How do you solve a problem like Syria?

I have been thinking about Syria and how to resolve the situation there in a way that does not repeat the mistakes of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

My own personal experience of dealing with conflicts both in my professional work as a coach to leaders in businesses across the world and as chairman of a charity is that the resolution of situations like these takes a shift in perspective that is counter-intuitive.  By this I mean that our key concern is not about how to we resolve Syria but rather how we choose to respond without falling into the traps that Syria represents.  If we see it as a test of our ability to show a different model for using power then we enable everyone to make a transition and we become a role-model for a different approach.  In this sense the question is not how to deal with Bashar al-Assad or what he is doing but rather how do we want to exercise power?  Since we cannot ultimately control how he chooses to respond, or all the other various parties included, we can only choose how we want to act.  Why this is counter-intuitive is that our natural inclination is to focus on how to control the other parties involved and the danger with this is it sucks us into putting control as our primary objective and attempting to control something you cannot ultimately control leads you to force.  This is the position that Bashar al-Assad is in and the Rebels.  Everyone is seeking to use force to control each other and achieve their will.

So how do we respond differently and break this cycle?  There are two things I think are important to bear in mind.  Firstly, it is possible to break these cycles and there are examples around that provide confidence that this is the case.  South Africa is one example – who would have thought that it could be resolved without bloodshed and that the white minority government would hand over power as part of a peaceful transition? Northern Ireland is another example; no-one would have envisaged Martin McGuiness, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley working together to share power, nor would anyone during the cold war have believed that Russia and the USA would talk or that the Berlin wall would come down.  On a smaller scale, my own experience also reflects this; I have watched individual leaders shift destructive cultures and transform apparently insoluble conflicts.

What is behind the conflicts and what resolves them?   Behind each of these conflicts is an identification with “us and them”.  The parties involved forget their common humanity and become lost in identifying with the veneers of culture, nationality, religion.  They start to see the other people not as fellow human beings but as being odd, wrong, bad, monsters etc. etc.  Once the other parties are “them”, we do not have to make the effort to understand them and we can treat them in inhuman ways.  In South Africa, the white minority government genuinely thought that blacks were different, that they were from another species that they could not live alongside.  In Northern Ireland, the protestants thought the catholics were so different they could not live with them and vice versa and the Eastern bloc and the West thought they were different beings.  In each case, once they saw each other as fellow human beings the divisions and conflicts were put in perspective – the perspective that we are all human beings feeling the same emotions and suffering the same hurts, misunderstandings etc.  It is difficult for anyone to conceive now that the South African government saw Nelson Mandela as a dangerous terrorist who must be imprisoned.  Similarly it is difficult for us to see the firebrand that was Ian Paisley as the peacemaker.  The only way to resolve the issues effectively is to be on everyone’s side.  If we take sides we are lost because any action we take will contribute to “us and them” divisions that will increase conflict.  Similarly, if we act unilaterally it will create further division and tension.

The second thing that is critical is that it takes time and a long-term perspective to shift these issues.  If the culture is one of power used violently then the temptation is to use power violently to attempt to resolve it.  Even if you are successful then the culture of “might is right” is re-inforced.  The situation has to be transformed and the first transformation is not to respond in the same way.  One obvious short-term solution is removing the individuals who are causing the problem but this is rarely successful.  This is because of a misconception that it is these individuals who are causing the problem, when usually they are symptomatic of the problem.  In fact these individuals are key and understanding and working with them usually provides all the answers to shifting the underlying culture.  In this sense these individuals are like a masterclass in understanding the nature of the issues and how to resolve them.  Getting rid of them is the equivalent of chopping a head of the mythical hydra, two more crop up in its place.  The more attempts to use violence to solve the conflicts, the more new hurts and anger are bred.  A long-term commitment to a positive goal allows the flexibility not to get caught by short-term frustrations.

So what should the goal be?  Personally my goal would be to help Syria solve its own internal conflicts without the need for outside intervention and critically to involve other nations like Russia so that they start to feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for the problem rather than feeling they are being railroaded.  To do this the first step would be to win the trust of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.  Without trust it is impossible to influence people except through coercive force and this always has a cost, mostly in terms of others’ seeing that your modus operandi is force and fear.  Nelson Mandela took a different approach and created the conditions in himself to overcome “us and them”.  He did not fall prey to the desire for retribution or revenge despite twenty-seven years of provocation.  Instead he worked on staying open to all sides.  When he was released he spoke of love and reconciliation not force.  His power came from the fact that everyone trusted and respected him not from fear or coercion.  When in prison he refused to see the guards as “them”; they had to be part of the solution no matter how badly they were treating him and his comrades.  Forgiveness is very hard but without it the cycle of conflict continues and if the aim is to prevent further violence then someone has to stop and let go of past hurts.  Nelson Mandela’s approach of truth and reconciliation was key because it allowed room for people to express their pain and be heard without further retribution which would create new hurts and pain.

It takes true courage not to resort to fear and coercion because everyone around is inciting us to react and punish the perpetrators.  We fear that it will be interpreted by others as weakness but the paradox is that it takes strength to forgive and it is weakness to use force.  In psychological terms it is a classic Karpman Drama Triangle of Victim, Saviour and Persecutor.  If we come in as saviour to help the victims, we easily become the person who ends up persecuting the persectutor and they become the new victim.  To play any of the roles means to get caught in all three and then there is an endless cycle.  By being on everyone’s side and refusing to be drawn into one-sided action we can resolve it.  But, it takes real strength of character to achieve it; we have to resist the temptation to respond to provocation.

The key to the situation, in my opinion, is Bashar al-Assad.  He is in a dangerous and difficult position and is no doubt very frightened and paranoid.  When I worked as Chairman of a Charity that ran a Rudolf Steiner school, the relationship between the staff and Directors was entrenched in a damaging “us and them” culture with both sides mistrustful of each other.  The incumbent Principal of the Charity had been elected by the staff against the wishes of the board and set about firing staff and fighting the directors.  Most of the directors felt that we, as the directors, needed to assert our power and sack him and install a new Principal.  The argument of many of my fellow directors was that it would be irresponsible not to sack him, since he was committing such atrocities.  Yet, I could see that this reactive approach, whilst it might afford some short term satisfaction for the directors, would achieve nothing and result in a situation where the staff trusted us even less because they could see we would use our power to enforce our will over theirs.

To address this, and in opposition to the wishes of a number of my fellow directors, I chose instead to work with the incumbent principal.  He made it very clear that I was the last person he was interested in listening to and that he was going to fight me for power every step of the way.  I realised that the only way forward was to give him the power and to build a relationship with him where he trusted that I had his best interests at heart.  This was far from easy work.  The last thing I wanted to do was support him or spend more time with him.  Yet I considered that I was doing work to help transform these emotions and to do so I would have to transform them in myself.  I also tried to view it as work on myself – learning how to use power wisely and to transform the sense of “us and them” in me.  After two years there was a seminal moment when my fellow directors turned to me at a key meeting with staff and remarked that they would not choose anyone else to be Principal and I realised that neither would I.  Indeed he became the key to changing and overcoming the whole “us and them” culture within the charity.  In addition to this, as our relationship grew (and that of my fellow directors with him too) the level of challenge he would accept from us grew too, to the point where I was able to challenge him to an extent that I have rarely challenged anyone and he listened and responded beautifully honestly.  By the end he had become a very genuine friend and someone I had deep respect for.  Part of the key to shifting the relationship with him was to recognise that his very strong desire for power came from a feeling of deep vulnerability and powerlessness and that this was the thing to focus on.

I was thinking about this during a recent visit to Northern Ireland and was keen to ask the people I met about what had been the key to the peace process.  The unanimous verdict from Catholics and Protestants alike was that it was Ian Paisley.  Initially people had seen him as the main obstacle to peace.  Who at that stage could have imagined him working hand in hand with Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams and charming Bertie Ahern?  Situations like South-Africa and Northern Ireland look insoluble.  The temptation is to use power to remove the ringleaders of this but, as I mentioned earlier, my experience throughout organizations is that leaders are often representations of something endemic in the culture.  Remove them and replace them with new leaders and nothing changes because the underlying culture which spawned them has not changed.  What is required to change cultures is a shift in consciousness.  This requires an individual who can embody this change through their personal transformation.  Powerful individuals have the capacity for deep transformation.  It is easy but specious to make the leader the scapegoat and simply remove them hoping that the whole culture will change. Even the revolution which promises to bring relief often achieves little because it is usually based on the very power and violence that it is supposed to replace.  So it needs a fresh approach, one based on the positive use of power to transform rather than force.  This achieves real change.

In the context of Syria it requires a long-term perspective and to build a relationship with Bashar Al-Assad and to win his trust.  As a powerful man he is cornered and deeply vulnerable and his natural response is to defend himself wildly and forcefully like a cornered rat.  He knows that if he loses power and control he will be annihilated, similarly, so do the Sunni business leaders who support him.  He can see no options – no foreign power appears willing to help him.  To change this requires the building of a relationship of trust.  Putting further pressure on him without any sense of relationship simply increases his fear and willingness to go to any length to protect himself. At the charity, I took the responsibility and apologised – I explained that it was our fault as directors for not understanding the Principal and staff.  This was not what they were expecting so it surprised them.  We then worked on giving them responsibility for the challenges of the situation and making it clear we did not want to take over the power or responsibility.  Bashar al-Assad needs a motivation to change his approach.  My instinct would be to provide him with one that positions him as the potential transformer of the situation – an opportunity to leave a positive legacy.  In this I would offer him my full support (and mean it).  I would appeal to his desire for power but in such a way that he uses it positively.  I would explain that he might never be understood but he would have the satisfaction of knowing his real contribution and I would explain that if he could do it, we would know and understand the nature of his contribution.  I would also tell him (and mean it) that we would look after him and protect him but that this would rely on him working to help transform the situation and bring about a peaceful transition in Syria (this might be that he lives under house arrest but in comfortable circumstances for the rest of his life or lives in exile).  Unpalatable as this solution is, it is better than further violence and conflict.  I would challenge him to take responsibility for how to solve Syria and involve the rebels or bring together the rival factions.  I would also make it clear that we would be prepared to involve peace keeping forces to support this but only on the grounds that the focus is achieving peace and reconciliation.  This would be a long-term project – he would be deeply mistrustful and suspicious at first – and it might take many years but this gradual change is far more stable than short-term revolution or violent intervention.  It would take creativity and wisdom to do it successfully but the results would be worth it in terms of our evolution and learning about dealing with international conflict and for the Syrian people it would create the opportunity to break the cycle of power and violence.  It sounds simplistic to give Bashar al-Assad responsibility for finding a way to involve the rebels who clearly hate him and want to destroy him, yet, as I mentioned earlier who would have believed that the white apartheid government would ever sit down with and trust Nelson Mandela or that Ian Paisley would work in partnership with Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams?  Bashar al-Assad would need our help to appoint and involve people from across the spectrum in Syria.  Once the majority supports the process of transition and feels it has a stake and involvement then those who still insist on violence become a minority that all sides want to contain, rather than the default leaders for an unrepresented faction.  I mentioned at the beginning that the key misconception is that we are not fellow human beings.  In all my work, I have noticed that people use culture, race, nationality as an excuse to perpetuate mistrust and an “us and them” approach.  Work to understand and empathise with them as fellow human beings and these divisions fade away.  At the charity I mentioned, staff said that we, as directors, could not possibly understand them because we were not spiritual enough and did not follow Rudolf Steiner.  Once they began to trust us all these supposedly irreconcilable differences disappeared.  Who now says that difference between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are irreconcilable or that blacks and whites in South-Africa cannot live together peacefully?  Yet, we somehow still get caught thinking this way over Islam, Israel, China.  I work regularly with leaders in business who are based in Asia who describe their Asian colleagues as if they are from a different species; that their culture is so different we in the west cannot understand it.  It is a wonderful excuse to justify their frustrations but once they see their Asian colleagues as fellow human beings and work on understanding them they realise it is an illusion; that culture, race, religions are veneers; get caught in these veneers and you miss the deeper level at which we are all the same.

I can hear the objections, indeed, in my experience of the Charity there were fervent objectors among the directors.  One was obsessed with the fact that we were letting the Principal get away with his behaviour and the hurt and pain he had caused staff.  He was determined that he should be bought to account for his actions and that we were setting a precedent for further transgressions among staff; that we must be tough and show that such behaviour would not be tolerated.  This comes to the nub of the difficulty in Syria.  Can we forgive?  In dealing with the situation I faced at the charity and coaching leaders in business this is the most difficult issue.  Yet, when examined honestly it is key.  The real objective of our actions has to be to prevent further transgressions; to contain dangerous or harmful elements and to transform them to prevent them spreading.  I have rarely seen violence or force achieve this.  The real emotion behind “justice” is often revenge and retribution.  Labeling people as tyrants or monsters might allow us to feel justified in treating them as if they were not fellow human beings but it does not break the cycle.  The cycle can only be broken by creating a new approach that transcends the current mode of operating.  This is what Ghandi, Mandela, Gorbachev all achieved.  On a smaller scale I have seen many others do the same throughout organizations with similarly impressive results.  Interestingly, the one director most fervent in his objections at the charity wrote to me many years later to thank me and express his gratitude that the charity had been able to make such a remarkable transformation.

It may be we are not ready to change our approach in Syria yet.  If so, I strongly suspect we will get further opportunities to practice!  There is a collective hesitation and unwillingness to step in where angels fear to tread following the experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Everyone is hesitant but no-one can see an alternative.  I am suggesting that there is one and it is a positive thing that intervention is being blocked as it is forcing us to think more deeply.  I could be wrong.

However we act in the situation will send a message about how to use power.  If we use force then the message picked up will be that power is about force.  Our choice concerns how we want to use power and we have responsibility for the consequences of that.  Paraphrasing Ghandi; we must be the change we want to see in the world.

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Further thoughts on aspects of consciousness

In talking to my friend Steve about my previous blog (I know I mention my friends a lot in blogs – this is to give them credit and also with Saturn currently transiting my 11th house to reassure myself that I do have friends despite the way it feels at times!), I began to think further about the connection between our chart and the universal background of energy that astrology represents.  At the moment, with transiting Chiron conjunct my Saturn and widely conjunct my natal Chiron setting off my t-square with Sun on the Ascendant in Sagittarius and Uranus and Pluto in Virgo, I have been realising more fully the nature of this t-square.  It has made me aware of the fact that the nature of the square between the Saturn in Pisces with its fear of loneliness and of financial loss and the Sagittarius sun on the Ascendant is irreconcilable.  If I go for financial security then my Sun on the ascendant and Uranus-Pluto feels it has lost its freedom, self-determination and integrity.  Yet, if I go with my need for freedom and self-determination (a polite euphemism for good old Pluto control and power) then my Saturn/Chiron in Pisces ends up feeling lonely and disconnected.  Similarly, if I am approached by people needing me and wanting me as a friend, my Pisces longing to be needed feels fulfilled but my Sagittarius and Uranus gets itchy feet about the responsibility and possible limitations it imposes.  Relating this to the chart, it is clear that the focus of my consciousness is entangled in the nature of the square/opposition between Pisces, Sagittarius and Virgo and the creative tension between the natures of Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto and Uranus as well as the nature of Chiron.  It is clear that in this respect my consciousness is entangled and so I am forced to grapple with these energies.  Complex stuff.  Yet we are complex beings so no surprise there. It is possible to see that my particular chart is set up to be entangled in these energies in order that through experiencing them and grappling with them I have the opportunity to contribute to the collective evolution of consciousness.  Indeed one can see that every individual’s chart is created with a particular set of entanglements with which their consciousness is forced to grapple in order to contribute to our collective evolution.  A recent argument between two close friends illustrated this.  One had Venus square a Saturn/Uranus conjunction, the other had the Moon in Taurus and transiting Chiron conjunct her Venus in Pisces.  The one with Venus square Saturn/Uranus was debating whether to accede to their partner’s request to come with them to a family event they did not want to go to.  With a powerful Saturn/Uranus conjunction they were debating whether in principle they should be doing something they did not want to do.  Yet, it was clear that the question was not as it appeared.  The question was not about them doing something against their will but rather whether they wanted a relationship with the commitments and compromises it entails or whether they wanted to be single with ultimate freedom.  In the latter case, they would have to accept the accompanying sense of loneliness that their decision entailed.  It felt on the surface like it was a question of doing something against one’s will forced by another person, but the dilemma was an internal one, for which their partner was a catalyst – the question being did they want a relationship?  For the friend with Venus in Pisces, the question was how far were they prepared to sacrifice in order to preserve relationship, since this was against a long-term background of sacrifices made on their part to accommodate the other’s need for freedom.  This also got me thinking about my own relationship since I have Venus in Aquarius and transiting Saturn in Scorpio is making a square to it.  This has been hitting me over the last 6 months and I have been coming to terms with the reality of our relationship and the consequences of my independent nature, in that my wife has built a largely independent existence and I have to take responsibility (typical Saturn) for the fact that this is in many ways in response to my own independent nature.  Since transits provide an idea of the journey of our consciousness, I wonder whether their effect and duration are in line with the time we need to come to terms with and understand them (to the extent we are able?).  I also wonder whether it is less the case that they are ephemeral (ie. that we can wait for a transit to pass and are no longer affected by it) but rather that their effects are permanent and cumulative in terms of our learning.  If Astrology is accurate then it describes the fact that our personality does not change but our level of understanding of it, through the journey of our consciousness (transits) does.

What got me thinking when discussing this with Steve was the fact that my own experience is that it is possible to empathise with everyone and all human experience.  Often when I am coaching people, they describe to me, for instance, that because they are French/German/introverted/male/female/a lawyer etc. etc. that they cannot understand the English/German/extroverts/men/women/accountants etc.  This always baffles me, because they seem to be just like me and I don’t sense any separation from them, indeed whenever I am coaching people I find myself able to relate to their experience as if it were my own, even if I have not experienced directly the exact circumstances they describe.  I wonder if this is something that is germane to us all?  I suspect that it is, but it takes work to unlock it because we get trapped in our own particular identifications.  Could it be that the reason we can understand everyone’s internal world if we choose to do so is that each individual chart contains every sign, every planet and every house?  That in this sense we are all pieces of the one and our separation is an illusion of identification (bear with me I have transiting Neptune square my Mercury in the 12th house at the moment!)?  While our chart may not contain every aspect, since it contains all the planets, houses and signs it contains the potential for every aspect.  So while we may have no planets in Sagittarius and Pisces they are, nonetheless, still square in our natal charts (or any combination of square through to out of sign trine at their extremities).  In this sense our chart contains the whole spectrum of possible energies.  Yet, perhaps the aspects in our own charts are showing us what we identify with and filter that experience through, our particular construction of “me”: our sense of identity.  So the aspects show us what our consciousness identifies with and forms a sense of individuality from.  Thus, while we all might be able to understand someone else’s struggle with the concept of the tension between our individual desires and our need for relationship – Aries opposite Libra – how strongly this figures in our own particular identities will depend on the planet placements and houses of Aries and Libra.  It is clear that some aspect of our lives will reflect it but the degree of intensity and work it creates for us will vary.  “Yes”, we might say, “I can see what you mean”, yet for the other individual, while they can see that we understand, they know that it is not the burning foreground issue which dominates their consciousness but rather a background hue which exists in our life but which does not figure prominently in our conscious awareness.  Thus it reflects (if you will excuse the pun) the way that light works.  Each object in the world reflects the visible spectrum, yet depending on the way it reflects (or in the case of black does not reflect) the visible spectrum we see a different hue, be it green, blue, red etc.  If we imagined each of the signs (or planets/houses) as different hues, we could recognise that they are part of the whole spectrum of light (possible energies) but that each sign only reflects a certain hue.  Combine these together and you might get very subtle variations of hue and indeed complex filters which reflect different hues at different times (like a more complex constellation of aspects).  In this sense our individual personalities are reflecting the entire spectrum of possible energies but filtered through a particular lens (so to speak).

Most of the wisest people that I have encountered and read seem (reassuringly) to be saying the same thing in different words and forms, namely that the path of wisdom is to separate out our identity from our personality; to identify more with the part of us that is just conscious of the whole spectrum and can see more broadly the interconnectedness of life and the true nature of our experience.  This allows us to be able to recognise our particular pattern or filter but be less identified with the dramas and problems that it creates.  Thus for someone who has filters with heavy Scorpio and Capricorn, they might see the world as truly black.  It appears to them from all the multiplicity of possible experiences in life that the outlook is pretty negative.  Similarly, a particularly Sagittarian or Libran lens might reflect the world through rose tinted spectacles.  The difficulty is that each particular lens would be accurate in its reflection of that part of the visible spectrum and yet it is not the whole spectrum.  Once we step back from identification with our own personalities we are able to see the whole of the nature of human experience.  This can at least give us the perspective to see, for instance, that what appear to be our irreconcilable and painful tensions between Pisces and Sagittarius are not soluble – Pisces and Sagittarius will not stop being square each other – but rather once we separate our consciousness out from its identification with this tension we can appreciate it’s nature (as part of life) rather than attempting to change it – in effect to try to force Sagittarius to become trine Pisces.

I often feel that astrology’s greatest gift to us gets underestimated.  Namely, that it affords us this privilege to be able to step back from identification with our own individual personalities and journeys in life (as delineated by the transits we experience) to keep our consciousness open to all life.  It is what gives us our unique ability to laugh at ourselves and life and not to take ourselves and our dramas too seriously, so that, like Viktor Frankl or a Nelson Mandela , we can find meaning and remain open even in the most extreme of human suffering or circumstances.

PS. Apologies for any mistakes in terms of typos or grammar but with Mars in the first house and the Sun in Sag rising square Pluto and Uranus in Virgo it feels like death having to go back over something and, if I do, I generally end up going off on some new interesting tangent anyway which defeats the point of checking it!

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Transits and Aspects of consciousness

Having just arrived in Dubai, I spent seven hours on the plane with a young man who was keen to start a conversation which evolved into me looking at his chart.  He had just moved to Dubai and, by his own admission, whilst he didn’t want to be critical of England he couldn’t help but be.  He was finishing his Saturn return and with a stellium in Cancer he had been going through the Pluto-Uranus t-square at some length which was no doubt part of the reason for his move to Dubai.  As part of discussing this, I was describing how Pluto brought out was corrupt when it moved into a sign in order to create a transformation, so I was describing how when Pluto was in Sagittarius it had been religious fundamentalism and religious divisions which had surfaced, when it moved into Capricorn it had played out and continued to in terms of the financial world, governments and states etc.  He asked me how much longer this would last and I explained probably another ten to twelve years yet.  He asked me where it would go next and what I thought that would represent and I said that it would go into Aquarius and that I thought it might well be about the internet and social networks, perhaps also our ideals about government of society and where these had been corrupting.  What occurred to me when I thought about it was that of course, whatever corruption might take place in these areas was already happening but that it is just not going to come to consciousness until Pluto moves into Aquarius.

Thinking further about this, I could see that the transits are more like epicentres with shock waves emanating into the past and future.  I know that in past Astrology courses aspects have been described like this with the closeness of the orb mirroring the power of the aspect which fades as the orb widens.  Also the aspect itself is described in terms of being separating and applying which mirror this epicentre effect with past and future shock waves.  Yet what I realised was that it might be more the case that these elements are omnipresent and the aspects of our charts and transits represent peaks of consciousness.  So every chart contains every sign, which will be operating in that person’s life, it is just that the aspects show you where their consciousness is most intensely focused.  It is like a pond (an undifferentiated body of water) with droplets causing ripples that spread out across it (dying in intensity as they spread).  Thus each chart contains all the archetypal energy of the universe but the planets and aspects show where the consciousness of that individual will be focused.  Similarly, the chart of the moment shows us where the collective consciousness of the universe is focused and its interplay with a particular individual chart shows where the consciousness is being triggered for that individual in relation to the universe.  Hence there will be things happening that may yet be going to come to consciousness and continuing effects from transits which have passed.  In this sense, it is as if each transit does not disappear, but rather gets added to consciousness and continues, in the same way that our modern cities are often built on the foundations of older buildings and settlements.

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Shifting Perspective

I have written before about the purpose of coaching not being about actions or solutions.  This seems counter-intuitive to most people involved in coaching who seem to focus on coaching in terms of taking actions to achieve goals.  Talking to my friend Steve today he was reminding me of this having just read the work of Sydney Banks.  He felt what he was expressing about the principles of mind, consciousness and thought fitted closely with what he had learnt and shared with Chrissy and me over the years.  Our conversation moved on to talk generally about coaching and the issue of not focusing on action.  This also got me thinking about a model I came up with seven or eight years ago for thinking about what is going on when we are trying coach people or trying to help them.

In 2001/2002 I was working for Ernst & Young at the time that Enron collapsed, Andersens folded and the Dot com bubble burst.  As the impact of this hit the accountancy industry I was in a prime position to watch how Ernst & Young reacted.  What I noticed was that the focus on control increased greatly, with leaders throughout the business keen to measure everything that they could as often as they could.  I also watched the way that the focus went very narrow and very short term.  People also started to talk about things in a very black and white, judgmental way.  Thinking about it I began to see that the impact of fear was to make our focus go very narrow and short term and to reduce our options to one of two variables.  It occurred to me that if you are about to be attacked by a tiger you want a very narrow focus – you don’t want to be distracted by things in your peripheral vision or to be considering what a beautiful little bird there is on the branch up there, I haven’t noticed that before – not much use to you when you are about to be eaten.  At the same time, carrying on the tiger theme, you also don’t want a long term perspective, it really isn’t helpful to be considering what you will do once you have dealt with the tiger and perhaps planning for your next holiday.  Lastly you don’t really want a range of complex and interesting options to consider, you want as few as possible, in essence fight or flight.  So the core brain, being geared up for survival takes over whenever we feel under threat and puts us into survival mode.  This is fine for a situation of real physical danger, however, it doesn’t help in most of the situations that we face where our physical survival is not threatened and critically it does not allow us to learn, only to react instinctively.

My experience is that when we are stuck in a black hole or grappling with a difficult conundrum, it tends to trigger this survival response.  We find ourselves thinking narrowly, short term and in somewhat black and white ways.  We generate a tunnel vision and since none of us like negative emotions we want to get away from whatever is causing them as fast as possible.  Most of us experience the fact that when we share our situation with others and they help us, we say it is back in proportion or perspective.  What does this mean? As far as I can see, it seems to mean that our perspective has broadened out to see the situation more fully or clearly.  Edward De Bono talked about the fact that the creative faculty of humans is centred in their ability to think asymmetrically.  He described the way that we make breakthroughs.  His premise was that we do not make breakthroughs by continuing logically from our current premise.  The only way we make breakthroughs is by shifting our perspective to a new position.  In order to do this De Bono felt we needed a PO – a provocative operation.  This provocative operation prevents us from being able to think about things in our habitual way and causes a shift in perspective.  His point was that once we see a situation from a new perspective, we can immediately see how it links to our current perspective but we cannot get to this new perspective by starting from our current one.  He used our sense of humour to illustrate this.  When we tell a joke, the punch line isn’t obvious to us, indeed we might struggle to have any idea what the punch line will be, yet when we hear it we can immediately link it back to the thread of the joke.  It is the same with a riddle.  It seems to us impossible to answer, yet once we hear the answer to the riddle we can usually see immediately how it connects.  At the same time it requires a leap or shift of perspective to make the connection.

An article in the New Scientist last year linked this switching mechanism to the parietal lobe.  This part of the brain on Chrissy’s model links to Mars or Aries.  Aries and Mars have long been associated with creativity, the ability to see things afresh, to challenge, to see things anew.  I often link this to inspiration – breathing in.  In the spring (Aries) animals are taking their first breaths and jumping around with new fresh energy. At the same time, De Bono’s provocative operation sounds very much a Mars or Aries phenomenon.  Since Aries is a fire sign, it fits with the idea of “seeing” the situation differently (the imagination) and also with the idea of a new perspective.  On Chrissy’s model of the brain, Aries is linked with the I-Ching hexagram Shock.  Again, a very Mars phenomenon.  The I-Ching hexagram Shock  says:

Shock brings success.
Shock comes – oh! oh!
Laughing words – ha! ha!

The shock that comes from the manifestation of God within the depths of the earth makes man afraid, but this fear of God is good, for joy and merriment can follow upon it.

So like De Bono, there seems to be a humour connected to this.  Initially when events do not go the way we planned we are shocked or frustrated, often full of fear but then once we have composed ourselves we can manage to laugh at our discomfiture.  My son Luke is an Aries; it is to his eternal credit that he seems to have a wonderful natural ability to laugh at his own discomfiture.  When he finds that events or situations have confounded him a grin spreads naturally and easily across his face (I am similar, a grin spreads across my face too, but mine is the result of years of hard won practice!).  When we watch people struggling blindly in a film or book and then suddenly being confronted with the consequences of their blindness we laugh.  Much physical humour and slapstick is based on this premise, the greater the contrast, the greater the humour – a pompous man in an impeccable suit, slips on a banana skin or farts by accident in an important meeting and we are amused.

In coaching, I notice that when we get to the real issue for an individual, or they see what they are really stuck on, they can’t help grinning, even if they try not to.  It is connected to Mars again because when you get to the truth of the real emotion we can’t seem to help smiling.

Humour is also interesting in that it is only possible to have a sense of humour when we are less identified with our personalities and their dramas; when we are taking ourselves less seriously.  This is not possible when we are in the grip of our fears and our focus has become very narrow.  In many coaching situations or in helping people, the point is not to solve their dilemma but simply to help them to see it differently; to become less identified with it.  When we are stuck in a situation, we are in a black hole, there is a gap between how we want things to be and how they are.  In this pass our mind tends to circle endlessly round the same options.  Simply developing the ability to laugh at our situation and how we are stuck is often the most valuable starting point and may be enough.  The I-Ching hexagram Shock says that the superior man examines his heart lest it bear any secret opposition to the will of God.  I don’t know whether the Chinese original actually talks about God.  This may be Richard Wilhelm’s interpretation as a Christian missionary.  It might be more literally translated as the Universe or the cosmos.  In this sense, the I-Ching is describing shock as being a situation where we are fighting against the nature of life, ie. we have a fixed picture about how we want things to be or think they should be which is opposed to the way that things actually are.  Seeing this means we can shift our frame of reference to accept the nature of reality rather than seeking to impose our own frame of reference.

And finally, for those of you still with me (I have Neptune square my Mercury in Sagittarius in the 12th at the moment so an already circuitous and tangential Mercury is struggling to coalesce into a coherent thread), back to the model I was indicating earlier.  This model was about the process of helping people make shifts in awareness or change perspective.  What I was thinking about was that there are four different ways (there are almost certainly more) that we can shift people’s focus.

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One is to change the time-frame.  For instance, where people are struggling with a new role or change of job, I ask them how long they think realistically it will take them to make the transition.  Often, they respond by saying eighteen months or a few years.  Simply realising this puts all the anxiety and pressure to perform and prove themselves into perspective and they become aware that the problems they are currently facing are not of such importance or scale of impact as they were thinking.  Their focus and perspective broadens out and they relax.  Thinking about our death as Don Juan advises in the Carlos Castaneda books or keeping the long term goal in mind in relationship as the I Ching advises in the Marrying Maiden (Hexagram 54) – the superior man understands the transitory in the light of the eternity of the end (by anyone’s reckoning the eternity of the end is a pretty long time frame!) . The next dimension is depth.  Here it is often about exploring more deeply what people are learning or is really going on in the situation.  Usually this shifts the focus away from other people and events to the individual themselves and the external factors become catalysts or challenges for their own learning.  I find that almost any situation can be seen differently once we see it as a challenge from which we are learning.  Thirdly is detail; when we are stuck in a black hole, we tend to generalise or distort experience and so we lose sight of indicators that things might be different.  We use words like “always” and “never” and make definitive statements.  Often it will be about other people, e.g. he is always criticising me.  Often asking people questions to get under the generalisation helps shift their perspective. “So when you say he always criticises you, have there been any times when he has been positive?”  “What exactly does he say?  Give me an example.”  “What do you think he is thinking or his intention is?”  Suddenly the fixed or closed picture shifts to a richer one with more possibilities and options.  Lastly, there is position or perspective itself.  This entails helping people put themselves in other people’s shoes to see the world through their eyes so that they are able to see themselves or other people differently.  It might also be imaginary positions – “What does the wisest part of you say?” “What is your heart telling you about this situation?”  It might be describing or reflecting back to the individual how the other person could be feeling about the situation, eg. “It sounds like they are worried” or “It sounds like they are under pressure” or “It sounds like they are anxious about how to respond to you”.  You can also use stories or experiences from your own learning as a different position.  I think one of the most valuable here is to consider what the Universe or Life might be teaching them.  The point is not necessarily that we know, but for the individual to see that there might be more at play than only themselves and considering a broader perspective puts their own drama in context.  We can even be very clever and creative in the way we manipulate others into breakthroughs using these dimensions.  Of course one word of warning in this context; it goes without saying (well clearly not since I am saying it…) if you are going to manipulate others, you had better be sure it is genuinely for their benefit rather than to satisfy your own agenda.  In any event the important and lovely paradox here is that you cannot shift anyone else’s perspective, only they can shift it.  So providing individuals with lots of solutions and actions to take or your own insights is of no value unless it generates an insight for them.

The key for me is that if there is no shift in the way someone sees their situation then nothing will change.  In this sense focusing on action or options is of little value, similarly once someone’s perspective has genuinely changed you can trust that they will act differently without having to do anything further.  From my experience working on coaching programmes, what trips people up in coaching or in trying to help others is that the person trying to help or coach the individual accepts the picture or frame of reference that the person presents.  If you do this, then you can be of no value to the individual, you will be as stuck as the individual and the solutions you try to generate will leave them as stuck as they already are.  This has always been my concern with NLP practitioners.  In many cases their focus is to use techniques to help people achieve their goals without questioning whether their initial assumptions or picture behind these goals or even the goals are valid.  This certainly seems to be the opposite of what Milton Erickson was doing.  His whole focus was on shifting people’s perspective, not so they could achieve the original goals of their personality – wealth, ambition, everlasting happiness, faultless brilliance, in essence becoming a super being who can get whatever they think they want or need but rather shifting their perspective so they became more aware of themselves and their true motives.

The more I think about this, the more I see this issue is Mars and how we use it.  If we use Mars to see creatively and gain perspective then the actions we take will bring fresh, positive energy from the heart into the situation.  It will open up and expand the creative possibilities.  If we simply focus on action without the creative work to see differently then our actions are likely to lead to frustration and further complications.

In the third line of Shock the I-Ching says:

In such times of Shock, presence of mind is all too easily lost: the individual overlooks all opportunities for action and mutely lets fate take its course.  But if he allows the shocks of fate to induce movement within his mind, he will overcome these external blows with little effort.

In the hexagram 52 Keeping Still the I-Ching says:

When a man has thus become calm, he may turn to the outside world. He no longer sees in it the struggle and tumult of individual beings, and therefore he has that true peace of mind which is needed for understanding the great laws of the universe and for acting in harmony with them. Whoever acts from these deep levels makes no mistakes.

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A revolution on the scale of Stone Age to Iron Age or greater?

In talking to my friend Matthias recently while staying with him in Luxembourg, I was thinking about the scale of change we are going through.  He was describing the approach his daughters take to learning.  His eldest daughter is only 11 and her sister 9 yet already they take learning into their own hands, practicing new languages using tutorials on the internet.  In a similar way, if my own children (some 4 and 9 years older) want to find out about something new they look it up on the internet, as most of us do.  Much of the learning for the younger generation is done through peers using social media.  Matthias was also telling me about a series of wonderful tutorials that are freely available from universities in the USA  that his eldest daughter was going to look at.  Teachers now suggest that they are more like facilitators helping kids to understand where to access knowledge rather than the providers of it.  If their facts or presentations are wrong then the kids will look it up on the internet and correct them.  I wonder if in the future, education will shift to be more self-directed rather than controlled by an educational establishment.  In fact, I think it is already happening, it’s just that the formal systems have not caught up with it yet.

My own generation has lived through the introduction of these profound changes, perhaps this is the continuing impact of the Pluto-Uranus opposite Saturn generation of the sixties which has taken social revolution to a whole new scale.  I remember being at school when the very first computers came out and my family buying a sinclair programmable calculator which took an age to do relatively simple sums.  Yet within years Casio were making sophisticated calculators which we were using in Maths lessons.  When I entered the world of work, computers had still not really arrived and electric typewriters and word processors were the norm.  The phenomenon of email began to take hold over my early years of work and I remember the first brick sized mobile phones.  Now companies are virtual, employees often work from home or in multiple locations etc.

I suspect Historians might look back in the future and see this period as one which involved a scale of change for humanity like potentially no other period before it.  There may be others, for instance when we finally set up colonies off the Earth, but, with the first man in space and on the moon having happened in the last fifty years perhaps the seeds of this have already been sown.  I think there are many areas which will change.  Education appears to be one which is already changing, as is social interaction and the way we do business, shop, watch video, access music.  In fact everywhere we look there is quite seismic change taking place.  Looking back on my own life, I find it hard to imagine what it was like before mobile phones, the internet et al.  I know I lived through such times, but even in such a relatively short period, it is difficult to remember or imagine.

I suspect that I am already a fossil compared to the younger generation that have grown up immersed in this new world and cannot remember a time before the internet.  Before I pop off though, it is going to be interesting to watch how the next few steps evolve.

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Self Righteousness – am I the only one who can see this??

In my last blog a few days ago, I was alluding to self-rigtheousness and our need for a sense of humour in this regard.  This is something I have been giving thought to over the last few months and it cropped up again this evening in a conversation with my friend and colleague as we were dining together.  In watching Have I Got News For You recently following the death of Maggie Thatcher and with public attention on her funeral and legacy, I was horrified by the tone.  The whole programme was devoted to vitriolic attacks on almost everyone and everything including Margaret Thatcher.

Self-righteousness and it’s bedfellow hypocrisy seem to be topics which are particular favourites of ours as human beings.  We all seem prey to this and it produces some pretty horrendous results.  We poke fun quite cruelly and incredulously at what we see as other people’s hypocrisy, safe in the knowledge that we would never suffer from such weaknesses.  How do we get away with such hypocrisy?  Jonathan Haidt describes this brilliantly in his book The Happiness Hypothesis where he uses the analogy of a small human rider sitting on top of an elephant.  The elephant, he says, is the mammal brain – sophisticated, millions of years old and operating almost exclusively unconsciously.  Atop this sits the rational brain, like a small human rider; this brain is only thousands of years old, but it is convinced that it is running the show and making decisions.  In reality, the elephant is making all the decisions – imagine a small human rider trying to control an elephant should it decide it is going to move in a particular direction…

However, as Haidt points out, the rational brain wants to maintain the illusion that it is in control and running the show so it indulges in rationalisation and justification to maintain this illusion.  Haidt’s point was that this creates the sense for all of us that we are the only rational being in a sea of irrationality.  We can see the way that other people act on jealousy, fear, anger, competition; the ways in which they are hypocritical or corrupt but we cannot see this in ourselves (other people can see it in us but we are blind to it).  What Haidt challenges us to see is that the role of the rational brain is actually to turn it’s conscious awareness on ourselves and that it is only through this that we can truly “tame” or influence our elephant.  I recognise that self-righteousness is a step on the way to self-development, in that seeing things in others is at least part of the stage of recognising it in ourselves.  What appalls me is that other people cannot see their own self-righteousness and hypocrisy when it is so glaringly obvious, what idiots………..oh dear!

In discussing this this evening with my friend, we were discussing the topic of bankers.  My colleague felt there was a line that he would not transgress and that what saddened him was that they did not even see the anger people felt but dismissed it as jealousy.  I was suggesting that I could understand how they would feel like that and that, in our case, since we both ran training and coaching businesses which had as clients, banks and professional advsiors who had profited from banks we were complicit.  I was arguing that I could see it was a matter of scale – we might think nothing of not correcting a petty amount of money or paying someone in cash on the odd occasion without seeing ourselves as being corrupt, yet if our actions were subject to the scrutiny of the media and spun in the right way we could easily be accused of being corrupt materialists out for ends.  He could not help but smile and agree at the fact that the temptation was there to fiddle the expenses slightly for clients who had messed us around, or taken advantage of us and that we have to challenge ourselves at times to think “would we be happy to be charged this”  to prevent us unconsciously justifiying these temptations.  Somehow though, in our minds, our deviations from our good intentions are small justifiable affairs; we are convinced we are intrinsically good.  The more we got into the argument the more it emerged how easy it is, if we identify with being good, to feel that our actions are different, that others simply aren’t motivated by the same quality of “goodness” that we are.  In the end he accepted the point I was making (difficult to do otherwise as he was arguing on his unconscious emotions and I don’t suffer from competition and self-righteousness) but challenged me by asking how we then deal with the dangerous actions of others; he felt we had to draw a line.  This reminded me of a hexagram I had recently thrown in the I-Ching – 61 Inner Truth which says:

Thus the superior man, when obliged to 
judge the mistakes of men, tries to penetrate their minds with understanding, 
in order to gain a sympathetic appreciation of the circumstances. In ancient 
China, the entire administration of justice was guided by this principle. A 
deep understanding that knows how to pardon was considered the highest 
form of justice. This system was not without success, for its aim was to make 
so strong a moral impression that there was no reason to fear abuse of such 
mildness. For it sprang not from weakness but from a superior clarity.

I was struck by the fact that we need to deal with such corruptions and hold people accountable at times, but if we are aware of our own fallibility it does not mean we do not act but allows us to do so with compassion and understanding rather than self-righteous judgement and moral pomposity.  In watching Having I Got News For You and the vitriol poured out towards someone who had died (Margaret Thatcher), the lack of humanity was deeply saddening and shocking for me, yet, whilst I might be saddened and not wish to condone the lack of humanity, I could not but help recognise that in my late-teens I felt exactly the same way and at the time of the IRA bombing remarked to my then girlfriend that I wished they had succeeded in killing Maggie.  Her disgust at my comment made me feel more ashamed of myself than I think I have ever felt since.  I still wince now to think I could have been so heartless and inhuman, whether I liked someone or not.

If my friend Chrissy’s model of the brain is correct (and the evidence from the New Scientist seems to support it more and more strongly) then the rational brain (or pre-fontal lobes) is represented by Uranus (Aquarius) and Saturn (Capricorn) and these in turn correlate to the top lines of Hexagram 1 (The Creative) and Hexagram 2 (The Receptive).  Given the dangers of self-righteousness and judgmental enforcement of rules without “penetrating their minds with understanding”, perhaps this is why the I-Ching provides such strong warnings in these lines.  For Aquarius:

Arrogant dragon will have cause to repent.

When a man seeks to climb so high that he loses touch with the rest of 
mankind, he becomes isolated, and this necessarily leads to failure.

for Capricorn:

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.

Lastly, I can only say that I am glad, having understood all this, that it has freed me from ever falling prey to hypocrisy and self-righteousness as so many other less enlightened people seem to do.

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Who debunks the debunkers?

Watching TED talks yesterday evening, I came across a talk by someone called Michael Shermer.  He is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and he was illustrating the way that people are taken in by people claiming knowledge or products that do amazing things when there is no scientific evidence to support them.  He illustrated this by bringing along a device which claimed to be a modern dowsing device for detecting whether students had cannabis in their lockers.  This device cost $900.  He pointed out that if you go to enough student lockers you will find cannabis, so that the device is bound to work on some occasions.  He went on to say that it is the times that it doesn’t work that are critical and he and people like him are out to count these and debunk these myths.  So his point was that in examining sweeping claims we need to be very careful to look at the detail to ensure that we actually weigh and sift the facts to ascertain whether grand claims are accurate.  What was surprising was that he went on to say that this is the way that psychics and astrologers work – but that they were there to count the times it does not work.  Now, this is a very grand and sweeping statement.  Applying Michael’s own methods of skepticism, I would like to understand where the factual data lies to make such a sweeping statement.  There might be one or two cases where Michael might be accurate with this statement but, following his methods, I would like to count the times where this is not the case before taking such a grandiose claim at face value.  He is right we must be careful when people make large claims based on untested beliefs and he is also right to assert that it pays to be skeptical.  These people who make such claims with little evidence or direct research to back them up should be debunked.  So I would like to ask – who is going to debunk the grandiose and sweeping claims made by debunkers?  Whether astrology is true (personally I find it difficult to disbelieve given the overwhelming data I have that suggests it is accurate but I may be deluded) or not is not the point.  The point is that we cannot have double-standards.  Either we really do keep our statements accurate and factual (which means we are careful to acknowledge how little we know for certain) or we accept that we do not, but then we cannot accuse others of being inaccurate.  When I described this to my friend Sam this morning, he pointed out that I was lumping all debunkers in together in a sweeping generalisation – damn!  I think we had all better have a very good sense of humour about how we are all hoist by our own petards otherwise our self-righteousness is going to explode in our faces.

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Further thoughts on Chiron from Sam

My friend Sam, a fellow student of Chrissy’s, wrote to me after reading my blog on Chiron so he is going to be my guest blogger and here are his thoughts on Chiron.  If Chrissy is right (which I think she is) and Chiron rules Virgo then Chiron/Neptune is the Pisces/Virgo axis of boundless and discrete – the comsos and the individual (ever ailing and dying) body.

 

Chiron/Neptune

 There are two forces in the universe, two ways of approach to life

 We are separate

 Or

 We are one

In the Tao te ching Lao Tsu says

All problems come from having a body.

Our body is separate, discrete, individual.

Our consciousness rooted in our physical brains also feels separate and individual

Yet we can sometimes feel that we are more; that our identity can dissolve and we are one with all things

This is the contrary pulling we experience.

We protect our bodies, our boundaries, our time, our property, our reputation.

But this work is never over.  As soon as a house is built nature starts pulling it down with rain from above, damp from below, insects, fungus and living things banging and battering from all around.

This is the way with everything we do and often we feel the opposing forces of the world are so strong we must fight to the death; some may use a philosophy for survival.  There is a useful rhyme in the film Cloud Atlas:

 

The weak are meat

And the strong do eat.

 

This is how we view the vegetation and animals of the world.  This is how we view other people when we fight wars or legalise slavery or take from another because we can.

Yet, we may sometimes imagine ourselves into the skin of another life, big or small, from a human to a microbe, that also fights for the integrity of its being.

This may shake our conviction.  It is hard to take the life of something once you feel its beating will to live is the same as your own. You may feel that you love this thing as yourself.

Next is another complication.  You realise that if neither of you kills then both will starve.  The chain of being is the food chain.

If you follow the links in this chain you see that the whole thing is a way of mixing atoms up into new combinations.  It’s a game of simultaneous killing and co-operation.

This leaves us in an awkward situation.  Whether we kill or be killed we are doing our job for the universe.  Yet, as conscious beings aware of the struggling individuality of all bodies, we don’t want to kill or be killed.

So, our separateness and our love for all things gives us a holy conundrum.

We may find some horrid problems as we work this out.  We all read or hear harrowing stories.  Many people experience these things sometime in their lives.

If you are a social worker, policeman or nurse you may come across, for example, a young baby cold, hungry and dehydrated covered in shit and cigarette burns.  You may find later the baby has cracked ribs, broken limbs and brain damage and will live a life of otherness.

You may open your eyes one day and find that you are the person who has done this to their child.  Or you may be the child living your life with this inheritance.

Everyone will have some story that is unbearable for them to contemplate; that makes them unable to feel love or union.  They may feel angry as Bob Dylan:

You who philosophise disgrace

And criticise all fears

Bury the rag most deep in your face

For now is the time for your tears.

 

What can be done with this?  You may strengthen your barricades and gather your weapons to attack the strong who harm the weak.

Yet still, your imagination and empathy may get the better of you and put you unexpectedly into the skin of the abuser.  You may feel their weakness and struggle for strength. Or you may notice yourself taking from another because you can. Or remember a moment you came close to doing something unforgiveable. You may feel you have actually done the unforgiveable.

Clearly our hearts cry out to protect the weak and we must be strong to do this.  But every so often we feel a sympathy, an understanding for the strong we are fighting against.

It is very awkward.  Are we separate or are we one?

But put your imagination back to the weak and innocent.  How would it feel to be the babies tortured and killed by their parents; the children starving around the world; the diseased everywhere; the animals living nasty, caged lives; the caterpillars eaten alive by the wasp lavae and countless other brutal examples from the natural world: all of the creatures suffering without the adequatio to take consolation from philosophy, simply suffering moment to moment till death?

It is hard to be in those skins.  We jump straight back out.  But we can’t forget them or put them behind walls where we can’t see them.  We return over and over to stories, books, films, news reports, conversations.  We know the ocean of suffering is there.  We look over the coast defences and wish we could forget the safety of our bodies and jump in.

And if you did what would you do?  Best wait till you know what you are doing. The news will be on in a minute. The authorities should be doing something about it anyway.  That includes God. How can cancer and parasitic worms be right?

To be separate or to be one is quite a problem.

Is it viable to balance in the middle?  Take an impersonal view of oneself and others as protagonists in the food chain of life while keeping ones heart open to the subjective feelings of all?

What would that be like?

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In defence of Chiron (reprieved)

Having received a response to the blog I wrote a while back – In Defence of Chiron – from Clare which I have included below I am using (abusing?) my privilege of writing this blog to respond (Clare please feel free to respond and add any further thoughts and thanks for this thoughtful response).

I have been thinking about this for a day or two. Whilst you make a great point about vuulnerability being necessary in relationships, I think all the stories you quote above actually do show an innocent victim and a level of unnecessary suffering. What about Tess I cry? There is no redemption for her, she tries to defend herself against an overwhelming tide of cruelty and prejudice, and in the end there is no way out for her. The same for various characters in the other stories. I guess I am trying to define how we view myth. I think you can read it as an moral fable, and find purpose (it all works out in the end), or as tales of the very flawed gods and the necessity for us as human to use our consciousness to mediate the conflicted energies which they represent. The first is really a monotheistic reading (there is meaning, ‘god’ behind all this), the second is a more polytheistic, pagan view, where the energies are often in flux and unbalanced, hence cruelty can result. as Chiron is currently transitting my MC, along with Neptune, I am musing a lot on these things lately 🙂

This is an interesting response .  I have Chiron and Neptune squaring my Mercury in the 12th House at the moment so like Clare I am musing about these issues and experiencing them.  There have been a number of situations in my life giving rise to or prompting this thinking.  My father, having been a very robust and quite abnormally healthy man all his life has hit 77 (78 next month) and crashed.  This crash has been taking place over the last 18 months as Pluto has squared his Mars in Libra and Uranus has opposed it.  At the same time his natal Sun-Chiron in Gemini square Neptune in Virgo and Saturn in Pisces is also now being transited by Jupiter and Chiron.  The result has been what the psychiatrists describe as an agitated depression with delusions.  In addition to this, I have started working with a charity going into prisons to coach young offenders.

In terms of innocent victims and unnecessary suffering, I guess it depends on how you view “unnecessary” suffering.  Certainly I agree fully that life is cruel (from our heart’s perspective), how could we view it otherwise?  It is very sad for me to watch my father suffering.  He really is in a very bad state.  It is putting a huge burden on my mother who feels trapped so she is suffering too.  Yes, I think this is cruel from our human point of view.  Indeed, when I look around, much of nature seems cruel.  Animals eat each other, people are killed by natural disasters and so on.  Humans also do appalling things to other humans, very cruel things.  I’m with Clare, I don’t like much of it, it hurts my heart.

With astrology we seem to have a unique system which accurately describes a pattern of archetypal energies at play (some call these gods, some angels and so on).  At the moment with Neptune square my Mercury in Sagittarius, I am expecting delays and confusions with regard to travel and communication.  I am writing this on the Eurostar to Paris after a two and a half hour delay on my train into London.  It was a series of delays with much confusion and it wasn’t possible to contact anyone because there was no signal for mobile phones.  As I mentioned in a recent blog, the more I work with astrology (I was first introduced to it when I was about thirteen years old), the more I realise it is describing very accurately the energies at play around us.  At the same time, it is unusual in being a system that provides a framework which exists independent of individual interpretation.  Personally I’m not convinced about attributing events in our current lives to past lives.  I don’t know whether there is such a thing as past lives; I am keeping an open mind on this.  However, it feels like a justification for the fact that some of the awful things that happen to people don’t feel fair so we extend their lives to say that they must have deserved it at some point, this seems an old crime and punishment type of view but then I could be wrong.

So, where are we with this one?  If we have a framework that tells us that there are energies at play in a specific pattern which plays out through and around us, then it is built into the system – I am not sure if this is a monotheistic viewpoint, because I am not sure I believe in a god, or gods.  My friend Chrissy suggested recently in thinking about the I-Ching that life may be like a mathematical model or system, which would explain why the I-Ching works and astrology because they reflect this inherent model.  At the same time, in consulting something like the I-Ching, we are then consulting the accumulated wisdom of human beings who have encountered and interpreted the particular points in this system.  In the same way, as astrologers, we are building a composite body of knowledge about the planets and transits which will contribute to the understanding of future generations and we rely on the accumulated body of previous generations.

In this sense, I would agree with Clare in thinking that we are the agents for interpreting or bringing consciousness to archetypal energies.  It is in the nature of Chiron for us to feel that it is wrong.  Hence Clare’s analogy of gods bringing conflicting forces.  However with Chiron, everyone always feels that there is something wrong and it must be fixed; that people are suffering and they should not be,  it is not fair and someone or something must be to blame.  This leads to the classic Chiron cycle of blame and scapegoating.  Yet, I think this is the paradox of Chiron, namely that we cannot eradicate pain and suffering from the game, they are not a mistake, mistakes are a necessary part of the game.  If the gods are flawed then that is not a flaw, it is the perfection.  If it prompts us to learn and evolve, to  accept suffering but still act to take responsibility where we can for not passing this suffering on then we can arrive at the right point to handle Chiron.

I want to zoom right out at this point to take a different look.  If we look at history, we tend to describe it like an evolutionary story, eg. the roman empire fell, this led to a period of chaos, out of which came and so on and so on.  We don’t seem to talk in terms of unnecessary elements.  We do not say, it was unnecessary for the Roman Empire to fall, or Henry Bolingbroke to kill King Richard.  We might describe certain events as cruel but we would not describe them as unnecessary.  Zooming further out, we would not say that “in the one of the cruelest and most unnecessary events in the history of our planet, the dinosaurs were wiped out.  This event should not have happened and served no purpose, these poor dinosaurs were cruel victims of an unfeeling universe and the cruelty of mammals and other animals who took advantage of their suffering to exploit their former environments.”  We see it as part of the history of evolution of our planet which led to the proliferation of new forms of life.  If there were no death, there would be no evolution as we understand it.  Each moment has to pass or die for the next moment to arrive.  Princess Diana’s death might seem cruel and unnecessary yet it changed the royal family and left us a legacy of compassion carried by both princes.  At the individual heart level it hurt William and Harry (and all of us judging by the outpouring of grief) yet zoom out and it was of great value to the boys (would they be as committed to charitable work and continuing her legacy without it?) and to all of us collectively.

Going into the microscopic again and to my current situation, I can see that, for my father, he is really facing the fact that he is going to die.  His power and his competence is fading and he is upset, scared and angry about it.  People around him have labeled it a disease and treated this unnecessary mistake with anti-depressants.  Sadly, this had no real impact and in fact made things far worse.  They were more for the sake of the rest of the family than my father.  When he came off them, he was far better and able to start to gain some of his humour and some of his ability to learn from his situation and gain insight.  Without the pain, he could not learn or come to terms with what was happening to him, he was confused and frustrated, yet even this served to teach everyone and him.  It was not an illness but rather a coming to terms with change.  When I look back at my own life, I would not change the cruel events that have happened to me, nor would I change them for those around me that I coach.  I don’t particularly like some of the things that happen but for me that does not mean that I can judge them to be unnecessary.  Given the transits my father has, somehow his experiences are necessary (to the extent that he can’t change his transits and have different ones) and certainly he will have to come to terms with old age and dying, he cannot get younger, however cruel that might seem to him.

My own experience of having a still birth might seem a cruel event; my wife and I might have been perceived as innocent victims, but we did not see it that way.  For us it was a source of huge learning; we would not have chosen it or felt it was necessary but we can see that it was certainly necessary for us to learn and evolve.  For my wife, who is obsessed with horses and had steadfastly refused to give them up despite the demands that meant our young son was coming second to them, it was a wake-up call about the preciousness of life and the fact that she was not accepting motherhood.  For me, it was that I was stuck in a big black hole, obsessed with how others saw me and having a huge tantrum to the point that I wanted out.  This is what “out” looks like, I was being shown.  It put my tantrum into perspective by helping me see that I was in a universe which was far more powerful than me and my own dramas were not really very important. I also have friends who have been abused as children, this seems to us the very epitome of unnecessary cruelty and yet, for one it provided the motivation for a long career working with teenagers who have been abused and learning about forgiveness and compassion.  I would not have chosen this agenda for him, but would he have been the human being he is without it?  I think it is easy not to want Chiron, to reject it and see it is as wrong, to feel that it should somehow be put right or changed so suffering never happens again.  It is officially an outrage.  It is hard for us to accept this planetary energy into our lives.  Yet death and suffering are part of the make-up of life.  Like sensitive parents we do not want our children to suffer and would protect them at any cost, but in the end, if they do not suffer, they cannot learn and ultimately if things do not die, then life cannot evolve.

Personally I shy away from the concept of “innocent victims” because of the Karpman Drama triangle (Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer).  It so easily leads to a feeling of anger and that there must be someone to blame and if there is someone to blame then we feel that we must judge them as wrong and then something must be done about them, which means more victimhood for those who are deemed the “bad guys” or persecutors.  I would rather live from the perspective that there are no victims or “unnecessary” cruelty.  It doesn’t stop my heart hurting, but it seems to lead more to compassion than righteous anger and blaming.  Perhaps if we are all innocent victims including all the people like Hitler, Stalin, Gaddafi, Jimmy Saville then it is ok.  Then no-one is to blame because everyone is a victim.

In terms of theistic or pan-theistic, I simply do not know.  Perhaps both are true or perhaps they are both constructs we impose.  Certainly we seem to have agency, as far as I can see, and we are influenced by energies beyond our control.  If we are influenced by energies beyond our power to control, then that suggests to me it is not wrong or unnecessary whether we individually like it or not.

In terms of preventing suffering or cruelty, I think, paradoxically, we have to accept Chiron (cruelty and suffering) to reduce it.  It seems that most of the wars and conflicts between humans are because people feel that they are victims of each other and of unnecessary cruelty, this justifies “protecting ourselves” or “victims” and judging others as bad.  Most wars seem to be committed because people feel that there is something wrong and it must be corrected or eradicated.  In this sense it reminds me of Chogyam Trungpa’s translation of the ending of the Heart Sutra “gate, gate, parasamgate, bhodi svaha” “gone, gone, gone beyond, completely exposed, awake, so be it”.  Chiron is the key, the key to the open heart.  If we accept suffering it opens our heart to compassion and intuitive insight into the nature of life.  If we resist it, it closes it.

Coming back to your original point Clare.  I’m not sure it is pantheistic or monotheistic.  The real nub is whether we see Tess as an innocent victim of others cruelty or not.  It strikes me that the world is the way the world is; the rest is our interpretation and likes and dislikes.  Certainly Tess has choices, she does not confront Angel directly about her past life but shoves a letter under the door, she chooses to give up on Angel and return to Alec D’Urbeville.  In fact all the characters have flaws and choices.  Personally, if it were a true story I would have empathy for all of them – it would be in all their charts.  Like children in a playground, everyone gets thumped, bumped, hurt along the way.  Generally children seem to accept this as part of life and pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get on with it.  Similarly seals do not seem to have formed a society to petition against the cruelty of killer whales and asked for them to be tried by an international jury and banned from the oceans, that would be equally cruel to the killer whales.

The work of Pim Van Lommel, and having met more than one person who has died and was resuscitated, has reassured me that death is not something to fear – neither of them wanted to come back and both of them loved the experience of oneness and love that they felt.  If death is not an ultimate cruelty, then what is the rest?  In the end of the novel both Angel and Tess have come to terms with fate and seem to have a calm acceptance of it.  The Tao-Te-Ching says:

Do you want to change the world?

I do not think it can be done.

The world is already perfect.

 Looking at my own life, I recognise I am not a good judge of what I need.  All the things I have thought were necessary have not turned out to be really necessary and I have been healthier without them and many things I thought unnecessary turned out to be necessary.  I realise I don’t really know what is necessary or unnecessary.

Chiron has inconveniently poked his head up into our consciousness since 1977 and now we really feel that things are mess and should not be like this – child abuse, pain and suffering, animals dying out, the climate changing.  What a mess.  Someone must be to blame!  How could this be an ingredient in the system?  Who is to blame for designing it this way?  We need to know and sort them out.

Ultimately I don’t suppose it matters whether it is Gods who are flawed, humans who are flawed, the system which is flawed.  Flawed seems to be built in and in Chiron this archetype, now more conscious, is here to stay.  Damn!  I think it deserves a collective tantrum and stamping of our feet; we should not put up with this appalling state of affairs and imperfect world.  I think Chiron should be told; he should be shown the error of his ways and made to suffer, that would teach him (but then he might be very hurt, I wouldn’t want him to suffer, poor little thing!)

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Identity and Consciousness

There have been a number of instances which have got me thinking about this subject recently.  One was that I was asked to address a group of women a couple of times recently as part of programmes looking to promote more women into senior roles in organisations.  The other was listening to a debate on the radio with two Jewish British authors about Jewish literature.  The focus of this was talking about Jewish identity and what it means to be Jewish and British.  Another was a discussion with friends about a relative of theirs who identified so strongly with her son that it was impossible to relate to her and the fact that she treated her step daughter quite startlingly cruelly because she could not identify with her.  The last was a facebook dialogue between friends about living in a patriarchal society prompted by an article by Chrissy on isms.(http://www.chrissyphilp.com/heart/What_we_need_to_know_%28I_think%29….html)

What struck me was that we all want to have a sense of identity, to belong.  It is very uncomfortable and lonely being an outsider – even those who are more comfortable with being outsiders are so because they identify with being an outsider.  Yet what is this sense of identity?  Most of us have a name which we give our consciousness; we address other people’s consciousnesses by these names as well.  Yet, when I examine my consciousness and that of other people’s it appears to sit outside identity.  Certainly it is not in our bodies: they age, they decay no matter how beautiful, fit or strong, yet our consciousness does not seem to age.  “I don’t feel any older than I did when I was ten or twenty years younger” we say.  “I can’t believe I am thirty, forty, fifty, seventy” etc.  Consciousness seems to sit outside time or space in this regard.  Similarly, I travel all over the world and meet people from different cultural backgrounds, different nationalities, different cultures, different races and when I talk to them about their consciousness it doesn’t seem any different to mine.  Similarly when I am talking to men or women, I don’t notice any difference in their consciousness.  Everyone says it is important to have a strong sense of identity, yet I remember being on a programme some fifteen years ago and as part of an exercise being asked,  “Who are you?”.  The facilitator had picked me deliberately as a fellow facilitator to demonstrate the value of the exercise in helping people understand the various roles and identities they had.  I was a disaster, because when they asked me and I reflected I realised I did not have a clue.  I could only answer that I didn’t know, much to everyone’s amusement.  But I realised I really did not know, it was like trying to define a void or everything.

So I have been wondering, if we identify with consciousness then we identify with everyone or everything since we do not exist in time and space and all life has consciousness in some form.  I notice that if I identify with my consciousness, then I can identify with anyone/everyone.  It is always a surprise to me when people identify with things like being male, female, black, white, French, Italian, Chinese etc. because it creates a separation, a sense of “us and them”.  I think having this vast timeless and spaceless (I know that is not a word but you will have to forgive me) consciousness which is boundless is frightening.  We prefer to give ourselves an identity so that we feel a bit more solid, so we know who we are.  But the trouble with this is that it then means that some people have to not be “us” they have to be “them” and we can then talk about how they are different so we can cement our sense of togetherness.  Mostly people seem to want to identify with being special.  But perhaps there is the opportunity to be part of a very special tribe, a tribe called humanity?  I think all life seems very special to me.  I want to be very special but I am also happy for everyone else to be very special too.  I wonder if this might be at the heart of the new age of Aquarius and Leo, that we identify with everyone, with consciousness itself, so that everybody’s individual consciousness is very special and no more special than anyone else’s?  Then we can all identify with each other.

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