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.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Graceful Ageing

Seeing me standing on the crowded tube train, a young woman stood up and offered me her seat. I felt shocked and a little upset. It seemed like only yesterday that I would have done the same for a senior citizen. Did I really look so old? A voice in my head said that I was quite capable of standing the next ten stops to my destination and that I should refuse. If I had allowed it to speak there would definitely have been an edge of indignation to it. I hesitated. Actually, my legs were aching a little and I was feeling tired. I smiled at the young woman and, with some relief, sheepishly accepted her kind offer and sat down.

I was twenty-five for many years. Then when I turned fifty I decided to act my age and became thirty-five. Now as my sixtieth year passes I fear my grip on thirty-five is weakening! Several things have recently conspired to undermine the confidence I have had in my mental and physical capabilities…..

“I didn’t know you smoked!” I said as Karin sat down to eat her lunch, placing an unlit cigarette in readiness on the table beside her plate. Karin is the young Columbian waitress at my local café. “Yes, you knew,” she replied with a warm smile, “You said exactly the same thing a couple of weeks ago when we sat at this very table!” Was I losing my mind? I had always had an impeccable memory. I was mortified.

My friend had parked her car in my street to save money. As a resident I have parking permits for visitors for just £1 per day. But when I placed the permit on her dashboard I forgot to scratch off the box showing the applicable time of day. The result was a £30 fine! I berated myself for being so stupid? Me, the Careful Planner! Mr Organised!! I never used to make silly mistakes like that.

As a dynamic seminar leader I used to pride myself on my stamina. I would push myself and the participants hard during the intensive 16 hour days, often being the last to leave the hotel bar at night. I worked longer and harder than any other trainer and despised those who weren’t able to keep up with me. These days, if I am to function well the next day, I have to pace myself and make sure I get to bed early. Part of me feels deeply embarrassed by this. It feels that I should be able to work just as hard as before.

The words of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock come to my mind: ‘I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.’ They remind me of my grandfather who, when on holiday by the seaside, would stroll barefoot along the shoreline with my grandmother. When I look in the mirror these days I see more and more of him in my face and my physique. “And what’s wrong with that?” you may ask. Well, it depends through whose eyes I see myself.

If I look at my current mental and physical capacities through the eyes of the primary selves that ran my life in my 20’s and 30’s they will find much to judge. My Mind will have anxiety attacks when I misremember or forget information. My Perfectionist will cringe when I make mistakes. My Organiser and Planner will go ballistic when I can’t find something, screw up a schedule or double book an appointment. My Pusher will despair when I tire more easily and don’t have the energy to finish a task quickly enough. If I remain identified with these selves as I grow older, my Inner Critic will have plenty of rods with which to beat me! Growing old will be a painful and dispiriting experience.

To avoid this requires that I unhook from the primary selves that have run so much of my adult life and take a little of the medicine of their opposites. I have to allow myself to accept offers of help from others, not remember everything perfectly, not know it all, make mistakes, be more spontaneous and flexible, and take breaks and naps. The reality is that my neurons are not firing as they once did and my body doesn’t have the strength and endurance it had when I was younger. To try and pretend otherwise - to still identify with the rules of my primary selves - will only result in increasing frustration and hardship.

When my friend who left her car in my street came to collect it I told her about my mistake with the parking permit. Rather than be upset, she empathised with me and then told me what had happened to her that very morning. She had stayed at her brother’s house overnight and had put the kettle on to make herself a cup of tea. Smelling burning plastic she rushed back into the kitchen only to find that she had put the electric kettle onto the gas hob to heat!! We both burst into laughter and suddenly everything lightened up. We agreed that incidents like this would only get more frequent as we grew older and that to chastise ourselves served no purpose. Then suddenly we had a great idea: why not set up a contingency fund to cover the cost of parking fines, new electric kettles and the like?!

Being able to separate from our primary selves and embrace their opposites makes us more compassionate - both to ourselves and to others. This is one of the great gifts inherent in growing old and the secret of graceful ageing.