The Hidden Discipline of Familiarity

January 2019, Soul Notes

This season urges us to transform. To promise ourselves the changes that thus far have eluded us. To imagine a self that is new and shiny emerging in this new year. I’m tempted by the prospect but I also know that a new self is not what I really seek. It’s an intimacy and understanding of my deepest, oldest self, buried underneath the layers of life, conditioning and others’ expectations that I’d dearly like to uncover this year. But that is a much more radical task. To strip off the layers one by one, day by day through the micromoments and movements that are truly ours, rather than the world’s imposition.

Transformation is familiar to me. I’ve made radical changes in my life, often suddenly and with less thought and planning than I would advise. This was a pattern set in place when I was seven years old and my father died suddenly. He was in the army and we lived in Germany. I learned of his death at 3.30pm on Friday afternoon as I came home from school and by the same time the next day, my sister and I were on a plane with my mum heading back to England to live with our grandparents. On Monday we returned to the school we had left a year earlier and on Thursday we buried my dad. One week after this massive loss, normal service was resumed.

I’m shocked by the brutality and efficiency of these events as I look back. Everything geared to getting life back on some recognisable track without any space to process the emotional turmoil in all of us. What this fostered in me was a deep sense that life will go on, whatever happens. I am pretty hard to shock and fabulous in a crisis as a result of this. I’m also able to turn life round in an instant. Move countries – no problem. Change career – just set the course and it shall be done.

Except that that’s only part of the story. Whilst my life was transformed beyond recognition in a matter of days and I adapted quickly on the surface, I was actually quite stuck, transfixed by the trauma of losing a parent and the life I had known in a moment. Releasing myself from the impact of that moment has taken many years and the imprint is still firmly there.

What I am slowly learning is that life is a process of continuous change, made up of micromovements, both conscious and unconscious. Unconsciously, we often live inside our structure. A web of beliefs and patterns of behaviour that we have developed in response to the world as a way of surviving. As we move through life, we become aware both of the structure, and the pull to a different way of living as ourselves.

So, for example, I have developed a way of anticipating what might come next, as a defence against the horror of any future shock that might arrive in my life. I get ready to receive the bad news, to be disappointed and let down. The purpose of this response is to protect me against pain, and to a certain degree it works, as there is a buffer between a shock and my tender self. However, this buffer also blocks pleasure. It also means that I am always a little ahead of myself rather than living the moment right now. As I move to live a life where I am more present for myself, for my loved ones, for my clients, this familiar way of operating is one I am seeking to change. Simply saying I need to be different ignores the huge value of this way of being for me so far. It has allowed me to risk disappointment, failure, rejection. This in turn means I’ve tried things I might not otherwise have dared. I’m super grateful to my buffer. At the same time, I’d like it to soften as I become ready to actually receive and feel some of the pain I’ve been avoiding AND some of the pleasure, ease and fun I’ve been missing out on too.

The poet, David Whyte writes that: “Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.” He is talking about alertness in relationship, and I understand this to apply also in relationship to ourselves. How do I become alert to the familiarity of my self, in order to understand how I am as well as why I am? How do I recognise my thinking pattern and understand what movements come easily to me, and which are unfamiliar? How can I use my breath to pause and create space within me for something beyond the usual response?

I’ve been playing with this concept coming into the new year and I feel like I have several playlists running at the same time internally. One is a list of old favourites, the one I can put on at any time and immediately get into the groove of. This is the one which gets me up each morning and allows me to live a fun and fruitful life. Another is more muffled. It sounds like it's playing on an old tape recorder with the sound cutting in and out. I don’t know some of the tunes. I have to listen carefully to pick up the rhythm. I’m straining a little to be able to sing along and in truth, I can only confidently join the chorus.

D.H. Lawrence wrote that we’re not free when we’re doing what we want, only free when doing what our deepest self wants. I’m beginning to recognise the muffled tunes as the music of my deepest self. It’s amateur and tuneless right now because I haven’t had much practice with it. But it’s coming through faintly and has found a wavelength to reach me on.

So what now? Back to the micromovements. In order to respond to this call, I need to move differently in the world. This doesn’t mean turn my world upside down and change everything (which is the familiar version for me). It means take the baby steps. So one of the tunes that plays urges me to write more. I'm not sure what exactly, just to write. So when I wake in the morning, I reach for the light and I reach for my pen and I write. If I think about writing, my brain tells me I’m not a writer, that I have nothing to say, that I should get some more sleep or else I’ll be too tired to work. However, if I allow my arm to reach in the direction of the pen and jot down a few words, before I know it, I have a story, or a reflection, or a poem. A whole month of writing each morning and I have some things I could never have imagined writing. Other dormant parts of me feeling free to express themselves on the page in the dozy wee hours. And my deepest self smiles contentedly. Her wish is being granted. My ego’s wish to write only if I can be a bestselling author is bypassed by the slow reach which allows me to go at a more human pace.

So my hope and intention for this year is to be attuned to my deepest self in this moment…and this one…and this one. And through the connection, to unearth the unplayed tunes of the last half century and hear some new notes, as well as some old. Rather than anticipate the bad news, I'm appreciating all that's here right now. That's the transformation.

So as you're called back to the demands of the world you're in, what do you notice about your own structure and longing? And what are the smallest of movements that will take you to the edge of yourself?

With love and light for the journey inward,

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