WHAT CAN I DO?

I was talking with a friend the other day about the state of the world, as you do. And it is only too easy to get depressed and feel powerless as you go through the things that are in a mess: politics, our injustices, our environmental issues, our broken institutions and support systems, the high levels of stress that most people seem to have.

But feeling depressed and powerless doesn’t make any difference to anything, except us, in a negative sense. So we launched into what we can do that makes a positive difference.

Firstly, we need to notice any positives there are: the gradual slow improvements that underlie the mess. For example, most people in the UK do now recycle a lot more than we used to, and we now have more awareness of bad behaviour and poorly run institutions, because they are scrutinised more and that information is available. This helps us to have a more positive frame of mind.

Secondly, we can educate ourselves. That increase in information means that we can find out more, and have all sides of the argument before we form our opinions.

Thirdly, we can take action. This can be as simple as reducing our own use of plastic, or treating others as we would like to be treated. Being the change we want to see in the world is more powerful than we realise: if everyone did a little bit more in their own lives to make the world a better place, it would change the world.

And we can go further. We can talk about the issues with others, share the expanded information we discover, and influence them to also take more action in their lives. In this, we need to be careful not to become judgemental or evangelical in our attitude. I don’t change someone else’s view by trying to bully them into it, or by criticising them. And I need to respect their position. But I can expand their view, or explain more clearly my own reasons, or suggest possible benefits to them of making a change.

Finally, we can make our voices heard. We can join in protests, vote, write to our newspapers/MP’s – we can come out of the silent majority.

I’m not prepared to sit passively by and see our world go to hell in a handcart – are you? I may not be a Greta Thunberg – I’m not that courageous – but I can do my bit…

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IT’S NOT WHAT YOU DO, IT’S THE WAY THAT YOU DO IT.

I caught the bus into my local shopping centre the other day, and it was completely empty. As I registered my pass, I said hello to the driver, and commented on the splendid tweed cap he was wearing. He thanked me and welcomed me to my own private carriage – since no one else was there  – and we both laughed. We chatted, all the way to my stop, and I got off the bus with lifted spirits and a smile on my face.

People like that change my world every time I encounter them – and there are lots of them, often in the most unexpected places or roles. It just requires seeing beyond the transaction, the ‘costume’ the person has: their job, their appearance.

Our roles can take us over, so we are occupied with being the teacher, the CEO, the taxi driver, the street cleaner; or the parent, the care-giver, the partner. Yet none of our various roles really define us: it is our human-beingness that shows who we really are.

And that is something we all have in common – it is the place where the roles and expectations drop away and we encounter others with our hearts open, rather than our heads running the show.

When I come across people like the bus driver, I am reminded that there are some people who choose to be open-hearted most of the time – all the angels in various types of costumes who bring some lightness and kindness ad warmth to the world – and they give their gifts freely if you are open to the possibility.

And I am reminded that I can be one of those people if I open my heart and appreciate the person rather than the role.

We can all get stuck in the routines and busyness of the everyday, and we can all enjoy and be a part of the transformation of that everyday into magical moments of heartfelt connection with another human being.

I know which I prefer…

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POSITIVE THINKING IS NOT TURNING INTO AN OSTRICH!

I’ve never been particularly keen on the expression ‘positive thinking.’ It has somehow a built-in tendency towards pretending that everything’s great, and ignoring anything that isn’t by burying your head in the sand – that’s the ostrich reference! I prefer to call it constructive or useful thinking.

The intention of the phrase is good to remember though. It is about the perspective you choose to take on whatever is happening, not about avoiding the reality of what’s going on. No-one has the perfect life, with everything working well – even if it looks that way from the outside, we all find some things irritating or frustrating or upsetting. So the trick to making it work as well as possible without pretending is two-fold.

Firstly, we need to make sure we notice what is working for us. This isn’t just about appreciating the good things in life; it also sets us up a constructive or positive frame of mind.

From that, we can look at what isn’t so good in our lives, and decide what to do about it. There are some things we can actively change. For example if we have a dripping tap that is irritating us, we can call a plumber and get it fixed – (confession: it took me over a week to finally do this!)

There are other things we can’t change directly, but we can change our reaction to them. I can’t magically stop the pouring rain, but I can either dress appropriately to be out in it, or treat it as an opportunity to do an inside job I’ve been meaning to do for a while, or just an opportunity to sit and read a book or watch a movie. I can make the best of the situation.

We don’t feel any better about things that aren’t so good in our lives if we just moan or complain about them, or if we berate ourselves for letting it affect us negatively. The situation doesn’t change that way either.

We do feel better if we remember that those situations aren’t all that’s going on in our lives – some parts are good – and if we choose to act or react differently, so as to alleviate the negative effect.

And it’s really all about feeling better about our lives, isn’t it?

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HAVE YOU THE FAMILY YOU WOULD LOVE TO HAVE?

Most of us have a family we were born into, and a set of relatives that comes with that. And I often hear people say that they find it really hard to get on with a brother, or sister, or parent. This always feels hurtful because we have an expectation that these are the people who should care most for us. But it’s not really that surprising, because each of us is a unique personality, and we don’t get on with every other personality.

I like to think that we really have two sorts of family: the one we were born into and related to by blood, and the one we create for ourselves. This is our real family, because it is those we meet who become our mutual support network, people we feel genuine love and concern for. If we’re lucky, some of our blood ties are also in our ‘personalised’ family – we choose to have them as an important part of our lives – but it’s not compulsory.

And because this is a family we create throughout our lives, we are not constrained by numbers or categories or age – we can create according to any criteria we choose. I have lots of sisters and brothers, and many sons and daughters. When I was younger, I had more favourite aunts and uncles and elder brothers and sisters – now I think I’m probably the matriarch of my lovely created family!

When I was a child, we were encouraged to call friends of the family auntie or uncle. I think that was based on a form of showing respect because they were adults and we were children, but it also indicated that my parents felt they were part of the family really. And my favourite ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’ were in this category. I felt loved and cared for by them as if they were real family, and of course they were!

So who have you got in your family? Let’s recognise our closeness and love for these special people who have agreed to be part of our family in this lifetime, just as we have chosen to have them in our family. Some of them will be very close to us: lots of contact and mutual support; some of them will have gone their own way, yet still be there if you need them; and some of them will be that somewhat eccentric or awkward one that you can’t help but love anyway!

Cherish these people – they are your real family. And if you meet someone you wish were part of your family, nurture the relationship and bring them in. You really can create the family you would love to have.

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WHAT HAPPENED TO DECENCY?

I have watched the unfolding story of our British politics over the last months and weeks with a mixture of horror and fascination. In our so-called democracy we have ended up with a Prime Minister who was elected to the position by a very small minority of the country, and who behaves like an overgrown and naughty spoilt schoolboy.

He is a known philanderer, deceitful, boastful, and a downright liar. He expects to be able to bluff and bluster his way through any situation and come up trumps. How can this be acceptable?

I know there is a precedent: Trump is an even worse example of similar behaviour gaining and keeping power.

And I believe that the majority of us are shocked by how they seem to be getting away with it. We need to hold on to and use that shock. We cannot allow this sort of behaviour to become the new normal, to be what represents us as people and as countries. These men are on the same path as those we have learnt to condemn as pernicious dictators: Kim Jong Un; Putin; Hitler. We have to stop them and refind decency, moderation, our values, and leaders who are grown-ups.

Our parliament has stood up to Johnson, and stopped him from just going headlong into crisis for the country – and MP’s have done that at cost to themselves, putting the greater good of the country before self-interest.

Now it is up to us.

There will be an election in the UK, as there will in the US. We have to make our voices heard, the decent majority, and elect politicians who genuinely represent us. If all of us vote, we can make a difference. If all of us persuade another few people to vote, we will make even more of a difference.

Whatever our ‘normal’ political leanings may be, whatever we think about Brexit, we need to look for candidates who represent our decent, humane society – the way most of us really are. This is not a time for blind party politics: our democracy is at stake. It’s time to stand up for decency.

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101 REASONS TO BE THANKFUL

OK, so I haven’t really found 101 yet, although I’m not far off! And I’ve only been looking at those things we take for granted.

My dad has lost his hearing temporarily, and I was thinking about the impact that would have on my life. TV and films would lose a chunk of their appeal, no music, wouldn’t hear the phone ring or be able to call anyone, wouldn’t know if someone came to the door – it’s a massive impact.

And that led me to thinking about how we take our senses for granted. We can feel, taste, smell, hear and see, and we don’t even think about it normally. Plus, our limbs move in a co-ordinated way, so it’s easy to move about, our hands can grasp and hold, our bodies just get on with complex procedures like digestion, repair, immune systems. Oh, and all those trillions of cells that we’re made of can co-operate and support each other in their various roles. And none of that requires conscious effort on my part.

Wow!! ‘What a piece of work is man’, as Shakespeare said.

Then there’s our minds, which manage all the amazing things our bodies can do as a matter of course, but also absorb and store incredible amounts of information, which enables us to remember, assess, discriminate, and learn and grow. I know they can also cause us problems, but they do a pretty good job on the whole.

So, without even looking outside ourselves, we have a lot of wonderful reasons to be thankful we’re human.

Add to that the simplest of our needs being met on a regular basis and we must be close to my 101 reasons. I’m referring to a bed to sleep in, a roof over our head, food on the table, water we can drink no predators hunting us so a level of safety, easy access to clothes to keep us warm, lights if it’s dark. We just take all of these for grated don’t we? I know I do most of the time.

It’s easy to get pissed off, feel life isn’t great, wish things were different. And on those days it can be hard to find anything to be thankful for – we just notice all the things that confirm our state of mind.

I think it is useful to remind ourselves of all these reasons to be thankful – it helps us to change our state of mind, and to realise that life isn’t that bad after all..

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THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE

I was feeling pissed off with myself for not fitting in as much pilates practice as I intended – somehow five days had gone by and I hadn’t done any at all. I finally got round to doing it, and as I did so, I remembered that twenty five years ago, I didn’t do any pilates at all – it wasn’t even on my radar. And ten years ago, I rarely practised at all between lessons. And five years ago, I might do one practice in between lessons. Yet now, the new normal was practising three or four times a week, which is why I was disappointed with myself. Sod that! I’ve made lots of progress!

Most of us do not take great leaps forward in our evolution into being who we really are or how we want to be – we take two steps forward and one step back. So it’s easy to notice the step back, and forget to count the step forward we made anyway, and then we are discouraged.

So I think it’s time we noticed the overall trend, rather than the slips that happen along the way.

It’s as if we have a combination of the tortoise and the hare, from Aesop’s fables. We have a hare that rushes forward, and then gets tired and falls asleep, or gets distracted and goes in another direction, while our tortoise just plods along, slowly but surely covering the ground.

In order to recognise our progress, we need to pay attention to the tortoise rather than the hare, even though the hare is far more distracting and obvious, with its rushes hither and thither, and its frequent collapses!

Over the years, we get better at some things without necessarily realising it, because it happens slowly, small steps at a time. I know I am better at recognising reasons to feel good about myself and my life than I used to be. I am better at finding fewer things to worry about unnecessarily, and at getting past that worry when I do get caught by it. I am less prone to bad moods or being upset or miserable, and more prone to laugh at the absurdity of some aspects of life here on earth. And I’m better at Pilates!!

This form of progress is only really noticeable when you look back over years, if not decades – day by day it’s hard to notice because that tortoise of ours moves slowly!

So pay some attention to your tortoise: what progress has it made over the last five to ten years? It deserves that recognition, and will gradually help you to grow into who you really are.

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BEING OPTIMISTIC

It is so easy to find reasons to be pessimistic these days; the way climate change is being mostly ignored by governments; the dire state of our politics; the news that focuses on disasters and horrors; the continuing chemical and man-made pollution that is all around us – the list goes on and on. And most of us adopt that pessimistic filter on a personal level: worrying about things going wrong; our money running out; losing our job; falling ill.

But it doesn’t help! Being pessimistic means that we fear the worst, and pay attention to what’s wrong, and just feel like victims of fate.

On the other hand, being optimistic means that we make the best of things and see possibilities for improvement. It isn’t the same as ignoring what’s wrong, or pretending that nothing’s wrong – it’s far more positive, constructive and pro-active.

Being optimistic leads us to look at situations and circumstances in our own lives that are less than optimal and ask ourselves: ’What can I do to improve it?’ It leads us to look at the bigger problems in the world and ask ourselves: ‘ How can I do something positive to make a difference there, however small?’ We feel that we have the ability to improve the way things are.

If nothing else, being optimistic means that we have and emit a positive energy field, which affects everything we do and everyone we come into contact with. (And of course, pessimism has the opposite effect – we give off negative energy and enhance our reasons for pessimism).

So come on: let’s do a bit to improve things in our own lives and in the world. Let’s have another go at that problem we have hanging over us, let’s use less plastic, let’s give that homeless person some money, let’s get out and vote in elections.

Imagine if everyone did just a little bit – we could change the world for the better overnight, and smile as we did so!

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WHAT DO YOU SEE?

I watched several videos a while ago about a group who had decided to liven up the experience of people going about their normal lives, and remind them of the beauty around them. One of the things they did was to take a set of different sized and shaped empty picture frames into a neighbourhood that would not usually be considered attractive, and give people on the street a frame, with the instruction to find something beautiful they could put the frame round.

When given the task, people looked dubious – they didn’t believe they would find anything. But if they did begin to look, they found all sorts of things: a part of a chair, a pattern in the brickwork of a wall, a wild flower, a child’s face, a shapely foot. They returned their frames with a smile on their faces, and a new appreciation for their surroundings.

Many years ago, I overheard a teacher with a group of students on a school trip say to them: ‘ Go more slowly for a while, and remember to look up, down, and to both sides, as well as straight ahead.’ What a lovely instruction!

When we look more closely, more widely, from a different angle, we may see something lovely that we weren’t expecting, and allow ourselves an extra moment with a smile on our faces.

Try it out for yourself – go slowly and look well, and enjoy what you find.

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I NEED A WITNESS!

I’ve recently had a series of glitches to deal with: feeling a bit under the weather, heating not working properly, not being able to find something I need to buy in any shops, a broken tooth, etc. None of it has been awful, but as they had accumulated, they had taken over and coloured my perspective, with the effect that life in general started to feel shit!

This is as unreal as wearing rose-tinted glasses, and nowhere near as pleasurable!

I am lucky enough to have a dear friend who is brilliant at giving me a dose of my own medicine. He listened to my sad, self-pitying story, and then kindly yet firmly challenged me out of it. He pointed out that I was letting some temporary setbacks take over my story and playing victim to fate. He reminded me that most of the time life feels pretty good to me, and this particular story is not who I am, nor who I want to be, and that I already know how to shift myself from that place I had got into.

After a few minutes, the clouds started to lift from my world, and I began to remember that quite a lot of my life was working well. In fact, I could talk about some of the good things that are happening, and could see some ways of dealing with those glitches.

Now those of you who know me will know that I’m pretty good at helping others like he helped me, but this reminded me of how important it is to have a ‘witness’ who is not caught up in your story and can remind you of the bigger perspective. We all get caught in self-pity sometimes, and we all lose our perspective on life. We don’t have to beat ourselves up about it – we just need someone who will prompt us to look at it differently.

Friends who sympathise and say, ‘Oh dear, how awful!’ confirm that your story is a hard one. Those who can challenge you back into a bigger version of who you are are invaluable.

Thank you Cliff!

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