Something happens…

Published Categorized as emotional literacy, Mindfulness

The following is an edited (and adjusted quite a bit for a blog post) version of a service I delivered in the Octagon Chapel in Norwich in April 2024. I have come to think of the Unitarians who attend the chapel as a ‘philosophy club’ as they welcome people of all faiths and beliefs, including atheists. It’s a much, much longer post than usual so you save you time, I would only read it if you have an interest in how emotional intelligence could eventually take you on a journey towards raising your consciousness!

Here goes….

Something happens

The subject of this blog post is about the long, extremely rambling, and convoluted journey I have been on that’s meant I have ended up meditating daily…and …eventually….how much of what I have learnt in recent years all points to a similar conclusion.

Warning: it is very much not written with the structure of an essay, it does go all over the place and it starts with repetitions from other posts! However, all points made, nod in the direction of my conclusion!

I’ve called this post, ‘something happens’ because that is how I start the sessions I do for parents/carers and teachers on emotional intelligence. When I first started considering emotional intelligence many, many years ago, I had no idea how far I would go with it. It’s taken me on a huge journey – the one I am going to tell you about today and hopefully you’ll receive some thought-provoking snippets as I tell you.

So in said training, I start by saying, ‘something happens’ like:

And in response to whatever happened, you react. That sounds so simple right? What could possibly go wrong?

And yet at the point of that stimuli (or whatever happened) in theory your reaction could be one of an endless number of possibilities – including doing nothing. However, quite often our reactions:

  • are impulsive
  • can make situations worse
  • are on repeat – so that the same stimuli always triggers the same response so there is no flexibility
  • don’t often take time to stop and ponder what the best outcome might be
  • don’t always put maintaining relationships as a high priority – reactions to strong emotions can tend to be a little self-concerned
  • can be defensive or controlling – triggered by a perceived need to protect ourselves
  • and rarely consider all relevant information about the situation in a rational and unbiased way

Sadly, few of us manage to react resourcefully every time something happens, we are only human after all. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves for getting things ‘wrong’ but I do think it’s healthy to strive to get better at managing our reactions more responsibly and resourcefully – rather than letting them roll on repeat, over and over without consideration.

So, in my quest to help people understand how to gain greater emotional intelligence, I have started to succinctly describe it as:  the need to become curious about the back-story of our reactions.

This opens up the exploration of what’s going on for us in greater detail, so we start to gain a fuller story about our reactions. In doing this we not only become more self-aware, we increase the chance of being more flexible and resourceful in how we react to situations where uncomfortable emotions have been triggered, so that we are less likely to make things worse.

So when I say to people, ‘be curious about the back-story of your reactions’, they tend to look stumped for a moment. So I give them tools to help with their curiosity.  

Questions like: (and I do this with kids too)

  • What am I feeling?
  • Where am I feeling it? (particularly useful for children)
  • What kind of day have I had so far?
  • Am I tired, hungry, or physically uncomfortable in some other way and that’s impacted on how I reacted?
  • Would everyone react like I did?
  • What am I thinking that might be unhelpful? Have I made any unhelpful assumptions? (eg. like believing someone is being deliberately nasty when they were actually just stressed, struggling and therefore a bit thoughtless! )
  • How do I feel about anyone else involved and has that contributed to how I reacted?
  • Has someone touched upon something I feel sensitive about and therefore I am being defensive?
  • Do I always react this way when someone does that? Am I on repeat – e.g. Do I always feel shame when someone laughs at me because I always assume I am being mocked or do I always get angry about someone being late because I interpret that as them not respecting me?
  • Might the other person involved – just be having a bad day?
  • If someone has upset me – are there any circumstances by which I might behave the way they just did? – which of course takes the focus away from ourselves and puts what might be going on for someone else into the equation

There are many things we can be curious about – every time we react!

And once we start to be curious, we do develop greater flexibility and resourcefulness in how we respond. We can manage situations with greater awareness or more consciously – which also tends to also mean more carefully and responsibly. (I’ll also add that curiosity is an expansive emotion that can feel rewarding in itself.) (I’ll also, also add that I love the idea of the word responsibility being thought of as response – ibility: being about how we choose to carefully manage and consider our responses !)

As a teacher in a Pupil Referral Unit – for ten years where many people lasted just two terms – I worked endlessly to help children understand and better manage their emotions and reactions. Reactions which were often extremely powerful. Powerful enough to throw chairs across the room, for example – and regularly!

We might not throw chairs across the room (I am hoping this is a fair assumption) but our emotions, left un-conscious can take over and control us and mean we react – at best – clumsily or by withdrawing, and at worse hurtfully. Many of us know that when we’re in the grips of a strong emotion, we don’t often make good choices and unless we’re careful, we’re probably going to make situations worse.

Becoming emotionally intelligent or more conscious about our reactions has more benefits than preventing us from throwing chairs though – in reality or metaphorically. The starting point of developing greater emotionally intelligence is noticing our emotions arrive, as they arise – which some people are much better at than others.

The Collection – with a difference (This was for the congregation)

OK so now I am going to do something a bit different and there’s a reason for me doing it! We are about to do the collection but in a slightly different way to usual.   I’ll tell you how in a minute but, what I am going to ask you to be really mindful of – as I tell you what we are about to do and as we do it – is what thoughts are going through your head and what are you feeling? Really focus in on what is going on for you.

OK this is what we are going to do:  – as you put your donations in.  I am going to ask you to make an animal noise. A baa, a cluck, a moo, a meow, a quack – doesn’t matter which. If you really feel you cannot do it, just pass – but take a look at what’s happening for you.

Who knows – we might even laugh!  

So?   Let’s see if I can guess some thoughts and some feelings some of you might have had….:
Did anyone feel a bit silly? Did anyone feel it was somehow disrespectful? Were any of you enjoying the novelty of it? Did it trigger anyone to feel really uncomfortable? Did you decide I must be crazy, daring, stupid or something else? Did any of you feel a bit self-conscious or embarrassed? Were any of you mostly consumed with thoughts about locating your money, how much to put in, not putting any in or needing to communicate that you pay by DD? Would any of you conclude – even slightly – this was out of your comfort zone? Comfort zones are ruled by emotions – especially the drive to avoid even risking experiencing uncomfortable emotions. Did anyone wonder what on earth this could teach anyone? Did you feel completely and utterly OK and comfortable doing this? Did you think or feel you had no emotional or thinking reaction whatsoever?  

So that’s how we react to making animal noises at an odd time – just think how many things there are in our average day for us to react to but rarely do we have the time or inclination to be curious about what’s going on for us.    

What can our reactions teach us?

So looking further at our reactions: Let’s consider one example reaction – that of irritation

What irritates us might not irritate someone else. Being curious about that in itself can be helpful.

I used to do an activity with adults called ‘Pet Hates’ where I listed many things people typically loved to hate and participants would discuss which things irritated or bothered them. It was certainly clear that some people are more readily irritated than others. See if any of the following are your pet hates.

On the list were things like:

This activity often caused a stir and much laughter but it showed how we do all judge and become irritated by different things. Therefore, it makes sense to ask – where does the responsibility for irritation lie: with the irritator or the iritatee? The person engaging in something potentially irritating or the person getting irritated?

Carl Jung once famously said – at least it’s attributed to him – ‘everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.’ That’s always one worth pondering and certainly links to the idea of being curious about our reactions. If we don’t make our irritation conscious and question it, it’s easy to walk around blaming others for being irritated rather than thinking about our part in, or responsibility for, being irritated.

To work out what to do with irritation we need to first become aware of it, then question it and then start to understand it is mostly our issue – especially if we are irritated about things that don’t actually cause any harm to others like old men with pony tails! In other words, in order to become better at managing our irritation, we need to distance ourselves somewhat from our reaction and we need to become an observer of ourselves.

Becoming an observer of reactions eventually led me to a kind of epiphany and a key part in my journey that I am sharing with you. If I am watching myself being irritated, where have I gone? How can the irritated person and the person observing my irritation be the same person? What awareness is doing the watching? What consciousness of mine managed to detach itself enough to observe my thoughts and emotions so they didn’t consume me and be the only truth I could see?

This detachment, I have since come to understand, is like a first step towards greater perspective or consciousness: an awareness that there is ‘something’ ‘out there’ that is not just based on the egoic self which is usually concerned only with myself. The ego that tends to be embroiled in relatively tiny, self-absorbed, disconnected notion of ‘I’ and ‘me’ only. I guess you can say I had expanded my awareness to some degree beyond myself – which of course we can all do and more frequently – it turns out – to great benefit.

This was just my initial personal example of an experience of being truly beyond myself. We all access such experiences to a greater or lesser degree.

Abraham Maslow speaks of ‘peak experiences’ as those extraordinary self-transcendent moments that feel qualitatively different from ordinary life.

He went on to describe the common features of such experiences as:

  • Your perceptions of time and space are altered
  • You are flooded with feelings of wonder, awe, joy, love and gratitude,
  • Your perspective is shifted so you feel a greater sense of unification with the universe.

Peak experiences are often there for the taking but it seems to need us to be prepared to make the effort and take the focus to truly exist within them. They can be found in:

So in the light of ‘peak experiences’ I am going to share a piece of music in a moment.   A friend of mine once described this piece as music to die to. I think that was her way of explaining it has triggered a peak experience for her. Warning, it’s one of those pieces that starts slow, builds up, then dies down. You might need to be patient. I think it’s worth it! Please enjoy and see where it takes you. Perhaps observe your thinking and feeling responses and try and stay in the moment.  

Phillip Glass Violin Concerto No2    

Beyond ourselves

I hope that even if listening to that didn’t trigger some kind of transcendence, you at least enjoyed it!

A couple of weeks ago, I heard someone talking about the four different forms of prayer – one of which was meditation. I had only just the week before heard meditation described as prayer. I have meditated on an off for years but far more intensely in recent months as a simple thing to do that reaps many benefits.

From my personal experience I would say meditation – amongst other things – is a means by which a person can find themselves more readily experiencing peak experiences as it enables you to exist with your awareness more frequently tuned in to the present moment. This in itself also makes it easier to be an observer of yourself – noticing as emotions and thoughts arise, and feeling less urge to let them rule your subsequent actions. Meditation gives you a stiller and more tranquil mind, one less consumed by the ego.

The ego is also something I have been thinking a lot about over the years. What it means, what it does and how its effect can be lessened.

My favourite story about ego is the Buddhist parable where a man is lying in a rowing boat that’s drifting across a lake. It’s a beautiful day with a gentle breeze and he’s deeply relaxed. He could not be more blissed out when suddenly his peace is disturbed by a loud clonk of the side of his boat being hit. The man becomes consumed with angry thoughts, ‘how dare someone disturb my peace, who do they think they are?’ He manages to whip himself into a state of fury and gets ready to give a piece of his mind to whoever has caused such an intrusion, when, he gets up to see that it’s an empty boat that has been blown by the breeze into the side of his boat.

Whether there was someone in the boat or not, the same ‘something happened’, that of his peace being disturbed. But his ego felt foolish at the realisation that his affront had nobody to cast in the role of being wrong and it became clear to him that the irritation was his to own, once he realised there was nobody else he could try to make responsible for it.

I have often wondered how the world is full of so much obvious evil when the vast majority of people could easily list actions that would be considered ‘wrong’ or certainly harmful and declare a wish not to engage in them. Most people believe they live their lives by positive values and yet the world has many examples of destructive arguments, resentments that can be perpetuated for years, putting self-interest above all others, aggression, abuses of power, exploitation, wars, war on wars. Eckhart Tolle blames such things on the ego and I am inclined to agree with him. The ego can be an enticing tricky trickster and ‘tries hard’ to keep us addicted to it. The ego drives us:

  • to be reactive
  • to blame others rather than taking responsibility for our part in any situation
  • to sometimes play victim and wallow in affront
  • to be competitive and want to be proven as superior to others – which in turn drives us to be judgemental  –  as after all being judgemental is just an internal decision that we are better than someone else
  • to never ever be satisfied and agitate us into always wanting more – the modern world with adverts, capitalism etc. helps this aspect thrive
  • to see itself as a separate entity rather than part of the commonality of humanity – how ‘othering happens – cease to be human – time sin history
  • to identify with and hold on to thoughts and the emotions they trigger as the justified truth – thus resentments and grudges that people can hold on to for years
  • identifies with what it thinks – which creates a need to be right and for others to be wrong……. (and this is a very key aspect of the ego)

I am sure we’ve all see people become extremely upset in discussions about opposing opinions (such that disagreeing with someone becomes a personal affront). Opinions are the result of thinking and yet thinking as a tool, despite being considered our most revered, superior skill and mostly believed to be infallible, is in fact prone to all kinds of denials, biases and distortions.

Thinking is often the domain of assumptions, exaggerations, generalisations, prejudices, judgements, confirmation biases, cognitive dissonance, being more likely to believe strangers over those we know etc. When you look at it like that, thinking as a tool is far from infallible and it’s very strange that we can sometimes hold on to and identify with our thought ideas/opinions strongly and rigidly enough to kill.

We often think we can think our ways out of problems caused by thinking like we think we can war ourselves out of things like terrorism -but thinking can get us into perpetual egoic triggering situations!

The ego relies on us thinking and often in a way that draws on past events and has fearful anticipation of the future. The ego needs non-present, rampant and rigid thinking to survive!

The ego can trigger hurtful reactions in ourselves and others. It’s a bit of a devil isn’t it? (Deliberate reference for later consideration!)

Eckhart Tolle also goes on to say:

Most ancient religions and spiritual traditions share the common insight – that our ‘normal’ – or egoic – state of mind can be marred by a fundamental defect. However, out of this insight into the nature of the human condition – we may call it the bad news – arises a second insight: the good news of a radical transformation of human consciousness.

I think that my observation of my emotional reactions was the start of my journey towards developing a greater awareness or consciousness and meditation is the tool that will take me further on this journey.

I have also started to think that it is this transformation of consciousness – or as it is also called elsewhere…

I think all those terms describe the transformation in consciousness that the great spiritual and religious leaders and teachers have been banging on about for eons – as well as others more recently.

I think this understanding of consciousness might have been lost a little for some over the millennia in the process of creating – dare I say – somewhat egoic – religious doctrine – with ideas of certain inflexible beliefs everyone is told to believe, and rigid ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. This made religion scary and unreasonable for me for many years. Add science’s brutal rigidity of only allowing what could be empirically proven (quantum physics aside), I guess it’s no surprise the baby and the bathwater were thrown out.

You don’t have to look that far to find references about transformation of consciousness…

For example: (and I appreciate I am about to bombard you with many comments that I have found interesting about this transformation of consciousness, our loss of it and the striving for it).

Julian of Norwich –a local lass for me – wrote:

The soul must endure times of temptation, trial and suffering during which God seems absent and unknowable. Through perseverance, gradually the soul will experience greater silence and solace, entering into the prayer of quiet in which it rests peacefully. I have calmed and quietened my soul. We must seek with peace, hope and charity – a lifelong process of seeking and finding when the spirit will break through from the darkness and reveal the brilliant light of divine presence:

Julian called this blissful state, ‘the finding.’ Julian also talks of beholding: when she drops to a still point of vibrating energy blazing out in all directions.

Medieval mystical literature spoke of noughting. Veronica Mary Rolf describes noughting as the letting go of self-absorption, as well as preoccupation with worldly goods and concerns. In order to reach towards the infinite, the unchangeable, the everlasting good. In modern psychological times, noughting would suggest a willing negation of self-centredness in order to become focused on ‘other’ – which is the prerequisite to love.

Abraham Maslow described this raised consciousness as feeling the universe is received as a unified whole where everything is accepted and nothing is judged or ranked.

John Butler  – a delightful man in his 80s who someone saw fit to put on YouTube and who was a pioneer in organic farming and has been meditating for about 50 years wrote many years ago:

I’d been newly introduced to knowledge about levels of consciousness and through the practice of meditation I’d come to realise that there were worlds of consciousness (which one could readily experience) beyond our normal ‘waking’ state from which the usual daily preoccupations of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ became as unreal as the dreams of night when viewed from the breakfast table. There was no doubt this spiritual food (which I now understand to be a higher level of consciousness) worked. It was the remedy for the world’s ills. One didn’t have to change anything but one had to wake up or become more alive. When I was unhappy if I could see my unhappiness and create a space between me, the unhappy man and me, the observer then the unhappiness was already halfway dissolved. After all, it was no longer the total scene.

In the New Testament, Jesus (I can’t be certain but I believe he…) often used light as a metaphor for spiritual perception. Luke 11:34-36: “Your eye is the lamp of your body.  If your eye is focused, your whole body also is full of light. But if it’s evil, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. Therefore, if your whole body is illuminated, with no part in darkness, everything will be illuminated.

Depak Chopra says: In every spiritual tradition, messages have beckoned people to a transcendent world, but all have failed to convince the average person that going beyond should be the focus of daily life. At no point in history did ‘waking up’ go viral. Somewhere in the evolution of consciousness, Homo Sapiens came to a fork in the road. Collectively we could have identified with the true self or else we could have identified with ‘I’, the ego personality. Obviously we took the second road. Meta reality didn’t abandon us, we abandoned it.

At its most universal, enlightenment is simply expanded self-awareness. We go beyond stories. Beyond fixed boundaries, beyond the rickety structure of ‘I’ and in doing so, awareness effortlessly expands. It expands naturally of its own accord because stories, boundaries and limitations were artificial to begin with.

J Krishnamurti, – a great Indian teacher and spiritual leader, when asked what his secret was after years of teaching replied simply, ‘I don’t mind what happens.’ For me I think that implies complete detachment from the thinking and the ego – an existence very much in the present moment – two features of the spiritually enlightened.

Carl Rogers – the psychologist who started person-centred psychology, makes much reference to spiritual journeys and sees it as part of a person’s healing (relating to Maslow’s self actualisation). He created a seven-stage assessment of a variety of personal development themes that could be used with a client in therapy but the theme I found most linked to spiritual development is what Rogers describes as the ‘present moment experiencing’:

Some of those might not make much sense out of context but it’s clear Carl Rogers linked the ability to be truly present in the moment with greater ‘healing’. When in the present moment we free ourselves from reacting in ways influenced by past experiences as well as fearful anticipations of the future based on assumptions influenced by our thinking about previous experiences.

When I did a course in person-centred skills, I spent a year learning how to listen. That might sound ridiculous but in person-centred counselling, to listen with a potentially healing effect you have some ‘rules’ to follow:

  • employ empathy, (not what you would feel like in their situation, what they actually feel like)
  • be congruent/be genuine
  • be non-judgemental, accepting and give unconditional positive regard.

At first, I had to really concentrate to employ those rules. However, about halfway through the course, something clicked: I realised that just being really ‘present’ when listening to someone meant those things came naturally and without effort.  (I still believe listening is one of the kindest gifts we can give.)

And for a more scientific comment on raised consciousness triggered by meditation:

The neuroscientist Andrew Newberg studied the brains of meditators.  He found that meditation cuts off the part of the brain that contributes to our sense of having a limited and physically defined body that keeps track of our ‘edges’ and the part that maintains a map of the space around us. So a person loses sense of self at the same time as a feeling of expansion that merges us into.

Thus a greater feeling of connection and ‘oneness’ within the universe (and possibly the reason why I fell off the back step once, immediately after meditating)!

I think everyone and anyone can ‘raise their consciousness’ and the world would definitely be a better place for it. The Dalai Lama said: ‘If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.’ But this world of distractions, temptations, encouragements to compare, always being told you need more – all those things we know don’t serve us well really – seems to prevent many from seeing this peaceful ‘salvation’ within us all and perpetuates strong ego identity.

To me The guest house by Rumi speaks of awareness and presence of all that goes on within us – positive as well as negative. It’s definitely about being an observer of yourself.  

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.   The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

What I have noticed

And once our consciousness has been raised, what then? Well I like William James’ (1842 – 1910) description – who studied the psychology of religion – (although I find it hard to read)

The person who lives in their religious centre of personal energy, and is actuated by spiritual enthusiasms, differs from their previous carnal self in perfectly definite ways. The new ardour which burns in their breast consumes in its glow the lower noes that formally beset them and keeps them immune against infection from the entire grovelling portion of their nature. Benevolences once impossible are now easy, paltry conventionalities, and mean incentives once tyrannical hold no sway. The stone wall inside them has fallen, the hardness in their heart broken down. The rest of us, I think, can imagine this by recalling our state of feeling in those temporary elevations into which either the trials of real life or the theatre or a novel sometimes throw us. Especially if we weep as if our tears broke through a hardened inner dam, and let all sorts of ancient wrongdoings and moral stagnancies drain away, leaving us now washed and soft of heart and open to nobler leading.

Sounds good right?

I actually laughed when I first read this description because it’s not very typically ‘me’ and I had to change some of the original words so I understood them – but the sentiment is there.

So I certainly don’t claim to be enlightened! I can just say that I am striving to be more and more conscious and the tool I personally use to do this is meditation.

And for me, my observations of myself as I have continued to meditate are that:

  • I have definitely become less reactive. I pause sometimes!
  • I find myself ruminating about the past or fretting about the future much, much less (if at all). My thinking generally bothers me much less and I use it as a proactive tool rather than it controlling me.
  • I am generally acknowledging and accepting things more just as they are with little or no need to apply subjective judgement.
  • I have a greater tendency to see all sides of any argument and why people have arrived at the conclusions they have and therefore less attached to the idea that there is always straightforwardly one right answer. My mind is more open and makes less assumptions and relies less on past conditioning as I tend to see it as it crops up and have greater ability to challenge it.
  • I have become emotionally fearless (in a positive way). My comfort zone has expanded as a result.
  • I don’t seem to take anything personally anymore. If someone says something that could potentially offend, I look to see if it might contain valuable feedback and if they were ‘nasty’, I see and feel sorry for their unconscious pain (!)
  • I feel a greater connection to my fellow humans. Any feeling of separateness from others has diminished…etc….
  • I could write more here about coincidences and feeling like I have a positive effect on others (even my dying mother) when ‘buzzing with consciousness’ (according to my brother!) but I don’t want to scare you off if you’ve got this far!

I also more regularly find myself marvelling at things, in awe of nature, overwhelmed by beautiful moments and stopping to appreciate small details that I might not have previously noticed. I find myself thinking less and just existing in a blissful, uncomplicated moment of ‘now’ a lot more and I feel more authentic and no longer fear showing my full ‘open’ self.

They all seem like beneficial effects. Imagine them times 7 billion!

So… ‘something happens’

So now I am somewhat convinced that those ‘spiritual’ souls from both the past and present are onto something, I am no longer doing the cliched ‘ baby and bathwater’ rejection when I encounter anything religious or spiritual. I think there is much to be found in ancient teachings as it’s one thing to be raising one’s levels of consciousness, but there’s still more to learn when it comes to perpetual dilemmas about what the ‘right’ thing to do is like:

  • When to speak your truth and when to bite your tongue
  • How to challenge ignorance and unkindness effectively
  • How much of yourself to ‘give’ and how to balance this with looking after yourself
  • When to join in with the crowd and when to stand out against it
  • The complicated nuances of fairness

Now I am not about to delude myself that I have persuaded anyone to meditate. It does take time and commitment. So instead, I will leave you with some words from Thich Nat Han – a Buddhist teacher.

We should be able to experience the wonders of life in us and everywhere around us. The whispering of rustling pine boughs, Flowers blooming. The beautiful blue sky. Fluffy white clouds. The smile of a neighbour. Each of these is a small miracle of life that has the capacity to nourish and heal us. They’re there for us right now. the question is: are we there for them? If we’re constantly running around, if our mind is caught up in endless planning and worrying, it’s as if all these wonders don’t even exist.

He goes on…

Mindfulness is being aware of what’s happening in the present moment; concentration is maintaining that attention. With mindfulness and concentration we can look deeply into and understand what’s happening. We can pierce the veil of ignorance, see clearly the true nature of reality and be liberated from the anxiety, fear, anger and despair in us. That is insight. Mindfulness, concentration and insight are the very essence of meditation.

So next time something happens, try hard to bring your curiosity mindfully into this very moment and see what gifts it delivers to you!