Vicky Newham


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Crimefest 2016 – observations and highlights

I got two wonderful reflection opportunities over the weekend: one thanks to a banshee-awful, cackling hen group on my Travelodge corridor on Saturday night, the other on the drive home from Bristol yesterday. Each year I feel different about aspects of my own writing and the Crimefest event varies too, depending on who’s there, but one constant is the friendliness and inclusivity of everyone involved.

Rather than a review of panels, I thought I’d share my observations and highlights.

It hasn’t all been done

In such a huge, competitive market, and with a lot of similar books, it’s wonderful to see fresh ideas, settings and concepts swim to the surface of the publishing pond. Not only does this broaden the scope of the genre, it invigorates it and introduces new sub-genres. Just as society is constantly changing, so is fiction. To me, anyone who says it’s all been done, and nothing is new, lacks imagination.

I’d seen Matthew Blakstad’s Sockpuppet gif-ing on Twitter. Having heard him talk about the novel, I bought it and started reading it. I firmly believe in ‘write what you’re passionate/curious about’ and Sockpuppet is a brilliant example of that. Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Chopra series is another imaginative creation, with Baby Ganesh, the elephant. I’m excited by books set in Eastern/Central Europe, written by British authors, and which are becoming mainstream, for example David Young’s Stasi Child and James Silvester’s Escape to Perdition. At one of the panels I asked what’s changing and new in crime fiction and which excites the authors. Two of them mentioned the World War I era as a setting, and explained its relevance to the present day.

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Less rigid boundaries and hierarchies

For a few years now a handful of independent publishers have been putting out high quality crime fiction and it’s encouraging to see this model going from strength to strength, and newbie publishers joining them all the time. It means there are more doors for authors to knock on, not just the big corporate publisher who may not see a book as an obvious commercial hit.

Similarly, I really believe self-publishing has lost a lot of its stigma. With authors such as Rachel Abbott, Joanna Penn, Mark Edwards and Mel Sherratt indie-publishing well edited bestsellers for several years, the indie route is a credible and worthwhile option for those wanting greater speed of publication, more creative control and higher royalties. Rather than a ‘vanity’ project, I see it as a business-savvy option for the clued up, pro-active author. It makes me sad when people say they won’t read self-published novels. Surely, read first, decide later?

Publishing is hard, competitive and wonderful

Ian Rankin was one of this year’s star attractions. He read from his Rebus-in-progress.

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In his interview with Jake Kerridge, he spoke candidly about his experiences in publishing. I know he’s done this numerous times but each book seems to give a new slant of insight. In a writing career lasting 30 years to date, it’s strangely comforting to know he struggled for years with his books, then was a mid-lister, until one book catapulted Rebus onto the bestseller lists. While these days many publishers might not keep on an author whose books don’t sell well, it is reassuring to hear him say he didn’t make the big time for years. Likewise, when he describes his writing process, and having little idea when he begins a new book what the plot is, you realise some stuff never changes however long you’ve been writing.

Authors have fascinating backgrounds and day jobs

When I was talking to Neil White about the Making a Murderer mock trial he, Steve Cavanagh and Sophie Hannah put on, I commented on how interesting it is to have events which are a bit different from panels and Q&As. Seeing Neil and Steve in action was a real treat. I kept wondering who I’d want to represent me if I was on trial for murder. (I asked Sophie the same question. We couldn’t decide) And I had no idea how important hand gestures are to justice! With such wide-ranging backgrounds, it would be fun to see more of these events at festivals and conventions. And different panel topics.

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The rise and rise of Scandi-Noir

I admit to first reading Jo Nesbo because I saw him on Richard and Judy and liked how he pronounced his name (Yo) and Harry Hole’s (Horry Hooler) in his Norwegian accent. Since then I’ve tried to be more mature in my selection process. Fabulous dramas such as The Killing, The Bridge, Follow the Money, have broadened the appeal (although I still hear people say they won’t watch anything with subtitles). It isn’t just the scenery. What appeals to me is the psychology and history of the people who live in Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland, and of those who’ve moved there. The norms of their societies. I adore the multi-layered plot foci on: society and politics; immigration and employment; violence and addictions. Contemporary and new authors such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Kati Hiekkapelto, Ragnar Jonasson are making my reading much more expensive, not least because I am determined to get to Iceland Noir soon. Ragnar, stop with the stunning photographs, okay?

The generosity of the crime fiction community

We’re all busy. Yet so many people take the time to chat, read books and review them for pure book-love reasons, write interviews and blogposts, read manuscripts to help others, boost the confidence of people when they’ve had a knock or a setback, help people with introductions and publicity. Beneath this is a wonderful respect. And a shared love of good fiction. Since 2011, I’ve been very pleased to help others, and hugely appreciate the kindness and help I’ve received. What is tremendous at Crimefest is the inclusivity and friendliness of being able to chat in the bar – as equals – to readers, writers, publishers, editors, past writing tutors and agents. Great fun also were meals, giggles and drinks shared with writing buddies from social media.

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Being sent home with a bottle of prosecco wasn’t bad either. Nor was getting to show Ian Rankin a photograph of my dog! 😉 (I didn’t really)

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In addition to the awesome people, it’s about the books. And this is what I brought home with me. Stroke stroke.

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Vicky Newham © 2016

 

 

 

 


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Q & A with Sarah Hilary and review of No Other Darkness – special feature

The mass market paperback cover – released today.

To coincide with the mass market paperback publication of No Other Darkness, and its release in the US, I am thrilled to interview crime writer, Sarah Hilary. This is the first feature in my ‘Author on the Couch’ series.

At the The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate recently, Sarah’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the award for Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. When the news spread, I remembered how much of a buzz there was about Sarah’s debut just two years ago at Harrogate when proofs of the novel were given out in goodie bags.

Now that Sarah has finally come out about her ‘dark mind’ (see the Guardian piece, the day after the award ceremony, here) I can ask her all sorts of psychological questions about her second novel and her writing in general. Except the ones which involve spoilers, of course.

Sarah, congratulations on your award at Harrogate. Tell us what it means to you.

 

Thanks, Vicky. It means a huge amount — to win such a major prize and for my debut novel — it’s genuinely humbling, especially when the shortlist was so strong. I’m massively grateful to the judges, and to everyone who supported me during the public vote.

 

One of the proofs given out at Harrogate 2013 (not with the dog!)

One of the buzz-creating proofs given out at Harrogate 2013

 

Q & A

 

1) I don’t look at reviews of books before I read them. When I started No Other Darkness I thought, ah, okay, children in an underground bunker. What you then reveal is so much more disturbing than that. Where did you get the idea for the plot?

The heart of the story came from a first-person account in a newspaper. It stayed in my head for such a long time that I knew I’d have to try and ‘write it out’. I always like my books to be surprising—for the stories to feel familiar at first glance and then to take the reader in unexpected directions. The idea at the heart of No Other Darkness seemed ideally suited to that.

 

2) I felt that Marnie had changed a bit since Someone Else’s Skin. Did you? If so, was it intentional?

Definitely. She should be changing all the time. I want to pull her in different directions—towards the past, and away from it, for example. That’s the nature of heroic struggle, to be always fighting. Not just the bad guys but her past, and herself. In book two, she’s starting to open up to Noah, and to Ed. But her journey won’t always be upwards; I can see her falling, too.

 

3) Throughout the novel, I kept thinking about forgiveness and how hard it can be, not just to forgive, whatever that means, but to let go and move on from a traumatic incident. We see it with Marnie and her foster brother, Stephen, and key characters in No Other Darkness. To what extent is the novel about forgiveness and making peace with the past?

To a huge extent. The whole series is about this, in fact. And it’s about redemption, and remorse. One of the characters in No Other Darkness tells Marnie that remorse can be a weapon. That’s going to resonate in book three.

 

4) Some authors opt for having their detectives at loggerheads. Marnie and Noah have an extremely good working relationship. I particularly like Noah’s caring attitude to his boss. Was this a conscious choice on your part and if so why? Do you envisage their relationship changing?

In Someone Else’s Skin, Marnie and Noah both suffer as a consequence of not working more closely together, and they’re smart people so they learnt a lesson from that and now they’re a better team. In book three, Tastes like Fear, Noah has just revealed to me that he’s been keeping a secret from Marnie which might threaten their teamwork. We’ll see. (In other words, yes, I can see things changing. Because it makes for exciting writing, and reading.)

 

6)I admire Marnie’s courage and bravery. What characteristics do you like about her and what frustrates you? Do you think her traits are as a result of nature or nurture?

Her courage, absolutely. It’s not bravado, and it’s not noisy. She doesn’t take silly risks, but she’s not afraid to fail or to admit when she’s got it wrong. That, for me, is real bravery. To fall and get back up again—not to be afraid of another fall. Nature versus nurture is a great question, because a lot of Marnie’s native spikiness is what keeps her going but it’s also what drove her away from her family which is something she’s struggling to forgive in herself.

 

7) In No Other Darkness, the children’s mother has had a difficult time. As a mother, human being and a writer, how sympathetic did you feel towards her?

Extremely sympathetic. I was terrified for her. The idea of losing your mind, or part of your mind  — of losing yourself — terrifies me. I hope that comes across in the reading—how scared I was when I was writing those scenes.

 

8) The case makes it hard for Marnie and Noah to avoid their own family situations. This can be a trope of crime fiction (investigations touching on the personal issues of the detectives) but I see it as being true to life: we all experience things which bring up our ‘stuff’. What is your take on this?

There’s no question that it’s true to life. I’d go further and say that our ‘stuff’ colours everything. We see the whole world through its filter, for better or worse. This was the idea at the heart of Someone Else’s Skin, and it’s at the heart of the whole series.

 

9) Tell us about Ed. He seems to be a really good ‘fit’ for Marnie. What about him appeals to Marnie and what does Ed like about Marnie?

Ed is the steady point in Marnie’s spinning world. He’s deeply honest, one of the few people who isn’t hiding anything. It makes him vulnerable, but he’s not afraid of being vulnerable. I think that’s the quality that Marnie most admires in Ed. And he sees the vulnerability in her because he’s intuitive and empathetic. He sees the chinks in her armour, but he would never exploit them.

 

10) Both your novels make me reflect on responsibility and blame. Stephen Keele’s actions are obviously awful. Being devil’s advocate here, given his upbringing, to what extent is he responsible for what he did? If he has deluded thoughts as a result of that upbringing, is that his fault?

I’m not yet sure of the details of Stephen’s upbringing, so I can’t quite answer this. Nor would I want to, as I prefer to keep the doors open for surprises. Stephen has secrets he’s not telling yet. Ask me again after book four..!

 

11) Other than Marnie and Noah, which of your characters did you enjoy writing? Any you have a soft spot for? (I adore bad boy Adam Fletcher)

I absolutely love writing Adam. He has so many of the best lines, and I love the snark (and the spark) between him and Marnie. I love writing Welland, too. And Noah and Dan, especially when they’re enjoying their downtime.

 

12) In both your books people do (often very) ‘unpleasant things’ to others. Do you think that when people are on the receiving end of these sorts of actions that they stop loving the person dishing them out? Does it make a difference what the perceived and real motivation is? I am thinking about Archie and Fred, Matt.

In the case of Archie and Fred, I want to believe that they didn’t stop loving the person responsible for their suffering, because losing that love could only have added to their suffering. That said, I don’t believe in love as a palliative. In fact I’m pretty sure it’s the cause of a huge amount of distress and cruelty in the world. Far too many people endure terrible things because they cannot stop loving the wrong people. I’m not sure that answers your question — sorry!

 

13) How was the process of writing No Other Darkness and Someone Else’s Skin similar and different?

Someone Else’s Skin was written for myself (and then rewritten). No Other Darkness was written for everyone else, including the art department at my publishers and all those with a vested interest in the series. I had to make space inside my head for lots of other voices and opinions, but it was all good and it definitely resulted in a stronger book. Book three has been different again. I hope I’ll always be surprised by the way the process works, always find some alchemy in the writing process.

 

14) What research did you have to do for No Other Darkness and how did you do it?

First-person accounts are always my starting point. I try to absorb as much real experience as possible of the things I’m writing about. Then I stop researching and tell the story, allowing myself to be guided by its fictional characters and its own momentum. Afterwards, I go back and check key facts.

 

15) You refer in articles to your own happy upbringing. Where does this dark mind come from then?

I wish I knew. But I don’t question it too much—it’s a terrific asset for a crime writer and I’m very grateful for it.

 

 

No Other Darkness – my thoughts

 

The cover for the trade paperback.

 

Sarah, signing my copy of No Other Darkness at CrimeFest 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part police procedural, part psychological thriller, No Other Darkness is the second novel in the DI Marnie Rome series. The plot is self-contained. The author gives readers who are new to the series a couple of useful backstory pointers and these are unobtrusive for those who have read the first book, Someone Else’s Skin.

When the bodies of two boys are found, ‘curled together’, in a bunker in the garden of a house, twelve feet underground, DI Marnie Rome is tasked with finding out what happened. Rome is determined to bring to justice whoever is responsible for their suffering. As she and DS Noah Jake tease out strands of the mystery, they quickly realise that they are dealing with a crime which is as disturbing as it is morally complex. Sinister discoveries, involving foster children and ruthless property developers, pull Rome further into the maze-like investigation, and yet again she is forced to reflect on the reasons why people commit awful acts and whether it is possible to forgive them when they do.

It is difficult to comment on the plot developments much more than this without spoiling it for readers. The novel opens with a prologue which flashes back to five years ago, before the two boys died. Written from the viewpoint of the older boy, it is deeply affecting and I quickly questioned whether this was going to be a standard story about children in a bunker or cellar. The author is Sarah Hilary. She is highly adept at making you think that one thing is the case when actually there is more to it or it isn’t the case at all. In No Other Darkness, there is no explicit misdirection or manipulation of reader assumptions but the boys’ story is more complicated and devastating than might be imagined.

And this is something else which I think Hilary handles extremely well: nuance. She peels back the layers of how the boys came to be in the bunker and shows us everything through the eyes of Rome, Jake and another key character. From their reactions and comments we gradually learn what occurred and some of the reasons why each person did what they did. Hilary carefully allows the reader to create her own meanings and to navigate her way through the morality of the case.

This is a harrowing tale – as much of crime fiction is. Many of the characters have suffered deeply and still are suffering. However, the story is one which can, and does, happen in real life. For me, I was reading a fictional exploration of various common and uncommon psychological phenomena and I was simultaneously enthralled and devastated. The story is told in such a way that the reader cannot help feeling both sympathy and empathy for all those involved. I noticed in Someone Else’s Skin, and it is the case here too, that the author is extremely good at showing the reader how characters are reacting and feeling. Sometimes she maintains the emotional intensity; others she makes tiny adjustments to the emotional barometer within each scene but without descriptions becoming melodramatic.

For me, it is partly the emotional intelligence which threads through Hilary’s writing which marks her out. The other thing is the writing itself. What I particularly like about it is the way that she uses fresh ways to describe gestures, expressions and behaviour. ‘High overhead, the sky squatted,’ she tell us. And, ‘Rust whispered under her gloved touch, like feathers.’ Some critics argue that if imagery and metaphors are too unusual they can pull the reader out of the story. I’m not sure that this is particularly helpful: what is unusual to one reader might not be to another. Personally, part of the enjoyment of reading is when a phrase or word stops me and makes me think. When a writer takes the time and effort to describe things in ways which make me see the world differently, I’m purring.

In No Other Darkness, Rome continues to sift through the events of her past. As much as she tries to keep her personal traumas and childhood ghosts separate from the ones at the heart of the investigation, she is unable to. I think that this works well as it is what happens in life. Much of developmental psychology and psychoanalytic theory examines how we are often compelled to keep re-visiting – and often repeating – events with which we have not come to terms. Rome is haunted by why her foster brother, Stephen, could have done what he did. A troubled teenager, Clancy, who has been fostered by the family whose garden the bunker is in, reminds her of Stephen. As a result the investigation forces Rome – and the reader – to reflect on whether it makes a difference if someone truly believes that something awful that they’ve done was the right thing, and if their perceptions of ‘danger’ and ‘help’ vary from common ones. For Rome, forgiveness, letting go and moving on are extremely hard. Forgiveness of others and oneself. As they are for many people in No Other Darkness – and in real life.

Throughout the case Rome becomes more emotionally involved than DS Noah Jake, even to the point of putting herself at risk. I really like the relationship between Rome and Jake. In life, relationships and people change, often in an interactive way, and Rome and Jake have overcome some of the tensions which were evident in Someone Else’s Skin. They now have a strong working relationship and genuinely seem to care about each other. Jake, particularly, has his boss’ back in this book on a number of occasions and it reminded me of an intuitive brotherly relationship. Although less overtly than Rome, he is affected by the case, and this prompts him to consider his relationship with his brother.

Another strength of this book is its pacing. There is plenty at stake to keep the plot ticking along, and Hilary ratchets up the tension at regular intervals. Just as the reader thinks things are going to be okay, she chucks a curve ball and the whole game changes. And while the overall goal remains, to find out what happened to the two boys, the author builds in other sub-goals. I was completely gripped by the boys’ plight. And I kept wondering how it was all going to end.

With so many detective partnerships in crime fiction, it can be hard to create characters who are ‘fresh’. And sometimes, in trying to make them different, writers can create a collection of ‘tics’, neuroses and interests. In my view, Rome and Jake work well as individuals and as a cop team. They have issues, as we all do, but they come across as normal people who are getting on with the business of being imperfect human beings in a complicated world. I sense that there is plenty more mileage in this duo, and I am pleased. I am looking forward to finding out more about Jake. Other characters I think work well are Ed, Rome’s boyfriend, and bad boy Adam Fletcher (who, in my mind, is actor, James D’Arcy). Ed and Rome are such a good psychological fit but I love how she is drawn to Fletcher, like an ex-addict is to his fix – yet manages to walk away just in time.

In sum, if you’re looking for an emotionally intelligent, beautifully written crime novel, which will whip the carpet from underneath you, I highly recommend No Other Darkness.

My copy of the book was bought at CrimeFest, and I also bought a kindle version too (coz I like to read in bed!).

US cover – loving the super creepy doll.

 

Sarah’s website and blog are here: http://sarah-crawl-space.blogspot.co.uk/

On Twitter she can be found here: @sarah_hilary

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Vicky Newham © 2015

 

 


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The Trap – flash fiction

I’m turning into my mother.

It hits me as I lean over the bath and sprinkle talc between damp toes. A shiver of dread accompanies the realisation.

‘I’m going upstairs to wash my feet,’ she’d say, and then would return ten minutes later, lipstick refreshed, hair smoothed into place, and a dab of Penhaligon’s Bluebell behind the ears.

I know each step of the routine. Lolled on the rug in her dressing room dozens of times, pretending not to watch while all the time taking in each intricate gesture and the order in which they’re performed. The side to side lip movement to distribute colour. Not too vigorous, just enough. Then blot.

And here I am, carrying out the same rituals, in the same order, to collect my thoughts and recalibrate before day slides into evening.

You’ll be home soon, crackling with excitement about your trip, people met, sights seen. And you’ll inquire kindly, ‘How was your week?’

And I’ll wither inside and squeeze out, ‘Fine, thanks,’ when what I really want to say is, ‘I’ve turned into my bloody mother.’

As she looks back at me from the oval mirror, the one that always sat on her dressing table, heaviness pulls like emotional gravity.

And I scruff up my hair and wipe my mouth clean. Pull on jeans and flip-flops.

I am not my mother. I am me.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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A Thousand Voices for Compassion #1000Speak

This blogpost is part of the international initiative, using #1000Speak on Twitter. It aims to raise awareness of, and promote, compassion, kindness and non-judgementalism as a ‘response’ in life. With so much depressing content in the news, it struck me as a really neat idea.

I wanted to say a little about how Buddhism views compassion. According to the teachings of the Buddha 2,500 years ago, compassion is seen as one of two qualities which are needed to achieve enlightenment. The other is wisdom. The two things work together: compassion arises from wisdom, and wisdom from compassion. For most of us, enlightenment is probably not a life goal. It isn’t for me. But Buddhist teachings are relevant to anyone who is interested in living a life based on kindness and compassion.

Most dictionaries define compassion as the sympathetic awareness of the suffering of another person combined with the desire to alleviate that suffering. Buddhism offers a similar definition but would add a few ideas which I think are important.

The Buddha taught that the most appropriate response to suffering is compassion. It is interesting – and not always pleasant – to reflect on whether in our own responses, this is always, sometimes or never the case. Are we selectively compassionate? To some people but not others? Only when we feel like it? Perhaps compassion is a useful response in all situations, not just those involving suffering. The suggestion is that the more conscious we are of our habitual responses in life – emotionally and behaviourally – the more likely we are to modify them.

In October I went on a meditation retreat in North Wales. The focus of the retreat was on four meditation practices which are all based around the ideas of kindness and compassion. In this blogpost I am going to say a little about the quality which each practice focuses on. This is because each one introduces us to aspects of life which, it is suggested, we might be ignoring or turning away from. At their most basic, they show some of the ways in which we can be kind to each other. Accordingly, they fit in perfectly with the #1000Speak theme.

The four meditation practices focus on the development of: kindness; compassion; sympathetic joy; equanimity.

1. Kindness

This involves wishing for the happiness of others independent from our personal interest. We are encouraged to develop and show kindness to ourselves – something which we may find challenging or think is selfish. We are encouraged to wish our friends happiness, our acquaintances and complete strangers, and those we find difficult or who have hurt us.

Most of the people around us are strangers and acquaintances. The idea is that at a human level we are all the same. We all have similar thoughts and feelings and desires. To wish the best to someone we don’t know much, if at all, acknowledges our common humanity. Doing the same to someone who has hurt us in some way is extremely powerful and can be very liberating. It isn’t saying that what the person did was okay. It is saying, I know you are suffering about what happened, as am I, and I wish you health and happiness. It is, of course, important to be kind with ourselves if we are not ready to wish a particular person well.

Sometimes wishing another person well may involve loss. They may be leaving us, emotionally or geographically. It is an example of altruism and love to (genuinely) wish another person well when it is at the expense of our own wants and wishes.

A while ago my mother, from whom I had been estranged for many years, rang me out of the blue to announce that she wanted to die. This phone call was the most difficult one I’ve ever had with anyone in my life – and I had to swallow all my feelings and wish her well, and whatever she wanted for herself. She was dead a couple of days later. I reckon if I can do it with her, I can do it with anyone.

2. Compassion

This involves a kind and loving response to the suffering of others and results in the desire to alleviate the suffering by taking action to do things which need to be done. Compassion requires sensitivity and strength.

It can be harder to show compassion than kindness. People often find the suffering of others difficult to handle. It can prompt a number of feelings such as fear, irritation, pain and confusion. Sometimes it is worth getting to know these emotions. If suffering creates fear or irritation – why is that?

We are advised to guard against qualities and attitudes which might resemble aspects of compassion but which are actually very different. These are ‘horrified anxiety’ (which is where the emotion experienced results in a dramatic distancing) and ‘sentimental pity’ (which is where the response may be exaggerated but lack real care or commitment to help). Both of these lack warmth and result from the person being more concerned with his own discomfort than the person who is suffering. At the other end of the spectrum are the people who pretend they haven’t seen someone struggling.

The thing about suffering is that it’s relative. We are all struggling with things in life. When we are tired, or struggling ourselves, it is easy to judge the suffering of others. It is easy to be impatient with them. To tell them how much they have to be happy about. Or how others have it worse. But you can’t shame a person into all of a sudden not suffering. The suffering of another person isn’t about you, or me or anyone other than that person.

And it isn’t always obvious.

3. Sympathetic joy

This is rejoicing in the happiness and good fortune of others. In this situation, if the person has something which we would also like, our response can often be resentment and envy. It can include judgements about whether the good fortune is thought to be ‘deserved’ or ‘fair’.

However, the joy of others is enriching. Our own potential for true happiness is not under threat because another person is happy. In truth, the more we wish happiness for others and tune into it, the more likely we are to be happy.

We can sometimes experience ‘vicarious satisfaction’ instead of sympathetic joy. This is where we aren’t actually pleased for the other person but intellectually celebrate it from a distance. Sometimes there is the self-satisfaction of feeling that we have contributed to the other person’s successes, and perhaps deserve some credit. Alternatively ‘hero worship’ can occur in the face of another’s success. Another response – often resulting from envy or resentment – is to ignore the success or happiness, to pretend not to have noticed, as if denying it will somehow make it not be real.

Where responses arise which do not involve sympathetic joy, it’s important to have compassion for ourselves too. Envy and resentment are natural feelings. We all feel them, whether we like to admit it or not. But they are feelings which arise in response to the thoughts we have about our own lives. The trick is to acknowledge them, to sit with them, to bring compassion to them. And often something more loving emerges.

4. Equanimity

This involves having positive emotion to all people equally, in other words, feeling equally strongly towards everyone. Equanimity requires the attitudes of love and kindness referred to above, the compassion for the suffering of others, and the joy at their good fortune. In reality we are often kinder to people we know and like. It is more challenging to be equally kind to strangers, to those we do not like and to those who have hurt us or made us angry.

I mentioned above that Buddhism adds to dictionary definitions of compassion. The two main ways in which it does this are by suggesting that compassion should be universal, that is, shown to all people equally, and without any desire for selfish gain.

What I like about these four practices, and the qualities they aim to develop, is that they operate at the level of the heart and not the mind. It is the mind which judges, which thinks unkind thoughts, which discriminates. It is the mind which soaks up the stories we are told when we are growing up, about who we are and how life will treat us. It is the mind which internalises and repeats critical voices.

Do I find all of this easy? OhmygoodnessIwish. Does understanding how some of it works mean I’ve got it sussed? Unfortunately, it’s only the beginning. And is why I go on intense meditation retreats.

Meditation can show us ways to ‘get out of’ the mind into the body and the heart so that we have a place to rest and breathe – and to decide who we want to be and how we want to behave. Then, ‘off the cushion’, it can become easier to respond compassionately to things that happen rather than lurching into a reaction based on judgements and assumptions. However, you don’t need to be interested in Buddhism or meditation to see how important and helpful kindness and compassion are.

Thanks so much for reading my blogpost. Do leave comments or questions if you found it interesting, and please forward it on for others to read. I look forward to reading what other people have written.

(For anyone wanting to look the meditation practices up, they are the Brahma Viharas)

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Vicky Newham © 2015. All rights reserved.