The companionship of long-distance runners: kindness in unexpected places

Recently I was walking along the beach near where I live in Edinburgh when several unexpected things happened.

It was a unique summer day for Scotland: the sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky! It also happened to be the day of the Edinburgh marathon, and the promenade was packed with people waiting to cheer the runners on. I arrived just as the first runners appeared, and immediately spectators began applauding the athletes and shouting out words of encouragement. Some people in the watching crowd were obviously waiting for runners they knew, but most of the spectators were cheering for all of them. The runners in turn beamed smiles of appreciation back at the crowd, some waving or saying thanks. Teams of athletes wore t-shirts to represent the charity they were raising money for, and out on the main road cars and buses honked their horns in solidarity.

Of course, perhaps the good weather meant there were more people watching the marathon than might otherwise have been the case, but support for the runners did not stop with applauding the front-runners.  Wave after wave of runners came, in their hundreds if not thousands, from prime athletes to regular Joes and Janes, and of many different nationalities, and still the encouragement and good feeling continued.

Such was the strength of this, for me, unexpected and moving moment of shared humanity, warmth and kindness I wondered why on earth we cannot behave like this more often. It is beyond the scope of this blog to attempt to answer such a question. However, as Maureen’s blogs have pointed out recently, we can all begin to make the world a better place and benefit ourselves by taking responsibility for developing our own kindness and gratitude.

I haven’t always found such things easy.  Twenty years ago, one of my first bosses in nursing advised me against applying for a team leader’s position, saying that I was not a natural team player and I would ‘rub people up’ the wrong way! I was too strongly-opinionated, too maverick and at times too distant to colleagues. Although I was shocked by this appraisal, deep-down I knew he was right. It didn’t stop me applying for the job, which I eventually got; in fact I was more determined to get it to prove my boss wrong. In the years that followed I have learned (sometimes the hard way) how to be a team player- but I did and still do need to make a conscious and sustained effort to do so.

One of the techniques I find helpful comes from a Japanese approach called ‘Naikan’. The term literally means ‘looking inside’ and draws on principles from Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. If you are interested in it, Gregg Krech has written an excellent guide called “Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection”.

In Naikan we are asked to reflect on three main questions in order:

  1. What care and support have I received from others?
  2. What care and support have I given to others?
  3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?

One of the things I like about this practice is its flexibility. We can take these questions and examine any set of relationships we have, from pets to families to colleagues to partners. We can even examine our relationships to objects! This might sound strange, but I believe this could be a way of appreciating what we might have and making it last longer rather than reinforcing the strange modern notion of easily disposable goods which inevitably end up in landfills. We can also use the question to reflect on specific periods of time, for example one day, or a week, or for the duration of a relationship. And of course we can do this practice in the morning, reflecting for example on yesterday, at the end of the day, or at the week-end.

Another thing I love about this practice is that it is deceptively simple. In Naikan, we spend a period of time on each question in turn and simply list anything that comes to mind as we do so. This is not supposed to be an intellectual exercise; we are trying to see reality as it is and therefore we do not shy away from the troubles we might have caused others when it comes to that question.

We are also not looking for ‘big’ things when we do the practice. So, for example, when it comes to the care and support we have received or given, that might amount to a cup of tea or coffee, or being listened to, the bus driver stopping to let you on, or you letting another car come into the lane you are in ahead of you. With a practice like this you can of course go on to tackle some of the bigger events or significant relationships in your life once you feel ready to do so. But for me one of its key benefits is that, even when we are maybe feeling a bit down or disconnected from others, if we pause and think about it, there are usually things to feel grateful for. And trust me; this practice works!  From having perceived a colleague as an unhelpful grouch I have come to realise that they do contribute well – or that it is me who is the grouch. I have also reflected on how much housework my youngest step-daughter does as compared to how much I had previously convinced myself she didn’t do.

Not only can reflections like the ones offered in Naikan increase your sense of gratitude, just as importantly they can help us feel more connected with others. And whether we live in a quiet or busy place, in a family home or on our own, whether we see ourselves as outgoing or introverted, being connected is something that is surely good for us all.

Love,

Gavin.

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