Do you sound weak? Language Examples…

Do you sound weak? In this video, I give you examples of unconfident speaking styles. These are expressions people use when lacking in confidence about themselves and their opinions. We will be looking at indirect language: speaking with disclaimers, evading opinions, making oneself small, being doubtful of oneself, and being afraid to speak one’s mind. While it is sometimes necessary to communicate in an indirect way for the sake of politeness, it’s important to know how to speak in a more confident way too. When you communicate in a confident way, you are able to lead other people and to make a good impression. Learn about unconfident speaking styles in order to stop sounding weak!

Toxic Language Examples

Toxic language is a way of communicating that harms other people. The lesson is based on the work of Marshall Rosenberg, who educated people to express their needs in a compassionate way in order to avoid ‘violent communication’. I will teach you common examples of violent communication, such as threatening, blaming, labelling, diagnosing, and guilt tripping. Many of us often do some or all of these to others without realising. By learning to avoid violent communication, we are able to express our personal needs more effectively and our relationships with others can improve.

The Communication Hierarchy

Over the years I have spent a lot of time communicating over the internet. Here is what I have learnt about the hierarchy of communication from my experiences. The modes of communication are listed from highest vibration of interaction to the lowest. If you want to relate to someone deeply, really know what they are about, and know where you stand with that person, you will quickly find your answers if you choose high frequency communication with them. In contrast, if you choose low frequency communication, it more often than not turns out to be a time waste or distraction, and is a way that people can more easily hide their true intentions from you.

1 – Face to Face

Face to face is the highest frequency of communication. When you talk to a person in real life you get the fullest sense of who they are. Being able to look into a person’s eyes in the moment of communication, see their reactions to you and (usually subconsciously) take in their body language, then you find out very quickly if this is a person who you want in your life, or not. Additionally, you get to experience the person’s influence on your energy — for example, do you come away from spending time with this person drained or energised? You get to see their good points and their bad points, which is a much more honest reflection of what you’re getting. And most importantly, in real life communication neither person can hide their deeper feelings and motivations for a long period of time.

2 – Phone Conversation / Skype

Hearing a person’s voice when you communicate is the next level of the communication hierarchy. Tone reveals all when a person is speaking. For example, does the person sound convincing in the sense that they mean what they are saying? Another important aspect of phone conversations is that you can quickly get to the point of what you want to discuss, and you don’t have to wait for a reply. In the lower forms of communication, people can take too long overly crafting what they want to say. And most important of all is that you can HEAR a person’s voice. Always note and pay attention if you DON’T like the sound of a person’s voice. I have experienced this myself and dismissed it too many times to my detriment: If you don’t like the voice, don’t go there!

3 – Recorded Voice Messages Whatsapp or Similar

Recorded voice messages can be fun distractions, but don’t kid yourself this is meaningful communication. You will not get to know somebody through recorded messages. They are a way for a person to monologue, not interact. The only plus point to it is that you can actually hear a person’s voice, which makes it better than just texting.

4 – Text Messaging, Skype Chat, Text Chat or Whatsapping

Text Messaging in all its forms is a distraction. In this form of communication, both parties tend to be doing something else at the same time — cooking, eating, working, watching something, driving etc. In many cases one or other of the parties can’t really be bothered to chat or is bored. Text message communication is so normal now that many people consider it to be a necessary way of socialising and keeping in touch. This indicates a superficial connection. If people really care about you, they will go out of their way to invest time, effort and energy in your real life. And NOTE: In any kind of dating sense, someone who wants to stick to text chatting only is nothing more than a time waster with something to hide.

5 – Social Media Comments

This form of communication is the lowest of the low. People have different motivations for commenting on social media, but it generally comes down to distraction, showing off or wanting to attack someone or something. In some cases the intention is noble, but the way of the world is that people do not seem mature enough to be able to handle social media responsibly yet.

My overall advice to you: Invest time in real life face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations with people you are interested to know or deepen your connection with. All other forms of communication should generally be avoided unless it is to make a plan and is detail orientated. And if someone doesn’t want to meet you face-to-face or communicate with you over the phone, step back from this person because they are revealing a lack of effort and interest on their side. Someone who won’t go out of their way to meet you in real life doesn’t really want to meet you because that would give the game away.

Releasing Anger from the Throat (Exercise)

This is a physical exercise for releasing trapped anger from the throat. This is recommended for you if you can feel blocks, tightness or an uncomfortable feeling in your throat. I also recommend this exercise if you have been silenced by specific people in your life and you did not directly express your anger to them at the time and now it’s too late.

  1. Get yourself into a relaxed state either laying down on the couch or sitting in a chair. Focus on your breathing (breathe out through your nose) until you feel relaxed.
  2. Call to mind a specific person who silenced you in your life and remember the situation and what happened. The person you see could be a friend, family member, ex partner, boss etc. See that person in your imagination as you continue breathing in the relaxed state.
  3. Now ask yourself where the trapped energy related to this person is in your throat area. Then wait until you can feel or ‘see’ where the blockage is inside you. You may see the blockage as a particular size/shape/colour/consistency or you may simply feel where it is. Note: sometimes the blockage is in your throat but it can also be in your mouth or covering your lips. There is no ‘right place’ for the blockage, it is wherever you see it in your imagination or can feel it.
  4. Then, as you breathe out through your nose focus and direct the force of your out breath where you feel the blockage. Your breath will come out through your nose but BEFORE it comes out it should be energetically directed at the place where the blockage is.
  5. It is helpful to make an audible breathing sound as you breathe out. The pitch and tone of this sound will change when you hit the blockage directly. If there is no sound in the place of the blockage but you can hear the sound elsewhere, this indicates that the blockage is deep. Keep breathing out and focusing on the blockage until it starts to dissolve. The sound will change a lot as you do this as the energy begins to move
  6. Every blockage has a different emotion/sound underlying it. Since this exercise is about releasing anger, the following ‘angry’ kinds of sounds are common: growling, hissing, angry exhales, frustrated sighs
  7. As the energy starts moving out through the blockage you may want to express in other ways beyond breathing, for example, by swearing, throwing (imaginary punches), shaking your body in rage, or shaking your fists. Let the energy move through you by expressing whatever comes up
  8. Now is time to say out loud what you want to say to the person who silenced you. Imagine they are in front of you and say it to them. Say the words with as much tonal force as you can muster. You may be surprised by how angry you are and how much you swear at the person! This is good — it shows that you have brought up a lot of trapped anger that was otherwise stuck in your body.
  9. This exercise can be quite a loud one to do so you may want to put on some loud ‘angry’ kinds of music while you do it so that you will not be overheard by the neighbours.

Body Language: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Analysis

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement and did a television interview. In this video I analyse Prince Harry and Meghan’s interview by paying close attention to their speech, voice and body language. What does it reveal about their relationship? Is it true love? How does Harry feel about Meghan joining the Royal family? What kind of relationship do Meghan and Harry have as a private couple away from the television cameras?

Types of Ignoring in Dating and Relationships

Why is he ignoring you? The different kinds of ignoring behaviours that occur in dating and relationships. Types of ignoring defined in this video are: Is he ignoring you?, ambivalent ignoring, not listening, ghosting and ‘no contact’. What to do if you feel that someone you are dating is ignoring you and tips about how to express your needs without being passive aggressive.

Passive Aggressive Language

What is passive-aggressive language? In this lesson I talk you through examples of passive-aggressive communication, which happens when a person is angry but their anger is not directly expressed. Learning these examples will come in handle when dealing with manipulative people.

What a Lisp Means

An intuitive description of the meaning of a lisp in terms of a person’s deeper psychology. Also including a simple exercise you can do to train your tongue to keep a more set back position in order to reduce the lisp and change your life!

Updated Thoughts on Mutism

I mainly experience mutism when in a group conversation or when overwhelmed in a foreign language speaking environment. There’s also a third, less predictable way that I become mute and that is to do with certain people. From the first moment when I encounter one of these people, I’m either completely mute or can only say basic words such as ‘hi,’ ‘goodbye’, and ‘thanks.’ Even saying simple words such as these requires a lot of forcing of myself. Maybe it doesn’t sound like such a bit deal, but it also comes with a physical feeling of being closed down and being unable to break through it.

My mutism doesn’t happen only with strangers. It can also be people I’ve known a long time. With these people, I’m no longer 100 percent mute as I was when I was a child. Now, if I need to say something to them I can force the words (in an English-speaking environment, though much harder in a second language). What I say will not be conversational but can include things such as passing on a message or responding to a question. However, I prefer not to speak to or around these people at all.

I had some realisations regarding my mutism which I will now share. What I have to say goes against what I always hoped for regarding my mutism, which was to overcome it eventually and to be able to express myself to everybody. What I realised instead was that when I go mute, my mutism is telling me not to express myself fully in that situation or with that person. It’s a physiological response that shuts down my speech so that I can’t talk openly. This is useful because speaking openly is something I can later regret, for example, if I speak openly with a person who is not to be trusted. My mutism doesn’t catch all the people who are not to be trusted, but at least it points out some of them to me.

What I realised was that my mutism keeps me safe. It’s often not safe to express oneself openly around particular people or when in a group, and mutism shows me when this is the case because I can’t talk. There are many reasons a situation might not be safe to express oneself, such as the people you are with are intolerant (in terms of religion, lifestyle or politics) or think very differently to you in other some way. Often it’s not worth arguing or disagreeing with these kinds of people. Silence is golden.

Sometimes the act of speaking isn’t dangerous so you could theoretically talk, but it’s still not worth it. Not expressing oneself in this circumstance is a case of not casting your pearls before swine. Some people have no interest in knowing who you really are or what you really think; they can only accept you or like you if you act and think exactly as they do. I realised that with these people, being myself and expressing myself as I am is wasted on them; it generally only leads to conflict and them trying to change me. I don’t need to express myself around these people.

At the same time, I know that the mutism is something going on inside me, that it’s my responsibility, and that nobody is forcing it to happen to me no matter how severe of an asshole another person might be. When I used to get panic attacks from experiencing mutism, I behaved very badly and rudely. I don’t think that’s acceptable and in the future that is something I will change. All it takes is to realise that I don’t need to express myself openly in any situation where my mutism is triggered; this takes much of the stress away. Secondly, I can say the one word replies or as much as I can manage, and I should try as hard as I can to do this for people as it is more polite than saying nothing at all. And lastly, to be aware that this is my life and I can shape it in ways so that I can be around people I can express myself openly with. This doesn’t mean that I have to avoid everyone that I experience mutism with, but I think that contact with these kinds of people should be limited, otherwise for me there’s nothing ‘social’ about it, it’s more like punishment.

Empathy and Caring

Sympathy, Empathy, and Caring (Part Three of Three): False Empathy and Authentic Caring

Guest Post by Nina LaLumia

In relation to ‘sympathy,’ the word ‘empathy’ is fairly new. It was introduced into English in the late 1800s and has recently grown in popularity, it seems to me, for two reasons. First, ‘sympathy’ lost the richness it had in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1738) and has come to be equated with ‘pity.’ Indeed, today the word is most commonly used in “sympathy cards” that people send to comfort those who have lost a loved one. So another word is needed to play the broader role that ‘sympathy’ used to play.

Second, ‘empathy’ was used to introduce a concept and therapeutic technique in psychology. As such, it was a translation of the German word Einfühlung, which means “feeling oneself into something.” Here’s a quotation from The Journal of Clinical Psychology (1946): a person-to-person “regard for the client is characterised (ideally) by the understanding of empathy without the erratic quality of identification or the supportiveness of sympathy.”

The important thing to notice here is how ‘empathy’ is compared with ‘identification’ on the one hand and with ‘sympathy’ on the other. A therapist should not identify with the client or patient, since this would mean going along for the rollercoaster ride of the client’s emotions. If a person seeking therapy shares an experience of suffering, it won’t help if the therapist bursts into tears.

On the other hand, a therapist should NOT show “the supportiveness of sympathy.” A therapist should not express pity for the client or say things like, “Oh, you poor dear, I’m so sorry you had to go through that.” Also, a therapist should NOT show support for every goal the client aims for. Most obviously, if a client expresses the desire to kill someone, the therapist should not help the client work out a plan to commit murder.

So the idea behind ‘empathy’ as a term in clinical psychology is that the therapist should listen attentively and show that he or she has some understanding of what the client is going through. This is often done by echoing or by offering summaries, such as: “I can see that you were deeply hurt by that.” The goal is for the patient to feel: “Another human being has heard and is trying to understand what I’m feeling, what I’m going through, in a non-judgemental way; so I’m no longer alone in this.” This opens the door for trust, for further communication and eventually the working-out of a plan for coping with the situation as effectively as possible.

To some extent, Brené Brown successfully explains this therapeutic technique in her video on empathy. But her video is also misleading: it suggests that the best thing we can do is “feel ourselves into” the suffering of others. And this is false. Empathy as Brené Brown explains it might move us to react emotionally and, without any rational assessment, do whatever first comes to mind in order to alleviate the person’s suffering in the short term. To give an obvious example: If an alcoholic is suffering withdrawal symptoms, the best response is NOT to give them a bottle of vodka.

More generally, if we enable people to become dependent (or more dependent) on some drug or some other external source of support, we are not really helping them. Here’s another example: We are not really helping people who can work if we enable them to remain unemployed.

So empathy is not a reliable guide for authentic caring. We care for someone authentically when we lend what support we can to empower that person. As the great philosopher Maimonides said: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The general point is: Care authentically by helping people acquire the skills and resources they need in order to take of themselves and eventually contribute to the community in which they live. People who are successful at fishing catch enough fish to feed themselves and their families by selling fish for other people to eat. Authentic caring is good for the individual and good for the community. Authentic caring is also limited: we stop giving if giving any more will decrease our own power.

By contrast, reacting thoughtlessly out of false empathy may be bad in two ways. First, it is bad for people if we enable them to become dependent. It’s bad for them because we reduce their chances of experiencing the joy of living out of their own power and making a contribution. Second, enabling people to become dependent is bad for our society. If one more person becomes dependent, we lose the opportunity to benefit from that person’s contributions. Also, if one more person becomes dependent, we have to spend resources to support them—resources of wealth, time, energy and intelligence that could be better spent elsewhere.

Finally, a society that encourages its members to become more and more dependent is a sick society. It keeps losing potential contributors, and it keeps wasting its resources. Such a community grows more and more vulnerable to internal collapse and to external attack—to being overrun by healthier societies. A healthier society is made up of members who are better contributors because they live more fully out of their own power and because their lively sense of sympathy motivates them to care authentically.

The Social Function of Emotions

Sympathy, Empathy, and Caring (Part Two of Three): Understanding Emotions from an Evolutionary Perspective

Guest Post by Nina LaLumia


“Justice is that which benefits your friends and harms your enemies.”

Polemarchus in Plato’s Republic


Chimpanzees and bonobos are human beings’ closest living relatives, since we all share a common ancestor—some kind of ape that lived five or six million years ago. By looking at how chimpanzees live, we can recognise some of our own most basic characteristics. For one thing, like chimpanzees, we are passionately social animals.

We are social, like bees and ants, in the sense that the behaviour of an individual is one piece that fits together with the behaviour of others to form a larger picture—the life of the group. Think for example of all the puzzle-pieces that have to fit together to form a school where children can receive a good education. Similarly, individual bees have to co-operate in highly complex ways to keep a colony of bees up and running.

But the social life of bees does not appear to be a very passionate affair. They co-operate by giving and receiving signals in an instinctive, fairly mechanical way. By contrast, much of human (and chimpanzee) social life works through the sending and receiving of emotional messages. For example, we can generally tell when someone is angry. The message conveyed by anger might be: “I have something we both want (a sexual partner or a piece of meat), and I intend to keep it for myself. Stay away! If you try to take what’s mine, there’s going to be a fight.”

If it matters enough, and we’re willing to take the risk, we can decide to respond to anger with anger and join the battle. Or we can decide to respond to anger by backing down—by submitting and by showing our humility. Humility in this sense is a social emotion. To the individual experiencing it, having to submit to someone more powerful feels humiliating. At the same time, showing humility sends a message to the angry person (or chimp). It says: “I’m not a threat to your power or your possessions. I don’t want to fight, so there’s no reason for you to hurt me. Let me enjoy my crumbs in peace.”

Passionate affairs of this kind go into the formation and maintenance of social pyramids—systems in which an individual (or group of individuals) dominates and/or is dominated by others. From a conventional moral standpoint, many of us tend to view anger, threats and acts of violence as negative, “bad” things. But they are necessary to the survival of the kind of social groups to which we (chimps and human beings) all belong. To put it simply: However much we might wish we didn’t, we need armies and we need police forces. And there always will be some people who have more and other people who have less—that is, some kind of class system.

In contrast to anger, sympathy (as defined in Part One of this series) might seem to be positive, “nice” or “good.” But beware! How do you feel when someone verbally or physically attacks a friend or family member, or the member of some larger group to which you belong: your neighbourhood, city, or country? Sympathy enables us to feel attacked when someone attacks our friends; and generally it motivates us to come to our friend’s defence. That in turn means verbally or physically attacking the person or group that attacked our friend or our group.

If you are not willing to join the battle, generally other members of your group will consider you a coward and will do their best to make you feel ashamed. If you are willing to join the battle, generally you will be celebrated as a hero and other members of your group will do their best to make you feel proud. This is just one example of how we influence the behaviour of others by rewarding or punishing them emotionally—by making them feel good or bad. In more accurate terms: when we praise someone or do something else to make them feel good about what they have done, we are offering them positive reinforcement and making it more likely that they will perform similar actions in future. (This is known as “operant conditioning.”)

Of course, sympathy can be nice. If your friend is hungry or sick, sympathy may motivate you to share some food with them or in some other way attend to their needs. But if you want to understand the world we live in, it’s important to ask yourself why you consider that person your friend in the first place. Isn’t it because that person pleases you in some way—because they have done something good for you in the past, or because you hope they will in future?

Go on, admit it! There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Good for you! If you’ve got friends who hurt you, or who fail to help you when you are in need, as they saying goes: “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”

If a person has what I call “lively sympathy,” it’s a good thing, because they will be an active, well functioning member of the group to which they belong. And to say that a member of a group functions well (to say that they are “a good person”) is simply to say that they help to make and keep the group healthy and strong…healthier and stronger than other groups!

Suggested reading: Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, by Frans de Waal (2006).


Hume’s Theory of Sympathy

Sympathy, Empathy, and Caring (Part 1 of 3): A Proper Understanding of Sympathy

Guest Post by Nina LaLumia


A family of words and their history

The word ‘sympathy’ has its roots in Ancient Greek. The prefix sym- means “with” or “together,” as in sym-phony: a collection that makes sounds together, producing harmony or music. Pathy refers to suffering or undergoing something and being affected emotionally. Think of pathology: the study of things that people suffer: diseases. So at root, sympathy is being affected by the condition of another living being with an emotion that corresponds to that being’s condition—or at least to our perception of it. Use of this word with this meaning in English goes back as far as the 1600s. In 1757, Edmund Burke wrote: “Sympathy must be considered as a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in a good measure as he is affected.”

Everyone is familiar with the difference between being active and being passive: it’s the difference between your doing something and having something done to you. The nouns are ‘agent’ (a person who does something) and ‘patient’ (a person to whom something happens). There are also the abstract nouns ‘action’ and ‘passion’ (making something happen and having something happen to you). Similarly, we can affect things or be affected by them.

To fall in love is a passionate affair: something happens to you—something that can be wonderful and also painful. To feel affection for someone is also to be affected—to open the door and allow things to come in. If I open the door and allow myself to feel affection for Laura, Laura now matters to me in a new way. I’m now open (and vulnerable as well) to being affected emotionally by what Laura says and does, and to being affected by what happens to her. If something good happens in Laura’s life, I feel good about it; if something bad happens, I feel bad about it—it’s painful for me.

The philosophical theory of David Hume (1711-76)

In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume defines sympathy as the capacity to be affected emotionally by what happens to a person for whom we feel affection—both the good and the bad. Hume was studying the mind (doing psychology) from the modern scientific point of view. So for him, sympathy is not some magical affinity or “energy.” It happens through the subconscious observation of facial expressions, tone of voice, gesture and posture. In other words, sympathy happens through the medium of non-verbal communication. (I use the word ‘subconscious’ to suggest that these observations are below the surface of conscious awareness. We can notice them if we make the effort, but usually we don’t. Usually, we simply feel their effect.)

Sympathy of this kind is mainly interpersonal and face-to-face, and it requires that the two people involved already have a personal connection. But we can also feel sympathy through other media. (‘Media’ is the plural of ‘medium.’ We use the expression ‘the media’ to talk about the various ways or means by which we send messages.) Hume talks about the theatre; we could also talk about movies, works of fiction or poetry.

When you watch a scary movie, the normal thing to happen is that you yourself feel scared. Something is off (either with you or the movie) if you sit there unaffected, thinking something like, “Oh, if I were in that situation, I too would be scared,” or “I can understand why a person in that situation would feel fear.” There’s also something off if you don’t feel happy when Julia Roberts smiles. (If you don’t like Julia Roberts, think of someone whose smile you do find appealing.)

Whether it’s a good feeling or a bad one, happy or sad, we catch on to what someone else is feeling (or what they represent themselves as feeling) much more easily if we already have some sense of connection with him or her. And usually we develop a sense of connection with another person if they are appealing: if they appeal to us either because of their visible beauty or some beautiful character trait—their sense of humour, their courage, their loyalty as a friend, or something like that. So also, an artist has to create that sense of connection if we are to be moved by what happens to a fictional character in a movie or novel.

The last thing to be said here, so that we have a fair sketch of the whole picture, is that in general sympathy is not merely an emotional experience; it also moves us to do something. For example, adverts for charities that show children with dirty, tear-stained faces appeal to our sympathy and are designed so that we will be moved to donate some of our money. This kind of emotional response to the suffering of another living being is sometimes called “pity.”

This is usually what people nowadays think about when they hear the word ‘sympathy.’ But in the fuller picture that Hume offers, we can also be moved by good feelings. For example, if we feel affection for someone, we are usually moved to do good things for them: for example, to help them achieve their goals or to give them things they find pleasant.

The next two posts will discuss two aspects of sympathy in more detail. First, it is social and can be studied from a biological perspective—that is, it serves a function in relationships between people and in relationships between other social animals. Second, it is meant to move us—not only “move” us emotionally, but also literally move us to do something. What it should move us to do is to care authentically.

Exercises for Balancing your Brain (Right and Left Hemispheres)

How to balance your brain (exercises)…

Having an imbalanced brain means that a person is not able to interpret the world holistically. We will either be driven purely by cold logic, or we will be slaves reacting to our emotions. The result on aggregate is that we are living in an imbalanced world where the creative, nurturing force is repressed.

There are more people with left brain imbalance than right brain imbalance most likely as a consequence of the education system.

Thought associated with the left hemisphere of the brain includes precise meanings of words, logic, maths and science, whereas creativity, improvisation, artistic and musical thought takes place in the right hemisphere.

When a person has left side imbalance their creative abilities are repressed or dormant and this person will have very little or no creative life. When a person has right side imbalance, then the person will often have blocks related to learning; for example, such a person may drop out of education. Additionally, the right side imbalanced person will have strong faith and will believe in things easily without first conducting their own research. A much smaller percentage of people initially have imbalances on both the right and left hemispheres of the brain — one example group of which is people with right brained Asperger’s Syndrome.

Brain imbalances have consequences in terms of personality. A person with a strong left brain imbalance will be a controller-type personality who is drawn to positions of power over others in which he or she may exercise authority. In contrast, a person with right brain dominance is submissive to those who have the controller-type personality. This kind of person will also be lacking in self-belief and as a consequence may generally fail to attain life goals.

This video proposes techniques for balancing the two hemispheres of the brain so that higher level, holistic thinking is made possible. In my understanding, balancing the brain and developing one’s weak side is what it means to be on a path of growth in life.

The Airy Mind and the Earthy Body

Guest Post by Nina Lalumia

At least since the time of Aristotle (the fourth century B. C.), the idea that there are four basic elements–earth, water, air and fire–has been an important theme in our culture. Aristotle himself used this idea to understand the physical world. He thought about the four elements much the same way that chemists today understand elements such as hydrogen and carbon. The basic idea is that underlying any change that we perceive there MUST be something that remains stable and the same. Physical change is understood as different mixtures, additions and subtractions of elements that do NOT change. Aristotle also understood the human body as composed of all four elements: earth because the body has solidity and we eat food that comes from the earth; water because we have blood, sweat and tears, and because we drink fluids; air because as long as we live we are constantly breathing air in and out, inhaling and exhaling; and fire because we are warm and seem to burn the food we eat.

But the four elements can also be understood in a psychological or spiritual manner. The thoughts of our mind are airy, because they can drift like a balloon to many different locations in space and both to the past and to the future. Still today we may call a person an “airhead” if their thoughts and words float all over the place like a balloon tossed about in the wind. In contrast, our body is relatively stable: it cannot travel in time (not yet, anyhow!), and it travels from place to place only gradually and with effort–certainly before the advent of modern methods of transportation. And we describe a person who is present and focused as being  “grounded.”

These symbols–air for the mind and its floating thoughts, earth for the relatively solid and stable body–are helpful for me in understanding a difficulty that I have. As a strongly empathetic person, I often feel invaded and overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings of other people. I feel that I have very weak or porous boundaries. It sometimes feels like I live in a room that has no doors or windows that I can shut. I feel that I have no peace or privacy in which I might be able to give attention to my own thoughts and feelings.

I reckon that many empathetic or highly sensitive people (HSPs) have similar experiences. But I recently learned an important lesson from Caroline van Kimmenade, who produces the website This site offers many useful resources for understanding what it means to be a highly sensitive person, an empathetic person or an empath, and how to manage these abilities, these vulnerabilities, and live happily and productively. She also offers online coaching.

Caroline pointed out to me that in many cases I am the one who crosses boundaries into the space or territory of other people. The way I do this is by thinking: by trying to figure out what other people are thinking or feeling. My motivation for doing this is to avoid conflict: I’m always trying to please other people or at least avoid upsetting them. Then I adapt myself in order to act and be the way I think will please them.

The important realisation that I had is that, although I often feel invaded or controlled by other people, this particular phenomenon is something that I am responsible for. I don’t have to let my airy balloon thoughts float over into other people’s space or territory. I can bring my airy thoughts back down into my earthy body. Paradoxically, the best way for me to do this is to focus on my breathing. Yes, of course breathing involves air, but the activity of breathing in and out is the most noticeably constant activity of our body. In particular, normal healthy breathing involves the motion of our diaphragm, the complex muscular layer at the base of the rib cage. When we breathe in, it pushes down into a bowl shape, and we feel our belly expand. This muscular motion creates an empty space, a vacuum, in our chest cavity and draws air into the lungs. That’s the real work of breathing. Breathing out normally requires no effort: we simply relax the diaphragm, it comes back up, flattens out, and air easily flows out of the lungs.

So what I mean by “focusing on my breathing” is directing my attention to these activities of my body. When I intend to do this, for a while my airy thoughts still tend to float into different times (past and future) and different places (in particular, into other people’s spaces). But the basic technique of meditation is to notice when your thoughts float away, and gently draw them back to focus on your breathing. As far as topics go, the activity of breathing is not very interesting. This is a good thing, because eventually our thoughts settle down back into our body and rest there. For all intents and purposes, we stop thinking about anything at all. We remain aware, but are not thinking about anything in particular.

One obstacle to reaching this state of resting back into the earthy body is actually thinking about our breathing. For me, this takes the form of inner thoughts counting my breaths, giving them numbers, or an inner voice saying things like “In and out, in and out.” I think this is my mind’s way of resisting rest, of holding on to its own activity and independence. I have found a way to deal with this: I say simple words with a rocking, lullaby rhythm: Breathe deeply in and then starting on the next breath out: “La, la; La, la; La, la Loo, two, three, and…La, la; La, la; La, la Loo, two, three, and…” The first ‘La’ is a breath out, the second ‘la’ is a breath in, and so on for each pair of sing-song syllables.

My ten sing-song syllables play the role of what many practitioners of meditation call a “mantra.” The strategy in any case is to give the mind something fairly empty to chew on. Eventually, if all goes well, it calms down and we are simply breathing and simply aware, but not thinking about anything. The airy thought balloon has landed back in the earthy body.

After a fairly brief session of this kind of meditation, I can open my eyes and my mind again and see things more clearly. I can feel that I have needs and wants just as other people do. I grow more aware of my own feelings and can separate them from the feelings of others.

Now I am in a better position to put healthy boundaries in place: primarily by having the courage to say No to some things, and by saying Yes carefully, slowly–only after considering my current feelings and thoughts, and after considering the consequences of saying Yes. Am I truly ready and willing to accept the consequences of saying Yes–come what may? If I don’t take the time to consider such things, I am liable to say Yes only to please other people–or to do what I THINK will please them.

It is much healthier to talk with the person or people involved. Talking–real talking out loud–like breathing, is something we do with our bodies. Our vibrating vocal cords and the shaping motions of our mouth, tongue and teeth shape sound waves that set the eardrums of other people in motion, and so on.

I speak and the other listens; the other speaks and I listen. If all goes well, we can reach an agreement, a plan, a boundary that at the very least we both honestly can tolerate. It may get better than that, but we shouldn’t let it get worse.

These are things that I have learned about and am still finding difficult to put into practice. But when I do put them into practice, things go better.

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Notes on words

This sense of ‘grounded’ or ‘grounding’ arrived quite recently. The OED gives this quote from Allen Ginsberg in New Age Journal (1976): “Trungpa’s position was that ‘psychadelics’ are too trippy, whereas people need to be grounded; everything is uncertain enough as it is.” Trungpa was a teacher of Buddhist meditation.

‘Mantra’ comes from Sanskrit and was first based in Hinduism, where it meant the intention one has in mind when saying or doing something. ‘Manta’ and related Sanskrit words are the roots of our word ‘mind.’