Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Birth, Death and Vulnerability

I was raised in the Church of England. My father was the organist and choirmaster of our parish church and my mother was active in various church clubs. I went to Sunday School every week and from the age of seven was in the choir, which meant attending two services every Sunday and singing at weddings on Saturdays (I have seen more brides walk down the aisle than I care to remember!)

I was taught the story of Jesus and celebrated the two most important events in the Christian calendar - Christmas and Easter - every year till I was sixteen. That was when my parents allowed me to decide whether I wanted to stay in the church or not. I left and have not returned. However, many years later, becoming familiar with the theory and practice of Voice Dialogue has given me a new insight into the story that so informed my childhood years.

Jesus lived thirty-three years on this planet, but the occasions we celebrate most of all are his birth and his death. What is it that links these two momentous events?

He was born in a stable. There was no hospital with doctors and nurses in attendance; no clean bed with white sheets for his mother to lie in; no warm water or towels available to wash and dry him. His parents were not married; Joseph was not even the father; they were on the run and under threat of death from Herod’s soldiers; there was no comfort and no safety. It seems to me that symbolically this is as clear a description of being born vulnerable as one can get.

The story of Jesus’ birth reminds us that our birthright is vulnerability. Take a newborn baby and leave it alone and it will surely die. We are dependent on the adults around us to take care of us - much longer than for any other species. We need attention, approval and affection to survive and thrive. The theory of the Psychology of Selves tells us that our Primary selves develop to protect this core vulnerability. They have us behave in ways designed to get our survival needs met in our particular family, society and culture. As these protector selves develop, so our vulnerability often gets buried and forgotten.

At his death, was Jesus in the comfort of his own bed in his own home? Were his friends and family by his bedside? Was his doctor close by to relieve his pain? No. He was betrayed, stripped naked and had a crown of thorns pushed onto his head. He was paraded through jeering crowds, hauling a heavy cross on his back. He was nailed up for all to see, with the most vulnerable parts of his body totally exposed. It was a brutal and public death and again symbolically a painfully clear description of dying vulnerable.

The story of his death reminds us that our “deathright” is vulnerability. As we age and our bodies start to deteriorate our Primary protecting selves cannot handle situations as they once did - our energy and stamina decline, our memory begins to fail us, and our actions slow. This causes our vulnerability to resurface and be felt. We are the only animal on the planet that knows some day we must die. No matter what our belief system may be about death, we have no proof as to what happens to us once we depart. This not knowing can’t but prick our vulnerability.

For me, Christmas and Easter are reminders that we are born and die vulnerable. It is an essential condition of being alive and human on this planet. Vulnerability that we are unaware of or that we do not feel safe sharing with others is at the root of most conflict, so how we handle our vulnerability throughout our lives is the real issue for us. Do we identify with our Primary protecting selves and disown, bury or try to forget our vulnerability? Or do we use it as a guide to becoming fuller, more conscious human beings?

Monday, 19 November 2012

The X Factor

“Do you want me to change channels?” asked my partner as I sat down on the sofa. The X Factor is not my preferred choice of evening viewing, and he knows that. But I know that he loves this kind of programme. “No, it’s OK, I don’t mind watching it if you want to,” I replied.

Behind my apparent graciousness, however, lay a long-buried, secret desire. My slightly condescending expression masked the fact that there is a part of me that loves watching amateur performers and finding out which of them has the talent to become a star. It’s the same part that can imagine being up there on the stage in front of the judges, backed by vocalists, dancers and a fantastic light show and impressing the audience with a stunning performance. It’s the part of me that knows that I have the X factor.

My Performer first appeared when I was a young boy. After Christmas lunch I would take it upon myself to entertain the family with a puppet show. My father constructed a small booth with a stage for which my mother made some curtains with a drawstring. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins gathered round and when everyone was seated and conversation had died down the curtains parted and the entertainment began. I wrote the story, manipulated the puppets and did the voices. I revelled in the attention - and of course the applause when I came forward to take a bow! My extended family was supportive and enthusiastic and my Performer could show off without fear of being rejected.

The world outside my home was a far more dangerous place, where people were not always as attentive or approving. After a few hard knocks I quickly realised that my Performer could get me into trouble, exposing my more vulnerable side by laying me open to criticism and even to ridicule. The shame and embarrassment was too much to bear and so he was shut away.

Growing up in London in the 1960’s, teenage boys were divided into two camps: those who were fans of the Beatles and those who revered the Rolling Stones. Either you worshipped at the altar of the Fab Four, bought the jacket and got the haircut, or you paid homage at the shrine of the instinctual and irreverent Stones.

I did neither. Instead I distanced myself from these vulgar rivalries by immersing myself in modern classical music. While my friends were grooving to the melodies of A Hard Day’s Night or rocking to the rhythms of Aftermath, I spent long hours listening to the ballet music of Stravinsky or the piano concertos of Bartok. Alone with my parents’ sound system I grappled with the atonality of Schoenberg and the clashing harmonies of Webern. This kind of music was a mystery to all but a few of my contemporaries and I gained a reputation for being “highbrow” or “intellectual.” I wrapped myself in a protective cocoon of “serious” music and as a result I was ignored by both camps. The sensitive child inside felt safe.

Of course there was a price to pay for protecting my vulnerability in this way. I had to further disown my confident, exhibitionist self - my Performer. As I retreated into the obscure world of modern classical music, he was relegated to the realm of my imagination. In my fantasies he would adopt the persona of any one of a number of famous singers. In my mind’s eye I strutted the stage with the same sexual bravado as Mick Jagger, wowed the audience with the same charisma as John Lennon, and drummed out rhythms with the same dynamism as Keith Richards or Ringo Star - the very people that my “High Brow” self shunned!

My dreams also proved fertile ground. In one I was Mick Jagger. I came out onto the stage in front of a huge audience. The arena was vast and the atmosphere electric. But when I opened my mouth to sing no sound came. I realised that I had a severe throat infection and that I could not perform. I felt impotent and immensely frustrated. I was angry at the infection but there was nothing I could do.

These rock star fantasies have remained with me since adolescence. They get stirred up watching programmes like the X Factor. My Performer knows he is as awesome as Freddie Mercury, as colourful as Elton John and as outrageous as Ozzy Osbourne. He watches with admiration as Tina Turner or Madonna fill a huge stadium with their energy and enthral thousands with the power of their performance. He wants to be allowed to do the same!

Actually, my Performer does have a role in my life. As a seminar leader and trainer I often find myself standing up in front of groups. I even call my way of working with people “entertraining”. But when he was recently encouraged to speak in a Voice Dialogue session he said he was unhappy that I was “piddling around” with such small groups. From his point of view I should be up on the big stage commanding much larger audiences. He would really like me to be a mega-star and rock the world!

Sitting on the sofa deep in reflection I watched the X Factor contestants trying their best to impress the judges. Then came a commercial break. The first advert was for some new Xbox software. It showed people singing, playing guitar and drumming to famous rock songs in their home in front of a large Xbox screen. My ears pricked up at the catch phrase: “UNLEASH YOUR INNER ROCKSTAR!!” Was the universe trying to tell me something?

The letter X can signify many things. It can mean secret or hidden - as in the “X files”. It can mean strong or forbidden - as in “X rated”. But it can also represent a magic ingredient or talent - as in the “X factor”. And at the end of a letter it denotes a hug. Perhaps it’s time for me to embrace my Performer more consciously and, after long years in the shadows, allow his energy to be more present in my life.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Michael's Eyes

‘My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true.’
- D. H. Lawrence

My friend Michael was hurting. We were having a drink in a bar downtown. “I am sick and tired of this!” he grumbled, “I don’t understand why it won’t clear up. Why can’t I find a cure?” For some months he had had an irritation in both eyes. Every time I saw him he complained about it - how debilitating it was and how annoyed he was that he couldn’t fix it.

Michael was a medical doctor and a psychiatrist and had his own private practice. He was very skilled at helping clients with their physical and emotional problems. People would even come to him from out of state to seek his advice. But nothing he did could make his own eye infection go away and he was feeling deeply frustrated and angry with himself.

“I’m at my wits ends,” he moaned, “I just can’t figure out what’s wrong. I have tried all sorts of medications, but nothing will shift it. I’m a doctor for god’s sake. I should be able to heal myself!”

Although I empathised with him, I had grown tired of his whining. I decided to be proactive. “How about talking to your eyes?” I suggested. Michael had studied Voice Dialogue with me and was familiar with the Psychology of Selves. “I guess we could schedule a session sometime,” he replied warily. I knew that ‘sometime’ meant ‘never’ and resolved to grab the bull by the horns. “I mean right now,” I insisted. “What, here in this bar!?” “Yes.”

There was hubbub all around us - the clinking of glasses, music playing, people laughing and chatting. I knew that this wasn’t the most appropriate location but intuitively I felt that now was the moment to act.

“Move over a little and let me speak to your eyes,” I said firmly.
A little taken by surprise, Michael slid his chair to his left.
“Hello, am I speaking to Michael’s eyes?”
“I understand that you haven’t been very well recently and that Michael hasn’t been able to do anything to heal you.”
“That’s right.”
“Can you explain what this infection is about and what Michael can do to help you?”
“That’s easy. He needs to cry.”
“Really? He doesn’t cry?”
“Is there something that he needs to cry about?”
“Of course! He didn’t cry when his father died. His mother died two years ago and he didn’t cry. His partner died last year and he didn’t cry. He needs to cry!”
“I see. And if he cries then the infection will go away?”
“Is there anything else Michael needs to do?”
“No. He just needs to allow tears to flow through me. Then I will be OK.”
“Thank you for talking to me.”

Michael moved his chair back and sat opposite me with a stunned look on his face. This short, to the point interaction had taken both of us by surprise. “It’s true,” said Michael thoughtfully, “I have never really grieved their deaths and I have certainly never cried for them. I’ve always been too busy taking care of other people and their needs and never allowed myself the luxury of letting my own feelings out.”

Some weeks later Michael called me to say that he had been taking some time out from his busy doctor’s schedule to sit quietly and feel the sadness of his bereavements. As he had done so, the tears had flowed and sure enough his eye infection had slowly cleared.

At the end of that year we met for dinner. I was leaving town and moving to another city and Michael had invited me for a farewell meal in a local restaurant. He seemed more relaxed and less driven than previously. He told me that he now saw the eye irritation not as a curse but as a gift. Realising what lay behind the infection had led him to re-evaluate his life. He had cut down on his workload and was now spending much more time at home cooking, gardening, walking his dog and simply being with his feelings.

At the end of the evening we embraced and said our goodbyes. And as we hugged I saw that Michael had tears in his eyes.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Guilt and Shame

My first impression of the Japanese was that they were a very clean and tidy people. When I arrived in Tokyo in the mid-70’s I was amazed to find that there were three rubbish collections a week - two for burnable garbage and one for non-burnable items. Even more amazing was the very neat way households packaged their rubbish. Bags and boxes were tied securely with string and stacked carefully by the roadside the night before collection day. I discovered that people placed great value on the correct appearance of their trash lest they be regarded as messy and disorderly by their neighbours.

My friend and I were in Japan to study a martial art. We didn’t have much money and so would go out in the small hours on non-burnable collection days and scavenge for anything we might be able to make use of. It was incredible what we would haul back to our small apartment: a complete dinner set with just one cracked plate, boxed and totally clean; unsoiled pillows and cushions; cups, mugs, bowls, pots and pans; a working kotatsu; a functioning TV and small electric cooker; pictures, chairs, a desk and bookshelves. Over the course of a couple of months we managed to find most of the basics - plus a few luxuries! We felt a bit guilty about “stealing” people’s rubbish, but nobody saw us.

The importance Japanese put on orderliness, cleanliness and social responsibility could be seen everywhere around Tokyo. Public places were patrolled by uniformed workers each with a long-handled pan and brush ready to scoop up any offending litter that might have been inadvertently dropped. Train platforms were kept so immaculately polished that I felt uncomfortable walking on them with my dirty shoes. In department stores an employee held a cloth against the moving black handrail of the escalator ensuring it stayed spotless and shiny. Taxi drivers, station guards, lift ladies all wore clean white gloves; and if anyone had a cough or cold they covered their mouth with a surgical mask.

My first trip outside Tokyo was to the Izu peninsular, a couple of hours south of the capital by train. I had been hired to teach a couple of residential workshops. The company retreat centre was located half way up the slopes of an extinct volcano outside a picturesque village. It was summer and the weather was warm and sunny. Since I had a free day between workshops I thought it would be nice to explore the area. From a map I could see that there was a footpath that followed the coast for some miles to the next village and I decided to hike it. I set off early with my “bento” (a lunch box containing rice, fish and pickled vegetables) and some bottled water, and made my way down to the coast.

The scenery was spectacular. The path wove its way high along rugged cliffs of volcanic rock against which the Pacific Ocean pounded relentlessly. I climbed up across exposed outcrops and down through wooded inlets. I was thoroughly enjoying myself. However, as I got further away from habitation I noticed something that surprised me. The path was strewn with litter! There were old bento boxes and chopsticks, discarded cans and bottles, paper napkins and plastic bags. This ran contrary to my previous experience of the Japanese as being fastidiously neat and tidy. I might have expected this in the UK, but not here in Japan.

When I got back to the centre I told my Japanese colleague what I had seen and asked him if he could explain this contradictory behaviour. His answer (with allowances for the passage of time) intrigued me enough to have stayed with me for nearly 35 years.

“Well, Kento-san, from my point of view there are two types of culture in the world. Cultures that use guilt as a way to get people to follow society’s rules and behave ‘correctly’ and cultures that use shame.

“I think you Westerners like to use guilt. You are taught that there is a God who watches you all the time and knows what you are doing. Even when you are alone He can see you. Even when you think bad thoughts He can hear them. Knowing this, you feel guilty anytime you disobey the rules. It is as if He is in your head all the time. Maybe you call this the voice of your ‘conscience’.

“We Japanese, along with many S.E. Asian nations, don’t believe in a single God like that who can make us conform through guilt. Instead, we do it with shame. For us it is the shame of other members of society seeing us doing wrong, being bad or making mistakes. Being seen and judged by others causes us to lose face and feel ashamed. This shame extends to our family who will by association also feel shame because of our behaviour. This is a very powerful way of controlling a society, influencing behaviour and keeping people in line. For example, rather than saying to her child, ‘Don’t do that! It’s wrong,’ like a Western mother would, a Japanese mother might say, ‘Don’t do that! People are watching you.’

“In a big city like Tokyo there are so many people that you will be seen by others all the time. If you drop litter or make a mess then you will be noticed and you will feel ashamed. However, along that remote path by the coast maybe no one can see you. In that situation shame does not operate and since there is no omnipotent God watching you, why not throw the rubbish onto the ground? In time the rain will wash it away and nature will take care of it.”

I was reminded of his words recently when walking my dog, Peppar, early one morning. My respectable, law-abiding primary self knows the rule against dogs fouling the pavement. In fact, this part of me gets very indignant and judgemental of other dog owners when I see dog faeces on the street - especially if I have inadvertently trodden in some! On this particular day I was stressed, in a hurry and it was raining heavily. Of course, Peppar decided she needed to do her business right in the middle of the path, instead of by a tree or in the gutter. I had an umbrella in one hand and the dog lead in the other and a voice in my head said, “Just leave it. You always pick up after her. Just this once won’t hurt. The rain will wash it away.” It didn’t take much persuasion. “Just this once,” I agreed, and I allowed Peppar to pull me forward away from her steaming deposit.

Immediately I felt the censure of my Inner Critic. “You’ve broken the law, you’re two-faced, irresponsible, a bad citizen.” I felt the weighty burden of guilt descend on me. I hesitated. Whether or not it was the voice of God, this critical inner voice had certainly grabbed my attention. As I stood there contemplating my crime I heard a single word, heavily laced with sarcasm, shouted from somewhere nearby: “Lovely!!” To my horror there was a workman sitting in the cab of his lorry just across the street. He had obviously seen my misdemeanour. Now in addition to guilt I felt the shame of having been seen committing the offence. In an attempt to escape from both the situation and my feelings, I walked quickly on, instinctively hiding my face beneath my umbrella.

When I got home I reflected on what had happened. Painful as my Inner Critic attack was, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as being judged from the outside. The workman’s simple jibe had penetrated deeply and struck a very sensitive, core part of me with laser-like accuracy. I could use my Rational Mind to make excuses and argue myself out of feeling guilty - “I don’t break the rules all the time.” “This was a one off, special situation.” “I was stressed and in a hurry.” “Other people allow their dogs to foul the footpath.” But the feeling of shame was overwhelming and much harder to mollify.

The late Helen B. Lewis, professor emeritus of psychology at Yale University, made an interesting distinction: ‘The experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus.’ This would account for shame being a stronger spur towards “right” action and “correct” behaviour as it touches intimately on our feelings of who we are rather than on what we have done.

The “excreta incident” as I like to call it initiated some interesting insights. I already knew about the role of the Inner Critic in my life and its way of enforcing “appropriate” behaviour by making me feel guilty. What I had not fully appreciated was the power that shame has in motivating me to stay on the “straight and narrow”. Touching in to the very sensitive part of me that fears the judgements of others, I could see just how strong a force it has been in shaping my actions and reactions throughout my life.

Looking at my dog lying asleep on the rug I can’t help thinking how lucky she is. She will never feel the burden of a guilty conscience or experience the shame of having been seen leaving her poo in a public place!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Belly Art

In the late 1970’s I spent three years living in Tokyo. During the day I earned a living travelling around the city teaching English to company employees and in the evenings I studied a martial art called Shintaido (“New Body Way”).

One day, as the doors of my commuter train opened at Ryōgoku station, the impressive figure of a sumo wrestler stepped into the carriage. His wooden “geta” (traditional Japanese shoes) clunked noisily on the floor as he occupied a seat - or rather seats! – opposite me. His hair was tied up in a “chonmage” (topknot) and he wore a blue patterned “yukata” (summer kimono) tied with an embroidered “obi” (cotton belt) around his huge midriff.

I felt intimidated by the enormity of his presence and glanced across at him nervously. He was taller than I had imagined a sumo wrestler to be. His broad feet hung over the sides of his shoes and above his thick ankles were a pair of tree-trunk legs. Atop these rested the incredible bulk of his belly and over that his massive chest and shoulders. His round face with its small mouth seemed strangely baby-like. It was difficult to gage his age.

I could see how, when squatting down to face his opponent in a tournament, his enormous stomach would give him great stability - like a triangle resting firmly on its base. I couldn’t help comparing this to archetypal Western images of the ideal masculine physique - Superman, Mr Incredible or American football players. With their exaggerated shoulders and slim waists these popular heroes appeared more like inverted triangles balancing somewhat precariously on one point!

It was not just the sheer physical mass of his body that so impressed me. There was also something about his energy that I found fascinating. He appeared not just very grounded but also centred and he had an ineffable inner calm. Even though his eyes were half-closed and he seemed to be paying me no attention at all, I felt that there was some kind of invisible communication taking place between us. It was as if I was being scanned by an energy radiating from his belly and that he was using this to take the measure of me. After a few stops he stood up impassively and exited the train, leaving an indelible mark in my mind.

Sometime later I was invited by my Shintaido teacher to accompany him to a sumo tournament. As we watched the bouts he explained the various moves each wrestler was using to try and force his adversary to touch the ground, or step outside the “dohyō” (small circular wrestling ring).

He pointed out that there were various slapping, holding, pulling and pushing techniques, but that fundamental to them all was the ability to maintain a strong and low centre of gravity, making it very difficult to be destabilised and thrown off balance. I knew from my Shintaido training that the place in the belly where this centre is located was called the “hara”, which is three finger widths below and two finger widths behind the navel.

He explained that in Japan, a master of such disciplines as calligraphy, swordsmanship, tea ceremony or the fighting arts like sumo is said to be "acting from the hara". Teachers of these arts often instruct their students to centre their mind in their hara in order to anchor themselves. In addition to breathing techniques and physical exercises, developing the hara also involves emotional and spiritual practice. As a consequence, the student becomes more aware of and sensitive to both internal and external energies. Consciously communicating with someone from one’s hara is called “haragei” - literally “belly art”.

I listened attentively, realising that his words were not so much a description of what was going on at the tournament but more an instruction to me as I continued with my study of the martial arts.

Over the years I have applied the practical experience and understanding of hara I gained in Japan to different areas of my life - including to my work as a Voice Dialogue facilitator.

Like the sumo wrestler, when I facilitate clients I have to be both centred and grounded. Focusing down into my hara helps me to “scan” my clients and be sensitive to the different selves that show up during sessions. Identifying and resonating the energy of these selves from my hara helps clients deepen their experience of a particular self. The greater my capacity to consciously hold as many selves as possible “in my belly”, the better able I will be to facilitate the wonderful variety of selves my clients present.

My goal as a facilitator is, however, very different from that of the sumo wrestler. When working with clients my job is to help them become aware of, stand between and embrace as many of their selves as they can. The natural consequence of this for the client is a feeling of being more expanded, centred and grounded. Far from trying to destabilise and throw my clients off balance, my task is to help them do the opposite - to become more stable and more in balance.

I have always found the Japanese depiction of Hotei (the so-called Laughing or Fat Buddha) attractive. I love the rotund figures with their big bellies and broadly smiling faces. When I look at them I am reminded of my first encounter with that sumo wrestler on the train at Ryōgoku and of the words of my teacher: “It is in the hara that the soul of a man resides.”

Monday, 5 March 2012


It had snowed heavily all night and six year old Matt was excited. As he left for school he made us promise that we would take him tobogganing in the afternoon. We picked him up at 2pm and headed straight for the park.

His mother, Kathy, and I had met in the late 1970’s in Tokyo where we both taught English at a language school. After returning to the USA she had met and married Bill and settled with him in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. I was visiting the family for a couple of days. I hadn’t seen Kathy for some years and this was the first time I had met their only child, Matt.

“Hurry up Mom!” shouted Matt as we parked the car. Kathy got the bright red plastic sledge out of the trunk and handed it to him. He grabbed it and ran off to join some of his friends who were already racing down the slope, laughing and screaming with delight. Kathy and I watched the children from the top of the slope and chatted.

After about an hour Kathy looked at her watch. “Time to go home Matt!” she called. Matt looked up in dismay, “But I don’t want to go home yet.”
“I understand Matt,” Kathy responded, “I can see that you are having so much fun. You can slide down one more time but then we need to go home.”

Down he went, staying a little longer at the bottom this time before climbing back up to us. “OK, let’s go,” said Kathy.
“But I don’t want to go now,” objected Matt.
“I know Matt. But you see, John is here and Dad will be coming home from work soon and I need to go home and prepare dinner for us all,” reasoned Kathy.
“I don’t want to go!” shouted Matt.

I wondered how Kathy would handle the situation and how this clash of wills would play out.
“Well, Matt, if I was having fun and my Mom told me I had to stop and go home, I guess a part of me would be pretty upset too,” she said calmly, “So I understand how you are feeling. And we are going home.”
“I hate you!” exclaimed Matt.

I flinched. Had I ever said such a thing to my parents I would definitely have received a clip round the ear accompanied by an injunction such as, “Don’t you dare tell me you hate me!”

Kathy’s reaction was calm yet firm. “It’s OK that you hate me Matt. I know that a part of you is really mad with me right now. And we’re going home.”
We got into the car - Matt sulking in the back seat, Kathy remaining composed and unfazed. When we reached the house Matt ran off into his room and slammed the door. Kathy and I went into the kitchen and continued chatting as we peeled vegetables.

After about ten minutes, the kitchen door burst open and Matt came rushing in, ran up to Kathy and her gave a big hug. “I love you Mom!” he said.
“I love you too Matt,” replied Kathy.

I was so impressed. Kathy had managed both to accept Matt’s feelings and at the same time to set a clear boundary around his behaviour. Because she had honoured and validated those feelings Matt had not needed to suppress them. This allowed his anger to move through, and after a little while he found that he still loved his Mom. Furthermore, by saying, “a part of me would be pretty upset,” and, “a part of you is really mad,” she let Matt know that he was made up of different selves with different feelings. She did not lock him into a singularity. This made it OK for him to feel both love and hate.

I once heard someone say that emotion is energy in motion (e-motion). If as parents we judge certain emotions as wrong or bad, blocking their natural flow, we encourage our children to develop a kind of garbage dump of the psyche into which these unaccepted energies are thrown. Here they can surreptitiously stagnate and fester - the garbage dump becoming the breeding ground of the disowned selves.

Matt recently paid me a visit at my home in London. Now in his early 20’s he was backpacking around Europe on his own. Although still young, I found him to be a very self-aware and balanced person. I told him the story of what happened on that snowy day in Denver. He had no memory of it but smiled warmly and said, “Yeah, I guess I lucked out having such a great Mom.”

Monday, 9 January 2012


The first time I saw him he was sitting on a small brown suitcase outside Cliff’s Variety store in the Castro area of San Francisco. He looked forlorn and anxious, glancing nervously at the faces of the passers-by from beneath a curly nylon wig. His ankle length dress was decorated with a cheap floral motif and buttoned up to his neck. Over this he wore a soiled, brown raincoat. Perched on his head was a small felt hat and on his feet a pair of old trainers. Leaning against the tin cup in front of him was a small sign, hand-written on a piece of torn cardboard: ‘Only need another $285.60 for my sex change.’

Over the next few weeks I saw him in several different locations, always dressed in the same clothes, a few coins in the cup and the amount on the sign unchanged. On each occasion, I felt mysteriously effected by the sight of this eccentric character, silently soliciting the help of strangers. I imagined that he had no friends and nowhere to stay and that the suitcase contained all his worldly possessions. He seemed like one of life’s victims, downtrodden and destitute. And yet he had a certain dignity about him. Although I had never met him before, I felt I knew him. How could this be?

It was some weeks since I had last seen him when I visited a friend of mine with whom I regularly traded Voice Dialogue sessions. It was my turn to be facilitated. I had been experiencing anxiety in my stomach and wanted to explore what the cause might be. I wasn’t aware of being worried about anything in particular and hoped the session might provide some insight and perhaps some relief from the symptoms.

After checking with my protecting self to make sure it was OK to look at this issue, my friend asked to speak to the part of me that was causing my stomach to churn. I moved my chair over to one side and felt my body tighten and tingle as if all my nerves were on edge. I crossed my legs and began tapping my foot on the ground. The aching in my stomach increased and I rocked backwards and forwards, my arms cradling my belly. I glanced nervously at my friend as if unsure or fearful of her reaction.

“Hello. Do you have a sense of your purpose in John’s life?” asked my friend.
“I worry,” came the reply.
“What do you worry about?”
“Yes, no matter how big or small, whether past, present or future. I worry.”
“Are you worried now?”
“Of course! I’m worried about this session, and whether he turned the gas off before he came out and locked the door properly, and if he’ll get home safely, and whether there is enough food in the fridge for dinner tonight, and if his seminar participants like him or not, and what would happen if he got sick and couldn’t work, and what the neighbours would think if he let’s the hedge grow too big, and what would happen if he went to pay for something in a shop and there wasn’t enough money in his wallet, and…..”

As I continued talking and deepened the experience of being my Worrier, I was amazed to realise that I had begun to feel exactly like the guy sitting on his tiny suitcase begging for money! My self-image was of a lonely transvestite, marginalised and anxious, yet sure of who I was and of my right to be that way. I had the strongest sense that if I looked in a mirror right then, that is who I would see looking back at me. I would be wearing the same tired clothes and have the same expression on my face.

“Well, it’s a real pleasure to meet you,” continued my friend, “Do you have a name?”
“It’s Esmeralda,” my Worrier replied. There was a sense of pride in her voice.
“That sounds like a pretty big job you have, Esmeralda. How much of John’s energy do you take up?”
“A lot. More than he knows.”
“And do you do this 24/7?”
“Yes. But they don’t like or appreciate me,” Esmeralda whispered.
“Really? Who are they?”
“Those big guys over there that run his life.” She pointed to the opposite side of the room. “You know, the one that likes to be in control all the time, the organised one, the planner and their cronies. They think they are so powerful and so perfect! They hate the way I worry about everything all the time. To them I am a nuisance and they look down on me as weak and effeminate. But let me tell you something, it only needs 1% of what I worry about to prove correct and all the worrying will have been worthwhile. I can’t tell you how many times I have saved their arses by pointing out something they have overlooked!”

“Does John appreciate the hard work you do?” enquired my friend.
“No. He’s so under the sway of that lot that he hardly notices me. So I give him a stomach ache to remind him I’m here.”
“What do you need from John?”
“I want him to notice me and to accept me for who I am instead of ignoring me. I have my pride and I have my dignity and I don’t like being treated like I am some kind of freak! If he listens to my concerns I can be of great help to him.”

My friend thanked Esmeralda and I moved my chair back to the centre and separated from her energy. I took some deep breaths. My stomach ache was gone.

I never saw the guy around town again. Maybe he moved on. Maybe he got enough money to have his sex change. Whatever happened to him, his image and energy resonated with me. Twenty years on, Esmeralda is alive and well. In fact, I can feel her in my stomach right now. She has a long list of worries, but most of all she’s worried about this blog and what you will think of it….