Reflections on Days Past

I spent my childhood in rural England, and in the days before Christmas, the travelling Romanies would appear in our hamlet, their canvas-covered wagon and horse tethered on the grass verge at the roadside. On one of these evenings, our family home would receive a visit as these travelers and their children went from house-to-house singing carols. The vocals were not our usual rendition of Christian Carols, but instead songs about their own lives. The opening words to one of these melodies remain clear in my memory. As we stood behind our closed front door in our warm house, they would stand out in the black of night, their rustic harmony cutting the cold night air:

‘You’re in there,

And we’re out here,

God Almighty knows where you’ll be next year.’

For these travelers, uncertainty was their friend, living as they did ‘as’ nature. Last Christmas, my family and I were deeply ensconced in life in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We decided to visit family in the U.K. for six weeks at the end of January. And here we are 11 months later still in the U.K. looking out of our window on a bleak midwinter scene of rain and bare trees in the City of Coventry, a place that we never had any intention of visiting, let alone living. Against much adversity and challenge, the year has had a profoundly positive impact on our family and life. Like many worldwide, we have spent much of this year in our family unit. We lived in various spaces ranging in size from 10m2 to 150m2, and the chaos of this lifestyle, forced me to take my Zen practice off the mat and into ‘my life’. 

It sounds rather stupid, saying that my training was a separate thing, yet that is how it was. This year there has been no mountain top on which to practice, and although I would still favor a quiet space, a screaming toddler does unexpectedly change the external conditions in which Zazen is taking place. We all face our own continually shifting external conditions, whether they are relationships at home or the latest world leaders tweeting what we consider nonsense. Still, all can distract and take us away from where we can be adding value in the world.

This year Christmas seems to have brought more suffering than happiness to many. Here in the UK, the strict lockdown rules over the Christmas period removed the opportunity for many to travel and celebrate with their families. Yet within our pain is the opportunity to experience something more significant. Christmas is a time for giving and receiving, but it is in the giving that we can discover our true nature and the joy of each moment, regardless of conditions. If we want to get close to who we indeed are, unconditional giving in which we expect nothing in return brings us immediately to this place. I was walking into the city yesterday when a lady in front of me and her young children stopped and presented a homeless man a plate of Christmas food and several new blankets, no words spoken, but I could feel the human connection. As leaders living in a hectic, materialistic and social media-driven world, we must remain able to access, and engage with this place of compassion and connection at all times. It is the home of the Zen Leader.

First published at Insights December 2020

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