Happy Mental Health Day. Pun intended.

I was working with my therapist on finding ways to manage failure.
She set the new goal and the system automatically set it to 0% accomplished.
I saw that and this default setting made me feel disappointed… so I clicked edit and I set it to 20%..
Phew. Now that feels like less of a failure.


#worldmentalhealthday 10.10.2020

Many people tell me that I am a positive person.
I’m usually smiling, sure.
I have a lot of joy and light in me.. double sure.
I sometimes look like I “have it together”…whatever that means.
Folks, let’s keep it real. please.
I also have a lot of shadow and challenges to work through. We all do.
I also struggle. a lot. I often feel my crazy mind and untamed emotions, just like most of us do.
I also have close family members who have suffered from depression and other, even more debilitating, mental illnesses.

This past year I have been in an intense grieving process after the death of my dad. I thought it would get easier after the first year. In many ways it’s getting more difficult and it’s calling upon reserves of patience and gentleness with myself that I’m not sure I have…

Mental health appears silent and unseen. Yet our attitude and state of mind determine our capacity to be alone, to be in relationship, to work effectively, to sleep well, to enjoy intimacy. How can anything get done if peace is not present?

Mental health is like the air we breathe.

Seemingly invisible, untouchable and yet when the air gets thin or unclean.. we are left gasping for breath, on our knees..

The things I feel that actually work to help balance my mental states?

1. spending time with people that I trust and talking it through. I grab the phone if those peeps aren’t close by.

2. morning practices – there are so many – but the point is to start off the day feeling like I’m caring for myself and my wellness – it can include yoga, meditation, breathing exercises (loving the Wim Hof exercises on YouTube!), morning pages journaling, dancing, singing… and more).

3. gratitude – and shifting perception to what I do have versus what I don’t have.

4. staying away from social media (yes, I know it’s ironic that I’m posting this to social media, but trust me, I set my app limits to no more than 10 minutes a day and I focus on spending my alive time in the here and now as much as possible!)

5. staying away from social media especially when I’m alone (versus with other people) – for some reason that seems to be key for me.

6. watching comedy. humour. laughter. –> long live our wonderful comedians. they change vibrations and gives us lighter air to breathe!

7. being mindful of what I consume in terms of music, entertainment, images and books. our minds and especially our subconscious remembers all of it. ALL. It kind of makes sense right, that I have nightmares after I watch gory or violent movies at night.. come on. I can do better than that. I can nourish my mind with more wholesome vibes.

You take time every single day to shower, brush your teeth. You do your best to eat wholesome food. You make sure you get quality sleep.
Good for you –> that is called physical hygiene.

But what about your mental and emotional hygiene?

  • Who can you forgive today? (what can you forgive yourself for?)
  • What can you let go of?
  • What can you meditate on to get to the root of the issue (usually fear and grief are there lying underneath it all)Where do you need to give yourself and others recognition?
  • Where can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see the situation from their perspective?

THAT is just the beginning of –> emotional and mental hygiene.

It’s the daily practices that do it. It’s the check-ins with yourself and others. It’s the love, courageous fear-facing, giving ourselves time to fall apart and to put ourselves together again.
It doesn’t need to take a long time. Brushing your teeth only takes a few minutes twice a day.
I for one rather brush my teeth daily than rely solely on my once a year dentist’s visit. I know that once yearly wont cut it.
Just like a once yearly yoga retreat to “find myself” is not really what it’s all about (not to poo-poo on retreats, but stick with me on the dentistry metaphor…)

It’s about the every day feeling, being, appreciating, understanding and gently moving with the mystery..

Happy World Mental Health Day.
Pun intended.

To all of us heart warriors – I am with you.
We see you. We are as magnificent as we are fragile.

In fact, the truth is:
the more darkness and suffering you can endure (dare I say, embrace…) the greater your capacity to receive joy and pleasure.
Your capacity to love and feel the light deeply is equally proportionate to your ability to stay present with the shadow.

Wishing all of us balance, understanding to self and others and plenty of groundedness.

(featured photo – morning hike – flashback to Haiti 2014)

“Random” Acts of Kindness

I was going for a walk around my neighbourhood today. A pretty typical thing to do especially when you work at the computer. I needed to move the bones around and get the blood flowing. I was less on my phone and more present with my surroundings when I noticed the gate and the car. The two were trying to coordinate their dance of maneuvering and entering, and it was not going so well. I happened to walk by so I held the gate for the car, that is to say, for the gentleman driving the vehicle. We were both shocked. He was astounded that I had helped him (it’s not like I was busy doing anything else!) and I was surprised at how shocked he was. After our “thank yous” and “your welcomes” came to end, I continued on my walk and my musings.

Why should seemingly random help from strangers surprise us so? Do we always need to be in a give-take relationship with someone in order to help them?

What about that wonderful concept of the Universal Bank of Services? I first read about it in one of Paolo Coelho books. Simply put, the Bank of Services is an infinite, cosmic web of people helping people. And those people don’t necessarily know each other or have any particular ties to each other besides their shared humanity (FYI that’s already a big tie, hehe). Simply, we do good for others when we can. In return, when needed, we can also receive help in return. And we won’t always receive it from someone we know or thought would help us… sometimes it’s a random act of kindness.

To me it feels pretty freeing, and oh-so enjoyable.

Plus – when I’m on the receiving end of seemingly random kindness – I’m so much more willing to accept and invite it in. Because I’m regularly paying into the Universal Bank too. Maybe I haven’t helped or been present for that specific person who’s helping me, but I have for someone else and…. the cycle continues. It’s fun to think of how my brain is completely incapable of comprehending the vastness of this web!

Speaking of being present in the moment and simply doing what needs to be done, that does remind me of The Muddy Shoe post (flashback to Haiti! #ayitichéri)

That’s all for me. A miracle indeed that I was able to curb my ramblings to a relatively short post 🙂 I might consider that a random act of kindness too 😉

Judgment detoxification

Folks, I think it’s high time we stop it. We need to stop this foolishness. Judgment. Why are we judging each other constantly? Why am I judging myself constantly? When I know – and I know it deep down – that I am doing the best that I can every day. Yet I’m requiring more, asking more, thinking I should be more, comparing myself to others more… and it’s exhausting. I can barely breathe.

Today I feel like I’ve been trudging up this judgment mountain and I reached the peek. And I’m glad I’m here and I can see out around me but hell I have no desire to climb this mountain ever again. I’m done. This is done. I’ve had enough.

I have no desire to judge anyone any more. I don’t even want to pretend that I think I know why you are doing what you are doing. What the hell do I know? I’m not the one living in your skin and in your head and heart every day. I don’t know if walking outside and going to the supermarket has been the most trying task for you today, or whether it was easy and you didn’t think about it twice. I don’ t know where you’ve been and what you’ve been experiencing. I don’t know who or what you’re grieving for. I couldn’t tell you what the last event was that brought you joy. I don’t even know you. Yet here I sit with judgments about you flitting through my mind. Enough!

And do you know HOW I know that I don’t know you? Because I spend 24 hours a day WITH MYSELF (and have done so for several decades) and I barely know myself! My own reactions, thoughts and daydreams startle me! I recently experienced a panic attack, and that was a new experience. Heck, I even discovered a new vegetable last month (chicory) – ha! So if living in such close proximity to one human being – aka, me – is already rife with so many mysteries, discoveries and question marks – how on Earth can I pretend to know you?

…and don’t get me started on when I think I know what is best for you (inserts snorting laughter here)… because I have all my sh*t together, right? (ha!) and here I go telling you how to live your life (shakes head)…

The dictionary tells me that judgment is “the ability to judge, make a decision, or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively, and wisely, especially in matters affecting action; good sense; discretion“.

I want to take that word ABILITY and throw it off the mountain top and lose it forever. Right now I’m thinking we can replace it for a while with the word DISABILITY. A crippling disability that we need to receive support for in order to overcome it.

The support system for our disability would also teach us 3 magic words: “JUST LIKE ME”. They would teach us that these need to be added as an afterthought to every judgment in order to nullify the negative effects of judgments.


“Wow – that guy is always on the go!”…and adding at the end “just like me

“Crikey, it looks like the government has no idea what its doing”…(clears her throat), “just like me.”

“That lady looks lovely, and she’s obviously been working out,” … (winks to self), “just like me!”

At the end of the day this disability called judgment is probably here to stay, much like covid-19, rats and paying taxes. Except in the case of this particular epidemic we are all already infected. There is no vaccine and there are only two known cures.

1. Stop yourself mid-act while passing judgment on someone else (you’ve got to be really quick on your toes for this one!)

2. Once you do judge… just add the 3 magic words… “just like me”

…and at least that way you’ll be reminded of your own folly and wonder and your humility will stay in check as you remember that hey, you too, are most likely just as messy, fascinating and unpredictable like all of those other people.

Oh yeah, and those three words will help to soothe the heartache. Because when we judge we separate ourselves from others. Did you know that?

Ok. That was quite the mountain-top soapbox speech. I’m done now. I can breathe again now. I’m climbing back down to humans once again now.

Once I’ll get there I’ll have a green juice and I’ll make it official: I’m on judgment detox.

*featured image courtesy of BBC.

I am well. I am here. I’m willing to help if needed. YOU need only ask.

It is time to write to you again. If I have remained silent in the last while it is because the turbulence of things got to me too.

I have made it through my own small storm to settle in the peace on the other side. And that peace is acceptance of what is. And gratitude for all of the miracles continuing to manifest.

Firstly, please know that I am safe and sound in a small hamlet near Gap, in the French Alps. I am more than OK, I am thriving. With nature, the forest and the mountains at my doorstep and the windows of my little hut which welcome in the Eastern morning sun – I am blessed. I am with a good family, and I have children around me, and WOW children are so much more practiced than most of us adults at living in the present moment. My previous volunteer exchange (more info here on how I create mini-retirements for myself) has simply been adapted to the new circumstances. I’m staying for longer than initially planned. It’s spring here so there’s plenty to do!

I help out in the housework and the garden-work as needed, and since the girls can’t go to school or to their regular extra curricular activities, I help when I can with teaching them English, piano and guitar. I was taught music in the anglo-saxon way (A+ major, D- minor and so on) and so I don’t know much about do, re, mi, fa, so, la system used by the French, but we make do. Rhythm is universal. So is slowing down and taking apart the more difficult parts of a musical piece before putting it all back together again. Staying disciplined and moving forward step by step is also the international language of learning. And so, day by day, we are finding our own new tempo of life. We may also be creating our own family theater production.. but more on that later 🙂

In terms of material tools I have everything that I need. Yummy, nutritious food, oodles of fresh bread and cheese (ha! the French!) and a warm, cozy bed. A wood-burning stove for when the evenings get chilly. A great Internet connection allowing me to feel close to loved ones. Books galore, paper to draw on, paper to write on, tissues to cry into if needed.

Internally, I also have everything that I need. Every retreat, every meditation, every yoga practice, every spiritual book, every single time that I have had the courage to be comfortable with the uncomfortable is now serving me more than ever. Oh yes!! My online habits of learning and creating and money-earning also serve me well. My travel and other work plans pre lock-down were disrupted, yes, and once I made my peace with these changes it feels like it’s back to square one.

And square one is also answering, yet again, the question: What can I do to serve others?

It turns out I’ve got quite a few skills and perspective-altering practices to share with you. Do you need these skills? Do you want to learn about them? Do you know how you want to experience this home-isolation? Do you want it to be a time of creativity? of peace?  of learning? or are you letting yourself get carried away in the panic and media frenzy?

Here are some topics that immediately come to mind:

1. Self-knowledge – understanding your inner world. Let’s connect about:

  • starting a meditation practice
  • starting your own yoga practice
  • what is mindfulness and how to practice this
  • managing difficult emotions (such as fear, anxiety, etc.)

2. Learning online. Chat to me about:

  • what do I want to learn and how do I find the course
  • how to stay motivated and disciplined
  • how and why online courses can add to your skillset (both professional and personal)

3. Earning money online. I’m happy to share about:

  • what is upwork.com and how does it work
  • what kind of work can I do online?
  • is working remotely for me? why or why not? (personality types and compatibility)
  • pros and cons of working online

4. Working remotely from home for the first time:

  • balancing structure and flow in your day – how to do this?
  • staying motivated and self-disciplined
  • keeping the feeling of connection with colleagues and direct-reports strong
  • using technology to aid (and not to hinder) you in your work

Why me? I’m a certified yoga instructor and coach. I’m also a manager and an entrepreneur. I move between many worlds and cultures (private sector, NGO sector, freelance online work) so I have a pretty good understanding of different professional and work contexts. I have over 10 years experience learning, practicing and implementing points 1, 2, 3 and 4 above. Because I am willing to share and I want to share this with you. Because I’m deeply committed to wellness and to compassionate leadership.

This is what I can do. It is an open offer – take it or leave it – it is OK either way! I have experience in these fields, and it’s something I naturally share about with the people I meet, all around the world, all the time. Except that recently my social gatherings got squished to zero 😉 (as did yours, I know) and so now I’m opening this up to the online sphere. I’m also aware that many of you have had less practice with the above topics, and you may need a hand. I get it. I really do.

FYI – I also work in Polish and in French. My Spanish is a bit rusty, but I’ll make an extra effort 😉

So please also share with your international friends.

Contact me. Message me here or on Linkedin or via my website. Send me an email (jestemat@gmail.com) and let’s connect.

What do I ask for in exchange? That you spread the word. That you come with an open mind and an open heart. That you open up to the idea that there is a friendly soul over here in the French Alps who would be happy to share with you. If demand is high enough I’ll organize free webinars to have groups come together with like-minded interests to learn together. so – PLEASE – share!

This is NOT some kind of money grab. I am sincere in my offer of free advice. Yes, I also charge for my coaching services. If you eventually become interested in hiring me as your coach, then we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. This post is not about that. It’s about waving a virtual hello and letting you know that you are not alone.

With peace and blessings.
p.s. Folks, it’s true that there are few, if any, guarantees in life. But I’ll tell you this – we will get through this. As a human family, we will be OK.

Stay strong. Remain in your inner peace. Connect with your own heart. Pray for everyone. For we are all, in one way or another, affected by what is happening.

With a full heart,
I bid you a very fond farewell for now, from the mountain top,

In Praise of Mini-Retirements & How YOU can go on one too

I first read about this idea of mini-retirements in Tim Ferris’ book called the 4-hour work week. The idea stuck and I’ve been taking breaks between work contracts to travel and volunteer ever since. I for one do not want to wait until I’m 65 to enjoy discovering different activities and parts of the world that I wouldn’t normally have the chance to do and see!

The result has been amusing and educational. And, incidentally, I also get to spend a lot of time with older people (because they are actually retired). Positive because:
1. I can question them on their life decisions and what they feel they did well, or not so well – aka, garner new wisdom
2. they are chill older people, much like me, so no pressure to drink/party etc. I like my dancing but I’m not much of a night-clubber.

There are numerous ways to plan a mini-retirement for yourself. You can plan it around one of your hobbies/passions (aka. you’ve just discovered salsa dancing and you’re heading to Colombia to immerse yourself in this for the next 3 months) or around a great, new place you’ve been meaning to discover.

Check out websites such as WWOOFing networks (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) where in exchange for room and board you help out farmers with their various organic farming activities (this has led to rather random and funny situations in my own life, such as my temporary hiring of Bolivian soldiers who weeded the garden story) and Work Away (workaway.info) as well which works much like WWOOFing but involves a whole myriad of work and volunteer activities that go far beyond farming. I really enjoyed my first workaway trip where I got to teach yoga in Morocco back in 2018.

Side note: for anyone reading this who has children – YES many WWOOF and WorkAway hosts will welcome in families to stay and volunteer with them too.

Then we always have couchsurfing, AirBnB and WarmShowers network (for you cyclists out there)…

and you ALSO have friends who can take you along on a fun cruise or trip (or you can invite yourself to them).. then by all means bike along the Danube or check out an Ashram in India and go on an Ayurvedic cleanse. Thank you friends !!

Of course there are all of the allures of being a global nomad and finding freelance work, such as using the platform upwork.com – you can also take some time off between major work contracts and have a bit of a side hustle on the side – either to keep yourself and your mind busy and engaged, or to make some extra cash, or both.

Either way, for the sake of leading interesting, diverse and balanced lives, why on Earth (if we can allow ourselves this luxury) would we immediately jump from work contract to work contract? I advocate for taking some downtime, but ultimately what I see in myself and in others is that down-time does not necessarily mean doing nothing and lying belly-up on the beach (sometimes needed, but not always), but rather it means changing drastically what you’re doing and where you are.  Mentally, it feels like more of a holiday. Taking some distance from your normal life and activities can give you a breather, change your perspective and rest the parts of your mind which are preoccupied with those activities. I don’t think we necessarily need to stop being active BUT we do sometimes need a change of scene and change what we are doing.

FYI – there are other benefits to this also.
Being cross-disciplinary and poking your nose into other worlds that you previously knew nothing about (ex. organic farming, goat-cheese making, natural horsemanship, woodworking, etc.) can be very beneficial to your core work and to your brain:

  • builds creativity and fires up your imagination
  • is literally healthy for your brain (Thank you medium.com, and I quote “your brain needs novelty to grow”)
  • can bring in great new inspiration and ideas (in fact, according to Harvard Business Review, some of the best ideas come from outside of our own industries)
  • not to mention travelling to a part of the world where you can brush up on the foreign language you’re learning

Three cheers for the diverse life and the life-long learners!!!

(and after you’re done cheering, please feel free to leave your thoughts and feedback below) <– especially if you’re a practitioner of mini-retirements too!

A major cause of work stress…and it’s not what you think

Mental stress is defined as how events in one’s external or internal environment are perceived, resulting in the psychological experience of distress and anxiety (source). The question of perception and of our personal capacity to adapt and to welcome uncomfortable events and feelings means that different people can react to the same external or internal environments very differently. What matters is not necessarily what you are experiencing but rather how you are reacting to it.

Side note: I’d like to share one of my favourite life quotes:

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”
Charles R. Swindoll

The pop-culture understanding of mental stress brings up images of frazzled people running around, hurried for time, barely breathing and trying to fit in even more items into an overloaded schedule.

Potentially with one eye popping out of its socket. See cartoon below:

The truth is, however, that most of us don’t actually have a problem with rushing around a bit. Hustle is not the issue here. Remember that hobby project you’re working on which absolutely absorbs you, and you forgot to eat dinner because you were so consumed by it? What about how you were feeling tired this evening until your best friend called you and now you’re super keen to go out with him? Because when we want to do it, when we’re passionate about it, we will happily go the extra mile and maybe even forego basic needs like food and sleep.

But why?

Why do we expend energy on a beloved hobby, and feel energized, and turn around and dedicate the same amount of energy to a task that feels like a chore and feel depleted?

The answer is simple: heart.

When the heart and the head are disconnected – and especially when this becomes a chronic state of being – we are quickly depleted. Our to-do lists become heavy burdens, and every effort to move things forward on a path which doesn’t feel right feels gargantuan.

And what, pray tell, can reconnect us with our hearts?

While we all have different passions and desires, I believe that human interaction, compassion and sense of belonging are a big part of the heart-nutrition we are hankering for these days.

You’ve had our fill of dog-eat-dog competition. You’re over the idea of “keeping up with the Jones’ “. Actually, by now you’re far more keen on being more than on having more.

Cheer up. There is good news. Whatever work that you are doing, whatever the industry, or the location, whether it is in an office or remotely based.. you are very probably interacting with humans.

…and interactions with humans are RIFE with opportunity.

This means you have constant opportunities to interact, to share a sincere smile, to show compassion for someone else’s struggle and to make authentic connections. And these interactions have the incredible power of changing your perception about the work that you are doing.

Yes, but what about my stress levels?

I’m arguing that it’s not about your task-list, or your boss (to whom you can also send loving-compassion, FYI, even if she makes your life a living hell most of the time, lol). It’s actually about how well you take advantage of your opportunities to share goodness with others. I’m arguing in favour of looking at your job – dare I say, at everything that you do in life – as one, long, never-ending, glorious excuse to love people.

Yes, I’m going to say it again.

–>Everything I do is really just a pretext to love on people.<–

Because, ultimately, it is not how busy or unbusy you are which will determine how stressed you feel, but the quantity and quality of heart-connections that you are experiencing. Your mind alone can never bring you full satisfaction and fulfillment at work or in life. Only your heart can do that.

Look at the following two states of being as a major energetic underpinning of discomfort and dissatisfaction at work (and in life). You’ll also find that they are very connected to each other. And it is this discomfort and heart-disconnection which makes the rush and frazzled state we experience as stress become so unbearable.

A) my work does nothing to nourish my heart and soul

Your work in and of itself may or may not have profound meaning (you can work for an NGO, build water wells in African villages etc.) OR you can give it meaning yourself in your approach to yourself and to people. Some people need that feeling of direct impact on a community in order to feel at peace with themselves and their work (and as someone who spent 6 years working in Haiti and Senegal I certainly had my dose of this too!), and I fully respect that approach. But let’s not negate all of the tasks and structure needed to make our world go round, from the baker baking the bread to the electrician fixing your power cable. That being said, the second approach, of giving heart-meaning to your own work, regardless of what that work may be, is also very valuable. Simply put, human beings and human trials and tribulations are present all the time. Who you are and what you do to spread compassion and peace around you is relevant always and everywhere.

The reason we feel so stressed? Not only are we running around trying to be as efficient as possible and checking off items from our to-do list, but to add salt to the wound, what we are doing in the first place doesn’t feel purposeful or in alignment with our heart. Sometimes we know what our heart is telling us, sometimes we are searching for it still. In the meantime we can bring serious meaning into any work that we are doing by asking ourselves how we can bring in more understanding, open-mindedness and tolerance into all of our interactions and projects.

B) I’m really focused on myself and on my own success

I write about self-care and relaxation and now I’m saying that we’re overly focused on ourselves? Ironic. Ultimately, what it all comes down to is balance.  Yes, care for yourself, yes, look after your own needs too, but when the scale tips away from service to others, don’t be surprised that your feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment diminish.

To quote this article from Psychology Today,  “science shows that we are actually wired for compassion, not self-interest.”

No need to get extreme here. I’m not suggesting that you abandon your career plans and dissolve all healthy boundaries between you and others. Stay you, and stay true to your path. However…

Try it. I dare you. Do something nice for someone at the office. Pay attention what people say and then get creative on how you can help them to reach their goals/dreams. It really is incredibly enjoyable to turn your thoughts away from your own issues to helping to solve other people’s puzzles. These don’t have to be big or expensive gestures to be effective in connecting you with your goodness and with other people. Even something as simple and quick as forwarding an email about flight discounts to your colleague who has mentioned planning a trip to Europe this summer shows that you care about them. When you’re feeling stuck or blue turn your self-pity around and get really curious about what is bothering or hurting other people around you. Ask yourself: “I wonder how I can make his/her day better today.” Feeling under the weather today? At least you can muster up a little bit of strength for a friendly smile. People expect you to take care of your friends and family. You expect you to do that too. But what if you also extended your caring to your colleagues? To the barista that gets you your morning coffee at Starbucks? Or to the cleaning lady AND the CFO at the office? Might you feel differently about your work and about work-related stress if your heart was overflowing with compassion for others?

Pay close attention to yourself and get curious as you explore this.

I went looking for purpose… but did I find it ? (part 1)

So, here we go. I’m attempting it. A three part blog post on looking for purpose.
Here’s the topic for part 1: “suffering is a universal, human condition. Its forms and depth vary.

I will now explain what I mean.

It’s 2014, and I’m living and working in the Caribbean. It’s November, and it’s hot. I’ve left snowy Canada with a suitcase filled with skirts and shorts. To the outside world my life is milk and honey. I’m 25, young, healthy and curious, and on a Canadian-funded internship in Haiti where I’m meant to help out local farmers better market their fair-trade coffee. Sounds fun, right? For the first month we young interns (there are 2 other Canadian girls there with me) are meant to integrate into village life and learn Creole. We all speak French, but the villagers don’t. It’s warm, the local coffee is yum and we spend our hours meandering about the Haitian bush attempting to chat with other young women while munching on sugar cane. Chew, chew and spit out the cane. Sweetness in my mouth. Except that further inside, I’m not OK. Actually, I’m deeply disturbed by what I’m experiencing. I’ve never been to a place this poor before. It feels like I’m in a parallel universe. I keep telling myself that it’s the 21st century and the people around me are often illiterate and pumping water from a well in the village square daily. Their houses are comprised of mud bricks and metal sheets. Their loos are holes in the ground behind the houses. Dusty half-dressed kids run about and are fascinated by our white skin and unkinky hair. Beautiful palm trees sway in the breeze, and the drive down the mountain from the village into Cap-Haitian is lovely (if you divert your gaze from the piles of trash lining the road..). Everywhere people sit about gazing at us and I get the distinct impression that they are waiting for hand outs. I’ve never been this far out of my comfort zone, and it’s agonizing. I have no idea how to sit with any of the paradoxes that I’m experiencing. How can a place be so similar to paradise and to hell all in the same breath? I’m feeling the next layers of my own naivety stripped away. For the first few months I cry myself to sleep at night while attempting to learn as much about Haiti and her history by day. The other girls have international development degrees and some experiences in Africa already under their belt, and they don’t look to me to be so affected by where we are. I’m either at a disadvantage with my cushy business degree, highly-sensitive, over-analytical or a combination of all of the above. I mostly feel isolated and alone. My supervisor at the Quebec NGO who we are meant to report to about our well-being chortles when I tell him that I need my own room because I have no where to practice meditation. I’m thinking that I’m going insane inside of my own head from trying to understand the seemingly incomprehensible while he thinks I’m foolish to try to get any peace in hot, mosquito-swatting and villagers-hanging-about-everywhere village environment. He tells me to just relax and let it be. He might as well have told me to sit sit on hot coals. I actually contemplate ditching the whole project 3 months in (unheard of contemplation from the hitherto undaunted Katalina), but out of pure grit I choose to stay and see it through to the end of the 6 months.

Early on I meet a young Haitian man. He is someone unique and he also has something very precious to me. He has something that I want tremendously. He makes me aware of a need I didn’t even know I had.

He has purpose.

I have a degree. By then, I had travelled pretty extensively throughout Europe and North America. I have loving parents and good friends. I have opportunity. But I sure as hell have no idea what to do with my life.

He and I strike up a friendship. A deep friendship. While my privileged story unfolds (for regardless of being a Polish first-generation immigrant in Canada, I still consider myself a participant in the privileged layer of society) he makes me aware of things hitherto unknown to me. I learn about the third passport I had no idea I had: my white skin. I see that I am treated differently because of it everywhere I go in Haiti. This preferential sort of racism disgusts me most of the time although I’m the first to admit that it is occasionally highly useful (jumping the line at the Cuban medical clinic when I get typhoid or getting a seat in a busy restaurant). We chat, we get to know each other. He’s young too, but he knows “the other world” well, he has spent over 8 years already in Montreal, only to return to Haiti to pursue his purpose – building business and bettering his home country. A deep envy grows inside of me, for despite all of my privilege, despite all of my education, travel and advantages in life this profound sense of direction and usefulness to the world eludes me. I want purpose, I desire it with all of my being. I begin to wonder whether I’ll ever find it. There are so many choices. I’m not clear on what my talents are. But what I do see, what I do recognize, is that there is great need everywhere around me. Maybe I can make myself useful here. Maybe Haiti is my purpose.

For a while, I dive into a better understanding of the visible village life around me. Not having enough money, enough to eat, or a decent home to live in are certainly very uncomfortable states of being. The local medical clinic is terribly under-equipped and understaffed. I hear of stories of women about to give birth who have no other choice than to get on the back of a local moto-taxi and make a 90 minute journey to the nearest hospital to give birth. What an ordeal. Our village doesn’t even have electricity yet, and only those with extra means can afford generators and the gasoline to power them. And yet I observe the people to be generally calm, pleasant and smiling. They have each other, and no one is ever alone. There are even 2 or 3 “village crazies” as we call them, mentally sick individuals, who meander the streets often talking to themselves or shouting. They are mostly left alone although they are not excluded. They receive food from neighbours and they are even respected – local superstitions often link their altered mental states to those of the Spirit world. There are no asylums here. How curious. Oftentimes in the morning I can hear the teacher next door expound very basic lessons to her young charges comprised or repeating Christian prayers and French verbs, it all seems quite useless from an educational standpoint, but the kids are happy and laughing and playing together. No one is excluded or bullied or left alone in a moment of sadness. There is a sense of relaxation, peace and togetherness in that village which, in some ways, makes it feel like the safest place on Earth.

While I stay in touch with the “developed” world and my friends and family in Canada, USA and Europe, I start seeing the contrasts in what people are struggling with. These are the so-called “first world problems” we laugh at. They are trivialities such as a slow high-speed Internet and the wrong type of cheese when you order your fancy meal at a five-star restaurant. I scoff at these problems. But I don’t scoff at the mentions of depression and isolation. So many people are deeply sad, and they feel caught up in a painful, money-powered system that they can’t get out of. So many people, much like myself, have lost the something intangible, beautiful and nurturing – that sense of purpose. They aren’t even sure they ever had it to begin with.


Fast forward 2 months later, and I’m in our NGOs office in Cap-Haitian enjoying a local coffee and chatting to our gardener. He’s a bright, middle-aged fellow and eager to exchange with the “blancos”, as we are often called there. As so many Haitians do, he begins our conversation with asking me how I like Haiti. I tell him that I like it very much, at which point he says, again in typical Haitian fashion, shaking his head in sadness “ah yes, but there is so much misère“. I pause, for something inside of me is urging me to steer this conversation into a different direction than usual. I nod once, looking at him. “I don’t deny that there are many problems in Haiti”, I tell him, and I take a deep breath and plow on “but please understand that we also have many problems in the West”. He gazes at me, and I continue. “In the West we don’t generally have the same kind of problems. Many people have enough water, and electricity and food. But many people also feel lost and sad and isolated a lot of the time. There is a problem called depression, like a long-standing, deep sadness, which is on the rise.”, I explain to him, and I add for emphasis, “we also have some people who are so sad and feel so hopeless that they commit suicide.” He gazes at me, the eyebrows rising. “Suicide almost never happens here.” he states, and then he asks me “why are your people so sad if they have so much?” I smile to myself at the simplicity and depth of this question. “I think it’s because we are overwhelmed by choices – because we can do everything, we are unsure of what to choose, of what is best for us and our families. It’s very difficult to know what to choose.” and I continue, scanning the courtyard strewn with sunshine and flowers as though searching for my own answers, “and I think we feel isolated because we are taught to value our own individual success and so we easily feel separate from others.” I finish. The gardener nods wisely and reflects. Then he adds: “Here we have big families and always there is someone to talk over your problems with. You never feel alone.” he smiles at me. and I tell him that I too have noticed this and I value it very much. I also thank him for taking a moment to chat with me about this.

While this conversation took place over 6 years ago, I have often thought of it.

While it is a beautiful pursuit to improve the lives of those who do not have enough material means, I no longer think that it is a nobler or better pursuit than other pursuits. Ultimately, suffering exists everywhere, only its form varies slightly. Ultimately, intentional kindness and service to others brings value whether we are feeding bellies or we are feeding souls. We humans need to intake nutrients on many levels, and we need it regularly.

I went to the “third world” searching for my purpose and while I don’t regret a single minute spent in either Haiti or in Senegal, I no longer see my purpose as being tied to a place or to an action. I see it now as tied to a meaning – and for me that means healing and opening human hearts, everywhere and in every which way. The “how”of how that happens is secondary. At least I found my Why.

The Subtle Art of Relaxation

I gaze at my candle, at my sacred images and objects, a mishmash of cultures and references that are all significant to me. There’s a quote from the Little Prince, my recent Osho card drawn from my deck, a photo of me when I’m four years old laughing over something which was obviously hilarious. There’s a heartfelt letter from me to me up there too (more on writing letters to self coming soon!). And there are other important objects present on the simple, wooden platform that serves as my alter. A Ganesha button from my yoga teacher training, a beautiful rock with purple crystals from Senegal gifted to me by my best friend. A maple leaf coaster lies underneath the candle and incense gently snakes its way around it all while filling the room with the bitter sweet fragrance of palo santo. Kora music plays from one of my favourite Youtube recordings (check it out here, especially the piece that unfolds starting at 38:38!).

I feel myself smiling, relaxing and breathing deeper. Finally, the stresses and overstimulation of the day melt away. Much like the candle flame is slowly melting away the wax.

And I take a moment to muse about the subtle art of relaxation.

So normal for some of us, and so foreign to others. As anything, it is a question of practice.
In my travels I have found that in general (and yes, this is a major generalization), the people and cultures of the South (I’m thinking latinos, the Caribbean, Africans) are far more relaxed than their colder, Northern counterparts. In some ways they are also further along the Zen path of simply being and accepting what is (and goodness do I admire folks like that!) Granted, the heat has something to do with that, because, let’s face it: when it’s hot all you want to do is lie next to (or in) a pool and sip sweet drinks with umbrellas sticking out of them. But what about when we find ourselves far from a pool, in the cool of winter, and in our “daily grind” and with no time or thought allotted to relaxation?

I truly believe that relaxation is as essential to our well-being as good, nutritious food, quality sleep and loving relationships. And yet, how many of us really work at honing this art of relaxation? How many of us can afford to take a moment to breathe deeply, settle into the here and now and enjoy the sights, smells and sounds (and thoughts!) that soothe our souls?

We talk about experimenting with different diets to see what feels good in our bodies. We’ve opened up the dialogue sexually to explore what brings pleasure to ourselves and to our partners.

But what about when it’s just you, and you have some time, even if it’s only 15 minutes, and you want to relax and unwind. Are you able to do so? Honestly, sometimes watching yet another movie or TV show just doesn’t feel right. Certainly, perusing my phone for the 30th time that day and opening Instagram does not feel relaxing at all. Not when something essential inside is prodding me to take time for me, truly to be with me, and to relax and ease my way into an evening.

You may tell me that you are too busy for this. That relaxation is a luxury reserved for few. And indeed, our high-speed modernity has turned anything time consuming and enjoyable into a sought after commodity. Yet, I argue that relaxation, and its art of enjoyment, has its place in our wellness regimen also.

As this on-point article about slowing down to reduce stress from Psychology Today points out: “Many people live in a constant state of high alert and high anxiety—sympathetic nervous system arousal—even though there’s no immediate threat. Three of the recognized causes for this are our fast-paced, never-enough-time-to-do-everything lifestyle; sensory overload (exacerbated by multitasking); and the media’s distorted but relentless suggestion that danger lurks around every corner. The parasympathetic nervous system—the system that produces a calm and relaxed state—is underactive. By stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, we can restore the balance. With that balance restored, we naturally slow down our pace of life.”

Relaxation does encourage us to slow down. It doesn’t mean that if we slow down we’re going to suddenly do everything slower. Fear not, your go-go energizer bunny self can still re-emerge the following day. But in order for bunny to keep giving.. give it a chance to unwind, to breathe deeper, and to allow your whole system – body, mind and soul – to recharge.

Can you visualize that whirling download spiral that spins around when you’re downloading a large file? The one you gaze at absentmindedly while waiting for your document/video/zip file to save into Downloads. Yup, that one. Take a moment to recognize that your system – your mind and body – are also downloading and processing everything that you’ve been thinking and doing and the people you’ve been interacting with during this past day and week. It takes time, you need some time. Ask yourself if you can give yourself permission to slow down, even if just a little.

–> Recognize that every time you take time for you, and for your own self-care, you are also serving the other people around you, those that you take care of,  that look up to you, the ones that need you. <–

Relax. Breathe deep…and start honing the subtle art of your own relaxation practice. Please also take the time to report back and let us know how it goes!

p.s. want to hear about one of the amazing side-effects of slowing down and relaxing? When practiced regularly it opens up space inside of you and welcomes in creativity. Creativity is much like water.. it needs some space and room to flow and move. Relaxation provides that necessary space. While relaxing you may find yourself reaching for your pencil crayons and doodling. Your hips may move involuntarily as you begin to dance. You may want to sing a song. You may reach for your notebook and write down some new ideas for that work project you’ve been stuck on.

Or, lo and behold…

you may reach for your laptop and start writing… which, in case you were wondering, is exactly how this post came to be! 🙂

*** image courtesy of Pxhere.com

Inshallah-ing my way through life

I’ve been reprogrammed. I recognize it and.. I like it! At least this one specific program which has been rewired within me.

And the root of this wisdom lies in the Arabic term of “Inshallah”.
Literally translated it means “If God wills it”.
Translated to life it means that you can do everything right, you can be the best you can be and yet.. and still.. you have no guarantee that you’ll get what you want.
You may end up where you want to go or you may not. You may even end up in a very nasty situation despite your best intentions and efforts. Aha, you say: “C’est la Vie”..
aha, I say.. “Ça… ça c’est l’Esprit”

Please allow me to explain the rewiring process.

It began in Haiti with the Creole expression, one of the first I learned back in 2014 and it goes something like this: “Si dye vle”. It means, once again, “If God wills it”.

Naturally, as so much of what is beautiful and pure on this planet this wisdom has been abused. Myself, like most Westerners working in Haiti, found it incredibly frustrating to hear from a team member “Si Dye Vle” as an answer to a seemingly basic question: “Are we having the meeting tomorrow at 10:00” or “will you be here for the presentation next week”. A simple “yes” or “no” would suffice.. we would say to ourselves angrily. Referring to God’s will when your own will seems to be enough looked to me like a fancy excuse. No one ever said “I never made it to that meeting because God did not will it” and yet that’s how we were meant to interpret a no-show?.. Oh my…

Many developing countries function in survival mode and insecurities around everything from politics to the economy run high. The Western world however lends itself to the illusion of control over one’s own life and destiny (great organization and functioning systems can do that to you!). “You can be anything you want to be when you grow up” and variations on this theme are expounded to us daily, especially in America. While I’m all for self-actualization, I also recognize the deep Mystery and Spirit that pervades all and that has a schedule far different and far greater than our small self-centered understanding of our lives. I once heard a quote that goes something like this “Woe and misery come to the one who gets everything that he wished for”. Analyze it for just a second and you’ll see that there is so much truth to that. I have countless examples from my own life when I thought I knew what I wanted and something far different, and far better, came my way. Thank goodness! – said I. Thank goodness there is a wisdom and a Spirit far wiser than my own limited mind that cares for me always and carries me forward.
Side note: I now do my best to remember to wish upon others (and myself) all manner of goodness and blessings, but not necessarily what they think is best for them but what is truly in their Highest Benefit.

Which is why “Inshallah” is now a consciously added element to my own intention setting.

After 3.5 years in Senegal I’ve heard it used and abused quite as often, if not more, than the “Si dye vle” in Haiti. Then again, I have also seen it used wisely, by deliberate, intelligent people who have plans and a strategy to their lives. They move forward with purpose, they find the information and the contacts they need in order to succeed. And yet, through all of this, they remain humble. They state a project and a plan and follow it with a gentle… Inshallah. They take time to acknowledge that which is powerful and that pervades all – the ether, the Spirit, the Mystery within all that ultimately, plan or no plan, strategy or no strategy, will determine whether the tree bears fruit this year and whether your plans will come to harvest.

This rewiring of my own Western programming by spending significant time in more God-fearing lands such as Haiti and Senegal is a strength to me, a sobering element within me that reminds me as always that there is much beyond our control. It allows me to see beyond the systems designed for our comfort, and to continue to see just how much all of life hangs by a string. So fragile, so temporary, so fleeting. Most importantly it drives the message home that despite our best intentions things don’t always turn out as we thought (or do they ever?).

And you.. what is your version of “Inshallah“? How do you make sense of the unpredictability of life? How do you feel you are being guided forward by that which is truly best for you?


Image courtesy of Urban Howl.

Sundays in Dakar

Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip the horses’ hooves made echoing noises on the pavement as the thin man with his tired nag trotted smartly forward, pulling a simple wooden platform piled high with cement bricks. The horse-drawn cart was more audible than usual because the neighbourhood was quieter than usual, but that’s because it was Sunday. The most wonderful day of the week.

Practically every day is a day of the sun in Senegal, but Sundays in Dakar in particular were her favourite days. All week long the Senegalese and the expats battled laziness and the heat to move projects forward. For things did move forward here even if they moved forward slowly and sluggishly and with great attention to salutations, politeness and gentle speech. Things moved forward diplomatically, and there was great pride in the local people for their great skill of peaceful, unhurried living.

«You have wrist watches, and we have time» Africans were quick to chide Westerners. And yet the dark continent is far from immune to the capitalistic drums of progress. All week long offices filled, countless emails were sent and the relentless traffic expounded fumes and frustration. Civilization always felt like an improvised dance in Senegal; haphazard beige buildings reflected neither good architecture or Arab aesthetics but attempted to imitate both, with no more than square cement bricks and sweating, thin black bodies to erect them. The too narrow roads were shared by lorries, horse-drawn carts, motorcycles and cars alike with the occasional herd of cattle passing through. Dakar was like a village. Actually, it was like multiple villages that happened to come together and call themselves a city. Once the French administration brought in their language, bureaucracy and paperwork they then began to call it a capital.

Sundays in Dakar felt to her like a respite from the pretense of looking busy. The sheep bleeted as they always do, and at this time of the year, approaching a major Muslim holiday, there were several living on her neighbour’s rooftop terrace. The stupid, helpless «baaaahhh» sounds they coughed up carried therefore even better on the gentle breeze. She wondered how long they had to live before their throats were deftly slit and the meat divided among family and friends. They did this at the shore by times and little rivers of blood would merge with the waves.

The ocean was only a few hundred feet away, in fact, they were surrounded by it on many sides. It gave her the sensation that she too was like one of the many falcons soaring above and come to perch for a rest just inside the shore. She had come to stay for a while, to find refuge in the warmth, the sand and the easy-going smiles there. She ruffled her feathers and sank a little deeper into her perch with a gentle sigh.

«Kraawww, krawww» huge ravens circled together with the ravens on the terrace just one story above. From where she was sitting on her balcony, her feet on a small wooden table and her knees curled up to her chest she admired the scene. The clip-clop of the horse going by was a regular addition to the symphony of sound. Only two stories separated her from the music. Men and women, but mostly women, moved up and down the street this morning, heading towards one of the small boutiques perhaps to buy some bread slathered with a bit of mayonnaise from a huge container or some Kinkeliba herbal drink doused with sugar, or both. They called «Salam Aleekum»s and «Na nga def»s to each other as was custom here. With amusement she would perk up her ears and observe two people walking towards each other on the street below. They would begin with the preliminary hellos as mentioned while still across from each other, and then they would pass, without missing a beat in their conversation, and continue walking forward, away from each other while asking more questions and sharing greetings «Naka waa ker gi» (how are things at home) and «Yann gi si jamm» («are you in peace» translating to another way of saying «how are you») with replies of «jamm rekk» («only peace» essentially meaning «I am fine»). The distance now grew greater between these friendly exchanges, their voices slightly rising. This seamless action of moving, flowing, speaking and greeting was unhurried and uninterrupted. There was a satisfaction in speaking, in making sound, in adding ones voice to the ambient noises already present. It was a confirmation that one was, one was present, one had risen, one had been reborn from sleep to see another day. Alhamdoulillah! As the falcons screeched, the sheep bleeted, and the horses clip-clopped, the people added their own throaty Wolof to the mix. A car engine brought a punctuation as the vehicle turned into the pavement in a cloud of sand. A man below had begun to chant Muslim prayers and his strong voice carried far. This was the unhurried babble of a Sunday morning.

Her other senses thus nourished, a sumptuous breakfast added now to the satisfaction of her stomach. Fried eggs, fresh baguette and a tomato salad were rounded off with a big cup of coffee and a pain au chocolat. She had fetched the pastry for herself in the morning glad as always to slip on her sandals and take a walk in the warm, sandy streets and admire the blooming flowers and bougainvilles. Stray cats and dogs meandered about the low-rise buildings and small villas in a detached, friendly fashion. She took the side ways which meant little to no honks from passing taxis trying to catch a fare and no begging children approaching her with outstretched hands. That, in itself, was respite.

Her breakfast finished, she checked the time. It was a little past 10:00am and the neighbourhood was slowly waking up around her. She wondered with satisfaction if indeed all that was needed for a moment of happiness was a full belly and warmth in her body. Reaching for a good book and the cup of coffee she thought to herself that life really was quite comfortable, quite enjoyable, and that clichés about people and places were very silly. «We certainly have the good life here» she thought to herself and settled into her chair just an inch deeper. «But best we not spread the word about it too far and wide» she added to herself with a playful half-smile.. «otherwise they’ll flood this place with tourists and we’ll have no more peace on a Sunday.»

Clip-clop, clip-clop another horse trotted up the street once again, this time with more oomph and purpose to her step. The people were up and the day had begun.


Image courtesy of Talk Foreign to Me.

Is it criticism or feedback? 3 ways to find out

We love talking about growth mindset inside of our companies, right? Growth is necessary, and yet growth can also be painful – because it’s human nature to resist change, even when it’s good for us! Giving and receiving quality feedback is a key component of this growth. Others see us often than we see ourselves. We know this, and yet, are we all truly clear on what the real differences are between providing feedback and criticizing others? Because when it comes to providing “negative” or “need to improve” feedback.. the lines quickly become blurred.

Let’s first define the terms:

Feedback: according to http://www.dictionary.com is a term most commonly used in electronics: “the process of returning part of the output of a circuit, system, or device to the input, either to oppose the input (negative feedback) or to aid the input (positive feedback).” and in human terms what we’re referring to as feedback is “a reaction or response to a particular process or activity.” In both cases it’s about a return of information back to the source of that information or communication. 

Criticism: “the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.” as well as “the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging (…)”. Notice how there’s no mention here of a return of information.

This is because, in a perfect world, feedback is shared and given to someone in the spirit of being like a mirror for them, to help them to see their strong and their weaker points because they too want to better understand their offering, and to improve and grow to be better. Criticism on the other hand is a one-way street where the receiver of our judgment is subject to our unpleasant point of view. Criticism rarely invites dialogue, but it is certainly breeding ground for defensiveness and resentment.

Thankfully, there are steps that we can take to perfect feedback loops within our teams. Take a moment to check in with yourself on the following points:

1. Intention

The intention around feedback is for the other person’s growth. When we understand that others’ growth is a support and a blessing to us (not a competition to engage in) we naturally celebrate others’ successes and are able to gently point out their weaker points. This attitude stems from an abundance mindset, in other words: success is not a zero sum game. The more he wins, and she does well, the better off you are, the better off I am, the better off the whole team is.

Criticism does not share this same intention but often stems from righteousness (my Truth is better than your Truth) and from ego. To criticize others openly and actively is to create separation and divisiveness. The more we criticize the more we forget about our own humanity and weaknesses. Sure, you may be on your game today, but that’s not always the case. It is easy to criticize others and then see the same weaknesses within ourselves. What’s more, zeroing in on critique often makes us blind to seeing other people’s strengths and skills.

2. There’s a method to the delivery

We are taught to be wise in delivering our feedback. Ever heard of the sandwich method? I sure hope so. Tapering the “let’s improve this” feedback with two pieces of “this was really well done!” around it makes the landing much softer for the recipient. We are all sensitive to so-called “negative” feedback exactly because of its cousin-like relationship with criticism. Again, remember about point no. 1 and check in with yourself around your intention for providing feedback before you ever open your mouth to give it.

3. Make it a two-way street

Feedback is also different from criticism in that it often invites reciprocity. A manager can provide feedback to her direct report.. and then that employee can certainly provide feedback for the manager also. This can be a very valuable tool in learning to understand team members as well as their styles of communication and motivation. Feedback can be provided not just to critique work performance but also to reflect back on communication and management styles and encourage self-awareness: for example, a direct report can let their manager know that they communicate better when exchanging ideas via voice messages instead of text when working remotely. Feedback reciprocity can provide a safe place for managers and team members to get to know each other and their respective working styles.

Image courtesy of RescueTime Blog.

Africa is born within you

I’m going inside.
The cold means an internal and an external “turning within” – to fire and hearth, to bundles of scarves and wool. There’s a subtle tenseness to the skin, as we turn towards our innermost thoughts.
Good thing I’ve made inside of myself a safe place to be.
The first cold we feel is the crisp, too-cool air in the plane. I’m seated in an aisle seat somewhere above the Sahara by night as we move from South to North.

It makes the skin turn inside itself searching for the warmth of the pumping veins.
The Heart is first and foremost an instrument of survival.
It’s a sensation I had forgotten. This crawling of cold on skin.
It is familiar,
yet unfamiliar.
there is a newness in this re-experience of the bite.
I choose to welcome it. Explore its layers.
Finding solace in an involuntarily pumping organ distributing warmth throughout the body.
The end of my nose had not been cold in many moons.
I hesitate to make my next request, but I don’t hesitate for long.
Hot tea and a blanket please.
The warm liquid and the covers wrapped close help the cold nose, and overall, the situation. I push my body deeper into the seat.
One needs to ease the tropically adapted self back into Northern realities.

“We are not born in Africa, Africa is born in us.”

I’ve heard this before.

The fire that burns through my veins today is not the same as years before.

It is fueled by the human, sun warmth of the dark continent where bodies relax, sink closer to the Earth and ease into each other.
This mighty talisman is the gift I carry out of that life school of several years of patient studies. There are no certificates given, no external accolades.
…but it’s towards this light that my skin turns inward now to seek nourishment from this far deeper layer of warmth. The only warmth that can soothe right up to the soul.

I find that my blood serves me better now that it is connected to the very cradle of life. It pumps my True North.

The Pancha-what? First trip to an Indian Ashram.

How does one summarize 2 weeks  experience of a first-time in India, first-time in an Ashram and first-time doing a Panchakarma program?
With a first-rate smile, I hope.

First, let’s define the terms we’ll be referring to:

1. India, in this case the deep south-west, the province of Kerala. After flying into Trivanandrum (also known as Thiruvananthapuram – I dare you to say that 10 times fast) we take a one hour taxi ride to a village where there is a Sivananda Ashram sitting next to a gigantic river that looks like a lake and where apparently crocodiles abound and tigers can be heard roaring in the surrounding lush greenery. Inside the Ashram everything is peaceful, safe and very orderly. Schedules are set and almost everything is repeated twice daily – morning and evening satsang (which includes meditation, chanting, lectures and more chanting), morning and evening meals, and morning and afternoon yoga (asana) practice. In between our Ashram schedule our group follows the Panchakarma treatments. The Pancha-what? Pour yourself some warm drinking water and read on.

2. Panchakarma, is an Ayurvedic (a sister-science to yoga, Ayurveda is India’s branch of traditional medicine) detoxification program which goes in 3 steps. First, for 5-7 days, you go through a series of daily massages, scrubs and steam-bath treatments all meant to drive toxins into your GI tract for further elimination. Starting from Day 1 we all go on a twice daily calorie-limited, veggies and rice dominant, gentle meal plan. We drink herbal teas twice daily, and in between meals, if you’re like me, you feel empty, light and hungry. Which is fine because you meander your way over to yoga practice, attempt a headstand, do some meditation, have a scrub and then lie down for a nap. After the first week starts the elimination of toxins from the GI tract and this is achieved primarily through: one day of drinking castor oil + medicine (easily the most disgusting thing I have ever swallowed in my life) which cleans your gut out thoroughly, followed by several days intermittent small-oil enemas and larger-herbal enemas. Yup, that’s right, this involves having various fluids put up your bum and running quickly to the loo. The third part of the cleanse happens outside of the clinic (and in our case, the Ashram) as you follow up the treatment by keeping to a restricted veggie diet, and do your best to avoid coffee, wine, cheese, bread and all of the other culinary joys that life holds for at least 2 weeks to a month*.

3. The Ashram. Is a place of peace and spiritual retreat. They also run a tight ship with a strict schedule. See point no. 1 for the general schedule.

We were lucky in that several days after our arrival there was a separate dormitory space designated for us Panchakarma ladies, and since many of our fellow detoxifiers had private rooms, these dorms were pretty empty and peaceful and just for us. That put me at ease for the shitty part of our program because at least in this way I didn’t have to disturb my fellow yoga vacationers with my personal orchestra of sounds and smells.

I would recommend spending time at an Ashram for anyone looking for a place of retreat far from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. Requirements: adaptability to a strict schedule, open-mindedness to questions of religion and faith (if you’re singing “Jaya Ganesha, Shree Ganesha, Siva Guru etc.” and feeling at odds with the God of your own religion, then this is not the place for you) and a general good, positive attitude. The Internet is limited, the lush-greenness ever present and the opportunities for meditation and reflection abundant. You’ll also need to get used to doing yoga in loose-fitting clothing since tights and what we in the West would normally classify as yoga clothes are not allowed.

I loved being there and soaking in the meditative vibes (except for the evening satsang and meditation which was misery for me as I would consistently fall asleep!) and some of the realities of the Ashram life were also quite amusing:

– while at morning meditation, in my attempts to practice Ahimsa (non-violence) I transformed myself into a living mosquito buffet as I was besieged by our buzzing brothers. They went for many of us seated there that morning, undiscriminating in their choice of breakfast. Initially, I hesitated to slap and squelch. While my survival instinct is strong I admit there was something that felt very sacrilegious about killing anything in an ashram temple surrounded by the smiling images of the divine (wave hello to Krishna!). So I grinned and bore it, that first time, and 40 mosquito bites later I abandoned all pretense at meditation. Every time after that I doused myself in deep forest mosquito repellent beforehand in order to save my exhausted mind from early morning philosophical dilemmas

– our Ayurveda doctors strictly forbade the consumption of sugar and caffeine, a restriction that was made troublesome by the offering of morning post-meditation masala chai tea (oh heavenly beverage!) and crunchy cookies and other goodies coming fresh from blessings at the alter, then offered to the participants. Many a time we would go up for our cookie and receive raised eyebrows in return since some of the staff knew that we were following a Panchakarma program. We would then have to convince them to hand the cookie over while reassuring them that we were fully aware that the cookie was not allowed. I savoured every little morsel of that forbidden sweetness! I’ve never felt less guilty about breaking the rules since I considered this treat my reward for waking up so darn early.

– while attempting a dynamic sun-salutation during asana practice and tripping over my loose-fitting pants between lunges. I’ve found a new appreciation for my lululemon leggings which, alas, were obliged to lay peacefully in my backpack for the duration of the trip.

In other news, here’s a snarky tidbit written during our flight back to Paris while enjoying airplane insomnia:

Ah, the wonders of yoga. I knew it would have practical, real-life applications. Ever mindful of my sleeping neighbours, squished as I am in my seat between dozing Indians somewhere between 4 and 5 am flying above Saudi Arabia, I tap a friend in the seat diagonally up and left of mine so that he evacuates his spot. I then am free to perform feats of flexibility as I crawl above seats and sleeping passengers to release myself from my human sandwich and go pee. And Stretch. I’ve been watching an excellent French comedy and while I’ve been chortling at the ludicrous situations the movie characters are playing out I’m reflecting on the past two weeks and seeing my own hilarity much more clearly. Panchakarma, the Ashram and all of our personalities combined have written quite the screenplay.

I hear a tinkle of glasses in the elite class in front of the plane and imagine the Champagne pouring. Good thing we’re not flying business after all since we are not allowed to drink a drop of alcohol for at least a month after our Panchakarma detoxifying program. The Panchakarma treatment is quite restrictive in what we can and can not eat and do. Mostly they recommend lots of rest and napping. Once you digest the instructions you start to wonder at the irony of actually paying to travel to India in order to:

– eat bland ayurvedic food instead of delicious Indian cuisine (just kidding, it really wasn’t that bad, but just a bit repetitive)

– avoid the sunshine and sunbathing (not allowed in Panchakarma). Five extra points to us for travelling to India during rainy season.

– avoid swimming in cold water and taking cold showers (well, quite frankly, I wasn’t too sure of the local crocodile population in the river anyhow, so…)

– have medically induced diarrhea

(yes, you read correctly, I traveled thousands of miles to a tropical country to pay a doctor in order to get the runs, on purpose). 

The lip-curling, ironic parts of this trip are dripping like honey on my coconut chapati. I actually burst out laughing a few times startling my fellow airplane passengers out of their sleep. Oops.

As I watch the minutes count down to our descent into Paris I wonder just how well our group will do with keeping to the doctor’s orders of no-meat, no-alcohol, no-caffeine and no-bread. I remember nodding keenly during our final consultation and swearing fidelity to the program for the 14-days following our stay in India, as prescribed. But with every minute we speed towards the land of savoury wines, fresh baguettes and over 1000 varieties of cheese. How on Earth will we see our Panchakarma through to the end? Since Pancha means five, in sanscrit, and karma means action, once we land I’m counting to five and taking action at the first boulangerie that I see*!

* It’s 6 days post-Ashram and I’m happy to report that our entire group has failed spectacularly in this last step. Sorry Doctor Vishnu, but the realities and temptations of France were too much to handle! Nevertheless, for me personally, keeping a mostly caffeine and meat free diet and continuing with daily yoga and meditation still keeps my mind and body feeling very good.

Running Water

When the water don’t flow the day feels incomplete. I walk around my single room flat with the incense I burn before I sleep and it and the flames of the candles show me imbalance – we have fire but we have no water. Running water that is. Of course I have reserve water. No fool am I and this is not my first water cut. I am the proud owner not only of 100L of reserve tap water hiding about the flat and the balcony in 10 x 10L water jugs, but I am also the proud owner of a sure-made choice. And the choice is this: if I have to choose between a power cut or a water cut I’ll take power cut every time. Obviously having neither is ideal and having both at once is incredibly inconvenient. But the truth is that I kind of like power cuts, as long as my iPhone has a bit of extra juice and my playlists are accessible. I enjoy sitting around candlelight. I loved that one time during a black out that we sat with my friend and her two boys in her kitchen and spent an hour making hand puppet shadows on the wall against the candlelight. I love it when Dakar is allowed in this way to finally settle back into village mode. It’s as if all of the electronic machines and lamps and wifi and computers were all switched on to please the Gods of Advancement and the Deities of Development but once switched off, through no power or choice of our own, we are all finally allowed to be our restful selves and settle comfortably into our soft darkness. We can focus on just being and there is no use of pretending we’re keen on moving because without the electricity there isn’t much doing anyways. Occasional power cuts are a relief and a joy as long as you have some candles on hand and the aforementioned smartphone battery juice.  And they serve as a great reminder of our dependence on all of these modern comforts and gadgets. What’s more, if you’re like me and you don’t even have a fridge or a freezer then you’re doubly unconcerned about your frozen dinners defrosting too soon and icky food water beginning its slow dripping from your appliances. Nope, during a short power-cut, you’re right as rain.

Now a water cut is nothing like a power cut because water is essential to life and you never even realize how often you reach for the tap and sink during the same day until you realize there’s nothing coming out of the nozzle.

When everything stops flowing I think of the ocean just a 5 min. walk away and I’m glad that no one, not the SDE (Senegalaise des Eaux), not the president, the UN, not anybody, can turn the waves off. And I’m somewhat encouraged by the thought that if my 100L runs out too quickly, I would at least be able to shower in the sea. And I’d fill up my empty 10L containers with salt water and traipse back into the well-lit electrified apartment.  It would be a new experience washing my dishes with salt water, but I would think it funny and interesting. At least for a time.

The SDE has announced that it’s a city wide, perhaps even country wide water cut but that it shouldn’t last more than 24 hours. I’m sure they have to say that regardless of how long they actually think that it will take to solve their problem. I use my reserve water hesitatingly because I don’t fully trust that the water will be back on tomorrow. I feel my self switch into a deeper patience mode. This cut becomes another layer of waiting, the layer that’s lathered on top of the current Ramadan waiting game. Now the Muslims among us must wait not only to eat and to drink but to bathe with running water also. God knows that’s asking a lot especially considering the recommendations in the Koran for ablutions to be performed with flowing and moving water. There are specific instructions to steer clear, if possible, of stagnant water. Maybe one Muslim can run alongside another one with some stagnant water while the dude washes and they can call it running water and they will laugh about it and it will be OK. Maybe God will crack a smile and show his sense of humour too.

All I know is that when the water don’t flow it’s as though my own blood is flowing more slowly and my own life is on hold. I feel like sitting down for a very long meditation and practicing my patience. I sure as hell don’t feel like doing anything creative or original. I think twice before breaking a sweat knowing a bucket shower would follow. Aint enough flow in my bones to come up with any half-decent, half-cooked or half-baked idea at this point anyways. I go to sleep with fingers crossed that the water will flow again in the morning, and when I wake up, move to the bathroom and turn on the tap, it splutters and gurgles out, and a warm sense of contentment and reassurance trickles over me.

We’re back in the flow.

No, Thank You, I’m allergic.

Just found this little pearl of a personal note from the end of last year, when I was clearly experiencing a classic case of Africa-fatigue …a malady which manifests in my person every so often with symptoms of abundant and exasperated sarcasm.
17.10.2018 – Thiès – Day 3
Because you’ve heated up water on the stove which you’ve then poured into a 10L water jug as you drag it to the bathroom where the cold water drizzling out of the shower head makes a stream so pathetic that you can barely wash your body and you definitely can’t wash your hair in it…hence the 10L water jug.
Because you’re still disgusted by roaches, but by now you just grab your shoe and smash the bastards when and where you meet them in the kitchen. Walls, countertops or the floor : you name it, I’ll smash it. I usually keep one shoe handy close to the kitchen.
Then again, I impressed my Senegalese roommate once by smashing baby roaches with the soft underside of my fist. A shoe was not handy but my fist sure was.
Side note, if you paid me money I wouldn’t get up in the middle of the night to go to the kitchen because I know very well that darkness is when those beasties are on their biggest prowl.
OK, fair enough, it depends on how much money 😉
Because everything is slow and inconvenient.
Because people don’t understand the concept of customer service. I’m sure the term doesn’t even exist in Wolof.
Because you try to be friendly with the locals and you’re taking so much time and effort to learn their local language (deprived though it may be of terms relating to customer service), and you’re still getting nowhere.
And when every dose of friendly is construed as flirting and turns into questions about your husband, you sigh.
It is just so annoying.
I liked my reaction today when I refused the free, hot (and very random) milk they were giving out in the street. Milk?
Like, is this a new, NGO milk campaign???
I told them I was allergic.
I’m not allergic.
I used to be allergic, but I’m not anymore.
but the thing is that allergic is an excellent reminder of a high-quality excuse.
“hello, would you like some goat meat now.”
me: “No, thank you, I’m allergic”
Which is not true. I’m almost vegetarian. We haven’t had a free street campaign on that yet, so it takes a long time to explain what it is. The concept of not eating meat is about as foreign here as wall-to-wall carpeting. I say that I’m not actually a vegetarian, I’m more like a vegephile.
What’s a vegephile?
It means that I really love vegetables.
Almost more than I love my future husband.
Sarcasm generously dripping.
“hello, do you have a husband yet”… now I’m thinking I’ve found a new answer : “No, I’m allergic.”
I make a tight fist with my right hand and poke my left index finger into the fleshy side while admiring how firm and soft it is.