Entering A Quiet Room

Writing is sometimes like entering a quiet room in the soft afternoon light: I sit down at the table, and on the other side of the table settles The Text That I Write. We talk together, and the conversation gives birth to ideas that are novel to both of us. There we sit, for hours on end, and the dusk begins to fall, and the conversation just goes on and on. And gradually the evening changes into night, and the silence around us grows so deep and intense that I no longer discern my own thoughts and ideas from The Text That I Write. Along with the falling night, I fade away, and I transform and get mingled into what I write. And at that very moment I understand: this is exactly what I have been aiming at; that I could dissolve into what I write, and that through my vanishing I could create Another, a completely new and separate being, who in the growing light of the next morning would be looking at the world with fresh new eyes.

lehtiä kellumassa

Even this writing here was born of a desire to go into a quiet room.

I started to write this text already several days ago. I started without any particular goal in mind, my only aim being to transfer into writing whatever happened to be moving inside my head; without choosing any particular direction; having curiosity as my mere guiding principle; keeping in my mind the question: what comes out of this freely undulating moment?

So I wrote for a while, and I was very pleased spending time in the quiet room with my companion, the Text That I Wrote. I felt that though I did not perhaps succeed in creating a whole being into existence, I was nevertheless creating something new; that at least I was very close to recreating myself.

But as it often happens, the real life, the external physical world forced me violently out of my quiet room, and the fruitful conversation with the Text That I Had Been Writing was abruptly ended.

When I finally returned to my room again, I realized that I had somehow closed the computer without saving my text.

Suddenly I was all alone.

I just had started to create something solid, concrete, something permanent, I thought. Or at least I had managed to get hold of the hem of the passing reality, of something absolutely new and important – and then it was gone!

I felt sad. I had lost a friend with whom I had been passing time. I was back in my own indefinite company, in my invariably changing moods, exposed to all kinds of external impulses; no more consistent with what I had called “myself”.

But today I came again into my quiet room. This time I have remembered to save diligently The Text That I Write.

The afternoon is cloudy, I have been following the course of my wandering thoughts, and I already wait for tomorrow; the moment when this particular form of existence carries me to some place I know nothing about today – perhaps to a story that is just about to begin.

The Journey of A Smile

A boxful of old photographs almost fell into my lap from a closet where I have been keeping them – a surge of memories, moments from the past, frozen by camera. Instants fixed on paper, remnants of times when images still had a material form and feel against the hand. All shoved into a brown cartoon box, sealed with thick packing tape.

Nicaragua uusin

I spread the pictures on the floor and sit down amidst them. There is so much of everything – places, people, events, experiences, and feelings. Episodes that had already disappeared and gotten lost into the labyrinth of my memory.

In one of the photos there is a serious-looking girl of six or seven years old. She catches my attention, and I begin to follow how she changes in the photos.

In the first photo – which is black-and-white – the girl’s posture is slightly stooped and she is tilting her head to the left. There is an air of sadness around her. She is standing in front of a Sami style tepee somewhere in Lapland, with a group of people, one of who is dressed in a traditional Sami costume. Her father is not there, but her mother and elder teenage sister are present. Everyone is looking straight into the camera. Only the two dogs in the front have turned their backs to the photographer. It is summer and the sunlight is bright.  The shadows on the ground are sharp, and everyone is squinting their eyes.

The next photo is taken a few years later. In a class photo the same girl is wearing her first eyeglasses, and that makes her look what she already was at that time – a bookworm. She has created a private world of her own, a place where she feels safe. The early signs of adolescence are visible in her greasy, straight hair, and the coat that she is wearing looks a bit too big for her.

More photos. The girl is growing and changing. Trips with schoolmates. Moments with friends during the years at the university. One photo is taken on her first trip abroad: three young women, the inseparable threesome, are standing in front of a cathedral in Florence.

In one of the photos she is floating in the water in the Dead Sea in Israel. It is a field trip of her theology class of the university. She has raised her arms up and her feet are sticking out of the water. She is demonstrating how well the salty water carries her.

Then there are a couple of photos of a mysterious Janus-faced young woman. She is already married. She is sitting on a basket chair, wearing hexagonal glasses and a classy dress. She has a plain short haircut. Her head is slightly turned to the side, but her eyes are looking straight into the camera. The look on her face is veiled, inscrutable, and her closed mouth looks like it is holding words inside. Is anger her shield, her protection against the world?

And then another photo, on the same basket chair, completely different. Again the young woman’s head is turned to her right side, but she is also looking up, past the camera. On her face she has a bright smile that reveals her teeth. Her glasses are reflecting the light that comes from the opposite direction. A careful inspection reveals a reflection of the photographer on her glasses.

In the next photo she is 23 years old, and she is standing at a railway station. A railcar and people are standing right behind her. Her old father is next to her, looking down. He is wearing a leather hat with a brim, and a brown winter coat. The coat is slightly open and reveals a striped tie. The young woman is keeping her hands in her pockets.  Her head is covered with a green woven cap that does not quite match with her winter coat. Her shoulders are slouched, and her eyes are down. She looks sad and depressed. There is snow on the ground, and the afternoon shadows behind the father and the daughter are long and distinct, like the seventeen years that have elapsed since their previous encounter.

Kodan edessä - uusin

Next photo. She is already a mother expecting her first child. She is sitting on a bed in a light blue night-dress. She has had her hair permed to get herself curls that nature did not give her. She is leaning against a bed head, and a pillow is supporting her back. Her tummy is big and heavy-looking. Her arms are resting on the sides of her tummy, both hands meeting in front of it. She is pursing her lips and tilting her head forward. She does not look into the camera. What is she thinking, that serious young mother, behind the thin curtains through which the light filters into a quiet bedroom?

Next photo. The turbulent years of divorce are behind, but there is still a shadow of sadness in the woman’s eyes. She is on her first trip to Africa, under the  brilliant sunshine, on the shore of Lake Nakuru in Kenya. Right behind her back there is a huge flock of birds, hundreds of pink flamingos. On the  left side of the woman stands a man with blonde curly hair, tangled by the wind. They both have a very straight posture, as if they had decided to defy whatever life throws at them.

Then there is a very different photo. The woman has come to Nicaragua to pick coffee. In the photo she is laughing with her mouth wide open, and tilting her body backwards. It looks like the laughter is coming out of her whole being. She is standing on a dirt road with another woman – and a guerrilla. A machine gun is hanging from the guerrilla’s neck, and he is holding his arms on both women’s shoulders. It has just stopped raining.

… And so the stream of the photos goes on, and over the years the images begin to disappear into the hard drive of the computer, and they become more ethereal and intangible. The sadness of the little girl in the first black-and-white photos gradually begins to fade in later photos, and the veil in front of the eyes of a young woman disappears, for most of the time. There are more and more photos with a smile and laughter on her face, but even in the later photos, that are now stored on the computer, there are still moments when she does not look into the camera, but into a quiet place inside herself.


Äiti ja minä

There I sit on the floor looking at the story of my life unfolding in the old photos. It comes into my mind that in everyone’s photos there are those fleeting moments when the camera has captured the instant of a sad child peeking through the armour of an adult person.

I sit and think that actually my story is not so unique, that we all share the same story; the story in which a defenseless and helpless child faces something overwhelming, something that she cannot deal with. It is the same story for everyone, experienced in myriad versions and in varied quantities. The story in which we all experience our bigger or smaller share of human suffering.

And as I look at my old photos I think of the lesson that I’ve been studying during the past years. It is the lesson of acceptance, compassion and love, not only for other people, but above all else, for myself. For me it has meant meeting the little girl inside, feeling her feelings – and then embracing her with all my love and warmth. She is part of me, part of my life and my history.

The Treasure of Encouragement

This time I’m sharing with you a post that is written by my blogger friend Sharon. Read her thoughts about encouragement. You will understand why I think as many people as possible should read this beautiful post.

A Leaf in Springtime

“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”~ The Buddha

SONY DSCEncouragement is commonly understood within the context of lifting up another who is down and out. But for me, the hallmark of encouragement is the wholehearted support and celebration of another person’s finest and happiest moments.

It is generosity, magnanimity and big-heartedness at the highest.

It is one of the most beautiful gifts in life, more sustaining than any extravagant present – to know that someone is selfless enough to have our best interests at heart.

Encouragement has the power to release one to fulfill one’s destiny. To encourage is to protect and confer honour to another. It replenishes. It soothes. It uplifts. It imparts life. It can be likened to the sweet nectar of the soul. Rain on a parched desert.

We are saved in moments like these. We are found in moments…

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The Wonder of The Human Body

Death recently walked past me with quiet steps. He did not come very near, but I could sense the cool breath of air that followed him.

Two people died in different corners of the world: One was a grown-up child of a very dear friend of mine, and the other was a professional who had regularly taken care of my health for many years. I did not know these two people so well, but particularly the sorrow of my friend who lost her child has deeply touched me.

These two events have made me to remember the passing of my old mother, and I thought I’d like to share with you the last moments that I spent with her.

My mother died twelve years ago. It was a cold winter night in the North, and she was already in the hospital, unconscious. As the night progressed, her breathing got heavier and heavier, and the pauses between each breath got longer. Then came again one arduous breath and a long pause after it. For a moment I sat and waited  – and waited. There never came another breath. She had left.

The peace that settled into that sterile and quiet hospital room was indescribable. All the agony was gone. Everything was so quiet and still that I could almost touch the silence of the moment. There was nothing, absolutely nothing frightening about death.

I have never experienced such a beautiful and deep peace.

I got up from my chair and walked to the window. The landscape that opened in front of me was covered with pristine, white snow. The little town in the North was sleeping.

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Living in the physical reality

Why have I chosen this slightly dark topic to write about?

One reason is obvious: This is my way to say goodbye to the two friends who are no longer here. They have been in my mind. I’ve been thinking of them, their lives and families.

Another reason is that I’ve also been contemplating, on a more general level, our life in physical reality.

I think we don’t give our humble human body the respect, love and care that it deserves. Yes, we do polish it and beautify it, and try to feed it with all kinds of healthy food, and we exercise to make it stronger – but it seems to me that unconsciously we still consider the body as a kind of necessary evil, something that we drag along, because there is no choice.

It is the head that we consider the centre of our life. The head governs everything below it. The head is, so to speak, the rider, and the body is the horse – that has to be thrashed every now and then for better performance.

Life without a body?

Let’s explore for a moment what living in the body means.

Without the bodies of my parents I would not exist. There would not be that specific “entity” that my parents named “Maarit” – that entity of body and mind, and that something special that we call consciousness that can observe even the thought processes of Maarit’s brain.
Without the body I would not have the brain.
Without the brain I would not be able to write this blog.
Without the senses I could not tell you what I have seen, heard, tasted, touched and smelled.
Without my fingers that now tap the keyboard I would not be able to pass on my ideas and thoughts to you.

And if it were not your physical eyes that see these marks on the screen and your brain that processes the information, we would not be able to communicate like this, mind to mind.

We are all this and so much more!

It is not only my thoughts that matter.
I am not only these words that I write.
It is not the weight and height of my body, or the color of my skin, or the shape of my eyes that make me who I am.
It is not only my personal history that created me.
It is not only the culture that produced me.
I am much more, just as you are so much more.

But it is absolutely sure, that just now – though I can’t promise you for how long – I exist in this body, in this world, in this country and in this house, and I’m happy for my body, because it supports me while I sit on the couch. I celebrate my body, because I can still feel in my mouth the taste of an apple that I just ate; because my eyes can see the clouds moving in the afternoon sky; because I can hear the dog parking in the neighbour’s apartment; and because the fragrance of coffee is spreading into my nose from the kitchen.

And if you were sitting in front of me, my dear reader, you could sense that I exist, and that you exist, not only in the artificial world of the Internet, as words and images on the screen, but in flesh and blood, in a human body that carries in it all the memories and experiences, all the capacities and possibilities.

* * * * * *

To celebrate all the precious people who have been or still are present in my life, or who have already left or disappeared for various reasons, I want to finish this post by playing a song by Violeta Parra: Gracias A La Vida (Thanks to Life), performed by Mercedes Sosa. Both artists have left us but their music lives. You can find the English translation of the lyrics here.

The Beatles Were Right: Let It Be

Energy has been cumulating inside me. It hasn’t had a proper outlet because it has been boiling under the tight lid of somewhat limiting circumstances. For about a week it has made me feel like an old stuffy attic or a stagnant pool where the water is not moving.

I’m talking, of course, about my need to write, about creative energy.

I turned on the tap of words last September, after years in the world of images and visual art, and now it seems I can no longer close the tap.

Why did I start to feel like a boiling water under a tight lid?

March was a very sociable month for me. First of all, our lovely, funny and wise daughter was staying with us, and she brought a lot of fresh, young energy to our home during her visit.

At the beginning of March I spent a fantastic long weekend in Austria, visiting an old friend who is presently working in Vienna. This friend of mine is a lively person with a great sense of humor, and of course we spent those three days laughing a lot together. On the other hand we also wept tears of sorrow when we shared some sad stories of our lives.

A big social event was my trip to Sweden at the end of March. I stayed a week at Ängsbacka course centre near Karlstad, studying Zen coaching. A very intense week passed quickly in the company of inspiring people and with an intriguing topic, in a relaxed atmosphere. (Zen coaching is an approach developed by Norwegian Kåre Landfald, and it aims, among other things, at recognizing our own nature as awareness. This realization helps us to be less identified with our mental positions and judgmental attitudes toward ourselves and others. You can read more about Zen coaching here.)

After a stimulating trip to Sweden I came home at the end of March full of ideas and inspiration. My deep desire was to withdraw into my own world and mull over everything that had happened during the past month.

More than anything, I simply wanted to sit down in some quiet corner and process my experiences through writing.

But of course I could not do that.

The social life continued at home. It was Easter holidays in Finland, the usual several days’ break of springtime.

Blessed haven of privacy

Now, if I have to define myself on a binary scale of introvert versus extrovert, I am definitely more on the introvert side of the scale. Not to the point of being a misanthropist though – I do love the company of people and the exchange of views with friends and acquaintances. But I also need a lot of privacy and time in solitude, and just as I like to travel and meet people I also enjoy exploring the horizons of my inner landscapes.

From the fact that I’m now writing here – in a public library – you can conclude that I’ve finally succeeded in conquering for myself that blessed and longed-for haven of privacy and creativity. My internal and external worlds are in harmony, and I can take a deep breath.



Boiling under the lid

But let us not quite finish the story yet.

You see, my suppressed energy of creativity forced me to make an inquiry into the essence of frustration. Why did I get so frustrated? Why was it so difficult to postpone my writing?

Sure, I have set myself deadlines, but my personal deadlines are very relative, and in the big picture of life there is actually only one real deadline, and it is The Deathline – which, by the way, is getting closer and closer as I age.

I was frustrated because during the past week I have felt like I had been prevented from fulfilling my need to write. That then created another kind of need – a compelling urge to kick hard against the circumstances.

I understand that the more expectations we have in life, the more we can expect to be disappointed, too. The harder we try to control life, the harder it often hits back.

“Panta rei”, said already Heraclitus. Everything flows. Life moves, changes, surprises us. It gets out of our control. – All this I tried to say to myself.

Why then didn’t these philosophical viewpoints help me when I was on the peak of my frustration?

From resistance to relaxation

I finally discovered the answer. My problem did not resolve, because I was not having an intellectual problem. My feelings were very much involved. I had become irritable and crotchety toward my closest people. And isn’t it that having an emotional state like that is not quite acceptable, is it?

So I condemned my “bad” feelings – and that made me feel even worse. On top of my crotchety frustratedness now settled another unpleasant feeling – a heavy weight of moral disapproval.

I soon realized that by means of thinking and judging myself I was not getting anywhere.

I gave up.

It was exactly then that something interesting happened. The very moment I gave up trying to understand intellectually my feelings I remembered my fresh discovery: I can allow myself to feel my feelings as they are! Accept them.

– “Let it be”, like the Beatles used to sing.

I took another look at my frustration. I wished it welcome, stayed with it, spent time with it. I allowed myself to feel its every single sharp edge in my whole being. (But please note that I no longer put that feeling into action!)

What a relief!

I have been studying this lesson with other feelings, but this time it came in the form of frustration. Again I had to remind myself of the fact that it is the resistance to my own feelings that creates my misery. It is the judgemental words of my inner talk that create the tension, whether as acceptance of feelings opens the door to relaxation, and relaxation allows solutions to come to me through intuition, without hard thinking.

My solution was right in front of my eyes. I remembered the public library, the fragrance of old books, the rustling of paper when someone turns a page, the muffled voices of people speaking to each other in the reading room. Could there be a better place for writing!

It was so simple – I just had to look at my feelings with compassion.

But that is often the most tricky part. I’ll come back to that in another post.

Feast on Your Life

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

I spoke about the importance of coming back home to oneself in my previous post. Here’s a poem that says it all in a nutshell, by Derek Walcott. Enjoy:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Walking through The Swamplands of The Soul

It happened one evening some years ago. I was quite tired after a long day and I had already gone to bed. I was in that misty, indefinite area between waking state and sleep – just about to fall asleep – when all of a sudden I saw a beautiful face in front of me; introverted, eyes closed, as if in deep meditation.

For a moment the face was still, and then the closed eyes opened slowly and looked deeply into mine. The look was very gentle and aware, and it awoke me from my near-sleep state.

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, "The face of my dream" (1)

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, “The face of my dream” (1)

I sat up and thought: “What on earth was that?”

At that time I was preparing works for my next art exhibition. The vision that I had just seen was so powerful that I decided to try to paint it. Eventually it became the theme of the whole exhibition that I would name “Beyond The Faces”.

But there was much more to that mysterious face than just an inspiration for my art exhibition. I believe the face was saying: “Time to wake up. Time to come back to yourself.”

Prior to that evening I had been on a four-year long journey of spiritual inquiry. I had become an active member of an Indian spiritual group. I had adopted the same goal as the other members. I tried to become nothing less than an angel – a pure, bodiless, spiritual being. I tried to follow the same principles, the same daily routines and practices as others. I was very happy that I was accepted in a company of very friendly, like-minded people, a big spiritual family.

For quite some time life felt great. I thought I had found my place and people in this world.

But then a nagging doubt entered my mind, and my heart began to feel odd, empty and cold. A huge void, like an infinite desert, settled inside me.

I had lost contact with myself, and my soul was crying for me to come home back to myself.

Harsh terrains

What had gone wrong in an endeavour that had started so well?

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, "The face of my dream" (2)

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, “The face of my dream” (2)

One reason was in my psychological history. My own unrecognized wounds had lured me into a trap. My parents divorced when I was six years old. The divorce left me traumatized, and the years that followed were not easy.

Therefore, from this early age on my life was marked by an aching longing for acceptance and belonging. Of course I wasn’t aware of that, and so my unconscious forces eventually threw me into the lap of this spiritual group.

Now I want to make it very clear that I do not consider all spirituality simply as escapism from unresolved psychological problems. But I do want to note that in mature spirituality (and for that matter, in life in general!) it is necessary to become aware, at least somehow, of the pain and shadows of one’s psyche. We can’t reach the vast skies of our soul unless we also walk through the harsh terrains of our personal history. Or, to put it in another way, to get hold of the gold that lies within, we first have to scrape all the mud from its surface.

So I had bought the acceptance of a friendly, always-smiling spiritual community with the price of losing contact with my true self. I believed the acceptance was unconditional, but of course it wasn’t. Like in all human relationships there were rules I had to play by. And of course at some point I started to question them.

Cutting off portions of the self

Another reason for my life reaching a crisis was the imbalance in the teaching that I tried to follow. It was not downright denying the shadowy corners of being human, but it emphasized and focused so much on the spiritual, immaterial, and positive-only, that it automatically slipped into a very polarized view of life.

For me this meant that I ended up living in some sort of nebulous plane of existence, somewhere inside my head or, should I say, several centimeters above my head. Everything below that level became unclear, and even a bit scary. No wonder also my heart felt empty and hollow, and my body alien and lifeless.

Now seeing reality and life in opposing pairs of right-or-wrong, good-or-bad, mind-or-body, spirit-or-matter is certainly not characteristic of spirituality and religion only. It happens in all areas of life.

But like I already said in my first blog, nature knows no borders. Borders are a product of the human mind. What often seems to happen in spiritual approaches is that, as they aim to rise to the “higher” realms of consciousness, they begin to consider “lower” ones something bad and inferior.

Ultimately this leads to slicing off integral parts of being human. Being human means, among other things, being part of nature by having a physical body that, in many ways, bears resemblance to that of animals. It also means having a wide range of emotions and feelings from the most altruistic love to hate and rage. Therefore, true healing and wholeness can only be achieved by integrating even those parts of our being that seem contrary to each other.

Seduction of easy answers

I have tried, in this very condensed form of a blog post, to cover a topic that is broad, complex and deep. There is so much more I could say. But I’ve tried to give at least a glimpse into my own experience and to the lesson life has given me. I know my spiritual odyssey is by no means unique, and it most certainly isn’t over, but I hope that sharing about it might help others who are right now on a similar journey and feel lost.

“Swamplands of the soul” is a very apt expression to what I went through. I no longer think that my adventure with an Indian spiritual group was a mistake that I should somehow regret. I needed to go through this particular swampland. It is an integral part of my life history and it definitely made me a bit wiser. At least I hope so.

I finish with a quote of Jungian analyst James Hollis:

“Added to this fantasy of transcending our natural reality is the understandable desire to avoid what I call ‘the swamplands of the soul’, those dark places where fate, fortune, and our own psyches frequently take us. No amount of right thinking or right conduct  will spare us swampland visitations. Much so-called New Age thinking has seeped into general public consciousness, and this populist philosophy offers seductive, ungrounded spiritual practices that seek to finesse the question of suffering. — If we are free of suffering, we are less likely to engage with those questions that ultimately define who we are. The rigor and depth of questions raised by suffering jar us out of complacency, out of the casual reiterations of troubled life, and bring us to the daily dilemma of enlargement or diminishment.”

P.S. In addition to some fantastic people who have given me support in my journey I have also had great books and texts that have traveled with me. To mention but a few:

  • Krishnamurti, Total Freedom
  • Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart: Perils and Promises of A Spiritual Path
  • Charles Bentley, A Journey by Coach: the way back to personal authenticity
  • James Hollis, Finding Meaning in The Second Half of Life
  • And last but not least Ted Hughes and his little masterpiece, a description of our Inner Child, at Brain Pickings.

Chocolates and Silent Listening

“Conversation was never begun at once, or in a hurried manner. No one was quick with a question, no matter how important, and no one was pressed for answer. A pause giving time for thought was the truly courteous way of beginning and conducting a conversation. Silence was meaningful with the Lakota, and his granting a space of silence to the speechmaker and his own moment of silence before talking was done in the practice of true politeness and regard for the rule that ‘thought comes before speech’.”

Those were the words of Luther Standing Bear (1868-1939), Oglala Sioux chief.

I remembered the chief’s words recently, probably because I have tried to pay more attention to the way I listen and talk to people. It’s the training that I’m going through that has brought about this focus. (I’ll talk more about it in some later post.)

Luther Standing Bear’s brief account gives us a glimpse to a world that feels very distant to our present reality. The contrast is actually quite staggering. It makes me think about the paradox that our whole modern world is evolved around communication – and still it often seems that there is less and less genuine connection between people, less true listening and less open talking.

Because I think you know what I mean I’ll give only a few examples:

  • We don’t have patience to wait till the other person has finished talking. Instead we interrupt them to let them hear our reply.
  • We tend to speak loud and fast.
  • We don’t even try to understand the other person while listening to them.
  • When meeting each other in groups we don’t bother to create a true connection between people; instead we tend to focus on speaking in a way that shows how smart and witty we are.
  • Even with our closest friends our conversations may completely wander off from the point. For example: your call a friend to talk about a specific problem, but your friend uses it as an excuse to start talking about their own issue, instead of trying to understand you.
  • Conversations and interaction in families… I think we all know how easy it is to misunderstand and to be misunderstood.
Painting: Hannes Scholtz

Painting: Hannes Scholtz

The various dimensions of speaking and listening

“Be careful when speaking. You create the world around you with your words.” That’s a saying of the Navajos.

Speaking and listening – we take them for granted, but they aren’t that simple. They are skills that are deeply interwoven. They are multidimensional and paradoxical phenomena. Why?

Because speaking implies also listening to my inner self. Am I honest? What am I feeling? Do I talk from my heart?

Because listening means also listening to myself as I listen to others. That is, it means being aware of my own reactions. Awareness of myself during the process of listening helps to keep my little ego out of the way.

Then there is of course that inner talk that goes on incessantly in our heads. Are we able to hear what it really says? For example, is there a judge or a critic talking to you, if you have been less than perfect? Or are you sometimes lucky and hear a voice of self-empathy and self-forgiveness?

At its best, listening to another person can resemble those forms of meditation in which we use a specific focus. In deep listening that focus is the other person.

A new approach

Let me tell you about an episode of my life that is related to listening and talking.

My husband and I had a little disagreement a few weeks ago. The cause of our dispute was not really very dramatic or big. But it had to do with my weekend routines and my longing for greater freedom and flexibility – so we ended up having a very heated conversation.

I had to call a time out. I went alone to town and found a cosy cafe where I spent an hour or so. I ordered a cup of cappuccino and three quite expensive Belgian chocolates. One was not enough.

Then I finished the book that I had been reading: The Surprising Purpose of Anger by Marshall B. Rosenberg.

After finishing my cappuccino, chocolates, and the book about anger I was not so angry any more. I decided to try a new approach.

So I went back home and suggested to my husband something that I’ve learned recently – a bit different way of talking and listening.

We agreed on the following rules before we started:

  1. We both use at least 15-20 minutes to tell each other what is going on  inside ourselves at the moment.
  2. The one who talks should only focus in their own feelings, thoughts, and sensations in the present moment. Commenting, interpreting, or blaming the other person was not allowed.
  3. The one who listens, listens in silence. To nod, to say “hmm” or “yes” was allowed, for the speaker to feel that their words are heard.
  4. After the person has spoken, the listener rephrases what he or she has just heard. This must happen again without commenting, interpreting or judging.

Looking in the same direction

As we are an old couple – we’ve been married for 25 years and known each other even longer – we no longer enjoy wasting energy in sulking at each other. We both believe that deep in our hearts we always have good intentions toward each other, even if the situation sometimes should prove the opposite.

So my husband starting talking and I listened.

While we spoke we didn’t look at each other. I’ve noticed it’s sometimes easier that way, particularly if you’re very close to someone, and if you feel very hurt.

My advice for similar situations: Look in the same direction but not at each other! (You may want to try talking in the car.)

So I looked at the painting on the wall (the one you see in the picture). It represents an African landscape, and I really love its colors and spaciousness.  That moment it also helped me to stay a bit more detached.

– Well? Did the approach work?

It did!

I was reminded of the fact that I share my life with another human being, not just with a “husband” or “father” of our daughter. I had a glimpse into this man’s soul, and into his fragility.

In everyday life it is so easy to forget the preciousness of the other person. Listening silently to my husband revived my love for him. It helped me to honour the life that is present in him.

And he, for his part, told me that now he really understands the importance of my request, and that he finds it very reasonable and understandable.

* * * * * * * * *

More paintings by my friend Hannes can be seen here.

What We See of Things

It is a day like any other day. I sit in my room, surrounded by familiar objects which I can see as I always see them. Or can I? Can I really trust what my senses tell me?

Let me tell you about an interesting experience I once had.

At the time we were living in Mozambique. I was in my room that was furnished with a bookshelf, an armchair, a painting on the wall and a small bamboo table with a green flower vase on it. I sat in the armchair and slowly gazed at the objects of the room.

Looking at the bamboo table I cast my mind back to Vietnam, where I had bought the table and from where we had left for Africa. Looking at the painting I thought of the time when I had hung it on the wall, and of all those things that I was going through in my life at that time. Looking at the bookshelf I remembered Hanoi and a busy street where I had purchased the shelf, and the man who sold it to me, and the way I transported it home. The little green flower vase made me think of Finland and leaving from there.


Every item in the room carried a story or an association with it. I really did not see the mere objects, but equally I saw my own thoughts, feelings and memories.

Then I made a small experiment. I tried to look at every item purely, without all the ”mental labels” that I had attached on their surfaces. I tried, one at a time, to peel off the stories and feelings that had settled on every piece of furniture in that room.

And suddenly I experienced something very liberating.

For a moment I was able to see the objects naked and stripped-down, without memories and experiences. Unlike one might imagine, the fact that they were revealed to me void of all meaning did not feel at all unpleasant or scary.

The border between my environment and myself dissolved for a moment.

Only the bright present moment, without past or future, was left; an existence that felt benevolent. And it wasn’t even important that it was I who was there, because even I became part of the surrounding reality, and the reality seemed to look back at me from the objects.

I think the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa speaks of a similar fleeting moment in his poem:

At times, on days of perfect and exact light,
When things have all the reality they can,
I ask myself slowly
Why I even attribute
Beauty to things.

Does a flower somehow have beauty?
Somehow a fruit has beauty?
No: they have color and form
And existence only.
Beauty is the name of something that doesn’t exist
I give to things in exchange for the delight they give me.
It means nothing.
Then why do I say, “Things are beautiful”?

Yes, even I, who live only to live,
Invisible, they come to meet me,
Men’s lies in the face of things,
In the face of things that simply exist.

How difficult to be yourself and see only what you can!

As I see it, Pessoa speaks in his poem of a brief moment of now that reveals us how imprisoned we are by our own experiences, even in the way we perceive ordinary objects that surround us.

We look at the world through our concepts – for example, that of beauty in the poem, and these concepts interpose themselves between the observer and the observed. As a result we lose something precious: a pure sense perception that happens in the present moment, the power of now.

Pessoa’s poem forces me to ask the following: If it is so difficult to perceive simple everyday objects without various interfering associations and given meanings, then how much more blurred must our perceptions be of other people and ourselves by our earlier life experiences?

Of course, when we are more or less aware of our personal problems, and hence without many unresolved issues in our life, our life experiences can also deepen our understanding of other people. Perhaps we could call this accurate mental eyesight.

Unfortunately, though, quite many of us avoid reflecting upon those aspects of life that blur the art of accurate mental eyesight. As a consequence we lose our ability to live completely in the present moment.

One can but join in the sigh of Pessoa: How difficult to be yourself and see only what you can! (The translation from Portuguese to English is not maybe the best possible. The more precise idea is how difficult to be yourself and to see only what there is to be seen.)

It is difficult but not impossible. So how can you be yourself and how can you see only what there is?

Above all else we have to want to understand ourselves on a deeper level. We need to ask the right questions.

True changes begin to happen in our life when for example we start to question our reactions to other people and the situations that we encounter. ”Is my reaction to this person and this situation truly relevant, or am I reacting to something in me? Is my behaviour caused by something inside my mind?”

The next question is: ”Who am I really?” This question leads us beyond usual definitions of identity, beyond those mental ”labels” that life has attached upon us. It helps us to reconnect to our authentic Self that has been there all the time, though buried under all secondary identities.

It is this space in us, this authentic Self, this level of true Being, Awareness  – whatever word you prefer – that is capable of seeing our internal conflicts and our suffering just as they are, with full acceptance and compassion. And when acceptance of one’s own life is reached, it expands to include other people, too.

You begin to be yourself and see only what there is to be seen.

More about Fernando Pessoa’s poetry and his eccentric personality in Wikipedia The original poem in Portuguese can be found at: http://arquivopessoa.net/textos/1182, the English translation at: http://alberto-caeiro.blogspot.fi

Cease cherishing opinions

“The Great Way is not difficult for those not attached to preferences.”

The Great way is not difficult for those who do not have a greater liking for one alternative over another.

The quote seems a bit contradictory to the fact that I’m here starting a blog, doesn’t it? Blogs are supposed to make some sorts of statements. I express my opinion on some matter. I stand up for or against something.

Surely some opinions are better than others? Then why am I using a quote like this right in the beginning of my first blog?

I answer my question by making a detour. I won’t go into elaborating the quote that I’ve taken from a venerable Chinese Zen patriarch who died in early 600.

(Those who want to read the whole text of the patriarch can find it in http://www.mendosa.com/way.html) Instead I will make a jump to the earlier years of my own life, to the sixties, when I was still a little girl…

ruska,uusin versio

My roots are in Lapland, in the very North of Finland. When I was a child I used to spend my summers with my mother in those northernmost corners of my country, in the valley of the river Teno. That’s where my Sami mother, who was a teacher, came from. Every summer, after the school year ended, we would pack our luggage and travel hours on end by bus along the winding gravel roads of Lapland, to arrive at Utsjoki.

Crossing the border

The last leg of the trip was done on my uncle’s long and slim riverboat. At our destination we were greeted by my grandfather’s log house, which he had built on the riverbank for his retirement. Through its windows I could easily see the softly undulating hills of Norway on the other side of the river.

As a little girl standing there on the banks of the river, between the hills, it never occurred to me that we were spending our summers almost literally on the border of two countries. In reality, the border of Finland and Norway was merely a concept that did not separate anything. People would freely cross the border, that is, cross the river from one country to another, as they had done for ages, and as they still do.

So I spent my childhood summers on a border that wasn’t really a border. It did not separate anything. Also the scenes in front of my eyes were boundless. The river just kept on running without beginning nor end. I had a vague idea that somewhere it would join the Arctic Ocean. And my grandfather’s log house that in the eyes of a little girl was very big, turned out to be the size of a matchbox, when we climbed up the hill and looked at it down from there.

Boundless nature

The nature knows no such thing as boundary. Boundaries are a product of human mind, result of conceptualization. They arise from our need to name, to classify. This need we express by drawing lines between everything, by separating and polarizing phenomena.

The situation in nature is different. A solitary reindeer wandering on the hills probably does not think it is lonely or isolated from its environment, contrary to a poor tourist who has gone astray on the same hills. The reindeer doesn’t think it has lost contact to its herd.

Human thinking happens by making divisions. However, there is a trap hidden in this tendency. I could illustrate like this: You may not notice that number six looks number nine from the opposite angle. Or you may ignore that the other side of a rounded surface is concave. Or that the line you draw on paper not only separates, but also joins both sides of the line.

The divisions and borders work as concepts and on paper, but the reality is fluid and limitless.

The trap of identification

What is the connection between the beginning of my writing and what I’m saying now? Why would it be wise to avoid becoming attached to one’s preferences and opinions? What is so great about being free like that?

Let me try to answer. Firstly, by passionately defending my opinion I draw a mental line around it myself. I identify strongly with what I think and with what I say. My opinion becomes a part of me. It separates me from other people who may have a different opinion.

After that I start to fight for my opinion, namely, if someone dares to threaten it by disagreeing with me. And by defending my opinion I also defend that which I consider to be “me”.

When this is taken far enough, the result is war.

Surely the world needs opinions, statements, beliefs and ideologies. And surely there are situations when it is quite correct and relevant to defend one’s opinion. But isn’t it also true that we could avoid many useless conflicts if we were not so attached to our own ideas and opinions, and if we did not defend them so vehemently by attacking others?

Relativity of opinions

Would life on this planet be happier and more fulfilling for all of us, if we were a little more willing to give up our preferences? Would it be possible for us to see how interrelated and interconnected we all are, instead of seeing everything that separates us from each other?

What if the Great Way would mean to see the relativity of our opinions? Seeing “from a hilltop or mountaintop”, our opinion or preference might shrink to the size of a matchbox. Would that be so scary?

Perhaps the Great Way is also about having a heart that is big enough to embrace others in their wholeness, others upon their Way?

It looks like the boundless landscape of my childhood summers has left a lasting imprint on me. I don’t quite believe in rigid divisions. If I believe in anything, ever more than before, I can say that I believe in all those aspects that connect us as human beings to each other and to the nature.

I’d like to seek a bigger and broader perspective, and help build a world where the unity of opposites would become possible.

P.S. The photo of the Teno valley in its autumn splendor was taken by Pekka Sammallahti.

P.P.S. Have a look at my About page, too.

I will publish a post every last Sunday of the month.