Archives for posts with tag: Gratitude

I have a week left in Kenya. So many thoughts and emotions have passed through me in the time I’ve been in East Africa. There are times when the expectations and requirements of this job have seemed totally overwhelming; where I’ve had no time to stop and digest what I have seen or heard, and I’ve had to push on with writing, researching, asking further questions, whilst often lacking the confidence that what I’m doing will actually make a difference.

Humanitarian work, human rights work, development work. All them giveth, and they taketh away. An average day can feel exhilerating, hopeful, frustrating, desperate. It takes a certain amount of strength to face some of the stark and difficult realities of poverty and injustice; to challenge the authorities even when you know that they may well ignore you and continue to sit back as another crime or violation is committed under their watch; to walk away after interviewing a victim of human rights abuse without being able to offer any immediate assistance. We have to remain confident that doing something – raising awareness at international level, lobbying politicians and demanding accountability from State authorities – is better than doing nothing at all.

A Kenyan woman sits in the rubble of her home after being forcibly evicted from a slum in Nairobi

A Kenyan woman sits in the rubble of her home after being forcibly evicted from a slum in Nairobi

On a bad day I feel guilty and hopeless about all that I have seen and can do little about. I feel angry with the State official who lies to my face, denying that a forced eviction has taken place and that hundreds have been made homeless; or worse stll, refuses to even discuss such matters. I feel ashamed that a victim of human rights violations will be hoping for so much more from me than what I can provide. When I’ve had quiet meditative moments, I’ve contemplated forgiveness; forgiving myself for any action which I feel was not really in my character, or may have offended or disappointed others. I can only hope that in consciously keeping my heart open that I can connect with people beyond the expectations of what I can and cannot give. The same applies to dealing with the authorities. I have worked to release the anger I’ve often felt towards them, and try and understand them and the situation on a deeper level; to have compassion even for those I disagree with, and to continue to connect with the pure light that shines in each and every one of us but is so often darkened by psychological and environmental factors.

And on a good day I feel nothing but gratitude. Gratitude for finding myself back in East Africa, a place that gives me inspiration and fulfillment. Gratitude for having a space to myself to explore ideas and emotions away from the familiarity and distractions of home. Gratitude for the nice weather (most of the time) – the huge African skies and the gentle heat on my pale skin. Gratitude to the people I meet, for welcoming me and increasing my respect for different cultures and customs. Gratitude for every new lesson I learn from my work and from the conversations I have with friends and colleagues. Gratitude that no matter what challenges I experience, there is always a quiet place to retreat inside myself, to reflect and regain some peace.

The view of the valley from where I'm staying in Nairobi

The view of the valley from where I’m staying in Nairobi

I’m looking forward to going home. But I am also looking forward to reflecting on all that I have seen and done here, and finding the inspiration to use these experiences in constructive ways that not only seek to help victims of human rights abuses, but also the aid workers themselves. Self-care is essential in this line of work, and I see this journey I’ve made as an opportunity to recognise and put into practice the tools that are necessary to hold these powerful concepts of compassion, forgiveness and gratitude in our hearts no matter what the circumstances.

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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.

hibiscus

hibiscus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

 

 

 

 

Following on from my previous blog post about exercising gratitude, even for difficult situations – here are some useful guidelines on how to embrace the good and the bad and create lasting happiness in your life, courtesy of the Qi healing centre, Innersound:

Innersound Harmony | 5 Highly effective practices for creating lasting happiness.

Phew, it’s been a while. There are times when creativity – whether it be writing, singing, dancing, admiring a beautiful landscape – suffers in the pursuit of specific goals. My blog has been temporarily abandoned whilst I’ve had my head in piles of University application forms, each with different guidelines and requirements.

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Why did I decide applying for a Phd was a good idea? At times I’ve forgotten myself; then I remember that my research idea  – stress and burnout among international humanitarian and development workers – is one that is close to my heart, and drawn from personal experience.

But like most decisions in my life, it seems with this one I’ve hardly chosen the easy route. In 2012 – a stormy and soul-searching year for many – I could have done many things after returning from a difficult year in Palestine. What I craved the most was stability and safety. After all, up to this point my life had been far from settled or grounding: four years in East Africa, ending in a dramatic escape from a slightly psycho Ugandan boyfriend; four years in a squat in Brixton, wondering whether we were next on the eviction list; a year in Palestine, forever fretting over the possibility of being ‘found out’ by Israeli intelligence, and deported for daring to do human rights work in the West Bank.

An image from Banksy which poignantly depicts the reality of feeling constantly under scrutiny in the Occupied West Bank

An image from Banksy which poignantly depicts the reality of feeling constantly under scrutiny in the Occupied West Bank

I’ve had my fair share of uncertainty. And 2012 was no different, despite returning to England and the suburban bliss of my parents’ neighbourhood. I’m still there, at the start of 2013, still not knowing what the future holds. This has to be one of the biggest skills to hone when undergoing a big transition – embracing uncertainty. That and the essential antidote to uncertainty: patience. There’s always a point during a transition where you have to accept that you do not know, and will not know, your destiny for some time. There’s no use in forcing the future, although there’s certainly no harm in building the path you wish for. That is indeed what I’ve been doing the last few months – practising my writing skills with the quiet wish that one day I will write a book; reading journal articles on burnout and writing my research proposal with the quiet wish that one day I’ll be offered a scholarship to study a Phd on the subject (hhhm, maybe ‘quiet’ isn’t the right word, given it’s all I’ve really been talking about to anyone I’ve spoken to recently).

But it’s taken a long time to get to this point of acceptance. When faced with a big transition, the urge is to run to whatever is familiar, even if it’s no longer nourishing or fulfilling. If I’d persisted with chasing familiarity, maybe I would have got that job working with a humanitarian organisation or an international development agency.  I’m glad I didn’t, because I doubt I’d be sitting here now, writing this piece; judging from previous experience, I probably wouldn’t have had any time for self-reflection whatsoever…and I would have been miserable.

Instead I’ve chosen a path of further uncertainty, where there’s no guarantee I’ll get what I wish for. Will I be accepted on my University course? Will I be given a scholarship that will enable me to study the course (I certainly won’t be able to do it otherwise)? I won’t know for some time yet, and meanwhile I have to live with the unknown and trust that whatever the outcome, I will gain something. And herein lies another major challenge for transitioners – learning gratitude.

Gratitude is a learned skill. And as gratitude becomes a habit, so will happiness.

 Julia Cameron

This week I’ve been meditating on gratitude. It’s not easy! Sure, it’s not difficult to be grateful for friends and family, and all the good things in your life. But try reflecting on all those things that have made you unhappy, or angry, or fearful – and find something positive from them. It’s a difficult exercise, but an essential one for transitioners living a life of uncertainty. Each setback, each disappointment, is something we can potentially gain from if we have gratitude for all experiences, good or bad.

So 2013 may have started with further uncertainty; I still don’t have the stability I crave, I’m not yet settled in any way.  But living with uncertainty has given me an inner strength – an inner certainty – which has helped me see clearly what is right and good for me, rather than what is familiar.  And for this new sense of power and courage, all I can feel is gratitude.

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