Archives for category: Nature

I have been appreciating stillness lately. Here in Kenya, I spend a lot of time on my own, cherishing the calm and quiet. I don’t seem to be desperate for company and entertainment all the time like I used to be, instead enjoying moments where I can be with myself and dip in to my inner being. By having time on my own, I can also reconnect with other passions and interests, and avoid the common trap in this line of business of defining myself purely through the work I do.

Indeed, I spent most of my years of NGO work telling people, without much thought, ‘I’m an aid/human rights/development worker’. This was partly because I would have struggled to claim another identity for myself. My time outside work usually revolved around smoking, drinking, partying or sleeping. And none of these activities really form an identity. So I remain grateful for the months I had last year to rediscover my passions. They were there all along, but it took a concerted effort of slowing down and being still to realise them once again.

Such moments of stillness are crucial for NGO workers, faced so often with mounting pressures, expectations, negativity and disappointments in their daily work. It is also easy to live through our work when the job often continues beyond office hours – in discussions with friends or associates, in networking dinners and social occasions. Topics of conversation so often revolve around the difficult situations we’re working in, the communities we’re trying to help, the lack of resources there to support us, the deficiencies of the structures we have to work with….we forget to switch off and talk about something completely different. Particularly when working in the field and overseas, it becomes ‘normal’ to spend all our time outside work either reading or talking about the very human rights or humanitarian issues which we’re confronted with each day.

Of course there is nothing wrong with doing this; so long as there is also some time given over to stepping out of that space, that identity and seeing what else lies beneath in one’s soul. This means taking time out to admire the beauty which surrounds all of us, to remember that as well as the horrors of war, conflict, poverty and human rights violations there is also the abundance and power of nature, of creativity, of love. Whilst there may be many things for us to feel guilty about, there is also much to feel grateful for.

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A monkey and I admire the view of the River Nile in Uganda

The other day my Kenyan colleagues and I sat around a table in their office drinking coffee and eating samosas and mandazi (doughnuts). Two hours had been set aside specifically for the purpose of connecting with each other, and not talking about work. When I was confronted with this unusual exercise, my initial reaction was one of panic. What are we going to talk about? What can I say that’s interesting? But as we went round one by one, contributing something to the very light and candid conversation, I began to relax. I realised this was the first opportunity I’d had to actually get to know the people I’d been sharing an office with for the past few weeks. We laughed and joked, and were moved by stories about our families, or about how we spend our time at the weekend, or about what we value in life. This simple initiative to bring people together in a relaxed way, and to take them away from their all-consuming work and other pressures, was very important. I wondered how often this happens in an office in London, for a full two hours.

One of my colleagues said something which particularly resonated with me. He said that we must find time to admire the flowers. This was of course a metaphor for how we should approach our work. We have much to focus on that is distressing and unpleasant. But admist all that, we each have an amazing and powerful ability to create some stillness in which to marvel at what is pure, beautiful and magical; and to have gratitude for such small and simple pleasures.

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hibiscus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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I woke up this morning at war with the snow. It had managed to highjack my weekend, causing me to cancel much anticipated arrangements as I feared a slippery accident if I was to venture too far afield. In addition to which, the wintery season seemed to have penetrated deep into my soul as well as my body; I spent much of last week feeling enclosed, sombre and a little tearful. At the start of this year I thought I had entered my spring, even if it was winter around me – I felt light and confident and ready to explore new challenges; but in the last week a darkness seems to have descended over me, much like the darkness I see outside for most of the day. I have to remind myself that we appreciate happiness so much more when we feel a little pain every now and again – this is the yin and yang, the light and darkness, of our existence.

And instead of moping around indoors, feeling trapped by the snow, I decided to go out and appreciate it. The snow is beautiful after all – its soft silence, the way it gives a chrystalline finish to even the most mundane surroundings. I may not be able to enjoy the weekend quite as I had planned, but I can at least go down the road and see the natural beauty of this most inhospitable of seasons.

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And by doing so – by feeling the crunch of snow underneath my feet and enjoying the footprints left by the birds and the icy images on the lake – I enabled that darkness to lift a little.

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I can see we have to move through this season, both outside and within – accept it, appreciate it, and look for the fresh and clear beauty that lies beneath it.

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Lesson 1,256 of my transition: take pleasure in the natural beauty which surrounds you! In the last few months I have really been paying attention to the sights and sounds I experience in my daily life. This isn’t always a good thing; nowadays I seem super-sensitive to ‘white noise’ – to the endless commentary and bad pop music coming from the radio in our house, or the screaming voices of characters from my Mum’s favourite soap opera on TV. Our society seems to rely too heavily on background noise, like it’s a necessity to distract us from our inner thoughts and reflections.

But then I step outside, walk up the road and within a few minutes I’m enveloped in nature – in an oasis of calm within the natural reservoir. Today I admired the shades of green, yellow and red among the trees, the cormorants and mallards going about their daily business on the water, the squawking parakeets flying overhead (yes – we do actually, most bizarrely, have parakeets in London! They escaped from a zoo several years ago and quickly adapted and multiplied).

And today as I walked, I felt I was breathing in the twilight of Autumn. You’ve got to hand it to this country – we really do autumn very well. The UK’s summer was a washout, winter will be long, cold and dark and spring usually has some surprises in store – either a short-lived heatwave or daily downpours, or both. This autumn at least seems to have made up for a very disappointing summer; one which just about held out for the sake of the Olympics but which rarely gave us a full day of radiant and warm sunshine.

My Dad made a comment the other day that going for a walk to the reservoir was like going on an acid trip, and I saw this today and went mad with the camera – hence this little photographic piece. It is only for two months in the year, maybe three if we’re lucky, that we can really take pleasure in the colours and shades of autumn. So today I embraced it, possibly for the last time as winter begins to set in. No doubt the next season in the reservoir will provide a contrasting sparse and delicate beauty.

 

 

I was meant to be writing about burnout this week. Well, actually, I have been writing about burnout, for the last two weeks. It’s taken up most of my day, and my thoughts and energy, as I wade through books and articles detailing the whys and hows of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. I’m applying to do a Phd on the very topic, which requires me to get to know my subject, before I’ve even started studying it in the academic sense. And in getting to know it, I’m also confronting it head on, accepting it into my life as a personal experience that I am living.

But before I stray too much into the subject, which I have no doubt I’ll be returning to, I will mentally drag myself back to this present moment. Today I’m having a break from burnout, and I’ve taken a walk in the local park. And as I was walking, I was reminding myself of the importance of attention – of forgetting about what I was doing or thinking yesterday, what I read this morning or what I’ll be doing tonight – and taking in my surroundings.

And there, suddenly, I remembered it was Autumn. Had I not noticed before? Sure I had, but there’s little recognition or appreciation when you’re locked up in a room typing or reading off a computer all day. Beautiful, colourful, glowing Autumn – that brief period that only lasts a month or so, when the trees are rich in vibrant colours of green, orange, yellow and red; when the leaves literally burst out at you, vying for attention. All the seasons are playful in some way, and allow us to remember our childhoods as if they are now. In the case of Autumn, it is the crunch of the leaves under your feet, or the look and feel of a soft, mahogany conker, which prove particularly satisfying.

Getting out of the house and walking around the park is a healing process because amid all the chaos, the busy lives, the self-doubts and fears, it’s a space to breathe. I’ve felt blocked the last few weeks, struggling to write or to find the words to express myself. The thought of returning to more writing on burnout was also too difficult, and too painful. It encourages me to be stuck in my own mind and thoughts, when actually it’s just as powerful and inspiring to see what’s outside myself. The beauty of Autumn doesn’t last long. In fact, the large globules of rain which are now pouring down, smattering against the windows, are a reminder that we have to snatch those moments of pleasure outdoors when we can. So go on, pay attention to the Autumn!

Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.

Henry Miller

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