How to Overcome the Hard Winter Blues

How to Overcome the Hard Winter Blues

Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash

Winter is just beginning here in The Netherlands as I write this blog but somehow it already feels as if it has been here for some time. Like many other countries we have renewed restrictions because of the rising Coronavirus infection rate. Like many others, I have not had a face to face meeting with a friend for more than five weeks. The picnics and walks in nature that were a huge comfort during the earlier phases of the pandemic are much more problematic now with the weather taking a turn for the worse. 

As I work at my desk emails come in from colleagues and friends in the UK worrying about the final dismal attempts to save the country from more economic hardship with the worse kind of Brexit deal. Political upset is rife right now with the election in the US, where it’s hard to find much to celebrate. 

Everything points to a long, hard winter. I’ve heard of people who say that they’ve learnt helpful things from the enforced limitations that everyone’s been experiencing. Things that have led them to reassess parts of their lives and come to different conclusions about how they want to continue when things return to some kind of normal. Perhaps this winter could be a time to dig deeper and to see what habits we’ve gotten into that aren’t working for us any longer? Maybe, there are some new corners to turn, or things to unlock that could help us further down the road?

Here’s some of the places that I am looking into.

Getting in touch with my own tender heart

One of the things that attracted me to Tibetan Buddhism is the idea that all of us are naturally kind and loving. There’s no notion of original sin—rather original goodness. Each of us has the choice to work with our minds and hearts to uncover this goodness, which is presently covered over by neurosis and unhelpful habits.

As a long-term meditator, I do have confidence in this view of human nature. When I am well in myself it’s certainly possible to access the tenderness of my heart. I’m in touch with the idea that people want to be happy and not to have to deal with pain and suffering. The fact that pain and suffering is inevitable for myself and others certainly touches my heart deeply. There’s a strong motivation to somehow be of help and service.

It’s the times when I am not completely at ease where things get trickier. Here’s an example. In my view, Brexit is an appalling mistake and a terrible burden for future generations who have been deprived of the experience of being fully European. When looking at the politicians who have cynically made this happen it’s hard to feel the same tenderness of heart. It’s not impossible—I can dig deeper and find some understanding, but it’s fragile and is easily swept aside by my frustration. 

This winter is likely to see all kinds of developments that will challenge the tenderness of my heart. One thing that works well for me is to check how I feel when I can count on that tenderness, as opposed to how I feel when I can’t. The difference between the two experiences is like the difference between the sparkle of a beautiful spring morning and the turbulence of a rainy winter afternoon.

Accepting the rawness of vulnerability

Earlier on I referred to the habits we have that tend to cover over our essential goodness. One of the most entrenched is our habit of not seeing things as they are. The very nature of life is that it is uncertain, and subject to constant change. This is too uncomfortable for us. We prefer certainty, continuity—we want to be in control.

The experience of this pandemic has brought home to us all how uncertain life is. Things we took for granted a few months ago now seem like a dream. Our habitual response is to try and protect ourselves so we can feel better. Our habit is to turn away from discomfort and to cover up any feelings of vulnerability. This habit has the effect of freezing circumstances which are actually fluid. It puts us in a cage created by our fear of discomfort.

I am trying to work on turning into those feelings of discomfort as a way of finding out what is actually going on. Leaning in means that I have to look at what is making me uncomfortable—to understand it and confront it. It’s the only way that there’ll be a chance to work with it and to open the door of the cage.

We could call this process of turning towards discomfort ‘the rawness of vulnerability’. When I manage to stay with all the uncomfortable feelings that come up for me—fear about coronavirus, feelings of loss as I miss seeing friends and family—then I am touching where I feel vulnerable. Rather than this making me feel weaker, it gives me courage because I am opening to what comes rather than closing. Connecting with my own vulnerability helps me to connect with the vulnerability of other people as well.

Not losing heart

I like to stay connected to the news and what is going on in the world, but it is not always easy. In fact, sometimes I can feel quite downhearted about how things are going. I can see that this is certainly something to keep an eye on through this long winter.

So, what happens when it all feels too much? It’s generally when I get too involved in opinions about what is happening. There’s a shift from understanding to taking sides and we’re back to not working from a tender heart. I am trying to work with this by recognizing when my own habits are coming into play and obscuring the issue. To do that, I need to widen my perspective and to pay close attention to how my reactions are working. My meditation is helpful here because it’s helped me to develop some degree of self-awareness.

I need to remember that everything I do matters. Even if I am just thinking stuff in my mind and not acting it out, I am still increasing my tendencies to behave in such a way. It’s another choice—do I want to add to the sufferings in the world with my own behaviour, or do I wantto try and work with my habits?

When I am able to pay attention and work with unhelpful habits then I am in touch with my own tender heart and there’s much less chance of losing heart. Then there is a chance to be able to share that with the people I come into contact with. Wasn’t it Gandhi who advised us to be the change we want to see in the world?

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

6 Good Reasons to Enjoy the Stress Workbook

6 Good Reasons to Enjoy the Stress Workbook

With all the upset and worry caused by the current Corona virus, it was a bit of a holiday to have something to celebrate. On 9 July 2020 my second book, The Stress Workbook was published. It’s been very heartening to receive so many congratulations from people. It’s particularly special to see people holding your book and getting ready to read it.

The purpose of this blog is to tell a bit about the book to people who have not come across it yet and who maybe don’t know my first book, The Compassionate Mind Approach to Reducing Stress.

All my life I have looked for meaning and ways to work with my habits in order to live more harmoniously. It’s been a natural progression from that to write about things that are relevant to peoples’ lives. My blog aims to pick up on issues that impact wellbeing and offer ways to work to increase your own. So, when it was suggested to me that I should write about stress and show how compassion can help to work with it, I jumped at the chance.

1.We’re going through challenging times

There’s no doubt that the last few months have been extremely stressful. Worry about the virus is one thing but then there is all the fallout to deal with as well. Lockdown and all its ongoing effects have changed our lives in ways we could never have imagined a few months ago. Conversations with friends are opportunities to share how we are trying to manage the strangeness of the situation. 

I had a significant birthday in June and had planned to celebrate the passing of another decade with trips to the UK to see family and friends. Obviously, the plan is now on hold. My eldest niece had her first baby during lockdown and as her mother is in the vulnerable category she had to go through the whole thing without her mother’s physical support. One of my nephews has lost his job because of layoffs and the other one had to celebrate getting his PhD in a virtual ceremony. All over the world people are struggling to cope with loss, upheaval, financial hardship, anxiety and uncertainty. 

2. Stress is something we all need to cope with

Stress tends to get a bad press. When we talk about feeling stressed, we generally mean we don’t feel well in ourselves. That’s not surprising, as stress can make us tired, irritable, and generally uninspired. However, from an evolutionary point of view, our stress response was designed to keep us away from danger and safe enough to reproduce and raise our offspring. The trouble is that our modern lifestyle is very different from the one our ancestors led. The stress response that was designed to help us run away from danger, or to stand and fight it when we had the chance, nowadays is triggered by traffic jams, lost keys, crowded supermarkets and so on. Our sympathetic nervous system is chronically over-stimulated. We’ve become exhausted by our own reactions!

Although it is only natural to want things to go well in life and for things to turn out as we want, experience has shown us that life a series of ups and downs. We all face frustrations and disappointments. The Stress Workbook aims to show how stress is an inevitable part of life. We can learn to work with it in useful and productive ways that will benefit us.

3. The Stress Workbook points out our unhelpful habits

Of course, as we go through life, we adopt all kinds of coping mechanisms to help us get by. Some of these strategies work well but some of them can stop us being able to understand more about how we are coping.

For example, when we experience stress our tendency is to try and make it go away. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we turn away from it.  Sometimes we distract ourselves with a holiday, or TV, or by buying something new. Maybe we try and comfort ourselves but all too often it’s with an extra glass of wine, or more chocolate.

Another habit we have is that we don’t pay attention. Research has shown that for almost 50% of our waking hours we not thinking about what we are doing at that moment, but our mind is wandering off and thinking about completely different things. Have you ever driven home from somewhere and when you arrive, you have almost no memory of the journey at all? Or been in a meeting where you zoned out for large sections of the discussion and when it was your turn to speak, struggled to find the thread? The thing is that this does make us happy but rather stops us from being fully present for our experience.

Both of these habits are example of habits that get in our way and prevent us from moving forward. We need to replace them with beneficial habits—ones that will build our resilience and enhance our wellbeing.

4. We can develop new, useful habits to improve how we cope

With regard to stress the new habit we need to develop is that of leaning into our stress. This doesn’t mean to indulge in stress but to quietly allow ourselves to explore what is happening for us and how it is affecting us. We can begin to notice where in the body we register stress, and how it makes us react. Over time, we can learn to see what triggers our stress and even how to avoid these triggers. Instead of distracting ourselves we become curious to see how this all works and to find new ways of coping.

The best way to work with our wandering mind is through mindfulness meditation. With mindfulness we can learn to be in the present moment. Instead of going over something that has already happened, or worrying about what we’re planning to do next, we can simply be present. When we are present, we can bring so much more energy to what we are doing. We’re more focused and effective and our attention is sharper. That means we can notice what is going on for ourselves and others, so it’s a good strategy in working with stress.

5.We don’t necessarily see compassion as a means to work with stress

If we’re asked how we cope with stress, it’s likely that compassion is not the first tool that springs to mind. However, developing compassion for ourselves and other people helps to widen our perspective. Our focus on our own problems is lifted, as we take into account what is happening for other people. When we’re going through hard times, it’s all too easy to wonder, ‘why me’? Compassion teaches us to see that everyone, whoever they are, has difficulties and worries. We are not being singled out for special punishment. It’s just how life is.

Going on from this, we can take a fresh look at our reactions to events that cause us trouble. Let’s take an example. Say you had a work meeting that went badly and left you stressed and depleted. The event of the unsatisfactory meeting is one thing, but our tendency is then to pile on our reactions. We feel responsible for the meeting going wrong, while also feeling some anger towards those who did not agree with your point of view. So, we blame ourselves and blame other at the same time. Then we feel even more stressed and miserable. Learning to work with how we respond to difficult situations is an important act of self-compassion.

6. The Stress Workbook is packed full of practical, workable advice

Because this is a workbook, it’s full of reflections, exercises, worksheets and meditation scripts. The Stress Workbook is designed to flow as a continuous story and so the exercises are embedded into the text. This means that you can read the theory and then quickly put it into practice. 

I have also included many stories from the workshops that I have given. They’re a great way to see how other people manage stress—where they get stuck and how they resolve it.

In theory you can begin at the beginning of the Stress Workbook, take your pencil and work through everything step-by-step. I suggest pencil because you might want to erase stuff and write something different. It means that you are evolving a set of strategies to work with stress through the power of compassion from the beginning of the workbook.

Do let me know how you get on. I always love to hear!

Go to this link for access

http://eepurl.com/g-8j_L

Maureen’s Personal Blog – rose

Maureen’s Personal Blog – rose

A 66m-year-old murder mystery has finally been solved, researchers say, revealing an enormous asteroid struck the killer blow for the dinosaurs.

The Cretaceous/Paleogene extinction event resulted in about 75% of plants and animals – including non-avian dinosaurs – being wiped out. But the driving cause of the catastrophe has been a topic of hot debate.

Some scientists say the 10km-wide asteroid that smashed into Earth and created the Chicxulub crater was the chief cause, with the strike sending up vast quantities of material that blocked the sun, triggering a prolonged, cold period that caused devastation.

However, others say volcanic activity in India’s Deccan region was the main driver, causing large-scale climate change. Volcanic eruptions have previously been found to have driven other mass extinctions, including the end-Permian mass extinction.

Can a Pandemic Make it Easier to Forgive?

Can a Pandemic Make it Easier to Forgive?

As the Corona Virus story develops, I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit of what it means to forgive. It’s something about the intensity of the current situation that’s made me question some of my basic assumptions around certain relationships.

What’s to forgive?

We’re several months into the Corona Crisis now and the atmosphere has changed since it all began. To begin with there was a sense that we are all in this together. Our shared vulnerability brought us together and made us feel close. Sadly, as events have unfolded this closeness has been exposed on many levels as being only skin-deep. 

Huge gaps have opened up between how countries choose to protect their citizens. The divide between rich and poor countries is echoed in the difference between how well-off families are coping and what it’s like for lower-income families. Frontline workers receive plenty or praise but, in many cases have not been given the protections they need to care for themselves as they fight the virus. Old people in care homes, along with their carers have been too often over-looked. Insidiously, the virus has proven to have an even more devastating effect on BAME citizens. The global economy is reeling.

We all have our views of how different sectors are dealing with the crisis. As a Brit living in the Netherlands, I am profoundly grateful for the no-nonsense, practical approach that I find here. With family and friends living in the UK, I am consumed with sorrow and worry. It’s all too easy to blame politicians for not taking enough care. Forgiveness seems in short supply.

Am I able to forgive?

There are politicians who inspire trust and confidence. When they get things wrong it’s much easier to understand that no-one is perfect and to want to forgive them. The whole process is helped along when people in the public eye are able to admit it when they get things wrong and focus on putting it right.

Part of the challenge is that we live in such polarised times. It troubles me that I only need to hear the name of certain public figures to feel upset, or even angry. How can I forgive someone that I do not trust?

Perhaps this is the very time to try to go deeper. Why would someone act in ways that are dishonest and self-seeking? Does it imply a person at ease with themselves and their world? Could there be a possibility for a compassionate approach here—to try to separate the person from their actions? When we feel threatened, or uncertain it’s all too easy to behave in ways that are not necessarily beneficial. It does not mean that there is not a person inside who wishes to manage better but is currently struggling.

My approach just now is to try and see the person behind the actions that I disagree with and to try to fathom their reasons for being the way they are. It’s not easy for sure but I want to try. My wish is to stand for what I belief in with fervour but minus the hostility. I want forgiveness to be my fall back position.

Buddhist teaching on Buddhanature

When I encountered Buddhism, I was attracted by the presentation of what is called Buddhanature. It’s the idea that each of us is fundamentally whole, fully aware, wise and compassionate by nature—in other words, perfect as we are. It’s kind of the opposite of original sin. The thing is that we do not recognise our nature for what it is. We get distracted and follow along with the products of that distraction—ego, neurosis, self-absorption and so on. That means that we can behave in all kind of unfortunate ways.

The Buddhist path is all about learning to access your Buddhanature more effectively. However, here’s the thing—everyone has Buddhanature, including those politicians who I can no longer trust. So, here is the source of my aspiration to separate the person from their actions and to cut down on judgment. If I can remember for a moment that a person’s nature is whole and full of potential, then I can feel regret when they are not living up to it. Just as I do with myself. That makes it easier to forgive.

Focusing on the personal

It’s a way to try and stay personal with someone. To remember that they are a human being, just like me. I call it ‘focusing on the personal’. It’s much easier to put into practice with people that you know.

I’ve had two recent examples of how being able to forgive brings about so much relief and ease. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling with a feeling of hurt with a family member. Harsh words were exchanged, and other members of the family got drawn in. It was very uncomfortable. When lockdown began, I heard that this person was in isolation and all alone. Somehow this knowledge cut right through all my feelings of displeasure and judgment. I immediately picked up the phone and had the first real conversation that we had enjoyed for months. All the things that I had objected to seemed to be quite insignificant in the face of all that was going on with regard to the pandemic. It seemed that in fact, there really was nothing to forgive.

The second example is with a group of people that I work with. We’re a loosely connected bunch, who are being asked to work together more closely. As we’ve never really gelled in a creative way, there was a high level of apprehension. A member of the group suggested that we meet together and tell each other two or three things that we find inspiring about the way we work. The effect was powerful. In expressing what inspired us in each of the people in the group, a long history of mistrust seemed to be swept away. Again, it seemed that after all, there was nothing to forgive.

In my experience, the pressing background of the pandemic can act as a catalyst that makes it more possible to forgive but it takes attention and work.

This 60-page e-book is packed full of guidance on simple, practical steps to make meditation part of your everyday life. You can find more here

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

How to keep going when you can’t see how it ends

How to keep going when you can’t see how it ends

Having the ability to keep going when things are challenging is a skill that we’re all going to need to get us through this crisis.

As countries around the world went into lockdown to halt the spread of the corona virus, our lives changed in ways that we could never have imagined. The very shock of it united people in a spirit and the sense that we were all in this together.

Now we’re more than two months further on and although there is still appreciation and support, there’s also a whole buzz of differing opinions and conflicting areas of interest. Where politicians were united in trying to ride out the initial impact, now there’s all kinds of disagreements about how to go forward. When can schools open? How safe is it to go back to work? When can we go on holiday? 

As we try to keep going through this and stay well, there are huge economic pressures building up for most of us. We don’t know how this is going to turn out. Will I lose my job?Will there be a second wave? When will there be a vaccine?

So, what can we do?

Embrace your vulnerability

First off, we have to take time to allow ourselves to feel whatever we feel—frightened, anxious, or uncertain. Our default position is to try and protect ourselves from pain, but it never really works. Trying to cover over our vulnerability cuts us off from fully experiencing what life has to offer. It makes us shrink into ourselves—and it prevents us from seeing the vulnerability of all other people. 

Something we could try is when we feel bad about something—worried about money, or fearful of getting sick—is to simply allow ourselves to experience the feeling. Most of the time we get drawn into our feelings and swept away by the rush of thoughts and stories that we weave around them. Then we really feel bad. 

What we could try here is to lightly touch the feeling and accept that we’re feeling it. We simply hold it in our awareness. Gradually, we can remember that these are exactly the same kind of feelings that everyone has. Just as we are vulnerable, so are other people. 

Be prepared to get it wrong

Any time we make a mistake or get something wrong we’re likely to feel particularly vulnerable. In order to avoid the rawness of feeling bad it can be only too easy to get into blame. Our relationship ends and we decide it is the fault of our partner. We’re not happy at work and we decide it is because of our boss.

Sometimes we turn on ourselves and direct all the blame there. We feel embarrassed and decide we are a failure. Just this week, a friend was telling me that she’s finding it hard to just keep going when she has been being isolated for so long. Her take was that she should be able to cope better and appreciate how relatively comfortable her circumstances are. She needed reminding that her feelings were perfectly natural and understandable. There was no need to add to her discomfort by blaming herself as well.

Another way to deal with failure is to apply the exercise we already tried in the last section—to train ourselves to feel what we feel. Here we can also draw on the body to support us. Often when we’re struggling to get away from something difficult, we experience some kind of feeling in our body. Perhaps it’s a stiffness in the shoulders, a tightness in the chest or a sinking feeling in the stomach. We can use that physical feeling to ground us in the present moment. 

So, we connect with say the tightness in our chest and just try to stay with it for as long as we can. If we can do this, we are accustoming our nervous system to relaxing with the truth. As we do this, we feel our experience shifting and changing. We can’t pin it down. In this way, we’re encouraging ourselves to expand, rather than contract. We’re learning to let go, instead of clinging. 

Keep going but try not to take sides

We’re all going to have our own views about steps that are being to move countries through this crisis. There’ll be some policies that we agree with and others that we find ridiculous. With all the media coverage presenting one school of thought and then another, there are plenty of opinions to get caught up in.

It’s very easy for us to carry around all ideas of ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong, or ‘us’ and ‘them’. Although they may appear as external ideas, they have their roots in how our mind works on a daily basis. Have you noticed how often you have the feeling of not being quite satisfied with yourself, other people, or circumstances in your life? This can be about quite small things but also develop into full-blown anger or hatred.

Then there are the things we’re longing for—a new job, a partner, a new place to live. We think that these things will improve our lives, but it all comes down to seeing them as somehow separate from us.

This current situation gives us plenty of opportunity to try work with this inner polarisation. As we go about our day in this period of lockdown, or semi-lockdown we can notice when our thoughts are going into a ‘for’ or ‘against’ habit. Perhaps we remember a time when we had a lovely meal with friends in our favourite restaurant and we have feelings of enjoyment. Then we remember that it is uncertain when we’ll be able to visit that restaurant again and we feel down. We might even think of someone we know who is already able to go to restaurants and we feel resentful towards them.

What can we do?

Starting to notice what we’re doing is a huge first step. The more we can do that, the more opportunity we have to ask ourselves if we really want to use our energy in this way. Perhaps we decide that no, we certainly do not want to behave in this way but five minutes later we’re off on another round of polarisation. Instead of feeling guilty, we can try to use the unpleasantness of our experience to get smarter. It’s another opportunity to recognise the frailty and vulnerability of the human situation—to understand our deep interconnectedness. Rather than contributing to the aggression and greed that is already out there in the world, we can feel inspired to stay present with our thoughts and emotions and prevent them escalating. We make a decision not to add to the confusion already present.

As you try to keep going remember everything you do matters

When it feels hard to keep going it’s all too easy to wonder if it really matters how we behave. Perhaps we’re feeling a bit down and so we snap at our partner. The feeling comes, ‘Well I’m fed up. He/she needs to understand and anyway, what does it matter?’

Let’s think about that for a moment. If we snap at our partner, a friend, a work colleague then we’re spreading our discomfort around. We’re letting our mood affect others. Maybe it does not feel like such a big deal but think how you feel when someone snaps at you—it’s uncomfortable, right? It’s likely to put the other person in a worse mood and then they’ll go on to snap at someone else.

Apart from how we affect others, think about how snapping at another person affects you. We’re upsetting ourselves and damaging our own peace of mind by behaving as if it doesn’t matter or is somehow justified.  Instead we could reflect a bit and ask ourselves if how we are behaving is helping us to overcome old habits or make them more solid. Compare it to how we feel when we manage to be kind, or patient—isn’t that the direction that we wish to move in?

Neuroscientists can now demonstrate how our brains change in relation to our experience. The very thoughts we think make neurological patterns in our brains. That’s something to think about.

Let things be as they are

One of the ways in which we can make it hard to keep going is our tendency to go back over stuff that has already happened and think ahead to what might happen. Allowing our minds to roam back and forth like that can be quite exhausting. If while we try to cope with the situation most of us are in right now, we keep thinking of when it might change, and what might happen we’re making things even harder for ourselves.

Instead we could try to pay attention to what is working well for us as we try to weather this crisis. In my own case, I have a lovely apartment full of books and music and all my textile art stuff. I live with my dear partner. We are comfortable and have plenty to eat. Just in that there is so much to be grateful for and to appreciate.

Then we can extend that by paying attention to other people. None of us are seeing many people just now but we do see them online—or even in our mind’s eye. Think of them as a person in their own right rather than just in relation to yourself. See them as a complex, fragile human being—just as you are.

We’ve spent quite a bit of time in the post looking at ways of being with uncomfortable things. When we can do that, we can truly let things be as they are—imperfect, flawed, extraordinary and transient. We can pay attention to all that we are going through, without needing to know how it ends because we recognise that is simply how life is.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

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