Here at Alamandria we have some inspiring individuals talk to us about themes of self-mastery, meditation, social initative and more. We will be adding to this impressive list so keep checking-in for updates!
Co-founder of the International School of Storytelling, Founding member of Centre for Narrative Leadership, Co-Author of The Storyteller’s Way: Source Book for Inspired Storytelling and Founding Director of the Centre for Biographical Storytelling
THIS INTERVIEW WITH SUE HOLLINGSWORTH WAS DONE WITH EMILY FLETCHER OF ALAMANDRIA FOR THE SEPTEMBER 2016 EDITION OF SPHERE MAGAZINE.
Those who have had the fortune to be in the presence of Sue Hollingsworth will have felt the palpable vitality, enthusiasm and warmth that imbues her prodigious style of storytelling, coaching and performance.
A modern-day raconteuse with a particular skill for forming and performing biographical stories, she leads the audience into realms of imaginative personal landscapes – non-fictional reflections embodying archetypal themes of what it means to be truly human. Some New Zealanders experienced this firsthand when she performed her Camino stories at St Peter’s Hall in Paekakariki a few years ago.
In this interview, we discover that Sue is sharing stories and working as a coach, leader, storyteller and author with a talent for the imaginative and an aptitude for truth finding. Based in Sussex, UK, Sue has run workshops all over the world, including here in New Zealand, and with a special connection to her work in South Africa, every year involves an itinerant schedule full of fruitful encounters.
In her consultancy work, she has taken narrative storytelling into global organisations such as BP, Shell and UK banks as well as charities, and runs courses for social activists and entrepreneurs. Sue has just wrapped up a tenure of 22 years for the International School of Storytelling based at Emerson College, and is ready to launch her new initiative, the Centre for Biographical Storytelling, in October. As she stands on this cusp of change, Emily Fletcher of Alamandria was lucky enough to talk to her about themes of leadership, self-transformation and the crucial role of storytelling in the world today. We set the scene with three of the Facebook entries Sue posted whilst running a course in Turkey during the recent coup.
FACEBOOK POST – July 18
Today I started a biographical storytelling workshop called This Being Human here in Turkey. Last night, not long after I flew out of Istanbul airport down south to the workshop venue, there was a military coup. All the people on the workshop have family and friends in the big cities of Istanbul and Ankara that they are afraid for and this morning at breakfast, everyone was watching the news on their I-Pads, speaking on their phones and discussing the latest pictures on the net.
Suddenly one of the storytellers said, “Look at this!” As we peered over her shoulder at her screen, we saw a photograph of a man lying face down on a road. The picture was taken at night and had the headline “Bodies lie on the streets of Ankara”.
“That’s not Ankara,” she said, “I’ve seen that same photo last week and it said it came from Nice!” As we watched, she quickly scrolled back through her news feed until she found the photo she wanted. We looked. Same street, same body, different location in the headline. There was a long silence. Then another storyteller exclaimed, “and how could it be Ankara anyway? Nowhere in Turkey has double yellow lines on the roads like there are in that photo.” And it’s true, nowhere in Turkey has double yellow lines on the roads.
The image of some unknown human being’s death, perhaps in Nice, perhaps anywhere in the world, but certainly not in Turkey, had been recycled, misrepresented and dishonoured in service of a story. I felt the presence then of the ever growing danger of the shadow side of storytelling – the ability to manipulate, to speak propaganda, to create illusion.
I was reminded of the poem from David Whyte called Loaves and Fishes, which says:
This is not the age of information,
This is NOT the age of information.
Forget the news and the radio and the blurred screen.
This is the time of loaves and fishes.
People are hungry and one good word is bread
For a thousand.
May we all spread our good storytelling words into a world which is hungry for them.
FACEBOOK POST – July 21
Today we heard that all public gatherings have been made illegal for 3 months. This means that the storytelling festival here in Datca that was planned for the weekend has had to be cancelled – the stories cannot be told. The ban particularly specifies gatherings of an artistic nature and this reminded me of a story that is included in The Storyteller’s Way. On page 176 the story is told of how Stalin, in the early days of his power, “invited all the traditional storytellers in the Ukraine – the Kobzars – to gather for a conference. They came, young and old, bearing with them the wisdom of the ages, the sagas that had been passed down to them, the wonder tales, the folktales, the fables, the staff of life that had given people hope for centuries. They came because they had been invited to a feast, they came because they thought they were to be honoured. They were all slaughtered.”
It is not only Stalin who understands the power of storytelling and all other forms of art, to nourish people’s souls, to give them hope to endure, to make suffering bearable and to keep communities alive. It is a strange and wonderful thing to be a storyteller in a country where storytelling festivals have been banned, for now I know more than ever the power we storytellers still have in this technological age. Let no-one doubt it, stories can still be a threat.
So, meanwhile, we carry on doing our story work, sitting under the huge spreading tree in the heat of the day. Please spare a thought for all these fine people in this uncertain future.
FACEBOOK POST – July 28
Flying back from Turkey I was thinking about the workshop I had run there, all the political and personal upheavals we had experienced and the beautiful people I had met. I was reflecting that the title of the workshop, This Being Human couldn’t have been better to describe working on personal stories in those circumstances. The title comes from the poem by Rumi called The Guesthouse:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.
So, even though the flight was very late (thanks Easyjet!), some people around me were drunk and children were crying with tiredness, still I felt the inner glow that comes from feeling like you are in the right place at the right time.
I tumbled into my taxi at peace with the world and, catching up on happenings in the UK with my taxi driver as we sped off into the night, she began to talk about the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Casually she said, “He seems a good man, pity he’s a coloured.” I was shocked. After a week in the marvellous company of my Turkish friends, sharing deeply the stories of what this being human is all about, these casual words, spoken with the assumption that it was absolutely OK to do so and that I would probably agree with her, took my breath away. For a moment I sat silently, trying to practise welcoming her words into the guesthouse of my heart, practising being grateful for whatever comes as the poem says and then, out of the peace that followed, I quietly started telling her about where I’d come from, what the people in Turkey are experiencing right now and how much hospitality and love I had been shown. At the end I said, “I don’t think the colour of your skin makes a difference to having a good heart you know and having a good heart is the most important thing in life.” I’d love to say that a great light filled the taxi, that she turned to me with tears in her eyes saying “thank you, thank you!” but it didn’t. However, there was a thoughtful silence which is perhaps the best that can be expected. I do so hope that in the wake of Brexit and the reported rise of racist attacks in this country, that through my storytelling work I can find a way to help myself, and those who meet me, remember that we are all human and that this being human business is messy, complicated and never black and white.
Sue, you recently returned from running a storytelling workshop called This Being Human in Turkey. You left Istanbul and arrived at the venue in Datca at the same time the military coup kicked off and posted some updates on Facebook during your time there. We have included some of your posts with this interview – is there anything else you can add about the reactions and responses of the people you came into contact with whilst you were there?
Yes, all the people I worked with were Turkish, and their families lived in Istanbul or Ankara, caught up in the coup, so every one was very anxious about them. Each morning when we started, there was a long process of checking in with each other, seeing where we each were and sharing the stories we had all heard about the situation. Every morning, it took at least 45 minutes to help the group into a place where they could be really present for what we were going to do. Then we would work together for 45 minutes, there would be a break, and in the break, they would, of course, phone their families and go online so that, when they came back, they would once more be off-centre, and the process would start all over again. What I could feel was that, in that process, what I was really doing was helping them build their centre each time – helping them come to a more upright place in themselves.
Throughout each day, the texts would be coming through on people’s phones, and one particular text from the government – who had control over the phone network – said something like there will be a spontaneous riot in support of the government, in a particular square at a particular time, and we will know if you don’t come. So here we were in this workshop called This Being Human, and there was modern technology enabling messages to come straight in and attack the ego forces, attack the centre of all these people.
The reflections I received at the end of the course were extraordinary, the participants expressing how grateful they were to me for holding that space for them. I realised that all the work I was doing holding the space was, in a certain sense, a silent, invisible, leadership role. It was managing the ‘guesthouse’ that Rumi refers to, with all these unexpected guests flooding in – not just through the door this time, but the windows, the chimney, everywhere! – and I was having to welcome these unexpected guests hourly and deal with the most incredible extremes.
I saw something in that process that I have been interested in for a long time in respect to leadership. Normally when we think of leadership, we almost always think of a masculine role model that involves charismatic speaking, dynamic decision making and a sort of gung-ho attitude involving a lot of certainty. I am interested in a more integrated form of leadership that involves more of the feminine, and during this week in Turkey, I was able to actualise this. My role did not depend on any of those qualities that I have just mentioned – rather, it depended on holding a strong space for people through my own words and actions. I did not need to say or do very much, I just had to be there with a whole lot of presence and awakeness to enable the group to be centred. At the end of the week, some of them gathered around and said, “We don’t know what you have been doing this week, Sue, but we want to learn, because we don’t want to be pulled left and right and be tossed around all the time.” And it led to the most amazing conversations. These are people who have no formal understanding of anthroposophy but who are deeply connected to the spiritual world and have a longing and thirst for what that can bring.
Whilst you were in Turkey, you visited an artist who gave you a special gift?
Yes, her name was Guler Yucel, a painter in her 80s who is also the wife of a famous Turkish poet, Can Yucel. She gave me a print of one of her paintings of a broom, which I love. As part of the painting, the words “They think I am sweeping the floor but really I am writing poetry” are inscribed. It spoke to me of the secret life of women in societies where they don’t enjoy as much freedom as others – societies where they can appear to be wholly engaged in some domestic task whilst their minds and thoughts are free to create art, to think unthinkable thoughts, to contemplate radical actions. It helped me remember that, in any repressive political situation, we all have the individual freedom of our thoughts and the ability to have a creative response to ANY situation.
How to do you step into that leadership role and keep your own centre?
To answer that, I really need to talk about what happens before I step into that role. Prior to running a workshop or doing a piece of storytelling consultancy, I find I need a huge amount of silence and aloneness – I need to eat and sleep well and spend the alone time focusing on the people I will be working with whilst holding the question, “What is it I need to bring to the group?” No matter what the theme, it is the same approach. Some people are able to do this quite easily and quickly, but I must say, for me, the silence, aloneness and focusing in is not an easy or quick time. And I also really need silence and aloneness during the work itself, so I try and organise my schedule so I have real time to centre myself and connect in and review the conversations and experiences each day. These processes help keep me grounded.
The other thing that is very important is that I sing, dance and play games with people (even in business!), and what I find is that these three things help a group to breathe healthily. A lot of people these days breathe in but often don’t breathe out fully, and in a stressful situation, the tendency is to just breathe in – short in-breaths – with just a slight letting out of breath. But what is actually needed is a full out-breath, and so I tend in those situations to work more energetically and bring in a lot of silly things where people can laugh. Laughter helps to flood the body with endorphins, and it really helps people to cope better. I try to work as wholesomely as possible with thinking, feeling, willing – keeping people active and giving them time to reflect – all things that really help us connect all our bodies together again.
Can you tell us a little of the essential themes in your workshop This Being Human – for example, how can we keep in contact with our true ‘humanness’ today?
When we try and help people to become more truly human, we become more truly human ourselves. From a storytelling perspective, the major thing I am trying to do is to create a safe environment for people to be able to be vulnerable and then combine it with the incredibly potent force of biographical storytelling – the telling of true life stories. When people feel safe and they allow themselves to be vulnerable, deep stories come out and a sacred space is created. People can hear themselves speak about things that really matter, and the highest possible listening can take place. When people have shared their stories, the blossoming of compassion can be huge. So when you ask the core question, “How can we keep in contact with our true humanness?”, I think the true quality I am most looking to awaken in myself and others is compassion and empathy. I feel that the core work I do is very aligned with what Rudolf Steiner is speaking about in the lecture The Work of the Angels in Man’s Astral Body, where he speaks about true brotherhood and the development of empathy – this is something I am trying to align with as best I can.
You are a founding member of the Centre for Narrative Leadership – an organisation that focuses on organisational storytelling. Why is it important for global and local corporations to take up the mantle of storytelling?
I have a business background, and until the age of 36, I was working for a global IT company. I think it became clear to me then that a key leadership competency is the ability to tell a compelling story. A very old definition of leadership by Dale Carnegie is “a leader is someone who has earned the right to have followers”. The question is, how do you earn the right to have followers? One of the answers to that question is to be clear about your own story and to cultivate the ability to express it in a way that is compelling, that is human and that also has what is called in the industry ‘reach’. If you are speaking to 50 people in a room, you need to tell a story in such a way that it is easy to remember, it is inspiring and that it will move them enough that they go away and tell other people – the number of people who ultimately hear the story is the reach. Receiving such a story secondhand from a colleague, cast in their own words and telling of the effect it had on them, is worth its weight in gold to an organisation.
The theme of our issue is working in the world with renewal, innovation, courage and inspired leadership – do you have a story that can speak to the essential qualities of leadership?
There are many, many stories that speak to different kinds of leadership and different situations. I tend to avoid this kind of question about whether there is a particular story because each situation is so unique. Sometimes it can look on the outside that everything is the same in an organisation, but it is actually not – the culture, the atmosphere, the language varies enormously. When I walk into an organisation, usually I am immediately aware of it when I arrive at the reception, when I see people talking to one another, even the way in which the receptionist phones up the person to let them know I have arrived. Sometimes, I just have to see the architecture of the place, and I know that whatever is going on there is a Greek tragedy, and there is going to be back stabbing and blood on the floor like Clytemnestra stabbing Agamemnon! But then you walk into another organisation and something about the set-up at reception and how people speak to one another gives a feeling of something that is deeply lunar, that comes out of a true receptivity for one another, and in this situation, I tend to head towards an Asian story – I always find those stories are very round like the full moon, I get a picture of them like that – or you may find an organisation that has lots of jokes, goodwill and a very masculine engagement and needs a very robust story, so in that instance, I may choose a story from the African continent. So as you can see, I try to match the organisation not just to the elements of the story and the plotline but to the culture the story comes from.
However, there are two short Zen stories that I find I use in the business world more that any other stories. The first one is about a master archer who was walking from village to village. Walking along the road one day with his beautiful ancient bow and quiver of arrows, he saw up ahead a house with a barn, and on the side of the barn were many bullseyes, and in the exact centre of each was an arrow. The master knew that he himself could not have achieved such accuracy, even after 60 years of practice, so he left the path and walked up to the house and knocked on the door to enquire of the master that lived there. The door was opened by a small boy. “I am looking for the one that shot the arrows,” the archery master said. The boy replied, “It was me, it was me!” The master bowed and said, “I would be honoured if you would show me.” “Of course!”, and picking up his cheap bow and arrow, the boy skipped out to the barn and said, “Watch this!” He drew back his arrow and let fly. The arrow went right into the side of the barn but nowhere near a target. He then ran up to the wall, picked up a paint brush that was lying there and painted the target around the arrow. Organisations can be so target driven and sometimes it is important to take a step back and look at what is really going on. Something like this story can free the conversation up incredibly.
The other story I often find myself telling is about the high-flying business executive who was running a global organisation. He was busy, busy, busy. He had three secretaries working for him. He was constantly adding to his schedule, he knew what he was doing a year ahead and he flew all around the world doing all kinds of deals. But just lately, he was feeling something wasn’t quite right, that things were not gelling as they used to. His gut feeling was that he needed advice, and at that particular point in time, he heard about a Zen master in Tokyo who apparently gave extraordinary answers to questions. And so without hesitation, he got his secretaries to book an appointment, get him on a first-class flight to Tokyo, and off he went with his briefcase. When he arrived at the Zen master’s home, he was shown into a beautiful Japanese garden. He walked straight through the garden to a tea house and was told to wait for the master there. There were no chairs, only a low table, and so he had to kneel down and wait. Minutes were ticking by and the master did not appear, and he looked at his watch thinking, “I only have a few hours before I have to be back at the airport to fly home!”. The master then appeared and called for tea. The businessman said, “What I really want to ask you is …” The master held up a hand, “Please, it is my custom to pour tea before we talk”, and the businessman thought, “Fine, if this is what I have to do to get my question answered, then I will” and he sat there, twitching with impatience. Soon, two beautiful cups were given to them, made of the most exquisite translucent porcelain, with a teapot to match. The master started to pour tea for his guest first – and he kept pouring and pouring until the cup filled and then overflowed all over the table, dripping off onto the floor. “What’s going on?!” said the businessman, “Stop pouring the tea!” The Zen master said, “You are like this cup, full to overflowing. Until you have emptied yourself, I cannot teach you anything.”
Sue, you are very active on Facebook now, and you seem to have the knack for sharing moving and heartfelt stories and messages from all over the world on your page. Why did you decide to become ‘Facebook active’ now, and how do you decide what is important to share and what is important not to share? What is the difference?
I have always been very dismissive of Facebook in the past, and I have really not wanted to engage with it – it has always felt like communication of the lowest common denominator. I used to read articles and talk to people who would speak of the abusive nature of posts, bad language, lack of depth, and I thought this is not for me, this is the antithesis of storytelling! Then a couple of months ago, I found myself in a conversation where someone was complaining about Facebook and blaming the technology. I found myself saying what I usually say, which is “It’s not to do with the technology, it is to do with the consciousness of those of us who use it.” I have said this so many times, but at that moment, I woke up and actually heard myself say it and thought, “Well, it is all very well to say that, Sue, but you have to live it!” I then thought I need to shine a light and engage thoughtfully, respectfully, consciously, spiritually, without bad language and with a rounded perspective where I can bring something artistic like a poem, a story, something that is reflective that can help nourish people. I saw this as a challenge.
Then when I went to Turkey, I knew I had something to say that was important, and so that first post, which you have included here from 18 July, that was really my first post of substance. I felt absolutely aligned with what I wrote, and I felt I communicated what was going on in an artistic and rounded way. Much to my surprise, that post was shared 59 times. At that moment, I did not really realise what that meant because I didn’t know that if you got 9 or 10 shares you are doing really well! When I realised how many people had read what I had written, it proved to me once and for all it is down to how you engage. So generally, that is my criteria for my own posts – does it enlarge the picture of what it means to be human?
I also share things that others have posted, which I have personally found useful to give me a bigger picture. When I do that, I often write something at the beginning – a little sentence that lets people know why I am offering this up to them in order that they spend their valuable life energy on it. I want to create a place of trust – this is the primary bedrock of my work, and this is what I am trying to do here too. And unashamedly, I post anything by Michael Leunig because he makes me laugh, cry, think and hope – I cannot praise his work enough!
We are bombarded with stories every day – news media stories, stories in our advertising to sell products and personal stories through social media forums. What are your thoughts regarding what seems to be a desensitising of our feeling for the truth that may lie within a message or story?
On a very basic level, with respect to Facebook, it is very important to check things out – to not take things at face value. A good example that happened last week was a friend of mine posted something about fracking. It was a photograph, and it had a sign that was saying something like “this used to be the site of a village that was destroyed by fracking”, and my friend who had posted it had written the comment “Frack off”. I looked at this sign, and I saw that at the bottom of it was the date 2020, and I thought, “This is a future date – where is this place?” So then I went onto Google, keyed in the name of the village that was written on the sign, and I saw that it was actually part of an art installation by an artist who was commenting and opening up our ideas and thoughts on fracking. So though this was a true piece of art, this village did not actually exist and the context in which my friend posted this, in order to gain support for the anti-fracking movement, was in another sense totally untrue. I wrote back to my friend and said, “I am totally in agreement with you, but I am afraid this image is part of an art installation.”
On a very basic level, it is important to ensure, when you are dealing with technology, that you have read it, thought about it and confirmed it is what you think it is. There was a wonderful test on Facebook last week. There was a headline “Giant asteroid on collision course with the Earth”. It was an inflammatory headline, a panicky kind of story, and when I looked at it, I thought, “What, don’t be daft, what’s this all about?” But I clicked on it because a friend of mine, someone I trusted, had posted it to me, and the comment they had written was, “This looks like it’s come right out of the blue.” The opening paragraph, which was about three lines long, spoke about the giant asteroid and how it was going to hit the Earth next week, but in the following paragraph, it went on to say that there was no giant asteroid about to hit the Earth, that that was not what the post was about but please carry on reading. When I read on further, the post was about whether people read things before they post it, and this post was a test. At the very end, it said, “If you have read to this point, please repost and put a colour in the comment of the title so that we can see that you’ve read it” and so I reposted it saying, “This made me see red.” What happened was that many people posted comments, saying things like, “For goodness sake, Sue, this could never happen!” or “I can’t believe it, how could they not tell us!” – all this kind of very reactionary stuff – and I very patiently went through each one and wrote, “I can tell you haven’t read the article, you may want to go back and look.” And out of all the people who reacted, only two people went back and read the article. I thought, OK, again this thing about truth and lie comes down to consciousness and what kind of consciousness you are using when you are with technology. Are you awake or does the very technology itself send you to sleep? Of course, Ahriman* is embedded in all this technology, but I think technology is a challenge that is calling us to be really awake because you can use it in a way that combats those Ahrimanic forces. This requires using our power of thinking, because often, when people are using Facebook, they are in the willing area – posting this and that and clearing their notifications – or they are in the feeling realm where they are reacting emotionally and sometimes spreading a lot of distress and hatred. If you can be awake in your thinking and think discriminately and check things out, it is an enormous training in discernment. Can you discern what is going on here, can you work with this in a spiritually awake way? That is what I am experimenting with at the moment. I don’t know how well I will do, but I am looking on this as a training.
Where in the world do you see story is missing today, and how could it offer transformation to that place, people or movement?
I think the best way I can answer that is to say the place is anywhere there are fundamentalist opinions or points of view, religions or parties. In these places, there is not the diversity, the subtlety or the complexity of what I call ‘Story’. There is only one story, and you either go with it or you don’t. I personally find those situations quite frightening, because if you try and speak to people who have fundamentalist beliefs, you will never get past their belief in the one story they think it is their duty or task to infect everyone with and their belief that the world will not be a better place until everyone believes it. That is where I find ‘Story’, as I understand it, almost completely absent.
How can story inspire and facilitate the transformation of our ‘I’ and illumine our higher self?
When I first started working with biographical storytelling back in 2003, I was learning what was actually a brand new art form, because people weren’t really telling them except for family histories. They were not telling personal stories on a wide platform for entertainment or at big gatherings. So I had to experiment a lot, and for a while, I was happy with what I was doing. I managed to understand that, for a successful story, I needed to shape and structure it in order for the story to ‘land’ and be able to do the work. But after a few years, I became increasingly disappointed and frustrated with my storytelling, and I felt there was something really missing, that there was opportunity in the story that I wasn’t seeing or grasping, and after quite a long time, I realised that, for me, a personal story needed to be purposeful, it had to have a meaning in it, just like a traditional story, otherwise why would I be wasting other people’s time? I would just be egotistical or boring. Questions arose in me such as, “What gives me the right to inflict that on somebody else?”, and I became increasingly frustrated until I realised that I had been missing out an essential ingredient. This is what I now work with when I am teaching, and it’s that last bit that I call ‘the reflection’. It is an opportunity for the teller to look back on the story and their life to see where they are now and to reflect on the past from this present moment. You look at your life story, you look at what happened and you pass on to the audience in a very simple way, in a few words, why are you telling this story and what it has meant to you. What I discovered when I did this was I had to do a lot of reflection myself before I could create or form a reflection for others. I had to work deeply with my life story, and this process takes time, it does not come easily. You sink down through the levels of understanding as to why you are telling this story, but when you get to that final essence, then an extraordinary thing starts to happen. People start to understand themselves more, they uncover their highest sense of themselves. It seems to reinforce the value of the life they have lived, and sometimes, in this way, they can come into their first contact with their higher self. The finding of the reflection is always a very profound moment in my work. It’s a sacred moment where the mystery of what it is to be human is at its most ineffable.
In other ways, when I am working with a true life story, I am also seeking the archetypes, the images that resonate beyond the simple words to strike a chord in our psyches. They are embedded in traditional stories anyway, so the telling of these can open us up to a wide imaginative inner landscape. The question for me is, “How can we live our lives in a more mythic and meaningful way, even more connected to our higher self and purpose? And how, as a storyteller, can I convey those experiences through my voice, my body, my imagination and my words?”
What is your personal approach to a contemplative practice? Do you meditate?
Yes, I do meditate, but for me, it is not the most powerful practice that I have. My most powerful contemplative practice is walking alone in nature. I try to find time to do that on a very regular basis, and sometimes I do this for weeks on my own during the year. It engages my whole rhythmic body. My breathing and my heart become more rhythmic, my whole body is moving with the pace, and I am completely attuned to the ground I am walking on. I can feel the slightest change to the texture of earth and to the inclination of it. For me, the earth is like one big story, and I am respectfully walking on that story and listening as deeply as I can. When I am walking in that space, often new ideas are given to me and many new things are possible. I lead walking and storytelling courses in the UK and South Africa to help give people this wonderful experience and, in fact, Judy Frost-Evans of the In the Belly of the Whale School of Storytelling, based in Pukerua Bay, walked with me along the Ridgeway in the UK one year!
*Ahriman is the name of a super-sensible being of great power, recognised in early Assyrian culture, who wishes to prevent the intended spiritual evolution of humankind through hardening, ossifying and contracting processes that can be found especially in the thinking life of humans – notably in materialistic intellectual thought.
Read more about Sue at:
(this website will be launched end of October 2016)
Sphere is the New Zealand Anthroposophical Society’s annual publication. www.anthroposophy.org.nz
THIS INTERVIEW WITH NICANOR PERLAS WAS DONE WITH MARK GEARD OF ALAMANDRIA FOR THE SEPTEMBER 2016 EDITION OF SPHERE MAGAZINE.
MG: Why is meditation important in today’s world?
NP: For me, the foundations of meditation are the attention exercises that one uses to strengthen one’s thinking, emotional balance and action. You cannot do meditation without attention. I think you need to allow the modern world to move back a little so you can concentrate on developing attention. Then you can approach meditation. It’s absolutely imperative for people, especially in the 21st century, to develop their power of attention. The mind is so scattered with all of the fast-moving media that surrounds us – the TV shows, the internet etc – all of this can lead to a mind that is disrupted and disturbed. If you don’t strengthen attention forces, you cannot really fully engage in so many things that are essential in the world.
If you intensify that attention so that it leads to meditation, which is another level of awareness, you start accessing other aspects of reality that you don’t normally access. These aspects don’t have to be deep realities about seeing the invisible – rather, they can increase your power to see patterns in reality such as in conversation or patterns in large group processes. It intensifies this power of engagement because you are totally focused, you are ‘listening’, and then with your meditative power, you are able to perceive things that are not apparent to our outer sensory experiences.
This can apply to all facets of life, because eventually, everything depends on whether you have free attention or not as opposed to a pre-programme that’s running and interpreting all the sense perceptions that you’re not paying attention to anyway. So this approach to meditation, via the development of attention, makes for a very solid presence in the world.
MG: Mindfulness has become globally popular. Is it the main staging platform today for transforming what you have referred to as the constructed self – that responsive part of us that has been programmed through our biological, societal and environmental conditioning?
NP: Yes, I think so, for a number of reasons. First of all, mindfulness trains attention. There are many mindfulness techniques you can use, such as focusing your breath or focusing on a sound, as long as your attention is engaged. The reason why it is a major platform is because, in this scientific age, researchers have discovered the neural correlates to mindfulness. There are thousands of studies by both mainstream scientists and some of the world’s cutting-edge neuroscientific researchers who are engaging with people who have practised mindfulness and meditation for a long time. I believe it is on the basis of this scientific research that you have mainstream institutions like Google, Facebook and the Wisdom 2.0 conference playing a large part in the mindfulness revolution. And it has been called a revolution. It is entering into established frameworks such as the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and many universities and is becoming far reaching.
So it is definitely a major platform, and that is because it is no longer seen as a soft and fuzzy concept and neither is it anecdotal. You begin to really understand what you are doing when you are practising mindfulness. You become aware of what is happening in your brain and what that actually means. It is this awareness that can hasten the impact and the improvements within mindfulness and meditation practices.
MG: Where does the impulse for change and transformation come from? What makes us want to change?
NP: It’s basically our innate sense of freedom. If that sense really lives strongly in us, we want to transform something that has become dead in us or dead in society. So if you feel or sense yourself to be a free person, you can change something that no longer works and create something that can work in a new context – a context that is always evolving. What might have worked in the past may no longer work in a new context, and that is the impulse – it is freedom.
MG: I work with some inmates in a prison therapy unit, and I try and engage them in experiencing something other than habitual ways of being, which are embedded in their constructed self and their criminal past. I sometimes ask them what is the impulse that makes them want to change.
NP: Aside from freedom, it’s the liberation to experience your true nature. If you are just really basically following orders – and by orders, I am referring to the inner dictator, the ‘constructed self’ dictator, and there are many different kinds of dictators there inside you, telling you what to do – then you can become a puppet for that dictator, but if you realise that you’re not really free and you cannot really experience your true nature or your true self, then you would really want to change.
MG: What defines an anthroposophical approach to meditation from other methods of meditation?
NP: I think the most important aspect, especially in comparison to mindfulness, is it’s a scientific approach to meditation. I am not saying that mindfulness is not scientific, so perhaps the better term is a cognitive approach to meditation. Mindfulness is more on the perceptual side. You are mindful with the breath, being in the present moment and developing your attention. Mindfulness can include realms that are more cognitive, for example, not judging, so when you see emotions rising up, you try and cultivate the non-judgemental attitude. But in the anthroposophical path of meditation, you’re actually trying to enter into the thoughts of the creation of the world. In my experience, I combine both. I use the mindfulness as a kind of warming up that helps develop my attention forces, and then I am ready for the more difficult work of doing the anthroposophical meditation of which there are many themes. Sometimes I construct my own, because after all, it’s not what you meditate on but the impact that it creates in you that’s important. It gives you a solid grounding in the world, because you are really dealing with the order that created the world, so you enter into that realm, wakefully, consciously, coherently and integrally.
MG: Why does the path of self-mastery become more difficult the further we progress and evolve as humans?
NP: Because there is so much to focus on in modern civilisation, such as the titillating of our ego and our powers of consumption. It does not require self-mastery for your ego to get titillated. That’s a term, by the way, that’s used in foreign policy. In fact, Brzezinski, a very famous US National Security Advisor at one point, was saying that he was predicting the time will come when there’s so much automation in the world that, to satisfy people, you will have to fall back on superficial ‘titilltainment’. Much of the world is like that, like Facebook – sorry Facebook believers – and Twitter and all of those forms of distraction.
MG: We often hear the term ‘dead thinking’ and the term ‘living thinking’. What do they mean?
NP: Modern psychology has a lot of names for thinking, such as the story that keeps on running by itself automatically in your brain or the mental model that just operates and gets triggered without your control. This huge aspect of yourself can trigger itself automatically and ‘drive you out’ to wherever it wants to take you, whereas living thinking is actually a very different kind of thinking because it will not happen unless you are engaged in it as the key agent and creator. That’s why, in my own practice, when these automatic thoughts and feelings start to come up, I will take a look at them and reflect on them and begin to understand that they are just given, they arrive without my will. But the moment you start taking control consciously of something, you are starting to engage your living thinking in the process. It cannot happen without your free activation, whereas dead thinking happens all the time, even though you don’t want it to happen. In neuroscience, it’s called the monkey brain. It’s very noisy! – especially when you’re trying to practise mindfulness or trying to focus. These automatic thoughts, they keep coming. That is dead thinking, they are not really alive.
MG: A machine almost.
NP: Yes, and when you start to see them and to analyse the structure of that dead thinking and its possible origins in the world and contemplate commencing a thought that is no longer a given, then you see it cannot take place without your free will activity, which is living thinking.
MG: We hear so much about the place of science and technology being at the defining edge of our future development as human society. Are the arts part of this defining process, and what is their task in relation to the unfolding of a subnature?
NP: Very interesting question, because I’ve now begun to realise, through a meditative path, that the world is actually created artistically. In other words, you cannot see the forms of the world, the patterns, the interconnectedness if you don’t have living thinking as a segue from that conversation. And art is a very important part in two directions. The first direction is that it allows you to see the living connections – you see the form, the form of the cognitive world – and secondly, you have a free decision on what to do with that form that you’re seeing and how you’re going to express that into the world. That is why in Greek, art and technology have the same word – techne. Techne means both art and technology.