Becoming ourselves

We shall not stay attached to our views, and we certainly cannot do it anyway in the long run, simply because we do change. And so do our views. We learn so much more during our lifetime, and that keeps on changing us. 

This Buddhist concept of impermanence is actually something very positive, because it offers development, growth, using our potential. It offers new experiences, new pathways to be walked on, new opportunities for happiness.

It might sound sad at first, that everything disappears eventually and nothing stays the same. We are clinging to notions or things, often desperately, even if they are harmful for ourselves, because we don’t want to let go. Change scares us. We do not know what the future will bring, and we want to eliminate the insecurity which we fear might throw us off balance. It feels easier to stay within our comfort zone. But isn’t the potential for growth outside of it?

Do not think for one minute that because you are who you are, you cannot be who you imagine yourself to be. (Jedidah Isler)

We never stop evolving. And it is never done with a one time learning. 

Think about when you do a training or learn something new. If you do not apply it in your daily life, you lose it. It slips away to the back of your mind and you cannot even remember a lot of it after some time. It needs constant practice to become part of your daily routine – work-wise or in private life.

When we learn and evolve we take a step forward. We might experience setbacks, but we need to get up and continue. And take another step. Re-iterate the learning process. There is constant repetition. If we are open for it. Even though it is often painful, exhausting and frustrating.

Having a moment of enlightenment about ourselves, especially about changing our direction in life, does not mean this is a one time event, once and for all, and then we can just go on into this new direction we found, and everything will be fine. 

To be very clear: it is just one step on our continuous journey. We change direction, we change ourselves and how we see life and feel about ourselves, what we do and how we want to live. Nothing remains the same.

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. (Lao Tzu)

It took me some time to acknowledge that the difficulties we inevitably experience in life are not something being thrown at us from an evil force to make us miserable. These are actually lessons and exercises we need to go through. And they come in phases. This is just life with all its colours.

Instead of shying away I know now that I actively need to embrace my struggles as an opportunity to learn, change and question my approach in life over and over again, and then transform myself. Clinging to the past might feel comfortable, but I won’t get back what has already passed.

The element of fear is always present, of course. Fear of not managing the change well, of failure with ensuing despair and unhappiness. The fear of the unknown essentially, of insecurity is always lurking in the background.

The usual question “What is the right decision?” comes into my mind every time, however there is not a real right or wrong, it is just a turn into a different direction opening a door to a new world. I also recognize this very strong human desire in me, to apply a final fix and then be happy and have everything sorted in my life. It sometimes feels scary to realize that I am on my own with the decisions I take.

The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

What is really important though, is not to beat ourselves up for going through a difficult time again when we already had a similar experience in the past and learnt out of it. We applied our knowledge at that time well and evolved. Now something is coming back – not exactly to haunt us – but to show us that we are not done yet (which we never are), or that something else has changed in the meantime forcing us to face it now.  

My recurring theme in that regard is my strong discipline that I often use to soldier on in a stress situation, ignoring my body’s clear signals for rest, until realizing that my re-surfacing health problems are already a cry for help and that I need to stop, listen and slow down. And that I need to change direction in my life.

Becoming aware of the situation faster and reaching out for help and resources quickly is already a good sign of applied learning from past experience. With time, I got to know myself and the traps I tend to fall into much better.

The package everyone of us carries around – based on how we grew up and our past life experiences – is heavy and does not disappear. The habits we developed are a result of this package, and that’s why the saying “old habits die hard”, describes it so aptly: we cannot get fully rid of it. But we can learn to manage it through a lot of self-awareness and kind reflection, and the will to move forward and eventually beyond it.

While accepting – very importantly – that we are only human, thus never expecting perfection. Being too hard on ourselves for something that we continue to carry around, is not going to do us any good, but is actually a self-created obstacle.

Life is a journey, not a destination. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

So, what to do? Take stock, get clarity about what is going on and why, how we feel about it, and then decide what to do next. We feel in our heart that something is clearly off, and it’s important to find our peace and restore our inner balance.

Easier said than done, as it is of course, far more complex than solving a school assignment or finding a good solution for a work task. That’s why talking to a counselor in such a situation helps a lot, because these professionals can bring our inner thoughts to the surface, helping us to gain valuable insights. 

My experience with such conversations has been thoroughly positive, and I did it more than once in my life. The feedback received about my thoughts and attitudes brought me more clarity because it held a mirror to my face. Whatever insights I gained was never anything that I had not been aware of before deep down within me, but I actually needed to hear it from another person.

And don’t forget: it takes as long as it takes. Impatience is not gonna help. 

It is indeed a journey. 

Longing for Utopia, and why we need to go on nevertheless

Garden centres always make me happy. Looking at the abundance  of plants blooming, the many people around me admiring them, watching what they pick and buy, taking home little pieces of beauty for their gardens and balconies. Strolling through the lanes full of colours and scents, buzzing insects sitting on flowers, I take my time to enjoy the sights. 

A piece of paradise.

The same goes for gardens, whether it’s an impressive botanical garden or your neighbour’s small private paradise behind the fence. They stand for getting on with life, planting seeds that one day turn into something amazing. No matter what dies or gets broken, life is always coming back. Each year. People with a garden don’t give up. 

It lifts my heart to observe nature awakening, blooming and spreading so fast, almost like an explosion of greenery. Makes it easy to be happy and thankful for these lavish botanical gifts – which are for everyone to enjoy, and can help chasing away the dark clouds in our minds.

Finding and holding on to the good amidst the bad is how we carry on in life. I had to remind myself lately that it is the only way to move on and find some peace. Not expecting things to turn out perfect. Just loving what is, enjoying the good I see, and otherwise, accepting imperfect life happening. Not wasting my time fighting reality. 

Until the mind is open, the heart stays closed. The open mind is the key to the open heart. Byron Katie

Many of us are in such a constant fight though. Whenever an idea is brought forward, an invention that will make a difference, a decision that has the potential to chart the course into a positive direction, it does not even take a minute for doubts being voiced and concerns raised. Because “not everything has been perfectly thought through”. Because there are flaws in the concept – which is normal.

Fighting climate change? Of course, but having to change our lifestyle for it? 

Eliminating hate content on Facebook through organizations fact-checking posts? Yes, but we don’t want our right to free speech to be curbed. And they cannot do it right or well enough anyway.

It’s always coming down to “yes, but”.

One recent example actually made me laugh. German government introduced a flat rate ticket for 9 Euro allowing people unlimited travel on local/regional transport services during one selected month in the summer. A great idea. Within days, 7 million tickets were sold – which speaks for itself. 

Well, it did not take long for complaints to start. Train infrastructure and delays being a notorious problem in Germany, the system was overwhelmed quickly by the sudden increasing demand. No surprise. 

These complaints on social media convey a very typical picture for picking apart a good idea because it is not perfect. One comment even demanded that “first the train system should be improved before launching such an initiative”. 

A large number of people liked this move nevertheless, otherwise, they would not have bought the ticket. Taking bumps in the process into account is part of the deal. Not everyone wants to accept it though, but on the other hand, you can never please everybody.

Complaining about each and everything because of lack of perfection is a behaviour I often perceive. Very easy to do of course, because nothing on earth ever will be perfect. Whatever decision I am looking at in life – I could always complain about it if I wanted to (in German we call it “looking for the hair in the soup”).

To stay in the above example: what’s better? Do nothing and wait for the day to come when everything is perfectly prepared and then launch this program? Or rather launch it well knowing there will be problems, for which solutions need to be found anyway? Thereby creating an opportunity and the  pressure to tackle them.

That’s how progress and change is initiated. Whatever does not function well, suddenly becomes visible and directs focus. It is a manner of speeding up the solution-finding process. It takes courage though. 

When we stop opposing reality, action becomes simple, fluid, kind, and fearless. Byron Katie

Expecting perfection in life can only bring disappointment. There will never be a time when everything is in perfect balance, or things working out always to our advantage. We might wish for a life with less disturbances, less worries, problems, fears, pain, and obstacles in our way. It is a very human desire. But that’s not how life works.

Even for the big challenges the world is facing, we would very much prefer perfect solutions. To have it all done and over with in one go: climate change, wars, inequality, injustice, oppression. We just want it to stop, as if by magic. Someone please, take a decision and then the nightmare would be over.

Exhausted, we are desperately longing for Utopia. A place without sorrows or fears, calm and serene. 

I understand this desire so very well and I share it. Thoughts like this are going through my mind quite often.

Doesn’t matter what it is about and in which context – at work, at home, in politics… Wouldn’t it be great if other people just did what I wanted? To be more kind, peaceful, tolerant, patient, organized, reasonable, … the list is endless. Frustrating and useless thoughts. 

I should rather be happy every time something works out, a right decision is taken, or a move initiated into a good direction. Never being content with whatever happens is a strong human reflex, and – on the positive side – a driver of change.

As much as I long for everything to be in harmony one day, I have to say goodbye to this wishful thinking. I won’t live to see solutions being found to all problems of humanity in my lifetime. It will go on long after I am gone.

Loving what is – as Byron Katie advocates in “The Work” – does not mean to endure injustice. It means not fighting reality. Acknowledging the inevitable fallibility of humankind. Fighting against windmills does not change a thing and serves nobody – it only wastes my precious time and energy.

Hoping for Utopia and trying to get at least part of it realized is not wrong, and we need to continue holding on to this dream.

But we need to approach it with more focus, without hesitation and with courage, while achieving peace of mind for ourselves.

Don’t forget: whatever good we manage to bring into this world, however small it is – it is a little piece of paradise already.

And it can tip the scale one day.

How to navigate these times of uncertainty

“We must not lose faith”, my colleague Elena recently said to me. How true. I have been thinking about it ever since. More than one month now into the madness of this terrible war in Ukraine, unfolding while we are watching, often in real time through social media, how people lose their homes and their lives, cities being reduced to ashes. One month that has shattered quite a few firm-held beliefs, exposed illusions and left us severely concerned for the future.

But it also brought so many of us closer together, standing firm in our resolve to do the right thing and not let evil win. Hanging in midair between desperate hope and deepest sorrow. If only the power of our thoughts could make it all end – and yet it doesn’t.

I am certainly not the only one feeling this way, that’s why we see so much determination among people, so many outstretched hands and support. People go out of their way to help.

We have to hold on. No matter how nerve-wrecking it may be, how easy it might seem to slip into despair. We got to have faith and hold on even more. We owe it to those experiencing unfathomable suffering. We need to be strong – for their sake.

Yes, our influence on what happens is very limited. But I feel that we nevertheless must conjure the power of good, relentlessly. To create a counterbalance that will turn the ship around one day. 

“I can’t say I have confidence in the future, but I have a lot of confidence in its unpredictability, based on the fact that the past has regularly delivered surprises…. We need to have confidence that surprise and uncertainty are unshakable principles, if we want to have confidence in something. And recognize that in that uncertainty is room to act, to try to shape a future that will be determined by what we do in the present.” (Rebecca Solnit)

In the space of the past weeks we had our share of surprises already. And so had our governments, realizing that their citizens are far more decent and reasonable in the face of adversity than they had previously assumed. Yes, people take responsibility, in many different ways, often unusual and surprising.

Proving again that most people are indeed pretty decent. The worse the situation gets the more we must be at our best. And that is the only thing we can do. Good and evil usually lie very close to one other in daily life. Sometimes, they are even two sides of the same coin. What does matter is on which side we decide to focus on.

It’s good to remind ourselves that nothing is perfect in any way: not people, nor their behaviour nor any decisions taken. It can always only be as good as it gets. We need to bear that in mind, as there never is a perfect solution. But focusing on the good does make a real difference, and effecting change inevitably requires making adjustments while moving along. We’ll get there.

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness. (Desmond Tutu)

Only in the darkness can you see the stars. (Martin Luther King)

At first, I was watching the news daily, almost continuously, longing from day to day for the war to finally stop, hoping not more lives to get lost, not more destruction to happen. As if turning away somehow meant abandoning these people in my thoughts.

Imagine having to flee your country because your life is threatened, but knowing full well the place you called home could be erased from the map forever. What a profound sadness this evokes. I understand how people can get uprooted by such a traumatic experience of losing everything they hold dear.

However, we are doomed to watch from the sidelines. Failing to push events to the back of my mind, I struggled to focus on my own life which did me no good. Once these images entered into my dreams at night I just couldn’t go on like this. That’s when I drastically reduced my news intake. 

What also really helped to calm me down was taking care of a little lamb in my friends’ flock of sheep. It is the second time in the last years that I am helping to raise a lamb, and spending time with these peaceful animals in the stable every evening, knowing they trust me, is so good for the heart and soul. 

My hope is on the things we don’t see, things going on behind the scenes, hidden from our view. The people who covertly connect, negotiate and work on solutions. I put my hopes on them. Not all is lost. Help is coming from unexpected sides as well, and maybe we will never even know about all of it.

We Europeans are painfully aware of how much more is at stake now. It’s also our freedom which is being defended in Ukraine. 

There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster. (Dalai Lama)

It is hard to bear looking evil in the face – and that’s what we are doing, listening to the pleas for help knowing full well we ordinary citizens cannot do more. While hoping for a miracle where to turn our thoughts? And what to focus on?

It does not help anyone to put our own lives on hold. We need to uphold ourselves and others in these times of uncertainty, sending signals of hope in the dark:

  • Getting involved helping the refugees of war in whatever manner we can. It might feel like a small contribution but it aids healing and gives a sense of purpose.
  • However horrible it is what we are witnessing: the world doesn’t stop turning and there are people who need us to be at our best: our children, friends or colleagues, or whoever is in need of a helping hand. 
  • Continuing to share our knowledge, particularly with the young, supporting them and making them stronger, is one of the best investments into the future.
  • Be creative. Creation is the opposite of destruction. It enlightens our hearts, and bears witness to the resilient human spirit.
  • Taking care of our mental health is essential. To witness a war unfolding up close is a nightmare, so cut yourself some slack, and take time to re-charge, particularly if involved as a volunteer in helping the refugees. And avoid consuming news in any form in the evening if you want to get a good nights’ sleep.
  • It is not wrong to cherish and appreciate the good we have. We need to enjoy what life offers us. Carpe diem.
  • Be more conscious of the beauty of ordinary things, grateful for their existence and the joy they give us in this very moment. They will keep us grounded. 

This is very much a reminder of our own mortality and how to use our time on earth well.

I will never apologize for embracing joy and beauty – even when the world is falling apart – because joy and beauty are my fuel for activism. (Karen Walrond)

The pointless and evil can never win. That I do believe.

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