Archives for posts with tag: Julia Cameron

Hidden or suppressed emotions manifest themselves in mysterious ways. When I got back to my hotel room after a relatively uneventful day in the office – which, rather than feeling grateful for I found dull and anti-climactic after the long and busy days of the last week – I didn’t know whether I wanted to scream with anger or burst into tears.

Was this the Monday blues? General exhaustion after spending last week rushing around, chasing the stories behind the Government’s closure of Uganda’s main independent newspaper and other media houses? Or the angst of not knowing what’s going to happen with this job or my future in general? The reasons behind my bad mood seemed hard to pin-point, but either way I’d had a short fuse throughout the day. Moments of irrational anger and irritation arose over the slow internet connection in the office, or because the people I’d hoped to meet in Kampala weren’t answering my calls or e-mails, or because I couldn’t go swimming in the hotel pool after work. This last inconvenience being due to today being a public holiday in Uganda – except, obviously, for my organisation who carried on its fight for human rights whilst the rest of the population enjoyed some time out. The swimming pool was therefore teeming with Ugandan families practising their splashing skills, which severely diminished my chances of having a relaxing evening swim.

And so it was in this state of inner turmoil that I turned to yoga. An obvious solution for many perhaps; but I’ve been a little out of practice over the last few months, preferring to immerse myself in other forms of powerful energy healing. It was only when I returned to the practice the other day with my friend – in an idyllic setting overlooking the River Nile – that I remembered the value of yoga; the way it both invigorates and relaxes, moves you to break into a sweat but also calms you down to a state of stillness and clarity.

The beautiful River Nile in Uganda

The beautiful River Nile in Uganda

The yoga I did today targeted the liver and gall bladder – organs which, in the Chinese meridian system, are where anger and anxiety are often held. And just allowing myself those 45 minutes to observe and accept whatever physical or emotional pain came and went as I held each posture was truly transformative. By the end of the practice my irritation had lifted and was replaced with a feeling of pure bliss.

And not only that. Giving myself that time out has opened up my creative channels, at a time when I felt I’d been suffering badly from writer’s block. My inability to write, and my anger and short temper, were all interlinked of course. Writing is another healing exercise for me, but one only made possible if I allow myself space to breathe and be still amidst the fast pace of human rights work. Which is why as well as returning to yoga, I have also returned to Julia Cameron’s morning pages; letting all the crabbiness I sometimes wake up with – this morning being a perfect example – spill out onto the page before I get up and get on with my day.

I am grateful to have these tools at my disposal. When times get tough and I start battling with my emotions, I know what I can do in order to calm down, rebalance and reconnect. And in doing so, creativity once again flourishes.

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.

Pagan_meditation

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.

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.

school-32981_640 resize

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.

To know the truth, all you have to do is close your eyes

I’m reading ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts at the moment and finding his words so touching, so real and resonant. He is describing the colourful and spiritual characters he meets whilst in Bombay, but much of his experiences and emotions strike a chord with me, and I imagine anyone else who feels they have been running away from some demons. In one passage early on in the book – which is nearly a thousand pages long, so this means around p.200 – one of the characters tells our main protagonist that the world we see is an illusion, it’s only what we’ve created with our eyes and with our words. Such creations, illusions, are not important – it’s when we close our eyes that we see the most. Indeed, I’m realising that much of what I assumed to be important over the years has been contained within the news I’ve watched, the injustices I’ve seen or read about, the opinions I’ve formed and discussed with others. This has been how I’ve formed my reality, and have then proceeded to impose it on others with each political statement or discussion. I’ve tried so hard to create my identity through what I say or do, particularly in relation to my work. But now there is a gentle voice inside me, telling me that none of this really matters if we don’t understand ourselves on a deeper level. We must establish truth, and peace, within ourselves before we can really apply it, or argue for it, in our lives. This implies a personal journey, not one that is influenced by books, newspapers or what someone said at a particularly good seminar or conference.

This reminds me of a yoga retreat I attended a few months ago, where I felt compelled to ask how we can integrate yoga into the work we do. I was talking about myself really – struggling to marry Buddhist principles of inner truth and enlightenment with the external world where war and human rights violations rage on, the world I was so familiar with and in which we fight a battle of right and wrong with such self-assuredness of which side we are on. The reply from my instructor had finality to it: ideologies, polemics, treatises – these are all meaningless. It is our understanding of human nature, of universal truths and what binds us all, that’s found deep within our souls and not in our words or deeds, that can move us towards peace.

I’m still struggling with this concept, finding it hard to let go of the importance I’ve attached to hours spent in debating rooms and seminars, in meetings and briefings, posing arguments and counter-arguments, distinguishing extreme positions from measured ones. But I know I’m beginning to reach some acceptance that I will only be happy in life if I set aside those external elements which I’ve hitherto relied on to define who I am and what I think. I have to take the time to listen to, as well as confront myself, instead of others.

This means learning to be present, which for me – a habitually impatient person – is the biggest test of all. It is a daily challenge to stop fretting about the past and future, about not having a job and not having money, and instead embrace whichever emotion is arising at that moment. The old phrase that we must learn to love ourselves before we can love others rings so true when confronted by one’s demons. You have to learn to love them. And in embracing the bad as well as the good, I have had moments of clarity, where I realise that my inner truth will come to me if I just stop willing it or forcing it to happen.  Transitions take time, much longer than we expect, and that is because we have to heal from all the anxieties and insecurities which have stood in the way of our hopes and dreams.

And in order to heal, we must allow time for creativity. I’m parroting Julia Cameron and the Artist’s Way once again. But it is actually in my moments of stillness that exciting creative ideas emerge. And it is in performing acts of creativity – writing my blog, belly-dancing, the rhythmic in and out breath as I swim a front crawl up and down the pool – that I am healed. With each act of creativity, I feel inspired. I have in mind that I would like to write a book, – maybe this is in fact my ultimate dream – but I won’t necessarily start writing the book now. Ideas for it come and go, and this is the gestation period which Julia Cameron refers to in the Artist’s Way. We cannot force the birth of a new and exciting creative project, just as we cannot force our inner peace. We have to acknowledge the ideas, gently, and keep them within us to grow and blossom. If they are the dreams we really want to follow and make real, we will know from the sparkling and radiant light which emeges when we close our eyes.

What is your understanding of ‘inner truth’ and how we integrate it into our everyday lives? Is inner peace so paramount in order to make peace with others? Do political or moral opinions and values matter more? I would greatly appreciate your thoughts and comments!

Last week I spoke of the tears we all shed during the Olympics – tears of joy, of wonder, of warmth. And only this week I spoke of some funny situations that perhaps only a transitioner would find themselves in. But it’s not always fun and games, and the tears of a transitioner are not always ones of joy.

Since my last blog post, I’ve been crying quite a lot; in fact, I’m in a perpetual state of holding back tears. Maybe it’s all that anger that the Qi Master told me, after an acupressure session, that I was holding in my stomach, along with any other emotions stuck there that are now releasing themselves, often against my will. The absence of any of my regular routines of yoga, Tai Chi or dance classes in the last few weeks since I had knee surgery probably hasn’t helped and has thrown me off kilter. My belief that getting wasted at the weekend would somehow be a good idea in this state of imbalance may well not have helped either.

A poem by Julia Cameron. Last week I finished her book ‘The Artist’s Way’, a 12 week course in unleashing your creativity (but it actually does a lot more than that). I think I’m having withdrawal symptoms!

Whatever it is, a transitioner’s tears are often letting out a whole lot more emotion than is easy to define or attribute to one particular disappointment or grievance. I cried today when my friend told me she got married. That’s not really the reaction a friend expects when giving such news (and luckily this was an online exchange so she didn’t have to know…although now maybe she does. Sorry, I hope I haven’t caused offence with such spontaneous tearfulness). Yesterday I read the poem attached to this blog post, and burst into tears; and carried on crying for a good solid half hour, my parents blissfully (and thankfully) unaware in their other rooms.

Call me ungrateful, or blind to all the good things I have in my life. But actually I have been seeing those things, and reminding myself religiously of them, every day. I have a safe and welcoming house to live in, and two very supportive parents, and some wonderfully encouraging friends. I have time to be creative, to write my blog and discover new and exciting projects to work on. But when you’re going through a bad patch as a transitioner, all these positives get pushed out by the so-called negatives; or, to use another term, those nasty little demons of anger, resentment and fear.

In my case, I start looking at the last ten years of my life. All that time spent fighting injustice and extreme poverty in various countries (or at least that’s what I hoped I was doing, but in these dark moments even that is thrown into serious doubt). The organisations I worked for with such commitment, often with little appreciation or support. The year I spent studying hard for a Master’s degree whilst living in a squat. All that hard work, so how do I find myself here, in my thirties and living with Mum and Dad? No matter how well you get on with your parents, such a situation can never feel quite right; I thought I’d grown out of depending on my parents years ago. Added to this my continuing dread every time I look for jobs – any jobs – and find myself despairing because I actually have no idea what I want to do. The self-doubt that accompanies longer term visions – mine being to write a book or to do a Phd – and which can take over if any person questions my motives or expectations. And then there’s the gaping hole that is my private life; my desire to go out and have more fun often dampened by the reality that this is not so easy whilst living in suburbia with my parents and with no income.

A cure for those emotional or creative blocks: bake a cake. I baked this yesterday – it’s a blueberry and hazelnut muffin cake.

At times like this, the transition can seem like a long, dark tunnel with no light at the end of it; and one in which everyone else appears to be whizzing past, apparently able to see the light more clearly than me, despite all my efforts at ‘knowing myself better’. Whilst others have been working on their jobs, their careers, their marriages, their children, I’ve spent a whole lot of time working on myself. But am I any wiser? Searching for my inner truth appears to be a much longer journey than I had anticipated, and not always one that brings fulfilment, or even clarity. There are days when everything simply seems terribly unfair, when one can’t get past the loneliness or emptiness of a life of uncertainty. We’re only human after all, and tears are natural, even healthy. Maybe I’m making up for all the tears I’ve held back and buried in the pit of my stomach over the years. Tears release what sometimes dare not be admitted or publicly revealed – our vulnerability, our desperate need to be loved, to be appreciated, and ultimately to be happy.

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

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

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

You can’t stay with that abusive lover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ovid

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