The summer swell is here. The days have reached out at either end, with open arms, to embrace the light. By morning, the dawn chorus rises from the land, like bubbling cheer; pops of music to open the day. To close it, the late twilight stirs with the warbling of enlivened bird chatter, marking a full circle of a full day.
This year, along the West Cork hedgerows, blossom bursts from even the tightest of places.The purple foxgloves are ascending to the open skies as applause does, in rapture and in thanks. Their rising salutations, these bright flashes of bloom, are visitors to what only a few months ago was blanketed in heavy, uncharacteristic snow. Now instead the sweet scent of honeysuckle join the parade and the wispy white bog cotton raises it’s flag in surrender to the summer light. Everywhere the land is encoded with elixirs. This is life seeking life. Under every stone, a tussle of insects busy. In the bushes, the hum of the bumble bee, carrying the golden pollen; magic dust to carry on the life. The swallows have returned too, their black tips and white bellies tumbling through the fields in great bursts of speed and jubilant flight. Wrapped around every tree, every blade of growing grass, every blooming branch, every song that is carried in the air, there is a single word: fullness.
We have reached another tuning of the celtic year. Here in the Northern Hemisphere the summer solstice is upon us; the mid-summer marker in the great turning of the earth into this fullness. The summer solstice is one of the eight points in this great cycle of time and earth spin when we are reminded that we too are encoded into a greater span of time, and a deeper web of life seeking life. The solstice offers a reminder to us to look around, celebrate where we have come from, and prepare for where we are heading. In that sense it is both a summit and a return. Having reached peak light, we will begin the slow return to the dark, the flip-side of fecundity, the yin to meet the yang. In the summer solstice, the winter solstice is born, and here, our light and our shadow are reunited in this mid-summer yielding to the earth’s natural spin. We inhale to exhale. We rise to fullness, to return to emptiness, in order to rise again. To honour the ancient rhythms, is to acknowledge our own connection to the flow of life and creation into which we offer our gifts.
In the celtic calendar, the solstice was not marked with a particular kind of ritual, but it is marked in stone. Summer solstice alignments can be seen in Bonane, in Co. Kerry, and in Co. Louth among the Knowth range of standing stones and sites. However, on St. John’s Eve, June 23rd into 24th, across the West Coast of Ireland, and in particular in Connemara, there is the tradition of the lighting of bonfires to commemorate St John the Baptist. This could be seen as an extension of the Bealtaine fires tradition, or the incorporation of a more ancient mid-summer fire lighting tradition; to gather and commune with the light.
To commune with our light. To gather around it. To celebrate fullness. These are the threads of ritual which the summer solstice now offers to us to weave into our own ways. We can take it as an invitation to pause in the fullness of the summer days, rest in the knowing that the bees and the plants, the trees and the wildness are preparing the way for harvest. We are invited also to use the solstice as a gesture to honour the way we have travelled across the span of the year, a moment to take stock, and a pause from which to align to our own intentions for our own becoming.
This is the power of ritual: the pause, the marking of distinct movements of time, so that we too can feel encoded into the very life that surrounds us; our gifts an intricate element of this fabric of time, our offerings- whether through our work, our families or our wider communities, a chance to contribute to the continuation of the life which supports us all. This is our call to protect those bees and those birds, those foxgloves and that bog cotton, so generations down the line they will still be giving thanks to this great summer flourishing, and this great span of unfolding fullness.
Our lives, all our lives, are woven. Our rituals help to keep them so.
Tonight, after I teach a yoga class (with lots of sun salutations!), I’ll head down to the beach, with some friends, some poems and my journal to take stock, to pause, to honour the gifts of life which have arrived this year and commune with the light.
I’ve created this short ritual for you too: a series of three reflective practices for you this solstice.
‘Taking Stock’, ‘Honouring the Fullness’, and ‘Cultivating Joy’
It has been a buzzy whirl. I’m back in my favourite coffee shop here in Schull, overlooking the harbour, taking a moment to land. It’s hard to believe sometimes how much change can happen in a few days. Not a week ago we took to the polls in Ireland. ‘Landslide’ was not a word I would have expected to be associated with the referendum, but that indeed it was. We had got it wrong- we had misjudged the nation’s position; radically so.
The night before the referendum I travelled down to the most southerly tip of Ireland, to the villages of Goleen and Crookhaven to do some canvassing for the yes vote. I was a very reluctant canvasser at first; hesitant and scared to talk openly about what is such a sensitive and personal issue. What’s more, I’ve always got creepy vibes in Goleen so it was the last place I wanted to knock on doors! But there is power in the pack, and when my friend here in Schull, the activist and Uplift founder, Siobhan O’Donoghue, invited me to come along, I knew this was a chance to step into my own margins, to the edge of my comfort zone.
With an interest in how social change happens, I suppose I have been training myself to think about the margins too; what’s happening on the edge of society, of innovation, of social entrepreneurship, of leadership. What new ideas or people are bringing things to form, and how can we shine a light on some of these initiatives as a way to highlight the possibilities. The margins, I have come to appreciate, have valuable insights for our collective future.
As our canvass grew closer, and as my nerves grew too, I was reminded of one of the core themes from the On Being Gathering which I attended back in February: to listen. ‘There is the power of being heard. Really heard’, I had written in my On Being notes. ‘How often does that happen in our families let alone in political life and leadership? To learn how to be heard we also need to learn how to listen. Really listen, and be generous with it’.
Something flipped for me then. I realised I did not actually have to talk much, but instead really listen- to the ‘no’ side, to the ‘yes’ side, to the undecided and to my own fear. Rather than try to impose any view or opinion, what felt more important was to give people space to reflect, tell their story and be heard in a safe and open way. What mattered was to show up with a respectful and compassionate heart. This was my chance to practice and be generous with my listening.
As we drove the twisting rural roads, I was expecting No all the way from these little villages on the margins of Ireland. It was a glorious sunny evening when we arrived, the sky awash with migratory birds and evening song, the Atlantic waters calm by our side. Could I not just sit by the sea instead? My nerves grew stronger as we began the conspicuous walk. I tagged close to Siobhan. The doors awaited.
We entered in a dark pub. Men in rows drinking dark pints looked us up and down, slowly and with great caution. One man by the bar furrowed his brow and kept his eyes low to his pint. I wanted to bolt. ‘Just listen’, I told my beating heart, ‘and stay open’. I took some deep breaths and imagined sending loving thoughts into the heart of each of those men. I was still scared.
An awkward nervousness descended. An old man, raised his pint, then his eyebrows. With a gentle upward nod of the head he finally broke the silence; ‘It’s your body. You make a choice. Who are we to stop you?’. Then another man raised his pint and his approval. Then another. Then another. ‘You have my yes’. All the old men, with their dark pints in this strange village, ‘yes’. The man who sat at the bar remained silent, his brow now softened, a smile about to breach, if only he’d let himself.
It was all enough to know: I had misjudged the margins.
These are things that hold interest, marking one state of being to another, an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, an inside and an outside. So often we are led to believe that they are fixed; that the boundary marks an end state; that the edge our our comfort zone will always be the edge; that we get to grow only to a point; that minds which are fixed will forever be fixed.
Nature tells a different story.
Back in Biology class, circa 1995, I learned about osmosis; ‘The movement of liquid or gas from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration through a semi-permanent membrane’.
The cell wall is not a fixed state, but a frontier, or a passage, between one state of being, and another- through the margin of the wall, the entire chemistry of the cell can be modified. No cell wall is fixed. Whizz deeper, and we get to the sub-atomic level in any case, where we realise that we are all just bundles of bouncing energy and space, with plenty of room to manoeuvre. Nothing, not even something that appears solid, is in a fixed or permanent state- not even ourselves. And when when we think of ourselves as immutable and irrefutable, we become locked in our own definition of ourselves; constricted somehow, until the world we want to know is the world we already think we know. In other words: we become small.
In the 1983 abortion referendum 66.9% of the votes were in favour of inserting an amendment into the Irish Constitution which gave a pregnant woman and unborn babies the equal right to life.
In the 2018 abortion referendum 66.4% of the votes were in favour of removing the said amendment in the Irish Constitution.
In the space of 25 years, the nation changed it’s mind, even at it’s edges.
Ideas are not fixed. We are not solid. Minds can change. Hearts can too. Men in dark pubs can raise their dark pints and declare that a woman has a right to the margins of her own body. Life at the edge is never as it seems. Osmosis tells us so.
I made so many assumptions about those men, about that village. Sometimes it’s easier just to make assumptions about others rather than listen; for then we don’t have to step outside our comfort zone. We can feel safer in our pack, retreating to what we think we know for sure, or who we think we are. When we challenge our assumptions of others, we have to challenge our assumptions of ourselves. This is the hardest part, for our assumptions live right up against our internal margins; the boundaries of self and identity we place upon ourselves, who we think we are, what labels we define ourselves by (religion, gender, status) and the limits to which we think we can go. But if we don’t learn to challenge our assumptions of ourselves we don’t get to challenge what we are capable of becoming either. We can assume we are not creative, or talented. We can assume that our circumstances alone give rise to our outcomes. In making assumptions about our resources and capacities, we place false boundaries on what is available, and therefore possible. Assumptions are like blinkers, blinding what wants to be seen, or emerge or be created.
How do I know? Let me tell you a story.
A long long time again, I placed a staunch label of a religion around myself. That religion became my world, and in that world I thought I would belong forever. I felt safe there, and understood. But I had so utterly defined myself by that label, that religion, that I fell into the black and white school of thought. It was either this way or the wrong way. You either believed, like me, or you could be converted to believing, like me. I was young and convinced I had the truth, a singular truth. There was no room in me for grey, or ambiguity, or even giving a parting glance of a notion to the fact that I, one day, would be out canvassing for a yes vote in an abortion referendum. I would not have recognised the me of now, and now, I can hardly recognise the me of then. I am proof of change.
What changed me? Well, it was ancient and simple really: stories, and love.
When I was in my early 20s I got myself into a fancy pancy university to be ‘educated’. Little did I know the kind of education I would actually get there. It turns out that it wasn’t the education of books, or labrynthal libraries, but the simple act of sitting with a group of different kinds of people around a big dinner table, night after night, and listening to their stories. They each had a different one to tell: stories of believing, stories of abuse, stories of achievement, and honour and failure. Stories of heroism and heartbreak. Stories which melted me. Night after night I realised that I could no longer see these people as other, or wrong, or even different. Story after story, meal by meal, we became friends, and closer friends. I even fell in love with one of them- a young man who was the total opposite of who I thought I ‘should’ be attracted to. In other words, he was nuanced, and complex, and confused, and beautiful. Story after story, love after love, the boundary of how I defined myself started to break down; my own story no longer held to be true. Soon I knew I had to drop the ‘religion’ label. It was terrifying. Who was I without the label? The definition? My tribe? The protection of my own walls? What would happen to me if I stepped across my own margin of myself?
I stepped across into what was to become one of the hardest times in of my life. In loosing the definition of myself, for a while, my whole world imploded. I did not have another story to hold me, so instead, I turned in on myself, harming myself. It was terrifying. Until that is, one day, another friend showed up in my life and decided to listen to my story, generously, and with an open heart. He did not try to fix me, he did not try to correct me, or give me his opinion. Instead, he listened, and in doing so, I was returned back to love.
To listen to each other, to really listen is to redeem the best in ourselves so we can learn to write a new story for how to fully and beautifully show up in the world.
Those old men in the village with their black pints and raised eyebrows? I have been relearning: assume nothing. They tell me to not assume that I know what compassion looks like, and definitely not assume that I have the full picture or the singular truth. Ever. They remind me to be open to listening.
I am now wondering: what if we could each entertain a different story for a while, one that goes something like this: that we are semi-permanent membranes, bouncing around with infinite possibility and space. That we are each other. That as much as we are stardust we are also stories. That if I disagree with you, I can still respect you, still hold you in a universal understanding that your version of the truth is yours, and mine is mine, and somewhere in between we might get to an answer, if only we can learn to really listen, if only we can climb over our walls.
We drove back into Schull, amazed, and shook, and beaming. The swallows and swifts darted across the twilight sky. Schull was buzzing with festival goers; the annual Fastnet Film Festival was in full swing with people travelling from all over the world to see art, make art. In other words, to listen to stories, to tell them and to shape them too.
As in art, so in life.
The following day, the nation was to vote. That night, I could not sleep. The bird song was on high volume, and with a full moon on the way, the tide was high too. I lay in bed reflecting on how far away the old me now seemed. As the moonlight made it’s way through the cracks of my bedroom blinds, and as the thick blanket of night lay flat across the peninsula, I thought of the strange little village on the edge of things, and I swore, if I listened close enough I could hear the world rewriting itself as the old men with their black dark pints lifted their quite heads and raised a nation.
The film festival will return next year with new stories when I’ll sit again around a big dinner table, with old friends, and new strangers, and together we’ll learn how to listen. It’s the way I’ll remake myself again. In fact, I think it is the only way we’ll remake each other, with stories, and with love.
West Cork is AMAZING right now- the buzz of summer and long days. Come write, come dive deep into the questions of what you want to do next with your own wild and precious life. I am continuing to host Wild Edge Solo Retreats. Dates in June, July and August available. More details here. Please get in touch and we can take it from there.
Thinking of a career move? Wondering what next? Setting out on a creative venture? Creative Mentoring Sessions are designed to accompany you on your next bold moves. Over a minimum of four months, we partner up and I’ll support you along the way with deep questions, a listening ear, and practical hands-on skills. Taking bookings now for June, July and August. Find out more here
Meet Plant. My beautiful friend Yesim gave me Plant for my birthday at the end of March. Or rather she gave me a lovely pot, covered in moss, and told me that she had planted a bulb. She spoke of Plant’s potential but was hesitant to show me a picture of what plant should look like, in case it spoiled the experience for me. But I really wanted to see the packaging so I could have an image of what it is I have been ask to steward into care. Yesim obliged and showed me the picture of a full blooming Ismene Hymenocallis (Festalis). I was so excited about what was to come even though I had never even seen one of these before. The gift was intriguing.
I was in between homes for a little while, so for a few weeks Plant lived in my car as I moved from place to place. I was nervous I would damage Plant, but Plant had not sprouted yet and so seemed OK with all the transition. When I moved into my new home one of the first things I did was find a place for Plant, right by the back door, in shelter and in light, as per instructions.
Then nothing. Then nothing. Then nothing. I visited Plant regularly, checking to see any signs of life. Still nothing. I wondered if something was wrong. Had I killed Plant? Had I thwarted things by moving around so much? I kept waiting and wondering. A few weeks in, I went away for a weekend, and then boom, when I returned Plant had sprouted. Not only that but was now about 1cm above the soil level. Plant was growing!! Since then I have been watching and checking on Plant, making sure it has the right conditions for growth. I don’t have to do much. Just keep checking the conditions.
One morning this week, after visiting Plant, I also had an aha moment- Plant is offering a metaphor for the work it takes to create the right conditions for growth, and also giving me a new way into understanding the work I do in the world. My whole body came alive with this realisation- which always tells me I am onto something.
‘Create the conditions for growth’. This is what I was learning.
I was in the shower at the time of the aha (often when the best ideas come!), so I hopped out, grabbed a towel, and raced to my journal to capture the ideas and insights. I find if I don’t do it immediately, the ideas move on and are harder to find again. I scribbled down a list of the conditions for growth which Plant was helping me to see and how it relates to leadership, creativity and wayfinding in our lives. These conditions are generative, in that they are life-giving and life affirming, and they can apply at an individual, organisational or systemic level. The conditions are foundational, working below the surface (inner life and values), and also with the invisible elements which are is not seen (field intelligence and spirit), but are also very practical and grounded.
More and more I am appreciating the time it takes to grow things. What we seed now may take a long time to come to the surface, but keeping open to the conditions of growth is the key. One, two, three years on, I get emails from clients saying change they made back then is reaping the rewards now- financially, emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually. I see this in my own life too. Seeds which I planted years ago are starting to come to life now. Others, it may take a while yet. The thing is- to keep planting. Not everything will flourish, but some things will. This insight and feedback in turns gives me a greater appreciation of the role of time and tending to the unseen, and helps me to actively nurture my own growth cycles.
This work of change and learning is not about quick fixes or easy answers. It’s not about growth hacking, or unnatural (and unsustainable) scaling. It is not about diets or denial.Instead it is about creating the ground from which we can evolve the eco-system into which our lives (as individuals, organisations and collectives) can thrive.
So, here goes: On creating the conditions of growth- a creative practice for you.
Think about what it takes to steward into life what it is that is seeking to grow. You can choose something from your personal or professional life.
Draw a picture of a plant, including a pot. Beside each element of the plant, take some time to journal responses to the questions.
The pot is essential. The pot is boundary or landscape or structure into which we plant our seeds- our ideas, our visions- the thing we want to grow. A beautiful pot helps, but is not essential- it is the boundary which is important. In our lives or projects a boundary can be agreements around what is involved in the project and what is not, who is involved at the current stage, and who is not. It can be a set of collaboration agreements between people involved, or a series of commitments to the project which will help protect and nurture it at the early stage of growth. By creating a container, or parameters, we get to set the stage for the growth.
What is the form of the container for your own ideas? What does the boundary look like? And how can that boundary be protected?
The Image= The Vision
That picture of Plant- or a similar Plant- was so important to the stewarding. Let’s equate this it the vision for the project, or our lives. Without out a picture of what it is we are seeking to create we have less investment with a pot which we have been told has life in it. Our vision helps to carry us through the dormant times, the rest time, the time where all this new life is germinating but we can not see it yet. The vision is our orientation to the future full potential. When Yesim offered me the image of the Plant, I was activated and excited. I gained an understanding of what it is I am stewarding and am appreciation of the time it will take for Plant to grow. The vision is the vehicle through which commitment and energy can flow.
How can you cultivate your own vision? How can you paint a picture of what it is you want to create? How can you share this vision with others who you want to engage in the stewarding process?
Growth takes time, and not all time is equal. There is a long period of time in the dark when can doubt if things are actually moving. Then there are growth spurts. Then there are plateaus. We can accelerate growth by providing the right conditions and feeding what it is we want to bring to life, but deep change takes time, and patience, and often a lot of fumbling around in the dark.
How can you honour this cyclical and wave like nature of time? Are you giving yourself enough time? Or too much time? What still needs time under the surface? What is ready to bloom?
I am so excited about watching Plant grow. Each day more and more so. I realise that it is not just about the end product that I am excited about, but seeing each stage of the growth cycle. The process is the joy. So often we get fixated about the end result, but in fact joy is available all through the process. If there is no joy in what it is you want to create, if it does not bring you alive, then something it off and it is time to change track. Joy is a signpost to your way.
How does your body respond when you speak about the thing it is you are doing. Does your body feel contracted, tight or constrained? Or does your body open up, feel lighter, and more energised? Your body will help to tell you if you are on the right path. Listen for the openings.
The soil is the nourishment. It is separate to what is seeding it, but it is offering substrate into which Plant’s roots can grow and through these roots that it is drawing in life force. Maybe the nourishment is poetry, or deep enriching conversations, or actively seeking inspiration from others. Maybe it is taking time out, or reflection, or having a party.
What is the soil of our lives, or projects, our organisations? What is it that nourishes them, inspires their growth and feeds them?
Below the surface, the roots of the plant are making their way deeper into the substrate, for stability and growth. These are like our value system. We don’t see them, but our values are like channels through which the life force can flow. When we are clear on our values we are clearer about the types of things we want to say ‘yes’ to , and the type of things we need to say ‘no’ to. (I have previously written a lot about values, and have developed another exercise to help you identify yours. You can view that here.
What are your core values? How do you think they shape how you show up in the world? How can you created a sense of shared values is your team, organisation or family?
The Space/ Place
Place is a powerful factor in supporting growth- what we surround ourselves with and who we surround ourselves with. The right physical space inspire us to take action.Think of the difference in a light filled- airy office, and a dark room with stale air.Space in nature, or co-working space, or a large blank page all have a role in play. Change the space and we can change our thinking. Orientate ourselves to the light and we change the way we grow. Light and space are the unseen factors which are often so overlooked.
Do we have enough physical space to grow? How is the place you are in informing what you are creating? Are you surrounding yourself with inspiration and beauty? How can you be oriented to the light? What does the ‘light’ represent to you’?
Field Intelligence/ Life intelligence
There is an intelligence to life which demands our trust. That life seeks life. That change is constant. That there is an animating life force which is universal. You can take both a scientific approach or a spiritual one, or both. Life, and growth, has an intelligence beyond our control. When we trust, and let go of some of our control, we can align with this larger field of intelligence. Then you start to notice: synchronicities, being in the right place at the right time, the right conversations happening naturally or that very thing you were searching for being under your nose all along- you just had not noticed before.
How can you honour this wider field of intelligence?
Not all seeds will make it.
This too is life. Sometimes there is no real explanation about why one grows and one does not. I was lucky with Plant- it grew, but there was no guarantee. If I wanted to increase my chances, I would have needed to plant more bulbs. When it comes to thinking about our personal and professional life, this is where prototypes and experiments come into it. We try things out in different ways, we realise that not all ideas are ready to grow, we understand that some need to stay in the dark for longer, we realise that failure is just an intrinsic part of systemic growth dynamics. We take a risk, and when the thing blooms, we enjoy it all the more.
Are you experimenting enough to grow?
No doubt my thinking on this will change over time. Right now I hope it will also give you food for thought and you can think about how Plant may inform and inspire your own life.
Thank you Plant.
(Plant takes a bow. Applause from the rest of the garden. Curtains close)
TBClater in the summer, when, all going well, we’ll have a bloom. In the meantime, I’m going to make sure I enjoy each stage of growth!
Want some one to one support to help you steward your ideas and creations to life?
Want to come to West Cork for a deep dive? Wild Edge retreats are open (and the weather is amazing down here at the moment. A good time to book and soak in the place and space this has to offer).
”Clare’s care for details, deep listening and ability to pull the right question created a safe space for me to meet and connect to myself. Not only mentally but emotionally, spiritually and physically. She helped me navigate strong emotions and confusion and come out clearer the other side. She’s a lighthouse for when we need to go on the brave journey to our deeper selves, a journey which lead to truly fulfilled life’ – Naomi Fein, Think Visual CEO, May 2018.
The more I sit still, the more I can really listen to what life is presenting to me- the opportunities, the love, the joy, the next steps. It helps me get out of my own way and presents me with images/ intuitions/ signs/ symbols and words which help to guide the way. Over the years I have practiced listening and acting on these images. They present me with questions, and in the question, is the QUEST.
The questions have why, what, and where in then, not how and when. The how and when comes later. The learning is to listen to what is calling you, why you are drawn to it, what values you are honouring, what in you opens when you listen (Does your body come alive or shut down? Do you have feelings of stress or feelings of joy?). The aliveness, the joy- it is there to show you the way forward.
When we start with the ‘how’ (how do I build the next thing, or make the transition or the leap), it’s ripe ground for fear to enter too. Does an artist sit at an easel and ask, ‘How do I paint that tree, or that thing of beauty in front of me?’, or does a poet ask, ‘How do I write a poem?’ No- they listen first, they look and observe, they create the space for the work to flow, and then they show up to the creative, generative process inviting spirit, insight, action and intention to join them. Through the process and prototype they figure out the how.
So often we approach our lives like strategic plans or business reports measuring ‘success’ by metrics not of our own. We worry so much about the how without listening for the why and the what. We forget to invite creativity and our innate wisdom into the equation.
But what if we were to approach our lives like creative acts- an unfolding poem or an art work in progress? The art is in the living. What we create (jobs, businesses, networks, relationships, organisations, collaborations, new life paths) are then infused with this artful way- a work in progress, flexible and creating beauty in the world which serves the greater whole.
This is what I mean when I speak of creative leadership. This is the only way I know that works.
Want to listen in to your intention, purpose and vision and learn to create aligned action and prototypes? Taking bookings now for one to one mentoring, vision mapping sessions and Wild Edge retreats (here in amazing West Cork) in which I share some of the tools, skills and practices for leading and creating your own one wild life.
We are ancient and new all at once. We’ve evolved from generations and generations, who each laid the template for our being in the world. The seas, the trees, the rivers, the mountains, the bees, the smallest of creatures to the largest, are all part of our ecological heritage which has enabled our being in the world. Our human ancestors then mapped the fields which feed us, paved the roads and gave us their wisdom and medicine. Rituals connect us to a time span longer than our life span- serving to remind us that we are stewards to this earth and have been offered the gift of living- right here, right now, in this privileged time of ours. The act of honouring ancient rituals brings us into conversation with our deeper, wiser selves– to our inner knowing and simultaneously to our place in the wider community of life, ecology and customs which surrounds us.
In the Celtic Calendar, Bealtaine was a time of the year- one of the eight significant points in the Celtic Wheel- when the ritual of fire ceremony created a portal of celebration to mark the summer season- a time of fertility, light, growth and blooming. On the hill of Uisnech, the ‘naval of Ireland’, a place which in myth and ancient lore marks as the centre of our celtic imaginal capacities, and a meeting place of the provinces of Ireland, the Bealtaine fire is still lit, high on the hill. As the central fire rises, the flames communicate their celebratory announcement of summer to the communities across the land. Fires begin to simultaneously rise across the hills of Meath, and from there the celebrations spread, from province to province, from heart to heart.
The Uisnech fire is a strong symbolic nod to the power of lighting our own inner fire. When we are ablaze with ideas and inspiration, fuelled with long summer nights and at least the promise of sunny days- our light can catch, like wildfire, spreading out into our families, our colleagues, our communities.
So, this Bealtaine (1 May), take pause to fuel your own inner fire. I have designed a Bealtine Ritual to support you to reflect, to tune into what wants to blossom in your own life, and to symbolically light your own Bealtaine fire.
Sign up to my mailing list to access your free Bealtaine Ritual. You’ll be sent a link to access the ritual as well as a host of useful resources and planners.
At our core in an intrinsic knowing- the spine of us, our unique pattern, our individual code, our purpose, our source. Life gives us a zillion fast messages a day telling us who we should be and how we should show up in the world. They sway us from one manufactured desire to another. Our practice helps to strip that back and return us to our core; who we really are, how life is authentically longing to show up through us, and the intention or purpose for this next phase in our lives.
Our practices are designed to help us listen below the noise, below the internal chatter- to the vast expanse of silence, and within that silence, to the vast expanse of possibility and promise. When the world turns wobbly, when feeling off-kilter, when the muddle in the head shows up as anger or fear, or anything but trust and love, it’s time to practice: to return to the yoga mat, to the meditation cushion, to the blank page or the blank canvas, or to that thing which brings you into intimate conversation with your inner life force. Our practice is our prayer, our ritual, our return, our saving grace. This is why I practice. And to that I say, ‘Hallelujah, Amen, Thank you’- over and over and over again.
Any bread makers out there? You’ll know that there is a critical stage in the baking process: the leavening. As the dough sits, the fermentation process commences letting all those lovely bubbles of CO2- the essential raising agent- to do their magical work. The leavening time is when you step away, put the dough in a warm and cozy place and let the yeast be yeast. The rest is part of the rise.
In my favourite café in Dublin, the Fumbally, there is a large quote from Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote) written on the wall; ‘All sorrows are less with bread’. We can play with this a little and also say, ‘All sorrows are less if we act like bread’. Bread, you see, holds a valuable life lesson; that rest is integral to the whole.
As humans we need our own form of leavening time, and yet, why do we resist? In the world of go go go, on on on, it can feel like total self-indulgence to rest. More and more frequently when I ask people how they are doing, ‘busy’ is the response. (Is busy now a euphemism for ‘I am wanted, I am useful, I am important?’). What if we were to step away from work, and let the air that holds us all together do it’s work. In other words; take some breathing space. When it comes to building our resilience, is rest part of our rise too? And when I say rise here, I am wondering if it’s not just about what we do in the world, but how we elevate our state of being in the world.
This is where the rest part gets beautifully nuanced: it turns out that there is not just one form of rest. Rest instead is on a spectrum from stillness, to awareness, all the way to flow.
Let’s skip over to the poetic for some more clues. The poet David Whyte has written a delightful little book, ‘Consolations’, which is a series of mediative reflections on, as he puts it, ‘The solace, nourishment and underlying meaning of everyday words’- rest being one of them.
Rest, he proposes;
‘is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavour, with its endless outward need to reward itself through established goals. To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there to put it right; to rest is to fall back literally or figuratively from outer targets and shift the goal not to an inner static bull’s eye, an imagined state of perfect stillness, but to an inner state of natural exchange’
To feel rested, then, does not necessarily mean to stop everything; but instead to fall into rhythm with life’s daily occurrences, with the exchange of breath, and with our domesticated selves. As Whyte continues..
..we are rested when we let things alone and let ourselves alone, to do what we do best, breathe as the body intended us to breathe, to walk as we were meant to walk, to live with the rhythm of a house and a home, giving and taking through cooking and cleaning…. To rest is not self indulgent, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and to perhaps, most importantly, arrive at a place where we are able to understand what we have already been given.
Rest and Design Sprints
When it comes to entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, rest is a critical component to the creative process- both within the process, and at either end of it. That time to step back from a canvas and take in the big picture; that time in the writing process when you print out what you’ve done, and set it aside for a few days, only to return to it with fresh eyes; that time in music when there is space and quiet again so that we can really take in the crescendo. The silence, the space, the pause is part of the music too.
In design and innovation circles, the idea of working in sprints has been taking off- a period of rapid thinking, prototyping, and launching, followed by periods of rest. These burst of creativity have their own momentum and give rise to new ways of seeing things without getting stuck in the typical creative traps of procrastination, overthinking or never getting started in the first place.
David Hieatt, author of DO Purpose, founder of Hieatt Denim and co-founder of the wonderful Do Lectures, integrated sprints into his own working life, commenting:
A short sprint followed by a longer rest, can get way more done. But, we think of resting up as some badge of dishonour. As humans, we are built for short bursts. Our attention span is built for short bursts. Our creativity is built for short bursts. Yet mostly, we work like we are built for marathons. I think sprints are a practical way to make a lot of stuff happen quickly with limited resources.
In terms of building our inner resilience, it could serve us well also to think in sprints; focusing on short bursts of personal goals, short-term but intense creative experiments, using deadlines to build our momentum- and then valuing the break as an intrinsic part of the creative cycle.
Stop, Look, Go: Gratitude as a way of living
If we are looking for a cornerstone upon which to build our resilience as a way of living, then we would be well to go back to Whyte’s sense in Consolations: ‘To be able to understand what we are given’. This awareness, we will note, gives rise to gratitude, and this gratitude could even be the start of a revolution. I’ll let Whyte and the benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast elaborate further.
‘Gratitude’, continues Whyte, ‘is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us. Gratitude is not necessarily something that is shown after the event, it is the deep, a-priori state of attention that shows we understand, are present for and even equal to, the gifted nature of life.
Brother Seindl-Rast also takes on this mantel in his work and research on the power of gratitude in our lives and the importance of this a-priori mode of being. ’It is gratefulness that makes us happy’, he eloquently offers in this TED talk, explaining that in order for us to lead a grateful life we must become consistently aware that every moment is a gift, and within each of those moments is the gift of opportunity. Moment by moment, he suggests, we are gifted with an opportunity to create our lives, to respond to the beauty which surrounds us and to simply enjoy the tastes, the sounds, the colour, the light, the texture or the world presenting itself to us. And if we fail? Well, the will of the world is a marvellous thing: we are gifted with another opportunity to pay attention.
The practice of gratitude becomes powerful when it becomes exactly that- a practice. When we learn to orientate ourselves to pay consistent attention to the opportunity arising with each breath. Easier said than done- perhaps?
Sensing the complexity in the simplicity, Brother Seindl-Rast gives us a little formula as a methodology for living gratefully:
‘Stop. Look. Go’ (remember the safe cross code?)
Stop= rest, look= pay attention, go= respond to the opportunity which life is presenting in this given moment.
Building more ‘stop points’ in our lives is the key- moments when we actively take note of the gift of life in front of us. Brother Seindl-Rast recounts a little story of living in Africa for a while, when he had no running water or electricity. When he returned home, at first each time he turned on a tap or switched on a light, he stopped, in awe of the miracle of both. After a while though, he became accustomed to these things, and stopped paying attention. And so, as a reminder to stop, look, and be in awe, he put a little sticker on the light switch and the tap.
When we learn to build more stop points in our lives, we develop our capacity to notice connections, patterns, creative solutions and new ways of showing up. If we are go go go, we simply miss out on this opportunity to reconfigure ourselves in response to the needs and moments which surround us. To Brother Seindl-Rast, living a grateful life, has the power not just to transform our own individual lives but also to revolutionise how we collectively respond to the ongoing opportunities. When we are grateful, we don’t act out of fear, which in turns leads to less violence. If we are grateful, we act not out of scarcity but with a sense of intrinsic abundance, which, he asserts, in turn leads to more sharing and therefore more connected and strengthened systems.
So we really have cause not to stop and pause? It may in fact be the start a revolution.
Before leaving the topic of resilience for the moment, there is one other core principle which is important to incorporate. It’s to do with baking again, or swimming, or painting, or juggling or any multiple of things which brings us into a state of flow. The writer – who I regularly introduce as, ‘you know that guy with the unpronounceable surname’- yes, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (see that I mean!), has written about the importance of flow state, describing is as;
‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz’.
Why do I write so much? Well, it’s one of my flow activities. I can loose track of time and become completely oblivious to any worries or concerns I was carrying before I started. And why do I paint? For exactly the same reason. I’ve a hurler friend who speaks of the same experience on the sports field, and a fiddler friend who speaks of the same flow when he looses himself in playing. And you? That thing that you loose yourself in? That’s a key to your resilience.
Maureen Gaffney, the psychologist who I referenced in a previous article (remember the 5:1 ratio, and negativity bias), also writes about flow in her book Flourishing referring to flow also as ‘the art of vital engagement’;
‘the more a person reports experiences of flow in their average week, the more likely they are to describe themselves as strong, active, creative, concentrated, motivated and happy- the way most of us would like to describe ourselves… The capacity for being in flow is intimately connected to your ability to control your precious units of attention and to strengthen your executive self’
There are eight elements identified to flow, including taking on an activity that is challenging and requires skill. As Gaffney explains; ‘You are most likely to enter a flow experience when you take on something that stretches you, when both the level of challenge and the level of skill required are above average level’. This is the good stress, or stretch, which is about reaching for a goal and having a vision. And a critical ingredient to flow? Joy. For flow to happen, the activity must have meaning to you and is something you find enjoyable. I’m personally not going to find it in playing chess, for instance, but you might- and I won’t judge you for that, I promise! But I will find in the things I love- writing, art, photography, swimming and yoga.
So, if you know what your flow activities are, but you are rarely doing them, can you increase them to once a week- you’ll find you are more confident and more resilient. And if you haven’t found out what brings flow into your life, then perhaps it’s time to experiment. A clue may be in what you enjoyed as a child. Maybe it’s art, or writing, or doing handstands, or playing chess- whatever it is, it has a little secret to your ongoing wellbeing.
A word of caution though too: social media- that endless stream of distraction and noise, is the enemy of flow. To flow, we need learn to switch off the stream and be more discerning of how we use our attention. Our time is precious, and we must learn to use it wisely.
So, we’ve covered a lot of territory in this resilience thinking. If anything even the experience of writing these articles has reminded me of the power of paying attention to the joy and beauty which surrounds me. I know I’ll likely get stressed and anxious again, I know I’ll face challenges, but I also know that there is an arsenal of tools and practices available, as immediate as my breath, to carry me onwards.
To breath. To pause. To pay attention. To express gratitude. To remember our values. To think of the positive. To cultivate flow states. To rest. To start over. These are the building blocks to resilient living.
And with that, I’m off to bake some bread. It’s been a while.
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Two years ago, almost to the day, I packed up my bags from Dublin and made a move to beautiful West Cork. I was drawn to the space, the landscape and the magic of the sea. Two years on, knowing the power of this place, I’m ready to start inviting others to experience it too.
My intention is to create safe, beautiful and deep learning experiences for people who are curious about their own power and potential, and who want to lead their own wild life with intention and purpose. The experiences take two forms:writing retreats and leadership retreats.
The first – the writing retreats – are for those of you who really want time and space to dive into their writing. Maybe there is a book you long to birth, or a story you know is ready to be shared with the world. These retreats will offer support, space, direct mentoring and inspiration to take your writing to the next level.
The second, the leadership retreats, are space to dive into the question of what it is you want to do with your one wild and precious life! These retreats are for people who want to take the next bold move in their life and are seeking support and clarity to figure out what to do next.
Solo and group retreats are available.
I am now taking bookings from May all the way through to October, including a group writing retreat from 25-30 October.
So, today, with great pleasure (and a healthy dose of nerves – which tells me I am doing the right thing), I announce that Wild Edge Retreats is officially ALIVE! Beautiful Grove House in Schull, is our venue, supported by the power of the atlantic ocean just by our side.
So, this summer, come spend some time on this wild and wonderful edge of Europe!
‘This is going to be rubbish. I am going to fail. I’ll never be published again. All my words will dry up, forever and ever and ever. And so, what then? Well, I’m still breathing, and life goes on, and I’ll be able to learn, and ultimately I’ll be OK. What was it that Samuel Becket wrote? ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better’. So, let’s write.
See what I’ve done there? A seamless trick of the mind in an ancient blend of ancient stoic philosophy and modern science to teach me a thing or two about resilience.
Curious? Let’s go back in time.
The Stoical Approach
We may think that a concept like resilience is a relatively new concoction, coined by the economic machinery to keep this engine turning, but no, it’s more ancient and nuanced than that. The stoic philosophers, namely Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, took a rather pragmatic view on life. Imagine the worst case scenarios, they advised, and realise that even if you loose everything, you are made of tough stuff and you’ll still be breathing. Their approach was to train the mind to understand and accept that life is intrinsically challenging, and so, when those challenges inevitably hit, we do not go into battle with them, but rather find ways to navigate our way through them. In doing so, we also learn to distinguish between those things which we can control and those things outside our control. This acceptance leads to a steadier mind, focused on our immediate experience and not on the unnecessary worry of a yet unscripted and uncertain future.
Seneca (4BC-65AD) walked his talk. A wealthy and influential man in Rome, he was accustomed to riches and grandeur, and yet he systematically trained himself to live with less. He was, for example, an advocate of regular fasting, and would frequently abstain from food to remind him that he can survive and be happy on much less. His accumulated riches then, were a bonus and not an intrinsic forerunner to happiness. This was his version of resilience training.
Cato, another of the Stoic batch, consciously wore bright and sometimes unsightly robes, so as to be ridiculed. Why? So, that he would be reminded that the ridicule was not so bad at all, and he could do harder things if and when duty called. Prepare for the worst, and when hard things invariably happen, you will be accustomed to them by having developed a set of tried and tested coping mechanisms.
On the one hand, these stoic approaches may seem a little extreme or even silly, but in another spin they could also be deemed the precursor to mindfulness. Seneca, was a carpe diem man. Seize each day, he admonishes in ‘On The Shortness of Life’, and do not let the curse of procrastination steal the life from you. He writes:
Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.
To procrastinate, to worry too much about a future yet to unfold, to fear ridicule or poverty, were, in the stoic’s eyes, fuel for anxiety. Resilience instead comes in greeting each challenge as part of this unfolding life, mindful of the opportunities for learning and insight.
The Essential Rhythm
It is a mantle that the late and sorely missed Seamus Heaney took up in one of his brilliant commencement speeches to students at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1996- a piece of advice I keep scrawled in the back of my each of my journals, as a reminder of the essential rhythm of what it takes to lead a creative life:
Getting started, keeping going, getting started again- in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival, the ground of convinced action, the basis of self-esteem and the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourselves as well as to others.
It is a rhythm which demands the cultivation of a rich internal life, one which only we alone need to have access, and one which will be there for us to draw strength upon whenever we are feeling disconnected or straying from our truth. With his typical flourish of humility, Heaney continued with his own words of wisdom in the same speech,
“I want to avoid preaching at you but I do want to convince you that the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your own lives. True to your own solitude, your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally to reality and keeps us most reliably connected to one another. Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive at times but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom, and you will be sure to keep going in life on a far steadier psychic keel and with far more radiant individuality if you navigate by that principle.”
To navigate then, is to turn inwards we can then turn and unfold outwards and onwards.
The Role of Mindset
I’m going to make a leap here and suggest that both Seneca and Heaney had a growth mindset, an orientation in our thinking which Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford, has found to be critical to our learning and the realisation of our potential, or as Heaney framed it, our ‘radiant individuality’.
Dweck has a keen interest in how we learn and her research is making waves not just in mainstream educational circles, but in corporate and civic ones too. In her research she has uncovered what could be called a bifurcation of mindset; that there are people with a ‘fixed’ mindset, and those with a ‘growth mindset’. The difference is significant.
A fixed mindset is one that has been built on praise, on the ideal of perfection and on getting things right. For people with a fixed mindset have a need to be seen to be the best, and be seen to succeed. Feedback is often taken personally and viewed as negative. A fixed mindset has a singular and static view on intelligence, and in the face of challenges, tends to give up early.
Those on the other hand with growth mindset have a learning orientation, and realise that through risk, trial and error, we can all develop our capacities and skill and get better in all aspects of our lives- from relationships, to leadership, to collaboration, to creativity and innovation. Growth mindset takes the view that intelligence is not static but that the brain is wired for plasticity and so can adapt and learn over time. Feedback is taken constructively and seen as an opportunity to expand our possibilities and skills. Those with a growth mindset are more likely to persist through tribulations and personal setback, emerge stronger and keep going.
“No matter what your ability is’, Dweck asserts in her book, Mindset, ‘effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.”
Dweck asks us to go further,
“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”
So, this you see, is why cultivating a growth mindset is so important for resilience- it helps us to see our failures as integral to our progress. Fail better, as Beckett, said, for at the very least it is making an effort.
And the good news is that growth mindset is something we can all learn to cultivate too. It happens when we honour effort over success, for instance, risk over accomplishment, or determination over talent. What is also clear for Dweck is that growth and learning is a process: it takes time, we learn incrementally through successive setbacks and challenges and, through it all, we get to fine tune our abilities and accomplishments. With a growth mindset, we are all a work in progress. Resilience then is not a switch but a practice of continual realignment to the learner within us. We are all students in this thing called life.
So, want of cultivate your own resilience? Well, you have some of the greats to back you up- so, think like Seneca, Heaney, Beckett and Dweck. Think stoically- ‘How bad can it actually be? ‘Think creatively- ‘What can I learn through the experience?’ And think incrementally- progress over perfection, with an understanding that practice makes progress. So why not write, or paint, or swim, or start that company, or sing, or learn to play that instrument, or do whatever it is you want to do, for what’s the worst that can happen and isn’t life this precious thing we have which procrastination only postpones. To seize the day, perhaps it is time to fail again, start over, and tune inwards to that essential and abiding rhythm; the beautiful givens of our lives. Some may even call it poetry.
‘When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle, and this will help things turn out for the best…’
Eric Idle may have been strapped to a cross and his little ditto a smack of classic comedy in Monty Python Life of Brian, but he wouldn’t be alone in affirming the power of the ‘chin up’, ‘glass is half full’ school of thought, especially when it comes to building resilience.
I’ve been curious about cultivating resilience- the ability to bounce back when the going gets tough. I know this is something I need to practice for personal reasons, and while I am not one for general whistling down the street, I do realise that there are things I can do at both an attitudinal and a behavioural level to improve my bounce-back ability.
I also don’t think I am alone in my need to build resilience. A glance at global labour market trends will tell us that we are seeing the rise of ‘the gig economy’ and the ‘portfolio career’. Individuals will transition across numerous jobs and careers over a longer working lifespan. We are also entering the era of AI and robotics where the jobs of the past are not the jobs of the future. Never before will our creative capacities, our inner leadership, our soft skills, and our ability to adapt to new circumstances be more in demand.
Any change and transition has a related stress. There is a good kind stress, or motivation, which can boost our emotional, mental and physical selves for the job at hand, but then there is bad stress- the long term build up of worry and physical exhaustion, which at a chronic level can have long term effects on our overall wellbeing. Learning to understand the stressors in our lives, and develop effective coping mechanisms and preventative measures, again is more relevant than ever.
So, what can you do?
Back to the whistle. Actively cultivating a positive attitude may sound like mere cheese, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest it’s a keeper. Maureen Gaffney’s brilliant and continually insightful book ‘Flourishing: How to active a deeper sense of well-being, meaning and purpose even when facing adversity’ provides a whole menu of useful tool and resources around positive psychology, and also a magic ratio. ‘Knowing ways to generate and maintain positive feelings and thinking- even under great pressure- is a crucial part of effective coping’, she writes, ‘The heart of resilience.. depends fundamentally on the ability to actively rebalance the positivity and negativity in your life’.
And that balance? Well, it isn’t quite a balance. There is a trick in the mix you see, and it called ‘Negativity Bias’.
We humans can be so hard on ourselves. We get ten good pieces of feedback on a report, and only one bad, but we remember the bad feedback and linger on it for days. We get 80% on an exam, but wonder why we did not do better. Your partner compliments the way you look, but you focus on the stain on the underside of your shirt, or those extra five pounds you want to loose.
Gaffney offers some of the science behind this, explaining that we are actually wired for negativity;
‘Once anything negative appears your brain is on high alert, concentrating of assessing just how negative it is. For instance, you know instantly, without anybody telling you, if you have made a mistake in something you are doing. Within 80-100 milliseconds, there is a change in brain response. There is no similar neurological reaction that takes place when you do something right. Feelings of anxiety, distress, anger or disappointment last much longer than positive reactions to a pleasant experience. And negative events have a stronger and more pervasive effect on your subsequent mood than positive events. Having a good day generally has no noticeable effect on your sense of well-being the following day, whereas having a bad day tends to carry over and influence the next day in a negative way. That is negative bias at work.
The Magic Ratio
So, how to break the cycle? Focus on the positive. No, really. And it’s to do with the magic ratio.
As Gaffney further explains, ‘It turns out that you need a very particular ratio of positive to negative just to function normally. If you ramp up that ratio above a certain threshold a state of flourishing is established. But there is another invisible threshold that is equally precise. When the ratio of positive to negative falls below that threshold, you are tipped from ‘normal’ mode; into languishing. It is the moment when someone becomes depressed; when a team or an organisation is tipped into a downward vicious cycle’
That magic positive to negative flourishing ratio? 5:1
Yes, you need five times as much positive to negative to really thrive. And just to stay in ‘normal’ state- the ratio is still high at 3:1. Anything less and it’s a slippery slope.
The magic ratio appears in all aspects of our lives: from maintaining good relationships, in work and in our personal connection to ourselves.
Training our Attention.
The Harvard researcher, Shawn Achor takes up this vein of investigation in what he calls ‘The Happiness Advantage’. So often we measure our success, he explains, by the outcome of events. We think, if I get to Harvard, then I will be happy. If I loose those five pounds, or get the next promotion, or just make the next thing happen, then I will be happy. The challenge with this approach, as Achor often very entertainingly argues (see his TED talk), is that when our success metrics are based on external validation, the benchmark for success keep changing. When you get to Harvard, you start comparing yourself to all the others in the class and forget the achievement (hello negativity bias), or when you loose the five pounds and are still not happy, you say, well, when I loose the next five, then…. and so the cycle continues.
But, as Achor proposes; what if this was flipped; what if we focused on happiness first, then success.
It turns out it is to with what we pay attention too. Here we are to back to 5:1
I’m not a scientist, but I started to wonder: could I be more scientific about how I tally the positive to negative in my day to day life, pay more attention to both and actually notice if I am in that positive to negative ratio? So, I took on the experiment, and I recommend you to too. All you need is a pen, a blank piece of paper, and your awareness.
Over the course of a series of days I decided to track things in my day to day life, and record them as either positive or negative at the end of the day. I wanted evidence- sticking to actual events during the day, and not just thoughts that were happening in my head. I opened my journal and drew a line down the centre. To the left, were the positive things, to the right, the negative.
Quickly, the ‘positive’ started to fill up; the smell of freshly grounded coffee, the morning walk by the sea, cuddles with my dog, a phone call with a friend, an email from a client thanking me for a piece of work, the texture of the new pillow, lighting a candle, running my hand along a fence like I did when I was a child, the interaction at the post-office, the hot shower after a long day- a list of daily occurrences which ordinarily I would not have paid so much heed to, but with this mindfulness approach combined with the decision to categorise things, the list seemed to go on. Next, it was time to tally the negative; again sticking with actual concrete things that had happened during the day, and not a list of my worries or a transcript of my inner critic. I had two things on the list: locked out of my website (which I knew was temporary), and an unsubscribe from my mailing list from an old friend (I realised I felt sad to see her go). That is all.
I followed the experiment up the next day. That day, I realised the photographer in me was now in the experiment, and was actively scanning my environment for moments of beauty and positivity: the way the light falls, the roses in the derelict building, the smile of the stranger when I said hello.These were all categorised as positive at the end of the day. And the negative? Well, I was so focused on the positive, I was not really noticing the negative. I noted one thing down.
As Shawn Anchor has suggested, we can train what we pay attention too. So, I kept telling myself, think like a photographer: learn to read the light.
I continued my nightly tally for a few days. Each evening, I noticed that the ordinariness of the day was being categorised as ‘positive’, and in doing so, I was actively appreciating just how many positive things are around me. Of course, I’ve heard the suggestions of ‘keep a gratitude journal’ before, but this really is the first time where I felt some of the science and brain chemistry behind it too.
So, what about all that worry I had? Well, it’s not that all the negativity goes away. It’s just that it is no longer the dominant narrative and therefore is not so overwhelming. After just five days of the practice, combined with some daily yoga and meditation, I realised that my thoughts felt a lot more spacious. I am seeking out more of the positive consistently again, I am thinking more clearly and I have more zest for the challenge at hand. When I notice the worry narrative creep back in, I am catching it more quickly and realising I need to train my attention to turn elsewhere, into something more productive, more positive.
So, always look on the bright side of life? We can take the Monty Python route and whistle, or we can also take Mary Oliver’s poetic route, and be photographically in awe of the ordinariness of everyday which surrounds us,
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
Resilience then is not a switch we just turn on, it is a daily practice of noticing and being in tune with the everyday moments of comfort and beauty which surrounds us. And to help us we can always remember the magic numbers- 5:1.
Next week, I’ll share a little more about how the creative process has a roll to play in building resilience, with a little help from an ancient Roman philosopher.