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...

Warriors for Peace

It may seem odd to some to consider the Warrior archetype in conjunction with an orientation towards peace, however, I see the 2 things as not only linked but necessary to each other.  One symbolic way of looking at the connection would be through the lens of Taoist beliefs that opposites create each other, as shown visually in the Yin Yang symbol – the black half contains the seed of the white half, and the white the seed of the black.  In a slightly more concrete illustration, when I say yes to one thing I am simultaneously saying no to many other potential options.  Yes and No are opposites but are interdependent upon one another.

To deal more specifically with the matter of the Warrior and Peace, a perfect example can be seen in The Samurai Game®.  George Leonard who created The Samurai Game® was a senior grade Aikido practitioner and former World War II fighter pilot.  This was a man who had seen war and had deep experience of martial arts.  He originally created the Game after he had met with a bunch of his old war buddies.  They had all been reminiscing about their time together during the War and most of them had been saying that life had seemed dull by comparison since.  This was not George's experience but it did set him to thinking about a question he had pondered often before:  Why, when we know the consequences, do we continue to make war?  There are many possible answers to this question ranging from the surface of any political considerations which are specific to each conflict but can be categorised as essentially being questions of power and control; right through to much deeper considerations of fundamental aspects of human nature.  After many years of sitting with and experimenting with this question, one of the possible answers George came up with was:

Maybe it's just the Juiciest game in town!

This could seem light or even crass, but pause for a minute.  There is a part of the human psyche which craves vivid experience and as we have become increasingly 'developed' and 'civilised' this has become less and less nourished as time has gone on.  When aspects of us which need expression are suppressed or ignored they will find ways to leak and burst out on their own.  This is the nature of the human shadow.  Maybe part of what keeps human beings making war is a basic craving for vivid experience.  I think this is part of what George Leonard learned from running The Samurai Game® for many years, with all different kinds of groups.  Certainly, part of what I see people coming into contact with through the Game is not only a deep connection with their own Warrior selves, but an experiential understanding of the consequences of war.  This runs the range of very positive in that they have lived brightly, vividly, profoundly and completely connected to a higher purpose; right through to the truly terrible consequences of massive loss of life and ultimate futility.  Here we have a fascinating dichotomy: a game about War where we learn profound and lasting lessons about Peace.  In the modern world this is a rare, example of the beautiful balance of being a Warrior for Peace.  Some martial arts dojo’s manage to embrace and explore this but even there it is not as common as you might think.

In ancient times and indigenous cultures I think this marriage of Warriors working for Peace was more common. In many indigenous, tribal societies in recent history there were ritual ways of doing combat that limited the danger of loss of life.  These were used to settle inter-tribal disputes but were often invoked and enacted at certain times of the year whether there was a conflict to settle or not.  I see The Samurai Game® as being similar to this, and part of George Leonard's work to create a more vivid peace in the hope that we can one day relinquish war-making.  When your community is smaller you notice the loss of one of you much more keenly – this is clear in The Samurai Game®, as I think it would be in smaller tribal village communities.  I suspect death was in some ways a weightier matter in these communities than it is today in a world where we have such phrases as ‘collateral damage’ and ‘acceptable losses.’  In the arena of mass war, leaders have to numb themselves to the casualties or they will be overwhelmed. 

Examples of the old ritualised combat forms are still visible today whether we draw a parallel between the mass bonding and vivid experience of war-time and sports events like football games, or we look to extant tribal communities and practices closely derived from them.  Lacrosse began as a warrior game amongst first nation American’s and was very much an arena for the young bucks of the tribe to let off steam and work out their aggressive urges in a contained environment.  Many rites of passage and initiatory experiences were designed with a similar intention.  As the saying goes “If the young men are not initiated they will burn down the village for warmth.”  I think this can be particularly true of young men but I think it is true for all of us that we need places where we can let our wild sides out of the box for a while.  If we can find safe, contained ways of exercising our wilder nature, and aggressive tendencies then that is far preferable than risking hurting ourselves and others on a regular basis.  This then becomes a conversation not just addressing external peace-making, but being at peace in ourselves – an issue which to look at the statistics about drug abuse, alcohol abuse, overeating, compulsive shopping and street violence is clearly a pressing issue for us to address both individually and culturally if we are to create a genuinely healthy society.  To see some other examples of ritualised combat we can look at the Dundunbar rituals of West Africa (please forgive me if I have spelled this incorrectly, I have only heard it verbally described).  Young men come together to do ritual combat with sticks.  A great deal of pride and social recognition is at stake and while injury’s can be serious it is nothing like the damage they would do if they were left to create real combat with heavier weapons.  Capoeira is a martial art from Brazil that may have it’s roots at least partially in the ‘Zebra Dance’ of Africa and is generally practised to avoid physical contact with a strong emphasis on ritual and an exercising of aggressive and competitive tendencies without doing harm.  Part of the tradition of Capoeira is a dance called the ‘Maculele’ which is a ritualised dance-combat with sticks.  One story I have heard about it is that originally it was a ritual created by 2 tribes who lived on either side of a valley.  Once a year the 2 tribes would meet at the bottom of the valley and ‘do battle’ through the Maculele.  Whether this story is historically correct or not, it is another example of ritual combat being used to alleviate the Warrior’s call for real combat.  

Whether we are looking at promoting inner peace or creating outer peace, it is clear to me that a healthy embrace and inclusion of the Warrior archetype in all of us is not only preferable but necessary.

For people who are seeking to be peace-workers themselves, I would see it as particularly important that they have not only studied peace but have learnt about and embraced their warrior selves.  Otherwise, the potential that they will repress their aggressive tendencies is much greater.  Aspects of ourselves which are repressed or ‘left in shadow’ in my experience not only leak out unconsciously in many small ways but also have a tendency to explode out at the most unfortunate moments.  Imagine if you are working on a mediation case and one of the emotional dynamics pushes your buttons… It would be the worst possible moment for you as mediator to have an emotional explosion yourself!  However, when our warrior tendencies, our need for healthy expression of anger, our need for vivid experience, and our need to be able to say “No” and draw hard boundaries when necessary have not been listened to, exercised and understood for long periods of time an emotional explosion is exactly what we are likely to get.

Even without the potential for unfortunate emotional outbursts or subtle emotional leakage, I think the Warrior has a fundamental role to play in creating Peace.  To truly choose Peace we must be coming from a position of strength, other wise it is not something we are choosing, it is our last remaining option for survival.  This idea is beautifully articulated by Paul Linden in his book 'Embodied Peacemaking' and by Daniele Bolelli in his book 'On the Warrior's Path.'

 

“If Attila the Hun comes riding over the hill all set to pillage your village, the first, civilized step is to say, “Excuse me, Mr. Hun, but I’d really rather you not pillage my village.” Of course, we know what he’d likely say. So the next step would be to make a clear statement of the negative consequences for him of his trying. And of course, we know what he would be likely to do. So the necessary last step would be physical self-defense. Without the capability of bottom-line, practical self-protection skills, other conflict resolution skills rest on a foundation of sand.”

                                                -Paul Linden

 

“You can only renounce what you are able to do. Peace is a choice only for those who are able to do battle. Otherwise, it’s the desperate pleading of someone who has no alternatives. Unless you are a mean, violent bastard with murderous tendencies to begin with, renouncing violence probably is not to the main thing on your mind when you pick up martial arts. Renouncing violence, anger, and aggression is a by-product of growing as a human being, of becoming more confident and secure in yourself. Once you are confident enough, you can afford to be sweet and open up emotionally to others because you are no longer afraid. Ultimately, mastering combat is a path to face one’s fears and, at least partially, overcome them. Abandoning violent tendencies is only one of many transformations that take place when fear lessens its hold on us.”               

                                                                                    -Daniele Bolelli

 

The Warrior and the Peacemaker may be apparent opposites, but like the Yin Yang symbol they are completely necessary to each other if we are to be whole people and if we are to create a more peaceful and loving world.  They are not enemies, they are brothers.  I think this is why so many great teachers through the ages have embraced the Warrior archetype while essentially teaching us to be more peaceful and loving: Chogyam Trungpa, Gichin Funakoshi, Morihei Ueshiba, George Leonard, Paul Linden, Richard Strozzi-Heckler, Paulo Coelho and many others.  This too is why I do the work that I do.

 

If you’d like to know more about The Samurai Game® and Warriors of the Heart workshops, or would like to work with Warrior Leadership in your organisation, please do check our calendar for upcoming events, or get in touch.  Thanks for reading.



The Right Costume

"It is good to carry some powdered rouge in one's sleeve.  It may happen that when one is sobering up or waking from sleep, his complexion may be poor.  At such a time it is good to take out and apply some powdered rouge."  -  Hagakure, 2nd Chapter.  (Translation by William Scott Wilson)

                         There are many ways this passage could be interpreted.  It could be seen as an admonition not to let your enemies see you looking anything other than entirely healthy - even if that means a little artifice - although that strikes me as rather a paranoid and fearful stance to take. 

In the film "Ghost Dog," by Jim Jarmusch the lead character has to go and tackle his enemies and in order to fake his way in, he steals a posh car and a rich mans suit.  In this way he finds the appearance that best suits his purposes so that he can achieve his ends.  This is perhaps a little closer to what I see in this teaching. 

A very dear friend of mine was with me once when I was giving myself a particularly hard time about wanting to have more money.  At the time (young fool I was) I saw this as a deeply un-spiritual desire!  In this particular instance I had been pretty broke for a while and wanted to have some spare cash to buy a new pair of jeans - something "superficial" and therefore even less spiritually necessary.  My friend listened while I tied myself in knots simultaneously wanting and not wanting more money and then simply said:  "You know, sometimes when you're trying to be the person you dream of being, it just helps to have the right costume."  I think she's right. 

It is not uncommon in spiritual development to forget that while the body may not be the entirety of our being it is a part of it.  Even for those of us who incorporate the body in our practice and care for it as a part of caring for ourselves, how many of us take as much care over our clothes?  I am not just talking about being "smart" here, or wearing nice things - although both of these things are totally valid - I am talking about the essential way we express ourselves in the world.  Our clothes are a fundamental part of that.  What divine expression of being do you wish to offer up when God looks your way?  I like to take it a step further. 

It is common knowledge in the theatre that costume can sometimes be an excellent method to help you getting into character.  When you are working on period pieces (set in a particular era), wearing the right shoes makes a huge difference to how you create the world of the play.  It substantially changes the way you move and therefore, the physical expression of the character.  Other items of clothing can prove vital in forming and understanding the character and not just because of the way they may affect your posture.  When you see yourself in the mirror wearing the right hat or wig or jacket it can go a really long way to helping realise the existence of the character in you.  So who or what in life do you want to be?  I'm not suggesting you pretend to be something you're not, but then it is a common misunderstanding that actors 'become someone else.'  One of my teachers at drama school used to like to remind us "You've got nothing but yourself" and as a film director (who's identity I'm afraid I do not know) once said:  "Acting is not about being someone else, it is about being yourself under imaginary circumstances."  So I ask you again, who or what in life do you want to be?  We are always wearing some kind of mask so we may as well choose which one we want to wear.  What do you aspire to? 

I like to dance 5 Rhythms (which is personal development movement practice).  For a while a few years back I decided that I wanted to wear clothes with words or images that I wished to invoke in me instead of just my baggy sweaty clothes.  I had a t-shirt with the horned God on, and made t-shirts with hearts on and phrases like "Passionate Creature," and "Radiant, but easy on the eyes."  What is the costume of the character you wish to embody?  Maybe start by looking at the costumes of people you admire in films - not the ones you identify with, the ones you admire and aspire to be like.  This all becomes particularly relevant when we are not feeling at our best.  When we are low we tend to collapse and sag physically. If you adjust your posture to a more positive, aligned and self supportive shape this can have a knock-on effect on your emotional state.  It works the same way with clothes.  It can be great to snuggle up in a comfy jumper when I am low and this kind of comfort is really necessary sometimes.  However, when I need to get out there and face the world -  even though I might not feel at my best - sometimes the right costume can really help me shift my consciousness and state of being. 

One native American tribe used to wear their special ceremonial clothes every day, helping them to bring a heightened, ritual awareness to every moment of their lives.  In many cultures a warrior would traditionally always carry his sword even in times of peace.  I think this is a ritual reminder to keep ones senses sharp and maintain a constant state of readiness.  I have found certain clothes and items which, when I have them, help me to feel ready to face the world.  I am not dependant on them, but they are useful tools and wonderful allies.  In this way I can "apply some powdered rouge" when I need to, supporting myself in growing into the person I dream of being.  On good days, rouge or no rouge, I look in the mirror and he's already there looking back at me.  I hope that’s true for all of you too.

First Chapter: Finding your Way

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

 

Introduction: The Way

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

  


Chapter 1: All Zen Masters are Geeks and Anoraks!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 


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



The Nature of Justice

Karate stands on the side of Justice

 

This is the third principle of Gichin Funakoshi's 20 principles of Karate.  I'm going to continue to unfold my reading of these principles for martial artists and hopefully anyone with an interest too.  If you'd like to read the first two then click on '20 Principles' in the tag cloud on the right.  So, Justice:

If you look up the word justice in the dictionary much of what is talked about is 'being fair,' and also 'doing yourself justice' as in giving a good account of yourself.  How I choose to interpret this principle is about taking a balanced view.  Let's first look at this idea of fairness.  A child's idea of fairness will usually be different to that of the parent.  This is because they have different perspectives.  How much chocolate a child is allowed to eat is determined in the child's head mostly by a measure of enjoyment:  more chocolate = more enjoyment.  The same scenario will involve many other factors for the parent: health; behaviour – both now and when bed-time comes; having some left as a treat for tomorrow; teaching the child to have self-control etc.  Generally speaking it is my experience that most people choose to do what they think is the best thing in the moment.  What counts as the 'best thing' for that person may be governed by a different set of rules to you or I, it may, like a child be governed more by pleasure than any sense of 'the greater good,' or more by taking care of themselves than taking care of others.  None of these perspectives are inherently 'good' or 'bad,' they are just different.  I know what choices I want to make, and even with the best intentions I will sometimes be more governed by my patterns, habits, or neediness than by my conscious judgement.  That's life, that's what it is to be a human being!  I do my best to do what I think is 'right' but that is just a choice, one of many.  With this in mind I try always to look at someone's behaviour and not judge them for it but look at what has motivated that behaviour.  I may make judgements about the behaviour – on the basis that from my perspective it was not the choice I think would have been best in those circumstances – but where I can I try and balance my sense and experience of the behaviour the person exhibits, with a desire to understand why they have done what they have done.  This is how I see justice:  the balancing of what people do with why they have done it.  If the behaviour is essentially destructive then through understanding what has motivated the behaviour we may be able to introduce them to a different perspective.  It is generally my experience that if people understand why something works better, that they will feel happy to do it that way even if it takes a bit of practice.  In relationship, if my partner understands why something doesn't work for me, and I can understand why it does work for her, then we can usually find  a way of being with each other that truly works for both of us.  This is not a compromise of 2 choices, it is a genuine 'third' choice that will be better for both of us.  This is justice.

          Now to mention the other version of justice: doing yourself justice.  Previously to this I have mentioned humility as something to be cultivated, and I think particularly in English society, it is a quality that many will have been brought up to have.  However, if we are truly to embody humility we must also always give a good account of ourselves.  False humility is when we have arrogance about something we can do but we pretend that it's nothing special.  Just thinking that everything we do is worthless is not humility, it's low self-worth.  So true humility is actually when we acknowledge our abilities and talents, but don't show off about them.  It means putting our skills on the line when it is appropriate and saying “Yes, I can do that, I have something to contribute,” without making a grand show of what we are offering or demanding huge recognition for our contribution.  In this way it is similar to meekness.  The original meaning of being 'meek' was to be like a powerful horse that is under control.  It is this kind of wise power that I think justice, and specifically doing ourselves justice, is all about.

          If we don't find this quality, this humility in ourselves we can end up convincing ourselves we are much less talented or valuable than we really are and thereby not only generate a lack of self-worth which is very destructive, but also deny the world of our talents.  If you are the best in the world at something there is nothing wrong with saying that you are!  It is not then arrogance, it is just a fact.  If you are good at something, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging it.  When we play small we only encourage others to do the same or to dominate us; when we acknowledge our strengths we encourage others to share theirs too; when we act arrogantly we only encourage others to compete negatively with us, or to play small around us.  Both self aggrandizement and self denial are lose-lose behaviours.  

          “Karate stands on the side of justice” to me means that as Karate practitioners we must always seek to take a truly balanced view of life, other people, and also ourselves.



Facilitation: 5 rules to live by

I don't want to set myself up as the grand mugwump of facilitation - 10 years in I've got a lot to learn, but I have learnt a few things over the years from study, practice (and sometimes painful experience!), and from watching others work their craft.  Here are 5 guidelines which I think are useful touchstones for any facilitator who works with individuals or groups to support awareness, learning, and growth.

  1. Trust the Process - some of us work within specific frameworks and processes in our facilitation.  There's Appreciative Inquiry, The Samurai Game, World Cafe, Open Space technology, Arthur Hulls' drum circle, 5 Rhythms Dance (the Wave), Dialogue (a la David Bohm), Way of Council, and any number of others.  Whatever framework you are using or even if you aren't using one at all and you are just holding an open space to support a group of people to share a conversation you need to trust the process.  Whether there is a formal process or not, there is definitely a process going on.  Human beings as individuals and groups have an innate wisdom which, given sufficient space and support, will surface.  I think the greatest value of many of the frameworks I have used over the years is to give my conscious mind a task to get on with (i.e. setting the structure) so that the rest of me can focus on just getting out of the way!  To use a favourite phrase from my seminary training "God does the work, I just make the tea."  This 'making of the tea' is a great way to keep my ego happy doing a task while the greater part of my being holds a space, simply open to what needs to happen.  In my experience there is a kind of underlying wisdom which some people call 'Grace' which will surface if only we make space for it.  Set up the framework, then get out of the way.
  2. Don't talk too much - this isn't just about the physical act of talking.  It's related to what I've just said about trusting the process: you've got to give people space to have their own experience.  For some of us who take on a role as teacher, facilitator or workshop leader it can be hard to remember that we don't know what's best for everyone in the world!  Luckily we don't need to.  Give people space to have their own experiences and you'll be surprised at what they'll create for themselves.  A well placed phrase can be the mark of a great facilitator (or teacher, or coach) but that well placed phrase should arise in a sea of silence!
  3. Don't try and make a 2 hour session into a 3 day workshop - most of us have been guilty of this at some point.  We get excited, all these people want to come and have this experience with us and we want to give them our best stuff.  Oh and there's that bit.  And I can't leave out this other bit too.  Oh and it needs to have a theme.  Except my favourite bit doesn't fit with the theme now so maybe a theme with a sub-heading...  You may be great at getting just the right balance of content but I still get over-excited sometimes!  If you are just starting out or if you ever struggle with this, here's a rule of thumb: (a) think of what you want to do, (b) cut out anything that isn't 100% relevant to the group, setting and any theme if you have one - even if you love an exercise that doesn't mean it is always relevant! (c) do half of what is left with maybe one short exercise kept in reserve for if things go faster than you thought (and this rarely happens).  If you are running a whole process that you can't structure in this way then just make sure you strip it back to the most essential components.  The core thing here is not to over-stuff your time.  One good process with space enough to reflect on and realise it's impact is better than 5 great processes half done and undigested.
  4. Participants are brilliantly stupid! - This is sort of a 2for1 point.  Participants should be generally considered to be way sharper than you could possibly imagine.  If you are hedging or trying to trick them, or have a hidden agenda they will smell it a mile off.  Seriously, just lay your cards on the table and be totally open about what you're going to be doing and why.  Anything else and they won't trust you or the process - or even possibly each other - they'll just be looking for what is going on 'behind the curtain' so-to-speak.  The balance of this is that when you are setting up an exercise or process explain things with utmost clarity, do so at least twice using different language each time and ask people if they get it (and mean it when you ask it - you really are checking they understand, it's not just for show!).  Describe it like you're doing the dummies version because anything you don't explain well enough will be mis-understood by at least 10% of the people in the room.  This kind of explanation is actually well worth rehearsing so you can easily set the exercise up and describe it a number of different ways without thinking about it.
  5. Trust the Process - I've said it already but it really is worth mentioning twice.  This is the key, and you may be seeing that all the others are just aspects of this really: Don't talk too much - let the process do it's work; don't overdo the content - choose the process well and then give it space; set the process up carefully and honestly and then get out of the way and let it do it's work.  If you take nothing else away from reading this blog post please take this to heart - trust...the...process.  In facilitation as in life you can't push the river.

May your lives and work be filled with grace and spontaneous wisdom.  Thanks for reading.

The Incomparable Jim Dodge

I have long been a fan of Jim Dodge.  He is a simply wonderful writer if not the most prolific.  I first came across his writing when I picked up his book 'Stone Junction' in a 2nd hand bookshop.  I loved it - it is an awesome tale of one young man's existence and the existence of the universe at the same time.  It includes some wonderful characters and is one long, very grand adventure.

The next step in my love affair with his writing came when I found his little book FUP.  It's about a duck, a man and his grandaddyy.  It is the most perfect book I have ever read (and I've read a lot!).  I get the sense that it is short because Jim Dodge knew exactly when to stop writing.

I read an interview with Jim Dodge and he called himself a Taoist-Dirt-Pagan.  I like that.

I have now just acquired his book of poetry 'Rain on the River.'  It is, once again, beautiful.  Mr. Dodge has not previously published his poems in a full book, having kept to the old format of publishing shorter 'chap-books' and releasing them locally as part of his modest goal to become "famous for a hundred miles."  In this age of global media coverage it strikes me that it might even be harder to be famous only for that hundred miles!  I guess I'm not doing him any favours spreading word of him in the UK!

Anyway, I thought I'd share with you my favourite poem so far, in the hopes you will feel inspired to investigate this man's gorgeous writing.  Fup is probably the best place to start, but you can't go far wrong.

Love Find - By Jim Dodge

 

After the Oklahoma City bombing

search-and-rescue dogs

were flown in with their handlers

from all over the U.S.

 

But when the dogs couldn't find

any survivors

they became disconsolate,

 

and after another day of nothing

but dead bodies,

if they'd even search

it was desultory at best.

 

So the handlers began taking turns

hiding in the rubble,

letting the dogs find them alive.

My Tao Te Ching - Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1


I'm going to talk about something

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

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

But if I don't,

This will be a very short book.

 

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

Limitless

And wonderfully mysterious,

And reduced it to a 3 letter word.

 

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

 

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

Like the toaster,

Or the train,

Or Auntie Maureen,

Or the Jelly mold...

 

Sometimes

When we let go of our need to pin things down

Our confusion can be very beautiful.

 

When we get obsessed with having all the answers

All we can see is the toaster.

 

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

This place is called "The Dark."

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

But if you want to understand

Then "The Dark"

Is the only place worth looking.

 

 

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

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.

3 Cultural Learning Styles: Linear, Cyclical, and Holistic

Over the last 15 years I have been blessed to have studied with numerous excellent teachers in a variety of fields of learning and educational settings.  In that time, with those teachers and in those places I have observed 3 key approaches to teaching and learning which I have not seen described elsewhere and I thought may be useful to others as they consider how they are going to teach something or how something is being taught to them.  I have made use of my understanding in these ways of structuring learning in the courses I have run over the years and have found them to be excellent ways of pinning down the best large-scale structure for a course either becuase it will match what the students are used to in terms of learning, or so that the structure of the course itself is part of the teaching - challenging the students to engage in a new way of learning, thinking and being.

The 3 styles are Linear (or modular), Cyclical (or spiral), and Holistic (or 'master key').  The first style, Linear seems to me to be the primary way of teaching and learning in Western culture and is therefore (rightly or wrongly) the most common method used and the most widely recognised method in terms of creating qualifications.  The second style, Cyclical I discovered first when studying shamanism and I would suggest is the traditional method of teaching and learning in tribal, indiginous cultures around the world.  The third style, Holistic I encountered while studying Japanese and Chinese martial arts and I would say was the most common way of teaching and learning in the Orient and possibly India (I say 'was' because Western methods of teaching and learning have become much more common in both Japan and China in the last 100 years).  There may be other places where any of these styles of learning and teaching have been common or even originated, I am making an 'educated guess' about their origins and regions of application based on my experience and observation, this isn't an evidenced scientific paper!  So, that gives you a bit about the background of these approaches, now let's sink our teeth into each of the styles in turn....

Linear

This is the style most of us will be most familiar with and will probably have grown up learning within.  Learning progresses from 1 step to the next, to the next, and you need to start at the beginning in any area of study.  Progress is measured by how many steps (or modules) you have completed along the path and completion of a module usually entails some kind of test or examination on the knowledge you have gained so far.  Each step along the line of development is discreet and well defined and there are key things which should be learned at each step before progressing to the next level or module.  People are valued based on how many steps they have taken along their chosen path and being an expert in one field is more commonly recognised and valued than being midway along several lines of development.  A 'jack of all trades and master of none' is less valued than an 'expert.'  An old person who has only studied 2 modules is less valuable than a young person that has studied 10.

Cyclical

This teaching and learning style is less familiar for most of us.  The most common teaching tool is the circle or wheel, often referred to in shamanic teaching as a 'medicine wheel.'  The learning is modeled on and usually associated with the turning of the seasons during the year.  Other common correspondences which are used to 'anchor' certain learnings on the wheel are the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West), and the 4 elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water).  Incidentally, it is commonly assumed that because many of the Chinese (and oriental generally) systems use 5 elements that they haven't evr used the 4 elements more commonly referred to in Western culture and most indiginous cultures, however, I have found instances of oriental systems pre-dating extensive contact with the West which use the 4 elements.  Whichever correspondences are used the mirroring of the cycle of the year is the common factor.  In terms of how this is reflected in teaching and learning, it means that just as we pass through the seasons every year, our learning will pass through these same areas of study repeatedly over time.  Your learning therefore spirals continually deeper with every cycle you are part of.  While the student may be put through initiatory experiences at various stages along the journey of learning, these are not assessments in the same way that the linear style of learning uses them.  That is one of the most common confusions in Westerners being educated by cyclical means.  The initiations are experiences to be lived through.  There is rarely a 'well defined learning outcome.'  The lesson that the experience has for you is personal to you and cannot be judged or assessed by another person.  Similarly, what is learned as we cycle around the wheel of learning is what is there for us that time around.  We will come back to essentially the same lesson on the next cycle so there are no 'begginners learnings' or 'advanced learnings' as such.  There are the learnings you get this time, and there are the learnings you will spot next time, and there are some learnings it will do you well to face more than once.  If you keep going around the wheel long enough you'll see it all eventually.  Just like learning about gardening, you can only learn winter lessons in winter and spring lessons in spring, and what you don't pick up this year you might spot next, or the next, or the next.  Where this mode of learning and teaching is used people are valued by how many times they have been around a cycle.  Of course if you have not been engaged in a particular course of study then you won't have even begun the cycle for that area of knowledge no matter how old you are, but old people are innately valuable because they have been through the cycles of life many times.  While younger 'experts' who have seen several cycles of their area of expertise are very valuable, in terms of the cycles of life, no-one has seen more cycles than the oldest person.  The nature of this method of learning and teaching means that just by the fact of having 'been around the block' a person has something worth listening to and learning from.

Holistic

This is the most alien style of learning and teaching for Westerners.  It involves a huge amount of trust on the part of the student as much of the learning will be done 'blind.'  There are often ideas of 'Mastery' in this approach to teaching and learning and the teacher will typically be someone who exemplifies the skills they are saying the student will learn by following their method.  For students engaging in this approach to learning it can be vital to see some of the Master's other students and see if they are progressing under the Master's tutelage as some people can do but not teach what they have seemingly mastered.  The teaching and learning is made up of bodies of knowledge and practice which often don't have immediate application (or at least, not obviously to the student).  Even if there is some clear (ish) connection between what you are learning and what the teacher can do, there is usually some significant leap to be made between learning the technical skills and applying them in any way that resembles the teacher's skill.  All of this means that there is a strong tendency to deify the teacher.  In reality this only creates a mindset which makes you even less likely to mature into your own sense of mastery as you make them 'special' and yourself 'ordinary.'  Some unscrupulous teachers encourage this disempowerment of their students either unconsciously to bolster their own ego, or deliberately out of a paranoid need to control their educational legacy.  The piece that is needed to make best use of all the seemingly unconnected knowledge that the student acquires is a 'master key.'  This will be a core body of knowledge which gives context to what the student has been studying all along.  "Why not give the master key up front?" you might ask.  Well, some teachers do, and in some systems that works really well.  It can help the student to have enough of a concept of roughly where they are going so that they find it easier to trust the teacher even when the body of teaching seems a little strange.  However, often, without having the experience of living through the learnings of the system the master key will have very little meaning to the student (or prospective student).  This is, I believe, why some teachers using the Holistic teaching modality will keep the master key to themselves until they deem the student ready to have it.  Otherwise it is 'casting pearls bfore swine' so-to-speak.  For me personally, I'd prefer to give people the key, and keep giving it to them until they understand it's value.  I feel this approach makes the student less likely to put me on a pedestal as a teacher (if anything they may think I'm a little strange or even dim for keeping telling them this obscure bit of information or harping on about the same thing all the time!).  This system of teaching and learning typically has many small tests along the path and some would see every lesson as a small test.  Ironically then, people are valued not necessarily for a particular skill set or measured and tested proficiency (although there is typically a level of skilled mastery which is observable in a respected educator in this style), nor are they valued just because of years in the practice (although that is more important here than in linear learning cultures), a practitioner's and teacher's value is largely determined by whether or not they have received transmission of the full system.  In simple terms, do they have the master key?  As you may have spotted, depending on the teacher's approach, any monkey 2 weeks into training may have been showed and even thoroughly taught the master key, but whether you know it and whether you've really 'got it' are 2 very different things!  One way to spot if this is the case is if the entire system is expressed in every part of the system when they perform it.  What I mean by this is that when they perform even the most basic techniques or methods of the system, their performance is invested with the depth of learning engendered by a full embodiment of the whole of the rest of the system.  If you don't know the system intimately yourself this can be very hard to percieve.  This difficult to define level of qualification is, I think, part of what makes this approach to learning and teaching so difficult for Westerners to get a handle on.  Coming from our background of linear study it is hard to quantify or equate the knowledge a teacher in this style has, and this is further confused by the potential for someone to claim 'full transmission' and be a charlatan.  After all, how do we measure them up?  How can we gauge their veracity?  With our linear tools we can't so it is easy to either deify all who make such claims or declare all such teachers baseless charlatans.

In case it helps to have a reference: my Warrior Leadership is taught using a Holistic learning method.  That doesn't mean it is baseless nonsense(!), or that I am claiming to be a 'Master' but the model which you can see on the Warrior Leadership page is the matser key (so to speak).  It probably doesn't mean much to you on the page and is difficult for me to describe in a satisfying way.  However if you come on a workshop and live through the exercises, while no one exercise will explain the whole model, the exercises are given context and a framework to 'hang from' by the model.  As a whole body of learning it is coherent but any part alone doesn't give you much.  There is no 'basic paper' to study which will give you any real understanding of the system.  Also, there is no one starting point or ending point.  There is no basic skill and advanced skill.  All aspects of it can be explored as a beginner or as an advanced student.  The study of the subject is the study of the whole.

Conclusion

I hope this has given you some insight into these different methods of learning and teaching.  If you would like to know more then please get in touch and I can do my best to help deepen your understanding or run a course to teach how to consciously enagage with each of these styles and how to skillfully apply them under different circumstances.  From the point of view of each approach the other approaches look crazy.  They are profoundly different approaches to learning and teaching and each has its place.  The key is understanding what style you are learning within so you can fully immerse yourself in the learning rather than getting confused by the methodology.  Or, on the flip side, it is about assessing a group of students and gauging which style of teaching will give them the right balance of familiarity and novelty to challenge them to grow, but not freak them out!

Enjoy your adventures in learning out there!

Karate begins and ends with 'Rei'

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

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

Karate Begins and ends with Rei

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

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

you

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

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

 

First post: What does this Soul long for?

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

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

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

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

 

 

What does this soul long for?

 

Love

Love

Love, Love, Love

And Loving

And Loving

And Loving

And longing's end

With space to grow,

And flow

And support

And manifest safe reality

Held

In the hands of Mother Earth

And in the hearth of my own home

And own work

And knowledge of integrated expansion

And magic

And continued learning

In enjoyment and immersion and pleasure and recognition

And tactile, rolling, tumbling fun

And walk, walk, walk

The sea

Hills

Shore

Rising

Woodland waves

Hand-in-hand

Heart-in-heart

Sharing

Wonder-eye-sparkle connection

Without and within

And everything done

And everything yet to do

And

Adventure, adventure, adventure!