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.

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.

A Happy Ending

Endings are important.  I find it an easy thing to forget, after all, the real stuff is done isn’t it?  Ending is just the name for… well the end, when you’ve finished what you’re doing…. No?

Well if you’re anything like me, I’d suggest it’s worth bringing some attention to how you do your endings.  My wife is a psychotherapist and I’ve learned from her and my own training and experience in Spiritual Counselling about how important it is to find a conscious way to finish working with a client.  That therapeutic space is a delicate, significant, and intimate part of people’s lives and we would be doing them a disservice, and failing to honour what I consider to be the sacredness of the work we do together if we don’t find a conscious way to bring our work to an end.  Equally, when working in ritual, whether that is in my personal life in the way I mark the turning of the year with friends, or in my formal work as a minister it is vital to bring things to a close rather than just letting it all go.  We must honour that which we call forth within ceremony and ritual whether you consider that to purely be a part of our psyche, or a spiritual or divine presence, and the place for that honouring is at the end.  That is how we finish. 

Serge Kahili King writes about the most basic structure for any ritual as being a beginning to get the attention of your whole being and say “this is something special”, a middle where the body of the ritual happens (whatever that may be), and an end which closes the ritual and releases the energies you have collected back into the world and your psyche to do their work (healing, changing, manifesting etc.).  This reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s (the famous mythologist) simplest map of the Hero’s journey as an archetypal Rite of Passage: Separation, Initiation, Return.  In simple terms this means that you leave or are taken away from your community or normal environment, you go through a challenging or transitionary experience, and then you return to your community and normal environment transformed and armed with gifts from your adventures to share with others.  How amazing would it be to feel like every ceremony or ritual you attended had that quality?  How wonderful to have that ‘time-out-of-time’ and then return feeling better equipped to be present, to help, and to love than when you left.  That is what I aim to do when I hold ceremonies for people, not necessarily in a grand and explosive way (it’s not a seminar after all!) but in a gentle and subtle way to help us all step out of the everyday, to share a connecting experience that helps us to access more beauty, connection, and love (to transform perspective), and then to create a conscious gateway to return to our day-to-day lives whereby we return refreshed and awakened.  I don’t know for sure my success rate but it feels to me that I witness people leaving a little brighter than when they arrive, and I have had some wonderful feedback from weddings, and other ceremonies I have designed and held for people.

What I have recently turned my attention to is how I bring this ceremonial or ritual awareness to my every day life.  I have been doing this in various ways for years and it is part of why the core practices for my Somatic Presence work are Breathing, Standing, Walking and Talking.  However, I have been bringing some attention to my endings… 

How often have you got to the end of the day and then just rushed out of the office?  How often have you been having a meeting and run short of time, crammed as much as you can in, and then rushed to finish so people get away on time.  It is a well-known phenomenon in therapeutic work to get a “door-handle comment.”  This is where the client seems not to settle into the work for much of the session and then just as they are leaving (hand on the door-handle…) they say something that is so profoundly what they needed to be talking about for the whole session that it is both a deep frustration, and a deep joy.  The frustration comes because they’ve only just said it as you're finishing, the joy is there because you know you can start with that thing next time and maybe, just maybe you’re starting to get somewhere…  I have both heard and made plenty of door-handle comments over the years, not just in therapeutic environments but in coaching calls, meeting a friend for a coffee, and in business meetings – especially team meetings.  The good news is that the person who says it, trusts the environment enough to say it at all.  I think in many ways we are all terrified of endings because they are the little deaths that happen all the time.  Most of us have some fear of death – the ultimate end in most people’s minds – and these little endings are constant reminders of how easily and frequently things end…or die.  But just as we may fear death, a nearness to death also tends to bring out in people a willingness to reflect on our lives, our choices, and our deeper needs than we might normally have.  Many people when a loved one dies make big changes in their lives as the death has brought a certain sense of perspective.  Death can give birth to courage.  I think this may also be why we get door-handle comments – the nearness of one of life’s little deaths helps us to be brave enough to face-up to what is really going on.

Endings then can be wonderful gifts, but we need to face them consciously.  An unconsidered death will tend to indicate an unconsidered life.  I remember a conversation with a friend about an exercise they’d done in a workshop where they had designed their own funerals.  She described her own which was very simple (barely there really!) and her friend’s which had been huge, grand, even epic!  I identified with her, in my imagination at that time my funeral would have been as quiet as possible, after all, why make a fuss?  I can see the same pattern in my day-to-day habits.  I would tend to leave the office without saying goodbye to people, I would leave parties when I was done and similarly probably only say good bye to the people I was directly speaking to, I would work right up to the end of a day, chuck things in my bag and go.  Part of what my friend shared with me in that original conversation and I have come to appreciate since is that all this is representative of my not appreciating the impact I have on the world and those around me.  I fail to realise that I matter to people or that my actions – or lack of action – has a knock-on effect.  Funerals are in so many ways not about the person that has died but the people left behind.  Saying “Goodbye” is not just about my need, it is about honouring the needs of others.  I have an impact.  I matter.  If either this, or indeed the opposite is true for you, then considering endings may be a worthwhile thing for you to do.  Do you make a grand exit because you need constant affirmation from others that you are important?  Either ends of this spectrum could indicate a lack of self-esteem.  That is certainly part of the picture for me.

All these little endings give you a chance to refine and practice making a graceful finish.  All of us will one day face an ending which we can’t do again so it’s worth getting good at endings now!

So… what have I done about it?  Well to start with I have started making use of a little ritual from the martial arts – bowing when you leave a place.  Usually upon entering and exiting the Dojo (training hall or ‘Place of the Way’ to give it the poetic translation) you bow.  This is to show respect to those more senior to you in the room, but in my mind, more importantly to the spirit of the place.  Obviously doing this everywhere you go may get embarrassing or even be inappropriate but I have started bringing my attention to it more and one way I do it is to take the moment as I leave to look back into the place I’m leaving and offer up some gratitude for it’s sanctuary - an internal bow if you will.  In my own office, I can bow as I leave and I take pleasure in that quiet moment.  That’s one thing I’ve re-focused on and I’m enjoying that.  The big thing though is that whenever I’m in my office working (rather than off facilitating a group or delivering training or something), I finish my main work a little early and take the last half-hour to work on my book ‘My Tao Te Ching – A Fool’s Guide to Effing the Ineffable.’  Because this is a translation of contemplative wisdom into modern language, I read a bit, ponder a bit, and then write a bit in a notebook (strictly non-computer time).  I love this time.  I am finding I leave the office feeling refreshed, inspired, and energised.  Instead of arriving home preoccupied and weary, I get back ready to have fun with my son and to help my wife.  It really is better for everyone.  This is my ending ritual for my days and it is helping me to feel lighter and more consistently connected to my purpose in life (which can get lost amongst the email mountain sometimes).

So, I’ll leave you with a question:  How do you do endings (big and small), and how could you engage with them more consciously? 

Things my friend taught me…

A friend of mine died recently, left this world for the next and while I feel strongly that she is nearby, just over the border into the spirit world I miss her.  Whatever the larger truth of the spiritual life, I cannot now go and sit with her while she makes things out of clay, or have dinner with her and her family, or share a hug.  I learned many things from my friend.  She carried such a powerful commitment to love and being loving in the face of every situation.  That’s not to say she was perfect – part of what made her so much fun to be with was her humanness, and humour – but I saw some amazing social transformations as she stubbornly radiated love towards awkward or obnoxious people.  She was a witch, an artist and a mother, and in all these things (along with many others, I’m sure) she was incredibly skilled.  I learned a great deal from her about myth, magic, creativity, and parenthood, but the learning that stands out for me most is to do with yearning.

 

            I’m going to offer this story with an open heart.  If you have particular beliefs about the way the world works or doesn’t work, whether it is a magical place or an entirely pragmatic one, I invite you to lay them aside for a little while and see this story as just that – a story.  It’s my story and in my own small way and my own life it is part of my personal hero’s journey.  So please, if necessary, suspend your disbelief for a while and join me on my adventure with an open mind and open heart for a little while.

 

I’m a yearner.  I think I probably always have been and certainly I have been for many years.  I couldn’t have told you what I was yearning for, precisely but it most commonly found expression through my falling in love.  As the band ‘My Life Story’ say in one their songs, “I don’t so much fall in love, I dive”.  I don’t know if you who are reading this know that feeling of yearning, that ache in the heart, the melancholy of the stargazer, but it’s painful.  It is an aching which is hard to be with.  Through my studies in theatre, personal development, shamanism, spirituality, meditation and other fields I had tried to find the centre of this yearning, the cause so that I could face it and relieve the pain.  The most common guidance I received from teachers was to do with looking underneath the yearning, to find where it came from.  I think this was essentially good advice - therapeutically sound – but when I looked underneath the yearning all I found was…. More yearning!  I continued searching, questing, healing, growing and developing and still the yearning was there.

Then, after many years of having been out of contact, my friend and I were back in touch.  Our families are connected so there was a sense of parallel tracks and shared history that meant we could be close again quickly – like family.  She was soul-family.  She had deeply studied witch-craft and I had studied shamanism so there was lots of common ground.  So one night after a party we were sat on her sofa talking and I talked of my yearning, how I had never found the bottom of it, and she offered a different perspective.  She said that in her tradition that yearning simply meant that I had a soul-mate.  The yearning was my compass to keep me on track, to keep me seeking for the companion of my heart.  This was a revelation to me!  For the first time this yearning was not a pathology to be healed or fixed, it was a sacred gift: a guiding light in the darkness.  There was a subtle permission in this view to let the yearning be – even to embrace it.  There was also the promise of the possibility that there was someone out in the world waiting to meet me too, just as I wished to meet that someone. 

From this turning point conversation many good things in my life sprang.  I got clear in myself that while I had no evidence that the concept of ‘soul-mates’ was true, I refused to live in a world where it couldn’t be possible.  As such I began to engage with the world as a magical place where profound and miraculous things can happen in a much deeper way than I had before.  I opened my mind to possibility and I opened my heart to love.  In the coming months I received numerous omens (magical signposts from the world) which helped to lead me to the relationship which blossomed into my marriage, to my beloved, and much more recently the birth of our son.  That’s another story, as JRR Tolkein liked to say “to be told another time”.

That alone would be learning enough, but there has been more to it than that.  The yearning has not gone away… it has become a great gift.  That yearning I have learned is a kind of bitter-sweet melancholy which holds within it the possibility for great joy and deep grief.  In the holding of these apparent opposites I have found a state where I can deeply embrace mystery and have a real experience of loving the world just as it is – broken and perfect.  Embracing this yearning rather than trying to fix it has become the gateway for me to be more present, flowing, compassionate, connected, human, and loving than at any other time.  The yearning was my gateway to the divine.  Smack-bang in the middle of my yearning is where I am most creative and most effective.

So… my friend taught me many wonderful things, but more than anything she helped me open the doorway to living life in Love.

 

Thank you dear one.  May your spirit fly freely and your body rest in peace.

 

Love

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.