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

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.