When the Road I Traveled Becomes an Open Path

Do you ever wish you were a better person than who you are? Me too. Like all the time.

A couple weeks ago we had a terrible thunderstorm with torrential downpour and lightning that sparked the night with a purple white glow. Since the street to my home is riveted with deep muddy potholes, I was nervous that my friend’s car might get stuck or damaged when she dropped me off, so I decided to walk. At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do, but as soon as the car sped away, I felt a real sense of stupidity and fear.  I was going to have to wade through knee-deep water to get to my home. The story of a colleague’s neighbor getting bit by a baby cobra was stuck in my head and it too added fuel to the fear that was sloshing in my mind. I realized that these flooded waters could very well be full of water snakes and other creatures that could cause harm. But if I was going to return home, I really had no other alternative but to walk through these deep “puddles” that were a block long. I chanted “Please God help me” as I entered the road and stepped into the dimly lighted water, my flip-flops searching for an ounce of high ground. 10 minutes later, I arrived at my gate, very wet but very relieved that I somehow managed to make it through to dry land.

the truthAs I stripped off my wet and muddy clothes, I recanted my daring act to my husband and realized that I may very well have this experience again. This is Laos and I have signed up for an adventure, clearly. Why did I think this was a good idea? I wanted a postcard type of experience, you know–coconut trees swaying in the breeze and an easy going pace to life, but this is what I chose. I had the luxury to choose to live in a developing country and now I faced the reality of what is it like to live in a country that is so poor that most of the streets of its nation’s capital aren’t even paved.

All of sudden it got me thinking, if this experience was a lesson, what did I learn? How am I going to meet this “road”–My attitude? Am I going to go running and screaming down it (kind of what I did) or can I manage this experience a different way–My actions? How else could I go down this “road”–My opportunity? And who do I have to become in order to travel on this “road” that I have chosen–My identity?

I am in the process of answering these questions and was reminded recently of a poem by a famous Indian poet,  Rabindranath Tagore, whose message made me awaken out of self-absorption and see the truth that I am not alone on this journey. (None of us are.) Although I am unique, I am not different, because we all wrestle with the circumstances and the choices that create change in our lives.

Closed Path

I thought that my voyage had come to its end
at the last limit of my power,—that the path before me was closed,
that provisions were exhausted
and the time come to take shelter in a silent obscurity.

But I find that thy will knows no end in me.
And when old words die out on the tongue,
new melodies break forth from the heart;
and where the old tracks are lost,
new country is revealed with its wonders.

I connect deeply to this idea of  “new country”; this experience is revealing how much of me is a work in progress, as I reflect on who I am and how I see the world. There’s quite a bit that I can improve upon, let’s just say. However, to meet this challenge with self-loathing of all the things I wish I could be would be squandering the possibility for serious transformation. I still haven’t sorted out how to approach this task but I know that this discomfort is the first sign of the real potential for change. And if I keep focused….well who knows where this road I traveled where lead me.

In Transit

I can hear a bleating gong that seems to signal the coming of the monks for giving of alms.  My neighbors will bring out in bags and baskets food for the monks, as they pass by and give their good wishes and blessings. And this is how the day begins, an ebb and flow of giving and take within my neighborhood. It’s 5:45 am here in Laos and I am trying to prepare my mind for going to school, for a day of unexpected experiences as I am getting to know my new school community as well as the delightful students who are in my care. Not only that but my little nuclear family is trying to figure out what will be our new normal and establish a semblance of routine.  Although I can identify my feelings of unease as a natural part of adjusting to these new concentric circles of culture (my family, my work, relationships outside of work, my neighborhood, Laos)  it doesn’t make them go away and I wonder how long will I stay in this tentative emotional state.

ambivalence.jpg

Although this place is special, it is not unique, meaning that I have encountered so many of the same frustrations in other countries. At first, I found this ambivalence akin to having still not arrived here, feeling that somehow a part of me is still in transit, being processed and on its way to this destination, and was an odd feeling to grapple with.  But I have come to realize that in this new life here, I, like a piece of solid iron, am being smelted by this experience, reformed and fashioned for a new purpose. I know to decide to be happy, to enjoy how quirky and different everything is here, is surely the first step in this appreciating the transformation. I am trying to find some sort of ritual, some sort of antidote to these simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings toward our new life in Laos.

beauty.jpg I am reminded that my thoughts become my words and my words become my actions and my actions become my habits, and my habits become my character, and my character becomes my life. So I have decided to start making lists of things that create small moments of happiness in my life, like air conditioning at a restaurant, the beauty of lightening as it races across the sky, and the contentment I feel when Hannah enjoys local food. I want to find the beauty in this world and in my new life.

So I thank you, dear reader, for allowing this blog post to help me expedite my shift and define who I will become in this new environment, articulating this idea. I hope that wherever you are in the world, you too can find the beauty in it.

Taking a Beginner’s Class in Life

monk paradeCall it synchronicity or coincidence, but when some image, item or theme repeats itself, I pay attention to it.

It’s 5 am and the day is breaking on my first day in Laos. I hear dogs barking outside my hotel’s bedroom window and as I look outside, to my amazement, I see a parade of Buddhist’s monks doing their daily ritual of alms giving. To see their bright orange robes in the pale morning sunlight sparked joy and excitement in me. Then fast forward later to an introductory ice breaker at my new school when I am asked to select one picture that I resonate with and explain why. I saw an image very much like the one here in this blog post of the monks.  Obviously, the morning experience had left an impression on me, which is why I believed I was immediately drawn to it, but then as I started to explore it more deeply,  I thought it is what the monks represent to me: contemplation and discipline. But to what?–that is what has plagued me and woke me up this morning at 4:14 am.

If I believe that every detail in my life has a message of the divine in it, then what would this repeating image of parading monks mean to me? This urge to understand is what got me leaping out of bed this morning. As soon as my feet hit the ground, it occurred to me that it is the ideal that monks strive towards, a  Beginner’s Mind:  having an open mind and heart, allowing for the mundane in life to become a fresh experience and to invite the magic of living back into awareness.

Moving into a new country, it is easy in many ways to have a Beginners’ Mind because there are all these new “adventures” that you get to explore like food, culture, and scenery. thich-nhat-hanh-quote-beginners-mind.jpgBut what about other elements that are not as novel, like our attitudes towards things, in particular, relationships. These relationships could be anything like how we feel towards our loved ones or how we feel towards mosquitos. It’s hard to enliven these stagnant attitudes with a new point of view. But for me, I think seeing these monks reminded me of the importance of the commitment to keeping open to the possibility that maybe something that I believe to be true may have another version worth exploring. Ideas that popped immediately to my mind were my personal relationships, how I feel about aging and my ideas about living with nature. Can I examine these ideas with a fresh perspective, remaining deeply curious and in awe of its presence in my life?  Although I am not sure what benefit this approach may yield, I am setting an intention to examine the dogma in my beliefs and observe how it impacts my decisions and feelings. I am going to liken this introspection as a taking a  beginner’s course in life. And today my course starts.

 

 

What Are You Packing?

Most people hate moving, whether it is to a new house, a new state or new country. I think it is not the sheer exhaustion of the actual move, I reckon it is going through your stuff and determining what goes in boxes, what gets packed. I’ve gone through the process of moving about 35 times in my life, most of which happened before I was 25. I’ve got to sift through my things and consider carefully what I want to bring along with me. The other day in the shower (best thinking happens there, right?!), I was pondering all these places that I have lived, not just the physical places but the places in my mind and its habits. The different versions of me. Not only do I pack these physical items, but the mental ones. too. I get to purge the worst in me and only bring that which I want to to take forward into my next experience. I think this is the best part of moving to a far distant place because you do not have a personal history to defend. No one knows a dang thing about you and who’ve you been and you can set the reset button if you wish.

I think about the people in my life who have lived in the same place for ages. Sometimes, their stability is seen with a sense of pride, but, to me, I wonder if it is not a prison. A while ago I came to understand why I had this opinion about the “stable” people I know when I heard  this Indian mystic named Sadharguru say,

I am not against wealth. I am not against comfort. I am against stagnation, because if you stagnate, you are only half alive.

It made me realize that I harbor a belief that being deeply rooted to a place makes you deeply rooted in the comfort of your identity. Hating to disappoint others, might one be scared to do or say something that is contrary to the opinion of others? They might never get to experience the lightness and freshness of change! Of course, I do think thamovingt one can reinvent oneself in the midst of these strong attachments, but I think it must be ruthlessly difficult to challenge people’s perception of them. When people have a definition of who they think you are, it’s often difficult to get them to change their mind. But the definition that is the most challenging to change is the one we give ourselves: the one that is full of “can’ts” and “don’ts”. That’s the stuff that needs to be released, the beliefs that we cling to, and no one but oneself can do that.

So as I stare at all of my stuff, literally, and decide what is going to be shipped, I think it is important to reflect on this passage of my life–the China chapter–and consider what memories and insights I want to bring with me:  the ready smiles of my neighbors, the curiousity of locals when they see foreigners, the kindness and generosity of friends found here, the cacaphony of millions of people celebrating, the smell of the orange blossoms and the utter freedom of not giving a rat’s ass of what you look like to others (including the bold public display of excrementing) here. I want to stow that away as well.

No matter if you are intrepridly anchored to a place or a global nomad like myself, I think this exercise of unpacking and repacking our identity is an important exercise. Evaluating the “junk” and “clutter” in our beliefs and liberating them to the garbage heap is so profoundly necessary for our minds to feel the possibility of our own potential. What is truly valuable and extraordinary about oneself that is worth keeping, and subtracting from there might be a useful strategy. I’m thinking of my own list right now of redeeming qualities and wondering what I need in this next journey that awaits me.

What about you? What would you pack?

 

 

The Dogma of Your Sport

As an educator, I’m always looking out to the future, thinking about what will be the world for my students as they emerge into adulthood. With that in mind, I am always foraging for ideas, not just in my field, but outside the domain of education. I feel strongly that if you want to have an insight in your field, it helps to look outside your field to gain important perspectives and concepts.

I heard a Jiu Jitsu World Champion, Josh Waitzkin, talk about how important it was for him to train with dirty players–competitors who intentionally and shamelessly break the rules of the sport in an effort to win, in order to mentally get over the expectations of how the game is supposed to be played–that perfect world in which everyone follows the rules and the game is clear cut and obvious.He stopped being offended by these dangerous and dishonorable moves and instead embraced it with curiosity and intrigue. It was because of this openness that he was able to rise to being the champion that he is because there was nothing that another player could do to him to throw him off. When he referred to these belief systems about playing the game as “the dogma” of his sport, it really resonated with me.  Truth is, we all have some dogma in our careers and relationships because we’ve calcified ideas about how things ought to be in an unrealistic neat and perfect world.

To be aware of a voice inside your head that says : “It doesn’t make any sense.”,  it’s always a sign of something really powerful…in saying that “it doesn’t make sense” this means that there are logical reasons why things ought to be a certain way. But the world always makes sense, but what doesn’t make sense is your model of your world...You have to revise your hypothesis. ….What would you need to see to change your view? This is the best question ever.

Adam Robinson, founder of the Princeton Review

I love this idea that was shared on the Tim Ferriss Show by Adam Robinson, which challenges us to look at our belief systems and question it at a deeper level–what opinions or perceptions do we hold that may need to be confronted and analyzed? We keep looking at external factors to change but the truth is that it is us who must change to fit the new circumstances. If we can endeavor to be malleable and plnobility.jpgiable, then we will have the resilience and endurance to go through life with more grace and avail ourselves to higher levels of success.

As I am always longing to be the best version of myself, I recently enrolled in an MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called the Innovator’s Mindset (#IMMOOC), based on the book of the same title by George Couros.  This course and book are geared toward educators, but I think it could be applied to a variety of skill sets, as he challenges his readers to “innovate inside the box”. So true–and it totally connects, at least in my mind, to this whole idea of shifting our definitions and developing new strategies to move us forward as educators- Challenge the Dogma of our Sport! We have to let go of our expectations and embrace the constraints in our schools so we can be pioneers and creators to produce our next generation of innovators and leaders.

So I keep wondering what “dogma” do I adhere to? What “doesn’t make sense” to me? Those questions linger in my mind and I will continue to contemplate and reflect upon for probably my whole life. When I reframe these beliefs into questions, it makes it easier for me to grapple with them. For example:

Professional

  • Does there need to be a power struggle between students and teachers, as we give students more agency in their learning?
  • How can we give students more autonomy and still maintain “control” in the classroom and cover the content?

What would I need to see/experience to change my view about control of the learning environment?

Personal

  • How can I love those people that justify their hatred and bigotry with their religion?
  • In what ways am I just like the people that I consider antagonists to my personal values?

What would I need to see/experience to change my view about our human potential to develop a more peaceful and accepting world?

Perhaps this post has also given you some pause and you also turn inward to think about what personal or professional beliefs you persist in that aren’t serving your higher purpose. Please comment below or connect with me @judyimamudeen to share how you might answer Adam’s question: What would you need to see to change your view?

 

Thank You, Pablo Picasso

Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.
– Pablo Picasso

Recently a colleague of mine was explaining that Picasso didn’t mean to invent abstract art, he just insisted that there were other perspectives that could be illumined by drawing and painting from different angles. Instead of drawing a face head-on, he thought about how it might look from the sdora-maar-potraitide, for example. Although this is a simple idea, it created a revolution in how we can represent life–at least from an artist’s point of view. However, I also feel, that this wisdom can be applied to multiple situations other disciplines.

Have you ever heard of the story behind the cure for stomach ulcers? An Australian doctor who challenged prevailing views, Barry Marshall simplymax-plank looked at the current medical paradigm that ulcers were psychosomatic and dared to ask, How do you know (this theory is true)? He proved in his research that it was actually caused by a type of bacterium H. Pylori and providing antibiotics was a simple remedy for patients. Yet no one believed him! For years people tried to discredit his cure; until one day, Dr. Marshall actually drank a broth chalked full of H. Pylori bacterium and caused himself to break out in stomach ulcers, which he treated successfully with antibiotics.  This move was so shocking and convincing that now it is taken as a routine treatment for ulcers. However, it has taken YEARS to shift the attitudes of doctors and can you believe that still there are medical practitioners who still think that ulcers “are in your head”?- They cannot look at this medical ailment from another perspective. (I love that quote from Max Planck that expresses how hard it is to change people’s minds about a long-held scientific belief, which seems relevant still today, whether it’s a cure for cancer, climate change or treating a post-traumatic disorder. The only way a new idea can come into mainstream awareness is that the old stalwarts have to die off. )

Discomfort, fear, doubt, uncertainty–these are all symptoms of a shift in one’s thinking. You know you’re out of the status quo when you experience these feelings. At least that’s how I see it. And when I look at a Picasso, it now makes me think, how often do I look at situations or ideas from a limited point of view, particularly that of the mainstream beliefs of my culture? And I wonder if I avoid taking different perspectives because I was culturally ingrained to be rigid with black -n-white thinking, or am I just trying to prevent discomfort? And, can I teach myself to be more pliable in my thinking? Also, can I hold multiple perspectives at one time, and both of them to be equally valid and true?

As I ponder these deeper questions, I feel appreciation in my heart for a man who provided a visual representation of the need to look at life from multiple angles and challenge pre-existing ideas with How DO I know this is the only way to look at a situation or problem?

Thank you, Pablo Picasso, not only for the enigmatic beauty you tried to represent but for your stirring of the human mind and soul.

 

 

Getting off My “but”

Do you know that 25% of people abandon their New Year’s Resolution after 1 week? I’m not sure why this is, but I reckon that it has to do more with the confidence in its achievement, rather than the unattainability of the goal. However, I also believe that upfront planning for its success, will yield greater “stick-to-it”ness and keep a person on track.

With that in mind, as I sat down to write out my goals for this year, I remembered that no matter what I put down, I have to CHOOSE it.  It had to be so compellingjohn-burroughs and juicy that I have the endurance to meet its challenge, especially if the distance from where I am is far from where I want to be. Did you know that Khloe Kardashian worked out five to six days a week for two and a half years before she reached her fitness goals? Although I am not a Kardshian fan, I have to deeply admire her level of commitment. I get bummed out after a month of sloppy adherence to a regimen so the fact that someone can last a whole 2 years, well, I honor and am inspired by them.

However, my past does not have to equal my future, to paraphrase Tony Robbins. I just have to get off my “but” with a no excuse approach to meeting my goals. Just because I have attempted to do something in the past and have failed, doesn’t mean that I ALWAYS have to fail; it just means that the strategies I used weren’t effective at making the change that I wanted and I have to reevaluate them. I think I also have to be more honest about the time it may take to achieve that goal.

Have you ever read the Art of War by Sun Tzu? In it, he talks about the 9 situations in which one engages in combat and the propensity for retreat. He suggests that one must “burn all the boats” so that there is nothing left except for winning. And I wonder how I can apply this to my goals. I’ve thought the best way to do this is to make a list of all of my “buts” and how I will overcome them when and if I encounter them. For example, let’s say that one of my goals is to get into great shape through strength training, and one of my excuses to not workout is when I get sick or have a cold (which is a very likely “but”). So then I come up with at least 3 ways in which I can counter that:

  1. I want to get into my best shape ever through strength training but I have a cold. So I will bounce on the rebounder to get my lymphatic system going for a minute and then do 1 rep of a circuit (maybe 2 mins long).
  2. I want to get into my best shape ever through strength training but I have a headache. So I will give myself 2 pain relievers, wait 10 mins,  and then do 1 rep of a circuit (maybe 2 mins long).
  3. I want to get into my best shape ever through strength training but I have the stomach flu and feel too weak and ill to work out. So I will give myself 1 day off, but never 2 days off in a row in order to keep my momentum, and I will do a light workout the next day, even if it is for 1 minute.

Working off my BUT

Now that I have some ideas on how I can counter those obstacles, then I am more likely to follow through with my alternative plan. Planning really makes all the difference. And I do believe in the adage that “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”, which is why I think so many of us fall short on our goals. I’ve never used this strategy before so I am looking forward to trying it out this year, and I believe that I will find more success when I approach challenges in this way. I also think that this strategy will help me to become more patient with my progress, because when we make effort and develop momentum, we are more likely to stay on track.

So good-bye “but”, and hello “so”!