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Archive for September, 2009

Water for Women

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I have seen first-hand the horrifying and debilitating impact on women and girls of the lack of access to clean water and decent sanitation.

I work primarily in Rwanda, where women and girls rise every morning to begin the treacherous 3 to 4 hour round-trip journey down and back up steep hills to collect water from dirty creeks in the valleys. Not only does this mean young girls are missing out on a critical opportunity for education, as the author identified, but imagine the productivity gain if millions of women suddenly had an extra four hours every morning to attend to the myriad of other needs they and their family face.

In addition to the extensive health implications of drinking contaminated water, violence is often a more immediate risk facing women during this daily chore.  Throughout rural areas of Rwanda, Sudan, Chad, Uganda and other regions of Africa, women risk sexual assault as they travel to remote water access points.  And competition for resources further exacerbates this risk, by causing women to leave their homes in the middle of the night – sometimes at 2am or 3am – just to ensure they reach the water source first and do not have to spend subsequent hours waiting or fighting for the limited supply.

Even more horrifying is the alternative to this difficult journey.  Some of the women we are working with in Rwanda, who are elderly, physically disabled or sick with HIV and too weak to make this daily journey must turn to buying water from delivery men who bring them water on bicycles. However, their inability to pay leaves them vulnerable to sexual exploitation to meet the basic needs of their family.  As one woman told us: when your children are about to return from school for their primary meal of the day, and you have no water to cook rice – well, you do what you have to do to feed your children.  Further, the inability to cook meals on time due to the water collection process is often a trigger of domestic violence within families where women are seen as not meeting the needs of their husbands in carrying out their primary duties. 

The lack of proper sanitation facilities also often leads to violence, especially in primary and secondary schools where unisex latrines become a prime location for sexual violence against school children.  Furthermore, when girls reach the age of menstruation, they often leave school permanently so as to avoid the embarrassment of utilizing unisex latrines, which also do not provide them with adequate sanitation facilities to take care of themselves.

What is remarkable is that these same women are initiating their own solutions to create safe alternatives for women and girls.  Throughout Rwanda, groups of women are designing social-purpose water projects that allow them to provide water at no charge to vulnerable women, sustained by the sales of water to the remainder of the community.  Other projects are educating villages about girls’ reproductive health and then working collaboratively to build girls’ latrines at schools.  Global Grassroots has found that with less than $3000, a well-designed socially entrepreneurial venture can serve between 500 – 2500 members of its community.  When you think about the large-scale development aid that has yet to successfully address this global issue, I propose we redirect even a small portion of this aid to support smaller-scale entrepreneurial endeavors that can begin to protect vulnerable communities immediately.  These socially entrepreneurial projects – with the right training and advisory support – are demonstrating the opportunity for fostering systemic change from the grassroots level up.

Darfur not a “sideshow”

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Several things this week have me thinking about Darfur. 

One – reports from the ground reveal that the Government of Sudan has begun bombing in Darfur again.  Though some Sudan experts suggest that the Darfur crisis is over, I fear that this has been only a lull in the storm and that as the rainy season ends, we will again see violence spike during the months of November – January as we have always seen.

Two – the UN General Assembly as been in session.  As the US takes over chairing the UN Security Council, I find myself delighted that Obama mentioned Darfur in his speech this week, and dismayed that we seem no closer to a level of effective intervention to achieve peace in Darfur and prevent the North-South Comprehensive Peace Agreement from falling apart.  At the same time, the outgoing commander of UNAMID is claiming the crisis is over and our own Envoy to Sudan questions whether it was even a genocide.

Three – my friend Rabbi Lee Bycel just returned from a trip to eastern Chad and a visit to Adam Musa.  Adam is a passionate advocate for his people and a tireless educator on human rights.  Adam is also a Darfuri refugee who has been living in a refugee camp with his family for 6 years now.  Four years ago when I met him, I promised him I would help him achieve his vision of creating a human rights library in his camp, home to around 15,000 Darfuris.  Various complications from regional violence to the requirements of the UN have prevented us from doing so.  But I am hopeful Rabbi Bycel will help us find a new partner on the ground in Chad who can facilitate making this possible. 

Four – A friend shared a post on Sudanwatch.blogspot.com by Sudan expert Alex de Waal, which critiques the Darfur movement, proposes that the crisis is over and that Darfur is a “sideshow” to the issues surrounding the CPA in South Sudan.  First of all, I highly respect Alex de Waal.  I do agree that it is a very strong possibility that Sudan will go to war over the South’s vote for indpendence next year, and that experts should be watching the deteriorating situation there very closely.  But I have to strongly disagree with his calling Darfur a “sideshow”. Though the intensity of the attacks that my brother witnessed in 2004-2005 has diminshed, Darfur is by far over.  In fact, reports that we have been getting from Darfuris on the ground report that bombing has begun again in Darfur by the GOS a week ago and continues.  Not all of the aid groups who were expelled have been allowed back in – the GOS has used this tactic before, allowing refugees to starve or die from disease in camps as a silent continuation of genocide. 

There is obviously a significant amount of political negotiations, peace-building, security, and reconstruction that will be necessary.  But the underlying forces that resulted in the conflict have not disappeared. Though reports show small numbers of individuals killed each month, and I know the violence is significantly lower than it had been, we should also keep in mind that the violence is still likely underreported.  When my brother served in Darfur (Aug 2004 – Jan 2005) only 3-4 of the 80 or so reports they issued in 6 months made it through channels to higher authorities, and even the reports they did issue were diluted by the GOS members of the monitoring team. What will be terrible, is if the international community allows their attention to move elsewhere without ensuring a solid peace agreement, security for the millions of refugees that have been displaced (3.5 million?), and justice for the perpetrators.

I do agree with some of de Waal’s complaints about the Darfur advocacy movement and its creation of an engine that increasingly has to focus on sustaining its own need for money and publicity.  And to enhance its credibility and authenticity, it needs to demonstrate its connection with the people of Darfur more than its connection with celebrities.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “philanthropic imperialism”, as the underlying intentions of the leaders of the movement are good, and aim to support the people of Darfur and obtain a sustainable solution to the entire regional conflict.  I think the Darfur advocacy movement needs a way to transition to a Sudan advocacy movement or a broader genocide / atrocity movement. Those that have done so – Enough, Genocide Intervention Network, have a broader vision and understanding of the complexities of the political situation there.

But at the end of the day, I do not believe that Sudan alone can ensure a peaceful end to either of its conflicts, and I remain concerned with the ability of the UN to protect human rights before the national security and economic interests of its members.  I’m neither a leading Darfur activist nor an international policy expert, but I think that the whole of Sudan could benefit from a proactive, strategic and well-structured international coalition to operate in both Darfur and the South like the Friends of the Nuba Mountains and the role it played in reaching the CPA and monitoring the ceasfire.  Most of all for me, so long as my friends like Adam Musa are still living in refugee camps going on their 6th year and whose health and spirits are suffering each day, then our responsibility as global citizens to do what we can to seek a peaceful resolution remains.

Miracle Journals

Friday, September 25, 2009

I invite you to start your own miracle journal. It has the most extraordinary effect of helping one marvel at the beautiful, the coincidences and the simple things of every day that we so often pass by. And it has helped me see concretely how much the energy, perspective and sheer presence that we bring to every moment affects the way in which we experience that moment.

Let me share an old story of the Taoist Farmer: A farmer one day has his horse run away. His neighbors express their concern that this has been an awful event as he needs his horse to farm his land. He responds, “maybe”. When the horse returns with two wild horses, his neighbors come by and say, what great fortune for you. You are now a wealthy man. The farmer responds, “maybe”. In the process of breaking in the wild horses to help with tilling the field, the son breaks his leg. The neighbors come by and say what a terrible thing it is to lose his eldest son during the farming season. He says “maybe”. A short time later when the army comes through the village seeking to conscript young men but cannot take the son because of his broken leg, the neighbors say what a great thing. Again the farmer says “maybe”….

One thing this story means to me is that I should be mindful of the fact that much about what happens to us depends on how we perceive it. What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is opening to the present moment whatever it is, without judgment, without attachment, without preference and without aversion. Just paying attention to WHAT IS. Mindfulness allows us to examine our intentions that come from wanting to fix things. It allows us to pay attention to our feelings so that we understand where they come from and we don’t react and cause harm. Also, when we focus intently on whatever is happening now, we may realize the impermanence of life as we watch our feelings come and go. In fact – it is said we spend 90% of our time thinking about the past and the future, which means we are missing what is actually happening right now! If we miss what’s happening now, then we are missing our entire lives.

And so, an amazing first step in cultivating mindfulness and presence is keeping a journal every day of what you experience as miraculous. Whatever seems to you to be a miracle – a beautiful flower, a close call or a discount at the grocery store. Here are a few of my entries to get you thinking:

Saturday: I saw a moose while walking up a trail in the woods. It was a beautiful day

Monday: I had been trying to get a meeting with this one professor at Dartmouth for months and then I ran into her at the gym and we are now going to have dinner.

Wednesday: I noticed the beauty of all the colorful fresh vegetables arranged at the local co-op.

Friday: I called my friend’s office and the colleague who answered offered to volunteer to help my non-profit.

I’d love to hear who is inclined to start one – send me a miracle in response to this post and let’s inspire each other.

Exercising the Awakening Muscles

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I’m slowly discovering that this idea of structuring my day with half personal transformation and half societal transformation is a construct itself just like the 9-5 work day I wanted to reinvent.  When I choose to meditate, I’ve got neighbors coming over knocking on my door.  When I choose to work, I’m not getting things finished if I take time to meditate or breathe, or I’m running out of time to practice each day if I’m working to finish a project. I’m constantly feeling like I can’t find the right balance.   I’m realizing that the balance I’m seeking is a matter of moment to moment, not 4 hour block to 4 hour block.

I went to a powerful speech by Sandeep Kumar in White River Junction, VT sponsored by the Transition Town Project – an amazing project that is applying the principles of conscious change to transform an entire town into a sustainable community.  Sandeep has been a practitioner and advocate for integrating personal and societal transformation in his own life in India.  After his speech, I asked him his thoughts on finding balance between the discipline needed for deep personal practice and the lack of structure needed to respond to what is always new and arising in every moment, especially with relationships and work.

First of all, he explained that we ourselves are not static beings in a dynamic world.  We are in a continual process of transition as individuals between the ego self and divine Self.   He also explained that there is no duality between the two extremes of which I am seeking balance: discipline and flow, effort and effortlessness, self and other, solitude and relationship.  He said, “When we are working on ourselves we are always with everyone and when we are with everyone we are still in our selves.  Fixing things with just discipline will not work because then we can’t evolve spiritually.  Even relationships are formed from within you.” 

I am realizing through this sabbatical experience that the key to balance is bringing consciousness to every moment.  This openess allows me to grow continually through life’s experiences, while allowing that ever-deepening inner awareness to inform my outer response.   It is my commitment to personal practice that fine tunes my ability to listen and strengthens my ability to be present.  It is the quality of that presence with the messy flow of life that will determine the intention, clarity, compassion and wisdom with which I can act. My spiritual teacher, Jessica Dibb, equates all this to exercising your awakening muscles.   

I’m also learning that there is a natural balance between solitude and relationship. And if I tune in, I really do know when I desire to be with others and when I need to be alone to renew myself.  We need the outside world and our relationships to teach us what we need to learn to continue to evolve.  We need time alone to reflect and integrate these learnings. But consciousness is not something we only do in a quiet room on a nice pillow.  It is something we can bring in every moment to every relationship to every action.  The key is staying conscious when our plan is disrupted and not getting pulled back into unconscious reactivity.

So then, what of discipline?  I still need to exercise those muscles so I can live from a place of presence in every moment or notice when I am not. One of the practices I share with Global Grassroots change agents in Rwanda is to notice when a “charge” is arising in you -  this may be a rush of feeling in reaction to a situation – annoyance, anger, embarrassment, repulsion, impatience, etc.   We’ve all had these situations – someone cuts us off in traffic and we’re furious, or a boss or colleague criticizes and we want to act quickly to defend ourselves.  The first step is to stop and notice the feeling that is arising first.  To do so, I suggest practicing taking three breaths.  Notice what is arising, see clearly what is underlying this feeling.  It may be fear, discomfort, anxiety, a feeling of rejection, or something that reminds us of a past event that upset us in a similar way. Rather than reacting from that feeling and redirecting that pain on someone else – snapping at them, cutting them off, etc. – our three breaths allow us to discern instead what conscious response may be necessary. 

Let me share a story.  I teach this simple practice of three breaths for conscious response to our students in Rwanda and then encourage them to practice this in their own lives.  A few days later I ask how this has had an impact, if any, outside the classroom.  One woman raised her hand one day.  She said, “When I returned home after class, my kids had messed up my whole house.  And I had cleaned it completely before I had left.  Well, usually I just beat my children.  But today, I took three breaths and closed my eyes.  I then spoke in a calm voice and told my children why I wanted the house clean. Then I asked them to clean it up while I sat with my eyes closed.  And they did…  And I didn’t have to beat my children today.”

In Global Grassroots work in support of women’s rights for a more conscious society, the way in which we embody consciousness is so critical to ending cycles of violence.  This woman was, in fact, working on a project combating domestic violence.  Suddenly she realized how much a role violence already influenced the way she was raising her children, especially her boys.  A simple act of conscious practice around reactivity helped transform not only the way this change agent approached her own children, but now the way in which she approaches her work on domestic violence within the community.

Presence in every moment.  We never know how deeply or how broadly that one unconscious act or conscious act may ripple out and impact others.   My task is cultivating a higher quality of presence and ability to listen in every moment, not just 4-6 hours a day.

Demons in the Sacred Circle

Monday, September 14, 2009

I’ve been reading Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape.  It is a powerful book of wisdom from a meditation retreat she led in Canada.  Today’s reading titled “Taking a Bigger Perspective” offered the following to me:

People often say, “Meditation is all very well, but what does it have to do with my life?”  What it has to do with your life is that perhaps through this simple practice of paying attention – giving loving-kindness to your speech and your actions and the moments of your mind – you begin to realize that you’re always standing in the middle of a sacred circle, and that’s your whole life…Everyone who walks up to you has entered that sacred space, and it’s not an accident.  Whatever comes into the space is there to teach you…Our life’s work is to use what we have been given to wake up…to let the things that enter into the circle wake you up rather than put you to sleep…You can leave your marriage, you can quit your job, you can go where people are going to praise you…but the same old demons will always come up until finally you have learned your lesson, the lesson they came to teach you.  Then those same demons will appear as friendly, warmhearted companions on the path.

Yesterday my husband joyfully came to tell me that he’d invited some good friends to dinner.  I immediately felt a rush of disappointment.  Though I truly appreciate these friends, I had been carefully attending to my personal practice, had planned my Sunday to encompass time outdoors, time alone meditating, working out, reading and numerous other things that did not allow time for entertaining guests, and the shopping, straightening up and cooking that it would require.  I wanted to protect the introspective time I had committed to, but I wasn’t sure how to compromise – we couldn’t retract an invitation and I certainly couldn’t hide in my meditation room during dinner.  This whole scenario hampered my mood, which then lingered on to affect my day’s joy-intended activities.

Reading Pema Chodron’s teaching came at a perfect time.  I realize that this whole situation was a growth opportunity for me, a chance to wake up.  My husband and I both had underlying good intentions – his beautiful spontaneity had responded with joy to an opportunity to connect with friends – my commitment to inner practice wanted peace and tranquility.  But I was trying to separate and isolate my introspective time from the rest of the world.  Instead, as I shifted my perspective to see this whole occasion as events entering my sacred circle as a teaching, it became clear that my attachment to my own agenda was what was causing me angst, not my husband’s sociability.  With a broader perspective, I saw as well that I was sabotaging my own desire to have balance between inner and outer, self and other.  You can’t just disappear into a cave and shut out life.  Well, I guess you can.  But the key lesson and practice for me is how to bring the peace, harmony and introspection INTO life – how to integrate it. 

I can’t separate them, because they are not separate.  To live a life that embraces consciousness in every moment, you cannot depend on being able to go deeply within and inquire only when the circumstances are perfect – still, quiet, alone, on a soft pillow.  Every moment means every dynamic, messy moment.   While quiet and solitude are restorative and important, we do not have to disengage as a condition or requirement to find clarity and reconnect with ourselves in each moment.   

In the end, our friends decided not to come to dinner for entirely other reasons.  And though my day was cloaked with unneccessary angst, I now express my gratitude for the lesson that entered my sacred circle, which now walks with me as friendly, warmhearted companions on my path.

Forest dancing

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I’m now embracing the fact that each day will not be structured perfectly with 4-6 hours of personal transformation practice and 4-6 hours of productive social justice work.  But I’m finding that simply by bringing a bit more intention to my day that it naturally encompasses more balance because I’m a bit more attuned to what I need in each moment. And engagement with nature has offered some of the most powerful opportunities for renewal too.

Take yesterday, for example.  I was working away again intensely, when I looked up and noticed that the sun had finally warmed the fall air that has begun to arrive each morning.  I felt inspired to go jogging.  I grabbed my iPod and shoes and headed out onto my dirt country road.  It was gorgeous out and I might not have noticed if I hadn’t looked up. 

I felt an amazing surge of energy and ended up going further than I have in a very long time, abeit with a mix of jogging, walking and stopping to admire the view.  I took a detour through the woods and just as I neared my favorite spot – this little mossy glen - Osho’s Kundalini Meditation series started playing on my iPod.  If anyone is familiar with Kundalini meditation you know that it starts with extremely dynamic movement.  I literally ended up dancing in the middle of the woods by myself for another half hour.  It was truly invigorating, and I felt exquisitely alive.  

How often have you danced in the woods by yourself?  I highly recommend it.  You’ll find your priorities start shifting as the beauty and scent of nature infiltrates.   And then the minute your mind empties of the to do lists and the planning process, the most creative and innovative ideas arise.   I’ve had similar experiences weeding my vegetable garden or hiking.  I end up feeling calm, full of wonder about things like soil and pine cones, rebalanced and solidly grounded. 

I’m sad that we’ve lost touch with the Earth in so many ways.  But the most important thing we could do for ourselves every day is to stand outside facing the sun or the rain clouds and just breathe the air for 5 minutes.  If you’re so lucky as to be outside a city and can get to a place where you can also smell the leaves and soil, then you must.  Or stand on the grass with your bare feet before it gets too cold to do so.  And if you’re brave enough, despite who’s watching, add a little wiggle or a jig.  You’ll be amazed at how great it feels.

Taking Time for the Self

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The more that I do my personal growth work, the more that I believe it is an essential part of my social justice work in the world. Each time I emerge from a powerful breathwork session or sitting meditation, not only do I feel refreshed and full of energy, but I have more clarity for the decisions I must make. Going further, I often realize how my own fears or unconscious patterns of behavior and thinking have limited me in my perspective or choice of action. The deeper I can go in my own transformation or cultivation of consciousness, the deeper I can go into a place of wisdom and Essence to inform my work in the world.

One day it occurred to me: what would it look like if I divided each day evenly into personal growth work and social justice work? What if I spent 4-6 hours each day in deep consciousness practice? How might that affect my productivity the other 4-6 hours? How might my perspective change about certain priorities? How might I manage stress and balance in my life? What would it look like to take time for the Self – and I’m talking Self with a capital “S”. Not just taking time for myself, but taking time to connect with the inner, life source beneath everything else.

So, I’ve decided that if I am working to advance this concept of Conscious Social Change – I should walk the walk. I have chosen to take September as a sabbatical to do just that – to embody a balance between personal transformation and societal transformation; inner and outer; Self and other as an experiment. So here we go.

I’ve decided to set a few ground rules and goals, but I’m also not eager to structure everything so that I can respond to needs, inspiration and the unknown that might arise. But here is the vision and loose commitment I am holding for this time:

1. I will spend time outside each day to reconnect with the Earth, which has so much wisdom to offer.
2. I will meditate and breathe each day in a sacred space.
3. I will read and reflect each day – I have chosen Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape, as my readings and teaching each day.
4. I will ask the teachers in my life for guidance on personal growth areas.
5. I will sleep or rest as long as is needed each day.
6. I will drink lots of water.
7. I will exercise or do yoga and take vitamins each day.
8. I will eat vegetarian meals that I prepare using as many ingredients as I can from my own garden and local farms.
9. I will set aside time as a priority for my husband and close friends.
10. I will draw or play music each week as I feel called, to embrace artistic expression.
11. I will speak my truth with loving-kindness in relationship with others.
12. I will play with my animal companions (1 dog, 2 cats).
13. I will laugh.
14. I will try to read that stack of 5 books I have been wanting to read.
15. I will complete my research and writing I’ve been eager to do.
16. I will invite this process to help inform the strategic direction of Global Grassroots.
17. I will design new Conscious Social Change workshops to be offered in the US to help generate interest and revenue for our work in Africa.
18. I will not get caught up in responding to emails every day as they are received, but choose to dedicate my time to the highest priority in every moment.
19. I will continue my mentorship with those who need me.
20. I will work on my relationship to money and fundraising.
21. I will blog every day.

The minute I wrote these all down, they felt like 21 rules, which started to make the whole liberating idea of a sabbatical sound just like work. So I threw out blogging every day and so I’m now writing for the first time on September 12.

So how is it going? Big lesson on day 2.

The first day I slept in – pure luxury. I often espouse the need for people to work according to their own circadian rhythms as opposed to the social construct of a 9-5 work day. I feel so much better working that way, and tend to write with the clearest mind at around midnight.

I was very disciplined the first day. I spent a few hours in the morning conducting a clearing ritual for the start of my sabbatical, and meditating and breathing on my intentions for this time. I went for a jog, weeded my garden, walked in the woods with my dog, read a bit, had dinner with friends and accomplished a few creative work projects. Very refreshing.

The next day I was so obsessed with completing one of my work projects that everything else went out the window. No meditation, no jog, no outside, no glass of water. When I caught myself – like when you catch yourself thinking during meditation – it was already late into the evening. I noticed. I allowed myself to inquire. Tried not to judge.

I realized I have this unbelievable, unquenchable drive to complete a task, to accomplish something. I forget to eat. I get irritable if someone should think to call my cell phone. And if I do get derailed, I can’t stop thinking about what I need to get done. This inclination to be productive (while a very valuable trait, mind you) was sabotaging my ability to find balance. What’s up with that?

My first instinct was to feel frustrated that I couldn’t stick with my plan for investing in personal growth work each day. Oops, there I am judging. Then I committed to being more disciplined at setting that time aside. Oops, there’s that need to accomplish popping up again. Arrrgh! I found myself trapped in a circle of self-reprimands and new plans.

And then I realized I was in the lesson. How quickly what we need to work on will arise. If only we notice! Stop trying to fix it. Just be. Breathe.


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