Archive for the ‘Lebanon’ Category

Power and Justice Dilemmas in Arab Societies: Part I

January 2, 2016

North Africa and Middle East

Westerners who move to the Middle East and North Africa often find behavior and conversations with local people confusing.  Much of this confusing behavior is rooted in attitudes toward power and the use of power, both on a societal level, and on a personal level.  While Western cultures attempt to control abuses of power with checks-and-balances; Arab cultures attempt to control it through alliances, subterfuge, and sabotage.

In the West, the type of person whose motivations are primarily, “What’s in it for me?  How can I get the advantage?  How can I do as little as possible, while still getting paid, and sloughing as much as possible of my work off on others?  And how can I use the resources of my workplace to benefit me personally?” IS CONTROLLED by workplace standards, rules, and performance reviews; by government laws which are actually enforced, and by a fairly low incidence of public corruption; small corruption can be prosecuted in Small Claims Court and larger or more serious corruption in state and federal courts.  The key thing here is that NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW.  Even the president of the United States is not above the law, nor above being sued in court (as a private citizen), nor above being impeached for behavior.

When power is abused in the West, we have recourses which can be pursued:  rules in the workplace, performance reviews, channels to be pursued or to which decisions can be appealed, functioning court systems.  But the REASON we have well-functioning institutions is that power is not the be-all and end-all in terms of social prestige.

When power is abused in Arab cultures, none of the above-listed Western methods are effective.  When rules exist, they are often unenforceable, or at the whim of the boss and/or his friends; performance reviews (which actually protect employees) tend to be non-existant; no one takes responsibility for overturning others’ decisions; and court systems seldom return a judgement against the powerful.

Therefore, people behave with different motivation than in the West.  In order to navigate this treacherous environment successfully, it becomes necessary for each person, each group, each company, and even each person in power to seek alliances with the most powerful people possible.  (This also accounts for the great emphasis on knowing the people you are doing business with;  if they turn out to be untrustworthy, you generally have little recourse.)

In English, we still have the term “carte blanche” which refers to “having a free hand to do whatever you want.”  Most Americans are unaware of is that it was an actual document, during medieval times, a “white card” issued by the monarch, or his representative, giving the holder “free reign throughout the realm to usurp all laws…and act without fear of prosecution.”  This was done in England, France, and probably by numerous other medieval monarchs.

In Arab cultures, even today, THE SAME LAW DOES NOT APPLY TO EVERYONE.  For example, in some countries, the “white card” still exists as an actual document, and certain families have it for all of their members.  A simple benefit of a “white card” might be something as simple as suppose you want to speed through the city, or speed through a stop light.  Suppose you are stopped by the police.  You just whip out your “white card” and you would be free to go. Other important families are always trying their best to get it.  In practice, while not very many people have it,  the REAL EFFECT IS ON THE BEHAVIOR THIS IDEA HAS ON ALL THE MEMBERS OF  THE SOCIETY.

In Arab cultures (as in many “Old World” cultures and Third-World cultures), THE LAW DOES NOT APPLY TO EVERYONE.  Essentially, in order TO SHOW STATUS, OR GAIN STATUS, everyone is always trying to show others that they are “important enough to NOT have to follow rules.”   In other words, instead of everyone following rules IN ORDER TO MAKE THE WHOLE SOCIETY FUNCTION EFFECTIVELY, people are instead demonstrating that THEY HAVE “INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM” by NOT having to “follow rules” or do what anyone else TELLS them to do.  The result is that NOTHING FUNCTIONS EFFECTIVELY.

In order to get anything to function, individuals must often go in person and actually CAJOLE public servants and even private-sector employees to “do their job,” since they are demonstrating their POWER over others by NOT doing their jobs.  Some expect a bribe, but most at least expect DEFERENCE and RESPECT.  Instead of being intrinsically motivated to do their jobs properly and cheerfully, they are motivated by OTHERS KNOWING THAT THEY HAVE IMPORTANCE, as DEMONSTRATED BY THEIR SURLINESS, AND THEIR POWER OVER YOU–their power to make it difficult for you to obtain the document you need, for example, without a lot of cajoling, pleading, etc.

There IS one way around all this, which is to KNOW SOMEONE MORE POWERFUL THAN THAT PERSON, who will TELL them what they have to do, or who will get you right to the front of the line, around all of those other pleading and cajoling people who have to beg BECAUSE THEY DON’T KNOW A MORE POWERFUL PERSON TO HELP THEM.  Therefore, people spend much of their effort toward cultivating people for “what they can do for you.”

Power and Justice

When a person more powerful than you takes advantage of you–a professor, a boss, a husband, a bureaucrat, an organization, or a government official–the ONLY recourse you have (since rules are nonexistent or unenforced, and court verdicts are usually returned in favor of the more powerful) is to pressure that person or organization WITH YOUR OWN MORE POWERFUL ALLIANCES–someone who trumps HIS power.

What can someone do, when doesn’t know a more powerful person, or have any personal alliances who can wield influence over that person? This happens frequently.  This brings us to the behaviors of subterfuge, and sabotage.

Westerners find Arab societies full of subterfuge and passive-aggressive behavior.  It’s common that people often openly agree to something and then either don’t follow through, or do the exact opposite, and then make excuses–“I didn’t say that; I didn’t think that’s what you meant; I forgot; Someone else prevented me from doing it; I didn’t have time; etc.”  The REAL explanation for this type of behavior is that the person never had any intention of following through, but felt you were in a more powerful position and did not feel they could get their way be disagreeing openly.

Since one always has to watch out for powerful people hurting you openly and secretly, the last revenge of losers in the power struggle is to sabotage others by creating false rumors about them.  This may be one reason for why Arab societies seem overly concerned with what others think and say.   The most common rumors seem to be, “He stole money,” (used against locals and foreigners) and “He’s trying to convert people away from Islam,” (frequently used against foreigners).  Other rumors used on a daily basis, especially to impugn the reputations of local women are, “I saw her in a nightclub,” or “She’s had a boyfriend(s)!”

Arab cultures are dominated by a love-hate relationship regarding special privilege.  On the one hand, everyone desires it, and it confers high social status.  On the other hand, everyone (except the most privileged) hates it, too.  This is primarily what the Arab Spring is about–A DESIRE FOR EVERYONE TO BE EQUAL UNDER THE LAW.  Unfortunately, among those who want “democratic reforms”  are also those who want to maintain the ability to obtain and benefit from special privileges just for themselves!

–Upcoming Part II will deal with how these societal factors influence behavior in the workplace, at school, and in the home and family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living Abroad Taught Me the True Meaning of the Salutation “Dear…”

June 6, 2015

Dear as a salutation

All children in England and America are taught to start letters with the salutation, “Dear So-and-So.”  As children, we all wonder where this strange salutation came from, and what it means, but generally, no one knows.  We just use it.  Surprisingly, living abroad, I have discovered where it came from, through it’s usage by foreign friends.

With the internet, I have had a much greater opportunity to meet and correspond with people from other countries.  It seemed so strange to me when people I hardly knew, particularly men, in the middle of a conversation, would say things like, “Lynne, dear …” or “My dear, Lynne…”  At first, I was confused, and highly offended!  I thought, “WHO are these people to speak to me as if we have an intimate relationship?”

Modern English usage in England and America now reserves the term “dear” for immediate family members, husband and wife, or serious boyfriend/girlfriend.  I felt offended when men spoke to me with this term, wondering why they were doing it, and wondering if, in fact, they were trying to initiate an inappropriate relationship!  Later, as I got to know some foreign women on line, I found them speaking to me in the same manner.  I again felt offended, wondering what they meant by it.  Over time, it began to dawn on me that women were speaking to each other this way, as well, and that the term was being used as a politeness, as in, “you are my dear friend.”

There are two types of societies with regard to how others are treated.  In English-speaking North America, we generally try to treat everyone “the same,” whether they are family members, friends, or strangers.  Nepotism does exist, but it is highly frowned on.

Conversely, in many societies, your own treatment depends upon whether you belong to the “in-group” or “out-group.”  In these societies, strangers are either ignored, treated with suspicion, or even taken advantage of.  In order to do business or become friends, one has to become a member of the “in-group.”  In these societies, in particular, I find that non-Westerners, speaking in English, tend to use the salutation “dear” both in correspondence, and in conversation, such as on Facebook, and even in the middle of text messaging.  I believe it is their way of showing a person respect, esteem, and an indication to confer “in-group” status.  It is not to be interpreted, after all, as an attempt to force unwanted intimacies.

I realized, then, that this was why I had been taking offense.  I realized that, seeing the current usage from places as diverse as India, Egypt, and Morocco, that perhaps this was an OLDER English/French usage of the term, that was no doubt used to indicate friendship.  These other  countries, outside of the West, are continuing to use the term in this way.  My friends are merely translating this politeness from their own cultures, and older usage,  into current English speech.

So now, when I am addressed with the term “dear” by foreign-speaking friends, I am able to overlook the feelings I would have in my own culture, and take it in the spirit of politeness, with which it is intended.

–Lynne Diligent

Celebrity Culture Means that Celebrities Now Live as Only Kings Did In the Past

April 21, 2015

International Love, the music video by Pitbull and Chris Brown, is a perfect example of the fantasy life dreamed of by many men, particularly in capitalistic societies.  As successful celebrities, both Pitbull and Chris Brown have achieved this life, and in this video, they sing about the lives so many men would like to try out, at least for a period of time.

In this video, Pitbull and Chris Brown go on “whirlwind” travels around-the-world.  They have unlimited money, ride around in the fanciest cars, wear the most expensive clothes, and attend all the night clubs everywhere they travel.  In every country, they meet hordes of beautiful women who hang all over them and can’t wait to be with them, mainly because they are so rich and willing to spend their money.  They live the life of international rock stars everywhere they go.

Pitbull and Chris Brown

Women who throw themselves at Pitbull and Chris Brown in Romania even say, “You can have me and my sister!” In Lebanon, the women are blonde, and in Greece the women are “sweet.”  But all around the world, the women in Miami, with their “heat,” are the best.  In Colombia are some of the world’s most beautiful women.  In Brazil, the women have “boobs with big cones–blue, yellow, and green.”  All these women cost them a lot of money on credit cards, but for these guys, it’s no problem.  Hey, it’s international love–a total men’s fantasy.

New York City  Miami

From New York to Miami, to Los Angeles, to Venezuela, they go “to countries and cities they can’t pronounce,” and “to places on the globe they didn’t know existed.”  Like the songs about sailors of old having a woman in every port, these international rock stars have harems of women everyplace their airplanes fly.  They don’t play football, but they “touch down” everywere; they don’t play baseball, but they “hit a home run” everywhere!

Girls’ and young women’s fantasies of celebrity culture are often just as extreme, although they dream of different details.

In the past, only kings could live this lifestyle and maintain harems; now, many ordinary youth dream of making it big in music or sports and living this sort of dream lifestyle.

The sad thing about celebrity culture is that these people are famous ONLY for looking good and/or having a lot of money, as well as for being singers and actors and actresses.  They are the new heroes; they have replaced the heros of old who had to DO SOMETHING IMPORTANT AND WORTHWHILE to be considered a hero.  Heroes of the previous generation had to climb Mt. Everest, invent the electric lightbulb or the polio vaccine, create the Green Revolution, or lead a nation to peace.

–Lynne Diligent

Why It’s So Difficult to Eradicate Corruption

January 26, 2013

Eradicate corruption

Whenever a new government or new party is elected, particularly in the Third World, a promise to eradicate corruption is always at the forefront.  But why do these promises almost never materialize?

The answer is more simple than it appears. Government doesn’t lead society; it REFLECTS society. If people in government are corrupt, it is because this corruption, this way of thinking and getting things done, is pervasive throughout the society.

So, at best, new parties and new governments make a big show of “attacking corruption” by arresting a few people.  What they are really doing, however, is just trying to scare everyone from pushing the boundaries of corruption, so that they don’t “get caught.”  All the while, even the new government officials continue with corrupt practices in their daily lives.  The people change, over and over, but the corrupt system never changes.

Why is this?

corruption

The problem starts with young children.  I see this every day as a teacher.

Young, impressionable children watch and notice the way their parents deal with the issues of life each day. In most third-world countries, when the child has a severe problem at school, instead of letting the child repeat the grade, the parents go in and “beg” or pay a bribe for their child to be promoted (because parents feel ashamed if their child is not promoted). When the child gets a bad grade or doesn’t do homework, parents do the same thing. Instead of children being taught that they will have the consequences of their actions, good or bad, they are taught that one can “get out of any consequence” by either paying a bribe, or knowing the right people. Is it any wonder that they grow up into corrupt adults?

Corruption will never be eliminated in government until it is first eliminated in society. Yet, speaking as a teacher, I don’t see this happening at all. Even five-year-olds are learning this corrupt behavior by watching their own parents.

I personally know of one case where a five-year-old told his teacher that if the teacher didn’t allow him to do as he pleased, “I will bring my father in and have you fired!”  (The result was that the foreign teacher told him, “Go right ahead!  Go get your father right now!  I’m waiting for him!”  The student didn’t know quite what to say after that, as he wasn’t expecting that response…..)

So where, exactly, does the endemic corruption in third-world nations come from?  It comes from the class system.  In order to have a meritocracy, and fair treatment for all, whether in the courts or in daily life, EVERYONE HAS TO BE EQUAL UNDER THE LAW.  In third-world countries, and even in many developed countries, this is unfortunately not the case.  Those who are born wealthy, or with titles, the right name, or connections can get away with crimes of any sort and no court will convict them.  This is truly what it means being “above the law.”

corruption 2

The ONLY way, therefore, for ordinary citizens to get justice, or even things done in everyday life, is through “knowing the right person (powerful people),” or paying a bribe.  In every class of society, those above exploit those below.  (This does not mean every individual in the society exploits others, but it is true as a general rule.) The rich exploit the middle and lower working classes.  Even lower-middle class people, if they have some economic success in their own lives, hire a maid and exploit her even worse than higher classes.  People on the lower end steal and cheat time-wise on their employers because they feel like they “deserve it.”  They feel this way because it is a passive-aggressive sort of class warfare.

Class warfare 2

The same dynamic plays out in companies where many bosses exploit their workers.  Since there is no justice in third-world countries, it is dangerous to resist directly, so they resist in a passive-aggressive manner, “forgetting” important things, showing up late, etc.   Their jobs are often protected by “work rules” which mean they can’t be fired for any of these sorts of infractions.

Not every boss is exploitative.  Unfortunately, when a foreign manager is working with these sorts of employees, their behavior is very confusing.  The manger expects a certain level of output, what is normal for himself, or in his own home country.  He gets only 1/3 of that and wonders what is wrong.  He tries every tactic to improve productivity, only to find workers getting worse and worse.  (He can’t fire them due to work rules.)  What’s wrong is those particular workers have the class-warfare mentality.

In third-world countries, because of the “class” system, no one will ever be equal under the law.  Even in countries with recent revolutions, such as in Arab Spring countries, the class system and class-warfare mentalities continue.  So I am not optimistic that they will be able to develop meritocracies.

Democracy (or democratic reform) means nothing without meritocracy.

–Lynne Diligent

Maids Are a Problem Everywhere….

January 12, 2013

M

As a foreigner, I’m tempted to feel like the problems I’ve had with maids just don’t happen to locals. However, as this series, “Maids from House-to-House,” (in Arabic) illustrates, locals do seem to have just as many problems with their maids as foreigners do.

At the moment, I’m lucky to have a good maid.  The other day my maid told me that about 80 percent of people she had worked for were bad; I replied that 80 percent of the maids I’d had were not good, either.

It’s difficult having someone in your house to cook or clean.  Aside from obvious risks such as stealing, you really bring a person with all of their personal problems into your home.  When one recent maid we had did not do the work correctly and I asked her to do many things again, she told us that the reason she went to work was to get away from her mother who was always telling her that she wasn’t doing things properly.  She complained that she expected us not to do the same thing!  We worked with her quite a while, with little improvement, and finally had to let her go.

Moroccan maids 2

One of the biggest problems is in trying to train someone to do tasks in the way you want, and not the way they may be used to.  Some maids cannot understand what is wrong with using a hand to flip water from a bucket all over the room (getting the legs of your expensive wooden furniture wet).  Others cannot understand why you don’t want your expensive wooden furniture wiped down with a wet rag (completely destroys the finish).  Others apparently wash the dishes as if they were wearing a blindfold, either don’t get them clean, or chip all your cups and plates because they are not careful, or don’t follow the procedures that you demonstrate and request.  Most waste cleaning materials such as cleanser, soap, or steel wool pads; most destroy equipment such as brooms–after all they are not paying for it.  Others lie all the time about work they claim to have done, but didn’t.  Others never wash their hands before working in the kitchen (except while you are watching).

Some maids do not keep themselves clean and even smell bad.  When I told my North African sister-in-law that we want someone with personal hygiene, she told me that many women actually want to employ maids who are dirty and smelly, in order to keep their husbands from chasing after them!

Apparently there are quite a few maids who attempt to “steal away” the wife’s husband, sometimes by using witchcraft.  Many say, “An attractive maid could steal your husband.”  Some maids are believed to practice witchcraft.  One foreign friend’s Moroccan in-laws visited her home while she was traveling outside of the country, and found that her maid had put some kind of witchcraft object in the kitchen cupboard specifically designed to steal away her Moroccan husband.  The in-laws fired the maid immediately.

Most maids have to be constantly supervised, either to make sure they are following the procedures you requested, and not doing as they please the minute you turn your back, or because they want to do as little work as possible.  Finding someone who can look around and see what needs to be done, learn to do it the way you want it done, and who can do it without being supervised is a rare find.

On the humorous Arabic TV series about maids, some maids who try to help but who make terrible decisions on their own.  Most maids gossip with other maids about their employers.  Some maids are even crazy (and sometimes employers who are crazy).

So why have a maid?  Life here is not organized to be able to work and take care of children on your own.  It is assumed that people either have maids or plenty of unemployed family members who  can do necessary tasks such as picking up children for lunch and taking them back to school, cooking the maid meal for the family at midday, or running errands to places that are only open normal working hours, such as paying a telephone or electric bill.  A maid is supposed to buy you some time, but often it buys as much headache as anything else.  If you are lucky enough to find a good maid, you want to hang on to her.

Maids, for Middle-Easterners, are also a status symbol.  Many families who grow up not being able to afford a maid get one the very minute they reach the lower-middle class (especially in the cities).  It’s a way to announce that you have reached the middle class.  In addition, the life of a middle-class working woman is not easy.  Generally, many women do all the raising of the children and keeping of the house, IN ADDITION to working full-time, while their husband spends his time at his job, but has plenty of leisure time at the cafe or with friends.  Middle-class working women have very little, or no, leisure time, and it’s a way for them to get some time to themselves, or to spend with their children.

Upper-class women generally have two or three maids, a chauffeur, a gardener, and a guardian.  It is the lifestyle everyone respects and aspires to.

–Lynne Diligent

The REAL Reason Arab Men and Boys Are Still Treated as Pashas by Women

December 5, 2012

Man Washing Dishes

“Kitchen! Kitchen!”  Most North African boys still make fun of each other by saying this, which means, “Sissy!” (For my foreign readers, this means, “You’re acting like a girl!”)

North African mothers still raise their daughters to do all the housework, and boys are not expected to help at all.  (The only exception is in some families where there are no girls, and the boys have learned to help.)

The first generation of educated, North African women are out in the labor force.  But are the attitudes of men changing?  Not yet.  Working women are still expected to work full time AND do ALL of the child care AND take care of ALL the housework.  In general, men are expected to work, and spend all of the rest of their time relaxing.  They still expect to come home and find “everything done and waiting for them.”  (A very few modern husbands do help out doing dishes or cooking, or with general housework.  But they don’t tell their friends!  Some even make sure the curtains are closed so no neighbors see them helping out, either.)

closed curtains

As one young dual-citizen North African-American girl told me, “In North American culture, MEN take care of WOMEN.  In Arab culture, WOMEN are expected to take care of MEN.”   This accounts for the shocking experience of American women who marry Arab men, only to find they are expected to take care of the man as if they were his MOTHER!  Many intercultural couples have hit the divorce courts over this exact issue, as many of these men are unable to adapt, even when living in America.

Will this change, in Arab countries, within a generation, as the second generation of women hits the workforce in 25 years?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why not.  This is my own theory, but when I discussed it with several local North African women, they all agreed with me.

Islamic inheritance laws give double to boys as they do to girls.  The reason for this is that men are supposed to be financially responsible for women under their care, in THEORY.  If a man is decent, he will do it.  (But just as everywhere, many men are irresponsible, or not decent.)  In practice, many women are never able to claim their inheritance rights, particularly in places like mountain villages.  (Crawford, 2008)

The essential point is this.  Every woman knows that she is under a man’s thumb, or will be in the future.  Girls are under their father’s control.  Wives are still under their husband’s control in most Arab countries (such as needing the husband’s permission to get or renew a passport, even for a foreign wife, such as in Egypt).  When women become widows, they are not free, but instead under the control of their sons, and at the mercy of their sons!  Love aside, THIS is the TRUE reason why mothers spoil their sons so extremely.  That son is eventually going to have power over them, and be responsible for supporting them in old age, so of course they need that to be a very strong emotional relationship.  But it accounts for why they young boys are treated as pashas (the amount varying by specific country, but in all countries when in comparison with the West, where boys and girls are treated equally).

When I asked several North African women, that what if inheritance (and divorce) laws were changed and made totally equal between men and women, do they think women would continue to treat men and boys as pashas?  Each of the women I asked answered me by saying, “What you say is true, of course they would not.”

However, since those inheritance laws are laid out in the Koran, I don’t see any changes on the horizon!

–Lynne Diligent

“Taxi Whores”

November 12, 2012

 

I live in North Africa.  Sometimes foreigners and expats assume that only they are getting taken advantage of by taxi drivers.  It’s always reassuring when we find out that the locals get ripped-off, too.  (Misery loves company!)

My local-country citizen, North African friend, who lives in another part of our country, recently arrived in my city by train.  He asked me, “How much does it cost to get a taxi from the new train station to the main square?”

I told him he had to be careful of the taxis which park right next to the train station, as they wait there to charge rip-off fares to everyone.  I told him if he could walk about two blocks, he could find taxis at the normal fare.  Unfortunately, he had too much luggage to do that.

Being a local North African citizen in his own country, he was able to get a taxi at only double the normal fare, although the taxis do get away with charging five times the normal fare to foreigners.  Instead of driving around looking for fares, those taxis find it easier to sit in a line all day, and just make up for the lack of fares by charging only one very expensive fare!  It’s a bit like prostitutes who are unwilling to work for normal wages at a normal job, and charge a high price for a few hours of work.

My friend replied, “Taxi whores! hahaha”

So I’m afraid I can’t take credit for this clever name…..

–Lynne Diligent

N.B — There are many honest taxi drivers; it’s just sometimes hard to find them when you need them!

“Know Your Enemy”

October 19, 2012

“Those Peace Corps workers are spies in our country!”

As an American living in the Middle East for twenty years, I am amazed each time I hear this.  Whenever I ask, “Why would you think that?”  I never receive a clear, satisfactory, or understandable answer–but now,  I finally have.

A North African friend explained to me that the saying, “Know your enemy!” is extremely popular throughout Arab culture in the Middle East. He said that most ordinary citizens in the street view the American government as an enemy, (regardless of whether their own governments are allies with the United States).  This is both because of America’s seeming “unconditional” support for Israel, and because the United States has been involved in wars in the Middle East, or in seeming support of previous dictators in the region.

Therefore, when  Peace Corps volunteers come to the Middle East, people wonder, “Why would anyone leave their own rich countries, in order to come and live in a very poor lifestyle, among us, saying they want to help us?”

Many Middle Easterners, especially those who are poor and living in rural areas,  just don’t understand the idea of volunteer work. (1)  (They are judging foreigners by their own standards, since they would not go to help others who were not part of their own family/religious group, or from whom they did not “want” something in return–such as information, or a natural resource.)  They just don’t trust anyone; in general, Middle Eastern societies are low in trust of others.  Their recent experience of colonialism increases their distrust.

When I point out, “What possible interest would the American government have in the life of your little mountain village?”  I usually get vague and confusing answers that make no sense to me (being a Westerner).  But now I have received an understandable answer.  My local friend told me, ” They think America is studying every aspect of how they live and think in order to better know their enemy.”

What a sad case of two ships passing in the night, in terms of cultural misunderstanding!

Just to set the record straight, Peace Corps workers are NOT spies, never have been, and never will be.  While they have apparently been ASKED on a couple of occasions (Bolivia and Cuba), read the link to see that they refused, and that this is NOT government policy.  However, when I pointed this out to my friend, she asked me, “OK, these volunteers refused to spy, but how on earth would we be sure EVERY Peace Corps volunteer would refuse to spy?”  At least now, I understand where they are coming from.

–Lynne Diligent

(1)  06-EuroMedJeunesse-Etude_MOROCCO.pdf  (p. 7, 8, 17, 23)

Eastern Help for Western Stress, Part I

July 25, 2012

You're fired!

Losing your job, having your spouse divorce you (or boyfriend or girlfriend break up with you), experiencing the death of a loved one, being filled with anger, or just feeling endlessly bored are types of serious types problems we all face from time-to-time.

Some people aspire to a calm life without any problems.  But such a life does not exist.  We are each in our own little boat, headed in a direction, and must navigate daily waves and storms.  Our job is to be able to move through these waves and storms, which are sometimes ripples, and are sometimes tsunamis washing away everything.

In the past, when such overwhelming experiences have happened to me, I found myself constantly ruminating on them, sometimes to the point where I could not work for many months.   But not being able to work did not help my problems;  if anything, it only made the problem worse, and gave me even more time to ruminate.  In other words, it kept me from moving ahead with my life for far too long.  If I had had the tool of meditation available in those times, it would have helped me greatly.

One common problem, especially younger people (and many older people, too), is the problem of constant boredom.  Our minds flit from one thing to another, and these days, we often use technology as  a solution to boredom.

But what if we are in a situation where we have no access to technology, or are stuck in a very boring and uncomfortable situation for many minutes, hours, or even days?  Meditation practice (not a religious practice), used as a tool, can enable one to just “switch off” boredom, and become fully present in that moment.

What is meditation, exactly, and how can it help?

While there are many traditions and ways of meditating, what they all have in common is that these methods are TOOLS used to turn off the left brain.

Over the years, I read several books on meditation.  Yet, whenever I tried it, I could never seem to concentrate or do the exercises; they seemed silly, boring, and pointless.

How can sitting and focusing on watching one’s breath, in and out, or chanting a mantra, ever be helpful?  For many years, I never got past this basic question (which I’m sure is one many others have, and with which I hope this article will help others).

There are several types of meditation practice. One type involves watching one’s breath. Another type involves chanting a mantra. Yet another type involves a special type of walking while counting steps, and paying attention to breathing. What these things have in common is that they are TOOLS; they are not the end in and of itself. Each of these tools bring the same result; they are a way to FOCUS THE MIND calmly on JUST ONE THING.

The main principle here is that your thoughts, your emotions, and your mind are not YOU.  The mind is a possession which  produces thoughts and emotions; it is something which needs to be trained and disciplined in order to restore tranquility to your soul.

Why? When the mind is not trained and disciplined we are at the mercy of our thoughts and emotions. The benefits to be derived from training our mind involve becoming much more present in our daily lives, doing away completely with the problem of boredom, and not being whipsawed around by our emotions, no matter what storms or big waves which  life may throw our way. We remain calm, focused and present.  This helps everyone.

Finally, I have had some success with meditating, although I am still a neophyte.  Reading a different book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living, which is written for Western readers with real lives, I was finally able to persevere using some of their suggestions, and obtain sudden breakthrough.  (What I liked about this book was that most books only talk about one type of meditation practice, and never get to the part about how it helps you; this book talks about different types of meditation practice from different world traditions, explains which parts are optional or can be adjusted to your needs, and discusses how meditation practice actually helps you.)

What it Feels Like When the Left Brain Switches Off

What does this right-brain breakthrough feel like? It is a very particular feeling. I would like to use the description I had of an experience of learning to draw to describe this feeling.

Unitl the age of 25, I did not know how to draw and was still drawing stick-figures.  Then I had a chance to take a six-session adult-education drawing class from a master art instructor.  We used the text, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards (which I highly recommend).

At the first session, the instructor had us look at a chair and draw our best representation of it.  Next, we had to look at our hand and do the same thing. We also had to look in a mirror and draw our best self-portrait. Last, we were given a photocopy of a difficult drawing by a famous artist, and told to copy it to the best of our ability.  We dated these drawings.

At the second session, the instructor explained the 90-10 system of drawing (looking at an object 90% of the time while moving the pencil, and only looking at the paper 10% of the time while moving the pencil). She also taught us the technique of using a pencil at arm’s length to measure sizes and approximate angles.

Demonstrating the “arm’s length” drawing technique for measurement.

This time, with music playing, we were asked to again draw the chair, using the 90-10 system.  We were then asked to turn the famous drawing UPSIDE-DOWN and copy it to the best of our ability, again using the 90-10 system.  Upside down? We were in shock.  But the results were AMAZING.

The third session, the instructor gave us a very difficult pencil portrait of a woman with loose, flowing hair in great detail.  We all thought this would be impossible for us to draw.  Again, she told us to turn the portrait upside-down and work while she played music.  The results were stupendous; they looked as if we had been studying art for years!

This feeling we got while drawing upside-down to music was a feeling of being “in-the-zone,” where everything was working perfectly and smoothly.  We all lost track of time, and were surprised to find that two hours had passed.  Our teacher explained that this trick of drawing upside-down confuses the left brain and TURNS IT OFF.

Why Turning Off the Left Brain Is Useful in Times of Stress

Meditation techniques teach you to TURN THE LEFT BRAIN OFF, especially in times of stress.  When we are bored, emotionally upset, or ruminating on a problem,we are using our left brain.  Meditation turns off your logical left brain, and turns on your creative right brain. How does it do this?

As a new practitioner of mediation, the hardest thing is to get past the one or two-minute mark.  However, once you manage to get up to three minutes without breaking your concentration, it suddenly becomes much easier, as you shift into the right-brain state.   It becomes MUCH easier and faster in subsequent sessions to turn off the left brain at will.

So, how much time does it take daily before one can experience the benefits of meditation practice?  Personally, I started experiencing the benefits once I was able to get to five minutes a day.

Benefits start once you reach five continuous minutes a day.

Having the first three-minute breakthrough makes it much easier, in exactly the same way that learning a foreign language is most difficult at first.  Once you have a basic level of vocabulary, it becomes much easier.

Meditation practice has nothing to do with religion (although some religions do use meditative practices).  It is simply a tool for training and calming the mind.

–Lynne Diligent

Part II:  Practical Help for Meditation Success


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