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.
It’s a great life skill to able to look on the bright side as we negotiate the ups and downs of everyday living. The ability to look at a glass and see it as half-full instead of half-empty is surprisingly rare but it’s impact on wellbeing is considerable. It increases our resilience and makes us more attractive to be around. However, we all know people for whom the glass is always half empty. It’s the sort of person for whom there is always a ‘but’, whatever good circumstances are coming their way. Lovely weather is forecast for an outing, but they always take an umbrella. They manage to negotiate a pay rise, but it is not as much as they hoped for. They cook a beautiful meal for a dinner party, but now they are exhausted. Their negativity bias is alive and flourishing!
If we are honest, we can see that although we are not like this all the time, we all have moments where we are just focused on how unsatisfactory things are.
Why is this?
We are constantly on the lookout for threats
Our brain has evolved to keep us safe, alive and reproducing our species. We are programmed to pay more attention to negative stuff and to remember it longer. When you think of our lives as hunter-gatherers this makes sense. Finding a new food source was a good thing but discovering a berry that was poisonous and killed you was much more important—so we remembered it and avoided it the next time we came across it. This is sometimes referred to as the brain’s negativity bias. The brain is always tracking for threats to our survival and once we locate one, then we store it away to remember for the future.
What this means for us now
Of course, in our modern lives there can still be real threats to our physical survival but mostly the negative stuff the brain is identifying and storing away is just part of the wear and tear of everyday life. If we fall out with a family member or get a harsh comment from our boss, it weighs on our minds and we tend to replay it over and over again. An unpleasant encounter in the supermarket over-rides all the courtesy and friendliness we usually encounter. If our favourite restaurant has an off day, all the delicious meals we have eaten there previously seem to be less believable.
The trouble with all this is that can lead to us giving into anger, frustration or jealousy. By focusing on negativity, we highlight our problems and bring them into the forefront of our experience. Giving such weight to the difficult things makes it easier for us to give into our more troublesome emotions, such as anger, fear and jealousy. It can make us tougher on other people because we are operating from this position of threat.
Two aspects of our negativity bias we can stop straight away
Cut the anxiety loops in our minds
We can try to get out of the habit of going over and over stuff that has bothered us and replaying different ways we should have dealt with it. Ruminatingin this way only works the negative memory in deeper and ensures that it stays with us longer. One of the most effective ways of cutting through rumination is with mindfulness meditation. By helping us to be awake in the present moment, we can bring our mind back from going over stuff that has already happened, or other stuff we are worried will happen in the future.
Stop beating ourselves up
We can try to stop telling ourselves off for the way things turned out. How many times do we say to ourselves, ‘I should have….’, ‘If only I had….’.’Why didn’t I?….’ Most of us have a voice in our headthat give a running commentary on how we are managing and sadly, its commentary is often negative. The thing is that we did not do any of those things and it is too late to change it. We can take note for the next time but beating up on ourselves will only increase the negative impact. The most effective way to transform our inner critic into something useful is by showing ourselves the same kindness that we would show a friend in a similar situation.
Here are more good habits that can overcome our negativity bias
Notice the good things that happen to us every day
These can be small things—a sunny morning, a smile from a stranger, a helping hand from a friend. Don’t just notice the first thing—keep your eyes open for all the small but precious moments throughout the day.
Allow yourself to feel good
There is no need to feel guilty or to worry that it is selfish. A moment of happiness, or satisfaction will help you to be more open and accessible to other people. You can share the benefit.
Savour the experience
Once we have noticed something good happening, then we can take a moment to savour the experience and let it sink into our consciousness. We are often too quick to shrug off the good stuff. By allowing ourselves to enjoy moments like the smelling the freshly baked bread in the local bakery, or pausing to watch children playing in the playground we are acknowledging the good experiences and letting them in. This will help to feel more satisfied and less in need of external stimuli.
We can even take a moment to express appreciation for some of the many, small, wonderful things that happen to us every day.
Here is an exercise that you could try
The purpose of the exercise is to help us to connect with experiences that can help us to undermine our tendency to focus on the bad stuff. By really seeing the good stuff and appreciating the effect it has on our moods and state of mind, we can learn to apply it when unpleasant things happen to us. This exercise shows a way of doing this after the event but as we get used to working this way, we can apply it as things happen.
Let me know how you got on with the exercise. I would love to hear how it worked for you.
If you have enjoyed this post and found it useful, you might want to take a look at this free 5-day e-course, HOW TO MAKE SELF-COMPASSION YOUR TOP PRIORITY
Do you work with someone who you dread having to interact with? Someone who stifles you, who never gives you any positive feedback and is always disapproving? Do you find yourself with a difficult work colleague? It’s tough, isn’t it?
Most of us have to deal with a difficult work colleague from time to time but we may find that solutions are not always easy to find. When this happened to me a while back, I was surprised at how much it got to me. It made me look into what was going on more deeply and try to come up some new ideas for how to handle it.
My recent story
I run my own small business and do a lot of work online. Sometimes this involves working on quite complex projects with international teams of people I have never met in person. Most of the time this goes really well but just recently it went badly wrong. A new volunteer joined a team I was working with and was given responsibility for the project. To begin with, I really enjoyed her focused, organized approach and felt hopeful about our progress. However, as the weeks passed, she began to assume a more top-down approach in our relationship and things started to unravel.
It began to really affect me. Her refusal to meet me half way, her positioning of herself as the expert, her willingness to have me to the same work over and over again until it reached some standard that I was not privy to—it became demoralising. Most worrying was a sense of rebellion that became steadily more persistent. There was a voice in my head that kept saying, Why bother? She’s not going to like it anyway! Worst of all—I started to dislike her, and it was very hard to summon any sort of kind feelings towards her.
Eventually, I decided that enough was enough and the only way forward was to talk face-to-face and try to sort things out. We arranged a SKYPE session.
When the talking it out session fails
Here came my second major surprise. For me to have a conversation like this means allowing myself to be vulnerable, to try to connect with the other person and to attempt to put myself in their shoes. I did all those things—from explaining quietly what I found difficult in the way we were working together to inviting her to tell me what she found difficult about working with me. We talked for almost an hour but there was no movement at all. None. A couple of days later she emailed me to say she was withdrawing from the project and would not be contacting me again. My attempt to reach out and to heal had met with total failure.
What do you then?
I spend my life talking and writing about kindness and peace of mind. It is an extraordinary feeling to put on the back foot when you are trying to use all your skills and experience. For a while my reactions took over but when I calmed down I tried to take a more balanced view and to see what learning there could be in a seemingly immovable situation.
Here are some of the strategies I used to work with what had happened.
It would have been very easy to feel bad about the whole thing. A commentary started up in my mind telling me that I had created a real mess and all my years of meditation did not count for much. I began to feel guilty for not managing better. Fortunately, I have done a lot of work with my inner critic and it didn’t take too long to reign it in and get some perspective.
It seemed important to forgive myself for not being able to be perfect all the way through this story. I knew that I had tried hard, first of all to be patient, and then to have a meaningful communication with a view to healing the situation. I was only responsible for my part of the interaction—it was not possible to control the reaction of the other person in the story. She made her own choices.
It also occurred to me that situations like this must be happening over and over again in different workplaces all over the world. Meeting people we can’t always get along with is part of our human story, one of the challenges of life that we all face. To respond only by blaming oneself is to ignore the bigger picture and miss an opportunity to open up the experience to a deeper perspective. It was when I was facing the failure of my attempt to get things on a better footing with my colleague that I really started to think more deeply. Through reflecting came more insight.
In meditation we learn to work with everything that comes up in our minds—happy thoughts, practical thoughts, horrible thoughts—we don’t differentiate as we let them rise, and then let them fall away. Over time, we train our minds to notice what comes up in the mind during meditation but not to dwell on it. Again, and again, we focus on the method of meditation and not the thoughts that can pull us away. In time, this helps us to become more resilientto what life brings and less pushed and pulled by our reactions and worries.
This is because meditation helps us to develop the ability to cut through the cycle of rumination which we so often occupy our minds with. Instead of going over and over the stories we have in our minds, we can learn to be more available in the present moment, without judgement. In this way, it became easier to drop my anxious feelings about how things had gone with my work colleague and to have a sense of acceptance that that was just how it was. I was very conscious at the sense of relief I experienced when I began to let go of the upset and justifications that had been buzzing around in my mind.
Renew your commitment to kindness
There were moments after my colleague left the project where it really felt as if she had set me up and jeopardised all my work. I certainly felt angry and attacked. The project we had been working on had to do with compassion and I found myself struggling to understand how two people who care about compassion could find themselves in such a situation.
Again, my meditation practice helped me to drop the judgemental thoughts I was having, and to realise that actually I did not really know what was going on for her. The only person I could do anything about was myself. I also realised that my anger was hurting myself most of all and it was not helping the situation.
There is a wonderful Buddhist meditation called Loving Kindness Meditation.which explores the power of generating kindness for oneself and then sharing that kindness with people close to you, then people you don’t know so well and eventually with people who have hurt you in some way. It is said that anger cannot ever heal anger, anger can only be healed by loving kindness.
It reminds me of two quotes from Nelson Mandela,
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.
It felt wonderful to let my anger fall away. Maybe I could not heal the situation as a whole, but I could heal my own reaction. It can still bubble up sometimes when I am working through the results of her withdrawal, but it does not stay.
So where does this leave me now?
The most important learning to come out of this situation for me was that we need to adjust our goals to what is happening, rather than suffering disappointment and resentment about things we cannot change. There is no point in branding an interaction as a failure and then feeling bad about it. It works much better to keep digging until the learning becomes clearer.
It was also a good experience of accepting what cannot be changed. My habit is always to keep on at something hoping it will crack but that can actually make things worse. Turing my attention away from analyzing my difficult colleague to looking into my own behavior and understanding worked a lot better.
Re-affirming my commitment to kindness, even when the going is tough, was empowering. It felt like re-enforcing the importance of kindness as something worth trying to develop, even when you are not getting the response you hoped for.
What about you? I would love to hear from you about your experiences of working with difficult work colleagues and the strategies you tried.
If you have found the ideas in this post interesting you might like to look at my new online course, How to Make Kindness Matter at Work. You can find out more here.
Many of us have returned from our summer break by now and are back into the swing of our working lives. My partner and I just got home from attending our usual annual retreat in Lerab Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist centre near Montpellier in the South of France. We have a tiny cottage in the forest where we stay during our retreat time. It is our opportunity to enjoy some quiet time in nature, while receiving meditation instruction to nourish us throughout the year.
We drive there from Amsterdam and our arrival is always a sensitive time. We are tired from the preparations to leave and the long journey. We know we have a lot to do to set up the cottage for our stay and, as it is remote, we have no idea what we will find when we open the door.
Not how you want to begin a holiday
This year was a shock. When we went to the room where we sleep we saw that the skylight had leaked through and damaged the area around the window. To make matters worse, this has been an on-going problem, which we thought it was all fixed and done with. When you are on retreat in another country in August and you need to arrange work to be done it can be a big hassle. My heart fell and I felt pretty fed up. Thoughts like, ‘I don’t need this’ and ‘Why can’t things just go smoothly for a change?’ chased each other through my mind. I felt pretty sorry for myself.
This is where meditation kicks in for me and I really see how much it matters in my life. Negative emotions can still come but they do not bite like they used to. They don’t get a hold on me and define my behaviour. Even while I am feeling miserable there is a part of me that knows that it won’t last, that I am not going to feel this way for ever. There is a fundamental part of me that accepts that life has its ups and downs and difficult things will certainly happen, so I am not as surprised as I used to be when things don’t go as I want.
We can think that as meditators we should be able to manage our emotions perfectly but that can just be another way of putting ourselves down. Of course, the more skilfully we can manage our emotions the better but meditation is not an instant cure-all and we can celebrate the steps we take as we go along. Developing a sense of perspective and learning—however slowly—not to take things too personally are two of these important steps. It helps build confidence in meditation to be able to see that although your mind can still get pretty intense, some things are a little easier.
The sky and the clouds
One of the most helpful images I know of to help build confidence in meditation is the example of the sky and the clouds. The sky represents our natural state of openness, spaciousness and wellbeing—our natural mind if you like. The clouds are the thoughts and emotions that pass across our minds. Thoughts do not spoil the mind, or leave any lasting impression—they simply come and go, like clouds. As we become more familiar with meditation we can begin to experience that for ourselves and get a different take on how to handle things going wrong. It becomes more possible to accept things as they are, rather than wishing them to be different and even to develop a certain sense of humour about the craziness of it all.
We are talking about building mental resilience—the ability to overcome obstacles and recover from hard times. It means having a place of inner peace that is always available to us and that helps us to work with how we see things. It enables us to face change and difficulties as opportunities for growth, rather than simply to view them as threats. Not surprisingly, Richard Davidson places resilience as one of the four skills of wellbeing. We know from neuroplasticity that the brain can change according to experience. The experience of meditation will help to develop activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which in turn helps to calm the fight-or-flight response of the amygdala when facing stress.
Meditation when it matters
Sure enough, as I struggled to connect with a sense of inner peace while surveying the damaged skylight, I could look through the rain-stained and murky window to see the clear blue sky beyond. The perspective was there for me to see—however challenging things are in the moment, that moment will pass.
If you would like to know more about meditation and resilience, watch this short video where Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn explore this further.
How to start meditation in a way that will last
This online course is designed to help beginners make a sustainable start to their meditation practice. You can find out more and sign up here