Category Archives: personal/life purpose

Wherever you go, there you are … and we’re still here!

So the Great Winter Solstice of 2012 came and went with little more than a sigh, and La Nueva Era (the new era) was celebrated with vigor in New Age circles around the globe (including in spots around Xichén Itzá, a truly fascinating people-watching experience), and much more modestly in the Mayan World.

Wearing my new white hipil, gorgeously embroided by a local Maya woman (and me wondering whether wearing it would even be appropriate) I kicked off the new baktun cycle at a midnight ceremony that was as much Catholic mass as ancient rite, at the ancient Zací cenote (huge sinkhole is the closest translation) in the heart of prehispanic Valladolid, Yucatán.  I and the 100 or so other attendees — Mexicans as well as some young European tourists — got to see flowers and Maya wine (balché) being blessed and offered to the cenote, say about 30 Hail Marys, enjoy Maya ceremonial music and dancing, watch three young men take the high dive into the dark cenote, have some Mayan communion (!) and be sprinkled with holy water and have blessed bougainvilleas thrown at my head and into my lap.

I must admit I’m not surprised there was no Big Huge Deal on Friday, but I must also admit I’m slightly disappointed.  Much in the way I felt hope and some antisocial excitement on the morning of 9/11/01 when I turned on the TV and saw a major US city in smoke and flames, the part of me that sits on Mount Olympus looking down on mortal humans in judgement, mocking their foibles, hoped some mindblowing disaster would strike to get people to wake up and smell some kind of evolutionary coffee — along the lines of “oh yeah?  Well this‘ll teach ya!”

But no such luck, and we are left to face something even more disturbing — ourselves, and the status quo.  So many people (myself included on bad days in the last few months) put a lot of stock in something big happening so “things” would start to change.  And yet here we are.  And I embarked on a long vacation to commune with my Authentic Self, relax, disconnect, and reconnect — things I struggle to do when I’m home.  And yet here I am.

Despite what we tell ourselves, and what clever advertising tells us, going away doesn’t change who we are.  Not by itself anyway.  Like with relationships, we exchange one set of problems for another.  For instance, here in southern Mexico I am no longer freezing like I would be at home, but now I’m dealing with sunburn and nasty mosquitoe bites.  I no longer have to cook for myself multiple times every day, but I do have to spend more money and find someplace to eat that’s tasty and meets my body’s needs — multiple times every day.  Ways that I tend to be anxious or rigid manifest differently when I travel, but they’re still there.

Of course, there is something to be said for a good fit.  Also like relationships, there are certain sets of costs and benefits that suit us better than others.  Being out of my normal comfort zone to some degree, without the normal list of distractions, I can take time to explore and notice things in a different way than I might back home.  I’ve realized for example — after 22 years of traveling! — that my first response to an unfamiliar place is to get oriented and get to know the place physically and geographically as thoroughly and quickly as possible.  I’ve realized that some things that used to delight or intrigue me many years ago now annoy or even anger me.  In some ways I’m only now getting to know the way I’ve always been, and in other ways I’m changing.

One of those changes is that at some point I became middle aged.  I’m now referred to as a señora (Mrs.) much more than I used to be, even though I wear no wedding band and I’m travelling unaccompanied.  I’ve only seen one solo female traveler and she was much younger than me.  The folks my age are in couples and have children in tow.  The adventurous-looking ones are young enough to be my children now and not only are they not interested in me, I’m no longer interested in them!

Not only that, I’ve actually thought more than once that I’m geting too old for this s**t!  Parts of traveling are just no longer recreational for me.  I’m sort of over the excitement of trying to flag down buses on long highways to get back into town, putting up with those long tedious busrides and dubbed B movies blaring in the dark, carrying my entire luggage on my back, washing my panties and t-shirts in the sink, getting blisters from all the walking, and trying to sleep decently in a new place every couple nights.  I’m even having some surprisingly negative thoughts about my Beloved Mexico and shockingly positive ones about USians and foreigners.  Places are even starting to look the same!

What the hell is happening to me? Am I bored?  Am I growing up?  I do seem to be a bit more myself than just my Wise Rugged Diane Fossey/Indiana Jones Lady persona or my Flirtacious Daring Cougar On Vacation persona. But when did I become some boring elitist who just wants to be promenaded around some tropical islands on some ostentatious ecologically disastrous cruise ship, or vegetate on a quiet beach under a crisp white canopy for hours having my drinks and exquisite meals brought to me … and my laundry done and folded, and my massage and whirlpool hottub waiting at the end of the day?

I don’t know, but whether or not it’s true that some kind of broader cosmic/economic/sociopolitical/spiritual Shift is afoot (which I still believe there is, particularly in the U.S.), I definitely feel myself shifting.  While I find myself feeling more more confident and secure than ever in strange places, I also feel the profound pain that my mistrust of people and fear costs me back home.  I notice the little guilt I feel about a few things I’ve done in my life that didn’t align with my word or intentions.  I notice the tremendous shame I feel about things I can’t control — past hurts, traumas, betrayals, and my lifelong challenges with a particular set of psychological health challenges.  I wonder why I am so hard on my body — a body that has given so much and generously supported me, like a horse I’ve run hard over mountains and plains for weeks, day and night, with barely enough food and water.  A body so many women would love to have, and great DNA to boot, and yet I direct nasty thoughts and shame at my thighs and belly, and tolerate excruciating exercises to try to shape and control them.

And I notice how my DNA affects me in other ways.  How I inherited the gift of words, the gift of music, sensitivity and romanticism of my father.  How I inherited the resourcefulness and ingenuity of my mother, as well as her sunny smile and ready laugh in public.  How I inherited brains, humor and great health from both. How I also inherited the bouts of depression of my father, as well as his narcissism and grandiosity, his isolation, his tendency to go up into his head under stress, and his naivete.  And I inherited my mother’s self-doubt, discomfort with her femaleness, resentment, constant doing, ambivalence about people, and sense of not-enoughness.

Wherever I go, there I am. Quitting my toxic job didn’t remove stress or constant work from my life. I am the one not managing my time, maintaining boundaries, saying no, or deciding not to check my iPhone at red lights.  Being single and childfree has not isolated me from loss.  It does free me from certain kinds of loneliness, but even though I’m better friends with Me Myself and I than I’ve ever been, after a week I’m definitely over the novelty of traveling alone.

It can be an advantage to grow up in a family where you’ve been taught you’re different.  I’ve been much more apt to take certain kinds of risks and take certain kinds of stands, especially as a female, than I would had I been taught to fit in and be “normal” (not that I didn’t desperately want to, but just couldn’t seem to).  But it also has its price.  42-year-old women don’t typically travel alone, nor have tattoos on their forearms or a nostril piercing.  As I try to connect and fit in, while constantly discovering and manifesting Me, I sometimes make choices that marginalize me.

And yet the ability to do such things — much less have the time to ponder and reflect on them — is a result of my tremendous privilege.  I have a life — partially by design, partially by circumstance — that affords me more freedom of thought, time, experience and movement than women have ever had.  My days are not taken up by the frenetic tasks of routine or necessity — the spouse, the children, the shopping, the cooking, the washing, the cleaning, the organizing or chauffeuring.  Or such services provided to other families.  Or the ordered, quiet life of a nun/priestess or duty-bound tedium of a royal.  I get to think about things most of us don’t think about.

Whether or not I should is perhaps another question.  It’s not fun to stare your life in its face, especially as it ages.  I’m also aware of a sort of pressure of expectations I tell myself is coming from others.  I get to go off on these adventures that others get excited about and experience vicariously through my photos and stories.  I therefore feel obliged to have a screamingly fabulous time, or experience some life changing realization.  Maybe this would make the trip worth it.  Maybe this would make it worth it for others at least, and justify the fact that they can neither go away nor have these realizations.  Imagine if Columbus or Marco Polo or Lewis & Clark came back from their epic journeys with a mere shrug and “meh!” to show for their adventures.  Not acceptable!

But as I become less of an extremist, I hope to allow some osmosis to occur among the various facets of my life.  Instead of mad long bouts of frenzied working punctuated with sparse periods of complete catatonic sloth, perhaps I can enjoy a dose of each every day?  Perhaps I can become more realistic about the miracles and joys and struggles and annoyances — of every day no matter where I am and what I’m doing?  Maybe I can learn to let my shame go, feel less fear, more vulnerability, more trust, and more joy?  Maybe I can learn to love my body and my life, regardless of what it’s doing, facing the reality that the losses will continue to increase and the control will continue to decrease if I allow myself to go gently and gracefully?

Because ultimately al fin de cuentas — in the end — wherever you go, and whenever you go, there you are.

[Epilogue: The above was written on December 22nd, and on December 23rd I spent most of the day with a twenty-year-old discovering an amazing ancient site together, and talking about a variety of subjects.  Not only was he delightful, he seemed to be enjoying himself with me as well!  More lovely people and animals have been crossing my path in the last two days.  There’s nothing like connection — however fleeting — to inject perspective, meaning, hope and contentment into my ongoing dialogue with myself. What’s your experience with this? Do people take us out of our heads in a good way, or are they mere distractions from necessary personal work? 🙂 ]

In lak ech,

Jaxsine

The Psychology of Sheep

Have you heard the story about the weird chicken? Well, here goes.

There once was a farmer who had a large flock of chickens.  One spring, he noticed one of the new chicks wasn’t quite fitting in,  He didn’t look like the other chicks, he didn’t sound like the other chicks, and he didn’t act like them either.  The chick, as he began to grow up, also noticed something wasn’t right. Try as he might, he couldn’t make himself be like the others.  The other chickens were mostly polite, but they noticed too.  Even the farmer saw that this bird was not turning into a very well-behaved or tasty-looking chicken, and he worried that the other chickens, and his reputation, were in danger because of the weird chicken.

One lovely afternoon a stranger passing by the farm struck up a conversation with the farmer.  The stranger noticed the weird chicken and took an immediate interest in the bird.  He offered to buy it.  The farmer, thinking of no other use for the chicken and seeing the stranger was a bit daft but friendly, agreed.  The stranger took his new feathered friend to the edge of the tallest cliff in the region, held him up high and gave him a little push, saying …

“Fly, eagle, fly!”

And the eagle flew.   Turns out he’d been blown into the chicken yard during a windstorm as a tiny eagle chick.  At first he was terrified and unsure of himself, but eventually he found other eagles.  He rejoined his tribe, happy to fit in at last — fully spreading his wings, hunting rodents and using his sharp beak and talons to their full potential — all things he was meant to do, but discouraged from in the chicken yard.

My guess is that many probably relate to this story and are eagles among chickens looking for their true tribe.  I definitely relate, and made the error most of us make — thinking others are like us.  However, I am now beginning to notice that there are plenty of eagle chicks who would just rather stay with the chickens.

Allow me to explain.  One of the people who reports to me at work was someone I was friendly with for years before I became her boss.  She always seemed to have some kind of struggle.  As the manager of her department she had a really hard time because she had no support from her boss and felt abandoned.  Then she stepped down and took another position in the department.  She confided in me how hard this role was too — no support, no motivation, no inspiration from her bosses — and her colleagues were also hard to work with.  A year ago this month, she cried in my office about how frustrated she was, and how she was thinking of quitting.  At that time I knew plans were in the works for me to take on leadership of her department, so I encouraged her to hang on.  “The organization needs you,” I told her, “You have so much to offer!”  As usual, she was very grateful to me for our trusting relationship and my empathy and support.

I was excited — once she found out I was going to be her boss, she was going to be excited too!  All she needed was some guidance and ideas from someone energetic and organized, with expertise in her field — me!  Together, we were going to do great things!

Four months later the leadership transition was announced in a department meeting.  She was there, and had been briefed days before about the impending changes.  For reasons unclear to me at the time, she quietly left the room at some point during the post-announcement group discussion, unable to “control her reaction” as she later explained.

Since then, this person, who I might have called a friend, has turned out to be the most manipulative, toxic, gossipy, lazy member of the team.  At first I thought it was my fault.  A new manager after all, I thought maybe I was doing something to cause this behavior.  I tried more contact, more structure, more concrete deadlines and clearer accountability.  I experimented with letting some things go and giving freer rein.  Despite lots of help from HR and my mentors, nothing I did seemed to make a difference for long, or at all.  I just really needed her to do her job and was to shocked to discover she wasn’t doing it, and hadn’t been for some time.  The disturbing gaps in her work performance even included things that put us at risk as an organization.

To date, she has been written up twice, suspended once, coached multiple times, and earned a non-passing performance evaluation.  She has contributed excessive absences, low productivity, missed deadlines, lack of follow through, troubling lack of documentation, inappropriate emails, and a number of poor or careless decisions requiring damage control.  Her responses to my efforts to improve her performance have included filing two grievances against me — one with the organization and one with the EEOC — for discriminating against her due to race.

I still believe that people co-create situations and that no one person is ever to blame completely for conflict or interpersonal problems.  Therefore, I know I helped create this situation.  However, I also now believe that I have done nothing wrong.  I am not the racist, demanding, oppressive boss from hell she believes me to be.  I am just requiring her to do her job, not letting her off the hook, and not buying into her victim persona.

And that’s where I went wrong.  I thought I was the friendly stranger rescuing the eagle chick.  I was prideful.  I thought, “Oh, these poor folks having to put up with all this bad stuff.  Once they get me as their leader, all will be well!  We will become an awesome department full of fulfilled, happy people, and they will be so grateful to me for fixing things!”

You see, the same thing has been happening with the rest of the team.  Like their colleague, for years they have complained and expressed frustration about the way things were.  Now that I am starting to shape things into what I thought was our shared vision of excellence, high performance, and greater efficiency, most of them have been fighting me all the way.

Here’s what I finally realized — if a person is unhappy in a situation, complains about it, and stays there, that negative situation is meeting their needs on some level.  If they really wanted things to be better or different, they would have either changed things or left.

Of course, this is not conscious, and to point this out to someone in this situation would likely provoke indignant howling.  But if a person is invested in their identity as a victim, even though they may say — and believe — they want things to change, they will fight to maintain their victimhood and rail against attempts to change.  We still need control after all.

This isn’t to say that the kindly eagle rescuer has no value or purpose.  Having someone come by, pick us out of the flock, and show us our true selves can be a powerful and life changing experience.

But we have to decide to flap our wings instead of clinging to our chicken identity and dashing to our deaths on the boulders in the canyon below.

Please pardon the switch in animal metaphors, but this is what I call the psychology of sheep.  Sheep (unlike chickens) are herd animals.  They follow each other compulsively — even off cliffs and to the slaughterhouse.  They get very anxious about being separated from the herd.  They are highly social and aware of each other, and like to stay together.

The psychology of sheep is one of mindlessness, of conformity, of blind following along.  It is a psychology of victimhood and powerlessness.  The psychology of sheep is sleep.

This is not our birthright, it is learned powerlessness.  I still believe we are all eagles.  We are all unique, vastly powerful and immensely creative beings.  But as eagles in sheep’s clothing (!), we decide it is safer — because it sometimes is — to blend in, to become small, to blame someone else.  Graduating from sheepdom requires (as one of my teachers called it) the Religion of Radical Responsibility.  To claim our power is to claim responsibility.  We take responsibility for the state of our lives, our health, our jobs, our relationships, our nation, our planet.

Terrifying indeed.  It’s so much easier to be a sheep.  Asleep.

One of the ways I have bought into victimhood in the past was my false belief that people in authority positions must know more, and better, than me. Therefore, I could abdicate certain knowledge and responsibility — leaving these in their capable hands — and also blame them when things went wrong, and righteously try to convince them to change.

I have learned a terrible secret.  Many, if not most, people in power positions are equally afraid and convinced of their powerlessness!  We are sheep following sheep.

This might be another reason for my team’s resistance:  I am not a sheep in a sheep organization, and it makes them nervous.  Or it makes them angry — my friend-turned-toxic-employee is probably rightfully indignant that she is suddenly being asked to do good work, when substandard work has been acceptable for years.  I made the mistake of trying to be an eagle in a sheep organization.  Just who do I think I am anyway!?

As a good friend and colleague once said to me, in analyzing our workplace:

Sometimes people breathe toxic air so long they think it’s normal.  They think the abuse and neglect is normal.  It feels normal to hurt like that.  People adapt to dysfunction to the point where it’s seen as desirable or preferable to change.  The results are negfests, learned helplessness, and resistance.  In our organization, function often follows form, the letter of the law is emphasized over the spirit of the law, and the adventure of academia spars with the risk averse bureaucracy.

I still believe people are not sheep.  I don’t believe we need a shepherd — noteworthy that this is one of the more powerful symbols in Christianity — nor am I interested in being a shepherd.  In my job, it has felt for months like “my employees” either want me to just be a sheep or a shepherd.  But I am not interested in reinforcing false dualities.  I am not interested in running around waking up sheep or forcing them to separate from the herd.

I also do not want to be a sheep — because I’m not — but as a non-sheep it is exhausting trying to exist in a herd, especially when it’s heading for a cliff. I can’t seem to break away from the crowd due to the force of their momentum, yet if I stand still I’ll get trampled.

I think for now the bird metaphor is a better fit.  I know I’m an eagle amongst chickens, I’m just waiting for the right moment to fly.  In fact, one image I play with during the day as I walk down the drab institutional hallways of my place of employment is to picture huge angel-like eagle wings opening with a loud feathery snap behind me like a skydiver’s parachute, brushing the walls on either side of me as I glide to whatever adventure awaits me next.

How about you?

In lak ech,

Jaxsine