Thursday, 17 April 2014

Neutrality - the Unsung Superpower

It is human nature to get angry. We find ourselves filling with frustration and before we know it the sparks are flying. A little irritation can easily become a conflagration, but we have more power than we think to keep the fire from starting. How? By cultivating neutrality.

Neutrality, as I'm describing it, is the decision to take a mental step to one side and just observe what's happening. It's akin to taking the car out of gear and putting it into neutral while taking a split second to decide what action to take.

I remember well the first time I was able to do this consciously. I was scrutinising the contents of the refrigerator when my son, who was about two-years-old at the time, toddled up to me in tears of frustration. My normal response in this situation was to get as frustrated (and then angry) as he was because I felt unable to decipher what he needed or wanted. It was an all-too typical scenario: frustrated/tired/angry child mirrored by a frustrated/tired/angry mom.

But this time, for no particular reason, something was different. I looked down at my boy and knew that I could either be irritated by his neediness or compassionate. I knelt down on the floor so that we were eye to eye and opened my arms to him. He fell in, sobbing. I was soon in tears myself as I realised how easily I could have gotten angry with him for “interrupting” my task of figuring out what to have for dinner. We had a cuddle until we both felt better and then he went off to play while I prepared to cook.

Experiencing the power of staying neutral was thrilling – like discovering a super power I didn't know I had.  It was a seismic shift from my normal reactiveness, and from that day forward I began to connect more and more regularly with this “neutral space."  I often feel as if I'm “standing beside myself” observing the action and waiting to see what will happen. I can't always do it, particularly if I'm in a foul mood myself, but, like exercising a muscle, the ability gets stronger with repetition.

My son is now 11, and when he is angry or frustrated and directing it at me (especially while doing his homework!) I am usually able to hold my centre and let him feel what he's feeling until it passes. No fighting; no retaliation. Even if it means taking a few insults on the chin, he always apologises once he comes back to his senses, and our bond is stronger than ever.

The next time you feel the heat rising in you, try taking a moment to let it wash over you while holding your centre. It may help to imagine you are like sea kelp anchored to the ocean floor: emotions are waves; the waves gently sway you but do not have the strength to uproot you.  If you can do it even once, the vicious cycle of anger/reaction can be broken.  It may not beat flying, but it's a pretty cool superpower to cultivate.  

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Patience: An Inconvenient Virtue

January is brutal.  The only reminders of the jollity of Christmas are half a stale fruit cake and the orange cream chocolates that no one likes.  The hours of daylight (never mind actual sun) are without the benefit of fairy lights to brighten things up.   Our bank accounts are running on fumes.  Our tolerance for family has worn paper thin.  And the new season of Homeland doesn’t start until September!   It’s no wonder so many people get depressed this time of year.  Even I, with my normally buoyant disposition, start feeling a bit blue and bored.

And so it was that I found myself robotically skimming a newspaper the other day when a story about international food policy grabbed my attention.  (Not normally a scintillating topic, but hey, this is January.)  I actually read the entire piece.  What I took away from it was not the call for greater animal welfare or a move toward more sustainable farming.  No.  What I took away was a reminder to be patient.  Particularly this time of year.

Did you realize that an association between tobacco and cancer was discovered 200 years ago, yet the US Surgeon General only identified smoking as a public health issue in 1964?  And that the suffrage movement was active for 75 years before women got the right to vote in America? 

The trouble is we’ve got a collective case of ADD.  We don’t want to be patient.  In fact we’d like to see patience struck off the list of virtues!  We want instant access and overnight success.  We want movies on demand (my son nearly had a heart attack when we boarded a trans-Atlantic flight after Christmas and discovered there was NO in-seat entertainment), lightning-quick broadband in our homes, and short lines at the grocery store. We want instant messaging (does anyone actually use voice mail any more?) and 24-hour shopping.  We want our politicians to get things done NOW regardless of who or what they must ride roughshod over, and for goodness sake can we please have a fast forward button for January and February?!

Nope.  We can not.  And thank God.  For the gift of these dreary winter months is that they remind us that a period of quiet and dark and contraction is akin to drawing back the bow before you shoot an arrow -  it is essential if you want the arrow to fly.  (As Joan Chittister said, "Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.")  No matter how strong the will or how much we stamp our feet we can’t speed the pace of the earth 'round the sun any more than we can look at a flower and shout, “Bloom!”  So why not just go with it?  By allowing ourselves to slow down, re-group and yes, get bored, we pave the way for greater vitality, more creativity and renewed focus and energy for the things we decide are really, really important.  Like international food policy, for example.

January is nearly over, but we must face at least four more dreary weeks before we sense a shift in the seasons.  Wallow in it.  Daydream.  Eat comfort food.  Or fast.  Take more baths and less showers.  Learn to knit or play the guitar.  Enjoy wrapping up in your winter coat, because you know what?  Spring will arrive.  It always does.  Be patient.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Devil Didn't Make Me Do It

The other day my son begged me to have the banisters in our house made taller because he’s afraid he's going to hurl himself into the void one day.  I chuckled at his request, and at the memory of some of my own “dark side” thoughts, for I too have entertained elaborate and violent fantasies over the years, including the urge to turn into oncoming traffic, ski off a cliff and, yes, jump from a great height.

Weird?  Moi?  Actually, no.  A quick survey of friends (and Google) confirmed that this is completely normal.  (Which is what I assured my son.)  But what surprised me it is that it is also still “normal” to blame the biggest baddie of them all – Satan – for anything dark and shady that creeps into one's mind.  Yes, the belief that “the Devil made me do it” is still very much alive and well.   And it isn’t just the religious or superstitious that condemn the shadowy thoughts we humans are prone to; there are many well meaning “positive thinkers” out there who would also like to get rid of all negativity, thoughts included.

Why, when nature so clearly models a perfect balance of light/dark, growth/decline, activity/rest, are we humans still trying to step outside the natural order of things?  Getting rid of or suppressing half of our natural thoughts and emotions is as silly as trying to keep clouds out of the sky…and just as impossible.  A wise person recognizes that perfection, therefore, is the inclusion of EVERYTHING, not the omission of the parts we deem “negative.”

Let me use another example from nature.  Additive Color Theory tells us that black is the absence of color - for where there is no light, everything in black.  White, on the other hand, is pure light – a combination of all colors of the spectrum.  You can’t see the colors in pure sunlight until that light is refracted either through water droplets or a prism, making a rainbow.  Now imagine your soul as pure light being refracted through the prism of being human, and it starts to make sense.  Our many moods, emotions and thoughts, good and bad, are part of the intense and beautiful human rainbow.

Back to the fear of throwing oneself off of high places.  It turns out this urge, or High Place Phenomenon (or HPP) to be exact, is neither the devil nor, as Freud believed, an unconscious death wish.  The current thinking is that, “Individuals who report experiencing the phenomenon are not necessarily suicidal (or weird or crazy); rather, the experience of HPP may reflect their sensitivity to internal cues and actually affirm their will to live.” (Journal of Affective Disorders, Nov 2011, Jennifer L. Hames, Jessica D. Ribeiro, April R. Smith, Thomas E. Joiner)

What an intriguing bit of reverse psychology.  And if it’s true in this instance, I wonder what other “negative” impulses are misunderstood?   Rather than fearing or condemning your dark side, try observing it, dispassionately, knowing that it can't be controlled anymore than the clouds can.  “Give evil nothing to oppose,” says the Tao Te Ching, “and it will disappear by itself.”  In my experience, the same is true of dark thoughts.   

Rainbows?  Or black and white?   I know what I prefer.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

My Gypsy Shadow

The gypsy woman is there every Saturday at the gates to the farmer’s market, one hand on her belly, the other holding her magazines.  “Big Issue?” she asks, as I walk briskly past.  “No thanks.”  I mumble, hurrying from her – uncomfortable.  Week after week, her pregnancy is growing. (It must be great for business, I tell myself.)  Most people smile politely even if they do not buy her magazine.  But not me - I feel mean in her presence.

 My feelings confuse me.  I am not a ‘hard’ person; I usually feel compassion for someone begging for a living, and often buy copies of the Big Issue from more dubious sellers than her.  And on principle, I always give money to buskers. (If they are bold enough to perform in public, then I reckon I owe them a pound.)

 The gypsy woman’s boldness is something altogether different.  She is young, with colourful shirts and rough shawl, sad, pleading black eyes and wild hair – a caricature of what a gypsy should look like.  (Such an actress, I think.)  But I am buying neither the magazine nor the “helpless me” act.  This girl is clever.  How dare she capitalise on the moral sophistication of the good people of SW London doing their part for local, sustainable agriculture!  This blend of middle class families, urban hippies and conscientious foodies can hardly justify paying £2 for an organic almond croissant but not have some spare change for a magazine, can they?

 What is wrong with me?  Why do I hate this woman?

 The irony is, as a counsellor by profession and a “wisdom seeker” by nature, my “thing” is the pursuit of understanding of the human shadow.  I adhere to the philosophy that any strong reaction to another person – good or bad – it is merely a cast-off, unloved or denied part of me being reflected in the mirror of “other” and demanding some attention.  The magic of this type of self-reflection (pardon the pun) is that it encourages love for the whole self, ‘warts and all.’  But clearly I do not love my inner gypsy…yet.

 So what are the qualities in her that I am rejecting in myself?

 I decide she is as foreign as the parrots that have taken over Richmond Park and equally as exotic and unnatural - their bright green feathers and deafening squawks make it impossible for them to blend in.   And what about me?  I am foreign all right - wilfully maintaining my American accent and cultural roots…but exotic and unnatural?  Depends on who you ask, I suppose, but I don’t feel a strong response to this idea so it must not be the root of my distaste.

 What else?  Well she might as well be holding a sign that says, “I am a helpless victim!”  But me? Internally I am screaming,  “NO WAY…I am NOT a helpless victim!”  My emotional reaction means I’m on to something.  I keep pulling at this thread and decide that, in this context, a “helpless victim” is someone who feels powerless over the circumstances of their life; someone who feels they have no choices.  I acknowledge how much I HATE that mentality when I encounter it.  Bingo.

 I focus on the “helpless victim” part of me.   This is not a pleasant task.  I realise that although I am not at the mercy of strangers, I am not in charge of my financial life either - my dependence is altogether more stealth.  The truth is, I have nothing of my own that I have earned with my own labour since I first came to London 14 years ago.  In fact, I am beholden to my ex-husband for my entire livelihood.  I may even sell my home because I can’t imagine finding a way to pay the mortgage on my own.  What’s more, I have passively accepted that I am “trapped” in the UK because I cannot take my son away from his father.  This is uncomfortable to admit, but yes, part of me is indeed a “helpless victim.”

 It’s interesting that this is being brought to my attention now, as lately I have taken steps to become more proactively self-sufficient.  So, it seems, has the gypsy woman – she may be wily for posting herself in front of a farmer’s market, but she is also smart to do so. And she’s not doing ‘nothing,’ she’s selling magazines – an appropriate choice for a pregnant foreigner with few job prospects and presumably no wealthy husband like I had.   She’s not just a helpless victim after all, but also a resourceful survivor.  And so am I.

 My hateful feelings begin to ebb as another piece of the intricate self-puzzle slots into place.  Next week I will buy a croissant… and perhaps a magazine as well.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Fruitful Metaphor

Yesterday, as I lay in savasana at the end of a yoga class, it dawned on me that yoga is an apt metaphor for life.   Through yoga practise I explore the outer edges of my strength, flexibility and stamina.  I learn to flow rather than fight.  I learn that it is counterproductive to be in competition with anyone but myself.  I learn that there are appropriate times to be active, to work hard, to use my muscle; and times to surrender, to give in to gravity and to rest.  I learn that some days I have more to give than others.  And it’s all good.

I am certainly not the first to make this connection, and perhaps that is why yoga is so wildly popular.  But it got me thinking further that almost ANYTHING can become a metaphor for the human experience. 

This is a fractal world, where patterns repeat endlessly from the microscopic to the galactic.  Ever looked at a soap bubble and wondered at its resemblance to our own planet as seen from space?  (“As above; so below,” noted Hermes.)  We live in a hall of mirrors where everything is a reflection of something else and, ultimately, reflects the seer herself.

Take fruit, for instance.

If you thought there was a chasm separating the life of man from that of an apple, you’d be wrong.  First of all, an apple tree needs just the right amount of sun, water and nutrients, hot and cold seasons, cross pollination and judicious pruning to produce the best quality apples – sort of like families.  And like people, there are many varieties:  big and sweet; small and tart; crisp and soft, red, green, or a combination of colors; organic or “conventional” (a term that always makes me snort…shouldn’t organic be considered “conventional?”) and, of course, some that are beautiful, some that are misshapen, and even some that have worms. 

The metaphor continues once an apple has been plucked (or fallen) from the tree.  Like leaving home, there are many paths for an apple roll down.  Some don’t fall far from the branch and become fertiliser or food for the birds and bugs.  Some have more exotic destinations, like a perfect “Pink Lady” inhabiting a fancy gift basket.  While some, like the average “Granny Smith,” might get sliced up for a lunch box or made into pie.  And, over time, no matter how delicately handled, even the celebrated “Honey Crisp” will start to shrivel, wrinkle and, well, you know.

William Blake urged mankind:
”To see a world in a grain of sand,
and a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”

I urge you to see your life reflected in that "Golden Delicious" you are about to bite into: A fruitful metaphor indeed.  

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Happiness is...?

Having, as I do, a ‘ready, fire, aim’ personality, I unwisely offered to review a book for this blog without reading it first. Natalie Fee’s ‘The Everyday Alchemist’s Happiness Handbook’ is written in short, sharp little chapters (a bit like this blog...oh dear) and is liberally peppered with the irritating English word ‘whilst’ (I recoil at that word) whilst (see!) offering tips and techniques for cultivating more happiness.  But a deal’s a deal, and as I read her book and pondered what I’d like to say, I was inspired to deepen my own understanding and experience of this much heralded pinnacle of pursuit:  happiness.

The quirk of living in a duality, as we do, is that we can’t have one thing without also inviting its opposite any more than we can separate the poles of a magnet.  (Positive and negative are inherently inseparable.)  Dr. Demartini, a favourite philosopher and teacher of mine says that, “We attract the opposite of what we seek as a way of breaking our addiction to the thing we seek.”  A bit of a tongue twister, that, but in a nutshell he means that making happiness a goal will only invite unhappiness.

Can this be true?  And if so, what’s the alternative? 

I believe we have an inner duality that matches the outer one.  Thus there are two possible ways to experience life.  The first is from the “I” or ego perspective.  This “lower” part of us thrives on drama and the roller coaster of emotions.  It is the part of us where our personality resides, which is a rather fixed and habitual animal containing our basic traits such as optimist or pessimist, light-hearted or serious.  (Just try challenging someone’s pessimism and you’ll discover that ‘for them who believe, no proof is necessary; and for them who don’t, no proof is possible.’) The second, and perhaps more elevated way to move through life is from the “I am” perspective.  Accessing this “higher” part of ourselves allows us to experience life from a slightly detached, observer position.  From here we do not get swept into the dramas of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or the distortion of our personality, but rather accept everything we encounter and feel as part of a complex whole.  This ‘meta-position’ is, in my view, a much worthier goal than mere happiness.

In ‘The Seekers Guide’ Elizabeth Lesser says, “We have such romantic expectations of “happily ever after” that we miss joy when she comes calling.  Joy is actually a more complex emotion than sorrow.  I hesitate to talk about it for fear that I will betray its complexities and make others feel as though they are missing the party.  A joyful soul often lives in a state of what I call enchanted melancholy.  This kind of happiness contains within it many shades of feelings:  joy and grief, passion and sobriety, love and longing, innocence and wisdom.  It holds the paradoxical nature of existence in a warm and wide embrace.  More than anything, it is a sense of wonder.”  (1999, p 230)

Turns out, by the time I got to the last section of Natalie Fee’s book I discovered that this was what she was getting at all along, (making our differences are more stylistic than anything else.)  And although I can’t say her book was exactly my cup of tea, it did open the door to a deeper exploration of happiness and may lead you to do the same.

A sense of wonder is the new happiness.  Now that’s a goal worth having.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Let's Get Naked

Recently I attended a “Naked Voice” retreat in beautiful south Wales.  Despite the provocative title, it was a fully clothed event.  

The Naked Voice practice, as created by Chloe Goodchild, is not about being a ‘good’ singer.  Its purpose is to move you from a grounding of deep, non-judgemental listening, to using the voice – spoken or sung – as the mouthpiece of the authentic self.  In Chloe's words:
 “The Naked Voice is your original voice, fully-embodied, naturally-expressed, and free of self-consciousness. It is your authentic sound, as unique as your DNA or fingerprint...This program provides the vibrational building blocks to allow your true voice to come forth and be heard, perhaps for the first time since infancy...Uncovering your naked voice is about overcoming fear, awakening compassion, instilling peace of mind, and ultimately accessing who you truly are.” 

I can sum up my experience in three words:  Terrifying, liberating, transformational.  If it this sounds like your cup of tea then definitely check it out for yourself (click here.)   But as challenged and changed as I indeed was, what really grabbed me was the concept of “psychological nudity,” for it begs the question, what causes us to “cover up” our authentic selves in the first place?

Well one thing led to another, as it does, until I found myself in the Garden of Eden.  We all know the tale of the innocent and quite nude couple named Adam and Eve - the first man and woman that God created.  They lived in naked bliss until Eve was tempted by the Devil to break the rules and taste the apple from the Tree of Knowledge (a.k.a. forbidden fruit.)  The punishment for doing so was severe:  They were kicked out of the garden and made to wear fig leaves. 

Of course one can take this story literally (excellent for condemning all women for their connection to the “original sin”), but I think its true power is revealed when considered thus:  Adam and Eve were not actual people, but metaphorical representatives of our unfettered, unadulterated nature – the perfect balance of yin (Eve) and yang (Adam).  And perhaps being “in paradise” is akin to being like children, uncomplicated by “knowledge,” and who view the world through fresh, innocent eyes. 

Just watch a toddler.  They express themselves fluidly and without self-consciousness – from joy to rage and everything in between.  Singing is not a problem for them, and they will happily run around in the buff because it feels so nice.  But then, inevitably, mom and dad tell them they must put their clothes on (and for God’s sake, don’t touch yourself “there!”) because it’s indecent.  They must not be too noisy (bad), too quiet (weird), too happy (unrealistic), too sad (indulgent), too angry (embarrassing) or too honest (ungrateful).  In other words, they learn to tame their natural impulses and feel SHAME, which, in my estimation, is just another form of fig leaf.  And that, my friends, is what getting expelled from paradise is all about.

For many of us, much of our adult life is devoted to getting back to the garden - to reclaim what was lost and reunite our inner Adam and Eve. Thankfully, there are many, many different maps for the journey - the Naked Voice is just one.  

Maybe this story is just the encouragement you need to begin stripping off?  I dare you.  And trust me, you need only feel the sun on your bare skin (or sing your name to a large group of strangers!) to know, instinctively, that being naked is what life is all about.