Tuesday, 19 May 2015

My latest article on The Huffington Post

13th May 2015

Photo copyright SvD

Monday, 11 May 2015

The unfolding self

Standing besides a river the image of all water searching for the sea came to mind. There is a certain inevitability in all things and a purposefulness to life as I have written about before but where do we begin to find it?

We have just experienced the throes of a general election and watching our politicians thrash around sparring with each other is the antithesis of finding the silence in one’s head that signifies wisdom (and sadly, yes, a wise politician probably doesn’t exist). It takes real understanding of the human spirit to not seek to be enslaved by preconceptions or our vain pursuit of money and yet we all fall into the trap of chasing the wrong things. One reason for living like the vortex going down the plughole is that we are starved of time. Forced to live at a frenetic pace things must happen fast including the way we think and how we manage our behaviour towards others.

Living in London is like being in a foreign country- friends often telephone once or twice a year and lunch or dinners are planned months in advance. No one seems prepared to drop everything to facilitate a pal. We attach a value to our time and when we weigh up the costs of doing anything for anyone we put our needs first. We belong to an era where we almost should be ashamed of our surfeit of wealth and the ease at which we can have anything our heart desires. Although we complain bitterly about the state of the roads, the wastefulness of politicians or the cost of living, the truth is we have never had it so good.  Take a walk in your local supermarket, for example. There is no other country in the world where every whim is catered to: organic, free range, in season, out of season, ready made, top quality goods at cut price bargains, the list goes on. The NHS may have its faults but by golly, it’s a Godsend when we need it. And by the way, it’s free. And yet heinous acts of barbarity and pure evil plague all walks of life. Domestic abuse is most rife in the richest parts of the country. Teenage pregnancies and the wrong priorities are the norm. Disenfranchised youth who perceive they have no real future. How therefore can the hidden metaphor within the river searching for the sea be relevant?

A man lives beneath the shadow of a huge dyke, which contains two main rivers. When asked if he fears waking up one night up to his neck in water, the man replies: “The water goes to the sea.” A response that is both poignant and evocative. The man living under the dyke is wise without knowing it: he sees life as undefined by his world; his thinking is logical, simple, practical and beautiful/sublime. He does not see infinite possibilities in his life but he sees a reality that simply is. No more. No less. Not embellished, not dressed up as something it is not. Without saying it, he is also aware of his mortality and accepts it.

Consider this other example: a rich doctor lives in a magnificent home. He has lived there for forty years and his pride and joy is the vine that he has grown within his grand conservatory. Every year it bears the most delicious grapes and the doctor is very proud of how the vine produces an excellent crop year after year. As he shows me around the conservatory, I ask him how the vine is pollinated- do bees manage to get into the conservatory and how do they get in since all the windows are tightly shut? The gentleman looks at me and admits he is flabbergasted.
“I never thought about that,” he replies. How lucky to be so simple in our thinking that we never ask any real questions; the fruit appears as if by magic. That is all that matters.

Religion gets a lot of flak in our harried world but for some it offers a pathway to the unfolding self: five minutes sitting in a church often fills me with immense sadness. It is usually the only time when the truth of who I am is revealed. I think of the hardest parts of my life within those five minutes. That experience comes naturally and I cannot fake the power of confronting myself. Communing with God demands that all artifice is shed at the entrance to the church. The other pathway is suffering, loss, rupture and enforced detachment: like the orphan who must muster superhuman strength in the face of adversity. The Romans had a saying for it: out of poverty is born genius. We are all King Lear and may have to lose everything in order to discover the truth behind the lies; without hardship or suffering it would be impossible to find our way in the maze of life. When we grow too used to having everything we want, we forget to value what we already have. We Brits are probably the best in the world at talking about the weather because we so hope the sun will finally break through the clouds and when it does, we are literally over the moon with happiness. By talking about the weather we are wishing it would change for the better. We are all vulnerable and frail beneath the veneer and it does good to be aware of that. Removing the conscious process of what we want, what we need, what me must have and undoing the control we must exert on all things, leaves us with the simple truth that the water goes to the sea. And so do we.

Photo copyright SvD.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The river runs into the sea

An interesting conversation with a man who lives in the shadow of a dyke and which literally towers above his house. The dyke contains a massive lake which is located between two rivers.

Does he worry about waking up one night neck deep in water?  The man shrugs. 'The water goes to the sea.'

 Photo copyright SvD.

Monday, 13 April 2015

How to be happy

Old acquaintances share a walk together along a lake in the countryside. The day is perfect- crisp blue sky, waves that ripple so gently they appear to skim across the placid lake. A gentle breeze nudges both men along under a bright yellow sun. They continue walking, their two dogs ambling behind or in front, sniffing, investigating spent clam shells littered along the shoreline. Both dogs dip their paws into the shallow water near the edge of the lake and decide in canine unison to wander along dry land rather than dive in. In such an idyllic environment on a picture perfect postcard day, the subject of happiness comes up. And one acquaintance looks at the other and declares that he has never known what happiness is. Ever. Bad luck and financial hardship have blighted his entire life and seem to be his only companions.

Not that far away from the bucolic lake and in the village where I currently live, there is a lady of a certain age whose deceased husband was once prominent on the world stage. This lady is always impeccably dressed replete with pearls and fingers laden with priceless gems. The hair is coiffed par excellence and one can tell, of course, that Madame has lived a comfortable life. Her house is the finest in the village and through the windows one can spy possessions of exquisite quality – antiques, oil paintings, etc. and yet when one meets the lady in question, not a pleasant word ever passes her lips. Her latest vendetta is against the pigeons that must be eliminated at all costs. She brandishes a petition at me- will I sign it? No indeed! I remind her that the pigeons were here before us and shall outlive us all as well.  “But they carry diseases!” she exclaims. “Oh, well, I will die then,” I reply.

What therefore is the elusive happiness? How many books have been written on finding that particular unicorn? Thousands? Perhaps millions. We all know someone who possesses an entire library filled with self-help books. You know the type- the one who calls constantly usually late at night to offload their latest drama and who is the first to whip out a paperback from nowhere and suggest we read it because it really ‘helped them sort out their s…t.” and yet when we do cast an eye at the said ‘bible’ it makes absolutely no sense to us at all. And that, ironically, is probably what happiness is.

Human beings are all on different journeys- visualise this: a school of fish all swim together in the same direction. Now imagine that same image but with the fish choosing to head off individually in random directions and without following each other. That is exactly where each of us is on our life’s journey and no two people will ever evolve mentally or spiritually in an identical way. The idea for example that one religion could possibly answer all of life’s dilemmas is precisely why many have abandoned their faith. There is no book that has all the answers  (if there were one, the writer would be very rich indeed). Finding happiness is not an impossible or elusive a goal in one lifetime but the solution is surprisingly simple (and perhaps disappointingly so). It requires responsibility on the part of the individual to accept themselves with all their flaws. It also requires that the individual seeks to know themselves above all else. Whilst this may sound easy, it is anything but. Human beings are social creatures and without an inbuilt need to be surrounded by other people, we would not have evolved into thinking beings. Our interaction with each other is what has essentially civilised us. This also brings about a neediness to be accepted, loved and even admired. In our money-oriented society we tend to compare ourselves to others from a materialistic perspective only. We are driven to managing appearances, and on a more subtle level, measuring ourselves against the success of others hence the term ‘keeping up with the Jones’. In our pursuit to follow others, the self becomes pure ego effacing the spiritual core. Put another way, someone who is constantly being put down ends up losing their confidence completely. Similarly that is what happens to the part of ourselves which wants to flourish but we keep suppressing- if we don’t exercise the most private innermost self it will become lost forever to the more voracious ego. I should clarify here that I use the word ‘spiritual’ as not necessarily being connected to God or a faith but as the closest we can be to discovering who we truly are and finding innermost peace.

How therefore can the process of finding happiness be termed as ‘simple’? Once we get over the first step of taking responsibility for our lives on our terms - which is the hardest part of self-discovery and which takes real courage- the rest is easy. Ironically, we all function better when we are calmer and less encumbered by the stuff that truly does not matter. The riddle locked in the enigma is separating the metaphorical chaff from the wheat, which can’t be taught because remember, we’re all on different journeys. Our search for fulfillment, contentment and yes, happiness is the one thing we can truly control and which belongs only to us.

 Photo copyright SvD.

Monday, 6 April 2015

A simple life

For those seeking eternal youth, you should know this: life just isn't the same after 50; the body slows down and takes longer to recover, the mind chooses tranquility before drama, unfettered by ulterior motives and hidden agendas. This is a glorious time to be and think and relax at a much slower pace. But you have to want to be who you truly are otherwise you'll just keep dancing as fast as you can.
Photo copyright S. van Dalen

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Spring- the first flowers

These are the second flowers (to be truthful, not the first which are Wild Yellow Primroses) of the impending Spring: Wild Damsons. If you like jam, hover near a Damson tree in mid Autumn. The jam is particularly delicious for its tangy, sweet, plummy flavour. Pitting damsons to make jam is a task for the saintly and very patient- those of us who have zero patience make the jam anyway at the risk of our teeth!

Photo copyright SvD.