In awe of what cannot be seen

October is the month when trees are parading with their leaves. Shades of yellow and rusty red are transforming from one day to another. It feels as if a painter is working all night long, perfecting all the hues of the leaves for the next morning.

As I walk by and look up to the sky, I breathe in awe in sight of the leaves still hanging on the branches.

I look down to where my feet touch the ground. I try to step next to the scattered leaves so I can leave their beauty undisturbed. They inspire sacredness.

I pass by breathing awe of the life of nature. Nature silently develops through four seasons. There must be a similarly amazing development of consciousness in each one of us. Alas, we can’t see it. We can only witness it, thanks to graceful self-awareness.

 

The long journey of feeling integrated in a foreign culture

What does it mean to be integrated in a foreign culture?

The competence of speaking the local language?

The ability to interact comfortably with locals?

The desire to maintain the cultural heritage while at the same time, being flexible to adopt new behaviours from the local culture?

As a person who’s been living abroad for 18 years, for me, being integrated is about having the authentic sense of belonging.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, I was having a cup of coffee with a friend, who’s been living in Helsinki, for a decade. She married a Finnish man and has learned Finnish. Their son goes to a Finnish school. In her home country, she graduated from the Medical School. During all the years in Helsinki, she’s been going through all the required stages so she can become a generalist doctor in Finland. Fifteen months to go and she’ll be there.

“Where do you feel that your home is?” I asked.

She looked around the living room in the house where she and her family are living.

“I don’t know.” she replied hesitantly. “My home is here … but not quite. It definitely isn’t in the place where I grew up.” she continued. “People are my home. You. You are part of me, you know?”

Tears welled from her eyes and from my eyes.

She helped me understand that the sense of belonging – irrespective we live in the place of birth or abroad – comes from the way we relate with the people and events surroundings us. And when we define ourselves through close relationships, those people belong to us. And this is a great thing. Wherever we go, we take them in our hearts.

I guess that at a deeper level of the human psyche, to get to the stage of genuine integration, we may need the courage to look for the individuals that belong to our hearts.

  

 

Wouldn’t it be nice?

This morning, as I was walking with my son, with the corner of my eye, I could see a young woman and man catching up with us, on their electric kick-bikes. The young woman, my son and I were about to enter the same building, when we could hear the young man’s voice, shouting from the distance, “I love you!” And he continued his way somewhere else where he is needed. 

Imagine the emotional impact on the young woman. How uplifted she must have started her day!

No matter if we have someone who loves us, wouldn’t it be nice to start our days, being in love with the day that it’s about to unfold?

Hearing empowering music in our minds.

Engaging playfully with the daily activities.

Daydreaming and smiling.

 

Wouldn’t it be nice?

Compassion needs practice of three other foundational skills

We can’t be compassionate if we are not generous, empathetic and self-aware. To understand another person’s pain, we need to be generous with our time dedicated to build empathy for the other one. We need to be willing to observe him in his daily routine. Who are the people he meets? What kind of relationships he has with others? What kind of tasks he does?

When the observation is done, we need to be able to understand and feel as the other person does.

Each day is an opportunity to gain a deeper level of compassion. How willing are we to create the mental space to do it?

Neuroscience helps us understand that when we are engaged in cognitive tasks, a circuitry on the lateral parts of the brain gets activated. At the same time, the brain networks that are in the middle areas and are related to self-awareness and empathy get deactivated. Therefore, we would need a strong determination to spend some time away from cognitive problem-solving and use that time instead on purposeful compassion practices. What might that motivation be?

But please let us not say, “I feel you”, unless we feel it to be true. If we say it because we want to save the appearance of an emotionally intelligent dialogue, we only make things worse. The other person will feel we’re not feeling him, become more distant and still be in pain.

 

 

How to create mental space for empathy when getting irritated

Being empathetic and looking at a particular situation from someone else’s perspective can help us decrease conflicts and give and receive feedback more effectively. But when you’re seeing red, it’s harder to shift gears and be motivated to think about what someone else might be thinking. 

To allow ourselves to look at potential conflicts through the lens of empathy, I’ve found four strategies of self-awareness: 1) don’t trust your first emotional reactions; 2) question your interpretations; 3) your standards of behaviour are different than others’; 4) appeal to humour to laugh at yourself.

It was a beautiful Summer afternoon when my husband and I were in the car, driving around to do some errands. In the following second, we could see a biker stopping in the middle of the road and starting a talk with the driver in the car in front. It was a narrow street. In addition, some cars were parked on one side, thus making it impossible to overtake. We had to stop the car, watching two strangers having a good time talking.

“Outrageous!” my sense of righteousness got activated. Our car seemed to have been invisible to the two men.

Moments of potential conflict like this are good opportunities to practice empathy. The problem is that there is little room for perspective-taking when the brain is loaded with the unconscious interpretation of the situation and overwhelmed by negative emotional reactions.

A tiny spark of awareness shone light on the feeling of fury for what was perceived to be unacceptable behaviour. A shy voice whispered, “How about your commitment to empathy?”. A choice had to be made.

To honk?

To shout at them to get out of the way?

To make a neutral observation about the fact that the two individuals were blocking the traffic?

To wait quietly?

To get out of the car and ask if I can help them in any way?

To get out of the car, join them and crack a joke about the situation?

As my husband and I were debating which course of action to take, the biker and the driver continued on their separate ways, freeing the road.

Had the conversation lasted longer than it did, my commitment to empathy would have probably been overridden. The impulse of teaching the two strangers a lesson of politeness would have been too strong to control. Most certainly, I would have honked.

Thanks to this incident, I could experience how self-awareness and emotional control are prerequisites for perspective-taking. To be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, first you may want to sort out the emotional reaction engendered by how you yourself see the situation. Here are four strategies of how to do that:

  1. Be aware of the anger, anxiety or irritation you may feel. Stay present with those feelings but try not to trust them too much. What is it about you that makes you react the way you do? In this story, the expectation that traffic rules must be observed was not met. Anger is one way to react. What would another person you have high regard of do in a similar situation?
  2. Behind any emotional reaction, there is an unconscious interpretation of a particular context and we quickly jump to conclusions. Try not to take for granted those conclusions, i.e., two men are intentionally messing up the traffic. There are many assumptions involved in the interpretation, which may not reflect the true story. Maybe the two strangers were discussing an urgent topic. Maybe they hadn’t seen each other in a long time and were thrilled to meet by chance, on the road. Who knows what drove them to have the particular behaviour?
  3. Your sense of respecting rules is different than others’. Assuming the interpretation of the situation is right to begin with and we had crossed ways with two inconsiderate human beings. Would any outbursts help them change their ways of behaving? It would be like shouting at a mosquito that its bites cause an itchy sensation and irritate the skin and expect it’s not going to bite you or someone else next time.
  4. Humour can be a great saviour. You may reframe your interpretation and emotional reactions in a way that makes you laugh at yourself. Laughter enables the limbic system of your brain cool down faster.


The biker had a content face as he was biking one meter distance from our car. He didn’t look our way. Let’s face it. Sometimes you just can’t understand why others do what they do. Wish them well and hold onto your commitment to practice empathy.

 

What Are We Celebrating on Mother’s Day?

“The heartfelt connection we all yearn for is locked away within our everyday routine as parents, teachers, and friends.” Lawrence J.Cohen, Playful Parenting

On the second Sunday of May, Finland is one of the European countries that celebrates Mother’s Day.

“Mother’s Day Coffee Morning, Friday 10th of May, 8-10am. All mums, grandmothers, welcome for breakfast, circle and activity.”

This message was pinned at the entrance door of the daycare where my 5 year old is enrolled. Consequently, I cleared the morning work schedule. I also cleared the usual clutter of the mind and instead chose to focus on my kid. And what a lovely morning we had!

Stepping inside the daycare together, instead of giving an automatic goodbye hug at the locker room and rushing to work. Holding him in my lap during the morning circle. Letting him lead me to his favourite play areas. Engaging in different role plays with him. Eating from the same plate at the small table where he is having the snacks twice a day.

“It’s so nice to see the bond between the two of you!” one of the teachers commented as she passed by the table where we were eating.

We did have a moment of deep connection, which gave such a boost to the remaining part of the morning.

These mornings of connection can happen each day. If only I allow them by creating that space of mindfulness. It can be short and sweet. But those small minutes of synchronisation help maintain the mother-child bond.

In my world, starting with today, the Mothers’ Day is a reminder that the connection between mother and child should not be taken for granted.

 

Why do we read books?

Some of us like to read. Because we are curious to know everything about anything – history, anthropology, biomedicine, artificial intelligence, etc. We are driven by the desire of understanding where we came from and where we are heading.

Some others are driven by the need to feel. They read fiction – romance, science fiction, horror, etc – to make them feel alive.

But you can’t feel alive or excel at intellectually understanding a field without having sensitivity to life. The want of sensitivity pushes us to read, to wrap our souls around the gentleness that authors bless some of their characters with. Once we gained sensitivity, we may feel one with life, a joyful connection that we sometimes see in someone else’s eyes.

Sensitivity is the light that shows us the way in the labyrinth of knowledge. Once we gained sensitivity, we may get interested in making an effort to grow the knowledge.

Knowledge does good to the mind. Kindness does good to the soul. We badly need them both. Continue reading. In addition, please practice lovingness.

 

The taste of impermanence

Everybody knows Notre-Dame, the cathedral at the foundation of the Parisian cultural heritage, the place where Victor Hugo imagined the plot of the novel The HunchBack of Notre-Dame.

Yesterday, the unexpected fire destroyed the loved monument. Shock and disbelief. The fire stirred the memories of millions of people who ever stepped inside and smelled the air of sanctity imbued in the old walls. It crushed the dreams of those who were about to visit.

Nothing lasts forever. We trust in transformation and hope in reconstruction. But where would Quasimodo live now?   

 

When you can’t see through another’s eyes, when you can’t listen with the ears of another, when you can’t feel with the heart of another – Ask Mr Froggy

On the occasion of the World StoryTelling Day, at the event organised by the Nordic Culture Point on March 21st, I wrote and told an empathy story for an audience of 8th grade children in Helsinki. Here I share it. In case you like it, you are welcome to read it to your kids. 

mrfroggy

When the other is a boy named Alam

Once upon a time, there was a place in West Asia, a land called Iran. Somewhere over there, in Tehran to be more precise, Alam was born. One year ago, his family moved to Helsinki. Alam is 7. Today is his first day of school.

He’s so nervous that he wouldn’t have any breakfast. He’s clumsy talking the language of Finns. Other than his baby sister and Mr Froggy, he doesn’t have any other friends. Who is going to want to be his friend?

As if his mother read his thoughts, she suggested. “Would you like to take Mr Froggy in your backpack?”

His face brightened up. He dashed to his bedroom where Mr Froggy was lying under his pajamas. It was the gift on Alam’s 5th anniversary from his grandmother and uncle. What for others was just another soft toy, for Alam, Mr Froggy was a reminder of the affection his grandmother would put into preparing his favourite sour-berry tea.

Whenever Alam would ask his father why they moved to Finland, his father would reply, “We are here so you can have a better life.”

“Here, your sister can live a life of freedom.” the mother would add.

“But it’s just the four of us here.” Alam would think to himself.

Back in Iran, the whole family used to get together almost every week, sometimes twice a week and every time there was a gathering, there was music, dance and poetry. And there are 30 or 40 people and lots of food and children running around. Alam missed running around those people.

Mostly, he missed playing the seven stones game. He would be more in the losing than winning team but he didn’t mind that. He liked the excitement of the game when he was chased with a ball by his uncle, the most playful family member.

Meeting Minttu and Emilia

This day of August, Alam and his mother were approaching school, when they heard a cry. They looked in the direction of the sound to see a girl and her father standing next to a tree, looking upwards. He gazed up with curiosity to see a cat sitting on a branch.

“If you can help someone in need, just do it.” was the morale of the stories that his uncle used to tell him.

Alam let go off his mom’s hand and ran next to the girl. “What’s the cat’s name?” he asked.

“Minttu.” The girl answered sobbingly.

Without further ado, Alam started climbing up the tree. The girl stopped crying. The father looked puzzled.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” his mom asked.

Alam couldn’t even hear her. He was getting closer to the cat and all he could think of was that this was his moment to put in practice all the training on calling cats that he’d done with his uncle.

When he was 5, Alam was fond of feeding animals. His uncle taught him how to call the neighbor’s cat to their yard to feed it treats. Alam was curious, “How fat a cat can become?”

This cat was not as fat as the neighbor’s cat. “Obviously, they don’t feed you well.” Alam said. Raising his voice, he called the cat to him, “Minttu!”

Minttu pricked its ears.

“Onko nälkä?” he asked while realising he actually talked in Finnish. “I’m good at cat Finnish.” and he felt proud of himself.

He gently took his rucksack off his back and fumbled for the pencil box, gently pushing Mr. Froggy out of his way. He took out one pen and tapped it against the plastic cover of the box. The tapping made a clicking noise which draw Minttu’s curiosity. The cat walked close enough towards him that he could grab it in his arms. He started singing in a high pitch voice – which he thought was similar to Minttu’s voice – some of the food he used to give to the neighbors’ cat: ham, minced meat, eggs.

When they got off the tree, the girl gave a strong hug to both Alam and Minttu.

“I’ll take this adventurous cat from you.” the girl’s father said.

“Emilia.” said the girl, stretching her hand. “Thank you.”

Getting introduced to the new school environment

They waited for Emilia’s father to bring Minttu back into their flat and they walked together the short remaining distance to the school yard.

The teacher was waiting for all the kids and parents to gather around her. She shook hands with everyone, including Alam and his mom. The group of 1st graders would get a walk-through the school.

Alam waved goodbye, “See you in 3 hours, mom.” while finding it hard to hold his tears.

The school walls seemed empty compared to the walls of the daycare he used to attend back in his home-country. His daycare teacher used to adorn the classroom walls with the kids’ drawings. Alam liked to see his drawings on the wall. It made him feel at home. “Maybe the new teacher will do the same as soon as we make some drawings.” he thought.

In the first recess, while in the school yard, one of the bigger kids kicked Alam from behind. Emilia saw that. She approached Alam, took his hand and said, “Violence is not allowed here. You can let the teacher know about it.”

“Would you want to meet my best friend, Mr Froggy?” Alam asked. “He’s wise, let’s hear from him, what to do when someone hits you out of a blue?”

What would Mr. Froggy advice?

 

 

 

The Awakening of Meaning

The fundamental drive in life is the pursuit of meaning, writes Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. Through a combination of external and internal circumstances, meaning will come to the surface of conscious awareness.

Through a grace of God or lucky coincidence, two people intersect. Their souls get swiftly entangled and magnetised. A vibrant energy shakes up their inner lives with the fullness of being. They now see that meaning is life. The meaning of exploring oneself through perceptions, senses, intuitions, interests, play and acts of courage.