Connection – finding yourself through others

29/03/2012 § 2 Comments

Last week I went down to Devon for a workshop, two days in Embercombe, one of my favourite places to hang out these days. The title of the course was “Speaking out”.  Somehow this feels like my year for finding my voice…

I won’t go into details about the course.  Suffice to say it was a powerful experience and I gave it 10 out of 10 on the feedback form. What I want to share is the main insight I gained while there.

I suppose I had travelled down there with an expectation that I was going to learn how to get my ideas across better to a group of people. What I learned instead, to my surprise, was that the key component of a powerful presentation is to connect. Bizarrely, the key to speaking powerfully is to listen.

Firstly you have to listen to yourself, to the voice inside you that will guide you if only you pay attention to it. Secondly, you have to listen to, to connect with, your audience. To do this is really helps if you look them in the eye, if you have an expressive voice and hands, and a relaxed but energised body. But this is not the most essential part.  The most essential part is an attitude that says “I need you in order to become truly alive, to become truly myself”.

I don’t know why but this came as quite a surprise to me. Intellectually I can see that I ought to have known this.  For example, I wrote last year how I remembered that the root of “communicate” is “commune”. So communicating is about hanging around with others, not transmitting data to them. But I have never experienced it in quite the same way before, never noticed how different it feels when I truly connect with people while presenting, rather than simply rehearsing something from memory.

One piece of advice from Mac, founder of Embercombe and one of the facilitators of the workshop, was that this was not just about formal presenting – it was about how we engage with people in our every day lives.  I took this to heart and have been experimenting with my new found skills ever since.

A good opportunity came in the latest dialogue session I held on Tuesday. It was a small group, just three of us, and this made the experience all the more powerful. I found that if I consciously looked the others in the eye while talking or listening, if I tuned into what was going on for them, I became more articulate, I listened better, I felt more energised. Somehow I became more alive.

It turned out to be an amazing session, lasting a good 30 minutes longer than usual. We all felt a heightened sense of presence, noticing for example how when we talked, we would tend to feel less connected, as if the complex process of talking caused us to withdraw attention from our senses. Hence the power of silence in a group.

What made it a particularly exhilarating experience was that the Royal Festival Hall was humming with life. People had been drawn to it, bathed as it was in the light of the evening sun.  We had to squat on a bit of floor space, surrounded by activity: on one side a plate glass window behind which was a large busy restaurant; on another a lengthy meeting was going on at a table; on a third side, a rehearsal for a play was taking place, with at least 6 actors proclaiming lines such as ‘Come quick, there’s been a tragedy”. It was hilarious.

We felt so present that we were able to take all this in, all this colour and vibrancy and life, while still staying connected to what was going on inside ourselves and what was going on for the others that we were in dialogue with. It was an amazing experience.

TS Eliot had it right. “Simply connect” he advised. I have discovered that it’s the best drug going…


Can the ends ever justify the means?

09/09/2011 § 1 Comment

“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving” Tao te Ching

I could be wrong but it seems to me that the statement “the ends justify the means” is the absolute antithesis of sustainability. Faith in this mantra, explicitly or implicitly, underlies an awful lot of what is done in our society in the name of progress.  Overpaying bankers is justified because they will deliver a more healthy economy (ha ha). We invade countries because we want peace. We lobby for more nuclear plants because we want green energy. We let rich criminals (tax evaders) off the hook as part of a shady deal with the Swiss banking authorities because it may (possibly) bring in some unpaid tax. No wonder we find ourselves in a state of fragmentation, economic volatility, and relentless ecological destruction.

The folly of this approach first occurred to me when I was protesting against the second Gulf war. I noticed a fellow marcher with a wonderful banner that read: “Bombing for peace is like shagging for virginity” (my other favourite was “Make tea, not war.”).  Later on I read a comment on-line that has stayed with me “The trouble with using a peaceful end as a justification for destructive means is that you may not achieve the peaceful ends you want, and so all you are left with is the destruction.” This is of course pretty much how the invasion of Iraq has turned out. Is Iraq, or the world, really better off, more secure, happier, after all this killing and bombing?

I thought about this again the other night after convening another dialogue session at the Royal Festival Hall.  I am really enjoying these sessions – it feels very creative to explore different ways of being with and relating to other people.

What I found particularly interesting this time was that I didn’t experience anything new, that we didn’t reach great depths. We had a good conversation – we sat round in a circle, listened to each other respectfully, shared insights we had picked up from reading or speaking to others. But was it dialogue, I asked at the end? No, we all agreed, although we felt that we may have “dipped into it” once or twice. It is a subtle thing, commented one participant, and is hard to pin down.

So what did I learn? Firstly that dialogue doesn’t just happen if you simply create the space and bring some people together, even if those people have experienced this sort of work before.  It would surely have helped if I had spent more time at the beginning reminding us all of the practices that encourage dialogue – deep listening, voicing (speaking up for yourself) and suspending (temporarily letting go of your need to be right).

What I also noticed, on further reflection, is that there were at least a couple of occasions when I could have spoken out and invited the group to go deeper. But I chose not to, mainly because I felt uncomfortable about challenging the group in that way.  It was easier to go with the flow. Yet in doing so I missed an opportunity for a richer, more profound experience.

This led me to think that we probably all, every day, get these inner promptings – to speak up for what we believe, to reach out to an estranged friend, to challenge someone close to us, to challenge ourselves, to turn down (or say yes to!) that extra piece of chocolate cake. Yet too often we let those opportunities pass us by.

And it seems to me that the path to sanity, to wholeness, to integral health, to peace, to a life worth living, is to pay more attention to that inner voice that calls us out.  So long as we allow ourselves to be carried along with the rush of day-to-day existence, making it a priority not to upset others or ourselves, then we are going to miss out.

Thus my surprising (to me) conclusion is that if we genuinely seek environmental sustainability as a goal, we need to pay less attention to the goal itself and instead pay attention to the means. And by means I don’t mean wind turbines, or solar panels, or hydrogen powered cars, important as these may be. I am talking about the ways in which we live, work, talk, think and make decisions together.  After all, how can we expect to establish a healthy relationship with the planet if we have unhealthy relations with each other (this, by the way, is not an original insight. The German philosopher Theordo Adorno in 1955 explicitly linked the exploitation of man by man and the exploitation of nature by man, as indeed did Karl Marx before him.  But I suppose I am just starting to understand it properly.).

The conclusion?  Don’t spend your time fretting about recycling your bottles and paper – spend your time reaching out to that neighbour you rarely speak to, that business colleague you dislike. Pay less attention to your organic vegetables and more attention to how you interact with your family. Focus less on what you communicate with others about, and more time on the way in which you go about your communication. We will never achieve environmental sustainability without social sustainability. It is as simple as that.

Simply connect

30/06/2011 § 4 Comments

How to describe yesterday evening’s dialogue session? As usual mere words can’t do it justice. But I will try anyway. Another potshot at the moon….

There was plenty of silence this time. It was nice to have a group of sufficient maturity that we were able to sit in comfortable silence for extended periods. This was so even though most of the participants hadn’t attended previous sessions.

I reminded the group that you could actively participate in dialogue even if you didn’t say anything.  Scooter proved the point by saying not a word but still finding a way to quietly connect with us all.   But then, dogs don’t generally have the hang-ups that we humans do.

I really enjoyed all the silence although I admit to occasionally having felt a nagging responsibility, as the convenor of the gathering, to ensure something more would “happen”.

One participant dropped a heavy weight into the space at the outset. She’d read in the last few days that the oceans are well on the way to collapse, resulting from a combination of climate change causing acidification of the oceans, pollution and over-fishing. This seems to have pushed her over the edge somehow. She could no longer kid herself that life on earth, as we know it, could be saved. She let go. To her surprise, the result was that she has been drawn back to the religious teachings she learned when she was growing up – love one another, celebrate life, share. This is how to live a life.

This struck a chord with the group and we explored what it might mean to “let go”. Did it mean stopping “doing”, or should it rather mean letting go of old pre-conceptions, old patterns of thinking and behaving. It may even mean we do more but we’ve dropped the need to do, the need to work towards any particular goal. Instead our doing flows naturally out of our being.

We went on to explore the tight link between language and culture. If we are going to move into new ways of being, we need a new vocabulary.  Someone observed that sometimes words just aren’t sufficient to describe the feelings or energies that we encounter. I mentioned “The timeless way of building”, a semi-mystical book ostensibly about architecture by Christopher Alexander, in which he talks about the “quality without a name” that the best buildings and spaces have.

Near the end I had what felt like a major insight. I had picked up a card from those I had scattered on the floor, as a prompt for reflection. The card I chose, when I turned it over, had “Communication” written on it. I wondered what it signified. Then I recalled that the word communicate comes from the root “commune” as in community. It struck me that I’ve been obsessed for years with the notion that I have to communicate what I feel about the changes that are happening in the world. Yet I have completely misunderstood communication – it is not about telling, informing or persuading anyone of anything.  It is simply about connecting. End of story.

Actually that’s not the end of the story. I am going to continue convening these dialogue events – it feels like they still have plenty more to give me and others. I just need to find somewhere cheaper to hold them (or free).  Do let me know if you know of somewhere.

Next week – my blog will be entitled “There is no progress without constraints”. It may include a mention of compost loos. I am looking forward to it already 🙂

The head versus the heart?

09/06/2011 § 6 Comments

“The spirit of human solidarity and kinship with all life is strengthened when we live with reverence for the mystery of being, gratitude for the gift of life and humility regarding the human place in nature.”  The Earth Charter, 2001

I hosted another dialogue session last night in Islington. It was a smaller group than before, with five of us from the previous session plus two newcomers.  We had a deeper and more personal dialogue on this occasion, partly I suppose because of the smaller size, and partly because of the continuity from last time. It did have a moment of uncertainty, when one of us had the courage to speak up and say she was tempted to leave. But as so often in dialogue, it seems, this apparent crisis was simply a trigger for us to go into a deeper level of interraction.

What was striking was how every participant had one thing in common – we are all at a stage where we are struggling to earn sufficient income to meet our daily needs and yet we reject conventional or obvious ways of earning money. We feel that we are on a path laid down for us and simply cannot bring ourselves to be “reasonable” in conventional terms and get off this uncomfortable and yet strangely wonderful path.

It is not as if we consider it “bad” to earn a living working in a conventional role.  It’s just that there is something inside us that stops us doing so. To me it is as if I am being swept up by a force more powerful than myself, and I have no choice but to follow it. This is far more real to me than the mundane so-called “reality” of earning a living.

Is this the classic “head versus heart” dilemma, one of us wondered aloud. For myself, I feel it goes beyond that.  It is as if something in the universe, let’s call it a higher consciousness, being aware of the deepening crisis our civilisation is in, has chosen us and others to follow this challenging and rocky path that is full of mystery and uncertainty. If we are right about the scale of the crisis, there will be plenty of other people going through similar or even more challenging journeys in the coming years. Maybe our role is to go first in order to prepare us to act as guides and counsellors for others who come later. In any event, no matter how I rationalise it, I don’t feel there’s much I can do about it, except follow it and see where it leads.

For me, a key part of dealing with such challenging times is to embrace humility. In order to grow it seems I need to take bold steps, whilst being fully aware of how limited my understanding really is. I know intellectually that I am one with the Earth and the whole of the life. But somehow along the way I forgot and started behaving as if I am not. Learning to go with the flow, to trust, to be humble, to feel respect and reverence for the process in all its mystery, is part of my re-training, remembering the truth of my oneness with life. But maybe I am getting too flaky now!

I am really grateful that the universe brought us all together yesterday evening to be reminded that we are not alone on this journey. And I’m grateful to have been shown the powerful tool of dialogue, that allowed us to put aside our fears and daily concerns for a time, to share our feelings in a group and to feel truly heard.

Speak from your body, not your head

18/05/2011 § 1 Comment

“The body is the mirror where the secret world of the soul comes to expression.” John O’Donohue

A friend, a regular reader of this blog, told me last week that she couldn’t connect to my last two posts. I wasn’t surprised. I couldn’t connect to them either.  Somehow I had it in my head that because I had described this as a weekly blog, I couldn’t let my readers down and had to post every week, whether I had something to say or not. Rather than reaching into myself to find something authentic to say, I chose an easier option. I wrote from my head. I gave little of myself and so gave little of value.

The funny thing is that I was aware of this as I wrote the posts. I can’t describe how I knew – it was a feeling, subtle but clear, located somewhere in my body. I am familiar with this feeling. When I ignore it, it nearly always turns out to be a mistake.  Still I am stubborn and so sometimes do ignore it. When will I learn!

I was reminded of the wisdom of my body this evening at a dialogue session at the Hub in Islington. The idea of the session was to use the technique of dialogue (as described by physicist David Bohm) to get beyond our customary thought patterns and, as a group, to access higher wisdom. The subject was sustainability.

Whether we succeeded in our mission is hard to say. There was a good quality of listening amongst the 12 or so participants (this was aided by a speaking stick that reminded us not to speak over each other). I enjoyed the interaction and exploring with others issues that I give a lot of thought to.  The initial question I posed (“If we are interested in sustainability, what is it we are trying to sustain?”) led us down interesting paths.

Someone observed that humans cope very well in crises, and that until a crisis comes significant change rarely happens. So maybe rather than unsuccessfully trying to change things now, we should focus on the things that we won’t be able to do at the last minute and leave the rest to be dealt with when the crisis comes.

We talked about “the system”, understanding this in some way to be what drives humanity to behave in this crazy way, systematically degrading our life support systems on earth. Someone reminded us that we are all the system and the system is us. Someone else introduced the metaphor of a game, that we can choose to play or not. People like Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela refused to play the game and had a very hard time. I mentioned the essay “The Power of the Powerless” by Vaclav Havel that I quote in my very first blog “Living in truth“. Havel says, in essence, don’t try to change the system, but focus on being the best human being you can be.  There wasn’t a smooth flow to the conversation, but we did manage to avoid the tennis match debate that you usually get when exploring this subject in any sort of depth.

Discussing the experience afterwards, I agreed with one participant that some of the dialogue felt rather analytical in nature, a common trap in this work, rather than being real. She talked about the importance of speaking from “I”, relating what you say to yourself rather than making it abstract. Of the things that I had said in the session, the ones she remembered were those where I shared my own experience or when I told a story of a friend (someone who claims to understand the challenges we face but nevertheless recently bought himself and his wife two shiny new gas-guzzling cars!).

To me, what Debbie was talking about is the same thing I described earlier – the feeling I have which tells me when I am being authentic. If we want to give the best of ourselves, we need to constantly check in with our bodies. We need to ask ourselves if what we are saying, or doing, is congruent with what our body, our “house of belonging here in this world”, as John O’Donohue calls it, is whispering to us.  Too often I find it comes from the space between my ears, nor really connected to the rest of my body.

I am starting to feel that the real work of an activist (I consider myself as such) is simply to focus on speaking and acting from that feeling, of listening to, being mindful of, my body and doing nothing, saying nothing that fails to honour the truth that I find there. I promise not to post another blog entry unless it passes that test.

Goodbye. I am just going out and may be some time ☺

Thoughts about thoughts

28/04/2011 § 1 Comment

This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.” Rabindranath Tagore

I am thinking about thought.

For the past three weeks I have had an idea buzzing around in my head for a new business venture. I didn’t particularly welcome it when it arrived but I couldn’t shake it off. It won’t let go. As I took my early morning walk each day through the vineyards in Germany, my mind kept being filled with ideas and images relating to this idea.

I am not ready to share the idea widely yet, it is too fragile, too newly born to be exposed to the world. Maybe next week. Instead I want to explore the subject of where thought comes from.

I once read a speech given by Sting, the musician and prolific song-writer. This is what he said about where his music comes from: “… if somebody asks me how I write songs, I have to say, “I don’t really know.” I don’t really know where they come from. A melody is always a gift from somewhere else. You just have to learn to be grateful and pray that you will be blessed again some other time.

I also think of great composers such as Schubert or Mozart. They died relatively young (Mozart was 35, Schubert just 27) yet each produced a huge body of work of incredible variety, richness and depth. And what about Shakespeare or Pushkin, who produced work of such quality, and in such volume, that it had a marked and lasting effect on their native language.

How are we to make sense of this? Is it really that these individuals brought this work into being on their own? Or is it more helpful and more accurate to think of them as channels, connecting into some energy field in the ether and translating it into a form that other humans can relate to? They are perhaps a kind of human radio, tuning into channels most of us can’t access. But if this is so, what is the source of the information they are tuning into? Is this a sort of collective consciousness made up of all our minds?

What about us more humble mortals? Where do our ideas, our thoughts, come from? I just don’t know. Was it my idea to write this blog, or did the thought come from somewhere else and I merely attached myself to it? Am I writing this blog or is it a shared venture between me, you and the wider world?

I can’t answer these questions. And I can easily wander off into abstract mysticism, which I am rubbish at, if I spend too much looking at this stuff. Yet still I feel we have to keep asking the questions and extending our exploration – the way we think has a fundamental affect on the way we live our lives, individually and collectively.

One concept I have found really helpful is dialogue. The renowned physicist David Bohm (he worked with Einstein) wrote about it in a book “On Dialogue”. He said “Dialogue is really aimed at going into the whole thought process and changing the way the thought process occurs collectively. We haven’t really paid much attention to thought as a process. We have engaged in thoughts, but we have only paid attention to the content not the process.”

The word dialogue, he pointed out, comes from “Dia” meaning “through” and “Logos” which is “meaning.” So dialogue = meaning flowing through us. He suggested that there is a collective consciousness, a sort of shared mind, that we can tap into, to access higher wisdom and insight. Dialogue as he described it is a group process that allows us to access this place.

My understanding is that there are other ways to access this shared mind. For some of us, a good walk in nature will do it. Or meditation. Or lying in bed in a semi-awake, semi-asleep state. But dialogue is really interesting because it enables you to do it with others.

To explore this, I ran a weekend workshop on dialogue last year (on the basis that you teach what you want to learn). You can read a write-up here.

I should also add (he writes, pausing for a shameless commercial break) that I am running three short sessions on dialogue at the Hub in Islington on 18th May, 8th June and 29th June, each starting at 6 pm. For more details, click here.

I don’t have more to say about this. It feels pretty weird, writing about how I think. I struggle to separate what I am thinking from how I am thinking. Maybe to write about this stuff well, you have to be out of your mind. But then, Dasha thinks at the moment I am a bit out of my mind.

What do you think?

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