Monthly Archives: March 2013

The things that only you see

P1030204 low resOne day, as I was on the lift to work with my colleague Sophie, I pressed the button to go to level 9 but for some the button for another floor lit up instead. I must have looked surprised as Sophie said with a smile: “Don’t worry, I saw it too!”

This story brings me joy whenever I think about it – not because what happened (who knows, some technical glitch) – but because of the reassurance my friend had thought wise to bring me, as if to say: “don’t worry, you’re not going mad”.

Thinking back to that story, I wonder how many people would see the myriad little things we marvel at every day, and just keep to ourselves. This lady who is clearly wearing pyjamas under her clothes and looks as if nothing happened. The unexpected gestures of kindness between strangers on the street. The way the clouds reflect in glass buildings on sunny mornings, making a banal commute seem like pure, heavenly magic. The impression I sometimes have while daydreaming on the train, that all of London’s houses are just made of cardboard, the sky of a large canvas, and an enormous hand is about to move them like a child plays with lego. Or the rare times when I look up from my office window to see a seagull pass by, so near it looks almost in slow motion – as if it came especially for me.

What are the things that you, and only you can see? what can you sense or feel, that no one else notices even though they’re glaring at it? What are the tiny moments that rock your world?

Whatever it is, you owe it to yourself (and to us) to do as your heart desires the minute it is touched by this magic – take that photo, write that poem, cook, paint, sing without waiting and without reserve. So that one day someone, somewhere, can see it too. And for a moment feel completely, wholeheartedly understood, in the deepest possible way.

Books that will change your life: “The Artist’s Way”

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This book is very much a classic and chances are if you are interested in self-development and creativity, you’ll have come across it already. If you haven’t read it yet, it is definitely worth a look.

The book
Published over 20 years ago, Julia Cameron‘s The Artist’s Way – A course in Discovering and Recovering your Creative Self is built like a 3 months course – 12 chapters to be read weekly complete with exercises. It is based an actual course the author used to run to help blocked artists get back in touch with their creativity.

The big idea
All of us are inherently creative, but for a number of reasons we might have become “blocked” and unable to make art. The book helps us identify and remove the barriers and fears that block our inspiration and creativity, so that they can start flowing again.

What’s great about it
Because the author has worked with so many “real life” students she will cover most of your issues and concerns, so that you feel very much guided and supported throughout the course. The great strength of the book is that it encourages you to apply its principles to your daily life through very simple, fun exercises. Do not be put off by the slightly “hippy dippy” approach – if you give yourself wholeheartedly to the process and do the exercises as indicated, you will be amazed by how quickly you progress.

Why it will change your life
This book is not only about art – it’s about daring to be yourself in all aspects of your life. The author’s gentle, holistic approach encourages you to take stock of where you are and where you want to go, and it helps you open your heart as a person so that you slowly but steadily begin not only to create art more freely, but also to start to feel happier in your own skin.

Finding your flow

P1050058 low resWhen you are unhappy in your job but unsure what else would make you happier, the one piece of advice you are likely to hear often is to try and find what puts you in flow, and concentrate on these activities in your job and daily life. Like most brilliant ideas, it is both very simple and surprisingly hard to follow. How do you know what puts you in flow? Chances are that you – like me – might be in the place you’re in precisely because you’ve lost track of what it is that makes you come alive, so powerful as this advice may be, it may take you a while to see how it applies to you.

Flow (a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi) is used to describe the feeling of enjoying an activity so much that time disappears while you do it, so that if you start at say noon, you look up 5 minutes later and it’s dark outside. It implies that you can concentrate on it effortlessly and feel energised, rather than drained, by the task. When I started looking for what puts me in flow at work, I couldn’t find anything. My first thought is I must be stupid (obviously), but I now realise there is nothing that puts me in flow at work, so I wasn’t about to find out. In fact, for a while the only true flow activity I could ever remember being involved in was playing the piano – which I haven’t done in 15 years.

It wasn’t until I came across Julia Cameron’s excellent The Artist’s Way (soon to be added to the Bookshelf) that I began to reconnect with what truly comes easy to me. I dabbled a bit in painting and photography – just for the fun of it, because I thought I might enjoy it – and after that I tried my hand at poetry and writing. And that’s when my mind blew right open. Writing seemed to not only come easy, but to happen almost “without me being there”, as if I could just sit back and take dictation coming from someone else, and feel as refreshed after an hour of writing as after a good nap. This was exactly the same feeling I’d experienced playing the piano, a deep relaxation coupled with a strong and vital connection with the world.

What puts you in flow? My boyfriend forgets all about the world when he is cooking a complicated meal, or when he dances to very loud disco music, and my housemate can spend entire days without  a break gardening in her allotment. What does it feel like for you?

If you’re having difficulty thinking of something, I found the trick is to, little by little, start noticing what makes you feel good, and not be afraid to try out new things. If you think you might like to do painting, or fashion design, or horseriding, go and do it for a day. Trust your intuition.  Give yourself permission to be a beginner, even if – especially if – your inner critic might say you are too old/ not talented or any other excuse it comes up with. If you keep following your intuition, you will eventually end up finding your flow.

Everyone is unique, but for many of us flow might feel like deep contentment, a relaxing connection to the people and things around us. You may experience the feeling that there is no time – the present merges with the past and the future – no separation between you and the universe. In fact, flow is a similar to the physical sensation people feel when they are deep in meditation or prayer. For this reason I think there is something deeply sacred in flow – and that is why it is worth searching for.

So in my humble opinion, you shouldn’t be too worried if you can’t find any flow activities at the office, because you are so much bigger than your job. But when you do find what truly makes you come alive, you owe it to yourself to spend as much time as you can doing it. When your start doing this, your life will be transformed and start to feel a little bit more magic every day.

Books that will change your life: “Quiet”

P1050167 low resI first heard of this book via Susan Cain’s Ted talk, but for some reason didn’t come round to reading it until it was given to me. Good thing it was too – reading it has absolutely transformed the way I see myself and my potential in life,

The book
“Quiet – The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking”, by Susan Cain. Published in 2012, it quickly became an international bestseller; it received endless praise – the Telegraph even declared it “The most important book in a decade”.

The big idea
About half of the world’s population are introverts, yet most of society (at least Western society) is geared massively towards extroverts. This often leaves introverts to feel inadequate and lacking, when really they are often brilliant thinkers and creatives. More should be done to encourage them to develop in ways that suit them, as it would benefit society as a whole.

What’s great about it
While the idea seems simplistic (which is what put me off reading it initially), it is extremely well researched and documented. Each chapter is based on solid science and numerous interviews. Cain has clearly been researching the subject for years, and as a introvert herself is extremely passionate about it. She is a great advocate for quietness and of what is special and positive about it.

Why it will change your life
If you were a nerd growing up, and learnt to hide it the hard way; if you often have to pretend to be more gregarious than you are to prevent criticism; if you don’t understand why you feel so inadequate in many everyday situations, this book was written for you.
Beyong all the psychology and sociology and research, what you will learn is that you are just great the way you are. Although you may be criticized for being too calm, chances are you are a better thinker than average. You will learn to love and embrace your unique personality to improve your career, relationships, and life in general.

Going round in circles

P1050155 low resDo you ever feel as though you keep being confronted with the exact same issues, faced with the same problems every once in a while? I don’t mean every 3 minutes/ hours/ days (though that can happen too if you get into overthinking mode, or what I call “washing machine” mode), but rather every few months, or years. The same issues which you thought you had resolved creep up again to your surprise and annoyance, and just when you thought you’d moved on you find yourself back to square one.

I,  for one, have a few recurrent themes. Having lived as an expat for years, I go through terrible bouts of homesickness. Although I generally like my life abroad, if some important event hapens in my family I start questionning my entire life choices in a very painful way. Usually the discomfort vanishes after a few weeks and I let go. Life goes back to normal… until the next time. Or I have periods of feeling extremely unhappy with otherwise okay my job; or periods when I feel temporarily disconnected with myself. Naturally we all have our own personal themes, and I’ve heard this cycle of coming back to the same problems over and over described in two different ways that are equally helpful: going along a spiral, or walking a labyrinth.

Going along a spiral refers to the fact that although you may feel as though you are going round in a circle, you are actually circling up, moving in increments to a higher lever each time. Each time you come to the same problem from a higher position, because you have all the knowledge you accummulated since previous time you were there. The only reason you may not notice the climb is that it happens slowly but constantly.

Walking a labyrinth is a meditation technique that consists of pacing very slowly within a circular structure marked on the floor until you reach its centre. Unlike a maze, you can go out at any time. In one of her recent newsletters, life coach Martha Beck shared how, while walking a labyrinth she got really annoyed – what was the point of walking, to seemingly get nowhere? She then realised that in the labyrinth, as in life, walking straight to the centre was perhaps not the point. Sometimes, the detours that we take are what takes us to the core. As we keep walking we slowly reach our destination, but the meanderings are what get us there.

Just because we feel we are going round in circles with those issues that keep coming up, doesn’t mean we are not making progress. These very circles are necessary to our growth. You just have to trust that as you are going through them, you are moving to higher grounds, getting closer to your core.

The beauty within you

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Have you ever noticed how every person you know is beautiful in their own, unique way, and how somehow most of them fail to see it? I don’t mean physically beautiful, but beautiful in the way they do things, how they relate to others, their hopes, their dreams, their faults too. I find it truly heartbreaking that we can almost always see beauty in others, and so often be blinded to our own.

Specialists who are concerned about us loving ourselves – psychologists, spiritual guides – tell us that the ability to love ourselves as we are is related to the ability to love others as they are. Buddhist teachings tell us that we can only be happy if we learn to practice “loving-kindness” towards both ourselves and others: you cannot be kind to others if you are not kind to yourself; you cannot be kind to yourself if you are not kind to others. Didn’t Jesus himself command us to “love thy neighbour as thyself” – not more, not less?

Most of us know how to be kind to others, but how do you go about being kind to yourself? After all, this is not something anyone teaches you. If anything, unless you are extremely lucky, a lot of the teachings you received in your life will have focused on fixing your so-called faults and lacks, rather than praising what was already good about you.

Yet, there are simple ways to do this. We can start by talking to ourselves as gently as we would to our best friends. We can take time everyday to truly stop and listen to our peace. We can look in the mirror and learn to like what we see. In the many thoughts that constantly go through our heads, we can listen out for the voice that tells us exactly what our life needs. And little by little, we can begin to trust and follow this inner guidance – even though it often tells us to rock the boat in the most uncomfortable ways.

Equally, how do you go about showing others how beautiful they are? Encouraging and praising them is the obvious way, but what if they are unable to really hear your praise? After all, do we always trust the praise we receive? Crazy as it sounds, I for one often dismiss it as “this person clearly doesn’t know what they are talking about”.

I am no great gardener, but I often have this image that loving people is helping them to grow like a plant – providing an environment that allows them to thrive, and water them regularly so they can grow as tall and beautiful as nature intented. Perhaps creating this environment is just being there, without judging, and letting them know you are there. Perhaps it is being calm and balanced and loving towards you and others, so others around you might become calm and balanced and loving too.

Thinking of my close ones who, for reasons unknown, have a particularly hard times seeing any positives about themselves, I am also often reminded of this simple but powerful song by the The Velvet Underground & Nico. Here is a link in case you would like to hear it, and may it stay with you so you can remember it at times you ain’t feelin’ so good.



Stand up for yourself!

Most of the time, I’m an agreeable person. Like lots of girls I know, I do my best to be nice to people – helpful if they need something, patient if they get on my nerves, and accepting if they are downright pushy. I am extremely good at putting myself in other shoes, and only rarely get angry. Does that make me a very good person? I think not. Does it mean I get frustrated and taken for granted on a regular basis, and let people walk over me for the sake of avoiding an argument? Abso – freaking- lutely.

Friends have long been telling me I should stand up for myself, and until recently I mostly ignored them. First of all, it’s a well proven fact that when a conflict arises, the angrier you get, well, the angrier you get – and when was the last time anger solved anything? I don’t know about you but I actively avoid tense situations. I’ve been known to cross the street if I see stangers having a public argument. Second – and that’s where it all starts to go horribly wrong – I often assume that if people treat me in a less-than-nice way, I probably gave them a good reason to do so. Follows a bout of self-blame, profuse apologies, and a prompt accepting/ doing anything that will make the other person happy again. As my boyfriend likes to tease me “if in doubt, it’s probably your fault”.

You might well see what is wrong with this strategy, but believe it or not, it took me until now to realise that fear of conflict (or mere disapproval) is stopping me from getting what I want in life. Of course said like this, it’s stating the obvious*. But it was never obvious to me, and generally accepting other people’s opinions and well-being as superior to my own has caused me some serious sidetracking, particularly in my career.

Lack of self-confidence is usually years in the making, so overtime my standing-for-myself muscles must have become weaker than my willpower in front of chocolate. As a result I often just go with the flow, and through habit I have become somewhat dependent on other people’s approval to make decisions which I alone should be responsible for. But in all honesty, is there not a big part of me who prefers the comfort of not making decisions, to making them at the risk displeasing other people?

I feel like a ginormous arse for being this way, but it may not be all bad. Because it’s made me quite perceptive when it comes to what people want, I’m a second-to-none diplomat and negotiator (at least until someone starts shouting. Then I hide under the desk). I get praised for my calm. And more importantly, the fact that I’ve become aware of the problem means I can tackle it head on. I can start “body building” my fighting power with the lighter weights first (deciding which restaurant to go to) to increase progressively (taking a sick day at work without being half-dead) and finally one day perhaps, be a weightlifting champion (convincing my mother to be less judgemental).

So, onwards and upwards. It’s never too late to learn.

(*then again, most of us live in denial – more on this in a later post, it’s one of my favourite topics)

Peeling onions, flying airplanes

Just after I started working in London a few years ago, I got stuck in a job I didn’t particularly like, and around that time I bought my first “self help” book. It wasn’t technically a book*, it was an audio CD called “Finding Work That Matters”, by someone called Mark Albion. The recording was full of good advice, some of which is still with me today, but of all the images the one that remained with me most is this:

When a plane wants to fly from A to B, it never goes in a straight line. This may be counterintuituive at first, after all, what reason could it have not to fly straight across the sky? As it turns out, lots of reasons – winds, stormy weather, other planes, approved flight paths etc. So the pilot will start in the right direction, and constantly monitor progress and correct the course of the aircarft during the flight to ensure arrival hopefully on time, at the right airport.

This illustrates so well how to we should go about getting the things we want in life. We often focus so hard on our final destinations, get so hung up on the desired path (“quickest and easiest please!”) that we forget it’s probably not so bad to get sidetracked – in some cases, it might even be vital. So it seems we would do well to let go and follow the natural flow momentarily, so long as we don’t forget what our end goal is. If it’s good enough for well qualified pilots, who are we to disagree? After all, planes rarely get lost.

The other self-development methaphor that has stuck with me over time came from an unlikely advisor, in the person of Lady Gaga. Not that I was ever a fan (my loss, no doubt), but the woman’s cleverer than me by miles and she can certainly teach us a thing or two about doing what you like and not caring a fig about criticism. In an interview with Vanity Fair, she was quoted saying that it’s important to strive to be yourself, but it won’t happen at once and it’s a bit like peeling an onion – you need to shed several successive layers, to keep reinventing yourself and with each layer get closer to the real “core” you inside. I have heard this onion metaphor many times since, in fact, someone was kind enough to remind me of it yesterday, so I couldn’t find out who first came up with the concept but it makes perfect sense. We humans like our fellow onions have multiple complex layers, which make it impossible to shed all of them at once. You couldn’t if you tried, if anything because when looking at the outside of the onion there’s no telling for sure what the inside will be like.

Whether flying a plane or peeling an onion, the results are not instant, and what my friend was kind enough to remind me is that the process not only takes time, but it demands courage, and that it is painful. I am not the type of writer who would stretch a cheesy metaphor to say that maybe that is why airplane passengers get travel sick, and why onions make us cry. Suffice to say, next time you find yourself stuck and wondering whether you’re there yet, or even headed in the right direction, take stock, and know that while you may not have arrived, you are following a necessary process that is most certainly taking you where you need to go.

(*this was at the time when I still thought reading self-help books would be embarrassing. How wrong could one be!)

How well do you know yourself?

“You don’t know yourself at all”, was what my friend concluded after we’d been discussing our hopes and dreams at length on the sofa one winter evening. Well, mostly discussing her hopes and dreams – to my embarrassment, I didn’t seem to have any to speak of. No big dreams, like a big house by the sea, no small dreams, like a fancy pair of high heel shoes. No buckets lists, no ideal jobs, no mad travel plans. Harsh as it sounded at the time I knew she was right – I had no idea what my dreams were, and I had no clue who I really was. If anyone, including me asked, I would say “I don’t know”.

That was about seven years ago, and I  have been wondering about her comments since. Not proactively at first – I kept on doing business as usual, but I started reading about psychology and self-development avidly. Each book raised a lot more questions than the last, and incurred a lot more reading. How come I didn’t have any dreams? Whose ideas had I been following so far then? Had I ever had big dreams? What was I meant to become? Who was I, really? “But surely you MUST know what you want?!” another friend had kept telling me with her 12 year-old wisdom, slightly amused, but mostly irritated – she’d wanted to be a policewoman since she could walk, and now works in the police force.

Fast forward a few years, books and courses, and here I am – proud owner of a self help libray to rival Amazon, and of what look like my own dreams. They come in all sizes, some of them grand, some of them tiny, but mostly achievable. What surprises me is how far of them some are from the dreams we’re supposed to have – sure an exotic holiday or better paid job would be nice, but given the choice I’d rather have my own desk space to write (instead of the kitchen table), and part time work so I could spend more time reading.

Looking (enviously) at people who are true to themselves and follow their dream also taught me that once you commit to following your dreams, there is really no reason they won’t come true. Writing this blog was one of mine, and the only thing stopping me from doing it sooner was I just lacked the courage to do it – and before that, the courage to own up to it. Because that it what I also realised: my dreams were there all the time, only in hiding, for fear I might be ridiculed or worse, for fear that I might have a try and fail. Maybe it was just easier to follow what I was told to do after all.

I have no idea where this blog will lead, but it will be about sharing ideas I’ve come across over the year, and new ones I come accross now. If you too are a bit lost for direction, I hope you can read it and fuel your own search. On of my all time favourite quotes is from the poet Kahlil Gibran: “You are far, far greater than you know, and all is well.” If you just dare to be yourself, who knows how far you will go?