A while back I was having quite a bit of knee trouble and it was hard to get around. I fly a lot for my work and so I needed to rely on airport assistance for a couple of trips.
Basically, you get put into a wheelchair, or on to a buggy and are zipped through passport control and security at top speed with minimum inconvenience. Unless you feel being delivered like a package to your plane counts as an inconvenience.
Like most of us, I value my independence and was not too keen on having to ask for help. Added to that was the worry that this temporary situation might turn out to be longer lasting than I wanted. All in all, it was a vulnerable time.
Meeting the people whose job is as to provide me with assistance was an eye opener. I came to sort them into one of four groups.
The young people who don’t relate to what is going on with you.
These are generally young people on the first rung of the ladder who just wants to get the job done. They absolutely do not want to spend their time imagining what it must be like to spend any time at all in a wheel chair. It has nothing to do with them and the prospect seems too remote from their own experience.
With this group you just feel vaguely irrelevant.
The more experienced worker who has been assigned to airport assistance temporarily and is enjoying the novelty.
At one point, I spent the half an hour waiting for my gate to come up and my ‘carer’ had to wait with me. She spent the time telling me about the problems she was having with another member of staff making unwanted advances to her. There was an underlying subtle message that I was expected to give back something for the privilege of being driven around the airport. My assistance provider had a captive audience and wanted to make the most of it. I played my part and did my best to listen and give whatever advice I could.
At least I felt like a human being, even if one that was supposed to work for their care.
The expert carer with pride in their work.
Make no mistake, once you sit in the wheelchair you are a captive audience for whatever comes to you. One of my most unnerving encounters was with an airport assistance person who actually took immense pride in his work and tried his very best to give top quality support.
He explained that he preferred to do without the lifts and pulleys that can be used to get people on and off planes and resort to the strength of his own arms. This sounds good but it meant that as we transferred to the airport bus to take us from the ‘plane to the terminal, he tipped my wheelchair almost on its back to get me on to the bus—without using the lift.
At one point I felt quite worried. I could imagine him lifting me bodily into the car that my friend had waiting for me at the airport. In spite of his enthusiasm, or perhaps because of it, I felt like a project rather than a person.
I have met people so solicitous of my feelings that I have felt concerned to reassure them that I am all right and do not expect to have to do this procedure more than a few times.
In some ways, this was the most difficult group to handle. They were so sorry for me and so anxious to get things right. I felt burdened by their concern.
What did I learn from my wheelchair experience?
Overall, the whole experience touched me very much in seeing how natural it is for us to wish to help others. Everyone who helped me as part of this service was kind and polite and many have done more than was asked of them. Happily, I did just need the help for a limited period of time, but it has changed the way I look at other people in similar situations. I hope I can see a bit more deeply.
The main thing that I learnt was that wanting to be a help is not enough. To really help, with no fuss, you need to have the extraordinary skill of being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes—or in this case, wheelchair. It is possible to tell instinctively if someone has cared for a friend or relative with mobility problems because they know how to do this. People with this experience know you have to drop you own ideas of how you think the job needs to be done. Instead you try to imagine what you would need if you were in that position. It’s not easy but those who can do it stand out a mile from the rest.
It’s a pity that the people who do this work do not receive some basic training on mindfulness and empathy skills. They give so much already it would be great for them to have support to know how to do it even more effectively.
Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash
I am a Brexit refugee. It’s been over twenty years since I left the UK to live in Amsterdam. Except for an interlude of five years working in France, I have been there ever since. It has been wonderful to have the freedom to live and work in Europe. This freedom is in direct contrast to the UK, where I have not been allowed to vote since my absence from the country passed the fifteen-year mark. It was not even possible to vote in the Referendum in 2016.
Dutch friends started off being completely puzzled as to why the UK wanted to inflict such harm on itself by leaving the EU. These days they are mostly in a state of shock at the continuous unravelling of anything they recognize as British competence. They feel my pain, but they are also glad it is not happening to them.
It’s almost impossible to explain the chaotic mess that the Brexit process has become. When I try come up against my own feelings of shame and embarrassment at the closed-minded perspective that brought us here. The thing is though, that one day this process will be over and then the UK will need to work diligently to heal the scars of this battle. I would love to see kindness put at the forefront of this work. It’s hard to see how we will move forward without it.
What would a kind approach to Brexit look like?
There is a growing body of research into the benefits of kindness. It turns out that they are considerable and wide reaching. Kindness benefits the person offering it, the person receiving it and all the people who witness it.
It affects us on a physiological level—kindness can improve heart function, lower blood pressure, slow aging and strengthen our immune systems. The author and scientist, David R. Hamiltonexplains that through the production of the hormone, oxytocin and the neurotransmitter, serotonin our levels of wellbeing are raised.
On an emotional level—anxiety, stress and depression can all be reduced through preforming genuine acts of kindness. In his ground-breaking book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks documented the good feeling that you get from helping others and which is now referred to as the Helpers’ High.
Imagine some of these benefits being injected into the Brexit debate right now.
To begin with the insults, posturing and inflammatory accusations would need to stop—completely. We would need to start listening to each other. If possible, to appreciate that each person is acting from what they genuinely believe would work best. If someone disagrees with me it does not make them a bad, or stupid person.
I saw a great example of this recently when my Dutch partner sent me a video clip of the author Michael Morpurgo and historian Robert Tombs have a civilised disagreement about Brexit on Channel 4. Morpurgo is for staying in the EU and Tombs is for coming out. During the brief extract from their discussion neither man insulted the other. They listened to each other’s arguments and neither thought less of the other because they had an opposing point of view. It was remarkably reassuring to see that this kind of exchange is still possible.
When Ireland recently voted to overthrow the ban on abortion, much was said and written about the Citizens’ Assemblywhich was set up to give people a voice in such a big decision. Since then there has been talk about doing something similar for the Brexit debate. The former Labour PM, Gordon Brownhas put his weight behind this idea. His suggestion is to bring representative samples of leavers and remainers in regional groupings. The idea is that they could then take the time to go more deeply into all the issues that make up the Brexit puzzle.
The Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland was not perfect and has its own criticisms to answer. That’s perfectly understandable with big initiatives. Just because something is not perfect is no reason not to try not move forward with it. There is little cause to apply the word, ‘perfect’ to anything about the current debate raging in Parliament and across the country.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It involves an understanding of what another person is feeling from within their own frame of reference. You could say it is a bit like walking in someone else’s shoes.
Edwin Rutschis the founder of Centre for Building a Culture of Empathy. He has run many Empathy circlesdesigned to facilitate dialogue on many different issues. One feature is an empathy cafe where people gather to discuss challenging issues. He has run several dealing with the polarisation of political views between the right and left in the US.
Actively using the skills of empathy to understand another person’s views, rather than to weaponize them would add enormously to any Brexit discussion.
Here’s a quote from Henry David Thoreau that sums up empathy for me,
Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?
As I read this quote, I am aware that it can take courage to look through the eyes of someone whose views you find appalling. It’s natural to feel quite apprehensive about what you might see. My understanding is that Thoreau is talking about looking beneath and beyond the opinions of the other person. He is celebrating the insights into the heart of another person when we allow ourselves to look with judgment. On the occasions when all we see is aggression and self-interest, then can we let the limits of such an attitude touch us with compassion?
What can I do?
Recently I have realized that any change in the quality of the discussions around Brexit has to start with me. It’s a daily occurrence for me to shout at the TV when the news is on. There are MPs who I cannot bear to listen to and that goes for some of the media coverage too. My Facebook page is swamped by articles and cartoons charting the course of this debacle. There is a level where all the aggression, lies and procrastination has seeped into my own relationship to the whole thing.
If I want to change how Brexit is talked about, then I have to find a way to change how I am talking about it myself. I need to connect more actively with my own compassionate heart, rather than complain about the lack of compassion in others. It’s not enough to take comfort from the privacy of my hostility—thinking unkind thoughts undermines compassion as well as actions.
It’s so seductive to carried along by ideas of cooperation, inclusion, and common good but then to place people who see things differently outside your circle of respect. One strategy that I find it helpful to try and separate a person from their actions. When I can do this, I find we have much more in common than it appears. The right wingers pushing for an anti-European, nationalist agenda are wrong in my view, but if I remember that, just like me, they struggle with insecurities, anxieties, and fears then they become human again.
I want to use this quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellowto help me remember:
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
It’s about remembering that we are all human beings—complicated, vulnerable and imperfect. When my own opinions and beliefs are in full flow, this can get overlooked completely. Then the person on the other side of the argument becomes the ‘other’ and no longer worthy of care and respect. When I dehumanize those I disagree with it becomes easier to at best dismiss them and at worst vilify them.
My Brexit grief
The truth is that I am in mourning as a result of the 2016 Referendum. I never expected the UK to vote to leave the EU and to this day I still hold out hope of a second referendum that will put a stop to the whole process. My grief is on so many levels—ranging from my concerns about my own personal status as a Brit living in Europe, to a deep sadness about what the UK seems to stand for these days. I am embarrassed, ashamed and deeply shocked. Although I have always been a bit of an anarchist there was always a sense that the UK was on the side of decency, good governance and some level of wanting to contribute to a better world. This feeling has been rocked to the core.
All this needs to find a place and to work itself through. It’s my belief that will happen much more effectively if I can curb the more extreme expressions of this grief and find a way to resolve it through kindness.
Do you work with someone who you dread having to interact with? Someone who stifles you, who never gives you any positive feedback and is always disapproving? Do you find yourself with a difficult work colleague? It’s tough, isn’t it?
Most of us have to deal with a difficult work colleague from time to time but we may find that solutions are not always easy to find. When this happened to me a while back, I was surprised at how much it got to me. It made me look into what was going on more deeply and try to come up some new ideas for how to handle it.
My recent story
I run my own small business and do a lot of work online. Sometimes this involves working on quite complex projects with international teams of people I have never met in person. Most of the time this goes really well but just recently it went badly wrong. A new volunteer joined a team I was working with and was given responsibility for the project. To begin with, I really enjoyed her focused, organized approach and felt hopeful about our progress. However, as the weeks passed, she began to assume a more top-down approach in our relationship and things started to unravel.
It began to really affect me. Her refusal to meet me half way, her positioning of herself as the expert, her willingness to have me to the same work over and over again until it reached some standard that I was not privy to—it became demoralising. Most worrying was a sense of rebellion that became steadily more persistent. There was a voice in my head that kept saying, Why bother? She’s not going to like it anyway! Worst of all—I started to dislike her, and it was very hard to summon any sort of kind feelings towards her.
Eventually, I decided that enough was enough and the only way forward was to talk face-to-face and try to sort things out. We arranged a SKYPE session.
When the talking it out session fails
Here came my second major surprise. For me to have a conversation like this means allowing myself to be vulnerable, to try to connect with the other person and to attempt to put myself in their shoes. I did all those things—from explaining quietly what I found difficult in the way we were working together to inviting her to tell me what she found difficult about working with me. We talked for almost an hour but there was no movement at all. None. A couple of days later she emailed me to say she was withdrawing from the project and would not be contacting me again. My attempt to reach out and to heal had met with total failure.
What do you then?
I spend my life talking and writing about kindness and peace of mind. It is an extraordinary feeling to put on the back foot when you are trying to use all your skills and experience. For a while my reactions took over but when I calmed down I tried to take a more balanced view and to see what learning there could be in a seemingly immovable situation.
Here are some of the strategies I used to work with what had happened.
It would have been very easy to feel bad about the whole thing. A commentary started up in my mind telling me that I had created a real mess and all my years of meditation did not count for much. I began to feel guilty for not managing better. Fortunately, I have done a lot of work with my inner critic and it didn’t take too long to reign it in and get some perspective.
It seemed important to forgive myself for not being able to be perfect all the way through this story. I knew that I had tried hard, first of all to be patient, and then to have a meaningful communication with a view to healing the situation. I was only responsible for my part of the interaction—it was not possible to control the reaction of the other person in the story. She made her own choices.
It also occurred to me that situations like this must be happening over and over again in different workplaces all over the world. Meeting people we can’t always get along with is part of our human story, one of the challenges of life that we all face. To respond only by blaming oneself is to ignore the bigger picture and miss an opportunity to open up the experience to a deeper perspective. It was when I was facing the failure of my attempt to get things on a better footing with my colleague that I really started to think more deeply. Through reflecting came more insight.
In meditation we learn to work with everything that comes up in our minds—happy thoughts, practical thoughts, horrible thoughts—we don’t differentiate as we let them rise, and then let them fall away. Over time, we train our minds to notice what comes up in the mind during meditation but not to dwell on it. Again, and again, we focus on the method of meditation and not the thoughts that can pull us away. In time, this helps us to become more resilientto what life brings and less pushed and pulled by our reactions and worries.
This is because meditation helps us to develop the ability to cut through the cycle of rumination which we so often occupy our minds with. Instead of going over and over the stories we have in our minds, we can learn to be more available in the present moment, without judgement. In this way, it became easier to drop my anxious feelings about how things had gone with my work colleague and to have a sense of acceptance that that was just how it was. I was very conscious at the sense of relief I experienced when I began to let go of the upset and justifications that had been buzzing around in my mind.
Renew your commitment to kindness
There were moments after my colleague left the project where it really felt as if she had set me up and jeopardised all my work. I certainly felt angry and attacked. The project we had been working on had to do with compassion and I found myself struggling to understand how two people who care about compassion could find themselves in such a situation.
Again, my meditation practice helped me to drop the judgemental thoughts I was having, and to realise that actually I did not really know what was going on for her. The only person I could do anything about was myself. I also realised that my anger was hurting myself most of all and it was not helping the situation.
There is a wonderful Buddhist meditation called Loving Kindness Meditation.which explores the power of generating kindness for oneself and then sharing that kindness with people close to you, then people you don’t know so well and eventually with people who have hurt you in some way. It is said that anger cannot ever heal anger, anger can only be healed by loving kindness.
It reminds me of two quotes from Nelson Mandela,
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.
It felt wonderful to let my anger fall away. Maybe I could not heal the situation as a whole, but I could heal my own reaction. It can still bubble up sometimes when I am working through the results of her withdrawal, but it does not stay.
So where does this leave me now?
The most important learning to come out of this situation for me was that we need to adjust our goals to what is happening, rather than suffering disappointment and resentment about things we cannot change. There is no point in branding an interaction as a failure and then feeling bad about it. It works much better to keep digging until the learning becomes clearer.
It was also a good experience of accepting what cannot be changed. My habit is always to keep on at something hoping it will crack but that can actually make things worse. Turing my attention away from analyzing my difficult colleague to looking into my own behavior and understanding worked a lot better.
Re-affirming my commitment to kindness, even when the going is tough, was empowering. It felt like re-enforcing the importance of kindness as something worth trying to develop, even when you are not getting the response you hoped for.
What about you? I would love to hear from you about your experiences of working with difficult work colleagues and the strategies you tried.
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Using the news to connect with compassion
Recently, I got the chance to hear Karen Armstrongspeak at a symposium on diversity at the Vu University in Amsterdam. I do some work for the Charter for Compassion, which she founded, and I was interested to hear what she had to say.
She spoke about how polarised our world has become and stressed that each of us needed to find a way to do something to change that. She was asked how someone could contribute to this change on a personal level. Armstrong pointed out that when we watch the news, we come across things that upset and worry us. Her suggestion was that we look into that feeling of discomfort and use it to generate compassion. I do that myself sometimes, and it certainly does work.
However, more and more people that I speak with tell me that they have stopped watching the news because it distresses them too much. It got me thinking about a less confrontational way of connecting with compassion, rather than conflict.
What gets in the way of connection?
One of the greatest obstacles to connection is to just see another person as an object—not really human at all. We can do this just ouhttps://www.awarenessinaction.org/why-it-is-important-to-know-how-interconnected-people-are/t of habit, or just not paying attention. The check-out person in our local supermarket, a serving person in a restaurant, or the person driving the tram can all be people we just see as agents to provide what we need at that moment.
It can go much further though. During World War II, U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall asked infantry soldiers how often they fired their guns in combat. The results were surprising and uplifting—only 15-20% of soldiers actually fired at the enemy.The reluctance to kill is hard-wired into our psyche. Unfortunately, this research led to the U.S. Army working on ways to dehumanise the enemy, so that soldiers felt less connection to the other side as human beings. It worked—by the Vietnam War, 95% of soldiers were firing their weapons but this came at a great cost. Between 18 and 54% of the 2.8 million military personnel who served in Vietnam suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder—far higher than in previous wars.
Creating a habit of connection
I mentioned already that not paying attention can mean that we don’t notice people as people. This is a habit that we can change if we take it on. One of the ways I am experimenting with since Karen Armstrong’s talk is to use my morning routine as a means to reach out to people beyond my immediate circle. As I shower, dress and eat breakfast I try to think of all the people involved in making the things I use available to me. In addition, I try to think of using natural resources well, whether workers are treated fairly, and the carbon footprint of what I am using.
Getting ready for the day
The toiletries we use—shower gel, shampoo, body lotion and make up—are sourced from all over the world.Micais used extensively, especially in make-up, and comes largely from India. However, child labour is often used in the mining of mica, with children not attending to school and working in unsafe conditions for tiny sums of money. There is work going on to try to put this right, but it goes slowly. I try as best as I can to use toiletries that are manufactured ethically but it is not always easy to tell. As I use my shower gel and so on, I try to consider all the people involved in making it—from the people who source the raw materials, to the people who market and well it. It must come to hundreds of people for each product.
A lot of our high street clothing comes from countries such as Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Indonesia. Certainly, these will all be people living very different lives from my own here in Amsterdam. In some cases, such as garment workers in Bangladesh, they will be struggling with unfair—or even unsafe—working conditions. Many of the workers will be women with homes to look after and children to feed. I don’t want to wear clothing that has been made by workers who are treated badly but, again, it is not easy to tell. A few years back, Primark was targeted for its role in using cheap labour in Bangladesh. Since then it has set up CottonConnect,training camps for women in India to learn more efficient ways of farming cotton. Although it has improved conditions for many cotton farmers, it is still part of the cycle that keeps cotton prices very low.
For breakfast I usually have porridge, with spelt-bread toast and Redbush tea. The oats for my porridge come from Scotland, and the cranberries I sprinkle over it are from the USA. Spelt is harvested in Germany and Belgium. Redbush tea comes from South Africa.
All these people help me to start my day
So, by showering, dressing and eating breakfast I am connecting with hundreds of people in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Mostly I direct my attention to the people who source and make the items that I use. I try to see them at their work and going about their lives. It’s unlikely that we will ever meet but we are connected through my using the product of their work.
We could go much further—the people working on packaging, transport, marketing and selling. Then there are all their families who depend on their work and the friends they hang out with.
Sometimes people say to me, ‘Well, it’s their job!’ That is true but who says I can’t feel gratitude and appreciation for the care and hard work of others? Most importantly, it helps me to remember that I live in an inter-connected world, relying on the effort and kindness of many people through each step of my day. We might lead different lives, but we are the same in that we want to be happy, to take care of our families and make our way in the world in peace.
As the Beatles sang in their song, A Day in the Life,
I read the news today, oh boy….
As I read the news, the main headline was about the ‘final call’ to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe’—in other words, everyone and everything frying in less than 30 years time. There was a piece about girls in school uniform being sexually harassed, and another about increasing homelessness even in prosperous cities in the USA. Another right-wing candidate has leapt to prominence, and the incidents of PTSD among veterans is seriously on the rise. Young people who have enough money for a 10% deposit on a house still cannot afford to buy one. Then the usual stories of bribery, corruption, and the misery of long-term refugees is like a familiar backdrop to the daily round of suffering, violence and natural disasters.
Quite a lot of my friends have stopped watching the news. They say it is way too distressing, and makes them feel powerless, frightened and miserable. Why put yourself through it—it’s enough to make you crazy?
So why do I risk the news driving me crazy and keep watching it so regularly?
Something that comes into my head over and over again as I struggle with watching the news is that any one of the people I am watching could be me—I could be flooded out of my home or attacked by a terrorist while moving about the city. I am one of the people directly affected by Brexit, new tax regulations and the housing shortage. It seems vitally important to realize that each of the news stories are made up by people just like me. We might live in different countries, have different interests and concerns but each of us needs basic shelter, enough to eat and a way to earn our living. We all have hopes and dreams and we all experience crushing disappointments, anxieties and fears. Somewhere, at some level we all want and need love.
Putting myself in their shoes
As I watch the news I try to put myself in the shoes of the people involved – to see things as they are experiencing them. This is not the same as letting myself get overwhelmed by what is going on. It’s more like walking a bit on someone else’s shoes until I get their feel and then putting my own back on. I know it will not help anyone if I just feel bad and miserable. The point for me is not to withdraw but to see it all within the scope of how inter-connected we all are – to keep my own heart open and responsive, to dare to be vulnerable.
It gets a lot harder if I try to put myself in the shoes of the perpetrators of terrorism, or conflict, or crime and sometimes it is just not possible. At the very least, I make an attempt to fathom what led them to act as they did—to ask myself what suffering they may have experienced that led to such drastic action.
Dealing with judgement
We seem to be living through a time of deep polarization between different opinions and ways of seeing the world. It is all too easy to judge those we disagree with as being less capable, less honest, almost less human. It hurts to see legislation, political appointments and decisions that go directly against what you yourself feel to be important. At such times it’s easy to feel cynical and dismiss it all as just another manifestation of how hopeless it all is and how we should not even try to make sense of any of it.
I was struck by a recent video I watched from Michelle Obama in which she encourages people to get out and vote—to take responsibility for how they want to live. She did not urge people to vote democrat—she simply encouraged people not to go passive in the current melée of politics but to engage and choose. Her insistence that it is fundamentally up to us resonated with me.
Managing my dislike
I confess to feeling angry, frustrated and overwhelmingly sad when certain politicians come on the screen—I just need to hear their voice, or see their name and my reaction rolls in. It surprises me how visceral it is. Generally my preference is for dialogue, kindness and compassion and yet when these particular political figures appear on the screen I just want to yell abuse.
This cannot be called a productive response at any level.
Perhaps one of the main reasons for this reaction is my sense of helplessness—I want to hit back because of how frustrated I feel. Just lately, it has been becoming clearer that if I can manage my exactions with more equanimity, less dislike and less judgement I can feel that I am taking back some control of the situation. A meditation teacher of mine used to say, If you want to bring about nuclear disarmament, start off with the atom bomb in your own heart. The wisdom of this is finally beginning to filter through.
Just as Michelle Obama encourages participation as a way of taking responsibility, so working with my reactions—from aversion, through judgement to dislike—can help me to have more resources and energy to see the new items more clearly. This can only help in developing the understanding and compassion I am looking for.
Watching the news has become a way of bearing witness for me—bearing witness to the pain and suffering in the world, to the struggles that we all have to manifest our natural capacity for kindness and to my own path to developing my resources in order to be of benefit, rather than adding to the chaos and confusion.
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In the UK three out of 4 people have been so stressed at least once over the last year that they have felt overwhelmed, or unable to cope.
This statistic is from a recent report for the Mental Health Foundation which shows astonishingly high levels of stress. Isabella Goldie, director of the Foundation is quotedas saying, Millions of us around the UK are experiencing high levels of stress and it is damaging our health. Stress is one of the great public health challenges of our time but it is not being taken as seriously as physical concerns.
With Mental Health Awareness Week focusing this year on stress, there has been quite a bit of media attention around stress-related issues. As someone who has been going through a bit of an intense time recently, it got me thinking about how meditation helps with working with stress.
Seeing the problem
During a particularly hectic day a couple of weeks back, a friend messaged me wanting to talk through a problem she was having with someone in her family. I did my best to be there for her. I listened, I responded but slowly it crept up on me that I was having to try really hard to have an open heart because none of it seemed as challenging as my own bad time. I was almost resentful that she kept going on about it all! That was a bit of a shock. It brought home to me that somehow what I was dealing with was intense enough to affect my open heart. I needed to re-apply my attention to how I was applying my meditation practice in action.
Here are some of the ways I have been trying to work with managing bad times in a way that enables me to maintain an open heart—a heart that is open and available to what is going on for others, rather than being focused primarily on what is going on for me.
1. Respecting people’s wish for happiness while understanding suffering
It’s natural when you feel down to want to feel better. You just want to be happy and to get on with life. The key thing to remember is that is exactly how everyone else feels as well. Just about everyone we meet wants to be happyand not to experience suffering and pain. We would like things to go well for us and for us not to have to face disappointment, loss, and grief. We work hard to try and avoid having to face things we don’t like and don’t want.
Life shows us clearly that while there is nothing wrong with the wish to be happy it is not as easy as we might hope. No amount of money, possessions or fabulous holidays will protect us from the challenges that life can bring. Every day each one of us is getting older, sometimes we get sick and one day, eventually, we will die.
The truth is that suffering is part of life. We won’t manage to live a care-free life! Nothing is permanent, everything is constantly changing. Our lives are made up of a string of moments that we weave together to try to make a whole, when in fact, we have no idea what each minute will bring. Just because we wake up each morning and go through our usual routine does not mean that the routine is cast in stone. Consider people having to flee their homes to escape, fires, or flooding or volcanic eruptions.
None of this means that we should not seek happiness but perhaps we can open our hearts to include everyone’s wish for happiness, not just our own. Perhaps also we can ease the intensity with which we long for happiness by accepting the inevitability of suffering. When we can acknowledge that things are tough, we give ourselves a chance to learn about what we are going through and how we could do things differently.
2. We are all in the same boat
All of this points to the fact that there is more that unites us as human beings than divides us. We might look different, with our own interests and dreams but joining us is a deep thread of common humanity. We all face worries about how we look, being in work, having enough money, finding love, caring for our families and staying healthy. In addition, we have strong imaginations and the ability to create worries simply from within in our minds. Anyone who has laid awake worrying at 04.00 in the morning will know what I mean.
As we have seen, we all look for ways to escape from our worries but it does not always work. As human beings we have to live with our imperfections, with our bodies that can seem so fragile and easily damaged and the impossibility of knowing all that we think we need to know.
Next time you are on a train, or tram, or plane try this exercise:
- 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.
Doing exercises like this helps to remind us of how things are for other people. We are reminded of the deep thread of inter-connectionthat runs through all of human experience, and we are reminded that it is not just us who struggles. Realizing that just as we can be in pain, so can others can help to keep an open heart.
3. Helping others helps you
When we feel down, it can be hard to find the energy to do something for someone else but if we can make the effort, the benefits are considerable.
Research shows that kindness can improve heart function, lower blood pressure, slow aging and strengthen our immune systems. The author and scientist, David R. Hamiltonexplains that through the production of the hormone, oxytocin and the neurotransmitter, serotonin our levels of wellbeing are raised. Anxiety, stress and depression can all be reduced through preforming genuine acts of kindness. In his ground-breaking book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks documented the good feeling that you get from helping others and which is now referred to as the Helpers’ High.Older volunteers suffering from arthritis and other painful chronic conditions found that their symptoms decreased when they were actively helping others.
The thing is that when we can pay attention to the needs of other people, it lifts our attention to the bigger picture beyond our own individual bad time. Stress and worry tend to close us down, whereas thinking of others widens our view and ensures an open heart.
4. Build your resilience
For me the foundation of all of this is my meditation practice. I was drawn to meditation in the first place because I wanted to understand how my mind works. I can’t say that because I meditate I no longer worry about what might happen in the future or go over things that have already happened because I still do. The thing is that I take it all much less seriously than before. I have come to understand that there is a quiet, spacious aspect of my mind that worry covers over, and meditation enables me to access. On one level this can simply be being present to what is happening for me right now—recognising that all I can be sure of is the moment I am currently living. On a deeper level, it is an acceptance of my thoughts and emotions because I know that they do not have to define me—that my mind is bigger than they are. So even when I am facing challenges and bad times, a part of me trusts that I have sufficient resilience to bounce back from it in time.
The neuroscientist, Richard Davidson places resilienceas one of the four skills of wellbeing. When we are so stressed that we say or do something we regret later, or when we are so overwhelmed that we feel threatened by everything we need to cope with, we are experiencing an amygdala hijack. The amygdala is the brain’s radar for danger and the trigger for the flight-or-flight response. During a hijack it over-rides the brain’s executive centres in the pre-frontal cortex. Davidson’s research into the effects of meditation on the brain shows that meditation helps to strengthen the pre-frontal cortex and weaken the right-frontal cortex, which registers depression and anxiety.We now know from neuroplasticitythat the brain can change according to experience and research is confirming that we can learn to increase our resilience to hard times through a regular meditation practice.
What can we take from this?
Having an open heart is not something we achieve and then take for granted. Keeping our heart open is a process and sometimes it is going to be hard. Maybe we won’t always feel we can make the effort but if we want to manage our bad times with kindness, and wisdom then we don’t really have a choice. Our own wellbeing is dependent on maintaining an open heart because within that openness lies many of the solutions we need to work through our bad times.
If you enjoyed this post and want to go further try this online course
HOW TO BE A GOOD FRIEND TO YOURSELF
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