To Do and Not To Do

We all have to-do-lists.
Some of us may prefer not to bother writing them down and keep them in our heads. Others may have simple lists of tasks and commitments, jotting them down on paper or electronically so as not to forget. Others still, may have more elaborate systems with priorities and calendar functions with reminders. Lastly, there are those of us who use robust time-management tools and techniques, to not only stay on top of our to-dos but also to balance our life-work responsibilities and help us focus on short, medium, and long term goals. This is all very fine, but how much do our to-do-lists define our lives? And will we ever feel fulfilled by this seemingly never ending conveyor belt of activities?

Getting things done can be quite addictive as it gives us a sense of purpose, engages our problem solving minds and feels rewarding when we become better and better at juggling and keeping up with it all. The problem lies in that we may neglect its equally important polar opposite: not doing.

Doing nothing may sound boring or even unpleasant, yet I would like to argue here that it is not only necessary for our health and wellbeing but it may actually also be highly fulfilling. Whereas ‘doing’ deals with the measurable, ‘being’ dwells in the immeasurable.

There is an art of being idle, to take the time to enjoy the simple act of breathing, to contemplate the beauty of life and to adopt a child-like carefree alertness. These ‘acts of being’ are not reserved to the poets, philosophers and religious people – they are accessible to everyone.

With practice, we quickly recognise how good it feels to give ourselves a few moments of peace each day. Once we are able to put on hold all the things we have to do, even momentarily, we may touch a sense of freedom that we use to experience as children.

There is nothing wrong with the “to-do”s so long as they leave enough space for the “to-be”s


Photo by Kai D.

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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.


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

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Attached and detached

floating plastic

What if I were to suggest that you only had one problem?
That all the frustrations, heartaches, anger, doubts, failures, and unhappiness that you may experience, all have the same origin. And that all the problems that everyone else face are also different facets of the same one and only issue. You would probably think that I am out of my mind. Well, the chapter of the book I am currently reading just suggested that.

Before I go on, you probably want to know what that central problem is. Put simply; it is something to do with the mind movie and our attachment to how things should be. We are constantly projecting an imaginary version of the world and ourselves on our internal screen and don’t understand why things turn out differently. It is a constant misunderstanding. As a child, we tend to be quite flexible and are less attached to how things should be. When we make our first steps, and we fall, we simply cry and pick ourselves up and continue. But as we get older, we hold on so much to our internal imaginary world that we tend to find it much harder to pick ourselves up when things go wrong. We are all different, and some of us are better at picking ourselves up than others, and it probably depends on how attached we are to what is at stake.

It is a complex issue, and I will only brush at it on the surface with a simple example. After hearing that Bali had some of the most spectacular coral reefs and biodiverse sea-life spots in the world, we went on a day excursion to go snorkelling off the small island of Menjangan. It is hard to describe my horror when I saw how much plastic rubbish was floating on the surface of the water. What was the most difficult thing for me to accept was the contrast between the layer of the manmade drifting junk and the bountiful and colourful backdrop of the natural underwater world. It took me a long time before I could enjoy my time underwater as I was so attached to how pristine this place should have looked.

My son was faster to adjust and managed to ignore the floating waste and rejoiced in the beauty of the fish and kept on pointing at different amazing spots. The more attached to a different reality one is the harder it is to be with what is in front of us. It is not that we should be so detached as to ignore the tragedy of a situation, but rather not to be blinded by it and to stay with the facts. There is a definite issue with plastic, and I do not wish to speak about it on this post. However, when I look back at the photos,  I am surprised, given my intention to document how bad it was, to see how little plastic I captured. It made me wonder how much worse I had made it in my mind’s image.

It is healthy to have an open mind, and if, one day, someone suggests that every problem you have is the same one in disguise, look at it, stay with it and find out if it is true. Does it hold up to your reality?

When I first heard of this idea, I got very interested in it – it sounded real. Then paradoxically, I got quite attached to the concept. On further inspection, I realised that I was absorbed by the idea and projected it on my mind movie. In a metaphorical way,  I focused on the floating plastic that was in front of me. Using the advice this idea came with, I detached myself from the projection and became more conscious of the beautiful fish and sea-life that was surrounding me.


One sentence journal – day 17:
“The nights are very short; I could blame it on the month of June but I simply need more sleep.”

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

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