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.
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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When things are really tough for you, do you find yourself thinking of friends and family and kind of grading the emotional support they offer? Do you ever have these kind of thoughts?
Well so and so has not called to see how things are going
It was nice of them to check in but that was last week
They promised to help but then weren’t there when I needed them
They only called to tell me about their problems
It can be hard to admit, even to ourselves, that we judge the emotional support people offer us in this way. No-one wants to feel needy, or ungrateful but when we are feeling really bad it’s all too easy to lose perspective.
Of course, when we are going through hard times we look for emotional support from people we love and trust. We know that being able to express our worries in a supported environment will help us to cope better. The problem comes when we hope for too much. Then we have to deal with the struggle we are going through, as well as our disappointment about the support we receive.
Here’s a few things we can try when we feel ourselves prescribing the emotional support we want from other people.
Don’t expect other people to offer emotional support like you would
Some people are natural carers, with an empathic understanding of what someone might need when they are struggling. This is not true of everyone. Most of us have some friends who are lovely people but pretty tone-deafin terms of reading the emotional needs of others.
If you are a good listener and prepared to go out of your way for a friend in need, maybe it’s going to be a challenge when you are the one wanting emotional support. It’s important to remember that a small gesture from another person might be a big offering for them. Just because you might do more, does not mean that they are not trying to be there for you.
Hoping for things from people blocks the emotional support they are actually offering
One of my closest friends has a demanding job and a complicated personal life. One of her ways of coping is to focus on what goes well for her and taking time out from what stresses her. I know she really cares for me, but I get frustrated when my concerns are part of what she wants to avoid. There is a part of her that just cannot stand it when things are tough for me and so for long periods she does not engage.
I can wish she would SKYPE with me and have a good talk, but I know she won’t. If I get stuck there then I miss the small, frequent, small signs from her that she is thinking of me and wishing me well—the text messages, the FB posts, the cards in the mail.
She has her own way of holding me when I am going through something. If I can relax and accept it for what it is, I can feel her emotional support and benefit from it. If I long for what I think she should be offering it’s a different story.
It’s quite an art to be able to accept the help that people offer on their terms, rather than restyling it into something that you think they should be offering.
We have inherited the oldest part of our brain from our reptilian ancestors.This part of our brain is concerned solely with survival—our fight, flight, or freeze responses; our wish to procreate, and how we deal with danger and fear. Any response we make from this part of our brain is instinctive and automatic. The neocortex is the newest part of our brain and is concerned with reason, imagination, and problem-solving. It’s the seat of social skills and compassionate responses. However, it can be hijackedby the old brain and our instincts can take over from our reason.
However, much we want to act with kindness and consideration, we are subject to the overwhelming power of our basic instinct to preserve ourselves. Although our kindness is hard-wired we need to pay attention to it in order to bring it into action—it needs intention and focus. Our self-interest is instinctive.
So, when we look for emotional support from those close to us, we need to remember that, just like us, they are juggling their genuine wish to help and be of benefit with their deep-seated urge to make sure everything is right for them.
The most reliable emotional support comes from our own ability to care for ourselves.
In my experience the best way to care for myself is to maintain a regular practice of meditation. It’s not just my everyday meditation session but bringing the attitude of meditation into my everyday life.
Here are some of the things I notice that meditation helps me with:
I find I am less judgemental of myself of and other people, which is incredibly relaxing. It is less difficult to avoid beating myself up when I feel down.
I am able to trust myself and my own insight more deeply and to see what I need to do in order to work with the challenges I am facing.
I am less impatient about getting what I think I need right then and there
Even when I am going through something challenging, I feel a greater sense of patience and acceptance that this is just what is happening now.
It’s more possible to let go of things I think I need from other people
I have a greater capacity to be grateful for what comes my way and to appreciate the emotional support people offer me when I need it.
Meditation helps me to become more self-reliant but at the same time to see more clearly how much people really do want to offer emotional support and how that is not always easy to do.
If you are interested to learn more about meditation you might find this online course helpful
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.
It’s a pretty straightforward situation—your passport is almost out of date and you need it renewed. Even an old hippy like me, with an aversion to bureaucracy, can get her head around that. The thing is that although a British citizen I have lived in the Netherlands for many years. It used to be possible to renew your passport through the British consulate in Amsterdam but not anymore. Now it is HM Passport Office in the UK and you already know that you are in trouble.
On top of that there were date crunches when I could not be without a passport, but the renewal was unlikely to be ready. I needed some advice in order to work out how to manage it.
You need them more than they need you
It did not take long to realise that your passport renewal is only of interest to you, no-one else is interested at all. The system is obviously creaking at the seams. If you get put off in your application, that’s just one less worry for them. There was not a moment when I felt like someone buying a service—indeed the over-riding attitude was that I was being granted a favour.
In fact, worse than that, at some subtle level I was made to feel that somehow, I was trying to buck the system. By needing answers to questions that did not fit neatly into the standard renewal pattern I was asking too much. Needless to say, any small variations that might exist are only there for the use of people living in the UK. If you’ve been reckless enough to leave, it’s obvious that you cannot expect to maintain the same rights as those who don’t.
Uneasily I recalled everything that I had read about the Windrush Generationand the heart-breaking stories of would-be asylum seekers holed up in the Jungle campnear Calais. If I felt treated in an unfriendly way how would be it be to be someone hoping to be given refuge in the UK?
You never get to talk to a real person
The thing is, you never get to talk to a living person. HM Passport Office was not interested in my particular situation, or specific needs. All I could do was to study the website over and over again looking for answers—at least it was better than the endless chain of voice messages and prompts when I tried to phone.
According to a study by Google, 61% of mobile users call a business when they’re in the purchase phase of the buying cycle. The majority of respondents would call instead of reaching out online because they’re looking to get a quick answer (59%) or talk to a real person (57%). Most serious of all—constant communication without direct human contact undermines empathy.
The whole process is slow and expensive
In the end I applied for my renewal online. It cost £105.86 including postage. The actual online process is simple and relatively easy to follow. There is just this uncomfortable feeling that if you get something wrong you will be forever doomed to chase around in lonely circles trying to fix it. It’s slow though. Once your renewal request is ‘approved’ it takes at least 6 weeks for the passport to be sent. It was longer for me because the summer was beginning.
Inevitably, I needed to purchase an Emergency Travel Document in order to travel during the time my passport was with HM Passport Office. There is no service by which you are issued with an official document that states that your passport is being renewed. Even though I was only travelling from Amsterdam to the south of France by car—so no need for identification at airports and so on—I still needed to pay an additional £114.00 for my Emergency Travel document.
There is zero flexibility
It was possible to purchase the Emergency Travel document in Amsterdam though. I filled in an application online and made an appointment to deliver documents. It was getting pretty close to my departure date and time was running out.
You can’t just enter the Consulate building. You ring at one door and then have to go around the back and enter through another—communicating through intercom as you go. Once inside you have to surrender your mobile phone and put it into a safe. Eventually you arrive at a small, stark waiting room where behind a glass and grill protective wall, one or two people appear to be working. By that stage I was so grateful to meet an actual human that I did not mind the wait. What I did mind was being told that after all, I would need to come back tomorrow in order to collect my ETD.
I am sad to say that I got very cross. Perhaps it was because I had felt so disrespected throughout the whole process, which had been a frustrating experience in alienation. After a few heated exchanges I managed to negotiate an agreement whereby I could collect my ETD at 15.00 that same afternoon.
When I arrived back at the consulate, I rang the door again and waited. A security guard appeared at the door and asked me to wait—outside. After some moments, he reappeared with my document, a receipt and a form for me to sign. He same down the steps into the street to give me the document and for me to sign. When I asked why we were doing this in the street, he said that officially the consulate was closed. It felt as if we were doing an illicit deal.
He asked me to return the ETD when I had finished with it because it was UK property. I have not returned it.
Premonitions of post-Brexit Britain
Perhaps it is fanciful, but all this seemed to be exacerbated by Brexit. I have never wanted to leave the EU and my resolution has only deepened as I watch with horror the incalculable mess that is being made of the UK withdrawal. For me, pretentiousness, arrogance and lack of concern for human beings and their ordinary lives are all hallmarks of the UK government’s approach to hauling the UK out of the EU. All of these were evident as I went through this every day, ordinary process. Form, appearance, adherence to some supposed standards of practice were all that mattered. My personal situation, my questions, my concerns were completely without merit in the process.
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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