I was surrounded by an army of angels!  

Scott Peck concludes that although the varied manifestations of grace are generally regarded as separate, their commonality seems to indicate that they are the manifestation of a single phenomenon: a powerful force originating outside of human consciousness which nurtures the spiritual growth of human beings. Whether you think of this benevolent presence as God or some other form of higher consciousness is irrelevant. What is important to remember is that in the midst of our troubles we never walk alone. And if we remember to keep our hearts and eyes open, we may find just ourselves surrounded by grace.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The wisdom of the Buddha - For Charli

Lately I have been hesitating to share my thoughts on my blog.  The reason for this is that, what is normally such a joyful and creative experience, had suddenly become a chore. It is only recently that I have realised that my inability to write was due to the black cloud of negativity that had enveloped me. The fact of the matter is that over the last couple of weeks, it has felt as though someone else has taken control of my thoughts and relentlessly proceeded to destroy my peace of mind. I suddenly found myself bombarded on all sides by thoughts with sharp, jagged edges; half formed words assaulted me with the sting of hail stones on exposed skin; dark and distorted images whirled like missiles through my brain. Unsurprisingly, this internal brainstorm robbed me of most of my energy and creativity. My lack of enthusiasm to write also stemmed from the fact that I thought it would probably not be a good idea to voice all this negativity but, I am a writer and in times of crisis words have always been my sanctuary. So I began to retreat, a little more each day; further and further into my own little world.  Now I realise that by staying silent I was actually passively allowing myself to slip further and further down a black hole into an underworld of hopelessness and lethargy.

You may wonder what could have changed in my life in just a few short weeks to prompt such a reaction; to be honest, I am not certain that I know the answer to that. But I do know what triggered this downward spiral. It began with my father’s illness and my sense of frustration and powerlessness in the face of a disease that is reducing his quality of life bit by bit with each passing day. It has been very painful to watch a man who has always been fit and strong, with a zest for life and the energy and enthusiasm of someone much younger, gradually fade away. But in some ways the most disconcerting thing of all has been to witness my own despairing response to this situation and to find myself apparently so easily defeated by it. It is always extremely hard to witness the suffering of those we love but I am a fighter by nature and have always found a way to pick myself up in the wake of heartache and disappointment of one kind or another. Yet despite this, I confess that this latest difficulty has been getting the better of me.

But, I am very lucky. Of the many blessings in my life, perhaps the greatest of all - aside from my children - are my friends. In times of need, I find I can always count on them to remind me of what I need to know; and sure enough, those who have truly earned the title of “friend” have never let me down. So it was that in recent days, my dear friend Charli quietly brought my attention to the fact that I am not a woman who retreats to her bed and pulls the covers over her head when faced with life’s vicissitudes. She reminded me that I am not a quitter and that, when faced with life’s inevitable lows, I have always picked myself up, dusted myself off and posed myself the question: Right, now what exactly is life trying to teach me this time?  On this occasion, the answer to that question has proved more difficult than usual to fathom because, faced with the suffering of someone I love, what is to be gained or learned from the experience is not immediately apparent. But thanks to my Knightess in Shining Armour, I have been given a firm nudge in the right direction, which as it turns out, was probably all I needed. I may not have all the answers to my current predicament, but I have been given a much needed reminder about who I am and what I believe in and that is a good place to start. Strange though it may seem, I had been in danger of forgetting who I am but thanks to this timely and loving reminder I have once again picked myself up, dusted myself off and realised that I am not powerless. There are things I can do to improve this situation, both for my father and myself.

In previous posts I have only ever made passing reference to Buddhism but Buddhist philosophy remains very much at the heart of my life. Since leaving London it has become a much reduced part of my daily routine, mainly because the Buddhist network I belonged to is in Marylebone, but despite that I still consider myself to be a Buddhist. In recent days, I have come to realise that it is precisely in this neglected area of my life where I can find the resources I need to weather the current storm. However, the reasons for this will only become apparent if I explain something about Buddhist philosophy. This is an area of my life that I had intended to keep private and not include in my public writing, mainly because I don’t feel comfortable expounding the belief systems of any religion (even my own!),  but this is a philosophy that profoundly informs my thinking and is directly relevant to my current struggles. So, just so you can understand where I am coming from I will try to explain some of the basic tenants of Buddhist philosophy. The first and most basic one is that, in order to attain enlightenment (which is to reach the highest state of Buddhahood), we have to learn to overcome the sufferings of birth and death that each of us will experience over countless lifetimes. For me personally, this idea is not something that I have had any difficulty in accepting (the part about countless lifetimes I mean, I still have much to learn about overcoming suffering), as I have always had a strong sense of the eternity of life. It neither makes sense nor feels right to me that each individual human life is merely a one-off event that follows a linear trajectory from cradle to grave before being consigned to oblivion; hence my fascination with the beautiful and eternal Phoenix.

It is mainly because of my conviction on this point that a small window has started to open up in my mind, allowing in just enough light to bring a halt to the negativity that had taken hold of my thought processes. And through this window I am starting to glimpse a vision of a bigger picture which may just give me the change in perspective I need to focus on my father’s eternal life and not just his present transient and - currently - painful one.  If I can do this, then I believe that my father’s illness, and my response to it, potentially offers me the greatest learning opportunity I have ever had. Furthermore it may offer a lesson that will hold me in good stead, not just for now, but for all time. 

So I have had my lightbulb moment and finally it is clear to me what I have to do next: first and foremost, I have to stop focussing on what I cannot change and focus on what I can.  This means concentrating on what I can do to make my father’s transition from this life to the next easier and more positive, and who knows, in so doing I may just learn a thing or two about how to come to terms with my own eventual mortality. But it also occurs to me that, if I am prepared to do the work and not give in to depression’s handmaidens – helplessness and despair - the end result of this process may be that I gain the wisdom to lead a better life because I have come to understand that my time is limited and therefore I need to direct my energy where it will create the most benefit.  But for now, I would like to focus on my father, not myself, and what I can do for him in these circumstances. I have had to accept that it is beyond my power to reverse the illness that is destroying his health, and I can do nothing to alleviate his physical pain, but I can offer sincere and heartfelt Buddhist prayers for his eternal happiness.

On that note, today’s daily encouragement from President Ikeda, (Buddhist Philosopher, International Peacebuilder and Educator) seems to offer the right words for the path I am about to embark on:
A coward cannot become a Buddha. We cannot attain Buddhahood unless we possess the heart of a lion. The harsher the situation, the bolder the stand we must take. This is the essence of the Soka Gakkai spirit.’ (Daisaku Ikeda, President of SGI International)

Now I think about it, the main reason that I became a Buddhist in the first place is because of all the religions and philosophies I had encountered, Buddhism was the only one to adequately address the fundamental questions of life and death in such a way that can alleviate - if not erase - the fear of death and the suffering it entails. In a Buddhist text, Nichiren Daishonin offers the following perspective:
Regarding life and death with abhorrence and trying to separate oneself from them is delusion, or partial enlightenment. To clearly perceive life and death as the essence of eternal life is realization, or total enlightenment.

It is a fundamental premise of Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism that our lives are continuous from existence to existence and that the laws of cause and effect operate throughout past, present and future. According to this principle, the causes we have made in past existences are manifested as joy or suffering in this life, and the causes we make in the present shape our future. Buddhism contends that we will always be accountable for the causes we make because it is these causes - which take the form of thoughts, words and actions - that create our karma. Whilst we may not be able to easily lessen the negative effect of some of the causes we have made in the past, many of which we may not even remember, we can try to ensure that our actions, thoughts and words in the present will create a beneficial effect on our future. I find this to be a very empowering philosophy.

My father is nearing the end of his life and I have no pretensions to convert him to Buddhism but I would love to be able to give him some of the hope and clarity of vision that Buddhism has given me. I may have turned my back on my faith in recent days but I still acknowledge that it is the singularly most wonderful gift I have ever been given. If I can find a way to share this gift with my father in such a way that makes sense to him, I believe it may help him to come to terms with what is happening to him. I would like him to know that it is not too late for him to make peace with himself and experience the kind of hope that will give him the strength to transcend the suffering of his immediate situation.

Friday, 20 May 2011

You can take the girl out of the city….

Following my recent move to Poole - I say recent but it has actually now been a full five months - I have been thinking a lot about new beginnings. In the last few months, some huge changes have occurred in my life and my response to them has given me food for thought, in addition to greater self-insight.

From September 2003 until January of this year, I had been a resident of Marylebone in Central London. This corresponded to the period between my 33rd and 41st birthdays (ouch, it kind of hurt to admit to that last one!). So it is accurate to say that for most of my thirties I was a city girl, living the London life and all that it encompasses. However, the fact of the matter is that I have never considered myself to be a city girl and, although I spent the best part of a decade in the capital, I had also never thought of myself as an honorary Londoner.  But, since moving to the South West certain things have given me cause to re-evaluate my own assumptions about where I belong and what defines me.

It is true to say that over time, the environment we inhabit tends to mould our behaviour and attitudes - often without us being fully conscious of it. So, as a thirty something, unmarried and relatively young woman living in Marylebone, I was bound to be shaped to some extent by the place I was living in and the kind of people in my immediate circle.  But until I moved south, I hadn’t realised just how much London (or perhaps I should say Marylebone) had become a part of my inner landscape.

Here are some things I have noticed which would seem to prove my point. To start with, I walk like a Londoner: eyes fixed determinedly on some indiscriminate point on the horizon, I move at a no-nonsense pace (brisk would be an understatement) whilst my feet instinctively negotiate their way through traffic – both human and vehicular - as if it were not even there. Call out my name or try to meet my gaze and I will not even register you on my radar. When I walk I am not merely walking: I am a woman on a mission to reach her destination – always in a hurry even when I am not – and woe betide anyone who tries to catch my attention or block my path! I had never really noticed this small and seemingly irrelevant fact about myself until I moved to Poole where the age of the average resident is somewhere around mid 60 and people tend to walk at a more leisurely pace!

Then there is coffee. If you can work out where someone is from based on the coffee they drink, then I am definitely from the capital of this great land. You might think that a cappuccino is a cappuccino wherever you go - and London can hardly claim to be the capital of cappuccino! – however, I don’t drink any old cappuccino; I drink the Café Rouge variety – exclusively! This probably makes me sound like a snob but so be it, I confess that I am; but only when it comes to coffee. The fact is that I can’t drink any other coffee than the kind they serve in Café Rouge and frankly to call it coffee is to do it a disservice: it is, in fact, perfection in a cup!

Now you may quite rightly say that Café Rouge is not exclusive to London, and you would be right; but unfortunately they don’t make it the same way outside the capital. I should know because shortly after moving to Poole I was overjoyed to discover a branch of my favourite cafe in Westbourne. By this stage I had virtually given up trying to find a decent cup of coffee anywhere in Bournemouth or Poole (apparently Westbourne is the only place for miles around to have a Café Rouge) so you can imagine my delight when I just happened across it en route to Christchurch. Sadly my joy was short-lived: the cappuccino, when it was served, was tepid and flat with none of its customary rich, velvety texture and taste. However, this was not the only way in which Café Rouge failed to meet my expectations. I detected that something was lacking in the general ambience of the place: it lacked the buzz and upbeat glamour of its London cousin. In short, it was – dare I say it? – somewhat provincial, both in appearance and atmosphere.

These are but two seemingly trivial examples that identify me with the capital but I have also discovered a myriad of others. So it seems to me that when we move out of our habitual environment we often discover certain key things about ourselves that had previously escaped our notice. It is really only then that we begin to see ourselves as others must surely see us because we no longer blend in; on the contrary, we stand out.

To give a final example,  I only really became aware of my inherent 'Englishness' – something that I had previously vigorously denied and disowned – when I moved to Peru. Strange as it may sound, it wasn’t until I started living in Latin America that I realised that certain aspects of my personality identify me with the land where I was born. For example, I have an ironic sense of humour; a sense of humour that, sadly, no-one else in that vast territory seemed to understand! So I  guess what I have realised in recent weeks is that there is some truth in the old adage that you can take the girl out of the city but you can’t take the city out of the girl!