Monday, 16 February 2009

Snow Selves

I woke up and flicked the radio on before opening the curtains. “It’s the worst snow in London for 18 years,” said the early morning newsman. “All bus services have been suspended, many trains have been cancelled and schools closed.” I immediately felt upset that my plans for the day had been disrupted. But then, before I knew it, I was up and peering through the window, excited to see the thick white blanket of snow muffling the street.

As I gazed outside I felt myself being tugged in two opposing directions. My more controlling, professional selves were annoyed at the disruption. For them the snow was a real nuisance. I would have to make phone calls to cancel or postpone meetings and change my very sacred schedule! On the other side were my younger, more light-hearted selves, happy at the opportunity the snow gave them to come out and play. If I went with the former, I knew I would spend the day inside working at my computer and frowning through the window at the snow as it continued to fall, each flake piling up more disruption. If I went with the latter, I would use the weather as an excuse to abandon all thoughts of work and take the day off.

Either way, parts of me would be upset. Staying in and working would upset my inner kids and, come the end of the day, they would make me feel like a real spoilsport for not having let them out. On the other hand, taking the day off would incur the judgement of my Pusher and Organiser who would make me feel a good deal of guilt about “wasting my day”. I knew I would have to sweat this choice if I was to stay conscious.

I let these voices battle it out in my head as I had my shower and got dressed. After a hearty breakfast it was time to decide. Putting an arm around both camps I let them know my compromise. I would split the day into work time and fun time. I would deal with the phone calls, rescheduling and some emails first. Then I would go outside with my partner - who was unable to get to work - take a walk and enjoy the snow while it was daylight. In the late afternoon after dark I would come back to work at my computer again. Sorted.

How hard it was to stay conscious! I completed the tasks I had set myself and then, as if on autopilot, found myself writing another email and checking another document and making yet another phone call. The morning was slipping away from me. I heard my Pusher whispering, “Just one more thing, and then go out. Just one….” And at the same time I became aware of the growing upset on the other side: “Are we going out or not? Are you going to keep your promise?” I snapped to, closed the computer, called to my partner that I was finally ready, and put on my boots and coat.

Outside was magical - the enveloping white, the crunch of the snow under foot, the lack of traffic, the icy glow on my hands as I formed the snowballs, the cold drip down my neck as my partner’s snowball hit its mark. Our inner Kids came out to play as we made our way slowly towards the local shops. With schools closed, there were many children and teenagers out on the streets having a great time. Some had built a huge snowman with a carrot nose and apples for eyes. Others were pulling each other along on makeshift sledges.

On the faces of the adults I could see differing reactions to the snow. I wondered how many of them had gone through the same inner dialogue as me. Some fathers were obviously delighted to have an unexpected day off with their kids. Couples walked hand in hand smiling and chatting as they sipped warming cups of coffee - for them the weekend had arrived early! However, the faces and postures of others betrayed different emotions. Gripped by their fearful selves, older people shuffled along anxious that they might slip and fall. Then there were the frustrated businessmen heading with gritted teeth towards the station just in case a train might arrive and carry them late to work. I could imagine their inner voices sounding, “Bloody snow!” “Another day wasted!” “That is all I need right now!”

When we got to the local supermarket I was surprised to see it was packed with people. There weren’t too many smiles, and an atmosphere of mild panic hung over the aisles. Then I realised why. There was no milk on the shelves, no eggs, only a few loaves, no tins of soup and many other basics were in short supply. The lorry that delivers goods daily had not been able to get through. I could feel a part of me starting to kick in, “Quick, we should buy what we can before it all disappears! What will we do if we run out bread?” Here was the part of me that sees the glass as half empty rather than half full. Then another voice told me to, “Just chill. Don’t get caught up in this ridiculous panic buying. There’s plenty of food at home.” I smiled to myself and we left the shop without buying anything.

We continued our walk through the winter wonderland lobbing snowballs and shaking trees as we walked under them to make the snow fall from the branches onto our heads. Darkness was descending as we arrived back home a bit damp but happy. At my desk again I reflected on this snowiest day for 18 years. I thought about how easily external conditions can influence our inner climate. I ran through the cast of characters that had showed up in myself and others: there were the Pusher, the Controller, the Magical Child, the Playful Child, the Fearful Self, the frustrated Business self, the Deficit self, the Easy Going one…

So much snow, so many selves!

Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Gift

The large bubble envelope arrived before Christmas. It was addressed to my partner and I, but used only our first names. The postmark was blurred and there was no return address. It contained something soft and round and I wondered what kind of present it was and who had sent it. Unable to control my curiosity, and with the encouragement of my partner, I opened it.

To our surprise, as I peeled back the envelope there emerged a beautiful, soft toy penguin! We adopted it immediately and christened it Duk Dik - a Thai name for something small, cute and round. It now spends most of its time hanging out in the bedroom waiting to be cuddled by one or both of us. We still haven’t figured out whom it is from; but it has to be someone who knows about me and penguins.

If you walk around our house you can’t fail to notice the presence of a number of these Antarctic birds. There is the penguin clock in the kitchen, the penguin calendar in the office, the various large and small penguin statues, the penguin soap holder in the bathroom and even a penguin alarm clock from Japan which makes a wake-up noise that no-one could ever sleep through. So what’s the fetish?

As a child I had recurring nightmares about being chased by penguins - not just one penguin but a pack of them; and not just any old penguins but big Emperor penguins! It was the kind of dream where I was frantically trying to run away but unable to move forward and escape. They were closing in on me and just as they were about to catch me I would wake up in a panic. They weren’t really malicious but just very big and overwhelming. I even painted a large watercolour of an Emperor penguin when I was at primary school. It filled the entire sheet of paper. The teacher was so impressed with the magnificent black, white and yellow beast that she pinned it up on the wall for all to see. My mother kept it and I still have it rolled up in a cupboard.

“Were you taught by nuns?” one of my friends enquired searching for a possible explanation for my dreams. Nope. “Did you have picture books about penguins when you were a little boy?” offered another. Again no. To this day I have no idea where my unconscious mind got the dream image from.

The meaning of the dream was a puzzle to me until I was 42 years old. In that year I attended my first Voice Dialogue training with Hal and Sidra at their home in northern California. As an optional afternoon activity one of the assistant teachers organised a “play with clay” table. As I sat there, I was encouraged to kneed a lump of clay and just allow my hands to form whatever they wanted as I chatted to the assistant. To my amazement what grew in front of me was a very large, erect, clay phallus! “Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, “You won’t believe how many guys create one of those.” I felt reassured but wondered what it could mean.

She sensed that the phallus represented one of my disowned selves and invited me to give it voice. As Lawrence Novick PhD writes in his article “Some Thoughts on Working With Disowned Selves” (Voice Dialogue Newsletter, August 2008): ‘What is important is clarity about what the essence of the particular energy or self is, in contrast to the form in which it is being expressed.’ What the form of my clay piece nominally suggested was something sexual. However, when I spoke as the voice of the phallus I found that it represented a confident part of me that was not afraid to show itself; it would have me stand tall in the world and be full blooded, full bodied, physically assertive and powerful; it was creative and proud.

As a child I was very shy. My parents encouraged me to be a good little boy and not show off or boast. I learnt to embrace the modest, retiring, sensitive energies and shun my more proud, assertive and physical selves. It was not OK to be big and full and take up space. How perfectly an erect phallus symbolised these disowned energies.

Amazing and enlightening as my clay session was, it was not until the next day while out for an early morning jog that I got my big aha! moment. Of course! The energy of the selves represented by the clay phallus was exactly that of the Emperor penguins of my dreams. The tall, proud, confident penguins standing erect and pursuing me in my dreams were exactly those parts of me that I had had to disown as a child. What a wonderful physical image my unconscious had given me of my disowned instinctual selves.

Even now my rational mind would suggest all sorts of other interpretations as to the meaning of my Emperor penguins - the birds that cannot fly (grounded imagination?); their ability to survive extremely harsh winters (endurance?); their awkwardness on land and elegance in the sea (at ease with the “ocean of emotion”!?). But I will not be seduced by these speculations. Instead, when I sit in bed with Duk Dik by my side I just try to energetically connect with his larger cousins - the Emperor penguins of my childhood - and embrace the gifts they bring me.