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Habit 6: Have a healthy sense of self worth, treat others well and expect to be treated well in turn.

My mentor as a teenager was what every young gay boy – who was so in the closet he could feel the snow from Narnia around his feet –  needed: a delightfully unselfconscious elderly and slightly eccentric village gentlewoman who delighted in being shockingly and totally herself at all times without caring what anyone thought of it.  We had a great time together as we chatted and laughed whilst cleaning up the chicken runs and tidying around her house, which was a temple to discarded fragments of her old life.  I first met Mrs Topham-Smith whilst walking my dog.  This apparition from another world careered past on her bike, her dog tied to the handlebars joyfully running along beside her, whilst the rider’s wispy grey hair, that always refused to obey any command to stay in a style, was blowing in the breeze.  She called out to ask if I knew a boy who could help her with some tidying around her house after finishing prep – and no I didn’t know what she meant either at that point –  and to direct him to her home, a small cottage that sat resolutely unmodernised in a row of upwardly mobile workers cottages now lived in by executives.
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I – was – terrified! Then on getting home I thought “it’s good to face one’s fears”…so I went over to see her.  And that was the start of my daily evening visits to Mrs Topham-Smith, who lived at the bottom of the garden – well in a sense, I climbed through the fence at the bottom of my garden to access her lane as the village was built on a triangle of roads and so her house was behind mine. Turned out prep meant homework. So I did my nightly sums and history essays and then raced over to a much more interesting world with tales of butlers, intrigue, war, Lucian Freud teasing her as they went for a walk and begging to paint her and her reticence at sitting nude for a portrait, and selfless service to one’s country. Sounds rather like a recent television programme but this was listening to the reminiscences and stories she had to tell of her family who had been one of the wealthiest in the village but due to various misfortunes she was now bankrupt and living in a two up two down cottage belonging to her daughter whilst her family home had been sold to her life long rival who gloated in his victory.
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What is the reason for this little bit of autobiography? It was from Mrs Topham-Smith that I learnt a lesson that I have kept all through my life. It was that others will judge one no matter how much one tries to please or fit in, but that if one is true to oneself and one’s values and ideals then it doesn’t matter what others think – just so long as one has a sense of self-worth.  She was one of the happiest and most fun people I have ever known, generous and kind despite having lost nearly everything. She carried in her a sense that she mattered and that she had a duty to treat others with respect. Although in some respects a snob – she taught me to say lavorary rather than toitlet and change how I pronounced words as she felt I ought to be helped up to the level of the wellspoken gentlepeople of circa 1930, but she would never look down on someone for their job or social position. She spoke to anyone we met as we went on our errands around the village in just the same way, rich or poor – simply inviting them to engage in her world and conversation and being curious about theirs. She in fact taught me not to be a snob, not to use any advantage I had in education or attainment to assume superiority over others, for her we were all part of a community where everyone’s effort mattered and was to be valued.
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With the sixth habit for well being and happiness we see the importance of this ability to value ourselves without it becoming conceit or the need to gain self worth through disparaging others. Perhaps the biggest loss in modern society is the fracturing of the notion of being part of a society. We are all individual consumers now. And as such the other is a potential enemy rather than a comrade. Witness the scuffles at the recent Black Friday events. This sense of isolation melts if we see ourselves as an individual with self worth and others as individuals with self worth all requiring respect to be be shown and given. We are both individual and an integral part of a matrix of interconnected social networks – friends, family, work: circles overlapping and influencing each other just as ripples on water meet and merge.
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In my own life this lesson of being true to myself and respecting others led to a freedom to choose how to live my life. On graduating rather than go into a career I joined a Buddhist commune in Cambridge and from there went to live as a monk in a Buddhist monastery and even now live exploring my passion, which is to teach and share living an awake life. I am grateful to Mrs Topham-Smith for this lesson.  And so as we mark this five year anniversary we have her to thank in part for my early lesson in trusting myself, flowing my heart and living a life based on my values rather than looking for value through what I do, where I matter because I am, just as everyone else matters because they are – not because of what they do, earn or their social status. Today then, on the commercialised day of love we call Valentines, take a moment to value yourself and feel your worth, and value anyone for whom you care and simply value them as the unique being they are.

Habit 5: a willingness to practice compassion for self and other

Last week we considered the value of silence and spending time alone. This week we see that our practice also brings us into contact with others. In the class this week I’ll lead the compassion practice after the tea break. This is similar to the Loving Kindness practice but with the focus now on a friend who is suffering. We can feel overwhelmed when faced with suffering, or wish to push it away, but this practice reminds us we can hold this in our hearts as well and generate a wish for ourselves and others to be free from suffering.
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Compassion requires empathy – the ability to feel with someone rather than rush to providing solutions or answers to their problems. Empathy is the willingness to feel how another’s suffering reminds us of our own and to let this lead to a loving care for the other rather than pushing them away because they remind us of something we do not want to feel.
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This short animation shows this in a lovely and succinct way.
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