Monthly Archives: February 2012

A letter…

The following is a letter I wrote this week to my fellow directors concerning a small housing estate that the charity owns.  It contains about 9 houses all of which are in a state of some dilapidation and a number of which are pre-fabricated and past their sell by date.  The aim was to develop the site but it has hit obstacle after obstacle over the fourteen years that it has been in process.  Directors who were part of the Council (the board of directors for the charity – a Steiner School) set up a professional group to manage the development which was to be paid a percentage of the profits on completion of the project.  No-one had envisaged the obstacles which would hold this project up for fourteen years.  Having been part of the Council for thirteen and a half years and Chair for some ten years or more, I have now decided to resign and yet this last project felt like unfinished business as I outline in the letter.  Having asked for Life’s help in resolving this last loose end, in typical fashion, Life delivered by creating a crisis which forced me to think about it more deeply but which generated a insight about something which had baffled me for many years (I have changed a few of the names):

Brickwood – The Tale of the Golden Goose

The planned Brickwood Development was initiated the year before I first became involved with Council but has remained unfulfilled throughout my tenure. With my impending withdrawal from Council it was the last outstanding issue that felt like unfinished business and I wanted to resolve it as far as I was able.  With this in mind, I asked for Life’s help.  The result has been that Brickwood has hit crisis with Brickwood Development tendering their resignation and demanding payment for their services.  This was not quite the resolution I had in mind, but it has prompted a realisation about Brickwood which has eluded me all these years.

Like many before me, I put my time and energy into Brickwood and wanted to realise the aim of the housing development there, yet however much energy I put in and however many obstacles we resolved, fresh ones always cropped up and I could never see clearly why there should be such an impasse with the project, an impasse lasting fourteen years!  As you all know, my perspective on Life is that if something is blocked then there is usually a good reason and something that needs to be learnt or brought to consciousness.

It was only at the end of last year, that I began to see more clearly and my heart began to speak more fully.  In a conversation with Jim, following a Brickwood meeting, he pointed out that Brickwood was a contributor to the charity in terms of income rather than a drain (as had always been thought) and that we might well be better off developing it on a gradual basis and preserving the asset and income for the school.  At the same time, I realised that my heart was not comfortable with the proposed crowding of twenty nine houses on to a relatively small site nor the design of terraces that would have to be erected.  I realised that we were in danger of spoiling the site and creating something that no-one wanted.

In thinking about this more over the last few days, I had a breakthrough in terms of the pattern of Brickwood and why it was stuck; I could see a recurring theme.  Everyone who has been involved in Brickwood has been caught by a desire to profit from it; this desire has often run for a number of years but has then ended up turning to dust in people’s hands.  Phil and Jane at Homing House were caught by greed at the prospect of holding the school to ransom for the land needed for the sight lines and so was their agent, yet in the end their greed meant they ended up getting nothing as the sight line needs were changed by new planning directives.  John, our neighbour, held us to ransom for years over the need to move the road yet, again, his greed defeated him as the resentment at this caused others to challenge his right legally and it was proved invalid.  The initial residents at Brickwood were full of plans for how the development should be tailored to suit their needs even though they did not own it and again it came to nought.  Colin Ford and others wanted to create a community for themselves, but that also came to nought.

Thinking about Brickwood I realised it was a trap and the analogy that came to mind was the Grimm Brothers’ tale of the Golden Goose, where each person that sees the goose tries to pluck one of it’s golden feathers but in doing so becomes stuck to the goose or the other people.  It feels very much that this is the issue with Brookthorpe; everyone is stuck to it by their desire to profit from it.  Sadly, I fear that for all their best intentions, this includes Brickwood Development, but it also includes the the charity.  We have been blinded by our greed and are part of this chain of people stuck to the goose.  In our case, I think the covenant is a particularly dangerous trap.  Our greed and fear causes us to hold on to a covenant which has soured and continues to sour our relationship with our neighbour and our conviction that there is more gold to come than to simply restore the site and generate an income and provision for staff causes us to spend more and more money and neglect the site.  In selling the nursing home, I am conscious twenty years later that no-one now remembers where the profit was spent but everyone still regrets selling off a gift and asset.

I think the lesson I derive from all this is that profit should not be our motive; there are more important considerations.  Profit, as far as I am aware, is not one of our objects as a charity.  When I sold my last house there was a dispute over the land that came with it, which our neighbours had tried to buy before we moved in since it was actually connected to their house not ours.  We were not aware of this when buying but when we left the house, we sold the field (against the advice of our property agents) to our neighbours, because we wanted to leave the property cleanly without being responsible for perpetuating a conflict.  I am not against making money, but I am against putting it first in our considerations.  I think that if we build something which goes against the wishes of staff, which is out of keeping with the village, perpetuates the badwill with our neighbour and which ruins the gift given to us by the founders of the school then we will be responsible for that and it’s impact will far outweigh any monetary gain.

For Brickwood Development, my own perspective would be that to be involved with a charity must be free of a motive to gain financially on a personal level.  I know Martin and Chris have given a lot to the school and Chris continues to do so but I think they may have got caught in the Brickwood trap.  It is probably most painful for them, as I can’t imagine they will feel comfortable in their hearts extracting a payment of the level of £70,000 from the charity and they have also been caught for fourteen frustrating years.

The other and better known version of the Golden Goose is the tale of a goose that laid a golden egg each day.  The owners were dissatisfied with this and sought to find the lump of gold inside the hen that was producing the eggs in order to be richer (or to feed it to get it to lay 2 eggs a day depending on the version).  In each case they killed the Goose and lost the egg.  I think this Golden Goose tale also applies to us.

I recognise that others may disagree with my perspective and am willing to be proved wrong but, for me, Brickwood has served its purpose as a last lesson which I am only sorry I did not see more clearly earlier.  I do not think anyone is to blame, everyone has suffered (perhaps Brickwood Development most of all) but I am keen personally to learn so that we do not repeat this mistake or perpetuate it.

I am conscious that the tendency is to think of the world in a very practical framework of cause and effect.  Fairytales and myths seem part of a previous more superstitious world where we did not have such control over and knowledge of how to manipulate our physical environment.  Not making a profit, or putting making profit first seems somehow alien to us in this day and age and also the idea of emotions such as greed, envy etc. as if they are part of an old story.  The concept of a consequence for our immoral actions feels outdated, part of a child like existence (we often only tell myths and fairytales to children as if they are no longer relevant to us as adults who have grown up) in our cause and effect model of physical reality yet my experience is that fairtyales, myths and morality are very much alive and playing out in much the same way. Indeed I often wonder if it is our insistence on this material view of the world which is oddly fairytale like; a strange illusion imposed on a reality which it does not fit in a child like insistence that we are in control of our lives.

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A man sat next to me…

On my way to Dubai last week I sat next to a man who engaged me in conversation. He was on his way to be interviewed as a pilot for Emirates and currently worked for Ryanair. He was very talkative and this created a conflict for me since it was a flight of only 7 hours and we would be arriving at 7am at which point I would be then due to do a full day’s work. I did not want to be rude or hurt his feelings but I didneeded to work. This is not an unfamiliar conflict for me since my Sagittarian personality does not want to get tied down or trapped talking to people whilst my Cancer moon does not want to feel that I have hurt someone’s feelings. In this  instance I resisted engaging much beyond fairly superficial small talk and then tried to go to sleep at an opportune  moment when he was distracted by the cabin crew.  I did not sleep much and resumed our conversation for the last part of the flight. We parted on good terms having chatted whilst we went through customs.  Yet in my heart I knew I had humoured him without fully engaging with him.

Musing on my plans for my return flight I was thinking about how I would spend some time sleeping and then working on admin tasks that I needed to complete that day before going on holiday the following day. The next thing I knew there was a tap on my shoulder and my friend from the previous flight was there. We chatted on the bus and as we went up the steps my mind was wondering and speculating furiously on whether Life was going to place us together. However, I strongly suspected I knew the answer. What’s your seat number he asked me, I replied that it was 2B. With obvious pleasure he responded that he was in 2A. With some resignation I realised that Life had shifted the tables on me and all my plans to get ahead that day were going to go into abeyance. We chatted in our previous somewhat superficial way for some 20 mins and then I realised that I was going to have to really engage in the conversation. I did so and we began to discuss his relationships with which he was having a lot of problems. I was also able to do his chart, he turned out to be a Gemini with Sun trine Jupiter which was no great surprise for a pilot. Part of his problem was that he kept attracting girlfriends who is his mind kept turning out to be very jealous possesive and irrational. As we worked at this and knowing that he has Venus rising in Taurus opposite Pluto in Scorpio on the descendant with Saturn also in the seventh house in Scorpio. What he began to appreciate was that he was equally jealous and possesive and that whilst he accused his girlfriends of giving completely mixed messages which were unintelligible, they might equally accuse him of the same thing.  We looked at the charts of the two main women he had been involved with and even I, as a seasoned astrologer, was stunned by the similarities between their charts. We were talking about the black hole of feeling that the grass was greener. He began to see that he could choose as many girlfriends as he liked but he wasn’t going to escape the issues that were inherent in his own nature and fate (something the chart describes beautifully). He was currently contemplating a relatioinship with someone who was with someone else. She was telling him that her current boyfriend was awful and she hated him. His concern in relationships was that he ended up getting very suspicious and hated game playing. I did point out that if he got together with a girlfriend that was already lining up her next relationship and hating her current boyfriend, he would then be the inccumbent boyfriend and it might be wise to expect to feel paranoid and suspicious. We also talked about the value of starting and ending situations cleanly. He recognised he tended to go for women who were unavailable but then the relationship ended because they were suspicious of him and he of them. I realised that he had never been taughht about relationships. He said that most of his friends and colleagues told him that women were just irrational and messed your head up. He was amazed to understand that he could exercise some choice over his relationships, if only to learn how to inhibit the more negative instincts.

The learning here for me was about our reistance to the agenda of our lives. In this instance on both flights, I was convinced that I knew what the agenda was for my flight. Look, I have someone who needs input from you about relationships Life said. I’m sorry it’s not on my agenda i replied. Yes it really is Life responded and I’ve got work for you. In engaging fully with this man rather than resisting my concerns about being trapped disappeared and the time flew by. At a naturalpoint we both decided to sleep and I slept  soundly for 3 hours. When I got home my wife had kindly packed for me and I had time to finish my urgent admin.   The Great Way Is Not Difficult For Those Who Have No Preferences Hsin Hsin Ming says in The Book Of Nothing. Many people assume that this means that we adopt a passive attitude to Life living a life of bliss and laid back harmony but this is a preference of course. What it really means is that we have no resistance to the agenda that life sets for us. Sometimes our agenda is very difficult and the opposite of what we might choose for ourself. This had been a factor in the programme we had just run where  the participants were consistently frustrated that their circumstances did not meet the criteria for how they felt their lives should be progressing yet for each they were engaged in a power battle with Life trying to change these circumstances. With a number of them they found themselves back in the same place having tried to change jobs, countries, bosses only to find themselves back in the same black hole that they thought they were escaping.  Interestingly most of us can recognise the value of what we are really learning many years later when we look back and realise what valuable lessons we learnt. Yet I do not believe we need to wait until many years after th event to see the value or learning of our actual agenda, indeed seeing it at the time considerably eases the process, if it doesn’t eradicate the difficulty or pain.

Just to make sure that I got the lesson, Life prepared a number of examinations for us on our holiday, a 3 hour delay which lasted long enough to prevent me being able to get there in time to watch the England rugby match I had planned to get there in time to see. On our first day skiing the boots that we had bought for our daughter India at some expense were so uncomfortable she was in tears and throwing tantrums saying she wanted to give up on them and go home. I failed spectacularly to adjust to my new curriculum and threw a big tantrum, trying to cling to my curriculum of being on holiday and going skiing for the day. Having apologised and suffered the regret of having hurt my daughter, I realised that my relationship with my daughter was more important than my attachment to my idea of the skiing holiday.  The next day, having adjusted my mind to the idea that the day might be about boot problems or anything but skiing, I was not surprised to find that my knee was now so painful I could barely ski. I decided to go with it and adjust my expectations to ski carefully within my capabilities. It turned out to be a beautiful day where we all skied together and India had no problems with my boots.

So why is it important to adjust to the demands of Life? Religion has created a sense that we should do so, that it is a question of good and bad, somewhat like a cosmic school with points for good behaviour. Indeed the incentive is often some future reward in the form of a heaven and hell. Yet is this notion worthwhile with its message of conformity? It somehow does not feel satisfying either to be a self satisfied do gooder conforming to the rules like avoiding stepping on pavement cracks in case we get into trouble with a super parent or a supertitious conformer dominated by fears of retribution.  In the end I gave up my resistance in each case because it hurt my own heart not to do so. Perhaps it is in our own interests to do so: an enlightened self-interest. I did not act in either case because I thought that it would lead to a postive outcome or some reward but beacause I was uncomfortable with my own behaviour, the outcome could have been disastrous but I would have been comfortable in my heart with my response.

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What is acceptable?

Having just returned from abroad where I was coaching a number of leaders in a large firm where there were some serious internal conflicts, I was struck by the fact that a number of people described the conflict going on in the firm and the behaviour of individuals as unacceptable.  Of course, it was always the behaviour of others that was unacceptable.  There was also much discussion of the fact that relationships had irretrievably broken down.  Both these elements make it sound as if there is a rule book somewhere that can be consulted.  Perhaps such a tome does exist and I have missed it, if so, I would be grateful to anyone who could lend me a copy.

The other thing that I noticed was that they described each other as “having a problem that they need help with”; implying a serious mental instability.  As I have mentioned before, my experience has been that for each of us, there is always someone who is a thorn in our side, but for whom our lives would run smoothly.  Much of my coaching involves trying to help people see these individuals differently to “accept” them in their lives and recognise their value – that they are usually the source of our profoundest growth and development.  Many people subscribe to this view but it is a dangerous path, we describe others as having problems that absolve us of the need to see their actions as human or understandable.

Since some of the individuals involved were also in the midst of painful divorces, it prompted me to think about whether a relationship has ever irretrievably broken down.  The leader of the firm, who had a balanced perspective on the situation, challenged my response that I wasn’t sure there was ever an irretrievable breakdown in relationships and said to me that sometimes relationships do breakdown irretrievably.  This prompted me to think about relationships that really have broken down in a spectacular way; the Palestinians and Israelis, Northern Ireland, South Africa etc.  Since the leader of the firm was Irish, we talked about the relationships in Northern Ireland.  Who would have anticipated that Gerry Adams and David Trimble, or even Ian Paisley could work together?  I think all of us might have suggested that that was a relationship that had broken down irretrievably, and yet, the breakthroughs in that relationship has brought the end of over four hundred years of violence conflict.

The implication in the instance of the individuals who were in the midst of the conflict I was trying to work with, was that there was somehow some imaginary formula or process for action when two individuals acknowledged their relationship had broken down irretrievably, somehow that they were now absolved of responsibility.  After talking to everyone who told me that they were exhausted by the conflicts and that a decision had to be taken and someone needed to go, I threw hexagram 47 – Oppression (Exhaustion).  Well, I could not fault the I-Ching here!  In Oppression, the I-Ching says that encountering an adverse fate is a test of character, that it is important to overcome the trouble inwardly and to be able to rise above one’s fate – to be like a tree that bends and has the capacity to return.  It recommends remaining cheerful so that we are not caught in the Oppression.  Oppression is a black hole, a black hole being a situation where we are stuck because our picture of how we want the world to be does not match the reality we are encountering.  Everyone in the office was stuck in a black hole.  I too felt exhausted by the conflict and how to help the individuals involved.  Having spent many hours the previous day with one of the protagonists, I could see they were very stuck.  Only at the end had I found a way of dealing with it creatively and beginning to make progress.  I felt as sad and stumped as everyone.  At this point one of the leaders not directly involved came to see me (let’s call him Peter) and he had a different perspective from all the others affected; he was someone I had been working with for some time and had started to work with the I-Ching. He was not exhausted like everyone else, instead he described to me with great clarity exactly how the situation had come about and the stunning symmetry in the way that the two main individuals involved had swapped positions so that the way that they were now treating each other exactly mirrored the positions they had started in.  The third person most directly affected by the conflict was also someone I was coaching: let’s call him Philip.  Philip was frustrated because he felt the behaviour of the woman involved, let’s call her Jane (none of them are English but I am going to use English names!), was unacceptable and that the firm needed to kick her out.  I pointed out to him that in the past, he had found himself in this position three times already and each time he had been sure that kicking out the person he perceived to be causing the trouble and distracting everyone from getting on with work would solve the problem, yet each time, a new person had popped up as the problem.  For me, it was like trying to chop off the head of the Hydra, each time you lopped one off a new one sprouted up.  For the first time, he could clearly see the repeating pattern.

In discussing all of this with my coachee Peter, we were relfecting on what a sense of humour Life had and how brilliantly it had orchestrated the situation so that everyone was learning what they needed to.  What had seemed a mess to everyone else was to him perfect and he saw that if he trod carefully he might be able to help everyone learn and shift the situation.  The I-Ching says that all men are one in their hearts.  I could see in this situation that Peter’s heart was open to everyone and critically to the situation – he had not closed down to the possibility of being able to work and to learn, quite the reverse.  Since we are all one in hearts, I have come to realise that if one heart closes down it is like losing an arterial road in the road network, it backs up traffic everywhere as people try to compensate for the blockage in this route.  Everyone is affected and everyone is blocked.  In this situation with the two individuals (Jane and Christopher), the whole firm in this country was sucked into the conflict and everyone’s hearts were affected.  Indeed the whole firm was in danger.  The fact that it was so dangerous for everyone, I could see was very valuable.  If it wasn’t so dangerous where would the incentive be for everyone to take it seriously and work on it.  Similarly, I recognised that it was great that everyone was fed up and exhausted by it, because it meant that they were ready to try a different approach – they had exhausted a way of acting that was not working.  Despite the difficulties and frustrations, there were more breakthroughs in coaching people than there had been for a while.

At this point, I want to take a slight detour to talk about my experience of organisations.  Margaret Thatcher famously said that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families.  At one level, there is a truth in this similar to that of the old chinese proverb which states that if you want to change the nation, change the state, if you want to change the state, change the family, if you want to change the family change yourself.  I have written about the fact that organisations only change when individuals become more conscious.  However, I also recognise, as an astrologer that organisations like individuals have personalities (charts) and that it is valuable to think about what the black hole game might be for an organisation.  Most individuals do not consider that organisations have personalities, they consider that they can create the personalities of the organisations (in this sense I see cultures and personalities as interchangeable when it comes to organisations).  From my experience it has been far more valuable to see organisations like I see individuals, ie. that their basic nature is a given, in the same way it is for our personalities.  Our role then, is not to try and work against their natures but rather to understand and become more conscious of them so that we can get the best from them and learn how to develop and evolve them.  In this firm, the culture has remained the same for the many years I have worked with it.  There are always large flamboyant central conflicts in relationships which dominate the firm and it has regularly tried to scapegoat one of the protagonists and hope that this will solve the problem, but in the process it has become smaller and smaller as more and more people have to be cut out.  I have been working at helping people become aware of this and be able to handle conflict and competition so that there is a core of people who can help the firm move forward. This has had some success, in parts of the firm we have caught the seeds of conflict early and resolved them so that the individuals work co-operatively together and that part of the organisation thrives.  It is a critical time for the firm, everyone thinks it is disastrous but really it is an opportunity.  There is a chance to break the pattern inherent in the culture of scapegoating difficult people and getting rid of them and instead working with them.  I see in organisations (and individuals) that we are often tested by difficult situations and fail to be conscious enough to resolve them, they then do tend to come again and if we have worked at becoming more conscious we have a chance individually and collectively to put it right and to resolve the conflict.  The results are well worth the difficulty.  Northern Ireland was stuck for four hundred years and now it has moved forward.  Every situation holds the possibility of starting afresh for me, which is why I wonder about the finality of irretrievable or unacceptable.

Central to this issue of how to tolerate people is how we see business.  The I-Ching states in the top line of the Receptive;

Six at the top means: Dragons fight in the meadow. Their blood is black and yellow.

In the top place the dark element should yield to the light. If it attempts to maintain a position to which it is not entitled and to rule instead of serving, it draws down upon itself the anger of the strong. A struggle ensues in which it is overthrown, with injury, however, to both sides. The dragon, symbol of heaven, comes to fight the false dragon that symbolized the inflation of the earth principle. Midnight blue is the color of heaven; yellow is the color of earth. Therefore, when black and yellow blood flow, it is a sign that in this unnatural contest both primal powers suffer injury.

I noticed that in this instance a number of people said to me, that one had to be practical and the important thing was clients and the work.  The issue of the conflict was seen as a distraction that needed to be got rid of, that individuals did not have time for these emotional difficulties.  This for me, is an example of this line operating.  Most people felt that these issues and challenges they faced were the distraction that was getting in the way of business.  Yet my own experience has been that these issues and how to respond to them and work at them are our business, our most important business.  The paradox for this firm is that not having dealt with these issues is the factor that has most damaged the firm and where they have been dealt with wisely the business has thrived.  I recognise that in all businesses there are people with difficult and challenging personalities, I am interested to work out how we help these people not how we condemn them or scapegoat them.  Since some (mentally unstable) people would see me as having a difficult and challenging personality, I clearly have a vested interest in this respect!

So is there behaviour which is unacceptable or a relationship which is irretrievable?  In both of these cases, the real message was that these were excuses for not being willing to work at a relationship.  Saying something is unacceptable absolves us of the responsibility to understand it, to see if we might have contributed to it, to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.  Saying a relationship is irretrievable is a similar cop-out.  It is really saying, I do not want to work at it.  The latter is more honest because it takes responsibility for our choice, the former pretends that the choice is out of our hands.  I wonder if what is unacceptable is to say that anything is unacceptable – of course this statement too is unacceptable!

In the I-Ching Hexagram 54 The Marrying Maiden talks about relationships.

Thunder over the lake: The image of THE MARRYING MAIDEN. Thus the superior man understands the transitory in the light of the eternity of the end.

But every relationship between individuals bears within it the danger that wrong turns may be taken, leading to endless misunderstandings and disagreements. Therefore it is necessary constantly to remain mindful of the end. If we permit ourselves to drift along, we come together and are parted again as the day may determine. If on the other hand a man fixes his mind on an end that endures, he will succeed in avoiding the reefs that confront the closer relationships of people.

The end that endures is to keep our heart open and to work on understanding others and resolving conflict.  This does not mean that there will not be short term conflicts and difficulties, that our emotions will not feel overwhelming but that our short term emotions will not be a good base for the relationship working. Only if we can set our sight on making relationships work can we avoid being blown off course by short term conflicts.  Perhaps the saddest part of this situation was that the two individuals involved had once been the very closest of friends.  If we can love someone once can that really be lost forever?  Everyone in this situation was looking for who was to blame.  I told the two protagonists it was my fault; I should have done a better job of resolving the conflict between them from the start.  My maxim has been not to reject others.  I am prepared to challenge people to see the truth of situations, but I have never sacked someone yet from any organisation.  Some have left by their choice but I have made it clear that they are not being rejected, I have given them choice about whether they wanted to work at the problems they faced with my full support or whether they choose not to.  In the end, even if they have left, they have acknowledged that it was their choice for which they had responsibility.  I think something changes when we have choice.

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