Every Day

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal-a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.

An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire-
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.

Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

Mary Oliver

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Increasing Happiness

A recent study found that happiness significantly increases as people pass their 50th birthday. It seems that stress and worry fade after the landmark birthday and people begin experiencing greater daily joy than younger adults. A 2010 survey of more than 340,000 people published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found overall feelings of wellbeing improve as we pass middle age.

Dr Arthur Stone, a psychologist of Stony Brook University, New York, said the findings were “striking”.

You would think as chronic illness threatens life would get worse but that is not the case because people don’t focus on the threats. They focus on the good things in life like family and friends.

The researchers found positive and negative emotions varied with age similarly in both sexes – although women reported greater stress, worry and sadness at all ages. Variables such as having children, being unemployed, or being single did not affect age-related patterns of well being.

Stress and anger reduced in the 20s but worry and anxiety remain a significant issue. Peter S. Kanaris, Ph.D., a psychologist and coordinator of public education for the New York State Psychological Association, observes: Prior to midlife, people are building families, paying mortgages, developing in their careers at a time when there is much more uncertainty than usual. This creates a great deal of stress.

By contrast, the 40s and 50s are actually a time of contentment: People in midlife have reached a time where they are a little more settled and established, he says. With levels of stress and worry all dropping significantly in the fifties, the levels of happiness and enjoyment increase.

Dr Carlo Strenger, of Israel’s Tel Aviv University, gives further food for thought: If you make fruitful use of what you have discovered about yourself in the first half of your life, the second half can be the most fulfiling. Most people can anticipate a second life, if not a second career.

Sunday Quote:On Illness

Loss and anguish, bereavement and grief, anxiety and despair, as well as all the joy available to us, lie at the very core of our humanity and beckon us to meet them face-on when they arise, and know them and accept them as they are.

It is precisely a turning toward and an embracing, rather than a turning away or a denying or suppressing of feeling that is most called for and that awareness embodies. Awareness may not diminish the enormity of our pain in all circumstances. It does provide a greater basket for tenderly holding and intimately knowing our suffering in any and all circumstances, and that, it turns out, is transformative and can make all the difference between endless imprisonment in pain and suffering and freedom from suffering, even though we have no immunity to the various forms of pain that, as human beings, we are invariably subject to.

Jon Kabat Zinn

The Wrong Trousers

Sometimes we get little reminders that our way of seeing the world is not always completely objective. We see the world not as it actually is, but as we are.

I recently bought some clothes, thinking that they looked nice. Shortly afterwards I was informed that the colour did not suit me and that they were a strange choice. For a moment I took refuge in the fact that maybe I have better taste, that I have an interesting dress sense, and anyway I don’t have too much interest in criteria like colour. I had a certain notion of how these clothes were right. Normally when our judgment is questioned we need to rationalize and reduce some dissonance between our “good judgment” and others’ opinions. However, I soon admitted to myself that others are probably more objective and that I was more than likely wrong.

I know that in most things, I see through my own subjective filters, so it is likely the same for my dress sense. We think we see something as it is. But really it is we see it through our own conditioning and history, and often through the story which is dominant in our life at that moment. Indeed, most thinking is not pure thought, but is rather a self-focused emotional activity. A similar process applies to the words we use. Something may be said to us with the best of intentions but we hear it through the emotional place we are standing. Or similarly, a simple email or text message which we send can be understood completely differently by the person receiving it, because of where they are at, and as a result they move to an interpretation which was never intended.

Practice is essentially clarifying our vision. We learn to sit still, to befriend ourselves. We return to sit each day in order to see through our mental processes, with all their noise; and to increasingly enter into reality as-it-actually-is. We see that we can hardly take a breath without a thought or opinion or judgment going through our head. We see that we prefer to relate to life through our thoughts and frequently our fears. Our natural calm mind is often clouded by the limited self-image created by habitual, obsessive, neuronal patterns. Practice works on this, allowing us let go of the fears that drive our thoughts, getting closer to the moment as it is. We observe the mind in order to not get lost in it. We learn to relate simply with the thoughts, feelings and experiences that arise as we sit. Slowly we get to see the world more objectively. To see things as they are, not as I want them to be.


Some things are best learned early, but I never learned how to swim as a child. It is not easy; the secret is to relax and let go. I don’t know if I will ever swim like a fish but am  pleased with being able to keep my head under the water or move forward across the pool. For me it would be such a freedom to float on the water and not be afraid.

Learning to swim contains a lot of lessons which can be applied to practice and to life. In many ways we can approach our practice as if we are there to correct or fix something. We often start from the deep-down assumption that there is something wrong with us, that we need to change or get away from. So we seek out personal development programmes or practice in order to change ourselves, to get away from what we are not at ease with. Or we can seek outside ourselves, in work, projects or relationships, for something that will complete us.

What swimming teaches is that somethings go better when we just relax and let go. We can stop striving. We can release the need to ‘control’ everything in our lives. When we tense up and try to fix things, we create a whole new set of problems. Often when we are stressed out, we attract more stress into our lives. We end up trying to make ourselves different than how we actually are. Freedom starts with accepting ourselves and letting go, trusting that the water, or that life. will actually support us. We can let go of our fears.

Sometimes, in order to let go we must “unlearn” many of the things we have spent our entire life learning and which have been reinforced in relationships and life’s experiences. From an early age, we have been conditioned to worry about our family, our relationships, our jobs, our security, and everything else in our lives that we want to improve. We are taught to compete and to overcome our anxiety by doing better and striving harder. Ironically, when we stop the worry, stress, and fear, we allow our natural rhythm to flow into us and we drop into our deep inner resources. The greatest truth we learn from practice is that we are already perfect, just as we are. Nothing needs to be added to us in this moment. We can just float and let go.