One week into my trip to Kenya, and I’ve barely had time to stop and take it all in. As we arrived earlier in Kisumu, a city that borders Lake Victoria in Western Kenya, I felt the exhaustion wash over me. I have seen so much, and heard so many sad stories in the last few days that it’s hard for me to process it all.

Last week I found myself in the Nairobi slums, which house over half the city’s population of three million. On Friday, a forced eviction had taken place in one of the smaller settlements. Shacks made of tin and cardboard had been destroyed, with their contents – the meagre belongings of the residents – strewn across the dampened ground. We made our way along a muddy path – balancing on stray planks of wood and bricks to avoid rotten sewage flowing through the settlement – to meet some of the residents. They were understandably distraught after being made homeless, and being forced to flee their houses as they were being demolished amidst the firing of teargas and live ammunition. The eviction had happened at four that morning and had been carried out by a group of unidentified men, while the police stood by and watched, their role merely to ‘keep the peace’ – an apparent euphemism for providing security to those demolishing the homes, not their inhabitants. Young mothers with hungry crying babies, elderly women with a look of despair and fear in their teary eyes, angry men, some of whom had hit the bottle early in the day and were wondering around looking for a fight – everyone was shell-shocked, and wondering what to do next.

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Mathare, one of the many slums in Nairobi

This long day in the slums was followed by another, in a different slum, where we talked to a 15 year old boy who had been shot by the police during protests against the new Government. We spoke in hushed voices in the boy’s small, cramped home where he resided with his anxious mother. The settlement was full of lively activity – market stalls selling kitchen utensils, CDs, phones, fruit and veg and meat; cars driving along the bumpy dirt track; goats being herded amidst the throng of people coming and going; reggae music blaring from sound systems. But underlying all of this was the fear of violence and bloodshed, the slum having been the victim of serious ethnic tensions in recent years. ‘Tribalism’ – a horrible but much used word in Kenya – permeates through every aspect of social and political life, and has been the cause of much civil unrest, particularly in the slums in Nairobi, and in Kisumu, where I am now.

What a world away this is from the quiet period of self-reflection I imposed on myself in the last year. I’ve been thrown in at the deep end, certainly, but I’ve also jumped from one extreme to another. Suddenly I’m bombarded with unfamiliar and distressing images and stories which are the everyday realities for many people. No sooner have we left one horrific incident behind, we are faced with another, whilst also trying to find some moral purpose for being there in the first place; to somehow justify our presence as human rights defenders, even though there is nothing tangible we can offer to ease the grief that is felt by the victims we meet.

These are the typical struggles of an NGO worker. They push themselves beyond their limits in the hope of finding some way of addressing the cruel injustices they’re witness to. They push and they push, storing up all those upsetting and distressing images, often avoiding emotional reaction on any level, lest it betray a weakness or vulnerability that threatens their capacity to do their job.

There is no doubt that one needs an inner strength to do this kind of work. But one thing I have learned in the last year is that strength is not gained by withholding or suppressing emotions. Each day we absorb so much negative energy as we go about our work; whether it be from the hostile State official, the angry victim who has long ago lost hope in the empty promises made by Westerners with good intentions, or from our colleagues as they juggle the plethora of emotions, expectations and pressures related to their job. It is essential to find a way of releasing this negative energy – of processing what we are confronted with, and letting it go – in order to maintain the clarity and confidence which assures us that no matter what the challenges, we are doing the best we can. I realise that it is more important for me now than ever to have time – which may only be 5 or 10 minutes in a day – to stop and be solely with myself. To touch base, and calmly observe the rush of emotions which are inevitable when faced with endless hardships and injustices. By observing, I go some way in processing and releasing what I have absorbed in the last few days. And in doing so, I can restore that vital inner strength that prepares me for the next challenge.

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So, here I am on an early Sunday morning in Nairobi. Seated on my own at the hotel restaurant eating my second breakfast of the day; the first being the dissatisfying dried up morsels provided by Kenya Airways. There is a light, misty rain falling outside the window, but nevertheless a warmth in the air that is unquestionably African.

I feel calm, relaxed. Maybe the calm before the storm, as who knows how the next week will be as I navigate my way from meeting to meeting, most of the time on my own, with people I’ve never met and where we’ll be discussing the thorny issues of post-eleciton violence and extra-judicial killings. And then there’s the Nairobi traffic to deal with – the long queues of matatus (small mini-buses) and 4x4s and impatient drivers forever lurching forward and thereby adding to the bottleneck.

Nairobi Traffic Jam

Nairobi Traffic Jam (Photo credit: rogiro)

And the endless security regulations I have to remember the minute I step outside – don’t walk alone at night, make sure you know who your driver is, don’t carry too much money on you, call your manager each day to confirm you’re safe….

Whilst to some extent I do appreciate the strict security guidelines which assume human rights defenders such as myself to be a possible target of attack – whether by hostile authorities or a poverty-stricken opportunist whose perception of the wazungu (white people) is always clouded by dollar signs – I am overwhelmed by these rules and regulations. I have travelled to Uganda, Palestine and Sri Lanka on my own and never received such preparation. And I do wonder whether all the talk of security risks and the strict do’s and don’ts which accompany this type of work may at times instill fear rather than comfort in the traveller.

A walk around the grounds of the hotel and its neighbouring areas has reminded me of the real and immediate problem with crime in Nairobi. I have to let myself in and out of every entrance gate or doorway with my hotel swipe card, and the place is swarming with security guards. The crime levels now are no doubt as they were the last time I lived here seven years ago; so high that it’s almost certain that either you or another expat you know will be a victim of theft, robbery or car-jacking at some point. Which many would argue is the very reason why we need these seemingly melodramatic security guidelines when conducting business here.

But if certain external realities haven’t changed in seven years, there are a lot of inner realities that have. The last time I was in Kenya for an extended period, in 2006, I had become a tired, cynical and vulnerable person, who sought solace in cigarettes and several bottles of Tusker beer each night. Just a brief walk around the hotel grounds earlier brought back many memories, of emotions and attitudes I held at the time which were either destructive or misguided. I am now such a different person from the exhausted, disillusioned person who fled a disastrous relationship and unrewarding NGO work in East Africa seven years ago.

Nowadays my concern with finding the nearest drinking hole to process the day’s traumatising experiences or drown my sorrows has been replaced by a desire to find a quiet place to meditate. I noted this with a laugh to myself at Heathrow airport, as I wondered on arrival there whether I could find a prayer room to have a  few peaceful minutes with myself before flying. Gosh, how times have changed.

A meditation room - every public building needs one!

A meditation room – every public building needs one!

Admittedly, the old habits have seeped back into my life since resuming human rights work. My coffee intake has tripled (I’ve had three so far this morning, which is particularly excessive for someone who’d reduced to about one a week in recent months), my sleeping patterns are unpredictable and I find myself craving a drink or three after a stressful day. But these habits and addictions are matched by another powerful force which, more than anything else, helps me meet the new challenges I’m facing. And that is a degree of inner peace. I say this cautiously, as inner peace is not an end game but a continuous and fluid process; there one second and gone the next. But since ‘waking up’ – connecting with my soul and becoming the consious observer of what I do, say and think and how it reflects on the deeper truth inside me – I’ve found some peace. Of course there are still times when I muddle through life unconsciously, careering from one problem to another, ignoring my see-sawing emotions, too engrossed in getting somewhere else. When this happens it’s usually a bad day, where I feel disjointed, unbalanced, insecure and irritable. And I know what I need to do to resolve it.

A conscious pause every now and again lifts this negative energy. It may be for 20 minutes in the morning before work, meditating by candlelight.Or  it may be writing Julia Cameron’s cathartic morning pages – letting my first thoughts and emotions of the day spill out onto the page. Or it may be connecting with my heart, and the heart of those I come across each day so that I can communicate better, even in the face of tension or hostility. Or, most powerful of all, I will do some chanting and gentle Qi energy movements which both ground me and fill me with nourishing, positive energy.

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These are all quiet, personal moments which help me to let go of the day’s or week’s troubles and anxieties, and truly touch base with myself; connect with my soul and remind myself of who I really am beneath whatever image I may have portrayed that day. And because of these new, essential habits in my life, I know this time in Kenya will be different. I do not yet know how it will be or what challenges I will face, but aside from the security protocols and institional procedures, I have my inner guide to give me real strength and resilience.

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.

counting sheep

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.

Dalai Lama1

 

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.

Week One of my new job is complete. What a big change this has been to my routine. Being the new girl in school has required some patience and trust in myself, as I get to grips with new systems, new people, new discussions.

I can see that the biggest casualty is likely to be my creative writing, as I turn my attention to the more structured form of human rights reporting and documentation.

And yet, as I write these words I realise that I needn’t think that just because I’ve got a job all my spiritual and creative practices are lost – I’m writing now, aren’t I? And I’m also realising that meditation, chanting and all those spiritual exercises I’ve been doing the last few months may be more essential now than ever.

Because now is all about integration. It is time to take all that self-reflection and soul discovery into the outside world and use it to connect with those around me. There is no point in meditation, yoga or other spiritual practices if we don’t use it in the real world. So I’ve been looking at ways to manage my anxiety and angst as I navigate my way through all the uncertainties and self-doubts that come with a new job. There is one exercise recommended to me by a dear friend of mine, who always has nuggets of spiritual wisdom when I need them. It is great when you want to connect with those around you – complete strangers, people you feel threatened by, those who you believe you will get on with and those you think you may not. You close your eyes and picture your heart, and within that heart stands a small image of your perfect self. It is an image of unconditional love, one that is free of judgement or any negative habits or attitudes developed through our life experiences. You then picture that perfect being that exists in the heart of all others – see through the outer veneer, the ego or the facades – and connect.

Heart cartoon

There is something so simple and rewarding about this exercise. I did it before my job interview, and I did it before going into work yesterday; and in doing so, I was able to live the rest of the day without that ego voice getting in the way, telling me I’m not interesting enough, or that people won’t like me, or that they’ll be horrible to me. Instead, I felt myself connecting with those around me without fear or judgement.

The first days of a new job are never easy. And the change in pace and environment for me has been rapid and overwhelming. Where I spend my days now – in a bustling office, where discussions about human rights and democracy in Africa, about civil unrest or injustice or slum-dwelling or police brutality circulate around me continuously – is a world away from the quiet life of self-reflection and solitude I’ve had for the last year. The last time I did this kind of work, my emotions were highly reactive – I was easily drawn into and made miserable by the internal politics of the office, or the external politics of the harsh world we live in. This time I feel things will be different. My intentions for this job go beyond doing it well and fulfilling whatever commitments or objectives are required (within reason, remembering that human rights work is necessarily idealistic, at times over-ambitious and also highly demanding).  I also want to be proactive in expressing my inner truth; to let go of negative emotions and habits which have held me back previously, and to not be afraid to open my heart and manifest its desires. In doing so, there will be an inner strength that can carry me through whatever challenges may lie ahead.

This blog post comes from a fellow blogger who I admire very much, and who shared these words from Charlie Chaplin on a day when I was letting the ego’s voice get the better of me. I read this and felt so much better!

Lagniappe: Charlie Chaplin: As I Began to Love Myself | Streams of Consciousness.

In the last week I have surrendered to the power of prayer. I am not a Christian, and I do not consider myself religious. But I have been on a spiritual journey the last few months, which has taken me from feeling complete darkness and a loss of identity to a process of gentle healing and letting go, to a connection with soul; to understanding my inner truth, my purpose and the real route to my happiness.

In order to let my soul speak, I have had to endure long periods without work, without  busy-ness, without all the distractions which over the years have contributed to me never really confronting or listening to the voice inside me. If I had listened, I would have heard it say, ‘Enough…you don’t need to please everybody, you don’t need to act out other people’s perceptions of who you are or who you should be, you don’t need to be perfect – no one is’. Letting that voice be heard required me to give up old habits and the life of intense work and endless partying I was so familiar with, and allow space for stillness.

This year  has been pivotal. I started it by chanting every day for 21 days, to bring joy and luck for the year ahead. Chanting is a new exercise for me, one I’ve wholeheartedly embraced after feeling the considerable benefits of its sounds resonating and vibrating through my body. No matter how bad my day is, if I sit and chant for half an hour the weight lifts – I am no longer dwelling on the past, or fretting about the future, I am totally present and as a result all my worries slip away.

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I spent February applying to study a Phd, and for a scholarship to fund those studies. I still wait to hear whether I’ve been successful, but I’ve already been offered a place at two Universities so I take that – along with the encouragement I’ve received from the academics who want to supervise my research – as positive indicators that the funding will also follow.

And this week I received the glorious news that my job application to work at Amnesty International – for three months on their Kenya programme – was successful. This has followed an intense period of emotional upheavals, as I waited, lost confidence, had doubt upon doubt, and dreaded the possibility of another job rejection. I went through enough of them last year. All the while I was busy manifesting – chanting for my cause, raising the vibration within me to be at the same pitch as my dreams and desires. This was my prayer – the simple spiritual exercise of chanting, which doesn’t require a Bible, or a church, or a deity. Chanting and meditation helped clear those negative emotions – the doubts and fears – and replace them with calm and clarity. It helped me maintain an open mind and heart – allowing space for positive energy to flow freely.

This job speaks to my soul as it allows me to use my skills in a setting I’m familiar with, on a short-term basis whilst I move through my transition and embark on the next chapter in my life. This was the sort of job I yearned for last year but couldn’t attain. But the time was not right last year – I was going through the in-between time or ‘neutral zone’ of my transition. It’s a place of uncertainty, of resistance, of dark nights of the soul – when you are no longer sure of what you want or who you are, when you strive to hang on to old habits and beliefs, when your inner voice that says ‘Enough!’ is trying to make itself heard.

Live your own destiny

Letting go is a long process, and I’m sure for me as for anyone else the job is never done. But I do feel that a new energy is pulsating through me. This year, as I’ve put something out into the ether – job or Phd applications – and received positive or encouraging responses, I’ve felt I’m actually hurtling, free-falling, towards my destiny. There may be more tough times ahead, but I’ve already come out of my darkest moment and am now heading towards the light of my soul’s desires, with greater confidence and courage.

It was nice to wake up this morning and realise for the first time in well over a year that I will soon have a job to go to. But with that realisation also came another – that in the past few months I had really learned to accept not having a job. After months of resistance, I had managed to appreciate the time for what it was – an essential period of reflection, growth and creativity. Without it, I would not be what I am today – content.

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Mindful Next – Change and Transition

Because transitioners at some point have to face the grim reality that in order to achieve our dreams we’re going to need some cash flow, I’ve returned to the daunting task of jobhunting. I’ve managed to avoid this activity, and the full spectrum of emotions associated with it – from hope to hopelessness, courage to fear, anticipation to anxiety – for a few months. In fact, towards the end of last year I made the decision – consciously and willingly – to let go of this feeling that I must find some job, any job. I decided to pursue other creative interests and projects which perhaps wouldn’t help my finances but would help my soul.

I was lucky, and I remain forever grateful, that there was no rent to pay; that my parents whose roof I live under would allow me the space and offer support in whichever way they could. And through having the space to explore, and understand, and let go, I am finding my ‘true north’ – the spirit within me which is happy, joyful, driven and creative; and this has given me the confidence that this transitioner is heading in the right direction, and all is well.

I am now faced with the significant challenge of integrating my spiritual practice into the everyday external realities we are confronted with – in this case, high unemployment and a very competitive job market.  The last few weeks have been a real test for that glorious feeling of power and clarity that arises when we connect to our inner truth.I’m sure many jobhunters can relate to my personal experience. Here is a brief overview:

Three weeks ago, I applied for a job which, when I first heard about it, seemed ideal for me. When I went about filling in the application form, I felt on a real high – excited by this opportunity, empowered because I felt I was shaping my new reality according to my dreams and desires, and therefore confident that everything was going to work out as it should.

Each day, as I’ve waited to hear the outcome of the job application, I’ve lurched from quiet optimism to self-doubt to all-out rage. The society we live in, and the current economic climate, apparently dictates that there will be stiff competition for any job, and that you are likely to be left dangling – hoping for a positive response, but in the end perhaps not getting any at all. Take the example of this job: after submitting it, I was told interviews would be held on Friday the following week and that they’d let me know if I was shortlisted. Friday came and went, and I heard nothing. In came the rage and despair. Over the weekend I heard that there were 250 applications for the position I’d applied for, and that shortlisting hadn’t yet been completed. Hope once more triumphed over the pessimism which had temporarily taken over. On Wednesday I received a call from the organisation I’d applied to; without warning, they asked me some questions related to the required knowledge for the job. Caught unawares, I felt I stumbled over my answers. I was not told at this point whether I had in fact been shortlisted. The phone call was followed by feelings of hopelessness and anger that I’d been asked these questions without time to prepare for them. Then on Friday I was told that I’d been invited for interview, and that it would take place the following day – on a Saturday. This sent me into a panic – it seemed such short notice, and odd to be holding an interview on a weekend day. I was then told a mistake had been made and that in fact interviews would be held the following Monday.

So yesterday I had an interview, by phone. The e-mail inviting me for interview had actually indicated that I was to go to the organisation’s office, but this turned out also to be a mistake on their part. After the interview I was told that the next round of interviews would take place within the week, after further shortlisting. And so once again I’m in the place of not knowing, a place where self-doubt and fear thrive.

For me, the process of jobhunting has been a reminder of the challenges one faces when applying all one’s inner strength and resources gained through meditation and spiritual practice to everyday external realities. It has been a major test on my ability to stay calm, to embrace uncertainty, to show gratitude for even the most agonising or painful situations. Although I am a different, and stronger, person than the one who was jobhunting a year ago, whilst I’ve been left hanging waiting for a response to my job application, all those familiar feelings of doubt have returned. My negative voice has crept in: Why is even the ideal job such a struggle to attain? I’ve spent hours on this application and why this punishment in return? Is this going to be disappointment, and rejection, again? What’s wrong with me? Am I going to return to that dark place of despair and fear I was in last year?

A place of not knowing is one of the most challenging places to be in. I’ve lived in that place for well over a year now, and have managed to embrace it, even enjoy it at times. But when a new challenge comes along in that place of not knowing, it can feel agonising, disorientating, excruciating. It feels like one extra provocation just when things seemed stable and safe.

But if these things are indeed sent to try us, then at some point there will be something to be gained from such experiences, whatever the outcome. Perhaps the only way to deal with the pain of not knowing, and all the negative emotions which can arise from it, is to examine how we respond to the situation, and what that says about us. Then maybe next time we can handle the place of not knowing with more calm, courage and gratitude.

If last year was my year of growth and acceptance, 2013 is turning out to be my year of gratitude and forgiveness. A lot of my thoughts and meditations have been directed towards these goals. There’s been 2012 to deal with – the rejected job applications, loneliness, uncertainty, heartbreaks and family crises. But then there is also a whole lifetime, from the moment I was born to where I am today, which is worthy of a pause for thought and consideration.

Why? Because no matter how much we wish to avoid it, our past is part of us – it’s what makes us who we are today. We try to shut out and forget the situations in our past which hurt us, when actually it may be possible to recognise them as positive influences that have shaped us, or which have taught us something.

Acceptance of the past is an exercise of the heart, or if I am to be more prosaic, the soul; as we accept all that has gone before, we can learn to love who we are – all our qualities, including those we’d rather not speak about. When we achieve self-love, we are ready to cross that rainbow bridge situated in the fourth chakra – the heart – which transports us to a state of higher consciousness, where we can see our inherent and natural beauty that overrides our ego’s quest for perfection in the eyes of others.

Anahata chakra symbolizes the consciousness of...

Anahata chakra symbolizes the consciousness of love, empathy, selflessness and devotion. On the psychic level, this center of force inspires the human being to love, be compassionate, altruistic, devoted and to accept the things that happen in a divine way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To connect more with our heart, and with our soul, may well require a major letting go of all that we thought defined us, of all that we thought was familiar and acceptable in our life. This is often where depression sets in; our soul is crying out but we are resisting the call, not wishing to let go of our youth, of old habits and beliefs – even those darker ones that have developed through unpleasant incidents in our past. And this is where acceptance, gratitude and forgiveness are essential. We are letting go, but we are also recognising and showing respect for all that has defined us and got us to where we’re at today.

This process inevitably implies a journey deep into the past – particularly to childhood, where so much of what happens can determine how we approach our life in adulthood. For me, as I’m sure for others, this is far from easy. Those years between around 5 and 15 were on balance the worst in my life. But in examining them during my meditations, I made a discovery about my heart – the seat of creativity, of desire and intimacy and all those obscure emotions, feelings and processes that cannot be explained through the rational mind. As a child, my heart was open – meaning I was creative, I loved to dance and sing and write. I wrote poems and short stories, and I imagined myself as a famous, glamorous actress or, in my younger years, as a beautiful and agile fox (my favourite animal). And I wished to be friends with everybody – to give and to receive love unconditionally.

But I lost my connection to these qualities of the heart when I was subjected to bullying from the age of 8 to 16. During this period I felt isolated and hurt by the malicious words of my classmates. When they weren’t purposefully excluding me from friendship circles and group outings, they were laughing at me for wearing the wrong clothes, or reading the wrong book, or saying the wrong thing. It is no surprise then that during that time I also developed an eating disorder. medium_331146387And there were other clear ramifications of having a closed heart. It meant for many years after that, as I grew up into a young woman, I let my head lead the way – rightly or wrongly – in so many decisions. To have listened to my heart at this stage would have been to surrender to something far less rational and more fragile and uncertain – and I couldn’t open myself up to such vulnerability. All I wanted to do was prove my strength, coolness and level-headedness whatever life threw at me. I channelled my energies into achievements and maintaining a specific image – activities of the ego.

These are habits and behaviours I have been slowly letting go of. I see the value now of returning to the heart/soul dynamic of our existence:

The soul presents images that are not immediately intelligible to the reasoning mind. It insinuates, offers fleeting impressions, persuades more with desire than with reasonableness. In order to tap the soul’s power, one has to be conversant with its style, and watchful.

Thomas Moore

What has this got to do with gratitude and forgiveness? In order for us to tap into emotional qualities of the heart and soul, we have to understand what may have shut down those qualities in the first place. And although a childhood trauma may have had negative consequences, it is only by accepting it as part of our life that we can gently let go of our obsessions of acting or being a certain way, and instead listen to the subtle voice within.

The parts of us that get ignored or outwardly rejected retreat to the realm of the unconscious. They become part of the shadow, split off from the persona. The persona is made of aspects that bring us love, while the shadow, those that seem unacceptable. As adults, part of our fourth chakra work is to reunite the persona with the rejected shadow for the purpose of balance and wholeness.

Anodea Judith 

I can now see the important qualities and experiences which have emerged from my troubled childhood. Isolation and loneliness gave me a warmth and compassion for others less fortunate and a determination to speak up for people whose voices were not being heard. A lack of nourishing relationships with people my own age was made up for with a deeper connection with grown-ups; and to this day I feel a natural closeness to people more mature than me. And ultimately, it is often through the bad times that we are most creative – these times are a license for us to be as imaginative and irrational as we like. And by unleashing our creativity we bring ourseves closer to our true nature – one that seeks a gentle balance between head and heart. medium_2245436130

 

 

 

 

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