Creating Neurological Shifts
Our response is dependent on our state of mind.
What, then, determines our state of mind? As we repeatedly think, feel, behave and interpret in the same ways each day, the shape of our brains is literally being sculpted by these habits. As the brain tissue changes in response to habitual thought patterns, the habits of thought and action become stronger. And as habits become stronger, our blind spots become larger and harder to discover.
Blind spots come from our unexamined assumptions which are kept in place by our habits of thinking. If we clearly saw the blind spot our assumptions would change, and we would think and behave differently. But the nature of a blind spot is that we don’t know what it looks like, and we don’t know how to look for it. In our completely oblivious way of seeing the world we say things like: “We’ve always done it like that. There’s no reason to change. We’re doing well.”
If we are to see clearly what is happening around us we need to be aware of our mental and emotional habits, which lead to our patterns of interpreting and behaving. We need to be able to step back from these habits and turn our attention to how we can engage most effectively with what is happening around us. This produces what we call a ‘neurological shift’ – a fundamentally new, more effective way of creating into our changing environment.
To understand what we mean by a neurological shift let’s look briefly at how neurons work. You may well have heard the phrase ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’ This means that repeated neural firing – for example, when we practice a tennis stroke, or think in the same way again and again – leads to the strengthening of existing synaptic connections and the creation of new ones. Repeated experiences also stimulate the production of what is called myelin – a coating around the fibres that take information from neurons to other neurons, muscles, and glands. More myelin can lead to as much as a hundred-fold increase in the speed of information moving down a neuron’s length. The process of neurons firing and wiring is the raw material of brain plasticity – the ways the brain changes itself through repeated experience.
New experiences, bringing our attention to a familiar problem in a new way, responding to a challenge in an open and curious fashion, playful creativity, and open-heartedness all help create new neural pathways and cause us to see our world in a new light. This, in turn, helps us see our blind spots even if it’s uncomfortable to do so.
This is where really great coaching can help.
Great coaching is transformational – it produces neurological shifts that make us go “oh wow, I never looked at it like that before!” It spurs us to be more creative, to re-think old assumptions, to challenge ourselves and others to step-up. And it gives us the courage to face-down the stale expectations of others.
Here are the main elements of great coaching:
- It is systemic. It recognises that an individual is a multicoloured complex mix of their history, current reality, hopes and dreams, as well as the pulls and tugs of their social environment and their personality traits. The more a system has the focussed light of genuine curiosity shone upon it, the more likely a deeper and more lasting neurological shift occurs in the individual and the system. Group coaching with a leadership team is an example of an action targeted towards a group neurological shift.
- It shows us our blind spots. Through clear sighted questioning that cuts through excuses and self-delusion, great coaching pursues a way of seeing the world that is clearer and enriched with possibility.
- It pays attention to emotions, as well as thoughts. Emotions are the engine of human endeavour, focussing our energy into the shape created by our thinking. We care, we enjoy; we get frustrated, angry, happy, and joyful. Great coaching harnesses our emotional energies in a way that helps us understand what is going on, decide what to do, and then act in accordance with our insight.
- It includes the whole person. We consist of many parts or roles – partner, child, parent, lover, leader, manager – the list is endless. Great coaching creates room for all members of our internal orchestra to contribute. Our music is all the poorer if only half the instruments are playing, or are refusing to co-operate.
That’s what a neurological shift does.
We need Love to solve Big Problems
Everything is constantly changing. Life is movement. It has always been so. ‘Flow states’ are where we move, physically and mentally, with confidence and grace. Problems are where movement becomes difficult.
To solve big problems, we need love. By love I don’t mean ‘falling in love.’ That’s a whole other story. By love, I mean an ability to feel the interconnection of our inner and outer worlds, and to know that everything, and I mean everything, is part of the solution.
What I am proposing is a radical re-framing of how we approach problem solving – whether that’s in business, in relationships, or in politics. What I am proposing takes courage, curiosity, and an ability to stand your ground.
Love means working towards understanding a problem from multiple viewpoints, and from different levels. It’s about pursuing the desire to understand holistically, not just analytically. It’s left and right hemispheres of the brain working together. It requires trust in yourself, and trust that the solution is in the broader system.
Love is about paying attention, with openness and care, to the parts of you that are inspiring and hopeful, and with equal attention, paying attention to the parts of you that are stubborn and difficult, and in pain. Love is about paying attention, with openness and care, to others around you who are inspiring and hopeful, and with equal attention, paying attention to those who are stubborn and difficult, and in pain. They all have their story. Love is about listening and collaborating in such a way that you can hear the message and integrate its meaning even when the form of the messenger is not what you expected, or even wanted. Love is about synthesising what you hear and see, and then acting and working with others as best you can. It won’t be perfect, but it will be more systemic, and given problems are, indeed life is, systemic, the action will be more effective.
And then you learn by doing. Listen with love, act with love. There’s as many ways of doing this as there are people in the world. We need to discover our own way, and it will be different every time.
Brief Thoughts on Boredom
I think boredom can be very useful. But I’m in the minority.
Research supports the view that we really dislike boredom. In one study, people were invited to sit in a room and do nothing for 15 minutes (click here for a summary). Nearly half of the participants reported they did not enjoy it. In another version, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to administer small electric shocks to themselves to alleviate the boredom. They preferred physical pain to doing nothing!
Judgement. That’s what we do. I judge that if I were a more creative, more resourceful individual, I would not be bored. Boredom shows that at this moment I am failing. I fight the feeling – but surely I should know what I want to do next. It’s weak not to know where I am going. A successful person always has a plan and is heading with determination in that direction!
But what if the simple feeling of boredom and not knowing is the beginning of something? (For a wonderful description of the creativity hiding beneath childhood boredom, click here.)
Next time you are bored – pause. What’s it feel like? Don’t let yourself get away with “well, it’s boring this feeling.” Instead, be curious. Is it heavy and dark? Or is it light, like you are floating away? In other words, be extraordinarily paradoxical, and find your boredom interesting! I can almost guarantee you will discover beneath it an idea for what comes next. And it won’t be the same-old-same-old. It will be something new. You may well find that what was boredom was actually you being reluctant to try something a bit different.See for yourself. Be bored and then be brave to hang out with it!
We all need trust to help us feel at ease in the world. So often when I talk with my counselling and coaching clients I hear stories of broken trust, and the pain that this brings. But trust is tricky, and elusive, and easily lost. And it is also a wonderful anchor that helps us to find our way back home.
Trust for me is a feeling that someone has my back. I can rely on this feeling when I’m confused and times are hard – I can lean into this trust and the weight I am carrying doesn’t feel so heavy any more.
But what to trust in? This is the hard question, because so often we have all experienced breaking of trust. Parents who don’t live up to supporting the flowering life of a child; politicians who don’t live up to the promises of an election; businesses that don’t live up to a commitment to care for their customers and employees. All this broken trust can get us down, and so we start to believe it is better not to trust anyone.
But can we trust ourselves? Well, even this gets eroded. We make decisions that don’t bring us to where we hoped, we make decisions we later regret. We do things that unintentionally hurt others.
So what is there left to trust in?
Alan Watts – a wonderfully insightful author who introduced eastern philosophy to the west in the 60s and 70s, wrote:
“Wu-wei is the lifestyle of one who follows the Tao, and must be understood primarily as a form of intelligence… This intelligence is not simply intellectual; it is also the unconscious intelligence of the whole organism and, in particular, the innate wisdom of the nervous system.” (Tao: The Watercourse Way (1975), p.76)
My own innate intelligence – the innate intelligence of my body – this is something I can trust. This might at first sound strange. The nervous system of the human body has been evolving for millennia in intimate relationship with the whole planet. Encoded in us is the innate intelligence of all that has gone before, and the basis of what will come in the future. Our nervous system knows a thing or two about how to get through life.
The trick is learning how to listen to it.
Our brains are very clever – but sometimes so clever that we go round in circles. Our brains need the wisdom of our bodies to ground them. Without that, we fly high above the earth, and lose our bearings, and then fear the fall.
So, breathe and listen into your body. Breathe and listen to the world around you. Breathe and listen for the still, small voice of your innate wisdom. It takes time and practice, but learning to listen like this can be wonderfully nourishing and enlightening. With this as your foundation, trust others as feels right.
The stories we tell
The stories we listen to and tell are an essential part of the way we make meaning of our world, create purpose, and importantly they help determine the actions we take – individually and collectively.
And different stories view the world through different levels.
In my work with individuals and groups I hear stories operating at higher (more helicopter) and lower (more detailed) levels. If we don’t realise stories can be at different levels, it can get confusing, and lead to conflict rather than dialogue.
Let's consider two stories:
“Our purpose is to create long-term shareholder value through the discovery, acquisition, development and marketing of natural resources"
“Our vision is of a peaceful and sustainable world based on societies living in harmony with nature”
The first is from a mining company, the second from an environmental group. Taken separately they lead to confrontation – mining companies versus environmentalists. Taken together, it is possible to see how these two stories can be in dialogue with one another. The second environmental story I see at a higher level of vision when compared with the first mining story. In the big picture we need to live in harmony with our planet – it’s the only one we’ve got, and our fate, along with that of numerous other species, depends on it. And in the smaller, more detailed picture, mining supplies the raw materials for the majority of our industries. Stop mining, and the device you are reading this on will become a thing of the past.
I believe it is vitally important that we allow stories like these, that operate at different levels, to inform each other. If we encourage the mining story and the environmental story to be in creative, respectful dialogue, knowing that both have a place, we have hope of a truly sustainable future. If they remain in conflict, shouting at one another, we’ll remain stuck.
I suggest we consider the stories through which we understand the world, and upon which we base our actions. What are your higher level stories that help you make meaning of the world and create belonging? What are your lower level stories that enable you to work with the detail and help you thrive on a daily basis? And do your stories creatively inform each other?
This is applied mindfulness. It's important because our stories are creating our future.
Can we consciously simplify?
We are living at a time of rapidly increasing complexity. And there is often an unspoken assumption that growing complexity is inevitable, and all we can do is learn to live with it. It's tied to the assumption that constant and unending economic growth is a necessity for prosperity, which in turn is tied to the assumption that each succeeding generation's lifestyle should be economically more substantial than the previous. It is the belief in constant increase, which comes with a promise of greater happiness and more freedom.
However it's not working out like that. Happiness does not increase proportionally with increasing wealth. After our basic necessities are covered, the resources required for the additional car in the garage and the annual overseas holiday bring proportionally little increase in happiness (what the researchers call emotional wellbeing). Australians, who rank 15th on a list of the world's richest countries, have one of the lowest amounts of leisure time. In a world survey of countries looking at whether people achieve long, happy, sustainable lives, it was Costa Rica that came out on top.
An argument put forward by the social commentator Paul Arbair, is that we have for some time been moving towards diminishing returns on complexity. As our social, economic and political systems become more complex, so the resources required to control and maintain them increase. This, he argues, leads to a situation of diminishing returns. We create systems of greater and greater complexity, requiring greater and greater energy to control and maintain, for less and less reward. The balance of energy required to keep growing and maintaining control of the complexity eventually becomes unsustainable.
As we become less able to control the complexity we are creating, the political, economic and social systems become more unstable and unpredictable. We then become confused. And in our confusion we long for and grasp at simple answers ("let's build a wall on the Mexican border!") that cannot meet the requirements of our complex predicaments.
But that does not mean the wish to simplify is misdirected.
As I see it, the wish to simplify is part of the call of our time. But then we need to ask what is the underlying motivation underneath that wish. An underlying motivation of fear can lead to simplifying but accompanied by fragmentation. The fragmentation pushes the complexity and its unpredictability onto someone else in the social system. Unsustainable inequality continues. An underlying motivation of love can lead to simplifying and enduring interconnection - sustainable simplicity. Two very different outcomes.
Can we, with mindfulness, love and compassion, start to let go of bigger-and-more is better? Can we, with compassionate awareness, begin to de-escalate complexity and welcome the satisfaction and beauty of simplicity? This can start immediately. Can you walk as a free, self-responsible, self-caring and compassionate person, right now? Can you take your next in-breath without worry and wanting the next thing? Can you smile at another person without expectation? Can you find a flow in your life, rather than always striving for the next thing? Can you see the simple beauty that is already here? This is where sustainable simplifying can begin. Start with yourself. And then remain curious and engaged with what follows.
Listening for the call
If you feel uneasy, confused, anxious, angry about it, here are some thoughts…
1. Take time to take in whatever it is you feel and think about it. Whatever it is, notice it.
2. Donald Trump did not get to be President-elect all by himself. Many millions of Americans have given him this power. Any social event is an expression of a complex system of inter-relationships. When people take less and less time to listen in order to understand each other, as seems to be happening more and more in politics and in society more generally, then extreme views grow which lead to extreme actions. Fear feeds more fear.
3. Consider what it would mean to really care for yourself and to take your self seriously. This means listening to what you say to yourself – the anger, the anxiety, perhaps even the hope – all of it. Let it all in… And because all this stuff needs somewhere to land, let it land with compassion. Because compassion is all that is left when we really want to face ourselves. Anything else just keeps generating new dramas. Face yourself with an open heart.
And to face yourself with an open heart must also mean facing those around us, society, with an open heart – otherwise we simply outsource the dramas that are within us, to outside of us.
Anger, anxiety, despair, tell us something is wrong, whether in our selves or in others. And so we turn to face it, and listen to what the future is calling from us.
4. We listen. As we listen to what we are saying to ourselves, as we listen to what others are saying, we also listen for the call to action from the future. We need to be quiet inside to hear it. We listen to the call with all our being – our heart, mind, and body. We listen so well that we know what to start doing. And then we start to act. As we act, so we learn. We trust that we know what to do, and at the very same time, we are open to learning new ways of understanding and acting. We keep returning to our heart, as we act with courage and trust
Wanting to really understand what the other person is saying, wanting to learn, wanting to inform, wanting to educate, being curious – these motivations create connections. By genuinely wanting to understand the other person, you must put aside your own prejudices and knee-jerk responses. This takes practice, but is hugely rewarding. By being engaged and open with the person or people in front of you, your view of the world is enriched. You participate in solving a problem, assist another to understand a situation more clearly, learn someting new. And you understand yourself better.
There’s some wonderful information around on how to have constructive and engaging conversations.
Remembering & Forgetting
What is it that we are remembering? Smrti means remembering to be present here and now, and not to be lost in plans for the future or thoughts about the past. Smrti is saying there’s nothing wrong with making plans for the future or remembering the past, but it is warning against believing that our plans and memories are more real that what is happening right now.
It is so easy to get caught up in the dramas of what might be. I certainly did it over the past couple of weeks with the drama of buying a house. Will I succeed in outbidding the other person? Are we making the right decision? Is this what we really want? And, and, and…. My heart beat faster and I became distracted as I was pulled in to the stickiness and tightness of it all.
My own sense of solidity and freedom got less as this went on. I forgot myself.
And then I would remember myself. Perhaps it was hearing a bird call that reminded me to come up for air and return to now. And what I noticed as I remembered myself, is that this ‘remembering’ has a spaciousness to it. It has a quietness to it. It has a clarity to it. But if I don’t remember to return to myself, it won’t happen. I remembered that my worries about the future were imaginings. I remembered that my thoughts and feelings of regret (why hadn’t I offered more money earlier to clinch the deal??) were just that – thoughts and feelings. I remembered to learn from the past, but also to let go of getting lost in the drama of it all. I remembered that these thoughts and feelings are not as real as the sensations of sitting and typing that I experience as I write this newsletter. And my appreciation of nowness brings with it a bigger space. It moves my awareness from the ‘small me’ of drama to a ‘larger me’ of greater clarity and compassion. This ‘me’ has a sense of belonging in the present with the people who are in this moment with me.
It is this quality of appreciation which means I work much more with what is happening rather than against what is happening. I work with a sense of appreciation that ‘this is the way things are now’. And so through engaging with the way things are, I move forward with what is happening now, rather than getting lost with how I would like things to be. I can use my preferences as a guide, as a map. But if I mistake the map for the actual road I am walking on, I have forgotten. I might arrive somewhere that looks really great on the map, but when I look around I find it’s not at all what I thought it would be.
So, I pay attention, and I remember. And this is the way to make decisions, based clearly in the now.
A Meaningful Life
In my opinion happiness can mean two very different things.
One is that happiness is something we feel when our circumstances are just right – everything comes together in a way we want, and we are happy. 'Happy' derives from the 14th century word 'hap' meaning 'chance.' In this meaning, when chance favours us we are happy. We receive some unexpected money, we are happy. We receive an unexpected bill, we are unhappy. Of course we can aim towards circumstances that we hope will make us happy, but ultimately our happiness is like branches of a tree being blown around by the uncontrollable weather.
Happiness can also mean equanimity - an evenness of mind and emotions. When the wind blows our state of mind is more like the solid trunk of a tree that moves very little. This is where meaning comes in. In my opinion this sort of happiness and solidity comes from a state of mind born from meaning. Just like a great story, a meaningful life can contain the spectrum of emotions. It carries us. Meaning is something we weave through our experiences to make sense of life. Our creation of meaning gives us an inner richness and sense of belonging.
In my experience creating a meaningful life starts with paying attention. We slow down and observe with an open mind and an open heart. We pay attention to what is happening around us, and what is happening inside of us. Above all, we learn to trust that what we are thinking and feeling is reasonable.
I have been coaching and counselling individuals for around seven years. Over that time I have come to the conclusion that so much of what works against us is our difficulty to listen openly and non-judgementally to what we think and feel. From dealing with how to create a successful career to how to create a fulfilling personal relationship, we so often believe that what goes on in our head is wrong, and needs to be corrected. I believe the creation of a meaningful life starts with developing an ability to sit with and listen to whatever we tell ourselves. We listen from a place of support, compassion and care for ourselves. We notice our shame, guilt or embarrassment, our beliefs that we don't deserve, that we are unsuccessful, that no one listens to us. When we sit quietly and patiently with our thoughts, feelings and sensations, listening with an open heart and mind, we learn about our inner life. And as we learn, so meaning begins. We start to sense more clearly how our journey has got us here. And we start to see and feel how we would like to shape our journey into the future. We start to see our life less as black-and-white, right and wrong, and more as a story where we, as the hero, have always made the best of the information and understanding we have had at the time. We start to accept ourselves more fully, and make more effective use of the gifts available to us.
Meaning, by its nature, is about nurturing, empowering and connecting.
So, can you hear the stories you are telling yourself about your life? Are they rich stories that connect you to your world and empower your vision for a good life? Or are they stories of blame and frustration, isolation and fear, winners and losers. If you hear the latter, sit with these stories for a while. Listen to them with a kind heart. And see if a wider, more compassionate and enlivening meaning emerges.
I am always interested to hear your thoughts, so do email me if you have any questions or comments, or if you would like to make an appointment to discuss this in more depth.
This question occupies me. For example, you might have noticed there was no newsletter last month. Why didn't I write one? I could say: I didn't have time, I couldn't think what to write, I had competing priorities. All of these are true. But still, why didn't I make time? Why didn't I prioritise my newsletter and write it?
I became preoccupied. I became caught up with thoughts that other things were more important, and got captured by these thoughts. I forgot to come up for air, as one of my meditation teachers would put it. I forgot to look around, and, with quiet awareness, make a choice. Rather I allowed the choice to seemingly be made for me by circumstances.
So to begin to answer this question of what is the most appropriate way to act, I point to the role of awareness. Our awareness is often captured by smaller parts of ourselves. These parts operate in pairs. For example, an internal conversation that might happen at 6.00am - "I really should go to the gym now," versus "It's comfortable dozing in this nice warm bed". The argument between these two can go on for a while, by which time I haven't actually dozed in a satisfying way, nor have I gone to the gym. And now it's time to get up and get ready to go to work.
When I get pre-occupied I get hooked into these internal arguments, which means not a lot gets done, or priorities get diverted by seemingly important things, that, when reexamined, aren't really that important.
So, what could I have done that meant I wrote a newsletter last month? It would have first necessitated me noticing I was preoccupied. I was sort of aware my mind was busier than usual, but I didn't stop and step back. That's step 1, stop and step back, and observe. What's happening here? What arguments are going on inside of me?
Step 2 is to engage that part of me that wants the best for me. This is the part that wants me to grow, to flourish, to be happy. We all know this part. It's the part that is present when we're on a bush walk, and we see a beautiful view across a valley, and we just know that stopping, even if just for a moment, to enjoy that glorious sight is absolutely right. No argument.
That part of me feels spacious and warm and unhurried.
Step 3 is to acknowledge the various arguments going on inside from that part that is spacious and warm hearted. From spaciousness acknowledge that these different priorities and viewpoints all have a valid point of view. It's just that these points of view are blinkered to varying degrees - they don't take in the broader picture.
From the broader picture that is spacious and quiet, ask what is the right thing to do? If you're not sure, wait and see what emerges. It is from this quiet, observing space that you flourish and grow.
Now, having waited for the answer to emerge, it is time to act. That's why you are receiving this newsletter. I stopped, and observed, and saw that in writing this and sharing with you, a part of me flourishes. I enjoy making time to communicate with others; but sometimes I lose sight of this.
I hope you will notice what makes you flourish this month and take action on it. And if you have any questions or feedback, I would love to hear from you.
Power & Love
Human relationships are constantly shifting and changing. Just when you think you know what’s going on the other person says or does something you weren’t expecting and you need to ride the wave of change.
For as long as I can remember I have been curious about what goes on between people. What was it that caused my grandmother to be angry with my grandfather, or to care for him with such devotion? What is it that motivates a man to say to a close friend, quietly, slowly and with care and concern – “look, maybe you need to leave her…”. Or what is it that causes a wife to say angrily to her husband "you never listen to me"?
What are the big forces at play here?
I came across the above quote by Martin Luther King Jnr. about a year ago, and the more I have thought about it, the more I think he is pointing at something that is profoundly true. His words are inspired by the writings of the philosopher, Paul Tillich. For Tillich, love is about the energy of bringing together, of making whole; power is about the energy of self-realisation, of growth. Being alive is the dance of these two energies.
In the dance, the two dance partners need each other. Martin Luther King is saying love needs power and power needs love. Take one away, and the other is no longer effective.
This makes sense to me. I was raised by my grandparents. My grandmother was a proud, highly intelligent, energetic woman. She wanted to make her mark on the world. But like many women of her generation, having grown up in the 1920s and ‘30s, the possibilities for her were limited. She wanted to express her power as creativity. But circumstances were against her. So instead her power came out as annoyance at the world and at my grandfather. Instead of a healthy expression of power as self-realisation, it would be expressed as frustration and annoyance, and as power-over my grandfather. This also affected the quality of her love. She was capable of great love. She was devoted to my grandfather; she supported him to be successful. And she nursed him as he died. But what I saw as a child and teenager was a woman whose love – her wish to bring together and to make whole – became confused because her expression of power manifested as frustration rather than self-realisation.
If she had found a way to be more creative and grow her talent, she may well have loved more easily.
Love and Power – two energies that push in opposite directions, yet complement each other. The trick, it seems to me, is to learn to dance lightly with them. Not to get caught in either of them. But to flow between them as circumstances require. If your love isn’t accompanied by power as self-realisation, you might feel your needs and aspirations are being overlooked, and your love unappreciated; if your power isn’t balanced with love as connection, you might feel alone and disconnected from others, and your power unsatisfying.
Just like any dance partners, if one isn't in step, the other suffers.
How’s your dance going?
Practising Mindfulness - breathing
Here I want to suggest you try conscious breathing. Bringing awareness to your breathing has been practised for thousands of years as a way to calm body and mind, and to cultivate freedom from difficult thoughts and emotions.
Start right now, as you read this. Sit comfortably and become aware of your inbreath and outbreath. Notice the movement of your lungs, chest, ribs, diaphragm and belly as you breathe. Just notice. Don’t try to change anything. Let your body be breathed. See if you can pay attention to the whole journey of each breath. Follow the inbreath from its very beginning to the point where it changes into the outbreath. Then follow the outbreath to the point where it changes into the inbreath. Remember there’s no need to change the breath – just follow it and let go. Keep going more and more deeply into the experience of being breathed as you continue to let go. Do this for a few minutes. Enjoy taking the time.
You might choose to do this for five minutes each morning. Or perhaps follow your breathing as you sit on the bus, or as you walk to work. Any questions, or if you want to share your experience of this, drop me an email.
I’ll be posting more suggestions on ways to cultivate a more mindful life in the coming weeks.
Problems and Opportunities
If someone you love has told you they don’t love you anymore and is leaving you, or if you have been told your role is redundant and you now need to pack up your desk, a friend pointing out how this is a great opportunity will probably make you feel a whole lot worse.
You need time to process the information - to grieve, get angry, feel sad, plot revenge. Whatever your mind presents to you is fine. From the perspective of Mindfulness, it’s just your mind doing what your mind does. They are only thoughts.
And every thought and feeling that we regard as a problem is an opportunity for us to get to know ourselves better, to have one less inner battle, and to find a constructive way through whatever predicament we are in.
The feelings and thoughts that arise in us are the conversations we have with ourselves as we navigate through our life. For these conversations to lead somewhere useful we need to take ourselves seriously. We need to listen mindfully – with curiosity, openness, acceptance, and loving kindness. Like the conversations we have with other people, when we don’t listen with care, our inner conversations go in circles. They can be hurtful, damaging or simply a waste of time. Nothing gets resolved.
Can we listen deeply to ourselves?
In February I had a birthday party and invited many friends and family to join me to celebrate. Was I happy? Yes and no. I complicate matters by saying to myself “Perhaps not many people will accept my invitation. I will make all this effort and only a few people will be there”. I don’t like this thought. It pulls my confidence from under me, and I feel disheartened and isolated.
My first reaction is to tell this thought to keep quiet. That doesn’t work. I try logical argument. It has counterarguments. Then I remember what I suggest to my clients. I accept this thought and its associated feelings. I let them in with kindness and care. As one of my meditation teachers puts it, I invite the thought and feelings in for a cup of tea.
When invited in with kindness and openness, the thoughts and feelings change. I notice the fear inside and around them. A memory comes to me of disappointments when I was in my early school years. I recognise that the thought that is telling me things probably won’t go my way is actually trying to help – to prepare me for disappointment so I won’t be hurt so much. The thought is actually motivated by care and love. But its use-by date has passed.
Seeing that it is trying to help, I soften and thank the thought. It becomes less intense and I immediately feel greater confidence. As my birthday gets closer, the thought returns but with much less intensity. When it's around I again give it kindness and care.
While this has taken a few paragraphs to describe, the process actually took about 20 seconds. It’s not a logical, problem solving approach. I create a kind, caring space for the thought and feelings I am trying to avoid, and then pay attention. This means I learn something that helps me move on.
Try it. You may be surprised at what you learn if you practice a little kindness and patience. (And lots of people came - it was a great party!)
The English language is impoverished when it comes to the word love. I love my wife, I love my cd collection, and I love a warm croissant for breakfast. Hopefully I mean different things though I am using the same word.
Love is a complicated mixture of feelings and thoughts. It often involves conditions. I love my wife, perhaps as long as she behaves in particular ways. I love my job, as long as I get a pay rise every year. Love can involve envy - I love my next door neighbour's house which is bigger than mine. Love can give a life meaning - since meeting you I have a purpose in life.
So love is often inextricably bound up in me wanting something and then getting it. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, as long as we realise we are giving our love with conditions, and we aim to be aware of what those conditions are and communicate them to the person we feel love for. That way the person doesn't get any nasty surprises further down the track.
A broader way of thinking about love that I've been playing with recently is that love is being open to others. It's being open in a way that I am touched by another's circumstances and I then communicate with the person in a way that let's them know I have been affected by them. For example, my friend tells me he is unhappy with his job. To say to him he'll get over it and change the subject is not love. To give my friend my attention, to allow the emotion behind his words to touch me and for me to say "You sound sad, what's happening?" is love.
Play with this yourself - to be open enough to others to be emotionally touched by their presence and then to show them you care.
It is so important to care for yourself
I am sitting in my car, queuing in a side street waiting to enter a main road. I hear voices and see a man standing beside another car, screaming at the driver who has the driver’s side window up. As he screams, his body shakes with rage. A woman, perhaps his girlfriend, is pleading with him to get back in his own car. Finally the man hits his fist against the car’s wing mirror and it goes flying across the street. He walks unsteadily back to his own car where the woman waits for him.
Road rage - the righteous anger that is looking for a fight. “I am in the right, and I will show you that I am. How dare you…” A definition of insanity is “a state of mind which prevents normal perception, behaviour, or social interaction.” Road rage is like this. What pushes us to insanity when someone changes lanes too quickly or causes us to break more sharply than we would like? I wondered whether in the case of this man it was a whole series of situations over many years where he hasn’t known how best to care for himself and his emotions, nor how best to care for others. Perhaps he has pushed himself for years to succeed without rest. Perhaps he learnt from someone a ‘real man’ settles matters with a fight. Perhaps as a child he saw his father yelling at his mother. There are going to be a whole series of causes and conditions that have brought this to be.
It is so important to nurture ourselves and to take responsibility for looking after our emotions. One moment of rage can potentially bring so much destruction. Nurturing ourselves is something we can begin immediately. It might be getting home a bit earlier than usual so we have time to play with our kids. It might be taking time to prepare a healthy delicious meal. It might be going for a swim. It might be taking time to talk with the people we love. Begin it now rather than waiting till we damage ourselves or others.
Working with Anger
“I am mostly a pretty calm person – get on well with others. But at times I just suddenly lose it with friends and family – sometimes over the smallest thing. Not sure what’s going on - any suggestions how I might stop it happening?”
“George” from Neutral Bay
First thing to say is that there is nothing wrong with you, George. Anger is just one of the range of emotions we humans experience. We feel emotions all the time – they change moment to moment as we go about our lives.
John Lennon is quoted as saying: “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love.” I think he had some insight. Anger is about protecting ourselves from something – specifically something we fear. We fear we are losing control, so we lash out. We fear someone is getting too close to us, so we push them angrily away. Someone talks to us in a way we don’t like, we fear losing our status, so we tell them to keep quiet.
Just as there is nothing wrong with feeling anger, there is also nothing wrong with feeling fear. But there is a problem if we are being driven by these emotions. Being driven by emotions like these is different to noting what we feeling and then behaving in a way that acknowledges our need to do something.
So, George, I have two suggestions for you. First, ask yourself the question “When I get angry, what is the fear that is underneath it?” Try writing down your thoughts about it. Second, consider what your words and actions would be if when you feel your anger/fear you also feel love. By this I mean can you say “No” or “Stop” to someone while not putting the person out of your heart. Can you both protect yourself AND acknowledge your connection with the person and their humanity. We all want to be loved.
“I have had a fantastic holiday – spending time with my kids, plus doing things for me. I really don’t want to go back to work and get stressed. The job’s ok, but the stress isn’t!… Suggestions??”
‘Noel’ from Beauty Point
As the end of the year came round I was thinking about all the things I needed to do. Plus there were thoughts like “Hang on, I was going to achieve that this year – how come I never got around to it?” I felt crowded in by my thoughts - lots of mental drama.
Then I came to Christmas and holidays, and all that drama began to lessen - I felt my mind getting more spacious. I enjoyed not having to rush.
Now, like you Noel, I am looking towards the first months of 2013, and thinking “I don’t want to lose that sense of inner space,” but at the same time also thinking “Ah, but there’s always lots to do, so it’s inevitable that I will lose it…”
But is it inevitable?
What if I resist it. What if I say to myself – “that feeling of space, I felt that in my mind and body. I created that feeling. So perhaps I can keep that feeling around.”
So my suggestion, Noel, is to notice the feeling of space you created inside of yourself while being on holidays, and then as you begin work, feel in to how you behave from that place of internal space. Do you rush, or do you walk and notice your surroundings? Do you do three things at once, or do you do one thing at a time? Keep asking yourself "if I act from that feeling of internal space, how do I behave?" This doesn't mean ignoring your responsibilities. It means meeting your responsibilities from a relaxed mind, rather than from anxiety and stress.
It will be a challenge, and it will take practice. But not only might it mean you stay more relaxed at work, it may also mean you are more productive.
Helpful & Un-Helpful Habits
These experiences are not only more real than the worry about something that happened in the past or might happen in the future, they also help us to relax, feel refreshed and concentrate more easily.
As I write this I am on King Island, between Tasmania and mainland Australia. The house I am staying in is on 250 ha, with views across forest and farmland to the sea. There is not another house in sight. It's very relaxing. And yet, for no particular reason, there are times I feel anxious.
So what's this about? It involves habits. Habits are what we get into after doing something repetitively. Habits can be really helpful - like the habit of eating well or the habit of exercising. Other habits can be unhelpful - like the habit of watching hours of TV every night or the habit of sitting slumped over a computer.
Having stripped away so much of my usual busy life for the past few days I am left noticing my habit for anxiety.
The technique I am playing with is to keep reminding myself to move my awareness out of the anxiety. For example, I keep awareness in my body as I move or sit, I give my attention to the beauty of my surroundings, and I sometimes use words I say silently to myself as I breathe in and out. For example, the word 'calm' on the in-breath and 'release' on the out-breath; or 'body' on the in-breath and 'ease' on the out-breath. It's a matter of creating a habit, giving the mind something to spend time instead of anxiety. And I find it makes a difference. If you at times find yourself in an emotion you don't find helpful, you might like to try this. You can create your own words - a word for the in-breath and a word for the out-breath. Play with it and see what works for you.
It's about creating a new habit.
Welcome to the new website!
But towards the end of last year I wanted to find new ways to communicate with the people who come to my site. So I asked Antonia Grimard of AOK Creative to design me a whole new website, and my good friend Mark Virtue of Virtual Creations to build it for me.
I am very happy with the result. Thank you Antonia and Mark!
There is a newsletter once a month that you can subscribe to, regular blog updates called Latest News that you will find listed on the home page (you're reading one of those now) and regular video updates where I describe in more detail the work that I do and discuss the emerging new ideas in the areas of Mindfulness, Wellbeing, Coaching and Counselling.
In the videos I also discuss effective methods for facilitating a healthy organisational culture based on individual wellbeing and dynamic group interactions - both are needed.
I hope you enjoy my new website, and I very much welcome your feedback.
Recently I went to a meeting organised by Kate Walker, Managing Director at Human (Advertising and Marketing) and Founder of Conscious Capitalism Australia.
Conscious Capitalism has been active in the USA for some years, but has only recently made its presence felt in Australia. The book that began the movement was Firms of Endearment published in 2007 by Rajendra Sisodia, David Wolfe, and Jagdish Sheth. Building companies that people love to do business with, that stand for something bigger than themselves, and that aim to leave the world a better place perform a lot better on the bottom line than companies that ignore this.
The four pillars of Conscious Capitalism are
A Higher Purpose that transcends profit maximisation (this idea is also found in Dan Pink's book Drive)
Stakeholder Orientation, meaning businesses are explicitly managed for the simultaneous benefit of all of their interdependent stakeholders - customers, employees, investors, suppliers, and the larger community.
Conscious Leadership, which is of service to the firm's purpose and focuses on delivering value to all the stakeholders.
Conscious Culture, which consists of Trust, Authenticity, Caring, Transparency, Integrity, Learning and Empowerment
Capitalism as a system of organising society isn't going away, and pointing the finger at big business and saying how evil it is isn't going to change anything. So what I like about this movment is that it is working with existing structures and saying "we can do this better." In fact, it's saying the activity of capitalism, if carried out with awareness of its effects on all who participate in it, can be a force for great good in the world.
Talking about Change
I'm a tidier person than my partner which means I end up cleaning up after him. I am not a clean freak. I just don't think a drill sitting with drill bits on the kitchen bench for weeks is such a great look. Several years down the track and I believe my partner thinks little fairies come along and put things away. Of course, the effort to keep the place tidy is frustrating me.
How do I stop this cycle and get him to tidy as he goes?
'Joanne' from Mosman
People dislike being asked to change, and usually resist it. So I suggest rather than your starting point being one that hasn’t worked – that you want to change your partner (“get him to tidy as he goes”) – I suggest you start with looking at how you communicate with your partner and thus help him understand the impact of his behaviour on you. In the excellent book “Crucial Conversations” (by Patterson, Grenny, McWillian and Switzler) it suggests you start with the assumption that people are reasonable, rational and decent. Starting from this place means I can’t assume the other person is being just plane stubborn or stupid, and wants to make my life difficult. It challenges me to stand in the other person’s shoes. This is hard. But the effort brings rewards.
Seeing the situation from your partner’s point of view – a person who is reasonable, rational and decent – you may well start to understand that he might be seeing things quite differently to you. Perhaps he enjoys you tidying up after him, and interprets it as one of the ways you care for him. Perhaps he believes you really don’t mind doing it – even though you say you do.
Once you begin to see things from his viewpoint, you will have a much better opportunity to help your partner understand things from your viewpoint. You need to keep the communication clear. Be specific about what his behaviour is, how you interpret it, how it makes you feel, and that you need to discuss it. “When I see you leaving your stuff around the house, I interpret this to mean you don’t care about the amount of work I have to do, and it makes me feel frustrated. I want to talk to you about this.” He will begin by having a different viewpoint, but using this type of communication it becomes clear both of you are describing how you see it and how you feel about it, and neither of you have a monopoly on the truth. Sometimes these sorts of conversations need the support of a trained counsellor, but the aim of the conversation is for you both to understand it from the other’s point of view. And from that place, real compromise can become possible. Compromise from two reasonable, rational and decent people.
The importance of rest
“I am constantly exhausted trying to get everything done. I never get time to stop. What can I do?”
'Norman' from Mosman
We seem to have forgotten the art of stopping.
It’s not something talked about much. We see on television images of people who are always on the go. Advertisements tell us to work hard and play hard, and if pain gets in the way, take a pill so you don’t feel it any more and keep going!
But stopping is the way we re-energise our bodies and re-calibrate our thinking. Sleeping is the most obvious way of stopping. Research suggests we are sleeping less and less. Recently in The Australian newspaper it was reported that children are sleeping about an hour less than they were a hundred years ago. The US National Sleep Foundation suggests between 7 and 8 hours sleep a night is about right for adults. Getting significantly less than that can lead to diabetes, obesity, hypertension and early death. A good reason to drink up your cocoa and slip between the sheets.
But sleeping is not the only way of stopping. Stopping can also be about pausing during the day’s bustle of activity. Try stopping and just breathe. Stop to feel your breath coming and going. Allow your mind and body to rest into each breath. Then take a moment to look about you. Have you noticed the tree outside your window lately? Have you seen the way its leaves turn in the breeze? Have you looked and smiled at your partner today? We can walk into a garden and notice the weeds, or we can notice a beautiful flower. Take a moment - stop, breathe, rest into your body, and appreciate the little bits of beauty in your life. You might find it refreshing, and you might discover that whatever it is you’re hurrying to complete need not get in the way of taking a moment to breathe and simply to enjoy being alive.
What is Mindfulness?
“Hi Stephen – really like the articles! I have a question. I have heard the word mindfulness used quite a bit by friends and on tv – I think it’s something to do with not thinking too much. Can you write something about it?”
‘Sarah’ from Neutral Bay.
The word ‘mindfulness’ is being used more and more, and the use of mindfulness is being increasingly recommended as a way to deal more effectively with conditions ranging from pain relief to depression.
I have been writing about aspects of mindfulness in the last two issues of the Villager. I have written about dealing with feeling exhausted from being very busy, and ways of dealing with feeling down or depressed. In both cases I wrote about the importance of just noticing what’s going on for you – not dramatising it, not even complaining about it – just noticing it. If you are tired, just notice what that feels like. Perhaps you feel a heaviness under your eyes, or a fuzziness in your thinking. Or perhaps you feel annoyed with yourself for not getting to bed earlier last night. If you feel sad or down, simply notice what the sensations are of that. Perhaps it is a feeling of heaviness in the chest; or a general feeling of weight on your shoulders. Again, rather than wishing these feelings weren’t there, just notice them, and be kind to them.
Mindfulness works through this process of non-judging, kind awareness. We appreciate whatever is going on for us, rather than fighting it. This doesn’t mean we don’t act in ways that will better a situation or stop something bad from happening. But it does mean we don’t get lost in the drama of the situation. When people come to see me for counselling I will often begin working with them like this. The person and I sit together and talk about what’s going on – just accepting that this is the way things are right now. Through seeing with clarity and kindness, we can start to build a way forward based on understanding and a more peaceful mind.
The Power of Yes
The power of yes
When I first wanted to leave my job at University it was very disconcerting because I didn’t know what I wanted to do instead. Because the wish for change didn’t go away I decided I needed to start moving towards what attracted me – I needed to find my yes. So I spent time making lists of what I enjoyed doing, I talked with my friends, I started working with a career coach. And I decided what attracted me was talking with people about stuff that mattered to them. At university I enjoyed talking with students about what they wanted to do after they graduated. In the meditation classes I led I enjoyed talking with people about the challenging situations they faced in their life. So I studied counselling, and here I am, doing a job I love!
So when you find yourself saying no to something, also consider what you want to say yes to.
Here are some tips:
The process of finding yes is a combination of head and heart. We need heart because if we are really going to put energy into something we need passion and commitment to make it work. We need head because we need to weigh up practicalities and take calculated risks. Basing a yes on just one of these has a high chance of failure.
Talk with people you trust – friends, family, a career coach. Hearing yourself talk about your yes coupled with listening to others’ supportive feedback can be a powerful combination.
If your yes is about career direction, it is vital to get your resume in order and to network. Simply sitting in front of a computer and searching career websites is death to a job search.
Good luck in finding your yes!
Thoughts on Death & Dying
Rather than answer a reader’s question this month, I want to write about a couple of experiences I have had recently that have helped me to see life and myself a bit differently.
A few weeks ago a friend died. She had a brain tumour. She died having made her peace with the world. There were still some relationships in her life that were difficult, but there came a point where she let go of wanting everything to be right, where her wishing for things to be different lessened, and she smiled to see me and we sat in silence together.
And just a few days ago a family member died. He had been ill for a few months, and he knew he was dying. He spoke to nearly everyone he wanted to speak to, told them he loved them, spent time sharing stories, and died peacefully at home.
In both cases I sat with the body for a time. I felt and thought many things – but three stand out for me.
One is do I really know I will die? I have been reflecting that, yes, I know theoretically I will die, but do I really know it? In the same way I know that winter will give way to spring and a flower will bloom and then change to seed?
Something else I noticed was the complete mystery of death for me. I don’t mean this in a negative sense, but more how wondrous it is that a person comes into life and some time later leaves it. How amazing!
And I noticed the beautiful ways people support each other around death. The warmth and nourishment of love and appreciation.
So I offer these observations with the wish you might stop for a moment and reflect on what it means for you to be alive. What sort of life do you want to look back on when you are dying? What might you do now that contributes to that life? What do you feel gratitude for? And perhaps take a moment to reflect on how amazing it is that you are alive, right now.
Caring for your sadness
“I’m feeling down most of the time. I try to ‘put on a happy face,’ but it’s really not how I feel. What do you advise?”
‘John’ (from Mosman).
“Smile for the camera!” We are so often told that our only acceptable face to show the world is one where we are looking happy. But sometimes we just don’t feel like life is going our way – we have some misfortune, or just the daily grind starts to ware us down. Or perhaps someone we love leaves us, or is ill. These are reasons not to feel happy.
Whatever your reasons are, John, the first thing I would say is there is nothing wrong with you. Feeling sad is a perfectly normal part of the range of human emotions. So there’s nothing wrong with sadness. The matter becomes how we look after our sadness.
There is a wonderful book called ‘Care of the Soul’ by Thomas Moore. In it he writes how our soulful moments are expressed in our emotions – “The soul presents itself in a variety of colours, including all the shades of grey, blue and black. To care for the soul we must observe the full range of all its colourings, and resist the temptation to approve only of white, red and orange – the brilliant colours.” So sadness is to be listened to with just as much care as our happiness - its nuances noticed, it’s textures felt. Caring for our sadness may also involve seeking out the assistance of someone trained in the language and care of emotions – a sensitive counsellor, psychotherapist, psychologist. Someone trained in such a way that they are respectful of your feelings, and not too ready to try to ‘fix’ and ‘bring back the happy face.’ It may be that there is much to learn from listening with gentleness and care to our less bright emotions.
Finding motivation at work
"My question is more professional than personal. I manage a Financial Services team, based in the city, and am having great difficulties motivating them. We have experienced a lot of change and restructures, and I don’t blame them for feeling tired. But we still have a lot to do! Any ideas?"
‘George’ from Mosman
Thanks for this slightly different question George. Apart from working with individuals I do also work with groups from various businesses.
In a book called ‘Drive’ Daniel Pink summarises research from behavioural psychology on motivation and engagement. He finds the usual model of how to motivate people– reward and punishment, often called the ‘carrot and stick’ approach – just doesn’t work. In fact he finds carrot and stick approaches actually de-motivate.
What he does find, from psychology research and from looking at companies that are doing really well, is that for team members to perform well they need autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Autonomy is about having control over what we do, who we do it with and when we do it. Obviously there will be limits to this, but a manager can allow some flexibility around which project I work on, they can allow me to work with co-workers I enjoy working with, and if I get my work done by arriving and leaving early, why not ? Companies that do this, that remove some of the controls and trust their employees to do the right thing, have been pleasantly surprised – output goes up!
Mastery is about the enjoyment and satisfaction of gradually getting better at something and Purpose is the sense that the work we are involved in is part of something big and grand. We like to do good work, and if we feel it is making the world a better place, we just want to get on with it!
So George, if you can introduce more Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in your workplace, things will look up!
"I like being in control. My wife calls me a control freak, and tells me I’d be happier and easier to get on with if I let go a bit. But control is good– it’s certainly better than being out of control! What do you think?"
‘Mike’ from Neutral Bay
Being in control can certainly feel good – and the benefits of being in control is on show at the London Olympics. The control of a gymnast on the horizontal bar or beam is amazing!
But let’s consider a bit more what goes in to this level of ability. A gymnast must have not only immense control, this control needs to be in rapid response to what they feel is happening moment-to-moment. If a gymnast on the beam feels themselves moving too much to one side, they need to compensate immediately by bringing themselves back to centre.
I think this is similar to how we can best control ourselves and what goes on around us. Control that isn’t responsive is rigid. If a gymnast on the beam is rigid, they will fall off!
So what does responsive control look like?
Watch any great athlete. There is strength, but also fluidity and gracefulness. They are very aware of their environment, moving in a way that minimises injury.
So, in the way you exercise control in your self, your family and your life, are you responsive to the needs of others? When a difficulty arises, do you flow around it gracefully, or crash into it? Does your control cause you stress which can lead to injury?
This way of understanding control means you keep your balance – adjusting as the situation requires, and also not falling off. Taking note of what is happening around you, and gracefully responding to it.
And just like an athlete, this sort of control requires practice so it is balanced without rigidity.
Is your control balanced and graceful or rigid and stressful?
Caring for someone you love who is in difficulty
"Hoping you can assist me with advice. I am a mother of a son in his late 30s who is troubled in his relationship. He is with a girlfriend who is extremely jealous and possessive. I have told him a relationship is not meant to be this way!"
'Elizabeth' - Neutral Bay
There seems to me to be two main parts to this predicament - your concern for your son, and the difficulties between him and his girlfriend. I'll talk to these two parts separately.
We all want the people we love to be happy. We especially want the best for our children. It is painful to see those we love in situations where they are suffering. We can offer them advice, we can point out what we see happening, but we cannot save them from the themselves. It's the way I think of compassion - I can empathise with my good friend's unhappiness, and I can be there for them to listen to them talk and I can give them space to be however they need to be. But if I end up in the dark place with them, suffering with them, I can't be a resource for them. It's a bit like if I come across someone who's fallen down a well and can't get out. If I get into the well with them, then we are both stuck. And they might not want me there! Much better for me to stay out of the well, throw them a rope, and if they choose to grab it, help pull them out. We do what we can to offer assistance - and what the other person does with that is their personal responsibility. (I'm excluding here situations of possible self harm, where it can be appropriate to prevent a person from acting on it.)
Now to jealousy and possessiveness. They are the backdrop to so many dramas - novels, movies, and the predicaments that happen in real life. These emotions can come from a feeling I am not enough. I'm not enough, not compete, without you. 'Us' and 'Me' become almost the same thing. And if I am only complete when you are with me, then I'm not only scared of losing your companionship, I am also scared of losing 'me' if you leave. That can be terrifying. In psychology, this is called a co-dependent relationship. Because people in co-dependent relationships are very fearful, they can sometimes behave in extreme ways.
Ideally, we all know we are good enough as we are. We enjoy each other's company, and give each other space. It's always a matter of balance.
"My older sister and I have been in a ‘stand-off’ for months now. I could just apologise, as some friends have suggested, but don’t see why I should. What do you think about apologising, even if you feel you have nothing to apologise for?"
‘Sue’ - Mosman
For me, apologies start with empathy. If I can empathise with the other person, I can start to see the world through their eyes, and from there I can start to get a glimpse of what they are feeling and thinking. And perhaps I can start to see how they see me.
But then another voice comes in to my head. And that voice says “Yes, but how unreasonable! Any sane person would see that I didn’t really mean it! I was just joking around – and they took me seriously?! They should be apologising to me for being so sensitive!” Or some variation on this that fits the circumstances.
So what do I do? I might, as your question suggests, think to myself that even though I believe they are being unreasonable and I’m in the right, I’ll apologise anyway and hope that makes it go away. But that’s a high risk strategy. The other person might sense I am not being sincere, and that will make it worse. Plus I’m not acting in a way that feels right to me, and that might keep me awake at night.
Or, I can take both sides. By that I mean I can empathise with the other person, imagining what they are feeling and thinking, and also take seriously my own thoughts and feelings. A conversation where I take both sides might start with “Look, I can see why what I said could have upset you. And I’m sorry for upsetting you. And I also feel you misunderstood what I was saying, and I really don’t understand why you took it so hard. Can you tell me what happened from your point of view?”
So the conversation is no longer simply about me apologising or not, it’s about me talking with the other person to find out more about them, and for me to tell them more about me. It’s about explaining and listening. And apologising when it feels right.
It’s hard work. And it’s what rebuilds damaged relationships.
"I have been in the same company for almost 30 years. The company is now undergoing a restructure and they are moving me not only to a new location but also away from the team I have been working with for 15 years. My commuter time will go from 20 to 30 minutes each way to almost 2 hours. And I will be expected to sit at my desk at a computer all day, whereas I now spend half my time out and about on site.
I like my job - particularly the fact that I am outside for at least half the week. I don’t want a desk job and I don’t know what to do."
'Philip' from Cammeray
In a workshop I regularly run called 'Constructive Conversations' I talk about the importance of building a balance between empathy and boundaries. Empathy is our ability to stand in the other's shoes - to feel what they feel, to imagine what they might be thinking, to respect them. We all have an innate ability to empathise like this. Boundaries on the other hand we need to learn. To have healthy boundaries means we value our needs and wants, and we quickly notice when we are not being respected. We speak up when we feel a line has been crossed - we are not afraid to say 'no'.
Empathy with boundaries shows itself in our ability to balance getting our own needs met, and fitting in with others.
Philip, perhaps you are good at standing in others' shoes and respecting their needs. But I wonder how often you say 'no'? How often have you said to someone 'I would like it to be like this, and if it is like that then that's not ok with me'? You can say this without picking a fight - it's you asserting your boundaries and telling someone how you see it.
Saying clearly how you see a situation is very powerful. Asserting boundaries like this lets people know everything is not ok, and gives them the opportunity to help. If you speak up strongly enough to people who have an ability to make a difference in your organisation, you might find someone helps you. Or the other person might simply reassert their own boundary - yes, I see you don't like it, but this is the way it's going to be. Then it becomes a question of how important this boundary is for you. Your question says you really don't want to go along with the change. So it becomes a question of courage - courage to know and act on your boundaries. Asserting this boundary may mean leaving the organisation. That requires the courage of facing the unknown, and skills in building new opportunities.
Dealing with strong emotions
“Hi Stephen. In our lives there are daily ups and downs and a spiral of emotions. How do we ‘equalise’ and put calm back into everyday life?”
‘Duncan’ from Cremorne.
As a counsellor I help people relate better to the inevitable ups and downs they experience, and not allow the dramas of their lives to get so big. However, ups and downs are an inevitable part of being alive. There are always going to be some things that work out for us, and we’ll enjoy that. Then other things don’t work out, and we dislike it when things go wrong.
But sometimes it feels like you are being pushed around by your emotions, and the “spiral of emotions” as you put it feels like it’s getting the better of you. You feel tired from coping with the emotional rollercoaster. At these moments, I recommend you do two things.
The first is to draw your attention away from whatever it is that is creating the spiral of emotions. Keeping your attention on drama fuels the drama. I don’t mean ignore what the issue is, or simply distract yourself with other activities. I mean take time out in a way that allows your body and mind to rest. For example, take a walk in a park, and really concentrate on just walking. Feel your feet touching the earth, the breeze against your skin. Or take time to drink a cup of coffee. Really smell the coffee, feel the heat of the cup in your hands, taste the coffee, and feel the heat of the coffee as you swallow. Or perhaps you only have time for a few breaths. Really feel the breath coming and going, the lungs expanding and contracting, as you let go the tension in your body.
Second, remember you are more than whatever the issue is. You are so much more. At times we can almost believe we are that problem or set of problems that are in front of us. It’s a bit like going into a garden, and because you look only at the weeds, you miss the beautiful large gum tree. Remember you, right now, are so much more than the issue you are concerned about.
These two practices can help ‘equalise’ your day and bring more calm into your life.
Why see a counsellor?
“Dear Stephen. I’d like my life to work more easily, but worry that it seems a little self indulgent to pay someone to sit and listen to my fairly minor problems? Do you ever feel like telling someone to just pick themselves up and get on with it? Should I just talk it through with my friends over a glass of wine? What’s different about a counsellor?”
‘Nancy’ from Mosman.
A great question, Nancy. If you are troubled by an issue, even if you think the issue is minor, the fact remains you are troubled by it. Believing that you shouldn’t be won’t make it go away. And if I were to tell you to “just pick yourself up and get on with it” it wouldn’t work. Why? Because it’s not dealing with the reality of your unhappiness and it doesn’t address your ways of thinking, feeling and acting that have contributed to creating your unhappiness in the first place.
In counselling there is an understanding that we benefit from taking healthy responsibility for the ways we think, feel and act. We are not victims. By healthy responsibility I mean doing the work of compassionately understanding our own role in creating the circumstances of our life plus how we feel about the circumstances of our life. Do we see the part we played in the ending of a relationship? And do we see we can learn from the experience and change, rather than simply feeling angry or sad? The 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” We learn to exercise choice over how we respond and act.
When we talk through a problem with friends and family, it may be we are simply given advice (which we’ve heard before), or we leave feeling we haven’t really been understood. In counselling, my aim is to help you develop insight into your thinking, feelings and actions, take healthy responsibility for them, learn from the past rather than repeat it, and move forward with greater freedom, courage and happiness. Is it self indulgent to want to feel more happy, courageous and free? I don’t think so.
What does a Counsellor do?
“I am thinking of seeing a counsellor – there are some issues in my life I want to sort out. But I’m not sure what a counsellor actually does. Can you say something about it?”
‘George’ from Mosman.
Thanks for your question George. When I sit down with a person who has come to see me for counselling, I invite them to begin by simply talking about why it is they’ve come to see me. The person might have issues with a partner or a family member, issues around feeling unhappy or depressed or anxious, or perhaps life just isn’t working out the way they would like it to. As I sit and listen carefully, mindfully, I aim to accept the person just as they are right now, not judging in any way what they are telling me. It’s their story, and it deserves to be listened to with respect and compassion. The person gets to talk about issues that perhaps they have never really talked about before. As we talk, and as I ask questions, so it starts to become clear what ways of being and acting in the world aren’t working for them, and what ways of being and acting are working. In this way, the person I am working with gets to know themselves better. And, as our discussions continue, to like themselves better.
Sometimes I work with people who have no particularly big problem – they just want their life to work more easily. Talking with a counsellor, who is trained to pick up on the important points in what is being said, is a great support. These sorts of conversations help you move through life with greater clarity and happiness. As your counsellor, I am absolutely on your side!
During counselling conversations you start to find the answers to your questions yourself. Counselling is not about the counsellor suggesting a whole lot of solutions. My task is to help you understand better what is going on in your life so you can make better decisions that empower you and help you create a life you really want to live.
So I hope that gives you some idea as to what a counsellor does. I offer the first 1 hour session free, so if you would like to experience what I do, please do contact me via my website for a free session. You can also read more about my counselling practice, as well as the other things I do, on my website.