Fighting your dark side at work: may the force be with you

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The new Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens will be in theaters soon (hurray!); fans all over the world are rejoicing at the idea of having yet another taste of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fischer, Mark Hamill and the rest of the original cast. That fantasy world created by George Lucas more than 30 years ago still resonates with audiences for its mix of spiritual and pragmatic lessons. The reason for that can be found in the constant tension between the forces of light and darkness. But rather than suggesting a manichean universe, with good and bad characters, Mr. Lucas underlined that anyone can be seduced by the intensity of negative emotions (i.e. fear, anger, jealousy, envy, greed, hatred, and rage), and the lust for power and control over others.

In these modern times of power games at work, the Star Wars saga ethical and moral concepts are more prevalent than ever. This might come as no revelation: it would seem emotions keep on being ‘the elephant in the room’ nobody wants to talk about or acknowledge in office spaces. And yet, ignoring the need to address underlying interpersonal conflicts and agendas derived from emotions, favors the proliferation of negative tactics (mobbing, bullying, isolating, taking credit for work, etc.) that cause tremendous suffering, and cost money to business and organizations.

At the core of the problem lies our ability or inability -as co-workers and managers- to embrace, process and observe our own emotions without drama, and reflect upon the kind of action (or inaction) we will take. Expressing emotions in a healthy way and listening mindfully while those emotions are expressed by others are necessary skills to be a team member and leader. As the movie Inside Out so brilliantly illustrated, these skills are ideally developed during childhood, a time when we are struggling to discover who we are, and how our minds and feelings operate. By opening up about emotions at work (granted, not all the time and without any filter), we become authentic and real, the kind of person (and leader) other people relate to. New conversations get started, underlying fears understood, and empathy and compassion can flourish.

The Buddhist, and Hindu doctrines express this same belief in the principle of ahimsa: the avoidance of harm and violence to all living creatures. Ahimsa precludes not only ‘the act of inflicting a physical injury, but also mental states like evil thoughts and hatred, unkind behavior such as harsh words, dishonesty and lying’. One of the main promoters of this principle in life and politics was Gandhi, who inspired the American civil rights and pacifist movements. Star Wars was written by George Lucas against the backdrop of the Vietnam war and those same movements. He asked himself how a good person can turn into a bad person, and concluded that ‘most bad people think they are good people, they are doing it for the right reasons’. The merit of the Jedi is to recognize the temptation as well as the danger of getting lost in the wicked and cruel dark side. Ultimately, he reminds us to only use the force within the limits of self-defense, and under the light of kindness, fairness and justice.

May the force stay with you!

A great balancing act: resilience for living your own adventure

March and April in the south of Europe are my favorite months of the year. They announce the delicate warmth of Spring sun, the birds are more visible, and people get overall more optimistic. For the first time, after a seemingly eternal winter, we all can see the light at the end of the “cold tunnel”. Our hope in nonstop gorgeous mornings and cozy evenings under the stars is renewed. This change of season is typically very welcome as it brings only positive things with it, even though we do not have any control whatsoever over it. But this apparent gracefulness in accepting nature disappears as soon as we hit the wall of leaving behind familiar -personal and/or professional- territory in a short period of time. I call this the ‘up-in-the-air‘ moment, marked by the natural dose of anxiety combined with a bit of resistance caused by the uncertainty of the unexplored path ahead of us. The fact is we do react quite differently when in our  -professional and/or personal- lives changes in core areas start to happen, one after the other. Whether we have consciously chosen them or not, they can stir up many different emotions and underlying fears, awakening our inner sleeping dragons.

When I was a pre-teen, I got quite hooked up with the ‘choose your own adventure‘ book series. It simply fascinated me, back then, how exciting it was to be able to explore all the different options that the main character (me) had available. But most importantly, I cherished the control I had over the final outcome of the story, since I could make an ‘informed’ choice and go back on my footsteps in case that the option I had gone for did not turned up to be the ‘ideal’ one. It struck me recently that perhaps reading those books had not been such a positive influence, after all. Even though I could see the strategic value of indulging in the pros and cons of each option, the truth of the matter is that in real life we only get one shot at taking a defining decision in the most relevant of moments. Inevitably, my love for these kind of books led me to a life of constant mental revival of past events and choices. How would it have been, had I done X or Y? Would the result have been similar? Is my present reality a huge mistake or just a random milestone towards a brighter future? I am aware that this means I am developing my personal version of the movie ‘sliding doors‘, having Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition as faithful companion…

At the core of such a state of affairs is most certainly a deep resistance to make peace with the chosen path, embracing and committing to it and its consequences. It takes a great level of maturity and humility to welcome the lessons and opportunities that life generously brings your way. Specially, when you reach a calm passage in your adventure where you need to wait for things to happen and your fate is dependent upon other people’s actions. Dr. Seuss calls this the Waiting Place, which is probably the most challenging of places, not much action going on while emotional stress piles up (if you are not a process oriented person…). Hence, the perfect test to your resilience.

When we bought an old house to renovate it and live in it, I never expected to be still waiting for the real action to start three years down the road. I was aware that it was not going to be an easy ride, based on my childhood memories of my parents’ house. However, nothing prepares you for the kind of patience required to effectively navigate your way around delays and setbacks.  I must say I was able to rectify and make realistic plans, taking necessary and painful steps to follow through with these. Sometimes, those steps were backwards, sometimes forwards. Looking back, I just realized that I was still grieving my financial freedom previously to acquiring a substantial loan to buy the property, instead of actually committing 100% to the project. By not letting go and exploring the new possibilities that the change had brought to my life, I was not only not showing up for my own adventure, but I was undermining my family own spirit of adventure and resilience. It is hard to open the eyes to this fact. But the good news is that, by doing so, you start to be aware of the behavioral changes you need to make to claim back lost ground, and feel your optimistic self again. In the words of D. Seuss, ‘life may be a great balancing act, but through it all there’s fun to be done’.

Malta in Springtime

Malta in Springtime

The (im)possible task of taming the ego and becoming your own hero

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The wheel of life, Nepal

Since March 2014, I have embarked on a fascinating executive coaching adventure, in the company of an inspiring and hardworking team. After some years of doing it naturally on and outside of the job, I decided it was about time to get serious about becoming a coach. Little did I know that the experience would shake my world as much as it has… For starters, I realized that listening is an elusive art, quite intense, if done properly, since it requires full concentration and focused intention. But most importantly, I learned how powerful questions can manage to penetrate some of the layers of what Carl Jung called the persona -the identity we carefully and consciously build throughout our lives, or in other words, the way we are “supposed” to be according to social convention- in order to get to the center of consciousness…the (in)famous “Id”. Arguably, the “traditional” (or as I like to call it, the Woody Allen) way to do this would be therapy, which would help us to liberate the self both from the deceptive cover of the persona, and from the power of unconscious impulses cemented on past experiences. However, the right coaching process can help us figuring out what we really want to do with our lives, looking forward, while being true and authentic to ourselves and our skillset. This exercise is particularly relevant when you are in a management position, with people to supervise and inspire; and paramount when you are in a career transition. The second case applies to me, and to many other women that decided to take the risk, and go to the unknown territory of reinventing yourself, after having had what would qualify as a “successful career”.

I have to admit that, even though it was my decision -derived from being burned out, and wanting more from life than a safe office space– I still struggle with letting go of the public Linkedin persona I have created over the years. After all, I owe to that persona not only a certain level of economic comfort, but also a great part of my social and professional self-esteem.

In my yoga classes, I often tell students that “there are no judgements and no expectations”, in an effort to remind them (and myself), to disconnect their egos for a moment, the cause of most of the suffering and pain we experience. This is no easy task, indeed. I, for one, can hear my ego grow angry (bird.…:) when somebody assumes I am just a yoga teacher, or just a mom, or just an appendix to my husband. Irredeemably, the ego tends to compare current circumstances with others in an adversarial manner, separating “us” from “them”, putting labels, judging and demanding all its wishes to be fulfilled. I tell myself this is the wrong mindset, but my ego is deaf most of the times…like a small dictator, constantly shaped and fueled by other people’s (including family) expectations and judgements of life and career choices.

When dealing with these conflictive feelings, I try to find encouragement in the metaphor of the “hero’s journey”. I figured that being such a movie buff must serve some purpose, after all. Let me explain what I mean. After years of studying myths in different cultures,
Joseph Campbell described magisterially the 17 stages of the monomyth, under three big categories: separation, initiation, and return. In the climax of its trip, undoubtedly, the hero must abandon his/her attachment to ego itself, even though this means letting go of the self-generated double monster—the superego and the repressed ego.
Painfully, I realized that sticking to the validity of the life choices you make (marrying/ divorcing, home loan, what country to live in, quitting/taking a job, having x-kids, starting a business…) requires resilience, perseverence, humility, willingness to learn, and a great deal of faith in yourself and in the universe throughout the process. Also, I understood that you have to become your own hero-advocate-coach to placate the dictator’s need for instant (social or professional) gratification, and keep on working to get closer to the vision you have of your life. You have to mature gracefully and elegantly (or something like it…), to rise above the mess that the funny ego leaves behind every time it has a tantrum. Only this way can we tame it and turn it into a messenger of what we feel our greater mission in life is, and not somebody else’s. I am still trying…

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Bullying: making sense out of it

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Some months ago, I was shocked with the news about the death of Rebecca A. Sedwick. Not because she had been bullied at such a short age (12) and had taken her own life, unable to stand the facebook pressure for more than a year. Unfortunately, that was nothing new. In the era of social media, cyberbullying is a common currency…Rather, what impressed me most was the nasty and unappologetic comment of her main tormentor, Guadalupe Shaw, a 14 year old girl from her school, and the reaction it caused in the sheriff who dealt with the case. It was as if, finally, a line had irremediably been crossed, and it would change the course of events forever, like an unstoppable snow ball effect in search of (ex post factum) justice, enrolling advocates like Rebecca’s ‘boyfriend’ to prevent that more beautiful young lives are lost to hopelessness and depression. As it turns out, Guadalupe was the object of physical abuse by her stepmother, Vivian Vosburg. In the words of her attorney, “she had been bullied on her own”, and is now under psychological counselling.

This sad story made me think of how necessary it is to bully-proof girls, starting by working on the gender stereotyped perception of “how a girl is supposed to behave”. When I was researching on this topic, after having been a target of bullying and mobbing myself, I got so into it that it evolved into a spontaneous training for my colleagues, that helped me to start healing. In the process, statistics confirmed something I had witness myself: 80% of bullying happens between women. According to a workplace survey in the US, this fact is rooted in childhood socialization and accumulated frustration of girls to be unable to express what they really think, especially when it is about anger and rage. For instance, a boy would be typically more encouraged to be outgoing and assertive, demanding what they want, when they want it, without any need to be particularly polite, nurturing or sensitive to other people’s needs. I have always found it fascinating how women can be the best of friends, showing so much love, solidarity and empathy. And still, be the best of enemies with other women, opening their dark side, and entering in an imaginary competition that brings up so much resentfulness and hurt to both of them.

However, workplace bullying can also happen to men. During Christmas, I went to the movies to see The secret life of Walter Mitty, a beautiful and inspiring story about living life to its fullest, going to the unknown with courage…and standing up to the bully. It made me laugh, smile, and remember that moment of my life when I did that, as well. I do not mean going to Afghanistan to find Sean Penn…(I met him in Haiti, some years later, though…:), but finding the strength inside to put a limit to the constant verbal or psychological attacks, and to strike back. That is what I call a real “empowerment moment”: the target finally shifts mindset as s/he realizes the bully is a coward who does not know how to handle his/her own pain, without hurting others.

As much as I adore the classic Christian Andersen tale “The Ugly Duckling“, I now realize that the story is missing this empowerment moment in which we would love to see the poor ugly duckling stand up to the mobbing crowd and a few individual bullies…

The practice of yoga made me resilient to many challenges in my life, but not only mine. I have seen the same process happening in other individuals and kids. It is a wonderful gift to ground you, get in touch with yourself, tune in, reflect, and act in a positive and constructive way. A gift I love to share.

Namaste

Confronting fear

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When I was 10 years old, my mom had breast cancer. She was in the late thirties, was raising three kids while finishing her PhD and having an academic career, and restoring an old house. Back then, I lived in my own world, like any other child, I suppose. Both my parents and the rest of my family tried to protect my siblings and me from the unspeakable illness, so we were never informed of what was going on. However, being the eldest one, I could not help but notice that there was something wrong with my her…little things had changed…her hair was shorter, she had lost weight, looked more tired, laughed less, and all in all felt more distant and oblivious to my life. She was lucky: it had not spread and was erradicated…it has not come back to this day…32 years later. Looking back, I can imagine the shame she felt for having cancer and having to go through a traumatic and uncertain treatment, since she refuses to speak about it. But most of all, I feel deep admiration for her courage to confront her fear of dying and leaving us prematurely, like her father did, fighting to survive and defeat the monster. But most importantly, I can see clearly now that it must have been quite daunting to hide her feelings from us, so that we would grow up without fearing we would live the same fate.

Naturally, discovering the truth ten years later from somebody else’s mouth was shocking at first, but then liberating, since it all made finally sense to me. It was like putting some key pieces of the childhood puzzle together.

Little did I know that from that moment on, though, I would start developing a very common anxiety among women: will I get cancer or not? I would tell myself the best thing -of course- is prevention, and so I embarked into my own methodical preventive quest. What exactly does that mean, you ask yourself. Well, for starters, I would convince my gynecologists (yes, I had to have more than one…consecutively, thank God…because you can never trust one opinion only) that I needed to have the typical exams a woman can have after she becomes 40 (mamogramm, and physical examination) even though I was twenty something. Not that I would have them every six months…but still, I was becoming a hyppocondriac…Charming! In my thirties, my daughter was born, which gave me a stronger drive to keep healthy and alive….(btw, I can totally emphasize with Angelina Jolie for having taken such a brave decision…). So, what does a prevention oriented person do? Get more sophisticated tests (MRIs, papsmears, etc.) in order to have as many angles covered…, compare results, ask different doctors, and worry, no matter what. At thin point, Woody Allen was like an alter ego for me, no doubt about it…

The next level was to give alternative therapies a try. Diligently, I did my 200 hours yoga teacher training in a wonderful studio in Washington, DC. It is amazing what good breathing, asanas and meditation can do for anxiety and low intensity depression, honestly. Giving yoga classes is as much a selfless as a selfish exercise: I love both helping people get more balanced and in tune with their bodies and sould, and the wonderful curative quality that my own words have on myself. Kind of un-programming in my brain all those years of pessimistic and over critical Spanish culture. Massage, accupuncture, reiki, healthy eating, are important allies to keep me sane, but nothing is definitive….it takes hard work to keep on track. I know you know. With life insistently happening in your face, the old ‘friends’ –fear, worry, and anxiety– pay unexpected visits. Boy, they like to chat nonsense…:) Hence the name of this blog, btw, in case you were still wondering…:)

This week I went to listen to a cancer prevention talk by a psychologist and reiki master. Apart from the usual causes of cancer that we all know, she mentioned one that left me a bit surprised…and that is quite something, after all these years of reading about the subject. She said there is a theory that cancer (and other illnesses) are a karmic disease. It is somehow related to unforgiven pain and unfinished relationships in our (present or previous) life, and she suggested to do some regressions to identify the unresolved issue (some deep offence or injustice). Worth yet another preventive try…! Naturally…!
Having family members and friends getting sick every now and then, I have to remind myself that this is no way of living life: we need to trust our bodies, and let go of the useless chatter of the mind. Get out of the brain and come back to the heart, daring to jump in a leap of faith, and follow your instincts, but always listening to the subtle signs your body gives you at all times. Rest, eat, breath, watch, run, stay, laugh, floss, caress, embrace, kiss, be present, say what you feel….live your life!
Namaste

About imperfection, unrealistic expectations, and the art of contentment

Over the years, I have come to terms with lowering expectations for myself and others around me, trying to live by the yogi mottos “Accept What Is” or “No Judgements and No Expectations” (Notice the word “try”, because I will come later to that). These simple, yet powerful, statements are specially suited -I find- for women. During a recent trip to Nepal with a fantastic group of women (and two patient men), I had the chance to exchange some thoughts about women and buddhism with Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, the Abbot and spiritual head of the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery in Boudhanath. After attentively listening to his explanation of the teachings of Buddha (particularly, non-attachment to things or people since the only certainty we have is that everything changes), I dared to make the question. But first, a bit of background: Over the previous days, I had heard that women were seen as the “repository of wisdom”. Naturally, being me, I had to get to the bottom of the matter…so, I told him about what I had heard and what it meant…did it mean that we are way ahead, since we want to change everything/everybody around us, especially the man/woman we are with??? I think I took him off guard, but he was nice enough to bear with me in the moment.

The thing is, when I talk to my friends and women from all paths of life, we tend to agree that we have the rare ability to find numerous and creative ways to beat ourselves up for not being at the level we consider we should be. Yes, we can be too harsh with ourselves and others (oh, la, la), but only for the record, it is just because we want “things to improve”, or people around us to “be their best”. As if we had our own (internal and external) evaluation radar, ALL THE TIME in our heads, making sure the possibility of enjoying the present moment vanishes as soon as we spot the next “improvement area”. Like Brene Brown would say, we are full of shame, guilt and criticism towards ourselves…
Ironically, as soon as you have reached one milestone, the next will be waiting for you -merciless-, along perfectionism road.(Should we baptise it as road to perdition, instead?) Quite frankly, this becomes incredibly tiring…

Before Christmas, a friend of mine living in Washington, DC sent me a rather intesting article by an Academic woman, former top official in the State Department a couple of years ago, in which she analised her (and other women’s) reasons to step back from high demanding jobs under the premise that women cannot have it all…at least, not all, all the time. It left me thinking about how I already got a similar message from another wise friend (older than me) while working together in Costa Rica: life is long and there is one moment for everything. Yes, you will have to take a step back on one front or another to be able to regroup, focus, get stronger, and be the inspired human being you aspire to be. Ufff

In my case, I have to admit that being content with life as it is, with its imperfections, and lowering expectations does not always happen gracefully, as I was saying at the beginning, and even sometimes I stubbornly refuse to follow those yogi mottos….or any other kind of wise written or oral advise that has come my way, for that matter. After all, human beings are full of contradictions, right? Indeed…after having decided to quit my highly demanding job to spend more time with my 9 year old daughter and focus on my passions, I slowly started having an identity crisis and raising expectatios for myself. It seems as if one part of me (the enlightened part-wanna be, I suppose) rationally believes in the validity of that yoga wisdom, spreads the word, and appreciates the immense benefits of its practical application would have in my health and quality of life. However, the other part (the ego) wants to hold on to old patterns, freaking out due to the stress of not being able to reach the meticulously set plan, to finally get frustrated and disappointed. In this battle against oneself, a la Dr. Jekill and Mr. Hide, I find speaking to other wise women (and some patient men, deeply in touch with their feminine side) can be of great help to bring perspective to things and recognize how much we have in common and we can help each other. “Relax, mommy”, says my daughter…nothing like children to get your emotions in check when you most need it.

The art of contentment sounds as a Dalai Lama book, I know…my main point is that contentment cannot be another unattainable goal in the distant future, but part of a vocation you grow into over the years,savoring life’s successes and precious moments that will evolve into other moments…since everything changes. Getting there, yep, with a little help of (my) friends.