Category Archives: inspiration

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! 😊

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!

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

Always On The Way Somewhere?

Kuva tiestä Maxmossa

We made a trip to Norway a couple of weeks ago (see my post The Flight of A Bird). During that trip I thought about life, and my thoughts went like this:

I sit in the car,
and the road races ahead of me.
Meadowsweets,
meadow buttercups and
rosebay willow herbs,
roadsides full of them.
I’m always on the way somewhere, some place.
Always aiming, attempting.
Always aspiring, acquiring – and the flowers just look at me as I pass by.

The Stories of The Old Basket Chair

Does this basket chair tempt you to come and sit on it?

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

I can see it from where I am just now writing.

The day is sunny, bright and cool. The window is open and I can hear the wind that is unusually strong today. It rocks the aspens in the garden, and the sound it creates resembles the hum of sea somewhere in the distance.

I haven’t written anything for a couple of weeks. I’ve been on holidays like everyone in Finland in July. I actually thought I wouldn’t write at all this month, but then I got inspired by that old basket chair. First I took photos of it, and then it asked me to write. It’s right there in front of the window. When I sit on it I can see what happens inside and outside the house, and inside and outside myself. During the weeks of summer holidays it is my watchtower, my nest for incubating ideas, my place for just sitting and staring.

Today my basket chair made me think of one particular aspect of life which I consider important: beauty.

I have adored beauty in its various forms throughout my whole life – in nature, in all forms of art. Treasuring beauty has been so important to me that I became a semi-professional painter, with the seriousness of a professional.

I even went to study aesthetics (see the definition at the end of the post) at the university. But I soon came to realize that my reverence of beauty was ultimately not of intellectual nature, and I did not bother to finish my studies.

I want to sense beauty. I want to feel it. And to me beauty does not only mean the sweet, pretty and lovely. There is beauty also in the raw and rugged. There is beauty in honesty that reveals the edginess and imperfection of reality.

My confession of faith could be: “I believe in God, the Ultimate Beauty.” Because beauty, as I see it, contains all the aspects that support and further life: harmony, peace, love, joy, courage, truth etc. In their purest forms all these qualities are simply – beautiful!

But let’s get back to the basket chair – on which, by the way, my late mother-in-law used to sit waiting for us when we came for a visit. As I was sitting on it yesterday I thought about blogging. I looked back to the end of January when I started. I even checked whether what I wrote on my About page still holds true.

I started to blog with the intention of giving myself a voice, of showing something new about myself. I guess this is the aim of many bloggers. I also wanted to challenge myself and decided to write in English. I wanted to share what life has shown to me. I felt that writing might help me to recreate myself after returning to Finland. Coming back “home” after years in other countries forced me again to ask the very universal and the very personal question: “Who am I?” – Asking this question is, of course, an exploration that continues until the end of life.

Right now I feel that I have reached many of the goals I set myself. But in the process of blogging something else has also emerged. Something that was not present in my original list of intentions. Something extra. Something that has been lost for years.

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

It is the joy of writing, the pleasure of using the amazing instrument of language. Being carried by words.

I look at again the old basket chair. The sun has moved on in the sky, and the chair now remains in the shade. It actually could be an image of me: An aging lady curiously looking into the outside world and curiously exploring the inner worlds.

* * *

aesthetics |iːsˈθɛtɪks, ɛs-|(US also esthetics ) a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty.• the branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste.

Happiness And Wild Raspberries

kukkia ja puita Maxmossa

This is the time of year when I become poetic.

It is midsummer, and I am staying again in a little red house that is almost one hundred years old. It always welcomes us so warmly when we arrive here after the winter – the old furniture with its stories, the light that lingers in quiet rooms, the squeaky steps that lead upstairs.

I leave behind me the dirt and restlessness of the city life when I come here. The ubiquitous green surrounds me. The wind rustles in the aspen leaves. The age-old, faithful apple tree is still blooming. And I enjoy walking barefoot on the grass.

Nothing much happens.

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

I sit on the doorstep and watch life flow by: a rabbit on its morning walk; the neighbor’s cat chasing a mouse; a young woman from a nearby farm riding a brown horse; a tiny grey lizard resting motionless on a warm rock in front of the sauna.

The days are a continuous stream of light with no clear beginning or end. Time slows down.

In the evenings I go to sleep satiated with life.

Perhaps by August I am ready to write another poem in the spirit of Zen, like I did last year:

Definition of happiness?
Don’t go further
than the nearest forest.
On a crispy
August morning
pick yourself those flawless
wild raspberries.

Put all you are into the smallest thing you do

To be great, be whole;
Exclude nothing, exaggerate nothing that is not you.
Be whole in everything. Put all you are
Into the smallest thing you do.
So, in each lake, the moon shines with splendor
Because it blooms up above.

Fernando Pessoa

So Hard To Find The Words

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

I was in Sweden for a week, participating again in one module of my on-going training in Zen coaching.

Since coming back home it has been difficult to return to writing.

“Don’t touch me with your words, don’t reduce me to your concepts”, a voice inside me has been saying.

And yet, I have a need to say, an urge to share. So I’ll try to write. After all, I have in my use this limited, yet rich variety of symbols and metaphors, the words to convey my thoughts and feelings, ideas and experiences.

What is it then that is so hard to put into words?

… It’s all about life… it’s all about allowing myself to be vulnerable and showing my vulnerability.

… Looking back from where I am now – which is already one full life – I can see how there has been one big passion guiding me and my choices. I have wanted to dig deeper, to look beyond the apparent. I have yearned to see that I am part of something larger than just my small personal life. I have travelled all kinds of roads to explore my questions. Some of the roads I have walked have also turned out to be attempts to escape rather than find and face my personal truth.

There was theology. There was a ten-year odyssey exploring the world through journalism. Some twenty-year long journey of art and painting. Explorations of Buddhism and Raja yoga. An intense period of time devoted to working on my psychological wounds and scars.

And now there is something new dawning on me. A new connection, a fresh link between areas that I have considered separate until now.

I realize how deeply meaningful my journey has been! How wonderful has been the hidden intelligence that has been at play in everything.

Here are some of the insights that have been close to my heart during the past  weeks:

  • I understand that religions are not the answer. They may be useful because they refer to something important, but they can’t replace your own inner authority that you have to find, in the end, in yourself, and in and through your own experience.
  • I have also understood that you can’t use religion – or, for that matter, any spiritual or ideological approach – to escape the work that you have to do with your own psychological conditioning. You can’t skip the pain of exploring those hard shields, those clever masks under which you had to hide yourself as you grew up, to survive in the world you were thrown into when you were born.
  • The wonderful human body! It is the place where I can look at my feelings and really FEEL everything. It is the body through which I am in contact with the world and with myself. It is only through the fragile body that I can experience the present moment. I can lie to myself, but the body doesn’t lie.
  • Our definitions of ourselves are often too small, just as our definitions of “God” are too small. My inner level of Being – or, if you like, my Authentic Self, my Essence, my Supreme Self, my buddhanature – is a relevant, true dimension that is common to all human beings.
  • The gate into a larger or deeper understanding of life is not outside myself – it is inside me. There is no external authority to say how I should explore that  field of experience. Therefore, I am free to use any means and walk any paths that I like, to get into contact with my inner Being. The important thing  to remember is this: You can’t get there without having to face your personal pain.
  • To describe our inner level of Being we have to use metaphors and symbolic language. Therefore, mystics and poets touch these dimensions of our being better than official dogmas of organized religions, or scientific language of psychology.
  • It is only through contact to our Being, to our Authentic Self, that we can be free, and we can accept our fate and life as it is, with compassion and love. We no longer need to defend ourselves, because there is nothing to defend; we see our “personality” with its emotions and feelings as waves or ripples on the surface of life; whether as our inner Being – that transcends our psychological history – is characterized by unshakable peace, love and joy.

*

I’ll finish with a poem that speaks about a mystic experience, described in words that refer to earthly love. The writer is Spanish St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Crux) who lived in the 16th century.

On a dark night,
Anxious, by love inflamed,
– O joyous chance! –
I left not seen or discovered,
My house at last completely quiet.

In the darkness, with light,
By the secret ladder, disguised,
– O joyous chance! –
I left in the darkness, covered,
My house at last completely quiet.

On that joyous night,
In secret, seen by no one,
Nor with anything in sight,
I had no other light or mark,
Than the one burning in my heart.

This light guided me
More directly than the midday sun,
Where waiting for me
Was the One I knew so well, my delight,
In a place with no one in sight.

O night! O guide!
O night more loving than the dawn!
O night that joined
Lover with beloved,
Beloved in the lover transformed!

Upon my flowering breasts,
Which I had saved for him alone,
There he slept,
While I caressed his hair,
And the cedars’ breeze gave us air.

As I spread his tresses,
The fresh wind from the turret,
Wounds me in the neck as it presses
With its serene hand,
Suspending all my senses with its caresses.

I lose myself and remain,
With my face on the Beloved inclined;
All has come to rest,
I abandon all my cares
There, among the lilies, to die.

Truth Is A Pathless Land

“A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do it, it becomes dead, crystalized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. This is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This weekend I want to share with you a text that has had a deep impact on me. It is one of those texts that I read over and over again. It describes in a magnificent way what happens when we try to create an organization around a belief. The text is part of a talk given by Jiddu Krishnamurti in 1929. Krishnamurti was an Indian speaker and writer on philosophical and spiritual subjects. In his early life he was groomed to be the new World Teacher, but he later rejected this mantle and disbanded the organization. Here is part of the talk that he gave on that occasion.

“I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do it, it becomes dead, crystalized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. This is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do. Truth is narrowed down and made a plaything for those who are weak, for those who are only momentarily discontented. Truth cannot be brought down; rather, the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountaintop to the valley. If you would attain to the mountaintop you must pass through the valley, climb the steeps, unafraid of the dangerous precipices. You must climb toward the Truth, it cannot be ‘stepped down’ or organized for you. Interest in ideas is mainly sustained by organizations, but organizations only awaken interest from without. Interest, which is not born out of love for Truth for its own sake, but aroused by an organization, is of no value. The organization becomes a framework into which its members can conveniently fit. They no longer strive after Truth or the mountaintop, but rather carve for themselves a convenient niche in which they put themselves, or let the organization place them, and consider that the organization will thereby lead them to Truth.”

The whole talk can be found here.

Krishnamurti talks about religious or spiritual organizations. I think, however, that the idea he presents can be used to understand some other phenomena, too. Let’s imagine a bit: Somewhere, someone has a fresh, original idea. To advocate and support that idea an organization is created. As time passes and the organization expands, the original, fresh idea gets diluted or withers away, and the sustenance of the organization becomes the main goal of the organization. Can you see any examples of this if you look around?

Krishnamurti’s biography, Krishnamurti 100 years by Evelyne Blau is probably the most fascinating life story that I have ever read. Another interesting book: Total Freedom; The Essential Krishnamurti, by J. Krishnamurti.