Category Archives: Self-Awareness

The chinks in our armour

Vulnerability is a personal hot potato for me at the moment. It is also the topic of one of my prompts being used by the international journaling community in the 30 day digital journaling challenge.

So I was fascinated by the new series on Channel 4 featuring Grayson Perry’s quest to find the real identities of people, famous and not so, vulnerable and not so, and to represent these artistically.

In the first programme Perry was spending time with people who are grappling with their identities in transition. He spoke to a young British single Mum who has recently converted to Islam; to Rylan, the winner of celebrity Big Brother, who is embarking on fame as a career; and to Jaz, a black, British 24 year old who is navigating the waters of gender change and is trying to establish his identity as a man. These are all places where we can feel at our most vulnerable, stepping into experiences previously unknown to us, but which compel us anyway.

However it was Perry’s interview with disgraced politician Chris Huhne which was the most uncomfortable, and revealing.

Grayson Perry: Who Are You?

The question was Who are you? And despite the fact that Huhne comes across as thick-skinned and resilient as a rubber doll, Perry was determined to find the chinks in his armour. Perhaps this is a flaw in the artist, preferring to project onto his subject what he hopes to find, rather than representing him as he is. Or perhaps it is artistic genius to show our truth despite ourselves.

Nonetheless, instead of a rubberised doll with Chris Huhne’s face, Perry created a pot – an appropriate ’empty vessel’ as James Delingpole would have it – decorated with Warhol-esque repetitions of Huhne’s face and car registration plate, along with repeating images of penises. Perry then took a hammer to  the pot, smashing it into numerous pieces, before gluing it back together and highlighting the cracks with gold leaf. The symbolism being that it is our human flaws, our vulnerabilities, which make us most precious and interesting.

It can be tempting to present a rubberised version of ourselves to the world. But this wouldn’t be human. Nor would it be true.

Our vulnerabilities are worth exploring. They are where our treasure lies. Journaling is a safe way to explore them, and as Grayson Perry identified, they are worth their weight in gold.

 

 

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Filed under 30 Day Digital Journaling Challenge, Creative process, Self-Awareness

Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes

One thing I know journaling is excellent for is considering other people’s perspectives and points of view. Something about our inner voice always guides us towards empathy and compassion if we listen carefully enough. There is simply nowhere to hide once we follow our journaling practice.

But we can still have blind spots borne out of ignorance. Our inner voice has little to say about things it hasn’t ever experienced. Sometimes we have to push ourselves a little bit further to fully understand what others experience.

This is what I did last week at Diane Torr’s Be a Man for the Day workshop.

I spent the day with six other women writers, none of whom I had met before. We shared our experiences of men and gender. We talked about far more than just cross-dressing. It was an exercise in poetry; in trying to understand male attitudes and behaviours by literally growing a beard – or at least sticking one on –  and wearing the trousers, all for the sake of our writing and our understanding.

Chris Stone

It was revelatory. And strangely taught me more about myself as a woman.

I learned how much I smile as a woman. And laugh. How much I repeat myself in a bid to be heard and acknowledged, or make the right sounds and gestures to ensure others feel comfortable.

In contrast as a ‘man’ all I had to do was own the space I was occupying in order to have an impact. No smiling. No unnecessary chit chat. Certainly no thought for anyone else’s comfort but my own. It felt dour. Aggressive at times.

By the end of the day we had a new-found compassion for men. A new appreciation about the emotional restrictions many men experience, and how hard it must be to forge friendships and meaningful relationships with each other.

The man I became is called Chris Stone. That’s him in the pic. I haven’t yet invited his voice into my journal. Feels a bit scary. But I’m sure it will be fascinating.

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Filed under Perception, Self-Awareness

Swindon Philosophical Society meets Marion Milner

Only 2 hours to go from right now before I begin speaking at Swindon Philo – and sharing my admiration and excitement about the extraordinary British polymath, writer, artist, and psychoanalyst Marion Milner 1900 – 1998.

More to follow…

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Filed under Creative process, Self-Awareness

Happy beads

What can emerge for us in our journals if we take a few moments to ask ourselves “What is the most important thing that happened yesterday?”

According to Marion Milner, 20th century British psychoanalyst, artist and author of A life of one’s own, An experiment in Leisure and Eternity’s Sunrise, we can tell something is important when it shifts us somehow, when we feel a physical response to something, or when a memory or object brings with it a particular warmth.

She describes her ‘important things’ as beads, each of which she describes in exquisite detail in her journals, and these beads she believes give her clues about what makes her happy.

The challenge in this practice is first and foremost to notice when you are moved by an important thing. It requires a particular level of self-awareness to distinguish between an authentic response and a more standard, conventional, only-to-be-expected reaction.

So perhaps the inquiry ought to be made more specific: “What is the most important thing that happened TO YOU yesterday?”

Happy bead threading!

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Me and my shadow… Journaling to illuminate ‘Self’ and ‘Other’

The winner of Britain’s Got Talent 2013 was Hungarian shadow-dance troupe Attraction. They presented three tableaux over the course of the competition which told compelling stories (although the final one was just a touch sycophantic), sending the audience on an emotional inner journey, and clearly appealing to our human fascination with the illusion of shadow.

One of the things I always notice is my shadow. Right back since childhood. Although I no longer try and beat my shadow, or pin it down, I do still appreciate its shape and attitude. Studying Virgil’s Aeneid  for O level Latin I remember learning about Aeneas’ encounter with the insubstantial shades in the Underworld, the shadowy, lost figures of the Dead. But these days I prefer to think of my shadow as evidence of my body, my physicality, substantial and very much alive.

Shadow

It’s good having a body. Not only does it allow us to cast a shadow, it also allows us to play sport, dance, sing, make love, walk out in nature. Sometimes it goes wrong and it gets old, but generally, as long as we look after it and pay attention to it it’s a great source of solace and inspiration too.

Our bodies are vessels of physical intelligence, intuition and deep-seated wisdom, or, to coin a word from Marion Milner, sagacity. And, if we learn to recognise our body as part of ourselves, rather than simply as a vehicle to carry our head around, we can discover much from being in it.

A few weeks ago at the Swindon Festival Of Literature I heard Resurgence editor Satish Kumar define spirituality (from Latin spirare to breathe) as relationship, a particular connection that we share through the act of breathing the same air. And I find that we create relationship with our shadow-casting bodies  through precisely that – breathing; breathing into our physical presence, creating a tingling feeling from the tips of our toes to the top of our head. Milner is particularly struck by the sensation of her skin burgeoning right to the ends of her finger nails as she focuses her attention and her breath on the weight of her body.

This sets the scene for deeper forms of inquiry. Once we’ve been reminded about our physical self by the appearance of our shadow, and we’ve reconnected with our body through the simple, intentional act of breathing, we can then begin to notice what memories we have stored, and what these tell us about who we are.

How we view our relationship with our own physicality is an important aspect of the exploration of self and other that our journaling practice makes possible. It’s a vital starting point.  Whether we think of ourselves as our bodies, or our bodies as part of ourselves, or even as completely separate from who we think ourselves to be, when we dare to go further than our self-righteous, self-pitying rants, we find great stillness in our body. I also know from experience that what my body has to tell me is always valuable, whenever I make space to hear the particular message coming from my back, neck or jaw.

Like Aeneas we might see our physical shadow as our insubstantial ‘other’. But it is an echo of  our substance and can point the way back to the ‘other’ within us.

Otherness is always part of us. The unknown, unconscious functions of our body that enable us to perceive our environment; the mysterious, though entirely rational, rhythm of life which pulses through us day and night; the ability we have to engage in an activity and be aware that we are engaged in it; the ease with which we recognise the “me” and the “not-me-guv” in our physical experience.

Our inquiries go deeper when we develop the capacity to view ourselves objectively. We need to become ‘other’, to get out of our own way and step aside from ourselves in order to look in. We can imagine another self, stepping out of and away from our body to look back whence it came. As we do this we are automatically expanding our imagination, our inner space, which, once expanded, won’t shrink back. We have now become simultaneously the observer and the observed.

Meanwhile the functions of the body continue, and maybe they benefit from increased inner space. Inner reflection and expressive writing in our journals have a proven  feedback loop of health benefits. The space within expands, our awareness increases and from a more objective standpoint our unknown, unconscious and mysterious functions get to choose which of our narrative serves us, and which needs to be jettisoned.

So next time you see your shadow, appreciate its magic and use it as a prompt to expand your inner space. As you look back to your Self from the perspective of your inner Other, what do you notice?

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Filed under Reflective Writing Practice, Self-Awareness

Metaphorically speaking

A neat journaling exercise which works well when you think you’ve got nothing to write about is to pick a seemingly mundane object or activity and explore how it is a metaphor for your current experience.

One of my wonderful participants in this year’s Spring workshop series had a lot of fun with this, and found herself writing about her bowl-of-soup-life, her lantern-life and her smartphone-life. But the best one had to be her kazoo-life: “narrow at both ends and big in the middle, with a lot of input from the top.”

Kazoo

For me my own metaphorical insight happened today as I was rolling paint onto the bathroom walls. (I am purposely redecorating – this wasn’t some insane aberration, though it might be close.)

It struck me that to paint the walls is to take on new habits and new perspectives. When you reach a point in life where a new lick of paint is needed, something to freshen up tired old attitudes and beliefs, the paint roller is your friend. Although it often takes more than one coat to completely eradicate the previous colour, and you’ve got to be careful that you’ve made good the wall, so you’re not just papering over the cracks. (Oops, guilty!)

Sometimes you try a new colour and hate it. I always regret the colour I’ve chosen after I’ve covered two thirds of the wall with it. And I step back and wish I hadn’t bothered. But of course this is when the new colour is still patchy with the old colour showing through, and when the new paint hasn’t dried yet. You’ve got to give new thought patterns time to bed in, to get established – at least time for the paint to dry.

Then there are the edges. How I hate the edges. Messing around with masking tape and then using a brush that’s never the optimum size. And then realising that you hadn’t quite cleaned the wood work properly so the brush gets covered in dust and fluffy bits which you’ve got to pick off really carefully by hand before wiping your paint soaked fingers on the jogging bottoms that weren’t quite your scruffiest clothing item when you started but which definitely are now.

I guess I’m more of a broad bush, not too much attention to detail kind of person. Impatient. Wanting to roll the paint on in quick-sticks and not too fussed about neatness round the edges.

However, when it comes to peeling off the masking tape oh boy! How I love a neat edge! It’s so satisfying to see the join where the two colours meet, and realising “I did that.” Figuratively and literally.

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Beyond ranting – the necessary authenticity on the other side

Our journal writing workshop last evening was yet again a wonderful opportunity to share insights and learn new perspectives. My gratitude goes to workshop participant Elinor who shared a wonderful phrase that somehow landed quite forcefully with me. She said: “Necessity has no emotion.”

The reason why this hit me with such a clunk is because it seems to account for what I have found in my journal beyond the ranting. Once I’ve stripped away the whining voice of my inner critic or the exclamation marks of my ego; when I’ve named and shamed the stuck-on-repeat stories with which I’ve been comforting myself, and once I’ve come to terms with my main vulnerabilities, what’s left is a calm, balanced narrative in which I’m finally able to speak my truth. There are no exclamation marks here. No over-blown claims about my own brilliance. No excuses and convoluted reasons why I won’t/shan’t/can’t. Just calm, logical, plain, straight-forward truth. Well hello.

Pearl

Inner wisdom and authenticity are the pearls I’m constantly encouraging my workshop participants to pursue. These are the buried treasures that our journals can reveal to us, but from whose scent the decoys and false trails of our inner critic, our stories, excuses and egoist self-justifications often throw us. How easily we become distracted and displaced! But every pearl needs its grit. It would be foolish though to mistake the grit for the final product!

In Elinor’s insight I’m seeing that authenticity is akin to necessity. Our authentic self is who we necessarily are – who we cannot avoid being, no matter how many layers of negativity, self-judgement and self justification we heap on top. And when we hear its voice we find pearlescent peace, quiet and truth.

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Filed under Journal Writing, Reflective Writing Practice, Self-Awareness