Monday, 24 December 2012

On Realising (Again) That It's All Okay

It's okay that I fucked up.

It's okay that I've been messy, dysfunctional, intense, afraid, anxious, sad, angry.

It's okay that I've gone down the wrong roads, had the wrong relationships, cried on my friends' shoulders, drowned in shame. 

It's okay that I've regretted, yearned and resented. 

It's okay that I haven't done better, that I could have done more. 

It's okay that I've been neurotic, obsessed, overly-self critical. 

It's okay that I've sobbed, curled up naked in the foetal position, until my head ached and my eyes throbbed. 

It's okay that I've tried so hard to make it all okay again. 

It's okay that I didn't find the Promised Land or the perfect lover. 

It's okay that I can't do what I can't do, that there are times when I'm utterly incompetent.

It's okay that I'm sensitive and prone to introspection. 

I realise - again - that this is not about changing, eradicating or creating myself anew. It's simply about loving this, here and now, whatever this is. 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

On Examining the Evidence

There’s an aphorism often used in the matter versus spirit debate, and apparently loved by forensic scientists: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In other words, just because you can’t find it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Evidence is defined in the dictionary as “an appearance from which inferences may be drawn; the ground for belief.” It comes from the Latin ex (out of, from within) and videre (to see, to perceive, to notice). We trust that our senses are giving us reliable information from which we can draw conclusions about reality. Perceiving is believing. And in some areas of life, that approach works.

We rarely question the evidence upon which our assumptions are built, however, particularly when it comes to what we believe about ourselves, others, and the world. We think we know how things are. Of course she didn’t love me. It’s obvious that they are hateful and ignorant. It’s clear that I’m a failure. And we keep a whole locker-full of evidence to support these assertions. Thoughts, memories, and emotions seem to back up our story. We’re reluctant to admit, or may not even realise, that our memories are selective; we edit, delete, and distort our recollections so that our alibis stand up to scrutiny.  

For years, I told a story about the jumper that my mother started knitting me for my eighth birthday present. It wasn’t finished in time, so she gave it to me for Christmas, ten months later. When I finally tried it on, it was too small. Further evidence, as if any more was required, that I was her least favourite, the one who didn’t matter. Recently, it came up in conversation, and we laughed about it. But you remember the other jumper I knitted you, don’t you? The grey one that you loved. I was jolted by the memory, realising that I’d forgotten all about it. It hadn’t fitted with my version of events, my notion of me as the one who got left out.

As a Living Inquiries facilitator, I’ve spent many hours with others closely examining the evidence that seems to back up our beliefs. I don’t belong. I can’t commit. I shouldn’t need. I’ll do it wrong, no matter what. I’m not enlightened. I’m not good enough. I’m insatiably needy. All deeply felt, seemingly utterly real and incontrovertible. We take the locker-full of evidence, which has often been sealed shut for many years, and take out each item, one by one. Words. Images. Sensations. Emotions. Not trying to prove or disprove, rationalise or debate; not trying to negate or deny or shun. Just looking, feeling, being with whatever’s there, in whatever form it comes.

Inevitably, after a while, it starts to become clear that the objects that we’re looking at – sometimes very painful, sometimes funny, often shockingly and wonderfully random – can’t possibly be taken as proof of anything. The identity that we’ve believed in so completely begins to fall apart as the flimsy, insubstantial nature of the evidence is revealed. Half-remembered fragments, vague or vivid images, energy in the body, powerful or subtle emotion – none of it adding up to a coherent whole. We’ve often spent years trying to hide, bury, or run away from the evidence, and yet when we really look, when we examine it forensically, it becomes apparent that it is totally benign. We are guilty of nothing. There’s no charge to answer. Utter innocence.

So, paradoxical as it may seem, it turns out that the presence of evidence isn’t evidence of presence, any more than the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. During the lovingly rigorous inquiry process, we leave no stone unturned. Everything is held up to the light, and recognised for what it is. Inevitably, we come to recognise that what we truly are is way beyond any evidence or belief. And at that point, the struggle ends. 

Sunday, 2 September 2012

On Defending and Resisting

One Sunday in my mid-twenties, I went to a family dinner with my then-boyfriend. His mother, usually a model of English middle class decorum, got unexpectedly drunk. She embarked on an alcohol-fuelled honesty spree, to everyone’s embarrassment. When it came to my turn, she was mercifully brief. “You, Fiona Robertson. You only let people in so far, and then the portcullis comes down.” In vino veritas. I knew that portcullis, that defendedness, only too well, even though I’d never named it before.

Portcullis: a last line of defence during a time of attack or siege...

Two or three years later, the sudden death of a close friend triggered a time of profound change. It was as if that heavy iron grille creaked slowly open, partway at least, and out came grief, shame, rage, fear, and creativity, all repressed since childhood. I finally mourned for the loss of my best friend, a decade earlier; for my father’s absence; for the years that I’d spent battling food and body-image demons. Whilst I realised the catharsis was healing, I also spent a lot of energy trying not to feel the pain. Sex, cigarette smoking, meditation, and a plethora of healing and self-help techniques weren’t quite enough to stem the cathartic tide. Nevertheless, the portcullis remained, particularly when it came to intimacy and relationships. I felt like the princess alone in the tower, the stone walls surrounding me utterly impenetrable.

Defensiveness and resistance have a bad reputation. We read that we’re supposed to be accepting, allowing, open. We think we’re supposed to be able to just let go. And when we can’t, when we’re holding or desperately clinging on, in denial, resisting with all our might, we feel that we’ve failed, and judge ourselves for it. We’re not the spiritual people we’ve aspired to be. We’re even further away from awakening or enlightenment or peace than before. We’re stuck, blocked, self-sabotaging, over-compensating. We seek out ways to overcome or break down those recalcitrant parts of our psyche, trying to batter them into submission. We resist our resistance, and defend against our defensiveness.

What we fail to see – when we’re engaged in trying to get rid of or modify these supposedly unwelcome tendencies – is that they’re there for good reason. At some point in our lives, nearly always when we were very young, we needed to protect or defend ourselves. Wounded at the core, in little bodies and so vulnerable, we came up with ingenious, amazing ways to attempt to keep ourselves safe from further harm. For some, that harm is obvious; beatings, loss, denigration, abuse, neglect. For others, it’s been more subtle, the result of parental anxiety, over-control, or just not being truly seen. Either way, the strategies that we devised so long ago to shield ourselves can’t be given up easily. Back then, it felt like our survival depended on them; no wonder, then, that anxiety, fear, and terror emerge when we come close to the core wound.

In my experience as a Living Inquiries facilitator, I’ve seen over and over how resistance and defensiveness guard the deep pain of the core wound. As we get close, we encounter the portcullis, different in everyone; maybe the mind produces a flurry of thoughts, or sleepiness comes on, or sensations of numbness or rigidity or irritation or hopelessness appear. I can’t do this any more, or I want this to end, or I can’t focus, or I want to hide, or I can’t let go. And we stay with it all. Together, we let the resistance be exactly as it is, just as we let everything be as it is. No judgement. No attempts to move away from or assuage what’s coming. We look at the images of walls and portcullises and black holes and whatever else comes up. We meet that energy of defensiveness, letting it do whatever it needs to do. We notice that the space in which everything arises has no argument with any of it.

What we discover when we really let it all be, exactly as it is right here and now, is that our points of resistance and defence are the keys to the inner sanctum. As the energy of resistance and defence (it was only ever energy, with some thoughts and images attached) is fully felt, it gives way to the precious, vulnerable, tender, delicate core that it was protecting. We encounter the beauty that lies beneath. Tears flow, our hearts melt. Openness, acceptance, and allowing simply happen. We realise our deep and perfect innocence in all this. And in that place, we stumble upon the glorious paradox that there isn’t a self to defend, and there’s nothing to resist.  

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

On Not Finding The Problem

Like many who find themselves on the spiritual search, I spent many years trying to end my supposed suffering in all manner of ways. I attempted to numb the pain with cigarettes, dope smoking, sex, and relationship dramas. I embarked on quests for understanding, believing that counselling, psychotherapy, homeopathy, transpersonal psychology, or dream interpretation might hold the elusive key. I investigated an eclectic mix of healing modalities, from acupuncture and craniosacral therapy to hypnotherapy and nutrition. I ran the whole self-help gamut; I positively affirmed, meditated, journalled, and paid some attention to my chakras. And there’s no doubt all that was a blast – insights came, experiences were had, minor transformations happened.

Then I came upon the teachings of non-duality, and thought I’d hit the jackpot. Tales of sudden awakenings and the end of suffering brought hope at a time of deep despair and anguish. The idea of no self particularly appealed to me. It seemed obvious that my self was the problem, and if I got rid of it, I’d be fine. I read books, watched videos, went to meetings, and longed for the moment of grace, the event that would finally deliver me from the prison of me.

One day, whilst walking my dog, I saw clearly that I’m not the problem. More than that, I realised that there’s never been a problem. Such relief; nothing to change, nowhere to go, no improvements to make. For a few days, I lived from that space. All the movements of life continued; thoughts came and went, emotions happened, bodily sensations arose. The only difference was that I was absolutely clear that none of it was a problem. Gradually, however, my belief in a deficient, suffering self returned, and I struggled to find my way back to that spacious clarity.

Many of us initially relate to Scott Kiloby’s notion of the core deficiency story because we believe ourselves to be deficient. I certainly did. When we’re in that place, it’s nigh on impossible to see past our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. We come up with all the evidence necessary that we are, indeed, what we believe ourselves to be; unloved, uncared for, victimised, not good enough, stupid. It wasn’t until I began to look more closely at my basic assumption – of course there’s a problem, or I wouldn’t feel like this – that I began to see how flimsy the house of deficiency cards actually is.

Recently, I was facilitated by one of my fellow Living Inquiries facilitators to look for The Problem. Unsurprisingly, what emerged was a deep belief that I’m the problem. I sobbed. The wetness of the tears wasn’t the problem. The energy of emotion in my body wasn’t the problem. The words (it’s me) weren’t the problem. The sense of me wasn’t the problem. After an hour, it became obvious; there is no problem anywhere to be found. From that perspective, it was crystal clear that even suffering, pain, and distress are not the problem that we presume them to be. There is nothing wrong with any of it; even the belief that there’s a problem isn’t a problem.

I’ve facilitated many inquiries now, and been facilitated many times too. Whatever we’ve looked for, we’ve never found anything other than thoughts, images, emotions, and sensations. Even though the problem always seems real at the start of the session (I need to lose weight. She’s better than me. I’m unsupported. I’m going to die), its ultimately insubstantial nature is always apparent by the time we finish. Our assumptions are gently revealed by the process, and all the pain that we’ve been avoiding or trying to assuage is brought to light. We cry. We laugh. We experience insights and realisations. At the end of the process, we unerringly come back to the space in which everything arises, everything is known, nothing is judged, and nothing could ever, ever be a problem.  

Sunday, 29 July 2012

On Naming

Last night, at dinner, we talked about our children. One friend described how her toddler, currently in the question phase, incessantly asks, What’s that name? Any sound he hears, anything he sees, evokes the same question. She does her best to give him an answer: It’s a man down the road, doing Bob the Builder, mending his house. He’s language-gathering, discovering the world of concepts. Usually, he’s satisfied with her explanations. Sometimes, he persists: No, mummy – what’s that name? Occasionally, exhausted, she abandons her attempts to describe, and makes something up: That’s Steve.

Our ability to name things gives us a sense of control. Whether it’s external objects - birds, trees, planets, makes of car, other people - or internal objects like feelings, we feel a greater dominion over things that we are able to name. I’ve given it a name, so now I understand it. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, we believe that things are what we call them. What we don’t fully appreciate – until we really look – is that the activity of naming often keeps us one step removed, reinforcing our sense of separateness.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the emotional realm. It seems that talking about our feelings, however articulately, can be another way to resist actually feeling them. In fact, it is a way to solidify and even sanctify what we’re feeling. In our rush to name the feeling – fear, shame, love, guilt, happiness, sadness, anger – we objectify it, and then feel obliged to relate to it as if it’s somehow separate from us. As if it is ours to hold on to, get rid of, or deal with. Subject and object.

To fully immerse ourselves in the raw experience of emotion demands that we give up our conceptualising. All of it. Scott Kiloby’s Living Inquiries are an exceptionally effective way to deconstruct an emotion; by breaking it down into its constituent parts (words, images and sensations in the body), and looking closely at each part, we come to see that it’s not what we’ve assumed it to be. Over and over, we find that our assumptions do not stand up to scrutiny. It turns out that what we’ve believed to be guilt (for example) is a word, plus a couple of arising images, plus a sensation of contraction in the solar plexus. Without the word and the images, the sensation is just that...a physical sensation. It has no inherent meaning. It’s not saying anything. Allowed to just be, without explanation or interpretation or even description, it is fully felt, inevitably dissipating.

This activity of un-naming leaves us in the quiet spaciousness of not-knowing. When we are able to see words without the heavy weight of association, we lighten up. A few months ago, I looked for Fiona using the Unfindable Inquiry, with one of the other facilitators. I was astounded by the feelings of responsibility that came up; I’d believed that I had to make the Fiona project a success. When the things we’ve named prove to be unfindable, over and over again, we find ourselves in the stillness more often, it seems. Nothing to hold onto. No place to land.

A paradoxical delight then emerges. We see that things don’t exist outside of thought, image, sensation, and emotion, and yet we’re even more fully engaged with life. We enjoy talking, describing, and discussing, in the knowledge that our ideas and opinions are not us. We continue to entertain each other with our stories; it’s just that our plot twists and characters and narrative arcs are taken a bit less seriously. We continue to name things. Like the barking of dogs and the meowing of cats, it’s just what we do.  

What’s in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. 

Saturday, 30 June 2012

On Fully Feeling What We're Not

We believe that we are who we think we are. The co-existence of thoughts, images, emotions, and sensations creates a compelling and seemingly incontrovertible experience of me. And if that experience is painful or difficult – which is often the case – we spend a great deal of time and energy attempting to move away from it, in all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

We each wear many labels, and each label has its own tone, its own unique content. Some labels we wear proudly, making sure they’re on public display as often as possible. Others, we shamefully keep hidden, fearing exposure. A few are so repellent, so unbearable, that we relegate them to the shadows, ensuring that even we can’t see them. Our identities are a carefully choreographed dance; protecting and defending, evading and avoiding. Whether we see ourselves as deeply flawed works in progress, or as the perfectly satisfactory finished article, there’s a sense of needing to hold up or maintain the structure. When someone contradicts or challenges or confirms our labels, we react. We’re hurt, angry, offended, pleased, defensive. Conflict arises, and we struggle. And it all feels very real; what we think, imagine, feel, and sense seems to provide all the evidence we need that things are the way they seem to be.

Rarely, then, do we ever take a peek behind the curtain to examine the assumptions that we live by. Instead, we do our best to mitigate the discomfort or suffering we feel, however slight or intense. As if our existence depended on it (which, on one level, it does) we find myriad ways to keep ourselves from fully feeling what lies at the core of each label. We’re all familiar with the more negative forms of self-medication – alcohol, drugs, loveless sex, endless television – but supposedly more positive activities, such as meditation, therapy, sport or spiritual practice can also be used in the same way. Underneath it all, we are terrified that the edifice of me will one day come crashing down, and we do everything in our power to stop that from happening, much as we simultaneously long for it.

However, it is the refusal to be with what seem to be our deepest truths that perpetuates them. As Sandra Maitri says, Paradoxically, at least to the mind, the more we immerse ourselves in our experience, the more we become disidentified with it. When we finally cease analysing, strategising, controlling, avoiding, and defending – even for a short while – we get to discover what the label has been covering up.

Over the last few months, I’ve spent many hours each week facilitating people (and being facilitated) in Scott Kiloby’s Living Inquiries. I’ve seen how, when we start to look into each identity, its true contents are revealed. We’ve opened boxes labelled I’m bad, I’m clever, I’m not good enough, I’m broken, I can’t, I’m a failure, I’m alone, I don't want to be me, and so many more besides, and found that each box contains words (thoughts), pictures (memories and images), sensations in the body, and emotions. We’ve looked carefully at each item, and allowed the sensations and emotions to be there, exactly as they are. Often, we feel emotions that have never been truly felt before; the raw, searing pain of grief, the raging energy of anger, the bittersweet despair of longing. No running, no hiding, no justifying, no mitigating, no making sense of it.

In that open space of looking, it gradually dawns that those collections do not, in fact, make up a solid identity. A few words here, a sequence of images there, some tingling, a little contraction, a flood of tears...and that’s all. There is no-one who is unlovable, or bad, or clever, or alone, or anything else. Ultimately, we can’t find the one that we’ve taken ourselves to be. But it is only by having the courage to open the boxes (even the ones that are surrounded with barbed wire fences, armed guards, and ‘keep out’ signs) that we’re able to discover the deeper truth of who we are. By fully feeling what we’re not, our hearts break open to the freedom beyond. Are you willing to look?

Monday, 18 June 2012

On Finding The One (Twenty Seven Times Over)

Like most of us, I long held the belief that if I found The One, I would live happily ever after. Although I had an early lesson in love disappointment when my parents’ marriage ended bitterly, I remained convinced that if I could somehow avoid making the same mistake, the promise of salvation lay in the arms of a beloved. The trouble was, I couldn’t seem to locate said beloved. A few years into adulthood, after three or four breakups, it began to feel like there was something wrong with me. Why was love eluding me? Why couldn’t I find The One?

In my early thirties, I had my first conscious experience of what Tim Freke calls Big Love. Standing in a Welsh field at a small festival, I met a sweet man. The spark between us was palpable; despite exchanging few words, there was an inexorable pull towards each other. A few weeks later, I described what happened between us:

We knew we needed to spend some time together, that there was some kind of attraction drawing us closer, but we didn’t know what. A day or so later, we did get the chance to spend a few hours together, during which time that not-knowing space was created; looking into each other’s eyes, I felt totally still, knowing that all the pain of the journey has been worth it, to be able to come to a place like that. It was so powerful, so healing, to connect on a soul level to someone whose personality I don’t know. I have no idea how things might be in the future between us; all I do know is that I experienced an incredibly precious few hours in which two people opened their hearts to each other in a way that I haven’t experienced before. Such love, such connection to the Universal, the transpersonal realm.

His recollection was similar. I was completely overwhelmed when I read the card that he sent after two months or so:

Thank you for being you and for sharing with me. You helped so much to make me well again. Now I am renewed. That which passed between us has given me such relief and power that I can now freely give my love to the world.

As it happened, we only met again once, very briefly. Whilst I sporadically yearned for him, I began to understand that it wasn’t actually about him, or me. Somehow, our connection had been a portal to a far deeper love, a love that completely transcends any idea of two separate people loving each other for a reason.

Life continued, and I had a few other, very occasional, glimpses. I entered into relationships, each time aware that I was not experiencing that deep love, but nevertheless drawn to even pale imitations. Eventually, I could no longer tolerate such numbing compromise. I became single once again.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been stumbling across Big Love in unexpected places; it suddenly shows up for no apparent reason, and without an object. Times of intense struggle, pain, and doubt have been interspersed with uncaused joy, wonder, and love. One morning earlier this year, I was sitting on the bus on my way to work, when it became obvious that everything is miraculous. Effortlessly miraculous. I looked down at the thin hairs straggling across the head of the old man sitting on the seat in front and welled up with love for everything and everybody. The idea that love is given and received, and can therefore be taken away, now seems ridiculous. It is no longer about finding The One; it is about the dawning realisation that I am The One.

So I guess when I entered Tim’s Mystery Experience this weekend I was ripe fruit, as it were. Nevertheless, as we began the process, I fleetingly feared that I’d be the one who didn’t get it. As our time together unfolded, and that space of limitless connection was created, it became clear that there is no it to get – because it’s what we all are. Over and over, we sank into the eyes and the arms of the beloved. A beloved with twenty seven different faces, all of them unutterably, breathtakingly, beautifully perfect. Twenty seven facets of being, all gloriously unique, and all of them glittering beyond description. Each connection was love, and each connection was subtly itself. Some playful, expansive, delicious. Some fragile, tender, heartbreaking. Some intense, still, steady. Some a sudden explosion, the instant knowing of all that we have ever been or ever will be.

A few words appeared, remaining unsaid, their meaning silently conveyed. You are the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. All of you, every last thing about you. This is it. This is home. This is all we’ve ever wanted. Bathed in love, we also saw ourselves as we were being seen, we loved ourselves as we were being loved. Our hearts broke open, again and again, and we returned to Big Love. We became what we are. We know that we will never be the same again. Love. It really is the be all and end all.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

On Thinking That We've Arrived (Or Not)

When I was a teenager, I yearned for the independence that being even a year or two older seemed to promise. I wanted to make my own decisions, unimpeded by adult intervention. I vividly remember the desperate desire to leave home, to put away childish things. The lyrics from Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 hit Baker Street seemed to sum it up: Another year and then you’ll be happy. Just one more year and then you’ll be happy. I wanted to be there, not stuck here.

The feeling that there is a destination to be reached, somewhere to get to, permeates our lives. Our societies are deeply aspirational; we’re encouraged to want more, bigger, better. We carry around within us an impossible-to-achieve image of the ideal self, and then we set about trying to create that self. No matter whether our route to this idealised perfection is via slimming products, make-up and haute couture, or affirmations, meditation or yoga, the movement is the same: we’re here, and we want to be there.

In my thirties, I embarked on an intense search for healing. Talk of being on the journey abounded, and I loved that idea. I saw myself as a traveller, making my way courageously through difficult terrain, guided by intuition and the maps that my fellow travellers – those many miles further on - had created. It was very clear; there was a path, and I was on it. At the end of the journey, I’d find the Holy Grail; peace, clarity, wellness, the end of suffering. I’d arrive home, my final destination. Occasionally, I’d have the sense that I’d made it. For a while, I’d feel calm, well, happy. Inevitably, before too long, I’d be off again, searching intently, longing to get there, to not be here with this – whatever this was.  

I felt that I shouldn’t be here in more mundane ways, too, particularly in relationships and social situations. Sometimes, it was possible to get up and leave, but on other occasions I was paralysed, unable to move for fear or doubt. One boyfriend memorably said to me, If you don’t fucking like it, fuck off. Eventually, I did.

Over the years, I began to encounter spiritual concepts. Words like oneness, awakening, and enlightenment entered my vocabulary. Like nearly all spiritual seekers, I frequently fantasised about enlightenment. I imagined states of eternal bliss and transcendence, a complete absence of any kind of pain. Most of all, I imagined awakening as being completely other than this-here-now. It felt like there was distance – sometimes a yawning void – between here and there. There was the place that others talked about in books and videos. There was the Shangri-La I wanted to get to, the end of suffering, the place inhabited by the Lucky Few. But how, exactly, was I supposed to get myself from here to there? I looked for instructions, prescriptions, suggestions, to no avail.

I would constantly monitor my experience for signs that I may be nearing the destination. Ooh, I’m feeling incredibly calm and peaceful. Maybe this is it? Oh my god, I must be so far off if I’m like this, irritated and upset. Like children on a car journey, the seekers’ refrain seems to be, Are we there yet?

One day, whilst walking my dog, I suddenly saw that there is only here. There does not exist. It is only ever a fleeing image, an idea which is happening here, just as everything else does. By conceptualising enlightenment (or happiness, or peace) as a state or place to be reached – by objectifying it – we create a separation that doesn’t actually exist. We place it outside ourselves, creating imaginary distance. We believe we have to find a way to bridge the gap, to get from here to there.

Recently, I looked for the self that shouldn’t be here. Taken through Scott Kiloby’s Unfindable Inquiry by one of my fellow facilitators, I touched on the pain that has been bound up in that life-long story, and sobbed. Sweet release. I saw - yet again - how the story of separation is created by belief. It is not that we’re in the wrong place. It is simply that there is nowhere else to go. We’re here. That’s it. We’ve arrived, whether we know it or not.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

On Believing Ourselves Deficient

For many years, it seemed self-evident that there was something wrong with me. That basic sense – that I was too much or too little, off-centre or not quite right in both definable and indefinable ways – permeated most of my experience. What else could explain the conflict, pain, and discomfort that inevitably arose in my relationships?

After yet another scene – tears, shouting, bewilderment – with my then-boyfriend, I described the pattern:

“When the anger comes at me from someone, from somewhere else, at first I’m there, holding, defending, blocking. Then I crumble, and it starts: I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. It’s all my fault. It would’ve all been alright if I hadn’t done, or said, or been. Very soon, I’m not in myself at all. I’m somewhere else, a small, small girl, trying so, so hard to be good and not be a problem. I apologise for myself and deny myself and lie about myself and betray myself. If you’re right (which you always are, or at least you say you are) then I can be nothing but wrong. And so, some small-ish human mistake, a frailty, some misconceived, insensitive, unthinking act of no particular consequence becomes an enormous wrongdoing, a hideous, heinous crime; suddenly, the whole situation has taken on entirely delusionary proportions because I’m apologising for my existence whilst simultaneously knowing that what’s happened between us is, actually, just a part of being alive.”

Despite the sense that there was something illusionary playing out, such occasions seemed to provide all the evidence required that there was, indeed, something wrong with me. Like many of us, I tried hard to make myself better – therapy, remedies, meditation. New ideas and approaches brought new dawns, followed by the inevitable disappointment that, despite my efforts, I seemed to remain

Our stories of deficiency appear to be absolutely real. Thoughts, emotions, and sensations create compelling experiences, the validity of which seems certain. We believe that there is something wrong with us, because our thoughts and emotions tell us so. And we are always able to back up our claims of inadequacy: Of course I’m a failure. That’s why I didn’t get the job. If I was really okay, I’d be in a long-term relationship by now. We view the situations and people we encounter through the lens of our own story of deficiency, comparing, contrasting, coming up short.

Of course, there may also be times when we believe that we’re better than others. The inner story of deficiency may be so painful that we develop a compensatory persona, projecting the unwanted qualities outwards. I’m the strong one – it’s him that’s weak. If only other people lived like we do, the world would be a better place. It takes effort to keep up the pretence, and we find ourselves easily defensive, shoring up our identities against attack.

Eventually, exhausted, we may find ourselves incapable of continuing to hold the line. We begin to investigate the truth of what we’ve believed for so long, and start to question the basic assumptions that have underpinned our stories of deficiency. That there is a solid, separate me. That there is something wrong with me. That steps need to be taken to improve me. That there is a destination I need to reach, in order for me to be okay.

Through the process of inquiring into what we’ve believed ourselves to be, we discover that we are not who we thought we were. True inquiry allows us to see through the identities and beliefs that we’ve clung to for so long. We realise that what previously seemed solid and fixed is, in fact, a mere chimera. And as we see that the story of deficiency is just that – a story – our hearts inevitably begin to break open.

Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there’s a field
I will meet you there.


Saturday, 28 April 2012

On Looking

It seems to me that there are two kinds of looking. We can look for, and we can look at, into or through.

Looking for something – especially a thing that we perceive to be outside ourselves - can be an exhausting business. Towards the end of 2010, I expressed my deep frustration with the seemingly never-ending search for something better or different, something other than this-here-now:

I want to stop looking!
I want to stop looking!

I want to stop looking for the right remedy or the right supplement.
I want to stop looking for the right doctor or the right therapist.

I want to stop looking for the right medication or the right herb or the right acupuncturist or the right healer.

I want to stop looking for clarity or peace or wellness or good health or enlightenment or awareness or my true nature or my natural state.

I want to stop looking for the right man or the right relationship or the right body weight or the right look or the right job or the right activity or the right achievement.

I want to stop looking for change in my mum or my sisters or my friends or anyone else, even Jack.
I want to stop looking for change in my symptoms or lower blood pressure or more energy or different emotions or no headaches or any other changes in me.

I want to stop looking for being better or being well or being different to how I am now.
I want to stop looking for God or The Underlying Cause To All This or anything else.

I want to stop looking and I want to just be me, Whatever, However, Whenever and Wherever with no apologies or caveats or wishes or hopes or longings or missings, just me, as I am, here and now.


Of course, the idea that anything needs to be changed is just that – an idea. However, when we take our thoughts at face value, they seem to present us with compelling evidence that things do indeed need to change, that we are deficient in some way, that we are incomplete. So off we go, looking for whatever it is that we believe we lack. I need a partner. She should be more helpful. I should lose weight. I’m not awakened and I want to be. I should be a much better version of myself. There are an infinite number of things that we can go looking for; there is no end to the merry-go-round of seeking, unless we look in a different way.

When we begin to inquire into the validity of our beliefs, into the truth – or lack of it – behind our assertions, it is astonishing to realise that what we’ve taken to be factual, objective, hard truth is actually nothing of the sort. Today, I’ve had yet another experience of the freedom that can be found when we put our minds to looking into rather than looking for. Together with four others, I’ve spent the day doing The Work of Byron Katie. One by one, we dismantled our stories. We witnessed each other’s insights and realisations. In examining my story, compassion (as well as laughter) spontaneously arose, and I saw through that particular dream of separation.

The act of inquiring sheds light into previously dark corners, and exposes both the lies that we’ve been believing, and our pay-offs for believing them. If I continue to believe that you’ve caused my pain, I get to keep my identity intact, and I avoid feeling the pain that resides deep within. If I continue to look for what I think I want – as if it were separate from me – I can keep my focus away from the disturbing truth that my story is not true. However terrible our stories seem to be, we also have to admit that they are comforting in their familiarity, and we ferociously defend them when provoked.

As we draw closer to the most painful stories, the ones that form the innermost part of our identities, we frequently experience extreme discomfort, and it is tempting to run. But...there really is nowhere to run to. We may as well stay, and face what Scott Kiloby calls the core wound. For therein lies both our pain and our salvation. When we look deeply, we discover that we are not at all what we’ve taken ourselves to be. We are not deficient in any way. We are not imperfect, and there is nothing that we need to change. Recently, I used Scott’s Unfindable Inquiry to see if I could find the self that wants – the part of me that wants it all to be another way. I discovered that what is most wanted is the end of wanting. And beyond that, I couldn’t find a self that wanted. Peace.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. 

T. S Eliot

Monday, 9 April 2012

On Resting

One morning in early January 1987, I awoke in pain, and by the next day had undergone emergency surgery for a rare ovarian condition. The day after I was operated on, a large retaining wall behind my house collapsed, damaging the garden (such as it was – little more than a small, concrete back yard) and rendering the central heating system useless. After nearly a week in hospital, I returned home to spend the rest of the month convalescing, surrounded by piles of sleeping bags and a portable gas heater.

At the time, I was a community development worker, based in a particularly deprived area of the city. Young and politically motivated, I believed that we were making a difference, that my presence was, in some minor way, changing the world. I was also conscientious, and it was a challenge to be off work for so long. For a while, I was too ill to be concerned about what was happening in my absence. As the month wore on, I began to wonder, and to fret about all I supposed wasn’t getting done, all those meetings that had been scheduled that I hadn’t been able to attend.

When I eventually got back to work, the shocking truth was that everything had carried on perfectly well without me. My absence really hadn’t made much of a difference. My colleagues said they’d missed me, and there was some work to catch up on, but it became very clear that I was dispensable. I’d subtly believed myself to be indispensable, and then life had shown me that this was far from the case. Nothing had fallen apart in my absence, with the exception of the wall, and I could hardly claim credit for that.

Over the next few months, I slowly got better, and the wall and the heating were eventually repaired. For a while, I remembered the lesson – that it is okay to take time off, that life does not require my continuous activity. Since then, however, I’ve fallen into the same trap several times. I’ve believed myself to be indispensable, and not taken a rest even when I needed one. Inevitably, life has intervened, and the break has come anyway, seemingly not of my own choosing.

Culturally, too, it seems that we’ve become more averse to stopping, to resting. Now that we’re constantly connected, our physical absence makes little difference, and it’s even more tempting to just keep on keeping on, wherever we are. What I do is so important that I can’t really take a break. The credo seems to be, I’m busy, therefore I’m important. Even commerce no longer takes time off; at least the old Sunday trading laws – which ruled that all but the smallest shops had to be shut – reminded us that we were supposed to be having a day of rest.

It seems that our identities are so bound up with what we do that we find it unsettling, if not actually frightening, to really stop and rest. We like to believe that there are things out there that need to be done, and that we shouldn’t really down tools until they are done. We believe that things only get done because we exert our will; that it is our pushing or forcing or activity that makes things happen. We are pleased with ourselves when we feel that we have achieved something, been constructive, ticked tasks off our lists. All this activity also distracts us from our deeper feelings, from the intractable questions that inevitably surface during the quieter times. Do I make any difference? Is there any meaning to life? What happens when we die?

A couple of years ago, I began to experiment with doing nothing, for an hour or so at a time. Not meditating, not doing, no agenda (other than no agenda). Just sitting, or lying, and seeing what happened. Sometimes, I’d cry. Sometimes, I’d lie on the floor with my legs against the wall, or I’d move around like young children do, aimlessly and entirely without purpose. At times, I’d be moved to write, or look at old photos, or read a passage from a particular book. My rigid sense of self loosened a little further each time, and I began to see through my belief that not being engaged in purposeful activity meant that I was lazy, or a little mad, or both. Being a grown up came to seem less onerous, less serious.

In the last few days, I’ve felt the need to stop again, after an exhausting time. It’s been tempting to believe the train of thought that says, There is so much to do! You can’t stop yet. You need to sort out the house, and work out how to earn a steady income. And for a while, I was caught up in those thoughts. But a couple of days ago, I remembered that I can stop, and rest, and everything will be fine. So I’ve resolved to do as little as possible for the next week. As long as I feed the three of us – Jack, the fish and me – all will be well. Three days in, and we’re doing fine. 

Friday, 30 March 2012

On Looking for Perfection

Two weeks ago, I moved. My new house requires almost total refurbishment; a new kitchen, a new bathroom, new doors, a new roof on the single storey extension and complete re-decoration. The days have passed in a blur of chaos and dust. Evenings have been spent trying to remember where I put the torch – there’s no light in the bathroom until the electricians come on Monday.

Every wall, window, and floor is also inexplicably dirty. The previous occupants clearly hadn’t spent much time cleaning, and the house was left unoccupied for nine months before I moved in. There is so much to do that at times I’ve been overwhelmed; unable to decide on what to tackle next, I’ve ended up lying on the bed, waiting for the brain-paralysis to pass.

For some months leading up to the move, I’d been congratulating myself on overcoming my perfectionist tendencies. I seemed to have developed a much greater tolerance of mess, and was even enjoying my own untidiness. It felt freeing, creative even, for my clothes, books, and papers to be strewn across the room in no discernible order. By contrast, I deemed my ex-partner’s ascetic, minimalist approach to be rigid, controlling.

When I was very young, a family friend dubbed me Little Miss Prunes and Prisms, a reference to the priggish and primly precise behaviour of one of Dickens’s characters. My natural tendency to perfectionism was compounded by being brought up in the Puritan belief that cleanliness and tidiness are a testament to one’s moral uprightness. Blemishes, dirt, or disorder seemed to be inherently wrong and if I didn’t right that wrong, I was similarly tainted. It was almost as if objects themselves – dirty dishes, untidy piles of clothes, weeds – demanded action from me, and I couldn’t relax until they had been attended to. For years, I was unable to see that the sense of imperfection came from within rather than residing in the outside world; I was projecting my own, internal sense of wrongness onto external objects.

Over the last week, two fitters have installed a shiny white kitchen. For several days, I was consumed with decisions about worktops, shelving, gas hobs, and taps. Once the piles of flat pack cartons started to resemble a kitchen, however, I noticed a familiar train of thought had reappeared. There’s a slight scratch on the side of that cabinet. Darn! They should have been more careful. There’s so much dust on the floor. And so on...the urge for the room to look spotless was in full swing. And I, a temporary slave to perfectionism once more, began to scrub, clean, and tidy to the nth degree. Finally, I realised that the dirty walls and unpacked boxes do not mean anything in themselves, and they do not reflect on me; I was then able to drop the shoulds and oughts, and relax for the evening.

What we perfectionists fail to notice is that everything is already perfect, exactly the way it is. At times, I’ve found that an incredibly difficult notion to accept. How can this be perfect? Look at everything that is wrong, bad, or unfair. There is so much to change, to make better, to improve. We have a subtle belief that if we simply accepted everything is fine just the way it is, chaos would descend, and nothing would ever get done.

One day last year, I saw the perfection implicit in all things, just as I was walking into the supermarket. The shelves laden with unhealthy food, mothers shouting at their kids – all the things that I’m often judgemental about – were seen to be absolutely perfect. I saw the perfection of life, and my own perfection along with it. In that moment, I knew that true perfection is what we are, here and now, in whatever circumstances we’re in. There is nothing that we need to change. Blemishes, dirt, and all.

Monday, 5 March 2012

On Being Unwell

There’s somewhere I planned to go this week, somewhere I really wanted to be today, and it’s not here. I’d made arrangements, sought out train times, booked accommodation. I’d told people that’s what I was doing. I’d even got a little excited; it was going to be the first adventure I've had in a while.

Instead, I’ve spent the last twenty four hours in bed, in pain. A deeply familiar pain, as this is an ailment that goes back many years. A pain that has withstood all my attempts to block it out, to deal with it, to understand it, to render it even a little less painful; it has yielded to nothing.

Whilst the pain is present, there is nothing I can do except to lie. My body and I have no choice but to give over to the symptoms. No reading, no watching TV, very little talking. All everyday movement and activity ceases. Thought continues, of course. With no structure to corral it, my mind ranges free at these times, in and out of day dream and sleep dream. All manner of memories and notions come and go, at random. Pictures, words, fragments of songs.

Emotions, too, ebb and flow. Yesterday, I watched as the familiar companions to pain – shame and a deep sense of failure – came to visit. We so often see illness as some kind of punishment or judgement, however subtle that belief may be. At various points in time, sickness has been seen as the devil’s work; an evil that needs to be cast or beaten out, or a spell that has to be broken. Even now, that view – the modernised, de-devilled version of it – persists. What is this about? What is it in me that is manifesting in this way? Maybe it’s a hormone or vitamin deficiency. Maybe this is about some unacknowledged emotional pain. The more we hook into the plethora of possible solutions, the more we see grounds for believing that we are not okay the way we are. It seems self-evident – surely, if we were okay, then this suffering would not be happening?

For many years, it seemed to me that if I could just hit on the right solution, then the pain would stop. If I could just get it right, whatever it was. The right affirmation, the right painkiller, the right supplement, the right remedy, the right therapy or practitioner, the right belief about myself...all these and more have, at one time or another, held out the promise of redemption. I’ve hoped, and seen those hopes dashed. And when we don’t find the right solution, we end up suffering twice over - once with the illness itself, and twice with the belief that we shouldn’t have it in the first place, that it is down to some weakness or deficiency in ourselves.

This belief shows up in our language, too. Invalid. Disabled. We talk about disease as the other; we fight it, do battle with it, become a victim of it, succumb to it. And when we are unable to overcome it, we see ourselves as having failed, as having some inherent and unfixable flaw.

The whole movement to make ourselves better says, This shouldn’t be happening. I shouldn’t feel this way. We’re accustomed to think of illness as bad, so we view pain and other symptoms as undesirable imposters that we should get rid of as quickly as we can. But what if it is this very belief that creates the real suffering, rather than the pain itself?

Of course, pain is painful – that is its nature. And there is nothing wrong with using whatever means we have at our disposal to attempt to alleviate our pain. But what if we question the belief that it shouldn’t be happening? What if we are able to simply lie in bed, without asking why, without coming up with solutions and fixes? What if we are able to stay with the discomfort and the sensations arising right here and now? That, it seems to me, is a much kinder and more compassionate way to treat ourselves. To give ourselves time and space to be exactly how we are. To allow ourselves the down days, the pain days, the sick days, whenever and wherever we need them. To stop hounding ourselves for not being constantly on the move, constantly valid

It's time for another cup of tea and an hour more in bed. 

Sunday, 26 February 2012

On Having One Regret

A friend of mine once told me that she had only one regret: a few months previously, she’d bought a pair of trousers, but not the matching jacket. I was stunned. Even a little appalled. Was that it? Was there really nothing else in her life that she regretted? Suspicious as to what lay behind her lack of regret, I wasn’t sure whether to put it down to her charmed life, superficiality, or a complete acceptance of life as it was. And I couldn’t believe any one of those possibilities was actually the case.

At the time, I had mounds of regrets. I wished that I’d studied harder and done more at university; I felt as if I’d passed up useful opportunities which might never come my way again. I felt bad about sleeping with as many boyfriends as I had. I would, on occasion, lie awake at night, mulling over each relationship and detailing the reasons why it had been a mistake. I berated myself for smoking, drinking and not being fitter. I found it nigh on impossible to forgive myself for some of my choices, the mundane and insignificant as well as the major and life-changing.  

Being a perfectionist didn’t help. I was bound to fail to live up to the ideal image that I carried around in my head. The messiness of life, the complexity of human interaction, foiled my attempts to Make Life Work in the way that I thought it should. Constantly sensing a gap between what was and what should be, it was difficult to let go of the notion that I’d somehow got it all dreadfully wrong.

It is only when we start to examine our stories more closely that we begin to see the assumptions that underpin our regrets. Regret says I know what should have happened, and it wasn’t that. Regret says I’m in control of life. Regret says I’m responsible for all the choices that I’ve made. Regret believes that it’s up to us how our lives turn out, and so it’s our fault if things aren’t going well. Regret pretends that it knows what’s best; nothing more than fantasy, it is the story of I did wrong and I should have done right.

Slowly, I began to unpick the foundations of the House of Regret. I realised that there was no way I could possibly know what should have happened. That I’m not in control of life. That I don’t know what’s best, and that there is no right or wrong, outside of thought. I stopped believing in the past as some kind of fixed entity, as a place that I’d inhabited and could revisit. The subtle notion that past actions or events could somehow be transmuted by regret ceased to make any sense. I realised that regret keeps the past alive but semi-comatose; it keeps us bound in a dead narrative and prevents us from fully feeling the aliveness of painful emotions. After a while, past memories no longer stirred such uncomfortable emotions; forgiveness gradually came.

Now, I no longer lie awake at night plagued by regrets about boyfriends or things I’ve said or done, not said or not done. Now, I think it was okay that I spent my time at university going to gigs and smoking dope, and I’m even a little impressed that I still managed to churn out some decent essays and get a degree. And when regret does appear, it doesn’t last long, as I’m able to question its very basis. I can watch as the story of me, and what I should or shouldn’t have done, ebbs and flows.

I have held on to one, last, long-standing regret, however. When I was nineteen, I returned home in the holidays to clear out my old room. In two plastic bags were all the letters I’d ever been sent and the diaries that I’d written in every day for seven years, between the ages of eleven and eighteen. My older sister chided me for keeping them, and I put them in the dustbin. I woke up the next morning and went to retrieve them from the bin, already regretting the decision. It was too late. The rubbish had already been collected. It's as if I get to keep the letters and diaries by keeping the regret. And I’m not quite ready to give them up, just yet.

Friday, 17 February 2012

On Saying No

Earlier today, some friends and I went for lunch at the local Indian sweet centre, just a minute’s walk from my house. As we were leaving, we became aware of an altercation taking place on the pavement opposite. A couple of men were arguing; one, with a small, scruffy dog on a lead, was hurling abuse at the other, who was being held back by three of his friends. It didn’t seem as though any punches had yet been thrown, but clearly tensions were running high and threats had been made.

I’ve lived in this diverse neighbourhood for a very long time. It’s extremely rare to see a display of hatred or conflict like that, in broad daylight. My friend’s two younger children were a little disturbed by it; other passers-by had stopped to look and listen, ready to intervene if it turned nasty. Without really thinking, I walked across the road and into the middle of the fight. Now shouting vociferously, the two men were clearly beyond reason, but the sight of a woman in their midst seemed to distract them momentarily. No, let’s stop this now. Break it up. Reluctantly, they began to part, still turning back every few paces to insult each other. The possibility of physical violence gradually ebbed away, and the street’s normal calm returned.

I’ve always been scared by violence. In most instances, I’d rather run than wade in. I guess I made a split-second decision that intervening wouldn’t be dangerous, but beyond that, there was no rationale for my action. I had no idea what or who started the argument, what the rights or wrongs of it were, and I had no interest in finding out. All I knew was that it didn’t seem okay for two grown men to be swearing at each other in the street in the middle of the day. It was an affront to me, the children, the local shopkeepers, and everyone else going about their lives. So even though the situation was none of my business, I said no.

The negative generally has a bad reputation. We’re encouraged to think positively, to say our affirmations, to open up rather than shutting down. We prefer expansion to contraction, light to dark, yang to yin, yes to no. We really struggle to say no. When it comes to no, we find it hard to be honest, because we believe that saying no is somehow unacceptable. We hesitate, feel guilty, make excuses, imagine that we’re being selfish. We worry that other people will stop loving us or become hostile. Even when we’re feeling no in every fibre of our being, we’re still reluctant to say it.

If we look, however, it’s clear that we pay a heavy price for our inability to say no. We get angry, or create notions of fault and blame, in an attempt to make it feel okay. You’ve behaved so badly, that I’m justified in saying no to you now. We act out, or we try to avoid people or situations. We lie. Do you like it? Yeah, it’s great. Just what I’ve been looking for.

More than that, our inability to say no to others means that we aren’t saying yes to ourselves. Every time we’re unable to say a clear, open-hearted no, we compromise ourselves. We can’t say no, and so we stay in jobs and relationships that aren’t right for us, we spend time with people who we don’t really connect with, and we get involved in activities that don’t fulfil us, even if they please someone else. We may even put up with behaviour that demeans us. Every time we say yes when we mean no, our relationships are damaged; resentment lingers, and we begin to lose our integrity.

Many years ago, a close relation came to stay. One afternoon during her visit, she launched into one of her scathing and very personal attacks. I retreated into my normal stance – this was by no means the first such drubbing – and became passive and mollifying as her stinging criticisms continued. The next day, once she’d gone, I suddenly began to cry, and from deep within came a huge and powerful NO! No, you are not going to do that to me again. No, I will not stand for it again. For the first time in my life, I’d discovered my no. I never discussed it with her, but I know that, in that moment, something changed. From then on, she was unfailingly lovely to me.

And in saying no to her, I said yes to myself. Finally, I’d been able to be my own protector. No can be a guardian, a necessary boundary. If we haven’t found our no, then our yes is meaningless. By fully connecting with the power of no, we get to live the much greater yes. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

On Creativity

The kindly Miss Taconis was absent. In her place came Mrs Rogers, who we had never seen before. After morning break, she set us a task: to draw a picture of our families. Happily, I set to. My brother, my sisters, some flowers, our house, four windows, the grass in the garden and the bright blue sky, in its rightful place at the top of the page.

Mrs Rogers moved around the classroom as the children of Summerbee Infants quietly drew and coloured. Colouring was one of my favourite activities. I was so good at keeping in the lines. That, and mixing up powder paints to create shades that I didn’t even know the names of. The pleasure was in sitting with my brush and the eight-compartment plastic palettes, mixing and remixing, getting the consistency and colours just right. There was never a thought about how to paint, what marks to make; the picture always seemed to take care of itself.

Until, that is, Mrs Rogers appeared unexpectedly behind me. Silly girl, she said. The sky comes down to the ground. There isn’t a big white gap, is there? Shock bolted through me as she dragged her long fingernail across the paper in front of me, where the green of the lawn met the empty page. A shy, scared seven year old (a few months beforehand, I’d heard the story of Chicken Licken and been worried that the sky would indeed fall in), I was speechless. Devastated, in fact. I’d had absolutely no idea that it was possible to get a picture wrong. Of course, I knew that spellings had to be correct, and that there were right answers to sums and questions about capitals, but nobody had introduced me to the idea that pictures could be incorrect.

I sat at the table, silent. The other children still drawing, a gentle murmur of chat. I felt hurt, unfairly criticised, assailed. I picked up the blue crayon and sullenly coloured in the white space between land and sky. I looked out of the classroom window to see if the sky really did come down that far. Nobody had ever told me that my pictures were supposed to accurately represent the world; they had always been an entirely inner affair. Now, it seemed, the world could encroach on that, too. No part of me, including my imagination - my refuge - was safe from attack.

From that day on, I was reticent about drawing. The unselfconscious joy that I’d found in colouring, mixing and creating ceased to be. A couple of similar incidents in later school years compounded my reluctance. I convinced myself that I wasn’t artistic. Musical, yes; a writer, certainly, but clearly no good at art. The teachers had told me so, so it must be the case.

So did the wrath of Mrs Rogers bring a premature end to a nascent artist, or was I never destined to be one anyway? According to archetypal psychologist James Hillman, we are born with the seed of our soul’s unique creative potential fully formed within us. Whilst environmental influences may affect the extent and timing of the seed’s blossoming, they do not determine the nature of the seed. An acorn will always become an oak tree, however much it may wish to be a sycamore. Perhaps, if the calling to be an artist had been strong within me, I’d have overcome this hurdle. Perhaps it would have been the grit in my oyster, an obstacle inspiring me to greater artistic achievement.

Creativity, of course, is the nature of being. Life constantly creates itself anew, and so we cannot help but create, even in the simplest of ways. Another batch of biscuits, a new set of shelves; the physical manifestation of our ideas is a daily occurrence. We often don’t regard those ordinary, mundane acts of creation as creativity. That word is generally saved for endeavours that we regard as rarefied, special in some way, and often reserved for others who we deem to possess qualities that we don’t have. We may have the urge to write, or sing, or paint, but are held back by the voice that says, You’re no good at that. If you were, you’d be successful at it by now. As adults, we may feel foolish, clumsy or even slightly shamed when we attempt to express our creative selves in a new way, or in any way at all. We’ve forgotten how to play. How to just let something be, without interpretation, critique or forensic examination.

So, if we are to be our true creative selves, three components need to be in place. Firstly, that innate urge. We’ve all had experiences of it; an idea or calling just arrives. Sometimes, it shows up as a compelling interest or fascination. We may like to believe that we think up our thoughts, but we’re all aware that they just come to us. We can’t really claim responsibility for the interesting, creative thoughts any more than we can the less desirable ones. Secondly, some skill or talent is often required if the urge is to be made manifest. A musical inspiration comes to naught without the ability to write or play music. Often, we just need to begin. A few lessons in, with brush or keyboard or hammer and chisel, and we’ll start to see how. To quote Goethe, Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. And boldness, it seems, keeps the dissenting voices at bay. Thirdly, we need courage. It can feel risky to express ourselves, and it is tempting to take cover in non action, to pick up the television remote for yet another night. It takes bravery to make our uniqueness visible, to say to the world, This is me. To stand up to Mrs Rogers, and say, This is my sky, and I'm going to put it where I want to. It's time to get out the crayons. There is colouring to be done. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

On Falling Apart (Part Two)

For several years, the incessant unravelling of me and my life continued. Once burst, the dam poured forth all that had been held back by the psyche's defences. Behind those walls lay all that I had previously tried to bury; whatever had been contrary to my image of myself was now exposed, and so much shame along with it. 

The simple truth is that whatever we relegate to the shadows is bound to reappear. We like to believe that we can have up without down, easy without difficult, happy without sad, harmony without conflict. And when our story is working well, we have no reason to question our one-sided view of reality. I'd thought that I was successful, healthy, capable, strong, tough...I discovered failure, illness, incapacity, weakness, fragility. I felt defeated, pathetic, spineless, stupid and broken. I was humbled, truly humbled.

Of course, I cursed and resisted; as the dismantling continued, I ranted, raved and pouted. This great undoing was all that I'd dreaded, as well as my heart's deepest wish. I found - like many others before me - that even when I tried to cling to the remnants of my previous existence, I failed. My old life simply ceased to be. My job disappeared when the government funding dried up. My attempts at private practice were thwarted by continuing illness. Even my new relationship eventually foundered. 

But if we're really honest with ourselves, we can admit that even when life is going well, it takes a huge effort to maintain our self image. The story of me requires constant upkeep; over and over again, we need to prove to ourselves and the world that we are the way we believe ourselves to be. There was a sweet relief in no longer having any control, least of all over myself. In fact, I found the very notion of control increasingly ridiculous - and I'd been a card-carrying control freak. 

My opinions, too, began to soften. I became aware of how rigid I was, how fixed and intransigent my views. As the construct formerly known as me continued falling apart, I no longer had to cling to my  positions (on everything from diet and education to spirituality, medicine and music) for a sense of self. Earnest and serious from girlhood, I began to get fleeting glimpses of someone much lighter, funnier, sillier. I realised that there was nothing to attack and nothing to defend. 

It seems that there is a time for falling apart, just as there is a season for all things. What had been in perpetual motion had to stop. The structure that had been built  had to be razed to the ground. And amidst the panic, rage and sadness, I came back to myself. I was terrified that I'd been lost, buried forever beneath the person I'd created in order to be in the world. Now, I was coming home. 

Thursday, 26 January 2012

On Falling Apart (Part One)

Five years ago, I finally seemed to have the life that I'd wanted, the life that had been so elusive for such a long time. No longer carrying around the familiar feeling that I'd not quite made it, not quite lived up to my early promise, I had become the person I wanted to be. I'd created a wonderful job for myself as co-director of an award-winning holistic health project. I'd done up my terraced house. My son was thriving. I'd even met a professional man with a serious and important job title; a radical change from my previous boyfriends, mostly creative Bohemian types with intermittent incomes and dubious habits.  

I felt sorted on other levels, too. All those years of self-development - therapy, homeopathy, healing, transpersonal psychology and the like - seemed to have paid off. My childhood pain far behind me, I was no longer the one that didn't fit in, the ugly duckling, the waif. I was looking good, into the bargain - fit and slim. Perhaps a little too slim. 

And yet, in quiet moments, I had a palpable feeling that none of this was really The Point. An indefinable something seemed to be pulling me down and back. Despite its insistence, I ignored it. Now was not the time. I had too much to do - a new lover to keep up with, a project to manage, funding bids to write, a fitness schedule to maintain. A brittleness crept into me; I became controlling, harsher, more convinced of my rightness. It'd taken so many years and so much effort to reach this destination, I wasn't about to let it all go now. 

Then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, I crashed. I hit the wall at a hundred miles an hour, and it all began to fall apart. The structure that I'd tried so hard to hold together began to crumble. I'd known it was coming; despite my protestations, I'd danced with it, courted it. My house had been built on sand, and was no match for the storm. 

The first few months passed in a blur of tears, sleepless nights, anxiety, dreams, terror. I veered from desperately trying to find some relief (from doctors, therapists, healers and friends) to trusting deeply and surrendering willingly. All that I'd ever evaded, avoided, or distracted myself from came visiting. Nearly every day, a fragment of the past, both deeply familiar and shockingly raw, came into consciousness, unbidden. Shame, anger, fear, sadness, anguish, grief, humiliation, hatred, love, yearning...the pain of a lifetime was laid bare, and me along with it. Much as I tried, there was no longer anything to hold onto, and I was adrift. 

Agonising though it was, I was always clear on two counts. One, that I was hugely fortunate to understand - albeit dimly - that this was the bonfire of my vanities, the dissolving or burning up of all that was untrue. Two, that the only way out was through, and that I had to face it all head on, even if I did feel like I'd die in the process. 

Every once in a while, when I'd descended more deeply than ever, I'd meet the divine in some guise or another. One afternoon, it became clear that around the age of six, I'd begun to believe that I was not beautiful. I felt the searing pain of that little girl, convinced of her ugliness. As I sobbed, the truth of my absolute beauty was revealed to me. Suddenly, I looked up through my tears and beauty was all I could see. Beauty was everything and everywhere, from the cigarette ends on the pavement and the neighbour's broken fence to the trees on the Forest and the clouds scudding by. 

When a trusted and wise friend told me to read the books of A. H. Almaas, I did so right away. Slowly, my experience started to make some sense. This was about the falling apart of the false persona, the 'me' that I'd become in order to survive as a child. This was about the end of struggling, the end of effort, the end of becoming. Finally, I could begin to let go...

The way to the light is through the dark
Remember what has been scattered, scorned or neglected
Grieve for what has been lost, hurt or stolen
Atone for the times when you've been less than yourself.

In the meantime:
Drum, dance, write, play music, make art
And tell it like it is.  

Thursday, 19 January 2012

On Not Being Clever

I was a clever child. Recently, my mother recalled how a teacher once said that I showed 'flashes of brilliance'. I loved to be top of the class; I revelled in winning the weekly spelling contest, and aimed to get the best grades in every exam. 

By the time I reached the sixth form, I was less concerned about the marks I was getting, and more concerned with being cool. Being clever, though, was still a major part of my identity. As one of six children, in what was referred to in the 1970s as a broken home, I often struggled to get adult attention. I loved the fact that being intelligent won me praise and acknowledgement from nearly everyone. 

During my 20s, I was a community worker, involved in politics and feminism. Debating issues, being knowledgeable about what was going on in the world, and having the right views were all-important. I read the right books, watched the right films, listened to the right music. There were two sides, and my friends and I were very clearly on the right side.

As many people do, over the years I slowly moved from trying to change the world (in a decade, I didn't seem to have made much of a difference, and Margaret Thatcher was still in power) to changing myself. I started to work with a variety of therapists, and learnt all kinds of models and theories which purported to explain why I was the way I was. Maybe it was to do with insecure attachment. Clearly, according to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, mine had not been sufficiently met. Perhaps if I just had a dose of Natrum Muriaticum or Staphysagria, all would be well. If I could just figure it out, find the answer, then I'd be okay, and my life would begin to work. life sometimes seemed to work. More often, though, I still had the nagging sense that there was a crucial piece of information missing. I carried on searching, in the firm (and unconscious) belief that my life's ills could be solved by finding the right knowledge. For God's sake, I'm surely clever enough to work this out! I battered my brain exploring all the possible options, but seemed to come up empty-handed every time. 

This quest led me, inevitably, to non-duality. I began to inquire, to trust, to read and listen. For a while, I didn't really question my assumption that it was just about finding that missing piece of the information jigsaw. Then, one day, I suddenly realised that it wasn't about knowledge. I didn't need to be clever. What a supreme relief! 

There was no longer any need for me to prove my intelligence, to make sure that I was getting the right fact intake every day. I didn't have to understand quantum physics or mathematics. I didn't have to know what was going on in Mexico or Turkmenistan, or even the bottom of the garden. I didn't have to know the Prime Minister's name or the price of shares or who won this year's Booker prize. I didn't need to know people's names or job titles or ages or places of birth. I didn't have to know why I do the things I do or why sometimes I suffer.

So, the clever girl let go of the need to know, and is now (mostly) comfortable in the open space of not-knowing:

"Once the whole is divided, the parts need names
There are already enough names
One must know when to stop
Knowing when to stop averts trouble
Tao in the world is like the river flowing home to the sea."

Tao Te Ching Verse 32