Often when we become aware of some part of ourselves that is stuck, we want to fix or change it STRAIGHT away! ‘OK,’ we say to ourselves when we’ve caught ourselves involved in a soul pattern we don’t like, ‘I’m NEVER going to do that again.’ We just want to be well rid of our habit of self-sabotage, our lack of trust in ourselves, our tendency towards criticising others, or whatever unhelpful habit our soul slips into.
Yet the pattern is resistant. Whatever forces counter our self-development seem to be very attached to it. When the right circumstances arise, we risk being carried off by it before we’ve even noticed, in spite of our vow. On the very next occasion when we were going to choose a new behaviour, we’re suddenly there again in the middle of our particular form of reactivity. So we might find ourselves bullied yet again because we can’t state what we’d like clearly and in terms someone else can understand and relate to, or we feel rejected because what we’re offering isn’t wanted.
When we are resilient, when our soul life is broad and flexible enough to take in a range of feelings without entering reactivity, then we don’t get caught up in the pattern, or at least not quite so easily. But most of us are here on earth to learn something and our reactivity, although often painful, is one of the ways that we find out what it is that we most need to learn.
When we begin to notice our reactive patterns, it’s a bit like the council inspecting the footpaths for signs of wear. We leave ourselves a mark that says, ‘Hmm, this crack, this uneven section, needs repair.’ We then slap a high visibility stripe or a wiggle on the offending pattern.
Giving them this kind of attention makes it a little easier to notice our habits of reactivity, but we may still trip over them the next time we pass. Like a cash-strapped council, we might not have what is needed in our soul budget to effect an immediate repair.
It’s our creative soul resources that can transform this reactivity into something different. You can think of it as a shift of the ‘c’—putting the ‘c’ for consciousness in front is the first step.
We may need to build up our resources or give ourselves the opportunity to become familiar with the areas that need attention in our soul life so we can allow transformation.
Please notice I said allow, rather than force ourselves to change, or work ourselves into a state about our inability to change. Soul work requires a mix of strong intention, gentle but powerful attention, creativity, and patience.
We can set the intention after we are conscious of the areas in need of repair—check out our soul footpaths and see where there are cracks and gaps and what they may require of us. ‘I want to get better at responding when I feel bullied.’ ‘I need to find a habit of self-encouragement rather than self-sabotage.’ ‘I want to be more patient with my partner.’
We can cultivate strong powers of attention by meditative and contemplative practice. A rhythm of practice is the best way to do this, even if we struggle with the practice itself. The turning up is the thing; it hones our powers of awareness.
Then we need to cultivate patience and self-compassion so that we can allow and encourage creative transformation.
I’ll give you an example. ‘Why can’t you stand in your own work more strongly?’ I admonished myself. ‘What’s wrong with you, Clare? You value it and trust it and you can see that it has value for others, maybe not the whole world, but your particular nîche portion of it. Grow up! Buck up! Be brave!’ From that little burst of self-criticism, a whole round of negative self-talk would start up. ‘You don’t have a brass plate, an embossed business card, a brand or a trade mark to represent you. You haven’t got a mortgage, a late model silver SUV, a partner, a golden retriever…’ ‘You’re not good enough.’ ‘Not rich enough!’ ‘Not smart enough.’ One or two of you may be familiar with this kind of thing.
I had the privilege of bringing this situation to a group that I learn with, using what is known as case clinic process we used as part of the u.lab mooc. It is based on the presencing work of Otto Scharmer (I highly recommend this mooc for all social entrepreneurs. There’s a new course starting in September). As part of the case clinic, a member of the group brings a current professional or personal situation where they seek learning and describe it to the group for their responses. Initially, the group offers their reflections through images, feelings and gestures. Thanks to the creative reflections offered by the members of this group, I was able to recognise my habit. We had a conversation about it which led to lots of fruitful reflection.
Later I continued my contemplation as I travelled home by train, and heard a familiar chorus of negative voices threaten. ‘Hey, little reactive pattern. I see you!’ I cried, well not out loud, but with my inner awareness. ‘Stop!’ I insisted. It worked, the voices stopped, at least on this occasion.
Once I had seen it and interrupted the pattern, I turned my attention to the feeling underneath the pattern. It was a feeling of not fitting in, or being rejected that had quite ancient roots. But rather than an archaeological dig into its origin in this or some other lifetime, I just contemplated the feeling of being threatened, of feeling rejected. I allowed myself in the words of Rumi’s poem, ‘the guest house’, to host this feeling for a while. I wrote a little fable featuring a character who represented this rejection. Out of this creative contemplation, I realised my strong longing to develop trust in my own true work underpinned this reactive pattern. That’s the quality I wanted to allow to emerge.
I have a number of creative ploys to host a feeling. I ponder it poetically. I picture it as a character and allow myself to interact with it or follow it. Sometimes, I write about the feeling exploring both its benefits and its challenges fully à la David Whyte in his book ‘Consolations’. Here’s an example where I explored confusion. If you’re more of a visually attuned person you may want to paint or draw it and allow the painting to transform into a second stage to see where the feeling wants to move.If movement or gesture is helpful for you, start with a simple body gesture to represent the stuck feeling and allow it to shift towards a second gesture. Reflect on what your creative expression has offered. We regularly do these kinds of activities in my ‘writing for wellbeing’ groups.
A warning: make sure you host the feeling and NOT the reactivity. The feeling is often characterised by a deeper desire or longing associated with aspects of your individuality, the way you wish to express yourself in the world, your most urgent desires to offer the world your particular gifts. A reactive pattern will usually be reactive against something or someone or yourself and feature either a reactive thought, emotion or behaviour. So, in the case above the reactive pattern was the negative self-talk, whilst the feeling was rejection.
In soul work, our creativity may allow both a transformation of feeling and, with patience, a potential transformation of the reactive pattern. Artists and writers use their own soul life and reactivity as a source for their creative work. I can only begin to imagine what powerful soul experiences encouraged Mary Oliver to write ‘The journey’. Goethe famously wrote ‘The sorrows of young Werther’ when he was heartbroken and thus avoided his own self-destruction by personifying his distress. I’m sure lots of contemporary novelists, musicians and artists use their own reactive patterns in their work.
Soul work can be done alone, but can be strengthened when witnessed by another person’s consciousness as well as your own, especially if you are going through a rough patch where a number of sections of your personal footpath seem to be crying out for repair.