Stranger cities and acts of kindness

“A friend may be waiting behind a stranger’s face.” ― Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter.

It always amazes me when I go to London, that whilst the place is buzzing with life; as people rush from place to place; at the same time it feels strange. Remote even. Possibly even cold. These thoughts follow on from the previous post, where I talked about the “Vampire Express” and the commute into the capital.

We all know that is can be a risky business walking up to a complete stranger and saying “Hi”, especially these days, but as a socially connected species, we naturally want to ensure that we are connected in groups. I began to wonder if being connected in groups was a social thing or if there was a physical or even a psychological aspect to it?

It appears there is a natural limitation in the maximum size of the social group that we connect with.

The optimum number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. According to Dunbar’s number, it is suggested there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.

By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain about 150 stable relationships.  

These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. So long as you remain below this 150 person level, the social connections remain strong. You know the individuals, their names, social connections and history. You can imagine that as we evolved, our “extended family” groups were probably of a similar size. When the group got too big, a sub-group would split off and a new “extended family” group would be formed.

Perhaps this is why the concept of social connectedness breaks down in the broader society today.

Why if you live in a big city like London, it feels like a “stranger city” – a phrase I coined in the mid-80’s when I left home for the first time and moved to London. At the time, I had moved to Tooting in South London and was commuting every day into the Wet End and the college I was attending.

The city felt completely alien to me. Every face I saw was blank and non-reflective. People appeared to be aggressive and very pushy. People kept their heads down and rarely looked each other in the eye. You walked a path down the road and beware if your path crossed with someone else coming the other way. If you travelled by public transport, on the London Underground tube, for example; people try to get a seat as quickly as possible and do not look at anyone. The crush on the tube as everyone tries to maintain even the tiniest fraction of personal space.

This is how it was then and to be quite honest, it has not changed in thirty years. The city is more cosmopolitan and mixed in terms of cultural diversity. There are far more people traveling to the heart of London every day now, than ever before. Every day approximately 3 million people travel into the London capital.

So how do you deal with the “stranger” element?

For me, I continue to be compassionate and kind to people. I am aware of the hustle and bustle of the city and the challenges of trying to be kind to others. I strive to be polite. To accept all as they are. I have no wish to be “like them”. To be rude, aggressive and only focused on the “me”. I have stood up and let people sit in my seat on the tube. I have helped people cross the road. I have guided people when they have asked for directions. I have even let people get on the tube ahead of me, rather than be pushy. Simple acts of kindness. Go on. Give one a try.

What have you got to loose? A few seconds, maybe. What have you got to gain? The reaction from others. A smile. Or even a thank you.

I leave you with the following quote…….

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” ― Plato


The Vampire Express and moments of happiness

“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” Omar Khayyám, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

You are probably wondering what on earth the title of this article is all about? Perhaps something about a horror film or a book? A bad dream? Nope, not at all. It concerns one of the strangest types of travel that I experience. The rail commute into London.

Picture it if you will. Take a moment to imagine the following scenario:-

An early morning; normally around 6:30am. It is dark and possibly cold. The cars arrive at the railway station and people park up. Everyone seems to have a “spot” that they park in, normally to enable them to leave as quickly as possible at the other end of the day.

A rapid walk to the station office and a queue – the first of the day – to buy a coffee, tea and perhaps the paper. The coffee shop staff are warm and friendly and chat to each customer in turn, often, and this is important, calling them by their name. Everyone they speak to responds and smiles and there is a brief moment of friendliness.

Then a quick walk down the ramp to the station platform and a short walk along the platform, either towards the front or towards the rear of the platform, depending on personal preference. But, and this is important. The regulars, always stand in the same place. Yep. nearly exactly the same place.

Then we wait. In silence. Complete and total silence. Nobody speaks or chats.

The tannoy announces that the train is approaching on “Platform Two”. You know, if you have done the journey as many times as I have over the past few years, that the train is about a mile away, or a few minutes till it arrives. If it has been raining, people come out of the rain shelters. Umbrellas are folded away and people get ready to board the train.

The train arrives and the regulars have positioned themselves almost directly in front of a door. Sometimes, the train driver overshoots or undershoots the correct stopping point on the platform. Difficult, I know, as there are large illuminated signs to inform the driver of the correct stopping point. When this happens you can just hear the tutting from some people. Anyway…

People press the open door buttons and climb aboard. A brief scramble and everyone gets to a seat.

At this point, I’ll point out, that whilst I live on a main line railway into London, my station is far enough out, that I always get a seat. The interesting point, though, is that time after time, people choose the same seat. Rarely do they choose something different. Laptops open. Books are extracted. Tablets and iPads are turned on. Smartphones twinkle in the carriage lights. Everyone. And I mean nearly everyone, does something so that they do not have to interact, even look at the person opposite or beside them. Silence reigns.

The train leaves and picks up speed. Soon, it is slowing down and arrives at the next station. The process is repeated. And again. And again. At some point, there are no more seats and people stand. Yep. Stand all the way into London.

Some people pay over four thousand pounds [£4,000] every year to stand on a train!

Eventually, we arrive in London and there is the queue to exit the train. The rapid walk to the exit barriers. Followed by queueing to present your ticket and leave the train station. A further walk and some of us, continue by foot to our offices. Some turn right and queue to go onto the London Underground. Followed by queueing to get on the underground train. Queueing to leave the station and then the final walk to their office or place of work.   

For nearly the whole journey, there is silence. People do not talk. Hang on, though? Right at the beginning, everyone that was commuting that morning was greeted by the people in the coffee shop when they borough their morning drink. Each one by their name. Everyone who is a regular, at some point, will find out the name of the people they are traveling with.

This whole experience, I call getting onto the “Vampire Express”.

Why on earth do I call it that? Until I took up Mindfulness, I felt as though my whole soul was being sucked dry by this depressive, negative and repetitive process and atmosphere.  You might have felt it too reading it just now.

So now when I travel to London by train, how do I deal with it differently?

Moments of happiness is the key

When I go to the coffee shop in the morning I order water and always smile and chat to the staff. I choose to stand in different places on the platform. When the train arrives, I always wait for the person in front to get on. I generally say good morning to the person next to me. I do not have a fixed seat, but try to consciously be aware of where people want to sit.

When we get to a different station and the train is full, if there is someone who looks like they need a seat, I will ask them if they would like mine. The look of astonished gratitude on their faces when this happens is amazing.

I make the effort to look around the carriage and also to see what is rushing past the window. I try to practice a silent breath mindfulness practice and be present and aware. I never rush at the other end.

Does it make a difference? I think so. There are sometimes more smiles on my carriage. A nod and a hello back. Little acts of warmth and happiness. I treat the commute as a journey, rather than a means to a destination, and hence enjoy it for what it is.

I leave you with the following quote…..

“Happiness, not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour.”Walt Whitman


The four constituents of Well-Being you can change


“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.”  

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Achieving well-being has been the concern of philosophers since Aristotle, and is, in many respects the essence of human existence. In recent years, well-being  has come to the fore and there has been much research on the roots of well-being.

I have heard a number of talks on well-being and one of the most recent was as part of a talk given by His holiness the Dalai Lama. The host was Richard J. Davidson. He is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and Founder and Chair of the Center for Healthy Minds, at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His is the chap that measured Matthieu Ricard’s brain and was able to prove that Mathieu is one of the happiest men in the world.

Anyway, Richard has identified four, scientifically and well-researched constituents of well-being. There maybe others but these have been well researched. There is the concept that we can take more responsibility to develop these constituents and thereby, further develop and improve our own levels of well-being. Since our brains are structured in a way that allows for neural plasticity, it means that we can develop skills and techniques to strengthen these constituents. The four constituents are:


  • The first is called Resilience. It is defined as “the rapidity that we recover from adversity” that defines resilience. The faster that you are able to recover from an adverse situation or event, the more resilient you are. Mindfulness meditation helps in this area as it helps to build resilience to adverse situations and helps you recover more quickly. The only downside is that it takes about 6,000 hours before the neural pathways in the brain change.


  • The second is called Positive Outlook. The idea is about seeing the positive in situations, in other people and in life’s events. The  supportive and forward looking. People with this element have lower levels of stress and may actually have better physical levels of non-stress in their lives. Loving Kindness and Compassionate mindfulness meditation are the key ways to do this. However, unlike resilience which takes time, using loving kindness meditation practices can rapidly change the neural pathways in the brain. How quickly? Only seven hours or about two weeks are sufficient to make the change.


  • The third is Attention or a Focused Mind. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. On average, about 47% of an adult’s time is spent with a wandering mind. The ability to bring your mind back into focus is critical. Being present with another person, intently listening. Learning to pay attention to the present moment and to accept what happened in the present moment is critical in this area. Being more contemplative helps in this area. When was the last time you too time out to just sit and be? Sunday was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and it was warm outside. I just sat in the garden and appreciated the day.


  • The fourth is the most important. It is Generosity. This is the one that drives everything else. This is not just about money and giving to charity. It is more about altruistic generosity. Here are a few tips to help in this area as well.
  1. Get connected: Feeling connected to other people, even by just reading words like “community” and “relationship”, makes us more altruistic.
  2. Get personal: We’re more altruistic when we see people as individuals, not abstract statistics. So if you want to encourage aid to people in need, give their problem a human face.
  3. See yourself in others: In general, people are much more likely to help members of their own group. Finding a thread of similarity with someone else, even something as simple as liking the same sport or team, can motivate altruistic action toward that person.
  4. Give thanks: Grateful people are more generous, perhaps because they’re paying forward the gifts they appreciate receiving from others. Receiving gratitude can also encourage altruism.
  5. Lead by example: People who constantly display altruism encourage others to follow suit.
  6. Put people in a good mood: Happy people are more likely to be generous.
  7. Finally, fight inequality.


The conclusion is that Well-being is a skill that you, me, or anyone can learn and develop.

To watch a talk on the four elements of well-being, go to:

To watch the talk given by His holiness the Dalai Lama, go to:
I leave you with the following quote:

“There are many aspects to success; material wealth is only one component. …But success also includes good health, energy and enthusiasm for life, fulfilling relationships, creative freedom, emotional and psychological stability, a sense of well-being, and peace of mind.”

Deepak Chopra

What’s been missing in my Mindfulness practice?

“You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut”. – Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

As I have written before, I practice Mindfulness on an almost daily basis. I have been practicing and experiencing the benefits for the past eighteen months. I have found the ability to be fully aware in the present moment really uplifting, both at work and also at home. I have been calmer, more peaceful and more engaged with life in general.

However, just recently, in fact, this past month, I have felt that I have not been as present as I was before. I have felt disconnected and more “stressed”.

Was it work related? I was given a “wonderful work opportunity” just before Christmas. It is a very compressed project that would have normally taken three months to complete and instead try to do in one month. This has meant 8am to 6pm conference calls every day of every week since the New Year and a lot of work related pressure. Nope, it is not that.

Was it social related? I am just about to start a new volunteer role in the scouting movement, so have been spending a raft of time thinking and planning the new role. In addition, I attended the first scouting meeting of the year and I missed the first group Mindfulness session of the year. So, what that the cause? Nope.

Was it family related? We are looking to save to go on a foreign holiday this year as an expanded family group, which means we are trying to plan a trip for ten people and at the same time try to economize and budget for the holiday. Nope, it has not been that either.

Finally, is it because it has been dark, wet and miserable so far this year and I have not walked and exercised as much. Nope.

I now know what it is. I changed my morning Mindfulness routine slightly and instead I have been practicing a basic breathing mindfulness practice. I have not practiced the Metta Bhavana, or Development of Lovingkindness practice for over a month.

The practice helps us to actively cultivate positive emotional states towards ourselves and others so that we become more patient, kind, accepting, and compassionate. It covers:

  • lovingkindness
  • compassion (empathizing with others’ suffering)
  • empathetic joy (rejoicing in others’ wellbeing and joy)
  • and equanimity (patient acceptance of both joy and suffering, both our own and others’).

That at is why I have felt disconnected and more “stressed”. I have forgotten the five major premises of the practice, that of:

The practice is in five stages. We cultivate the practice for:

  • Loving kindness to ourselves
  • Loving kindness to a good friend / loved one [at one stage late last year, it was a whole group of people]
  • Loving kindness to a “neutral” person — someone we don’t have any strong feelings for
  • Loving kindness to a “difficult” person — someone we have conflicts with or feelings of ill will towards
  • Finally, Loving kindness to a all sentient beings

I have restarted the practice and can already feel the benefits. f you practice Mindfulness, I’d love to hear if you too have seen the impact of the Loving Kindness Meditation practice and its positive results on yourself.

I leave you with the following quote which really touched me when I came across it:


“We leave you a tradition with a future.

The tender loving care of human beings will never become obsolete.

People even more than things have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed and redeemed and redeemed.

Never throw out anybody.

Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.

As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands: one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.

Your “good old days” are still ahead of you, may you have many of them.”

Sam Levenson, In One Era & Out the Other


A year of Mindfulness and its impact

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” ― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

As this year races towards its conclusion, I am taking some well earned time away from the normal work world to spend time with my family and friends. At the same time, I am reflecting on what a year it has been and how much my practice of Mindfulness has made a difference. If you practice Mindfulness, are interested in its impact, or curious as to some of the benefits its practice might bring to you, your world and your friends and family; I’d urge you to read on

I have been practicing Mindfulness on a regular basis now for more than a year. My formal meditation practice is regular, at least five times a week. It follows a routine I have developed first thing in the morning before I get ready to go to work. However, I also experience the “in the moment” elements of Mindfulness during the day. The short pauses to focus on the breath; the quiet reflections when I am stationary in traffic; even the being in the moment when I am in a meeting or discussion with people. It comes to me when I am relaxed, as well as when I am stressed by work and life in general.It has become a way of being for me. I am not perfect at it. Far from it. Many experts and people that have been practicing Mindfulness for years say you are always on a journey and I can agree to that.

So what are some of the results and changes I have noticed? What have others noticed around me? They include:-

  • Stress: My levels of stress are much lower than ever before. Even major changes in the work environment have not made me so stressed as once they might have done.
  • Calm and centered:. Whether at work or at home, I am much more calm and centered. There have been very few – I can count them on one hand – moments where I have become angry and frustrated. Even when I have gone “off the deep end” it has been more of a shallow dive than a “full twist, half tuck, and belly flop” moment.
  • Accepting and forgiving: My levels of tolerance and forgiveness have improved dramatically. I am much more likely to listen, accept and move on. I love the following prayer and have a copy of it printed out at my desk at work:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. Reinhold Niebuhr

  • Being present: I find that I have moments of quiet reflection and am just happy being. It is a strange feeling but very rewarding. Even when someone has cut me up in a traffic jam, I just sit and accept.
  • Open and engaged: I feel that I am more open to the differences that exist in all of us. More engaged in conversations and much more likely to feel part of the flow.
  • Ruminating: I love this word. I imagine a cow sitting and chewing the cud for hours on end. That is what most of us do with our thoughts. With 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts going round in our heads every day, there is no wonder that we can get caught up in a rumination. I have found mine are a lot less. Yes, I still have them and can find myself getting caught up in thoughts and feelings, but it is a lot less than i used to do and the impacts are lower.
  • Finally, Meat: This is a strange one. I went to a talk given by Matthieu Ricard earlier in the year. I wrote a blog post about the experience and the impact it had on me. It was titled: An evening with Matthieu Ricard”. There is YouTube video of it as well. You can even see me standing up before the event started [around the 10 second mark into the video]. It is here:

I bought his book “Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World” at the event and even though it is a massive 800 pages long, read it over the following two weeks. The two chapters on the way we farm meat and the impact on nature really touched something in me. I remember as a small boy going through the cattle market in Newton Abbot with my grandmother and aunt and seeing one of the marketeers punching a hole in a cow’s ear to insert a tag. It had a profound effect on me then and even now. So I decided I would continue to eat fish, but all other forms of meat I would give up. It has been hard. I love meat. I always have done. But for me, this is something where I wanted to make that small change in my world. I have tried for it not to affect the family too much. We still have tray bakes and roast dinners etc. I just do not eat the meat.

That has been the impact of a year of Mindfulness practice and its impact on me.

I would encourage to have a go at Mindfulness – either via an app for your smart phone; via a face-2-face class or one-on-one sessions; or even to read a book, such as “Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman”. Please do let me know how you get on. Oh and if you want any help, do get in touch.

Likewise, if you practice Mindfulness, it would be great to hear from you as to its impact and benefits you have seen.

I leave you with the following quote:

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”  ― Neil Gaiman

An afternoon with the Dalai Lama and Friends

“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”Dalai Lama XIV

I am a member of Action for Happiness – a UK based organisation set up to promote happiness and well-being. This week they hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama at an event in London to launch a new happiness programme and I decided to go. The venue was the Lyceum Theatre, with over 2,000 people at the event, even on a wet and windy Monday afternoon.

The afternoon kicked off with a brief introduction by the Action for Happiness host, Mark Williamson. He introduced His Holiness the Dalai Lama onto the stage with Richard Layard [a labour economist and author of a number of books on the economics of happiness]. Mark then launched the Action for Happiness 8 week programme and introduced onto the stage Jasmine Hodge-Lake and Adrian Bethune, two early members of the programme, to talk about the benefits of the programme and how they had used it in their personal and professional lives.

Richard Layard then started the conversation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama which lasted for nearly 2 hours.

One of the first questions was, “How to create happiness in ourselves?”

The Dalai Lama responded with: the fact that happiness is based on loving kindness and compassion to ourselves; that we should feel that for ourselves; that we should recognise that when we feel frustration or anger that is when you need to practice your mindfulness.

Next they talked about Secular Ethics. Secular ethics is a branch of moral philosophy in which ethics is based solely on human faculties such as logic, reason or moral intuition, and not derived from supernatural revelation or guidance (which is the source of religious ethics). The Dalai Lama talked about love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness are at the heart of secular ethics. We all need friends and family. That you need to show and demonstrate love, which leads onto trust and honesty, which deepens and strengthens the bonds of friendship.

The middle part of the discussion was on the three elements in the broader society that need to exist in harmony to foster happiness. They were firstly love and compassion. Second, philosophy and religion. I loved the metaphor that the Dalai Lama used for religion at this point. Different religions are like different foods. They all nourish you in different ways. But they all nourish you. And you might not want to just eat one food type, else it could become stale and boring. Rather, people like to pick and choose what they eat, so to do different people pick and choose their religions. Finally, thirdly, culture. How does the culture of the country you live in support happiness?

The final part was around wealth and happiness, where his holiness talked about the fact that in numerous conversations he has had over the years with the rich and famous, money does not give you inner peace.

After a short break, the afternoon continued with a panel discussion with:

  • Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta, a leading authority on social innovation
  • Suzy Greaves, editor of Psychologies magazine, who has launched 1,000 Happiness Clubs across the UK
  • Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University and a co-founder of Action for Happiness
  • Richard Davidson, a renowned neuroscientist and a global expert on emotion and the brain
  • Finally, my favourite, Matthieu Ricard, monk and author of the book Altruism. A book I would recommend you read.

What followed was a whirlwind discussion around topics, such as;

The plasticity of the brain and the four constituents of well-being; how to move from despair to happiness;  how to bring happiness into schools and stop the “grave / grind system” of education; to altruism and caring mindfulness, where you can be mindful without caring compassion, but you can not be compassionate without being mindful.

Finally, there was a brief introduction by Daniel Goleman; author of the world famous book Emotional Intelligence; on the new book, “A Force for Good”, which lays out the Dalai Lama’s vision for a better world.

We wrapped up the afternoon with the news that the launch of the programme was going to be broadcast by the BBC, a wonderful outcome.

The link below is to the BBC News programme that mentions the launch of the Action for Happiness programme.

“The Dalai Lama is supporting the launch of the Exploring What Matters course developed by Action for Happiness. This was broadcast on BBC 10 o’clock News on 21 Sept 2015”

Action for Happiness website:

I leave you with the following quote:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

Dalai Lama XIV

10 Second meditation, what have you got to lose?

“God gave you a gift of 86 400 seconds today. Have you used one to say thank you ” William Arthur Ward

I came across another talk by Matthieu Ricard, this time talking to the actor, Richard Gere about Altruism. During the talk, there was an opportunity for people in the audience to ask questions and one was asked by a ten-year-old girl. The question was “What was the one thing we could practice every day that would help us be more compassionate and altruistic?”

Matthieu talked about the fact that as we grow up, we learn new things, sports, playing the piano, learning to read and write. None of these things happened just like that, but over time. So like any of these things, becoming more altruistic and compassionate takes time.

Matthieu then said that the other secret is the 10-second meditation. He heard it from a friend at Google. That sounds nuts? 10 seconds of meditation is going to make a difference? Come on? But wait a moment and think about it.

If you do something and repeat it many times, it starts to become a habit. Think about driving a car. You certainly did not start knowing how to change gears, going round corners, or reverse parking. Instead, you learnt each of these skills by repetition, constant repetition over a period of time. And even when you eventually passed your driving test, it takes years to become proficient at driving. So the 10-second meditation does sort of make sense.

So how does it work. For 10 seconds, maybe every hour or whenever you have a moment during the day; just pause, look around and when you see someone, say to yourself:

  • May you be safe and free from suffering
  • May you be as happy and as healthy as it is possible to be
  • May you have ease of being

He then goes on to give the analogy about a bottle of perfume. You open the stopper and just let the perfume out briefly. You do it often enough and the perfume begins to pervade the space around you. So to, if you do the 10-second meditation often enough, the feelings of altruism and compassion will begin to spread and be pervasive around you.

So does it work? Yes it does. I have been practicing mindfulness for a long time and the noticeable difference it makes to you and how you interact with other people is amazing. At work, in social situations and with my family and friends. Everyone has noticed how different I have become. Go on give it a try. After all, what have you got to lose? 10 seconds, that’s all.

By the way, if you want to watch the YouTube video I mentioned at the start, even for the section on 10-second meditation, then follow the link below. The 10-second meditation question and answer is at the 55-minute mark.

I leave you with the following quote:

“Time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day. Rich people can’t buy more hours. Scientists can’t invent new minutes. And you can’t save time to spend it on another day. Even so, time is amazingly fair and forgiving. No matter how much time you’ve wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow.” ― Denis Waitley