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Habit 4: Be willing to spend time alone or in silence

The willingness to spend time alone. T. S Elliot once said that we live in a world where we are “distracted from distraction by distraction” If that was true in the 1920s how much more so now! The whole poem is well worth reading and was one of my first spiritual lessons when I read it as a student. To read it click here
If we live in a world where the television set, the radio, our computers, ‘phones and gadgets fill the horror of the silent moment so well that we even forget what it is like to experience silence and the slight fear of not having every moment occupied by distraction any activity that brings us back to stillness and silence offers a chance to reconnect with the mystery that is present in silence: our sense of  curiosity as we stand small and alone in the silence of the night sky, or sit quietly in meditation, or climb a mountain or walk along the beach or through a wood. In the silence we have an opportunity to touch the mystery and as we do so to get a sense that we are more than our worries, or limited bodies, our thoughts and fears: we are life living itself, the universe made self aware.
Consider how much you might fill your life with noise and distraction. How easy it is to turn on the radio or television set the moment one comes home, or start music playing.  These all offer an opportunity to nourish us through informing, entertaining and delighting us so are not to be scorned, but Buddhism encourages the middle way between asceticism and excess. What is one’s own individual middle way in these things whereby one can have times of silence and wonder in one’s life?
The Monday class offers a chance of this – the 15 minutes of unguided mindfulness providing for some a space in the week which may be a unique experience, sitting quietly with up to 44 other men in stillness and silence.
Another traditional means for making time for this is through retreats.

Habit 3: Feed your passions and talents

It can be easy to get into a mode where one feels more as if one is enduring life rather than enjoying it as an adventure: work,commitments, chores, the drudgery of life all seem to have taken the place of that joy one felt as a child to explore, learn, and find ways to experience one’s passions.
It’s said the people who are happiest are those who turned what they loved doing as a child into the work they now do. I know a few people who have done this: a garden designer who looked after the school greenhouse and a drama teacher who used to make puppet shows as a child.  I used to stand in my garden at nights a 10 year old looking at the stars wondering if I would ever understand the mystery that seemed all around in the dark of the night and the enormity of space. This was the early impulse towards my later explorations of Buddhism through community living and monastic training and my work now. Not all of us necessarily carry a passion from childhood into our adult career but thinking back though we can remember what it was like to have something we loved doing that we could spend the day or even the holidays absorbed in. What hobby did you once enjoy that you may have forgotten to give time to?
One of the ways we can deal with a busy work life is to start cutting out the things that seem extraneous in the hope that if we focus on the task and get it done we can then return later to our other leisure activities.  But the result is that we can start to live a life where there is little that is nourishing and our focus gets pulled increasingly towards work deadlines and commitments, just as  a black hole sucks in everything in its grasp.
When reflecting on this we can start to look at ways to bring these nourishing activities back into our life. What did we once find enjoyable that we may no longer do? When I think of my childhood and teens there were many such things: reading, going on long walks and cycle rides with my step sister or paddling in the river and making a dam, spending the day in a boat on the river or with a friend tidying the church yard and talking about life, the universe and everything or singing in the chorus of the village Gilbert and Sullivan society! I used to get so much pleasure from what I called my museum, which was a collection of pottery shards, pipes and old bottles I found on walks and going to the young archeologists club in Cambridge. When I compare this to my life now I realise how busy it has become and how much less time there seems!
This lack of time for things is partly the change from being a child to an adult: I now have to shop, buy food, have meetings, work etc.  But how can one reconnect with that ability one once had to make time for the simple things, the things that give joy and are not just about surviving? Some of you may still do this naturally, making time to go to choirs, or clubs that relate to interests you have; going out for walks or to talks and debates or concerts or films, having a hobby and enjoying making time for it. But for those of us who may not be doing this, as we enter 2015 this may be a time to look back at what we once found pleasure doing and ask how we can make time for this, in a simple way, every day. This might be a case of changing our routine – walking home through the park rather than rushing to get home to do some tasks or other activities that don’t in themselves give any sense of fulfilment. Or taking a book with us to read on the tube rather than the free paper; starting to carry a sketch book with us again as we may have done when studying art and feeding that joy even if we didn’t turn out to be the next big ground shaking artist! Or giving an evening a week to attend a club or activity we once enjoyed.
To start this process think back to your childhood and teens.  What were your joys, passions and talents. What did you want to be doing? And how might you connect with this now as an adult? Consider also what you are doing in your life now. Can you see that your work or other activities does in fact give expression to following a passion although it may have started to seem like a chore?  And if so how can you reconnect with the passion and feel that joy to be doing something you value?
We’ll reflect on this after the tea break this Monday and there will be a chance to explore it in the Loving Kindness practice. The following give some useful pointers for reflection on this topic.

Habit 2: Choose responsibility over blame

It’s easy to want to find others to blame when we are not happy or feel something has gone wrong and it may be that we can look at our partner and see their faults and think we would be happy if only they would change! But the only way we can truly have a sense of empowerment is when we take responsibility for how we feel and how we respond to that feeling. If one is feeling annoyed at something another is doing it is easy to feel that they are the fault.  But if we are in part feeling upset because we are not articulating how we feel we need to accept our part of this dynamic.

I’ve found in the past I’ve felt unhappy with a situation but it has then been my inability to articulate my feelings and needs that has caused a growing annoyance with the other person. The real answer to this wasn’t for the other person to become a mind reader or alter their personality but for me to start articulating what I was feeling.  As I feared arguments I tended to hold back but the result was I would then get annoyed over a trivial thing which then didn’t make any sense to the other person, whereas talking about the real issues would have.

As I learn to take responsibility for what I feel I realise that it’s not the job of another to make me feel in any way.  If they are behaving in a way I do not like I have a choice to allow it, to say how I am experiencing it or cut off contact from that person. Consequently, avoiding blame does not mean one becomes passive: rather one makes a more active choice in how to interact, knowing that it is always one’s own responsibility to express how one feels but not with the wish to blame the other but instead to create an opportunity for communication, the chance to resolve the dispute, or if it is not possible to do this decide how to move on and if necessary create distance form the person if that is what one needs to feel safe.

A book that was influential on my learning was Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. In it he emphasises that when we speak about how we feel we need to own our experience through what we say. His way of phrasing it is to:

  • observe in a neutral way the other persons behaviour: “Just now when you shouted...”
  • say what you feel: “I felt scared...” Notice it is not “you make me feel”, as the same behaviour might have a different impact on someone else, but we are expressing how it impacts on us.
  • Express what you need: “because I need to feel safe...”
  • Make a request for action: “ please talk without raising your voice.”

The question is thus not who should I blame but what do I need now in order to move on or engage with the situation.  Years ago when I was mugged for the one and only time in my 9 years living in London it was NVC that saved me form more harm. The man had hit me to the ground and was on top of me and was about to hit me again in the face. I simply looked him in the eyes and said ” I’m scared, please don’t hit me” It wasn’t perfect NVC but it worked. He calmed down and was almost gentle as he softly said “Its Ok, all I want is your money. It’s OK” as if he were talking to a frightened child.

After the attack  I was faced with a choice of blaming the man for making me afraid to walk home from the tube at night, to be angry and resentful, or to find a way of feeling safe again. I was not in a position to talk to him or see justice done as he disappeared into the night. Everyone deserves to feel safe and to be free from violence.  So this is not to excuse his actions in any way, and his actions were wrong – but I could not be consumed by anger at this. My path back to confidence lay in finding a sense of strength in myself that his actions could not destroy. For me this was to turn to my meditation practice and in particular the Loving Kindness practice.

I sat with the feeling of fear and resentment towards him every day and gradually started to be able to hold it.  As I did this he lost his power over me.  I started to reflect on how his action was a one off, a memory, not happening now and that I was now free from it, but that he had to live with the life he was creating for himself, that this was a cold and harsh life where he had destroyed what makes one human – the capacity for empathy. For how do you knock someone to the ground and go through their pockets if you have not destroyed something in you that feels for the suffering of others? I reflected that he may have needed the money for drugs, or to pay people he owed money to  and that his life was one of lack and absence whereas I felt full and abundant. I therefore was able to start to have a sense of compassion for him as a being who was suffering and was making poor choices that would have harmful consequences for him in this life and the next. I then wrote a short story, imagining him setting out on his journey that night from a squalid flat, the life he was living, his unhappiness and pain.

This all came from a decision to feel responsible for how I felt rather than let his actions hang like a shadow over me for months and years. This is the power of meditation practice to shift one’s experience.


To read more about NVC click here

Habit 1: listen to your emotions

A few days ago I came across an article about the habits of self-loving people. I found it an interesting read and over the next 7 weeks I’ll reflect on each point.
If we are feeling sad, anxious, etc its simply how it is right now. It’s OK to feel what we’re feeling – but often we fear we are going to be overwhelmed if we feel it, so try to push it down or loose ourselves in distractions – sex, drugs, drink, Facebook, whatever ours might be! Learning to listen to our emotions without the inner critic then telling us we are wrong to be feeling what we are feeling frees us to simply accept that it is what it is: we’re feeling what we’re feeling, its telling us something and is impermanent so will shift and change as the conditions change.
Having a positive self regard and faith in ourselves helps this process of listening without judgement, and the Loving Kindness practice is a powerful tool for cultivating this.   In the first stage of the Loving Kindness practice explore allowing yourself to feel fine with how you are right now, love yourself as your not as you feel you should be and feel whatever you are feeling, holding it with a sense of kindness and compassion.
Here are seven things that self-loving people do differently. The full article is available  here

1. They listen to their emotions.

Most people spend their lives doing one of two things to their emotions: numbing or venting. Often, they do a combination of the two (i.e. they numb until they can’t hold it in anymore, then they explode).

Self-loving people do something very different — they accept each emotion as a piece of communication and they try to decode it. This way, emotions can become important guideposts on the journey of self-discovery, rather than annoying roadblocks.

2. They choose responsibility over blame.

When something negative happens, self-loving people will look for a way to take responsibility, rather than searching for someone to blame. They know that placing blame doesn’t solve the problem — it only cultivates anxiety and helplessness. By choosing to take responsibility, self-loving people do themselves the favor of encouraging change and acceptance rather than stewing in stagnation and suffering.

3. They feed their passions and talents.

Every person in this world feels the gentle tug of fascination toward some hobby or activity. Sometimes that tug isn’t so gentle! Self-loving people learn to recognize that inner longing as something important, and they devote their time and energy to nourishing those desires. Self-loving people do something every single day that they love doing, and they allow themselves the space to explore new interests that arise. They know that nourishing their own inner hunger is much more important than any fears they might have about what feeding it looks like.

4. They spend time alone.

Those who have unhealthy, abusive relationships with themselves often have an intolerance of being alone. The moment they have some space with themselves, they feel the incoming discomfort of self-defeating thoughts and toxic emotions, so they reach for the phone or the vice. Self-loving people do the opposite. They look forward to their time by themselves, just as you’d look forward to a date with a beloved friend. They not only make time for themselves, they start to miss their time alone if they don’t take it.

5. They sleep on it.

As we learn to respect ourselves, we become more long-term oriented. Instead of caving to momentary impulses and immediate gratification, self-loving people will sleep on it and weigh the outcomes of important decisions. Paradoxically enough, being able to delay gratification and think about long-term outcomes gives us the ability to enjoy our lives more in every single moment, because that “long-term” that we’re always thinking about becomes our entire way of life.

6. They teach people how to treat them and walk away if they cannot.

Those who deny themselves love, respect, and approval will inevitably seek those necessities from other people. When we base our relationships with others on approval-seeking and love-hunger, we’re not really respecting ourselves or other people. We’re just running each other dry.

That’s why self-loving people approach relationships from a place of self-sufficiency. They know what they need to feel respected and they know what they have to offer. They gently teach the people around them about their boundaries and, if those are crossed repeatedly, they have the courage to walk away.

7. They admit their mistakes.

Those who don’t have self-respect are always measuring themselves against some outside standard. In many cases, that standard is being “right.” They feel good when they’re right and crestfallen when they’re wrong, because their whole sense of identity is wrapped up in these labels. Self-loving people tend to identify with more permanent parts of their experience, rather than temporary states like right/wrong, old/young, happy/sad. They feel a deep, unconditional acceptance of themselves, which gives them the power to practice self-improvement without losing self-love. Thus, they not only admit when they’re wrong, they expect to be.

How to breathe to prevent a Panic Attack

When you feel a panic attack coming on using the breath to calm your mind is very effective.  Try this simple breathing method: breathe in for a count of 7 and out to a count of 11.

For more information on this see:

Happy New Year for 2015!

Greetings for creating a happy and contented New Year from HH The Dalai Lama.

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