Archives for posts with tag: NGO work

I have been facing the reality recently that my transition is about to shift once again. I haven’t been entirely sure whether I’m ready for it, but then I’m reminded that transition is all about taking risks. And about letting go of what no longer serves us.

There are many aspects of my job that I have truly loved over the last few months. In some way this has been a surprise, after spending a year letting go of NGO work, of all the stress, disillusionment and trauma (some of the deadly ingredients that constitute burnout) that arise from it. I have been reminded that there are rewards to human rights and aid work, if we learn to accept our limitations and be proud of the changes we make, no matter how minor they may seem when we’re faced with so many stories of unimaginable hardship and injustice.

But my job was only ever meant to be short-term, and now the time is approaching when my contract will end and I will be thrust once more in to the uncertainty of not having a steady income. The last time I was in this position – when I was finishing my work for a human rights organisation in Palestine – I was in a very different place, both physically and mentally. I had no idea what I wanted to do next, and this was extremely frightening. I did not feel I had the resources to even consider my next move; I knew deep down that my next move would not be clear until I had surrendered to a period of being still, healing and letting go.

I am looking forward to another opportunity for stillness, in order to process what have been overwhelming experiences in the last few months. Self-care is a priority for me now, in a way it wasn’t for ten years as I struggled through one damaging experience after another in the aid and human rights sector, bottling up emotions for fear of seeming weak to my organisation or disrespectful to the victims we were assisting.

In addition, the stillness is an opportunity for me to reconnect with my creative voice. It has been whispering to me lately, filling me with ideas for a book, for a new website and for a new project to provide healing and support to other NGO workers in need of self-care.

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On days when I get embroiled in the politics of my work, or when I feel exhausted by my workload or disappointed with how management are treating staff, I remind myself that my creative voice is pushing for much more than this. To listen to the voice is to leave behind what is familiar and be willing to take big risks. It may well mean another period of unemployment and instability. But transitions are all about risk-taking, about being able to pursue one’s dreams even if we are being discouraged by our ego or others around us. It is about making a conscious choice to be led by our heart and not by our head, in order that we achieve our our true desires. It can be a frightening ride sometimes, but I’m glad I’m on it.

Rumi-drawn

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Writing has not been easy lately. Which is a surprise in some ways as when I travel to work, or even pop out of the office to buy my lunch each day, I find a stream of loose sentences, chapter beginnings and blog reflections running through my brain.

But then either there isn’t the time to make use of them, or when I do finally find a moment to sit with pen and paper or at my laptop I’m struck with a terrible paralysis. When this happens it’s not long before my inner critic rears its ugly head….any writer, or anyone with a dream for that matter, knows the voice of the inner critic very well. The voice that goes, ‘why are you bothering?’ or ‘you’re not good enough to be trying this’ or ‘who really cares? who wants to know about your latest pursuits and interests?’

I’ve noticed that when I become too busy to write, or too busy to make time for reflection which can inspire and trigger writing, I descend into a pattern of self-doubt and self-loathing. I’m currently on an endless treadmill of striving to do the best in my job without really pausing to ask myself whether I’m approaching things the right way, whether this is really what I want, whether what I’m doing is letting my true and happy self flourish. Without the time to process my experiences and connect with my deeper consciousness through writing or other soulful practices, I find myself unhinged by the daily challenges of work, unsure of my abilities and full of insecurities about whether people like me, whether I come across as an idiot, whether I’ve said the wrong thing….

coffee and cake

Today I sat in one of my favourite cafes in southwest London, determined to resume my writing practice. I sat there, laptop in front of me, latte and cake being consumed bit by bit….and panicked. Where do I start? What do I want to write about? Is there anywhere to go with all these snippets of ideas that play around in my head each day? I started trying to write a blog piece but couldn’t get beyond this title you now see.

So instead I did something totally different. I wrote a chapter, or moment, in the story which is slowly formulating in those stolen moments on my way to work or in my lunch break. Where the story goes, I’m yet to find out. I’d be lying if I said it was totally made up, pulled from my extensive and far-reaching imagination. I’m not pretending that I’m going to produce the next great work of fiction. Whatever I write will always be based somehow on my own experiences, that’s just the way I roll.

But as I start trying to draw from my experiences some structure, plot, characters and dialogue I realise that I’m entering a new chapter in my real life. I know deep down that my work in the NGO sector may soon be reaching its end. After spending over a year in transition, I no longer feel that my identity is defined purely through human rights activism or aid work. There is something bigger in my soul that is waiting to come out. And writing seems to be the channel through which to explore and express it.

This blog has been a platform for documenting my transition in the last year. It will continue with this purpose, and as such it is likely to change in its content and style, just as I connect with a new writing voice within me. A new appearance, more reflections on the writing journey, and the odd extract from the story currently unfolding in my head and making its way on to the page will be found here in the weeks and months to come. As always, comments, thoughts and feedback will be welcome. I hope you enjoy the ride and come back for more.

Writing

The last few weeks – the last few days especially – I’ve struggled with the challenges of writer’s block, of the perils of falling in to the ‘Busy Trap’, and the associated exhaustion, imbalance and familiar wafts of depression which come with these conditions. How strange then, that a moment of clarity should come at the end of a long and tiring day, when I’d been feeling hot and bothered, rather than appreciative and joyful, from the heat wave we’re having. Or maybe not so strange, now I’ve started to wind down after a cool bath, fifteen minutes of mindfulness in my room and some time in the garden watching the sprinkler glide its way from the fuschias and snapdragons to the green grass and herbs.

Since arriving back from Kenya my life seems to have accelerated at such a rapid pace that I struggle to find time to check in with myself, to be alone, or simply to relax. A busy final week in Nairobi, interviewing slum-dwellers at risk of eviction whilst trying to control the amoebiasis – a common hazard of eating contaminated food in Kenya – in my stomach, was followed by an equally busy week in London. On day three of my return my mother contracted a similar infection which, unlike me, put her out of action for two weeks and in need of help and support, and on day four I was thrown back in to the internal politics, mounting bureaucracy and low staff morale of my organisation’s London office. Working in East Africa for two months may have been tough, with the continuous stories of fear and despair I heard and documented from victims of human rights abuses and the related feelings I went through daily of self-doubt and hopelessness; but being back in London suddenly seemed a whole lot harder, with more pressures, and less time to breathe or to take stock. So out went my blog, and any time for reflection or relaxation.

Then yesterday I heard some sad news of a personal nature. My old home of four years was also subjected to its own form of eviction. An entire squatting community in Brixton, some of whom had been there for years, were given their marching orders and police were on hand to make sure they really did leave. Unlike what I witnessed in the Nairobi slums, the procedure adopted here was most probably legal; in other words, notice will have been given, it would not have been carried out under cover of darkness, and efforts will have been made – however inadequate – to suggest alternative accommodation. But the heartbreak felt by the residents – and also me, as a former resident – remains. The scene will not have been pretty; there will have been resistance from those who could not bear to leave their homes, and heavy-handedness from a menacing contingent of bailiffs and police.

I am lucky that I had another home to go to, long before these evictions took place. My time in the squat in Brixton may be in the past, but the memories are still alive – of all its colourful, unique and often damaged characters, of weekend-long parties and the Monday dregs and debris of the guests and gatecrashers; of managing to complete my Master’s degree despite these distractions; of discussions on art, philosophy, or simply how we could survive living in crack alley in the heart of a suburb that never sleeps. I certainly had my moments of frustration and wondering what the hell I was doing, living in a place with no natural light and no central heating. But it was home for me for four years, and to see it now being emptied so forcefully to make way for a new, homogenised community, fills me with no small measure of sadness.

This may not be on the scale of the daily tragedies that the poor and destitute experience across the world, and some may even argue that the struggles of a privileged middle-class white girl are self-indulgent and petty in comparison.   But we all inhabit our own realities, our own dark moments and periods of grief, as well as our own moments of joy and happiness. We all have our own stories to tell, that will resonate succinctly for some and grate or be misinterpreted by others. If we feel it is within us to tell our stories, then we should, as it is one way of fostering understanding, empathy and compassion.  And so, as I recover from my writer’s block, I will finish off this piece with these words….

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.

Martha Graham, dancer and choreographer, 1894-1991

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.

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)

A glance over at people around me in any given situation in Uganda prompts a flood of thoughts, memories and reflections. Having lived there before, and having returned there recently, each moment brings with it a connection with the past and the present.

At Entebbe airport, a line of young men in polo shirts and sunglasses were in the queue next to me, preparing to board an Eagle Air flight to Gulu in northern Uganda. What were they going there for? I wondered. When I first started travelling to wartorn Gulu in 2002, there was only a handful of NGOs, and therefore only a few white faces, to be seen there. Over the years, as the international community finally started paying some interest in a rebel war which for two decades had resulted in thousands of deaths and child abductions, UN and NGO offices in northern Uganda multiplied, along with plush hotels to house their staff. Now, with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army having left northern Uganda to cause further damage and deaths in neighbouring Congo and Central African Republic, Gulu has beeen restored to some level of normalcy; indications of it embarking on a new stage of development found in the construction of new roads and a large supermarket.

Outside Gulu

Outside Gulu (Photo credit: The Advocacy Project)

And so I glanced curiously at these guys next to me and wondered what Gulu is like now to be attracting these smiling men, who looked as if they’re about to go on safari rather than on the aid missions that were so common there only a few years ago.So much has changed since those days when I worked in Uganda, both within and around me. New hotels, office blocks and shopping malls have sprung up all over Kampala. Places which ten years ago were disused carparks or empty plots where people threw their litter are now busy shopping centres or classy restaurants. But certain things remain the same. The slow, unhurried pace of the traffic; the roadside clothes markets with wire manequins whose hips have been purposefully widened and stretched out to reflect the African woman’s figure; the gruff vocal chords of the male singers on the radio, performing their version of reggae to pre-recorded and synthesised backing music; the calm, quiet, smiling demeanour that is customary to the country’s inhabitants.

Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria (Photo credit: wheresthebrain)

Sitting in an airport café overlooking Lake Victoria, waiting to board my plane to Kenya, I wondered whether I’d be back to Uganda again.  And I still wonder at how I got into this position in the first place; so unexpected and unplanned after a year of gently putting many of these memories of a previous life behind me in order to open myself up to new beginnings and new opportunities. This time last year, did I ever imagine I would find myself back here again?In a meeting the other day, a fellow NGO worker noted casually how coming back to Uganda – after working in other areas and jobs – can feel like going back in time. To a certain extent I agree, especially when it comes to having to put aside our Western-centric values and assumptions in order to accept the African realities of technology not always working properly, or things not always running on time.

And on a personal level too, it is easy to think that somehow my transition from NGO worker to….something else – has taken a backward step. But then transitions are not necessarily about where we physically situate ourselves, nor are they about pushing ourselves towards the new life we think is good for us. They’re about where we are internally at any given moment. The real transformation comes from not pushing, and not assuming anything; in letting the unpredictable, sometimes suprising, sometimes magical and uncontrollable circumstances that life throws at us not seem like a setback in our journey. I have to remind myself regularly that just because things haven’t quite worked out as I’d expected in the last few months – that rather than navigating my way towards academia and studying a Phd I appear to have made a diversion and travelled to a place I lived in ten years ago – things are exactly as they should be.

It feels right to be in this place right now, and that ultimately is what’s important.

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.

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

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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Related Links:

Living with Uncertainty

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An Activist Abroad

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Mindfulbalance

An Irish Mindfulness Meditation Blog: Self-care, resilience, meaning and personal development.