Dancing with Shame

A few days ago I danced with a beautiful young woman.  I had never met her before, and probably never will again; it was in a room full of about 80 dancing people.  She looked Indian or of Indian or Pakistani descent; I will probably never know and it is not really important.  What is important to me is that something extraordinary happened in our meeting.  I saw a severity in her look which at first elicited some fear.  But she was right there with me, and I felt a strong connection as our eyes met and our bodies moved to the music.  Our hands were speaking a language which my mind could not interpret, but they seemed to understand each other.  Suddenly as we danced, I felt overcome with shame; it was a shame beyond personalities.  A shame for all that my people have done on this planet, for all that ‘Great’ Britain has perpetrated against the people of the ‘Empire’The shame of being a white, privileged, middle class woman, whose countries’ wealth is only possible because of the plunder of other cultures.  There were no words.  I decided not to hide or cower in my shame, but to feel it, and stay with her; I looked into her eyes and I found myself bowing down to her.  At first just my head bowed, and then I found I was on the ground, my forehead at her feet.  When I came back to my feet, we both had tears pouring down our faces.  And we kept dancing.  I have no idea what happened for her, what called forth her tears, where she had come from or what she thought or felt.  I do know that the connection was real, and our tears were real.  I felt like I was praying for our world, our people, for connection, and love and a healing of old wounds.  And after some time, I found myself filled with with a quiet joy and I smiled, and when she smiled back it was like a balm through my whole body.  We never spoke.

 

The next day, I was in a ‘Bodynamics’ workshop run by the most extraordinary woman called Ditte Marcher.  This woman has worked in war zones across the world, from Syria and Afganistan to Iraq, Rwanda and Serbia.  She has trained traumatised war veterans to work with other war vets to support them to begin to relate with unbelievable levels of shock and dissociation and find meaningful connection with their own life force and other people again.  She has worked with children, animals, disabled people, old people; peacemakers, gang members, political extremists and therapists across the world, drawn to where she is needed.  Not without fear, but harnessing her emotions and working with and through them.  She has a huge heart, a ballsy style, a big laugh, and an extraordinary knowledge of how humans and animals tick, how they deal with emotions under all kinds of extreme and ordinary circumstances, and what is needed on a very real bodily level for health, sanity and love to prevail.

She was working with us on different emotions and on this morning we worked with shame.  This is a big subject for me, and one I have been working with for a while now.  It took many, many years of self exploration before I even began to be ready to see and feel the deeper levels of my own shame, and realise how much my life was coloured by it.  And I have had a passion in the last few years to help people who work with me to find a more realistic relationship with their own shame.   But here I was getting some more perspectives on it.

 

At one point Ditte asked us to pair up with someone, so I turned towards the woman next to me who was a gentle looking young woman wearing what I think is called a chador, or a burka where the face is revealed, who I guessed was of Arab descent.  The assignment was to tell them something we were ashamed of, whilst staying in contact with them, without collapsing or disappearing, staying in our dignity.  I could feel the fear arising in me, as I realised I was being given an opportunity to speak my shame  – without cowering.  Extraordinary after what had happened spontaneously for me the night before.  I was afraid to even acknowledge our racial difference, as if it were unmentionable.  I was afraid of her anger.  I was afraid to own how ashamed I felt, and how guilty I felt for my privilege, knowing that she could not have escaped the effects of racism, discrimination and prejudice growing up in ‘my’ country.  Things I have never had to face just because of the colour of my skin.  Initially she tried to convince me not to worry, but then she slowed down, and received my confession of shame beautifully.  She then shared with me how it was recently, to feel unseen and excluded in a group she was part of, in which she was the only non-white woman.  She shared her hurt and anger, but also her shame was visible.

 

Shame arises not only when we have done something to hurt another, are out of integrity with ourselves,  but also often when we feel different from whatever group we are part of – (this could be how we look or sound, or in our capacities, life style, level of wealth and priviledge etc).    And of course there are all kinds of nuances of shame, including the shame I am speaking of here which is not just personal but ancestral and national.  On the bodynamics course we were being taught about red shame and white shame.   If we cannot allow, feel, communicate our naturally occurring shame simply and honestly, then this will turn into a shame of who we are.  In this, it is not what we (or people we are connected with) did which was wrong/inadequate/hurtful/out of integrity, but who we are.  At this point the shame which was at first red, which might produce heat, and is alive and tingling, becomes white shame.  When our very existence feels shameful, all colour drains out of us (hence it is called white), we want to fall into a hole and disappear.  And this is generally so intolerable that we collapse, cave in and shut down.  Eventually, if we cannot relate this situation, we can become shameless.  This means we cut off from our feeling, and become capable of anything.  Here our shame is projected out and the shaming and blaming of others (not to mention abuse) is the only way to feel some sense of power.  We see the devastating effects of this both personally and collectively wherever we look.

 

So my new friend I was exploring with that morning, felt shame; I knew it because I could feel her slipping away from the contact which seconds before had been intimate; within seconds there was anger flashing in her eyes.  She said, “you could never understand what it’s like to be so excluded for who you are”.  In that moment it appeared as if we were now in seperate camps.  And it flashed through me that I did know what it was like.  When I was 6 years old my family moved to Italy and I was thrown into an Italian school without any grasp of the language at all; the fear and shame of being so alien, powerless, different and utterly unable to find a sense of belonging in the tribe I had entered, was devastating.  I didn’t say that, I just felt her, and knew that what I had suffered enabled me to be able to understand at least something of her experience.  And suddenly she looked into my eyes and said – “and you’re with me now, and you are hearing me and understanding”.  There were tears in her eyes.    And then I could apologise to her from my heart, on behalf of my race, and for my own, unconscious prejudice.  And there was such a sweet pain in feeling her heart-felt receiving of my apology.

 

I felt how much shame has been a barrier for me in meeting those who are different to me in different ways, and how my difficulty in feeling that shame has created a sense of fear and ‘otherness’.  As the shame is met, and the charge around it is able to lessen, I can feel how the fear of difference is softening.  I also saw how much in my life I have covered a shame for all my weaknesses and insecurities either with a kind of false bravado (and therefore arrogance and superiority), or by collapsing and behaving as if I were less than whoever I am with.

 

What I am finding very beautiful, is this sense of being able to feel shame whilst retaining a sense of dignity and self respect.  The two have always seemed to be contradictory and impossible to experience simoultaneously.  And it is clear that only being grounded in a prior abiding presence can allow such dualities to co-exist (rather than one or the other).   In the midst of a recognition of ways I have been out of integrity, I can hold onto myself and face who I am with; both personally and as part of a wider human collective.  And that this acknowledgement can bring both more connection with whoever I am with, and a sense of devotion to our shared precious and imperfect humanity.  And with that, more capacity to step forward in my life (without being incapacitated by shame and fear).  When I, or anyone, allows this natural and healthy shame to become white shame, we lose respect for ourselves and each other which is where relationship starts to break down.

 

So I guess this is a celebration of healthy shame; that which calls us to account in a heartful way, and allows us to own up to what we are not proud of in a way which – rather than disconnecting and hiding away, shaming and blaming ourselves and each other – connects us up to one another, and allows repair to happen.

In memory of Mary Oliver

I heard a couple of days ago that Mary Oliver has died.

I love that woman, I love how she lays the wonders of this world before us with her delicate, funny, wild words.

I love that when I hear her, I often feel love and despair; longing and hope; laughter and beauty all rise up within me as one event; not separate or opposed to each other, but simultaneous.

She asks questions which need no definitive answers. David Whyte said once (or maybe often), cultivate the art of asking beautiful questions. She does that masterfully. On behalf of us all. No need to figure out anything, like what to do with this one precious life? But to keep gently, urgently, quietly, raucously lifting up my head, or laying my head down, asking, without need of answers but willing to feel for the mystery which each question evokes…

I am immensely grateful to Mary Oliver, and to the thousands of inspiring lovers of life who lead us to drink from the fresh clear waters of their inspiration, and guide us with words and music, with dances and painting and sculpture, deeper into the mystery of things.  We need them.

Here we all are. We’re in a crazily lurching boat together; all of humanity and all the creatures and plants we share this planet with. It is unfathomable, what we are facing. Impossible to comprehend or to prepare for.

But I hear the owls’ call as I write; the night is alight with moonshine. The cells of my body are vibrantly alive, and I remember Mary and all those who, like her, keep loving, keep giving their gifts – come what may – and I feel a quiet joy and a sense of belonging; knowing my place in the family of things.

 

sadness

I am sitting here, finally facing the empty page again, with soft waves of sadness gently lapping through me.

I don’t know why.  My mind could come up with many explanations: that I was touched in hearing from a friend and knowing how much gut wrenching pain she is in right now; the news I heard on the radio about the unfolding horrors in Syria; someone I love very much who is losing her baby right now; reconnecting with the young part of myself who felt (and feels) helpless, alone and lost in a bewildering world…

But right now, I am not interested in following any of these threads or dwelling on them. Life is just sad at times, very sad. Just as it is beautiful and rich. Just as it is complicated and unfathomable. Just as it is infuriating. Just as it is filled with wonder. Just as it is tedious or stuck. Just as it is like this.

Not attempting to find reasons, explanations or solutions to any of it, is relaxing me. Muscle after muscle loosening its grip, lowering me so gently into this ocean of sadness which – in being welcomed – is surprisingly soothing and held in an enfolding peace.

Slowing down

One of the things I like about sitting down to write is that it stops me in my tracks. I just sit here in front of my little computer and wait to see what wants to be written about.

Stopping is always good.

And if nothing comes, I just have to stay in not knowing what to say, without going anywhere. If I am moving too fast, nothing comes. The momentum of busyness (both in action and in my mind) has its hold.

Sometimes Colin has to say to me, SLOW DOWN.

That is when – as is my tendency – I am moving too fast to breathe in the world, let alone my own state.

When I was at university I had an anthropology tutor called David Pocock who wrote in my report, “Fanny’s in danger of becoming one of those ‘Sorry-darling-must-rush-life’s-too-hectic people’”. Although it stung, it was salutary as I I had no idea of how fast I was moving then, and even now I tend to not realize when I have speeded up.

Until I slow down, or, better still, just stop.

I cannot sing the praises of slowing down enough. Especially when in a hurry! Slowing down enough to feel the breath, to taste the food, to feel my feet on the ground, to receive myself and my experience in any moment.

Slowing down is good.

Our world seems to get faster and faster. It has become normal to rush.

When I was still in my twenties I spent a couple of weeks living on a compound in Gambia; I had been invited by my brother Algy who was in a band with some brilliant local musicians. Every day they would play exquisite music in one of the 12 or so concrete rooms – which were mostly living spaces for families – set in a square around the sandy courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard, which was just a large square area of sand in which a small tree grew, was the well we all used for water. There was a bucket on a long chain which people would lower into the well. I thought – barely consciously – ‘quicker to just chuck it in’. So the bucket crashed and tumbled down and I pulled it up full of precious water to wash with. I then watched one of the women who lived on the compound slowly walk to the well, and inch by inch, gently, respectfully, lower the bucket down to the water level. It probably took her two minutes. There was a dignity and a slowness to all her movements which meant she was actually engaged in what she was doing, which struck me profoundly. And I remembered a question one of the men had asked me the day before “why are you white people always in such a rush?”. I felt ashamed. A healthy, appropriate sense of shame in seeing myself in these reflections, and recognizing that I needed to slow down and bring a deeper presence to everything I did.

 

It is not easy in a society where the whole momentum is about speed and a “time=money” mentality, and where time must not be wasted at any cost. Where rest, digestion, and time out are not valued.  Where silence and doing nothing seem out of the question.  Where we are drawn out by a thousand pulls on our attention. And where to simply survive financially (and bureaucratically) – for most people – requires ridiculous work hours.

It is not easy to go against that current and just stop.

But that does not mean it is not possible, or indeed absolutely necessary, for us to retain any kind of sanity in this fast moving world; to know the wood for the trees and get any kind of perspective, to begin to sense of our part in the unfolding of history, and to be here for the revelation of each precious moment.

Retreats from the speed of daily living are wonderful and transformative. But it is also true that even short moments of slowing down and stopping in our tracks can change everything. Like now. To just pause, take a breath, not fill the space with anything at all. To feel this. And for once, not do a single thing.

Kindness

I was sitting with someone a couple of days ago.

Someone who has been to hell and back over the last years as she simultaneously faced into intense early trauma, and lost more and more physical capacity and emotional functionality; bedbound, terrified, in a lot of pain, struggling with the benefits system and in need of help for her most basic needs. She found herself becoming as vulnerable and dependent as a very young child, which catapulted her into that time in her life where there was abuse, neglect and utter powerlessness.

I have ‘worked’ with her on and off over all those years. And by that I mean I have sat with her, either in person, or most often on the other end of the phone, or on skype. I have listened to her, or just been in silence with her, and occasionally given what guidance I could to her – to help her to feel the support of a deeper presence. To know that she could be accompanied with kindness and a support which didn’t need to fix her or change her in any way.

So we sat together this week, and I felt awed by the level of surrender she has come to; by her increasing trust in life. Which includes allowing herself to feel the terror when it hits, by allowing the despair, the loneliness, the overwhelm in the face of life’s demands. As she spoke to me I felt no self pity and no argument coming from her, and a humility and slowed-downness, which was remarkable given her tendencies to be driven, impatient, desperate for immediate results, ambitious. It’s not that those tendencies were no longer there, but she wasn’t run by them. She was still in the midst of them. She could allow them to be, without needing to act them out.

In that surrender was a recognition that – however bad it has got – she has always been held by something bigger than herself. Things have always somehow worked out, so that she has been taken care of, even when it seemed as if nothing was working and no help would be at hand.

She said to me that the word Love was a difficult one for her, but Kindness, kindness reached right in. Kindness is what is needed. Kindness is the doorway again and again and again.

I have been reflecting on this.

If we have not been accustomed to kindness, it is going to more or less impossible to be kind towards ourselves. It seems to me that it is necessary to have some experience of kindness from others in order for it to be known as a possibility on the inside. And the more we experience kindness – whether it is from people we can trust and respect or from random strangers- the more the well of kindness can start to fill; it becomes slowly possible, indeed permissible for us to start to bring that kindness to ourselves. And it seems more and more obvious to me that unless this ‘kindness muscle’ can begin to function, we are not able to truly transform. The moment we are faced with our own inevitable inadequacies, our difficulties in facing situations, our shortcomings and imperfections, we come down on ourselves, rather than receiving these with compassion, with kindness; which is the only thing which allows these aspects so soften, to be given space, and to transform. I am not suggesting that then all our patterns and conditionings will miraculously disappear and then, then we can finally reach perfection! I am merely saying that we can begin to relax into being as we are, warts and all, and this changes everything!

Without changing anything.

In my experience with myself, and all those I know and work with, initially we may not even be aware that we are hard on ourselves. It is so familiar, it seems normal and imperceptible.   As people begin to enquire into their condition, for most it slowly starts to dawn that there is a fundamental, bottom line self-rejection which underlies everything. Some of us are acutely aware of that; and some of us have done a brilliant cover-up job and have no idea it is there, so it can come as a shock. With the self-rejection there is guilt, and a tendency to feel that the world is not a safe place (because we ourselves believe ourselves to be fundamentally unlovable as we are). This is obviously going to be exacerbated hugely when there is early developmental trauma, where our earliest experiences of life have been of neglect and/or abuse; where we have felt unwelcome and unwanted – and compounded when these patterns are repeated throughout life.

I am learning to be kind to myself. I couldn’t have made this happen through force of will. It has been a slow, gradual shift, where I have slowly become more accepting of my most irritating, stubborn, arrogant, judgmental, ignorant, sloppy, shallow, punishing, selfish tendencies. I have slowly found that I can acknowledge, honor, even bow to those places in myself I have most wanted to hide and eradicate. And slowly slowly acceptance of myself has begun to seep into my bones. And miraculously, my capacity to accept these aspects in others has increased beyond what I thought was possible.

In many ways we are all in the same boat!

Here is a story which touched me recently: I was with Jessie, a young woman friend of mine, and we were speaking about her school life. She said that in her year group, around the ages of 13-14, there was a lot of bitching, back biting and bullying; this was just how it was. Then one day, a girl came to the school who was different. She simply didn’t play that game, she was kind, gentle and caring; and self-confident enough to bring those qualities into play in her interactions. Jessie told me that slowly things started to change. It was as if this young girl was showing another possibility, not by preaching but by living it; and it started rubbing off on people, until the whole year group started to bond, open up, and be more inclined to cooperate rather than compete.

I don’t imagine that young girl had any idea of the effect she had. And this is the thing, we generally don’t. We tend to be oblivious to the effects in a social grouping of our own presence and the qualities we bring in, for better and for worse.

Kindness isn’t the only quality we require. There are many others which come into play and are needed for a sane and healthy life. The capacity for clarity, discernment, perseverance, humour, challenge, play, creativity are all essential. But today it seems to me that kindness is the balm, the warmth, the gentleness and the nurture which makes it more possible for the full spectrum of our experience to come through effectively, tenderly and safely.

I remember one time when I was hurt, closed, angry; I was walking around the house wanting to hurt whoever came my way. I wanted to kick the cat across the room for miaoing. Colin (my partner) quietly said to me, “you could just stroke the cat”. I could have hit him for that! And it surprised me, as he never normally seemed that bothered about the cat. But there was a chink. When he was out of the room (too proud to try in front of him), I made myself stroke the cat. And that was enough for the tears to come, for my fury to melt, and to realize that in that act of kindness I was coming back into my own skin.

I have noticed that generally when I have shut the door on myself, I don’t really want to open it again, even though I am suffering. I want to maintain my own closure. It seems to me that I am not alone in this perverse tendency! It takes courage to go against the grain and to choose a kinder way, to choose to let go, let love in. It means feeling the vulnerability, the hurt, the bewilderment which seems part and parcel of being here in this life.

The other day, whilst caught in a fight with myself, I kindly wrote this prayer for myself – and the very writing of it brought me home again.

When you feel low and disgusted with yourself,

And everything you do or say seems to come from a place which is out of kilter with who you really know yourself to be;

When you feel jealous, attention-seeking and insensitive,

When you feel acutely aware of your shortcomings,

Then is the time to bow down.

Now is the time to say thank you:

The time when you feel least worthy of communion with the Mystery;

This is the time to commune.

This is the time to recognize your need,

And graciously bow your head

And welcome into your heart

The tender tears, the remorse,

And welcome too, the arrogance and the harshness,

Kindly have them all come in for tea.

Welcome, welcome, dear humanness,

Dear imperfection, dear inadequacy,

You are all welcome here.

And then, then, and only then,

Can the melting happen

The melting of that which caused all of that to arise in the first place.

You thought you were not allowed into the kingdom of the Heart,

And that made you harsh, insensitive, brash, self centered.

And then you realized that it was you who was not welcoming your own heart.

You who would not come in to your kingdom,

you who was defending the fortress,

You who was fighting and pushing away the mystery.

The mystery which manifests constantly,

but not in the way you always think it should!

Relinquish all your ideas,

Which are old and weary, tiresome and predictable,

And step through,

Dear shining one;

With humility,

With wonder,

And with love

As these are who you truly are.

 

 

The Power of Loving Attention

When I haven’t written for a while, it is as if the stream dries up.

The lack of care and attention to the muse, means that the stream starts to seep quietly underground. I know it is there, it hasn’t vanished forever, but it goes very quiet and I cannot even perceive it until I stop everything else and start to listen. I need to be willing to hear nothing, just hang in the empty space. I need to wait, and I need to remember that it works by magic, and it is a precious opportunity to love.

It seems to me that all things thrive when they are given loving, spacious, attuned attention. And that in the lack of attention and interest they go dormant. Or start to run amok! What is neglected either dies, retreats or kicks up a storm.

When I stopped holding back, began writing this blog and got onto a roll, something extraordinary started to happen. I felt something come alive in me; the more I gave attention to the process of writing on a daily basis, even if for a short time, the more material started to present itself, saying This! And this too! Oh and please will you write about this!? Things were begging to be expressed from within me and I felt alive in a way I hadn’t for some time.

Then for various reasons I began to lose confidence, I stopped giving my time and attention to the process, and – just like that – inspiration dried up: if I did take some time for it, there appeared to be nothing there.

So today I am showing up again. Today I am listening with a kind of awe at how love works. Love? Yes. Today I am calling the process of giving attention to something precious, an act of love. As I turn my attention to writing, the writing itself starts to respond like a dried up plant responding to water, or a neglected child responding to loving attention. And words start to flow. And that, to me, is magic! And it is how love works.

When I sit with someone, whatever is going on for them, what becomes more and more apparent is that there is nothing more potent than simply being there, resting in my body, and bringing my loving, attuned attention to them. No need to do something, resolve anything, fix anything.  A spacious presence is what allows a relaxation and a blossoming to happen more than anything else. Whatever is given loving attention thrives.

Twenty years ago, my teacher, who I had only recently met, said – “Where you put your attention becomes your experience.” This was radical to me. And it began to become clear that wherever my attention went, that would be my experience. My attention is on my breath, suddenly my primary experience is the soothing, constant, tidal rhythm of inhaling and exhaling.  And my breath itself seems to appreciate the attention and become more settled, deeper. I put my attention on the problems of my life, my experience shifts to a sense of difficulty, pressure, fear, concern. It is instant and visceral. The problems seem to increase in urgency and number. I put my attention on the little dog which is suddenly rushing towards me and I feel a surge of affection and excitement, infected by his buoyancy. And with my attention, his joy becomes increasingly overflowing. I bring attention to the space in which everything is happening and there is an immediate sense of expansion and spaciousness. It may be fancy, but it appears as if the space itself seems to say Thank you for noticing. It becomes more vibrant and alive.  There is choice here. What am I giving my attention to? What am I making precious in my life? By giving it my attention and therefore my interest and energy, I am bringing aspects of existence to life. I am enlivening what I focus on.

I started to notice that I was habitually focusing on difficulty rather than ease – even though most of the time both were happening, I was more interested in the difficulty; as if, by focusing on it, I would be more able to resolve it and therefore feel more at ease. But the effect of the somewhat obsessive focus, meant that I was perpetually entangled in the difficulties of my – and other peoples – lives. The difficulties intensified.  Realizing this was massive, because I also started to realize that there was far more ease in my experience than I had ever appreciated, and as I began to give it attention, the experience of ease – and enjoyment of life – began to open more and more.

I also began to notice that I would, by tendency, get fixated on whatever I was bringing my attention to, and that the narrow focus of this created stress. As I realized that I could spread my attention to include more of the totality of what was happening in any moment, the stress lessened and the world could open up again, allowing whatever it was I had been focusing on to exist in a bigger frame, it could breathe, could be appreciated more fully; it was allowed to unfurl and often resolve itself.

So here I am, writing again. Happy to be writing. Satisfied to be appreciating the power of my own loving attention which gives rise right now to this expression.

I am awed by life right now. When spring is erupting into summer and the whole natural world seems to be singing, blossoming, offering itself to be admired and marveled at, that awe comes more readily.

I witness the seasons passing, each one so different, and so vibrantly itself; I witness cycles of life in nature, but also in the people I know and in myself. I see my body ageing, and heading into the later years, skin wrinkling, aches increasing, mortality more believable. I see myself move between joy, peace, discomfort, sorrow, confusion, wonder; between knowing my place in the world and doubting it again, between a sense of connection and separation; And in my work, in my friendships, in my family, I witness those I love, as they stagnate, fall apart, rise up singing and full of exuberance, collapsing again under the weight of the next apparent setback or challenge, and at some point rising up again – and I increasingly see how things just change. Constantly. History plays out. Births and deaths, openings and closures, expansions and contractions, winters and summers. There is no end point.

The greatest gift of all is abiding in it all.  By that I mean being here for it all, without presuming it all needs resolving, but bringing loving attention to what wants loving attention, to what is most valuable to us – knowing, that at least in this, we have choice.

IMG_0847
Me in the early days, learning to give loving attention!

Giving Your Gift

 

“If you bring forth what is within you it will save you, if you do not bring it forth, it will destroy you    Jesus, from the gospel of St Thomas

Some fortunate people, seem to know more or less from the get-go what their vocation is, and they give everything to the manifestation of it. Some find it over time and an ongoing trial and error process. Some just follow the thread of their interest and – in some kind of extraordinarily logical or often apparently random process – it reveals itself over time. Many people know deep down or even on the surface what they need to do but keep avoiding it. And some go through a whole life time never seeming to know what they are here for, or how to give their gifts in the world.

I have been fascinated by this for many years now. It seems to me that we all have very particular and unique gifts to give the world. And that the giving of those gifts, nourishes, completes and fulfills us as nothing else can; it allows us to know our place in the world, and to feel a sense of purpose and even belonging in that. It is not the deepest essential truth of who we are, but it is how we manifest who we are in the world. The gifts we have to give may change many times over a lifetime, or there may be a constancy, like a single stream carrying us through our lives even though the way that stream flows will invariably change, mature, even stop and start in different phases.

They are both given to us and need to be given by us.

There needs to be a readiness, a willingness, and a capacity to allow these gifts through, and to dare to offer them, often – and for many – in the face of considerable fear. Fear of failure, of rejection, of not being worthy or good enough; fear of success, fears around survival, fear of not fitting in, etc.  Fears which if succumbed to, can become debilitating.

My father was one of those people who had a calling from a very young age, and had the kind of personality which supported him to follow it, whatever the cost. He ran away from Eton to London at 16 with a bunch of his drawings and managed to persuade the Slade Art school to accept him at the tender age of 16 (two years younger than students were supposed to be admitted). His father announced that he was disinheriting him there and then but he was, if anything, encouraged by that and certainly undeterred. He painted with a passion, commitment and dedication his whole life, until his eyesight and his hips no longer allowed him to. The eyes were less of an issue than his hips; he swore he couldn’t paint sitting down, and when he could no longer stand, that was that – and his muse went entirely into writing which had previously been important, but secondary to painting.  He then wrote avidly until the day before he died.

But that level of drive, clarity and determination is unusual.

What particularly fascinates me is how often we do know what our next step is and what we need to do, and how often we ignore it, deny it, put it off, doubt it, stamp on it, or simply stall, paralyzed, unable to take it. What is that? Given the huge and generally obvious costs of not engaging that step?

When my daughter Lua was a child and and her migraines set in, occasionally it would transpire when she had one, that she had wanted to draw or paint something, and had not done it. And if she could be persuaded by herself or me, to make herself do it, often the headache would miraculously disappear. It seemed obvious that the act of stopping that creative flow – which is the flow of life itself – was creating blocks in her body’s energy system which resulted in a lot of pain and discomfort – not to mention a general emotional malaise. It seemed to be such a direct and immediate feedback loop and she tells me that, amongst other factors, it is still often the case now.

About 14 years ago I went through a period of feeling very low, disillusioned and hopeless. One day I realized that I needed to write a song ,which would be my gateway. I had never written a song before and didn’t know where to start, but I knew I had to do it anyway. The first two verses went like this

“If I let this song come on out of my heart

and turn tortured thoughts into some kind of art,

perhaps I will breathe a deeper breath,

and live life more fully, have less fear of death…

Why, oh why?

Do I shut out this voice,

Or pretend that I do not have the choice,

To be seen, to be heard, to be touched, as I am,

And to see, hear, touch, taste, and then sing while I can?”

It worked. Both the writing of the song, and the singing of it to myself over the next months, seemed to open a doorway through which I could find a happier disposition. As far as I can remember, the process was quite straightforward at that point. I simply had to do it. Seven years later I suddenly became aware that I needed to write some more songs, and perhaps because I was in less of a crisis, the resistance was greater. I felt strangely terrified, and asked a dear friend of mine who was an adept at calling forth peoples’ musical talent and confidence, for help. With his help I was able to come through some of the considerable resistance and actually get on with it. I went through a similar process over the last two years when I first became aware of an impulse to start this blog. I knew I wanted to write and I could speak about it but was fiercely blocked around acting on it. I was surprised by the power of the fear it provoked in me, and it took a year before I finally was able to actually make it happen.

This is small fry compared to some of the behaviors I have witnessed in friends and students who have promptings of what they need to do in stepping forward in their lives.

Once I was teaching in Italy and one of my students ended up, after a particularly powerful session, crouching in a corner of the room shaking like a leaf. I went over to find out what was happening for her. She started to cry and said that she was getting some powerful impulses to put her hands on people. She didn’t feel she had any right to do so, neither did she understand why this was happening. Later on I sat alone with her and told her to feel free to let follow whatever impulse arose in sitting with me. Her hands were instantly drawn to an area of my body which had felt – unknown to her – blocked for a long time. As her hands touched me I started to shake and spontaneously release long stored emotion, and I very quickly started to feel sensations I had never felt before as a life long numbness started to thin. The following day we were opening a spontaneous movement session, and seeing her once again crumpled by the simultaneous force of the impulse to heal with her hands and fear of transgressing anyone’s boundaries, I asked anyone who was willing to have her put her hands on them, to raise their hands. A few eager hands shot up, and eventually she drummed up the courage to risk getting it wrong, and just followed her body’s impulses. What followed was truly remarkable as over the course of an hour she would approach different people and gently move into the areas of their bodies which most needed attention, in a way which blew many of the other participants away, not to mention her.

What I realized following that incident was that – although it is generally not as dramatic as that – many people have spontaneous gifts which want to come through them, but simply don’t have contexts in which they can safely explore or experiment. Or spaces in which they can have realistic feedback of how their ‘offerings’ affect others.

I sometimes create spaces in which this is possible which I call Giving your Gift. Group settings where people can start to attune to what is important to them, what they are passionate about, and what they are longing for. Most often that provides a clue as to what it is that they are hungry to offer. We explore and experiment, and people throw themselves into an alive investigation, often in small but significant ways. And often what they end up offering has no name, or already trodden pathway – because it is new, fresh, and unique to the expression of their being even if on the surface of it it might look like something recognizable – like ‘healing’ or ‘performing’, or ‘teaching’ or ‘communicating with the natural world’ or ‘painting’ … The people who end up in these groups clearly have a particular interest in embodied awakening or they wouldn’t be in my groups. But the principle applies to anyone, in any walk of life. I see an energy unleashed in people when they dare to step forward in these ways which is remarkable and inspiring. It is as if their whole being becomes aligned with a deeper purpose, even if just momentarily, and from there, what comes through becomes inspirational for those around them. Even if the offering is as simple as cooking a meal. It is not so much what is being offered but the wholeheartedness and completeness from which that offering comes. And over and over, I witness how when people hold back, doubt, deny or procrastinate on what they want to bring, their bodies often become exhausted and they can fall into emotional downward spirals beset with self loathing, resentment, envy, competition, self/other judgment and hopelessness.

There is an idea about vocation which is very strong, which is that it should be clear and obvious and that we must ‘find’ it (if it is not already obvious) and give everything to it. But in reality most people I know and who I have spoke to about this, feel that they have not found their true vocation; or they have but for various reasons are unable to fulfill it. Perhaps they do not have the physical capacity or the economic stability or the perfect channel through which to funnel their energy.

We live in a culture which has an enormous value set by ‘what we do for a living’ and for successful careers. We value ‘success’ by very limited criteria, and the result is that many people who, in my opinion, are actually giving their gifts in the world in very real ways, are unseen, unrecognized and undervalued – especially by themselves. The effect of this is low self esteem, and a sense of being out of kilter with themselves which has the looping effect that those very offerings which actually are already coming through are able to do so less fulsomely than they otherwise would.

I have a friend who has just discovered, after many years of debilitating and often mysterious ill health, that she has advanced cancer. Her illness had a massive effect in preventing her doing the many things she was passionate about offering to the world, and now she is faced with the fact that she is most probably dying and she hasn’t been able to fully come through. For her this is a desperate predicament. And I have huge sympathy for that. And yet, what I see is a shining being who – despite massive difficulties in her own life – finds multifarious ways to touch others with her love, her wisdom, her humor, and her outspoken unwillingness to tolerate injustice when she sees it playing out by people around her. Everyone she meets is in some way touched by her, or shaken out of their sleepwalking to see their own lives through different eyes; whether it is the nurses or doctors she encounters, those who come to care for her, the shop keepers, the homeless people on the street or the many friends she has gathered around the world from all walks of life who communicate with her through skype or email. But how is any of this quantified? And when someone asks her ‘ what she does’ how can she put all of this into a neat sentence, which allows the other in a brief few seconds to go, ah yes, a valuable human being.

What if our society valued a persons’ capacity to love, or to think out of the box, or to touch others, more highly than how much they could earn, or what letters they have after their name? Imagine what the world might look like then. Seriously. Think about it.

I was speaking to another friend of mine only yesterday who has decided to finally stop fretting about what her calling is and to trust the unfolding of her life. She said, it is like I just need to turn the dial. It is all about perception. To stop waiting for when I am truly settled in my “Life’s Work’ and realize that my life’s work is already happening as I put one step in front of the other, and follow where I am called; as I relate the the people around me, do the work I do, make the many choices I make. And what a difference happens when I relax and drop the idea that there is somewhere else to get to, and land where I am and love the offering I am giving in each moment.   Perhaps, in that deeper trust and self respect, the next step becomes obvious and I will be truly doing the work I am here to do. And perhaps I end up doing nothing different to what is already happening, and the very fact that I am not looking ahead or searching for something more defined, means that I will have arrived where I am. From there whatever I offer becomes imbued with another level of confidence, of power, of clarity and presence.

In ‘The Invitation’, Oriah Mountain Dreamer says, “It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing…” She goes on inspiringly speaking about what is most precious in being human.

Imagine if I or you had no need to prove that we were somebody through the descriptions and labels of ‘what we do’, but were already settled in being who we were, and in that our vocation would be a given even if it didn’t fit into any kind of box!?

…and the day came when the risk it took to stay closed tight as a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”   (Lassie Benton – not as is generally thought – by Anais Nin!)

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In that settling into being who we are as we are, there is a blossoming which happens. And it is a risk, because we cannot hide in the shadows when we blossom. We start to emit a fragrance, we start to shine and we get noticed; those who are not able to blossom yet may hate us for it, even as truly as we will inspire, and be loved for it.

It is also, for most people a risk economically. My stepdaughter Tamar took the risk of leaving the work which she relied on over the last 10 years and which was wearing her out, to give everything she had to her art. This took a lot of courage but the timing was right, staying ‘tight as a bud’ in her work life was doing her in; in some ways she had no choice if she was to thrive… and within two years she is now most definitely happier, earning enough and being received as the true artist she is.

And this brings me to one more essential point. Although I have heard of those whose muse was so strong that it had its way with them with no need of outward recognition, I would say that is very rare. We do not exist in a vacuum. What we give needs to be received, seen, heard, appreciated, for the giving to keep flowing in a healthy way. We need to know that what is given has value not just to us but to the greater whole, even if that greater whole is apparently no larger than the family system we live and work in, or our immediate community. On the most simple level, if I smile at someone in the street, and that smile is seen and responded to with warmth, there is a sense of completeness, connection, inherent value in being part of something bigger than me. It is life affirming.

To bring this around in a very personal way, if you have read this far, and if you have enjoyed reading or are stirred by it, please do let me know as your interest and/or encouragement makes all the difference to motivating me to continue on this particular line of blog writing! And I am interested in the possibility of these musings opening up conversations between us all rather than being shots in the dark…

 

 

Bowing to driven-ness

I feel the pull of silence

Like a deep, dark pool;

A simple gentling embrace,

Filling and nourishing every cell of my body.

And, at the same time,

I feel the momentum of my driven-ness,

Searching for anything my mind and body can do

To fill my time and take my energy

Up, out and away from this precious moment;

Up, out and away from this silence and this

Embodied breath.

 

As my head bows down to this,

And my body becomes heavy and alive:

suffused with the generous gravity of presence,

Small and tenacious tentacles reach out,

Searching, searching…

For what?

To hold on:

To hold onto something, anything,

As if my life were at stake,

And keeping busy were the only hope of survival.

 

Who or what wants to survive?

Who or what bows down to this?

All I know is this:

The bower simply, humbly – in bowing –

allows,

And maybe even kisses,

The one who is intent on keeping busy –

Being somebody,

Achieving something,

Filling every moment for dear life.

 

 

Unfathomable beauty

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There is so much beauty.

Unfathomable beauty everywhere I care to look.

When I slow down enough to actually take it in; when the endless preoccupations of my humanness have the space to recede even for a moment, and I can enter the stillness of my heart, the unfathomable beauty of this world becomes available.

And then there is the wonder that I have eyes to see, and a body to receive the effect of that seeing.

Right now, as I sit quietly breathing in the sight of sunlight on the bright, white, snow-covered ground, and watch the movement of the holly branches gently responding to the breeze and how the light bounces off their shiny leaves; and the intricate patterns of the bare branches of the ash tree against the pale blue sky and tiny rainbows appearing and disappearing in the stream of water pouring off the roof as the snow melts… my body is suffused with wonder. My breathing deepens and a sense of nourishment fills my body. Nourished by beauty; and, even more importantly, nourished by the capacity to be here for it, to receive it, to allow it in.

I remember becoming aware, many years ago, that it was hard to really let the beauty of existence in.

In fact I became acutely aware of all the ways I turned away from it, perversely preferring to focus on what was difficult or more complex than the simplicity of the beauty of the world. I remember thinking, ‘this is too much for me’.

What was too much was not the beauty itself, but the painful realization that I was unable to enjoy it. The starkness of my own closure highlighted by the quiet offerings of the world around me. Displays of extraordinary design in every flower, tree, cloud formation, bird; in every natural fragrance, in the flow of river, of raindrops, and the fluttering of leaves tumbling in autumn; to let this all in in any moment is utterly mind-blowing. And to feel the tight holding of a heart too arrogant, too afraid, too self involved, too stressed, to bow down to creation – that was what was too much.

There was a spell of beautiful weather in the late summer of 1985. I was in Norfolk, walking with my sister who was severely depressed; I remember commenting on how beautiful it was, and her replying, ‘it just makes it harder’. I was shocked by the starkness of what she spoke, and I got it. When we are locked in our own misery, beauty, openness and even love itself, can appear like an insult; because it is there showing itself to us, and we cannot have it – like a banquet put before a starving creature but out of reach. And if I suspect that the key to letting it in, is in my own hands but I am unable, or unwilling to turn it, that is doubly unbearable.

I remember when my second daughter Amy was born. It was an extraordinarily perfect water birth and she emerged out of me so gently, guided by my own hands as I delivered her little body into a watery world. She was born without the waters having broken, the ‘coul’ was intact. With one contraction, half her body appeared. Her little perfect face, her shoulders and arms, her torso. Then her right hand was released from my body and her arm gently floated free making a wondrous arc from my vagina, spreading out until it was stretched above her head. That movement tore open the delicate sac which was still holding her in amniotic fluid and as the temperature and quality of the water she was being born into changed, she opened her beautiful big eyes under water and seemed to take in the world.

I knew at the time that I was experiencing something which was beautiful beyond words. And yet what was shocking to me was that I also knew that I couldn’t actually feel it. I felt distant, like I was watching a film about someone else which perhaps should have touched me, but didn’t. At the time I was vaguely aware of feeling bad about feeling so distant from what was happening. What I didn’t realize was that I was actually in a state of shock brought about by subliminal memories of her sisters’ birth which was very traumatic for me. I couldn’t feel anything.

That whole experience, the subsequent hemorrhage and the seemingly miraculous healing which happened when it became clear that I was simply reliving an old trauma, was a strong awakening moment for me. I realized in that moment that how I was perceiving life and my experience – consciously or unconsciously – was having a devastating effect on my body. An effect so powerful that it could kill me. And waking up to the realization that I had agency in the situation, blew my mind.

The ambulance was on its way to rush me and Amy to hospital. I asked Angus (Amy’s father) to call a new friend who was psychic (and also happened to be a midwife which made me trust her guidance way more than I otherwise might have done). The ambulance was on it’s way. The message which came back from her was this – “Fanny experiences birth like death. Tell her it is purely emotional, and tell her firmly to stop bleeding NOW”.

I remember lying on the sofa looking out of the window and seeing the grey clouds. I remember having lost the will to live. I could hear Amy screaming and saw her in her grandmothers’ arms, but I wasn’t interested. When that message came through, something woke up in me. It was a strong experience. I saw pink light streaming through the clouds, I came out of a bubble and suddenly I wanted my baby. I stopped bleeding there and then. My blood pressure normalized (I can’t remember whether it was high or low but – along with all the other symptoms – it had the midwife worried), my temperature came down, and the contractions to expel the placenta started up again. When the ambulance arrived, my midwife was courageous enough to send them away again, and I was able to begin to fall in love with this precious new being. Suddenly I wasn’t just seeing beauty but I was touched by it, I could let it in, I was part of it.

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Amy, two days after her birth

 

When there is some kind of traumatic memory operating unconsciously it can be hard to appreciate beauty even if I objectively recognize it. Or if I am depressed or shut down, I might miss it. And then sometimes, by grace, beauty will come and find me, and reach into my heart through the fog of that closure, and open me up again.

This world is so unreasonably beautiful when I have the eyes to see it and a heart open enough to feel it. Wherever I turn in nature, there is beauty. Every living thing has beauty when I really take it in, even things I don’t think do it for me like slugs, earthworms, spiders or people I perceive as ugly. But if I look a bit deeper, or look through the eyes of love, something very magical happens.

Sometimes I can look at someone I care for and see them through a critical eye which sees bags under eyes, triple chins, wrinkles and jaded expressions. I can think, ‘you’re not looking so good’. And if I catch myself doing that, it is possible to shift where I am looking from, and see with the eyes of my heart, and suddenly what appeared to be ugly is transformed. Beauty is revealed. I didn’t used to be able to do this. It requires dropping all my ideas about what is or isn’t beautiful and just seeing what is here. And allowing myself to be in wonder.

It seems to me that we are SUPPOSED to be opened by life. Life is designed to blow us away by its sheer beauty. It keeps calling us back to the garden which it naturally is, and keeps saying, “Come! Come home! Drink me in! Open up! Be blown away in love!”. It is offering itself to us in a constant reminder of what is precious in the midst of all the inevitable difficulties which being human entails.

 

 

 

 

Nobody Needs Saving (2)

 

I need to say more about this.

Some people, like me, are hard wired to attempt to save others from their predicaments. And there are countless awful and apparently-impossible-to-remedy predicaments we all find ourselves in, so the task is truly endless.

To the degree that my mission is to save others, I am constantly busy, if not in actuality, in my mind, trying to figure out solutions for everyone’s problems.

This is may be exhausting and debilitating, but also serves to make me feel stronger, and more capable than I really am, because, as the savior, I can hide how much, deep down, I want saving myself. This may be very buried as it doesn’t really suit my self image to admit it. And we seem to have the most extraordinary capacity to not see what we don’t want to see about ourselves (even when it is obvious to everyone else!)

The activity saves me from feeling how lost, lonely, inadequate and desperate I feel myself, in fact I rarely need to touch this. It also saves me from feeling the peace, relaxation and ease of being which goes hand in hand with facing feelings I have spent a life time avoiding.

And it prevents me from realizing a deeper calling, which is to live as love.

So when I say, nobody needs saving, I am not suggesting a cold indifference to the suffering of others. Not remotely.

I am calling to my own heart, and yours, I am calling for a deeper realization of love, which is endlessly called to respond to itself and everything. Which wants nothing other than to give of itself to every human being, every creature, every situation, without agenda, without knowing how to do that, or what the result may be. And is not convinced in any way of being indispensible to the flow of life, because it is not separate from life, but simply alive. And has no fear of crisis in myself or others, recognising it as part of a necessary process of revelation. It has no separate compartments for ‘your needs’, ‘my needs’ or ‘the world’s needs’, but more an intuitive sensing of ‘what’s needed?’ which includes it all. And the movement towards that, happens within a flow which is already free, already whole, not dependent on results but responsive to life. And it includes a willingness to feel every feeling from the fear, confusion, bewilderment, emptiness and anger to the joy, wonder, compassion and hilarity (and everything in between) which this extraordinary existence offers to us.