Are you familiar with the growing popularity of online courses? If you know where to look it is now possible to find a tantalizing variety of learning offered in the form of online courses. Art classes, cookery sessions, language instruction, and all manner of lifestyle topics are now on offer online. It’s an amazing resource!
This year in Awareness in Action we have been delighted to offer our own series of online courses on the topics of self-compassion, working with stress and sustaining your meditation practice. We have several more exciting ideas in the pipeline.
My own exposure to online courses started a few years back when I was asked to facilitate a series of course programmes run by a meditation group in the States. I was immediately sold on the idea when I connected with the people taking the courses and the degree of passion and commitment they brought to their learning. It was this energy that we aim to bring to our own courses in Awareness in Action.
If you have never taken an online course you might have all kinds of assumptions about how they work and how much time they need. In this blog post I want to spell out six inspiring reasons why taking an online course could really work for you—while at the same time being upfront about when they won’t!
Reason 1: the high degree of personal attention each participant receives
We all know how it can be difficult to be heard in a large workshop, where the most confident and articulate people all too easily get the lion’s share of attention. This is not the case with an online course. Each person gets to send in their comments and postings and the facilitator answers each one individually and in depth. When the course facilitator is an expert in their field, this means that every posting becomes a 1-2-1 exchange in which the participant can benefit first-hand from the person who has the answers to their issues. With our courses, you can book SKYPE sessions as an extra if you want to go deeper.
Reason 2: online courses are so accessible
Taking part in an evening class can be a great experience but inevitably there comes an evening when it’s raining, you’ve had a rotten day at work and you just want to go home and have a hot, relaxing bath. Once you’ve missed one session it’s harder to turn up the next week and your participation starts to come unstuck.
This problem simply does not exist with online courses. If you have a good internet connection and a reliable device you can access your course anytime and anywhere. Even if you have to take a work trip, you can still work on your assignment.
Reason 3: online courses help to improve your resumé
Given the fluid nature of the current job market it’s more important than ever to show that you are interested in developing skills that will help you do your job well. The scope of online courses is widening every day and there are many topics to choose from. Even if a course does not include a certificate of completion you can request one at the end of the course and the facilitator will put one together for you that you can include on your cv. This applies equally to younger employees starting out on their career as well as experienced people who want to demonstrate that they wish to keep learning and up-to-date.
Reason 4: being part of a dedicated online community
At the beginning of this piece I mentioned how inspiring I had found it to work with groups of students on online courses. I know of people who have ‘met’ on an online course and arranged to go on to to others so they can stay together as a group. Even now, I am still in touch with people who I have never actually met but who have taken several courses with me.
When you join an online course you have the option to become part of a dedicated group of like-minded people who are interested in some of the things you are interested in. The possibilities for an exchange of views and experiences are endless.
In addition, an online community can act as a support to your individual learning. It’s reassuring to share struggles and insights with people going through the same programme as you are.
Reason 5: online courses are designed to fit into your life
We are all busy people, so we need our learning to come in short, practical modules in order to be able to fit it into our already over-packed schedules.
In Awareness in Action courses, each course is divided into topics and each topic becomes a lesson. However, we go further and break down each lesson into a series of activities, which give the details of each topic. We advise between one and a half and two hours for a lesson. If you find you don’t have that much time to sit with the course in one go, then you have the option to cover a number of activities depending on the time you have available. In that way, you can keep the thread of the course and progress at your own pace.
Reason 6: online courses are great value for money
Given all this, plus the fact that for many online courses you have access to the materials for as long as you wish, their cost is manageable for a wide range of potential participants. Most courses offer a basic fee, with bonuses for early bird sign up. If you want individual coaching you have the option to sign up for more elaborate packages that include these options.
….. and four things to avoid
Anyone wanting to create a vibrant, enthusiastic online course following is only interested in their participants being inspired, and satisfied by their online experience. Over the least year I have seen a few ways in which people can inadvertently undermine their online experience and end up feeling disappointed. Here are four of them.
Avoid signing up when you are about to be extra busy
It’s tempting when you see a course that feels just right for you and you just want to get started—you just want to jump right in and sign up. My advice is to take a moment to check your schedule and make sure this is the right time for you to start a course. If you are about to go on a major work trip, or have a baby, or support your kids through their GCSEs then it might be good to wait until the next time the course is offered. Most courses are offered two, or even three times a year. We might think that we can fit in a few minutes of course time in between—and in the general run of a busy life you can—but when it is something major, you will just be too absorbed in what you have to do. The course will fade to a vague feeling of guilt and fizzle out and that’s a pity.
Avoid signing up if you are in crisis
Another time to double check is if you are going through a challenging time. Perhaps you are under a lot of pressure at work and think that a course on mindfulness in the workplace is just what you need. Or you have been involved in a big run-in with your boss and you want to take a course on self-compassion to help you regain your equilibrium. If you are ready, then that is fine and the course could help you get through what you are dealing with in a constructive way. Just check that you are not still too involved in the challenge and having to give a lot of energy to managing it. The risk here is that course will come to seem like a possible lifeline that you are just too stressed and worried to access. Then you will have a wistful sense that you have lost out again and this will add to your sense of crisis.
Avoid riding on someone else’s inspiration
Last January one of my courses was advertised at a New Year’s Meditation retreat and I was delighted to see several people sign up. Just as the date for registration passed I received an urgent email from someone who had just got home from the retreat and wanted to sign up with her friends, ‘to keep the inspiration going’ she said. Wanting to help I made the necessary changes to the registration process and she signed up for one of the more expensive coaching options. She managed the first few lessons and one of her allocated Skype sessions but then it was time to go back to work. In spite of my best efforts to keep her connected and to allow her extra time to work with the materials her participation became more sporadic and soon fell away altogether.
I realized that she had been caught up in the enthusiasm of the retreat group for the online course and had not really made her own choice to commit to the material. It’s a shame, because she will be much less enthusiastic to sign up for another course after this experience.
Avoid signing up for more than one course at a time
Occasionally I come across what I call a ‘professional course-taker’—someone who signs up for everything you have on offer and then does not complete anything fully. This type of person might also have signed up for your courses and courses from other providers at the same time. It’s wonderful to have so much enthusiasm but generally it is hard to convert into quality learning on any of the chosen courses. As has already been said—most course programmes run tow or three times a year, so there is plenty of time to cover all the ground that you wish to cover.
Perhaps some of you reading this blog have already got experience of taking online courses. If so, it would be great to hear how you benefitted and if you have any more ‘things to avoid’ to add to my list. Do be in touch and share your experience.
If you are interested to try an online course, we have a meditation course for beginners running continuously—How To Start Meditation in a Way That Will Last.
You can sign up any time. The link is here
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.
A few weeks ago, my partner and I were out with some friends for dinner. We had not seen them for a while and we had a lot to talk about. On top of that, one of the friends was going through a bit of a tough time and needed support—which we happy to give, except that the people at the table behind us were celebrating and extremely noisy. It was one of those weird situations where you found yourself raising your voice to talk about delicate things. I found myself beginning to experience what I can only describe as ‘restaurant rage’.
I was focused on our small group at our table and found myself glancing over my shoulder in increasing irritation at the thoughtlessness of the noisy crowd behind me. It seemed to be that they were inconsiderate and thoughtless, with no care for the enjoyment of the other diners.
Eventually, after a while, a sense of doubt set in. How was my behaviour any different? I wanted things quiet and peaceful so my friends and I could have the environment we wanted. The celebrators wanted to have a good time. I wanted things one way and they wanted them another. Why did I assume that my way was best? Why did I feel entitled to it?
It got me thinking about how our default position is so often to want others to change to fit in with how we want things to be. It is so much harder to change our own behaviour to be able to manage the challenging situation more effectively.
What follows are my ideas about how to manage a situation like this next time it comes up. I live in a city; noisy restaurants are common—so turning restaurant rage into kindness seems like a good investment.
Take care of your irritation
If you are going to change the way you are reacting you need to give yourself some time to realise you are irritated and then to calm down. I usually find a few long, slow breaths will do it. No-one needs to notice—you can just rest your attention on your breath for a few moments until you feel yourself coming back.
The next thing is to get a handle on what is actually happening, rather than what you imagine is happening. In my dinner example, the party at the nearby table were not nasty people on a mission to spoil my evening—there just wanted to enjoy themselves.
With this perspective, it’s easier to remember that it’s not all about you. You have the right to want things to go the way you wish but then so does everyone else. Sometimes things go your way, sometimes they go another person’s way. There’s not a lot we can do to change that and getting irritated about it just makes you miserable.
Pay attention to the sound without the storyline
It’s possible to use sound as a support for meditation. Of course, if you are in a restaurant you might not want to go off into a corner for a meditation session but you can still use the principle. Just notice the sounds around you, without judging and without building a storyline about them. You could call it a Teflon relation to sound—just notice it with your full attention but without commentary. Going back again to my restaurant example—I immediately made a story about my friend and I needing quiet and the people nearby ruining it with their noise. Thinking back, it’s quite likely they were not even particularly aware of us.
We relate to the world through our senses but we do have a choice as to how we are with the information they provide. We don’t always have to react.
If you find it hard to make meditation a regular part of your life, remember that yoga can also help you to find some inner peace. Yoga is a way to relax, unwind, and become one with everything around you. It can help you to develop resilience in the same way that meditation can.
Enjoy other people’s pleasure
When you get annoyed with the behaviour of other people your stress levels rise and you feel uncomfortable. In the restaurant, I could feel myself getting tight with trying to block out the noisy table.
A totally different approach is to notice joy when it is happening around you and to allow it to nourish you.
This might involve dropping your own agenda and simply opening to the enjoyment of others. It could mean that instead of protecting yourself, you allow yourself to open to the happiness of other people. It does not have to be your happiness but it can lift your heart just the same.
Always wish them well
The last of these remedies for restaurant rage is wishing people wellbeing and happiness. You may have heard of Loving Kindness Meditation. It’s a meditation focused on wishing happiness and wellbeing for yourself, for people close to you, for people you do not know so well and even for people you find challenging.
Even if you are not familiar with the whole meditation, you can still focus on a person, or group of people and in your mind, say something like, May you be happy, may you be well. I find it a great exercise to do when I am in crowded places and there are many people. It brings me a feeling of ease.
Do you have any tips for turning rage into kindness in city life? If you do please add them in the comments section.