Tag Archives: reflective writing

Compassion fatigue?

I don’t think I’ve properly understood what compassion is before this year.

Do you know what it is? And how to practice it?

All the gurus and spiritual teachers from the Dalai Lama to Mother Teresa either talk about or practice compassion – yet to the intellectual mind it’s just another word or concept that’s open to a lot of misinterpretation.

For example, how do you feel when you watch Children in Need?

Until recently I would typically sit and sob, or leave the room, or conveniently forget that it’s on in the first place so I don’t have to put myself through the self-flagellating guilt and shame that others are suffering sooo damn much and all I can do is pledge a paltry donation. Surely compassion is more than a conscience-salving monetary promise?

And when I encounter  people huddled on the street and hear that quiet plea “Got any change love?” my whole system is sent into a momentary crisis, helpless in front of the injustice and the uncertainty over what might be the right and ethical thing to do. Finding a way that feels proper to me is still a work in progress. And giving a sympathetic, conciliatory smile along with a pound coin doesn’t feel proper at all.

One day I heard a thud against the picture window in the kitchen. My heart flipped: I recognised the sound of a bird’s doom. I found the stricken gold-crest quivering on the ground by the window. I almost couldn’t confront the animal’s pain. I almost left it to its fate.

But something within me gave me courage. I remembered that keeping stunned birds warm while they recover will save them. So I gingerly, shakily scooped up the small life and held it. Tears flowed. And then joy as after about ten minutes the little creature shook itself off and flew away.

I admit that I have been woefully ill-equipped to deal with heartbreak and suffering. But maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Because this year, maybe inspired by the gold-crest, I’ve taken a different view. You might say I’ve understood how to turn the question of compassion on its head and I have gained a new, less exhausting perspective.

Seems that ‘compassion’ is not the effort required to put myself in someone else’s shoes and feel their pain, with an added dose of self-berating over my own comparative good fortune.

No. Beating ourselves up and trying to ‘feel for’ those struggling, or try and feel what they’re feeling is actually impossible.

We can’t feel what others feel. We cannot step into another person’s reality and experience. It’s arrogant to think we can. And trying to adopt another’s suffering as our own is phony and ineffective and knackering. It’s what leads to so much virtue-signalling and hypocrisy.

And if we try hard to make ourselves suffer in the face of someone else’s pain all we do is introduce more suffering. It doesn’t help anyone and it totally depletes us, making us less available to the person or creature who needs us.

The neat alternative I’ve learned to this is to “feel with” instead.

This means allowing ourselves to feel whatever is going on within us, without judging or analysing or interpreting; and allowing the emotion or the tension to move through our own system until we become neutral again. When we are calm we can be more resourceful, and we can tap into our own source of wisdom to discover the next right step.

This takes a certain degree of self-knowledge and self-awareness. We need to learn how to feel what we feel and to love ourselves through our own pain. We also need to acknowledge that calm neutrality and wisdom are constantly, albeit very quietly, available to us. We have to quieten our mind to hear it.

Journaling can help with this, but we also need to do some body work to accompany it, and perhaps some meditation. Reflective writing ought to draw on mind, body and spirit as the resources to achieve neutrality, calmness and inner peace. Then the next right step will present itself. And the gold-crest will survive.

 

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Lessons from Milner – expressing thoughts in their wholeness

Uh-oh.

It’s not quite been 20 years but there is something of the Rip van Winkle about the sleepiness of this blog.

Since reading Marion Milner my approach to journaling has shifted. And it has resulted in my living more – and writing less.

This has always been a conundrum for me. Reflective practice ought not to stifle action. It ought to stimulate action and ensure its enhanced authenticity. Being a lover of action I guess I’d always felt a bit awkward about the reflective bit and have always wanted to strike a respectable balance between the two.

Through Milner I have discovered a fascinating journaling trick which has been like super-charging my life with lightning.

Here’s what she says:

“I must learn to maintain a vigilance, not against wrong thoughts but against refusal to recognise any thought.”

At first I didn’t want to accept that I too may have been refusing to recognise certain of my thoughts. But then when I did, and when I then began to express those thoughts in my journal, things really started to shift in my outer life.

Our inner censors are so insidious and wily. No matter how articulate we are in talking about them, no matter how aware we are of their strange potential to sabotage us, they always find a way to sneak under the radar.

I noticed my inner censor was acting all rational on me. And who doesn’t want to be rational, right? But it was hiding in plain sight, making me think that rational is good, rational is me – when all along it jolly well isn’t.

My inner censor was stopping me from dreaming, and even though dream-like thoughts would nudge at me these were typically not the ones I would write about.

Suddenly when I took Milner’s advice things started to happen. It felt different to express all my thoughts – especially the ones that my inner censor would have been carefully corralling previously. But the results have been transformational.

Try it. Don’t let your inner censor lull you to sleep. Pay attention to the dreams you have when you’re awake. Be vigilant. Be alive.

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Are you an expressive or reflective journal writer?

It’s interesting to pay attention to our thinking around our journal writing practice.

As you approach your journal, do you know what you’re going to write about? Are you recording bits and pieces from your day, a snippet of conversation, a joke you heard, an interesting person you met who made you think?

Or do you dive in and just allow your pen to move across the page, without any premeditated direction or intentional end point?

It’s delicious to spend time writing and finish up somewhere unexpected, or simply in a place of deep satisfaction. I suspect this is more achievable when we do no more than express our thoughts as opposed to reflect on them.

But the distinction between expression and reflection is subtle. And it all starts with how aware we are of our thought process – and how quickly we are moved to interpret our thinking.

I recently realised that much of my journal writing was governed by my need to understand and rationalise what occurs in my experience. As a result much of what I wrote was already heavily censored before it reached the page. Of course I am very adept at tricking myself that what I am writing is authentic expression – but so much has already happened in my cognition before the pen makes its mark.

So I tried a different approach. Instead of sub-consciously crafting my words ahead of sitting down with my journal I decided to face up to what I was really thinking about, and write that down instead.

The results have been remarkable.

Firstly I can see that much of what I think about is pretty trivial. This is very humbling – and means that I can relax a bit out of my self-imposed intellectualisations. I’m just human after all – who knew?

Secondly I noticed an intense period of dreaming. As if my sub-conscious mind had been unleashed, and was determined to show me its wisdom. What was interesting was also that using my journal to record my dreams was good practice in just expressing the thoughts that were in my head, without analysis and reflection. When I found myself writing about a gentleman trying to teach a red setter to play golf I knew that I was beginning to permit myself to write anything without interpreting it first!

Thirdly I’ve noticed an increased facility with the language I’m using to describe my thoughts and experiences. This is great news for a writer! The words seem to be coming from a different place – an embodied place rather than an intellectual place. I love this particularly because I’m fascinated and encouraged by the physical, intuitive intelligence of my body. And now it’s helping me improve my vocabulary – awesome!

So what do you need to do to become more expressive in your journal? Free-writing, dream-recording and simply paying attention to the actual thoughts that occupy us are useful first steps.

Go play – and let me know how you get on!

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How journaling can reconnect us with our community

Walk into any good quality stationers and browse their journal shelf and you will doubtless find a notebook designated as a Travel Journal. This is for recording thoughts and reflections in places we visit, on holiday, or as part of a conscious effort to be ‘away from it all’, in places that aren’t part of our usual itinerary.

But what about journaling in places that are already familiar to us? That form part of the landscape we already call home? What can that do – to us? And to the place?

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading a group of journal writers through a short workshop in response to our surroundings. These were Old Town Gardens in Swindon, Wiltshire, UK. We used the Bowls Clubhouse as our base – whose members could not have been more accommodating or welcoming – and enjoyed an hour and a half of companionable journaling and reflective discussion.

First, everyone was invited to choose an inquiry from our specially created washing line:

Washing line of inquiry

Then we all embarked on a meditative stroll around the park, allowing our bodies and our minds to slow down and notice what we notice – using our senses, paying attention to whatever caught our eye, picking up “objets trouves” along the way, seeing how our perceptions were affected by the inquiry we had selected – or not! Sometimes called psycho-geography, this is a way of seeing how our environment affects us, how we interact with it and what we take away from it physically, emotionally and psychologically.

Upon our return we enjoyed a few minutes writing about our experience – what we noticed, what memories were evoked, what was important to us about the place, what connects us to it, what feelings and emotions arose, what insights occured.

And then we shared something of our reflections in a respectful and open discussion.

Everyone went away feeling completely relaxed and connected – to each other, and with renewed fondness for the place. We all experienced something of the power of community journaling, and glimpsed the potential of how this type of shared mindfulness, through the medium of reflective writing,  might help us re-shape our relationship with the environment, and with the places we each call home.

Bandstand

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Snapshot time!

The last day of the month is the time for journaling snapshots – a review of all that the out-going month has meant and a quick look inside for our next intentions. It’s something I look forward to every four weeks, and it’s happening tonight!

Meanwhile yesterday I met a woman who told me about her annual practice of writing herself a letter just before she takes down her Christmas decorations, reflecting on the year, how she’s feeling and what she might have planned for the year to come. She then tucks it away at the bottom of the decorations box, waiting for her to pick it up and read it the following Christmas time. I love this structure!

Happy snapshots!

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ESSO-powered journaling

No – I’m not talking about petrol, and I don’t wish to be an advert for fossil fuel consumption.

ESSO stands for the things I most yearn for in my life, and which I found myself writing about the other day – Ease Simplicity Serenity and Order. I love how acronyms present themselves to me and invariably bring a new metaphor along for the ride.

Those who know me and my family personally might well scoff. You know what creative chaos we live in. But if I don’t form the intention to be with more ESSO, even if it’s a pipe-dream (OMG, when will this oil-industry analogy let go?), then I have not a cat in hell’s chance of staying sane.

With ESSO in mind I picked out a new journal this week, and found one which depicts singing birds on branches next to neat little bird-boxes. I proceeded to plan my week, including all our meals, and even shopped for all the menu items. I made sure all the laundry and all the ironing got done in one attempt, and I managed to clear away all the clutter from the bedroom floor.

A little order has gone a long way to support the ease and serenity of my time this week. Maybe I have been fuelled by ESSO after all.

What are the things you’re most yearning for right now? Can you make an acronym or acrostic out of them? And what’s the metaphor that accompanies it?

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The good, the bad, and the ugly of story-telling

According to James Pennebaker, revered social psychologist and the pioneer of investigation into the healing power of expressive writing, one of the ways that writing about our stressful or traumatic experiences helps us is by providing us with the means to develop coherent narratives that help us make sense of things. In simple terms, if we can turn our experience into a story we can better come to terms with what has happened.

I agree with this. Taking a considered approach to documenting our experiences, writing about what really happened from our perspective, and how it affected us and made us feel, is an important part of journaling practice, and it can certainly help us to obtain clarity, understanding and ownership of our experience and its impact. This is the good part of telling our story.

Where things go bad is in the subsequent way we might attach ourselves to the story we have created, using that ever after to avoid situations that might feel threatening, or to rationalise our judgements about how others have behaved. This way lies self-pity, constraint, prejudice and assumption – all of which can accumulate into a new type of story-telling prison. This is the bad part.

Moreover Pennebaker’s research seems to corroborate this in the sense that he warns against obsessing over the same story for hours and days at a time. This is when things can get ugly. We become so entrenched in the re-telling of our story that we lose all objectivity and are no longer able to appreciate any other point of view except our own, which by this stage is more likely to err on the side of fiction rather than fact.

Pennebaker recommends spending no more than 15 minutes a day for three to four days writing expressively about a stressful and traumatic experience. Then I guess the idea is to let it go; do nothing else – the work has already been done in the telling of the story.

Personally I feel this doesn’t go far enough. For some people simply telling their story won’t be sufficient. They will naturally want to obsess about it! Therefore there needs to be a way of breaking out of stories that have held us captive for years; and there needs to be a better way of appreciating the point of view of other “characters” in our narrative.

Ultimately there also has to be a way of turning our experience around so it ceases to be a blame-filled story and begins to teach us something about ourselves, something that only we ourselves have any control over changing or addressing.

This is when the power of the story told through our journals becomes effective once again.

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