I started writing this blog in a sunny cafe in Oostende on the North coast of Belgium at the beginning of August 2016. I was about to show the premier of a new short film at Theater Aan Zee (TAZ), a dynamic city wide arts festival. The film’s title, Post Present Future, is named after the letter project I’ve been working on for the past seven years of my life. The project is centred around a simple task where people sit at a beautiful old bureau to write a letter to their future self. The instructions are simple too – ‘Take some time to reflect on the narrative of your life and what stories surround you? What are your hopes, concerns and dreams, now and for the future?’ My commitment to each of the people who write is to keep the letters for five years and then to post their letter back to them.
For TAZ 2016 we did a special edition of Post Present Future; we hand delivered the letters. For the first time this meant that I could experience people’s responses as they opened their letter and in their own handwriting read the advice, questions, doubts and promises they’d written as their younger selves. The film captures these tender and delicate moments.
Bearing witness to the fragility of daily life and the grief, the loss, the joys that mark the passing of time has provided an apt backdrop to be thinking about what resilience means in preparation for Creating Resilience, the next programme at Eroles Project, in the Catalan Pyrenees, Spain.
I hope to find a way to hold on to the sense of the strength that I witnessed arising from people’s vulnerability. Many of us have had challenging moments in our lives, many of us have overcome these challenges and moved forward, moved on, moved up. One of my reflections from witnessing people of all ages reading their letter is the self acknowledgement that emerges from hearing their own words from the past. Many of the readers spoke of how the insights had given them more confidence in their ability to live well. For why wait until your death bed to reflect on the way you’ve lived your life? This experience offered the perspective that life is constantly changing, and that all along we have the resources to adapt. Bringing consciousness to the ways we do that, for me, is the art of developing resilience.
The second part of this blog I wrote during the windows of time that facilitating on a residential programme allow, refining these words in my bedroom, looking out over the mountains, fired up after sessions. It has enabled within me a deeper reflection on the collective process and I’m glad to be able to share it with you.
Maria, Ally and myself are facilitating week one of Creating Resilience here at Eroles. Our shared background and connection stems from Schumacher College, a transformative learning centre for sustainable living based in Devon, UK. We bring different qualities and ways into this work but each hold an inquiry into the spaces inbetween, the process of self transformation and how to consciously move from self to collective. During the preparation sessions before the course begins we identify that we are more up for creating the container for a ‘live’ exploration of resilience than to be seen as slick professionals teaching the techniques.
We design the week using key principles of resilience: flexibility, fluidity and diversity, moving from order to the fertile space at edge of chaos where ecosystems thrive. This, along with some guiding values of acceptance, letting go, self responsibility, adaptability, compassion and authenticity shape the overarching exploration and form the main areas of practice.
Between the three of us there are tensions before and during the week as we model moving from order to the edge of chaos. Transitioning is a tricky business. The main points of friction occur as we balance tendencies to pre-define the shape and purpose of the week (through tried and tested methodologies) with courageously going off-script and trusting that by inviting magic, it will come.
On Monday participants from Spain, Hungary and the UK arrive. I am struck by how immediate the connection is, how trusting and warm the culture is that we co-create.
Before the first morning check-in we listen to John O’Donohue, the late Irish poet, who in his soft lyrical voice calls our attention to the distinction between our biography and our identity.
“There is a place in the soul — there is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch… what it means is, that in — that your identity is not equivalent to your biography. And that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there’s still a sureness in you, where there’s a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you. And I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary. Time again I look at a pretty face telling me their well rehearsed story and I think that doesn’t even touch the surface of all that you are.”
Following on from this we sit in a circle and are invited to share our story of how we come to be here. Then comes the repeated question – if that is not your story what is? We answer until we begin to shake free of the habitual response, the story we have told so many times over the years that it has shaped our behaviour and thoughts, and becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.
If we can be attentive to the moments when we get caught in our habitual story whilst cultivating nourishing patterns, we can change our thoughts and behaviour. That in itself is powerful, and quite a revelation when put into practice.
Our actions in every moment, and our words in every conversation, change the story. By living our life by this principle we have the power to decide if we want to perpetuate a cultural pattern or not. How do we choose to respond when working in an organisation with time pressure and hierarchies, face injustice, experience police violence; when power is taken by another or urgency becomes the dominant narrative. By stepping into the shoes of another, we can feel how far have they walked.
Many times this week I have thought about how to put all of this into practice in the ‘real’ world. Maria reminds us that there is no separation between the world ‘in here’ and the world ‘out there’. This false dichotomy implies that change happens out there in some other moment or place rather than right now in the dynamics of this group, in Eroles, as in a Syrian village or in a refugee camp. Let’s not get caught in hierarchies, but know that positive change happens in the now with people making conscious choices.
“Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Rainer Maria Rilke