Beautiful Poem - You Darkness - By David Whyte

A Translation of a poem originally by Rainer Maria Rilke

 

You darkness from which I come,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence out the world,
for the fire makes a circle
for everyone
so that no one sees you anymore.
But darkness holds it all:
the shape and the flame,
the animal and myself,
how it holds them,
all powers, all sight —

and it is possible: its great strength
is breaking into my body.
I have faith in the night.

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.

A Poem for National Poetry Day: Enough

Enough

 

Though the road is long and I am far from the end

I have a glimpse of what it means to be the man I dreamed of being

I have a window to the wonder in my soul

And in moments

I find

I can be content with this…

This warm-hearted

This soft-eyed

This broad-shouldered

This deep-rooted

Man

I breathe

Deep and wide

And know the ancient longing

The friendship of pain and joy

The companionship of melancholy and grace

And I feel

Where the past and future meet in me

And I can be proud

Of what I have done

And who I have become

And how

From this place

I can face the challenges yet to come

With dignity

With vulnerability

With wildness and tenderness and strength.

 

I know now

That my capacity for love and hope

Is greater than my tendency towards fear and desolation

And I can look back when the world turns its gaze upon me and say:

“This is enough.  I am enough.”

Radical Embrace

Here is a taste of the book I am working on:

Radical Embrace: Integrating Leadership, Embodiment, Compassion and Sustainability - A Philosophy and Framework for Changing the World

It's about taking the radical act of really loving the world.  Let me know what you think and if you want to be told when it's out sign up for my newsletter.

I frequently feel completely overwhelmed. When I look reality in the eye and honestly reflect on the state of the world around me I feel swamped. I can drown in the combination of the very real danger of environmental collapse, the hazardous imbalance of the current financial system both locally and globally, the all-too-often petty and self-serving political climate, the immediate challenge of keeping food on the table for my family, and the very real potential that I will burn myself out if I don’t manage the pace of my work better. Facing all of that I feel totally overwhelmed and I’d be very surprised if I’m the only one. Optimist that I am on a good day, I like to think that at least some of these challenges will shift and be addressed or resolved in the not-too-distant future. Obviously the smaller, more personal ones I have more control over in some ways but all of these difficulties on all of the levels feel to me so utterly interconnected that while I am earning a living today that could all come crashing down as a result of some aspect of the larger picture tomorrow. Looking after myself feels like a short-term solution, especially as I have a son and I don’t want my legacy to my child to me a broken world, too far gone to repair.

Can you recognise this picture? My guess is, that if you are reading this, then at least some of it will be ringing true for you too. I want to be clear early on that I don’t have a magic bullet. I am no political, financial, or environmental expert here to offer you and the world a five-point-plan for fixing everything. What I do want to offer here is some of my thinking about how we can positively turn towards these many difficulties that lie before us rather than running away. In many ways I am a creature of structure so I have been working this stuff out for myself, trying to make sense of the world and my place in it in these troubled times. So I want to offer it to you for two basic reasons: firstly out of compassion and in the hopes it may help you to feel less overwhelmed when looking modern life in the eye, and secondly because it is my conviction that if we don’t all start taking a deep personal interest in taking care of our world then it may soon be too late. I’m not convinced that some kind of super-hero leader is going to come and tell us all what to do and make it O.K. If we find solutions to our problems then I think it will come from a groundswell of concerned and caring individuals and I’d like to be one of them. I hope you do too.

I have been considering 4 aspects: Power, Posture, People, Planet - a flow from self to world. As well as finding structures or models like this useful in giving shape to my thinking, I also think structure is a useful metaphor in how we consider our approach. Different movements tend to emphasize different aspects of this flow but I believe that if we don’t work through an integrated whole then our approach to our challenges will be structurally unsound and liable to collapse. This is one possible meaning of integrity: that the structure of our approach is sufficiently connected and coherent, the different aspects not just balanced but integrated with each other, that it becomes a strong whole rather than a combination of parts.

The first layer, the intra-personal is about me relating internally with myself, this can happen through thinking, reflection, meditation and other internally focused processes.  I seek to access my power to lead and influence the world. The second layer, the personal is the bridge between this internal world and the outside world which I am seeing here primarily as the body. However, I am viewing the body through the lens of embodiment, as my subjective experience of my body as me, not the body as an object which I ‘use.’ The third layer, the interpersonal, is where I interact with other human beings through relationships - with compassion. The fourth layer, the trans-personal, I am defining a little differently than it’s normal use. It is usually used to describe an awareness or sense of extending beyond (trans) the ordinary to encompass wider aspects of the psyche or the cosmos. The way I am using it here is not dissimilar but has a subtle distinction. I am using it to refer to our relationship with that which is greater than ourselves. This can include a concept of God, spirit, or the Divine if those aspects are meaningful to you but as you can probably guess from the fact that I have also labeled this layer ‘Planet,’ I am seeing the planet Earth as a being which is greater than us. I consider there to be literal truth to this in terms of viewing Earth as a huge organism, an integrated whole, as well as being made up of many disparate parts. There is also a spiritual aspect to this for me which comes from earth-based spiritual traditions whereby nature (the Earth) is seen as the visible face of spirit and we as humans belong to the Earth rather than the Earth belonging to us. I will explore this further in the chapter addressing this ‘circle of concern’ but wanted to give you a basic sense of what I meant and how I am using the word ‘trans-personal’ in this context.

In many ways this model is not new. Ancient wisdom traditions such as Yoga, when you look at the whole system, had models or methods for integrated action which spanned the internal through the social, to the external world. However, many of these traditions have been only partially learned, passed on or practiced in their transition to the modern world. They also require a certain level of acceptance and commitment to the associated religious or spiritual beliefs. What I am seeking to do here is offer a model or way of seeing our choices for action in a way which honors the wisdom of these ancient traditions while setting it in our modern context and, as far as possible, making it as accessible and free of specific belief-systems as I can.

I can’t promise salvation for you, anyone or anything else, or this beautiful planet we inhabit. I don’t have definitive answers about where we most need to use our finite resources to right the potentially sinking ship of humankind’s survival on planet Earth. However, I can offer a framework, a guide to a way of being that is helping me to face into the difficulties and pain in the world rather than turning away from them. One thing is for sure: pretending nothing is wrong won’t work, numbing ourselves to the pain and distress in the world or living in denial will only narrow our window of opportunity for effective action. We may be facing more and greater challenges than ever before in human history and it is my conviction that we need to do something. So, this philosophy, this framework is my contribution. It is not another argument for a particular cause, it is a way of being which as well being a framework for certain kinds of action in and of itself is also intended to help you to work out which are the battles you wish to engage in. I don’t believe there is a single battle we can all lend our weight to and thereby resolve the difficulties we are facing. I wish there was. I wish such a simple conclusion was something I could offer you and myself but it’s not. If we can all find a graceful way to turn towards the conflicts in the world and in ourselves, however, I believe we can all also see clearly which battles are our battles and by taking our place in the bigger picture perhaps the collective action on multiple fronts will make the difference needed to usher in the kind of planetary healing that is needed to build a better world for future generations.

This then is Radical Embrace. I think we must have integrated action in ourselves, fully inhabiting our bodies, with each other, and in the world. We must embrace ourselves, each other and the world if we are to have the integrity to face the profound challenges of our time. We must take the radical and difficult step of really giving a shit. We need to find that place of absolute care and compassion deep down in ourselves and make the radical choice to bring the world with all it’s pain and difficulty closer to us. And this embrace of the world cannot be limited to only the small immediate picture of our own healing and development, or the big future picture of the world’s healing and development but must be an embrace that starts within us and ripples out-wards.

 

I am a Chimaera: Wildly Imaginative and Implausible

I have long searched for a tribe.  A place of belonging.  Somewhere I ‘fit.’  And I have come to the conclusion that there is no clear place for me.  It’s been too long a search and no category, place, group, field of study, practice, spiritual tradition, community, or profession I have explored has ever felt like home.  I feel a growing acceptance of this: I am a beautiful mutant, a monster with a heart, a fusion of reclaimed oddities.  I am a Chimaera.

The Chimaera was a mythical beast of ancient Greece made up of parts of several animals, and as the Wikipedia entry puts it:

“The term chimera has come to describe any mythical or fictional animal with parts taken from various animals, or to describe anything composed of very disparate parts, or perceived as wildly imaginative or implausible.”

I like the idea of being wildly imaginative and implausible. 

I feel heartened by what Joseph Campbell, who many would consider a specialist in studying mythology, says in talking about his own life and work as an academic:

“In our sciences today – and this includes anthropology, linguistics, the study of religions, and so forth – there is a tendency to specialisation.  And when you know how much a specialist scholar has to know in order to be a competent specialist, you can understand this tendency….

Specialisation tends to limit the field of problems that the specialist is concerned with.  Now, the person who isn’t a specialist, but a generalist like myself, sees something over here that he has learned from one specialist, something over there that he has learned from another specialist – and neither of them has considered the problem of why this occurs here and also there.  So the generalist – and that’s a derogatory term, by the way, for academics – gets into a range of problems that are more genuinely human, you might say, than specifically cultural.”

Although I have studied a number of topics to significant depth, I don’t think I am a specialist by nature, I am a generalist.  And I think that is often harder for others to understand, not least of all because it’s very hard for me to accurately describe.

To put it in a positive light, I have been blessed with a life which has been rich and diverse.  I sometimes joke that I have a checkered past  - not legally but in terms of my ‘career path.’  I remember having a chat with my friend, Kate, when I was applying for a job once and the conversation going like this:

 

Me - “Who’s going to hire me?  My CV looks like I have no direction whatsoever!”

Kate – “That’s what a CV is for isn’t it?”

Me – “What do you mean?”

Kate – “Taking the mess of your life and making it look like you did it on purpose.”

 

So perhaps this is me creating my tribe like Kate suggested making my CV:  taking this messy creature that I am and saying “THIS is where I belong, I am my own home.”

On a bad day I can feel like a creature cobbled together from clunky and ill-fitting hunks of experience, a monster without a home.

But on a good day I know I can be a fascinating and fascinated bundle of wonder able to dance across many domains, to find connections between people and subjects others can’t see, to be a gifted generalist helping make the world more whole.

 

I have found my new prayer:

 

I am a Chimaera.

Wildly imaginative and implausible by nature,

Perfect and problematic,

Wonderful and terrible,

Fabulous and flawed.

I am my own home,

This is where I belong.

 

With Love.

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.

10 ways to be a leader in daily life

It's my belief that leadership is not a specialist field of expertise for managers and those who run organisations; I think it's a foundational human capacity. I think it is a natural way of being which many people are either not very aware of, or avoid. That's understandable it is a domain that has largely been claimed by positional leaders - those most obviously in charge. However, reclaiming leadership is in some ways relatively simple because it's not a matter of what you do (like a role or job) it's a matter of who you are.

 

At Westpoint Military Academy in the US, the definition of a leader is:

 

"anyone who influences others to take effective action"

 

So when a baby cries and its mother picks it up, that baby is a leader! We are born leaders, so here are some ways you can embrace that birthright:

 

  1. Develop your powers of self-awareness - as I go on you'll see I get specific about some of the aspects of yourself you will need to be more aware of, but before you can do any of that you need to be developing a sharp sense of yourself, a deeper understanding of who you are: What's important to you? What motivates you? What do you care about? What nourishes you? What the sam-hill do you want to do with this crazy thing we call a life?! Without a foundation of self-awareness the rest of this is going to be very hard… Growing self-awareness is a skill and one seldom taught in schools so it may take some work to get good at.

  2. Reflect on what is meaningful to you - if you don't know what's meaningful, what is important to you, then it's going to be very hard to work out what effective action looks like, let alone influence other people to move in that direction!

  3. Grow your sense of purpose - put simply why do you do what you do? Again if you're not clear about your own purpose how can you help others to find theirs? There have been various studies which seem to suggest that most people want a sense of purpose in their lives. If you can help people find that sense of purpose in life not only will it be easy to lead them, but you will be enriching their lives by doing so. Even if you don't want to lead them towards anything, you'll be being a leader by example, helping people feel more purposeful and engaged in their lives. Things like that subtly make the world a better place – Go you!

  4. Work out what inspires you - one of the key forms of influence is to inspire people and if you don't know what inspires you, you will find it hard to inspire others. What lights you up and gets you talking into the middle of the night?

  5. Get clear about what you stand for - what will you stand up and be counted for? What would you defend if it was threatened? What do you love? What do you wish to nurture in the world?

  6. Appreciate skilfully and beautifully - most of us are to some degree starved of appreciation and I would say that it is one of the best ways to nurture and care for people. More than that it can be an amazing way of spotting and then cultivating the unique gifts each of us has to offer. In terms of winning people over when you're working for a cause, whether they feel appreciated or not will win or lose the loyalty of others. I think this is true in all of our relationships: if you want to stay connected with people, appreciate them. If you want to help others find and use their unique and wonderful gifts, appreciate the bejeesus out of them!

  7. Develop mad listening skillz man - I see more leaders struggling because they failed to pick up on small things that are important to their people than for just about any other reason. Indeed, I have failed in this way myself. And when I say "their people" that could mean people you very obviously lead, or just the people in your life. We are all influencing each other all the time, we are all leaders and followers in all sorts of circumstances, and listening can be the Yin to inspirations' Yang.

  8. Cultivate courtesy - it's a basic one but no one wants to follow a douche! Just basically being polite to people, holding doors, saying please and thank you. These are the old-fashioned and oft forgotten foundation-stones of greatness.

  9. Get cosy with your floors - you know, roll around on the floor that kinda thing… Oh no! I didn't mean that. Oops! I meant flaws. If you spend enough time with anyone they are going to spot some of the ways that you are less than perfect. We all screw up, we all get frustrated from time to time, we all make mistakes. That's human. All the best leaders I've met are very familiar with their flaws, and can therefore more readily spot when they are falling down a hole. At the very least, when someone calls us on it we are more likely to take it on the chin rather than fiercely denying it and persecuting them for reflecting our most painfully crap habits. The really great leaders I've met have got fantastic at apologising to people as well. In relationships I think there is very little you can't repair but getting skilled at apologising is necessary to make that work.

  10. Know your greatness - you're awesome! I mean that, let it land for a moment: You Are Awesome. Just as you have to know your flaws, you also have to know your gifts, you have to know what it is that you uniquely can give to the world. Beautifully, skilfully, gracefully, joyfully. That is your leadership. Being you, authentically, fully, offering all that you are to the world with love and a passion as fierce as a rutting Tasmanian Devil and the tenderness of a mumma-bear curling up with it's cub (should those 2 metaphors go next to each other, probably not...) is the heart of what I think it means to "lead by example." If you take one thing away from this list, let it be this:

    Offer the wonder of you to the world with an open heart again and again and again.

    What could be more effective or influential than that? ...And maybe if you can be that courageous other people might join in the fun.

 

These are just thoughts on-the-fly but hopefully they have triggered your thinking on what leadership means in your life, and if you're a leader, perhaps what brings life to your leadership. If you've enjoyed this blog post then sign up for the newsletter to receive free stuff and updates on my future work.

 

Look out for future parts of this series:

 

Fudoshin

This is a Japanese word most commonly used in the martial arts. Broadly speaking, Fudo means immovable; and Shin means spirit. As you can probably guess sometimes this is used to describe a martial quality of being so firmly rooted and grounded that you cannot be moved even with great force. However, the deeper philosophical meaning has as much to do with flow as it has to do with solidity. The "immovable spirit" is the essential nature at the very heart of our being that is unchanging; that within us which is constant, absolute. It is considered that when we are deeply connected with our unchanging core, then everything else about us can be fluid, graceful, and able to blend with the changes and challenges life brings to us.

So Fudoshin, is both the mountain and the waves that surround it. The mountain, immovable, a constant of the landscape across millennia. The waves, always changing, always flowing; rising and falling with the tides; fierce and dramatic one moment, still and tranquil the next.

For me, developing Fudoshin is a journey of contacting and cultivating our immovable, essential spirit, while also growing our capacity to flow gracefully in the dance of life. That is what I seek to grow in myself and to develop in others.

Environmentalism and our relationship with the world

I’m a city boy.  I also love nature.  The tension between these two things is not always easy, especially as nature doesn’t always seem to love me.  I have bad hay-fever and pale skin so I burn easily in summer.  The times when most people spend most time in nature and when many people state frequently that  “it’s a lovely day,” I find myself most often responding by saying “well, it’s a hot day.”  I am to summer what the Grinch is to Christmas!  I am however passionate about caring for our planet.  I love Mother Earth and I have spent enough time studying shamanism and indigenous tribal cultures from around the world that my world view is heavily influenced by animism.  I see the world around me as deeply alive and I am one of those people who sees the destruction of our rich, natural environments by the steady progress of unthinking industrialisation as deeply concerning.  However, unlike many of the people who are seeking in some way to save the planet I also love cities.  I don’t subscribe to the view that some people of the earth loving persuasion seem to have adopted that human beings may just be the worst thing that has ever happened to the planet Earth.  I love people.  And there is a reality as far as I can see that more people live in towns and cities, and in the future even more people are going to live in towns and cities.  Short of a mad Max-style apocalyptic Armageddon lots of people are going to continue to live in cities.  I deeply admire the people who are caring for our wild natural environments, and leading others out into this wilderness to experience its beauty.  However, while all of our attention in caring for the environment is focused on caring for the wild natural environment then for those many people like me who live in a town or city, we are at best stuck caring for something that is all too often distant, abstract, and insufficiently integrated into our daily lives.

The distinction is frequently made between what is natural and what is man-made and while I understand the making of this distinction I think it may be our biggest problem, our biggest barrier to really transforming our global attitude towards care for our beautiful planet.  It’s interesting to me that this distinction is so often used in the language of those who seem to care most about the preservation of our planet.  I would suggest that this language, this distinction, is the language of separation and it is this separation which is the enabler or even creator of the tragic human mind-set which leads to relating to the planet as a resource to be used, a thing to be objectified, and an environment to be conquered and dominated.  As long as we see man as separate from nature we support a view of nature as other, and as long as nature is other we can be better than it, above it, instead of recognising our total interdependence with this beautiful entity that is planet Earth. Mankind is not separate from nature, it is a small part of nature, perhaps a growing part but the oceans, mountains, forests, the great mass of animal kind in all its beautiful diversity are still pretty substantial members of this grand collective entity too.

Returning to where I began this article, within the language of separation cities are often seen as the embodiment of the man-made.  As long as this attitude continues even those of us most concerned with the preservation of nature unconsciously continue this language of separation and in doing so sustain the very attitude of arrogance which has led to mankind’s use and misuse of our beautiful natural home. While most people who are aware of our global ecological situation would agree that the march of urbanisation cannot continue with its current trajectory if the human race is going to find a way not to wipe itself out, a total rejection of urban environments seems unlikely to be a viable option short of catastrophic, mass destruction.  My hope, and to some degree my faith is that the transformation of these environments is what is necessary, and possible.  Like I say, I’m a city boy, and I think if we are to see this necessary transformation then we need to reclaim our cities as part of nature. Other animals than us build things. I have yet to meet the ecologists that look at the giant termite mounds with the distaste they might look at cities saying “what a shame they chose to build there, it’s ruined the landscape!”  Of course, I know what we create is not the same as what termites create.  What I am wanting to illustrate is how distain for the city, no matter how well intentioned in terms of environmental impact and ecological concern, is just as much an expression of the mind-set of separation that has led us to this mess, as the executive who looks on our countryside and sees only its potential to provide fossil fuels.  The intention is different, but the underlying assumption of separation is the same.

John Perkins in one of his beautiful books relates the story of a first visit of an elder shaman, who has lived all his life in the Amazon basin, to New York City. This elder who would speak of great trees, mountains, and rivers as having genders, characters, and names; on first seeing the Empire State building made the comment “very beautiful, very feminine.” The irony of such a statement regarding so phallic a construction is quite a thing in itself, but something else stood out for me when I read this story.  What was transformational in terms of my view of the world, was the fact that this elder shaman, this man who would have every right to come to a great Western city such as New York and see its industrialised opulence and be critical, instead saw this great building in the same light as he would look upon a mountain, a great tree, or a river. What this says to me is that so deeply rooted in his psyche is a total identification of himself and all mankind as just another part of nature.  It is my conviction that if we are to successfully shift our trajectory in relation to our ecological crisis, then we must change the deep assumptions in our psyche’s which set mankind and our creations as separate from nature instead of merely a part of that great entity. Yes, we need change, I think we must change the way our urban environments operate and coexist with the wild and natural environments that surround them, but if we do this out of distain for those urban environments we continue the story of separation and domination, we continue to conquer instead of collaborating. To change your cities I think we must love our cities. I don’t think it’s going to be enough to take people out into wild nature and help them to love that. That work is wonderful, and beautiful, and necessary, and close to my heart but we must take the work of nature awareness, we must take the work of mindful interaction with our environment, and apply that to our cities just as much as we apply that to our parks, Forests, or places of natural beauty.  It is said that part of why, when Europeans arrived in America, it was so easy for them to rob the indigenous tribes of their land is because the idea of land ownership was a nonsense to those indigenous tribes.  The land did not belong to them, they belonged to the land.

Even if we managed to completely transform our way of relating to natural resources, unless we change the story of separation, at best we will become beneficent dictators and I suspect that all we will do is delay the inevitable.  If we see ourselves as rescuers “saving the planet,” I believe we will fail to save the planet.  I passionately believe that we need to tell a new story, the story of community, belonging, and collaboration.  And maybe if we can learn to become loving, trustworthy, contributing members of the communal entity that is this beautiful blue green planet, then maybe that community, this planet will see fit to save us.

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? 

The Heart of Activism

 

I’m not your classic activist.  I’m not the guy who forms or joins the crowds marching for a cause.  However, I do make a strong stand in the world for what I believe in and I think that makes me an activist of another sort.

I greatly admire those who step out and shout, campaign, petition, take to the streets and generally make social and political noise such that they influence the course of events, sometimes I wish I was one of those people.  Certainly I have a strong social conscience and a desire to see change in the world, but that is not my way.  I believe there are many ways to make a stand in the world, to challenge the status-quo, and to birth new ideas and ways of living into our societies.  Two of the people who most influenced me as a child and young man were not obvious activists either. 

One was a teacher at my middle school, Mr. Chant.  I had some wonderful teachers at that school and yet I struggle to remember many of their names over 20 years down the road.  Mr. Chant has always stayed with me even though I don’t think I ever had him as a teacher.  I was in an after-school club that he ran, but even there he seemed a fairly distant figure.  For all that, Mr. Chant was an inspiration to me.  He was a man that I admired.  I couldn’t have told you then why and I’m not sure I can do much better now but more than anything it was about his quality of presence.  In his every act, and seemingly in his very quality of being he seemed to emanate a deep sense of quiet caring.  I later found out that he was a committed Christian and I can certainly see the best of the Christian values expressed through his manner and choices in life, but I never knew that at the time.  He wore his faith very lightly and I never heard him speak about it.  In spite of that, once I found out he was a Christian, I felt more compelled than by anything anyone else had said to explore Christianity.  Mr. Chant expressed a quiet activism born of living a particular kind of life and, in my assessment as an adult looking back, being a beacon of love.  Those memories drawn from my formative years may be viewed a little through rose-tinted glasses, but still, I hold Mr. Chant as a strong example of how our every action can be a moment of activism.

The other person is an inspiring lady who set up a musical theatre company in my village.  It is a pretty big village with the population of a small town and I think a lot of people from my parent’s generation moved there to have families, so in my generation there were a lot of kids in the village.  There wasn’t a lot to do.  The nearest town was just far enough to make it difficult to get there.  As I remember it, you had one of two choices once you hit your teens in New Ash Green:  sit on a bench near the shops drinking cider, or join the theatre company!  Now in saying that I don’t want to give the impression that it was a last ditch.  There was a waiting list to get in and the productions were of a very high standard winning national competitions and even touring to the Edinburgh Festival one year!  What I’m trying to get across is that one lady named Syd and her husband Chris started something which gave hundreds of young people over the years a different choice.  They, along with the help of a team of parents who volunteered their time, opened a door to a place where we could be creative, learn life skills, relate to each other in a caring and respectful way, form intimate friendships that have lasted many years, and for some find the work they would go on and make their career.  Syd and Chris both had backgrounds as West End (the area of London where Theatre is most present, a bit like Broadway in the US)  professionals, and they gave their time for free: writing, directing, musical directing, rehearsing and producing performances with 50 young people year after year.  For so many of us, they opened a door to another world.  Again, Syd was not an obvious activist, but by the way she chose to live, her quality of presence and sense of professional discipline (regardless that we were not professionals), and her profound generosity in founding and running that theatre company, I see her as an amazing example of grass roots societal change.  I see her as an activist.

So… In this post I want to ask you to consider what you stand for?  What do you bring into the world by the quality of your presence and the actions you take?  Whatever kind of activist you are – a quiet one like me and the examples I have given here, or a noisier one like those taking to the streets all around the world (and any combination of the 2 extremes), what do you stand for?  As Augusto Boal, profound creator of societal change, theatre director, and lately politician said in his book ‘The Rainbow of Desire’:

“Every action is a political action”

So what are you standing for in the actions in your life?  What world are you creating in the practices and habits you sustain?  What are your politics – not in terms of parties and votes but in terms of what you embody as you walk through this world?

To help frame these questions, I want to offer a distinction, and that is between what I term as an activist and a reactionary. 

The simple distinction is that a reactionary is against something, while an activist (or true activist, in my judgement) is for something.

Spotting what you are ‘against’ can be a helpful way to work out what you are ‘for’ but otherwise it is a slippery path to unhealthy conflict and is likely long term to drive people away from your cause.  The ‘against’ position is too often a source of unfiltered, angry rants, and easily leads you into getting stuck trying to make someone else wrong rather than finding ways to set the world right.  This is something we were encouraged to consider deeply when we were training to be Interfaith Ministers.  Afterall, if we are truly to embrace every person having their own path to God (or the Goddess, or Spirit, or Tao, or Buddha Nature, or Allah…etc) then we would not be walking our talk to be against particular spiritual paths.  I can tell you from direct experience that it is hard to sit with a fundamentalist and completely accept their faith when they essentially reject yours as ‘wrong’ but that is my commitment.  That stance is part of my activism.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion or feelings about it, but I choose not to impose my opinions or feelings on you.  I can’t promise I always manage it perfectly – I’m human and make mistakes – but I do my best.  This means I have to relinquish the easy comfort of believing in an objective truth.  That’s not to say I embrace total relativism where everything is totally up-for-grabs, but I find it both more useful and more congruent with my experience of life and the world around me to go with the idea of what Oriah Mountain Dreamer calls ‘intersubjective truth.’  There are aspects of our world which we can agree upon and these serve as useful and reassuring reference points but we need to beware of seeing these as objective truths because if we do then should someone challenge this status-quo, they will likely be ostracised at best, and destroyed at worst.  Many people have been destroyed for just this reason, and many of them were later found to be right (Copernicus being one example) and even if they are as crazy as they seem I would suggest such a person deserves our compassion, not demonising.  It can be tough to stand strongly ‘for’ something without the refuge of making others objectively ‘wrong’, whilst also maintaining your own clarity and moral compass, but that is also my commitment.

The position of being against something has 2 key dangers as far as I can see:  Firstly that your purpose is dependent on the very thing you are trying to fight.  For example, if I am against pollution then if I succeed in my mission then I simultaneously lose my purpose in the world.  In this way, people and groups can get so caught up in making their adversaries wrong and fighting against them that any potential for creativity, real problem-solving, and collaboration with the very people best placed to solve the issue (e.g. polluters).  It ends up being about the fight, not the issue.  Even if you win the fight, your prize is to suddenly have a total void of purpose in your life.  If you are ‘for’ something then you can keep working for that probably indefinitely and just adjust your course as you achieve things (e.g. being for a cleaner world, rather than against pollution).  Secondly, if you are ‘for’ something then people can join you or not.  If you are ‘against’ something then it doesn’t take long before anyone who isn’t with you is against you!  Obviously long term and in the extreme this can become a horrible kind of extremism which can justify hideous acts for the sake of ‘the cause’ perpetrated against any who stand against you (read “aren’t with you”).  But even in it’s smaller expression, this position can breed a kind of subtle violence where you are always banging on about your mission, flooding your friend’s email boxes, and bending their ears at every party.

Hopefully in all this you can see the power of being an activist and the dangers of tipping over into becoming a reactionary.  So… I’ll ask again, regardless of how loudly or quietly you are stating your position, whether you live it purely through your presence or you are marching on the streets, and campaigning on every front…

What do you stand for?

 

Obsession, Artistry, and Faith

Some of you who read this regularly may remember me posting an article called 'The Right Costume' which was inspired by a quote from the Hagakure - the Book of the Samurai, which I often quote from when I am running The Samurai Game.  Well, I dug up another one!  I've re-worked it a bit but I like it and I hope you enjoy it too.  As the title suggests, this is about Obsession, Artistry and Faith.  Funnily enough, while I haven't seen this article for a few years, it really resonates with the book I published earlier this year which I posted an excerpt of here.  It would seem my thinking has at least a little consistentcy...I'm either on the right track or a very slow learner!  Anyway, here it is:

 

“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.”

-  Hagakure, First Chapter. (Trans. William Scott Wilson)

 

 

                        It is rare in our modern world for people to speak of having a Way, or a ‘Calling,’ which is probably the English equivalent.  To have a Calling was most commonly associated with joining the church and becoming a minister but could be applied to many paths.  I suppose the modern equivalent is ‘having a career,’ but I seldom encounter this having for people the kind of unreserved commitment that is associated with a Calling or a Way.  Also, in my understanding of such things it is quite possible to follow a Way that is not necessarily directly associated with one’s career.  To pursue a Way is like a path of healthy obsession, it is where a mere technician becomes an Artist.  This kind of obsession takes skill to balance with the rest of one’s life and is also not generally considered very ‘cool!’  Discovering and embracing our own personal Way requires us to connect with our inner ‘geek,’ to find that thing which takes no effort to be completely focused on for hours, days, and years of our life – not so that we are cut off from the world and become exclusive in our attitudes, but so that we have an arena to fully embody and exercise our passion.  We can achieve a high degree of focus with discipline as our motivating factor, but the image of “discipline,” can fall into some very unhealthy traps.  For years I practised martial arts with a great deal of discipline, but my version of discipline back then involved internally beating myself over the head until I got up and trained.  My discipline was based on anger and as such was unsustainable and essentially self-harming.  In this way, my entire practice was built on a foundation of anger and it has taken a lot of work since realising this to break that foundation up and put a new one in place.  It’s not a process I would recommend duplicating!  You will be best served to find a Way that you keep going back to just because it brings you a quiet inner sense of pleasure and satisfaction to do it. 

            Anything can be embraced as a Way, it is just a matter of asking yourself what you are obsessed enough with to explore it that deeply.  When we really commit to such a course of study there comes a point where everything in our lives is automatically related to this Way; it becomes a lens through which we view the world and a forum for us to develop ourselves.  I have studied many things but only 3 things to anything approaching this depth:  Acting, Martial Arts, and Shamanism.  What I have realised over the years is that none of these is really my Way.  They are all a part of the picture but my Way is the Way of Presence.  I am completely and effortlessly obsessed with Presence.  So I continue to study several arts but with the clarity that all the time I am using them as tools to develop my commitment to the Way of Presence.

            The Ascetic or Hermit’s path (referred to in some shamanic traditions as the ‘via negativa’) of enlightenment is to keep shedding attachments, constantly letting things go, removing oneself from the world to enable total non-attachment to anything whatsoever so that nothing distracts the Ascetic from being totally free.  The Warrior is involved with the world and as such has to take a different path of realisation (sometimes called the ‘via positiva’):  the Warrior becomes completely involved with the world to the point of love and obsession, so completely invested in the present moment that they pass out the other side of obsession and find freedom.  The destination is essentially the same but the path is different.  This is a fine example of structure leading to freedom.  This is similar to the Zen arts of Chado (Way of Tea – the tea ceremony) and Kyudo (Archery).  2 everyday activities (in the time they were developed) which have been heightened to the level of an Art through structure and ritual.  Once a practitioner is so well versed in the formal ritual of the practice that they can do it without thinking, they can completely surrender themselves to each and every tiny moment knowing that the ritual, the structure will take care of the bigger picture.  The practice provides a framework for us to practice emptying ourselves and totally trusting.  In practicing such arts, or any martial art with Kata or Forms (solo patterns of movement) there comes a point where the ritual is so familiar it is essentially boring; then, having become that familiar with the form you can forget about where you are going next and become obsessive about the details within each movement and moment; finally once the detail is sufficiently refined you can pass out the other side of obsession into a freedom where the form (or pattern, or ritual, or Kata) is ‘doing’ you rather than you doing it.  There spontaneously arises a mindful effortlessness.

                It seems to me that mostly in our modern world we just keep giving up when we get to the boredom stage so we never develop a Way and everything seems “too much like hard work.”  We just have lots of fragments of knowledge and no understanding, no sense of an underlying structure – no faith.  What is faith if not an underlying structure, or a sense of being supported and held?  In practicing standing meditation I found a benefit I had no idea I would find there.  I found such a profound awareness of my connection with the ground that I began to feel totally supported by the Earth – by Mother Earth -  all of the time, as indeed I am! In this way Faith seems to me to be a practice, not a passive waiting for something to fall in our laps.

 There is nothing wrong with trying things out and letting them go if they are not what we want, but if we stick at nothing, or do everything mindlessly then we end up with what my Mum used to call a ‘readers digest knowledge’: small facts about many subjects and no real understanding of anything.  By gaining a deep understanding of one subject, this subject can serve as a microcosm for us to learn about the macrocosm of our lives.  This is wisdom.  Through practicing something until it is the structure that underpins our lives, we learn faith.  It is not a matter of randomly picking a pursuit and blindly sticking to it, but of connecting with our heart’s passion to find out what nourishes us.  I have had 3 main paths of study and each of them have served me well in their time. With each of them I felt that maybe there was something that would suit me better, but without being sure what, it was a matter of sticking with something until it led me somewhere else.  That ‘somewhere else,’ is my Way.  It is a Warrior’s Way and having found it I feel more confident and centred in myself and in my life.  From this place of confidence I don’t need to justify or defend my way of life, so I can have experiences and learn from all Ways, and be more and more in accord with my own. 

 

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

God is a difficult word

God is a difficult word…

It is loaded with so much cultural baggage, so much heaviness of meaning, so much poe-faced seriousness – both from those who love the word and those who hate it.  God has become this figure of judgement, marker of seriousness, and symbol of patriarchal oppression.

I feel sad about that.

I have a relationship with the divine that I really enjoy and because I grew up with a Christian mum, God is the word I most comfortably use for that divine presence.  When I talk to myself, I say God.  But… I sometimes feel uncomfortable using it even with my friends because it is so weighted with meanings I don’t agree with, and don’t want.  My sense of it is that I’m not the only one. 

I read this poem today from Daniel Ladinsky’s ‘Love Poems from God’ (a beautiful book of translations and transliterations of devotional poetry from many traditions, although Ladinsky is best known for his Sufi poetry) and it inspired me. 

 

First He looked Confused – by Tukaram

 

I could not lie anymore so I started to call my dog “God.”

First he looked

confused,

 

Then he started smiling, then he even

danced.

 

I kept at it: now he doesn’t even

bite.

 

I am wondering if this

might work on

people?

 

 

It feels to me like many of us have abandoned the word God, but what if we didn’t?  What if we reclaimed it instead and used it for our own purposes? 

 

What if it became once more the most beautiful thing you could say to someone, a gift so great it even stops dogs biting?

 

What if, like the Sufi’s, God became for us the name of our beloved?

 

What if the word God could drip from our mouths like sweet nectar from exotic flowers overflowing with sticky abundance?

 

What if there was no confusion in our minds about God and we each lived in a personal and glorious relationship with a sense of wonderous un-knowing-ness and love of the great and mysterious nothing-that-is-everything?

 

What if, when making love, we cried out “Oh God” and really meant it because sex felt divine and the divine felt so tantalisingly, viscerally sumptuous?

 

What if in prayer, we spoke to God like one of our best friends who can’t always change the situation for us, but it feels great to talk to them about it anyway?

 

What if no book could tell us what God thinks because it’s so sublime and subtle?

 

What if, once in a while, a piece of poetry, or art, or something in nature seemed to nudge us towards an understanding of how God feels about the world?

 

What if speaking of God wasn’t controversial but was joyful?

 

What if God wasn’t masculine or feminine?

 

What if God was common ground where we could all connect rather than where we come into conflict?

 

What if loving-ness was the closest thing to Godliness?

 

What if we could build a bridge of my “What if’s” and dance out across it together with joyous, clamorous shouting that comes right up from our bellies and out through our hearts?

 

What if…..?



The Real Meaning of Taboo

Magic hidden in the Shadows

The contemporary use of the word ‘Taboo’ is usually meaning something we shouldn’t do or speak about.  In some contexts it is referring to something which is socially unacceptable in a specific environment, but in common usage it has a definite flavour of something being a bit grubby or unmentionable.

The word ‘Taboo’ has its origins in referring to something deeply sacred.  I think that this original meaning and the way the word has come to be used today may offer us an insight into how the human psyche relates to the divine and the sacred, and that is what I want to un-pack a bit here.

In order to do this unpacking, I need to give you a bit of information on the history of Polynesia and its languages because ‘Taboo’ is an anglicised version of a Tahitian word.  So here goes…

The Polynesian people were pretty awesome seafarers who colonised a number of islands including Tahiti (known as French Polynesia), The Hawaiian islands, and New Zealand.  Those who are now referred to as the ‘native’ inhabitants of these islands had travelled there, and in some studies of New Zealand it is thought that the Maori’s may have arrived in New Zealand only a few generations before Europeans arrived.  Because of this common heritage there is also a commonality in the language of these peoples.  In some instances as the words are written in Roman script (conventional European letters rather than image based pictographs) it is just a matter of switching some consonants and you have basically the same word with the same meaning.  For instance:

In Hawaiian, a Shaman or someone who has achieved a transcendent level of mastery in something (like herb-gathering or surfing) is called a ‘Kahuna.’  Apparently the same word in Tahitian is ‘Tahuna’, and the same word in Maori is ‘Tahunga.’

So you can see that there is a very close relationship between these languages.  Now, back to ‘Taboo’…

‘Taboo’ was originally translated into Roman script as ‘Tabu.’  I’ve not studied Tahitian culture, but I have studied Hawaiian spirituality and the Hawaiian equivalent word is ‘Kapu.’  When something was labelled as ‘Kapu’ this made it ‘out of bounds’.  At first glance this may suggest a similar usage to the common contemporary one, but when we explore why the place or activity was out of bounds the word takes on quite a different meaning.  Something was designated ‘Kapu’ when it was so sacred, so magical, and so energetically potent that it was considered dangerous for people to mess around with it unless they knew what they were doing.  Clearly any restriction on behaviour can be abused if the authorities applying it are lacking integrity but if we stay with the original intention of ‘Kapu’ then I think it has something to teach us.

Let’s take an example.  A particular glade in the forest could be designated Kapu because it has a particularly strong spiritual energy (whether you believe in this or not, it was a concrete understanding for the ancient Hawaiians so go with it for a minute).  One possibility if someone went there unconsciously is that it could harm them.  As the Hawaiian teacher Serge Kahili King says “there’s no such thing as bad energy, only too much, or a kind you haven’t learned to blend with yet.”  With this outlook maybe it is possible for a human being to not be harmed by nuclear energy but we have to learn to shape-shift our energy field in order to blend with the energy and have sufficient skill to deal with the amount of energy present.  If you have not yet learned to blend and work with nuclear energy then it’s best to follow the guidance when a sign in a power-station says ‘No Entry’ (the modern equivalent of ‘This area is Kapu’)!  So if the glade in the forest I mentioned had a particularly strong spiritual energy that could be really useful to a skilled Shaman, but harmful to someone who doesn’t have the skills or equipment to manage that amount or quality of energy.  It could make them ill. 

Another example might be a particular ritual which is used to communicate with a God or Goddess.  Let’s say it’s the Hawaiian Goddess Pele – the Goddess of fire, lava, and the volcano on the big island.  If you skilfully call on Pele and ask politely for her help then she could be a powerful ally.  If you mindlessly poke her to get her attention then she could get irritated and burn the village to a crisp!

These are examples from within the belief-system of ancient Hawaiian tribal culture so they will be more or less easy to digest as fact depending on your own beliefs, but what I hope they do adequately is illustrate that things were made ‘Kapu’ (or Tabu) not because they were dirty and bad, but because they were powerful, sacred, and magical.

This then, for me is the message: 

That which we cast into shadow, that which we see as unspeakable is probably a great place to go looking for the powerful, sacred and magical.

One description of the Shaman’s role in tribal communities was to speak the unspeakable.  I’d say one version of the role of therapists – especially in the Jungian tradition – is to help people become conscious of their shadow and make peace with it.  What we have made ‘Taboo’, either personally or culturally, may be a rich mine of untapped power, magic, and even beauty and joy.  In the UK, USA and I’d say probably many countries that have been influenced by some versions of Christianity, sexuality has become ‘Taboo’.  If we can welcome this vast and powerful aspect of our being out of the shadows and into the light of consciousness then not only can we reclaim a beautiful and potent part of human life but I think we could also make our cultures safer places to be.  It has long been understood within psychology that what gets repressed will leak out somehow.  If I repress anger then eventually it will either leak out through passive/aggressive behaviours or I will manage to bottle it up for a while but will eventually have some kind of emotional explosion.  Sexuality has been repressed for so long in many places that it has understandably begun to leak into our culture in what I would judge to be less than healthy ways.  There are other cultural models where sexuality is both more sacred and more ordinary – broadly speaking, more accepted.  In this way sex is appropriately ‘Kapu’ – held in trust as a sacred thing to be fully explored once you have the capacity to manage the powerful energies involved i.e. once you are an adult and have been educated about it.  This is as opposed to the authoritarian version of it being ‘Kapu’ where it’s an unacceptable topic for discussion, everyone is embarrassed about it, there is a dearth of proper education and people stumble on it’s power but have no idea where to turn to for advice – after all, it’s taboo.  Rant?  Moi?  Joking aside, my intention is that this serves as an illustration of how Taboo or Kapu applies today.

I’d offer to you that what I’ve just described culturally applies just as well personally.  It may not be sex for you, but all of us have things which we keep hidden away, stuffed into the cupboard under the stairs in the house of our psyche.  I’m not saying you should go out and share these things with all and sundry, but for many of us these things are hidden away because we are embarrassed about them or have labelled them in some way ‘Bad and Dirty’ (to use my own phrase from earlier on).  I would suggest that if you can find it in yourself to re-look at that which is concealed in your personal shadow, you may find some buried treasure or hidden gold.  It may be worth having some support while you do this exploration, whether from a friend, partner, minister or therapist, but it can be awesome and beautiful work.

Just as the lotus flower grows from the muck of the swamp, and a candle’s light is only visible in darkness, the divine spark is most often found in the shadows.

 



My Taoist Foolish Heart

I have had lots of good feedback about the first chapter of  My Tao Te Ching - A Fool's Gide to Effing the Ineffable which I posted a little while ago so I thought I'd share some more.  So... Here's one of my other favourite chapters of the 30 I've written so far.  For those of you who didn't see the last post and want to read the intro follow this link.  The short version is that I'm re-writing a thousands of years old chinese text for modern times, in my own admittedly slightly eccentric language!  I'm hoping to get the book published in the coming year.  You can read an excerpt of the book I have just published which is also Taoism inspired and is called 'A little book on finding your Way: Zen and the Art of Doing stuff.'  It's not on full release yet but will be early next year.  To get an advance copy click on this link.  Anyway, here's the Chapter!

 

Chapter 13

You are going to lose and look a Fool time and time again - get used to it.

Life is painful and often hard work - deal with it.

It's the way of the world:as soon as you gain something you're at risk of losing it.

If you didn't have a body you couldn't feel pain or do work, but being human entails having a body.

Trying to deny these things is like trying to arm-wrestle the moon:

It's way bigger than you....

....and....

....It has no arms.

 

Accept the world on it's terms and compassion will come naturally.

Love the world - and yourself as part of it - just the way it is, and you are truly ready to be trusted.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I'm feeling like spoiling you so here's one more chapter as a treat!

 

Chapter 22

 

Heart broken... open

Confusion and mystery lead to clarity.

To fill up, empty out.

Embrace dying to foster living.

Give to receive.

 

The wise fool lives from the Tao, listening to the still, small voice in her heart.

Quietly blossoming, people see her beauty.

Like the sun behind a cloud: Her brilliance is hidden but people feel her warmth.

When she makes a point, there's no arguing: she's got nothing to prove.

She offers an open heart and people see themselves in her eyes.

With no ideas of good or bad she's wonderful at everything!

 

When the ancients said "Embrace dying to foster living," was that crazy?

 

Surrender to the Way and find yourself where you are

Here and now

Here and now

Here and now.

 

Stop trying to be something and be something.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I hope you've enjoyed this 'borrowed poetry.'  The Tao Te Ching is such a rich and beautiful tome.  If you'd like to know more about my books, be on the mailing list for our courses, or be told when a new book or the online Spiritual Exploration course is available then please get in touch and we can put you on the mailing list.

 

Thanks for reading y'all.

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.

 

TV as Spiritual Practice

TV has a bad rap.  That’s not a new thing, when I was young and liked watching TV probably more than average my parents were concerned about it.  I have since found out that it was particularly my Dad that was worried about it and when I went on to train to be an actor he realised that maybe there was some wisdom at play – I had started studying acting young!  When I wrote this poem in my 20’s my mum thought it was pretty funny:

 

My Televisual Youth – a taste of things to come

Oh lovely TV set

You’re so warm and crumbly

Like a moist current bun

Just baked by my mum

Filling my tum

With a wholesome satisfaction

Playdays or World in Action

It’s all the same to me

From my extra surrogate parent

That is the TV

 

Even the generation before my parents talked about the TV as the ‘goggle-box’ and said you’d get square eyes if you watched too much.  In ‘alternative’ circles TV is often considered a very poor activity and if you say you don’t have a TV you’re celebrated!  I should know: I don’t have a TV – but… I do watch a fair amount of TV programs online.

Now I can understand disparaging TV for the amount of advertising shown and the way that breaks up the programs (although we’ve all gotta pay the bills right?), I also have to say I don’t really get the huge flood of ‘reality’ shows there are going.  Some have a kind of story arc I can understand, and Big Brother originally had a kind of psychological experiment cachet about it but now?  Still going?  Really?  All that said, some people love it and just because it’s not for me doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

What I want to offer here is a different perspective on fictional TV – dramas, comedy, series, films, the whole bit, because I think they are often underappreciated.  The reason I think this is because I consider TV as a form of theatre.  If you went and watched a play each evening, you would be considered fortunate indeed and pretty high-brow.  If you watch TV each evening it’s generally considered low-brow, if perhaps not unusual.  One of the things that I think is underappreciated is that many of the best theatrical writers today are writing for TV, some of them exclusively.  Equally, many of the finest actors around are now working in television.  It has been an increasing trend in the last 5 years or so that even actors who previously only worked in film have started working on TV series’.  Some of the writing in TV series’ is really powerful, deeply human, and very moving if you invest yourself in the story, engage with the characters and really allow yourself to be involved.  David Mamet whose background as a writer is in theatre is one of the creators of ‘The Unit’, an American military action drama (which I have loved watching!).  Tim Roth, one of the finest British actors of his generation (in my opinion) and successful film actor including working on cutting-edge pieces like the film version of Tom Stppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstein are dead’ is now the star in ‘Lie to Me’ a drama series drawing on Paul Ekman’s psychological research.  It is an excellent series, brilliantly written, characterised, acted and directed.  This is some of the best contemporary story-telling going on. 

I think the problem with TV is not the medium itself but how we use it.  All too often I think that TV just serves as a background noise in the house to ensure there isn’t silence.  It can be a way not to spend time ‘in my own company’ and not to sit with thoughts and feelings on the inside.  To quote from ‘The Invitation’ by Oriah Mountain Dreamer:

“I want to know if you can be alone with yourself, and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments”

The negative use of TV in my opinion is a way of ensuring I never have to answer this question.

This doesn’t mean I’m against using TV for escapism.  It can be wonderful to immerse myself in another world and someone else’s cares, concerns, joys and adventures for an hour or two – so long as I don’t do this all the time and lose touch with myself.  What I would propose is that by committing more fully, and escaping more deeply into the stories within your favourite TV you can find a path to a fuller and deeper relationship with yourself. 

There is a technical term from theatre ‘Suspension of disbelief.’  This is something that as performers you have to work for.  You have to create a world on the stage that is so inviting and immersing that the audience commit to suspending their disbelief for the duration of the play.  They commit internally to believing in the world you have created on the stage so that the story lives as a theatrical truth for a while and has the power to move people emotionally rather than just being a body of lies.  In the theatre however, numerous ritual ties have been made to support suspension of disbelief before the play even begins: you have paid for a ticket, you have come together with lots of other people at a special time, many people dress up to go to the theatre, it’s often a treat so you’re invested in enjoying it, you come together in a special room and everyone makes an implicit agreement to be quiet while you all watch, at the end people know to clap their hands to show appreciation… when you think about it, going to the theatre is a highly ritualised act.  From the point of view of the illusion of the story, TV today is better equipped than theatre ever has been.  It is on set’s that are indistinguishable from day-to-day life and with the production budgets, lighting, and special effects it’s completely believable.  But the ritual isn’t there.  The TV gets thoughtlessly switched on and off, ignored, talked over, and spotting continuity errors seems for some people to virtually be a sport… really it doesn’t stand much of a chance!  There is no commitment to suspension of disbelief.  When you’re creating a play you’ve got to do a good enough job to support people in suspension of disbelief, but in TV they’ve done the work.  If you don’t like it, don’t watch it, but if you like watching something then do the artists who have put the work in to create this whole other world a favour and commit to the experience: Suspend your disbelief.  Once you do this I genuinely believe that magic can happen.  You can be transported to other worlds, but you can also vicariously experience emotions that you otherwise might leave buried. 

In therapeutic work we talk about ‘catharsis.’  This is when someone has an experience of fully being in an emotion in a way that releases something for them – often something connected to a traumatic or difficult past experience.  This kind of cathartic release can be very healing and can free up energy and attention in a way that no amount of talking about a life occurrence ever will.  Not a lot of people know that the word Cathartic has it’s origins in classical Greek theatre.  The ancient Greeks considered theatre to be a potentially healing experience and catharsis was when someone was able to allow themselves to feel something when they saw a character feeling it, that they couldn’t feel on their own.  I can certainly identify with some emotions felling almost too big for everyday life – if I am engaged and invested in a story about God’s, Goddesses, Hero’s and Heroines, then the context for the emotions is larger and it can feel safe to experience big emotions.  Sometimes it is less painful to connect with a character’s grief than it is to connect with my own, but that doesn’t mean the tears I shed for the character are not also an emotional release for me.  When my mother died, not long afterwards I saw a film called ‘The Family Stone.’  It is a beautiful film, very funny in places and the mother in the film (played wonderfully by Diane Keaton) really reminded me of my mum.  It helped me to connect with my grief when I was at home, in my own space and snuggled up in a comfy jumper – the perfect environment!  My experience with grief is that it can surface at any moment, and in response to the strangest things so it was a real relief to let some of my grief come, and to shed some tears after that film.  It was much gentler for me to have those feelings in that moment than for them to suddenly surface while I was at the office or in the supermarket (both of which have happened).

The picture I’m trying to paint here is of Television as a true artistic medium, much like stage productions.  For us to find the real benefit of it we need to engage with it more consciously.  What TV requires of us is a commitment to suspension of disbelief.  What TV offers us is the potential to really connect with that which is human within us and potentially to have a healing cathartic release of emotion.

So, “The Rev’s” recommendation for spiritual and emotional exercise for today: curl up in front of your favourite TV program and immerse yourself in the world of the characters.  Make a ritual of it, put on your favourite jumper, get a glass of your favourite drink (whatever floats your boat), and maybe some chocolate or ice-cream, switch off the phone, and get comfy.  Spiritual practices don’t have to be hard work!  You never know what you might learn about yourself or what healing may happen as you sink into the world of the characters...