Archives for the month of: April, 2013

This week my thoughts have returned to the symptoms of burnout suffered by so many NGO workers.

We had a training in the week on how to interview victims of human rights violations. It at times felt surreal to be role-playing in imagined scenarios where we have to gather information from victims of torture or other forms of abuse, or their families. I could certainly see the value in it, but I also felt strangely detached, wondering how we can possibly understand the realities of people who have undergone treatment which is essentially alien to us in our comfortable democratic societies. We can show compassion, but we are not counsellors; we are not equipped to really support or offer help or advice to victims of human rights violations. Yet this is precisely what people often want or expect when they agree to share their trauma with a Western NGO worker. In hearing such distressing stories, it is no surprise that NGO workers suffer from feelings of guilt, helplessness and worse; they can end up feeling totally detached from what they’re hearing, unable to show that essential compassion, and they can suffer from exhaustion, insomnia, burnout.

These are conditions I’m all too familiar with. Only this week, my insomnia – which I thought I’d rid myself of months ago, returned. Although I felt I was working to my maximum potential each day – thanks mainly to daily morning meditations and Qi training – at night, all the latent thoughts and worries, some of them really quite trivial, came to the surface. This is not to say that I’m returning to the dark and frightening place I was in last year. But I am lapsing into familiar patterns which have affected me over the years of doing NGO work – of not sleeping well, of making up for it with several cups of coffee each day.

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The other night, as I lay awake at two in the morning, I wrote the following piece. It should resonate with anyone who has suffered from insomnia.

Insomnia. That’s a condition I thought I’d done away with this past year. But apparently not. This is how it’s been. I turn my light out at 11, as I can no longer concentrate on even reading the Guardian tabloid. I feel tired after cycling to and from work, probably 16 miles or more. I lie there, with earplugs to block out the sound of the ticking grandfather clock in the hallway, a family heirloom which has woken me on many occasions with its persistent strike. I proceed to do as I do every night – a yoga nidra in which I gently tell each part of my body, from my toes to my head, to relax.

But what is this? That intrusive voice telling me that I can’t sleep now, that my thoughts can and will take over, that I’m likely to be bothered for quite a while longer. What is this voice? Sometimes it feels like the voice of the devil; not part of me and with so much power to ruin my entire night in one foul swoop. Once the voice has made its presence known, it’s very hard to shake it off.

On this occasion, the yoga nidra does indeed help me to relax, and I feel myself slowly drifting off. But the voice wants a fight. Just as my dreams begin, I get shaken awake. I don’t know how, or when – maybe 45 minutes after turning my lights off. And then the real battle begins. I lie there, fighting the urge to take a herbal sleeping tablet, convinced I can do without them this time (having decided that my secret supply of stronger stuff was never again to be replenished once exhausted). Then, inevitably, I end up taking one. I lie there, waiting for it to take effect, whilst I choose this moment to focus on any niggling thoughts I may have – any insecurities or uncertainties. I toss and turn. I go to the bathroom. And I realise I have this awful feeling in my stomach – like a piece of lead has lodged itself there. I start thinking of all the possible causes – did I eat too quickly at dinner? Did I eat too much chocolate afterwards? Or is it something more subtle than that? Is this where my emotional turmoil has found a resting place – is it a build up of all the tensions and anxieties I’ve quietly endured over the last few days, whether they be at home or at work.

I toss and turn some more, then decide it’s no use; more medication of some sort is needed. I turn the light on again angrily, grab some medicine for indigestion, and take another sleeping tablet. But now I’ve gone way beyond the semi-relaxed state I was in earlier. Now I have acknowledged that I can’t sleep it has been translated into ‘won’t sleep’ somewhere in my psyche.

So now it’s time to start panicking about tomorrow – about the early start I have, about whether I’ll make it through the day, about whether I’ll end up an emotional wreck by the end of it, feeling like a desperate failure because my tiredness has rendered me unprepared for whatever challenges I may face.

Such worries are, as always, exaggerated. Because I know this situation, and how I respond to it: with lots of coffee. Which of course starts me on the cycle all over again a few hours later, when the caffeine hasn’t yet worn off and I want to go to sleep. But at least it gets me through the day.

There are not always quick fix answers to this condition, but I do feel I’m in a much stronger place to manage it than I have ever been before. By the end of the week I was actually very accepting of the fact I was not getting the full 8 hours I have come to expect each night. One of the best ways of beating insomnia is to accept, rather than resist it. So when I woke in the night, or at dawn hours before my alarm, I began to use the extra time I had awake to meditate, and of course to write. And because of that, it really didn’t feel so bad. By the time I got up to go to work, I had processed much of my anxiety and tensions, and let go of them. I was then ready for a productive day (with the aid of some strong coffee).

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Life is full of surprises. Just when you think you’ve worked it all out – mapped out the right path for you, cultivated and manifested your heart’s true desires, a gust of wind blows you in a different direction. The question is, how to interpret the gust of wind? Why does it come at that moment?

At the beginning of this year I was chanting every day with a wish in my heart; that all the months of effort I had put in to achieving my goals would pay off, and I would be offered a scholarship to study a Phd at one of my chosen universities. In the end, I didn’t get a scholarship, and instead I got a job back in the sector I’ve spent the last year gently extricating myself from. So now I’m faced with the offer to study a subject I already feel very familiar with – stress and burnout among NGO workers – at a range of Universities with admirable expertise on the topic, but no funding. And a job which takes me back to the heart of that world of stress and burnout, as an insider and participant, rather than an academic observer.

What should I make of this? I’ve been struggling with this question all week, since I received the bad news from the last University scholarship holder on my list. The job I’m doing now, likely to last only a few months and working in a region of Africa I’ve been involved with for years, just happens to be exactly what I wanted and wished for last year. I came to the conclusion that such a job – short-term and working on issues that have always been close to my heart – would be ideal after enduring months of unsuccessful job applications in long-term roles that would have further entrenched me in the NGO sector, at a time when what I really needed was a break from it. At the time I was cultivating greater goals – to write, and to study. But the greater goals have not entirely manifested the way I had expected or hoped for. I spent a year preparing to study a Phd, convinced that this path spoke to my soul, and was the perfect way for me to use my ten years of experience of working in conflict zones in a new, exciting and constructive way. But I did not get the funding I needed to proceed with these studies, and so now I’m faced with having to approach my desires from a different angle. Indeed, in the last few days I’ve questioned whether my desires are indeed true or heartfelt. Was all that effort, all that hard work in writing research proposals and applications a waste of time, or will they one day serve an entirely different purpose, yet to be discovered?

These uncertainties – what we may at times interpret as disappointments or setbacks – are all part of the game of life. We cannot resist the challenges that are thrown at us; with each challenge we have to decide whether to view it as a disaster, or an obstacle, or a new lesson in understanding who we are and where we’re going.

This is what I’ve been trying to tell myself these last couple of weeks. I have been acknowledging that sometimes we can cling on to one dream whilst not letting others arise. And we can try too hard to define our purpose in life, and fail to enjoy the uncertainty that is at the heart of our existence.

Existence is uncertain, insecure, dangerous. It is flux — things moving, changing. It is a strange world; get acquainted with it. Have a little courage and don’t look backwards, look forward; and soon the uncertainty itself will become beautiful, the insecurity itself will become beautiful.

Osho

So what next? I truly do not know. But then, I have had the same response to that question for over a year; I have grown used to not having the answer. All I can do is keep watching and listening; allowing a bit of time and space outside the busy-ness that so often renders us unconscious, to check in with myself. To keep asking, is this what you really want right now? And remain confident that whatever arises is helping me on my true path.

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Living with Uncertainty

There is a debate which has been circulating on Facebook which I got sucked into last week. It concerns the Dalai Lama and whether his search for inner peace should be interpreted as an indifference to injustice, especially if it messes with a personal sense of calm.

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This sort of debate I realise is a challenge for me right now. On the one hand I’ve been respecting and practising much of the Buddhist principles of meditation, non-attachment and letting go. On the other, I am now working for one of the most outspoken and respected human rights organisations whose responsibility it is to speak out – with force and anger if necessary – on grave injustice. As already noted in my previous blog post, I am entering a new chapter in my personal transition which requires integrating all I have learned on a spiritual level in a meaningful way, as I go about working on difficult or upsetting issues which are likely to provoke negative emotions and energies.

It got me thinking again about anger and how we use it. There is no doubt that political change often occurs after anger has resulted in positive or constructive action. But is this the emotion that should really be guiding us? Or has it become our default reaction to life’s challenges because of the political system we live in, which we know tends to favour the privileged and neglect the needs of the impoverished or voiceless? Even if we look at the United Nations system – supposedly a bastion of peacemaking – we see that much of our international relations is governed by the interests of the five permanent members of the Security Council, some of the most powerful nations in the world.

It is hard to imagine our world not being governed according to the political interests of the most powerful countries. But that is what the Dalai Lama, Buddhists, shamans, yogis and millions across the globe – from the temples of Asia to the forests of the Amazon – are indeed trying to do. They believe that the day will come – maybe not in our lifetime, and maybe not in the next – when this type of political system will evaporate and be redundant, because our lives will be governed by a far greater force than money or power.

They are preaching a completely new system of thought and action, which starts at the individual level through meditative practice, but which is truly expansive and universal in scope. It is only once we look deep within ourselves and realise our connection with every living soul on this planet – beyond boundaries, or front lines, or negotiating tables – that we might be able to realise a shift in our entire ideology and philosophy. When we connect with the purity of love and compassion which exists beyond the habits, attitudes and energies we pick up from our social environment, our anger falls away. Indeed, conflicts so often rage on because the warring parties are unable to let go of the anger and negative emotions which burn inside them.

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OK, so I know sitting and meditating, and connecting with our pure and positive energies isn’t going to bring peace overnight. It won’t succeed in stopping the exchange of fire between two warring parties and it won’t succeed in getting a resolution tabled at the U.N. But dare we let ourselves believe that it is one small step in generating a whole new conception of life and how we relate to each other? The Mayans would argue that we have indeed reached a new and profound phase in human existence – we entered this phase on the 21st December last year, when we moved to a higher state of consciousness. We have entered an age of greater awareness, and a re-connection with wisdom which has been lost through the previous age of rapid technological progress and a neglect of Mother Earth. There may be many more wars, more bloodshed, and more environmental disasters before we truly realise this new phase in human existence – this is all part of the Shift of Ages. But the indications are already there of many millions of people challenging the current world system; not only by taking to the streets as we’ve seen with the Occupy movements and the Arab uprisings, but also choosing to engage in spiritual practice. Whether we choose to get on board and be part of this shift depends on whether we are ready to let go of old structures, ideas and thoughts which we have been bound by for hundreds of years. If we want to see real, transformative and positive change on our planet, then we must start from within.

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