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On Vulnerability

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Most people are uncomfortable with showing vulnerability to others. As humans, we are used to presenting the strongest and most positive images of ourselves rather than the vulnerable parts we all possess. We are more likely to talk about the things that are going well in our lives than the things that are bothering or challenging us. More attention is put on our positive accomplishments rather than failures and obstacles, on our happiness rather than our sadness, and on our strength rather than on our weakness. And yet it is in our vulnerability, the very thing we avoid sharing with others, where stronger and more truthful connections between people reside.

I have had the privilege to live in various countries and cultures in my life. And in the process I learned that each culture deals differently in which emotions they show and how they choose to show them individually. Americans’ first response to the question of “How are you?” is always “Great!” to Middle Easterners, on the other hand, always put a melancholy tone on the answer by saying “Thank God”—mostly as means to avoid saying “I am bad” or even “I am good” for cultural reasons that combines a show of gratitude with a worry that of being envied by others. Some cultures like to brag of happiness (mostly Western cultures), while other cultures like to speak of sadness (mostly Eastern cultures). I know I am highly generalizing here, but I do so to make a macrocosmic point that what people in various cultures choose to show or not to show does not always equate with openness.

The concept of vulnerability transcends all cultural boundaries. It is a human emotion that deals with our doubts, fears, and worries—something that each human being has no matter where you live and what you have or don’t have in this world. Our vulnerabilities stem from our individual stories and life narratives. Particular uncertainties may vary from one person to the other given their backstories, but fears always revolve around the concept of whether one will be accepted, loved, safe, and successful. Although we all have these emotions running in our minds, we worry about revealing them for fear of being judged.

To show vulnerability—genuine and truthful vulnerability—is the exact opposite of learning what societies have taught us for so many years, which is to hide our weaknesses deep in ourselves. But if we do not show vulnerability, we continue holding the mask over ourselves and, therefore, alienate others as opposed to sharing connections. So what happens if you expose your most intimate worries? Perhaps you fear not being accepted or loved by others if you speak your truth, or you’re concerned that you cannot achieve what you perceive as the expectations others have for you and who you are. Being fully vulnerable is like being naked with no clothes to cover the most private parts of the self.

That is not an easy task by all means. As a matter of fact, it requires a leap of faith in the goodness and the love of people around—something that cannot be guaranteed. Yet to avoid expressing your true self and desires is to be stuck in the shell of your fears and often leads to self-fulfilling prophecy where your worries become manifested. This can lead to isolation from authentic relationships and friendships.

Showing vulnerability started with the journey of truth. I couldn’t be truthful to who I am if I didn’t also expose my hopes and fears honestly. The responses I got each time I showed vulnerability varied. Sometimes people were uneasy seeing me vulnerable, and would rush to try to make me happy and tell me everything is OK. Some felt a duty to “save” me, which was not necessary needed. Others felt uncomfortable and turned the other direction immediately. But, thankfully, more often than not people showed up in the most loving, kind, caring, and generous ways. People listened and helped me reflect as I processed. Often just their presence and the smallest acts of kindness would make a huge difference in my life. The gift of that connection with some helped me filter through the meaning of friendships in my life. Knowing friends in happiness is a very different experience than knowing people in times of trouble. Vulnerability forces facades to be broken down and with that we encounter another reality of the self and the people around us.

Still, you may wonder, why should we show vulnerability? After all it is indeed a very uncomfortable feeling to share. Well, it is because you accomplish two things. First, you can at least cathartically reveal what is inside your heart and be in your truth no matter what the issue may be. And second, instead of living in fear and worry based on your own assumptions of how people may respond, you gain insight into the people around you. You will indeed go through some process of sorting that will tell you with more clarity what is worth going through. I know that in my experience witnessing the vulnerability of others—even someone who I perceived as a distant friend at first—made my relationship with them so much closer and real. It has lead to the most beautiful friendships with the most unexpected people.

The way to deal with vulnerability is not to worry more, but to open your heart and with that your mind and connection with others will follow. When it was I who showed vulnerability, the process felt like vetting through the “truth” verses the “bullshit” of people around me. In the time of thoughtful language brought by the life coach industry, expressing yourself helps you distinguish between those who only “speak” from those who actually “act.” The experience will always lead you to a more truthful place with yourself and with others around you. And the taste of truth is always, always worth it!

Orange1

The Benefits of Heartbreaks

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How could heartbreaks have benefits you may wonder?  It is almost an oxymoron concept. In many ways it is; for heartbreaks are deeply painful, confusing, angering, full of tears and the desire to just be swallowed in pain.  All true! But with every pain, there is a gain somewhere and heartbreaks do bring some gains with them.

There is a Sufi saying that says, “Oh break my heart. Oh break my heart again so I can love even more.”  I loved this saying when I first heard it for it suggests such passionate commitment to love. I had said so many times in a warrior like manner not fully knowing or maybe not remembering the pain of a heartbreak.   But when the heart got actually broken, I was left confused at that saying.  How could I trust love again? How could I open up to love again and be even more committed to love when heartbreaks hurts so much?    But at one point, I started noticing all the things that were happening, the people who started reaching out, the steps I had taken and suddenly I thought hmmmm, there are benefits of heartbreaks and I was slowly starting to understand the Sufi saying.

To start with and at the very vain level there is weight loss! Nothing beats that in my opinion.  I had been struggling to lose few kilos in the last few months and suddenly they all disappeared in a matter of a month.  Wow! I thought to myself as I started to feel better at least about my body.  That triggered the second benefit of a heartbreak:  a new look.   Though again on the vain side, a new look is always uplifting and fun to do.  The loss of weight encouraged new buys for a new look from makeup style to clothing and shoes.  I went for things I was always curious to try but didn’t get to it from black nail polish to a different eye shadow.   Enough of a difference that I started loving the exploration process of what is the new me looks like. This allowed for spasm of fun moments and allowed for new remarks I was getting on my new look and where I was able to hear and take it in.

A heartbreak leaves one so vulnerable and at one point, one has to do something with that vulnerability.  In my case it started with a dream where I told fear “I release you” and all of sudden fear had no role in the circle of my life and walked out.  That morning, I woke with a lightness to my heart and I decided to embrace the dream in my daily life.  So every time I encountered fear, from fear of loneliness to judgments I kept on telling it “I release you!”  Within a month, I started noticing a lightness to the heart.  If fear is what keeps us stuck in our own beliefs about ourselves then releasing it gives us the freedom to just be, accept and explore.  And there’s nothing more fun than the exploration process of self to find one’s center again. Sometimes we lose ourselves in others, around us or in the work we do.  We stop asking when we last danced, when we last sang, and even when we last visited friends we love.  A heartbreak is like a cleanser of the soul.  It leaves us empty looking around to see where have we been and where are we in this emptiness.  That starts a new journey of exploration of “who am I, where am I and am I where I want to be, with who I want to be with and what I want to be.”  The emptiness, like the weight loss, allows for new arrivals of visions, learnings and dreams free of all inhibitions and restrictions with the sky as the limit if even.

That’s when love shows up over and over again.  And that is when the Sufi saying started making sense for me.  Love came from so many directions.  From friends who reached out in the most kind, loving and generous ways.  Each reach filled my trust in love and each a reminder of the beauty of this life despite all pains and challenges.  Love came with every sunrise and every fresh breath of air and every time I encountered nature from mountains to seas.

Heartbreaks are a part of life that is unfortunately unavoidable.  It is most painful when it is least expected and from people we love dearly.  But it is also one of the big teachers of life.  For it is in these moments that we have a choice whether to close up to love thinking that we can protect ourselves from all the pains that it may bring with it or to open up again and again and knowing that with each opening there is a risk of a heart breaking and the benefit or a tremendous heart expansion.   There have been many heartbreaks in my life, from the loss of my mother, my country, to romantic loss.  In all cases, I found myself on a cross road of a decision of whether to close my heart to love or to risk love again.  I say:

I will not close up to love

I will always love and love again

I will always be there

In love

 

Standing on a cliff

Not knowing

Falling forward or backward

Or standing still

 

I will always see love

I will listen to the tunes of love,

I will see it in the sun rising

For the sun rise up again and again

I will always soak in the bath of love

For water flows and flows again.

I will Love over and over again.

Orange4

Who is Rabaa Adawiya?

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Rabaa Adawiya Mosque has become a symbol for Muslim Brotherhood protests in Egypt after military took over in June 28 preceding the June 30 revolution, which led to the deposing of former president Mohammed Morsi. After more than a month of persistent protest, this historical Mosque has witnessed much killing and fighting and is now left burnt out after one of the worst bloody day in Egypt’s history where more than 830 people were killed by the army and the police in what is now called “Black Wednesday.”

The irony is that Rabia Adawiya, the woman — yes, the woman — who the mosque was named after, was known for being one of the first people in Islam to have introduce the idea of “divine love” and for the relationship to God be out of love and not out of fear. If that mosque was built out of love in 8th century then it was burnt out of hatred and fear in 2013. Today when you search the name Rabaa Adawiya, news of the protests and the killings dominant all search results rather than the woman who has dedicated her life to love of the divine.

Born in 715 Julian in Basra, Adawiya was known to have born into a poor family. Her father believed in his daughter’s spirituality since her youth and had conveyed that to the ruler of the time who joined him in his beliefs and cared for the family. Upon her father’s death, Adawiya’s life changed as famine hit her city and her path eventually led her to be stolen by robbers of a caravan who sold her into slavery. Despite of her misfortune, though, Adawiya’s love for God grew more and more so much so that the very master who she worked for released her after hearing her prayers and being touched by her love and dedication for the divine. Adawiya then spent the rest of her life in the deserts of Arabia loving God not out of fear of hell or desire for paradise but out of absolute and unconditional love for the divine. She has inspired so many people both religious scholars of the time and eventually followers of her spiritual path and history, who later honored her by naming a mosque after her in Cairo, Egypt.

It is most ironic that today, the mosque of the woman who preached love, forgiveness and grace despite her hardships became the epicenter for hatred and fighting among Muslims in Cairo, Egypt, today. The hatred and anger that has taken over the streets of Cairo stand for the exact opposite values of the very place that became the symbolism of the demonstrations in the past month. If Adawiya preached for the love of God, fear of God is now the dominant value that has spread among those who argue that religion is at the heart of politics and that God or rather a handful of people’s interpretation of what God stands for is to rule the politics of governments.

Back in her time, Adawiya was remembered for her prayer: “O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.” These very values upon which that woman was honored has been replaced with men who justify bombings and killings not only in Egypt but in many parts of the Muslim world over promises of paradise and have prosecuted other Muslims who dare to have a loving, happy and joyful relationship with God, questioning their religion and their devotion if not fitting of a very restrictive image of what a “Muslim” mean. Fear and the desire for political power in the name of God and actions and promises for heavenly rewards have hijacked much of the beauty of Islam and definitely what Rabaa Adawiya advocated for hundreds of years ago.

Love of God is now almost viewed as blasphemy when said out loud. I once said it to an Egyptian taxi driver and my heart skipped a beat as he stared at me with both confusion and anger. Many in the region who see themselves as Muslims and good ones indeed complain about how their values and beliefs have been questioned if not fitting a very restrictive views and very particular practices defined by few political parties of what a “Muslim” should be. The relationship of love has been replaced by fear. And if we all agree that God is above all of politics than those who are fighting and killing and burning in the name of God have corrupted the very value of God, and that I would say is the biggest blasphemy.

Rabaa Adawiya Mosque is now burnt and destroyed from inside but apparently the outside walls are still standing. Perhaps her voice and her values can be a call, an appeal, for Egyptians and all Muslims who have mixed God up with politics to remember that the only way to honor God is to return to love as a guiding relationship with the divine and not hate, fear or anger and the only way to honor God is to leave our individual political ambitions out of manipulating the meaning of the divine. May we be able to return Rabaa Adawiya’s name to the woman who wrote the following and not to the mosque that witnessed one of the worst bloodsheds among Egyptians. I look forward to seeing the day where the mosque is being rebuilt and I pray that it will be rebuilt with the same spirit Adawiya stood for.

“I have two ways of loving You:
A selfish one
And another way that is worthy of You.
In my selfish love, I remember You and You alone.
In that other love, You lift the veil
And let me feast my eyes on Your living Face.”

-Rabaa Adawiya

Orange5

August Poem

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Of the same mother

Fed from the same roots

Yet a tulip does not question its right to come out in its full beauty, but I do.

 

Of the same mother and from the same roots,

Yet a water spring never questions its right to come out in this spot or that spot, but I often do.

 

So what if I allow myself the same clarity a tree has when it blossoms in spring

What if I allow myself the same peace a water fall has in its strength

 

What if I spread my wings in its fullness without hesitation or fear. 

How will the air feel?

Where will my heart take me to?

 

What if I know that I am the rose and the thorn in it as well.

What if I am OK with the best part of me and the worst part of me. 

What if I see fully me and still love what I see.

What if I see fully you and truly love the full you. 

 

What if I let the energy of my volcano erupt fully in its roar

What if I let the sweetness of my spring to nourish all

What if I let my peacock feather to open in its beauty and seductiveness

What if I am OK with the bee inside me to stink when attacked. 

What if I know when my rose is cut off, it will come back again and again. 

 

Of the same mother

Fed from the same roots

Yet I spent too many years depriving myself of what my mother has always given me:  the clarity of the tulip,

strength of the water fall,

sweetness of a rose smell,

defensiveness of the bee sting,

beauty of a peacock,

and the softness of a water spring.

 

What if in this spring I am clear

with an open, full, strong, vulnerable, beautiful heart.

What would life be.

So let it be.

Orange6

What Do You Do With Those Who Betray You? Love Them!

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I remember myself as a youngster playfully repeating “Et tu, Brute?” to my friends after reading Julius Caesar.  Regardless of Shakespeare’s brilliant description of betrayal, I still had no idea of the deep pain betrayal causes when I first read about it.  When I experienced the feeling myself later on in life, I realized it is like a dagger that digs deep down into alleys of the heart no one knows about except those we willingly let in.  Betrayal can only happen when there is love and thus trust.  For in the act of love, we let people into the most intimate aspect of our hearts, letting down our walls and protections.  That’s when we risk hurt and betrayal but that’s also the place of utter love.

Whenever I felt betrayed by people I love, for it can only be triggered by those we love, I was left with a very confused feeling.  The shift from a place of love to a place of hurt and anger triggered by betrayal is a radical shift over a short period of time.  It feels like an earthquake has shaken the foundation of your love and it leaves one desperately trying to grab on to any solid land to get a grip of what has just happened.  I usually grab the land of sorrow first, then anger, then disappointment.  Eventually, I realize that all of these feelings eat my heart from within and I come to the realization that the only way out is through love.  But love? Really? You may wonder how one can transform the pain of betrayal into love.  I too did not believe it could happen at first but now I do.

Cambridge Dictionary defines betrayal as the “act of not being loyal when other people believe you are loyal.”  In “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Oscar Wilde describes betrayal by saying “each man kills the thing he loves.  By each let this be heard.  Some do it with a bitter look.  Some with a flattering word.  The coward does it with a kiss.  The brave man with a sword.”  I see it simply as the lack of courage at being truthful to oneself or to others.  Betrayal for me is not in the act of abandonment but in the lack of ability to communicate the truth, one’s truth, with integrity and grace to those we love.  Only when we tell the truth can there be true healing.  And the truth, no matter what it is, resonates in people’s hearts even if it sheds light on the worse aspects of who we are.  For, the worse information, when told in the simple and honest truth, can be taken with the grace and love truth carries.

There was a few times in which I felt betrayed in my life.  My first experience came from my mother the day she tried to commit suicide when I was a child, and then again when she pushed me into an arranged marriage later on in my life.  Other betrayals came from friends and romances, people I deeply loved and trusted. As I am writing this, I am thinking to myself, “Well, it’s not so bad.  I am almost 44 years old and I only felt betrayal 5 times in my life.  Once for each decade.  Not so bad really J.”  I can laugh about it now but I can assure you each was a very painful experience that left me confused at the whole world, not knowing how to make sense of it all.   I held on to the anger I felt towards my mother for many years for example.  How could the woman I loved the most in my life, betray me so deeply, I often asked myself?  But that question kept on repeating itself every time I felt betrayed.  How could this person that I loved so much betray my trust and my love?

I was told once that a horse’s biggest act of love is when it lets humans caress it in between its eyes.  I am sure there were times in which there were violations of this most intimate moment for the horse.  We violate such spaces when we are afraid, insecure, feel powerless, or even jealous.  I have a hard time believing people we love do things out of meanness.  Hurt can only come out of hurt.  Maybe I am wrong, maybe not, and maybe there are exceptions to this theory.  Whatever it is, I am sure there were horses whose eyes were injured or even blinded in that moment of violation which can be seen as betrayal.  If I was a horse I could only process what happened to me if I understood the feeling that triggered the person I loved so much to violate my space in such a painful way.  Suddenly, I wondered if a horse would so easily let people come into that space.  And that’s when I started wondering if I have ever betrayed myself?

Things started shifting from seeing any point of betrayal from inside out (its all about the others who betrayed) to seeing it from within the self.  When have I betrayed myself?  I started asking.  What were those moments?  What triggered me to betray myself?  Ouch!  For the journey to the self is always the hardest one. Here, I am embarking on yet another inner journey to see what I needed to discover, heal, love and accept about myself.  Just as I was hurt, angry, and disappointed at the loved ones who once betrayed me, I became angry and disappointed with myself for all the times I let go of my instinct and did not trust it; for all the times I did not stand up for my rights or own my voice and power; for all the times I justified sacrificing myself and my well-being in the name of love; and for all the times I tried to protect my vulnerabilities by creating illusions and projections of the people I loved, rather than addressing and seeing my true needs and what I was seeking thereby seeing the true being and who they were.

I continued to dig and dig and dig deeper until I found the little girl in me that was acting out of her pain, vulnerability and fear rather than from the strength of the adult woman that I had become.  The betrayal of me came from my own injuries.  Some go back to my childhood and are still working themselves out in my adult life.  Suddenly, the anger and the disappointment I felt towards myself transformed into deep love and affection right down to the vulnerable part of me that was acting out of pain, for I understood that pain and its source.  As women we are trained and so used to being hard on ourselves and almost fearing self-love that it can be seen as selfish, not motherly, or as not giving enough.  Fluctuating the self and punishing it for all the wrong we have done is so much easier than loving it.  But then again, there cannot be healing, true healing, without love.  And I had to consciously go into love to heal myself from the time I had betrayed myself.

In order to heal and love, one has to forgive.  I once had a dream where I heard someone telling me, “We must forgive even when not asked for forgiveness.”  I objected to that line in the dream.  “This is too much,” I said.  “Is it too much to ask to forgive those who have not asked for forgiveness?” But, the dream kept on repeating, “We must forgive even when not asked for forgiveness.” Finally, I calmed down regarding the saying, rested in it, accepted it and understood why we need to do it.  It’s the only way we can heal ourselves and let the self be free of all resentments, anger, pain, and hurt.  People hurt each other out of their own pain just as we hurt ourselves out of our own pain.  So only when we release ourselves from that pain, see it, love it and forgive it, can we truly love the essence of the self in its most beautiful aspect and also in the aspect we are most embarrassed of, our own shadows, for that is the true meaning of love.  That’s when I could love, truly love, those who have betrayed me and love them from their very point of betrayal.  If they betrayed me out of their pain just as I betrayed myself out of my pain then I can understand, sympathize and I can love without needs or expectations but for what it is and what that person is, without any illusions or projections.

So yes, it is possible to forgive even when not asked for forgiveness and even when people betray their own courage at telling the truth. Though I still believe that only when we tell the truth can there be true healing, I also understand that it takes much courage to tell that truth and sometimes it will entail revealing the most insecure, frightened aspects of ourselves.  I can only go through this process for myself.  I cannot expect it at all from others.  To each his or her own.  For me, it is a journey of love.  For I believe love is bigger than all.  And love is the only true healer.  That includes deep, utter, and true love for the self so we may give it the respect it deserves and not betray it again.  At least hopefully so…  Is it possible to love those who betrayed us?  Absolutely YES!  I LOVE each and every single one of them, most importantly my mother and also the friends and the loved ones who later came in my life.  And in that I found my healing.  I am sure a horse would have done the same.

Orange1

Celebrating the Ordinary

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Rumi once said that “silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” As a lover of God, I always seek God in the wonders of the world, in serving other people, and in the exploration of all kinds of spiritual practices. I felt like these were attempts to catch a glimpse of God but in the process I could not hold onto that glimpse as I returned to my daily life. That glimpse was always somewhere else outside of me. Sometimes I saw it in the beauty of humanity amidst the worst of human atrocities. Sometimes it was in an act of kindness by someone we may know or may not know. The glimpse has always been like a jar that poured water of hope and belief into my heart. It was that belief that kept me going even as I worked in wars for many years. Other times that glimpse was in spiritual retreats I explored as I tried to make sense of all the wars in the world and the stories I was being exposed to. Other times I found it in my daily meditation and prayers. All were beautiful experiences but I also wanted to hold on to the sensation during my ordinary routines, be it attending a meeting, giving a speech, or traveling.

But recently I decided to explore that silence in the ordinary of every moment in my life. Instead of only separately carving some space for my meditation and prayers each day, I decided to integrate my seeking of the presence of God in every inhalation and every exhalation I take. So instead of checking my phone and my emails as I sat in the taxi or the subway, I just focused on my breathing—and with that, I focused on God. And so the practice spread throughout my day: in the shower, while walking from one place to another, and with every meal. And suddenly I noticed a beauty—a new beauty—I had not experienced before and that is the beauty of the ordinary.

Ecstatic feelings came out of the simplest experiences: the sensation of my feet touching the ground as I walked, the softness of every breeze touching my face, and even the drinking of a glass of water. And when everything was so beautiful, my seeking of the divine turned into the exploration of the ordinary of everyday life with no more separation between that, my prayers, and my daily activities. All became one.

And with that came a new curiosity. A curiosity to see everything in all its truthfulness for I figured that is where beauty lies. For example, I am someone who always put nail polish on my toenails because one of my nails broke a long time ago and never grew back normally. Therefore I always covered it up with all kinds of colors. But when the ordinary became so beautiful, I took off all my nail polish and was enjoying my broken toenail in its fragility, beauty, and even ugliness. I shaved my head and took all my makeup off. I know this is a bit extreme, but it is an extreme I can afford and am willing to do. Soon I started noticing how makeup felt like a mask that I was putting on every day: sometimes for good reasons, sometimes to cover up sad stories, and sometimes to pretend everything is perfect. It is not that I stopped putting makeup on, but at least I laugh at my silly attempts at masking. And “why mask?” I started wondering to myself. It is in our vulnerability that we connect to each other as people. It is in our joy and our sorrows, in our light and our shadows that we connect, learn, and grow. Suddenly those in my life who covered their shadows, as I covered the dark circles under my eyes with concealer, stopped being of interest to me. How can I connect with those who hide their shadow so deeply? It feels as unreal as the perfect looking woman who is full of plastic surgeries. She is beautiful! But everyone knows it is not real, natural beauty. And it is hard to connect with the unreal. For God is only in the real!

So here I am starting my 2014 with the most obvious knowledge that I have not paid attention to all my life: the beauty is in the ordinary. It is in the ordinary of our behavior of love, generosity, and kindness. The beauty is even in our behavior that triggers shame, embarrassment, and anger. For these moments help us grow. And in the cracks of the self, new light eventually comes. And with this, I started experiencing God with every breath: not separate from my daily life but part of every movement and every step I make. And for that, I am grateful!

May 2014 helps us all see the beauty of the ordinary.

Orange4

Why there is more desire to live the life of a celebrity instead of the life of Gandhi?

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Everything around us is inundated with news about celebrities: their lifestyles, what they wear, what they did, their homes and boats, their love affairs, and everything in between. You can’t actually escape such information even if you are not interested in the subject. What I don’t understand is idealizing the life of a person we know nothing about beyond their acting skills. We do not know the individual behind the celebrity—their hopes, dreams, desires, accomplishments, feelings of inner peace, and who they are as individuals in their hearts. We see the masks and we are obsessed by it. We desire it thinking it is the real thing—perhaps thinking it is real happiness and peace. In the meantime, we look at people who have walked the journey for real peace of heart and mind, such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, in an admiring way but we leave them alone on a pedestal to admire and maybe criticize but not to aspire towards.

Do you see the absurdity of our obsession with the masks rather than what is behind the masks? Do you see how convoluted our understanding of happiness and contentment is? We think we desire only the mask: the lifestyle, the glamour, the clothes, the cars, the houses, the travels, and the beauty. And we want the mask for we think that is the journey that will get us the joy we all seek in our lives. And so we leave the journey that is behind the mask alone, and with it we leave Gandhi and Mandela alone too. We respect them but rarely do I meet people who want to walk their journey. “Why?” I wonder.

All I know is that the journey to truth and inner happiness is a hard one for you cannot buy it no matter how much money you have. You can only work on getting it from within and that entails confronting yourself, your demons, and your heart’s truth. In that journey, no material possessions matter.  You can have it all, as many celebrities do indeed have it all, and still do not have joy and happiness.

How ironic, the thing that is accessible for all, for rich and poor alike, is not popular and the people who have walked that journey are just studied in history from afar. You see that inner peace and happiness does not require buying anything.  That desire to help people, and to speak truth to power, requires a lot of courage and even sacrifice at times. But it allows the person to sleep soundly at night and when the moment of death comes, there is no resistance to it.  To get real joy is to surrender and release our egos, as well as desires to being acknowledged or loved. Oh, it is so so much harder to walk that journey than it is to make money and buy that fancy car. And it is so much more joyous to feel that peace–and to dance with joy in your own skin–than it is to buy that gorgeous dress that you can’t afford. The first gives you a prolonged taste of that joy and the latter gives it to you momentarily, maybe daily and maybe only hourly.

Seriously, we’ve all experienced the excitement of buying a beautiful new dress or a new car. But if you are just slightly like me, that joy lasts no more than a few days for a dress and maybe a month for the car. That joy stops when what you already possess becomes the norm. And so you want to buy a new dress and another new thing over and over again to give you that taste of that joy rather than reverse the journey and do the hard work to achieve inner peace, where the self lies blissfully in silence.

We know nothing of celebrities and who they are as individuals. What we know is the mask they wear, as we all have our masks, and the obsession with how beautiful their masks are. Rather than viewing role models as those who have historically excelled in living his or her truth, our society asks us to idolize the mask of a celebrity. Are you with me? I think this is weird.

Orange5

On Anger, Justice, and Love

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A man in the audience of a recent speech I gave asked me for advice to help him deal with his anger at all the injustice he sees in his community and in the world. I was so touched by this man’s courage to talk about his anger publicly, an emotion that is seen so negatively in society that we would rather suppress any discussion of it than address it in public.

There are many definitions of anger. One of them, from Webster’s English Dictionary, defines anger as: “excited by an injury offered to a relation, friend or party to which one is attached; and some degrees of it may be excited by cruelty, injustice or oppression offered to those with whom one has no immediate connection, or even to the community of which one is a member.”[1] I understand that definition as I feel it every time I see injustice in front me, be it in my own surroundings or in world at large.  As a matter of fact, my anger at injustice has been a major driving force in my life. It has helped me maintain my determination to serve those who have been marginalized, and impacted by injustice, in some of the hardest parts of the world.

Anger at injustice may be the spark that serves as an impetus for actions but angershould never manifest in the action itself. In other words, I believe that when we see injustice we need to do something about it—but that doing has to be with love, kindness, respect, and generosity of spirit. Otherwise, if we allow anger to dictate our actions, we end up becoming the very thing that we are trying to fight against to start with. To make real and healthy transformation from injustice to justice we need to utilize compassion rather than anger, and understanding rather than ignorance.

Recently, however, I had to question all these notions when I was faced with an act of manipulation and violation on a very personal level. In a moment of pain, I reached out to the person where the violation happened in her place for perspective and counsel. To my surprise, she answered saying  “concepts of right-doing and wrongdoing always cause suffering so I can’t deal with it.” She continued and explained that she feels everyone is ultimately “innocence seeking peace.” That includes, in her description, fathers who raped their children, husbands who cheated on their wives, and definitely my own encounter with injustice.

Well, her answer left me perplexed and even disoriented for a while. It didn’t make sense to me. The world I live in has right-doings and wrongdoings. The acts of rapists are simply wrong and the raped victims have faced injustice. The act of stealing, lying, killing, manipulating—just to mention a few—are fundamentally wrong.  To equate all wrongdoings and right doings as the same, and brushing everything together as “innocence meeting peace” felt cruel. And that “cruelty” was covered in the name of “love,” which makes it even harder to accept, as it represents the betrayal of love itself.

Love is not stupid and it is not blind to injustice. Love, as I see it, is clear and truthful. Through love we can address wrongdoings and do something about it. But to brush off injustice in the name of love is an insult to love itself. In other words, when we see something wrong, we have to confront it. Seeing and acknowledging wrongdoing is part of the healing process for the victim and the aggressor alike. And doing that with compassion is what leads to true healing.

I didn’t think my anger could transcend into compassion towards those who have committed injustice until I met a certain 16-year-old young Iraqi woman. She told me how she appealed to her rapist moments before the rape by looking at him in the eyes and saying: “Please, please don’t rape me. Don’t you have a heart?” At that moment, he looked her in the eye and said, “My heart died long time ago,” and then he proceededto rape her.

When I heard that story from the girl herself, I had tears in my eyes and a painful ache in my heart. But the emotion of hurt wasn’t only for her–it was for her rapist, as well. You see, her soul is intact even though she was violated. It is he who has experienced “soul death” and that is the saddest thing in life. So today, I cry for him, as well. But that does not mean I think he is “innocence trying to meet peace,” and thus should do nothing despite him committing such violation. What peace is that? As much compassion as I have for him, I also think he needs to face justice, go ontrial, and serve whatever service necessary to allow understanding, repentance, and hopefully redemption. It is possible to usekindness to expand the discussion and lead to the healing rather than deny the wrong doing all together.

That woman I reached out to is a very spiritual person and that is why I reached out to her. And, in truth, “love for all” and “all is good” are concepts that I hear often from people in the spiritual Western world. Allow me to clarify something: being ungrounded in values reflects being out of touch with the reality of this world and irritates the heck out of people who suffer real injustice in the world. If I tell all the people that I have encountered in my life who have faced more horrible stories than my pen can write about that all is “innocence seeking peace,” I will lose any connection to them, to their real pain, and to their real stories. And I will definitely lose all respect!  Spirituality is beautiful but only when grounded in this earth and this reality. For when it is not, it leads to more disconnection than connection between not only individuals but cultures and nations as well. So for those who are out there, please come home to this earth. The world needs you to show up and be fully present in this reality.

Back to the man who had the courage to talk about his anger–thank you for seeing and hearing those who are suffering. And make sure that when you act against injustice, you do it with clarity, justice, and most importantly love and compassion. That is the only way we can make a difference in the world. And for me, What I experienced recently was great pain indeed. But that pain is no longer there and I am left with lessons that helped me grow and scars that will always remind me that life is ultimately beautiful and love is indeed bigger than all.

Orange6

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.

Orange1

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.