The way to love

Recently, I read a copy of The Way to Love: Meditations on Life by Anthony de Mello. He was a Jesuit priest from India. His writing was beautiful and clear. This book was full of wonderful insight and at times I felt as though he was speaking directly to me.

Recall the kind of feeling you have when someone praises you, when you are approved, accepted, applauded. And contrast that with the kind of feeling that arises within you when you look at the sunset or the sunrise or Nature in general, or when you read a book or watch a movie that you thoroughly enjoy. Get the taste of this feeling and contrast it with the first, namely, the one that was generated within you when you were praised. Understand that the first type of feeling comes from self-glorification, self-promotion. It is a worldly feeling. The second comes from self-fulfilment, a soul feeling.

Each meditation – they are about 3-6 minutes reading time, mostly – takes a verse from the Bible, that you’ll probably have already heard even if you’ve no interest in the Bible. Then he unpacks it in a way that seems so applicable to the life that we lead now.

I would say that some of his ideas are clearly based in Eastern philosophy but why should that matter? If you are looking at the Bible from a purely Western perspective, you miss so much of the nuance of what Jesus speaks about in particular. I think that Christians in the West would benefit from understanding Middle Eastern and Asian thought a little more.

For example, his focus on the concept of attachment is very similar to a lot of Buddhist thought in particular.

Don’t stop till you have grasped this truth: The only reason why you too are not reacting calmly and happily is your computer [In this context, de Mello refers to his brain as a computer] that is stubbornly insisting that reality be reshaped to conform to its programming. Observe all of this from the outside so to speak and see the marvellous change that comes about in you.

I can certainly recognise my own attitude to my own output in this section:

You must cultivate activities that you love. You must discover work that you do, not for its utility, but for itself. Think of something that you love to do for itself, whether it succeeds or not, whether you are praised for it or not, whether you are loved and rewarded for it or not, whether people know about it and are grateful to you for it or not. How many activities can you count in your life that you engage in simply because they delight you and grip your soul? Find them out, cultivate them, for they are your passport to freedom and to love.

Anyway, it’s a great book. I highly recommend it. Enjoy it.

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Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

 

There are no more good things

I love Daily Shouts on The New Yorker and today there’s this gem of a piece that feels so relevant.

Before, there were flowers and rainbows and babies’ smiles, and they were all good things. They’re still around today, but now they’re bad things. Flowers now smell like off-brand yogurt. Rainbows now have pre-roll videos. And babies still smile, but they’re smiling because they approve of efforts to dismantle our country’s social safety net.

www.newyorker.com/humor/daily-shouts/there-are-no-more-good-things/amp

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Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

Who flourishes because you exist?

Republishing this post that I wrote three years ago because it feels more important now than it did then.

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A friend of mine recently misquoted me in conversation and I looked like a monster.

— Remember that time that Marc told us we were all worthless? she said.

— Hmm. You kind of need to get the whole context, I said, so that I won’t sound like a terrible person. That’s not quite what I said.

I will explain to you the context of this.

***

I believe that there is an eternity. I won’t go into the details but I believe that time has no beginning and no end. There is a vast, incomprehensible expanse of existence which we created a scale for. We created a scale because we are humans and we called it time and we endlessly bemoan its passing.

When I panic or worry that I am doing something that will have a negative effect on my own life, and I often do worry about this, I reassure myself with the complete inconsequence of my actions.

If there is no beginning and there is no end, I say to myself, then the 80 or 100 years that I live on this earth are less than a blip on the grand radar of eternity.

As Milan Kundera says in his sublime The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

“Life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world…”

I fall backwards into the soothing fact of my insignficance.

***

And at the same time, the fact is that the eighty or hundred years that I live seems incomprehensibly long. I am now 27. If I live to a hundred, I have now lived over a quarter of my life. I will not live to a hundred.

My life is at once impossibly brief and impossibly long. And whichever way I look at it — depending on my mood probably — I feel wonderfully hopeful because I know that there are billions of people just like me and there have been billions who have lived happily with just this realisation.

***

Last night I was watching a video with some friends at my house. And the video asked the question: who flourishes because you exist?

And that really made me think. A lot.

The prevalent goal for mankind is: you flourish first, others flourish second.

This is why we think nothing of the millions who will be affected by a cut in benefits but make so much of a politician who inspires a threat to a comfortable, low tax lifestyle that may benefit us more.

It is the reason that we close our borders to refugees and those who need shelter.

Our existence, mostly, causes us to flourish.

Isn’t that a hopeless statement? That if everything works out well, and all our schemes, policies and actions prevail, we will be the ones to benefit — regardless of the cost?

***

And whatever, I’m not here to preach. And maybe the person that I have described is not you. Probably not. I don’t know you. I don’t know what you think about the world.

But I know myself and I thinkof all the times when I panicked more for my own comfort than the comfort of others. I think of the overwhelming self-interest that dominates my daily life.

And then I think about the hope of existence. The apparent brutality of an existence that matters so little in the grand scheme of things.

If I continue to be self-interested, I will one day disappear and that temporal bandit will continue to rule without mentioning me.

I think that the only hope for a meaningful existence that we can agree on is to sacrifice your self interest to the flourishing of others.

To spend life doing anything other than this seems complete vanity to me now.

And the key thing, I think, to make sense of all this mess is to avoid looking at the big picture too much. If we do that, we’ll become paralysed by our own insignificance, and forget that a large picture is nothing but a thousand million tiny brush strokes.

Every action matters. Every single word. Every thought that you have is a chance to help someone flourish or flounder.

***

But what do I know? I’m just a middle class white kid with a monthly mortgage payment and a study full of books.

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Photo by @g on Unsplash

No guru, no method, no teacher

When you’re dealing with a difficult situation, it’s easy to get lost and to start looking for the well recognised way out.

If you’re running a business, for example, and things aren’t going too well, it’s easy to look at it and say: well, my sales system’s not working, but the way to solve that problem is to make more sales.

It’s probably true. But it’s also complete insanity to approach life that way.

What you’ve been doing hasn’t been working, simply doing more of that won’t improve things.

But there’s no rule book for life. Your situation is entirely unique. There are lots of people who have done similar things to you. But none of them has been you in your moment; in your skill set; in your desires; in your fears.

Change your circumstances in whatever way you feel is possible. If people tell you that you cannot do something, you don’t need to listen to them. They have never been you.

There is no guru, there is no method, there is no teacher.

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Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

 

Laughing at a juggler on TV

One of the most pertinent stories I have ever heard is of when my friends Adam and Dan went to see Leonard Cohen perform on one of his last tours.

After the show, they managed to get backstage expecting to see the icon himself.

But Leonard was tired and had gone to bed.

Adam and Dan sat in a backstage party eating the hummus from Cohen’s rider.

He died last year. Or the year before. I really don’t remember.

And then I was listening to David Bowie while walking in a supermarket car park last night. I remembered how when Bowie died — and despite my personal love for his work — I didn’t feel sad at all.

Actually, what I felt was that David Bowie was an app whose content I would no longer receive.

Eating Leonard Cohen’s hummus. Sunsetting the business model of David Bowie. Staring at the three haloes on a supermarket car park light thinking about what Kerouac wrote: “Whither goest though, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

Walking home, an old man on a push bike cycled past me and waved. And although it seemed so commonplace, making his brief acquaintance filled me with joy.

Life really is sublime, I thought as I opened the door to my house where my baby was asleep and my wife lay on the bed, almost asleep herself, scrolling through her phone.

Why do we travel?

To be reminded how completely mental habit blinds us to experience, just take a trip to an unfamiliar country. Suddenly you wake up! And the algorithms of everyday life all but start over, as if from scratch. This is why the various travel metaphors for the psychedelic experience are so apt.

– Michael Pollan in How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics

A letter I wrote several years ago:

J,

You asked about why people travel now and how travel has changed. The question itself is quite poetic and what is more poetic than travel?

Really, I think, travel has changed very little since the dawn of time. I was thinking about The Odyssey this morning for a thing that I was writing for a client. I was thinking about how we focus on the romantic details of that story and the loose sketch of its plot arc(s).

The Odyssey is a story that we can all agree on. A child in a region of the world where there is no access to Homer’s poem has just as much an idea of why its plotline speaks to people as does the Greek scholar.

I think it is in the book Big Sur that Kerouac says that ‘The roads don’t move — You’re the one that moves.’ And maybe I have misquoted him and perhaps I am just thinking of Benjamin Gibbard’s song instead (based on the book). But regardless, the point is sound.

We travel, you know, so that we can find out not what the world is like on the other side but to find out whether we might be the same on the other side.

This, in my opinion, is why we still crave home luxuries while travelling. It is because we are not interested in exploring Jemaa el-Fnaa so much as we are in staying in a luxury riad where we can explore our own hopes and desires.

Tell me: when was the last time you went away and did not revisit a part of your character, saying “I wish I could read more/run more often/eat better/xyz”?

The roads are the same. The world is largely the same. But more than ever, perhaps thanks to a global economy, travel affords us the opportunity to briefly experience the feeling of moving as a person by moving away from our own home.

And the reason we love to travel rather than to move? Because when we are surprised to find that, although in France or Spain we may eat much later and savour the food more, we are exactly the same inside and can return home to the warmth of friends, family and the comfort of a daily routine more in keeping with our usual experience.

Travel is a wonderful way to reassure us of what we think we already know about ourselves.

At least that’s my opinion,

M

Photo by Andreas NextVoyagePL on Unsplash

Fostering your Welsh identity

Last Friday, as the Eisteddfod was entering its final weekend, I shared some thoughts on Twitter about how to foster and maintain the sense of identity that many people at the Eisteddfod in Cardiff Bay would have felt.

For many people, myself included, that was a first Eisteddfod. But I get the feeling that it was a unique one – the diversity and the vibrancy of the Maes and its visitors was encouraging.

Anyway, seeing as it was my most shared post ever on Twitter, I thought I’d share it here for posterity and so that I can find it when I need to point to it again in future:

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Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash