Monday, 2 November 2009

Iago and The Postmaster’s Wife

“You’ll never guess what that woman did!” exclaimed Karen as she made my coffee. “She told George that she had seen me stroking your dog and that it was unhygienic and shouldn’t be allowed. Why couldn’t she talk to me directly instead of going behind my back like that? She’s a real witch!”

Karen is my favourite barista at my local café. George is her manager. The woman in question is the wife of the postmaster who runs the small sub-post office next door to the café. She sells the newspapers, stationery and sweets. He deals with the letters, parcels and all the official post office business. They are both immigrants from South Asia.

I was upset at the devious way that this “nosey neighbour” had got Karen into trouble with her boss. Also a part of me felt hurt that anyone would object to someone petting my dog. Karen adored Peppar and it gave me great pleasure to see the way they interacted. Karen would pull Peppar’s cheeks playfully and Peppar would mouth and lick her in response.

“I always wash my hands afterwards,” continued Karen, “Why does she need to poke her nose into other people’s business? What’s her problem?”

I have never much liked the postmaster’s wife. She always looks bored and unhappy and seems to regard customers as something of a nuisance. Much of her time is spent peering out onto the street to see what people are up to or chatting to friends on the phone. When customers do approach the counter she doesn’t even bother to put the phone down or stop talking while serving them!

I would never dream of behaving like that at work. As a seminar leader I am always caring, concerned and attentive to the needs of my students. I want them to think well of me and I make a point of being both approachable and personable. In one of my workshops on service mindedness I stress the importance of putting the customer first - something at which Karen excels. To my mind this woman’s couldn’t-care-less attitude was an example of everything that is wrong with the service sector in the UK. How dare she point the finger at Karen’s behaviour when her own is so appalling!

These judgements sounded loud and clear inside my head in defence not only of my friend, but also of the part of me whose feelings had been hurt by this woman - my young, sensitive self. They damned her as “cold-hearted”, “meddlesome”, “inconsiderate”, “unprofessional” and “devious.”

I felt so deliciously self-righteous and powerful in my condemnation that it took some days for these judgments to abate, but when they did and I was able to reflect, it was obvious to me that I was projecting some of my disowned selves onto her - the ones my primary selves didn’t want around. I knew that if I stepped back from the situation I could begin to embrace these selves, find out about them, and move my Aware Ego Process forward. But to stop there would be to cleverly avoid addressing something else that had been triggered by this incident. At a much deeper level I sensed another darker, forbidden energy had begun to stir……

“I am not what I am” - Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello (Act 1, scene 1)

As a child I was raised to be well behaved and considerate of others. I doffed my cap respectfully when greeting women and politely enquired about their health. I ran errands for neighbours and offered to carry their shopping. At church on a Sunday I looked like a perfect angel dressed in my white choirboy’s surplice and pleated ruff. Everyone regarded me as “such a good little boy”.

My exemplary behaviour earned me lots of approval and affection from the adults around me. This felt very comforting to my more vulnerable and sensitive selves. But there was a down side. It made me a potential target for bullies at school who would taunt me, calling me a “goody-goody” or even an “arse-licker”. To deflect their negative attention, I developed a clandestine self that protected me and kept me safe - an inner Iago.

This part of me learnt how to surreptitiously draw attention to faults and weaknesses in other boys. It would work behind the scenes to shift the focus of attention away from me and onto them. Because I was the instigator and not the perpetrator I was never found out. The bullies got into trouble with the teachers, not me. I stayed out of harms way and my image as a good boy remained intact.

My Iago also came into play in relationship to the adults around me. My primary selves wouldn’t allow me to rebel or express negative feelings towards them even though their behaviour often upset me. I particularly disliked the emotionally invasive and intrusive energy that came my way from some family members. Instead of confronting them openly, Iago created imaginary scenarios of torment and torture in which I would punish them by inflicting mental or physical pain. In this he was amazingly creative, but his machinations never saw the light of day. They existed only in the shadowland of my fantasies.

It was this buried Iago self that was triggered by the actions of the postmaster’s wife. It invented a fantasy of her as a dark skinned witch, an intrusive busybody, jealous of the beautiful young Karen and out to get her - just like an evil character in a fairy tale. It figured that she probably hated dogs, was unhappy in her marriage, and was sexually frustrated! Having created a picture of her as something strange and monstrous, the stage was set for her vilification.

The post office is closed on Sundays, so when Karen took her cigarette break and joined Peppar and I at a table outside the café, she thought it would be safe to play with Peppar without fearing that the “witch” would see her. She gave Peppar a big hug and was rewarded with a big wet lick on her face.

As I glanced over her shoulder at the post office I saw a face peeking out from the darkened interior. Iago seized the moment. “Karen, she’s watching us,” I whispered, pointing towards the post office. “I don’t believe it!” exclaimed Karen. “Why can’t she leave you alone?” I hissed, stoking the fire of Karen’s resentment. “It’s really intolerable that she spies on you like this. I wouldn’t be surprised if she got a camera out and started to take photos as evidence to show George!”

It felt like some Machiavellian energy had possessed me. As we spoke I kept nodding and pointing in the direction of the post office, making it very clear that we had seen her and were talking about her. My primary Nice Guys had been sidelined and Iago had taken over - coming perilously close to the surface but cleverly using Karen as a shield. After all, it was Karen who had the real issue with the postmaster’s wife, not me.

Suddenly the door of the post office flew open and out stormed the postmaster’s wife. Without looking at us, she strode into the café and began to harangue George about Karen’s behaviour with Peppar. He looked taken aback and was obviously trying to placate her. A moment later she came back out and to our surprise walked straight up to our table.

“I saw you!!” she screamed at me, “You were talking about me. I saw you pointing your finger. I’ll call the police. I’ll tell my husband. You are harassing me!” She turned towards the shop and shouted one more time for the whole neighbourhood to hear, “You are harassing me!!” Karen and I looked at each other in amazement, smiling nervously like two naughty kids who had been found out.

A few minutes later the postmaster appeared with a face like thunder. Into the café he strode and gave poor George another earful. On his way out he paused, looked me in the eye and said angrily, “You’d better watch it mate or I’ll get you!” and disappeared into the shop, bolting the door behind him.

Silence. Karen raised her eyebrows in exasperation and, after a thoughtful pause, dismissed their behaviour as “really crazy” and went back into the café to pacify George. I wasn’t able to take it so lightly. My primary selves squirmed. I felt deeply embarrassed and a little nauseous. I tried to put on a brave face and laugh it off but Iago had been publicly exposed, accused and condemned. My Inner Critic was going to have a field day.

In his book “Avalanche: Heretical reflections on the Dark and the Light” Dr Brugh Joy uses the phrase “non ego-enhancing material” to describe buried selves like my Iago. An ego that is identified with being kind, considerate and non-aggressive does not want to acknowledge that an Iago-like self is lurking in the depths. It is very painful when such material shows up - and particularly when it happens in such a public way.

Even now I find myself obsessively turning the Sunday afternoon confrontation over and over in an attempt to shift the blame away from me and onto the postmaster and his wife. My Rational Mind and Psychological Knower are telling me, “They clearly overreacted - maybe because as immigrants they feel vulnerable in this middle-class community. Maybe they have experienced racism, prejudice or abuse before and are hypersensitive to any sign of it. Or maybe they are just very unhappy people with lots of personal problems.”

But such speculation is to miss the point. Having written this piece, I realize that in fact I must thank the postmaster’s wife for being so sensitive to the vindictive energy that Iago was sending her way. By dramatically and emphatically calling me on it, she has enabled me to begin the difficult task of acknowledging and embracing this long-disowned aspect of my psyche.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Toys R Us

I have no brothers or sisters and as a child spent a lot of time playing on my own. My first playmates were the soft toys given to me by my parents and relatives. Chief among these was my golden haired Teddy Bear, “Teddy”, who accompanied me everywhere. He was short and stout and had warm, brown eyes. His paws were made of soft felt and he wore a small woollen jacket that my mother had knitted specially. During the day he was often to be found clutched under my arm, and at night would have to be on the pillow beside me before I would go to sleep. He was my guardian and protector and I felt safe with him by my side.

Teddy’s companions were a mixed bunch - a small blue dog, a giraffe, a whiskered cat, a mouse, a grey elephant - to name but a few. One of my aunts was a skilled seamstress and had made several of them herself. They were stuffed with straw or old nylons cut into pieces to fill out their soft limbs and bodies. One in particular had a big impact on me. A caricature of otherness not to be found in a child’s play box today, it was a jet-black gollywog. “Golly” had a long body and gangly limbs. Sown onto his head were white saucer eyes with black beady irises and a pair of thick red lips. He was dressed in blue and white striped trousers and a red jacket with a large collar.

Golly was the antithesis of Teddy and from the day of his arrival the soft toys became split into two factions. Teddy led the good guys, while Golly headed up the bad. Teddy’s boys were clean, well-presented, smart and polite. Golly’s gang contained the louts, the rebels, the dishevelled and the rude. Teddy’s team were orderly and thoughtful, Golly’s crew rough and physical.

In my playtime, there was often an uneasy standoff between these two camps - a very real tension between them, which I tried to handle by keeping them as far apart as possible. Teddy’s squad would be lined up on one side of my bedroom in strict order with Golly’s mob lounging on the other. Teddy’s attitude was that he was always right and needed to be in charge at all times. His men were law-abiding citizens, on constant vigil against bad and unruly behaviour. As they saw it, their job was to police the ruffians and keep them in check. Golly and his guys chafed under this bit and would tease and taunt across the divide.

Inevitably, when the tension became too much, fighting would erupt and pitched battles would ensue. Toys would stomp on each other, be buried under missiles, be flung across the room or down the stairs. Limbs would be twisted and pulled, heads pounded, bodies pummelled. There would be surprise attacks and counter attacks, with the advantage going first one way then the other. I would become totally immersed in the drama, the epic struggle for good over bad!

Finally there would be a critical moment where, with dead toys from both sides lying strewn around, the outcome would rest on a dual between Teddy and Golly. The pattern was always the same: they would go at each other hammer and tongs with Golly almost overpowering Teddy. But then, just when he seemed on the verge of defeat, Teddy would muster all his strength and beat Golly into submission. Of course, Golly lived to fight another day and all the toys resurrected - ready to do battle the next time tensions reached breaking point.

In a PBS interview with Jeffrey Mishlove, Hal Stone states, “Our different selves are at war in us”. I believe the childhood dramas acted out through my toys were my way of objectifying this war of selves. Teddy and co held the values of my primary selves that were developing in response to the norms of my family and society. I was to be a good, respectful, clever, neat and orderly little boy. Golly and co represented the parts of me that had to be disowned as a consequence - and they weren’t about to be cast into the shadow without a fight!

Two things strike me right now as I write this. First is how easily I can reconnect and identify with the toys on both sides and their clash of wills. I have a visceral sense of being with them once more as I describe them doing battle. Second is the realisation that although Teddy had to win every time, secretly I wished that Golly could sometimes triumph! Now, as then, I feel a sadness that the “bad” guys had to lose and eventually be banished into the shadows.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the values of Teddy’s team dominated much of my life. They served me very well and allowed me to survive and be successful in the world. At the same time I feel keenly that I missed out on a lot of the juice of life as a result. In recent years as I have worked with the Voice Dialogue process I have been able to invite many of those banished selves back into my life - and they have brought me great gifts. With them by my side I am not so easily intimidated. I can stand my own ground. I don’t need to accept bullshit from others. I have the confidence to stand out, disagree, be different and have the courage of my convictions. I don’t have to please all the time and I worry less about what others think. I can be more easy-going and less uptight.

In my mind’s eye I now see myself scooping the toys of my childhood up into my arms and giving them a big hug. All my toys r me!

Friday, 17 July 2009

Sexy Beast

Don first emerged briefly and explosively in 1976 in Tokyo. My girlfriend and I were having an argument about a dirty spoon. “OK! OK!! Maybe it was my spoon, but you could have cleaned it for me! You are so selfish and so controlling. You never think of me. I always have to do everything for myself!” Jean shouted. Yet again I was under attack. I tried to stay cool and behave rationally, but her words had penetrated my defences. “For god’s sake calm down,” I parried, “It’s only a spoon. Why do you always need to get so emotional about every little thing!?”

We were both feeling vulnerable. Our relationship was cracking under the strain of having spent eight months together backpacking overland from Europe to Asia. We had hitchhiked from London to Istanbul and then taken local buses and trains across Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Arriving in south East Asia we had visited Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong before reaching our final destination, Japan.

Amazing as it had been, the heat, the cheap hotels, lack of sleep, unusual food and bouts of sickness had all taken their toll. We were very different personalities. When we had first met these differences had seemed strangely attractive but by the time we had arrived in Japan we had by become polarised and argumentative. I was identified with control, order, rationality and respect, whereas Jean was a rebel - spontaneous, emotional and assertive. The spoon was merely a lightening rod for the clash of our primary selves.

As the argument geared up I felt backed into a corner. It seemed like I had nowhere to hide. My usually solid defences were incapable of protecting me against her tirade and I felt I was being overwhelmed by the tsunami of her negative energy.

Suddenly something snapped and before I knew what I was doing I grabbed a chair, raised it above my head and threw it at her. “You fucking bitch!!!” It missed and went crashing through a window. Jean screamed and fled into the bathroom, locking the door behind her. I raced after her and, frustrated at not being able to get at her, I kicked at the frosted glass panel of the door until it shattered. It was as if I had been taken over by some terrifying spirit.

The sound of Jean’s sobs and a loud knocking on the front door brought me back to reality. Alarmed by the shouting and the sound of breaking glass, our downstairs neighbours wanted to know what on earth was happening.

I felt totally ashamed. The voice of my Inner Critic resounded in my head telling me what a terrible person I was. I felt guilty and contrite. Was that really me? I had never in my life behaved in such a violent way. How could I have done such a thing? It was unforgivable. I felt shell-shocked and exhausted.

I apologised profusely to the neighbours for the disturbance, to the landlord for the damage and of course to Jean for the disrespect. It was the beginning of the end of our relationship.

In 2000 the actor Ben Kingsley starred in a film called Sexy Beast. Kingsley had famously won the best actor Oscar in 1983 for his role as Mahatma Ghandi. In Sexy Beast he took on a very different part - a brutal underworld criminal, instinctual, confrontational, and not to be crossed. When I saw the film I was mesmerised by his character. I found him repulsive, but at the same time strangely attractive. His name was Don Logan.

Soon after seeing the film I did a Voice Dialogue session with an experienced facilitator. I spoke at length from a primary part of me that hated arguments. It would rather have me stay in bed all day with the covers pulled over my head than risk a confrontation. When I separated from this self and moved back to the central place of the Aware Ego I began to feel a very different energy stirring inside me.

The facilitator invited me to find a place in the room where this energy could best show itself. Without a moment’s hesitation I moved my chair to one side and sat bolt upright, legs open and feet planted firmly on the floor. A surge of energy coursed through me. Every muscle in my body felt primed for action. I was focussed and alert. I glared at the facilitator and snarled, “What the fuck do you want?!”

I had become Don Logan.

With deep respect and acceptance, the facilitator allowed this buried part of me to speak. Don was my very disowned killer energy. He hated weakness and was upset at what he considered to be the “soft, effeminate” parts of me that ran my life. They had no backbone and no courage. They were weak and let people walk all over me. If he was in charge there was no way he would ever allow me to be a victim. As he saw it, other people had too much power over me. They needed to be slapped around a bit, put in their place and told what to do! He was fearless and fearsome, intimidating and vicious, and would slaughter anyone who got in his way.

Suddenly I realised what had happened in Tokyo all those years before. It was Don who had come forward to shield me from Jean’s attack. I had been so physically and emotionally depleted that my primary selves had been unable to defend me. Don was my last line of defence and had leapt forward, taken me over and had me physically strike out against her. I now understood that in his way he was protecting my vulnerability.

Recently I heard an interview in which Ben Kingsley described how he had approached the role of Don Logan: “I recognised him and his violent plea to be loved, to be seen and to be embraced… to be let in.” For most of my life I had disowned Don and locked him away. It had taken extreme circumstances for him to break through.

As I have learned to accept and embraced him, his highly confrontational energy has lessened and I have discovered the great gifts that he brings me. With him by my side I am able to set clear boundaries. I can say “No” and people understand that I mean it. He enables me to project physical confidence and courage, and in dangerous situations I can bring forward his energy and no one messes with me.

Shortly after the Voice Dialogue session in which Don spoke, I decided to grow a goatee beard. At the next session a couple of weeks later the facilitator commented on my new appearance. “I see you are wearing Don’s beard now!” I was shocked. I had forgotten that Ben Kingsley had worn a goatee in the film. I realised that it was Don’s way of reminding me that he was around and was not about to be locked away again. As soon as I got home I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. “You sexy beast!” I growled.

Friday, 8 May 2009

An encounter with Jean the Kerb Crawler - By Dermot Fitzpatrick

I had just left John’s house after a great Voice Dialogue session and was walking towards my car when I saw an elderly woman sitting on the kerb on the opposite side of the road. I was concerned as I thought she might have fallen over and hurt herself. Then I noticed that she was sitting upright on the kerb with her feet on the street as if she was waiting for someone.

Sneaking a glance at her out of the corner of my eye, I had the impression she might not have ‘the full set of cups in her cupboard.’ Not wanting to get into a dialogue with her, I continued walking towards my car. As I got in and looked in my rear view mirror I saw a woman stop and speak to her. I watched as this second woman crossed the road and came up to my car. I lowered the window.

“She wants to speak to you,” said the woman. I replied, “I’m sorry I don’t know her. What did she say?” “She asked me to tell the man in the car she wanted to speak to him.” I hesitated. What was this all about? Was this one of those ‘Oracle’ moments you read about? Was she the one? Did she have a life-changing message for me?

I got out of my car, went back, and asked her what she wanted. She said, “Can you take me in your car to the Spar supermarket?” I was so taken aback I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “What?” She repeated that she wanted me to take her to the Spar supermarket. “How far is it?” I asked. “It’s only five minutes up the road,” she answered.

A part of me - perhaps my Carer/Pleaser - prompted me (against my better judgement) to do it. I helped her up, walked with her to my car and off we went to find the supermarket. She started telling me her life story at high speed. She asked me where I lived and how long it would take me to drive there. When I told her it would take about an hour she said, “I suppose you will be getting yourself a sandwich and a drink.” Anticipating I might be buying that order for the two of us, I told her I intended to wait until I got home. It crossed my mind at that point that I might have made a big mistake in offering to help her.

With her giving me directions we eventually found the supermarket. I stopped the car on the opposite side of the road, got out and went around and opened the passenger door to help her out. She said, “I’m not getting out till you give me £20.” I said, “You must be joking.” She said, “No, give me £20 otherwise I won’t get out of your car.” I laughed and said, “Look, I don’t have £20 to give you, now get out of the car.”

We looked at each other for a few minutes and I said again, “I don’t have £20 now get out of the car.” With that she got out and, without as much as a thank you, she waddled across the road to the supermarket. I got back in my car and burst out laughing. It was so funny and so surreal - one of those moments when you have to ask yourself, “Did that really happen?”

Later that day, I wrote what had happened in an e-mail to John. He said that he knew her, that her name was Jean and that she lived in a house on his street. It appears that she does have difficulties in the ‘upstairs department’ and has a reputation for sitting on the kerb waiting to scrounge off unsuspecting passers by. I had been her chosen mark that morning.

I asked John what he thought of it all and he said it was likely that my Carer/Pleaser had responded to what it thought was a woman in need and that Jean might represent my disowned Entitled self that can just ask for/demand what he wants.

Reflecting on it since, I have renamed that primary self my Good Samaritan - the one that likes to help people in need. A tourist looking for directions is a magnet for my Good Samaritan, as is a neighbour locked out of his/her house, a child looking lost in a department store or a woman sitting on the kerb on the side of the road. This is the part of me that helps me to feel good by doing good deeds and gets me the external recognition I need by being seen as someone who ‘does good’.

I can see how Jean represents my disowned Entitled self - the part of me that feels able to ask for what it wants but who does not often get a look in. It or perhaps yet another part tends to get agitated when it sees other people, like Jean, asking for and getting what they want - especially when they get it from my Good Samaritan.

This encounter with Jean has brought to my awareness that I have a disowned Entitled self that longs to ask for what it needs and to be heard and validated - especially by me. And yet even as I write this another voice is saying, “What’s the point of asking, you’ll only be disappointed. People are far too busy looking to have their own needs met to want to take care of yours.”

Is this another piece of work I see before me?

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Montezuma's Revenge

My parents met when they were still at school and became teenage sweethearts. At my mother’s insistence, they married when my father was called up to join the army in 1940. After a brief two-day honeymoon at my uncle’s house in suburban London, my father sailed off to fight in North Africa. Narrowly missing capture by Rommel’s troops, he was posted to India where he spent the rest of the war on internal duty. My mother endured the blitz and worked first as the manageress of a laundry and then as a supervisor in a factory that made guns. My parents didn’t see each other for five years.

After being demobbed my father went back to his old job in the office of a builder's merchant. They bought a small home and my mother stopped work to become a housewife and later a mother. Life settled into a comforting routine. It was a typical relationship of that generation. My father was the bread winner. He handled the money and gave his wife her “house keeping” every month. He dealt with the bills, the bank, the house, the car and generally fronted the external world. She handled the baby, the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning and the organisation of the home.

I never saw them have an argument. Their motto seemed to be “don’t rock the boat.” In Voice Dialogue terms they stayed in a positive bonding pattern. Dad was the Generous, Providing Father to my mum’s Grateful Daughter, whilst mum was the Caring, Nurturing Mother to dad’s Adoring Son. In this way they both took care of each other’s Inner Kids. Life was predictable and secure and they avoided any upsets that might threaten the relationship. But there was a price to pay.

As a child dad would tell me bedtime stories of his adventures and experiences during the war. They were vivid and exciting and I loved them. Mum would tell me of what had happened during the blitz and how a bomb had landed near her house and how everyone had pulled together and helped each other out. I noticed how they seemed to come alive when speaking of that time of their lives. Where had that aliveness gone 20 years on?

Part of my teenage rebellion was against what I felt to be the airless, stifling atmosphere of home. I wanted to breath and expand and break out of their now routine, two dimensional world. When I was sixteen dad said something very interesting that gave me a glimpse of what he had sacrificed to maintain their relationship: “Travel while you are young son. You will have so many responsibilities when you grow up - a job, a wife and children. See the world while you can.” I sensed a sadness in his voice, as if a part of him had been cut off and buried. I felt that he empathised with my feelings of wanting to escape the confines of their neat terraced house.

And so I travelled. As a student I hitch-hiked around Europe, and later I did the “hippie trail” overland from Istanbul to India and down into S.E. Asia. I lived and worked in foreign countries far away from home. Dad was always excited and interested to hear about my experiences. Mum worried about me. She did not like travel. I came to understand that in order to maintain the positive bonding pattern and keep their relationship on an “even keel,” my dad had to hold back his Adventurer self - the part that had been so primary during his army days. It was just too threatening to mum.

For many years I blamed her for holding him back and saw her as responsible for locking him into a relationship that was nice and safe and secure but with little spark or vibrancy. But of course it always takes two to tango and it was not until they were in their 70’s that I saw the other side of the story.

After many attempts and much cajoling, dad and I finally persuaded mum to take a trip to visit me in Tucson, Arizona where I was living and working. She had been worried about the flight, whether she would like the food in the USA, whether she would be able to find a toilet when she needed it, what she would find to talk about with people, and a hundred and one other things. But finally she had relented.

For the first few days, I drove them around sightseeing. Dad sat in the front of the car with the maps and guidebooks, mum sat in the back quietly gazing out of the widow. Being so near Mexico dad said he would like to do a day trip to the border town of Nogales and experience something different. His Adventurer was definitely in charge now and mum seemed unable to hold him back. She anxiously acquiesced. We drove down, spent the morning looking around the many souvenir shops and then had lunch in a local restaurant. We all ate the same thing - chicken enchiladas with rice and refried beans.

Later that evening dad started to have stomach pains. They got progressively worse and he ended up spending a good portion of the night on the toilet. In the morning he looked pale and drawn. I contacted a friend who was a doctor and he wrote out a prescription and advised plenty of liquids and to stay in bed. Mum and I were both fine. What to do about our plans for the next few days? I expected her to go into a state of high anxiety and insist on staying with dad and taking care of him. How wrong I was! To my amazement she said, “Your dad is such a grouch when he is ill. It is best just to leave him on his own. Let’s go out as we planned.”

My friend Carlos came by and picked us up and as we left dad moaned, “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” in a “poor me” kind of way. Off we went, me in the front and mum in the back with Bill - a tall, elegant black friend of Carlos from New York. I could hardly believe my ears as mum confidently engaged in conversation with him. He was very charming, and I swear it felt like she was flirting with him! We visited some local beauty spots and were introduced to more of Carlos’ friends along the way. Each time mum was outgoing and engaging. Over a long lunch she started telling jokes and got the giggles. I was gob-smacked!

We came back to the apartment that evening to find dad still in bed and watching TV. “How was your day?” he groaned. “Oh, it was wonderful. I had a marvellous time. Bill is so handsome and has such beautiful hands,” answered mum enthusiastically, “We met lots of people and it was so much fun!” She looked at least ten years younger and was grinning from ear to ear.

And so it went on for a few more days - dad languishing in the apartment while mum and I went out and about having fun. For the first time I could see what parts she had buried in order to make the marriage work. Thanks to Montezuma’s revenge her sensuous, confident and fun-loving self had the chance to emerge. Just as dad’s Adventurer was threatening to her, so this juicy, out-going Aphrodite was too scary for him. It would upset the applecart.

Over the next week I saw the status quo slowly return. As dad grew stronger he regained his authority and control. And as this happened I saw mum shrink back into her dependent role, once more sitting quietly in the back seat and worrying. I felt sad for them both. I could see the price they both paid for restricting the number of selves that showed up in their relationship. I wondered how richer their lives might have been if the Adventurer and Aphrodite had been allowed out.

My parents were married for 52 years and in their terms they had a happy life together. A few months after mum died I asked dad if he would like to do some travelling with me. He jumped at the idea. After a couple of short haul excursions to Europe, we planned a round-the-world trip and he spent his 80th birthday in Hawaii. His adventurer was happy. The promise of his army days had been fulfilled.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Camera Shy

My Inner Critic was slow to respond but when it did, its attack was devastating: “What a stupid thing to have done! Everyone will see how bad you are. You weren’t focussed, you hadn’t prepared, you asked leading questions, you were too prescriptive… And anyway, who do you think you are? There are much better and much more experienced people than you. What do you think they will say when they see your lousy performance?!”

That morning six of us had gathered at a studio in central London to make a couple of short videos for YouTube. I would be facilitating two Voice Dialogue sessions that would then be posted on our website and available for all to see on the worldwide web. With the cameras rolling and a small audience to play to, my Presenter - the extrovert part of me that usually takes centre stage when I teach seminars - had taken charge. He had strutted his stuff, delighted to be in the limelight.

But clearly, my Inner Critic hadn’t been impressed. Later that evening, when I was home alone with time to reflect, he made his views felt. On a private “MeTube” video in my head, he projected every aspect of the demonstrations in minute detail. He zoomed-in, paused, magnified and replayed each perceived mistake as I squirmed with embarrassment. “You were hijacked by that Presenter. You were not giving a seminar. It was an altogether more dangerous situation. What were you doing exposing yourself to the judgements of others who might disapprove, ridicule and reject you?! You stuck your head in the air asking the whole world to shoot at you! The only way to stay safe is to keep your head down!”

As I listened to this onslaught I began to recognise the rules of my primary protecting selves: don’t show off, stay in control, think things through, and be well prepared. I realised that my Inner Critic was simply trying to enforce these rules in order to protect the vulnerable parts of my personality - my young Shy and Sensitive selves - and to make sure that I would never expose them in such a way again.

Suddenly I remembered another situation involving a camera. It was 20 years ago when I was studying Voice Dialogue with my teacher Gail Steuart. I had done a lot of sessions with her and discovered many of my selves. I was aware that when speaking as my different selves my body language and facial expression changed. I wanted to see just how different I looked, so I bought a video camera and, with Gail’s permission, arranged to film a session.

We set the camera up behind Gail in the doorway of her consulting room so that it would capture me whether I moved my chair to the left or the right. After a final check to make sure everything was in focus, I switched the camera to record and we began the session.

First she talked at some length to a couple of my very competent primary selves - my Pleaser and my Rational Mind. They felt very comfortable and didn’t seem at all worried by the presence of the camera pointing at them over Gail’s right shoulder. Then a young and tender energy emerged that was very shy. It sat tightly curled on the floor, did not look at Gail and whispered only a few words in answer to her questions. It was very sensitive, anxious about the feelings and opinions of others and afraid of being judged or rejected.

When the session ended we were both excited to see the video. I had clearly gone through some physical changes and was eager to watch my selves in action. While Gail made us some coffee, I rewound the film and switched on the wide screen TV. We took our seats for the show and I pressed “play” on the remote.

I was intrigued to see how as my Pleaser I moved my chair closer to Gail and leant towards her when speaking. My body language was open and my face warm and friendly. I maintained good eye contact and it even seemed like I was playing a little to the camera! As my Rational Mind I sat further back and was sterner in appearance. My face was tighter and my body language more guarded, arms and legs crossed. Again, I was able to look directly at Gail as well as at the camera.

I could not wait to see how I came across as my younger Shy self. I watched as I sat on the floor but was then astonished to see myself move back until I disappeared completely from the screen! Gail and I looked at each other in amazement. I had moved to the corner of the room and curled up out of range of the camera. This was a part of me that really did not want to be seen. Neither Gail nor I had been conscious of this at the time.

To be on camera, or even worse on a video accessible to thousands if not millions of viewers, is terrifying to my Shy self. On reflection I understood that my Inner Critic’s harsh words were actually an attempt at damage control. To be self-critical is less painful than being criticised by others. It is a form of defence, a kind of pre-emptive strike. If I can say, “I know I wasn’t good - I wasn’t focussed, I hadn’t prepared enough, I asked leading questions, and I was too prescriptive,” it helps to shield me from the external barbs of those who might judge me.

The YouTube videos have been edited and are now available for all to see. Just search YouTube for “Voice Dialogue UK” and you will find them divided into 5 short sections. Alternatively you can view each one separately at: and Whenever I sit down to watch them, I invite all my selves to gather around. I put one arm around my Inner Critic, the other around my Presenter and place my Shy self safely on my lap. I invite you to watch the videos and to notice which of your selves are sitting with you. What do they have to say? How would they have behaved in front of the camera? Would they even have allowed you to do such a thing? I’d love to hear their comments. You can post them on this site by clicking the blue “comments” button below. Thanks.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Crucible

In the mid 80’s I was introduced to an Englishman who had a management training business based in Munich. Paul ran programmes for German business people aimed at improving their cross-cultural communication skills. We hit it off immediately and soon began developing and running intensive workshops together.

The German business milieu values order, detail and discipline and I felt very much at home. I was good at organising and planning, and loved the process of creating new programmes. We worked and reworked the structure, content, timing and delivery of each workshop until they were perfect. We impressed clients with our logical explanations, clear paradigms and comprehensive models. No request was too much for us and we drove ourselves relentlessly. A typical seminar day began at 8am and did not end until the last participant left the hotel bar, often after midnight. Our German participants thought we were “wunderbar!”

In the third year of our cooperation Paul and I trained 180 days in 50 locations. This did not include the days spent in development, preparation and travel. Professionally and financially I had become very successful, but I was beginning to feel a growing emptiness inside. I had no time for a social life or to develop intimate relationships. Something told me I should take a break or I might I burn out.

I negotiated a three-month sabbatical with Paul, devised a detailed itinerary, bought a round-the-world air ticket and headed off - first stop S.E. Asia. I had lived and worked in that region before and there were lots of people and places I wanted to see again. I also had a list of destinations I had not previously visited that I wanted to explore. After a hectic six weeks of sightseeing in Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan, I flew to Hawaii to meet up with some old friends, and then on to San Francisco. It was there that my carefully planned schedule got derailed.

At a party, I was introduced to Arturo, a Mexican from out of town. He was studying in Tucson, Arizona and I was intrigued by his warm, easy-going energy and engaging personality. We chatted about all manner of things and at the end of the evening he invited me to take a trip to Tucson to visit him. I thanked him for his kind offer, but told him that a trip to the South West USA was not on my itinerary. “I think that surely you are not a slave to your own schedule,” he replied, “In life we should be flexible and accept what life brings, no? Who knows what fate God has decided for us? Here’s my number, if you decide to come give me a call. Mi casa es su casa!”

And so it was that ten days later I took an unplanned detour.

Tucson is surrounded by mountains - as if sitting in the hollow of a huge crucible. Native Americans consider it a sacred site where the energies of Mother Earth are strong. It is supposed to be a good place to experience personal transformation. People entering the crucible are of two kinds: those who find it hard to settle down and cannot stay; and those who are drawn in and cannot leave.

Arturo was a great host and introduced me to lots of his Mexican and Hispanic friends. I loved their attitude to life and was fascinated by their values and beliefs. Their emphasis was very much on relationships. “A man may work hard and become a millionaire, but if he has no friends he is poor,” said Arturo. The days unfolded in a leisurely way and I never knew ahead of time what we would do, who we would meet or where we would end up. Time slowed and I began to relax and unwind a little. The hot desert environment with its weird and wonderfully shaped cactae was a world away from my life in Germany. My sabbatical was drawing to a close but I knew that it would not be long before I returned to this magical place.

Within six months I had given up my work in Germany, and was living in an old adobe house on the edge of Tucson. A friend of Arturo employed me part time in his small consultancy business and I became acclimatised to a very different pace of life. I hiked in the mountains, explored the canyons and learnt how to respect the desert flora and fauna. Everything was going well with my new life until I started to get more deeply involved with Mexican culture.

The Mexican border was only an hour away and I became romantically involved with a series of Mexican nationals. To my dismay, each relationship followed the same pattern. At first I would be entranced by their laidback approach to life and in awe of their ability to go with the flow. But sooner or later their behaviour would begin to drive me crazy and my judgements would start: “You are never on time.” “You are so disorganised.” “You keep changing plans.” “You waste a lot of time talking instead of getting the job done.” “You are over-emotional and totally irrational.”

I struggled to understand what kept going wrong. Why was I both attracted to and judgemental of all the people I met? Was there something wrong with me? What could I do to change these painful patterns? In my search for answers to these questions I tried many different modalities and techniques - Psychodrama, Rebirthing, Holotropic Breathwork, the Hoffman Quadrinity Process, the Sedona Release Technique…. I read all the latest self-help books and visited counsellors and shamans, tarot readers and astrologers. The heat was on and the crucible would not let me escape. I was by turns grilled, boiled, fried, baked and roasted!

After two intensive years of introspection I was starting to feel burnt out. How could this be? Wasn’t this the same feeling I had had in Germany? I had left the intensive seminar circuit behind and yet here I was feeling stressed again! I was on the point of despair when someone recommended a new therapeutic process called Voice Dialogue. Would this be any different to all the others? I was very sceptical but decided to give it a try.

The facilitator was called Gail and in my first session she spoke to two parts of me - my Pusher and my Organiser. To my amazement I discovered that not only had they been running my life in Germany, but that they had continued to run it in Tucson as well! It was they who got me involved in so many different therapies, trying this one and that one, and never letting me rest. Along with my Perfectionist and Rational Mind, they formed a formidable team whose job was to have me be the best at whatever I did – whether it be management training or personal development.

As I did more sessions and discovered more of my selves it slowly dawned on me that the qualities I was both attracted to and then judged in my Mexican friends and lovers were those of my disowned Carefree, Easy Going, Spontaneous, Emotional and Intuitive selves. Gail explained that it was actually my Pusher et al who were doing the judging. With this new perspective, I could see that my Mexican friends were in fact my teachers, helping me to become aware of my disowned selves. I realised that if I was to break the cycle of burn-out and disillusionment I needed to consciously embrace all my many selves - the more relationship oriented Mexican ones as well as the more task oriented Germanic ones.

How perfect that Arturo had invited me to Tucson. The crucible had worked its alchemy and could now release me. I left the dry desert of Arizona and moved to the moist coast of California. I had found a new path and taken my first steps on the journey of selves discovery - one that continues to this day.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Body Talk

I awoke and felt a slight twinge in my lower back. There was no obvious reason for it so I concluded that I must have slept awkwardly. I got up gingerly and made two cups of tea - one for myself and one for David, an old friend who was sleeping on a futon I had rolled out on the living room floor of my small flat.

David was sick. He had arrived from the States a couple of days earlier and had immediately come down with a heavy cold. He groaned his thanks for the tea and said that he needed to spend the day in bed. He wanted to make sure that he recovered in time for a seminar he was teaching at the weekend. I looked around the room at his stuff - his clothes spewing out of his open suitcase, his papers and laptop covering my dining table, and his used tissues strewn over the floor.

It was not the best time for him to be visiting. I had recently bought the rights to the loft space and was having it converted. It was going to transform my flat and enhance the value but right now it was chaos. Even though the builders had tried their best to be considerate, it had been going on for a week already and the dust and noise had become horribly intrusive. Today they were putting in a new staircase and I had been forced to stack a lot of stuff in my bedroom to make space for them. Clearly, I was not going to be able to relax at home. I decided to go out.

I left the flat to David and the workmen and took the train into central London to do some shopping. As the day wore on, the pain in my back got steadily worse. I tried to ignore it but it didn’t want to go away. I told myself that it would be better after a good night’s sleep. When I got home that evening I found David feeling a little better and the staircase up to the loft half completed. He was moving to his seminar hotel the next day but asked if he could leave most of his stuff with me over the weekend. Of course I said yes.

When I woke up the next morning the pain was worse and I had difficulty getting out of bed. David left for the seminar hotel and I pottered around and made tea for the workmen. The dust was everywhere. It had filtered under every cupboard door and into every nook and cranny of my flat. As the day wore on the noise of banging and sawing seemed to get louder and louder. It was a great relief when the workmen left, but by then my lower back was hurting so much that it was a struggle to stand up. It felt like a cramp extending down into my right buttock. I feared that if I sat in my low armchair to watch TV I might get completely stuck!

The next morning, with the pain no better, I was getting desperate. I considered taking painkillers or making an appointment to see my doctor. But then my mind wandered to the Voice Dialogue sessions in which I had worked with people’s aches and pains to help them find out what might lie behind their symptoms. “Surely you should be trying this with your own pain,” said a voice in my head, “Isn’t it time for you to walk the walk!”

I got a pen and paper and gently sat myself down at the table. I drew a rough outline of a body and then made a mark where my pain was located and focused on it. Next I took a clean sheet of paper and with my right hand - my dominant hand - acting as facilitator, I wrote down a question addressed directly to the pain. “Hello, do you have something you want to say to John?” I then took the pen in my left hand and waited for an answer to come. It is not easy writing with your non-dominant hand, but slowly the answer took shape. “I feel cramped,” it wrote.

Using my right hand again I asked, “Please tell me more about that feeling.” My left hand responded: “There’s no space for me. I feel pushed out. Richard was here and now he’s left all his stuff. The workmen walk all over the place every day with their big boots. It’s noisy and dusty and I can’t relax!” The dialogue continued for about 30 minutes during which time I found out that this was a five year old part of me that felt overwhelmed and upset. How appropriate that the pain in my back felt like cramp! Finally I asked this Child self what it needed to help it feel better and it replied, “A walk in the park, a long bath and a hot chocolate.”

That afternoon I took a leisurely walk along by the river. I took time to notice the plants, the trees and the birds. I sat in a café and drank a large hot chocolate. In the evening I ran a hot bath and had a long soak. To my great relief, when I awoke the next morning the pain had lessened and was now a dull ache.

At the end of the weekend David came back for a few days before flying home. Once again I had to put up with his stuff lying scattered over my living room floor - as well as the continuing noise and dust from the workmen. But now I found that if I took time to tune in to my Child, to listen to what it wanted, and where possible and appropriate, to act on its demands, the pain continued to ease. After a couple of days it was completely gone.

Since then, whenever I feel that slight twinge in my lower back I take note. I stop what I’m doing and ask myself how I might be ignoring or overriding the needs of my Child within. I have learnt to listen better when my body talks and to respect the feedback that it gives me about the current state of my physical and emotional wellbeing.

I still keep some painkillers in my cupboard and do have cause to visit my doctor sometimes. But by paying attention to the psychosomatic clues that my body presents and opening up a dialogue with the voice that lies behind my symptoms, I have been able to heal myself in ways that no amount of pills or the most astute doctor could have done.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

My Droog

It was a cold, grey day and I was on my way to see a movie. Having half an hour to spare, I decided to grab a coffee at a local café. One more stamp on my loyalty card and I’d be eligible for a free drink! I paid for a small cappuccino thanked the barista and sat down two tables away from the door. I hung my jacket neatly over the back of the chair, and quietly began to read the latest edition of one of London’s free daily newspapers.

I’d only been seated a few minutes when a sturdy woman came in. She had big hair, a formidable bosom, and was wearing a long, flowing coat. She jammed the door wide open and as she swept passed me said, “It is so hot in here! Hope you don’t mind.” Before I could think, my Nice Guy had responded, “No problem.” I watched her order her grande latte. She was being very loud and overwhelmed the poor barista with a torrent of instructions. I noticed that she paid with a £20 note. I decided I didn’t like her attitude. Why had I not said “No” to the door being left open?

As she headed towards the table next to me, nearest to the open door, my judgements kicked in sotto voce. “She is obviously from a privileged and wealthy background. She is clearly used to bossing people around and getting her own way. She is completely insensitive to the needs of others. She probably walks all over the ‘little people’ who serve her.” I imagined her big house and her poor cleaning lady and the rich husband and the expensive cars and the spoilt children….

She flung her coat carelessly over one chair, put her bag on another and sat down with her back to me on a third. She got a thick book out of her large bag, stretched her legs out and leant back, her expansive hair almost touching my table. She seemed unaware of the space she was taking up and of my presence right behind her. As she turned the pages of her book she twisted her hair distractedly. I imagined dead skin and pulled hairs descending upon my coffee.

Even though there was plenty of room in the café, I felt cornered and unable to escape her invasive energy. It was as if she was getting bigger and bigger and I was getting smaller. I was starting to feel the chill from the draft coming through the open door, but my Nice Guy would not allow me to say a word, or even to move to another table. “Don’t say anything. There’s no need to upset her.” I tried unsuccessfully to focus on reading my newspaper. I felt totally impotent.

Behind my mask of composed indifference another self was starting to speak and my inner commentary entered X-rated territory. My very disowned Mean and Nasty self wanted to tell this “rich bitch” exactly what he thought. “If it was fresh air you wanted why didn’t you get your coffee to go, and sit in the park instead of being so selfish and taking up all this space! You only think of yourself. You’re an arrogant, stuck up cow! Well, I’ll show you!!” I fantasised taking her coat and bag and throwing them out onto the street, and pouring her coffee down the drain, or even better over her! Any resistance on her part would be met by force as I pushed and shoved her through the door. I was like a skinhead character from Clockwork Orange, a droog, the leader of a vicious gang, uncaring and unfeeling, on the attack, out for revenge, ready to torture and humiliate her….

As this fantasy surged through my mind I tried to just sit and observe it. My Nice Guy was desperately trying to push back and seize control. Heaven forbid I should act out what Mean and Nasty wanted! But I understood that in its own way Mean and Nasty was trying to insulate me from this very uncomfortable feeling of being squashed. I realised that this was in fact an old dynamic going right back to my childhood when I had often felt energetically smothered and invaded by my mother. Unable to take my space and stand up to her, I had acted out my frustrations indirectly with my toys, some of which had to endure untold misery, being beaten up or flung down the stairs!

A glance at my watch told me it was time to go or I would be late for the film. As I stood up and put my jacket on I could feel Mean and Nasty urging me to “inadvertently” bump into the woman’s table and spill her coffee, but my Nice Guy would have none of it. I did manage to sneakily close the door behind me in a gesture of defiance and was immediately attacked by my Inner Critic as he attempted to make me feel ashamed of my “petulant” behaviour.

As I walked to the cinema I reflected on what had just happened and the different selves that had been triggered. Most evident were my primary selves that have me be accommodating, polite, thrifty, unassuming, sensitive, quiet and neat. I had projected onto the woman my disowned selves that have to do with being entitled, asking for and getting what I want, taking my space, not worrying about what other people may think, and taking care of myself. My disowned instinctual energies showed up in my fantasy - confrontational, direct, uncaring, vengeful and violent. Finally there was my Critic, the policeman of my primary selves system. I wondered if I still needed to go to the movies after living through this rich inner drama!

I arrived half way through the trailers. I had bought my ticket in advance and had reserved a particular seat right in the centre. The cinema was only a third full but when I got to my seat I found it occupied by a woman sitting with her friend. They both feigned ignorance and their body language indicated that they had no intention of moving. A man in the row behind growled at me, “There are plenty of other seats. Why don’t you sit somewhere else?” I looked around. All the empty seats were at the sides - not where I wanted to sit.

I felt my Nice Guy pushing me to say, “Of course, no problem, I’ll sit somewhere else.” But instead, I took a breath and made a conscious choice to bring in my Entitled self together with just an edge of Mean and Nasty. “This is my seat and I would like to sit in it please,” I said politely but firmly. My voice made it clear that there would be no arguing. The women gathered up their coats and moved several seats over whispering and tut-tutting.

I sat down, immune to their complaints, put my jacket on the empty seat next to me, leant back and allowed my energy to expand. I was going to really enjoy this movie!

Monday, 16 February 2009

Snow Selves

I woke up and flicked the radio on before opening the curtains. “It’s the worst snow in London for 18 years,” said the early morning newsman. “All bus services have been suspended, many trains have been cancelled and schools closed.” I immediately felt upset that my plans for the day had been disrupted. But then, before I knew it, I was up and peering through the window, excited to see the thick white blanket of snow muffling the street.

As I gazed outside I felt myself being tugged in two opposing directions. My more controlling, professional selves were annoyed at the disruption. For them the snow was a real nuisance. I would have to make phone calls to cancel or postpone meetings and change my very sacred schedule! On the other side were my younger, more light-hearted selves, happy at the opportunity the snow gave them to come out and play. If I went with the former, I knew I would spend the day inside working at my computer and frowning through the window at the snow as it continued to fall, each flake piling up more disruption. If I went with the latter, I would use the weather as an excuse to abandon all thoughts of work and take the day off.

Either way, parts of me would be upset. Staying in and working would upset my inner kids and, come the end of the day, they would make me feel like a real spoilsport for not having let them out. On the other hand, taking the day off would incur the judgement of my Pusher and Organiser who would make me feel a good deal of guilt about “wasting my day”. I knew I would have to sweat this choice if I was to stay conscious.

I let these voices battle it out in my head as I had my shower and got dressed. After a hearty breakfast it was time to decide. Putting an arm around both camps I let them know my compromise. I would split the day into work time and fun time. I would deal with the phone calls, rescheduling and some emails first. Then I would go outside with my partner - who was unable to get to work - take a walk and enjoy the snow while it was daylight. In the late afternoon after dark I would come back to work at my computer again. Sorted.

How hard it was to stay conscious! I completed the tasks I had set myself and then, as if on autopilot, found myself writing another email and checking another document and making yet another phone call. The morning was slipping away from me. I heard my Pusher whispering, “Just one more thing, and then go out. Just one….” And at the same time I became aware of the growing upset on the other side: “Are we going out or not? Are you going to keep your promise?” I snapped to, closed the computer, called to my partner that I was finally ready, and put on my boots and coat.

Outside was magical - the enveloping white, the crunch of the snow under foot, the lack of traffic, the icy glow on my hands as I formed the snowballs, the cold drip down my neck as my partner’s snowball hit its mark. Our inner Kids came out to play as we made our way slowly towards the local shops. With schools closed, there were many children and teenagers out on the streets having a great time. Some had built a huge snowman with a carrot nose and apples for eyes. Others were pulling each other along on makeshift sledges.

On the faces of the adults I could see differing reactions to the snow. I wondered how many of them had gone through the same inner dialogue as me. Some fathers were obviously delighted to have an unexpected day off with their kids. Couples walked hand in hand smiling and chatting as they sipped warming cups of coffee - for them the weekend had arrived early! However, the faces and postures of others betrayed different emotions. Gripped by their fearful selves, older people shuffled along anxious that they might slip and fall. Then there were the frustrated businessmen heading with gritted teeth towards the station just in case a train might arrive and carry them late to work. I could imagine their inner voices sounding, “Bloody snow!” “Another day wasted!” “That is all I need right now!”

When we got to the local supermarket I was surprised to see it was packed with people. There weren’t too many smiles, and an atmosphere of mild panic hung over the aisles. Then I realised why. There was no milk on the shelves, no eggs, only a few loaves, no tins of soup and many other basics were in short supply. The lorry that delivers goods daily had not been able to get through. I could feel a part of me starting to kick in, “Quick, we should buy what we can before it all disappears! What will we do if we run out bread?” Here was the part of me that sees the glass as half empty rather than half full. Then another voice told me to, “Just chill. Don’t get caught up in this ridiculous panic buying. There’s plenty of food at home.” I smiled to myself and we left the shop without buying anything.

We continued our walk through the winter wonderland lobbing snowballs and shaking trees as we walked under them to make the snow fall from the branches onto our heads. Darkness was descending as we arrived back home a bit damp but happy. At my desk again I reflected on this snowiest day for 18 years. I thought about how easily external conditions can influence our inner climate. I ran through the cast of characters that had showed up in myself and others: there were the Pusher, the Controller, the Magical Child, the Playful Child, the Fearful Self, the frustrated Business self, the Deficit self, the Easy Going one…

So much snow, so many selves!

Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Gift

The large bubble envelope arrived before Christmas. It was addressed to my partner and I, but used only our first names. The postmark was blurred and there was no return address. It contained something soft and round and I wondered what kind of present it was and who had sent it. Unable to control my curiosity, and with the encouragement of my partner, I opened it.

To our surprise, as I peeled back the envelope there emerged a beautiful, soft toy penguin! We adopted it immediately and christened it Duk Dik - a Thai name for something small, cute and round. It now spends most of its time hanging out in the bedroom waiting to be cuddled by one or both of us. We still haven’t figured out whom it is from; but it has to be someone who knows about me and penguins.

If you walk around our house you can’t fail to notice the presence of a number of these Antarctic birds. There is the penguin clock in the kitchen, the penguin calendar in the office, the various large and small penguin statues, the penguin soap holder in the bathroom and even a penguin alarm clock from Japan which makes a wake-up noise that no-one could ever sleep through. So what’s the fetish?

As a child I had recurring nightmares about being chased by penguins - not just one penguin but a pack of them; and not just any old penguins but big Emperor penguins! It was the kind of dream where I was frantically trying to run away but unable to move forward and escape. They were closing in on me and just as they were about to catch me I would wake up in a panic. They weren’t really malicious but just very big and overwhelming. I even painted a large watercolour of an Emperor penguin when I was at primary school. It filled the entire sheet of paper. The teacher was so impressed with the magnificent black, white and yellow beast that she pinned it up on the wall for all to see. My mother kept it and I still have it rolled up in a cupboard.

“Were you taught by nuns?” one of my friends enquired searching for a possible explanation for my dreams. Nope. “Did you have picture books about penguins when you were a little boy?” offered another. Again no. To this day I have no idea where my unconscious mind got the dream image from.

The meaning of the dream was a puzzle to me until I was 42 years old. In that year I attended my first Voice Dialogue training with Hal and Sidra at their home in northern California. As an optional afternoon activity one of the assistant teachers organised a “play with clay” table. As I sat there, I was encouraged to kneed a lump of clay and just allow my hands to form whatever they wanted as I chatted to the assistant. To my amazement what grew in front of me was a very large, erect, clay phallus! “Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, “You won’t believe how many guys create one of those.” I felt reassured but wondered what it could mean.

She sensed that the phallus represented one of my disowned selves and invited me to give it voice. As Lawrence Novick PhD writes in his article “Some Thoughts on Working With Disowned Selves” (Voice Dialogue Newsletter, August 2008): ‘What is important is clarity about what the essence of the particular energy or self is, in contrast to the form in which it is being expressed.’ What the form of my clay piece nominally suggested was something sexual. However, when I spoke as the voice of the phallus I found that it represented a confident part of me that was not afraid to show itself; it would have me stand tall in the world and be full blooded, full bodied, physically assertive and powerful; it was creative and proud.

As a child I was very shy. My parents encouraged me to be a good little boy and not show off or boast. I learnt to embrace the modest, retiring, sensitive energies and shun my more proud, assertive and physical selves. It was not OK to be big and full and take up space. How perfectly an erect phallus symbolised these disowned energies.

Amazing and enlightening as my clay session was, it was not until the next day while out for an early morning jog that I got my big aha! moment. Of course! The energy of the selves represented by the clay phallus was exactly that of the Emperor penguins of my dreams. The tall, proud, confident penguins standing erect and pursuing me in my dreams were exactly those parts of me that I had had to disown as a child. What a wonderful physical image my unconscious had given me of my disowned instinctual selves.

Even now my rational mind would suggest all sorts of other interpretations as to the meaning of my Emperor penguins - the birds that cannot fly (grounded imagination?); their ability to survive extremely harsh winters (endurance?); their awkwardness on land and elegance in the sea (at ease with the “ocean of emotion”!?). But I will not be seduced by these speculations. Instead, when I sit in bed with Duk Dik by my side I just try to energetically connect with his larger cousins - the Emperor penguins of my childhood - and embrace the gifts they bring me.