Archive for the ‘Limiting Beliefs’ Category

What Are Your Beliefs? How to Uncover the Unconscious Beliefs Running Your Brain

Written by Kate • November 3, 2017 •
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Break Free

Break Free From Unconscious Beliefs

What’s Running Your Brain?

There are lots of unhelpful unconscious thought patterns running your brain. Because they’re unconscious, meaning they are so ingrained in your neural pathways that once triggered, the thought patterns are nearly instantaneous and therefore essentially unknown to your conscious mind. I say “essentially unknown” because, in fact, it’s your brain and while you may not always be conscious of the thought pattern, with attention and stillness, you can be aware of the thoughts  and beliefs that arise, even in triggering situations, even if there isn’t anything you can do in that moment to counter the ingrained thought and resultant behavior pattern. While many of your thought patterns may be beneficial to you, some may be working against what it is you want from life.

What Do You Believe?

For example, as a child -and without blaming my parents for living their life based on their own thought patterns and beliefs, I learned that when you’ve had a really bad day, you have a stiff drink to help you calm down and manage your emotions. When you’ve been in a car accident, you have a stiff drink to help you calm down and manage your emotions. When you have a party or go out to eat, you have a drink to have fun. Party=drinking. Going out to eat=have a drink or two. One day in my early 20s, on a day with a few emotional upheavals, I started thinking about having a drink. I didn’t have any of my normal hooch in the house so I cast about for something else to drink. And I wondered why I needed a drink so much on this particular day. I then realized that with the ebbing of my emotional upheaval, in its wake I was left with a wrung-out feeling. And that wrung-out feeling meant, in a my habitual way of thinking, I needed a drink to fully calm down from the lows of my day. But really, did I need the drink? How about if I just felt my feelings instead? It was a novel concept: just deal with my bad day without the stiff drink that I was conditioned to think was normal (and necessary).

Later in life, I also learned, once I moved in my with partner 13 years ago, that despite being a feminist down to the bone, I believed that men take out the trash. That first month, the trash can got more and more full and I started wondering when the heck he was going to take out the trash. Finally, I just asked him when he was going to take it out. He looked at it me in wonder, asking me why I thought he would take it out? And I realized only then that I had an unconscious belief pattern that was running my brain without me being fully conscious of it. So I took out the trash and I take out the trash to this day, when it needs it and I’m the one who notices first.

I could go on and on about the beliefs I’ve uncovered with attention and inquiry. Over the years, I’ve become aware of many unconscious thought patterns and had glimpses of many more. I know I have or have had unconscious thought patterns and beliefs about money, how much money I should have, eating, travel, sex, relationships, healthy boundaries, spirituality, compassion, the Divine, and on and on and on ad infinitum.

Thought Patterns versus Beliefs

I use thought patterns and beliefs interchangeably here. There are more learned people than I who know about which is first, the thought pattern or the belief. I look at it as the chicken or the egg. Which came first is likely the thought pattern. And with repetition comes the belief. In regards to my belief about having a stiff drink, I remember my Mom came home one day when I was 9 years old or so. She was shaking and clearly distraught from a car accident she’d just been involved in. Dad immediately when to the liquor cabinet and got her drink, something like rum and coke or vodka and a mix. And she drank it and was much calmer for it. So I thought, “oh, that’s what you do to calm down. You have a drink.” First it was an external thought pattern that I held from seeing it repeated several times throughout my childhood and then an unconscious personal belief, as I began acting on that belief in my own early adulthood.

How To Undo Thought Patterns and Beliefs

There are many ways to uncover your thought patterns and beliefs. I think one of the easiest ways is to begin to be curious about what beliefs are running your brain. Always begin this type of inquiry with compassion. Don’t use this knowledge to beat yourself up for following your conditioned mind from belief to action. Just allow the knowledge to rise to your consciousness with curiosity about who you are and what’s going on in your brain.

These days, for me, because I meditate daily and have for several years. I know from these sessions how my thoughts come unbidden across my mind and how easy I can attach to and follow them. So it’s been easier for me to feel when a thought has hooked me and I am able to feel the unconscious thought pattern trigger me into a reaction. However, until I’m aware of the thought pattern, there’s nothing to be done to stop the triggered response.

The way I first began this inquiry into my unconscious beliefs was to ask the Divine to allow my to see my blind spots. I know I had them and in relationship with my partner and with my extended family, I could see and feel myself being triggered without being able to stop my conditioned response. So I just asked for these beliefs to be shown to me.

Because I want to be aware of my beliefs, I am increasingly aware of them. It’s just how it works.  When the thought pattern is not that important or so clearly irrational, it’s easier to substitute new thought patterns in its place. No, it’s not exclusively men’s job to take out the trash. Boom. Belief updated. Yes, I can have a bad day without having a stiff drink. (I have to say with that one, the pull remain strong and I remain confronted with the thought to have a drink after a bad day, so I know there are more unexamined thoughts beneath this behavior pattern plus years of habit!).

Some ways to become aware of your unconscious thought patterns and beliefs:

  1. Ask to become aware of them
  2. Seek out professional help with a therapist to uncover some of the bigger ones operating in your life
  3. Write your way to knowledge.
    1. Take a fresh sheet of paper. At the top of the paper, write “Here’s what I really believe about (subject)”.  (Money, Relationship, Food, Pleasure, You Name It)
    2. Begin to write in a stream of consciousness way without stopping or censoring yourself. State “I really believe that (subject) is … For example, I really believe money is hard to get, evil, corrupting, means selling your soul, etc. Or I really believe that relationship with someone else means the loss of myself, being chained to another person’s whims, etc.
    3. Keep going and write down at least 10 beliefs but try for more.
    4. Now that you’re aware of a negative belief that you’d like to change, try to tease out the thought patterns or belief under that belief. So if money is hard to get, what is the belief or thought pattern that supports that belief? Keep writing.
    5. Try on better feeling thought patterns and use a consciously created thought pattern as a response whenever the old belief arises, now that you can feel and/or know what the  conditioned, negative thought pattern is. For example, if you’ve believed that money is hard to get, what happens if you start thinking that money is easy to get, how does that feel? Can you believe that instead?
  4. With caution and care, ask a trusted and loving family member or friend what is one blind spot you have. Obviously, do this one with someone in your life who will tell you the truth about yourself in a way that isn’t finally the opportunity they’ve been waiting for to criticize you or go running with it as way to list your every perceived flaw. This is simply one thing in your life that they notice which it seems you’re not aware of.

Some Caveats

Some conditioned thought patterns are so deep and ingrained and arise so fast that they don’t cross your frontal cortex and you don’t have the opportunity to initially respond in a new and more thoughtful way. Be kind and compassionate to yourself in these circumstances (in every circumstance, ideally). Something profound in you is being triggered so don’t be dismayed if you can’t help yourself. (With the obvious exception if you’re engaging in harmful or self-harmful behavior. With these, you should get help immediately through professional help and remove yourself from the situation wherever possible).

If you can, just stop the triggered response. When you feel attacked and you’re in the middle of yelling back a response, just close your mouth and stop, even mid-sentence. Try to understand what thoughts arose in the situation and try to become aware of them. When you open your banking app, seeing your balance and feeling a wave of fear about to engulf you as you worry about all that needs to get paid, stand up and take a breath. Take a short walk and watch the thoughts that arise about fear, money, lack.

By engaging in new patterns as soon as you’re aware that you’ve been triggered,  you can start to unwind your conditioned response little by little even as the initial response is so fast and habitual that you can’t yet control it. And begin to start a new thought pattern that are helpful to you.

Willpower Doesn’t Help

An additional caveat- Don’t try to use willpower to change your response to unconscious thought or beliefs. It’s a losing proposition. You only have so much willpower and one day, you’ll be tired, hungry, or angry enough that your willpower will fail you and you’ll respond to the trigger in your conditioned behavior pattern based on your true/old beliefs.  Willpower is not a long term, permanent answer to negative thought patterns and beliefs.

Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life

By understanding what thoughts and beliefs are running your brain, you can replace them with more helpful and empowering thoughts.  Staying present with your thought despite a rising tide of conditioned responses will help you to understand and change your thinking- changing your life

More Resources

Steve Pavlina‘s blog is always a great source about conscious awareness and behavior change.

Martha Beck is always a great source. Period.

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. This is a great book that goes over how effective, and limited, willpower really is. It also shows how industry and corporations are highjacking your instincts and what you can do to become aware and counter these tactics. It also helps you become of aware of your habitual actions.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. This is another book that describes the power and the limits of willpower and our conditioned thinking.

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt. This book was formative in my understanding about biology and thought patterns.  His most compelling concept is one where the author, a psychologist, notes the mind is like an elephant of conditioned desires and impulses. On top of the elephant is conscious intention as an ineffectual rider. So using your willpower as a jockey riding an elephant of desires and conditioned thinking, you can see how ineffective willpower is. Instead, delving into your beliefs is one of the most effective ways to change your behavior patterns.

Byron Katie is amazing for using inquiry to question our thoughts. She has a lot of free resources. If you’re looking to understand your triggers and blind spots (after you’re out of the profound trauma of fresh tragedy), I think her tools are amazing.

How about you? What has helped you uncover and change your conditioned response?

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Be The Change You Want In the World- Compassion

Written by Kate • October 26, 2017 •
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Inner Child- Girl on swing at sunset

Enjoying Being A Child

I’ve long wanted to be more compassionate with others and while I can be quite judgy and critical, I usually feel more compassion for others than I often feel for myself. I have been so hypercritical of myself for so long that I wasn’t sure I could change such ingrained behavior patterns. I’m reminded of this at every yoga class, during the finishing minutes of every class, my teachers would speak of first having compassion for ourselves and then for others in discussing “right” feelings.

I rarely could find compassion for myself. If I did my best and I still guessed wrong, I spent far too long castigating myself about how I should know better. If I seemingly caused conflict, I went over and over how I could have phrased things better so as to engender understanding and acceptance on the other party’s side. Up and down. Right and left. If there was anything other than the smoothest of sailings in my life at any level, I went over how I could have done better, been better, spoken more clearly, been less angry, more angry, etc.  On and on- always expecting better of myself.

The Inner Child

And then I learned about the concept of the inner child. I’d long heard of inner child work but never understood how it applied to me. In listening to Tosha Silver, she’s mentioned the inner child and has given me some great insights on how to be loving and kind to my inner child.  Over the months that I’ve been working on this, I see the value and need for inner child work.

The way I see the inner child(ren) is that inside you there is a spin off version of you from your childhood from when you were deeply wounded by life, by your parents, or some situation. At some point of time, you abandoned yourself in order to emotionally or physically survive a situation. In other words, to survive, you abandoned yourself and now there is an internal version of you that continues to speak to you, mostly from an unconscious level, from the original wounding.  And you can have more than one.

Like most everyone, we have situations that trigger us. These situations trigger us and in those initial moments after being triggered, if you learn to listen to your thoughts, you can likely hear the same recording from your inner child bringing up the wounding and trying to apply it this new situation. But often, the triggered reaction is so habitual that it’s now at the unconscious level and you’re likely  no longer aware that the same thought pattern is rising up again and again from a childhood wounding.

Understanding the Inner Child

Once I became aware of my inner child, I’ve been able to hear her so much more clearly and been able to work with her. For a long time, I thought my core fear was not being good enough. But I’ve realized that the reason I fear not being good enough is that I fear I will be abandoned if I’m not. My past makes so much more sense for me, now that I understand my true core fear and past situations when I’ve been triggered and overreacted. Sometimes my reaction to a situation baffled me by its intensity.

As an example, one that is both trivial and perhaps understandable to everyone: Recently, I had some houseguests and I served a meal. After the meal, I asked what they thought of it and they were lovingly honest. They said, “it wasn’t my favorite”. The next day, as I mused on the meal and my guests’ reaction, I started to get angrier and angrier at the thought that they didn’t like the meal I served. After several hours of periodically thinking about the meal, I was pretty upset at a deep level.  Now the conscious me was quite aware that my reaction was over the top and not rational or appropriate to the situation. But that’s how I felt. Now that I am aware of my inner child (and my core fear), I went inside to find out what was going on to provoke such a response.

And I came out again with my fear of abandonment. How did I jump from someone not loving a meal I prepared to fearing being abandoned? My inner child went from had the following sequence of thoughts and reactions:

  1. My guests didn’t like the meal
  2. I’m not as good a host as I thought because I should have known they wouldn’t like the meal
  3. They didn’t like the meal so I’m not good enough
  4. If my guest didn’t like the meal, they’ll never come back
  5. I’ll be abandoned

Again, it’s a silly situation but I truly got bent out of shape over my guests’ reaction. Because my core fear of being abandoned we triggered by this situation, I got very angry over it.

How To Be Compassionate With Yourself (And Your Inner Child)

I no longer care to spend much time understanding how I got here. The truth of this situation is that my inner child is deeply worried about being abandoned, as any child would be. With this perspective, I go inside and speak with my inner child. I comfort her and hold her and acknowledge her fears. As the adult here, I let her know that it’s ok and even if we were to be abandoned, I can take care of us. I no longer dismiss her feelings out, ignore her, or tell her she’s silly for feeling any particular way. I accept what is, act lovingly to my inner child, and heal a little bit more of the original wounding.

Through honest inquiry, even as I saw how strangely overblown my reaction was, I was able to find deep compassion for my inner child who feels she has to be perfect or she’ll be abandoned.

Being The Change

As I started to be more compassionate with the myself, through my inner child work, I am able to be more compassionate with the world. By allowing myself, at a conscious level, to be less than perfect, I have more compassion for others as we muddle through life.

More Resources

Tosha Silver  Tosha’s amazing at surrendering to the Divine and she has a lot of experience with the inner child.

Matt Licata    Matt’s blog, as a psychotherapist, is so lyrical and so healing. I highly recommend his work in general.

Thich Nhat Hanh   The renowned Buddhist monk has a book on healing the inner child through reconciliation. This is an excerpt from the book.

 

How about you? I’d love to hear about your experiences with your inner child (and how it’s changed you!).

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So You’ve Manifested A Bunch of Stuff. You’re Still Not Happy. Now what?

Written by Kate • October 19, 2017 •
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Divine BelovedLike many of us, I was introduced to the ideas of manifesting and co-creation through watching The Secret, learning about  Abraham-Hicks, and reading Mike Dooley (Thoughts Become Things). It makes a lot of sense to me, that our thoughts become things, that where are attention goes, so energy flows. It just clicked with me. So I was able to use it more consciously in my life for a lot of things (but, of course, not everything -which is another story). And here’s the thing. It appears I can manifest with the best of them. But I would not say that my life any better for it. As I write in my detail below, I have moved away from directly trying to manifest things and situations in my life and into surrendering to the mystery instead.

Examples of Manifestation

So that you know I’m not a talking head about manifesting, I’ll list a few of the things I have manifested in my life. As you’ll see, I say this without pride or a personal sense of accomplishment.

A Life of Travel

While at undergrad, I decided I wanted to live in another country. It took a few years but I was able to easily make it happen and ended up living in Paris my senior year. It definitely was a fork in the road for me and cemented my love of travel. From there, I joined Peace Corps and lived in West Africa for two years. I then found a job in international development where I traveled much of the time but realized I prefer to travel for pleasure. And I’ve kept at it. Just this year, I spent six weeks in Bali and a month in Italy (all with our 2 year old twins). It’s simply who I am (for now). I am a person who loves travel and I travels a lot.

New Jobs

Throughout my early career, as I cast around for what I wanted to “do” with my career/life, I was still unsure of what I wanted out of my work life. At one particular job, after having seen the Secret and understanding more about manifestation,  I asked “the Universe” for a new job and even wrote out a resignation letter with a specific date (which was about 4 months into the future) and saved it onto my computer. While putting out my resume and searching for the new job without a lot of effort on my part, I then got the offer for a job I thought I wanted and submitted that original resignation letter, having to only change the date from my original resignation later by about 3 weeks. I was amazed that it had worked.  But because I had asked for a job but hadn’t been specific that it was in a warm and supporting environment or that it feed my soul work or anything else that was supportive, I got what I asked for and disliked this “job”. So I put out into the Universe new resignation letters a few more times so as to get new and “better” jobs. My intentions each worked within a month of the date I used on the new resignation letters for each new job.

A House in the Country

In 2008, as my 93 year old grandmother had another stroke and her DNR was implemented, I flew out to be with my grandma and family as my grandma passed. I stayed with a cousin (Hi Robin!) during that week. As I laid in my bed in her guest room, deer and a flock of wild turkeys passed by my open sliding glass door. Something in me zinged. I told Dion, my partner, then, “I want this”. He couldn’t believe it because I was such a city girl up until that very moment. It took me about a year to line everything, including changing Dion’s mind about moving out of the city into the Virginia exurbs, but several  months later, we had packed up and were out in Purcellville on 3 acres. We’ve now settled another 10 miles west in Round Hill, VA on 6 acres. Wild turkeys, deer, and foxes are nearly daily occurrences here. I have the same view here as I did from my cousin’s guest room.

Becoming a Mom

I had two pregnancies each end at six weeks. I kept trying but it never happened naturally again for me. And then, while in India (love to travel!) with two new friends I met at an Ayurvedic retreat, they asked me why I never had kids. They were kind. It was genuine and caring inquiry. And I lost it- just cried and cried and cried. It was at that moment that I realized there was more here than I realized and I focused on the reality of truly trying to get pregnant or let it go. For many of the years prior to my trip to India, I hoped I’d get pregnant but avoided actually feeling my feelings. It was all too painful.  But after that conversation in India,  by sitting with the idea of living the rest of my life without kids, I realized I didn’t want to let the idea of being a mother go.

I didn’t want to bring children into the world unless it was the right decision. I was 45 and I was scared to do the “wrong” thing.  For one of the first times in my life,  I asked the Divine to only allow me to get pregnant and have children if it was in my highest good and their highest good. Please don’t let this happen if it’s not the right thing for the child(ren) or for me. We went in for fertility treatment. First try, it worked. It was not quite two years later from the chat with my friends in India that I gave birth to the most magnificent set of twins.

As a side note, while in India, the three of were discussing children and our desires for having a child. One of those friends gave birth a month after me, with her due date just 4 days after mine (if my twins had been a singleton like hers) and the other friend gave birth almost exactly one year later than us. Wondrous timing.

Astonishing Manifestations

The previous manifestations may seem like average changes, that with applied will and effort, it would be easy to manifest these types of life events. But the following is a partial list of astonishing manifestations that just could not have been planned and definitely meant that wheels were turning behind that scenes at a much higher level than I could ever imagine.

Work at Home Job Offer

I had been able to manifest new jobs seemingly whenever I needed to.  But because job after job was never satisfied for long, I started to realize that I needed to more specific about what I was looking for in a job. At my second to last job, I had become increasingly unhappy with the commute, the job, and the work environment. It was so toxic, and senior management was actively encouraging gossip, back biting, and criticizing colleagues and peers in closed meetings. After two years, Ijust wanted out.

At the time, I truly thought that what I needed was more time to devote to building my own business and I needed a job that allowed me to work at home so that I could free up the two+ hours  I was using to commute to my soul sucking job every day. (I laugh now at how narrow my request was. Why didn’t I ask for help with creating my business? Or the money to help me launch a business so I didn’t have to work? But no, I focused solely on working at home as my vision for what I needed next. Baby steps.) I didn’t know how I was going to get a work-from-home job but I again wrote up my resignation letter and included a date. But this time,  I wrote about how the opportunity to work at home was more than I could pass up and it was an exciting next step.  Because I couldn’t figure out how to even begin looking for a job at home, I simply wrote the resignation letter, dated it, saved it, and kept on visualizing about working from hoping an idea would come to me about what to do next.

A month or so later, I got a call from an ex-colleague who had gone on to work at another organization. I hadn’t seen her in a while and she certainly didn’t know about my visualizations or desire for a job working from home. She then proceeded to tell me that she knew of a small business that was in search of someone with my talents but the job was in another state. So I would have to work from home. I was absolutely astounded and amazed.  She couldn’t have known I wanted to work from home or even that I was looking a new job.

I met with the owner of the business and handed in my original resignation letter and only had to change the date by about two weeks. I never actually looked for the job and made no effort to secure a new job other than visualizing it with all my heart.

Additional Income

As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy traveling. I also want to give back  so early in my career I got a job  doing international aid work for a USAID contractor. I started traveling to Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. It was great and it was lonely. Over time, through not paying attention to my finances and by taking several trips and buying lots art from the places I was visiting, I had amassed a large debt on my credit cards, $5,000. I had no idea how I’d pay it off.

I started noticing that every time I planned a visit to see my family in either California or Indiana, a trip for work came up. (I know there is a larger point to the work trips coming up for the exact timeframe as my intended visit to my family but that is a different story. This is the story about the boost to my income.) I realized that if I took a trip and didn’t buy any “souvenirs” and ate locally, I would be able to save my per diem and start to pay down my credit card debt.  To test my theory, I started to tentatively plan a trip to visit my brother. I emailed him to see if he was available for a specific weekend and truly made plans to visit him by looking at airfare, flight times, and car rentals. Boom, the next day an urgent trip to Mali came up and I had to stay there for over a month. I ate well but on the cheap because I love local food and can eat it without worries (thank you, Peace Corps Benin!). I came home, submitted my expenses and I had over $2,000 to put toward my credit card debt.

I wanted to fully pay off the credit card so I decided to use this quirk again. I then planned a trip to see my parents and did the same thing with checking their availability, flights, etc. Immediately, another urgent work trip came up that I could not have predicted and definitely did not know about-  but my presence was absolutely required. This trip was equally as long as the trip to Mali so I was able to submit my expenses at the end of it, and voila, the credit card debt was paid off.

I have many other examples of these types of astonishing manifestations: Manifestations that occur that I in no way orchestrated other than putting it out there about what I wanted. It’s real and it happened to me so very many times.

The Next Level of Manifesting

As I say, it appears I can manifest my ass off. But is my life any better for it?

I’ve gotten the house, the jobs, the kids, the money. Once I got the job(s), it was exactly the wrong thing. I hated them. And sure I got the money but I didn’t feel abundant and supported. And now that I have the kids, the big wonderful house in the country is too far out. I felt like I kept asking for the “wrong” things and few of the things I asked for actually helped me feel happy. What is a manifesting, co-creator to do when many of the things we’ve asked for have turned to ashes in our hands?

Surrendering to the Divine

In working with Tosha Silver and others, I realize there is a better way. We are creating large parts of our life, consciously and unconsciously. (And I believe some part of our life is about fate and destiny and not at all in our control.  I don’t believe Syrian children chose to be born into a hellish conflict situation. But there are parts of our life that we can co-create and we’re doing it all the time). I see now that all of my machinations, all of my rational step by step ideas of how to get to some future state of happiness, fulfillment, wealth, family life, and more have never taken into account the astonishing and miraculous ways the Divine can make things happen.  And the Divine Beloved, as I call her, can do it without my worrying, stress, and willing something into reality.

The Divine Beloved takes care of the things that need to be done on her side and I’ll be shown what next steps are for me to take. I see that the Divine has her things to do and I have mine.

For me, that means wanting what I want. I’m human. I have my desires and dreams. But I now offer them to the Divine Beloved and surrender them over. For large parts of my life, I only want what’s in my highest good and the highest good of all. (And yes, I really want a million+dollars as my highest good but only truly if it’s my highest good. I don’t want to hurt others in getting my desires fulfilled and I don’t want anyone diminished in the act of manifesting). And when I wake up to where I am grasping desperately to certain situations or aspects of my life, I surrender that part over to the Divine Beloved.

Every morning before my prayers and meditation session, I ask the Divine Beloved to give to me and to take from me all that I need to be fully surrendered. And I mean everything, if that’s what it takes. It was scary at first but I see that losing what needs to go is the best thing for me. And getting what I need to have is also the best thing for me.

I want the magic and the mystery of the Divine’s in my life. I want to feel the happiness of being present in my life and stepping into the flow rather than desperately clinging to certain circumstance or status. Every day I surrender. And every day, life is that much sweeter even in the midst of painful lessons.

Some Resources

Tosha Silver is all about surrendering to the Divine Beloved. She’s done amazing work on this. David Hawkins’ Letting Go is also a great resource. And much of Steve Pavlina’s work is pretty amazing too.

How About You?

Do you have an astonishing manifestation story of your own? I love hearing about how the Divine works in our lives.

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What Peace Corps Taught Me – Fame

Written by Kate • June 27, 2012 •
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Peace CorpsI am sure this sounds like the most ridiculous idea but during my Peace Corps service, I really got a taste of fame and I didn’t much like it. Lemme esplain.

I lived in a small town in West Africa, maybe 3000 people in Sekou and all of the several villages surrounding Sekou. Essentially no one but the Proviseur, who I mentioned in my last post was the only other person I knew who had traveled,  and I had ever traveled more than 100 miles from where people were born, grew up and lived and died.  Certainly no one had been on a plane and no one but the Proviseur and I had ever left our families for any length of time.

So my arrival, like all other volunteers in the small communities we were placed in Benin, was big news and I was big news.  Children would freak out with joy at seeing me and rush me and want me to give them money, wisdom, and lots of attention.

Author with High School Kids - HIV Prevention Education in Sekou, Benin

Author with High School Kids – HIV Prevention Education in Sekou, Benin

The long and the short of it is that I was a thrilling and novel presence wherever I went. Children would watch me read. Whenever I went for a run or a bike ride, strangers would want to race me because if they could beat me, well life just got better for a moment.  Walking past an elementary school became something I avoided. Children would yell for me, surround me, want my money, and to touch me.

I soon learned what living a fish bowl constantly being watched felt like. I finally really understood what it’s like not to be able to go about doing the ordinary things that all people must do without others following you, watching your every move, judging and commenting on you in the moment, and wanting a piece of you.

Because of my own experiences, I respectfully ignore famous people that I randomly encounter. A few examples are of once boarding behind John Cusak on a plane and sitting in a secluded airport waiting area with David Lee Roth.  Not a word to either of them.

In my experience, fame isn’t what is cracked up to be. And it’s amazing to me that I was able to learn this lesson through living in a very small town in West Africa. You never know what life will serve up to you.

 

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What Peace Corps Taught Me- Connection

Written by Kate • June 21, 2012 •
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Peace CorpsIn an ongoing series about what I learned from my service in the Peace Corps, this article is on connection. My first two articles in this series are:

What Peace Corps Taught Me- A Series

What Peace Corps Taught Me- Presence

I arrived in Benin with the largest contingent of volunteers to ever arrive in one training group. Apparently, our Peace Corps Director at the time decided to minimize the disruption to Peace Corps Benin by unifying the normally two separate training groups and creating one large group to be trained at the same time.

Side note: This wasn’t a total disaster but let’s just say not every detail was understood about what effect 80 volunteers would have on training resources. For example, there weren’t quite enough rooms for everyone so some of us had to live in the teachers quarters. Not a problem at all. But in the mess hall, there was never quite enough to eat as the staff didn’t know how to make meals enough for the 80 Benin volunteers plus the [unknown to me] number of Togo volunteers with whom we were training. I began to feel a vague “Lord of the Flies” mentality descend over the group as we all started to make sure we were there at the start of the meal and to take as much as we possibly could have wanted because there was never ever going to be seconds. For this reason, I still avoid buffets to this day because, despite their obvious abundance, it invokes in me a sense of lack.

Back to the main story…We 80 Benin Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) trained in Togo together for 6 weeks and then another 6 weeks in Benin. Obviously, with 80 people living together in stressful circumstances, it wasn’t easy going. I fell in with a group of volunteers that I really liked right away but thought that many of the others and I just didn’t click. There weren’t many that I outright didn’t like but I just didn’t make that heart connection from the first. And so I, and many others, started to form the inevitable cliques where we sorted ourselves with other with whom we had a natural affinity.

Off To Post

We then all got sorted out and shipped off to our posts, where we would live for the next two years. I had wanted to be in the south of the country because I felt I wouldn’t have been ready for the tougher life au Nord (in the North) where there was no water, electricity, or other Western comforts. As it turns out, I was posted in the only 10 KM area in all of the south that did not have electricity.  And there was no running water. So I ended up in a very small village that was the heart of voodoo without any of the comforts I had been hoping for while in training. But life often knows better.

I learned to love my life where I was, as did the vast majority of the other PCVs. Learning to love your experience wasn’t universal. Some people just never adapted and left early. Once I figured out my water situation- I paid someone to bring me water from the town pump. -Let me tell you, water is very very heavy. I once tried to carry it on my head in a large bowl the way the Beninoises did it and I thought I would crush my neck downward.-  But living without electricity, without street lights, without light pollution became one of the true joys of my life. I had a shower next to house- which consisted of a cement flooring and 3 and 1/2 sides of screening that were created by lashing together 10 foot dried palm fronds. Because it was so hot there, almost everyone ended up taking two showers per day, one in the morning and one at night, to cool down and to get rid of the day’s sweat.  Taking a cool shower outside in the warm night, looking at the stars and seeing the sky’s vastness, is something no one should miss.

Circumscribed World

As you can imagine, pre-internet, information became a one-sided affair. Newsweek was provided by Peace Corps so that we would have an understanding of what was happening in the wider world and I became a BBC and VOA junkie. And I would call my family once a quarter and write to them as often as I could, as would they. But life got simpler, smaller, till it felt like my life was about me, my village, and my fellow PCVs.

As I settled in, dealt with my homesickness, and adapted to my new living situation and Benin’s culture, I started to make friend with several of the villagers in my town. One of my closest friends, Romaine, just showed up one day and wanted to see the new PCV in town. She was wholly different from anyone else I met in that she had enough courage to just come over and introduce herself. We sat around chatting one afternoon and it was very pleasant. Then she came back and I settled in for another chat but she didn’t just want to sit. So while we were talking she did my dishes, over my protests. At some point, she and her two children just moved in with me.

For her, this was a very logical move. She just knew that no one could be happy living alone, it was anethma in Beninois society. And she needed a better place to stay after having left her cheating husband and his uncaring family. She wouldn’t take the single mattress I had in my living room in case her 18 month old daughter had an accident in the night- so she and her kids laid out a mat each night and slept on the floor. So I provided for her family in terms of food and shelter and she became my housekeeper of sorts. Her presence and her children gave me even more additional insights into Benin. It ended up being such a blessing to have her and the kids in my life.

Author with Friends

Author with Friends

In addition to Romaine, I became very good friends with four additional people in my village. One, the principal of the local technical school which provided agricultural training, was the only one who had traveled more than 50 or so miles from his home. He had lived in the USSR [Benin was communist until 1990] and taken courses at a University in Moscow. So he alone understand my homesickness although his was overlaid with the pain of the overt racism he endured in Moscow. So my five good friends and I. Life settled into a routine and really was quite simple for the rest of my time in Benin.

Time and Opportunity Enough to Connect

I would also travel often to the capital, since it was just an hour away, to get money or for my work as the President of the Women’s club. While at the PC offices in Cotonou, I would socialize with the other PCVs that were there. We caught up. We shared our experiences, our regrets, our failures, and our successes. With our shared experiences of life alone in our villages, the other PCVs and I all had a sense of connectedness that ran very deep. Our personality differences melted away and we were able to share a deep bond over what we were experiencing.

I remember marveling at the connection we all were establishing and it dawned on my that our three months of training for our Peace Corps service was probably one of the most stressful and difficult periods of our life, perhaps not the most auspicious way to begin a last friendship with 80 other people. I mean layer over the culture shock with language training with dysentery with immunization shots that could make you ill for days and even the most even-tempered of a person could become an irritable person, right?

But with our two-year commitment, we were afforded the time and the opportunity enough to connect, to share our deepest selves with each other.

Connectedness

The deep bonds I created with nearly 80 other people, through our shared experiences is one of the most profound of my entire Peace Corps experience. Without other distractions – no movies- no internet- no TV- no phone- no easy transport to take us away- all we had was each other.  We upleveled our interactions with each other.  We played cards, talked, and learned to be even friends.

It is this level of connectedness that I still seek today. I’ve moved to a small, exurban community and there are so many competing demands on our time. But on of the most profound ways we can spend our time is through our interactions with others in similar circumstances. It nourishes the soul.

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