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.

Can there be good news hidden in this crisis?

Can there be good news hidden in this crisis?

Isn’t it incredible how quickly our lives have changed in the last few weeks because of the Corona Virus? Seemingly overnight our way of living has altered dramatically. Yet even among all the anxiety, grief and disorientation there are still glimmerings of good news. It’s this good news that could be the basis for our long-term recovery.

We are all in this together

A striking feature of this situation is how it affects everyone. Not long ago we were watching scenes of flooding in the UK, of refugees flooding across the border in Turkey and the bush fires in Australia and Brazil. Like most people, I found these scenes distressing and they occupied my mind for ages. At the same time, I had the luxury of them not happening to me—they were happening to other people.

All this has changed now. This virus is affecting the lives of everyone on the planet—how we work, socialise, keep our economy afloat—the list is endless. There’s no room to say one country is getting something wrong and another right. We just don’t know. Governments are making up their responses as we go along. They’re trying their best, but they don’t really know what will happen.

Everyone is anxious and uncertain. However wealthy, powerful or successful you are it doesn’t matter. We’ve seen celebrities, royalty and politicians all going down with it. The virus does not discriminate.

So, what is the good news here?

If we pay attention this could be a real wake-up call for how we care for each other. As we witness each person’s vulnerability it’s brought home to us strongly that is the very nature of being human. We all know this but in the rough and tumble of living it can get pushed to the back of our minds. As we focus on making  living, caring for our families and living as best we can it’s all too easy to overlook the importance and uniqueness of each human being. 

Now as we stand side by side through this pandemic, we know that just as each of us is anxious and worried, so is everyone else. Whenever we feel closed in by not being able to go out into the spring air, we can remember that this is how it is for almost everyone. As we struggle to get in supplies, we know that it’s not just us wanting to make our home as safe as possible. It’s as if our personal defences have melted away and we are all vulnerable together.

We are experiencing the reality of our connected world

The source of the coronavirus is believed to be a “wet market” in Wuhan which sold both dead and live animals including fish and birds.  We know that such markets pose a heightened risk of viruses jumping from animals to humans. This is because hygiene standards are difficult to maintain if live animals are being kept and butchered on site. Typically, they are also densely packed allowing disease to spread from species to species.The animal source of Covid-19 has not yet been identified, but the original host is thought to be bats. Bats were not sold at the Wuhan market but may have infected live chickens or other animals sold there. 

If this is correct, then just think of a scenario where a farmer, or butcher takes his animals along to the market to sell. He’s probably done it many times before without thinking about it too much. This time however, one or more of his animals is infected. In the crowded market, somehow the infected animal comes into contact with other animals and humans. The chain of the virus beings to unravel from there on.

We live in a deeply interconnected world. Although we may behave as if we are independent, autonomous entities, the truth is that we are not. It’s not so clear how the virus got to Italy but the fact that it was the half-term holiday around then was significant. There’s a whole group of people who go skiing in February in Europe in Italy, France and Austria. It was as these people came back home that the virus started to spread.

Now as we try to deal with the effects, we see again and again how much we need each other—whatever country we live in, whatever our situation. This does not mean that the co-operation is always there but our awareness of the need for it is growing. Slowly it become something we see more clearly and have more respect for.

Strangely, we are also learning how to suffer. According to Buddhism, understanding the truth of suffering is essential for us to achieve wisdom. It’s only by understanding our human condition that we can be inspired to grow and change. However, suffering is uncomfortable, and we often want to turn away from it. Rather than examine difficult circumstances, we often prefer to distract ourselves from them. Right now, we are surrounded with news about the virus. Anyone we talk to has something to say about it. Newspapers, news programmes and social media are all abuzz with it. There really isn’t anywhere to hide. 

When we ask each other how we are, each of us knows the seriousness of what we are asking. It does not work to just talk about all the places we can’t go and the people we can’t see. We can only reply with a version of how we actually are.

Even the environment is experiencing some good news

We’ve seen that pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have fallen since the isolation measures were put in place. Fish can be seen in the canals in Venice, smog has lifted in Kathmandu. Satellite images from NASA and European Space Agency have shown a significant decrease in nitrogen dioxide pollution.

The virus has done what climate activists have not so far been able to do. Planes sit idle, and car use is reduced while people stay home. Tourists are not visiting popular destinations. Air quality is improving in most of the big cities.

Probably it won’t last. When this is over, there will be a hug surge to get the economy back on track. People will long for movement and travel. Perhaps though, in this moment of respite, we are learning again to appreciate the planet and our wish to care for it could be deepened.

Our healthcare and support staff are valued for what they do

One of the features of the new normal that we find ourselves in, is the weekly applause from home and balconies for medical staff. These brave doctors and nurses are working tirelessly to do all they can to help the increasing flood of patients.

Added to our gratitude to them is a recognition of the efforts of care staff, supermarket workers, garbage disposal workers, delivery people, postal workers, and all the other people working in vital jobs. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that these people are generally at the lowest end of the pay scale? Personally, I have been amazed at the kindness of the delivery people who bring our groceries. When I thanked one young man for his help at the end of a phone call about getting supplies, he said that at times like this, we all have to help each other.

If we think that middle class people on comfortable salaries are being forced to apply for state aid in droves because of their jobs disappearing, or their pay being cut. Can we hope that this experience will act as a shake-up to accepting the old norms? Will going through this experience give people a taste of how it is for those who live on limited income? Do we dare hope that when we emerge from all this that our health services will get the support they need and the decision is made to look long and hard at the low rates of pay awarded to so many people working in what are currently referred to as vital occupations?

How to make the possibility of good news become part of society after the virus

Like many other people, I have been inspired by the news updates from Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York. The other day, I heard him say that there will be no ‘going back’ when this is over. The experience of the virus has been so strong that it just won’t be possible to go back to how we were.

That could be a good thing. The shock of this virus and its effects has given us much to think about. It’s exposed some of the best and the worst of how we organise ourselves. Perhaps as we come out the other side, we can bring with us the fruits of all we have been through. To do that we need to think deeply and to reflect on what are the elements of our society that we can let go of.

I live in the Netherlands and like anyone who lives in a wealthy country, I have the security of knowing that the government will work to offer some support for me and for my family, and for all the families in the Netherlands. What of the garment workers in Bangladesh whose work has disappeared because big western clothing companies are cancelling their orders? More than a million workers have been sent home. As a poor country, Bangladesh will not be able to offer the same support for those people. As our awareness of each other’s vulnerability and our interdependence grows, can we allow this to continue to be the way things are?

Perhaps we can’t go back but we can ensure that where we are going to will reflect positive changes in how we live, not negative ones.

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.

4 ways the Coronavirus is even more scary than we think

4 ways the Coronavirus is even more scary than we think

Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

Understandably news of the Coronavirus is everywhere. Everyone is talking about it. All the news channels, on social media are buzzing with it. Families and friends talk about little else. If you are like me at all you’re trying to manage your fears and stay healthy. Maybe you are also reflecting on what this means for all of us. We are having to change our behaviour to prevent the spread of the disease. What do these changes mean for the future?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last week. 

Here are 4 ways I think the Coronavirus could be scary beyond the obvious danger to our health and wellbeing. 

The Coronavirus blame game

When people are scared, they tend to look for someone to blame. Something of that is happening now with this situation. 

We’ve all heard the awful stories of people being beaten up because they look Chinese and are suspected of carrying the virus. Right wing politicians looking for a scapegoat for the Coronavirus have pointed the finger at refuges and refugee camps. In the early days of the virus reaching the USA, Trump referred to it as hoax and fake news, blaming the media and the Democratic Party. Even now, Trump is still referring to the disease as, ‘the Chinese Virus.’

We can hope to shrug off this kind of crazy behaviour, but it sets a poor precedent. In France, President Macron has declared that we are at war with Coronavirus. It can rally people to feel that they are fighting a common enemy. It might even bring them closer together. However, if things go on for too long, or get a lot, worse people might look for an outlet for their frustration. 

The long-term impact of social distancing

As each day passes, we hear of more countries where people are being advised to work from home. Schools are being closed and large gatherings cancelled. Here in Amsterdam we’re just getting the first signs of spring. After a miserable wet few weeks, the sun is shining. It’s typical terrace weather—when we can all enjoy sitting in cafes by the water, watching the world go by. Last Sunday all cafes and restaurants in Amsterdam were closed. Now we can only enjoy the spring from our homes and balconies.

Of course, the reasons for social distancing are clear. It could be one of our most important tools in slowing the progress of the virus. However, human beings are social creatures. We need social contact and thrive on it. When we feel lonely and isolated it can affect our mental health, increasing anxiety and stress. Research is also showing that it can damage our physical health too.

I have always enjoyed the custom of shaking hands when you meet someone that is practiced in the Netherlands.  When I go to see my dentist, or doctor, we shake hands. It’s considered polite and connects people. People in Amsterdam also give three kisses on greeting friends and family. Of course, none of that is happening now. I worry is that it will be lost forever. When will know that it is alright to shake someone’s hand again? Will we want to stay cautious and simply maintain the new communication habits we acquired during the crisis?

Yesterday evening my partner and I were watching a series on Netflix. The people greeted each other with hugs. We found ourselves reacting with surprise, ‘Gosh they were still doing that!’

It’s been suggested that we could refer to the whole strategy as physical distancing, rather than social distancing. This term encourages keeping the distance we need to combat the spread of the virus but keeps open the possibility of social contact in some acceptable form. It could help us to continue to appreciate the value of social contact and to find safe ways to preserve it through these uncertain times.

Coronavirus makes elderly people more isolated

In January 2018, Theresa May famously appointed a Minister for Loneliness.  Organisations such as Age UK have long been instrumental in raising awareness of the effects of loneliness among elderly people. Society is being encouraged to recognise loneliness and to respond by offering connection and friendship.

Now we are faced with the reality of some of our most vulnerable citizens being isolated in their homes for an indefinite period of time. We know it is to protect their safety but if their wellbeing suffers from it, that in itself will affect their ability to withstand the virus. 

The BBC has decided to postpone its plans to cancel the free TV licenses for the over-75s because of the Coronavirus. That’s a start. The journalist and TV presenter, Joan Bakewell was on a news programme on TV explaining how she was confined to her home with a cough. A neighbour would be leaving her dinner on her doorstep so she wouldn’t  have to cook. We’re going to need many such acts of kindness, and a great deal of ingenuity to help isolated older people feel connected.

The Corona Virus puts us more online than ever

Last week my Dutch class changed from a weekly class in the Language School to an online session. The teacher did a great job and it was a wonderful lesson. Just about everyone I know is working from home now and many school children are having their lessons online.

Microsoft, Google and Zoom are all offering free access to their online meeting platforms. This at least offers a bit of good news amongst all the gloom. A client told me today that his company had held their weekly staff meeting online and it had been great. It’s good to hear that we can adapt and make things work. New ideas and ways of doing things can bring positive change. 

My question is more to do with how people will feel when it’s time to get back to normal. It was so much more convenient to save on travel time and be cosily at home to have my Dutch class. When the teacher pointed out that we would continue this way next week, everyone was quite pleased. Will we be willing to go back to the usual weekly meeting? Research is showing how our personal technology is insinuating itself more deeply into our lives. Is managing this virus going to accelerate that process?

What about our besieged highstreets? They were already in crisis and now no-one can go shopping except for food and medicine. We heard last week that Amazon is looking for an additional 100,00 staff to help it cope with the huge increase in demand. Will our local shops still be there when this passes? Will we be willing to go back to visiting the shops personally?

What can we do?

Each of us has a responsibility to take care of ourselves in a meaningful way. It’s only going to be through facing our fears and working with them that we will be able to have the clarity of mind that is needed right now. Things are changing so fast. Old ways of doing things are quickly discarded if they get in the way of protecting ourselves from this threat.

We need to stay calm and be able to assess what we are doing, and to know why we are doing it.

It’s a time for clear self-awareness, along with a deep awareness of other people. Just as each of us is vulnerable and afraid, so is everyone else. If the coronavirus shows one thing plainly it is how interconnected we all are. The actions we take are vital to save lives now, but they also have the power to affect how our lives will be when the Coronavirus dies down. Sure, we will need time to relax and try not to think about it all. It’s important not to get too intense but holding a big perspective is very important.

As we close down and withdraw into our homes and family groups, we need to take with us the perspective of all the many thousands of people doing the same. Just as we don’t want to suffer, or bad things to happen to us, neither do they. If we can open our concern for ourselves and our loved to include concern for all the others, we will be taking a big step towards ensuring that we all manage to come through this well.

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.

4 Things We Can Get Wrong About Happiness

4 Things We Can Get Wrong About Happiness

Photo by Andrew Bui on Unsplash

Have you ever met anyone who did not want happiness? Certainly, I haven’t. I have met people who have funny ways of going about trying to be happy but never anyone who was just not interested in it.

The funny is though, that wanting happiness and having it are two different things. In the first place, we don’t always know what will make us happy. Even when we work it out, we can’t always make it happen—we might long for someone to love but are not able to find the right person. The irony is that even when we do get what we are looking for, it does not always make us feel as good as we expected.

Happiness is tricky—partly because we have some funny ideas about it. Let’s look at four of these.

We confuse happiness with pleasure

In evolutionary terms, pleasure acts as an incentive for keeping us alive. So, food, sex, caring for our children, and accomplishing our goals cause the brain to release the chemical dopamine that make us feel happy. This search for good feeling has helped to keep the human race going, but these feelings were designed to be temporary. Think about it—if we only mated once and never needed to again, we would see a startling fall in the birth rate. Pleasure is something that is so enjoyable that we want to experience it again and again. However, it is designed as a temporary state with a specific purpose, rather than something that will last forever.

Sadly, we often seem to find this hard to accept. Our search for happiness can become narrowed down to the pursuit of pleasure. Once we have it, we to hold on to it– or at least try to repeat it as often as we can.

The trouble is that we so often mistake transient pleasurable experiences for lasting happiness.  We have evolved to a place where our happiness is not based on survival alone. Yet so often we settle for the quick fix, pleasure-based route to happiness, without taking into account the full range of potential effects.

Perhaps we feel a bit low, so we surf the internet for a bit, then drink a coffee and checkout the news channels on TV. We could take some time to look into the low feeling in order to understand and resolve it. However, our impulse is to distract ourselves from it and not deal with it. It’s as if we are aiming to run our life as a series of good moments, with as few bad ones as possible to interfere with our final score.

We imagine it will last forever

So, we can see that from an evolutionary perspective, happiness is designed as a reward for keeping ourselves alive. It is not meant to last forever. In our modern western culture though, there is the idea that we should be happy all the time. We make choices based on the belief that they will make us happy now and into the future. The idea that our preferences or circumstances may change doesn’t seem to come up. We don’t consider that our future selves may see things differently from how we do now. 

Anyone who has been divorced, or had a great new job turn out to be disappointing will have experienced this for themselves. When I was a young teacher in London, I decided to cash in my teacher’s pension so I could go traveling. It felt like a great decision at the time. Suddenly I had a good reserve of money to finance one of my dreams. Years later, when I left teaching,  I deeply regretted not having a pension fund to carry forward.

On a lighter note, I have a Danish friend who became a Buddhist nun some years ago.Whenever it’s too hot to wear socks I have the treat of seeing a tall, slender woman in long,maroon robes with a tattoo of an iguana coiling up her left ankle. The frisky young womanwho, some years back, thought this tattoo would be an addition to her image, apparentlydid not envisage the possibility of herself as a nun in the future.

We think money will make us happy

2006 saw the publication of Richard Layard’s book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. One of the key findings that he highlighted is that over the last fifty years, the standard ofliving in the US and Western Europe has roughly doubled. No surprises there, you might think. The shock came with the second half of the finding—levels of happiness have stayed the same. Think of what it takes to double our standard of living – the compromises in work–life balance, the increase in the number of families where the only way to manage is for both parents to work, the stress of the increase in pace and variety of the modern workplace. It’s shocking to find that none of that has an impact on our basic level of well being.

The way we adapt to what we have and the extent to which we compare what we have with others comes into play here.

Adaptation

One of the most startling results to emerge from research into happiness is that big lottery winners, after experiencing an initial period of euphoria, tend to return to their normal levels of happiness within a year. The huge rise in their financial and then material resources is not enough to lift their happiness levels long term.

The trouble is that we adapt to what we have and so become used to it, and when the gloss of having it fades, we want something more.

The process of adaptation we experience with material possessions seems to work in the sameway for life experiences – so career moves, lifestyle changes or new relationships, ratherthan transporting us to new levels of happiness, eventually settle down until they become simply part of our normal pattern of happiness.

Comparison

Along with adapting to what we have in life, we also suffer from comparing our lives with other people’s. So, your new car may be satisfying while no one else in the street has a better one, but as soon as someone turns up with a newer model then you become less satisfied. We’re pleased with our pay rise as long as we’re the only person to receive one, or if our rise is greater than anyone else’s.

We compare ourselves with our peers, people with roughly similar lifestyles. The lives of the super-rich are far beyond our reach, while many people feel comfortably far away from the very poor. Studies of Olympic medallists show that bronze medalists tend to be happier with their medals than silver medallists because they compare them- selves to people who did not get a medal at all, while silver medallists believe they just missed a gold.

We look for happiness outside of ourselves

We’ve seen that pleasure is based on external circumstances, such as our job, where we live, or what we like to eat. Although the benefits are short- term we can often mistake this for happiness, overlooking the possibility of something more reliable. A more helpful view is to say that there are two kinds of happiness: the short-term, pleasure-based experience and a more lasting happiness. The first kind is much easier to attain than the deeper happiness,which requires effort but once established serves as a reliable basis for wellbeing.

Giving ourselves the time and space to explore and develop this lasting happiness is oneof the deepest acts of self-compassion we can engage in.

So, how do we access this deeper kind of happiness? Firstly, we need to recognize that it isnot about looking outwards but depends on having an inner peace of mind and heart. Thisis the basis for self-awareness and the awareness of others – the foundation of compassion– that enables us to view our actions and those of other people with greater clarity. It canbe developed by working with both our basic attitude and with the actions we take whiletrying to be happy.

Meditation is the best way to get a handle on how our minds work. It helps us to work with our basic attitude and the habits we have. Bringing awareness into our actions means that we are more able to make the right decisions.

A deeper meaning to happiness

Sometimes, it’s worth asking ourselves how we value the happiness of other people. Is their happiness important to us? Would our happiness be important to them? Do we consider out happiness to be the most important? On what basis?

There is a simple question we can use here as a measure of whether or not our actions will be a source of lasting happiness: 

Do they bring real benefit to oneself and others,or not? 

Actions that bring benefit automatically result in happiness and help us to develop our compassion. We need to develop a clear sense of discernment to enable us to analyse our actions clearly in the light of this question, and to identify the habits that lead us away from lasting happiness even if they initially seem to bring pleasure.

It might seem a lot to take in but reflecting in this way will help us to navigate the tricky path of happiness. It could help to put things into a different perspective.

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.

What happens when you lose your job

What happens when you lose your job

I have had one major incident of job loss in my career. It was messy and painful. Although it happened years ago, I can still wake up in the night and wonder what on earth happened. I wasn’t fired but made redundant, although the difference felt like semantics. The experience left me feeling disorientated, lonely and inadequate.

For most of us, losing a job means a scramble to find another one as soon as possible. The bills that need paying do not stop with job loss. My own solution was to become a solo entrepreneur, which involved a steep learning curve. There is very little time left to care for how wounded, low and discarded one can feel.

Here are some of the issues that I tried to work with while setting up my new business.

Who was I after my job loss?

My job had been in senior management in an international non-profit. I travelled a lot, I had teams who answered to me—I was a boss. When it was over there was a short period of time where I was completely disorientated. For so many years I had worked very hard and focused my energy on my work. Without it I was not sure who I was.

It took me a while to consciously disconnect myself from the job that I had had. I needed to remember why I wanted the job in the first place, and to re-connect with the motivation that led me to carry it out for so long. Slowly, painfully it became possible to remember interests that I had dropped through lack of time before my job loss. My meditation practice, which had become minimal during the busiest times, flourished again. The space it helped to open up enabled me to process what I was feeling in a way that was healing.

Struggling with a sense of shame

Brené Brown describes shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of live and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

That seems pretty accurate. I certainly felt that I had failed and become somehow lesser in people’s eyes. Indeed, by not being able to avoid job loss I had failed in my own eyes. However, much worse was the idea that people would think that as a failure I was not someone they would want to know. Not being able to explain to myself what had gone wrong made it very hard to explain to other people. I felt defenceless. 

That was the place from which I set out to build the next phase of my working life.

Major cracks in my self-confidence

Perhaps it is inevitable that when you suffer a job loss you are precipitated into an intense period of self-examination. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good idea to take time to reflect on your work habits and how you are coping with your working life.

The trouble comes when, hurting from the shock of losing your job, you forget all about how to be kind to yourself. I have had friends who have been made redundant or lost their job who have turned to me for help. I have never subjected any of them to the tirade of judgment and criticism that I poured out to myself.

Self-compassion was not so well known at the time that I lost my job. As part of my work now I have studied it quite thoroughly and wish that I had known more about it at the time. Learning how to tame the sharp voice of my inner critic and to change oneself through kindness would have helped me enormously. Understanding that my job loss was not something that only happened to me but was happening to many other people at the same time would have taught me a great deal.

Fear of what my job loss meant for the future

Underneath everything else there was the constant worry of not being able to get more work. The threat of financial difficulties was a constant drain on my energy. Working with that fear became a priority because when it got too intense, I froze. 

Fortunately, we often have more resilience than we think. As much as I could, I used the fear to cut through my feelings of inadequacy and to spur me on.

The loss of community

One thing that I had not anticipated was how much I missed the people that I had worked with. People that I had worked with for years and seen every day simply dropped out of my life. Gone was the flow of ideas and the shared camaraderie. 

When you work with other people there is a ready-made social network. Of course, you are joined together by the work you are doing but you also share all kinds of other things. You hear news of what is going on in other people’s lives. There is an audience for you to share what is going on in your’s. You accompany each other through all kinds of moods, challenges and accomplishments.

With a job loss, all this is gone in a moment. 

Struggling with the sympathy of friends and family

My friends and family were kind and sympathetic, but I found it hard to be the one needing support. I am more used to offering it. Too often I found myself putting on a brave face when actually I felt really low. In fact, it was a journey for me to allow my vulnerability to show and to accept their support with gratitude. 

However much we may need to move on after a job loss and find new work, we need time to grieve. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and it takes time but without it we are denying ourselves the opportunity to learn from what has happened to us. In order to move on in a good way, we need to be able to make some sense of what has happened. How we heal the pain of our loss will depend on being able to take the time for reflection, and evaluation. Job loss is one of the most stressful experiences we will face but it is also a time of opportunity. We need to give ourselves the gift of that time.

men and women being fired

I hope you enjoyed this post. I am currently designing an online course to support people through job loss. If you could fill out my survey it would help me to gather data for the online course. It will only take you 10 minutes. Thank you so much!

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