Tag Archives: life challenges

Open to magic

I’m sitting in the JFK airport with a 5 hour layover, waiting for a flight to Madrid. You wouldn’t find me complaining if you sat down next to me. I have been waiting expectantly for this opportunity for almost a year. I plan to meet my middle son there and trek across northern Spain for over two weeks. I feel so darn lucky to have made it to this spot.

The wait has given me time to contemplate my expectations for this very anticipated journey. I am tickled to see my son again after 8 months. I am giggly about getting to be outdoors non-stop, and yet I know that my excitement is full of attachment to specific outcomes.

We can plan, we can anticipate, but when the time comes for a big event — be it a trip, a board meeting or a company merger — being open to the outcome is the prescribed cross-cultural tenet. From Hinduism comes the advice to be focused on what you are doing, not the fruits you are trying to derive. Harrison Owen, founder of Open Space Technology and researcher on detachment proposes that, “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.”

Example of the day — I somehow got upgraded to first class on the way here. Talk about attachment to the outcome!! I visualized great food, comfy chair and lots of space to spread out. I did get all those, but also I received the interesting surprise that the flight attendant radiated a not very pleasant odor. I think it was moldy shoes…or it reminded me of the smell that came when a gaggle of teenaged soccer players would remove their cleats in the mini van during days gone by. Regardless, it helped to breathe in and out of my mouth whenever the server would drop by.

The practice of detachment calls us to be open to whatever comes and watch for the mysterious unfolding of life just as it is, not how we might have visualized it.  This is the differentiator between joy and suffering in my life.  I like to remember Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron’s advice when life is coming at us unexpectedly. When what arrives is fun and interesting (that upgrade) she recommends we repeat to ourselves, “Pleasant.” And if it is uncomfortable or bothersome (overwhelming smell), we can say instead, “Unpleasant.” With this approach we remember to stay with the game and not miss the next act as we cling to the good or recoil from the bad.

And they don’t call it a “practice” for nothing…it’s something I continue to work on and forget more than I’d like! Yet, when I do remember, or are reminded by wise souls who stay calm and happy regardless of what pleasant or unpleasant surprises arrive at their door, detachment is like a reset button.

As we started our descent, the flight attendant went from seat to seat kindly thanking each customer for the opportunity to serve. When he came to my seatmate and me, both female, he took our hands and kissed them. “Very dear” I thought and wondered what other surprises await.

Playing Well in Ecuador

I am always looking for leaders who resourcefully overcome huge challenges and create societal transformation in their wake. Some of our more famous 20th century conflict transformation stars would be Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma and of course, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, there are many lesser-known courageous souls around the world who are continuing to play well and changing our landscape.

 Thus, I wanted to pass along a Christian Science Monitor article on Nelsa Curbelo. A former Uruguayan nun and school teacher, Curbelo is successfully tackling widespread poverty and violence in the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Either click on the hyperlink above, or go to http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0122/p01s03-woam.html 


Curbelo demonstrates the mastery of four critical cross-cultural conflict resolution strategies: 

  1. Gather information – At the beginning of any battle we are best served by paying attention and taking stock of the battlefield upon which we stand. For example, to tackle the problem of Indian independence, Gandhi spent over a year traveling on third-class trains and on foot, asking everyone he could — Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Brahmins, Untouchables and so on — about India and its needs. Similarly, Curbelo spent two years simply walking the crime-ridden streets of Guayaquil, asking and listening to gang members, families and other community members.
  2. Be Flexible – Focus on a goal, but keep the final product open to revision. Notice how Curbelo’s goal of mitigating poverty and suffering allows certain protections of the youth she serves to remain in place. She isn’t there to stamp out gangs or rid the streets of guns, just to effectively help.
  3.  Engage our creativity — The best solutions are both surprising and elegant.  As I wrote in a previous post on employing art, creative ways to express our truth packs extra power. By honoring that gangs are a source of community and identity, Curbelo was able to foster the forming of a united nations of past warring groups, complete with an inaugural celebration!
  4. Act Courageously – It’s one thing to know what is right, but another to do it. A conflict transformation star holds that everyone deserves a chance and basic support. I remember Maria Montessori, who in the early 20th century spent years working with Italian children who had been written off as handicapped or damaged. Montessori’s work went on to transform early childhood education worldwide. Curbelo’s community is now filled with those who now many in society fear or deplore. May her work will have the same wings that Montessori’s enjoyed.

 I hope you find the article of interest and inspiring!

Learning to Love the Mess

Wander where there is no path. Be all that heaven gave you, but act as though you have received nothing. Be empty, that is all. — Chuang Tzu

A dear friend recently shared a series of losses that he had suffered. As he explained how a terminally ill friend had become the “final straw” in breaking his foundational beliefs about death and his own mortality, I found myself strangely excited. In case you might find me a bit twisted, I hope you’ll understand that my enthusiasm rose from a deep belief in the power of confusion. 

I wouldn’t wish such tragedy on anyone, yet we don’t seem to become wiser when all is easy and understood. Really, why should we? If I have the world figured out, I don’t have much incentive to dig deeper. It’s as though crisis creates cracks that allows wisdom’s light to seep in. I trust that as my friend earnestly wrestles with how to deal with great loss and the inevitability of death, he is going to gather insight. Selfishly, I hope he’ll share his garnered prizes with us.

It feels like our core beliefs create a sort of scaffolding or something solid to stand on over the sea of uncertainty. “I am a mother,” “I am from Minnesota,” or “I live in a democracy,” might be some of the planks that support my identity or the lookout post I have built. But, with enough time, the wood gets worn. Tough times also have a habit of ripping up carefully lain floorboards, like the globally favorite, “The financial markets are secure.”     

When my core beliefs are battered and I can’t tie reality up with a nice bow, I can feel set adrift in that sea. Questions like, “Who am I? What do I believe? What should I do next?” become hard to answer. Life, or my interpretation of it, gets messy or confusing.

I’ve come to have an innate trust in this messiness. My perspective expands when life pushes me to move into a state of not knowing. The more I become comfortable hanging out in the confusion, the more clarity I bring back. Meanwhile, we all have a fundamental desire to get back to solid ground again; I like to know who I am, or pretend to anyway, and to believe that I know how this all works!

Hanging out in messiness as mediator has helped. Usually you will have two sides at the negotiation table that have completely different versions of what occurred in a dispute. A first impulse is to want to determine who is right and who is crazy. Yet, the mediator’s job isn’t to find the real truth, but instead to hold a confusing reality that is created by assuming that the opposing stories are equal. Allowing there to be irreconcilable differences opens the possibility of a third interpretation of the situation that the parties can create together.

Without firm footing on how the world works, or who I am, I notice that I slow down and better consider each step forward. It creates a rawness or necessary vulnerability, as I wonder what else I have been missing. It wakes up my compassion as I realize that we are all madly trying to piece together how to play well with very limited information. Also, if we take a cue from all the major religions, learning to love the mess is “right work” and one of our main life tasks.  So, I get hopeful when those I love dip into confusion, and look forward to the treasures my dear friend might uncover in that chaotic space.   

It Takes a Team

I’m not sure who came up with the favorite saying, but among three dear friends we took it to heart. I think Julie invented it, but she likes to credit Annie or me since her children are the youngest of the lot.

 In the early 1990’s I was mothering two boys under three and trying to work full time. My husband Bruce was in law school, so finances and time together were limited. I would work during the day and he would attend classes in the evenings. Crossing paths at the front door, we’d often hand a hungry, dirty-diapered baby to the one now on duty. We were thankfully young enough to power through these crazy times since on every level we were just barely “pulling it off.” I’m still amazed that Bruce graduated and I was able to start a career.

 My friends Annie and Julie were in the same boat. With seven kids and three jobs between us, we’d meet monthly at our self-fashioned book club. Somehow we adopted the mantra,  “You need people.” We used this tag line to justify getting a cleaning service to muck out our homes. It made it sort of all right that we needed childcare to sneak away a few times a year to get a manicure. What I didn’t realize at the time, “I need a team” was the underlying truth of why I not only I should buy support services, but it was why I deeply needed these friends to survive early parenthood.

Recognizing we needed help was hard to admit since we also believed that as American women we were supposed to pull off mothering and working on our own. Not long out of college in the 1980’s we each considered being successful grownups meant figuring out how to be as independent as possible. 

Living in Washington DC we were all far from family. So, to Julie and Annie I went if we needed help.  Julie and her husband appeared at 4 a.m. to watch over our eldest when the second was born. When we wanted to build a deck, Annie’s husband was found wildly digging behind our house for hours in a rainstorm. It clearly took a team to keep Bruce and I afloat even if I couldn’t fully admit it.

 Now almost twenty years later with my children about grown, our motherhood mantra keeps circling through my head.  As I research global approaches to overcoming difficult times, “It takes a team,” is the resounding wisdom. When the going gets rough, community is supposed to be at our sides.

For example, cross-culturally during times of major loss we would not be expected to grieve alone. People are expected to stop by and check on the mourners. African ritualist Malidoma Somé adds, “Dagara people don’t comprehend the idea of private grief.”  From the Jewish tradition we learn the practice of sitting shiva where friends provide constant company and support to the mourners for seven days. In the Iroquois culture, this same practice continues for eleven days. 

Even as a person dies, in many, many cultures, he or she is kept company through the last breath and is not left alone until days after. In Japan, loved ones will bathe and sleep near the corpse, speaking to their departed loved one until internment. We are to be sung to, guided and comforted through this greatest transition. 

This wisdom transcends into our everyday. In the years after writing When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner has asked thousands what got them through a life crisis. The answer to his question was a single word, “community.” 

We weren’t dealing with physical death thankfully as newly minted mothers. Yet, our old footloose and free lives were ending as we were initiated into motherhood. We needed a team, and thank goodness we adopted this truth — no matter who invented it.  

Workshop Announcements

In January and February I will be providing two public workshops entitled “Thriving Through Tough Times” in Bozeman, Montana. During these fun (I hope!) and highly interactive workshops we will explore how to welcome life’s ups and downs. Together we will uncover our default styles under stress, learn cross-cultural techniques to stay centered and practice how to play well in our personal and professional lives regardless of what comes our way!

Pilot Workshop — January 23 from 7 to 9pm and January 24 from 9:30 am to 4 pm at Pilgrim Congregational Church on South 3rd Ave. Cost — $20 to cover lunch, refreshments and a donation to Pilgrim. Please contact Mary Wagner at  mail@uccbozeman.org or call 406.587.3690. Limit 24 participants.

On February 28th from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm this workshop will be provided as a fundraiser for Girls for a Change — a teen girls empowerment program. In conjunction with the GFAC conference, “Thriving Through Tough Times” will be offered to adult participants at Montana State University. All attendees will receive copies of Deidre’s books, The Way of Conflict and Worst Enemy, Best Teacher and lunch.  Cost: $150.00. Please contact Deborah Neuman, dneuman@allthrive.org, 406-587-3840 to register. Limit 30.