My Life As Jacqui

9 August 2010

Meditating (again)

Filed under: Life — by My Life As Jacqui @ 9:05 pm

Last Saturday, I went to a meditation workshop at the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery (link), which is near Hemel Hempstead, so was very easy to get to. It was a complete contrast with my first experience at a meditation class (link), which I did not enjoy at all.

The Amaravati monastery is a proper working Buddhist monastery, and is set in the countryside. This meant lots of single track roads to get there, which I’m not that fond of. But I got there in time, and found some friendly looking people who were also heading for the workshop so I could tag along.

Image: Arvind Balaraman /

The temple had rows of mats with little cushions, and chairs round the edges for people who couldn’t sit on the floor. There were maybe 50 or so different people there: men, women, families, all ages. Some people were bowing when they sat down, but most didn’t. The monk who led the session explained afterwards about bowing: it’s not bowing to the Buddha, although there was a statue at the front, or to something nebulous, but rather to the Buddha-within – recognising that each of us has something of the divine. I like that.

So I chose a cushion, towards the right because I’m deaf in my right ear, but in the end this didn’t matter, because the monk was mic’d up. He was about 30, and American. He said afterwards that he’d started college but dropped out to become a monk.

And then he led the meditation. I was expecting him to talk about something spiritual, but it was all very practical – he described concentrating on the “here and now” and letting other thoughts flow by, while concentrating on the breath as the object which would tie you to the present. We did this for a bit, then some walking meditation (concentrating on the feeling of the feet against the ground), and then some more sitting meditation.

It is really hard to concentrate for 20 minutes on the here and now. Really really difficult. Some of the things that distracted me were: “Am I doing this right?” “Wouldn’t it be great if I could concentrate on something consistently for 20 minutes? That’d be really useful at work” “Should I have my eyes closed or open? Can other people see me? Are they looking? Do I look weird?” “Look at those cute house martins” “Ow, my hips don’t like being cross-legged for so long” “Is the leader’s nose a funny shape or is it his microphone?” (it was the latter) “Maybe I should have picked up two cushions to sit on” … and many many more.

But for the times I wasn’t getting distracted, it was a really great experience.

Image: Now & Zen Photography /

At the end of the workshop there was time for questions, and I asked why it was important to separate the awareness from the thoughts. The leader’s answer was this: We wonder who we are – are we our bodies? Most people would answer that no, we aren’t: if we lose an arm or a leg, we are still ourselves. Then, are we our thoughts? But the answer is no, because, as he said, “Who is that which is asking?”. We can lose parts of our mental processes, and still be “us”. He told the story of a rather catholic Catholic priest (Bede Griffiths (link)), about how he’d suffered a stroke and was in hospital in California, when someone asked him how he felt about losing his memories. “What a relief!” he answered. He had recognised that who he was was something other than his thoughts.

I loved being able to let go of thoughts for a while. I also loved the notion that we are something other than our thoughts. Mindfulness is a real skill that I have no real aptitude for at the moment: I think I’ll work on it.


12 July 2010

Similarity and confusion

Filed under: Uncategorized — by My Life As Jacqui @ 6:33 am

Picture credit: algojo

When two things are similar, they can be more easily confused. This concept is used in assessing the infringement of trademarks, and in historical linguistics. The example that comes to mind is Cicero’s description of Crassus, who was about to board a ship for a journey, when he heard a fig-seller shouting “Cauneas” (figs from Caunea). Cicero says that Crassus should have realised the ill omen, as it could be understood as “cave ne eas” (don’t go). This is held up to show that v and u were pronounced in the same way, and that vowels could be elided.

The other day I was walking near my house, and glancing up, I saw a guy who is often patrolling our streets: he’s a traffic warden, black and not very slim. As I got nearer, I realised it wasn’t him. It was a woman with blonde hair who was fairly slim, but also a traffic warden.

I might be expected to confuse people mostly on the basis of gender, race or size, but no: apparently traffic-warden-ness trumps all of these.

5 July 2010

Becoming myself

Filed under: Life — by My Life As Jacqui @ 7:59 am

If health and happiness conflict with safety and respectability, which would you choose? Is it always best to go for what society would expect (respectability), and for what keeps you in your current state (safety)?

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Health and happiness are never just a given, and sometimes the pursuit of safety or respectability undermines them. There are quite a few things that are more important to me than my own safety or respectability: the health and happiness of myself, my friends and family, and all other people in the world easily come in ahead of them.

They are good things in themselves: respectability widens the field of people I can talk to, ask help from and socialise with. The more people I am persona non grata with, the fewer opportunities I have. But, on the other hand:

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. Dr. Seuss.

Safety is good, because assuming I am in a state where I am healthy and happy, stability allows me to stay that way. But it is secondary to actually being in that state to begin with.

I am not you. My road is different from yours, and if you try to bring me onto your road, it will hinder me: there is rough ground in between, and yours is going the wrong way for me. Nobody’s road is exactly mine: even my closest family and dearest friends don’t have the same objectives from life as I do. But I love them anyway.

Some of my friends have a very high correlation between things that are respectable and safe and things that make them happy. When we were discovering about career aspirations in a course at work, one of the found that his “career anchor” was safety and stability, and it wasn’t surprising to any of us who knew him. He is ambitious in a very orthodox way, which suits him perfectly. Things that make him happy are mostly things that no-one could take offence to. Where red = “things that make him happy”, and blue = “things that are respectable and safe”, this probably represents his life:

But other people I know follow paths which seem designed to attract criticism from far and wide. Penny Red and her savage red pen of justice, as seen in the New Statesman among other places, seems to be driven by the need to challenge people’s misconceptions (and she succeeds). I usually agree with her, but I could hardly call her uncontroversial. Some of the people who comment on her articles don’t seem to like her much. Maybe her life would be more like this:

I like both of them. And some people actively find anything safe or respectable not to bring them any happiness at all: 

And as soon as I accept that people are each unique and have different motivations and goals in life, I realise that my advice is no use, unless it comes from a place of understanding. Not understanding of the world, or of my own life, or of how I imagine I would deal with something, but understanding my friend’s concerns and motivations. And unless I can do that perfectly, any advice I can give will be futile. Usually, it’s better to say nothing. I know I have to work on saying nothing.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. Henri Nouwen.

When I’m interviewing, one of the topics I ask about is decision making: what I look for is someone who can weigh up their options and make a choice that’s right for them. The process is important; what the answer is is somewhat irrelevant. If you can be self-aware enough to have a solid decision-making process, then whatever you end up doing will be right for you.

Yes, my job is respectable, but that is way down the priorities below the fact that I enjoy it, find it interesting and I like my colleagues. If I didn’t enjoy it and I found I wanted to go and raise goats in rural Wales, I would do my best to do that instead, and I hope that my friends and family would respect that.

Is this purely a Generation X thing? I think it might be that the baby-boomers value respectability and safety much more than I do. If so, I am glad I was born later: I enjoy taking control of my health and happiness. And I think that even if I seem to be leaving someone else’s beaten track, in the end, following my own path will benefit everyone.

The first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself. Nelson Mandela.

18 June 2010

Best foot forward?

Filed under: Clothes — by My Life As Jacqui @ 7:36 am

Shoe height and the economy are correlated, my mother tells me: women are more likely to wear lower heels when the economy is not doing so well. I’ve done a little research to see if this is corroborated anywhere else, and it is quite the contrary: most people think that high heels add escapism to otherwise dull economic prospects. Well, even if neither is true, heels are certainly worth talking about.

High heels are part of a woman’s usual office attire. Why? They increase her height, which can help match her eye level to a man’s – the average height is 5’9″ for men and 5’4″ for women. They accentuate her curves, by changing the alignment of her back so that her bottom sticks out more. They are, incidentally, also bad for her back and for her feet.

I found this lovely picture from economics blog Marginal Revolution. People are given different thickness shoes so that they are all the same height: a sort of handicap. Interesting that they have entitled it “equality shoes”. Equality is such an important concept for women at work, and height may have a lot to do with it. Short people who gain success are often supposed to be successful despite their height. Women are automatically 5″ (on average) at a disadvantage. I would be interested to know whether the more successful women in their fields are taller than average.

Is the curve-enhancing effect of shoes actually doing us any good at work? When it comes to clothes, tight-fitting is a no-no – it doesn’t seem that enhancing our curves is always a good idea. But a woman who dressed in an overtly masculine style would not be admired for her dress sense: when it comes to clothing, we have to beat them rather than joining them. So a heel helps to accentuate the difference and create confidence in a feminine way.

I have done a little research of my own. Heels correlate with how ambitious I perceive the woman to be, if I don’t know her. And appearing successful is half the battle of being successful at work. High heels seem to indicate a woman’s priority is success; flat pumps signal that she is happy to keep her head down.

Maybe you disagree with this. But I’ve been watching women’s feet for quite a while now, and I’ve only found two styles of flat shoes that were consistent with a smart office persona. One is a brogue, worn with wide trousers like Katharine Hepburn; the other is a delicate style with a slightly pointed toe, which looks good in patent leather.

The popular shoe for work at the moment seems to be the flat ballet shoe – which I think adds weight to my mother’s theory about the economy. Many of the women out in the square at lunch time have been wearing ballet shoes. Maybe this is a problem with my sample selection: the women wearing high heels are chained to their desks with a sandwich.

I usually wear high heels if I’m going out to meet clients. I did, even before I started thinking about it particularly: I suppose I just thought it looked smarter. Some days I need the 3.5″ black patent shoes that make me feel a million dollars. On dress down Friday, on the other hand, I normally wear flats.

Asking around, I find that other people have the same assumption. One lawyer friend says her best heels are good for networking: senior women at work always compliment her on them. Another friend puts on an extra layer of self-confidence with her way-too-high boots, and suddenly has the guts to make complaints. Our own attitudes, and those of other people, are affected by our footwear. How strange, when I consider it, that something you can buy in a shop and put in a wardrobe can influence my psyche.

My work shoes

But high heeled shoes can be painful. I’ve found it helps to get them resoled and heeled regularly, as this gives them more grip and stops me falling over. You can wear other shoes to commute in. Wearing trainers is better for your feet and is popular on the early morning London trains. But when do people change? Arriving at work is a key networking opportunity: I wouldn’t want to bump into the CEO or an important partner in the lift while wearing my trainers. Maybe they’d admire my sense at putting health ahead of fashion, but I’d be missing the opportunity to be seen as ambitious and successful.

By the way, I don’t mean to say that being unambitious is not good: priorities are different for everyone at different points in their lives. But being seen by others as unambitious is quite a hurdle, if you do want to be promoted.

This evening, coming home from the station, I was walking for a while behind a couple that I know a little from work. They were holding hands and it was very sweet, so I didn’t like to disturb them to say hello. Instead, I looked at her feet. She was wearing a knee length pencil skirt and some beautiful 3″ heels. They made quite a noise on the pavement, but she sure looked swell. She has recently been promoted to Finance Director. I expect the shoes helped.

11 June 2010

The gender divide at work – in sartorial terms

Filed under: Clothes — by My Life As Jacqui @ 7:17 am

“What shouldn’t you wear at work?” sounds to me like a question directed at a woman. My mind jumps straight to low-cut tops and tiny skirts, unstable heels and frilly headbands with bows on. It is certainly very easy for a woman to break the unwritten (and sometimes written) rules of acceptable officewear. But it’s possible for men too: the uniform of suit with a shirt and tie can be stretched in all sorts of wrong ways.

Image: graur razvan ionut /

The problem is that women have a wider variety of clothes they can wear, so there are more ways of getting it wrong. I have tried to represent this graphically below, where green represents acceptable work clothing and red unacceptable.

The range of acceptable wear for women and for men

One of my male friends complained bitterly when our office instituted dress-down Fridays: he had to go out and buy a whole new outfit, because everything he had was either suits and shirts or things for slobbing around in. Very few of my female friends have a wardrobe which is that restricted.

But women have a narrower path to tread. We are expected to look neither particularly feminine nor particularly masculine. We have to choose trousers or skirts (and oh, the tricky question of what length), hairstyles, shoes. Everything we select is seen as representing us in some way. A friend told me a theory ascribed to “a male lawyer”, that women express everything about their psyche through their shoes, as everything else has to be so standard. Maybe it’s only lawyers who can’t be inventive above the ankles. But women have a choice between expressing themselves and trying to conform.

A man trying to be conformist in an accountancy firm would wear a blue shirt. Sometimes I’ve been to meetings where all the men are wearing blue shirts of one sort or another. Men have had over a hundred years to develop the workplace standards; women have had much less. It is hard to conform, when there is no standard. There is no opt-out clause, no equivalent of the blue shirt that lets us silently ask people to judge us on what we do or say rather than what we wear. In my chart above, people only notice what a man is wearing if it’s in the red; women all the time.

The power of the male gaze. Society expects women to want to look good, so we are judged more on what we look like. A man may not be expected to look in the mirror, so if his shirt is untucked, it might be a sign that he’s just concentrating so hard on his work that he didn’t notice. But if a woman has a label sticking out of her top, or her collar is folded the wrong way, she is seen as slapdash and probably not working hard on anything. No – it’s not fair. It’s not at all fair, and as a feminist and someone who believes in equal rights, I wish that I could change people’s assumptions. But I am only one person: I can’t do that. The best I can do is to start treating men on the same standards as women.

So, when my male colleagues have their shirts on inside out – yes, this did happen – or wear orange neon socks in the office, I am going to judge them for it.

8 June 2010

Clothes make the man…

Filed under: Clothes — by My Life As Jacqui @ 6:39 pm

“…Naked people have little or no influence on society,” said Mark Twain.

First impressions on meeting new people are based on what they look like, how they speak, and what they say. If there is incongruity between them, then precedence is applied in that order. If you met someone for the first time, and he told you during your first conversation “I am a confident person”, but he slumped and his handshake was like a wet fish, you might not believe him.  If that person was a casual acquaintance, it hardly matters. But if he was a potential recruit for a role where he would have to speak confidently in front of eminent people, you would be less likely to hire him.


Image: Graeme Weatherston /

What people wear is part of what they look like, as much as their body language like their posture and handshake. I am going to start exploring the point of dressing correctly – whatever that means – in the workplace. (Naked people may have some influence there, but I fear it would be a negative one when it came to career advancement, or indeed not getting fired.)

Sherlock Holmes used dress as a tool to take on a character. “It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed.” He used this to solve crimes: maybe this is a little too adventurous for us; but we can also vary how we dress depending on how we want other people to see us. Yes, that is manipulation. But we are all being advertised to, all the time, and if dressing congruently helps people recognise who you actually are, it will help you achieve goals in life. Once the person we’ve met earlier can stand up straight and shake hands confidently while telling us he’s confident, we’re much more like to give him the job.

Yesterday and today I have eaten my lunch looking down on a London square full of all the office people, checking out what they were wearing. I felt like a spy. I have been taking notes. There may be questionnaires and experiments. It is going to be a fun journey. Come with me.

First episode, coming soon, will be on how the unwritten rules for menswear and womenswear in the office are different. And the similarities.

27 April 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — by My Life As Jacqui @ 8:53 am

On a street near my house, there is the following sign. The graffiti adds “if your gay” to “Clean it up!”. Found in a street in St Albans

When I first walked past it I didn’t understand what it said, partly because of the bad handwriting and partly because I was reading it as “your” rather than “you’re” and it didn’t make sense. But now, every time I go past, I find myself thinking about what annoys me about it.

Partly because of not understanding it because of the poor spelling, the first thing that annoyed me was that the person who wrote it couldn’t write “you’re”. It actually makes it harder to read and obscures the sense. I don’t believe in pointlessly complicating language: I have nothing against split infinitives or “If I was…”. Language changes, and the way we write it down changes. But when there are two different words which are getting confused, it annoys me. So, that was first.

But the most infuriating thing is using “gay” as a pejorative word. That never fails to put me in a bad mood when I walk past the sign. (I should really walk on the other side of the road…)

And it only occurred to me later that there are other things to be cross about with this little piece of graffiti: the defacing of the sign, and the suggestion that clearing up dog poo is not a good thing to do. But these don’t bother me nearly so much. Which is strange, because they are the things that most directly affect me: I don’t want all the signs to be obscured by people writing on them, and I particularly don’t want to tread in dog poo. Yuck.

22 April 2010

How to spoil a good meditation class

Filed under: Life — by My Life As Jacqui @ 9:11 pm
Tags: ,
This evening I went to a meditation class, with my friend M. The subject was anger, and coincidentally, I came out feeling more angry than I have done for a rather long time. In general I’m a fairly calm person; I like other people; I treat others and myself with respect. I am as selfish as I wish everyone else would be, and I try not to be more than that.
Other people are most important
Tonight, the lady who was leading our meditation session told me – well, the room of sixteen people – that I had probably spent the day thinking more of myself than others, and that that was wrong. She gave an example of how she thought of her husband above herself. “Some days my husband asks me ‘Have you meditated today?’ because he knows I’m a grumpy cow if I don’t; so then I go away for ten or fifteen minutes, and let him play on his iPhone, and when I come back I’m all calm.” So that’s why she meditates; and that’s her example of doing something for other people. How exemplary.
I am pretty sure that I didn’t spend too much of the day thinking about myself. When I was lying around groaning this afternoon because I had a headache, I was probably being unbearably selfish, but I’m going to cut myself some slack for that. It was painful! And it’s fine for her to claim that she’d grumpy or selfish in certain situations, but to say that I would be the same is taking liberties.
Who gave her the right to tell people they are insignificant?
She spoke about how we are all “one grain of sand” in the vast beach that is humanity. She pointed out that we all think we’re important. And she followed this up with “but actually we’re all unimportant”. I think she’s wrong. What I believe is that if I’m important to me, then all the rest of humanity is just as important to themselves, and very important to me, too. We are stars in the universe, rather than grains of sand: huge worlds of flame that have their own characteristics. Some stars are closer together than others, but they’re all important to themselves. If I start thinking I’m unimportant, then I’ll start believing that it doesn’t matter what I do or say or think. I want to keep responsibility and accountability for my actions, please.
I may be ill, but I’m not faulty
The leader also managed to insult probably most of the people in the room, by explaining that having unhelpful thoughts is faulty, “just like having mental health issues”. I’m not sure many people noticed this glaring incivility, they probably just took it as what they justly deserved, after listening to her for some weeks.
This person is in a position of authority: she gets to sit in front of a room of people and have them listen to her. She gets to shape their ideas of mental health and self-esteem and relationships with others. I’m sad about that.
Some of it wasn’t that bad
There were a very few things I agreed with. “All happiness and all sadness we feel comes from ourselves and our thoughts”. Yes, and this is why it is very important for each of us to be self-aware enough to spend time with ourself and our emotions so that we can manage this.
Also “anger is like a match, if you can learn to notice it when you first hear it scratching on the box, then it won’t flare up”. I don’t believe in ignoring the sources of anger, but I think it is good to be able to put aside some of its effects, on myself and on others. I hate feeling all stressy and I hate shouting. Expressing your anger to someone in a confrontational way demeans their reason for doing whatever made you angry, and hinders you actually understanding it and coming to a solution.
The actual meditation was a good feeling. Ten minutes or so, just emptying my mind and focussing on the object, which was breathing out negative thoughts and breathing in positive light. I feel that I got a lot of insight, and it is time that I don’t spend with myself normally.
I get abnormally angry
And yes, I’m aware that I am fairly angry with the person who led this meditation session. I thought she was leading people astray, into dangerous territory. She asked what we’d been doing today. One man said “Trying to make other people happy”. “That’s great,” she said, “we should all try to do that.” Was she not listening to her own advice about where happiness comes from?
I’m cross that she was giving this advice to people who were more gullible than me, and I felt sorry for anyone who was listening to her talk about the importance of other people’s needs and worrying about how they’d let people down all day. “Let’s spend a few minutes thinking about our faulty thinking over the last couple of days… not any longer, or we might be here all night haha.” That is verbatim.
I’m angry that she was so ignorant about mental health issues.
And I’m annoyed on behalf of other Buddhists, because those I’ve met have not been at all like this. It was my first meditation class, and if I didn’t know better I would assume that it was normal.
Lessons learned
I’m glad I went: I will try meditation again: I found it very helpful to create some space in my life to let all my thoughts go. And it was good for this to be outside the home, in a special environment.
M and I managed to leave early by communicating our dissatisfaction in makeshift sign language and then walking out together. It was lucky we’d arrived late and were sitting right at the back. Next time we try something new we’re going to have a better get-out plan.
So, it was £8 well spent on a very interesting experience. But I didn’t quite get what I’d expected out of it. Some anger, and this post. And a large dollop of amusement that I came out of the session so very angry with the person who led it. She told us that if there were hypothetical ticks and crosses you could attach to people depending on how much you like them “you’d have lots of crosses and not many ticks, I bet, haha”. Actually, that isn’t true; but you know, I have a nice no entry sign that I’m attaching to that particular meditation class.

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