Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Paradigm Shift

In a previous blog, Beyond the Selves, I likened our many selves to the rainbow of colours formed when pure light is refracted through a prism; the characters in a movie appearing on a TV or computer screen; or the waves dancing on the surface of the ocean. I suggested that the practice of Voice Dialogue, and the consequent development of an Aware Ego Process, naturally leads us to a deeper enquiry into the nature of the metaphorical light, screen or ocean. In other words, to the source of the selves. It is an enquiry that challenges our most basic assumptions about who we really are.

Until Aristotle proved empirically that the earth was a sphere around 330BC, people believed that the earth was flat. It "made sense". If you walked or sailed far enough you would "of course" come to the edge. It took hundreds of years for the round earth paradigm to become commonly accepted. And when it was, it "made sense" to assume that the earth was the centre of the known universe and that the sun and planets revolved around it. After all, it was obvious that the sun "travelled" in a great arc in the sky. This geocentric paradigm became deeply entwined with religious dogma and anyone who questioned it was considered a heretic. It was not until the end of his life that Copernicus dared publish his proof of a heliocentric universe and a new paradigm gradually became established as the consensus worldview.

Today there is another paradigm that we take for granted. It is one on which our world culture is built. To question it is to provoke the same skepticism and hostility as happened when the flat earth and geocentric paradigms were challenged. It is the paradigm of materialism.

This paradigm assumes that everything is made out of stuff called matter. It is believed that consciousness arises out of this stuff. How this happens has been the focus of much research. But try as they may, scientists have not been able to show how the basic building blocks of matter - atoms - create our experience of being aware. They have therefore called it "The Hard Question of Consciousness".

But what if it's the other way around? What if the primary "stuff" out of which everything in the universe is made is consciousness? This proposition seems absurd to our rational/materialist perspective. It doesn't "make sense" to us. Yet this is exactly what a small but growing number of physicists, neuroscientists and philosophers of mind are proposing today.

In fact, this is not a new idea but one that has occurred throughout history and across diverse cultures. For example, the ancient non-dual teachings of Advaita Vedanta point to an infinite, eternal presence or "oneness" out of which all things come into existence (the word "exist" comes from the latin "existere" meaning "to step out, stand forth, emerge, appear, be"). The sacred question in this tradition is, "Am I aware?"   Notice that the question isn't asking what we are aware of  (i.e. thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions), but simply are we aware of being aware. With this question the "focus" of our attention is gently drawn back into its origin or source as pure consciousness.

The practice of Voice Dialogue invites us to do the same. As we meet our many selves, we become aware of the particular thoughts, feelings, body sensations and perceptions they each have. For example, when speaking as a Pusher self we might experience a tension in our body, a feeling of impatience, and see life as a series of tasks to be completed. As we separate from this self and then from its opposite chilled, unhurried, easy going self, we rest back into an awareness that is neither this self nor that self. In Advaita this is known as the "neti, neti" process, meaning "not this, not this" or "neither this, nor that". It invites us to drop back into an aware presence that underlies all the selves. In other words, consciousness is experienced as source - a "field of all possibilities" out of which all the selves with their various thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions arise, with which they are known and ultimately of which they are made.

In this way, Voice Dialogue offers us what Buddhist traditions call a "skillful means" for realising our true nature. In From Enlightenment to the Aware Ego Process to Source Energy Hal Stone writes:

'I repeat again what I feel to be true - that the Aware Ego process leads us inevitably towards the experience of Source Energy in some form. The ongoing practice of embracing opposites and learning to hold the tension of opposites can really lead to no other place.'

Many contemporary teachers and writers have elaborated this paradigm shift far better than I can - Rupert Spira and Bernardo Kastrup to name but two. My intention here is to invite you to enquire for yourself, to suspend your belief in the prevailing materialist paradigm and see what you find to be true in your actual experience.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Baby Trump

I have just returned from a trip to North America. It was an interesting time to be travelling there with the presidential elections looming. I had been invited to teach two Voice Dialogue workshops - one in California and the other in Mexico - and took the opportunity to visit old friends.

People who are interested in Voice Dialogue tend to be politically left of centre. It was no surprise therefore that when conversation turned to the two presidential candidates there was much anguish and disquiet about the prospect of a Donald Trump victory.

"Have you heard what he just said about immigrants?" "Did you see how he behaved towards that woman?!" "He's a bully, misogynist and racist!!!" "How could we possibly entrust the highest office in the land to someone with those attitudes?!!"

I joined in the chorus of criticism. I revelled in the judgements, condemned the man as totally unfit to be a presidential candidate and denounced the "deplorables" who supported him. I found myself savouring each new bizarre utterance from "The Donald". My sense of outrage was delicious. When I saw the October cover of the Mexican Letras Libres magazine, it confirmed my prejudices: 'Fascista Americano' - the new Hitler!!

Surrounded by my like-minded friends, it was easy to get swept away by my self-righteous indignation. Our collective Primary Selves held the values of tolerance, understanding and inclusiveness. In Donald Trump they were seeing their opposites - our in-the-shadows, Disowned Selves. And through their eyes what they saw was abhorrent.

As part of my trip I visited the creators of Voice Dialogue, Hal and Sidra Stone. When the election inevitably came up for discussion, Hal shared a recent dream he'd had. In the dream he was inside a house that he knew well. There was a door which usually led into a beautiful garden but, to his surprise, when he went through it he found himself in another room instead. He was shocked to find that the room was full of Trump supporters. Hal asked what they were doing in his house. He hadn't agreed to them using this room. The organiser responded by showing Hal official papers which gave them the right to hold the rally there. Hal then accepted their presence in his house.

There is a difference between judgement and discernment. When we point the finger of judgement, blame, condemnation and criticism there are three fingers pointing back towards us! Our Judgements invite us to look at the disowned material lurking in our psyche - in this case, our own inner Trump supporters rallying somewhere deep in the basement of our house. If we have the courage to do this - not an easy task! - our judgement changes to discernment. Our intense, visceral reactivity softens, our stance becomes more solid and balanced, and we are not so easily destabilised. We can stand in firm opposition to Trump's rhetoric and behaviour without being polarised by it.

Distasteful as it may seem, imagine taking a homeopathic pill of "essence of Trump". What benefit might that bring us? Maybe it could help us speak our mind clearly without worrying about what others might think; or it might help us to have the courage of our convictions, to stand up and be counted; or to believe in ourselves and feel entitled to ask for what we want, however impossible it might seem. The gift of embracing our disowned Trump-like selves will be different for each of us. Remember, it's just a small homeopathic dose - embracing does not mean becoming!

And there is more that Donald Trump has to teach us.

On one of my workshops I was discussing conflict in relationships with the group. I made the observation that all conflict arises out of vulnerability that either we are unaware of or that we do not feel safe sharing. To illustrate my point I showed the picture of an upset child with blond hair. "Oh my god!" exclaimed one participant, "He looks like baby Trump!!"

In that moment, something shifted in me. I suddenly saw the Inner Child, the little, vulnerable Donald. Trump the combative adult might be totally unaware of its presence in his psyche. But I have no doubt that protecting this vulnerable child has been the unconscious motivation driving his Primary Selves to seek the presidency.

Money, prestige and power - these are three ways commonly used to defend ourselves against the discomfort and pain of our innate vulnerability. I can only speculate about what unaddressed pain lives at the core of Trump's being. The more important question is how in touch am I with my own younger Selves, my own vulnerabilities? How well am I consciously taking care of them? Or am I unconsciously relying on my Primary Liberal Selves to do it for me?

Watching the president-elect meet with Barak Obama I thought he looked a little lost. I fantasised that a little part of him might be anxiously saying, "What am I doing here?!" Looking at him, and our reactions to his way of being, through the framework of Voice Dialogue and the Psychology of Selves, might we even find it in our hearts to feel some compassion for Donald John Trump? If so, the way we oppose his world view, while firm and resolute, will look, sound and feel very different.

The black actor Brandon Victor Dixon demonstrated this eloquently in his address to vice-president-elect Pence at the end of a performance of the hit musical Hamilton which Pence attended:

'Vice-president-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There's nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. We are all here sharing a story about love.

'We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our children, our planet, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.

'We thank you for sharing this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men and women of different colours, creeds and orientations.'

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Beyond The Selves

Metaphors are tricky. By saying that one thing is the same as another, they offer us new and sometimes radical insights and understandings. The danger is that we may take them too literally. Bearing this in mind (and at the risk of mixing my metaphors!) I'd like to share three that put my current experience of Selves into a larger context.

The first metaphor is that Selves are the many colours produced by pure light refracted through a prism. Each colour represents a different vibration, giving a distinctive hue to anything it illuminates. Just so, when we view the world through the eyes of a particular Self our perception is coloured by its approach to life. For example, a Pusher Self will colour our experience one way; a Chilled Self another way. The more colours we have available in our palette of Selves, the richer and more vibrant our experience of life will be.

The second metaphor is that Selves are characters in a movie appearing on a TV or computer screen. They each have their own traits and qualities and a unique perspective on what is happening as the drama of our life unfolds. They interact in specific ways, each with its own set of values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. Sometimes a character will hold centre stage and take the lead role, sometimes it may take no part at all in the action.

The third metaphor is that Selves are the waves dancing on the surface of the ocean. Each wave has a different shape and size and is formed both by the currents below and the climate above. In the same way, our Selves are created in response to our life circumstances - our genetic predisposition and the prevailing social norms and culture. They shift and change according to our environmental conditions.

Voice Dialogue enables us to parse the multiplicity of Selves that constitute our personalities, and so gain insight into how they inform and influence our lives. But as we become more familiar with them, deeper questions emerge:
  • In what do the selves arise?
  • With what are they known?
  • Of what are they made?
As we contemplate these questions our focus naturally shifts from the rainbow of colours, the cast of movie characters and the diversity of waves to that which lies at the background of all experience and is ever-present and unchanging. The metaphors invite us to experience something beyond the Selves: the pure light out of which the colours arise; the screen without which the characters in the movie cannot not be known; and the ocean of which the waves are made.

In exploring such "spiritual" questions, however, it's imperative that we don't reject the Selves that enable us to maintain our material existence in the world. Rather, this is an inclusive approach where we live in awareness of both the relative, multifaceted realm of the body-mind and the all-encompassing, infinite field in which they have their being.

Of course, language can only take us so far in answering the above questions. A final caution about metaphors comes from the Buddhist tradition: "Don't mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself"!

Saturday, 6 February 2016

The Journey

To use Voice Dialogue as a tool for dealing with problems, issues or challenges in our lives, is to begin a journey - a journey into our psyche.... and beyond.

The first step can start with quite ordinary concerns. For example, we may be having difficulty deciding on a purchase: "I'm not sure which dress to buy for the party. Part of me thinks I'll look great in this one, but another part of me thinks it's too showy and people will judge me." Or it may concern a dilemma about our job: "Should I stay in this job or leave? A bit of me would really like more freedom to explore and try out new things. But I also feel very insecure about taking a leap into the unknown." It can involve relationship difficulties: "Part of me used to find his easy-going attitude very endearing. Now I find his indecision and lack of direction really hard to deal with." Or judgments of other people: "I can't stand their cold, ruthless approach to doing business."

All of these examples invite us to explore and embrace the multiplicity of who we are - our many I's, parts, aspects, bits or "selves". We learn which selves we are identified with as being "me", and as a consequence discover which selves have been relegated to the shadows as being "not me". It is a truly fascinating journey in which dreams, body symptoms, fantasies, judgments and conflicts all have something to teach us. Yet to meet all these many and varied aspects of our psyche is just the first part of the journey. It is not actually the goal of Voice Dialogue.

When in a Voice Dialogue session the facilitator helps us to separate from a self with which our ego is identified - for example a pushing self that by default has us work all hours without a break - we have the opportunity to meet the self that has been disowned as a consequence - in this case a chilled, laid back self that brings us the ability to switch off, relax and recharge. We now have an ego that is aware of this pair of opposite energies and a process can begin of holding the tension between their very different priorities and demands. We call this an Aware Ego Process and it enables us to make more conscious choices in our everyday lives. But there is more to this journey.

As we dialogue with more and more of our inner voices, deeper questions naturally arise. Just what is this place / space we call the Aware Ego that sits in between all our selves? If it's not a self, then what is it? Does it only operate on the material, worldly plain or does it include the realm of the spiritual? Where does the process ultimately lead? Is there something more behind or beyond it? Is there an "organising intelligence" that naturally informs and influences the Aware Ego Process? If so, what is its purpose? So from the ordinary concerns of daily life the journey leads us into extraordinary territory!

In the conclusion to his autobiographical essay From Enlightenment to the Aware Ego Process to Source Energy (2013) Hal Stone writes:

'What is it within us that drives us to learn to embrace opposing energies? It is the Source Energy that pushes us in this direction. It is this Source Energy that was instrumental in the discovery and evolution of the Voice Dialogue process. And please keep in mind that Voice Dialogue is simply a method for birthing the Aware Ego Process. For us, it is still the best method that we have found for birthing the Aware Ego process. Ultimately this Aware Ego Process can lead us to a deeper and more direct experience of the Source Energy that lies beyond apparent dualities; suddenly the apparent duality of earth/world energies vs. spiritual energies has a chance to become clear to us and this duality that has existed for so long, is no longer an issue.

The process of the Aware Ego brings honor to these two dimensions of reality and I do believe that the Universal Intelligence / Source Energy / Organizing Intelligence would smile, and even laugh, at the idea of our embracing a union of such opposites.'

Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Meaning of Christmas

I was raised in the Church of England. My father was the organist and choirmaster of our parish church and my mother was active in various church clubs. I went to Sunday School every week and from the age of seven was in the choir, which meant attending two services every Sunday and singing at weddings on Saturdays (I have seen more brides walk down the aisle than I care to remember!)

I was taught the story of Jesus and celebrated the two most important events in the Christian calendar - Christmas and Easter - every year till I was sixteen. That was when my parents allowed me to decide whether I wanted to stay in the church or not. I left and have not returned. However, many years later, becoming familiar with the theory and practice of Voice Dialogue has given me a new insight into the story that so informed my childhood years.

Jesus lived thirty-three years on this planet, but the occasions we celebrate most of all are his birth and his death. What is it that links these two momentous events?

He was born in a stable. There was no hospital with doctors and nurses in attendance; no clean bed with white sheets for his mother to lie in; no warm water or towels available to wash and dry him. His parents were not married; Joseph was not even the father; they were on the run and under threat of death from Herod’s soldiers; there was no comfort and no safety. It seems to me that symbolically this is as clear a description of being born vulnerable as one can get.

The story of Jesus’ birth reminds us that our birthright is vulnerability. Take a newborn baby and leave it alone and it will surely die. We are dependent on the adults around us to take care of us - much longer than for any other species. We need attention, approval and affection to survive and thrive. The theory of the Psychology of Selves tells us that our Primary selves develop to protect this core vulnerability. They have us behave in ways designed to get our survival needs met in our particular family, society and culture. As these protector selves develop, so our vulnerability often gets buried and forgotten.

At his death, was Jesus in the comfort of his own bed in his own home? Were his friends and family by his bedside? Was his doctor close by to relieve his pain? No. He was betrayed, stripped naked and had a crown of thorns pushed onto his head. He was paraded through jeering crowds, hauling a heavy cross on his back. He was nailed up for all to see, with the most vulnerable parts of his body totally exposed. It was a brutal and public death and again symbolically a painfully clear description of dying vulnerable.

The story of his death reminds us that our “deathright” is vulnerability. As we age and our bodies start to deteriorate our Primary protecting selves cannot handle situations as they once did - our energy and stamina decline, our memory begins to fail us, and our actions slow. This causes our vulnerability to resurface and be felt. We are the only animal on the planet that knows some day we must die. No matter what our belief system may be about death, we have no proof as to what happens to us once we depart. This not knowing can’t but prick our vulnerability.

For me, Christmas and Easter are reminders that we are born and die vulnerable. It is an essential condition of being alive and human on this planet. Vulnerability that we are unaware of or that we do not feel safe sharing with others is at the root of most conflict, so how we handle our vulnerability throughout our lives is the real issue for us. Do we identify with our Primary protecting selves and disown, bury or try to forget our vulnerability? Or do we use it as a guide to becoming fuller, more conscious human beings?

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Who's Dressing You?

I have a cartoon in front of me. It shows a character in a dressing gown commenting as she looks through her wardrobe, trying to decide what to wear to go to work that day. “Incredible new dress, but I can’t find any shoes to go with it…. Ah! Perfect shoes, but no matching skirt…. Hmm. Wonderful skirt, but no matching blouse….. Oh! Great blouse, but no matching slacks…. Fabulous jacket, but no matching skirt, slacks, dress, shoes, jewellery or belt…!”

In the final scene she is sitting on the bed phoning her boss: “The individual parts of me are all prepared to come to work Mr Jones, but as a group we won’t be able to make it.”

I had a similar crisis the other morning getting ready to teach a one-day workshop. At least two different parts were trying to dress me. It was a warm day and I knew the participants would be dressed casually - probably in shorts or jeans, t-shirts and trainers. The atmosphere would be relaxed and everyone would be expecting to have fun. Even so, my Conservative self thought I should wear a newly pressed pair of chinos, polished leather shoes and a smart shirt. As the trainer I should project an image of professionalism - otherwise my status would be undermined and I wouldn’t be taken seriously.

My Conservative self remembers with embarrassment an incident some years ago when I was teaching a one-week seminar in Japan. The participants were all senior managers and I wore a suit and tie every day. Halfway through the week I wanted to get some feedback from my Japanese colleague who had organised the programme. I waited until we were sitting naked in the communal hot bath. For Japanese this is a situation where the requisite Polite and Pleasing selves can be put to one side and one can be open and reveal one’s true feelings or “honne.”

“So, Iwasa-san, how do you think the seminar is going?” I asked. My own sense was that all was going well, so I was quite taken aback when he hesitated, drew breath and said, “Maybe there is a problem, Kento-san.” A problem? What could it be? My mind raced through various possibilities. Perhaps they didn’t like the content. Maybe my English was too difficult for them. Or had I inadvertently been culturally insensitive? “Please tell me Iwasa-san so that I can fix it,” I said.

“Well, Kento-san, it’s your shirts,” he replied. My Shirts?! I didn’t understand. I wore a clean, pressed shirt every day. They weren’t loud or over-styled. “Please explain,” I urged. “You wore a blue shirt on Monday and a red striped one Tuesday and a grey one today. They don’t understand why,” he answered. Now I was really puzzled. He continued, “As the “sensei”, or teacher, you have to be sincere, calm and consistent in order for them to trust you and receive your teaching. Wearing a different coloured shirt every day is not showing consistency and this is confusing to them.”

The lesson was learnt and ever since, my Conservative self has had a heightened sensitivity to my appearance and especially how my clothes might impact a group in a negative way. With this memory in mind the message was clear - I should play safe and not be controversial. I reached for my chinos. But even as I took them out of the cupboard another voice intervened.

It was my Exhibitionist self, a part of me that loves to be provocative. Allied with a Rebel self, he delights in shocking people and getting a reaction. One way to do that is to have me wear unusual or unconventional clothes. He once had me buy a T-shirt that said: “F_CK, all I want is U”! Of course, my Conservative self had had a panic attack and had made sure that this particular T-shirt languished in a bottom drawer, buried beneath “decent and respectable” clothing.

One look at the chinos and my Exhibitionist rebelled. No way did he want me to wear such “non-descript and boring” clothes! As I scanned my wardrobe his eyes settled on a blue T-shirt. Printed in big letters on the front were the words: “Just another sexy bald bloke.” That would do nicely. I put it on and then pulled on a pair of tight Levi’s. A brassy cowboy belt and an old pair of trainers and the outfit was complete. I looked in the mirror. He was satisfied.

It wasn’t more than a few seconds before the voice of my Conservative self sounded sharply in my head, “Are you seriously going to stand in front of a group of complete strangers wearing such inappropriate attire!?” And so the to and fro between these two selves began. I took the jeans and T-shirt off and replaced them with the chinos and shirt. I looked in the mirror. My Exhibitionist gave his frank opinion, “Dull, drab and dreary!!”

Phoning in like the cartoon character and cancelling the workshop was not an option. I needed to sit with these two opposing selves and find a solution. So I changed back into my pyjamas and went downstairs to eat breakfast. As I sat munching my toast I listened to their arguments. I knew that whatever I chose to wear, one of them would be upset…. Finally, as I sipped the last of my coffee I decided. I went upstairs made my selection, dressed myself and left for the workshop.

So who won? Which self turned up to teach my workshop - my Conservative or my Exhibitionist? With a nod to both I chose to wear the jeans with a conventional belt, the trainers, and a neutral coloured shirt. That way both selves could be present to inform my work. I could be professional and casual. Sitting over breakfast with my opposing selves enabled me to take charge of them rather than have either one take charge over me!

The ‘war of the wardrobe’ can offer wonderful insights both for facilitator and client in a Voice Dialogue session. On one occasion for example, a lady who for several sessions had worn unobtrusive pastel colours, arrived in a bright red dress. That day her Sexual Rebel spoke out. “Did you dress her this morning,” I asked. “You bet!” she said feistily, “It’s about time she listened to me!!” Or the tolerant, new-age mother who turned up one day in a dark top with a wide, pristine white collar. Her inner Puritan who railed against her easy going attitude to raising her children wanted his presence to be noted and his voice heard: “Spare the rod and spoil the child!” was his message.

So, take a moment to observe what you are wearing right now and ask yourself “who dressed me today?” Maybe this will clue you in to a particular self that is trying to get your attention and appreciation.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Extremists Within

I grew up in the long shadow of the Second World War and, like many of my generation, was repelled by the ideological extremism of the Nazi's and their fascist allies. At grammar school I rebelled against the autocratic and hierarchical regime imposed by a very conservative headmaster. I reveled in his obvious discomfort as the socialist government mandated that the school become comprehensive and admit equally pupils of all abilities. I started a satirical school magazine which poked fun at the "old guard, reactionary" teachers and lampooned the traditional values they held dear.

1968 was the year of student revolution and while at university I joined demonstrations for workers rights and against police "brutality". I even had a copy of Mao Zedong's Little Red Book proudly displayed on my bookshelf. As a gay man, my liberal values were especially dear to me. Homosexuality had finally been decriminalized in the UK in 1967 and there was a sense that society was finally moving out of the dark ages and into a more tolerant era. 

I remember well the moment I began to question my naively youthful optimism. In my mid-twenties I was working in London teaching English to foreign students. I had rented a room in a house along with four others. One evening a number of people gathered in our shared living room. As I prepared my dinner in the adjacent kitchen I couldn't help overhearing their conversation, which was loud and animated. They were discussing politics, the overthrow of the government, the annihilation of capitalism and the appropriate "punishments" that would be meted out to the ruling elites. It turned out that the house was the meeting place for the south London cell of the International Marxist Group.

I wasn't so much shocked at the content of what they were saying as the vitriolic tone with which they were speaking. It had the same self-righteous fever that I associated with right wing ideologues. The words were different but the energy was the same.

It wasn't until many years later that I understood in a very personal way how over-identification with any ideology, system or way of being means that whatever is opposite gets buried in the psyche and vehemently judged when it appears in the external environment.

In a Voice Dialogue session I had spoken to the part of me that would aggressively fight for gay rights, and have no tolerance for intolerance! Separating from this part and moving back to the centre I felt  the stirring of a very different energy on the other side. Moving over, and to my greasurprise, I met my disowned inner Homophobe!! I felt like my maternal grandmother - a sexually conservative, Edwardian lady, very upright, principled and respectable. From my mouth came an expression of outright disgust at the very notion that two men could have sexual feeling for each other, let alone act on them. It was "against nature" and an "abomination"!

I got it. The more deeply buried and unconscious the disowned material is, the more extreme the polarization and the more highly charged the expression of what is "right".  Only when we embrace the extremes within us - e.g. conservative and liberal, gay and homophobic - will we be able to have a more conscious and therefore a more balanced approach to what life brings us.

Now more than ever it seems essential that we look within to find the source of the extremism in our world.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Organiser

My partner left last week for an eight-month stay in Thailand. After 6 years in the UK, he wants to reconnect with his culture, visit his family and study Thai massage. The trip has been planned for at least a year, so I have had plenty of time to get used to the idea that we will be apart for this extended period. However, as the reality of being home alone sets in, I’m feeling vulnerable. I have Peppar my dog to keep me company, but she doesn’t quite compensate for his absence.

As the days unfold, I can feel the presence of my Primary selves as they circle around me to protect the Little Boy in me who is missing him. Their job is to keep me from feeling sad and upset and they are an awesome bunch. There’s my Rational Mind, my Pusher, my Pleaser and my Perfectionist, but chief amongst them is my Organiser who came into existence very early in my life.

My mother was an extremely neat and tidy person and one of her major rules was that all my toys had to be put back in their boxes after I had finished playing with them. I might have rebelled against this, but instead chose the path of least resistance and followed her injunction. As a result, I developed my own top-notch Organiser who took his place in the pantheon of my Primary selves.

In addition to having me follow the household rules, my Organiser became a useful ally in protecting me against the overly protective, possessive and needy feelings that came at me from my mother. I could rely on him to create structures that would defend me against her. Each night for example I can recall lining all my soft toys up in exactly the same order along the wall by my bed. They formed a symbolic shield and with them in place I could safely fall asleep.

Later, my Organiser used my electric train set to fashion similar boundaries. On sheets of chipboard that stretched in a large L-shape along two walls of my bedroom I created a detailed landscape of undulating hills and valleys with miniature trees, a river, fences and fields with sheep and cows. Cornflakes packets became high-rise apartments and my matchbox cars travelled along black painted roads. Through this highly organised terrain the railway track weaved its way in a large and irregular loop, passing through tunnels and over bridges.

I would spend hours arranging and modifying this landscape, lost in my self-constructed world. No one was allowed to re-organise, alter or even touch it. This applied to friends and family alike - but especially to my mother who was forbidden to dust it! Organising objects around me like this became a way for me to create a boundary within which I felt secure when events, situations or people triggered my vulnerability. I felt I was in control and therefore safe.

By the time I was a teenager my Organiser had infiltrated every aspect of my life influencing how I arranged my books on the shelves, my clothes and all the objects in my cupboards. I loved the preparation for a cycling holiday or camping trip as much as the event itself. My Organiser had me write detailed lists of what to take, check and recheck everything was in order and pack my bags with great care and attention. As a consequence I became an expert at planning and time management. I even fantasised that some day I would be a great logistics officer in the army or an operations manager in an international company.

Being so identified with my Organiser has been a wonderful asset to me in my work, but inevitably it has meant that I have attracted into my life people who are less-organisationally skilled and who don’t value order so highly! Friends who come to stay in my neat and tidy home invariably have the uncanny knack of creating instant “mess” with bags, clothes and belongings strewn all over. Many of my lovers have had as one of their Primary selves a spontaneous or more laissez faire self. At the outset this has seemed a rather cute and endearing characteristic. But as soon as stress-levels have risen and we have gotten into arguments, my Organiser has rounded on them, judging them as “untidy”, “shambolic” and “out of control”.

Which brings me to my current partner who of course feels no need to wash and dry the dishes immediately after eating, or put them away in the appropriate cupboard. Nor does he mind leaving shoes, bags, coats, letters, socks, towels, newspapers, hats, gloves, bottles, jars, tubs and tubes lying wherever they happen to land! In contrast to me, he feels comfortable and secure when his environment is haphazard and chaotic. Too much organisation can make him feel constrained and boxed in. It reminds him of his Aunt’s house where he was raised after his parents died. She was a meticulous person and was always criticising him for being messy and muddled-headed. No matter how hard he tried it was never good enough so he finally gave up trying.

We realised early in our relationship that we could learn a lot from each other - him how to be more organised and me how to let go and be more impulsive. We knew that if we didn’t do this, we would end up just gritting our teeth and bearing each other’ behaviour or endlessly judging our opposing selves. Either way the relationship would be in jeopardy. For my part, I have practiced separating from my Organiser and choosing occasionally to leave the bed unmade, the cushions on the sofa unplumped, the washing up in the bowl overnight or the garden path unswept. I have also embraced the part of me that is comfortable acting without a plan, and found a joy and excitement in this.

But now, with my partner gone and my Little Boy feeling abandoned, I sense my Organiser trying to muscle in to protect me as he always has. He has already hijacked the pad by my bed that I use to note down dreams. It has now become a list of things I have to do the next day - things like sorting kitchen cupboards, rearranging bookshelves, cleaning out the shed, tidying up the garden and clearing away my partner’s perfumes and toiletries in the bathroom. None of these things are bad, but if I do them unconsciously and allow my Organiser to take over and drive me relentlessly until they are all done, I will not be able to stay in touch with my Little Boy. Instead, he will get buried beneath a flurry of activity.

My task now is to keep my wonderful Organiser in check and take some time and space to just be with the Little Boy inside me. Sitting quietly with him and feeling his vulnerability, sadness and upset at the separation, I hope that I will be able to consciously take care of him and his needs. Doing this will allow me to maintain an authentic connection with my partner when we communicate by phone or via the internet. And it will also pave the way for a sweet reunion later in the year!

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Just Amble

I tried to ignore it, but the pain in my ankle wouldn't go away. It had started as a twinge but then grew in strength until each step felt increasingly uncomfortable. I couldn't recall twisting or injuring it in any way and was at a loss to explain the cause. Mooching around the house I hardly noticed it, but as soon as I went out and walked any distance my ankle began to complain. I found myself limping slightly and tensing the muscles in my leg to compensate.

Eventually I went to see my doctor who diagnosed a pulled ligament and recommended resting my foot as much as possible. But how could I do that when I had to walk the dog twice a day? Peppar was just over a year old and full of energy. She would go crazy if she didn't get the chance to run, sniff and play with other dogs. My partner's work schedule meant that I was the one to take her out morning and afternoon for her daily exercise - a three-mile walk by the river.

I wondered if some manipulation might help and decided to make an appointment with a physiotherapist. Before seeing him, however, I scheduled a Voice Dialogue session with my friend Michael. I thought that we could do some body dialogue and talk to my ankle to see if it was trying to tell me something.

As is often the case, what happened was not what my Rational Mind had mapped out! As Michael began the facilitation, I became aware of a general tightness and tension in my body. We decided to talk to the part of me that was causing it. I moved my chair over and out came a part that called itself my Resistor.

Michael welcomed him and asked what purpose he served.
“I put a break on the selves that would otherwise run away with his life,” said the Resistor.
“What parts are they?” asked Michael.
“Those big powerful guys over there.” The Resistor nodded to the other side of the room. “His Controller, his Rational Mind, his Pleaser, his Organiser, and above all, his Pusher. They are all very headstrong. I have thick steel cables attached to them but it takes a huge amount of energy to rein them in and anchor them down.”
“What would happen if you weren't around to keep them in check like this?” enquired Michael.
“They would completely take him over and cause him all sorts of problems. In fact they would probably end up killing him!” replied the Resistor.

“How much of John's energy do you take up doing your job?” asked Michael.
“About 90%. They pull really hard, like kites in a strong wind. I have to be constantly vigilant to stop them from taking off and flying away with him. For example, his Pusher tries to infiltrate every aspect of John's life. He can’t even leave him in peace when walking the dog. He sets constraints - a certain distance has to be covered in a limited amount of time - so that the walk turns into a route march. He also gets John to use the walk to review his dreams from the night before as well as create a ‘to do list’ for the day ahead. Every minute has to be productive. He just doesn’t let up!”

“That's amazing. I'm just wondering whether you have anything to do with the pain in his ankle,” Michael enquired.
“Of course I do. It's a result of me digging my heels in and attempting to slow that Pusher down.”
“I see. So you’re trying to get him to walk more slowly?”
“Exactly. He has been striding out like a man possessed. He needs to get that Pusher off his back, relax and use the time to enjoy the river and its wildlife. He should just amble.”

Two days later with the words of my Resistor fresh in my mind I had my appointment with Euan the physiotherapist. He examined my ankle and confirmed that I had indeed pulled a ligament and now had some secondary problems as a result of walking awkwardly.

“But I have no idea how I could have done it,” I said.
“It could be a result of repetitive strain”, said Euan. “Have you done a lot of walking recently?”
“As a matter of fact I have, ever since we got our new dog,” I replied.
“Do you walk on a smooth or uneven surface?” he enquired.
“On the towpath, which is mostly uneven.”
“I see. Show me how you walk.”

I strode around the consulting room.
“How long do you walk the dog every day?”
“In total about ninety minutes, maybe more.”
“Well, I'd say that striding like that on an uneven surface is the cause of your problem.”
“So should I stop walking and rest my ankle?” I asked hesitantly.

His answer gave me goose bumps. “Not at all. You should keep on moving your foot or your ankle will seize up. But instead of striding out like that, just amble.”

Like all dogs, Peppar is a very sensitive being and picks up small changes in my energy. She is also very bright and a fast learner. I quickly taught her to sit, stay, come and drop. To my great frustration however, the one discipline she didn’t master was to walk to heal on the lead. No matter how many times I pulled her back and said “Peppar, heal!” she always tried to forge ahead.

It was only when I followed Euan’s advice to walk more slowly rather than stride out that I understood why. My verbal command to “heal” contradicted the non-verbal energy of my Pusher, which for her was actually signaling, “Go, go, go!” As I have practiced separating from my Pusher during our walks and consciously accessed my calmer, more relaxed selves, Peppar has started to walk to heal - and my ankle has healed.

The learning for me as I grow older is that I have to get into a different relationship with my Pusher or the impact of his energy on my body will cause me ever more problems. As I reflect on this, I am reminded of the advice my grandfather gave about how to get things done without “overdoing it” and becoming stressed out. “Make haste slowly!” he would say with a knowing smile and a twinkle in his eye.

Or in the words of my Resister and of Euan, “Just amble.”

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Nothing At All

My first job after leaving university had been in Jyväskylä a small town in the centre of Finland. I had arrived in the middle of September to find Autumn well underway in this land of forests and lakes. I had grown up in the urban sprawl of London and the spectacular displays of red, yellow and orange leaves had dazzled and amazed me.

Now after an absence of twelve years I was back visiting friends. There was so much to tell them - my travels around the world, the different jobs I had done, relationships begun and ended. My Finnish friends were particularly interested to hear about the three years I had spent living and working in Japan - a strange and exotic country to them. While there I had begun studying a martial art which had its roots in esoteric Buddhism and it was something I still practiced. To my friends my life seemed as rich and varied as the colours of Autumn.

Coming down to breakfast one morning I found a letter waiting for me. It had been posted to my London address from Massachusetts and had then been forwarded on to friends in Helsinki who had redirected it to me here in Jyväskylä. It had been on quite a journey! I could feel something solid inside the thick brown manilla envelope. What could it be and who had sent it?

To my astonishment, when I opened it I found a sheet of paper carefully folded around a red maple leaf and a piece of birch bark. On the paper was written a simple message: ‘So impressed by Fall in New England. Ito’. Ito-sensei was one of my Japanese martial arts teachers with whom I had a close connection. I looked carefully at the bark and realised that written in red ink in one corner were some Japanese characters (kanji). I had never learnt to read Japanese and was mystified. What did they mean and what was Ito-sensei trying to tell me? How on earth was I going to get it translated here in the middle of Finland? I guessed I would have to wait till I got back to London where I could ask a Japanese friend to decipher it for me.

Later that same day as I strolled down Jyväskylä’s main shopping street I was amazed to see an Asian face walking straight towards me. As we got closer I realised that the young man was Japanese! I approached him eagerly. “Excuse me. Do you speak English? Are you Japanese?” He looked startled. He must have thought that I was a street salesman or a religious evangelist. “Yes, I am Japanese and I speak a little English,” he replied. I explained that I had just received a short note - just six kanji - from a Japanese friend and wondered if he would mind translating it for me. Once he understood that that was all I wanted he visibly relaxed and graciously agreed to meet later that afternoon in a local café.

Over a coffee and Finnish pastry I found out that he was an exchange student staying with a local family and had been in Finland for just a week. He was interested to hear that I had lived in Japan. The necessary pleasantries completed, I felt the moment was right to show him the script. I carefully took the bark out of the envelope and pointed to the kanji nestled in the corner.

As he read them, first a frown and then a smile passed over his face. “This is a Buddhist saying,” he said. “Mu ichi butsu. Mu zin zou.” I waited for the translation. “It means: ‘Nothing at all. Limitless potential, or everything beyond measure’. I think the man who wrote this must be your sensei, your teacher.” I explained who Ito-sensei was. “He must like you to send you this small gift with such a big meaning,” he replied.

That was 25 years ago. I have carefully kept the leaf and the bark and they now hang in a frame on a wall of my home in London. From time to time something will happen that reminds me of Ito-sensei’s gift and I am drawn to meditate on the message he sent me. So it was just the other day when I was listening to one of Hal and Sidra’s CD’s. The interviewer was wondering whether it was ever possible to find out precisely who we are and whether there is an ‘ultimate self’. This is what Sidra replied:

‘It’s not always a question of who you are, but it’s who you are not that we seem to work with… a constant refining of what we aren’t. The beautiful thing about all this is that we are none of these selves… but we are all of them… This gives us a richness and a breadth that is extraordinarily exciting.’

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Seminar Leader

As a Voice Dialogue teacher and facilitator, it is humbling to realise how hard it can be to separate from a powerful primary self and how vigilant we must be least we go unconscious and are taken over by its energy. I once heard Hal Stone describe such a self as being like a huge planet - before we know it, we have been drawn into its orbit and captured by its high gravitational pull. I was reminded of this recently while teaching a management seminar in Modena, Italy.

Over the past few years, the poor economic climate has meant that many companies have cut their training budgets. As a result I have been asked to lead seminars alone. Although this has meant working harder, it has made a part of me very happy, as I have not had to take into account the opinions, concerns and needs of a co-trainer. I have been able to do it my way, i.e. the way my Seminar Leader self likes to do it.

In Modena, however, my Italian client had sufficient funds for two trainers, and once again I was asked to work with a colleague - someone whose style and approach was very different from my own.

I began training when I was just 17 years old. The wife of my English teacher at high school was the local representative of the European Student Travel Organisation (ESTO). Her job was to find host families and English teachers for groups of French teenagers coming to London on two-week study programmes. One of her teachers had fallen ill and her husband had suggested me as a last minute substitute!

“But I have never stood in front of a class and taught anybody anything,” I protested. “I know you have it in you,” replied Eric, “It will be a good experience for you - and you will earn a little holiday money too! It will really help Penny out if you can take it on.” My Pleaser could not refuse him and with great trepidation I acquiesced.

I can still remember the butterflies in my stomach, my sweaty palms and my pounding heart as I was introduced to the mixed sex class of 25 rowdy youths: “This is Mr Kent, your English teacher,” announced Penny. Some were younger than me, but most were my age or older. How was I going to control them, let alone teach them anything? What authority could I possibly have? I felt shy and vulnerable and wished I had never agreed to do this.

There was a moment of silence as they stared at me - a mixture of wariness and expectation on their faces, checking me out to see if I was worthy of their respect. I knew I had to be proactive. I had to seize the initiative.

As I stared back at them, something shifted inside me and to my surprise I suddenly felt suffused with a calm, quiet energy. My mind cleared and in a cool, confident voice I heard myself say, “Good morning everyone. Let’s begin the first lesson.” My Seminar Leader was born.

Eric had been right, I did have it in me! I continued to work with ESTO during my university vacations and when I graduated I followed a career as a trainer. Over the years, my Seminar Leader grew from strength to strength, learning from each new opportunity and assignment. By the time I was in my late 30’s it had become a powerful force in my professional life. Just how dominant - and domineering - it was only became clear to me in the late 1980’s when I was teaching cross-cultural communication seminars in the USA.

I met Patricia while studying Voice Dialogue in Tucson, Arizona. She was also a trainer, with some expertise in international business relations. We got along OK and decided that it would be fun to run a workshop together. The marketing, planning and preparation went well, but when it came to delivering the training I found myself becoming highly judgemental of her style.

Sensing that all was not well, and also feeling some negative judgements towards my way of working, Patricia suggested that we do a joint Voice Dialogue session with another facilitator, Rick, to explore what was going on. After explaining the situation to him, we all agreed that I would be facilitated first while Patricia observed.

When Rick asked to speak to the part of me that had something to say about Patricia’s way of training, my Seminar Leader immediately made his presence felt and I moved my chair over to where he wanted to sit.

“Could you tell me how you feel about Patricia as a trainer?” asked Rick.
“There are only three trainers in the world that I respect and she’s not one of them!” pronounced my Seminar Leader in no uncertain terms.
“What exactly upsets you about Patricia’s style?” enquired Rick.
“She is too laid back, too wishy-washy, lacks pace and momentum, doesn’t work according to the agreed plan, deviates and digresses, seems intimidated by the participants, lacks confidence and, as a result, loses her authority and control over the group. Why John agreed to work with her I’ll never know. She’s useless!”

Speaking as this self I felt very powerful and self-righteous in my condemnation of Patricia. Quite simply, she should never be allowed to stand up in front of a group again! More judgements followed, delivered with a vehemence that clearly shocked and upset Patricia who was trying her best not to react to my highly opinionated self.

After a while, Rick invited me to separate from my Seminar Leader and I moved my chair back to centre. Immediately I felt a much younger energy tugging at me and Rick invited this energy to speak. I went over to the opposite side of the room and curled up on the floor with eyes tightly closed.

It was my Shy Child - the same part of me that had been so nervous and anxious all those years before as I faced my first class of French students. This part of me did not like my Seminar Leader or the way he behaved when he took me over. “I hate standing up in front of people. Why does John do that kind of work? I don’t want to be the centre of attention with everyone looking at me. I’m scared of them. And now I’m scared of Patricia,” whispered my Shy Child.

“Why are you scared of Patricia?” asked Rick.
“Because that Seminar Leader guy has upset her and I’m afraid she is hurt and angry and won’t like me any more,” came the answer.

Rick spent some time with my Shy Child and then asked me to move back to the centre. I took a moment to experience myself sitting between these two very different energies before finishing my session. It was now my turn to observe as Rick facilitated Patricia.

The first part of her to speak was a very indignant, Judgemental Mother that couldn’t stand my “overbearing and condescending” Seminar Leader. She hated the way men treated women as being less important and less able, and railed against the patriarchal attitudes that “pervaded and perverted” society. As she spoke, I felt my Shy Child cringe at her words. It felt like she was going to annihilate me.

However, when she moved over to the opposite side, a very young Fearful Child spoke. This self was cowed by the judgements of my Seminar Leader and felt bruised and humiliated. It turned out that Patricia’s father had been a very powerful and domineering man who had always told her that she was no good at anything and would never amount to much. His advice was that she should find a man, settle down and live her life as a loyal housewife and mother. The dismissive tone of my Seminar Leader reminded her of him.

Listening to the opinions, fears and concerns of our different selves shone a spotlight on the underlying tensions that existed between us. We were able to understand how on a deep level our defensive primary selves were interacting in a negative way as they endeavoured to protect our younger, more vulnerable selves. It was clear to me just how identified I had become with my Seminar Leader and how his judgements of Patricia reflected my own disowned material. My Seminar Leader was actually terrified that I would lose control and not be able to handle the class. His powerful presence ensured my safety, but had inevitably caused problems in my working relationships with other trainers, especially when they were more easygoing in their approach.

These memories came back to me as I observed my colleague in front of the class in Modena. I heard the voice of my Seminar Leader formulating a very negative appraisal of her. After ruling the roost for the past few years, having to work with a co-trainer again reminded me just how powerful a presence this primary self can be in my work life. It also gave me the chance to reconnect to my Shy Child who, 40 years on, still does not want me to be doing this kind of work!

I reflected how the dance of our selves in relationships of all types - with colleagues and co-workers, as well as with significant others - can act as guide to what we need to acknowledge and embrace in ourselves. As I detached myself from the gravitational pull of my very talented Seminar Leader and listened once more to the fears of my Shy Child, I felt the judgements about my colleague fade and found them replaced by feelings of tolerance, empathy and appreciation.