Silence is Golden

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Silence is not the absence of something

but

the presence of everything.

   John Grossmannn

 

 My best friend Sally and I could ride our ponies for hours through the English countryside where I grew up.

On the way back home, all of us – humans and horse – tired from our outing, would mosey our way along the grass verge, feet out of the stirrups, dangling our boots through the cow-parsley, while the ponies took the odd snack-on-the-go.

In those moments, life often seemed sweet and almost perfect, and it wouldn’t take much for one of us to burst into the chorus of one of our favourite songs…

‘Silence is golden, but my eyes still see

Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see…’

Anybody who remembers the song will know it doesn’t say much for our taste at the time, but it was 1967 and we were 12-years-old, and we were collectively in love with the Tremeloes, who, as it turned out were going to be a one-hit wonder, with not even, as I found out many years later, their own song.

What I remember thinking in those far-off days, and it’s a thought that has stayed with me all my life, is that there are two kinds of silence – an outside silence, which in a sense does not really exist, and an inner one, which arrives on a rare occasion – well, rare to me at least – unbidden, as a sudden sense of quiet inner peace.

I grew up in the country, and I now live in the country, and I still horse-ride – these days through the green macadamia-covered hills of northern New South Wales.

Until recently when we sadly lost my daughter’s Shetland pony, Sally-the-Boy to a brain tumour,  I would take my daughter for a trail ride on him, and  I would walk beside her.  Whenever we did our lane outing, she liked to close her eyes, so, as she said, she could hear the ‘quiet’ sounds. And the quiet sounds were the sounds her pony’s hooves make clip-clopping steadily along, the sound of the breeze, the carolling of the magpies and the far-off hum of the motorway.

If you want to further the argument that silence in a sense is a concept, and not something that really exists – think of the phrase, ‘Silence please’, and where it is used.

Take a school classroom for instance, at the beginning of an exam and the room falls quiet as students begin the unenviable task of working through an exam paper – is it silent in there? Of course not. There are a million little noises: the scraping of shoes on the floor, the occasional cough, the sound of a chair being adjusted, paper being turned – there is almost, in fact, a ‘noise’ of concentration.

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And yet, conversely despite this outside noise that makes the notion of silence not – in any world I know at least – a reality, there is that time when you are in the exam, when your inner world is in silence. Then, if you are lucky and you have studied your subject, a kind of meditative trance falls on you where you become unaware of anything around you, blocking out everything other than that which you are doing.

When we were children we used to play many games in the fields and the woods around my home. One of them, a perennial favourite, involved an attempt to be silent. One of us would hide our eyes into a tree, while another would pretend to be a Red Indian – as we still called native American Indians then – and would creep silently up behind to scare the person hiding their eyes. Sometimes if one of us was feeling cruel, we would all run off and leave the innocent waiting to be startled alone at the tree, and as I know, that produced its own torturous silence – the silence of no response.

For a large part of the past 35 years I have been a journalist working in busy newspaper and magazine offices, and in those offices the ability to call on inner silence becomes absolutely vital. They’re noisy places, newspaper offices. Not quite as noisy as they were pre-computers, but noisy enough. A large open plan-office with telephones ringing and people talking, meeting, arguing, creating is not necessarily the kind of place that you would think would be conducive to writing, but write you must – and so you do – learning to block out every sound, so that you can meet your deadline. Much, dear reader, as I am doing now.

In a relatively quiet, relatively small space in my house, with white desks and two windows overlooking the paddocks below, I am typing an essay on silence. Outside I can hear the sound of the neighbour on his ride-on mower, every now and then my son’s mobile phone pings. I can hear the magpies, crows, rosellas, butcher birds, minah birds and doves that are just part of the noise landscape. One of the dogs is drinking water, each lap magnified by my attempt to hear silence. If I pause for a moment, I can absorb these sounds deep inside, and by absorbing them they become part of the silent interior, the place from which I am attempting to write.

William Penn once wrote: “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” For me that rings true, because the curious thing about turning into the inner world is how energising it is.

Sometimes, although not often enough, I manage to get up in the very early hours of the morning to meditate. Even then, deep in the country at four in the morning, the world is not silent. The creaks and groans of an old house keep me company; the cat appears at my side and grooms herself, if there is rain every tiny drop is magnified by the absence of day noise, and the silence of the night reveals itself as anything but, as I try to empty my mind and find that still place within.

If nature is so noisy, is it ever silent? “See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grow in silence,” said Mother Teresa. “See the stars, the moon and the sun how they move in silence….we need silence to be able to touch souls.” I like that idea that the tree whose branch creaks over my roof, is growing in silence, that silence can be something tangible, if not in fact what we assume it to be. I’ve never thought of the sun, stars and moon as silent, but it’s true, at least from a human perspective. I see its trajectory over my house, I don’t hear it and that somehow reinforces the idea of silence being a sensation, having a presence, rather than an absence.

I have often wondered if wilderness places are silent – if you climb Mount Everest, for instance, do you sit in silence? In the Antarctic are you surrounded by silence? People tell me this is not so, that even in the quietest places there is noise, even if the noise is the beating of your own heart – even the absence of noise can be noisy.

There is a wonderful book by photographer Jeffrey Gusky entitled ‘Silent Places’. This poignant photographic journey through Eastern Europe documents in black and quite the crumbling landscape of the Holocaust. Houses, synagogues, railway lines, a simple corridor, a door, the entry to a Jewish home now used as a public toilet – every image silently tells a screaming story. His work is of outstanding quality, and somehow what he brings to the photographs is even more poignant than those of the time – the absence of people tells us these were their homes, their places of worship, of education and play – and in the case of the railway line to Auschwitz, their journey to death.   You feel that if you stare at them long enough you will bring them to life somehow, that the families will return, peeking out of the shadows, bringing light and love and warmth and noise with them, but until then this landscape bears silent witness to the bloody past.

 

 

'Corridor in Kazimierz', former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

‘Corridor in Kazimierz’, former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

Battlefields, memorials, cenotaphs, burial mounds, roman ruins – everywhere where man has once existed but is no longer, it is not the silence, or lack of it, in the direct environment of these places it is the silence of the structures themselves that strikes one as being so overwhelming, hinting at one’s own mortality. I am here, I am noise, I am flesh, I am anything but silent, my blood flows, my heart beats, my stomach growls, my joints creak, my eyes see, my ears hear, tongue tastes, in each movement I make, each kiss or cuddle I give or receive, in each angry word, or happy laugh or bossy command I am an active presence.

Perhaps it is this more than anything that creates anxiety for a lot of people around the idea of silence. In a world full of iPods, iPads, tablets, phones, facebook and computers, whether we live in the (supposed) peace and quiet of the country, or the white noise of a city, the idea of silence, without or within, can be laden with fear. I can’t hear, does that mean people can’t hear me? Do I, if I am not constantly in contact with humanity, matter? My lack of silence, my constant interaction reassures me – I am here, I do matter, I am in contact.

The very fact of modern human’s difficulty with silence means that it is increasingly more important for us to acknowledge it, to hold it within and embrace the silence – to give our soul a chance to speak.

Perhaps one of the best-known prose poems in the world is the Desiderata, which far from being written in the 1600s as was commonly thought, was in fact penned by Max Ehrmann in 1927. Ehrmann, a philosopher and writer who wrote six books in ten years and then became a lawyer because he felt he would never write a book that made him enough money to support his family, would be astonished and gratified to know that 84 years later the Desiderata is one of the most widely read poems in the world.

‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste,’ he wrote, ‘and remember what peace there may be in silence.’

What he was speaking of, I am sure, is inner silence – that deep, profound state of being when all is right with the world, so right that one could still be compelled, in the right circumstances – a horse ride along a quiet avenue of trees, a dog or three at my heels – in my case – to sing out loud, ‘Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see’. And always to remember, of course the wise words below:

Keep-calm-and-enjoy-the-silence

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The Worry Monster, Mother’s Day and muddling through…

Cranes from the Art of Japan exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art

Cranes from the Art of Japan exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art

I woke up in the early hours of the morning to the sound of the rain on the roof – as I so often do living in the green hills of the Northern Rivers.  (Note to self:  In Australia, a country renowned for its droughts, there’s a reason why this area is always green.  Second note to self:  Always research an area before moving there.)

As I lay there wondering if it was too early to get up at 4.30 am and work, the Worry Monster came to visit, and soon we were running through our favourite conversations – too many horses with too many fungal diseases (also due to the weather); too little time, too much to do, not enough money, no clear direction at the moment as to the way forward – and why not?  And what is wrong with me??? Everything was absolutely focussed with crystal-like clarity on what is wrong with my life.

And this day, the Saturday before Mother’s Day is always a little hard because three years ago we were told a very beautiful and valuable thoroughbred horse, Fox, whom we’d owned only for a few months, was dying of pneumonia.  It was a catastrophic series of tiny mistakes which had led us to this sad place, but there we were with just the slightest chance he would make it through the night, but at 5.00am on Mother’s Day morning, he died, and I’ve felt the sadness most acutely at this same time of year ever since.

I took a deep breath.  After several years of trying my best to acquire the positive habit of the Law of Attraction I knew I wasn’t doing myself any favours.

I decided, as I also often do, to tune into one of my favourite shows – Jennifer McLean’s Healing with the Masters, and her replay of her interviewer with author and teacher, Patricia Cota-Robles.

And there it was – the exact phrase I needed for that moment:

“The company of heaven say that worry is a way of praying for what you don’t want.”

 OMG!  So true.

I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself, ignore the rain and take the dogs for a walk before I fed the horses.

As I drove up the lane where I live there was a single White-headed pigeon sitting bang-slap in the middle of the road.  I had to get out of the car and shoo it away before it decided to fly up into the nearest tree – and that was just the start of my morning adventures.

The pigeon was followed by more bird-life than I usually see in weeks, all in the space of half-an-hour.  Ground-nesting plovers stalked imperiously away from me scolding me crossly for daring to drive through their territory; flocks of Australian White Ibis and the Black-headed Ibis took to the sky in their droves as the dogs and I walked up and down the avenues of macadamia trees trying to avoid the pouring rain, a pair of delicate Grey Herons, (actually the Australian White-faced Heron by the way), rose gracefully into the air looking exactly like birds on a Japanese scroll.  Even the sky – a deep shade of Payne’s Grey – looked like a painting, ominous, brooding and beautiful all at once. On the way home a pair of Willy Wagtails and a pair of Butcher Birds were right next to the White-headed pigeon – which led me to wonder why the pigeon was by itself?  Had it lost its mate?  After all, pigeons are monogamous and mate for life – like many bird species who seem to have achieved something with which we humans have difficulties. Were the other birds keeping it company in its loneliness?

Stranger things have happened – certainly in my animal-filled life!

Talking of which, what do you when you get home and you need to move a guinea pig and rabbit from a horse stable so you can put two horses in the two stables in order to dry them out a bit?  You put them in an Ikea laundry basket – you know, the silver ones, with a wire frame and fine mesh all around.  Plenty of air, light to carry, fine enough mesh that the sawdust doesn’t fall out – problem solved – and it only took 20 minutes of chasing them around the stable to get them in there.

(Of course all of that might beg the question as to why the guinea pig and rabbit are in a horse stable to begin with, and that goes back to the weather.  They’re living in massive five-star hotel luxury because they were constantly being rained out in their previous home and I got sick of rescuing them.  Now they live in a stable big enough for a 17hh warmblood, and are ejected only when I need the stable.)

Then, because ‘needs must’, as my mother used to say, I heat up a bowl of olive oil – not as a nature’s own remedy for me, but in order that I can rub it in to one of the horse’s legs.  Our old show-jumper, Cardigan, gets regular outbreaks of Greasy Heel, which spreads up his legs, and olive oil is just one of the numerous treatments we have to apply.  I let the leg soak up the oil for a while before I spend half-an-hour happily engrossed in scratching scabs off.

By now my human needs are more than calling me – it’s time for a shower, breakfast and a cup of tea.

I discover, to my surprise, that I’ve enjoyed this morning much more than I might have thought I would when I first woke up, and the Worry Monster has been well and truly banished – at least for a while, and when she makes her presence felt I will remember, when I worry, I am praying for what I don’t want.

The illustration with this post is actually of cranes, of course, but it captures the heron spirit!

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When Less is More

Kansas Carradine has a conversation with Gretel at the Byron Bay Equestrian Centre.  Photograph Candida Baker

Kansas Carradine has a conversation with Gretel at the Byron Bay Equestrian Centre. 

“The next frontier is of a spiritual nature. Our success is no longer defined by our accumulation of material goods, but by being in service to a worthy cause.”

 Ariana Strozzi

 It’s a wonderful thing in life that we can know, or believe we know, a lot about something, and still find that there is plenty more to learn.

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to attend a clinic given by one of the Cavalia riders, Kansas Carradine, at the Byron Bay Equestrian centre.  If you haven’t yet caught up with Cavalia, think Cirque du Soleil with horses…

Carradine, who grew up in Hollywood (her father was David Carradine) has been involved with Cavalia and with trick riding for many years, but on the side she has been discovering a whole new area – Equine Guided Education.

After studying with Ariana Strozzi of Skyhorse Ranch in the US for some years, Carradine is now teaching this most gentle and yet revealing of horse practices.

I thought horse-whispering and natural horsemanship were already a world away from most of the accepted practices we learn on how to interact with horses, but Equine Guided Education takes it a step further – with absolutely no riding involved, and with the horses at liberty in an arena, the session quickly becomes more about what the horses show us about ourselves, than what we might traditionally consider we should show the horses!

With four horses at liberty, there was bound to be a bit of non-verbal discussion, and one mare, Gretel, and her follower, Lucy, quickly established themselves as the leaders. Another mare, Belle, and a gelding, Brierley, seemed, at first, to be much more on the outside, and yet, as the day progressed, the seemingly disinterested Brierley connected to those of us in the group in an absolutely magical way as he went quietly from one person to the other, choosing to stand by us, and in a couple of instances, to offer healing.

Tesse Ferguson, Manager of the Byron Bay Equestrian Centre, with her girls, Gretel and Lucy.

Tesse Ferguson, Manager of the Byron Bay Equestrian Centre, with her girls, Gretel and Lucy.

It was surprising too, to see this most submissive horse, firmly suggest to the other horses that when he was with the humans they were not to come near.

We were asked continually to think about ourselves, how did we react being in a group of horses?  Could we imagine being a horse?  What issues did the different horses behaviour bring up for us?

It was a day full of surprises and revelations.  Some of the ideas that Carradine brought to our attention intrigued me.  She talked of how important it is to horses – and of course for ourselves – that our inside and outside landscape must match, that we must, as she put it, be congruent.  She asked as us to look at where our attention was drawn, which horses we were drawn to and why.

At one point three of us role-played being one horse, and were asked to silently move amongst the horses, as if we were a horse, which was an extraordinary spatial experience – particularly when we were sawn in half by a horse coming between us!

To truly try and put oneself into a horse’s hooves is to begin to understand their immense sensitivity to their environment – and to us.

Brierley initiates communication...

Brierley initiates communication…Photography for this article by Candida Baker

 

Happy Next Month Resolutions!

It really is that time of year again, isn’t it? You know, the time when we’ve made all those New Year resolutions and now we’re finding them hard to keep.

No matter that we know full-well that we want to stop smoking, or drinking, or we want to exercise more, or be generally calmer, kinder, happier, more saint-like people, our human fallibility overcomes us, and quite soon, probably around now, we find we’re just simply back where we were before.

Why exactly is it that bad habits are so hard to break – and good habits hard to make?

Well, to begin with there’s a little thing called the brain – and its neurons love a well-trod path.

Deviate from that path – the double-shot latte at 10am, for example, or the hidden nail-biting indulgence just before bed, and anxiety sets in.

Scientists believe it takes three weeks to break – or make – a habit, and they’ve also found that people who complicate their habit-breaking rules are far less likely to succeed.

Also – and here’s the reason why so many New Year resolutions fall down – our brains and bodies need to be on the same page – fully united in the habit-breaking goal. Not easy when Christmas and New Year have left us all exhausted, surrounded by relatives, and children on school holidays, not to mention anxious about money as well!

The beginning of January is often not the best time to break a habit. A better New Year’s resolution would be to say that on February 1 you’re going to start your new regime, and give yourself a month to get prepared.

So what can you do to help yourself stick to a goal?

The first thing the habit-experts suggest is to break ONE habit at a time, so no multi-tasking – taking up exercise, giving up smoking, drinking and swearing all at once. Pick one, and make the rules simple.

Rather than telling yourself you’re going to exercise four times a week and do several activities, concentrate on something really achievable and easy – a 30-minute walk twice a week, for instance.

One thing the brain does need, however, is a replacement habit. I gave up coffee eight weeks ago, and replaced it with something just a little more exciting than my normal weak black tea – Earl Grey with a dash of sugar or an iced tea or a chai. I couldn’t say it was easy, but it did work. I also decided this year I’m going to try and pace the changes I want in my life throughout the year instead of enthusiastically dumping them on one little day.

Our New Year’s resolutions often set us up for failure, partly because, as Moshe Bar, director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Mass. General and Harvard Medical School explains in the Boston Globe, there’s more to the issue than just willpower.

“Our brains seek to be rewarded constantly, those rewards – manifested as pleasure and positive mood – are made up of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. Those molecules stock the shelves of the best opium den in the world, the one right between our ears, and we’re all hooked on them.”

To summarize, neurotransmitters are nature’s trick for encouraging us to do what is supposedly best for us, and every time we achieve a goal, we go to our ‘happy’ place. However, the little pleasure centre in our brain is also activated by drugs, alcohol, food and sex, to name just a few. Fortunately the pleasure centre is also activated by exercise, meditation, creativity, singing and movement, to also name a few.

Hence the need to replace one habit with another, and even that, say the experts, should be done with a plan. If you want to replace watching TV with going for a run for instance, and you are experiencing a lot of inner resistance, try simply wearing your running shoes in the house for half-an-hour in the evening… walk about the house instead of watching television. Give your brain the chance to get used to the idea.

And use the SMART acronym so widely employed in business: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Trackable. It really works.

So what do you do if it’s just about now that you’re feeling despondent – the memory of all those best intentions being put firmly back in their box, and if you’re really hard on yourself a little balloon in your brain going ‘failure… I knew you couldn’t do it’?

You can still do it. Just prioritize your resolutions. Take one, make a plan, replace a habit, don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself a few weeks to introduce your brain to the idea that it’s going to work with you not against you on this one, and start again on February 1.


Happy habit breaking or making…

 

 

The Reluctant Vegetarian

It’s only a few days until Christmas, and I’m in a right pickle.

You see, for the past 30 years I’ve done something special to feed the ravening hordes. I cook, from scratch, a smoked raw leg of ham. The process takes place over a 24-hour period – first I soak it overnight, then I boil it with cider and herbs, and then roast it in the Weber or the oven. The result is a mouth-wateringly tender, juicy home-roasted ham that lasts right up until New Year’s Eve.

But something strange has been going on for me this year. After a lifetime as a carnivore, I’ve found that for some inexplicable reason, I really don’t want to eat meat.

As an animal lover I wish I could take the moral high ground and say that it began as a philosophical stand, but having grown up on a farm in England where we were quite likely to be saying hello to Harry the Calf, and be eating him a few weeks later, it isn’t that – or at least, it’s only partly a newly-acquired meat-eating conscience.

It seems as if I can’t any longer tolerate the idea of eating meat if I don’t know where it’s come from, how it’s been raised and treated, and how it’s been killed.

This is mildly inconvenient in my household to say the least. I’m surrounded by meat-eaters, and so I can’t fully embrace my new-found tofu, soy and lentil personality without a degree of difficulty which includes cooking two meals at a time.

To be honest I miss my meat-eating days. I was one of the World’s Great Carnivores.

When I was a child we lived in a small village that was part of a large farming estate. Our regular diet included local lamb, beef, pork and free-range chicken. As I grew up I even acquired a taste for raw meat – one of my best meat memories was being taken out to dinner by my film producer uncle to a star-studded restaurant in London. I was more impressed by my first steak tartare than by the fact that Julie Christie was eating there as well.

I’ve always been adventurous when it comes to eating animals.

I’ve eaten frogs legs and snails in Paris – not to mention steak so blue it was just about mooing – warthog and crocodile in Zimbabwe; goat in Pakistan; haggis, venison and pheasant in Scotland and snake, kangaroo and shark in Australia. (My father even persuaded me to try tripe once, but that was an experience I’d rather forget. Tripe seems to be a ‘man’ thing. My Dad belonged to a sort of secret tripe society – they’d meet in someone’s house when the rest of the family was away and have tripe orgies. Yuk.)

So Christmas for me has always meant a wonderful meaty indulgence – the home-cooked ham, the turkey and an entire fillet of beef. But here I am my desire to please the masses fighting with my desire to indulge in a mouth-watering mung bean salad overflowing with mushrooms and sunflower seeds.

The other worry is that giving things up seems to have become a bit of an unintentional habit. First there was alcohol 12 years ago when I was pregnant with my daughter, then there was a food allergy to – how unfair is this – chilli and chocolates, and in the past few years wheat’s hit the dust due to middle-aged spread, dairy’s ok in moderation, and just a few weeks ago my body made the also not very welcome decision to give up coffee.

I wish I could be virtuous about it all, and claim a higher philosophical ground, or a raised consciousness, or something, but I think it’s a bit more basic than that. I think that as I’m beginning to look 60 in the eye, with a sort of wary sideways glance, my body seems to be kindly suggesting ways to stay healthy. I guess this is good for me, but it’s not easy adjusting to this new way of living.

I’ve been pondering the ham conundrum for the past few months, and I’ve found a solution – I’ve ordered the ham, but not the turkey or the beef. Is it a compromise, or being chicken, so to speak? Anyway, it’s done now – and the ham will be served hot and dripping with spices and honey and fresh mango on Christmas Eve.

And beside it will sit my delicious mini-soy nut roast and vegetarian lasagne.

Happy Christmas to everybody no matter what your dietary persuasion!

Go to http://thehoopla.com.au/category/wellbeing/ for more columns, or visit my website:  www.candidabaker.com

 

The Green Eyed Monster

O! beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
William Shakespeare, Othello

I sometimes wonder to myself about the purpose of what you might call ‘negative’ emotions.

After all, it’s easy to see why, in an ideal world, we should all be filled with love, compassion and kindness, but not so easy to fathom why our human condition comes complete with the other side of the coin – our list of seven deadly sins: anger, avarice, jealousy (or envy) pride, lust, sloth and greed.

Of all of those, perhaps the most mutable is jealousy. It seems, to me at least, to be made of a shifting quicksand of emotions, ready to strike in the most surprising of ways.

As a parent, I’ve often witnessed my own children when they were little become jealous if I’ve given too much attention to another child, or even to an adult; and whilst not prone to an overload of emotional jealousy I certainly have experienced it on occasions, and I’ve also been in relationships where the male of the species has felt threatened not just by my male friendships but even by female friendships – and even by my connection with animals.

Of course, there are different types of jealousy, and for the purposes of this article at least, we will distinguish the idea of jealousy and envy by using the philosopher John Rawls’ definition of the difference between the two is that jealousy involves the wish to keep what one has, and envy the wish to get what one does not have.

So I may well be envious of the person or people who win $100million in the lottery; or envious of someone who has a job I think I could do, or envious of someone who owns my ideal horse (my personal envy demon!), but I would become jealous if someone tried to muscle in on my closest relationships, my family or friends.

Perhaps too, if we follow that line of thought, jealousy seems more associated with emotions, where envy is more associated with a desire for something material.

In terms of emotional jealousy, the obvious adult minefield is, of course, infidelity.

According to a 2004 research paper by Buss, Green & Saboni, and perhaps obviously to most of us, men are more threatened and made jealous by sexual infidelity, whereas women are more hurt by emotional infidelity (emotional withdrawal by their partner), or abandonment.

But whilst sexual jealousy is probably the kind of jealousy most of us have either experienced from someone, or suffered from ourselves, there are many other kinds of jealousy that can affect our daily lives.

I know I, for one, was extremely jealous of my younger sister, although not jealous of my younger twin sisters below her in age. I spent – or wasted – years being unpleasant to her and then had a hard time making up that spoiled ground later in life.

Jealousy in the office, romantic jealousy – even friendship jealousy – in all its forms jealousy can tear at our hearts, and it has a curious way of magnifying the situation as well, so something that many years later we look back at and laugh at as being so trivial as to be hardly worth our attention, becomes all-consuming.

As a generalization little girls, it seems to me, experience jealousy long before little boys. (In fact a wise man of my acquaintance recently said to me he thought little girls practised every single emotion between each other in order to hone their skills by the time they got into relationships, so their significant others could remain in a permanent state of confusion!)

We’ve recently been experiencing the classic two’s company three’s a crowd syndrome, which I well remember from my own childhood.

Something to be said for emotions such as jealousy and anger is that they are emotions we practice – particularly when we are young – to protect us from perceived or real threat. As such their presence in our emotional make-up bag is essential, but it’s when they become reactive or obsessive that things go wrong – and, if as an adult, we don’t adjust our emotional radar to something a little more calm and centred!

So if we suffer from jealousy, what can we do to overcome it?

As with any emotional reaction or unwanted behaviour the first key is awareness – we have to understand that just because we tell ourselves something is ‘true’, does not necessarily make it so – we have to shift our point of view so we can step back from the story in our minds, and identify our emotional triggers.

It’s hard to believe when we are in an emotional state that we can make a choice about what we feel or how we react, and for most of us mere mortals, even when we do acknowledge it there are times when reaction gets the better of us.

But I think most of us would acknowledge that jealousy is based on feelings of insecurity; likewise if someone is projecting jealousy on us, they might say that we are causing them to be jealous, which is really a statement of the fact that they are feeling insecure and powerless.

As quotation anthologist Terri Guillemets writes: ‘Jealousy injures us with the dagger of self-doubt.”

Practicing Compassion

Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed
~
 The Buddha

Whenever there is a disaster in the world, natural or otherwise, it does a curious thing – it brings out the best in us.

All of us stop for a moment, don’t we, and feel a mixture of gratitude that we and our loved ones are safe, and sorrow for those suffering from the earthquake, tsunami, bushfire, flood or, in the case of Haiti and the American eastern seaboard, a hurricane called Sandy.

New York workers prepare for the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy
 It’s then that our natural compassion comes to the fore. And yet, curiously, compassion, the virtue of empathy for the suffering of others, is not necessarily as readily available to us at other times.

In our ordinary, everyday lives it seems – on the face of it – that we have less need of compassion than at those times of crisis, be it family, community, or world-wide.

The etymology of compassion is Latin, meaning co-suffering; whereas empathy is the more simple attribute of understanding, compassion contains the desire to stop the other person’s suffering.

Deepak Chopra writes in his book Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul of the Tibetan Buddhist monks who developed ‘compassionate brains’ as the result of practicing a meditation on compassion, thereby transforming a spiritual quality into physical manifestation, erasing the split between body and soul.

Compassion: a Victorian firefighter cares for a koala left homeless by bushfires. Photo by Russell Vickery via smh.com.au.

 But why are some people more compassionate than others? Why is it that psychopaths allegedly have no compassion, and are able to inflict cruelty without even the comprehension of what they are doing?

Chopra wonders whether even psychopaths might be brought to understand the nature of compassion through a change of brain activity.

To become compassionate, or more compassionate takes practice …as does every emotion, both good and bad.  It’s not good enough to just think about being compassionate, or even learn about it, it’s about somehow rewiring the brain so you walk in other people’s shoes; and again growth is exponential, as we begin to feel and practice compassion in one area of our lives, it begins to flow into other areas.

In Hinduism compassion is called daya, and is one of the three central virtues, along with charity and self-control. Vasudeva Datta, a 16th century Vaishnava holy man prayed to Krishna to deliver “all conditioned souls” because his heart “breaks to see the sufferings.”

In Judaism, God is known as the Compassionate and invoked as the Father of Compassion, and in Buddhism compassion, or Karuna is the transformative heart of his teachings, both for the self, and others.

Or as the Dalai Lama has said: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

How do you practice something you can’t see? It’s not like riding a bicycle exactly, but curiously the steps are very much the same. You choose to be genuinely interested in compassion, you pursue your interest spontaneously – choosing for instance to feel compassion instead of critical towards someone whom you believe has slighted or behaved badly towards you. You stick with the practice until you get good at.

One of the ways to cultivate compassion is using it to defuse anger, which is considered a low-level emotion, and usually disguises fear, and one of the very best ways to cultivate it, is to try feeling compassionate for yourself – which, when you stop and think about it is much easier said than done.

In fact, it’s downright difficult to be compassionate about what may seem afterwards to be obvious mistakes we’ve made, and yet if we can’t feel true compassion towards ourselves how can we feel it towards others?

Children, of course, can swing between compassion and sympathy, to cruelty and scorn in a millisecond, but as we grow up, our ability to be compassionate is often diminished by what we perceive to be condemnation towards us, and by the time we are adults, our natural compassion has got buried under a ton of beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.

But when one of the largest cyclonic wind systems on record has caused sixty deaths in Haiti before it even reached its destination of the Eastern States of America, then for most of us compassion becomes a natural response – and thank goodness for that.

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.
~ Thomas Merton