Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Difference Between Living And Existing

During my lifetime I have done several big changes of direction, often kicked off by a strong gut feeling. Some of the changes have been jumps into the unknown.

At the moment I am again planning something new, and as I’m not young any more, I have asked myself what it is that still pushes me forward – while some of my friends are already talking about retiring.

A couple of days ago I was in the middle of these thoughts. I was doing some daily chores at home. Suddenly my own thoughts caught me by surprise. I noticed myself thinking: “I don’t want to die before I die!”

“That’s a strange thought”, I thought. And then I thought: “But it is actually an interesting thought.”

After that came the next thought: “I really want to live until the day I die.”

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Not to die before I die… I stayed for a moment with that thought. Until I realized I was sitting on a train of thought, and I decided to see where the train takes me. My next stop was:

If you are alive, it does not necessarily mean you are living. It may mean that you only exist. “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all,” said Oscar Wilde.

There are lots of people who only exist, who have lost their liveliness. And that has nothing to do with age. There are young people who are already dead, and there are old people who are still full of life.

I give you an example: I remember someone I met a few years ago. This man was already 82 years old, a professional in his own field. He was still working from his home. Still sharp, still having a twinkle in his eyes. I worked for two months with him, and I actually never thought I was spending time with an old man. He was very much living, very much alive, very much in contact with himself. He was a true human being in the best sense of the word. “One does not retire from life,” he said one day when we spoke about retirement. He also showed me photos of his parents when they were still rather young: “They were already dead when this photo was taken,” he commented in a dry matter-of-fact manner. Coming from the mouth of a 82-year-old gentleman those words were very amusing.

Living and dying, existing and being truly alive. My train of thoughts takes me to India. I remember a little girl and her eyes – they had already seen and experienced it all. The sparkle of life had died… And then some old people in Vietnam, sitting on the steps in front their houses… Still as slim as they probably were when they still were young, now only with a wrinkled face. Looking alert, following life with curiosity and dignity.

So what is it to liveI guess we all give a bit different answers to that question. These are my answers today:

  • I feel truly alive when I am totally present in whatever I do, and I thereby give the best of myself.
  • I feel truly alive when I am able to see and appreciate the wonder of life. William Blake said it like this: “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.”
  • I feel truly alive when I acknowledge and accept that I am a wounded human being, and yet at the same time I see that there is also a lot of potential for growth and inner richness in me, just waiting to be discovered.

I do not end the list. I leave it open. Instead I ask you to write your own list.

  • When do you feel truly alive, full of life?
  • How could you live so that there would be more liveliness present in your life?

Share your answers with me and others. Leave them in the comment section below.

May you feel fully alive today! 😊

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Late Afternoon Lethargy and How to Deal with It

Do you ever nap in the afternoon? Have you ever noticed that if your nap is a bit too long or you take it a bit too late – for example after 4 pm – you will feel sad and melancholic when you get up?

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

I don’t know what it is in this combination, but for me it results in a miserable mood. If the nap lasts for 15-20 minutes, it is still ok, but if I sleep for example for forty minutes late in the afternoon, I can be almost sure that I will feel sad when I wake up.

Yesterday it happened again. I woke up from a nap that had been too long and taken too late in the day.

It was a dazzling August afternoon and the whole world was smiling. But not me. I felt like I had experienced a terrible loss of some kind. I felt gloomy and lethargic. And of course I did not like the way I felt. I would have preferred to feel like that brilliant August day outside: totally happy and full of energy.

I looked at myself and my feelings. Through meditation and the practice of Zen coaching I have gained some understanding and experience of how to work with the various weather conditions of the mind from rapidly shifting moods to racing thoughts.

I know that the mind is like that – it feels and it thinks. Somehow I’m also beginning to understand, little by little, that it is actually my own resistance to my feelings that usually creates the problems.

“If you have a gloomy mood, fix it and make it bright! Escape it, go to the movies and immerse yourself in the drama on the screen! Talk to someone on the phone!” These are our usual remedies for unpleasant feelings. And as we develop these various strategies to get rid of miserable feelings, then arrives the whirlwind of thoughts. And there we are, totally lost.

So what did I then do to my late afternoon lethargy?

It was very persistent. (I think it actually was a he.) He came to the living room to sit with me on the couch. He was there even after I had a cup of coffee. He clearly had decided to stay with me.

I looked at his depressing face and said: “Ok, I see you want to stay. Let’s then spend some time together and make the most of it!”

I decided to take Lethargy for a walk with me.

We headed for a little lake that is only ten minutes walk from my home. To get there, one has to climb a small hill and then go down a road. As I climbed the hill my steps felt soo heavy, and I was out of breath when I got up. Lethargy was also huffing by my side.

When we started to descend a road towards the lake I noticed how fresh the air was. The dark green trees were casting long shadows in the late afternoon light. A solitary duckling was paddling near the shore, and a swan couple on the other side of the lake was totally lost to the world – they were busy diving for something to eat from the water.

My nose smelt the special fragrance of summer when it has reached its full maturity, just before the first cold nights. The fragrance that heralds the coming of autumn. I could hear the gravel rustle under my feet. I bent down to look closer at flower-looking mushrooms by the track. The whiteness of a birch trunk stuck out from the wood.

So I walked around the lake, sniffing smells, sights and sounds. A bit like a dog, stopping here and there, looking at this and that. My senses were completely open to the world around me.

The rest you already know. At some point during the walk I awoke to the absence of my companion. Lethargy had quietly disappeared. Maybe he had stopped to explore some interesting sight in the nature. Or then he simply had got tired of my company and had gone to look for a more interesting one.

Lesson of Late Afternoon Lethargy?

Everything changes. All the time. There is no guarantee it will last. Whatever it is, see it. Accept it. Say yes to it. Don’t think there is some other place that is better. Don’t think there is some better you you have to find. Stop trying to fix it and it will improve all by itself.

Just relax. Now.

The Vexed Man and The Game of Life

Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt [German, 1736 - 1783], J.Paul Getty Museum

Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt [German, 1736 – 1783], J.Paul Getty

I bumped into the above piece of art by F.X. Messerchmidt as I was browsing the collections of J.Paul Getty’s Museum in the Internet. When I saw the Vexed Man’s face I felt immediate affinity with it.

I have been annoyed and frustrated recently. I’ve been working on a task such as I’ve never done before, and it has required that I see myself in a totally new role, using skills that – so I’ve thought – I don’t have.

The details of the task are not so important or even interesting. I’ve simply been filling an application that has demanded a lot of thinking and providing detailed information and calculations. If you’ve been reading my blog, you already know that my brain is most probably that of an artist of some sort. My brain does not function well within the sphere of numbers and logical thinking – so filling the application has been laborious, and at times really annoying and frustrating.

Anyway, in the end I humbled myself and managed to plough through the long application form. – I had to, because there is a chance that my application will be approved!

But I tell you – I first felt huge resistance. At some point I almost gave up.

Then I had a good conversation with my husband. He helped me to look at the situation from a different point of view. As a result, I noticed myself saying – you know, finally, in my rather advanced age: “Ok, world, I consent to your demands. I accept to play by your rules.” (Or, in fact this is what I meant: “Ok, world, I accept to play by your rules – but don’t think I’m going to take this game too seriously.”

Please note the word seriously. Because it is the seriousness with which people throw themselves into various roles in the drama of life that has always surprised me. No, I am not saying that life is not a serious matter. I am not saying that you should not take seriously your role as a mother or father, spouse, lover, a professional, or whatever you do. What I am saying is that most of us take these roles TOO seriously. We lose ourselves into these roles so that we forget what life is really about.

Think about it a little. Imagine that you are an actor, and you have a role that requires the use of a certain costume. Of course you take off the costume after the performance and leave it at the theatre when you go home.

Or think of a child playing. Children can be totally absorbed in an activity that they enjoy. They play their games very, very seriously. But there is also lightness in their seriousness. When the game is over, they forget it. My little 4-year old grandson can be completely immersed in building a big lego airplane, but when the work is done, he can knock down the structure and put the legos back into a box. Without blinking an eye. He does not get attached to the results of his effort. He does not cling to his role as a “building contractor”.

I think a major part of the suffering that we adults experience in life is a result of total identification with the roles that we play. Somewhere along the road we lose the joyfulness of a playing child, and we get attached to our roles and our role costumes. So much so that they become our second skin. The costume becomes a rigid and heavy armor that we always wear, and it prevents us from experiencing life flexibly.

Quite often the role costume is related to our work. We become our work. We define ourselves through our work. We give value to ourselves according to how successful we consider us to be in our work.

Or sometimes it can also be the opposite. In my case it has been like that. I have resisted the games that people play in the society. I have seen – and I think quite correctly – what happens when someone totally identifies with a certain work role, be it the role of a suffering and misunderstood artist or a successful banker. (At worst the total identification leads to becoming a sort of walking role costume, inside which there is very little space for a living human being.)

I used nearly two weeks filling that long application. The process gave me some important new insights. I realized that now that I already have a full life behind me I can finally be less serious about not taking part in the games of the world. I can afford to play a little, and I can even enjoy the games of the world – because I know that it is a game, and because I know that internally I can still remain free. Life is a tango of seriousness and playfulness. Enjoy the dance!

A special calling…to be ourselves

A fellow blogger published a post that reflects very much my own thoughts. I want to share it with my readers.

Mindfulbalance

File:GalwayCorrib gobeirne.jpg

In the Ireland of my youth the word “vocation” was quite frequently heard, something which is not so common today. It could refer to jobs which required self-sacrifice and dedication, such as nursing or relief work abroad. However, it most frequently meant that you felt called to serve God in ministry in the Church.  As such it had a special, mysterious quality, almost as if taking you by surprise, from without. While the understanding of life in the context of a deeper purpose and meaning is quite beneficial psychologically, there was a danger of seeing vocation as something reserved for special people. In this quote, Parker Palmer, reminds us that becoming fully who we are, wherever we are at this moment, and not running away from it through regret or living in our thoughts, is the real way of finding purpose in life. It is not by looking elsewhere, but…

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In Love Also The Death Must Have Her Share

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

I’ve been pondering on love – love in intimate relationships, love between children and parents. First the theme sprung up when someone spoke about their problems in a close relationship. Then it appeared in a bit different context, namely in a relationship with my grown-up daughter. We had a conflict, and I realized once again I just have to let her live her life. I understood that though I love her very much, I have to stop seeing her as my little girl.

As I was processing our conflict I felt very sorry for myself and for my daughter. Then I gradually began to see also some humor in the situation, and I wrote a rhyming poem about my feelings:

The Song About Dying Today

I died again today.
It seems that dying never
goes away.

Yesterday, today, tomorrow –
It seems I can’t live without sorrow!

The only thing I see permanent
is the flash of life
so transient.

So here I sit and cry,
without even knowing why.

As I was mulling over the mystery and misery of love, I remembered a book that I read ages ago. I dug it up from my bookshelf, and I even managed to find the passage that speaks so beautifully about the Death/Life cycle of love relationships. This is what Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves:

“A part of every woman and every man resists knowing that in all love relationships Death must have her share. We pretend we can love without our illusions about love dying, pretend we can go on without our superficial expectations dying, pretend we can progress and that our favorite flushes and rushes will never die. But in love, psychically, everything becomes picked apart, everything. The ego does not want it to be so. Yet it is how it is meant to be, and the person of a deep and wildish nature is undeniably drawn to the task.

What dies? Illusion dies, expectations die, greed for having it all, for wanting to have all be beautiful only, all this dies. Because love always causes a descent into the Death nature, we can see why it takes abundant self-love and soulfulness to make that commitment.”

Copyright of the poem: Maarit Suokas-Alanko