Ben’s Alchemical Process

I met Ben today.  He’s about forty-five and I guess you could call him a street artist.  Ben paints over discarded pieces of chewing/bubble gum.  It doesn’t seem so much a statement as a love of pretty little designs.  But there were a couple of points he tried to make when I spoke to him.

“I’m turning something ugly, something someone has littered, into something more appealing,” he told me.

“A bit like alchemy then?” I asked, “in the sense that you’re turning base matter into gold?!”

“Exactly,” he said without pausing in his work.

He was creating these little floor sculptures outside the Halifax bank in Muswell Hill, London but told me that he does the same thing on the streets of Paris, Belgrade and other major towns overseas.

“Do the police ever try to move you on?” I inquired.

“I’m not doing anything illegal as long as I paint over the gum and not on the pavement itself,” he informed me.

“How do you choose those cute patterns and what are those names you’ve inscribed?”

“Oh I take requests – this one’s for a mother and two daughters – you can see their names here.”

I watched him at work, in a meditative state.  It started to become clearer.  This was living art/street art: something for people to enjoy, in the moment, for as long as it lasted.  It could be a political statement too, perhaps.  Was he recycling something that had been waste matter?  Was he strongly anti-litter?

“How do you do it Ben?  It looks a bit shiny,” I asked.

“Well I paint first then I glaze then I use a blow torch.  I’ve got quite a few more just near where you’re standing.”

I walked a couple of paces further then noticed them glistening, only a couple of inches in diameter at most but clear as anything.  I wondered what else might be going on, in miniature form, all around me…

Monk Meeting

Having been drawn to Buddhist teachings since my early twenties, I was thrilled to be going to my first Buddhist country: Thailand.

I heard about a Buddhist Centre on the island of Koh Lante, where we were staying but due to a stomach bug, I had to wait three days to visit.

When I arrived just now ,by Tuk Tuk, a long road, with palm trees either side, led me to a modern building in a beautifully peaceful setting.  Walking through a canopy of brightly coloured, sweet-smelling shrubs, a smiling Thai man in his forties greeted me and asked how he could help.

I told him I would just like to visit and come back at some point with a view to taking some Buddhist instruction on meditation and philosophy.

I was immediately offered some food and coffee, which I declined as I’d just had breakfast.  The place was spotlessly clean and organised, women dealing with the food on the floor and, behind them, on a slightly raised platform, there were five Buddhist monks having breakfast.

After a couple of periods of waiting I was summonsed, by the original man who greeted me, to meet the chief monk.  The man told me I was very lucky to have this time because this was the “boss monk” who was only visiting and is normally resident at a different monastery in the south of Thailand.

The monk gestured that I should sit on the mat in front of him.  Now there were only the two of us in a large room.

It was clear we were to engage in some formal meditation.  He told me to focus on the breath and then we sat in silence for an unknown period of time. 

Immediately there were many images of Buddhas in my mind’s eye and I dismissed this as auto suggestion though it did feel “real.”  Then I wondered if something might be being transmitted to me.  I dismissed this too,  as spiritual narcissism.  Then I experienced periods of deep peace interspersed with “monkey mind.”  This is how the nature of the mind is explained by Buddhists.  We constantly analyse, criticise, judge and predict.  We are fearful, we are restless, we are unsatisfied…

I observed myself observing myself!  It was as if years and years of reading and study were being put into a real experience of the nature of my/most people’s minds. 

Then there were the periods of peace.  Nothing except swirling images of purple and black in the mind’s eye (like something from the psychedelic sixties).  No personal mind interfering… just presence.  As soon as I start to “claim” this as some kind of special experience, I lost it and came back into monkey mind.

I sensed a slight movement from the monk so I opened my eyes and he was ready for me and suggested I stand up and follow him.  We descended to the shade of a courtyard where we practised a walking meditation.  He said, “fast or slow, you choose, just meditate…”

I had observed a group of women doing a walking meditation at the Wat Pho Temple in Bangkok so this was not an entirely foreign concept to me.

We walked together — and separately.

It was a wonderful complement to the sitting meditation as it was another opportunity to practise being fully present — walking being a more everyday experience.  It was like coming home to myself.  My body.  My senses.  My moment.  Make it as meaningful or as distracted as you want, Danny!  Fortunately, the former was the case and each time I walked up, paused and back again, it was as if a new revelation came, sometimes as simple (ironically) as seeing how quickly I became distracted mentally then bringing myself back to the process and widening my sphere of perception by being fully present in each moment as it unfolded: the scent of the flowery shrubs being stronger, awareness of swifts circling above, the increase in the wind’s strength: so much to notice in every moment…

After about fifteen minutes or so, he called it to an end and welcomed me back the following morning.

The original man appeared, as if on cue, to say goodbye.

It was all very fortuitous as it transpired that today was a celebration day in the Buddhist calendar: Nirvana Day.

Curiously, my stomach ache has vanished since the visit…

An Evening with Eckhart Tolle

Last night I spent a wonderful evening at London’s South Bank Centre, listening to Eckhart Tolle, who spoke for over two hours.  He is one of the most well-known, living spiritual teachers, his books “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth,” having been translated into thirty-three languages.

Given that “being in the moment” is now widely understood to be the best/only place to try to inhabit (future-based thinking can bring about anxiety and dwelling on/in the past can bring depression), he proceeded to give suggestions as to how we might connect with this state of “presence” or acute “awareness.”

His delivery was interspersed with moments of humour, not contrived in any way but happening quite spontaneously.  For example, he said that the buzzword “mindfulness” was really a misnomer because a better description would be “mind emptiness!”  He noted that part of our problem was that we become so identified with our apparently ceaseless thoughts – a continual stream of thinking that leaves us exhausted by the end of the day – fatigued by all our judgements, criticisms, expectations, desires, etc.  So “mindfulness” implies a mind that is full and therefore aware, whereas Tolle sees the key to a new dimension of Self is to be found in the “spaces” between our thoughts…  He sees thought as a useful tool but a terrible burden if we become a slave to its processes.

If we can practise stopping our thoughts for just a few seconds, this will bring us back to the present moment by focusing our awareness solely on the current experience, e.g. just staring at the sky or a tree, without any judgement.  In this way, the ending of thought can be the beginning of freedom: out with the old, habitual ways of thinking/responding and in with the opportunity for a more creative existence.

Tolle postulated that we are dual-level beings, living in a world of form (material circumstances, including all objects and thoughts) whilst also inhabiting a (spiritual) essence, something he refers to as “consciousness.”  It is this “consciousness,”  if/when we can locate it, that we share with all other beings and if we could locate it then there would be no more War on our planet as it would be simple to recognise that any hurt to another also causes hurt to oneself.  The analogy drawn was that each of us behaves like a separate ripple in the ocean without realising that this is just our surface level self (ego) and, in fact, just underneath the ripple is the entire ocean.

So we are not simply our thoughts or even our own personal histories, we are part of a Oneness, which some might call God, our Higher Self, Nature, the Collective/Cosmic Consciousness, etc.  He states that the way our planet can evolve is through each individual undergoing an inner change.  After all, external changes, through (political) revolution, ultimately only lead to future revolutions…

Tolle also talked about the inadequacy of words, quoting the late, great teacher, J. Krishnamurti, who said that the moment you teach a child the name of a bird, this is also the moment that the child loses some of the mystery of the wonderful essence of that creature.  In other words, words can never replace direct experience…. so I will write no more!


Update for Dad

Today you came in the form of a lovely, red admiral in the garden. Here’s my communication back…

Quite a lot’s changed since you departed in 1981 and quite a lot’s the same.


We have this thing called Internet now.  It’s really quite amazing if you don’t let it stop you having actual face-to-face conversations and travelling to real places!  Also, people are on their mobile phones all the time, often connecting to this Internet.  That’s fine too except that it’s often done mindlessly, seemingly to fill any spaces that might otherwise occur.  I’m not sure if people are so uncomfortable with how they might feel that they immediately distract themselves or whether they’re peer-led (or both) but it could bring about a whole generation of children that are deprived because of technology-driven parents!


If you saw some of these people, walking, jogging, pushing prams or cycling, you’d think they were mad for talking to themselves but actually they’re speaking to someone (wirelessly via something called Bluetooth), on applications such as Facetime, Skype or MSN (or many others).


There are some positive medical advances since you died though not much has shifted in education (and it really needs to move with the times).  You see it’s so much easier for children to be independent learners nowadays, and follow their true passions, but this has not been taken into account…


The rich are still getting richer and the poor are still getting poorer, of course; the Israelis and Palestinians are still bombing each other and many other wars are happening around the planet.


China’s a superpower now and is buying up land and businesses all over the globe and terrorism is still around, in fact it’s growing and becoming more and more sinister. I think we may even have a massive split on the planet one day, a bit like the Cold War that you will remember but with different Superpowers involved…


But people are still people of course, with their cycle of sorrow and joy.  You personally would be happy to see two more wonderful grandchildren and two great grandchildren.  You live on through them, as you once wrote in this wonderful poem:


I am young

Your body is a map of love


Navigating for virgin territory

There will I sow my seed

Into posterity

Then I’ll live on


Our first seed

After doting care

Did die

But confidence in prayer

Shall see the chosen one arrive

No longer needing to cry

Eyes permitted to stay dry


I’m old

God let me glimpse your greatest prize

Then I’ll live on…

Let the Buddha in!

The Buddha statuette had sat in my garden for too long.  A thought occurred: why not invite him in?

I hesitated and was interested to notice the hesitation, the “maybe I’ll let him in tomorrow” or “maybe in the summer when he’s not so mucky…” as if now is never the right time but, as Rabbi Hillel pointed out so poignantly, “If not now, then when?”
And the Buddha of course represents our being in the present moment.  Enlightenment means not having anywhere to go or anything to gain.  The journey is the destination and the destination is the journey.  The desire nature has finally found peace: already home, already arrived…. always home, always arrived…
So I invited the Buddha in and sat him discretely behind the door of my living room in order to see him at surprise moments, when the door was not to widely open.  But he asked me why I was still hiding him away and I replied that it was conditioning.
I wasn’t sure, as a Jew, whether I should have such a symbol in my living room.  Wasn’t god meant to be more mysterious than this, more hidden, harder to know?  Then I moved him into my living room, on full display.  After all, he’s been with me, in one way or another, since I discovered the more mystical, Eastern ways of thinking in my early twenties.  Throw away the conditioning and meet compassion head on, I thought – embrace desirelessness, mindfulness, emptiness and all the other wonderful teachings.  If not now, then when?
The Buddha actually took pride of place in my living room on the first day of 2014 as part of three New Year
“Resolutions,” which I’ll now list and comment on.

Number one has already been mentioned: “If not now, then when?”

Number two is the question of “Adrenalin or Peace?” In my therapy work, and generally, I’ve noticed how massive the problem of stress, anxiety and panic is… London probably epitomises this, in terms of the geography of our country but I’m pretty sure that it’s nationwide and everyone now seems to be aware of the mental health statistic of “one in four.”
This means that we ourselves or someone in our family has probably suffered a mental health problem.  Perhaps technology has increased our stress rather than alleviated it, as we were promised…  The 1970’s utopian ideal of only having to work a three day week because machines or computers would do the rest seems to have been transformed largely into those who have wealth and those who don’t – those who have full time jobs which are extremely demanding and those that don’t have any work at all…  Either way, this causes stress.
In addition, we have become greedy, not just in a material sense but also temporally.  We try to squeeze as much as we can into as little time as possible… a bucket list before breakfast!
Our energy so often seems to come from an adrenalin surge rather than from a place of peace or mindfulness.  Sadly, this frantic energy is contagious too…
Number three is linked to the quasi-political point of number two as I ask the question “cooperation or competition?” Stress may be an inevitable symptom of the capitalist system.  We are conditioned into competition from an early age and this immature masculine function becomes venerated in adult life as can be seen from people in business who talk about “making a killing” or “winning the deal,” etc.  Basically, one person or party profits from the other person’s loss.  We are told that we’re not born equal, that it’s survival of the fittest and this is a democratic system so therefore it must be wonderful.
How transformational would it be to think naturally of how we could share or cooperate from each other rather than profit from each other? I’m not overtly political though I think it’s still bubbling away underneath.  The way I deal with it nowadays is not to pretend I’m a revolutionary because every revolution just gives way to the next ruling power so I go along with the Krishnamurtis, the Eckhart Tolles and the Byron Katie’s of this world who talk about a new consciousness and a change from within rather than from without.  This internal change will hopefully lead to a more peaceful world that naturally cooperates more than it competes…


The Management of Change

At present, most clients are coming for issues around anxiety or stress. It seems that most of us are living our lives as adrenalin junkies, deriving our energy from whatever the next “buzz” or “fix” is: alcohol, an argument, a cigarette, a job that has to be attended to immediately, a failed plan, a relationship difficulty… anything, in fact, that helps divert us from the possible peace of the present moment – a state of always trying to arrive somewhere or trying to become something or trying to change something. Indeed there probably is a change that needs to take place but one that can only be arrived at successfully from a state of calm reflection. The anxiety or stress itself is a message that change needs to occur. The management of change is an important part of our lives because we all know that the only thing that is certain is that things will change…

We are led to believe that a certain amount of stress is “good for us.” But what if there is another way? A way of still being focused and still having great reserves of energy: coming from a deeply relaxed part of ourselves – a part that has no interest in being caught up in the ego battles (sometimes with ourselves) that often precede or perpetuate stressful situations.

Meditation and self-hypnosis are proven ways to alleviate stress – a chance to build a practice of leading a more relaxed life so that you get to see that most of the things that you thought were so urgent are simply not at all… Also we develop the ability to be with ourselves more, to not be “on the run” but to be able to sit with our feelings, even if they are uncomfortable, so that we can understand their true nature and watch them come and go, like night and day – and know that we are not going to be overwhelmed by them. On the contrary, they may have something very important to say to us – if we can be still enough to hear.
There’s a simple technique available here:

Why fill the spaces?

It seems as though autumn has arrived and with it the passing of three-quarters of the year.

A time for reflection, I thought, so here goes….

This year I have spent quality time with someone who has nothing and someone who is a billionaire.  The story really is true: if you don’t have some kind of inner peace then you really don’t have much quality of life.

I have noticed, through seeing many clients, that people are fearful of the “spaces” in their lives – the quiet moments that are opportunities to listen to our inner, guiding voice or simply relax and enjoy some time out – some peace.  These spaces are filled in so many ways: working every hour god sends, smoking, drinking, drugs, mindless TV, endless activity until falling exhausted into bed at night, possibly/hopefully so exhausted that sleep arrives instantaneously, preventing the need to encounter any spaces at all.

So what is the fear?  What might our “little voice” in the head say if we give it a chance?  Perhaps, “You are not good enough” or “How can you live with yourself?” or “My life is so unsatisfactory” or one of many other?  The thing is, if we don’t find the stillness to listen and let go then the disturbance will always remain.

In a session, I often assist clients in finding their own “perfectly peaceful place” though this doesn’t have to be done in hypnosis.  Just taking a few minutes to relax and visualise a known or fictional place that fills you with peace is a beginning to a deep relaxation. Close your eyes and follow/notice your breathing. Observe it becoming slower, steadier, and calmer.

Comfortable and uncomfortable thoughts may come and go and this is the nature of thought.  You can become the observer and not get tied up in knots by the thoughts.  A thought never killed anyone.  You can take the time to be gentle with yourself, refresh your body and listen to whatever may or may not come to you in these quiet moments.

I end with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, one of my favourite teachers:

“When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love.”

An experiment you can try…

Does your mind ever switch off from its constant judgement?  Is your critical inner voice really beginning to irritate you?  Is it constantly speaking to you with a “you should have…” or “why didn’t you…?” or “If only you…”

Let’s take some specific examples:

  1. I should have done more work today
  2. I ought to ring/visit aunty/uncle/cousin/friend…
  3. My genitals/breasts are not looking nice
  4. Maybe one day I will actually say what I mean
  5. If I was a better person I would have…

Please feel free to reflect on some of your own examples and then try an experiment in being kinder to yourself, in trying to treat yourself as if you were your own, only child…

Repeat one of your recent ways of beating yourself up and conclude it with the following phrase (or something similar): … and/but that’s ok.”

So number 3 would read, “I should have done more work today… but that’s ok.” The body immediately loosens and relaxes with this phrase/permission.  How strange that we tend to be much more comfortable with negativity than positivity!  Let’s try number 5. “Maybe one day I will say what I actually mean...but that’s ok.

This is not a recipe for inertia or an avoidance of personal growth; it is a recognition of work in progress (Rome wasn’t built in a day) and a possibly rare attempt at being compassionate to ourselves.  In fact the critical, inner voice can also be welcomed and used productively.  For example, one could look at any of the above statements (or any of your own critical, inner voices) and also add, “thanks, I’ll give that some thought and see what I can do about it…”