What? Speak up.
I’m hearing voices again. Actually, I always hear voices, but this time specific words have returned, words I hadn’t heard for some time and they got me thinking. Whose voice is this? How do I know if it is my own voice or the voice of the outside world? Should I listen?
For a lot of my teenage and adult life my internal voices told me that I was too quiet and not assertive enough. I spent a lot of time wishing to be different; that voice didn’t like being quiet. But one night many years ago I was seated around a table with ten people, most of them were, well, loud, and assertive. One exception was an Italian accountant who played the drums in a rock band; he was cool and relatively quiet. I didn’t enjoy the company of the others. They may not have enjoyed mine either, but that no longer mattered to me.
I suddenly realised that I didn’t ever feel happy spending time with loud, overly assertive people and I wondered why I would want a personality that actually turned me off. But who came to that conclusion and what happened to the voice that had been telling me I was too quiet? Who told me at that moment I was now happy being me? I am hearing that voice from the past again. Why? And which of these stories should I believe?
I say I had a sudden realisation during that interminable dinner party, it seemed like a spontaneous thought, but as with any important moment or major shift in perspective, it was more likely to be the product of internal debates without my being fully conscience of what was happening. My mind had been telling different stories, sometimes contradictory things at different times and in various situations. I didn’t always listen.
Our thoughts about ourselves, about anything, are constantly swimming along in our unconscious and sometimes come to the surface as Thomas Metzinger, professor and director of the theoretical philosophy group and research group on neuroethics/nuerophilosphy at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany, explains here.
When I stop and listen to my voices, or thoughts if you prefer, I am observing. I feel like I am observing myself as if I am someone else—a third party with an outsider’s perspective. It is important to differentiate between your own voice and the voices coming from outside of ourselves, other people’s voices, society. This sounds like it would be a helpful practice and it is. It can only help to know what is really going on in your mind and listening to it in this way works.
If we don’t attempt to understand ourselves, we may continue to or end up living in a way that leaves us miserable and unfulfilled, fearful and, possibly, taking our misery out on others. Living a life without reflection leaves us vulnerable to our own self-deception, manipulation by other individuals, corporations, politicians and religion. Society. And we may not even know why. Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” We need to listen.
A life without taking notice of our inner dialog (and signals in the body) can lead to illness as well. The book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, MD., founder and medical director of The Trauma Center in Masschusetts, discusses how the body responds to trauma. In many cases, the trauma is buried inside of the sufferer and is never dealt with. But ignoring something troubling or, if the trauma is stuck in the unconscious, not trying to at least understand the behaviour it may be causing won’t make the suffering pass, it will be manifested in some way, often illness, mental and physical. The trauma examples in this book are extreme and many of the people discussed in the book are still trying to have their basic needs of safety met, but we can still apply the body/mind processes described in this book to less traumatic situations.
So, observing one’s thoughts is good practice, but with this method, how do we know who is observing? After all isn’t this observer our own creation? It may have its own motivations, its own judgements. Was the observer that saw me as too quiet and needing to be more assertive correct? Or was the observer that accepted me the way I am correct? Or both? Which voice do I listen to? They are both valid; both can give me insight into myself. And I may be both. It may be that at this time I do need to be more assertive. Listening to all of the inner workings of the mind, in some way transcending the observer, provides us with deeper knowledge and leaves room for choice, acceptance, change. It is the feeling we have choices that gives us the possibility to live in a way that is meaningful.
A wise man I know always says that you can think and be two opposing things at the same time and, of course, this is a well-known concept in psychology. We are much more complicated than being one thing or another, or really, being anything specific at all.
This may sound terrifying, not being anything at all, but to think this way allows for possibility. Paying attention to and accepting your often times conflicting thoughts, things you don’t like to dwell on, dark parts of your personality, provides us with the knowledge needed to integrate all aspects of ourselves and complete our narrative.The integration is necessary to live an inspired life. Albert Camus said, “We all carry within us places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.”
Our internal narratives are there to help us develop a sense of self. As Thomas Metzinger says, our “mind-wandering network…basically serves to keep our sense of self stable and in good shape.”, though he does not believe in the “self”, the sense of self is important. Metzinger describes it as “an inner image we have of our selves based on internal messages from the physical body (gut feelings, heart rate, breath…) and relationships with others, ethical norms and sense of self-worth.”. There may be a time where our narrative falls apart and that can be either disruptive and damaging or liberating and give way to new life or both. I won’t address that here, but I may in a later post.
We have a need to build a sense of self not only to feel stable, but in order to reach what might be called your ‘ideal self’. This doesn’t mean to be perfect, oh, no, no, please no, and it is not a selfish endeavour. It means we might be able to find a sense of calm and fulfilment in life. It even goes beyond that, which I would say is an equally important, if not more important, aspect of having a stable sense of self, but I will come to that soon.
Digging deep isn’t always a comfortable process. Many people would rather continue the story they’ve created even if it is false or causing misery. This in itself is difficult, and a reason many people carry on suffering. But while it is difficult to live life this way, for some people it feels easier than the alternative.
In one of the book groups I used to organise, we were scheduled to read a history book about status and how, in our time, the desire for it causes stress. One of the group members refused to read the book saying, “I know I am shallow and don’t want to be reminded of it.”. One might say she is at least aware, but she wasn’t willing to think about her shallowness. It seemed she didn’t necessarily like her shallow self, yet she didn’t want to address it. But as a sparkling, intelligent woman I recently met said, it is important to meet yourself with kindness and compassion.
Which leads me to that other important reason for getting to know your Self: moving beyond it. I acknowledge that there are many people who are suffering and for whom taking care of themselves is the most important priority and only thing possible. There may be obstacles to being able to move beyond focusing on yourself, but if we stay stuck in self-care mode, we may never progress to living our life well. This is equally important for our relationships, the people around us and the world as a whole. If we don’t take the understanding, kindness and compassion we may find for ourselves through our self-inquiry out to others, we will lack the ability to give those gifts to the world.
One thing I find troubling, for example, is amongst a certain socio-economic class, self-care has become a buzzword, a huge money-making industry. Many people are turning inward and staying there, some getting caught up in the consumerism of self-care. I am not trying to make a judgement here, I am contemplating how people attempt to find some peace and how it may go wrong or why it may stagnate. What are the obstacles? Culture? Society? Consumerism? Human nature? What more needs to happen during or between the dialog with one’s self and the place where life becomes something meaningful?
I like to describe the process of understanding your Self by going through yourself to individuate and to then reach a greater understanding of humanity by using Goethe’s words so will end with those. In his thanks to Luke Howard, the man who gave us names for clouds he says,
“To find yourself in the infinite,
You must distinguish and then combine;
Therefore my winged song thanks
The man who distinguished cloud from cloud.”.
A translation of Goethe’s poem:
In honour of Mr. Howard
When Camarupa, wavering on high,
Lightly and slowly travels o’er the sky,
Now closely draws her veil, now spreads it wide,
And joys to see the changing figures glide,
Now firmly stands, now like a vision flies,
We pause in wonder, and mistrust our eyes.
Then boldly stirs imagination’s power,
And shapes there formless masses of the hour;
Here lions threat, there elephants will range,
And camel-necks to vapoury dragons change;
An army moves, but not in victory proud,
Its might is broken on a rock of cloud;
E’en the cloud messenger in air expires,
Ere reach’d the distance fancy yet desires.
But Howard gives us with his clearer mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp,
He first has gain’d, first
held with mental grasp.
Defin’d the doubtful, fix’d its limit-line,
And named it fitly. —Be the honour thine!
As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,
Let the world think of thee who taught it all.
When o’er the silent bosom of the sea
The cold mist hangs like a stretch’d canopy;
And the moon, mingling there her shadowy beams,
A spirit, fashioning other spirits seems;
We feel, in moments pure and bright as this,
The joy of innocence, the thrill of bliss.
Then towering up in the darkening mountain’s side,
And spreading as it rolls its curtains wide,
It mantles round the mid-way height, and there
It sinks in water-drops, or soars in air.
Still soaring, as if some celestial call
Impell’d it to yon heaven’s sublimest hall;
High as the clouds, in pomp and power arrayed,
Enshrined in strength,
in majesty displayed;
All the soul’s secret thoughts it seems to move,
Beneath it trembles, while it frowns above.
And higher, higher yet the vapors roll:
Triumph is the noblest impulse of the soul!
Then like a lamb whose silvery robes are shed,
The fleecy piles dissolved in dew drops spread;
Or gently waft to the realms of rest,
Find a sweet welcome in the Father’s breast.
Now downwards by the world’s attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris’n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour–
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.
(Translation by George Soane and Sir John Bowring)
The Thomas Metzinger essay mentioned above: https://aeon.co/essays/are-you-sleepwalking-now-what-we-know-about-mind-wandering
I recommend this wonderful novel exploring the disintegration of narrative: H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/22/nicola-barker-books-interview-love-island-happy
I recommend this wonderful novel exploring the disintegration of narrative: H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/22/nicola-barker-books-interview-love-island-happy
Nooks of Ease and Sanctuaries
Thu, Nov 30 2017 10:29
Most of us find coincidences cool or meaningful, sometimes silly, but we do get a bit of a buzzy feeling when strange ones occur. This is because our brains love patterns and making connections. We sometimes react to coincidences by ascribing meaning to them because they feel so powerful. These patterns can also make apparent the interconnectedness of our world.
The day after I finished writing my last post, which was mostly about football, an unlikely subject for me, I went to Edinburgh to see two theatre productions. Coincidently, during one of the performances, the subject of football came up which seemed to be equally unlikely given that the performance was a words and music piece called Wind Resistance by Scottish folk singer Karine Polwart.
After thinking, ok, well I must have written a cliché, and feeling bad about it, I decided to instead write this post to explore why Karine Polwart also chose to speak about football in her moving and unusual show.
When I purchased the tickets, I knew the theatre piece was “about” or, better, inspired by, the migration of pink-footed geese and would have a focus on nature and the land, but shortly after the show began I realised it was so much more than that.
Karine Polwart creates layers of storytelling, song and music, images, sounds, personal memoir, ecology and subtle politics, all performed with beauty and humour. She opens the show by “drawing” a map of the area that inspired her, Fala Moor where she lives. I say drawing, but she draws it for us in our minds by her movements on the stage and her descriptive words. She crouchs down low, moves like a river, flies like a bird, points upward and shows us Fala Moor. And we are there with her. It’s beautiful.
It is the natural world and the history of the moor and stories born of the moor that Polwart uses to create this poetic musical essay. There is a motif of birth and care, stories of life and death all of which illustrate the need for community and love and protection for the Earth. Polwart delivers everything with perfect balance, and so expresses both the beauty and pain in these stories without leaving the audience fighting for air.
We learn about Soutra, a medieval hospital that once existed in the area and how the monks used herbal remedies to care for the sick and infirm and the poor, the story of the birth of Karine Polwart’s son and the death of a friend through childbirth. Woven throughout, we hear the true love (and death) story of her old neighbour Molly’s parents in both spoken word and song.
And, of course, Polwart speaks and sings about the migration of the geese from Iceland and Greenland to Fala Flow. She makes sure to mention that this moor is an SPA or Special Protect Area under EU legislation. She takes this fact no further, but we understand the implication. In her unique way, we hear about how the geese use wind resistance and “nooks of ease” and “aerodynamic sanctuaries” to aid each other over the length of their long journey, how every goose takes a turn. “Stepping up, Falling Back, Labouring and Resting”.
This is where the football comes in. Alex Ferguson, coach of a winning Aberdeen team in 1983, used the v-formation that creates the wind resistance as an inspiration for his players to work as a team: to look out for each other and work together, but also to care for yourself and others in rest. “Remember the geese”, he used to tell his winning Scottish team. And those are the words Polwart chooses to end her utterly mesmerising show.
Like any good artist, Karine Polwart makes us look at and see ourselves in all of these stories and, in this case, in nature as well. One may say that it is just me living in an echo chamber, surrounding myself with people and experiences that support my own thinking and beliefs or confirmation bias, but I think there is only one echo chamber and in it, if we quiet down enough, we can all hear the same sounds. Sounds that speak of beauty, love, pain, death. This is no coincidence, they are our shared experiences.
Karine Polwart’s repeated words that describe the actions of the altruistic geese on their hazardous migration are actions we can also take to help support each other. We can and should take responsibility at some point, create moments of ease and structure sanctuaries when others are tired from labouring, struggling to make it and they will be there for us too when we need it.
Stepping up, falling back, labouring and resting. Stepping up, falling back, labouring, and resting. Stepping up, falling back, labouring and resting.
If you can’t get to see Wind Resistance, there is an album available and videos on YouTube that discuss the project with views of Fala Moor.
I’d like to briefly mention here the other equally, if not even more, amazing piece of theatre I experienced in Edinburgh, Tabla Rasa, written and directed by Vanishing Point’s, Matthew Lenton. It was striking how similar these shows were in terms of themes and the combination of music and storytelling. The production uses the haunting music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, interpreted by the Scottish Ensemble, together with the story of a friendship and loss, delivered with depth of emotion and humour by Pauline Goldsmith. Marcus Sedgwick's book, Snow, was an inspiration to the director and he included passages of the book which perfectly dropped into the magic. The show explores the importance of the oft-overlooked role of care-taking, the power of art in healing and comforting and what it means to be human. The combination is devastating. Its run is over for the moment, but hopefully it will be brought back in another venue soon.
I Don’t Want To Talk About Yoga
As I write this I think, what is this? What am I trying to do here?
This feeling about not wanting to talk about yoga has been living inside of me for some time, but I’ve never really tried to logically understand it. This in itself is strange as I usually try to understand my thoughts and put them in perspective. The fact that I have not been doing this tells me something.
I guess that is what I am trying to do here in this blog; trying to explore this feeling I have about not wanting to talk about yoga. And after all, I think there is no better tool than writing to first find out what you don’t know and then help you learn something.
Perhaps I want to find another way of communicating about yoga, one that doesn’t use the ancient yogic teachings or the modern lingo. Perhaps I would like to help myself be able to help my students see yoga differently and maybe reach some other people who don’t want to talk about yoga.
I may never mention the word yoga here again in fact. I feel I may come close, circling around, spiralling in, spiralling out again and maybe, along the way, finding out how I can communicate about yoga in a way that feels right for me and for my some of my students.
In exploring this here, I may end up writing about books, films, people, art, ideas and maybe even football.
Which brings me to Juan Mata.
I had never watched a football match (soccer to Americans) until I moved in with my now husband, Marcus, who is an Englishman and a lifelong Manchester United fan. I quickly understood the reason it is called The Beautiful Game. I can think of a few reasons why it shouldn’t be called that, but that is a subject for another day perhaps.
Football looks like a living organism when you watch it as a spectator. I’ve never played, but have a real desire to kick a ball around a pitch, to feel a part of that organic movement, a single player knowing exactly where I should be and where everyone else is or know where they will be, moving together towards a common goal, literally.
There are also, of course, the impressive skills of individual players, but it is watching the whole of the team that earns it the title The Beautiful Game. Patterns of play and forms of tactics may be obvious to some fans, to others those structured plays may go unnoticed, but everyone watching will certainly feel the movement of the game.
The fluid transitions of these patterns of play and forms of tactics, allow for the skilled movement of individual players: coming apart, out of formation to do their bit, to fix a mistake, to assist another player, to take advantage of an opportunity for the team and then coming back together in formation. The shifting of the organism, the fluidity, the merging of the individual into the flow of the group, create the game’s beauty.
I think what Juan Mata, part of the current Manchester United team, says here, explains this beauty from a player’s perspective.
“When the game gets crazy, it creates more space. So for me the most important thing is to do what the game asks from you in the moment. You naturally know what is right which is why, even though you have to think about defensive duties and structure, once you’re on the pitch you have to be free in your mind.”
Playing in the space between thought and feeling is how I guess I would describe this. It is interesting to me that there is that literal space on the pitch which Juan Mata speaks of, but there is also that other space; the space that, while you use and hold on to what you know or think you know, like Mata’s defensive duties and structure here, allows you to be able to do what is necessary or right in the moment. It is the place that allows you the flexibility to change, react to the unexpected, correct mistakes and cooperate with other people who are on the pitch with you working towards that common goal. And maybe you learn something while being in that space, that place somewhere between thought and feeling.
I’d like to say a bit more about Juan Mata here. Besides being an amazing creative footballer, he appears to be taking his being part of the living organism that is the MU team beyond that and applying it to the world.
He recently launched a project called Common Goal. The project is attempting to unite the world of footballers to a shared commitment to give back. Players pledge a minimum of 1% of their wages to a collective fund. They allocate those funds to other football charities that make the greatest impact. I can’t help but appreciate Juan Mata’s initiative to contribute to the whole on and off the pitch.