The mirrorball

Are you living the life you really want to live?

It’s a challenging question.

I have just spent a few days on the island of Texel in the Netherlands. It’s the second place I visit in the last few years which fills me with both hope and envy – the first one was Iceland.

What both places offer is the opportunity to experience daily life with minimal stress – time goes slowly and there is plenty of it -, with a focus of interest on people – they were interested in me and not in the amount of money I was bringing with me or might spend with them… – and with a true devotion to the land – they still build mud walls…

And it took me a little while to realize that the greatest charm of these places was rooted in the absence of any advertising, anywhere. It was quite amazing to look around the island and see no billboards on the side of the roads, no enticements to do anything, buy anything or consume anything, anywhere. It was just a place to be, enjoy, connect and experience. Products and services, and well, money just weren’t part of the equation. Transactions were essentially and authentically human before any money was involved.

I realize that Texel has become in my eyes a haven of peace and relaxation. The spa place for those worn out by consumerism and disconnected from themselves and from what really matters in their life – their loved ones, their family, their friends, their pets, their passions, their visions… The haven to remember what a “normal” life might be, if we made different choices, wherever we live today.

I was somewhat weary to let more people in the secret of a place that was so easily accessible in Europe. It’s the kind of place you would prefer to remain secret. Just in case some commercial force would decide to change its gentle, genuine and so human nature.

And yeah, I spent a few days being systematically greeted by strangers with warm smiles, eating mostly organic food, cycled through ancient woods and walked pristine stretches of sandy beaches. Yeah, there was no litter either. Apparently, they have worked out that the best way to encourage people to take responsibility for their trash – and bring it back home – is simply to remove all public bins. And they seem to be right. At least it works there.

So, this was a place where the world was pure, clean, well intended and respectful to any living being. It’s made me reflect on where I was living and how – well, yeah, I know, let’s just say more than usual…

I realize that I have been longing for my own Texel island. A place that speaks my own language, that is structured on familiar traditions and that mostly supports professional endeavours that are protective and nurturing of people and the land they live on. I have been slowly changing how I live, however I am realizing that I may not be in the best place to really live my life the way I really want to live it.

Do you live the life you really want to live?

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What are you afraid of?

Yeah, it’s a big one, don’t we all hate it, when we are fearful?

And aren’t there so many things we are afraid of?

Scared to die.

Scared to fail.

Scared of pain.

Scared of rejection.

Scared of the unknown.

Scared of the silence.

Scared of finding out who we really are.

I can’t remember how and why but a few years ago, I decided to tackle my fears, one by one. And wisely, I started with the simple ones.

I had noticed that I was easily scared of the dark in unfamiliar environments. So, one summer day I decided to spend the whole night in the woods alone. It turned out to be a stormy night too. And yes, it also turned out to be a most memorable and transformational time in my life:

  • I learnt to enjoy the rustling sound of those “things” rummaging in the dark, near or beneath my hammock – yeah, there is always a choice: to freak out or not to freak out -;
  • I learnt that, at some point, one can see in the dark most nights – that’s why there is a moon, I reckon -;
  • I learnt that I could ask nature for guidance and protection. When I awoke in the middle of the night and saw the wave of silent lightening in the sky seemingly approaching in my direction, I also awoke to the deep connection to everything that was around me. I heard that I was safe and I knew it with complete certainty within me. I went back to sleep only to be awoken again by the touch of light rain in the early morning;
  • yeah, I learnt that I could face and transcend my fear of the dark. It made me understand how my egoic mind likes to play tennis with me, in order to control me, in order to ensure that nothing changes, that I don’t change, that I don’t let the ball fall outside the collectively agreed perimeters of life’s playing field – the horror industry would immediately vanish, if we all conquered our fears.

And I tackled many more. I learnt to welcome and respect dogs around me – in spite of a nasty and traumatising incident with an Alsatian dog when I was ten. I learnt that unsuccessful or aborted relationships – of any kind – is also about self-respect and having the courage to recognise that we don’t actually need them or have to be in them, if they are not nurturing to oneself. It takes immense courage to either say “no” or hear and accept “no” from others.  The choice is to be one’s humble hero or just another victim – and don’t we all like to be the victim, once in a while? It’s good to remember to celebrate our courage, frequently.

And of course, I am not done. Maybe I will never be. What I notice though is that fear is not a common feature in my emotional life these days. Although from time to time, it emerges unexpectedly.

And so it did recently.

That was when I was asked to do a handstand in yoga about a month ago – I know…

I froze, the silver steel tone of panic coloured me inside out immediately. Rationalisation was simply not an option. I sat on the window ledge beside me and watched the rest of the students sometimes gently, sometimes joyfully, and also sometimes strenuously, spring onto their hands and stand on them for a long, silent moment. Alone, and unsupported. Without fear of falling or crashing down. I envied them. I envied their courage and their freedom.

It’s not as if I had not done handstands before: it had just been a while and I had always been helped into the pose. And the fear in that moment was so strong that I refused the help offered to me on that occasion too.

I knew that, for whatever reason, handstands had to top my list of “to do’s” for the coming weeks and months.

And the holiday season was a perfect time to tackle it kindly. And yeah, I got up yesterday, nearly effortlessly. But with safety props. It happened very quickly, after only two weeks of conscious, effortful intention. A sense of liberation arose in me as soon as I regained balance on my feet. It gave me a hint of how I might become addicted to handstands… I felt so light and joyful. Free.

And I can’t help smiling every time I pass the room in the house I use for yoga practice. The props are now permanently in place. I have decided that they will remain there until I can stand, alone, on my hands. I already know that it’s simply going to be fun every morning, and yeah very probably exhausting – I have weak arms – and probably still fearfull at times too. I have now learnt that my fear is an enemy who often needs a very long time to become a true friend.

All I can think of now, imagine and feel, is the power and the freedom of being able to stand on my hands alone…one day, soon.

What are you afraid of?

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Nurturing the benevolence of my intention

It’s the best piece of advice Ajahn Kalyano gave me during my recent ten day silent retreat at the Amavarati Buddhist monastery. I am not officially a Buddhist. I just like to feed the daily practice of looking “inside” through silence, meditation or contemplation. I guess I am not unusual, in view of the current waves of adoption towards “mindfulness” or “being in the now” in Western society. All I personally know is that I need time alone, in silence, each day. It helps me reflect on what I am experiencing or have experienced, process difficult emotions, understand confusing events  and clear my mind and get it ready for the next moment or the next day… It helps me be prepared for the ways in which I can bring the best of my self to what’s emerging and is needed from me in my daily life, one moment at a time.

So, I sit quietly, every day. Sometimes for an hour and sometimes for just ten minutes. Sometimes in the train and sometimes in the garden. Sometimes I do it more than once. I simply respond to the inner call to do it, when I hear it. And in order to hear it, I need to be listening. And in order to listen, I need to be open. In order to be open, I need to meditate or sit quietly. Can you see what a virtuous circle it all makes? And what I have noticed is that it is making me a much wiser person. I have slowly started to really appreciate my self in new ways: with all my faults, foibles and frailties – yeah, well known among the people who have known me for some time… Seeing who I am and how I am has helped me make different choices and change my ways, one moment at a time.

I wasn’t sure I would last ten days. I had done a five day retreat over New Year six months previously. And it had been tremendously rewarding, yet physically challenging: I had returned with a cleansed heart and a clear mind, yet with a very achy body. This time my hips did not scream after two days. I changed postures regularly, as suggested by the Ajahn who had been a physiotherapist in his lay days. It’s day six that hit me hard, and not only me. I saw it on many faces. Thursday was the day when many of us faced our “kamma”,  when we saw and faced the consequences of some of our previous actions. I don’t know about you, I am quite clear that not all of my past actions have been kind or wise. And in Buddhist terms, this is one main source of suffering. The day was emotionally charged. And the dhamma talk that evening alleviated our suffering. Ajahn Kalyano simply encouraged us to nurture the benevolence of our intention. And that simple phrase helped soothe our collective tears that evening. And it opened doors and gave me hope, a way forward, regardless of what had been.

Then, by day eight, I was ready to go home. The last two days were preparing me to “return”.

The Ajahn had asked us not to read but to write, draw or walk in the magnificent surrounding Berkshire countryside between meditations. I followed his advice and walked most days. Long solitary walks on country paths winding their way through forests, farm crops and little ponds. Having handed in my i-phone on arrival, there are no pictures to illustrate the beauty of the scenes I witnessed on those walks – and I have noticed that I now have a clear and precise photographic memory of each of those scenes. And every walk brought me joy, solace and excitement in ways only nature can for me. And every walk finished by this tree which, in spite of having been deliberately cut down, keeps re-growing in its core. And every day, I smiled when I saw it. Everything is always possible. There is always the possibility of new growth, no matter the context within which we live or the challenges we face. And all I needed to do is nurture the benevolence of my intention.

 

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Are you a leader?

I get a lot of things coming my way about “leadership” and I have noticed that I have stopped giving them much attention. Too much has been made of the role of leading. It’s become complicated, exclusive and difficult.

In my experience, the best leaders are those who really listen to the people they are guiding, who appreciate them frequently and who are not scared to embrace uncertainty,  follow their heart and speak their mind. Think about it, does it really need to be more complicated than that?

And leadership is not something that one can really earn or study, it’s something one is born with, experience and practice daily. Everyone of us. I often wondered what difference it would make to our world if we all honoured the leader in us.

So are you a leader? If not, where or when have you left the leader in you?

There is a short Tedx talk I have used a lot recently during training – listen to it below. It epitomises my thinking well: life really becomes meaningful for ourselves and others when we allow “lollipop” moments to happen and when we respond to them with complete openness.

And yes, of course, it’s difficult to bring the best of ourselves all the time. And sometimes, when we are simply kind or caring, we “say and do that one thing that is going to make someone else’s life fundamentally better“. The lollipop moment. And we often don’t even know or realise that it’s happened for others – unless they tell us later. When it’s happened for us, we remember and cherish the moment for ever.

Openness is becoming the key to everything: tolerance, authenticity, dialogue, appreciation… So, maybe being a leader is simply about being open. Maybe.

So, yes, are you a leader? What are your lollipop moments?

 

Being still

I sat on the inviting easy chair and marvelled at the beauty and goodness of life, when all simply falls into place without any need for planning or organising.

I had decided to stay in town rather than go home and travel an additional two hours that day. I had been rowing all morning and the experience, as always, had been surprising, tiring and yes, very joyous. The capsize drills were scheduled for that afternoon. I had four hours to “kill”.

So, famished by the three hours of toiling on the river, I found a lovely place to have lunch. It was quiet. This was a little country town with much history and with little activity, in comparison with where I lived. Sitting on the main square and eating a bun with a coffee seemed the ultimate Sunday activity. And after a simple lunch, I decided to walk back to the car and have a snooze until it would be time for me to drive to the afternoon appointment in a nearby college pool .

That’s when I remembered the e-mail received from a friend about a special retreat place in that town. He had even sent me the web link for it and I remembered having browsed through the site with interest. And I now couldn’t remember where the retreat place was supposed to be.

So, I let the thought go and started walking back. A narrow street was calling me in. So, I went in. There was plenty of time for a little detour. I knew the river wasn’t far and I liked the possibility of walking back to the car via a riverside path.

I passed the gate a few moments later. It was huge and wide open. A sign indicated that everyone was welcome to enter and enjoy the garden which, from the pavement, just looked marvellous. The sign also said that there was a room by the river which everyone was invited to use, if needing a quiet time.

I smiled.

And crossed the threshold. I immediately knew I was stepping into another world. One where respect, kindness, care and compassion prevailed. The grounds looked like paradise. I stopped on many occasions to marvel at the beauty of what I saw. Here was a well tended strawberry patch, there was a bunch of wild, blue thistles. I was in awe.

It didn’t take me very long to reach the quiet room by the river. No one was there, so I lifted the latch, walked in and closed the door behind me. I realised that the only way to close the door from the inside was to lock it. So I turned the key. I was in, alone, and there was only quiet and silence to greet me.

And it is when I dropped my bags, removed my cap and sat on the easy chair that I knew I was home.

There are magical moments in my life these days. And this was one of them. I was gifted with a place to sit, relax, sleep, journal without disturbance or interference from anyone or anything. Only the rain came to entertain me for a short while.

Beyond the fence was the river. The river that had been giving me so much joy since last winter. I often said that rowing took me out of my mind. I also often thought that rowing on the river with another or in a quad was like meditating in a room with another or with others. There was no chance to think, only the opportunity to respond to what was needed, one moment at a time. The polarity was one of balance and power. When the middle way was reached, there was only a sense of grace. That’s when all that mattered was the soft and quiet gliding of the boat on the river and the harmony of our blades and bodies, all moving in synchronicity.

I looked around me. The room had little furniture or decoration. All it offered was what was needed to rest, reflect, and maybe create. And so I did. I sat quietly, fell asleep and then journalled for a while. A couple of hours later, I was rested, at peace and very still. I was ready to “return”.

It was such a gift of a moment.

It was such a blessing to be offered the gift of being still.

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The change starts with me

He said to me that he didn’t believe in the stories that went round about our oil consumption… I looked at him with curiosity. How do I explain the enormity of the situation we are in and the need to change our ways?

I explained the changes I had made and was still making – and how hard it was to make them – to minimise the daily impact on my environment. I told him that I wasn’t going to try to convince him to change his ways, all I believed I could do was to change mine.

For my part, change always starts with me. And so it does for you.

Many of my friends are going to Spain this summer. Some have already returned with one single complaint: it was too hot. And I wonder what it will take for people to start really taking notice of the fact that the weather is no longer “weird” or “freaky”, that it is simply how we have made it because of our ways. And that wishing for an air conditioning unit when it’s hot or at worse, actually switching one on is becoming a suicidal act, for our children. Right now, it’s raining here. I am not going to Spain, the change starts with me.

I have decided to open my house and a friend will now be staying ten days a month for the next few months. I call it the communal experiment. We were talking about the number of spiders that seem to be floating about – and yeah, their number is “unusual” for this season. He spontaneously described how he annihilated anything moving and undesirable in his house. I smiled and explained that I didn’t mind what others did but that nothing got killed in my house – I have become a pro at removing any undesirable insect with a piece of kitchen towel. Yes, the change starts with me.

I have also been struck this week by the number of professional references to the ongoing desire for “growth”. “Growing” economically as we have done so far in the Western and developed world is no longer a viable choice – we have about 50 years left of the life we have known – well, sort of -, if we continue to “grow” as we have done so far. How about we continue the conversation on the theme of “sustainability” before it soon becomes one about “survival”? – and maybe I am deluded in thinking, hoping that it is not already a survival case scenario.

Change is happening all the time. Many of us pretend it’s not happening. Some of us – too few of us still – are starting to realise how bad a situation our world is in. We have ourselves and yes, of course, all those preceding us in the last century or so to thank for it… It’s time to change our ways.

And change starts with me. And with you.

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Are you free?

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I went running late yesterday afternoon, only because I had been wearing my running gear all day and had not run. Work kept me at my desk longer than planned early in the morning; and then, other distractions came in: calls, virtual meetings, my son emerging early afternoon… So by 5 pm, I realised that I hadn’t eaten much, and had not run. That’s when I decided to feel the air outside and sit in the sun for ten minutes in the garden. The air was cool, yet it was lovely and warm in the sun. I enjoyed nature’s silence, the immediate calm that replaced the continuous activity my brain had been swimming in. I felt and smiled at the tickling freedom of the air on my skin.

When we are busy, there are many choices that present themselves to us. I had suddenly chosen to stop, breathe and enjoy a sunny moment in the garden. And that’s when I started wondering to what extent we are truly free in the choices that we make daily. Yeah, I know, this sounds like heavy conversation so early on a Friday morning.

And a fly keeps zooming across my screen and hitting the window of my office next to me, whilst I am writing this.

I knew today’s theme was about freedom. And, as always, I got off my seat, found the window lock key and opened the window to free the fly. Sadly, I was too late. In its longing for air and light, and maybe, “freedom”, the fly had clearly underestimated the power of her flying speed and the resulting impact on its body, when hitting the window pane. As I lowered my eyes, I discovered it lying on its back. It was still flying a moment ago and there it was now, completely still. And I thought, well, maybe it is also free now.  Whether inside or outside.

This week has been filled with meaningful and challenging conversations with loved ones, friends, colleagues and clients. The conversations were meaningful because they were open and honest. They expressed both strength and vulnerability in each of us and contained the good seeds of an open mind and an open heart: tolerance, curiosity, kindness, compassion, love… They were also challenging because they revealed the questions, doubts and well, confusion that many of us face on a daily basis.

Everyone longs to thrive. And thriving means many different things to each of us. And in order to thrive, we often have to make deliberate choices. And choosing frees us. It allows us to be who we need to be. Yeah, to do or to be. The choice is always ours. To continue to live according to others’s perceived preferences or to live in response to our own, core needs. Yeah, I will say it again: the choice is always ours.

And it’s often difficult to choose against the wish of others.

As I started running up the little hill on my first round – I always systematically run around the block four times -, I noticed a piece of paper lying on the ground. I immediately stopped, bent down and flipped it over, as it clearly had something written on it. There was only one word, neatly and seemingly deliberately written on it: “Free”. The synchronous sight and random presence of that word first stunned me. Then, immediately followed the realisation that no matter what questions, doubts, and confusion my mind was bathing with, I was free.

I was free to run, even if it required much effort from me and well, even if it hurt.

I was free to imagine and create, even if life was asking me to plan, check and negotiate.

I was free to appreciate and be grateful, smile and be positive, take notice and be kind. Even if I really didn’t feel like it to start with.

I picked myself up and carried on running. And that is when I remembered a conversation I had had with one of the men at the prison the previous day, during my monthly visit. Joe had been in prison for 21 years, he told me. He didn’t mind the barbed wires, he said, because he had grown up on a military base before ending in prison. He liked to be “inside” now. Prison was familiar to him, it was where he knew how to be free.

So, yeah, freedom, like much in life, is “complicated”. You can be free outside and feel imprisoned inside, and feel free inside and be imprisoned outside.

Or be and feel free both inside and outside.

And of course, the initial question always remains.

Are you free?

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Being home

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Come and sit on the bench with me.

If you do, this is my promise to you.

I will listen to you. And I won’t ask any questions or make any comments. I will look at you with interest and respect. I will hug you without words. And smile, with care, kindness or compassion. I will simply listen to you.

I have been working over the last couple of months on a large project which has involved spending much time with the staff of several care homes in London. This is a world where grave illness, dementia and the imminence of death rule, and where, I quickly learnt, only care matters.

I worked in one of the gardens this week and noticed how grateful I was to be there. I looked up beyond the bench in front of me and noticed how the garden mirrored so many of the facets of daily life. Playing, enjoying, observing, touching, sharing, communicating, walking, smelling, breathing. It was a bath for all the senses. And the range of plants and herbs carefully chosen there oozed beauty, calm and healing.

We never know what the end of our life will be until it comes. And sometimes, when it does, we no longer know who we are or remember where we are. It must be quite frightening. Yet there are simple things that may soothe us in our loss and these can simply be a gentle touch, a silent smile and a warm eye contact. A presence.

One thing I have learnt from working with homeless people over the Christmas period of the last few years is that a smile, a touch and the caring attention of another are what homeless people crave the most. These may also be all that is needed to start climbing the mountain of sadness or distress that loneliness creates.

So, I sat on my bench and thought, yeah, when someone listens to me, really listens to me, they help me return home. And really listening to another is maybe simply being happy at home and welcoming the presence of another in one’s home.

Being home. Through noticing and listening.

Scaffolding

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I was walking back from a meeting in London yesterday when this building caught my attention. I stopped and stared at it for a while. It was visually striking by its outstanding nakedness in the middle of the city. It also moved me deep inside by its exposed vulnerability.

It had been stripped from everything that had made it what it was.

And it was now awaiting a new life, a new purpose, an actualisation of what it needed to be next.

When change strikes in life, it’s good to understand our core self, to know and value what keeps us standing on the ground. So that we can choose carefully, deliberately and consciously the colours and fabrics we need to wear next.

Luckily, change is not always as dramatic as stripping us from everything that has made us what we were. Sometimes it does though. And often, it still strips us of parts of our self which we need to learn to let go, and then re-build, in order to move on.

And that’s when you need scaffolding. As in any building refurbishment, you can’t really work on all the parts of the building, without scaffolding. I looked at that building yesterday and the first thing that I noticed was that it didn’t have any scaffolding. Yet. It was being prepared, or so it felt, for its scaffolding. Maybe all the choices had not yet been made, I thought.

Ever since I studied the world of psychology as a mature student, I have used the concept of “scaffolding” in all my training and coaching. It’s the modern way to refer to something Lev Vigotsky initially referred to as the “zone of proximal development”  or “The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.86, Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes.).

So yeah, in simpler terms, if we need to change, we first need to understand ourselves better. And it’s good to be guided and to have others’ mirrors to help us make the right choices too.

So, if you are facing a change, please, be safe and make sure you get some scaffolding…

Are you listening?

I recently woke up to the fact that I spent a large part of my life in my own narrative. I wasn’t listening to anyone else or anything else.

And most things depend on the ability to listen.

On the ability to listen attentively, deeply, completely.

I have come to describe it as “hugging the other without words”. That’s my phrase for deep, compassionate listening when I’m training.

And yeah, it goes beyond “active” listening. I bet you guys in management will have been through some kind of course at some point where you discovered that listening needs to be “active”, when dealing with your teams.

And active listening is about mirroring what is being heard.

Deep, compassionate listening has no words. It’s silent yet warm, visually supportive, and receptive of what is sent beyond the words used and heard.

That’s the point. Deep listening makes you hear things that are not actually being said. It makes you understand things that have not been explained. It’s “generative”.

The thing with deep listening though is that at first, it’s pretty painful. Because there is no space for questions, interjections or comments. It takes us out of our normal way of communicating with others which essentially allows us and justifies us in colouring and moulding other people’s stories or simply aborting them with our own.

And everything comes  down to listening. Creativity and innovation, collaboration and relationships…

And the ability to listen is not only vital with others but of course with oneself.

Are you listening?

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