Who’s to blame? Finding fault finds fault in us all

As we reeled from the news of the Brad and Angelina split last week, I noticed an interesting pattern about the way people processed this (arguably) major world event. A lot of people, I observed, had a similar way of assessing this relationship breakdown – an instant urge to look for someone to blame. I’m using the term ‘bad news’ loosely here since, really, a celebrity split isn’t something that has an impact on us. But I’ve realised this happens in situations close to home, too. When we hear about something happening to others and we’re scared (whether we admit it or not) that this could also happen to us, I’ve noticed that we have a tendency to label someone as the good guy and someone else as the bad guy.  

The reason I’m talking about Brad and Angelina on this blog, which is generally a celebrity-free zone, is because I’m interested in the barriers we sometimes erect against compassion and empathy. Overlooking the fact that we’re patently entering the judgment zone when we comment on celebrities (which is not exactly healthy), I think the way we respond to events in Hollywood says something about the way we respond to events in the real world.

The concept of blame first loomed large in my mind when a feminist blogger I follow on social media predicted that Angelina would likely be cast as the villain by society, since unfortunately – and unfairly – it’s still seen as a woman’s job to hold a marriage and a family together. To be honest I haven’t read enough about the split to know whether this has played out, but the idea of choosing a villain is a reasonable expectation. Remember when Brad and Jen split up? She was regarded as a cold-hearted, career-hungry woman who had refused to give him the kids he reportedly longed for – even though she had repeatedly said in interviews that she *did* want kids. Yet Brad, who had clearly fallen in love with another woman – which tends to spell disaster for a marriage, obvs – did not seem to be lumbered with much, if any, responsibility for that relationship’s fracture.

Looking back on when some of my friends separated from their partners, I’ve realised that although I didn’t get involved, in my mind I definitely took sides (not, however, with any gender bias). I apportioned blame to one party and sympathised with the other – even though I’m well aware that relationship breakdowns are always a two-way street. In some cases this was a show of support for the person I felt closest to, but in other times it was because I was making a judgment about who had let the other person down. Because I’m *such* a relationship expert, and other people’s relationships are totally my business (#sarcasm).

I’m no psychologist, but I feel like this is probably human nature. When we hear of something upsetting, we look for ways to understand it. If we can frame it in a familiar narrative – that of good vs evil – it’s easier for us to draw conclusions about what happened, and ultimately feel better about it. If we can blame someone, we can reassure ourselves that it won’t happen to us. Like this: My husband doesn’t have any female friends so that won’t happen to us. Or: I never tell anyone my PIN so that won’t happen to me. And, chillingly: I don’t walk alone at night so that won’t happen to me.  

My problem with this kind of ‘good guy/bad guy’ narrative is not so much that it smacks of self-righteousness, which is problematic in itself, but that it doesn’t allow space for compassion. If we’ve decided Angelina ‘deserved’ a divorce, then we’ve overlooked her pain. Because whether you are the one who instigates a split or not, the end of a romance is a bloody, bitter affair with waves of pain that knock you over long after the event. In labelling people like they are simply characters in a story, we erase their humanity.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking – Brad and Angelina are celebrities, it’s not like they’re people we know. But I have this nagging suspicion that the way we regard celebrities contains some truth about the way we regard the people around us.

I believe that in any situation of conflict or disharmony, no one person is wholly to blame. Consider this example. I have a friend who has been complaining for years about her unhappy marriage. While I totally understand her need to vent, her tirade of resentment is grating to listen to, and not only because it’s never-ending (and the fact that she has no family nor many close friends in Australia to talk to means Im hearing it often). Her complaints focus only on the shortcomings of her partner, and wilfully overlooks her own culpability in marrying someone whose behaviour had been disappointing her long before they exchanged vows. By blaming him for her unhappiness, she doesn’t have to take ownership of her responsibility for not only expecting him to be someone other than who he was, but for continuing to accept a toxic home life (i.e. not leaving him). Sometimes playing the blame game is a way we hide. I’m not saying for a minute that she deserves to be unhappy – no one does – and of course no one really has any idea what actually goes on inside a relationship (which is another reason that passing judgment is unwise). My point is that finding fault in other people can keep us stuck.

I remember when I was made redundant (the first time round, for those of you familiar with my, ahem, “colourful” work history), an acquaintance remarked tersely that I really should have seen it coming, since the company had been in financial difficulties for a while. She was right… the writing was on the wall, and I should have tried harder to look for alternative work. But does that mean I deserved to lose my job and my final pay? Had I lost my right to feel aggrieved about the unfairness of this situation? Was I the bad guy? As is often true, this woman’s blame manoeuvre was more about her than it was about me. (That won’t happen to me because I’d notice if my company was going down the tubes and would quit.) Oh, the comfort of superiority!*

From a spiritual perspective, we’re here to be kind to each other. In an ideal world, this would mean we’re able to feel compassion for, and offer support to, anyone going through struggle such as divorce or job loss, regardless of who might have been at fault. But the reality is that every time we see someone suffering, we filter it through our own fears (we are all programmed, after all, to protect ourselves from pain). And where fear goes, judgment usually follows. I don’t really have any solutions for how to avoid falling into this trap, but I have resolved to look out for the blame game when I notice that pattern emerging in my little brain. This doesn’t mean I’d rush to comfort a man who cheated on a friend, to give an extreme example, but hopefully I’ll be less inclined to see situations as black and white. When we hold space for people to be flawed, but ultimately deserving of love, we foster tolerance for our own shortcomings and endorse our own worthiness, too.

Ideally, I’d like to do better at listening and supporting without judgment. Something to aim for, anyway.

*In the interests of fairness, I should declare that I’ve totally done shit like this to other people myself in the past. Ugh.

What do you believe in? My quest for faith without religion

One of my favourite advice columns in Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar series was her response to a letter from a woman questioning the existence of God. Her six-month-old daughter had, against the odds, survived surgery to remove a brain tumour, and a lot of people had been praying for her (agnostic) family. The woman told Cheryl that the terrifying event had left her wondering whether there was such thing as God, and if so, had he saved her daughter’s life? But if God existed, she wondered, why had he let her daughter get sick in the first place? Strayed’s reply was, as always, shoulder-droppingly moving.

“What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway?”

The reason I love this passage so much is because it beautifully sums up what religion means to me – not the dedication to please a supernatural bearded man who condemns and judges, but the innate compulsion to honour the powerful spirit of love that exists around us and within us. Something we can channel to give us strength, something that inspires us to be more and give more, something reflected in the extraordinary beauty of nature, something that serves as a life raft when we are adrift in stormy seas. Something vastly more powerful than we could possibly imagine.

It’s sometimes difficult for people to understand how I can believe in angels and in God yet not conform to any church-based faith. It’s sometimes difficult for me to explain this.

I realise everyone has their own views on religion, and I dont wish to force my views on anyone. I totally understand that there are all sorts of reasons institutional religion appeals to people  a sense of certainty, for example. I respect everyones right to determine their own values and faith; this is simply the expression of what feels true for me. To borrow another Cheryl quote: My truth is not a condemnation of yours.

Last week I went to a number of sessions at the always-brilliant Sydney Writer’s Festival; one of the standouts for me was social researcher Hugh Mackay’s talk entitled Finding Meaning Without Religion.

Around two-thirds of Australians say we believe in God or some ‘higher power’, but fewer than one in 10 of us attend church weekly. To me, that indicates that people are searching for spirituality in their lives without pledging allegiance to a churchs definition. We’re individually searching our hearts for what’s meaningful to each of us. I suspect for many people that search leads not to stories in ancient lands and gardens, but – as Strayed so eloquently put it – the “way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body”.  Or as the Dalai Lama says simply: “My religion is kindness.”

What being religious, or spiritual-but-not-religious, gives us is a sort of roadmap – albeit sketchy – to navigate this confusing and sometimes bitterly unfair world. It gives us hope and it gives us meaning. Essentially, religion is people putting their faith in something larger than themselves.

If you find that larger thing in scriptures, hymns, rituals and visits to religious buildings, that’s wonderful. If you don’t, Hugh suggests you look for your own sense of meaning “in the eyes of the people who love you, or who are at least prepared to put up with you” (lol). There’s a Maori proverb from my native New Zealand which says: He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. That means: What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.

I’m paraphrasing here, but what Hugh is suggesting is we place our faith in the ties that bind us and the love we have for each other. That is something both tangible and intangible. We often think of religion in terms of salvation and redemption, yet when you look back to the darkest periods of your life, who saved you and who helped you find redemption? I’d wager it was the people who love you.

I’m not at all saying institutional religion is invalid, I’m simply saying that in my personal experience, matters of faith are best reduced to a framework of love and compassion. I find that in the divine, but I also find it expressed through the people around me.

Hugh explains: “It’s in our DNA to be cooperative and to form community. The way we form community is to behave in kind, tolerant and respectful ways towards each other. Instead of what religion you belong to, he wants to know: What kind of world are you dreaming of? And how does this affect the way you go about your life and treat other people?” Perhaps this is what Ram Dass was getting at when he suggested we treat everyone we meet as God in drag”.

Those questions, Hugh says, are far more important that what box you tick in the religion question on your census.

Take heart. How to feel, give and receive more love

Heart-shaped tree in field

Ah, love, that most desirous and ruinous of human emotions. Fortunately this blog is not about the drama of romantic love (although that is relevant too) but love in a spiritual sense.

The heart chakra, located in the centre of the chest, is the energy centre that’s all about how we give and receive love – to all people, not just our partners, and to ourselves. 

People who have blockages in their heart chakra can be judgmental or they could be prone to jealousy. They might be unable to forgive someone or they might be grappling with grief.

As the fourth of the seven chakras, this is the meeting point of the energy centres that are associated with the physical world (the basesacral and solar plexus chakras) and the three chakras representing the spiritual world (more on each of those in future posts). To get a bit airy-fairy, it’s where heaven and earth meet. 

When the heart chakra is balanced, we’re compassionate, empathetic, forgiving, peaceful, loving and able to help others without depleting our own resources (i.e. we don’t overcommit). We’re also able to honour our feelings, crying when we need to, but also administer self-care when we need it – that’s everything from drawing ourselves a bubble bath to simply speaking kindly to ourselves. We’re also able to receive love easily – we don’t say ‘no’ to people when they offer to help and we don’t put up barriers when people who we like get close to us.

What I think is so significant about the heart chakra is that while the solar plexus was all about shame, this chakra’s enemy is grief. If you think about it, it is loss of any sort (not just bereavement) that makes the heart hurt. Because self-love is so strongly emphasised in this chakra, this loss might be to do with your attachment to ideas about what your life should look like or who you thought you should have become.

Repressed emotions really come to the fore in this chakra – particularly for people who suffered deep hurts in childhood such as a death in the family, bullying or abandonment by a parent.

Two hands forming heart shape

People with deficiencies in the heart chakra might be:

* anti-social

* lonely

* fearful of intimacy

* narcissistic

* judgmental (including racist, sexist, homophobic etc)

* lacking empathy

* unable to let go

* unable to forgive

* struggling to accept help from people

People with excessive energy in the heart chakra might be:

* co-dependent

* jealous

* demanding of their loved ones

* needing to be needed

* fearful of betrayal

Physically heart chakra blockages show up in heart problems (obviously), circulation issues, asthma and lung issues, low immunity, high or low blood pressure and tension between the shoulder blades. 

Any issues with the arms can be related, too – and when I’m clearing this chakra in a reiki session people often report tingling in their hands. That’s because this chakra is all about touch – and that’s a key way we show love to people, right?  

To clear blockages in the heart chakra, forgiveness is the key (read my post about that here).

· Another suggestion I’ve heard is to try and go a week without criticising anyone, which will really help you examine how accepting you are.

· Remember that love is about giving AND receiving, so look at how you can increase the amount of love you’re giving out – that’s anything from smiling at people regularly to giving compliments and donating to people in need.

· If you’re into yoga, back bends, bridges and the wheel pose are great for targeting this chakra – and yoga also helps you to sit in the present moment, which is beneficial for your energy field as a whole.

Amazing grace. I want it

Ballerina dancing on pointe

For most of my life I have longed to be graceful. I wished I could glide into a room emanating such allure that every man would stop what he was doing to admire me. To dress impeccably and with such class I could have just stepped off a billboard. To hold myself with such poise that there would be no need for me to even speak.
I possess none of these attributes. My sense of style is less about style and more about whatever items I can rustle up that don’t make me look like I’m in the middle of a reality TV home renovation. My inability to match garments is renowned. Instead of sitting neatly in place, my hair behaves like your wild teenage daughter – i.e. it’s never where it’s supposed to be. And despite being blessed with long, slender legs I am unable to wear heels that would gift me the feminine appeal I long for. In heels, I have all the finesse of a newborn foal stepping on butter. In my beloved ballet flats I have good control but the refinement of a truck driver.

What I have realised, though, is that no matter how unruly my appearance and disposition, I can live in a state of grace  although not in the way the majority of people define the word.
Last Christmas I wrote a post about grace as associated with redemption, and my definition of the word has broadened further since. Our society loves to hold up Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's as the epitome of grace and elegance. Yet that role – as a character who displayed precious little regard for other people’s feelings – is far removed from what made this celebrated actress truly graceful. It’s true that she was mesmerisingly beautiful, but her grace had nothing to do with her face or her wardrobe, and everything to do with her heart. 
Audrey worked tirelessly as a UNICEF ambassador, fulfilling the call she felt from within to bring hope and
Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys
worldwide attention to the plight of starving children in countries such as Ethiopia – a humanitarian mission I admit I didnt know about until I read about it on social media. Rather than focusing on looking fair, she implored the world to BE fair… in the way it distributes its resources and opportunities.
This, to me, is grace. No longer do I aspire to be chic or elegant (that’s probably for the best, all considered), but there’s opportunity for me to build towards a state of grace in my thoughts, attitudes and behaviour. Certainly I’ll never reach Audrey’s levels but that doesn’t mean I can’t maximise opportunities to show and feel grace in my everyday life. Grace is gently leaning forward when I want to retreat. Grace is showing kindness to myself and to others even when I don’t feel like it. Grace is finding peace in my heart amid a cacophony of criticism, fear and drama. Grace is gently reminding myself on my bad days that tomorrow is another day and it will be better.
That’s my understanding of grace – and it truly is amazing.

Confession: I struggle to know what to do when I see homeless people. Can you relate?

Man with sign: 'Help! Need money, God bless you'
Two nights ago I was coming home from a group meditation and I experienced something that almost made me come undone. It was 10pm on a bitterly cold winter's night, teeming with rain, and there was a homeless man on his knees proffering a paper cup to the thighs of dallying drunks and harried corporates rushing by for shelter. I crossed the road to give him $5 and, in a soft, gentle voice completely incongruous with someone who is living a hard life, he thanked me and said he hoped I got home safely. I have never felt more guilty for having a home to go to. I had to turn away because my eyes were leaking for reasons that had nothing to do with the rain.   
There are so many homeless people around Sydney – particularly noticeable at this time of year, when it’s so cold – and sometimes walking to work in the city past so many people hiding under tattered blankets is to run an emotional gauntlet. I do give money to a few of them on a regular basis, but there are so many that I have to limit it to only two people, and I have to admit I do find myself subsiding into a state of compassion fatigue.
Basically, I become so used to seeing people in these wretched conditions that it has become normal to me. Which means I do nothing to help, despite my life of extraordinary privilege. Note to self: there is nothing normal about this level of human suffering. 
I know people who refuse to give money to homeless people on the assumption that they will only spend the money on ice (that’s the drug Americans know as meth, and New Zealanders know as P). I have always thought that it’s not my place to judge someone for what they do with their money, and frankly, if someone is on a street corner dressed in rags and reeking of urine, they need my gold coins far, far more than I do. There’s nothing I can do with that meagre amount of money that will hold as much value to me as it will for someone living in the depths of despair, whose entire existence depends on the kindness of strangers. That said, I have no judgement towards people who opt not to give their money to homeless people. Your money is your own, and you’re certainly not obliged to give it to anyone.
Beggar with outstretched handsI think I harden my heart against the homeless sometimes out of a fear that it will upset me (for good reason). For that reason, my response typically goes one of two ways: I’ll hurry by and distract myself so I don’t look (which makes me feel guilty). Or I’ll give money but practically throw it at them, speeding off before I can hear them speak to me. I know logically that I can only give so much (although I could certainly do with giving more than I have been) and I can’t help everyone, so my guilt is misguided – not to mention unhelpful. I also know that, in truth, kindness isn’t really kindness if I’m giving begrudgingly or defensively. It would probably be more valuable to actually have a conversation with homeless people, ask them questions and listen to their opinions, to remind them that they matter (we all need to be reminded of that, actually), and perhaps bring them a sandwich, a banana and a newspaper. This is one solution I’m considering.
It’s pretty clear by my increasing discomfort levels that I need to change my approach to this morally complex situation, and I don’t think money is the answer.
The ‘how’ is probably less important than the ‘why’. And the ‘why’ is because compassion is one of my fundamental beliefs. Mother Teresa knew a thing or two about kindness so I’ll throw to her now: “I prefer you to make mistakes in kindness than work miracles in unkindness.”