Archives for the month of: July, 2012

I’m reading a fantastic and life-affirming book at the moment, called ‘The Artist’s Way’. It’s a 12 week course in self-growth, aimed at unlocking your creativity. If you’ve ever felt that you’ve abandoned your artistic spirit (which is there within all of us) due to work, family or other commitments, then I’d highly recommend this book.

I mention this as one of the many topics which the author, Julia Cameron, covers is what she calls ‘kriyas’ – a Sanskrit word referring to a spiritual emergency or surrender. These tend to express themselves in emotional outbursts or declines, just at the point where you’ve put mind, body and spirit through the grinder with all the hours spent in an exhausting job, or in an abusive relationship, or looking after everyone else except yourself. As Julia Cameron writes,

Always significant, frequently psychosomatic, kriyas are the final insult our psyche adds to our injuries. “Get it?” a kriya asks you. Get it:

You can’t stay with that abusive lover

You can’t work at a job that demands eighty hours a week

You can’t rescue a brother who needs to save himself

I felt this kriya in the last few days – this feeling that it is time to surrender, time to let go. This followed a period of self-pity and depression after a particularly dismal couple of weeks. Let me give a run-through by way of an explanation.

Week One centred on a job rejection, following the first interview I’ve had in months, for a position in a humanitarian organisation I used to work for and felt very comfortable in. I thought I had everything working in my favour, and spent several days preparing for the interview, which was preceded by several days of preparing the application itself. I walked into the interview feeling confident and walked out of it with a desperate and consuming neediness; ‘Please give me this job!’ I called out to the universe and wrote in my journal pages. Surely this is what I’ve been waiting for all this time. Needless to say, when the news came that I hadn’t succeeded, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. Telling Mum and Dad wasn’t so nice either, knowing that as loving and doting parents they would suffer almost as much as me with this blow, and that given we all live under the same roof I’d have no choice but to manage their reactions as well as my own.

Then in Week Two I had surgery on my knee. My right knee has a five year history of dis-ease, involving x-rays, MRI scans, physiotherapy, osteopathy and ultrasound injections. I agreed to have an arthroscopy (key-hole surgery) with some hesitation, but with the reassurance that it was being conducted by a knee specialist recommended by a relative of mine. The results remain to be seen; the knee is still weak and dressed in post-op plasters and tubi-grip. A bigger setback came with my reaction to the general anaesthetic and codeine, which left me drowsy and sick, and vulnerable to a whole series of emotions which I’d managed to keep at bay for some time. This began with frustration at not having the energy to even read or write, and degenerated into self-doubt over whether I have anything meaningful to write about in the first place, followed by despair that actually, I have very little to offer of any value in my life right now. Oh, and let’s not forget all the other demons that appear at such moments – self-pity over not having a job, over not having enough fun, over not having any romance etc etc. Oh dear lord…..

Excuse me whilst I just pick myself up off the kerb (taking care not to lean too heavily on my right knee). We all have our vulnerabilities; our moments where our vision is blurred by the all-pervasive ego shouting at us all the things we hate about ourselves and our lives. But there always is something to learn from difficult episodes.

So what I realised from Week One was that I was going through a period of mourning, and not just over the job interview (after all, a rejection is never a pleasant experience).  I was mourning the loss of an entire career which I’ve identified myself with in the last ten years. Because one of the immediate reactions to reading the e-mail notifying me that I hadn’t been appointed, was that I can’t do this anymore. All those hours spent preparing, raising my hopes, convincing myself this is the job I’ve been waiting for. All that mental and emotional effort, for something that deep down I’m still questioning: Is this really me? Am I ready once again to commit my time, my thoughts, my life, to man-made and natural disasters beyond my control; to raise within myself the courage to work in a range of different countries on a variety of complex and difficult issues, in the hope that despite all the bureaucracy, all the jargon, all the doubt and anxiety that goes with doing international development work, I’m making a difference? Is this really who I want to be, even just for one more year? The gentle voice from within said No – I have to let go of those things I’m hanging on to which are not pushing me forward on my journey. As I have remarked in an earlier post, a transition requires a leap into the unknown; and at some point this requires putting old habits and actions behind you and taking a brave step forward.

A bit about stepping forward, because this is significant in the week that I also have knee surgery. Any Chinese doctor will tell you that pain in the leg, along with kidney and bladder problems, is associated with obstructions in our development, and fears of moving forward. So this surgery has come at a symbolic time in my life, as I embark on a path of self-growth. The past two weeks have told me that if I want my real self to blossom – not the one that is an activist, a development or humanitarian worker – and tap in to the creative spirit which Julia Cameron encourages us to recover within ourselves, I have to let go.

Therein lies my kriya. I have to surrender, and invite in new opportunities, work and non-work related, starting from now. So, dear readers, if you would like to leave any comments to this blog, please consider within them anything out there  – new ventures, new ideas, new inspirations – that I might like to keep an eye out for. This blog and from the feedback received from it has already been a massive source of inspiration and encouragement, and believe that more exciting things are just around the corner. Better days must come!

 Chance is always powerful. Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish.

Ovid

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I’ve spent the last few days in bed, doing very little after having knee surgery (more on that in my next blog post). Doing nothing really is hard sometimes! And this quote seemed quite appropriate at a time of physical and mental inertia; once again from the inspirational Mindfulbalance Blog.

Mindfulbalance

 

We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties,

only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.

Alain de Botton

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To build on my previous blog post, this piece reminds us that we need to escape the Busy Trap and touch base with ourselves.

Mindfulbalance

A “successful” life has become a violent enterprise.  We make war on our own bodies, pushing them beyond their limits; war on our children, because we cannot find enough time to be with them when they are hurt and afraid, and need our company; war on our spirit, because we are too preoccupied to listen to the quiet voices that seek to nourish and refresh us; war on our communities, because we are fearfully protecting what we have, and do not feel safe enough to be kind and generous; war on the earth, because we cannot take the time to place our feet on the ground and allow it to feed us, to taste its blessings and give thanks.

The more our life speeds up, the more we feel weary, overwhelmed and lost. Despite our good hearts and equally good intentions, our life and work rarely feel light, pleasant or…

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It’s easy to assume that living with one’s parents, signing on at the Job Centre and surviving on no income whilst working out what on earth to do next – and all at the age of thirty-something – must be a miserable life. I have had a few pitying looks that’s for sure. It gets worse if I feel obliged to go into the details of what I do with my time. ‘This and that’, I sometimes say, further provoking a look of sympathy for such a hopeless situation. Because in this society we live in, as blogger Tim Kreider so poignantly put it in his recent piece, ‘the Busy Trap’, we are so used to saying how busy we are – whether it be with work, family or social life. Apparently taking a break from work, or spending time doing very little except reading an interesting article, listening to an album all the way through, or writing a blog (!) is nothing short of shameful. Surely we must be desperate to find a job, to get back on that work treadmill and do something with our life.

This is indeed how I felt for a good few months. In February I returned from a month away in Thailand, supposedly full of inner peace and calm after several weeks of learning how to be still and do nothing – which comes pretty easily when you’re lying in a hammock by the warm Pacific waters and sipping from a fresh coconut, after having just done an amazing workshop on transformational breath.

Had Thien/Had Yuan on Koh Phangan – the place to go to find calm, stillness, and your chakras

But what did I do on my return? Within very little time I was back onto the job listings and contacting anyone I knew in vague desperation, seeing what work was available. There were job applications which took several days to complete, during which time my hopes were raised as I convinced myself that what I’d written ticked all the boxes in the job description; then the long wait for a response, the long silence, followed by a period of despair as I realised yet again I hadn’t even been shortlisted. Such is the difficult times we live in, I try to reassure myself – competition is high, and apparently no one has a spare minute to get back to you unless you’re invited for an interview.

And those are the moments when a transition is indeed painful, even agonising. You wonder how you got to this situation, given all your hard work and effort over the years, and how you can get yourself out of it, as quickly as possible. Living with the parents also seems like an extra shameful element to an already bleak picture. Surely I should have grown out of relying on my parents by now.

And yet, and yet……I would like to repeat a great phrase I heard in Thailand – ‘change the way you look at things, and the things you look at will change’. Transition is a process, and over that process there have been subtle adjustments in attitude, in behaviour, in choices, which have helped me see the positives of this time. For some who are reading this, the positives might be obvious; but it is actually quite a challenge to adjust one’s mindset – so firmly rooted in the ‘Busy Trap’ – and stop worrying about finding a job or a house or settling down, and embrace the present without worrying about the future. There is a huge amount of resistance to start with, accompanied by a great deal of self-doubt, where the RAGS (Regret, Anxiety, Guilt, Shame) I referred to in an earlier post rear their ugly head.

But having periods of doing nothing actually results in doing something, and that is self-growth. How to describe an act of self-growth is tricky, but it can be found in yoga or meditation practice, in taking a dance class, in baking a cake, in buying a sketch pad and some colouring pencils for the first time in years, or in putting pen to paper and writing a blog. I haven’t done all of these activities, but I’ve certainly dipped into a few.  Self-growth for me has also been a continuing process of letting go of what no longer serves me, and taking pleasure in acts which really require very little effort – like watching the birds fly into our garden to peck at the bird feed in the morning, or spending time with my parents doing a crossword.

Birds feeding

And a few more words on living with one’s parents. Whilst many people I know are right now taking a crash course in parenthood – with pregnancies and births announced almost every week – I have been learning my own profound lessons in this area. Because when you live with your parents in a limited space, you learn to let go of any cravings for peace and quiet or privacy, and instead enjoy these precious moments, because one day we will no longer have them. After many years spent away, sometimes in countries that I’m sure my parents would wish I hadn’t chosen to live in, it is a privilege to spend this time together – without the stress of work or other commitments.

I’ve come a long way since February. I can’t say how exactly; the changes which occur during a transition are not always earth-shattering. But maybe they wouldn’t happen at all if we hadn’t chosen to take that giant leap of faith into the unknown.

No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made. Destiny is made known silently.

 Agnes De Mille

When people ask me what job I do, I always struggle to find the appropriate response. It tends to differ according to who is asking me, and will range from ‘development/aid/humanitarian/human rights worker’ to ‘advocacy/policy/programmes officer’. This linguistic difficulty is not only due to needing to second guess whether the person I’m talking to will actually understand what any of these terms mean; it’s also because I myself am not sure what I am. Maybe the blanket term is ‘activist’ – although this actually doesn’t describe a job, but more a way of life. And not every development worker is an activist; you don’t often see a United Nations official on a podium at a public rally, or camping outside banks or embassies to raise awareness of a political injustice (although I’m sure there are some that do).

I’m dwelling on this because this trouble in semantics is actually part of a wider symptom of burnout in the sector I work in (what sector do I work in? Is it aid/development/humanitarian/charity/non-governmental? Oh never mind…). Struggling to talk about what we do reflects a deeper emotional difficulty in expressing all the hopes, fears, anger and uncertainties that go in to our work. It manifests itself in the tension one feels in the chest, or the lump in one’s throat, when embarking on a discussion about what ‘advocacy’ or ‘capacity building’ is, or what it’s like to live in a ‘war zone’.

I’m not trying to belittle people’s genuine interest in this kind of work – and people are indeed interested and want to understand it more. What I struggle with is actually trying to describe, in as concise and eloquent a way as possible, the feelings, emotions and experiences of working in Palestine, or Uganda, or any other country which is not in the slightest way similar to home. And without using all this jargon listed above, which no one understands unless they’re doing the same kind of job.

It’s not easy to answer the question often posed when returning from one of these countries – what’s it like there? Well, it’s like a number of things, but which parts does the person asking actually want to hear? About the house I lived in or the restaurants and markets I’d regularly go to? About the neighbourliness of everyone I met, and the high number of cups of tea and plates of unfamiliar food that have been put in front of me, on occasions several times in one day? About the elderly man in a refugee camp I met, who was dying from AIDS having had no access to proper treatment? About the friend of mine who was arrested and tortured?

More specifically, how do I describe what my work is like (click to see an amusing summary)? Should I be honest and say I spend most of my time in front of a computer in an office, feeling frustrated as I try to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops and hopeless because most of the time I feel it doesn’t make any difference to anything anyway? Or do I focus more on those occasional times when I do go to a refugee camp, or a village, or a prison, or someone’s home, and actually have a proper conversation with a ‘victim’, as they’re so often inappropriately termed for their mere existence in that particular country.

What follows is the reality as I see it of doing this kind of work – whatever we might choose to term it. For purposes of clarity, I will use the term ‘international NGO worker’ – someone who works for a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which can, for instance, be a charity or a campaign group working on or in specific countries suffering from poverty or conflict. This is from my own experience, but not every worker is the same, as our environment, our colleagues, our office, the communities we are trying to help, all vary greatly; along with our emotional reactions and approaches to what we’re doing.

I have spent the last ten years doing a number of activities in different countries, most of which have been going through long periods of war. This has included funding projects in communities that have borne the brunt of years of conflict and need support in rebuilding their economies and their livelihoods. This could be a female-headed family, whose men have been killed in war or have abandoned them, and who want to grow some vegetables or rice to sell at the local market to have a sustainable income. At the same time, I have also been raising awareness at international level of the injustices of these conflicts. This entails lobbying British Government and M.P.s – taking them to conflict areas, writing to them, issuing public statements which pressure them to take action; doing much the same with UN officials, to push them to intervene by sending in monitors, or by passing a resolution at the Security Council (the UN body responsible for maintaining international peace and security). It also entails developing campaigns and awareness raising initiatives which will engage the general public in my country – students, workers, Church groups, ANYONE – to take action against the injustice of that conflict. This means supporting them to write to their MP or to a Cabinet Minister to express their concern regarding the British Government’s complicity in that injustice (which there usually is in some way); or getting them out on the street at a public demonstration.

English: Anti-war die-in in Sheffield, UK. Pho...

English: Anti-war die-in in Sheffield, UK. Photo from http://chris.croome.net/photos/2003/0317/009_Anti-War_Die_In_Lg.jpg.8.html , licensed under the GNU FDL. Photographer: Chris Croome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We go into this kind of work with the best of intentions, thinking that at least one small action – any of the above, or something else – is better than nothing and will maybe help one person facing injustice, and could even help an entire community. And with some actions, it’s easier to see those positive results immediately. The female-headed household gets its small loan, or sack of vegetable seeds, to grow crops to sell at market. The family can now pay for the children’s school fees. Continuous pressure on the British Government results in the Foreign Secretary making a public statement which condemns the violence in that country.

But the bigger picture gets far more complicated. Because ultimately the female-headed household is still at risk of being thrown back into poverty by its Government’s intransigence, corruption or involvement in another war. And a statement by the British Government means very little unless it’s followed up by concrete action and policies aimed at stopping the injustice. And real action is dependent on a number of factors, but ultimately is decided according to the interests of the Government of the time and not public opinion, as we’ve seen so clearly with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So in fact having a sense of achievement when working for an international NGO is very hard, because we’re up against powerful decision-makers that appear almost impossible to influence. Sure, there are occasional breakthroughs, and maybe over time we do witness a crucial change in policy or approach at Governmental or UN level. But rarely do we feel confident enough to say that we contributed to that. Instead, we spend day after day, in front of that computer, writing that press release or call for action or letter to the Prime Minister, with moments of determination matched by moments of questioning whether there is really any point or purpose. Occasionally, we get out ‘into the field’ – in other words, into reality, where we meet the local population and hear directly from them what it is that’s needed to stop the injustice. Unfortunately, these demands often fail to be met by the NGO in question, for a number of reasons related to capacity, resources, interests, policies, funding. Meanwhile, the violence/poverty/human rights abuses of the country in question rage on, with no sign of meaningful intervention by that country’s Government – who surely should shoulder the most responsibility, over and above our own.

This may all sound very depressing. But then it is coming from a girl in transition, who is trying to make sense of her past and her present in order to make a positive and meaningful step into the future. And I know I’m not alone in this – the feeling of hopelessness, of failure – when trying to address the ongoing injustices attributed to ours and other people’s governments. It is part of the job of an activist or international NGO worker to understand the brutal realities of one’s efforts. It’s good to be idealistic to some degree, but it is equally important to know one’s limits, and not to set one’s expectations too high with any action. It won’t lead to any change overnight. But it might just go some small way in adjusting people’s perceptions or assumptions about a situation in another country that they’ve never been to and barely read about. And this may just go some small way in developing a new world view, a greater connection with other cultures and populations, and ultimately a greater resolve to live together on this planet with more equality and more compassion in our hearts. Perhaps this is the ultimate goal, over above any lofty aims to end a conflict, or change Government policy, or stop its corruption or use of torture, in any given country. As the Dalai Lama and his celebrity supporters put it, we all need to stand up, and be the change.

Two weeks have past since I wrote my blog. Apparently this is very bad practice for a blogger, if you want to keep your audience interested. But what’s a girl to do when she’s spending half the time knee-deep in mud, the other half cleaning it all off? This will be explained below…

And I keep reminding myself that ultimately the purpose of this blog is to see how writing it helps me in my journey of transition. I am truly touched and so reassured that some people want to follow me on that journey, as they go through similar experiences and can offer support or words of encouragement and understanding. But no transition is the same, and there may be times when what I have to say doesn’t really resonate with anyone. I’m still going to say it anyhow.

So here goes….

The last two weeks have mostly been about pleasure-seeking and connecting with old friends. But given that I took a conscious step back from job-seeking, and from reading any bad news, I somehow filled the resulting extra time with other thoughts, experiences and lessons learned. Here they are:

1. I learned how to survive a muddy festival – whose unfortunate name and tagline was ‘Sunrise Celebration – another world is possible’. OK, so this wasn’t the first muddy festival I’ve been to. Glastonbury 1997 was probably the worst, followed by Bestival 2008. And, like previous festivals, survival relied mostly on tequila, cider and whatever else we could lay our hands on. This was unfortunate, as I had gone to Sunrise full of good intentions – to take advantage of the array of yoga, life-coaching and healing that was on offer in the Serenity Field , and maybe go to the odd talk on how to make the world a better place in the Village Green. But when faced with endless rain, wind, and a thickening mud soup which we had to wade through to get anywhere, we went for the easier option – the nearest tent with some live music and a patch of warmth and dryness. I did however dance a lot (albeit in wellies covered in what felt like several kilos of mud) – always a good release for me. And big respect to the organisers and all the talented musicians for keeping the punters happy and upbeat despite the weather conditions. There were moments of darkness and despair, but these were matched by moments where the mud didn’t matter anymore.

2. I saw the Dalai Lama at the Royal Albert Hall. It was quite a privilege to see His Holiness in the flesh – this modest and funny figure, who talked gently and cracked jokes to a mixed audience of several thousands. I have to admit, I went there with rather high expectations after having read his book ‘The Art of Happiness’ when I was in Thailand. I was hoping that he would lead us into a group meditation and have the entire audience sitting in contemplative silence. This wasn’t the case, and in many ways the content of the book was far more rewarding than the content of this two hours with His Holiness. The focus of the talk was on bringing positive change in the world, and how this can only happen from the heart. The message was clear, and a familiar one if you’ve read his book: no political, social or economic change is possible until we work on ourselves and our own sense of love and compassion. This entails releasing anger and seeing each and every person on this planet as one of us – with the same desires, fears, hopes, and insecurities. The emphasis was on the importance of having love and affection in our lives in order to give love and be compassionate. This must start from childhood if we are to succeed in playing a role in changing the world for the better – the love and affection our mothers give us is fundamental to how we relate to others and the world we live in.

Above all this, I think what I was most moved by was seeing in real life how, despite all the tragedies and injustices he has no doubt witnessed as the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, His Holiness applies modesty and humility every step of the way, stooping down to help the stage assistants clear the space for him after some Tibetan performers had left the stage. He was able to hold his audience as if we were sitting together in a small living room drinking tea; the polar opposite to the formality of the politicians and their rhetoric that we’ve become so accustomed to in the West.

“When we are motivated by compassion and wisdom, the results of our actions benefit everyone, not just our individual selves or some immediate convenience. When we are able to recognize and forgive ignorant actions of the past, we gain strength to constructively solve the problems of the present.

Dalai Lama XIV

3. Now on to a few more personal and emotional ruminations. I still feel moments of anger and pain. Certain names, conversations, places, leave me with an aching heart, bringing back good and bad memories from my recent past – in Uganda, in Palestine, in London. When the memories arise, then follows questions of whether I truly want to put the past – my work, my relationships, my lifestyle choices – behind me and move on to something completely new and different. I still find myself dwelling on my past as if it’s some indicator of my future and what I should be doing next. The past is so familiar, and I’m still not sure what I truly need to let go of in order to embrace this transition. Is it OK to turn my back and walk away from situations and conversations that no longer serve me?

4. I need to get out more. For the last few months I have spent most of my time at home with my parents – helping them around the house, baking cakes, cooking interesting recipes, watching TV, reading. I’ve ventured out for Tai Chi and belly dancing classes (more on that later) and for the odd cup of coffee or glass of wine with friends. Going to a festival, and a few days after that going out in Brixton for the first time in a while, has made me realise I seem to have lost the ability to socialise and talk with strangers. And yet this is very important if I want to move on with my life and form new relationships. My ability to talk about myself and what I’m doing with confidence, and to the opposite sex in particular, needs further work!

5. In an ideal world, there are two possible things I’d secretly like to be when I grow up (as, being a thirty-something in transition, I’m essentially like a child discovering a whole load of new exciting and scary things). One is a writer. Well, many of you could have guessed that one. I also would secretly like to be a dancer. This realisation has been a long time coming – starting from when I was eight or nine years old and fell in love with Hollywood musicals from the 1940s and 1950s, and developing recently whilst going to Five Rhythms in Vauxhall and weekly belly dancing classes. Last week in class we performed a dance sequence all the way through from start to finish for the first time to the Arabic song Zaalni Mennak by Carole Samaha. My effort was as clumsy as I would expect given my lack of co-ordination and ability to pick new skills up with any speed or grace; but this was an achievement nevertheless. Part of my transition seems to involve being like a child again – trying to let go of the embarrassment and fear that comes with learning something new, and just embrace the fun of being carried along by the experience.

Use what talents you possess. The woods would be a silent place if the only birds who sang were the ones who sang best.

Henry Van Dyke (Writer, poet and essayist, 1852-1933)

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