Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Embracing the Vive

Clichés on how to achieve success or happiness abound: "Follow your bliss", and "Take the road less travelled", or "You are the master of your destiny", and so on; however, as I have come to realise, clichés do not turn into clichés for no reason: they often carry a grain of truth with them.

It seems clear to me that we all have a unique destiny. Or perhaps I cannot speak for anyone else but myself. It also seems to me that we are on a constant search: for meaning; for happiness; for connection; for understanding; for TRUTH; whatever. In my particular case, this search is usually going on quietly, and many times appears to have been overtaken by more immediate and seemingly more important things, but every now and then it quietly raises its head, and in its polite but firm way demands my attention, as if to say: “you are in danger of losing your focus: the search must go on”.

One moment on this journey stands out in my memory: I was in my early 30s and I had been away from home for a while. This one time a couple of old friends and I took a train together on our way to the wedding of another friend of ours, and as the chatter grew around me, I looked forward to reconnecting with everyone. Across from me sat Lydia looking quietly out of the window at the passing scenery, so I decided to start with her. I asked about what had been going on with her, and in turn told her about what had been going on with me. She told me about having her children, and moving into the suburbs, and building their family home, and I told of the people I had met on my travels, and the ways in which my world view had changed, and all the ways I had begun to question my previous experience, and so on, but I noticed that all through this she sort of kept staring quizzically at me, and finally she interrupted me, and with a voice of wonder asked: "What happened to you, Vive? You used to be normal!"


"You used to be normal!"

Well. Understandably my whole flow was cut off, and I was left blinking in confusion and trying to collect my wits. I do not remember how I responded, or how the whole meeting ended (we had almost the entire journey still ahead and we had to continue talking about something), but that statement really took me aback. What did she mean I was not normal? What did it mean to be normal? In fact I did not recall ever having thought of people as either being normal or not, unless they were mad, which I assume was not the case here. I may have tried to ask her what she meant, and she must have given me a version of what I was to hear again and again from then on: I basically did not fit the image of a African woman of my age, education and family background, and people did not know what to make of me. At any rate, that was the beginning of a life of often feeling cut off, isolated and misunderstood, and of beginning to really wonder what it was that was different about me, and how that would evolve. Pretty soon I realised that in fact I had a hand in this evolution, so why not create a future to my liking, rather than let events overtake me. And so I began to dream it.

This weekend I learned that this was all very well, but on the journey towards the balanced, peaceful, happy and true self that you dream of, you have to throw off a number of shackles. Most amazing was that I already knew these things, but that I did not really know them; it took spending a weekend with two very wise women for these things to really clarify in my mind.

[Small aside: for three days I stayed with an older gay couple that I had met through the couch surfing community, and the insights that I mention below were the result of all of a sincere effort to get to know one another, and therefore each of us trying to explain as best as we could who were; in that process, we all discovered a lot about ourselves that we had never realised before]

1. Own your destiny.

The question here is: is our destiny predestined or do we create it? Many a time we are encouraged to dream big and to reach for the stars, and told that we create our own destiny. Our own reality. Well. A process of creation must at some point come to completion, and then what has been created must fully manifest. I have certainly taken the pains to create a destiny for myself, in which I teach and inspire others, in which I am healthy and fit, in which I travel the world in style, in which I live in a community of like-minded people, in which I share my life with the partner that I need or deserve and in which I have an impact on the educational system of my country. Strangely enough, as attractive as this dreamed future was to me, I was actually afraid of the reality of this destiny being fulfilled. Why? Because it would mean that I would have to take a position of leadership, and that everybody would have expectations of me. I have seen what happens to people who stand out at the front: their every move is scrutinised, their most innocent action misconstrued, all sorts of judgements publicly and vehemently held, and I unconsciously shied away from these inevitable consequences of my destiny. Worse, I imagined that people would always be trying to take from me: my energy, my time; they would feel free to fill up my space, and in all this I would be un-able-to- say-no.



And there we had it. Peeling back another layer, I found out that I actually have a dread of saying no. Of making a clear stand in the face of disapproval. For being responsible for others feeling uncomfortable or threatened. For maybe not living up to people’s expectations of what was proper and sane. Peeling back another layer though, and I remember saying this like “[haaallo?] I do not want people to think of me as selfish.”


And my host goes: “Aha. Now we are getting to the bottom of things. Of course you have to be selfish. Every time you do anything that meets your needs you are going to feel selfish, but you must do it!” So I thought about that for a bit, and I think many women know this feeling. Being (un)selfish for me meant having to give of my resources (time, money, space, etc.) to people, simply because we shared blood, or were neighbours, or co-workers, even if we were not friends. I felt this way every time I decided to skip a presentation by a colleague because I did not find the material particularly interesting (plus we were not friends), or did not contribute to or attend the wedding of someone in my volleyball club (with whom we were not particular friends anyway), or not sitting down and keeping a relative company, that was visiting from out of town, when I would rather be watching a movie (ok, that still sounds a little improper, but objectively speaking they are usually visiting with my parents, and we did not really know each other. “Well”, someone will say, “You should get to know your relatives”; “But why?” I will ask… “Because. They are your blood”. Well. That just does not cut it I’m afraid). In our collectivist societies it is difficult to live as an individual who reserves the right to share oneself. I often think that perhaps I discriminate against certain people, but really if we are unable to connect, for whatever reason, maybe we speak a different language, or hold different beliefs – we are simply on different journeys, and it is a fruitless waste of energy to try and connect with such a person, and to what end? To be polite? To fit in? I just do not know.

Anyway. That brought me round to my usual tirade about maybe I was prideful or unloving or all sorts of things that mean one is a bad person, but then wait! I thought: is the focus on ME not wanting to be a bad person or on not wanting OTHERS to think that I was a bad person? I mean really, if I went about my business, doing what I do, thinking what I think, people were free to come to whatever conclusions they wished about me. I could not help that. What I could help was this continuous self-judging. So in the end it came down to knowing that I could not control how others responded to me, because in fact it all had NOTHING to do with me, but with them. Why should I shoulder the burden of others judging me. What a liberating thought that was. People would think, feel, speak, act as they wished in response to what I said or did and I could not control that. I need only focus on what I need to do to continue on my journey.

2. Accept others without judgement

Just as important as owning your own destiny, is to be able to accept others without judgement. The Bible really hits that nail on the head: "Judge not, lest you be judged". It is probably best not to be concerned about not being judged since one cannot control it, but making a habit of accepting others without judgement enables you to brush off the judgement of others more easily (I suppose). So maybe you are unable to connect with this person. Ok. It is how it is. There is no need to add a judgement on top of that. View them with compassion; understand that their journey is different from yours. This weekend I realised that I often look at the actions or decisions of others through the lens of: "I would never do that, that was a silly decision", or whatever, and which leads me to judging them, and often deciding that I like or do not like them or approve or whatever. WHY?? And how about the people that are in your life for whatever reason. Your friends and relatives. Your co-workers. My two godmothers from this weekend helped me see that one cannot truly connect with anyone if they are simultaneously judging them. I realised that to truly connect with someone is to be present with them, to listen with an open heart to what they say about themselves, and to accept them without judgement. They are relating their journey to you. It is how it is. It is not your journey, and never can be. You do not know what decisions you would have made in their place, and you will never know, (why?) because it is not your journey. Yours is to either decide to journey alongside them or not.

3. Speak your truth.

Turning the focus away from what others are doing or might do or have done in the past allows one to tune in to themselves; to be present in the moment; to listen, and to hear the truth within them. And in hearing and knowing the truth, our communication, verbal and non-verbal, will be truthful. Both to ourselves and to others. Many times we make decisions based on what we think is expected, or what will make others comfortable, and ignore what is good for us, or what we need. These projections that we make, in any case, are usually based on inadequate information. You have met people who can convey a certain image, but deep down they feel differently. You cannot even conclude anything based on what others say, so making a decision based on that will lead you into trouble. You may be afraid of how others will react, but accepting that you cannot control what other people do or feel, it is easier to calmly and sensitively hold to and communicate your truth. If the people around you do not like it, they will leave your space, and release you from that interaction. If, on the other hand you have established a proper connection, then in all likelihood you will only make that connection deeper and stronger. So speak your truth when you need to, and do not be held back by how others will react to it. Remember: their reaction is taking place on their journey, not yours.

Onwards and Upwards
I am sure many other seeds were planted this weekend, and as I continue on my journey I pray that they will take root and bear fruit. At any rate I feel really grateful at this moment, and feel excited about what happens next.

Monday, August 27, 2012

On Connection

Growing up, I was a very shy person. I preferred my own company vastly more than that of other people, and unbeknownst to me, had a constant scowl on my face. In my teenage, some kind girls advised me to iron out the furrow on my forehead and smile more. So I did. And soon I had more friends (not that I missed having them before), and suddenly a whole world of social conventions opened up to me. Over the almost two decades since, I have continuously been amazed at some basic ways that fail to observe social conventions: being too invasive, or too stand-offish, sometimes too dominant, and other times too direct. All this despite what my true intentions were: to put people at ease, to understand and be understood, and for all everyone to get along.

Through these years I nevertheless maintained some of my earlier mechanisms to keep people at bay. I barely ever made eye contact with strangers; I categorised and judged people, so that I did not have to engage with those who were too different from me; I cultivated a tough and no-nonsense exterior; among other things. And it worked very well. One of the things that was often said about me was “she is really a nice person once you get to know her” – but not many people got past the thorny exterior. My issue was always that once they got to know (and maybe like) me, then they would discover that I was not perfect, that I was sometimes moody or irrational for instance, or that I supported gay rights, or that I bit my nails and sometimes picked my nose, and then they would really know me for who I was, and that was just scary. If not that, then I dreaded having to tell them no if they asked for more than I was willing to give, for fear that they would feel bad or rejected. In short I just was not willing to do the work required to manage relationships, so I chose safe relationships. Those that I could manage. Those with people similar to myself. Those with people who accepted me unconditionally.

Recently I decided to listen to some Buddhist teachings that a friend of mine gave me; at first I listened idly as I packed for a weekend away, but without realising it I begun to really listen and reflect on what was being said. Some of the ideas that the teacher was trying to communicate had to do with our perceptions of reality (well, naturally; that is the crux of Buddhist teaching), and he made references to what I assume are common ways of exploring reality. He spoke of the fact that we humans view things as separate, such as thinking of a mountain as a "mountain", as if it is separate from the ground around it, or a river as a "river", when in fact water is flowing through it all the time going someplace else, and it's character is ever changing. In addition, we think of this "mountain" or "river" as separate from us, or of other humans as separate from us, when in reality we are all part of one continuous, ever changing whole. Even people who think of themselves as "I", as if this is some permanent thing that continually exists have a wrong view of themselves, because in fact we are continually "becoming", changing, growing, ageing; getting wiser, having new insights, breathing in this air and breathing out that air. Swallowing things. Excreting things. And so on.

The other idea that he shared that captured my attention was the idea of time, and how our culture has led us to believe that time is a linear entity; that there is a past, a present and a future. Never mind that Einstein showed that time was in fact relative, and that if you were moving fast enough, it stood still, and that as such, the only "time" that exists at any one time is the present moment. Nevertheless, we are often skipping back and forth between the (imagined) future and the (remembered) past, both of which do not exist in reality. On the contrary, the teacher gave an illustration of time being less like a linear progression from past to present to future, and more like a flower that is constantly unfolding, so that one is only ever experiencing the present moment.

These ideas gave me pause. I realised that I never really focus on the present. That I am usually simultaneously thinking of the past, of things far and near, or all sorts of things except the present. Me typing now. The cars whooshing past outside. Even when I am speaking to a person, I am often having an underlying conversation about the conversation - wondering what the expected answer is; what they think of my previous answer; where this conversation is going; how it relates to our last conversation; if my office looks untidy; what is on my computer screen; I wonder if so-and so has replied my e-mail; and on, and on. So I had to ask myself: is there value in experiencing the present? In really looking at a person? In really hearing what they are saying? In really responding to it as it is presented in the moment, without projecting all sorts of things from the past and future on it? In really focussing on the now?

This clamour of thoughts and projections and impressions and hopes and fears, and the desire to please, to be liked, to impress, to be understood (rather than to understand), surely impedes our ability to truly connect. To hear what is really said. To understand. And therefore to enable us to accept things as they are without passing judgement. And not only do we fail to connect with others in that case, but we also fail to connect with ourselves. To hear what our bodies and minds are telling us. To examine our energy, and our response to the other's energy. To make decisions based on what's really going on, rather than what we would like to be going on.

In a follow-on post, I will tell about an experience of connection that brought me new insight into the value of connection. But for now, I need to write an e-mail to a friend of mine, because I have not connected authentically with him in the past.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011



I feel at quite a loss. I have been struggling to get some work done on my PhD research for the last month but I find myself totally without motivation on most days. I am beginning to be anxious about all the time I am wasting and being afraid that I may end up paying a very heavy price for this procrastination! I thought I was more self driven than this but alas! A friend of mine told me once that one of the most valuable lessons she picked up during her own PhD study was the ability to drive herself, and I am must say she is one of the most self driven people I know.

I am aware that every difficulty in our lives is meant to teach us a valuable lesson and make us stronger, if only we can embrace the lesson. In my particular case, things are made worse by the feeling that I have somehow bungled a very promising relationship. I met this guy through an online dating service, and over a period of four or five days we spent hours and hours writing to one another, building up to our first meeting which we both highly anticipated, if with trepidation and uncertainty. Out of the blue though, he suddenly cut off ALL communication, and it has been almost a week since he was last in touch. Although we were in touch for less than a week, he and I got along so well and seemed so compatible, and both admitted to having developed quite strong feelings over that short period, that his sudden silence really hit me hard! I have since achieved a semblance of calm and resignation, but still experience sudden moments of piercing longing and regret, and over all cannot get back my groove pre-meeting him, a groove that was decidedly precarious to begin with.

Over the weekend though, I watched a documentary on Quantum Mechanics and what it means for our daily life, and one of the most profound messages it had for me was the notion that we are all essentially a mass of energy, and that as such have complete control over the state of our bodies and emotions (I had heard of a similar idea in "The Secret"). The film makers postulated that the very idea of being "helplessly" in love with a specific person was quite preposterous, and was rather only evidence of the addiction to the feeling one comes to associate with the loved one's presence; apparently, at any time one may wean oneself off this person simply by mastering this addiction. Given the emotional attachment that had been engendered through the intensive contact with this guy over the previous few days, this notion certainly gave me hope of a quick recovery; indeed, I felt as if God Himself was speaking directly to me an dmy situation.

Today is Tuesday, and although I have had bursts of productivity since the work week begun, I am yet to fully recover my usual steam. Yesterday I erased all our previous contact and contact information because I was making myself crazy continously scanning it to see where it went well wrong. This made me feel really sad, and today I seem to still be going through withdrawal. Given the intensity of our contact however, a part of me is convinced that he only got cold feet (rather than lost interest) and will get back in touch when he makes up his mind to go for it after all. I wonder if I will have the courage to give it another go; A part of me tells me he is not to be trusted and I shoul dnever speak to him again, another tells me that he really may have genuinely freaked out and decided to take the time to give the whole thing furhter thought. At any rate, all that has nothing to do with me until he actually gets back in touch, so in the meantime, I occupy myself with other suitors, and try to really turn towards them and engage with them. Who knows? I might develop an attachment to one of them in the process, and find decide that I have found "the one" (another apparently ridiculous concept) after all.