Forgiving 

I’ve just finished Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s ‘The Book of Forgiving’, picked up (as all the best things are) at the local library. 

It’s a simple and powerful read, which is studded with some terrible stories of personal loss, sickening violence and genocide; and the remarkable power of forgiveness in the face of them.

The basic argument is forgiveness doesn’t excuse responsibility – it explicitly acknowledges and names it. Only once the ‘story’ is properly told, and the ‘hurt’ is ‘named’, is there the possibility to forgive. 

And doing so is the way to be freed from being a victim – including forgiving yourself if you were ever a perpetrator.

There is a straightforward path to forgiveness which helps people exit the alternative – a never-ending cycle of harm and revenge.

I saw this diagram the night before interviewing someone on a difficult HR standoff. It certainly helped me to listen for longer: to let the person ‘tell their story’ and ‘name their hurt’, which seemed to move things forward.

The final two steps – ‘granting forgiveness’ and ‘renewing or releasing the relationship’ are about seeing  ‘perpetrators’ as human beings – recognising none of us was born evil and we all have within us the capacity to do terrible things.

Easier said than done; but nobody said it was easy – and it’s the only path to forgiveness.

The ‘hurts’ Tutu has seen in South Africa and Rwanda – so many violent murders – seem too huge to ever forgive. But the Truth and Reconciliation commissions he oversaw all basically followed this fourfold path: tell the story, name the hurt, grant forgiveness and renew or release the relationship.

As both he and the Dalai Lama have said: forgiveness is both a source and a sign of true personal strength, 

Confrontation and Compassion

Compassion came up a number of times this week – on Tuesday in the context of confrontation; and yesterday as a way to run an entire organisation. Of course the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu would argue (in the book I’m reading below) that compassion is what we should use to run the entire world.

Back to confrontation through – a colleague of mine was arguing for a ‘public hanging’ to show that the behaviour of some people will no longer be tolerated. I said I felt not; I was accused of appeasement. 

That stung a bit, but my considered counter was: when I’ve ‘gone to war’ with people at work all manner of ills have followed – for me, them and everyone around us. 

So I offered what The Book of Joy suggests instead:

“There is an important distinction between forgiveness and simply allowing others’ wrongdoing. Sometimes people misunderstand and think forgiveness means you accept or approve of wrongdoing. No, this is not the case. We must make an important distinction.” The Dalai Lama was speaking emphatically, striking on hand against the other. “The actor and the action, or the person and what he has done. Where the wrong action is concerned, it may be necessary to take appropriate counteraction to stop it. Towards the actor, or the person, however you can choose not to develop anger and hatred. This is where the power of forgiveness lies – not losing sight of the humanity of the person while responding to the wrong with clarity and firmness. 

This is easier to say than do – both ways. I sometimes find it hard to respond quickly to a ‘wrong’ with ‘clarity and firmness’ without drawing on anger; and once the incident has passed, it feels like I’ve missed the moment and the best thing is probably to move on. But the Dalai Lama invites me to do better: 

“We stand firm against the wrong not only to protect those who are being harmed but also to protect the person who is harming others, because eventually they, too, will suffer. So it’s out of a sense of concern for their own long term well-being that we stop their wrongdoing… We do not let anger and negative feelings develop, but we strongly oppose their actions.”

Desmond Tutu sets out the personal benefit of forgiveness, which I buy completely and have experienced fully in recent years: 

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past. Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and feelings. We become our own liberator.”

The Dalai Lama picks up: 

“So it is totally wrong,” he said emphatically, cutting his hand sharply through the air, “to say that practice of tolerance and practice of forgiveness are signs of weakness. Totally wrong. Hundred percent wrong. Thousand percent wrong. Forgiveness is a sign of strength.”

The Archbishop adds with a laugh: 

“Those who say forgiveness is a sign of weakness haven’t tried it.”

Forgiveness I have largely cracked. Responding to ‘wrongs’ with ‘clarity and firmness’ but without hot or cold anger… that is a work in progress.

Joy

The rather wonderful Disney kids film ‘Inside Out’ suggests the eponymous ‘Joy’ (above) represents our original childlike state. In the film, the loss of ‘Joy’ deep into the vaults of memory is the bridge to the discovery of the more complex emotions of teen and adult years. 

It’s a lovely film. From our family watching experience, it helps both kids and adults better understand their emotions and personalities.

Interesting then – at the other end of life – to read two famous eighty year olds advocating the same simple emotion. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu invite us to do better than ‘happiness’: a rather stolid state of satisfaction; and aim for ‘joy’. 

So what makes for joy? Here’s what The Book of Joy says:

Our ability to cultivate joy has not been scientifically studied as thoroughly as out ability to cultivate happiness. In 1978 psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman published a landmark study that found that lottery winners were not significantly happier than those who had been paralysed in an accident. From this and subsequent work came the idea that have a “set point” that determines their happiness over the course of their life. In other words, we get accustomed to any new situation and inevitably return to our general state of happiness. 

I’ve read this before and there’s good and bad in it, I think. It helps with resilience as you know you’ll get through stuff, but doesn’t lead to much hope for joy; whatever you do you’ll just default back to ‘average’ happiness… But the next para is VERY encouraging:

However, more recent research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that perhaps only 50% of our happiness is determined by immutable factors like our genes or temperament, our “set point.” The other half is decided by a combination of our circumstances, over which we may have very limited control, and our attitudes and actions, over which we have a great deal of control. According to Lyubomirsky, the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are: 

  1. Our ability to reframe our situation more positively
  2. Our ability to experience gratitude
  3. Our choice to be kind and generous

These are exactly the attitudes and actions that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop had already mentioned as central pillars of joy.

I realise looking at them that I really started making headway on the three factors in joy in my early forties – not the least through reading and blogging. 

As the saying goes ‘life begins at forty’. Perhaps if you’re lucky the rediscovery of ‘joy’ begins too.

Empathy, Pain and Compassion

New Scientist (11 May 2016) – How sharing can make you sick
Something I’ve done a lot in the last decade is empathy. Indeed it has become one of the things I do the most at work: connecting with people and quite literally ‘feeling their pain’.

Walk a mile in another person’s shoes and you see the world differently; better understand different opinions and why people do what they do – even when it seems to be hurting both them and you.

But it comes at a cost. Connecting with the pain of others is painful for me too. It hurts to see someone hurting; and even more if you go with them to the very source of their pain – deep fears, anxiety, sadness and loneliness.

And this is a problem, because once you’ve seen the contents of someone’s soul, you can’t just shrug and say: “Oh dear, how sad, never mind.”

Not least because neuroscience is proving that our own brain copies the pain and suffering of others when we empathise. We do literally ‘feel their pain’ when we listen and put ourselves in their place. Mirror neurones fire in sympathy – in exactly the same pattern as in the sufferer; and the suffering is shared.

So I was fascinated to read in the New Scientist (in the article pictured above), that we should consider cutting the empathy; and boosting our compassion instead.

What’s the difference? I’m not sure I exactly know – but I can ‘feel’ the difference… Empathy feels like touching a person and connecting directly with their emotions – literally feeling what they are feeling. The science says that’s also what’s happening in your brain.

The problem is that in sharing, experiencing and absorbing the pain of others, we lessen our own reserves of optimism, energy and resilience. And that means ultimately we are less able to summon the strength to help or improve anything. Empathy feels draining.

Compassion feels different. Compassion ‘connects’ like empathy does but instead of firing the pain-mimicking mirror neurones, compassion digs deeper: for warmth, care, appreciation and common humanity. 

I reckon this must be how the Pope, aid workers and others who have the suffering of hundreds, even thousands of people thrust upon them daily must cope. Not by directly empathising; but by digging deeper for compassion. Certainly it’s the Dalai Lama’s philosophy.

One thing’s for sure I haven’t cracked it yet. Now I know it, I can feel the difference – beleaguered by too much empathy; strangely strengthened by tapping into warmth and compassion.

But I can’t manage compassion confidently yet; I still want to say at the end of sad conversations “I feel you pain.” But I know now that’s the invitation and trigger to fire those mirror neurones, and carry away my share of another’s suffering.

Talking to a very smart work colleague about it this week, we concluded: if a person is in a deep dark hole, you’re not always helping them that much, if you just jump in next to them. 

Similarly if you do try to feel another person’s pain and offer the classic line “I know how you feel” you risk real failing yourself and the person you’re talking to – how can you really know how someone feels? 

When someone is in a dark place this week’s realisation is the answer isn’t necessarily to join them in the gloom. Compassion – if I can learn how to channel it – creates the same connection, but offers a better chance of staying happy and healthy; and being some help.

Great love and great compassion

  

I’ve just finished the Dalai Lama’s ‘How to see yourself as you really are.’ And a penny has dropped… 

Some of the Buddhist ideas: notably Karma, the cycle of returns and the idea that we are all constantly living and reliving; these are not for me. 

But I do like the concept of ‘impermanence’. Recognising nothing stays constant; and none of us live forever, is in some ways the sum of all fears. But it also means bad times will pass, and that tricky situations generally resolve. ‘Impermanence’ tells me I sometimes work too hard and worry too much. 

But the key insight for me came about two pages from the end. And it’s this – very simply put in the Dalai Lama’s own words:

It is important not to become inclined towards solitary peace, because by aiming merely at liberation for your own sake, you lengthen the process of attaining altruistic enlightenment directed to others’ good – the ultimate goal.

By mainly taking care of yourself, you foster a self-cherishing attitude, and this attitude is difficult to overcome later, when you train in great love and great compassion. 

Consequently, it is crucial from the very beginning not to fully invest your strength of mind in your own benefit.

Perhaps an easier way to swallow Karma (whilst dropping the reincarnation bit) is this: in every action we take, or person we help or hinder, we create ripples in the world. Mostly small ripples of course, but when added up, we can all do a lot of good – or ill.

Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings – a simple word or deed could help another ‘sentient being’ towards happiness; or push them closer to anger, hurt and despair.

I’ve sometimes thought that one person can’t make much of a difference… And so, given who I am, perhaps one day writing a half decent book, would be about the best contribution I could make to mine and future generations.

But shrinking into one’s self is not taking the Dalai Lama’s point – “By mainly taking care of yourself, you foster a self-cherishing attitude.” and “it is crucial from the very beginning not to fully invest your strength of mind in your own benefit.” 

I do believe that everyday kindness, care and compassion can make a difference. And since I have maybe as many as 20,000 days left; that’s a lot of help (or hurt) I could dole out. But ‘impermanence’ says I could have a lot fewer days, so best to get on with it.

‘Great love’ and ‘great compassion’ are worth aspiring to. Solitary peace, however beguiling, is not the point of life.

Maximum Kindness

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My son (who is kindness personified) came downstairs, this evening, keen to finish a conversation with me. We headed back up to his bed and he expanded on his earlier thesis…

This was that ‘kind kids’, once they reach ‘maximum kindness’ can give some of their kindness to their Dads making them kinder too. We’d agreed that probably does happen, and I’d become kinder since he’d been in my life.

The development in his theory (which he wanted to discuss immediately) was if you had ‘kind kids’ and they topped you up to ‘maximum kindness’ then maybe some of your kindness might spread to other families – making them kinder – and then maybe in a month or (maximum) a year everyone in the whole world might become kind.

Given everything that’s going on in the world, it might not happen this year. But a bit of compassion and kindness goes a very long way – the Dalai Lama can give you chapter and verse on that.

And with the amount of it my son has, I couldn’t be more fortunate. A top up to ‘maximum kindness’ is always just a conversation away.

On Anger

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Sometimes you can’t beat going back to the original source. The great philosophers can be a tricky read, but equally, they can be very direct, simple and clear. Aristotle was.

Generally speaking there are many different kinds of afflictive or negative emotions, such as conceit, arrogance, jealousy, desire, lust, closed-mindedness and so on. But out of all these hatred and anger are considered to be the greatest evil, because they are the greatest obstacle to developing compassion and altruism, and they destroy one’s virtue and calmness of mind.

In thinking about anger there can be two types. One type of anger can be positive. This would be mainly due to one’s motivation. There can be some anger that is motivated by compassion or a sense of responsibility. Where anger is motivated by compassion it can be used as an impetus or a catalyst for a positive action.

Under these circumstances, a human emotion like anger can act as a force to bring about swift action. It creates a kind of energy that enables an individual to act quickly and decisively. It can be a powerful motivating factor. So sometimes that kind of anger can be positive.

All too often, however even though that kind of anger can act as a kind of protector and bring one extra energy, it is also blind, so it is uncertain whether it will become constructive or destructive in the end.

So, even though under rare circumstances some kinds of anger can be positive, generally speaking anger leads to ill feeling and hatred. And as far as hatred is concerned, it is never positive. It has no benefit at all. It is always totally negative.

The destructive effects of hatred are very visible, very obvious and immediate. For example, when a very strong or forceful thought of hatred arises within you, at that very instant it totally overwhelms you and destroys your peace of mind, your presence of mind disappears completely.

When such intense anger and hatred arises, it obliterates the best part of our brain, which is the ability to judge between right and wrong, and the long term and short term consequences of our actions. Our power of judgement becomes totally inoperable. It can no longer function. It is almost like you have become insane.

So this anger and hatred tends to throw you into a state of confusion, which just serves to make your problems and difficulties much worse.

Even at the physical level, hatred brings about a very ugly, unpleasant physical transformation of the individual. At the very instant where strong feelings of anger or hatred arise, no matter how hard the person tried to pretend or adopt a dignified pose, it is very obvious that the person’s face looks contorted and ugly. There is a very unpleasant expression and the person gives out a very hostile vibration.

Other people can sense it. It is almost as if they can feel steam coming out of that person’s body. So much so that not only are human brings capable of sensing it, but even animals, pets, would try to avoid that person at that instant. Also when a person harbours hateful thoughts, they tend to collect inside the person.

For reasons such as these, hatred is compared to an enemy. This internal enemy has no other function than causing us harm. It is our true enemy, our ultimate enemy. It has no other function than simply destroying us both in the immediate term and the long term.

This is very different from an ordinary enemy. Although an ordinary enemy, a person whom we may regard as an enemy, may engage in activities that are harmful to us, at least he or she has other functions; that person has got to eat, and that person has got to sleep. So he or she has many other functions and therefore cannot devote twenty-four hours a day of his or her existence to this project of destroying us.

On the other hand hatred has no other function, no other purpose, than destroying us. So by realising this fact, we should resolve that we will never give an opportunity for this enemy, hatred, to arise within us.

Words Aristotle himself could have written. But in fact come from a modern philosopher – the Dalai Lama.

Forget the stereotype of ‘bells and smells’, the condensed wisdom of the Dalai Lama’s lifetime of analysis and thought bears remarkable similarity to Aristotle – develop virtue, moderation and a supple mind. A good recipe for a good life.

Toxic

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What happens when you are dealing with a toxic situation with toxic people and potentially toxic consequences? You go toxic obviously.

But I’m searching for another way. In the past when I’ve had to do this, I haven’t been able to stop myself ingesting some of the toxic waste. Less doing bad things myself, more feeling sad, bleak and dark hearted. So who better to accompany me on my latest toxic clean-up than His Holiness the Dalai Lama?

As if by magic, his face was gently radiating out from a prominently placed book at our seaside library last weekend when I took the kids.

This is why we need libraries.

It takes a human to recognise that on one of the wettest winters on record, the Dalai Lama on ‘The Art of Happiness’ would be a good book to strategically place right by the entrance. Those quietly helpful, studious folk – librarians – know what they’re doing…

So what has the Dalai Lama to say?

Simple really:

1) Promote happiness and reduce suffering – especially your own.

2) Treat others with compassion, interest and openness.

3) Welcome intimacy with many – not just a few – with a few words, a smile or a simple kindness.

Easy really.

As I started writing this, I was going to choose a toxic ‘skull and crossbones’ to illustrate the post.

Now, having written it, I shall choose a beam of sunshine. That’s the Dalai Lama difference.