I can learn something from everyone I meet.

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Reading Swedish film director Kay Pollak’s book “No Chance Encounter: Meeting Yourself in Others” some ten years ago was one of those eye opener you get once in a while. Whenever you have any negative feelings towards someone else it’s mostly about you, Pollak says.

At first I had troubles understanding what he meant.

So that terribly annoying mom at school is not really annoying at all – it’s I who have a problem? And that far too smiling sales man is not embarrassing at all? It’s all about me?

Of course I had to do my homework! I remember so well one morning when I was waiting for the commuting train and I saw this young adult covered in tattoos. He had tattoos all over his neck and face and they were far from professionally made. One was even wrongly spelled. I became aware of my negative feeling towards him. So my first quest was to find out what I was actually feeling? I tried to be honest and realized that it was a feeling of despise. That’s shameful! You should never despise someone! So I breathed deeply and went further into this feeling of despise. Was I despising the fact that he had tattoos? No. Did I despise that they were all over his face? Maybe, but not really. That they were so ugly and badly made? Yes! Here I could feel in my body that I had hit the root of the feeling. But why did I despise that?

“It’s ugly”, I could hear myself thinking, “and you just don’t make yourself ugly!” Aha! “Why not?”, I asked myself. “Well, you just shouldn’t!”, was the agitated answer. I was actually a bit surprised about the strength in my feelings about not making yourself ugly and I started to scan my life and childhood about such situations.

When I grew up I was very tall with red hair, freckles and white eye lashes. I never felt ugly, but then I never felt cute or beautiful either. I did my best to look good, dress nicely and be as creative as possible when I was allowed to use make-up. I had always hated masquerades when you were supposed to dress like a monster or ghost or any other kind of ugly creature. I didn’t want to look worse than I did – I wanted to look a little bit better! How on earth could anyone even suggest such parties?!

So now you can also see where my deep emotions came from! The child within not being cute enough. Feeling a bit sad about this, standing there still waiting for the train, I continued the chain of thoughts and started to think about the man with the tattoos again. What he had done I would never be able to do! I wouldn’t be brave enough to go around with one fake tattoo in my face just for one day! So actually he was much braver than I … What a turn of feelings! I looked at him and smiled and thanked him in my mind for a wonderful lesson!

Since that morning I have done this exercise many times. And it’s thrilling and amazing to see how my irritation about that mom’s behavior turn into a lessons about me being afraid of making a fool of myself at the school meeting or being unsecure about my social skills in new encounters. And I can see now how every meeting is a chance to grow and develop!

We are only alive in the moment

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Even before I left Sweden, I had heard friends living abroad saying that they found themselves so much more alive there than they did in their home countries. They thought that people at home just lived every day the same way and were only looking forward to the weekend or the vacation. During my years abroad I have heard this often and wondered what it’s really about. The other day I was working on a course in mindfulness and I suddenly got it!

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of modern mindfulness, explains in an interview what mindfulness is:

“It’s the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.” And then he adds: “As if your life depended on it!”

Day in and day out our brains are fully occupied with thoughts about the past or planning in the future. We very seldom just ARE in the moment, experiencing it just the way it is, without thinking. But since we’re only alive in the moment, not being aware of it makes us sort of emotionally dead! Only when we are fully aware of the moment do we feel alive.

When you’ve left the people, the environment, the language and the culture that you know so well and suddenly are standing in a street with completely new smells and sounds, people acting in new ways and talking a different language and you’re trying to cross the street with a seemingly chaotic traffic, you are most probably not planning your dinner at the same time. You just are. You are completely alive and aware of the moment.

Maybe you’re not completely non-judgmental all of the time though, and you might find it extremely stressful to have to get to know new people all the time, experiment with new groceries or trying to explain what you want in a new language, but this lack of grueling on the past or planning of the future actually makes you live here and now more than you did at home. It’s a kind of unintentional mindfulness, that is forced on you whether you like it or not. The best is of course to practice some awareness and let go of the thoughts just for a little moment every now and then and just enjoy what you experience, no matter if it’s in a chaotic corner in Shanghai or in your well-known kitchen in your home country!

If you want to hear Jon Kabat-Zinn explain what Mindfulness is you can click here (5:17 minutes)