Category Archives: life

Too Much Focus Kills Creativity

Wanderer Above the Mist. Caspar David Friedrich, 1818. Hamburger Kunsthalle.

Wanderer Above the Mist. Caspar David Friedrich, 1818. Hamburger Kunsthalle.

Days, weeks and months have flown by, and some weeks ago I noticed IT had quietly sneaked into my life. It had started to bleed me dry. It made me feel I had lost something precious.

IT was too much focus.

I had become too goal-oriented, too efficient. I had lost contact with a dimension that has been an essential part of my life for decades – more or less random acts of creativity.

In my attempt to build foundations for a work that I love – that is, to support other people who look for a deeper meaning in their lives – I had become so single-minded that I had forgotten to nourish the sources of creativity in me.

The hollow feeling inside me finally got so big that it forced me to see I was about to become a workaholic.

I’m glad I realized what was going on.

At the same time I wondered why I had to go to the other extreme to find the balance. I knew some of the reasons. One is my ability for enthusiasm. I get carried away. And in my eagerness to accomplish something I forget the big picture. I guess this happens to many of us. It happened to me now. And of course it was not for the first time in my life.

After trying to figure out reasons for becoming over-focused I soon understood it was a futile attempt and would not take me anywhere. Instead I decided to explore the content and meaning of creativity. 

What is creativity to you?

What is creativity to me? Here are some of my answers:

Creativity for me is wandering without a destination.
Creativity is enjoying the journey while not forgetting the destination.
Creativity is browsing books and discovering a poem that opens a new insight or a new world to me.
Creativity is remembering the painting of Caspar David Friedrich (above), finding it in my art history book and allowing myself to be absorbed by the image.
Creativity is music that touches my heart.
Creativity is connecting with myself and with others through random acts of creativity.
Creativity is lying on a coach on a rainy day and suddenly getting an idea.
Creativity is having all my senses open – eyes, ears, nose, skin, mouth – to the impressions that the world wants to offer me.
Creativity is seeing beauty in strange places and unusual details or objects.
Creativity is the ability to enjoy when someone else finds exactly the perfect words or a perfect image to express something meaningful, important, entertaining, beautiful, deep, and so on.
Creativity is surrendering to the process without knowing where I will finally be. It is like being a Feather on the Breath of God, like Hildegard Bingen said 1000 years ago in her beautiful lyrics.

You can continue the list. As you may notice – and what now surprises me – is that creativity is not only the capacity to create or produce something creative, but creativity is also the ability to enjoy and experience the fruits of creativity, and beauty in its many forms. It seems to me that is a total confluence of the creator and created, of giving and receiving.

P.S. If you want to read what science says about too much focus, read a very interesting blog by Emma Seppala at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-it/201403/the-best-kept-secrets-exceptional-productivity

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trust – You Can Handle The Stress

Trust and acceptance have been themes that I have explored a lot, particularly during the last year, when I have been building foundations for my work as a Zen coach. I have been experiencing stress at times, but because my effort has felt so rewarding, I have kept going.

Then a couple of days ago I ran across a very interesting video on TED talk that gave me a new perspective to trust and acceptance with relation to stress. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, presented results of some recent scientific studies on stress. Her short talk gave me real moments of illumination.

I won’t go into the scientific details. McGonigal explains them much better than me. You can watch  the video at the end of the post, but here’s a few discoveries that will definitely stay with me for the rest of my life:

  • When you experience stress, it is your body helping you to rise to the challenge you’re having. Appreciate your body for its response – the pounding heart and the constricting blood vessels. How you think about stress matters. Don’t consider it your enemy, but your ally.
  • Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection. ( This is related to a hormone called oxytocin that the body pumps out during stress response, just as it does adrenalin.)
  • When you choose to view your stress as helpful, you create the biology of courage. When you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.

And then the important and big discovery, particularly from the point of personal growth and happiness:

  • Chasing meaning in life is better for your health than avoiding discomfort. Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.

Here’s the video:

P.S. Yes, to celebrate 2014 I decided to change the appearance of the blog. Not much, but a little. I still like simple, minimalist style.

In Front of A New Scenery

Joel meren rannalla

It’s been an intense and interesting year, this 2013. I started to write my blog at the end of January. On my About page I told that I will ponder the question: Who am I really.

And indeed it has been a year of explorations. Towards the end the year has become even more intense.

In general it is simply about still wanting to do something meaningful in my life. I have matured slowly, and I have had to spend a lot of time trying to understand myself better. I started my life with a heavy baggage, but I bless the lessons it has given me. Life has become better and better by the years.There is more stability and inner harmony, and more trust in life and in myself. I do have my ups and downs and some days are grey and dull, or gloomy and distressed, but in general I nowadays return like a pendulum to its equilibrium position.

So I truly feel grateful as the year closes. It has been a year of great discoveries and realizations. It has been a year of making new friends and finding new connections. It has been a year of studying and learning new skills.

I have so much enjoyed the fact that I can connect with people in other countries and even on the other side of the globe. It has been great to realize that “family” is so much larger than just our biological family – which is also important – but that there are friends and like-minded souls everywhere, and thanks to new technology it is possible to stay in contact with them.

It has been a year of opening windows to new vistas, and a year of looking behind doors that I thought were permanently locked. A year of shaking hands with strangers who turned out to be friends. A year of finding sudden support and encouragement from people who I had never met before.

It has been a year when I have felt that life is carrying me. I just need to allow the flow of life to take me to the next place, to the next moment, in front of a new door, to a junction of two roads, to new encounters.

So I end the year thanking life for everything it has brought in front of me. I also thank you, my dear reader, for visiting and reading the blog. I wish that the new year will bring you moments of deep realizations, important discoveries and a lot of patience and acceptance in front of life’s surprises and mysteries.

What Wishes to Come to Being through You?

Kuva itsestä kuvaamassa

There is something really nice about aging. Whether others like me or not is less important to me than what it used to be when I was young. I just want to live my truth.

What I’m saying is: of course it is nice if you like me, but I do not need you to like me.

Can you see the difference?

As I have been thinking of issues of aging and my need to live my truth, I remembered some thoughts of a Jungian analyst James Hollis in his book Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. (I spoke about his book already in one of my earlier blogs.)

Hollis divides life into two halves. The task of the first half of our life he describes like this:

“One has to have separated from the parents long enough to be in the world, to make choices to see what works, what does not, and to experience the collapse, or at least erosion, of one’s projections. By this age, the ego strength necessary for self-examination may have reached a level where it can reflect upon itself, critique itself, and risk altering choices, and thereby values as well.”

The second half of the life may begin as early as at the age of thirty-something, or much later. It has two major tasks: 1) the recovery of personal authority and 2) discovering a personal spirituality.

What fascinates me about this distinction and what I want to share with you is the way Hollis defines personal authority.

“What constitutes personal authority? Stated most simply it means, to find what is true for oneself and to live it in the world. If it is not lived, it is not yet real for us, and we abide in what Sartre called ”bad faith”, the theologian calls ”sin”, the  therapist calls “neurosis”, and the existential philosopher calls ”inauthentic being”. Respectful of the rights and perspectives of others, personal authority is neither narcissistic nor imperialistic. It is a humble acknowledgement of what wishes to come to being through us.

And how about discovering a personal spirituality? According to Hollis this is closely allied with the task of recovering personal authority.

“It is of paramount importance that our spirituality be validated or confirmed by fidelity to our personal experience. A spiritual tradition that is only received from history or from family makes no real difference in a person’s life, for he or she is living by conditioned reflexive response. Only what is experientally true is worthy of a mature spirituality… A mature spirituality will seldom provide us with answers,  and necessarily so, but will instead ask ever-larger questions of us. Larger questions will lead to larger life.”

What wishes to come to being through you? What is your answer to that question?

The Time Zones of Life

It’s poetry this time…

I walk around the lake.
I walk and the voice of the wind has changed.
It’s deep, it’s metal.

I walk.
And I know, as I walk, that my footprints on the track will be gone,
soon,
when the rising sun melts the frost.

I walk.
And I know, as I walk, that the sordino of the leaves is gone,
for now,
and I know
with that wind
I will have gone, in one second,
through the time zones of my life.

I walk around the lake.
I walk myself to myself,
I walk to stories and poems,
to images and sounds,
to yesterdays and tomorrows.

©Copyright of the poem: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

“Don’t take it personally”

Kahdet kasvot“Your blog posts are nowadays more personal than what they were when you started”, a friend said recently. He added it was just an observation he had made, and not really a comment on whether it was good or bad to be “personal”.

“There is no privacy in life.” I think it was Vimala Thakar who once said those words in some of her books. She certainly did not refer to tabloids that publish revelations of celebrities’ private lives. If I remember the context correctly, she meant that we are all interconnected. We may think that we can do something in the privacy of our life, but on a deeper level, or in a bigger picture, our lives are connected to each other and to the life of our planet, and therefore matter, in one way or the other, to everything.

So what is it then – to be personal? Or to take something personally.

The word persona comes of course from Latin, where it originally referred to theatrical mask. Persona played an important role in Carl Jung‘s theories. He defined it like this:

“The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.”

(The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious” (1928). In CW 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. P.305)

Now you may have noticed that I like to use ingredients from very different sources – because, at least for me, that often brings about new insights. So I ask you to allow me, in my eclectic way, to put together Vimala Thakar and Carl Jung, because that creates an interesting equation: if we all carry this mask – the mask that both tries to impress and conceal – we come to a conclusion that we are all governed by similar, universal laws. This raises more interesting questions: If we all somehow accepted that we carry this mask, wouldn’t it be a relief to start taking it less seriously? In other words, we could stop trying to continuously hide ourselves – and then the need for locking away our lives behind a veil of intense “privacy” would become less?

Seeing that, the big illusion of our time, the one that deceives us into thinking that we continuously have to prove or defend our individuality, would burst like a soap-bubble.

On a deep level there is not so much difference between my story and your story. Of course there is variation between different people, but ultimately, what we so often try to defend or what we try to reveal and emphasize is, after all, just a mask.

Can you see what I mean? Imagine a huge amount of masks, every one of them saying: “I am unique and different from everyone else.”

We do need that mask called personality to make it through life – but being conscious of the mask makes a big difference. Ultimately, what is there really to defend about a mask – particularly when every one else is defending their own mask?

After saying this I already hear someone asking: “Is there then anything behind the mask?”

That question leads us to a gate that opens to the world of spirituality. (Although I think that “spirituality” is not any specific department in the totality of life. All life is spiritual, and spirituality is life.) My personal experience is that there definitely is something behind the mask.

The most recent discovery that I have made into this theme is the approach of  A.H. Almaas. He uses the word “essence” to desribe our “true nature”.

I finish this post and leave you digesting that mysterious “something” behind the mask by quoting A.H. Almaas:

“Essence is not an object we find within ourselves; it is the true nature of who we are when we are relaxed and authentic, when we are not pretending to be one way or another, consciously or unconsciously. Essence is the truth of our very presence, the purity of our consciousness and awareness. It is what we are in our original and undefiled beingness, the ultimate core reality of our soul. Essence is the authentic presence of our Being; it is, in fact, Being in its thatness. Different spiritual traditions have given it different names: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam called it Spirit; Buddhism calls it Buddha nature; Taoism calls it the Tao; Hinduism calls it Atman or Brahman. The various traditions differ in how they conceptualize Essence and how much they emphasize it in their teaching, but essence is always considered to be the most authentic, innate, and fundamental nature of who we are. And the experience and realization of Essence is the central task of spiritual work and development in all traditions.” Spacecruiser, p.8

Accepting Your Country and Your Roots

In many of my previous blog posts I have touched upon the topic of acceptance. The acceptance of your life, your wounds and scars, your personal history. I deeply believe it is through acceptance, not through denial or repression, that we heal and become whole. It sounds easy, but it is often more difficult than we believe. It somehow seems so much easier to resist, fight, and deny.

Celebrating the Vietnamese New Year. Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Celebrating the Vietnamese New Year. Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Recently I’ve been thinking of one area of acceptance that in my life has passed by a bit unnoticed. I have become more aware of my roots. I have started to see my own country in a different light.

I have spent many years in Asia and Africa, and of course those years have influenced me a lot. At times I have been extremely critical about my own country, and I’ve only seen all its negative aspects.

Now I have been back home in Finland for two years. During the past year I have also spent several weeks in Sweden, our Western neighbor, that I very much like. A new acceptance and appreciation has begun to grow in me. I understand that in many  ways I have been lucky to have been born in this Northern country with cold winters and long distances.

I have started think of my family and my ancestors. I’ve come to a point where I look at myself and understand that there were lots of people before me, and I am only a part in a long chain of generations.

And as I’ve been mulling over and experiencing these openings of new vistas, I have also thought of one foreign country that has a special place in my heart: Vietnam, where we lived for five years.

In Vietnamese culture ancestors have always been a living part of also the present day.

In 2005 I was able to participate in a meeting in Hanoi in which spoke a Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Thanh. He had come to visit his own country after over 20 years of exile in France.

I want to share a passage from Thich Nhat Thanh’s  book Teachings on Love. I am not a Buddhist myself, but as I am open to various sources of inspiration, I treasure this piece of text, the first of the five practices of “Touching the Earth”. To me it speaks of the acceptance of my own roots:

“In gratitude I bow to all generations of ancestors in my blood family. I see my mother and father, whose blood, flesh, and vitality are circulating in my own veins and nourishing every cell in me. Through them, I see my four grandparents. Their expectations, experiences, and wisdom have been transmitted from so many generations of ancestors. I carry in me the life, blood, experience, wisdom, happiness, and sorrow of all generations. The suffering and all the elements that need to be transformed, I am practicing to transform. I open my heart, flesh, and bones to receive the energy of insight, love, and experience transmitted to me by all my ancestors. I see my roots in my father, my mother, my grandfathers, my grandmothers, and all my ancestors. I know I am only the continuation of this ancestral lineage. Please support, protect, and transmit to me your energy. I know wherever children and grandchildren are, ancestors are there, also. I know that parents always love and support their children and grandchildren, although they are not always able to express it skillfully because of difficulties they themselves encountered. I see that my ancestors tried to build a way of life based on gratitude, joy, confidence, respect, and loving kindness. As a continuation of my ancestors, I bow deeply and allow their energy to flow through me. I ask my ancestors for their support, protection, and strength.”

The Taste of Life in Your Mouth

“Thinking makes you uncomfortable like walking in the rain when the wind gets stronger and it seems to rain more.”

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

On quiet Sunday mornings like this the best thing to do is to go for a walk in nature, or read poetry. I returned to my favorite poet whom I already quoted in my second ever blog post, the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa. He wrote under various heteronyms, one of which was a fictitious herdsman called Alberto Caeiro. For me Alberto Caeiro is someone who reveals in a most perceptive way how our thoughts prevent us from experiencing the reality through our senses, and how we thereby lose the chance to really live life in its totality.

Taste this poem:

The Herdsman

I’m herdsman of a flock.
The sheep are my thoughts
And my thoughts are all sensations.
I think with my eyes and my ears
And my hands and feet
And nostrils and mouth.

To think a flower is to see and smell it.
To eat a fruit is to sense its savor.

And that is why, when I feel sad,
In a day of heat, because of so much joy
And lay me down in the grass to rest
And close my sun-warmed eyes,
I feel my whole body relaxed in reality
And know the whole truth and am happy.

Translated by Edouard Roditi

P.S. The source of the first verse of the post is taken from http://alberto-caeiro.blogspot.fi
Even if you don’t understand Portuguese, go and read the original poem at Arquivo Pessoa. Just savour the words and enjoy the flow of them in your mouth.

Relax, You’re Ok As You Are!

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

I have been on a fascinating journey for the past nine months. During the past few weeks I have been preparing for the end of this nine months’ journey, and at the same time I have been preparing myself for another, new journey. That’s why I haven’t been writing anything for a while.

So what’s going on in my life?

In some of my earlier posts I have briefly mentioned that at the beginning of January I started Zen coaching training in Sweden. (Zen Coaching is an approach developed by Norwegian Kåre Landfald, and it is based on both Western and Eastern sources. You can read more about it in here.)

Last week my training came to an end – at least for now, because it is a lifelong journey, and I can always go deeper.

I still have some requirements to meet, but after I have received my diploma I’m planning to start working as a Zen coach. I won’t stop blogging, but there will be a new strand in the tapestry of my life: I will be working more in a direct contact with people, in personal encounters and through the Internet. I’m going to build a new website for my work. I will let you know when the site is ready.

What is Zen Coaching then? Explaining that would actually require much more than one or even several blog posts, but I try to explain what the training has personally meant to me.

First of all, despite its namel it is not only about Zen Buddhism. Actually it might be more correct to speak about Zen-inspired coaching, because there are also many other elements woven into Zen Coaching, to make a coherent whole. But the emphasis is definitely in seeing your life as it happens just now, and allowing and accepting whatever you see.

What does it mean to “see” your life? First and foremost it is not about trying to mentally, through thinking, to understand what is going on in you. Above all else it is allowing yourself to experience and feel whatever it is that is happening. Be it anger, stress, frustration, happiness, excitement and so on. It is about saying, from the bottom of your heart, a big YES to yourself and your life.

It is actually thoughts that take us away from living in the present moment. Thoughts as such are not anything bad, but they tend to shut the door to the moment that is there just in front of you. They throw you either into the past or the future.

But there is a way to experience the present moment, the present reality, and it is by looking at your feelings and emotions as they show themselves in your body and your breathing. It is the humble and undervalued instrument of the human body that is essential in connecting you to the present reality.

We tend to think that it is through thinking that we solve our problems, but it is feelings, particularly our deeper needs and longings, and the body, that carry us to a place where we find our deepest wisdom.

And what is our deepest wisdom then? It happens when we recognize how we have lost contact to ourselves on the deepest level of our being. To get to that place one has to pass through the various shields of pain that we all carry with us. If you are willing to face your own pain without resisting it, you will find your treasure under the pain, the diamond that is hidden in you.

– Ah… More images, more words and concepts. I’m sorry for that. But that is exactly what happens when one tries to distill the freely flowing, constantly changing experience of life into words that can, at best, only refer to something.

Anyway, let’s try to get a glimpse of it. Think about a small child who is less than one year old. A baby that is loved, well fed and in good health. What can you see? You see full trust, you see joy, total openness, love. That is an image of all of us in our original state. But the image of a small child is not only a personal beginning of a human being that will later be an adult, but it is also an image, a metaphor of something that I might call the transpersonal, the universal child in all of us. It is something that we all are part of, even though we don’t know or understand it.

And when you find contact to that child you understand that you can relax. There is nothing wrong with you, nothing to fix, nothing to improve. You don’t have to get anywhere, you don’t have to achieve anything. Because the diamond is still within you, though hidden under the weight and layers of the defense mechanisms – called personality – that you created in order to survive in this world.

When you find your diamond, you may realize that the problem you thought you had dissolves all by itself. Or you may find a solution. What is different now is that the solution comes from within you. It grows out of your whole being. It is not achieved through hard work of thinking or through willpower. It grows out of you like leaves from a tree.

This is what I’ve been going through during the past nine months. Of course my journey did not start only at the beginning of this year, but during the past nine months these discoveries have become conscious and very living to me. I have come home to myself.

And the journey goes on. I know I will wander off from my “diamond”, and I shall have to come back home to it again. And again. Because that’s what life is about. A never-ending journey of leaving and coming back home. A movement, a mystery, a flow to be experienced and embraced.

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! 😊