Archive for March, 2012

Are We Free as Women Yet?

March 31st, 2012

Reading “The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights” (by Worden) , I felt the convulsion in the pit of my stomach that manifested because I was angry, pained, sad and scared for the persistent violence against women on this earth.

The book examines the impact of the Arab Spring and found that there has not been a direct correlation between the new found freedom and the increasing level of equality for women. In many cases, the same group of women who worked side by side with men in the struggle to overthrow the dictatorial regime ended up being shun from the decision making table. During the struggle, many of them were brutally raped, beaten and even killed. For the price they paid, they did not gain the same respect they deserved as the men.

The following is a quote from an article published by the Amnesty International, “Violence against Women”.

“Living free from violence is a human right, yet millions of women and girls suffer disproportionately from violence both in peace and in war, at the hands of the state, in the home and community. Across the globe, women are beaten, raped, mutilated and killed with impunity.

Gender-based violence stems from the failure of governments and societies to recognize the human rights of women. It is rooted in a global culture of discrimination which denies women equal rights with men and which legitimizes the appropriation of women’s bodies for individual gratification or political ends. Every day, all over the world, women face gender-specific persecution including genital mutilation, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, and domestic violence. At least one out of every three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.”

Reading books and articles and watching TV news, I often admire those women activists who continue to be on the front line fighting for freedom and justice. Their bravery has me re-examining my role in the fight for equality as a woman. While we may not be able to single-handedly wipe out all the violence and injustice in the world and before we rush out to condemn those countries for their mistreatment of women, we should at least continue to fight for women’s equal rights in this country.

The first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. After 2 days of discussion and debate, 68 women and 32 men signed a Declaration of Sentiments, which outlined grievances and set the agenda for the women’s rights movement including equal rights in education, employment and rights to vote. Women were finally able to vote in every state of the Union in 1920. This was a 72-year battle.

Today, more women have Bachelor degree or higher than men between the age of 25-44. Consequently they will have better employment prospects than men. However, according to the Census data analyzed by the National Committee on Pay Equity, women on average earned 77.4 cents for every dollar earned by men holding the same full-time and year-round job. While white women’s pay has improved a little bit, pay for women of color has not changed at all. Survey by Catalyst, a non-profit organization focused on women’s progress, indicates that women lose out on more than $400,000 in salary over a 40-year career to men with similar qualifications.

Pay or glass ceilings are not the only issues. Although we don’t have honor killing, bride burning or female circumcision in the U.S., one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. 85% of domestic violence victims are women. Historically, females have been most often victimized by someone they knew. Females who are 20-24 years of age are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence. Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police. In addition, we still don’t have a “just” way to protect women who were raped or stalked. Finally, there is the under-reported sex trafficking that the society often does not want to see.

If we women are too quiet, our voices will not be heard. If we stand up for our rights, we often get called bitches, whores or branded as militant. Just look at what happens to the feminist movement. Furthermore, since the 60’s, women of color have continued to subordinate their grievances for their lack of equal rights for the sake of civil rights movement. Like their sisters in the Arab Spring, they fought along with their brothers of color for racial equality but they still cannot get to the big table without being branded as bitches.

Too many men make jokes during gender discussions. Too many women go along so that they would not get beaten up verbally or physically. Every time we laugh at a sexist joke or a joke that subtly demeans women, we continue to help keep sexism alive.

In still many corners of this society, violence is just a thin layer of bad language away. A portion of the population not only applauded when an opinion leader called a female law student a “slut” but also wanted to strip women of their reproductive rights along with the right to control their own health. Too many forces continue to silent our cry for help. Where is the freedom? Where is the equality? This is not some KKK rally where the rhetoric and banners are the product of some very extreme and fringe movement. This crowd represents the underbelly of otherwise law-abiding and charity-giving model citizens. The violence this group potentially can cause is bigger and more dangerous than any direct killing of women.

So, what business do we have criticizing and judging other countries for their bad cultural or religious practices that abuse women?

Why are so many of men silent on this assault on women? Don’t men realize that 50% of the population are women and they cannot avoid sharing this world with women? Furthermore, what are they willing to do to stand up for their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters?

Why don’t we hear from more women? Sometime it is even more painful to face the deafly silence from women. I often hear women, young and old declare that they don’t like working for a female boss or they rather be friends with men. They avoid supporting other women. Many women even make sure they are not seen as feminists. Our silence and act of omission continue to stop us from gaining the equal status as our birth right in this country.

In the diversity work we do, we have a term called “internalized oppression.” It describes how a subordinated group, such as women, oppress themselves either because they feel inferior to the dominant group, such as men or they want to avoid further abuse.

For the last few decades, we have spent a lot of energy to encourage girls to raise their hands in class and to empower them to reach for the stars. We have helped them play the game well in order to succeed in a still male-dominant business world. However we have not helped our boys develop more fully because as long as women try to be like men, men don’t have to change. In many instances, we have produced a population of men and women who do not have enough empathy for women’s plight as if statistics of women’s abuse are just academic data, similar to the way we see the wars as episodes on TV. These thick concrete walls and glass windows of our office buildings have somehow insulated us from our feelings toward injustice.

Decades after the women’s right movement, we have serious eating disorder issues among teen age girls and 3 out of 10 girls become pregnant before they turn 20. We still have a large population of young women who sell themselves short in their relationship with men. What happened to all the work done to raise their self-esteem?

Since 1848, we have come a long way to achieve the advancement for women. However, can we turn a blind eye on the work yet to be done from the gated community all the way to some back alley?

Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 2011 said, “Women are not free anywhere in this world until all women in the world are free.” This bold vision reminds us of those women’s shoulders we have stood on to get here. Women’s rights are human rights.

In order for our society to advance to the next level and become truly a beacon for freedom, both men and women will need to wake up and get fully involved in the work to achieve gender equality.

The TV camera followed this young woman activist who sprayed graffiti on the wall in a dark alley of Kabul, to remind people the fate of Afghan women. Her black eyes beamed from her hijab-framed face. Her blue paint glowed in the dark with determination. She said she chose this alley, infested by abandoned drug needles, syringes, and polluted by the smell of urine because that was the only place that she felt safe from the soldiers and thugs who would kill her on sight.

Can we afford to look the other way?


Celia Young works as a diversity consultant with businesses and communities to achieve gender equality.


What Are We Ready To Let Go Of?

March 21st, 2012

In the movie “Love Happens”, the motivational speaker worked to help the audience grieve their loss and take a step toward self-renewal.  However, he had never grieved his wife’s death as a result of a car accident.  After too many things have happened around him to remind him of the incongruity between what he preached on the outside and what he practiced in the inside, he finally let go of his guilt and loss and began his own healing.

Life seems to be a series of “letting go”.  We need to die a thousand deaths in order to let ourselves reborn again and again.  But we often hesitate when facing endings.  So, we either hang on too long or we live with regrets too long after we let go.

When the doctor said to me that the only way to keep my mother alive was to put tubes in her for her to get nutrients, I made the most excruciating decision to let her die, because I know she did not want to live life at the mercy of a machine.  Then for the next 6 days, I watched her slowly fade away.  I never knew ending could be like this.  I watched her eyes close but her mouth still moved as if she was talking to someone.  I played her favorite Chinese classic opera and let the music trail into the hospital hallway.  By the third day, I could not stand the pain in my broken heart and I wanted this whole thing to stop.  Then a very wise friend said to me, “This is your mother’s journey to the end, not yours.  Just appreciate that you can witness this very sacred process.”  I sat down and realized that my mother’s life was no longer in my control or the doctor’s hands.  It was time for me to surrender.

Recently, I met a man who used to be an opera singer with quite a fan base and a lucrative contract.  All of a sudden, one day the phone stopped ringing.  His contract expired without renewal and the fans disappeared.  A wise friend said to him “You still have the song in you.  Just sing it because it is a gift.” Then he found ministry.  He was able to let go of the cheering crowd but keep his song.

In the contemporary Western world, parents tend to give children lots of praises for the purpose of building their self-esteem.  Then as adults, many of them become too dependent on the positive feedback and recognition from the outside world and wrap their self identities around their achievement. The trap we often set for ourselves is the need to hear the cheering crowd.  When all is quiet, do we still sing?  Can we still make a difference in this world even when we don’t get a fan mail?  Is it time to reset our measurement of success?

For 26 years, I worked to become a very experienced and successful consultant.  I know I have made a difference in many people’s lives.  In the last three years, when the economy went bad, the phone became quiet and clients had less budgets to invest in the real change work, I felt like that opera singer who just lost his cheering crowd.  But, I have been learning to let go of my old identity and keep singing because I still have the “song” in me.

In the Gestalt practice, we have a tool that allows us to help our client identify and clarify the “what is” in their situation.  When we let go and surrender, we can really embrace the “what is”, not the “what could have been” or “what we wish”.  My work is about stopping the fight with my own “what is”.  In a TV commercial, a black woman standing in the field looking out at a landscape and said, “I don’t know how much money I will have when I retire.  But I do know I will live with whatever I have.”  That is the ultimate act of accepting the “what is”.

Life is a series of re-calibrations.  When my mother started to show signs of dementia, I realized there was no point of correcting her memory or reminding her that she just went to the bathroom.  I decided to follow her mind.  Whatever story came out of her mouth, I not only followed but also built on it as if it was true.  I found such relief and freedom when I stopped struggling with her.  I accepted the “what is”.  When friends or relatives looked in on her, they usually would ask “Is she getting better?”  I would say, “That is the wrong question.”  There is no “better place” for her to be.  All I did was prepare to adjust to whatever stage she moved to.  Even after trying to let her be, I still could not just let her go without my personal struggle.   Two years after her passing, there is not one single day goes by that I do not miss her and cry for her.  This proves to me how hard it is to surrender.

Last week, I celebrated my birthday by attending what turned out to be a powerful and spiritual workshop.  During the workshop, I cried as I let go of my old measurement for success and shouted out loud my anger for not being able to call the ending on my own term.  But as I cried from the depth of my belly, I felt free and released as if my soul was howling.  At that moment something much bigger had taken over.  I had a sense of true “surrendering.”  For the first time, I felt the spirit soaring through me.

I have found myself moving closer to my true calling.

When asked, many of us would say that it is our calling to help others and make a difference in the world.  But what can we offer?  Beyond our knowledge, our skills, the most powerful contribution we can make is the experience of our whole “self” – body, mind and soul.

Until we experience the healing and mend ourselves, we cannot truly make a difference the way we are called to make.  Just like the motivational speaker in the movie, could he really help others become whole when he was wounded and broken?

The real power of the “Use of Self” or the “Self as an Instrument” in our work, is to truly accept  who we are, even including our shortcomings, grief, loss, guilt, regret, etc. and surrender to something that is bigger than ourselves.  I call the path of moving from the small “s” to the big ‘S’”.  The small “s” represents our individual selves.  The big ‘S’ represents the all-encompassing spirit of the universe.   When we work from the big “S”, there is no need for reasoning or attempting to control.  We are just being cradled by the mystery of the universe.

If I am the instrument for what the spirit is meant to be, then when I work with my client, I am not there to use my individual brilliance but I am there to channel all of our brilliance.  I need not claim any credit for it.  This spirit that runs through me does not belong to any church.  It is not supposed to be cut up and become privately owned by any institutions.

I used to date a French artist.  He said when he first painted, he painted for himself.  But after that, he painted for the world.  It meant by the time the painting was finished, it belonged to the world.   He would stand back and walk away without looking to see if anyone liked it.

In a TV show called “The Voice”, groups of aspiring artists competed for a chance to get chosen for a big career break.  But what they were required to do was to own the music, the lyrics and original intent of the song writer with their body and soul.  When they did, all the glory that resulted in a recording contract became secondary.  They sang for the spirit.  They moved people not because they were the best entertainers but the best instrument that channeled the spirit of the universe.

Regardless the titles on our business cards, what are we really doing here on this planet?  We say we are here to make a difference.  Do we truly feel it in our soul?  Every time we use the wrong measurement for our achievement, did we sell out our soul?

What went wrong with all these corporations that broke the ethic code and cheated on their shareholders, customers or mistreated their employees?  Have they followed what they said were their values and principles?  Or have they gradually depleted their souls and ended up with a beautiful but empty glass tower?

Just like the corporations, we cannot truly be great leaders if we betray our internal spiritual compass.  Profit without conscience is like worshiping the wrong God.  Sooner or later, we will be caught wondering around in the desert.
In the true Zen practice, no one will be there to give us praise or criticism.  Our work is not good or bad.  It just is.    This is total surrendering.  Our spiritual work needs to expand way beyond our “ego.”  A friend of mine went to Japan to learn pottery.  For the first two years, her master had her sweep the floor.  In the Buddhist tradition, this is called “emptying and quieting the mind.”  My teacher called it, “Coming back to zero.” Then when she was finally allowed to touch the clay, she would put all her finished work on the windowpane every night.  And her master would examine her work every morning.  Without a single word, he would break all the pots and have her do them again.  This is the ultimate learning from within.  There was no external encouragement or judgment.  She would have to rely on her own resolve and internal guide to teach her.  Feeding her “ego” would not have helped her at all.

For whom do we sing our song?

“Dance as though no one is watching you.  Love as though you have never been hurt before.  Sing as though no one can hear you.  Live as though heaven is on earth.”  

This quote from an unknown source means so much more to me today than when I first saw it on a poster a few years ago.  How do we get beyond the rhetoric and truly live the meaning of the words from our soul?  To truly live there, we will have to let go of our needs for external or internal gratification.  Too many leaders including religious ones fell from grace when they believed in their own greatness after people have put them on the pedestal.

When we buy into our own brilliance too much, we become narcissistic.  When we reject and withhold love and compassion to ourselves, we become self-loathing.

To truly use our “self” to do our work, we must own the experience in our “self.”  In their attempt to help others, many people can be very clever because they were taught well in asking all the right questions.  But to truly have empathy, we must be able to sit in others’ experience and see the world through their filters.  The best song writer writes about real pain or heart break and the true beauty they have experienced inside.  We are here to channel something greater than ourselves.  When we can achieve that, we will touch the underground river where the water of the sacred flows through.  Whenever I watched the movie “A River Runs through It”, I would get teary not just for the beauty of fly fishing but the beauty of the vast universe.  For having such a privilege to be alive as a human being, how insignificant my personal aches and pains and disappointment have just become?

Ancient Chinese wisdom says at every cusp of change, we need to shed our skin.  I remember at the end of a long vision quest, I drew a snake on a piece of paper, folded it and put it in my notebook.  Next day when I opened my notebook, all the dried-up colored crayon on the snake’s body fell off into little pieces just like the snake shedding its skin.

I am at that moment of shedding again.

Celia Young coaches her clients to become who they truly are as a leader and a human being.


Where Do We Go From Here?

March 8th, 2012

I am going to be 62 this Wednesday. My personal trainer’s computer program that calculates my Body Mass Index says my body age is actually 43. I like her computer’s answer.

The government and my driver license say I am a senior. The movie theater sells me senior tickets. I am also qualified to get the “blue plate specials” for seniors at the restaurants. But I feel like a middle-aged woman who should have another half a life to live. But how would I live? Up to the age of 50, I was so busy pushing forward my life chasing the American dream and never gave the rest of my life a second thought. Now I find myself in a swirl of thoughts.

What is the American dream? Mostly it is about the freedom to start something new. Then it gets translated into having a good job, owning a home with a white picket fence and having a big enough nest egg to retire comfortably on.

Talking about our work, many of us spent the first half of our lives climbing the career ladder. We have learned to define ourselves by “what we do.” We often greet each other by asking first “what do you do?” What happens when we don’t have a “doing” part of ourselves anymore? Often not too long after their retirement, many men will die. Many couples end up having nothing to say to each other after they have retired. My girlfriend retired last year. Her husband, although at the retiring age, chose to keep working not because they needed the money. If he were to retire too, they could have travelled together and spent more time together. Perhaps this is one way for them to maintain harmony in their married life.

Talking about our home with the white picket fence, most of us don’t really own our house. The bank does. We buy into a house hoping that someday its value will appreciate to the point we can cash in or we will be free of the mortgage. The reality is that most of us in this generation and younger will probably never own our properties out right. We will end up making mortgage payments until we die. This is one American dream on credit we cannot cash in.

In the same American dream, we have learned to measure our life’s achievement according the material possessions we accumulate. As a matter of fact, these worldly possessions and others still in the store have helped create a false identity for us. Then the economy went into the toilette and the real estate market crashed. The mortgage we owe is bigger than the value of our house. For those of us middle-aged and seniors, the nest egg we have been building is shrinking. The retired life is quickly becoming a bad dream. All of a sudden those things that used to define us are not dependable any more. There is a tremendous amount of sadness and regret when one watches his or her livelihood disappearing.

How do we recover from this?

Local coffee houses are full of middle-aged men in Dockers pants carrying laptops. They are there to network for new business and career opportunities. How do we keep putting one foot in front of the other? How do we keep getting up from a night of bad storms and go out into the world to make our dreams come true again?

Many people in my generation either cannot retire or do not want to retire. We still have obligations and better yet, dreams. The question is: What kind of dreams should we pursue now?

At mid-life, we think we should have already made it and do not have to struggle any more. But every day is like a rookie day that we have to go out and prove ourselves one more time.

Perhaps this time, we can learn to find a different kind of measurement for our happiness and sense of achievement. Maybe it is always there in the rich blessings we already have, such as health, friendship, love, family, and the ability to make a difference in the world one corner at the time?

How do we re-compose the next phase of our lives? We will need inspiration, meaning, courage and determination. Mostly we need to find our hearts in a different kind of dream.

When a person died in the Ancient Greek time, people would usually include answers to these two questions on their tombstone: Did this man have passion? Did he die as a fool for love? To translate into modern terms, I think they meant to challenge us to see if we have been true to our hearts and souls.

In many corridors of corporate America, there is a whole bunch of walking dead’s who have trekked so far away from home and lost themselves. In order to come home to ourselves, we need to get back our passion. One way to do it is to get into an internal dialogue with ourselves which is much more important than getting our clues from the external world. The question is: Are we quiet enough inside so that we can hear ourselves? When one door closes, hopefully it means other doors will open. But do we have eyes to see where the opening is?

Many years ago, I traveled to Bora Bora, one of the main islands of Tahiti. I noticed that the local people lived in houses with thatched roofs. Children ran around bare-footed. They raised chickens and grew coconuts to supplement their daily diet. You could hear the mixture of chickens crowing and children laughing every afternoon. They relied on the French satellite to get their TV channels. Life was simple. They did not seem to be impacted by what went on in the world.

Like many people, I fantasize about moving to an island and living a simple life. But here I am still chasing my American dreams. I still measure my success by my income and my worldly possessions. As a practicing Buddhist, I have to do better at “letting go of my attachment.”

At 50-60 years old, how do we rediscover ourselves and reclaim our lives? Some people still want the next pay day. I want more time. Somehow, as we get older, time seems to fly by faster.

Once in a while, I have this panic feeling as if I am running out of time. I do not want to kick the bucket and still have unfinished dreams. Like they say, yesterday is gone and tomorrow is promised to no one. All we have is today. My Zen teacher always says, “Don’t waste time.”

This down economy had all of us running out of breath. We need to find a way to slow down the time and give us a bit of breathing room so that we can regroup and start the next chapter of our lives.

Watching a singing competition show on TV called “The Voice” a few nights ago, I was so moved by the artists who put all their hearts and souls into the music for that one chance to move one step closer to their dreams. The coaches’ advice has been consistently “Be true to yourself.” Most of them would be eliminated at the end of the show. But tomorrow morning they would get up and start again.

When I die, on my tombstone, I want them to say, “She gave it all she got.”


Celia Young helps her clients rediscover their passion and help them reach their full potential at work and in life.