What can you learn from me? A bit of my story

First, here’s a bit about my story. I’m of the same vintage as Jeff Bezos (I’m actually three years younger, so there’s time for me to catch up…), so let’s do a comparison with him. In his lifetime, as everyone knows, he’s made billions and he’s heading for space. What have I done in my lifetime? Well, I’ve lived in three or four (depending how you count them) countries in the global South, where I worked as a volunteer teacher, and I have a PhD. I’ve written a book, I’ve edited and am waiting to publish another book (for which I have a contract), I’ve contributed chapters to other books, and I’m writing a novel.

Those are things I’ve done that Jeff Bezos hasn’t.

But in terms of impact, what has my impact been? Well, maybe I’m a slow burner. I don’t know what happened in Jeff’s early life. In mine, I had lots of privilege but also lots of trauma leading to mental health issues and the fact that this pushed me into a state of apathy and self disgust meant doing anything was hard. I experienced sexual abuse and have had a long-term, very debilitating eating disorder, throwing up two or three times a day, which meant I self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. All that slowed me down.

Yet, despite all this, I’m really extraordinarily and astonishingly grateful for all I’ve been through. Although I have a lot of reviewing to do, and I don’t understand why I didn’t die and why I had to go through so much abuse and suffering, to have such a difficult relationship with myself, a relationship that was constantly breaking down with an inability to escape from patterns that were deeply damaging, overlaid with secrecy and shame, it gives me a good mirror for understanding the state of the world and I certainly don’t have a Polyanna, everything’s great, attitude to how things are. I have ripped myself apart, sometimes literally ripping my hair out, or waiting on the road, not knowing where I would spend the night. I have a good understanding of violence, hatred, grief, guilt, and escapism, lethargy and utter despair. I’ve done my share of harm, largely in response to the harm done to me.

But I now know that all this is a brilliant way of understanding our relationship, not just with other humans, but with the more-than-human world. My healing, my integration, my yoga, has been to absorb these lessons, not by rejecting or overcoming, but by embracing, and that’s what I want to teach. Attitude polarisation is overcome by understanding our own particular perspective as just that, a point of view, and working to bridge the divide between facts, knowledge and wisdom. Kindness for ourselves is a direct mirror of kindness for others, and for the more-than-human world. And that requires attention and care. Which takes time. I have been lucky to have had time to reflect on all the time I spent being broken, and to begin to see that reflection itself is a manner of seeing, and of drawing together the shattered fragments of a life at once ordinary and extraordinary, a life full of contradictions and twists, but also full of lessons that are now here for the teaching.

I’ve also got a PhD, written a book, run three marathons, and am a mother to two wonderful independent people – all things I think amount to something of value!

The morning’s walk

The morning’s walk unearths the sodden hare, stuck in a second’s frozen

stillness before the swing of my huge whistle

dislodges it and the collared dog’s just

caught as a whiff triggers her all

a-quiver in anticipation of the chance of a chase.

Then three heifers, looking askance,

dance towards us like curious girls at a circus,

skittish. Later, on the shore, the deal trunk half

submerged gives the illusion of a human

head bouncing in the water and the dog

tracks it, hunting with lifted paw, while I walk on, amused.

A concrete post stumped into the bouncing bog

beneath the sand and I wonder how

much of what is now submerged was once

good, contested land. The geese lift, disturbed, and fly into the strong wind

low and slow, looking for sanctuary. They dip down over me into

a field, heeling themselves airward.

Up through the red ash of the turf, the rubble, the dark

windows of holiday homes, hoodies settled on telegraph

poles, the incessant wind, bring rain and the sea on its raw

breath, and I grit my teeth, determined to deal with addictions,

debts, and grievances with equal vigour, chafing at memories of blistering

rows. I recovenant with the ripped air.

What is emerging out of the emergency: an awareness of what we are

We already have the necessary intellectual tools and models to understand the array of problems that are associated with the ecological emergency, including how we perceive the problems, and the link between that, and responding.

It is just that we do not yet see how to link the knowledge we have to this perception.

In other words, we know that the best theories we have point to a review of how we understand our relationship to all systems, and we know what the practical steps are to implement those reviews, but haven’t yet processed, or incorporated that knowledge in how we actually envisage, talk about, or consider the problems.

This, then, is what is emerging out of the emergency: an awareness that we need to talk about the issues, not even necessarily as problems, but as ways of reorienting our understanding of ourselves, of how we speak to one another, and of course of how we walk, think, breathe and feel ourselves as a part of, and not apart from, self, other and the more-than-human world.

Preview of URGENT MATTERS

Just submitted the manuscript for Urgent Matters: philosophy as practice in the ecological emergency. It’s been a year and more in the making and is far from the perfect offering that I’d hoped to be able to present to the world, but as my dad used to say, if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Here’s an extract: 

Philosophy has most relevance in times when beliefs are unthinkingly accepted without critical examination, when ideas and ideologies are swallowed unreflectively. This is where the work of philosophy becomes vital since without due diligence, we cannot assess the validity on which opinions are based. It is said that no progress is achievable in philosophy. 

Yet, philosophy can make progress because narratives and beliefs evolve in context, and require re-examination when the context changes. This might be a contentious sense of the idea of progress, but it is relevant to our current predicament: we urgently need an intellectually rigorous practice that shifts how we think, see, and act, individually and collectively. What philosophy as a practice offers is a way to help us develop a response, individually and collectively as a species, to our current predicament, but also, critically, to recognise that the bounds of our response and responsibility do not end there. 

The Anthropocene makes this abundantly clear: humans co-arise interdependently with all systems, and our impacts affect both global and microscopic, terrestrial, oceanic and atmospheric. The impacts are evident both internally, in how our own physiological and psychological systems are affected, and externally. The ecological emergency includes much more than climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, habitat destruction, and all the associated impacts that fragment, and threaten to create collapse, among the systems that created and sustain us. 

It also includes fragmentation of societies and communities that break up into ideological islands through attitude polarisation. This, in turn, creates increasing threats to systems by those who seek to promote further exploitation at the expense of attempts to regain some system of cooperation and an attitude of compassion which is at the heart of our survival strategies as a species. 

Philosophy has always sought to address questions related both to our place in the universe, and to how to live, given our understanding of our place. Those of us committed to an examined life have used a range of myths, metaphors and narratives to reorientate our own understanding. We also seek ways to exhort to action the increasing numbers of those who would seek to understand what to do about our current predicament, how to do it, and why it matters. Despite its long demise as an academic subject, philosophy has a key role in helping us, as a species, to respond to the ecological emergency. The key question this book seeks to address, then, is what is the practice of philosophy, given the state we find ourselves in?

Reviews of courses: One

Feb 2021

I recently attended an online course on ‘Becoming Present’ with Lucy. I was not sure what to expect but Lucy had been recommending to me by another yoga colleague. I was very pleasantly surprised with the course. Each class seemed to be one of those classes where you say to yourself the time couldn’t be up already’! The whole structure of each class was at a very calm and relaxed rate which obviously helped with the illusion that time was standing still. The emphasis on breathing and the Banda’s was particularly good, and it was the first time in over my 4.5 years of yoga that such attention was paid to both. The other point worth mentioning was that even though it was all very relaxed in each class, we actually did get a good strong almost Vinyasa like a workout. In summary, the course was excellent and I have already agreed to join her next upcoming course. I am delighted to have found Lucy as a teacher.

Bill, Sligo

Let there be Light!

Deep Bows and thanks to @YA and @YAP

First, @YogaAllianceProfessionals recognised me as an experienced teacher three years ago. Now I’ve finally been recognised as an experienced teacher by @YogaAlliance.

I have been teaching yoga for over 20 years and I have a PhD in Philosophy. But I have really struggled with believing in myself as an experienced teacher. I look at 20 and 30 year olds and wonder where they get their sense of assurance! Perhaps as one gets older, one gets a sense of the possibilities of failure as a road to learning, as well as the possibilities of success. Let me be a light to those who continue on the long road of suffering, make mistakes time and again, but maintain the Hatha heart which is a dogged determination to carry on, without fame, without glory, simply because learning and deepening one’s insight inevitably lead one closer to a wise attitude. Compassion is where it’s at for me. I hope I can be of some use to more human and more-than-human systems now that I have achieved this recognition. Onwards!

Let There Be Light!

How my attitude changed

It took a long time to admit that I had been abused. It created shame and guilt, and there were a lot of issues around trust. I was also (still am sometimes) extremely angry. I felt there was no safe way to vent the rage at being let down, at being disconnected, unable to speak, unable to be listened to, and the abuse went on and on and I was only able to connect with it through the access it gave me to feeling wanted, but not in a way that valued me, only for the pleasure that I gave.

I abused a lot of substances, including food, which was the most dangerous for me, because the most difficult to avoid. Worse than alcohol or drugs or sex was the inability to regulate my intake. This was a symbol for me of the chaos I felt internally. I could not get away from it. Many times I thought I would find a way of killing myself. But I was too much of a coward to do more than make scratches on the surface of my skin.

Then I found, very gradually and slowly and with lots of set backs, that I was able to understand myself as though I was watching someone else. It became a trick that I used, and I would soothe myself with soft words, like speaking to a child. I would manage to allow that the day was not ruined, that each time I fell, I could pick myself up. It was exhausting, of course. It still is. But I found I had a sense of compassion for this flailing creature. It was not brutality that had created my wound, but sensitivity. I held myself very gently in my own attention. I began to see the possibility that my own capacity for language, for story-telling, and for listening to stories, human and more-than-human, might offer some consolation to my poor bruised body and brain, the bitten skin around my nails, the heavy yellowed lids, depicting liver damage, the palpitations, the breathless sobbing in the dark. Inside it all, there remains a sliver of lucidity, of a belief in the essential wildness of my own nature, a wildness I share with every living system, with the very way itself. Broken, ragged, but still here, still able to burst with joy at the sound of water running over rocks. My healing is the healing of my own interconnectedness.

A GUIDE TO THE BODHISATTVA’S WAY OF LIFE

by ACHARYA SHANTIDEVA, Translated into English by Stephen Batchelor

LIBRARY OF TIBETAN WORKS & ARCHIVES DHARAMSALA 1979

The Benefit of the Awakening Mind

There is nothing here that has not been explained before

And I have no skill in the art of rhetoric;

Therefore, lacking any intention to benefit others,

I write this in order to acquaint it to my mind.