Helping Nonprofit Leaders Transform Conflict

Leadership Coach and Mediator

This very moment is the perfect teacher

My ex-husband, Rob van Gils, passed away November 16, 2017. His cremation was Thursday November 23.

My visit to the Netherlands for his cremation service was much harder than I anticipated. Rob and I had succeeded in having –what our mediator described as– “the most peaceful, loving, and harmonious divorce.” We had also figured out how to have a caring friendship beyond divorce. While we had moved on, four of his best friends still harbored pain and anger about my decision to leave him nine years ago for my second husband.

The cremation service becomes not only a moment of intense grief and mourning over the loss of my first love, it becomes a startling confrontation with unresolved issues of loss and perceived betrayal in our former circle of friends.

One friend turns away as I approach him. Another can barely say ‘thank you’ when I share my condolences. A third lets me wait for two minutes, before he interrupts his conversation, then looks at me with a face that seems to convey his wish I had died instead of Rob, and says with emphasis, “You better leave. I don’t want you here.”

I leave the service quickly, too overwhelmed with confusion, pain and grief.

That night I read Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart”:

“Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors –people who have a certain hunger to know what is true– feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.

As enemy images of Rob’s friends race through my head, fretting how they should have behaved, how badly I am treated, how not deserving of their wrath I am, I notice I soften. I am open to using this experience as a wake-up call to lean into where I’m stuck. To let it all be, the pain and sorrow, the hatred and shame. I am willing to allow myself to be penetrated by my feelings –to be changed by them. Slowly I relax into my human condition, and experience the vulnerability of being alive.

That evening, I do not reach enlightenment. I do stop myself from becoming frozen in my judging of how life “should” be. Instead, I accept what is: the pain and the hurt triggered by people needing understanding and compassion.

I take another step on the path of the spiritual warrior, facing adversity with dignity and compassion.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.

Conversations about change: unconditional acceptance (2/6)

I once was a heavy smoker. I would have one cigarette in my hand, while the other was burning in the ash tray. I smoked everywhere, every time. I smoked holding a baby on my lap (gosh, I do feel shame around that), as soon as church was over, in my parents’ yard. My biggest question in life was “When can I smoke next?”

Balanced choicesI tried to quit. I tried several times. I once stopped for three years. Then I was tempted again. I smoked one cigarette. Only one. The next day another. And before I knew it, two packages a day. Again.

I got very discouraged. I wanted to stop. I knew how bad cigarettes were for my health. I hated the addictive behavior. I didn’t want to harm other people with my smoking. None of these reasons ever helped.

In April 2006 I went to a retreat with the Brahma Kumaris. It was a beautiful residence, in a beautiful surrounding. I am pretty sure heaven looks like this. The distance between the villa and the road was at least 2 miles long. You were not allowed to smoke in the house nor on the premises. How could I participate in the sessions and have a smoke outside the premises?

I gathered my courage to ask their help solving my cigarette-issue. These were people who were committed to healthy nourishment. No coffee, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no drugs, no meat. Only healthy food. They granted me permission to smoke outside. I did. I had no clue where to leave my stump. Everything was so clean, so beautiful, I didn’t want to contaminate it with my stump. Finally I asked a monk. He was sweeping the porch. He looked at me with a big smile: “Oh, just throw it on the ground, I’ll sweep it up.” I did. I felt embarrassed. He swept it up with a peace I have not often seen.

When I came home, I stopped. I never smoked again. I never even wanted.

I often wondered what happened.

I think the biggest contributing factor was the unconditional, loving acceptance of my behavior by the monk. No judgment, criticism, ‘have to’ and ‘should’. Just acceptance that I smoked, and a friendliness that was almost supportive.

I think unconditional acceptance is the best condition for change. We want to empathize with both sides within ourselves, the part that wants to remain the status quo and the part that wants to change. We want to acknowledge that they both represent needs that need nourishment and support. If we keep shouting at ourselves that we should change, we are actually reinforcing the part that doesn’t want to. Because it wants to be heard, it wants to be included in the decision making. If we acknowledge our ambivalence, we can make a balanced decision that is sustainable and wholesome in the long run.


You want help bringing compassion, healing and integration in your life? Contact me, 512 589 0482