Category Archives: Life & Death

Llangranog beach

Walking meditation

I’ve been practising walking “meditation” on the beach at Llangranog. I begin with my awareness, in my personal here & now. Staying in awareness of myself, my physical presence and senses, I become aware what is around. The experience is as though I’ve opened my eyes & ears further, more gets in, and what arrives is less “filtered”, without judgement. The experience reminds of me of John O’Donohue: “When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us”. Is this reverence? Is beauty deciding to trust me?

(The “meditation” practice is my own creation, distilled from different things I’ve been taught over many years. I don’t suppose it’s original. It is original to me).

Llangranog beach
Llangranog beach

Our deepest joy is only as deep as our deepest grief

I’ve been having a rich and full year, the most full of my life. It’s been filled with love and grief, with listening and learning. I’ve been thinking a lot, I’ve made some sense of my experience and come to a conclusion I can’t escape: it’s good to embrace grief and heartbreak.

Perhaps that sounds masochistic or just plain nuts. Allow me to explain. The experience began in November 2015. I went to listen to Stephen Jenkinson speak, not far from my home in Wales. At the end of the day, I shook Stephen’s hand and thanked him for ruining my life, for shaking me up so much when I thought I was approaching an age for settling down a bit. What I particularly took from that day was the thought that the more I embrace the inevitability of my death and the death of my loved ones, the more I will be able to love life.

It fits well with Francis Weller’s First Gate of Grief: Everything You Love, You Lose. It might be possible to avoid grief by loving nothing & no one. Which sounds like a recipe for a bleak life of depression & despair. Or we can love wholeheartedly, and embrace the inevitability of losing those we love, right up until our own life slips away.

This all became a lot more real only a month later when my dear friend and housemate LJ was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Being beside my friend in her dying time was a sad, painful, joyous and precious experience, the most precious time of my life. I surprised myself by showing up in a way that was a rejection of what I had been brought up with. Coming from a dull, middle class English family who shun strong emotion, my upbringing told me to keep some emotional distance between myself and my dying friend. Instead, I chose the opposite, I chose to lean in to the experience, to lean into love knowing I was also choosing heartbreak. And by the middle of January, when LJ returned from her last holiday, I knew my love had grown, that I really had chosen the way of love & grief.

LJ died on Good Friday 2016, at the home we shared, in her own bed with two friends beside her, and me in the next room (we had agreed only two of us at a time with LJ — she didn’t enjoy more people). I her final days, she received wonderful care from friends, her doctor, Paul Sartori Foundation “Hospice at Home” & the district nurses.

The evening before, and only a few hours before she fell into unconsciousness, LJ & I connected in a way that is unique for me. I didn’t intend or plan this. I went to sit with her for a while. Knowing she enjoyed company and didn’t enjoy hearing people speak, I chose to sit silently and try to remain present to my friend. What happened next was so far outside my experience, it took a while to make sense of it. We spent about two hours in deep, radically trusting connection, and I experienced something which I will call “love without attachment”. The  experience of these two hours are the most precious of my life so far. I am sure my friend died knowing she was loved.

I wept easily in the days after LJ died. I got more deeply in touch with my grief a few weeks later with friends while I was in Mallorca. Here, I found all of it, and I howled like a wounded animal. I beautiful, precious and painful experience. Grief, someone said, is a way of loving.

So in the first few months of 2016, the deepest connection, gentlest love and the deepest grief I have experienced. Not a coincidence, I’m sure. We can’t selectively numb ourselves — our deepest joy is only as deep as our deepest grief. We can have neither or both.

My suggestion? Show up wholeheartedly for all of it: love, joy, grief and heartbreak. Yes, it’ll hurt sometimes. And the love might be exquisite.

Personal heroism

I had a moment of inspiration a while ago. It’s been running around my mind ever since. I applied this to gaining understanding of a personal experience, and I think it will be useful to others. Actually, I think it’s such a good idea, someone has probably thought of it already.

If we compare ourselves to others, we could easily miss our finest hour, our moment of personal heroism. If I think I did something brave, my next thoughts might be of someone I saw on TV rescuing a family from a car sinking into a river, or of a firefighter risking her life to bring children from a burning building. Not all acts of heroism will be famous. We won’t all get on TV or into the papers. And yet, for some, leaving the house will take as much courage as it takes for a firefighter to run into a burning building.

I have a suggestion for a way to examine our moments of personal heroism, the times when we act from our values, even knowing there is a risk to ourselves.

The American scholar Joseph Campbell identified a narrative structure that appears in almost all myths, legends and old stories, and a lot of newer stories as well. He called it The Hero’s Journey. I’m going to borrow a simplified version from Erica Sosna’s excellent book Your Life Plan. In this version, the journey has these stages:

  • The invitation to adventure.
  • The commitment: stepping into the unknown.
  • The quest: challenges, obstacles, setbacks, victory (or failure).
  • The return: the hero returns, transformed by the quest.

Here is a way we can tell our stories of heroism to ourselves, and if we choose, to trusted friends. Your story doesn’t have to be a literal journey. It may have taken place in familiar locations, perhaps even in your own home. The difference could have been in your mind, your attitude and perhaps no one noticed any change.

The invitation

How does your story begin? How were you invited to this journey? How did you decide to accept the invitation? How difficult was it? How long did the decision take? Did you consider refusing? What dangers did you anticipate?

The danger could be emotional or physical. For example, if we commit ourselves to a love affair, we open ourselves to heartbreak.

The Commitment

How did you step into the unknown? What did you leave behind? How different was the new? Did you find it frightening, or exciting, or something else? What other emotions arose?

The Quest

What challenges did you face? What obstructions? Did anyone try to discourage you? Were there any allies helping? Any thoughts, books or objects that helped?

Were you victorious?

The Return

How were you transformed by the journey? What did you learn? What did you lose? Are you glad you made the journey? What would things be like if you hadn’t? Do you have any regrets? What feelings arise when you think about your story?

I poem about a conversation that didn’t end when I thought it would

Stillness

I stand beside my friend, bathed now and wearing a favourite dress, laid on her bed, surrounded by flowers, profoundly still. Without a sound, I hear her gift: “Life is precious”. But I know this already. “No”, she says, silent, insistent, “it’s much more precious than that”. My heart is open and her lesson lands without resistance. Watching her shocking stillness, I understand. Life is precious. “And another thing; you could be a lot more gentle”. I know this is true. But how will I become more gentle? Silence. Stillness. Incomprehensible stillness.

Copyright © 2016, Mike Wilson

[This is an edited version of the piece I posted in June. I like this better — it’s actually shorter, I have been able to say what I wanted to say using fewer words].

Embracing Mystery

We are, Sartre told us, doomed to be free. “Essence precedes existence”, which is to say there is no essence of human calling us to be human. No other animal has such freedom. If a wolf ignored the essence of wolf and tried to live as a haddock, he would soon die. A haddock trying to live even as a different fish would be doomed. But we humans have a huge range of choices on how to live. Anyone who finds freedom on this scale unbearable has an easy way out: just sign up for the voluntary slavery offered by any religion. Hand your unwanted freedom the men in funny hats (and it nearly always is a man).

With unanswerable questions, I can see two obvious choices but I’m going to recommend the third. The obvious choice with difficult questions is to rely on the men in funny hats again, a popular option for religious people. Not only can they be relied upon to answer the unanswerable, many will even insist on obviously incorrect answers and perhaps stone you to death if you disagree. The second option, typically chosen by atheists, is to ignore unanswerable questions, deny they exist or insist asking them is futile and absurd. This may leave some atheists looking rather cold, having intellect but little emotion about them.

I’d like to recommend a third option: embrace Mystery, even come to love it. Ask the impossible questions. Embrace the beauty of the questions and embrace the Mystery of not knowing the answers. If you find the knowledge that your questions will never be satisfactorily answered, acknowledge the fear, embrace it and live with it. If you genuinely believe a question to be worth asking and yet unanswerable, is it not wiser to embrace Mystery than to pretend to know the answer?

What is love for? I don’t know. Are there different kinds of love, or are they all variations of the same experience? I don’t know. What happens to me after I die? Probably nothing, but I’m not sure. Is there a god? Unlikely, but I can’t be certain. What is the purpose of life? I don’t even know that it has a purpose. Do I have a soul? Probably not, but I can’t be sure. Is there intelligent life on other planets? I don’t know, and if there is, they could be so far away we would never meet them or even know they exist.

Training & practice: reaping the rewards

I noticed something rather lovely on Monday, something that’s been building for several years. I’m effortlessly happy, even in challenging situations. I was happy while waiting to see a vascular consultant about an ancient leg injury that’s limiting my mobility at the moment. A few years ago, I might have been resentful of the time waiting to see the consultant and the probable many months wait for surgery to improve my ruined knee. On Monday, without making any conscious effort, I noticed how kind the nurses were, how amazing the medical technology is compared to what was around when I injured my leg in 1977. The delight was easy and genuine. It’s the result, I think, of several years training and practice in several areas including NVC, Positive Psychology and mindfulness.

Last year, I completed an on-line Positive Psychology training course with Dr Chris Johnstone and Miriam Akhtar. The practices I learnt on the course were valuable, simple to use ideas like optimism, daily gratitude and savouring. I practice most days and they’ve become habit. It might seem that pessimists are most realistic and least likely to be disappointed, but evidence based studies have shown that optimists tend to be happier. Just so long as over-optimism doesn’t lead to extra risky behaviour or repeatedly attempting failed strategies.

Heartbreak

Over the last year, several things have happened that lead me to reflect on the nature of love & heartbreak.

Last autumn, I lost connection with my closest friend. This happened suddenly and without warning. It was an intensely painful and frightening time. Without realising it, I had come to rely on the close connection we had created. Before this friendship, I hadn’t experience such close connection or even known it was possible.

In May 2015, I went to Chicago to attend the Leveraging Your Influence  retreat lead my Miki Kashtan. In one session, Miki told us that if we committed ourselves to living NVC and to spreading it to a wider audience, “know this, you will fail”, a reminder that such commitment really requires resilience and the knowledge that we won’t always succeed.

A few weeks later, I stumbled across a David Wyte audio book When the Heart Breaks at Sounds True. Whyte reminds us of the inevitability of heartbreak: love is rarely symmetrical.

At Spirit of NVC camp in summer 2015, during a heart connection exercise, I remembered a fragment of a poem or prayer that suggests “Love like you’ve never been hurt”. My heart immediately replied “I can only love as though I’ve never been hurt, I will return broken hearted again”.

A transforming experience, taking leadership of myself

In the summer of 2015, I went to John Dawson’s public speaking workshop Taking Your Place in the World in Bristol. I was aware that speaking in front of an audience was a problem for me and perhaps obstructing progress in other areas. Speaking while sitting, in a group such as an NVC practice group, had never been a problem. As soon as I stood before an audience, fear and panic rose, my throat constricted and a thin voice poured out an incomprehensible stream of words.

John invited each of us to stand in front with the other participants acting as audience, sitting with blank faces. Three times I stood there, the fear, if anything, getting worse. I was shaking and getting out a few words to describe the experience. I think John may have been getting concerned about me. Towards the end of the second two-minute spell at the front, I half remembered the invitation to listen, not only to my inner critic, but also to my inner ally (an inner voice like a supportive, encouraging friend). If I gave words to the thoughts that arose from this idea, my ally might say something like “I see your belly full of fear and I love your fearless heart”. It’s a valuable lesson from Focusing that, when I’m afraid, it’s only part of me that’s afraid, there are other parts that aren’t.

Some way through my third spell in front of an audience, rooted to the spot and trembling with fear, I had one of those “ah ha!” moments. I realised I was waiting for someone to give me permission to be there. What would it be like to claim the space, to give myself permission? Without planning to, the deed was done. I took leadership of myself. Perhaps this is what NVC trainers mean when they talk about “being in our power”. As I claimed the space, I realised I wasn’t rooted to the spot and was able to move about the space as I spoke to different members of the audience.

Afterwards, I thought (and hoped) this was a breakthrough. And so it proved to be — after that, each time I took time in front of the audience, I was enjoying myself more and more. By the end I was loving it.

Even if life and career don’t involve public speaking, being fearful and unwilling to speak to an audience is likely to be holding us back. If you live in the UK, I recommend John highly (and don’t get paid for doing so).

Where next gentle soul?

I’ve been listening to Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Byrds songs of the 60s for the first time in a while. I was a child in the 60s and a teenager in the 70s. The music of the late 60s and early 70s had a huge effect on me. I was probably too young to appreciate the Summer of Love in 1967, but the sentiments of the time continued into my formative years. Bob Dylan had a label on his guitar which said something like “This machine defeats fascists”. We really believed folk music had overcome dreary conformity and obedience, and that Rock n Roll would soon liberate everyone. When America’s war in Vietnam ended, I imagined the end of all war and a time coming soon when no nation would see the need for an army. I imagined that everyone would live in peace, that everyone would have enough to eat and somewhere to live, that no one need be scared of their neighbours or their government. I know I wasn’t the only one.

The “counter reformation” was a lot stronger than I expected. The forces of dreary conformity reasserted themselves. By the time Thatcher & Reagan came to power, I’d all but forgotten these values and got swept up in the greed of the 80s. Music became, for the most part, disposable fluff. I actually stopped listening to popular music radio in the late 80s as I realised I was listening to hours of dross in the hope of hearing something with a bit of passion. No one wrote songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Chimes of Freedom” any longer, not even Bob Dylan.

I believe our values come from two sources: some we learn from family, school and peers. These we would change if we chose to. I believe we also have core values we are born with and these we can repress or ignore, but cannot change. The music of the 60s still speaks to what I believe to be my core values. Perhaps I sound hopelessly idealistic or foolishly optimistic. I still believe it isn’t too late for peace, that humans could share the Earth’s gifts fairly, that everyone could have enough to eat and somewhere to live. I know I’m still not the only one, but these values are rarely expressed and seem less mainstream than they did 50 years ago. The music of the 60s speaks more loudly to these values than ever and I’m loving hearing it again.