and so it begins…

A European wasp

A European wasp, or vespula germanica. Wikimedia Commons: Richard Bartz

Climate change is a kind of creeping death, so gradual that I almost don’t notice it. It’s there in the back of my head though, whispering to me on hot days or big weather events. Climate change, climate change, climate change.

I haven’t ever associated it with anything tangible though. I don’t live close enough to the Earth, don’t spend enough time observing the more than human to notice any incremental changes. I’ve noticed no plants or insects or animals growing in new places or behaving strangely. Until now.

I can’t remember who first mentioned the wasps. I think my ex-wife told me they had to move our son’s birthday party indoors to avoid them.

At a cafe a week later I noticed them swarming over someone’s bacon. The waiter told the customers that he’d complained to council but there’s nothing they can do. Wasps can smell food over a kilometre away and it is almost impossible to track them back to their nest.

On a bushwalk in Daylesford last weekend I was struck by their ever-present hum. There were so many hovering around the mainstreet I had to keep the windows closed when I drove past.

My son told me that his kinder friend’s mother had been bitten on the lip while eating bacon and his friend had been stung too. It is a fear that looms large in his small world and is no doubt shared by his friends and their parents.

Via these small moments the wasps entered my field of vision. Then I saw this article on my newsfeed. It turns out the whole of Melbourne has a wasp problem. My attention was captured by one line in particular from the entomologist:

we’ve had a mild summer and a mild winter before that

Climate change, climate change, climate change.

And so it begins.

The wasps are harbingers. Their presence fills me with dread but it’s not the sting that worries me, it’s the myriad unknown changes to come.

The power of presence

My son and my mother walking together.

On the face of it the Forum process is deceptively simple. A group of people sit in a circle and silently offer their presence to one another as they take it in turns to step into the middle and speak about what is going on for them. A facilitator sometimes asks questions of the person in the middle or offers various techniques to encourage them to go deeper into what they are feeling. When each person finishes their time in the centre, the silent witnesses are invited to become mirrors and offer reflections. They speak in third person about what the protagonist shared, what they noticed or what resonated with them.

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Wild Mind 2015 – shame is a gateway

Wow, what a weekend. Last year’s Wild Mind was a transformational experience for me so my expectations were running fairly high for this one. As the day drew closer, I began to get a sense of exactly who would be there and my excitement levels rose and rose. It was looking like an impressive bunch of folk, not just for their skill and talents but for their big hearts and courageous ideas.
Wild Mind 2015
Something about having all those conscious, open minded people in one place at one time, inspires your heart to open no matter how much you want to resist. The emotional core for me was a two hour conversation about shame. It was beautifully, courageously facilitated, blending individual stories of shame (led by the facilitator and drawn from the group) with a more intellectual conversation about the role of shame and how to handle it.

We started by talking about how we each define shame. “Shame is born of our relationships and can only be healed in relationship, even if it is through our relationship with our self.” is one that has stuck in my mind. My own definition was based on a recent experience of psychodrama where I discovered that my sense of shame obscured my vision and the object of shame turned out to be something of a gateway to transformation and wholeness.
There was good consensus in the group about the need to hold ourselves with compassion in the experience of shame. People used a variety of different words to describe a similar process of observing our feeling of shame with compassion. I use the words ‘large self’ and ‘small self’ (where the ‘small self’ is not inferior but inspires me to give myself the compassion I would give my son in the same situation). Others used the word ‘home’ to describe their large self and avoided giving a label to the self that experiences shame.
There was a profound insight for me in the observation by one group member that ‘shame’ and ‘vulnerability’ are adult words that most children don’t understand, including the child in us. Vulnerability is a wound that stands in the way of our self expression but to get past the wound we must express the feelings of the child we were when the wounding took place. That might require us to find a simpler language to describe our feelings of vulnerability. For example rather than saying “I feel vulnerable” saying “I feel scared of saying how I feel because I worry that you might not talk to me anymore.” This takes more courage but when I used it with my partner later that evening I found she was much more able to offer me the compassion I was craving and I was more able to identify my feelings.
Even the fact of talking about shame seemed to inspire feelings of shame within the group. At the end of the conversation there was some lengthy discussion about how to ‘end the session’ without ‘leaving people in shame.’ Some of the suggestions seemed to indicate a desire to make everyone feel better which really jarred with me (I being one of those who had opened up a raw experience). It’s quite hard for me to allow myself to feel so raw and I was wary of shutting myself down when I was surrounded by such a loving community. I knew that if we closed the circle I would be able to keep processing and possibly release something powerful. In the end we agreed to sing together, a song about light shining on us, not fixing or healing, just shining.
Fox walking with Maya Ward was another highlight

Fox walking with Maya Ward was another highlight.

I spent the evening further processing the experience with fellow Wild Minders, dancing to gentle music and participating in cuddle puddles. I am deeply grateful to all at Wild Mind for cocreating such a beautiful space for our mutual unfolding.
You can read another slice of Wild Mind on Geoff Berry’s blog White Fella Dreaming

A tale of three worshops

Spontaneously dancing with my scarf in the Toolangi forest.

Spontaneously dancing with my scarf in the Toolangi forest.

I was really thrilled over the last few months to have had two invitations to do the Work that Reconnects at festivals. The first one was the Waking up the Spirit Skillshare weekend (with the Barkindji people north of the Murray River), the second was for the Toolangi Forest Secrets Festival (in the mountains past Healesville).

Neither event turned out quite the way I expected. I didn’t end up running full ‘Despair and Empowerment’ workshops. Instead I just stayed present and connected with people individually. On both occasions I had planned a variety of processes to share but when I got to the festival it just didn’t feel like the right ‘vibe.’

In between those two events I ran a truth mandala at my home for friends. I had about 8 people come and it was lovely, so beautiful to see people go from strangers to connection in two hours. It was also deeply satisfying to find that I am actually capable of following through on a facilitation commitment!

It feels timely to pause and reflect on these experiences. What does it mean that things didn’t go according to my plan at the festivals?

I really want to criticise myself. The difficult thing is that each time I chose to be present and be guided by what my instincts were telling me. In the moment I was fine with it and happy to accept the other connections I was making but now, in retrospect, I’m disappointed and wondering what the next step is for me. I really want to experiment with larger groups of people but I just don’t seem to be able to make it happen.

I’m not sure if I am not ready to facilitate in those situations or if people are not ready to participate, maybe it’s both. Not everyone sees the value in grief and I am not confident enough to force it on them. I seem destined to enlarge my circle one person at a time. Should I be content with that or am I keeping myself small?

Surrender

Surrender

Earlier this year at the Wild Mind festival I attended an embodied writing workshop with Maya Ward. As a poet I expected to write poetry. Much to my chagrin what came to me were some cheerful words and a snippet of melody. A week later it was still running around in my head so, even though I didn’t really like the melody, I took the time to sing it out and write some more lyrics.

The resulting song has been a prayer, an affirmation and a blessing. I have sung it to myself and to other people in my life whenever the reminder to surrender was needed. It has brought numerous people to tears (which I count as a good thing) and brought me enormous peace. Now I finally have the courage to share it:

Serenity, wonder and peace are yours
The infinite mystery of life
Wholeness, connection and balance are yours
If you surrender to strife.

Let go and let come
The earth will keep turning
The work will get done
Let go and let come
The universe is waiting for you.

Kindness, compassion and love are yours
Softness of a warm embrace
Happiness, humour and joy are yours
The laughter of children at play.

Let go and let come…

Silence and stillness and solace are yours
Because sometimes you must go within
Nurturing, comfort and weeping are yours
If you can learn to give in.

Let go and let come…

Envy and anger and greed are yours
Because they too have something to teach
Community,  family and friendship are yours
If in your heart you make peace.

Let go and let come…

The universe is waiting
Your own heart is waiting
And we’re all here waiting for you.

Dancing with shame

Back Creek heading into a tunnel

The other day I got to meet some awesome new people who are living close to the Earth, growing vegies in their backyard and building community. Lots of big ideas were thrown around about worker cooperatives, festivals and financial collapse. It was exciting but, if I’m honest, also a little intimidating. Why is it that instead of being happy about people embracing new ways of living/being I turn it into some kind of judgement on myself?

They had boxes and boxes of zines from Doing it Ourselves and were generously encouraging my friend and I to go through and take what we needed in exchange for a donation. My friend amassed quite a pile but when I looked at it I felt sick. I imagined reading all those ideas and strategies and comparing it to the life that I lead now and finding myself wanting. A pile of what could be a gateway to inspiration and creativity was looking to me like a big pile of shame – some kind of indictment on my way of being in the world.

I work full time in a public health organisation, I get paid to look at the big picture of what’s going on in society and develop strategies that will change the way people think and act so that we all have the opportunity to be healthier and more connected. I work with awesome people who are genuinely passionate about the work that we do and care very deeply about making the world a better place. And yet, yesterday, in a bid to garner the approval of these ‘cool new people’ I found myself dismissing my work and the way I feel about it by calling myself a ‘wage slave.’

I’m not writing this post to get sympathy for myself or to beat myself up, I just think the strength of my reaction is interesting and I’d like to unpack it. At the end of the day I was exhausted and fuzzy headed,upon reflection I wonder if this was the result of ‘performing’ for the ‘cool new people.’ One of the topics that came up in conversation was burn-out. Apparently there are a lot of people around suffering from burn-out and I wonder if there’s a connection. Burn-out is a product of doing too much, of feeling driven to perform, perhaps I’m not the only one who can feel berated by a stack of zines I haven’t even read yet.

Reflecting on the train this morning I wondered what would happen if I ran a workshop that deliberately created that sense of shame. Delivering to people a list of criteria for the ‘perfectly sustainable human’ and then inviting them to reflect on how this list makes them feel. When I think about shame in terms of the impact on our community rather than me personally I can see the insidious ways that shame operates to keep us small. Marketing is all about encouraging a sense of shame of ‘not enoughness’ that we must buy our way out of. When we are measuring ourselves against the standard of ‘perfectly sustainable human’ we are perpetuating a cycle that prevents us from opening up, connecting with others and creating the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

Activists, radicals and other idealists have the courage to see what is wrong with the world and dare to hope for something better. They carry the shame of humanity on their backs, but if their action is borne of shame it will inevitably lead to burn-out and if they are judging themselves they are bound to judge others and create disconnection along the way. We need to name this shame collectively, to bring light to it, and support each other to operate from a place of love and care. As one of the ‘cool new people’ pointed out to me, in practice our actions may look very similar but when the feeling that drives us is love, our lives can be gentle, peaceful and nurturing as well as revolutionary.

The magic of empathy

Last week I posted about tears so it seems fitting that this week the theme for me is empathy. I came across the above video last year some time when I was completely obsessed with Brene Brown (note: I am still in love with her ideas but I tend to mention them weekly now instead of every hour). The way people respond to our grief, vulnerability and emotions in general can have a profound effect on us.

For me there is a very clear link between numbing our emotions and a host of environmental issues from problematic consumption to our inability to respond appropriately to extinction. There is also a positive aspect, that when we are connected with our hearts we are more able to come up with creative solutions and cooperate with our fellow beings (human and otherwise).

The first step in becoming empathetic with people around you is learning to sit with the discomfort of vulnerability/strong emotions. Being able to genuinely support someone else through tough times requires an ability to be uncertain and avoid slipping into the trap of ‘fixing’ what is going on for them. This is something I have been guilty of many, many times throughout my life, I have written poems about my addiction to ‘fixing’ people. Who doesn’t love the ego trip of knowing that you’ve sorted out someone else’s life for them and the hook of knowing you are needed?

This week I have had the privilege of witnessing a number of precious humans in varying states of vulnerability and it has brought home to me again and again the power of being present, of witnessing and reflecting their words from the heart. In practice these things don’t feel like much, I often feel quite helpless as I reflect someone’s difficulties a response like “Wow, it sounds like you are feeling really vulnerable.” or  “Oh it must be so scary that your mother could die any day now.” seem kind of lame. Even as I write those words I am feeling a little teary at the enormity of what some of my friends are going through and as I listen to them I am regularly speechless. Instead of rushing to avoid my anxiety I have learned to sit with it, to name it (as the video suggests), to be comfortable with my own silence or to name my deeper feelings.

What I also see in my friends though, as well as their pain, is an opportunity for love and openness. “You are feeling this grief right now because you love your mother, that’s a beautiful thing.” “You are feeling uncertain right now because you are daring to take a different path in your life.” Being able to reflect that larger context is an important way of holding them in the discomfort of the present. I am aware of being very delicate with this though because it is a short step from here to ‘silver lining.’ It’s important not to use the larger context to negate their feelings or rush them through it.

The final thing I offer, and this is taken straight from Brene, is ‘me too.’ Advice is terrible but stories are brilliant. Advice says “I know better than you.” Stories say “I have been there and this is what happened.” Stories allow space for other people to take what they need from your experience, sometimes you will know what they are going to take but sometimes it will be something completely unexpected. You have to be open enough and humble enough to share your experience and let the other person make meaning from it. You can tell them what it meant for you and what you feel you learned (the deeper and more honest you can be the better) but you can’t tell them what they should learn.

The act of empathy feels sacred to me, it is holding space for others to unfold. All humans are empathic, if they don’t demonstrate it it’s because they have learned to shut it down. The only way to open them up again is to create safe spaces for them to step into. Everyone has the means within themselves to overcome what ever they are facing. All this week I have witnessed people coming to a place of calm and finding that they already have the answers they seek. To me it feels like magic because what is required of me is actually very little, as though I’m just standing next to them while they fumble with their keys and open the door. They just need to feel safe enough to trust what they already know.

Struggles with creativity

Over the past year part my of journey has involved trying to reconnect with my inner artist. Part of that has involved writing poetry which has been very satisfying but I long to express myself visually. In the past (I’m talking about 10-15 years ago) painting helped me uncover truths that would never have occurred to my conscious mind. At times the process of creation has felt liberating and joyous, who doesn’t want more of that?

So when my troubles hit crisis point last year, I made time to paint. It kind of worked but it wasn’t as cathartic as I remembered. It was peaceful enough while I was engaged in it but it didn’t yield any insight or lasting solace. I know I’m asking a lot of a few hours but family life is crowded, I need to get bang for the time I invest. If something like 5rhythms is more effective then I’m going to go dancing for two hours instead of stay at home and paint.
 painting experiments
Over the year I have continued to fight myself and the tide of life to create space for the unstructured playtime I find crucial to creativity. It felt like a lot of my attempts failed. My inner dialogue was driving me to succeed, to push myself in new directions, to stick with it until I developed the skill to be brilliant. All of which effectively stifled anything I might have to offer.
girl holds origami butterflies on strings
Then a couple of weeks ago, after the Brene Brown course on the Gifts of Imperfection, I started thinking about working with myself, working with the skills I have instead of pushing myself to do things I can’t. Later that night I remembered a little piece of drawing and origami I did one evening, the only creative project over the year that was genuinely satisfying (and turned out beautifully, picture above). I decided to keep experimenting with drawing that same figure and the results have been astounding. I never knew I could draw!
Surrender
This journey reminds me of Mary Oliver’s advice to “let the soft animal of your body love, what it loves.” It strikes me that we all have gifts but we undervalue and undermine them in a stunning variety of ways. We think it has to be hard, it has to be a struggle, we have to earn the right to express ourselves. Charles Eisenstein would say that this is the Story of Separation, urging us to conquer and dominate ourselves. Life thrives on diversity, the Earth needs us to express what is most unique and heartfelt and natural within us. This is the birthplace of innovation, this is how we will change the world.