I used to be on a mission to save the whole world. I wanted to fix everyone else’s problems, and I thought that if I was going to choose one, to focus on, I should choose the biggest one: climate change.
I thought that if we didn’t sort that one out, any other good deeds that had been done would come to nothing anyway. If your town is flooded, your drinking water dries up or your land becomes infertile, it kind of pulls the rug out from anything else you were working on.
So I threw myself into it. I stopped eating meat or taking flights, I campaigned for recycling at my University, I marched in the streets to demand government action and I went to the UN to push for a global climate agreement.
There was a big UN negotiation in Copenhagen in 2009 on which a lot of activists pinned their all hopes. Time was running out if we were to avoid the worst effects of climate change. It was now or never. One of the main campaigns was called Tck Tck Tck.
The deal that came out of the summit was so weak and sieve-like that many activists felt totally exasperated, dejected and burnt out. I looked around me and couldn’t see anything that anyone was doing on this issue that seemed to be working, and couldn’t see what I could do. So I gave up.
Fast forward five years and I’d taken up trying to save girlfriends instead of saving the planet. This wasn’t going very well either! I was talking to a friend about what he thought would help the one I was just about to break up with, and he suggested meditation.
I gave it a go, not because I needed it – I thought I was fine: happy, self-aware, already quite present. I wanted to find out how I could use to help other people. It was everyone else who had problems!
Very soon I realised that I wasn’t quite as fine as I thought I was. I found it really hard to focus or to sit still. I noticed how addicted to my phone and how out of touch with my emotions I was. But I found it amazing that, through the meditation I was both becoming aware of these things and they were changing.
I was able to concentrate for longer and longer and stopped checking my phone and emails all the time. I started to notice sensations in my body more and this helped me understand mine and other people’s emotions.
And as all this was happening I saw that by imporving my own health and happiness, I was much more able to help everyone around me. I listened much more deeply, I was much less judgmental, I stopped trying to ‘fix’ others and I had a much stronger desire to connect with and be kind to the people around me.
So many people put other people’s needs, or their perception of their needs, before their own. Whether it’s the partner, child, friend, colleague, or poor people in Africa. However, the effectiveness of an intervention depends on the condition of the intervener.
Fit your own oxygen mask before assisting others, is a common analogy. Or in the words of Michael Jackson, “No message could have been any clearer: if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change!”
The best thing you can do for everyone else’s happiness is to focus on your own. It’s not selfish, it’s wise.
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