Most of us are back at work by this point in January and already the holidays are starting to feel like they’ve been over for a while. In our street, every day the pile of Christmas trees assigned to the garbage grows bigger. It’s hard to imagine that a few days ago they were taking pride of place loaded down with all kinds of treats and surrounded by presents.
Perhaps while you were enjoying your holiday downtime, you were thinking about the new year about to start. Maybe you’ve made a whole list of new year resolutions. It seemed a good idea at the time—make a fresh start to the year and get yourself in shape. The thing is, we can get a bit carried away. We make a huge list of all the things we are going to stop doing and all the things we think we should start doing and when we come to look at it—well, it’s a bit overwhelming and frankly, depressing!
When we are not self-compassionate
Now we have set up the perfect conditions for feeling guilty and dissatisfied with ourselves. The next step is to start beating ourselves up for not getting going on the self-improvement plans we made—which will make us feel worse. It’s easy to look back over the year just finishing and remember all the things we didn’t do, or hopes we had that were not fulfilled.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to get the best out of ourselves, nor with using the beginning of a new year as a time for reflection on how we are living our lives. The thing is we tend to go about it in such a self-critical way.
We look at everything we think is not working so well and then make a long to-do list of all the ways we want to change. Somehow, we are surprised when it is overwhelming and we cannot keep it up. We feel as if we have failed in some way and are disappointed in ourselves.
Some suggestions for making self-compassionate resolutions
Not surprisingly, we are much more likely to get the best from ourselves if we approach any changes we want to make with an attitude of self-compassion and kindness. We can try and be a friend to ourselves, rather than behaving like our worst nightmare of a disapproving schoolteacher.
Start off with looking to your strengths
Think about the parts of your life that are on track and the things you do well. Ask yourself how you could build on that.
For example: you might be good at your job but have an irritating relationship with a work colleague. Your resolution could be to try to make a difference in how you both relate to one another. Start small by making them a cup of coffee whenever you can. The chances are you’ll be surprised how quickly they warm up to you. It often does not take so much to make a difference.
Choose the changes you want to make carefully
When looking for where you want to change, choose something manageable. You can see from the picture above that ‘improving self’ is a big project, as is ‘save money’. Both are too big and too general.
Even ‘more family time’ is asking a lot. Instead try to be specific—decide to call your mother twice a week; or decide to turn off all your individual screens (phone, tablet etc.) by 9pm in the evening in order to have quality time with your partner.
Set yourself some attainable goals
It takes time to change your habits, so take big picture into account. Set yourself a goal—like making meditation part of your life but then look at the steps needed to get there. Decide to meditate for five minute every day for two weeks. If that goes well, then try for 10 minutes every day for a month. When you miss a day, don’t stop to berate yourself—just carry on the next day.
Celebrate your successes
If you had a good friend who was trying to change some habits you would want to encourage them. Remember, with self-compassion you can be a good friend to yourself. Celebrate every success you achieve. Build in rewards for what you accomplish. When you manage your first week of meditating 5 minutes a day then you could celebrate by giving yourself a treat.
We are all in the same boat.
Whatever our situation and circumstances, people mostly want to be happy and live good lives. Think of all the people who are trying to make positive changes and struggling with them just like you are. None of us is alone in trying to find the way to get the best out of ourselves and live a meaningful life.
Allow yourself to get it wrong
No-one is perfect and it’s a waste of effort to even try. As human beings, we are sometimes going to make mistakes and sometimes we will be brilliant. When you break a resolution, or find yourself slipping back into old habits instead of beating yourself up, try forgiving yourself. Focus on the effort you’ve been making and don’t give up on what you are trying to do just because you had a bit of a blip. Remember to talk to yourself as you would to a good friend. If your friend was struggling with their resolution—how would you talk to them? Would you call them a loser? I doubt it. After all—if we cannot be a friend to ourselves, how can we be a good friend at all?
Awareness in Action is delighted to post this advice on how to really benefit from our winter break from Paloma Sparrow.
Quieter time during the winter season
Chinese medicine is in a way a misnomer as its approach is largely preventative. Its focus on subtle factors that combine over time to impact on health (depending on an individual’s constitution) gives rise to a wealth of information on how to support health. In winter this means allowing some quieter, more restorative time, in tune with what is happening in the natural world.
However, what this means for an inhabitant of a developed country in the 21st century is likely to be quite different from an agricultural or manual worker in China in previous millennia.
Planning for rest
Because of the increased use of technology in daily life and the hyper-arousal of the nervous system that this can give rise to, we may need to plan how we use this quieter time. Allowing some non-demanding time for quiet restoration could mean planning less events into the holiday period. It could mean more time to unwind, and relax. The absence of pre-planned events and routine allows us the opportunity to connect with what we feel like doing in the moment.
A technology holiday this winter?
It might also mean reducing levels of stimulation from screen-related activities. You could consider having a family ‘technology holiday’, or non-screen days, or evenings. How you arrange this is best agreed together as a family unit beforehand. You might even agree to have a short period during which you hold off all but essential communications. Both of these can be particularly important for children who are more sensitive to external influences and stimuli and whose neural development may be impacted in a lasting way by too much screen time.
Including exercise as part of your rest
The winter months can be a welcome opportunity for physical rest or reduced activity for farmers of former times. However, for many of us holidays are a time when we are able to exercise. We are able to give time to the kind of exercise we enjoy, and maybe to have more social time with friends and family.
But perhaps because we have now less time available to exercise, exercise can mean pushing ourselves to the limit, chasing an adrenaline rush or weight loss. Recent research has highlighted the link between exercise and longevity. The approach of Chinese medicine would recommend that exercise and our approach to exercise needs to be more individualised.
Arriving at your own programme for restoration this winter holiday
So, consider this. You could spend your holiday trying to live up to healthy ideals. Accomplishing everything you would like to for the holiday could become your main goal. You might end up spending too much time on screens. However, on the other hand, a restorative holiday period could mean giving yourself time to wind down a bit and connect in with what you feel like doing.
Paloma Sparrow is a traditional acupuncturist and has practised in educational, public health, and charity settings as well as in private practice in the UK. She finds the lifestyle advice of Chinese medicine a valuable tool to enable patients to support their own health. She has particular experience treating problems of pregnancy, birth and supporting children’s health with acupuncture, and she is a student of Tibetan Buddhism.
We all know that Christmas is a big opportunity for stress. The combination of having to appear to be having fun, while coping with all the frustrations and extra work can be a real downer.
One of the things we need to know about stress is that it closes things down. It’s hard to feel joyful and enthusiastic when you are stressed. We tend to close in on ourselves and set up a kind of survival regime to get us through. Maybe it does help us to struggle along but it does not help us to care for ourselves, to open our hearts to others, to learn anything about the habits that lead to the stress in the first place.
Let’s take a look at some ways we could set about making connections this Christmas instead of going into survival mode.
Connecting with yourself as the basis to overcome stress
Do you ever feel like the people in this snow globe at Christmas—all in your festive gear but not able to communicate how you are really feeling? The holidays can be a strangely lonely time, even when you are surrounded by people.
As the lead up to Christmas gathers pace, why not take some time to check in with yourself and see what you are hoping for from the holidays.
Whether you are religious, or not you can ask yourself what is important to you about this holiday. Is it having family around and lots of good things to eat and presents to share? Or is it about having a few days off from work and routine in the middle of winter. Whatever it is, it will help you to set an intention for yourself—a kind of inspiration for the holiday.
Then at the other end of the scale, try to see what it is that triggers stress for you.
Take a moment to sit quietly and then ask yourself these questions:
At what times do I experience a high level of frustration over relatively small events?
How does it feel in my body?
What do I do about it?
Going through this exercise will help you to identify the times when stress can creep up on you, so you can prepare for it and hopefully, avoid it. Allowing yourself to use your body like a stress barometer shows you the effect that stress has on you. Spending time thinking about how you deal with stress helps to get you off the survival treadmill and really consider how you can ease your stress.
Connecting with the present moment
So often when we are busy our minds are just rushing away with us thinking ahead of all there is still to do. That’s particularly sad at Christmas when there are so many enjoyable rituals in getting ready—like making the cake.
So one way we can ease a feeling of stress is to connect with the present moment. For example, try not to hurry with making the cake. While you are mixing it, don’t think about making the mince pies, a present for grandma and whether you have enough wine in the house. Instead, try focusing on simply sorting your ingredients for the cake, weighing and adding them in the correct order and mixing it all to a delicious consistency. Take time to smell the fruits and the brandy. Allow yourself to enjoy the texture of batter. Remember to make your wish and just be with the making of the cake. When it is in the oven, you can go on to the next task and approach it in the same way.
Connecting with a sense of enjoyment and celebration helps to dissolve stress
The more we can get our stress into perspective, the more chance we have to enjoy some of the magic that there can be around Christmas. We said earlier that stress closes things down and one of the first things to go is any sense of enjoyment and celebration.
Allow yourself time to look around you and see the things you enjoy. I am a big fan of Christmas trees both indoors and out in the open. There is something about all the lights and glitter on a dark winter evening that just says home and love to me.
What is it that you enjoy most at Christmas?
Connecting with family and friends
Probably if we are honest, one of the biggest sources of stress is how the family is going to manage together over the holidays. It can get complicated with all the in-laws and the extended family. We all know that awful tense feeling that can come when uncle George manages to come out with the opinions that we know will drive our teenage daughter to distraction. Or when grandma insists that we don’t know how to put on a Christmas like they did in her day. You dread the moment when your sister-in-law, who always manages to make you feel like bargain-basement wife, arrives for dinner looking as if she just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine, along with her two immaculate children. You, on the other hand, hot and bothered from the kitchen feel less than glamorous.
Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind while the family dinner is underway:
Everyone around the table wants to be happy—just like you do.
None of them want to be anxious, or worried, or miserable and yet, inevitably they all have times when they are—just like you.
Chances are that each one of them have their own insecurities about the family gathering—just like you do.
Perhaps some of them are even intimidated by aspects of your behavior–what a good cook you are, how you juggle family and career—who knows?
It can help so much if before your irritation arises you can put yourself in the shoes of the person irritating you—perhaps they are more like you than you think.
Connecting with the rest of the world
As well as closing things down, stress makes us lose perspective. Whatever is going on with us seems so much more important than anything else that is happening in the world—which in the scheme of things, really does not make sense.
During the holiday period you can counter-act any tendency to feel that getting the lights working on the tree is more important than, say, global warming by consciously allowing yourself time to think about what is going on for everyone else in the world. Many millions of other people are celebrating Christmas around the world, with traditions that may be very different from your own. There are also millions who are not celebrating Christmas and it is just another ordinary day for them. Then there are the millions who whether or not they wish to celebrate Christmas are not able to because of poverty, or war, or persecution. Keep them in mind also.
So, a very merry stress-free winter holiday to everyone!
I am particularly delighted to welcome Carole to the blog. She is writing about such an important topic—compassion on the internet. In these polarised times it is so important to take her Netiquette guidelines to heart. Thanks for the post, Carole!
Compassion is a strength that has supported me throughout my life. I have also witnessed the development of compassion help many people in my role as a private practice psychologist.
I think we’d all agree that communicating via the internet has been one of the fastest growing evolutions of the last 20 years. These days there are endless opportunities to communicate online and it can seem like a fast-paced world, difficult to keep up with. No doubt there has to be an effect on our mental health. Our relationship with these communications and how we relate to each other has been something of a personal and professional fascination to me over the years.
Today I will be sharing an online experience that took me to some dark human depths and caused me to wonder ‘where is the compassion?’ in these places. It was hard learning. This has driven me to create some online etiquette (Netiquette) guidelines that I am sharing with you today. I’ll walk you through my story.
Stepping into the Lion’s den
Working solely in private practice has its rewards and difficulties. One of the potential pitfalls can be becoming isolated from other professionals. So, when the opportunity to connect with others became available through social media, I considered it. To be honest I mostly ‘lurked’, watching others post and felt very reticent to get involved. I didn’t think too deeply about why that might be at the time. I found myself drawn in to respond to areas I had experience and knowledge in, feeling a responsibility to share.
One fine day I noticed someone asking a question on one of these social media networks that I had some information on and experience in. I summoned up the courage to post a link on the subject in question in a desire to be helpful – I remember thinking it was a neutral thing to do as I wasn’t directly offering an opinion. Now, it is important to say here there are difficulties with having such a small space to respond in as things may look out of context, AND you do not know what has gone on before in that forum…..these are things I learnt the hard way.
The unforeseen threat
Although I had responded to one person’s information request what happened was an entirely different person responding with an angry tirade of words. They were directed to me personally, questioning my knowledge and professionalism…I had a sense of ‘who do you think you are?’. It felt very threatening and I can share with you I felt absolutely crushed. I did not know who this person was and what sort of influence they might have. Crucially, I did not know who was looking in and struggled to find a way to deal with the situation, in the moment. Nobody posted anything straight away after this – although each of us got (secret) likes. In effect I had experienced a group shaming process, and in my vulnerable state had to decide how or if to respond.
I absolutely agonized over what to do. Ultimately, I decided there was no way I could respond directly or indirectly without entering into the angry, difficult behaviour. Abstaining was hugely difficult in itself as a fragile part of me felt like I was allowing myself to be bullied. In effect I was both trapped by the situation and blocked from responding – a dangerous and compassionless feeling place. This has caused me to wonder whether the speed of our ability to communicate is bypassing the decision-making part of our brain? We could be responding straight from our threat systems. Ironically, I suspect my seemingly (from my end) innocuous posting provoked the other persons threat system.
The power of self-compassion
Now, at this point I’d like to say thank goodness I had been practicing self-compassion for many years. Fortuitously I was already on one of Maureen’s (online) self-compassion courseswhich was hugely helpful in helping gather myself, and help view things from a safer feeling mindset. From this view I applied some compassionate self-correction as opposed to shame-based self-attacking (Professor Paul Gilbert OBE) for my part in entering naively into the online domain ill-prepared.
I wondered how I might respond if this were to every happen again. This was quite a conundrum. I spent some time considering what had happened to compassion in this situation and how important to our well-being kindly, well thought out communications were likely to be. Goodness knows we can think of many examples of difficult, unhelpful and harmful online interactions that go on every day.
Salvaging something from the experience
I decided to move forward by finding a way to contribute positively to these tricky communication spaces. Previously, I had encountered Netiquette (online etiquette) guidelines but they did not cover what I wanted to convey. I really hoped it would be useful to offer an understanding of what might be going on for us as human beings in online places, and why this might be important for our well-being.
Using my experience, I wrote from the heart and a set of compassionately written guidelines emerged. My thinking was that if anyone found themselves in the same impotent situation instead of entering into the communication, they could send a link to these Netiquette Guidelines. And whilst I am not naive enough to think this might also feel inflammatory the other end it would offer an opportunity to respond compassionately and not feel blocked.
These guidelines focus on the realities of being human beings in the online space, which has some significant differences to communicating in other places. There are some very interesting phenomenon that influence these communications such as the Online Disinhibition and Black Hole effects that you can follow if you are intrigued. I bring into view the public shaming opportunities public platforms can bring, as well as the opportunity to use our powers for good. I also encourage PUSHING THE PAUSE BUTTON as we are encouraged to sacrifice sense for speed.
Importantly …I encourage us to remember there is often a human at the other end but crucially remember we are all human! Being courteous and mindful is likely to reap big rewards for our well-being.
FORGIVE OTHERS AND BE COMPASSIONATE WITH YOURSELF
– Remember you are a human too and with the best will in the world we all make mistakes. Mistakes online can feel much bigger, but if we are forgiving and compassionate with others and ourselves, perhaps that will become contagious.
REMEMBER WE ARE ALL HUMAN.
We are not all the same
You may be thinking ‘I wouldn’t be affected like that’, and this is a very interesting point. We are just in the beginnings of understanding what impact communicating via the internet might be having on us in terms of; changes in our brain, conditioning, attention etc. This evolution has potentially been the fastest in history and pushing the pause button to reflect perhaps the wisest thing we can do at this juncture. I have come to wonder how differently we react to online communications in different contexts and one interesting notion is how relevant our attachment styles might be. If you haven’t encountered attachment theory before it is really relevant in how we communicate with other people (and ourselves) and is often explored in compassion-based therapies.
Attachment and its importance in relating to others
From our early experiences we often talk about four styles; Secure, Ambivalent/Anxious, Avoidant and Disorganised (basic explanation). It’s not our fault we find ourselves subject to these styles and it can be helpful to understand how they might impact on our lives.
What is fascinating to me is how these might be acting on us in online communications that have different rules and less non-verbal communications to steer us. I have certainly noticed in my practice how some clients are drawn to continually check for approval in these 24/7 online spaces. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that we can compare ourselves to others at an alarming rate. Other factors are suggested as important such as; having a safe haven, a secure base, proximity maintenance and separation distress.
It is profoundly interesting to wonder how these ideas might be being influenced in the often boundaryless feeling online space of the world wide web.
Reflecting on the learning
My own very strong reaction to this experience has been hugely interesting and I would certainly subscribe to the idea my attachment style has a place to play. An area of concern for me is the idea that compassion might be getting eroded in some online communications. Also, the capacity for group shaming and high levels of self-critical thinking, greater than in other spaces. Perhaps we could view these communications as high challenge in terms of being without the same safety giving non-verbal cues. This in turn might mean we require high self-support to manage them. In my experience self-compassion which encourages courage, distress tolerance, and a sense of safety might well provide balance to this modern-day stress. I sincerely hope my story and subsequent reflections have resonated with you. Please feel free to share the guidelines and I send compassionate best wishes for us all going forward.
I would like to leave you today with the words of Tim Berners-Lee (creator of the internet) in his open letter 2019, 30 years after he gifted us the Internet. His message, I believe, is of hope in we can steer the internet as we move forward – as opposed to being steered by it. I’m hoping in a more compassionate direction.
“Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us, we will have failed the web.” (Direct quote)
Gilbert, P. (2010). The Compassionate Mind. Constable: London
Holmes, J. (2014). 2nd Edition. John Bowlby and Attachment Theory (Makers of Modern Psychotherapy). Routledge: Abingdon-on-Thames.
Carole is a counselling psychologist in private practice near Bristol, UK. She provides therapy, supervision, consultation and training both face-to-face and via online means. Carole often combines her research interest area of online relational aspects and compassion orientated approaches to explore some of our every day struggles. Her passion is in sharing understandable insights she hopes will be helpful to us as human beings.
Here is the second of Chris’ two guest posts on Compassion Focused Therapy. This one gives helpful guidance on how to do some of the key practices.
In the first part of this post on compassionate mind training and Compassion Focused Therapy the core concepts were considered. In this second post some of the practices I have found helpful are covered.
The practice of Soothing rhythm breathing
This is considering breathing with a purpose – a compassionate motivation- to both soothe and act as a grounding tool, either at times of distress or in preparation for other exercises.
As part of our overall nervous system, we have a component called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) looking after many of our automatic bodily functions – heart rate, respiration, digestion – so it regulates our internal environment. It has two main branches – sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). SNS is linked to our threat system, it prepares the flight-fight response. For example, increased heart rate, reduced digestion. It is indicative of psychological arousal.
PNS is linked more to soothing and replenishment, so resting and digesting. It is indicative of psychological relaxation.
Our organs receive input from both, so activity (heart rate) is controlled by the relative levels of PNS and SNS activity.
What the science suggests is that certain behaviours or actions can help engage the PNS. These include body posture, facial expression and breathing, in terms of depth and pace. Given that in our modern lives our threat system can be highly active and so SNS is running on a high state of reactivity, it’s important to consider how we can engage PNS.
Perhaps you can see how this ties in with the idea of using the soothing system to help with threat and drive balance, and one way to facilitate that is through a practice called soothing rhythm breathing.
The practice involves a few elements –
sitting in a relaxed and comfortable manner, focused on breathing but not in an alert state
having a relaxed facial expression, with a gentle smile
focus on breathing – deep breathing, really using all the lung capacity and using a count of 5 on the in and out breath. Recent research has also suggested a pattern of count of 4 on the in and 6 on the out.
The motivation to perform a practice is two fold – one it can help on a daily basis that you take some time out to pause, to nurture your body with moments of rest and secondly its developing a practice that can be called upon at distressing times.
Aside from perhaps creating a routine time to perform the exercise each day, it can also be helpful to pause at times during the day, to take a minute or two and engage in some deeper, regular breathing as part of a commitment to looking after your emotional wellbeing.
And at times of distress or ahead of doing something challenging this practice can be very helpful to help engage the soothing system and support bringing to the fore the compassionate self.
Here are two example guided practices – one from Prof Paul Gilbert and one from Dr James Kirby
The practice of Compassionate imagery
One brilliant skill is that our brain can visualise many things and by doing so can cause us psychological and physiological reactions. This ability to visualise as lead to so many of the great innovations and developments of humans, It allows us to plan, remember and imagine. It can also allow us to ruminate and wonder “what if” which may lead to creating catastrophic events in our minds that never happen.
Compassionate imagery employs this great skill we have with a motivation to provide support and one very helpful practice is the compassionate place.
The compassionate place is an exercise to bring to mind a place which nourishes and replenishes you. This can be a place you know well, somewhere you have visited or perhaps seen on television or social media – or it could be a made up place. Mine is a made up place, although with elements of places I know, of a wooded area. As part of imagining it I use all my senses – to visualise what it looks like, to sense the movement of air, to feel the tree bark, to hear the nearby brook, to smell the wood.
The important thing is that this doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s not something to get right. It’s something to help you and the place will be personal and meaningful to you, so don’t be influenced by what you might think you “should” be imagining.
The practice of Compassionate letter writing
As well as the formal compassionate letter writing exercise , I use the techniques and approach when writing in a daily journal as well. Personally writing about emotions, depression and everyday challenges can really help to bring some clarity and engage the compassionate self,, fostering the compassionate wisdom and encouragement I may need .
The key intention behind the writing exercise is to acknowledge our suffering or distress and to help with managing that. That links into the definition of compassion from episode one.
To start it can help to foster the intention and motivation towards the writing by sitting and doing the soothing rhythm breathing exercise. It can also help to pause if something causes you a lot of distress while writing, to revisit that breathing exercise and also the soothing place exercise.
With the motivation and intention in mind, consider what the letter will be about. Its a letter to yourself , no-one else will read it, so have the motivation to be open and honest within it, as challenging as that may be. You write it as a letter, so addressed to yourself. In the first part acknowledge what the issue is, in a way that you might talk to a friend who is struggling. Supportive and understanding.
Then consider what you are feeling and validate it. Acknowledge that this is a difficult time or challenge you are facing. Validate all the feelings you have around this. This may include considering how your threat an or drive systems have played a role. It can be helpful to acknowledge that some of your reactions are part of that evolved way of thinking, so often the reactions are natural.
Really consider what you are responsible for and what you are not responsible for.
Now start to consider what thoughts and actions you could take , being guided from a place of compassion, towards yourself and to any others involved. As part of that reflect on any challenges or barriers that may come up, what could you do if they happen and is there any support you need.
Finally close off with a compassionate commitment to the changes you envisage, to help sustain the actions. So this is an encouraging, coaching commitment towards yourself – no judging or criticising.
The last part is to read, which you can do immediately or leave for a while. Bring your compassionate self to the reading – don’t judge how well you have written, any misspellings or errors. They don’t matter – recognise that you have written with honesty and openness to help address something which is causing you distress.
A free guide to this practice is available from the Compassionate Mind Foundation.
I hope that these posts have provided an overview of the core concepts and some of the exercises from compassionate mind training. Deepening compassion, especially around self-compassion, made a real difference to me…perhaps these posts will inspire you explore compassionate mind training for yourself. Further details about CFT can be found via the Compassionate Mind Foundation
Chris Winson is an author, blog writer and founder of #365daysofcompassion, which is an online community of people sharing thoughts, reflections and information about compassion and well-being.
During his life Chris has managed depression, often hiding it until a major period in 2016 lead him to seek help. That introduced Chris to Compassionate Focused Therapy, which has lead to his focus on how compassion and Compassionate Mind Training can play a supportive role to health and wellbeing.
Chris recently recorded a series of video talks on CFT which can be found here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCX-zBQP7u2fRY-riGNGuaDw
It took me a long time to realize that my kindness can suffer from a lack of attention. Although it matters a lot to me to be kind, I am only too aware that it is not always easy.
Do you know the Cherokee folk story about the grandfather talking to his grandson? The Grandfather describes the two wolves that he feels are always battling within him. There is the kindly, caring wolf who looks for peace and harmony and then there is the fierce, angry wolf who likes to fight and make trouble. The grandson asks which wolf will win the battle and his grandfather replies, ‘The one that I feed’.
I always feel that the old grandfather is actually telling the story of how our old brain can undermine our newer brain, the prefrontal cortex at any provocation. Our old brain, or reptilian brain has been passed down to us from our early beginnings when our attention was primarily focused on hunting, procreating and staying alive. It was much later, when we started to gather together in communities in order to protect our families and raise healthy children, that we began to learn the value of cooperation and connection.
So, from one point of view, the wise grandfather is reminding me that kindness might be part of our evolutionary make up, but our self-interest is instinctive. In other words, if we don’t pay attention then our old brain can hijack all our well-meaning intentions.
These are some of the ways it can happen for me.
When does my kindness suffer?
When my opinions take over
We are going through tough times in world events—disastrous wars, austerity, Brexit, climate change, Trump, an increase in support for populism—and our 24/7 media coverage brings it all very close. Like many people, I care a lot about these issues and have strong opinions about how they need to be addressed. The thing is, it’s all too easy to talk about the people that I disagree with in very harsh terms. Sometimes I do not even realize that I am doing it!
When an issue is one we value dearly, then it is hard to tolerate opinions which seem to cut right across those values. We can use the fact that we feel ‘passionate’ about our causes to cover up how we behave in supporting them.
I have come to realize it is not so much use to campaign for things that matter to me in a style that does not fit my values. I don’t make loads of New Year Resolutions, but I am determined to find a way to speak up with strength but not harshness.
When I am too stressed, worried and pre-occupied
When we are stressed, or worried our horizons tend to narrow and we focus more on what is going on for us than with other people. Even being in a rush can lead us to overlook the needs of others. Stress can act in the same way as a threat and trigger our old brain responses. Our thinking brain tends to shut down and we focus our attention on just getting by—rather than noticing other peoples’ needs.
The irony is that we benefit ourselves from practising kindness—it’s not just about the other person.Research shows that kindness can improve heart function, lower blood pressure, slow aging and strengthen our immune systems. The author and scientist, David R. Hamilton explains 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. When we can open our hearts and minds to pay attention to the needs of others, we feel a sense of relief to connect with the world beyond our own individual worries.
When someone I care about is having a bad time
A few months ago, a close friend of mine got into a frustrating and demoralising hassle about a new work project he was initiating. It was a project he cared a great deal about and he was not given much chance to fight for it before it was cancelled in quite a callous way. When he told me the story, I found myself immediately leaping to his defence and blaming the other people for their lack of vision. I was able to support him with his frustration and disappointment, but it was only later that I realized that I had not been very fair to the other people involved.
That’s another tricky thing about kindness. Most of us are pretty good at giving kindness to those we love and are important to us. It gets much more difficult when we are asked to offer kindness beyond the circle of those we care about—and then even to people we disagree with and perhaps do not even like! I try to remember that there are plenty of people who don’t like me, but I still would like them to treat me fairly.
When I am able to separate a person from their actions, it gets much easier to wish them well and want to show them kindness. However, I can only do this when I am paying attention and not simply reacting.
Although we all want to live happy lives and for things to go well, we know that difficulties come along as part of the ups and downs of life. This happens to everyone. When I am going through a challenging time and need my friends to be there for me, it’s not always possible for them. Perhaps they are struggling themselves. When I am paying attention then I can remember this. When I am not then I get hurt.
How can I pay attention?
Why is our attention so fickle? We have seen how our reptilian brain can over-ride our more sophisticated reasoning brain but there is more. In 2010 two Harvard psychologists,Gilbert and Killingsworth developed an iPhone app which tracked the happiness of volunteers throughout the day. The results were astonishing: for almost 50% of our waking hours we are thinking about something different to what we are doing, and it does not make us happy. Our ability to ruminate, to think of events of already passed and to anticipate things that have not yet happened clouds our attention and takes us away from our immediate experience. We are simply not fully present to vast stretches of our activity.
Meditation enables us to bring our minds home, to pay attention in the present moment, without judgment. It helps us to connect with our own inner capacity for kindness and builds resilience to the challenges of life. Neuroscientists are discovering that as soon as we begin to practice meditation it is has positive effects on our brain. It is my meditation practice that gives me the foundation for kindness.
Making a habit of giving the benefit of the doubt
With meditation as the ground, I try as much as possible to give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s not always possible to manage it straight away, but gradually it becomes easier to come back to it later on. Perhaps there is an initial burst of frustration, or impatience but then I see what I am doing and remember kindness. It is as an act of self-compassion to forgive myself for not getting there faster.
Remembering to put myself in the other person’s shoes
Another useful technique is to remember to put myself in the other person’s shoes—to try and see things from their point of view, from their own experience. It is hard to begin with but gradually it becomes possible to find the thread of another person’s insecurity, worry, sorrow or conditioning that could be informing their behaviour. If I can, I try to see myself as I might appear to them—what would they see when they look at me?
Most of all, it helps to remember that 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. Meditation is a sustainable way to calm down our hyper-active minds and pay attention to what is going on with ourselves, with people around us and with our environment.
If you liked this post and feel inspired to go more deeply into kindness, you could try this online course