Society of the mind: A Rhumba of Ruths

What magical trick makes us intelligent? The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle. —Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind.

Recently, I watched the episode The Relaxation Integration (S10, E3) of the Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon keeps dreaming of being Laid-Back Sheldon. At the end of episode he has a council of Sheldons to decide if Laid-Back Sheldon gets a say in Sheldon’s life. This got me thinking: What goes on in my council of Ruths? Is there a Laid-Back Ruth?

I don’t think there is. Not yet anyway. What do you even call a council of Ruths? A rising? A regiment? I looked up animal groups for one with an r. There was a raft, a run, a rabble, but I decided on a rhumba which is defined as a complex, violent dance. Yes, I would definitely say that is going on inside my head. Who is in charge? I am worried that it is Emergency Ruth.

Emergency Ruth

Emergency Ruth woke me up last night. I was in a deep sleep and then around 1am, she woke me up mid-panic, flailing and drowning. I smacked my husband around the head who didn’t seem to notice but sat up a couple of minutes later to wonder why he was awake at 1am.

Emergency Ruth is great. She is fabulous in a crisis. She pays attention to detail, she can spot what will go wrong miles ahead of everyone else. She always turns in a top-quality performance even when she is a completely knackered-in, nervous wreck. She can sprint down to A&E. She can stay up all night pressing buttons on a dialysis machine or a food pump, pass an NG tube, inject a tiny baby with a big needle, or herself, if no one else is around. She can give you, or a tiny cat, medicine on the hour every hour, with a syringe all night, or help you write a paper and meet your deadline. She sucks it up, sleepless, fearless (well she pretends she is) and does the thing that needs to be done: that medical procedure, that difficult conversation, that potential-to-get-nasty situation. Emergency Ruth is a total badass and she has my back.

But, in the middle of the night, when she should stand down, she is on red-alert, flight or fight, and she wakes me several times a night, every night, with a false alarm, and if I am too tired and fall into the dark night of the soul, she cannot help me feel better because that’s not what she does. Every morning she wakes me with a story of panic and a crick in my neck. She is intense.

Lately, I have taken to greeting her with: Good Morning, Doom. It makes me laugh and allows a tiny space in which Hippy Ruth can breathe and help unfurl my clenched heart.

Hippy Ruth

Sat chit ananda. I love Hippy Ruth. She had us vegetarian and organic for years. She rescues spiders and puts them through the cat flap. She recycles everything and wastes nothing. She worries about the environment, landfills, and data centres but talks to Techno Ruth who calms her, so that she truly believes that everything has a solution and all is well.

Hippy Ruth made us stopped dying our hair to grow it out and make it big and hippy once more, like it always was. She also makes us wear shorts at Bikram, so that we can embrace our body. She loves us. She loves our life. She is the best version of us. She is kind and compassionate and loves everyone, especially those people who behave badly towards us, for they are the most needy. (Emergency Ruth would eat them for breakfast.)

Hippy Ruth is happy on her mat or zazen cushion but equally happy to be interrupted part way through because she understands the tantra – or weaving – of the tapestry of life. Hippy Ruth knows that the mystical is to be found in the kitchen and the cuddles, as well as in the silence and the space of solitude. Always calm she hears the still small voice within.

Wild and Free Ruth

Wild and Free Ruth is an old, old joke between my husband and I. Though writing this, I asked him: What about Sensible Ruth? He said: I don’t think there is one. Wild and Free Ruth hates routine and doesn’t manage well in one. When she gets out, she’s up all night living wild and free. She is all about connection and go with the flow. But she doesn’t have the wisdom or the yin and yang of Hippy Ruth so she can fall into doing foolish things, and never says no even when she must. She is freespirited, rolls with it, sees what happens. She has a massive appetite for life and the ability to see the funny side in anything.

We’ve had some great times, hitching round the Alps, sleeping on the beach in Cinquaterra, flying to Kandmandu last minute and hoping our pal really meant it when she said she’d see us there, because Wild and Free Ruth always keeps a promise even if it’s a crazy one.

According to my husband Wild and Free Ruth causes trouble even when under lock and key, and my mother used to say: You’d cause a row in an empty house, but that’s just their opinion.

Boro Ruth

Boro Ruth is the bit of us who knew exactly what she liked to do and how she liked to be, before a million other people got involved and told her not to.

She discovered very early on that she liked: yoga, rollerskating, making music, zoning out (Hippy Ruth calls it meditation), the mystical and magical, the library, avoiding boring conversation. The things we still love to do today.

She loves anything which will make her life easy which is why she is fascinated by technology and can type faster than she speaks. Boro Ruth loves to talk, to learn, to teach and September – falling leaves and the promise of a new academic year.

She lives life like it matters and knows, as all kids do, that there is no need to improve the self. There is only acceptance. We are all just part of a bigger dance, there’s nothing else to do but to enjoy it.

Team Ruth

Team Ruth loves company and finds that everything is better in a group. She loves doing Bikram and meditation in a studio with like minded people. She soaks up that fantastic group energy and shares the love.

Ruth’s best programming happens in teams. She loves solution sharing and working super hard so her bit is ready for the person who needs it. She loves the art of great documentation and beautifully commented code which someone else can understand even when she is not around.

And, then the celebration at the end. Celebrations are always better in a team.

In a fabulous podcast hosted by SoundsTrue and which I listened to four times – it is that good, Mindfulness professor John Kabat-Zinn says that mindfulness is really about heartfulness, or open-heartedness, and not anything to do with the mind at all. I find this a really lovely thought and super encouraging. For as much as these personalities run around in my mind with a few others I haven’t outlined [like Techno Ruth who is a complete nerd, or Stalker Ruth (see what I did there?) who loves to research obsessively], it is a relief not to be limited by those personalities or stories, or any experiences I have had. As the Buddha said:

Nothing is to be clung to as I, me or my.

No clinging, but we don’t mind a cuddle as we welcome new joiners, I am looking forward to Laid-Back Ruth signing up and contrary to popular belief, I’m sure Sensible Ruth is already in there somewhere, I can’t wait til she’s ready to speak.

Group Hug, Ruths!

My name is Ruth

You’re the one, because you said so.
– Danielle La Porte, White Hot Truth

One night a Naomi I know and I, were contemplating the window of Ruth and Naomi (above). Naomi said that the embrace looked particularly passionate and wondered what sort of relationship Ruth and Naomi were having. Influenced by the Bible and not so much the window, I said that Ruth was passionately supporting Naomi. And I thought and still think, Ruth is one cool chick you would definitely want to be around in good times and bad.

Lately, my girls have been asking me, in the same way that I used to ask my mother, how and why they got their names. There is a story for each name. I also tell them that they are beautiful and I wanted them to have beautiful names to reflect their very essence.

My mother had no such story for me. When I used to ask her how she chose my name she used to say:

I hate the name Ruth. It was your father. He wanted that name.

When I look into my girls’ eyes I cannot even begin to imagine how she called someone she loved by a name she loathed. Although, to be fair, my dad once said: No daughter of mine was going to have the initials ARSe. So, he swapped the names around. Either way, my nickname has always been Stalker.

One auntie used to shudder as she repeated the story of how my father on the way back from registering me called in to say: We are calling the baby, Ruth. She would shake her head and tell me how she once knew an awful woman called Ruth who hung onto her husband like grim death. She didn’t like that Ruth, she didn’t like my name, and she definitely didn’t like people hanging onto their husbands like grim death. Even now, I hold my husband lightly.

A long lost friend once said she loved the name Ruth and wanted it as her confirmation name, but her Roman Catholic priest told her that it was the name of a Jezebel and not fit for the sacred act of celebrating holy communion.

Then there was that episode of friends when Rachel and Ross are deciding on baby names.

Ross: How about Ruth? I like Ruth.
Rachel: Oh I’m sorry, are we having an 89 year-old?

It seems to me that I have spent too much of life listening to what other people have to say about my name – and about me. Naomi definitely had the right idea that night in the Chapel. She was looking at what was in front of her and deciding what it meant. This is the way of semiotics and really, the only to live. No one else is an expert on me, not in the way I am. So, why would I seek an opinion from someone else?

When I offer an opinion, I wonder first whether a) I know enough, b) the other person wants my opinion, and c) will it cause offence or hurt? Then, I weigh up the need for me to say it out loud against a, b, and c. For the longest time, I really believed that everyone else did the same.

In Hebrew the name Ruth means beauty and friend. It can also mean truth and pity, and in medieval German/English: sorrow or compassion. It seems that in my thought processes around opinion giving, I live up to my name, that old, old biblical name.

The Book of Ruth has always really irritated me because it is a story conceived in a time when women were men’s possessions. Ruth’s husband dies but she remains loyal and leaves with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to go to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown, even though Ruth is a Moabite and will be leaving all she knows behind her. Ruth then works in a field gleaning wheat to support Naomi and then on Naomi’s instruction, lies at the bottom of Boaz’s bed. Eventually Ruth marries Boaz and both Naomi and Ruth are redeemed i.e. worthy and recognised once more in the patriarchal society.

The story of Ruth is often used in sermons to talk about being loyal and faithful and to love wholeheartedly, though they always skip over the other kind of loving, the lying down kind. A Lebanese female colleague once told me that she has always understood Ruth as a story of uniting tribes, and not to worry too much about the lying down.

Whatever the interpretation, we never get to hear what Ruth thinks or feels. Is she sad when her husband dies? Is Boaz sexy? Is Naomi a lovely mother-in-law? Ruth only speaks once:

Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay…

No wonder she is synonymous with beauty and friend. Ruth lights the fire. But sometimes I wish she had said a bit more. Did she lose herself in people. Did she ever ask: How empty am I, to be so full of you?

I looked up the metaphysical interpretation of the Book of Ruth which says that Ruth represents divine love, the love of what is real and spiritual, as opposed to the unreal material world. So, Naomi leaves behind the immaterial and focuses on the only thing worth having, the only thing that is real – Ruth. This puts me in mind of the metaphysical poet Rumi:

Do you think that I know what I’m doing? That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself? As much as a pen knows what it’s writing, or the ball can guess where it’s going next.

My name is Ruth, I have no idea what I am doing, or if I belong to myself. I often worry about how easy it is to lose myself in anyone and everyone, when sometimes I don’t know where I end and another person begins. But then when I look to Ruth and Rumi, I feel that this may not be the flaw I think it is and I do not need to be any different. Perhaps like the one breath or the half-breath, my not knowing is a thing of beauty, of truth and of compassion, and even when it is full of sorrow and pity, perhaps it doesn’t matter, for perhaps, like Ruth, it is divine.

Women’s work: Society, Storytelling, Technology (4)

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

[Women Part 4 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

The above statue in Whitehall is a poignant reminder of the women of WWII who kept the country running but then were forced to hang up their uniforms and heroic identities, as Lillian Robinson puts it in Wonder Women, to return to domesticity, motherhood and consumerism. The men needed their jobs back and that was that.

Thanks to the massive propaganda effort, by the 1950s, it was accepted that a woman’s role was to help men. Anne Lamott illustrated this brilliantly in a recent podcast by describing how at a buffet at a social event, a man could not go up and get himself a plate of food, so a woman would go for him. He was far too busy, far too important thinking important things, so much so that when the woman got back, he might not even notice, he might not even say thank you for his food. He was too busy and important to notice and say thank you.

Lamott’s podcast was part of as part of a Sounds True series on Self-Acceptance, and the host, Tami Simon, said that it was the only podcast in the series which turned self-acceptance into a feminist issue. However, if someone doesn’t even see you to thank you because of your gender, when they have been given food by you, how can you see yourself and your gender as anything than less than? How can you feel acceptable? And, how do you learn to accept yourself when your sole role in life is to be ignored? Lamott said that it has taken her a lifetime to unlearn those patterns of unworthiness.

Marion Shaw says in Man does, Woman is, that women’s work has always been of low regard and lowly paid, and some women have been denied access to employment altogether. And, if as a woman you were able to get work in a domain outside of women’s work, then there was and still is the construct of being a woman in a man’s world and all the things that went and still go with it.

When I was a student, I worked on site at ICI. Women on the chemical plants were almost non-existent and they had not had a woman fixing PCs before. I had to prove my skills for holding down that job with each PC I repaired. Fast forward a few years, when I was on bridges in Switzerland, everyone downed tools and followed me about. One of the other engineers with me laughed at the amount of attention I was getting. Now older and wiser, I wonder why I didn’t question any of this. I had been interviewed and hired to do a job. I shouldn’t have had to prove my worth and my ability, each and every time I entered into a professional situation during the course of my working day.

During my first lecturing position, I was paid 12% less than the youngest male lecturer. When I asked the (male) Head of Department why as an older, more experienced person I was paid less, he got a bit nasty. I stood my ground and got a pay rise, but it was a pyrrhic victory, and still to this day saddens me, that a) I had to ask and b) I was spoken to as if I was being unreasonable for wanting to be recognised fiscally as someone equal to my colleagues.

However, my stories are tame. We have all seen the stories this week of Harvey Weinstein and recently, the sexist culture at Uber. Anecdotely, often on the playground at pick up and drop off, I hear disgraceful stories across all industries. In publishing, finance, the public sector, to name but a few, women have been pushed out, their jobs reduced or even taken off them. Recently one woman said to me, thinking aloud, on the retirement of a senior (male) colleague:

There must be something wrong with me, otherwise why would you give all your clients to someone junior to me?

And, that is what women do all the time. We question and doubt ourselves and we experience imposter syndrome, instead of recognising that we are being treated badly. We feel we shouldn’t be there, because for centuries, we have been told that we shouldn’t be there. And, it is so institutionalised across society that men just don’t even see women, and if they do they follow them around to oogle at their female form, or check that they can do the job, or they don’t think that they should be paid exactly the same amount of money to do exactly the same job.

I went to a series of seminars this year run by TRIGGER: Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research. And, whilst they are looking at ways to find solutions for tackling inequality, it is staggering that in 2017, these series needs to exist.

Some of the facts I got from the research which was presented there are as follows:

  • There is a 40% pay gap between genders in the Financial Services.
  • There is a definite gender bias in publishing.
  • There exists a male group think where women are not even seen, let alone considered.
  • Woman are penalised against in the TEF and REF.
  • Only 16% of women run boards and conferences, and even fewer are no doubt invited.

Yes, I have loads more facts but am too weary to type them all down because the rage and powerlessness I feel as I reflect on this blatant discrimination gets me down.

The government has spent millions on initiatives to get more women into the STEM professions but it remains that in my areas of Engineering and Computing (am capitalising English style): 15-20% of students are female but in my experience over the last two years it is more like 5%, 10-15% senior faculty are female, and 2% of professors are female. Research has shown that women are less likely to collaborate internationally and travel internationally. And, everyone is scratching their heads wondering why. Really? You really don’t know?

Personally, I believe that it is no good encouraging girls to go into these fields if you are not going to change the very nature of these fields. They are ripe for change. But, this would mean changing the whole of society and the view that men are legitimately allowed to be there and women aren’t and should be at home looking after the kids. Myself! I am too tired to fight and prove my worth anymore. I just want to tell any man who even dares to looks at me the wrong way to go forth and multiply, which of course I don’t, because then I would be deemed unprofessional and that I shouldn’t be there instead of recognising my behaviour as a righteous rage. I would never question whether a man should be there or not based on the way he looks.

And this is a recurring theme. Society recognises the legitimacy of men in a way they have yet to do for women. So, as a woman, please know that when you show up to work, understand that your status and hierarchy as a woman will not be respected, you will need to know how to influence too. And, you will need to be more visible too, e.g, yes be on a board, but you must be the editor not just a reviewer, as you will disappear down the cracks when it comes to promotion time, as no one will see at all the amazing contributions you have made. And, don’t have a career break, no, it will be detrimental to your career. I know my career definitely got messed up because of that gap – you know that one where I took time off to look after our future generations in that lowly unpaid role of women’s work.

It is exhausting and infuriating, and no man in any role even thinks about being seen and presenting and justifying the very space he occupies, before being allowed to get on to do the job he has been employed to do.

When I started thinking about this series one year ago, I asked many of the women I meet socially and professionally about it and many of them didn’t even want to think about the inequality of society, because it is depressing.

I have been mired down for months trying to write this blog series, and now I am here I am in a rage as I write. In spite of that, I am raising girls. I am raising girls and I want them to have better experiences than I have had in the workplace, I want their lives to be the great experiences that I can only dream of, because they are the future. So each time I look at my girls, those magnificent glorious expressions of the future, I put aside my fury and I research and I write in the hope of figuring out some solutions to make the world easier for them to be themselves in, because left to be themselves they will definitely make the world a better place in which to live, something I absolutely know for sure.

[5) Superwomen]

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.