Occupy Yourself!

My definition of “authenticity” = becoming more conscious about how we show up in the world, and what uncomfortable changes we are willing to make within to find a better way to be with each other. In other words, aligning values with actions. Standing up for your beliefs. Getting “real.”

In general, our society caters to the comfortable world of social norms and status quos – many prefer not to think too hard or have meaningful dialogue. We can allow the system to run us and blame others for our problems. This thinking allows people to apathetically remain unconscious — until the bottom falls out from beneath. Then what?

Then Occupy.

The way I see it, the bottom is falling out (finally), and people are taking unconventional action – which is why the Occupy Movement continues to intrigue and inspire me. It’s grassroots, messy, ambiguous and loud. It’s also creative, community-based, and – Hallelujah — freaks people out, disgusts others, and creates some level of mass discomfort, including police brutality and the bombastic denial of the 1%. But things just can’t remain the same. Is it the breakdown before the breakthrough — or possibly the breakthrough itself?

And because people are taking action in bold and creative new ways, the status quo is predictably reacting, resisting change, and attempting to suppress free speech…riot police with pepper spray and tear gas…and lots of money changing hands in attempts to stifle the mic checks and tent dwellers.

Occupy has exposed the beast’s underbelly of corporate and financial greed and associated political bedfellows. But at its deepest levels, Occupy also challenges us to personally reflect on what changes we each must make to be engaged, empowered citizens, and what we can do to individually and collectively to make a difference.

Case in point: I recently trekked down Telegraph Avenue to UC Berkeley for a Robert Reich speech about Class Warfare in America. Same day as the General Strike at UCB, and the evening of the Mario Savio Youth Activist Awards. To my great surprise, I discovered a diverse mass of 10,000+ people – from professionals to professors, to students and concerned citizens — at Sproul Plaza — the center of the free speech movement in the 1960’s. People were literally hanging from the rafters.

I had unknowingly entered a massive Occupy Cal General Assembly. And I was completely overwhelmed with that jittery feeling of suddenly being thrust into history-making.

So I nestled into one of the many circle discussions, and engaged. A vote was being taken to raise tents that had been destroyed by the Cal Police a few days earlier. It was a democratic and organized process…and the dialogue was interested and thoughtful. To my right was a German UCB exchange student who couldn’t believe he was witnessing an American uprising; to the left a grassroots organizer who had been present in this same plaza 40+ years earlier. Lots of upsparkles and some differing, yet respectful opinions…all tempered with an urgency for action and civic transformation.

Votes taken, circle by circle. Soon thereafter, a dozen insta-tents popped back up amidst this sea of cheering humanity. And we flashed peace signs at the riot police on balconies above us. My inner mantra: “Love thy neighbors, even if they are armed with pepper spray.” 

The evening was filled with fiery hope. When Bob Reich’s speech brought down the house, my heart wept proudly. “The days of apathy are over, folks.”

Yet ultimately, to be sustainable, this movement requires us to reflect on how we integrate our words with action. We can complain and shout and demand change from the ground up, but will we move our money out of the large institutions that almost tanked the economy? Will we flex our consumer muscle and stop shopping at big box stores? Or continue to fill the pockets of the 1% (including working for them) without considering the consequences?

Maybe we invest in our local communities. Move our money. Buy locally grown food. Reconsider our client base or job position. Publicly question authority. Instead of blindly following our leaders, we forge leadership qualities within ourselves and our communities. If we do this inner work, the outer walls will come tumbling down.

Of course, we will always have blind spots, but the point is to reflect and connect – internally and with each other — and truly begin to embody the change we want to see in our institutions, society, and the world.

With a lack of authenticity so prevalent in our corporate and political institutions, let’s courageously align our values with actions – from the inside out.

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—mak­es you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

~ Mario Savio, Sproul Hall Steps, UC Berkeley,1964

Posted in Associational Life, Citizenship, Community, Grassroots Change, Leadership, Organization Development, Politics, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Real America (again)

I’m reposting this after almost a year.  Seems appropriate, considering the (very sad) state of politics these days. During campaigns, I’m always reminded of Sarah Palin’s “Real America” mantra so prevalent during the last presidential campaign. Somehow she positioned folks from the heartland as having one up on the rest of us, to which I’ve always had something of a visceral reaction (hey, I’m Real too!)

To me, that people from Middle America are what constitute “real” is a bit off base. At first, I used to wonder how could they experience REAL when their demographics make up a fairly homogenous group of people who may not have been to an inner city, or a diverse environment laden with all the folks they claim to hate. It’s easy to hate that with which you’re not familiar.

I checked online: the Mirriam Webster dictionary’s definition of “real” is: a : not artificial, fraudulent, or illusory : genuine <real gold>; also : being precisely what the name implies <a real professional

What is scary or unknown can be considered unreal – how can we have connection to something if we don’t have any concept of it?  What if it’s not like us?  It gets labeled as a threat (to fear), or worse, becomes totally ignored.  I often wonder how humans have become so woefully wonderful at de-humanizing each other.  Easier to deal with I suppose, to make what’s not like us become the enemy. Then we don’t have to deal with it on a deeply emotional or practical level, and can just throw it away (but where is away?)

This objectification of “bad” allows us to not take responsibility for our own behavior.  It gives us permission to ignore our own contribution to the negativity and to create an ongoing cycle of intolerance, overreaction, and retribution.

So Sarah Palin’s version of Americans may be PART of “Real” America, which I believe is much broader and more diverse in scope.  To me, Real America is inclusive of those who seem “different” – all those gays, lesbians, and transgenders, our Black (+ White) President, Arab-Americans and Muslims, different colors, races, religions, behaviors, the poor, the rich, and our shrinking middle class.  It is made up of people who have different opinions, look different, live in different parts of the country.  It is our “melting” pot of history and the tradition of so many cultures that used to be what made this country so unique.

In fact, maybe “Real” America is the inner city, the outer city, the suburbs, our rural communities and everything in between.  “Real” includes our prisoners (who we like to throw away behind bars) but most of whom will come back to our streets.  It is our police officers, and fire fighters, and politicians, and all of our citizens.  It is the collective.  One type of person or place does not make for real  – all of us do.

Instead of the labels, I wonder what might happen if we replaced suspicion with curiosity, and our hoarding mentality with generosity towards others?  What if we embraced our differences rather than belittled them?

What if we found our compassion, humanity and power again in the strength of community and citizenship rather than “us” against “them”?  What if we stop depending on our leaders to lead us, and led ourselves through an acceptance and celebration of diversity and action?

What if we didn’t try to change others’ beliefs, but focused on cultivating our experiences to be more worldly through open examination and allowed people’s experiences to inform their beliefs rather than have others dictate their advice to us?

What if we accepted that constant change is the nature of things?

What if let our acts of kindness and care define us rather than our stuff?

All of our America is rich and full of diversity.  That is what makes it “real,” at least for me. And I continue to want to find ways to pull us together, not apart.

Addendum:  It’s possible that “Real America” is what exists inside the “Trash Fence” at Black Rock City. But I’ll save that topic for another post… 😉

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Fly On My Nose (a true story)

It’s stifling hot September day.  I’m sitting cross-legged on a zafu cushion in a room with a large gaggle of other meditators, trying to notice and release discursive thought, resisting the slightly sharp pain in my right knee.  I shift a little on my cushion to adjust the discomfort. I’m in the second day of a week-long retreat, when “sloth and torpor” generally take over. Ugh.  Why am I doing this?

Just once in a while, I drift into Nirvana — that place in mediation where thought just ceases to exist and I enter the “void.”  But this early in the retreat, that never seems to last too long.  Maybe a millisecond here or there.

And much to my absolute horror, a fly lands on my nose.

My mind jolts synapses back into activity.  “Oh crap,” I think.  “This WOULD happen to me.”

I part my eyelids slightly to have a peek.  My eyes cross. I get woozy. The fly seems larger than life, and has the jerky motions of a velociraptor.  I can’t bear the sight of this critter invading my space, so I go shut-eye again.

A “fly on the nose” is every meditator’s worst nightmare – to swat or not to swat? To kill or not to kill? It’s probably an ancient story that has been woven into countless dharma talks, and is could be much more of a challenge in places like…India. “So really,” I tell myself, “this isn’t SO bad.”

According to the Buddha, all creatures are a part of the great oneness of it all, interconnected in the web of life. Even the most annoying ones.  Can I sit with this fly, and find a way to spare its life, while managing my aggravation?  Can I be a “good” Buddhist?

So I name it “Henry” in an attempt to make friends, but that quickly dissolves into feeling sorry for myself.  “So Henry, WHY MY NOSE out of all the noses in the room?”  It’s my Grandmother’s nose, but not really…got a little of the Greek side in it, too.  “What makes me different from the rest? Why did you choose ME?”  How many of Henry’s thousands of kin are skidding in for a landing on other people’s noses?

More spin.  “Dude, my nose really isn’t that great. Can’t you find another longer snout to prance around on?”

“GO AWAY!!!!!”  My mind is thinking very nasty thoughts now.  Maybe I can use my ironclad will to telepathically force his departure before I commit a deed of ungodly proportions (insect murder in the meditation hall = not cool).

But no, Henry is happy as could be, dancing around in a demented hip hop routine, attempting to navigate the fuzz on my nose (which must seem like elongated strands of field grass). “Fuzz on my nose? (really!?) Oh, Good Lord, what if it tries to climb INTO my nose.”  Horrifying.  What if I sniffled at the wrong time?  Henry might truly become part of me.  My mind spirals into ‘stinkin’ thinkin’.

It also reminds me that I’m supposed to be breathing, not thinking.  “Yikes, Beth, calm down. It’s just a fly. You’re supposed to be meditating.”

Henry is not going away.  He is very content to just hang out and practice his routine. The question is, can I?

So I focus on my breath again. “Thoughts, go away, go away and come again another day!” Wait, I’m supposed to notice my thoughts and just let them go, not tell them what to do. Ego can really create a massive story not worth telling and create drama not worth acting out. Somehow my mind has let this fly take over my life (at least in this moment).

In and out, I breathe. Henry is making Fly Fun at me to see if I will start swatting away at him.  “NO!”  I will not move.  I will breathe into my desire to react.

So I just start to notice the dance on my nose.  It tickles a little, then I smile, then I want to scratch it. “Not so bad.”  Whoops, I’m thinking again.  Breathe.  Breathe. Staying present.  Mind settling. Do not scratch nose. The activity on my nose begins to feel like it belongs there, that it’s part of some larger plan.

Eventually, the obsessive focus on Henry and my one-way conversation ceases. Henry and I do become friends.  We just co-exist.  Annoyance has dissolved. And now I just notice and breathe.

And for a couple of those milliseconds, Henry and I do become one.

Once he fulfills his purpose, Henry departs, done with his funky dance, and off to challenge another meditator with his innate, annoying wisdom. I feel a little forlorn that he’s left, but find some gratitude for the time we spent together.

Indeed, he has been one of the greatest dharma teachers of them all.

Posted in Associational Life, Gratitude, Self-Actualization | 2 Comments

Good Grief

I am not channeling Elizabeth Kubler Ross, but I’m going to delve into one of life’s more taboo topics – death.  It surrounds us.  And lately for me, grieving for ones lost has been heartfelt, sad, contemplative, and curious. In this moment, writing about it also is somewhat cathartic.

Loss is something we all share.  And, literally speaking (and something of a cliché), death is the only thing guaranteed in life.  Although this isn’t a topic I generally dwell on, in my life loss always seems to come in “clumps” (meaning that spurts of loss have generally come in twos or threes). If it were anything but clumped and more of a constant (say in a war, or a tsunami), how could we process all that grief?  But people do, and they survive, and continue to live their lives…coping, processing, healing, and loving.

Over the years, I’ve “lost” many loved ones, friends and mentors – to death (and sometimes other circumstances).  The first funeral I went to was a crash course in mourning – it was my Dad’s. He was 41; I was 19. At that age, I wasn’t really able to grock the meaning of it all (especially in the Greek Orthodox tradition of wailing women in black and suffocating incense), but that loss has continued to be the most profound of my life, having deeply shaped who I am today.

And I often wonder what my Dad would have been like had he survived his long illness.  It’s kind fun to make up stories and have an image in my head of  “older Dad.” I at least hope he would have made it to Alaska to go salmon fishing! But as many will say of those who suffer long illnesses, it was also a blessing that he left when he did…too much suffering, time to go.

So between then and now (a good stretch), I’ve experience much loss-based sadness– sudden deaths, suicides, terminal illnesses, accidents, etc.  It can come at any time, most unexpectedly, or sometimes with great preparation.  But the result is still the same.  Those who die are no longer, at least in this realm.  We grieve.  And I tend to wonder…

…what happens next?

Formal religions have various belief systems — partially to quell our fear of the unknown.  And also rituals to help us process and honor “letting go” and celebrating a life that was. Yet the mystery of what happens to us after death is one of the most interesting, and can be one of the most polarizing as well.  But to date, I don’t think there’s any hard evidence to what really happens after we die.

There’s my dear uncle who believes that we go wherever we think we will…and maybe that’s where it’s at. Who knows?  It frightens me sometimes to think about what might – or might not be – on the other side or in another “realm.” But I live with it , and hope that if I live a good life, and learn from my mistakes, forgive others (and myself), that somehow my karma will be clean enough. And if my uncle’s theory is true, my personal preference would be to go universe-hopping after I die…

I do have faith – but my spirituality and awe of the world are generally based in this realm – honoring the humanity in all of us, the Divine within, and the beauty and fierceness of nature.  Seeing goodness in myself and others and deeply knowing how interconnected we are to the natural world has framed my concept of faith.  I guess currently my faith is earth-based more than anything else.

So how do we cope with all of this uncertainty? Several years ago a dear friend of mine who had terminal cancer visited our gardening program at San Quentin Prison.  She shared with the men how living with such an illness forced her to live in the present.  To this day, that class was one of our most profound. The men were deeply moved, and for the first time ever in our class, tears flowed freely.  They were in awe of her strength and presence, and also grieved for her predicament.

More recently, as her cancer spread, she talked about “going over the rainbow bridge.” Although her illness was often painful, she carried on with grace and finally acceptance.  After going increasingly “internal,” she passed away at home —  surrounded by loved ones, amazing caregivers, flowers, and candles (thanks also to hospice for their wonderful care!)  When I went to say “goodbye,” her body was blanketed with rose petals and decked out to the nines.  Her spirit had departed; only the shell of her was left in the physical realm. Very surreal, indeed.

So is she out there, somewhere, watching over those she left behind?  Who knows?  But when I saw a glorious rainbow from my deck last week, nestled between a giant redwood tree and Berkeley homes, I imagined her at the other end.  And I wept long and hard.

And so I arrive at the term “good grief.” Although difficult and painful, grief is really just an expression of love. It is a necessary process for us to move out of the shock and on with our own lives, in the absence of the ones we’ve lost…knowing all the more, that each moment is so precious.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Way Through

(or Cultivating Happiness)

The only way out may be through, but the only way through is IN.

Happy?  What is happy?  Not being haunted by our demons (but learning to make friends with them?), breaking through karmic cycles? Feeling through depression, sadness, fear, physical and emotional pain, grief?  What does it take to be truly, deeply happy, content, smiling from the inside out?  What is the journey to happiness or contentment and how does it become ingrained in every cell, so that we align who we truly are with the meaning and purpose of our lives?

Of course, how to cultivate happiness is probably one of the great philosophical questions of all time.

I’m not an expert at happiness, nor am I always happy.  To the contrary, I’m just like everyone else.  I live with the dualities of the moment, which can shift radically, by the millisecond. But what I do know is that the deepest levels of happiness don’t come from “stuff.”  Or others (although others can influence happiness). And because of our stories, our perceived external circumstances, our environment, our families, and our karma, we live in cycles of suffering, generational patterns and our karmic “stories” that can plague us from the moment we show up in this world (and possibly before that!).

Over the years, I’ve learned that I am the only one who has the power to shift my own stuff…there is no one else to depend on to pull me out of my unhappiness but me (along with some exploratory tools, resources and guidance). We tend to want to blame others or our external circumstances for who we are or what we think and do. And “victim” mentality is really an excuse to not take responsibility for how we show up in the world, or to honor the possibilities within us.  Being a “victim” is the thinking mind’s identity unfurled, one that keeps us in a scarcity mindset and focused on external circumstances.

Taking responsibility for how we show up in the world is the essence of our rehabilitative gardening work at San Quentin prison, and the goal of my professional work with people and organizations (and for myself, too).  In prison, we call it “digging deep.”  Reconnecting with self, exploring painful feelings and leaving the “stinkin’ thinkin’“ behind. Our thinking mind is the result of our “ego,” and as Michael Brown, author of the Presence Process suggests, “ego is the replacement of authentic self.”   The drama of our stories dissolves presence, which reinforces ego.

Instead of creating identity with the thinking mind, authenticity requires going deeply within and aligning our inner most being with how we show up in the world. By reconnecting with self, we more easily reconnect with others, our communities, and the natural world (the Insight Garden Program’s mission statement). Deep, heartfelt knowing – and emotional processing — is necessary for emotional and behavioral transformation.

Some of us are not even aware we can go “in.” Others resist going “in” because of discomfort around what that process might unearth; it requires that we manage our “pests” and pull our “weeds” (aren’t gardening metaphors great?)  It requires moving through the fear of the unknown…of just being.  It includes a willingness to discover what we don’t know about ourselves so we can realign that with who we really are…and then make necessary course corrections.

Shifting also is about honoring our feelings (instead of pushing them away).  When we push our feelings away, we fragment ourselves, and/or attempt to anesthetize so we don’t have to feel.  In the book Getting Our Bodies Back: Recovery, Healing and Transformation through Body-Centered Psychotherapy, Christine Caldwell suggests that when the experience becomes too much, we leave our bodies – the real essence of addiction.

As one who enjoys facilitating transformation professionally, I have spent a lifetime exploring different modalities to digging deep, breaking karmic patterns, searching for my internal self in a quest to peel away the layers (and there ARE layers!) of that which binds me. It’s not a goal, really, it’s an acceptance of a lifelong pilgrimage.  When I realize I’m reacting to external circumstances, I attempt to explore the “triggers.”  When I can identify and feel them, I can then move through. As we say in prison, “you gotta feel it to heal it.”

My truest moments of happiness (and sadness too) come with complete presence.   For me, this process began years ago, through a variety of resources that have helped guide me through. I will always have to learn how to get out of my own way.

Some of those resources have included:

  • Family Systems Therapy – understanding our place/role in our family systems and how we can shift in relation to that understanding…so the system itself indeed shifts.  See Andrea Maloney Schara’s work, Ideas to Action.
  • Meditation – cultivating present moment awareness (this includes Michael Brown’s wonderful self-guided meditation book, The Presence Process) — as well as meditation retreats.
  • John Pateros’s Process Coaching work, Healing to Wholeness – getting ‘unstuck’ from any emotional issue, habit or condition to generate deep and permanent change.
  • Christine Caldwell’s book, Getting Our Bodies Back – providing resources for the “journey to locate ourselves” (especially through addiction).
  • Acupuncture – clearing meridians for physical and emotional health.
  • Jyoti SaeUn’s energy healing work, Clearing Clouds where she  detects and releases “stagnant” energy so people can reclaim their authentic selves
  • Transformative Coaching, with Elka Eastly Vera — who helps blend classical coaching, hypnotherapy, spiritual guidance, and energy work  to empower the soul’s purpose.

Finally, some words of wisdom from Pema Chodrun’s book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears:

“In Buddhist teachings, we’re encouraged to work with the wildness of our minds and emotions as the absolute best way to dissolve our confusion and pain.  Rather than getting so caught in the drama of who did what to whom, we could simply recognize that we’re all worked up and stop fueling our emotions with our stories.  In meditation, we train in letting our thoughts go again and again, over and over, and go right to the root of our discontent.  We allow the space to see the very mechanics of how we keep ourselves stuck.” (p. 47)

So in the tradition of sharing, I welcome what  “going in” processes have worked for you!  And may we all find our ways through…


Posted in Associational Life, Self-Actualization | 1 Comment

Cultivating (Empathetic) Connections

Connection.  It is so utterly essential to healthy human and ecological functioning. Indeed, the mission of our garden program at San Quentin State Prison is to use nature “to reconnect people to themselves, their communities, and the natural environment.”

In past blog posts, I’ve suggested that the lack of connection may be at the root of many of our social and ecological issues today.  From my Good News post last November:

“…The conversation has to shift from talking about what’s wrong with communities to the root causes of community break down and what role we have all played in that. These “issues” are symptoms of something much deeper – our disconnection from each other and the natural world. If we weren’t so disconnected from the natural world, do you think people would have the “conquer nature” mentality or have such ignorance or disregard for our place in it? “

The world is most definitely shifting in big, bold ways.  Through recent natural disasters and social upheavals, one of our first reactions is to re-connect: families and friends to loved ones, people to place, country-to-country.  We want to help people in need and those who demand basic human rights for a dignified existence. Although things seem in total chaos these days, an undercurrent of this shift is one of helping…which is really about connecting.

The antithesis of that, of course, is to resist the change and remain entrenched in the status quo and our own fear-based mental models of what’s wrong (rather than what’s working), in a bi-polar place of good and evil, of the blame game.

This “scarcity” or retributive mentality really does tear people apart…and our leaders, politicians, law enforcement, media and other institutions are well-versed in fanning the proverbial flames…essentially, a strategy to maintain control to get what they want, not necessarily what we need.

The Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan recently completed a review of 72 studies of empathy among American college students. Each study used the same standardized test. The Institute found that in the last 20 years there has been a drop of 40 percent in empathy among U.S. college students.

So how do we become empowered to reconnect — to understand the needs and desires of others through empathy — despite the resistance to change all around us?

At the root of it, our organizations and institutions ARE human and deeply interconnected with our ecological systems. And as humans, we do have the ability to cultivate our empathic nature –to care for others and the natural world.

Empathy is a basic human characteristic that brings us together.  It’s a way to see through the differences, the polarization…and a way to resist the retributive status quo. The cultivation of empathy allows us to more meaningfully reconnect.

As an organization development (OD) practitioner, and one who has worked with prisoners for more than eight years, the cultivation of empathy (and indeed, intuition) to help facilitate connections is at the core of my work.  At the prison, we use gardening as the learning lab to discover our empathy for the natural world and each other; in organizations we design processes to help people reconnect so they can create a different future for effective, sustainable organizations that honor the importance of our human-ness.

Cultivating connection through empathy involves:

  • Exploring “self as instrument” – the ability to go deep within ourselves to examine our own feelings, triggers and experiences (in prison, we call this the “inner gardener”).
  • Having the practical tools to work through our resistance and “stuff” (feel it to heal it!)  Michael Brown, author of The Presence Process, suggests: “the only way out is through, and the only way through is in.”
  • Deeply listening to others, without judgment, blame or shame and building on what works (using the Appreciative Inquiry approach).
  • Finding common goals and purpose and honoring gifts instead of deficiencies.
  • Creating opportunities for people to actually be together, interacting on a personal level (instead of the technology option).  As evident in the research and article above, community matters.

When we work with feelings (vs. thinking) and with people (vs. stuff) we begin to cultivate our true empathetic natures, allowing us to open to deeper connections – even with those who are different or with whom we might disagree.  This is foundation of healing work, whether with people, communities, or organizations…and the natural world.

In tending a garden with prisoners who “pet the bees,” I have learned that most people (including prisoners!) have the capacity for empathy and care…just a bit of cultivation is required. And from tending to others and ourselves emerges a different frame through which to heal and experience our local and global communities and the natural world.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye…” – Antoine de Saint–Exupery, The Little Prince

Posted in Associational Life, Community, Environmental Care, Gardening as Transformation, Gratitude, Organization Development, Prison Reform/Prisoner Rehabilitation | 3 Comments

Egypt Empowered

Why am I writing about Egypt?  Because, once upon a time, I lived there — and had the time of my life.  A year after Mubarek had ascended to power. And 30 years later, Egyptians are reclaiming their destiny. During the past week, memories of that time have flooded back with enormous pride for Egypt and its people.

I’d always been fascinated with “Ancient Egypt.” As a child, I’d had alters to Anubis and Ra, and was clearly some distant reincarnation of Nefertiti (even adorned in satin sheets one Halloween to honor her legacy).  I might be her White version, for all I knew.

My youthful fantasies of becoming an ancient Egyptian archeologist were revived again my junior year in college when I decided I wanted to be a Middle East envoy for the State Department. I’d discovered a Lebanese professor (Leila Fawaz) who somehow managed to teach the whole history of the Arab world (after Mohammed) in a semester, and I was hooked.  Then came the Arabic classes, politics of the Middle East, history of Ancient Egypt, studies of hieroglyphics and a brilliant idea to spend my senior fall semester abroad at the American University in Cairo.

Somehow, my parents acquiesced.  I suppose they were actually somewhat terrified, sending me to a distant 3rd world country on my very first international excursion.  I had a list of “rules” to abide by (which included no bare shoulders or skirts above the knees).  So I was packed and ready to go with my olive green potato sack dress, a thirst for adventure and promises not to fall in love.

The final TWA leg of my flight from Athens to Cairo was one I’ll never forget…a few chickens running in the aisles, and an effervescent Egyptian Grandmother inviting me to her home for Sunday dinner with her 15 distant relatives somewhere in the teeming metropolis of Cairo.  I was soon to find out about Egyptian hospitality, which has been unsurpassed in my travels since.

And the “rules” went out the door when I landed in Cairo Airport, jetlagged from a never-ending flight and overwhelmed masses of humanity.  In about 5 minutes, I met another Blond American debarking the plane also attending AUC (She had on slinky clothes!  No potato sack!  Of course, she’d lived in the Arab world much of her life). That initial insanity of arrival, combined with the smells and sounds, and honking horns and millions of people…no space anywhere, was just…utterly awesome.  I dove right in.

And I did fall in love.  With an amazing man who I met on a felukka (Egyptian sailboat) in the middle of the Nile my first week of school “orientation.”  He was a rebel, of sorts, and we became inseparable.  Kate (my alter Blond with her diplomatic passport) and I would crash the American Embassy’s Thursday night Happy Hours (with the Marines and as many of our Egyptian friends we could drag in), went on excursions together — to a relatively deserted Sinai Peninsula (just after Israel had given up occupation), Thanksgiving in Fayum (mmmm….raw cow liver marinated in lemon – a true delicacy or the Bedouin test of White Woman’s courage?), riding horseback at sunset at the Pyramids, the Awe of Ancientness (Valley of the Kings, Karnak), kids scrambling for “baksheesh,” the long political conversations with my Arab brethren in the AUC gardens, wandering the streets aimlessly testing my guttural attempts at conversational Arabic in the Khan Khalili (Cairo Bazaar), dust storms and mud pouring off the trees in the first rains, Americans who couldn’t make the culture shift (and went home), and the pride of the people.

During my visits to the Pyramids (Giza), and the Temple of Karnak (Luxor), I really did feel like I’d been there before, in some distant life.

Sure, the place was also incredibly aggravating (always long lines for food and cigarettes, no privacy, a crumbling infrastructure, and very strict social mores—threat of being arrested for traveling with my Egyptian boyfriend, yikes!), but it was one of those early life experiences that taught me to love cultural diversity, to see the beauty through the dust, and to adore people who had so little, but lived so fully.  My Egyptian friends lived with vigor and passion and the place taught me about open minds and open hearts. At the time, they had great enthusiasm for the potential of the new Mubarek regime.

And now they’re changing the course of history for themselves and, by proxy, the Middle East.

Witnessing the recent events in Egypt unfold has been overwhelming —  millions of people taking back their own destiny in a generally self-moderating way, for a new order (despite the pro-Mubarek thugs). It is a massive movement occurring in the name of social (and economic) justice.  Who says people can’t co-create their own future, and change history in a matter of a few days?  The Pharaohs would be proud.

As for the future, who knows?  What matters is now. And I trust that the good people of Egypt will find their way to what is right for them — if they are part of the co-creation of their future.

As they would say, Inshah’Allah إن شاء الله

Posted in Citizenship, Grassroots Change, Politics, Self-Actualization | 2 Comments

Civil Discourse

“If we want there to be peace in the world, we have to be brave enough to soften what is rigid in our hearts, to stay with it.  We have to have that kind of courage and take that kind of responsibility.  That’s the true practice of peace.” (Pema Chodrun, Practicing Peace in Times of War).

The recent shootings in Arizona were – on many levels – heartbreaking.  For the lives lost, for the pain of those left behind, for the Tucson community and for our nation. For the 9-year old girl interested in public service whose life was snuffed out in an act of violence – mirroring the violence on 9/11/2001 – her actual birth day.  I don’t know what the irony is in that, but it seems there is one.

It wasn’t surprising to observe the over-reactions focused on guessing the shooter’s motivations, how he was influenced, and the resulting finger pointing – from both the left and right.   It’s always easer to blame the other, than each of us taking stock in how we show up in the world and what we can do to come together, rather than break apart.

Finger pointing only regurgitates negativity and a victim/perpetrator mentality. The more we allow ourselves to be part of it, the more negative energy is created. As the Buddha said, “violence begets violence.”  It seems screaming about what’s wrong with the “other” is a form of violence, too.

And then President Obama really nailed it in his speech at the Arizona memorial service: “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” The President also focused on encouraging personal accountability and responsibility for how we show up in the world.

Shortly after the President’s speech, I was heartened to hear one of Tucson’s law enforcement people mention that we have to find ways to have deeper, more meaningful conversations rather than the current state of public discourse.

As an organization development practitioner, and having worked inside a prison for the past 8 years (imagine collaborating with prison officials to build a garden on a prison yard…!), there are some effective (and well-tested) methods to facilitate “civil discourse:”

  • Have groups develop their own set of agreements – how will they be together? (they must decide) This creates the stick-to-it-ness and accountability to each other.
  • Ask “Provocative” questions rather than having the answers. As Peter Block would say, valuing the questions more than the answers creates conversations that evoke accountability and commitment (for more information his approach, see his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging).  The questions are designed to draw out our common hopes, dreams and visions for a different future…without bias or judgment.
  • Use Appreciative Inquiry – a way to build on what works (through story-telling). This creates passion and energy around building a different future that honors strengths, not weaknesses (throwing the traditional SWOT analysis out the door!).
  • Encourage individual/civic leadership rather than dependence on our elected officials to “lead” us – in Peter Block’s words, becoming “Citizen Leaders.”  The processes mentioned above require a shift from dependence on others to personal action.
  • Breathe.

Each semester, at the prison, we begin our classes with a combination of the above processes to encourage meaningful, civil discourse which creates a deeper intimacy that inspires men to be responsible for their personal and collective healing.  It also requires facilitation that is free from needing to control the outcomes.

Shifting to civil discourse and real engagement requires a radical shift in thinking (and feeling).  It requires working through that which triggers us on the deepest levels (noticing the internal “trigger” is a great first step!)

Back to Pema Chodrun:

“Once you see what you do, how you get hooked and how you get swept away [triggered], it’s hard to be arrogant…when we are not blinded by the intensity of our emotions, when we allow a bit of space, a chance for a gap, when we pause, we naturally know what to do.  We begin, due to our wisdom, to move toward letting go and fearlessness.  Due to our own wisdom, we gradually stop strengthening habits that only bring more pain to the world” (from: Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears).

How will you choose to show up differently in the world that will contribute to your personal healing and the collective good?

Posted in Associational Life, Citizenship, Community, Grassroots Change, Leadership, Organization Development, Politics | 2 Comments

Manifest (your) Destiny

Last weekend, as I sat down in Starbucks in Pt. Richmond, CA, on came a remake of the Chrissie Hind/Pretenders hit song 2000 Miles…”You’ll be back at Christmas time…Diamonds in the snow sparkle…”  Immediately flashed me back to the early 80’s, right around the time of John Lennon’s death…

The Pretenders song woke up old memories…of college, the big expanse of life ahead of me, and really having no clue where I would go or what I would do.  Those years were ones of great curiosity, exploration, and lots of experimentation.  Just forming my place in the world, trying to find me.

Those were the years, too, I always felt like I was about to burst.  I had the pressures of fitting into what people thought I should do. I rebelled. The standard quo was my nemesis. By creating just enough trouble, I found the freedom to be whatever I wanted in the world, not what others thought I should be. At that time, I just didn’t see the path clearly.  Not an unusual conundrum for a post-teen waiting for the future to arrive.

Case in point: the last semester in college, we took over the administration building.  It was the first non-violent campus-wide protest since the 1960’s.  We made national news(!), expressing our outrage because one of our most revered professors had been denied tenure for his political views.

After about a week of sleeping, eating, and communing in the prison’s administration building (and basically bringing the place to a standstill), the Boston riot police rolled on in.  I remember standing in my first big circle of several hundred comrades in the quad, singing “we shall overcome” while the cops stood by, rolling their eyes. But I felt part of something important, deeply meaningful. We had stood up for someone – and values — we believed in.

And things have been a bit like that, ever since.

Fast forward: it’s three decades later. Now I sit in circles with prisoners in San Quentin, in a program we launched more than eight years ago to help them reconnect to themselves, their communities and the natural world through the process of organic gardening. I also have a consulting practice, and have been working to build everything I do professionally into our work at the Insight Garden Program. I finally do what I really (truly!) love – facilitating the space, place and conversations for transformation (through nature).

Over the years, transformation has been a thread woven throughout my life. Yes, I’ve been sidetracked a few times (and found myself stretched within the confines of the cubicle world), but here is where I’ve landed.  One of my favorite places is in the garden with “the guys.”  Living my purpose in the world through my work fulfills me in the deepest way.  Transformation is a constant, and the men are living proof of that.

This process of living one’s values has meant morphing together the pieces of my professional and personal life in new ways, resisting the allure to fall back into comfortable safety nets (and cubicles). Only a couple of nights ago, I attended an event featuring Michael Meade (from Mosaic Voices) telling stories from his new book Facing Fate, Finding a Destiny …and found myself smiling from the inside out.  In sharing views on fulfilling the soul’s destiny – he suggests people explore the meaning their lives (not just life itself)…and having the courage to live it.

At some point that evening, his words resonated on an almost cellular level. My soul compels me to do my work in this world that I’m “threaded into in a meaningful way.” By manifesting my destiny, and doing it in collaboration with kindred spirits, I am living my life (and fulfilling my soul’s purpose) exactly as it’s supposed to be.

Michael’s words: “The only story we came here to live is our own,” rang louder than they ever have before…“If a person doesn’t risk their destiny, they’ll never know who they are intended to be.”

How are you manifesting your destiny? 😉


A few wonderful resources for soul seekers:

Facing Fate, Finding a Destiny, by Michael Meade

Tools for Healing to Wholeness: Process Coaching

Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, by David Whyte

The Presence Process, by Michael Brown


Posted in Self-Actualization | Leave a comment

The TSA Tussle

“The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.” (James Madison)

The TSA Tussle’s not a new Hip Hop song (though there have been a few poking the airwaves!), or a remake of the recent hilarious SNL skit. It’s actually a Band Aid that we’ve slapped on the deep wound of our national psyche to make us feel better, safer, more secure, more something.

Right before the holiday season, we learned of less than comfortable pat downs that some claimed bordered on sexual molestation. And new radiation scanners that might mean we end up glowing in the dark.

My first reaction to this news: Huh? “What’s up, TSA?” And then a really sinking feeling that they’ve completely missed the mark, so to speak.  No longer will I make jokes to traveling folk in security lines to the tune of: “before you know it, we’ll have to dress in scrubs to go thru security.  No body parts left behind! (LOL!).” Though my comments sometimes helped break the monotony of the being-in-the-long-line-with-glaring-TSA-officials traveling experience, it seems not too far from the truth anymore.

Either way, I had a rather intense reaction to this news of more rules, but not for the reasons you’d think (sure, its possible that our 4th Amendment rights are being violated, and it now seems the American Public is guilty before being proven innocent — Miranda rights? and who wants their little kid fondled in the name of National Security?)

After some reflection (and reading way too many blogs), I shoveled out my sinking feeling.  What I unearthed was shock that folks (and the government?) actually think more rules will help us BE safer. What we really have is a colossal, dis-coordinated, complex system with inconsistent rules and lots of holes both in the system itself…and our borders too.  And unless we build walls around ourselves and our borders, it will be impossible to keep all the “bad” people out.

We live in a very porous, open society – with all of the risks and rewards that come with that. Each day our lives are fraught with danger, but we still plow on, unconscious of most of them. So the Orwellian approach to more oversight with layers upon layers of rules is only a Band Aid solution to much deeper issues.  Maybe what we need is a shift in strategy and frame through which we see and behave in the world.

So I ended up with more questions than answers:

  • What can we do to provide input that would help make security screening less invasive but more seamless overall? How can it be better coordinated with local authorities, the State Department, etc?   (my OD training)
  • What have we learned what’s worked from other countries that do this well and how could those best practices be implemented (in a consistent, strategic way that doesn’t assume guilty before proven innocent)?

But those questions really didn’t get to the root of my discomfort.  What it came down to was:

  • On a broader/deeper scale, what can we do to demand change to our foreign policy that will more thoughtfully address the conditions that create people who want to hurt us?  (I don’t believe people are born evil, otherwise I wouldn’t work in a prison).
  • What can we do to protect our selves (and each other?)  What can we do to become more connected so we want to help each other in crisis situations (as I recall, people came together in amazing solidarity in 9/11?)
  • Would more connectedness mean less risk?
  • How do we build trust instead of fear?
  • How do we better learn to live in the present, knowing that we don’t really have any control over the future (since it hasn’t happened yet?)

Then it occurred to me that people who become terrorists are much like our inner city kids who become gang members (and end up in prison)…disconnected, disassociated from their own communities, so they seek out (or are recruited) to other forms of “community” as a replacement. “Gangs” and “Terrorists” are identities of the dispossessed. What happens when you strip that identity away?

So the uber question for me that emerged from the TSA Tussle is:  how do we bridge the divides that surround us?


Other ruminations…

Fritjof Capra – The Roots of Terrorism

Posted in Community, Foreign Policy, Organization Development | Leave a comment