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Hope and possibility are always there

When in the midst of winter the snowdrops start to flower, as they are here now, there’s a sense of the first shoots of spring whilst it’s still being cold and grey, like an image of hope and possibility for us. It can seem for some that all there is is grey when in reality new beginnings are already there. Spring buds are already forming. Daffodil shoots are growing. The cycle of nature is already in action for the next opening to its own magnificence. As they say, behind the clouds the sun is always shining.

Snowdrops
Snowdrops

Having hope and possibility is a shift of perception, a change in our thoughts. When things seem bad, there is always another way of seeing the situation. What we can lack is the ability to let go of our concern and regard how things might be from another perspective. This is not to say that winter is a bad thing, but that it is common in winter for difficulties to seem more real and present. Depression, for example, can be particularly strong at this time. Outside is cold and dark and we shrink within and if within is not a very happy place we can feel that more.

Losing hope can bring us to the pit of despair, where it can seem like nothing can be done and nothing can change. People in relationships that aren’t working, or in jobs they don’t like, or with health conditions that seem constantly bad, or money worries or faced with the prospect of undesired possibilities coming up – all these and more can leave us depressed and unhappy.

Life will throw up these challenges and yet the human spirit endures. We do get through these things. Circumstances change. Nothing in life is constant. We have the capacity to feel great or immense sadness. Awful though it can seem, we do have choice as to how we deal with the situations we encounter. On the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I am reminded of how inmates had to endure immense privations and some of those used for slave labour or other hideous activities did survive. In Man’s Search for Meaning, a former inmate Viktor Frankl showed how although we may not be responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves, we are responsible for how we deal with it. Whatever is going on for us, life’s purpose is the meaning we make of it. We can either have despair or we can change how we see it, and make even the more unsatisfactory seeming situations part of the joy of our life! It is all about the thought we have, the meaning we make, our state of being.

So, in the midst of winter, the spring shoots are already there. There is always hope and possibility. There is always another meaning.

When you adopt a mindful perspective, you learn to let go, witness your thoughts, be present with what is, and know within you the joy that is always there.

I give coaching to help people change their mindsets and build a more hopeful and positive outlook and attitude to life and to create more positive outcomes. To contact me, click here.

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Psychological pain and suffering are not necessarily illnesses

With yet more signs of increasing stress, depression and anxiety amongst many people, it can be quite tempting to cast it as the spread of “mental illness” in society were it not that this term can be highly misleading. It is therefore heartening to read of highly-placed people cautioning against the over-use of the term.

The “medical model” is a common approach to pain and suffering, treating conditions like depression and anxiety as “mental illnesses”, with the implication that they can be “diagnosed” and “treated” with medication. Psychiatry is typically based on this approach, although not all psychiatrists would agree with it. The “treatment” of depression and anxiety in the UK National Health Service can, in addition to medication, involve approaches like CBT (Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy), as recommended by bodies like NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence). In some areas of this approach, services like counselling have been sidelined in favour of CBT on the basis that they claim the former lacks scientific evidence. Hence “science” is brought in to attempt to buttress the medical model approach, although again many would dispute the use of “science” in this way or argue that counselling does have evidence for its effectiveness.

In the meantime, many recipients of such “medical” interventions have for a long time now voted with their feet after years on drugs like Prozac, and sought out non-medical-model and alternative approaches to dealing with their challenges. The whole subject is hugely controversial. As the psychiatry profession prepare for the release in the States of the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (whew!), popularly called the DSM-V, it is worth checking out just how much the Medical Model people think can be included under the heading “disorder”. As the article mentioned at the start of this article makes clear, many conditions that get classed as “disorders” are not really so severe as to merit the term. Yet, the trend is to “medicalise” more and more of suffering and pain.

For very many sufferers, conditions like anxiety or depression are degrees of how I experience my world. At this or that time I may feel depressed, stressed or anxious. It might be happening a lot for me at the moment, as I perhaps deal with certain things going on in my life. But that need not mean that I am “ill” or have a “disorder”. It can be that such experiences belong in a spectrum, a polarity, of experience, from which I can emerge after a while as I sort certain aspects of my life out. The danger for such a person is the experience can seem so alarming that they see a doctor and can get sucked into a medicalisation of the experience.

That is not to say that some people don’t get “clinically depressed”, as the term goes and find it such an ongoing part of their lives that they need medical support. Recently for example Alastair Cambell has gone public on how he has for years battled with depression. Another example would be Stephen Fry, who on one occasion confessed that once while leading a popular TV program he “simply did not want to be”. Many sufferers from for example “bi-polar disorder” would say so. Looking at certain aspects of their life, attitude, beliefs and outlook for example, as one might in say counselling or coaching, doesn’t on its own necessarily shift the condition and they need medical support. My point here is that for many people, medicalisation of their experience may not be the most useful approach. That is not to say that once on medication one should come off it. That needs to be done with medical support, as it can otherwise be counter-productive. It is just that use of a talking therapy or coaching can be of help, and in time as one feels better then for certain people under medical supervision it is possible to wean oneself off drugs.

What’s needed is a more open-minded approach to suffering, that is not exclusively and dogmatically one-size-fits-all that some “medical model” advocates can adopt, but embraces a much wider approach towards being of support to our fellow humans.

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Happiness may not be the best goal to pursue

Attempts by governments to foster happiness in the population seem to have been hitting resistance. This is not only because of the well-known tendency of the population to tire of particular regimes over time and look for a change but also that the very happiness agenda itself has been controversial. It’s been pointed out that an over-strong emphasis on happiness as a desirable quality can actually have a dispiriting effect on those for whom being happy is something they are really struggling with. Even the supposed champion par excellence of happiness, Dr Seligman, has in his latest book Flourish moved away from saying that happiness is crucial to wellbeing and instead classed it as one facet of “Positive Emotion”, itself one of five determinants of well being.

If for example you are one who is suffering from depression, it is possible that too much of an emphasis on being happy could tip you further into depression. You might for example feel you’re failing, that it’s beyond you. People who are depressed are even likely to avoid being around situations where you are supposed to be happy. It can just “miss it” for them. If someone comes up to them and says “Cheer up!” they might just be met with an expletive.

This can seem to fly in the face of so much cultural pressure to “be positive”, to at all costs keep a smile on your face. I’m always struck how in business today, when people talk together they often have a fixed smile on their face. I remember at one training course it was, with a Transatlantic reference, called a “PanAm smile”, a big, cheesy grin but no crows feet creases at the edge of the eyes. Look into the eyes and they aren’t smiling. The eyes after all are where truth lies.

Happiness can become a polarity, at the other end of which is sadness. Those who are bipolar will know this painfully well: you can flip from one state to the other very fast. Rather, I would suggest a re-framing of perspective. Happiness as a state can be a misleading goal for those on a path of personal growth.

In meditation, for example, before you settle into a meditative state you might first need to negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis pitfalls of the mind. All can play itself out when you confront your mind’s tendencies here. You might go off into some blank state and then you might be caught up in whatever is plaguing your mind that day. If you’re feeling down, you can get that in meditation. The art is how to become aware or mindful, to return your awareness to your breath (and perhaps to a mantra) and let go of what the mind is focused on. Instead you become the watcher of the mind, the witness.

In the aware state you might simply be aware. You might be very present. You might just be blank. You might feel at peace, calm, steady, balanced, centered. Then you might feel very contented. You might even feel love, or bliss, ananda. And then you might not. But you would seek not to judge it, not to have expectation, not to set yourself up in comparison, but be unattached. Once you set yourself up in comparison, you are setting up a subject/object separation and are no longer at One.

So, from this perspective, as Seligman says, happiness is just one state. But it’s not the only one, or necessarily a pre-condition for well being. So, perhaps it’s best not to get hung up on the search for happiness per se! Like so much of life, it is riven with paradox.

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Weathering the depression in our minds to find new light

Sitting in a local Costa Coffee, I’m watching the rain pouring down. While no doubt typical in meteorological annals for May, it must be depressing to experience this day after day. People’s moods can seem to be linked to the weather, and prolonged bad weather may seem to contribute to depression, as a return to sunny weather can lift people’s spirits. So too can the sheer effort of getting about and doing things when faced with getting an utter drenching may seem to contribute to stress, let alone the prospect of being flooded out. While there’s a debate as to how weather impacts our mood to the extent of depression or stress, on an anecdotal level to look outside and see the rain pouring down might mirror back to us how we’re feeling inside.

Yet it can depend on how we interpret what we see. To one person’s depressed state, the weather might seem to be part of a depressed outlook on life, and yet to another the rain might be welcome relief after a period of drought. In another culture such as India, the monsoon is welcomed with celebration. There people go to colder, wetter climates as a relief from the summer heat. In another way what occurs around us can seem to confirm how we think, although it looks like it is the cause. A predisposition to depression or stress can be stimulated by what’s happening outside.

We can get so caught up in external stimuli, what is happening around us, that it can take an effort of will to turn awareness within and reflect on the ongoing inner dialogue, the ongoing attitude of mind, the state we’re in, how we’re viewing our lives at any one moment. It take a lot further work to go beneath that and become aware of the ongoing beliefs that hold such viewpoints in place.

Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. We do have choice, and we can re-interpret what is going on, and think again. It’s perhaps whether we choose to do this, to shift our interpretations, which can involve the will and being accountable for how we think. Sometimes our investment in our attitude and state of mind is too great, or that we don’t think we can do anything about it, that we’re a “victim” of what’s going on.yet there are things we can do, and it’s not so hard as it looks. It can be about finding ways through the morass to new light on our lives. It even empowers us to create a whole new possibility for ourselves and a new way of living that fulfills our real purpose in life.

I write about this challenge that we go through, and about how to turn our lives round, how to get out of states that aren’t serving us, in my free e-course, “The Seven Proven Steps“, which you can start receiving here.

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Feeling overloaded by data

Feeling overloaded by data is a widespread phenomenon that’s having a big impact on people’s work lives, and one might even add personally too, as with stress, anxiety and depression. Do you find your self feeling overwhelmed with the mass of tasks, activities and areas of focus you need to attend to on your computer? Like you know you have to make a call shortly and yet you’ve just had an email about something you’re doing that’s gone wrong and you can’t find the relevant file. Then there’s a text from someone close to you and someone has just dropped by with an urgent question.

According to psychologists this phenomenon of data overload is very real, is increasing and affects very many people. The way the mind and the body work is such that we get a stress response, and the way the response works is to increase memory loss, depression, and high blood pressure. I’ve heard people say it feels like their brain has seized up. Others say they feel very emotional and upset. Not surprisingly people will wonder about their own competence and whether they are “up to it”. Of course this won’t be for everybody because different people respond differently and some can handle large amounts of data and tasks with more ease. However, the point here is that very many of us are having this experience. So there’s no point giving ourselves a hard time.

What’s very important is to have your own way of managing the overload experience, such as with relaxation techniques. For example, there’s something about keeping one’s work organised and structured and sticking to tasks. Stressed people seem to lose control over structure. However, the constant distractions of the situation can often mean our emotions get the better of us and we become stressed and feel excessive anxiety. This is where it is so important to pause, breathe deeply and use present-moment awareness, letting go of thoughts, which are fuelling the response, and focus on breathing. These techniques of mindfulness are very powerful. Letting go and being present and calming down like this allows the brain to re-connect with the rational side and work out an approach. While we’re in a panic, for example, this gets cut off.

If you read the article on the link above, you will also see about what could be done to manage what’s on the screen differently. That is another subject. We first need to manage our state and deal with the thought patterns that drive the response.

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Our sad times can have something to teach us

Today is sometimes referred to as “Blue Monday“, on account of it being apparently the saddest day of the year, or so it has been dubbed. It is said that the gloss of Christmas and the New Year has faded, people have debts to pay off and pay day is still a while off, it’s a long time till the next public holiday, the nights are dark and seemingly go on forever, we some of us don’t get much sunlight on our skin and thus not enough vitamin D, and other aspects of winter. Not surprisingly there are those out there seeking to counter this, such as this website I found.

Statistics and the media apart, it’s well known for people to feel down after Christmas as we go through midwinter in the north here. It’s worth noticing how much we ourselves are affected by these times, since it can rub off on others. For some Chistmas is a great time for meeting up and family, for others it’s less like that. However, once it’s all past, we get back to the realities of our daily lives. Here, we don’t have distractions, and whatever goes on for us can crowd in. Thus it’s worth noticing how much we use external stimuli to divert us from what’s really going on. Not that there isn’t merit in that, and it does help people shift their mood, as the second website above shows. The point here is, from a self-awareness point of view, to be aware of the undercurrents that we might not be attending to at our cost. They can have a way of reasserting themselves, unless dealt with. Moreover, it is also important to have self-management strategies, ways that you can manage your mind and regain a positive focus. It is one thing to notice what’s going on, and another to then manage it and let it go.

For people on a self-development path, such data is very important, to be aware of what get’s in the way, what is preventing us being who we really are, and keeping us from experiencing the love, peace and joy that is our birthright.

Some will feel sceptical and cynical in reading those words. “As if life is like that,” might be a thought. Yes, life is like that. Living in ego mode, in survival mode, we’ve learned strategies to keep us from getting too down and we cope. Such do we avoid our inner pain. We fear too much to face it. Yet facing it is our way out. I remember a saying we once put on the wall of a course we were helping with: “Let the cracks appear. They are your way out”.

Down times like these can be very powerfully instructive, much though we might resist it. These “dark nights of the soul” have great healing potential. Thus it is important not to resist them but instead get very curious about what we have to learn from them. Challenging but ultimately highly beneficial, as St John of the Cross, from whom the term “Dark Night” originates, learned for himself whilst imprisoned in appalling circumstances.

So, if you’re feeling down, start getting curious about what it is really about for you. You may not like it, but it’s there for a reason.

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When the chill descends, our hearts are warm

As I write, there is a clear blue sky outside and the air is frosty, with a white sheen covering everything. Snow is forecast for northern and eastern England and winter seems truly upon us, earlier than “usual.”

There’s a way that when winter sets in, we retreat inside, physically and metaphorically. We close the shutters to keep out the cold and we protect ourselves from that which we don’t like. There’s also a psychological shutting down, as though the spirit retreats and closes in on itself. I have already commented before that winter is a time when those who suffer from depression feel it acutely, long nights, cold, wet, snow, dark days, less contact with others.

Not all of course: there are many who like the cold and being out in it. But you might also resonate with aspects of what I am writing about.

But if you are one who finds this closing down process to be happening, there are other ways to perceive this time.

Winter is a time of hibernation for many species in nature. Nature closes in on itself, and goes quiet. But inside, the buds are ready, nature preparing for the coming spring. The soil is rejuvenating itself; all is active under the surface, new potential ready to emerge.

It’s just that us humans don’t do this. We continue to rush about.

However, as the evenings get longer, and you turn up the heat or sit closer to the fire (I’m assuming you are in the more northerly parts of the globe for this!), this is a very good time to go within and connect with your inner Self. When it’s dark, I recommend some meditation. But you could pray or contemplate too, or sit quietly and be present.

This is about being with your Self. Inside, beyond the ego mind, in the deep inner spaciousness of Who we really Are, the Self is constant, never changing. When we go within, still the mind and connect, then we make contact with that which is unchanging regardless of seasons and states of ego mind. In this state of Awareness, there is peace and contentment.

The point of this work is to make contact in this way and rest in this Awareness. Now you are being Who you really Are.

Then, when you have finished, go about your daily tasks with some part of you still in contact, even if in thought or intention, like a space inside, with your Self.

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Reaching a crisis or a turning point in your life

What might need to happen for you to trigger a re-evaluation of your life?

Often it’s some form of mid-life crisis – except it seems this is now happening to much younger people.

It is being suggested by a recent survey that people’s “mid-life crisis” even starts as early as the mid-30’s, due to work and relationship pressures. It is being said that the age group 35-44 is more prone to feelings of loneliness or depression. Traditionally such a crisis was associated with the 40’s age group but the research found that it is starting earlier.

This fits with our own anecdotal evidence that the age group that is most active in seeking new directions and in joining our seminars is exactly this age group.

The research mentioned above cites difficulties in relationships at work, financial worries impacting people with families, long working hours and the impact that has on home life, and relationship issues within the home such as the distribution of household chores, child care, sexual problems and arguments. This group also has the highest expectations in terms of career success.

Our own impression is that the stress of modern living is taking its toll on younger and younger people and that thus the questioning of what it is all about, the review of life direction, the search for new meaning so often characteristic of the ‘40’s age group in the past is now spreading more widely across the population. I would also suggest that the “Great Recession” has led more people to question the materialistic values that have underpinned the previous long period of economic growth: “What was all that for?”

Such crises leading people to re-evaluate where they are going come for a wide variety of reasons. There are the issues at work and in relationship mentioned above, but a relationship breakup is just one of a range of factors: it could be a redundancy or a major change at work, a major or life-threatening illness or accident, bereavement, moving home, birth of children, children leaving home for some reason, menopause, issues with fertility, and any number of other matters that force on one the sense that somehow life is not delivering as had seemed likely. It can come gradually or as a sudden realisation. It might be a prolonged period of depression or a sudden event that acts as a wake-up call. At some point in all this people start to reach out, search for help and look for solutions. And re-evaluate.

The re-evaluation might be about finding ways to manage or change the condition that led them to reach out in the first place. Or it might be more fundamental, about creating more meaningful contact with people, what they want out of life, what it is all for, what can give a sense of meaning, how they can re-gain a sense of control, what can re-ignite joy and contentment.

What is so important is that these people make the decision to make a change. This is the key first condition for self-empowerment, the decision at some level to take responsibility and do something about it.

You can work with that.