“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! 😊

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

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.