A Spiritual lesson from Drama School

A learning from my past has come to the surface recently because of some work with one of my students on our Embodied Facilitator Course and I felt to share it in a blog.

It revolves around a moment of breakthrough for me when I was training as an actor at drama school. Acting was something I had always been good at, amongst the best of the people I knew, but in going to drama school I had to face a reality that I think many do: going from being a big fish in a small pond to be a small fish in a big pond. I was still good, but so was everyone else. The teachers were more granular in their feedback and by its very nature the feedback they were giving us related to our blind-spots. If we had known about these problems, if we had been aware of them, we would have changed them already have – we were all dedicated students. I remember envying my fellow students their feedback when it related to such concrete things as working with their posture or their voice. I’m sure for them that was just as difficult to change as what I was being told was difficult for me, but in the moment their feedback seemed so tangible and technical that I wished my problems were so “simple.”

My feedback took various forms. I needed to:

 

“let go”

 

“take a risk”

 

“just try something”

 

“be more spontaneous”

 

I’m certain my teachers meant well with this advice, but at the time it felt like they may as well have said “just stick the North wind in a bottle and drink it.” No problem!

So I continued to struggle with it.

What I realise now but I didn’t know then was that I was so busy trying to “get it right” that there was always a part of me sat on my shoulder watching what I was doing, critiquing what I was doing. That inner observer didn’t make me self-aware, it just made me self-conscious which made everything I did on stage seem overly considered and it therefore lacked the kind of theatrical truth that makes for a great performance.

One director I worked with said “you have the look of someone being looked at.” This was of course no more helpful at the time, but in hindsight it was an interesting comment for him to make!

What I’ve found is an interesting link to my work today teaching embodiment and personal development in that I noticed one of my students had a similar quality, like he was watching himself all the time. In speaking to him about this he found it very useful, and in some ways slightly confusing information because so many spiritual teachings talk about cultivating an inner observer - and that’s part of what he had been working on. I am sure it is the case that in the spiritual traditions that speak of cultivating that “inner observer” or a part of us that neutrally witnesses who we are and what we do, don’t intend for us to become negatively self-conscious. I’m sure it is intended to be more about non-judgemental self-awareness. However I have seen this quality in many other people on similar paths which makes me think that it is a common misunderstanding and may be causing other people difficulties too, so I wanted to offer my solution from when I was at drama school.

The solution I found came to me during my 2nd year at drama school. I was working with a director who I often clashed with because we had such different philosophies and outlooks but he got great results with some people and I was nothing if not tenacious student so I kept diligently trying to do what he asked. We were working on a scene and had been working on it for quite a lot of the afternoon session, running through it over and over again. I was heartily sick of the scene and really fed up with what felt like a litany of criticism and my own sense of trying constantly to do what the director was asking of me and constantly failing. We were nearing the end of the afternoon and I got to a point in myself where I thought “I’m just going to walk onto the stage, say my lines, and walk off again, we will have to give up at some point!”

We did. We stopped right after that run-through but the director seemed surprised and happy. The next morning I ran into him outside the drama school and he asked me:

“Do you know what you did yesterday?”

Me: “if I’m honest, I walked onto the stage said my lines and walked off again.”  (clearly I was done with being the ‘good student’!)

Director: “Right, right, brilliant. We need to work out how you do that in the rest of the play.”

This was all said without a hint of irony and was followed by the closest thing to a compliment I had ever heard given by that director. I came away frankly shocked! I also came away with a profound realisation.  This was what people had been trying to tell me for all this time but never finding quite the right words (or maybe they did and I just didn’t hear them, or they weren’t offered to me at the right time) :

“don’t give a shit, none of it really matters!”

Like I say, I think I needed the realisation not just the words, but there was something profound in this that gave me a sense of freedom, nonattachment, and relaxation. Suddenly I was able to let go, and take a risk, and try something, and be spontaneous because on some level I had found a way to just not really give a shit anymore.

So there it is, my profound spiritual realisation! If like me you have a tendency to care too much, be too cautious, or try to get things ‘right’ then you may like to try a healthy dose of not giving a shit. It could be transformational!

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.

The 7 Days to Spiritual Enlightenment Game!

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

The 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

There is no first strike in Karate

This is the second of Gichin Funakshi's 20 principles of Karate.  This has often been interpreted as meaning that while Karate is primarily a form of self-defense (not offense), the true Karate practitioner will be so aware and so fast that as soon as they detect an attack, they strike with such swiftness and certainty that while both combatants move together, the Karate-ka strikes the winning blow.  I think this is at least a little shallow, and considering Funakoshi was a Confuscian scholar and deeply contemplative individual, I'd like to think he intended a deeper reading of it too.  So here's my interpretation...

There is no first strike in Karate

 What this means to me is that Karate is about relationship.  When I sit in a place of judgement I can say “you started it, it's your fault!”  or “I struck first, I won.”  But if I see everything as a form of interconnected relationship then there is no blame and no winner: somehow 'we' create the moment where conflict or achievement occurs.  Karate should be first and foremost an awareness discipline.  The teaching of 'self defense techniques' is, I believe, misleading.  There is the whole issue of what a fight really looks like (which is frankly very ugly) as compared with what is often taught (which is choreographed).  I have often seen people (including myself at times) walk out of a dojo with a greatly inflated sense of skill when dealing with 'real fighting.'  This is dangerous because this attitude will tend to make you more, not less likely to get into a fight.  It is important to gain a sense of physical self confidence, and some studies have been done that seem to suggest that career criminals instinctively steer clear of people who are grounded and centred regardless of their size or sex (these are cited in George Leonard's book 'The Way of Aikido').  So learning to be grounded and centred, to have sufficient physical awareness and confidence that your physicality does not say “victim” is an important learning and may prevent trouble in the first place.  The attitude that goes with “I can take care of myself” tends more towards some arrogance or even mild aggression – which is more likely to attract the attention of a certain kind of trouble-maker.  In these examples the 'first strike' has gone from being a physical act to an attitudinal stance.  Without necessaily being aware of it, in thinking 'I can take care of myself' I walk around projecting subtle 'what are you looking at?!' vibes.  I have been very fortunate to train with wise and subtle teachers (both physically and through reading some excellent books) who have encouraged me towards a deep kind of physical awareness rather than focusing on the fight.  I believe it is this kind of physical awareness which should be at the heart of what we learn in Karate (or any martial art for that matter), and is also at the heart of what I consider to be 'self defence.'  Even once someone seems to have engaged with us aggressively (which most commonly begins verbally), how we respond to that mentally, emotionally, and physically, can have a huge impact on whether the situation escalates.  In this way, there is no point we can call the 'first strike' because every situation is an environment where many subtle forces are interacting moment to moment.  This interaction begins at the subconscious level so the more aware we can be of what is going on in ourselves, in the world around us and the interface between the two, the better we can become at ensuring a first strike never becomes necessary (whether that 'strike' as an act of aggression is physical, mental or emotional). 

          The Kanji (Japanese writing) for Budo which means 'warrior way' is made up of 2 other Kanji:  one which means 'halberds', the other means 'to stop.'  So the root of the warrior path is to stop combat happening.  This gives us a different idea of what it means to be a warrior than most of the popular films portray for us, and it is from this perspective that I interpret  Gichin Funakoshi's second principle.  With this at the heart of our understanding of the warrior way, we become warriors of compassion, warriors of peace.