In the moment – beautiful tulips

How beautiful tulips are, and how diverse! The chaste elegance of pure white, the sombre glow of purple, the flamboyance of scarlet and yellow parrot tulips, all grace borders and vases. In our garden there are some crimson and white blooms that are almost heartbreakingly lovely.

Tulips crimson and white 170501

And they seem to last so well, even as cut flowers. I’m sure they last longer than they used to in my childhood. Human actions have modified tulips dramatically. It’s an intriguing thought that this has been done largely for aesthetic reasons. We have changed the world to indulge our passion for beautiful things.

While we’re thinking about our impact on the world, we could also consider what we eat. Although most of my food is locally sourced, today I will also eat food from Morocco, Kenya and – where do bananas come from anyway?! The greater variety of food means that it is easier to prepare tasty, nutritious meals; but it comes at an environmental cost because the food is transported further.

It’s good to eat tasty, nourishing food. It’s good to plan a garden, to work to achieve harmony of colour and form and scent. It’s good to enjoy the results of that effort.

There is, though, a way that we can enrich our lives and, at the same time, lighten our environmental footprint. We can explore locally sourced food; appreciate seasonal variation in availability. We can be aware, too, of the beauty that is around us all the time, without effort on our part. Bluebells in a wood under the bright new leaves of the trees. Brave scarlet poppies flourishing on a building site for a few short days. The tiny flowers of toadflax clinging tenaciously to dry stone walls.

If we live in the moment, we will see beauty everywhere, perhaps in the sunset, or a cloudscape, or the harmony of a building’s proportions, or in the face of someone dear to us.

Let’s be awake to our surroundings, and open to the possibility of beauty wherever we are!

In the moment – the power of a symbol

Sufferers from anxiety know that the condition can be debilitating. I was in that state some years ago; thankfully I’ve now recovered. In the recovery, I learned a number of mental habits that help me to avoid recurrences; living ‘in the moment’ is one of them; hypnosis for relaxation is another. I recently came across another influence, namely the power of symbols.

Miyajima cherry blossom 170425

I’ve recently returned from a holiday in Japan. I’ll start this post by confirming what a wonderful holiday it was. It was full of interest, full of beauty, full of emotion. My wife Daphne and I really enjoyed it.

It was a big, important holiday; we cashed in savings to be able to afford it. I was looking forward to it eagerly – but I was also apprehensive, because I am prone to anxiety attacks. They are sometimes very unpleasant, and they’re triggered by stress…

Travel – especially long haul flights – can be stressful. A different culture – and Japanese culture is pretty different from European culture! – can be stressful. Visiting a place where you don’t understand the language can be stressful – and although English is taught to all children in Japan, it’s not widely spoken, and only the most important signs are in English as well as Japanese.

And yet I have returned feeling tranquil, and the feeling has endured. This was sufficiently unexpected that I have tried hard to understand it. I wouldn’t say that I’ve reached any definite conclusions, but here are some of the thoughts.

Before going to Japan, I recognised that I might suffer from anxiety, and I accepted the possibility. I find that acceptance is a big deal. It goes at least halfway towards dealing with anxiety symptoms. I must make a very clear distinction at this point. To accept the possibility that something might happen, is definitely not the same as expecting it to happen. It’s the exact opposite of worrying about something. It’s realising that something may happen, and saying “Yes, I understand that, I accept the possibility. I don’t have to worry about it.”

So I considered in advance what might happen.

The anxiety would be very unpleasant. Could I get through an attack without going home? Yes. Could I get through two attacks without going home? Er, yes, probably. What about repeated attacks? It would spoil the holiday but I’d survive.

What about a worst-case scenario? The worst case would be that I would have repeated anxiety attacks that would leave me feeling so vulnerable that we would have to return home before the end of the tour. It would be a great shame to lose the holiday. It would cost a lot of extra money to change flights for an early return.

I consciously accepted that this could happen, and used my usual hypnotic relaxation regime to put aside any worrying about it.

I’m sure it helped. But I’m equally sure that it’s not the whole story.

Could the tranquillity have arisen as a result of having succeeded in surviving the stress of the holiday? I took on the challenge of a visit that in prospect I found quite intimidating, and came through it unscathed. Was I just feeling relief?

Well, I suppose it’s possible. But the tranquillity seems such an active feeling. I’m a slightly different woman from the one who set off to Japan. I would have expected relief to be a reactive feeling, and to dissipate quickly.

One of the features of the holiday was that we visited some important Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines. Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eight-fold Path, and includes a recognition that human suffering is unavoidable. It also teaches, among many other things, that true happiness can be attained despite human suffering, by relinquishing useless craving and by living in the moment. Surrounded as we were by pilgrims, it seems possible that some of their piety ‘rubbed off’ on me, so to speak.

Beyond any of these possible explanations, though, my emotions tell me that the answer may lie in the symbol of cherry blossom. It was the ‘Cherry Blossom Tour’ that we took, and there were several occasions when the symbolism of the blossom overwhelmed me emotionally. The blossom is beautiful – and transient. But the symbolism goes far beyond the recurrence of beauty in the world despite personal tragedy. I can’t explain it; I had to experience it.

I suspect that Japan has given me a most valuable gift. I’m so glad we took the holiday!

In the moment – driving

“How are we today? Are we happy, relaxed, in good shape?” My boss was full of bonhomie at eight o’clock in the morning.

I shrugged. I had a meeting in Coventry at ten o’clock. There was no time to waste in small talk. I drove onto the ring-road, my mind full of my forthcoming meeting. It was going to be tough, explaining to a customer why we were having difficulty meeting his product specification, and persuading him to change it. Even before the meeting I had eighty miles of rush hour traffic to negotiate in a little under two hours.

A silver Ford pulled out in front of me at a roundabout. I swore, and braked harshly. I was too busy checking the other traffic to extend the middle finger of friendship to the idiot, even though he richly deserved it. Still, it wasn’t too long before I was on the motorway.

I’m a careful driver. I don’t break the speed limit. I was in lane two travelling at seventy when this stupid person in a blue Vauxhall wobbled out of lane one right in front of me. He bumbled along at sixty-five. Lane three was full of traffic, so I couldn’t overtake. I just had to sit there grinding my teeth until he completed overtaking the car transporter and pulled back into lane one.

I reached my customer with five minutes to spare, feeling like I’d already done a day’s work.

I felt that other drivers had driven badly, and maybe they had, but did my anger at this do any good? Even if they’d noticed me, would it have changed the way they drive? Of course it wouldn’t.

Driving becomes a lot less fraught when we realise that we aren’t responsible for the way other people drive. It’s not our job to fix their bad habits. There is absolutely no need at all to become angry, because it won’t get us to our destination any quicker, and it might make us less safe.

Mindfulness can help with this. When we practise mindfulness, we aim to become aware of our emotions as they happen. The first step to avoiding anger is to recognise when we are becoming angry. Being aware of the emotion as it happens gives us the space to say, “I don’t need to be angry,” take a deep breath, and relax.

Mindfulness can help us to be more relaxed when driving. Why not give it a try?

 

 

 

Theatre – Miyako Odori

I fear that you, my gentle readers, are going to feel that I cannot write without the use of superlatives. But it’s that sort of trip; the experiences that we’re having can only be appropriately described by superlatives.

Today we travelled by shinkansen, the bullet train, to Kyoto. It’s a train. It’s very fast. It’s very smooth. No, it no longer deserves superlatives, even though it travels at well over 150 mph, and we haven’t built anything that fast yet in the UK.

The countryside through which we travelled is interesting, but not particularly noteworthy. Think of the foreground being Holland and the background being Switzerland and you’ve about got it.

We ate a really pleasant okonomiyaki this evening, washed down with beer. Superlatives unnecessary.

But this afternoon. This afternoon we went to the Miyako Odori. This is a traditional theatrical art form performed by geisha. It has elements of straight theatre, opera, and ballet; and the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

Kyoto Miyako Odori 170405

I expected to see beauty. I expected to see grace. I expected to be moved emotionally. What I didn’t expect was drama of such intensity that the tears were running down my cheeks. It was a simple story of loss set in the context of the continuity of human life, and performed with a hypnotic focus and skill that was shattering.

Kyoto Miyako Odori 002 170405

It’s invidious to pick out individuals because it was the effect of every contribution together that made the performance so memorable – but I’m going to do it anyway!

The principal singer was superb. An astonishing voice, and such amazing projection of emotion. The flute soloist accomplished remarkable effects and her intonation was wonderfully precise even when using microtones. The little details were perfect, like the snowflakes in the winter grieving scene, which were small paper discs. When illuminated by warm light in the finale, they were revealed as pink cherry blossom underfoot.

So I have yet another memory that I shall cherish until the end of my life. And if I have time on my deathbed to think of this, I shall remember the cherry blossom and die with a tranquil spirit.

In the moment – Storm at Sea

Sailors in a storm have no choice other than to live in the moment. A brief lapse of attention brings disaster. Most of the time, we don’t need mindfulness to survive. But it is good to practise mindfulness in our daily life; it will always take us towards a place of emotional calm; and one day, when life’s difficulties batter us, it may make all the difference.

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The small boat flees before the wind

As the storm wrestles the ocean into a swell,

Throwing it through darkness across leagues.

Like a puma, a wave advances silently,

Gathers speed,

And flings itself with a roar upon its prey.

The sailors steer direct towards each wave,

Accept the fury and the peril,

Use the water’s strength to lift them clear.

The voice of the murderous surf deafens them.

It bellows of southern tempests where the ocean rears into cliffs

As solid and more perilous than a rock face.

It shouts of the calving of glaciers into the sea,

The surge of the sea when a million tons of ice plunge into it.

It whispers of Krakatoa, and breathes the name of Atlantis.

The small boat reaches harbour.

Behind the breakwater

Vessels great and small

Are safe.

In the moment – a favourite place

When we are ‘in the moment’, we do not worry about what happened in the past, nor dream about what we would like to happen in the future. Instead, we allow ourselves to cherish the experience as it happens. Being in the open air in a beautiful place can help. This poem describes sitting on Dartmoor in summer. Do you have a favourite place?

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The sun is hot on my hair and bare arms.

The granite on which I sit is cool,

Hard, rough and smooth, round and edged.

The turf smells of tea, stewed in the pot.

The sheep smell sharp.

They tear noisily at the grass,

While the song of the skylark is ever fainter and sweeter

As it climbs beyond hearing.

 

 

This moment is perfect

I wrote this poem when I was reminded by fellow blogger Aayush that a moment, once experienced, cannot be changed. It is in that sense, timeless. We can, if we choose, see it as giving some purpose and significance to our own experience. It made a good starting point for a poem about the love I have been privileged to share in my life.

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As we cling to each other in the darkness

I feel with your body and you with mine.

This moment is perfect.

There are no regrets, no hopes, no strivings.

We have accomplished a small part

Of the purpose of the cosmos.

 

We planned a route; we hoped;

And yet we stumbled here by chance.

The stars will splinter and part us,

Confining this perfection we have wrought

To this one instant.

I feel with your body, and you with mine.

This moment is perfect.

 

 

 

 

A heavy bag

We carry all sorts of baggage through life, and often it distracts us from experiencing joy. Do we know what loads we are carrying? What do we need to carry? How can we relinquish the things we don’t need? I tell this story with thanks to my youngest daughter who, indirectly, inspired it.

the-gunny-sack

There were people everywhere.

Some were in families, some in tribes. Some were in uniform; many were not. There were a few smiles and some laughter; there were a few tears and wails; there were many shouts, of anger, triumph, and lamentation.

The people were walking, some slowly, some briskly. Some striding forward purposefully; many meandering; some marching busily in one direction, then changing course to tramp equally energetically in another. Gradually though, no matter how winding their path, they made their way due west.

And all but the smallest and youngest carried a bag, a hessian bag, a gunny sack.

I approached one of them, a woman about forty years old. Her hair was streaked with grey, and her face was lined. Her bag seemed heavy.

“I hope you don’t mind my asking – it’s nosey, I admit – but would you mind telling me what you’re carrying in your bag?”

She sighed deeply, and glanced inside the bag as though to remind herself.

“It’s grief for my mother. She died twelve years ago.”

“You would travel more easily without your burden. Why don’t you let go of it? Here, leave it by the roadside and go on without it. Nobody will mind!”

Tears welled in her eyes.

“Then I would have nothing,” she wept. “My grief is all I still have of my mother.”

I didn’t know what to say, and so I left her and approached another, a young man. His face was steadfast and his movements purposeful. He had energy and, maybe, humour. His bag was large, and looked heavy, but he was strong and made light of it.

“I wonder – it’s inquisitive I know – but would you satisfy my curiosity about your bag? What is it that you prize so highly that you carry it everywhere, even though it is so heavy?”

He stood tall, shoulders held back, and looked me boldly in the eye.

“I carry the expectations of my family!”

“Why not lay down the burden? Travel light. You don’t need to carry it; you can choose!”

His face stiffened. “If I did that, I would be saying that my parents made the wrong choice when they toiled all the hours of the day to give me a good start in life. I’m not going to do that!” Then, sheepishly – he was a young man after all – he added, “Besides, it’s not so very heavy. I can manage it.”

I wished him good luck, and looked around.

There! Over there! A meadow, where a young couple are playing with two children! Their bags are empty, and the woman has flowers in her hair!

She smiles at me as I approach, a merry, mischievous smile.

“You want to know why my bag is empty, I think,” she says.

There is a scent of roses in the air. The noise of the crowd is hushed, and I can hear birdsong and gently falling water. The children, playing with their father, laugh joyously as he tumbles them aloft and a-low.

The girl laughs with them, then turns to me. Her expression is serious, but bears the memory of her laughter.

“It was hard at first,” she admits. “I would take something out of the bag – pride, say – intending to leave it behind, and I would look at it. Out there,” and she gestures at the vast plain with its toiling figures, “pride can sometimes look quite attractive. And then I would put it back into the sack again! But eventually I realised that what looked like a big lump of pride was actually made up of lots of little bits of pride. It was easier to let go a bit at a time. And the more I let go, the easier it was.”

“It sounds okay,” I say, “but what happens if you throw something away that you later find you need on the journey?”

“That probably won’t happen. There are so many resources we can draw on. But, even if the lack of something brings your journey to an end, wouldn’t you rather travel here than out there?” Once again I look at the monotonous expanse, the grey figures struggling with burdens they can scarcely carry.

The girl can sense my hesitation.

“You don’t need to make up your mind all at once,” she says quietly. “A little bit at a time is all it takes. Go now! You need to see more.”

She holds up her arms as though to shut me out, and I trip and fall.

People barged into me, cursing. A heavy sack landed on my right arm, bruising it painfully. The man carrying it swore vilely at me.

“What’s so important about your sack?” I demanded.

“It holds the will to rule,” he snarled. “Honeyed words, lies, delight in others’ pain, and the wish to wound. Now get out of my way!” He hauled the cumbersome bag onto his bull-like shoulder, his muscles writhing, his veins bulging, pulsing with turgid blood.

He barged past me. I watched him, this ox, this gorilla, this serpent, and I saw him stop. He held up his bag, and, with a great roar of frustrated rage and defiance, he tipped out the contents. Awestruck, I watched as they spilled out and broke into a million fragments, first chunks, then crumbs, then dust, until finally they were a mist that the lightest of breezes swept away. I looked back at the man. He had faded, was almost gone. And as he disappeared I realised that I could remember nothing about him.

As I gaze, and struggle to understand, I feel the lightest of touches on my arm. It is the young woman, only now she is no longer young. Laughter and love have left lines on her face, and her body sags where gravity’s pull has exaggerated the stretching of childbirth. She carries a small, empty bag.

“You see?” she says softly, “You see?”

The gentle air hints of roses in the twilight of evening. Birds sing merrily about a night that is just the prelude to a new dawn. With a laugh as merry as the birds, she shakes out her bag. There is nothing in it, but as she shakes the fabric it becomes silken. It glows white, crimson, emerald, azure. It grows and grows, stretching up and out as she holds it aloft at arm’s length, like a banner. The light grows brighter and brighter, until I can see only her face, her eyes and her smile; until there is only tranquillity and joy, great joy.

 

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In the moment – Three worlds

wp_20160127_11_48_12_richI wrote this poem late one August afternoon, sitting in the sunshine beside my fishpond. I thought about living in the moment – but which moment in which world? Sometimes, if we wish to be in the moment, we have to look beneath our surface feelings into a place that may look dark; but may, too, be a home of beauty.

Three worlds

The koi, red, black, white, metallic gold, slip through the water,

Their paths traced by slow ripples that roll across the pond

To make a panelled lattice of silver, through which the fish

Slide, now visible, now unseen,

Hide, by light, by movement.

A vine’s reflection, leaves hard-edged against

The black and silver water, seems more solid than the plant itself

As it strives sunwards from the same root in the bank.

The moment of reality shimmers.

Red, black, white, metallic gold, appear – and vanish.