Being in a box

I was sitting alone in a coffee stop in Frankfurt reflecting on my participation in a workshop on business coaching. I was busy examining a work dilemma that I was having that was embedded in (a) the philosophy that underpins helping others and (b) the paradigm of thinking that directs and organises information flow in how one interprets human behaviour that unfolds in an interpersonal context.

I was deeply wrapped up in thought as I looked out of the window of the coffee shop.

A tiny, yet bright light shining in the distance immediately caught my attention. It was a light that could be easily missed, if you were not looking in that direction. There were many other competing visual and auditory distractions around me; traffic lights, people and cars passing by, laughter and chatter as people enjoyed their coffee, and the familiar sound of the machine grinding the coffee beans to produce the addictive auroma of the coffee to be served. Any one of these processes, at that specific moment, could have diverted my eyes away from the reality of the existence of this tiny source of light.

It was a light that only lasted a couple of minutes, just before the sun moved below the horizon.

The light was coming from a cross on a church, reflecting the rays of a sun that was about to set. While I do not belong to any one specific religious denomination; for me, the cross symbolises peace, tolerance, compassion and wisdom.

A bright, tiny light in the distance

Once I had noticed the light, I couldn’t stop looking at it. Its strength, power, significance and magnetism far surpassed its size.

As I looked at it, I was catapulted out of my internal debate. A clear meaningful insight about my dilemma was being transmitted by this tiny light. The insight bypassed my intellectual reasoning. Its magnetism ‘pulled’ me out of my previous train of thought. Instantaneously, I felt that I had been transported into an emotional and intellectual space where I could move freely between the opposing poles of the dilemma.

I immediately felt out of the box.

I felt free from the constriction that the dilemma had imposed on me. There was relief, coupled with a feeling of emotional strength.

As I continued looking at the tiny light in the distance, I was struck by its authenticity and beauty. In exploring my feelings further about the workshop that I had participated in, I realised how much courage it takes to be transparent and authentic in an interpersonal context that may be quick to define and judge you according to who they think you are (or believe who you should be).

The river Main separates the beautiful urban skyline of Frankfurt (representing the mechological powers of man) from the ecological rhythm of a gorgeous golden sunset unfolding behind a church.

A dualistic tension can emerge between the mechological and ecological approaches to understanding and solving human problems. As I moved out of the box, I felt free to jump in and out of each paradigm. This liberation offered me a wider and deeper perspective of the dilemma that the clash of mechological and ecological thinking can cause.

As the sun set, the tiny light still shone brightly in my mind as I left the coffee shop and made my way to the airport.

Shine your light in winter

Growth is not possible during a severe winter. The predominant concern for all living things during this period is one of survival.

Metaphorically, I feel that we are in a global spiritual winter at the moment. This feeling is exacerbated by the way many political leaders are conducting themselves at present. Ethics have given way to lies, corruption and manipulation. In the process, trust no longer exists and hope fades quickly as the harshness of the winter reality hits everyone. Darkness descends, and the possibility of sustainable growth wanes as the system struggles to sustain the values of honesty, courage and compassion. There are many weak enablers that add to (and benefit from) the wintery conditions; running and hiding for shelter while looking after their own comforts.

Over the weekend, I was outdoors taking photographs of the snow, wintery landscape. In late afternoon, I walked passed a small field of dead sunflowers as the sun was trying to break through the dense cloud cover. As the rays gained strength and penetrated the cover ever so slightly, I felt light and joyful.

As I looked at the sunflowers, I knew that each one of them contained the seeds of new life. The potential energy of growth existed in the seeds that lay dormant during winter. Nature is self-generating and in times of winter, it is not necessary to lose hope in a future that is still to unfold.

As the sun broke through, I was reminded of how light changes one’s perspective. During cold wintery days, everyone hankers after light. Feeling the warmth of the sun, just for a couple of minutes, helps to lift the spirit.

IMG_2793

When reflections in the water are added to light, the snowscape is enhanced dramatically.

Walking in the wintery landscape in Germany over this weekend helped remind me of the power of light and reflection when interacting with others and dealing with challenging situations.

Shining one’s light in wintery conditions lifts spirits. Being emotionally light, honest, compassionate and courageous in one’s relationships brings warmth and hope to others.

Remove the mask of competency

As the All Blacks perform their ritual of the haka before the start of a rugby test match, a mysterious unity of spirit and strength of character is revealed. The ritual activates an alert, cohesive and focused group energy that is ready to tackle any challenge in the heat of battle.

Generating energy, Black Forest, Germany

Many years ago, when doing a research project about the pressures and harshness of the world of competitive elite sport, I found that elite athletes tended to live behind their ‘mask of competencies’. It seemed necessary that an athlete had to present an emotionally tough, ‘I am confident’, ‘I am in control’ exterior when dealing with the outside world. No weakness was allowed or accepted.

The longer the athlete spent in the arena of competition, the stronger the mask of competency needed to be. When dealing with excessive stress, I found that the athletes rigidified the mask of competency and denied any fears or doubts about their performance. This was usually done in order to emotionally protect themselves from criticism and judgement from public, media, coaches and even fellow players.

On a personal level, the rigid mask of competency tended to block the athlete from getting in touch with the internal dynamics of him/herself, especially around feelings of vulnerability. In turn, I found that this rigidity had a paradoxical impact on performance since it restricted the energetic system of the athlete and usually activated a downward spiral of performance.

It was interesting to read an interview about the All Blacks rugby culture given by their mental conditioning coach. There were two points that struck me in the article. Firstly, players need to feel that they belong in the team. Secondly, when the players are stressed, how can they collaborate and support others who are under pressure as well. This highlights the need to be selfless so that one can extend care and support to others in the most difficult times.

‘As a team, you (need) to sit down and allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s a powerful strategy; once I’m prepared to share my vulnerability, and everyone else is too, we create an environment that becomes a culture of acceptance’.

While it may seem rather strange that the mightiest force in world rugby places such high priority on players feeling that they belong in the sanctuary of a team that cares, it comes as no surprise to me. Playing sport in the love domain provides the interpersonal context for an athlete to fulfill all of his/her potential. However, creating such an environment is easier said than done.

Beauty of reflection, Black Forest, Germany

Dedicated to my father, Popsie. His gentle, loving and nonjudgemental energy always underpinned his actions and words.

Framing your vision

Creating and defining the realities that you experience in life, can be likened to taking photographs.

Your mind is full of snap shots. Each of these snap shots are framed, which helps to provide clarity and order in how you see and interpret your experiences. Frames define and direct where you look, helping to give meaning to your experiences.

The frame that you place around a particular snap shot, is self-constructed, and is determined by your beliefs, assumptions and perceptions. Knowing this, will help to liberate you from a restrictive view point, since this realisation will offer you the chance to frame your old snap shots in different ways.

In helping my clients resolve some of their emotional or interpersonal difficulties, I have seen how problems have a way of narrowing their vision. The frame that is placed around ‘the problem’, tends to prevent them from seeing the array of possibilities that exist outside of the frame. The frame acts as a boundary that keeps their eyes rigidly locked into one particular perspective. This tends to tighten and intensify where they look and what they see.

There is an old castle not too far from where I live. A couple of months ago I took a photograph using a wide angle lens. It was a misty morning as I looked south towards the Alps. I decided to do a black and white conversion of the photograph.

Into the distance
Into the distance

Last week, I went back to the old castle and again looked south to see the Alps in the distance. It was a clear morning and as I framed my shot I decided to use a telescopic lens. The early morning sun rays were starting to shine over the tiny village in the foreground.

Into the distance

As a therapist, I have become sensitive not only to how my clients frame their problems but also to how I am framing what I am hearing and seeing in the stories that they are sharing with me. This awareness has helped open up my vistas as I encounter the vast array of complex snap shots being shared with me.

Labels and water-tight language

In consulting with clients, I have noticed how problems are given an absolute, immovable, dominant status in the way that they are spoken about. Words such as ‘always’ and ‘never’ highlight the water-tight nature of the problem being encountered. Comments such as: ‘my husband is always late’, ‘my daughter never does her homework’, ‘my boss is always in a bad mood’, ‘my wife never listens to what I am telling her’ reflects how one may inadvertently put those we are having difficulty with into a sealed, water-tight box.

Water-tight language about the problem generally entraps a person, and restricts and limits possibilities moving forward into the future.

Due to the co-operative nature of energy and informational flow, there is an ongoing recursive loop between how we think, how we speak and how we experience reality. In essence this means that what we think, is what we will see and experience. Linked to this idea is the notion of how we may unconsciously create a label of another person which then determines how we perceive and interact with this person. In a previous article I covered in detail how labels get created, resulting in self-fulfilling prophecies. In essence, a label gets created when an authoritative observer dogmatically attributes and describes certain behaviours to another person in a water-tight way, and then continues to perpetuate this perspective over time. A label starts as a seed, that eventually grows into a huge tree.

One way to break labels is to question the assumptions that you may be making when you explain or describe an experience. Engaging in a reflective conversation that offers space helps to highlight and reveal the tacit assumptions that you may be making when you try and give meaning to your experiences with others.

I enjoy long walks in the country side. I pass by a tree that I have developed a connection (relationship) with. I find myself taking many photographs of this tree. While the tree is fixed in the ground in a permanent way, I have noticed that this tree does not have an absolute, fixed perceptual energy to it. It seems to change depending on the time of day that I walk pass, the emotional mood that I am in and the climatic conditions that are prevailing at a given point in time. These factors tend to combine to co-create a certain reality of the tree for me. I share some of the photographs to reveal the range of realities that are reflected by this lone beautiful tree.

Just after sunrise today
After sunrise
A week ago after snow
After snow

The above two photographs were taken with a 100mm lens but from the exact opposite viewpoint when I took the photographs.

Two months ago just after sunset
After sunset
Beautiful autumn colours in October
Beautiful autumn colours
Thick mist today
Thick mist

The above three photographs were taken more or less from the exact same viewpoint, with the same wide angle lens.

A creative perspective
A creative perspective

The above photograph was a creative expression of how I felt about the tree. I did a zoom burst to capture this image.

Researcher of self – a journey into the unknown

On a fundamental level, scientific research requires that the researcher move from the known into the unknown. Dr Uri Alon, believes that scientific research is an emotionally taxing process due to the necessity of this movement.

However, it is interesting that this emotional component of the research process is not usually discussed, revealed and/or acknowledged in the final published research article. In fact, the published article usually presents a rather cold, detached perspective of the process. This belies the intensely personal and emotional dimension of the research journey.

By its nature, research needs to reveal what has not yet been discovered. Present understanding (and knowledge) of any phenomenon is based on what is already known. However, what is already known offers no security to the researcher as the research process moves into the unknown. That is the paradox of the process: ‘knowing what exists, does not offer any comfort for what needs to be discovered’.

While the researcher will have a hypothesis (research question) that will guide the investigation in the beginning, it cannot be relied on to offer emotional support to the researcher when he/she is confronted with messy data and information that may not make any logical sense based on existing knowledge. Given this, researchers need support and encouragement at a time when they are most confused in the process; since it is in this confusion that the seeds of new insights and discoveries exist.

I consider the ‘unknown’ to be a vast undiscovered, undifferentiated world of complexity and paradox. While the scientist may enter this world with a hypothesis, he/she actually needs a huge amount of courage and persistence to deal with the complexity of the unknown. Feelings of confusion, doubt and uncertainty will reign supreme as the researcher steps into this world. In addition the ‘unknown’ is a master at blocking the movement of the researcher, often causing immobilization and despair.

But paradoxically, the ‘block’ in the research process is actually the most significant feedback loop to the researcher. It tells the researcher that (a) a new way of thinking is required, (b) existing assumptions need to be examined, (c) new information or considerations need to included, and/or (d) the direction of the inquiry may need to change.

Skyline drive, Virginia
Skyline drive, Virginia

As a clinician, I believe that each of us is an unique, evolutionary unfolding of integrated energy and information. Our uniqueness is expressed in how we reveal our energy to others; as well as, how our worldview (deepest beliefs and assumptions of ourselves, others and life) influences our thinking and interaction patterns, which in turn determines how our life unfolds.

A healthy energetic and informational system expands in a balanced, creative way, moving towards more diversity and complexity. In addition, at the core of the system, there is a dynamic balance of opposites that co-exist.

There are times, however, when you may feel blocked, stuck and see no possibilities/potentialities ahead. Feeling blocked is life’s feedback message that says: ‘you cannot continue with your old ways or old path’. A new way forward, which still needs to be discovered, is required.

On a general level, you may feel stuck over time if you do not:

  • consider all the relevant complexity of the situation that you are dealing with,
  • examine some of your tacit assumptions that may unknowingly be causing the self-defeating and destructive behaviours,
  • acknowledge your own part in creating the problem,
  • step back to reflect on the process, instead of repeatedly trying to force your perspective onto the situation that you are encountering,
  • loosen the rigid perspective that you may have and instead consider the exact opposite of what you believe,
  • have the courage to become the researcher of self.

As the researcher of self, you will be challenged to examine your thinking and interaction patterns in a reflective way. Just as in the scientific research process, you will be required to expand your knowledge of self, and move into the yet to be discovered, unknown parts of yourself. These aspects or dynamics of yourself may appear to be confusing or unacceptable, thus making it difficult to acknowledge. This will be an emotionally challenging process that requires courage and persistence as you explore parts of yourself that may not make logical sense initially. But as the reflective process unfolds and you gain deeper insights into the dynamics of self (which were previously unknown and undiscovered), a new understanding and respect of self starts unfolding. And with this, new potentialities to move forward come to the fore.

Ongoing journey
Ongoing journey