Wild Adventures: A Personal Reflection on Uncertainty and Change

As coaches, therapists, or consultants we work with change every day.  In fact, change may be the most common thread to why people seek our help: whether they are seeking to make a change or dealing with the consequences of change being forced upon them by circumstance.  My recent personal journey has meant that I have faced a lot of uncertainty in my life and big changes, and, as is so often the case, while I have been battling my dragons, clients have sought me out for help with their dragons too.  I find myself reflecting on uncertainty and change, and what it takes to face these things gracefully…

My working life has gone through many transformations over the years.  I trained originally as an actor (a profession I was headed determinedly towards from the age of 12), then as I finished at drama school realised I didn’t want to be an actor anymore.  Since then I have adventured through many different jobs ranging from those more connected to what I do now to those more off the beaten track.  The last few years have seen me more stable in my role at least, working as a facilitator, coach, and trainer mostly with organisations. 

I have always brought a deep awareness of the body to my work which in the last few years has grown into co-leading a year-long training for other coaches and facilitators in how to work with the body in business.  Whether it is helping a coachee to learn how to manage their stress response in order to have a difficult conversation skilfully, or designing learning programmes which enable people to conduct embodied experiments to test and design their own best interventions, embodiment is often central to my work.  I also recently researched compassion for my work in health and social care looking at how to cultivate communities of consistent kindness.  Compassion is so often seen as something inherent and impossible to develop but there is a growing body of research showing how we can use simple practices to be kinder under pressure.  We worked with basic mindfulness practices and small personal changes (like slowing down a bit) with individuals and helped teams to introduce ways of meeting together and being in dialogue which encouraged greater equality and self-compassion.  I’m still seeking to understand how to really nourish the dialogue around sustainability.  This is an area of deep personal concern for me because, as a father of a young child I worry about the world my son will inherit.  I really believe in doing whatever I can to help when I see a problem in the world so while I am no sustainability expert, I am looking for ways to help leaders and organisations to change their ways of being and doing so that we can all work for a better world.  All of this work has been linked by the thread of developing conscious leadership.  I believe that if leaders are more self-aware then they are less likely to unconsciously perpetuate choices and systems which harm people and the planet.  This is likely to be a long-term journey of change and possibly a Quixotic quest but I do see shifts happening and I have a great deal of faith in the human spirit.

 So, my role has become more stable in many ways but my days have still been marked by a lot of personal change.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising for someone working freelance and helping other people to learn, grow, develop – essentially foster change.  However, at the start of this year a bigger shift took place…

I had recently moved house and, being a freelancer with a father who is a retired architect, we built a shed together for me to use as an office. And, as my father is a retired architect, you may be able to imagine that the shed was more like a wooden extension that happened to be separate from the house! I’d spend most of my time, when not working with organisational clients, in the shed writing, doing the necessary admin that goes into running your own business, and sometimes seeing 1-2-1 coaching clients. 

Since then my day-to-day reality has changed dramatically.  I now work full-time in a management consultancy and drive about an hour every day to get to the office (instead of my 10 second walk to the shed). I still work helping leaders in organisations learn and develop, but the environment within which I’m working, the social and cultural context, quite apart from the physical environment, is radically different.

I had been considering getting a job for some while, wondering if there was an organisation out there where I felt like I could enjoy the comfort of community, while staying in integrity with my individualistic heart, but, if I’m honest, I was sceptical such a place existed.  When a number of factors coincided and made for very tough times in my work, I had to challenge that scepticism and, as I am very happy where I am now, I feel blessed that I did. 

 

The Hero's Journey

During this period of upheaval, I was also planning a retreat in May that works with Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’[i].  What Joseph Campbell discovered as he studied the myths and folklore of the world was that there seemed to be many themes that were common in every culture.  Eventually he saw that at the heart of these commonalities was a single common story: human beings the world over tell stories about hero’s and heroine’s.  Not only that but those stories seem to follow a recognisable pattern.  The hero’s journey is marked by particular features, common trials, gifts, transformations, opponents and allies.  Perhaps as I am running this retreat I should not be surprised that I went on my own grand and painful adventure during this time. I have certainly seen that, as coaches, therapists and consultants, clients seem to enter our lives who offer us the opportunity to work with them on what we are also working on ourselves. No wonder then that, while we have been inviting in participants who are on their ‘hero’s journey’, I have been confronted with my own. 

I’m seeing this turn up as a theme in other areas of my professional life, this phenomena whereby my own areas of interest and personal learning are mirrored by the areas of difficulty and development my clients need support with.  Most organisations today are facing very high levels of uncertainty, increasing complexity and a faster pace of change than ever. I am wary of saying that we live in a time of unprecedented difficulty.  It wouldn’t surprise me if every generation feels that way and, when I look back, I see huge challenges faced by pretty much every previous generation. What does feel like a more valid observation is that things are moving faster than ever before and that creates a degree of uncertainty, which can be very challenging to live with.  While there are many things which can help in the face of change and uncertainty, having recently been through a period of such change myself, I felt like there were 2 things which became particularly necessary to get through that tough time: resilience and wisdom. Resilience might seem like an obvious thing to need when any system comes under pressure, but there are some areas of development which I think are particularly helpful to explore in developing resilience.  One of these is embodiment. 

 

Embodiment and Resilience

As embodiment is one of my areas of particular interest and exploration, it is perhaps predictable that this is something I consider important but I do think that, in the case of resilience, the body is a vital aspect of the self to engage with and, after all, if we don’t deal with the automatic physiological responses to stress, any cognitive or emotional work we might do is likely to be of limited effect.  Centring is a general term for a kind of embodied state management particularly useful in the face of the stress response but with much broader application when it is well understood.  There are lots of techniques for centring taught by different schools but the core principle is essentially the same: shifting out of the ‘fight or flight’ state in our mind-state and physiology and enabling our system to settle into a state where we can think more clearly and choose our actions more consciously, even under pressure.  It is simple to learn but for it to be applied consistently takes time and practice.  It also has a much more profound effect when taught well and embedded through practice – it can reconnect us to our bodily sensation, re-sensitise us when we have become desensitised or dissociated.  This body-mind reconnection can have incredible effects, often opening doors to intuitive awareness, clarity of perception, and a realisation of deep needs which may not have been met for a long time.  This is the wonder and challenge of working with the body: it can be a short-cut to deep territory so the potential for transformation is great but the potential to unlock deep and complex issues is also strong.

I was coaching a senior leader not that long ago who was struggling with the pace and complexity of their professional life which had been exacerbated by a recent promotion.  He had got in touch looking for help with a strategy for managing the complexity of his communication including the many conversations with senior leaders he needed to keep up with and managing a team of project managers who reported to him but worked on many different projects with a lot of independence.  As we had our first conversation it became clear that communication wasn’t really the problem – he was great at communicating and even managing his time and commitments, which are typical related problems when managing overwhelm with new responsibilities, were obvious strengths.  What we uncovered as we spoke was that he was struggling to think clearly whenever he approached his email-box and would spend too much time on some things and not enough on others.  His prioritisation was out of whack.  Again, as we dug into that I could tell that his strategic thinking and capacity for prioritising responsibilities was not the real problem.  The lack of clarity in thinking was a warning sign for me as when people are triggered into fight-or-flight cognitive function can be impaired.  So, I worked with my client to teach him centring, not just the technique but to use a kind of ‘embodied experiment’ to help him learn what his stress response feels like even when triggered to a tiny degree.  This meant that he was equipped to spot his own stress warning signs much earlier in his process, and then also had a tool to intervene and start the journey back to a clearer, more centred state.  He did 3 minutes practice daily on the train to work (using an mp3 recording I’d given him to ‘talk him through it’) and then used the technique whenever he felt he needed it.  The daily practice meant his background state was improving progressively and he was getting quicker and more competent at the skill of centring so he could use it more readily when most needed.  Within the first month his performance turned around dramatically, both in terms of how he felt and the feedback he was getting from his boss and his reports.  We went on to do further work to look at the underlying issues, continuing to use embodied methods for exploring through state and quality of presence, but the initial turnaround was dramatic and the increased integration of his body with his mind meant that he came to future coaching sessions calm and ready to work, usually with a memory, thought, or connection which had bubbled to the surface in the intervening time.

 I had thought my fascination with wisdom and my study of embodiment and resilience were related by the field of human experience, but perhaps not much more. However, in my experience and exploration of uncertainty and how we find grace in the face of it, I’m seeing that the two are much more intimately intertwined.  When we are facing uncertainty, knowledge is simply not enough.  If knowledge was all we needed to sort out our problems then Wikipedia would have saved the world! By the very nature of uncertainty, a lack of reliable information may lie at the heart of what we are dealing with. As such, having access to our deepest wells of wisdom, having different resources to make the best decisions we can when we don’t have all the information we want, becomes vital.  As we can see from this case study I have described above, embodiment can help us to access these wells of wisdom.

 

Embracing Uncertainty

In the past when I faced difficult times in my self-employed life, I toughed it out. I had become used to facing the pain and uncertainty of freelance life and I carried on doing my work with a high degree of faith, even when I was very scared.  So, as I enter another adventure in the landscape of my professional life, I get interested in the fact that this time I did not tough it out, I chose to explore other possibilities. In the moment it just seemed like that was what was required of me, that was what I needed to do, but looking back, with this relatively small period of hindsight, I’m curious about my sense of clarity.  There were many factors at play, not least of which was my awareness of how pushing through difficult patches in the past took a toll, not just on me, but on my wife and family. That kind of stress can be very hard to be around. But even so, what was it that made me choose differently this time than each of the times before this? What was it that told me “This time you need to do something different”?

One of the tricky things with understanding, perceiving, and developing wisdom I think is that it is largely intangible.  We sort of know it when we see it but, unlike knowledge, it can’t really be recorded in books or easily pinned down. You can record someone’s wisdom, you can write down profoundly wise words, but they lose something in the translation from the moment in which they were originally spoken to the moment in which they are read. What seems strange and obscure one day, when seen in another light on another day, can awaken incredible insight in us and seem utterly profound and vice-versa. Referring back to my own circumstances, the situation I faced called forth in me a need to access my deepest wisdom or I could have drowned in the uncertainty.  I was having to make many small judgements every day about where to spend my time: consolidating the work of today or looking for the opportunity that might open up a more stable future.  I felt like I needed to be very mindful of how I applied my effort. Time is, after all, our most definitively finite resource.  There’s only so much we can do today but tomorrow will undoubtedly come – and, in today’s world, it seems to be rushing up to meet us faster than ever before. I didn’t have enough information to make these decisions entirely rationally.  When that is the case, how do we know best, moment to moment, where to work hardest?

If I return to my key theme - the hero’s journey - I wonder now if whatever the specific gifts of any particular time of difficulty, whether a new job, relationships or new learning, I wonder if the gifts that we bring back from every challenging adventure might be greater resilience and greater wisdom. After all, if we survive the road of trials, then we must necessarily have bounced back many times in the face of adversity, thereby growing and cultivating our resilience. And, if we have found that judgement to make the decisions that have led to us escaping the dark places, then surely we must have flexed the muscles of our wisdom and grown our capacity to make wise choices.

Perhaps this insight can offer us perspective in terms of how we view these uncertain times we are living in: maybe, by living in such uncertain times we are gifted with the opportunity to grow in resilience and wisdom.  While I feel a great deal of uncertainty about the world my son will inherit from me, the chance to live his life with a father who has grown in wisdom and resilience is no small gift to offer him, and that thought gives me hope.

 

 

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of Coaching Today, which is published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy: http://bacpcoaching.co.uk/coaching-today

 


[i] Campbell’s classic text on this is ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ but there is a more accessible book recently published by a friend of mine which offers specific exercises and advice aligned with the stages of the Journey.  It’s called ‘Your Life Plan’ by Erica Sosna.

Death and Life

You are going to die

You

Are going to die

There is no avoiding it

Pretending it won't happen won't prevent it

And more than that,

Everyone and everything you love will die too.

There is no solace in this world, no legacy great enough to ensure your immortality.

You are closer to death now than when you started reading.

Take another step my friend,

There is no avoiding it.

There could be misery in these thoughts...

Terror,

Disillusionment,

Pain.

But there is a gift as well:

It is only by embracing the reality of death that we truly learn how to live.

There is a fierce urgency that is yours to claim,

A freeing knowledge of your own doom

That waits

Like death

Just around the corner.

Many imagine the knowledge of imminent doom

To bring a rush

Of hedonism,

A selfish 'fuck you' to the world as you pursue your own pleasure.

...But that is not what I see.

That is not what I feel in myself as I contemplate my own demise,

No.

I want to share,

to give,

to love.

I seek belonging

Not belongings,

I welcome simplicity and peace, not a chaotic feeding of my inner glutton,

I seek substance not substances,

Because.

In confronting my death

I have to confront my life,

In facing the fact that I could disappear at any moment

I have to ask the question

"What if I could appear at any moment?"

What if...?

What if...?

What if I stepped out from behind the cloud of my own inhibitions and really lived?

What if I grasped the opportunity in my life

Not for fame,

Or greatness,

Or money,

Or any of the other egoic delights

I may pick up

Incidentally along the path,

What if I grasped the opportunity in my life

for ordinary wonder?

What if seeing death could help me to see life?

What if the marvel of life lies not in the marvels but in the minutiae?

The light on my cup,

The moment of satisfaction after eating a meal,

Or speaking to a friend.

What if I could appear to myself at any moment?

What if I could see myself with fresh eyes now, and now, and now

And know:

This is who I am.

And tomorrow I will be someone else,

And that is wonderful and terrible.

Wonder-full and terrible

To have to face

My own death

Every day,

The possibility of my physical death

And the reality of dying to myself every moment,

Because I am not the same person now as when I started writing this,

You are not the same person who started reading this,

You are not only dying but dead.

You are dead.

You are dead already.

You don't owe anyone anything,

And you owe a great legacy in every moment

Because you are your own ancestor.

Are you going to let the million you's who died so that you could live

Die for nothing?

Knowing that you will die anyway, can you sacrifice yourself in this moment

So that the you who is being born

Might receive a legacy of choice?

 

Can you embrace death, dear one,

so that you might learn how to live?

Spiritualising the Body

Often in the modern dialogue around spirituality we can be disconnected from the body. For various reasons with roots ranging from certain periods of Christian teaching, to Descartes' philosophical mind/body divide, right through to very contemporary ideas about spiritual 'transcendence', many of us seem to have ideas that the body is somehow less spiritual or even not spiritual at all. I have observed many times in many people some version of the thought that in order to be spiritual we need to disconnect from the physical. While materialism and fear of physical threat can be traps which keeps us from really focusing our attention on our deep values and higher ideals, if we are ever to reach towards enlightenment or any other kind of spiritual development, we must do so in our bodies, with our bodies, and through our bodies. I would suggest that our dissociation with our own bodies is a large contributing factor in creating the behaviour which has damaged and is destroying our planet. If we dismiss our own bodies as 'un-spiritual' and therefore not worthy of care, then how likely are we to bring deep care and attention to the 'body' of Mother Earth? I would also suggest that while we need large scale cultural change around how we relate to our environment, large cultural change can begin with small personal change. One way to approach this is to Spiritualise the Body. It doesn't need 'spiritualising', it is full of beauty and spirit already, so really this is more about remembering that. Remembering is a wonderful word in this context. We have been dis-membered, taken apart by these ideas of an 'un-spiritual' body and it is time to put ourselves back together – to re-member. This exercise is a first step towards that by taking something we do all the time – washing – and turning it into a spiritual practice.

 

In many traditions there are ways of physically cleansing the body which are also considered to be deeply spiritual acts. This can take the form of internal cleansing or external cleansing.

 

A number of shamanic traditions from around the world feature some form of 'purging' which often literally involves spitting or vomiting up matter which is considered to be linked to negative energy. Perhaps the best example of this is the Ayahuasca traditions of Brazil where they are ingesting a 'teacher plant' which has both hallucinogenic properties and purgative properties. The plant brings the shaman or practitioner visions which are considered direct interactions with the spiritual realm and at the same time the body is purged of negative energies, sometimes through vomiting - you don't need to worry that I'm going to get you to do that! A less extreme example of internal cleansing might be the use of fasting. When you fast, typically toxins are purged from the body, that's part of why you often get headache's and bad breath during a fast – that's the nasty stuff that's collected in corners being swept out of the body. While this has physical health benefits, in some of the traditions which work with fasting, the evacuation of physical toxins from the body is also seen to have a spiritual correlation so that your spirit or energy body is being cleansed by the process of the fast as well.

 

An example of external cleansing can be seen in the First Nation (or Native American) tradition of the sweat-lodge. The sweat-lodge is one of the most common traditional ceremonies that I have come across in the North American tradition and there have been suggestions that similar ceremonies may have been used in Europe too. The sweat-lodge is a small dome built from bent branches and then covered with hides or blankets with a pit inside to put heated stones in and a fire outside to heat the stones. The precise construction of the lodge and it's alignment to the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) varies but is always considered to be of great importance. This was a sacred place, not unlike a church. The symbolism of the sweat-lodge is that it represents the womb of Mother Earth and you go into the be ritually 'reborn' after the ceremony. The emphasis that I have experienced is always on the spiritual dimensions of the 'sweat' but there is a reality that this is a very real physical cleansing process too. Not unlike a sauna, the heat makes you sweat and by sweating you are releasing toxins from the body, on top of that the steam in the air means that once you towel off after the ceremony you are actually pretty clean, not just caked in sweat! Another example of external cleansing can be found in the Hindu tradition. Within Hinduism it is considered that each of us carries a seed of the divine within us so if we don't take care of ourselves then we are failing to take care of the divine within. As such, personal hygiene (for instance) is of great importance. You have probably at least heard of Yoga, and may know it was originally a Hindu discipline. What is less well-known is that what we commonly call 'Yoga' is actually only one of the 4 primary Yogic paths. What we usually call 'Yoga' is Raja Yoga. There is also Jnana Yoga which primarily involves exploring the nature of being through certain types of dialogue and enquiry; Karma Yoga which involves engaging in good works in the world; and Bhakti Yoga which involves devotional practices (ritual expressions of loving the divine). One of the traditional devotional practices of Bhakti Yoga is bathing statues of Gods and Goddesses, sometimes just bathing the feet.

 

So... what I want to invite you to do draws on the principles expressed in all of these traditions but most directly on these last aspects of Hinduism. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make a ritual out of having a bath and bathe yourself like you are bathing a God or Goddess! Once you have done one really special one, you could make your daily shower, bath, wash, teeth-brush or anything else into a small personal ritual or spiritual practice. However, I really recommend doing one really special one and setting aside time to do it with great care and attention. If you can, I suggest a bath because showers tend to be quicker and more functional so a bath lends itself more to slowing down and taking greater care. Rituals or ceremonies typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end – like a story. The beginning tells your mind and being that something special is about to happen and helps to raise your levels of awareness and attention. The end lets you know when you are done and can step back out into a more ordinary awareness. The middle is whatever journey you want to craft for yourself in this special space of heightened awareness. So for this ritual you need to find a way to mark the beginning – this could be anything. Some simple ones could be the 'ding' of a Tibetan singing bowl, playing a special piece of music, or lighting a candle. At the end you can just do this same thing again (the 'ding', play the music again, or blow out the candle) – or you can find some other way to mark the end point such as writing a list of 5 things you are grateful for, reading a beautiful poem out loud, or a moment of silence. Then in the middle your task is to make your bathing as nurturing, loving, beautiful, present, and aware as you possibly can. Light lots of candle, use scented oils, have a lovely soft towel waiting afterwards, or even without any special 'stuff' you can bring deep care and attention to how you wash every part of your body. Slow down and take sensual pleasure in it all. As you pour water over your feet, pour love over them too. As you rub soap into your hands and face, be gentle, loving, kind, and deeply attentive to how it feels and how you could make it even lovelier, more caring, and attentive. Move through it all at least a little slower than you usually would and love every part of you, encountering it as if for the first time: with fresh eyes and wonder in your heart. Allow yourself to be newly amazed at this wonderful bodied being that is you, this awesome embodiment of your consciousness, this body that does so many amazing things – moving, and healing, feeling, sensing, touching, stretching, breathing, eating, connecting you with yourself, your loved-ones and your world. Love every inch of yourself, especially the bits you usually struggle to love, with the idea that this body-being is a vessel for the divine. God, the Goddess, spirit, soul, Love, the Tao, Buddha-nature, or Christ-consciousness – whatever name you give to that ineffable thing from which all things come, all things return, and which connects all things, play with the idea that some part of that divine awareness lives in you and by this act of loving and caring for yourself, you are loving and caring for the Divine.

 

Wishing you a beautiful time!

 

This article is an excerpt of the online Spiritual Exploration course I will be releasing soon.  Sign up to the email newsletter to get access to a 30 minute guided visualization which is also part of it along with many other free resources.

What is Wisdom really?

What do I mean by ‘Wisdom’?

I first began thinking about how we can cultivate more wisdom when I was reflecting on the differences between fields of knowledge such as the sciences and mathematics; and the wisdom traditions from around the world such as religion, philosophy, and spirituality.  If you look at what texts have emerged from these two broad areas of human endeavour over the last 500, 1000, or even 2000 years the sciences seem to have seen a lot of progress with the core messages and underpinning concepts and assumptions having completely transformed; while the texts from the wisdom traditions contain basically the same messages, expressed in subtly different ways over and over again.  Different traditions may vary a bit but within any given tradition the core teachings, messages, underpinning concepts and assumptions are basically the same.  Now, this suggests to me that either the sciences have been progressed by generations of brilliant minds while wisdom has been at best handed down faithfully by some minimally creative bozo’s, or,  that what is being passed on is profoundly different in each case.  The first possibility strikes me as extremely unlikely!  It would be very hard to argue that there haven’t been some brilliant minds and deeply insightful people working, studying and teaching in the wisdom traditions even in recent times, let alone over the centuries and millennia.  So, the question for me then becomes: What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?

As I considered this question I came across a quote from David Brooks[1]:

Wisdom doesn’t consist of knowing specific facts or possessing knowledge of a field. It consists of knowing how to treat knowledge: being confident but not too confident; adventurous but grounded. It is a willingness to confront counterevidence and to have a feel for the vast spaces beyond what’s known.”

While it is still strongly focused around knowledge, I love this as a definition.  It has a poetry and humility about it which really speaks to me.  As I was thinking about all this, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of senior leaders about wisdom.  To speak with any validity to these deeply pragmatic people, I felt I needed to get really practical about what I meant when I said ‘Wisdom.’  Going back to where I started, it seemed most useful to compare and contrast knowledge with wisdom and what I came up with is the following simple chart:

Knowledge

Wisdom

+ Quantifiable

- Unquantifiable

+ Easy to pass on

-Must be ‘lived’

- More specific

+Transferable

- Ungrounded

+ Grounded

Replaceable

Irreplaceable

 

As you can see, they both have advantages and disadvantages; my work isn’t about arguing for wisdom instead of knowledge, I think we desperately need both.  The reason I’m focusing on wisdom is because all of our systems are brilliantly calibrated to capture, value and assess knowledge, while I see wisdom as being progressively lost, de-valued, and dismissed.  I want to be clear early on that I am not against knowledge, I am for wisdom.

So, let me explain what I mean in my chart.  By ‘quantifiable’ I mean that knowledge can be clearly recorded and tested for.  We are overflowing with sources of knowledge from the billions of books in existence to academic papers, to the internet.  We have lots of knowledge very clearly recorded, and for many people, easily accessed.  You can also relatively easily test whether or not someone has a particular body of knowledge by asking them questions and seeing if they get them right.  That’s mostly what we do in schools (and by schools I mean academic environments in general)[2].   

Conversely, wisdom is unquantifiable, it can’t be recorded and it can’t be tested for.  “What about all those wisdom books you mentioned before?” I hear you cry.  Ah well, I think there’s a reason that the core messages have stayed the same over the centuries: they are not about recording wisdom, they are maps to guide us towards cultivating our own wisdom.  If you are recording knowledge then as the data changes, the record must change, but if you are trying to provide a map or set of sign-posts for someone to have their own experience of one of life’s essential guiding principles then that is not going to change generation to generation.  I would argue partly because these things have a timelessness about them, but more concretely, if knowledge can be passed from one generation to the next then one generation starts from the point the last one ended and progress is therefore linear.  If wisdom must be based on your personal lived experience then while one generation can be guided by their elders, they can only ever progress for the length of a human life.  Wisdom is cyclical in each generation rather than being linear and progressive.  Here we come to the second point in the chart: that wisdom must be lived for yourself, it cannot be passed on.  You can be mentored in developing your own wisdom but it can’t be directly handed down.  With knowledge you just have to have access to the information, you don’t even have to have access to the person who made the discoveries – it’s relatively easy to pass on.  For any of you that have older children, or perhaps you remember your own adolescence, if you have ever tried to give a teenager advice, you’ll know that your wisdom cannot be passed on!  Typically it works like this: You offer advice (your hard-earned wisdom), they ignore it and do what they like anyway, and if you and they are lucky then a few years later they offer you the same piece of advice you gave them, in their own words, as if you had never spoken.  People, to a significant degree, have to make their own mistakes – and that’s one of the ways we gain wisdom.

By ‘transferable’ I mean something different than the capacity to pass it on.  I mean this in terms of the application – that knowledge is mostly specific to a particular field you are working on, and the more knowledgeable you get to be in a given topic, generally, the more specialised that knowledge becomes.  When there is so much knowledge out there, this is a natural consequence of that abundance.  Wisdom on the other hand is more attitudinal.  It is not as specific and, although you can develop wisdom in the environment you spend your time in, generally speaking a lot of that wisdom will still be applicable when you move to a new environment.  If we go back to Brooks’ contention that wisdom is: “knowing how to treat knowledge” then that can be applied to any body of knowledge in any field.  It is an attitude towards knowledge rather than knowledge itself, and that attitude can help you to approach any environment in a more effective way than you would have done even 6 months ago, but certainly 10 years ago.

What I am describing as ‘grounded’ is that it is, by its nature, in contact with life as it is lived in the rough-and-tumble of daily life – roots deep in the dirt.  Knowledge does not innately have this quality; it can be recorded, passed on, and digested in isolation.  We have the phrase “Ivory Tower Academic” to express this exact phenomenon.  This is a label we have for someone who is the pinnacle of achievement in their field of knowledge – an expert in the truest sense of the word – but their knowledge has been developed in such isolation, the atmosphere of their thinking so rarefied that it is distant from day-to-day experience to the extent that it no longer seems relevant and applicable.  There is much knowledge and many academics who are wonderful practitioners as well, but this distancing from human experience is inherently possible in the nature of knowledge and simply cannot happen with wisdom.  If it has become that distant, it’s not wisdom anymore!  As I said earlier, wisdom must be lived – personally and intimately in contact with the realities of life. 

Graduate trainees can be a perfect example of this kind of knowledge developed in isolation.  In my work on programs developing graduate management trainees I am working with young people, many of whom are far more academically qualified than I am – arguably more knowledgeable than I am by most conventional measures – and part of what I think we do in those programs is create an environment where it is safe for them to have their first car crash of learned knowledge with human relationships and professional challenge.  No few of them arrive armoured in their arrogance and surrounded by the golden aura of having been the best of the best in their educational establishments, and often they will leave a little more humble, a little more human, and I would suggest, hopefully a little wiser.  They have learned better how to wield the wealth of knowledge they have gained through schooling, and as Brooks’ poetically puts it, they have a better “…feel for the vast spaces beyond what’s known.”

It seems important at this point to make a small distinction between wisdom and experience.  It would be understandable if you had started to wonder if they were not the same thing by this point.  I may speak more about this later articles, and will certainly address it in the book I am working on 'The Wisdom Economy', but for now I just wanted to lay that thought to rest a little.  I would suggest that you can have plenty of experience without gaining wisdom.  Most of us will have met someone who has been working or living in an environment for many years and doesn’t seem any wiser now than someone 2 weeks in.  Most of us will recognise the character in the workplace who, in spite of their many years on the job is still a pain in the bum to work with and has relatively little to offer except completion of the most basic tasks.  In Britain the term ‘Jobsworth’ is often associated with such individuals.  Developing wisdom is not just a matter of passively sitting somewhere for many years.  The passing of time helps with the cultivation of wisdom and cannot be bypassed by speed-reading or having an eidetic memory, but it is not the only condition.  Someone can have a lot of experience and have developed very little wisdom.  I see wisdom as being akin to a distillation of experience.  The distilling process is what I will explore more in future articles, videos and the book, but for now it’s enough to know that experience and wisdom, while linked, are not the same.  I would also add a note of compassion for those who have many years of experience but little wisdom: we are all living with the legacy of many generations of systematic neglect or even destruction of the methods by which wisdom is cultivated in ourselves and those who come after us.  While laziness or just sheer apathy may well have played a part in the missed opportunity for growing wisdom, a decimated cultural legacy has affected all of us and many people genuinely don’t know any other way to be.  Part of my hope with this work I have developed is that it could be part of a return to collective wisdom which will make it much less likely people will numb themselves to the passing of days and years and miss the beauty, wonder, and learning that life itself has to offer us.

So, finally in my chart we come to replaceable and irreplaceable.  Hopefully you are already seeing how this applies to these now distinct fields of knowledge and wisdom, but I want to be explicit.

Seeing the world only through the lens of knowledge, as long as you have a record of their knowledge, a person can be replaced.  If you find someone with a similar background in learning then they will be able to read the notes of the person they are replacing and be up to speed fast.  If the last few things they were doing are missing, the largely linear nature of knowledge means that there’s a good chance of extrapolating what they were developing.  Even if you just get someone with a very high IQ, good basic education, excellent recall and then make sure they can speed-read, then you can replace someone almost from scratch relatively fast (at least compared with how long it took to grow that person in the first place!).

Most of us would recognise that what I’ve just described is rarely how it works.  It can sometimes, I have seen people in organisations replaced ‘like-for-like’ with shocking speed at times, sometimes even quite successfully, but much of the time we’d recognise that the person isn’t replaced and the ‘getting up to speed’ takes much longer than our efficiency-driven systems would like to tell us is possible.  So while I think that many of us would recognise the irreplaceability of a person it can be rationalised away because even in the 'Knowledge Economy' with its aspirations to valuing people, knowledge can be replaced – or even upgraded.  I think this rationalisation is made at our peril.  When we fail to recognise the innate and specific value of other human beings it’s easy to make them less than human, just cogs in a machine.  And once they are not fully human we don’t have to treat them like real people, we can treat them like things.  And you only have to look at the world’s hazardously growing rubbish-tips to see how we, as a culture, treat things: they have a limited value and when we decide that has run out we throw them away.  I am of course not recommending total stagnation – change is necessary, in fact I’m advocating it here!  But the attitude we take to that change, the way we create it together, the way we treat each other, and the responsibility we collectively take for making a world where people learn, grow, and are honoured for that rather than becoming ‘obsolete’ is deeply needed.  I think a wonderful step towards that kind of change exists in the opportunity we have to re-learn how to recognise and value wisdom rather than, at best ignoring it as un-measurable, and at worst dismissing it as irrelevant.

 

If you'd like to join me on my journey of exploring and cultivating wisdom then join the mailing list.  This is the first of a series of articles on this topic, there is the book I am working on, and I will be sharing free resources exclusively with members of the mailing list as I continue to develop and write about this work.

 

I'd love to have you along for the journey.

 


[1] In his book ‘The Social Animal’

[2] This isn’t limited to cognitive knowledge either.  Even if we break it down into domains of knowledge using a model such as Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, practical skills can be recorded and tested for and while growth in feelings or emotional areas is hard to record as knowledge (and may bridge knowledge and wisdom as I am defining them), sophistication in this realm is increasingly measurable using psychological methodology.

The 7 Days to Spiritual Enlightenment Game!

 

OK, so the likelihood that your crown chakra will spontaneously combust with spiritual go-go juice and you’ll become an overnight guru and world-saviour as a result of playing this game is slim, but this game could help you breathe more deeply, love more fully, see your everyday world in a new light, explore life more freely and live more vividly.  If that’s not worth investing a little attention in then I don’t know what is.  Just take it one day at a time and know that as long as you put in a bit of effort, there is cake at the end of the rainbow… mmmmmm … cake…..You will need a notebook and pencil, or phone (etc) to keep note of your score on each day and the following instructions for the 7 days:

 

  1. Dolphin Breathing:  Did you know dolphin’s have to consciously breathe so they don’t drown? Crazy huh?!  So on day 1 your mission is to pause and consciously breathe as often as you can during the day (without it becoming debilitating!).  Score a point for every time you pay attention to your breath.
  2. Hello:  Day 2’s mission is to say hello to each new experience, space, moment that you can.  So, for e.g. when you enter a room, go outside (having been inside), see someone, sit down at your computer…  Just internally say a really present and aware “hello” to as many things and people as you can.  Score a point for every time you do it.
  3. Gratitude:  This one is simple, but not easy… Notice and be grateful for all the gifts in your life.  Big things like home, friends, job, etc… And the little things like lunch, the traffic or crossing light being green, a spring in your step.  Score a point for every moment of gratitude.
  4. Counter-Blessing:  People think certain words with asterisks where letters should be are curses (like F**k) but they’re not really.  The real curses are the million ways we trash-talk the world in our thoughts.  All that negativity builds up!  Today is for counter-acting that: every time you have a negative thought (even if it is a justifiable one like “Man, I hate that political policy”), counter it with a positive one (it doesn’t have to be the same thing, it’s about the balance.  So you could counter the politics comment with “look at that beautiful flower!”).  Score a point for every curse you notice and counter.
  5. Blanket Blessing:  Next step is to just bless the bejeesus out of the whole world!  Choose things as you make your way through the day and get really specific about what it is you appreciate about that thing.  What qualities make it fantastic?  It’s great practice to choose things you either don’t like or that you find mundane or boring.  Ask yourself what makes even these things wonder-full.  Score a point for each thing you bless today.  Everything has value, if can’t see it yet, keep digging until you find the gold!  Score a point for each blessing.
  6. Breaking Enchantments:  You may by this point have noticed in your mind a negative story you carry about yourself (usually some version of “I’m not good enough”).  Today is for turning these around.  Choose one of your personal enchantments and invent a phrase that’s the opposite (like “I am wonderful”).  Whenever you hear that curse in your head, break it wide open by asserting your opposite statement – your self-blessing.  Score a point every time you do it.
  7. Goodbye:  The end is here so it’s time to practice endings.  Just like the day saying hello only this time you are saying “goodbye.”  Whenever you are leaving something behind (even if it is just leaving a room) pause inside yourself and say goodbye.  Score a point for every time you do it.

 

If you score 70 points or more then you rock – go buy yourself a piece of cake to celebrate your own awesomeness!  If you score 140 points or more then you rock da house, go and buy yourself cake and ice-cream!  If you score 280 points or more then buy a whole cake, invite some friends round and share your wisdom – you are clearly a spiritual legend!  If you score more than 350 points then you are about to transcend this life, turn into a beam of light and join the enlightened masters in the heavenly realm of cake-y wonder.  Hang tight where you are, cake, and eternal life as a bodhisattva is coming to you.

For more games and resources to make life more awesome visit www.fudoshin.org.uk and check out www.ask-the-rev.net for spiritual responses to life’s questions.

The Art of Dad-Fu

 

Not long ago I became a dad.  There are lots of things that come with being a dad both wonderful and challenging much of which I was kind-of expecting.

 

On the wonderful side I have got to see my wife blossom into motherhood, I got to witness her awesome strength in giving birth, I get to play with and generally enjoy my gorgeous baby son, and perhaps most importantly we get to put various cute and funny hats on him and take pictures!

 

On the tougher side of things it was not an easy birth and it was very difficult to see my wife work so hard and not be able to help, I have occasional bouts of terror about providing financially for my family, and it’s hard running my own business to find the right balance between work and family time.

 

One thing that I didn’t expect when becoming a dad was to put on weight.  It is apparently very common though and it has happened for me.  I’m a stocky build and am never likely to be either skinny or conventionally ‘Buff’ but I keep in reasonable shape through martial arts training and walking.  I am now heavier than I’d like to be.  During pregnancy when the mum-to-be is being flooded by hormones, the man does often have hormonal changes too.  In many men their testosterone production goes down (the hormone that makes you manly, active, lusty, and when there’s too much of it – aggressive!) and progesterone production goes up (progesterone goes up in women too and is often associated with ‘nesting’ tendencies).  This shift tends to bring with it a weight gain.  Also once the baby is born it’s common for a new dad to gain between half a stone and one stone just because you end up eating more and being less active.  So while I didn’t expect this change, it looks like I’m not the only one.

Now, pre-baby I would have got back into training Karate and Kung-Fu with my teacher, upped my solo training and not worried about it too much.  That was what I first set my sights on.  However, finding an hour or so a day plus the 2-3 hours I would spend with my teacher each week doesn’t seem very realistic in the post-baby new world.  That doesn’t mean I’m giving up on my training, but it’s clearly something I’m going to have to find my way back into more slowly than I would have hoped.  Right now, I need to up my exercise… so what do I do?!  If I take time out of my work day then I get less hours at that when my time already feels squeezed; if I take time out of my family time then that’s less time with my wife and child and my wife having to manage without my support more than is the case already.  It’s a bit of a rock and a hard place.  Well, it was… Until I invented the art of Dad-Fu!

 

Anyone who knows me or my work will know that I am passionate about creating practices – taking regular activities and making them conscious and meditative processes to engage in.  I even have a book coming out soon on this very subject: A little book on finding your Way – Zen and the Art of Doing stuff.  Watch this space for more news if you’re interested or get in touch and we can put you on the mailing list.  The art of Dad-Fu is a practice.  What it involves is taking my son, Samson out for a walk for an hour every day in the sling.  Doesn’t sound like such a big deal?  Let me explain…

 

It meets my need for getting some good basic exercise (walking is great cardiovascular exercise providing you walk swiftly enough to raise your heart rate slightly and keep it raised), Samson is perfectly happy wrapped up in his furry super-suit (and usually goes to sleep within about 10 steps), and my wife gets an hour to herself to do with as she pleases!  It meets everyone’s needs and I get some more bonding time with Samson.  If he’s awake I often talk or sing to him (I don’t look any more crazy than your average blue-tooth headset user!) and if he’s asleep then at least he’s still in my energy field.

This has taught me a valuable lesson about developing practices: whatever high ideals we might have and as wonderful as some practices may be, sometimes what’s most important is that the practice fits your life not the other way around.  If your practice is not supportive of you taking this one precious life you have and making the most of it then what’s the point?  That’s not to dismiss taking special time out to meditate or do Karate or have a tea-ceremony or whatever floats your boat.  That can be vital to living a fulfilled life too, but right now my highest priority is being the best dad I can so I practice Dad-Fu.  I think the key question to ask ourselves here is: “What is this in service of?”  It’s a big question and one that comes up a lot in the Samurai Game when I run it.  ‘Samurai’ translates as ‘One who serves.’  I see the warrior archetype as an archetype of service.  The warrior serves the ruler or King, so what rules you?  Negative habits and addictions can rule us whether that is alcohol or shopping or too much TV (and I’m not against any of these things per-se, see my previous article on TV as a practice!).  Equally, apparently positive practices can end up harming more than they help if they rule us.  A meditation practice, or going to the gym can be great for your spiritual or physical health but if it takes up loads of your time and damages your relationships, is it worth it?  You need to take into account the fact that devoting time to a solo practice may be what makes it possible to be really present in relationships so it is not a simple equation to solve but definitely one worth considering.

 

You may be wondering “Why Dad-Fu?”  Well partly because I think it sounds cooler than “The art of going for a walk in the cold with my son” but also I think there is a valuable parallel between Kung-Fu and being a dad.  Kung-Fu can be translated many ways from the original Chinese but one of those translations is ‘time and hard work.’  I find it a heartening reminder of the nature of committed practice whether that is to a martial art or to being a father.  It is going to be hard work sometimes: deal with it.  It also takes place in an extended time period and while that means that the hard work keeps going, it also allows lots of time and space to make mistakes (and we’re all going to), to learn from them, and to heal from the disappointments (and these will happen).  Taking up any form of committed practice is both a burden and a gift – I think that’s doubly true of parenting – and that is the wonderful, mysterious dichotomy of life. 

As with any new practice, Dad-Fu has had some unexpected delights.  Brighton is really quite beautiful at night in a way that you just don’t see during the day.  The sea-front is wonderfully quiet and peaceful, the sea dark and mysterious in its murmurings.  I also get time to just ponder things as I walk.  An hour largely devoted to pondering and walking feels like quite a treat!  I have also discovered hidden architectural delights, sometimes just on regular houses, sometimes in more obvious places like the beautifully repaired bandstand on the sea-front (the pictures throughout this article are from my walks in the last week or so).  It feels like a really magical space to be mostly on my own, Samson asleep on my chest and find a spot, view, or moment which conjures something in my imagination or sparks a story in my mind.  I am really enjoying my new practice.

 

So what can you take away from this article?  Maybe just consider your own practices (and whatever you’re doing again and again is a practice) and have a think about what you want to be in service of and whether those practices are the best use of your time.  There is a saying which has been attributed to various people over the years (right back to a Latin version from ancient Rome):  “Necessity is the mother of Invention.”  I have certainly found that to be true in creating ‘The Way of Dad-Fu.’  Perhaps you have necessities which are calling for your creativity…?

 

Whatever you practice, I hope it brings you joy in the easy times, strength in the tough times and growth all the time.

 

First Chapter: Finding your Way

I wanted to share with you all the intro and the first chapter of my forthcoming book "A little book on finding your Way: Zen and the Art of Doing stuff."  I've been really enjoying writing it for the last 6 months or so.  It is going to be a short book (hence the title) but I think it 'has legs'.  So short book, but a long journey ahead of it!  I hope you enjoy this except and perhaps it will whet your appetite for the whole thing when it's ready (should be in print by December this year).  Thanks for reading this and joining me on the journey...

 

Introduction: The Way

 

          We all want to be good at something.  Let's face it, most of us who haven't had all the passion squeezed out of us want to be really good at something. It almost doesn't matter what the thing is – just to be that good, to be able to say “I'm World-class.”  But how do we envision this goal?  I'd say that in the western world we have a pretty limited idea of what achievement really means.  It mostly seems to mean Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Taller, just plain MORE!  I think there's another way...

          It's a way that has been around in the West forever but has only been applied to certain disciplines (primarily the arts).  It has been suggested by certain modern and progressive psychologies.  But I think it has been best explored and expressed in the Far East where it has been inherent in some of their oldest philosophical approaches.  What is that way?  Good question.

          It is The Way.  It has it's roots in Taoism (an ancient Chinese religion and spiritual path) and found further expression in Japanese Zen Buddhism.  'Tao' (sometimes Dao) in Chinese or 'Do' in Japanese translates as 'Way.'  So when I say it's The Way, that's what I mean.  And this book is not just about doing stuff it's about Do-ing stuff: taking something you do and making it a Do (see how beautifully I've set up that pun?  That's part of my Way, I learnt it from my Dad).

          The Way is not about Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Taller or More.  It is about someone expressing their essential nature.  It is about blossoming into the fullness of your being – and not in an 'I'm the most beautiful blossom ever' kinda way – in a finding out who you are and living that kinda way.  When you really do that, as the song says, nobody does it better.

          This is not about converting you to some religion, making you shave your head, selling you a line of 'The Way'TM T-shirts, or selling your Soul to Santa.  It could be described as a spiritual path but only in so much as it is a path and if you want to you can involve your spiritual self in the journey.  That's all up to you.  My personal experience is that by taking certain activities and bringing a special mindset to them I have learned about myself and found a deeper sense of who I really am.  It's not any kind of objective truth (if such a thing exists) but it has brought me joy in the good times and peace in the tough times and that's good enough for me.

          The Way is not really about the activities that help to cultivate it. The Way is your unique path in the world.  When that's really written in your heart then you can experience all kinds of Ways and all kinds of people and they all help to feed you in your own Way.  In the words of the Hagakure[1]:

 

 “It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything that is called a Way. Therefore it is inconsistent to hear something of the Way of Confucius or the Way of the Buddha, and say that this is the Way of the Samurai. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.”

  


Chapter 1: All Zen Masters are Geeks and Anoraks!

 

          I think one of the reasons why we view mastery as we do in the West is because of school.  In school it's not cool to be good at stuff unless it's mainstream.  This will probably depend on the school but at my school, being good at football was cool.  Sports were generally a cool thing to be good at but Football was top of the pile.  Music could be cool to be good at... guitar was cool, oboe was not.  As we got towards driving age, knowing a lot about cars was cool.  Being academically strong was not cool, but particularly maths, the sciences and history were not cool.  Religious Studies didn't even get on the radar.  These are mostly examples from the boys side of the fence and from my school in particular but most of us develop a sixth sense about what's cool and what's not when we are at school and I'm sure you can fill in your own examples. 

          In this environment where only certain activities are safe to be enthusiastic about, is it any wonder that many of us loose our way?  In the rarefied social environment of the playground or the sports field or the canteen you just didn't say “You know what?  I love renaissance poetry!”  If you did you were a geek.  Likewise, it would have been a special kind of social suicide to say “This algebra stuff is brilliant, I could just play with numbers and letters like this all day!”  If you did you were an anorak.

          Most of us will have had relatively little safe space growing up to explore what really excited us.  We have been socially educated to hide away any passions which don't fit the mould.

          I think that to find our Way we have to love something.  It's not always the case but I've often found that the things I fall in love with are things I have some natural talent for.  That doesn't mean I find them easy – the challenge is part of what gets me really hooked long term – but when I first try it there's a zing of recognition like I've done it before and the process of learning is more like a remembering.

          I never really learnt to love football, but it wouldn't surprise me if many of my school friends did.  They learnt to love it but I suspect only a handful loved it straight off.  In my heart there were other things I loved straight away, and some of them have taken years to discover.  Most of the things I love would have definitely placed me in the Geek camp at school.  Karate for instance, but not the high kicking kind of cool 'Karate Kid' Karate, no.... A rare form of old Okinawan Karate that is compact and probably not that impressive to watch.  Another example would be a love of world religions and philosophies.  Definitely not cool.  My most recent discovery is 'Card Scaling'.  “What?!” I hear you cry.  It is the skill of throwing playing cards with enough power to stick in a water-melon or fly for hundreds of feet.  Throwing playing cards like a ninja!  Sound kinda geeky?  Fair enough, but I love it.

          Where in the East people who obsessively train in obscure disciplines are given titles of respect, in the West they are called Geeks and Anoraks.  Take a Zen master as an example.  He (or she) spends years sitting still.  Their other key activity is contemplating ancient pieces of short and confusing poetry.  It sounds like a geek and smells like a geek, it's a geek!  Ancient poetry that doesn't have any immediate or obvious meaning?!  What an anorak!

          If you want to master something, if you want to find a Way that will nourish you and help you grow it's got to be something that lives in your heart; and that means that by the world's standards it might not be cool. 

          There are Ways already defined and laid out for you to pick up: the martial arts; zen flower arranging; calligraphy; brush painting; pottery; carving; the Japanese tea ceremony.  That's not what this book is about.  What I'm looking to do here is set out some principles so that you can take any activity and turn it into a Way.  Hell, if the Samurai and monks of ancient Japan could turn making the tea into a Zen art then why shouldn't we do the same with anything?  Cake baking, accountancy, wine tasting is virtually there already, the application of make-up, dog walking, throwing stones into the sea – anything!

          If you're going to undertake this task and find a Way for yourself you'd better get in touch with your inner geek.  Revere the anorak in your heart.  These are the parts of you that are capable of completely investing themselves in the deep deep detail of their activities no matter what anyone else thinks.  And remember that all Zen masters are Geeks and Anoraks.

 

          Some of you who have an altruistic outlook and want to take care of others or even change the world may be wondering if this isn't all a bit self serving.  Isn't it a bit selfish to dig deep into myself and find what I like to do and really invest time in it regardless of whether it is an activity which serves others?  I would say no.  If you don't take care of the vessel doing the work (that's you) then the work won't get done.  One of my favourite quotes at the moment is this one from Howard Thurman:

 

“Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

 


[1]     Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Translated by William Scott Wilson



My Tao Te Ching - Chapter 1

One of the books I'm working on at the moment is my own version of the Tao Te Ching.  For those of you that don't know, the Tao Te Ching is the central text of Taoism.  It is thought to be the oldest complete sacred text dating back to something like 500 years BC and is said to have been written by a mysterious figure called Lao Tzu.  Whether Lao Tzu was a real person or is a mythical figure, no-one is sure and some say the text is an amalgamation of several philosophers writings.  I don't know about all that, but I do know that the Tao Te Ching is a wonderful text full of beautiful poetic subtlety (when well translated) and profound lessons about the nature of life the universe and... well, everything!

"So," I can hear you thinking "...why are you writing your own version of a profound, ancient Chinese text?  Do you even speak Chinese?  Who the hell do you think you are anyway??!!" 

All fair questions.  It is in the nature of translation work - especially in a language which is so different in it's nature to English (Chinese being made up of pictograms which have image-based significance as well as linguistic) - that the translator is not a mere technician swapping one bolt for another in the machine of language, but is an artist re-creating the original work in another medium.  Imagine getting a Picasso painting and then asking a contemporary artist to re-create it as a piece of music.  It's not quite the same thing but translation is closer to this metaphor than we often like to think.  There are some wonderful translators out there (one of my favourites is Daniel Ladinsky who has translated a lot of the Sufi mystics - check out his book 'Love poems from God').  There are also some wonderful translations of the Tao Te Ching - I've read about 6 or 8 cover to cover over the years, some many times, and dipped into a further 5 or more that weren't as good in my opinion.  To be clear, my opinion is based not on being a scholar of the Chinese language but on having studied and lived with Taoist arts for much of the past 10 years or so.  The ones that I feel really capture the essence of the Taoist outlook are the translations by: Gia-fu Feng and Jane English; Stephen Mitchell; and Ursula LeGuin.

There are some great translations out there... and I feel there's space for another one!  I wanted to write one in language that doesn't lose the wonderful sense of the mysterious but is in slightly more 'modern-friendly' language.  There is also, in the Taoist tradition, a great sense of humour and rogue-ishness.  The other versions of the Tao Te Ching seem to me to be missing this quality.  It's probably the case that the original text didn't have this quality so they are accurate translations.  None-the-less, I wanted a version with a sense of humour so as no-one else seemed to be forthcoming in writing such a thing, I thought I'd do it!  I've written the first chapter below for you to have a read, I hope you enjoy it.

The Tao Te Ching is written in 81 'Chapters' and each chapter is a kind of poem.  The first chapter is considered by many to contain the essence of the entire book.

My Tao Te Ching - A Fools Guide to Effing the Ineffable - By Francis Briers

Chapter 1


I'm going to talk about something

I'll call it Tao (which means 'Way').

By Talking about it I'm only going to confuse matters,

But if I don't,

This will be a very short book.

 

Even by calling it "Tao" I've taken something amazing,

Limitless

And wonderfully mysterious,

And reduced it to a 3 letter word.

 

Direct experience, no matter how confusing, is the real deal.

 

As soon as I give it a name it's just another thing

Like the toaster,

Or the train,

Or Auntie Maureen,

Or the Jelly mold...

 

Sometimes

When we let go of our need to pin things down

Our confusion can be very beautiful.

 

When we get obsessed with having all the answers

All we can see is the toaster.

 

Strangely: Beautiful confusion and the toaster come from the same place.

This place is called "The Dark."

It's so dark you can't see anything,

But if you want to understand

Then "The Dark"

Is the only place worth looking.

 

 

If you like this and you'd like to be kept up to date on this and other books I will soon be publishing then drop us a line and we can put you on the mailing list.  There is also a spiritual development course coming up in October which has a Taoist element and we will be offering other Taoist influenced workshops in the future - please do get in touch!

Karate begins and ends with 'Rei'

Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern Karate defined 20 principles of Karate.  There is much debate in the hard-core Karate fraternity about how true to the original form of Karate Funakoshi was, and others have questioned how great a figher he was when compared with the likes of Kano (founder of Judo) or Ueshiba (founder of Aikido).  However, whatever we think of  Funakoshi's physical prowess, I consider him a true Warrior because of his commitment to his Way - his Do; and because he was a great philospher and teacher.  He was a Confucian scholar and, as was the case with many of the great martial teachers (including Kano and Ueshiba) he sought to teach his students a harmonious and compassionate way of life, not just a physical skill.

I wanted to 'unpack' the 20 principles of Karate so that they can be applied to the whole of life and not just to Karate.  I will do this 1 at a time and will drop them into this blog over the coming weeks and months.  Here is the first:

Karate Begins and ends with Rei

Rei is the word used to denote the formal Japanese bow that you will see a lot in traditional Dojo's (Dojo is the name for a training hall and means 'place of the Way').  Rei also means respect.  Karate classes literally begin and end with a bow, as do all engagements with an opponent, but what I think we are being reminded of here is more relating to the symbolic aspect of this practice than the literal.  The constant bowing in martial arts classes can be seen as just cultural garnish, keeping the art 'Japanese flavoured.'  However, I see it as a vital part of our practice.  Bowing is a practice of humility.  We are bodily offering deep respect and gratitude to whoever and whatever we are bowing to.  I say whatever, because traditionally the Dojo would have had a shinto shrine which would have been the first and the last thing we would bow to.  This shrine was, amongst other things, the home of the spirit of the land and building it was in.  As such, when we bow to this shrine, we are offering our respects to the place we are training in, and in my mind, this also means the land itself.  Indeed, with Shinto being a religion which recognises many spirits of nature, I think that this respect would traditionally have extended out to the land and the natural surroundings.  This reminder of respect for our environment is perhaps more important now than ever.  With the damage that has been done and continues to be done to the natural world, we must bring this awareness to every day of our lives if we are going to leave an inhabitable world for our children and their children. 

          The other bow that comes at the beginning and end of the class is to the sensei.  They are the teacher but with some subtle differences.  Sensei means 'one who has gone before' so it is someone who has walked the path we are setting our feet on so they can help us find our way safely and can set the pace so that we are constantly challenged.  Of course it is important to respect our teachers, but also, my feeling is that when we bow to the outward sensei, we also have the opportunity to bow to our inner sensei.  There is a part of us which is naturally connected to a deep wisdom and it is this part of ourselves that makes our learning possible as much as any external teacher or guide.  There is also the opportunity to remind ourselves to be grateful for all our teachers, even the people and events in our lives which are difficult.  It is a reminder that all experience has something to teach us.  

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          So when we bow, when we rei, we are physically reminding ourselves of our gratitude for the beauty of the world around us; the challenge and learning offered by all of our opponents in life (internal and external); the humbling wisdom which lies in the teaching we receive from others and ourselves; and we are reminding ourselves to bring the quality of respect to every moment.  Gratitude, humility, respect:  Karate-do begins and ends in rei.

You don't need to go to a Karate class to practice Rei.  If you have a meditation practcie you can begin that and end it with a bow of some kind and bring this awareness to your practice.  If you don't have a practice already then you could take up bowing as a practice.  It only takes a few moments and it is a wonderful way of bodily invoking these qualities of gratitude, humility and respect.  So, maybe when you first get up in the morning, or when you enter and leave your house or living room you could take a moment to centre yourself and make a really conscious bow.  Remember, you are bowing to the world, your immediate environment, yourself as you are, the 'master' that lives within you, and all those opponents you have faced and will face who are teachers for you if only you can discern the lesson.

 

First post: What does this Soul long for?

I have prevarricated.  Some of you may know what that is like.  I have been busy - that's true, but more than anything I have been wrestling with what my first post should be on this blog of mine, this new venture in internet communication: What is sufficiently substantial and representative of my intended writing to come to take this pride of place as the first thing I write here?

I don't have an answer to that.  While soul and spirit and heart-focused living are all definitely part of it; and 'human business' as my friend Mark Walsh describes it is also connected to what I want to write here; and Warrior living is at the heart of what I am offering in many of my workshops; it is all of these things and none of these things and something else as well.

So, it will be what it is and perhaps others will define it for me as it forms.

For now, instead of only offering you my prevarrication, I offer you a poem.  It is a wish, for my own soul and perhaps it will resonate with yours as well. 

 

 

What does this soul long for?

 

Love

Love

Love, Love, Love

And Loving

And Loving

And Loving

And longing's end

With space to grow,

And flow

And support

And manifest safe reality

Held

In the hands of Mother Earth

And in the hearth of my own home

And own work

And knowledge of integrated expansion

And magic

And continued learning

In enjoyment and immersion and pleasure and recognition

And tactile, rolling, tumbling fun

And walk, walk, walk

The sea

Hills

Shore

Rising

Woodland waves

Hand-in-hand

Heart-in-heart

Sharing

Wonder-eye-sparkle connection

Without and within

And everything done

And everything yet to do

And

Adventure, adventure, adventure!