Mindfulness: Realizing how big the little things are

Returning to Peru

Four years ago I lived and worked as a volunteer in Cusco for one year. It has been a meaningful time for me in which I learned a lot about the Peruvian culture, but also about myself. The Peruvians live in the moment a lot more than we do in the Netherlands. For me this meant “enjoying” more, living more intensely. My stay inspired me to live the life I live now in the Netherlands: Mindfully. And I try to inspire others to live Mindfully as wel, knowing the benefits it brings me.

For about a year I wrote blogs about “what we can learn from developing countries”. I try to visit a developing country every year, because it helps me to remember the “slow life” and the important things in life. For me it feels as if people in developing countries live closer to the essence of life, because materialism hasn´t captured them the way it has captured many of us in Europe.

This year I choose to return to Peru. Four years ago I heard about the possibility to travel to Iquitos by boat, a journey that takes 3-5 days. So many days on a boat in the Amazon, that sounded like the slow life I was looking for!

Busride to Pucallpa

My trip started with a bus ride to Pucallpa, from where I could take the boat. The scenery was astunishing! Outside Lima, the capital of Peru there is mainly mountains and desert. After a while the landscape became greener with more waterstreams. We climbed higher and higher with a lot of curves in the road untill you could see the tops of the mountains covered with snow. This busride usually takes 22 hours, but in my case it took 36! In the afternoon we got stuck in a traffic jam and after a while an ambulance passed. When I asked what happened, my neighbour fellow passenger told me that it happens regularly that rocks fall on the road because of the rainfall. For hours we stood still more than that we drove and when I went to sleep there was still hardly any movement! Even the next day when I woke up we stood still more than that we moved forewards and I felt some impatience. How long was this going to take? One thing was certain, I wouldn´t get my boat to Iquitos on that same day! There was no more choice than accepting it the way it was and soon I returned to enjoy the scenery again. The possitive thing was that I didn´t “miss” any of the landscape. Which was beautiful! After we crossed the mountains the landscape turned more and more into the jungle.

A little later my neighbour forecasted that we would reach Pucallpa by midnight. I was not really happy with that! I usually plan my trips in such a way that I reach places in the morning or early afternoon for my safety. Also the steward in the bus expected that we would reach Pucallpa by midnight and he asked me if I travel alone, because it could be dangerous to travel from the terminal (outside Pucallpa) to town. At first I didn´t really think about it further. I first wanted to see that we really reached there by midnight before believing it! But we did indeed.

I had asked the steward if it was possible to stay in the bus or in the terminal overnight. He expected that this wouldn´t be possible, but he would ask. When we arrived some people around me were discussing about how I could reach the city safely. It was really friendly how several people were taking care and at the same time I felt a lot of caution about who to trust. It felt really vulnerable to have to depend on someone. When I stepped out of the bus also some drivers of motortaxi´s “attacked”. One of them also had a recommendation for a hotel. The steward was willing to accompany me in a motortaxi to the city centre, where I was really happy about. A little bit later I was in my own room with a real bed, happy to have a good night sleep.

800px-ucayalirivermap-1

Preparing for the boat to Iquitos

The next day I went to the market of Pucallpa to do some shopping for the trip to Iquitos. I needed a hammock to sleep in, some mosquito repellent, food and water. The tupperware box that was needed to receive food on board I already had. After finishing my shopping I went to the harbour to find a boat. It didn´t last long before I found a boat that would already leave two hours later at noon. I got help to hang my hammock to reserve my spot and went to the hotel quickly to get my luggage. “Return soon” because as soon as the police give us the permission to leave we will leave. I returned a bit later and made myself comfortable in my hammock. The police had come around midday, but because there was too much cargo on the ship we hadn´t got permission to leave yet. Some people on the boat started to get annoyed, because they were on the boat since the day before and already got several promises of leaving soon.

On the boat to Iquitos

Five hours later it was finally time to leave. The boat was still packed! The amount of people on the boat varied between 80 – 130 people along the journey. Everyone had a hammock or a hammock was shared with family members. There were also some people sleeping on mats under the hammocks. Besides that there was a dog walking around and a women travelled with a cardboard box with several ducks. The boat had four floors: on the ground floor and third and four floor cargo was stored. We slept and lived on the second floor.

Shortly after we left the first meal was served. We could make a cue and after handing in our tupperware box and boat ticket we received some soup with rice, a little bit of potatoe and a bit of chicken in it. The food was basic, but very tasting. In the mornings we received some drink (with either rice or oat and milk) with bread. Lunch and dinner was always some rice, with some chicken and/ or beans, some cooked banana and sauce.

After dinner I often went up to the third floor to watch the sunset and to get some rest from the crowd of people. The landscape was astunishing, with lots of green and birds. Sometimes small wooden boats passed. Also while lying in my hammock I was able to see the scenery.

The days passed while reading, talking to other people, eating. On the first day I played cards with a few children and the days after they regularly came to ask for the cards “Señorita, prestennos su casino”. I loved to see them playing! The highlights were when we arrived at a town to make a stop. Some passengers left the boat and some new passengers entered the boat. During these stops there would always enter women and children from those towns to sell fruits, water and soda, bread, cookies, fish and even complete meals. It was the slow life I was expecting.

Storm and heavy rain

During the boat trip it had rained heavily several times due to the rainy season. Often a plastic sheet was pulled down to prevent the rain from entering the boat. On the last day the sky turned black again and it started to rain heavily. As usual the sheet was pulled down. However, today it was different. The storm had blown some cargo from the topdesk of the boat and I could see how it was blown over the water. Besides that, the boat was not horizontal anymore as it used to be. The wind was blowing the boat on its side. Panick arose on the ship, people started screaming and children started to cry. We had to stand all together on one side of the boat to keep it in balance against the wind. In the meantime we had all taken a life jacket. I tried to remain calm and in the meantime I took care of a child that was heavily trembling. What didn´t help was that some of the crew had drank alcohol that afternoon. I had seen one of the mates drunk a bit before the incident happened.

Evacuation

Luckily we got into the shore, from where we could escape the boat. We climbed up into the jungle and made a small encampment there with plastic sheet, to protect us from the rain. The water police was called and they came about thirty minutes later. At their arrival the babies, little children and their mothers and some eldery people were evacuated first. To Iquitos it was still a six hour boatride, but the police announced that the rest of us would been brought to a town nearby, from where we would been taken in minibusses. Around three hours later the boat came and in the night we arrived safely in Iquitos.

p1090571

Impact

This event made me realize that we have to value every moment, because it can be over any time. Lying in that hammock, seeing the children playing cards, watching the scenery; how little this all seemed to be, I realized that these little moments of joy are what makes life special.

8-week Mindfulness training

For me Mindfulness has helped me to live in the moment more and to value all the little things that make life worthwhile. On the 23rd of March I will start another 8-week Mindfulness training. In case you want to apply or you want to have more information, please go to the website

http://www.ontwikkelingswerkplaats.nl (in Dutch)

http://www.developmentworkshop.nl (in English)

Our urge to achieve

Last week I danced Kizomba (an Angolan dance) with a friend. Dancing is always more difficult for the man as he has to lead. My friend was annoyed with himself, because he didn’t remember the exact steps, trying them over and over again. At some point it came with pressure and force. It had to work out well. Whereby the fun got lost.

Yesterday I didn’t have a good day. I was tired, less concentrated than usual and I felt as if I didn’t achieve the maximum that I was usually able to. These days are always difficult to accept for me, as I usually want to accomplish as much as I can as perfectly as possible. I didn’t have any plans for the evening yet and I was thinking about how to spend my night as good as possible to “fix” my tired and somewhat down mood.

Isn’t it possible to just let go of this urge of achievement? Getting tired of my own thoughts I was glad that I was aware of this pattern, because at least it is a first step to break it. Cooking mindfully while listening to some music made me realize that what I really needed was doing nothing this evening, giving myself some me time.

A Tanzanian friend said to me “it is better just to plan for one activity, than you are sure that you will be able to make it”.

Eckhart Tolle, famous for his book “the power of now” states that all that we need is already here in the present moment. So no need to achieve anything…

A quote that I like is “it is not about the destination, it is about the journey”.

I hope it inspires you! Have great journeys this summer and enjoy all the way!

Have a look on my website for more information about my psychological sessions, 8-week Mindfulness training and Mindfulness sessions: http://www.developmentworkshop.nl/ http://www.ontwikkelingswerkplaats.nl.

 

 

 

Living by the clock

“We have to hurry, our train leaves at 12.38”. This is what my cousin said on a Sunday in June 2012, when I just came back from five months in Uganda and East Africa. I dislike pressure, especially on a Sunday when it isn’t necessary. Rushing for the train would mean that I have my destination in mind instead of being aware of the way. It would mean being 10 minutes ahead, instead of seeing that little boys’ smile and greeting this elder woman. It makes one live in the future instead of living the present moment.

However my cousin isn’t the only one rushing for the train. Last week I met someone on the way to an important meeting and after a quick hug and exchange of a few words I told him that I was in a hurry and speeded away. Isn’t it strange that we get influenced that much by the clock? What makes us missing a precious moment with an old friend to be on time for a meeting? And what makes us avoiding that we are 15 minutes later on a free Sunday?

What exactly is time? Isn’t it nothing more than something that we constructed to organize our world? Something that actually doesn’t really exist? Before watches existed we were fine with the sun and sundials (zonnewijzers). When the sun rose we knew that we had to get up, when the sun set, we knew it was time to go to bed (soon) and if the sun was on its highest point we knew that it was midday.

Definitely time and the clock help us to structure our world and to organize our activities. We might have become more efficient by using time, which allowed us to develop ourselves economically.

In Africa the way they deal with time is very different. If one askes the time to two random people on the street the difference in reported time could be 15 minutes. In the Netherlands the difference would probably not be more than 2 minutes. At a meeting in Africa, it could be that people show up 30 minutes later or even hours later in rural areas. However, in Africa they would stop to talk for the old friend on the street instead of hurrying to their appointment. And as nothing is as tightly scheduled, there is always an excuse for being late. Hurrying for public transportation is not usual, as the public transportation is usually driving constantly, however not very predictable.

I don’t want to favour one or the other way of time usage. Probably the “African way” makes one more aware and living the moment more, something that is highly valued in Mindfulness. It also diminishes stress and thereby has health benefits. However, our tight time management led us to be highly efficient and economically stable. As a result of that we might experience less stress about essential “life ingredients” as shelter and food as compared to Ugandans.

A good Ugandan friend once said to me “life is not measured in minutes, but in moments”. I think in the Netherlands we would benefit by un-hurrying ourselves a bit. For example, by planning 30 minutes extra for travelling to our appointments and look at the journey as part of the adventure! And, instead of getting irritated in the cue of the supermarket, observe your breath, your surrounding and start a conversation with someone in front or behind you.

Enjoy the little moments!

Have a look on my website for more information about my psychological sessions, 8-week Mindfulness training and Mindfulness sessions: http://www.developmentworkshop.nl/ http://www.ontwikkelingswerkplaats.nl.

Grasping for more

Does this sound familiar to you? “If I complete this training I will be a better person.” or “When I got that car I will be happy.” or “When I finish writing my book I will be complete”.

We always have some conditions for our happiness that mostly lie in the future. If we have this or that everything would be better. In this way our striving to something else prevents us from being happy and satisfied in the present moment.

One year ago I started my first Mindfulness training for my own business Development Workshop (Ontwikkelingswerkplaats). In my first group I had two participants. Now in the meantime I have a Dutch group with four and an English group with five particpants. There is a lot of progress and I love guiding the two groups through the 8-week program. At the same time I sometimes notice some dissatisfaction. The amount of time I spend in marketing and necesary conditions as the room and administration are enormous. Sometimes I wish that everything would go a bit more smooth and that it costs me a little less energy.

A few weeks ago I spoke with a salsa friend David. We didn’t see each other for a while and he asked me about my company. As I told him about my effort and progress he gave me a compliment. He was one of my first participants for “Mindfulness in the park” last year and he saw how I got from 1 participant, to 1, to 1, than to 4 and than to 7. While saying this, he made me aware that I fell in the trap myself. Being unsatisfied because of comparing the current to an ideal instead of being satisfied with what there already is. Thanks again David!

Last week I was enjoying a cup of coffee on a sunny terrace outside a bookshop. A mother walked out with her daughter of about eight years old. The girl looked happy with her newly bought book. I was surprised when I heard the mother saying to the child “if you read this book quickly you may choose another book”. Impressing how we human beings tend to live in the future instead of in the present moment. Always looking for more and better, instead of looking at what we have.

Why do we seem to focus on what is missing? Instead on what there already is? Looking at evolution can help us to explain. If we overlook a beautiful sunset, it doesn’t matter. Overlooking the sunset won’t put ourselves at risk dying. However, overlooking any danger would put us at risk and therefore we learned to focus on the negative to prevent, instead of on the positive. Avoiding the negative is more important than seeing the positive in terms of survival.

Sometimes we wake up as a result of the death of a loved one or after a (natural) disaster. It makes us realize how short life is and the importance of focussing on what we have and spending and enjoying time with our loved ones.

Personally Uganda and Peru learned me more to appreciate my life and what I have. It taught me that materials are not important to create happiness and it helped me to stop striving for more in a material way. When it comes to personal achievement it becomes more difficult for me. As I know that I’m not the only one in this I want to share something that has helped me: Writing down three positive happenings, experiences or accomplishments every day at the end of the day. It doesn’t need to be anything big. It can help to train our abilty to focus on the positive instead of on the shortages and lack.

Do you want to know more about me and the services I offer as a psychologist and Mindfulnesstrainer? Have a look on my webpage http://www.ontwikkelingswerkplaats.nl (also in English).

 

Tumble doll

Earlier I wrote a blog “living in our heads”. The topic of this blog is related to it.

When I was in my first job as a psychologist I suffered from a lot of tension, sleeping problems and some depressive symptoms. I was very much living in my head and I was aware of it. To find a solution I was thinking about how to get out of my head, but that only made it worse.

Many people in the Western world are living in their heads. Thinking, rationalizing. And in that way losing the connection with their bodies. All day we are thinking and we have to be effective. If we have some spare minutes, rapidly we consider what to do. By the time we reach home, how often do we only want to lie down on the couch and watch television? Without energy to do anything else? I experienced exactly this during my first job. And this is how a burn out starts: we lose the balance between thinking, doing, feeling and being.

A tumble doll has a big base that makes it stable It won’t fall. It can resist some shocks. At the end it will be centered again, back to it’s base. Living in your head is the opposite. It’s like a pyramid turned upside down. There is no base to go back to and that makes us unstable. It gets worse if we try to solutionate this problem by thinking, as the head and the thinking part will even increase and cause more instability.

In the meantime you know that I like to make a bridge to developing countries. What I saw in Uganda were more centered people. They are very much grounded and don’t overthink as much as we do here.There is more space for creativity and spontanity. And in the end, everything seems to work out as well, with a lot less experienced stress.

Some weeks ago I spoke to a Haptonomist “Beate Langemeijer”. Haptonomy litterary means “the science of feeling”. As I was telling her about my experiences in Uganda and my theory, she pulled out a tumble doll! It had quite long arms and she demonstrated how the tumble doll, upside down (on its head), was able to prevent falling by using the arms. However, to maintain its stability costs the tumble doll a lot of energy.

Than what is the solution? There is nothing wrong with thinking, as long as it doesn’t start taking over from you. Mindfulness practice can be a way to become more aware of the automaticity of thinking and being more aware of thinking patters that are repeated. Mindfulness helps to switch between the doing mode (that includes ruminative thinking) and the being mode. By focussing on the breath, one can widen it’s experience and “the wisdom” of ones body will often be more effective in finding a solution than our ruminative mind.

However, in Uganda I haven’t seen one person meditating and still the Ugandans seem to be very centered and stable people. What is the secret? I think the balance between thinking, doing, feeling and being is kept because the work of people mainly consists of practical activities. Instead of a lot of abstract reasoning. Secondly, people take it “pole pole” what means “slowly”,  one step at a time, which creates more present awareness, instead of rusthing things as if it were a ratrace. Then thirdly, the feeling part is much more integrated in daily life of the Ugandans that is surrounded by music and dancing. Than last, but not least, even though meditation hardly plays a role in Uganda, there is a lot of spirituallity in the form of religion.

So now, what can we do here in the West to remain or become tumble dolls instead of living in our heads like pyramids turned upside down:

  1. Doing sports once or twice a week can help to strenghten the “doing” part. If you don’t like to do sports, this could also be going for a walk every now and than. Try to be aware of your movements and the surrounding while sporting. How does your body feel? What do you see? What do you hear? And smell? This helps you to be in the present instead of overthinking your next activities and by that being in your head again.If you want help in being present while moving, than you may find it usefull to participate in a yoga class.
  2. Meditate every day. This doesn’t need to be very long. You could set an alarm for 5 – 10 minutes (for example by using the app insight timer) and focus on your breath. You will notice that you get distracted by thoughts, sounds or emotions every now and than. This doesn’t mean that you are failing. Being distracted during the meditation is very normal and even a part of the meditation practice. Every time that you got distracted you kindly bring your focus back towards the breath. Other moments that might be a chance to meditate if you lack time are while you are in the cue (either in the supermarket or on the Phone), going to the toilet or while you are in a boring meeting.
  3. Bring rest in your daily activities by doing one activity at the time. Set realistic goals instead of aiming to high and never being able to complete.
  4. If you have problems to feel you might want to try haptonomy yourself.

http://www.ontwikkelingswerkplaats.nl

 

 

 

Suffering

Suffering

Picture is made by Gavaskar Selvaraj

Lately many people in my surrounding share their life stories (and suffering) with me. It is an honour to me. As I have noticed that it is not very common to share ones difficulties, vulnerabilities and doubts. One rather showes ones successtories and elevates oneself over another person. Comparing ourselfs with others and trying to look favourable to feed our selfconfidence and ego.

If I would write down now my personal doubts and uncertainties, I would be afraid of rejection and I would be afraid that you would elevate yourself above me. And this makes us all showing our best side.

At the same time this brings us further away from each other as it can create a kind of competition. And that while suffering and vulnerability that comes with it is one thing we all have in common. There is no human being that can escape from suffering, we all experience losses and disappointments in one or another way. It is our shared nature. We should use our suffering and vulnerability as a way to connect to others.

The first time I realized this commonness, the shared nature of loss, doubts, feelings of uncertainty, fears and sorrows was during the last year of university. In a group of psychology students we had to give a presentation about ourselves and our life stories. We never used to speak about these personal issues, but one topic that was relevant for all of us was intimacy and making ourself dependent from someone and thereby vulnerable versus being independent, less vulnerable, but alone.

How do we deal with suffering? I hear people saying, “I’m working on my issue and after that I will be able to…”. But, is it possible that we get rid of our issues? Isn’t it better to accomplish our goals despite of our issues? Sometimes fighting against our emotions can even make them worse.

Imagine, you are intending to do a cycling tour, but the weather forecast tells that there will be several rain showers, alternating with periods of sun. There are several things that you could do: You could either stay at home to avoid the rain. However you would also miss the cycling tour and the sunny parts. Or you could look closely to the sky all the time, cycle quickly to be in time to shelter when the rain comes. You would do the cycling tour, but probably you wouldn’t really enjoy it as you feel rushed all the time to find a place to shelter in case that the rain comes. A last possibility is to just go for it, maybe bring your raincoat and accept that you will get wet during the tour. You wouldn’t need to hurry and after getting wet you would enjoy the sun that dries you again.

I assume that the comparison with our lives is clear. Have dreams and realize them, even if you get wet sometimes as in experience feelings of anxiety, disappointment and loss. You don’t want to miss the sunny parts!

In Uganda I interviewed seropositive people as part of a research project. Part of the interview was a questionnaire to investigate traumatic experiences. I noticed that many Ugandans had gone through a lot of traumatic experiences, starting from fires, to road accidents, domestic violence and rape. Experiences of the loss of a loved one are even more part of daily life than here in the Western world, as a result of accidents and the less developed health care system. At the same time there is music, dance and joy everyday as well. I experienced the Ugandans as very capable to integrate the sunny and the rainy part in their daily lifes.

So what can we do ourselves:

  • Share your doubts and difficulties with a person that you trust.
  • Listen to someone elses story, empatically, without interfering with your own story.
  • Take time every day at the end of the day to think about or write down some positive actions, experiences or outcomes of the day (it can be very small things, like for example seeing a beautiful sunset or bird).

http://www.ontwikkelingswerkplaats.nl

Living simple

 

Living simple

P1090012

Last week I came back from my three-week-holiday to Thailand. Besides my wish to re-charge in a warm country, I wanted to experience Buddhism from the origin. Thailand seemed to be the perfect place to meet my two objectives.

On Monday 11th of January I landed in Bangkok and although it was the evening already, I was still welcomed by the heat. First objective met 🙂

When I arrived at my hostel I had the pleasure of meeting a Canadian girl named Sheena which the following morning we set off together to discover Bangkok. After just a 10 minute walk we came across the first temple (apparently Bangkok has 400!), where women were gathering together in the kitchen to prepare food. They directed us to all of the bigger touristic temples. On our way we came across a Hindu shrine, found in many houses and markets, which I discovered later. My Thai friend Chorn explained to me that these shrines protect the houses of the Thai. We also got to see the monks walking on the street, dressed in their orange robes.

P1090060

We entered a big temple called Wat Pho, where we found an enormous lying Buddha, hallways full of Buddha’s, lots of flowers and several separate rooms where people were worshipping Buddha. Here we learned that one should never point ones feet towards the Buddha, one has to dress modestly with clothes covering the shoulders and knees and people bow three times towards the Buddha. My friend Chorn told me later that people would chant “namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa”, but she didn’t know the meaning of it as it was in traditional Pali language.

After two days in Bangkok I travelled further North to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is a smaller city, but the amount of temples is enormous! In the centre of Chiang Mai there is a lot more than one temple in every street. Several temples offered chats with the monks in English, which gives foreigners the chance to learn about Thai culture and Buddhism and gives the monks the opportunity to improve their English. Together with a Spanish girl named Lara, that I met in the hostel in Chiang Mai we attended the chat under a tree in the temple called Wat Chedi Luang. We joined a group with an American couple and their guide. At the end of the chat, the American man asked the monk what we in the Western world could learn from Buddhism. The answer of the young monk was “living simple”.

P1090122

A few days later I was able to experience this “simple life” in the forest monastery “Wat Pah Nanachat” close to the city Ubon Ratchathani in the North-East of Thailand. I got the chance to stay in the monastery for three days as a lay guest. I arrived at 7 am, when food offers arrived and everyone was occupied preparing and arranging the food. I was welcomed to join the meal and could register with the guest monk afterwards. In the meantime I helped preparing the food together with the other lay guests, which were all dressed in black skirts and white blouses.

At 8 am the meal was served. There was a huge table with a buffet of all kind of different Thai dishes, fruits and drinks. We would only get one meal a day, but the amount of food for this dish was enormous! First the monks were allowed to serve themselves and afterwards first the lay men and then last the lay women (we were all seated separately). We got an enormous bowl to serve ourselves. After the meal there was a Dhamma talk, in which a monk spoke about being mindful (paying attention to what we do) with the right intention. Afterwards I informed the guest monk of my arrival and he gave an introduction talk about the place to me and the other new coming lay guests.

The introduction included the following: We should hand in our phones and other devices. During our stay women should wear black skirts and white blouse and men should be dressed in white, we could borrow these cloth from the monastery. We were instructed to participate in the daily routine: waking up at 3 am, than attend the morning chanting (singing) and meditation session between 3.30 and 5 am, the meal at 8 am, tea time at 4.30 pm and the late chanting and meditation session at 6.15 pm. In between we were supposed to do our chores (sweeping, cleaning, helping out in the kitchen and keeping clean our residence).

The guest monk also informed us about the eight precepts:

  1. Harmlessness and nonviolence: to cherish all life — I undertake the training to refrain from intentionally taking the life of living beings. 
  2. Trustworthiness and integrity: developing contentment — I undertake the training to refrain from taking what is not given.
  3. Chastity: the gift of wholesomeness — I undertake the training to refrain from all sexual activity. 
  4. Honesty and right speech: a love of truth — I undertake the training to refrain from speaking untruthfully.
  5. Clarity and purity of mind: sharpening the sense of knowing — I undertake the training to refrain from taking intoxicating drinks and drugs.  
  6. Simplicity — I undertake the training to refrain from taking food after mid-day.
  7. Sense restraint — I undertake the training to refrain from dancing, singing, playing or listening to music, attending public performances and from any kind of self-adornment including cosmetics, perfumes, garlands and jewellery.
  8. Wakefulness, alertness and attentiveness in all postures — I undertake the training to refrain from lying on high and luxurious sleeping places.

I was lucky considering the last precept. All matrasses were about 2 mm thick, but I found one that was about 1 cm thick: D Still I think I met the precept, refraining from high and luxurious sleeping places I would say!

The simplicity that the monk in Chiang May was talking about could be found in the International forest monastery in Ubon Ratchathani. I would definitely name the stay in the monastery simple: only one meal a day, simple accommodation and simplicity in our daily schedule. Yet at the same time all necessities were met. The simplicity contributed to be in in touch with oneself, allowing enough time for meditation practice and self-reflection. Once I was hand-washing my clothes as I looked up and saw an Iguana watching me.

Together with development and new technologies we made our lives more and more complex over the past decades. We have to take in much more information than we were used to and we are almost never free from stimulation. And does it really make us happier? Statistics published by the Dutch government (www.nationaalkompas.nl) show that prevalence of depression has been stable over the past thirty years. However, incidence of burnout is increasing. Statistics show that 13 % of Dutch employees feel emotionally burned out. The European Working Conditions Survey examined 25 countries of the European Union (2005), which showed that an average of 22% of European employees experience work related stress. The Dutch employees (16%) experience least work related stress together with employees from the United Kingdom (12%), Germany and Ireland (16%). In sum, we experience loads of stress in this Western part of the world.

I think the advice of the monk, to live more simple is very wise. Rather having, spending, consuming and doing less, but with quality and awareness instead of having, spending, consuming and doing a lot. In this we can take an example of developing countries or the former days of our (grand) parents. At the same time I realize that this is easier said than done. Some stimulation is hard to block and so many things seem to be appealing and attractive. That’s why I listened a few suggestions to try:

  • Try to have a television free evening. Write, talk or read a book instead.
  • Switch of your phone (or even only the internet) for some hours.
  • Travel by public transport or by bike instead of taking your car. It helps you to step out of the routine and to slow down. Use the time to look around and daydream.

 

Being fine with not being fine

One month now the “House of Insight” is open for daily meditation practice. I feel blessed that Marloes, I could say my sister in the meantime, asked me to participate in her initiative. It is meant to give an opportunity to citizens of Rotterdam and surrounding to practice Mindfulness. Mindfulness is being with attention, in the present moment and without judgement. In my monthly blog I write about “what we in the Western world can learn from developing countries”. Meditation practice in the House of Insight made me aware that being in Uganda and Peru helped (and still helps) me with “being fine with not being fine”.

The House of Insight gives me a bit of joy every time I enter. It was a former school building and has a spacious entrance hall with big stairs. The meditation room is on the second floor and helps to improve your condition by climbing the stairs 🙂 The toilets are on the ground floor. So walking upstairs and asking for the toilets even helps you to improve your condition more 🙂 Doing the dishes with Marloes gives me a sense of camping and a piece of joy at the same time. We put the dirty dishes in a bowl, cook some water in the kettle (as there is no hot water in the building) and put the boiling water in the bowl. Than we walk down two stairs (as the running water is next to the toilets on the ground floor). We add cold water to the boiling water in the bowl and then the fun starts.

It gives me a smile every time we do this (probably until it gets a routine and gets annoying as doing the dishes usually is). Memories come back, this time from Cusco, a city in the Andes of Peru that has an altitude of about 3300 meter. Temperatures are quite low, unless you are in the sun during the day. I lived in a basic accommodation without hot water. In Uganda the water was never really cold because of the climate, but in Cusco the water IS cold! To avoid the cold water in Cusco, I took “bucket showers”, something that I had to learn in Uganda (because running water is not always available there). You take a bucket, fill it with water and take a cup to shower from the bucket. In the beginning it can be quite challenging to wash your entire body with one bucket! After a while I learned however and I enjoyed it actually. It forces you to slow down, different from taking a quick and automatic shower. The advantage of the bucket shower in Peru, was that I was able to wash myself with warm water. It became a ritual to cook water two or three times in my kettle, walk up and down the two stairs from my room to the “bathing room” that was outside and mix the boiling water with cold water to wash myself. Until one day…..

My kettle had disappeared! I left it outside for not even five minutes and it was gone. My friend, who lived around the corner and rented his room from the same landlord, found out that the landlord had taken it. The kettle used too much electricity and the landlord was annoyed for using too much electricity. My time in Cusco was almost over, but I can tell that the showers afterwards were REALLY cold! Funny enough, in the womenshelter where I worked all women took normal (cold) showers. They only prepared buckets for their children, to prevent them from the cold water. They didn’t shower every day however. And I understand why!

Back again to the Netherlands and the House of Insight. As the days get colder, the meditations get colder too. We have a heater, but it doesn’t seem to be strong enough to prevent us from the cold outside. I noticed the cold during the end of the meditation and I tried to sit with it and examine what the cold did with me in terms of feelings and thoughts. Besides the feeling of being cold that I could feel mainly in my arms, I also got distracted by the thought “next time I will use two blankets instead of one” and I was worried about the other person meditating. Franciscus of Assisi said the following wise words “Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

In the western world we have a lot of means to change the things as we wish them to be. We got spoiled here without even noticing. We are able to influence and improve everything to such an extent that we forgot to live with simplicity and being out of control. To me it seems as if that caused a loss in our ability to accept. Before my visit to Uganda, I would describe myself as very rigid and inflexible, probably because of fear of not being in control. The experiences of living in Uganda and Peru helped me to loosen, to put things in another perspective and to be more accepting.

Back to some memories of Peru once more. Houses in Cusco don’t have heaters in spite of the coldness. People are used to sit inside the houses with their jackets on (this is no joke)! In the beginning I couldn’t get used to this. Every time I entered a house I took off my jacket as a reflex. However, shortly afterwards I would feel the coldness and would wear my jacket again. Also I won’t ever forget my first night in Cusco as the dogs outside were barking. As I lifted the blankets to enter the bed I noticed their enormous weight, it were four thin blankets made out of felt on top of each other.

Despite the coldness I want to invite you all to the House of Insight for the meditation session on Tuesday at 6 pm and Wednesday at 5 pm. We have perfect conditions (including a heater, blankets and tea) to practice with being with what is. If you are cold easily please bring some extra sweater and socks.

Otherwise you could practice yourself by being aware of your automatic reactions to unpleasant conditions. By being aware of them you free yourself from the automaticity and by doing that your experience can be wider. It also gives you a choice to respond in another way.

I’m looking forward to your reactions and hope to see you for practice on Tuesday or Wednesday!

Perfect imperfection of nature

It’s autumn in the Netherlands and with that the world turns into a beautiful scenery of yellow, orange, red and green colours. Every tree is different and unique and beautiful in its way. All together it creates an astonishing landscape.

I would call myself a perfectionist, always aiming to the highest. Nothing ever seems to be good enough. It is not in my dictionary to make mistakes or not being able to complete something. As if my self-esteem is dependent from the next thing I have to accomplish.

However, things changed after my journey to Uganda. In Uganda nothing is perfect, but to me it’s a perfect imperfection. Markets are full and unorganized. Carrots are not perfectly shaped and shining orange, they often have mud on them. Tomatoes are not round and bright red, often they have some imperfections and are partly coloured orange and green. Buses don’t drive according to a timetable. Roads are bumpy because they have a lot of holes in them. Toilets stink because stool doesn’t smell like Jasmin flowers. You will smell sweat, because sweat doesn’t smell like flowers either. Clothes of children are dirty and with holes because they are free to really play. As I already said, it isn’t a perfect world, but I love it because there is a lot of real life. Life as in love, joy, spontaneity and freedom. A lot of living in the moment, without thinking about tomorrow.

In Uganda, it’s about surviving. It is not about being the best, it’s about helping out each other. Valuing ones qualities and the qualities of others and putting them together to increase the chance of having a meal. It is like all the trees with their different colours together, none of them is the same or perfect, but all together they create a perfect imperfection.

Striving to the highest helped us in the Western world to develop a lot but didn’t we go too far? Trying to control too much, even things that aren’t in our hands and creating stress in the process that actually isn’t really necessary? If we stop reaching our targets, would it prevent us from having a meal tonight? Would it bring our lives in danger?

Every time I see the beautiful autumn colours it reminds me of not needing to be perfect. More and more often I can be content with every perfect imperfection.

http://www.ontwikkelingswerkplaats.nl

Use of phone and internet

Last week I have been on a 5-day silence retreat in a Buddhist monastery in England: 5 days of meditation and reflection. During the retreat “noble silence” was kept, this means no social talking, also we had to hand in our phones, laptops etc. “If you feel you will be unable to meet this request, we suggest you should consider whether this is the right time for you to come on a silent meditation retreat” is advised on the website.

The following is part of the experience of a fellow participant, as he described it in his blog https://russellkinguk.wordpress.com/:

“I knew that when I got there, I would have to hand in my iPhone, remain silent for 5 days, not eat meat for 5 days, not eat after midday for 5 days, sleep in a dormitory for 5 days, not have ANY contact with the outside world for 5 days,  and so on and so forth. In my 46 years to date I had complied with none of the above rules/conditions before and certainly not for 5 days. So, you can imagine why it felt like a strange journey. I listened to some Steve Hillage on the way, the last music I would hear until my return the following week.

My journey home was strange. No music.

The iPhone was NOT missed for 5 days. Trust me – you really do get over it very quickly – in fact, it was a relief.”

His blog is really interesting to read completely! I recognize a lot of what he writes, with the main difference that he didn’t practice meditation before, so he really jumped into the deep!

After the retreat I had 177 unread messages in What’s App (mainly from groups). Normally I would have checked it every now and then, spending an enormous time. It was peaceful to spend 5 days without my Phone. Especially when I feel bored, empty or restless somehow, I tend to check my messages a lot. In that way a Phone, television and the Internet are often used to distract ourselves from unpleasant feelings. A 5 day retreat gives you no escape from those unpleasant feelings, but in the end you get used to staying with those feelings and you learn that it’s not that bad after all. In a “sharing” after the meditation another participant also commented “I have learned that I can stay without my Phone for 5 days. My wife often complains as I am constantly checking my Phone when we are together. I want to change this when I am back home”.

And with this said it brings me to notice a difference between the western world and developing countries: the amount of time spent with phones, social media and the internet (though this is changing in developing countries among youngsters and television seems to be an exception). Still I observed people in developing countries spending more time together and communicating without constantly being distracted by their phones. People do have phones and do call, but generally they use them to make short phone calls averaging less than one minute to coordinate some practicalities and than meet in person. This also leads to social talk, meeting new people on the street and in public transportation more often.

It was a culture shock returning to the Netherlands after spending five months in East Africa in 2012. My last flight was from London to Amsterdam and I was so excited to “meet” Dutch people again on this last flight. As I had spend so much time in Africa, where it was normal to converse with everyone around you. I was disappointed when I got to the gate and saw literary every person with a laptop, Ipad or Phone in their hands, each and everyone staring at his or her own screen. No person sitting and staring around open to start a conversation. I experienced a reversed culture shock with this “warm welcome” back.

If you want to take a lesson from this blog, maybe you can try to be aware at least of the use of your mobile Phone and other devices. Besides, maybe you can regulate your time somehow and experiment with leaving your Phone behind on some occasions. You will survive   😉 And maybe you will get the opportunity to meet some new people and have an interesting conversation.

Wishing you all the best! And please don’t hesitate to leave your comment to my blog below (even in Dutch, German or Spanish), as I would love to create some discussion!