6 Good Reasons to Enjoy the Stress Workbook

6 Good Reasons to Enjoy the Stress Workbook

With all the upset and worry caused by the current Corona virus, it was a bit of a holiday to have something to celebrate. On 9 July 2020 my second book, The Stress Workbook was published. It’s been very heartening to receive so many congratulations from people. It’s particularly special to see people holding your book and getting ready to read it.

The purpose of this blog is to tell a bit about the book to people who have not come across it yet and who maybe don’t know my first book, The Compassionate Mind Approach to Reducing Stress.

All my life I have looked for meaning and ways to work with my habits in order to live more harmoniously. It’s been a natural progression from that to write about things that are relevant to peoples’ lives. My blog aims to pick up on issues that impact wellbeing and offer ways to work to increase your own. So, when it was suggested to me that I should write about stress and show how compassion can help to work with it, I jumped at the chance.

1.We’re going through challenging times

There’s no doubt that the last few months have been extremely stressful. Worry about the virus is one thing but then there is all the fallout to deal with as well. Lockdown and all its ongoing effects have changed our lives in ways we could never have imagined a few months ago. Conversations with friends are opportunities to share how we are trying to manage the strangeness of the situation. 

I had a significant birthday in June and had planned to celebrate the passing of another decade with trips to the UK to see family and friends. Obviously, the plan is now on hold. My eldest niece had her first baby during lockdown and as her mother is in the vulnerable category she had to go through the whole thing without her mother’s physical support. One of my nephews has lost his job because of layoffs and the other one had to celebrate getting his PhD in a virtual ceremony. All over the world people are struggling to cope with loss, upheaval, financial hardship, anxiety and uncertainty. 

2. Stress is something we all need to cope with

Stress tends to get a bad press. When we talk about feeling stressed, we generally mean we don’t feel well in ourselves. That’s not surprising, as stress can make us tired, irritable, and generally uninspired. However, from an evolutionary point of view, our stress response was designed to keep us away from danger and safe enough to reproduce and raise our offspring. The trouble is that our modern lifestyle is very different from the one our ancestors led. The stress response that was designed to help us run away from danger, or to stand and fight it when we had the chance, nowadays is triggered by traffic jams, lost keys, crowded supermarkets and so on. Our sympathetic nervous system is chronically over-stimulated. We’ve become exhausted by our own reactions!

Although it is only natural to want things to go well in life and for things to turn out as we want, experience has shown us that life a series of ups and downs. We all face frustrations and disappointments. The Stress Workbook aims to show how stress is an inevitable part of life. We can learn to work with it in useful and productive ways that will benefit us.

3. The Stress Workbook points out our unhelpful habits

Of course, as we go through life, we adopt all kinds of coping mechanisms to help us get by. Some of these strategies work well but some of them can stop us being able to understand more about how we are coping.

For example, when we experience stress our tendency is to try and make it go away. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we turn away from it.  Sometimes we distract ourselves with a holiday, or TV, or by buying something new. Maybe we try and comfort ourselves but all too often it’s with an extra glass of wine, or more chocolate.

Another habit we have is that we don’t pay attention. Research has shown that for almost 50% of our waking hours we not thinking about what we are doing at that moment, but our mind is wandering off and thinking about completely different things. Have you ever driven home from somewhere and when you arrive, you have almost no memory of the journey at all? Or been in a meeting where you zoned out for large sections of the discussion and when it was your turn to speak, struggled to find the thread? The thing is that this does make us happy but rather stops us from being fully present for our experience.

Both of these habits are example of habits that get in our way and prevent us from moving forward. We need to replace them with beneficial habits—ones that will build our resilience and enhance our wellbeing.

4. We can develop new, useful habits to improve how we cope

With regard to stress the new habit we need to develop is that of leaning into our stress. This doesn’t mean to indulge in stress but to quietly allow ourselves to explore what is happening for us and how it is affecting us. We can begin to notice where in the body we register stress, and how it makes us react. Over time, we can learn to see what triggers our stress and even how to avoid these triggers. Instead of distracting ourselves we become curious to see how this all works and to find new ways of coping.

The best way to work with our wandering mind is through mindfulness meditation. With mindfulness we can learn to be in the present moment. Instead of going over something that has already happened, or worrying about what we’re planning to do next, we can simply be present. When we are present, we can bring so much more energy to what we are doing. We’re more focused and effective and our attention is sharper. That means we can notice what is going on for ourselves and others, so it’s a good strategy in working with stress.

5.We don’t necessarily see compassion as a means to work with stress

If we’re asked how we cope with stress, it’s likely that compassion is not the first tool that springs to mind. However, developing compassion for ourselves and other people helps to widen our perspective. Our focus on our own problems is lifted, as we take into account what is happening for other people. When we’re going through hard times, it’s all too easy to wonder, ‘why me’? Compassion teaches us to see that everyone, whoever they are, has difficulties and worries. We are not being singled out for special punishment. It’s just how life is.

Going on from this, we can take a fresh look at our reactions to events that cause us trouble. Let’s take an example. Say you had a work meeting that went badly and left you stressed and depleted. The event of the unsatisfactory meeting is one thing, but our tendency is then to pile on our reactions. We feel responsible for the meeting going wrong, while also feeling some anger towards those who did not agree with your point of view. So, we blame ourselves and blame other at the same time. Then we feel even more stressed and miserable. Learning to work with how we respond to difficult situations is an important act of self-compassion.

6. The Stress Workbook is packed full of practical, workable advice

Because this is a workbook, it’s full of reflections, exercises, worksheets and meditation scripts. The Stress Workbook is designed to flow as a continuous story and so the exercises are embedded into the text. This means that you can read the theory and then quickly put it into practice. 

I have also included many stories from the workshops that I have given. They’re a great way to see how other people manage stress—where they get stuck and how they resolve it.

In theory you can begin at the beginning of the Stress Workbook, take your pencil and work through everything step-by-step. I suggest pencil because you might want to erase stuff and write something different. It means that you are evolving a set of strategies to work with stress through the power of compassion from the beginning of the workbook.

Do let me know how you get on. I always love to hear!

Go to this link for access

http://eepurl.com/g-8j_L

Can a Pandemic Make it Easier to Forgive?

Can a Pandemic Make it Easier to Forgive?

As the Corona Virus story develops, I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit of what it means to forgive. It’s something about the intensity of the current situation that’s made me question some of my basic assumptions around certain relationships.

What’s to forgive?

We’re several months into the Corona Crisis now and the atmosphere has changed since it all began. To begin with there was a sense that we are all in this together. Our shared vulnerability brought us together and made us feel close. Sadly, as events have unfolded this closeness has been exposed on many levels as being only skin-deep. 

Huge gaps have opened up between how countries choose to protect their citizens. The divide between rich and poor countries is echoed in the difference between how well-off families are coping and what it’s like for lower-income families. Frontline workers receive plenty or praise but, in many cases have not been given the protections they need to care for themselves as they fight the virus. Old people in care homes, along with their carers have been too often over-looked. Insidiously, the virus has proven to have an even more devastating effect on BAME citizens. The global economy is reeling.

We all have our views of how different sectors are dealing with the crisis. As a Brit living in the Netherlands, I am profoundly grateful for the no-nonsense, practical approach that I find here. With family and friends living in the UK, I am consumed with sorrow and worry. It’s all too easy to blame politicians for not taking enough care. Forgiveness seems in short supply.

Am I able to forgive?

There are politicians who inspire trust and confidence. When they get things wrong it’s much easier to understand that no-one is perfect and to want to forgive them. The whole process is helped along when people in the public eye are able to admit it when they get things wrong and focus on putting it right.

Part of the challenge is that we live in such polarised times. It troubles me that I only need to hear the name of certain public figures to feel upset, or even angry. How can I forgive someone that I do not trust?

Perhaps this is the very time to try to go deeper. Why would someone act in ways that are dishonest and self-seeking? Does it imply a person at ease with themselves and their world? Could there be a possibility for a compassionate approach here—to try to separate the person from their actions? When we feel threatened, or uncertain it’s all too easy to behave in ways that are not necessarily beneficial. It does not mean that there is not a person inside who wishes to manage better but is currently struggling.

My approach just now is to try and see the person behind the actions that I disagree with and to try to fathom their reasons for being the way they are. It’s not easy for sure but I want to try. My wish is to stand for what I belief in with fervour but minus the hostility. I want forgiveness to be my fall back position.

Buddhist teaching on Buddhanature

When I encountered Buddhism, I was attracted by the presentation of what is called Buddhanature. It’s the idea that each of us is fundamentally whole, fully aware, wise and compassionate by nature—in other words, perfect as we are. It’s kind of the opposite of original sin. The thing is that we do not recognise our nature for what it is. We get distracted and follow along with the products of that distraction—ego, neurosis, self-absorption and so on. That means that we can behave in all kind of unfortunate ways.

The Buddhist path is all about learning to access your Buddhanature more effectively. However, here’s the thing—everyone has Buddhanature, including those politicians who I can no longer trust. So, here is the source of my aspiration to separate the person from their actions and to cut down on judgment. If I can remember for a moment that a person’s nature is whole and full of potential, then I can feel regret when they are not living up to it. Just as I do with myself. That makes it easier to forgive.

Focusing on the personal

It’s a way to try and stay personal with someone. To remember that they are a human being, just like me. I call it ‘focusing on the personal’. It’s much easier to put into practice with people that you know.

I’ve had two recent examples of how being able to forgive brings about so much relief and ease. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling with a feeling of hurt with a family member. Harsh words were exchanged, and other members of the family got drawn in. It was very uncomfortable. When lockdown began, I heard that this person was in isolation and all alone. Somehow this knowledge cut right through all my feelings of displeasure and judgment. I immediately picked up the phone and had the first real conversation that we had enjoyed for months. All the things that I had objected to seemed to be quite insignificant in the face of all that was going on with regard to the pandemic. It seemed that in fact, there really was nothing to forgive.

The second example is with a group of people that I work with. We’re a loosely connected bunch, who are being asked to work together more closely. As we’ve never really gelled in a creative way, there was a high level of apprehension. A member of the group suggested that we meet together and tell each other two or three things that we find inspiring about the way we work. The effect was powerful. In expressing what inspired us in each of the people in the group, a long history of mistrust seemed to be swept away. Again, it seemed that after all, there was nothing to forgive.

In my experience, the pressing background of the pandemic can act as a catalyst that makes it more possible to forgive but it takes attention and work.

This 60-page e-book is packed full of guidance on simple, practical steps to make meditation part of your everyday life. You can find more here

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

How to keep going when you can’t see how it ends

How to keep going when you can’t see how it ends

Having the ability to keep going when things are challenging is a skill that we’re all going to need to get us through this crisis.

As countries around the world went into lockdown to halt the spread of the corona virus, our lives changed in ways that we could never have imagined. The very shock of it united people in a spirit and the sense that we were all in this together.

Now we’re more than two months further on and although there is still appreciation and support, there’s also a whole buzz of differing opinions and conflicting areas of interest. Where politicians were united in trying to ride out the initial impact, now there’s all kinds of disagreements about how to go forward. When can schools open? How safe is it to go back to work? When can we go on holiday? 

As we try to keep going through this and stay well, there are huge economic pressures building up for most of us. We don’t know how this is going to turn out. Will I lose my job?Will there be a second wave? When will there be a vaccine?

So, what can we do?

Embrace your vulnerability

First off, we have to take time to allow ourselves to feel whatever we feel—frightened, anxious, or uncertain. Our default position is to try and protect ourselves from pain, but it never really works. Trying to cover over our vulnerability cuts us off from fully experiencing what life has to offer. It makes us shrink into ourselves—and it prevents us from seeing the vulnerability of all other people. 

Something we could try is when we feel bad about something—worried about money, or fearful of getting sick—is to simply allow ourselves to experience the feeling. Most of the time we get drawn into our feelings and swept away by the rush of thoughts and stories that we weave around them. Then we really feel bad. 

What we could try here is to lightly touch the feeling and accept that we’re feeling it. We simply hold it in our awareness. Gradually, we can remember that these are exactly the same kind of feelings that everyone has. Just as we are vulnerable, so are other people. 

Be prepared to get it wrong

Any time we make a mistake or get something wrong we’re likely to feel particularly vulnerable. In order to avoid the rawness of feeling bad it can be only too easy to get into blame. Our relationship ends and we decide it is the fault of our partner. We’re not happy at work and we decide it is because of our boss.

Sometimes we turn on ourselves and direct all the blame there. We feel embarrassed and decide we are a failure. Just this week, a friend was telling me that she’s finding it hard to just keep going when she has been being isolated for so long. Her take was that she should be able to cope better and appreciate how relatively comfortable her circumstances are. She needed reminding that her feelings were perfectly natural and understandable. There was no need to add to her discomfort by blaming herself as well.

Another way to deal with failure is to apply the exercise we already tried in the last section—to train ourselves to feel what we feel. Here we can also draw on the body to support us. Often when we’re struggling to get away from something difficult, we experience some kind of feeling in our body. Perhaps it’s a stiffness in the shoulders, a tightness in the chest or a sinking feeling in the stomach. We can use that physical feeling to ground us in the present moment. 

So, we connect with say the tightness in our chest and just try to stay with it for as long as we can. If we can do this, we are accustoming our nervous system to relaxing with the truth. As we do this, we feel our experience shifting and changing. We can’t pin it down. In this way, we’re encouraging ourselves to expand, rather than contract. We’re learning to let go, instead of clinging. 

Keep going but try not to take sides

We’re all going to have our own views about steps that are being to move countries through this crisis. There’ll be some policies that we agree with and others that we find ridiculous. With all the media coverage presenting one school of thought and then another, there are plenty of opinions to get caught up in.

It’s very easy for us to carry around all ideas of ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong, or ‘us’ and ‘them’. Although they may appear as external ideas, they have their roots in how our mind works on a daily basis. Have you noticed how often you have the feeling of not being quite satisfied with yourself, other people, or circumstances in your life? This can be about quite small things but also develop into full-blown anger or hatred.

Then there are the things we’re longing for—a new job, a partner, a new place to live. We think that these things will improve our lives, but it all comes down to seeing them as somehow separate from us.

This current situation gives us plenty of opportunity to try work with this inner polarisation. As we go about our day in this period of lockdown, or semi-lockdown we can notice when our thoughts are going into a ‘for’ or ‘against’ habit. Perhaps we remember a time when we had a lovely meal with friends in our favourite restaurant and we have feelings of enjoyment. Then we remember that it is uncertain when we’ll be able to visit that restaurant again and we feel down. We might even think of someone we know who is already able to go to restaurants and we feel resentful towards them.

What can we do?

Starting to notice what we’re doing is a huge first step. The more we can do that, the more opportunity we have to ask ourselves if we really want to use our energy in this way. Perhaps we decide that no, we certainly do not want to behave in this way but five minutes later we’re off on another round of polarisation. Instead of feeling guilty, we can try to use the unpleasantness of our experience to get smarter. It’s another opportunity to recognise the frailty and vulnerability of the human situation—to understand our deep interconnectedness. Rather than contributing to the aggression and greed that is already out there in the world, we can feel inspired to stay present with our thoughts and emotions and prevent them escalating. We make a decision not to add to the confusion already present.

As you try to keep going remember everything you do matters

When it feels hard to keep going it’s all too easy to wonder if it really matters how we behave. Perhaps we’re feeling a bit down and so we snap at our partner. The feeling comes, ‘Well I’m fed up. He/she needs to understand and anyway, what does it matter?’

Let’s think about that for a moment. If we snap at our partner, a friend, a work colleague then we’re spreading our discomfort around. We’re letting our mood affect others. Maybe it does not feel like such a big deal but think how you feel when someone snaps at you—it’s uncomfortable, right? It’s likely to put the other person in a worse mood and then they’ll go on to snap at someone else.

Apart from how we affect others, think about how snapping at another person affects you. We’re upsetting ourselves and damaging our own peace of mind by behaving as if it doesn’t matter or is somehow justified.  Instead we could reflect a bit and ask ourselves if how we are behaving is helping us to overcome old habits or make them more solid. Compare it to how we feel when we manage to be kind, or patient—isn’t that the direction that we wish to move in?

Neuroscientists can now demonstrate how our brains change in relation to our experience. The very thoughts we think make neurological patterns in our brains. That’s something to think about.

Let things be as they are

One of the ways in which we can make it hard to keep going is our tendency to go back over stuff that has already happened and think ahead to what might happen. Allowing our minds to roam back and forth like that can be quite exhausting. If while we try to cope with the situation most of us are in right now, we keep thinking of when it might change, and what might happen we’re making things even harder for ourselves.

Instead we could try to pay attention to what is working well for us as we try to weather this crisis. In my own case, I have a lovely apartment full of books and music and all my textile art stuff. I live with my dear partner. We are comfortable and have plenty to eat. Just in that there is so much to be grateful for and to appreciate.

Then we can extend that by paying attention to other people. None of us are seeing many people just now but we do see them online—or even in our mind’s eye. Think of them as a person in their own right rather than just in relation to yourself. See them as a complex, fragile human being—just as you are.

We’ve spent quite a bit of time in the post looking at ways of being with uncomfortable things. When we can do that, we can truly let things be as they are—imperfect, flawed, extraordinary and transient. We can pay attention to all that we are going through, without needing to know how it ends because we recognise that is simply how life is.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

4 Things We Can Get Wrong About Happiness

4 Things We Can Get Wrong About Happiness

Photo by Andrew Bui on Unsplash

Have you ever met anyone who did not want happiness? Certainly, I haven’t. I have met people who have funny ways of going about trying to be happy but never anyone who was just not interested in it.

The funny is though, that wanting happiness and having it are two different things. In the first place, we don’t always know what will make us happy. Even when we work it out, we can’t always make it happen—we might long for someone to love but are not able to find the right person. The irony is that even when we do get what we are looking for, it does not always make us feel as good as we expected.

Happiness is tricky—partly because we have some funny ideas about it. Let’s look at four of these.

We confuse happiness with pleasure

In evolutionary terms, pleasure acts as an incentive for keeping us alive. So, food, sex, caring for our children, and accomplishing our goals cause the brain to release the chemical dopamine that make us feel happy. This search for good feeling has helped to keep the human race going, but these feelings were designed to be temporary. Think about it—if we only mated once and never needed to again, we would see a startling fall in the birth rate. Pleasure is something that is so enjoyable that we want to experience it again and again. However, it is designed as a temporary state with a specific purpose, rather than something that will last forever.

Sadly, we often seem to find this hard to accept. Our search for happiness can become narrowed down to the pursuit of pleasure. Once we have it, we to hold on to it– or at least try to repeat it as often as we can.

The trouble is that we so often mistake transient pleasurable experiences for lasting happiness.  We have evolved to a place where our happiness is not based on survival alone. Yet so often we settle for the quick fix, pleasure-based route to happiness, without taking into account the full range of potential effects.

Perhaps we feel a bit low, so we surf the internet for a bit, then drink a coffee and checkout the news channels on TV. We could take some time to look into the low feeling in order to understand and resolve it. However, our impulse is to distract ourselves from it and not deal with it. It’s as if we are aiming to run our life as a series of good moments, with as few bad ones as possible to interfere with our final score.

We imagine it will last forever

So, we can see that from an evolutionary perspective, happiness is designed as a reward for keeping ourselves alive. It is not meant to last forever. In our modern western culture though, there is the idea that we should be happy all the time. We make choices based on the belief that they will make us happy now and into the future. The idea that our preferences or circumstances may change doesn’t seem to come up. We don’t consider that our future selves may see things differently from how we do now. 

Anyone who has been divorced, or had a great new job turn out to be disappointing will have experienced this for themselves. When I was a young teacher in London, I decided to cash in my teacher’s pension so I could go traveling. It felt like a great decision at the time. Suddenly I had a good reserve of money to finance one of my dreams. Years later, when I left teaching,  I deeply regretted not having a pension fund to carry forward.

On a lighter note, I have a Danish friend who became a Buddhist nun some years ago.Whenever it’s too hot to wear socks I have the treat of seeing a tall, slender woman in long,maroon robes with a tattoo of an iguana coiling up her left ankle. The frisky young womanwho, some years back, thought this tattoo would be an addition to her image, apparentlydid not envisage the possibility of herself as a nun in the future.

We think money will make us happy

2006 saw the publication of Richard Layard’s book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. One of the key findings that he highlighted is that over the last fifty years, the standard ofliving in the US and Western Europe has roughly doubled. No surprises there, you might think. The shock came with the second half of the finding—levels of happiness have stayed the same. Think of what it takes to double our standard of living – the compromises in work–life balance, the increase in the number of families where the only way to manage is for both parents to work, the stress of the increase in pace and variety of the modern workplace. It’s shocking to find that none of that has an impact on our basic level of well being.

The way we adapt to what we have and the extent to which we compare what we have with others comes into play here.

Adaptation

One of the most startling results to emerge from research into happiness is that big lottery winners, after experiencing an initial period of euphoria, tend to return to their normal levels of happiness within a year. The huge rise in their financial and then material resources is not enough to lift their happiness levels long term.

The trouble is that we adapt to what we have and so become used to it, and when the gloss of having it fades, we want something more.

The process of adaptation we experience with material possessions seems to work in the sameway for life experiences – so career moves, lifestyle changes or new relationships, ratherthan transporting us to new levels of happiness, eventually settle down until they become simply part of our normal pattern of happiness.

Comparison

Along with adapting to what we have in life, we also suffer from comparing our lives with other people’s. So, your new car may be satisfying while no one else in the street has a better one, but as soon as someone turns up with a newer model then you become less satisfied. We’re pleased with our pay rise as long as we’re the only person to receive one, or if our rise is greater than anyone else’s.

We compare ourselves with our peers, people with roughly similar lifestyles. The lives of the super-rich are far beyond our reach, while many people feel comfortably far away from the very poor. Studies of Olympic medallists show that bronze medalists tend to be happier with their medals than silver medallists because they compare them- selves to people who did not get a medal at all, while silver medallists believe they just missed a gold.

We look for happiness outside of ourselves

We’ve seen that pleasure is based on external circumstances, such as our job, where we live, or what we like to eat. Although the benefits are short- term we can often mistake this for happiness, overlooking the possibility of something more reliable. A more helpful view is to say that there are two kinds of happiness: the short-term, pleasure-based experience and a more lasting happiness. The first kind is much easier to attain than the deeper happiness,which requires effort but once established serves as a reliable basis for wellbeing.

Giving ourselves the time and space to explore and develop this lasting happiness is oneof the deepest acts of self-compassion we can engage in.

So, how do we access this deeper kind of happiness? Firstly, we need to recognize that it isnot about looking outwards but depends on having an inner peace of mind and heart. Thisis the basis for self-awareness and the awareness of others – the foundation of compassion– that enables us to view our actions and those of other people with greater clarity. It canbe developed by working with both our basic attitude and with the actions we take whiletrying to be happy.

Meditation is the best way to get a handle on how our minds work. It helps us to work with our basic attitude and the habits we have. Bringing awareness into our actions means that we are more able to make the right decisions.

A deeper meaning to happiness

Sometimes, it’s worth asking ourselves how we value the happiness of other people. Is their happiness important to us? Would our happiness be important to them? Do we consider out happiness to be the most important? On what basis?

There is a simple question we can use here as a measure of whether or not our actions will be a source of lasting happiness: 

Do they bring real benefit to oneself and others,or not? 

Actions that bring benefit automatically result in happiness and help us to develop our compassion. We need to develop a clear sense of discernment to enable us to analyse our actions clearly in the light of this question, and to identify the habits that lead us away from lasting happiness even if they initially seem to bring pleasure.

It might seem a lot to take in but reflecting in this way will help us to navigate the tricky path of happiness. It could help to put things into a different perspective.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

Can you make the gift of saying sorry?

Can you make the gift of saying sorry?

We Brits say ‘sorry’ all the time. In most cultures you only say sorry when you believe you have done something wrong. In the UK it is used as a communication tool. We say ‘sorry’ when we accidentally bump into someone or need to squeeze past them. If we want someone’s attention, we tend to start out by saying , ‘sorry to interrupt’, or ‘sorry to ask but…’It’s partly to do with wanting to be polite but it is also part of our difficulty in being direct. Living in the Netherlands, as I do, I have had to unlearn the habit because people find it irritating. Dutch people are very direct.

Being able to say sorry authentically when you know you’ve behaved in a way that was harmful is a wonderful and important skill. Apology has the power to repair harm, mend relationships, soothe wounds and heal broken hearts. 

So why can it feel so hard to say sorry?

Let’s look at a few possibilities:

• When we don’t think what we did is such a big deal, so it’s not worth apologising for.

• If we have trouble seeing things from another person’s perspective, we might not see the need to say sorry.

• The truth is that is very uncomfortable when we do realise that we have something to say sorry about. Sometimes we just cannot manage to admit we’ve done anything wrong.

Saying sorry as a gift to yourself

To overcome these obstacles, we need to think a bit more deeply. 

We might think that saying sorry is all about giving to the other person. Of course, that is an important part and we will come to it soon. However, it is important to realise the benefits for yourself too

Often when we know we have hurt someone we feel guilty and ashamed. It can cause us stress. Depending on how serious the circumstances were, it might even keep us awake at night. The whole experience is painful and distressing. When we say sorry, we are healing our own feelings of regret and remorse.

Having to dig into our actions and realising that we did not behave well is a humbling experience. It’s hard to admit we hurt someone and makes us feel vulnerable. Perhaps we can be less inclined to judge how others behave when we reflect on our own behaviour.  

It can also become more possible to forgive ourselves. It puts us back in touch with our own basic goodness and reminds us that we are worthy of forgiveness and it is alright to ask for it. If we are open and willing, we can also learn from the mistakes we made that got us into having to say sorry. That’s a bonus going forward.

Saying sorry as a gift to other people

Research shows that receiving an apology has a noticeable, positive physical effect on the body. An apology actually affects the bodily functions of the person receiving it—blood pressure decreases, heart rate slows and breathing becomes steadier.

If someone tells you that they are sorry, it helps you to feel better. The ball is now in your court—you have the ability to forgive the person who hurt you. We can move from seeing them through anger and bitterness to seeing them as a fallible human being. The wrongdoer becomes more human, more like ourselves and we are touched by this. Then we are more able to access our natural empathy, and forgiveness becomes possible. 

Apologising re-opens the lines of communication after the hurt has closed them down. It can even be that going through these difficulties together brings people closer and deepens the trust between them. When you go through something difficult with someone and come through it together, it inspires confidence in the strength of the relationship.

Things to be aware of when saying sorry

The most important thing is to mean it! It’s no good saying sorry just to smooth out a situation. People can sense it when you are pretending. It can do more damage that not apologising.

In the same way try to avoid saying sorry and then adding a ‘but’. This can happen when you are trying to apologise for your part in a difficult situation, but you want the other person to take responsibility for their share. You might say something like, I am really sorry that I shouted but you shouted at me first. This is tricky. Of course you want to explain yourself properly but I find that this is easier if you go all the way first.

The more open-hearted and direct we can be the more space opens up for dialogue and exchange.

Maybe Elton John was right, and ‘sorry’ does seem to be the hardest word.  When we manage it though, the benefits for ourselves and others are very nourishing.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

Slow down and go faster

Slow down and go faster

It is a great pleasure to share this guest post from Ian Gawler. We have attended many retreats together over the years and it is wonderful to have a blog from him on my site.

How busy are you? Most people I speak with feel that their lives are becoming busier and busier. So, imagine this – maybe with a little help, it is possible to slow down, relax, and actually achieve more!

How might this be possible? Speaking personally, I came home from a great meeting last week. A lot had been achieved, good ideas developed, new possibilities explored; all in a great atmosphere. Keen to tell my wife Ruth about it, first we went to do what we do each evening, and that is to meditate together.

Paying attention to our body

As I settled into my posture, I noticed this buzz in my body. A fine trembling, tingling sort of a buzz. It occurred to me that this excited energy, left over from the meeting was a good thing, but how it might lead some people on into drinking too much or some other excess. 

Also, it seemed to be in stark contrast with what it would be like to come home from a tough day – feeling depleted, despondent, even exhausted. Such a state, left unnoticed or unmanaged, could lead to other unhelpful activities, not the least of which may be engaging with the family or our partner in a poor state of mind. 

The promise of meditation

Meditation offers this wonderful promise of being able to let go of our busyness and regain our balance. Whether we are excited or depleted, up or down, balance is better. With our body and mind in balance, we think more clearly, we react more appropriately, we are in a better state to relate well with others. We are likely to be fresh, vital and at ease.

In such a state, there will be no compulsion to talk, but an ease with doing so. We will have no compulsion to be spoken to, but an ease with listening. We will be free to relax in a healthy way or energised to take up something new when the time is right.

Four keys to meditation

In my experience, there are 4 keys to meditating in a way that reliably brings these benefits. Preparation, Relaxation, Mindfulness and Stillness. These are the essence of what I call Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation. 

Put very simply, having prepared well, we relax. Relaxing deeply, we become more mindful. As our mindfulness develops, an inner stillness is revealed; naturally and without effort. We rest in open, undistracted awareness. This is Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation.

Meditating together

Oh yes, and at the great meeting last week, we began by sitting together and meditating. Two of those who gathered had never done such a thing before. They were guided very simply to aim to let go of whatever they had been doing earlier and to bring their attention to what was going on right now. 

To assist this, there was the suggestion to be mindful of the sounds around about us, then the breath and that natural feeling of relaxing with the out breath. Then we simply rested quietly for a few minutes. Finally, we reminded ourselves of our motivation, to help as many people as possible through what we were addressing at the meeting.

How this can help

Having done this, the atmosphere in the room was transformed. Peaceful, calm, clear. After this short exercise, one of the group could not help speaking out. He said that on arrival, he had been really preoccupied with the busyness of what had been happening before this meeting and he felt his mind was all over the place. In fact, he had actually been concerned that he was in a poor state of mind to give the presentation he was required to do, but that, after that short quiet time; he now felt clear and ready.

Just having a conversation like that seemed to me that we began our meeting on a very real and open level. It rapidly developed into a meeting everyone went away from feeling where we had achieved a lot, deepened friendships and left felt energized. Not a bad return for around 3 minutes of quiet time…

So maybe it is possible. Slow down and accomplish more.

Dr Ian Gawler has played a role in pioneering and popularizing meditation and other mind-body techniques in the Western world. Since 1981 Ian has led many meditation groups, and with his wife Ruth, a GP, presented many workshops and meditation retreats.

A long-term cancer survivor, Dr Gawler co-founded the world’s first lifestyle-based cancer and multiple sclerosis self-help groups and convened Australia’s first Mind-Body Medicine conference, Mind, Immunity and Health. 

Ian is a regular blogger and has authored six bestselling books including his latest Blue Sky Mind. He has also co-created a meditation app for people affected by chronic degenerative disease. 

Dr Gawler was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his services to the community in 1987. 

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