Women: Society, Storytelling, Technology (1)

The Mona Lisa in the Prado, Madrid

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

At Easter, I was in the Prado Museum in Madrid when I wandered past this version of the Mona Lisa. Until that moment I hadn’t known it existed so it truly felt that I had discovered it, and I was able to look at it, through my own eyes and think my own thoughts without any expectation or expert opinion. It was overwhelming. It is a beautiful version and I am astounded anew every time I look at the postcard I have tacked up above my desk.

It reminds me of Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Tudors. They take the viewpoint of the women who played major roles during Tudor times but who were, because of the way society was organised, denied a voice, particularly the forgotten women like The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary; and Jane Grey’s sisters, Mary and Katherine in The Last Tudor. To coincide with the release of The Last Tudor last week, Philippa Gregory gave an interview in the New York Times saying that she was reading around the topic of medieval women with particular attention to how and why women get squeezed out of the marketplace, out of the law, and out of public service, and out of sight. I can’t wait to see what she has to say.

Just looking at the Mona Lisa, I already have an idea, for the original in the Louvre was labelled as Leonardo da Vinci’s handy woman. For the longest time, no one knew who the sitter was and no one really cared. It was all about da Vinci. The woman – it was decided around 2007 was probably Lisa del Giocondo – has been, for several centuries, an object on which people (let’s face it, mainly men) could project their own fantasies, which was why it was so refreshing to see a different version even though it remains symbolic of the position women have had in society for the longest time. They are silent, the muse of men, there to cater to the needs of men, treated like property, without autonomy, without legal rights. Women were powerless and helpless, and though things are much better nowadays, there is still a hangover from those days.

Life coach Martha Beck says: The most helpless feeling anyone can have in society is that of a little girl, when little boys cry they get called little girls. Little girls are at the bottom of the pile!

Things are changing slowly, with a lot of resistance. We only have to look at the fuss made over the next Dr Who and how a woman couldn’t play a time travelling alien with two hearts. Seriously? And the hatred expressed when Ghostbusters was remade in 2016: Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts. I won’t even begin here my rants about the way women are portrayed in the media and in everyday conversation.

As a mum to girls, I feel that it is important for my girls to see a female Prime Minister, female leads in movies, female scientists, female sports women, female astronauts, female anything that my girls may want to be one day, because seeing a woman doing a job helps immensely. Even Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says that she didn’t think she could teach Buddhism until she saw another woman teach it:

Before, I had felt there was no way could I ever do that, but now I felt like I could.

However, overall in technology and in academia in technology, where supposedly things change more quickly, there are still very few women. I have always felt about technology the way I feel about the Prado Mona Lisa, that there is no expectation and there is no expert opinion telling me, a woman, what I should and shouldn’t be doing or thinking as I spend my days absorbed in IT. However, not everyone shares my opinion. Recently, I was out socially and met several 20-something-years-old women who thought me doing IT was very cool but really hadn’t even imagined it could be a career possibility for them. And, the last two courses I taught this year (1st year undergraduate: Web Authoring and Databases) had only one woman in each course. It is sad to think that this relatively new and constantly changing field doesn’t have anything remotely approaching an equal men to women ratio.

On this blog I have written indirectly about women in storytelling and films but not in technology and just once in society which was really more about what I felt when I suffered through yet another bout of #mansplaining. I have put off writing up the research I have done, as one female academic friend summed it up perfectly by saying: It’s too depressing to think about.

So today, I am starting a blog series to look at women in society and in particular, technology to see if I can understand more about where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as women, so I can better explain to my girls how to navigate their way through this world to become anything they want to be. Wish me luck!

Creating space (5): Letting people be who they are

We have to acknowledge the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the broken dreams of the future – Matt Licata

The day I rang my dad to tell him what the plan was for treating the cancer I had been diagnosed with, he said: You haven’t really got cancer, have you? Not really. I read about it on the Internet.

I was so angry, I could barely speak: Err, yes I have, that is why I am now starting what will be probably a year in total of treatment (it turned out to be two). But, even though I was raging, he just couldn’t stop himself insisting that I hadn’t really got cancer.

I now see that it was just him unable to witness me potentially fall apart, or worse. We had just been through three years of life or death treatment with my daughter and two years of mental and physical illness with my mum and so my news tapped into a hopelessness and grief he hadn’t had space to process and which he could no longer manage which is why he felt the need to talk me out of my experience. He died one year later, his big, kind heart couldn’t take anymore.

Don’t wear your heart on a sleeve

My dad is an extreme example of not being able to recognise or bear witness to another’s fear and pain. But, it is not uncommon. Last week, I went to my uncle’s funeral and one completely lovely relative said to me: Don’t cry, Ruth, – words we say to one another all the time which are comforting, but are really, deep down, a plea asking someone to keep it together, behave better, and stop reminding everyone about the pain and agony in their own hearts.

Anyone who has cancer can tell you how, when you tell someone your news, the person opposite you will chime in – often part way through your story – to tell you about their friend/relative/loved one who has/had cancer too. They launch into a massive tale that you really haven’t got the emotional strength to hear, let alone bear witness to. People can’t stand you. They cannot stand to hear your pain, as it taps into theirs until they just have to share their pain, in the hope of feeling better, which in this scenario doesn’t really work.

After some God-awful-into-the-abyss-experiences when I felt myself freefalling into the fear which has no beginning or end, I took to interrupting people: Has this story got a happy ending?

I know now this is why one wise doctor advised me to be very careful when thinking about telling people I had cancer. After some God-awful-into-the-abyss-experiences when I felt myself freefalling into the fear which has no beginning or end, I took to interrupting people: Has this story got a happy ending? Otherwise, left to their own pain and sadness, people would quite amazingly finish whatever very long, horrific tale with: AND THEN THEY DIED….!!! #ffs. I know more stories about cancer and kidney transplants than anyone in their right mind can bear.

Holding space

It is very hard to watch someone fall apart under the weight of a life experience, to fall into that dreadful emotional agony, without wanting to stop it, to shush it, to shove it all back down to where it is manageable. It takes even greater strength to stand there and share that agony by acknowledging it and being a witness so that you allow someone to express what they must, but I am starting to think that it is the only way to live this life. We have to acknowledge the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the broken dreams of the future as psychotherapist Matt Licata puts it in a lovely facebook post, so that you can be of service to yourself and others.

Managing others experiences

When my baby had tubes coming out of her and I had no hair at all, I used to watch all the mums going off on their lovely coffee/play dates, as I made my lonely way home. We were not invited. It seemed that we were not wanted because we looked different. We had scars which demonstrated that life can serve up terrible experiences inexplicably, without rhyme or reason, so it was easier not to have us around. No one wanted to be reminded of the fragility of life.This made me feel ashamed as if there was something wrong with me: why couldn’t I just be normal? Talk normally? And, most of all not cry. The rejection scarred me deeper than any surgeon’s scalpel.

One mum kindly admitted last year that people dreaded seeing us as you never knew what terrible thing might have happened to us since the last terrible thing. In a strange way her admission made me feel better. It wasn’t me, it was them. Just the other day I bumped into one of those mums who breezily asked me how our health was, I ignored her (a new skill I have when I don’t want to answer a question which can undo me, sometimes I just shake my head) but she asked me several times. I think she asked because it looked like she would get a safe answer in the middle of H&M, because even now she wants my experience to be one that she can manage, and she can feel she expressed the appropriate amount of concern without me touching her fear.

But if you do, it is in there that you let them decide what the meaning of it all is and allow them to be exactly what and who they are. You are giving them the greatest gift of all – the gift of love.

It seems to me that when you get breezy, avoid, or interrupt someone, you are forgetting that they are human, and that they are innocent and whole underneath the wounds which frighten you so much. But it is very hard to not interrupt other peoples’ energy – to let them have the space to let off steam and to let the conversation flow. But if you do, it is in there that you let them decide what the meaning of it all is and allow them to be exactly what and who they are. You are giving them the greatest gift of all – the gift of love. None of us get enough love says meditation teacher davidji to which he adds, and none of us breathes deeply enough.

However, if you cannot hold the space, ask yourself what it is that makes you so afraid? I know I am still afraid, still anxious, still hurting after all this time, and I don’t always manage conversations well. Meditation makes it better but it is agony, which is funny as that is the topic of the last conversation I had with my dad, which would surprise anyone who knew him. He was a rock, who could sit in the company of the wounded, the dying and make it right, make it better. He had a magnificent compassion that was pure unconditional love. However, that night, on the phone, he got me to read out the side effects of my latest round of painkillers, in case they would be good for him, he was in pain, and then he said he was having trouble sleeping/managing/being and I said that he had to meditate, ‘cos I had just read a book by Deepak Chopra on it. He said: Effing Deepak Chopra… and there was a load of chuntering on and more swearing until he admitted: Meditation is so hard. And so it is.

Be not afraid: Energy exchange for the broken hearted

Lately, I have been practising Tonglen a Buddhist meditation technique for overcoming the fear and suffering my dad was swearing about. Danielle La Porte sums it up in the Firestarter sessions as:

Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Breathe in suffering— yours, others, the world’s. Breathe out compassion— for yourself, for others, for the world.

Basically when you feel brokenhearted, which I currently do, you breathe in the very pain that is undoing you, and you lean into the unbearable agony of it all, and then you breathe out love. You may feel that you are going to shatter into a million little pieces, but then a little magic happens and you exchange one emotion for another. You do it for yourself, and for all the ones who broke your heart, and for those who broke their own hearts, and by doing so broke your heart so badly that you feel nothing good will ever happen again. And, you keep doing it, in and out, in and out, in and out, until the pain is bearable and not so heart breaking and not so frightening and it has become a noble pain of service. Who knew that the simple act of breathing could be so powerful?

The most often repeated words in the Bible are: Be not afraid and yet it is the hardest thing to be, not afraid. And yet, it is the only thing to be, in order to live life with love and to truly connect with others, we have to learn to be not afraid. As my old dad used to always say:

The only thing to fear is fear itself.

Until you can know that, deep down in your broken, tender heart, the only thing to do is breathe.

Creating space (3): Authenticity

I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing
– William James

In Creating Space (2) I talked about how nine times out of 10 when people say things, it is not intentionally designed to hurt me. The other evening, I got text which fell into the 10th time category. My immediate response was to type a raging text back to vent my hurt and my anger.

I was about to press send and then I remembered these creating space blogs, swore a little under my breath, paused, and then I edited my response so that the texter and I could exchange the information we needed without everything escalating.

I am glad I did. Today as I type this, I have almost forgotten how hurt and angry I was, there is no emotional charge on that memory, whereas if I had gone ahead with my original text response I would have been still talking about who got last word and whose words hurt the most. Whoever said: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me, has clearly never met my family.

Sometimes we need to imagine ourselves a little bit different to how we are in that moment – because there are so many versions of us, but we are aiming for our best – so that we can guide the outcome of a situation. It is almost like creating a space to give ourselves the chance to stay in that different state afterwards. We deserve that nice state.

Getting into a state

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), first invented by John Grinder and Richard Bandler, and extensively promoted by Tony Robbins and Paul McKenna has long promoted the belief that we can make changes in our lives to become more successful/thinner/richer by changing our states which changes our behaviour and thoughts, and then we can go on and also influence other people too.

Like most self-help books, I have always found NLP tiring, all that need to change myself suggests that I am not enough the way that I am and that I have to be something else.

Feelings, nothing more than feelings

Whatever it is, it is not the goal, it’s the way we believe we will feel when we have that goal. We don’t have to be different to achieve a goal, we just have to recognise what we want to feel, and then achieve that feeling.  

So it has been such a relief to read Danielle La Porte’s  The Desire Map Book, because she says that we want to be more successful/thinner/richer because we want the feeling of whatever comes with that goal: the feeling of power, sexiness or security. Whatever it is, it is not the goal, it’s the way we believe we will feel when we have that goal. We don’t have to be different to achieve a goal, we just have to recognise what we want to feel, and then achieve that feeling.

Rather like my text exchange, I had to identify what I wanted to feel after it was over and then act in that way.  Too often, we immediately respond to the world around us rather than pausing to see how we feel, and more importantly how we want to feel during a moment. This is so much easier for me than having to rewire my brain to be a different person.

Confidence, comfort, passion, enthusiasm

davidji says that we must absolutely get clear on what we want because we make too many decisions out of fear and desperation, or in my text case anger and hurt. He quotes the Bhagavad Gita: Yogastha kuru karmani and tells us that we must establish ourselves in the present moment, i.e., create space to pause in and decide on an outcome, before we act, if we want a better outcome in a given situation.

And, this advice is demonstrated by Amy Cuddy in her book Presence. She says that the people who were most likely to be awarded venture capitalist money were the ones who presented their ideas with confidence, comfort, passion and enthusiasm. These people did not spend their time in the spotlight looking fearful or desperate. Their belief in what they wanted sponsorship for came through in their voices, gestures and facial expressions. They were completely present in the moment and demonstrated authenticity. Cuddy says we can all do this. We can learn to tap into that state where we feel confident and passionate, when we need to, to rise to the occasion.

The authentic self

Semiotics teaches us that our only measurement of truth is if it feels right, that is to say: Does it ring true and fit with what we already feel? We live our own stories everyday and have our own knowledge and experience of storytelling so that when we listen to someone else’s story, if it doesn’t ring true then we don’t believe that person. This might be because that person is a bit off, a bit inauthentic, which could be that they or we don’t quite trust ourselves in a given situation.

We do this by learning that our authentic self is a state or space we can get into whilst honestly expressing our values.

Cuddy’s book and TED talk tell us that we can learn to trust ourselves by believing in our own stories. We do this by learning that our authentic self is a state or space we can get into whilst honestly expressing our values. So, Cuddy recommends faking it until we make it, or become it. Because, we are not really faking it, we are remembering ourselves in our self-affirming story.

The more powerless people feel, the more anxiety they experience, and the smaller they become. We need to create a space in order to become present, you have presence and you take up the space you deserve and require in any situation to give and receive the very things that the meeting, the text, the conversation came about for, in the first place.

Sometimes we get so lost in a moment, and we feel so desperate and afraid, we forget, why we decided to have that conversation, presentation, text.

Intimacy not intimidation

Taking up space and expanding in the animal kingdom is a way of demonstrating power and Cuddy says that this is not intimidation, for, if someone is too big we will avoid them, instead expanding and being expressive in a given space is a form of intimacy.

For me, the NLP approach which Robbins and McKenna use seems to have a very masculine flavour which needs us emulate the alpha male. Simon Sinek, takes a similar stance, he advises leaders to speak last, eat last – basically have the last word – a total demonstration of intimidation not intimacy. Again, it is an old-fashioned alpha male approach of domination, which makes me cringe, though Sinek says he wants to change the way industries function in order to take better care of their employees. You can’t do that if your leaders pull all the tricks to have the last word.

It is not about winning

It is not about winning! 

So, it is refreshing to have Amy Cuddy explain similar advice but in a different way. The reason we may want to slow down, speak slowly, and take a pause is, that it helps us expand and occupy the space we need in order to choose the correct and appropriate response without anxiety and without anger. We want to know that when we act and speak we have done so as our most authentic selves, the nicest selves we can muster, and that we take the time to think so we don’t do or say anything that we would later on regret. 

Whatever we say or do in any of these spaces, we want to leave them warmer and brighter than they were before we entered them. As we all learnt at school: 

It is not about winning! It really is about the taking part.

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.