Past events and present experiences

Events from the past can have a profound impact on the way we experience the present. It is not only what we have learned from the past, but also the emotional imprint from past events that resurfaces, at times unexpectedly. I recall the first time I returned to Moscow following my expulsion from Russia, as a diplomat, for professional reasons unrelated to my own doing. I had kept good memories from my time in the country and many friends, and I was happy to be able to return and reconnect with a place and a culture which still resonated deeply within. Stepping back on familiar territory, however, I was quickly overwhelmed by a feeling of tension and heaviness. The only explanation seemed to be a body reaction to a stimulus based on what had happened when I left Russia several years ago. I was paralyzed, as if my fears and anxiety at the time had been left on the sidewalk and, as I was walking the familiar streets of the city, they were coming back to haunt me.

A fleeting moment of clarity popped up between the stimulus and the physical and emotional reaction, with flashbacks helping me consciously observe what was happening and acknowledge the power of past events. By identifying the intensity of my reactions and staying with this uncomfortable feeling for a while, I came to understand the importance of replacing that experience by a more positive one to be able to overcome the reaction.

Modifying our reactions by changing our thoughts may prove challenging and perhaps not the best way forward. Simply identifying the process is already powerful, paving the way for greater consciousness. Understanding the reasons behind such reaction is yet another step towards diffusing the negative charge. We actually create boundaries and develop defences to protect ourselves, just like trees need their protective bark. We need the boundaries and defences so that the more vulnerable parts of ourselves can safely heal and grow. There comes a point, however, when boundaries and defences are no longer needed, and can even prevent further growth.

The time had come for me to shed the fear and heaviness in order to soften and loosen up to eventually grow to the next rings and expand boundaries. I hoped to eventually perhaps become a bigger person, having outlived the usefulness of such defences. The timing is different for everyone, and there is nothing wrong or right in questioning boundaries, just like honouring the protective barriers we put in place to allow for growth remains essential. There is a time and space for everything.

As I look at the tensions in Western-Russian relations, I am always mindful that it is a matter of time and space. I had the privilege of knowing periods of growth and periods of constraint in this dynamic, but I often wonder whether the decision point (time and space) is a function of quantity when more people feel it is time to shed the boundaries and defences; or whether it is a function of quality – consciousness—with the right alignment of forces at play.

Stuck in your views?

The mountain can look very different whether you gaze at it from the valley, as you look up feeling small and dominated, or whether you are skiing downhill with a sense of freedom being on top of the world. Depending on where we live and where we stand, the world can seem so different. If we keep moving, we are bound to see a fantastic view. We may also stay where we are and look at things with different eyes, challenging our perspective on events and forcing ourselves to look at circumstances from a different vantage point.

In international relations, we get to benefit from different perspectives and enjoy various outlooks on the state of the world. However, we often come across people who choose to defend their positions, unwilling to see with different eyes, missing all sorts of hidden treasures, unaware of their path closing off new possibilities to look at the world.

I was fortunate enough to live on different continents and early in my life to get use to different perspectives, but I benefitted most from five years spent in Russia, which opened my eyes to another way to look at the world. I was often confronted with my views feeling resistance both from within and from my surroundings. I slowly came to recognize that there is no right and wrong; there is no best choice, there is only a choice to make in order to begin moving towards another point of view or away from it. Yet whatever may be the dilemma, the conflict, the misunderstanding, there is always a way out. We often search for existing positions, prevailing views to stay on solid grounds. To find a way forward, however, you need to look within, as you search around for the right course of action. There is always a way to come together, but it is a choice. Do we want to come together or not?

Amazingly enough, I have often come to the conclusion in my career that despite the professed goal of bringing people together around common problems, more often than not, people choose confrontation, standing on their positions as if their very existence depended on their views prevailing in the world. Why would anyone choose to always look at the mountain from the valley, missing the fantastic view from the top?

In fact, many people live their lives struggling against the current. They try to use force or resistance to will their lives into happening the way they think it should. There is an alternative. Like a sailor using the wind, trusting that the universe is taking them exactly where they need to be at all times, we may choose to go with the flow rather than resist, letting go of the notion that we need to be right and in control at all times. Ultimately it is just a matter of deciding whether you wish to prevail through resisting or to take a ride towards the unknown, trusting the current – the intent to come together and reconcile differences. It takes courage to go with the flow, as we surrender the notion that we know best or need to do everything by ourselves. But it is often exhilarating to discover fresh perspectives, and always inspiring to change our vantage point. It helps us connect within and around us with new resources to find a solution to all challenges. We are connected to endless resources, which always offer a new solution when we make the choice to try something new.