Giving up on pefection

Wurstchen by Casy Hugleflink

I don’t know why I was thinking about perfection. Perhaps it was after spending three hours trying to get a new template for this website to work, before giving up on the idea.

I had a design for the site in mind and the more I reached out towards it the further away it got. In very similar situations in the past this would have left me feeling frustrated and that I had wasted my time.

But I found myself measuring my work by the energy I had put in, rather than the outcome, and ended up feeling satisfied.

When I returned to the work later I could sense the frustration waiting to edge in, but instead of battling on looking for something unreachable I changed my design to something simpler and managed to get it working. There are no fancy sliders or parallax effects on the new website but it works, and that’s good enough.

On late afternoon on Monday I spent a couple of hours in the garden. We have several hazel saplings that have appeared spontaneously (the squirrels planted them). I wanted to move the hazels to the back of the garden and start a hedgerow. If I had managed to do that in the autumn it would have given them the best chance of surviving, but I didn’t.

I moved some other plants to make room for the hedge, and it was only when I stepped back at the end of the day and looked at the big picture I realised that they weren’t in the right place and I’d probably have to move them again.

But like with the website, I found myself feeling relaxed about the not quite perfect job.

There is a drive that seeks perfection. It longs to change the world to reduce suffering, or to make everyone happy, or to make everything neat.

When I really investigate life I get the sense that we can sometimes move closer towards this, but that it will always be just out of reach.

We will never eliminate suffering, or make everyone happy, or make everything neat. I’m not even sure that last one is something we should be aiming at.

That drive is fuelled by the fear that we won’t be okay unless we get a particular result.

But life has taught me that we can be okay when things are falling apart around us. And that paradoxically the drive for perfection often causes more problems than it solves, as that feeling of insecurity is taken forward into whatever action we are taking.

Being okay with things been good enough seems to make it more likely that things will be good enough. When we’re relaxed, we’re more likely to flourish and to let others flourish around us. That might be a bit wordy for a motto – but I like the sentiment.

So I’m giving up on perfection, and looking for good enough instead.

Paying attention to a world that is falling apart


The clouds are mostly just grey today; a flat sky that only gives up its colour and texture under close examination.

I woke up at eight, to the sound of our oldest cat mewing for breakfast. I shuffled through the dark flat, fed him, and the girl cat scurrying after us, and went back to bed.

I woke up again an hour later, full of a pale wash of feeling: sadness, disappointment, tenderness, hope, love.

The temple felt quiet. Our Buddhist teacher, who had been staying with us for 10 days, had gone home yesterday; the guests we had invited for his surprise birthday party had gone as well.

He is seventy years old. While he was here visiting us, he sprained his knee walking on the hills. I took him to the minor injuries clinic on Thursday morning, and they checked him out, strapped him up, gave him some painkillers and crutches and told him to rest.

On Friday morning his cat (travelling with him) got into a scrap with one of ours and came away with a scratched eye. A friend drove them both to the vet. The cat came away with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories and will be okay. On Saturday she was sniffing around our cats again. We closed the door between them.

There was a lot of love on display at the birthday party. A lot of cake was eaten. Seven people helped out making party food in the kitchen. We all spoke of our deep gratitude to our teacher.

This morning I have found a thread of romanticism in my soul, and I am letting it go.

I first met Buddhism through stories of monks and nuns staying cool under pressure, gliding through life easily, seeing things that I couldn’t see. I enjoyed hearing stories about the mystical land of the snows, and the great sages hidden there.

I was sceptical about the magic, and sometimes frustrated by the mystical language which seemed to cover up the truth as much as reveal it, and yet part of me hoped that there was a place where old monks floated up into the sky to give teachings, and where suffering was eased.

My practice does give me consolation, but it is consolation in the midst of suffering, consolation in the midst of a world which falls apart.

Dharmavidya, my teacher, says that the Buddha’s first noble truth of suffering is a truth for noble ones. The first activity of sages is to pay attention to suffering. To know the world as it falls apart.

I was refreshed when I first heard this, and it refreshes me today, as I find thin threads of false hope, wishing the world was different, in my heart.

And how do sages pay attention to the world?

With love.

Image: Levels of Gray by Thomas Hawk

 

Fragile and Uncertain Creatures


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On the top floor of the temple is a long, high ceilinged hallway between the residents bedrooms. The carpet is a mottled beige, worn down the centre. Dim lightbulbs hang from long cords in paper lampshades.

Just as you go into the hallway, look up, and you will see a stain on the ceiling and high up on the wall. It looks damp. The thick wallpaper is curled up at the edges. Salt crystals have formed along one edge of the dark stain.

When I pressed my hand up against it a year ago it didn’t feel damp. Sometimes I think it has grown, sometimes I’m not sure. I like to believe it hasn’t, because that would excuse my not having done anything about it.

Mostly, I don’t think about it at all.

I asked the guys who repaired our roof and chimneys to take a look while they were here. They didn’t, and I didn’t ask them again. Sometimes I manage to chase builders, but I have to work myself up to it, stirring up some frustration to fuel going outside my comfort zone. Sometimes I don’t manage to.

One day, while the chimneys were being repaired, I went for a walk with some friends. It was a cold, bright day and we walked to the White Leaved Oak, an old tree of local legend. When we returned home, Jnanamati spotted us and warned us there were six builders cleaning our flat.

I had blocked off the fireplace a few days earlier, when dust had started coming down in to it, but that morning a chunk of brick had broken through my makeshift barrier: clouds of ash and brick dust had exploded into the flat. The fire alarm had gone off, the cats had fled, and it had made a mess.

One builder was mopping the floor, another cleaning our kitchen area. Most of our books survived, but some didn’t.

A few days after the explosion I looked at the wall next to our small dining table. It is rough hewn granite, painted over many times in white (behind the wall, the hillside). I couldn’t make any sense of what I was seeing. The shadows were all wrong: upside-down.  After a moment of confusion, I rubbed my finger through one of the shadows, resting on top of one of the white stones: ash and brickdust.

Sometimes I get a little closer to changing when I notice the things which I find difficult. Sometimes I don’t. Pure awareness is not always (not often?) enough. I read a Sylvia Boorstein quote about meditation today:

Mindfulness meditation doesn’t change life. Life remains as fragile and unpredictable as ever. Meditation changes the heart’s capacity to accept life as it is.

Perhaps we can also say that meditation doesn’t change us either, or at least not in the ways we sometimes hope for. We remain as fragile and unpredictable as ever, but move towards accepting our fragile and unpredictable state.

When I see myself shying away from calling the builders I can react with tenderness, rather than with harshness. And that must be a move towards the good, even if the stain remains.

 

 

Word of the year 2017

417px-the_tortoise_and_the_hare_-_project_gutenberg_etext_19994I walked from my office, down the long dark hallway, up the stairs, past the big window that looks over the car-park, answered the door, signed for the parcel, and walked back to my office. Expect I wasn’t walking, I was rushing. My footsteps thudded through the carpet onto the wooden floorboards, creaking and squeaking them where we had lifted and relaid them, last year. My thoughts raced a few steps ahead of me, and I tried to catch up with them. I was answering the door long before I reached the door, and as I answered the door I was already back in my office, answering the next email.

What am I adding to the world, when I fall into states like this? What does the quiet person in the library, next to my office, make of my percussive comings and goings?

A few years ago Satya introduced me to the idea of having a word for the year. I have chosen a word each year, since then. Sometimes it guides me consciously, like an extra precept I keep in mind, checking myself against. Sometimes it sinks into unconscious depths, and works away without me knowing much about it, until I look back on the year and trace the path I have walked.

On New Year’s Day I was thinking about a word for this year. I remembered rushing, and thought of the tortoise and the hare. A few days before the end of the 2016 I had seen a bronze hare and tortoise, a few inches high, in a gallery in Ludlow. If I was a rich man, I might have come home with it, but as I’m not, I appreciated it where it was. Perhaps the image had stayed with me.

But the word that floated into my mind, along with this image, was turtle, not tortoise. I gently chastised my mind, putting it down to a linguistic filing error, but turtle was the word my mind kept returning too. I gave it some attention then. Turtles are not slow, as far as I know, in the way that tortoises are. But they are graceful in the water, and there was something appealing about that, rather than the ponderous slowness that I associate with the tortoise.

I thought of Pratchett’s Great A’Tuin then: the giant turtle who swims through space, carrying the Discworld on his (or her) back.

In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…

Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination. In a brain bigger than a city, with geological Slowness, He thinks only of the Weight. Most of the weight is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and startanned shoulders the disc of the World rests, garlanded by the long waterfall at its vast circumference and domed by the baby-blue vault of Heaven.

From ‘The Colour of Magic’

Here is a slowness that is graceful and grounded. The turtle is the solid ground on which everything else rests, and perhaps, as the old joke goes, “It’s turtles all the way down”.

Thinking of the careful grace with which that giant turtle swims through the stars, I settled on grace as my word of the year.

I like the double meaning: the sense of graceful movement, which is the opposite of rushing; and the sense of being blessed. Perhaps the latter leads to the former: the more aware I am of being blessed, the less I worry, so the less I rush. Perhaps the former leads to the latter: the less rushed I am, the less busy my mind is, which allows me to be more aware of the blessings I receive.

 

Finding Peace

Bracken and Moss

I had been searching for quiet. The hills are a gift. I puffed up the muddy paths. The hills were covered in rust bracken, wet brown leaves, rabbit nibbled grass, damp moss…

Above St. Ann’s Well the fog thickened. I sat on a wooden bench, next to the path at the ridge, and looked out east. The fog drifted, caught by slow winds. It curled into new shapes. It thickened, and thinned, but it didn’t clear. A few bare trees emerged from the mist; charcoal marks on a grey page.

I had been searching for peace. I had imagined some retreat like space over the Christmas break, perhaps between Christmas and the New Year. Christmas eve, Christmas day and Boxing day, we were with family. There were some wonderful moments: our three year nice dancing to Sia’s Chandelier; our five year old niece directing us to play stick-in-the-mud in the park, as it started to rain on Christmas day; playing with the vintage horse racing game that my brother-in-law’s father-in-law remembered playing in his own childhood. There were some fraught moments too, as too tired adults and children began to unravel at the edges.

In between Christmas and New Year we had one day without any appointments. Then, on the morning of that day, a text message: our teacher was coming a day early, he’d be with us for dinner. A pleasure, but I worried about conversations straying into what I think of as work. They did, which one the one hand was useful, and on the other asked me to let go of my expectations of the day.

On New Years Eve, I worked for a couple of hours in the morning. It was the first time I had been in my office for days. The plants needed watering, and the pile of letters I had been putting off dealing with asked for my attention. I moved the letters out of sight before turning my computer on.

In the afternoon I tried retreating in to the bedroom with my novel and a cup of tea. The lava lamp I bought for Satya slowly came to life, the pink wax stretching and breaking apart in the purple water. I tuned my phone and Bluetooth speaker (a Christmas present) into a jazz radio station, and settled into reading. Everything in the bedroom is a reflection of what I already know, it is comfortable and comforting, but it doesn’t open me up to something more spacious.

The hills are a gift. I got out of bed, and went walking.

On the bench on the ridge my mind finally settled down. I looked into the mist. A group of teenagers walked by. One of them snuck a look at me. I was dressed all in red, half smiling at nothing.

I settled into contentment for a while, and then I started grasping after it. I should get up early everyday and come up here, I thought, whilst knowing that I wouldn’t.

On the way down I took the steepest path. I passed an old man using two walking sticks. “Good afternoon”, he said, his forehead beaded with sweat, beneath waves of white hair.

 

Photo by Mark Seton

Ten things you can get from therapy

1. Better relationships

As you start to learn what makes you tick, what makes others tick, and what your triggers are, it becomes easier to connect with others and to build better relationships.

2. Increased confidence

A good run of therapy will leave you with more confidence, as you start to trust yourself more deeply.

3. More intuition

If you learn to tune into your own feelings more deeply, they can be a great source of information, and help with making good choices.

4. More energy

Depression and anxiety can use up lots of energy. Coming to terms with difficult events, or stopping worrying, frees up energy that can be put to better use.

5. New skills

Your therapist can help you with some techniques that can help you right in the moments when you are struggling.

6. Better sleep

Not only can a therapist help with ‘sleep hygiene’, the things that bring us to therapy tend to be the things that keep us awake at night: as we move through the therapy process, towards letting go acceptance and change, we can worry less, and sleep better.

7. More relaxation

As we let go of things we have been holding onto, both large and small, our bodies and minds will tend to be more relaxed. And as we let things go, we also learn how to keep letting go, which allows us to be more relaxed more of the time.

8. Your place in the world

Therapy sessions can help you discover what your passion is, and help you to take steps towards following that passion and making it work for you.

9. Ways of getting more done

Therapy can help you create good habits and maintain them; it can teach you that you can still get some things done regardless of your state of mind. Therapy can help you understand what keeps you stuck, and help you move away from that.

10. Therapeutic awareness

What you learn in therapy you can put to use in-between sessions, and after your therapy has finished. You can begin deal with your own thoughts and feelings in a better way. You can learn to let things go, and change what needs to be changed, either on your own or through finding and getting the support you need.

Turning away from anxiety and depression

Relationship by JD Hanckock
Relationship by JD Hanckock

We usually come to therapy because we are unhappy, or dissatisfied; because we want to change.

Often, what we want to change from is feeling anxious or depressed. Anxiety can be like a constant worrying, both in the mind and in the body, it can be a feeling of being on edge, of always being ready to fight or flee, of being hyper aware of what might go wrong at any moment. Depression is like a dark blanket that covers everything, feeling flat or numb, a loss of energy, not being able to think clearly, a lack of enthusiasm for life, and a deep sense of nothing being right.

How can therapy help any of this?

In my experience therapy works in two different ways, each of which support the other, and support the client to move in a positive direction.

We could say the first of these is conscious, and the second unconscious.

The conscious aspect is what we talk about the in the therapy.  We talk about things in order to make them clearer, and to understand the situation we find ourselves in. Through this process we begin to see where some of our unhelpful patterns of thought and behaviour have come from. Sometimes we pick up bad habits from others. Sometimes our bad habits are small acts of rebellion. Often they started out as ways of keeping ourselves safe in difficult circumstances.

A deeper understanding of these patterns means that we’re less likely to fall into them.

In this conscious aspect of therapy, we might even take away some ‘homework’: exercises to help us think and feel in new ways, anything from watching how our feelings change through the week, to keeping a gratitude list, to experimenting with new ways of behaving.

The unconscious aspect is to do with the relationship between the client and the therapist: the process of being in relationship and responding to one another. The job of the therapist is to remain steady, whatever happens, to keep an open mind, to move towards a position of feeling warmth towards the client.

As human beings we surround ourselves with people who support our view of our self and the world. If we are anxious or depressed, it’s almost as if those conditions want to continue, and they push us into places, and into relationships, that make that more likely. We isolate ourselves, or feel drawn towards people and situations that support our dysfunctional ways of thinking.

The therapist is a different kind of person. They stay open and warm towards the client, without getting drawn into to supporting these dysfunctional habits and ideas. This has a powerful effect on the client, who begins to feel less afraid of change, and of moving towards more positive ways of being.

As the client begins to trust the therapist, they also begin to trust themselves, and to trust in the possibility of being different in the world: of being happier.

We could say some of the good qualities of the therapist begin to rub off on the client.

Both of these aspects work together. As we begin to understand ourselves, and consciously practice new ways of being, our trust begins to grow.

As our trust grows, it becomes easier to understand ourselves, and to try out new ways of being in the world.

Both of these aspects work to help us move away from anxiety and depression, towards a positive way of being.

email kaspa@thebuddhsittherapist.comto book in a first session, via Skype or face to face.

Why do we come to therapy?

stone-buddhaWhy do we come and sit in a room, and talk to a stranger, and share our deepest thoughts and feelings?

My therapy room is at the end of a long narrow corridor. In the winter the corridor is light by bulbs hanging in Victorian glass lampshades. In the summer, light from the open doors of other rooms pools in.

In my room there’s a two seater sofa, and a bucket chair. The sofa is blue and white, and most of my clients sit here, but not all of them. Whenever I’m seeing a client, I light the fat church candle that sits in the closed off fireplace.

There is a stone Buddha, sitting on a small table between the sofa and the chair. It’s a peaceful room.

Someone arriving for a first session can be full of all sorts of feelings: anxiety about meeting someone new, a longing for things to be different, perhaps some nerves about starting to talk about how things are at the moment.

It’s a brave act, coming to see a therapist, and when I see clients for the first time, I remember this, and how it was for me to be a client, back when I was in therapy myself.

I listen, without making any value judgements. The act of being heard is a powerful one.

People come because they want to change. Change is possible, but often happens in surprising ways.

Sometimes we might set goals together, and come up with realistic steps to take us nearer to those goals, and sometimes the process of change happens through more subtle means.

My job as therapist is to be a steady presence, to be sympathetic to the troubles of the client, but not so caught up in them that I lose my own sense of balance.

As people we are influenced by the people that we hang out with, and the places that we go. We can see this all around us, as people dress to fit in with one group, or change their behaviour to fit in with another. This is a mostly sub-conscious process.

Being in relationship to my steady presence, just coming and hanging out in the peaceful space of the therapy room, is just as important, perhaps more so, than what gets talked about in the sessions.

This is how the process of change happens: by dipping ourselves into good conditions, into the therapy room, over and over again. Slowly we began to relax, and our old habits and ways of thinking become less powerful. We move towards acceptance, letting go, and change.

email kaspa@thebuddhsittherapist.comto book in a first session, via Skype or face to face.

The biggest frog (how to get things done)

Frog by Chris Luczkow
Frog by Chris Luczkow

I sat facing a blank page for about an hour this morning. Occasionally I wrote a few words and then I deleted them. They didn’t feel like the beginning of anything worthwhile.

I wrote about my oldest cat sleeping at my feet. I wrote about the squirrel stealing peanuts from the bird feeder. I wrote about the new seedlings we have just planted out. And then I deleted all of the words and there was the blank page.

I opened my favourite social media sites and closed them again. I browsed the news headlines. I looked out of the window. I looked at the blank page.

I thought a change of scene might help so I went and walked around the garden. It was cold and the sun was hiding behind grey clouds, and although I half-planned where new flower beds might be I didn’t think of anything to write about.

I came back inside and started to make a cup of tea. While I was waiting for the kettle to boil I remembered an old friend that I had been meaning to write to for a little while.

We used to be in regular contact but for reasons I don’t completely understand communication seemed to break down this year. We kept missing each other, arranging to meet and not quite managing it, and then we just stopped talking to each other…

For a while I thought I might hear something from them, and then I put it out of my mind and got on with all of the things I have to do: seeing clients, running a temple and running my mindfulness classes. Or at least I thought I had put it out of my mind, but every now and again I would find myself telling other friends about what had happened. Eventually I realised that I hadn’t really let this go at all and that’s when I decided to write to them.

That was sometime last week. I could have carved out time to write before today but the immediate demands on my time allowed me to keep distracting myself – until this morning when I was faced with a blank page.

I couldn’t get started on this article because something else, the un-written letter, was getting in the way.

Mark Twain said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

The un-written letter, that I was nervous about writing, was the biggest frog and I kept pushing it to the side of my plate.

I brought my cup of tea back up to my office and wrote the letter. As I wrote it the worries I had around how it might be received disappeared. This friend and I have had a strong relationship in the past and I’m sure it will be received in a good spirit. I hope so at least.

Having swallowed the biggest frog I was able to sit down and write this article.

I’ve learnt this lesson many times before, but I still sometimes find a way of pushing the biggest frog to one side.

If there is something to be done – get on and do it. Putting it off can take just as much energy and can stop you from doing anything else.

What’s your biggest frog today?

This article also appeared in All About Malvern

Living with change

Photo by Nick Kenrick
Photo by Nick Kenrick

Written late spring/early summer

Suzuki Roshi was once asked if anything was constant in this life. He replied with one word: change.

A couple of weeks ago I watched a wave of hail moving from behind the hills, over the temple and through the valley. Directly above my office, directly above my writing desk, is the dining room balcony. Drum-rolls of hard ice falling onto the flat surface of the balcony roused me from my concentration.  I went upstairs to watch the weather.

A few days earlier it had felt like summer had arrived. The sunshine was bright, and the air was warm. It was a real change from the sun and cold wind of winter and spring days. The sun-rose in the garden started to flower. Each delicate, Barbie-pink, flower lasts for just one day.

On my day off, I was looking forward to a day in the heat. I sat in the garden eating breakfast, looking out over the copper-beech, with its orange-yellow blossom, and the plum tree just coming into leaf. Grey clouds drifted in, settling over the sky like a soft blanket. Still, I spent most of the day outside.

In the evening it started to rain. Noisy rain. The cats ran inside, mewing at us, complaining about the weather. I could hear the water from the roof flooding down the downspout and overwhelming the drains. It rained hard through the night. The following morning it eased a little. The rain drops were smaller and softer. More like mist than rain. The slate tiles of the coach house roof I can see from my office window were dark with the wet.

It’s tempting to complain about the rain, and praise the sunshine. But they are each beautiful in their own way. Someone was decorating our shrine room on those wet mornings. It wasn’t ideal conditions, the light was dim, and the paint took longer to dry, but the garden loved the rain. The potatoes plants doubled in size in a couple of days, and the cucumber seedling I planted out on my day off grew taller by an inch a day.

The summer colours were dulled a little by the mist, but still the deep pink magnolia flowers burst from the grey.

If we can just find the right place to stand, all weather is beautiful weather. And all weather changes. The same is true of our own lives.

There are large changes that a life goes through, and we might have some sense of what they are: of how the energy of a life shifts from childhood, through the teenager years to adulthood and old age. Having some sense of this can bring us a kind of solace, we can make peace with knowing that one thing changes into another.  But we shouldn’t hold on to tightly to this idea of cycles. Just like the weather there can be unexpected storms in the summer, or days of sunshine in the winter.

Thoughts, feelings, our physical health, all of these change over the years, and all of these change on a daily basis, and all of these change from moment to moment.

The simple act of knowing this can bring us to a calm centre point.

We can’t control man, if any, of these circumstances. But, like the weather, we can change how we look at them, and how we experience them.

In every circumstance there is something beautiful, and every circumstance is always beginning to change into something new.

email kaspa@thebuddhsittherapist.com to book in a first therapy session, via Skype or face to face.

This article first appeared in All About Malvern Hills