Becoming More Real

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One of the most striking things about being back in Sweden, and in Europe, after almost 15 years in California is the sense of being closer to reality.

Here it is impossible not to be impacted by everything going on in Europe, the Middle East and Russia (brilliantly summarized in this NYT-piece); the refugee crisis, parallel societies, the rise of Islamism and right-wing extremism, and Putin doing his well-oiled war-dance literally an hour away. California, despite the assassinations in San Bernardino a couple of weeks ago, has been an oasis consisting of millions of people from across the world joined together in a social experiment focused on moving society and humanity forward, whether through technology, social innovation, art, music, storytelling or human potential. So in a way it feels like I’ve been at a retreat for close to 15 years and now it’s time to get back to work. Which is strangely invigorating. And I see how it’s shifting my perspective and what I feel I need to get involved with. It’s waking up my pragmatic political side and at the same time, compassion and human consciousness development feel more important than ever, together with the need for storytelling and new creative solutions to solve the problems we are facing. It feels more real.

In all spiritual traditions as well as within psychotherapy, it is known that we need self-delusions in order to create and develop a healthy functional ego-construct. As children we need to convince ourselves of how we, and the world at large, work in order not to break. Self-delusion is also necessary if we are an entrepreneur or creative who believe it’s possible to create something out of nothing. Yet, along the journey of psychological and spiritual development we need to start facing the things we’ve been running away from. Which btw, no matter how evolved we are, will continue till the day we die. Because self-delusion is a slippery sucker and it hides in the most unlikely corner of our psyches. So pursuing reality, and its increasing depths, is necessary if we want to grow, yet often it’s like eating kale. Not always tasty, especially compared with chocolate, but filled with necessary nutrients.  And beyond healthy, it ultimately brings us home. In the end, as A Course in Miracles says: “only reality is wholly safe”.

Being back in Sweden feels like a multi-layered reality project with more kale than chocolate, yet it also feels strangely precious and it makes me more whole.

 

The Light and the Dark Within Us

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One of the most powerful tools in the Diamond Approach, of which I am a student, is that we work with “forbidden” emotions like hatred, anger, jealousy, and revenge. We learn to accept that these emotions exist – in every human being – and that the work is to not reject them. Instead, we have to FEEL into these emotions, fully, while NOT ACTING them out. If we dare to go into our emotional black holes, we discover that there is a bottom, and that when this bottom is reached, the ‘dark’ emotions get transformed into something else. For example a feeling of hatred towards someone often turns to sadness for having been rejected or abused by that someone, or we discover that we feel inferior to said someone. When we stay with that feeling of inferiority or sadness, our hearts crack open to reveal yet another layer. It’s profoundly healing and the world would be in such better shape if we all had the tools and the desire to face our darkness.

I’m thinking of what’s going on in the world; the hatred that is so prevalent in terrorists, from IS to right-wing extremists, to women-haters across the world, to the desire for revenge that many Heads of State espouse, as well as the everyday scorning of others who don’t share our views, together with the small jabs and attacks that we all are guilty of. When we reject the shadow-side of ourselves, we pay a steep price since that is the gateway to profound goodness. In the shadow lies incredible gifts that can be unearthed if we dare to admit that we are all flawed, AND that we all are capable of redemption and incredible light.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

When No One Wants To Lead

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To lead or not to lead

What happens in a company or in a country when no one wants to lead? And what happens to the world when we don’t lead ourselves?

Most of the leaders and executives I have worked with, individually or in a group, struggle with the issue of both wanting, and not wanting to, lead themselves and others. Yes, most people want to lead their lives on paper and most executives have made an explicit choice of wanting to lead others. But not when the shit hits the fan, not when it involves sacrifices, and not when it takes real courage. This struggle has always been present for me as well. I would say that my entire life has been a series of awakenings where I, each time, discovered another self-illusion. It is actually really difficult.

We are deeply conditioned by the society we live in, our family of origin, and the people we spend our days with. Our brains are wired to fear the loss of anything we have more than to rejoice at the potential of gaining something new. We are also wired to fear the loss of social standing (no one wants to be thrown out of paradise, facing nightfall alone in the wild is not for the faint of heart).

The fear of being disliked, combined with a lack of knowledge on how to deal wisely with dissent, are probably the two main reasons why leaders, especially in conflict-averse Sweden, prefer not to act in a clash. Over time this allows tensions to fester and positions get entrenched. It has been acutely visible in the political domain ever since I got back to Sweden, where the pride of being labeled as “good” or the fear of being labeled as “evil”, has stopped any form of needed intelligent discourse, and it has closed the hearts of many.

Finally, the most apparent example of absentee leadership is when a mistake has been made, and there is a fallout based on that mistake. This is probably the hardest test for any leader, and it shows us how far we’ve come in our own development. Unfortunately, in politics, as well as in the business world, most of us end up abdicating from  responsibility, not in the least in the US, where there is always a real risk to get sued, especially if there is money involved. We blame the circumstances, the structures; we plead naivety (Sweden), ignorance (the US), and as the often is the case, we try to pin the blame on someone else.

It is very difficult being a leader in the spotlight, whether in business or politics, if you never  learned how to lead yourself. Therefore it always comes back to basics; namely that in order to lead others we first have to be able to lead ourselves, and to make the commitment to keep evolving as human beings. We have to want to assume the responsibility of being active co-creators of our lives, of being agents instead of victims, and we have to dare to stand up for what we believe in – and to take the consequences of those beliefs. If not, we shrink as human beings, our souls shrivel up and we stop expanding. We never get to fulfill our potential, to become the wise, compassionate, creative, and absolutely unique person and leader we could be – and that the world needs. That is a high price – for ourselves and for the planet – to pay.

Lotta Lovisa Alsén

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yoga, Depression & Heart Coherence

Early yoga days, 2004, on a roof top in Stockholm

Yoga saved my life. Or to put it more precisely; it opened the door to life. My first yoga intensive weekend in Stockholm 2000 was the beginning of a whole new journey that took place in California where yoga was my North Star. A path that I wouldn’t have been able to sustain without my practice. When I moved back to Sweden this summer, 15 years later, I lost my footing, my yoga community, and I stopped practicing except for a few minutes a day. Which is not enough for me. The headaches, as well as my depression returned. It’s difficult for me to stay in the body, so I need a solid 6o minute-practice for a minimum of five days a week, which I find a very cheap, expedient and non-invasive anti-depressant. As soon as I recommitted to a longer session, thanks to online yoga classes with my favorite teachers, things  shifted and life now is increasingly getting lighter. My story is not unique.

Countless studies have been made on yoga’s effect on our health. Here is some of the latest research on what yoga does for our brains and bodies:

  • Yoga increases the so called “feel-good”-chemicals of the brain, which regulate our mood as well as our general well-being. The most well-known are serotonin, (happiness) dopamin, (motivation) and GABA (serenity).
  • Yoga regulates regulates both the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system (which helps us cool down after trauma) and restores balance in the body (by sending blood to the endocrine glands, digestive organs and lymphatic circulation, while the heart rate and blood pressure is lowered).
  • Yoga improves our immune system, probably by lowering cortisol.
  • Yoga reduces inflammation in the body, which we today know is the precursor for many serious diseases, like diabetes, heart disease and depression.

If that wasn’t enough to get you to a yoga class, new research is even more fascinating. According to Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk, professor in Psychiatry at Boston University and specialized in trauma and PTSD:

  • Yoga is one of the very few activities that creates heart coherence. A person that has suffered trauma automatically shuts off the body, the very place where trauma is stored, which makes it difficult to treat psychologically. Only when heart coherence is achieved, and the body is “on” again, so to speak, can the person begin to heal. But even if we haven’t sustained a major trauma, even life’s small stresses put pressure on the body and our heart coherence gets out of sync.
  • Heart coherence is a state “that increases synchronization and harmony between our cognitive, emotional and physiological systems”, according to HeartMath. Some of the benefits are “the ability to build resilience, which helps us dealing with stressful situations and recover more quickly, … as well as improvement of memory, increased ability to focus and process information and overall improvement in learning.”

I’ve been interested in heart coherence for years. When we were working on the video-game, my colleague and I did extensive research on how to achieve heart coherence through sensor technology and deep breathing. I had no idea at the time, though, that yoga did all of that automatically.

Beyond all the effects on the body, we also know that yoga affects our psychology and ultimately our ability to connect with something beyond ourselves.

With all this knowledge at hand, I’m more committed than ever not only to practice, but also to teach others. I’m particularly interested in supporting those suffering from trauma, for example many of the current refugees. Yoga means to unite and to take us from the darkness to the light. Now we understand why.

Namaste,
Lotta Alsén

A Mindful Nation

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The UK is taking steps into becoming a Mindful Nation according to an article in the Guardian. The main reason is to find ways of diminishing mental ill-health, which is expected to be the biggest burden of disease by 2030 in developed countries, according to the WHO.

I’m wondering what would happen if all countries set out to be mindful, even if it only was pretty superficial to start with? What would be the practical implications? How would that impact policy and leadership?

The Intelligent Heart & The Refugee Crisis in Sweden

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I’ve been contemplating this article for some time now, almost since I got back to Sweden, which was five months ago, after having spent close to fifteen years in the US. For each month, I’ve learned more, and I’ve become increasingly concerned. This is my attempt to bring an outsider’s perspective to the staggering problems ahead of Sweden and Europe. However, I believe there is hope as well, and that there are possibilities to change a quite dark scenario, but it all starts with accepting reality as it is, and then proceed to take action with an intelligent heart.

Righteousness in Sweden and in the US

Discussing the refugee crisis with many Swedes is similar to discussing the problems with the gun laws, the consequences of closing abortion clinics and the effects of climate change with the Tea Party and the Republican Evangelicals. There is such intensity and righteousness in both corners that logic, consequences and reality are hard to find. Which surprises me. Swedes have for the past couple of hundred years been known to be pragmatic and rational, but something changed during the time I was away.  The tide is slowly turning, however, and there is a dawning realization that Sweden must start behaving a bit more like our Scandinavian neighbors. The same cannot be said for the Republican Evangelicals, unfortunately.

Lessons from an American Buddhist Monk in India

Using an example from Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist, psychologist and meditation teacher, that is taken from his book “A Path with Heart,” might illustrate the problems of giving when engulfed with human suffering.  Before Kornfield left the temple where he had studied as a Buddhist Monk in India for several months, he wanted to give away his remaining money to the beggars he was passing everyday. He had prepared s a mindful respectful ceremony, but it ended up with him fleeing for his life when he was run over with beggars. When he got back to the temple his teachers laughed at his American naivety. Another story is about a Western Buddhist woman studying in India, who one day was attacked in her rickshaw. Due to her meditation and compassion training, which she thought was only about having an open heart, she didn’t dare to do anything. When she got back and asked her teacher for advice, he said, “You should have very mindfully and with great compassion whacked the attacker over the head with your umbrella.”

The reasons why most of us (particularly Swedes, who are used to that the Swedish government takes responsibility for people’s empathy through the payment of high taxes), act with such intense emotion upon facing suffering up close, can be attributed to the fact that we are non-skilled givers. Meeting human suffering at our doorstep, combined with a lot of guilt, shame and bewilderment, make us throw pragmatism out the window. Jack Kornfield puts it beautifully:

When our sense of self-worth is still low, we cannot set limits, make boundaries, or respect our own needs. Our seemingly compassionate assistance becomes mixed with dependence, fear and insecurity. Mature love and healthy compassion are not dependent but interdependent, born out of a deep respect for ourselves as well as for others.  Jack Kornfield

Being Good

Sweden has been the most generous country in the world (per capita) when it comes to international aid for decades. The past 20 years, it has also had the most generous asylum policies for people fleeing persecution. In the past four years, Sweden decided to more or less throw the doors wide open by extending the reasons why you could seek asylum, welcoming people with a very extensive financial support, making it the most generous aid-giving country in the world. It is also the country in the world which has taken on most refugees per capita, which now is known by refugees and those seeking a better life, making Sweden the #1 go-to place, besides Germany.

A New Trend of Migration

The reality, though, is that the migration streams that we now are seeing are only partially due to the Syrian war. When transportation is getting cheaper, and people acquire the means to travel longer distances, more and more people living in abject poverty and suffering from wars, like in Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq, will want to seek a better life. Which many of us living in West would do as well if the situation was the reverse. However, there is no possibility that Europe, in its current set-up with a generous welfare system, can receive more than a fraction of those fleeing, even though hundreds of thousands, or more realistically, millions, from the Middle East and Africa are expected to try in the coming years.

Male Refugees & Gender Disparity

2/3 of the current refugees that have arrived so far in Sweden this year are men, and they primarily come from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, altogether arriving in numbers Sweden never has faced before. Sweden has a population of 9.5M and this year at least 190.000 are expected to arrive, which is more than the size of Uppsala, the fourth largest city in Sweden. The two previous years about 100.000 arrived each year, also with more men than women. Only this year 30.000 “children” (there are virtually no girls in this group and it’s believed that many of these boys are above 18) will arrive. So besides the sheer enormity of volumes, there is a huge gender disparity, which will create extensive problems moving forward.

Men in all societies are responsible for 90% of all crimes, and it’s in the upper teens and twenties that most crimes are committed, usually attributed to the testosterone levels being higher in younger years.  Adding to the fact that many of the refugees have experienced trauma, often leading to degrees of PTSD, which we now know affects the brain and the propensity to aggression, this is a problem that can’t be ignored. Speaking to the women in these immigrant suburbs, they are afraid of how much worse their situation will be due to an increasing male controlling presence. Finally, it’s the girls and the women that are being left behind in the camps in Turkey and Libya. (Often with good reason. The rapes and atrocities that girls and women are put through migrating alone are terrifying, but since all money is spent on the men who arrive here, there is little money left to support the women and the girls remaining in these refugee camps. The idea is often to bring the girls, women and the rest of their families later on, which is important for human reasons and for counteracting the gender imbalance, but adding so many additional people might be logistically and financially impossible). Which makes me want to give special preference for girls and women seeking asylum for years moving forward.

Staggering Costs

The costs are staggering. Just the cost of handling the 30.000 boys is estimated to be 23Billion SEK ($3B), compared with the 30B SEK ($4.2B) that is the entire yearly cost for International Aid, which, now mostly will be eaten up to contribute to the costs of the refugees. The entire Swedish justice and police-system costs 40B SEK ($5B) per year to set things in proportion. On top of this the local municipalities are on their hands and knees. There is no housing to offer and refugees are sleeping in school gymnasiums and in temporary tent camps. The municipalities are increasingly struggling to provide regular schooling and health care to its existing residents and it’s only expected to get worse.

How Syrian Refugees Are Received in the US

And just a note to compare the US with Europe. When the US recently decided to allow 10.000* Syrians to seek asylum in a US population of 300M, they were all thoroughly back-ground checked, and those admitted were being given $1000/per family, with help in finding work and housing, being allocated to places where other Syrians lived, or to places where the is an abundance of jobs and housing. After a year they are expected to become self-sufficient. They are initially given temporary residency, and after a couple of years, if they fill the criteria for getting a green card, for example being able to support themselves, and with no criminal record, they are allowed to become permanent residents. (And it takes five years as a green card holder before you can apply for American citizenship, which requires additional background checks, mandatory tests in history and civics, as well as swearing your allegiance to the United States).

The Integration Problem

Adding to the problems, Sweden is classified as the worst country in the OECD in terms of integration. 49% of the immigrants coming from outside Europe are unemployed, and in certain areas the number is 90%, which means that people end up living on government support indefinitely, often increasingly bitter, disillusioned and disenfranchised. It’s very difficult to enter the Swedish labor market due to fact that there are no simple and inexpensive entry-level jobs available, and government support with no requirements often turns paralyzing. It’s a deep human need for people to know that they matter, are needed, and that they can find dignity in being able to support oneself.  As a direct consequence of the disintegration, there are now 55 areas in Sweden where police at least partially has given up its control, and ambulances to these areas must arrive with police escort. Essentially Sweden is moving closer to creating its own 55 versions of Los Angeles’ South Central.

Should Tribal & Religious Values trump Human Rights?

Many of the refugees that have arrived in the past 20 years stem from the Middle East and Northern Africa, with a cultural and religious background based on non-democratic tribal values, where women and girls, for example, are considered the property of men and where the honor of the families is directly linked to controlling the lives and the sexuality of girls and women. With the rise of Islamism in Sweden, a movement that has been supported by the Swedish government through unskilled and unchecked subsidies, the situation for the women and children living in these suburbs, as well as anyone from the LGBT-community, has deteriorated, with honor killings of women as well as forced child marriages. Sweden now has become one of the world’s biggest exporters not only of music but also of ISIS-warriors. Due to the cultural relativism, human rights are sacrificed in order to uphold religious and cultural rights.

You Can’t Save Everyone

This is a lengthy article, and not what I usually write about, partially because it’s negative (I believe there is a solution, which I’ll write about in a coming article), but I wanted my non-Swedish readers to get a better understanding of what’s going on and my Swedish readers to get a Swedish-American perspective. (And quite frankly, I’m writing this for myself to process how this could happen). This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a huge need to support the people fleeing a Syria that is falling increasingly apart day by day, or the other places people are escaping from, nor that there isn’t an enormous destruction of human dignity and human potential with having three billion people living in poverty, whereof many are living in regimes that are outright awful. However, Sweden can’t take on the burden of saving everyone, just as you can’t save the beggars as a visiting Buddhist Monk in India by giving away all your money.

The Intelligent Heart

With an intelligent heart, true compassion means a heart with a sense of intelligence and balance, (not righteousness or a desire to be popular and perceived as good) where politicians act with wisdom and are able to intuit a good balance. With that in place, we can initiate a deeper global discussion on what can be done long-term to support other countries in their humanitarian needs, which will require a raising of global consciousness levels, which means, among other things; tolerance, openness, respect for women, girls and the planet, increased education levels across the world and eventually a reframing of the entire nation-state, which also would remove the need for borders.

However, those concepts are at this point philosophical, humanitarian and spiritual ideas, which might take a couple of hundred years of human maturation to be able to put in place. It has nothing to do with the current job description that politicians are paid to deliver on, namely to balance budgetary realities, deliver on the safe-keeping, education and health-care of its citizens, not in the least for those who previously have arrived seeking refuge, and the upholding of International human rights and Swedish laws. Obviously there is also a human responsibility to act in a crisis and do what’s physically possible for those in need, but it cannot be at the expense of what the politicians were elected to do.

I’m ending with a quote from Max Weber, used by David Brooks, in his column in NYT, on the irresponsibility of the Republican Caucus in the US (while different, it is equally relevant for Swedish politicians).

In his masterwork, “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber argues that the pre-eminent qualities for a politician are passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion. A politician needs warm passion to impel action but a cool sense of responsibility and a sense of proportion to make careful decisions in a complex landscape.

In these difficult times, with so many people suffering, and with a Swedish state on its hands and knees due to excessive giving and insufficient integration, it’s more important than ever to act with an intelligent heart and wisdom. There also needs to be a brand new vision in place to overcome these challenges, accompanied by a new crop of leaders, which I’ll come back to in another article.

Lotta Lovisa Alsén,
October 29, 2015

*The number admitted to the US, I would like to add, is way too low. The US, which has messed around in the Middle East for a long time and partially is to blame for the situation, should open the doors for at least 500.000 to a 1 million Syrian refugees.

PS. The information compiled above comes from SvD, GP, DN, Ledarsidorna and NYT, as well as my own reading from Migrationsverket and the Swedish police. Other sources for trying to grasp the bigger implications of what’s happening in the world are The Atlantic, The DailyBeast and The Economist.  Any mistakes made in accuracy of numbers or facts are mine alone and if so, please let me know.

Starting Over

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Starting over, the mystery unfolds in the mundane and in the familiar.

Many lifetimes ago on the inside, yet just a few months back according to calendar-time, I left LA to move to Seattle; a transition which only lasted 4 days. Instead, I ended up moving back to Sweden, which has been a whole new journey and world. Now, I’m discovering Stockholm and Sweden through the lens of a home-coming expat, an immigrant to the country I left behind almost fifteen years ago. Just as I started to understand the US after almost 15 years there, I now see that it’s impossible to understand any country unless you actually live there for many years. The Sweden I left behind is no longer there, and the people I once knew are also gone, replaced with updated versions of themselves. Just as I come in a different package. This entire process is in equal amounts fascinating and frustrating and it feels like a less sexy version of time-travel, where time collapses and all previous versions of yourself and of life as you knew it are present at the same time. Marveling at this phenomenon, and discovering how different the world is from the side of the pond, I can’t wait to chronicle some of these experiences and reflections.

Until then, I wish you a lovely weekend.
Lotta