Creating space (2): In daily life

In creating space, I wrote about what happens to me during yoga and meditation and how I have learnt that on the yoga mat when I am struggling,  I can stop, breathe, and create space to reflect on what to do next, which can actually change what happens next.

Taking it off the mat and into the world

This is starting to happen in real life too. I have learnt that when I am having a conversation with someone either in real time or online, I can do exactly what I do on my yoga mat. If someone says something to me which presses my buttons, or something which is the complete opposite of what I believe, I can breath and give myself a space to reflect on why I am so upset, and then I can be more objective and respond better. I know that nine times out of 10 when people say things, it is about them and not me, they haven’t said it to purposefully upset me, and vice versa, when I respond with anger/fear/hurt and a desire to upset someone it’s about me not them, so there is no need for me to get my yoga pants in a twist in that precise moment.

My repetitive thoughts

I have a lot of repetitive thoughts on a loop which cause me pain and when I am supposed to be quiet and observe them, they are so strong, I follow those thoughts straight into my mind, out of the quiet space.

It is the same in my meditation practice too. I don’t ever manage to clear my mind, but what I can do is recognise my thoughts as they arrive when I am sitting still. I have a lot of repetitive thoughts on a loop which cause me pain and when I am supposed to be quiet and observe them, they are so strong that I follow those thoughts straight into my mind, out of the quiet space. I hear the old negative self-talk, the he-shouldn’t-have-done-that-to-me series,  and all the others which have crossed my mind so often and are so familiar I am off before I have had time to catch myself, and I can spend a couple of minutes in the same-old-same-old before I come back to meditating. Thankfully now back in my daily life, sometimes I start thinking something which isn’t good for me from that list of familiar thoughts, and I think: Ah ok, I don’t have to think that thought right now, I am doing ok without it. There is a space within in which I am kind to myself and in which I feel free.

Tolerating bad behaviour

Then, there are the patterns. Often, I will tolerate behaviour which bothers me, because instead of just saying: Can you not do that? I don’t like it. I second guess myself and hear all the voices from childhood telling me to stop making a fuss. But the truth is, if someone is doing something that I don’t like, I can ask clearly, it isn’t making a fuss. It is about feeling comfortable with how people behave towards you. If it bothers me then it is important.

So, just last week, I asked someone to stop touching me. This is someone who greets me everyday by kissing me, hugging me, and touching my hair, which in the given specific circumstance, I find over familiar and uncomfortable. I had until the moment I spoke, hoped the person would have noticed that I flinch every time. Did I ask well? Not necessarily, but it was a first step. Did it go down well? No, the person was offended, and immediately walked away, and hasn’t really spoken since, but then that is their right. However, I got what I wanted, someone stopped invading my boundaries and manhandling me. I also stretched myself further and did something I have never done before. Normally, I apologise for saying what I really think or for asking someone to do the right thing in order for me to feel comfortable. This time I took a deep breath and didn’t apologise for wanting what makes me feel comfortable. So, I sat with the discomfort that I spoke honestly and that this person might not speak to me again.

But then, I did the other thing I do when I feel uncomfortable, I had to seek validation for my behaviour. I told someone else what happened, but picked a person who said: You shouldn’t have done that. Now! I knew that person would respond like that and I wouldn’t feel better. So why did I do it? Why? Because, I still don’t listen to myself. Or perhaps I listen to myself – well my thoughts/my ego – too much, and know exactly what to do to back them up.

All the relationships and interactions in our lives reflect us, and how we feel about ourselves.

Spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant says that all the relationships and interactions in our lives reflect us, and how we feel about ourselves. I definitely believe that. I am proof of that.  I went out and asked the exact person who would reflect what I was thinking: I shouldn’t have done that. Even though in that deepest part of me, that most pure, innocent part of my heart, which I access in those moments of space I create, I know  if something bothers me, I am allowed to say: Enough, please treat me better. Regardless of what the other person thinks, if it bothers me, and if they care about me like they say they do, then they won’t do it.

However, this is a recurring pattern, as Iyanla says, and it will play out again and again with the same story but different scenarios, different actors. I will have the chance to learn this lesson again. What I can do is adopt Byron Katie’s approach in the work and say: I look forward to it happening again, so that I can look at it as an opportunity to create that lovely space in which to question it, free myself and feel better, so that I can learn a new pattern of less compromise, less mental chatter, less external validation. I can hardly wait.


Creating space

still from series Being Erica door on beach

In Bikram this morning, I was struggling to get into the full expression of Dandayamana Bibhaktapada Janushirasana (Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee Pose) when the teacher said: Create space.

To me, up until that moment, that phrase has meant that I stretch up and literally create space between each of the vertebrae in my spine before bending forward. When I do this I can see my body change shape in front of the mirror.

Today though, on rounding forward, my sweat was stinging my eyes, my throat was choked so I couldn’t breathe and my tummy was sucked right in – again to create space – so when I arrived at the halfway point just before she said: Create space, I began to panic as I have scar tissue left over from surgery which sometimes hurts and leads to the thought: I can’t bear it.

Giving up the struggle

However, I didn’t want the panic today, I wanted a different option, and not that woe is me thought which sometimes comes up either. So, not really knowing what to do for the best, or how to create any more space, I stopped. I didn’t roll back up or press on. I stayed where I was, halfway to the full expression, and all the way to full panic, and then I took a couple of deep breaths in and out (always through the nose in Bikram) until something magical happened.

I was completely present in that moment with an ease and joy that I can only describe as life affirming, which enabled me to continue into the final expression with grace.

Everything shifted and released. In that moment I created space instead of panic and I let go of the sweat, the stinging, the precious scar tissue, the choked throat, and the need to get into the final expression of the pose. I was completely present in that moment with an ease and joy that I can only describe as life affirming, which enabled me to continue into the final expression with grace. I wanted to laugh out loud!

A new but not new discovery

This felt brand new, because in that moment, which up until then was just like all the other times in that pose and panic, I chose a different option – I overcame my embodiment – and it was brand new. However, the fact that I can create space is not a new discovery or at least, theoretically, it shouldn’t be as I have been meditating twice daily since 1st April, after attending a two day course with the amazing davidji.

Or perhaps, it is the other way round, because I practice connecting to my breath twice a day, it is easier for me now to take a moment to breathe even when I am distressed and about to do something which I have done many times before which didn’t end well.

Meditation is not supposed to be blissful or peaceful, it is boring and painful and we do it so that when we open our eyes we are less demanding of the world.

At this point, I wanted to quote Einstein’s: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result here, but apparently he didn’t say it.

However, I managed as davidji says: To create a pattern interrupt into [my] default mechanism (or response) which led to new possibilities, and this is all thanks to meditation, of which davidji says: Meditation is not supposed to be blissful or peaceful, it is boring and painful and we do it so that when we open our eyes we are less demanding of the world.

The best version of me

That is what happened to me during Dandayamana Bibhaktapada Janushirasana, I became less demanding that the moment should be anything than what it was, or that my body, or the way I felt, should be anything than what they were.

It felt like freedom because now I know that potentially, in any difficult moment, I can create space for myself, and a space for me to consider how best to respond and become the best version of me.

I might not always be able to do that because I am not the Dalai Lama, and I have big buttons that people manage, inadvertently I’m sure, to press on a daily basis. But, just the thought of me being able to create a little more space in my life where I feel ease and joy as I do difficult things with a grace which makes me laugh out loud, is so empowering, it makes me feel like all things are possible, I could be the next Dalai Lama. Watch this space! Or better still, meditate, and create your own.

When the Internet becomes for each of us exactly what we bring to it
The human body by @WorldandScience

The Internet is neither good nor bad. It’s neutral—it becomes for each of us exactly what we bring to it. In our real life and our internet life, we live inside whatever we build. – Glennon Doyle Melton

I would like to believe that the above quotation from Doyle Melton is true and perhaps it is but not quite in the ways we expect.

Back in 2008, I did a usability review of a food pump, the Fresenius Applix Smart food pump to be precise. It frustrated me and I wanted to think about it from a usability point of view (which was my job before I turned peritoneal dialysis nurse for my baby). Sad and afraid, I wanted to analyse my frustrations.

Remember you are what you post.

This post unleashed a torrent of abuse unlike anything I had ever experienced online before or since. The stuff people thought was ok to write at the bottom of the blogpost, just because it pressed all their buttons, was amazing. I stand by the review it is measured and balanced – but aha, do I? No, I don’t. I haven’t kept it up online. The comments contained personal attacks on me: rude, offensive stuff about me as a human being, as a usability consultant, and as a food pump user.

I tried to remain open-hearted. I read each comment and responded on and offline. People admitted: yes, there were problems with the pump; yes, the problems I had named; yes, if it was being used on the heavy unstable stand next to a child or a fragile person and it fell on them, then yes, it could kill them; and yes, it was irritating being woken up by it… and so on. However, responding like this was exhausting and in the end, it was easier to take down the blogpost, than have to do that each time, even though it is a thorough usability critique of a flawed design.

And, I know this in my heart too, because it sat next to the Baxter peritoneal dialysis machine which was a master class in excellent design. I always wanted to write a blogpost about it too, but even tonight as I think about the machine we slept next to for 20 months to keep our baby alive, I am surprised by the tears in my eyes. No, I don’t want to write a review and potentially bring down another fierce, murky investigation into a painful part of my life.  But, we did swap foodpumps and it was miles better – a bit 70s style but much better. Alas, I can’t remember what that one was called, I should have reviewed that too, for completeness sake, and seen what happened.

Did I attract all that horrible energy to my website?

So, the main question I am asking is: If the Internet becomes for each of us exactly what we bring to it, did I attract all that horrible energy to my website? Perhaps, I did.

I voiced my frustrations and I got back in return lots of frustrations, not about the pump itself because it helped their lives and they were quite loyal to it, but they were projection rants and I very easily became the problem. I was an easy scapegoat. I understand that, because eating and drinking are fantastic activities I love to engage in, and if I couldn’t do that so easily and needed a foodpump, well I would be really sad, but glad at the same time that I had something to help me. However, I would never go online and abuse someone because I feel sad. This is because, ultimately I own my impact, as davidji says. Or do I? Did I own it the day I pressed publish? Or older and wiser, is it something I see that I learnt, starting that day?

Three things before pressing publish

Thinking again about that blog, what do I think now? Doyle Melton has three pieces of advice to help me: 1. Remember, you are what you post. 2. Post with intention 3. Dispense compassion.

1. Remember you are what you post

All I had in me at that time were my frustrations, my sadness, and my fear which @Iyanla Vanzant says underlies all the painful feelings like hate and anger. So, guess what showed up? Fearful, painful feelings of hate and anger all over my blog to echo right back all the pain in my heart. That open heart of mine, which really was so wounded and which I held up to the Internet to completely get shot at. I could have protected it, protected me, and waited until the day I could have shared in a more empowering way.

2. Post with intention

I definitely had an intention and it wasn’t good. It was to tell that Fresenius and give them a piece of my mind. 

In a former life (one before the scary one) I could have performed usability testing right across a broad spectrum of patients in-situ to find out what was really going on and what everyone thought, in a professional manner, in order to provide insight and potential for improvement.

There is a 1 in a million chance of a baby being born with renal failure, so, I am not sure they are the target market for this food pump. But, you know what, in a former life, I wouldn’t have wanted to do that job. I would have been too angry and too scared to witness other people’s pain. 

So why did I want to do that job, now? Because, I was angry, I was scared, and I wanted a witness for my pain. I wanted to not to have to use the pump. I wanted to breastfeed my child and hold her in my arms all night; not have her hooked up to two machines which I couldn’t detach her from without washing my hands for 20 minutes. I wanted a child with working kidneys and I wasn’t going to get that off the Internet. I was on my knees with exhaustion praying for a miracle, praying for hope and love (which is the very definition of a miracle given by A Course in Miracles). The miracle came a long time later, just not in the form I wanted. It came with fear, anger, and denial, and taught me hope and love, but that is another story.

We all want to be experienced

3. Dispense compassion

Melton Doyle says seek to understand rather than be understood (rather like mystic St Francis of Assisi’s Prayer) and listen to others, which is something I know for sure. I say it in every blog – we all want to be seen, felt, heard. @daniellelaporte puts it so succinctly: We all want to be experienced. But, it begins with ourselves, because if I had been listening to myself that night perhaps I wouldn’t have been so eager to get validation online and open myself up to a whole load of criticism reflecting something I put out and something I was constantly giving myself. Constantly! The strain I was under was immense, I just couldn’t see it, and I just couldn’t forgive myself. All I could do was criticise myself for doing things sometimes with fear and anger and pain that were just too much for me to bear.

Be the change you want to see

You can only listen to others when you listen to yourself first, because then you are certain of what you believe and it is in those moments when you stand in your own compassion, your own listening, and your own heart, that you can see what people are saying is really all about themselves, like what you are saying is all about you and there is very little connection. We all have our pain and wounds. But, the connection comes when in that moment that you can be self-aware and lean in and give them what they need. Other times you have to be aware that sometimes people will ask too much from you and you need to judge what you can give (you may even have to run away, and run you should, run as quickly as you can). But, until you can give with great strength, then keep it off line and look after yourself, because sometimes the Internet is just another far too easy option for us when we go looking for love and hope in all the wrong places, armed only with words that don’t contain any love and hope for anyone who shares our pain.


Trusting technology, ourselves, and others

Trust is a feeling of confidence or conviction that things can unfold within a dependable framework that embodies order and integrity. The feeling state of trust is important to cultivate in a mindful practice.  -John Kabat-Zinn

In the olden days in Kerala, India, so the story goes, when a new bridge was opened, the architect responsible, and his family, would stand under the bridge whilst a herd of elephants would walk across the top.

Nowadays, we have design standards and systems by law, as well as extensive testing and simulation. In safety critical software systems, like those used in aeronautics and medicine, we build redundancy, duplication and fail-safes so that we trust that we have enough time to intervene and prevent a disaster in the event of system malfunction. Back then the architect and family had no choice but to have the four essential trusts (in self, life, God, others) which spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant talks about in her book Trust.

But can technology emulate trust? The following urban myth is still doing the rounds, and raises a laugh even today, I sometimes tell it in lectures when I am talking about software engineering:

Seminar leader: Imagine you were on a plane, sitting on the tarmac and you found out that your software team had written the software which controls the plane. How many of you would immediately get off the plane?  [Everyone’s hands but one go up.]

Seminar leader: Wow you must really believe in your team.

Answer: Are you kidding me? With my team the plane would never make it down the runway.

When I worked with architects and engineers, trust was an issue which came up time and again. They would never use a piece of software if they didn’t know exactly what it was doing, even if the result seemed right. The stakes were too high.  I have to trust it was a recurring theme.

Trust in tech: Computer says no

As designers, we want people to trust and collaborate with the software we create and, we do that with the usual ways talked about in human-computer interaction: usability, user agency, robustness, transparency, observability, familiarity. We have Ben Schneiderman’s (or Spiderman’s, as one of my students wrote in an exam once) eight golden rules of interface design, originally dialog box design – because that is what we are doing – having a dialogue with a computer. These rules cover: consistency, shortcuts, feedback, closure, error prevention/handling, undo, internal locus of control, and short term memory reduction. And there are many more of managing user input (see the design theory series).

But does it convince the user? To which the answer is, well that depends on the user and their relationship with uncertainty.

Mathmo Trust: The Erdos discrepancy

Mathematicians are a little bit more relaxed about uncertainty and acknowledge that they are doing their best with the tools available. This is demonstrated by the Erdos discrepancy which is basically: Well we know there is likely to be an error in there somewhere, but it’s good enough for now to help us to get to where we want to be.

Normally, though when looking at mathematics we look for accountability in peer reviewed journals. We look to the history of the proof to see how it has been used in the past and how we can trust it. In the same way that with Blockchain you look at the ledger and you have accountability.

What is trust anyway?

At the bottom of any trust issue is the fear of someone, or some tech, or ourselves being found out as inadequate.  It is mainly ourselves though. I have seen many people not attempt things, from not using a computer, not doing a coursework, not sitting an exam, not having a conversation, the list is endless. All because that person fears that they will be found out as inadequate, because with the fear of inadequacy, comes the fear of rejection. 

Research done by social psychologist, Ray Baumeister, has shown that it is enough to for us to anticipate being rejected, and we will begin to make unhealthy choices (like not doing something) and start to believe that we are worth less.

A definition

Trust is one of those words that has no corresponding picture like table, chair or orange does, and since our learning is contextually conditioned, we make a connection to our first experience of a given word. Consequently, trust is like beauty, truth, joy in that it means different things to different people. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Due to our semiotic desire to create meaning from polarities: light and dark, joy and pain, it is logical that we reach for heartbreak in order to remember love and  for rejection to remember acceptance.  And, because we are embodied, we interpret all our future experiences through the lens of the first one. So, if you have had your trust violated at a young age, it can be nigh on impossible to trust again. This is because you don’t trust the new experience to turn out any different, so you misbehave and alienate yourself from others, thus proving that you were right.

Trusting others

Google’s Aristotle project researched what makes a perfect team and found that the key factor was psychological safety which is the confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.

We all want to feel safe, and feel connected. It is the third level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We want to trust people and we have to feel safe in a relationship in order for us to be ok. Otherwise we feel inadequate. Once that begins we then attack others with our criticism, because defensiveness helps us to regain some equilibrium. However, I am with Nina Simone on this one:

You’ve got to learn to leave the table
When love’s no longer being served
To show everybody that you’re able
To leave without saying a word

Trusting ourselves

Iyanla Vanzant poses these questions:

  1. Do you trust your own voice?
  2. Do you trust that you can hear the voice of God?
  3. Do you trust yourself to see and hear what others are really saying and doing?
  4. Do you trust (no matter how hard it may be) that there are no mistakes in life?

The voice of God and trusting life is often a step too far for many people. But, at the very least trusting our own voice is necessary. This involves knowing ourselves and knowing what happens when your buttons get pressed.

It is also very important to be present in any given moment to allow yourself the opportunity to really see what other people are saying and doing, not what you think they might be saying and doing.

And finally, when people do demonstrate how they behave, whether they are good to you, or careless with you, it is important to learn that. Do not assume that they will/can/want to, behave any other way. Rather like software, we are all programmed to respond in certain ways. And, we can trust that people will behave as they always do. People will not behave differently just because we want them to.

As Maya Angelou once put it:

When people show you who they are, believe them.

Is this progress? Humans, computers and stories

As a computer scientist, I have to say my job has changed very little in the last  last twenty-odd years. The tech has, admittedly, but I am still doing what I did back then, sitting in front of a computer, thinking about how computers can make peoples’ lives easier, what makes people tick, and how can we put the two together to make something cool?  Sometimes I even program something up to demonstrate what I am talking about.

It seems to me though that everyone else’s jobs (non-computer scientists) have changed and not necessarily for the better. People do their jobs and then they do a load of extras like social media, blogging, content creation, logging stuff in systems- the list is endless – on top of their workload.

It makes me wonder: Is this progress?

Humans and stories

As a teenager, on hearing about great literature and the classics, I figured that it must be something hifalutin’. In school we did a lot of those kitchen sink, gritty dramas (A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Kes, etc.,). So, when I found the section in the library: Classics, Literature, or whatever, it was a pleasant surprise to see that they were just stories about people, and sometimes gods, often behaving badly, and I was hooked. Little did I know that reading would be the best training I could receive to become a computer scientist.

Human and computer united together

In my first job as systems analyst and IT support, I found that I enjoyed listening to people’s stories in and amongst their descriptions about their interactions with computers. My job was to talk to people. What could be better? I then had to capture all the information about how computers were complex and getting in the way and try to make them more useful. Sometimes I had to whip out my screwdriver and fix it there and then. Yay!! Badass tech support.

The thing that struck me the most was that people anthropomorphised their computers, talking about them needing time to warm up, being temperamental, and being affected by circumstances, as if they were in some way human and not just a bunch of electronic circuits. And, that the computer was always the way of progress, even if they hated it and didn’t think so.

I think this is partly because it was one person with one computer working solely, so the computer was like a companion, the office worker you love or hate, who helps or hinders. There was little in the way of email or anything else unless you were on the mainframe and then it was used sparingly, especially in a huge companies. Memos were still circulated around. The computer was there to do a task – crunch numbers, produce reports, run the Caustic Soda Plant (I did not even touch the door handles when I went in there) –  the results of which got transferred from one computer to another by me, and sometimes by that advanced user who knew how to handle a floppy disk.

Most often information was transferred orally by presentation in a meeting or on paper with that most important of tools, the executive summary whilst the rest of it was a very dry long winded explanation, hardly a story at all.

Human and computer and human and computer united

Then the Internet arrived and humans (well mainly academics) began sharing information more easily, without needing to print things out and post them.  This was definitely progress. I began researching how people with different backgrounds like architects and engineers could work together with collaborative tools even though they use different terminology and different software. How could we make their lives easier when working together?

I spent a lot of time talking to architects and standing on bridges with engineers in order to see what they did. Other times I talked to draftsmen to see if a bit of artificial intelligence could model what they did. It could up to a point, but modelling all that information in a computer is limiting in comparison to what a human can know instinctively, which is when I realised that people need help automating the boring bits, not the instinctive bits.

I was fascinated by physiological computing, that is, interacting using our bodies rather than typing – so using our voices or our fingerprints. However, when it was me, my Northern accent, and my French colleagues, all speaking our fabulous variations of the English language into some interesting software written by some Bulgarians I believe, on a slow running computer, well, the results were interesting, to say the least.

Everyone online

The UK government’s push to get everything electronic seemed like a great idea, so everyone could access all the information they needed. It impacted Post Offices, but seemed to free up the time spent waiting in a queue and to provide more opportunities to do all those things like pay a TV licence, get a road tax disc, and passport, etc. This felt like progress.

I spent a lot time working on websites for the government with lovely scripts to guide people through forms like self-assessment so that life was easier. We all know how daunting a government form can be, so what could be better than being told by a website which bit to fill in? Mmm progress.

Lots of businesses came online and everyone thought that Amazon was great way back when. I know I did living in Switzerland and being able to order any book I wanted was such a relief as opposed to waiting or reading it in French. (Harry Potter in French although very good is just not the same.) Progress.

Then businesses joined in and wanted to be seen, causing the creation of banners, ads, popups, buying links to promote themselves, and lots of research into website design so they were all polished and sexy, even though the point of the Internet is that it is a work in progress constantly changing and will never be finished.

I started spending my time in labs, rather than in-situ, watching people use websites and asking them how they felt. I was still capturing stories but in a different way, in a more clinical, less of a natural habitat, way which of course alters what people say and which I found a bit boring. It didn’t feel like progress. It felt businessy – means to an end like – and not much fun.

Human -computer -human

Then phones became more powerful and social media was born, and people started using computers just to chat, which felt lovely and like progress. I had always been in that privileged position of being able to chat to people the world over, online, whatever the time, with the access I had to technology, now it was just easier and available to everyone – definitely progress.   Until of course, companies wanted to be in on that too. So, now we have a constant stream of ads on Facebook and Twitter and people behaving like they are down the market jostling for attention, shouting out their wares 24/7, with people rushing up asking:  Need me to shout for you?

And, then there are people just shouting about whatever is bothering them. It’s fantastic and fascinating, but is it progress?

The fear of being left behind

The downside is that people all feel obliged to jump on the bandwagon and be on multiple channels without much to say which is why they have to do extras like creating content as part of their ever expanding jobs. The downside is that your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times. The upside is that people can say whatever they like which is why your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times.

Me, I am still here wondering about the experience everyone is having when this is all happening on top of doing a job.  It feels exhausting and it feels like we are being dictated to by technology instead of the other way around. I am not sure what the answer is. I am not sure if I am even asking the right question. I do know how we got here. But is this where we need to be? Do we need to fix it? Does it needs fixing?  And, where we should go next? I think we may need a course correct, because when I ask a lot of people, I find that they agree. If you don’t, answer me this, how do you feel when I ask: Is this progress?