During a recent morning walk around the harbour I found myself immersed in a thick fog. You could barely see beyond a metre ahead. Every now and then a fellow walker emerged and passed by silently, lost in thought, and a distant memory surfaced for me.
I was seven and at boarding school while my father spent months in America being prepared on his return to take over as the new editor of the Australian Financial Review newspaper. This would be a big step forward not just for my father, but also our family. My mother went along with him and my siblings and I were farmed out to relatives or school.
Desperately homesick and threatened with sickening self-pity, I became the subject of various pranks by a couple of teenage girls clearly bored to tears with school. Perhaps an attempt to make up for abandoning me, my mother had arranged for two coins the equivalent of fifty cents to be paid to me each week for pocket money. As there was nothing to spend the money on it accumulated in a little purse I had been allocated for this reason. The girls knew about my stash and hatched a fabulous story to amuse themselves by seeing if they could tempt me to hand it over to them. They explained with great bravado that a rocket ship was soon landing in Sydney’s central park and for a small sum children were being taken up in it so that they could see the shape of Australia and all the people in it from that great height. If I gave them my stash they would arrange for a ticket and taxi to pick me up and return me to school after the flight. Just the thought of seeing Australia filled me with excitement.
It was like a lamb to the slaughter when I raced out on the designated day only to see the girls standing under a tree with huge grins on their faces. ”Oh!” they laughed triumphantly, “We knew you were too clever to be taken in by such a story!” I swallowed the lump in my throat instantly putting on a breezy fake smile and heaving a sigh of gratitude for small mercies as they gave me back my purse with all the money still in it. Goes without saying that the lessons of this debacle were multiple but several of them I failed to learn. I retreated into my shell determined never to be taken for a ride like that again, shut down by a sense of ineptitude at ever having a positive influence on such self-interested minds.
Naivete aside, I marvel at what was obviously an intense passion for perspective-taking even at that young age. Fact is I wanted to believe the girls. Even then I intuitively understood the power of the metaphor of rising up to a great height to see and understand the ‘big picture’, to get the “engineering” perspective, and in this instance to reflect to understand and accept why my parents left me in such a ‘terrible’ place. Pondering things from their perspective, and our family’s perspective, not just my own, and then also from a higher perspective looking down on all of us, was helpful and gave me more incentive to find solutions not only to cope a bit better with my incarceration but also ways to make the most of it.
If you reflect on our world from a great height as you experience your own current transitions as an individual, you will see that we are all part of a major trend happening around the world. Clearly something big is ending and we are heading towards a new beginning which remains unclear. So much is beyond our control.
Globally at present we are all in the fog of a significant transition that impacts the very “grass roots”, as Deepak Chopra has noted, of the system that has been running human life on this planet for thousands of years. Our patriarchal capitalist system in its current form has taken us far materially by systematically labelling individuals hierarchically in terms of a single identity like for example, their gender, social origins, the colour of their skin, and their sexual orientation. In Western societies the white, middle class, Christian, heterosexual man has been and still is to some extent the reference model and the dominant group who has legitimacy in terms of speaking for the rest. The economics of free market profit-making with cycles of boom and bust continue unabated led by and large by such men though more recently also women; witness our current cycle which is a repeat in many ways of the cycle from 1930 to 1945, as billionaire hedge fund manager Ray Dalio's research has exposed. He points out that these cycles are comprised of growing prosperity, over-extended debt, widening gap between the haves and have nots, then a downturn often followed perhaps by war. The masculine (yang principle), which favours the external world and domination presides over and suppresses the feminine (yin principle) which favours the inner world and harmony. Extreme, unbalanced masculinity favours aggression while unbalanced femininity favours passivity.
Even a cursory glance from a higher perspective reveals humanity as dangerously unbalanced. Male leaders throughout the world promote violence and aggression seen for example in the destruction of the Tibetan community, incarceration of dissidents in China, civil war in Syria, Middle East conflicts, Libyan civil war, the Philippine Drug War and so on. Even now, women throughout the world endure extreme suppression, like for example the persecution of 46 million widows in India, the lucrative sex slave trade and continuing high levels of domestic violence in all countries.
Our capitalist system seeks to turn all aspects of life into a profit-making enterprise driven by endless growth economies that foster self doubt, greed and a desire for power. We do not learn from the cycles in nature which show us clearly that endless growth is unnatural. This attitude alone is having a destructive impact on our beautiful planet, on which we are only one of many species but act as if we are the only one that matters. And now, most recently we have a global pandemic.
Certainly, the global situation is somewhat dismal and overwhelming, and the solutions difficult to identify at that level. So focusing our attention ‘out there’ in the external world is disempowering. Because the mess that we have created has become so complex, it will not be fixed by imposing more systems of control from without. But there is always a silver lining and the great opportunity of our times lies at the level of the individual.
If we rise to a higher perspective we see that global illness, and the widespread threat it poses, is forcing us all to stop, turn our attention inwards and reflect on what is happening, why it is happening, and what to do about it. From this higher perspective it is not difficult to see that what our world is crying out for, the change it is longing to see and has been for a long time now, is men and women who are balanced within themselves, who are aware and true, and especially leaders who display this balance and wisdom whether they are male or female; leaders who can move beyond extreme capitalism and greed by employing balance, compassion, common sense and creativity in their decision-making. But clearly it is not enough to focus only on our leaders. The times are calling for all individuals, no matter how insignificant they might feel, to stand up, take responsibility for their own actions and have a voice.
So, having turned our attention within the task is to ask ourselves useful questions like for example: Who am I? What is important to me? What has the world convinced me is important but is not? What do I want to let go in terms of old outdated beliefs/conditioning I have inherited that do not serve who I really am? In what ways will my life change if I balance the masculine and feminine aspects within me? How can I look at things differently? How do I really want to live my own life in the light of my changed perspective? What is my purpose in this world? What wise actions will I take to steer my own life, and those dear to me, through these challenging and chaotic times?
Dismantle Generational Conditioning
First recognise that your mind is heavily conditioned. This is how it is as a human, especially as a young adult, though many live out their lives completely unaware that they are living out someone else's script. The biggest challenge of being an adult is freeing yourself of your conditioned mind by recognising that you are not your thoughts and feelings. This is good news. You do not have to believe everything you think. You are bigger than your thoughts and are free to choose what you will believe. As limiting thoughts arise learn to recognise them for what they are and not engage with them.
The task is learn to be present in the moment facing life as it is rather than projecting conditioned, dogmatic views onto the situation. Ask yourself more questions like, for example, am I being true to myself or am I afraid of saying something that might turn others against me? Am I living a compromised existence for the sake of money, more possessions, more wealth, more… and to what end? What are my/our real needs?
Recognise the enemy is within
The isolation the current pandemic is imposing on us will quickly expose the ways in which your mind works against you; how easily the mind becomes destructive when not guided by your own wisdom. If you observe your thoughts closely eventually you will see that any negative thought does not arise from your true self but from your conditioned mind.
In a real sense the enemy is not ‘out there’ in the world, the enemy is within us. It is our way of thinking that blocks us from achieving our heartfelt goals, not anything or anyone outside ourselves. The enemy within us takes the form of negative, self-limiting, often self-destructive, and often unconscious thought patterns including narcissism.
Deep reflection exposes how each of us, often unconsciously, supports the world to be as it is. We are complicit in the current state of the world.
If you are to create the beautiful life you want, the life you deserve that also serves the planet, you must do the inner work of recognising these belief patterns, accepting them for what they are (lies and/or pretence) and letting them go. Arguably this freedom from conditioning, breaking the chain of inherited thought patterns and beliefs, and making conscious positive, life-affirming choices, is possibly the greatest achievement any of us can contribute to the world.
Focusing only on what is happening around you and then reacting/adapting to what you think you see gradually shrinks your options until you can feel quite trapped by your circumstances. This is what I did at boarding school. Following the incident with the girls I came to believe that everything was stacked against me, that other people were out to get me, that my parents would never protect me and so on. At seven it never occurred to me that I was free to choose my response and by doing so empower myself to work with my circumstances to creatively make of them what I chose. Trapped in my own fictitious prison, I kicked and fought and moaned and groaned essentially turning potential allies into my jailers. Unfortunately for me this was decades before John Cleese commented publicly, “I can take almost nothing seriously.” Had I adopted such an attitude it would have freed me to embrace the rich opportunities for friendship and learning that this small school undoubtedly offered.
What I did instead was attach myself to being a victim. This gave me something to ‘hold onto’, an identity of sorts that provided a (dubious) sense of security and control where I felt there was none. “Poor little Sarah”, teachers started saying to me. Perhaps that worked for me at the age of seven, but being an adult requires much more skill. Being able to forgive, let go and move on from strong experiences is an essential life skill that helps you avoid the various pitfalls along the way of living an authentic, fulfilling life.
Moving through the noise
Living creatively involves the ability to adapt to change and move fluidly back and forth between two key perspectives, what leadership specialists Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky call “the balcony and the dance floor”. As a seven year old I became good at looking at things from the balcony but not so good at operating effectively on the dance floor. I struggled with self-regulation, being able to recognise, understand and moderate my own emotional reactions in the moment so I could understand what was really happening rather than what my unreliable beliefs were telling me. Being able to do that involved listening carefully to others to understand them as well as speaking up and not letting anyone else define my worth; asking questions; allowing myself to absorb new perspectives; being resilient in the face of opposition and so on.
The mind loves linear reasoning, but the fact is living creatively is messy. The key to moving effectively through the noise of daily life is to constantly move your attention back and forth between the balcony and dance floor perspectives, have clear goals and maintain a relentless focus on achieving those goals.
Finally, in times of transition and uncertainty just staying the course can be challenging. The exhaustion on all levels caused by living with uncertainty for a protracted time span with no end in sight can be immense. It can be a real test of your strength. Many people who have come far towards achieving a goal capsize under the weight of their anxiety and give up when they are so close to realising their dream.
Remember, the only rudder you have is your own truth. The future is yours. Know what your purpose is. Surround yourself with people who honour and support who you really are and what you want to contribute, and stay the course.
In the movie Elizabeth Geoffrey Rush advises, “Give up your innocence and you lose your soul”. The fallout of blind self-deception may be inevitable but positive change is only ever one decision away.
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