Honouring the Authentic Self: Welcoming the Emerging Future

As I suggested in last month’s Blog, “Meeting Steve”, my own lived experience has been that dealing with and working through serious and/or life threatening illness can be a very liberating process in terms of one’s relationship with the self, or more specifically the relationship with the part of each one of us that I would now refer to as the ‘authentic Self’.

I use the term “authentic Self” in that way, with a capital “S” to differentiate the deepest aspect of a person’s interior awareness, from the more ego restricted preoccupations of the self with a small “s”.

I have noticed in my own life that my journey in particular through a terminal cancer diagnosis and near death experience, even before my open heart surgery, had left me two gifts: a loss of any real fear of death and a loss of any significant preoccupation or anxiety about what people might think about me, in terms of my professional reputation or the conduct of my personal self. I was essentially liberated from fear of the great unknown of death and also fear of other people’s opinions.

At times, I now wonder which might hold the most terror for many of us on our respective individual life journeys. Sometimes I feel we can be more paralysed by fear of others’ opinions than we are about our eventual physical demise. This fear certainly appears to have motivated a number of some desperate people to do anything, including manipulation, distortion and lying, or even murder of other human beings to “protect” their reputations.

Fortunately for most of us, we never reach these depths of desperate behaviour but we can nevertheless, still remain anxious and restricted in life through fear of other people’s’ opinions. Fortunately for me, losing the fear or any anxiety about what others may think of me, either personally or professionally really was a liberation and revelation. I may be deluded, of course (!), but I believe that my approach to life is to choose neither to over inflate myself through egoistic preoccupations, nor to shrink from public discourse and instead to choose visibility through writing books, Blogs and entering debates on social media. I reckon I enjoy being my authentic Self as much as I can do. Apart from the consistent love of my partner Carol, this liberation of the authentic Self has given me more of a boost to life than almost anything else could have done. I now treasure being active and vocal in the world. I have gone way beyond my adolescent and early adulthood shyness and reticence about becoming too visible in the world. It is life giving to choose to live and experience the world from the place of the authentic Self.

My lived experience on this journey has closely echoed what I had written in the July 2015 Blog:

“I think the enthusiasm that Steve and I would share is centred upon engaging with others from a place of, “believing in people and encouraging them to believe in themselves”… not to believe in themselves from an egocentric or narcissistic preoccupation with self advancement and use of power for ego security or personal gain, but from the level of the authentic Self oriented towards more communitarian ways of being.

Perhaps in large part as a consequence of my own health and life journey over the last five years or so, I have recognised that to move closer towards the level and ‘world’ of the authentic Self means also, to engage with an unmistakeable and parallel organic shift away from exclusion, personal ambition, self centred egocentricity and concern about one’s personal or professional reputation; towards inclusion, authentic living, transparency, honesty and dedication towards being of service within one’s community or “sphere of influence”. This is a place where personal responsibility in the exercise and use of healthy power for the common good, becomes very much a theme in the foreground rather than the background of a person’s life”.

I am aware this perspective is echoed in Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer’s latest book, “Leading from the Emerging Future: From ego-system to eco-system economies” (2013):

“It is a future that requires us to tap into a deeper level of our humanity, of who we really are and who we want to be as a society. It is a future that we can sense, feel and actualize by shifting the inner place from which we operate. It is a future that in those moments of disruption begins to presence itself through us…. “It is a shift that requires us to expand our thinking from the head to the heart. It is a shift from ego-system awareness that cares about the well-being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that cares about the well-being of all, including oneself”. (Scharmer & Kaufer, 2013, pp1-2).

In my own lived experience, especially in recent years, that shift is unmistakeable and I have also heard echoes and different descriptions of much the same journey from others who have faced and dealt with major life challenges, particularly where these have included dealing with life threatening serious illness.

I also do not believe I am the only person who would answer “no”, if asked the question, “Would you go back and change anything if in so doing you could to avoid these major life challenges and illnesses?” I would not change anything because the price of some level of daily physical pain and discomfort is small compared to the gifts of deeper personal growth and insight that I have gained over these last 5 years or so.

My learning and the nourishment that goes with it has been immense; my re-acquaintance with my own authentic Self has been both profound and life saving. I think given my politics, which I would describe as libertarian democratic socialist, I have always veered more towards the common good than egoistic desire, but my illness journey has dramatically deepened and expanded the process. I am now more socially and communally active and spiritually alive than I feel I have ever been before in my life.

From the place of my authentic Self, I sense that the perspective described by Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer is gathering momentum in the world. In terms of national politics in the U.K. I can see echoes of this in the election process for Leadership of the Labour Party. I am strongly aware that the momentum behind Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for Leadership is coming predominantly from young people with often very little previous involvement in politics. Corbyn may or may not be empathically and politically aligned to Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer’s work, but I sense a lot of young people supporting his campaign are very much part of the “shift from ‘ego-system’ to ‘eco-system’ economies”. They appear to be inclusive, collectively concerned for the future, eco-centric rather than ego-centric, and keen to exercise personal and collective responsibility within the context of using power for the common good. At least on the basis of his public speeches, I think Corbyn quite possibly shares a lot of these perspectives and unlike a number of his Labour Party opponents and commentators, he is not conducting his campaign from the place of ego or personal attacks.

I am also aware however, that not everyone in the Corbyn camp shares this inclusive perspective – one national Trade Union official described this movement as a force to eradicate the ‘virus’ of the former Blair regime. I think he could do with reading and reflecting on Scharmer and Kaufer’s work. This rhetoric is a reflection of what is not working and never will – adversarial tribalism and the language of exclusion. It is not language that, “taps into a deeper level of our humanity”. It is part of the old way of doing things and the old system of politics that is for me, totally bankrupt. Nevertheless, I feel this voice is nowhere near as strong as the collective voice of young people involved in this campaign. I am watching developments here with great interest!

I wouldn’t be so cocksure if I was a Conservative supporter, that a Corbyn Leadership would be a “suicide note” in terms of future politics. I think a future is emerging that goes beyond old certainties and old tribalisms of the past. It may or may not coalesce around a Corbyn Leadership, but I think it is a momentum that will not stop after the results of the Labour Leadership election are declared. From the place of my authentic Self, I greatly welcome this emerging future.

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Meeting Steve: A developing conversation about men, authenticity, power, shared experience and resilience

I have a very wide range of interests. Two of the most prevalent and long lasting are facilitating Men’s Work and being a Football Supporter. From the somewhat caricatured perspective of things that typically draw a man’s attention in life, I could say that these two interests represent different ends of an emotional and perhaps intellectual-philosophical spectrum: One seems to represent the interface between men’s intrapsychic and interpersonal experiences and exploration of the meanings derived from these experiences; The other seems to me to represent the interface between tribal loyalty and (often) powerful emotional responses, or obsession, expressed in the form of contemptuous aggression towards and dismissal of rival supporters and their teams. Perhaps recently events have helped me bridge the gap between the two.

It was a surprise and a rare delight to me, to meet another man at a recent humanistic psychology event, who shared a similar range and prioritisation of interests. Almost the first thing Steve and I talked about was football – he is a Preston North End FC supporter and I am a Chesterfield FC supporter. It seemed pretty clear that for both of us, this had been a lifelong commitment. The second thing we talked about was whether we could co-develop some ideas around ‘Men’s Work’ as a viable area of activity within the humanistic organisation that was hosting the event.

We continued to communicate by email, telephone and ‘Skype’ sessions in the weeks following the event. We had already concluded that our area of interest around Men’s Work would be best developed away from the hosting organisation. We were not ready to consider a process of ‘packaging’ our ideas at this stage as a saleable product – either as a workshop, course programme or publication. We both sensed this needed to be an organic process of exploration and reflection, away from the pressures of an organisational framework which might unconsciously or consciously limit rather than support and expand our dialogue and creativity.

Steve and I also had a third area of mutual awareness: the effects and painful challenge of serious illness of self or loved ones. In the last 5 years I have journeyed through cancer and terminal diagnosis. Although the cancer is now thankfully in remission, I also underwent open heart surgery in late November 2014. I am still working through the psychological, somatic and emotional impact of this journey. Steve’s eldest son Ian had been seriously ill in recent years with a long term serious health condition and died in August 2014.

In different ways, it is clear that loss and serious illness has profoundly affected both of us. I think we now understand something of the beauty, preciousness and fragility of life that we may not have understood before. We have also both had experiences of dealing with ‘men in power’ in the context of the medical profession as well as elsewhere in work and life.

Our communications post-first meeting have covered a range of areas. The initial starting point was, “men in positions of power who haven’t spent much time thinking about how they use it”. We wondered whether from our own personal and professional development and craft focused skill base, we had anything of help to offer men working as leaders and influencers in organisational settings.

We both have a passion for writing: myself in the form of a regular monthly Blog (about the authentic Self, life, therapy, social policy, philosophy and everything), plus one published book on dealing personally and professionally with cancer and a terminal diagnosis and a second book currently in production exploring my ‘journey of the heart’ around the lead up to and aftermath of open heart surgery; Steve has recently completed a book on facilitation practice based on his years of experience in organisational and humanistic settings. We agreed in our dialogue that we both wrote as “scholarly professionals” not as “professional scholars”. In essence our approach is to “write as me”, not as any self proclaimed type of expert.

We wondered whether we could host ‘creative writing’ events with men around power and personal choice and responsibility. I would tend to see such events as exploring possibilities of co-creation through both writing and dialogue.

In Otto Scharmer’s terms this would seek to be at the level of what he would term “presence”, and in terms of relational depth way below the level of ‘ego’, where the authentic Self meets and co-creates with other authentic Selves to form individual and collective meaning. In Thomas Moore’s terms (and come to think of it, probably in James Hillman’s terms) this would be at the level of “soul” or soul based reflection and dialogue.

I would see it as an attempt to write and communicate at the level of soul, beyond the preoccupations of ego and obsession with power, or fear of others’ power. I anticipate this would also open up the area of necessarily disclosing and exploring what Carl Jung would refer to as the previously hidden “(human) shadow aspects” in men’s lives. Steve commented that he had once heard someone say, “The deeper you go the safer it gets”. I think that certainly applies to the above processes if held with awareness, sensitivity and compassion by those in the role of ‘meeting holders’ or facilitators.

I think in part we are also exploring here what we mean by “facilitation”. Steve expressed the view that much personal and professional work by change agents, is often referred to as “facilitation” when in effect it is really “training” and often quite directive. I think we were exploring ideas of how we, as two men working with other men, could be open and transparent about what we may be there to ‘hold’ as a framework for group and individual dialogue, (or even have a responsibility to hold as stewards of individual and collective need), whilst also committing to interacting and reflecting from the authentic Self in a way that invites mutual sharing, co-creative dialogue and reflection.

Perhaps our role, beyond creating the initial framework for meeting, could be to offer qualities of human curiosity, enthusiasm, even humour and joy; in order to encourage the development of a group based collegiate relationship. It could be a process container within which we seek to co-create the optimum environment for enquiry, reflection, support and challenge.

I think the enthusiasm that Steve and I would share is centred upon engaging with others from a place of, “believing in people and encouraging them to believe in themselves”… not to believe in themselves from an egocentric or narcissistic preoccupation with self advancement and use of power for ego security or personal gain, but from the level of the authentic Self oriented towards more communitarian ways of being.

Perhaps in large part as a consequence of my own health and life journey over the last five years or so, I have recognised that to move closer towards the level and ‘world’ of the authentic Self means also, to engage with an unmistakeable and parallel organic shift away from exclusion, personal ambition, self centred egocentricity and concern about one’s personal or professional reputation; towards inclusion, authentic living, transparency, honesty and dedication towards being of service within one’s community or “sphere of influence”. This is a place where personal responsibility in the exercise and use of healthy power for the common good, becomes very much a theme in the foreground rather than the background of a person’s life.

Talking of “parallels”, a curious process was also unfolding during the time period of my dialogue with Steve. His Football Club, Preston North End FC was aiming for automatic promotion from League 1 to the Championship, whilst my club Chesterfield FC was focused on securing a place in the “Play-Offs” between the teams finishing third, fourth, fifth and sixth in League 1. Play-Off teams compete in what is effectively a ‘two-leg’ Semi Final for the prize of appearing at the Wembley national stadium in a Play-Off Final and if successful are promoted to the Championship. Preston narrowly failed to gain automatic promotion and therefore became one of four teams, including Chesterfield, who would have to contest the Play-Offs. Chesterfield could have in theory, been competing against their local rivals, Sheffield United or Swindon Town…. or Preston. Perhaps inevitably in the mysterious scheme of things in this world, Chesterfield ended up playing (of course) Preston North End.

Ultimately, Preston succeeded in overcoming Chesterfield over the two legs of the Play-Off Semi Final, went to Wembley and secured promotion to the Championship by beating Swindon Town. I think my responses to these events, although somewhat grief stricken and apocalyptic at the time, challenged me to go beyond the old tribalism and seek to connect with Steve on the level of ‘fellow football supporter’. I think we first offered each other and invited mutual respect, and then I was moved to offer congratulations (and Steve offered commiserations) and finally, support and encouragement for Preston’s appearance in the Final at Wembley.

I felt it challenged me to offer both an honest (“this loss to your team hurts”) and authentic response. I also feel it was totally met by Steve’s empathy and understanding. We had travelled beyond ego and tribalism to a place of mutual respect and sharing, underscored by our understanding of what football can mean to men from working class backgrounds where football support for local clubs is often interwoven with family ties and loyalties. We both know about pain and loss and grief, albeit in very different ways in our lives, but we share a similar understanding of those turbulent emotions in the context of lifelong support of a local football club.

Steve later told me that he felt his son’s presence very powerfully at Wembley, watching Preston achieve their dream of promotion. I really do understand that. My grandfather and I enjoyed a warm and affectionate relationship until he suddenly died when I was 12. I found my grandfather dead in bed one Saturday morning. Alongside his bed were his clothes folded neatly on a chair, with his Chesterfield FC season ticket resting on top. I took up the family mantle of supporting Chesterfield FC from the age of 14. At every moment of joy and celebration I have had as a Chesterfield supporter, my maternal grandfather’s spirit has been close by for me – in that way I was able to share in both a deeply personal remembrance of a much loved family member and also in a profound cross-generational male celebration of what bound us together rather than separated us.

In a strange way, I think I have also touched that sacred space with Steve and for that I give great thanks. Together we explored a place of hope, anticipation, defeat, loss of power, power and celebration in a way that can bind men in mutual respect and friendship, rather than create more fuel for misuse of power and perpetuation of egocentric conflict.

Whatever Steve and I end up co-creating together in relation to our professional lives, I feel our mutual journeys will add to the mix, some very well seasoned ingredients of soul resonance and the unmistakeable flavour of communal, authentic living and self expression.

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Dealing with the unexpected: A journey of despair and empowerment

Last month I explored how we might usefully engage with adult power and the need for resilience in life. This month, I feel I can’t let May 2015 fade too quickly into history without sharing something of a painful personal journey which offered me challenges in precisely those areas. The subject matter may be trivial to some, but the journey for me was very real. I think in the end I discovered some important aspects that hopefully have helped me grow again as an authentic person.

On May 7th, after voting in the General Election, I went with my partner Carol to watch my hometown football Team Chesterfield FC play the first leg of their Play Off Semi Final against Preston North End FC. I had high hopes, despite rumours circulating that our Manager was already planning to leave the Club and take up the vacant Manager’s job at Portsmouth FC. But watching the match I felt the players never really got into gear, perhaps they too were concerned with the rumours about the Manager. We lost narrowly 0-1. I told myself in some degree of considerable denial, that it it was effectively only half time, given the second leg was to follow away at Preston. However, I half sensed we may not have the psychological resources to win through.

So to take my mind off the game for a while, I looked forward instead to hearing the early exit poll from the General Election at the end of the game. I recognise not everyone will share my political views (much nurtured in me and influenced by the political commitment of my paternal grandfather Heber), but I was very ready for a change of Government – I had witnessed too much damage to local communities and to disadvantaged people in my work over the previous 5 years, to feel anything but a deep desire that the Election would rid us of the current Government. All the polls suggested this was very likely even if it would only result in an anti-Conservative coalition. After the match, driving away from the football ground, floodlights still bathing the stadium in light, I turned on the car radio. The exit poll was out – the political commentators told us that there would be a shock result, culminating in a Conservative outright majority. At that moment, I must admit I noticed that I was beginning a slow slide into despair.

My mind tracked back to the year I graduated as a social worker, 1979, and the election of the Thatcher Government. I already knew I would be working as a newly qualified social worker in a tough social policy climate. I had been studying the media and newspapers for months before the ’79 election and it was clear to me that a Thatcher Government was inevitable, long before the result was known. I felt that old despair again, this time in the knowledge that after 1979 I had worked through 18 years of Conservative Government. The years after 1979 were very tough for the people I worked with in my professional role. As I drove away from the football match last month, I could only see more of the same for the people and communities I served in my work. Up to a year ago I was working with staff and centre management in a local authority nearby, where 27 Children’s Centres existed. In recent months that total of 27 has been reduced to 7. I hardly felt able to face the prospect of yet more cuts to vital services, sacrificed to the god of “austerity”.

Three days later I saw my team lose decisively at the second leg game in Preston. The Wembley Final promotion dream was stone dead. The next day our esteemed manager, who had in recent weeks and months apparently professed great loyalty to the club at a public social event, left for the job in Portsmouth along with his Assistant Manager. In the following days he made bids to sign our invaluable backroom staff and also made bids for our key players.

To place the above football theme in context, such a disappointment goes very deep for me. Only once before in my many years of supporting the club had we been on the verge of the ‘Championship’ League. Until the news broke of the Portsmouth connection, many Chesterfield supporters felt our time had come. But in 5 short days, everything had crumbled and gone – blown to the winds of chance and bad fortune. It seemed the whole club was falling apart in front of our eyes. I feel I am, with considerable pride, carrying on the family tradition of supporting my hometown club. I took up the mantle from my maternal grandfather, Luther, whom I had found dead in bed when I was 12 years old. His clothes were neatly folded on a chair by his bedside, on top of which was his Chesterfield FC Season Ticket. I have been supporting this club since I was 14 years old. No doubt I will continue to support them for the rest of my life, whatever befalls or elevates them.

The signs were unmistakable to me as a psychotherapist. I was falling into grief. I also knew it had to run its course if I was to regain equilibrium. Within the week I had clearly begun, albeit slowly, to critically rekindle the ‘fight’ within me to recommit to working for the common good, as well as encouraging my football team to rise again from the ashes. Joanna Macy, Buddhist and Deep Ecologist, talks of this process as “despair and empowerment”. In short, this means if you choose to honour the grief by truly feeling its depth, you will be risen up again by the power of the Earth’s natural energy, to be the person you were always meant to be at the level of the authentic Self.

I recognised that ‘democracy’ does not mean voting every 5 years, experiencing crushing disappointment, and then merely being an abdicrat around social change until the next Election rolls around. A political setback presents an even more vital challenge to live out one’s values and work for the common good in the face of what appears to be individualistic and national self interest. Like any other person, I can choose to continue to “be effective within my sphere of influence”. I may not have any impact on a national level, but what I do matters and it offers a different, more inclusive and community minded way of being in the world, exercising personal and professional power for the common good. I will no doubt continue to also do this for the rest of my life, health permitting.

Our second Mens Group Programme Meeting this week focused on the issue of ‘power’. Our first Meeting had focussed on the issue of ‘purpose’ in life. I think what holds these two concepts together is conscious choice and responsibility. I choose to act with as much subjective responsibility as I can, exercising my personal power within my sphere of personal and professional influence and I choose to do so for the common good, upholding principles of inclusivity and universality.

The compass that ‘steers’ me is my authentic Self, as well as I can know that part of me. The energy that sustains me is a rekindled resilience and even at times defiance, to recommit to life and living from the heart. What balances me is a commitment to face the truth whilst also being open to the gentle and uplifting qualities of humour in the face of adversity. I continue to “show up” in my own life as authentically as I can and I encourage others I know and work with as clients, to do the same.

At the end of the day I know it is all about belief in the self and belief in others – these are reciprocal and complementary concepts, not adversarial, elitist or exclusive. Potential enemies become fellow travellers in a difficult world. In so doing, friendship and mutual respect can be sown and nurtured from difficulty and adversity – a noble alternative to the human shadow aspects of animosity and estrangement. There really is only one world and I for one would wish to be part of a better version of the world I and all others live in. I choose yet again, I rekindle my power, I recommit to my values and I do my best to be the change in the world I want to see. At the level of the human heart there are no political enemies, no football supporting rivals and no crushing disappointments – just fellow travellers and encouraging lights upon the dark road ahead that one way or another we all have to travel in the course of a lifetime. We can make this world what we want it to be – the power is within us and we don’t have to wait 5 years at a time to access it and use it.

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Choosing Adult Power and Developing Resilience in Life

This month I will be starting and running a new Men’s Group Work Programme: 16 sessions over approximately a year. I will be facilitating a small group in my local area to explore 16 key themes. I am offering these themes as a possible gift to other men. My purpose is to help them engage in creative dialogue as a means of exploring ways of choosing more healthy, powerful and life giving ways of being in the world – perhaps a gateway to bringing more joy into the world for themselves and their loved ones.

The themes seemed to naturally emerge from my own very personal journey through life threatening illness over the last 5 years and they also form the structure of my book “Fields of Freedom” which was published in electronic format in August last year.

Given that my motivation to write the book was primarily to help others struggling with life’s challenges, I thought it might be helpful to share some of my thoughts here on what I am preparing for the first Session of the Men’s Group Work Programme and then say a little about the not inconsiderable task of developing personal resilience in life.

My focus for the Group Work Programme is on men simply because I want to encourage conscious living and conscious use of power, for a gender group largely still dominant in a society which continues to perpetuate unequal balances of power. However, I think some of these themes could be helpful to both men or women, exploring how to develop more adult use of power and personal resilience in life that is necessary to sustain it.

I recently sent out an Email to prospective Group Participants with the following preparatory suggestions:

“The Programme will focus, Session by Session, on 16 different ‘themes’ around stirring and exciting challenges for men to address in their lives.

We will of course be spending time forming the Group at Session 1, however the ‘theme’ that evening to consider this,

“Why are you here on this earth at this time in history, and what do you choose to do with this opportunity in this lifetime?”….. It may be you are already clear what you have chosen in terms of life direction and what really stirs you at the level of soul and what I would call the emotional truth of the “authentic Self”, or it may be a question that is really preoccupying you right now, or it may still be in a process of becoming clear. There is no right or wrong answer to this first question, just an opportunity to really reflect and creatively consider what is, or may be becoming, your own deep truth around this question.

Just by way of framing the above – when I was a lot younger I used to think that older men were in particular shaping the world (yes, even then women rarely got a look in on the notion of ‘shaping the world’!). As I have got older, just in terms of claiming my own personal ground on this earth – not to disadvantage or replace women, but to simply take responsibility for my own personal power and the impact it can have within my own ‘sphere of influence’ – I recognise this is my time… my opportunity to be part of what is right with the world. I think this is true of anyone who has at least reached the age of 28 years old…. So I reckon that includes all of us!

I no longer defer to older politicians or older men. Not that I ever did particularly, but my attitude to older men was often one of defiance or rebellion. Given I am now a mature adult, or as near to one as I am ever likely to get, I can no longer really hide behind adolescent rebellion!! The time for me to own the personal power I have, and use it, is now! And right now I am more focused on simply claiming my personal power and I am choosing as best I can to use if for the greater good, however I might define that. Having had my own near death experience in the summer of 2011, what I am choosing to do with my life and how I am choosing to live it become incredibly powerful questions and choices for me.

So maybe my reflections and comments here about my own process will also help you to reflect on your own life process to date, and where you might choose to steer it in future.

I would like you therefore, to spend some time thinking about this before we meet for our first Session: And to make it even more impactful, for a moment imagine you have also had the experience I had – coming back from near death to be given a second chance to choose… what are you choosing, what might you choose, what would you choose, what impact do you really want to have within your own ‘sphere of influence’?”

I think it is good to raise such questions. This initial ‘theme’ of ‘choosing how best to live a life and how best to use it’, may be an obvious question for each and every one of us as we enter adulthood, but how often do we really ask it of ourselves, or how often is it asked of us by others? Rarely in my opinion. Whether we acknowledge it or not, as adults, we do have personal power and we have a choice, some might say a responsibility, to use it. In a world seemingly dominated by the focus of power on egotistical and narcissistic concerns, rather than the common good, I feel this kind of question is not only apposite, it is an urgent and directly influential issue impacting on how we live life together, or not, on this fragile planet.

Perhaps by way of illustration, I can say a little here about how I have learnt from my experience to date and consequently taken time to choose how to exercise my power in the world as responsibly as I can.

Firstly I have recognised that my starting point has to be my own perceived “sphere of influence”. Clearly this may change over time, but I feel it is important not to underestimate the impact my way of living my life may have on others, whilst at the same time not over estimating my importance as a person within my community. Which brings me to a second level, that of community awareness. I am seeking to be part of an inclusive and communal way of being – what I do affects others, what others do affects me. I tend also to feel I have gifts and abilities to share for the greater good – many learnt through years of lived experience, and perhaps some brought with me into the world at birth.

Here at this level of awareness, I am offered the opportunity to believe in myself and what I can offer. I can then choose to use my personal gifts and experience responsibly within the community or communities I am seeking to serve. If I do this, in tune with the wisdom of my authentic Self, I tend to find that what gives me the greatest fulfillment and joy in giving, offers the ‘best fit’ to how I can most effectively be of service in my community. In my view, Joseph Campbell spoke from a depth of wisdom himself when he said, “the purpose of a life is to find your bliss and then follow it”. I don’t think that is a call to selfishness – I think it is a recognition that at the deep and intuitive level of the authentic Self, our personal “bliss” is very often precisely relevant to how we can best serve the community within our own potential sphere of influence.

In order to consistently be open to offering the above, I feel we also have to develop a good level of personal resilience. This is what has helped me develop resilience, both in sickness and in health. I hope they will be useful for anyone who reads this, if you are not already doing many of the following:

Live in the present moment – don’t worry too much about what has passed and what is yet to come.
Be detached from outcomes that are too specific – trust that you don’t have to hold everything. The more you trust, the more the world holds it for you.
Accept that it is often “as good as it gets” – and each day make your situation as enjoyable as possible.
Choose to love because you want to do so – not because you think there may be a reward.
Recognise that life is tough and is often a matter of balancing processes of loss and grief, with opportunities for lightness and laughter.
Choose to really live, not to merely exist.
Take your responsibilities seriously – they are not only ways to contribute to the world, they are often ways to bring greater levels of satisfaction into your own life and the benefits of this can often also bring interpersonal richness into the lives of both yourself and your loved ones.
Last but not least, believe in yourself, believe in others and keep on believing!

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What stirs the heart will also stir the soul

Last week my partner and I were away on holiday in North East Scotland – a much-needed first break after my heart operation late last November. We were staying in Nairn on the east coast and knowing how close we were to the North West Highlands, we took a day trip across to Achnasheen, then continued via Kinlochewe, the magnificent Glen Torridon and returning eventually home again to Nairn, via Glen Carron and Inverness.

It was a glorious day in terms of weather – the remaining days of our holiday were shall we say “challenging” to say the very least, but that is what I would pretty much expect anywhere in Britain around Easter time. I love the elemental nature of the weather in Scotland anyway. The power and force of nature never seems very far away!

I have a long association with Scotland and the North West Highlands, stretching back to my first visit in August 1979 to the Isle of Skye and the Cuillin Hills. We had a week of glorious weather where the temperature never dipped during the day below 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

I distinctly remember sitting on the summit of Sgurr Alasdair gazing out over a flat calm sea towards the Isle of Rhum, with my friend Wild Mickey Chambers (don’t ask), baking ourselves in 85 degree heat and idly thinking that the weather in Scotland must be like this all the time. I think it was a mixture of physical exhaustion, youthful naiveté and deep immersion in an atmosphere of absolute magic in the Cuillin Hills, that led me to that erroneous conclusion. Around six years later I was camping in Glen Torridon a little way further north, when a vicious wind tore away 90% of the Vango Force Ten I was sleeping in leaving me laying in a sleeping bag with the recently separated sown-in groundsheet underneath me, being drenched by the pouring rain at 2AM. I remember my companions and I at the time rapidly bundling what was left of our possessions in the back of the van, shouting out dramatically, “we’re doomed, we’re doomed” before we drove off in search of shelter. We weren’t doomed of course, it was just the Scottish weather. At least it washed the Scottish midges away for a while.

I have always felt it a great privilege to cross the Scottish Border on my trips north. I have also often been acutely aware of how empty of people the land is now, especially in the Highlands. This was the legacy of both the Government policy in decimating and attempting to “tame” the area after the 1745 Jacobite rising and the eventual Battle of Culloden in 1746. The combined effect of Government supported Highland Clearances and the actions of many Scottish landowners themselves (or Factors who had been brought in to replace dispossessed rebel Clan Chieftains) to remove tenant farmers off the land to make way for profitable sheep rearing, swept thousands of people away from Highland settlements out into the “new worlds” of Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand. That legacy still scars the landscape for me. Yet, whilst in the same instant I feel the human connection of loss and displacement, my heart also soars when I see and feel the Scottish Hills again.

I have visited Drummossie Muir, the site of the Battle of Culloden a number of times over the years. The first time was in 1989 after a solo trip up the whole western seaboard of the North West Highlands where I felt I was touching heaven, and then returning south via a long trip down past Loch Shin to Lairg, Inverness and finally to Culloden, where my mood was darkening by the hours and minutes as I got closer to Drumossie Muir. As I stood there on Culloden turf, the place then as now, always seemed to shake my soul to its roots.

Despite the magnificent facilities offered there now by the Information Centre and, I feel, the presence of somewhat of a tendency to sanitise and glamourise the place, I cannot experience Culloden as a noble battle site. All I feel when I am there is that it was a place of absolute slaughter; a forerunner of a death of a culture and a scattering to the four winds of community life that had existed for centuries before. It is a place of deep soul grief and human suffering. My heart is stirred there too through empathy and respect for the thousands of people who died there – mostly Highlanders and Clansmen, but also Irish, French and by numerical comparison a small number of Government troops.

Perhaps I can change my association with Culloden for the better – we called there again on this holiday on the way home and something happened that felt very different. It was the first time I had ever heard birds singing there. In all previous visits I have heard no bird song – even on occasions when I have been there with my partner and she told me later she had heard birds singing, I had still not heard anything. On this occasion, less than a week ago, I heard and saw Skylarks singing away high over the site of the Battle. The sound of Skylarks immediately transports me back to my childhood days of early Spring or Summer, walking in the fields that surrounded the council estate where we lived. Those memories always bring me joy and a tremendous uplifting of the spirit where my heart soars and also uplifts my soul. It has set me thinking and reflecting again on my return home that I need a way to connect again a soaring heart with the love of the Highlands.

Although since my long illness and subsequent open heart surgery, I have at times come to doubt that I will ever have the strength to walk again on the summits of the high Scottish peaks or any other mountains, something in me was revived just drinking in the magnificence of Glen Torridon, Beinn Eighe, Liathach and Beinn Alligin and something of hope and ambition was revived in me again at Culloden. At the same instant I was also aware in both places, that I do still feel physical restrictions and pain, even now, as my heart grows stronger. That is a reality.

However, alongside this I now see and feel another reality – that if the heart and soul are committed, nothing is impossible. Somehow, someday I will walk again on those hills. In my youth I had an idea that a great ambition would be to climb the Matterhorn in Switzerland on my 70th birthday. I think I have changed my plan to walking again on the Torridon peaks or Cuillin Hills way before I am 70.

Just being back in those places may offer me enough in the way of motivation, but on a deeper soul level, I am resolved to connect my heart to others’ hearts and somehow seek to walk the hills again but this time, in honour of those who once lived in these magnificent surroundings and also in honour of those who died at Culloden.

Perhaps it is a small gesture from an Englishman, but it is deeply felt and one day it will be given in respect and with a sense of honour to those fellow humans who paid the ultimate sacrifice through enforced emigration or through death at Culloden. Long may their memory, soul and heart resonance live on in such sacred ground.

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The Real Challenge of Life: not falling from grace but ascending into grace?

Speaking as a psychotherapist with an interest in spiritual aspects of life, I’ve never been at all keen on the notion of ‘original sin’. In the way that it seems all too often to be interpreted by mainstream religion, it appears to me to be judgmental, shaming and psychologically reductive. In Otto Scharmer’s terms I think this way of viewing the concept is a form of “attentional violence”. It is a way of seeing an individual’s potential to live their life to the fullest extent as less than it could be.

If I hold a vision of a person as less than they are capable of developing then it is a reductive act, and in my experience as a psychotherapist, if I were to do that they would sooner or later internalise my view as a belief about their smallness as a person. They would most likely self-pathologise as bad, unlovable and unworthy. As a consequence, their self-esteem would suffer considerable wounding and damage. They would most likely either sink into self-condemning depression, or alternatively in a process of apparent self-denial, and in effect as a bid to free themselves of this psychic weight, they might project it on to others as being ‘bad’ and thus seek to condemn the other(s) or scapegoat them, or even at worst to annihilate them.

Sometime ago as I was writing my book “Fields of Freedom”, I explored the notion of ‘original sin’ and found through reading the works of Karen Armstrong, that St Augustine developed the doctrine of ‘original sin’ at a time when Rome had fallen to Barbarian Northern European tribes. As I recalled in the book, “her view is that a religion which sees the humanity of men and women as “chronically flawed” can only lead to alienation of people from themselves”.

I also discovered the work of Peter Russell, who suggests that the admonition, “sinners repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”, is not simply confirmation of the concept of original sin. The picture radically changes, if earlier Greek texts are studied, because it is clear that the word translated as “sin” (“amarto”), is a term derived from archery, meaning having missed the mark, or the target. In Russell’s view, the target we are seeking is “inner fulfilment” but we aim in the wrong direction to achieve it. I also know from my own conversations with my spiritual director Brenda who has studied early Greek and Aramaic texts, that the commonly understood word “repent” is a mistranslation (particularly by the 17th Century King James Bible) of the word “metanoia”, which simply means a change (or transformation) of mind.

As I suggested therefore in the book, “sinners repent” could be more accurately translated as, “you who have missed your target, and not found happiness in the” (external) “world around you, change your thinking”, because you will find the happiness you seek in the world within yourself.

On one level, this provided me with a satisfactory counter-narrative to the toxic notion of ‘original sin’, but I also know from my own lived experience that it is healthier to view the world not from a polarised paradigm of ‘either-or’, but rather from a perspective of ‘both-and’ where a balance and symmetry can be found even with concepts that at first glance appear completely contradictory.

Recently I was introduced to a web-based article by “The Raven Foundation” [www.ravenfoundation.org] which reframed the concept of ‘original sin’ from the perspective of French philosopher Rene Girard. The website article comments that, “through a Girardian lens, the ‘original sin’ is illumined not as disobedience, but as negative mimesis, or rivalry, finding identity in opposition to another”. The suggestion is that ‘mimesis’ (mimicking another in the form of desire for what the other has) was an evolutionary development on from a primary quality of our very early human nature which was instinct – and that instinct was in early evolution to simply kill as a form of protection from others. As we evolved we developed mimicry as a way of developing language and that became a wider process of mimesis. Mimetic desire however, also lead us into the social process of ‘scapegoating’ others in order to protect what we have or accumulate what they once had before we scapegoated them.

I would suggest however, that the dominant perception of ‘original sin’ actually keeps us stuck in mimesis, where we exclude others and see others as less than ourselves, especially if we have a pious view of life and in processes of denial of our own shadow selves, project our shadow on to others. We take away what they have through envy and mimetic desire and more often than not in our history we have scapegoated them to such an extent that we destroy them. I talked of the recent BBC production of “Wolf Hall” last month: an exploration of the intrigues of the Court of Henry VIII, where the processes and results of mimetic desire were all too evident and, in my view, almost always centred around toxic application of aspects of ‘original sin’.

I would have hoped we had moved on since Henry VIII’s time, but clearly in much of our collective behaviour, and also graphically in some parts of the world, we are reproducing the same patterns. The ‘Raven Foundation’ article does give great hope for the future however, as it also appears to suggest that the next stage of evolution is ‘relationship’ – in my words that would be, “authentically relating to each other at depth, from the heart”.

For Girard, the mechanism of ‘scapegoating’ at least moves us on from the apparent need to annihilate all others, but for me, recognising this process of mimesis and then as a consequence, making individual and collective commitments to own our own shadow selves and not project them on to others, is the evolutionary path open to genuine living and being at relational depth with others. If we can accept that level of personal and collective responsibility then far from being lost in the impact of ‘original sin’ as a consequence of a “fall from grace”, we will be inevitably and organically “ascending into grace” as we allow the full process of evolution to take its course.

I would see the above as a coming together of both the historical and potentially wounding notion of ‘original sin’, and also the inclusive, relationally based, self-valuing and self-believing concept of ‘original blessing’ as explored by the writer Matthew Fox. Such a balance and symmetry would require individual and collective willingness to exercise self-responsibility in the form of identification and acceptance of each person’s “shadow self”. In Jung’s concept of the “human shadow”, we disown or reject aspects of ourselves that we are told are unacceptable or we fear will render us unlovable or unworthy. We live a lie about our full human nature. We are all, irrespective of gender, race, culture or religion, quite capable of annihilating ‘the other’, or of mimetic desire in relation to the other. What brings us in an evolutionary sense to relationship is active choice to see ourselves more truthfully and more clearly.

By the age I am now, given that I have also made a lifelong commitment to personal development as part of following my craft of working as a psychotherapist, I think I pretty much know most aspects of my own shadow self. I am still very much a “work in progress” as I do my best not to project them on to others, nor pull others into what Stephen Karpman called the “drama triangle” (of victim-persecutor-rescuer). It is not at all easy, and as Otto Scharmer suggests in “Theory U”, any one of us can slip in a moment from the deep state of “presence” at the deepest point of the “U” process, into its antithesis of desire to annihilate in some form or another.

What is required of us to stay in deep relationship is a commitment to stay awake, to relate to ourselves and others from the heart, and continue to own and re-integrate aspects of our shadow selves. With that level of commitment, I would suggest our evolutionary “ascent into grace” is assured.

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Going beyond fear to “name the process”: A way forward in this troubled world?

Last week I went to see my local football club, Chesterfield FC playing at home in a local ‘derby’ against Doncaster Rovers. At the end of the match, I was leaving the stadium along with a couple of thousand or more home fans from the particular stand where I had been sitting. As I reached the very wide exit, the available space was still very crowded. I felt someone behind me pushing me very forcefully in the back, presumably in an attempt to get out of the stadium quicker. As he continued to do so, I slowed down and stood my ground to let him know I was not happy with being pushed. He pushed harder and went past me by my right shoulder as he exited the stadium. He was a fellow Chesterfield supporter. I put my hand on his shoulder and held him until he stopped and said, “just a minute there pal, I don’t appreciate being pushed in the back, especially given I am still recovering from a heart condition”. The response I got was, “you were pushing me and I don’t give a f**k about your heart condition”.

Why was it important to do what I did? I saw it as an act of self-worth on my part, as well as an act of self-preservation given my recent open heart surgery. I suppose it was not really that important how he responded to me – it would have been a breath of fresh air if he had acknowledged his actions and apologised, instead of resorting to denial and defensive abuse. But his insult was of no real importance, depressing though it was, especially given that he was a supposed fellow supporter! More importantly, speaking out was vital to me – I was not going to be dismissed and devalued as an object by remaining silent. I felt angry that he had no regard for my person, my body, nor myself and if he wasn’t going to acknowledge that, I certainly was going to do so. My body has been through a lot recently and I am going to stand up for it and look after it! I care about my body, even if he did not.

Later this week, I was watching the superb TV production “Wolf Hall” on the BBC, based on Hilary Mantel’s excellent books about the intrigues, power games, brutality and clandestine machinations of the court of Henry VIII. On a much darker level, it was plain to see the dangers of speaking out in earlier times, but one assumes the dangers were of less importance to middle temple lawyer James Bainham than speaking his truth. He was first tortured under the authority of Thomas More for speaking out against corrupt church practices and then burnt to death at the stake weeks later for persisting in his views and also challenging the exclusive sanctity of the Latin Mass. The other form of public execution in the days of Henry VIII was of course beheadings.

In pre-Elizabethan times I assume the motivation was control and subjugation of members of the royal court, the church and the general populace. Michel Foucault’s book, “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” tells a similar gruesome story about public executions 200 years or so later. Foucault very graphically describes the public execution of a Regicide, a man called Damiens, in front of the main door of the ‘Church of Paris’ in 1757. Foucault comments, “eighty years later, Leon Faucher drew up his rules ‘for the house of young prisoners in Paris’ “. This marked the beginning of a shift from public executions towards secrecy and a more subtle attempt to subjugate the population by dealing with prisoners behind the foreboding psychic presence of enormous prison walls, where the populace could only guess at what was going on in terms of the way the state was dealing with its prisoners.

In the present day these forms of public execution are of course promoted particularly by the so-called “Islamic State”. Their actions are just as gruesome and obscene as in Henry VIII’s time, however the motivation for them appears to be much more cynical. Their video and internet based public executions are apparently designed to evoke maximum fear and a sense of absolute terror in anyone who does not subscribe to their warped nihilistic and decidedly non spiritual ideology. Psychologically they invite potential viewers of these videos into a very violent “drama triangle” dynamic of ‘victim-persecutor-rescuer’. Their hope is, I assume, that any opposition will either be pushed by revulsion and trauma into fearful paralysis and subjugation, or better still stirred into violent counter-reaction from those who oppose ‘Islamic State’, which would further demonise, divide and alienate unconnected social groups and also scapegoat anyone who criticises their responses against ‘Islamic State’. The grouping known as ‘Islamic State’ appears to desire to evoke fear, paralysis, counter reaction and thus spread chaos, division and blindly traumatised confusion.

What links these themes for me? The need to speak out and ‘name the process’ as the only powerful way I know of stepping beyond fear and the toxic power of the human shadow in action. Jungian psychology would suggest the ‘shadow’ aspect in each human being simply desires to integrate with the whole Self in the process of individuation, but if it is ignored it will cause trouble and even mayhem in a person’s life. The only way to deal with the human shadow is to bring it out into the open, to own it as part of the Self, not as an evil aspect of others.

This reminds me of a strange and mysterious traditional english folk song recorded by the long deceased British Folk Singer, Peter Bellamy and in recent years revived by John Tams. The song is entitled, “The Bitter Withy” and tells the story of Jesus Christ as a child inadvertently causing the drowning of three boys who mocked him. On hearing of this, his mother scolded him by beating him with the branches of the ‘Withy’ or Willow…

The Bitter Withy

As it fell out on a holy day,
The drops of rain did fall, did fall,
Our Saviour asked leave of His mother, May,
If He might go play at ball.
“To play at ball, my own dear Son,
It’s time you was going or gone, or gone,
But be sure let me hear no complaint of you,
At night when you do come home.”
It was upling scorn and downling scorn!
Oh, there He met three jolly jerdins
Oh, there He asked the three jolly jerkins
If they would go play at ball.
“Oh, we are lords’ and ladies’ sons,
Born in bower or in hall, in hall.
And you are but some poor maid’s child
Born in an ox’s stall”
“Oh, if you are lords’ and ladies’ sons,
Born in bower or in hall, in hall.
Then at the very last I’ll make it appear
That I am above you all.”
Our Saviour built a bridge with the beams of the sun,
And over He gone, He gone He;
And after followed the three jolly jerdins,
And drownded they were all three.
It was up the hill and down the hill!
The mothers of them did whoop and call,
Crying out: “Mary mild, call home your child,
For ours are drownded all!”
Mary mild, Mary mild called home her Child,
And laid our Saviour across her knee,
And with a whole handful of bitter withy
She gave Him slashes three.
Then He says to His Mother: “Oh, the withy! Oh, the withy!
The bitter withy that causes me to smart, to smart,
Oh, the withy, it shall be the very first tree
That perishes at the heart!”
I take this story to mean that Christ and his mother eventually acknowledged the potential and actual power and destruction of his own shadow side and brought it into the light of day. As a reminder perhaps, it appears that the Willow is the only tree that rots from the inside out rather than the reverse. I interpret this as the need for the heart to function outwards in communion with and in inclusivity with others, rather than to turn inward through exclusivity, assumed superiority over others and the destructive power of intended or unintended revenge. It was to me, a way that Christ and Mary transparently ‘named the process’.

‘Naming the process’ is something I learnt in my psychotherapy training with the Hakomi Institute. This is a reference to unconscious and often powerfully toxic psychological relational systems, which are often awash with destructive ‘shadow projection’ from one individual onto another…. or one group onto another, or one country onto another, or one ideology onto another, or one religion onto another.

Hakomi at the individual and inter-relational level suggest the only way to “Jump Out Of The System” (“J.O.O.T.S.” for short) is to name the system; that is, the underlying motivation or intention of the relational pattern and its relationship to each individual’s internal self-narrative. So, my need to ‘speak out’ at my own individual level is reflective of a desire to ‘name the process’ as a way of deeply valuing myself and others. I see it as a way of attempting to bring the light of truth to what is happening; to stand one’s ground in the face of others’ (or possibly my own until now!) disowned authoritarian control impulses; to ‘name’ any attempts to subjugate others in order to render them objects to be manipulated or abused; to reduce fear in oneself and in others; to step out of potential trauma states into a sense of being awake and active in the world. It is especially powerful to seek to facilitate the latter, by being active in support of the healing power of the heart when aligned to inclusivity and community. I think such action brings clarity and transparency where there was formally or potentially chaos, confusion and paralysis.

But how much can an individual do? My friend and past colleague, Deirdre, once said that the best we can do is to be fully active in our own sphere of influence. We can do no more than we can do, but we can do so much more than we often believe we can do. This is so, especially if we act in support of ways of the heart, in the ways of inclusivity and community – I believe that if we do so increasingly at an individual level, the collective impact will in time have the power to move mountains.

It is my belief that in the face of what we experience as everyday destructive behaviour or acts of semi conscious or calculated evil, we may need to choose to be active to create and sustain the world we want. Even though the following quote is often attributed to Edmund Burke, there is apparently no evidence that he actually said it. But whoever said it was, for me at least, speaking a deep truth, “The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good [men] to do nothing”.

I think each one of us needs to have the freedom to decide how we want to show up in the world, if at all, and if we choose to do so, we need to show up and speak out in our own way, in our own sphere of influence. This has to be an entirely personal decision, otherwise we are simply imposing yet another pale shadow of coercive control in the form of placing a heavy expectation on others’ behaviour.

For myself, I can ‘show up and speak out’ in the work I do and in my writing. I am aware that I rarely become traumatised by reportage of evil acts, but I do feel revulsion and sadness at the obscenity of all forms of coercive control. I have a need to understand what I recognise as the ‘truth’ of what may be going on, to name it wherever I can and to share my authentic responses. I do not need to view gruesome videos in order to do that.

The motivation of people who produce such things is I feel, to pull others into destructive narrative and counter-narrative in the hope of creating more chaos and fear. I regard ‘naming the process’ as a refusal to engage with such cynically constructed toxic psychological and psychic trauma and instead to seek to cast the light of clear understanding on what is happening.

‘Showing up and speaking out’ means to me being awake and choosing to take my own responsibility to be active in the world, to create what I desire by example, in partnership with others. There is no point in attempting to ‘persuade’ anyone, and a waste of sacred energy, to try to persuade those who have already chosen the darkest paths…

They will not be persuaded, but their power will wither in the light of day and in the light of truth and in the light of the simple joy of giving to and receiving from others, from the heart, in celebration of the magnificence and beauty of life itself.

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“What a long strange trip it has been” – The Hidden Gifts of the Heart

Well, I didn’t make it in time to write my December 2014 Blog, but I certainly made it through my open heart surgery on the 28th November and I’m delighted to say I’m still here. I re-discovered both fire and joy inside of me and I’m back! Happy New Year and Happy New Life indeed!

It was quite a trip – or as the Grateful Dead used to say, “What a long strange trip it’s been!”

I am also coming to realise that this trip is not yet over. Before the operation I might have regarded the “trip being over” as a not so subtle euphemism for death. Since the operation I am recognising that the “trip” or the “road” goes on forever, both in this physical life and in the life beyond. In a metaphorical sense and also through my lived experience, I have been shown on this journey that the heart and the heartbeat it sustains, never die. They exist beyond death. I can say these things because of the path I chose to follow into this operation with the never-ending support and encouragement of my partner, and because of where the trail took me, into the depths of my own psyche and what I found there. I was on a path that from the start, I regarded as a freely chosen shamanic journey.

The experience has been so vivid that I knew on return home from this interior journey and from the hospital in early December, that I needed to write about my experiences in some detail whilst they were still fresh in my mind and soul. I have as a consequence, begun to write another book to follow on from “Fields of Freedom”. This previous book was focused primarily, in terms of the illness that preoccupied me at the time, on my journey through cancer and back to some level of functioning health. The new book I have started writing is focused on what led me up to opting for open heart surgery. Secondly it is about what I experienced as I went through the surgical process and started on the post operative road to recovery and I hope, over time, to substantially improved health. I have decided to call this new book, “Re-Lighting the Fire! : A journey of the heart”.

As I will describe in the forthcoming book, I was taken into the operating theatre at LGI, Leeds around 11.30am on the 28th November. I woke up at 3.15am on Saturday 29th November, in a state of what I could only describe as complete joy. This was not simply the effects of the morphine! I awoke in a large room where my bed was the only bed, in an annexe attached to the Intensive Care Unit. I woke up to find myself wired up to just about every type of medical machinery I could think of, which certainly restricted my physical movements in those early hours and days of post-operative recovery, but my soul was in no way restricted, as I was still flying high with the joy of living.

Recently, on return home from hospital, I watched a programme on BBC TV which helped me to place in a more universal context this personal joy and a deep awareness of the sacredness of life. I watched a feature on the 7th January edition of “The One Show” on BBC1. The news feature described how a man from the North East of England, ‘John’ from Sunderland who up to that point had enjoyed good and robust health, had suddenly died at the age of 33 from a brain tumour, merely three weeks after diagnosis. His grief-stricken family had the astonishing generosity of heart to donate his organs for potential transplant. 8 miles away from John’s home in Sunderland, ‘Scott’ from North Shields, was suffering from a very serious heart defect that was becoming increasingly life threatening. The reality was, Scott was dying and in desperate need of a heart transplant.

In September 2008, Scott was anonymously given John’s donated heart in a heart transplant operation. It saved his life. Scott had commented when interviewed some years later, “it was hard for me to believe my fingers were no longer blue”. This resonated for me because in recent years I have either looked distinctly yellow from the effects of tumours in my liver (thankfully the tumours and the cancer are now in remission), or I looked increasingly blue around my lips with the deteriorating effects of heart failure. One of the delights I have experienced from comments people have made to me since I returned home from hospital, is that my complexion is now invariably a very healthy shade of pink!

In 2013, five years after his life saving operation, Scott was invited to speak at a church service in Newcastle on Tyne about transplants and organ donation. By chance or perhaps some greater design or act of grace, John’s Mum was in the congregation. Scott gave his speech from the pulpit and obviously from the heart and ended by publicly thanking the family of John for his gift of life. Scott had no idea John’s Mum, Freda was in the congregation. However, at the moment that Freda heard Scott’s thanks, she “instantly knew” that Scott had been the recipient of John’s heart.

Freda, there and then, approached the Transplant Coordinator who was also in the congregation, to ask if she could meet Scott. It was agreed, she did so, and this moment of contact was recorded on camera. She asked Scott if she could put her hand on his chest to feel the heartbeat of the transplanted heart. Freda later described that the moment she felt the heartbeat she had an instant reconnection with her deceased son John, and experienced his presence as alive and well, beating within Scott’s body. The camera showed the two people spontaneously embracing as Freda placed her head on Scott’s chest. An immediate bond had been forged between Scott and Freda, and by extension over time deep bonds also grew with their respective families.

Over the years. I have heard the heart described in many ways: a biological pump comprising of muscle; a metaphor for courage; a second brain; a home for the soul whilst we are incarnate on the earth. I think from my own experiences and from watching the very moving story of John, Scott and Freda, I would have to say the heart is “love in action”, towards the Self, towards others as we reach out from that energy centre, as a place to deeply give and receive. I think if, through active choice, we allow our human hearts to function in the most natural and authentic way, they simply live out M.Scott Peck’s definition of ‘love’. They facilitate the willingness to nurture mental health and spiritual growth in ourselves and others, or more specifically as the man once said: “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

Freda and her family could have chosen to decline the opportunity to donate John’s organs; Scott could have declined to publicly thank the family; the Transplant Coordinator could have chosen to say “no” to Freda’s request to meet Scott face to face. Instead they said yes and it was clear to me that the mental health and spiritual growth of Scott and Freda had been transformed for the better by those choices.

Yes, the heart resides in a sacred place and when we exercise it from the place of emotional and spiritual intelligence, we have the ability to love and in so doing to transform the world around us. All we have to do is choose it.

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The Creative Spark: Exploring the Options Beyond Being Dead to the Word and Waiting to Die

Last month on August 5th, 2014 my book, “Fields of Freedom: Breaking through fear in personal and professional life” was published by Amazon-Kindle. It was three and a half years in the making. I didn’t set out to write a book nor produce anything for public consumption. It started as a somewhat desperate attempt to write a personal diary, in order to make sense of receiving a terminal diagnosis from a hospital consultant as a result of cancer and pure right ventricle heart failure. At the time of receiving the diagnosis in 2010, my life and pattern of personal relationships were very different to what exists for me today.

Since then I have been on what may sound to some as an unbelievable journey; what Joanna Macy might describe as a process of “despair and empowerment” – fortunately in that order! It was only after a year had passed that I really began to think that what I was writing might be of help to others: people facing life threatening illness or terminal diagnoses; their relatives; and professionals like myself working with such clients as counsellors or psychotherapists.

I was reminded of this psychological and emotional process recently whilst working with a supervisee facing pending retirement from a high powered job. She was reflecting that right now all she wanted to do was sit and relax as an antidote to decades of working to targets, but feeling anxious that this was potentially dangerous, “because it is likely I’ll just end up drifting towards death”. I commented that this would only be likely if she saw her situation as an “either-or” choice of targets or drift. We laughed about the use of words we came up with whilst contemplating what a “both-and” paradigm might be as applied to her situation: “Both waiting to see what is emerging and also carefully tracking a desire for action at the level of the authentic Self, to see when it has become imperative to act”. This starts to provide a creative option between retiring and simply waiting to die.

As I applied this thinking to my own dilemma over three years ago, I recognised that creative spark in myself that had led to a choice to use whatever time I had left to write something that might be of help to others. It opened up a much greater range of profound possibilities than I could have imagined at the time – I slowly began to realise that my creative thinking aligned to a bloody-minded determination to not passively accept my “fate”, was changing future outcomes through a deeply conscious commitment to live fully in the present moment.

Through acceptance of the need to access allopathic medical help, combined with wide exploration and use of complementary healing; creative and co-creative thinking; spiritual exploration and the support of loving relationships, it appears my future has profoundly changed for the better. In short, I am still here despite the fact that I still have secondary tumours covering 80% of my liver. My cancer appears to have been in remission now for over two years, yet the extent of secondary tumours I still have suggest that I shouldn’t be here at all.

Yes I am now facing open heart surgery sometime in the next two months, but the only reason that has become possible is because my constitution is so much stronger now than it has been since I first received the terminal diagnosis. I’m still bloody-minded and I’m still choosing to actively live fully in the moment, watching what is emerging whilst tracking the responses of my authentic Self to see: when I need to relax and wait; what I need to graciously let go of through the process of illness and ageing; what I need to embrace as new levels of perception, ability and awareness emerge from within; what decisions I need to make and when, as a clear choice to live and go on living to the full rather than abdicating my personal power and simply drifting towards death.

I wonder if there is a degree of human universality to such processes and experiences. In a broad sense are we not all faced with the apparent “either-or” choice between living and just existing? This reminds me of a song by The Byrds entitled, “Why?”, where the singer-narrator is describing the emotional reticence of a man to open his heart to loving a woman who deeply cares for him, and singing the words, “I don’t know where you live but you’re not living. Why?”

From a “both-and” perspective it would be more constructive for the man to both acknowledge his fears of intimacy and also be open to the possibility of a deeper emotional connection. This would almost certainly increase the levels of emotional nourishment he would experience in his life, however long he allowed the experience to last. Closer intimacy would also of course increase opportunities for co- creative constructive dialogue and relationship building with his partner.

Creativity begets further creativity; nourishment begets a desire for further nourishment; creativity and nourishment stimulate motivation and enthusiasm – before long what had previously been polarised entrenchment, has turned into a virtuous circle of rewarding and cumulative lived experience.

In such ways, with the help of others including intimate partners, we can change the environment around us and ultimately alter, sometimes very profoundly, the direction and outcomes of our life journey. These processes highlight the potential power of thought and subsequent intention, whilst also underlining the potential impact of choice and ascribed meaning.

I think the above suggests the need to be open to the creative balance of acceptance and action – it represents a choice to live beyond the confines and paralysis of fear. Michael Meade has suggested that “Fate” is the hand (or set of circumstances) we are dealt in life and “Destiny” is the result of what we choose to do about those circumstances. It is ultimately our choice, our responsibility and no one else’s. This echoes the Existentialist perspective of, “the world is what you make it”.

As Dewitt Jones suggested in his DVD “Celebrate what’s right with the world”, we have creative power available to us – for good or ill. He states, “What we believe is what we see and what we see becomes our reality”. If that is so, then the choices we make around what life chances we see and the way we see them, have potentially enormous impact. As my good old Mum used to say, “Thoughts are living things”.

I would say in my work as a psychotherapist and counsellor, this observation is a grounded reflection of what can happen in life. In my work with a significant number of clients, I have often observed perceptual shifts over time, through continued dialogue and reflection around what the individual believes: from a place of “It’s not possible” or “I can’t do it”, to “Is it possible and am I willing to choose to do it?” to “I can do it and I am choosing to do it – I have done it”.

As perceptions change, what is reflected back at the client from the world also often appears to change. My understanding of the application of ideas from neurological studies around “mirror neurons”, would suggest that we respond accordingly to what we see reflected in our world. So thoughts and feelings of doom may well invite heightened perception of such phenomena – without dialogue around possible alternative realities, the client may stay stuck in these apocalyptic visions for a long time. However, whether we explore these processes at the somewhat rarefied level of Rene Giraud’s “Mimetic Theory”, or apply the implications of more recent neurological and therapeutic ideas around “mirror neurons”, it seems quite likely that we learn through pattern making and imitation or mimicry, and we respond in like fashion to what the world reflects back at us.

 

I am not suggesting the therapist should manipulate the process of dialogue to move the client in any particular direction – simply that genuine dialogue itself without any specific agenda, is likely to lead to shifts in perception as the focus centres around the client’s world of meaning. This approach is less geared towards the directive than it is towards existential dialogue and reflection as advocated by Existential writers and therapists like Ernesto Spinelli.

I would tend to believe that without genuine dialogue (in contrast to speaking repetitive dogma) with another or others, it would be very hard for anyone to become aware that there are many ways of perceiving and thus experiencing the world. This also closes off opportunities to recognise that we have an internal dialogue going on inside of us, which may reflect the fears of the adapted child self at an emotional level, as well as the more reflective and witnessing place of the internal adult-observer.

Somewhere in the midst of this internal dialogue it may be possible to recognise deeper and more certain resonances of what I would call the authentic Self. I think this part of the self is a development at the more spiritual level of awareness – beyond the more egocentric confines of ‘mimetic theory’ which suggests that all our desires and perceptions are mimetic, that is a reflection of our desire for what other people may have.

I believe we are more than a species wide collection of endless mirrors of desire and that the human being can develop and grow, based on perceptions that go beyond egocentric preoccupations. But we need the creative spark of genuine dialogue with another or others to activate this movement. I think it is a movement towards a deeper and more organic functioning where it is possible to find a natural balance between desire, empathy, self determination and spiritual growth.

It is a place where I believe we can begin to activate the authentic Self in order to move beyond simple “either-or” polarities into the greater freedom of co-creativity and pluralism. It is less likely that form of perceiving the world will lead to participation in fundamentalist strategies of human activity which include indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas or deliberately staged rituals of gruesome beheadings.

It is hard to make such choices to move into these spiritually bankrupt and inexorably dark sides of human behaviour and remain active there, when we know there are many ways to perceive the world and that there are no ultimate truths beyond the probability that for good or ill, like begets like.

As I was writing this Blog, my partner phoned me whilst on a car journey, to let me know she was held up in a traffic jam as a result of an overturned vehicle. As she was waiting for traffic to move, she noticed in her rear view mirror a motorist overtaking the line of traffic at speed. The vehicle registration was “B3 DED”. Perhaps at the end of the day, this is what I’m exploring here, the choice to live from the authentic Self or in one way or another to just be dead to the world.

 

There are too many dead people in the world already to add to the total. I would encourage all of us to of course, make our own choices and I sincerely hope more often than not, those choices turn out to be for living life to the full!

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‘TO BE OR NOT TO BE? NO LONGER A QUESTION’ or ‘WHY DON’T YOU JUST F-F-F-FADE AWAY?’

In the last week or so, I finally made a decision to go ahead with open heart surgery. For a while I felt I had the luxury of choice – but in the end there was no choice left except an obvious decision.

I had discussed the possibility with my Cardiologist two months previously – an option which became available to me was to elect to have faulty heart valves replaced, because the cancer I am also dealing with had been stable and in remission for so long.

I took my time in reaching my decision, talking to a lot of people and deeply reflecting on the whole situation. By the time I was due to meet the Heart Surgeon who would do the operation, I had pretty much resolved to go ahead.

I had become aware over the last 12 months that my condition appeared to be slowly deteriorating. Having already gone through a near death experience some four years ago, I had in my own mind chosen to go on living and being, with a deep intention to live life to the full and to be as much in the present as I could, continuing to be with my partner and to do the work my soul had chosen to do. It gradually became clear to me that in order to go on doing this and to go on being present, an operation was becoming an absolute necessity.

 

Strangely however, the night before I met the Heart Surgeon, I went into some kind of almost shamanic trance where I thought what I was doing was simply confronting my deepest fear: my thoughts and feelings seemed to be coming from an ancient tribal place of the ancestors, where initially at least, it seemed that I quite clearly had to deal with my illness entirely alone and where it was vital that my body was not cut open.

It was evident to me in that space, that I needed to be “whole” to face this challenge to my existence and to hold back the passage of time. The sense of needing to be whole was absolutely overwhelming: if I was whole then I could deal with it, but in that space I surmised that if I was cut open then in that very moment the hourglass of time would be turned over and the sand of my life energy would begin slipping away until there was nothing left. I think my all too conscious fear was limiting what I was able to see. Looking back now, it reminds me of stories of some members from indigenous tribes who met white settlers for the first time and were apparently convinced that if their photograph was taken, an aspect of their soul would be stolen.

But perhaps a deeper understanding was required here. For example, Native American wisdom also knows at a much greater level that the soul, like their homelands cannot be owned by another – it is given by the Great Spirit and is sacred. The challenge is to honour the sacred and the wisdom of ones ancestors in the face of every conceivable fear and hardship. A very difficult thing to do if you are Native American and what you see are your ancestral lands being carved up and sold to white settlers in front of your eyes. An act of faith would have been needed in such times, to recognise that whatever happens in this material world, the sacred must be honoured, even to the point of death and genocide of an indigenous people. Those lands are still the lands of the ancestors and still sacred to the people who remain.

Thomas Moore reminds us in “Writing in the Sand” (2009) that illness is an initiation, even a rite of passage and that it offers an opportunity to move to a deeper level of soul, body and spirit. He also found himself in the face of a sudden awareness that he had heart disease, following the African ritual of, “calling on ancestors and trusting that they are the ones who heal and help sort out life“. I paused a long time, long enough to consider that perhaps my shamanic reverie was not literally about avoiding being cut open, but a message from my own ancestors about the greater need to approach the decision about the operation from a place of being as “whole” a person as possible.

As I returned to everyday conscious awareness I knew that I needed to embrace and hold this fearful part of myself and honour it. I needed it to be with me when I met the Heart Surgeon the following day. My ancestors would be there too. To dismiss or seek to banish this apparently fearful part of myself would be tantamount to running away from my fear and I would therefore not be a whole person in the place where a decision had to be made. Further than that, perhaps it was not the voice of fear at all, but one of ancestral wisdom. It was encouraging me to speak out, ask difficult questions and remain open to hearing the truth.

 

This ancient aspect of myself came with me and my partner when we met the Heart Surgeon the following day. It was the part of me that encouraged me to ask him what would happen if I decided not to have the operation. The Surgeon was very matter of fact, which made his words hold even more impact than they might otherwise have done. He said that I would, “simply fade away”.

It confirmed what I had come to gradually realise over previous weeks – that a choice to do nothing was not an option. It would not be a continuing decision to fully embrace life. The question I faced was this: Did I love myself, my partner and the purpose of my life enough to risk losing everything in order to gain the continued existence that I wanted; not just physically, but also spiritually? I knew in that instant that I had been here before, in a place where I was being invited to choose life once more. This was a decision I had to take; it required me to step out of the boat and in an act of total faith to believe that if I chose to walk on the water I would not drown. It would be an act of freedom and an affirmation of life itself.

It was clear to me in the moments after I said yes to the Heart Surgeon, that a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Yes I was anxious but in order to continue to be present on this earth, I had made the only realistic decision at a soul level that it was possible to make. As my partner and I sat talking later in the hospital cafe, after the meeting with the Surgeon, I was able to share with her my powerful sense of relief. She told me she could clearly see the effects of this in my face and in my body.

 

My faith in myself and the voice within me that said “yes” to the Heart Surgeon is still strong. I am fully conscious of the power of this choice, as I notice myself also making plans to amend my Last Will and Testament: not so much in case I don’t make it through this operation, although I recognise that might be the outcome, but because my life has changed since I made my Will and I need to reflect this in what is written there. As I reflected in a previous Blog, I can hear again some precious words from Native American tradition: “history is only a dream, the future has not happened and the present is always changeable”.

I feel I am doing and will do all I can to come through this operation. Other than that, as the Welsh would say, “Os mynn Duw”, as Christians may say, “Deo volente – if it is God’s will”, as Islam says, “Insha’Allah”!

 

So be it, I have spoken with my ancestors and spoken further still, in the only way my soul knows how to speak and a great weight has been lifted. My path is clear once again.

 

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