Parenting Paddington

It’s been a remarkably peaceful few days in my household and without too much statistical analysis, I’ll hazard a guess that this is as a result of the absence of one of the smallest members of the tribe who I shall refer to as Paddington Bear.

I’m not a huge fan of children’s films – they are usually too loud, too vibrant and too overwhelmingly active for me and result in me leaving the cinema in a state of frenetic exhaustion. A couple of weeks ago however, I found myself unwittingly in front of Paddington The Movie. I enjoyed it – but perhaps more importantly something resonated with me which took a while to recognise. I realised that somehow, completely apparently by chance, Paddington himself, he of the marmalade sandwich and hard stare – or at least one of his relatives, had taken up residence in my house a few years ago…..

The curious brown furry creature is one of the most endearing children you could imagine – but also one of the most exhausting, infuriating and exasperating. A wonderful mixture of affection, curiosity, individuality, logic and persistence with an insatiable appetite for almost everything food related, a special interest in the footpaths of Southern England and a hugely exuberant need to express himself physically and in words to pretty much everyone he meets.

I veer between immense reverence for his individuality and his sunny life view and complete despair at the task of bringing up one so at odds with the conventional quiet well behaved child. I have to admit that when things get really tough, almost always because I’m tired or some other life event has interceded to put the pressure on, I do end up rolling down the familiar victimhood root, why me? Life would be so easy if he was “normal”…. you get the picture.

The realisation that Paddington had taken up residence has had some interesting consequences, not least, there has been a shift from myself and the other younger members of the clan, in the treatment of our errant one. It’s as though our judgement of him has softened. Instead of interpreting his chaotic often clumsy disruptive behaviour as a problem we are tending to see it more as part of the idiosyncrasies of a large and furry mammal trying to make sense of a chaotic world not really designed for creatures like him. Instead of constantly chastising him for his eating habits – which incidentally closely resemble that of a particularly hungry chocolate labrador, we are more gentle, reminding him now and then with a half smile, that knives and forks are laid by the side of his plate for a reason.

So what to learn from this.

The biggest lesson is that it is a choice to see someone in a particular light. All too often an unconscious choice made as a result of hundreds of past encounters which have shaped our reality. A slight shift in perception can have dramatic results in terms of the quality of our lives and in particular in terms of our relationships with others. If we view life as inherently positive and people as trustworthy we will certainly have a very different experience from people who view life as a dangerous jungle inhabited by savages who are out to get them. Of course the reality in this situation is probably somewhere in between – but by looking on somebody as a problem, in your own reality this is what they become and since we suffer when we want things to be different from the way they really are, we then seek to solve the problem or suffer in our desire by wishing what is, was not.

As for my own personal Paddington. He has become less of a problem and more of a pleasure. The films underlying messages about tolerance and acceptance and the dry British wit with which it was delivered made it an unexpected favourite in my book.

I’ll leave the last words to the films eponymous hero:

“I’m not a criminal” said Paddington hotly. “I’m a bear” – Michael Bond. A Bear Called Paddington

 


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Celebrating achievement

 

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I’ve always had a vague feeling of un ease surrounding the concept of self-esteem:

In sociology and psychology, self-esteem reflects a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self. So looking to develop high self esteem doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing. From personal experience, living with integrity – that is living in accordance with my own values even when in the short term it’s not particularly comfortable, has had a huge impact on my ease of being. But there is a darker side of the ubiquitous hunt to feel good about ourselves….

In our highly competitive goal orientated society, there’s a suggestion that to be worthwhile you need to be somehow special – the best, the fastest, the thinnest, the most beautiful, the best mother, even the best meditator …. the endless list. So when you’re not feeling worthwhile, the message is join the chase to become better, then you will feel better about yourself.

Self esteem inherently requires a judgement to be made – it’s all about having a particular cluster of traits which set you apart from other people – that make you somehow special and in doing so it’s no longer OK to belong, to be average. This sets into motion a damaging pattern of competitiveness and self-absorption – which at best isolates us and at worse might even lead us to have to put down others in our attempts to come out on top.

The irony is that life is inexorably linked to suffering – So there are bound to be things that make you feel lousy, times when you fail, when other people do better – and before long if you’re not careful in the quest for the elusive self-esteem you’ll be roller coasting along, heading into the sunset chasing the next thing that will make you feel worthwhile.

Even the culture of praise which is often encouraged in our attempts to be enlightened parents, brings with it an unwelcome payoff:

If we raise children whose positive sense of self-worth is closely linked to how well they are doing, to other people’s approval, we risk creating a generation of people pleasers who are reluctant to take risks and who rely on their environment being “just so” in order to feel good about themselves.

I’ve sometimes wondered if we aren’t creating a society of Narcissists – people with and overwhelming need for admiration and affirmation – whose sense of self is largely reliant on the positive reaction of those around them, who will struggle to deal with failure, with constructive criticism and with the reality that none of us are perfect – that we all share a common humanity and that it’s often our struggles that unite us.

Perhaps instead we would do well to look at practicing self compassion rather than cultivating self-esteem. Self compassion involves treating yourself with kindness – as opposed to judging yourself, it requires recognition that we are all going to suffer, that we are not alone in our failures and that this can be a uniting factor. It also requires that we cultivate mindfulness in order not to get caught up in the tensions and fraughtness of the mind – with self obsession and delusion and instead look at our difficulties with the tender kindness of a dear friend.

Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.Wouldn’t it be fantastic if our children grew up with at least some of the skills to soothe themselves and maintain equanimity throughout life – rather than a relentless need to achieve in order to keep feeling good.

 

 

Saving The World (said with tongue firmly in cheek)

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The overwhelming reaction to the horror of the events in Paris last night seems to be a sense of helplessness in the face of such terrible violence and hatred.

Feeling powerless over events that are so far out of our control is an uncomfortable place to be and the immediate reaction is a desire to do something, to make a difference to save the world from future atrocity. Acknowledging this on social media might make a small difference to this feeling of collective dis-ease but the harsh reality is these are events under which we have very little control.

So we’re left in an uncomfortable position of apparent impotence in the face of a “Dark Age”, fuelled by the reality of the ongoing atrocities we humans seem to be inclined to inflict on each other and our environment. The feelings of despair and anxiety are only a stones throw away from myopic and black and white solutions : to take up arms to destroy the perceived cause of the threat; to blame; to judge ; maybe even to espouse some kind of fundamentalist views of our own. The engine driving all these reactions is the same: fear.

We know instinctively that anger and hatred can’t be fought with the same – that it will only escalate a thousand fold.

 “Hatred and fear blind us. We no longer see each other. We only see the faces of monsters, and that gives us the courage to destroy each other.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

I would argue that there are ways to meet this despair which have the real potential to make the world a better place – not by denying the feelings of anger and fear but by living with the intention of showing compassion and kindness to ourselves and to those we are close to. That we recognise our common humanity and resolve to live as far as we can with kindness takes constant practice and mindfulness to achieve and I’m certainly only part of the way there – but it has the potential to be transformative. It’s far easier to be thoughtless – it can feel better to get back at someone when they are unkind to you (at least it may feel like that to start with). It takes less effort to be reactive or not to care.

But when we touch another person’s life, our lives are being touched as well. One thing we do have control over is the shape we want our life to take.

“Wherever there is a human being there is an opportunity for kindness” Seneca 

Practical Mindfulness: A Beginners Guide

Fire on Compton Beach

Fire on Compton Beach                      Photo: Sarah Archer

Mindfulness is certainly the word of the moment. In its simplest form it really means cultivating the ability to  a compassionate observer – of your thoughts, emotions, the world unfolding in front of you.

Without this kind of clear awareness it’s difficult to navigate life with any skill and equanimity – and almost impossible in a world overflowing with information and the seductive lure of tales woven by expert marketeers

So why all the hype? Put quite simply, being mindful enables you to actually live your life, as it happens, with a “beginners mind” so that instead of applying your mind’s (made up) version of how things are – which incidentally usually has a negative spin. You are free to simply experience what is. The simplest things can become sources of joy and splendour as you become open to what’s really there right in front of you.

This is where mindfulness can lead you – to a kind of clarity of being that can then enable you to move on, using that  freedom to relate more skillfully to others, to make choices from a place of clarity rather than the murky, turbid soup of thoughts and emotions that is the reality for most of us most of the time.

Whilst there are many formal “practices”or techniques that can be learnt  to cultivate mindfulness I certainly find it relatively easy to be mindful when everything is going my way – when the kids are quiet, the sun is shining, the house isn’t looking like its habitual post hurricane apocalypse.

Really useful practical mindfulness means cultivating and applying conscious awareness to every moment in life – especially the more challenging ones. It’s not that difficult to sit in silent wonder in the corner of a peaceful room only to find that as soon as you leave and enter the real world of screaming children and work deadlines you’re straight back into the old patterns of reactivity.

So – how does it work?

The idea is to learn to watch as life happens by noticing the physical sensations within your body, the thoughts and emotions that come and go.

It’s easiest to start with small every day events that don’t tend to evoke a huge emotional response – maybe choose something like cleaning your teeth or making tea as a starting point.

Firstly WATCH – simply notice with curiosity and without judging – notice whatever comes up – thoughts, feelings, sensations, reactivity,pleasant or unpleasant watch with awareness that this is not reality.

Secondly

RELAX don’t resist the feelings that are uncomfortable or try to cling to the more pleasant ones – simply let the experience be as it is.

Thirdly

NOTICE that everything comes and goes, sensation ebbs and flows like waves – your focus comes and goes, the mind continues to chatter away – sometimes you follow it, sometimes you don’t – it doesn’t matter, nothing matters except the awareness.

At some point you’ll realise that you can be quite OK with the present moment whatever it is. This doesn’t mean passive acceptance and inaction – but it does put you in a position of being able to act from a place of clarity. Once you are OK with it, that’s the time to ask “What do I do?” and if necessary to take appropriate action.

Simple really – you just have to do it – again and again.

There are some great online resources – and some not so great if you’d like to learn more about it and try some more formal training. I would recommend the excellent free course offered by Dave Potter:   http://palousemindfulness.com/selfguidedMBSR.html

or

Mindfulness – finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams and Danny Penman  http://franticworld.com/

Unlearning Learning

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There is a real skill and joy to be found  in learning how to learn – rather than getting everything from a book or a manual – or these days a you tube “how to” video and sorting it out in your head  before you even dare to begin.

It seems to me that with our huge bank of readily accessible knowledge and expertise, we are somehow disempowered from the learning process. This works OK under controlled conditions, – but in the real, messy, creative and unpredictable space that most or our life takes place within, it can leave us paralysed, afraid to start.

So much of our everyday lives are now governed by complex systems far beyond our control  and this in turn leads to a kind of helplessness:

We rely on cars that can only be diagnosed by computer systems, the results requiring analysis by “experts’

Other experts in the form of “life coaches” tell us how we should plan our futures, “diet coaches” and “personal trainers” tell us how to look after our bodies, “Super Nanny” tells us how to bring up our children.

The goal of perfection leaves no room if you’re not careful,for not knowing, for learning, for trying things you’re not very good at, for finding joy and contentment in the process itself. There’s a danger of living in the “never quite there zone” or even worse, of giving up trying.

There’s an overall sense that we are no longer capable of running our own lives, of taking responsibility for ourselves. We have become the passive occupiers of our environment divorced from the hands on, dirty, messy reality.

From this the individual learns that it’s dangerous to take initiative and to think outside the box, native intelligence is suppressed for fear of making mistakes and personal confidence and self reliance disappear. This seems to be particularly obvious in children, many of  whom seem to  fear the consequences of simple interaction with the natural environment – with rain, cold, wind, mud and physical fatigue.

To learn in a way that nurtures resilience and self-reliance requires just the right balance of challenge and safety, it requires wise teachers modelling techniques, giving encouragement and laughter. It  also requires the confidence to get it wrong, to suck it and see. To start with  a beginner’s mind and learn with humility.

Learning in this way can  bring with it a sense of meaning and personal value – together with a connectiveness of shared wisdom, cooperation and trust. Once you leave the mind behind – at least now and then, there is an oportunity to connect directly with the body – something that seems a relative rarity in our hectic technology driven world.

It’s a way to develop a kind of earthy grounding – it seems to work best for me outside, when the feeling of weather on skin is providing a connection to the environment, in the company of nature, practicing basic human intererlatedness skills of generosity, humility, listening. Simple hands-on stuff. That’s why it works.

 

What do you see when you look at someone?

Diving Man - work in progress

Diving Man – work in progress

The making of Diving Man. It’s been an interesting journey into the world of not knowing.

Until now I’ve been a maker of animals – animals being what I know. From past training and present necessity – when I look at an animal I see it as an anatomical beast – a series of shapes, organs and bones hidden beneath hide. There’s another layer to all of this which might be summed up as “The nature of the beast” it’s the demeanour, how the animal is reacting to its enviroment what it’s feeling, its purpose. This second aspect is important from a Vet’s point of view since it allows one to predict the creature’s likely behaviour – no small matter when it comes to dealing with a bull weighing in excess of a tonne and also vital when making a diagnosis – it’s the minute details that signal intent or mood – the slight droop of ears, the angle of a hoof or flare of a nostril.

Of course we all “see” people day in day out – so it should be a relatively simple process to reproduce the form but in fact it’s something I’ve found incredibly challenging. I think this may be because in our looking we see only what we imagine to be there – what our mind has constructed. On top of our idea of physical structure is superimposed another reality – our interpretation of character, of intent – mental impressions that very often bear no resemblance the what we actually see in front of us. In other words an attempt by us as makers to define the person as a coherent whole by using past experiences and impressions both real and imagined to form an “image”.

The problem with this is that when I visualise a person in this way – it  isn’t what’s actually there – it’s my subjective representation. When I’ve used this as a template for the construction of a sculpture it just doesn’t work. The result is a horrible mishmash.

So the making of Diving Man has been a challenge in forgetting everything I know about people and looking instead at a form – at movement and shapes. At some point I could feel that the sculpture began to make itself – this sounds a bit bonkers but it does happen with most of the pieces I’ve made – or at least the ones that have worked. The conscious mind switches off and something else takes over. That’s when the fun starts.