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
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.
Meetings can be dynamic, creative events where plans get moved on and decisions made. They can also be boring, tedious and sometimes feel like a big waste of time. Whatever the case, many of us spend quite a lot of our time in one sort of meeting or another. That gives us plenty of opportunity to ensure that any meeting we are part of is a mindful meeting.
Preparing yourself for a mindful meeting
My sister is in the kind of job where she can have back-to-back meetings all day. Sometimes her boss schedules an extra meeting at the same time as one she already having! It’s all she can do to make sure she has all the documents and information she needs for each meeting, never mind having the luxury of doing a sitting session before one begins.
One thing you can do though is to use the set-up time of the meeting to come back to yourself. There are always a few moments of chatting and settling before a meeting gets going. You can quietly focus on your breath as you sit down and sort through your papers.
Remember your goals
I have been in too many meetings where people just talked for the sake of it, without any real purpose. It helps to be clear for yourself about what you are hoping that the meeting will achieve. Having this in mind will help you to contribute to the meeting in a way that will help it move along in a creative way.
What are your personal goals for the meeting? There are the kinds of meetings where you might have a private goal of not wanting to lose patience, or not wanting to feel put down by another member of the group. No-one else needs to know about these goals. They are for your own growth and development. Gently keep them in mind, not to beat yourself up, but to help you manage the situation as you want to.
It’s very easy to get distracted in a meeting. Maybe you get bored and your mind wanders. Or perhaps you are caught in intense discussion that takes all of your attention. It helps to have something to remind you to be present. I like to take notes by hand in a meeting, so I use my pen as a reminder to be present. Each time I pick it up to write, I remember I am trying to contribute to a mindful meeting.
You could also use each time you take a drink or when a different person speaks. A friend of mine carries a special stone in her pocket to remind her to come back.
See who is in the room
As the meeting gets started take some time to look around and notice who is there and how they are. Remember, that just like you, each person in the room has worries both inside and outside of work—bring to mind any specific problems that you are aware people might be facing. Allow yourself to feel a sense of common humanity with what they are going through—it will really help if things get intense and difficult to remember how much in common, we all share.
As you work through the agenda notice when your attention wanders and you stop being fully present to what is going on. You can use your breath as an anchor of it helps. Simply notice where you can feel your breath entering and leaving your body and rest your attention there for a moment, or two until you feel you are ‘back’. This will help to maintain a mindful meeting.
Keep a look out for when you feel irritation, or frustration rising and recall your scan of the room at the beginning and try to see everyone as simply doing their best. Again, you can use your breath to help you settle.
Be mindful of how much you are speaking and the tone of voice you use. Are you making it easy for people to listen to you and to hear your point, or are you pushing them away with an impatient tone, or hurried explanation?
Listening can be a good mindfulness practice. Rest your attention on what is being said at any given moment. Try to keep your attention there and not let it stray off into thoughts and rumination. By bringing your full attention to what is being said you will find that you get less tired, will stay in closer touch with the progress of the meeting and can contribute more.
Notice when opinions and judgements come into how you are listening. Try to drop them and keep your attention open and receptive. Pay particular attention to how you listen to people in the meeting you do not agree with. It is so easy to mentally dismiss what you think they are going to say before they have even started to speak.
Try to stay aware of your facial expression as you listen. I know my concentrated face can look pretty grim—I don’t mean to, but my expression gets kind of stuck and I need to consciously relax and assume a more neutral, pleasant expression.
What about if things get difficult?
If you feel that the meeting is getting bogged down, you may find it possible to introduce some skilful humour to allow people to relax for a moment and let off steam.
If this feels too risky, doing things like bringing along fruit, or cake can help people relax and be normal together while they enjoy the treat.
Suggesting people simply sit in silence for a moment or two to get things back in perspective can be beneficial also.
I have a story from a workshop I gave years ago that always stays with me. A CEO of a non-profit shared how on one occasion she found herself in a meeting that was becoming acrimonious. She was not a main player at the table and did not see how she could skilfully intervene to turn things around. So, she simply stayed quiet and looked around the room wishing everyone present happiness and well-being. She said that normally she would have left a meeting like that exhausted and unhappy but after this one she felt invigorated.
A few days later she met up with another participant from the same meeting who asked her what she had been doing and commented, ‘I felt the meeting was deteriorating so badly and then I looked over at you and you looked so calm and focused it helped me settle and feel better.’ Just as anger and irritation can pollute the atmosphere of a meeting, self-awareness and kindness are also contagious but in a healthy way.
This is the story of how I recently overcame my feelings of wanting to lie low and nurse my stress by going into town and joining with the common humanity I found there.
The last few months have been pretty stressful one way and another and I have been feeling the effects. I work from home, which is great, but when things are intense I can end up feeling a bit isolated. A couple of weekends back my partner was away giving a workshop and I had not made any plans myself. Because I was not feeling sociable, I thought I could work through the weekend.
Unexpectedly, Saturday morning dawned fresh and bright and tempted me to go out and play.
Getting out of my comfort zone
Although I could feel the pull to get out of the house I resisted for a while—I had too much to do, I didn’t want to spend loads of money, I was a bit tired…………. After a while I realised, with a bit of a shock that what was getting in the way was my reluctance to leave my comfort zone. It was easier to stay at home, feeling a bit sorry for myself, than make the effort to go out. This insight gave me a real jolt. I don’t see myself as someone who plays safe. I made up my mind to get ready and go out.
Common humanity and self-compassion
Kristen Neffis one of the leading voices in the research and practice of self-compassion. She sees self-compassion as being composed of three elements:self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Each of these components is an antidote to ways we can undermine ourselves when we do not practice self-compassion. So self-kindness is an antidote to judging ourselves and mindfulness is an antidote to over-identification, or the ways we exaggerate what is happening around us. Common humanity is the antidote to self-isolation. I certainly felt that when I realised part of me preferred to stay home and wallow!
The healing potential of connecting with common humanity was something I experienced directly that Saturday, as I went tired and bruised into town and came home feeling re-charged and uplifted.
Connecting with others is healing
Amsterdam was packed that day. I had forgotten for a moment the huge impact of tourists in the city. There are always lots of people visiting Amsterdam but, in the summer, it gets astronomical. In a city of less than one million inhabitants, 18,000,000 visitors are expected this year. Sometimes I can find this invasive but somehow this time it touched me.
So many people were out and about wanting to enjoy themselves and have a good time. You could hear a whole range of languages and accents as people tried to find their way around the city. There were families and young couples. Older people in tourist parties followed closely behind their guide. There was a tangible sense of movement and enquiry.
To my shame, my Dutch is very poor. Although I have lived in Amsterdam for many years I have not managed to become fluent in Dutch. When I am on my own I always want to let people know that I am not a tourist, just a poor Dutch speaker. On this Saturday I had interactions with all kinds of people in shops, and my confession led to a whole series of interesting stories with the people working in the shops I visited. There was lots of sharing of experiences and much laughter and teasing.
Because I was on my own, people were more likely to take time to talk with me. I could feel something in me relax with the enjoyment of chatting without any particular kind of agenda. In the café where I stopped for coffee there was time to look round and see the other people enjoying their coffee and cake.
One of my favourite meditations for common humanity
The more I walked around and felt myself as one of the crowd, the more I could feel the tightness of recent months begin to dissolve. With my own stress and worry still so close, it was a small step to look at others and wonder how they were and what they were coping with.
I found myself reciting, or paraphrasing lines from this meditation more and more as the afternoon went by. Would anyone know from looking at me what I had been carrying over the last months? Probably not. How can any of us gauge what someone is dealing with, other than by accepting the basic truth that life is both wonderful and very hard at the same time. We all want things to go well but life shows us that some of the time they won’t. Everyone has their own worry, suffering and pain—everyone. So it is possible to look into the eyes of anyone you pass by and think, ‘just like me.’This is the experience of common humanity for me.
As my walk around town continued I experienced a growing sense of gratitude. It felt so good to be part of the energy of the people enjoying the city, as well as feeling a sense of connection between myself and them.
My worries were still there but I felt much less alone with them. Remembering that everyone I was meeting would be going through their own version of challenge and anxiety lifted the heaviness from my own. Before I set off to play in town I was feeling that my problems were all-pervasive. After a few hours of shopping and people-watching I simply felt that we were all in the same boat—wanting happiness but dealing with whatever comes along.
Research into gratitude over the past 15 years is finding several emotional, and lately even physical benefits. Connecting with common humanity, recognising its power to help me and experiencing gratitude because of that transformed my mood and lifted my heart. I will not quickly forget the experience.
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