I will begin this post by making a bold statement of fact, given voice by French philosopher and teacher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.
Despite growing awareness of our spiritual nature and our longing for more heart and soul in our daily lives, we are still loath to acknowledge it at work and in the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. The trend is still to denigrate such words as ‘spirit, heart and soul’ as fluffy and even misguided in a work context. The reason of course is because those words represent everything that is the antithesis of power, politics and profit-making which are the domain of the mind and 'cleverness' .
In his second TED Talk on creativity in education (how schools kill it off) Sir Kenneth Robinson talked about people doing what they love. He mentioned learning that feeds our spirit inviting us to engage our inborn creativity. He questioned a system geared to industrialisation which mercilessly strips children of their creativity until, as adults, we are primed to act as cogs in the wheels of industrial production and be completely disconnected from heart. This system teaches people from a young age to be “disembodied heads with a tendency to lean to the left”, effectively squandering both the full range of our talents as well as our capacity for human empathy, nobility and creativity.
In varying degrees, systems of education and work around the world have taught us all to be compliant and to just ‘get on with it’. This turns your life’s journey into a narrowly defined linear path with predictable milestones, a sort of endurance test set by others. Sir Kenneth argues with conviction first, that we are all born artists and then we get educated out of it, and that the challenge of our times is not just a revolution in our approach to climate change, but also a revolution in our systems of education to adapt to diverse individual needs. It is probably fair to say that a new system of education that fosters individual creativity and our humanity would change the nature of work. In fact this is already happening to some degree, witness alternative education (Steiner, Montessori, home schooling for example), businesses which place people at the top of their priorities and the emerging creator economy driven by entrepreneurs.
It can be argued that spirituality and creativity go hand in hand. There can be no authentic creativity without heart and soul. I will share a story from my own childhood to illustrate. I began to question the nature of human beings early in life. While visiting my grandparents in Perth, Western Australia around the age of seven, I found my grandfather lying dead in the outhouse where he had suffered a stroke during his morning shower. As I stood mesmerised staring at his white naked body lying face down on the red painted concrete floor, the water still running out of the shower head, and his false teeth lying a couple of feet from his head, I was transfixed by the energy in the room, the deafening sound of the silence (except for the running water) and how it juxtaposed with what felt like the emptiness of his body.
My first thought was a practical question: how did his teeth fall out of his mouth in one piece like that? I knew nothing about false teeth. Next came a more profound question: where had he gone? Clearly my grandfather was no longer in his body. I knew this. His body looked discarded, a bit like the skins of the blue tongue lizards that were to be found elsewhere in the garden. He was not there in his eyes, twinkling at me with a sense of mischief as he was wont to do. He was not there asking me to bring him the book “Black Beauty” which he would read to me from his sickbed, a chapter each day while generously sharing his Irish Moss cough drops with me. His love had been tangible, it was a wonderful energy we shared, and that was who he was.
Yet, my grandfather had departed this earth, without, I pondered with a bit of resentment, even saying goodbye. It was an extraordinary and unexpected experience that nothing could have prepared me for. I was not scared, on the contrary I was proud to have witnessed what was obviously something infinitely mysterious and wonderful in its own way, something more significant than the surface activities of human life, something majestic that could not easily be explained. As I stood there watching, I could sense my grandfather’s essence; a beautiful peaceful, loving kindness that was now freed of the burden of emotions like fear and depression. I felt a great need to talk about it.
As far as I can recall, no one had ever mentioned death to me directly. Perhaps I had heard my parents mention it in their own conversations. Intuitively I knew, as only a child’s innocence can, the truth of what I saw. My grandfather was not his body. He was far more powerful than his physical limitations or his circumstances. His time here had been finite and was now over; he had gone somewhere else. It was the most logical, natural thing in the world for me to go to my grandmother who was preparing breakfast in the kitchen and say to her politely and with suitably measured finality, “Nan, Grandpa is dead”. The transcendent feeling of the moment was then shattered by her explosive screaming as she flung open the wire door and ran like a fury to the out-house.
My grandfather had worked for years as foreman at a large superphosphate factory. Superphosphate contains lead and cadmium and he eventually contracted lead poisoning. He had been bed-ridden for over a year by the time he died. He was a loving man, intelligent and ambitious. In later years I was told that he felt his intelligence was wasted working in the factory. During the Great Depression he had been without work for three years causing him to suffer with debilitating bouts of anxiety and depression. When he finally got the job as foreman, he stuck with it “come hell or high water”. His life had consequently been quite limited. You can only conclude that industrialisation and his working conditions had broken his spirit, his capacity for creativity and eventually killed him at just 61.
Even at seven I knew that though his death was incredibly sad, it was a fundamentally important experience that we should all have reflected on and shared. It awakened in me the sense that anything is possible, something that has stayed with me from that time on allowing me to live creatively and in large part determine my own destiny. But at that time no one was interested in reflecting on death and spirit. All attempts to discuss what had happened were squashed, suppressed. Best not to dwell on it. “Ignore something long enough and it will go away”, my mother said. Life went on, must go on, no time to waste; life was about acting, material progression and winning. To me it was as if an opportunity that I could not define had been lost.
As the years went by a painful rift gradually formed between me and my family because of their refusal to acknowledge the existence of anything beyond sensory experience. My parents were a successful entrepreneurial duo, always busy and my questions irritated them. It became clear to me that intellectual prowess ('smarts') devoid of heartfelt communication (empathy, trust, compassion, care, insight) was a hollow pursuit that sometimes resulted in disastrous outcomes. I knew in my bones there was a better way to live and eventually I found it.
All that happened during the 1950s which in some ways seems like an eternity away from life as it is now. Still, the struggle for hearts and souls goes on. Children today still grow up heavily conditioned by societal norms and expectations. The male, analytical, competitive action-orientation continues to dominate how we live our lives. Nonetheless awareness is growing steadily as well as a recognition that living a meaningful, self-determined life involves taking a holistic approach that integrates all aspects of what it means to be a human being. Truly our purpose is not just to make lots of money, or to be secure, but to expand our souls through authentic, heartfelt, life-supporting choices and actions.
Here are some ways you can start to connect more deeply with your own creativity and build conviction in the choices you make in your life and at work:
A lot of talk abounds about being authentic and ambitious, looking good, pursuing your passion, having a fabulous relationship and material success. All these are a by-product, not an end in and of themselves, of honouring your heart and listening to what your soul is calling you to do.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the volume of information and activity that the internet and technology in general has ushered into our lives, but remember that the key to creating meaningfully is to always come back to your inner work. First and foremost the real work, and the basis of all creativity, is to be integrated: body, mind, heart and soul.
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