(image from Pixabay)
It is clear - we live in a world where we focus entirely on ourselves. Is it the narcissistic age? Is it the decade(s) of intense navel gazing? Is it the "me me me" era? We are told constantly that celebrity is King and that the only worthwhile entertainment is so-called reality tv (so-called as it in no way represents real reality), and advertisers show us that we are imperfect and that it is only with their product or service that we can achieve perfection. The current aim of the game is go "viral" - even if that means the drive to do good things is driven by the rather selfish need to be lauded in some way for your compassion, kindness, and virtue, as noted by W. Keith Campbell. In the world of celebrity and tv, a certain level of narcissism is to be expected, but what worries me, the reason that I felt compelled to write this article, especially in light of my #2017characterchallenge Compassion month, is that this intense self focus is becoming a huge part of the wellbeing movement. This does not sit well with me, and hasn't for awhile.
The constant advice out there is "you have to look after yourself first," the ol' "you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help others," and too a certain extent I agree. Only to a certain extent.
I have felt uncomfortable for a long at the extent to how much we take the "look after yourself first" mantra. It kind of stemmed from a conversation I had with a friend about a year ago. My friend is Christian and his feelings on the extreme inward looking approach of current wellbeing beliefs were very much against. He felt that it was in looking outward and helping others, in easing another person's suffering that we... find our purpose in life.
Is this not what compassion is? The observation and empathising with another's suffering. And should this not be what we focus on? A selfless approach to life, where even the desire to help other's is not of benefit to yourself, but your focus is to serve others. This is not the way that it stands in wellbeing circles, and even in academic approaches to virtues such as compassion the aim of being compassionate is to bring yourself emotional, psychological, and physical wellbeing.
We have people who fully embrace the spiritual life and become monks, nuns, priests, etc, who embrace complete dedication to others (and God) and complete denial of material and frivolous pleasures; we have people who pursue a more hedonistic approach to wellbeing, the celebrity who spends thousands on "wellbeing" products (and then touts these products to their fans), the Instagram star who makes millions off showing how Yoga and eating clean makes them amazingly perfect...
Is there not a happy medium?
I think what we have to realise is that as we do things for ourselves we have to be doing it for all others as well. To engage in an act of wellbeing, an act of kindness to self, embracing self compassion, we do this with a purpose, we do these acts for our mother and father, our siblings, our friends, our enemies, and even the stranger walking along the footpath, buying coffee at the coffee shop, and driving a little too fast on the road. By looking after ourselves, for others, we come to that middle ground, that path that circles round on itself, an open heart and mind. There is a place for boundaries, but make that boundary a small hedge with pretty flowers that bloom all year round. There is a place for self care, but make it a shared experience, whether that means you meditate on your own, or you go walking in the park with a group of friends. There is also a place for outward looking - without selfish intention - and this can be done at anytime, anywhere.
When you think of compassion most people think of it as an outward virtue, and whilst I believe this should be the true intention of this trait, there is still room for self compassion (as I wrote in this previous blogpost), how has showing self compassion actually been a compassionate act for others? Let me know in the comments.
Please watch this video on Gratitude...
For Joy and for Hope and for Love.
What struck me most about this video, what stopped me in my tracks and made me pause the film and come to write this blog post, was when the narrator spoke about looking at other people's faces. We do not do this enough. To really look; to ponder their story, that stranger's story, a loved one's story... an enemy's story. The highs, the lows, the sweetness and the heartache, the day-to-day life of the other, we never contemplate what is outside of our own experience, and yet we should, and we should be grateful for that opportunity.
We should be grateful for the opportunity to really see people, to ask them about their stories, to listen to their tales, to engage with them at a deeply human level. It is through the listening and the openness that we can see their suffering and their joy, their sadness and tragedies, their lightness and loves, and through these very human experiences identify with them, and ultimately try and ease their suffering and celebrate their happiness.
Compassion has to be filled to the brim with gratefulness. Gratefulness that we get to live this life that we live, no matter the suffering and agonies that we face. If we had no suffering we could not appreciate the good things, the delightful things, the beautiful things. And if we cannot identify with and embrace the suffering of others we cannot see their lightness, their good, their beauty.
This reminds me of a moment, a question I was asked, on Monday whilst speaking at a school near Oxford. Working with school children I get many questions literally asked from "out of the mouthes of babes." The question I was asked was this: "Do you ever wish that you had been born with two arms and two legs?"
I see no judgement in this question, I see no pity; I see curiosity, and I see compassion.
"No I don't. I don't because the life experiences that I have had would not have been possible if I had been born with two arms and two legs. I would not have swum at two Paralympic Games or won any medals, I would not have gotten to travel all over the world as a teenager, I would not have met the awesome people that are my teammates, I would not have gone to university at the time that I did and therefore would've missed out on some beautiful friendships, I would not have come on exchange to Leeds University, and then ultimately moved to Leeds and met all of my wonderful UK "family," I wouldn't be here right now, speaking to you, and finding such joy in the work that I do. I could not give all this up, I am so grateful for this life and I wouldn't change a thing."
Gratitude meets compassion and this creates acceptance and joy.
Embrace it all.
(image from Pixabay)
The sun beat down on our heads as my friend, Natalie, and I dragged some logs over to strategic places around the backyard. Buzzing cicadas and the faint squawk from Cockatoos in the distance did nothing to distract us from our mission. We were building a show jumping arena... we didn't have any really horses to show jump with, but we did have the horses in our imaginations and these horses could be any type of horse that we wanted them to be. The power of the imagination, outside in the sunshine, with your bestie by your side, and some very simple (and free) props that could turn an ordinary backyard into something extraordinary - nothing could be sweeter or more human than this mix of action, relationship building, fun, and play. My horse was a golden Palomino, my favourite horse ever, and together we negotiated the show jumping course with joy, leaping effortlessly over broomsticks and planks of wood. Natalie followed close behind, her horse just as real to her as mine was to me, coming a close second in points (or so I thought, cause you know, in my imagination I was the winner!).
Free, simple, imaginative play. Where has it gone?
Compassion and consumerism seem like strange bed-fellows. One is about recognising that suffering of others and attempting to do something about it, the other is about grasping for more in pursuit of a particular feeling or lifestyle, without any reference to inherent suffering that such "covetous-ness" could cause. The affect that consumerism is having on the world is as far from the very premise of compassion that you can get. So-called "Compassionate Consumerism" is still based on a set of desires to be a certain way, live a certain lifestyle, whilst "helping others less fortunate," even as you, contribute to your own suffering by going into debt or feeling overwhelmed by "stuff." I question whether there is compassionate consumerism, and if there is a possibility for there to be compassionate consumerism, what should it look like?
For me biggest issue with consumerism is the way that advertisers focus on children. It seems every day there is a new "IT" toy that comes out, that every child must have, and the pressure it puts on parents to provide their children with the best is heartbreaking. In this sense, I believe that we have what is best for our children around the wrong way. When I think of my childhood, one spent outdoors using my imagination to create new worlds out nothing or what was available around me, or indoors where I would craft, make houses for my Barbie's out of cardboard boxes, and dance around to music in my bedroom (something I still like to do!). My childhood was filled with visits with friends, engaging in schools activities, and lovely family holidays out "bush." The world was out there ready for me to explore with openness and empathy - even as a child. Life wasn't about stuff (in fact the only time it kind of became about stuff was Christmas time, and even then I knew that I could only limit myself to one BIG present, so I had to pick really carefully what it was that I really wanted), it was about... life. I feel compassion, I feel deep deep wishes that children can engage with their imagination, their friends, and nature, as I did as a child. There is magic in being awake to the simple things in life.
Daniel Goleman speaks about Compassionate Consumerism in his talk - Why aren't we more compassionate? He makes a repeated point (by using examples from psychological experiments, to parables, to anecdotes) that we live in a world where we are becoming more and more self absorbed. And through this self absorption we are missing out on what is happening around us, the moments of joy, but also the moments where we would have the opportunity to show compassion and kindness. If we opened our eyes more to the present - and if we teach our children to value human connection over "things" - we could cultivate more compassionate lives, but also more compassionate consumerism.
As Daniel states, "there are the hidden consequences of shopping" and these consequences are things that we rarely think about. Where did the products we buy originate from? Right down to their disparate parts. Was there suffering involved within any part of the supply chain? Is there ongoing suffering for communities due to the production of this product? Is this product causing us suffering in any way? Is this product causing our children to suffer?
And this is what I want to leave you with - does consumerism contribute to our childrens wellbeing? I think yes.
What can we do about it?
We can approach consumerism from a compassionate and mindful place, really think about the impact buying those toys or clothes will have on your children, on the environment, and on society. Do not buy stuff for ourselves and our children (beyond what is absolutely necessary), have experiences instead, together, and apart (gives you more to talk about around the kitchen table).
What would you do to break the consumerist cycle?
(image from Pixabay)
This week I had a choice - whether to go to a presentation one evening or a meeting the following morning. Of course, I was supposed to go to both, and I really wanted to go to both, but my throat felt like someone had stuck hot pokers in it, and my hacking cough made me sound like a ten pack a day 80 year old - not very professional at all. I have had a cold this week, but I have also had work obligations, and being self employed I can't really take a sick day if I want to keep on being paid. And boy was the guilt and self recriminations wracking up - "just go to both meetings, you're not that sick, really... your colleague has enough on her plate, you should be there with her to help... these are your contacts, how will it look if you don't go." All the while I was coughing into my sleeve, sucking lozenge after lozenge, and taking paracetamol to bring down my temperature.
We have all been there.
Life is life, and each week we book things in, whether for work, social, or personal things, and we intend to fulfil these promises and obligations, but what do we do to ourselves when we suddenly can't do what we said we would do? How do we practice self-compassion within these circumstances? And is there a way to show ourselves self-compassion whilst at the same time compromising with our very busy lives?
All of Monday and most of Tuesday the voice in the back of my head was saying "buck up, just go, you give into illness too easily, your colleagues seem to be able to work through illness, so why can't you?" I struggled with feeling guilty about missing a meeting, I struggled with feeling guilty that if I went to the meeting I wasn't really taking care of myself and giving my body the chance to fight the cold, and I also struggled with the potential guilt of giving my colleague (or others) my cold if I did go to the meeting... so much guilt, so little love and openness. Where does this guilt come from? As a generation, we women in our 30's and 40's feel guilty about more than just having to miss a meeting because of feeling poorly - with so many obligations on our plates, and having grown up in the 80's and 90's (pre-wellbeing/worklife balance focus), mixed with our desire to be "perfect," we feel the pressure to do all, be all, and have all. We are so busy that we fail to realise that if we don't show ourselves some compassion, love, and understanding we stand to lose everything that we have worked so hard for... we hit a little thing called burn out.
This guilt hanging over our heads causes us to miss the bigger picture that is our lives, and to ignore the soft, gentle, maternal voices in our heads that tell us to rest, love, listen, and be gentle.
To bring a little more self compassion into our lives we have to first identify, acknowledge, and then accept that struggles and suffering that we are feeling. Once to see your illness, stress, anxiety, and depression for what it is you then have the space to recognise that you are ALLOWED to slow down, say no, and not feel guilty when you have to reschedule, change, or blow off a business, social, or personal meeting.
Also, recognise that you are not the only one who faces these struggles and suffering... recognise that in fact some people definitely have it worse than you; so I missed a meeting this week to ensure that I am getting over my cold... instead of feeling guilty about it, I feel grateful that I work in a job where I can a day or two if needed without anyone else's permission but my own, that I have a work colleague who understood my predicament, and that I am financially doing okay that missing one meeting isn't going to break the bank. Giving myself some time, space, understanding and love, is just as important as giving these things to others.
So next time you are ill, feeling under pressure, anxious, or depressed, practice some self compassion, and don't feel guilty about looking after yourself, you work best when you're on top form, and how can you be on top form if you are burnt out. Here are some tips on how to practice self compassion - 5 Strategies for Self Compassion.
("Kwan Yin" - Bodhisattva of Compassion - image from pinterest)
(There is a trigger warning for this post, I talk a little about death and cancer - if this is something you can't handle right now I totally get it, and I don't mind at all if you click away from this blog.)
The toughest time in my life ... no, I don't even have the language to fully describe this time in my life, all I can say it was awful, for me and my family, but I am speaking about the time, two years ago, that I lost my mum to cancer. I don't think it is something I can talk about fully yet, or even think about in deepest detail, because when I do think about it my thoughts instantly go to "was mum in pain?" "was mum scared?" "was mum sad?" ... but something that has opened up lately, and that I have spoken to people about regarding that time, has been about the nurses and the compassion that they showed for my mum.
I remember walking up to mum's hospital room - I had just gotten off a 24 hour international flight, I felt numb, and all I remember smelling were those hospital smells, antiseptic, hand wash, stale food, and bleach. But walking into mum's room all I could smell were roses, but there were no roses there, just mum, and a few of her belongings on her bedside table. She lay so still and quiet, I grasped her hand and then I realised, the roses I could smell was her hand cream. Her hands felt so smooth and soft, and after a lifetime of hearing her complain about her cracked and dry hands, it was lovely to know that even in her illness, her hands were at least looked after. My sister then told me that each day a nurse would come in and take some of mum's hand cream, warm it in her hands, and then massage mum's hands and and feet.
To witness compassion is to bear witness to humanity. To see someone acknowledge that another suffers, and within their understanding and power to do what eases said suffering. A simple act (such as the nurse that massaged my mum's hands and feet) that adds dignity, respect, and love, to a person's suffering is the ultimate act of compassion; each moment of your waking day you can show simple compassion, to others, yourself, animals, or plants.
Bearing witness to compassion can be uplifting and it can bring tears to your eyes, as that sense of shared humanity resonates through our very hearts, values, and virtues. It is through bearing witness to compassion that we can be moved to be compassionate ourselves, and so I direct you to this TED talk by Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax - where she talks about compassion within the context of illness and death, and how through seeing (and feeling) the very bitter, beautiful, and sad end of life, we can come to see our own suffering, be present with suffering, and aim to ease suffering.
One pertinent thing that came out of Joan's talk for me was when she says to be truly compassionate "we cannot attach to the outcome." To be compassionate is to be present to suffering right now. The nurses that nursed my mum, that massaged her hands and feet right up until her last few hours, they did what they did from the heart of compassion, they knew that her death was inevitable, but that does not mean her humanity was any less.
What compassionate moment have you witnessed?
"Your Determination is Limitless"
- Elizabeth Wright