A short, cruel but beautiful love story……

It’s called Tadpole’s Promise, and it was written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Tony Ross.

In the story, a caterpillar and tadpole meet, fall in love and promise each other to never change.

But of course, we know that tadpoles and caterpillars have to change to progress in life. Like them, we too cannot afford to be stuck. Our relationships have to evolve with the years. What happens then?

Once the Tadpole breaks his promise to the Caterpillar three times the Caterpillar gives up on her prince. The irony in the story is that the Caterpillar herself changes too. She turns into a Butterfly.

But because they stubbornly hung on to their idealism of perfection, they lost touch with each other.

And here’s the surprising, masterful part of the story: One day, the frog eats the Butterfly. Neither one of them realize they were once the Caterpillar and the Tadpole, the big loves of each other’s life.

Here’s a youtube clip of this story:

May I never lose you, Jay Dazzles.

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Revisiting the road to happiness

In 2006, at the height of my career and living in Knightsbridge, I took a three-month sabbatical to meander off the beaten track in India. The reason was that I was earning in excess of £100,000, yet I never seemed to have enough money to treat myself. And all around me, I was surrounded by equally “poor”, discontented, superficially successful professionals in their 30-40’s who were in the same boat as I. I didn’t want to wake up one day to find out that a large chunk of my life had passed me by and that I had spent it being discontent and searching.

I had no fixed plans about where I was going, but I ended up in Rameswaram, the holy place for pilgrimage, and here, by the temples, I found a beggar who taught me the Sutras. I just sat beside him on the pavement reading from morning till noon, and passers-by would give us coins. At night, I would return to my simple digs and whenever I was hungry, I ate what the temple volunteers fed pilgrims: mainly watery dhal and chapati.  My sweet treat of the day would be the flavoursome little bananas that were found here.

And I was happy. I was away from my comfortable life, beautiful home and lovely family, but I was happy. I came back and wrote a book about being happy with nothing; it was more like a diary, really, about the thinking humans’ time-old quest for that illusive something called happiness.

The book became modestly successful and I returned to Rameswaram to find the old beggar. To my great joy, I found him! He was still begging in the same spot. The open sores in his legs had not gotten better. Nor had they gotten any worse. Everything was same-same.  I wondered if he remembered me.  I tried to give him money – spoils from the book – but he didn’t want it. For a while, I felt awful for exploiting him. I promised myself that someday, I would write a sequel to this book about the noble man in rags who had more wisdom in his little finger than the learned professionals I surrounded myself with.

I am revisiting this old road, this old topic, because I recently met a kindred soul on life’s rich journey. She – a businesswoman and mother of two – and I got to know each other when she came to the island I am currently living on for a week of peace, soul-searching, meditation and yoga.

We spoke about many topics. It started with the usual. Oh, how tough it is to achieve that work life balance. How difficult it is to keep everything together. The whole world is going crazy being overdosed on adrenaline. we don’t pause enough to connect with ourselves. We lose ourselves. We neglect our spiritual side.

This was when it got interesting for Nicola and I. What is spirituality? An overwhelmingly large number of people do not know (or can’t be bothered). “God”, “New Age”, “mung beans and lentils” or “sandals and socks”?

We talked animatedly round the subject, circling it, and coming back to it again and again.  What is it? it’s the part of us that needs to be acknowledged, the knowing that there is something beyond the smallness of our everyday life. It could be something as ubiquitous as a beautiful scenery in front of your eyes or a piece of music that stirs your soul.  Holding the hand of your loved one and feel the connection in your heart centre. In Nicola’s case, sitting on a boat with lots of tourists on a cheap day trip, with a bunch of folks eating potato crisps and a boy puking into a paper bag as the boat rocked her towards an island filled with tourists. Happy and at peace, despite the cacophony and mundane happenings.

For within that bustle and humdrum of living is to be found that nugget of bliss. Nicola told me about the book she is currently reading, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations by Thomas L. Friedman about the author’s gratitude for being kept waiting for it gave him the opportunity for reflection.

It reminded me of an enlightening book I read a long time ago one freezing winter in New York City with the imaginative title Shovelling Snow With Buddha by Billy Collins.

So, where does one find one’s spirituality?

Travel. Be on your own for days on end. Embrace growth and don’t be afraid of where the growth takes you. Take the time to meet yourself without the excuses, old pain, conditioning, past histories. Yeah, go shovel snow with Buddha.

Eyes to see higher dimensions

The world is so full of natural miracles and little pockets of magic, but we often don’t have the eyes to see them.  Only a couple of days ago, my 17-year-old daughter mused why these humble clams have geometric patterns on their shells?

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If markings have evolved for the purpose of camouflage (and hence protection from predator), then why geometric patterns? My friend from Borneo tells me that certain shells, chosen for their markings, are soaked in babies’ bathwater to soothe skin rash.  The natural world is indeed miraculous and wondrous.

But we often don’t see beyond the first three spatial dimensions.  As PW, the protagonist in Catching Infinity said, human beings cannot see higher dimensions because of a fault in evolution. As predators do not leapt out at our early ancestors from higher dimensions, we have not evolved the capabilities to see higher dimensions.

But that capability is there. It is in our brains. Researchers from the Blue Brain Project, a Swiss research initiative devoted to building a supercomputer-powered reconstruction of the human brain, using algebraic topology have discovered groups of neurons connect into ‘cliques’, and that the number of neurons in a clique would lead to its size as a high-dimensional geometric object.

According to the researchers, algebraic topology provides mathematical tools for discerning details of the neural network both in a close-up view at the level of individual neurons, and a grander scale of the brain structure as a whole.

By connecting these two levels, the researchers could discern high-dimensional geometric structures in the brain, formed by collections of tightly connected neurons (cliques) and the empty spaces (cavities) between them.

The full article can be accessed here.

In his inaugural lecture on the 26th dimension, PW talked about being free from the cages that restrict us.  Only today, I was talking to a friend who was lamenting about the restrictions of her life. She is in her thirties, tired, weighed down and demoralised by her dead-end job and living in a grey high-rise.  But as she is single and well-qualified, there are many other exciting options out there that she could pursue instead of being stuck. But she could not see any one of those options.

“Look up Teach Georgia!” I urged her. Go to Tbilisi and beyond, to the magical land in the remote Caucus mountains, live in the pure culture, discover a new world and find the unknown world within yourself. Be alive again. Georgia is the most magical country I know.

But perhaps we are too scared to let go of the known, safe world to look beyond the limiting confines of our everyday life.  Here’s a beautiful call to opening ourselves up to live fully from Pema Chödrön. See the higher dimensions. Know that WE CAN.

If we knew that tonight we were going to go blind, we would take a longing, last real look at every blade of grass, every cloud formation, every speck of dust, every rainbow, raindrop—everything.  Pema Chödrön

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I dedicate this to my late friend Eva. Dear, I see you x

 

 

 

I would have given you the world

In Catching Infinity, an eternity happened whilst Alice and PW were sitting on a rickety, old punt on the Cherwell and the music of Christ Church Choir reverberated in PW’s mind. It was magic, because the choir was silent that night.

In its prequel, An Evening In Wonderland, it was during the walk from a teashop on The High to Magdalen Deer Meadow, when Alice and PW stopped and saw ethereal orbs of light dancing in front of them like magic. But in reality, those were just the light from passing cars, nothing more.

Magic is to be found in mundane things and ordinary moments.

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Photo: Road to Patong Beach

You fill a whole lifetime
In a single perfect moment
In those heartbeats of yours
So close to mine
I have heard them
The thundering within your ribcage
When I send you to the stars
And the solidarity with mine
When I sleep
In your arms

You are so deeply
Connected to my soul
From the soft dialogue
Between your fingertips and
The skin of my forearm, my face, my lips
You are the air
That I breathe
On which my spirit soars
All it ever takes with you
Is a picnic blanket
And a sunset or two

18th January 2017

There are more stars in the skies than grains of sand in the world. If life is long, all becomes one ❤

Jellyfish and Winnie The Pooh

The conversation started between my daughter and I about jellyfish, because I wrote a short story about a girl who kept jellyfish in the bath.

“Jellyfish are pointless,” G declared. “They have no brains.”

Brains are overrated, as my partner once told me. Sea squirts are born with brains to allow them to move to where they want to go, and then, upon finding their happy spot, they ate their brains up. Jellyfish don’t even have brains to start off with.

But this conversation reminded me of a book I once read, beautifully written by Benjamin Hoff, with the title The Tao of Pooh. The book opened with Confucius, Buddha and Laotzi (the traditional founder of Taoism) standing over a vat of vinegar. Confucius found the vinegar sour, the Buddha found it bitter whilst Laozi found it satisfying.

The jellyfish, without brain and hence, without direction, is the embodiment of the Tao principle of wei wu wei, the concept of “effortless doing”. They just float freely in the ocean, and if you ever watched a jellyfish swim, you could almost see enjoyment in their brainless beings as it flows up and down with the current stream.

It goes where the ocean takes it, no preference, no complaint, all experiences same-same to the jellyfish. This is the Taoist principle of pu, which is to be open to all that life brings us but be unburdened by it.

“Passiveness!” She retorted spiritedly, with her usual fire.

Indeed it is, but it is because Taoism sees nature/the universe as a self-balancing system that does not require an input of external force.

Like the jellyfish, we can learn so much from life around us and go amazing places, IF we open ourselves to it. So dear daughter, two very beautiful teachings from a humble, brainless living being. Just go with the flow of the ocean of life, reconcile yourself with the natural universe and embrace all experiences without being unnecessarily burdened by these experiences.

******

Three philosophers – a follower of Confucius, a Buddhist and a Taoist – fell seriously ill.

The Confucius philosopher: “I will seek out the best doctor and follow the advice and rituals.”

The Buddhist: “Life is about suffering. I will mediate and understand the nature of suffering and hence, gain self-realisation and freedom.”

The Taoist: “I am part of the universe. Thus I will carry on, without fear of death.”

Finding a piece of paradise

I was trying to find a small piece of paradise for a few days, some little place amongst a coconut grove with an ocean roaring beyond. It took me a while, though I live on the tropical island of Phuket. I didn’t want boutique villas or Airbnb houses owned by expats, and I certainly didn’t want hotels.

I wanted rural and real, yet with some modern comforts.

I went north, off the beaten path a bit, and in the shadows of a couple of international hotels, I found what I was looking for. The owner is a 42-year old Thai lady who used to work as an airport representative at Phuket International Airport. Dhao (or Stella) owns a piece of land on which she built eight sweet little bungalows. She built the bungalows away a bit from the sea so that they are not threatened by the sometimes violent monsoon that hit the island during the rainy seasons. “I’ve been here for four years, and I have not needed to change anything,” she said. I like her story as we drove in her little car, laughing like two old friends.

Stella (left) and I:

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Our little house was basic: plastic furniture, a few sticks of furniture, beach mats in the cupboard. But there were butterflies and little birds in the verdant garden where our pink bungalow sits.

“Look,” he said. “There’s a sort of a woodpecker just by the long grass.”

“Love his stripey pants,” I replied, looking out of the window, feeling foolishly happy, loving the peace around us.

We paddled a long way out on one paddle board, just two human beings, the sun, the sea breeze and the open ocean. This is how life is meant to be, I realised, stripped of its complications and unnecessary burdens.

At night, we had the back door open and watched the rain, listened to the call of the insects outside. Yes, there were mosquitoes but hmmm, they never bit me. I slept peacefully and deeply, to wake up to a beautiful blazing day. And the days were indeed beautiful, as well as peaceful and tranquil. I wondered fleetingly how this little piece of paradise would be like when the seven other bungalows are occupied, but no matter, we are surrounded by so much lush, undeveloped space.

I began writing the draft for my new book. He sits cross-legged on the bed, wearing anti-glare glasses, frowning a little as he deconstructed what I wrote. For me, life couldn’t get any better than it was at this moment.

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Stella can be contacted at themaikhaobeachroom@gmail.com

So long as your heart shall beat

Listening to someone’s heartbeats is one of the most intimate things you can do, when you lay your ear against a pregnant belly listening to the fast and faint foetal heartbeats, or when you rest with your head on your lover’s chest listening to grown-up cardiac music.

There is music in heartbeats, if you listen carefully. The first sounds you hear is the closing of the mitral and tricuspid valves during the systole. Systole is the name given to the phase when blood is forced out of the ventricles into arteries that will take it round the body, nurturing and sustaining distant parts. These valves close like efficient biological doors to prevent the back flow of blood back into the heart chambers.

And then you will hear the second sound, the sound of diastole. You can tell a lot about the heart from this sound, without having to break into the rib cage. A healthy valve closing should sound like a gentle, muffled tap on a soft surface. Any variation is an indication that all is not well within, when the valves are not playing to the primal beats of life. I could spend forever listening to these primal beats.

Because hearts are not just four-chambered organs with a lifetime function of supplying blood, waiting to die from a litany of breakdown causes – aortic dissection, haemodynamic deterioration, dyspnoea, syncope. It has a finite life. It is not just about the valves and the sounds either. Sometimes, when cardiac muscles forget their place in this orchestra and play to the wrong beat, the heart begins its dance of death. Death follows hot on its heels. Angor animi. When you are about to die, you feel an anguish of the soul, this angor animi. I know, I have felt it, this anguish. But as I lay listening to his heartbeats on Halnaker Hill on this glorious summer’s day I know that I am alive, because so long as he shall live, so do I.

To do:

Put your hand on the spot on your ribcage directly above where your heart sits. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Bring your attention inwards, following the flow of your breath. Where the breath goes, energy and consciousness follow. Connect to the rhythm of your beating heart. Listen for its music. And then say to yourself, again and again, softly, “I am, I am, I am.”

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World Wide Web

The Internet is so pervasive in our lives, but do you ever stop to wonder about a greater, more magical network, one that is created entirely Nature?

My parents are both passionate biologists, and they created that wonder in me that never dims. Their particular passion is fungi. Mushrooms to you and I. But what we see above ground are just the sex organs of these small but amazing organisms. Beneath these fungus are roots that nurture the whole forest through a beautiful mutualistic symbiotic relationship. A complexity far beyond the comprehension of the mere human brain exists below ground, connecting all living things. Indeed, the forest is far more than you can see.

So here’s a little practice in mindfulness: the next time to log on to the Internet, think about the magical network beneath your feet.

Working on my next book, inspired by my parents, of course ❤

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Life is a Beach

“No,” he said emphatically each time I broached the subject of me returning to London. We have such a sweet simple life here in Phuket though he has to tear himself away to go and earn a living sometimes. A long time ago, I did just that, earning a living in London living a BIG life. I had a BIG salary but I had a BIG mortgage too. Though I earned a six-figure salary, there was barely anything left over by the time we paid the cost of our London life. We lived in Knightsbridge but we could not afford the restaurants or the theatres. Our best memories were of the freebies, like cycling with the children in Hyde Park, feeding the swans at the Serpentine and endless picnics on summer days.

It is all so different now. I live on the beach. I have a paddleboard that I take out almost every evening and today, he bought me a secondhand bicycle so that I can stop trying to kill myself with his triathlon bike. I used to own a Porsche and a Ducati. Now it’s paddleboard and a secondhand bicycle. This evening we are going to cycle off to find an empty stretch of sand and sea somewhere on this paradise island and then have dinner at the tumbledown shack on the beach by his house. We fall asleep with the sound of the ocean waves crashing on the rocks beneath our eyrie.

As for restaurants, I have not missed the Big Life. I occasionally think about those restaurants because I love food. But my diet has changed quite a lot. I believe strongly in eating fresh organic food. There’s a small market shop near where we live that sells produce from local smallholdings. Often, there is only one pumpkin available and the lady would grudgingly cut you a small segment. You’d buy four chillies and she would generously throw in ten lime leaves (what does one do with lime leaves?!) Our purchases never cost more than £2. This is my loot today:

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You can see the vibrant colours. You can almost see the life bursting from them. Imagine putting all that living goodness inside your body. These days, I eat no processed food. I don’t each much carbs or empty calories. I eat a lot of these. From these I can make:

Soups and broths
Casseroles
Hotpots
Mash
Salads
Sauces

Note: I supplement these with lots of greens (we need fresh greens), nuts and seeds, eggs, dairy and some meat. But no vitamins or supplements. Who needs those with these goodies!

 

The Wife’s Choice

Our mother’s voice is very often the strongest, and for good or bad, we hear it deeply within us, the loudest voice of all. It took me 48 years to learn that my Ma is not always right, for I was 48 years old before I learned that for life to function beautifully, there has to be balance, equality and a beautiful status quo.

When I was young, my Ma used to tell us that she had enough love for EVERYONE. There was no need to fight for it, there was no need to ‘keep accounts’ and there was no need to feel the lack. She had enough for all.

When I was an angst-ridden teenager, I used to argue with her, ‘You love Daddy more than he loves you” and she would reply peacefully, “I love him enough for two, dear, so it doesn’t matter who loves who more.”

In Catching Infinity, the wife Karin van Achterberg loved her husband PW Vanderleyden ‘enough for two’ too. She loved him deeply, loyally and with great patience: she stayed at home and raised their three sons whilst he played at being the ‘great’ Professor. In truth, he was just a mediocre man who believed too much in his own publicity. But she, The Wife, was always there when he came home, ever ready to listen about his work though it bored her to death. She did not give a damn about Fibonacci numbers or the Grand Universal Theory, but nonetheless she quietly listened to his monologue. He never once asked her about her day because he was so full of his own self-importance. Thus, he never appreciated how she had grown in their 17 years of marriage and after 17 years, he had forgotten too that he had once been passionate about her, that he had involuntarily sank down to his knees at the altar on their wedding day in gratitude to God that this beautiful woman would take a gawky farm boy like him to be her husband.

How many Karin Van Achterbergs are there in the real world?

I intentionally set the story in a homestead deep in the South African veld, in a place where women do not walk out on their marriages. Karin’s husband had hurt her immeasurably, but she took it stoically. Being religious, she saw the suffering as her cross to bear. Love will triumph in the end, she told herself. She believed that, totally.

What made Karin’s story poignant was the fact that she was the only child and she was so loved by her old parents. They treated her like a Princess and taught her only about the good things in life. This wasn’t the suffering they envisaged for their beloved daughter.

When I started writing Catching Infinity, Karin was just a secondary character but as the story developed, I began to feel an affinity for her. She became the women I have known in my life and parts of her became me. I wanted to reach into the story and tell her (oh, so many times), “Karin, leave this man. He is not worth it. You can walk out of an abusive relationship, girl, do it.”

As a devout Catholic, I live my faith through Karin. But as a yogi, I believe in balance, equality and a beautiful status quo as eschewed in a beautiful balancing pose. When all is on balance, you catch fire inside. It is a liberation, a jivamukti. And as a yogi, I celebrate being alive, not being killed by life.  Here’s to putting life into your days, not days into your life.

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