My partner and I have just got back from a short break in Drenthe, a province in the NE of the Netherlands. It’s a beautiful area and we got to spend lots of time in nature. We were both struck by how relaxed we were when we came home and how well we slept. It reminded me of a recent article reporting on research carried out by researchers at Exeter University in the UK and Uppsala University in Sweden. The study found that people who spend 2 hours a week in nature were ‘significantly more likely’ to report good health and psychological wellbeing.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that spending time in nature is beneficial for us. The thing is, what about all of us who live in cities and don’t get the chance to be out in nature every weekend? The study points out that you don’t need to get your two hours all in one go. Shorter, frequent doses of nature are also beneficial. It got me thinking about how to maximise the nature we have in the city, so we can really feel the benefit.
1. Start your day with a moment outside
Take a look at your morning routine. Do you have time for a cup of coffee in the garden before you start your day? Where I live in Amsterdam, most people in the city don’t have a garden but they do have a balcony. Dutch people are great balcony gardeners. It can be just wonderful to step out on to your balcony while the city is waking up. The birds make more noise than the traffic and the flowers are fresh from the cool of the morning.
2. Make sure to go out for a bit at lunch-time
Are you caught up with working through your lunch break? Maybe think about taking a short break outside. You don’t have to go far. Just find a spot under a tree, or maybe find an office window with a view. Just a few moments in the calming atmosphere of nature, outside of the busyness of your workplace will be nourishing.
A psychologist colleague of mine recently messaged me to share that she was making time to sit out in the garden in between seeing clients. What a great way to settle and prepare for a session.
3. Look at the stars
For a few years, my partner and I used to go regularly to a small cottage in rural southern France in the summer. The cottage was in a tiny village and by 10 pm most people were in bed. My partner would finish each day with some time on the terrace, just looking at the sky and the stars. He said it was a wonderful thing to just be with the night sky in the quiet.
4. Use the city parks and squares
Although I live in Amsterdam now, I am a Londoner by birth. Both cities have plenty of green areas. London is well-known for its green city squares with lovely, old trees. In Amsterdam there is a deliberate policy of planting as many trees along the streets as possible. I can stand on my balcony and look along a long street of beautiful trees. The Japanese favour forest bathing as a way of increasing your wellbeing. Even if you do not have regular access to a forest, you can get a lot of nourishment from the trees in a city. I find quite joyful to watch the birds flying in and out of the trees. The patterns of the branches against the sky can be dramatic. It helps me keep things in proportion.
5. Bring nature into your home
I came across a lovely article the other day. One of the universities in Amsterdam is opening a plant hotel. The idea is to provide a place where students can leave their plants to be cared for while they are away from the university for the summer. The university recognises the benefit to students’ wellbeing of keeping plants in their rooms and wants to support it.
We have window boxes on every window ledge in our apartment. It feels as if we are surrounded by flowers. When we look outside, we are immediately connected with nature.
Another good idea is to have a bird box by a window to encourage birds to visit. You have the benefit of watching them throughout the year.
If you do have a garden, you might consider re-wilding your lawn. By stopping regular mowing and trimming you can encourage the growth of wild flowers. This in turn will encourage bees. This is already happening along some motorways, where road side meadows are springing up.
6. Look for 5 beautiful things each day
You might like to get into the habit of looking for five beautiful things you can find in nature in your city each day. When we are busy and caught in our routine it is all too easy to miss them. Keep an eye open for a new window box in your neighbourhood, or a newly planted tree.
7. Stay mindful so you don’t miss it
In fact, a key to finding our 2 hours of nature when we live in a city is to be mindful. If we are continuously checking our phone, or always hurrying we will miss a lot. If we can be present to where we are and what we are doing, we will notice so much more. When we notice, it will help us to quieten down. So much of the beauty of nature is in its deep quietness and unhurried rhythms. We will be more deeply nourished by tuning into that
We might look for connection, but it is not always easy to follow through
Just a few days ago I was sitting waiting for my partner in a square outside one of the major Amsterdam bookstores. I was enjoying people watching and feeling the connection with all the people passing by.
There was a guy leaning outside the bookstore. He must have been in his fifties, scruffy and not so well looking. All the time he stood there he was kind of grumbling out loud to himself. Sometimes if someone came too close, he upped the tempo of his grumbling into a snarl. He wasn’t a beggar. I don’t think he was drunk but he was not in a good way.
I sat for a good while—10, maybe 15 minutes. The guy was aware of me but did not make eye contact. I found myself thinking of him quite a bit and wondering where he lived, what had happened to him in his life. Then quite suddenly he took off his jacket and lunged over to where I was sitting. My immediate reaction was to get up and go into the bookstore. As I went, I heard him give a kind of sigh.
Once in the store, I realised that I had just walked away from this man without even trying to make eye contact—without even acknowledging his presence. I had been enjoying connection with the crowds, but I had turned away from him. Why did I do that? I guess I was afraid he would make a scene or accost me in some way, but I never gave him the chance.
I certainly did not give him the benefit of the doubt.
Our threat response is almost always on simmer
Human beings have evolved to defend ourselves against threat, to focus on staying alive so we can pass on our genes and ensure the continuation of the species. Although nowadays few of us live as hunter-gatherers facing daily danger, our threat response is still finely tuned to detect and act on any hint of menace. In fact, we live in a constant state of low-grade stress as we scan our surroundings for signs of threat.
Cities are usually big, sprawling places full of noise and crowded with people. We can easily feel accosted by events and circumstances not of our creation—being jostled in crowded shopping streets, being kept awake by noisy neighbours, or overwhelmed by sirens and traffic.
All of this can make us want to close in on ourselves, to protect ourselves from what we don’t like, things we find difficult. We tend to do this by avoiding connection rather than engaging—withdrawing from anything which looks threatening. So perhaps we don’t make eye contact with strangers, and we focus on getting from A to B without being drawn into other concerns.
A research study
In 1973 John Darley and Daniel Batson carried out a study called From Jerusalem to Jericho in which seminary students training to become priests were asked to give a talk on becoming a minister. Half of the students were asked to include reference to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Some members of the group were warned that they were running late and needed to hurry. Others were simply told to walk across to where they would give their talk. As they walked from one building to another, they passed a man lying slumped on the ground is obvious discomfort. The study was to see how the students would react.
The results showed that those students in a hurry were much less likely to stop and offer help to the man on the ground—whether, or not, they had read the parable did not seem to make a difference. The key factor was that those people in a hurry were less likely to offer help.
The importance of connection
Yet as human beings we need to feel loved and to love others. We are social creatures, who thrive on a sense of connection. Without it we can become depressed and our health can suffer. Even when we suffer from serious illness, having a strong social network will help our chances of recovery. Connection is a basic human need.
Modern cities can be lonely places. The sheer size and volume of people can be overwhelming and, as we have seen, even trigger our threat response. Much of our instinct can be to protect ourselves from others. It takes patience, and practice to learn to stay open whatever the circumstances. What shocked me about my own behaviour that day was that I had been doing some compassion exercises and yet still my instinct was not to engage.
So, what can we do?
My first instinct on seeing what I had done was to give myself a hard time. I even went back out of the shop to see if the man was still there, but he had moved on and was nowhere to be seen. Slowly I realised that berating myself was not the answer. It was more important to notice how I had reacted and to take it on board—to learn from the lesson that my compassionate instinct still needs a lot of work. Instead of pushing the experience away, or drowning it out with remorse, I tried to lean into it to see clearly the sequence of what had happened.
Each of us can only deepen our compassion from where we are at any given moment. There are no rules. Much as we may wish to be open and generous toward others there will be occasions when we do not meet our own standards. However, each time we do manage to overcome our conditioning, our fears, our resistance we are making compassion a more habitual response. Human beings are hard-wired for kindness and compassion. Our challenge is to bring it out into our daily activities and to aim to feel it towards people we don’t know, or even don’t like as well as people we love and who are close to us. It’s an ongoing process and we can only start where we are, with what we have.
We have all been there. Those moments when city life feels too full—too many people, too much noise, too much everything. We long for some peace and quiet and a chance to regroup.
For most of us the immediate answer is not a holiday. We have families to care for, and bills to pay. That means we need to be able to work with our feelings of being overwhelmed by the city from within ourselves—to find inner space even when there does not seem to be any on offer.
When we feel overwhelmed it’s easy to withdraw, to close in on ourselves and try to put up a wall. This tends to solidify our feelings and cut us off from managing our feelings. To cope with feeling overwhelmed in the city in the long term, we need to be more daring.
Here’s some things we can try.
1. Take a moment
Think about how you begin your day. You jump out of bed to get started on the list of things that need to be done—get ready for work, hurry the kids up for school. You rush into the shower but instead of being present in the running water and enjoying the moment, you are thinking of that conversation you had with your boss the day before or worrying about getting your son to the dentist after school.
Research carried out at Harvard University in 2010 showed that for almost half of our waking hours we are thinking about something different from what we are doing. In other words, we are not fully present for many of our actions. This means that we are neither bringing our full resources, or, appreciating the moment we are experiencing. As life is uncertain, the only moment we can be sure of is the present moment—so it is ironic that we so frequently miss it.
Try to break up your day by taking short moments to nourish yourself. City life offers many good times to do this are when you are on tram, or bus, waiting in the queue at the supermarket, or changing from one activity to another.
Pause in what you are doing
Bring your attention to your body
How do you feel?
What is your mood?
Take a few slow, deep breaths
Feel the richness of the moment you are living right now
Continue with what you were doing
2. Stay open and curious
City life offers many opportunities to be open and curious. When you are going about your day you pass all kinds of people, lots of different activities and situations. Perhaps there are buskers in the metro, maybe you see a mother struggling to get her small children on to a tram or a bunch of visiting students laughing and excited about their visit to your city.
Cities are usually vibrant places with lots of energy. When we are tired or stressed it can be hard to go with the flow. We want to shut ourselves off from the noise and bustle. Instead, if we are being present, we can simply see what is happening around us. It’s not necessary to get into all kinds of opinions and judgements—we can just notice. We can stay open to new experiences, to new ideas and let them unfold around us without resisting. That way the activity can nourish and engage us, instead of exhausting us.
Try taking the time to look about you.
Look up, rather than looking down at the sidewalk.
Do you remember when you were a child being told, ‘Patience is a virtue’? It sounded really boring, didn’t it? Certainly, not a way to get what you want and to cut through the crowd. It took me a long time to appreciate the value of patience and to recognise the extent to which it eases stress.
There are so many moments in an average day in a city life where impatience can flare up—standing in line in a shop, waiting your turn in a café only to have someone barge in ahead of you. When everyone is in a hurry there are so many moments where people can act thoughtlessly—walking in big groups on the sidewalk, pushing you out of their way to get past. An angry reaction can rear up even when we are in a good mood—if we are tired, or worried it happens even easier.
The thing is, going with our impatience is exhausting and the emotions that impatience stirs up, such as anger and resentment, are not good for us. They increase our stress levels and can lead to higher blood pressure and heart problems. Positive emotions like kindness and tolerance, on the other hand, do promote wellbeing.
Being able to respond to challenging situations with patience is not a passive activity. It requires self-awareness and a capacity for seeing things from other people’s point of view. It involves flexibility and a degree of openness.
Next time your patience is challenged:
Try taking a moment to come home to yourself
Open up your awareness to view the whole situation you are in
Be aware of the needs of other people around you
Don’t focus exclusively on your own agenda
Engage your sense of humour
4. Do something for someone else
A couple of weeks ago I was on my way home and feeling pretty tired. It was a relief when the tram showed up. As it happened, I had a lot on my mind. A work project I was working on was taking much longer to compete than I had anticipated, and it was causing me concern. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a young mother with two small children—a toddler and a baby. I didn’t pay so much attention because of the problem I was working with in my mind.
It turned out that we got off at the same stop and the mother had all the struggle of collecting her buggy and getting the baby into it. As they moved off, I noticed that one of the children had dropped a soft toy on the pavement. Everybody was too busy to see. Luckily, I could pick it up and return it before it got trampled. The toddler say the toy and grabbed for it joyfully—it must have been a favourite—and the mother gave me a grateful smile.
In those short moments, my mood changed completely. I went from being self-focused and worried to feeling a great sense of wellbeing. Taking a moment to help someone else lightened my mood and helped me to feel less oppressed by my own concerns.
It’s all too easy as you go through an average day in your city life to put your head down and carry on. We are busy and we want to get on with what we have to do.
Even if we don’t see an opportunity to do something for someone else, we can at least smile. There is more to smiling than we think. It helps us to feel more open and accessible and it is pleasant for other people too.
6. Be grateful
Research is showing that people who make gratitude an active part of their lives are happier. It’s relatively easy to feel grateful for big things like promotion or moving to a new house but it’s harder to feel grateful on a daily basis.
If we look around and pay attention there is plenty that we can find to be grateful for in city life. Noticing the richness that we have in our lives is nourishing and will help us to feel stronger and more able to cope.
Here’s some ideas:
Before you go to sleep think of something that happened in your day that you feel grateful for
Keep a gratitude journal
Have a gratitude jar in the kitchen where everyone can contribute
Hold a gratitude session once a week with your family, where each person shares something that they were grateful for during the week.
7. Remember common humanity
It helps to remember that all the people in your street, in your neighbourhood, in your city want to be happy and they don’t want pain. It’s a fact of life. Maybe some people have strange ways of trying to be happy, but they still do. The longing for happiness is part of being human. Yet we all know that life can be hard and difficult times come for all of us. When city life seems too much to handle, remember to see all the people as a collection of individuals—who will have a lot in common with you on a fundamental human level.
Here’s a simple exercise you could try.
Pay attention to the people you pass in the street
Notice if you make a comment in your mind about someone
Be aware of the people you feel drawn towards and the ones you do not like the look of
Try to imagine how they might see you as you pass them by
Take a moment to be aware that everyone you see wants their day to go well and to avoid any unpleasantness —just as you do
Then realize that inevitably for some people things will go wrong during the day —let that feeling touch you and help you to feel a common humanity with your fellow travellers.
Do you cycle to work, or drive in your car? Maybe you take a tram, or bus? Perhaps you use the metro or ride a train. Whichever way you make the journey, your commute is a solid chunk of time twice a day, every working day. You’re not at home but you’re not in work either. The time is your own but not really. You’re free to be as you wish but within strict parameters. On the way in to work, the tasks of the day are already pressing for your attention. On the way home, anticipating a pleasant evening competes with processing what has gone on during the day.
Maybe we choose to use the time travelling to fend off the thought of the working day ahead by catching up on some good reading. Perhaps we shut ourselves off from the crowd by turning up the volume on our headphones. I hear of an increasing number of people who watch Netflix during their journeys. Alternatively, we could use this time to steal a march on our working day by scanning through our emails on our phone, or tablet and running through the schedule for the day.
Taking a fresh look at your commute
Here’s another idea—to take charge of this time by yourself and use it for your wellbeing.
In research carried out in 2010 at Harvard University it was found that people spend almost 50% of their time thinking about something different to what they are doing and that it undermines their happiness. One of the most common times when people were ruminating in this way was on their commute.
So how do we take a fresh look at our commute?
A lot of the people that I work with, who are interested in making meditation part of their lives, find it difficult to make the time they need for meditation. Quite a few are experimenting with using their commute as a time to do a meditation session. Some use a meditation app and listen to a guided meditation. Others simply wait to find a seat, and then sit quietly and focus on their breath.
Here is a very simple way to do this.
Try being mindful and come home to yourself
Take a few moments to check in with your breathing—pay attention to the sensation of your breath entering and leaving your body
Notice how your body is feeling—do you have any places that feel tired, or weary, or are you feeling fresh and up for anything?
Check in on your mood—are you feeling good about the day ahead, or is there something worrying you?
Try to become aware of the thoughts passing through your mind—notice how quickly they change and turn into other thoughts
Just register all this—try not to get drawn into feelings of liking, or not liking any of it.
What does this accomplish?
When we connect with ourselves in this way we are tuning into the present moment and getting in touch with how things are for us. We try to do this without judgement, without wanting to change anything—just with the aim of coming home to ourselves and settling our minds.
This will help us to move into our work situation in a more relaxed and stable mood ready for whatever comes our way. On the way home, it helps us to shake off the concerns of the day and get ready to spend an evening with our friends and family.
Consider other people as just like you
So much of the stresses and strains of the day come about during our interactions with other people. Often, we focus on the things that separate us from others, when in fact, there is a great deal that we all have in common.
If you still have time on your journey, try to turn your attention to your fellow passengers.
Notice who your neighbours are—take a few moments to scan the compartment, tram or bus and to see as many of the other passengers as you can.
Take note of the thoughts and emotions that pass through your mind as you do this:
—notice if you make a comment in your mind about someone
—notice the people you feel drawn towards and the ones you do not like the look of
Try to imagine how they might see you as you sit, or stand alongside them
Take a moment to be aware that everyone travelling with you wants their day to go well and to avoid any unpleasantness
—just as you do
Then realize that inevitably for some people things will go wrong during the day
—let that feeling touch you and help you to feel a common humanity with your fellow travellers.
What does this accomplish?
Reflecting in this way reminds us that everyone wishes for a happy life and wants to avoid pain and suffering but that pain and suffering are an inevitable part of life. Coping with all this gives a common thread to all our experiences. It enables us to see that however different our interests are, we are all in the same boat. This can help us to develop a feeling of equanimity towards others as we engage in our working day.
It’s up to us
Of course, sometimes we just want to read, or listen to music and that’s completely fine but we do have the option to take a fresh look at our commute. We can prioritise self-care and use this limbo-time in our day to develop our mindfulness—both of ourselves and of others. Spending a bit of time each day in this way will help us to deal with our work from a less stressful perspective. It will also help us to actually relax and enjoy our time when is over for the day.
Do drop a comment in the comment section and let me know if you have tried meditating during your commute and how you got on with it.
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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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When you are pushing your trolley round your local supermarket doing the weekly shop, perhaps compassion is not the main thing on your mind. It’s quite likely that you are focused on finding everything on your list and getting home as soon as you can.
I can sympathise.
However, recently I have been trying to look at my supermarket trips in a different light and I have been surprised to discover the extent to which my local supermarket can inspire compassion.
The abundance of goods from all over the world
Amsterdam is a diverse city and its supermarkets reflect this in their range of goods. I have been playing a kind of game where I choose an item on display and try and trace back how it got to this shelf, in this supermarket, in this city. The results are more impressive than I expected.
Our oranges have lately been coming from Spain—not so far away, you might think. However, once you start the process—the orchard where the oranges are grown, the family who own the orchard, the workers who pick the fruit and their families, the trucks that transport the fruit—all just to get the oranges to Holland. Then there is all the activity that will happen here to get them to the supermarket. There are the advertisers, the marketing experts, the financial people and the people who work in the local supermarket loading the shelves.
If you want to take the game to an even more detailed level, you can include the people who make the clothes of all the people involved, who build the vehicles that get them to work, who farm the food they have eaten for breakfast.
In fact, there is no end to the game and that is with just one item. We could move on to soy sauce, or tinned pineapples!
You may be wondering, what has this got to do with compassion?
One of the ways we can respond to stress is by standing our ground and fighting back. When this becomes exhausting, or we have met with a few defeats we tend to withdraw to lick our wounds and if we are not careful this can turn into a kind of self-isolation. When we isolate ourselves the tendency to ruminate on our problems increases. It can be easier to get our challenges out of proportion and to feel things are against us. If we have low social connection, it can be worse for our health than smoking, high blood pressure, or obesity. It can mean we recover more slowly from illness.
Generally speaking, human beings thrive on connection. We need the interaction with other people and the insights that brings. We can learn to regulate our emotions more successfully and increase our self-esteem. In fact, social connection creates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical wellbeing.
Allowing ourselves to feel our connection with others, rather than keeping ourselves separate is an important element of compassion. Using the goods in the supermarket to reach out to hundreds, if not thousands of other people helps to build an awareness of the people who impact our lives. This awareness can open our hearts more and enable us to see the importance of other people’s needs.
Connection and our local supermarket.
It’s all too easy as we hurry to get our shopping done to find people irritating, to judge their behaviour and to form negative opinions of them. Maybe you find small children running around in supermarkets a challenge, or the people who stand for ages with their trolleys parked across the aisle you are trying to negotiate. Personally, it’s easy for me to get annoyed by supermarket staff reloading shelves, with their big packages getting in the way.
I have been focusing lately on one very young man who has recently started working in our local supermarket. He is small, and young looking for his age. He can’t have left school very long ago. When he started, he was clumsy and often in my way and I found myself tutting and sighing. However, as the weeks have passed he has shown himself to be responsible and hard-working. I see his mates drop by sometimes to tease and distract him but he won’t have it. He sends them away. I have seen him stretch to get packages of milk for old ladies who cannot reach them and to run after a mother with a toddler in her buggy, who had dropped something and not seen it. He has real pride in what many would see as a low-skill job. It brought home to me that once you make the effort to connect with someone and not just see them as ‘the shelf-stacker’, or the ‘check-out assistant’, a whole different level of connection opens up that is rewarding and enriching.
It turns out that supermarkets don’t just connect you to all the many people who have brought the goods near enough for you to buy but also to all the people from your neighbourhood who work there and shop there.
Where compassion starts – taking time to smile at other people
Did you know that smiling is good for you? It turns out that even just putting your lips into the form of a smile will help to raise your level of wellbeing.
I have started consciously trying to make eye contact with other shoppers and to smile at them. Most of the time I get a great response—a friendly smile back, sometimes even a word or two.
Compassion for me grows in lots of small, accessible ways. It does not come from great aspirations and good intentions alone. It’s all too clear to me that my evolutionary history and social conditioning have helped to create habits that have more to do with protecting my self-interest than reaching out to other people. I like to think that I am chipping away at these habits on a daily basis by training myself to see differently, to be more aware of other people and to recognise the power of a smile.
We have more in common than we think
Once we start to become more aware of other people and to allow them in, it does not take long to see how interdependent we all are. Each time I watch the news and think about the stories that are trending, it comes home to me how, despite our differences, we all want the same basic things. We all want to live happy lives and avoid pain and suffering and yet again and again, we see that happiness is not so easy to find and suffering is inevitable.
In addition, events that happen in seemingly distant places can impact us strongly. Think of a lorry drivers’ strike in France and how that can have ramifications all over Europe, as roads get blocked and supermarket stocks get low. There are an historic number of misplaced people on the planet just now because of war and famine. Think of all the interwoven effects of those people trying to find safety and a new life.
The classical African concept of Ubuntu encapsulates these ideas. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that Ubuntu refers to the fact that you cannot be human in isolation, that we are all inter-connected.
In Mahayana Buddhism there is the idea of Indra’s net—an infinite web that holds the universe. At each place where the threads of the web cross there is a jewel, which reflects all the other jewels.
All this points out that simply seeking your own happiness, without taking other people into account is out of step with how the world works. Our own happiness is bound up with the happiness and wellbeing of everyone else. We are all in this together and can only thrive when we act with that understanding. This is how compassion works.
Back to our local supermarket
So, we return to our local supermarket, where we can see that, if we pay just a little more attention, we have plenty of opportunities to foster connection and inspire compassion. The people who produce the food we are buying, the staff in the store, our fellow shoppers are all like us in so many ways. Because our actions can affect each other in countless ways, compassion becomes an essential ingredient in how we are together. Developing compassion means coming to respect interdependence and what it shows us about how we live together on this planet.