The same, yet not the same

thesameyetnotthesame

At times, I feel like everything is constantly changing and that there is unlimited potential. At other times, I can’t help noticing the same old patterns, and the daily routine feels like Groundhog Day. Although on the surface things appear to be moving, at the core there seems to be a psychological stagnation and the following question keeps coming to me: why don’t I change?

On the physical and developmental level, it is clear that during the formative years – I did change. From the baby born in the south of France, to the 7 year old boy who walked to school in the streets of Paris, from the 14 year old teen who went to an international school in England to the 21 year old college student who grew a beard and shaved his head – there certainly was a chain of transformations. All along, though, I assumed that I was the same person.

When I became an adult, the process slowed down – my conditioning became more rooted and I noticed that I tended to seek security. I did not really feel the years go by and in my head, I still believed that I was young. My image in the mirror altered, habits formed, and I became mentally less supple. Career changes and parenthood were challenging and made their marks. More responsibilities and busyness kept me from watching and questioning the process. I kept on learning and accumulating, but rarely did I have the energy to unlearn and to let go.

Now in my late forties, I experience a great desire to shake things – not only in myself but also in the world. I want to make a difference. Many people would call this midlife crisis – I prefer to call it midlife renaissance: an opportunity to reinvent myself. I want to learn new skills, I yearn to meet new people and start new projects. But if I am honest, I am quite attached to my conditioned self and I know that changing things on the outside is very limited. So I have a renewed interest in self-knowledge and challenging my conditioning.

Our cells get continuously replaced, our neurones make new connections and we learn new things all the time, in nature everything is in constant flux, materially speaking our world is ever changing and innovations are transforming our lives at an unprecedented rate. Yet psychologically, it would seem that humans have not really evolved. So why don’t we change? What stops us?

It is probably beyond the scope of this blog post to go into it thoroughly, but I have observed a fragmentation in myself and in everything I do. I am not sure if it is real, but it sure feels that way. Seemingly there is a division between what I think and what I do, between idea and reality. Leo Babauta calls it the mind movie and I find it a very useful metaphor. What is also evident is that within the mind movie there are contradictions and conflicting desires. I want to stay the same and I want to change.

In the last six months, I have been observing the process more closely and find it fascinating. I have introduced mindfulness and have actively applied some changes in the way I do things. I try to meet my fears and have managed to become less judgmental. Our conditioning, although apparently quite ingrained, is not fixed. It is very persistent and builds an identity, but it can be dismantled by observation. In the same way, we can declutter our house, we can declutter our minds. We can let go of most of our past hurts, opinions, and ideals. Although memories are useful, they can cloud our thinking. Are we not more than the total sum of our experiences?

Over the last ten years, I have met many people who have told me that apart from my grey hair, I have not changed. If they were to see me now, they would probably say the same thing. They have not witnessed the many Groundhog days I have been through and all the different things that I am attempting to do. No, there has been no breakthrough, but things are moving. I am the same, yet not the same.

This post was originally written a year and a half ago, is it the same now?

Breangelo*

Self-portrait, Barcelona.

j j j

Taking care of ourselves

Taking care of ourselves

Looking after ourselves is a sacred act. I am not talking here about occasionally treating ourselves “because we are worth it”, nor am I suggesting emphasizing self-centred activities, rather it is about caring for our mind and body regularly as if it was a temple. But what does it mean practically to take care of ourselves?

First and foremost, it is about having the right attitude. It starts with loving-kindness. We cannot properly look after anything or anyone unless we have respect. In other words, regardless of how healthy we are, we must appreciate our bodies and our minds as they are. Being grateful is the opposite of taking things for granted. It is essential that we are grateful for that heart that is beating; for all the different functions of the body; for our senses that feel, that see, that hear, that smell and that taste; for our brains and our abilities to think and question; for our faculty of adaptation and our potential to apply our wisdom.

We need to understand who we are and to have unconditional love for ourselves, and that means letting go of ideas about how we should be. It is fine to have good intentions but much too often we spend a tremendous amount of energy struggling to live up to our ideals and feel frustrated. To accept ourselves as we are – as a fact – without identifying with it or fixing it – is powerful. It is only when we really see something for what it is that we are freed up to act and go beyond the present state.

Once we have accepted who we are, it is possible to change mindfully. A good place to start is on establishing a healthy rhythm. Some of our most basic physical needs require regularity, like sleeping, eating, exercising, and relaxing. They form the basis of self-care and what the French call “hygiene de vie”. All those needs can be improved if we put our attention to them and give them space in our schedules. Over the last few months, I have managed to establish a good morning and evening routine and I am amazed about how it has impacted my overall well-being. Contrastly, I am now away from home and I have had a very erratic  rhythm and I really feel disorientated and emotionally tired.

Finally, we need to do quite the opposite with our thinking, relationships, and active life. Habits, routine and staying in our comfort zones really does not nourish our souls. Our thoughts much too often go in circles, our relations can become stale and our work monotone. Self-care in this arena is to be creative, alert and ready to take risks. Although neither supple or strong, I am currently doing a month-long bi-lingual Ashtanga yoga teacher training course in Barcelona. Not only am I learning language (Spanish), but I am also having to adapt to a whole new way of understanding my body limits. It is of course not necessary to travel or learn a new skill to renew ourselves, it just requires the willingness to think differently and the desire to meet life afresh every day. A good friend of mine once remarked:

“The body needs regularity and routine and the mind does not – but we tend to do it the other way round. We sleep, eat and exercise erratically and feed our brains the same food”.

Taking care of ourselves is about learning the art of living and addressing our physical, intellectual and emotional needs. Our bodies need rituals and our minds need freedom.

L.

Photo: Joshua Sortino

j j j

The empty boat

Why do we get frustrated and irritated with other people? Is it because we have expectations about how they should behave or how things should be? Is it because we have no control over them? What if we dropped our expectations and met people as they are?

There is a little zen story that illustrates the difference between getting worked up by an incident and meeting ‘what is’.

Picture yourself in a rowboat, rowing across a smooth, foggy lake. Out of the mist comes another rowboat, and it is about to collide into yours. “Why isn’t the person in it watching where they are going?” you ask yourself in frustration. Anger arises in you at this inconsiderate action and may interfere with you manoeuvring out of the way.

Now picture exactly the same situation except that the boat that is about to bump into yours is without a pilot. This time, you simply steer your boat around the empty boat and move on. Without having to deal the psychological conflict, you are more free to simply respond to the event appropriately.

In life, I wonder if it is possible to act as if the rowboats coming at us are empty. The action of others are often likely to interfere with our plans, our needs or our sense of order, and most of the time it is much easier to adapt ourselves to the situations rather than battling with them. Other people around us, especially our friends and family members may start doing the same and this may start a virtuous cycle of people able to navigate together more harmoniously.

Breather*

Photo: Taylor Davidson

j j j

Accepting rubbish

accepting rubbish

Having understood that wishing things were different from what they are, creates conflict, I am exploring the art of acceptance. Accepting does not stop me from dreaming, working towards changing my habits and improving the world around me. On the contrary, realising that battling with ‘what is’ is a waste of energy – especially when it is entirely outside of my control – can free me to focus on right actions. So what happens when I face rubbish?

Last year, my son and I lived in Bali for ten months, but mostly stayed away from the tourist areas of the south. On a windy January day, our friends took us to the main beach in Kuta on the South West shore of the island. It was a particularly bad day for business. The ocean was spurting plastic waste onto the white sand. It might have been to do with the currents or the tide, but with every wave more disposable cups, plastic bags, flip flops, shampoo bottles and the like kept on being pushed up the beach. There were three bulldozers piling the waste into temporary pyramids, not to mention teams of local Balinese people raking the unwanted sea offerings into large baskets. I had been warned, but it is always different when you see it first hand and catch a whiff of sewage malodour.

My first reflex was to find the whole thing unacceptable. How can people allow this to happen? Surely there must be something the government can do. Why don’t the rich nations provide money and resources to solve this problem at the source instead of spending so much money on weapons? Just like a football spectator commenting on the game, I imagined all sorts of ‘if only’ scenarios. The truth of the matter was that other than joining in with a rake there was little I could do there and then but accept the situation. There was no point in me being tense and angry.

We are taught that accepting is a sign of weakness and that adversity will give us the motivation to act. We may believe in ‘Zero tolerance’, ‘War on Waste’, and “campaigns against” to make things right. However, this may bring more conflicts, more confusion. We want peace, and we are ready to battle. We may start to invent sides, the wrong people that litter and the good people that recycle. I am not an advocate for inaction; I am questioning the act of reacting.

Instead, I am suggesting that right action may start with accepting ‘what is’ and from understanding the facts before we jump to some conclusions. It does not mean that we are going to ignore or give up on the issues. In looking closer, we may come to understand that we are responsible for some of that waste and that consumption, convenience and greed is the source of it all. Accepting does not mean that we agree with it.

There is a difference between accepting in a fatalistic way and accepting in a compassionate way. Moving from resignation to compassion forms the basis of the art of acceptance. Once we feel compassionate with an issue, we feel more connected with it and in a better position to do something about it. To start with, we may make small steps – learn what is possible – and then we may progress to making bigger steps. There is a large number of things we can do.

During our fourteen months abroad, I always carried with me a reusable bottle, a glass straw and some canvas bags. I even have a label inside my wallet with the question: “do I really need this?” I have recycled every bit of refuse that we could, I have cleared our lane of rubbish few times, and I encouraged everyone that came to the Green School Tours to do the same. Green School invites everyone in the community to sort and bring their rubbish and unwanted belongings to Kembali (the school’s recycling centre) for reuse, recycling and responsible disposal. Finally, I would encourage you to support an initiative started by two Green School students to rid Bali of single-use plastic bags by watching their TED talk, by signing their petition and by spreading the “Bye Bye Plastic Bag” message. The campaign is actively involved in understanding the underlying issues and in finding coordinated solutions.

Most of us do not want to have anything to do with rubbish, and this is why it is such a problem. Accepting it and understanding that it has as much to do with us as with anybody else is a good place to start. Not making a conflict of it, is also an imperative if we want to do something about it.

Breather*

One sentence journal – day 17:
“I am picking my son from Sheffield University and will sleep on the floor of his dorm floor for his last night on campus; there is a lot of partying and rubbish is overflowing from all bins.”

This blog is part of a renewed 42-day writing challenge inspired by Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits Book.
Photo: Loic Lopez

j j j