Thursday 27 May 2010

The Seasons of the Soul

They talk about the dark night of the soul as a time of trial, of clarification, and of moving through to a new level of being. When we emerge into the dawn after that dark night, we have greater clarity and insight, we vibrate at a higher level.  Sometimes, through this process, we are forced to let go of beliefs that no longer serve us, of attitudes that limit us and of fears that hold us back from living our highest potential.

I agree with all this.  And I'd like to offer an additional thought.  The idea of a night is just a tad too short for me!  To me, it feels as though our souls have seasons; cycles through which we pass, sequentially and with some degree of regularity.

I think I am in the winter cycle... and the reason this has been so confusing to me is because I thought that being pregnant would mean that I was in spring - full of fresh new energy and ideas... feeling dynamic and ready to go.  How wrong I was! 

As you may have noticed over the past few months, I haven't posted so frequently.  This is because I have fought this Winter of the Soul.  These cycles are different for everyone and, even between cycles, I suspect there is a degree of difference, only characterised by a few principles.

For me, this time has been such a battle - a fight to not feel so lethargic, weak and depressed.  It's only this weekend that I realised that I was making this process worse.  By resisting the cycle, by figthing it, by wanting to be energetic when I had no energy, to have clarity whin I felt like a dense fog at night, I was getting in my own way.

Now, I've finally accepted what is.  I'm no longer fighting it.  Before taking on such an archetypal role as motherhood, it stands to reason that there are aspects of myself that I need to release, in order to clear emotional space for this new identity to emerge.

What I have learnt is this: it doesn't always pay to fight.  Sometimes it pays to honour the flow of what is.  There is a wisdom in knowig when to resist, when to persist and when to desist.  It takes time to understand the flow, to know when to push and when to allow: when to flow through life; to have highs and lows; to know creative, productive times and to experience creative, 'fallow' times, is all part of the natural cycle of life - night to day, season to season - and so too, our lives flow through cycles.

It takes time to become attuned to these cycles, to work with them rather than against them, to have the courage to go through the Winter of the Soul, accepting that we will emerge slightly different, is part of the art of being human, of living the Magic of the Ordinary, of seeing the Miracle hidden in what appears to be the Mud of our lives.

Friday 21 May 2010

Where is the love?

What a morning... And I know that most people experience this level of frustration on an on-going basis and, heck, I'm normally able to control myself more too.  But this morning, I have had the most exhausting, fear-based telephone calls ever (and ironically, all with mobile phone providers who are - theoretically - based on the premise that they provide enhanced communication!). 

Why are big companies making their fortunes through manipulation and by creating unwarranted fears in their clients?  I've bumped my head (and heart) into this...

But this is indicative of a much wider social phenomenon.  The words of Dickens resound more true than ever, centuries later, these are still, "the best of times and the worst of times".  Or, more recently, in the words of the Black Eyed Peas, "Where is the love?"  (check out their superb lyrics).

What frustrates me more than these systems, is that I nearly descend to their level.  Being pregnant has had one very unexpected side-effect: I have no "social armour": small hurts pierce to the core, leaving me feeling utterly exposed.  Normally, I'm patient and can find the positive, or at least a position of compassion.  Not at that moment.  I was so irrate at the end of one call, that I jumped up and down in anger - a new one for me, I must admit!

But, what is the point of being alive if I cannot bring some love, compassion or light to the situation? Even if it is after the call ends...  On the positive side, I didn't loose my temper with the people I spoke with.

They are just like me... with desires and dreams, loves and hurts.  If I knew them personally, I am sure I would never dream of feeling so irrate.  Compassion can be so much easier with those we love.

But it is not always the people in these situations that wound our hearts. It is the roles that we are forced into by large corporations: their frameworks. their rules and their limitations...  It's important to distinguish between the role that person has to play (or feels obliged to play) and the essence of that person, in order to hold onto (or in this case, remember) any compassion.

When I get to the point where I feel empty inside, I try to remember two great stories.  Viktor Frankl, who was tortured in a concentration camp with electrodes under his fingernails, said afterwards that he maintained compassion by remembering that the guard had no freedom to choose, while Frankl, had the power to choose whether to hate that guard or feel compassion for him...

The second story is of a monk who spent, if memory serves me, over two decades in a Chinese prison.  When recounting his story to the Dalai Lama, he said that the hardest part for him was in the moments when he felt he was losing his compassion for the prison guards.

In comparison, I have a long way yet to go!

The delicate art of...knowing

Knowledge is, in my opinion, built upon a rational framework.  It is the story we tell of our experience at any point in time.  But, as both time and travel have revealed, it most frequently partial, incomplete and, often, biased.

But in my search for the deeper 'truth', or meaning, of the mundane minutae of life, I am always drawn into a search for some deeper knowing.  I yearn to go beyond my own mental framework of 'knowledge' and penetrate a deeper insight, a more subtle discernment, a more enduring, less partial 'knowing'.   

Indeed, in my experience, it is only when I am ready to leave the safe harbour of my - so-called - rational framework, that I can go deeper, that I can access a greater wisdom than my own.  Now, my dear friend Roger, would advise extreme caution in leaving behind our rational frameworks, citing (I imagine!) the possibility of getting lost in half-baked truths and hunches wrapped up as insight.

And indeed the pathway between rational knowledge and greater insight, is indeed a tricky one.  It resembles a tightrope more than a motorway.  And the only way, it seems to me, of staying on the tightrope, of not falling off and landing in a mountain of hoaxes, scams and half-truths is through the use of discernment and insight (again, highly subjective!).

Insight can be defined "an instance of apprehending the true nature of a thing, an understanding of relationships that sheds light on or helps solve a problem."  It is a knowing that goes beyond our rational framework, that clarifies the essence of an issue at a deeper level.

I used to be intrigued by the paradoxes in the Zen Masters' teachings but, the more I have meditated (thinking would only keep me stuck within my own framework!), the more the inherent paradoxes become more apparent.  I have never really understood anything, I realise now, until I have understood the paradox of it. 

But, as I write this, I also begin to suspect that, even a deeper level of knowing is temporary, limited by the concepts my mind can entertain.  As I evolve, so too will my understanding, my 'knowing'.

So, you may wonder, "why this sudden interest in the nature of thought and understanding?"  The reason is very simple.  Being pregnant has

discernere to separate,

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Why intution is hard...

The short answer is... because I was ignoring it! 

I was treating as a 'nice-to-have', not the driving principle in my life.  And there's a massive difference between the two.

My friend Georgeanne pointed out to me that, when you have chosen the spiritual path in life, intuition has to be your northern star. And I have chosen that path: I have never gone after big salaries, cars, titles or prestige.  My guiding intention has been to work for the benefit of others through various forms. 

It has taken me years to get to the point where I am able to finally discern the messages from my intuition.  Magnum PI (yes, I'm showing my age now!) used to talk about a "little voice", that gave him hunches about the next clue to solve the crime. Well, since my teenage years, I have waited patiently to hear that "little voice" but, it transpires, that looking for that little voice actually got in my way. 

For me, intuition is more subtle.  It often appears as a fully formed insight or understanding when I'm daydreaming/meditating.  It is an idea that is clear and complete in itself, even if it may be complex. 

And I have been a little wayward in following through on my insights recently.

Here's why: insights often push me beyond where I think I want to go.  They force me to grow, to leave go of comfy old beliefs and understandings, and to rise to new levels.  At present, I am being asked to fully embrace being pregnant and I have fought that for months. 

I have struggled to make myself one of those high-performing, don't-stop-till-you-pop, pregnant women. And it's so not me!   So now the Universe is taking matters into its own hands...

Oprah says that when the Universe talks to us, it does so, first in a whisper and then it gradually increases the volume (if we refuse to listen) until it kicks us in the butt!  I haven't been listening to the the universe's whisper, because I felt it would cause me trouble than I already had.

The result?  Ah, it's splendid!  So many small whispers, random tiny things going very wrong.  I decided to help Dirk and polish his shoes - I got a big wodge of black polish on his new suit; I am still praying that it will come out... I thought I put a bowl of eggshells (yes, still craving egg mayonnaise!) in the bin, but actually ended up covering the kitchen floor in tiny eggshells... I could go on!   Today alone there have been at least three whispers.

Suffice to say, I need to let go and follow my path, instead of trying to force a path into the undergrowth, through the swamp and around the ragged crags, all-the-while holding onto a tiny umbrella in a lashing gale.  You get the picture!

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Why surrender can be more powerful than control

Yesterday's blog got me thinking... there is a fundamental life paradox underneath my current situation.  Not that I wish to over-egg my small pudding at all!  But then, each and every one of our life's dramas hold within them the essence of the human story.

In this case, I was trying to push through pregnancy - get to month nine, stay fit, slim (was I nuts?!), start a business, etc etc etc.  I placed so many demands on myself that I tied myself in knots.  I was, very clearly, a product of my society...

Our society greatly values goals, goal-oriented actions, focus, discipline, control... As with all characteristics, these are desirable and have positive sides to them, however, as with any characteristic, they are not eternally appropriate, regardless of the situation.  If life were black and white, then perhaps they may be.  But life is not: it is composed of endless shades and nuances of gray.  And each shading invites us to look inside and consider how best to respond in the present moment.

For me, more 'female' characteristics were battling to be heard, but I didn't want to listen.  I didn't want to appear 'weak', or 'soft', even if all I wanted to do was curl up and sleep.  The conflict came about because there was a whole chunk of me crying out to be heard, and I did not want to hear it.

When I let go of my programmed need to control, I was able to notice those other thoughts, ideas and urges within... the knots I had created inside began to uncurl and I understood myself in a new way...  Unconsciously, I had been torn between wanting to be a full time mum and to work also.  I was so scared of what that would mean in practical terms that I forced it down inside.

Now that I've accepted this part of myself, I've started doing little things to satisfy it - like making those scones, or trying to create an aubergine and tomato stew today!  Maybe my path is not either mum or work, perhaps it's a mixture of both - of black and white... I don't know because I'm not there yet.

Pregnancy is like life, it's about the journey, not the destination.  And once I give birth, a new journey will start... and so it goes, each journey leading into the next.  Surrendering to the journey, rather than trying to force an outcome, has been a huge learning for me.

What I now understand is that when I stopped trying to control and manipulate how I felt, when I surrendered to having conflicting emotions and ideals, I felt a vast weight lift off my shoulders.  Going beyond black and white, beyond my fixed ideas of what was 'right' for me, allowing life to be 'messy' and unclear has, paradoxically, left me feeling lighter and freer.  Just like a parachutist, going against the wind is trying to impose control on nature when working with it would be a lot more powerful...

Monday 10 May 2010

The rocky road of transition

We live in a culture that has a reckless disinterest in the process of transition.  It is blithely assumed that people go from one state to another, without any form of dissonance, without any discomfort, fear, or joy, excitement and anticipation... While quite the contrary seems to be true. 

Transitions -whether they are from primary school to high school, university to first job, employed to retired, or (in my case) from non-mother to mother - take us out of our comfort zones.  And the moment we are pushed out of our comfort zones, our deepest insecurities (the fault-lines in our personalities) emerge.  When we wander outside our comfort zones, along with the anticipation and excitement (the domain of the spirit, that longs to go forth and fly), is also the inherent fear of failure, of looking foolish, of getting it wrong: this is all the domain of the ego, which is created to keep us safe, according to the rules it divised in response to our childhood traumas and trials.*

Transitions are a process and, to be handled most positively, their delicate nature needs some consideration, thoughtfulness and attention.  It has taken me four months to understand that being pregnant is not just one, but two transitions...

The first is from being an independent woman to being entirely responsible for another human being who is solely dependent on the choices I make: a huge responsibility.  But it goes beyond that: society seems to have this unstated message that being pregnant is the same as having a cold - a minor inconvenience that you soldier through.  In my limited experience, that is not the case.  The physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual back-wash of pregnancy is far greater than an inconveniently timed sneeze.  The result is that I find myself angry at a social structure that has placed such high expectations on pregnant women.  While we as a gender have fought for equality, we never fought for similarity - we are equal as much as we are different.

The second transition is from non-mother to mother.  I'm not even there yet, but I can feel the changes stirring... a desire to make scones and jam (both of which I did - to lesser degrees of success, so far!).  I imagine this is symptomatic of a desire to nest, to create a comforting home that nurtures the soul.  At least it would if the scones were edible!  This desire to curl up around home and family is part of a desire to love, nurture and support my child.  But it is in stark contrast to my desire to support my husband, so that he does not have the burden of being the sole breadwinner on his shoulders.  And so the tug of responsibility pushes back and forth...

I believe that none of this is 'news' to women who have gone before me.  It is news to me.  I never imagined feeling so conflicted.  I never realised I'd feel so physically, mentally and emotionally battered by something that I am so utterly delighted by - the honour of being a parent and supporting a soul on its journey to self-expression.  It is a rich tapestry of conflicting thoughts and feelings...

The good things are: I've finally got a handle on why I feel so conflicted all the time.  The second positive aspect is that, now that I know why I feel this way, I've made a conscious decision to believe that I'll find my way through this. 

Human beings are like life jackets(!), they always find a way to bob up to the surface!  So I can create greater peace by noticing those inner conflicts and not getting involved in their drama... somehow this will all work out fine... Surely that must be the moment when spirit takes me beyond the fears and dramas of the ego?

*(Apologies to all psychologists out there for this crass caricature)

Friday 7 May 2010

Last night I had the rare opportunity to go to see the Royal Ballet perform Carmen at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

I love the ballet: there is something sublime about how bodies can move with such grace and beauty, how they can melt themselves into the music, so that each one is an expression of the other...  There are moments when it is almost impossible to imagine that these are people, their shapes and movements are so other-worldly that they almost look like will-o-the-wisps. 

But behind the beauty and grace is a punishing routine.  I once shared a house with a dance student and I remember the day his parents went to see him rehearse in class; he came home with a big smile, "They said they'll never think I have it easy again!" he said!

Looking at these dancers I was struck by the fact that their have consciously honed and created their bodies over years.  We too - humble non-dancers - have bodies that are the creation of years... but in most cases, I think, our bodies could be more accurately be described as a 'by-products'!  We simply neglect them.  What a shame, when I see what is possible (although not the ideal for most of us, I hasten to add!).  But it is a reminder that we can always become more than who we currently are...

Paradoxically, while I was thinking about this,I did a quick audit.  Which parts of me have I trained and honed?  To be fair (and some may think this is a wimpy answer!) I feel it's my heart and my intuition.  If there is one element of my being through which I live, that defines my existence, it is my heart and my intuition (the heart's mind?!), just as dancers live through their bodies.  We all have our own strengths and seeing the talents and strengths of others is always uplifting and inspiring.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

The role of parenthood

It doesn't take a massive leap to imagine I'm thinking about my role as a mother these days!  What is expected of me?  How can I best support my child?  It's a mine-field!  And people have - unsurprisingly - very strong opinions on the subject. 

These opinions appear to fall into two camps, to crudely divide them.  The first camp is child-centred: the child gets 100% attention, love, affirmation and affection at all times.  The second camp could be conceptualised as being more family-centred: attention, love, affirmation and affection flow through the partnership (or marriage) as much as through the children.

For me, this distinction is important.  While I appreciate that the child-centred approach begins to redress some of the imbalances in previous models that over-emphasised discipline, I (currently) think any approach that presumes to show 100% positivity potentially suffers several weaknesses:
  1. it's impossible to give 100% all the time, so it sets up standards that are unattainable, resulting in increased stress, feelings of failure, anger and resentment
  2. it creates a shadow side and does not acknowledge that there will be moments when children receive less than 100% affirmation because of external pressures and the flow of daily life, rather than accepting this as part of daily life and building it into parenting, and helping all members of the family develop acceptance and resilience in the face of day-to-day life events
  3. it sidelines the importance of the parents' relationship, making that secondary to children and I suspect that this crucial foundation stone for happy family life deserves more a little more attention
All that said, I'm very much in favour of supporting children to believe that they can do anything, and that the only limits are the limits we impose on ourselves. But the nub of my argument is my belief that, alongside positive parenting, there needs to firm boundaries because, I think, it creates an artifical world for children if they think that any form of behaviour is acceptable and that they are above sharing and caring for others.

I didn't always have this belief.  When I started working with at-risk teens, I naively assumed that what they really needed was unconditional love and appreciation.  How wrong was I?!!  I learnt very quickly that approval and support has to be coupled with boundaries and consequences for inappropriate actions.  It never ceases to amaze me that these boundaries actually make teens feel safer and increase their trust level. But, in my experience, they really did work.

So, for me, it will be a lot of love, alongside Time-Outs in the Naughty Seat!  But all this is a distraction from my heading: I'm talking about the process here - not the purpose.

For me, the purpose of parenthood, is to provide a platform for our children to express the very best of who they are: to identify and follow their passions; to become clear about what they love to do, who they love to spend time with, and what gives them a sense of joy and fulfillment in life.

I've seen parents try to shoe-horn their children into careers that the parents wanted for themselves, but that were entirely unsuitable for the children.  I've seen parents push their children to be rounded, to have an interest in everything, but, to me, if they dislike the violin, they shouldn't be forced to practice it daily. 

There are few human beings who are genuine all-rounders: Leonardo Da Vinci is the only example that readily pops to mind.  Almost everyone else who has succeeded at something did so because it was their passion, because they specialised in it, and because they truly were absorbed, engaged and fulfilled in the pursuit of their passion. 

In this regard, I'm always encouraged by an interview with Deepak Chopra: he said that he never forced his children to work, but to do what they loved during their holidays, and the irony was that they were always able to support themselves.  Meanwhile, other parents he knew found themselves constantly supporting their older children who were consistently quitting jobs they didn't like!

So, in a nutshell, (and having no practical experience of motherhood yet!) it appears that my role is (at least) two-fold:
  1. to help my children identify and pursue their interests and passions so that they can do what they love in life
  2. to hold a balance between love, affection and affirmation of who they are alongside boundaries around how they behave, so that they can fulfill their potential as caring members of their family and communities.
These are my ideals as they currently stand.  How will they hold up in the onslaught of reality and time?  I have no idea.  I'm passionate about them, but I realise they will probably change... see you back here in 2020 for an update!!