Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Meaning of Christmas

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?

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Who's Dressing You?

I have a cartoon in front of me. It shows a character in a dressing gown commenting as she looks through her wardrobe, trying to decide what to wear to go to work that day. “Incredible new dress, but I can’t find any shoes to go with it…. Ah! Perfect shoes, but no matching skirt…. Hmm. Wonderful skirt, but no matching blouse….. Oh! Great blouse, but no matching slacks…. Fabulous jacket, but no matching skirt, slacks, dress, shoes, jewellery or belt…!”

In the final scene she is sitting on the bed phoning her boss: “The individual parts of me are all prepared to come to work Mr Jones, but as a group we won’t be able to make it.”

I had a similar crisis the other morning getting ready to teach a one-day workshop. At least two different parts were trying to dress me. It was a warm day and I knew the participants would be dressed casually - probably in shorts or jeans, t-shirts and trainers. The atmosphere would be relaxed and everyone would be expecting to have fun. Even so, my Conservative self thought I should wear a newly pressed pair of chinos, polished leather shoes and a smart shirt. As the trainer I should project an image of professionalism - otherwise my status would be undermined and I wouldn’t be taken seriously.

My Conservative self remembers with embarrassment an incident some years ago when I was teaching a one-week seminar in Japan. The participants were all senior managers and I wore a suit and tie every day. Halfway through the week I wanted to get some feedback from my Japanese colleague who had organised the programme. I waited until we were sitting naked in the communal hot bath. For Japanese this is a situation where the requisite Polite and Pleasing selves can be put to one side and one can be open and reveal one’s true feelings or “honne.”

“So, Iwasa-san, how do you think the seminar is going?” I asked. My own sense was that all was going well, so I was quite taken aback when he hesitated, drew breath and said, “Maybe there is a problem, Kento-san.” A problem? What could it be? My mind raced through various possibilities. Perhaps they didn’t like the content. Maybe my English was too difficult for them. Or had I inadvertently been culturally insensitive? “Please tell me Iwasa-san so that I can fix it,” I said.

“Well, Kento-san, it’s your shirts,” he replied. My Shirts?! I didn’t understand. I wore a clean, pressed shirt every day. They weren’t loud or over-styled. “Please explain,” I urged. “You wore a blue shirt on Monday and a red striped one Tuesday and a grey one today. They don’t understand why,” he answered. Now I was really puzzled. He continued, “As the “sensei”, or teacher, you have to be sincere, calm and consistent in order for them to trust you and receive your teaching. Wearing a different coloured shirt every day is not showing consistency and this is confusing to them.”

The lesson was learnt and ever since, my Conservative self has had a heightened sensitivity to my appearance and especially how my clothes might impact a group in a negative way. With this memory in mind the message was clear - I should play safe and not be controversial. I reached for my chinos. But even as I took them out of the cupboard another voice intervened.

It was my Exhibitionist self, a part of me that loves to be provocative. Allied with a Rebel self, he delights in shocking people and getting a reaction. One way to do that is to have me wear unusual or unconventional clothes. He once had me buy a T-shirt that said: “F_CK, all I want is U”! Of course, my Conservative self had had a panic attack and had made sure that this particular T-shirt languished in a bottom drawer, buried beneath “decent and respectable” clothing.

One look at the chinos and my Exhibitionist rebelled. No way did he want me to wear such “non-descript and boring” clothes! As I scanned my wardrobe his eyes settled on a blue T-shirt. Printed in big letters on the front were the words: “Just another sexy bald bloke.” That would do nicely. I put it on and then pulled on a pair of tight Levi’s. A brassy cowboy belt and an old pair of trainers and the outfit was complete. I looked in the mirror. He was satisfied.

It wasn’t more than a few seconds before the voice of my Conservative self sounded sharply in my head, “Are you seriously going to stand in front of a group of complete strangers wearing such inappropriate attire!?” And so the to and fro between these two selves began. I took the jeans and T-shirt off and replaced them with the chinos and shirt. I looked in the mirror. My Exhibitionist gave his frank opinion, “Dull, drab and dreary!!”

Phoning in like the cartoon character and cancelling the workshop was not an option. I needed to sit with these two opposing selves and find a solution. So I changed back into my pyjamas and went downstairs to eat breakfast. As I sat munching my toast I listened to their arguments. I knew that whatever I chose to wear, one of them would be upset…. Finally, as I sipped the last of my coffee I decided. I went upstairs made my selection, dressed myself and left for the workshop.

So who won? Which self turned up to teach my workshop - my Conservative or my Exhibitionist? With a nod to both I chose to wear the jeans with a conventional belt, the trainers, and a neutral coloured shirt. That way both selves could be present to inform my work. I could be professional and casual. Sitting over breakfast with my opposing selves enabled me to take charge of them rather than have either one take charge over me!

The ‘war of the wardrobe’ can offer wonderful insights both for facilitator and client in a Voice Dialogue session. On one occasion for example, a lady who for several sessions had worn unobtrusive pastel colours, arrived in a bright red dress. That day her Sexual Rebel spoke out. “Did you dress her this morning,” I asked. “You bet!” she said feistily, “It’s about time she listened to me!!” Or the tolerant, new-age mother who turned up one day in a dark top with a wide, pristine white collar. Her inner Puritan who railed against her easy going attitude to raising her children wanted his presence to be noted and his voice heard: “Spare the rod and spoil the child!” was his message.

So, take a moment to observe what you are wearing right now and ask yourself “who dressed me today?” Maybe this will clue you in to a particular self that is trying to get your attention and appreciation.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Extremists Within

I grew up in the long shadow of the Second World War and, like many of my generation, was repelled by the ideological extremism of the Nazi's and their fascist allies. At grammar school I rebelled against the autocratic and hierarchical regime imposed by a very conservative headmaster. I reveled in his obvious discomfort as the socialist government mandated that the school become comprehensive and admit equally pupils of all abilities. I started a satirical school magazine which poked fun at the "old guard, reactionary" teachers and lampooned the traditional values they held dear.

1968 was the year of student revolution and while at university I joined demonstrations for workers rights and against police "brutality". I even had a copy of Mao Zedong's Little Red Book proudly displayed on my bookshelf. As a gay man, my liberal values were especially dear to me. Homosexuality had finally been decriminalized in the UK in 1967 and there was a sense that society was finally moving out of the dark ages and into a more tolerant era. 

I remember well the moment I began to question my naively youthful optimism. In my mid-twenties I was working in London teaching English to foreign students. I had rented a room in a house along with four others. One evening a number of people gathered in our shared living room. As I prepared my dinner in the adjacent kitchen I couldn't help overhearing their conversation, which was loud and animated. They were discussing politics, the overthrow of the government, the annihilation of capitalism and the appropriate "punishments" that would be meted out to the ruling elites. It turned out that the house was the meeting place for the south London cell of the International Marxist Group.

I wasn't so much shocked at the content of what they were saying as the vitriolic tone with which they were speaking. It had the same self-righteous fever that I associated with right wing ideologues. The words were different but the energy was the same.

It wasn't until many years later that I understood in a very personal way how over-identification with any ideology, system or way of being means that whatever is opposite gets buried in the psyche and vehemently judged when it appears in the external environment.

In a Voice Dialogue session I had spoken to the part of me that would aggressively fight for gay rights, and have no tolerance for intolerance! Separating from this part and moving back to the centre I felt  the stirring of a very different energy on the other side. Moving over, and to my greasurprise, I met my disowned inner Homophobe!! I felt like my maternal grandmother - a sexually conservative, Edwardian lady, very upright, principled and respectable. From my mouth came an expression of outright disgust at the very notion that two men could have sexual feeling for each other, let alone act on them. It was "against nature" and an "abomination"!

I got it. The more deeply buried and unconscious the disowned material is, the more extreme the polarization and the more highly charged the expression of what is "right".  Only when we embrace the extremes within us - e.g. conservative and liberal, gay and homophobic - will we be able to have a more conscious and therefore a more balanced approach to what life brings us.

Now more than ever it seems essential that we look within to find the source of the extremism in our world.