This is the story of how I recently overcame my feelings of wanting to lie low and nurse my stress by going into town and joining with the common humanity I found there.
The last few months have been pretty stressful one way and another and I have been feeling the effects. I work from home, which is great, but when things are intense I can end up feeling a bit isolated. A couple of weekends back my partner was away giving a workshop and I had not made any plans myself. Because I was not feeling sociable, I thought I could work through the weekend.
Unexpectedly, Saturday morning dawned fresh and bright and tempted me to go out and play.
Getting out of my comfort zone
Although I could feel the pull to get out of the house I resisted for a while—I had too much to do, I didn’t want to spend loads of money, I was a bit tired…………. After a while I realised, with a bit of a shock that what was getting in the way was my reluctance to leave my comfort zone. It was easier to stay at home, feeling a bit sorry for myself, than make the effort to go out. This insight gave me a real jolt. I don’t see myself as someone who plays safe. I made up my mind to get ready and go out.
Common humanity and self-compassion
Kristen Neffis one of the leading voices in the research and practice of self-compassion. She sees self-compassion as being composed of three elements:self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Each of these components is an antidote to ways we can undermine ourselves when we do not practice self-compassion. So self-kindness is an antidote to judging ourselves and mindfulness is an antidote to over-identification, or the ways we exaggerate what is happening around us. Common humanity is the antidote to self-isolation. I certainly felt that when I realised part of me preferred to stay home and wallow!
The healing potential of connecting with common humanity was something I experienced directly that Saturday, as I went tired and bruised into town and came home feeling re-charged and uplifted.
Connecting with others is healing
Amsterdam was packed that day. I had forgotten for a moment the huge impact of tourists in the city. There are always lots of people visiting Amsterdam but, in the summer, it gets astronomical. In a city of less than one million inhabitants, 18,000,000 visitors are expected this year. Sometimes I can find this invasive but somehow this time it touched me.
So many people were out and about wanting to enjoy themselves and have a good time. You could hear a whole range of languages and accents as people tried to find their way around the city. There were families and young couples. Older people in tourist parties followed closely behind their guide. There was a tangible sense of movement and enquiry.
To my shame, my Dutch is very poor. Although I have lived in Amsterdam for many years I have not managed to become fluent in Dutch. When I am on my own I always want to let people know that I am not a tourist, just a poor Dutch speaker. On this Saturday I had interactions with all kinds of people in shops, and my confession led to a whole series of interesting stories with the people working in the shops I visited. There was lots of sharing of experiences and much laughter and teasing.
Because I was on my own, people were more likely to take time to talk with me. I could feel something in me relax with the enjoyment of chatting without any particular kind of agenda. In the café where I stopped for coffee there was time to look round and see the other people enjoying their coffee and cake.
One of my favourite meditations for common humanity
The more I walked around and felt myself as one of the crowd, the more I could feel the tightness of recent months begin to dissolve. With my own stress and worry still so close, it was a small step to look at others and wonder how they were and what they were coping with.
I found myself reciting, or paraphrasing lines from this meditation more and more as the afternoon went by. Would anyone know from looking at me what I had been carrying over the last months? Probably not. How can any of us gauge what someone is dealing with, other than by accepting the basic truth that life is both wonderful and very hard at the same time. We all want things to go well but life shows us that some of the time they won’t. Everyone has their own worry, suffering and pain—everyone. So it is possible to look into the eyes of anyone you pass by and think, ‘just like me.’This is the experience of common humanity for me.
As my walk around town continued I experienced a growing sense of gratitude. It felt so good to be part of the energy of the people enjoying the city, as well as feeling a sense of connection between myself and them.
My worries were still there but I felt much less alone with them. Remembering that everyone I was meeting would be going through their own version of challenge and anxiety lifted the heaviness from my own. Before I set off to play in town I was feeling that my problems were all-pervasive. After a few hours of shopping and people-watching I simply felt that we were all in the same boat—wanting happiness but dealing with whatever comes along.
Research into gratitude over the past 15 years is finding several emotional, and lately even physical benefits. Connecting with common humanity, recognising its power to help me and experiencing gratitude because of that transformed my mood and lifted my heart. I will not quickly forget the experience.
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For the last few months there has been a strange distance with one of my closest friends. It’s been really uncomfortable. Recently we met up to try and talk some things through and things got heated. She walked out on me, left me sitting. I was astounded and very hurt. It was difficult to know what to do.
My partner, who has also been involved in the whole story, suggested that we buy her a big bunch of flowers. We wanted to break through something. Last weekend we chose some lovely flowers and drove over to her place to deliver them. She wasn’t home—which worked well, but we could leave them with her daughter.
Within an hour of us dropping off the flowers our friend was on the phone and our communication was completely different. The whole tone was forgiving, and healing. We recognised that there had been pain and that there were things to work through, but it all seemed possible.
It was as if a boulder loosened itself from my back and rolled away. Since then I have been doing a lot of thinking about forgiveness and the reasons why it is so important.
It eases your own pain
I have been quite amazed at how relieved I’ve felt since delivering the flowers. The hurt I’ve been feeling is much more in proportion than it was. There is also a sense of feeling better about my own role in whatever the dynamic is with my friend. Instead of feeling helpless, and a bit inadequate, there is more patience and trust that things will turn out well.
It was powerful to replace my feelings of hurt, with a healing action. I could actually sense the resentment in my heart ease and was able to access the affection and love that I have always felt for my friend. Yes, we were offering flowers as a gesture of healing—we wanted to give something to our friend that would unblock things‑but we both walked away feeling lighter, and as if we too had received a gift.
Forgiving reduces your stress levels
We could say that the opposite of forgiving is bearing a grudge. It turns out that when we bear a grudge it has a damaging effect on our wellbeing. In a study carried out bypsychologists at Hope College, Michigan, participants were asked to recall a grudgethey held against someone. Recalling the grudge led to an increase in blood pressure,heart rate and sweating. On an emotional level, participants described feeling angry, sad, anxious and less in control of themselves.
When they were asked to imagine forgiving the person, they held a grudge against, theirstress levels fell and the physical symptoms they had experienced subsided. In the psychological domain, forgiveness has also been shown to diminish the experience of stress and inner conflict while simultaneously restoring positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
In his book, Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman reminds us that studies of people posthostility reveal that every time they merely think of the group they hate, their own body responds with pent-up anger. It floods with stress hormones, raising their blood pressure and impairing their immune effectiveness. Whereas forgiving someone we’ve held a grudge against reverses the biological reaction. It lowers our blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones and it lessens our pain and depression.
When we can forgive other people, we are releasing our own hostility as well, so webenefit just as they do.
It’s the only way to free yourself
One of the things that Nelson Mandela is famous for is his insistence on a policy of forgiveness as opposed to revenge when he became President of South Africa in 1994. In one of his most famous quotes on his release from prison he said,
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.
If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator.
Both quotes point out that forgiving frees us. That is not to say that it is easy in any way. When we have suffered grievous hurt it can be hard to find our way to forgiveness. Realising that it is the only way to begin our own process of healing can help us find the courage to try.
When we spend time going over the hurt that has been done to us and suffering all the anguish that brings, we are continuously pulled back into the past. Although we might wish to move on, we are still caught in the prison of all our conflicting emotions. Forgiving enables us to move on.
Forgiving helps you to recognise the pain in others
We are not born wanting to hurt others, or with hate in our hearts. Our life experiences shape us as we grow up and mature. If we can take some time to look into the circumstances of the person who has hurt us, we can often find all kinds of clues that help to explain their behaviour. When we take time to explore our common humanity, we can begin to see things from a bigger perspective.
The person who caused us pain is a vulnerable human being trying to cope with their challenges, just as we are. Each of us is trying to find the way to live a good life and to avoid suffering but experience shows us that that is not possible. Life includes suffering. Sometimes the way we process our suffering can make us hurt others—either intentionally, or unintentionally.
Don’t we also sometimes need forgiveness from other people for the pain we cause them? If we cause pain, don’t we wish for forgiveness?
It contains the seeds of compassion
The road to forgiving can be hard. We need to be patient with ourselves. Compassion itself can be hard. Although we have the potential for compassion in our hearts and minds, our life experiences can make it hard to access. We need to take small steps and build confidence in our ability to care about the suffering of other people and to wish to help them to be free of it.
Connecting with other people, paying attention to what is going on with them and seeing how alike we all are will help to turn our minds to compassion. Forgiving other people when they cause us pain will help the seeds of compassion to grow.
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Meetings can be dynamic, creative events where plans get moved on and decisions made. They can also be boring, tedious and sometimes feel like a big waste of time. Whatever the case, many of us spend quite a lot of our time in one sort of meeting or another. That gives us plenty of opportunity to ensure that any meeting we are part of is a mindful meeting.
Preparing yourself for a mindful meeting
My sister is in the kind of job where she can have back-to-back meetings all day. Sometimes her boss schedules an extra meeting at the same time as one she already having! It’s all she can do to make sure she has all the documents and information she needs for each meeting, never mind having the luxury of doing a sitting session before one begins.
One thing you can do though is to use the set-up time of the meeting to come back to yourself. There are always a few moments of chatting and settling before a meeting gets going. You can quietly focus on your breath as you sit down and sort through your papers.
Remember your goals
I have been in too many meetings where people just talked for the sake of it, without any real purpose. It helps to be clear for yourself about what you are hoping that the meeting will achieve. Having this in mind will help you to contribute to the meeting in a way that will help it move along in a creative way.
What are your personal goals for the meeting? There are the kinds of meetings where you might have a private goal of not wanting to lose patience, or not wanting to feel put down by another member of the group. No-one else needs to know about these goals. They are for your own growth and development. Gently keep them in mind, not to beat yourself up, but to help you manage the situation as you want to.
It’s very easy to get distracted in a meeting. Maybe you get bored and your mind wanders. Or perhaps you are caught in intense discussion that takes all of your attention. It helps to have something to remind you to be present. I like to take notes by hand in a meeting, so I use my pen as a reminder to be present. Each time I pick it up to write, I remember I am trying to contribute to a mindful meeting.
You could also use each time you take a drink or when a different person speaks. A friend of mine carries a special stone in her pocket to remind her to come back.
See who is in the room
As the meeting gets started take some time to look around and notice who is there and how they are. Remember, that just like you, each person in the room has worries both inside and outside of work—bring to mind any specific problems that you are aware people might be facing. Allow yourself to feel a sense of common humanity with what they are going through—it will really help if things get intense and difficult to remember how much in common, we all share.
As you work through the agenda notice when your attention wanders and you stop being fully present to what is going on. You can use your breath as an anchor of it helps. Simply notice where you can feel your breath entering and leaving your body and rest your attention there for a moment, or two until you feel you are ‘back’. This will help to maintain a mindful meeting.
Keep a look out for when you feel irritation, or frustration rising and recall your scan of the room at the beginning and try to see everyone as simply doing their best. Again, you can use your breath to help you settle.
Be mindful of how much you are speaking and the tone of voice you use. Are you making it easy for people to listen to you and to hear your point, or are you pushing them away with an impatient tone, or hurried explanation?
Listening can be a good mindfulness practice. Rest your attention on what is being said at any given moment. Try to keep your attention there and not let it stray off into thoughts and rumination. By bringing your full attention to what is being said you will find that you get less tired, will stay in closer touch with the progress of the meeting and can contribute more.
Notice when opinions and judgements come into how you are listening. Try to drop them and keep your attention open and receptive. Pay particular attention to how you listen to people in the meeting you do not agree with. It is so easy to mentally dismiss what you think they are going to say before they have even started to speak.
Try to stay aware of your facial expression as you listen. I know my concentrated face can look pretty grim—I don’t mean to, but my expression gets kind of stuck and I need to consciously relax and assume a more neutral, pleasant expression.
What about if things get difficult?
If you feel that the meeting is getting bogged down, you may find it possible to introduce some skilful humour to allow people to relax for a moment and let off steam.
If this feels too risky, doing things like bringing along fruit, or cake can help people relax and be normal together while they enjoy the treat.
Suggesting people simply sit in silence for a moment or two to get things back in perspective can be beneficial also.
I have a story from a workshop I gave years ago that always stays with me. A CEO of a non-profit shared how on one occasion she found herself in a meeting that was becoming acrimonious. She was not a main player at the table and did not see how she could skilfully intervene to turn things around. So, she simply stayed quiet and looked around the room wishing everyone present happiness and well-being. She said that normally she would have left a meeting like that exhausted and unhappy but after this one she felt invigorated.
A few days later she met up with another participant from the same meeting who asked her what she had been doing and commented, ‘I felt the meeting was deteriorating so badly and then I looked over at you and you looked so calm and focused it helped me settle and feel better.’ Just as anger and irritation can pollute the atmosphere of a meeting, self-awareness and kindness are also contagious but in a healthy way.
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