Dirt and beauty

In 1974 Saudi Arabia was a fabulously rich country, yet its streets were piled high with rubbish. There was no garbage disposal system other than the goats that roamed the streets. The reason? “No self-respecting Saudi would ever collect trash.”[i] Being too proud to deal with their garbage meant that effectively the Saudis were left with cities that made them ashamed.

I think people are like that too. To become clean we have to deal with our own dirt; to be beautiful we have to face our ugliness. Pretending it isn’t there only lets it pile up for other people to see.

When we refuse to acknowledge our own failings, we cannot be genuinely compassionate, kind or trustworthy. The effort of keeping up the facade takes too high a toll; it will not allow us to truly connect with other people. In other words, trying to cover up our failings is a rather ugly trait.

On the other hand, acknowledging our mistakes and wrongdoings instantly changes us. We become humble, honest and open to true connection with others. If we are guilty of an exceptionally serious misdemeanour, we might feel extremely ashamed or racked with guilt – perhaps appropriately so. The worse you have behaved, the harder it is to admit – but the more powerful and life-changing that confession is.

As a counsellor I have worked with people who have done terrible things, but I always admire the fact that through counselling they are honestly trying to become better people. To my mind, just the fact that they are trying actually does make them better people.

This doesn’t mean going around telling people how bad you are; that’s just another way of getting stuck with a label. It’s a matter of quietly accepting your past and present self with all your imperfections and genuinely trying to do better in future. To me, that’s what makes a person beautiful.

[i] This quote is taken from John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hitman, Berrett-Koehler, 2004


Everything is relative. To answer a question like: “How happy are you with your life?” we cannot answer without comparing our situation with some point of reference. If that point of reference is how much poorer we were three years ago, or our unfortunate friend who has just had heart attack, or the plight of refugees in Syria, we are likely to say we are, and actually feel, very happy with our lot.

However, if we compare our situation with someone who has more money, looks or status than we do, or how much more we think we should have achieved by our particular age, we are likely to feel dissatisfied.

Many of the most miserable and unconfident people I have worked with in counselling were beautiful young women at university who, by most people’s standards, had everything going for them. Their problem was that they constantly compared themselves unfavourably with others. This destructive mental habit caused them to focus only on other beautiful young women and to fail to notice anyone who wasn’t in their league. If on a rare occasion a classmate had put on weight or said something silly, they felt temporarily superior to that person – a rather ugly response.

Making comparisons that assess people into better or worse than yourself stops you from being the genuinely beautiful person you could be and is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

Instead, cultivate compassion for yourself and for others. We are all human, fallible and prone to suffering. A non-judgmental approach helps you understand other people and promotes kindness towards them.

And practice gratitude for all that you have. Nothing is to be taken for granted. If you remember that things could be so much worse than they are, you will feel far happier.

Why me?

When something bad happens, many people’s first reaction is “Why me?” This is not a genuine question but a rhetorical one; it’s a statement that what happened was unfair and undeserved. As long as we stay in this place of complaining that things are not as they should be, we remain stuck and unhappy.

However, happiness researchers once did an experiment in which they asked people to write about a painful experience in their past. Those who were asked to write about how the event happened reported feeling more miserable after recalling the event. Not surprising – they had dredged up and re-experienced the whole thing.

But those who were asked to explain why the incident happened felt better afterwards. The reason seems to be that they approached the task with a different thought process. Rather than emotionally re-experiencing the event, they used their intellect to try to understand what the causes were. This had the effects of: a) making the event more specific to a set of circumstances rather than something that could happen any time; and b) gave them ideas about how to avoid it happening again. In effect, the exercise helped people learn the lessons inherent in the experience.

There is never a definitive answer to the question ‘why?’ An event has thousands of antecedents, any of which can be deemed as a cause. But often we can point to specific factors that might make sense of why something happened. If these factors are within our sphere of influence, we can determine not to let them happen again; if not, we can decide to simply accept them.

So next time you find yourself asking, “why me?” try seriously attempting to answer the question.

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.

Compassion and challenge

For years I cultivated compassion, not wanting to become desensitised to the suffering in the world. At times I felt overwhelmed by all the suffering around me and wanted to alleviate it wherever possible.

A couple of years ago I attended a seminar with Caroline Myss, a spiritual leader whose books I had been reading. I was prepared to be enchanted by wonderful truths pouring from her lips, but the biggest impact came from a minor incident during the day.

Caroline asked the audience whether there was anything they thought they deserved. One young woman stood up and said she deserved to be loved. In a scathing tone, Caroline answered, “No, you don’t! Who should love you? Why should they?” Then she carried on with her talk. A few moments later she stopped and looked at the woman, now sitting down again. “Why are you wearing sunglasses?” she asked. “Because I’m crying!” “Oh,” said Caroline and turned back to her talk, never to mention it again.

I was horrified. That poor woman! She had been set up to be humiliated in front of a crowd of people. She was crying and this supposedly compassionate person didn’t even care. I would never have done something like that.

But further reflection showed me what had gone on there. Caroline was exposing a basic spiritual truth: that we do not deserve anything and should be grateful for whatever we are fortunate enough to receive. Most likely the woman in the audience felt unloved by her husband or mother and felt sorry for herself. Caroline was telling her that her sense of entitlement was making her unhappy; not the other person. And the irony is that if she had shown compassion at that moment, it would only have confirmed the woman’s sense of being hard done by.

I realised then that we all have our own journey and that it is necessarily a hard road. Sometimes cushioning someone’s pain can prevent them from learning to deal with things themselves. This incident also released me from a sense of duty to carry other people’s pain. I still believe compassion is very important but I now know that I am not responsible for easing all the suffering I see.

As well as teaching me these important lessons, Caroline Myss gave that woman an amazing gift that day. I fully trust that after the initial humiliation, she emerged stronger and happier for the experience.

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.

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.

Nelson Mandela, politics and spirituality

Nelson Mandela is no longer with us. I find myself quite tearful, perhaps not from sadness, because he had made the most of his 95 years on this earth, but simply in recognition of the wonderful qualities he embodied. Nelson Mandela will always remain my hero, not because he was an extraordinary person, but because he was an ordinary person who allowed himself to grow into something more.

His journey started when he noticed injustice and resolved to fight against it. This political stance had him joining and becoming a leader in the ANC and taking part in strategies to stand against apartheid. Many people can relate to this need to act politically when the status quo is morally wrong. (I will always remember the passion with which I joined the protests against the Springbok tour in 1981.) But often people become so caught up with fighting for a cause that the fighting becomes an end in itself. A case of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ where bringing down the enemy is the only focus.

The difference with Mandela is that during his years in prison he worked tirelessly on himself. Rather than embedding the idea of himself as a fighter (which also solidifies the idea of the enemy), he began to ‘be the change he wanted to see.’ He let go of the idea of armed struggle and developed ideas of peace, starting with inner peace. Who would have thought that a prisoner of 27 years could have so much influence on the world outside of himself? This could not have happened had he been simply a fighter or a martyr. Instead he became a leader; people sensed the qualities he embodied and wanted to follow him.

Whether in everyday struggles or in addressing world problems, Mandela will always provide inspiration for me as to how to proceed. The world has lost a wonderful man, but how lucky we were to have had him.

Immunising yourself against other people’s venom

Feelings and attitudes are like germs – highly infectious. To promote our own happiness and that of the people around us, we need to protect ourselves from toxic attitudes and emotions that might come into our circle from time to time.

But how do I stop myself getting angry when someone is angry with me, or vengeful when someone is out to get me? It’s not easy, but here are a few ideas.

1) Vent – with a time limit. Yell at the mirror, punch a pillow, or write how you feel. Once the time limit (eg 10 minutes) is up, burn what you’ve written, clean the mirror or smooth out the pillow. The purpose of venting is to get rid of, not to reinforce, the bad feelings. Therefore it should be done away from other people and not on Facebook – otherwise you are spreading the poison rather than reducing it.
2) Breathe deeply.
3) Think of all the things you are grateful for. Really get into this.
4) Of the above, think of the things that the person who upset you does not have the privilege to enjoy.
5) Find some compassion for the person.
6) Meditate or pray with a warm and kind intention towards that person. If this does not come easily, draw a picture of good things you might wish upon the person if they were your own precious child.
7) Go and enjoy doing something completely unrelated.
8) If you speak to other people about the situation, refrain from complaining about the other person’s wrongdoings. Instead focus on what you are trying to achieve: “I’m trying to remain calm and kind in a situation that’s testing me.”

If you have any other ideas for dealing with toxicity from other people, I’d love to hear them.