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
You can find out more here
When you are getting ready for work in the morning, is there a work colleague who comes into your mind who you dread seeing, and would rather avoid? If there is, then the chances are that you have a difficult person to deal with at work. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to be a problem that only you are facing. Difficult people at work can cause a ripple effect that has negative consequences throughout the workplace.
Everyone is difficult some of the time of course, so what does it take to be seen as a ‘difficult person’? There are people who complain all the time and are impossible to please. Then there are others who seem to want to turn everything into a competition, or worse, a battle. I have worked with people who treat their staff pool as a free audience for them to play out their own personal soap opera—they demand attention and tend to suck all the energy out of a team. Perhaps you’ve met the perfectionist? Someone who cannot accept anything that is less than perfect and projects their exacting and unrealistic standards on everyone around them. Quieter but just as deadly is the person who quietly goes behind everyone’s backs and gossips and manipulates to get their own way.
Toxic behaviour of any kind takes up time, energy and resources to deal with—all of which could be applied to the actual work to be done. Such behaviour can impact productivity and lower inspiration and morale among any team. It causes stress, absenteeism, and a higher rate of staff turnover.
However, it does not have to be all bad. Difficult work colleagues can help to focus our attention and encourage us to check our own habits at work. Let’s look at some practical, accessible steps that anyone can take to help them to deal with a difficult person at work without risking any of these negative outcomes.
Maybe as you read this you are thinking that you are always paying attention, and this is too obvious to mention? Perhaps you have not heard about the researchthat was done at Harvard University in 2010. It showed that for almost 50% of our waking hours, we are thinking about something different to what we are doing. This means that for almost half our life we are not fully present to ourselves and what we are doing.
Let’s take a moment to consider what that means. If our minds are elsewhere when we are interacting with another person then we are going to miss all kinds of signs as to what is actually going on. Our memoryof the interaction will be flawed and incomplete. We are going to be seeing people and events as we think they are, rather than how they actually are.
This is particularly important when dealing with a person we experience as difficult. We are going to need to able to discern clearly the other person’s behaviour, as well as our own responses to it. It won’t help to get caught out by defensive reactionswhich could add to the problem. Things will only get worse if we exaggerate the difficult behaviour of the other person. Developing equanimity, on the other hand will give us the grounding we need to understand and work with the challenges they present for us.
What we can do
One of the best ways to learn to be present is to make mindfulnesspractice part of your everyday life. Try to spend at least 10 minutes every morning sitting on a cushion, or hard-backed chair connecting with your breath. Simply rest your attention on the rhythm of your breathing. When your attention wanders away, notice it has wandered and bring it back. Keep doing this over and over again. Slowly, steadily you are training your mind to be present.
During the day we can use STOP moments—very short moments of mindfulness meditation.
This is how they work:
- Pause with whatever you are doing
- Connect with your body, feel its strength, let it ground you
- Take a few deep, slow breaths—release any tension you are feeling
- Let your thoughts come and go without chasing after them
- Enjoy the few moments of calm and spaciousness.
- Take that feeling with you as you pick up your activities.
I don’t think I have ever met someone who owned up to being a poor listener. Each of us believes that when people talk to us we hear what they are saying. Sadly, most of the time we only just scratch the surface. We are used to putting our case, telling our story and we want others to listen to us. If we put ourselves in the centre, then it is hard to embrace the whole circle. Much of our listeningcomes from a place of believing we have the correct response, or the right solution and we can’t wait to share it with the person we are talking with. That comes across for the person talking to us, who senses that we are putting our own reactions ahead of their needs.
Susan Gillis Chapman has written a book, The Five Keys to Mindful Communication in which she uses the three colours of traffic lightsto help understand the different levels of communication. When we have someone at work who we are having problems with, the chances are that our communication is going to be the red light, where defensive reactions are predominant. At these times, how we listen is of over-riding importance. Our difficult person is expecting to not be heard, is almost provoking misunderstanding. We cannot afford to shut down and close ourselves off from the signals they are sending. If we can demonstrate that we are trying our best really be present and to listen without the inner commentary of our own opinions, then we have a chance to move to yellow light communication, where things can become more fluid. Of course, our goal is the open communication of the green traffic light.
What we can do
- Try to avoid conversations with your difficult person when you are tired, hungry or stressed.
- When you know you are going into an interaction with them, try to take a STOP moment beforehand.
- Listen with your heart as well as your head.
- Ask yourself what is really going on for the other person.
- Look for any emotional clues.
- Watch out for repeated words or phrases—the chances are these are the issues that are on the other person’s mind the most.
- Consider your attempts to listen with an open mind and heart as your contribution to healing the situation.
Give up judging others
Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading figures in the mindfulness movement, described mindfulness as being, an intentional, non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Why was it necessary to highlight this quality of non-judgment? If you think about it, we judge just about anything. In fact, we divide the world up into things we like and want, things we don’t like and don’t want and things we don’t really care about. We spend a great deal of effort going after the things we want, because we think they will make us happy and avoiding the things we don’t want, because we know they will make us unhappy. The thing is that none of it works. Lasting happiness is much harder to achieve than we thought and it’s hard to avoid challenging things happening to us.
Our like, don’t like and don’t care attitudes are just as easily applied to people we know, as it is to the things that happen to us. We hold our friends close and avoid people we do not like and in between is a huge mass of people we don’t ever really pay attention to. If we have a difficult person at work, they are likely to fall into the category of ‘don’t like and don’t want.’ Obviously, this is a weak position to try to find a solution from.
What we can do
We already mentioned the importance of equanimity as a basis for working with difficult people. It enables us to be present to the person and the situation but to not be drawn into it, to not be affected by it.
- Without equanimity we are defenceless in the emotional territory of the difficult person.
- With equanimity our limbic systemis under control and our neocortexis in charge.
- We can see things as they are, rather than from the point of view of our own self-focus.
- It is not necessary to draw courage from judgments which enforce our own opinions and prejudices.
- Equanimity allows us to be open to what happens, rather than pre-judging any outcomes.
It is easy to think that we don’t have time for kindnessin the workplace but this is a misperception. Being kind does not take more time, it just requires us to be present to ourselves, our work colleagues and the situations we find ourselves in.
Jonathan Haidthas researched something he calls elevation, or a heightened sense of wellbeing. This is the effect of people either experiencing kindness themselves, or witnessing it happening between other people and feeling the benefit personally. When this kind of interaction happens in a work environment it has the effect of building trust, commitment and loyalty. How we try to deal with a difficult person at work can contribute to the overall wellbeing of a workplace.
We’ve seen that it is all too easy to want to avoid difficult people at work, and to not have to deal with them—but let’s take a moment to try and see this from their point of view? Few people set out to be disliked—if their behaviour is provoking dislike, somewhere that is probably causing them distress.
What we can do
- Ask yourself what you know about your difficult work colleague
—are they under stress, is there something going on at home?
- Look for any small thing that you like about the person
—maybe you have the same taste in music, or they like the same movies that you do?
- Try to separate the person from their actions
—all of us do stuff which is not always nice, but it does not mean we are all bad people.
- Whenever you can, try to give your difficult person the benefit of the doubt.
- Observe how they are with other people
—are there other people they get on well with?
—I once had to work closely with someone who said I reminded him of his mother (with whom he had a problematic relationship). Although I found working with him very intense, I noticed that many other people sought him out for collaboration. The problem was something sparked very directly between the two of us.
Don’t forget yourself
Having a difficult relationship at work can be very disheartening. We can feel guilty, inadequate, somehow reduced by being embroiled in a difficult communication. It’s important to remember that we are one part of the puzzle and that the problem has many elements. At the same time, it helps to recognize that although we might not have started the problem it is inevitable that somewhere along the line, we could play a role in perpetuating it. We need to take time to look into our own behaviour and check our own emotional habits and vulnerabilities.
My main meditation teacher always used to say that if you want to remove a difficult person from the world, you can begin by looking into where you need to disarm your own destructive tendencies.
What we can do
- Show yourself some kindnessand understanding when you are under pressure
- Take steps to manage your stress and enhance your wellbeing at work
- Try not to take things personally
- Make mindfulness meditation part of your daily routine to help refine your discernment, develop equanimity and keep things in proportion.
If you found this post helpful and would like to go further, try this online course
9 WAYS TO COPE BETTER WITH YOUR WORK FRUSTRATION
You can sign up here https://www.awarenessinaction.org/cope-better-with-work-frustration/
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.
Most of us need to go to work everyday. We don’t choose who we work with, we have limited control over what we have to do and we’ll get feedback whether we want it or not. It’s a sure thing that we are going to feel frustrated at work from time to time—the question is, how much, and for how long?
Recently I stayed with my sister and her partner who both work full-time (and then some) in high pressure jobs. The first night I was there they got home from work at around 20.00, having left at 08.30 that morning. As soon as they came in the door a few things were very clear—they were exhausted, they were tetchy, they were happy to be home but they were already thinking that in a few hours they would be off again and in the meantime, there were loads of things to see to.
As we ate dinner together and they shared their day I got to hear some of the stories of what they had been dealing with. They included a chronically unsupportive boss, a difficult team member, a week schedule that was handed down rather than negotiated and underlying it all, the relentless busyness and pressure.
This scenario is played out in countless homes every day. When faced with this degree of frustration at work what can we do to manage it?
Here is a list of 8 things that I think could help.
Start with yourself
It’s all too easy to forget to take care of yourself when you’re very busy but that’s a shame because the more tired and frazzled you get, the easier it is to let the frustration pile up.
Here’s some quick, simple ways to look after yourself:
- check your breathing—are you breathing fully and deeply?
- find a moment to be alone—even in the loo
- take your break with congenial people
- have a plant at your work-station
- take a look at the sky from time to time
- get a few moments of fresh air
- have a family photo nearby
- make sure you are moving regularly—stretching, walking between activities
- drink water
Take STOP Moments
STOP Moments are what I call very short moments of meditation.
This is all you have to do:
Bring your attention home to your body and consciously relax
Check in with your mood and notice any tension
Take a deep breath
Rest your attention on your breath for at least 5 full breaths
Continue to your next activity.
You can spend an extra moment in the washroom and take a STOP Moment.
While you are waiting for a meeting to start, or before (or after) you take a phone call are other good times.
Don’t let yourself be pin a cushion
What is the function of a pin cushion? It’s a place where you stick all your pins so they don’t get caught up in everything else and prick you. One of my sister’s team members is quite depressed and that makes him reactive and over-anxious. This means that he gives out a lot to other members of the team. As his manager, my sister is trying to absorb his negativity to protect other members of her team – most of whom are giving him a wide berth. It is exhausting her. She feels like a pin cushion stuck full of pins.
Here’s an exercise she could try to deflect those pins pricks.
Imagine a dark cloud around the person who is hitting out at you
As you breath in, take all the murky cloud into yourself
As you breath out, breath out healing and ease towards the person
You could visualize this as rays of bright light that surround the person, filling them with wellbeing.
Repeat this several times during the day—especially after a difficult encounter.
This exercise works like air conditioning—taking in hot, stuffy air and sending back fresh cool air.
Try giving the benefit of the doubt
In listening to my sister and her partner I was struck by how hard the environment is in which they work. Criticism and attack seem to be standard fall-back strategies. Feeling rejected, disrespected and overlooked at work all have a strongly negative effect on our performance. Building connection and a healthy sense of belonging are more conducive to giving our best at work. Rarely are we in a position to change a total work culture but we can take steps to manage our own response to it.
Giving people the benefit of the doubt whenever possible is a good way to soften the impact of a harsh environment. When we are generous with our work colleagues we feel better ourselves. Our own stress response is eased and we enjoy the good feeling of allowing space for other people around us.
How many porcupines do you have in your workplace? You know the kind of person—one who is always on the look out for any sign of criticism, always ready to hit back when things don’t go their way. They seem to draw energy from a good scrap.
My brother-in-law has a boss who is a bit like that and he finds it very frustrating. His strategy is to avoid him as much as possible and to choose his battles skilfully. He plans carefully for the occasions when he needs to tackle his boss about an issue and documents the interaction, so there can be no future misunderstanding. It’s extra work and it means that he cannot count on his boss as he would like to but it is helping to minimize nasty exchanges.
Hold the bigger picture
It is so important to remember why you are doing what you are doing. Although my sister and her partner find work extremely demanding, they are both driven by a sense of purpose in what they do and it helps them find the courage to deal with the aspects that are so challenging. The bigger picture of their work is a source of inspiration for them.
At a recent workshop that I held on stress in the workplace, one participant shared that he actively hated the product that he was selling. He was not indifferent—he actually used the word, ‘hate’. It’s going to be hard for him to be able to work on his stress in a sustainable way if there is not a coherent bigger picture of what he doing that holds meaning for him.
Be the calm at the centre of the storm
One of the most effective ways to work with frustration for me is to invest a lot of effort into maintaining my own sense of calm when everything else feels difficult. I work on not letting the challenges define me and how I am feeling. If you are a meditator, then you already have an excellent way to help with this. For those people who do not meditate so much, then try visualizing a place of space and calm in your heart—like a small sky. Then imagine that all the challenges that you are facing dissolve as they encounter this quiet place—just like weather splashing across the sky but not damaging it.
Leave it at the door
When it is time to leave work, start the process of letting go of the worries and frustrations of the day. You are not going to be able to do anything about them until tomorrow, so it is a shame to take them home with you. Use the journey home to process the day and prepare for your evening. If it helps, have a simple ritual when you arrive home—like taking off your shoes at the door—which symbolizes for you that you are putting aside the difficulties of the day and turning your attention to your own personal time.
If you found this post helpful, you could look into my recent online course,
Nine Ways to Cope Better with Your Work Frustration
You can check it out here