The Extraordinary People I Know

Ejo #158 – The Extraordinary People I Know: Melinda Norris (aka My Gratitude Partner)

Last month I wrote about the gratitude practise that I have shared with my beautiful friend, Dr. Melinda Norris, for over eight years.  This month the two of us sat down (virtually speaking) and had a chat about our project, its benefits, and how easy it is to incorporate an everyday gratitude practice into your own life.  Please give a very warm welcome to my close friend, and longtime gratitude partner, Mel. 

I’m still basking in the afterglow of the wonderful day we spent together when David and I were in Australia last month. After dinner at your place, I noticed a copy of your thesis for your doctorate in Psychology being used (egad!!) as a keyboard stand.  And I was absolutely blown away by it.  It’s such an impressive work.  Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Of course. My thesis was an applied PhD as part of a longitudinal project with Victoria Police.  I followed 7,000 staff over three years with a focus on wellbeing.  My research particularly looked at how people cope effectively with the daily hassles and stresses in work and life.  Which strategies are most effective?  How stable is our behaviour over time?  And, how much can be predicted by our personality, versus learnt by life lessons.  It highlighted the value of humour and seeking emotional, and practical, support as three highly effective coping strategies.  It also showed that a lot of our stable patterns of behaviour are just as much, if not more, learned rather than purely a product of our personality.  Which is great, as it means we can learn new ways, and improve how we cope with the challenges that life throws at us!  

Mel’s opus

This might be an obnoxious question, but do you ever take inspiration from our gratitude practise and incorporate it back into your work as an organisational psychologist? 
It’s really rewarding to tap into my passion, research and personal experiences to help others.  So I do take inspiration from our gratitude practice all the time, and build it into work, formally and informally.  For example, I try to explicitly express my gratitude for any support and collaboration with leaders and team members.  This builds relationships and trust quickly, leading to more effective collaboration as a result.  It also helps me to appreciate the small things every day, and to get through setbacks better.  I notice I don’t get stuck in a negative mindset anymore.  I can bounce back quicker, and find a more optimistic outlook. 

Trust me, I’m a doctor.

I think I got really lucky that you asked me to be your gratitude partner. You’re someone who’s made the wellbeing of others their life’s work, and I don’t think it gets any better than that! Do you remember how our gratitude challenge started all those years ago? 
Yes, I clearly remember how it started.  I was reading your Freedom ejo in our kitchen and getting really engrossed in your story.  I got the clear sense that you were committed to staying in Dubai for a variety of good reasons (career, travel opportunities etc.), but that you missed Australia desperately (your friends, family, the environment and climate).  And I got the sense you were struggling with the downsides of your day-to-day life.

I still miss my friends so much.

I could relate.  I too was struggling to feel the joy in my daily life, but for different reasons.  I was working in a high pressure, deadline-driven job with a lot of responsibilities.  Working four days a week, but squeezing what felt like at least five days of work into those days.  I was also a parent to two gorgeous young boys, and I wanted to be more a part of their lives.  I felt so much guilt and sadness, having to utilise before, and after, school care.  I found a solution with a nanny for a few years.  Kim picked the boys up from school, helped them with homework, and prepared dinner three days a week.  Still, I felt incredibly torn.  I wasn’t succeeding in all my roles in life like I wanted to.  And that was just the two most consuming roles.  I also wanted to be a better wife, a better friend, and a better sister.  There just weren’t enough hours in the day, the week, the year!  I was efficient like a ninja, making every minute count.  Doing so much work on my daily commute, so that I could drop everything when I got home and be fully present.  But I still couldn’t help feeling torn between my career and my family. 

I’d been trying different strategies to enhance my wellbeing and help make my life more enjoyable, and less stressful.  As a psychologist, I knew of the power and benefits of practising daily gratitude, empathy and mindfulness.  I tried writing a gratitude journal, but found it tough to stick with, so that strategy didn’t work well for me.  Something was missing.  A key ingredient.

As I read your ejo that day Chryss, I was inspired by the idea of a gratitude partner.  Adding a social component to any wellbeing strategy has an amplifying effect on the benefits.  Just like exercising with a fitness partner; you enjoy it more, you keep up the habit, and therefore you experience the full potential benefits on your wellbeing.  I was so delighted with the idea and thought that you would be the perfect gratitude partner for me.  You seemed like you’d be open to it, like you needed it too; and we were good friends.  Friends that had lost touch a bit over the years, but you were a friend I could trust, and be open with.  A friend I wanted to stay close to, but found that hard with the tyranny of distance. 

So I wrote to you then and there in my kitchen, letting you know that I’d read your ejo, and that I could relate; that I thought we’d both benefit from sharing the things we were grateful for with each other at the end of every day.  I suggested that we keep it simple.  I didn’t want it to feel hard, or like a burden for either of us.  I hoped it would help me to stick to my commitment and form a new habit.  But more importantly, I hoped that you would reciprocate, and also experience the benefits of practising daily gratitude.  What eventuated was much more than I’d ever really hoped for!  It certainly proved that my idea of adding the ingredients of social connection and reciprocation was incredibly beneficial. 

After the success of our first year of gratitude, we both decided that we wanted to keep it going.  What is it about our gratitude project that’s kept you wanting to continue, year after year? 
I’ve found it so helpful to have you as my gratitude partner.  It has definitely been the key ingredient that’s contributed to the desire to keep at it, and to continue the routine.  For me, it makes it so much more than just searching for, and noticing, all the good things that happen each day.  It makes it interesting and rewarding. And it’s the reciprocal nature of the relationship that makes it really special.  Having you, Chryss, as my gratitude partner, was a winning selection!  You care as much about it as I do, so we are well matched in our commitment to the habit.  You’re also a friend whose opinion I value, and a friend who I want to stay close to.  One precious outcome was that our old friendship was rekindled and deepened.  Actually, I don’t communicate this regularly with anyone else!  So the relationship provides me with a strong social connection, and frequent deep exchanges that I really enjoy, and need, to experience my best life.  

Another surprising benefit for me has been that I’ve felt heard, understood and even supported through some incredibly difficult times by our relationship and regular contact.  We agreed not to communicate negative things, or use it as a place to complain.  We didn’t want that to creep in.  We’ve both been very good at keeping that promise, demonstrating discipline and sticking to our commitment.  And I believe that has maximised our experience, and the benefits.  We keep each other going, encouraging each other and reinforcing the practice.  There are days, here and there, when we don’t communicate, but we always catch up.  These pauses tend to happen when we are on holidays, or deeply engrossed in a busy and challenging time.  Which is when it matters the most to keep at it.  The other partner keeps sharing and asking questions to nudge and help the other person along, but without guilt or judgement.  It has always felt supportive and uncomplicated.  Never a burden or a hassle.  Just a reminder that this helps, and that there is someone who cares and notices, in loving kindness.

It has also cultivated empathy.  You share in the other person’s triumphs and challenges. You realise that everyone has small and big struggles in their lives, regardless of how “successful” or “happy” they seem on the surface. You live through that with the other person.  Another thing Chryss, is that you always have a way of asking me very insightful questions or making thoughtful comments that trigger self-reflection, or just help me feel really understood and supported. 

Thanks Mel, I feel exactly the same way.  I always love getting your feedback, or a question probing more deeply into something I’ve shared with you.  And I think that’s another facet of our routine that has contributed to us becoming closer.  It’s never just a list of things.  It’s a real conversation. 

So, you and I have both experienced some pretty big emotional challenges over the last eight years.  Can you talk about how our gratitude practise may have helped you get through some dark times?
Our partnership started just fourteen days before Cara, one of my closest and most treasured friends, was diagnosed suddenly with terminal breast cancer.  It came out of nowhere, and at a stage that ruled out the hope for remission.  The only options were lots of treatments to prolong and preserve her life.  It was devastating news; news she only shared with me and one other close friend for a long time.  During that period I had a demanding job that required a huge amount of my energy and brain power.  And I was a mum to two beautiful primary school aged boys that needed me too.  Around the same time, my oldest son was suddenly, and frequently, hospitalised with recurring post viral myo-pericarditis.  Essentially, his heart, and the lining of his heart, became inflamed every time he became unwell with a cold or flu.  So as you can imagine, my life at that time, and for the next five years, required a lot of emotional energy each day.  It made practising daily mindfulness, gratitude and empathy critical for my own wellbeing.  Critical for sustaining myself during significant upheaval.  I think this helped establish a strong habit early on in our partnership.  I really needed it!  It got me through five incredibly hard years, and the death of a dear friend.  I coped well with this, and felt resilient, even greatly in touch with the meaning of life.  Trivial upsets, I could see clearly as being just that!

Three months before Melinda’s friend, Cara, passed away, she and some friends took a very special trip to Uluru.

Over the years, things have improved and I’ve not had so many huge challenges in front of me.  Or maybe I have, but my perspective has changed me forever!  Actually, when I reflect on this now I can see that there have been huge challenges – a global pandemic, my son having surgery on his heart in between lockdowns, and my nephew being diagnosed with leukaemia.  Mostly, I’ve come to realise that it’s like going to the gym each day to stay fit.  It’s only a habit if you keep it up; it only has the desired impact if you keep the recipe consistent.  You can’t expect to stay fit, if you don’t work out regularly!  Practising gratitude daily is the same.  It only works well if you form a rewarding habit that keeps you coming back for more!

Do you have any suggestions for people wanting to start their own gratitude project with a friend?
Find someone you feel you can share this experience with.  Someone who matches your commitment, and also desires the same outcomes.  Someone you care about and are motivated to help.  Most importantly someone you can be honest with, that won’t judge you, but simply offer support and encouragement.

Develop and agree to your own guiding principles for how you share.  Maybe you love writing in a journal each night.  You could simply photograph the page, and send the photo to your friend.  Maybe you send an email, or start a chat in Signal or WhatsApp.  You can make this your own.  But whatever you do, I’d recommend making it easy to do each day for you and your partner.

The only core element that I’d say must be included is finding and communicating at least three things each day that you were grateful for, no matter how small.  The secret is in noticing and being grateful for all the little things each day that we often take for granted.  If we only notice the big positive things in life there can be a long time between drinks!

In last month’s ejo I offered to be a gratitude partner to whoever was interested in trying it out for themselves.  A lot of people told me that they enjoyed the ejo and that they loved the idea, but so far no one has taken me up on my offer.  Why do you think that might be?  
Perhaps they need time for the idea to take hold.  I think you have to be ready for it, and really want it.  You and I had already been working up to it, so our desire and readiness was matched.  Snap!  Perfect timing; perfect partner.  I wonder if people also see that you already have partners in me and your sister, so they don’t want to add to that.  Perhaps they’d rather find their own special partner?

Fair enough.  I do hope that more people give it a shot.  But if the idea of doing a gratitude sharing project like ours feels too daunting, what is one piece of advice you can give to people right now to find more gratitude in their lives?
Even the act of thinking about what you are grateful for is beneficial!  So I would try to notice gratitude in the moment, to be mindful of it.  Most importantly, to express it then and there if another person is involved.  Express your gratitude to others explicitly in the moment, when you feel it.  They’ll appreciate it and you’ll feel better for it.  Be specific about what you’re grateful for, and why.  What’s the impact on you?  A simple wave when someone lets you in, while driving.  A clear thank you to your partner for making dinner.  Thanking your colleague for offering to buy you a coffee. It’s not that hard but it makes your day, and the day of others, so much better. 

I know you’re a super busy working woman and mother Mel, so I really appreciate you taking the time to have this awesome chat with me. I’ve really enjoyed taking a deep dive into our very special gratitude ritual, and I hope that by sharing it with the world we’ve been able to inspire others to look for, and express, more gratitude in their day-to-day lives.  And finally, at the risk of sounding terribly corny, I’d like to express how very grateful I am to you for being there with me, every day during the last eight years. And how grateful I am that I can count on you being there with me again tomorrow.

I’m grateful every time I see Mel’s megawatt smile!!!

Ejo #149 – The Extraordinary People I Know: Ziggy Attias

Chateau Orquevaux is a magnificent property perched on a hill overlooking the tiny village of Orquevaux in the beautiful French countryside.  With a population of about 70, the charming, centuries-old village was in grave danger of fading into obscurity, as its young folk flocked to nearby cities in search of a better life. 

That is, until Ziggy Attias came along and breathed life back into Orquevaux.  In 2015, he inherited the neglected property from his father, intending to fix the place up and sell it.  Instead, he very quickly fell in love with the Chateau and decided to transform it, and its gorgeous grounds, into a place where artists could visit and retreat from the world.  A place they could spend time with like-minded people, and find inspiration, creativity and collaboration.  A place in which artists could focus on their art, somewhere they could just be.  A place of peace and tranquillity, of breathtakingly pristine nature and an overwhelming sense of magic which radiates throughout the entire estate.  And so he created the Chateau Orquevaux International Artists & Writers Residence programme. 

I recently had the very great fortune of spending two wondrous weeks in residence at Chateau Orquevaux.  I shared those two weeks with twelve other artists; mostly painters but also a collagist, a photographer, a musician, another writer, a clay sculptor and a floral sculptor.  And while I was there I was very lucky to have the opportunity to sit down with Ziggy to chat about art, what being an artist is about, and his 100 year plan for the future of the Chateau. 

What is an artist?
What is an artist? I would say an artist is someone that can express themselves in the most honest way, the most vulnerable way.  I think an artist is someone that’s outside the box, somebody that is a free thinker.  There are a lot of people that call themselves artists that maybe aren’t.  The kind of artist that I’m attracted to is somebody who’s loose, not judgemental, somebody that accepts people as they are, and doesn’t try to put themselves on everything.  So they can be quirky, they can be a little crazy, all that stuff is okay.  But, if they want to be accepted, then they need to accept.  So to me, the purest way to be an artist is to be somebody who’s out there and free and expresses themselves, but also accepts that from other people.

So what makes Ziggy an artist?
I don’t really do any one discipline.  I would say my main discipline is manifesting something out of nothing.  So I’m an idea person. 

Like the Chateau?
Like the Chateau.  Seeing something from a little bit of a different angle than somebody else would see it. Obviously I didn’t build the Chateau, but I had an idea of what it could be.  I would say all the different forms of art that I’ve done, whether it’s film or jewellery or sculptural pieces or writing, I think I come at things from what I can do.  Because there’s a lot that I can’t do.  So my creativity, what I think makes me unique and gives me a voice, is that I find these cracks that other people don’t find.  I remove all that I can’t do and I see what’s left and then I have to be creative with that.

You know, I struggle with the term artist.  I know a lot of people do, and I think in my case, it’s because I don’t do any one discipline for long.  I tinker with everything, a lot of different things.  And there’s a lot of things I don’t do anymore that I do still think about.  Writing is something that I’m interested in, but it’s not necessarily easy for me.  

So that’s something you’d like to pursue?
Yeah, but not necessarily a novel.  All my writing is personal essays.  It’s always about my experience, and my experiences here at the Chateau.  And I feel like there’s something being built here that will possibly have historical significance.  So I think my writing is important in relation to that.  I don’t know if it’s important out there in the world, but in relation to what’s happening here in Orquevaux, I think I am an important part of that.  So I think my story’s going to be that I’m not an artist like a painter, who paints every day.  I feel like this whole place is my studio.  And at this point in my life, my strength is empowering a lot of artists, as opposed to me being in my own studio trying to make my mark.  I think my mark is in this giant studio that everybody gets to come into, and then hopefully they can do good work and then it goes out into the world.

So that, I see now, is much more important than me trying to make my mark on a specific creative endeavour.  You know, I think this whole bigger creative endeavour is more important than any smaller individual pursuit.  I don’t know if people necessarily define me as an artist on a day to day basis, even though I feel like I live my life that way.  I think my body of work will be my life.  And people will look back and they’ll see the different accomplishments I’ve had, different things I’ve done and put it all together and say, “Oh, he created art there”.  When you put it all together, I believe that there’ll be no question that, yes, that guy was an artist. 

What kind of training have you had?  Have you had any formal training or mentorship, or are you self-taught?
Everything’s self taught.  I didn’t know I was creative until I was around 21 or 22 years old.  I would say I was angry prior to that for a variety of reasons.  What happened was that I knew this guy who was a friend of the family, a neighbour, his name was David.  He was this angry guy, but he was a teacher, an art teacher.  And he made this thing with metal and solder.  I can’t draw, I can’t paint.  I can’t do any of that stuff.  And I was just really attracted to this thing that he made.  And it was like, can you teach me how to do that?  Which was a weird thing for me to ask, because there was no reason to think that I could do that.  But he said, well, if you’re serious, go buy these materials.  He wanted me to prove that I was somewhat serious. And I went to his house, I think we spent an hour together, maybe an hour and a half, and he showed me how to do soldering, which became, something that I turned, I believe, into an art form.

And because of that, I had a place to put this anger, which I wouldn’t even call anger anymore. I think anger is just one form of expression.  I found another way to express myself that wasn’t anger.  I was able to create something that people valued.  And I was able to turn that into jewellery, and it opened up my whole world.  And it opened up these doors of possibility.  So I would say that an hour with this guy gave me my whole life.

It led to this, essentially.
It 100% led, to this.  Because I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the other creative endeavours.  I would’ve been a guy cutting grass, because I had a landscape company at that time, and I think I would have been successful at that.  I always thought I was going to be a businessman.  But that started to change as I found new ways to express myself.  So I was becoming worse at being a businessman, and better at being a creative person.  And then because I had to make a living, I always tried to find a way to mix the two, like how do I pay the bills, but do something creative, not just for the sake of money.

And so with the writing, what made you want to write or think that you could write? When did that start?
I think it started when I did a documentary about a Native American tribe on Long Island.  So when we were trying to figure out a direction for the documentary, I realised I knew nothing about them.  So I thought that the film could be my personal journey of discovering these Native Americans on Long Island.  So then you have to write about that, if it’s a personal journey, you have to journal it in, and that became the film’s narration.  So from that, I started to think about my life in different ways, and I would get into these moments where I would just journal.  And then when I came to Orquevaux, I knew I could write – personal stuff, it’s all personal, I can’t do fiction.  So I started taking the writing a little more seriously when I was here.  

So you continued journalling?
I never journalled regularly.  I think it’s more when you have hard times in your life, that you write.  But I started to figure out my place within the context of this job, or this life, that relates to the Chateau.  And I started writing, and I’m always nervous when I write.  I write from fear, like I’m always thinking I won’t be able to finish the piece, or it won’t have an ending or whatever.  So I build it sentence by sentence.  Because I’m afraid to go past the next sentence –

So you aren’t able to look forward and see the end?
I can’t.  I can’t do it like that.  I have to have a feeling about something, and I start writing and then hopefully in the first few sentences I’ll find a theme and a direction and that gives me the story.  And then I have to do editing and rearranging, because maybe some thoughts came too early.  I don’t just write it.  I’m like, oh, this story relates to that thought.  Then we can consolidate those two thoughts together, things like that.  And from that, I discovered that my writing always forms a circle.  There’s always an ending that relates to the beginning, and a theme forms.  So I get excited by that, but I also get nervous that I can’t do it again.  So I don’t write as often as I probably should.  I have a bunch of works in progress right now, and I have been tinkering with one, finishing a piece that I’m going to read to you guys tomorrow.

Ziggy reading for Literature Night in the salon.

I look forward to hearing it.  Tell me about something new that you are working on?
Well, I have an idea for a contemporary art museum here that I initially thought was going be in a building that I bought that’s near the church, but we just made a deal for another property which has about five acres attached to it.  So now I have this idea that in the future we’ll be able to build a real contemporary art museum from the ground up, with a large sculpture park.  And the park will always be open to the public.  Obviously we would run the museum, but the whole thing would be for the people, you know what I mean?  So when people come to Orquevaux to do the Cul du Cerf, which is the walk to the source [of La Manoise River], it can become more than just the Cul du Cerf here.  Orquevaux will also be this museum and it’ll be the sculpture park and you can bring your lunch with you, and there will be a performance centre and art studios and a gallery.  And I think that I can get some help from the government for that, but I don’t think it’s something that is going to happen for some time yet.

But it’s something you’re working on.
Yeah, definitely.  I like the idea of creating a museum.  The residency is the same way.  In many ways it’s the unknown artist.  So I like the idea of this museum that will be filled with amazing work and that’ll be the reason that people will come here.  To see all this new work that they don’t know.  And it’ll still be a beautiful experience, because it’s not the obvious.  It’ll be completely original, by the power of all the people that helped build this place.  And I think we can all create something amazing together. And I love that idea.

What goals do you have for the future? What do you want to achieve personally, artistically, professionally creatively?
I think there’s only so much I can do in my lifetime.  If I’m lucky I have 30 years, or maybe 35 years left.  So I don’t know how much of it I can achieve, but I do want to create an art village, and I’d love for it to be the whole village of Orquevaux.  And I don’t think, in my lifetime, that I’ll be able to get the whole village for the residency, but I think we can get quite a bit of it. And then I think the next generation will continue that.

Tell us about your plan for the village?
My plan for the village is to make a place that, if you love art, is really a one of a kind village in the countryside of France, surrounded by cow pastures and agricultural land.  It’s in a valley, and it’s this magical place with two castles and a beautiful church and art studios, and artists living everywhere and there’ll be music and art and sculptures.  It’ll be a creative think-tank, of all the arts.  So of course artists will want to come here, but if you’re not an artist you’ll also want to come here to enjoy it and to discover artists, and maybe collect work.  I want to create a place that is art driven.  And I think it’s a perfect size village, because it’s not too big, but it’s big enough.

And how will that plan live on, after you’re gone?
It’ll be self-sustaining, and the question is whether it’s going to be a board that runs it.  It can’t be run by one person.  I mean, at the moment it is.  I have a team obviously, and it’s getting bigger, but right now I’m the driver.  But I think in the future, when I’m not here, it shouldn’t be a single person.  It should be a collective of some sort, and you could have a president and a residency director and all the jobs that relate to it.  Maybe it’ll be not for profit.  My first choice would be that the whole thing gets acquired by a big art university.  But then my concern is that they would just use it for their students.  I want it to be open to the world.  So the goal is to create something like that, and have it be self-sustaining, so that artists don’t have to pay to come here, because it shouldn’t be whether you can afford to pay for it or not afford to pay for it.  So we’ll see how it works out, but I’d like it to be open to everybody. 

Tell me about someone who inspired you artistically. 
I don’t think I have anybody like that.  I had a complicated relationship with my father, but I will say he was a person that just did.  So it was just, “do”.  I learned that if you want to do something, just do it.  Don’t worry about doing one thing a hundred percent, do lots of things at 80%.  Just keep moving and try to improve.  So I think that watching him as an entrepreneur and a businessman, it must have put those seeds in my head.  I’ve been like that ever since I was very young.  So some of that is just in me.  I think the world inspires me in different ways.  If I see something that inspires me, it can open up a whole world for me. And then, even though I don’t know anything and even though there’s obviously fear and anxiety attached to doing it, I don’t not do it.

Do you still get fear and anxiety about things?
Sure, all the time.  I don’t know how to do anything.  So whenever I want to do something, I have to just go and do it.  It’s the unknown.  From my life, I learned to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  I’m always uncomfortable.  And when I get comfortable, I’m a little bored. And that’s why every day I have new ideas, and I want to push it further, and push it further.  And I think as resources grow I’ll be able to create some amazing things.  COVID pushed me back a bit.  We were in a good run and then it just pushed it back.  

So I don’t know exactly if I could say a specific person inspires me, but I would say open people inspire me, and people that are open to ideas inspire me, because I’m always looking for ideas.  I’m always looking.  I’m always scanning.  I’m like Robocop, always scanning.  We have all the artists that come here, and I’m just trying to figure out how do I harness all that energy, and then how do I express that energy in my voice?  

Finally, what advice would you give to yourself when you were first starting your artistic journey?  And parallel to that, what advice would you give to someone else starting their artistic journey?  And would it be the same advice or would it be different?
I wouldn’t wish my life on anybody else, because there were so many decisions that had to be made and I’m like a cat with nine lives or 50 lives.  I don’t wish it on anybody.  There were so many minefields, and some of those mines exploded.  I’m just lucky I didn’t lose any limbs, and I managed to get back on my feet and keep moving.  And we’re not all cut out to make those decisions, or to make it through that.  So everybody’s got their own journey.

For myself – and I would still give this advice to myself now because I still worry a little bit – I would say it’s going to be alright, don’t worry so much, just keep doing the work.  And I think that’s the advice I would give to somebody else too.  Just keep going, get up every day and do the work.  If you want to write, write.  If you want to paint, paint.  If you want to – whatever you want to do, you gotta do it.  If you want to make movies, then go get an iPhone and make a movie.  So I think just do the work and, every day try to improve a little bit on what that is.  I think that’s the advice.  And I would give that advice to myself too.  And I would say to myself, try to worry less.

Do you think you’d listen?
I don’t know how to not worry. You know what I mean?  Because it’s not just about the money.  There’s always something to worry about.  I don’t know if anxiety’s the right word, but I think that you need a little bit of fear.  You need a little bit of risk.  There has to be risk, otherwise you’re on autopilot.  There’s nothing exciting about just being able to do it.  There has to always be a risk involved to try to break new ground.

The amazing gang of artists at Chateau Orquevaux (13-27th May 2022). Photo courtesy of Andrew Putschoegl.

For another very enjoyable chat in which Ziggy discusses the artist residency and his hopes for its future, check out this podcast.

Ejo #139 – The Extraordinary People I Know: Zimmy Khan


I met Zimmy in 2011, nearly ten and a half years ago.  I had just experienced two of the darkest years of my life and desperately needed help getting out of the deep, pitch-black hole I was in.  I’d consulted a couple of psychologists in Dubai, who had not been able to help me.  It’s the only time in my life I remember feeling such hopelessness, darkness, loneliness and desperation.  And then one day, I read an article in Time Out Dubai about a very special therapist called Zimmy Khan.  It felt like a dim light shining in the distance, and I ran towards it.  I checked out her website and wrote her an email. The subject header was “I Need Your Help”. 

Not only did Zimmy help me through that bleak phase of my life, she has, over the years, equipped me with tools that have allowed me to survive and navigate another decade in a city that drains my life force, being away from my family and friends, relationship ups and downs, career dilemmas, sometimes crippling social anxiety, and the devastating grief of losing my beloved Mum.  She taught me resilience, and she taught me how to have faith (a word I’d previously considered a profanity).   

I immediately fell in love with Zimmy as a therapist, and later, when it dawned on us both that we were spending the first 45 minutes of our sessions just chatting, I fell in love with her as a friend.  David calls her my guru because she helped transform me from someone who saw the world as an adversary, to be fought and challenged, into the woman I am now.  I am (mostly) at peace, I know who I am, I love myself, I am grounded, I am happy and I am open to receiving all of life’s possibilities.  I no longer feel alone, and I am no longer afraid.  Zimmy saved my life and I know it sounds like a cliché, but I am truly blessed to have met her and I am eternally grateful that she is my friend. 

Zimmy and me

It’s my great honour to introduce you all to Zimmy. 

Thank you so much Zimmy, for taking the time to (virtually) sit down with me and have a chat.  I appreciate it and I’m absolutely certain that my readers will enjoy it too. So, I started this post with an excerpt from an anthology you contributed to called “How The Phoenix Rose” in which you talk about your experience of severe physical and mental debilitation after suddenly developing a brain lesion in 2004.  Can you tell us about it?
I’d been working at JWT, one of the top global advertising agencies, in Dubai.  I’d been there for two years and was doing very well when I was suddenly hit with paralysis, and diagnosed with a brain lesion.  My mind has always been my savior and north star.  But the medications they gave me made me so weak, mentally, that I was not able to access my north star, my inner guidance, my mind’s ability to analyse and find solutions for me to heal myself; and that was the scariest part of the whole experience for me. More than the physical paralysis, it was the mental shutdown that made me feel alone and weak and hopeless. My superpower was taken away by the medications, and that’s why I stopped taking them, to see if I could still access my inner guidance. When that connection came back, I was able to heal myself through love and gratitude affirmations.

That sounds terrifying. Do you remember that time clearly, or has it faded with time?
Not as clearly as you would expect, because I live mainly in the present.  I remember things as a story, with minimal emotions.  I think I dissociate very reflexively from painful things, as a deep rooted trauma response – my analytical mind switches on to keep me safe and to protect me from feeling too deeply, and to just focus on what needs to be done to fix it, solve it or get out of it. I do remember the immense despair and fear that I went through, and also the great love and faith and peace that I felt for myself while saying the affirmations that healed me.  I really did feel like I went from wanting to kill myself, to everything will be alright, in a matter of only weeks.

Every hero has an origin story, and I wonder if that episode in your life is yours. 
The lesion did help me to honour my inner guidance more, and I will always feel fortunate about that.  But Chryss, I don’t see the lesion as my origin story, or even the catalyst.  It feels more like a very important fork in the road, but no, not the origin.

Are you happy to share your origin story with us?
I lost my mother suddenly and traumatically when I was only one and a half years old.  She had run away from her family to be with my dad while he was married to someone else. My parents married in secret, and for three years she lived as his second wife, whom no-one knew about; until his first wife found out.  Her brother murdered my mother to avenge his sister’s betrayal.  

Five month old Zimmy, with her mum and dad.

It was only then that my dad’s family learned about the whole situation, and of course they were in no position to care for me because the first wife had their loyalty.  My dad was also unable to care for me, and my mum’s family felt that she got what she deserved for disgracing them.  They wanted nothing to do with me as I was a reminder of their shame and loss.

Zimmy at six months.

Since the options were limited and my dad was concerned for my safety, he had to make quick decisions, and I was passed onto a childless couple who were our neighbours and family friends.  I was already quite comfortable around them and moved with them to Saudi Arabia soon after. Within a year my dad divorced his first wife, remarried, found a job in Saudi Arabia and moved there too. 

Zimmy at the age of four, with her biological paternal grandparents.

Between the ages of three and 15, I’d be with my foster parents during the week and spend the weekends with my dad and his new wife. I grew up knowing that my mum had died and that I now had two sets of parents. Both sets had their own baggage and issues and insecurities and wounds. I’m sure they all did their best to raise me as a team, but most of the time I felt alone, scared and unwanted, like a burden. I remember always being worried about something bad happening and feeling like I couldn’t trust or control life. I always needed to be on the alert and ready to fight. I never truly felt safe, or able to trust anyone, or have an irrefutable sense of belonging. So I became my own little unit – me, myself and I.  I always had the ability to talk to myself, to be there for myself and help guide myself through abusive experiences (physical, mental and emotional) in both homes, as well as feeling different at school.  

I found ways to work with my “defects” rather than allow them to defeat me. I used to analyse the other kids and try to figure out how to achieve the “desired result”, but in my own way. I created my own strategies on how to fit in and study better and focus better.  Things like doodling rather than taking notes in class, having music play while I did my homework and sleeping with books under my pillow. I always managed to get through with mostly As and Bs. School was very important to me as it felt like the only safe space in my life, and I wanted to do well and keep having that as my refuge.

By the time I became a teenager, with all the hormonal changes and bigger emotions, I was feeling very overwhelmed and suicidal. Even then it was my mind, my inner voice, my higher self that was my strength and got me through each day. I would have a pep talk with myself every morning: “Let’s do our best today, and if it’s not enough and things get too heavy, we can go to the top of that 15 storey building and just jump off. Don’t worry, we’ve got this, one way or the other. Just focus on one thing at a time and the day will pass”.  It was always “we” because that created a sense of belonging and connection, like someone had my back.  It is still “we” today.

I came to Dubai in 1997 to complete my bachelor’s degree in Business Management, with the intention of returning to Saudi Arabia to enroll in a Master’s program, and to wed in an arranged marriage.  And I was happy with that.  I was just so thrilled to have the opportunity to escape an oppressive family situation, to be independent, and get a higher education and live in a more open environment for a while.  During my studies, I was offered an internship at JWT, and after I graduated they offered me a job.  So I just stayed in Dubai. 

Well, I, for one, am very happy that you decided to stay. And thankfully (and miraculously) you fully healed from the brain lesion.  How did that whole experience lead to your evolution from high-flying advertising executive to life-saving healer and therapist?
I was so consumed with the miraculous outcome that I moved very quickly into delving into how the mind and body work together, how to be more than we’re taught we are, and how to access the superpowers that we all have. It was a rebirth for me, and a huge push towards my calling.  

I became keenly inter­ested in everything to do with “mind over matter”, “the power of thoughts” and “the attitude of gratitude”. Concepts that I had no prior awareness of, but that very naturally flowed through me and helped me to get my life back to its full glory. I made it my priority to study all that I could about these transformative powers that we all carry within us, and yet look for outside of ourselves.  It was this quest that trans­formed me from a hardcore, corporate intellectually-driven executive into a full-time therapist and healer. And it’s that exceptional and life-changing learning that I share with my clients in my sessions and workshops, reminding them to acknowledge all that they have to be thankful for, rather than focussing on the things that are missing.

There’s absolutely no question that you are special, that you do possess a superpower.  I attest to that and I happily recommend you to anyone that even drops a hint that they might benefit from your very special skillset. You have helped a lot of people. Do you think you were born with your superpower, or do you think that all the hardships you endured in your life helped to shape you that way? 
I think we are all born with these superpowers, and that is the real hallmark of being at the top of the food chain. We are the only beings that have the gifts of thought and analysis, and with that comes the ability to choose differently and to create different outcomes, to be better, to evolve. That is the superpower we all have. I don’t feel special in this respect, just really proud of myself for recognising the choices, and for choosing to be a better version of myself daily.

Life is bigger than us, and gives us both good experiences and challenging ones so that we can choose which ones we want to grow from. Some of us respond more to the painful push, and some of us thrive more when things are good.  So yes, my superpowers came to light due to adversity.  I wish I’d realised that I could have accessed them without the struggle!  But I think that learning so much about self-love, and finding these navigation methods, perhaps makes me a better therapist, and has helped me to create resources like The Happiness Project.  I’d sure like to think so. 

The other day when you were at our place for dinner you said something along the lines of, “I’m becoming mortal”.  What did you mean by that? 
I think that’s about progressively becoming a more feeling person than the mostly analytical one I used to be. I guess that comes with softening my armour and letting down my guard and starting to trust life and people, and allowing myself to connect, belong, love and live more fully. So yes when I allow myself to feel more, I do feel more human.  Vulnerable, but also more intuitive and alive. And I’m OK with that, I’m actually happy with that.  But sometimes I do become nostalgic about how in control I used to be.

Do you mind please listing the modalities you specialise in, for our readers, and what each one entails?  How can people benefit from them??  
Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) go hand in hand as they are both related to learning how to direct our mind more consciously, rather than being directed by it and then feeling not in control of our thoughts and behaviours. So these are practical tips and techniques on how to reply to our negative, self-limiting thoughts, beliefs and programs by firstly becoming aware of them, secondly not fighting them but kindly and patiently shifting them to what would serve us better, and thirdly being consistent with the practice. This leads to a gradual but sustainable improvement in our mental, emotional and physical state of being, and gives us more energy and ability to be better versions of ourselves and to create a better life experience for ourselves. It also helps us to be more accepting and empathetic towards others.

Clinical hypnotherapy is used when there are deep subconscious wounds, fears, traumas or addictions that are creating pain in our lives. Sometimes we know what they are but we feel powerless to change or heal them; and sometimes we don’t even really know the root cause, but we know that no matter what we do cognitively, it just doesn’t seem to help for too long. So with this modality we connect with the subconscious mind, which has all the answers and solutions, and we heal the root causes from the past, so that they become disarmed and unable to create the pain in the present.  This is such a magical process and I am still in awe of how the mind takes us directly to the source, even when the client or myself have no idea what it is.  The healing that happens is so profound and long lasting, it still blows my mind. While hypnosis is still widely seen as just something to help with addictions and phobias, it really is much more than that and helps with healing traumas, PTSD, relationship issues, mental, emotional and physical illnesses too.

For energy healing I use a combination of the basics of reiki and pranic healing, plus my own intuitive interpretation. Energy healing modalities are based on the premise that we are all made up of energy and that everything that has form has an energy field.  How is my methodology unique?  I am able to get a sense of, and verbalise, the emotions that are creating the blocks in a client’s energy flow, and with their permission we work on allowing them to be released. This helps people to become more empowered and aware, and to be able to choose different thoughts and create lighter emotions so they can keep their energy system flowing better.

Akashic records reading helps us to connect to the client’s Super consciousness, the infinite essence.  Not just the conscious thinking mind or subconscious feeling mind that are limited to our bodily experience of life, but something bigger, wiser, made of love and connected to all that is. Through this modality, we access a “soup” of information that transcends time and space, and is made of our higher self (the part that knows our purpose in this life, and is a distillation of all the learnings from previous existences), collective consciousness, ancestral consciousness and so much more. The benefit is access to incredible love, wisdom, guidance and connection to something much larger and more powerful and comforting than we have ever known.  People also receive answers, solutions and healings during this process, giving permission to the therapist to access these through the client’s energy field, and to verbalise things that they may have been receiving through dreams, signs, gut feelings etc. but have not had the chance to really listen to, or interpret fully.

This is the newest modality in my portfolio, and the one that has truly challenged me to accept that I really am quite intuitive, and that I should trust and own this superpower rather than doubt or feel embarrassed by it. Since I come from such an analytical background, it’s been the most fascinating journey for me, first with energy healing and now with this. I know I heavily rely on my intuition, even when working with clinical hypnotherapy, but this really throws you in the deep end as there is almost no science to give you a sense of security. I used to be very hesitant, and actually avoided delving into it until the “call” became really strong and I decided to do a course, just to quell my curiosity.

During the course, my readings were really accurate and intuitive, and the teacher and students all wanted to work with me! So it’s almost like I had no choice but to embrace this facet of myself.  I slowly started doing readings, for close friends at first, and only after I felt more comfortable with this strange free-falling did I start offering it to clients.  It is a beautiful experience, not just for clients, but for me too, and I have never had a session in which I wasn’t touched so deeply that it led me to tears. The unconditional love, acceptance, encouragement and wisdom that comes through is really something special, and each client leaves feeling uplifted, happy, peaceful and more whole.  

Over the years, you and I have tried most of these therapies, plus some other, more experimental stuff.  Our hypnotherapy sessions helped me tremendously when we first started seeing each other and I was at a very low point, holding onto lots of shit.  I really enjoyed the Akashic reading you did for me in 2018, as it connected me to my yiayia, who died a year later at the age of 103.  My least favourite therapy was the past life regression (sorry!).  I didn’t really feel like I got much out of it (though it did inspire a short story, so perhaps that’s not quite accurate). 
The past life regression was your fifth session, and the objective was for you to have more discipline with your writing, and to enjoy it more. So we accessed a past life in which you had done that, to remind your cells, your consciousness, of how it feels to be that way again. Maybe it’s just me, but I do feel the past life session was more impactful than you may have realised.  I believe that it served the purpose of getting you to be more regular and disciplined with your ejos, and over the past few years I feel your writing has become deeper, and more open and honest.

Thank you so much!  You’ve definitely helped me become a better writer, and a better person.  After all these years, it’s still a wondrous experience for me to come to you feeling stale or blocked or stuck in some way, and walk away feeling like I’ve been fixed.  And for that reason, my absolute favourite therapy of all is your energy cleanse. 
Energy cleanses work really well with you as you are truly open and trusting with me and that’s all it takes to set things right, or to position them better, to create an easier flow. And thankfully you are aware of, and good at, self-regulating and you use your mind well, so we haven’t really needed extensive hypnotherapy etc. Would you please tell me what you like about it, and how it helps you and how you think it works?  I’m curious to hear your take on it.

To be honest, it all feels a little bit like magic.  And because we have worked together for so long I definitely feel that I can completely trust you, and trust the process, and let go and have faith that you’ll guide me in the direction I need to go.  Hypnotherapy is similar, but it feels like I need to do a little more delving into my own consciousness, and sometimes that feels clunky to me, like too much hard work (LOL, I’m so lazy).  When we do an energy cleanse, I just open the door to my sub-conscious and let you in, and let you do all the work.  I always leave your house walking on air, buoyant and buzzing but very clear-minded, and very happy. I want to thank you so much for all that you’ve done for me, over the years. I’m so grateful that the journey you took to overcome all the trauma and pain in your life led you to helping others overcome theirs. I’m so grateful that it led us to each other.
That really has been my driving force towards actively participating in life. Being there for others, and allowing them to use some of my learnings to heal themselves. So what you say makes me feel like I have been of service, and of love, and that you have helped me to fulfill my purpose. I really do love my work

If you feel that a session with Zimmy might help you in some way, you can get in touch with her at, or just let me know and I’ll set it up for you. She does in-person sessions in Dubai, as well as video sessions for clients all over the world.