Not Quite Hogwarts

– the reality of an educational institutional traumatisation called boarding schools –

Tomorrow I go back to my boarding school. This time not only with dread in my guts but to meet the safe-guarding team. Through an unusual confluence of events, my return to living 10 miles away from the school (even writing its name is difficult for me) was accompanied a few months later by my brother sending me an email about an enquiry the school was conducting into past abuse due a recent scandal. I volunteered and talked to the consultants on new structures for the school. I mentioned that I would be open to contributing further to the school if it was appropriate. One thing led to another and to my return there. 

2 days ago in supervision I fairly casually thought I would explore my feelings about this upcoming visit. The degree of feeling still latent that emerged was surprising and the anger underneath my hurt also unexpected. The casualness itself is an indicator of not being in touch with my feelings, in turn a classic consequence of boarding schools.

More curious was to follow at dinner, where I was invited by my friend to her neighbours. When the conversation came to boarding schools un-typically I didn’t hold back. And I received it back multiplied too. It made me realise more of the entrenched power behind what is not just an educational centre, but a form of repeating trauma on succeeding generations, a way of buying and maintaining privilege and an institution that is obsolete.

Abuse

In my school I was bullied on a daily basis. I also experienced sexual harassment, which though I was not physically touched, was traumatic. I lived with a constant atmosphere of horror and hyper vigilance. I remember a speech the headmaster gave to the whole school about why a parent had withdrawn his son, and he listed the bullying that happened which was horrific; including heads in toilets, thrown down steps and more. What astounds me in hindsight as an adult is that nothing changed. Which is why I am skeptical of my school’s wish to tackle abuse. You can institute policies but can you change the culture? Who will notice the subtleties of a child’s behaviour when they are struggling in the way a parent can?

The core issue

If you take kids away from their parents they lose a rock of love and care that can never be replaced no matter how good the school is. Everything else I write pales behind that simple sentence. Implicitly children are told that values of achieving success in life through studying well in a good school are more important than a parent’s care. This percolates into a difficulty with feeling, because it negates the innate wish to be loved and held. If you define emotional literacy as the ability to feel what you feel then going to a place where certain feelings are validated such as independence or having character and some others pushed away, such as crying, sadness and dependency, this will result in emotional confusion and splitting off of what you are actually feel. I stopped crying and feeling for many years till studying therapy. Boarding schools bluntly put, leave its products emotionally cut off.

Self censorship and internalised oppression

Although I feel energised by this writing, there is a part of me not too far away which questions myself. Was it my fault? It’s so long ago. Am I being a victim only? The school is better now. I was weak and too sensitive. Move on. How can I talk about abuse when I was absent from my son’s life in another continent. My parents meant well. Mum is too upset to talk about this anymore. Why rock the boat. It was privileged so shut up. Others suffered more. In Process Work these questions are seen as personal and collective edges to addressing trauma. By agreeing with them we side with the trauma and the system that created it in the first place. These beliefs are how social division is perpetuated in this case in myself and in all cases of oppression, to stop questioning.

There are always good reasons to not mention pain, but the way to wholeness and healing lies in acknowledging how we feel. I and we need to go beyond the way we marginalise the pain and feelings in ourselves and know that personally and collectively it is by addressing difficulties and speaking up about them that change will come. Not only that, the trauma of boarding schools is perpetuated by the pact of silence that is so strongly part of the culture. ‘Snitching’, ‘over emotional’, ‘gay’, ‘sensitive’ were all seen as the worst things to be when i was at school. So standing up for having had a difficult time as a sensitive lad directly clashes with an unspoken but palpably strong internal and collective ethos of not questioning.

The system of made up of people

So back to the dinner party. It became clear that two of the mothers were sending their children to boarding school within a year and they had no problem in taking me and my views to task. I was called a misfit, was told I went the wrong school. They pointed out that some families’s home life were worse than the school (a tacit admission that schools are not what they are meant to be). Finally they asked everybody around the table whether they had loved and enjoyed their school. All but me put their hands up. (aka shut up). It’s clear both mums have personal reasons from their own history why they are invested in their kids going to a boarding school. Yet it was refreshing to meet the system in the flesh being represented by people and not just tilting at the windmills of my past. If I take their accusations one by one, here are my answers. I am a misfit. I would imagine everybody is in some way. That we all have individual characteristics that need nurturing in order to be our own unique self. To be straight with how they meant it, I was a misfit in school too, because I was an especially sensitive lad in a brutal system. So yes aged 53 I carry the scars that label me a misfit. And I am proud to. Secondly I went to the wrong school. This makes me angry, when the system itself is at fault. There is truth in that my school was considerably worse in bullying. Even accepting that my school may have been an outlier, the culture that condones an education away from parents is still there. I understand some people loved their school. I used to give tours of my school and could wax lyrical about its specialness, but I now see this as a type of Stockholm syndrome, so am not convinced when people say they loved their school if its actually true.

Inter generational bullshit passed on

I went to boarding school aged 11, despite my German mother having to be persuaded by my father to do so. My father had gone by boat from Australia to UK aged 7 and would return to his parents every 2 years. I write that sentence so easily but for all those like him it was a form of systemic parental and emotional abandonment resulting in a trauma of neglect. It’s outrageous that it could happen and I am furious on his posthumous behalf. He did not interact so much with us, more when we got older and with my brother who like him was an excellent sportsman. With my therapeutic hat on I see him now as an emotionally abandoned man who did the best he could, yet was somehow distant in being with his sons. Generations of children were traumatised by abandonment. They have passed that on to their children in how they themselves are emotionally and directly in sending their children to the same suffering. Having been divorced i am vigilant with my son to not repeat the sense of distance that came through my paternal lineage. I and we need to end this cycle and look squarely in the eye the results of how we marginalise feelings in favour of a form of pedagogy that is fundamentally unsuited to creating emotionally healthy children and adults.

Therapeutic view

As a therapist I see in myself and others a trait from boarding school survivors. We can be cut off from our feelings, distant at times, emotionally ambivalent. There is a diffidence, sameness and a coolness in boarding school products. Bluntly put if mummy and daddy abandon you, it affects you because you are being told this is best for you, but everything in you is screaming ‘this is wrong, i want to be home’ so a fundamental schizophrenic experience results. You get used to coldness because that is how the world and school is. More subtlety but still potently is a propaganda that that ethos of ‘independence’ makes you part of an elite and so to complain about it is not right because it was a privilege, and that belief can stop you actually feeling what you feel.

Lack of the protector and witness

In Process work one way we can unfold pasts is by noticing the lack of a role which then needs learning how to build up. In boarding schools there is a lack of a protector, a lack of a model for emotional fluency, a lack of a witness of the hurt and suffering that occurred. I have been witnessed by a peer as I go through this remembering school time and her witnessing as well as my peers in the supervision session was healing as it breaks the fundamental belief of carrying it on our own. As therapists our work is to help these missing roles grow belatedly. I cry now more often, and acknowledge my feelings. This writing is in itself an outburst against the lack of protector and the culture that sent me to my hell hole school. Feelings are and continue to flood back.

Buying privilege

As if all the above were not bad enough, the system in UK furthers a class system that leads to separation and a divided society. Why were the mothers so invested in sending their kids to board? They listed the reasons why: save on travel time in London to school (seriously). The way the dormitories were mixed age so it was caring (seriously). But then my reason that my father gave – your brother went so you have to so its not unfair (when we are as un-similar as could be imagined) was infuriatingly frivolous for something with such fundamental consequences. They did not mention and neither did my parents what was the real reason, buying privilege and a sense of an elite upbringing. We all want the best for our children, but to do so at the expense of a loving home comes with consequences not just personally but society-wide. This sense of elite privilege is so corrosive as it contributes to isolation personally and socially. It leads to the politics of division. It leads to Brexit and the legacy of Empire.

Empire

Boarding schools were set up to supply the empire with its administrators and soldiers. Some explicitly so, like Haileybury, also known as the the East India college. The empire needed emotionally cut off foot soldiers who would not question their orders but follow them through in the various tropical lands conquered to make the map pink. They would then send their children back to the ‘home country’ aged 5 or 7 to in turn be emotionally traumatised. The old boy network was created to support the prevailing power centres. It creates an ethos of separation from other classes, nations, languages, foods (this has changed!). British exceptionalism made the empire and led directly to Brexit I believe. In my school we were implicitly told we were to be the governing class of our country leading to predictable results of unconscious privilege, presumption and distance from society. It also on a personal level means challenging the validity of the school system more difficult as it also then challenges a social power grouping. Do we want a society of inclusion where there is as much a level playing field as possible or do we want one where elites continue to buy their position. I like the principle of the German school system where there are different streams but all based on merit not on payment.

Hope

Like any challenge by taking it on, and being vulnerable in acknowledging the struggles, change comes in fully being in the experience. nothing is permanent with awareness. Therapeutically wholeness is our natural home and we will constantly be wishing for that which we were denied. So let us jump into the things we struggle with, personally and also collectively create a new culture which does not collude with a system that creates suffering. As I went to the same school at him, at the dinner party one of the mums said it explains why Prince Charles is like he is implying a troubled person, different. I agreed at the time, but actually I think he is a great example of someone who hated his school, but has used the sense of a (in his words) “prison sentence” to make things better (putting to the side the huge contradiction of his sending his sons to one). His interests in alternative therapies, organic farming, and alternate world-views show me someone who has alchemically changed his experience to one of going beyond the culture he grew up in. My supervisor spoke to me recently of Chiron the mythic wounded healer, (which i misheard as leader) and its a motif that still flows into me. In that sense i see Prince Charles as a wounded leader.

After the event

On my visit back there, one funny thing jumped out, which is how up everybody i met was about the school. The receptionist and the PA were lovely and exuded that presumption that the school was the best thing ever with beaming smiles. “Did you have a great time here?” “No i didn’t.” “Well its changed a lot now.” Its like a hypnosis that steals over. The school, rah rah rah.. My guess is its ultimately to do with feeling special and different to others. We’re elite and better. Of course in principle its good to have enthusiastic teachers, but in this context it feels forced. If this were a religious cult, it would be creepy the way people refer to their boarding school.

The meeting

The meeting went really well. I felt heard, I said all that i wished to, how to safeguard kids today, my skepticism, my own experiences in the past. There are genuine safe-guarding procedures in place from what I was told, I pushed, naming my scepticism and realised that things have changed. Four sincere people met me, pastoral care, the clinical psychologist, safe-guarding teams. Hurray! I am so happy that its changed. Bittersweetly, that brought up my own pain at why this wasn’t the case when i was there. They could hear that too. I pointed out that you can never replace a parents love, and that is something hard to answer but they seem to be doing their best. I still believe its a system that is fundamentally creating trauma through neglect but the overt bullying and abuse appear to be tackled with systems in place to tackle and discover problems.

And yet

I still feel that the coolness and emotional distance from boarding schools will continue. That the alluring propaganda of an elite education will make parents, children and teachers alike be less open to noticing where they are unhappy, struggling and emotionally sad from abandonment. The systems may be good enough to flag up where a child struggles now but when the issue itself is the nature of boarding i wonder how they handle it? I genuinely don’t know but pray and hope that schools can recognise when to say, ‘this is not working for the child, they seem to be unhappy’. 

They praised my calmness and measured tone, and also my courage and floated a possibility of returning to speak. I tried to not burden them with my feelings, as none of them were there when i was there, they were the representatives of the institution but also human beings. When I left in my school I felt a rage in me and a vulnerability. Of course it should, even though the meeting on one level went well, I was back in a place of horror. They thanked me for coming back to the cavernous room we were in, and my courage in doing so, and in that moment they were more aware than I was of all my feelings. So the rage is needed not just because it reflects an injustice of the past. But because the ethos in my teens was one of shutting down feelings, and here they could roar back again. I went out twice to walk things through and the second time in a snow storm in night lit by a full moon. That storm reflected my own feelings, the coldness and the churning in my guts, the dark this time lit by a light, the light of trusting that what I am going through has worth and is needed.

My feelings of rage and upset do not match the actuality of the people I met in the school. So I did inner work with the school as a system. In my dreaming, Gordonstoun (now i can write it) is the big stone house i was in yesterday. Thick C18 walls, inpenetrable, uncaring, cold, distant, far from the warmth of tropics and even London, self interested and self reflecting as befits a pile built to show the standing of an earl. Who knows how many horrors it has seen. A seeming grandeur with its long drive way and big lawns is built on the back of repression of people and students alike. When I dare to stand up as i have in this blog, it squashes me, nothing will threaten its existence. It stands for values that i rage against.

The ethos of specialness is so corrosive, so distancing from life itself.

But my revenge is to stand up to it. To be myself and to let my feelings flood me, to be a misfit, to be sensitive and outrageous; all the things that were implicitly disavowed. To meet that stoney power in my own terms. I stand for different values and will die doing so. I become the Gordonstoun house in me, finding that stone of strength. My agitation stops after this piece of work. Therapeutically i needed a slice of the stoniness strength to meet them in my own power.

Book review – The force of character and the lasting life – James Hillman

I co-presented a workshop on ageing with my friend Sarena Wolfaard recently. Synchronistically, preparing for it, i gave lift to a lady who ran a website on old age. She recommended this book.

What i love about Hillman is the mix of Jungian values, and his Greek mythic knowledge and epistemological curiosity.

He points out that how we treat old people, leaving them in at times neglected old age homes, is symptomatic of a lack of respect for what the purpose of old age is for. We tend to see old age as the decrepit bit before death. He though sees it as a time where character can emerge.

To explain ageing we usually turn to biology, genetics, and geriatric physiology, but to understand ageing we need something more, the idea of character. xiv

Character – as the title of the book is named after is key here, allowing the depths of who we are to shine forth in a way that our society doesn’t honour, but which is our unique way of living. in later years feelings of altruism and kindness to strangers play a larger role.. character begins to govern life’s decisions ever more pertinently, and permanently. Values come under more scrutiny, and qualities such as decency and gratitude become more previous than accuracy and efficiency.55

Jung’s use of teleology and individuation run through the book. In particular being our individual self inherent in individuation, is important.

… we are unique because each of us has, or is a specific character that stays the same. 7 Old age allows us to be our true self The older soul, aged in its own peculiarity…… favours the odd. 35. So by being peculiar, odd, quirky we can allow our true nature to emerge. to be fully old, authentic in our being and available in our presence with its gravitas, and eccentricity, indirectly affects the public good and thereby their good. This makes oldness a full-time job from which we may not retire. 47

Old age is not just an age issue and also an attitude. the so-called psychology of old age can descend long before old age. Any day we may take to our beds and become querulous with friends, anxious about the future, and oppressed by the death we feel hovering. 18 When we retire from life, then we become old.

He doesn’t pull his punches in the book, talking about amongst many things; gravity’s sag, waking at night, muddled agitation, drying up, memory, heightened irritability, erotics. In all of them he points out deeper aspects, gravity’s sag for instance as a way of getting down. Peeing at night, a way to access the almost shamanic consciousness that is less work at day, sleep at night regulated. I didn’t agree with all he wrote, but i liked the questions, he asked. He flips the conventional obsession with youth and body on its head and points the idea of wisdom and character. The bodily fact that i cannot pick up as i once could the 50lb feed bag, heave the suitcase onto the overhead rack, or lift the planter onto my porch railing signifies a concrete measurable decline in my capacity. ..
Suppose that rather than seeking bodily explanation, i read these changes in my lifting capacity more reflectively as bodily expression. ‘Am i picking up more than i should be?what am i carrying around – big responsibilities, leaden feelings, over-stuffed baggage?’… forced to examine what’s already on my back, or discover another kind of capacity to carry 58

Hillman then flips age, physiology, afflictions – Jung – ‘the gods have become diseases’  and points out the deeper soul movements in our lives. In Indian culture the last stage of life is for renouncing the world householder life and being with god. This still happens to this day with older people becoming sadhus, monks and nuns and simply moving to an ashram. The wisdom of the ages courses through at times in the book. Perhaps one of those gems to end on is how he paraphrases Yeats “I pray .. that i may seem, though i die old./ a foolish passionate man.”

This book, like a lot of Jung’s offerings, speaks to the deeper soul life that we have as our potential. In this case old age and the deeper purpose and potentialities of that time of our life. I could understand much of my own mother in a deeper way.

Book review of ‘Raising Parents, Raising Kids’ by Dawn Menken

Raising Parents, Raising Kids by Dawn Menken

The process of parenting is both an inner experience and a literal calling. We are all called to develop a parent inside of ourselves. We all long to find in ourselves a good parent, a wise guide, or calm centre – whatever we may call it. In this sense everyone is called to parent, though not everyone is called to have children.

I described this book to a friend as “process work for parents’. It really does do what the title describes, helping us as parents to find deeper meaning and awareness in parenting both our children and ourselves.

Supporting children’s inner lives means supporting our children to dream. By dreaming, I don’t just mean nighttime dreams, but also feelings, fantasies, and the imaginary world.

In particular the note it sounded about inclusivity, and not marginalizing parts of our children, inspired me as a parent to communicate more with my son. My son, will be 18 in a month, so I wanted to finish this book before then, and whilst I wished I had read it when he was younger it is still very useful. I found it helped me with studying process work topics outside of parenting, notably with dreams and diversity. It’s also a very readable book and is filled with countless examples of her extensive practice with children.

It does not shy away from standing strongly for core values inherent with our Process Work worldview. This quote jumped out for me:

“My experience informs me that there are certain feelings that are supported for boys, and others more for girls. Girls are still discouraged from expressing anger and being direct. Girls still receive the message early on to be “nice” to accommodate, and to not hurt others. Boys get less support to show sensitive feelings, tenderness, and still get the message that crying is weak”.

Personally I found the chapter on difference and standing up for diversity in children – which was next to the chapter on bullying, especially inspiring, and it helped me with my own thesis immediately as I wrote it – although my thesis is seemingly on a different topic. It addresses head on the need in society; starting with us as parents to encourage acceptance of all of us in our increasingly diverse world, with different family constellations.

“Gender uncertainty opens up a world of human experience not male experience of female experience. It means as humans we are unlimited in our capacity and interest in being whole, not being split in a gender category that defines us..”

Fittingly one of the chapters is on parenting the planet, and how by bringing up children, and ourselves with the bigger picture of how to make the world a better place.
Parenting the planet means parenting for the future. It means caring for our environment, our educational systems, our political systems, and global relations. It means caring for our inner lives and deepest dreams and nurturing our relationships. It also means stepping into a parenting role in moment-to-moment situations – on the playground, at work, in our relationship, on the streets and in our neighborhoods. Some of us who parent in this sense are grassroots community workers, mentors, teachers, social workers, and neighbours who are backbones of our communities. These elders are sorely needed. Eldership does not refer to age, but to the sense of caring for the whole.

For more info http://www.dawnmenken.com/multimedia_raisingkids.html

World Work

This was written to friends, as a way of describing the World Work conference that takes place every 3 years in different locations. This one was in April 2017 in Greece. I thought i would leave the write up as it is, not quite polished up for blog standards because in its verve, freshness the cadences of the event play out.

Im writing this on a train upto Scotland from London, the green of England rushing past, May’s blooming buds and furrowed fields timelessly continuing.

World work was and is still a powerful experience in my body. In the day since i left Greece i am taking time to settle –  not noticing the long delay in the train journey. It was intense, powerful and utterly compelling. I found i could hardly take the time to check emails. When i saw folk checking their phone messages during sessions i couldn’t understand how they could not be drawn continually to the ongoing unfolding of our planet’s issues. “Welcome to Day 28” Alexandra, one of the organisers joked towards the end, and boy/girl did it feel like a we had run a marathon (presumably somewhere close by) of processing.

I wrote before leaving that i felt i was leaving for a ‘mela’ a Sanskrit term of religious festivals often combined with pilgrimage. And it felt like a gathering of pilgrims from every continent. United by a palpable common desire for a better world, willing to explore incredibly difficult topics and really go into them. What a spirit! A meeting of ‘where its at’ in the world. I could not imagine missing a WW ever in the future, this potent desire to meet, dive into issues, bring ourselves out brings something of relief to my soul. And how did i miss the last ones?

It was fun to see all the schools and peoples coming together. There was such a feeling of diversity present, most obviously in the languages needing translation but in cultural ways of being. Amidst many the Spanish with their vibrancy, the dignity of the Afghans, and the power of the South Africans, the hosting Greeks with their generosity stood out for my personally. Some sessions were in native languages and translated into English. English language dominance felt very obvious at these moments to me. This way of giving and being in new ways is a gift. A Greek lady in my small group, movingly shared about an local tradition of offering flowers to the sea to grieve those sailors who have died, which she was now doing for the refugees who die at sea (which i have promised to do up here in the North Sea and let the waves take the prayers all the way to the Med). The Greek’s combination of suffering under austerity and welcome to refugees was so present in the week, and it opened my heart to what are true human values. Relating to humanity was noted as a wealth, that many wealthy people do not have.

i leave with a feeling that my life will never be the same, that the knowledge of such a gathering reaffirms in me the direction i want my life to be oriented towards, that people are genuinely working for a better world is such a relief. In particular to see this aspiration happen with such directness and grappling, trying our best to make the world better in all our struggling imperfections. It’s not that nowhere else doesn’t try, but this form of activism called conflict resolution or open forums, has a power to it that keeps on rippling out long after we close the session. Well i don’t want to paint too rosy a picture, as the facilitators kept reminding us, we were making a small start to huge issues, but it left a legacy of hope, that the seeming intractability of something like climate change denial, ongoing racism, unconscious sexism could begin to be affected by fronting up to these issues, personally and collectively.

It is a light in the dark, or in the words of the conference subtitle – ‘Deep democracy in a world of divides’. That feeling of bringing awareness to usually unspoken sufferings, and understanding better and with precision and specificity how institutional and cultural oppressions happen was a constant companion during the days there.

We worked, listened, opened our hearts and examined our own privileges on many issues, notably for me: Africa and the effects of white oppression, Latin America, LGBTQI+, Greece and the challenges and gifts of who they are. Can this convey the degree of listening to the suffering and fiery determination to fight for their rights? No. But the mix of really being open to the agonies of life and then also hear and see the strength in fighting oppression, my goodness..

Something was stripped away from me, and it was the habit of the unnoticed giving up of hope. Of course it’s still there, but somehow seeing the way people were challenging issues such as white supremacy, sexism or simply unconscious privilege made me aware that change is possible. With hard work yes. It’s not an easy journey, to really notice unconscious rank, and to keep my heart open.

Arny Mindell, presiding spirit, was so sharp, humble and spritely. And his constant ability to dance between hearing unflinchingly – literally in one case when taking on a ghost role with fury directed at him and then repeatedly coming back to noticing the sentient emergence, whether in Gaia, or spirit of quietness, always he brought us back to this level before going right back into the fire of intensely difficult topics. This dance of sentience and agonised pain in the world, is one where energy can flow and not be stuck.

The belly full of human experiences just kept emerging. When we sorted or decided which topics to discuss, there would be 30, 40 or 50 suggestions. Some regulars, white supremacy, male oppression for instance never quite got fully explored and then every region, issue would bubble up and be heard even as a simple suggestion as we sorted out which topics to listen to.

Meanwhile every afternoon and evening there were smaller topics to explore which ranged so widely its hard to convey. Personally i went to talks on open forums in Cape Town, internal oppression presented by the child of both holocaust survivors and a child of Nazi, LGBTQi presentation, a Naomi Klein movie, accountability in Rwanda and Croatia, the rise of fascism in Europe, stage fright, dream body and symptoms, white privilege. Each of these presentations was one out of 5 or so, so you can imagine the richness present. 

By day 3 i started fighting off a cold, (i often get them in intensives, due i guess to struggling with intense feelings). I managed to go to everything, but was tired on and off and eventually took some paracetamols simply to function.

My personal biggest learning came from relationship conflicts and bringing up difficult issues whilst wanting to be accountable. And there are still outstanding talks to be had that continue on. i used my sore throat to bring up difficult for me conversations where i had critiques with facilitators and was amazed to be heard.

I learnt to move when i feel caught in feelings or frozen. Rage in particular gets me. so walking around and drawing on large papers was grand, and something i wish we always had. The deep democracy of our bodies and being able to go in and out and move around was fully supported. It is that kind of awareness of subtleties that i appreciate so much in the Process work community.

The small groups which met throughout the sessions were a warm landing space, which helped teach me. On the first day i felt discordant and due to industrial sounds in our room a toning emerging, which took away the discordance into one of greater ease and we then moved outside into the sun. Just by toning together our discordance was eased, going beyond words and checking in as group how we are in a completely different way.

There have been times in my life when i have been in large gathering that have touched my soul and there is nowhere else in the world i would rather be than just there; Findhorn conferences, retreats and now i  can add World work. It makes life worth living.

For more information about World Work please go to http://www.iapop.com/

Accountability

– the buck stop with me

When working with issues of justice around community and social and historical injustice, as well as in our relationship conflicts at the kitchen sink, a first and crucial step is to acknowledge the injustice that has taken place. Many conflicts cycle at the point that someone or some group cries out in outrage about a past injustice, and the group who was involved in carrying out this past injustice does not acknowledge what it has done, or individuals within that group may know nothing about it. … At the moment of denying a past injustice a new injustice is committed. A. Audegon War Hotel, pg 44.

Accountability has a clear ring of truth, where frustration, hurt and resentment can be heard and understood. Accountability is a stepping up and saying ‘this ends with me’. Or it says ‘this must change and i will do what i can to do so’. It is meeting, no matter how difficult, someone else’s suffering at injustice and validating it. Accountability then, when taken seriously as a way of meeting the past in the present moment, could be one of the biggest steps to the betterment of our world.
Accountability involves recognizing and validating each other’s experiences.’ pg 45 ibid.

Victim – Accountability Spectrum

Victim ——————————————————————————————————-accountability

I realised something during a group forum on gender when i was challenged, that my life-long identification as a victim, obscures me not only from my own power but also existing cultural and social power structures. So when exploring gender for instance, if i don’t account for the fact that i am a man, and not only that, a tall man, and also with a privileged background, it will constantly lurk in the shadows. This is before a word is spoken. So in the seemingly obvious case of being a man, it is not so seemingly obvious when i have spent a lifetime suffering under a sense of not being male enough, not providing enough, not strong enough, not successful enough etc. That was my previous narrative of myself in terms of gender. But with accountability now comes an unexpected realisation that i am not just a victim. It’s easy to point the finger at others and where they need to change, but to find change in myself beforehand, that is something we can all do to create a better world. It’s hard to really acknowledge suffering, but when i can keep my heart open to hearing the suffering of others then it can help change the situation. In personal relationships when we refuse to be accountable, we feel isolated, pg 47 ibid.

Social Activism
Widening accountability from the purely personal to collective issues, is a spiritual path of our time. By acknowledging my own past and the privilige i grew up with helps name something that may otherwise lurk in the background. Or in terms of gender, to notice where my maleness has shielded me from some of the suffering that women go through on a regular basis.
As long as brutality and human rights violations go unaccounted for, as long as ‘their’ story (whether African America, Native American, Jewish, Palestinian, East Timor, Central American, Afghanistan) is not considered ‘our’ story, ;our’ shared history cannot move forward. Without accountability and without feeling for and identification with our human community the veins of history are clogged. pg 50 ibid
As Arlene Audegon (the founder of my psychotherapy school) writes in the quote above, the key principle is to see us as one human family, with ‘our’ story. When i can do so, and this is a core spiritual principle, then change can happen for individuals and societies. Then any abuse to an individual is something we all suffer under.

Personal
I have spent a large part of my life feeling a victim. To a bullying elder brother, to a boarding school with daily bullying, to being sent to that school with not even realising i had a choice as to whether to go, and to an internalised sense of masculinity that oppressed my own sensitivity. Initially to flip to accountability felt like a betrayal of that identity, that i was forsaking myself for a principle. I was instinctively scared of accountability that it would not let my hurt out. So i realise that sense of betrayal is also a calling for me to take this part of me more seriously than i was and to be with the part of me that has suffered in my own time. And by acknowledging accountability it brings in its wake a freedom to feel with others. Then i can be with my own suffering and stretch to hear others too. I’ve spent my life wishing for and working for a better world, and now here is another step in that journey. To be honest I have found it difficult to be accountable and have avoided it in my life. But now wishing to do so and aspiring for it constantly helps when i am triggered by my fear to go beyond the hesitation of stepping forward. It can be in small things, like this week double booking myself. Initially i tried my normal avoidance of juggling schedules so it would not be noticed, but when i took responsibility, it can change the atmosphere to even one of relief.

Changing the past
I was consulted recently by my former boarding school about an abuse enquiry they are setting up. Truthfully i was very cynical about the school. But a couple of questions made me realise that this was not a formulaic exercise. The headmaster had asked 2 questions; whether to issue a public or private apology and secondly whether a memorial should be set up. As i was asked those questions, and honoured to feel that i had an opinion whose answer was being listened to, i realised the power in my own life of accountability. It helps to lay the past to rest, the demons of self blame, of guilt, of suffering. Those questions met me in my heart and answered a longing i knew not i had. To be taken seriously and in the new moment to repair in some form some of the damage that is now asking for accountability.
When we refuse to assume accountability, the accounts stay open. Refusing to be accountable repeats the injustice. pg 47 ibid

Amends

So i too wish to make amends as the AA 12 step folk have it. Somewhere i notice when i have not acknowledged privilege or where i have hurt others. i feel it lies on me like a guilt shadow, that i sense, but rarely see – living at the edges of my awareness. But when i do slow down, stop and acknowledge it, then it is a relief – usually to both sides. When you have suffered to have someone acknowledge hurting takes guts and brings relief. Recently on a Facebook thread i challenged the accuracy of a claim made about someone else, ‘is it true?’ i asked. When the person making the claim apologised publicly after realising it wasn’t, and modelled accountability, it moved me deeply. I felt inspired by how she did it. We all makes mistakes, and it’s in acknowledging them, that power lies.

Globally
The world is struggling with a new society where we become accountable for our pasts. Sexism, racism, homophobia, sexual abuse are almost daily in our media. To change the sense of hopelessness around these topics, i find my accountability is a way to make amends and start afresh. It is in a sense the path to the active participation in the world in the following quote. Accountability may ultimately be a process of self reflection, for individuals, communities, nations and our international community, taking stock and taking account of how we are active participants in the world. pg 29 ibid So by aspiring to be accountable when the moment needs it, then i hope to bring one small element of helping our world emerge into a more diverse and accepting place. Working in the world is a path spiritually, working with power, with struggles and the confluence of right and wrong, hurts and awareness of past resentments. Being accountable collectively and individually is a way of bringing healing to the world.

Writing
Writing this piece has taken time, as i recreate even in the writing the victim mode that has been my survival and yet who is not accountable. Initially my edits brought out more my own struggle with accountability. I have an internal critique of am i actually living this or writing it as a worthy thing to do, ticking the box of the social activist therapist? As it’s an external introduced theory, how much is in my bones so to speak and how much is from outside? All i can say right now is that whilst temperamentally accountability has been foreign, since i have taken it seriously it’s been a lodestar of where i wish to travel towards, shining a light of a different way to being. Since writing this piece i have experimented with accountability as a kind of value system to uphold – and it has worked in so far as everytime i have been accountable its brought relief to myself and others. It’s foreign, and yet also joins me with some of my deepest longings, the naive part of me that wants us all to get along, and create a happy world to live in. Going beyond my at times chronic fear, and my lifelong ambivalence around power, is a new journey. So i wanted to write not just a theory but the reality of where i am grappling and living with this ideal in my life.

Spiritually
Accountability is spiritual action. For those wishing for a better world, to create a heaven on earth, getting involved with the pains, struggles, betrayals, hurts and awfulness of life involves rectifying it and standing for the world we wish to create. When people stand up for the past and the present life is eased and helped for those who have suffered. It is for me spirituality in the moment, in the flesh and transforming our world. Heaven on earth is a constant work in progress and accountability is one of those steps.

Bibliography
The War Hotel – Psychological Dynamics in Violent Conflict – Arlene Audegon. Pubs: Whurr.

Dream nature

This piece was written to accompany a proposed workshop in an ecological centre on dreams and the links betwen dreams and nature.IMG_0515

Nature and dreams are unexpectedly connected bed-fellows. Both are suffering in our industrial age, both colonized by matter and by over rationality. To phrase it in the positive both stand for the wild and the mysterious in an age where neither figure too far in our GDP and ‘to do’ lists. Dreams seemingly are a visual nocturnal experience which mostly we forget and dismiss before moving onto daily life with coffee in hand all set to conquer the world or at least our flickering screen. What possible use could wilderness and our evening’s internal slideshow give us?

It is in the fact that the dream is uncontrolled by us, that their potency is most apparent. We receive messages every night, as Jung termed it – a letter from ourselves to ourselves – which are untouched by our daily concerns, biases and preferences. It is a pure and powerful message that we give ourselves, if we can but understand.

Likewise wilderness has its own extraordinary complex and refined evolutionary perfection, which we meddle with at our cost. Dreams and the world of myth and the non-rational have their own wisdom which speaks to us on their terms. They need to be understood in a way that brings all of us, emotional, spiritual, and rational together. Every night, they communicate to us individually and at times collectively, about our deeper natures, our individual purposes and worlds which we can normally but guess at. They can be premonitionary to an extraordinary degree. If we can make friends with how ‘messages of the night’ speaks to us in ways which we will not comprehend with our socialized minds, then slowly we will understand more of who we really are. Not to de-value our minds and rationality per se, it is just that for understanding dreams another part of our human diversity is needed in understanding them. Namely a left brain intuitive, puts the dots together type of intelligence. Likewise if we approach nature with respect and awe, then we will be enriched by nature. Who doesn’t feel better after a hike or a sail? Both dreams and nature need this respect and humility to truly understand them. The destruction of the planet happens, I would suggest, by people or parts of ourselves out of touch with their dreaming life. Mindell the founder of Process Work says that in the West we have an unnoticed low level chronic depression through the lack of awareness of dreaming (and magic) in our lives. CG Jung said that the dreaming world is as real as waking life. When that is understood, which is a stretch initially, then life and our worldviews of ‘reality’, are stretched to be in awe of more than our human smallness and in turn reflect a respect and care for all of ourselves and all of nature and all of our psychologies.

Dreams and nature spring from the same root, mother nature, a physical manifestation of Gaia’s evolutionary brilliance. Our dreams, can only be understood by being in accord with the meta qualities, and in a sense the pace of nature herself. In a poetic and dreaming sense, our dreams are as real as the hills we see every day with the multitude of fauna and flora in them.cropped-IMG_0066.jpg

If we try to conquer dreams (and so many try through lucid dreaming, pills and alcohol) like an engineer carving a road through a pristine landscape we will suffer through losing the way to awe and humility.

So dreams and nature are allies, siblings emerging from the same root, the Gaian mother who in her unfathomable way birthed us all. How then to understand our place in the world, our unique journey, and how to heal and unfold all of ourselves? It is by slowing down and taking time to watch nature and how nature speaks to us; and to notice our dreams. The journey of a 1000 miles starts with one step and this is one of those early steps. It matters not if we live on the 40 floor of a high rise, nature will infuse us and effect us in our dreaming and in our lives.
Dreams and the dreaming include day-dreams, and anything that grabs our attention unexpectedly. The seeming small co-incidences life at times presents, the way something unusual can grab us, like a fictional character, can reveal deeper worlds beyond our self knowledge. Our day ‘dreaming’ can tell us there is far more too us than what we are consciously aware of and how we identify in the world. cropped-PICT0066.jpg

Dreams are universal and are in most if not all scriptures. Archetypes and symbols are also universal and by definition beyond the momentary, they span eras. By their natures dreams are symbolic and can take us all further into our deeper natures. The Australian Aboriginals wisdom, so easily ignored in the last two hundred years, has enormous impact environmentally. If we can see the physical world as a living ‘dreaming’ which speaks to us individually, and not only that but speaks to our problems and has answers, then like a river leading to the sea, surely we will effortlessly respect our world.

 

 

 

 

Taking It Like a Man

There is so much pressure and expectation put on men today. To be strong, a breadwinner, fit, handsome, successful in business, bed and sport. And with a 21st century twist to also not repeat the mistakes of our fathers and our father’s fathers and to be more emotionally literate and sensitive, change the nappies and take paternity leave to care for our family.

Like many men, despite a life lived in alternative circles and spiritual communities, I too felt that pressure to be the prototype male. To be my father’s son, which in my particular case, given a notably successful father, was a hard act to follow.

I tried and yet given the standards of wishing to perform to my Dad’s levels of success have failed. Living a life of relative lack of financial prosperity in a city focussed on money (Hong Kong) also did not help. Whilst I could see I had made some contributions, there was an underlying sense of failure in me, compared to the genetic program I had inherited. Squaring this circle, of wishing to be successful on my own terms and then realizing that part of the drive to be successful was an inherited drive, was a tough task.

4 years ago a couple of related events happened that completely changed my relationship with masculinity and maleness.

When I was left by my girlfriend for another man, it hit me very hard and I felt humiliated and fundamentally a failure as a man. Hitting rock bottom, I realized something had to change. I had already gone through a painful divorce with my son living in another continent. Thank God, I had already signed up to start a long term psychotherapy training, and I contacted one my best friends to conduct a rite of passage into manhood. I had been in a few men’s groups, but in hindsight the last one simply deepened and worsened the sense of pathology I had about not being man enough.

The rite of passage in to manhood really was a powerful event, a 10 day ritual with a 4 days fast in a desert but with a year’s preparation and half a year’s follow up. Unexpectedly out there in the desert, I realized that I could be as feminine a man as I wished to be. Paradoxically this realization felt very masculine to me.

Combining this with my studies in Process Work, which included weekly therapy, brought me to a new realization about masculinity and how we perceive ourselves. What I learnt in theory and in practice was that elementary dictum of accepting myself exactly as I am. Seemingly so simple yet in reality a journey in itself. In Process Work we have a term ‘deep democracy’ and we combine it with the verb ‘marginalizing’ to describe how we can be against parts of ourselves. This usually happens because of a belief system or because of an ‘affect’ or ‘complex’ (to use the psychological jargon), parts of ourselves stuck in the past calling for healing. If we are against a part of ourselves, as I was against my lack of traditional masculinity or the fact that my skill set was not in making money in Hong Kong, then it manifests itself continuously as signals we send out to others. Perhaps a slumped shoulder, a tic in our speech, or a projected anger onto others who are successful.

We in Hong Kong, live in a city with a strong yang (male) energy. If we don’t fit that culture, then there is a sense of going against the tide. Conversely in a very feminized culture, to be very driven would have the same feeling and that part of a person would be culturally marginalized. There is no prescribed right or wrong way to be in Process Work, we are on a journey of awareness into discovering who we truly are. It’s part of human nature to have marginalized some aspect of ourselves. In some ways, the therapeutic journey is a journey back to wholeness through including parts of our unique identity which we had to momentarily freeze out and the age old truth that we are fine just the way we are.

We can, as was true for me, be unaware that we are against parts of ourselves. Culturally there are values praised and discriminated against. If we are gay for instance, or differently able then we get marginalized by society. In the microcosm of our internal world we do the same thing too.

My experience the last mens group I was in is that there is an unconscious presumption of what are good male qualities and thus an inherent discrimination against the fullness of the human spectrum. Though initially the group was helpful and even liberating for me, i now am in a phase of questioning this presumption. Maleness for me now is one construct among many, such as sexuality and other boxes we put on ourselves. There may be inherently male qualities, I really am not sure anymore if even that is true. Assuming it is though, and that femininity likewise has certain features, we all have qualities within both sides of the spectrum and whoever we are is our journey as individuals. It’s more important for me now to become aware of our internal deep democracy and being aware of all that we are.

So for me I realize now that I am who I am, a man who is not relatively good at being a provider in the traditional sense. At least for now. There is such a relief in me at admitting this – publicly even! Suddenly I can see the systemic pressures on individuals to be certain ways.

As mentioned before there is a paradox to really embracing this feminine part of myself. I feel incredibly strong about who I am and the greater social background behind discriminating subtly against those who are different. I am conscious that this very article is possibly also a heterosexually biased viewpoint. Jung had a term called ‘enantadromia’ which alluded to the fact that when you go fully into one aspect of our psyche the opposite can emerge. Rage can be followed by calm. And acknowledging my failure at being a man, and finding peace with the fact that I don’t do money or conventional strength well, has being incredibly strengthening. So paradoxically I feel far stronger and clearer. In fact what may be a defining masculine quality!

I welcome you all to experience just who you are too in your fullness.