When the good go bad…

How is it that so much harm is caused in the name of religion? How can people who do dreadful things look themselves in the mirror and think they are right?

I believe it has something to do with language. Not just the way we use words to justify what we do, but the very fact that we have language at all. Something in the human brain urges us to classify and categorise things. Language gives us names for our experiences; sentences encode our beliefs about them.

Most of us have moments of clarity and understanding, and many people have profound spiritual experiences. If only we could stay in touch with that profound understanding I’m sure there would be peace in the world. But once the moment of clarity has passed, humans feel the need to put it into words and then use the words as their guide. You could say the experience is spirituality and the words are religion, but it also applies to non-religious situations.

Words can be used to mobilise groups of people. But if the organisation, church or institution does not allow its members to connect with the internal/eternal truth that first inspired the words, they become rules, regulations and policies with a life of their own. I have heard that many organisations that start out with a holistic ideal, over time can become narrow, prescriptive and commercialised as people lose touch with the original aim.

I’ve come to believe that single words like love, peace and kindness are a more helpful guide than sentences. A sentence gives instruction or advice and often contains a value judgement, but a single word invites you to engage your heart and mind as you reconnect with its true meaning.

Fear of change creates a comfort trap

Studies have shown that people who become paraplegics after an accident are only slightly less happy a year later than they were before the accident. By the same token, big lotto winners are back to their previous happiness level within a year. When something big happens, good or bad, people soon become accustomed to it. Yet we often act as though we can’t face the prospect of change.

Think of all the people in history, and all who are living now. Such a huge disparity in living circumstances. We can’t imagine living without running water or electricity, yet most people on this earth have lived that way. Nevertheless, we are filled with horror at the thought of personally having to go without our wide screen TV, or our morning coffee or any of a host of luxuries we enjoy every day.

We seem to be wired to hold on to what have, to the point that we can be terrified of losing it.

This fear of losing our financial security or material possessions can keep us trapped in demoralising situations. Probably more people stay in unsatisfying jobs and relationships than take the chance to be free, if it means a risk of financial loss.

Yet those who do take that chance discover two things. First, you can get used to having less money and be just as happy as before. And second, it’s the inner changes that you make – the ones that change how you feel about yourself and your place in the world – that create lasting change in your happiness level.

Striving for perfection

Humans strive for perfection in so many ways; we want the perfect house, body, partner. A mental picture of how something should or could be gives us something to work towards. Yet we all know that perfection is impossible.

The word ‘perfect’ comes from Latin roots, meaning ‘completed’ or ‘finished’ (like the perfect tense). Perfection is impossible for the simple reason that life involves constant change.

A stunning sunset or a blooming lily can be perfect for a moment, but their very impermanence is part of their beauty. A talented photographer or artist might capture that beauty but it does not make them the perfect artist or photographer; their career keeps evolving.

Conscious or not, we usually have a mental picture of our ideal self and life. We work towards these, often without taking into account two important factors:

First, life is not finished until we die. Once we have created our ideal home, found our perfect job, reached our goal weight, life will soon feel meaningless and unsatisfactory unless we find something else to strive towards.

Second, our mental picture of perfection is not the only one possible. The world is filled with people aiming to be the perfect Christian, atheist, scientist, mystic, artist, investor, wise person, adventurer, fun-lover, athlete, laid-back person. Some people’s idea of perfection is the exact opposite of our own.

What this means for me is that I cannot judge myself or others for not having achieved a particular thing. Instead of setting a specific external goal and striving to achieve it, I am challenging myself to experience as many ways of being as possible. To understand different points of view and why people don’t understand each other. To try to broaden my own and other’s tolerance and peacefulness. And of course, to accept my own imperfections because, like everyone else, I am only doing my best.

Power and humility

In our daily lives there are people who have a certain amount of power over us (our employer, landlady, teacher) and people over whom we hold positions of relative power (our children, employees, students). To maximise social happiness, power must be used wisely and with humility.

I remember one work situation where my boss started giving me advice about how to live my life. Her advice was kind and well meant, but totally inappropriate for me. Having authority over me in the workplace, she had crossed the line into thinking she had authority over my life decisions and finances. Because of her position, it was difficult to challenge her without compromising our working relationship. This was a valuable lesson for me when I became a manager myself. No matter how I much might think I know better than a member of staff, I need to be careful not to put them in a position where they feel they have to agree with me.

In an even more dramatic situation, I once worked in a large organisation where the boss had so much power that she seemed to think she was godlike. She once took me aside for a private talk in which she told me that my first loyalty should be to my employer (meaning that I shouldn’t speak up if I disagreed with her). My personal belief was that my first loyalties should be to myself, my values, my professional code of ethics and my clients, before my employer. I think any decent employer would agree with that list of priorities. My sense was that this person saw herself as a cult leader and anyone who didn’t idolise her was perceived as dangerous. This is at odds with good employment practice, which should welcome healthy debate and actively recruit the opinions of professionals and workers.

Everywhere we see people abusing what little power they have as a way of making themselves feel big. But with humility we can instead see positions of authority as a chance to serve our fellow human beings. People love being treated with respect and a good boss or teacher provides a wonderful role model to keep the circle of happiness going.

Whose story are you living out?

As a narrative counsellor, I am very aware that we make sense of our experiences in terms of stories. A bad experience, such as giving a presentation that doesn’t go well, might be interpreted as a turning point in a story of failure – “That was the day my career fell to pieces” – or as an obstacle on a heroic journey –“I had to pick myself up and keep going”.

Often we give a lot of credence to other people’s stories about us, even though they can never know all the facts concerning our lives. We also carry a private story, which might be in counterpoint to other people’s – “Nobody knows how hard I’ve had to struggle”. A lot of our energy might go into trying to get our private story heard, a lonely and frustrating quest if we can’t find people who ‘get’ us.

Something changed for me when I met a psychic who talked about my ‘angel line’. The idea that there were a number of angels who knew me well and understood my purpose on this earth better than I did made me look at myself differently. Their story of my life would be very different from the private story I had been carrying.

Whether or not you believe in angels, you can imagine how they might see you. Angels know the greatness within you that is waiting to find expression in the world. If your life is a journey towards releasing that greatness, then your difficulties can be seen as obstacles on the way. With an audience of angels you no longer need validation from other people; instead you can concentrate on fulfilling the potential that the angels see in you. I have found this a useful way to let go of past baggage and find positive meaning in difficult times.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

We say that actions speak louder than words – and indeed they should. But in actual fact we have to be extremely vigilant in order to avoid simply accepting what we are told.

Our human brains seem to be wired to process information quickly and efficiently by slotting it into pre-existing sets of beliefs. Something we are told can provide a quick frame of reference, through which we process our future experiences and observations For example, if someone tells you, perhaps more than once, that they are a firm believer in giving to charity, it’s likely you will take them for a generous person and completely fail to notice when they repeatedly dodge the office whip-round, or walk past the street seller on Daffodil Day. Their words will have had more impact (in your mind) than their actions. I’m guessing this is because it takes only a second to passively accept what they say, but a bit of time, effort and suspended judgement to take in the truth for yourself.

Most of the time I think we live in a kind of virtual reality, where our mental picture of the world bears little relation to what is actually going on. This phenomenon has more than one layer:
– Words are given more credibility than actions
– Written words are given more credibility than spoken ones
– Numbers are imbued with even more credibility still

Good lawyers win more court cases, not because their clients are more often right, but because they use words convincingly. In most workplaces it’s not the quality of your work that will get you a promotion, but how well you’ve documented what you’ve (supposedly) done. And coloured graphs showing percentages and success rates will often be taken as the ‘facts that speak for themselves,’ when really they indicate only what can be measured and quantified – a tiny fraction of the overall experience. (Around 7%, actually, since, as 48% of people know, 65.3% of statistics are just made up on the spot.)

How can we release ourselves from these false mental representations of the world? The answer lies in simplicity. Stillness. Awareness. Slowing down. Just being. Let go of mental clutter and the truth will shine through.

I believe it will take a lot of us to make this a daily practice before our society stops rewarding spin above true contribution. Meanwhile as individuals we can choose to opt out of society’s shared delusions and begin to live more deeply and honestly. All it takes is the courage to value the truth above other people’s representations of it.

Decisions, decisions!

There are times in life when you know exactly where you are headed and what to put your energy into. And there are other times when there are so many decisions to be made that you don’t know which to make first, because each one could impact on another.

This situation could be experienced as a trough, or ‘the doldrums’. You feel stuck, unable to move in any direction. You might even become depressed.

Or, you could feel quite excited, seeing the situation as a branching point for a multitude of possible roads ahead. You are ready to let go of the old, and let in something new – though you don’t yet know what that will be.

Most people are uncomfortable being in this not-knowing place for any length of time. For this reason they might jump into making a decision too quickly, choosing a path and striding along it purposefully. Anything to stop feeling stuck and looking indecisive.

Others might ask advice, or wait for a ‘sign’ to tell them what to do. Any of these options is valid, but I think it wise to really experience the not-knowing and ask some questions about it. Why now? What parts of your old self are you getting ready to let go? What parts are itching to find expression?

Choosing a path means going with the meanings and values associated with it. If you are stuck, it may be because you are going through a fundamental change in your thinking. To simply pick a path and go with it is to miss this opportunity to grow.

A few months ago I saw the following on Facebook and it jumped out at me:

“Be gentle with yourself for you are living through a major expansion of your faith and how you use it in the world. You are rewiring decades of old beliefs and shifting how you live your life. This is no small feat. It is OK to feel uncomfortable. Great change often brings with it discomfort and second guessing one’s self. Do not shrink back from this mission. Not now. You are changing and your Divine Self is shining the way.”

This message gave me hope and a sense that my state of not knowing was a positive thing. I knew which of my old beliefs was being challenged, but it was not simply a case of deciding to adopt a new set of beliefs. I had to really look into which parts of the old I wanted to keep and which of the new were not really for me. This has been a slow process, nearing its end now. I am glad I gave it time and did not fall into the trap of thinking that being decisive was more important.

Happiness = Openness + Boundaries

Happiness, confidence and other good feelings are generally associated with openness. When we are happy, we are more sociable, more compassionate and more likely to help others. On the other hand, when we are angry or depressed we close off from other people and are less likely to notice or care about what’s going on for them.

These associations are not simple cause and effect, but self-reinforcing cycles: the better you feel, the more open you’ll be, making for more satisfying relationships and experiences, hence even more good feelings. It’s been shown that happy people cultivate habits that reinforce this cycle, leading lives characterised by community-minded actions.

However there are times when being too open can lead to pain – such as when you find yourself being used or taken for granted, or when more is asked of you than you can deliver. As mentioned above, troubled people cannot be relied upon to notice, much less act, if their demands are too much for you. This is when it is important to practise firm boundaries; drawing a line in the sand that indicates how far you are prepared to go.

This can be hard to do, for a number of reasons: compassion; not wanting to offend; expecting people to ‘be reasonable’ or, more commonly, waiting for the other person’s permission before you stop giving.

Here are the steps I’ve come up with (I’m still practising!)
1) Decide how far is too far
2) Convince yourself (not the other person) that it’s okay to go no further
3) Refuse to cross the line
4) If you’ve already crossed the line, say you won’t be doing so any more
5) Offer no apology or excuse
6) Decide to feel good about yourself even if the other person is disappointed or angry

The happiest people are those who are able to be open and vulnerable, but also practise good boundaries. (A good reference on this is Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection.)

The difference between advice and counselling

When you look for advice, you tend to choose someone you consider wiser than you, or someone who looks as though they’ve got their life together. This is because ultimately the only advice another person can give you is, “Be more like me! This is what I would do in your situation. You should do what I would do.” If you want to be more like that person, then the advice will suit you.

But everybody is different, and the other person’s values, priorities and aims in life may not be the same as yours. And in some cases, such as when the advisor is a relative or close friend, there may be ulterior motives for wanting you to choose a certain course of action.

Look up the word ‘counsel’ in the dictionary and you’ll find the definition ‘advice’. Yet professional counselling is not about advice at all. Professional counselling works with you to find the way forward that helps you to be more truly yourself, guided by your own values, priorities and spiritual path. A good counsellor will help you understand who you are, without trying to impose their own values on you. This is within certain limits of course; there are some general values that are expected of a counsellor and you can expect to be challenged if, for example, your decision veers towards harm or unfairness towards another person.

Personally I have experienced great satisfaction as a counsellor from helping people find their way forward. Equally I have found counselling enormously helpful at times of difficulty in my own life. And there have been other times when counselling wasn’t helpful at all. These were the times when the counsellor spent too little time exploring the issues and was too quick to come up with advice. (Even counsellors can fall into that trap at times.)

If someone comes to you with a problem, try to refrain from advice-giving and simply listen, showing that you care. Often that is all that’s needed. People usually know who they are – let them talk and they will most likely come up with their own answers.

Getting through the hard time

As you know, last week I was so dispirited that I thought about leaving, but I knew that giving up would only lead to regret. How would I frame the experience when I looked back on it? Would I think of myself as a failure? Or would I blame Africa, thinking the whole thing an expensive mistake? Or an experience that made me cynical, caused me to lose faith in human nature or changed my values?

None of these options appealed, especially since I had felt moved to come here in the first place. Instead I had to see this crisis of conscience as part of the learning that was waiting for me here – and come out the other side. This is why I asked for your support. And I was brought to tears by the wonderful support I received.

Overwhelmingly, your comments came from a spiritual perspective, whereas I think my despair was coming from a political perspective. Thinking politically, you have to consider what system or structure you might be inadvertently supporting by trying to make things better. For example, when volunteers come from the West to help in places like this, does it simply enable these places to continue, when we would be better to campaign for them to be closed down? Should I support Mme Rose’s little empire by helping out with money or gifts?

From a spiritual perspective, these questions become irrelevant. Instead, it’s the spirit of what you’re doing that counts. The outcomes cannot be measured by size; instead each act of kindness or love is part of something greater and is worthwhile simply for itself. Many of your messages focussed on the children and what difference a seemingly small act of kindness might make in their lives. This gave me a focus and a reason to stay.

I was also brought to thinking about having a ‘mind of love’ and that this ought not to be reserved only for those I deem worthy by my standards. I resolved to accept the situation here. This is Africa; everyone knows there’s a long way to go before society is fair and organised. The people here are doing their best.

So I decided on a few strategies:
– I will tell Mme Rose that I would like a regular job to do each day. That way my work will come to be recognised, rather than just my presence here
– I will look out for opportunities to create a role for myself
– I will be friendly and compassionate even to the people I suspect of ripping me off
– I will find ways of extricating myself graciously and with good humour from situations where people are asking for money or wanting my phone number
– I will bring such gifts as I know will benefit the children eg a packet of nappies every few days, some chairs for the nursery class, other little things that come up
– I will carry sticking plasters with me for the times when children hurt themselves. (Madame Rose has a first aid kit but it’s a performance to get her to get it out. Any small scratch in the tropics can get easily infected, so bandaids are important.)
– I will think about what experiences I might be able to give the children, rather than what material things I can give. (For example, my friend Prue who has been to Africa talked about once taking a load of children to the beach. There are some beautiful beaches here and I suspect the orphanage children have never seen them. What if I could organise a bus trip? It might take some doing, but it would be something they’d never forget.)
– I will get away from the hostel every weekend and travel around to see the country
– And of course, I will be sensible and not leave myself open to being ripped off or taken advantage of

Having made these resolutions, I felt a lot better on Saturday morning when I set off for Kokrobite beach. Rose the cook had been hinting heavily that I should go away for the weekend – which would of course give her the weekend off – and she was most helpful in showing me where I could go and where to change buses etc. I had been nervous about travelling alone but I suddenly appreciated that Ghanaians are extremely friendly and helpful, so there was no way of ever getting lost. People will go out of their way to show you or even escort you to where you’re going.

So I was both proud of myself and in a better frame of mind when I arrived and booked into a lovely resort , complete with open air bar and restaurant under thatched roofs. My accommodation was in a dormitory in ‘the loft’ – an open air arrangement on stilts with a thatched roof, situated right beside where the reggae band would be playing for the regular Saturday night party until 2 or 3 in the morning. It was all quite idyllic, with local arts and crafts for sale alongside colourful fishing boats on the beach. A tourist spot, so there were a few more white skins scattered amongst the black.

I chatted to all the people who approached me and managed to move on without buying anything or giving out my phone number. One of these encounters turned into a real conversation, with a Rastafarian guy called Richard. He talked about his beliefs, which include being totally honest so that you are not a slave to other people or to harboured bad feelings. He also said it’s important not to hurt anybody because you only hurt yourself, and if you’re good to people you’re being good to yourself. It was so good to hear these ideas expressed by an African. I ended up telling him how desperate I’d been feeling over the last couple of days, and he had lots of encouraging words and good advice.

In the evening we danced amongst the lively throng to the booming reggae band and when it got too hot you could go and stand on the beach, where a cool breeze, swaying palm trees and splashing waves made it truly a tropical paradise. That’s when I thought, “I’m so glad I’m in Africa!”