Thursday, 3 December 2009

War within, Peace without? It's not possible.

As the US prepares to send more troops to Afghanistan, I find myself contemplating the meaning of war and wondering if it is an inevitable part of the human condition.  If life consists of a balance of opposite qualities, as I believe it does, then perhaps war is the necessary flip side of peace.  For how would you know peace without war?  (Or good without bad…up without down…happy without sad?)  If you are “for” peace and “against” war, then are you not at war with war?  We are all warmongers and peaceniks in our own ways.

What if, instead, people realized that the world around them is simply a reflection of what's going on inside them?  The result of living a one-sided life – seeking only happiness, prosperity, peace, love, and pleasure – means that the opposites qualities of unhappiness, poverty, war, hate and pain get projected “out there” into the wider world.   They are reflected back to us as a reminder that they are being ignored and need attention.  If, on the other hand, we embrace our own darkness and seek to understand it rather than condemn it, we can harness its wisdom.  In therapy speak this is called “withdrawing projections.”  

Think of these rejected qualities as a frustrated toddler pulling on your coat trying to get your attention - the more they are ignored the louder they get, until you’ve got a full-blown tantrum on your hands. However, give them your full attention and they are appeased.  The same is true of our unwanted emotions – ignore them and they may blow up at the most inopportune moment,  acknowledge them and they deliver their wisdom then dissipate.

We go to great lengths to avoid feeling or expressing unwelcome emotions.  We drink too much, eat too much, watch too much TV, and so forth.  But what if the despair we are keeping at bay is an important message about the state of a marriage?  We practice habitual niceness, but who are we benefiting if we ignore a gnawing sense of dislike (an inner alarm bell about a stranger’s intentions?) by covering it with politeness and a pleasant smile? 

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “The great epochs of our life are at the points when we gain the courage to re-baptize our badness as the best in us.”   This indeed takes a brave heart, as resurrecting what we’ve been conditioned to believe is unacceptable can be a very scary and painful process.  But being willing to love our suppressed selves is vital to begin living an authentic life.  It may also be the key to peace on earth. 

Love your WHOLE self and stop the inner war, then perhaps the outer ones can stop too.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

May the 4's be with you.

As Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back:

"My ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life breeds it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the force around you, here between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.”

I believe this is true – the web of life and all. I also believe that we are in constant communication with “the Force.” In Conversations with God Book I (p 210), Neale Donald Walsch says:  

“Whenever you have a question, simply know that I have answered it already. Then open your eyes to your world. My response could be in an article already published. In the sermon already written and about to be delivered. In the movie now being made. In the song just yesterday composed. In the words about to be said by a loved one. In the heart of a new friend about to be made.”

I’m sure we all have examples of receiving the exact information we need at the exact moment we need it, but I get my “signs” in a very specific way:  I see multiples of four - mostly 44 and 444.  I see these numbers everywhere.  They are my private conversation with…something.

It started many years ago when I read a book that suggested seeing multiples of four was a sign that we are on the right path. I was intrigued, as I had frequently been waking up at 4:44 in the morning.  I phoned my brother and told him what I’d read. Not surprisingly, he thought it was ridiculous.  However, the next morning he called to say that he had just gone into a shop for coffee and the total was…$4.44.  He was pretty freaked out.  I was thrilled.

From that day forward the fours just kept (and keep) showing up.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been driving and wondering if I’m going the right way, only to look up and see 44 on the license of the car in front.  Or while thinking of some new idea I’ll randomly look at the clock at exactly 4:44.  Once I was struggling to write up a big case study for my counseling degree.  After some initial hesitation it began to flow out of my fingertips, but ended up a bit too long at 4,700 odd words.  But when I remembered to remove the bibliography from the word count, guess how many were left?  Yep,  4,444.  I didn’t change one word.  And I passed.

It makes sense to me, as four is the number for the heart chakra – the center of our being where our most clear decisions take shape. (The heart always knows best.)  So why not figure as an outer signpost as well?

Recently I’ve been wondering whether I should stay in England or move back to Seattle where I’m from.  Then it dawned on me - the country code for the UK is 44.  In 11 years I’ve never noticed this?! Perhaps I’ll stick around a bit longer.

Friday, 30 October 2009

To thine own self be true...if you can bear it.

It's amazing how far we go to be "nice" to each other in ways that compromise what's best for all concerned.  Here's a short tale of how we get it so wrong...

A couple of weeks ago I hired a contractor (let’s call him 'the man') to address a few niggling problems in my house and redecorate a couple of rooms.  A nice young lad ('the boy') arrived as part of the crew.  We got talking and it turned out he is actually a trained picture framer from a small Eastern European country who has come to Britain to find work.  Unfortunately he hasn't been able to find a job in his field.

One day the man came across the boy painting chairs (for peanuts) at an antique store.  He recognized his potential and decided to help him get on his feet by hiring him for double the money and finding him an apartment.  The boy was very grateful and tried his hardest to do a good job, but the trouble was (and is) he is a terrible decorator!

A few days ago the boy got a job offer at a posh framing gallery.  However, he feels indebted to the man for giving him his first break and can't bear to be unkind by telling him he has found a more suitable job.  The man is equally stuck, as he has recognized that the boy has no talent as a decorator, but can't bear to fire him, as he now feels responsible for him. They are both trapped in a vicious cycle of being 'nice' to each other rather than being truly kind to themselves.

When Shakespeare wrote, "This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man" it wasn't just a hollow sentiment.  It is at once the simplest yet most complex task of being human.  But who are we if we never rise to the challenge of being true to ourselves?

Once, when facing some tough life decisions, a stranger struck up a conversation with me and said, as if reading my mind, "Our greatest challenge in life is to follow our own heart even if it means disappointing others."  I try to live by that creed, but often fall short, as it is deeply ingrained in my psyche and in our culture to be on guard against hurting others.  I wonder how different my life might be had I been braver and more honest with myself and with others?

Back to the man and the boy.  Can the boy bear to follow his heart into an appropriate job and risk disappointing the man?  Can the man risk disappointing the boy by releasing him from a job he is not cut out to do?  I will watch the drama unfold with bated breath.  My hope is that the heart will win, but experience tells me it could go either way.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Drama, Danger and Demons

I spent much of my childhood preoccupied with drama, danger and demons. Whether I was running home from the school bus with one eye ever on the lookout for the UFO that was sure to abduct me, or planning a roof-top escape route for my family for when an axe murderer stormed the house to hack us all to pieces, I was prey to a very overactive imagination.  What’s more, I suffered endless sleepless nights huddled under the covers convinced that the devil and his minions were out to get me.  (I eventually had to talk to a minister about this.  No kidding.) It should come as no surprise then, that in 1978 when the movie Star Wars was released, my world was rocked.

The battle of good versus evil as embodied by Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader completely captivated me.  It resonated with the part of me that was desperate to believe that “good,” is good and “bad” is bad.  From where I stand now, I can see that my obsession with the film mirrored my own unconscious drive to be a bonafide goody-two-shoes. But the more I focused on being a good girl, the bigger my fears grew. What I didn’t realize is that the demons under my bed and the axe murdered on the path represented my shadow – my own “dark side” – and they were there precisely because I was trying so hard to push them away.

The term “shadow“ was coined by the psychologist Carl Jung to describe the parts of the self that we try to deny or hide.  Although we are born with a full deck of god-given “good” and “bad” qualities, we quickly learn, from our families, friends and the culture at large, which are acceptable and which are not, and mold ourselves accordingly. It works something like this:  We saw our brother get yelled at for being too loud, and learned to bury our loudness and become quiet; Mom was disapproving when we said we wanted to be an actor when we grew up, so we killed off our dramatic ambition; The church told us that homosexuality was evil, so we spent a lifetime in the closet. This is not a conscious process, on the contrary - it silently chips away at our psyche without us even realizing it is happening.

I can hear some of you grumbling already,  “Yea, but isn’t it “good” to be good?”  Liz Green, in her book Relating: An Astrological Guide to Living With Others on a Small Planet (1977) says “It is much more pleasant to think that one is a decent, ‘okay’ sort of fellow – maybe with a few flaws, but basically alright – and much easier also to assume that it is the government, the blacks, the hippies, the Communists, or the foreign immigrants who have created all the evil in the world.”  (Forgive the 70’s worldview.) However, that “head in the sand” approach just leaves your backside exposed and poised for a good kick, for the world around you will never stop showing you everything you have tried to deny about yourself.

Jesus advised us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  “But,” warns Liz Green, “if you do not love yourself, what will you be capable of doing to your neighbor, vindicated by the self-righteousness of your own judgment?”  She continues, “Immaturity is forgivable, even appealing, in a child.  But deliberate evasion of psychological adulthood, particularly at the expense of others, does injury to life itself, and is perhaps, in the final analysis, the true meaning of sin.”

Back to Star Wars.  Remember how poignant was the moment when Luke Skywalker discovered that the Evil Lord Vader was, in fact, not the monster he’d been made out to be, but his own father?  Beneath the pomp and posturing in his big black cape and scary helmet he was a weak and vulnerable old man.  (Ah, the gasp that went through the crowd and my heart at that moment!) Redemption arrived with the unmasking of a rouse.  In that instant Luke felt love for Vader – all was forgiven. It’s very like the process we are all called to do when we explore and discover and ultimately learn to love our own ‘dark side.” As Jung said, “We are obliged to struggle with evil, confront the shadow, to integrate the devil.  There is no other choice.”

With Halloween around the corner we will be confronted with little monsters and ghouls on every corner.  I’m going to let them be a reminder that there are still demons lurking in my own psyche that I have not yet made peace with.  I invite you to do the same.


(If you would like to learn more about your shadow, I highly recommend reading The Dark Side of the Light Chasers by Debbie Ford or the Liz Green book referenced above.)

Monday, 12 October 2009

Don't shoot me, I'm just a 1st-grader!

Living in a big city, as I do, the cross section of humanity on display at any given time is amazing.  As I was shopping in my local mall this weekend, watching and thinking and feeling jostled by the throngs of humanity, it dawned on me that the human race is really no different from the rest of the animal kingdon in the roles that we play.  Together we make up a type of food chain or eco-system of our own.

Figuratively speaking, we've got the bottom feeders/parasite types, the predator/top-dog types, the community-loving, group dwelling types, the isolated/loner types, the herbavores, the meat eaters and the omnivores, the cooperative and the anti-social, the passive and the aggressive, the hard working and the opportunistic, and on it goes.  Similarly, it is said that the human embryo mimics 3.8 billion years of evolution as it develops from a single cell organism and begins to take on the characteristics first of acquadic life, then reptilian, then mamalian, then primate and finally human. The fact that we continue to embody certain characteristics of our ancient lineage should come as no surprise.

Chinese astrology sums it up brilliantly by using 12 different animals types to classify human nature: Boar (or Pig), Rat, Ox Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster and Dog.  The beautiful thing about this system is that no one type is revered above another - all have their up side and down side, their role to play in the big picture.  In The Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes Theodora Lau writes, "Listen to the wise words of the Snake, look for sympathy from the gentle Sheep, go along witht the clever schemes of the Monkey, have fun with the ever youthful and carefree Horse, rely on the Rabbit's unerring diplomacy or depend on the strength of the indomitable Dragon. And you may get your way by humouring the critical Rooster, reasoning with the Dog, going into battle with the optimistic Tiger or bargaining with the indefatigable Rat." (pl 12)

What the Chinese seem to understand, and we in the west generally do not, is that there is an inherent balance in our human ecosystem.  We, on the other hand, percieve the the system as stressed - there are too many of (or too few) of certain "types." Thus, emotions run high and fingers get pointed.  Just open any newspaper and read about the anger and suspicion that various groups project onto each other.  How come we readily accept that cats are cats and dogs are dogs and yet have such trouble respecting the differences amongst people?

Great teachers throughout the ages have urged us not to judge our neighbors, but to love them.  But sometimes the simplest ideas are the hardest to impliment.  I find it helps if I remember what a wise friend once said to me: "There are 1st-graders, 2nd-graders, 3rd-graders, etc.  We don't hate 1st-graders becasue they aren't in high school!"  Good point.  First grade is no better or worse than any other grade - it's just different, embracing a different set of skills and challenges for kids at that stage of development.  And so it is with the rest of us "big kids."

Another source of Chinese wisdom, the Tao Te Ching says, "What is a good man but a bad man's teacher? What is a bad man but a good man's job? If you don't understand this, you will get lost, no matter how intelligent you are. It is the great secret." So now you know.  I for one, will not be keeping this secret under my hat.  I invite you to do the same.   


(If you are interested in a deeper understanding of the Tao Te Ching, I highly recommend A Thousand Names for Joy: Living in Harmony With The Way Things Are by Byron Katie.)

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

It's not you, it's me.

Why is it so easy to get bent out of shape by the actions of others?  Why do we get indignant and angry and personally affronted by the rudeness of strangers?  It's them, obviously, and their behavior that we take issue with!  Or is it?  I have a theory.

I believe that human beings are like diamonds that have been dipped in tar.  Let’s say each facet represents a personality trait - the bits of ourselves that we like or that our family or culture approve of are clean and sparkly, while the bits that don't get the thumbs up are either streaked with grime or obscured completely. But just because these traits are hidden doesn’t mean they don’t exist - they just get sneaky, operating in the shadows or even out of our conscious awareness.

I also believe that we are meant to shine, and what good is a diamond if only parts of it sparkle?  So, how do we go about polishing the facets and thus become more of our brilliant selves?  First we need to find out which bits have been covered up, and luckily life offers us endless opportunities to discover what they are.

Yesterday at the grocery store I watched a man drive his car the wrong way through the parking lot and take the last free space, which happened to be reserved for shoppers with young kids.  My car was already parked, and since I didn’t qualify for the space it didn’t affect me personally, and yet I was annoyed.  I huffed and puffed and muttered under my breath what a jerk he was.  He wasn’t breaking any laws, but how dare he break the rules and inconvenience some poor, hassled mother with screaming offspring, stroller and groceries to juggle!  I stewed about it for some time until out of nowhere the thought popped into my head…

When you point a finger at others, take a look at your hand and notice that three fingers are pointing back at you.

That shut me up.  I drove home scanning my memory for ways in which I have not followed the rules and inconvenienced others.  It wasn’t easy, as the ego doesn’t often own up without a struggle.  Hm….um…let’s see….got one!  I almost never follow recipes.  (I know, I know that sounds stupid, and it’s hardly on par with taking a reserved parking space, but bear with me.)  When I was a kid I loved to bake but I could never bring myself to do things by the book.  I’d add wheat germ and nuts, or substitute chocolate with carob while my poor sibling would whine, “why can’t you just follow the recipe?!”  I clearly wasn’t following “the rules” and they were clearly inconvenienced.

Typically if I can find even one example the ego steps aside and others soon follow, as was now the case.  Example two:  I have refused to fully vaccinate my kids.  (It’s not illegal but it clearly is breaking society's rules and could inconvenience others if my kids get ill.)  Example three: I am often late for appointments.  Number four: I take an illegal turn as a shortcut to my son’s school.  You get the idea?

Once I could “own” my own tendency to break the rules and inconvenience others, I was free to consider that the man might have had a reason to park where he parked.  Maybe he had an emergency and just needed to dash in quickly?  Maybe he didn’t see the silhouette of a stroller painted in front of the parking space?  Whatever!  It didn’t matter anymore because his action no longer caused a reaction in me.  I was out of his business and into my own.  I was able to flick a bit of tar off one tiny facet of my diamond.

I’m not usually one for quoting the bible (being a Jedi and all) but this fits so beautifully I can’t resist:  "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Mathew 7:2)  Simple, huh?

Today I actually made it through a whole day without getting annoyed by anyone.  But tomorrow I’ll be ready to remind myself, “it’s not you, it’s me.”  I challenge you to do the same.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Toddler Wisdom

Children are our natural teachers.  If you catch them before their innate wholeness is "civilized" out of them, they behave with astonishing honesty.  My favorite, real-life example of this came on the heels of a typical brother/sister infraction, the type that happens everyday, in every culture. I never knew the exact details of what happened, but suffice to say there was anger, hitting and tears.  And so, as I was putting my four-year-old son to bed that night, I asked him, "Why did you do that to your sister?"
 "Because," he answered, "sometimes I'm mean. That's how God made me." What could I do but agree with him?  (And suggest he find alternatives to hitting next time he got angry.)

His innocent statement stopped me in my tracks and reminded me that we have been created as whole beings with "bad" and"good" traits in perfect balance.  Besides, who's to say that a little well timed meanness might not be absolutely appropriate from time to time?  If we are conditioned to be nice little people pleasers we are left vulnerable to being taken advantage of in all sorts of ways.  It's easy to get confused about this as parents, as we desperately want our kids to be the "right" kind of people.  But there's grand canyon between being "good" and being our natural, God-given selves.

And so, in honor of this beautiful little boy who has taught me so much, (and he's still only six!) I give you Charlie's Poem:

Charlie Marshall, perfect son,
has smiles and scowls for everyone.
Comfortably whole, as I have seen,
when “Mamma,” he said, “sometimes I’m mean.”
“That’s how God made me,” as a matter of fact. 
“Of course it is,” I answered back.

I stifled a laugh and was secretly proud
that my boy had spoken such a truth aloud.
And if one small child can understand
the dual nature of a man,
can I befriend my cast off lots
and coax them from their hiding spots?

Right then and there I made a vow
not to screw him up somehow.
But love him wholly, come howls or hoots,
and pray the world will follow suit.
Who knew my greatest teacher, wise and more,
would be a little boy of four.