zen, not Zen

Piping Plover chick - Sandy Hook in Highlands, New Jersey.

To stop burying my head in the sand, to stand on my own two feet and to be consciously vulnerable. To be alert, listening and watching without thoughts. To breathe the change, mostly in silence. Such is my intention now.

Almost two years ago, I started a blog called ZenPlan. It was not about Zen Buddhism nor was it about planning. I combined the two words and chose that name to create a tension and to encapsulate what I was most interested in at the time.  Namely, being present, direct perception, intention, focus and spending my time wisely.

The main influence for starting writing a blog was an article by Leo Babauta entitled “Why You Should Write Daily”. I later came to appreciate his simple style and decided to emulate some of his writing. In many ways, Leo Babauta encourages people to use his ideas and he is a great believer in the concept of ‘uncopyright‘. Like him, I am also interested by some of the insights of Zen Buddhism but prefer not writing about religious teachings or meditation techniques. We all have many influences and it is valuable to acknowledge them, yet it is equally important to learn to find one’s voice and to communicate authentically. Is it possible to write freshly about old questions, about something someone else has already chewed on? Language, thoughts, ideas all come from the past but can take a life of their own once they are breathed upon with an alert mind. I also like paradoxes, for they can destabilise our reasoning. They can provoke a temporary blank. This is what I mean by zen, not Zen.

Last May, when I launched this present blog, as well as writing new material, I decided to rewrite almost all the old entries from the ZenPlan blog. It was interesting to revisit the posts that I wrote when I was in Bali. It was like reading letters from an old friend and to my surprise I found them stimulating and happy to share them again.

I am now ready to let go of Leo Babauta’s influence and of zen for that matter. My current enquiry is concerned with freeing the mind from thought and focusing on attention. Nonchalantly,  I could call it Thoughtless, not thoughtless!


Photo: Ray Hennessy


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Still happy

Still happy

Around this time last year, my son and I arrived back home – after having spent 14 months abroad – travelling from Britain to Bali overland and back. The memories of that trip and the wonderful experiences we lived, put a grin on my face. This past year, in comparison, has been much less adventurous, yet I am still happy. Just like the weather – and everything else in this world for that matter, – I know that this happiness is just transient. This present state of well-being made me want to re-post an article on the nature of happiness and why most of us so frequently feel dissatisfied.

So why am I happy? I could easily list a large number of wonderful things that I am grateful for. I could also rationalise that it is due to good health. I am currently in Barcelona on a four-weeks yoga teacher training course (eating some of the most succulent peaches) and I have not felt that healthy in years. Being surrounded by people that I get along with, good sleep, wholesome food, regular exercise, meditation and time to contemplate are conditions that generally tend to put me in a good mood and contribute to my wellbeing. Culturally, there seems to be a deeply ingrained belief that happiness is brought on by external conditions, yet is that truly all there is to it?

Let’s look at the source of our discontentment for it may reveal something else about happiness. Sometimes I feel spoilt, and that all the good things that come my way will never satisfy an inner sense of sadness and fragmentation. It is clear that one can become frustrated at almost anyone or anything, that one can feel down by the state of the world and the destructive actions of our civilisation, that people who are close to us can suffer and make us suffer, that the mind is constantly in need of solving (and creating) problems and that we are rarely satisfied by what we have, where we are, who we are with and what we do. There seems to be in humans a discordance which leads to conflict, loneliness and harm regardless of how rich, healthy and successful we are. It is often assumed that the problems we have at hand whether it be circumstantial, relational, financial or health related are the sources of our unhappiness, but is it the case?

It may be important here to go into the difference between conditional happiness and a deeper sense of wellbeing which I prefer to call contentment. When we eat an ice-cream or a good fruit, we usually feel happy, but the feeling is usually short lived. When we feel loved and appreciated, we also tend to feel very good, but here again, we may easily get used to it or it may be shadowed by its opposite. So this type of happiness will constantly fluctuate and be at the mercy of changing circumstances. Things get a little more complicated when our minds start to want to control the world around us for the pursuit of happiness. This tends to lead to frustration for we may fall in a constant state of wanting to become something we are not. On the other hand, staying with ‘what is’ regardless of what it is and being truly present can nurture a form of contentment that is unconditional and wholesome.

We have probably all heard of exceptional human beings who in some of the worse circumstances and against all odds, remained peaceful and content. We probably also all have glimpsed in our own lives moments of unconditional happiness. Could it be that this quality is linked to a conscious state of being truly alive and alert?

So, if someone were to ask me today “why are you happy?”, I would simply have to answer “because I am alive”.


Photo: Ian Baldwin

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All we need is…

All we need

All we need is desire!

Really? Surely not. Isn’t desire both the creator and destroyer of love? What is desire anyway? Either latent or active, some suggest that it is the unwavering spark of life. Others claim that it is the voice of the ego and therefore it should be tamed or even gotten rid of.  Whatever it is, we have all experienced it and understanding it, I believe, is key to our well-being.

It is very difficult to look at a desire, actually and factually, for it tends to be emotionally loaded and when active it tends to take over our discerning faculties. Commonly, we focus on the object of desire, not its source or how it manifests itself. A desire often feels like an urge or an itch that needs to be acted upon. The usual reaction is to either be led by the desire or to judge it, to condemn it or to repress it. Both approaches are reactions which don’t help us understand the nature of desire, but I wonder if it is possible to watch it and to pause. This is where mindfulness becomes very useful.

While practicing, I have observed that I had two types of impulses linked to desire. One which is triggered by the real world and my senses and one which is triggered by memory. Without labelling them as good or bad, I have noticed that the former opened doors while the latter tended to close them.

Let me take an example. Imagine that you find yourself in front of a waterfall, it is beautiful and inviting – you have the desire to go under it and to experience its strength and the pool that it has created. This desire may help you to overcome your initial apprehension and to go out of your comfort zone and experience something new. There may be another desire, which is to re-live the sensation and pleasure that you might have experienced under another waterfall. In this second instance, your desire may prevent you from fully enjoying the present situation.

Understanding the nature of desire is complex, but the more one looks at it without judgement the easier it is to stop turning it into a problem. In fact, desires offer opportunities to understand ourselves and many desires are guided by love. Our thoughts and possessive nature can also create desires but with the right attention, one can detect them.

Maybe, all we need is awareness!


Photo: Jeffery Workman

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The same, yet not the same


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?


Self-portrait, Barcelona.

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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.


Photo: Joshua Sortino

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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.


Photo: Taylor Davidson

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Doing our best

Our best

Expectations are a plague; not only other people’s but also our very own. My impression is that we all tend to have higher expectations than what we can actually manage and very often it stops us from doing our best.

This sounds perhaps contrary to the dominant contemporary mindset. In the world of business, education, politics, sports, and entertainment, there is a general belief that competition is good and that always aiming higher will raise us above our best. In a limited way, it probably does (that is for the winners ) – but for the large majority, it leads to a feeling of never being satisfied, failure and frustration.

With this mindset, there is constantly a gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’ and this creates conflict. We often believe that this gap will motivate us to change and better ourselves, but as long as our actions are based on conflict or fear, they are bound to be fragmented and lacking. I am not suggesting that we should aim for mediocrity or accept stagnation, on the contrary, I am calling for doing our best. I don’t mean striving to do our best – I mean, actually doing our best.

There is an entirely different attitude which is based simply on ‘what is’ and on who we truly are. The moment we stop striving to be different, and move our attention away from the idea of being better, we can meet reality with a new awareness that guides us to do our best – intelligently and with care. Doing our best stops being an expectation, and becomes a way of being. That is the real Plan B(e)!


Photo: Bill Williams

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Time peace

time peace

When my younger son was four, he told us very seriously that time did not exist. At the time, we agreed; what an insight we thought. However, I am still unsure what he meant by that. Time is such a vast topic; I could write a thick book about it – the problem is that I don’t have the time and probably would be wasting yours by philosophising about it. I will keep it very brief.

Whether it is a construct of our mind, of our civilisation or a physical/biological phenomenon – time seems to have taken a central place in our lives, and it has become very hard to ignore. Most of us take for granted the way we relate to time, though, and do very little to make peace with it.  If we are restless, always running, trying to fit as much as possible into our schedules, stressed or tired, it is very likely that we are battling with time. Time is often seen as an adversary that we need to manage.

We may have a defunct efficiency ideal – of trying to do more in less time, rather than doing what matters most in the time it takes. Focusing on meaningful activities and looking after ourselves by regularly doing nothing, I believe, is a more effective way to lead our lives. This effectiveness is difficult to master, but it may be one of the most useful skills there is. Make peace with time. Do less, be present, plan a little, breathe, focus and act on the most important tasks, and learn to stop. When we are at peace with time, we may come to the same realisation that my son came up with when he was four. When one is truly mindful, there seems to be a timeless vastness that we can access.


Photo: Yuriy Kovalev

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Go to bed

Go to bed

“Go to Bed” was perhaps the sentence I disliked most when I was a child and I heard it every night. It was just a sentence but it often felt like a little death sentence. The days never seemed to be long enough and even if I was tired, going to bed meant turning my back to all the people that were still up and all the exciting things I suddenly felt like doing. Going to bed was a battle.

Later on in life, I realised that it wasn’t just me, most of the people I’d ask admitted that they usually went to bed too late to their liking. In other words, we do not listen to how tired we are and stay up to find more exciting things to do. In the short term, it is not a big problem, we either catch up by getting up later or just adjust to less sleep. In the long term, however, it can develop into unhealthy rhythms and sleep deprivation – both of which can have adverse health consequences.

Everyone is different, and some people may feel more productive at night than in the morning, and it is not for me to judge what is right or wrong on the matter. However, I have learnt to listen to my body and know that I feel so much better when I go to bed early and wake up early. Even more so when I have a regular rhythm.

This does not mean that I do it, though. I regularly go past my bed time and regret it the next day. It is always surprising to me how knowing that something is right for us, does not necessarily make us act upon it – even when we want to. I guess it is often tied to poor habits, and this is why it ‘s hard to do something about it.

Learning to go to bed when one is tired is perhaps one of the most basic skills of the art of living. For lack of energy and vitality affects everything we do. So it may be worth it to change our habits. There are three relatively simple things we can do to put ourselves on the right track:

  1. Go to bed as soon as we feel tired
  2.  Wake up at the same time every day – even on the weekends
  3. Exercise daily

It is very likely that you and I are going to ignore this advice totally and continue to go frequently to bed late. And, as I discovered as a child, it is not enough for someone to tell you: “Go to bed,” the change has to come from within, and we have to be clear about the benefits and the trade-offs. Having plenty of vitality and not feeling tired throughout the day is wonderful – and it starts by making peace with the idea of going to bed before one is ready to drop.

Paradoxically, it is eleven as I write these words. I shall follow my own advice “Go to bed” immediately!


Photo: Alex Pavlou

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Impeccable intentions

Impeccable intentions

Whereas it is invaluable to stay mindful of the present moment as much as possible, we also have an ability to guide our future actions with intelligence by using meaningful intentions. What are intentions and can we ensure that they cause no harm?

This is a complex topic, and I will only attempt here to share my understanding and experience of using ‘conscious’ intentions in my daily life.

An intention is a conscious thought with an anchor in the heart. It is ‘potential’ waiting to take form. I distinguish intentions from goals in two ways: firstly they are more open-ended and less measurable, and secondly, they are more process-focused. They give a direction, but they are somewhat more detached from the results. Our intentions influence many of our actions and reactions, so it is crucial that we learn to become aware of them and to question them.

Some intentions can be misguided and can arise from ambition, fear, greed, jalousie, anger or revenge. These will inevitably cause harm, not only to others but also to ourselves. It is important that we align our intentions to our moral compass. We can also learn to let go of questionable intentions by clearly seeing  that they are not worthy of pursuit. Regular meditation and silence can help us letting go of the negative and fragmented thoughts. Our minds are our inner sanctum, and we should have respect for what goes into it. Equally, we have a responsibility not to spread the wrong kind of energy and actions with ill-considered intentions.

Another issue with intentions is that they change, accumulate and at times even conflict with one another. For us to be more effective, it is important to declutter our mental landscape and to focus on few simple intentions. Having clarity of purpose can help us focus on what is essential.

Each day, I have moments when I can reflect on my intentions. I start first thing in the morning – with writing a longhand page where I clear my mind of all sort of thoughts, and sometimes during the process new or forgotten intentions surface. Secondly, I picture the day ahead and write down a series of wishes – it is not a list of things-to-do per se – it is more like a potential menu of activities. Then, I sit quietly for about fifteen minutes and let go of my planning mind. If I have an opportunity, I lie down for a nap after lunch and again drop everything for about twenty-five minutes. Finally, before going to bed, I finish the day feeling grateful by writing one sentence that captures some of the highlights – noticing how my intentions might have influenced my waking hours.

The whole movement of thought is very complex, but the more we pay attention to it and the more we attempt to understand it, the more we can address our actions. If we identify that some of our intentions may cause harm, it is our responsibility to remove them promptly before they take root and grow out of control. This foundational work may not be easy, but I believe that it is the most valuable contribution we can make to the world.


Photo: Vikas Kanwal

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