BY JULIA MACINTOSH AND STEVE THORP
In our work with Unpsychology Magazine we are constantly concerned with exploring the relationships between the internal and external. It’s this to-and-fro which helps us to frame ideas and practices of ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ in an ever-changing world. To this end, we’ve shared dialogues on Healing and on the Climate Mind, and in this new conversation we find ourselves weaving together the altogether ordinary, with the crises we are facing more widely and our own internal responses to these. This dialogue spans a period between late 2019 (with the echoes of Brexit and the UK General Election) and the Spring of 2020, with the world gripped in a global response to Coranavirus Covid-19. And always, there looming, is the Climate Emergency and the wider, interweaving contexts of our civilisation and cultures. And how we, as individuals make sense of it all, and live our lives with integrity, solidarity and love.
The November days here in Edinburgh have been grey, wet and blustery, with soggy fallen leaves collecting in clotted clumps along the pavement. The dark is drawing in earlier each evening, and the cold damp air puts a chill through me. My feet and hands and the tip of my nose seem to be cold all the time these days.
This year I am seeing autumn in from a new vantage point: I moved to a new flat in the peak of summer, and have been settling in over the past few months. My new flat is very cosy indeed, a place of light and warmth. From my super comfy sitting room, with its damson-coloured sofa and aubergine velvet curtains, to my study filled wall to wall with bookshelves, to my bright cheerful kitchen, to my bedroom with its sturdy wooden bedstead and dark green duvet — I am enjoying my new home immensely.
I’m a homebody for sure. I love nothing better than a day spent pottering about in my jammies, lying on the sofa reading or writing in my journal, playing with a recipe in the kitchen, and sipping coffee in a favourite pottery mug. I love wrapping a woolen blanket around my knees, sitting with my knitting or some embroidery. And bedsocks: did I mention how much I love bedsocks?
You get the idea.So why am I bringing this all up? Well, all this cosiness is a double-edged sword, one I am currently carrying with trepidation. I feel like I’m in retreat from a lifetime full of inner striving; right now I’m just being. But our world is in such peril, do we need more ‘just being’? Or do we need more ‘out doing’? Don’t we need more activism, more participation? It feels decadent, to shut my door and put on my slippers, when there is so much need for change. There are people out there marching, and protesting and even getting arrested — and in some places in the world imprisoned and even killed — for good causes and in order to facilitate social change. Our house is on fire and we need to do something. What am I doing?
Well, to be honest, I am resting. I’m not hiding from what I see, out there in our fire-lit, flood-drenched, storm-ridden world. There is much happening for me under the surface, as I rest. I am gathering strength, and contemplating deeply what role I might serve best in the endeavors ahead.
Moving house was an enormous upheaval for me. It uprooted a home of sixteen years, where I raised my daughter, and set me on a new course of first-time home ownership. It has exhausted and depleted me, for the majority of this year. Now I’m here in the new place, imagining and planning what will come next. As much as I wish I could lie back and surrender to the serenity of homemaking, I remain tuned to the limits of comfort, and to the outside world with its dire challenges and its roller coaster changes afoot. As warm as I feel in the shelter of my sitting room, I can’t help but shiver!
What an interesting beginning! I feel like I’m invited into a dialague about belonging, transition and settling and what all this means! Or maybe its just about the meaning of bedsocks…
It doesn’t seem that long since we moved into a new place too — our converted barn ‘sanctuary’ on the western edge of Wales (though time does go fast, it’s more than seven years!). It’s been a place of conscious embedding for me — and carries the knowledge that, without the sense of new belonging that it brought, none of my ‘doing’ would mean a jot. So I doubt if much of the work I’ve done in the past decade (Unpsychology, soulmaking, climate psychology and all the rest!) would have been possible without this settling into a place that could hold the transitions and the changes that were necessary in my life.
And the most important parts of this home, for me, are the places where I can sit and lie and rest and recuperate. Places to come back to and just breathe out…
Like you, I have had a sense of ‘inner striving’ for much of my life and, though I’m sure we have experienced this differently, I wonder whether this type of inwardly-focussed energy can be damaging and counterproductive for many people? True, it’s fuel for those of us who care about the world to get out and ‘do’ stuff — to be activists — but without tending and tenderness it can be an accelerant that can take the inner fire out of control.
For me, having a sense of perspective and knowing where my work (my calling and vocation) needs to be taking place or emerging from, depends on having that sense of belonging and settling: the knowledge that there is somewhere I can sit in that feels intrinsically familiar and right.
One of the things I have noticed before, and increasingly now as things are heating up in the world (literally and metaphorically), is that it is easy for people to overestimate their capacity for activism. This can often lead to burn-out and disillusion — which we can, in these possible end-times — no longer afford: we need sustainable work that keeps the future firmly in focus. And it is also easy to underestimate the complexity of the world we are hoping to make a difference to; and we can only really grasp this if we have the space (physical and psychological) to learn and educate ourselves about the transcontextual (Gregory and Nora Bateson’s term) and multidimensional nature of life. If we don’t, activism becomes linear and reductive, and people get locked into silos of practice, belief and affiliation which, in turn, feeds the problems we face and makes them worse.
Activism cannot be one-dimensional, any more than life is. And being ‘home’ is not a simple thing — however much we appreciate our coffee and slippers. Belonging is a true mind-body-soul integration — and rest and stillness are such important parts of this.
So sit back, Julia, pull on those slippers and put the kettle on…
What nourishing and encouraging words: thank you. Transition and belonging are indeed strong themes for me these days, as I make this new place into a home.
Toko-pa Turner, a dreamworker and mystic based in British Columbia, refers to an “apprenticeship to belonging” which captures poignantly the idea that belonging requires an element of effort and learning. Belonging as a verb, rather than a noun? It is a piece of inner work, rather than simply an outer circumstance. Even individuals embedded firmly in cultural identity, within strongly bonded communities and families, can feel alienation and separateness, feel the need to seek their belonging in a different way than the one surrounding them. Belonging isn’t guaranteed; it is conditional to the inner work in which one engages, to find and participate in the setting and community which speaks most clearly to one’s heart.
Many would say that our world’s outer turmoil reflects our inner alienation, that the spectacle of human tragedy originates in a deeply felt unbelonging. With more and more disruption occurring over the world, as habitats are destroyed and climate change increases the volatility of our environment, we are already seeing mass displacement and will see only more as time goes on. So transition and the search for belonging — always a part of the human story — is writ large these days.
You’ve described the connection between belonging and calling: belonging as a sort of wellspring from which one may practice one’s calling. Without realising it, you have touched the heart of my dilemma, if I might couch it in such a melodramatic term. I’m afraid I’m still bumbling through that pilgramage toward calling and vocation, unsure of what I’m here for. And I’m certainly not alone in this. Most people I know are working out the same question: what am I here for? What are the gifts I can bring to this world, through this life?
Of course we spend our entire lives seeking out the contours of that question. I like that the root of question is “quest.” And I’m reminded of Rilke:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything”.
So yes, live the belonging as well as the unbelonging. Love the questions and live the questions.
My own quest for belonging leads me firmly to the hearthstone. And this is my own understanding of belonging, to recognise this about myself, to allow its full expression without hesitation or guilt and as you say, just pull on those slippers and set the kettle going. Enjoy them and extend them to others whose feet may be weary and cold, whose chilled fingers may wrap around that hot mug with relief.
My daughter and I used to take cottage holidays with our close friends, another single mum and her daughter of the same age. My friend and my daughter would venture out together into the cold, into the wet, to explore the country paths and fields, to meet the local livestock and wildlife, and to traverse the boundaries of the land wherever we happened to stay. They would go out to the shops to collect provisions, and would come back full of observations about the local village and its inhabitants.
Meanwhile, my friend’s daughter would spend the day in her pyjamas, curled up with a book or with a piece of needlepoint, while I would potter about in the kitchen, baking something tasty for the afternoon tea, or prepping vegetables for the evening’s dinner. She and I would sit on the couch together and keep our feet warm under a rug, perhaps playing cards or building an open fire in the sitting room stove.
Those holidays were blissful, because we were each of us doing what suited us best. Now I think about what would be the opposite experience for me, and I can tell you right now: going to the swimming pool. The echoing sounds of shrieking and splashing, the cold water on slippery tiles, the gradual slope of the pool floor as it moves from the shallow to deep end. For me, these elements are the seeds of a panic attack, not pleasurable at all. Yet for many people, swimming is a great treat and the pool a place of fun and excitement. For many people, the act of swimming fulfills a kind of meditation, a ritual and a practice that creates inner harmony and a mental, even spiritual buzz. For many people, sitting under a blanket on the couch whilst knitting would bore them to tears.
So part of finding one’s calling involves learning what places and activities resonate, and being true to oneself. It can be as useful to know what doesn’t work as what does. I know that swimming will never be my calling!
I return to Toka-pa:
We are coming into the great secret that belonging is really a skill, a set of competencies at which we must practice if we are to rise to the call of an aching heart and a fractured world.
With love to you as always, Steve
What I love about these dialogues is where they travel, Julia. Without leaving home we’ve circled around from the destructiveness of the inner fire that gives us motivation but nevertheless burns us out, and back to the inner work that can perhaps sustain us — with the idea and practice of calling at its centre.
Let me unpack what I mean by this a little — and this is just my perspective, it may not be your experience at all! The question: “what am here for?” is a really good one, but I don’t think it is one that we can answer, or travel our way towards. Calling is not something we find our way to, along a path through the dark wood, to be discovered somewhere in a cave or hidden under a stone. It is already with us, has always been, and only needs paying attention to. There’s a paradox in this, which is a parallel to what happens when we meditate (in fact, this may be the same process!). If we sit to meditate, we are ’trying’ to reach emptiness and peace — to find some kind of connection with the stillness that has always been — but there’s a lot in the way. Doing. Striving. Thinking (LOTS of Thinking!!!). But it’s when we stop trying to do anything that meditation does its magic, and stillness is revealed.
In all this seeking and striving, pride, self love and a kind of semi-benign narcissism can also creep into the frame for some people, as they start getting ‘better’ at their practice and more protective of their uncertainty and vulnerability (Instagram yoga anyone?). And, all the time, we know we should be out there doing activism, saving the world, responding to the climate emergency — and this knowledge comes with more and more urgency. And (if I can use an XR analogy) what we end up doing is gluing ourselves to our own front door, and our calling seems as hard to find than ever…
I love your story of the cottage, and the intuition that calling for the four of you was/is carried in the things you naturally chose to do on that holiday. As you imply, if you’d chosen to go out exploring (or swimming, Lord save us!) with your friend, you would have been doing it for her, or for some social ‘duty’ or expectation. So calling is in the here and now of what we do at home, as much as what we are looking to do ‘out there’ — and perhaps it’s especially carried in the ways we do our ‘inner work’ — whatever that is.
I’ve been aware, these past weeks, how important the way I am in my inner work — and in the simple life I have at home (which might be a good-enough definition of belonging!) — might be in how I approach and respond to the outer world of turmoil and emergency — which I am, it seems, called to respond to! I wish it wasn’t like this sometimes. I wish I could just sit in my equivalent of recipes and bedsocks (joggers and speculative fiction, for me) and forget the world. But I never do forget, so I’ve needed to find and sustain ways of finding peace in these contexts, rather than changing myself. These practices (yoga, running, reading, listening to music, meditation…) sustain me and also hold my belonging — or a portion of it at any rate.
It’s so bloody complicated sometimes — or our culture has made it so, by breaking everything up and now trying — much too late — to put it all back together again! In his book, Sand Talk, indigenous Australian writer Tyson Yunkaporta writes about the fragmentation and atomisation that characterises western cultures — what he calls ‘low context’ or ‘field-independent reasoning cultures’ — which are in contrast to indigenous, oral cultures that are ‘high context’ or ‘field-dependent reasoning cultures’.
“In our world nothing can be known or even exist unless it is in relation to other things. Most importantly these things that are connected are less important than the forces of connection between them. We exist to form these relationships, which makes up the energy that holds creation together. When knowledge is patterned within these forces of connection it is sustainable over deep time”.
What has this to do with belonging and calling? Well it seems to me that calling, home, practice, relationship, personal growth, and so on, are just the things to be connected — we might seem them as building blocks — or more contextually – nodes and filaments in a web of already existing wholeness. So, in reality, we don’t have to connect anything, because it is already whole — and accepting that reality might be a big part of the task! Sitting with and settling within ‘what is’ might be the way to feel as if we belong — and within this context the answers to the big questions might naturally emerge.
The ultimate paradox might be in how we emerge from this simple acceptance into sustainable ‘activism’ that can make a difference — but perhaps this is a question for the next step of our conversation…
Gloomy November has moved on and it is now festive-time in December — albeit tinged with sombre reflection at the post-election result. I’ve been visiting a friend in London and commiserating about the state of things. This friend is a single mum who works full time in a well-placed profession and just barely scrapes by, with a skyrocketed rent and hefty nursery fees draining her monthly budget. A natural activist, she has paused her involvement in radical causes, not simply from pure exhaustion but also from the stark reality of “I can’t afford to get arrested.”
Those who can afford to get arrested as a political gesture are in the minority, and while it makes for a dramatic statement, it isn’t the ultimate solution. I’m more inclined to think of Mr Rogers and his poignant observation: “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”
You speak of our inner work and how it orients us to our response in the outer world, and I guess this is where the real challenge lies. Meeting the petty grievances of the daily grind in a spirit of goodwill and generosity, this demands both creativity and stamina. Being kind can be hard work, especially when enmeshed in response to conflict or the twisted layers of power dynamics.
I’ve been reading a wonderful book called With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix. Written by a doctor specialising in palliative care, it chronicles the deathbed in a number of riveting true stories, as a way of ‘promoting the conversation’ about death and dying. By familiarising the reader with the patterns of decline and death, it seeks to bring death back into plain view as an expected and unthreatening part of life. After all, it is not an aberration: we will every single one of us die.
What strikes me in these stories is how kindness blooms into full power during the experiences of illness and death. We crave to let our loved ones feel its warmth and we rekindle our sense of meaningfulness when faced with meaning’s ultimate test. Of course not all deaths are peaceful or supported by the kindness of family and friends — there are violent deaths, accidental deaths and lonely deaths as well; these are the ones we dread. But even these endings to life contain something sacred and precious in the final breath.
This ties in a roundabout way with your comment about wholeness. You said: “we don’t have to connect anything, because it is already whole — accepting that reality might be a big part of the task”. We often view death as a breach, when in fact it is part of the whole story, the whole experience of being alive. Likewise the dark parts of life — the periods of discouragement and even despair — form a vital role in our experience of being here, taking breath. I’m reminded of the wise words of a friend who once observed “what is needed is what happened.”
We’ll soon reach the apex of winter darkness: the solstice. I often think of the northernmost parts of the globe at this time of year when the darkness reaches into every corner of the clock’s 24 hours. This is the time of year when we cherish light as a beacon of trust, a promise that the night will ease off and the sun will return to us. It’s the time of year when we draw closer together and when kindness beckons.
…and our deep and nourishing (for me, at least!) dialogue spans the year end and year beginning, with all the cultural sumbolism that this carries. And you bring up dying and death — aptly — for this has been in my life as a tangible reality in my life, work, art and activism for the last 18 months and more.
I realise that it’s been hard for me to write or talk about anything recently without my own creativity, conversations and calling being suffused in grief. 2019 started with the death of someone who I cared for, who was far too young to die and far too good, and ended with another tragic loss, of a young person I had worked with for a number of years in my work as a counsellor. These are both people I miss, and their lives and deaths affected me deeply.
This bit of my story began the year before, when my own Mum died, and the years before that when she was ill with Alzheimers. It was her time (possibly well past…), and there was as much relief as tragedy in her death, though it started a year of decline for my Dad who had held himself in the tight habit of loving her, all through the years of her illness, and even (perhaps, especially) when she didn’t know him anymore. He’s a little better now, as he has settled into a new home and sense of belonging — a move triggered by a crisis of grieving, ageing and loss of agency.
Grief didn’t hit me when Mum died but crept up on me and, when the first of those untimely deaths came in January, I found myself sliding, until early summer last year when the feeling had become a kind of crumbling. It felt to me as if death was something I needed to face up to, and that doing this was a calling (that word again!).
I’m used to working with what emerges in me; it’s part of my vocation, I guess, the responsibility I take on for my own healing and development — for me and for those I work with. And I’m aware that for all of us who choose to do it, the inner work of deep wellbeing — done honestly — might provide a foundation for a good life and for effective activism (whatever that word means for each of us) — though there are no guarantees. Like most people, I sometimes fail in this work, or forget it or let it fall away for a while — and while this is OK and is part of the pattern, it’s important, I think, to check in and make a pledge of renewal from time to time.
The other thing that had been creeping up for much longer has been the climate emergency, and I have two grandchildren whose future I fear for — grieve for. So much grief. No wonder things sometimes feel as if they are crumbling!
I’m aware that these personal feelings are part of a wider ‘field’ of grief, and such despair in our culture that won’t be healed by political incrementalism or psychological quick fixes. And yet the only ‘revolutions’ that seem to be available at the moment are reactionary ones, responding with snarling fear and ‘othering’ projections to a liberal agenda that has — in the eyes of many — failed to deliver its promises of respect, equality and freedom. No wonder the best place to be sometimes seems to be the warm, safe refuge of home!
So, as the year and decade turns, and people I’ve known have died both timely and untimely deaths, the wisdom of your words become apparent. Without an acceptance of death as part of wholeness, rather than a breach in the fantasy of immortality that our culture seems to promote, everything we try to do to change things is destined to fail. This might seem overly pessimistic but, oddly, I draw comfort from it. I don’t want to live forever, and I don’t want our civilisation to either. And this brings me to the thought that it is alright to move on, to change, to make a transition from one part of life to another — without always feeling the need for this to be transformational or fixed in endless growth (psychological, spiritual or economic!!).
As your wise friend says: “what is needed is what happened”… though I’m not sure I can be quite optimistic enough to extend this to say “what will be needed will happen”, though I’d love it to be the case…
Now the winter season is approaching its end, just another couple weeks and we’ll arrive at the spring equinox. The sky is lightening up and the days are beginning to stretch out their rested limbs.
Here in the UK over the past several weeks we’ve been battered by storms: wind and rain and sleet, flooding and all the disruption of travel. And the news is currently filled with developments of coronavirus, here on our shores and spreading. A regional airline has gone bust, disrupting travel for hundreds of thousands of people. And the fifth runway at Heathrow has been defeated, something that wouldn’t have happened even a decade ago. There’s all sorts of unexpected things going on, putting business as usual under the spotlight. What’s next?
People are calling this the new normal. My workplace recently held an event about climate change — unheard of just a few years back. What does climate change have to do with the conventional health system?, they would have said. Yet the penny is dropping and we’re stepping back with the wide lens to see the whole picture: climate change has to do with everything we have and have had in place as an organised society.
When we think of our individual griefs — such as those you write about in your last response — we tend to draw inward. But surely inward is where we are most needed during these crazy times. Inward is where the most challenging work lies. Inward is where the most fruitful growth takes place. And inward is where we find sustenance, in our inner voice, which has been battered and bullied into submission since our earliest days, but which still lives vividly in each of us. When we tune into the inward, we will find it there, reliably, inevitably. We all have that inner voice which speaks truth. When we get quiet and tune into the inward, we are reacquainted with it.
In the midst of all the turmoil brewing up in this world, I can’t help but feel reassured by the inner voice. This shaking up of business as usual allows for cracks in the system, out of which it may speak out and be heard. What’s next indeed? Change is afoot. It brings grief and it brings hope as well. I’ll end here with something my mother once told me; she said “social change happens one funeral at a time.”
With love as always to you Steve xxx
Bless you, Julia, I love your ability to tune in to what is essential, and the way you simultaneously hold the wider frames…
When we started this dialogue it was November and Coroavirus Covid-19 hadn’t even been heard of, and here we are with the world on the edge of…well something!
There are plenty of people out there making predictions: This is the great unravelling. No, this is just business as usual. No, this is the Earth finally striking back. No, this is just a big distraction — haven’t you had the flu? — get over yourself! No, this is a Black Swan moment. No, it’ll be all over by the summer…
The difficulty is that when we tune into the specifics of the current ‘problem’, whether this be Brexit, General Elections, Coronavirus or even Climate Crisis, we always tend to pay attention to the action — what can be done (or what cannot be done). We seldom pay attention to the contexts that have brought the ‘emergency’ into being.
This is the point of Nora Bateson’s essential and beautifully expressed work. As you know, I was working with her this past week at one of her Warm Data Labs. What a day! My mind was boggled, my intellect and empathy stimulated, and my hope very definitely rekindled!
The perspective she brings is one in which we are not trying to solve problems, or improve ourselves, or break things down in order to understand them, or nor even to map how our world is connected in systems. She asks us to pay attention, with curiosity and humility — and from our inner worlds — to the interdependent contexts of our world, and to draw the warm data and relational information from all this in order to inform our activism.
It sounds such a such a simple ask, yet is massively challenging. We are so conditioned to see ‘activism’ as something to make a problem better — to solve it — yet we know that when ‘problems’ arise — whether these be the unpredictable track of a winter storm, or the spread of a virus, or the death of a mother or friend — these things just happen. They can’t be ‘solved’ or ‘prevented’ (at least not after or during the event!), they can only be followed, sat with and learned from — then placed in the context of relationships wide and flowing, like a river with its floes and eddies and currents carrying us to who knows where. These are not separate things connecting, she tells us, but contexts ‘inter-steeping’.
And when I feel sad or scared or helpless or disappointed or disillusioned or even overwhelmed, as I sometimes do, I draw comfort from the inner voice, as you do, but also from the wider relational contexts and patterns. of the world I live in: the interdependences that are constantly flowing around me. It’s a wonderful thing, this unpredictable life, and we never really know what is going to come at us next!…
“Within the great whirl of life there is culture; in culture there is language; in language there is conversation; in conversation there are two beings; in the beings there are frames of percpetion and, in their communication, a kaleidoscope of unpredictable repatterning. Impossibly, in that conversation, the world is simultanously held together and blown apart”