At the end of each week I take a few moments to review. Looking back at my weekly plan, I gauge where I am at by the end of the week taking into account progress, quality and learning. It’s one of the most valuable 30 mins of my week. Without pause, insights are lost, and it’s insights, not information, which drive learning and change.
Essentially the process is a check-in on the key areas of life I’ve set out as most important. For me these currently are: health (physical and mental), career, core relationships, creativity, service/ community engagement, spirituality and nature stewardship.
Among the questions I ask at the end of the week are ones which try to harness the learning in both the high and low moments. I ask: How are my values being expressed. What are the key insights? And what is the learning to be carried over to next week (and beyond).
These questions help me see change and commitment over longer spans of time, and particularly help to put my voracious inner critic to rest for a while. I can track ‘progress’ in it’s full dimensions- not just in a linear growth model, but taking into account qualitatively and quantitatively a range of motion.
It may sound like a lot of effort to do this, but I find it so liberating and gently of my system- releasing me from time-bound expectations of ‘success’, to slow, steady and consistent appreciation of how I am showing up to my deeper desires and purpose each week. I can track learning and commitment- which I find very satisfying, since one of my top 5 values is ‘learning’.
I’ve been relatively quiet online and in the wider world over the last few months. But behind the scenes, new products and services are brewing, including a planning system and design process to help others act consistently around what matters most, and it includes these weekly planning templates. It is slowly and excitedly coming together as I build and test prototypes. I hope to have it all to you in 2022.
So, in the meantime, have you any questions you’d like me to answer about the weekly check-in?
And for yourself, a weekly prompt for you?
‘What key insights from the week can you carry over to the next’?
(An insight is an ‘aha’, a learning, a piece of information which helped you see or experience something differently, an inner knowing).
This may at first seem like a simple question, but how often do we take time to re-evaluate the parameters and scope of our own definitions?
So often success is measured through an accumulative lens. More and bigger are qualifiers for achievement. More productive. More wealth. More followers. More sales. Bigger everything. The linear and scaleable are what whole economies are measured in. Gross Domestic Product is a function of output, not sustainable processes. More and bigger do not capture depth, quality or equitable growth- for the earth and for ourselves. If not in check, it so easily becomes extractive and exploitative, at personal and social levels.
So, what if we re-framed the metric, and therefore the question.
Rather than reflecting on progress, we track process.
So, rather than what did I do today, who am I becoming today?
And some accompanying questions:
Did I live into my values today?Did I honour the earth today?Did I attend to the sacred today?What did I give today, not just what did I gain?
What if the measure of success was a measure of the quality of our relationships- reciprocal and replenishing, rather than extractive and depleting.
When we expand these contemplations to our teams, communities, societies, what a different place of potential and enquiry we arrive into.
Who are we becoming?Are we living into our values?What did we contribute?Did we regenerate resources?Did we attend to our relationships?
Changing the metrics changes the outcome.
What we pay attention to, grows.
For me today: Did I swim? Did I ring my mother? Did I offer something of value? Did I attend to the unfolding of my gifts and talents? Did I let the sacred inform me?
The autumn equinox is a time when the light and the dark are in equal measure; some refer to this time as a balancing of the light and the dark, the night and the day.
However, balance is a fragile and precarious place. Any person who has ever attempted Vrksasana, or ‘Tree Pose’ in yoga will be able to tell you that ‘balance’ is only the result of perpetual adjustments- the continual micro movements necessary to make to maintain the one-legged balance. The ‘balance’ is in the way the inhale and the exhale exchange, it is in the shifting of weight in the standing leg to account for this upper body movement and it is in the counterweighting of the hips to accommodate the natural fluctuations of energetic pulses up the spine. To be in balance is to be in constant adjustment.
And yet, ‘work-life balance’ has been projected on society as an achievable goal, and individuals tend to admonish themselves if they are unable to reach it. They are not able to reach it because it does not exist.
So, what if, instead of aiming for balance, we aim for equanimity. This is a place of composure, stability, and spaciousness in times of flux.
Below I am sharing two practices for equanimity. The first is a physical practice related to the breath, and the second is a journaling practice to deepen the learnings. It is best if the practices are done in order- the physical preceding the written.
1) Take a few moments of pause, sitting comfortably. As you sit, begin to bring some awareness to your breath. Trace your breath for a few rounds, observing the natural flow of the inhale and the exhale.
2) Once you have tuned into this pace of breath, invite the qualities of equanimity into your breath. Can your breath be more composed? Can your breath be steadier? How about more spacious? Notice how your breath alters when you invite in these equalising questions.
3) With your next few breaths begin to bring a steady and equal exchange of breath between the inhale and the exhale. You can introduce a count of breath to support you- inhaling for the count of 3, then exhaling for the count of 3. Slowly extend this count, increasing the length of the inhale and the exhale until you reach the count of 6. Continue this steady, balanced and spacious breath for a few minutes.
4) After a few minutes release the count of breath and allow your breathing to fall back to its regular rhythm. Notice the feelings and sensations within the body.
5) Within this quiet space of contemplation, journal your responses to the following questions:
What does equanimity feel like for me?
Where do I need to create more space in my life?
What parts of my life are seeking composure?
What one thing can I do today to honour this desire for composure, space and stability?
What parts of my life are seeking stability?
What small adjustments can I make to my day or week to create equanimity within all elements of my life?
“Get in the habit of welcome your words. You are making a map to the days of your life” – Naomi Shihab Nye
With September high upon us, schools back and jobs pilling up, who else has been feeling a little overwhelmed and could do with some structure, internal space and focus?
I’ve been thinking about the power of habits of late (with particular help from James Clear’s excellent book, Atomic Habits). It got me making an inventory of the habits which serve, those with don’t and those I’d like to introduce so as to support my business vision, mental and physical health… and basically, help me get my snazzle together.
Looking back at the inventory of the habits which have served, one in particularly jumps out: my 30+ year daily journaling habit. Since I was 11, daily writing has become part of me. Those blank pages are my sanctuary and idea incubator, a shoulder to cry on and a friend to celebrate with. These last 18 months, they’ve also been a lifeline.
In thinking about the benefits regular journaling, one would think I’m describing some sort of wonder drug: increased focus and attention, reduction in stress hormones, support with idea generation and creative flow, assistance with the development of personal awareness and inner resilience, brings routine and structure, is low cost and efficient. But that’s the thing, a pen and paper, regularly administered, may cause… all of the above.
But journaling need not be hard labour, needing hours of our time. I’ve learned that as little as 5 minutes a day can help turn my day around. So maybe the question is: where to start, and how to sustain the practice for the real long term benefits to accrue.
In thinking about these questions, I’ve developed a workshop to share 5x5min journaling techniques to help you establish and sustain a regular writing habit. They include things like intention setting, curiosity mapping and ‘future writing’, plus I’ve updated the workshop to include more tips and tricks of how to keep your practice going.
My next workshop is this coming Sunday, 26th Sept (5-7pm, Irish Time).
You just need to bring a pen and notebook/ journal…
However, I know not all people can make the live workshops. So if you are still keen to develop your own practice, first step is to set aside 5 mins of your day (mark time and location into your schedule). Then show up with your journal, and here are a few reflective prompts to bring you more into awareness and develop the valuable technique of perspective taking. Set a timer for minimum 5 mins (you may have more time on some of the days), and see where the following prompts take you…
Today, I’m beginning to notice…
What if look at (insert challenge) from a future perspective. I’d realise…
When I give myself permission to simply relax and accept, these things begin to release their hold…
May your words help you to make maps to your heart, and put hope in your hands,
Other journaling resources:
It doesn’t matter what kind of notebook you use, but I have to say, I’m a huge fan of moleskins. I write on blank extra-large softbacks. My drug of choice!
As September tips on the open skies, the swallow’s have been gathering on the telephone wires across the village. Some are just fledglings, fattening up for their long flight south. They’ve made it through the summer, delighting me with their darts of inky wing and swooping flights. And, rightly so, soon they will leave, into the great unknown, on a journey their instincts dictate, just like their ancestors. Only in departure can return be anticipated. To travel south is the signature of all things natural to them, closing a cycle in the greater rhythm of continuance.
It’s around this time too that the rhythms of the year take on a new season and that ‘back to school’ feeling, with all its new beginnings and own anticipations, clicks into gear. However, in a year that has felt like none other, when so many of us have been challenged to our core and when our own rhythms and routines were up-ended, it can be tempting to think we are returning back to ‘normal’. In my own life, and through conversations with friends and family, I know this year has given pause to take stock, re-evaluate, re-prioritise, and think about what matters most. There have been such valuable insights among the challenges and I am keen not to loose these as the world opens up again and the demands on time, attention and presence increase.
So, before the big rush back to ‘normal’, I think it would be useful to take some time to think about our own rhythms of continuance. How do we get intentional about what to carry onwards and where to travel from here? And how to create routines and habits which support renewal- for ourselves and our communities?
To support you (and me!), I’ve complied a series of journaling prompts to help you reflect on the last 18 months, and, as you transition across the seasons, think about the routines and rituals which will help to nourish you from the inside out.
You may choose to work through these in one sitting, or spread out over the course of a few days. How about lighting a candle to accompany you, and usher the sacred in too.
There are three parts:
I hope these questions can help you take stock of what has been a challenging time, and support you to move into the next season with intentionality and clarity. May there be ease and kindness too, to yourself, and those around you…
1. Reflection: Looking back.
While the pandemic is not over, here in Ireland at least, things are beginning to open up again. The following questions are designed you help you reflect on this momentous time of challenge, growth, learning and change.
What did you learn about yourself in the last 18 months that surprised you?
What aspects of your pre-pandemic life did you miss most?
In what ways has the last year destabilised you and what were the challenges and gifts of this uprooting?
What aspects/ elements of what you created over these last 18 months are worth savouring and sustaining?
The return of routine can bring safety, stability and comfort. Boundaries and limits can usher creativity and freedom. With routine can come rhythms which support and nourish, but so too those which deaden or flatten our senses. And so, how to create routines which enliven and enrich our lives?
Take a few moments to think about the routines which will support your own wellbeing. Here are a few journalling prompts which might help:
What routines are serving you? What aren’t?
What is your ideal morning routine? What aspect of this could you realistically incorporate into your mornings at present?
What is your ideal evening routine? What aspect of this could you realistically incorporate into your evenings at present?
Where might you need more structure in your day? Where might you need less?
What would support you or what supports do you need to establish healthier routines?
Simple ritual elevates the everyday moments to sacred. Ritual helps to uplift the ordinary and reminds us of the preciousness of time itself. Lighting a candle at dinner, placing flowers on the table, cooking a special meal, planting seeds with a child, writing in a favourite journal or with with a special pen- these simple acts can delineate our days and can be used as triggers to bring us back to gratitude and appreciation for what we have.
In my own life, this year I have made a habit of lighting a candle at dinner, even when I dine alone (which is most of the time). The candle helps me pause and appreciate the meal, slowing me down. The light is a form of companionship and has shifted my relationship to mealtime and to myself. Similarly, I have a few very simple homeware items passed down to me from my grandmother, including a blue and white table cloth. Each time I go on a picnic, the table cloth comes with me. When I spread the tablecloth out, the picnic is elevated too, endued with special memory and the legacy of my grandmother. It doesn’t take much, but the smiliest of rituals can be transformative.
So think about your own weekly rhythms. Where can you introduce simple rituals into your week?
How about changing the sheets every Sunday evening? Or starting every Monday mornings with some poems instead of to-do lists? Or lighting a candle at work meetings to bring the sacred in there too?
Take some time to jot down your ideas. What one or two can you start to implement this week. Mark these ones on your list.
I planted them months ago. Into the dark they went. Then cold came the winter and long came the winds. Strong was the attendant weather, doing winter’s job to cover the becomings with time and with waiting. This little thing called tulip bulb, so yet uninhabited by the bloom to come, buried only with my hands and the notion of promise inherited from all the tulips bulbs of its ancestry; a knowing that the story of the blooming forth is the way of bulb and the way of spring. Does the bulb know to trust? Set the conditions, wait the course, and witness the rise of stamen and stem? New forms come to those who know the shapeshifting secrets of the dark.
Months now on, as the days tend more towards the light and an equinox has tipped in favour of uncovering, I opened my front door to a memory of burst. I had forgotten I had planted bulbs in that particular pot, in that particular place, and now that place was transformed; bulb but a memory. Here now is an uprising of red tulips, classical and confident, giving testimony to the evidence of time, forgetting, waiting. My smile has the length of winter in it. It has been a long ride to get here, but I can see now: in darkness I too can trust. Yes, dark can also be the colour that leads onto red, onto bloom.
It’s been a dark winter indeed, at the tail end of a long year, some year. Our day to day lives, the very shape of them, rent apart, eluding stasis. I think we are still too much in ‘it’ to understand ‘it’- ‘it’ being the shapeshifting the world is moving through, almost as if a mythopoetic metamorphosis is underway deep in the narrative mantle of what binds us. We are in a time out of time, an altered state of play, turning the dial on what we once called normal. The shape of our lives, loves, relationships, knowings are undergoing a reformation- a re-form-ation. We too are being altered. And so it is no wonder we are struggling to find the rails, because rails are no longer sufficient. It’s new ground we are seeking, new containers, and new language to give to our yet unnamed becoming from this dark; a change which is already reconstituting our binds and bonds.
This change is happening everywhere. It is in our health systems, education, social and financial systems. It is altering our definitions of work, of home, of place, of identity. It is re-defining what it means to breathe. What it means to be. What it is to human. Our very shape is changing shape.
Let me invite you to my own particular case of education. Today I opened my door to tulips and my desk to China. I mean it literally. Myself and fellow facilitators in University College Dublin are hosting a week long Creativity and Innovation module with 30 undergraduate students in Beijing. They are in their dorms, and we, by virtue of technology and necessity, are beamed and pixellated from West Cork and Dublin- shape-shifted- into their rooms. The university is deconstructed in an instant, the role of place reconstituted in zoomland, and our notions of what is possible stretched like an elastic band, which, when released, will never go back to its original form. We already know that as educators the very fabric which holds us has been fundamentally altered and, in many ways, expanded. In these last months, we’ve had hundreds of students taking courses who have said that prior to their online learning option, they would not have been able to participate for reasons of family commitments, financial, commuting time or even confidence. Our student body is becoming more global, more representative, more mobile. As educators, in one day we can travel from Beijing or Vietnam back to the wilds of rural Ireland. We can collaborate across timezones, culture and languages. What was is no longer. What will be, is being revealed.
All this said is not to deny the challenge and pain of this time of change; not to demand that skin will always need other skin to touch; not to contradict the power of the right people connecting around a coffee table, or a bar or at a conference; not to dispute that the body as a physical abode of learning is the ultimate destiny, but it is to stand into this moment with one hand on the heart of grief and the other on the pulse of the possible. Perhaps in our loss, we can also claim the what-if. Perhaps this is a time of perhaps.
What if we could give access to global quality, relevant, revolutionary education without the need for expensive infrastructure.
What if redundant office space was be transformed into urban farms.
What if the time spent on business travel could be time spent with children on the beach, spinning tales, mending broken hearts, planting tulips.
Perhaps our time to radically re-imagine in ways we never thought to imagine is in this moment we call now.
And what if we are in fact the mythic shape-shifters for this time- the once feared sorcerers, shamans, healers and mystics who understand that a power in the dark force can also gestate the power of the seed. As many a mythic shape-shifter will know, form is not fixed, and in accelerated time, in the time of altered states, time is neither linear nor logical.So, what if we could inhabit this world with a reverence for the sacred breath which binds us all? What if love was the foundational practice of education, government, healthcare? And before we let the cynical voice de-anchor the power of these questions, may I place some words into this mythic timeline: why not? And why not now?
In a year that has felt like ten, and in a time when the pace of change has been accelerated beyond our imaginings, I want to hold room for this moment to also speak to the power of this transformative dark time- held together with the rhythms and rituals of the seasons, informed by the altered conditions of this moment, and with a trust in the fundamental knowing of each seed: that of becoming.
So, perhaps, in this time of shape-shifting, can we each be the shape-shifters needed for this reformation, holding the possibilities of new forms in our hands, and new imaginings in our hearts, for outside your front door, there is a spring, and there is a winter, there is a force of dark and a force of light. What if we call upon the nature of trust and give our confidence to that force of tulip, and that of bulb, and that of power of imagination. What if this is the time for that which has been waiting in the sacred dark, like a seed, to bloom forth too. What if the real questions we need to be asking right now begin with what if.
Here we are, at the strange end of an almost unfathomable year, where the unfathomable does not seem to be ending. It’s been a long and challenging, rough cut with learning which hasn’t quiet settled. Every single person on the planet has been impacted by the global pandemic, and each of us we are holding multitudes. I’m ready for a pause, to take stock, rest and renew, and in this threshold space of one year to the next, I am so looking forward to a few days of quiet and reflection to enter into inner conversation with what matters and listen more closely to the whisperings of what’s stirring within.
This last year, I’ve found it so helpful to return to my intentions when things got rough. They were like plumb lines, bringing me back to steadier ground. Having clear intentions helped to keep me focused on what I can influence, and when I felt unclear about how to act or what to do, I had a way of reminding myself of what I value and how I seek to live into a life designed around those things. I am so grateful for the time I spent last December setting some intentional guide ropes. Little did I know how much I’d be holding on.
As many of you will know, for the last few years I have been creating an Intentional Year Guidebook as a way of supporting that reflective process and a tool for helping to recalibrate intentions for the months ahead. And so, as we enter into this next year, I have updated the Intentional Year planner, and am delighted to be offering it out to you as in invitation to your own plumbline. So before moving into 2021, as a way of steading, the guidebook will take you back over this year, asking you to sense into the things you may need to release, grieve, acknowledgewhile also giving space for the insights you seek to carry onwards. How might you lay your own guidelines for helping to steer you back to course and remind you of what matters in your own centre? What does your future self wish for you? And what will will be your support structure to offer scaffolding as you live your way there. These are just a few of the questions the guide will navigate you onwards.
The whole process also comes with an ask: please bring kindness and gentleness to accompany you as you make your way though the guidebook- for yourself, and for others. They are qualities which acknowledge that this has been no ordinary year.
I hope you find it all a nourishing process, filled with sweet whisperings from your own heart and ballast for journey ahead.
Onwards, with love
Intentional Year Guidebook 2021- What’s Involved
The Guidebook is and intention setting process designed in threeparts
Grounding, Sensing, Becoming.
Each part contains a combination of writing, meditation and creative practices, and includes a bonus practice.
Part One- Grounding: In which you will be invited to clear some space, externally and internally, find some stability within, and capture your learnings and insights from the past year.
Finding Stillness Audio Meditation
2020 Review- journal prompts
The Enough Inventory and the Joy Inventory
Bonus Practice: A Note of Thanks (a gratitude writing practice)
Part Two- Sensing: This is all about tuning in with your highest future self, through creative visualisation and ‘future writing’.
An Introduction to Future Writing
Accessing your Future Self- An Audio visualisation
Letter from the Near Future
Bonus Practice: Create your Imram (A Nature Quest)
Part Three- Becoming: This is where you will clarify your core intentions, articulate your priorities and think through the scaffold or support structure to help keep you close to your highest self for the year ahead.
Refining Core Intentions
Mapping the Year Ahead
Support Team & Accountability Partner
Blessing from your Future Self (Audio)
Bonus Practice: Making your Intentions Visible.
How much time do you need?
I have designed this guidebook so it can be completed in about four hours, or over the course of a couple of evenings. However, you may want to create your own home retreat, clearing a full day to dive deeply into the process.You may choose to do this alone, or invite a circle of friends to join you for the day (which can be such a treat!)
If you are short on time, at a minimum I recommend completing the ‘Sensing’ practices in part two, particularly the ‘future writing’ exercises.
How I’m offering the guidebook:
Honesty Box Payment Process:
Make a payment contribution via PayPal Me- the link below takes you there. Payment in multiple currencies accepted). When you have made the payment, return to this page for step two below.
Is it still 2020? December is upon us, and the year that was knocks its tail end up against our backs with all its lessons and tricks, in ruffles or deep pleats, or maybe even resembling a car crash. It’s been bumpy, for sure, and in perhaps a twisted turn of glance, I find it reassuring when walking down the street that everyone I encountered – everyone- has been through a tough time. I’m not wishing ill, it is just that these months have been a leveller. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it is a level playing field- buttresses of wealth and privilege have both fortified and exposed the fault lines which run through our social and political landscapes; but not one person on this planet has been immune to the consequences of what this year has brought, and continues to ruffle up.
Towards the end of each calendar year as we inhabit deep winter, there is what seems to be a natural urge to occupy internal space and navigate it for meaning. By December, I generally feel the call to a make some sort of sense of the year that was, but this year, something different seems to be demanded of me. Time has felt distorted, and the timescale of a single year feels too narrow a gauge to begin to unpack what this threshold of 2020 has carried us through. In fact, I am not even sure that unpacking is the action required. I’m thinking instead of magpies; how they search out pickings, the gleaming things, and hoard as a treasury, or a reliquary, for a day when that very thing is required again, or if nothing else, to weave it deeper into the fabric of their nests. What they build is an act of choice then, not consequence; architects of their future by virtue of their preference for sparkle and gleam.
So, what is gleaming, and what is worthy to build our own future with? I am thinking here of lessons, moments, insights, savourings- bright or pointed projections along the ruffled timeline of these months which demanded our attention; sensing there is either energy in their amplification and continuance, or lessons contained within- diamonds in this blackened coal of time- to be excavated; still to be revealed, then polished. Moments, that is, to be treasured for their worth and weight. So rather than an attempt to unpack the year, I am drawn instead to bring my attention to those things which I want to build my future upon.
From this intention came the a creative practice, which I share over on my site. Doing it, perhaps you may find some treasures to build your own nest, ruffle some feathers, fortify what gives you strength or builds your resilience. Perhaps, in the mapping of your own gleaming things, you will glean something of weight and worth, upon which your future is build. To the magpie in you, I bow.
Blessings to all that you are, and all that you are becoming.
The Inner Magpie: An excavation of gleaming things- 8 Step Process.
You will need:
20 – 30 minutes (min)
Large sheet of blank paper
Coloured pens or pencils
To begin your excavation of 2020, here is a little creative and reflective practice for you -should you care for some pause and space. Set a timer 20-30 minutes, then on a blank page, create a mind map, magpie like, of your ‘gleaming things’. Don’t worry about chronological order, or trying to differentiate ‘good’ moments from ‘bad’ moments. What you are trying to do here, is capture the year in a series of memories of poignant resonances.
Like all creative practice, I find it best to approach it as an experiment. This may be useful to you, it may not suit you. But there is something to be learned in the attempt and in the approach.
The Eight Steps..
At the centre of your page, begin to map your personal insights, memories, or poignant moments of the year. They may be things which could be marked as a highlight, or it maybe something which was intrinsically challenging, even dark, but you have this gut sense that 10 years down the line, when you look back at this thing or event, there has been a strengthening force in it.
Continuing around the centre of the mind map, think about moments in the year which helped to build your stamina or resilience. What were your moments of courage? What were your moments of speaking your truth?
In a similar motion, think of moments in the year which moved you in some way. What were they?
Now, moving outwards, begin to do the same for moments or events in the wider social field. This could be something inyour community, country or the world at large. What stands out as holding particular resonance or significance? What was challenging? What was strengthening?
Take a moment now to survey thewhole map. Do you notice any themes or patterns? Of all the things on the page what is really jumping out at you? What sparkles? Circle these things in a different colour.
Again, considering everything on your map, what are the things/ lessons you want to amplify in 2021? What are the highlights you’d like to replicate, orevents/ experiences you’d like to create more of?
From the challenging aspects, what are the lessons or insights you can carry from this? What do you think can serve you in the future?
Look at what you have now circled on the map. Now, list one action to can take around each of these things to bring them to their next stage of development. That might mean needing to have a conversation with someone, spending more time journalling about it, organising a hill walk- whatever it is, what one small action can you take to bring you close to the essence of the insight/ experience you want to excavate further.
Well done on taking time to support your own learning and growth
This morning: light bright; the shadows of dill seeds cast ornate against the white wall; a singular blackbird tweet, unadorned; heat low and promising; marigolds, the ones from grown from seed, bursting their orange domes towards the open space of sky; a blank page upon which to write this day into being.
I’ve been sitting in front of my house most mornings with my coffee and my journal, to write my list. Some days it reads like a poem, other days it’s more pedestrian. No matter, I try to stay close to the descriptive as possible. Noticing, seeing, sensing the small, incremental changes each day. The rhythm and ritual of the observances have offered a geometry of grounding, keeping me embedded to the forms particular to this place. When everything else feels in flux, the list-making has a gravity to it, holding me to account, and to notice.
The truth is, of course, that everything is always in flux, only at times it feels more intense and inconceivable, happening at a speed we are unaccustomed to. If ever a time I’ve felt oscillation, it has been now. Continually learning how to steady oneself feels like important internal territory.
Like so many of us, I’ve been trying to make sense of these times. But sense too has been illusive. Clarity rises for a brief moment, only to be blurred by some other insatiable news headline, some other murder or rampage on race, some incalculable atrocity us human beings seem intent on inflicting on this planet. How can one make sense, when so much of this should never make sense. Which is why, I seem to have abandoned any effort of attempt, and instead shifted some words around. Instead of sense, I have inserted reckoning, and instead of reaction, I have brought in response. So, the questions have moved, from ‘how can we make sense’, to ‘what is it we are reckoning with’, and from ‘what is the best reaction’, to ‘what is my most appropriate response’, and importantly, as a corollary, what is my own response-ability.
In a weird detour of memory I have been recalling a story from years back. It happened when I lived in Dublin, in an area of the inner city which had a bad reputation for drugs and community violence. I rarely experienced it as such, except on a few occasions, this occasion being a mild one. Walking down the street, out of nowhere, something hard hit the back of my head. It felt like a boulder. It turned out it was the tail-end of a raw carrot, which was surprisingly painful when thrown at speed. As I rubbed my head, I turned to find the culprit, only to see the eye of a young boy glaring back. He was about eight years old, scrawny, scruffy, looking like he was about to run away from me while holding out for something more. His body tensed. Here followed words from my mouth, which continue to surprise me. ‘Are you OK’?I asked the boy, ‘Is everything alright? Can I help you? The boy was stunned. So was I. His attention seeking dramatics had backfired. He didn’t answer my question, but instead, as I walked on to the local shop, he followed, tracking a few feet behind. He waited outside the shop, then followed me home, like a stray puppy seeking solace and sanctuary. The following went on for a few weeks. Each time I saw him, I’d say hello, asking him how he is. He never talked, just followed and lingered. I’d smile. Eventually he made eye contact. I remember a smile in return. One day I bought him an ice cream. Everything eased.
I think now about that boy, and how our encounter still has lessons and reminders for me. What is it to respond out of compassion rather than rage; and what is it to remember that deep inside us we are like that eight year old, seeking to be loved, witnessed, cared for.
Stories return to us when we need then, so this one must have lessons for me now. Writing about it, I realise I’d like to be that person again, holding ground and space for another kind of outcome. Giving it time. Tending to the wholeness. Offering ice-cream.
Believe me, I’ve had my fair share of rants and reactions over these months. I have five half-finished essays, written over the last few weeks which essentially are long rambles attempting to craft a response to the current situation. I have needed to write these words, but I do not need to share them. They have been reactionary, not responsive. So it is that I have been coming to see that responsiveness is not a linear or singular act. It is not measured in numbers of tweets or blogposts. It is not about word count. But is about an inner orientation towards the act of dismantling, the act of loving compassion, and about curiosity.
To dis-mantle. To take off one’s mantle; one’s cloak. To examine. To question. To observe. It’s an act of transgression of ones own perceptions. It’s a way of saying: I don’t have all the answers; but I am willing to be open.
I have been drawn back into the work and words of bell hooks, a Black feminist writer, activist and educator. Her writing around transformational education, in particular, holds such necessary wisdom for this time. As I move into more formal and informal educational settings, teaching more at the university and with my own workshops, it’s helping to ground my practices in a pedagogy of both hope and transgression. In her writings hooks reasserts of the role of education as a fundamental practice of freedom, and as a vital component to the restoration of our sense of wholeness. She speaks about education as a transgressive act which should be dangerous, and, in a word not commonly associated with mainstream education, she asserts it as an act of love.
Love and transgression: how about these as vital signs for the health of our systems.
These days, it feels like the world is our classroom, and whether we feel ready or not, the times we are in are offering us an opportunity to break some moulds, transgressing what we know to be true of ourselves. We are seeing the flaws, but to what extent are we tending to the possibilities? I think it would be such a shame to come out of this time of Covid and not be transformed in some way; not to have examined our set of beliefs, what we hold to be of worth, or what values we seek to live from. It would be a shame to emerge from this time, back to a normal, when normal was so far from what is just or sustainable for our planet. And so to be responsive right now is to be willing to put ourselves into the role of learner and undergo an inner transformation- our own transgression- in order to see more, and to tend to what’s possible.
So maybe it’s no wonder I find myself thinking back to that eight year old boy and the butt of a raw carrot. The response we both had; leaning into the space between us, for witness and for hope, is, I think, what is needed now too. Spaces to gently grow into our wholeness without fear of recrimination, or rage, where we can figure each other out, where we can hold the pain of our experiences, and give each other a chance.
“As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognising one another’s presence’, writes bell hooks, and as the poet Elizabeth Alexander similarly asks, ‘Are we not of interest to each other’.
When everything else feels in flux, the list-making has a gravity to it, holding me to account, and to notice.
So I make a list of new writers I want to read, and voices I want to get to know better. I list the ways I think I have been complicit in the systems I seek to reform.I write down the values I seek to live by. I write out my commitments to my own transgression. I make a list of all the ways I seek to serve. I realise I am in this for the long haul. I look at the blank page, to write my dismantled self back into being. I notice the budding marigolds and now the sunflowers. My hope, for all of this, is wholeness; I do this for our earth.
We’ve heard of ‘thin places’ before. It is in such locations where communing with the deeper nature of our truth is said to be more accessible and where the veil between the animate and spirit world has a translucent quality.There are pockets of West Cork, elemental places, where ‘thin’ seems to be the constant condition; threshold places which have a transitory function of bringing those who step through, into mystery, wonder and the finery of their own creative imaginings. But right now, I think we are also living through a ‘thin time’, a pocket in our own evolution where were are getting to ask those fundamental questions of who we are, where are we going, and what is our deeper nature — for ourselves and for each other.
In this ‘planet on pause’ moment the veils of our separation are down. As the fallacy of our individualism gets exposed, we are not just seeing but also experiencing how interconnected we really are. None of us are safe until all of us are safe. But this seeing more clearly also means we are getting to see the challenging, messy parts too, the ugly side in the mirror of perception we don’t always want to face: our inequalities; our systems perpetuated with fear, mis-information, isolationist ideologies, racism, xenophobia; and the shadow of a politicised and industrialised world built on competition, all of which are, sadly, likely to be played out even more in the coming months.
I was feeling particularly overwhelmed the other day with all these layers, and the realisation that this is not going away any time soon. And then I looked over at the grass, the humble grass in front of my doorstep. A strong gust of wind had come in and the grass and trees around me shook with vigour. Watching them I had this sense that the wind- this invisible force- was a strengthening factor- helping the grass and trees develop sturdier root and support systems; that this thing that can’t be seen is a factor in their evolution. I love the word evolution. It is so close to revolution.
It might be a wild leap from here to Corona virus, but for the sake of metaphoric liberty, I indulge. The leap offers us similar questions- how can this be a reckoning with our root and support systems? How can it even be a revolution. We are being shaken by an invisible force, and it is bringing us back to awareness of our connectedness, if we let it.
You see, in my experience at ‘thin places’, the insights gained there are not a given. It’s an approach that has everything to do with openness and reciprocity. I’ve brought some people to these places who were so locked in themselves, their hearts blinkered to the beauty, that the place could not open to them either. To receive one must also be receptive. As with thin places, so too with thin time. I think to experience the lessons of this pocket in history, we must be open to receiving, not just at an intellectual level, but, essentially, at the heart. Those lessons may shake the root systems of our lives, where we begin questioning our identities, roles, vision and the life we have built up around us. But perhaps the wisdom to get through this is closer than we think. When the trees outside are shaken by the wind, they must not stiffen, but yield to the force, bend, move and root even deeper. Strong roots equals more resilience.
So perhaps this is not a time, necessarily, for all the solutions to the systemic problems, but it is a time for seeings more clearly, experiencing the shake and, at an inner level, doing the preparation work to keep our hearts open so we can approach this moment with reciprocity.
Which leads to what on the surface may seem like a simple question: How to keep our heart open? I think, in a foundational way, our own hearts know. For me, it is about noticing- paying attention to the myriad of miracles surrounding me- the way the sea is in perpetual motion, the seeds finding new life, and as I write these lines, noticing the beauty of the bird chatter in the open language of the sky. That is even before paying attention to the stories of hope and re-imaginings happening right now, in the ways communities are coming together, and the proliferation of acts of kindness (but that is whole book in itself…) Personally, this ‘thin time’ has taken me right into the centre of my life so I can see more clearly its essence, and some of its possibilities. When things feel wobbly, I know that I can go in search of a tree, or even a blade of the most humblest of grasses, and invite it to be my teacher. These are the wise ones, after all, and we the perpetual students, learning through this thin time how to be the revolution itself so we may live into the finery of our collective creative imaginings.