How to practice some Compassion Mind Training Techniques

How to practice some Compassion Mind Training Techniques

Photo by Alvaro Serrano via Unsplash

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.    

Compassionate exercises

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. 

In conclusion

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

How Compassion Focused Therapy has helped me

How Compassion Focused Therapy has helped me

Photo by Nick Fewings via Unsplash

Awareness in Action is delighted to publish the first of two blogs from Chris Winson on the subject of Compassion Focused Therapy. Thanks to Chris for this accessible and informative overview of how CFT works. Part 2 of the blog will go into some useful methods.

You can’t miss articles, talks and social media posts advocating how helpful self-compassion can be, it’s running a close second to mindfulness for coverage and promotion. 

But what does compassion mean to you ?  How can it can help with mental wellbeing ?

I hand’t really thought this until in a therapy room, working through what depression really meant to me.  At that stage self-care meant getting through the next hour – self-compassion wasn’t in the room, it wasn’t in the same building as I was.

That didn’t mean I wasn’t a compassionate person.  I was towards others, struggled to sometimes accept help from others and any self-encouragement was drowned out by self-criticism. Then I was introduced to Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and things started to change….

A definition of Compassion Focused Therapy

Compassion Focused Therapy was developed by Professor Paul Gilbert.  It includes concepts which help to inform and provide insight on some of the psychological behaviours and systems which have evolved and developed to help us, but can sometimes be tricky to manage and can present problems,  even though they are trying to help and protect us.  It includes practices and exercises which form compassionate mind training.

Within Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) compassion is a seen as a motivation – a motivation to both acknowledge and work with distress , in self and others, with a commitment to address and alleviate if possible.  

And that is far from easy.

Some concepts of Compassion Focused Therapy

Emotional systems 

Within CFT a three emotional regulatory system model is defined, blending neuroscience, physiological and psychological processes into a very understandable model.  The three systems are threat, drive and soothing, often presented with a colour scheme of red, blue and green.   This doesn’t mean we have these three parts of our brain, its a conceptual model involving emotions and motivations which have evolved to help us. However in our modern world they sometimes cause issues while trying to look after us. 

Threat, the red circle, looks after us, evolved to to be alert to predators and risks to life, with a set of predictive abilities based on a “safer than sorry” approach, which is therefore more negatively focused. However it evolved to be an immediate response for short periods of time, which is not the case often in our lives today. In a world of social comparison and competition the threat system can be on all the time.  Without the opportunity to reduce levels or constantly overestimates threats,which may not be real, the threat system can be functioning at a unhealthy level.

Drive is the system that motivates us to seek resources, rewards and pleasure, represented by the colour blue. It includes feedback loops so when we achieve something we get a feeling of pleasure, which can reinforce the behaviour or activity, which an be helpful. However the system can go into overdrive, pushing ourselves too hard, often to meet the requirements of others and how we feel that we are perceived by them.  As its a reward based system if we fail to meet the achievements we strive for then we can feel like a failure.  This is very true within perfectionist thinking.

Additionally if the rewards are based upon external feedback then we can feel very vulnerable and hurt when somebody doesn’t respond as we expected or if they question or criticise us. 

The systems do not work independently , most of the time we feel a mixture, nor are threat or drive are good or bad systems. They are both essential to us and its perhaps better to view them as in terms of having a healthy or unhealthy balance.  And what helps them balance is the third system, the soothing system. 

And its this green circle that for me embodies compassion.

This is the system that often needs help though, which CMT practices can help with. techniques. We are usually very good at caring for others, usually okay, but not always at receiving care back from others.  We are not often great at taking proper care of ourselves.  It helps to really bring awareness to what is important  to you and for you to focus on, to take the best care you can, even at challenging times when the threat system is very activated. 

This is a helpful representation of the three systems via Dr James Kirby 

Flows of compassion in Compassion Focused Therapy

In addition to the three systems, three flows are considered – compassion to others,  compassion from others and compassion to ourselves.  

Showing compassion to others, through help, kindness and caring behaviour comes naturally to many, especially towards those close to us.  If you see a family member or friend in distress or needing some help we are likely to offer it – sometimes whether its needed or not and sometimes at a cost to ourselves.  But what about to strangers or to people who may not share our views or be different to us?  Does compassion become harder towards them.  Research would suggest it does.   Research also shows that acting and being compassionate towards others can bring positive effects to ourselves and wellbeing.

Receiving compassion from others can sometimes be trickier.  How many times do we say “I am fine” and soldier on. We can also be so wrapped up in our busy lives that we don’t notice when someone shows us kindness or interacts with us with warmth.  It happens to us all.  The reason that being more open to receiving compassion from others, even just a simple random of act of kindness, is important is that it fosters feelings of connection and shared experience, which are helpful to our wellbeing. 

Which leaves the third flow – self-compassion. This can be seen as being “soft” on yourself; misunderstood as “oh its okay I will be nice to myself and everything will be fine” or even self-indulgent. Some people fear that without the more critical inner voice they won’t be successful.  The truth is that most of us are our worst critic and harshest judge.  We will use a tone and language with ourselves that we would not say to another or even say out aloud.   But does that help ?   

Why are the three flows important?  They are important to our wellbeing and its important to consider their balance, similar to the three systems.  It is often the case that we have them out of balance, so we may be offering a lot of help and care to others and neglecting our own wellbeing. 

The compassionate self

The compassionate self is different to self-compassion, it’s a psychological concept that we have multiple selves – a happy self, a sad self, an anxious self, an angry self, a confident self and so on.  Often one self can dominate our thinking, influence our behaviour or actions, in different contexts and on different days.  That doesn’t mean we switch from one self to another – just like the three systems concept, we are a blend.

So why focus on the compassionate self ?  Because it isn’t one of those that often comes to the fore, especially towards oneself.  Part of compassion mind training is to spend some time considering what compassion means to you, how it’s embodied and considering ways in which it can provide deeper help. 

It can help to focus onto some attributes that the compassionate self can embody, for example attention, wisdom, a commitment to caring and courage. 

All these things take time to deepen and work with, its not easy and sometimes we take a step forward, to then pause and rest before the next step.  And that is perfectly fine. 

This first part has considered the core concepts of Compassion Focused Therapy and compassionate mind training.  The second part will consider some of the exercises and practices which help deepen our compassionate self.  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

Why it’s best not to get stuck in your own story

Why it’s best not to get stuck in your own story

Why it is best not to get stuck in your own story

Recently I have been reflecting on how easy it is for each of us to get stuck in our story. What do I mean by that? It’s the state we get into when most of our attention is focused on doing what we are doing right now, and we don’t notice what else is going on around us. We’re not talking about the mindful kind of focus where we are fully present with what is going on. Here, it’s more to do with being absorbed in our own interests, preferences and choices. They become our priority and we miss out on the bigger picture.

A little bit of history 

Last summer my partner and I discovered the Hunebedden, prehistoric burial sites in the North of Holland. 

Each site is made up of huge boulders that were transported here by vast ice-sheets millions of years ago. The sites are free to visit and open to whoever is interested. Although very little is known about the people who created the sites, people are asked to respect the sacred nature of the burial places. Notices by the pathways request that parents keep their children from climbing on the boulders. It’s not unusual to find people sitting quietly to view the ancient boulders or taking numerous photographs to try and capture their magic.

An example of being stuck in your own story

At one particularly large site there were more people than usual. People approached the boulder arrangement and walked up and down, occasionally reaching out to touch the stones. The atmosphere was quiet and reflective. Sometimes a word was exchanged or a smile.

A grandmother with her son and her two grandchildren stopped to view the site. Ignoring the other people there, she encouraged the children up on to the stones and suggested they stand on the top. Once up there she then went about photographing them from all angles. She moved the children about as if they were at home in their own garden. There was no interaction with anyone else there. Her son helped the children to climb and then to keep their balance. 

It was only because that there was a sudden shower of rain, that she stopped and took the children away. They had no idea where they had been—it could have been a playground. The grandmother had little idea of where she had just been and even less of the interruption she caused. She was completely absorbed in the story of her as a grandmother out with her son and her grandchildren.

The repercussions of being stuck in your own story 

• You miss things

Of course, it is wonderful to enjoy doing what you are doing. It’s just when we become over-absorbed with our own concerns, we miss seeing the bigger picture. 

We live in an interconnected world where our actions are naturally intertwined with the actions of those around us. When we switch off our sensitivity to this, we break the flow. Without awareness we miss opportunities for connection and deeper understanding.

You are not fully present to what is happening around you

The grandmother meant no harm at all at the Hunebedden site. She simply did not see that her actions were out of sync with the atmosphere of the site. All her attention was on the narrow field of her family. She did not see anything beyond it.

When we are not fully present, we are simply running on autopilot. We are not engaging our full resources. It’s a way of limiting ourselves.

You lose sensitivity to what is going on with other people

When you are stuck in your own story it’s hard to even see what is happening for other people. It’s a bit like starring in your own movie with everyone else playing the supporting roles. Other people simply become the backdrop for yourself and your actions.

Research that shows the effects of being stuck in your own story

A now famous experiment into the psychology of pro-social behaviour was carried out in the early 1970s in Princeton University, New Jersey

Subjects for the study were students studying to be priests. The task was to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The talk was in a separate building. 

Before they left to give their talk, students were told one of three things:

  • either that they had plenty of time
  • or that they were on time
  • and some that they were late

In an alleyway they had to pass through was an actor pretending to be sick and asking for help.

Here are the findings:

63% of participants in the “early” condition stopped to help the stranger.

45% of participants in the “on-time” condition stopped to help the stranger.

10% of participants in the “late” condition stopped to help the stranger.

The main factor in whether people helped or not was how much time they thoughts they had.

So, what can we make of this? Remember, these were students studying to be priests. In interviews they had expressed the wish to be of benefit, to help people and to be of service. They were exactly the kind of people you would expect to want to stop and help someone in need.

The thing is, they got completely caught up in giving their talks and doing well. They were busy, pre-occupied and in a hurry. In other words—they were stuck in their own story and that took precedence over the need of the person lying on the ground.

When your story matches the group story

A while back, my partner and I flew return Amsterdam to Girona. We had a funeral to attend in the south of France and this was the cheapest, quickest way we could find to get there. Both flights were jam-packed. They were also delayed and as they were late-in-the-day flights it all got pretty exhausting.

Most of the people on the flight were regular flyers flying to and from the Costa Brava. Understandably they were in holiday mode. For them the crowded airport and the crowded plane were all part of their holiday experience. Wine flowed freely, people laughed and shouted across rows and gangways. They spread themselves out and took their time. People’s individual stories merged into a larger story of holiday makers returning home.

My partner and I were exhausted, sad from the funeral and certainly not in a partying mood. For a time, I felt a bit irritated all the loud, holiday people. Then I realised – my story was one of grief, exhaustion and coping but it was my story. Most other people on the plane were in their holiday story. It was just a different story.

How to notice when you are getting stuck in your own story

It got me thinking about how it is important to be aware of the stories you might be getting stuck in. 

Here are some things I thought of.

1. Are you present to what you are doing?

As long as you are aware and present to what you are doing you can avoid being stuck in your story. I managed quite well waiting for the plane – it was delayed by over an hour. It was when I began to get tired and to feel a bit sorry for myself that my story became more engulfing.

2. Do you have an awareness of what is happening with other people?

Once you stop noticing what is going on for other people around you, you are at risk of becoming self-absorbed. Remind yourself to look around you and get a sense of how other people are doing. It will help you stay connected and present.

3. Take a moment to check in with yourself

It’s always good to take moments throughout the day to check in with yourself. It’s a way of coming home. Lightly focusing on your breath for a few moments will help to cut through moods, habits and loss of attention. Then you are much more able to get a sense of how self-absorbed you are at that moment and whether you are getting stuck in your own story.

Creativity and Play

Creativity and Play

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

I am delighted to share this guest post from the writer, Rosie Dub. In this post she explores the relationship between creativity, and change. She shows how fear can block the process, while an attitude of playfulness can enhance it. Do enjoy this special posting!

In the antipodes it is spring, a time of rejuvenation as life bursts forth once more, after the dormant phase of winter. I sit at my writing desk watching the buds forming and the birds collecting materials for their nests. It has been a tough winter, with its short cold days and long, even colder nights, but now the light is returning and my spirits are lifting. It has been tough in other ways too, with family illnesses and other stresses taking my attention, filling my heart with pain and shredding my nerves. But despite all this, I have emerged blinking from the cocoon of winter, clutching a new novel and sporting a slightly broader waistline (an unfortunate side-effect). 

My experience with the creative process

For many years I have been intrigued by the nature of creativity which is hardly surprising, considering I work as a writer, a mentor, a creative writing teacher and an editor. In these capacities I am engaging with the creative writing process on a daily basis – both my own and others. I am intrigued too by the way my access to the creative process has always seemed to ebb and flow.  For much of my life, I felt like a passive being who either received inspiration or did not. At first, anything could get in the way of my creativity: a fleeting mood, a sunny day, an oven to clean . . . but I gradually learned that inspiration is only a small part of the creative process. The rest of it is dedication, which in translation means hard work. I got better at it, turning up at my desk whether I wanted to or not, struggling with the process on some days, flowing with it on others. Even so, most of the time there was something blocking that writing process, a barrier through which my creativity was ‘squeezed’, rather than a free-flowing space. As a consequence, my writing felt restrained and often forced but I knew that if I could step through this barrier, everything would change.

Obstacles to the creative process

Then this difficult winter arrived, bringing with it every obstacle to writing imaginable. My emotions were running high with anxiety, stress, grief, anger . . . I felt terrified, out of control and unable to focus my mind. I couldn’t sit down to do my usual meditation without being overwhelmed by all kinds of thoughts looping inside my head, to which my emotions would respond obligingly, until I was forced to leap out of my chair and do something else, anything to alleviate the anxiety, and often the wrong thing – more tea, a glass of wine, too much chocolate (hence the slightly broader waist line), unnecessary fussing, useless communications which only served to make things worse, wasting energy on tasks that weren’t important . . . The further I slipped into reactionary behaviour, the more impossible it became to access my ‘toolkit’, those techniques that help me to stay on track: meditation, walks, yoga, nourishing food . . . it all seemed too much to bother with. My fear had pushed me into self-sabotage mode and as a consequence any sense of self control or peace was lost. I couldn’t even sit at my desk, let alone write.

Common misperceptions about creativity

Over the years, I have counselled many people about writer’s block and helped them to find their voices and their stories. In that time, I’ve lost count of how often I have heard people assure me that they’re not creative, when in reality the issue lies somewhere else.

‘I wouldn’t know where to start,’ they say. 

‘I don’t use my imagination,’ they say. 

Or worse, ‘I don’t have an imagination.’ 

‘Oh yes you do,’ I generally respond. ‘You’ve just imagined yourself into being someone without an imagination.’

And that’s the key. It’s all about where we send our imagination and what we choose to focus on. It’s in our hands. Every single moment we have a choice. Do we make that choice with fear or with joy? Do we immerse ourselves in a task with fear or joy? The difference is immense, as I discovered for myself this past winter when I found my imagination fuelled solely by fear and as a consequence, lost my capacity to write. 

The importance of playfulness and how easily it can be crushed

It has taken me many years to understand that playfulness is an important element in creativity. According to Jung, ‘the creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity’. Yet for most of us, our sense of playfulness is crushed as we progress from childhood to adolescence and eventually adulthood. Much of that loss is due to the way we are schooled and the expectations of society. We are given structures and rules that restrict how we approach creativity and condition our thinking. ‘That isn’t how it should be done,’ they tell us over and over again. We are given gold stars for compliance not creativity. We are given answers not taught how to question. We are trained to copy not to create, and even worse, we are told that creativity is not for everyone. 

The consequences of losing our playfulness

Playfulness is light hearted, it involves a lifting of expectations around outcomes and methods and for most of us access to it requires a shift in our thinking, a deprogramming of sorts. If there is too much at stake . . .  if we have strict views about how something must be brought into being. . . if we are afraid of failing . . . if we are stressed and anxious . . . then we cannot access playfulness and as a result, we are no longer able to create joyfully. Instead our choices arise from fear and conditioning and our creations are shadowed with negativity. We get trapped by the enemies of the creative process: cynicism, depression, mind chatter, anxiety, perfectionism . . . and more.  The list is long but the common element is fear.

Re-engaging with our playfulness

Last winter when I found myself trapped in fear and anxiety it was an idea that rescued me. One that hovered in the back of my mind trying to get my attention, until in a rare moment of peace, I finally listened. Only then was the idea able to find its voice and nudge me into action; I made a note or two, a title emerged, characters formed and the idea grew, gaining momentum quickly. When my thoughts and feelings spiralled into negativity as they often did, I practised shifting my thoughts to this new idea, and most of the time it worked. I was still incapable of meditating and yet my writing time became a meditation of sorts. It became my ‘tuning in place’. No matter how fearful I was or how loopy my thinking, I found that I could immerse myself in my novel and immediately shift into a positive space. It was hard work, and I sometimes struggled to concentrate (hence the chocolate), but for the most part I was able to maintain focus, and work from a joyful, playful space, trusting the process to unfold as it should and crucially, letting go of fear. In so doing, I was able to complete a novel in just a few months, and for the first time, step across the barrier that has been in place within me for as long as I can remember.

Creativity permeates every aspect of our lives

As I sit here at my desk, bathed in the spring sunlight and feeling grateful that the difficult winter has passed, I realise that creativity and change go hand in hand. Without movement nothing can exist, for the creative process is fundamental to life. It’s all around us, embedded in the ebbs and flows of the seasons, the dance of the planets in their orbits, in the major turning points in our lives. But it is also embedded in the minutiae of life. Whether we are writing a novel, creating a business, cooking a meal, working in our garden . . . we are creating. Each moment of each day we create new possibilities and new directions in our lives. Everything we do is creative and every moment provides us with a choice as to how to implement that creativity. When we turn our backs on fear and free ourselves of our conditioned thinking, we can move into a playful flow that enables rather than resists and that imbues each task with joy. In this way we can gradually take our meditation into our daily lives and live it, thus consciously and playfully engaging with our creativity from one moment to the next. 

Dr Rosie Dub is a novelist, mentor, teacher, manuscript assessor and facilitator of the Centre for Story, a platform for stories that enable positive change in individuals and societies. Rosie has spent many years researching the nature of story and the role it plays as a transformational tool for individuals and cultures, and she shares her discoveries in her blog and the wide range of writing workshops and courses she runs in the UK and Australia. (www.centreforstory.com

Do You Make Room For Gratitude in Your Life?

Do You Make Room For Gratitude in Your Life?

Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

Last week was quite a rough week in which gratitude did not readily leap into my mind. A close family member was admitted to hospital early in the week. Our car developed an ominous rattle, which turned out to signal the need for massive repairs. Various work deadlines had to be pushed back. There was plenty of worry and stress.

On Sunday evening we were due to go over to a friend’s place for dinner. We really wanted to see him but were struggling to pull our energy together and make the journey across town by public transport. My partner rang him to finalise travel instructions and our friend picked up on our exhausted state. He immediately suggested that he bring the food over to us and cook the meal for us right in our own home! 

Suddenly gratitude was a much bigger part of my world view.

Gratitude can increase your happiness

The relationship between happiness and gratitude is one that is being thoroughly researched in the field of Positive Psychology.  There is now quite a considerable body of studies and findings that show the benefits of gratitude. 

In her book, The How of HappinessSonja Lyubomirsky details research her department of psychology in the University of California has carried out on the power of gratitude. Subjects are required to keep a ‘gratitude’ journal every Sunday for six weeks in which they record five things that they could feel grateful for during the previous week. Their levels of happiness and well-being were found to have increased as a result.

The importance of noticing things you are grateful for

If I am honest, I used to find that my eyes would glaze over as I read the huge lists of ways your life can improve once you make room for gratitude. It’s probably because of my upbringing and the emphasis on always saying ‘thank you’ and having to write an endless stream of thank you letters to aunts and uncles every birthday and Christmas. I got into the way of feeling gratitude was a bit of a chore – something I was ‘supposed’ to feel.

It’s really through my meditation practice that I have found the space to allow gratitude to flourish. It’s something to do with my mind quietening down sufficiently to allow me to experience more directly. Then I can notice what I want to be grateful for. The more I allow myself to open to it, the more settled I feel, and my happiness is increased. Last week was not a very happy week and yet our friend’s kindness resulted in us both going to bed more relaxed and happier than we had been all week.

365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life

I particularly recommend this short, readable book  for its no-nonsense, practical approach to gratitude. The author John Kralik tells the story of how he turned his life around by focusing his attention on what he had of value in his life rather than on what was missing. 

In Kralik’s case that was no hypothetical shift. He was a middle-aged and overweight divorcé. He was estranged from his older children, on the point of losing his current girlfriend and possibly his business too. He felt things had come to such a point that he needed to make major changes in his life. 

Inspired by a thank-you note that he received himself he decided to spend the year writing at least one thank you letter a day to cover all the things in his life he could feel grateful for. The book tells the story of how this process did in fact change his life.

The gratitude story in Kralik’s book that stood out most for me

My favourite story concerns Scott, the guy who serves the author in his local Starbucks. Not only does Scott remember how Kralik likes his coffee but he greets him every day by name in a genuine and friendly way. When Kralik delivers his thank you note, Scott assumes it is a complaint letter and is momentarily dismayed only to be delighted on realizing his has received appreciation and gratitude instead.

Gratitude can help us to really see people

It made me more aware of how I interact with the ‘routine’ people in my life—cab drivers, waitresses, shop assistants—all the people it can be so easy to glaze over while my attention is focused elsewhere. Just because someone is paid to do a job or offer a service it does not mean that we no longer need to feel appreciated for what we do. Like Kralik, I also quickly saw how much better I feel in taking the time to properly acknowledge the services I receive.

A thought about gratitude in the workplace

At work it is all too easy to take our colleagues for granted, or to feel unappreciated ourselves. Lyubomirsky points out that, among other things, gratitude helps us appreciate what we have rather than yearn for what we do not have and so increases our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. When we see how much we have to be grateful for it increases our confidence and helps us to unlearn the habit of over-focusing on our weaknesses and failures. So, a work team that is able to share appreciation for each other’s work and gratitude for each individual’s contribution has to be a healthier, stronger and more effective operating force. Take a look at Kralik’s book if you need convincing.

Some ways to cultivate gratitude

1. Keep your own gratitude journal

You could try keeping your own gratitude journal. This does not need to be anything fancy. A simple notebook that you use to jot down things that happened to you during the day which inspired gratitude. It helps us to notice things we are grateful for and to remember them.

2. Start a gratitude ritual

I have some friends who have a family ritual. Over dinner at the weekend each member of the family gets to share something that happened to them during the week that they are grateful for. They say it really brings the family together and everyone enjoys hearing the other people’s stories.

3. Try writing your own thank you notes

Of course, you could always try your own version of John Kralik’s thank you letters.

As I write this post ……

I am working on a tight schedule today and my partner just offered to cover my share of the morning chores so I could get started. It’s quite amazing how such a simple gesture can help me to settle so much more deeply. Feeling gratitude certainly can lead to a greater feeling of contentment. We just need to be open to noticing it and letting it nourish us.

How to Overcome your After-the-Holidays Blues?

How to Overcome your After-the-Holidays Blues?

Nearly everyone I know is back from their holiday now. There’s a big sign up in our street warning drivers that schools are open again and children will be crossing the road. Autumn is already nibbling around the edges, with a definite chill in the air. It’s certainly getting dark earlier.

It seems only a few weeks ago that people were talking about where they were going on holiday, or where they had just come back from. Now today, our local supermarket has started selling Speculaas, a cookie traditionally eaten on St. Nicholas’s Dayon 5 December. The summer holidays are definitely over.

Personally, I love autumn but many people I know are suffering from post-holiday blues. They feel back in the normal round and the next holiday feels too far away.

What makes the holidays special?

1. We try new things

Don’t you love the feeling of exploration and adventure during the holidays?

My brother-in-law was recently photographed entering a 5,500-year-old long barrow in the Cotswoldson a weekend away. Not everyone’s cup of tea but he is a history enthusiast and sites like this are his passion. My partner and I were recently in Drenthe,a northern province in Holland where there are ancient Hunebedden sites.No-one is sure what these sites were used for but they could have been used for burials. We were enchanted by the ancient majesty of these places and spent ages looking at as many different sites as we could.

Different food, new customs, trying out summer sports are all wonderfully freeing and engaging. Trying new things opens up new possibilities and helps us to break out of our shell.

2. A holiday can mean time with friends and family

Unless you’ve chosen to go on a solo holiday, time away usually means that we have a chance to interact with friends, partners, family members with more freedom. So much of our everyday life we are juggling too many things– family, work, leisure. It can be hard to feel any of it is proper quality time.

The holidays are times when you can play, chat and catch up with your family without always looking at the clock. Many of us have fond childhood memories of getting to hang out more with our parents because we were all on holiday together.

3. There is freedom from routine

On our holidays we suddenly find ourselves transported away from our usual routine. We can get up when we want, go to bed when we want – the day is ours’ to spend as we wish. The stress of keeping up and managing it all can start to fade away.

There is a wonderful feeling of freedom in this. We can be spontaneous because there is no schedule to keep to. If we are having an important conversation or reading a great book, we can just stay with it. Everything feels possible.

4. It’s possible to relax on your holidays

Freedom like this helps us to finally unwind. It seems that for most people we need at least 8 daysbefore we can feel that we have actually arrived on holiday. We’re stressed from work and the rush to get things ready for our holiday. There’s the journey to recover from. We need to get used to our new surroundings and find our way around.

Once this has all settled, we can truly begin to let ourselves relax.

5. The space during the holidays feels endless

Then there is really a sense of space opening up. Space for ourselves, space to rest, space to play. This is the real reason why holidays are so important. We need this connection to a different part of ourselves, with different possibilities.

So, how do we overcome our after-the-holidays blues?

The main there here is to look at what our holiday is telling us about the rest of our life. Many of us are experiencing so much stress that we don’t know how life can be without it. Too much of the time we are so caught up in everyday life that we don’t take proper care of ourselves. Let’s look again and what really makes a holiday special.

Ask yourself these questions—then try out the suggestions:

When did you last try something new?

New experiences help to inspire us and keep us fresh. They expose us to new ideas and give us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves. If you have not tried anything new for more than a month maybe this is something for you to look at. It can be small – trying a new café or restaurant, changing your hair style, wearing that scarf your sister-in-law bought you and you’ve never worn. 

It helps us not to feel that we are caught in a repeating loop that just goes from day to day.

Do you prioritise spending time with friends and family?

During a nine year study, researchers found that people who lack social ties were about three times more likely to die during those nine years than those who have strong relationships with their friends and family.Research also indicates that even people with unhealthy lifestyles that are able to maintain strong relationships are more likely to live longer than those without social connections. Spending time with your family and friends can help lead you to a longer life.

Yet somehow, we too often push our time with friends and family to the bottom of our to do list. There is always this idea that we’ll get to it later, or when things are less busy. Before we know where we are 6 months have gone by and we have not had an evening with our best friend.

Take a look at your agenda and make a date with a friend or family member right away.

Are you trapped in your routine?

Perhaps you never really saw yourself as a person who would set up and follow strict routines? For many of us, part of growing up is finding the capacity to organise our time in the most creative way. The trouble is we are juggling so many different parts of ourselves – worker, parent, friend, lover, … and yes, yourself! It’s easy to become stressed and let our routine begin to squeeze us, instead of being something useful.

Something that I find helpful is at least once a week change something in your routine. Again, it does not need to be a big thing. You can do something in a different order. Try cycling instead of taking a bus. Drink tea instead of coffee. Decide to have lunch out in a café. See if you can do without some of your normal activities – are they necessary, or just a habit.

You can also use routines like getting dressed or making breakfast as opportunities to reflect on how connected we are to everyone else on the planet.Just think of all the people involved in getting your muesli to your table!

Changing your routine helps you to feel in control, and less like a victim of your daily round. It’s refreshing!

What is your average stress level?

If it takes us up to eight days to unwind on your holidays what is that telling us about our stress level day to day? When was the last time you took a long hard look at how much stress you are dealing with?

In my experience, meditation is the best way I know of to work with stress and to understand something about how my mind works. Have you ever given it a try?

How much space do you have?

A helpful trick is to learn how to find and use small moments of space that open up even in the busiest days. Bringing ourselves into the present moment and dropping whatever is on our mind just for a while can have a powerful effect in opening up space. It cuts through worry and busyness and allows a moment to refresh. So, don’t cover up the small free moments in your day but enjoy them to the full.

Holidays are very special time with lots of opportunities to enhance our wellbeing. We can also use them as a mirror to check out and see how we handle the ordinary day-to-day events of our lives. If we take seriously what we discover then we can bring a holiday spirit into every day.

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