On Kindness

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Everyone has a nightmare they fear may really happen one day.  Mine was to be alone at home in a vulnerable situation, be it sick or injured.  Well, this nightmare of mine became a reality a few months ago when a jar shattered in my hands. I found myself with two hands gushing with blood on a Sunday afternoon. After a few minutes of calming myself down, I wrapped my hands, took my purse, and went to the street to take a taxi to the hospital.  There were a few taxis on the street but all had passengers.  As I passed by them to look for a free taxi, one of the drivers rolled down his window and pointed at me. “Good,” I thought to myself, “he is going to take me to the hospital and maybe drop his passenger on the way.” But that is not what happened. Upon rolling down his window, the driver opened his wallet and gave me a dollar.

You can imagine my shock.  This instantly brought another nightmare of mine to life, which is to be homeless. Although I am not homeless, that taxi driver thought I was. Between that and my injured hands, it was a very tough and trying moment. With surprise I looked at him and said  “Are you kidding me? I need the hospital, not a dollar.” And without a word, he took his dollar back, rolled up his window, and drove away.  A few cars later a taxi driver stopped, and he got out of his car to open the door for me, and helped me get in as I couldn’t use my hands easily.  He then took me to the emergency room, followed my instruction to take my wallet from my purse to pay him what I owed him, and bid me farewell after making sure I got into the emergency room safely.

The rest of the story is not as exciting. I obviously survived with functioning hands, which are allowing me to write this piece today. And by having to face my nightmare—not by choice but by force—I came out knowing it was not so bad and that life keeps on going despite all.  Most importantly, I realize that fear no longer carries the same weight in my heart. It actually lost its meaning and this time it was not replaced by anything else but the knowledge that there is no need to fear.  All of us have a great sense of resilience that we can face these challenges and pass through them. I know I do.

But that incident left me reflective on the meaning of kindness. You see, the first taxi driver who offered me the dollar is a good man. Think of it: he saw a vulnerable woman, he went out of his way to roll down his window, and offered a full dollar—which is not a small thing to give. But he did not see me and what I needed, which was to go to the hospital. His act of kindness was more about him identifying as being “kind” than about the person he was being kind to. It’s like a woman I met once who kept on expressing her love, admiration, and friendship over and over again through emails, gifts, invitations and what have you.  But when I reached out to her one day and asked for her perspective on a certain story that required her to show up, she wrote: “My life is crammed to bursting with people who want my attention. I have many friends going through breakups, illness, depression, death. My love and good wishes for them are infinite. But my time and energy aren’t.”

Well, the taxi driver and this woman feel the same to me. In both cases they chose to enter someone else’s space, him by rolling down his window and her by overly expressing her love and friendship. Both defined themselves as kind and loving from their own perspective, and both missed seeing the need of the person in front of them.  Kindness in this case feels more about the giver than the receiver. It’s reflected by the “act of giving” rather than “seeing” what the person needs. I am sure both individuals define themselves as kind and loving, but both individuals did not take the time and care to look at what exactly needed to be shared through their kindness.

On the other hand, the other taxi driver who took me to the hospital probably does not think he did a kind thing by picking up a passenger who was injured, taking her all the way to the hospital, and only taking what she owed him from her wallet. He was doing his job and he got paid for it. But from my perspective—the perspective of the person in need—I experienced true kindness through him. For he saw me and what I needed, and responded accordingly.  His kindness was not about him but about the person who needed the help.  It’s like when my mother was dying, some friends who I did not think as close at all-no constant repeat of loving expressions-showed up fully in times of need with kindness and grace in actions that made a real difference for my mother and I.  I still don’t know if they will call themselves as close friends, but for me they are a true expression of friendships in how they showed up.

This made me think about the meaning of kindness in our own lives and how we think of ourselves as “good” and value the “doing” kindness if we buy someone a nice gift or send a loving email to a friend for reasons or no reason.  I am one of those people who probably did that many times but never stopped and questioned what the other person needed, and—relating to the story I just told—if I am giving them a metaphorical “dollar” or helping them go to the figurative “hospital.”  I have also been the recipient of many acts of kindness in my life—and I am always surprised by who shows up and who doesn’t show up in times of need. The two taxi drivers only magnified the story for me and put it into perspective.

Love is abundantly around us, and so are words. It is not enough to say “I love you” or to roll down your window. That is the easiest thing to do, but in it is a deception to ourselves about the meaning of kindness. Kindness, as I see it, is about being present to what is around us rather than being self-serving about ourselves and our definitions of kindness by giving a dollar, a gift, or loving words.

I know next time I roll down my window for anybody, I will be conscious how I will be entering that other person’s space. I will see them and their needs before I fool around with words that are meaningless without true action. Without understanding what the other person needs, a supposed act of kindness could lead to more damage than help. Could it be that kindness is as simple as showing up fully and taking a moment to consider what the other person needs? I think it may be as simple as this indeed.


Knock My Socks Off

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Sitting by a river in Montana, observing the sun set on a beautiful fall evening, I started crying.  The open plains, the silence that comes with sunset, the breeze, and what was left of birds humming all triggered my longing for a sense of home—my home back in Iraq—but I felt the bittersweet pain of knowing that that home was long gone. Destroyed. I sat there with tears in my eyes. You know, it was just one of those moments where pent-up emotions just pour out, as I mourned loss in my life, my family, and my country. In that instance, a young man who was staying in the same compound as me approached me and offered his comfort. I didn’t know this man and although I used to immediately have faith in strangers and welcome sympathy, over the years I have become more reserved and less trusting of strangers.

“No, thank you,” I replied to his offer to sit by me. “I do not know you. And frankly I do not trust any stranger,” I said honestly and clearly.

“But all I want is just to comfort you even if I don’t know what are you crying about,” he assured me.

There were days in which I trusted people’s words—especially when they were loving. Friends often say “I love you” to each other. “You are my dearest friend”—God knows how often I myself said that to so many people. “Oh, don’t you adore so and so,” and so on. Are you familiar with these repeated expressions of affection and niceties that friends share with each other? Well, I often said, and meant, them from the bottom of my heart, and I was one of those who believed people when they expressed companionship through simple and earnest phrases.

However, over the years, I noticed that there is a difference between words and actions. Words are easy and plenty. Actions are hard and require showing up.  Words are fancy. Actions are rugged and demand courage at times.  Words are beautiful. Actions may entail uncomfortable conversations. And after many experiences, I realized that friendships are not about merely sustained by hanging out with each other, going to movies, or sharing meals. These are all fun things we do to stay in touch, but they only deal with the surface of what true friendship really means.

So when the young man offered to comfort my tears, I looked at his words with a complete lack of trust for they were only nice words. And that’s all I heard.  Respecting my decision, the man sat to the side, giving me some space as I continued in my reflections and thoughts.  And suddenly, he reached out again—but without words this time. He took his socks off from his own feet and put the socks on my own bare feet. He noticed that I was shivering from the cold breeze of a Montana evening and without saying another word he simply acted and fulfilled the words he said a few minutes earlier. This time the comfort he brought was not language, but warmth to my feet. It was in that moment that I stopped and looked at him and said, “I trust this act.  I trust what you just did. I still don’t know you and I am not about to pour my heart out to you, but I can trust what you’ve just done.” It was real, tangible, and authentic. The moment was sincere. I was truthful to myself even if I may not sound as grateful as you would expect me to be. You see, I think we miss the true meaning of friendship when we are merely satisfied repeating nice words. Of course, verbal expressions of appreciation are essential, and these words work as long as everything is OK and everyone is having fun. But they’re only part of a friendship—not the cornerstone.

Ask yourself about your ability to have a truly honest conversation with a friend that requires you to fully show up, either for yourself or for your friend, even if that openness may risk you losing the friendship.

Are you able to listen fully to a friend’s grievances about you and assess where you own your part of the story and where you don’t?

Are you able to apologize when you cross a line with a friend?

Are you able to go out of your way just to be on hand for your friend in times of hardship?

Are you able to see your friend for both their goodness and flaws and still love who they are?

Are you able to make choices that your friend may need as a sign of caring about them and your friendship?

Are you able to be generous with your friend without fear or worry of their judgment or projection?

Are you willing to be utterly vulnerable in front of your friend and not only present when everything is going well?

I thought to myself that I was perhaps asking for too much from friends. But then what is life if we cannot be in truth to ourselves, our values, and to each other? Asking friends to act their friendship rather than just say it may result in less friends by definition. But hey, never mess with someone’s hope, and promise only what you can deliver, was something I used to say when working with refugees all over the world. Hope is the most precious thing each person holds onto in times of war. But here I am in a peaceful country and I say never mess with someone’s hope about the true meaning of friendship. Say only what you mean and are willing to do. And be a friend who walks the walk and not only talks the talk.

For years I put the meaning of friendship all in one bucket, which entailed that I liked you and thus I opened my world to you. And over the years some people exhibited integrity, and some people left the meaning of friendship at the service of words. At times that hurt me a lot but over time I’ve come to trust actions of friendship that build the foundation for a relationship—step by step and one sock at a time.


On Forgiveness

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Forgiveness is a concept that is much easier said than done. Often I think it is used loosely, as if forgiveness is as easy as love or generosity or kindness. Like these other actions of emotion, forgiveness is about giving—but, unlike these other actions of emotion, this form of giving happens despite one’s pain and that makes it a difficult thing to do.

I once had a dream where I saw a line saying, “We need to forgive even when not asked for forgiveness.” When I saw the words I thought this was too much to ask of anybody.  Forgiving when asked for forgiveness is one thing but when not asked is quite another thing.  The latter implies the one who got hurt has to do all the work and that, for the longest time, I thought was too much to ask.  But I couldn’t forget these words and in order for me to practice such forgiveness, I needed to approach the concept from a place of absolute authenticity to seek a true resolution of the conflict within my heart.

So I started the exercise with the times that I needed to ask for forgiveness from someone else for wronging him or her. This entailed not only acknowledging what I had done, but also acknowledging the underlying reasons for my actions without making excuses for them. Now, I don’t know about you, but I tell you that involved some real courage to dig deep within oneself to see one’s own shadow. It is much easier to see the faults of others; it is much, much harder to see one’s own flaws. But what is growth and truth if we can’t do that work? So I kept on going.

The next step entailed understanding what triggered my actions. People rarely do harm for harm’s sake.  Most of us are reacting to our own past experiences, which trigger some actions that we are proud of and some that we are not. In my case, the times I hurt others stemmed from my own fear of addressing a certain truth or calling a spade a spade, if you may. My avoidance of addressing an uncomfortable truth about myself or others, combined with not wanting to hurt anybody’s feelings—a cover up for a desire to be liked—led me to betray myself at times and loved ones other times.

Upon this realization, I was confronted with the choice of either keeping that confession to myself or rousing the courage to go and directly ask for forgiveness from the very person I hurt. This too is a very hard thing to do. Addressing issues within our heart is just one step, and admitting it in front of another person is quite a different step. It is easy to be the hero; acknowledging that you too have been the villain at one point in your life is more complex. Expressing this with sincerity and humility is the most crucial thing to do.

I learned the importance of asking for forgiveness with authenticity while observing a Gacaca court session one day in Rwanda. After the 1994 genocide that led to the killing of more than 800,000 people and the rape of 500,000 women in only a 100 days, the Rwandan government reintroduced a traditional justice system to prosecute the majority of people who participated in the genocide. The Gacaca court literally means the grass court where all community members gather around with community elders who run this communal court. In there, the person who has committed a crime has to stand up and acknowledge in front of everyone what he or she has done.  Then the elders decide how best this person is to be dealt with, be it community service or material retribution. The essence of this tradition is twofold. First, the person who committed a wrongdoing should not get away with their criminal actions and just sweep it under the rug. Second, the best way to address the issue is by giving an opportunity for the defendant to grow and show his or her remorse rather than merely isolating and alienating them. The prison system leads to more destructive, rather than positive, contribution to society.

What I didn’t know before I had the privilege of attending one of these community grass courts is the importance of honesty. In that particular court a man stood up and described in detail how he stole from certain individuals and contributed to the killing of a few people. He kept repeating the details as the elders asked him more questions. But when they came back from their consultation, they didn’t ask him to serve the mother of the son he helped to kill, as they did with the man before him.  Rather, they told him “we do not feel your sincerity in your testimony. You have more work to do for yourself to be truly remorseful about what you have done. Go back, and when you reach that stage, come back to us and we will do another trial.”  “Wow!” I thought to myself, as I was observing this whole process. Only when we get to that stage of true remorse can the other person really get to a place of forgiveness.

These are all very hard steps to implement but are essential to truly understand the meaning of forgiveness with integrity. In my case, only when I could galvanize the courage to admit my own wrongdoing, was I able to build compassion that helped me forgive others regardless of their asking for forgiveness. But I must admit forgiving others was an equally hard process—especially when it came time to forgive those I respect and love most.

I first thought to myself: how can I forgive when the other person can’t even acknowledge what he/she has done? There is a sense of arrogance that comes with ignorance, which only makes the pain grow deeper. I could let go of an issue, but forgiving? Truly forgiving? That takes much more work than the mere saying of the word. But I needed the forgiveness so I could free myself from the story, as all forgiveness leads to freedom in my opinion.

At one point I realized that I often expect others to act from the same value systems as me, whatever those values may be. But then I noticed that this is like expecting everyone to know the taste of chocolate even if they’ve never tried it. In other words, these values we have for ourselves are not automatically available for others around us, even those we love and respect. That logic helped me to see the other person from the perspective of not having this or that value. That helped but did not do the magic trick. I realized that perhaps just as my fears led me to do things I am not proud of, those I love and respect may also have been afraid and their fear led them to betray themselves or their own loved one’s.

These processes eventually leads to compassion. By seeing someone else’s decisions from their perspective, it allows us to see the same story from different angles even if we do not have the same motivations. That method consistently calms my spirit and leads me to sincerely grant forgiveness, irrelevant of whether the other person asked for it or not. By truly having compassion for other’s emotions, even if that emotion is something you do not agree, offers the ability to understand why someone did this and not that. And that is when I could release myself from the story.

Now I have to say there isn’t anything as heartwarming as being asked for forgiveness when wronged. Those who are able to build the courage to ask for forgiveness show a great humility and big courage. And that always leads to deeper respect at least as I see it.  Now, I have had the privilege—yes, the privilege—of experiencing the whole process of forgiveness. These experiences allowed me to look deeper into the good, the bad, and the ugly within myself and others. And it is that journey that has led me to true love—both of myself and in my ability to give love to others. Years after I had the dream, I know that it is possible to forgive even when not asked for forgiveness. That is the journey of true love.


On Happiness

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Years before the news of ISIS in Iraq, I took my colleagues out to a restaurant for lunch to celebrate their hard work at Women for Women International Baghdad, Iraq office. I sat next to Umm Ahmed, the office cleaner, but almost didn’t recognize her at first. Instead of wearing her cleaning clothes, she had on a beautiful purple dress, a nicely pressed black shirt, and a matching purple scarf. She looked lovely as she turned to me and said, “I can’t thank you enough for today. This is the happiest day of my life.”

“Wonderful!” I said. “But let us wait for the food to arrive and hope it is really good.”

“It doesn’t matter how the food tastes,” Umm Ahmed explained. “I am just happy thatI am inside a restaurant. I have always dreamt of getting into a restaurant and today you made my dream come true. Thus it is the happiest day of my life.”

This took me by surprise. I admit going to restaurants is something that I take for granted and never think of as a source of privilege. So the awareness that going to a restaurant is something many never had access to was a humbling learning experience in and of itself. But for that act to be the happiest moment in this woman’s life was hard for me to accept. So I pushed forward, inquiring, “Truly, there must be another happier moment in your life Umm Ahmed.” And with this I asked her about her marriage and the birth of her children and she kept insisting that none were pleasant memories.

Her arranged husband to a man 20 years her senior did not bring her joy, the birth of her girls brought disappointment, and the birth of her son came at a time when there was no food to share. But when I asked about her childhood I finally saw a joyous twinkle in her eyes. She initially denied there were any happy experiences, as she faced poverty in her youth and went hungry many nights. But the spark in her eyes finally came when she talked about the days her father came home with food, as many other days he didn’t arrive home with groceries.

That childhood memory of food evoked the same happiness she exuded when she told me about her dream of dining in a restaurant. Both sources of her happiness were related to money, or that’s how she saw it when she explained to me: “At the end of the day, the reasons for all my sorrow, my fights with my husband, my daughters quarreling with their own husbands, is ultimately about money. We didn’t have it, and we still don’t have it, so it consumes all of our attention and takes away all of our joy.”

Well, one cannot deny that the lack of money and resources in general can lead to a lot of stress and stress does indeed lead to unhappiness. To deny this reality and instead tell people you are free to create the life you want is, in my opinion,insensitive to the reality millions of people live in around the world. It helps to have education, resources, and a support system—even if it’s just one person who believes in you—to walk the journey of your chosen destination. When none of these factors exist in someone’s life, it is not impossible, but it is darn hard—very hard—for that person to come out on the other side and achieve her or his dream. We simply need to acknowledge that reality even as we talk about the possibilities of hope and change in people’s lives.

Having said all of that, I still believe that money is not the source of happiness. I may have worked with the poor for 20 years but I know many people who have all the wealth in the world and they are still struggling with the same concept of happiness. In a nice restaurant in New York City, a friend recently told me, “I just got this beautiful house. I had it built and thought of every detail in it. It is beautiful in every way I can think of. But can I tell you I am happy? No. I am not happy.” For this friend, all the enjoyment that can be achieved by money, a successful career, and a wonderful family were indeed met. And yet after years of working hard to get all that he was able to attain, there was still, to his surprise, no happiness. So what is happiness then and how can we get it?

Recently I was hiking in the mountains after a year of addressing some sadness I was carrying in my heart. And in the midst of the silence of the mountain, I thought of all the beauty that Mother Earth provides us, and surrounds us always. Yet we keep on looking for heaven and peace as if it’s in another world, in a place that we cannot reach and attain until we die. But indeed we have it all right here, all the time, in front of us, in the most equalizing factor for all beings: humans and animals, poor and rich, countries and cultures, ethnicities and race. In that moment, I realized, like Umm Ahmed and my friend with the new house, I too have been looking for happiness as if it is somewhere I could not reach—something that existed outside of me, be it love from other people, resources, or whatever we each concern our minds with. But what if happiness is not something to attain from the outside? What if it is inside our hearts that are as close to us as nature is to us all. And yet we spend years thinking it is as far away as heaven is to us all?

The motto for hiking a mountain is go slowly, slowly. This way you do not exhaust yourself fast, at least in technical terms. When I was forced to walk slowly, I realized that the patient pace was forcing me to hear myself better and to be more in tune with what is around me. This made me think of my life, the lives of many other people, and how fast we go about it, valuing our doings and not valuing our “not doing.” But that very process exhausts us and makes us miss hearing our own soul’s wants and needs. Inner peace lies deep in silence, as silent as the nature around us. It’s like we run around and make noises and spend and drink and dance and do all these things to attain happiness from outside ourselves. What if it is the reverse process? What if, within that slow confrontation of the silences, we can eventually tap into what I call peace? Peace being the ultimate happiness as I see it. What if we are each individually the cake of our own happiness, fully in charge of what bring our souls joy, and that the people around us are the cream on the cake? They can sometimes make life tastier but a cream by itself is never the main ingredient of a delicious cake.

Happiness is not a mythical concept that is hard to attain. To achieve happiness,however, does entail much work. But that work is done on the soul level and not a material one. Material resources help give us the time and space to focus on what is meaningful, and a peaceful environment can do the same, but ultimately the path to peace and happiness is through the clearing up of whatever issues may have provided obstacles to being who we truly are. Addressing our own responsibility for each story is essential, as well as communicating our truth with loved ones in ways that lead to healing rather than blame. That is hard work—very, very hard work—that no one else can do for us. In the process of doing the personal work, staying in the uncomfortable moments of pain, and holding the space to those feelings without rejecting them or filling them with busy activities eventually leads us to peace within the heart. This peace is what brings me joy, personally. This peace is being fully present in the moment, wherever we may be, and fully absorbing everything around you. This peace is being in nature, the earthly heaven that is right here in front of us.This peace is in the ability to find love and joy from within and not become preoccupied with outside forces. What if happiness is as simple as silence? What if it is as beautiful and quiet and free as nature? What if our heartbeats are as peaceful as that of Mother Earth’s? What if we all can find that quite and peace regardless of our circumstances? Is it possible? It may be harder for Umm Ahmed to defy her harsh circumstances to get there and when survival is at stake it is that much harder, but even she can access that serene peace inside her heart. And if your basic needs are met and you are living in a country with no wars, you definitely can. Just take one step towards the beauty that surrounds all of us and feel that silence in your heart. And then yes, you can. Happiness is right here inside.


Another Perspective

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There is indeed a kind of self-righteousness we each possess as we look and judge the world from outside ourselves. We are each the center of our own universe in which we see and analyze those around us in relation to our own experiences with them. We see some of the people we encounter as “good” and some as “bad.” Some we consider as one of “us.” And others we see as one of “them”—those other people who are bad or malevolent.  There is even a Talmudic saying that demonstrates this point: “We see things as we are. We do not see things as they are.”   Even though it may be unavoidable to see the world from outside our own perspective, it would be an interesting exercise to shift position and see things from another viewpoint whereby the lens is looking inward as opposed to outward. And instead of judging others, we first look inward at ourselves and own our full story with all its goodness and badness. I physically do that in my practice of aerial yoga, where you flip upside down with the help of a hammock and see the room from a different perspective. It took me a long time to learn but when I finally mastered the pose, I wondered what it meant to have this other perspective of myself, how I view my life, and those around me.

Now you may say, “why should I bother to do this? I am happy with the way I am, or I am perfect and content, and don’t have interest in shifting my lens.” If that is what you believe, I would be worried about how you see yourself and what your attitudes are towards others around you. Where there is light, there is a shadow. And we cannot see the full self if we do not acknowledge both the light and the shadow within us. When we are aware of these two dynamics, we can then make a choice of which one to nourish more and which one to accept and control. In my experience, every time I was unaware of my own shadow it would sneak up on me in uncontrollable ways and end up hurting me more than anybody else could hurt me. And every time I acknowledge the shadow within me and understood its source, I take its reign and am able to regulate it and control it.  In that process, there is a deeper understanding of the self in a humbling way that makes me more responsible and in control of my actions. It makes one more humble in walking this life, more empathetic and less judgmental in seeing others around you, and more able to see the self fully in its beauty and its beast.

There is no end result of this journey and there is no way to reach a state of perfection. It is an ongoing process that aims to provide a more realistic way of seeing the self. The more one sees the self in a clear and honest way, the more you know what to take in from other people’s opinion of you, and what not to take. The more you own your own story and experiences by looking inward at your own responsibilities, the more you are able to distinguish what is truly yours versus other’s projecting their story onto you.  There is a calmness that comes with compassion—not only to oneself but also to all others around you, even those who may have hurt you. The more you work on seeing your own shadow, the more you are able to see those around you with a new lens—a cultivated outlook that recognizes the light as well as the dark. And this will help you spot those who put themselves in the middle of the light and deny their own shadow.

Angeles Arrien, a great teacher and mentor, pointed out in her anthropological work of indigenous cultures around the world how “every person is a mirror of some aspect of our own nature” and how “we are all mirrors for each other.” She identified the mirrors as “clear,” “shady,” and the “no mirrors.” Clear mirrors are those who bring the best out of you, lift your spirits, and bring you joy when you are with them. Shady mirrors are those who irritate and annoy you, or those who you are sexually attracted to.  No mirrors are those who you do not notice no matter how many times you encounter them. In Arrien’s retreats, which I had the privilege of attending several times, she has everyone sit in a circle and asks all participants to practice direct conversation with the person who holds any kind of mirror to them. If one is a shady mirror in terms of irritation, she asks us to identify what aspect of ourselves did this other person touched within us. And instead of blaming the other person, one needs to acknowledge that the person who represents a “shady mirror” only triggered this because it exists within you.  All of this had to be done by going to the person and having the courage to communicate this to them honestly, without blame, in front of the whole community of retreat attendees.

You can imagine that this is not an easy conversation. Silence is usually held for a long time and each person has to confront their own discomfort with the idea of having to acknowledge their own story instead of scapegoating the other.  Even those who are sexually attracted to another person are asked to have this honest conversation by acknowledging their attraction to the person, thanking them for triggering this feeling within their heart. And if they are not available, they are released from all desire to respond or act.  Just the confrontation of that in an honest way releases all tension and drama, which are usually triggered when there is sexual attraction and when there is no honest conversation around it.

Arrien proves many points with this exercise. One truth is that there is no obsolete definition for any one person as good or bad.  It is impossible for one person to be loved by all or hated by all. Instead, everyone holds mirrors that trigger different things in each other. So the same person can be loved by some and hated by others.  This can’t be a sole reflection of the person. A large part of that is the mirror this person holds for others around them. This is an exercise of utter self-responsibility, of seeing oneself from another perspective, of having to confront even uncomfortable subjects we often prefer to hide. But it is also an exercise of liberation from self-righteousness. It is a step towards walking the path of humility and compassion towards the self. And in understanding oneself fully, you understand others around you.

Whatever self-perception we have of ourselves does not matter, really.  I could tell myself that I am “this or that” all I want.  And I can see others as “this or that” until the end of my life.  What is important is the walk one takes in life and the actions one does or does not do. The more you are truthful to yourself, the more you can be in touch with your values and the life you want to live. And with that, the more you can give of yourself with compassion and grace for a better world. So ask yourself, have you had that honest and hard conversation within yourself? Can you have that conversation with others—be it in your family, work, or community. If not, the mirrors around us are plentiful. You only need to start seeing things from other perspectives. The route may be hard—and even horrifying to see our own shadows and to have the honest conversations—but I promise there is liberation in owning our full stories and in having truthful conversations within us and with others. And freedom is always worth the journey.


Foundations for Decision Making

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When I consider the process of decision making, I immediately go to my mind.  I reflect on the thousands of articles, books, and lectures that document the best and most effective tactics. I think of business management, analysis, and strategies.  And while I do think one should fully activate their instincts, I never thought of the concept itself as one that relates to the heart.  It was always a cerebral concept for me. But how about if we think of decision making, be it in politics, business, or personal, as an activity that involves the heart as well?  What happens if we include compassion or love? How would decision making be different then?

Each person has a different style and approach to decision making. There are those who charge into a decision, move forward, and never look back. There are those who take their time, and ask for more information before any decision can be made.  And then there are those who make sure they hear the consensus before they can decide. These are all techniques that are based on each individual’s personality.  It does not matter which kind of decision maker you are, but I believe it does matter if you make your decisions from a place of compassion, from knowledge, from free will to choose, and from love—as love is always bigger than all.

The way I see it, Compassion, Knowledge, Free Will and Love are the foundational pillars of decision making regardless of your personality, the kind of decision you are making (professional or personal), and where you are placed in life (regardless of the authority you have or you may not have in any aspect of your life).  At the end of the day, each person has one thing fully: the self. You are always the leader, the lover, the jailer, and the freer of yourself. Regardless of your current status in life, where you live, how much you earn, what circumstances you are living in, and how you see the world, consider the following pillars as you make decisions.

1.  Compassion

Compassion for me is the ability to see another’s perspective regardless if you agree with it. Compassion is always easy to give to those we love. But when asked to show it to those one competes with, disagrees with, and is even angry with? Well, that is a much, much harder thing to do. When I worked in war zones, I never thought I could show compassion to those who raped, killed, and pillaged. When I first heard the concept of “compassion” being applied to everyone I resisted, it was difficult for me not to show anger at those who committed crimes and oppressed others around them let alone express compassion. But then, I became curious to learn the meaning of true compassion so I embarked upon the exploration within myself. I started searching in my travels by going to the people I would usually run as far away from as possible: the enemy, if you may. For me, that is a brothel owner in India, an executioner in Iraq, and a rapist in Congo, to name just a few. Instead of fleeing from them in my anger at their crimes, this time I walked towards them, curious to understand their logic and their perspectives.

I clearly remember every single moment of my encounters with each of these criminal men. When I sat in front each of them, my heart would pound fast as I knew they could have harmed me in another moment in time. But I also knew that if I had to access compassion, I needed to truly hear what they had to say. I let curiosity my guide and I asked questions without judgment. How am I to understand the “other side” if I am not genuinely interested to learn of its reasoning?  I asked and when they felt that I was genuinely interested, they answered honestly without hesitation.

The executioner described his executions in detail, as did the rapist. And the brothel owner told me the business logic behind buying girls and making them work 5 years for free before giving them any income.  At the end of each encounter I came to the same conclusion. I didn’t feel anger, but sadness for the loss of their souls.  They talked numbly without any feelings. It’s almost as if they do not allow any emotions to go through them; they might as well be a robot. They described their crimes as if they were on autopilot.  And when I noticed their complete detachment, I was able to, for the first time in my life, develop compassion towards them. But that compassion did not mean letting them get away with their crimes, or make excuses for their actions by blaming it on rough childhoods they had. Compassion in that case simply meant truly listening, and seeing things from their outlook even when I found their viewpoints repelling.  I realized then that if my goal is the transformation of behavior—and, with that, societies—rather than a “kill them all” mentality, then compassion is critical in altering the narrative, both their own stories as well as their own engagement with the society around them.

Although these are examples of heinous crimes, the concept applies the same way to a person who hurt you, said something bad about you, or snapped in anger at you. Well, these things are upsetting. They always are. Still, it is possible to be understanding if you allow yourself to take a deep breath, put your own emotions aside for a moment, and try to see things from the other person’s point of reference. Often you will see they are snapping out of their own pain, insecurity, or whatever they are going through. That awareness, simply that awareness in you, can help transform your assessment of them from reaction to that of compassion.  You can still set boundaries and limits, and you can still decide whatever you want. But when seeing another’s story with contextual awareness your own emotional engagement or decision making will take a very different turn.  Compassion allows one to make calmer decisions which stem out of centeredness rather than reaction–even to the worst stories that we encounter.

2.  Knowledge

Knowledge is the ability to acquire as many points of information about one issue and from as many angles as possible.  Imagine looking at a room not only from your perspective, which by definition means a certain way of looking, but from multiple standpoints. Imagine if your eyes were accessing the four cameras there were put on the four corners of the room. Each camera sees a different reality.  Each sees the same exact picture from a different perspective. What is small in one viewpoint can be huge from another and what is harmless from one perspective can be harmful from another.

Knowledge for me is the ability to examine the same story from all characters’ perspectives without emotional judgment on any side.  It is merely a process of data collection: as factual as fact can be, in tune to analysis, and multi-dimensional.

Try asking your siblings about your childhood. I guarantee everyone has a different description of the exact same story.  Each saw the story from his or her own perspective even if it is the exact opposite of yours. Knowledge is simply a process of information collection without emotional engagement. But it’s important to be aware that every story has multiple perspectives and everything ultimately gets filtered through an emotional lens.  Knowledge is inquiring and listening to everyone’s experience of the same event: noting the facts as they see it and adding it in your library of information as a critical source for decision making.

3.  Free will

Ah, and what is “free will”? Free will for me does not mean that one is living in a free country that allows freedom of expression. Nor does it mean that one is a free agent–as say, an entrepreneur–to make whatever decision they may choose.  If you are the owner of your company or the boss of your team, you may think that you have the free will, or authority, to make whatever decision you choose to make. But that is not what I mean by “free will” either.

Free will for me is to be free from your own inner story. Free from our fears of judgment, from our desires to be loved and accepted, from our desires to please others, from our desire to be popular; or to show that we are hard working and intelligent. These desires take away from our true meaning of “free will,” where we take each step and make each decision by following the absolute truth of our values and beliefs regardless of any appeal we each may have to be accepted and seen by others.

Freedom, true freedom, is the freedom that stems from being anchored in the true self.  In that place there is a knowing what is true to one’s values irrelevant of the world outside of us. Imagine if you made life choices not based on what other people thought, or what the society dictated as the norm, but in your truth of who you are and what you believe in.

I don’t know about you, but I have been guilty at times of compromising my own values to please others. I came to realize this is a losing proposition.  If your life goal is to please others, then it is a goal that can never been accomplished. “Others” have their own stories and their pleasure or lack of pleasure may never be related to you. When I compromised myself, I died inside and that was the worse kind of death.

But there were many times in which I lived every step of my life out of utter truth regardless of  how people around me felt or judged. These are times in which I could breathe fully even when times are hard. Although being in truth is never easy, being committed to your desires and dreams leaves you with a sense of significance and freedom that is priceless.

It’s easy to fool ourselves about the meaning of free will, especially if one is living in a society that sees itself as free. The freedom in this case is an inner peace where we are not deciding in reaction to our needs, but in truth to ourselves. It takes full knowledge of oneself to distinguish between the decisions that stem out of an outer desire for other’s responses and between inner truth that truly does not put much value on outer reaction as much as inner peace.  That is the true meaning of free will within decision making.

4.  Love

Yes, Love!  For love should be part of everything we do in life, even when we are unhappy, upset, or tired. In love there is a centeredness that grounds us on this earth. And while it is easy to think of love as a major agent in our personal decision making—whether related to marriage, friends, and families—many do not see love as part of our decision making in business.  You may ask what does love has to do with making professional decisions, such as hiring or firing, buying this computer, or negotiating deals? Well imagine if you use love in such decisions. What would that entail?

I personally would start by asking myself simple questions. Is my decision loving towards nature? Is it really necessary to have or want to make a decision? Most of us buy things because it is the latest thing, or it has the trendiest fashion or appeal.  And sometimes that does not mean that we need it as much as we simple desire wanting the newest materials in order to meet social norms. But what if your decision making in this case is based on love for something other than pressure from others? What if it is based on whether that decision is loving of earth and its resources or not. What if your decision to buy shoes, for example, is based not only on your needs for beauty but also on the impact of its production of the animals and the practice of treating the animals it to make that shoes.

If the question entails a person, be it hiring or firing, I would ask myself how to follow my decision in truth but also in love.  In other words, you can fire someone for example, but how do you do it in a way that keeps that person’s integrity intact. It will make a difference for you and the other person.

I will then ask the question about myself. Is doing this or that act, or eating this or that food, loving of myself and my body or not?  I am a big foodie.  I love food so much and so when I eat, I think of it as a loving act for myself.  But recently I realized that when I eat that muffin or bagel, it is actually not a loving act to my body at all. It is rather a cruel act to my body when I don’t put healthy things inside of it. It ends up using more energy than needed and is poisoning its very core. Suddenly that chocolate ice cream that I so love to eat did not look loving of myself. And with that its appeal changed.

Making decisions based on love does not mean you do not set boundaries or say no to people, but it is in the way of deciding and acting upon your truth, you do it with love. That love is a reflection of you and your own being in this world.  Everyone wants to live in a more peaceful, caring world.  This cliché goes beyond beauty pageant statements.  “I want world peace” is an easy sentence to place in everyone’s minds.  Well, it all starts with you.  The world does not change outside of you and wait for your reaction. It is the opposite, actually.  You change and with that the world around you transforms in response to you.  Try it…It works  :)


The Journey of Truth

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It is much easier to talk about being in truth with oneself and one’s values than to act on it. To be in truth entails shattering old perceptions of yourself, your life,  and some of the  values you grew up with.  Most of us live in response to norms set by society without questioning the conventions and their validity—or their timeliness, for that matter. The day you catch this discrepancy between your heart’s true desire and the life you actually have is the day the journey of truth starts.

But that journey is not easy. One will need to confront ambiguity while entering unfamiliar territories.  That includes confronting what is not working including within yourself as well as others around you.  The path of truth may actually bring instability and uncertainty but it is worth it.

In walking the journey of truth, each individual create their own path based on the circumstances and experiences they faced.  But there are patterns in that path and the way I experienced it, it entails the following:

 1. Standing on the cliff

There is always a catalytic moment in which you find yourself with an emptiness, or catch a lie you told yourself. In these instances exists a reality you need to confront but had been avoiding. One of my moments of awakening was when I found myself bored in front of the very people I loved.  It was like an ax of consciousness that came with a clarity I couldn’t deny.  That awareness kept me up for nights. I knew that if I hid this feeling I would be betraying myself—and, more importantly, betraying the very people I love.  But to confront this reality can risk everything.  It would involve destroying the figurative brick walls that I have built to define who I am for myself.  That moment feels like one is standing on the edge of the cliff. One is too afraid to jump off the edge because you just don’t know if you will land safely or die. And yet one is too afraid to stay on the cliff because you know it is no longer sustaining you. It is a feeling that is summed up in the old adage “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” In this moment you will discover the strength of your convictions, curiosity, courage, and desire to be in truth. Do you free yourself, or do you stay on safe but shaky grounds with heartache while continuing to suppress a calling that you keep inside of you?

2. A leap of faith

There is no way to embark on the journey of truth without taking a leap of faith and jumping off that cliff. That moment for me includes speaking up and telling people your truth—your simple truth and nothing else.  There is no way of knowing how anybody will react. Will people around you understand your truth? Will they judge you? Will they hate you for it, or love you for it? Will they be angry at you, or feel hurt by you? There is just no way of knowing what will happen when you start this discourse with yourself and others, whether it relates to starting a new business initiative or speaking your truth to your family members or friends. But the act of articulating what is going on in your heart, however you choose to express that truth, is the biggest leap of faith one can make. It sometimes feels like you will be risking everything—and you may be risking everything, indeed, for the truth.  It is a choice one makes between dying within silence or speaking up and living, but risking potential change in one’s life. The next step, however, is the most difficult and horrifying.

 3. In between places

This is the place of nowhere.  It can feel like the abyss at times, a very dark forest in another time. Or just that instant in the middle of falling without knowing if you will land or not, and if you will die or endure.  That is where true courage comes. To be in that place and survive it, one needs to harness confidence and believe in their own truth to keep them going.  And yet it is in this place that doubt arrives.  This is the place of fear, too.  You start asking yourself, am I crazy for doing what I just did? That is when you panic due to the idea of risking everything in order to follow what your heart tells you. You may not even see the path out of the dark moment. That is also the time where some people show up and some friends disappear. Those who show up become like angels, their words and support is an acknowledgment of your path. Those who stand by you provide an insight from a different perspective that can help a lot when you are facing the pain of the unknown.  Those who do not show up leave you with a hurtful confusion of what they once stood for in your life and why.

This is also the time where you need to make sure you have a support team: a handful of people whose perspectives you trust.  Their eyes become like flashlights into your own darkness until you can find your way out.  They don’t have to be friends. They can be paid professionals such as a therapist. There is no right or wrong about that.  What is most important is observing the consistency of their feedback.  The way I see it, if I hear the same observation three times then it is the truth. And when my support team did not know each other and yet were still telling me the same exact thing, I took their input seriously.

Within this period, I used books, movies, lectures, my body, and all kinds of knowledge I could get my hands on as a crutch until I could walk on my own feet again. I needed to know if I was on the right path or not. I needed to learn tips and input on how to deal with this unknowingness. And, of course, there is just crying out of fear—deep and utter fear—at the possibility of jeopardizing everything without knowing the outcome and where you will land in your life.

Whatever you do, hold the space and the place for this period.  You can get out of it but you must go through it.  What comes next is freedom and freedom is delicious.

4. Finding your wings

I cannot promise there is a particular pivotal moment where things just land themselves and new wings sprout in a way that is surprising even to you.  The shedding of old pains and old stories is always a painful process. The shedding of old skin hurts even if you are just using a luffa in a Turkish or Korean bathhouse.  But what materializes is a new clarity and a cleaner skin for sure.  That new person–yes, I call this emergence as “that new person” as it is not familiar even to the self.  In my case, I became curious about this new woman that came out of this process.  I knew she behaved differently. What she accepted and tolerated before may not be acceptable anymore. There is a kind of calmness in the heart that is just too delightful to forgo. A fresh spirit and strength comes out of walking through that dark forest, where you must encounter all the shadows of yourself and some of the people around you. Consequently, your new narrative starts to develop from a revitalized source of truth to oneself.  It may result in a very different lifestyle, setting, and kind of existence. But in all cases they bring about a silent peace inside, where joy lies in a most subtle way.  Just a taste of being in truth with oneself is so delicious.  Once you get a glimpse of it, you will want to have more of it. It lightens the weight off your shoulder and releases all the pressure that we’ve accumulated through our experiences.  And it makes everything worth it—even if your life is so very different.

May we each walk the journey of our truths, and be aware that they don’t come only once.  Being truthful to ourselves and sharing our best potential to all beings is ultimately the best anybody can do for themselves, for others, and for the earth.  The journey of truth may be difficult, but it is a definitely worthwhile. The leaves of your tree may fall in the process, but the blooming blossoms always come back, filling you with new meanings and a more truthful essence of yourself.


On Fear

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We each possess fears that hold us back, hide us from the world, and alienate us from the essence of our true selves. And more often than not, we act out due to blinding fear rather than benevolent emotions that allow us the courage to show our true desires, whatever they may be. If fear were a person, he or she would be very satisfied for perniciously and successfully conquering and dominating people’s hearts in today’s world.

Each one of us has her or his own story of fear. Some fear stems from material success: will I get a job, will I make it, will I be able to have a home and build a family? Other fears stem from the need for safety and security: will I be safe enough, or will I be attacked, raped, or killed? Other forms of dread come from the fear of loss: will I lose what I have, or will I lose my loved ones? But, in my opinion, all fears come from our deepest desire to be loved and accepted at the core for who we are. In care and acceptance we are safe and we can be comfortable with who we are without ever worrying. And yet we unconsciously build the walls of fear to surround us lest we expose the vulnerability of who we are and our simplest need: love.

I once imagined fear as a big, giant scary dark structure that horrified everyone outside of it by how it looked. It was the only way I could think of it—as having an entrance to explore its meaning from the inside. I imagined entering this dark scary compound with much trepidation. It was like being in an underground tunnel with multiple rats coming at you, but you’re cornered by dark walls and cannot see what lies ahead. But I kept on going until I reached a point where there was a small room with warm light inside. When I peeked in, I realized that inside that structure of fear was actually a very base desire to be accepted. Perhaps we each build that horrific edifice around us as a way to protect ourselves from people’s judgment and all that comes with it. From the outside, it looks very scary to all who only see the exterior. But from the inside it is both vulnerable and isolating, as we attempt to protect ourselves from the other.

It’s as if we feel more comfortable with building fear around us instead of taking a leap of faith to exhibit our true desire of love and acceptance. What if our own individual fear creates fear in others and the consequential fears of others lead to more horror inside of our own hearts. What if we are each responsible for that creation of fear and its maintenance in our lives? What if the same applies to different cultures and nations as we deal with each other in today’s complex world?

The way I see it there is only one way to dismantle this fear. It takes trust and an act of affection from all parties. Imagine for a moment that you have dismantled the walls of fear that you have built around you. It is a very difficult act indeed for it requires one to put down the shield of protection and in that instinct there is utter vulnerability. Will they love me? Will they accept me for simply being who I am?

This is a story of collective responsibility—not only individual. For as the individual puts down their armor of fear, outsiders must also see beyond that fear and see the individual for who they really are rather than the projection that one has put on them. In other words, to dismantle the power of fear in our lives takes all parties to show faith in the other and requires all involved to show actual love in that crucial moment of vulnerability.

I share this because I feel we are living in times of fear. We started 2015 with a horrible attack in Paris, and reports of more ISIS executions, more refugees, and more unemployment. In a way, there is more violence everywhere we turn. Fear is spreading its own wings these days without hesitation. Our news is covered with stories of fear: Christians fearing Muslims, Muslims fearing Christians and Jews, Jews fearing Muslims, Hindus fearing Muslims, Muslims fearing Hindus, atheists fearing all religions, Muslims fearing other Muslims, and this xenophobia is relentless. It is easier to remain anxious and to spend hours trying to understand it. It is much harder to ask people to reflect on and deconstruct their angst and show love, compassion, and acceptance towards others’ vulnerabilities.

It is like a big tsunami that is heading our way and taking everything—every value, every love, every sense of unity in humanity—with it. And yet the only way to rid ourselves of that fear is to surmount the wave of anger, resentment, and judgment. We should see the “other”—whoever that “other” may be: a friend, a lover, a colleague, a different religion, or a different country—for the essence of their hope to be loved and accepted. As with all emotions, it starts with the reciprocal act of hearing and telling stories. So the question is: can you take that leap of faith, dismantle your armors, and show that desire to people close to you? Can you also show love for someone who is vulnerable and see the essence of his or her soul and desire? Can you do that in your life? Can you do that beyond your life and extend it to the larger story of today’s reality? I believe we can. If I could, so can everyone—whoever you may be—as it takes more than just the individual to conquer fear.


January Blog 2013

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The world we live in is a product of our imagination, so we might as well reclaim our imagination.

On December 21st, the day the Mayans predicted the world would change, I got together with friends recounting our learnings from 2012.  I had embarked upon last year with Martha Beck’s advice of resting until one needs to play and playing until one needs to rest.  It took me a while to come to an understanding of that way of life.  At the beginning I thought the resting meant sleeping and the playing meant playing pingpong.  But eventually I came to the realization that what she meant by resting and playing needs to be felt in everything one does.  In other words, if whatever you do does not feel restful or playful and thus not lifting your spirit than it is probably not the right thing to do.   I had been working so hard all my adult life that it took me a long time to find my new equilibrium, my balance, and my peace.

It is in that peaceful silent space where I got my learnings from last year.  In that space I learned that only if one feels love to themselves can one feel and see the love in others.  I had always shied away from love for myself thinking of it as selfish.  It took me reading Warming the Stone Child by Clarissa Pinkola Estes to understand that loving and mothering thyself has nothing to do with selfishness and everything to do with maturity of spirit and an understanding that the love we are seeking is not outside of us but lies within us.  As a matter of fact, everything we are seeking lies inside of us.  If we love the Mother and respect her, than we need to love ourselves and give the proper respect to how we treat ourselves.  She can only exist inside each one of us.  And if we are waiting to see Her outside of us than it is going to be an endless process of waiting.  Imagine how different you will treat yourself if you actually will give the same treatment as you would to the Divine Mother; the Mother in each one of them; a mother that is not only kind, loving and generous but also strong, determined and clear.

To love oneself means to also accept all of the self: the shadow and the light and and good and the bad.  Up until recently, I had separated all of these meanings away from me thinking of their existence as only outside of me.  But in truth, in love one can see the shadow that exists within oneself, and rather than reject it or hide it, we need to see it, acknowledge it, and accept it as part of the self.  For me this was an ordeal and a painful process to accept the part of me that I was embarrassed of and that I hid in the caves of my caves.  But as long as I was hiding it, I could never address it, and eventually I came to the conclusion that only when I acknowledge it with love can I actual love myself fully and thus calm and balance that shadow within me.  Wilma Mankiller once said when asked about a necklace of two wolves she was wearing where was black and one was white, “they are both part of me.  Which one I choose to feed more is my choice”.  I had quoted her for so many years but only when I came to realize that darkness and light are both inside me andonly when I love that full part of me and do not deny either can I address my light and my darkness with consciousness and will.

I can never explain the relief that comes with this process.  I felt like I was particles of sand dispersed all over the place, and only when I loved the fullness in the light and in the shadow could the particles come back together and form the full me and only when I could do that could I make the conscious choice that Wilma Mankiller was talking about.  Otherwise my suppressed side always forced itself outside of me despite of me.

Then, and only then, could I deal with all the things I have been struggling with: my doubt, my pain, my hurt, all of it in a way where I acknowledge the feelings for what they are and make the choices to listen to them or to move away from them.  The choice was mine.    And then, and only then could I take full responsibility for the love I need to give myself not as being selfish at all but rather as  being mature and responsible towards oneself.  I realize that only then I could show true love to others.  Love that understands  my boundaries, my good and my bad, much better.  Love that understands that unless I give myself what I need, I could never receive it from others outside of me.

Nothing in this journey is magical outside the realm of our imaginations.  Each one of us, all of us, are part of this experience.  The divine lies in each one of us.  In our love, in our innocence, in our joy, and definitely in our freedom.  The secret to all of that is to get the “I” out of the dynamics.  The trap is when we think that only “I” am special.  Only “I” feel this or that feeling.  The truth as I see it, is only when we get the ego out of the way can we actually feel the divine.  For we are all part of the oneness of this world and only in oneness can we feel the divine.   And only in oneness do we all exist.

A farmer once told me “I don’t understand why everyone is so obsessed with self-sustainability.  Nothing on earth is self-sustainable.  Everything on earth is dependent on each other, so why we humans think we can be self-sustainable.  It just doesn’t make sense.”   What he was sharing is true to everything we do.  Our actions are interdependent and codependent on each other, our survivors, our food and our energy and definitely our feelings even though it is far less obvious.

So with that spirit, my friends and I started imagining the world…. a world where every time a man rapes a woman, he feels that violation onto himself….a world where every time a person carries arms to kill, he feels that death inside himself and drops the arms as quickly as he picks it up.  We imagines a world where every bite we take out of an apple or any food we think of how the earth was treated, about the farmers that picked it, the person who packed it and sold it and about the apple itself.  We imagine a world were we are all free to fulfill our full potentials. We imagined a world were we can lead out of love and not out of fear.   We kept on imagining and went wild with our imagination until we came to only our breath.  And that is when we realized we are but breath in this massive, beautiful amazing world.

The world we live in is a product of our imagination.  So we might as well, with the beginning of a new era and a new year, reclaim our imagination and make magic happen.  But remember, the journey always starts with the self.  It may be the hardest journey to make but the one that holds the secret to utter joy and love.  Happy new year everyone.