Archives for posts with tag: meditation

Uganda – the home of waragi, of reckless boda boda drivers, of rolexes and of matoke (definitions to follow). And my home for a number of years.

It was only as I sat in the back of  a cab on the way to my hotel from the airport that I had a chance to reflect on the personal enormity of me returning here; the last week having been another whirlwind of actions and reactions on ongoing forced evictions in Kenya.

English: Boda-boda. Uganda, somewhere on A109 ...

English: Boda-boda. Uganda, somewhere on A109 Road, between Jinja and Malaba Русский: Бода-бода. Уганда, на трассе А109, между Джинджей и Малабой. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we drove along the Entebbe-Kampala Road, all the familiar landmarks of yesteryear were there. The chapati traders preparing the juicy and satisfying rolexes (fried eggs rolled up in chapati), lit only by a candle on the otherwise pitch black roadside; boda boda drivers (motorcyle taxis), carrying up to four passengers, squeezing their way through traffic; the clocktower which now, unlike when I lived here, actually has a working clock, and which is the epicentre of Kampala’s worsening traffic jams.

And with these sights returned my memories of a place I called home ten years ago. Memories of sitting on those perilous boda bodas, ignoring their danger and instead appreciating their efficiency in the Kampala traffic. Of drunken parties with too much waragi, the local gin distilled from bananas, one of Uganda’s most important cash crops. Of day long NGO workshops with long speeches by proud officials and with bored participants, waiting eagerly for their free buffet lunch of assorted meat stews, beans, rice and matoke – mashed green bananas, the national dish. Of listening to live reggae music in the warm outdoors. Of falling in love.

My years in Uganda in many ways shaped my life. There were many experiences that would challenge me – from meeting former child soldiers, both male and female, who had been forcefully recruited by the Lord’s Resistance Army to looking after the psychologically damaged man I had fallen in love with, in a country where mental health problems are associated with juju – witchcraft – and adequate health services are scarce.

, Road side market between Kampala and Entebbe

, Road side market between Kampala and Entebbe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m returning to Uganda a very different person from those days. Older and wiser, sure. And more self-aware – I think. As the days have gotbusier and longer, my time for self-reflection and checking in has diminished. I find myself rushing from one thing to another, panicking, getting irritable….and I know it’s because there has not been time and space to take a deep breath – literally – and listen to my heart. My head has been ruling the show with plans, preparations and mental documentation of sad, sometimes horrific stories. I am confronted with them every day – whether it’s directly from victims or second-hand; like my taxi driver in Nairobi yesterday who told me he’d seen three young men dying that morning, who had just been burned to death by the local community – mob justice for attempted robbery on a house. There is little time to dwell, to get upset or to show pity. If there was, I wouldn’t get much actual work done. And so I rely on those moments when I can write. Or 15 minutes in the morning to meditate. These are the brief moments I have to open my heart, to process and to release what I’ve been holding.

Being in Uganda will bring extra challenges for me. There is a major human rights crisis to work on – the Government’s raid on a leading independent newspaper. One of many signs that the President – now in power for 27 years – plans to step up already draconian measures aimed at suppressing dissent in his country. Our response as a human rights NGO will be proactive and uncompromising in its condemnation. The work will be exhilerating, but I look forward to when my feet touch the ground again and I can fully enjoy being back here. Uganda has always been close to my heart, and my memories of this country are so much more than the personal and external tragedies that lie within my experience of living here. Uganda, it’s good to be back.

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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.

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.

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).

insomnia 2

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.

meditation2.ddfqf7jalmo08oo8gw4ksog8w.6ylu316ao144c8c4woosog48w.th

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.

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