Coming through AS Life

I have been exploring the relationship between coming forward and resting back for years. A pulse which involves no pushing and simultaneously no holding back. To support myself to live like that I ask myself, “what is it like, right now, if I let go and allow completely what wants to come through me, without making an effort?” In young children and animals, this doesn’t need to be ‘worked on’ because it is so natural. It is how it is supposed to be. Life moves because it moves and it loves to move.

Memory of a realization : I am looking into Colin’s eyes. I suddenly realize that I am receiving him but not giving of myself to him. I see that I have somehow assumed that relationship equals letting the other in, which means not really letting him in, but checking him (or anyone) out and responding to him, rather than just showing up, and meeting him as he and I show up. Ha, there are two of us here and this is a conversation. It is one of those moments when what I thought I knew, I suddenly knew. It’s so obvious that I hadn’t been aware of it. I don’t have to check anything out in you, in order to be who I am, or to measure up how much of me I can be. I can step in and say hello, as I am, and see what wants to happen.

Many years ago, I asked a tree if he/she/it trusted Life. The tree was somewhat perplexed by the question and responded “I AM Life!”I realized in that moment that I had missed something so fundamental and obvious. I thought I was a character in this big play of life, I hadn’t realized that, whilst this was also true, more profoundly than that I was Life. Just as every other living thing is life. And from that perspective the very idea of being separate from existence, or from another, or from the natural world is absurd, unthinkable, weird.

And as life, movement happens, expression happens, words tumble out, actions happen. Watching my little grand daughter, I see her being life. She has no concept yet of being a separate person with volition and the capacity to choose whether to hold back or come forward. She just does what she does. Life moves her. Hands happen, hunger happens, a breast appears, a smiling face appears. Sounds happen; a loud startling bang, music, the clucking sounds which one day she will recognize is chickens even when she cannot see them. A smile or laugh bursts out of her little body, a cry, a scream, a kick, a gurgle. Her own hand appears in view, or her foot. But the concept of my own foot hasn’t yet dawned. It is all just life happening.
It seems that all creatures are naturally living this immediacy, this impulsive, creative possibility which is never ending.

So what happens to us as humans as we individuate and realize we are distinct from others, and need to survive physically and emotionally in the world?
I will speak personally; I decided from a fairly young age, it was wise and sensible to tone this business down. Not completely, because I liked getting attention, and I couldn’t hold back the life energy which I felt so strongly wanting expression through me in a myriad of ways. – like climbing trees, singing and dancing, telling stories and painting pictures, chatting to people, playing with dogs and jumping in rivers creating emotional dramas and running and running around… But I figured it would be sensible to try and control it and constantly gage all those I encountered, to figure out how much or how little I could let the energy out depending on who I was with and where they were at in that moment. This only became possible at a certain age before which it was impossible to temper my energy. One of my earliest memories is this – sitting in the back of the car with my mother and grandmother who were talking about boring things. I had a lot to tell them about, but I only became aware of this when I was bribed to be quiet for 2 minutes. I’m not sure what the bribe was, but I know I wanted it badly, probably sweet money. But the things I wanted to say were SO important, and holding it all down felt more or less impossible, and what’s more, I remember thinking that they would be badly deprived if I didn’t tell them all this fascinating stuff; I failed to reach the 2 minute mark thus sacrificing my prize in the knowledge that although they didn’t realize it, they would be so much the richer for my offering.

A few years on however adaptions to fit with my environment came easier. This was quite an energy consuming process, because there wasn’t a set formula. For example my Dad (who I most desperately wanted closeness with), would love and praise my unbounded expression one minute, and come down like a ton of bricks on it the next. So there was a constant need to listen, and to measure and determine in every moment how much or how little would be needed in order to please him and get the love and praise and communion I wanted. And of course with each other member of my family and friends or acquaintances this had to be honed to a fine art too, amplified by moving to another country aged 6 where all the rules of conduct were very different to what I was used to. The effect of all of this was that the appraisal of who was in front of me began to become more important than the natural uncensored movement of life through me. This is pretty normal of course, and actually to some degree healthy. We need to attune to our environment and determine how we behave in order to survive, fit in and thrive in our community as best we can. However the downside is that there is an increasing sense of a separation between myself and the natural flow of life through me as I learn to manipulate myself to fit in and control, repress, deny or dissociate from the flow.

It seems to take years to reclaim that spontaneous life movement when it has been trained in such complex ways. And it is only truly possible in my experience, as I start to intuit and then to increasingly feel a sense of being safe in my own skin even when I am not liked or approved of. This gives confidence and safety in letting go of the holding. And as the repression starts to thin, and the movement of life itself is able to come through more freely, there can be a sense of disorientation which comes with the aliveness, and an exposure which comes hand in hand with being less defended.

Another layer of this is up for me, as I start to stick my neck out, and communicate through the written word, without being able to control who is receiving it and therefore adapt to fit my audience…
Ancient, well honed voices pipe up – “Do you like me? Do you approve of what I say and therefore of me? Will I still belong whether I fuck up, I shine or make no noise at all? Will you punish me if I get noticed?”

I won a prize at school for the best painting. I remember it vividly, I was so proud. It was of a man who had just done the grape harvest (or vendemmia) in Tuscany where we lived. He was leaning against the barrel full of grapes with a fiasco of wine in his hand overlooking the Chianti hills. My father was very upset. He told me that I didn’t deserve the prize, and that I had only been given it because he was a painter and that made him sick (he felt ashamed to imagine I was being favoritised unfairly and he thought the painting was mediocre). This was bewildering and devastating. It was one of many incidents in my growing where I started to believe a narrative in which success seemed emotionally dangerous.

I love listening to peoples stories, and hearing the twists and turns of our complex lives and how certain events happen, and we make decisions based on them which go on to shape the rest of our lives. It’s amazing. And not that straightforward to unravel. You could say that although the story we make up is all a bit outdated, tiresome and constraining (at best!), it is an incredibly creative process that we engage in as we fit ourselves into boxes we believe will keep us safe.

I seem to have been making it my business to climb out of my own self-created limiting boxes and support others to climb out of theirs so as to open the incredible potential that life offers us when we step out of the narrative and allow ourselves to be moved. It’s exciting, and daunting by turns, not to mention thrilling and terrifying, or just quite simply relaxing. Very relaxing. And I love that more and more of us are interested in this possibility as the world veers towards more and more chaos and uncertainty. Perhaps the urgency of the state we find ourselves as a human race is part of what is supporting the wake up call. In any case despite the fact that the future looks pretty scary, I am grateful to be born in these times and to be part of a massive global movement towards profound transformation. I have no idea what we are in for, but I want to be here for it all, allowing life to move through me uncensored and alive; available for action whatever it takes, and able to rest back and not act when appropriate.

Sexual Healing

I am twelve years old.
I want to be a good person. I want to be kind and to do something, anything, to save the animals from human selfishness, greed and violence. I want to be loved. I want to have fun. I want to find God and feel loved by Him.

One day my brother brought something back from the dump. It was a place he used to go and play with his friend. There was no rubbish collection in those days in Italy, and all the rubbish would be taken to certain places in the woods and burned. It would smell of burning plastic, there would be lots of blackened tin foil, and a surprising number of comics and magazines with the edges burned. I never really liked those places, but the boys seemed to find all kinds of treasures.

Anyway, one day he came home with a pornographic comic. The image I remember most vividly was of a woman with huge breasts, a tiny waist and big hips on all fours baring her arse to a long line of sailors who had just come off a boat. They all had big erections and were waiting their turn to penetrate her. I looked at this image for a long time. I was horrified and fascinated. I wanted to be sick, and I wanted to keep looking at it. I felt guilty and I felt the stirrings of something in me I didn’t understand, a kind of weird hunger. I felt afraid, and I also wanted to be the woman being raped by all those men. And I couldn’t believe I could want that. She looked like she was fine with it, enjoying it. I knew it was sick; I knew it was wrong; but I couldn’t stop looking. Then I turned the pages and looked at image after image of graphic sex happening. I felt haunted by those images, in fact sometimes I still feel haunted by them. Why did I want to keep looking? What perversion made me feel so drawn to something so dark, scary and unspeakable? Then I felt the shame, and a disgust at myself for looking, for wanting it, for feeling so magnetically pulled, and so strangely aroused.

There was nowhere I could speak about this, or make any kind of sense of it. And over the years I hear this story over and over. Of girls finding their fathers/uncles/brothers’ hidden porn stashes; of the fascination, the arousal, the confusion, the self disgust. And the silence. Something gets sealed off into a pocket of the psyche, like a kind of tumor in its own special container which quietly grows unseen in the body. It grows because it has to be secret. It grows because it is wrong. It grows because there is no way to digest the information. And it grows because, as much as I am fascinated by it, I also do not want to know. And like a monster under the bed, it gets bigger the more I run away from it.

But in this delicate phase of my development as a girl, soon to be young woman, I took on the message, in graphic detail, that it is good to be fucked by a line of sailors who cannot and don’t particularly want to even see my face. My first memory of sexual arousal, happened like this.

I often work with women and sometimes men, who have been sexually abused, once or twice or continuously in their childhood by fathers/uncles/brothers or trusted adults. I have friends and family who were raped. In fact there are few people I have spoken to about this who have not suffered some kind of sexual trauma.

It takes so much to recover some kind of true dignity, self respect and a genuine love of what an alive, unrestricted sexual expression can be, when such horrors have happened. And yet even without being actually physically abused, there are the comics, the magazines, and now the endless on-line availability of pornography ‘educating’ us on what sex is about.

I ask myself, what is needed?
Perhaps the first step is to start having the conversation. To have spaces and places where we can talk about all of this in a safe way.
Where we can take the shame out of the shadows and understand it. And stop internalizing it. And know that it is normal to have conflicting feelings. Including that it is ok that I can be turned on by what horrifies me. It does not make me bad; and it does not mean I want the abuse or the horror or the objectification.
It is ok that, imprinted with what has been so twisted, there are aspects of my psychology which feed on the distortions. I need to come out of the shadows and – if it is true – own up to my hidden sealed off secrets in such a way as to reclaim what is sacred and true and inviolable. I have felt the victim, but I have also experienced the energy of the abuser in myself– not that I have acted this out in any overt way, but I have felt it, and know that what I see ‘out there’, exists also in here.
And yet I only can have the courage to do this if I am in a space where others too are willing to come out of hiding. And, as importantly, if I know that who I am is way bigger than the strange twists and turns of a psyche which has been formed in a prevailing culture which has not yet found its true nature. And which is terrified and fascinated by the power of the sexual drive and has no way to harness it healthily…

I am lucky. I have a man who I feel increasingly safe with, loved by, and attracted to, who I can explore with.
I haven’t always, at all times, felt safe with him, or loved by him, (Just as he hasn’t always felt safe with, or loved by me). These have grown over 2 decades of exploration, honesty, openings and closures. And facing a lot of demons, especially sexual demons. And just as I think I have become simple and happy and alive in my sexual expression, I hit the next hurdle. I find myself ashamed again. And complicated about wanting sex, or not wanting sex. It takes me and us into the next chapter, it takes us to another level of honesty, and vulnerability and aliveness.

I feel blessed in this possibility. And my heart aches in considering our general state of sexual health. I think we need to start again from scratch. I am sometimes asked why I don’t address this more directly in my teaching work and I realize that I feel daunted by the enormity and complexity and strength of feeling in it all. And I am interested in daring to step through the door. Now, I think it might be time. The subject is knocking…

Distortions which have run like fault lines beneath the surface, running all kinds of behaviors and yet hidden from view and played out in bedrooms, offices, shops, schoolrooms and churches all over the place, are coming to the surface. It is all coming out – it is everywhere. Stories of sexual abuse, presidents speaking about pussy grabbing, celebrities being shown up as rapists and child molesters, children sold as sex slaves, politicians using their power to abuse and silence their victims, priests convicted of pedophilia … None of it is new, I don’t believe it is necessarily more than ever, but it is out there. Visible. People are talking. And the movement towards change is also out there. We have no definitive maps for the sexual healing of our world. What is obvious to me is that we need to get beyond shaming and blaming, and start to recognize that there are deep wounds running through the culture and the perpetrators are as lost as the victims.

There is something so sublime, beautiful, alive, life affirming, vital and powerful which is locked up here longing to come through and to flower in every one of us, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. I feel it in my own miraculous body, and I see it in others.

As I write I am remembering being with my father, aged 19, after his girlfriend of 4 years had just left him. She had flown out with me to Malaga where he was living and working at the time on a big commission. How I remember it, is that we got off the airplane, met Dad, she took him to one side and announced she was leaving, and then left me there with him to pick up the pieces, while she promptly flew back to England. He cried a lot and talked a lot as we went from bar to bar through the evening and night . He was in serious shock. I was shocked too, specially because I loved my step-mother very much. But I also loved the intimacy of sharing such a time with him, and I felt honored to be included in his love, grief, regrets and emotional outpourings. At a certain point we sat down on a park bench – it must have been about 2 in the morning and he was pretty drunk. He put his head in my lap and between sobs said, “Darling, don’t you think sex is the most important thing in the whole world?”. I had no idea how to respond. I remembered feeling rather amazed and not agreeing at all but not daring to contradict him, and presuming he must know a lot that I didn’t yet know, maybe never would know. My experience up until then – and I had a fair bit for my age – was that sex was overrated and often downright dangerous.

Now as I write this, I wonder if he was more right than I have ever presumed. If it weren’t that important we wouldn’t be so messed up about it, we wouldn’t be obsessed by it, we wouldn’t be searching for it, we wouldn’t need to repress our urges or act them out. We wouldn’t long for satisfaction and fulfillment through it, or use it as a weapon of hate and control. We wouldn’t be so fuelled by it or in denial of it.
I don’t have anything definitive to say about this here, but I am personally interested in opening the conversation from a place where the love and respect for my own sexual nature – which is increasingly more available to me – can open a more honest, tender and alive dialogue with others.

Opportunity Disguised as Loss and Becoming Free of Hope

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I was travelling back from Italy yesterday. It has become such an ordinary thing and yet, if you think about it, it is stunning. I got driven 60 miles to the airport in Rome from where I was staying. I got carried on countless moving stairs and moving walkways across the vast airport – as big as a small town – with hundreds of shops, restaurants, bars, toilets and endless corridors. Then I got into an Easy jet airplane and was directed to a seat packed closely together with over a hundred other seats. Whilst sitting comfortably, the two hour flight took me soaring 2000 odd miles high over planes, snow capped mountains, rivers, hills, seas, towns and cities and lots of cloudscapes. Lest I should get bored on this extraordinary trip, I was given all kinds of ‘shopping opportunities’, supplied with inflight magazines full of exciting things to do and places to go and plied with as many drinks and snacks as I wished. Then I arrived at Gatwick airport – which is like a small city – where I was enticed with perfumes (which promised to improve my figure as well as my complexion and supply me with muscly handsome brooding young men), and countless other unnecessary glittery items, drinks, jewelry, watches at apparently discounted prices (although I remained unconvinced that buying all this stuff would actually save me money!)… I got carried on a shuttle across terminals and then directed to the train station. Two train rides and a taxi ride later I was home. In short, I spent 10 hours travelling from A to B, carried by countless moving vehicles or contraptions, using God knows how much energy, for relatively low cost… alongside thousands of other people. What is phenomenal is that this is a normal part of my life!

I justify this insane energy expenditure by convincing myself it is worthwhile, that what I offer when I teach abroad is valuable, that my time with my grandchild and daughter abroad is indispensable, or that rest time in warmer climes helps me recharge and is therefore good for everyone around me as well as for me. I do it because I live in an age where this is considered normal and acceptable, despite the fact that the risk our planets very survival is off the charts. And this is one factor among many hundreds of activities I engage in from eating meat and imported fruit and veg, buying things in plastic packaging, heating my home more than is strictly necessary, buying clothes and shoes I don’t actually need, running a car, using a smart phone, etc etc.
The difficulty is that because all of this is normal, those of us who have an environmental conscience have some idea of the cost and the unsustainability of it, and yet we do it anyway. Because everyone else does. And speaking for myself, I have not made any significant sacrifices to use less energy because quite honestly it doesn’t suit me, and even more than that, I don’t believe it would make any real difference.

I read yesterday an article by George Monbiot who said that
“a series of research papers reveal there is no significant difference between the ecological footprints of people who care and people who don’t… one article says that those who identify themselves as conscious consumers use more energy and carbon than those who do not. Why? Because environmental awareness tends to be higher among wealthy people. It is not attitudes which govern our impact on the planet but income. The richer we are, the bigger our footprint, regardless of intentions… none of this means that we should not try and reduce our impact but that we should be aware of the limits of the exercise. Our behavior within the system cannot change the outcomes of the system. It is the system itself which needs to change.” The conclusion is that any system which is reliant on continual ‘growth’ in order to survive, on a planet whose resources are limited and already over stretched is suicidal.

And this may sound pessimistic, but it seems to me that no matter how many individuals make big life changes to live more sustainably, if the system itself is rooted in a necessity of on-going exponential economic growth whatever the cost, the slow-motion fatal car crash we are involved in will keep unfolding relentlessly.

Nevertheless I take my hat off to those who do seek to live their principles for the sake of life on Earth. My daughter Lua and many like her has taken such a plunge. She has stepped out of the predominant rush of our culture and lives in the Canary Islands where her and her partner grow their own vegetables, and live without electricity or hot water. They have a tap and a water vat which is re-filled by the council, they have a compost loo, and they live a frugal, simple existence doing without the comforts which most of us take for granted these days. But even so, she has a mobile phone which she charges at friend’s houses, she runs a car, and regularly flies back to England. Some of her friends out there manage with donkeys for transport, and really do live completely off grid. They have a community of like minded people who all want to come back to a simpler way of being and bring up their children without computers, washing machines, television, or excessive toys and equipment. They have a kind of home schooling community venture for the youngsters, and a system where once a month many people gather together to work on each others’ land. There are young people from all over the world who have had enough of the rat race. They live in shacks, tipis, benders, caves, caravans or small houses for those who can afford it. The life is not easy in many ways and yet I see a shining aliveness in the eyes of the young people I meet there which is unusual and inspiring.

I was reading an article today by Pat McCabe who is an inspiring woman of Native American descent, and what I would consider an ambassador for the planets’ survival (and all of us who dwell in her)…
“Now we speak of our consumption in terms of “how many earths we are using” at any given time. The latest I hear, we are operating at using one and a half earths now. This is a perfect illustration of the mind’s complete irrationality when it is trying its best to be most rational. To point out the obvious here, we don’t have one and a half earths in our bank account, we only have one. What’s more, I believe we are supposed to share it with other lifeforms…”
She goes on to speak about environmental consciousness and shifting to ‘green energy’, recycling and all the gestures many of us make to ‘do our bit’…
“My sense is that the shift we are looking for is going to ask much more of us than this. First of all, this way of life that I sometimes refer to as “the island life” is set up such that we are attempting to create an entire ecosystem for each family unit or even for each individual human, so that they can continue to live in isolation, apart from larger community. This way of life is not sustainable, no matter what is powering it. Not sustainable in terms of “resources” from the Mother Earth, not sustainable in terms of our human development needs (do you know what the statistics are for youth suicides in your community?) nor in our shift from an economic system that is unsustainable and untenable as well, in which we are pitted against each other under the dark spell of scarcity.”

I am sometimes called a pessimist by my friends, and at times I think they are right, but I also consider myself a realist. I cannot see that the shift which Pat mcCabe and George Monbiot are speaking about, is likely to come about without the breakdown of our economic and political systems and the inevitable chaos and suffering which that will entail. The momentum of the juggernaut of so called ‘progress’ has gone beyond being stoppable because a few people think it is a good idea.

I have been told that in Chinese the word crisis combines two characters meaning crisis and opportunity – it has sometimes been translated as ‘opportunity disguised as loss’. It seems to me that us humans are loathe to change unless circumstances dictate that we have to. During the second world war, draconian measures were taken in honour of the war effort, which cut the consumption of this country in ways which today would seem both unthinkable and un-implementable. In a democratic system it is impossible to impose un-wanted changes without risking not being re-elected, so written into the political system is a system of brakes which maintain the status quo even when Life itself is hanging in the balance. The only thing which would make the kind of dramatic shifts necessary to slow down the seemingly inevitable run-away climate crisis would be – it seems to me from my limited perspective – a complete breakdown of the banking system and therefore the whole system we are increasingly dependent on. Then what? Crisis on a major scale which would make the current refugee crisis look like no big deal. And only when we are on our knees as a global community – and its not far off as far as I can see – will it be possible to impose the kind of changes we need to make. God knows what that will look like, I shudder to think… And yet what rises out of the ashes of destruction and devastation is very interesting.

Many children and teenagers I know now are suffering from huge psychological problems as well as physical ones; not to mention the adults. The crisis is already here, and is happening on every level, including within each of our bodies and psyches. As Pat alludes to, youth suicides have gone through the roof.

I believe we need community. We need a sense of deep connection with the earth and each other. We need a sense of deep purpose which allows life to actually make some kind of sense and motivates us to get creative. We need to take care of one another across the generations. We need to get real and come out of virtual bubbles. We need to sing and dance and find enjoyment even when things are dire. We need to get more local in our orientation.

About 6 years ago I went to an Ecopsychology conference at the Eden Centre in Cornwall. I was particularly inspired by Joanna Macy and her Work which Reconnects which is based on 4 guiding principles:
Gratitude for what is.
Honouring our pain for the world. Most of us live with the unbearable knowledge of mass species extinction and the fact that the beautiful-beyond-belief natural world we enjoy is on the verge of being destroyed by what we humans are doing. Because it is unbearable to face it, we tend to avoid feeling the pain of it, which numbs us to every other aspect of life along with it, and makes us incapable of any real response.
Seeing with new eyes: in this we are encouraged to see the world fresh and also recognize our interconnectedness with all beings as well as a sense of connecting with other generations, both those before us and those to come.
Going forth, in which we can start to appreciate our power to support change and participate in what she calls The Great Turning where each of us can contribute to creating new life sustaining cultures, depending on our natural gifts, inclinations and life situations.
There is a wonderful, joyous and life-enhancing love of life and the possibility it keeps offering us that she brings, alongside a chilling realism about what we are really up against here, synthesized in this quote –
“The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world, we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and to each other.”

I came out of the conference seriously sobered but also inspired to step out of my nihilistic pessimism and actually dare to believe it was worth living each day as if it were my last and planning for the future as if it would carry on forever (regardless of whether it actually did or didn’t). I remember going to have my hair cut and saying to my hairdresser, “I feel as if I have just received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, except it doesn’t just involve me, it involves the whole of life as I know it. And I am drawn then to ask myself , What am I going to do? Am I going to drive myself nuts trying to do everything I can to stay alive despite all the odds, trying out every possible cure which might prolong my life (whatever the cost), or am I going to accept reality and give myself with my whole body and heart to the time I have left? And that would mean loving more deeply and completely, opening all the doors I have been trying to keep shut, finding whatever ways I can to give my gift in the time I have: the gift which only I can give!”
The hairdresser was lost for words (which was unusual). I think I remembered it because the passion in which I spoke to someone who was on a very different wavelength, stunned us both.

A couple of years later a student of mine passed a video on to me in which a climate scientist called Guy MacPherson gave a terrifying report on our chances of survival from climate change, even if our carbon output were to come to a complete halt right now. Nil. In his estimation at that time, we had about 20 years left before human beings were extinct. I had a look at an interview with him done this year in which he has updated that prediction based on what has unfolded since then. He now says that the shift in our climate based on many different feedback loops on all kinds of levels is such that we have less than 10 years left.
When he first started realizing what was in store for us he hit despair and fell into a deep depression, compounded by the fact that nobody was prepared to face the possibility that his bleak outlook might be true. So not only was he facing our extinction within years, but he was alone in facing it. But after a while he moved beyond the despair into a deep acceptance which then led to an awakening of the heart. His offering now is this – don’t bother trying to change the world, it is too late. But live life as fully as you can and love as deeply as you are able. What else is there left to do?
I am not inclined to outright disbelieve his prognosis, even whilst I sincerely hope it is not true. But saying that leads me to another point which is about hope.

What is hope? Other than a clinging onto a possibility of reality being better than it is at present? It is seen as being a good thing, but what if it is no more than the proverbial carrot dangled in front of the donkey to force him or her to move forward? What if, in Steven Jenkinsons’ words, we were to move beyond the swing between hope and hopelessness and land in a place which is essentially hope free?

Jenkinson is a man who has spent most of his life working with the dying in palliative care, and founded in 2010 the Orphan Wisdom School, redefining what it means to live and die well. His view is that we are facing the possible death of life as we know it and certainly the death of the culture which gave us our existence and our identity – and in order to move beyond the swing between hope and hopelessness it is absolutely essential to feel the grief of that loss. He says, “To see the death of what you love and be willing to continue to love it when it’s not going to last, that itself is an act of love… Our times require us to be hope free and burn through the false choice between hope and hopelessness which are two sides of the same con job. You don’t require hope to proceed, you require grief to proceed. And if you awaken in our time, you awaken with a sob”.

I find this inspiring. I am tired of looking at all of this in terms of being pessimistic or optimistic. I would rather draw back from my terror of what is in store for us, or my hopes for a dramatic, magical shift in consciousness which will save us all by producing miraculous changes, and give myself wholeheartedly to what makes my heart sing and aligns me most fully to whatever step I am moved to make. And this necessarily means that I regularly feel broken-hearted by what is happening in our world, and because of that rather than despite that, broken open to the absolute wonder and beauty of existence.

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George Monbiot article – https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/22/black-friday-consumption-killing-planet-growth
Pat McCabe – http://womanstandsshining.strikingly.com/
Joanna Macy – https://workthatreconnects.org/
Guy McPherson – https://guymcpherson.com/
Stephen Jenkinson – https://orphanwisdom.com/

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Albert Einstein

Waking up in a troubled world

‘It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society” Krishnamurti

I’m traveling from Milan to Rome on a fast moving train, watching the flat landscape of the Pianura Padana whizz by. There is traffic moving alongside the train, cars speeding along, each one on their mission. So many people, all going somewhere. As I sat on the metro crossing Milan I was sitting next to a young man playing a video game. The tinny sound of his phone as he moved little men across the screen was worming its way into my brain in a way which I soon found intolerable. So I went and sat on another seat purposely chosen as the young man next to it did not have a phone in his hands and earphones attached to his head. After a while I became aware that he kept looking my way and his hand was making anxious rhythmic movements around his groin. I tried not to pay attention but it was as disturbing as the sound of the video game had been. Eventually he stood up to reveal a substantial protuberance in his polyester track suit bottoms, and thankfully then turned to face the other way. He looked miserable. Opposite me were two little boys, their faces still alive with curiosity and a kind of innocence and they stood out from a crowd of people who seemed absolutely lost.

I register all of this. And I carry on my way. Heading to Rome to teach the on going group I have been working with there for many years. And I am thinking of what it is to start to find some kind of sanity in a very lost society.

I was staying recently with a dear friend of many years. When she is on form, she is one of the most awake, alive and wise people I know. And yet she disappears from one moment to the next into holes in which it is hard to reach her. It is a mind loop which appears so believable to her in those moments that however wise she was a moment ago, I now cannot reach her. Or rather I usually can, but it is an extremely delicate process and one which requires tact, compassion and a lot of inner space on my part. Any hint of me wanting her to be different and attempting to exert my influence, backfires. These holes tend to be triggered by a call from her husband, mother or brother; or by speaking to one of her children and hearing about their health problems or their troubles at school. They are triggered by being face to face with people who are lost themselves, who are close to her, and next to whom she joins forces in a shared experience of what I would call not-at-homeness.

So this question is with me today: we are profoundly influenced by whatever stream we are swimming in. Who we are around, and where they are coming from in any moment, is having a massive effect on how we are viewing whatever is unfolding.

When I open a retreat, the first 24 hours tend to be a bit of a work. People arrive from whatever life situations they have come from and often they are somewhat discombobulated. There is often an immediate relief to be in a field which is allowing, where is space for things to be as they are. There is nothing else to attend to and people tend to relax and open. Before long however, whatever has been accumulating in them over the weeks is suddenly more visible as there is nothing else to distract them, and they tend to be confronted with how much is held in their nervous systems, and how much their minds are running riot. Over the days things come to the surface and people open up; often there is a sense of meeting difficulties as they come up, and through the willingness and space to meet them, finding a sense of well being, warmth and simplicity. Perhaps there is a realization that contrary to how it seems, all is actually ok on a deep level, whatever difficulties may arise, and whatever they may be dealing with, is held in a bigger space which is able to relate healthily to it all.
Often by the time a retreat comes to an end people leave less defended, more at home in their bodies, and more available to the mystery of existence and a sense of love and wonder towards what is.

But then what? Then this is brought back into daily life existence, and into a field which is generally more contracted, and less available, less vulnerable, less trustable, and less honest as people go back to families and work places and all kinds of home life situations. This interface is difficult.

Our human society is generally pretty dysfunctional, and to begin to wake up in the midst of that is no small thing. It takes courage, determination compassion and is supported and made possible by large doses of good company (a sense of humour also really helps!). I believe it is very rare for people to be able to awaken in a sustainable way unless they are supported, met and dialogued with in an on-going way by others who are similarly waking up to another dimension of being. Otherwise the ways in which our habitual patterning meshes with those nearest and dearest to us is never able to be addressed or seen. We remain blind to what we are up to, and often are only able to see what is wrong with the other. And we are not supported enough, or enabled to feel safe enough, to see and drop our learned, patterned, compulsive behaviors and therefore drop to another level of relating.

My friend who I mentioned earlier is very alone. I see her about twice a year, but otherwise she tends to be in a circuit of people who are not really ready to meet her on another level. And she is not ready to land on that level unless she is being met there. This troubles me. Because the fact is, that if we taste a deeper taste of freedom, honesty and integrity but find ourselves again and again unable to live it because of the company we keep or because we are simply not ready, this is incredibly painful, and most often like gasoline for a vicious self critic to take hold. And when the self critic runs the show (whether we are conscious of it or not) we become enemies to ourselves and isolated from everyone else.

I don’t have any answers here. I am curious about how we can support ourselves and each other to come closer in to a more sane way of being, one which is less driven, more sustainable, and more relational.

It seems clear that we are at a massive point in history. There is a paradigm shift which has to happen if life as we know it is to survive. What is required is huge and it is systemic, and requires a critical mass of people who have their wits about them and are able to move beyond the game of us and them. Personally, for my own sanity, I have started to look closer into my immediate sphere of influence and got less concerned with what to do about the bigger picture. I have become convinced that for now what is needed is to clean up my own act in every relationship I have and stop presuming the problem is all out there. Or rather presuming that what is out there is separate from what is in here. And I am curious to see where I am moved from here.

My sense is that what is really important, more than ever, is a sense of community in which we can enjoy a communion of being where the demands of daily life survival and destructive or mind numbing tendencies are not running the show. Community in which we can inspire each other to go beyond our habits, and enjoy life – and each other – enough to want to preserve and nourish what is precious. Community in which we are mirrored in a very real way so we can get to see both our strengths and weaknesses realistically and explore ways to widen our repertoire of what is possible. Community in which we can get serious and lighten up by turns, and find the kind of alchemy which happens when our differences become inspiring and growth-full rather than just infuriating. And in which our capacities and resources can be pooled in creative ways and we can become way more than the sum of our parts.

Spiritual Ego: some personal reflections

”Most peoples’ social personalities are pretty obnoxious but give them a taste of awakening and they become really obnoxious.” Quote ascribed to Adida

I know this one in myself and I often see it in others.

I know what it is to have had a realization, and walk around feeling like I know something many others are not privy to. And to feel that I have something to teach them by my very presence.

I know what it is to feel that it is my duty to insinuate the teachings and learnings I have had into every conversation I have where it is even vaguely relevant, as an offering to the other.

I know what it is to use what I have been given by grace to big myself up, and prop up a fragile ego.

Recently I was with a dear old friend who I hadn’t seen for a long time and she said to me, in passing, ‘I have always loved you, but it is a relief to be with you now that your God complex has relaxed’. This made me laugh and I knew exactly what she was talking about. It also made me wince with a familiar “was it really that obvious?”, when something which I thought was hidden (even to myself), transpired to be written in neon on my forehead for everyone around me.
I can tell you it is a relief.

Nothing to live up to. I am now – as I always was – just another human being with all my gifts and neuroses. I have stuff to say and it is alive in me to say it, but it doesn’t mean it has to be anything special. Phew. I don’t have to justify my imperfections, and I don’t need to insult you with the presumption that I know more than you about anything. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.

I was sitting on the train yesterday and I got chatting to Joan, a 70 year old woman on her way to her sisters’ funeral in Chesterfield where she used to live before moving to Devon. We chatted for 2 hours and I loved every minute of our conversation; we laughed quite a bit and she told me a lot about her life, and I told her some about my own. I felt stimulated, enlivened and grateful for the insights she gave me from her very different life.
She had two sons, who she told me she had never liked, and who’s company she still doesn’t enjoy. She has (she worked out by counting on her fingers) 8 grandchildren and 1 great grandchild. She also has 3 shitsu dogs ‘two of whom are a nightmare, but one is a sweetheart’. She has a second husband who will get her everything she wants (‘as long as I am not too over the top’). She worked for 8 years in the Black and Decker factory in Sheffield which was one of the happiest times of her life. It was such a great team, she told me. There was the store manager, the production manager, the steel cutters, those who tempered the steel; there were those who dealt with putting the carbide tips on, those in charge of the grinding machines; the blade polishers, the packers… at least 6 of them for each job… and all of this to create the circular saws. She told me that the team had been very close and then the factory closed down and she lost touch with every one of them. But recently they had all found each other again through Facebook and now they are about to meet. They have hired a pub, seeing as she was going back for the funeral, and her return is an excuse to meet. Since she left and moved to Torquay she has worked re-filling and cleaning vending machines for 5 years, and more recently as an employee in Morrisons’ baking department which she said was glorious because there were no pressures on her whatsoever.

Afterwards, as I was reflecting on our conversation, I was struck by the fact that once upon a time I might have somehow imagined my job was to insert some kind of pearls into the conversation to open her mind from my greater wisdom. Or I might have pitied her for her lack of possibilities in life and felt guilty for my life which to my mind seemed richer or more full of potential and somehow felt that I owed her something. I might have imagined that this meeting was edifying for her, rather than letting in how much it was enriching and educating me. But I realized with a lot of gratitude that now I just felt free to enjoy our rich human contact, to feel the love, humor and mutual interest as our very different worlds met.

It feels so much easier and lighter than the spiritual arrogance I was carrying around with me like a weight around my neck without even realizing it. It has taken years for that aspect in me to start to relax.

I think it began very early on in my life and was compounded at school in Italy. There I was, this tall, blond, quirky English girl from a bohemian, artistic, middle-class family amongst short, dark-haired Italian village children most of whose parents had lived off the land for generations and had never travelled further than Siena, the nearest city 20 Km away. I was bullied a fair bit, and it was a good survival tactic to show that I was undaunted, unafraid, untouchable and to think I was more open minded, freer and actually better than them. This really helped me cover over the fact that I was longing for friends, and often felt isolated, frightened, out of place, and in many ways inadequate.
It was a good adaptation. It served me well then and when I went to boarding school in England, it made me feel invulnerable which was really cool. It served me going to a massive red brick college in West London where students were often attacked or raped in the long corridors and I felt like a country bumpkin without a clue but held my head high. It served me going through University, and also when I went through my half sisters’ suicide and took on as my job to take care of my shattered family. It served me well as I stepped into the 5 Rhythms world and then trained to teach and began to give my gift in the world. And that ‘I can handle anything’, attitude got strengthened by the wonderful transformations and realizations which began occurring for me as I walked the path I walked with my spiritual teacher, and shared the teachings as the years went by.

But there is a lot to let go of when we have a successful ego adaptation. It is hard to let go of a self image which is pumped up and self satisfied. There is a long way to fall, and what is at the bottom of that fall does not appear to be very attractive. Putting myself again and again in a context of both receiving and giving teachings, the veneer started wearing thin. As I began to slide down the slippery pole of my own egoic construction I began to feel an inadequacy I had spent my life defending against. It was frightening and humiliating to admit that I couldn’t hold it together any more. I fell into a sense of depletion, lostness and aloneness which I had avoided forever. I felt hopeless, impotent and despairing.

I began reaching out in new ways. I reconnected with my mother who was suddenly there for me in a way which I had thought was impossible. I began to drop my know-it-all big sister thing with my younger brothers, and actually met them as I was, seeing them as they were. There was another kind of intimacy happening and it felt good, healthy and normal though unfamiliar. I became more vulnerable and more real in all my relationships. And slowly I started to feel a different kind of confidence, one which was coming from a deeper ground and wasn’t based so much on how I was being received, how I came across, or how much I could help people, but on an underlying trust in life itself. I began to feel normal. And I hadn’t realized until then how much I had been playing a part before that.

I remember my teacher saying to me 19 years ago – “one thing I can tell you for certain about awakening – it won’t look anything like you imagine”. I remember hearing that and nodding my head wisely and thinking that I had it all figured out. That if I ‘woke up’, I would become a kind of perfected angelic figure who people would be blown away by and I would be able to save the world in the most effective way as I had always wanted to do.

I am finding out from the inside about what awakening means. It isn’t anything like I imagined. It is very ordinary. It is humbling and often embarrassing. And at times it is literally mind blowing. But more about that another time.

Searching for ‘Wa-hee!’

You were waiting for the Wa-hee! moment and it wasn’t happening.

You were sitting there and it felt flat and dull.

You were not happy about that and wondering what was wrong.

Surely if all was well, and complete, and in place, then Wa-hee! would be occurring and you would feel great, excited, on top of the world and bursting with creativity!

So you decided, because you had learned (although you briefly forgot) that ‘being with what is’ is the best show in town, to feel the flatness.

To explore it with – if not enthusiasm – at least some willingness.

What was it like? Well it was flat. A bit empty. The temptation to think, ‘Fuck this, let’s do something more exciting’ arose. But you just sat there. And slowly flat began to give way to sad. Sadness happened, washing over you like a wave of slow heavy salt water drenching everything. You named this and just allowed yourself to be engulfed in it, and slowly it became apparent that there was peace. The engine of hope had relaxed, the search for a better state slowed right down, and there was just a shimmering presence and a deep connection. And there was a quiet humility which hummed through the space. It was obvious then that there was nothing to be achieved, nothing to be done. And all the ambition and the jittery, anxious, driving motor to achieve some better experience relented. There was nothing else.

And then love arose. A simple, connected, sweet love of being which included us both; personal and not personal, including all of existence.

And then we wrote a little song called ‘Searching for Wa-hee!’. Well, we didn’t actually write it, but it appeared, coming tumbling out of our mouths like a bubbling brook. Although there were just two of us singing, I could hear a symphony of harmony voices singing full-throttle about the search for Wa-hee!, and the surrender through flatness and sadness into the infinite peace of being which unexpectedly led to the unstoppable creation of the next song.

For Fran

Not Knowing What to Do

When my daughter Ruthie Lua was a child, she used to get the most awful headaches. Headaches which made her throw up with pain, and which could last sometimes for days. I was worried sick and tried all kinds of things to help her. I took her to the doctor. I spent a small fortune on cranial osteopathy, homeopathy, kinesiology, acupuncture and guidance from medical psychics. I tried cutting wheat, sugar, dairy and chocolate out of her diet. I fretted, and secretly feared that she must have some kind of tumor. When I gave her painkillers they seem to have no effect at all. I would massage her and try to talk her through meditations in which she could be supported to be kind and soften around the pain, and focus on other parts of her body.

But the thing I found most difficult was to open to the fact that I simply didn’t know what to do. I found it difficult to just be with her and love her whilst not knowing what to do. Surely there must be something I could do, or someone I could think of who could help. And I believe that what she most needed was my loving presence with her; she needed to know that I was ok with her being as she was, and that I could simply be with her and love her; she needed to know that it was not her fault and that she was not a problem to be solved by me; fundamentally she needed to relax, and all my struggles around it were not helping.

It is probably the hardest lesson for a parent to learn: that it is ok and unavoidable that the child feels pain at times, and that the greatest act of love is not to try and take the pain away but to be there with them in their suffering, and let them know that pain hurts but it is ok to feel it. So going back to my story, I am not suggesting that I shouldn’t have sought the treatments I sought for her, but that my worrying and endlessly looking for solutions took precedence over (and actually got in the way of) my capacity to simply love her where she was.

The other ‘technique’ I practiced was to immerse myself in another persons’ suffering as if it were my own. I decided early on – and I remember it, I must have been 6 or so – that if I took on as fully as possible my half-sisters’ pain (both of whom had lost their mother when they were 5 years old); if I imagined my own mother dead over and over again and made myself cry every day about it, and walked around with a cloud of dread over my head, that this would somehow alleviate them of the burden of having to carry it alone. Basically I believed it would help if I took it on. I carried on believing this without ever really inspecting it for many years (and sometimes still catch myself acting as if this were so!). So, back to Ruthie and the headaches, I would sit there for a bit – and I couldn’t take it for very long – imagining I had the headache, feeling guilty that I was alright while she wasn’t, basically making myself miserable and I’m sure making things worse for her.

I did get better, over the years, at recognizing that I couldn’t take her pain away and I didn’t need to engulf myself in it as if it were my pain. That I could enjoy the relative ease of my own body whilst supporting her in the difficulty of her body. That I could allow myself to love her and be with her and trust that all things move.

These lessons have served me almost more than anything else in how I am with those who come to work with me. I regularly work with people who have suffered awful and sometimes horrific early life situations and are facing the ways in which past trauma collides with present day situations. It is my capacity to differentiate from them and yet feel them, whilst staying firmly rooted in my own body and feeling responses – and fully allowing myself to not know what to do which allows me to be with the suffering without taking it on. This place of not knowing can be a painful one, when faced with another’s pain, confusion, despair or shame – there is such a natural urge to want to help and know how to. But I have found that again and again it is my willingness to surrender to having no idea which allows ordinary and unexpected miracles to happen. Things reveal themselves, doors open, not so much because I did anything but because I was willing to do nothing and know that that was ok. And I was willing to feel – often intensely – the pain of where they were at and our shared common human predicament.

In the twenty or so years since I have been offering sessions in groups and to individuals I have also been in an on-going process of training both with my teacher of 20 years and many other teachers whose work as called to me over time; somatic experiencing trauma work, shamanic work, psychotherapeutic work, working with the voice, movement, meditation and deep presence work. But more than any techniques I have learned, what is way more profound is an increasing trust in life itself and how things unfold when I stop trying to do anything.

I find myself on a daily basis sitting with someone going through God knows what and falling into that space where there really is nothing I can do to help. And I just let myself fall. I wait. I let myself feel what I feel as I sit with them. Sometimes it is boredom or awkwardness; sometimes it is intense pain or bewilderment; sometimes it is tenderness, compassion; sometimes it is anger; or sometimes I find my mind drifting off and a kind of fogginess occurring. These days I take all of this as useful information. I let myself touch a deep respect for the fact that each life is precious and there is an honor and privilege in being included in someone’s unfolding. And then I find myself falling through the space of having no idea – out of the mind and into a wider dimension. And it is like a falling. And the fact that someone is suffering in front of me and I have no idea what to do is very touching; I feel my own impotence and let myself love that. I know that this has nothing to do with my worth. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone, I can just be with who I am with. I can trust the magic which happens when two or more people gather together with a shared intention to wake up and allow life’s natural movement and inclination towards wholeness to happen.

This is what I love most. I am often awed by what comes through. And the obviousness that I am not separate from whoever I am with; that we are absolutely interconnected and what happens in you is felt in me because of that – all of this becomes palpable. And I find myself surprised by the fierceness which comes through me, or the tenderness or the hilariousness of it all. In those moments I realize that I can be as surprised by what comes out of my own mouth as I am by who I am with. And there is a simple rightness in what then happens in the alchemy of our mutual exploration.

Sometimes people come to me and it is obvious they are seeing themselves as a problem to be solved, and my job as the problem solver or the healer. That attitude never bears fruit. We are in actuality both lost and both found, and sitting in the revelation of that is what is needed. And then what is actually needed has the space to be revealed. Because there are real needs which need addressing and meeting; but what those really are is often obscured.

If I do ever fall into the trap of thinking that I am the one who is sorted and the person or people in front of me are the ones who need sorting (and many people will attempt to perpetuate that fallacy with me, so it can be tempting to believe it), it goes tits up. It is increasingly obvious to me that who I am with is an extraordinary mirror to me – in their wounds and their gifts; in their magnificence and their small mindedness and self obsession; in their addictive and habitual tendencies and in their quirky originality. Not that we are the same – we are wonderfully different in fact – but in all of that distortion and glory there is a remarkable shared humanness. And I find that we are way more like each other than I ever realized before.

I am not sure if I have remembered this completely accurately, but someone once told me about the origins of modern day Ho’oponopono. Ho’oponopono is a Hawaiian forgiveness practice based on the words I love you, I am sorry, Please Forgive me, Thank You. I was told that there was a psychiatric hospital somewhere which was famous for its extremely high staff turnover rate. The nurses and therapists working there would leave after few weeks suffering from anxiety, stress and nervous exhaustion. The patients were people diagnosed with incurable and severe mental illnesses most of whom would be stuck there for life. Then one day a new director was hired and after a few months the change was radical. The staff were happy and had no reason to leave; the patients were not only stabilizing, but in many cases improving dramatically. One day, a stunned relative asked the director what his secret was. He answered something like – “It is simple. I sit with each patient, sometimes not even face to face. I tune into their condition and I allow myself to acknowledge and feel the ways in which I am similar to them. There is always, if I go deep enough, a place I recognize in myself which is like that. I let myself feel the remorse for not having been able to address this in myself. I then ask them to forgive me for the ways that my unconsciousness is contributing to them being in the condition they are in. And at that point I am ready to thank them for helping me see and heal myself. And in this open acknowledgement of our sameness, even though we are different, miracles happen.

Of course this is advanced stuff. To be able to do this in absolute integrity because it is real to do so, rather than as a prescribed formula picked up somewhere, takes mastery. But the principle is profound, and can be increasingly lived if there is the interest, maturity and capacity to do so.

I believe one of the biggest factors which prevent us being able to get beyond old wounds and open up to our potential, is both our identification with and shame around having those wounds, and being run by the behaviors borne of them. If, as a healer, guide or therapist, I am genuinely not holding myself superior or beyond any of what the person in front of me is bringing to be explored – this goes a long way towards dissolving the shame and lessening the identification. It is not by any means an instant panacea. But in my view it is an essential element if the process is to be effective. And here I am speaking about the ‘process of presence’, or what I think Jesus meant when he said “When two or more are gathered in my name, there I am with them…”

When I – with my worries, my fears, my need for self aggrandizement, my need for solutions, my pity and my judgments – attempt to guide and support someone, I become part of the difficulty they may be facing and I can compound it unwittingly however good my conscious intentions. But if I step out of the way and allow myself to fall into the empty space where you and I are not separate; where there is only a shared humanity and no idea what to do; and if I can allow a presence which is intrinsically mysterious, compassionate, humorous and intelligent by turns if not simultaneously – and includes both or all of us – then Life itself can do the work it loves to do. Which is, it seems to me, to be born, to do what it can to optimize its chances to grow, to blossom, thrive and then let go into death when it is ready.